“SUNSET” (1988) Review

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“SUNSET” (1988) Review

Bruce Willis and James Garner co-starred in this period piece murder mystery about famous Western movie star Tom Mix and former Old West lawman Wyatt Earp solving a case in 1929 Hollywood. Written and directed by Blake Edwards (“PINK PANTHER” and “VICTOR/VICTORIA”), the movie was based upon Rod Amateau’s novel of the same title.

The movie begins with studio boss Alfie Alperin (Malcolm McDowell) assigning Tom Mix to star in a movie about Wyatt Earp and the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. He even hires Earp to act as the film’s technical adviser. The two legends become good friends before getting caught up in a real case that involved prostitution, corruption and the murder of a Hollywood madam. And Alperin’s step-son Michael (Dermot Mulroney) becomes the police’s main suspect. Alperin’s wife and Michael’s mother Christina (Patricia Hodge) recruits Earp (an old flame) and Mix to help her son by finding the real killer.

Let me be frank. “SUNSET” is at best, a mediocre film. It is filled with cinematic clichés, plot twists that either do not make any sense or come off as predictable, and some rather bad dialogue. Surprisingly, one of the worst offenders turns out to be Bruce Willis. I am not accusing him of bad acting. On the contrary, I believe that he gave a pretty damn good performance. Unfortunately, Willis was forced to deal with some pretty atrocious dialogue, thanks to writer/director Blake Edwards. Honestly . . . the poor man came off sounding like a California surfer circa 1985, instead of a Hollywood cowboy from the 1920s. Perhaps if Edwards had refrained from including the term “dude” into Mix’s dialogue, Willis could have emerged from the movie unscathed.

However, Willis was not the only cast member who suffered in this movie. The director’s daughter, Jennifer Edwards, did not fare any better as Victoria Alperin, Alfie’s sister. Poor Ms. Edwards. A year later, she would give a wonderful performance as a ditzy secretary in the 1989 remake of the 1950s television classic, “PETER GUNN”. But in “SUNSET”, her Victoria Alperin seemed even more out of place in this 1920s tale than Willis’ Tom Mix. Her performance struck me as petulant and unnecessarily brittle. I could not help but think she would have fared better in a guest appearance on “MIAMI VICE” as the brittle wife of some drug dealer or corrupt businessman. Honestly. Actor Joe Dallesandro portrayed Dutch Kieffer, a take on the famous gangster, Dutch Schultz. Granted, he did a competent job in adding menace to the character. Unfortunately . . . his demeanor seemed more suited to a character in something like “BARETTA” or “STARSKY AND HUTCH”. Like Ms. Edwards, he seemed even more out of place in this movie than Willis. But the one person who truly seemed out of place in “SUNSET” was character actor M. Emmet Walsh. Poor Mr. Walsh. He had the bad luck to portray the chief security officer of Alperin Studios, Marvin Dibner. If there was one character who seemed unnecessary to the story, it was him. Honestly, his character could have easily been deleted. Instead of creating another addition to his gallery of interesting supporting roles, poor Mr. Walsh popped up in every other scene, wearing a dumb expression.

Fortunately, “SUNSET” could boast some good, solid performances. Despite some of the bad dialogue dumped on him, Bruce Willis had the good luck to be teamed with James Garner. Between Garner’s earthy performance as the legendary lawman and Willis’ cocky take on the famous Western star, the pair managed to create an electrifying screen team. Kathleen Quinlan made a nice addition to the cast as the sly and humorous Nancy Shoemaker, one of Alperin Studios’ publicists. Mariel Hemingway had been nominated for a Razzie Award as Worst Supporting Actress for her role as the daughter of the murdered madam. This nomination merely confirmed my belief that the Razzie Awards are full of shit. I thought Hemingway gave a good, solid performance and had a nice chemistry with Garner. Richard Bradford, fresh from his role in 1987’s “THE UNTOUCHABLES”, gave a convincingly venomous portrayal of a corrupt cop named “Dirty” Bernie Blackworth . . . despite some questionable dialogue. Patricia Hodge and Dermot Mulroney portrayed Christina Alperin and her son, Michael. They gave competent performances, but I found nothing memorable about them. And of course, there was Malcolm McDowell portraying Alfie Alperin, the movie comedian-turned-studio head. It is obvious that Alperin is based upon Hollywood icon Charlie Chaplin. I can only wonder if Chaplin was as cruel and sadistic as the Alperin character. Thankfully, McDowell did not use the character’s negative traits as an excuse for an over-the-top performance. His Alfie Alperin came off as warm, clever, charming and most importantly, quietly menacing.

Plot wise, “SUNSET” turned out to be another one of those murder mysteries set in Old Hollywood. And yes, it was filled with the usual clichés and name droppings. I would reveal the killer’s identity, but I suspect that anyone with a brain would guess within forty minutes into the story. Or make a close guess. The only difference from this Hollywood mystery and others was that the two investigators turned out to be famous figures and not some Los Angeles detective or minor studio employee. Speaking of Earp and Mix, many film critics pointed out that the two had never met in real life. As it turned out, they did meet and Mix had served as a pallbearer at Earp’s funeral. Talk about an egg in the face. However . . . Earp did pass away two months before the movie’s setting. And Mix was at least seventeen years older than Willis’ true age during the movie’s production.

If there is one aspect about “SUNSET” that I must commend, it is the film’s artistic designs. Patricia Norris beautifully re-captured the 1920s in her Academy Award nominated costumes. Hell, I could say the same about Richard Haman’s art direction, Marvin March’s set decorations and especially Rodger Maus’ production designs. Thanks to these four artisans,“SUNSET” fairly reeked of the slightly corrupt gloss of late 1920s Hollywood.

“SUNSET” is such a mediocre film that there are times I wonder why I like it. Some of the characters seemed out of place in the 1929 setting. M. Emmet Walsh was practically wasted in his role as a studio security chief. The movie was filled with some atrocious dialogue. And to be honest, the plot came off as so predictable that it almost seemed easy to pinpoint the killer’s identity. So why did I bother to watch this movie? Why did I bother to purchase a used VHS copy of the movie, several years ago? Despite its obvious flaws, I rather like “SUNSET”. Willis and Garner literally lit up the screen as a charismatic duo, McDowell made a fantastic villain and the movie did feature some witty dialogue. But most importantly,”SUNSET” was drenched in a late 1920s setting thanks to such work from artisans like Rodger Maus’ production designs and Patricia Norris’ costumes.

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“BREACH” (2007) Review

“BREACH” (2007) Review

I have noticed over the years that some of the most interesting spy thrillers tend to be based upon historic fact. And many of these fact-based movie usually centered on an individual’s betrayal of his or her country on a massive scale. Movie and television productions such as “5 FINGERS”, “FAMILY OF SPIES” and “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” are good examples. Another is the 2007 political thriller, which told the story of how FBI Special Agent Robert Hanssen ended up being convicted of selling intelligence secrets to the Soviet Union and later, Russia.

Set between December 2000 and February 2001, “BREACH” began with young FBI employee, Eric O’Neill and two co-workers, engaged in the surveillance of a Muslim couple in Washington D.C. Eric is recalled from his post and assigned by Special Agent Kate Burroughs to work undercover as an assistant to Hanssen, who is allegedly suspected of being a sexual deviant. Despite Hanssen’s abrasive personality and rants against the Bureau for its lack of appreciation toward his computer skills, Eric begins to regard him as a friend and mentor. Hanssen and his wife has taken an interest in Eric and his marriage to a German immigrant named Juliana . . . who dislikes them. However, Burroughs eventually tells Eric the truth that Hanssen is suspected of spying for the Soviet Union and later, Russia for years. The Bureau needs hard evidence – from Eric – to put Hanssen away for good.

When I said that “BREACH” was an interesting spy film, I was not kidding. Frankly, I consider it to be one of my favorite in the genre outside the usual “JAMES BOND”, “MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE” or “JASON BOURNE” movie franchises. I have nothing against these franchises. But . . . there are times when I do enjoy watching the occasional spy thriller that does not feature excessive violence, car chases and explosives. And “BREACH” happens to be one of those films. Instead of the occasional action sequences; the movie featured good acting, first-rate suspense and more importantly well-written drama. “BREACH” knocks it out of the ballpark with all three.

There are those who will probably dismiss the suspense aspect of the movie’s plot, considering that audiences know the outcome and Hanssen’s fate. But there is suspense. The story’s mystery centered on how Eric managed to help the F.B.I. find evidence to arrest and convict Hanssen. It also centered on Eric’s struggles to maintain his cover and deal with a perpetually arrogant and paranoid man. But what really made “BREACH” fascinating to me were the emotional consequences that Eric faced, while he played a cat-and-mouse game with Hanssen. The best example of this cat-and-mouse game was featured in a scene in which Eric was forced to delay Hanssen with a trip to a government photo session and obtain data from the latter’s Palm Pilot, while F.B.I. agents searched the latter’s car for evidence and plant listening devices. And even more interesting scene occurred later in the film, in which Hanssen becomes aware of the listening devices in his car and allows his paranoia to confront Eric . . . while wielding a pistol.

I found it even more interesting to watch how the case nearly played havoc with O’Neill’s marriage to Juliana, who became increasingly resentful over the Hanssens’ encroachment upon the younger couple’s marriage. More importantly, she becomes resentful toward the Hanssen’s intrusions into her and Eric’s religious beliefs. This tension is especially played out in a scene involving Robert and Bonnie Hanssen making a surprise visit to the O’Neills’ apartment and Juliana’s discovery of a video tape in Eric’s possession . . . one that features a sexual encounter between the Hanssens that was taped by them. Overall, the drama did an excellent job in conveying the tensions and emotional price that Eric faced, while helping his fellow agents take down Hanssen.

Where there any aspects of “BREACH” I did not like? Well . . . there are two, if I must be honest. One, I did not care for how the screenwriters handled the Rich Garces character, portrayed by Gary Cole. Honestly? It seemed as if the actor’s time was wasted in this film. And for a first-rate actor like Cole, I found that rather sad. One other aspect of “BREACH”that failed to impress me was Tak Fujimoto’s photography. I realize that the cinematographer is highly regarded in the Hollywood community. And I have admired his work in past movies. I did not care for his photography in this movie. I found it a bit too dark and metallic for my taste. Yes, “BREACH” set mainly set during the winter months of December, January and February. But guess what? I have encountered other movies set during the winter. And honestly, I found the photography for those movies a lot more attractive.

My feelings for the performances featured in this film is a completely different matter. Yes, I was a little disappointed that Gary Cole was underused. And the movie featured some solid performances that did not exactly dazzled me. But . . . despite being underused, I must admit that I found Cole rather entertaining as Special Agent Rich Garces, whose amused and laid back attitude toward Hanssen seemed to ruffle the latter’s feathers. Bruce Davison had a nice appearance as Eric’s father who gives the latter some wise advice. Dennis Haysbert’s portrayal of Special Agent Dean Plesac also struck me as pretty solid. But in one particular scene that featured Hanssen’s arrest, I was impressed by how Haysbert expressed his character’s mild disgust and disbelief over the other man’s refusal to face the reality of what was going on. Kathleen Quinlan gave a very interesting performance as Hanssen’s wife, Bonnie. Regardless of whether or not Mrs. Hanssen knew about her husband’s espionage work, I must admit that Quinlan did an exceptional work in conveying a subtle perversity in her character’s personality that I found rather disturbing. It must have been somewhat difficult for Caroline Dhavernas to portray Juliana O’Neill. In the hands of a less skilled or less experienced actress, Juliana could have come off as a shrewish wife who seems incapable of understanding her husband’s profession. But Dhavernas managed to avoid that one-dimensional portrayal and expertly convey how much the Hanssens’ intrusions and Eric’s continuing privacy had put a strain on her psyche.

I cannot deny that I found Laura Linney’s portrayal of Kate Burrough, Eric’s F.B.I. handler, very interesting. And very complex. Linney’s Agent Burrough bridled with righteous anger at Hanssen’s betrayal of his country. Yet, she skillfully balanced that anger with a world-weary cynicism toward Eric’s initial naivety that I found fascinating to watch. There are times when I find myself wondering if Ryan Phillippe is underrated as an actor. Personally, I never have. And his performance as Eric O’Neill has only confirmed (at least in my mind) that he is a superb actor. Eric O’Neill might be one of the nicest characters he has ever portrayed. But thanks to Phillippe’s complex and intense performance, the character also proved to be interesting . . . especially in how he dealt with the stress of serving as Hanssen’s aide, while investing the latter; and how that stress put a strain on his marriage. Also, Phillippe is such a strong actor that it is obvious he had no problem whatsoever in keeping up with the more highly regarded Laura Linney and his main co-star, Chris Cooper. Speaking of the latter, I am still disappointed that he was never recognized for his portrayal of Robert Hanssen with a major acting award. He really deserved it. More importantly, I regard Robert Hanssen as one of his best roles. I thought Cooper was outstanding as the paranoid Hanssen, who seemed to be a curious mixture of the dedicated and morally pure Federal agent; and the perverse and paranoid man, whose ego led him to commit a major betrayal against his country. Cooper really knocked it out of the ballpark.

Overall, I would highly recommend “BREACH”. Is it historically accurate? Of course not. I have yet to see a historical drama that was. But “BREACH” is such a fascinating tale, thanks to Billy Ray’s direction; a tight screenplay written by him, Adam Mazer and William Rotko; and superb performances by a cast led by Chris Cooper and Ryan Phillippe that it was inspired me to visit my local library and read more on Robert Hanssen and what led to his capture.

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1970s

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1920s: 


FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1970s

1 - American Gangster

1. American Gangster (2007) – Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe starred in this biopic about former Harlem drug kingpin, Frank Lucas and Richie Roberts, the Newark police detective who finally caught him. Ridley Scott directed this energetic tale.



2 - Munich

2. Munich (2005) – Steven Spielberg directed this tense drama about Israel’s retaliation against the men who committed the Munich massacre at the 1972 Summer Olympics. Eric Bana, Daniel Craig and Ciarán Hinds starred.



3 - Rush

3. Rush (2013) – Ron Howard directed this account of the sports rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda during the 1976 Formula One auto racing season. Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl starred.



4 - Casino

4. Casino (1995) – Martin Scorsese directed this crime drama about rise and downfall of a gambler and enforcer sent West to run a Mob-owned Las Vegas casino. Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Sharon Stone starred.



5 - Super 8

5. Super 8 (2011) – J.J. Abrams directed this science-fiction thriller about a group of young teens who stumble across a dangerous presence in their town, after witnessing a train accident, while shooting their own 8mm film. Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning and Kyle Chandler starred.



6 - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

6. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011) – Gary Oldman starred as George Smiley in this recent adaptation of John le Carré’s 1974 novel about the hunt for a Soviet mole in MI-6. Tomas Alfredson directed.



7 - Apollo 13

7. Apollo 13(1995) – Ron Howard directed this dramatic account about the failed Apollo 13 mission in April 1970. Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon starred.



8 - Nixon

8. Nixon (1995) – Oliver Stone directed this biopic about President Richard M. Nixon. The movie starred Anthony Hopkins and Joan Allen.



9 - Starsky and Hutch

9. Starsky and Hutch (2004) – Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson starred in this comedic movie adaptation of the 70s television series about two street cops hunting down a drug kingpin. Directed by Todd Phillips, the movie also starred Vince Vaughn, Jason Bateman and Snoop Dogg.



10 - Frost-Nixon

10. Frost/Nixon (2008) – Ron Howard directed this adaptation of the stage play about David Frost’s interviews with former President Richard Nixon in 1977. Frank Langella and Michael Sheen starred.