Tag Archives: the 90’s

Stargate (1994)


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six

Starring : Kurt Russel, James Spader, Jaye Davidson, Alexis Cruz
Director : Ronald Emmerich
Screenplay : Ronald Emmerich & Dean Devlin
Rating : PG-13 for sci-fi action violence.

With Roland Emmerich’s “2012” plowing through multiplexes all over the world, I thought, why not go back to one of Emmerich’s older, disaster-free sci-fi epics ? Since there are but a few that do not feature the total destruction of famous landmarks, I picked “Stargate”, Emmerich’s first big-budget Hollywood epic and starting point of a cult following that was picked up by a (very) long-running TV series.

The plot starts off in 1928 with the discovery of a strange artifact in Egypt, then moves on to present day, where Daniel Jackson (James Spader), a goofy Egyptologist with some weird theories, is recruited by the government to help in translating ancient tablets for a research project which is, not surprisingly, connected to the artifact found in 1928. The research concludes that the said discovery is in fact a portal which requires a set of 7 symbols to open up a wormhole to alien worlds. Cue in the military, which put Col. O’Neill (Kurt Russel) in charge of the expedition to see what lies beyond the “gate to the stars”. Soon after they go through, they find themselves on a desert planet and realise they do not have the required 7 symbols to return home. As they explore the planet, they stumble upon a primitive civilisation of humans which turn out to be slaves used by malevolent alien forces led by an incarnation of Ra (yes, the Egyptian sun god), who apparently built the pyramids on Earth. The plot thickens considerably along the way, and it all builds to a typical blockbuster climax which involves a nuclear weapon with the obligatory digital countdown timer, fist fighting, Daniel saving the love of his life, a desert battle where bullets are obviously no match for laser-slinging flying ships, and the line “Give my regards to King Tut, asshole !”.

The film flows nicely for whatever running time it takes them to activate the stargate and go through it (which must be about 20 minutes). After that, the pacing feels a bit erratic. There’s no build-up, just a sequence of discoveries and explanatory dialogue briefly punctuated by bursts of visual effects and some action, which makes it hard to get excited about what you’re seeing. In fact, it’s far from Emmerich’s action-packed epics that followed, at least in that regard. You would almost think that it’s deliberately taking its time to construct a plot, but in fact it’s just superficially maneuvering through a check-list of cliches just so it can have those impressive action scenes at the end. It all feels like it’s on autopilot and when the big face-off arrives, you realise just how little you’ve seen in terms of creativity. Clearly, the TV series was an improvement, providing a better feel of the Stargate universe, since the film is dissapointingly limited in scope.

When they actually get down to business, the visuals are pretty impressive, especially since they’re 15 years old. The FX have aged well, though you can easily spot the rudimentary CGI, because they stick out like a sore thumb. But, the miniatures and more practical photography effects are still pretty neat. The look of the alien hi-tech Egyptian style makes for some very pleasing eye-candy that basically supports the lack of interesting plot/dialogue. Kurt Russel can certainly play it cool. It’s refreshing to see him bravely take on all that square-jawed macho B.S. That “King Tut” line belongs to his character, and, boy, does he deliver it, or what ? He’s clearly been in this kind of B flick special effects extravaganza before and just runs with it. Spader is just as much fun as the airheaded scientist who becomes a saviour of sorts, but Ra, played by Jaye Davidson is only marginally interesting and doesn’t make a very solid villain which is a shame actually, because a villain can make or break a sci-fi film like this.

All in all, it isn’t Emmerich’s most impressive film, and this is coming from someone who expects nothing but mindless fun and total destruction from the man. Despite some honorable ambitions and fun moments, it fails to muster the enthusiasm that the seemingly endless seasons of the TV series did, although in all fairness, this is where it all started. I can’t imagine how the producers got around to spinning the concept for television, but in the end, it was a far more inspired idea than Emmerich’s big screen effort.

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Crimson Tide (1995)


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9

Starring : Denzel Washington, Gene Hackman, Viggo Mortensen, James Gandolfini

Director : Tony Scott

Screenplay : Michael Schiffer

Rating : R for strong language

There are too few good submarine movies. The old ones were in the sweet old Second World War heroic tradition, very clean and neat. Then, in the ’80s, Wolfgang Petersen brought us „Das Boot”. That’s enough to forgive him about „Troy”. „Das Boot” is a classic war film, brutal and realistic, both a tribute to the young sailors who fought in the war and an unique work of suspense. No submarine related film has ever come close to equaling Petersen’s epic. But in 1995, „Crimson Tide” came very, very close.

Producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Tony Scott team up once again after „Top Gun” and „Days of Thunder”, with much better results. The name of the submarine is the „Alabama” and it has nuclear capabilities. Its captain is Ramsey (Gene Hackman) and his second in command is Hunter (Denzel Washington). In Russia, rebel forces led by the extremist leader Radchenko, have taken hold of the country’s nuclear arsenal and they only need to decrypt the launch codes to be able to use them agains the US and thus start a Third World War. The Alabama is sent in to prepare to launch nuclear missles before the russians do, but the war brewing at the surface will explode on the command deck of the US nuclear submarine. Ramsey and Hunter are complete opposites in terms of opinion. Ramsey is the hardened commander with 25 years of experiente both in war and peace, and believes in harsh discipline, as per example when a fire explodes in the kitchen, he immediately begins a drill, to keep the sailors on their toes he says, but Hunter disagrees, to which Ramsey harshly replies : „We’re here to preserve democracy, not practice it.” Hunter is a young commander, with no actual combat experience. He’s smart and cares about his men, he knows how to be strict and popular at the same time, and does not share Ramsey’s gung-ho attitude. His opinion about the nuclear war can be summed up by the following line : „In the nuclear world, the true enemy is war itself.” After a russian submarine attacks them and cripples their radio capabilities, they receive an incomplete message which could mean that either they should launch their nuclear weapons, or abort their mission. Ramsey thinks they should strike while Hunter thinks they should wait for the radio to be repaired so they can receive the full orders. Since the situation between the two has grown tense, a simple exchange of arguments turns into all-out war, splitting the submarine into two sides fighting each other for control of the nuclear weapon, with the fate of humanity at stake.

„Crimson Tide” is probably Tony Scott’s finest film, one of the rare cases where his style doesn’t get in the way of the film, nor does it try to elevate the material. It’s just there to support it. The hyperactive editing, richly detailed frames, aggresive soundtrack, they are all there, but they are the most important element of the film. What matters now are the surprising script and the heavy suspense. Yes, it does contain the usual sub cliches, like for example when the captain is forced to seal a compartment with men still inside or when they are sinking helplessly to a critical depth, only to fix the engines at the last moment and rise to safety. But, except for those, the film doesn’t betray expectations, delivering a tense struggle between two sub commanders who are both right, and both wrong. Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman are extraordinary actors who can both add layers of quite detail to their characters, and explode with searing energy at the right moments, and the script does offer them some very nice scenes together. For example : a surreal dialogue about horse breeds during the very tense finale. Quentin Tarantino is said to have been called in to rewrite the dialogue so it would be more dynamic. And indeed, that previous scene example sounds just like something Tarantino would do ( there are also a lot of references to comic books and Star Trek ). The supporting characters are pretty well written into the story also by means of dialogue, avoiding to become stereotypes. The atmosphere of the submarine is also very immersive in the „Das Boot” tradition, with the cameras rushing through the tight corridors, the lighting creating a dark electronically lit environment, and the cinematography and sets creating the claustrophobic feeling that adds to the suspense. Extrme close-ups of sweaty faces lit up by the red or green coloured screens, crew members shouting through the radio, contrary to navy discipline, and the adrenaling pumping score by Hans Zimmer, add to the crazyness in typical Scott/Bruckheimer fashion, a trend that seems to carry on even to this day.

The film’s biggest asset is the fact that it’s more than an action film. It brings an interesting perspective to nuclear wars and the ridiculously huge responsibilities of a submarine commander and what can happen when the chain of command breaks down in a critical moment. In fact, since 1996, the executive decision of releasing a nuclear weapon is reserved strictly for the president of the United States of America. They must have seen this movie too.

Eye for an Eye (1996)


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7

Starring: Sally Field, Ed Harris, Kiefer Sutherland, Joe Mantegna
Director: John Schlesinger
Screenplay : Amanda Silver based on a novel by Erika Holzer
Rating : R for language and disturbing violence which includes rape

Once in a while, when screenwriters lose their inspiration, they go back to the everlasting Hollywood formulas. The so-called revenge film, in which amateur vigilantes take matters of law into their own hands to punish a certain crime, mostly of a personal nature. From the old classics starring Charles Bronson, to the “Punisher” comics and films, and the more recent “Death Sentence” (from the director of “Saw”) and “The Brave One (starring Jodie Foster, directed by Neil Jordan), they bring about a discussion which is way more important than the commercial practices of Hollywood : how justified is the “eye for an eye” line of thinking and/or necessary in today’s society, a society filled with malice, where apparently everything is allowed.

This is the issue the film “Eye for an Eye” displays, under the directorial effort of John Schlesinger (“Midnight Cowboy”, “Day of the Locust”, “Marathon Man” and the horrid “The Next Best Thing”). Karen McKann (Sally Field) lives a very normal life with her husband Mack (Ed Harris) and her two daughters Megan and Julie. One day, coming home from work, she calls home to see how the preparations for her younger daughter, Megan’s birthday, and is surprised to hear Julie answer, who she thought was at school. While they talk, a man breaks into their home, rapes and kill Julie while Karen helplessly hears it all through the phone. The police apprehend the killer, a man named Robert Doob (Kiefer Sutherland), but because of a procedural error, the case is dismissed and Doob is set free. Karen cannot cope with this situation and is very close to see her life spiraling out of control. But, while participating at some support groups for bereaved parents she comes in contact with Sidney Hughes, a man who supplies grieving parents with the means to carry out their revenge against those whom the law set free. He supplies the weapon and plan, but Karen will be the one who will have to pull the trigger.

“Eye for an Eye” is peculiar little film. It’s biggest gain lies in the fact that unlike the usual cliché of the male vigilante, this time we get a middle-aged woman carrying out the revenge. On the other hand, everything else feels like a by-the-numbers thriller. There are moments that seem to be aiming higher, towards a psychological drama, but they’re quickly dissipated. The only complex character is Karen, convincingly portrayed by Sally Field, an experienced actress who’s onscreen presence lifts the material, even when it turns heavily melodramatic. There are scenes that provide more texture to her personality and add to her suffering. The rest of the characters are, however, poorly developed. Ed Harris’ nice-guy husband is simply furniture, Beverly D’Angelo’s best friend is conventional to say the least (boring and useless to be really mean), Joe Mantegna’s detective investigating the case is the usual poster-boy for incompetence, even though it’s clear that his hands are tied by the laws he serves, and last but not least Kiefer Sutherland’s villain is the classic stereotype whose only character trait is his outstanding cruelty, pushed to the higher limits of menacing behaviour only to justify his “death sentence”.

Maybe the most important aspect of this film could have been the interesting debate on veangeful capital punishment, especially as far as human psychology goes. But nothing is ever treated so seriously, perhaps because the director feared the possibility of debating what is supposed to be the film’s thrilling side. In one of the scenes, Kare asks Mack if he believes in the death penalty, and he answers that in Doob’s case he does. That’s about it regarding a discussion about that topic, as if justifying her later actions in order to simplify the moral aspect. I can appreciate the film taking a certain position on the problem and carrying on, I certainly wouldn’t want it to be too talky, but I would have liked a complex character asking complex questions, without it ending like it does in Hollywood, all clean and neat.

I don’t want anyone to believe they should avoid this movie. On the contrary, it should be seen at least once, for Sally Field, and the possibility of sparking an interesting discussion regarding the credibility or motivations of her actions. But, for a really good vigilante film, seek “The Brave One”.

Needful Things (1993)


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6

Starring : Ed Harris, Bonnie Bedelia, Max Von Sydow, JT Walsh, Amanda Plummer
Director: Fraser Clarke Heston
Screenplay : W.D. Richter, based on a novel by Stephen King
Rating : R

I’m a big Stephen King fan. I love his books and I try as often as I can to keep up with the cinematic adaptations of his novels, which isn’t exactly an easy task, as there are a lot of them. From crappy horror flicks (““Cujo”, “Silver Bullet”, “Pet Sematary”, “Maximum Overdrive”, the last one written and directed by King himself), to classics, even award winning successes (“Carrie”, “Misery”, “Shinning”, “The Dead Zone”, “Shawshank Redemption”, “The Green Mile”) and TV productions (“Rose Red”, “Kingdom Hospital”, which was originally a mini-series by Lars Von Trier), King has found his name on the credits of all of them. Some bad, some good, some popular, others gone from the face of the Earth. Most of all, I like his novels for their solid characters, most of them based more on psychology and less on the sensationalistic element to generate genuine horror, something that the big screen adaptations mostly ignore in their attempt to insert more action or gore. Also, I can’t ignore the fact that I love his writing because it’s very, very dark.

In the “not-so-great-but-fun-if-you-enjoy-the-type” is “Needful Things”which can more often be found on local TV, usually late in the night, featuring a sinister story, as is usual for Stephen King. A misteryous stranger, Leland Gaunt (Max Von Sydow) arrives in the peaceful town of Castle Rock, Maine and opens up an antique shop. Peaking the curiosity of the people, the little shop of “Needful Things” soon becomes the main attraction. But Gaunt offers not only collectible items, but also, as the title suggests, things that are of great need for each person. They all find in his shop the objects of their obsessions, the things for which they would even sell their souls to own. Gaunt begins collecting “debts”, turning people against each other, bringing about anarchy and corruption and quite possinly the end of days for the little town. The only one who seems out of the reach of Gaunt’s evildoing is sherriff Alan Pangborn (Ed Harris), who will come face to face with absolute evil in a confrontation that defies the limits of a human being.

Directed by Charlton Heston’s son, this being his cinematic debut (and sort of the only film in his resume), “Needful Things” is a flimsy adaptation, way too compressed, held up by its impressive cast, who aware of this being a B flick, overact their way through it just enough to make it bearable for us to watch, and even, dare I say, fun. Released in ’93, it leaves a “made for TV” impression, though it has its fare share of quality tehnical moments. There are spectacular explosions, perhaps even too gratuitous in the greater context, an excellent ominous soundtrack by Patrick Doyle befitting of “The Omen”, and some slick dark cinematography that commands attention and adds plenty of dread onscreen. Lacking is the screenplay, which circumvents Stephen King’s character development that probably would have improved the quality of the story. The characters are empty stereotypes without it, and their madness and inner conflicts, in relation to the faustian deals they, make seem absurd simply because they lack depth.

According to IMDb, american televisions run an extended three hours version as opposed to the two hours film available on DVD and european television. I would have loved to see that extended cut, since it probably improves the character details and maybe makes more sense of the story. As it is, it’s a flawed Stephen King adaptation not worthy of too much consideration, unless you are an avid collector of B flicks, or a fan of any of actors.