Secretly Awesome

Secretly Awesome - Breakdown (1997)

Submitted by tom on March 4, 2015 - 12:04am


 

Breakdown is something of a rarity. It's pure suspense. The plot is thin, the characters are pretty much two-dimensional, and the motivations are always clear from the start. Simply saying that the end justifies the means wouldn't do Breakdown any justice, nor would it give writer/director Jonathan Mostow the credit he deserves, because Mostow makes such perfect use out of these means that adding depth or backstory, or sub-plots would just screw the whole thing up. It's sharp, concise, and always gets right to the point; dialogue is only spoken when necessary, but most of it is just a high-wire act set at top-speed on moving vehicles.

Secretly Awesome
Breakdown
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I sat down several months ago expecting a dirt-ball action movie to have on in the background while I surfed the internet, but ended up watching the film for ten or fifteen minutes at a time, until I finally gave up trying to surf and closed my laptop about forty minutes into the film. When I looked it up on imdb earlier today, I saw that I had rated it a four out of ten, based on my memory of seeing it when it came out. Ashamed, I quickly changed it to a ten. It is that good. I turned it on to refresh my memory while I write this, and had to pause it at the 42:20 mark because I hadn't even logged into the site yet. It is completely absorbing.

The plot is this: Kurt Russel and his wife, played by Kathleen Quinlan, are moving out West, and their car breaks down in the middle of the desert. A trucker offers to take Quinlan to a truck stop to call a tow-truck and kidnaps her. The rest of the movie is a frightened Kurt Russel running around frantically through the desert looking for her. It's not concerned with twists and turns, no big shocks or revelations; it's all laid out pretty simply in the first fifteen minutes, and the rest is watching Russel unravel as he becomes more and more desperate, isolated in a world he knows nothing of, amongst truckers and red-necks who don't care about him or his situation, with nowhere and nobody to turn to. It's beautiful.

And when I say that these characters are two-dimensional, I don't mean that it doesn't take any skill to play them. On the contrary, there are some brilliant performances not only from Russel and Quinlan, but also from J.T. Walsh, Jack Noseworthy, and M.C. Gainey as the group of seedy truckers who prey on his initial trust. Nobody in the late 90s played a shady villain like J.T. Walsh, and nobody played the ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances like Kurt Russel, who has the right physique and the perfect blend of intelligence and naiveté to pull of the everyman who gets in further and further over his head.

Mostow's direction is near-perfect. It's not showy or overly stylized, and he doesn't hide behind fast cuts when it comes to the action. He's more interested in bleeding a scene or situation dry of its inherent tension. At the 42:20 mark there have really only been a handful of scenes, which are dragged out to achieve their full potential. It's full of scenes that make Russel seem crazy to anyone who could help him, or long shots of him against an empty desert to highlight his isolation. That's the type of pace Mostow sets. It's not a typical action film, with a big set-piece delivered every twenty minutes. It's slow, it takes its time. There is a sequence later in the film that is just Russel climbing from the bottom of a moving truck's trailer to a safer spot in-between the truck itself and the trailer, where he can stand until the truck stops. It lasts for three full minutes, and it's just him struggling and grunting, trying not to be seen by the driver... and holy shit is it tense. And as I believe all great 90s action films should end in a crazy location, so ends Breakdown, but I won't give it away. See it for yourself.

Breakdown (1997)
Breakdown at the IMDb
Rated: R
Directed by: Jonathan Mostow
Written by: Jonathan Mostow and Sam Montgomery
Featuring: Kurt Russell, J. T. Walsh and Kathleen Quinlan
Plot: A man searches for his missing wife after his car breaks down in the middle of the desert.

Trailer:

Feature by Bradley Redder of This Week's Movie. Have a Secretly Awesome suggestion that you'd like to propose? Or have a past or present entry you'd like to argue about? Feel free to e-mail Brad at maxfischar@gmail.com.

Secretly Awesome - The Negotiator (1998)

Submitted by tom on November 28, 2014 - 9:24am


 

Samuel L. Jackson plays a good cop who gets framed for stealing money from the unit's pension fund in The Negotiator. So what does an honest hostage negotiator do when faced with jail time and a tarnished reputation? Yup, he breaks into the Internal Affairs office on the top floor of a skyscraper and holds some people hostage until he can figure out who's really to blame. It's one of those thrillers from the late 90s in which every character that speaks is played by a guy you liked in five other movies but still can't pull his name, guys who can elevate a standard police drama into an exceptional thriller because they know how to deliver lines and react to each other believably. The 90s were great because of these guys, and because when Sam Jackson was in a movie, there wasn't a 50% chance he was going to be playing a parody of himself.

Secretly Awesome
The Negotiator
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The Negotiator really gets moving when Jackson has Kevin Spacey called in, a negotiator from another department who is introduced in his home having trouble talking his wife out of the bathroom after his daughter called her fat. He comes in as a neutral party between Jackson and his former coworkers, some of which are his friends, some his betrayers. It's interesting to watch how these friends reconcile their orders and their loyalty to a friend, which is the main source of tension in the film. The opening scene shows Jackson negotiating, trying to get the hostage-taker near a window so a sniper can take him out, which is mirrored later in the film when Jackson is the man their trying to get to the window and an old friend is the one that has to take the shot. It's a fantastic sequence, and similar situations permeate the entire film. This constantly changing dynamic turns a somewhat mediocre premise into a great one as we watch Jackson and Spacey try to wade through all of the deception and figure out who it is each of them is really against.

The result is essentially a chamber drama in which a bunch of cops try to fool a guy who knows exactly what they're going to do. It's sort of like a low-rent Dog Day Afternoon, and I mean low-rent in a good way. It's pretty impressive to see how exciting it is, despite the fact that there is very little action. It's not a great film, but it's not really trying to be, either. It's just a solid thriller with an amazing cast playing noble cops and shady scumbags, and sometimes that's all we need.

The Negotiator (1998)
The Negotiator at the IMDb
Rated: R
Directed by: F. Gary Gray
Written by: James DeMonaco and Kevin Fox
Featuring: Samuel L. Jackson, Kevin Spacey and David Morse
Plot: In a desperate attempt to prove his innocence, a skilled police negotiator accused of corruption and murder takes hostages in a government office to gain the time he needs to find the truth.

Trailer:

Feature by Bradley Redder of This Week's Movie. Have a Secretly Awesome suggestion that you'd like to propose? Or have a past or present entry you'd like to argue about? Feel free to e-mail Brad at maxfischar@gmail.com.

Secretly Awesome - Event Horizon (1997)

Submitted by tom on October 7, 2014 - 12:15am


 

Event Horizon follows a rescue team on a mission to investigate what happened to a portal-jumping space-ship that has just re-appeared after it was missing for seven years. It turns out the ship has been to some Hellish dimension and brought back some kind of energy force that drives people insane, and when the rescue team arrives, they find the bloody remains of the ship's crew. What may sound like a routine B-movie turns out to have some top-notch production value, a cast of under-used character actors, and some surprisingly reserved direction from none other than Paul W.S. Anderson, the man responsible for the Resident Evil franchise, which is anything but reserved.

Secretly Awesome
Event Horizon
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The first hour of Event Horizon is all tension build-up, and surprisingly effective build-up at that. Sure, we learn all of the things we expect to learn, and quickly realize that the crew members will be separated through a strange sequence of events and picked off one-by-one in the end, but what makes Event Horizon different is its amazing set design and art direction, as well as some eerie lighting effects. There's something creepy in every room and every corridor that sets a very unsettling tone that the rest of the film keeps pace with for a while, as the crew explore the ship, and come across places like the hatch that opens up into the green ventilation shaft maze. As this goes on, we start to see the crew's waking nightmares, which cause them to do some crazy things until the whole thing devolves into a big, bloody death-trap. And I say "devolve" there with love, because the last half hour is actually pretty satisfyingly gory.

A lot of this could have been terrible (I'd be interested to read the screenplay to see how bad it might be), but it was really well-cast. The actors take the material seriously enough and deliver the expository dialogue with enough gravity for me to be more than willing to suspend disbelief. And Anderson's direction is pretty subtle at times; he lets a lot of moments play out slowly, sometimes almost painfully slowly, like a scene in which a possessed crew-mate goes into the cargo bay with the intention of opening the hatch into space. The scene lasts for minutes as the powerless crew try to talk him down. It's pretty intense. And of course, Event Horizon ends like a 90s action film should, with a showdown in a random location. In this case, Fishburne faces a demonic ripped-faced Sam Neill in a literal bloodbath at the base of a spherical room which holds a spinning orb-like multi-dimensional portal, which is on fire. Not to be missed.

Event Horizon (1997)
Event Horizon at the IMDb
Rated: R
Directed by: Paul W. S. Anderson
Written by: Philip Eisner
Featuring: Laurence Fishburne, Sam Neill, Kathleen Quinlan and Joely Richardson
Plot: A rescue crew investigates a spaceship that disappeared into a black hole and has now returned...with someone or something new on-board.

Trailer:

Feature by Bradley Redder of This Week's Movie. Have a Secretly Awesome suggestion that you'd like to propose? Or have a past or present entry you'd like to argue about? Feel free to e-mail Brad at maxfischar@gmail.com.

Secretly Awesome - Virtuosity (1995)

Submitted by tom on August 20, 2014 - 7:54pm


 

90s Cyberpunk doesn't get much better, or much worse than Brett Leonard's Virtuosity. Okay, it probably gets a lot worse, but not while maintaining such a high level of enjoyability.

Secretly Awesome
Virtuosity
Buy Virtuosity on DVD from Amazon

The plot of Virtuosity is nonsensical at best, though it is the best kind of nonsensical, revolving around a computer training program for police to track down serial killers that is given corporeal form and set loose on a killing rampage around L.A. Fittingly crude CGI effects involving Russell Crowe's limbs regenerating when he touches glass, silly demonstrations of predicted futuristic technology, and a mess of hokey computer interfaces are just a few of the wonderful things you'll find in this film. And that's not even mentioning the symphony of human screams scene, in which Crowe's Sid 6.7 terrorizes a nightclub and tries to orchestrate screams into music. It's twisted and bizarre, and played with a wink, as pretty much all of Crowe's scenes are.

People might just see a lot of this movie as being so bad that it's good, and they wouldn't be totally wrong; but it's also just a brilliantly strange film, and I always love to see a fully-realized Hollywood production of something that is this bizarre. That said, the one thing that is genuinely great, and the reason Virtuosity deserves to be called "secretly awesome" is Russell Crowe, who turns in what had to have been one of the most enjoyable performances of 1995. It needs to be added to the canon of the the all-time great over-the-top screen performances. Sid 6.7 is an attention-craving, cocky cyber-bully synthesized from the personalities of two-hundred notorious serial killers, who goes on a creative kill-spree in L.A. And Crowe just feeds off of the ridiculousness of it, playing Sid with a swagger and a gorgeous comically demonic laugh. It's beautiful to watch. As for Denzel... well, he pretty much phones it in. But even a phoned-in Denzel can be entertaining. According to the imdb trivia page, he accepted the role because his son asked him to. But honestly, Crowe more than makes up for it.

In addition to Denzel and Crowe, Virtuosity also boasts a nice supporting cast, which includes Louise Fletcher, William Fichtner, and William Forsythe, who gives the greatest delivery of "Anybody using this chair?" you could ever imagine. Seriously. And Virtuosity ends how all 90s action-thrillers should... with the good guy squaring off against the bad guy in a random, inaccessible-under-normal-circumstances location. In this case, on the rooftop heating combines of a skyscraper which houses the television station in which Sid 6.7 is broadcasting live murders to the world.

Brett Leonard also directed The Lawnmower Man, another 90s techno-thriller and surely a candidate for a future post, as soon as I can track down a copy of the out-of-print DVD. But for now, Virtuosity will definitely suffice.

Virtuosity (1995)
Virtuosity at the IMDb
Rated: R
Directed by: Brett Leonard
Written by: Eric Bernt
Featuring: Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe
Plot: A virtual-reality serial killer manages to escape into the real world.

Trailer:

Feature by Bradley Redder of This Week's Movie. Have a Secretly Awesome suggestion that you'd like to propose? Or have a past or present entry you'd like to argue about? Feel free to e-mail Brad at maxfischar@gmail.com.

Secretly Awesome - What Maisie Knew (2013)

Submitted by maxfischar on February 13, 2014 - 11:16pm


 

Normally I reserve this column for older, forgotten films, or those which I feel weren't given their due: great '90s thrillers, like Breakdown, to unexpected delights, like Young Sherlock Holmes. But the intention has always been to highlight films that deserve to be part of the conversation, but generally are not. Which is where What Maisie Knew comes in, which is easily one of the best films of 2013.

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