(On Cable TV, April 2012) For years, I wondered missing out on Flatliners had led to an embarrassing omission in my movie-going culture. Hadn’t this film earned some interest as a science-fiction film? Didn’t it star a bunch of actors who went on to bigger things? Wasn’t this one of Joel Shumacher’s best-known movies from his earlier, better period? The answer to these questions is yes… but the film itself seems a bit of a letdown after viewing. Oh, some things still work well, and may even work better than expected. Of the five main actors, Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon and Oliver Platt have all gone on to big careers –with poor William Baldwin being left behind. Schumacher’s direction is backed-up with Jan de Bont’s impressive cinematography: the visuals of the film may not make much sense, but they evoke a modern-gothic atmosphere that remains distinctive even today. The high-concept of the film remains potent, with genius-level medical students voluntarily defying death to investigate the mysteries of the afterlife. Unfortunately, all of these elements don’t quite add up satisfyingly. The jump from the high concept to the characters’ personification of those concepts is weak, and the contrivances become almost too big to ignore. The idea of atonement being closely linked to death is powerful, but the way this variously follows the character is more difficult to accept. (As Platt’s character knowingly remarks, those without deep-seated traumas will end up with some fairly silly phantoms.) There is quite a bit of repetitive one-upmanship in the way the plotting unfolds, and Flatliners sadly goes too quickly from provocative idea to ordinary morality. Still, it’s easy to argue that the film is worth a look: Roberts, Sutherland and Bacon look really good in early roles, and the visual style of the film is still an achievement twenty years later. There are some good ideas in the mix (witness the visual motif of “construction” -reconstruction, deconstruction- underlying nearly each scene), the portrait of intelligent characters interacting is charming and some of the suspense still works surprisingly well when it doesn’t descend in silliness. There are a few films that qualify as “minor classics” of their era in time. While Flatliners certainly won’t climb year’s-best lists retroactively, it’s a film that remains more remarkable than many of its contemporaries. I don’t regret seeing it… and I may even have liked to see it a bit earlier.
(On DVD, May 2011) Director Joel Schumacher’s public profile arguably peaked in the late nineties with his disastrous stint as the director of the two worst Batman movies ever made. Upon its release, Tigerland had been hailed as a return to form for the director and it’s easy to see why even a decade later: A Vietnam movie set entirely stateside, this drama studies the gradual transformation of a cynical young man as he goes through infantryman training in anticipation of a foreign deployment. The harsh reality of the training is well-depicted, but it’s really then-unknown Colin Farrell’s performance as Roland Bozz that holds all the attention. Mirroring contemporary audiences’ mindset, Bozz knows that Vietnam is a prodigious waste, has read all of the anti-war books and has little patience for the charade of training. He’s a free spirit stuck in a machine grinding down everyone to the same component pieces. It would have been easy for the film to turn into a comedy in which an unrepentant Bozz knows best, or a crude anti-war statement in which the only way out is to get out. But Tigerland is after something slightly different in putting Bozz up against other facets of morality and the logical consequences of his own compassion. There’s a lesson in leadership there, in reluctant responsibility and in the humanity to be found in even the most inhuman structures. It helps that Tigerland’s dialogue are a notch over the average, and that the film feels gripping even though solely set during the training phase. The film earned some critical notice upon release but practically no commercial success, thus qualifying for an evergreen “hidden gem” recommendation. Never mind the often too-grainy cinematography and the impression that half the actors look like each other: This is a decent Vietnam picture, and it has a bit more than the usual in mind.
(Second viewing, on DVD, September 2009) In retrospect, the post-1989 Batman movies neatly fall into a trio of pairs, with Batman Forever being the first of the Joel Schumacher duo that would reach such a nadir with Batman & Robin. While Batman Forever is noticeably worse than Burton’s Batman Returns, it still carries itself with flashy colourful blockbuster grandeur, with ridiculous set-pieces that nonetheless show a certain breadth of conception. As a result, it hasn’t aged all that badly… but don’t expect much: there are still plenty of ridiculous moments in the mix, and Jim Carrey as the Riddler now feels like Ace Ventura in costume: his tics are so recognizably his that they don’t mesh all that well in the bigger tapestry of the movie. The rest often feels overlong and underthought, with a campy atmosphere that never completely meshes with the rest of the film. The special edition DVD is both interesting and disappointing in that it does present a number of interesting deleted scenes that deepen the film (and those themes would later pop up in the Nolan-era Batman movies) but almost never acknowledges its troubled production history. Even Schumacher’s commentary presents a rosy view of Batman Forever’s production: it’s not an uninteresting commentary, but it seems to skirt around essential material. The rest of the features aren’t much above promotional fluff.