Tag Archives: Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio

Roger Donaldson’s White Sands

Somewhere out there in the gypsum dunes of New Mexico there’s White Sands, a long lost, slightly unfinished yet captivating neo-noir about small town law enforcement, big time gun runners and everyone else who gets caught up in between. Willem Dafoe is Ray, a bored rural sheriff who sees a way out of the dusty hum drum when an apparent smuggler turns up dead on his watch out there in the national park, prompting him to steal the guy’s identity and dive headlong into the illicit arms business with no real crash course or idea of what he’s doing. A risky move that propels the film down an exciting, sexy, ambient journey of untrustworthy alliances, atmospheric shootouts and a dangerously charming Mickey Rourke as Lennox, the kind of reptilian criminal who’s so good at seducing you into the lifestyle that you don’t realize you’re in the snake pit until it’s almost too late. Dafoe and Rourke have shared the screen aplenty before and while my favourite team up has to be their cartel duo in Robert Rodriguez’s Once Upon A Time In Mexico, this film certainly takes second place honours. They just work so well on camera together, a shaky bromance built on Ray’s deception and Lennox’s unpredictable penchant for violence that proves electric as the narrative weaves around them. The always phenomenal Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio plays an underworld connection who Ray unwisely gets steamy with in probably one of the hottest sex scenes of the 90’s and a complete false advertisement for the success rate of getting it on in the shower. Samuel L. Jackson has a fantastic early career villain role as the kind of corrupt FBI agent in whom it’s very unwise to place trust, and watch for others including the great Maura Tierney, M. Emmett Walsh, James Rebhorn, Beth Grant, Miguel Sandoval, Jack Kehler, Mimi Rogers and a sneaky unbilled double cameo from Fred Dalton Thompson and the inimitable John P. Ryan as slick arms dealers. The setting of White Sands park plays such a role in atmosphere here; the ghostly sight of white sand dunes brings about the thought that something is out of place, rare in nature and the same can be said for Dafoe’s affable sheriff thrown into a mixing pot of big city psychos and genuine menace, a fish out of water shtick that pulls you in the more accustomed to this netherworld the man gets. How about that knockout original score from Patrick O’Hearn too, who only composed for a handful of things since, it’s a hazy, melodic set that suggests both the beauty and danger lurking out there in the Sands, especially in the simmering climax where several characters meet poetically grisly fates. I do have a few minor issues with this film, it could have been at least fifteen minutes longer and rounded out the epilogue with Dafoe’s arc clearer, it almost feels like there’s a missing reel or some editing glitch that marred the final product just a tad, but it doesn’t hurt the film too much overall. This is a lost classic for me, a gorgeously specific film noir with some of my favourite actors giving some of their most fun, playful work, the aforementioned score and some cinematography that won’t quit. Great film.

-Nate Hill

Michael Apted’s Class Action

A father/daughter courtroom drama starring Gene Hackman sounds like a recipe for something glossy, showboating and melodramatic, but Michael Apted’s Class Action gives us a mature, emotionally potent and very character driven film that one wouldn’t expect from the slightly sensationalistic trailers. Hackman is a San Francisco attorney who takes on the prosecution of an auto manufacturing giant with a line of suspicious exploding cars. Opposite him as defence for the corporation? His own daughter (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), with whom he has a rocky history with. He’s a philandering hard ass who was never pleased with her and she blames him for the dissent in her family from his womanizing ways years before. The case itself serves as framework for for the very real, raw interpersonal drama that unfolds between them, and their relationship feels grounded and truthful. The key scene is them together in the kitchen cooking; idle small talk leads to harshly flung accusations, emotions are laid bare and by the time the argument reaches a screaming fever pitch, both are quaking with rage, self reflection and sad regret. It’s a powerful scene of performance from both actors, and you’ll scarce breathe for the duration. Hackman is fire and brimstone as per usual, but there’s also a wounded aspect I’ve never seen in him before, something brought out by Mastrantonio who is spectacular in her calmly devastating turn. The late Donald Moffat is great as her steely firm boss, a man governed by fierce logic who has no qualms in casually covering up key evidence. Fred Dalton Thompson is nicely slimy as the reprehensible auto CEO whose soulless disregard for human life is unsettling, Jan Rubes steals his scenes as a loopy ex engineer with ties to the auto giant and Laurence Fishburne (during his ‘Larry’ days) quietly plays Hackman’s firm partner and family friend. I wouldn’t have probably ever known about this film if I hadn’t have come across it in a thrift store, and I’m glad I did. Forgotten these days it seems, it’s now one of my favourite courtroom pieces out there, for letting the characters tell this story, for making it personal and for flowing through the beats organically. The stately San Francisco architecture and melodic score by James Horner give it a personality as well, but Hackman and Mastrantonio rule the roost and probably give their career bests. Highly recommended.

-Nate Hill

Hugh Hudson’s My Life So Far

I love Colin Firth very much as an actor, I think there’s a wealth of intensity and charisma behind that befuddled, cute British persona, and I love how in recent years he’s branched off and started trying out all sorts of roles and genres he hasn’t done yet, he’s really underrated in terms of versatility. I also love delving back into the last few decades with actors and perhaps finding hidden gems I never thought of or didn’t notice before. (Every time someone calls me out on being lost in my phone or texting some girl it’s usually because I’m just intently perusing an actor’s IMDb for titles I’ve missed). Hugh Hudson’s My Life So Far is one such gem, a lovely, charming piece based on the memoir of Dennis Forman, a man who grew up in a great manor in the Scottish highlands, surrounded by friends, family and nestled in that calm period between World War One and two, where life seemed idyllic. Young Fraser (Robert Norman) lives an eclectic life out there that’s the perfect setting for a poignant memoir. His loving father (Firth) strives to be a strong disciplinarian but has a tender heart and a playful disposition, his mother (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, gorgeous as ever) is the same. The conflict arises with the arrival of a beautiful distant relative (Kelly MacDonald) who gets everyone a little hot and bothered and awakens the first hints of sexual desire in Fraser. The grandparents hover in and out of their lives too, played by Rosemary Harris and a gruff, hilarious and compassionate Malcolm McDowell. Life gets topsy turvy in all sorts of ways, especially when an aviator from royal descent (Tchecky Karyo) crash lands his plane directly on their property and immediately tries to woo MacDonald. It’s one of those slice of life comedy dramas that doesn’t strive to say something lofty about the big picture of humanity or plumb for subtext beneath, but simply exists to enjoy as the recalling of one person’s life, or rather a piece of it. A lovely one.

-Nate Hill

Anyone you can catch, kill and eat: Remembering No Escape with Michael Gaylin by Kent Hill

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Gale Anne Hurd, the producer of Aliens and The Terminator, headed the charge back in the early 90s toward the adaptation of a book written by Richard Herley titled, The Penal Colony.

Set in 1997, it tells the story of how the British Government runs island prison colonies as a means to stem the tide of an overflow in mainland jails. There are no guards, no cells, and the island is monitored via satellite surveillance.

We follow the  a character named Anthony Routledge, who is brought to the island for a sex-crime that he did not commit. He soon discovers that under the guidance of a charismatic leader, a community on the island has evolved.

Now if that’s not the ideal film to make here in Australia, (if your are aware that it is pretty much how our nation began) then I don’t know what is. The production would hire future Bond director Martin Campbell, along with stars Ray Liotta, Lance Henriksen, Stuart Wilson and Ernie Hudson.

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Then a screenwriter named Michael Gaylin, a man who had slaved away in obscurity in Hollywood for more than a decade, would come into contact with a colleague of Hurd’s. He went for a meeting and, finally, after a career of false starts and forgotten promises, he was going to be writing on a film that would eventually, make it to the big screen.

After a long wait, I finally had the opportunity to sit down and talk to Michael about his career and his experiences during the making of No Escape or Escape from Absolom (as it was released over here). What I discovered, during our conversation, was not merely an insight into a film I heartily enjoy, but also the story of a resilient writer who finally had one script break through. A real life story very much akin to the journey of the hero of the film; who would take on all conflicts and eventually overcome them . . .  and escape.

It is a great film in the grand tradition of Franklin J. Schaffner’s Papillon.

Ladies and Gentlemen . . . Michael Gaylin.

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The January Man

If you ever feel the need to define ‘tonally fucked” in the cinematic dictionary (if there was such a thing), you’d find a one sheet of The January Man, a warped, malignantly silly crime/comedy/thriller… something. It dabbles in wannabe screwball farce, serial killer mystery, breezy romance, high profile police procedural and as a result of it’s genre flim-flamming, has no clue what kind of movie it wants to be, and ends up a raging, tone deaf dumpster fire. It’s so all over the place that marketing churned out a bi-polar publicity package that at times seems like it’s advertising two completely different films. I used to see it on the shelf at blockbuster leering out at me like an eerie gothic murder mystery, Kevin Kline and Alan Rickman glowering evocatively off the dark hued cover. In reality it’s something just south of Clouseau, as Kline plays a bumbling, overzealous guru detective who scarcely has time amongst the silliness to hunt down a shave or change of clothes, let alone a murderer. Rickman? His odd, awkward artist friend who vaguely helps with the case but really isn’t necessary to any of the plot threads, and certainly appears nothing like his freaky persona does on the cover, suggestive of a villain. There’s another poster floating around on IMDb that is more honest about what’s in store, Kline perched like a loon in a brightly lit doorway while love interest Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio peers adorably around his shoulder in true benign comic fashion. The film wants to be both of those aesthetics and more though, wants to have it’s cake, eat it, regurgitate it against the wall and film that, which is at times what it seems like we’re looking at. The police force brings disgraced cop Kline back on the force to catch some killer, while everyone runs about tripping over their shoelaces. Harvey Keitel is Kline’s brother, now a police commissioner, Danny Aiello the precinct captain, Susan Sarandon Kline’s estranged wife, and so on. Rod Steiger causes a hubbub as the mayor, staging a terrifying meltdown in one scene that goes on for minutes, a curiously unedited, noisy tantrum that dismantles what little credibility and structure the film had to begin with and seems out of place, even by the barebones standards set here. This is a good one to watch if you yourself are making a film and want to see an example of what not to do in terms of deciding on and cementing a certain style, instead of carelessly chucking in every haphazard element on a whim like they did here. Equivalent to a grade school theatre play.

-Nate Hill

HBO’s Witness Protection 


The sad thing about HBO original films is that they air pretty quick and without notice, then are scarcely heard from again, despite having really good stories and production design to boast, with no theatrical crowd to ever share them with. Witness Protection is one among many of these, a brilliant, surprisingly thoughtful mobster melodrama starring Tom Sizemore in a rare and commanding lead role. He plays Boston area gangster Bobby ‘Bats’ Batton here, a wiseguy who gets a rude awakening one night when a violent attempt is made on his life by rival crime factions, striking at home while his family are there. His lifestyle has inadvertently put those he loves in danger and now there are consequences, as grimly outlined by Forest Whitaker’s sympathetic FBI agent. Bobby, his wife (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is so great, why isn’t she in stuff anymore?), son (Shawn Hatosy) and young daughter (Sky McCole Bartusiak, who famously died young a few years ago) are relocated into the witness protection program run by the Feds, given new identities, their lives uprooted and their future uncertain. Now, I searched for this film for years (it’s near impossible to find) thinking there’d be some kind of actuon intrigue angle, a few gunfights as his enemies tracked him down, but such is not the case. This is a mature film, a meditation on what it takes to change who we are when our choices endanger the lives of those we are supposed to protect. Bobby is a man of violence who grew up in a certain way, and he has transformed that into his livelihood. But it’s also a risky creed to cling to, and eventually a line is crossed, the line between balancing a chaotic life, or letting it run away from you. He’s forced to change, to show honesty and the will power to go straight, and this causes intense strain on the relationships with each of his family members, both individually and as a group. It’s equal parts fascinating, heartbreaking and hopeful to see a family go from one extreme to the other, and every facet of the situation is explored in a script that feels authentic and unforced. Sizemore and Mastrantonio deliver powerhouse work that stuns and stings, inhabiting uncomfortable moments of personal anguish with gravity to spare. This one isn’t your typical crime drama, and is all the better for it. 

-Nate Hill

THE COLOR OF MONEY – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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The 1970s saw the rise of the Movie Brats, a collection of filmmakers that had grown up watching and studying films. They made challenging films that reflected the times in which they were made and were revered by cineastes as much as some of the actors appearing in them. Directors like William Friedkin, Francis Ford Coppola, Hal Ashby and Martin Scorsese made intensely personal films that blended a European sensibility with American genre films. However, the one-two punch of Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977) and the failure of expensive passion projects like New York, New York (1977) and Heaven’s Gate (1980) ended these directors’ influence and saw the rise of producers like Joel Silver, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, and movie star-driven blockbusters in the 1980s and beyond. It got harder and harder for the Movie Brats to get their personal projects made. Most of them went the independent route, making films for smaller companies like Orion and doing the occasional paycheck gig with a Hollywood studio.

For years, Scorsese had been trying to fund a personal project of his own – an adaptation of The Last Temptation of Christ. It was a tough sell and he ended up making After Hours (1985) and The Color of Money (1986) as a way of keeping busy while he tried to get Last Temptation made. At the time of The Color of Money much was made of it being Scorsese’s first movie star-driven film and some critics and fans of the director felt that he was selling out. It would not only be promoted as a film starring Paul Newman and Tom Cruise (and not as a Scorsese film), but was a sequel (something that the director was never fond of doing) of sorts. Newman had been interested in reprising his famous role of “Fast” Eddie Felson from The Hustler (1961) for some time but he had never met the right person for the job – that is, until he met Scorsese.

The Color of Money begins twenty-five years after the events depicted in The Hustler and we find that Eddie (Newman) is enjoying a comfortable existence as a savvy liquor salesman with his bar owner girlfriend Janelle (Helen Shaver) and occasionally fronting a pool hustler. His current investment, a cocaine addict named Julian (played with just the right amount of sleazy arrogance by John Turturro), is getting roundly beaten by a young turk named Vincent (Tom Cruise) who catches Eddie’s attention with his “sledgehammer break.” He becomes fascinated watching Vincent play and his cocky behavior between shots, like how he works the table. Eddie also watches the dynamic between Vincent and his girlfriend Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). What really catches his attention is not just Vincent’s raw talent but also his passion for the game. He’s even willing to play Julian after he’s won all of the guy’s money because he just wants his “best game.”

There’s a nice bit where Eddie tests Carmen’s skill as Vincent’s manager, exposing her lack of experience and schooling her on the basics of pool hustling in a beautifully written monologue by Richard Price that Newman nails with the ease of a seasoned pro. We get another healthy dose of Price’s authentic streetwise dialogue in the next scene where Eddie takes Vincent and Carmen out for dinner and continues to school his potential protégés: “If you got an area of excellence, you’re good at something, you’re the best at something, anything, then rich can be arranged. I mean rich can come fairly easy.” The scene is also nicely acted as Tom Cruise plays the cocky upstart with just the right amount of arrogant naiveté without being a typical goofball. As Eddie puts it, “You are a natural character. You’re an incredible flake,” but tells him that he can use that to hustle other players. The ex-pool player lays it all out for the young man: “Pool excellence is not about excellent pool. It’s about becoming something … You gotta be a student of human moves.” And in a nice bit he proves it by making a bet with them that he’ll leave with a woman at the bar. Of course, he knows her but it certainly proves his point. This is a wonderful scene that begins to flesh out Vincent and establish how much he and Carmen have to learn and how much Eddie has since The Hustler.

The young man is a real piece of work – brash, directionless but with raw talent. It is clear that Eddie sees much of his younger self in Vincent and decides to take the young man under his wing and teach him “pool excellence” by taking him and Carmen on the road. It’s an opportunity to make some money while also getting back Eddie’s passion for playing pool. The Color of Money proceeds to show the three of them on the road for six weeks, getting ready for an upcoming nine-ball tournament in Atlantic City. Of course, there are the predictable bumps in the road as Vincent’s impulsive knack for showing off costs them money and Eddie feels like the young man’s not listening to him. It’s a formula we’ve seen used in countless films but Scorsese does everything he can visually to keep things interesting, especially in the dynamic way he depicts the numerous games of pool, the use of music (for example, one game is scored to “Werewolves of London” by Warren Zevon) and the actors that play some of the opponents along the way, like a young Forest Whitaker as a skilled player that manages to hustle and beat Eddie at pool.

However, it is the camerawork by veteran cinematographer Michael Ballhaus that impresses the most. He and Scorsese depict each game differently, employing a variety of techniques, like quick snap zooms in and out, and floating the camera gracefully over the pool table or gliding around it. He even has the camera right on the pool table following the balls around. The camera movement and editing rhythm of each game is dictated by the mood and intensity of each match, like the grandiose techniques employed when Vincent shows off during a game of pool. As he revels in his own showboating moves, the camera spins around him as if intoxicated by his bravado. However, much like the chaotic pool hall brawl in Mean Streets (1973), the camera movement goes nowhere symbolizing the futility of Vincent’s actions. Sure, he beat the top guy at that pool hall but in doing so scared off an older player that had much more money.

While The Color of Money was made fairly early on in Tom Cruise’s career, his relative inexperience actually suits his character. His youthful energy mirrors Vincent’s. It is his job to come across as an arrogant flake of a human being, which he does quite well (too well for some who were unimpressed with his performance). Cruise has always been an actor that performs better surrounded by more talented and experienced people and with the likes of Paul Newman acting opposite him and Scorsese directing, it forces the young actor to raise his game. One imagines he learned a lot on the job much like Vincent does in the film. Scorsese knew exactly what he was doing when he cast Cruise and got a solid performance out of him. In the late ‘80s, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio acted in a series of high profile roles like The Abyss (1989), The January Man (1989) and this film. She’s given the thankless job of the girlfriend role but manages to make the most of it. One gets the feeling that Carmen is a fast learner and smarter than Vincent. She is much like Eddie in understanding the business side of pool hustling.

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Naturally, Newman owns the film, slipping effortlessly back into Eddie’s skin after more than 20 years and it’s like he never left. The scenes between him and Cruise are excellent as the headstrong Vincent bounces off of the world-weary Eddie. Over the course of the film something happens to the elder pool player. As he tells Vincent at one point, “I’m hungry again and you bled that back into me.” We see that youthful spark fire up in Eddie again after so many years dormant and Newman does a fantastic job conveying that. While many felt that his Academy Award for the performance he gives in The Color of Money was really a consolation prize for a career of brilliant performances, this does a disservice to just how good he is in this film and how enjoyable it is to watch him get to work with someone like Cruise and Scorsese, watching how their contrasting philosophies towards acting and filmmaking co-exist in this film. There is an energy and vitality that Cruise brings and Newman feeds off of it and Scorsese captures it like lightning in a bottle.

When Paul Newman read Walter Tevis’ sequel to The Hustler it made him wonder what “Fast” Eddie Felson would be doing now and wanted to revisit the character. He had seen Raging Bull (1980) and was so impressed by it that he wrote a letter to Scorsese complimenting him on such a fine piece of work. The director was just coming off of After Hours and was attached to several projects, including Dick Tracy, with Warren Beatty, a fantasy film entitled Winter’s Tale, Gershwin, with a screenplay written by Paul Schrader, and Wise Guy, a book about the New York mafia written by Nicholas Pileggi. However, they all took a backseat when Newman invited him to direct a sequel to The Hustler. The actor had been working on it for a year with a writer. Scorsese was interested but didn’t like the script Newman showed him because it was “a literal sequel. It was based on at least some familiarity with the original.” Scorsese felt like he couldn’t be involved with the project if he didn’t have some input on the original idea of the script.

Scorsese wanted to go in a different direction and brought in a new screenwriter, novelist Richard Price who had written The Wanderers and also a script for the director based on the film Night and the City (1950). Scorsese liked the script because it had “very good street sense and wonderful dialogue.” For The Color of Money, Price and Scorsese’s concept was basically what became the film, exploring the director’s preoccupation with redemption but with what Newman saw as “recapturing excellence, having been absent from it, and then witnessing it in somebody else.” Newman liked it and Price and Scorsese came up with an outline and began rewriting the script. Price studied pool players and wrote 80 pages of a script. They took it to Newman and got his input. By the end of nine months, Price and Scorsese decided to make the film with Newman.

For Scorsese this was the first time he had ever worked with a star of Newman’s magnitude. “I would go in and I’d see a thousand different movies in his face, images I had seen on that big screen when I was twelve years old. It makes an impression.” As a result, Scorsese and Price made the mistake of writing for themselves when they should have tailored the script to suit Newman and his image, or as Scorsese later said, “we were making a star vehicle movie.” The actor wanted to explore aging and the fear of losing his “pool excellence.” He also wanted the character of Minnesota Fats, played so memorably by Jackie Gleason in The Hustler, to return but Price couldn’t get the character to fit into the script. He and Scorsese even presented a version of the script with Fats in it to Gleason but he “felt it was an afterthought,” said Scorsese.

It was Newman that suggested Cruise for the role of Vincent to Scorsese. The young actor had met Newman before when auditioning to play his son in Harry & Son (1984). Scorsese cast Cruise before Top Gun (1986) had come out but he was a rising movie star thanks to Risky Business (1983). He had seen the young actor in All the Right Moves (1983) and liked him. The project was initially at 20th Century Fox but they didn’t like Price’s script and didn’t want to make it even with Cruise and Newman attached. Eventually, it went to Touchstone Pictures.

Newman was not fond of improvising on the set and suggested two weeks of rehearsals before filming. Scorsese wasn’t crazy about this and found them “aggravating. You are afraid that you are going to say ridiculous things, and the actors feel that way too.” However, he agreed to it and brought in Price so that he could make changes to the script. Fortunately, everyone felt secure in character and with each other. Price and Scorsese didn’t have the film’s ending resolved and felt that they had written themselves into a corner. The studio wanted them to shoot the film in Toronto but Scorsese felt that it was too clean and chose Chicago instead. Both Cruise and Newman did all their own pool playing with the former being taught how to do specific shots that he played in the film with the exception of one, which would have taken two additional days to learn and Scorsese didn’t want to spend the time. Cruise had dedicated himself to learning how to play pool: “All I had in my apartment was a bed and a pool table.” He worked with his trainer and the film’s pool consultant Mike Sigel for months before shooting started.

Some Scorsese fans marginalize The Color of Money as one of his paycheck films – the first he did for the money – and while it may not have the personal feel of a film like Taxi Driver (1976), it still has its merits, a strong picture that fits well into the man’s body of work. I would argue that it is one of his strongest films stylistically with some truly beautiful, often breathtaking camerawork capturing all the nuances of playing pool: the energy and vitality of the game is there without sacrificing any of the story or the characters. This film also shows how a director like Scorsese can take a hired gun project and make it his own. It looks, sounds and, most importantly, feels like one of his films and not a commercial studio picture. Others must have agreed as the film not only became Scorsese’s most financially successful film at the time but a critical hit as well.

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The director proved to the studios that he could deliver the goods at the box office while to himself he was still able to invest the film with some of his own personal touches. Ultimately, The Color of Money is about Eddie’s redemption and rekindling the spark he had in The Hustler before the screws were put to him. As with many sports movies, the story builds towards the climactic big game or, in the case of this film, the big tournament but Price’s script offers a slight twist in that Eddie’s victory is a hollow one and the real one is at the very end when his love for playing pool has finally come back completely. He is reinvigorated and excited about where his life and game will go from here and this is summed up beautiful in the film’s last line – “I’m back.”

THE ABYSS – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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The more times I see The Abyss (1989), the more I am convinced that it is James Cameron’s best film to date. Wedged between megahits, Aliens (1988), and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), The Abyss was unfortunately lost in the shuffle. This may also have been due to the flood of leaky underwater films like Leviathan (1989) and Deep Star Six (1989) that were released around the same time. Even though The Abyss came out after these financial and critical failures, it was dismissed by most critics as yet another underwater disaster. Most reviewers were clearly tired of this string of underwater themed films and assumed that Cameron’s motion picture was no better than the rest. However, this is simply not the case with The Abyss, which, like many of Cameron’s films, is filled with stunning visuals, a strong ensemble cast, and a solid story that is never sacrificed at the expense of the movie’s special effects.

As the film opens, a United States nuclear submarine is accidentally sunk by a mysterious, unidentified source under 2,000 feet of water off the coast of Cuba. Nearby, a corporate owned underwater oil-drilling rig commandeered by Virgil “Bud” Brigman (Ed Harris) is subsequently ordered to aid a group of Navy SEALs, led by the no-nonsense Lt. Coffey (Michael Biehn), to salvage the downed sub and search for survivors, if any. To make the situation even more interesting is the surprise arrival of Bud’s soon-to-be ex-wife, Liz (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), who designed the rig and rejoins the crew to ensure that everything goes smoothly. As the mission progresses, a storm rages topside causing many problems for the rig and its crew. Add to this the growing tensions of nearby U.S. and Russian naval fleets and you have a potentially volatile situation. But this is only the beginning of a string of dilemmas that beset Bud and his cohorts who gradually realize that there is something else down there with them, and it may not be human.

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was a project that James Cameron had dreamed of making ever since he was 17 years old. He wrote a “very, very crude and simple story dealing with the idea of being in the very deep ocean and doing fluid breathing and making a descent to the bottom from a staging submersible laboratory that was on the edge.” His original short story concerned the adventures of a group of scientists in a laboratory at the bottom of the ocean, “which is the sort of sci-fi idea that appeals to all kids, I suppose,” he said. Over the years, Cameron became involved in numerous other projects but he never forgot about this underwater adventure and wrote several drafts that changed radically over time but the original idea that started it all remained intact. When Terminator (1984) and Aliens became bonafide box office hits, Cameron was in a position to make his dream project a reality. He had no idea the problems that he would face trying to realize this dream.

The bulk of The Abyss was shot in and around Gaffney, South Carolina. At first, this seems like a rather unlikely place to shoot an underwater epic, but it turned out to be the best place after their decision to shoot on-location became unrealistic. Cameron had originally planned to try filming in the Bahamas where the story is set, but soon realized that he had to have a totally controlled environment because of the stunts and special FX involved. To this end, Cameron found the Cherokee Nuclear Power Station, an abandoned site that proved to be ideal for what they needed. The film crew ended up shooting all of the underwater sequences (this comprised 40% of all live action principal photography) in two specially constructed concrete containment tanks: one holding 7.5 million gallons of water, and the other holding 2.5 million gallons.

As if this wasn’t enough of a challenge, the actual shoot consisted of a grueling six month, six-day, 70-hour a week schedule that took its toll on cast and crew alike. “I knew this was going to be a hard shoot, but even I had no idea just how hard. I don’t ever want to go through this again,” Cameron remarked at the time. And yet, the sense that what they were making was groundbreaking and worth doing was the glue that kept everything together. The film’s producer, Gale Anne Hurd clearly viewed The Abyss in this fashion. “No one has attempted this before, and we had to solve everything from how to keep the water clear enough to shoot, to how to keep it dark enough to look realistic at 2,000 feet where it’s pitch black.” By all accounts, the cast and crew thrived on this challenge, and as the final results demonstrate, succeeded in producing a truly stunning work.

Cameron’s production company had to design and build experimental equipment and develop a state-of-the-art communications system that allowed the director to talk underwater to the actors and dialogue to be recorded directly onto tape for the first time. For all of the underwater scenes they used three cameras in watertight housings specially designed by underwater cinematographer expert Al Giddings, known for his incredible work on The Deep (1977). Another special housing was designed for scenes that went from above-water dialogue to below-water dialogue. Underwater visibility was a major concern for Cameron as he wanted to see the actors’ faces and hear their dialogue. Western Space and Marine built ten experimental diving units for the film. They engineered helmets which would remain optically clear underwater and installed innovative aircraft quality microphones in each helmet.

In addition, Cameron was also breaking new ground in the area of special visual effects, which were divided up among seven FX divisions with motion control work by Dream Quest Images and computer graphics and opticals by Industrial Light & Magic. ILM was brought on board to create the amazing water pseudopod and spent six months to create 75 seconds of computer graphics needed for the creature. However, this work caused the film’s release to be delayed from July 4, 1989 to August of the same year.

The production difficulties that plagued The Abyss have become the stuff of Hollywood legend. There were reports from South Carolina that Ed Harris was so upset by the physical demands of the film and Cameron’s dictatorial style that he said he would refuse to help promote the picture. The actor later denied it and did press for the film. He did admit that the daily mental and physical strain was very intense. He recalled, “One day we were all in our dressing rooms and people began throwing couches out the windows and smashing the walls. We just had to get our frustrations out.” The actors were not happy about the slow pace of filming. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio remembered, “We never started and finished any one scene in any one day.” Michael Biehn was frustrated by the waiting. He claims that he was in South Carolina for five months and only acted for the three to four weeks. Cameron responded to these complaints by saying, “For every hour they spent trying to figure out what magazine to read, we spent an hour at the bottom of the tank breathing compressed air.”

Like all of Cameron’s other films the action plays a secondary role to the central love story — whether it was between Kyle Reese and Sarah Connor in Terminator or Ripley and Newt in Aliens. In The Abyss we are presented with a disintegrating relationship between Bud and Liz. And yet, as the film progresses and we spend more time with these two people, we begin to realize that they still love each other and that this is what adds a real element of humanity to the special effects-laden film. But The Abyss is much more than that. It mixes elements of an exciting thriller, action film, and science fiction story together in one great package. The way the film is structured, we are presented with several small movies that, when linked together, comprise a larger whole. It is this wonderful structure that makes one realize that there is more going on than a search for a missing submarine.

As Cameron demonstrated with Terminator, he has a real eye for action sequences and The Abyss is no different. One scene, in particular, demonstrates Cameron’s ability to create moments of white knuckle intensity. Several compartments of the underwater rig begin flooding, while crew members try frantically to escape to a safer area. Cameron’s hand-held camera follows these men through the claustrophobic hold at such a breakneck pace, via a compelling first person point-of-view angle, that one can’t help but get caught up in the feeling of urgency brought on by this dangerous situation. At times, it feels like you are actually bouncing through the tight corridors of the rig alongside the characters and this enhances the thrill and excitement of such adrenaline-fueled sequences.

The Abyss
is also similar to Cameron’s previous film, Aliens in the sense that both have a top rate ensemble cast. The crew of the rig all have their own distinctive personalities, which are each given their own moment to shine and never detract from the larger story. The interaction between these people has a ring of honesty and authenticity, which suggests that every character is important and crucial to the film’s outcome. But these colorful characters never obscure the three main principles that are also fully-fleshed characters each with his or her own agenda. Ed Harris portrays Bud as a man dedicated to his rig and his people, but he cannot balance his work life with his personal life. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s Liz is, as she later admits, “a cast-iron bitch,” but underneath the hard, tough exterior there are occasional glimpses of a sensitive dreamer fighting to get out. Cameron regular, Michael Biehn (an underused actor also seen in Terminator and Aliens, respectively) personifies intensity as the leader of the Navy SEALs who slowly loses his grip on reality and his priorities, posing a threat to the safety of everyone on the rig. Each of these characters has their own inner conflicts as well as the larger conflict that threatens everyone. One of the pleasures of watching The Abyss is seeing how these personal conflicts play out and resolve themselves by the end of the film.

The Abyss
deviates from Cameron’s other features in the sense that it stresses the idea of settling disputes through non-violent means. Violence in the film is not the solution to the problem, but the source. This idea is illustrated through Lt. Coffey, the main instigator of violence in the film. His violent acts create the many problems that the protagonists face and this ultimately results in his demise. On the other hand, Liz personifies the peaceful alternative. Where the selfish Coffey sees anger and hatred, Liz is willing to sacrifice herself for others. She is the calming effect on everyone and her presence on the rig is pivotal in resolving many of the story’s conflicts. It’s a refreshing view that you don’t often see in films nowadays where everything is solved at the end of a gun. Unfortunately, this viewpoint seemed to have disappeared from Cameron’s subsequent work, which regressed to the usual violent antics. Whether it was because of the film’s failure to connect and succeed on a mass level or the departure of long time partner, Gale Anne Hurd, is unknown, but with a film like True Lies (1994), Cameron abandoned a strong, independently minded female character for one that is objectified by the camera and on the receiving end of a lot of misogynistic behavior. It’s too bad because The Abyss contains none of this and instead points the way for a new kind of action-oriented film that stresses problem solving over violence, while still providing the requisite amount of thrills. This is a much-needed antidote to the mindless violence and anger that is problematic in so many films today.

The Abyss
is a truly special film that never lags in pace or interest thanks to the many stunning visuals courtesy of breathtaking computer animation from Industrial Lights and Magic (effects that were the precursor to ones used in Terminator 2). There are also fascinating characters and exciting, often intense situations that keeps the viewer involved in the story. The Abyss is one of those rare films that you wish wouldn’t end because the world and the characters that inhabit it are so compelling and exciting. This film demonstrates, yet again, that James Cameron is one the few directors who can make good science fiction films, with a strong story, a solid cast, and exceptional images that help elevate it above the usual Hollywood dreck and straight-to-video sci-fi clunkers. And that is truly something special at a time of militaristic, flag-waving propaganda like Independence Day (1996), which purports to be entertainment, but is just another mindless special effects workout.