The Abyss. Directed by James Cameron. Thanks to the Fox Movie Channel, I was able to watch the 1992 director’s cut of this fascinating science fiction film. There’s one thing you can say in James Cameron’s favor: he’s ambitious. He sets out to make great movies, to do things bigger and better than ever before. This nearly three-hour adventure has everything you need: aliens, nuclear warheads, deep-sea psychosis and a touch of romance. Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio both do a nice job as a soon-to-be-divorced couple who head up the diving expedition to find a sunken submarine. Michael Biehn, who had previously worked with Cameron in The Terminator and Aliens, has a plum role as a Navy SEAL lieutenant also on the mission, who unfortunately begins to experience the effects of high pressure nervous syndrome while in the team’s sub. Despite the film’s length (even the original theatrical cut is over two hours), its fine actors and excellent technical craftsmanship, including Oscar-winning visual effects and Oscar-nominated cinematography, art direction/set decoration and sound, keeps the viewer on the edge of his/her seat.
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Directed by Stephen Herek. It’s the time-travel comedy classic that will never grow old. Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves play Bill S. Preston, Esq. and Ted “Theodore” Logan, two teens from San Dimas, California, destined to flunk their high school history class. Coming to their rescue is Rufus, played by none other than George Carlin. Rufus is from the future, a future in which Bill and Ted’s fledgling band, “Wyld Stallyns,” reigns supreme. In order for that to come true, however, the guys have to get a good grade for their history class presentation. With the help of a time machine in the form of a phone booth with an antenna attached, Bill and Ted fly through time and space, picking up historical figures like Napoleon, Billy the Kid and Socrates, plopping them back in San Dimas. The adventures Bill and Ted go on, including a little romance with two 15th-century English princesses, are made fun thanks to a hilarious script and the comic chemistry between Winter and Reeves. If I were a history teacher, this would definitely be a film to show my class.
Dead Poets Society. Directed by Peter Weir. Robin Williams is at his best when required to actually act (see: Awakenings, Mrs. Doubtfire, The Birdcage), so it is no surprise that he is so effective in this coming-of-age drama set in 1959. The title society, originally created by English teacher Williams during his formative years at the New England prep school where he teaches, is newly populated by a small group of his current male students. The teens, played by Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawke, Josh Charles, Gale Hansen and James Waterston (son of Sam Waterston), gather in the woods in the middle of the night to read poetry and to feel inspired to lead bolder lives. Each of the boys goes through various crises during his time at school, but none more than Leonard. His desire to be an actor is at odds with his father’s stern orders for Leonard to go to medical school. One of the highlights of the film is his performance in a local production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” in which he finally gets the chance to show his inner talent. Leonard’s performance is matched by young Hawke, who is equally emotional as Leonard’s shy, introverted roommate. Hawke is worlds away from the arrogant character he would play in Reality Bites five years later. Ultimately, Dead Poets Society is a film which both parents and children should see, but especially anyone who has ever been a student or a teacher.
Say Anything… Directed by Cameron Crowe. Say Anything… established Crowe’s directorial career, but more importantly, it proved that a romantic drama could revolve around teenagers and still be as mature and profound as if it were about much older adults. John Cusack, whose leading man career had mainly consisted of teen comedies like The Sure Thing, Better Off Dead… and One Crazy Summer, struck gold as Lloyd Dobler, a “noble underachiever” who plans on becoming a kickboxer. (It’s “the sport of the future,” he says at one point.) Lloyd is madly in love with Diane Court, played by the lovely Ione Skye. At the beginning of the film, Lloyd and Diane graduate from high school, where Diane is the valedictorian and recipient of a fellowship that will allow her to go to college in England. Lloyd’s quest to win over Diane before the end of the summer forms the basis for an extremely engaging and sweet plot.
Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. No one makes films quite like Soderbergh. He has a visual style that is unmistakably his. Like his later masterpiece, the undeniably cool Out of Sight (1998), Sex, Lies, and Videotape uses editing, cinematography, strong acting and terrific dialogue to fuel its fire. Soderbergh knows how to create characters and scenarios that will get under the viewer’s skin. The starring quartet – James Spader, Andie MacDowell, Peter Gallagher and Laura San Giacomo – doesn’t have a single weak link. Best of all is the unforgettable score by longtime Soderbergh collaborator Cliff Martinez (my favorite tracks are this and this), music which sets an appropriately eerie and almost Lynchian tone for characters who have been haunted by emotional insecurities. For a movie which speaks so honestly about sex, the real theme is love. At its core, it is the story of a group of people who are trying to find a way to be happy; the difference is how each of those characters tries to achieve that goal.