Thursday, January 14, 2016

Alan Rickman's Greatest Roles

Every once in a while, an actor dies and I genuinely feel like we lost someone who contributed much to our world. Alan Rickman is one such person. So rather than reviewing a film tonight, I’m going to identify my favorite Rickman roles and tell you what I think made them special.

Hans Gruber in Die Hard: This was the first time I noticed Rickman. In this film, he played the villain Hans Gruber, a German thief pretending to be a terrorist to cover up the robbery he’s planning. What Rickman did here that was ingenious was that he played the role as so over the top when dealing with the people he was duping, but he plays the role with icy determination when dealing with the much more dangerous Bruce Willis. The result was that he seemed especially dangerous and he gave us a reason to see “everyman” Bruce Willis as a step above everyone else. In effect, this sold us on Willis being the only credible hero in the film because the cops and the media and the hostages were all suckers. What’s more, for Willis to be able to play the everyman, Rickman needed to be able to command the screen for most of the film without losing credibility, and he does. The scenes with Rickman were creepy, chilling, fascinating and hilarious... all at once. That’s an amazing achievement.
Severus Snape in the Harry Potter series: What can you say? Rickman became Severus Snape to such a degree that it became impossible to see anyone else in that role. Even more importantly, Rickman did something fascinating with the role: he made Snape so unlikable that you despised him, yet teased you with the idea of an inner struggle which made you pull for him even as you hated him. It is an amazing line to walk as an actor to be so unlikable and yet be a character that people wanted to see made good. It is equally amazing to me that, in the end, Rickman injected such ambiguity within the emotions Snape projected that you never truly knew if he was in fact working for the good guys or the bad. That was all Rickman’s characterization too... it was not Rowling’s writing. Finally, his character, not anyone else’s, elevated the Harry Potter series to be something that reached adults.
Alexander Dane in Galaxy Guest: This movie really showed the amazing range Rickman had. Not only did he manage to lose himself in the role so that you almost didn’t know it was him, but he did it with a character who was essentially a stock character. Indeed, Dane was basically every whiny, jealous second-tier actor who found himself as the sidekick on a hit television show, right down to the pretentious talk of being a great thespian at heart who was typecast by the show he now hates. Rickman took this rather worn character and made it stand out as fresh and new. He also had you in stitches doing it. Indeed, this role showed that Rickman could more than handle comedy with ease, something few serious actors can do.
Lukas Hart III in Bob Roberts: Bob Roberts is a cult classic that’s well worth the time. As an attack on the supposed “manufactured/packaged nature” of conservative candidates, this film fails in several ways. For one thing, while we’re supposed to hate the main character, Tim Robbins is too likable in the role. For another, the folk music that was meant to be a parody wasn’t biting/ironic enough and Robbins ended up refusing to release it out of fear that conservatives would use it... “I’m a clean living man with a rope in my hand.” Further, it really shows the left as the intolerant petty little monsters they are. Just watch the SNL knock-off scene and you’ll see what I mean as the “good leftists” come across as totally petty, intolerant and abusive. Finally, everything in this film quickly became SOP for people like the Clintons, so criticizing these tactics didn’t sit so well on the left even one election cycle later.

Anyways, Rickman plays Hart, Roberts’ campaign manager, who is also a mysterious former military/CIA guy who is accused of creating Bob Roberts to give the military industrial complex its own Senator. Rickman plays this role so well, showing you a guy who is too high strung and who struggles with the fact that he needs to play second fiddle to Roberts, his own puppet. This is a complex and fascinating role. And while Roberts is great, the truth is that without Rickman’s mysterious and on-edge character, this film just wouldn’t be complete.

Rickman had amazing range and, like the best actors of our era, he managed to bring something special to every character he did which made them real to us and memorable. He’s not a man to ever phone it in, to do what everyone else has already done, or to play a role without trying to reach us whether he was the villain, the hero or just an extra. He will be missed.

What were some of your favorite Rickman roles?
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Monday, January 11, 2016

Guest Review: The Fugitive (1993) vs. Chain Reaction (1996) vs. U.S. Marshals (1998)

by ScottDS

Let’s ring in the new year with Commentarama’s first three-way! (Uh, yeah.) Anyway, I’ll be looking at a favorite film of mine, Andrew Davis’ 1993 classic The Fugitive and comparing and contrasting it to his 1996 follow-up, the wrong man thriller Chain Reaction, along with Stuart Baird’s 1998 Fugitive pseudo-sequel/spinoff U.S. Marshals.
Based on the TV series created by Roy Huggins, The Fugitive features Harrison Ford as Richard Kimble, a Chicago vascular surgeon who is found guilty for the murder of his wife. He claims it was a one-armed man and manages to escape after his prison bus careens off the road and is destroyed by a train. With Deputy U.S. Marshal Samuel Gerard and his team on the trail, Kimble finds his way back to civilization and attempts to find out the truth. It turns out that the murder was orchestrated by Kimble’s associate, Dr. Charles Nichols. Nichols had been developing a new drug that Kimble had found caused liver damage. Nichols hired a one-armed former police officer named Sykes to get Kimble out of the way, but Sykes ended up killing Kimble’s wife. Gerard slowly reaches the same conclusion and Kimble manages to subdue Nichols in a climactic fight.

I remember watching this on HBO when I was 11 or 12 and being totally transfixed. It has a perfect first act and it was the idea of one of the editors to feature non-chronological flashbacks of Helen Kimble’s murder in slow motion with a desaturated palette. Andrew Davis directs and at the time he was best known for the films that put Steven Seagal on the map: 1988’s Above the Law and 1992’s Under Siege, along with the Chuck Norris actioner Code of Silence and the dated yet entertaining political thriller The Package. The pacing is just about perfect and it’s a miracle the filmmakers manage to stage so many close calls without anything feeling contrived or coincidental. (One possible exception would be when Kimble is hiding behind the door in the elderly hospital patient’s bathroom – it’s the only part where I’m like, “Really?”) It’s a testament to Davis and his team that the film holds together considering they were revising the script as they went along and a few set pieces (the chase through the St. Patrick’s Day parade for instance) were only developed after shooting had already started.
The acting is excellent. Ford proves why he was The Man in the 80s and 90s, playing both action and intellect with equal aplomb. Tommy Lee Jones is Gerard and he actually won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar (beating out Ralph Fiennes for Schindler’s List!). He commands the screen and would pretty much go on to play Gerard-type authority figures for the next decade. His fellow marshals are played by Joe Pantoliano, Daniel Roebuck, Tom Wood, and L. Scott Caldwell. They have a natural camaraderie and you feel like they’ve all worked together for years. There’s no forced exposition or cheesy moments where we “learn” something about them. They each have at least one great line or moment, with Wood’s character nearly getting killed in a standoff. Pantoliano is entertaining as always and Roebuck gets one of my favorite lines: “If they can dye the river green today, why can't they dye it blue the other 364 days of the year?”

The film was shot on location in Chicago with the train crash and iconic dam jump shot in North Carolina. Davis came up in an age when action films were shot with coherent camerawork: no shaky-cam or rapid-fire editing here. Everything is logically laid out and we always know where everyone is. James Newton Howard’s score is one of the best action scores of the 90s and could be heard in many subsequent action movie trailers. Davis also had a great stock company: actors that he worked with on multiple films. I can’t name them all here but it seems like every other supporting actor from The Package and Code of Silence is in this movie, notably Ron Dean and the late Joe Kosala (a real former Chicago cop) as Detectives Kelly and Rosetti. We’ll see them again later.
And here they are. After the financial and critical success of The Fugitive, Davis squandered it all with 1994’s Steal Big Steal Little. After that, he returned to familiar territory with Chain Reaction, which features Keanu Reeves as Eddie Kasalivich, a student machinist on the run from the law after a scientific project he’s involved with is destroyed and the lead scientist is killed. The project is a technology that can obtain clean energy from water by separating the hydrogen molecules via a process known as sonoluminescence. The entire project is bankrolled by Paul Shannon (Morgan Freeman), an enigmatic (to say the last) figure with ties to various government entities. Kasalivich and physicist Lily Sinclair (Rachel Weisz) are framed for the accident and spend much of the film fleeing from the FBI and the goons employed by Shannon’s associate, Collier (Brian Cox), who operates a mysterious organization known as C-Systems.

Richard Kimble’s story was relatively straightforward: A hires B to kill C who is chased by D as C tries to find B who leads back to A. Eddie’s story is more like this: A and B are on the run from C and D while occasionally being assisted by E who works with F. This movie has twice the plot and characters as The Fugitive but is only half as entertaining. The actors are all fine, including Keanu – he gets a lot of crap but from everything I’ve read, he seems like a nice guy and I’m glad John Wick has developed something of a cult following. Morgan Freeman is excellent as always and manages to walk the line between ally and threat. He gets the speech at the end about how releasing the clean energy project to the world would end up making things worse, but lest you think otherwise, this is not a polemic. (One reviewer sadly pointed out that things seem to have gotten worse without the benefit of this technology!) The film ends with Eddie destroying Collier’s iteration of the project and putting all the plans for it online, along with evidence to clear him and Lily of any wrongdoing. Shannon kills Collier and… something something.
Instead of Tommy Lee Jones and Joey Pants, we have Fred Ward and Kevin Dunn as two FBI agents. Both actors are talented but their banter is often forced (and unfunny) and I’m not quite sure who’s on their team. The first act of this film introduces character after character and it’s like, “Is that a cop? Is that an FBI agent? Is that an assassin? Is that a scientist?” It’s hard to tell and, unlike The Fugitive, no one really makes much of an impression. We also get half a dozen other actors from that film, including the two aforementioned detectives (playing two different detectives, though it would’ve been cool if they played the same ones!). Tech stuff is all fine, I guess, with the main set pieces consisting of Eddie outriding a CGI shockwave, an exciting foot/drawbridge chase down Michigan Avenue, and a snowmobile chase shot on location in the winter. As with the previous film, Davis proves you can shoot an action film while maintaining visual sanity.

The film is entertaining in a “boring Sunday afternoon” kind of way. But all the mystery is much ado about nothing. We have conversation scenes in offices where we learn Freeman’s character has ties to the State Department. We have FBI agents looking through files that reveal a connection to DARPA. On one hand, these are all background details that add gravity to the situation and a sense of history. On the other hand, NONE of it matters. Someone at one point asks, “Jesus, who the hell is this guy?” By the end, we’re still not sure! This film also features plenty of characters frantically typing which is rarely exciting, but here it’s not too bad. This was back when the idea of “uploading” something to the Internet was still a novelty for many people. Oh, and this is a pet peeve of mine, but the credits list the characters using their full names, so it’s like: a.) I didn’t know the name of the actor, b.) I didn’t know the name of their character, and c.) I didn’t know they had a last name!
And finally, U.S. Marshals, a kinda sorta Fugitive sequel-slash-spinoff. Same producers, some of the same actors, different writer and director. Tommy Lee Jones returns as Gerard, who has to track down a fugitive named Mark Sheridan… or Mark Roberts… or Mark Warren. (I’m just gonna call him Mark.) Wesley Snipes plays Mark and while Kimble was more or less an everyman, Mark is a former CIA/Special Ops commando. Mark is accused of killing a DSS agent. He’s on the same prison transport plane as Gerard (who’s on board for an unrelated case). A Chinese prisoner attempts to kill Mark with a concealed zip gun. He shoots out the window, which causes the pilot to attempt an emergency landing on a too-short backwater road. Mark escapes and the Marshals are called in. There’s a mole in the State Department and Mark has to figure out who framed him before Gerard and the DSS get to him.

Stuart Baird also directed Executive Decision and I’m pretty sure he was hired to direct this movie only because he knows how to stage an exciting cabin depressurization. (He would do it a third time in Star Trek: Nemesis!) The script was written by a first-timer and it kinda shows. The banter is forced and unfunny this time and while I have no problem with Gerard and Mark on the same plane, I do have a problem with how Gerard gets involved in the case. In The Fugitive, he has government authority and the local sheriff (played by Nick Searcy, aka Bev’s nemesis!) is happy to turn over the crime scene. In this film, however, the local cop on the scene is portrayed as a buffoon. I’ve said it before but you don’t have to make your hero look good by making the other guy look stupid. And while Snipes is game, his character isn’t entirely sympathetic. Kimble saves a boy’s life while Mark threatens a trucker and his wife at knifepoint. Some of the performances come off as artificial and perfunctory, especially French actress Irene Jacob who gets saddled with the clich├ęd “girlfriend” role. Kate Nelligan, on the other hand, acquits herself nicely as Gerard’s boss.
Oh, and I didn’t even mention Robert Downey Jr.! He’s in this movie as the DSS agent assigned to Gerard’s team. He’s also game but he falls into what Roger Ebert once referred to as the Alan Alda Rule: “Any character in a murder mystery who is excessively helpful to the main character invariably turns out to be the killer.” I’m still not entirely sure what his role is in all this. Is he the mole? Is he one of several moles? Is he just trying to protect someone else? How far does this all go? I guess there’s a reason why The Fugitive was nominated for Best Picture while this one languishes in cable rerun world. (Where, ironically, it usually follows airings of The Fugitive!) The plane crash sequence is exciting though it’s obviously model work. By contrast, the train crash in The Fugitive was real and only the shot of Ford leaping off was a composite. Some of the other major set pieces involve a shootout in a cemetery and Mark swinging from a roof to a moving train. Jerry Goldsmith scored this film and he introduces a heroic action motif that he would use again in Star Trek: Insurrection later in the year (and yes, I noticed!).

I say it in every other review: it’s a miracle any movie gets made and released, let alone a good one. The Fugitive is Hollywood doing what it does best: cast and crew firing on all cylinders, taking a good story and telling it in an engaging way. Chain Reaction, on the other hand, is more of a potboiler, and proves how difficult it is for a director to make lightning strike twice. And U.S. Marshals shows what can happen when you take a simple story and needlessly complicate it.

“I didn’t kill my wife!”
“I don’t care!” (The original line was “That isn’t my problem!”)
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Thursday, January 7, 2016

Film Friday: SPECTRE (2015)

I have mixed feelings about this film. On the one hand, Daniel Craig’s Bond films continue by and large to be better than anything since Sean Connery’s films. On the other hand, there was a lot I disliked about this film and my first reaction is to rank it as the worst of the Craig films. In particular, this film was confused, pointlessly-complex, and committed many of the sins which the Craig years have been about undoing. It also represents a seriously wasted opportunity.

Spoiler Alert: There Are Important Spoilers Herein


The biggest weakness of this film is the plot. The plot is needlessly complex and the writers seemed to get lost in it. What’s more, important chunks of the complexity are nonsense.
The story begins with Bond in Mexico City where he sets out to kill a man. In the process, he learns of another man who has a ring with an octopus on it. Bond returns to Britain, where we learn that he did all of this against orders and without the knowledge of MI-6. We also learn that MI-6 is being absorbed by MI-5, and MI-5’s boss wants to eliminate the 00 program.

Bond is ordered to stay in London, but he’s running his own mission this time. It turns out that he has been given instructions by Judi-Dench M in a deathbed video to kill a man, attend his funeral and then figure it out from there. So Bond escapes to Italy and attends the funeral. This is where the writing problems begin to appear. Watch for a trend: Bond somehow finds out where the private funeral will be held. Despite the funeral being a who’s who of villains, Bond somehow gets into the funeral and meets the widow. Bond somehow knows they plan to kill her. He somehow figures out when she will return home and arrives just in time to kill the killers who have come to get her. She somehow knows where her dead husband’s associates will meet to discuss how to replace him. Bond goes there and somehow gets through the door and attends a massive SPECTRE meeting. He then gets exposed and he somehow escapes because only one guy bothers to chase him.
Now, don’t get me wrong. These scenes are beautifully shot and they’re interesting and tense. The supercar chase scene is a tad long, but it’s broken up by Bond being on the phone throughout. And if you like, you can imagine all kinds of explanations for each of the somehow’s above. But the fact remains that none of this is explained and it all seems a tad flimsy. And it gets worse from there as this is just the beginning.

From here, Bond will meet a man who is a hermit but who somehow knows everything about SPECTRE but only gives Bond a one word clue, which Bond will somehow use to find a secret daughter, whom he must rescue. She will use that clue to lead him to a hotel in Africa where Bond somehow finds a hidden room which tells him how to end the movie at a volcano lair (Bond still needs to resolve a brutally obvious subplot which is so packed with somehow’s that it makes you wonder if they did more than give this a cursory thought before including it in the film).
Again, let me say that Sam Mendes is a director with an amazing eye for imagery. This film is visually beautiful if not stunning. Everything about it is perfectly handled from a visual point of view. The effects are great. Mendes mixes in some wonderful touches, like old cars and cool little homages to the Connery years, and most of the scenes are moody and interesting. The problem remains, however, that the story surges from visual to visual without ever bothering to fill in the plot points to explain how Bond got to where he got.

Equally problematic, the main villain, Blofeld, is a bore, and the plot involving Blofeld proves to be a dead-end to the plot. It’s almost like the writer figured that just introducing the character was enough for the film and didn’t think of what else to do. At the same time, the subplot has a much better villain. He’s more developed and better acted. When he’s on screen, the film just feels tense (when Blofeld is on the screen, the film feels stopped). Unfortunately, the writers all but ignore the subplot and what it could add to this film. And then when they do focus on it, what they do is horribly obvious and rushed. The subplot is where this film really should have gone.

Daniel Craig returns as Bond and there is a lot of talk that this may be his last Bond film. While I’ve felt that he’s been an amazing Bond, I am honestly ready for him to leave. This movie, even more than the last, kept projecting the idea that Bond hated his job and wanted to quit... something Craig has paralleled about the role in interviews. So while Craig was again smooth, suave and cold-blooded, and he therefore fit the role perfectly, he also came across as tired and perhaps a little indifferent to the film throughout.
The Villain (Spoilers)

This film had multiple villains. On the one hand, you had the main villain, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, played by Christopher Waltz. With him, you had Dave Bautista as Mr. Hinx, a kind of cross between Donald Grant in From Russia With Love and Oddjob in Goldfinger. And then there’s C.

Hinx is an assassin who fights Bond a couple times. The only “character” moment comes when he applies for the job of assassin at the SPECTRE meeting. Otherwise, he’s just walking muscle.
Blofeld is the head of SPECTRE. And when I heard that Waltz would play him, I was excited. Unfortunately, he’s a waste. His character is intensely boring as he drones on and on about things that sound kind of like a life philosophy but really are just words strung together. Even worse, this film commits the cardinal sin of making Blofeld a sort-of relative of Bond’s. He even claims to have sent all the villains Bond has been facing in the Craig movies after him and of ordering the deaths of everyone who has died in Bond’s life. In other words, forget everything you thought you knew about the prior films or Bond’s character because this ill-defined impossible character has manipulated every moment to punish Bond because his own father loved Bond more than him. Ug.

First of all, the idea that one person could cause all the unrelated events in the prior films, each of which involved unique motivations and plenty of luck, is ludicrous... so Blofeld somehow got M to piss off Silva before Bond was even an agent just so Silva would one day go after Bond? Yeah, right. Secondly, the idea that the world is essentially divided between one superspy and his sort-of supervillain brother is comic book thinking, and it takes it too far away from reality. Third, how can someone so obsessed form an organization like SPECTRE? It’s nonsense.
The most interesting villain is Andrew Scott as Max Denbigh or “C”. He runs MI-5 and he’s entered into a deal with SPECTRE to build a surveillance empire on behalf of the British government all in the name of stopping terrorism. What makes him interesting is that it’s easy to see him as a real creature haunting governments everywhere. He thinks he’s the good guy because he’s obsessed with bringing order to our chaotic world and he genuinely thinks that causing a few deaths and doing a dirty deal is worth the benefits the world will get. He can’t even see the danger of working with someone like Blofeld. Unfortunately, his character gets badly neglected by the film in favor of Blofeld, so we don’t see him much and we learn even less about him. What’s more, what we do see points so obviously to him being a villain that there’s no mystery to this. This is a lost opportunity. This would have been a better film if SPECTRE had been a red herring and C was the main villain, or if C was not a villain and he was being framed by SPECTRE. Instead, he’s just there to give M and Moneypenny something to do in the film.

The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

I don’t want to make it sound like I hated this film. I didn’t. I thought it was a decent movie and I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it a lot more than most of the Bond films after the Connery years. It was beautiful and had the travelogue film these films need. The pacing was excellent and the story offered enough to hold your interest. The ‘cool’ moments were indeed cool. The humor was funny. The action was tense. Craig did his usual great job with the role. The Bond girls were pretty, especially Monica Bellucci. Andrew Scott was creepy and believable. It was excellent escapism and could be the best “mindless action film” in the series.
Where this film disappointed me was that the film never bothered to explain so much of what happens except by saying, “Hey, he’s Bond... just accept it.” I also felt that Blofeld was a waste and his relationship with Bond was a horrible idea to inject, and was done so just to add a punch which his character was lacking in the story. It also bothered me to a degree that what made the Craig films so different was the return to basics, i.e. there were no supercars chases, no impossible stunts, no buildings blowing up, no nuclear-sized explosions, no larger-than-life villains, and no volcano lairs, but this film brought all of that back into the series. It was a retreat to fantasy.
So what I would say about this film is that it proved to be a genuinely missed opportunity. If they had kept more focus on Bond the investigator, had eliminated Blofeld and focused on the subplot, and bothered to connect a few more dots, this could have been the best film ever. But they didn’t. Ultimately, I would rank this as the worst film of the Craig era as a Bond film, even as it probably gets the highest marks in the series as a mindless action film.

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