Tuesday, August 06, 2013

TC Tribute #16: The Firm: B-

A Film Review By Stefan Vlahov

It doesn't take a long time to realize that Tom Cruise's 1993 John Grisham-adapted starrer The Firm gave the actor an opportunity to do something he hadn't so far in his illustrious (Rain Man, Born on the Fourth of July) career - totally slum it. In fact this is as close as Tom Cruise ever got to being the 'bland, one-note' screen presence that his most ardent critics were already accusing him of. And yet The Firm remains a curious, if not unique choice for him to headline at a time when scripts were surely stacking up at his agent's office with no end in sight. Part thriller, part critique of the corrupt justice system, Sydney Pollack's (Havana) film strays very little from Grisham's original text, albeit trimming it so as to fit within a two and a half hour running time.

Sight unseen, there are some warning signs that this film may as well be a disaster, not the least of which is that extraordinarily lengthy running time. Yet Pollack's casting of the film wins us over with bit parts from the likes of Ed Harris, Gary Busey and the extraordinary Holly Hunter who inexplicably ended up being nominated for an Oscar for 6 minutes of screen time! And while 'spot your favorite character actor' is fun to play for a while, we need an interesting story to get into. Grisham's tendency to write mainstream consumerist mysteries is warning sign number two, and yet the adaptation by David Rabe (Casualties of War), Robert Towne (Days of Thunder), and David Rayfiel (also (Havana), plays with time in a way that, while cliched by today's standards, keeps the mind at attention. It's a guessing game all the way to the end, even as the film's villains are slowly revealed and the consequences of their ruthlessness are in full tragic display.

The acting is certainly up to par for this type of film. Cruise has always been a fan of surrounding himself with talent and he once again succeeds at doing that without being overshadowed. Jeanne Tripplehorn is equal parts beautiful and complicated, Gene Hackman is having a great time playing a role he can do in his sleep, and Hal Holbrook's performance lends the film an air of credibility rarely seen in a Grisham adaptations. I won't mention any more of the performances because the varied famous people in bit parts serve to alleviate the running length of this film.

Which inevitably brings me to the editing work done by father-son team Fredric and William Steinkamp. The Steinkamps' work has always been problematic. Their editing is the opposite of dynamic and frequently their films are longer than need be. The Firm is no exception. No other technical aspect deserves mention, except for the Oscar-nominated score by Dave Grusin which sounds terrible in the film. Grusin has always written scores for albums rather than films, and his ill-fitting work on The Firm is the most egregious example of this tendency.

Still, there is a lot to recommend here. A strong script and great acting by many screen favorites is usually enough to put any film on my good side, but add a strong dose of "Cruise control" and you have a pretty good film for a Sunday afternoon. Just make sure you set aside enough time to watch it all the way through to the end
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Wednesday, May 15, 2013

TC Tribute #15: A Few Good Men B+

A Film Review By Stefan Vlahov

It's difficult to look back on A Few Good Men with anything but fondness. In a way, it's not just a film - it's a representation of a now bygone era. It's the type of film your dad says "they don't make  anymore." What director Rob Reiner's film reminds me most of is a time when movies were not afraid of being preposterous and didn't always fall back on the safety net of subtlety, as most 21st century dramas do. I miss that time and I truly miss the era that brought us A Few Good Men.

Rob Reiner has never called attention to himself as a filmmaker and while that puts focus on the characters, it makes A Few Good Men oddly forgettable, especially for visually inclined viewers. Fortunately, the film is endlessly re-watchable  a testament to the excellent performances by it's three leads (Tom Cruise, Demi Moore and Jack Nicholson) and a very strong supporting cast that includes the likes of Kiefer Sutherland and Kevin Bacon. Also its story line is one that actually is fairly universal - name a decade that isn't filled with 'potential war crimes' headlines and news stories. The film's universality in appeal from a political and entertainment standpoint is a testament to the way it uses cliche to it's advantage.

Most people will be entertained by A Few Good Men. Some may hold it up as an example of unspoiled filmmaking - a nostalgic piece of Americana to be revisited regularly in the decades to come. I don't have an issue with either viewpoint, and as the credits rolled I realized that I'd been the witness of something truly rare - a film that doesn't strive for greatness, but despite the lack of effort, immeasurably achieves it.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

TC Tribute #14: Far and Away B+

A Film Review By Stefan Vlahov

An idealistic blockbuster about the Irish immigrant struggle in late 19th century America, director Ron Howard's Far and Away has received an unfairly bad rap over the last decade. Long thought of as an overblown melodramatic epic, the film actually hides a fairly subtle message about class structure beneath all the scenic shots of the American countryside. For it was the coming of the immigrants in the late 19th century  that turned the US into a (less pronounced) "caste system", with the so-called 'aliens' dueling deep in the dark underbellies of the big cities.

Of course it would be simply untrue to call Far and Away a 'study' of those tumultuous times. Instead, Howard uses the tumult to provide the two main roles with plenty of character-building adventures and culture clashes. A good example is the film's prologue which portrays three rowdy but hardworking Irish brothers plowing their farm's land just before it is taken over by the Irish aristocracy in a tragic turn of events. This scene and the subsequent events that occur to main characters Joseph Donnelly (Tom Cruise) and Shannon Christie (Nicole Kidman) serve as a list of reasons why people immigrated to the US. The US wasn't simply the the Great White Light of the West, and in fact most Irish immigrants would have preferred not to have moved, but so often in these stories, people are running away from something, not going to anything.

Howard's film is anything but tightly constructed, as screenwriter Bob Dolman (Willow) leaves no stone unturned with his highly detailed script. Still, Howard never loses focus of the characters and either one of them is within the frame in almost every scene of the film. We find ourselves learning about the Irish culture through their experiences and confrontations, not through needless narration or exposition. Their love for one another is constantly challenged by the external nightmare they've been thrust into. Kidman's Christie is especially pitiful since she would have led a much more materialistically rewarding life had she stayed with her wealthy aristocratic family in Ireland. We are often made aware of that fact, most strongly when her wealthy family eventually shows up stateside in an attempt to take her back to Ireland.

Far and Away is many things, from a romantic drama to a survivalist tale and the fact that it works successfully within the various genres is not only a credit to Howard, but to the main performances as well. Cruise's Irish accent is certainly something to get past, but it isn't badly realized - we just aren't used to hearing him with the accent. The fact that he doesn't look Irish only exasperates the problem. Still, it is one of the more emotional performances of Cruise's career which is saying a lot, and it's nice to see his character have a true arch that we rarely get in big blockbuster movies. Kidman is less memorable as the spoiled rich girl who decides to throw it all away for love. As great an actress as she turned into later in her career (Eyes Wide Shut, Birth, many others) it's interesting to see her still mainly relying on her looks and charm in her early career. It's a smart move on her part, but the characterization suffers from it.

Overall, I can't help but recommend Far and Away. It's an astonishingly beautiful (shot in 65mm format), but gritty enough portrayal of the immigrant land rush inspired by the Manifest Destiny doctrine adapted in the 19th Century. This historical time period is strangely absent from current cinema, and the film refreshingly puts it front and center. Even if the players involved don't look back on the film as fondly as one would think, it's negative reputation is clearly overblown. It is indeed the perfect lazy Saturday afternoon movie

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

TC Tribute #13: Days of Thunder (1990) C

A Film Review By Stefan Vlahov

By the late 80's/early 90's Tom Cruise had built up enough pedigree with an Oscar Nomination (Born on the Fourth of July) and consistent box office successes that he could do anything he wanted. He chose Days of Thunder which certainly fits the bill of a star vanity project. Cruise co-wrote the story with old pal Robert Towne (who turned it into a screenplay) and had another industry friend Tony Scott direct it. Unfortunately, the result was underwhelming - a badly paced, unattractive and emotionally inert NASCAR film with little to differentiate it from other films of its ilk (like the equally pedestrian Driven, released 10 years later).

The premise is pretty simple. Tom Cruise plays Cole Trickle - the new kid on the racing scene looking to outshine veteran Rowdy Burns (Michael Rooker) with the help of old time crew chief Harry Hogge (Robert Duvall). As the story goes on, he meets Dr. Lewicki (Nicole Kidman) who not only heals his wounds resulting from numerous car crashes, but also helps him reveal the softer side hidden under his bad boy exterior. Will Trickle finally be able to defeat Burns while also pairing up with the stunning Lewicki? Or are there more important things in life than winning a NASCAR race?

To call the film cliche-ridden would almost be underselling it: the whole thing is one big cliche. But that doesn't matter - so was Top Gun, and yet in that film director Scott and Cruise were able to make a compelling, human (relatable if not realistic) film filled to the brim with entertainment. Thunder tries to do the same but fails at almost every turn. When a tragic event occurs in Thunder it's emotional weight is undermined by a lack effort on both the director's and performers' parts to make it palpable. Of course, leave it to me to bad-mouth the late Tony Scott, but it just seems that he was as uninterested in making this film as Towne was in writing a good script. There isn't any excitement in the racing scenes and the results pack little punch and are of little consequence.

But Scott was a good actors' director and he shows it again here. Cruise is on total cruise control, relying more on his looks here, than in anything he'd starred in since Top Gun. Kidman tries harder as the race car drivers' in-house doctor. In fact the conflict she has with Cruise, while predictable, is more effective than the one driving the main story arch and she deserves most of the credit for its effectiveness. Duvall is merely serviceable, but when he tries to chew the scenery, you can almost sense how he single-handedly elevates the whole film to a new level. My favorite performance though was by Michael Rooker as Cruise's arch-enemy. His character represents the screenplay's strongest point as it turns the audience's perception of him and Cruise's character on its head. Rooker is able to snarl with the best of them, but when he needs to show vulnerability he has an ability to make us care like no one else in the film.

While there are a few bright spots in Days of Thunder, it's only required viewing for Cruise or Scott completists. Everyone else can simply go back to Top Gun and avoid, what is in my opinion Cruise's worst film thus far in his career.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Movie Review: Assault on Precinct 13 (2005) B

A Film Review By Stefan Vlahov

It's a scenario that's practically meant for high melodrama: a group of police officers and criminals stuck in a claustrophobic police building have to defend themselves from a mysterious outside force that contains a lot more firepower than they do. Back in the 70s, the original Assault on Precinct 13 caused quite the hubbub as it was written and directed by genre newcomer John Carpenter going through the "B-Movie" motions while also inserting different thematic ideas - from racism to Vietnam-level war allegories stemming from the unknown enemy's relentless attacks even in the face of countless casualties. Carpenter wasn't interested in the reason why the attackers wanted to kill everyone inside the abandoned precinct building, choosing to focus on the drama inside. The relationships between the criminals and their overseers, filled with much distrust and anxiety, both weakened and strengthened their resolve in attempting to survive this massacre.

Most of those themes are intact in Jean-Fracois Richet's 2005 remake. Working off James DeMonaco's adaptation of the original work, Richet keeps the set up of the story largely the same, adds a bit of slick Euro flavoring to the visuals (courtesy of cinematographer Robert Gantz) and casts a few recognizable faces namely Ethan Hawke, Laurence Fishburne and Maria Bello. The film opens with a great monologue-type scene by Hawke as an undercover cop acting like a druggie. It's actually a great acting moment and automatically entrances the audience. It's another reminder of how good an actor Hawke is and he becomes the film's biggest asset.

The one misstep of the film is the screenplay's insistence to put a face, name and purpose to the villains. Led by a scenery-chewing Gabriel Byrne, they are revealed to be police officers themselves. While this provides a welcome statement about corruption and politics that the nation's crime-fighters are frequently plagued by, I still prefer Carpenter's approach. In Carpenter's film we know as much about the enemy as the people trapped in the building do and the new film sacrifices that to send a message.

Still, it's the characters that matter and they are what keeps us entertained. In that regard, the remake is a winner. In addition to the aforementioned Hawke, there's Fishburne doing the best "mysterious and all-knowing" act that he's known for. Bello is a much stronger female character then any in the original, and we even get some much-needed humor from John Leguizamo and Ja Rule as two of the criminals.

Overall I do recommend this new version of Assault on Precinct 13 due to the strong performances and the suspense factor. While Carpenter's film retains its originality and heightened sense of dread and fear of the unknown, this new version offers enough thrills to satisfy most any film-goer. This can be a great watch with a big group of people.