Frantic is such the quintessential Roman Polanski movie that you’ll swear you’ve seen it before. As with Repulsion, Cul-De-Sac, Rosemary’s Baby, The Tenant and What? before it, Frantic subsists entirely on a sense of dread that grows steadily following an initial oddity. The tagline is “Danger. Desire. Desperation”, which could easily be the tagline for a sizable cross-section of Polanski’s filmography. That said, only one of those three words — “Desperation” — actually feels accurate within the context of the movie, and even the title Frantic is a bit misleading. This isn’t the only kind of film Polanski is capable of, but the series that do fit the mold are less frantic and more foreboding, less manic and more pulsating, less overtly dangerous and more subtly sinister.
And a lot of them concern an American Abroad, a topic which for some reason seems to lend itself particularly well to the horror genre. Films like Jeopardy, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, The Girl Who Knew Too Much and Hysteria derive a palpable sense of dread from the American Abroad in much the same way; the films based on Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley books and tense thrillers like Straw Dogs and Sorcerer benefit from the same fish-out-of-water vibe, too, while others like The Yakuza use the trope even more explicitly. Of course the whole American Abroad thing is also a hallmark of shitty potboilers like Deception or the slightly-better Lizzie McGuire Movie. Did you know there’s a movie called Shaft in Africa? There’s a movie called Shaft in Africa.
Continue reading Frantic (1988)
The upcoming Star Wars movie won’t mark the first time Harrison Ford and J.J. Abrams have crossed paths. As the 1980s became the 1990s and Harrison Ford traded in Han Solo, Deckard and Indy for a string of lawyers, doctors, politicians and playboys, the young writer Jeffrey Abrams was just getting his start. His first singlehanded script was Regarding Henry, a story about a heart-of-ice lawyer who is irrevocably changed by a horrific accident, and he scored big time with Ford and director Mike Nichols coming on board to bring his script to the screen.
Thankfully, even though Ford’s ’80s history is repeating itself with returns to Star Wars, Blade Runner and possibly Indiana Jones, Abrams has matured out of his Regarding Henry self and doesn’t appear to be looking back. A solid cast and crew does not a solid movie make, and Henry is far more by-the-numbers than you might expect from the Ford/Nichols/Abrams triumvirate. There must have been something in the water in Hollywood in the ’90s, as Henry takes a prominent station in the decade’s prized Overly-Emotional Tearjerker Oscar-Bait category.
Continue reading Regarding Henry (1991)
This article first appeared as a part of the Brattle Theatre Film Notes commentary series, presented by the Brattle Theatre in Boston, MA, for a special screening of Blade Runner: The Final Cut. Slight edits have been made from the original posting.
So: is Deckard a replicant? This is the question that most everyone comes to after seeing Blade Runner, especially if the version in question is Ridley Scott’s 2007 Final Cut. There are seven distinct version of the film — including the U.S. and International Theatrical Cuts (both 1982) and the Director’s Cut (1992) — each of which is evidence of a continued preoccupation with this dystopian vision of our future. Granted, the broad strokes of all seven versions are more or less the same. Harrison Ford plays Rick Deckard, an android-hunting policeman quite different than most other Ford heroes. Regardless of which version you’re watching, Blade Runner is about Deckard’s brush with dehumanization after he’s assigned to track down a band of escaped androids (“replicants”) and terminate them before they discover a way to extend their own lifespans.
But the Final Cut is the only version to place emphasis squarely on that question: is Deckard himself a bioengineered replicant? The original versions certainly leave little reason to doubt the humanity of the protagonist. Deckard and Rachel run away at the end of the theatrical cuts and presumably live happily ever after. Along with a completely restored picture, a restored sound mix, removal of Deckard’s voiceover narration and addition of several improved effects shots that simply weren’t possible in 1982, the Final Cut also subtracts that happy ending and includes a few key scenes that had been cut from the initial releases.
Continue reading Blade Runner: The Final Cut (1982/2007)
This article first appeared as a part of the Brattle Theatre Film Notes commentary series, presented by the Brattle Theatre in Boston, MA, for a special screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Slight edits have been made from the original posting.
Not long ago Steven Soderbergh removed all of the color and sound from Raiders of the Lost Ark in an attempt to better study the visual staging of Steven Spielberg’s massively influential adventure film. The theory – according to Soderbergh – is that “a movie should work with the sound off”, that the coordination and arrangement of the visual elements of the story should, essentially, tell the same story that the dialogue tells. With Raiders, the theory certainly holds water: from the thick rainforest and cobwebbed tunnels of the opening action sequence to the quiet Archaeology classroom of the very next scene, from the snake-infested underground temple to the desert chase, the staging and pacing of the film is continuously surefooted. “No matter how fast the cuts come, you always know exactly where you are,” Soderbergh writes – and the attention he calls to the visual aspect of Raiders proves that Spielberg’s dedication to a strong sense of story isn’t compromised by a black-and-white color palette or a bass-laden electronica soundtrack.
To put it another way: Indiana Jones, even with these major elements stripped away, is still Indiana Jones. The color is one thing, but you’d think the absence of the iconic “Raiders March” would really shake things up for the worse. The John Williams score is inextricable from Indy, arguably as much a part of the adventurer as his hat or his bullwhip. You wouldn’t take the Bond theme away from James Bond any more than you’d take away his tux or his martini, for fear that the character before you wouldn’t seem like the same familiar spy anymore. Indy seems the same way, seems like a character so reliant on these iconic elements – but while Soderbergh’s exercise proved its point with regards to scene staging, it also pointed out what sets Indy apart.
Continue reading Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has no shortage of detractors. Whenever a beloved film or film series receives a new treatment or installment, most people – myself included – are bound to vocalize their qualms. We said why can’t they leave well enough alone? We said why does everything have to be CGI? With the fourth Indy flick, we said a whole bunch of stuff that shouldn’t be reprinted. So yeah: Crystal Skull is the weakest Indiana Jones for a few reasons. But let’s find something nice to say about it for a change, shall we?
Harrison Ford returns to one of his most famous characters after a quarter-century hiatus (he appeared in one or two movies in the meantime) and most of the old crew returns with him: Steven Spielberg directs from a story by George Lucas, composer John Williams scores the film, and Karen Allen revives the role of Marion Ravenwood. Cate Blanchett plays (ahem, overplays) the primary antagonist Dr. Irina Spalko, and the best things about her are her hair and her name. Among the other new additions to the Indy legend is the consistent use of CGI, which was used sparingly in the first three adventure films in favor of practical effects. It feels at times as if somebody wanted to cram as many CG shots into this thing as possible, and many of those instances are very unfortunately unconvincing. Also: aliens.
Continue reading Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
In many ways our Director Series on Peter Weir can be seen as an excuse to write about The Mosquito Coast, which is the logical culmination of the “early stage” of the director’s career and gateway to those brilliant films that would follow (though calling that Weir’s “later stage” makes it sound like his directing career is a slowly advancing disease). Coast would follow Gallipoli and The Year of Living Dangerously – two well-received Australian films that helped launch Mel Gibson into superstardom – and Witness, which would prove to be Weir’s first American film. The greatness of Dead Poets Society would follow. It’s The Mosquito Coast, though, that’s arguably the most ambitious of any of these films.
And that’s fitting, because although Gibson’s Guy Hamilton and Harrison Ford’s John Book and Robin Williams’s John Keating could conceivably all be described as “ambitious” in one way or another, it’s Ford’s Allie Fox that allows his ambition to get the better of him. Fed up with just about every aspect of America, inventor Fox uproots everything and takes his family deep into the South American jungle. They make a new home – “home” a term used liberally here – on the Mosquito Coast, where Allie’s latest creation provides something magical for the local population: ice. Helen Mirren and River Phoenix appear as Allie’s wife and eldest son, who essentially allow themselves to be dragged into the jungle by this iceman simply because they love him.
Continue reading The Mosquito Coast (1986)
Peter Weir’s first American film was the Harrison Ford vehicle Witness, released to commercial and critical acclaim in 1985. The Australian director was originally set to make his stateside debut with The Mosquito Coast, but a last-minute loss of financing would leave time for Weir to make a very different kind of picture first.
As a “Harrison Ford movie” — a label which immediately evokes Raiders and Blade Runner — Witness probably falls flat. John Book ain’t an adventurer, an action hero, or a possible cyborg (or is he?) and Witness ain’t a popcorn blockbuster. You can imagine the studio executives wincing as they reluctantly finance something that, frankly, looks excruciatingly boring as an abstract. Man goes to Amish country. Protects small boy. Woohoo.
Continue reading Witness (1985)