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 – 87.4 Genre: Satire, War Duration: 116 mins Director: Robert Altman Stars: Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Tom Skerritt
Robert Altman unfolds his broad interpersonal canvas to stunning effect in this classic piece of American cinema. Bold, hilarious, touching, and heartbreaking, there are few statements on war as focused as what he serves up here. Donald Sutherland, Tom Skerrit, and Elliot Gould are at their unorthodox best as the ragtag bunch of draftee surgeons working three miles from the front line of the Korean War to keep their spirits high and the endless wounded alive. Sally Kellerman and Robert Duvall are a hoot as the stiff career officers whom they pester unmercifully both intentionally and unintentionally. As with most of Altman’s films, the plot isn’t what drives M.A.S.H but rather the satirical vignettes which loosely coalesce around the personal conflicts. Whether it’s Hot Lips and Major Burns’ infamous broadcast or the gleeful irreverence of that “Last Supper”, Altman’s dry script and impeccable distance, not to mention the immense craft of his actors ensured they became immortal moments of humour. The result is an iconic piece of film making and one of the few movies that helps to definitively mark a moment in time and culture without ever feeling dated. “Hot Lips you incredible nincompoop, it’s the end of the quarter!”
One of the very best science-fiction classics, Philip Kaufman’s film is a flawless exercise in paranoia inducing film-making. With practically every frame he breathes sinister life into the world he creates from recoiling telephone cords to the gazes and half-looks of countless bystanders. Donald Sutherland has rarely been better as the San Fransisco health inspector working against time to figure out what, if anything, is changing the personalities of the town’s inhabitants. Brook Adams is strong in the co-lead and works wonderfully well with Sutherland as they both give slightly skewed performances which are in keeping with the overall feel of the film. Leonard Nimoy is excellent as the psychiatrist with all the answers and so too are Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright. This is one of the few remakes to actually justify its existence (of course it’s from a time when remakes were actually reinterpretations and not lazy money-grabbing exercises) as it goes far beyond that of Siegal’s original in imbuing the audience with its unsettled and deeply disturbing ambiance. And while doing so, it actually brings back the lead actor from that film (Kevin McCarthy) in an inspired and utterly ingenious cameo to make perhaps its most disturbing observation. Of all the great ‘paranoid’ movies of the 1970’s, it’s fair to say that few if any have captured the essence of paranoia like Invasion of the Body Snatchers does. This is film-making at its very best and like all great movies, it culminates in one of the most memorable endings in cinema history.
Rating: The Good – 75.4 Genre: Crime, Thriller Duration: 105 mins Director: Chris Gerolmo Stars: Stephen Rea, Donald Sutherland, Max von Sydow
Stephen Rea excels in this true life dramatisation as a Russian forensic investigator, Viktor Burakov, who in the 1980′s found himself charged with tracking down the country’s most prolific ever serial killer. This is a captivating tale about moral and personal fortitude as much as is it about a deeply disturbing serial killer. Burakov was almost entirely hampered by bureaucratic squabbling, political influence, and desperate lack of resources which for years prevented him from getting close to his man.
Rea brilliantly captures the quiet steel-like determination of his character, his emotional exhaustion, and utter exasperation at the endless obstacles he recurrently faced. He carries the film with an almost indescribable ease which feeds into the strength of Burakov’s character perfectly and in the moment when Burakov finally breaks down, the payoff is immense. Donald Sutherland is on hand as his unlikely ally, Colonel Fetisov, and provides a great foil to Rea’s more intense role.
Director Chris Gerolmo is to be commended for giving this one the appropriate time to breathe and not rushing any part of it. Not shying away from the horror of the events, the grizzly killings are shot in an almost unbearable fashion. But Gerolmo doesn’t attempt to gloss them up either. In fact, the film’s style is very much in keeping with the feel of Soviet Russia at that time thanks to the aforementioned pacing and some subtly excellent production design. Made as it was for TV, Citizen X never really got the credit or praise it deserved but it doesn’t just compete with the majority of bigger budget theatrical features toiling in the same genre, it overshadows them. In fact, Citizen X is easily one of the best serial killer films and it probably only stands second to the seminal Manhunter.
Oliver Stone’s sprawling account of New Orleans’s DA Jim Garrison’s investigation into the assassination of JFK is a remarkable piece of work. Coming in at three hours long and replete with dialogue heavy scenes and very little action, this film shouldn’t have worked. However, Stone employed a documentary style full of flash backs and hypothetical re-enactments laced together with quick paced explanatory dialogue which was for the time a revolutionary approach to making a feature. He also populated the expansive story with a seemingly endless array of big name actors which itself was a masterstroke as it allowed the audience to easily remember the various personalities who popped in and out of the narrative. Kevin Costner is terrific as Garrison and carries almost the entire film as he features in nearly every scene. The rest of the cast are excellent while John Williams throws in with a nice little score. However, in the final analysis, this film is ultimately about the Stone’s direction, his and Zachary Sklar’s screenplay, and Joe Hutshing’s and Pietro Scalia’s peerless editing.
Michael Douglas stars as an IT executive who struggles to keep his job when his new boss and former girlfriend (Demi Moore) accuses him of sexual harassment after he spurns her advances at a late night meeting. Barry Levinson’s adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel could’ve been dismissed as just another sexual thriller coming as it did on the back of Douglas’ controversial Basic Instinct, but thanks to some delicious plot and character construction, it becomes a cleverly gauged and robust investigation into sexual politics set against a colourful background of corporate intrigue.
Douglas was always a dab hand at playing the wounded cad but he puts a nice spin on the concept in this movie by playing a dedicated family man who, with the exception of partaking in a few risky water cooler jokes and some presumptive behaviour towards female colleagues, has put his wildcatting years behind him. As the splash of ice water from his past, Moore is impressively biting, and her character is used exquisitely to phase plot and commentary multiple times over. Some impressive acting talent rounds off the cast with Donald Sutherland and the always excellent Dylan Baker playing the ruthless head honcho and slimey lackey respectively and Roma Maffia weighing in as an expert sexual harassment attorney (“She’d change her name to “TV Listings” to get it into the paper”). Most importantly for a dramatic thriller, the cast and director are all working from the same page. A persistent yet delicate intertwining of the various subplots arises not just through their characters’ energetic dialogue but also their mannerisms and the way in which Levinson’s lens seems to nonchalantly capture them.
But what truly sets Disclosure apart from the standard thriller is the confidently skewed approach from its director. The palette of soft colours and generous lighting combine with eye catching production design to give the film a distinct personality which Ennio Morricone’s imaginative and low humming score keys in on. This furnishes the proceedings with a terrific sense of excitement in place of more traditional physical drama and prevents the 24 carat mind-games from setting too dry a tone. Enriching this context further is the 90’s tech boom, in the middle of which, the story is set. As usual, Crichton gauged the future of digital application with a certain degree of insight but more important than any such historical relevance is the manner in which it helps sets a modern “verge of the future” vibe and so augments the more updated conceptions of sexual harassment that the film presents us with. Disclosure has been unfairly pigeon holed over the years as everything from a run of the mill thriller to a piece of fluff. If anyone cares to inspect it, they will see it’s much more.
Rating: The Good – 77.8 Genre: Comedy Duration: 109 mins Director: John Landis Stars: John Belushi, Karen Allen, Tom Hulce, Donald Sutherland
John Landis’ genre defining screwball comedy about a good-for-nothing frat house that puts itself at odds with rival fraternities and their crusty old dean is 90 minutes of deranged fun. Whether it’s the horse in the dean’s office, Donald Sutherland’s brilliant cameo as the apathetic pot smoking professor or John Belushi’s Bluto doing the human zit, the memorable characters and incidents of Animal House will leave you howling with laughter. Landis handles the whole thing with just the right amount of irreverence and none involved shy away from the more controversial aspects to the humour. Written by Harold Ramis (Second City TV) and starring the golden boy of Saturday Night Live, Belushi, this one was never going to miss the mark. However, nobody could have foreseen what a phenomenon it became. If you’ve seen it before, see it again. If you’ve never seen it and you’re into carefree comedy that knows no bounds, don’t let another day go by without seeing it.
Rating: The Good – 69.7 Genre: Comedy, Horror Duration: 109 mins Director: Fran Rubel Kuzui Stars: Kristy Swanson, Paul Reubens , Donald Sutherland
Original and hugely enjoyable tongue in cheek teen vampire flick which began a television phenomenon. Kristy Swanson stars as the ditsy high school cheerleader who discovers she’s destined to be a slayer of vampires while Donald Sutherland stars as the crusty old mentor sent to whip her into shape. Luke Perry is the layabout who falls in with the slayer while Rutger Hauer and Paul Reubens form an unlikely but irresistibly funny double act as the slayer’s ancient vampire enemies.
First thing’s first. This film is not meant to be taken seriously in the slightest way as it is an experiment in movie fun from start to finish. A young Joss Whedon wrote the script and his quick jibing wit is all over the dialogue. However, it has been said, he was far from happy with general tone of the film and it’s not difficult to see why because outside of the dialogue, the writing (i.e., character and plot development) is missing his preferred blend of sombre tones and irreverent comedy. In its place is a wacky and uniquely skewed sense of improvisation. Controversial as it may be to claim in these days of Whedon-mania, that may not be the worst thing in the world. With the exception of his sublime foray into science fiction in the shape of the peerless Firefly, Whedon’s take on the horror genre can be decidedly precious and it can become bogged down by a very idiosyncratic, uninspired, and just plain stiff notion of evil. The television series of Buffy The Vampire Slayer which Whedon did maintain control over is a testament to this as many of the evil-doers whom Buffy ended up confronting season after season were all rather bland and really just became vehicles for the actor playing them to stick their personalities into 5th gear for 14 straight episodes. Worse still was the earnestness which he seemed to treat the conveyor belt of Buffy’s emotional dilemmas. An earnestness which just flat out did not gel with the comedic ambitions of the show. That director Fran Rubel Kuzui went a different way with the feature film is therefore quite refreshing and offers us a much more fun and imaginative take on what remains a fairly daft but engaging concept.
The key to the Kuzui’s success is the licence he gave the actors. There’s an overtly wide degree of freedom to improvise afforded the likes of Hauer and Reubens in particular and it results in a tantalising energy whenever they are on screen. Hauer’s delivery is particularly halting given its sheer eccentricity and the quality of the dialogue they were playing with. Paul Reubens as his hysterical henchman (whose death scene alone makes this worth the watching) runs his own little side-show that offers less improvisation but more outright comedic skill.
However, for all the uniqueness of the bad guys, it’s still the three good guys that give Buffy its charm. Perry is surprisingly enjoyable as the rebel without a clue and he seems to relish the opportunity to turn his then slightly noxious Beverly Hills 90210 character on its head. Moreover, he and Swanson share an easy chemistry which gives their romantic angle more substance than most. Swanson and Sutherland are even better together and given the age gap between the two, they play off each other extremely well. It’s great fun listening to your typical 1990′s LA teenager trying to make sense of the world which this strange man is introducing her to through her crass but charming rich girl mentality and it sets the scene for many a witty repartee as Sutherland’s beleaguered and world weary trainer gives as good as he gets.
With such loose directorial control, the film can come off a little clunky at times. The cuts can come too slow and the sound mixer seemed as confused by the film’s overall eccentricity as the audience was. However, the payoff is certainly worth it, because it resulted in a movie every bit as playful as the television series that followed it but with none of the overcooked earnestness. “You ruined my jacket! Kill him a lot.”
“I can’t seem to get my mind around this.” In those words lie the standout strength of this film. Denzel Washington plays a high-flying cop John Hobbes, who has just sent a notorious serial killer named Edgar Reese (played with typical gusto by Elias Koteas) to the gas chamber. However, immediately afterwards, he and his partner (played by John Goodman) uncover a series of bizarre murders each of which leave cryptic clues that not only tie them to Reese but do so in ways that defy all natural explanations.
This is as intelligent a supernatural thriller as you could hope for and proof that the most chilling cinema comes from those films which crawl around inside your head. While most horror films treat the moment when a lead character comes to believe that supernatural forces are at play as an incidental feature of the story (“Oh so it’s a demon then”), Fallen stretches that moment out across the film and therefore explores the progression from not believing to believing in a slower and seemingly realer sense. The result is a far more mature and enthralling experience than most movies of that genre offer. Nick Kazan’s dialogue is utterly superb and more than anything else, it sets the tone and tension of the film. And when spoken by heavyweights such Washington (who is particularly good in this film), Goodman, Koteas, James Gandolfini, and Donald Sutherland, it’s given a whole other level of resonance.
If Fallen has one flaw it’s the recurring use of the demon’s perspective which if omitted could’ve allowed the film to take on an even more sinister “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” vibe. That said Fallen is its own film with its own look and sound and for the most part, it hits all the right buttons.
Cold war drama starring Sidney Poitier as a journalist commissioned to do a story on the US Bedford, a destroyer which under the stern leadership of its task master captain has made a name for itself as a crack soviet sub-hunter. The film begins with Poitier being helicoptered on board in the middle of a dangerous pursuit along with the ship’s new doctor played by Martin Balsam. They soon learn that the only law on this ship is the captain’s and that his fanaticism has bred an elite but tightly wound crew. As Poitier gets to know his man and as Balsam attempts to fit in with the ship’s ultra-modern methods, the Bedford gets embroiled in a dangerous game with its latest quarry, a soviet sub which has illegally entered Greenland’s waters.
Poitier and Balsam are their usual tremendous selves but The Bedford Incident is all about Richard Widmark’s emphatic turn as the insatiable but paranoid Captain Finlander. Through James Poe’s taut screenplay and Widmark’s presence, his character sets the tone so completely that nearly every scene, even when he’s not present, is coloured by him. Echoes of Herman Melville’s Ahab ring louder and louder as Finlander provokes and threatens the soviet sub up and down the coast of Greenland to the increasing dismay and fear of the ship’s recent arrivals and eventually the crew itself.
The Bedford Incident is a cracking high tension representative of an always intriguing genre. The action is much more contained than the traditional WWII naval drama. This is partly due to the fact that the production had less help from the US military in terms of equipment and vehicle provision but mostly because the terseness of the story called for it. This is a film about obsession and the futile attempts of those observing to make sense of it or even stop it. It doesn’t crawl inside the head of the compelled captain but like Moby Dick, it examines it from the point of view of the incredulous onlookers. In this manner, The Bedford Incident becomes a streamlined reflection of the wider anxieties of the times as the governments of two superpowers went head to head in a dangerously deadlocked cold combat to the exasperation of the watching world.
The hermetic tension created to serve these ends works perfectly on a cinematic level too as it hones the already chilling subject matter to a fine point. It’s not the most technically accomplished war film as most of the action is shot in a studio but it makes clever use of what it does offer. However, even if it didn’t, the quality of the drama and the pay-off of its remarkable ending would easily negate such concerns.
Alan J. Pakula’s first installment in his seminal 1970′s paranoia trilogy is a mesmerising exploration of power and control in the seedy underbelly of New York. Donald Sutherland plays Klute, one of cinema’s more ambiguous characters who is charged with locating a friend and wealthy corporate executive who has disappeared without a trace save some lurid letters which he may or may not have written to a New York prostitute.
Jane Fonda appears quite inspired in the role of the high class prostitute who avoids her insecurities by embracing her professional persona through which she becomes expertly adept at manipulating the men in her life. It’s a complex performance in which she strikes a subtle but believable balance between confidence, harshness, and vulnerability. However, good as she is, she is arguably outdone by Donald Sutherland’s finest ever turn as the inscrutable small town detective. At times, Klute appears lost in the big city and prey for anyone with an edge but at other times that ‘s turned on its head as he takes on a strength which destabilises and confuses those who were previously laughing at him along with the audience. This clever device could’ve been completely lost in the hands of a lesser actor so it’s to Sutherland’s eternal credit that he pulls it off. What’s more, the secret seems to lie entirely in a clear and robust conception of his character for the manner in which Sutherland uses his eyes when showing both sides to Klute’s persona convinces the audience this is genuine personal complexity we are witnessing rather than merely conflicted writing.
Klute is a very dark movie which feels more like a European film from that time thanks to the manner in which it’s structured and shot. Full of hard to make out images and psyche tapping sounds and music, Pakula scintillates us from reel one until the close and keeps us immersed in a murky world of contradiction and anxiety. There are few answers and it is very much left up to ourselves to decide where the characters end up. That of course, is the true strength to this fascinating piece of cinema and the performances which lie at its core.