Category Archives: Director Series

The Firm (1993)

The Firm (1993)Just now I googled “Tom Cruise best roles”, “Tom Cruise worst roles”, “Tom Cruise best movies” and “Tom Cruise worst movies”, partially because I’m interested to see where his role as Mitch McDeere in The Firm lands and partially because my boredom has reached carrying capacity. I found, unsurprisingly, that the internet does that thing where it reaches consensus about certain things being “good” and certain things being “bad”, which in this case is sometimes inarguable (A Few Good Men = “good”, Far and Away = “bad”) but sometimes weirdly unearned, as with the endless praise heaped upon Edge of Tomorrow or Cruise’s role in Tropic Thunder. The former is a fairly fun movie and the latter is a fairly funny movie, but to say that these number among Cruise’s best seems a stretch. Again, the common consensus surrounding mediocrity doesn’t exactly come as a shock.

What was surprising, though, is that not a single article or top ten list included Mitch McDeere or mentioned The Firm at all. “Good” and “bad” are complicated, sure, and you might even suggest that the overarching opinions of the internet’s burgeoning culture commentary is at fault for this, too, as if to say “those other guys didn’t claim The Firm to be a great Cruise movie, so we won’t either.” But not a single one mentioned The Firm. No outliers buried in a list to satiate the unconfessed desire of a film blogger, no mention of Mitch McDeere even in reference to another role. It’s like The Firm never registered as a Cruise flick. Putting aside common consensus and inescapable truth (Far and Away = “bad”), that just seemed strange.

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Havana (1990)

Havana (1990)Any cook will admit that having delicious ingredients doesn’t necessarily make for a delicious meal, even if you are faithful to the recipe. The most masterful chef can combine a snazzy main course with cool, exotic sauces and side dishes, pepper in some flair, and tie it all together with pristine presentation — but if the temperature isn’t just right, or if just one of the ingredients has started to turn, or if the sous-chef finally makes his move by sabotaging his tyrannical chef’s best meal, well, at least those would be reasons. Sometimes it just doesn’t taste good. Questions arise: why didn’t the dish work? Didn’t we follow the recipe to the letter? Did you freeze that thing overnight like I told you to? When does one traditionally bring their extended metaphor to a close? Now?

Havana had all the ingredients. Sydney Pollack’s previous film Out of Africa walked home with Best Picture and a cartful of other Academy Awards; Robert Redford, longtime Pollack collaborator, was back for his seventh (!) go-round under Pollack’s guidance. Right there you’d think success would be imminent. Of all the famous Director-Actor partnerships, Pollack-Redford is perhaps the most dynamic, the most unexpected, the one that results in classics that span more than one genre. The pair met as actors on the low-budget 1960 film War Hunt, as recounted by Redford in his tribute to Pollack in Time following the latter’s passing, wherein Redford uses the term “kindred spirits”. The success of the adventurous Jeremiah Johnson, the thrilling Three Days of the Condor, the intimate Electric Horseman and the epic Out of Africa would all support that claim.

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Jumpin’ Jack Flash (1986)

If you want to make an omelette, the saying goes, first you have to make a remarkably unexceptional non-starter featuring Whoopi Goldberg as a tech whiz embroiled in an espionage scandal. Apparently people actually like Jumpin’ Jack Flash, judging by the surprising number of nostalgia-fueled pieces about Whoopi’s young comedy days, but apart from an amusement with her indomitable ‘tude I can’t imagine why. You can just watch The View if you’re into Whoopi’s ‘tude, right? Unless you prefer a different kind of supporting cast, essentially one made up not of has-beens but of not-yets.

One such not-yet was behind the camera in the form of Penny Marshall, one day destined to direct the likes of Big, AwakeningsA League of Their Own and more alongside her numerous TV credits. Jack Flash is the transition piece from the Laverne & Shirley days (she was Laverne) and also serves as her first real foray into feature filmmaking. As is the case with many such transitions, Jack Flash is really only noteworthy in a retrospective review of a one-day-great director. Another Happy Days-related alum leaps to mind in the form of Ron Howard, who would find great success behind the camera but not before making his first movie Grand Theft Auto.

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Out of Africa (1985)

The “Out of Africa” theory of evolution posits that Homo sapien originated on the African continent and migrated to replace other hominid species, which is in direct contrast to the multiregional theory of human evolution (the “Multiregional Continuity Model”) positing the phenomenon of Homo sapien to be just that: a phenomenon, simultaneous across varied regions and indicative of some level of gene flow between geographically separated populations. Significantly, this gene flow would have prevented speciation after the dispersal, a somewhat unbelievable but not altogether impossible occurrence that nevertheless would seem to nudge all credibility in the direction of the Out of Africa model. Among the critical tenets of this hypothesis is the assumption that after Homo erectus migrated out of Africa the different populations became reproductively isolated, evolving independently and, in some cases — as with the Neanderthals — into separate species entirely.

Thankfully, Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa has nothing to do with any of that boring science stuff. Two nights ago the 88th Academy Awards granted Spotlight two major trophies, one for Best Original Screenplay and one for Best Picture, and so as usual a return to the past Picture winners seemed in order to see where we stand as a cinema-appreciating public. Is Spotlight better/worse than winners past? Did you see Spotlight? Did you enjoy it? Did you enjoy it at unprecedented best-film-of-the-entire-year levels? Did The Revenant or The Big Short deserve the trophy instead? Ah, of all sad words of tongue or pen!

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Far and Away (1992)

At some indiscriminate point in the ’90s movie producers everywhere decided to simply stop caring about trying to get actors to do passable Irish accents. Can’t we try, begged writers and moviegoers and people from Ireland, at least try to make this sound accurate? We know it’s more appealing to have a major American beefcake rather than, say, an actual Irish guy playing the role of “actual Irish guy”, but can’t we spend the extra time/money to ensure this film won’t become a laughingstock in ten years, or five, or instantaneously? Please? Please?

Far and Away (1992)

We’ve charted a course backwards through movie time and discovered Far and Away to be one of the earliest and most egregious offenders. If not patient zero per se, Far and Away is effectively worse than the index case for presenting itself on the largest possible stage and thus spreading the Awful Irish Accent disease much more quickly. Prior to Far and Away a shitty accent was a shitty accent. After Far and Away, a shitty accent became a perfectly acceptable feature of a major blockbuster because Ron Howard and Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman couldn’t be bothered to do better. Why should anyone else?

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Tootsie (1982)

Tootsie was a milestone for Sydney Pollack for a variety of reasons, some of which were trumpeted by adoring critics in 1982 and some of which took the ensuing decades to gestate. Today, with the benefit of Pollack’s entire career in retrospect, Tootsie holds strong as one of the director’s finest achievements. It is arguably his masterpiece, sure, but perhaps more significantly it is arguably his first masterpiece. That’s important for a film about a struggling actor finally doing what is necessary to create his first unadulterated success, finally testing himself to a limit he’d never considered before, being rewarded for it, and unexpectedly touching other lives along the way.

Of course “masterpiece” is relative. Three Days of the Condor might be a masterpiece, as might Jeremiah Johnson to a somewhat lesser extent. One of Pollack’s unsung achievements is The Electric Horseman, not a masterpiece in and of itself but masterful at times nonetheless. Saying one is better or worse than the other is uninteresting. What’s truly fascinating — and what makes Pollack one of the greatest American directors of his time — is the clear way in which elements of those earlier films come together in collaboration on Tootsie. Consider the most basic triumphs of each of those three films: Condor was unrelenting from start to finish, Jeremiah hung itself on the power of a single actor, and Horseman was simultaneously a comedy and a tragedy.

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Christine (1983)

Looking back now, it’s almost hard to believe that John Carpenter’s career was in such a rough state back in 1983 that he needed to take on a project like Christine just to keep it afloat.

Carpenter was coming off The Thing, which while rightfully regarded now as one of the best horror films ever made, was a massive critical and financial bomb upon release. He needed his next film to turn a profit and find a larger audience or else, and at the time, no one commanded more attention in the horror genre than Stephen King. His popularity was so immense that production on Christine began before the novel was even published. When the film finally hit theaters in December 1983 — less than eight months after the novel’s release — it was already the third Stephen King film adaptation of that year, following Cujo and The Dead Zone, respectively.

Christine was by no means a passion project for Carpenter, and in the years since, he’s referred to it as his worst film. Strictly speaking, it’s kind of clear why: the premise is gimmicky and by the numbers, a total retread of some of King’s already better known works. In many ways, Christine is like a spiritual sequel to Carrie (1976), but for tortured teen boys.

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Ivan’s Childhood (1962)

No one is expected to be great at something at their first attempt. Especially not in the arts. When parents buy their child a violin, it’s almost a guarantee that they will spend the next month or so plugging their ears at the cacophonous sounds they will be hearing at least an hour a day. Filmmakers are not exempt of this concept. We’ve seen the first films of the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese, and they’re not very good. Even the master Stanley Kubrick notoriously hated his first film Fear and Desire, going so far as to buy all prints of the film so no one could see it. However, every once in a while, we get someone who seems to have a complete understanding of their art in their first foray into it, like when Mozart first sat down at a piano and began placing notes on a ledger line. This is the case with the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky and his debut feature-film Ivan’s Childhood.

Ivan’s Childhood, sometimes known as My Name is Ivan, was made in 1962 and is a tale of a boy named Ivan who is used as a scout during World War II. It follows Ivan’s war-torn youth and the lives of the people around him as they all have to deal with the conditions this event puts them in. It is based on the short story “Ivan” by Vladimir Bogomolov. The film was, as previously mentioned, Andrei Tarkovsky’s first, astoundingly so. To get to the point, Ivan’s Childhood is a very beautiful film and although when it comes to Tarkovsky’s sadly small filmography, works like Stalker, Solaris, and Andrei Rublev are usually given the most significant attention (deservedly so, may I add), I believe Ivan’s Childhood is just as worthy of this praise and attention.

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The Deer Hunter (1978)

Bob De Niro always gets invited to the best weddings. Alongside all of the countless things young brides concern themselves with in the months leading up to their marriage — what if it rains? Can Trudy and Greta get along if we sit them together? Chocolate or vanilla? — there’s incredible solace to be had in the fact that De Niro will be there, in attendance and in approval. The guy clearly loves weddings. One of his first starring roles was in Brian De Palma’s The Wedding Party and one of his most recent was The Big Wedding, followed by the pre-wedding bachelor party shenanigans of Last Vegas; jury’s out on whether those movies are any good or not (wait — jury’s back — they’re not) but still, the weddings in those movies rock. Come on: Robin Williams is the presiding priest in The Big Wedding. This could be an all-divas-on-deck Kardashian wedding or some other unfathomably incestuous socialite caucus and you’d still attend if Robin Williams was the priest. So too would De Niro, apparently.

One of the better ones is the wedding from Goodfellas, in which the goodwill wishes come in a drunken torrent and the prerequisite for inclusion on the guestlist is being named Peter, Paul, or Marie. Just look at Henry and Karen — they’re perfect together. De Niro’s here, he’s having a pretty good time. But there’s something else on his mind, maybe, like whether the salami on that antipasto platter is fresh or whether he should just go ahead and whack Morrie Kessler already. Remember how he cut loose at Steven and Angela’s wedding down in Pennsylvania? That was a blast! He almost fought that Green Beret at the bar. Then he took his clothes off and ran down the street! Really, when we all invite De Niro to our weddings, the Hammered Brawling Run-Naked-Through-the-Streets De Niro is the one we want to RSVP.

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The Thing (1982)

As stated in our review of The Fog, few directors have had their filmography subjected to as many pointless remakes as John Carpenter. The Thing might be the one that seems the most untouchable, the most sacred in its original form. Ironically, the 2011 Thing remake is probably the best Carpenter remake of them all. Still, the further one delves into the (re)making of the update, the more it just seems like doing Thing over again is a bad idea. Eric Newman, one of the producers on the 2011 film, had this to say about the development:

“I’d be the first to say no one should ever try to do Jaws again and I certainly wouldn’t want to see anyone remake The Exorcist…we really felt the same way about The Thing. It’s a great film. But once we realized there was a new story to tell, with the same characters and the same world, but from a very different point of view, we took it as a challenge.”

No, this isn’t going to be a rant about originality (or lack thereof) or a rant about practical effects (or lack thereof) in modern filmmaking — if you were to blindly click anywhere else on your screen right now you’d probably hit one of those. If anything, much as our rundown on Carpenter’s Escape from New York attempted to define “infodump”, what we’re really concerned with here is how far the term “remake” really stretches.

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