Category Archives: Mystery

The China Syndrome (1979, James Bridges)

Silly attempt at a Pakula-style paranoid thriller collapses under its own importance. Michael Douglas stars in the film–probably one of his first high profile roles–and produces it too. China Syndrome proves who’s responsible for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (if it wasn’t Kesey) and it isn’t Douglas. Syndrome doesn’t have a firm protagonist, it starts focused on Jane Fonda’s reporter (who exists in a situation not dissimilar to Anchorman, down to the parties) and then moves over to Jack Lemmon. Lemmon does a good job, but he’s hardly got anything to work with. He eats sandwiches a lot. At least Fonda has a pet turtle.

Since the film’s so heavy–and not even in a misdirected way, it’s all about the evils of big business–that it needs some humanity and doesn’t have any. Why bother saving Southern California from a nuclear disaster if it’s only filled with corporate heels and terrible Michael Douglas performances. I should have had some idea, of course, since I’ve seen Bridges’ most famous film, The Paper Chase. It too is full of shit, but almost nothing can describe how full of shit The China Syndrome truly gets. The end is laugh out loud funny.

However, Wilford Brimley shows up and does a great job. It’s his first movie, actually. Or one of them. Wow, poor guy. He was only fifty-one in Cocoon. Talk about getting type-cast early.

Oh, reading on IMDb. Richard Dreyfuss was originally going to be in it, then common sense intruded. The China Syndrome is really a case of too many writers being involved in a project and none of them being good. Bridges is a decent enough director, just can’t write compelling human conflicts.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by James Bridges; written by Mike Gray, T.S. Cook and Bridges; director of photography, James Crabe; edited by David Rawlins; production design, George Jenkins; produced by Michael Douglas; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Jane Fonda (Kimberly Wells), Jack Lemmon (Jack Godell), Michael Douglas (Richard Adams), Scott Brady (Herman De Young), James Hampton (Bill Gibson), Peter Donat (Don Jacovich) and Wilford Brimley (Ted Spindler).


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The Game (1997, David Fincher)

I don’t know what possessed me to watch The Game again, probably my access to the DVD, but even so, I don’t know what possessed me to finish watching it. It’s fairly atrocious early on, once it becomes obvious that no reasonable human being could identify with Michael Douglas’s character. He’s playing a lonely, depressed multimillionaire who lives in a big house and is good for absolutely nothing. He doesn’t even have fun. I was opined–and still do–that the rich cannot produce good art because there’s no real conflict in their lives. Similarly, the rich make difficult subjects for fiction. Something like Sabrina notwithstanding….

But, really, I was trying to figure out–as The Game went from mediocre to bad to mediocre again to worse than ever (the only good moment comes in the last few scenes, not surprisingly, it’s all Sean Penn)–I was trying to figure out why I used to love David Fincher. I saw The Game in the theater and I can’t believe it didn’t cure me. Fincher is shockingly incapable of recognizing good material and not just the script. I mean, Douglas turns in what must be his worst performance, since all it does is rehash his previous stuff (Wall Street and maybe Disclosure specifically). When Douglas does show some humanity, it comes across like someone else wrote the scene and Fincher stuck it in.

The Game also–and I hate to gripe about this one, because I usually advise against it–has logic holes the size of the Grand Canyon. I advise against surveying such holes because they aren’t the piece’s point and when you interact with a work, you have to give it some leeway. There’s nothing to interact with in The Game, so all that’s left is to point out how incredibly stupid it is. Still, Fincher’s composition isn’t bad–though it’s poorly edited and the cinematography begs for someone better–and a lot of the supporting cast is fun… James Rebhorn in particular, love the Rebhorn.

For some reason, I thought I had something else to say about this film, some other way to close it–besides that it’s a piece of horrendous shit. Oh, I remember: Howard Shore’s score is good.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by David Fincher; written by John Brancato and Michael Ferris; director of photography, Harris Savides; edited by James Haygood; music by Howard Shore; production designer, Jeffrey Beecroft; produced by Steve Golin and Cean Chaffin; released by Polygram Filmed Entertainment.

Starring Michael Douglas (Nicholas Van Orton), Sean Penn (Conrad), James Rebhorn (Jim Feingold), Deborah Kara Unger (Christine), Peter Donat (Samuel Sutherland), Carroll Baker (Ilsa) and Armin Mueller-Stahl (Anson Baer).


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L.A. Confidential (1997, Curtis Hanson)

I haven’t seen L.A. Confidential since 1998 or so, whenever the laserdisc came out. Before the film came out–I saw it in the theaters of course, being a big Russell Crowe fan back then–I read James Ellroy’s book. So, obviously, the film cuts a lot and I don’t remember the book very well, except that it took place over a long period of time. I don’t think it was that good, but you did get to know the characters… You don’t in L.A. Confidential: The Movie. Instead, you get to know and care when the filmmakers tell you to care. It’s Oscar-bait. As I started watching it, I thought it would be okay Oscar-bait, but it really isn’t. For a few reasons.

First, since I’ll be on and on about it if I don’t get it out of the way: Kim Basinger. 1) She does not look like Veronica Lake, she does not resemble Veronica Lake, never in a million years would I think she does. According to IMDb, Izabella Scorupco turned down the role and she owes me dinner for the thirty minutes or so of Basinger “acting” I just had to endure. 2) Kim Basinger is awful. The number of films, probably starting with Batman, that she has hurt or ruined with her aforementioned “acting” probably equals the number of films she has “acted” in. I sort of remember once saying Nine 1/2 Weeks was her only reasonable acting job. Since I haven’t seen it in a long time, I won’t make such a claim. However, after seeing her “talents” on display in L.A. Confidential, I doubt I’d be able to reinforce said claim.

There: a paragraph for Basinger’s bad acting. Does Guy Pearce get a whole paragraph? Maybe. He is not good. His character needs to be good. The audience needs to identify with him, not against him. We aren’t suppose to think cops beating the shit out of and murdering innocent (or misdemeanor-committing) people is okay. Does that mean Pearce is actually so good that I’m just upset because he was so good–he was supposed to appear unlikable, correct? No, he was terrible. The scenes between him and Basinger at the end were awful. Not to mention how terrible their actual sex scene was. That was a special kind of awful. Made me want to stick pencils in my ears to break the drums.

However–and I’m breaking up the crap with some pearls–Russell Crowe is good. He has very little do. Most of his scenes are with Basinger and so he had no one to work with, but he still shines through. His character is decent and deserving of a better film. However, L.A. Confidential has got to be one of Kevin Spacey’s best performances. Since Spacey has turned into such an embarrassing Oscar-whore (sort of like Crowe), I’d forgotten how good he could be. If L.A. Confidential had been about Spacey’s redemption… Oh, one can only dream. The film also has David Straithairn and underuses him, which is an incredible affront to the species.

No, the problem with the film, why it doesn’t achieve or overcome the awful acting, is the writing. Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson kept a couple parts of the book (I think, the Nite Owl murders seem to be how I remember), tossed the rest, but kept scenes from the book and lines of dialogue. Scenes and lines that mean nothing without the rest of the book. Or they didn’t keep the rhyming parts. So, the film deceives. In the middle, until about the 90 minute mark, it still seems like something good could come of all this stuff. A period cop movie called The Nite Owl Murders could have been amazing, but this film isn’t a cop movie. It’s not noir or neo-noir or anything like that. It’s Oscar-bait and, as Oscar-bait goes, I suppose it’s on par for 1997. If I remember correctly, 1997 was actually a good year, it was just that a bunch of shit was popular… as it goes. Gattaca, for instance, was from 1997. Comparing the two films is an incredible insult to Gattaca and possibly the whole idea of art in general.

I watched the DVD (my laserdisc is probably long gone–I rented the DVD for a buck and quarter and the laser cost $32 from Ken Crane’s). There are some audio looping problems, but I don’t think it’s the disc, because I noticed the mouths didn’t match the dialogue. Maybe there’s a good version of it out there somewhere, in the Warner vaults or something, but I really doubt it….

One last thing about 1997. I just saw that it’s the year Air Force One came out. I’ve never pinpointed, specifically, the downfall of American popular cinema. I can tell you when it was good, when it was better than it is now, and when everything was shit. But is there a turning point? I think it might be Air Force One–you had the previously reliable Harrison Ford in a complete piece of garbage. Petersen was already done, so I’m not putting anything on him, so I think I’ll hang it all on Ford whoring himself for money–in Air Force One. With a few blips–and pretty insignificant ones–his career has been downhill from that specific film. So it’s all his fault. I guess. None of this rant had anything to do with L.A. Confidential….

Okay, I’m done. (Damn Izabella Scorupco. Somebody ought to make her sit down and watch Basinger epic The Real McCoy over and over again. Except cut out all the Val Kilmer parts, because he was funny).

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Curtis Hanson; written by Brian Helgeland and Hanson, based on the novel by James Ellroy; director of photography, Dante Spinotti; edited by Peter Honess; music by Jerry Goldsmith; produced by Arnon Milchan, Hanson and Michael Nathanson; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Kevin Spacey (Jack Vincennes), Russell Crowe (Bud White), Guy Pearce (Ed Exley), James Cromwell (Capt. Dudley Smith), Kim Basinger (Lynn Bracken), David Strathairn (Pierce Morehouse Patchett), Danny DeVito (Sid Hudgens), Graham Beckel (Dick Stensland), Paul Guilfoyle (Mickey Cohen), Ron Rifkin (Dist. Atty. Ellis Loew), Matt McCoy (Brett Chase) and Paolo Seganti (Johnny Stompanato).


Eyewitness (1981, Peter Yates)

Eyewitness gets a lot of abuse.

Peter Yates has become a punch-line to many a film joke, usually by people who love Breaking Away and don’t remember he did it. Eyewitness is an incredibly odd film–and not entirely successful, the protagonist (William Hurt) tends to talk to Sigourney Weaver straight from the id, no filtering. Her character is the film’s most complex (since the whole situation deals in a gray area of morality) and Weaver doesn’t always get it. There are a few scenes where she does, and it’s beautiful.

This film is incredibly gentle. It’s all about the character relationships. Writer Steve Tesich (also Breaking Away) even gives the cops personal conflicts, which is a little too much. But there’s a lot to appreciate in Eyewitness‘s indulgences. It makes for an odd experience–though Hurt’s character is so unbelievably straight-forward, it’s one of his best performances. Hurt tends not to play the identifiable character and, seeing him do it, is a special experience.

As for the mystery/thriller aspect of the film… it’s not really there, which may be why there’s such a hostility to the film. There’s a contract between artist and reader (or viewer) and Eyewitness does not deliver what the title (or the poster) promise. The score, or lack thereof, lets the viewer know the contract’s broken in the opening titles. I’m not much a stickler about the title contract when it comes to film (Pearl Harbor, for example, broke the shit out of it too, and so did Star Wars for that matter).

I’ve recommended Eyewitness in the past and had people look at me funny after watching it. Not every film needs to break your heart (like The Missouri Breaks). Hell, films don’t even have to engage your intelligence (Animal Crackers). But films do need to make your invested time worthwhile–and Eyewitness does. Just not if you’re looking for a mystery/thriller, rather a story about people.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed and produced by Peter Yates; written by Steve Tesich; director of photography, Matthew F. Leonetti; edited by Cynthia Scheider; music by Stanley Silverman; production designer, Philip Rosenberg; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring William Hurt (Daryll Deever), Sigourney Weaver (Tony Sokolow), Christopher Plummer (Joseph), James Woods (Aldo), Irene Worth (Mrs. Sokolow), Kenneth McMillan (Mr. Deever), Pamela Reed (Linda), Albert Paulsen (Mr. Sokolow), Steven Hill (Lieutenant Jacobs), Morgan Freeman (Lieutenant Black) and Alice Drummond (Mrs. Deever).