The Cult of Keanu Reeves: ‘Parenthood’, ‘River’s Edge’, ‘The Devil’s Advocate’ and ‘The Gift’

Ricky D’s Favourite Cult Films #27

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Each and every month, we here at Sound On Sight dedicate the entire month to a specific theme. Sometimes we follow an event, an actor, a filmmaker and so on, as decided by our readers who vote on our monthly poll. February of 2013 was dedicated to actor Keanu Reeves. When the results came in, just about everyone was surprised that Keanu won over Steven Soderbergh, who finished a close second. But what has been even more surprising is that our Keanu Reeves marathon is without a doubt the most successful so far – driving in more traffic than the likes of Quentin Tarantino and 007.

Despite the fact that his acting has frequently been ridiculed as wooden, Keanu has always had a magical presence everywhere he appears, both on and offscreen. There is something to be said about a man who dropped out of high-school to follow his dreams of acting, and 27 years later, has worked alongside such great artists as Francis Ford Coppola, Gus Van Sant, Tilda Swinton, Al Pacino, Sam Raimi and more. He is the star of the best action film of the 90′s, Speed, the groundbreaking sci-fi mind-bender, The Matrix, and, one of the most important LGBT films ever made, My Own Private Idaho. That achievement has, in fact, granted him a Star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame, but more importantly, Keanu will forever be immortalized through his filmography. Love him or hate him, there is no one else quite like him.

Throughout the month, many articles and reviews have been published here at Sound On Sight. I myself, have already written about Speed and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. But I’ve decided to tackle a few more of his films that I absolutely love. Enjoy!

****

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Parenthood
Directed by Ron Howard
Written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel
1989, USA

From the director of Splash, Willow and Cocoon and screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (Night Shift and Splash), comes Parenthood, a funny and well crafted look at the best and worst moments of family life. This feel-good ensemble comedy, bolstered by a delightful cast, tracks four generations of suburban siblings and their families over the course of a single summer. Ron Howard directs this multi-generational suburban soap effortlessly, a feat, given the number of characters we’re expected to follow and care about. Parenthood is a delicate balancing act between comedy and drama, managing to make you laugh without ever sacrificing character development for cheap punch lines. The movie runs the gamut of realistic emotions and tackles sensitive subjects like abortion, teenage pregnancy, greed, selfishness, abandonment, and failure. For a PG-13-rated comedy about life, love and the challenge of raising children, Parenthood doesn’t ever shy away from some dark, disturbing subplots. This is one of the best ensemble pieces to ever come out of Hollywood. How often do we see a feelgood movie with some pretty bleak visions of parenthood? Howard and Co. achieve greatness by never allowing the film to lapse into sitcom territory. The Buckman family is comprised of an extensive and entertaining ensemble cast, some of whose careers have since dwindled, and others who have gone on to do great things. At its centre is Steve Martin in a career-defining role. Others include Gil Buckman, Rick Moranis, Dianne Wiest, Harley Kozak, Tom Hulce, Leaf Phoenix, Martha Plimpton, and yes, Keanu Reeves as the burn-out son-in-law. Keanu is there, simply to inject an edge, and while his role is a minor one, he no less participates in what is probably the most fully-realized film in the director’s oeuvre. Parenthood is a near-masterpiece.

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The Gift
Directed by Sam Raimi
Written by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson
2000, USA

The Gift is obviously a labor of love for Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson, childhood friends who co-wrote the script, which is loosely based on the life of Thornton’s mother, a reputed psychic. This also marks the re-teaming of Sam Raimi and Thornton, whose previous project, A Simple Plan, earned Thornton an Oscar nomination. The Gift shares with that film the theme of redemption, and despite its supernatural premise, The Gift focuses on real human issues, making it an engaging viewing, even if one has a inclination against stories involving clairvoyance and ESP. The Gift is a good old-fashioned suspense thriller that owes a bit to the original Cape Fear, both in Sam Raimi’s direction and Keanu Reeves’s terrific performance as the abusive redneck Donnie Barksdale, who could be a long lost relative to Max Cady. The Gift may be a run-of-the-mill supernatural murder mystery with all of the elements one expects, but the direction by Sam Raimi and the performances from the stellar cast are far from generic. Fans of melodramatic, gothic potboilers will welcome many unexpected surprises; The Gift comes with ghostly apparitions, courtroom drama and enough red herrings to make Hitchcock smile.

Oh and did I mention Keanu Reeves at his absolute best? Reeves electrifies the screen with his bad boy image, allowing viewers to truly feel his menace and rage as the man falsely imprisoned for the murder of a woman with whom he was having an illicit affair (Katie Holmes). The bearded Reeves holds his own against a fine cast led by the truly remarkable Cate Blanchett. Blanchett’s performance is the glue that holds this film together. Her ability to disappear into the role is amazing, registering unspoken pain visible in her facial expressions and her beautiful eyes. Her Annie goes on a terrifying journey of discovery as the uncertain, tortured psychic, and her performance brings Annie’s humanity to the surface with ease. Oscar winner Hilary Swank has a small but critical part as the battered wife who just can’t leave her abusive husband; Giovanni Ribisi poignantly gives a nice turn as a troubled young man who doubles as Blanchett’s guardian angel; Holmes is saucy and sassy as the naughty girl who’s laid every guy in town; Greg Kinnear, unfortunately, doesn’t leave much of an impression.

With a reported budget of around $10 million, director Sam Raimi eschews trendy effects for a straightforward approach. A great deal of attention is paid to the emotional lives of nearly everyone involved, and Annie’s telepathic powers are never invested in any cheap genre ways. One particular stand out moment sees her grandmother deliver a warning from beyond the grave. Raimi also does not rush the setup and allows it to unfold gradually with characters introduced with an equally unhurried accuracy. Raimi’s use of thunder, lightning, dark hallways and shadows conjures a thick ambiance of dread and mystery.

Truth be told, The Gift shifts into autopilot in the second act. There are also two twists at the end, neither surprising – and thus a disappointing finale to what is nevertheless an above average supernatural mystery thriller.

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River’s Edge
Directed by Tim Hunter
Written by Neal Jimenez
1986, USA

One of the most controversial indies of the 1980s, River’s Edge, drew its inspiration from a notorious real-life murder which took place in California in 1981. Tim Hunter’s extremely dark examination of alienation and moral vacancy among American kids growing up in a violent drug-fueled culture pre-dates Larry Clark and Harmony Korine by a decade. Unlike most 80′s teenage coming of age films, River’s Edge doesn’t glamorize youth; instead, this haunting film follows a suburban, post-punk generation with no compassion and no future. The riveting screenplay by Neal Jimenez depicts these middle class teenagers without cause, morals, nor guilt – they spend their days aimlessly wandering around like the walking dead. River’s Edge is a frightening film, not just because it is so unrelenting in its portrait of Teen nihilism, but because it rings painfully true. This film doesn’t flinch from the dark minds of these teenagers. Instead, it presents concrete proof of the ethical erosion eating away at the roots of our society. River’s Edge boasts a fantastic cast which includes Crispin Glover as a manic speed-freak and Dennis Hopper as an over-the-hill biker who’s replaced his recently deceased girlfriend with a blow-up sex doll named Ellie. Glover and Hopper go over the top while Keanu Reeves is tasked, with playing the most conflicted member of the group. Reeves is superb as the moral centre of the film, and makes a strong impression despite by the histrionics of Glover and Hopper mugging the camera every step of the way. River’s Edge wasn’t Reeves’ first film, but it was a critical success, and without a shadow of doubt, it’s the finest film of his early career. This is a hidden gem, and remains criminally under-seen.

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The Devil’s Advocate
Directed by Taylor Hackord
Written by Jonathan Lemkin and Tony Gilroy
1997, USA

The Devil’s Advocate is part character exploration, part supernatural thriller, and part morality play, with a premise that is a cross between Rosemary’s Baby and The Firm. A young hotshot lawyer Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves), trades in his simple small town life to work for a high-powered international law firm in New York City. What at first seems like a golden opportunity, quickly spirals into a world of hell, as Kevin discovers his boss is not only evil, but is in fact the devil. The Devils Advocate is a grim, cynical morality tale, and a silly supernatural potboiler all at once. But Advocate is undeniably entertaining, even with its rather long 145-minute running time. And the journey is well worth taking, culminating with a bang once Pacino gets to flaunt his devilish monologue  during the film’s famous climax. Screenwriters Jonathan Lemkin and Tony Gilroy have devised a screenplay packed with tense seductions and philosophical ramblings. Gilroy (who was brought in by director Hackford, whom he had previously worked with on Dolores Claiborne), expands upon Lemkin’s original adaptation of Andrew Niederman’s novel. The script transcends any one specific genre, criss-crossing back and forth from melodrama, horror, to satire and back again. But unlike most movies dealing with Satan, The Devil’s Advocate does not delegate itself into celestial incoherence. Instead the picture suggests that the real battle between good and evil is an internal one and involves free will – a message hammered home by Pacino’s big, juicy monologue in the end. Tongue planted firmly in cheek, Hackford and company make their anti-materialist points without ever taking things too seriously. The amazing visuals sneak up on the viewers, as a carnival of demons in human and immortal form take the stage throughout. The film also makes good use of Rick Baker’s special effects and artistic use of computer graphics. Strange hallucinations, an abundance of sexual depravity, naked demonic children and a famous painting come to life, are just a few of the high-points. The weaving between fantasies and reality is expertly cut by editor Mark Warner, and at times the film emulates the more august, sustained suspense of Roman Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy.

Pacino is free to let loose here, firing on all cylinders amidst a river of gore and horrifying shenanigans. Pacino accomplishes the task with his usual panache. Not since Scarface has the actor so clearly thrown himself into a role. He’s nothing short of exciting. This is the type of over-the-top performance that Pacino plays best. But between the two leads, it is lanky, puppy-eyed Reeves who has the toughest role. Saddled with an unwieldy Southern accent, Reeves isn’t afforded the opportunity to chew up scenery, but his role calls for a far more diverse range of emotions. Reeves is actually believable in his part making his Kevin the most multi-layered of the entire cast. Reeves also works especially well against Charlize Theron, making her first feature film appearance as the wife, who is frustrated with her incapability to bear children. She is the movie’s secret sauce – surrounded by supernatural buffoonery, she somehow brings equal parts sex appeal and pathos to a surprisingly well-developed role, allowing Mary Ann’s mental breakdown to elicit real poignancy. Supporting players include Judith Ivey as Kevin’s Bible-thumping mother, Jeffrey Jones as the law firm’s managing partner, Craig T. Nelson as the accused, and Connie Nielson as… well, as nothing much more than eye candy. Although huge parts of The Devil’s Advocate are overblown and over the top, it never crosses into the dangerous realm of self-parody. The movie’s operatic ending is either its greatest weakness or greatest strength, depending on the viewer. Devil’s Advocate is not a subtle beast, but that’s OK.

****

Ricky D

(below are reviews for two more of his films, with links to the full review) 

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Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure
Directed by Stephen Herek
Written by Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon
1989, USA

Made on a low budget, this isn’t the most glamorous of productions; with cheaply made sets, terrible lighting, dollar store costumes and a dreadful soundtrack; yet its make-do approach parallels the slacker attitude of its central characters. Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter (largely unknown at the time), are just charming and silly enough to make this time-travel adventure work; which is no easy task given that on paper, Bill and Ted read as one-note characters. But their surfer-boy slang, mispronunciations of names, air guitar motions, and naiveté, make them, for better or worse, the precursors to generations of future movie characters… (read the full review here)

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Speed
Directed by Jan de Bont
Written by Graham Yost
1994, USA

Make no mistake, Speed is a straight up action flick, and the number one priority of the filmmaker is to keep audiences at the edge of their seats. Not much attention is paid to character development, much less motivation, characterization, plot, or logic. But put aside the number of gaping potholes plot-holes, Speed is one, if not, the best action film of the 90′s. As Dennis Hopper’s Howard Payne tells Jack, “Do not attempt to grow a brain!” The aloof Jack Traven is a switch from the 80′s school of bad-ass, one-line, heroes; and Traven is actually the perfect fit for Reeves. Reeves is asked to do little more than look good, and he’s good at that, but his performance is better than one might expect. Reeves acquits himself well and does more than just flex his muscles, inlcuding performing approximately 90% of his own stunts… (read the full review here)

 

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By Ricky da Conceição

Some people take my heart, others take my shoes, and some take me home. I write, I blog, I podcast and I edit.

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