Stargate (1994, Roland Emmerich), the director's cut

When I was sixteen, I wrote a review of Stargate for my school newspaper and I gave it four stars. Out of four. Since watching it for the first time since then–though I might have seen it on VHS pan and scanned, which isn’t the same film, Emmerich does use his whole frame–I’m not experiencing the embarrassment I thought I would. Sure, it’s probably atrociously written, but whatever… This review came out a pre-Enlightenment period–maybe I was just applying the film quality qualifications others instilled in me (such as the unapproachable goodness of John Woo, Robert Rodriguez, and True Romance) and, (while Stargate is certainly better than most of those films just through lack of insult, I wouldn’t have known it then) by comparison, I came to the conclusion it must be a film of great import. This theory is a bunch of malarky–sixteen year-olds simply are not reasoning readers yet–but it would at least pass the buck to some degree.

The 1980s had their share of science fiction/fantasy films, but as time passed (and Dune proved just not anyone could do it), they became lower budget and foreign-funded until they practically disappeared. Carolco put together Stargate, so it probably did have a lot of foreign money in it, but special effects had changed by the time Stargate came along… there was CG. Stargate hardly uses it, but, at the time, morphing was still big. Watching the film, I realized Stargate is one of the most influential films of the last twenty years. It’s content-less adventure (albeit, without the pop culture references now a cornerstone of blockbusters–thanks to Pulp Fiction of all things), it’s a blockbuster without integrity. Before Stargate, with the exception of Rocky IV, blockbusters tended to have some integrity. Stargate wasn’t even a blockbuster, but it was the prototype for the blockbusters immediately following–when Spielberg, in a sense, lost the blockbuster. The film’s legacy–and it does have one–is integrity-free CG. Computer generation imagery would not be a special special effect, it would be mundane. This legacy didn’t play out immediately (Dragonheart failed, for instance), but by 1996 and 1997, it was in full effect–and it’s produced absolutely nothing of value.

Again, Stargate isn’t too bad. It’s so bland–though one can amuse oneself by recognizing the Spielberg “homages,” there are plenty from Raiders of the Lost Ark–it just passes the time. Emmerich’s direction is okay. The film is very pretty and his shot composition is fine, uninteresting but fine. While the writing is incredibly stupid, since Devlin and Emmerich hadn’t yet hit the big time, it’s not offensive. I rented it because I’ve been watching Spader so much on “Boston Legal” I was curious and he’s fine. I’d forgotten Kurt Russell was in it (I think Stargate actually relaunched his brief mid-1990s film career, Kurt Russell has a lot of career relaunches). He’s awful when he’s supposed to be mourning (his son died playing with one of his guns, which I think Devlin probably lifted from “Beverly Hills, 90210”), but there are moments when he can’t help smiling. He’s good in those moments and he and Spader actually have a couple good scenes together. John Diehl shows up, getting more lines than usual. I won’t even discuss Jaye Davidson, though Emmerich and Devlin did always interestingly cast and miscast. For example, French Stewart is in Stargate. As a soldier no less.

Stargate isn’t worth getting virulent about. I suppose in recognizing its terrible aftereffects, one could easily rant (and I do realize I talked about the film for one paragraph of four–there’s just not enough in the movie to talk about it’s so shallow). Hollywood rarely produces–anymore–free dumb movies. Today (and immediately following Stargate practically) dumb movies come at a cost–the realization of sitting through the dumb movie and feeling stupid for it. In fact, I think film audiences have passed through that phase and now, they no longer expect to engage with filmic narratives… nor do they particularly want such engagement. As it works out, Stargate is, by default, a lot better tripe than today’s tripe.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Roland Emmerich; written by Dean Devlin and Emmerich; director of photography, Karl Walter Lindenlaub; edited by Derek Brechin and Michael J. Duthie; music by David Arnold; production designer, Holger Gross; produced by Devlin, Oliver Eberle and Joel B. Michaels; released by Carolco Pictures.

Starring Kurt Russell (Col. Jack O’Neil), James Spader (Dr. Daniel Jackson), Viveca Lindfors (Catherine Langford, Ph.D.), Alexis Cruz (Skaara), Mili Avital (Sha’uri), Leon Rippy (General West), John Diehl (Lieutenant Kawalsky), Carlos Lauchu (Anubis), Djimon Hounsou (Horus), Erick Avari (‘Good Father’ Kasuf), French Stewart (Lieutenant Ferretti), Gianin Loffler (Nabeh) and Jaye Davidson (Ra).


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The Assignment (1997, Christian Duguay)

Since it’s Robert Ludlum week here at The Stop Button (actually it’s not, these two were a coincidence), I watched The Assignment, which is an unofficial adaptation of Ludlum’s Bourne trilogy. Again, I read Ludlum back when I was in junior high–maybe early high school–and I remember seeing this film and wondering why it wasn’t credited to him, since it lifts the major twist in the books. Googling reveals no answer and I suppose it is possible The Assignment–coming out of Sony’s now defunct low budget wing, Triumph Films–might have passed under the radar. Or not. M. Night Shyamalan is renowned plagiarist and I don’t think he’s ever been publicly sued. But Bourne Supremacy director Paul Greengrass has certainly seen this film, because he lifted his lauded car chase from it.

Christian Duguay never made it. It would have been hard, given he directed the first two Scanners sequels, but he’s an excellent director. I remember reading–back around the time either this film or Screamers came out–he used steadicam for every shot. Not the shaky steadicam, the “realism” steadicam, just steadicam. The shots have mobility and urgency. He also used CG to allow for interesting camera movements (like crawling down the Wailing Wall). He’s an excellent director. The Assignment’s script fails him, but Duguay is fantastic. There’s a ten or fifteen minute action scene in this film–a long chase from foot to car–and it’s brilliant, one of the finest sustained action scenes ever produced. But even his domestic directing is good. It’s because of this direction–and the acting, more on it in a sentence or two–it’s so obvious The Assignment could have been better. It could have been, with the right script, the Manhunter of espionage movies. Instead, it just shows the super-budgets of Matt Damon’s Bourne movies don’t make them better films.

Obviously, the difference between The Assignment and the Bourne duo is easily identifiable. The Assignment was made for a rational, thinking audience interested in character development and… narrative quality. The script is poor, not bad. There’s a difference. The acting in The Assignment finally reminded me why I like Aidan Quinn so much (I managed to finally get his wavering accent from Blink out of my head). Quinn is fantastic in this film and the role requires him to cover an incredible range of emotion. He’s just great. Ben Kingsley does a good job too, but it’s really Donald Sutherland who has the most fun. I’m not sure how “good” Sutherland’s performance is in The Assignment, but he’s an absolute joy to watch. An actress named Claudia Ferri–who’s in nothing, of course–is great as Quinn’s wife. The acting is so good and there are some dialogue I can’t believe was in the script, you feel like the actors just had to be improvising because it fit their acting so well.

This film is another one where some creative handling of the timeline would help–starting in the middle of the story, not going linear and explaining everything. To some degree, with Quinn playing two roles, they trick the viewer, but it’s not enough. There’s not enough of a hook, or at least as good of a hook if they’d jumbled the timeline. Even though The Assignment has the writing problems, it’s still worth seeing. It’d be worth seeing for either Duguay or the acting alone, but with both… again, all it really needed a good script polish….

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Christian Duguay; written by Dan Gordon and Sabi H. Shabtai; director of photography, David Franco; edited by Yves Langlois; music by Normand Corbeil; production designer, Michael Joy; produced by Tom Berry and Franco Battista; released by Triumph Films.

Starring Aidan Quinn (Annibal Ramirez/Carlos), Donald Sutherland (Jack Shaw), Ben Kingsley (Amos), Liliana Komorowska (Agnieska), Claudia Ferri (Maura Ramirez) and Celine Bonnier (Carla).


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The Osterman Weekend (1983, Sam Peckinpah)

Very few filmmakers have a good last film. Kubrick was incredibly lucky. Hitchcock was not. In general, directors tend to wane in their later careers–Clint Eastwood’s blossoming into such an artist aside–and, depending on their popularity and influence, they live into the era they inspired and no one wants to listen to them anymore. Orson Welles once accepted an award for Citizen Kane and told his granters he loved getting an award when he couldn’t get money to make a new film. Peckinpah’s producers on The Osterman Weekend took it away from him in editing, while Peckinpah was hospitalized no less. Still, there was nothing for Peckinpah to fix.

I’ve actually read the novel by Robert Ludlum–in eighth grade or something–and Ludlum writes big books. The weekend of the title doesn’t even start until forty minutes into the film, after a lengthy setup and a car chase. Peckinpah had lost the touch, recycling his Wild Bunch style for the chase scene. It’s still somehow effective in a few parts–the slow motion and the regular speed sound–but it’s a desperate attempt to thrill and it doesn’t work. The slow motion comes back in the end, during a fight scene between Rutger Hauer and Craig T. Nelson. Craig T. Nelson knows kung fu in The Osterman Weekend. Unbelievably, Nelson turns in the second best performance in the film too. Hauer made an excellent leading man, even if he didn’t have his accent totally smoothed out in this film.

I didn’t get interested in Osterman for Peckinpah though–his work, starting in the mid-1970s, gets pretty terrible (though The Osterman Weekend is better than Cross of Iron). I got interested because of the writer, Alan Sharp, who wrote Night Moves. The dialogue is adequate, the scenes are dull. Combined with the direction, it’s like watching a TV movie–one you can’t believe you’re still watching. However, nothing–not the script, not the sad attempt at action (woefully lacking the content Peckinpah infused to such success)–could survive the producers. The Osterman Weekend looks cheap. It looks cheap in the main house set, it looks cheap in the CIA headquarters (where poor Burt Lancaster embarrasses himself), and it looks really cheap in John Hurt’s CIA techno-van. The two clowns producing it went on to do Highlander and condemn the viewing public to Christopher Lambert.

A few scenes in Osterman did look familiar, like someone saw the film. In particular, the drive-in scene from Heat has an obvious precursor here, if only the location. I think there was another one, I just can’t remember. So people did keep watching Peckinpah, but it’s shocking how little he had to say by the end of his career.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Sam Peckinpah; screenplay by Alan Sharp, adaptation by Ian Masters, based on the book by Robert Ludlum; director of photography, John Coquillon; edited by Edward Abroms and David Rawlins; music by Lalo Schifrin; production designer, Robb Wilson King; produced by Peter S. Davis and William N. Panzer; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Rutger Hauer (John Tanner), John Hurt (Lawrence Fassett), Craig T. Nelson (Bernard Osterman), Dennis Hopper (Richard Tremayne), Chris Sarandon (Joseph Cardone), Meg Foster (Ali Tanner), Helen Shaver (Virginia Tremayne), Cassie Yates (Betty Cardone), Sandy McPeak (Stennings), Christopher Starr (Steve Tanner) and Burt Lancaster (Maxwell Danforth).


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Flight Angels (1940, Lewis Seiler)

When the studio system collapsed, so did the B-picture promotion system–a star of a B-picture could end up the star of an A-picture… For example, Jimmy Stewart started out in B-pictures, so did Eleanor Parker, so did Humphrey Bogart (I think). Occasionally, B-pictures made A-picture money (The Thin Man). It was a good system and there hasn’t been anything like it since–the rash of soap opera actors going mainstream did have a few good results (Alec Baldwin, Anne Heche) but none lasting–and that phenomenon has ended. It was never as successful as the promotion system and its disappearance is unfortunate, because it did produce good actors.

Flight Angels has an odd mix of actors, career-wise. Virginia Bruce, the star, was on the downswing. Her romantic interest, Dennis Morgan, was on the upswing (he ended up in musicals no less). Jane Wyman has a supporting role and runs wild with it, making the best of the script and turning in the film’s best performance. These actors’ success in light of the script–which alternates between a commercial for American Airlines and an astoundingly sexist portrayal of working women–is Flight Angels biggest surprise. The film doesn’t start out as anything but the commercial, so when the flight attendants–sorry, stewardesses–all get together to talk about marrying rich passengers and scream and run around and… fight (there’s a cat fight in Flight Angels), I couldn’t help but dream of a showing of Flight Angels with a debate afterwards between Margaret Cho and some female Conservative. Many A-features, for example, have a strong sexist attitude running through them (The Women, The Philadelphia Story), but I guess studios reserved the blatancy and cat fights for the B-features. Maybe not many theaters on the coasts played B-features. I suppose it’d be worth investigating. Oh, I forgot… not a history major anymore.

Still, Flight Angels is a well-handled film. Director Seiler has a lot of experience and the film even had one really nice shot. The special effects by Byron Haskin (who later directed) aren’t as nice as the aerial photography. On one hand, Flight Angels is an interesting historical document, on the other, it does have some nice performances from a likable cast. Either way, it’s a diverting seventy minutes.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Lewis Seiler; screenplay by Maurice Leo, from a story by Jerry Wald and Richard Macaulay; director of photography, L. William O’Connell; edited by James Gibbon; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Virginia Bruce (Mary Norvell), Dennis Morgan (Chick Farber), Wayne Morris (Artie Dixon), Ralph Bellamy (Bill Graves), Jane Wyman (Nan Hudson) and John Litel (Dr. Barclay).


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