1992, Phil Alden Robinson

Sneakers never pretends to be anything that it’s not. This is some lighthearted, escapist fun, loaded with a cast of Oscar-approved actors to give you an entertaining ride of a movie that exists purely as that. Seriously, the movie features seven actors in its main cast — two of them won Oscars and the other five are nominees, only one of whom hadn’t been a nominee at the time the film came out. It feels a lot like a precursor to Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven, just without the noir-tinged Vegas style of that feature.

This one is more of a throwback to the spy thrillers of the ’70s, just instead of cynical political commentaries it’s more focused on letting the audience sit back and have a easy, enjoyable experience. If that’s what they wanted this film to be then they succeeded admirably at doing so. Sneakers isn’t something that you’re likely to look back on and consider a favorite, or to look back on at all really, but it’s a fun and well-paced ride with a fine group of actors. Robert Redford stars as the head of a group of mostly former criminals who are hired to break through security systems in order to demonstrate the weaknesses in those systems. His roster includes the tech-savvy Dan Aykroyd, the blind man David Strathairn, the young Redford protege River Phoenix and the former CIA man Sidney Poitier.

When Redford’s character is blackmailed by some shadowy figures into stealing a mysterious black box, the group assembles to help clear his name, including an old flame played by Mary McDonnell. The plot is a little too convoluted at first, but once they make their way out of that first act and get more into the simple art of having a good time it really begins to sing and has a nice, measured rhythm to it that I found very enjoyable. Sneakers isn’t the kind of Hollywood popcorn piece that is going to be loaded with loud explosions and scantily clad women; it sets itself firmly back in the old ways, a more leisurely-paced and vintage good time.

Ben Kingsley takes on the villain role with an awful hairdo and a lot of resentment towards Redford’s character, and while I do wish that his character had been fleshed out more it was still a lot of fun to see the two of them interact with one another. Really, that’s what the film is about. There are some solid sequences of entertaining action throughout, but most of the kicks here come from just watching these fine actors engaging with one another. The group builds an easy, entertaining chemistry and it makes it a fun and comfortable journey through to the finish line.

B-

Film #262 of The 365 Film Challenge.

1988, Sidney Lumet

Oh River Phoenix, what lost potential. I still have to see My Own Private Idaho (which I’m very excited for), but he was tremendous here in Sidney Lumet’s Running on Empty, as a young man torn between the love for his family and the desire to become his own man. He rightfully earned the only Oscar nomination of his short career (although strangely in the supporting category, because according to the Academy young actors can’t be leads) and the film also netted a nomination for Naomi Foner’s exploratory screenplay of a family constantly on the run. The Popes live their life in a never-ending state of emergency, always ready to pick up and move somewhere new at a moment’s notice.

Annie (Christine Lahti) and Arthur (Judd Hirsch) accidentally blinded a man in their former days as political activists, and since son Danny (Phoenix) was two years old they have been living their life this way, moving from one place to the next with no attachments except for too each other. We begin as they enter a new town, setting up their new identities, picking up jobs and enrolling Danny and his brother Harry (Jonas Abry) into new schools. Over the course of the film Danny begins to gain a love for this new place, demonstrating his skill as a pianist to the music teacher Mr. Phillips (Ed Crowley) and developing his first love with Phillips’ daughter Lorna (Martha Plimpton).

Developing into his own man, Danny is at an age where this life of constant motion isn’t one that he wants to exist in any longer, not wanting to have to pay the price for his parents’ crime. Foner’s script presents a really interesting idea that hasn’t been examined much in film, a coming-of-age tale under very unique circumstances, and its character-based nature provides a lot of great material for the actors to dive into. The whole cast succeeds in bringing forth the conflicting emotions that come with this lifestyle, as Hirsch and Lahti are faced with the turmoil of seeing their son start to distance himself from them and facing the realization that one day they may have to let him go.

There’s a lot of darkness to the tale, but Foner balances it well with moments of joy, always keeping in our mind that the reason this is such a difficult time for them all is because they do genuinely love each other and want to stay together. Lumet’s direction here is surprisingly a little too reserved, never grabbing me in the way most of his films tend to, but what’s on page and in the performances was enough to keep me going through any of the dragging moments.

Running on Empty is ultimately a showcase for its actors, particularly Phoenix who explodes into adulthood as an actor with the kind of natural talent that doesn’t come along too often. He brings devastating emotions to the surface, but always maintains believability, never an easy task when your character is living a life of complicated deceit along with the more conventional facets of being a teenage boy. Phoenix steals it for sure, but all of the actors really do impressive work here, utilizing a great script from Foner as their foundation to knock it out of the park.

B

Film #241 of The 365 Film Challenge.

1986, Peter Weir

The Mosquito Coast was the second collaboration between Harrison Ford and Peter Weir, coming directly on the heels of their first, the superb Witness. Like his work with Mel Gibson at the beginning of the decade, Weir’s teaming up with Ford allowed the director to find a muse who would not only be able to accurately portray the complex themes and emotions of the character, but also give the actor a rare chance to demonstrate his true worth as a versatile performer.

Harrison Ford, as the eccentric inventor Allie Fox, is given full control here and takes on a character that no one would ever expect to see him in, or would ever really expect to see him in again. He has played the guy who is fed up before, but Allie Fox is fed up to the point of insanity. He’s had it with America and in an ongoing series of Howard Beale-esque diatribes on the state of his once great country, he decides to pick up his family and move them all to the jungle, to experience life at it’s most basic. At first it’s a dream come true, but soon the Fox family finds that it’s not America that’s lost it’s way, it is the whole of society and you’ll encounter it wherever you go.

The Mosquito Coast is more about it’s themes than anything else, taking on serious explorations of the American family, the loss of innocence in a father/son relationship where the son must become a man and stand up to his father and many facets of religion and it’s place in the family and society. I felt like the mother’s unwillingness to stand up to Allie was a little unbelievable as his descent into madness progressed, but it was a necessary artificiality in order to bring the character study full circle and turn Allie into the kind of menace that he was constantly accusing America of being. He brings his family down much in the way that he claims America is bringing everyone else down, and it’s a powerful dissection of this deeply flawed and arrogant man.

Ford delivers what could well be the finest work of his career, stripping away all of his immense charm and taking on a deeply unlikeable character. This is a man who could have easily been torture to have to sit with for two hours, but Ford’s charisma and always engaging screen presence is able to make him a fascinating man to study. River Phoenix does fine work as the eldest son of the family, as does Helen Mirren as the mother.

Weir’s absorbing direction takes a bit of a backseat here, settling for a more conventional tone and instead allowing the story and the character to take over the picture, which is a bold and appropriate move for him to make. It speaks to his intelligence as a director that he knows when to step back and let the other elements take the front seat, although there are still a few magnificently staged sequences that stand strong in Weir’s roster of them.

B-

Film #89 of The 365 Film Challenge.