Rating: The Good – 73.8 Genre: Thriller Duration: 108 mins Director: Damian Harris Stars: Laurence Fishburne, Ellen Barkin, Frank Langella, Michael Beach
Lawrence Fishburn stars as a disgraced former CIA agent who moves to the world of corporate espionage where he immediately becomes embroiled in a double cross involving his devious new partner Ellen Barkin and a host of other nefarious individuals each with their own agendas. The plot may be as mad as a box of frogs but there’s much to recommend in the manner of this thriller’s execution. It’s an eminently slick and determined piece of intrigue that panders little to an impatient audience. A psychological homage to the murky combination of intelligence and greed shot in the soft glow of 90’s lighting and set against a emphatically sinister Carter Burwell score. Ross Thomas adapted his own novel and didn’t compromise an inch in how he depicted the ambiguity of this dark world and while Damian Harris repeatedly spills the tension of his expositional scenes, he crafts his key moments with some real finesse and proper power. So much so that the bleak rawness of the emotional landscape can become quite repelling towards the end. The acting is for the most part as competent as you’d expect from a cast as good as this but it’s their ability to see the hidden qualities in their characters that hooks the audience and keeps us guessing. Fishburn in particular gives us a colder more unsettling anti-hero than we are typically used to and Michael Beach treats us yet another seriously intimidating 1990’s villain. Where the movie falls down quite significantly is in its progression. Too many crucial sequences are omitted or rushed through so that the plot loses cohesion as it twists and turns to avoid our expectations. Bad Company is more than worth a watch but one suspects this could’ve been a genuine classic in more capable and/or artistic hands.
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.
Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness switches the action from Africa to Vietnam to telling effect given the reverberations the East Asian context would have with an audience of the late 70’s and beyond. Thus, in Apocalypse Now, Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard journeys up the Nung River with a boat full of assorted and richly drawn American GI’s to deal with Marlon Brando’s Col. Kurtz.
The stories behind the film’s making are legendary (a typhoon destroying the helicopters being used on the film, Martin Sheen’s health troubles, etc.) but the end product is a mesmerising and reflexive exploration of the dark side to humanity. Brando makes a brief but arresting appearance as the disturbed but magnetic leader of a rag-tag jungle army which includes Dennis Hopper in one of his more deranged roles (and that’s saying something!). However, Sheen’s contribution is just as important as Brando’s, if not more, as the film rests on his shoulders for the vast majority of its long duration. It’s a powerfully tempered performance that encapsulates, more than any of the others, the fragile and disturbing yet steely nature of man.
The last word, of course, should be reserved for Coppola for Apocalypse Now is a sublime piece of film-making. From the very opening sound that phases between the sound of helicopters and that ceiling fan to the illuminating shots that followed it to the audacious La Cavalcata Delle Valchirie sequence now immortalised as perhaps the most famous movie sequence of all time, the level of inspiration and innovation demonstrated here, both technical and from a purely artistic point of view, is simply spell-binding. It was also arguably Coppolla’s last truly great work and given that it was capping films like The Godfather Part I and Part II and The Conversation, he certainly seems to have burned twice as bright as practically every other director working at that time. And if Apocalypse Now really was his denouement as a genius director, it’s an utterly unforgettable piece of work to sign off on.
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.