CLIFFHANGER

By Marc S. Sanders

It’s an action picture.  What’s common?  Sylvester Stallone, the MacGuffin is money, and the villain has a European accent.  What’s uncommon?  The setting is a Colorado snow covered mountain. 

The movie is Cliffhanger directed by Renny Harlin.

This film deserves much praise for the photography it offers of Stallone and his sidekicks (Michael Rooker, Janine Turner) scaling steep rock formations while trying to evade brutal, but moronic, thieves who have foolishly lost their booty in midair. Now the bad guys must recover the stolen Federal Reserve bills which are scattered in three different locations within the mountain range.  When their plane crashes they force the heroes into leading them on an expedition to locate the money before they will surely kill them.  John Lithgow leads the villains.  Thanks to his slithery English dialect, he’s not bad in the part.

For a pinch of character depth, Gabe (Stallone) is haunted by the opening scene of the film where he failed to rescue the girlfriend of his buddy, Hal (Rooker).  Gabe and Hal will be awarded the opportunity to make amends thanks to this unexpected adventure.  Cliffhanger is not just a thriller.  It’s also a chick flick for guys. 

On a modern flat screen TV, it is quite discernable to recognize the CGI and handcrafted sets that make up much of the scenes.  However, the thrill of it all still holds up and as noted before, the overhead shots really look spectacular.  Stallone really is hanging from these bottomless heights with just one hand; at least that’s what it looks like.  If there is an illusion at play, then there are moments where I can’t tell if I’m being deceived.

The opening scene is the highlight of the picture as Gabe must zip line himself upside down over a wide crevice while attempting to save a hapless climber whose harness has given out.  It’s impossible not to sit still during a well edited and directed moment like this.  This is a masterful scene of terror and suspense.  Renny Harlin is certainly an undervalued director in the action genre.  (I wonder what he’s been up to these days.)

The bad guys are quite hapless though, as they freely bicker among themselves and give away how they’ll happily kill the heroes quickly, allowing one to warn the others.  They are dumb right from the start by killing the pilot of the plane they’re on before fully completing their mission and idiotically losing the money at play.  Then again, as my Unpaid Critic colleague would say, “Then there’d be no movie.”  True Mig!  Very true.

Still, the atmosphere of Cliffhanger is what works.  Blustery snow and wind come off convincingly as Gabe is forced to freeze and shiver with no layers to keep him warm while executing some daring escapes.  Rescue helicopter stunts and collisions are sensational.  There are obligatory shootouts and bloody slashes of skin from climbing tools.  There’s even a bat cave, with no superhero in sight, but it will give you the willies.

I’m hot and cold on many of Sylvester Stallone’s films.  Don’t get me started on Assassins with Antonio Banderas or The Specialist with Sharon Stone.  Those movies required some nuanced acting that the action star just wasn’t offering.  However, here the adventure makes the piece thanks to the director, and Stallone fits right into this environment where the role demands strength, stamina, and outdoor intuition.  Renny Harlin is the top hero here, allowing the marquee actor to look really good on screen.

NATIONAL LAMPOON’S ANIMAL HOUSE

By Marc S. Sanders

When a film opens with two students walking across a college campus as the classical horn music of proud alumni accompany them, and then one of the students stops to pull up his fly, you know you are probably in for a contrast of ideals.

Animal House set a new standard in comedy featuring a John Belushi whose expressions and improvisations appeared too fast for the camera to catch everything he’s doing. The script never gave him much dialogue because his routines of smashing beer bottles, smashing guitars, smashing beer cans and just getting smashed merited no dialogue. He might have looked like a dirty slob, but he was a craftsman of facial expressions.

Every scene of Animal House plays like an episode of an ongoing sitcom; a raunchy one at that. A dead horse, a pledge ceremony, a toga party, a sabotaged parade, and a food fight. Each topic is the title of a sitcom’s various episodes.

John Landis directed the snobs vs slobs script co-written by Harold Ramis, and 40 years later the material still holds up. Then again, 40 years later, I wonder if this film would even get made. I’d rather not dwell on that.

What I do know is that this movie is still funny. Outrageously funny.


THE INSIDER

By Marc S. Sanders

When I think of Michael Mann’s The Insider from 1999, I cannot get over how deep it is with its storytelling. Inspired by true events and based upon a Vanity Fair article, I consider the adjective “deep” because it’s really a one-story trajectory, but it covers so many different facets; so many different industries and how they operate and sometimes overlap with one another. The tobacco industry, journalism in both television and print, state law and even the deterioration of an American household. Michael Mann shows how one simple action can balloon into something bigger affecting others all at once. You gotta get through one thing before you swim deeper into the bottomless pool of policy, contracts, ethics and threats.

Russell Crowe portrays Jeffrey Wigand, a top leading chemist with the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company. Upon realizing that he has detrimental information should it go public, the company fires him and compels him to sign a confidentiality agreement not to reveal any of his research or activities while in service to them. That won’t suffice for the incredibly powerful tobacco company though, as Dr. Wigand receives threats that include disturbing emails, possible prowlers and a bullet that mysteriously turns up in his mail box.

Wigand crosses paths with Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), a producer with 60 Minutes at CBS Television. Bergman works often with famed interviewer Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer, who should have been nominated, much less won an Oscar). Wigand gets more and more motivated to go on Bergman’s show and tell everything about how the tobacco industry manipulates cigarette manufacturing to make it all the more addicting.

Bergman wants the story but he wants to play it carefully. Toeing the the line of maintaining Wigand’s confidentiality agreement might require a deposition by the scientist in a state courtroom so that his testimony will be public record. In other words, get a state to subpoena him and then the interview can happen because what Wigand says in an interview is already public record.

It’s complicated. Not so much for the viewer though. It’s complicated for Jeffrey Wigand. Russell Crowe emotes his rock and hard place situation with terrible anguish and a short temper. Michael Mann gets great closeups that capture the stress like deep wrinkles and dark circles under the eyes along with pale white skin, a big gut, wrinkled dress shirts, and rough shaves. The stress also carries over to his southern gentile wife (Diane Venora in an entirely different role from Mann’s Heat) and his two girls. They are collateral damage here. Wigand could also lose medical coverage on top of his salary and the threats of civil liability. Jeffrey Wigand is an ant under the very large heel of Big Tobacco.

Lowell Bergman also has obstacles from within his own camp. Journalistic integrity is tested with Wigand’s interview. It’d almost be better if Wigand was lying. That way Big Tobacco could not sue CBS for breach of a confidentiality contract. The more truth he tells, the greater the liability. Considering that CBS Corporate is in the middle of a buyout that could be very profitable for a select few, CBS is disregarding Bergman’s reputation for bringing in experts and informants that have made 60 Minutes the most watched news program on television.

These are the dilemmas that comprise Mann’s near three-hour film. What’s as interesting is the in between material. With Mann sometimes shooting with a documentary like approach, we catch glimpses of how a journalist will pass a colleague in a rotating lobby door and they’ll make arrangements to exchange one story in a time slot for another. These are mere seconds, but it paints a colorful setting that the news never sleeps. We see how Big Tobacco (represented by a slimy Michael Gambon) can subtly intimidate one man in a corporate office. We see a trio of lawyers take a phone call from a private jet they are piloting to consider Wigand as a material witness. We see how one of those lawyers (Bruce McGill) will handle an objection during his questioning of a witness (an unforgettable scene). We see how Wigand must adjust with his family to downgrade to a smaller home with old dusty kitchen cabinets and how it all gradually weighs down his marriage. We see how Bergman has to be covert with meeting Wigand in a hotel lobby. We also see how Big Tobacco can issue a smear campaign and how Bergman has to go across the street to a newspaper colleague to first ask for a deadline of print to be pushed back, and later how he grants a story to the paper to reveal shady dealings and how to refute what’s already been falsely claimed. There’s even a deal that indirectly involves the infamous Unabomber. It’s these little details that keep the film’s pulse alive.

Even before all of this begins, Mann demonstrates the lengths Bergman and Wallace will go to for 60 Minutes. They go deep into the Middle East to get an exclusive interview with the Head Sheik for the Hezbollah terrorist group. Christopher Plummer as Mike Wallace is marvelous here as he stands up against an irate bodyguard strapped with a machine gun to argue about how close he will sit next to the Sheik. If you want the story, the true story, you have to be genuine and be fearless with risk.

I can’t say enough good things about The Insider. It’s truly an education to watch the film with blazing cinematography in blues and grey hues from Dante Spinotti. Mann is always known for his coolness with film, dating all the way back to the MTV vibe of Miami Vice to Thief with James Caan, and his LA crime drama Heat. The tradition carries on here.

As well, the dialogue is so crisp from a script by Mann and Eric Roth. Pacino is memorably given an opportunity to sum up the machinations of CBS corporate in the third act of the film. The Mike Wallace character is not written as a television personality with a cue card. He’s got real, good, seasoned intelligence in his words. Plummer just enhances the script.

The Insider ranks at the top of the list of films focused on journalism next to features like Sidney Lumet’s Network, Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight and Alan J Pakula’s All The President’s Men. It explores the danger that can come from truths that need to be told which others never want disclosed. It covers the methods by which parties are recruited to help get the truth and the lengths operatives will go to, to squash a story.

The Insider is a gripping, magnificent film.