Falling Down (R) - February 1993
Intense heat; a broken air conditioner; a traffic jam; a window that won't roll down; a fly that refuses to go away--everyday pressures like these can make someone want to leave everything behind and go to war with the world. In Falling Down, the controversial and thought-provoking drama starring Michael Douglas, one man does just that--with darkly funny and powerfully tragic results.
Douglas plays a nameless, unemployed L.A. defense worker (he is identified only by his license plate, D-FENS) who abandons his car in the middle of a freeway traffic jam and travels by foot from South Central L.A. to Venice Beach to get to his daughter's birthday party. This doesn't sit well with his estranged wife Beth (Barbara Hershey), who has a restraining order against him. He is so determined to reach his destination that he eliminates anyone who harasses him and/or stands in this way, including a Korean convenience store owner, a street gang, and a Neo-Nazi surplus store owner (Frederic Forrest). Hot on D-FENS's trail is Prendergast (Robert Duvall), a cop serving his last day before embarking on an unwanted retirement.
Falling Down has been criticized for being prejudiced against defense workers and several racial groups; while these critics have a point, they overlook the point of this film, which is to make a powerful statement about our times. The screenplay by Ebbe Roe Smith, in addition to serving up a number of darkly comic moments, strikes a serious nerve, capturing the anger most people have at the world during these recessionary times. The script also makes a point that one should find more constructive ways to stand up for oneself, for a violent route--like the one D-FENS takes--can only lead to disaster. Beneath the surface lies an even more depressing message; in one scene, a man peacefully pickets a savings and loan, but he is soon arrested, making one wonder if there is any way a person can stand for him or herself in the world.
Falling Down is well-acted throughout; Hershey, Duvall, and Rachel Ticotin, playing Prendergast's ex-partner, turn in first-class work, but it's Douglas who makes the film such a success. D-FENS could have been an unfeeling psychopath in the hands of a lesser actor; Douglas makes you feel for the character, showing the human emotional side behind the tough, violent exterior. Douglas plays him like an ordinary guy driven to the edge by the everyday world--a victim that society makes out to be the bad guy; a frustrated man who has worked all his life yet has nothing to show for it. His dynamic performance makes one question who is at fault in the situation: the character, because he was driven to the edge, or society, the force that pushed him to that edge?
The only problem with Falling Down is the uneven tone set by director Joel Schumacher (Flatliners, Dying Young). The intense rage of the Douglas scenes clash with the slow, boring calmness of the Duvall scenes. While this approach effectively shows how two strikingly dissimilar personalities are living ironically parallel lives, the result is a film that has the flow of two films sloppily edited together. The audience is jarred one scene and calmed the next, only to jarred even more soon after.
Falling Down is a brilliant tale of two men at the end of their ropes, two who have nothing left in life. It is a humorous but frightening tale, a downbeat and all-too-true statement about the cruel world we are forced to live in. Not for the faint of heart.
Fatal Instinct (PG-13) - October 1993
A blond seductress in a tight white dress sits in a chair, smoking a cigarette. After sending jaws dropping with suggestive one-liners, she uncrosses her legs, revealing a bare crotch. This scene, originated in Basic Instinct, was already parodied this year in National Lampoon's Loaded Weapon 1 and now in Fatal Instinct, a promising parody of erotic thrillers that is fatally unfunny.
The plot is a mish-mash of elements from Basic Instinct, Fatal Attraction, Sleeping with the Enemy, Cape Fear, Double Indemnity, and other thrillers. Ned Ravine (Armand Assante) is a cop/defense lawyer with female trouble: his wife Lana (Kate Nelligan) is plotting to kill him with the help of her auto mechanic lover (Christopher McDonald), and ice pick-wielding seductress Lola Cain (Sean Young) wants Ned all to herself, as does his loyal secretary Laura Lincolnberry (Sherilyn Fenn). Complicating matters even further is an ex-con intent on getting revenge on Ned and Laura's abusive husband, who stalks his estranged wife.
Unlike most recent film parodies, Fatal Instinct attempts to poke fun at a whole genre, not a specific film. But the film is a bit too ambitious. Screenwriter David O'Malley and director Carl Reiner seem to be more concerned with the number of films they poke fun at rather than the jokes themselves. Outside of a few funny moments (and I mean a few), the film just isn't that funny. Part of the problem is that the audience needs to see the original films to get most of the jokes; a good parody's jokes are funny on their own terms. I know I would have liked Fatal Instinct even less if I hadn't already seen a number of the movies it takes off.
At least the film has a number of surprisingly inspired comic performances by actors best known for their dramatic work. Assante is appropriately idiotic as the dense Ravine even though his character never amounts to more than a pale ripoff of Frank Drebin, The Naked Gun's dimwitted hero. Nelligan is delightfully hammy as the scheming wife, coming away with the film's best line, and Fenn gives a generally boring character some life and personality. However, Young's performance is ruinous, trying too hard impersonating Sharon Stone and Glenn Close, reciting her lines in a pseudo-seductive breathy voice. Reiner should have cast the underused Fenn in the role of the vixen, a part she played with great vitality in Jennifer Lynch's Boxing Helena.
Fatal Instinct is a major disappointment, a film that takes quantity (of source material) over quality (of jokes). If you want to see a truly hilarious takeoff of Basic Instinct and other erotic thrillers, rent the Madonna fiasco Body of Evidence--preferably the unrated version. Now there's a comedy.
The Fugitive (PG-13) - August 1993
Concepts that were successful on television aren't always successful when translated to the big screen--artistically, at least. The first major TV-show-turned-film, 1991's The Addams Family, was a slightly amusing but overall underwhelming update of the delightfully macabre 1960s series. Last year's underrated Twin Peaks--Fire Walk with Me was a satisfying (for fans like me) but needlessly muddled prequel/conclusion to the television series. And this past summer, Coneheads was a landmark in truly awful cinema. But there are some exceptions: 1992's big screen version of Wayne's World, which went in hilarious new directions with its threadbare concept, and now The Fugitive, one of the most exciting, intelligent, and all-around brilliant action films ever to hit the silver screen.
Harrison Ford takes over for the late David Janssen as Dr. Richard Kimble, who is wrongly imprisoned for murdering his wife (Sela Ward), who was really killed by a mysterious one-armed man. In an incredibly staged sequence, a train crashes into Kimble's prison bus, and he escapes, free to chase after the true murderer of his wife. But hot on Kimble's trail is determined U.S. Marshal Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones), who is just one step behind in capturing Kimble.
The Fugitive was directed by Andrew Davis, whose most recent film was the entertaining Steven Seagal actionfest Under Siege. With The Fugitive, Davis proves to be one of the best action directors working today, fully displaying the ability to create tension, excitement, and electrifying action sequences only hinted at in Under Siege. But this time, Davis keeps the blood to a minimum, focusing more on plot and characterization while not sacrificing any action. Notably impressive is how he depicts Mrs. Kimble's murder, an event that could have been easily exploited, in brief and chilling black-and-white flashbacks. He especially shows strength in staging stunts, including what will go down as the greatest train wreck in film history.
The screenplay by Jeb Stuart and David Twohy is one of the most intelligent and suspenseful action scripts in recent memory. The pace hardly ever slows down, and when it does, the moments are barely long enough to let you catch your breath. But their real achievement is creating two strong, intelligent, and unforgettable characters: the emotionally wounded but unshakable Kimble and the well-meaning but obsessively determined Gerard.
Those characters come to life under the able hands of Ford and Jones. Although given little dialogue to say, take one look at Ford's face at any given moment and you know Kimble's feelings, motivations, and thoughts. Ford is probably the only actor who has such a rapport with the audience; anything he cares about you instantly care about. Like in Under Siege, Jones creates a formidable adversary, but Gerard is an antihero you want to hate yet can't help but like. A man sworn to do his job whether right or wrong, this complex character could have been portrayed as a straight villain if played by a lesser actor. Ford and Jones should be Oscar contenders come next spring.
Of all the action blockbusters to be released this summer, The Fugitive is by far the best. A film with style, wit, intelligence, and excitement, it is not just a great action film. It's a great film, period.
Imagine waking up to your least favorite day of the year again... and again... and again. This is the problem plaguing Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, a well-intentioned but slow romantic comedy whose main gimmick grows real tiresome really fast.
Murray plays Phil Connors, an arrogant big-city TV weatherman who dreads his annual assignment of covering a Groundhog Day festival in the small town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Phil hopes to do his report and leave Punxsutawney as quickly as possible, but an unexpected blizzard strands him there for the night. But Phil's hopes of leaving the next day are dashed when--due to circumstances never clearly explained--he finds himself trapped in Groundhog Day, waking up to the strains of "I Got You Babe" and experiencing the delirious joy of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Day festival over and over again. Phil decides to toy with the possibilities, robbing a bank, jumping off of a building, and ceaselessly trying to woo his producer (Andie MacDowell) until he gets it right.
As always, Murray's natural comic presence and timing keep things interesting and amusing, and he has believable romantic chemistry with the appealing MacDowell. If only Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis's screenplay was as good as he. The central gimmick of the day repeating over and over again becomes old after the first five repetitions. The comic possibilities of a man held prisoner in his least favorite day are great, but the gag can only be taken so far. Watching the same situations arise ten to fifteen times is like watching a thirty-minute film stretched out to 100 minutes by repeatedly hitting a rewind button.
Not helping matters is the sluggish direction by Ramis (Ghostbusters). Part of the reason why the main concept grows so monotonous is that Ramis doesn't inject any new energy to each variation of the same scene. This could have been an intentional stylistic method to depict Phil's boredom with the day (if it is, it works), but just because the situation is supposed to only bore the character does not mean it doesn't bore the audience as well; I don't know of anyone who finds amusement out of another person's boredom.
Because of the delightful presence of Bill Murray, Groundhog Day is a marginal success, but it could have been a complete one if the people behind the camera did as good a job as those in front of it.
Hard Target (R) - August 1993
So many action films have hit the screens recently that it takes something more than action for the film to be fresh and interesting: a good sense of humor, decent acting, and/or a strong plot. Hard Target has none of the above, but the fresh and exciting style of director John Woo makes the film worthwhile.
Jean-Claude Van Damme plays Chance Boudreaux, a New Orleans drifter who helps Natasha Binder (Yancy Butler) locate her homeless veteran father. Little do they know that Natasha's father was killed by a group of wealthy men who kill homeless men, preferably those with combat experience, for sport. When the mastermind (Lance Henriksen) of the hunting ring finds out about Natasha and Chance's quest--and about Chance's extensive combat experience--he targets Chance as his next quarry.
Hard Target has all the makings of a truly awful movie. The first problem is the screenplay by Chuck Pfarrer (who appears briefly at the opening of the film as Natasha's doomed father). The plot is neither original nor interesting, and the script is full of howlingly inane jokes (Natasha to Chance: "How did you get the name 'Chance'?" Chance: "My mama took one.").
Sometimes actors can make a dumb plot easy to swallow, but that's not the case here. Van Damme continues to prove to be the worst actor out of all the big screen action heroes, appearing stiff and uncomfortable, delivering his lines in a sluggish fashion. Butler is mere window dressing, doing little more than providing scenery. And Henriksen is so over-the-top that he can't be taken seriously; he doesn't seem like much of a threat to Van Damme.
In the hands of a hack director, Hard Target would be a disaster. But renowned Hong Kong action director Woo puts a striking new spin on the chaos, using lots of slow motion, freeze frames, and dissolves during the many well-staged action sequences. Any director can stage an explosion, but it takes something more to make it suspenseful and exciting: creativity and imagination. Although his flashy visuals could be considered overkill, it makes the action that much more arresting and exciting. Particularly impressive is the incredibly violent pure action final twenty minutes, where Woo's visual pyrotechnics and stunt choreography makes a climax so exhilaratingly fast-paced and energetic that you forget all the nonsense that preceded it.
Anyone looking for a film light on intelligence but heavy on action should enjoy Hard Target. A graphically violent (it had to be trimmed eight times before receiving an R rating) but tremendously exciting and entertaining film, it marks the American arrival of a major filmmaking talent... with a bang.
Indecent Proposal (R) - April 1993
Would you let your spouse sleep with a billionaire for one million dollars? That is the question posed to Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson in Indecent Proposal, the controversial, predictable, cornball, but entertaining romantic drama from director Adrian Lyne (Fatal Attraction).
Moore and Harrelson play Diana and David Murphy, a couple who goes to Las Vegas with hopes of making their $5000 grow to the $50,000 needed to pay off their debts. They lose it all, but relief comes in the form of John Gage (Robert Redford), a debonair billionaire who offers the couple $1,000,000 to sleep with Diana. She and David debate the issue for a while but ultimately go through with it, a decision that creates a distrust that causes unforeseen damage to their presumed rock-solid marriage.
Critics have been quick to trash Indecent Proposal for its "silly," "dumb," and "implausible" story, but they overlook the film's strongest quality--its entertainment value. It is impossible to not get caught up in the shamelessly romantic story and the two likable main characters. David and Diana are an appealing couple; Amy Holden Jones's screenplay sets up their romantic foundation so well that you root for the two to work out their marital troubles. The success of the romance is also due in large part to Moore and Harrelson's performances. Despite all the arguments they get into Moore and Harrelson always imply with skillful subtelty that they still love--and, most importantly, are in love with--each other.
Moore adds a strong will to a character that could have easily been played as the object Gage sees her as being. Harrelson, best known for his comedic work, is a natural dramatic actor, giving David a soul and a sensitive heart behind the distrusting fašade. Redford's relaxed performance as Gage seems bland by comparison, but his cool manner is perfect for the character, exuding the self-confidence one would associate with a billionaire.
Jones's screenplay has an engrossing romantic element, but it also has a glaring problem--predictability. As interesting as the events are, the plot developments come as no surprise. Not helping matters is the relatively pedestrian direction by Lyne; he fills the screen with his trademark flashy visuals (roulettes and crapshoots never looked better), but he doesn't bring any of that fresh energy to the execution of the story. And the formulaic ending doesn't quite soar; while it is consistent with the film's romantic tone, the film would have worked better with a conclusion more realistic and less Hollywood.
Indecent Proposal is a far from indecent movie that will make you laugh, (maybe) cry, and keeps you entertained and engrossed until the last second. Romantic and all-around entertaining, it is a proposal worth accepting.
Malice (R) - October 1993
A young woman bicycles down quiet New England streets, on her way home after a long day of studying at the university. Upon entering her home, the woman finds her cat, her chair, and a strange man who proceeds to rape and beat her. This shocking scene opens Malice, a ludicrous "twist-and-turn-and-twist" thriller that stretches believability to new, ridiculous lengths.
Without giving too much away (the film completely hinges on "surprise twists"), the film centers on Andy Safian (Bill Pullman), a dean at a New England women's university; his wife, Tracy (Nicole Kidman), a hospital volunteer; and Jed Hill (Alec Baldwin), a brilliant surgeon and high school acquaintance of Andy's who moves in with the Safians. While a serial rapist stalks women at the university (a plotline that turns out to have no significance whatsoever), Jed's presence in the Safians' lives plunge them into a "web of intrigue" where nothing is as it seems.
Malice's problems are all-encompassing, but the faults ultimately start at Aaron Sorkin and Scott Frank's screenplay. To the script's credit, the story takes quite a number of twists, but the twists really strain credibility. Sorkin and Frank shove many hard-to-swallow implausibilities and plot inconsistencies down the throats of the audience, particularly an absurdly masochistic act of self-mutilation crucial to the plot. It's one thing to create a thriller that twists and turns; it's a whole other thing entirely to create a thriller that takes believable and logical twists and turns. In Malice, the script seems to twist for the sake of twisting, not necessarily paying attention to the logic behind the twists. Director Harold Becker manages to inject some suspense into the finished product, but not even his filmmaking talent can clear up the cloudy logic of the script.
It doesn't help that the main player in Malice are embarrassingly bad. Contrary to what the commercials and print ads lead you to believe, the star of the film is Pullman, who isn't an expressive or interesting enough actor to carry a film. He excels as a character actor, often stealing scenes in that capacity like he did in Sleepless in Seattle. The leading lady, Kidman, is laughable, hilariously overacting in the film's second half. Unconvincing and way off the mark, she is very miscast. Two supporting players are the only bright spots in this otherwise awful film: Baldwin, impressively portraying a slick egotist, which he played superbly in last year's Glengarry Glen Ross and Bebe Neuwirth, who, despite an ever-changing pseudo-New England accent, credibly plays a police detective.
After watching Malice I felt like revealing the film's big secret to the incoming audience. It's a frustrating and infuriating film, one that really makes you feel cheated once it's over. Baldwin, Kidman, Pullman, screenwriters Sorkin (A Few Good Men) and Frank (Dead Again), and director Becker (Sea of Love) have all done better than this.