The Deep (1977)


Nick Nolte, Robert Shaw and Jacqueline Bisset in drier clothes.

Nick Nolte, Robert Shaw and Jacqueline Bisset in drier clothes.

(1977) Adventure (Columbia) Jacqueline Bisset, Nick Nolte, Dick Anthony Williams, Robert Shaw, Earl Maynard, Bob Minor, Louis Gossett Jr., Eli Wallach, Robert Tessier, Lee McClain, Teddy Tucker, Peter Benchley, Colin Shaw, Peter Wallach. Directed by Peter Yates

Our Film Library 2015

The sea guards its secrets jealously. The ships and men that go down into its deadly embrace can carry with them treasures untold; retrieving those treasures can be as deadly above the water as below.

David Sanders (Nolte) and Gail Berke (Bisset) are vacationing in Bermuda, taking up a hobby that the both of them share – scuba diving. They come upon a wreck and pull up a gold coin as well as an ampule of an amber liquid. The latter seems to be anachronistic when combined with the former.

The couple take the finds to Romer Treece (Nolte), a reclusive treasure hunter who lives in a luxuriously appointed converted lighthouse. He deduces that the ampule is from the Goliath, a ship carrying medical supplies and munitions to Europe during the Second World War but because of the presence of the ammo has been marked off-limits to divers because of the danger involved. He also figures out that the wreck of the Goliath sits upon the wreck of a much older ship which may be carrying priceless treasure.

The fellow they purchase diving equipment from, Adam Coffin (Wallach) happens to be the only living survivor from the wreck of the Goliath. In addition, the ampule has caught the attention of Henri Cloche (Gossett), the local Haitian crime lord (doesn’t every island have one?) who wants the ampules which turn out to be morphine. He agrees to let Treece and Sanders pull the morphine out of the wreck in exchange for a million dollars. Of course, Cloche has no intention of letting them just walk away from the wreck knowing that he has just come into millions of ampules of medical morphine and employs thugs, intimidation – and even voodoo – to get what he wants.

This was in many ways a follow-up to Jaws which at the time had redefined Hollywood from simply pumping out whatever movies suited them to one oriented to blockbusters. It was also released during the summer of Star Wars which had been packing in massive audiences since late May and still managed to do decent box office business.

That was because it had one special effect that Star Wars couldn’t muster – Jackie Bisset in a wet t-shirt. The movie notoriously featured the nubile young actress throughout the first part of the film in a wet t-shirt which was of course heavily marketed and paved the way for wet t-shirt in bars and spring break events across the country. I can hear my female readers shaking their heads now and saying “Men…!”

The movie, like Jaws, was based on a novel by Peter Benchley, who also penned the screenplay of his own novel here (and makes a cameo appearance as a U-Boat crewman in the film’s opening sequence). Sadly, neither the book nor the movie was as well-written as Jaws was, with plenty of irritating lapses in logic that defied common sense even of people who knew absolutely nothing about scuba diving.

Nolte was one of the top young leading men in Hollywood and does a fine job here as the intrepid David but these days few people even remember he was in the movie. That’s because Bisset, who could have easily phoned in a part which was clearly exploitative in many ways, actually imbues her character with strength and character. If you remember anything from the movie (other than the t-shirts) it is Gail, who is more of a modern heroine rather than the damsel in distress which she seems to have been written to be.

The underwater photography is some of the best that has ever been captured in a Hollywood film. Shooting in actual wrecks in the Caribbean, the actors had to get scuba certified before filming began and the producers got not only the best underwater cameramen in the business at the time but added consultants who knew a lot about the actual technical obstacles to working a wreck like this one. Unlike many underwater scenes from films of that era and earlier, The Deep doesn’t look murky or muddled; the clarity is amazing even by modern standards.

As adventure flicks go, this one is pretty fun and although extremely dated in some ways (the mostly black thugs are a tip of the hat to the blaxploitation flicks that were popular at the time) it remains a fun ride even for modern audiences. Benchley as a writer was always able to spin a good yarn and while he is mostly remembered for Jaws the book this is based on is his second-best known work, although for many his novel The Girl of the Sea of Cortez is his best-written work. The Deep benefited from attractive stars and titillation but remains a movie that should be better remembered for bringing the audience right under the waves and into the action.

WHY RENT THIS: An engaging adventure flick that is a product of its era. Some of the best underwater scenes ever filmed. Bisset in a wet t-shirt.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Laughable plot that defies logic. Some of the special effects and racial attitudes are dated.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some violence, some sexuality and some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The younger version of Treece and Coffin were played by the sons of actors Robert Shaw and Eli Wallach respectively.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The movie was broadcast on American TV as a two night event miniseries with nearly an hour of additional footage. While the expanded version has never been released on home video, several of the scenes from that additional footage are included in the Blu-Ray edition, as is Robert Shaw’s diving primer.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $47.5M on a $9M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (purchase only), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: For Your Eyes Only
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Our Film Library continues!

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The Godfather Part III


Just when I thought I was out...

Just when I thought I was out…

(1990) Drama (Paramount) Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Andy Garcia, Talia Shire, Eli Wallach, Joe Mantegna, Sofia Coppola, George Hamilton, Bridget Fonda, Raf Vallone, Franc D’Ambrosio, Donal Donnelly, Richard Bright, Helmut Berger, Don Novello, John Savage, Franco Citti, Mario Donatone, Al Martino, Vittorio Duse, John Cazale. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

“Just when I thought I was out…they pull me back in.” 16 years after the second part of the trilogy comes the conclusion, although Coppola prefers to think of it more as an epilogue. Coppola also wasn’t particularly eager to make this film but with his production company having serious money issues he went ahead and did it anyway.

Using real life events surrounding the Vatican Bank and the short reign of Pope John Paul I, Coppola weaves a tale that involves Michael Corleone (Pacino) – now a legitimate businessman, still fighting to keep his family out of the old family business. His nephew Vincent Mancini (Garcia) the illegitimate son of Michael’s brother Sonny and his sister’s friend and bridesmaid Lucy Mancini, has an issue with Joey Zasa (Mantegna) who runs what used to be the Corleone family in New York. Michael doesn’t want to get involved but reluctantly does so at his sister Connie’s (Shire) urging.

Michael has made at least an accord with his estranged wife Kay (Keaton) to let their children go their own way so that Anthony (D’Ambrosio) is free to pursue a career in opera rather than become the lawyer his father desires him to be. Mary (Sofia Coppola) is also free to pursue Vincent although Michael disapproves of the union. And despite Michael’s attempts to remain legitimate, his past will come back to haunt him in a big way.

Whereas The Godfather was operatic in tone, The Godfather Part III is more soap opera than opera. Daddy Coppola is masterful at weaving multiple storylines into a crescendo, bringing them all together in a terrifying violent coda. He still shows that ability here but this script simply doesn’t have the power that the first two movies did.

Still, this movie has Pacino at the top of his game and while he didn’t get an Oscar nomination for his work here he richly deserved one. Here Michael is aging and his vitality is ebbing from him. He speaks in a gravelly voice roughened by time and tears, stooped with the weight of all his misdeeds. He may have gone legitimate but he still carries his sins like anvils around his neck. The eyes of Michael Corleone are haunted by demons so horrible that thee and me could never imagine it. It is in the eyes that Pacino’s performance truly becomes masterful.

He has some help. Talia Shire, often overlooked in the first two movies becomes a black widow here. Connie Corleone sits in the shadows, weaving her webs, Michael’s feminine support but also the demon of his lesser nature. She is the siren call of the Mafia life, the life Michael has struggled so hard to get away from. Her machinations are central to the movie’s plot and help Shire give the performance of her career.

Garcia who was so memorable in The Untouchables channels James Caan here playing his bastard son with explosive violence and yet the cool and snake-like intelligence of a Corleone. You can see Sonny in the son but that isn’t all Vincent is. Garcia imbues him with loyalty and malevolence, violence and cleverness but also love and respect. In many ways Pacino and Garcia have taken the roles of Brando and Pacino from the first film, allowing Michael to go full circle.

Sadly, Sofia Coppola – an excellent director – doesn’t fare as well as an actress. It’s not that she doesn’t have talent in that department – she actually delivers a decent performance. Unfortunately, the role and the situation both call for something better than that. She’s a housecat among lions, having to put her performances up against some of the best in the business and by comparison suffers badly. She doesn’t really have the screen charisma developed to give the role what it really deserved – a performance that forces the audience to care about the character. We kind of do but not enough by the end of the final reel. She was perhaps unjustly excoriated by critics and audiences alike which effectively ended her career as an actress which in a way is a good thing – we’ve gotten some pretty damn good movies from her as a director perhaps as a result. Still, I can’t help but wonder how well she would have developed as an actress had she not been kicked around so much in the press which surely soured her on pursuing acting at all.

There are other problems with the movie as well – the convoluted story line, Paramount’s inability to let Coppola make the movie he wanted (among other things they wouldn’t pay Duvall a salary akin to what other actors in the film were making so Coppola wound up being forced to write the character of Tom Hagen out) and perhaps most importantly the movie simply wasn’t able to hold up against two all-time classics. That’s not to say that The Godfather Part III is a bad movie – far from it. Part of the problem is that expectations are sky high after the first two. If There hadn’t have been the first two movies of the series, The Godfather Part III taken by itself probably would be remembered with far more fondness.

It is worth seeing as a closing chapter in the series although there has been talk on and off over the years of a Godfather Part IV but if there is it is unlikely Pacino or Coppola will be involved. With author Mario Puzo – very much Coppola’s muse when it came to these movies – passed away, it isn’t likely that another Godfather movie will ever capture the lightning the way the first two movies did. When you take the three films as a whole, it is as epic a saga of an American family as has ever been made. There hasn’t been it’s like before and there never will be again. While the third entry in the trilogy may be something of a disappointment, it is still a good movie if you avoid comparing it to the first two which is admittedly hard to do but if you are able to do it, you’ll enjoy this movie more.

WHY RENT THIS: Closure. Pacino is mesmerizing as always.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Doesn’t really hold up to the other two films in the trilogy. Story often confusing and Sofia Coppola’s performance isn’t up to scratch.

FAMILY VALUES:  More than its share of violence (some of it bloody) and foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Godfather trilogy was the first to have all three films nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. The Lord of the Rings trilogy later duplicated the feat.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Be warned that editions which contain the individual films tend to be fairly sparse with extras. If you’re looking for extras you’re better off picking up the trilogy boxed sets in either DVD or Blu-Ray which include some scintillating material as it relates to the trilogy plus it is a cost-effective way to get all three films in the saga. However if you want to skip the third film and are just interested in the movies themselves without the bells and whistles, buying them individually is the way to go.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $136.8M on a $54M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Family

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Saving Mr. Banks

The Ghost Writer


The Ghost Writer

A day at the office is no day at the beach for Ewan McGregor.

(2010) Thriller (Summit) Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Kim Cattrall, Olivia Williams, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Hutton, Eli Wallach, Robert Pugh, Desiree Erasmus, Daniel Sutton, Marianne Graffam, James Belushi, Kate Copeland. Directed by Roman Polanski

Politics make strange bedfellows with just about everything but particularly with art. Although we have an affinity for topical movies, political thrillers are often about as empty and soulless as…as…a politician.

The Ghost (McGregor) – who is never identified by name in the movie nor in the book that it is based on – is a talented and ambitious sort who has been waiting, none too patiently, for a plum job, the one that will get his career in gear. He finally gets it – former British Prime Minister Robert Lang (Brosnan) wants his memoirs ghosted. It seems that the old friend of Lang’s who had previously been working on the assignment had washed up on the beach, a victim of suicide or accidental drowning.

The Ghost ventures out to Martha’s Vineyard to Lang’s bunker-like complex which is in siege mode. Lang has been accused by one of his former ministers of being complicit of allowing prisoners to be tortured during an armed conflict begun during his regime. Obviously this makes the new book even more potentially lucrative and the Ghost is under pressure to finish the manuscript quickly.

Things are a bit strange though in the compound. Lang’s high-strung wife Ruth (Williams) is coming on to the Ghost, fully aware of the long-time affair her husband has been having with his assistant Amelia Bly (Cattrall). The original manuscript the Ghost has been hired to clean up and re-edit is under lock and key and may not be taken out of the office where the Ghost has been assigned to work.

And work he does, diligently. He soon discovers some contradictions and outright falsehoods in the manuscript. As he digs deeper to discover the truth, he finds out the shady dealings between Lang and a company called Hatherton. He also discovers some secrets that some would kill to make sure they remained secret. Now it’s not just a battle to meet a deadline; the Ghost must figure out a way to stay alive altogether.

Polanski is one of the best of his generation and creating an effective thriller. Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby are just two examples of classic Polanski thrillers. This one, completed when Polanski was 76 years old, shows he hasn’t lost his touch. While it isn’t to the level of those just mentioned, it’s as good as any released by more contemporary directors.

Polanski manages to gather a strong cast around him. McGregor is a fine everyman hero, and while he seems far more passive-aggressive than the standard movie hero, he nonetheless is charming enough to carry his end of the water pole. The end carried by Brosnan, however, is much stronger. Brosnan who has mostly done affable and elegant action hero types (a la “Remington Steel”, James Bond and Thomas Crown) delivers one of his better performances ever here. He is both sinister and snake-like, clapping you on the back one moment and stabbing you in it the next. That dichotomy of charm and ruthlessness makes the character as fascinating a political figure as has ever been on the silver screen.

They are surrounded by a strong cast, including Hutton as the Ghost’s hyperactive agent and Wilkinson, an old classmate of Lang’s who knows far more about his chicanery than he lets on. Wilkinson in fact has few scenes but is in definite control of your attention whenever he’s on.

There are some twists and turns here. That is par for the course for a thriller, but few are telegraphed and none stretch the believability quotient. What Polanski does better than most directors is establish a mood, and he does so brilliantly here, making even characters seen in passing seem menacing and up to no good.

The movie didn’t do very well at the box office (see below), mostly due to Polanski’s arrest on a 34-year-old statutory rape charge and his subsequent fight to prevent extradition. I would imagine a number of movie-goers who might have ordinarily flocked to see this stayed away because of an unwillingness to support a rapist. I can understand the sentiment certainly but this isn’t a review of Mr. Polanski’s life but of a single film he created.

Political thrillers are hard to accomplish, particularly when they are as topical as this one is (the characters are extremely similar to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, with other characters and entities – such as Hatherton substituting for Halliburton  – also carrying some similarities to people and things in the news). There is always the chance that in a very few years this will seem dated. However the movie is so well-crafted that long after the people and events that inspired it are forgotten, The Ghost Writer will hold up as a well-crafted, well-acted and well-written thriller.

WHY RENT THIS: Impressively tense. Fine performances from most of the cast but particularly from McGregor and Wilkinson.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The payoff is a bit anti-climactic.

FAMILY VALUES: Some rough language, a bit of violence, a bit of sexuality and a smidgeon of nudity and a drug reference.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although primarily set in the United States, Polanski was unable to film here due to his legal issues. Most of the movie was filmed in Europe except for a few second unit shots.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $60.2M on a $45M production budget; the movie lost money.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Buck

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps


Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Shia LaBeouf tells Michael Douglas that Indiana Jones was a better adventure hero than Jack Colton.

(20th Century Fox) Michael Douglas, Shia LaBeouf, Josh Brolin, Carey Mulligan, Susan Sarandon, Eli Wallach, Frank Langella, Austin Pendleton, John Bedford Lloyd, Vanessa Ferlito, John Buffalo Mailer, Sylvia Miles, Charlie Sheen, Ron Insana.  Directed by Oliver Stone

Filmmaker Oliver Stone has long had the reputation as a cinematic gadfly. Throughout the 1980s his movies took run after run against the establishment; movies like JFK, Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July all of which were Oscar bait in their time. However, many consider his 1987 film Wall Street to be his magnum opus. Michael Douglas would win an Oscar as the Machiavellian Gordon Gekko, a Wall Street financier whose mantra “Greed is Good” would become a catchphrase and, ironically enough, a spur for many of today’s brokers to enter the business. Still, that was 23 years ago; has Stone mellowed with age?

Some say yes. The movie opens with Gekko (Douglas, reprising the role from the original) being released from prison after doing eight years for insider trading. He leaves the facility with a mobile phone the size of a loaf of bread and a gold watch. There is, however, nobody to meet him; even the rapper/thug has a limo awaiting him.

Seven years later, his daughter Winnie (Mulligan) still hasn’t spoken to him in more than a decade. She blames him for the overdose death of her brother. She has a different life now anyway; she runs what is self-described as a “lefty website” and she’s living with Jake Moore (LaBeouf), who works as an investment banker for the established firm of Keller Zabel (said to be a fictional version of Bear Stearns) as an alternative energy specialist. Even though he’s essentially part of the system she despises, he’s still idealistic enough to give her reason to overlook it.

Their life is far from ideal, however. Keller Zabel is in trouble, the victim of rumors of insolvency based on bad debt (rumors which turn out to be partially true). Senior partner Louis Zabel (Langella), who is also Jake’s mentor, goes to the Federal Reserve, hat in hand, but is turned down, mainly due to the poisonous words of Bretton James (Brolin), the CEO of Churchill Schwartz (the fictional counterpart of Goldman Sachs) who had an axe to grind with Zabel.

When Keller Zabel fails, Jake decides to take in a lecture by Gekko who is promoting his book “Is Greed Good?” that, among other things, predicts the economic meltdown that would take place later that year (the movie is set in 2008). He manages to get Gekko’s ear by telling him that he’s getting ready to marry his daughter, which he is. Gekko agrees to talk to him.

Gekko agrees to get some information about who initiated the rumors about Keller Zabel in exchange for Jake helping to reunite him with his daughter. Jake arranges dinner with the three of them but Winnie walks out, unable to be in the same room with the man whom she blames for destroying her family. Jake stays in contact with her dad behind her back, however; Gekko responds by telling Jake that it was Bretton James behind the rumors that sunk Keller Zabel. Jake decides to initiate some rumors of his own. James is in turn impressed by the passion and smarts of young Jake and hires him. This lasts only as long as it takes for Jake to find out he’s being used.

Things really begin to fall apart then. Just as Winnie is beginning to move towards reconciliation with her father, Gekko reverts to his true colors and the revelation that Jake has been in contact with him behind her back threatens to submarine the relationship. Can someone like Gordon Gekko find redemption in this world, and more to the point, does he deserve it?

I asked earlier if Oliver Stone had mellowed with age, and I tend to agree with some of those who think that he has. Stone’s best works, including the original Wall Street, all carry a degree of anger to them. They are strident, opinionated and abrasive in some ways. He carries the courage of his convictions whether you agree with them or not, and in all honesty there is little ambiguity about his cinematic work.

That’s not as true here. Gekko at one point says, “I was small time compared to these crooks” referring to the Lords of Wall Street circa 2008, but he is in many ways as corrupting an influence as ever, although he isn’t even the villain of this piece – Bretton James is. While Brolin is a great actor in his own right and he does a magnificent job as the unrepentantly corrupt and greedy James, the movie could have used less of him and more of Michael Douglas.

Douglas, as I mentioned earlier, won an Oscar for the first Wall Street and it isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that he could win another for the same role 23 years on, although I would probably characterize it as more of a supporting role. Gekko is sleek, seductive and completely amoral; he is super-competitive and will pay any price in order to win on his own terms. It’s a fascinating role as much of the movie the lion has no teeth or claws, only to reveal that he had them all along about two thirds of the way through. Douglas is the reason to see this movie, first and foremost.

He has some company, however. Langella, who has been delivering terrific performances every time out of late, does so again here. His role is small but crucial, and he imbues it with dignity and honesty. Louis Zabel is a man who finds that his business has changed into something unrecognizable and something he doesn’t much like. He’s lost in this world that he helped shape, and the irony isn’t lost on him. Sarandon also has a brief role as Jake’s real estate selling mom, who is constantly in need of funds to keep her house of cards from collapsing.

This might have gotten a better rating, but unfortunately the movie is torpedoed by its ending, which I found literally preposterous. The characters turn completely on their own internal logic and act completely out of character. It’s about as jarring as ordering a pizza delivery and receiving liver and onions instead, especially if you hate liver and onions.

Having been employed by a financial institution my own self, I can tell you that the world created here is pretty much accurate; the hypocrisy and arrogance truly exists particularly the closer to the executive suite that you get. Of course, that’s pretty much true for any industry these days; it’s just that the financial industry has been in the spotlight more because of the sub-prime shenanigans.

There are a number of documentaries out there that examine the financial meltdown and its causes that are more likely to give you insight into just what happened. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps isn’t really a good substitute for them, since it really relegates much of the reasons behind the collapse to the periphery of the film, preferring to concentrate on the characters of Jake, Winnie and Bretton and to a lesser extent, Gordon Gekko. It does make for fine entertainment, but I suspect it will seem a bit dated 23 years after the fact and doesn’t have the advantage of prescience that the original Wall Street had. It’s more a rehash of current events, and it may be fair to say that you could have gotten the same insights by watching MSNBC.

REASONS TO GO: Langella, Douglas and Brolin do some pretty impressive work. The character of Gordon Gekko is as relevant today as he was back in 1987.

REASONS TO STAY: The ending is absolutely preposterous. Some of the direction is a bit self-indulgent.  

FAMILY VALUES: The language can be a little rough and some of the concepts are on the confusing side, but the average teenager should be able to follow it and maybe even appreciate it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A scene in which Donald Trump made a cameo appearance as himself was left on the cutting room floor.

HOME OR THEATER: While some of the New York City vistas look far more majestic on the big screen, the movie is nonetheless perfectly adequate when seen at home.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Leaves of Grass