THROWBACK THURSDAY: SUMMER OF ‘96
In case you hadn’t noticed, it is summer blockbuster season again. There is a disaster film (San Andreas); a Mission: Impossible episode (Rogue Nation); Arnold Schwarzenegger is ‘back’ (Terminator: Genisys). There is an epic chase film (Mad Max: Fury Road) and a ‘science gone wrong meets adventure fun’ effort (Jurassic World). If you need something softer, the rom-com is here (Man Up: funny and charming).
Are you getting déjà vu? Are you getting déjà vu? (See what we did there?). Does it all seem / sound familiar? Of course it does. There is a template for tent-pole cinema and 2015’s is no different. Whilst it’s not QUITE as big this year as initially anticipated (Star Wars, Independence Day and Pirates of the Caribbean almost joined the roster but were pushed back), it’s still both frantic and familiar.
And ever was it thus. To prove my point, I spun a randomising wheel and arrived back in 1996. A hot summer awaited me. I’d just finished my GCSE school examinations and was eager to commence A Levels and a new school / life. My passion for film was growing and I paid close attention to the big cinema releases, having taken prompts from the (now much missed) annual Summer Preview in Premiere Magazine.
Take a trip back in time with me as we remember that summer of ’96 and its big event movies. Here’s a sample.
This is regarded by many as the best piece of film-making in Tom Cruise’s series of adventures as Ethan Hunt. That does not necessarily mean it’s the most loved or even highest grossing in the franchise (Ghost Protocol and the forthcoming Rogue Nation will probably claim those crowns in time).But it feels like a proper spy film with old school espionage intrigue married to roller-coaster fun and set-pieces for their own sake as one might expect.
Very much ‘of its time’ and already dated (a laptop and cell phone are a big deal here), the atmospherics are first rate, nonetheless. This feels like a thriller set in the Cold War era, despite explicitly referencing the uncertainties that faced a (then) new order in the world. This is great work from Director Brian DePalma.
It’s very Alfred Hitchcock in places, with nods to Kafka. The location work is excellent. Pace is perfect and there are hints of complex darkness (subtle; off camera; blink and you miss them but they are there) whilst keeping an upbeat, light and almost Saturday morning cartoon vibe.
This is Tom Cruise at his peak and arguably runs like a summation of his various star turns to that point (young buck vs old order; stunts; smiles; emphatic hand gestures; lots of running) whilst also leaving glimpses of his character work (the disguises) and stamping the franchise as his own for life.
Disposable but great fun 1980s style action film, transferred to 90s setting and concerns. You get a witness protection thriller, a chase film, a conspiracy story, a hint of comedy and Arnold Schwarzenegger in action. What more could you possibly want from a summer blockbuster?
There are some decent visuals here; notably the super-blaster guns and their associated green flashes. There are nods to James Bond (the one liners and the parachute sequence) and those work well at both technical and comedy levels. Years before the Expendables series, you also get to see two legends go head to head (James Caan v Arnold = worth the admission price alone).
Granted, much of this has been done before and arguably better. Arnold himself is a little lost here as he lacks a hook to match his signature moves to. The character is rather blank (as intended) but Arnold cannot ‘do’ blank. He NEEDS a big pitch to match his own big character. So he’s better suited to playing killer cyborgs than he is anonymous government agents. He still looks incredibly cool though when wearing shades and handling big guns. And the ‘You’re Luggage’ one liner could only be delivered by Arnold!
It is worth a look and you will be entertained, albeit in somewhat forgettable fashion. Interestingly, its basic plot is quite similar to Mission: Impossible. And Ghost Protocol echoes the Eraser method: opening comedy character saved by hero and coming back later on to help him out. Is it pure coincidence? Or perhaps Tom Cruise just REALLY loves Eraser too?
This is basically one long chase movie. But it’s done with style and wit and charm. There’s also a kind of political message snuck in for good measure (treat your troops with dignity). We go from nightmarish body horror opening that sets up the macguffin to more action /exposition. After a few brief set-ups and an incredible car chase, we get to the ‘Rock’ of the title (Alcatraz). Cue mine car chases, underwater action, aerial attacks and man to man combat; all building up to a truly explosive climax.
The real selling point is Sean Connery. This was not his final film (2003’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen takes that position). But this would have been a worthy retirement piece, whilst leaving you wanting more. In some senses, a sequel was even set up here, with Connery’s mentor figure to Nicolas Cage, perhaps called on again for help in another mission? Shame they never made it.
This is in some senses the Connery Bond as an older man in all but name. He has the attitude and witty lines. And whilst he does reference his age, it’s never a barrier or impairment. In fact, it makes him more deadly. He has more machismo and confident, charismatic confidence than his younger co-stars here.
It’s a simple conceit, with hints of complexity, delivered with pace and panache. The script is great, especially an exchange between Ed Harris and Connery, mid film. Dick Clement and Ian LaFrenais did a polish on some of the scenes and there’s a great rhythm to the line delivery by the actors.
Hans Zimmer’s score is great as always (this was before he did EVERY big blockbuster but the core elements are all here). Note also, the beginnings of ‘shared universe’ approach to film (the President here will also feature in Armageddon two years later and make a similar speech; written and directed by a similar team).
One of Michael Bay’s finest films: watch this and you will hold him in higher regard.
This is event cinema, designed and delivered with textbook precision. The pay-off is that there is nothing that remarkable to remember in terms of script or character. And the baddie is basically the wind, which becomes a somewhat bland antagonist after an hour or so.
But there is no doubting the epic quality of the special effects. The CGI was tested meticulously (the trailer for the film alone incorporated one striking test image that did not make the final cut on initial release of the film). And there is a distinctive visual scheme at work here; with dusky, evocative colours matching the atmospheric power of nature on display.
There are hints of Jurassic Park here: Michael Crichton has a story credit. And Spielberg’s signature is present too (family domestic drama, punctuated by world changing larger events). Science fiction and pseudo-science get occasional nods and this is a ride, a trip, an immersive experience. Stick on a fan while you blast the film out of your DVD /Blu-Ray /surround sound devices and you’ll probably think an actual hurricane is in your home.
Whilst not an actor’s movie by any stretch, it’s nice to see Bill Paxton having a go at playing the action adventure hero ‘proper’, rather than the usual sidekick /comic relief / secret baddie. It’s a shame he didn’t do more of this (though you get a further hint of this with his turn in Titanic a year later).
I really was not wowed by Independence Day on its initial release. I felt it wreaked of composite planning, borrowing bits of other epics to craft a kind of clumsy pastiche.
Bit of Top Gun here; dash Batman there; lots of Star Wars; hints of Bruckheimer/Bay and hefty helpings of Spielberg. The characters, dialogue, mawkish sentiment and presumed patriotism in the face of a childishly comic book threat simply did not carry any resonance to my sixteen year old mind in Britain that summer.
Twenty years on, there will be a sequel. I’m looking forward to it and am genuinely curious about its premise. I’m also happy to say I’ve changed my mind meantime about the original. I now rather love the film and frequently play it when feeling in need of a boost. Jeff Golblum is a great hero in the story and forms a great double act with Will Smith. Shame the sequel won’t reunite them (they should have tried harder to make that happen and just made Smith an offer he could not refuse).
There are some truly epic visuals here: easily the best at that point since the original Star Wars films and bested only by..er..Star Wars prequels? David Arnold’s score is sweepingly sublime, inspiring the kind of joy one might feel were the human race to truly band together in face of a common cause and threat.
See it: before they make the sequel!
TRUTH ABOUT CATS AND DOGS / CABLE GUY
These are not big bang blockbusters. But they are worth a watch.
Truth About Cats and Dogs has Uma Thurman at her funniest, in a kind of Cyrano De Bergerac twist. Ben Chaplin features as the love interest and it’s a real shame he never found a worthy action style franchise to make his star shine a bit more brightly on the Hollywood radar. He had good leading man presence and solid comic timing, even as the straight man here to Thurman’s more comedic duties. It’s a warm hearted, tender and touching film. By no means ground-breaking, but a comforting watch.
Cable Guy was controversial on release. I remember mentioning it to a lovely girl at high school. She ran. Quite fast. ‘HE LIKES THE CABLE GUY!’ Slightly extreme reaction in retrospect (fear not, I think the girl grew up to be an award winning journalist).
But one can also understand her reticence. It is a rather nasty story and Jim Carrey plays full on psychotic here. This is what he SHOULD have won plaudits and Oscar nods for. He manages to play a kind of emotional blackmailing, endlessly pop culture referencing stalker that has zero perception of how wrong their actions are. It makes for uncomfortable viewing.
But it is also very funny in places and very prescient given today’s age of social media and reliance on nostalgia the gateway both to welcome communications and unwelcome attention. Leslie Mann, Matthew Broderick, Jack Black and George Segal all feature: a GREAT cast!
It’s well directed by Ben Stiller and worth a watch if you can stomach the darker comedy. I’d welcome a sequel (interestingly: if you caught last year’s Dumb and Dumber To, there are moments where Carrey slips into Cable Guy mode).
All movies referenced should be available in some format. See Amazon for details.
Now..I must get back to 2015!