The Films of Richard Donner
Salt & Pepper (May 22/11)
Directed by Richard Donner, Salt & Pepper follows 1960s nightclub owners Charles Salt (Sammy Davis Jr.) and Christopher Pepper (Peter Lawford) as they inadvertently stumble on a plot to overthrow the British government - with the film, for the most part, subsequently detailing the pair's incompetent yet dogged efforts at preventing the bad guys from executing their sinister plan. There's little doubt that Salt & Pepper predominantly comes off as a hopelessly dated product of its time, as Donner, working from Michael Pertwee's screenplay, has infused the proceedings with many of the attributes that one has come to expect from certain films of the '60s (including swinging dialogue and sets that are beyond gaudy). The chemistry between Davis Jr. and Lawford's respective characters initially plays an instrumental role in compensating for the relentlessly innocuous nature of Pertwee's script, with the inclusion of a few genuinely hilarious bits of comedy heightening the movie's effortlessly easy-going vibe. (There is, for example, a laugh-out-loud funny scene in which Salt grabs something from his dressing-room closet, heads to the stage, begins saying something, and then realizes that there was a dead body in there.) It's only as Salt & Pepper segues into its increasingly action-packed second half that the film begins to lose its tenuous hold on the viewer, as Donner's decision to flood the proceedings with a series of underwhelming set-pieces (eg Salt and Pepper are pursued by gun-toting thugs, Salt and Pepper must fight their way off a submarine, etc) ensures that the whole thing peters out long before it reaches its larger-than-life climax - which cements the movie's place as a time-capsule curiosity that's long-since lost whatever relevance it once had.
Sarah T. - Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic
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Superman (June 17/06)
Though Superman has clearly become the template for the modern superhero movie, there's simply no getting around the fact that the film has aged incredibly poorly in the years since its 1978 debut. With its egregiously overlong running time and questionable special effects, Superman never quite becomes anything more than a mildly engaging curiosity. Christopher Reeve's superb performance is clearly one of the highlights here, as the actor effortlessly oscillates between Superman's steely confidence and the bumbling demeanor of his alter ego, Clark Kent. But the film's opening hour, devoted entirely to Superman's backstory (ie Krypton's fate), has been padded out to an almost absurd degree; Reeve doesn't make his first appearance until about the 50-minute mark, at which point the movie finally takes off (no pun intended) and becomes fairly interesting. The inclusion of several decidedly campy elements - particularly Lois' ludicrous voice-over during her nighttime flight with Superman - undermines the more positive attributes within the story, and ultimately lends the proceedings a distinctly uneven feel.
Lethal Weapon 2
Lethal Weapon 3
Maverick (July 17/11)
Based on the television series of the same name, Maverick follows Mel Gibson's Bret Maverick as he attempts to raise the cash that would allow him to participate in a lucrative poker tournament - with Bret's ongoing efforts complicated by the presence of a crafty thief (Jodie Foster's Annabelle Bransford) and an earnest lawman (James Garner's Zane Cooper). It's clear immediately that Maverick owes a large portion of its success to Gibson's engaging, thoroughly charismatic turn as the title character, with the actor's stellar work initially drawing the viewer into the thinly-plotted proceedings and ensuring that the film remains surprisingly watchable even through its more overtly needless stretches. Filmmaker Richard Donner's incredibly relaxed approach to the material does become more and more problematic as the movie saunters into its episodic midsection, however, as scripter William Goldman offers up a selection of time-killing interludes - eg Maverick and an Indian buddy (Graham Greene's Joseph) attempt to con an Archduke (Paul L. Smith) out of some cash - that serve only to wreak havoc on the film's already-tenuous momentum. By the time the movie arrives at its entertaining (yet, like everything else here, overlong) climactic card game, Maverick has certainly established itself as an easygoing diversion that could've (and should've) been so much better - although, having said that, it's impossible not to get a kick out of the anachronistic (but hilarious) Danny Glover cameo.
Assassins casts Sylvester Stallone as Robert Rath, a professional hitman whose latest (and possibly last) job involves the murder of an elite hacker (Julianne Moore's Electra) - with Rath's decision to spare the woman's life prompting the appearance of a deadly, seemingly unstoppable up-and-coming killer named Miguel Bain (Antonio Banderas). Filmmaker Richard Donner, working from a script by Brian Helgeland and Larry and Andy Wachowski, certainly does a stellar job of initially luring the viewer into the proceedings, as Assassins' first half moves at an impressively brisk pace and contains a whole surfeit of exciting action sequences. It's only as the movie segues into its comparatively low-key second hour that one's patience begins to wear thin, with the progressively uninvolving vibe compounded by Stallone's curiously, disastrously subdued performance - as it subsequently does become more and more difficult to wholeheartedly care about or sympathize with his character's ongoing efforts at staying alive (and protecting Electra). Far more problematic, however, is Banderas' painfully and unreasonably over-the-top work as Rath's gung-ho rival, with the actor's scenery-chewing antics, which inevitably progress from mildly annoying to nails-on-a-chalkboard intolerable, preventing Bain from becoming the fearsome presence that Donner has obviously intended. The movie's less-than-engrossing atmosphere is compounded by a severe case of overlength that's compounded by Donner's increasingly relaxed sensibilities, and it's finally impossible to label Assassins as anything more than a decent 80-minute thriller that somehow manages to chug along for over two hours.
Featuring a seriously impressive performance from Mel Gibson, Conspiracy Theory follows paranoid cab driver Jerry Fletcher (Gibson) as he becomes increasingly convinced that there's a kernel of truth to one of his crackpot theories - which ultimately necessitates the involvement of a skeptical yet sympathetic FBI agent (Julia Roberts' Alice Sutton). There's little doubt that Conspiracy Theory works best in its opening hour, as director Richard Donner effectively draws the viewer into the proceedings by emphasizing Jerry's less-than-savory existence - with the character's cluttered, booby-trapped apartment certainly mirroring his skewed perspective on reality. It's only as the low-key character-study vibe is replaced by a more conventional (and downright convoluted) atmosphere that one's interest begins to dwindle, with the egregiously overlong running time effectively exacerbating the meandering nature of Helgeland's screenplay. Stripped of about 45 minutes worth of screen time, Conspiracy Theory probably would've succeeded as a tight little B-movie - as the strength of the film's premise, coupled with Gibson's stirring turn as the protagonist, is almost enough to allow the viewer to overlook its various deficiencies. The end result, however, is a marginally engrossing thriller that ultimately comes off as something of a disappointment, although - to be fair - the movie generally remains watchable from start to finish (with Patrick Stewart's work as the surprisingly smug villain easily justifying a viewing in itself).
Lethal Weapon 4
Based on the novel by Michael Crichton, Timeline follows several archealogical students - Paul Walker's Chris, Frances O'Connor's Kate, Gerard Butler's Andre, and Rossif Sutherland's Francois - as they're forced to travel back through time in an attempt to save their stranded professor (Billy Connolly). Though Richard Donner tries his hardest to infuse the proceedings with a larger-than-life, downright epic sensibility, the filmmaker's efforts are consistently undermined by a sporadically absurd screenplay (by Jeff Maguire and George Nolfi) and a pair of almost disastrously ineffective lead performances. In terms of the latter, Walker and particularly O'Connor prove to be absolutely and utterly unable to convincingly step into the shoes of their respective characters, which ultimately makes it impossible to work up anything even resembling a rooting interest in their continued survival. It consequently goes without saying that the film suffers considerably when it's focused solely on their exploits, although - on the flipside - there's little doubt that Butler's expectedly strong work does provide Timeline with an all-too-welcome respite from an otherwise pervadingly mediocre atmosphere (this is despite a thoroughly misguided sequence in which his character hits on a local minutes after arriving in the past). The movie's overwhelmingly uninvolving modus operandi - which is certainly surprising, given the strength of the source material - ensures that one has mentally checked out by the time the expansive climactic battle rolls around, and it's inevitably clear that the whole thing ranks as one of the least effective Crichton adaptations to date.
16 Blocks (March 2/06)
Richard Donner is unquestionably one of the most underappreciated filmmakers of his time, despite the fact that he's directed such notable flicks as Superman, The Omen, the Lethal Weapon series, etc, etc. And though he's had his share of misfires (Conspiracy Theory, Timeline), Donner can generally be counted on to elevate even the most mediocre screenplay into something watchable. 16 Blocks belongs somewhere the middle of Donner's oeuvre; the film is entertaining enough, but the lack of any real momentum prevents it from becoming anything more than a mildly engaging actioner. Bruce Willis stars as Jack Mosley, a grizzled cop with a serious drinking problem who has long-since resigned himself to a career devoted to babysitting corpses and being pushed around by his colleagues. One fateful afternoon, Jack finds himself unwittingly assigned the task of escorting a lowlife named Eddie Bunker (Mos Def) from to a courthouse that's 16 blocks away. En route, the pair encounter assassins, dirty cops, and a whole host of other seemingly insurmountable obstacles. It's clear almost immediately that Donner - along with screenwriter Richard Wenk - isn't interested in offering up a typically fast-paced thriller; instead, the filmmaker takes his time in developing the various characters, a strategy that admittedly lends the movie a little more substance than one might expect out of the genre. Consequently, 16 Blocks suffers from a decidedly uneven structure featuring sequences that come off as taut and genuinely exciting or low-key and kind of superfluous. Having said that, there's no denying that the performances go a long way towards keeping things interesting - something that's particularly true of Willis' subtle turn as a cop that couldn't possibly be more different than John McClane. David Morse, as a shady detective on the case, does his usual scene-stealing thing, while Mos Def seems to be channeling Damon Wayans' homeless character from In Living Color. It's a broad performance that's certainly an effective counterbalance to Willis' assured work, though Def's character ultimately becomes awfully difficult to root for as a result (the guy is mostly just irritating). Donner, despite his questionable reliance on shaky cinematography, does an expectedly solid job behind the camera - with the end result a film that, while not terribly memorable, is generally effective for what it is.