Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Double Bill review: Curtis Hanson

Bad Influence (1990)

Curtis Hanson seemed to be one of the most up-and-coming directors in the nineties, directing a string of well received thrillers that drew favourable comparisons with the master of that genre, Alfred Hitchcock. Hanson is a very measured, quite old fashioned director. He's far less hip and flashy as Tarantino or Rodriguez who hogged a lot of the limelight of that decade which perhaps explains why he's a little overlooked.

Bad Influence was a big break for not only Hanson but also for David Koepp who would go on to write a string of blockbusters from Jurassic Park to Mission: Impossible to Spider-man. The early nineties saw a series of horror thrillers that were set in ordinary cities and suburbs. Some were comic like The 'Burbs, while others were serious like Pacific Heights and Single White Female. Bad Influence falls very much in the latter camp. Whereas the preceding decade had dealt with supernatural killers such as Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger, the nineties would be characterised by ordinary people turning out to be killers (see Scream series).

James Spader plays Michael, an everyman office drone whose crushingly dull and stressful existence is giving him stomach ulcers. He's been passed over for a promotion at work and his girlfriend is forcing him into a marriage he isn't interested in. His life seems to take a turn for the better however when he's saved from a bar room brawl by Alex (Rob Lowe), a mysterious drifter. The two become friends and Alex starts to teach Michael to take more control and become more assertive. However what starts as small bits of motivational banter quickly turn into something way more serious when Alex gets Michael high and takes him on a convenience store robbery. Perhaps Alex's “bad influence” is more dangerous than Michael thinks.

The film trades heavily on the bad boy image Rob Lowe that he got stuck with following the sex tape scandal of 1988. To be fair he gives the role his all, his square jaw and pretty boy smile make him a perfect choice for the role. James Spader, too, is brilliantly cast as Michael. Spader excels in playing these outwards simple but inwardly complex characters. There's just something very off about him.

This film's been somewhat forgotten but it actually bears a lot of similarities with David Fincher's Fight Club that came out several years later. Again, a powerless office worker happens to meet an assertive friend who helps him become more confident only for everything to get out of hand. Where as Fight Club played with the idea of the two men being separate parts of one person's mind, Bad Influence plays it far straighter. In fact the major downside to Bad Influence is that it's third act is a bit of damp squib. Whereas Fight Club I felt successfully kept ramping up the tension right until it's superb climax.

Like Fight Club, Bad Influence is mostly enjoyable just to watch the two men stick two fingers up to society's precious rules and conventions. In Freudian terms James Spader is the Ego while Rob Lowe is the Id. In someways Bad Influence is also a little bit of a commentary on the eighties too with Alex playing the classic amoral yuppie and Michael playing the more responsible nineties man.

This is a nice little unpretentious thriller that maybe plays it a little too safe but is worth checking out. Particularly anyone who enjoyed Fight Club and wants to see a similar flick or just anyone who enjoy watching James Spader.

The Hand That Rocks The Cradle (1992)

The Hand That Rocks The Cradle was Hanson's immediate follow-up to Bad Influence and it has a very similar theme. An outsider moves into someone's life and starts to systemically destroy it without the person noticing until it's almost too late. However there are two major differences, the first is that the protagonist and antagonist are female this time around, and the second is that the outsider infiltrates a family rather than just a single man's life, upping the stakes considerably.

Annabella Sciorra plays Claire, an expectant mother who accuses her gynaecologist of inappropriate touching. Rather than face the courts, the doctor hangs himself and the family move on with their life. Claire gives birth to a baby boy while the doctor's wife (Rebecca De Mornay), who was also pregnant, has a still birth. Months later Claire is trying to find a nanny for a baby boy and her five year old girl Emma and offers the job to Peyton, a homely young woman. However what she doesn't know is that “Peyton” is really the doctor's wife, bent on wrecking Claire's life as revenge.

Cradle is, for all intents and purpose, a horror film for women. Whereas most horror/thriller films deal with male issues and male protagonists, Cradle is purely about female fears; the fear of sexual assault, the fear of harm coming to your children, the fear of your husband straying; the fear of not being able to trust your nanny. It's a wonder no one thought of making this film earlier. Well actually William Friedkin did make The Guardian in 1990 which had a similar story but it's supernatural undertones proved unpopular with audiences.

The whole film is very slick and calculated in both the script and the directing. The test of a good thriller is where no scenes seem dispensable and none feel like that in this film. Every scene and character sets up something down the line. Hanson keeps the film moving at a nice brisk pace. The large house set is good but Hanson flies a little too close to the winds of cliché with their white picket fence.

Again, this film has some excellent casting. Most surprising has to be Matt McCoy (aka Nick Lassard from Police Academy 5 & 6) who is something of a revelation as Claire's husband. The top acting honours have to go to Rebecca De Mornay who creates a truly duplicitous and menacing villain. The only player to let the team down is Ernie Hudson who plays a mental handicapped gardener. It's always hard pulling disabled characters off in films, I'm not saying Hudson was terrible, just a bit off.

Cradle and Bad Influence are both about how delicate our existence is and how something very small can completely shatter it. Of the two films Cradle is the far superior film, though Bad Influence didn't explain the backstory of Rob Lowe's character (and maybe didn't need to), Cradle is all the more satisfying for giving the background to “Peyton”.

Hanson would go on to make one so-so thriller The River Wild (Cliffhanger on a raft with Meryl Streep instead of Stallone) before creating LA Confidential which is probably his best film. Since then, he seems to have gone cold on making thrillers, which is a shame as all four films show he was a master.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Underrated Eighties... To Live and Die in LA

William Petersen is an actor who has had something of an odd career. Despite playing the lead role in two thrillers by highly respected directors in the 1980s it wasn't until he was the ripe age of 47 that he finally got recognition for his work, on the TV show CSI. While a lot of people have critically reappraised one of those 80s thrillers – Michael Mann's Manhunter – the other one – William Friedkin's To Live and Die in LA – seems to still be somewhat overlooked. I'm not entirely sure why. Both films have very similar atmospheres. It perhaps helps a lot that Brett Ratner's sub-par Red Dragon, which adapted the same story as Manhunter, came along and vicariously made the earlier film seem infinitely superior. Who knows?

Anyway, To Live and Die in LA sees Petersen play Richard Chance, a US Secret Service agent on the trail of money counterfeiter Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe). When Chance's “three days from retirement” partner gets killed by Masters while on a solo stakeout in the desert, it pushes the already very intense Chance over the edge. He gets assigned a new young fresh-faced partner John Vukovich (John Pankow) and the two set out to catch Masters by impersonating a couple of shady characters that are interested in buying some of his phony money. The question is, how far will they both go to catch him?

What I love about To Live and Die in LA is that though everything is played on a huge canvas but it's really only about a handful of characters. Similar to The French Connection, it's about two people on opposite sides of the law who are the best at what they do. On the one hand you have Chance, a completely incorruptible, determined secret service agent, while on the other hand you have Masters, a completely dedicated, psychotic counterfeiter. It doesn't feel like a chase so much as battle of the wits between these two. At a certain point late in the film, both characters drop their guard which ends up being their downfall.

Another thing that's great about To Live and Die in LA is that it shows law enforcement officers as realistic people making good and bad decisions. So many other 80s action films had these invincible super-cops who go outside the law to catch a criminal but never get in any trouble for it. I'm not saying I don't enjoy those flicks, I do, but I appreciate the occasional attempt at realism. In a lot of ways, it reminded me of the TV show The Shield, which I just got finished watching recently, where the central character did both good and horrible things, sometimes in the same episode, making it uncertain whether to cheer him or condemn him.

The acting in the film is all top notch all across the board. Petersen is one of those actors who is just perfect at playing law enforcement officers. His acting style has a real intensity which perfectly suits the character. So much of the film is based around the visuals rather the dialogue so he acts a lot with his face and body. In fact, if you watch this film there is one scene where you get to see a LOT of Petersen's body but it's not gratuitous. Chance is a desperate character pretending to have everything under control and Petersen really sells it. Dafoe also completely owns his role as Masters. His offbeat-looking face and heavily-mannered voice make him just perfect at playing villains.

Pankow is pretty good as John Vukovich. His slightly naïve viewpoint really just acts as a surrogate for the audience to identify with. I like that the film didn't feel the need to make Chance and Vukovich best friends or have some tedious section where they learn to work with each other and have “banter”. They work together well from the off, they're professionals, that's it.

One of the major points of the film is the ending. It's a real kick in the face, but given the way the story works towards it, it's the only possible outcome*. In a lot of ways it makes the ending quite moralistic and conservative but I'm okay with that, because it's still quite a leftfield decision and keeps the audience on their toes. The entire soundtrack and score is composed by New Wave British band Wang Chung - whose biggest hit was 'Dance Hall Days'. It's a bold decision and the synthesizer-heavy songs do date the film a lot but I can't really imagine the film without them.

Friedkin's directing style in this got a lot of comparisons with the TV show Miami Vice. Having watched a lot of Vice I can see the similarities. It's very colourful and stylishly edited, at times playing out more like music video than a film. There's some great sequences: a fantastically colourful montage sequence of Masters making the phoney money and a very ambitious crane shot where we see Masters leave his hideout while Chance's old partner breaks in.

Much like The French Connection played out in New York at ground level away from the tourist spots, so too this plays out in the rough back streets of LA. Like a lot of 80s films, there's a very slick feel to everything. There's some great shots of the sun rising over LA casting a hellish orange glow in the sky. Friedkin wants you to know that Chance isn't just up against one man. He's up against a whole hellish city that runs on money. Also being this is very much a spiritual companion to Friedkin's earlier cop film there's another extended virtuoso car chase sequence that ups the ante with Chance being chased along the motorway while driving in the wrong lane.

If I had to pick out any bad points, it's the opening scene with Petersen taking down a terrorist bomber. I'm not sure if it's the sloppy editing or just the fact it feels like it's from a completely different film that makes me feel it should have been cut completely. Considering it's the start of the film, it's a little bit of stumble but it quickly recovers.

Anyway, To Live and Die in LA is a fantastic slice of 80s thriller action that comes highly recommended. Anyone who enjoyed watching CSI, where Petersen was on 50% power should see him in this at 100%.

* Okay, so it's not the only possible outcome. If you can get your hands on the Special Edition DVD check out the alternate ending that the studio almost insisted on using. I can see where it was going but really it would have made a far weaker film.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Forgotten John Carpenter Double Bill: Eyes of Laura Mars & Black Moon Rising

Now there's actually a double link with these two films; not only were they scripted (or at least co-scripted) by John Carpenter but both star Tommy Lee Jones before he became very famous. I've got to say I've never been wildly interested in Tommy Lee Jones in the past. He's a good actor for sure (see: Academy Award for The Fugitive) but he never really plays the hero in anything. John Carpenter on the other hand is probably my favourite director and I've picked up almost every film he's even been tangentially involved.

Eyes of Laura Mars (1978)

Eyes of Laura Mars was written by a young Carpenter and sold just prior to the success of Halloween. Faye Dunaway stars as the titular character, a controversial photographer noted for current series of photos, all of which involve lurid scenes of staged murder and female nudity. In a classic whodunnit storyline, people closely associated with Laura start being murdered by having their eyes stabbed. Mars would likely be a suspect were it not for the fact she witnessed all the murders. You see she has a psychic connection with the killer and when the murders are taking place, she sees through their eyes.

Tommy Lee Jones plays John Neville the investigating homicide detective assigned to her case. He begins the film not believing her but as the evidence builds that she is getting psychic visions they start working together to uncover the mystery. The suspects include her overbearing but somewhat camp manager Donald (Rene Auberjonois), her streetwise driver Tommy who harbours a criminal past (Brad Dourif), and her abusive ex-husband Michael (Raúl Juliá).

Despite the fact this isn't directed by Carpenter – it's directed by Irvin Kershner – it still very much feels like his work. Carpenter's scripts are all quite minimalist and efficient pieces and so is this. Much like Halloween, the film borrows heavily on the style of Italian giallo thrillers. The idea of seeing through the murderer's eyes but not revealing the identity was perhaps slightly more effective in Halloween.

The acting was pretty good. Other reviewers have noted that Dunaway plays the role quite one-noted. I can't say I've seen her in a lot of stuff before but I thought she played the role of a woman on the verge of mental breakdown pretty well. Considering they nearly cast Barbra Streisand in the lead I think we dodged a bullet. That said Streisand does sing the theme tune that goes over the opening and ending credits but you can fast forward through those.

It's interesting to see a younger less grizzled Tommy Lee Jones. Even at an early age he's perfectly suited to playing detective – over the years he's never been that versitile an actor but as soon as he starts talking in that Texan drawl you sit up an pay attention. The other standout is Brad Dourif in an early role as the shifty driver Tommy who imbues with character with a lot of pathos. Kershner's directing is slow and methodical but it gives the somewhat sillier moments of the film more weight than they deserve.

The ending is something of a love it or hate it affair. I'm not going to give it away but the killer's identity does get revealed along with a slightly iffy reason for their killings. Carpenter has gone on record to say that this wasn't in his original script, he deliberately wanted to keep the killer's identity mysterious (much like Michael Myers) in order to make them more scary.

For me, I was okay with the ending. I've seen worse but it made some sense I guess and didn't ruin the rest of the film. For anyone who enjoyed Halloween this is a decent (but obviously inferior) 70s thriller.

Black Moon Rising (1986)

Black Moon Rising is a similar situation to Eyes, even though it's only based on a John Carpenter story but still very much feels like his film. Tommy Lee Jones plays Quint, a professional thief hired by the FBI to retrieve some politically sensitive tape (god, remember cassette tapes!). He finds it but is then forced to hide the tape, somewhat improbably, in a prototype supercar called the Black Moon (think Knight Rider but more fiberglass). When the Black Moon gets stolen by Nina (Linda Hamilton) she takes it to her boss Robert Vaughn who makes a living from stealing cars. With the car and the tape locked away in his giant office black, the FBI gives Quint 72 hours to find a way in and retrieve them both.

It's said that a lot of Carpenter's films are Westerns in disguise. Assault on Precinct 13 is a version of Rio Bravo with gang members instead of indians, Escape from New York's Snake Plissken is like Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name, the original script for Big Trouble in Little China was even set in the wild west with Jack Burton having to retrieve his horse rather than his truck! Black Moon Rising is no different, Jones' Quint character is very much your classic anti-hero gun-for-hire assigned to retrieve an object from a seemingly impenetrable fortress.

Unlike Eyes which was a big budget film this was made on the cheap by New World Pictures (a company that seems to keep popping up in these reviews a lot). The directing by Harlan Cokeliss is adequate, the film's a little sluggish early on but the final half hour in which Quint uses an elaborate plan to break in is worth the wait. Considering the film's 100 minutes this really could have done with 10 shaving off somewhere.

Jones really fits well as easy-going, cocksure anti-hero Quint. Reportedly he almost got the part of Snake Plissken in Escape from New York but Carpenter really pushed to get Kurt Russell. Watching this film you can really get a sense how he would have played that part. There's one particular scene where his character gets beat up for what feels like a full five minutes and apparently Jones did nearly all his own stunt work in this film. Hats off.

Linda Hamilton's part is a bit more forgettable, after played Sarah Connor it's hard to see her as anything else. Vaughn always make for a great villain and this is no exception. It's just a shame he didn't get more meaty scenes. In fact one of the most characters the imposing FBI agent played by Bubba Smith (aka Hightower from the Police Academy series) who gets what should be an iconic line “You don't f*** with the Government.”

From the screenshot above you can see the Black Moon car looks a bit ropey, in fact during the escape attempt when it's bashing into barrels and columns I thought it was going to shatter. I'm not sure what it was about the 80s that inspired suped-up vehicles – Knight Rider, Blue Thunder, Street Hawk. I think anyone who enjoyed watching those shows as a kid will get a kick out of this film. It's the kind of film I can imagine watching on a Saturday afternoon - it's definitely not a Saturday evening film.

I'd also recommend the film to anyone who's a fan of John Carpenter – it may only be based on his script but you can really sense it's written by him.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Double Bill review: Treat Williams

Horror comedies are something that Hollywood just don't do anymore and it's a real shame. The eighties were something of a golden age for the genre. Films like Steve Miner's House, Sam Raimi's Evil Dead II, Joe Dante's Gremlins and Don Coscarelli's Phantasm II all walked the fine line between scares and laughs. By the mid to late-eighties, the two big slashers franchises – Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street were both running out of steam and in the effort to prolong the series to include another sequel they both descended into self parody in an effort to stay fresh. The result were mixed but the effect was that several other filmmakers experimented with mixing horror and comedy.

Dead Heat (1988)

In the grand scheme of things, Mark Goldblatt's Dead Heat is something of a footnote to the horror comedy genre. It's a fairly obscure film that's only been given a fresh audience from being re-released on DVD. The film caught my eye for two reasons. Firstly, Goldblatt, who is a first rate action film editor only directed a couple of other films including The Punisher with Dolph Lundgren. And secondly, Treat Williams was playing the lead. Williams is something of an enigma of an actor as his film roles are wildly disparate, on the one hand you Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America and Sidney Lumet's Prince of the City but on the other hand you have The Phantom and Substitute 4: Failure is Not an Option (I'll be covering The Substitute series soon).

Anyway, to the film, as I said before it's no great shakes but at the same time I'm glad I found it. It's a scrappy, very rough around the edges Saturday night flick. The kind you want to watch with a beer and pizza (though be warned you wanna eat that pizza quick as there's some queasy grossness contained).

Williams plays Roger Mortis (yeah, it that kind of a movie) a good cop who's investigating a laboratory that's been linked to a rash of bank heists perpetrated by seemingly invincible robbers. He discovers the lab has been working on a resurrection machine to bring back the dead but the catch is their bodies still deteriorate. When Roger gets killed during a shootout his partner Doug Bigelow (Joe Piscopo) uses the machine to bring him back to life. Roger has now 12 hours to solve his own murder before his body wastes away and discover who is behind the whole operation.

The film clocks in at 80 minutes and it bolts along. The sets, acting and story are all a bit creaky but the breezy pace keeps your mind from thinking too long. The whole plot is highly reminiscent of the classic film DOA, and there's even a bit where a character watches it on TV. Modern viewers will likely associate the plot somewhat with Crank (another variation on the theme). In fact Crank would make an excellent double bill with Dead Heat, both films have a 'go-for-broke' sensibility.

Dead Heat was made by Roger Corman's New World Pictures, who also made House and House II: The Second Story and like those two flicks this has some excellent 80s latex effects work. One standout sequence is set in a chinese butcher shop where all the meat hanging up comes back to life and attacks our heroes. You haven't lived until you've seen a man wrestle with a living pig carcass!

Goldblatt's directing is okay. It's nothing stellar but he has a feel for action sequences. For those who have seen The Punisher, I'd rate that slightly higher than this. I can't help but feel that someone like Sam Raimi or Robert Rodriguez would have given the film more of a quirky edge. Treat Williams is pretty good as Mortis. There's not a lot of depth to any of the characters but he makes for an easy-going, charismatic lead. There's a genuine rapport between him and Piscopo and the two bounce off each other well. It's pretty funny that Mortis never seems all that bothered by being (un)dead. In fact, most of it is played for laughs. For instance, after Mortis' “death” his face starts to go pale so he buys some lipstick so he'll look normal but just ends up looking like a drag queen. There's also some great little cameos from Darren McGavin and Vincent Price which horror fans will appreciate.

Finally, I don't want to spoil the ending but wow... again I'll probably never see an ending like that again! As I said, this is just a footnote in the horror comedy genre but a good one none the less. Anyone who's curious what a mash-up of Lethal Weapon and Reanimator would look like should definitely check this out.

Deep Rising (1998)

A decade later and Williams returns to the horror comedy genre with Deep Rising. The film Stephen Sommers made before The Mummy and again it's something of a forgotten flick. Reportedly the film was meant to star Harrison Ford but when he dropped out the budget got slashed and Williams brought in as a cheap replacement.

Deep Rising sees Williams play Finnegan, a guy with a boat who agrees to take a group of mercenaries out into the ocean and drop them off. Unbeknownst to him, their plan is to ransack an ocean liner full of rich people and escape with the loot. However, when they get to the liner they find all the passengers dead and carnivorous tentacles trying to pick them off one by one. Finnegan must fight escape the mercenaries, the tentacles and finally the ship. Along for the ride is Joey (Kevin O'Connor) and the sole survivor of the liner, Trillian (Famke Janssen).

Deep Rising was one of a handful of ship-based horrors that were released in the late 90s/early 00s, along with Ghost Ship and Virus. Of the three, Deep Rising is probably the most fun because it never takes itself seriously. I can maybe see that the film was intended as a straight horror but Williams, along with O'Connor as his sidekick, inject the film with so many little bits of humour they might as well classify it a horror comedy. I say horror but nothing in it is particularly scary. Deep Rising was released in those early years when CGI hadn't been perfected even to a perfunctory level. I don't think it ruins anything to reveal that the monster of the film is a giant squid worm sort of thing.

There's some pretty gory shots in the film though. Don't let the crappy CGI lull you into thinking they won't show a half-digested man. Rob Bottin, of The Thing fame, did the special effects and creature design and while they aren't his finest work, they are still pretty damn good.

Like Sommers later film The Mummy, Deep Rising has a lightning fast pace and a wry sense of humour. O'Connor I think should get the most praise, his character could have very easily been an annoying sidekick but instead he's very funny. I can totally see why Sommers has cast him in almost all his subsequent films. Williams too gives a great world-weary, laconic performance as Finnegan that I found very reminiscent of Nathan Fillion in Serenity/Firefly. It's a shame Williams' didn't get the chance to do a few more films like this because he seems very comfortable in the role.

Final praise goes to Wes Studi as the leader of the mercenaries. It's a pretty thankless role and he spends much of the time being the straight man to O'Connor and Williams' quips. The film annoyingly ends on a teasing note of more adventures which sadly never came. Deep Rising was a pretty big bomb at the box office ($40 million budget, $11 million take).

So, if Dead Heat was Lethal Weapon meets Reanimator then this is Tremors meets The Poseidon Adventure.