Monday, September 12, 2011

The 5 Best: Richard Donner

This is the first of three posts this week on the work of Richard Donner. Click here and here for the other two posts.

You can never pigeonhole Richard Donner. Look at the genres of some of his films: A send-up on westerns, a kid's adventure story, an action blockbuster (and its many sequels), a dark family comedy, a comic book adaptation (and uncredited work on its sequel), a mystical fantasy, and a nostalgic drama. Donner knows how to stage an action scene but what many people don't realize is that he is an extremely versatile director.

Richard Donner, who turned 81 (!) this year, has directed only 18 feature films in 35 years. He did a ton of television in the 60s and 70s, and while I haven't seen any of it, those works are clearly the foundation of his feature film career. Some of his films are pretty terrible (16 Blocks, Timeline, Assassins and Lethal Weapon 4) and some, while completely forgettable, are just decent enough to pass the time (Conspiracy Theory, Lethal Weapon 3, The Toy).

But the other half of Donner's film directing credits are pretty damned good. My five favorites are not all masterpieces but they work on so many levels. I grew up with two of them and I later appreciated the level of skill and craftsmanship in the other three. And all together, they are just plain fun.

Not quite making the cut: the gorgeous fantasy Ladyhawke and the hugely underrated Radio Flyer. Flyer is a special film in its own right (I have some things to say about it here), and Ladyhawke is too beautiful for words. Hard to believe he made the latter in the same year as The Goonies. But those titles only narrowly missed the cut; I just have a little bit more love for these five films below. A teeny bit more.

So, in order of preference, these are Richard Donner's five best films.

Maverick (1994)
His richest film. This one is filled with a great abundance of energy, humor and wit. Maverick is Richard Donner's love letter to a dying genre: the western. You've got your typical cowboys and gunfights but also: a thrilling poker championship, a feisty love triangle, and a father-son bond unlike any other. The cast is charming and delightful, from Mel Gibson (a role he's born to play) to Jodie Foster (the most fun she's ever been) to James Garner (coming full circle with his decades-spanning career). Throw in some Coburn, Molina, Greene, a crackling William Goldman script, and you've got yourself a royal flush.

The Goonies (1985)
Every child of the 80's has a special place in their heart for The Goonies. Critics trashed it, but this one is special. I think you had to be a kid to enjoy it and just carry it with you all of your life. I revisited the film not long ago and it still works. The cynic in me refused to come out; I ignored the lazy plot holes and the awkward pacing and simply embraced the film for what it was. The dialogue just flows beautifully ("It's our time, our time down here!") and the actors are lovably pitch perfect, from Josh Brolin's Brand to Ke Huy Quan's Data to Corey Feldman's Mouth. I've always secretly hoped for a sequel (which has been rumored for years), but I know it will never capture the magical spirit of the original. Goonies Never Say Die!

Lethal Weapon 2 (1989)
The best sequel to one of the most influential action films in cinematic history. I liked the original just fine - it introduced a healthy combination of hard-R action, a buddy cop dynamic, and a reckless, suicidal no-holds-barred antihero in Martin Riggs. But this sequel takes it all even further, adding more comedy and more pathos. Lethal Weapon 2 also has a badass villain in Joss Acklund's Arjen Rudd ("Diplomatic immunity, Detective!"), fantastic action (for some reason, I still get chills when the cops get killed off one by one), and much much more heart. When Murtaugh had a bomb under his toilet seat and Riggs risked his life to get him safely into the tub, you just knew these guys were meant for each other.

Scrooged (1988)
Probably Donner's most divisive title on this list. I know a lot of folks who just didn't dig it and that makes sense. Tonally, it's all over the map. At turns, Scrooged is dark, sappy, brilliant and dumb, and I wouldn't have it any other way. The film is a messy, ridiculously entertaining take on a modern classic, and its goofiness and twisted logic is precisely why I loved it so much. Donner assembled another superb cast with Alfre Woodard, Bobcat Goldthwaite, Carol Kane, Karen Allen, Robert Mitchum, and of course, Scrooge himself, Bill Murray. Murray was already a star when this came out, but Scrooged is a reminder of why, precisely, he is so great. "Did you try staples?"

Superman (1978)
After three sequels and a 2006 remake (with yet another remake on the way), this 1978 original is still the best of all Superman movies. In Donner's second major film (after The Omen), we were introduced to Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent, a charming dolt who worked for the Daily Planet in Metropolis. He doubled as a superhero in a red cape and saved people from troubling situations. He courted Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), sparred with Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), and won the hearts of millions of Americans. Superman is nearly 35 years old and holds up brilliantly today. Donner had a hand in the sequel, but his work went uncredited. Superman II is good fun, but this one -- like many of Donner's films -- has more heart and soul.

No comments:


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...