Under Siege (1992, Andrew Davis)

I suppose, if there were a quiz or something and I thought about it real hard, I’d remember Under Siege brought Tommy Lee Jones… well, not back exactly, so I guess just brought Tommy Lee Jones. Looking at his filmography and the dates, someone could wrongly argue Oliver Stone tried championing him–but it didn’t work out. Under Siege kicked off the unending deluge of bad Tommy Lee Jones movies and signaled the end of Steven Seagal’s career in a way. Seagal ruined the success it gave him.

Watching the film, which I haven’t seen since in twelve years or so, I was surprised at how passable a job Seagal does acting in much of the time. He has absolutely no chemistry with female “actor” Erika Eleniak, but she’s so terrible, it might not be Seagal’s fault. The only reason I thought he might be contributing is how bad he is in certain scenes–like when he has to play the character in a verbal, not physical fashion. Seagal’s first few scenes in the film, when he’s hanging around with the familiar-looking 1990s action movie supporting cast–he’s good in those scenes, he’s visibly having some fun. When he’s alone, he’s fine too, but once he and Eleniak are going on adventures throughout the ship, it’s painful to watch her performance.

Under Siege also put Andrew Davis into the Hollywood mainstream and it’s a little perplexing. While Davis did cast a lot of his standard character actors, only some of them are good, and I’m sure the script had the structure–keep Seagal peripheral for the first act, letting Tommy Lee Jones run away with the movie and give it the pretense of some solid quality–but maybe that one was Davis’s idea. He sure didn’t coax a good performance out of Gary Busey, who’s so annoying the film loses a lot of credibility when the bad guys don’t just kill him so they don’t have to hear him talk anymore.

The action scenes are rather blah too–Seagal’s an unbeatable killing machine–he mows down fifteen guys in one part–and understanding his role as an unbeatable killing machine is part of watching Under Siege. But he doesn’t really kick any ass. I mean, the guy can kick ass, but instead he just shoots at people. It’s boring. The film never establishes itself as “real,” so Seagal’s feats are never particularly exciting.

Also, I’m not sure what the end is supposed to mean–it seems to suggest Seagal, while he doesn’t agree with it, understands why Hawaii needs to get nuked.

But it’s still mildly entertaining, if only because the first act is so incredibly well-done. I mean, the moment where I was wondering when the hostage-taking was going to start (thinking, it’s getting to be about as long as one can wait for it), it started. So it does do something significant right.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Andrew Davis; written by J.F. Lawton; director of photography, Frank Tidy; edited by Robert Ferretti; music by Gary Chang; production designer, Bill Kenney; produced by Arnon Milchan, Seagal, Steven Reuther, Jack B. Bernstein and Peter MacGregor-Scott; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Steven Seagal (Casey Ryback), Tommy Lee Jones (Strannix), Gary Busey (Commander Krill), Erika Eleniak (Jordan Tate), Patrick O’Neal (Captain Adams), Colm Meaney (Doumer) and Andy Romano (Admiral Bates).


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Shadow of a Doubt (1943, Alfred Hitchcock)

Shadow of a Doubt is a strange one–the presence of Teresa Wright and the small town atmosphere and the Gregg Toland-esque (but not Gregg Toland) cinematography make it feel like William Wyler, the presence of Joseph Cotten and the camera angles and intricate sound design make it feel like Welles (or at least an RKO picture Welles produced and did uncredited directing on), and some of the feeling in the shots… only some of them… make it feel like a later Hitchcock, like Psycho or Marnie, anything but one of his early American pictures. Shadow of a Doubt feels absolutely foreign from something Hitchcock did in the UK, The Lady Vanishes for easy comparison, but also unlike his more well-known American works of the 1940s. Artistically speaking, it’s the most exciting Hitchcock got after he gave up all the filmic experimentation with the move across the Atlantic and it’s some beautiful stuff in Shadow, because he hasn’t got a formula worked out, because Hitchcock’s successful formulas tend to rely on the intrigue, not on the lack of it. Shadow of a Doubt works in the end not because of Hitchcock’s efficiency as a suspense director, but because that Wyler-esque family drama (the contribution of Thornton Wilder?) works so well.

Two different things are going on, from the actors, in Shadow of a Doubt. Teresa Wright does her thing, essaying this conflicted, happy, sad, romantic young woman who’s petrified, but who’s also able to navigate an impossible situation with seeming success–falling in love during it as well. Then there’s Joseph Cotten, who’s playing a character much like one Joseph Cotten would play for the next ten years, both as good guys and bad guys–the guy who’s completely evil, but maybe not wrong about his motivations for being evil, also not so evil he can’t care about people. Cotten is not a Hitchcock actor, which makes Shadow an odd favorite for Hitchcock to pick from his oeuvre. There’s just something about Cotten–you can see he’s doing what he’s doing, Hitchcock’s direction be damned. It’s another reason Shadow of a Doubt is so different–all the excellent, excited performances. Hitchcock usually sucked the enthusiasm out of actors, even in good films, instead letting them be themselves with written dialogue, but in Shadow of a Doubt, it’s a much, much different situation. Patricia Collinge does some excellent work in the film, usually in scenes unlike any other Hitchcock scenes. The most Hitchcockian actor is Macdonald Carey and Carey is essential as Wright’s love interest and Cotten’s pursuer, but he’s got that blander Hitchcock acting style going. He’s good, but it’s not a textured, tortured performance, not like Wright, Cotten or Collinge.

I’d only seen Shadow of a Doubt once before, maybe ten years ago, and for the majority of the film, I was upset, remembering it being much better than it unfolded. But once the end came around and especially the neat coda, I had bought into it entirely. Hitchcock’s visual style, while incredibly fun to watch, is nothing compared to the film’s unlikely emotional impact.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock; screenplay by Thorton Wilder, Sally Benson and Alma Reville, from a story by Gordon McDonell; director of photography, Joseph A. Valentine; edited by Milton Carruth; music by Dimitri Tiomkin; produced by Jack H. Skirball; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Teresa Wright (Young Charlie), Joseph Cotten (Uncle Charlie), Macdonald Carey (Jack), Henry Travers (Joe Newton), Patricia Collinge (Emma Newton), Hume Cronyn (Herbie Hawkins), Wallace Ford (Det. Saunders) and Edna May Wonacott (Ann Newton).


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The Monster Squad (1987, Fred Dekker)

Fred Dekker can definitely compose a shot. For whatever its faults, The Monster Squad is one good looking film. Some of that credit belongs to the production designer and the cinematographer and the special effects people, but most of it belongs to Dekker. Dekker composes beautiful Panavision shots and he directs actors really well too–well, some of them, but more on that aspect later.

The Monster Squad is a mix between The Goonies and Ghostbusters and maybe even a little E.T. It’s developed a cult following for whatever reasons a film develops cult followings, but it’s a dramatic train wreck. There’s an infamous missing thirteen minutes (the film’s producers told Dekker to cut it to under ninety), but unless those thirteen minutes are all bridging scenes… The film takes place over three days and the leaps in logic are astounding (my favorite was the kids all being out at midnight with parents completely unaware) and it’s so smug, it’s not even well-meaning in its “message.” Still, there’s a lot of good stuff in Monster Squad.

First, there’s Stephen Macht. The guy’s fantastic–and not all of Monster Squad‘s script is bad. The family stuff is all excellent–it might be stereotypical cop too busy for his family, but it’s being performed by good actors–and some of the humorous stuff with the kids, the one-liners, are good. There’s a cute dog. It’s just so unbelievable… Anyway, besides Macht’s wonderful performance, there’s Duncan Regehr as Dracula. Regehr doesn’t actually have much to do, but he does a great job. The kids are… well, they’re all the kids who guest-starred on 1980s TV shows, pretty much. Only Robby Kiger is good in the scenes with the other kids and with the ludicrous elements, Andre Gower is good at the family stuff with Macht, but not the other stuff. Brent Chalem is terrible.

Even though its special effects are still excellent, The Monster Squad is incredibly dated by its dialogue. Watching it–as I near thirty (and I was vindicated by this widescreen copy, since it clearly shows something I’ve been saying for twenty years was in the film was simply pan and scanned out)–I can’t imagine ever showing it to one of my (prospective) children. The conversation about the rampant homophobic slurs coming out of the kids’ mouths weighed against the film’s content just isn’t worth it–and Monster Squad gets nasty, using terms I didn’t even understand until now. Just really mean-hearted stuff. It might be a fairly accurate representation of how boys talk, but it’s not a documentary about kids being stupid shitheads and its presence is somewhat odd (though, maybe not, given how fanatically Dekker defended it in a recent interview). There’s also a really weird aspect about the two main kids, Gower and Kiger, hugging all the time….

The film definitely suffers from a lack of wonderment or even a comprehension of it. When these kids, who are obsessed with monsters, discover this pretend passion is actual, there’s no moment of recognition. It’s an absurd fantasy and it doesn’t recognize that condition and it suffers greatly for it. However, I can’t believe, how good-looking a film it is in its original aspect ratio. Whatever its significant faults, Monster Squad is a beautifully produced film. It’s like the Olympia of kids movies. No, that one’s a little far, but Dekker’s interview really pissed me off (I mean, seriously, I don’t know if he’d mind the comparison of ideologies).

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Fred Dekker; written by Dekker and Shane Black; director of photography, Bradford May; edited by James Mitchell; music by Bruce Broughton; production designer, Albert Brenner; produced by Jonathan A. Zimbert; released by Tri-Star Pictures.

Starring Andre Gower (Sean), Robby Kiger (Patrick), Stephen Macht (Del), Duncan Regehr (Count Dracula), Tom Noonan (Frankenstein), Brent Chalem (Horace), Ryan Lambert (Rudy), Ashley Bank (Phoebe), Michael Faustino (Eugene), Mary Ellen Trainor (Emily), Carl Thibault (Wolfman), Tom Woodruff Jr. (Gill-Man), Michael MacKay (Mummy), Leonard Cimino (Scary German Guy), Jon Gries (Desperate Man), Stan Shaw (Detective Sapir) and Jason Hervey (E.J.).


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A Civil Action (1998, Steven Zaillian)

A Civil Action is somewhere in between a modestly budgeted Hollywood drama (you know, the kind they don’t make anymore unless it’s for Oscar season) and a wildly passionate–well, not art film, but it’s certainly something else. Steven Zaillian casts the film with a knowing grown-up indie eye (William H. Macy, Dan Hedaya playing a villain almost on par with Blood Simple, and James Gandolfini) but he tells the story in a truly (as truly as possible for the 1990s) filmic fashion. Sure, John Travolta’s reformed ambulance chaser is the film’s main character, but Zaillian concerns himself and the audience with the surrounding characters throughout. Even the film’s antagonist, Robert Duvall, is given some wonderfully engaging material. While Travolta’s lawyer learns, through the process of the film, to value the pursuit for the truth over the cynical dismissal of it, Zaillian never does–the film’s passionate about it’s content, totally sure of all its moves, but all of these moves are precisely calculated for an effect. They’re well-executed, well-conceived, but there’s nothing in A Civil Action I found magical. It’s a true story in that real sense. While Zaillian can do the great comedic bit of the bank manager thinking bankrupt Macy has got a gun, he can’t find a way to lie to the viewer. There’s no wool to A Civil Action–it’s an example of what Hollywood filmmaking has been doing well since 1924 or whatnot. Proof the recipe and casserole dish aren’t broken.

The problem with the film is the ingredients. It’s not a movie. Not a dramatizable film. Zaillian’s apparently not willing to sell out the truth to package it into something consumable. To some degree, he could have made A Civil Action a more satisfying tale about Travolta’s redemptive change, but it’s not about that change. It is a little, but it’s mostly not. He could have made the trial more thrilling, maybe made John Lithgow’s judge a little more treacherous, maybe made Duvall’s lawyer corrupt. Something. The experience of watching the film is incredibly satisfying and filling, but only because of how Zaillian tells his story. For example, he never gives the audience a shot of the redeemed Travolta. Instead, he leaves the audience off-balance, not stumbling, but certainly not on solid ground.

All of the acting in the film is excellent, with Gandolfini probably getting the best role. Macy’s got some good stuff to do, so does Duvall, but it’s really all Gandolfini in terms of depth. Travolta’s performance is a little perplexing–to some extent, he’s doing the Travolta thing (that Travolta used to be able to do), but he’s expanding on it, much in the self-refrential manner of Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire, but more significant success.

The film’s probably not challenging to watch, but fully appreciating it requires a certain confidence in what Zaillian’s doing. Zaillian doesn’t start doing it right away–he obviously didn’t want moviegoers to get up and leave in droves–but, quite analogously, around the time Travolta accepts the case, the viewer has to accept the film.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Zaillian; screenplay by Zaillian, based on the book by Jonathan Harr; director of photography, Conrad L. Hall; edited by Wayne Wahrman; music by Danny Elfman; production designer, David Gropman; produced by Scott Rudin, Robert Redford and Rachel Pfeffer; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring John Travolta (Jan Schlichtmann), Robert Duvall (Jerome Facher), Tony Shalhoub (Kevin Conway), William H. Macy (James Gordon), Zeljko Ivanek (Bill Crowley), Bruce Norris (William Cheeseman), Kathleen Quinlan (Anne Anderson), Peter Jacobson (Neil Jacobs), Mary Mara (Kathy Boyer), James Gandolfini (Al Love), Stephen Fry (Pinder), John Lithgow (Judge Skinner), Dan Hedaya (John Riley) and Sydney Pollack (Al Eustis).


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