(On TV, October 2016) Here’s an interesting factoid that may make you feel unbearably old: It’s now been longer since the release of Stand by Me in 1986 (30 years) than the span of time between the film and the events it depicts in 1959. Nostalgia sneaks up on anyone, even movies consciously built around that emotion. Stand by Me is now best remembered as “that non-horror Stephen King adaptation”, focusing on an affectionate novella published in Different Seasons (a book that also spawned The Shawshank Redemption and Apt Pupil). It’s a movie about kids, but the somewhat sombre framing device makes it a film for adults, and most notably baby boomers born around 1947 like King. As a look at the life of a young teenager in 1959, it luxuriates in a recreation of the era, complete with a near-perfect period soundtrack. It’s not much of a plot-driven film: The goal (“walk to the dead body”) is stated early on, and much of the film becomes an episodic string of events until the end. It even throws in a gratuitously disgusting fictional vignette that ends abruptly to protests. Much of the film’s charm comes from its young actors. Other than Kiefer Sutherland as a bully, Stand by Me does feature an extraordinary group with Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman and Jerry O’Connell. Remarkably enough, you can watch the film without being overwhelmed by the actor’s age—other than Sutherland, who already looks like himself, it’s as they are different persons. As a reflection of another era, Stand by Me unabashedly plays up the nostalgia to good effect—the liberties taken by the young character would be horrifying today, even though it’s hard to argue against the dangers they do face along the way. It ends up being a remarkable piece of cinema, still effective today, much later and for entirely different audiences.
(On TV, July 2016) Nearly everyone can quote Jack Nicholson’s furious “You can’t handle the truth!” but watching A Few Good Men highlights how that line works best as a culmination rather than a standalone quote. A somewhat sombre judicial drama in which a hotshot lawyer (Tom Cruise, remarkably good) takes on the US Marines establishment in an effort to discover what happened to a dead soldier, A Few Good Men is the kind of slick mainstream drama that has almost disappeared from the box-office top-ten. Slickly made with a roster of good actors, it has the means to present its story as effectively as possible. The result is a good comfortable film, handled with old-school care. It may not be all that efficient (the opening act is notably slow, and missteps in initially focusing on a character who’s not the real protagonist) but it’s competent and slowly makes its way to a conclusion heavy on shouting and courtroom excitement. Jack Nicholson is good in a surprisingly small role (it looks as if he showed up for a few days of work), Kiefer Sutherland pops up as a soldier, while Demi Moore doesn’t impress all that much in a fairly conventional role that leaves far too much glory to Tom Cruise’s character.
(On TV, August 2015) A common failing for horror movies is to fail to match the surface shocks with a coherent background acting as explanation. Some filmmakers aren’t even interested in doing so, and their films feel like a series of shocks untroubled with justifications. But I trust that viewers like a bit of substance to go with the scares. Mirrors, to its credit, almost gets it right: its surface shocks have to do with reflective surfaces and what can reach characters from behind the mirror. The gather good atmosphere supports an effective sense of dread (especially during its very end), and the film’s various gags get to have a bit of fun with the concept of “mirrors”. As Mirrors develops its mythology further, though, we’re asked to believe in increasingly arbitrary details, inconsistent powers and a rather dull origin story. Keifer Sutherland does what he can to keep things interesting, and Paula Patton does her darnedest in an underwritten role, but there really isn’t much more here than a few showpieces for director Alexandre Aja. Mirrors is far more interesting in small disconnected moments than as a coherent whole, and even a few effective shots don’t make more of a lasting impact if they’re impossible to place in an effective story.
(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.