Archive for November 29, 2018

When “off the beaten path” is your norm, then what are you supposed to do when you want to go “off the beaten path” yourself? You watch something normal, I guess.

I admit that espionage “thrillers” are not high on my own personal “to-watch” list very often, but the other night, browsing through the films available on our local cable system’s streaming service, I decided to give director Billy Ray’s well-reviewed 2007 offering Breach a shot, simply because I was in the mood for something it would never occur to me to even watch, much less write about. I duly watched it — and now I’m writing about it.

Based on the investigation into, and subsequent arrest of, notorious FBI “mole” Robert Hanssen, a guy who was selling us out to the Russians long before the current president made such things fashionable, Breach is no doubt somewhat over-dramatized, but it appears not by much : Ray’s production is a classy one, with the more salacious aspects of Hanssen’s bizarre personal life dialed down, his nauseating religiosity (he;s some kind of hard-core traditionalist Catholic) dialed up, and plenty of less-than-glamorous “nuts and bolts” investigative work at the fore of the story. Mainly, though, what we’ve got here is a veritable acting clinic put on by some of the best in the business, many of whom never get nearly enough credit for consistently delivering the goods.

Chris Cooper stars as Hanssen, and he’s downright spectacular, literally inhabiting his petty, jealous, sanctimonious, thoroughly duplicitous character with gusto, verve, and disturbing veracity, and how he didn’t walk away with an Oscar for this one is a straight-up mystery to me. Maybe because wasn’t counted on to carry the whole thing himself, but was rather part of a talented ensemble? I dunno, but I do know that everyone else more than pulls their weight : Ryan Phillippe is controlled and conflicted in equal measure as newbie agent Eric O’Neill, the guy who lands the unenviable task of having to bring down Hanssen from the inside, Laura Linney is the epitome of someone who’s devoted her whole life to duty as agent Kate Burrows, O’Neill’s “handler,” and Caroline Dhavernas and Kathleen Quinlan both stand out as O’Neill and Hansen’s wives, respectively, both of whom do a bang-up job of communicating the unique stresses inherent in their unbearably tense (albeit for entirely different reasons) home lives.

It’s not just the principal stars who being home the bacon here, though, as veteran character actors like Gary Cole, Dennis Haysbert, and Bruce Davison all make the most of limited screen time and breathe extra life into thinly-written roles. High-wire tension is largely the order of the day in this one, as you’d expect (or at least hope, and in this case that hope isn’t in vain), but the extra depth these supporting players bring to the table goes a long way toward fleshing out what is, frankly, a fairly “A-to-B” story that we all know the ending of before the film even starts.

And, ya know, that bears thinking about for a minute : there’s never any doubt about how the events in Breach (which is also, I would assume, available on DVD and Blu-ray if such is your preference) are going to play out, but damn if Ray and his superb cast don’t manage to keep you on the edge of your seat every step of the way.  That might be the highest thing a flick this “boxed in” by its own necessary parameters can aspire to, and to say “mission accomplished” in this case is to sell too short the level of flat-out cinematic excellence achieved here. I was absolutely floored by how enthralling this film was, and I’m more than willing to bet that if you give it a shot, you will be, as well.

I admit, I’d blissfully forgotten about director Stewart Raffill’s godawful 1988 E.T. rip-off Mac And Me until it turned up as the first “episode” of the new “season” of Netflix’s Mystery Science Theater 3000 revival. I mean, I saw it as a kid, but I remember being fundamentally unimpressed by it even then — and now I remember why : it’s basically a 90-ish minute McDonald’s (and Coke, and Skittles — but mainly Mickey D’s) commercial strung out over the barest skeleton of a script.

If you think that’s too harsh an assessment, I assure you it’s not, and offer this mercifully brief “plot” synopsis as proof : wheelchair-bound youth Eric Cruise (played with an annoying level of over-sincerity, but no discernible talent, by Jade Calegory), his older brother, Michael (Jonathan Ward), and their mom, Janet (Christine Ebersole) are in the midst of a cross-country move from Chicago to California when an alien who was literally vacuumed aboard a NASA planetary lander along with his the family he’s now separated from stows away in the back of their mini-van after escaping government custody. Once set up in their new digs, the Cruise clan is subject to a series of weird “alien interventions,” such as when the little guy inexplicably decides to replicate the wooded area outside — in the living room of their house. The feds are hot on the tail of this extraterrestrial varmint, whom Eric has nicknamed “Mac” (for “Mysterious Alien Creature”), but fear not, as these bungling buffoons are no match for a gang of plucky teenagers led by our protagonist brothers and the literal girls next door, Debbie (Lauren Stanley) and senior sis Courtney (Katrina Caspary), who works at — McDonald’s. The kids (and several of their ostensible “friends”) are all having fun dancing and running around (keep your eyes peeled for a youthful Jennifer Aniston and Nikki Cox in the crowd of merry-makers) at a birthday party at — McDonald’s when the G-Men make their move, but by cleverly disguising “Mac” in a full-body teddy bear costume they manage to give ’em the slip and get him to his family (no need for these folks to “phone home” since they have some sort of psychic communication “wavelength” they conjure up by means of — their hands?) that’s hiding in a cave. The Earth’s atmosphere is making our visitors sick, but fortunately Coke restores them to full health, and Skittles fill their bellies with happy butterflies, and then it’s time for them to head back to their home planet after saying some less-than-tearful (for us, at any rate) farewells.

Plot holes abound in this cinematic abomination, the most noticeable probably being when Eric first gets the idea to capture “Mac” with a vacuum cleaner even though he has no reason to believe that’s gonna work because he wasn’t on the alien planet when it happened before, but that’s immaterial : something tells me that Raffill and his co-screenwriter, Steve Feke, didn’t cobble their script together to make sense, but to sell product. “Mac” is literally always drinking Coke, for instance, and Courtney has a habit of wearing her McDonald’s work uniform around even when she’s off the clock. Product placement is one thing, but Mac And Me makes all of its sponsors central to the proceedings, dispensing with the notion of “incidental” brand identification completely. It’s entirely blatant, entirely annoying, and frankly entirely cynical.

But hey, you can’t say these corporations didn’t get their money’s worth : as it turns out, producer R.J. Louis (fresh off a massive hit with The Karate Kid) actually got McDonald’s to more or less finance the entire film from top to bottom, with Coke and Skittles kicking in just enough to get in on the action, as well. So this thing doesn’t just look or feel like an extended promo spot — that’s exactly what it is. Say what you will for the Reese’s Pieces inclusion in E.T., but at least Steven Spielberg worked it into the movie rather than going the Raffill/Louis route of working a cutesy “family-friendly” science fiction yarn into their ad.

I guess the production values aren’t too bad — the alien “family” is competently-realized and the vacuuming scenes are a rather impressive example of pre-CGI effects, but that’s all I can really say in this flick’s favor : the acting is uniformly lousy, the plot is derivative and predictable, the characters are wooden in the extreme, the laughs (hell, even chuckles) are non-existent, and there is never any sense of threat or menace from the NASA (or FBI, or whatever) cops. It doesn’t even feel like anybody’s trying.

Fortunately, this crass slab of celluloid commercialization met the fate it deserved at the box office, disappearing after two weeks and a six-million-dollar gross, and while it’s available on both DVD and Blu-ray, it’s not like it’s some cult favorite that sells in steady and respectable numbers. I dare say I’m far from the only person who forgot about it altogether until the “riffed” MST3K version became available for streaming, and while it’s far from one of the series’ classic installments, if you’re gonna subject yourself to this dreck, watching Jonah, Crow, and Tom Servo rip it to shreds is the only way of making the experience bearable.