Wolfgang Peterson’s star-studded thriller proves yet another mainstream success for 1990’s cinema as Dustin Hoffman’s USAMRID Colonel attempts to stay ahead of a lethal virus which is laying waste to a small California town. With former wife and CDC big-wig (Rene Russo) in tow alongside his own team (an Oscar-laden Kevin Spacey and Cuba Gooding Jr.), they go about town disobeying orders from their shadowy superiors, breaking quarantine, and any number of other drastic measures in the hope of manufacturing an antibody before Donald Sutherland’s nasty General destroys the whole town – simply to keep the virus for his own biological weapons programme! It’s a sweeping popcorn movie expertly crafted to draw every bit of tension out of an old plot and infused with all manner of personality, chemistry, and light humour by that glittering cast. Hoffman, in particular, seems to be enjoying himself no end while Russo shows yet again that she can not only hold her own next to any A-Lister in the business but enhance both of their performances with that endearing rapport she seems to so easily generate. Sutherland is the straight bad guy but Morgan Freeman gets his teeth into an altogether more textured role as the General who discovers that duty and honour make for poor bedfellows. Throw in a couple of cracking helicopter chases and a last minute dash to stop the town’s imminent destruction and you’ve got a decent night in front of the box.
Rating: The Good – 67.7 Genre: Horror Duration: 99 mins Director: John Carpenter Stars: Christopher Reeve, Kirstie Alley, Mark Hamill
The residents of a small town are all rendered unconscious by a mysterious force only to wake up seemingly unharmed. However, it’s not long before they realise that the womenfolk were impregnated during the event. Even more shockingly, when the children do arrive, they rapidly develop and seem to gravitate towards each other for reasons that seem worse than sinister.
Okay, so it’s not as good as the original, it has some seriously laughable creature effects, and it kind of looks like a TV movie, but John Carpenter’s Village of the Damned can be an interesting and even enjoyable watch for several reasons. Firstly, the slow, tempered style that defines all of Carpenter’s movies is there in spades and, as such, the shocks never come when you expect them. This keeps you on edge throughout and when the shocks do come, they’re paired with Carpenter’s trademark piercing sound effects so you get that great startle response every time. Carpenter has always been the undisputed master at evoking said response and for that reason alone, Village of the Damned is good value. But the movie also gives us one of Carpenter’s best scores (co-written with Dave Davies) and combined with that final shot we get a classic Carpenter ending reminiscent of The Thing.
There’s a lot to be said for how Carpenter handles his actors too. The casting in Carpenter’s Village of the Damned is peculiar given that we have three of the most type-cast actors in the business (Christopher Reeve, Kirstie Alley, and Mark Hamill) all holding major parts and all eschewing any residue of those career-defining roles. Such a feat is not only a testament to the acting ability of the actors but also to the way in which Carpenter introduces and continues to use their characters throughout the picture.
John Wyndham’s story survives the switch to an American small town setting and it’s is given time to breathe (with a few leaps here and there). Moreover, the children often (but not always) reach the levels of creepiness experienced in the book not to mention the original movie adaptation. Of course, the production values aren’t amazing but that is where a maverick like Carpenter found himself if he wanted to make films his own way. Once accepted, Village of the Damned is a fun movie and if nothing else, a chance to visit the John Carpenter dimension one more time where everything is just a little off-kilter.
Rating: The Good – 76.5 Genre: Film-Noir Duration: 106 mins Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz Stars: Sidney Poitier, Richard Widmark, Linda Darnell
“Ain’t that asking a lot? Trying to be better than them when we get killed for trying to prove we’re as good.” Sidney Poitier made one of the more impressive screen debuts in this taut racial thriller about a young black doctor who is targeted by the psychotically racist and criminal brother of a patient who dies under his care. There’s much to admire here beyond the highly engaging story of the lonely fight against racism in 1950’s America. Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ script gets to the heart of prejudice through the inclusion of various characters whose differing backgrounds, education, and/or intelligence shine a light on the factors that affect tolerance. It even manages to parallel racial and class prejudice with one another in a sophisticated nod to their mutual dependencies. There are a couple of artificial interchanges among the secondary characters in an effort to paint the wider social attitudes towards blacks and lower class whites. However, the premium lines are reserved for the leads and they eat them up. Richard Widmark bristles with hate as he puts in yet another seminal bad guy turn as the nasty racist and he was so effective that he apparently apologised profusely to his future life long friend Poitier after every scene. Linda Darnell captures the nuances of her character’s more complex circumstances while Stephen McNally scores well as the colour blind head doctor. Poitier, for his part, exhibits all the interesting energy that was to define his best roles and adds much humanity to the film while retaining the anger of the oppressed righteous. Mankiewicz shoots the film with a cultured touch and ensures the tension of the dramatic scenes spills out into some extraordinary set pieces, the pinnacle of which, is a stunningly lit and framed race riot. Without reaching the level of a piercing social analysis, No Way Out is an impressive attempt to build a thriller out of an honest examination into the phenomenon. It works a treat and counts as one of the more all round solid movies of the 1950’s.
Rating: The Good – 76.4 Genre: Thriller, Drama Duration: 106 mins Director: Steven Soderbergh Stars: Rooney Mara, Jude Law, Channing Tatum
The only thing more impressive than the number of films Steven Soderbergh has churned out these last few years is the quality of those films. In Side Effects, Jude Law stars as a psychiatrist whose professional reputation is put in jeopardy when one of his patients (Rooney Mara) murders her husband (Channing Tatum) while taking a new anti-depressant he prescribed. When the prosecution ask him to declare that she was legally aware of what she was doing he takes the riskier option of supporting her defence that she was in fact sleepwalking in a medicine-induced state. But as his personal life and practice begin to crumble under the weight of outside scrutiny, his own investigations reveal something else.
Side Effects is a deep black psychological thriller immensely sophisticated in its construction and elegantly directed. The plot is sharply devious twisting away from the audiences’ expectations right up to the final scene but maintaining a fascinating edge of mystery that thoroughly engrosses the audience. However, what’s most impressive is how Soderbergh manages to delve into the mindset of his female protagonist and paint a chilling picture of depression as he goes. That the script is (by Hollywood standards) informed and respectful of the different dimensions to the disorder makes this all the more substantial and that he and Scott Z. Burns seamlessly weave each of these dimensions into the plot is just plain showing off. The film even manages to take an oblique look at the culture of psychopharmaceutical use by tying a rather perceptive commentary into the main trust of the narrative.
This all works on a number of levels because not only does it capture the nuances of depression but through Mara’s insightful and penetrative performance, it sets a comprehensively dark and haunting tone to the proceedings. These tones are mirrored in the equally impressive Jude Law’s desperation as the mysterious net closes in on him. Alongside the two strong central performances, is a devilish Catherine Zeta Jones whose delicious cadences and overall presence lends to Soderbergh’s angular approach in rich and rewarding manner.
From a directorial point of view, Side Effects has all the hallmarks of Soderbergh’s slickest films as he overlaps dialogue and scene repeatedly in the early stages to tell the backstory more swiftly and again in the later stages to let the audience catch up. Burns’ script is his usual brand of personally and technically informed dialogue and he moves the complexities of the plot forward with deliberate pace. Despite this, Side Effects is a far slower movie than most will expect and though it accentuates the moodier tones to the story, it will not float everyone’s boat. Furthermore, the darkness of the earlier scenes while also integral might repel those looking for a straightforward thriller. But if you stick with it and take Soderbergh and co. up on their invitation to dig deeper, there are unconventional rewards to be unearthed. Clever in its simplicity, powerful in its execution and respectful of its subject matter, Side Effects is a tour de force in movie thrills and directorial class.
Rating: The Good – 74.5 Genre: Science Fiction Duration: 131 mins Director: Robert Wise Screenplay: Nelson Gidding Stars: James Olson, Arthur Hill, David Wayne
Robert Wise brought Michael Crichton’s early novel to the screen in this unique looking thriller about a team of top scientists who are sequestered in a hi-tech underground facility to investigate a lethal extra-terrestrial bacterium. Initially contained within a crashed satellite, it quickly spread to a nearby town wiping out its entire population in the process. There are no major acting names on show in The Andromeda Strain, just some solid journeymen actors who each do their bit in raising the tension levels. In that respect, however, the star of the show is undoubtedly Boris Leven’s outstanding production design. He gives the deep underground facility an even deeper sense of authenticity and when captured by Wise’s assured eye, it is primarily responsible for creating the tense and often claustrophobic atmosphere. The story is fantastic too and Nelson Gidding’s adaptation of the famous author’s book cuts away none of the muscle.
Rating: The Good – 67.8 Genre: Thriller Duration: 118 mins Director: George Pan Cosmatos Screenplay: George Pan Cosmatos, Robert Katz Stars: Sophia Loren, Burt Lancaster, Richard Harris, Martin Sheen
A terrific old school disaster movie about the attempts to contain a carrier of the pneumonic plague on board a Swiss train bound for Scandinavia. Richard Harris top-lines as a famous doctor trapped on board the train who together with his ex-wife (played by Sofia Loren) take control of the situation until such time that the military show up with an altogether more extreme solution to the potential epidemic. This is really a nice little film from an era which specialised in such movies. There is an interesting array of characters all of whom are nicely rounded and the action on the train is well juxtaposed with the colder more clinical efforts of the commanding colonel (Burt Lancaster) as he attempts to contain the situation from an office in Geneva. Harris, Loren, and Lancaster are in fine form and Martin Sheen offers his usual presence in support. Cosmotos handles it all well and shows some genuine clever touches such as giving the eponymous bridge an ominous character of its own.
Rating: The Good – 80.5 Genre: Horror, Mystery Duration: 106 mins Director: John Frankenheimer Stars: Rock Hudson, Salome Jens, John Randolph
John Frankenheimer may have shocked and appalled the Cannes film festival with this film but he nonetheless crafted a cult hit, an exquisite chiller, and a singular piece of cinema. John Randolph and Rock Hudson combine to play a man who is mysteriously encouraged by a shadowy company to fake his death and assume a new identity with a dramatic bout of plastic surgery that changes everything from his face to his vocal cords and fingerprints. The first “Randolph” half of the film is used to carefully reveal the different aspects to the elaborately transforming procedure while only cleverly intimating at certain crucial elements and leaving the audience to divine their more hideous implications. The second “Hudson” half is a powerful balance of existential exploration and sci-fi horror that conflates humanities’ essential concepts of happiness, life, death, purgatory, and beyond into an deeply unsettling allegorical package.
The whole thing is steeped in the experimental cinema of the 60’s (particularly French cinema) in an effort to discombobulate the audience from scene one to the close. Fisheye lenses, sharp overhead and low camera angles, Frankenheimer’s trademark stark monochrome, and his inspired balancing of key and fill lighting all work towards the same disconcerting end. It’s highly innovative stuff and while some influence is taken from the likes of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Frankenheimer’s unique handling of the camera and his protagonists’ movement seems to in turn have had a direct effect on Scorcese’s later work and by extension Spike Lee’s. Based on David Ely’s novel, the story is truly unique and driven by a fatalistic momentum. But so thoroughly conceived is the world which the characters inhabit that it seems all the more plausible. Hudson and Randolph are equally tremendous with the latter tapping the empty centre of midlife discontent in genuinely insightful manner and the former catching the agitation and panic that comes with the natural dissonance of his new circumstances.
Seconds is by no means an easy watch and the lack of any warmth whatsoever in the story was not the most advisable route to attracting a mainstream audience (if that was the intention). Nonetheless, it is a serious piece of cinema and a mark of where both the medium and the director were at the time. Frankenheimer was coming off the back of a rich vein of form with grounded thrillers such as Seven Days in May, The Manchurian Candidate, and The Train that were delicately elevated by artful contemplation. Seconds is a full immersion in such artful contemplation and thus represents a fascinating evolution in the style of one of cinema’s most underrated directors not to mention a truly unique film experience.
Rating: The Good – 81 Genre: Thriller Duration: 96mins Director: Elia Kazan Stars: Richard Widmark, Paul Douglas, Barbara Bel
Richard Widmark takes on a rare ‘straight down the line’ good guy role in this highly engaging tale of a plague outbreak in New Orleans and a frantic manhunt to capture the criminals who are spreading it. Widmark stars as the Public Health Medical Officer who discovers the disease on the body of a murder victim and must then convince the authorities to orchestrate a secret manhunt so that a mass panic and ensuing spread of the disease by the public is averted. Unfortunately, the murderers, led by the fearsome small time operator Jack Palance, assume the police are chasing some loot that the victim had stashed and begin their own search, causing a small outbreak as they go.
Widmark always had an edge to his game that made him well suited to play the meaner and more heartless characters but that same edge made him a very unique lead. This comes across very well as the underpaid public health officer whose passion for saving the city boils over into often self-defeating impatience with the bureaucratic procedure he faces along the way. The relationship he strikes up with Paul Douglas’ initially suspicious police captain is a focal feature of the film given how the captain’s trust is imperative to an expeditious search and there’s much satisfaction to be had watching the two sparky characters develop a mutual respect for the other’s commitment. Jack Palance is pure strychnine as the paranoid hood full of self-serving duplicity and murderous spite. He’s given us an array of great villains over the years but this easily ranks with his most entertaining.
Panic in the Streets bears all the signifying flourishes of the great Elia Kazan films. The sets are textured and richly lit with the sounds and sultry music of the city streets intermittently spilling over into the dramatic space. This gives the story a personality of its own and one that’s uniquely tailored to the tones and cadences of New Orleans. That a breakneck pursuit is playing out against the city’s languid vibes adds a delicious contrast and even mystique to the film and helps to ramp up the tension when needed. Case in point is that enthralling chase sequence at the climax of the film in which a sweaty diseased Palance streaks mayhem through the harbour area with Widmark, Douglas, and half the police force in chase. Ultimately, it’s this scintillating energy that defines Panic in the Streets but don’t underestimate the level of class that the cast and director bring to the quieter moments. Highly recommended.
Coma is an entertaining medical thriller in which Genevieve Bujold plays a doctor who begins to suspect foul play in her hospital when a number of surgeries leave the patients permanently comatose. As he later did with ER, Michael Crichton brings a level of technical authenticity to the script which helps to elevate the dramatic tension and Bujold responds with a strong vulnerability that helps the movie to engage on a more emotional level too. Michael Douglas offers strong support as Bujold’s politically motivated colleague and partner and there’s a nice chemistry between the two. Best of all, however, is the great Richard Widmark who gives a pitch perfect turn as the erudite head of the hospital whom all the doctors cower before. The whole thing plays out with the ease of those great 70′s thrillers which makes it a hugely compelling and satisfying watch. However, Coma ultimately pushes the boundaries of believability so far (in terms of premise and the actions of its characters) that regardless how engaging it is, a “guilty pleasure” (Ugly) warning must be attached.
Rating: The Good – 79.7 Genre: Thriller Duration: 125 mins Director: John Schlesenger Stars: Dustin Hoffman, Laurence Olivier, Roy Scheider
Atmospheric adaptation of William Goldman’s novel that sees grad student/marathoner Dustin Hoffman get involved in a conspiracy that involves his brother (played by Roy Scheider in outstanding form), diamond smuggling, and an ex-Nazi with a penchant for dentistry (Laurence Olivier). As with all the great 70′s thrillers, Marathon Man is defined by a heightened sense of paranoia thanks largely to Michael Small’s memorable score and the top class acting on show. Olivier and Hoffman got all the plaudits but one mustn’t overlook the contribution of Roy Scheider who carries the opening act on his shoulders. Rumour has it, there is a whole sequence of scenes missing where Scheider tears through Paris wreaking vengeance on those who attempted to kill him before returning to New York and that these scenes were removed because of their violence. Judging by how good he is in the cut version it would be a treat to see these scenes restored.
Rating: The Good – 67.3 Genre: Thriller, Disaster Duration: 106 mins Director: Steven Sodernergh Stars: Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law
Steven Soderbergh has recently announced his intention to retire from directing and given the rate at which he has been churning them out over the last few years, one can understand his desire to step back. The calibre of these films is also impressive with every one of them proving interesting in their own way. Contagion is certainly no exception as it’s a uniquely sleek take on the “outbreak” movie. It follows the outbreak of a lethal hybrid strain of the swine and bird flus from “patient 0” to the point of near apocalypse with specific focus on the attempts of the various scientists and experts to culture, sequence, and kill the virus.
Contagion has many admirable qualities. Laurence Fishburn and Elliott Gould give standout performances as respectively a government and private scientist. Kate Winslet is even better as Fisburn’s “person on the ground” while Matt Damon as the beleaguered husband of Gwenneth Paltrow’s “patient 0” is strong despite the movie’s overall problem with personal subplots (more on this below). Soderbergh combines much of the exposition (of which the film has a lot) with Cliff Martinez’ energised score and overlaps the scenes with his usual verve. This gives the film a solid momentum despite the majority of the action being dialogue-based. Scott Z. Burns’ script is polished and technically informed which emphasises the authentic vibe which his director’s style naturally brings. The film is also full of striking imagery such as Jude Law’s subversive blogger wandering through the deserted streets tacking his propaganda flyers to walls and lamp posts while kitted out in an oxygen suit which evokes memories of Bruce Willis’ sample gathering expeditions in Twelve Monkeys.
Contagion tries its best to show snippets of the wider “outbreak” story. That is, it covers both the technical and medical efforts to contain the virus and the personal trials of the average Joe Citizen. The problem is that Soderbergh’s quasi-documentarian direction and Burns’ (the Bourne Ultimatum) slick writing style are both excellent at capturing the former but not always great at the latter. A better balance was needed on this project to prevent the sharp procedural and dispassionate quality of the scientific investigative scenes carrying over into the subjective drama thereby neutralising it. Thus, despite a considerable amount of time looking at the changes and stresses to the domestic life of many of its protagonists, there’s a distinctly impersonal feel to the story. This is particularly the case with Damon’s subplot which is almost entirely emotionally framed. The film would be better served if they had of discarded the personal stuff and focused exclusively on the technical and bureaucratic drama which in truth the film needed more of.
A second major issue concerns Law’s greedy blogger. Though there are some nice attempts to invert typical notions of conspiracy caricatures (including a nice nod to 1978’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers), such is the extent of his paranoia and his influence that it comes across as a little unbelievable. As such, this potentially fascinating subplot feels a little out of kilter with the rest of the film and only serves to distract from the extremely clear and even surgical focus of the main drama. Another subplot involving Marion Cotillard’s World Health Organisation agent and some Chinese kidnappers is equally daft.
Contagion is a laudable effort from a great director and top cast and it deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Fukasaku’s Virus and maybe even Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain. As it is, it will probably please most mature science fiction fans though it certainly feels like it tried to do too much and got caught between two stools. Thus, those with a broader interest in film appreciation will be frustrated by the missed opportunities.