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Thief (1981)

ThiefMichael Mann is indeed one of my favorite filmmakers of all time.  Without him, I would not be the independent filmmaker that I am today dabbling in the neo noir world of crime thrillers.  For Mann, his theatrical career began here with this sleek and stylish picture headed up by an incredible performance from James Caan.  The cinematic visuals of Miami Vice were forged here, and the foundations of the thematic material that would be refined in Heat and Collateral were laid with Thief.  While Mann had directed and co-written the television movie The Jericho Mile before this, featuring some very familiar traits, Thief was the start of every signature quality that Mann is best known for, and it is a film that should be given its proper due respect and recognition.

James Caan plays Frank, a professional jewel thief who wants to marry Jessie (Tuesday Weld) and settle down into a normal life.  In order to achieve his dream of a family, Frank–who is used to working solo–has to align himself with a crime boss named Leo (Robert Prosky), who will help him gain the money he needs to begin his domestic life.  Frank plans to retire after the heist, yet he finds himself indebted to Leo and he struggles to break free.

I was captivated all over again by Thief just from the beginning as it enveloped me in the sheen of its rain soaked Chicago nighttime world, and the sleek, stylish score by Tangerine Dream.  This was the first film of Mann’s I ever saw, and I was blown away by it well over a decade ago.  One of the most lasting impressions is indeed Mann’s neo noir cinematic style.  Everything he does here really defined so much of the 80’s with the synthesizer score and the masterful visual storytelling.  When you see the sleek and rock solid camera work in Thief, it’s sad to see how horribly Mann has embraced the incessant handheld camera work as seen in Public Enemies.  The compositions here are dead-on-the-mark, and shots like pushing in through the drilled hole in the safe early on just show the enveloping visual brilliance of Mann.  He knew how to suck you into this world, and keep you hooked in for the long haul.  Thief was shot by first time cinematographer Donald Thorin who would go on to lens Purple Rain, The Golden Child, Midnight Run, and Scent of a Woman, to name a few.  There was clearly no one better for him to be under the direction of than Michael Mann, and Thorin did a stunning job shooting Thief.

This is undeniably James Caan’s movie through and through.  It is no mystery why this is Caan’s personal favorite performance of his.  He is simply excellent, intense, and touchingly dimensional here.  Frank is a man who’s had a lot of bad turns in his life spending a good chunk of it in prison, and is now struggling to reach a blissful goal of a happy home and family.  He is a definite tough guy able to be a threatening presence, and has the charismatic bravado to back it all up.  Frank’s not much of a subtle individual, but he’s a man who feels he has no time to dance around the subject.  Every word he speaks is carefully selected and clearly conveyed which makes him appear well-spoken even if he’s not the best educated man.  Caan injects the right amount of confidence into the role to mask Frank’s occasional naivety.  Caan’s favorite scene is the highway oasis diner scene where Frank details his life, hardships, and dreams to Jessie.  This scene shows the subtle emotional qualities of Frank to see the better man underneath all the bullheaded machismo, and this scene strips him down to bear his heart to her.  Frank shows that he is charming, sweet, and very human.  Despite the hardened criminal life he has had, all he wants is a simple, happy life, and that desire is much of what endears him to an audience.  However, in the end, he must return to his base, primal convict mindset to survive.

Tuesday Weld holds up very strongly opposite Caan with both an enduring spirit and a gentle tenderness.  Like Frank, Jessie is also a tough person who really now reveals in an ordinary life, and what begins as a very combative relationship soon warms up to very heartfelt levels.  There’s a solidly genuine chemistry between Weld and Caan that brings a lot of heart and depth into this very gritty, hard edged crime thriller.  Their final parting scene is powerful on so many heartbreaking levels, and shows, definitively, that Tuesday Weld was no lightweight acting talent.

There is a startling turn that Robert Prosky achieves as Leo that solidifies him as one of the best mob figures in cinema for me.  For so much of the film, he’s a fatherly figure giving Frank every means to achieve his goals, and being nothing but an agreeable, upbeat, friendly facilitator.  He gives Frank high line scores, an adopted child, a home, and much more.  The problem is that once Frank tries to sever ties with Leo, he’s given a very sobering reality check – everything Frank now has is essentially owned through Leo, and he can rip it all away.  This scene is where Prosky transforms into a cold, heartless, ruthless man who will have Frank’s friends killed, prostitute his wife on the street, and put Frank completely into indefinite servitude.  Prosky becomes flat out chilling in this scene as a man you utterly do not want to cross, but the price for having this comfortable life comes at too high a cost for Frank.  So, he has no choice but to retaliate by burning it all down.

Michael Mann did a very clever thing in casting the supporting cops and criminals, and thus, made it very authentic to Chicago.  All of the cops were cast with ex-convicts including John Santucci who was the basis for Frank, and all of the criminals were cast with actual Chicago police officers such as Dennis Farina in his first on-screen role.  This way, we got very open and honest portrayals of the not-so-straight-and-narrow Chicago police of the time.  This sort of close knit connection to the authenticity of these sides of the law carry over into the intricacies of the heists.  None of the heists here are sensationalized or simplified.  We see the complex and highly involved process that Frank and his crew have to go through to take a single score, and this is achieved with great skill.  The depth of detail that Mann shows us allows for the audience to appreciate the triumph of the score.  Furthermore, all of the equipment featured was accurate to how they were used in the film, and considering the film is based on a novel by a convicted thief, none of this should be too surprising.  However, it demonstrates the intense attention to detail that Michael Mann consistently put into every project he took on, and that has always impressed me and has really set Mann’s work apart from all others.  Lesser filmmakers would gloss over the details and sensationalize the story, but the grit is in the details.

There is also a good but small performance by Willie Nelson who portrays a mentor of Frank’s that is dying behind prison bars.  Caan and Nelson have only one real scene together, but it really brings a lot of the life and philosophy of these criminal characters to the forefront.  And Thief really is built so much on personal philosophies such as lie to no one, be the boss of your body, or live your life on your own terms.  This all feeds into how Frank navigates this film.  He divulges everything to Jessie because his previous marriage fell apart due to his lies.  He is hesitant with going into business with Leo because he enjoys answering to no one and calling his own shots, and is ultimately why he makes the radical decisions he makes at the end of the film’s second act.

Frank’s actions in the third act might seem like those of a young man of heated passion, as they are somewhat impulsive and absolute, but they fit Frank’s “the boss of my own body” attitude.  He will not allow the terms of his existence to be dictated by another, and if that is the cost of having all the things he desires, then he’d sooner see it all turned to ashes.  Frank returns to that prison attitude of “nothing means nothing,” and it frees him to destroy it all and go after Leo without any attachments.  This is clearly a precursor to the philosophy of Neil McCauley in Heat that, “Allow nothing to be in your life that you cannot walk out on in thirty seconds flat if you spot the heat around the corner.”  All of this makes for one awesome, amazing finale that just certifies James Caan as a bad ass.  How Frank’s stalking through Leo’s house unfolds, with almost dead silence, is perfectly executed.  The quiet tension just unnerves you, and builds up that tingling anticipation until all hell breaks loose.  From there, it’s all scored with this excellent track from Tangerine Dream that I love.  And overall, their score is innovative and captivating.  It all reflects Michael Mann’s signature vibe perfectly with sleekness and edge.

Thief is an intensely exciting movie with a very grounded feeling.  Seeing Mann’s visual style unfold here is amazing, and James Caan puts on an excellent, versatile performance that enhances every compelling element of the movie.  It’s stunning to see how quickly Mann evolved in his career where so many of the ideas and visual storytelling here would be refined and matured within three years for the launch of Miami Vice, and the major leap forward taken in 1986 with Manhunter.  Whether you are a Mann or Caan fan, this is a film you cannot afford to overlook.  No one makes crime thrillers quite like Mann did as he made sure every quality and acting talent was superb and pitch perfect while always delving into the humanity of the story.  With Mann it’s always about the characters, and you see the depth of that care put into this movie.  If you want an even further in-depth look at the films of Michael Mann, I immensely endorse the video essay Zen Pulp: The World of Michael Mann.  It is remarkably insightful that really inspires me.

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Point Break (1991)

Point BreakThere are so many action movie classics that people call the best, but for me, Point Break is a special, unique film that is, without a doubt, my favorite action movie of all time.  What compels me about this movie that beyond all others is the intense relationship between the protagonist and antagonist.  It creates this amazingly unique dynamic that forges the entire electric, kamikaze adrenalin rush of this film.  So, let’s delve into Kathryn Bigelow’s action classic.

Rookie FBI Agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) goes undercover to infiltrate a cache of Southern California surfers suspected of robbing banks.  Utah, a former football player, is assigned to Los Angeles.  There, four bank robbers, who wear rubber masks and call themselves “The Ex-Presidents,” have executed a series of successful robberies which embarrassingly have the FBI stumped.  Utah, and his partner Angelo Pappas (Gary Busey) suspect that the robbers are surfers and hatch a plan for catching them, but the deeper Utah gets connected to the charismatic adrenalin driven Bodhi (Patrick Swayze) and the beautiful Tyler Endicott (Lori Petty) the harder it is for him to jump off this tidal wave of danger and excitement.

Point Break absolutely lives up to its premise as being 100% pure adrenalin.  The surfing aspect is just the entryway into this, but it remains at the core of the whole film.  That elevated experience shared by Bodhi and Johnny, specifically, is what fuses those two characters together, and is treated with great respect by the filmmakers.  The skydiving sequences escalate that to another level with breathtaking cinematography that envelopes you in the experience, and make for a radically insane sequence where Johnny jumps out of the plane, without a parachute, to capture the escaping Bodhi.  The earlier chase sequence is visceral and intense that really utilizes a rougher style of camera exceptionally well.  And of course, the bank robberies are slam banged into a high gear that shows just how proficient and threatening the Ex-Presidents are.  It is no wonder why the FBI has not been able to catch them after twenty-seven banks over three years.  Wrap all of this up, and you’ve got a film that goes for the physical thrill of the moment over special effects spectacle.  It’s really all about the character dynamics and these scenarios of extreme rushes that provide the high octane exhilaration of Point Break.

Beyond just the action, the core of this film’s compelling energy are the excellent arcs for both Johnny and Bodhi.  You see Special Agent Utah at the start being this fresh from the academy FBI rookie all straight laced and green, but you can see the eagerness underneath that later fuels that adrenalin junkie urge.  Johnny and Bodhi become genuinely intertwined in a naturally evolving way that inches Utah further towards that kamikaze impulse.  Bodhi’s charisma and aura sucks Johnny right in, but it’s never manipulative.  Everything Bodhi conveys is honest straight to his core, and every word of it energizes Johnny.  Most action films have a clear delineation between the protagonist and the antagonist, but here, things are not so clean cut.  Once Johnny is caught up in Bodhi’s tsunami of pure adrenalin, there’s no way out, and he has to ride it out all the way to its heart pounding, violent end.  Bodhi will push everything to its absolute breaking point while risking everything and everyone in the process, and there is a price to pay for it.

Quite frankly, this would have to be the movie that made me a serious Keanu Reeves fan.  A lot of people give him crap, but I give him a lot of credit.  There’s a great deal of subtle development of Johnny Utah between Reeves’ performance and Bigelow’s direction.  This all occurs as he further embraces the philosophy of Bodhi and his love for Tyler.  Keanu Reeves and Lori Petty have very pure, heartwarming chemistry.  Tyler is vibrant and full of brightness that adds glowing life to Johnny.  Meanwhile, as the connection between Johnny and Bodhi intensifies, so does the performance of Reeves.  Johnny becomes more confident, more determined, and less bound by rules as he is propelled out of control through Bodhi’s deadly thrill ride.  I feel Reeves becomes more compelling as the third act shifts into high gear, and Johnny has to has to jump right off the deep end after Bodhi.

Kathryn Bigelow’s direction really envelopes you into Johnny’s mindset whether he’s mesmerized, haunted, elated, or burning with conviction.  Through all of this Reeves is genuine and sincere in his emotions.  You are kept very closely in tuned with Johnny’s mindset through successes, failures, and conflicts.  Point Break is a film that drives everything right to the edge.  Every danger, every extreme, every adrenalin rush is pushed to its insane limits at whatever cost imaginable.  Bodhi embraces this without hesitation or a moral compass.  He’s essentially a barreling freight train unwilling to put on the brakes regardless of what it will cost him.

Patrick Swayze is wickedly good as Bodhi.  He envelopes the character entirely in philosophy, conviction, physicality, and spirituality.  I love how Bodhi has this ethereal link to the sea, and gains a serenity from surfing while being an extreme adrenalin junkie.  Yet, it’s not merely about the thrill with the bank robberies.  He has a greater purpose by showing the shackled masses living their mundane, slave to the grind lives that the human spirit is thriving within his crew.  Swayze is so electrifying with his natural charisma and intense commitment to the character.  When I watch this film, I don’t perceive Patrick Swayze playing a role.  I see Bodhi through and through.  Swayze is stunningly excellent here, and I’m still a little sad that he is no longer with us.  He was an amazingly talented actor, and this should stand as one of his best, most compelling performances.

Rounding out the main cast is Gary Busey in a great, entertaining role as Angelo Pappas.  He can be hilariously funny and quirky, but solidly dramatic in the right moments.  It’s a really well rounded character portrayed by an actor with the smart talent to balance those elements out perfectly.  Plus, there’s John C. McGinley as FBI Director Ben Harp.  Surely, he might seem like the stereotypical loud mouthed boss slinging insults around to his subordinates, but McGinley’s such a strongly talented actor that it never comes off as shallow or tired.  Add in a touch of smug arrogance, and the character of Harp works dead-on-the-mark in McGinley’s hands.

The musical score by Mark Isham is really fantastic.  For one, I love how he captures the enveloping spiritual sense of the sea with smooth, flowing compositions.  It’s very beautiful work that reflects the philosophies of Bodhi long before he enters the film officially.  There is another gorgeous cue that reflects the mystique of Bodhi that’s only a few chords, but it’s repeated a few times to very magical effect.  The action cues are good, yet subtle.  Isham never bombards you with pounding percussion.

The soundtrack is energized with songs that capture that Southern California feel from bands such as L.A. Guns, Concrete Blonde, Jimi Hendrix, Public Image Ltd., and capped off with my beloved “Nobody Rides For Free” by Ratt.  That song perfectly concludes the film, and reflects the constant energy and excitement that runs through it.

The film really escalates to another level when Johnny realizes who the Ex-Presidents actually are, and that super charges every scene from there on out.  The emotions hang on the razor’s edge.  For Bodhi, it ups the stakes making the adrenalin rush and peril even more appetizing for him.  For Johnny, it creates conflict as he has forged a very close bond and kinship with Bodhi, but is soon forced to do whatever is necessary as Tyler is put into imminent peril.  Unlike most action movies such as Die Hard where it’s very straight forward that this is the bad guy and he’s going to die without question, Point Break makes it all far less certain because all of these emotions, some are unexplainable, cloud and complicate the issue.  What all of this builds to is possibly my favorite movie ending of all time that entirely departs from all action film expectations.

The relationship between Johnny Utah and Bodhi reaches its apex on a storm soaked beach.  Their connection remains electrifying as these two clash, but it’s not the fist fight that makes this as great as it is.  Johnny finally has Bodhi in handcuffs ready to put him in a cage for life, but it’s that spiritual kinship between the two that sparks off something unique.  All the groundwork for this ending is laid early on in the film in one scene over a bonfire, and the pay-off is amazing to me.  Point Break is my favorite action film not because it has the best action sequences, or because of its pleasantly memorable dialogue.  It’s because of the culmination of this ending.  Everything that these two characters have developed between each other throughout the movie is so smartly interwoven, setup, and punctuated here.  It concludes an amazing arc for Johnny Utah who begins as this clean cut rookie FBI Agent who changes into someone driven by impulse, emotion, and that inexplicable sensation he gets out on those waves.  He pursues Bodhi down around the world for months on end, but in those final moments with an honest plea from Bodhi that only Johnny can understand fully, you get an ending that breaks a lot of rules in all the right ways.  This ending captivates me to no end that I have attempted to homage and replicate in many of my own scripts.

Karthryn Bigelow did not have any real box office success prior to this film, despite turning out some quite good films such as Near Dark and Blue Steel.  With Point Break, she really came into fruition with a greatly exciting, fresh, and original summer action picture that really delivered.  She shows a great visual style here that pinpoints emotion greatly and really envelopes you into every fiber of this film.  Possibly less than half of Bigelow’s movies in her thirty year career have actually been box office successes, and that’s a horrible shame.  I think she is an incredible director who showed a great deal of potential here, which she would capitalize upon in with stunning results in Strange Days.  Her collaboration on both pictures with now ex-husband James Cameron really shows through in all the best ways.  Point Break shares some common ground with Cameron’s work, and even he draws some parallels between the endings of this movie and Terminator 2.  Regardless, I will take no credit away from Bigelow who gave us this excellent pure adrenalin rush of a movie which has not been replicated since.  I think it goes without saying that I recommend this movie with great passion.


Someone to Watch Over Me (1987)

Someone to Watch Over MeMost of the films in Ridley Scott’s filmography are fairly well known, but there are a few that are glossed over for whatever reason.  For this film, the fact that it didn’t even make its money back at the box office is the likely reason, but it still garnered very positive reviews from critics.  This is indeed a film of special, exceptional quality.  Someone to Watch Over Me is not your typical Ridley Scott film, in most part.  It’s story is definitely a cop thriller with a great urban atmosphere, but primarily, this is a romantic film done with great, beautiful artistic flare.

A stunning New York socialite and a down-to-earth city cop are caught in a deadly web of illicit passion and heart-stopping suspense.  Newly-appointed detective Mike Keegan (Tom Berenger) finds his life turned upside down when he’s assigned to protect Claire Gregory (Mimi Rogers), the beautiful eyewitness to a brutal murder.  Lured into danger and the dizzying heights of Gregory’s glamorous lifestyle, Keegan struggles to walk the line between protection and obsession – while trying to stay one step ahead of the psychotic killer Joey Venza (Andreas Katsulas), and not allow his happy marriage to fall apart over his affair with Claire.

I really like the vibe of this movie.  It does have a very romanticized artistry to it, but with the moody subtlety that Scott is a master at.  Oddly, while watching this, I got a very similar feeling as I got watching the John Badham romanticized version of Dracula, starring Frank Langella.  It’s that foggy, subtle romantic visual quality with its greens and ambers which really struck me that same way.  Someone to Watch Over Me is a finely crafted and gradually paced work of art that smartly blends the seductive beauty with the dangerous crime elements.  By the trailer, you’d likely expect something a little more thrilling and exciting, but even then, this film easily roped me in.  This is surely due to the great casting and excellent acting.

Michael Keegan is not the usual kind of movie cop.  He’s surely streetwise, but he feels a little green and out of his element.  Having just been promoted to Detective, he doesn’t have the consummate manner of those around him, and coming from Queens, he’s not accustomed to the high life sophistication of Claire’s world.  So, he’s a bit of a blue collar style easy going guy, and Tom Berenger does a stellar job in this role.  He’s extremely likable and fun loving early on, and progresses into a more serious, emotionally complex character as events unfold.  You can see that Mike is very happy with his family, but as he gets deeper involved with Claire, everything begins to be torn apart within him.  Berenger has great and distinctly different chemistries with Mimi Rogers and Lorraine Bracco, who portrays Michael’s wife Ellie Keegan.  Both relationships have their own touching qualities, and work equally as beautifully.  Ellie perfectly reflects the man he is, but Claire gives him something fresh and seductive.  It’s an odd dynamic that you can feel so much for Mike and Claire, knowing they have something unique together, but also, view Mike as the bad guy opposite Ellie.  That’s really a testament to Berenger’s talent.  He makes Mike a very down to Earth guy with flaws, but never comes off as a reprehensible adulterer, just a man of sympathetic conflicts of the heart.

I was very pleased with what Mimi Rogers accomplishes in this role.  The few moments where Claire is confronted by Venza are intensely fearful, and Rogers is greatly convincing.  However, the majority of the film is focused on Mike and Claire becoming closer and more intimate.  She proves to be a gorgeously romantic woman who is not a seductress.  There’s nothing lurid about these two becoming involved.  There is a genuine endearing attraction there that is quite touching, and the building of a chemistry and attraction with Claire is done quite subtly.  She is charming, elegant, and vulnerable, but still exerts confidence.  There’s a fine line between where she feels safe and self-assured and feeling very frightened that Rogers handles with delicate balance.

Through all this, you honestly feel for Ellie a great deal because she’s done nothing wrong to deserve this betrayal of her love.  Lorraine Bracco is wonderful showing the agonizing pain of Ellie.  She loves Mike so dearly, and that pours out so richly once she is scorned.  This is really an exceptional performance as we see a full spectrum of emotion from Bracco from the loving and down to Earth woman to the deeply hurt wife and even beyond that in the film’s climax to utterly frightened to death.  While the film is heavy on the Mike-Claire relationship, Bracco does such a strong job to keep Ellie’s end of the film relevant and emotionally impactful.  By the end, that is the crux of the film’s resolution.

And I really adore Andreas Katsulas.  He was taken from us far too soon.  Many would know him as the one-armed man in The Fugitive, but my heart with him lies with the science fiction series Babylon 5.  Here, his role is full-on in intimidating heavy mode.  His screentime is fairly restrained, but his presence is almost always felt.  That presence is very effective right from his first few minutes of screentime all the way through to the taut, thrilling climax.  Katsulas takes that great talent of his and compounds it into a lethally threatening performance.  Like with everything else here, the key word is definitely “subtlety.”  Ridley Scott has such a great handle on tone with his visuals and actors that it is no surprise that everything is just pitch perfect throughout this cast.  Of course, I couldn’t forget to mention the late and charming Jerry Orbach as the solid Lieutenant Garber.  Orbach is always a bright pleasure to see in anything he ever appeared in.

It also put a smile on my face when Michael Kamen’s credit came on screen as the composer.  I really, dearly love his work.  There was always a real elegance and sophistication he brought to his scores, and Someone to Watch Over Me definitely gave him the opportunity to flesh out some lush, romantic cues.  There’s the obligatory saxophone parts, but it’s done so very beautifully.  It really is a lovely tapestry of romanticism that he weaves throughout this film while never remotely approaching over the top melodrama.  He’s aided a little by a smooth jazz style arrangement of the title song by Sting, and some fine music tracks from Steve Winwood and Fine Young Cannibals early on.  The work Kamen does with the tenser, more thrilling scenes is very effective and taut.  This is the perfect score for this movie accentuating every subtlety with careful craftsmanship.

Also, it seems that no matter what cinematographer Ridley Scott works with, his visual style always comes through brilliantly.  You could turn this movie on, not knowing anything about it, and know it is a Ridley Scott movie just by the rich atmospheric noir look of it.  Someone to Watch Over Me is absolutely gorgeous re-crafting the looks of Alien or Blade Runner into a romantically effective package.  The scenes early on in the night club and art gallery are brilliant, perfect examples of Scott’s signature style.  Later on, inside Claire’s upscale apartment, the overall look is very seductive with soft, dim amber lighting.  As usual, Scott uses very deep blacks and smoky, shadowy visuals to create a mysterious atmosphere, and even on the streets of New York, that works so stunningly well.  If for nothing else, Scott is one of my favorite directors based on his gorgeous visual neo noir style.

Beyond all of the stunning aesthetics, the story played out in both the seductive romanticism and the dangerous crime thriller are perfectly interwoven.  I found the balance just right for the film’s intended emotional direction.  I would definitely imagine a film like this today being forced to be packed with a lot more action and excitement instead of developing the romance and subtle suspense.  Thankfully, this was made in a time when someone like Ridley Scott, whose last couple of films had not done well at the box office, was able to make the movie he wanted to make.  He does a fantastic job with Howard Franklin’s screenplay just enveloping it entirely in his articulate, detail oriented sensibilities and wonderfully inspired visual style.  Yet, the visual awe is not used to mask any lack of substance, but to enhance the strengths of it all.

I really did enjoy Someone to Watch Over Me.  If you enjoy a classic thriller with a twist of romance, which the film’s tagline boasts, you will certainly find some satisfaction here.  Ridley Scott directs this film with class and a focus on the smooth moody atmosphere and gradual development of its characters.  The cast is absolutely top notch featuring substantive and respectable work from everyone involved.  This film is actually a very clear precursor to Scott’s next film, Black Rain, which was an excellent full-on thriller, but still with a lot of that romanticized atmosphere of danger.  If you’re looking for the exciting flipside to this seductive film, Black Rain is absolutely that film.  Just forego watching the trailer.  It’s a little on the spoilery side.  Anyway, Someone to Watch Over Me is a very beautifully crafted and executed film that I really do highly endorse.


Purple Rain (1984)

Purple RainThe year of 1984 was the true galvanization of the decade.  It defined exactly what we remember the decade to be.  It was the year where the pop culture identity of the 1980’s exploded with stuff like Michael Jackson’s Thriller breaking album record sales, television series like Miami Vice premiering, and films like Beverly Hills Cop, The Karate Kid, Ghostbusters, and The Terminator debuting.  Then, there was the solidification of Prince becoming a monster success as both an electrifying musician, but also, at the box office with a film that, at one time, I watched once a week, every week for months.  Purple Rain can be a surprising film if all you are expecting is just an entertaining rock music motion picture.  There is a compelling, emotionally striking story within that was likely taken from Prince’s own life and embellished on screen.

Prince make his movie debut as The Kid, a Minneapolis club musician as alienated as he is talented.  He struggles with a tumultuous home life with a failed musician father and The Kid’s own smoldering anger while taking refuge in his music and his steamy love for sexy Apollonia Kotero.  He is opposed by rival band The Time, lead by the smooth talking and charismatic Morris Day who attempts to force The Kid out of the limelight and steal Apollonia away from him.  The Kid’s life goes into a down spiral as everything falls apart even within his own band, the Revolution, forcing him down a turbulent road of survival and triumph.

Surely, this is one of the best movie soundtracks ever created.  Beyond just all being contenders for smash hit singles, and having won Grammys and Academy Awards, these songs strongly serve the plot.  Whether it’s lyrically or emotionally, they reflect the progression of these characters through this narrative.  The film opens up on a high energy number of “Let’s Go Crazy” that would be perfect for jump starting a concert, of course.  The music in the first act is very upbeat and lively as things are on an upswing for The Kid.  He’s rocking the stage and falling in love with Apollonia, but the second act features more aggressive or introspective tracks such as the classic hit “When Doves Cry.”  The final act gives us the emotional swelling of pain and resolution into a rousing celebration.  This is one of those films where it’s stellar soundtrack will always ignite your desire to watch the film again, but there’s so much more to Purple Rain than just its incredible music.

The love story is wonderfully handled and progressed.  There’s plenty of light-hearted wit and charm early on especially with the “purifying yourself in the waters of Lake Minnetonka” bit.  Then, when The Kid is up on stage belting out “The Beautiful Ones,” staring directly at Apollonia with her eyes welling up, that’s an intense proclamation of passion which is beautifully executed.  The romance then moves forward into more intimate, seductive territory before it all falls apart due to The Kid’s ego and him repeating his father’s self-destructive behavior, but it proves to not be the end of them.  Prince and Kotero really have an endearing and charming chemistry that lights up the screen.  It’s really the core narrative element of the film.  Everything really centers around and reflects off of that.

The reversal is the volatile relationship between The Kid’s parents.  What Clarence Williams III does in this film is on a whole other plane of riveting, powerful drama.  He’s heartbreaking and tragic as Francis L., this man who has seen all of his dreams die because no one understood his music, and is just trying to keep his fractured self and marriage together.  Yet, he grips on so tightly that he’s falling apart on every emotional level.  The culmination of this is powerful and world shattering.  Williams’ performance is mind blowing creating a sobering gravity and weight that no one expected going into this movie.  There is nothing but pain magnified and compounded within every fiber of his performance.  He is shockingly incredible to the point that I feel he deserved major awards for this performance, but he got no such recognition for it.  Whenever I see him in anything now, he has my undivided attention because of this one performance.

Purple Rain is also a great encapsulation of the problems a band faces, internally.  Clashing egos, mismatched personalities, and creative differences cause turbulence in even the best, most successful bands.  We see Wendy and Lisa trying to make their own music, but The Kid just won’t take his own ego out of it to allow it.  Apparently, this friction wasn’t far off from the reality in the band, and so, part of the effectiveness of these performances was likely due to that.  Regardless, it adds further baggage to The Kid as he struggles with all of these passionate forces in his life, and something is bound to break.

On the lighter side of the film’s tone, you’ve gotta love the humorous antics of Morris Day and Jerome Benton.  Their “who’s on first” style conversation about having a “password” for when Apollonia shows up is priceless and hilarious.  Morris and Jerome lighten up the movie at key times without going over the top with it.  Before I even knew Day was a musician, I saw him in The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, and found him sharp and funny there as well.  I even first saw Morris Day & The Time in Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back, clearly motivating my interest in Purple Rain.  Both Day and Benton have charisma to spare, and make for good foils for The Kid to contend with.  Still, it’s great that they’re not relegated to being only comedy relief.  Benton gets a serious moment that further digs at The Kid’s screwed up situation.  We get some dimension to Morris with a few honest moments, and we see he has a genuine human factor.  My favorite moment of Day’s is his moment of regret after saying a truly horrible thing about The Kid’s family after Francis has attempted suicide.  In a single moment, he goes from being a cruel, cold hearted jerk to being a real human being with a conscience.

Under the direction of Albert Magnoli, Prince proves to be a very solid actor.  Of course, his amazing work on stage comes naturally to him, but even then, there’s the added emotional context of his character interwoven with that.  He incorporates the character’s mindset into the intensity of his on-stage performance.  The most evident examples are the “Darling Nikki” and “Purple Rain” performances showing the different kinds of pain The Kid is feeling at those times.  The first being of scorn, and the second being heartbreaking despair and sorrow.  Off stage, Prince is damn good handling all of the heavy emotional weight of this story stunningly.  This character is shown to be one with serious faults that he has to confront and overcome by the end, and it is all executed an honest realism.  If Prince wasn’t that good of an actor, the film would not have worked, and would have been viewed as a lop-sided vanity project where the music was full of spectacle but the story and acting faltered.  He was clearly fully committed to the quality and integrity of this picture, and put forth his all in every aspect to make it this great.

Yet, it is Albert Magnoli who put everything on track to be so great overall.  The film does have style to spare in its stage performance visuals, and some of the sharp MTV style editing at times.  However, Magnoli balances the sleek style and energy with a grounded, dramatic gravity.  The characters are all well fleshed out, and have their passionate and conflicted qualities.  The attempted suicide scene crashes down like a ton of bricks, and erupts the raw emotional intensity of this film.  It is handled, along with the entire final act, with such weight and sincerity that it is what makes Purple Rain more than just a fun rock and roll movie experience.  It gives a meaning to the story and the characters, giving this film a real touching, tender artistry that I cannot admire and praise enough.  It really reflects the integrity and poignant detail that Prince puts into his music.  He hardly ever does anything in his music without a full fledged commitment to quality.

The final musical performances are beautifully executed.  “Purple Rain” is the culmination of everything The Kid has gone through, and he pours out every ounce of pain and sorrow in one epic, soaring song.  The aftermath of the performance can still choke me up a little, especially when The Kid and Apollonia lock eyes in that hallway.  Magnoli also does such the right thing with the editing in that performance because, aside from a few perfectly timed and well chosen shots of the audience, he keeps the focus on The Kid.  It’s not until the song crescendos with the guitar solo that the shots open up and allow for everything to flourish on screen.  “I Would Die 4 U” then comes as a breath of fresh air, and the correlating clips of The Kid visiting his sleeping parents in the hospital, organizing his father’s music sheets, and reconnecting with Apollonia earlier that day, bring a heart warming quality to the track.  All of the music in this movie is excellent on its own, but when adding it into the emotional context of this film, these songs transcend into another level of touching impact.

I certainly do have to take Purple Rain in a sensationalized way.  I have been close friends with a number of independent, small time local bands for the last decade, and these are people who aren’t making it rich on their music.  So, if this film was entirely realistic, none of these bands would be wearing all of these flashy designer outfits that likely cost thousands of dollars.  They would still put a great show, but what we see is an accurate representation of these acts as they were, on stage, in real life.  I wholly understand stylistic choice that I’m sure no one really gave much thought to.  Even then, despite owning a custom designed motorcycle and all of these flashy outfits, The Kid lives in his parents’ basement.  Most wouldn’t pick up on those oddities, but with the perspective I have, yeah, it pops into my head.  Yet, I don’t hold any of this against the film whatsoever because I understand where all of it is coming from, and clearly, Prince wasn’t concerned about blurring the lines between his reality and the film’s fiction.  It all ultimately works towards the film’s stylish benefit.

To me, Purple Rain is a magnificent film.  If you love the 1980’s in all its fashion, style, music, and movies, this is a movie that will excite and probably surprise you.  Surely, Prince’s music isn’t for everyone, but this is undoubtedly a collection of some of his finest mainstream work.  It is definitely one of the best soundtrack albums ever conceived and released.  Even songs by The Time, Apollonia 6, and Dez Dickerson are solid pieces that give a little different flavor here and there.  Yet, beyond all of that pop music excellence, you will find a film filled with love, heartache, tragic quality, dramatic weight, and artistic merit that is all perfectly blended together.  It had been a long time since I watched Purple Rain before this review, and seeing it again reminded me why I so love this movie.  It also reminded me why, nine years ago, I made this an imperative weekly watch for so long.  Prince’s subsequent feature film outings would, reportedly, not be so good as he chose to direct and star in both Under The Cherry Moon and Graffiti Bridge, the sequel to Purple Rain.  You need not pay attention to those films because Purple Rain is fully entertaining and satisfying in so many abundant ways.  This is an exciting, rock fueled picture with an admirable depth of substance and emotion.  This film was 1984 through and through, but still holds up perfectly nearly three decades later.  It is one of my favorite films of all time.


Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

Batman Mask of the PhantasmI am so glad that I did see this animated feature in theatres twenty years ago.  Being a major fan of the animated series, there was no way I couldn’t be excited for it, and it has become a very respected high mark in the DC Animated Universe.  Batman: Mask of the Phantasm does tend to get lost in the mix when discussing the best Batman or even best superhero movies because it was an animated feature.  The film didn’t perform well in theatres, likely do to a less than aggressive marketing campaign.  Even professional film critics Gene Siskel and Robert Ebert did not see it in its theatrical run, but when they did eventually watch it, they indeed loved it.  So, with this preface, I think it’s easy to deduce that this is a definite favorite of mine.

When Gotham City’s most feared gangsters are systematically eliminated, the Cape Crusader is blamed, but prowling the night is a shadowy new villain, the Phantasm, a sinister figure with a vengeful agenda.  Meanwhile, Andrea Beaumont, the one time love of Bruce Wayne’s life, returns to Gotham City stirring up memories including those of how he almost didn’t become Batman.  As all of this unfolds, and the Phantasm becomes a more imminent, lethal threat, the Joker is brought into the fold as a major wild card.  Now, can the Dark Knight elude the police, capture the Phantasm and clear his name?

If you’re unfamiliar with the 1990’s animated series, you need not worry.  This film works entirely as a standalone feature, but for those who were serious fans, there’s a great sense of expansion and increased depth that this film offers.  This is a great story interweaving all threads into an excellent Batman origin, romance, and superhero action movie.  The heart of it is the romantic and heartbreaking story between Bruce and Andrea.  It starts with so much hope and passion, but as with many of Bruce’s loves, it ends in despair and some tragedy.  It’s a beautifully crafted tale that does touch an audience’s heart, and truly shows the emotional depth and humanity of Bruce before and after he becomes Batman.

This film shows us the events leading directly up to Bruce Wayne actually becoming Batman.  I love seeing his first outing as a crime-fighter.  It’s just him in black street attire and a ski mask.  He has the skills, but not the persona, yet.  Batman hasn’t been born, and thus, the key essentially elements of intimidation and mystique aren’t in play.  He’s not the haunting creature of the night that will frighten the criminal element, and afterwards, Bruce realizes that is what he’s missing.  It’s a thrilling action scene as Bruce takes down a group of thieves, and then, hangs off the back of an open van during a police chase.  Yet, the very moment where Bruce Wayne dons the cowl and becomes Batman for the first time is a quintessential moment in my Batman fandom.  No other film has ever matched this moment for me.  Done wholly in shadows, it is a purely simple scene, but perfectly effective and iconic in my eyes.  When he turns to reveal himself to Alfred, the reaction from Bruce’s loyal and lifelong butler is pure shock and fear.  That still sends chills all over my body.

Now, I absolutely love how the stories of Bruce and Andrea intertwine.  The flashbacks to their hot and fast romance are beautiful and classy.  You can see that Bruce is ready to give up the vigilante nightlife to be happy with Andrea forever, but the shady elements of her father, Carl Beaumont’s business dealings forge an inevitable wedge between Bruce and Andrea.  Smartly, these elements are the core of the present day story between Batman and the Phantasm.  It’s also a great turn that the Phantasm’s murders are framed on Batman simply by misidentification.  This forces the Gotham Police to begin a manhunt against Batman, but strongly true to his character, Commissioner Gordon refuses to be apart of it.  He knows that Batman doesn’t kill, and that little moment shows the bond of trust between Gordon and the Dark Knight.  It’s only a shame that that is Gordon’s only scene in the film.  Every aspect of this story flows organically and tightly.  With a 76 minute runtime, it could move at no other or better pace.

By no doubt, Kevin Conroy has been the definitive voice of Batman for over two decades now for legions of fans.  Whenever I read a Batman comic book, it is his voice that I hear as Bruce Wayne and Batman.  Conroy reflects all the best qualities of the character from the upbeat playboy, the serious businessman, the dark, brooding man in the shadows, and the powerfully imposing Dark Knight.  The most important thing is he brings life, depth, and intelligence to Batman.  Producer Bruce Timm and co-writer Paul Dini perfectly understood the character, and throughout this DCAU from Batman: The Animated Series to Batman Beyond to Justice League Unlimited, they stayed true to the core of Batman.  The ideals of justice, humanity, and undying determination have always thrived in this animated interpretation.  Beyond anything else, we see the world’s greatest detective at work, which is something none of the live action films have ever fully embraced.  Batman unravels the mystery of the Phantasm and these crime bosses with cunning and perceptive intelligence.  Conroy embodies all of these subtle, inspiring, and engaging qualities of Batman with a lot of heart and care.  It might only be voice work, but this still stands as the best adaptation of the character to date.

And I couldn’t discount Mark Hamill’s Joker.  Much like with Conroy, he has been a definitive voice for the character to many fans for so long, but has had real competition from great actors in this role.  I am a fan of all versions from Ceasar Romero to Jack Nicholson and beyond.  With the Joker, there’s almost no wrong way to go with him because he is such a radically unpredictable character that he could be very Romero one day and very Ledger the next.  What Hamill does is make the Joker this insane clown who will do whatever hits the biggest punchline in his own twisted mind.  He will still likely kill you, but he’s going to laugh his ass off doing it.  Hamill brings the jovial zaniness meshed with a lethal intimidation that forges a colorful maniac that is endlessly fun and entertaining while still being a major threat.

Beyond the fact that I do really adore Dana Delany, I believe she was a perfect choice to voice Andrea.  She brings a touching beauty of heart and soul to the character.  As the younger Andrea, she’s very optimistic and vibrant.  She’s a young woman with everything to love and embrace in life.  In the present day, she’s a little more heartbroken and tender.  There’s a great emotional complexity to her by the end which is very sad and sympathetic.  Delaney is a wonderful, charming actress, and she does a remarkable job voicing Andrea Beaumont.

The animation style of this feature film is definitely a solid step upwards from the series with more dramatic shading, and a bit more dynamic action sequences.  The opening title sequence even features a beautiful CGI fly through of the Gotham City skyline.  The entire series was heavily inspired by the classic Max Fleisher Superman cartoons, and that is very evident, especially with the great art deco designs.  Adapting this style to Batman pushed everything into a great film noir realm that works stunningly for him.

The main theme from Danny Elfman for Tim Burton’s Batman movies lived on in this DC Animated Universe.  They were reworked by the great, and now late, Shirley Walker.  For this feature, she makes it even more gothic and haunting with a beautiful chorus.  Yet, that’s only just the start of her stunning work.  It’s a fantastic score that rouses an audience, and nails all over the wonderful emotional beats.

And there is plenty of thrilling action throughout this movie.  The Phantasm’s stalking of mob bosses are dark, shadowy, and even a little scary.  They have a looming, ominous presence.  The film unfolds some rousing and even explosive moments at a regular interval, but they entirely flow from the progression of the plot.  Nothing’s extraneous, and it really wastes no time crashing you headlong into the action and story.  The climax with Batman and the Joker at the abandoned World’s Fair is pretty fun.  It shows the Joker’s dangerous playfulness, and creates an escalating sense of peril as he has rigged the whole place to explode.  Yet, the movie ends on the appropriate emotional beats remembering that the story is paramount, and it treats its character with due respect.

Unlike many live action movies, this animated feature was given a lot of creative freedom to its production team, and they were able to deliver a very well fleshed out, wonderfully balanced story.  This is entirely reflective of the quality that was consistently on display with the animated series and its spin-offs and follow-ups.  If you’ve never seen Batman: The Animated Series, this is a great introduction to it, and if you’ve watched and loved it, this is a gem that will satisfy your fandom.  Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is a delightful and amazing animated Batman adventure that is well worth your time.


Shakedown (1988)

ShakedownSo, after watching The Exterminator this morning, I chose to follow that up with a 1988 entry into James Glickenhaus’ filmography starring Peter Weller and Sam Elliott.  Backed by Universal Pictures, this film is a warp speed jump ahead in polished filmmaking, tight storytelling, and an entertaining picture with lots of energizing action.  Yet, it has plenty of substance and strong characters realized by great actors.  Shakedown was a fun ride that I would like to share with you now.

When a local drug dealer shoots a dishonest cop in self-defense, lawyer Roland Dalton (Peter Weller) and renegade undercover cop Richie Marks (Sam Elliott) join forces to clear him.  But when their investigation leads them into a maze of greed and corruption, they learn that in a town where everything is for sale, anything can happen.  Amidst this, Dalton realizes the prosecutor in this, his last case, is a former love interest, the smart and sexy Susan Cantrell (Patricia Charbonneau).  Throughout the trial Roland rekindles this former affair with Susan unbeknown to his fiancée Gail (Blanche Baker).  All of this twists and turns around Dalton and Marks as they battle through the web of corrupt cops who’d sooner see them dead at every turn.

This is a top notch movie all the way through.  We’re given a story that is sharply put together that always holds your attention, and keeps something moving forward at a tight rhythm at all times.  There are enough interconnected threads to allow the film to do that, but not remotely so many as to complicate things.  The trial of the drug dealer ties into the corrupt dealings of these New York cops, and with Dalton being the central focus of this plot, his own personal relationships branch out from that.  So, there’s always something unfolding and weaving its way into the momentum of the story to keep that energy and pace up.  Yet, even though the film has a polished style, it still delves into that seedy underbelly of New York that James Glickenhaus enjoyed spotlighting in his films.  So, we get something sharp, sleek, and immensely entertaining while still having that underlining presence of the sleazier side of things.  Glickenhaus hits the mainstream with great success fueled by a very well written script, and a spectacular cast of talent at his disposal.

Peter Weller is just amazing in this movie.  As Roland Dalton, he’s a very charismatic and lively guy who loves his Jimi Hendrix and has plenty of enjoyable flare.  He’s a very relatable and intelligent character portrayed by an actor who exemplifies those qualities.  Weller works the courtroom scenes with compelling energy and sharp wit.  He also carries strong emotional and dramatic weight throughout the film.  The building romantic relationship with Susan is touchingly handled with beautiful chemistry.  It help creates a full, well-rounded character that has various aspects to his life that all tie into the threads of the plot.  Weller really does have the meat of screentime, and thus, properly gets top billing.  Weller’s character never shies away from action or danger in his pursuit of truth.  He regularly gets himself into dangerous scenarios, but is able to handle himself competently.  Weller takes all of this in stride melding together a very fascinating, dimensional, and entertaining character.  I loved watching him every minute he was on screen.

Of course, this takes nothing away from Sam Elliott who fits comfortably into this rugged loner.  Richie Marks is very grounded, soaked into the thick of the grit of the city.  We first meet him waking up in a 42nd Street grindhouse movie theatre with crack vials littering the floor, and brushing his teeth in the graffiti laden restroom.  This is a guy whose luck is just about dried up, but he’s still a solid cop that can rundown the worst the New York streets have to offer.  Sam Elliott was only 43 years old when he made this film, and so, his shaggy gray hair and beard make him look older and gruffer than he truly was.  Thus, he was still able to throw himself into some physically demanding action scenes, which are great.  Elliott has a sly personality and fine charisma that make Richie charming in contrast to the filthy environment he surrounds himself with.  He’s a straight arrow cop that knows the crooked dealings in the department, but until now, hasn’t had much motivation or back-up to do anything about it.

Elliott and Weller simply work excellently together.  It’s not the typical buddy cop formula where two conflicting personalities clash with a single purpose to bond them.  Dalton and Marks might be distinctly different in how they lead their lives, how they present each other, but they are similar-minded men of law and justice that don’t need convincing to join forces.  They’re friends from the outset, and we see they are more alike than superficial appearances would suggest.  The two actors are tight fits, and have a sharp chemistry and wit that keeps the film energetic and entertaining.

Every other actor in this film does a tremendous, expert job.  I’ve loved Larry Joshua in everything I’ve seen him in, and he portrays the main corrupt cop Rydell.  He’s got that streetwise, slimy quality mixed in with Joshua’s usual charismatic edge and energy.  Rydell is enjoyably corrupt with just the right amount of despicableness to make a villain you love to hate.  You really want to see him taken down well before the end  Patricia Charbonneau is excellent as Susan Cantrell.  She brings a lively vibe with her, but balances that with a solid, assertive dramatic presence in the courtroom scenes.  It’s a full, well-rounded performance that holds up strongly opposite Peter Weller.  Richard Brooks, who portrayed Paul Robinette on the first few seasons of Law & Order, portrays the drug dealing Michael Jones, and he is a really, strong fit for this role.  It’s also a very well written role that works very much to Brooks’ strengths, and he couldn’t be better.  And for those that love him, John C. McGinley has a brief energetic and funny role as a lawyer and friend of Dalton’s.  There are no weak links in this cast anywhere at all.

Shakedown also has some first rate action sequences.  Glickenhaus seems very proficient in this realm as he always finds a way to amp up the scene at some point beyond your expectations.  He never settles for the standard chase scene.  He adds something especially exciting on top of what already was a damn good sequence, and gives you that memorable punctuation.  I was genuinely blown away at the intensity and impact of many of these scenes.  They really deliver in full force on every bit of adrenalin and pay-off you’d expect from a solid action film.  And I love that the film easily balances the action with the drama of the story.  The struggle for justice in the courtroom is given as much poignancy as the crime on the street.  They go hand-in-hand with this story, and it’s great to see that both sides are executed equally as well making for a very satisfying narrative.

As I mentioned, there’s more to the film than just action.  With Roland, you can see that the relationship with his fiancée does have its turbulence, but doesn’t come off as something that’s falling apart.  He starts out as a man on the verge of changing his life with a new career and a wedding on the horizon.  However, the man that he is becomes anchored by Susan coming passionately back into his life both professional and intimately.  It strikes a sentimental and deep chord with Roland, and I love where the film takes him by the end.  It’s a very satisfying character arc, and it never feels clichéd or contrived.  It’s smartly written with touches of levity, tenderness, and honesty.  All of the dialogue in the film is smartly written highlighting personality throughout, and keeping things fresh, sharp, and entertaining.

Shakedown is also really damn well shot.  I liked the use of wide angle lenses which highlighted either the excellent scenery of New York, or simply enhanced some big, dramatic action shots.  The film has a slick, polished quality that still delves into the seedier areas of 42nd Street with the grindhouse theatre and a sleazy sex club.  We get some nice uses of light and shadow mixed with neon colors that create a solid atmosphere.  There is nothing here that is not shot superbly.  I find it amazing what good filmmakers could do with $6 million back in the 80s.  This film is high quality all the way with great authentic on-location shoots in New York, crane shots, steadicams, and just a big budget polish to everything while never losing an edginess or personality for the film.  The editing is also excellent.  Editor Paul Fried had a short career that ended the following year, and it’s a shame because I can’t levy a single critique against what he did here.  It’s an exemplary editing job from start to finish.  It’s tight and sharp hitting all the marks and beats dead-on-the-mark.

The music of Shakedown is also really good.  It’s a solid action score using more of a rock driven style that really complements the energetic quality of the film.  Jonathan Elias doesn’t have many notable credits to his name, but the fact that he worked alongside John Barry, the regular composer of the James Bond films through to The Living Daylights, is a big mark of quality in my eyes.  If this film is any example, he learned quite a lot from Barry, and applied to with his own style that couldn’t have been better for this film.  Add in a little Jimi Hendrix “Purple Haze” and a solid upbeat rock/pop tune to close out the film, and you’ve got something that is greatly appealing and fun.  It’s a shame no soundtrack was ever released for Shakedown, and that aforementioned end credits song “Lookin’ For Love” by Nikki Ryder is really nowhere to be found.

As if I need to say it, I really, really liked this movie!  It was a lot of fun, and it gave me entertaining, dimensional leads with a lot of fresh chemistry and charisma to offer.  I cannot reiterate it strongly enough that Peter Weller is stellar in every second of screentime here.  I loved the character and his performance.  Meanwhile, Sam Elliott delivered beautifully on his end of things.  Shakedown was decently successful on its theatrical release grossing $10 million from a $6 million budget, and I think it deserves exposure to a wider audience.  I rented this off of iTunes, which has the film available for purchase or rental in high-definition widescreen.  I was thoroughly satisfied with this movie, which was released in international markets as Blue Jean Cop, and this gets my full fledged recommendation.  I will be glad to add this to my DVD collection, and I hope you will give this 112 minutes of your time.  It’s an exciting, fun ride that has a lot to offer the action movie fan.


The Terminator (1984)

The TerminatorI have had a rather unusual view on The Terminator for the longest time.  I do consider it James Cameron’s best movie, and the best of this franchise.  These are for reasons of pacing and innovative filmmaking.  Yet, what I mainly consider this film as is not so much a science fiction movie, but essentially a techno-slasher film.  You’ve got a hulking, invincible juggernaut of a killer stalking and hunting down an innocent young woman.  That’s a bare bones plot description for both The Terminator and a Friday The 13th sequel.  The vibe of the movie is very relentless and evokes a very techno-horror hybrid ideology.  Beyond that quirk of perception, I do have many things to praise this film for that I feel James Cameron severely abandoned afterwards.

In the post-apocalyptic future of 2029, SkyNet, a super computer defense system wages a losing war against a human resistance which it is intent on exterminating.  In their desperation, the machines send an indestructible cyborg known as The Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) back in time to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), the woman whose unborn son will become mankind’s only hope.  In hopes of preserving humanity’s future, the human resistance sends soldier Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) back in time as well to protect Sarah.  But does he even stand a chance against the most unstoppable killing machine ever created?

Obviously, The Terminator has been widely praised since its release, and so, there’s not much I have to tell you that hasn’t already been said.  Regardless, most of these reviews are about what these films mean to me and the nature of cinema, in general.  James Cameron previously worked in the special effects world working on numerous lower budgeted pictures, but after a great deal of hard work and determination he scored his first major directorial job with this film.  The budget was tight, but with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s growing star power from the Conan films, there was a lot of credibility and weight put behind this.  Still, it wasn’t an easy task getting it made.  The restrictions of budget and resources really did work towards the film’s benefit.  It forced Cameron to be innovative and a bit of a guerilla filmmaker.  It’s a perfect example of better creativity through adversity.  As I mentioned in my Aliens review, I think once Cameron got a big budget and a lot of freedom as a filmmaker, he lost that edge and began to indulge in overly long films with far laxer pacing and storytelling techniques.  He was still innovative in the technical realm, but not so much in the creative one where tight storytelling was concerned.

What I find to be so intelligent and original with what Cameron did with The Terminator is how he maintained tension and a tight cohesion of the plot.  The main exposition in the film is dealt with in the midst of a car chase.  The excitement and danger are high, keeping the audience intently invested in every second, and Cameron uses that time for Kyle Reese to impart a great deal of exposition about himself, the T-800, and the future war.  In the vast majority of films, the exposition scene is a slow paced, quiet scene that is regularly the most derided scene in the film from the director’s perspective.  Cameron changes that all up, and makes it one of the most captivating scenes by melding it with an intense chase sequence.  From there, even the slower, character building scenes maintain some degree of urgency or dramatic electricity to never allow the film to lose your interest or attention.  If not in the hands of James Cameron’s innovative and visionary filmmaking talent, I could surely see this movie slipping down into a B-grade sci-fi film that you’d see premiere on late night Cinemax.  Believe me, those films do exist, and were heavily inspired by this far superior film.  Having the right director at the helm can make a severe difference in whether a movie is brilliance or cheap exploitation fare.

This film is expertly shot with strong, sharp focus on every detail and bit of action.  The night scenes are definitely gritty creating a dangerous edge and energy that wholly serves the tone and vibe of the picture.  It brilliantly reflects the “tech noir” theme of the movie, showing us the dark side of technology.  Cameron and his director of photography Adam Greenberg do a marvelous job all around.  All of the action is shot with skill, dramatic weight, and great storytelling ability.  Just in the way it is shot, The Terminator looks and feels like a 1984 film, and in all the best ways.  It might have its rough edges here and there, but they work so excellently towards the energy of the picture.  Overall, you can see the great, deliberate insert and close-up shots that establish and enhance the mood and tension of the film.  The slow motion sequences are beautifully and masterfully done creating so much tension and dramatic anticipation.  The editing of Mark Goldblatt is some of the tightest, most dead-on-the-mark work I’ve ever seen.  There’s not an extraneous frame anywhere in the runtime of this movie.  Every shot has purpose and cohesion to the kinetic and emotional beats of the story.  Action directors of today should go back and watch this movie to see how you competently direct, shoot, and edit an action sequence.   The car chases are great, but the entire police station massacre is insanely tense and masterfully shot and edited.  It’s a major action set piece of the film, and it could not have been executed any better than it was.  Yet, the climax is able to top that with a long series of action sequences from a car chase to the explosions to the final industrial plant confrontations.  It continues to hammer home the seemingly indestructible nature of the Terminator as it continues to come back from one fiery explosion after another.  It’s a frightening action climax where the monster simply will not die while our heroes continue to suffer more and more injuries hindering their ability to continue running away.

Michael Biehn is absolutely amazing as Kyle Reese.  What strikes me first is the weathered, war torn quality of his performance.  Reese does seem like a guy who has been through the darkest parts of hell on earth with both the psychological and physical scars to show for it.  Biehn also has great physical intensity such as during the initial car chase where Reese is imparting the exposition to Sarah.  There’s a depth of urgency, fear, and heart with every word he delivers.  It creates someone that’s not just an action centric soldier, but a man with a solid core of humanity.  The pain of Kyle Reese is deep seeded, and the trauma and pain that he has endured comes through in the texture of Biehn’s performance.  This is a guy who does initially seem like an intimidating threat, almost serial killer like, but that intensity and frayed exterior are molded into a fascinating, sympathetic character that an audience deeply cares for before too long.  Biehn’s romantic chemistry with Linda Hamilton is wonderful, and the tenderness that forms between them makes this so much more than just a testosterone fueled action picture.  It has a lot of depth that has always been a strength of James Cameron’s films.  He always seems to create very dimensional lead characters which enhance the nature of the films they populate.  Why Michael Biehn’s acting career didn’t soar to greater heights after this movie is a mystery to me.  It certainly did for Hamilton and Schwarzenegger.

It goes without saying that this was one of Arnold’s defining roles.  While Conan the Barbarian was a big success, this propelled him into a whole new level of stardom.  What he does at The Terminator was instantly iconic with only eighteen lines of dialogue.  The deliberate movement and restrained mannerisms he devised for this Terminator create a cold, threatening, dominating screen presence.  I have seen other lower grade actors attempt to approximate this sort of robotic performance, but Arnold just had something special.  It’s the whole package from his size and build to the choice of punk or leather attire to the calculating way he surveys a scene.  You can view a methodical yet relentless intelligence behind everything the Terminator does, and Schwarzenegger just hit it perfectly on the mark.  There’s not a moment where you don’t take him as a serious, menacing threat, and after that is all solidly established by him, it carries over seamlessly when the flesh is burnt off and it’s just Stan Winston’s animatronic endoskeleton.  While almost everyone seems to love when Arnold does the cheesy action films, I feel his best work is in the more serious roles because it creates a challenge for him.  He has to dedicate himself to a far stronger character, and create something that stands out in a dramatic fashion.  There are a lot of cheesy action heroes out there, but not many who can pull off the really serious, iconic roles such as Conan, the Terminator, or Dutch in Predator.  Arnold can do both equally well, and that’s much of why he’s the action movie legend that he is today.

This film was especially pivotal to Linda Hamilton’s career, and the reasons why are vibrantly evident.  While, as Sarah Connor, we see a great deal of panic and fear, it is all mixed in with a genuine sense of humanity.  Sarah’s an average woman thrust into an extraordinarily intense and dangerous scenario, but ultimately, we see her inner strength shine through.  When you first see her as a lowly waitress, you could never imagine she could come to survive and fight through this frightening, lethal experience with as much resilience as she ultimately displays.  Hamilton gives us the full spectrum of emotion in an impressive dimensional performance that also adds in a layer of romanticism.  The build up to the love scene between Sarah and Kyle is beautifully touching, and would be able to squeeze tears out of the more emotional audience members.  That tenderness and depth of love and passion triggers the greater strength of the film that I mentioned before.  It is a love scene that is not there for the sake of skin and titillation, but for the sake of love itself.  At the film’s end, you can see the subtle seeds of what we will see Sarah become in Terminator 2: Judgment Day.  In this film, Linda Hamilton is absolutely excellent giving us a sympathetic and strong character that stands the test of time.

And I have to mention the excellent performances of Lance Henriksen and the late Paul Winfield.  Henriksen has some great humorous dialogue that is just enough off-kilter to be memorable.  We’re so used to seeing Henriksen playing rather dark, disturbed characters, and so, it is a wonderful treat seeing him enjoy this upbeat, charismatic character.  Winfield was always a stellar, sophisticated acting talent, and while Lieutenant Traxler has his streetwise qualities, he is a compassionate and intelligent commanding officer.  He strikes the perfect balance between entertaining, charming character and capable, seasoned cop.  Many films like this would paint all the cops as unlikeable fools, somewhat like Dr. Silberman is (appropriately enough), but instead, Cameron maintains his sense of humanity in these characters along with casting superb actors to realistically embody those qualities.

While the animatronics, stop motion, and optical effects work largely appears dated next to today’s sleeker digital effects, especially with the work done in the sequels, I think that gritty, rough edged effects work here benefits the overall style and feel of this movie.  The stop motion animation in the climax evokes more of that techno-horror feeling taking the scary skeleton of the haunted house and meshing it with a dark science fiction menace.  Stan Winston did an amazing job with all the physical effects further cementing his stature as an effects wizard and master of creature designs.  Having clocked in stunning work with the Terminator, Predator, and Alien franchises, his quickly earned legendary status is no surprise.  The visual effects were handled by Fantasy II, and for a mid-80s low budget science fiction picture, they did an excellent job.  Combined with Cameron’s vibrant vision, they achieved something that really grabbed audiences’ attention at that time, and truly captivated their imagination.  The brief future war sequences are stellar.  The only thing I ever mark as a negative is the use of rear screen projection, which Cameron would use again in Aliens.  It just never looks convincing, especially when compared to good quality blue screen composites.  Regardless of that, these were very eye-opening effects in 1984, and they entirely serve the film’s dark, gritty tone.

The synthesizer based score done by Brad Fiedel encapsulates that tense, dark atmosphere of The Terminator.  The compositions alone are excellent, and the main theme has become iconic.  The use of the metallic percussion reflects the cold, mechanical heart of the Terminator, and gives us a rather chilling, ominous feeling whenever it appears.  So many other cues are done with great feel for the intensity of their respective sequences maintaining the weight of the drama and action.  Many instances again evoke a high tension horror atmosphere such as whenever the Terminator is seconds away from killing Sarah.  The synthesizer sound perfectly fits for a 1984 tech-noir action film as it simply enhances that oppressive technological theme, and is an obvious sign of the times.  However, it can get elegant and beautiful during the aforementioned love scene.  Fiedel takes that heavy, almost claustrophobic type main theme, and rearranges it into a piano love theme that is sad, touching, and wonderfully gorgeous.  While Fiedel would blow it out of the water with his work on Terminator 2: Judgment Day, what he does here is a solid, excellent fit for the kinetic energy and tense danger that is so tightly wrapped in this film while highlighting the depth that the film has to offer.

The Terminator is really amazingly well written.  As I said, Cameron is able to raise the concept above the standard action movie fare by injecting dimension and emotional depth into his story and characters.  They live and breathe as realistic people that an audience can attach themselves to, and that makes the rather fantastical story gritty, believable, and gripping.  The dialogue is honest and real showcasing distinct personalities that leave a lasting impression, and with the stellar casting, it couldn’t be any more pitch perfect.  It’s not just those iconic one-liners from Schwarzenegger or Biehn that make it great.  It’s every nuanced quality of the characters and depth of the story being told that have made The Terminator a classic.  Arnold Schwarzenegger has done movies with far more quotable dialogue, but they do not match the filmmaking quality and intelligence of this one.  That is all due to the innovative creativity and artistic talent of James Cameron.

James Cameron had a vibrant vision for this movie, and was intensely driven to realize it on film.  While he hasn’t lost vision, I do think he’s lost a number of exciting qualities that made The Terminator so exceptional.  He used to be able to tell amazing and captivating stories in innovative and exciting ways.  Even if the storytelling rhythm and cohesion became more lax in his subsequent films, we were still treated to things we hadn’t seen before, and were given stories that ignited our imaginations while still touching us deep in our hearts.  The Terminator is an excellent example of what made Cameron a fascinating and awesome filmmaker for many years.  However, as his budgets got bigger and his ego became overinflated, I just think he stopped caring about the story and characters, and was just more enamored with the evolution of visual effects and filmmaking technology.  I would really wonder if someone gave James Cameron a $6.4 million budget today, could he still make a film as well made as this one.

This if my favorite film of the entire Terminator franchise, and I consider it the best film James Cameron has made.  This is for the reasons of the tightness of the storytelling where not a scene, moment, or frame is wasted.  While even Terminator 2 took the time it needed to tell the story it had to tell, I just love the relentless momentum of this movie.  It has its character building scenes wrapped up nicely between and within the action sequences.  No part of the film ever drags on.  Coupled with all the amazing talents from the actors to the special effects mastery to the cinematography and editing, The Terminator is a lightning strike of stardom and awesomeness.  I take nothing away from its 1991 blockbuster sequel, but there is just something so riveting about the lean and smart storytelling in this film that sets it apart for me.  It’s that guerilla filmmaker mentality of better creative through adversity and budgetary restraints that sparks my love for The Terminator.  Cameron showed the talent he had despite the restrictions of the production, and made a big impact when this hit theatres.  Everyone who worked on the film believed strongly in it and Cameron’s ability to make it happen.  It’s that ambition and hard working dedication which can set the exceptional filmmakers apart from all the others.  This is a film that should be on every action and science fiction film fan’s must-see list.  And while it’s not my favorite Schwarzenegger movie, it is one of his best.


Deception (2008)

DeceptionI’ve really liked this film ever since its theatrical release.  It didn’t get good reviews, and was a bomb taking in only $17 million out of its $25 million budget.  It continues to show me that while I may love erotic thrillers, they are rarely marketable to a mass audience.  However, the sexual aspects of this film are a backdrop for what I view as a fairly solid twisting thriller.  What engages me about Deception are the performances of its leads in Hugh Jackman, Ewan McGregor, and Michelle Williams, and the rich, stunning neo noir cinematography by Danté Spinotti.  The latter is no surprise as he has shot many Michael Mann films including Manhunter and Heat.  I find Deception to be an intriguing thriller that is heavily aided by that striking visual atmosphere, and some smart directing from Marcel Langenegger.

Jonathan McQuarry (Ewan McGregor) is an auditor in Manhattan, moving from office to office checking the books of various companies.  While working late, a smooth, well-dressed lawyer named Wyatt Bose (Hugh Jackman) chats Jonathan up, offers him a joint, and soon they’re pals.  Jonathan is a very lowly, modest man, but Wyatt soon opens him up to a world of pleasurable desires and sexual confidence.  When their cell phones are accidentally swapped, Jonathan answers Wyatt’s phone to a series of women asking if he’s free tonight.  He soon discovers it’s a sex club where busy, powerful people meet each other anonymously in hotels for discrete encounters.  However, he fully breaks all the rules when he falls for one of the club members, whom he knows only as “S” (Michelle Williams), whom he’s also seen on a subway.  Yet, during an intimate night out, she goes missing, patterns emerge, and Jonathan faces demands involving violence, murder, treachery, and a large sum of money.

An excellent neo noir tone of mystery and isolation is struck right from the beginning with the quiet and moody opening title sequence.  It’s just Jonathan sitting in a conference room, alone, late at night, but the vibe just sinks in very deeply to establish his isolated nature.  He’s isolated from the world around him, always removed from the activity of the offices he’s working at, and has no real social life to speak of.  The film is very regularly set in at nighttime inside clubs, hotels, offices, taxicabs, and elsewhere allowing for that dark, subversive tone to seep in.  However, even the daytime scenes have a certain drained quality that maintain that atmosphere.  The visual tone eases up just enough in those moments allowing you to not get bogged down by the visual darkness.  What we get, overall, is a multi-toned film that moves from that lonely isolation to a lively and exciting world that is full of mysterious passion, but then, segues into a very heartfelt romantic connection that becomes the emotionally motivating element of the story.  From there, it delves fully into the tense and threatening first, main twist of the film where our villain reveals his true colors.

Within only fifteen minutes, the film establishes a strong relationship between Jonathan and Wyatt.  It hits all the right beats fleshing out their personalities with quick, substantive exchanges, and showing us how Wyatt just pushes Jonathan out far enough to take some chances.  He opens Jonathan’s mind to being outgoing and perceiving the pleasures that one can indulge in, when the opportunities arise.  This then sets Jonathan off on his own seductive, sexually charged encounters that really liven up his life.  The sex and nudity are never raunchy.  Everything has a beauty, vigor, and sensual quality that is very elegant and classy.  We are given context for this anonymous sex club as it is something for the excessively busy successful person to gain “intimacy without intricacy,” as Charlotte Ramplings’ Wall Street Belle states to Jonathan.  Still, for someone like Maggie Q’s Tina, there’s a compulsion to the danger of being with someone mysterious and anonymous.  It has an attraction and outlet for almost anyone, and for Jonathan, it builds a more confident man.  However, as I said, the erotic elements are merely a backdrop, a facilitating plot element that surrounds the film, but never dominates it.  They tie directly back into the plot regularly, and the sex scenes are never gratuitous.  They all serve a purpose towards the development of the story or characters.  Most erotic thrillers use sex scenes as frivolously as many lower grade action films use action sequences.  When they have relevance to the story, they work, but when they are just there to fill the skin quota, that’s when you’ve got a late night Skinemax flick.  Deception surely and thankfully fits into the former category.

Furthermore, there is nothing wasted in the run time of this film.  The pace is tight with an even rhythm and stellar editing.  The plot develops very organically, and progresses without a hitch.  It’s never too brisk to sacrifice character, but never lags at the cost of the story.  Every aspect of the characters and plot fit in snugly, and propel the narrative forward in every scene.  The filmmakers knew how far to weave their plot threads, and never stretched them out or rushed through anything.  It’s all evenly balanced to achieve the right pace.  The story is rather lean, and maybe some would prefer a little more proverbial meat on the bone of the script.  However, it really didn’t require or demand more.  What we are given works very well giving us enough substance to make this a full narrative, and avoiding any over complicated indulgences or dragged out sections of the film.  We are given a few well placed twists that are well earned, and more importantly, are setup with care and intelligence.  The little seeds of knowledge are laid out here and there to make the deceptions solid and convincing.  All the qualities of the narrative flow together very smoothly and smartly.  The second half of the film shows Jonathan’s development as he has the confidence to take action against Wyatt, and become a more capable protagonist when under pressure.  I also think the development of the romantic relationship between Jonathan and S is done beautifully, and brings a warm levity to the right parts of the film.  This really sets the film apart from other seductive thrillers as they rarely feature a genuinely decent and charming romantic storyline.  Ultimately, it is this element that the film is most concerned with, and does continue to make it a point of importance for the characters.

Ewan McGregor is an actor that I have a true fondness for.  While I haven’t seen many of his movies, I do find him an exceptional talent who always shows dedication and enthusiasm for his work.  As Jonathan McQuarry, he demonstrates a very modest quality.  He’s clearly a man of humble upbringings that’s never been adventurous or daring.  His new sexual experiences do energize him, but don’t taint the man he is underneath.  He matures into a fuller person not held back by his old timid hesitations, but never loses the decency and heart that define him.  When he meets and gets to know S, he is genuinely enamored by her in a touching, heartfelt way.  McGregor embodies these endearing qualities authentically and with all the kind-hearted charm possible.  There’s nothing disingenuous about his performance.  It all comes straight from the heart, and when Jonathan’s forced into the more adversarial aspects of the film, the tension and fearful weight of the plot are carried wonderfully by him.  He makes for an engaging and sympathetic protagonist.

I am also highly impressed by Hugh Jackman here, as I usually am.  He’s also an actor I believe has incredible talent, and he really sinks his teeth into this role.  He starts out as a somewhat charming individual who enjoys indulging in all the lustful pleasures of life.  He’s charismatic and quite the arrogant jackass, but he’s able to ensnare Jonathan out of his shell with temptations of new, daring experiences.  Despite Wyatt’s abrasive ego, you are able to accept him as an intriguing instigator of excitement in Jonathan’s life.  Now, I don’t believe I’ve seen Jackman portray a full-on villain before, but he is intensely intimidating as one here.  His manipulative turn later in the film is dark and devilish.  There’s enough mystery about his character to make him threatening, but when you find out what he is capable of, that only backs up and enhances the severe, frightening qualities of Jackman’s character and performance.  Overall, I think he relished playing every facet of this character, and it really shows through while never betraying the grounded weight of the film.  Being a producer on the movie I’m sure only benefitted the quality of his on-screen work.

Michelle Williams puts on a beautiful performance, reflecting her own gorgeous physical beauty.  She brings out a warm, soulful depth of heart to S.  She just glows on screen with her bright smile and sweet presence.  She also presents a sexually confident woman who is sensual and seductive, but not aggressive.  Williams has a sparkling, heartfelt chemistry with Ewan McGregor that is the shining quality of this film.  They play off each other with such genuine loving emotion that you truly feel how special this is for both characters.  She is able to convey a rich array of emotions that really forge a connection with the audience in relation to Jonathan.  She is a vibrant ray of light that gives this film an endearing emotional weight that we are regularly reminded of, and really has resonance in the end.

The score was done by Ramin Djawadi, who also later scored the Denzel Washington-Ryan Reynolds thriller Safe House, and he is amazingly consistent in his style and quality.  As I mentioned in my Safe House review, his compositions are very evocative of the scores heard in many Michael Mann films such as Collateral.  Meshed with Spinotti’s cinematography, that couldn’t have created a more desirable result for me.  Djawadi does an impeccable job layering in tension, suspense, and an alluring, elegant mystique to the film.  It’s just a work of excellence, in my view, and I’m glad to experience his work regularly on the TV series Person of Interest.  He puts so much depth and lush sensuality into the Deception score, and I highly recommend checking out the soundtrack release.

Deception was partially shot on digital video giving a bold, clear visual quality to all these dark environments, and this film pushes the visual darkness to a new, deep level.  The strip club scene early on has rich, pristine colors.  Yet, other scenes are more muted mostly utilizing soft greens and ambers to evoke a very inviting visual mood.  Danté Spinotti’s cinematography just makes such gorgeous use of color, as he’s been doing since Manhunter, and his camera work and compositions are stunningly beautiful.  This man makes art out of every frame using light, shadow, movement, and depth of field to masterful extent and detail.  The Chinatown sequence is a special favorite of mine that motivated me to visit Chicago’s Chinatown shortly after the film’s release.  The Chinese architecture and visual culture really creates a romantic mystique for Jonathan and S’s most engaging encounter.  Deception has a visual style that really is a feast and a pleasure for my eyes.  It sets my artistic filmmaking imagination on fire.  Now, I will admit that the first few times I saw the movie, the scenes in Spain at the end left me wanting from a visual standpoint.  The rest of the movie was so rich with seductive atmosphere and shadowy moodiness that the soft, muted quality of the daytime scenes in Spain didn’t do much for me.

The ending in general, story wise, left me a bit unsatisfied for a while as well.  I won’t spoil anything here, but I will say that the film deserved a stronger, more intense pay-off.  It could’ve used a more personal and emotionally charged comeuppance in light of everything that Jackman’s character had done.  On early viewings, it did lack an especially impactful punctuation to that aspect of the story.  Ultimately, it’s focused on the relationship between Jonathan and S, and I can surely accept that as a vital part of the story.  I just felt that the ending we got just didn’t have as much resonance as I would have wanted between McGregor and Jackman.  I’m not sure what that resolution would be, but it seemed like it needed a little more build up and pay-off.  Of course, on repeated viewings, I have been able to easily accept it by way of familiarity.  I still would prefer a stronger resolution to the adversarial conflict of the film, but I can enjoy the film quite well as it is today.

Regardless of this, I still feel that screenwriter Mark Bomback, along with creative input by director Marcel Langenegger, put together a very well crafted and sharply written script.  The characters are fully developed and vibrantly inhabit this world and the story, and the plot is tightly wrapped around them.  I think the character of Jonathan McQuarry has a wonderful arc that allows him to fully break free of his meek shell, and into a bright world of possibilities.  Yet, he has to trudge through a dangerous and seductive world to get there, but it’s an evolution that he earns.  The deceptions that weave into the story are very cleverly threaded, and culminate in some chilling, intimidating moments that sell the danger Jonathan becomes trapped in.  It’s surely not the greatest mystery of all time, but for someone that just cannot write a mystery to save his life, I have to commend someone when they achieve a rather intelligently written manipulative tale.

So, the big critics didn’t like it, and many didn’t care to give it a chance.  I’m not saying it’s some unsung gem of cinema, but Deception is a fine film handled with care by a lot of exceptional filmmaking talents.  I really like the narrative it tells, and the qualities of emotion and heart it focuses on in our loving leads.  Unlike many dark, edgy, and dangerous thrillers, it doesn’t delve you into the gritty violence or erotic sleaze.  It’s an elegantly made film enveloped in a very shadowy, sultry world of treachery and passion.  If you have an appreciation for neo noir, I highly recommend this film for the gorgeous, brilliant cinematography alone.  Still, there’s plenty to enjoy and find beauty in, and being a major fan of crime thrillers, I’m very pleased to see this film go into some different directions and find something other than fractured souls and tragic crimes.  Of course, that clearly means I’m going to have to review some more Michael Mann movies shortly.


Highlander: The Final Dimension (1994)

Coming three years after the disaster that was Highlander 2: The Quickening, this sequel absolutely plays it safe.  It also demonstrates a lack of ambition or originality in how much it directly borrows from the first movie without even disguising it.  The highly successful television series starring Adrian Paul as Duncan MacLeod was already on the air, but the producers of the franchise decided to give Connor MacLeod another theatrical outing.  It surely doesn’t measure up to the first film, as it is a formulaic sequel, but it is an enjoyable film that did have some good potential.

In 16th century Japan, immortal Scotsman Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert) is mentored by the sorcerer and master of illusion Nakano (Mako).  However, when an evil, ravaging immortal named Kane (Mario Van Peebles) raids a nearby village, and comes looking for the sorcerer, the ensuing quickening from Nakano’s death seals Kane and his minions in the mountain cave for the next four centuries.  In present day, an excavation is underway to determine the truth of the legend of Nakano, headed up by archaeologist Alexandra Johnson (Deborah Unger).  However, this excavation aids Kane in his escape from the cave, and immediately begins his search for MacLeod.  Since his defeat of the Kurgan, Connor has adopted a son, but also, lost his wife Brenda to a car accident which he survived without a scratch.  He’s known he was not the last immortal, and now, he knows that it is Kane who still lives.  Both Connor MacLeod and Kane travel to New York, the site of the Gathering, to do battle and claim The Prize once and for all.

This story is fairly good, but would even be rather average for the television series.  It’s nothing exceptional or stunning.  It’s not trying to do anything original or break new ground for the franchise, and it knows it.  It’s more playing around in the world of Highlander, having a little bit of fun, but not trying to build upon anything.  As with the previous sequel, gone is the sense of magic and mystery.  Connor MacLeod is still portrayed well by Christopher Lambert, still injecting some charm and confidence into the role.  However, it really is that sense of world weariness that made him captivating to begin with.  You could feel the weight and aura of centuries lived in Lambert’s performance.  It gave the character depth and texture.  Here, all that is absent, and instead, we get a much more standard protagonist who is enjoyable, yet lacks gravitas to really draw in an audience.  The thing is with this movie is that it feels like a second rate version of Highlander, but in the least, it never takes itself too seriously for too long.  This is mainly by way of the character of Kane.

Mario Van Peebles is an excellent talent in front of and behind the camera, and I know this is not representative of his highest acting qualities.  There are both positives and negatives to say about his performance as Kane.  How you take his performance is based on how you want to perceive the movie.  In general, he’s basically a carbon copy of the Kurgan only not written as well, and portrayed with an especially over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek mentality.  Van Peebles even puts on a very gravely Kurgan-esque voice as Kane, which bares next to no resemblance to his natural voice.  As Kane, he certainly has formidable moments where we see how lethal and vile Kane truly is, solidifying his weight and threat as a villain.  However, Van Peebles is entirely indulging himself in this role, and if you choose to view the film as a fun, lightweight flick, you can certainly find enjoyment from this performance.  Mario Van Peebles is clearly enjoying living in the skin of this villain with his performance bordering on campy.  He’s certainly a long way off from chewing as much scenery as Bruce Payne did in Highlander: Endgame, though.  Still, Kane is written with some rather unrealistic dialogue.  For a guy that’s been buried in a cave for the last four hundred years, he certainly has picked up late twentieth century slang quite swiftly in addition to learning how to drive a car.  Throughout the film, even in the sixteenth century scenes, he entirely comes off like a modern villain instead of one displaced in time and culture.

Also, while the design of Kane is pretty awesome with the long hair, goatee, and tattoos, I think the nipple rings are just a tad too much.  They are on both his armor and himself, and just make Kane more modern looking than he should be.  Thankfully, we’re not exposed to them long as Kane adopts some very good looking Asian style threads.  It again comes off as an attempt to emulate the style of the Kurgan, but with a 90s flavor.  I really do believe Kane could’ve been taken in a much more credible direction, and made for a slightly more original and straightly serious villain.  Instead, the filmmakers chose the route of levity.  Still, there are other issues which hold the film down from being as good as it could have been.

Regardless, whether you call this The Final Dimension or The Sorcerer, this does feel more like the kind of sequel one would expect.  It follows up on the police investigation threads from the first movie, and uses footage and dialogue from the original to further the story and character points forward.  It might seem a little frivolous at times, but I don’t have much of a gripe with it.  I like how this was done in Endgame as well.  However, there is flashing back to the first movie for context, and then, there’s badly copying scenes from that same movie.

Such is the case when Kane goes on a psychotic joy ride with Connor’s adopted son.  It’s a real poor excuse considering none of the danger is actually real, just an illusion generated by Kane.  It’s a pathetic and blatant attempt to recapture something awesome from the first film while doing it with only a fraction of the talent. Even if done nearly as well, it would still be lame because it’s a retread instead of trying to do something original.  Even kidnapping a loved one of Connor’s to force a final confrontation also emulates what the Kurgan did in the first movie.  It is stuff like this which make this movie a pale imitation of the original Highlander.

I will give credit to the aspect of the police investigation.  Lieutenant John Stenn remembers the original string of beheadings, and who the sole suspect was at the time.  With MacLeod back in town with a new beheading, he immediately puts it all back together.  It is a part of this story that makes the film feel like a continuation of the first, and I do feel it was well done.  Stenn has an understandable contempt for MacLeod, and is quite dogged about his investigation.  It is a pretty good performance by actor Martin Neufeld.

Deborah Unger is very good in her dual roles.  However, I do find the entire aspect of Alex bearing a dead-on resemblance to a centuries past lost love of Connor’s to be unnecessary and a little forced.  The romantic relationship between Alex and Connor could’ve easily worked without that odd connection, and possibly could’ve had more time to develop without those flashbacks.  I think this idea was only there so that the filmmakers could have occasional flashback sequences to better resemble the style of the original movie.  It’s not badly handled, but it does feel like a diversion from the actual relevant aspects of the plot.

Regardless, Unger does a very fine job as the film’s female lead.  Her performance is very grounded showing a fine range of levity, passion, and dramatic weight.  She carries herself very solidly, and works very well opposite Lambert.  Also, Deborah Unger is probably the sexiest, most sultry looking woman of the Highlander films.  She even insisted on not using a body double for the fully nude and steamy sex scene late in the film.  While the romantic storyline between Connor and Alex doesn’t develop as strongly as other Highlander loves have, it is serviceable, and nicely played by both actors.

I will also hand it to this film’s cinematographer.  This is a very well shot and well lit movie.  The bowels of the hospital where Connor encounters Kane’s henchman has some gorgeous blues and oranges creating a beautiful atmosphere.  Overall, we get some very cinematic camera angles and movement with stellar work when it comes to the action sequences and sword fights.  While the film lacks the epic grandeur and sweeping visual quality that was a given with Russell Mulcahy, I will give it credit for looking quite a bit better than your usual 1990s fare from Dimension Films.  This can possibly be credited to director Andy Morahan being primarily a music video director, same as where Mulcahy started out.  He knows how to capture great visuals, and that is in no dispute here.  Although, it seems Morahan never broke out from music videos.  This was his first feature film, and he’s not done much of anything else outside of music videos ever since.  He directs this film pretty well, handling the action, drama, and levity of it very evenly.  It certainly isn’t an example of a breakout directorial debut, but there have been far worse action filmmakers out there who have had bigger careers making lower quality films.  So, I will say that this is a decent first outing for Morahan.

As far as action goes, I actually think the film’s best sword fight is not the climax, but when Connor and Kane fight inside the former Buddhist temple.  It’s a very dynamic fight with some great physical and dialogue exchanges.  With the duel being on Holy Ground, it ends in a very startling way as the blades of Connor and Kane’s swords shatter.  It shows one ominous way such betrayals of the rules are dealt with.  The final climactic duel is a well executed sequence with great cinematography and good effects.  It is very physically intense.  However, it has one stinging point I will get to momentarily.

The orchestral score by J. Peter Robinson is very good.  I particularly enjoyed the Japanese and Middle Eastern flourishes at the appropriate moments creating a unique musical atmosphere.  The score is very thrilling and vibrant with a plenty of character.  What I have a problem with is the clunky use of second rate hard rock songs in this film.  With the original movie, Queen naturally brought an epic and emotionally rich depth to the film with their songs alongside Michael Kamen’s gorgeous score.  Highlander 2 essentially focused only on Stewart Copeland’s grand, operatic score.  With this film, these rock songs are just bad and obnoxious, and don’t complement Robinson’s score at all.  The worst part comes in the climactic battle between Kane and MacLeod.  Someone recorded a blatant knock-off of Mötley Crüe’s “Dr. Feelgood,” and it terribly degrades the entire climax.  I’m sure Robinson could’ve composed something beautifully dramatic and triumphant instead of that schlock.  Where the filmmakers get it right with the licensed music is with Loreena McKennitt’s version of “Bonny Portmore.”  This is a gorgeous and deeply emotional song which would become a staple of the franchise from here on out.  I really adore its beauty.

On the up side, the visual effects are very good.  During the 90s, movie goers were treated to a lot of primitive CGI, but this movie really gives us some good quality effects.  The illusions of Nakano and Kane are given a great, magical look that flow very smoothly with the on-screen action.  There’s nary a bad effect anywhere in the film, save for the quickening flashing across the Moroccan desert sky.  Otherwise, this really is some beautiful work.

Although, I think the filmmakers kind of took a wide liberty with the term “illusion.”  An illusion shouldn’t allow Kane to transform into a bird and fly away.  Even the ability to create solid objects from either Kane or Nakano is arguable as an illusion.  They should’ve just came out and said it was straight up magic.  Although, I know even that gets into a muddled area in that, if it is full-on magic, why would it be that either man can do only so little with the power.  Nether of them is exactly Merlin casting spells and unleashing epic, fantastical wizardry.  So, it’s a real strange line to walk, and is probably best not to scrutinize it.  Still, this is a review, and that’s what I’m meant to do.

I think what this film lacks the most is depth.  Emotions don’t run very deep, and we don’t really get much under the skin of these characters.  Again, Connor doesn’t feel like the same textured and fascinating character we had from the first Highlander.  I hate to continually make comparisons back to the first movie, but this film begs so much comparison that it is impossible to avoid it.  Nakano is a decent character, but has really no depth of any kind to offer.  The late Mako was very beloved in certain fandoms, but I don’t find his performance here very inspiring.  Whether or not you compared him to Sean Connery’s Ramirez, he is quite forgettable.  The film does have its moments of touching beauty and decent depth, but it does entirely feel like the filmmakers playing it safe.  They are not trying to dig into the soul of their characters, and that’s really a major mistake.  Case in point would be the French Revolution flashbacks would have worked so much better if there was more substance to grasp onto.  We get only glimpses of Connor and Sarah being in love.  It’s very weakly presented, and since it bares no relevance or impact upon the main plot with Connor and Kane, the filmmakers don’t spend great amounts of time on it.  I’m certainly not saying this is a terrible script, just a mediocre one that could’ve had better potential in more talented and motivated hands.  It worked for a fun action adventure film, but against the brilliant standards set with the original movie, it’s undoubtedly mediocre.

I had intended to offer some comparison between the director’s cut and the European cut of the film, but any differences are very minor.  The director’s cut adds in some more effects shots to enhance Kane’s sorcery, most notably with his arrival in New York being via a portal instead of just walking out on the docks as if he traveled by ship.  At the end, the European version excises the reuse of effects shots from Connor winning The Prize in the first Highlander that were present in both the theatrical and director’s cuts.  Sadly, the only change in the soundtrack comes at the end credits where the director’s cut has another bad hard rock track while the European cut features “Bonny Portmore” once again.  Both cuts are available on Region 1 DVD.  The original 1998 DVD has the true director’s cut, but the 2005 and 2011 DVDs, which claim to also be the “Special Director’s Cut,” are actually the European version only with the opening title card changed from Highlander III: The Sorcerer to Highlander: The Final Dimension.  I would lean towards buying the newer DVD since the film is given the anamorphic widescreen treatment resulting in vastly superior picture quality.  The image is clearer and colors are much more vibrant.  So, I am glad to have purchased it, regardless of there being no dramatic differences in the content of the film.

Ultimately, Highlander III is that sequel in the franchise that doesn’t get much attention.  The others have very notable issues that are hotly contested amongst fans, but this one keeps a low profile despite also having its fair share of mild problems.  While it surely doesn’t re-ignite the magic that the original movie captured, it’s a fun, disposable film that has its merits, but ultimately, can be forgotten about without a problem.  As is the difficulty in making a sequel to the original, where it ended definitively, the filmmakers had to indulge in a cheap end-runaround to make a sequel where there are still immortals out there.  Again, if you’re looking just for a fun movie that’s not going to take itself too seriously, then you can enjoy this movie.  I do find it entertaining but lacking in substance.  In my opinion, it’s a step in a better direction than Highlander 2: The Quickening, but not as good as what was being done on the television series at the time.


Wolf (1994)

Good werewolf movies are very hard to come by.  That was until I came across Wolf a few years ago.  Fronted by two amazingly electric actors in Jack Nicholson and James Spader along with a very tantalizing Michelle Pfeiffer, I couldn’t love this film more.  It’s a different approach that is far more modern and character driven with these supernatural aspect slowly weaved into the plot.

Worn down and out of luck, aging publisher Will Randall (Jack Nicholson) is at the end of his rope when his co-worker and protégé, Stewart Swinton (James Spader), snatches both his job and wife out from under his nose.  However, after being bit by a wolf on a snowy road, Will suddenly finds himself energized, more competitive than ever, and possessed with amazingly heightened senses.  Meanwhile, Laura Alden (Michelle Pfeiffer), the beautiful daughter of his shrewd boss, begins to fall for him – without realizing that the man she’s begun to love is gradually turning into the creature by which he was bit.

As should go without saying, Jack Nicholson is excellent in this movie.  He gives us a performance that is mostly low key with modest manner and sense of heart.  He’s a man living a less than stellar life, and that downtrodden feeling seeps into the cracks of the performance.  There’s also the increasing worry about his wolf bite that truly begins to affect Will adversely.  However, of course, Nicholson is able to turn on his mojo and even delve into a feral side that is fierce and primal.

It’s slightly humorous how the enhanced senses manifest in Will Randall.  There’s a few funny moments, like being able to smell the tequila on a co-worker early in the morning, or how he doesn’t even realize that he can read perfectly without his reading glasses.  However, it takes a more unsettling turn when he can start hearing far away voices throughout his office complex.  Still, the film is able to maintain an occasional sense of levity mostly from the charisma of Nicholson and Spader.  I love how the wolf instincts make Will more aggressive, able to take stand against his co-workers and boss.  He becomes a man of bravado and cutthroat actions instead of a weaker willed pushover that he was.  So, at first, this is all a good change in his character, but gradually, the wolf bite effects begin to take a more ferocious and bloodletting turn.

James Spader is wonderfully sleazy, as appears to be his regular strength, as Will’s apprentice / rival.  Stewart is conniving and deceitful with no ethical or moral compass.  He’s a real snake in the grass that will smile to your face while stabbing you in the back, and Spader makes it a richly enjoyable performance.  He really excels in these kinds of roles, portraying them pitch perfect to make the character detestable while still being wholly entertaining.  Awesomely, he gets the chance to just go full boar with it by the end with a very fearsome performance.  This really is all the vile, juicy Spader you could ever want.

It’s surprising how good the chemistry is between Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer.  There’s a nineteen year age difference between them, but that seems to work better for these characters.  Will Randall is a more worn out, tired career man while Laura Alden is young, vibrant, and intriguing.  Pfeiffer certainly has a seductive aura about her that creates a dangerous air to the relationship.  There’s plenty of sexual charisma to spare with both her and Nicholson.  Overall, she does a tremendous job with this character who does have a harder, jaded exterior with a more approachable, comforting core.

The supporting cast of Wolf is also stellar.  Most notably is Christopher Plummer’s gracefully egotistical, but also authoritative Raymond Alden, the owner of the publishing house.  He carries a substantial weight as this slightly ruthless boss who insincerely sugar coats things.  He has a great presence and a subtle way of acting that results in a lot of dimension coming out on screen.

The mystical ideas of the demon wolf are beautifully conveyed.  There’s a grounded sensibility from Dr. Alezais when he tells Will of the lore.  It’s not the ravings of some wild witch doctor, but of a man of science and research.  He believes in the possibility that this mystical lore is true, and he sells the dreaded reality of it very convincingly.  It comes at the right point in the film where both Will and the audience have experienced enough to believe that something supernatural is taking a hold of him.  So, we are all ripe to fully believe what he has to say.

I love the make-up effects from Rick Baker, a go-to master for werewolves from his work on The Howling and An American Werewolf in London.  While it is just some added facial hair, fangs, and yellow contact lenses, the visual of Nicholson in this make-up is frightening.  He looks like a wild animal that would stop your heart at the real life sight of.  Yet, he’s not the only one.  Although, I do not wish to spoil anything, but the make-up is extremely creepy upon the face of another actor.

Director Mike Nichols had this film shot in a way that was rather uncommon for the time it was made.  In many cases, it feels like a classic monster movie in its cinematography.  Preferring some dramatic camera zoom-ins over dolly shot push-ins, using rear screen projection during the driving scenes, and employing conservative editing resulting in some beautifully long takes, it partially feels like something from the black and white era.  Yet, it is such a brilliantly shot, composed, and executed film that it undeniably has a modern edge and beauty to it.  There’s a great sense of artistic horror and suspense to appeal to modern audiences.  There’s not much gore here, but there is a wealth of ferocious veracity that will satiate your desire for intense, horrific, primal violence.

The climax is absolutely wild.  Everything really converges in an animalistic confrontation that delivers in a hugely dramatic and savage high point.  How it all ultimately ends is tragically heartbreaking and powerful.  Yet, it still has a nice quirky and mesmerizing punch right at the end, too.  Mike Nichols’ ability to pull off these complex tones which mesh unsettling tension with a dash of quirky humor is really marvelous.  How this film progresses from a light drama about Will Randall’s inter-office politics and his developing romantic relationship with Laura to a full-on werewolf horror film is amazing.  That’s actually why this film works.  It builds these characters up into a realistic setting with convincing relationships and conflicts.  They are charismatic and entertaining characters that really invest your interest.  Then, the film gradually builds up the supernatural wolf element as it begins to affect Will’s behavior from a re-invigorated, confident man to a frightening metamorphosis that he deathly fears.  It’s a wonderful twisting arc that never loses credibility or its grounded sensibilities.  The conflicts it establishes, and the relationships it grows remain an integral part of the story all the way through.  It really is a stellar work of screenwriting by Jim Harrison and Wesley Strick, and a brilliant directing job by Mike Nichols.

Add in an excellent score by the legendary Ennio Morricone, and you’ve got one hell of a great film that I dearly love.  It’s a real gem I only discovered a few Octobers ago, and have really wanted to share my admiration for it for a long time.  Wolf was actually delayed into release by several months to completely re-shoot the entire third act of the movie. Whatever they did is entirely seamless.  I cannot see any deviation in quality or story to hint at what was changed.  There was no novelization, and no script available online to find out what the original third act was.  I’m certainly intrigued, but the film that was released is entirely amazing and I wouldn’t change a thing.  As I said, good werewolf movies are hard to come by, and I think Wolf is a surprising pleasure.  There was no shortage of remarkable talent behind this film, and that talent shines through in every moment.  I think it’s a great and original horror films with a lot of entertainment value to offer any audience.