Rating: The Good – 75.5 Genre: Crime, Thriller Duration: 93 mins Director: Michael Winner Stars: Charles Bronson, Vincent Gardenia, Jeff Goldblum
A milestone in vigilante cinema that doesn’t as much walk the line between right and left wing politics as it draws it. Bronson takes on perhaps his most dramatic role as the liberal architect whose wife and daughter were respectively murdered and attacked in their home. After a slowly realised grieving process, he finds himself increasingly drawn towards the idea of taking matters of self-protection into his own hands. Director Michael Winner ducks and weaves his way through the political hinterland of his drama with a series of right jabs but lands a couple of integral left hammer blows so that he deceives his way to a rather interesting analysis of crime and morality. There’s no rush to the action either as he lays out in meticulous manner Bronson’s remorse and development from fearful citizen to eager vigilante. It’s richly shot in what is clearly one of Winner’s more polished productions and embellished with some outstandingly staged action sequences.
A particular treat however is the cynicism and indeed prescience of Wendell Mayes’ screenplay (adapting Brian Garfield’s novel) which sets the actors on an even strain within Winner’s languidly unfolded drama. The cast blow got and cold however with the normally excellent Steven Keats missing the mark completely as the son in law and a young Jeff Goldblum featuring briefly as one of the most ridiculously unthreatening hoodlums to tumble his way through a murder scene. Bronson too struggles woefully to give his lines the right cadence but his charisma burns through those failings to the point that few could’ve done the job better. On the plus side Vincent Gardenia is fantastic as the bemused police captain in charge of bringing the vigilante to justice.
Not surprisingly, this movie has been both hailed and denigrated as a piece of right wing propaganda but that perception is to completely miss the intricacy of the story being told. From the examination of violence in the television/movie culture, the use of both white and black criminals, to the manner in which Bronsan sets out to lure his victims, there’s little to suggest that self defence against an impoverished underclass is what lay deep in Bronson’s heart. Something else was in play, something much more insidious and interesting from a dramatic point of view. And with that infamous final shot of Bronson smiling at a group of thugs, Winner and co. didn’t just close in style but they had one last go at getting their point across. They made it count!
A wild and trippy furlough into the LA night as envisaged within the quirky mind of John Landis at the height of his powers. Jeff Goldblum stars as an aerospace engineer suffering from insomnia, marital discord, and a general malaise. Michelle Pfeiifer is the confident and plucky damsel in distress who jumps into his car on lonely sleepless night only to see them both pursued by a peculiar group of foreign gangsters led by the director himself. Ron Koslow may have written this wonderfully off-kilter comedy thriller but make no mistake, it’s Landis’ world we are thrown into where the ride is as enjoyable as it is unique. The variety of peripheral and support characters is a treat to behold as are their various realisations at the hands of a brilliantly counter-intuitive cast of actors (David Bowie’s bizarre hit-man alone makes this one worth the watch). But paramount among the movie’s virtues is the foundation in which the plot is rooted. Convincing the audience to tag along on such a meandering journey isn’t simply about ingeniously engineered set-pieces (which Into the Night offers in spades) but a weight of reality that could see a normal Joe’s life shunted into hyper-reality. Like Scorsese did that very same year in After Hours, Landis places huge faith in his leading man’s ability to strike a paradoxical balance between delicacy and sturdiness. And in achieving that, Jeff Goldlum becomes the rock against which the delightful insanity can repeatedly crash. If anything, Landis ups the ante on Scorsese by adding a similarly finely tuned lead performance into the mix which not only bolsters her co-star’s but offers the madness a second pillar to rest on. Pfeiffer is nothing short of exquisite in a feisty reformulation of the femme fatale trope adding as much solidity as she does intrigue. And it helps not a little that her and Goldblum click like few male-female on-screen partnerships have! It’s all wrapped up in a rather pretty package too as Landis and his director of photography Robert Paynter shoot it in the soft night glow of 1980’s L.A. and soundtrack it to Ira Newborn’s equally contemporaneous (not to mention sumptuous) electronic score. A must see!
Rating: The Good – 68.5 Genre: Horror Duration: 92 mins Director: Michael Winner Stars: Cristina Raines, Chris Sarandon, Martin Balsam, Jeff Goldblum
After moving into a New York apartment, a young model (Christina Rains) seemingly begins to lose her grip on reality. However, once her boyfriend (Chris Sarandon) investigates the building’s history, he learns she isn’t crazy at all and her apartment is, in fact, the gateway to hell. Though rather eclectic in his abilities, Michael Winner was in many ways well suited to the horror genre given his oblique directorial style. Thus, it’s not surprising that, with The Sentinel, he furnishes Jeffrey Konvitz’ novel, rich in premise as it was, with the type of atmosphere that can rival the best of the genre. It’s a gleefully creepy old horror that fully engages thanks to a familiar but compelling mythology and a litany of colourful characters played with relish by some of the best in the business. In fact, the cast is a veritable who’s who of that era’s up and comers (such as Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Walken, and even a very young and fleeting Tom Berenger) and old-timers (such as Ava Gardner, Martin Balsam, Eli Wallach, Arthur Kennedy, José Ferrer, and Burgess Meredith as the boogeyman man himself).
The real shame here is that they’re all bit parts or supporting roles and so most of the film rests on Rains’ far slighter shoulders. With an absence of personality and presence, she’s a genuine weak link and the movie threatens to wither when she’s on screen. As the other main character, Sarandon is better but, like Rains, he is constantly overshadowed by the heavyweights on show, especially both Gardner and Wallach who are in giddy form as the sinister real estate agent and curious homicide detective respectively. In truth, some of the blame must fall at Winner’s feet for a recurrent failing of his was his inability to use and engage his cast properly.
Though it suffers inevitable and unfavourable comparisons to Rosemary’s Baby, it’s more likely these aforementioned issues that precluded The Sentinel from ascending to the realm of hallowed horror. But make no mistake, it scores in nearly every other department. Winner’s uniquely gaudy touch is all over the ornate production design and helps immerse us in the strange world he and Konvitz have created. Moreover, Gil Melle’s equally unsubtle score echoes the best of the classic horror accompaniments. It may not scare the socks off you like The Exorcist does but, like a good John Carpenter horror, it will give you the creeps.
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 Ugly – 66.3 Genre: Crime Duration: 107mins Director: Bill Duke Stars: Laurence Fishburne, Jeff Goldblum, Lira Angel
The early 90’s was an interesting time for the US crime thriller. The rise of Hip Hop had seen a growing interest in LA street culture which became increasingly reflected in the genre. East coast Italian-American mob bosses were replaced by West coast African-American drug lords and to maintain conflict in the central characters, the cops’ racial background was changed accordingly. Given that this new inspiration was coming from a fringe culture, the earliest movies were not hugely bankable and so they were made with relatively little money. This served to heighten the gritty vibe the subject matter naturally called for but also gave lesser known actors and filmmakers a chance to make their mark. Some turned out to be really quite good but others were not and the result was a series of flawed but interesting films. Deep Cover is a perfect example of such.
Starring a pre-stardom Laurence Fishburn and a wilderness flirting Jeff Goldblum and directed by Bill Duke (a familiar face of 80’s action movies like Predator and Commando), Deep Cover was blessed with some genuine but also raw talent and it did the best it could with little or no budget. Fishburn plays a deep cover operative recruited by a self serving superior (played with gusto by Charles Martin Smith) to infiltrate a drug racket from the ground up. Goldblum is the crooked lawyer turned financier whom Fishburn hooks up with and through a combination of the latter’s street skills and the former’s business savvy, the two rise up the ranks.
Duke brings a competent yet somewhat derivative style to the movie but he was clearly limited with location and production design possibilities. At times, the understanding between director and cast gets lost (such as that strangely acted limousine scene) but for the most part he gets the best out of Fishburn’s burly presence and Goldblum’s idiosyncratic manner. For their part, they make a good duo even though the sometimes wooden script could’ve done them more favours in that respect. The remainder of the cast range from good to goofy. Smith is in top form and the always splendid Clarence Williams III puts in a great turn as the one properly decent cop. Victoria Dillard, as the love interest, unfortunately counts as one of the poorer performances but again the script fails to properly integrate her character.
Deep Cover is an interesting crime movie garnished with two tidy central performances and steeped in the style of the early 90’s. It’s by no means perfect and it’s often realised in clunky fashion but for the most part, it holds up as an enjoyable thriller.
Rating: The Good – 84.2 Genre: Horror, Science Fiction Duration: 96 mins Director: David Cronenberg Stars: Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, John Getz
Few directors demonstrated the innate ability to disturb like David Cronenberg did in his earlier films and in this more mainstream outing he didn’t hold back in the slightest (deleted cat-baboon scene notwithstanding). The result is a sci-fi horror masterpiece unlike anything before it or since. A remake of the 1958 original, this film also tells the story of a scientist who while testing a teleportation device gets spliced together with a fly resulting in a incremental transformation into a diabolical hybrid of the two species. Jeff Goldblum is phenomenal as the scientist Seth Brundle. He makes the character his own and brings a host of perfectly fitting idiosyncratic mannerisms to both Brundle’s human character and ultimately the Brundlefly character. He is well supported by Geena Davis as Veronica, the journalist documenting his project and inevitable love interest.
On the technical front, the creature effects are incredible but certainly not for the squeamish while Howard Shore’s score is tremendous and reminiscent of Herrmann at his most dramatic. The Fly is a peculiar film in many ways. It has a very small cast as most of the action takes place in Brundle’s lab. This augments the authenticity of Brundle’s and Veronica’s relationship, making the climax all the more poignant. On an implicit level, The Fly is perhaps better remembered for its more sinister undertones. The idea that technology is the manifestation of the over-boldness of genius lies at the heart of the film. Rarely has this message been expressed in colder more effective fashion than in Cronenberg’s masterful use of the Kuleshov effect where Brundle gets told the cold hard truth from his seemingly insidious computer. Take a bow Mr. Cronenberg.
Where does one begin with a comedy satire as good as this? Reginal Hudlin’s The Great White Hype is as incisive and witty a film as you’ll see on the boxing ‘industry’. It follows arch manipulator, the Rev. Fred Sultan as he orchestrates a fight which will engage the interest of white America, who he believes want nothing more than to see a white heavy-weight contender. Samuel L. Jackson is electric as the not unfamiliar boxing promoter who cons and finagles his heavyweight champ into fighting what the world initially sees as a chump contender. Jackson’s character is shamelessly hysterical but with the strong hint of a darker side. Damon Waynes is every bit his match in the comedy stakes as the unmotivated and disgruntled champ. However, for a film as full of scene-stealers as this one is (Jamie Foxx, Jeff Goldblum, Cheech Marin, and Jon Lovitz also star), Peter Berg deserves special credit as the man Sultan dresses up as the greatest contender the world has ever seen:- ‘Irish’ Terry Conklin (“I’m not Irish!”). Berg’s performance more than anyone’s will have you in fits of laughter as he embodies everything that is shallow and vacuous about the entertainment industry but with just a hint of humanity. Tony Hendra and sports enthusiast Ron Shelton’s script is razor sharp and there isn’t a line in it which won’t crack a wry smile. Yes, there are a host of genuinely hilarious moments but there is also some brilliantly subtle humour threaded throughout the story, the most effective of which comes to the fore during the climactic bout in a fleeting but telling moment of classy meta-analysis. File under “minor gem”.
With the runaway success of Jurassic Park, it was only a matter of time before they set about making a sequel and with director Steven Spielberg and writers Michael Chricton and David Koepp back on board, there was some reason to be exited. This time around, the action is shifted to a sister island to the one the theme park was located on. A mysterious history-altering Site B that was apparently the nursery for the dinosaurs all along. When a takeover within Ingen forces out their eccentric founder John Hammond (a role only briefly reprised by Richard Attenborough), he commissions a small scientific expedition to document the dinosaurs before the larger nastier Ingen expedition lands in force to capture them and bring them back to the mainland for exhibition. Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm is roped back in (Sam Neil and Laura Dern sit this one out) and Julianne Moore, Richard Schiff, and Vince Vaughn complete the team.
The first thing that strikes a discerning fan of Jurassic Park is the relatively strong plot of the first film is replaced by a much weaker one. The pretext for this group of scientists being on the island is flimsy at best. It also ignores or contradicts the events of the first film. Even though we saw and heard Hammond speak to the fact that all animals were born on the first island in the first film, there’s now a completely new island to intrude on and question the original set-up (was this necessary?). Similarly, less care is given to the way in which the dinosaurs should behave. Okay, so the T-Rex is at least finally given its due credit for having one of the largest olfactory cavities in the fossil record (no more “don’t move and it won’t see you”) but it has also quite mysteriously become a twinkle-toed predator which can charge vehicles without making the slightest sound in the run-up (where were those spine chilling impact tremors?). Beyond a few notable flashes, the script doesn’t have the polish or clever sophistication of the first film either which is disappointing given both Crichton and Koepp are back. Spielberg’s return leaves a lot to be desired too given the pedestrianism of many of the action sequences which seem more attributable to a second unit director than the great man himself.
The good news regarding the script is that it has yet again, been peppered with strong and interesting characters and like the original, it’s terrifically cast with some genuine talent. Goldblum helps maintain threads of the first instalment and reminds us he can carry a film with the best of them and Moore is excellent as the strong willed palaeontologist with whom he shares a complicated romantic relationship. Pete Postelthwaite chews the scenery in a ramped up version of the cold-hearted hunter that Bob Peck was only allowed tantalise us with while a young Vince Vaughn reminds us what an edgy talent he was before he bloated. Richard Schiff and Peter Stormare round off the cast as the nice and mean guy characters respectively. However, what’s most welcome is that the wonder and excitement of the central concept hasn’t waned all that much and a new crop of dinosaurs plus the heavy hitters from JP1 are all energised thanks to a newer and smoother generation of CGI while first class animatronics flesh out the slower paced dinosaur scenes.
The Lost World suffers from an unnecessary fourth act that makes the experience far too drawn out and ruptures the character dynamics that drove the first three. Goldblum and Moore’s characters become mere vessels to steer it to a conclusion and the whole thing feels like a rudderless 20 minute homage to King Kong’s more iconic forth act. But the bottom line is, if you like to see dinosaurs hunting humans and see it done with a touch of wonder (oh yeah, John Williams terrific upbeat score makes a return too) then, The Lost World is a decent support act to the likes of its predecessor.
Rating: The Bad – 50.8 Genre: Drama Duration: 105 mins Director: Lawrence Kasdan Stars: Tom Berenger, Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum
Seven former college friends reunite for the funeral of one of their group and spend the weekend reminiscing and coming to terms with past…….ugh! The strikingly few critics of this film tend to focus on the fact that it reifies an overindulged generation of self-important self-obsessives. And that’s a fair criticism. It’s very fair. But much worse, it’s an excruciating and cringe-worthy cheese fest where artificial “middle-aged going wild” cliche replaces any real genuine social interaction or discourse. Imagine a 100 minute montage of eight insufferables dancing around the kitchen to the rock ‘n’ roll of their youth, bumping hips as they wash the dishes together, laughing and gibing with each other in a gushing waterfall of cotton candy nostalgia. Where all authentic notions of character development, dilemma, and conversation are forsaken in favour of a 1980’s music video approach to movie-making. Where cardboard characters are presented to the audience as the “funny one”, the “goofy one”, the “weird one”, the “troubled one”, or the “funny one’s wife” and where living up to those stereotypes provides the comedy while breaking away from them provides the drama. Where every bit of the endless fun the characters are supposed to be having comes inescapably across as forced, contrived, and desperate. You could watch this on your own and still feel embarrassed for the actors.
Even more depressing is the fact that the writers, the usually brilliant Lawrence Kasdan and Barbara Benedek, were hijacking the premise of John Sayle’s galactically superior 1979’s The Return of the Secaucus 7. Sayles’ film also focused on a weekend reunion but the characters were real and the circumstances felt natural. Kasdan’s feels like a glossy attempt to recapture the sentiment of the earlier film but with no legitimate feel for it. The scenarios that emerge are scarcely believable and while that isn’t a crime in itself, the attempt to portray them as emotionally honest makes it one. It’s like watching Bill Murray in Groundhog Day rushing Andie McDowell through their first date for the 50th time, trying to hurry her along to the good bits. It’s like listening to a crusty old politician trying to relate to a younger audience by saying “yeah man, I feel you!”. Kasdan even went as far as insinuating his characters were political activists just as the title of Sayle’s film explicitly did. But where in the latter film, their history as activists simply acted as the context to tell funny stories about how they ended up in prison and indirectly point to the tenuousness of post-adolescent idealism, in Kasdan’s film it acted as the pretext for an earnest 120 second (that’s right, “seconds”!) political debate wherein their character’s commitment to their left-wing leanings were shown to be as strong as ever (despite their now comfortable upper-middle class existence – but don’t worry, that hypocrisy is addressed in the final 10 seconds of the 120 second “political scene”).
There are many out there who will always champion The Big Chill because it reminds them of their youth. Those who watched it in the 80’s as either early twenty somethings (whom the film was remembering with kind fondness) or mid to late thirty somethings (whom the film was validating…. with kind fondness). Either way, it has the nostalgia factor or the comfortable factor (we won’t make you face any harsh truths about life) going for it. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this type of film-making and if one can stand the cliches (or just doesn’t care about them), then The Big Chill can definitely offer a form of entertainment. Glenn Close, Kevin Kline, William Hurt, Tom Berenger, and Jeff Goldblum make for a sturdy and interesting cast and their presences and charisma alone can make for satisfying viewing. But anyone who cares to step back from the hazy vantage point of nostalgia and run the rule over the quality of their characters’ writing, will unavoidably see this as the pure self-deluded schmaltz it is. And from a film maker and cast who should’ve known better. A lot better.
“The scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think whether they should.” Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster was rightly hailed for its giant leap (OK, some pun intended) in special effects but the major credit should go to Michael Crichton and David Koepp’s meaty screenplay as few mainstream movies have their dramatic tension driven so expertly by the dialogue and idiosyncrasies of its characters as this one. And while serving dramatic purposes so well, it also ensures some seriously funny interchanges throughout. Sam Neill heads a team of scientists sent to provide an experts’ opinion on a new type of zoo/theme park – where they find that the attractions are live genetically bred dinosaurs. Needless to say, all hell breaks loose and soon enough everyone is running for their lives.
Spielberg is the undisputed master of creating excitement on screen (even if he often aims his movies at younger audiences) and the thrills he dishes up here make this every bit as entertaining to the adults. Neill does well as the ‘straight man’ and with the exception of a few overbearing moments, Laura Dern does her usual good work as his paleontologist partner. However, the unquestionable standouts are Jeff Goldblum and Richard Attenborough whose constant bickering provide many a funny moment. The acting is let down by the token kids Spielberg likes to throw into his stories with Ariana Richards’ shrill scream being the most annoying feature of the movie alongside the dumbness of her character’s actions.
The visual effects are obviously stunning and they still (mostly) hold up even today. There’s some limitation to the dinosaurs’ movement due to a combination of animatronics and early CGI but it rarely affects the action. However, what really makes Jurassic Park work is the manner in which it channels our innate sense of wonder for all things dinosaur. This is the film that best manages to tap Arthur Conan Doyle’s (The Lost World) essential excitement at the prospect of sharing our planet with these extinct monsters. And in the moments leading up to and including (especially including) the presentation of his first dinosaur, Spielberg does what he does best and puts us right there in the shoes of the protagonists so their astonishment becomes ours. It’s a great scene and it’s what adventure cinema is all about.
Rating: The Good – 94.8 Genre: Comedy Duration: 93mins Director: Woody Allen Stars: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Tony Roberts
The film that influenced 30 years of comedy (and still counting) is not only one of Woody Allen’s funniest films but it surely must count as one of the wittiest films to ever grace the screen. Allen plays the typically neurotic New York comedian while Diane Keaton plays the titular and ditzy love interest who becomes the projection screen for the emotional Rubik’s Cube that is his love life. The story of how they meet, fall in love, and part ways is told in a kind of jittery flashback which perfectly captures and thus enhances the central personal anxieties which his (and their) story focuses on.
Annie Hall essentially amounts to a series of flawless conversational vignettes bookended by Allen’s personal commentaries which themselves are framed by a conveyor belt of immortal and piercingly funny one-liners. Both the richness of the drama and range of quirky insight is staggering, covering as it does the full spectrum of mid-adulthood anxieties. From the crises which arise from the tenuous notions of our own agency and those crises’ religious, cultural, and social heritage to our self-perceived petty hang ups which we duly project onto those around us, Allen leaves no stone unturned. Annie Hall is the ultimate in confessed narcissism, an examination of self as it’s reflected through those relationships which struggle to define it but end up being defined by it. The cinematic innovation which goes into tying this neurotic examination up into one neat and near perfect package is awesome but it’s the truth which lies at the centre of all the madness which is most impressive.
Chances are if you haven’t already seen Annie Hall, you will have seen one of its many and vastly inferior derivatives. However, if you bear in mind that this is where it all began, it will feel as fresh and innovative as the day it was released. Magnificent.
Rating: The Good – 91 Genre: Drama Duration: 193mins Director: Philip Kaufman Stars: Sam Shepard, Dennis Quaid, Scott Glenn, Ed Harris
One of the wittiest and most compelling historical dramas you’re ever likely to see, The Right Stuff details the events leading up to and including Nasa’s first manned space flights (the Mercury Mission). A glittering cast of actors play a glittering array of characters but none score better than Sam Shepard’s Chuck Yeger. Director Kaufman rightly went his own way with his adaptation of Wolfe’s book and built the film around the legendary fighter ace. Shepard is near mesmerising as the stoic Yeger but in truth there’s not one actor in the extensive cast who lets the side down. Scott Glenn, Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward, and Ed Harris in particular are fantastic as the famous Mercury astronauts. Kaufman deserves huge credit for the way he brings this expansive story together as he crafts an extremely intelligent, often funny, often cutting satire of politics, ego, and personal ambition. However, rather than take the easy way out, he remains true to spirit of the book and skillfully interweaves the far more optimistic story about passion and dedication into the fabric of this ostensible critique. The result is a hugely complex and profoundly uplifting experience worthy of the esteemed literary source which spawned it.