Candyman (1992)

2017 #152
Bernard Rose | 95 mins | TV (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA & UK / English | 18 / R

Candyman

Written and directed by a Brit and based on a Clive Barker short story set in Liverpool, horror movie Candyman relocates its story to Chicago, where its race-related themes are arguably more pertinent. How well it handles that angle is another matter…

It stars Virginia Madsen as Helen, a student completing a post-grad thesis on urban legends, which is when she encounters the story of Candyman: supposedly he was a slave who was mutilated, given a hook for a hand, and then murdered, and can now be summoned by saying his name five times in a mirror, at which point he’ll kill the person who summoned him. Why you’d want to do that I don’t know. Anyway, Helen’s investigations lead her to the Cabrini-Green housing projects and a spate of murders that seem to fit Candyman’s MO. Could the legend be real…?

Candyman is over a quarter of a century old now, but it could hardly feel more current with its intellectual female lead and its story based around urban legends of poor black people — it’s ripe for commentary on feminism and racism. How well it handles these is another matter, because I’m not sure how much it has to say about either. Indeed, there’s gotta be room for a remake that tackles the racial tension stuff head-on and engages it more thoroughly. I guess the film just isn’t well enough remembered at this point, because otherwise surely someone would be on it already. It’s such a shame that so many great movies are subjected to inferior remakes when what we really need are more Ocean’s Elevens: middling-to-poor movies with good ideas remade with greater class so as to improve them.

Do you bee-lieve?

That said, I wouldn’t personally describe Candyman as “middling-to-poor”. What it may lack in societal commentary it makes up for as an atmospheric and unpredictable horror movie. I say that because it changes its style entirely halfway through: at first it’s very much an “is it real?” story, with our heroine investigating legends that don’t appear to be true (she says the name five times and nothing happens). The horror is psychological rather than gory. But then (spoilers!) Candyman does turn up (of course he does), at which point Helen becomes suspected of the murders, while Candyman manipulates her and tries to persuade her to become his victim. It’s an interesting development, and both halves present a captivating style of horror movie.

Such a switcheroo also means you don’t know where the story’s going to go or how it’s going to end, which is always an unusual sensation in a genre movie. It contributes to it being an effective piece of horror as well. It’s creepy and atmospheric, as well as containing straight-up jumps and gore. It’s all elevated by a fantastic score from Philip Glass, which helps lend a particular type of mood — kind of religious, almost; mythic.

Candyman spawned sequels, as most horrors seemed to back in the day, but no one seems to really talk about it anymore. That’s actually something of a shame, because it has a different texture to most horror movies, as well as some thematic points that are as socially resonate as ever.

4 out of 5

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Bad Boys (1995)

The 100 Films Guide to…

Bad Boys

Whatcha gonna do?

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 119 minutes
BBFC: 18
MPAA: R

Original Release: 7th April 1995 (USA)
UK Release: 16th June 1995
Budget: $19 million
Worldwide Gross: $141.1 million

Stars
Martin Lawrence (Blue Streak, Big Momma’s House)
Will Smith (Six Degrees of Separation, Independence Day)
Téa Leoni (Deep Impact, Jurassic Park III)
Tcheky Karyo (Nikita, GoldenEye)
Joe Pantoliano (Empire of the Sun, Memento)

Director
Michael Bay (Armageddon, Transformers)

Screenwriters
Michael Barrie & Jim Mulholland (Amazon Women on the Moon, Oscar)
Doug Richardson (Die Hard 2, Hostage)

Story by
George Gallo (Midnight Run, The Whole Ten Yards)


The Story
When millions of dollars’ worth of heroine is stolen from police evidence, the two cops that brought it in must find the thieves and retrieve the drugs, while also protecting the only surviving witness who’s seen the crooks.

Our Heroes
Marcus Burnett and Mike Lowery, a pair of wisecracking cop buddies, one a family man with a wife and kids, the other a smooth womaniser. Never seen that before.

Our Villain
Drug lord Fouchet. Murder happy and clearly a master at planning heists. Other than that, we barely get to know him.

Best Supporting Character
A witness to some of Fouchet’s crimes, Julie ends up in witness protection with Marcus, who she thinks is Mike, which they have to hide from Marcus’ family. Hilarity ensues!

Memorable Quote
Mike Lowrey: “Now back up, put the gun down, and get me a pack of Tropical Fruit Bubblicious.”
Marcus Burnett: “And some Skittles.”

Memorable Scene
After a shoot-out at the airport, Fouchet escapes in a sports car. Marcus, Mike, and Julie give chase, with the normally slow Marcus driving, as they find themselves in a game of chicken with the concrete crash barriers at the end of the runway…

Making of
Bad Boys was a relatively low-budget production, but, fortunately for director Michael Bay’s ambitions, he was already a wealthy man from directing commercials and music videos — so when the budget ran out before shooting a key part of the climax, he was able to pay for it out of his salary; and when they needed a swish car for the heroes to drive, Bay lent his own Porsche 911 to the production.

Next time…
A sequel came eight years later, with a third in on-and-off development ever since — the last news seems to be that it might start shooting later this year. Definitely in the works this year is a spin-off series based around a character from the second film.

Verdict

The debut feature from director Michael Bay, Bad Boys displays a lot of the things he would become known for: fast-cut action scenes; a sense of style over substance; a little light lasciviousness… Even from his first film, some of his flourishes look over the top. Maybe they’ve just aged badly — it certainly feels of its time, i.e. the mid-’90s (with some ’80s holdovers). Anyway, it’s kept aloft by the buddy act of its two stars, who are pretty funny at times. Bay allows the film to run a mite too long though, and the villain is underdeveloped, both of which hold it back even more than Bay’s sometimes-cheesy direction.

Public Access (1993)

2017 #130
Bryan Singer | 86 mins | DVD | 16:9 | USA / English | 18 / R

Public Access

This is the feature debut of director Bryan Singer, screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie, and Singer’s regular editor/composer John Ottman, who would go on to make their names two years later when they created The Usual Suspects (for which McQuarrie even won an Oscar). Despite that — and their careers since — Public Access seems to be little-seen, with less than 800 votes on IMDb (for comparison, Singer’s next lowest is Apt Pupil with over 30,000 votes, and all his other films are in six figures).

The story sees a mysterious stranger, Whiley (Ron Marquette), arrive in the small town of Brewster and book a slot on the local public access TV station, during which he invites viewers to call in to anonymously air their grievances about Brewster and its inhabitants. Soon all the townsfolk are talking about is Whiley’s catchphrase: “What’s wrong with Brewster?”

It’s an intriguing setup for a movie. What secrets lurk beneath the surface of this pretty little town? Who is this stranger and what are his motives? How will the community react to the previously-secret complaints and possible revelations? Unfortunately, Public Access does very little to explore any of those possibilities. It actually toddles along quite nicely for a while — it’s kind of understated; slow in a good way; things appears to be building up to something; there’s some kind of mystery — and then, just over halfway through, Whiley has an incredibly cheesy dream/flashback/premonition, and then the film awkwardly swerves into serial killer thriller territory. I guess that could work, maybe, but it rushes through events, not explaining anything. Then it ends.

What's wrong with Brewster?

What shines through the poor storytelling (and the crappy almost-VHS-level transfer on the DVD) is some obvious proficiency at filmmaking from all involved. There are many bits of nice direction from Singer, a few fairly well written and performed scenes, good editing, an effective use of music, and some gorgeous autumnal orange photography… though a lot of the interiors and stuff look rather orangey too, so I’m not entirely sure if this was intentional or just that shitty transfer. Well, whether by accident or design, it looked like it was good.

Public Access was made for just $250,000, according to IMDb, so perhaps they just ran out of money to shoot everything they needed. Perhaps they were just going for a level of ambiguity that doesn’t come over properly. I was going to say “perhaps I didn’t get it”, but I’m far from alone: Variety said it was “vague about important matters as key story points, motivation and overriding theme”; Newsweek reckoned that “after an intriguing buildup […] the story self-destructs”; and the Hollywood Reporter called it “a virtuosically stylish independent feature that is as full of flourishes as it is devoid of meaning”.

There’s talent on display here, and fortunately Singer and co were given the opportunity to spin that out into the successful careers they’ve enjoyed since (well, mostly… but let’s not get into the Singer stuff right now). Public Access isn’t an undiscovered early gem on anyone’s CV, but it was interesting to see nonetheless.

3 out of 5

The Straight Story (1999)

2017 #133
David Lynch | 108 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | France, UK & USA / English | U / G

The Straight Story

“What would a G-rated Disney movie directed by David Lynch be like?” It sounds like a sketch show pitch, but in 1999, between Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, it happened for real.*

And, talking of “happening for real”, this is a true story about an old fella, Alvin (Richard Farnsworth), who decides to visit his estranged brother after he suffers a stroke. Unable to get a driving licence, he sets off on his 30-year-old ride-on lawnmower, with a maximum speed of 5mph, to make the 240-mile trip. Yes, I said it’s a true story. Of course, it’s not just 100 minutes of Alvin riding a lawnmower along county roads — through the people he meets and the stories he tells, we learn he’s certainly lived a whole life.

Such a simple, straightforward, grounded (well, relatively grounded) narrative seems so very un-Lynch-like at first, but its tale of quirky Americana, peopled by a ragtag selection of endearing oddballs, isn’t so far outside his wheelhouse. There’s a definite Lynch touch detectable in how its made — the shot choices, editing patterns, and so on. There’s even a shot of a grain silo with a background hum that feels straight out of Twin Peaks. Then there are pretty scenery shots which are less obviously him.

Lawnmower man

Lynch has called The Straight Story his “most experimental movie”, which, considering the rest of his oeuvre, probably says more about what he considers experimental than it does about the film itself. What it does demonstrate is that the director, normally known for producing movies that befuddle the mind and chill the blood, is capable of producing something understatedly human and kind of heartwarming.

4 out of 5

* In the US, anyway — other distributors released it elsewhere, including Film4 here in the UK. ^

Blindspot Review Roundup

Spoilers for my next monthly update: I’ve completed watching all 22 films on my 2017 Blindspot and “What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…?” lists. Hurrah!

What I haven’t done is reviewed them all. Indeed, 17 still languish in my review backlog — that’s 77%. (In fact, I’ve only actually reviewed one Blindspot film — The Exorcist — with the other four being from WDYMYHS.)

So, with the end of the year fast approaching — and, with the new year, a new batch of films to watch — I thought it high time I cracked on with those reviews. Here’s a quick roundup of a few, linked by all being adapted from novels, which may be the first of several such omnibus editions.

In today’s roundup:

  • Dances with Wolves: Special Edition (1990/1991)
  • Jackie Brown (1997)
  • Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
  • The 39 Steps (1935)


    Dances with Wolves
    Special Edition

    (1990/1991)

    2017 #26
    Kevin Costner | 227 mins | DVD | 2.35:1 | USA & UK / English, Lakota & Pawnee | 15 / PG-13

    Dances with Wolves

    Oscar statue1991 Academy Awards
    12 nominations — 7 wins

    Winner: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Sound, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score.
    Nominated: Best Actor (Kevin Costner), Best Supporting Actor (Graham Greene), Best Supporting Actress (Mary McDonnell), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Costume Design.


    The behind-the-scenes story of Dances with Wolves is almost as grand as the movie itself. An actor turned director whose inexperience led to production delays and budget overruns, leading to rumours the film was a pending disaster like Heaven’s Gate a decade before it (some nicknamed it “Kevin’s Gate”), and the studio who wanted a 140-minute cut having to settle for the 180-minute one that director delivered. The resulting film never even reached #1 at the box office… but still went on to be the highest grossing Western of all time, and became the first Western to win the Best Picture Oscar in almost 60 years. It was so popular that a 53-minute-longer extended cut was released a year later, which Costner later denied being involved with.

    Having not seen the theatrical cut I can’t offer an opinion on which is better, but the near-four-hour extended one certainly feels its length. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — this is an epic in the truest sense of the word, with a large story to tell on a grand canvass; although it’s concurrently a drama about just a couple of people from different cultures coming to interact. It’s almost too big to digest in a single go — I’m even not quite sure what I made of it. You can see why I’ve spent 10 months not writing about it.

    Anyway, I admired its scope and ambition. I wouldn’t say I loved it, but it merits revisiting someday.

    4 out of 5

    Jackie Brown
    (1997)

    2017 #49
    Quentin Tarantino | 154 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Jackie Brown

    Oscar statue1998 Academy Awards
    1 nomination

    Nominated: Best Supporting Actor (Robert Forster).




    Jackie Brown has long been my Tarantino blindspot. I caught up with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction after he was already established and they were regarded as modern classics, then was old enough to see the Kill Bills at the cinema and have followed his career from there. But, for some reason, his third feature has always eluded my attention. My tenth anniversary “heinous oversights” list seemed a good time to rectify that.

    Some people argue that Jackie Brown is secretly Tarantino’s best movie. I add “secretly” there because it gets a lot less attention than the aforementioned movies that came either side of it. That’s not a bandwagon I’m prepared to jump on. To me, it feels a little like QT was trying to emulate what worked about Pulp Fiction without just making a rip-off of his own movie, and therefore it’s a bit of an inferior copy. That’s not to say it’s a bad movie by any means. The eponymous character is particularly interesting, as you’re never quite sure what Jackie’s up to; what her plan is. She seems to be telling everybody everything, but she has to be screwing some — or all — of them, right?

    Possibly I was just approaching the film in the wrong way. Tarantino has called it “a hangout movie”, which he explained thus: “Jackie Brown is better the second time. And I think it’s even better the third. And the fourth time… Maybe even the first time we see it we go, ‘Why are we doing all this hanging out? Why can’t we get to more of the plot?’ But, now the second time you see it, and the third time you see it, you’re not thinking about the plot anymore. You’re waiting for the hangout scenes… It’s about hanging out with the characters.” Personally, I’m not in any desperate rush to hang out with these characters again. But who knows, maybe I’ll get it the second time. Or the third. Or the fourth…

    4 out of 5

    Silver Linings Playbook
    (2012)

    2017 #61
    David O. Russell | 115 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Silver Linings Playbook

    Oscar statue2013 Academy Awards
    8 nominations — 1 win

    Winner: Best Actress (Jennifer Lawrence).
    Nominated: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Bradley Cooper), Best Supporting Actor (Robert De Niro), Best Supporting Actress (Jacki Weaver), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing.



    Bradley Cooper’s performance — 3.5/5
    JLaw’s performance — 4/5
    JLaw’s dancing — 6/5
    Direction — 2/5
    Screenplay (first two acts) — 3/5
    Screenplay (bit where it suddenly gets plot-heavy and all exposition-y to set up the third act) — 1/5
    Screenplay (third act that seems to be from a completely different, much more conventional movie) — 2/5

    Average =

    3 out of 5

    The 39 Steps
    (1935)

    2017 #60
    Alfred Hitchcock | 83 mins | download (HD) | 4:3 | UK / English | U

    The 39 Steps

    This adaptation of John Buchan’s adventure novel is one of the best-known among director Alfred Hitchcock’s early works, and for good reason.

    Galloping briskly along with a running time under 90 minutes, it’s a film where mood, tone, and the wonderful execution of individual sequences are all allowed to trump plot, which is somewhere on the spectrum from unexplained to nonsensical. We follow the likeable wrong-man hero Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) as he runs away from a gang of villains who barely feature. That they have a nefarious plan is outlined early on to kickstart the action; what they were up to is explained in the final scene to give the story some resolution; and in between they’re pretty much just a force chasing our hero. It’s almost like the villains are the film’s MacGuffin: it doesn’t matter what or who they are, just that they want to catch Hannay and so he must escape them. It’s how he escapes and what happens during his escapades that matters to us; that provides our entertainment.

    It almost plays like a spoof in that regard — the plot is such stock spy-thriller fare that it doesn’t need to make sense in and of itself, we just get what it’s driving at. Of course, considering the age of the film, it’s more proto-spy-thriller than neo-spy-thriller. Whatever you class it as, over 80 years since its release it remains rollicking entertainment.

    5 out of 5

    Dances with Wolves, Jackie Brown, and The 39 Steps were viewed as part of my Blindspot 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

    Silver Linings Playbook was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2017 project, which you can read more about here. Other WDYMYHS reviews already published include Hail, Caesar!, Into the Wild, Nightcrawler, and Room.

  • Awakenings (1990)

    2017 #154
    Penny Marshall | 116 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Awakenings

    Based on a true story, Awakenings tells of Dr Malcolm Sayer (Robin Williams), who stumbles across an element of responsiveness in previously catatonic patients on his hospital ward. Finding a condition that links them buried in their medical histories, he supposes that a newly-invented drug might help their condition, subsequently testing it on Leonard (Robert De Niro), who ‘wakes up’ for the first time in 30 years. As Sayer continues his work, the new treatment reinvigorates the lives of more people than just the patients.

    I hadn’t even heard of Awakenings until the untimely passing of Robin Williams, when it was brought to my attention by Mike of Films on the Box (er, I think — I can’t find where this occurred. Either it’s on someone else’s blog or I’ve entirely misremembered the circumstances). Frankly, I’m not sure why it isn’t better remembered. Okay, it’s a little schmaltzy towards the end, but there are plenty of films that are worse for that which are held in higher esteem by some. Perhaps it’s not schmaltzy enough for those people, but still too much for people who hate that kind of thing? Or maybe it’s something else — but I don’t know what, because the rest of the film is packed with quality and subtlety.

    Such qualities are to be found in its writing — a screenplay by Steven Zaillian that conveys not only the usual story, character, and emotion, but also relates medical facts and processes in a way that is expedient to the narrative but still seems genuine. Whether it is or not I couldn’t say, but I didn’t feel conned by movieland brevity. Such qualities are to be found in the directing — unshowy work by Penny Marshall which matches the screenplay for its attention to detail in a way that never makes it feel as if we’re being fed a lot of information (although we are); that finds moments of beauty and life in the humanity of the characters, their plights, their successes, and their connections.

    You waking up me? Well I'm the only one here...

    Such qualities are to be found in the acting — De Niro’s immersive performance as a teenager trapped in a 50-year-old’s body, bookended by a medical condition so extreme that in lesser hands it could easily have become a caricature. Also Williams, giving quite possibly the most restrained performance of his career, but fully relatable as the socially inept doctor who is slowly, almost imperceptibly, brought out of his shell. And also an array of supporting performers, who each get their moment to shine in one way or another — although “shine” feels like the wrong word because, again, it’s understated. One or two moments aside (the schmaltziness I mentioned), there’s no grandstanding here.

    Combine those successes with the knowledge that this is a true story (heck, you wouldn’t believe it if it weren’t) only makes the film’s events — and its messages about being attentive of others and embracing the life we’re given — all the more powerful.

    4 out of 5

    Antz (1998)

    2017 #119
    Eric Darnell & Tim Johnson | 83 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Antz

    I don’t know if there was something in the Californian water in 1998, but in the same year that major Hollywood studios faced off with similarly-themed disaster movies Deep Impact and Armageddon, fledgling CG-animation outfits did the same with ant-themed kids’ movies. One was Pixar’s A Bug’s Life, which has endured thanks to the ever-increasing cachet of the studio’s brand (it was only their second feature). The other, of course, was Antz, which has the starry-named voice cast but was only by DreamWorks, whose later success with the likes of Shrek has done little to elevate the standing of their entire oeuvre. Anyway, it’s a bit pointless me making these comparisons because I’ve still not seen A Bug’s Life. Maybe in that review, someday.

    As for Antz in isolation, it’s a funny old film. It feels more aimed at adults than kids: star Woody Allen is doing a version of his usual schtick, and the plot riffs heavily on political systems like Communism, a combination which means most of the jokes will soar over children’s heads. That’s before we get on to the brutal war sequence against monstrous termites. Plus, the entire voice cast seem to have wandered in from a completely different kind of movie: as well as Allen there’s Gene Hackman, Christopher Walken, Anne Bancroft, Sylvester Stallone, and Sharon Stone. I don’t know how well it plays for kids, but, as an adult, all of this stuff gives it a welcomely different flavour.

    A bug's famous voice

    Visually, it also lacks the slick (if somewhat plasticky) sheen of early Pixar. I can’t quite decide if the animation has aged badly (it is 20-years-old CGI, after all) or has a certain timelessness. Some of the computer animated stuff is blocky and jerky, but it’s frequently paired up with painted backgrounds for scenery and the like, which gives a kind of pleasant mixed-media feel to some sections. The effect is emphasised by the quality of the transfer that’s around: although in HD, it’s clearly been transferred from an actual film print, not clean digital files. And not a great print at that: there’s spots of dirt and everything. I guess that shows the lowly standing even DreamWorks holds the film in, but there’s a certain kind of old-school charm to it. Which is probably just misplaced nostalgia on my part for old lo-fi media, but hey-ho.

    Antz is an odd little film. It doesn’t contain the easy charms of a Pixar movie, and I can imagine kids would get very little out of it; but for adult animation fans, it’s kind of interesting.

    3 out of 5

    Antz is on Channel 4 today at 2:30pm.

    The Fugitive (1993)

    The 100 Films Guide to…

    A murdered wife.
    A one-armed man.
    An obsessed detective.
    The chase begins.

    Country: USA
    Language: English
    Runtime: 130 minutes
    BBFC: 12 (cinema, 1993) | 15 (video, 1994)
    MPAA: PG-13

    Original Release: 6th August 1993 (USA)
    UK Release: 24th September 1993
    Budget: $44 million
    Worldwide Gross: $368.9 million

    Stars
    Harrison Ford (Witness, Air Force One)
    Tommy Lee Jones (JFK, No Country for Old Men)
    Sela Ward (54, Independence Day: Resurgence)
    Joe Pantoliano (Risky Business, The Matrix)

    Director
    Andrew Davis (Under Siege, Holes)

    Screenwriters
    Jeb Stuart (Die Hard, Fire Down Below)
    David Twohy (Waterworld, Pitch Black)

    Story by
    David Twohy (G.I. Jane, Riddick)

    Based on
    The Fugitive, a TV series created by Roy Huggins.


    The Story
    After Dr. Richard Kimble’s wife is murdered, he is framed for the crime. Managing to escape custody, Kimble sets out to prove his innocence, while being pursued by a team of marshals intent on recapturing the fugitive.

    Our Hero
    Dr. Richard Kimble, respected surgeon, convicted of killing his wife, a crime he didn’t commit. When an accident on his way to prison allows me to break free, he goes on the run to clear his name.

    Our Villain
    The mysterious one-armed man who did kill Mrs Kimble. Why did he do it? Why can’t he be found?

    Best Supporting Character
    U.S. Marshal Samuel Gerard is the big dog on Kimble’s trail after he escapes custody. He just aims to bring the doctor back in, but maybe his sense of justice will ultimately prevail…

    Memorable Quote
    Kimble: “I didn’t kill my wife!”
    Gerard: “I don’t care!”

    Memorable Scene
    Kimble runs through drainage tunnels, pursued by Gerard, when he suddenly reaches the outlet — a massive drop over a dam. Gerard approaches, gun raised, his man cornered, Kimble left with no escape route — except to jump…

    Truly Special Effect
    The famous bus/train crash was done for real with a real train and a real bus on a real track, because that was actually cheaper than doing it with miniatures! The scale of the setup meant it could only be done once, so it was shot with multiple cameras — several of which were destroyed and their footage rendered unusable. Conversely, a couple of others were caught up in the crash but continued rolling. Although it may’ve been driven by cost-saving, the fact it was done for real makes it all the more effective, one of cinema’s iconic stunts.

    Letting the Side Down
    Despite years in development that created literally dozens of drafts, filming began without a completed screenplay — and sometimes it shows. Just don’t try to think through the logic of the villains’ nefarious scheme, nor wonder why the supposedly super-smart marshals never twig that maybe Kimble is investigating his wife’s murder.

    Making of
    The sequence in the St Patrick’s Day parade was conceived by director Andrew Davis late in the day — so late that it wasn’t part of the shooting schedule and there wasn’t time to plan it. On the day, the cast and crew made an early start so they could complete all of the schedule material before heading over to the parade. Shooting with a Steadicam, the director, cast, and cameraman improvised the action and shot it more-or-less in real-time.

    Next time…
    Five years later, Tommy Lee Jones reprised his Oscar-winning supporting performance as the lead in U.S. Marshals. It wasn’t as successful. Personally, I didn’t realise it was a sequel for years and have never bothered to see it.

    Awards
    1 Oscar (Supporting Actor (Tommy Lee Jones))
    6 Oscar nominations (Picture, Cinematography, Sound, Editing, Sound Effects Editing, Score)
    1 BAFTA (Sound)
    3 BAFTA nominations (Supporting Actor (Tommy Lee Jones), Editing, Special Effects)
    2 MTV Movie Awards (On-Screen Duo (Harrison Ford & Tommy Lee Jones), Action Sequence (train wreck))
    2 MTV Movie Award nominations (Movie, Male Performance (Harrison Ford))

    Verdict

    It must be at least 20 years since I last watched The Fugitive (it turns 25 next year), and it’s an interesting experience to revisit it today. Once upon a time this was a blockbuster; nowadays it’d be a mid-budget thriller… and probably wouldn’t get made because Hollywood doesn’t do those anymore. It’s a pleasingly ’90s manhunt movie — they can’t just track his mobile phone or zoom in with a satellite or what have you — but, aside from the nostalgia kick, the quality is a bit wobbly at times. It has strong performances, a breakneck pace (at least early on), and some stunning sequences, but the behind-the-scenes story of many, many drafts and a rushed schedule occasionally leave their mark on the screen, mainly in that the film’s whodunnit mystery isn’t all that engrossing or surprising. Maybe I’m just being nitpicky — it’s still a quality thriller. (The Blu-ray is a real dog, though. Could definitely do with a remaster.)

    Contact (1997)

    2017 #79
    Robert Zemeckis | 144 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Contact

    Contact is 20 years old today. I don’t remember it going down particularly well on its release (Rotten Tomatoes backs me up on that: it scores just 62%) and I’ve largely paid it no heed, other than it still comes up now and then. I can’t remember what gave me a sudden urge to watch it last month, but doing so was a bit of a “where have you been all my life?!” experience.

    It stars Jodie Foster as scientist Dr Ellie Arroway, who’s obsessed with scanning radio signals from space for signs of alien life, much to the ridicule of her serious colleagues. While working at an observatory in Puerto Rico, Ellie becomes romantically entangled with Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), a Christian philosopher, in spite of their differing views. Their affair is cut short when Ellie’s government funding is cancelled and she leaves to seek independent financial backing, eventually finding it from reclusive billionaire S.R. Hadden (John Hurt). Beginning research anew in New Mexico, her persistence eventually pays off when her team detect a repeating signal, and suddenly her kooky little project is of global concern.

    '90s beats

    Adapted from a novel by scientist Carl Sagan (of Cosmos fame), Contact is notable for its very grounded and plausible approach to the science of possible first contact. It’s like the anti Independence Day: rather than giant technologically-advanced spaceships turning up out of nowhere and threatening us, we receive a signal with mathematical properties (maths being a universal language) and consider opening lines of communication. Of course, it gets more speculative from there, but that’s unavoidable if you’re telling a story where we hear from aliens. Regardless, all of the science, as well as the political developments that ensue from it, feels very truthful. I’m sure there must be some of the ol’ corner-cutting Movie Science involved somewhere, but that’s usually necessary for the sake of telling a reasonably paced story. Despite that, some viewers find its methodicalness to be “slow” or “boring”. Conversely, that’s part of why I liked it so much: it doesn’t wave its hands around to obscure the discovery part just so it can get to the Cool Stuff — it is the discovery part.

    Concurrent to the “how this might actually go down” plot, Contact seeks to explore the axis of faith and science, putting them in juxtaposition to show that, for all their obvious differences, there are also psychological similarities. That’s the purpose of McConaughey’s character, really: a very religious, but amenable, figure for Foster’s very scientific outlook to bump up against. Their romantic storyline works in favour of keeping this discussion balanced: you don’t end up projecting one as the hero and the other as the villain when they’re both halves of the central relationship. It results in some thoughtful perspectives on where the line between science and religion blurs.

    “One day, I'm going to win an Oscar...”

    Foster gives an impassioned performance as the dedicated Ellie, who’s so committed to both her cause and the truth that she doesn’t compromise, even when it might get her ahead. Her tunnel-vision focus on science means she can come across as a bit of a cold fish, which makes sense given the character’s backstory, but for some viewers that seems to render her too distant to embrace as the heroine. It goes as far as some saying the film’s ending has no heart because Ellie is so cold. Conversely, I think that’s almost why it works. She’s a person who has shut herself down because of her loss, but she still has some small flame of hope that keeps her searching. What happens at the end fully taps into her emotions, fanning that flame. Surely there’s something powerful in that?

    Among the rest of the cast, McConaughey shows he had skills long before the McConnaissance, William Fichtner does a lot with a small supporting role, and Tom Skerritt plays a total dick in a way that feels like a real-life total dick rather than a movie version. By way of contrast, James Woods’ character is the other way round: he’s a good actor, but was perhaps railroaded into being a little heavy-handed as a somewhat-villainous National Security honcho. That said, with the current US administration’s attitude to science, maybe he’s sickeningly plausible today.

    Pod person

    Although not an ID4-style extravaganza, Contact features a great use of special effects — or, rather, that’s why they’re so great: they don’t exist just so they exist; they exist because the story needs them, and they’re more powerful and beautiful for it. This is true not only of some final-act trippiness, but also scenery shots of the giant Machine that gets built, which are made more real by their understatedness. Can you imagine this film now, as it would be made by most directors? There’d be constant helicopter-style shots of the thing. (The exception, of course, would be someone like Denis Villeneuve, as conclusively proven in Arrival.)

    I can understand why Contact didn’t catch on with audiences back in ’97. This was the year after Independence Day became the second highest grossing movie of all time, which shows what interested the minds (or, at least, adrenal glands) of the wider viewership. Nonetheless, I don’t understand why it didn’t find stronger recognition among those who appreciate thoughtful, realistic science fiction. It hasn’t really dated in the past two decades (aside from the chunky desktop computers everyone’s using, anyway), and its debates and messages continue to resonate as a reflection of the society we live in, so maybe there’s time yet for its reappraisal.

    5 out of 5

    Contact placed 11th on my list of The 17 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

    Space Jam (1996)

    2017 #76
    Joe Pytka | 84 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | U / PG

    Space Jam

    Space Jam is one of those movies that everyone of my generation seems to have seen, and many of them have fond childhood memories of it too. I remember when it came out. I pretty thoroughly dismissed it at the time, because I had no interest in basketball (partly because I’m British — I was baffled anyone else over here cared at all), and not much more interest in the Looney Tunes characters either, to be honest. Plus it just looked silly. And not in a good way. But, as I say, everyone else seems to have seen it, so I thought “why not?” and taped it off the telly one day. (Well, I didn’t tape it — no one uses tape anymore, do they? Recorded it. DVR’d it. TiVo’d it. Whatevs.) Then, one night when my critical faculties were feeling like they didn’t want to be challenged with anything too worthy of my time, I decided to bung it on — and learnt that I was right in the first place.

    For those who’ve managed to avoid awareness of this movie, it stars Michael Jordan as Michael Jordan, the basketball player, who ends up being recruited by Bugs Bunny and co to teach them how to play basketball so they can beat a group of aliens who want to kidnap them. I would say “it makes sense in the film”, but it doesn’t make much more sense.

    Not even Bill Murray can save this movie

    A plausible plot is not a prerequisite for an entertaining kids’ movie, but Space Jam provides nothing in its place. It is joyless. Not funny. Not clever. It’s just flat. The concept of character is nonexistent — no one has an arc. It wastes time on a subplot about a bunch of players who aren’t Michael Jordan. (I say “wastes time” — the whole thing’s a waste of time.) Bill Murray turns up for no apparent reason — did he need the money? Does he really love basketball? I don’t know. He brings some small joy just by being him. Elsewhere, there’s a grand total of one funny line.

    Even on a technical level, the animation and live-action interaction isn’t all that good. So much of it is obviously just Michael Jordan on a green screen, looking around himself at thin air which some animators filled in. It’s perhaps a little smoother around the edges than Roger Rabbit (which was released eight years earlier), but it lacks that film’s class and tactile sense that the live-action and animation are genuinely interacting, which is more important than computer-aided precision.

    You may have seen earlier this week that a list was released of “Must See Movies Before You Grow Up”, aiming to list the 50 films every child should see by the age of 11. Space Jam was on it. So was Home. Over half the list came from this millennium, a third from the past seven years. There’s lots of good stuff on there but, yeah, I think I’m going to ignore it. Like I suggest you should ignore Space Jam.

    1 out of 5

    Space Jam featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.