At one time Burt Reynolds was a megastar. By 1987 the shine was thinning, as his hair piece was thickening. Just two years after his arch '70s box office king rival Clint Eastwood made his obligatory quasi-Shane remake Pale Rider (the least of the four Westerns Clint directed), Reynolds did his own less blatant variation of Shane, with an equally simple title: Malone. Updated, instead of an old-timey oater, Malone is more of an '80s muscle film. This could have been a by-the-numbers vehicle for any number of steroidy non-actors of the day; the ace up the sleeve here is the lovely British Columbia backdrop and Reynolds' considerable charm. Even when he seems to be barely trying he’s much more likable then most of the action stars of the period. Back in his salad days (the '70s) Reynolds starred in two bona-fide classics, Deliverance and The Longest Yard, and had a massive box office hit with Smokey and The Bandit. But by the '80s--though Reynolds was still a very popular personality--none of the vehicles really matched his talent. Looking back years later, as the smoke has cleared, Malone is probably his most entertaining film of the decade.
Burt plays Malone, an ex-CIA hitman trying to escape his past (is there any other kind?) and make a break from his sexy handler (Lauren Hutton). After hitting the open road, his car ends up breaking down in a small mountain town where he befriends a clean cut gas station owning family, the Barlows. Father and his teenage daughter (Scott Wilson and Cynthia Gibb) take him in and luckily for them Malone also happens to be handy with a wrench for fixing engines. It turns out Malone happened to show up in the knick of time, as the town is being bought up by a nasty rich guy, Delany ( the alway dependable Cliff Robertson). The Barlows won’t sell, even under pressure from the town’s corrupt cops (lead by Kenneth McMillan) and Delany’s own band of thugs, plus the usual suspects of '80s B-creeps--including many familiar faces such as Tracy Walter (Batman) and Dennis Burkley (the lovable big mute biker from Mask). The bad guys try to exert muscle and Burt kills a couple of them. Shane had that famous tree trunk digging scene, but Burt doesn’t exert much sweat. Although he does get shot, giving Hutton a chance to come back to bandage him up and have a quickie romance before the creeps kill her. This leads to an all out war as Malone is forced to use his considerable killing skills to take out the security team and finally have it out with Delany. And then, very abruptly, it ends. But this was the '80s. Who wanted to sit through a movie much longer then ninety minutes? We had to get to the arcade.Continue Reading
Let me just lay it out there: not only is Kate Winslet the best actress of her generation, she’s probably reached all time top ten for me. After some British TV work she burst in to movies while still a teenager with her haunting performance in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures and then established herself as a major young adult actress with her wonderful work as Lucy in Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility. Winslet then capped off this early period of art house auteurs with Michael Winterbottom’s adaption of another victorian novel Jude the Obscure (shortened to just Jude for the screen) and the best on-camera interpretation of the role of Ophelia in Kenneth Branagh’s underrated Hamlet. And then her career exploded with the cultural and box office goliath Titanic making her a giant international star. But she did an interesting thing; she didn’t chase the money, and (until recently) she mostly stuck to smaller character driven films, never again working with another A-list brand name director like James Cameron or even Lee. (With smaller exceptions being Nancy Meyers, Michel Gondry and Jane Campion, while directors like Philip Kaufman and Roman Polanski were well past their primes. She only had a small role as part of a large ensemble in Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion.)
With Hideous Kinky in ’98, (Winslet’s first post-Titanic role) she really laid down the gauntlet for the kind of career she would map out for herself: challenging, surprising, anti-star and often unsympathetic. Based on Esther Freud's autobiography about her childhood being raised with her sister by her free-spirited British mother in Morocco, Winslet plays the mom, Julia. Disillusioned by life in stuffy London and with a hippie attitude, in a search for some kind of spiritual enlightenment, she packs her eight and six year-old daughters up for a Middle East quest. The two little girls are played by Bella Riza and Carrie Mullen, and they deliver a pair of outstanding performances. Julia, though loving, is also young and selfish, with only fleeting concern for her children’s needs for stability. The girls actually want to go to school, but Mom keeps whisking them off on busses across the desert landscape to romance her Moroccan boyfriend, Bilal (the charismatic Said Taghmaoui), who also seems to be a lost soul, unwilling to live up to his community's expectations. It’s never fully clear if Julia is truly spiritual (her enthusiasm usually feels naive) or if it’s all a pose to rebel against her family and the girls’s father, a London poet. (The question of their marriage is also blurry.) The film provides an insightful and fascinating look at Moroccan city life; this, of course, is before the full-blown Islamic revolutions would make Westerners a little less comfortable being strangers in a strange land.Continue Reading
The Trouble With Harry
If it’s not Alfred Hitchcock’s most underrated film, than The Trouble With Harry is certainly his most unusual opus. In 1955, Hitch was in the midst of his unprecedented commercial and artistic hot streak; from '51 to '63 - Strangers on a Train through The Birds - he directed twelve films, a run that also included unquestionable masterpieces Rear Window, Vertigo, North By Northwest, and Psycho (as well as a couple misfires, most disappointingly I confess). Somewhere in the middle is this odd little black comedy about murder, shot in lush autumn Technicolor by the great Robert Burks. It feels like both an Ealing comedy (the little English studio that made stars of Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers) and a precursor to the lighter fare of the French New Wave. It’s both romantic and filled with a sort of light suspense. Though very much American, the film is based on a British novel by Jack Trevor Story and that quirky '50s English humor is evident (think of The Lady Killers). It’s not a style you see very much on this side of the Atlantic in that decade.
Besides the lush photography, The Trouble With Harry has two very special tricks up its sleeve:Continue Reading
Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy
The Earth was accidentally demolished to make way for a hyperspace bypass, and archetypal English bloke Arthur Dent was left hitching around the Galaxy with just his bathrobe, a towel, and a copy of the Hitchhiker's Guide (the one that has "Don't Panic" in friendly block letters on its cover.)
Welcome to the first full-length cinematic version of this 1980s sci-fi icon. And, since author Douglas Adams himself wrote the script, there is no reason to panic! The film is mostly harmless - eh, make that mostly delightful. Special effects range from a spacecraft that looks like a cannister vacuum cleaner turned inside out, to aliens from the Hanson Workshop who look like giant beanie babies. But the tour of the "factory floor" of Megrathea, the planet that manufactures worlds, is worth the price of the DVD. Adams included many of the skids, anecdotes and one-liners which made the book so special, and had them discreetly animated as well.Continue Reading
I will always passionately love Requiem for a Dream. I will always passionately love Requiem for a Dream more than The Fountain. But I can't really compare Darren Aronofsky's two latest releases; it simply wouldn't be fair! The Fountain is a challenge that takes on a re-definition of science fiction, attempting to span 1,000 years and intersecting three parallel stories. It is certainly a task to admire. Aronofsky searches life's biggest questions - love, death, spirituality, existence - all while trying to go beyond typical science fiction films that were plot-driven by technology and science. He notes, "the interesting things are the ideas; the search for God, the search for meaning."
The film is personal and honorable in how simple yet intricate the story is. While I found it hard to involve myself in the more ancient sections of the film, and also thought using a cancer-stricken loved one as a character seems slightly redundant, but in the end mankind (in the general sense) is truly redeemed.Continue Reading
Blade Runner: The Final Cut
What is “human?” That’s the basic question posited by Ridley Scott’s visionary science fiction opus, release in 2007 in a 25th-anniversary “final cut,” the director’s third pass at the film.
Based on a novel by Philip K. Dick and set in the dark, rain-soaked Los Angeles of 2019, the tale follows “blade runner” Deckard (Harrison Ford) as he pursues and attempts to terminate four “replicants” – genetically-engineered humanoids – who have violently escaped an off-world colony and returned to earth. Deckard becomes increasingly conflicted about his murderous job and doubtful about his own identity, as he falls in love with a replicant (Sean Young) and begins to realize that his prey may be more human than he believed.Continue Reading
Solaris was Tarkovsky’s first foray into Science Fiction. Tarkovsky was a big fan of soft science-fiction, the kind that deals with deep moral and philosophical questions instead of focusing on laser rifles, improbable monsters and shiny robots. The film is rather loosely adapted from a novel by Stanislaw Lem and, predictably, the end result was not to Lem’s liking, partly because Tarkovsky took the story and thoroughly made it his own while retaining aspects familiar to Lem’s fans.
The plot concerns a mission to a space station surrounding an oceanic world they’ve named Solaris. A psychologist, Kris Kelvin, is sent to assess the deteriorating situation on the station as scientists kill themselves and apparently go insane without fail. He is to return and recommend future action, possibly shooting radiation into the planet, possibly ending the experiment.Continue Reading
A Clockwork Orange
A classic tale of boy loves violence, loses violence, and reunites with violence. Alex de Large (Malcolm McDowell) is a romantic hero for a decidedly unromantic age, represented here by a Moddish parallel universe. When all things, including humans, lose their intrinsic qualities, becoming place holders in the stimulus-response equations of a totally administered world, even the most barbarous of acts, if freely chosen, can take on a heroic hue. Not exactly a comforting thought, that one. Thus, Kubrick enhances audience identification with Alex’s creative acts of resistance via a first-person voice over, visualizing his sadistic reveries (as in a masturbatory sequence involving Beethoven’s 9th), and shooting his violent deeds through an extreme wide angle lens which tends to slightly distort everything around our humble narrator.
Alex’s fun comes to an end when he’s betrayed by his droogs after having killed a lady. After 2 years in prison, Alex charms his way into an experimental procedure at the Ludovico lab, which via behavior modification instills in him an aversion to sex and violence, as well as his beloved 9th, which happened to be the background music to one of the videos he was forced to watch. He can look, but he can no longer touch, his feelings now associated with a crippling nausea. Having been turned into a normal(-ized) citizen, Alex is released back into society. The violence he perpetrated in the first act is inflicted back on him by his former victims to which he can only respond with learned helplessness. Through the repercussions of the last creative act left to him, an attempt at suicide, the world is restored of violent personal meaning to the familiar tune of Ludwig van.Continue Reading
Children of Men
As much as science fiction films are maligned for being the playground of geeks and fanboys, the genre has a pretty stellar track record when it comes to reinventing what we as an audience expect from the cinema. To those that saw them in their original theatrical release, films like Star Wars, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Blade Runner are described as "experiences" more often than as "films;" drawing out the hyperbolic sides of people, phrases like "life-changing" aren't at all uncommon.
As soon as there's a generation of filmgoers young enough to have missed it, I imagine I'll be saying the same things to them about Children of Men.Continue Reading
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
We’ll never know for sure, but audiences may have fared better last year if Harrison Ford had directed the fourth Indiana Jones movie. Why not have let Mark Hammil try his hand at helming The Phantom Menace? Most fourth installments have little cinematic merit and do dismally at the box-office (Alien Resurrection, Batman and Robin, if you needed more examples.) So, if you’re a studio executive and you’ve still got three kids from two different marriages to put through college, what can you possibly do to make your third sequel work? Have a completely inexperienced lead actor from the franchise direct it, which is what happened when Leonard Nimoy assumed directorial duties for the second time on Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, his first proverbial rodeo being Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. And here’s why Leonard could do what Steven, George, Jean-Pierre, and Joel could not: actors who are committed to the franchise have spent years reading scripts by other writers thinking, “If I was writing this, this would be so much better.” They’ve got a cache of ideas to benefit the series, rather than an interloping director approaching the project as an opportunity to put his mark on the franchise. The Voyage Home was the second highest grossing film of the series and a popular film with fans of the TV show and Star Trek neophytes alike.
The film documents a particularly bad day in the history of the Federation. Not only is the entire crew of the Enterprise on trial for disobeying orders and various assorted hijinks (plot remnants from the second and third films), the survival of Earth is threatened by a highly destructive alien probe that only speaks one language: humpback whale. Unfortunately, Earth’s largest mammals became extinct at the end of the 21st century. It looks like the probe’s unintentional annihilation of the planet is imminent, that is until Spock gets a wacky idea to time travel back in time to the 1980s and abduct some Earth whales to bring back to the future so they can tell the probe what it can do with itself, in whale song. The highly likeable middle section of the film takes place in modern day San Francisco and employs the person-from-the-future-out-of-water scenario to great comedic effect. The crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise’s talent for pitch-perfect timing and deadpan delivery is a welcome relief from the depressing eeriness of The Search for Spock. Dr. “Bones” McCoy is back to his sassy self after having spent the entirety of the previous film going crazy sharing his brain with Spock’s immortal soul and the writers allow themselves some political commentary by introducing some Cold War humor via Commander Pavel Chekov’s character. The ensemble’s ease with the material and their characters was undoubtedly facilitated by being directed by one of their own, and the atmosphere of relaxed bonhomie is reminiscent of the quality that made the Rat Pack so popular, but without the misogyny and the alcoholism. If you like laughs, good times, or both, Star Trek IV is a journey to the outer reaches of fun at warp speed.Continue Reading