Tag Archives: Ed Harris

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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The Human Stain (2003)

The Human Stain tackles a great many things, with racism and African-American struggles being only the largest of the many themes at play. The dehumanizing power of racism is an undeniable part of America’s past, but it was every bit as important a discussion in the early years of the new millennium when the film came out. It’s every bit as important now at the time of writing and will be every bit as important there, where you are, in the future, at time of reading. As with anything so powerful, so socially destructive, the cultural perception ebbs and flows with time and with provocation. Do we remember that dark past? Do we really? Do we hold a part of it in secret? These questions pry at Coleman Silk, our “hero”. Before we delve into Coleman it must be noted that The Human Stain (the novel) should be a mainstay of every contemporary African-American literature curriculum, and it was written by an Old White Jewish Guy.

That guy is Philip Roth, an author so prolific that it’s surprising so few of his works have been adapted to the screen. The long-gestating adaption of American Pastoral, arguably Roth’s most famous work, is now looking set for the year ahead with Ewan McGregor taking on directing and starring duties. And the adaptation of Indignation just played at Sundance a few days ago to positive reviews, too, so maybe we’re in for a bit of a Roth resurgence in the same way No Country for Old Men prompted a scramble to adapt the best stuff by Cormac McCarthy. Here in The Land of Hypothetical Roth Adaptations we’d cast Johnny Depp as the possibly-demented Mickey Sabbath in Sabbath’s Theater, so when that happens in real life just know that you heard it here first.

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Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alan Arkin, Ed Harris, and Kevin Spacey all in one movie, each with significant time in front of the camera. Who steals the show? If you guessed none of the above, you either were too afraid to guess or you’ve seen Glengarry Glen Ross. GGR does have all of these actors for the entire movie; it also has Alec Baldwin for one scene.

In the end, three minutes of Baldwin overshadow an hour and a half of some of the greatest actors of more than one generation. His brief, but memorable performance can be likened to that of Matthew McConaughey’s in The Wolf of Wall Street. In both cases, they achieve the goal of all actors/characters — to be memorable in just one scene.

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The Hours (2002)

The first question one might ask about a movie is “what happened in it?” After all, the average viewer usually watches a movie to see what happens. However, in a strange way, what happens in Stephen Daldry’s The Hours does not seem to be the most important aspect of the movie. And while The Hours certainly does have a lot going on — three different stories and time periods, a couple suicides, more contemplated suicides, homosexuality, bisexuality, and historical and literary relevance with Virginia Woolf as a prominent character — the actual plot does not draw the viewer in quite like the acting, the dialogue, and the beautiful music. It doesn’t take an advanced movie critic to notice these aspects either; after all, they caught my attention almost immediately.

The masterful dialogue in the movie makes sense to a degree, for the screenplay was heavily influenced by Michael Cunningham’s novel of the same title and, of course, by the incredibly gifted Woolf. Listening to the characters converse, the viewer feels no less enthralled than if they were voraciously reading a page from any of Woolf’s great body of work.

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Coma (1978)

Michael Douglas famously referred to Coma as the first time he was a part of something with a good story, a good cast, and a good director. The latter of those compliments, while true, was at that point based only on Crichton’s debut feature Westworld and his earlier made-for-TV flick Pursuit. The middle statement, about the cast, seems oddly self-serving considering Douglas is in the cast. The actor’s career was likewise young, and oddly enough Mike Crichton and his brother Douglas once published a story under a pseudonym that combined their first names: Michael Douglas.

Whatever conspiracy the Michaels and the Douglases have cooked up here, it probably isn’t as sinister as the conspiracy afoot in Coma. Based on the highly popular novel of the same name by Robin Cook (a friend and contemporary of Crichton’s), the story of Coma is as well thought-out as Douglas claimed. The pairing of Cook and Crichton is a match made in medical thriller heaven, and Crichton’s script treatment of the novel is accurate and respectful of the source material. Slight changes were made, but the overall sense of paranoia that pervades the book is very much intact in Crichton’s screen treatment.

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Westworld (1973)

Though known primarily for his novels, Michael Crichton made a name for himself in Hollywood not only through popular adaptations of his novels such as Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain but also by directing films himself for more than a decade. Westworld was both Crichton’s feature directorial debut (barring the ABC made-for-TV film Pursuit) and one of his earliest original screenplays. Plagued with production woes from the start, Westworld is largely renowned today as a major landmark in science-fiction cinema and an important advancement in film technology.

As David A. Price writes in this New Yorker piece, computer-generated imagery is commonplace at the movies these days. Star Wars gets a lot of the credit for sparking the technological revolution in Hollywood (although there have been a few technological advances since then), and it’s certainly true that the effects team behind that space saga deserves most of the commendation in which they bask. But if the question is where did all of this start?Star Wars and Avatar and every other CGI-laden movie of the past thirty years — then the answer is almost certainly Westworld.

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The Truman Show (1998)

Despite dealing largely with dramatic cinema, Peter Weir had the good fortune of working with two of the most gifted American comedians of this (or any) era. He drew out a defining performance from the late Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, casting him as Professor John Keating not for the simple unconventionality of Williams in a “serious” role but more likely because Williams could convey passion in a way most actors of “serious” roles rarely can. Likewise, even though The Truman Show is pretty damn funny at times, Jim Carrey’s career in comedy matters little for his role as Truman Burbank — he’s perfect for it for another reason.

I didn’t always think so. On first pass Truman seemed to have more tragedy in him than the actor was able (or willing) to provide, especially considering that Carrey’s Joel Barish from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind fought a similarly paranoid crusade and through it became a beautiful tragic hero for our modern age. In this retrospective light Truman seemed caught in the middle between Carrey the affable goof and Carrey the tragic everyman.

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Walker (1987)

William Walker was a freewheeling filibuster of a distinct class. Alex Cox’s biopic Walker – branded A TRUE STORY at the outset – features Ed Harris in the title role of the American adventurer whose ideals and morals become muddled. Journeying to Nicaragua in the 1850s, Walker and his band have democracy as their glorious intention. What happens, of course, is something else entirely, and Walker comes to resemble more of a tyrant than anything else.

First, though – wait, was that a helicopter? And a computer? Isn’t this 1850? It becomes increasingly clear throughout Walker that Cox has little regard for historical accuracy, and blatant anachronisms like Walker on the cover of Time and Newsweek pop up all over the place. Cox’s sense of humor is very often visual, as seen again and again in the visual gags running through his first feature Repo Man, and in Walker the intentional inaccuracies certainly do provide laughs. But they have a point, too, and that’s to draw a parallel between Walker’s crazed methods in Nicaragua in the 1850s and American efforts in Latin and South America in the late 1980s.

Whether you enjoy this political narrative bent or not is probably dependent on your own political views. Walker didn’t fare well at the box office upon release in 1987, and Cox never returned to studio filmmaking again. While it doesn’t necessarily come across as heavy-handed, the comparison and damnation of American foreign policy is poured on pretty thick.

Rudy Wurlitzer writes William Walker beautifully, though, and the contrast from Walker to each man in Walker’s miscreant band of somehow-loyal followers is also well done. Straight off the bat the gang – for they certainly could be called no more than a gang – are shown to be unable to even comprehend Walker’s orders that violence should stop and common laws of hygiene be adhered to. “What’s hygiene?” one man asks just before the gang erupt into a murdering spree in the middle of a village. There’s some of the Glanton Gang from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian in here, making Ed Harris’s Walker the indomitable Judge Holden, the terrifying hawker of war and death.

Soon, though the men latch onto Walker’s lofty ideals more as an excuse for violence than anything else, the “true north” of Walker’s vision begins to stray. “Some of the men are confused as to just what it is we’re fighting for,” one man confides in him. “I know and they know that the liberals are our friends and the conservatives are our enemies…but to tell you the truth, sir, I can’t tell them apart. They all seem the same to me.”

“That is no concern of yours, nor of the men,” Walker advises. “All you have to remember is that our cause is a righteous one.” Later, Walker dictates to another man trodding in his footsteps that the ends justify the means. The man tiptoes after Walker as the landscape around them seems drier and drier. “What are the ends?” he asks, to which Walker immediately replies, “I can’t remember.”

So again, the political aspect will either heighten your appreciation of Walker or it very well may sour it, depending on whether you find Cox to be earnest or overbearing in the depth of his unsubtle satire. I submit that the character of William Walker alone, shorn of all the directorial “slight of hand” on Cox’s part, is one that can’t be ignored.  “Clearly,” as another character remarks, “this is no ordinary asshole.”

Repo Man (1984)

It’s no small miracle that Alex Cox’s Repo Man is even on anyone’s radar today, nevermind the fact that the weird little movie effectively jumpstarted the director’s entire career. It’s very possible that Repo Man could have slipped into obscurity and dragged Cox into the abyss along with it. There would be no late-night cult showings and, more shockingly, there would be no Alex Cox Director Series to presently grace your computer screen. Civilization would crumble beneath our feet and the decimated dregs of humanity would soon resort to cannibalism.

So be thankful that we have the junky, punky Los Angeles peopled by Emilio Estevez’s rookie repossessor Otto and Harry Dean Stanton’s Obi-Wan-esque speed addict Bud. The world of Repo Man is still freshly original, even today, still hilariously unique — a world where the beer is labeled BEER and the food FOOD, where repo agents are just car thieves that make a point of wearing seatbelts. Otto’s journey is one that goes round and round in circles, and the only semblance of plot in the film stems from a ’64 Chevy Malibu with some really hot contents in the trunk.

As noted by Roger Ebert in his original review, Repo Man follows none of the rules – there are simply no other movies about punk repo kids and radioactive aliens in Los Angeles. Detectives and secret agents pulled in for one last mission? Got ’em. Unlikely squirts finding the courage to overcome bully corporations? Yep. Repo Man, on the other hand, is damn near impossible to categorize. “It happens sometimes,” notes an investigator about a smoking bubbling puddle that used to be an upright policeman. “People just explode.” If these are the rules that Repo Man plays by, then the rules don’t matter much.

Cox was twenty-nine years old when he filmed Repo Man. He had a much larger budget than he’d originally envisioned and full control over the casting of the film, thanks to a measure of faith by Hollywood studio executives that seems outlandish today. It opened quietly and was pulled from theaters after a weeklong run. The soundtrack, though, chock full of “new” American punk, made a smallish comeback in the following months, prompting an eventual rerelease of Repo Man at a theater in New York City. From there, the film grew to the cult status it enjoys today.

And this still means that Repo Man has not had nearly the effect it should have — it could have — on modern cinema. Again, Cox’s career took off in a good direction as Repo Man gained traction — he went on to get the directing gig for Sid and Nancy in 1986, a movie which was well-received, followed by Walker with Ed Harris in 1987. Our Director Series takes proper looks at those later efforts, but suffice it to say that they’re quite different from this debut. Repo Man is important because it taps into and depicts a subculture so perfectly well. The pacing is so inviting and the tone so uncondescending as to bring nearly anyone along for the ride, in spite of the weirdo silliness unfolding before your eyes.

Simply put: we should have more movies like Repo Man. That silliness becomes a battle cry, becomes the entire world of the film, becomes something that challenges us to accept it rather than pining for our approval with tired gimmicks or recognizable characters. Once we accept the challenge we’re essentially in the car with the doors locked, doing 60 down the L.A. River. It helps that Repo Man is insanely quotable and that the running gags are so beautifully timed. What we might expect to be a sex scene is put on hold when Otto sits up straight in bed and says, politely: “Excuse me while I fold my pants.” Which he does.

So, in honor of Repo Man, one of the leanest and meanest and most straight-up fun director debuts in modern cinema: Let’s go get sushi and not pay!