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Thursday, July 24, 2014

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 14 - Forrest Gump (1994)

Forrest Gump (1994; Paramount Pictures)
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Writers: Eric Roth (Screenplay); Winston Groom (Novel)
Starring: Tom Hanks, Gary Sinise, Sally Field

Winston Groom’s tale of a mentally-disabled man who directly experienced almost every world-changing event in the later half of the 20th Century is a truly charming and heartfelt examination of spirit and love.  Widely considered one of the greatest films of all time, ranking #14 on IMDB’s top 250 at the time of this post, number 76 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest American films of all time, and cleaning up in the 1995 Academy Awards with an astounding six wins, Forrest Gump is one of the essentials.  There are a few movies that I would recommend everyone see, and this is definitely one of them.

Tom Hanks plays Forrest Gump, a chatty man who patiently waits at a Savannah, GA bus stop just casually talking with his various benchmates.  He tells them tales of the things he’s done, the people he has met and the places he has been not knowing just how much of an impact he had on the lives of so many people.  Cutting back and forth from the story’s present time and flashbacks to various key moments in Forrest’s life, we see him meet presidents, fight in Vietnam, chat up John Lennon at a Black Panther Party meeting, and ultimately start a hugely-successful business, and he did all of this never knowing how great his achievements really were.

Along the way, as we explore Gump’s life, we meet a few people who will shape him.  His mother (Field) helps to ensure he lives as normal a life as possible and we watch as his childhood friend Jenny (Robin Wright) goes from a pretty tomboy to a broken and abused soul.  Gump’s lieutenant during his tour in Vietnam, Dan Taylor, leaves the war a crippled and angry man, embittered towards the so-called American dream.  We see Lieutenant Dan befriend the devoted Gump, despite occasional periods of frustration.  Then there is Bubba, a fellow recruit who is also slow, who becomes the titular protagonist’s best friend during his time in the Army, ultimately planting the seed of starting a hugely-successful shrimping business.  

Tom Hanks deservedly netted an Oscar for his performance of the kindhearted Gump.  Filled with shining moments of greatness, his performance is famously endearing.  The performances from the supporting cast including greats like Sally Field and Gary Sinise are stunning as well, and act as a great contrast to the unwitting Gump, reflecting the grievances and the disenfranchisement of the late 60’s and early 70’s.  Mykelti Williamson plays Bubba Blue with famous wit and a warmth that nearly matches Hank’s own Oscar-winning role, and every moment with the two on screen is either very funny, or extremely emotional.

Forrest Gump literally has everything.  It is a comedy, a drama, a war story, a romance, a period piece and a smart examination of the ideals and the passions that erupted during the Vietnam War era.  Despite literally trying to be everything, the film never misses a beat, always hitting just the right notes and crafting a very big, but cohesive story.  Ever since Citizen Kane there have been countless movies that have tried to weave a complex and intricate story around a single character through the years, but few have done it better than Forrest Gump.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 15 - Ed Wood (1994)

Ed Wood (1994; Touchstone Pictures)
Director: Tim Burton
Writers: Rudolph Grey, Scott Alexander
Starring: Johnny Depp, Martin Landau, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jeffrey Jones

Edward R. Wood, Jr. is one of the most captivating and bizarre anomalies in the history of filmmaking.  Hardcore movie fans know his name.  He is the legend behind such “disasterpieces” as Plan 9 from Outer Space, Bride of the Monster, and (most notoriously) Glen or Glenda.  Widely-regarded as one of the absolute worst filmmakers in the history of the medium, Ed Wood’s story makes for some great comedy.  This is a funny and heartfelt tribute to a filmmaker whose schlock was once mocked, but is now considered an inspiration to many hopeful artists.

Ed Wood chronicles the rocky career of the titular director who, along with a small band of friends, created some of the worst movies ever made.  It explores everything from Wood’s boundless enthusiasm, to the aging Bela Lugosi’s crippling addiction.  The legends and myths about Wood’s less-scrupulous tactics are drawn and highlighted as comical moments of weakness fueled by desperation.  It all comes together to make a bright, cheerful and warmhearted tribute to the storied director and his endless, and very much deluded, optimism.

Johnny Depp gives my favorite performance of his celebrated career here.  He plays Wood as a fast-talking Hollywood man who is crippled by his immense lack of talent, which he always fails to see or admit.  Every touch and idea of Wood’s quirky filmmaking is presented in Depp’s energetic, bright-eyed performance.  Alongside Depp is a cast of supporting performances that just nail their real-life counterparts perfectly for anyone who has seen a film by Wood (I own both Bride and Plan 8 on DVD).  Martin Landau landed a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the sad and broken Lugosi, the former star of the legendary film Dracula who, by the time Ed Wood came into his life, was a shell of his former self.  It is a heartbreaking and loving piece of acting from a legendary performer.

Tim Burton directs Ed Wood as a black and white picture attempting to recreate some of Wood’s style.  He shows us the ins and outs of Wood’s more infamous moments, all taken from a book that was a first-hand account of the notorious director’s dedication to his art.  This is both a loving tribute and a brutally-honest expose, and is a must-see for anyone who loves film, or is interested in gaining a further understanding the medium.  

Succumbing to cliche, I end with Criswald’s famous line from Plan 9 From Outer Space:  “And remember my friend... future events such as these will affect YOU in the future.”

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 16 - Apollo 13 (1995)

Apollo 13 (1995; Universal Pictures)
Director: Ron Howard
Writers: Bill Broyles, Jr. and Al Reinert (adapted screenplay); Jim Lovell and Jeff Kluger (novel)
Starring: Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon, Gary Sinise, Ed Harris

The Apollo missions were the culmination of centuries of science and mathematics evolving over generations, ending with a few chosen men walking on the dusty terrain of Earth’s Moon.  It is a story that has been told time and time again.  However, the flight of Apollo 11 was not the last of the NASA’s lunar excursions.  The Apollo 13 mission was intended to send a few astronauts to the Moon for further study but this objective was cut short due to a sudden and shocking tragedy.

The story of how Jim Lovell (Hanks), Fred Haise (Paxton) and Jack Swigert (Bacon) survive a crippling explosion aboard their ill-fated vessel is a gripping and captivating tale of strength and ingenuity.  A fuel leak leads to an explosion that rocks the ship and severely damages several essential systems, most dangerously were the climate control unit and the oxygen and air filtration system.  With certain death looming just around the corner, these three men fight to stay alive and escape the cold and deadly throws of space.  To make it back, the heroic explorers require the help of a dedicated team of technicians in Houston and one astronaut named Ken Mattingly (Sinise) who, after testing positive for measles, was forced to stay grounded.  The lengths that the headstrong NASA workers go to keep their men alive are the stuff of legend, and make for some fascinating dramatic tension.

Through the 90’s, Ron Howard had proven himself to be one of the most talented and consistent directors in Hollywood.  The former child actor and Happy Days star shocked everyone by becoming a super-talent behind the camera, taking on challenging projects that use tension and drama to keep their audiences frozen to their screens.  His work on Apollo 13 is astounding, and though the film did not sweep the Oscars (being up against the titan that was Braveheart), it deserved the awards it was nominated for.  In my honest opinion, Apollo 13 ranks alongside some of the most idiotic Oscar snubs in history, close to the likes of Citizen Kane losing Best Picture to How Green Was My Valley in 1942.

Apollo 13 is a blend of beautiful cinematography, superb performances from everyone involved, an engaging and true story and a very intelligent screenplay.  There is not a boring or pointless scene in this movie.  Everything counts, from the time the astronauts spend on Earth preparing for their missions, to the scenes that cut back to their families.  There is no filler.  The film paints a vivid picture of how everyone connected to this shocking event felt upon hearing the news.  Tom Hanks, Ed Harris and Gary Sinise (a personal favorite performer of mine) all give some of the best performances of their excellent careers in this enthralling and tense drama.

Monday, July 21, 2014

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 17 - Philadelphia (1993)

Philadelphia (1993; Tristar Pictures)
Director: Jonathan Demme
Writer: Ron Nyswaner
Starring: Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, Jason Robards

I sat and thought carefully about how I would approach this film.  If you already know what Philadelphia is about, I’m sure one could understand how difficult this subject is, both on an emotional and (unfortunately) a political level.  That said…  Here we go:

By the late 80’s the AIDS scare was in full effect, with many people unsure how the disease operates, and despite educational material being out there, most people preferred to be afraid of the victim rather than the disease itself.  Much of this fear was founded in bigotry, as AIDS was originally considered an illness that only affected gay men.  Despite this being utterly untrue, the facts did not alter the stigma.  As we began to understand the disease HIV, and its progression into AIDS, things and attitudes began to change, but even by 1993, there was still a great deal of ignorance about the subject.

Philadelphia is the incredibly challenging and heartfelt story of an attorney named Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks), a gay man who contracts the dreaded virus.  After his termination from his firm, which was claimed to be due to negligence, he concludes it was because of his own bosses’ ignorance and bigotry.  Beckett asks another attorney named Joe Miller to help him with his case, but is turned down as Miller is himself a homophobe.  Feeling alone and fearful, the young Beckett steadfastly begins to file his own case.  With support from his partner Miguel (Antonio Banderas) and his family, Beckett struggles with his future.  Ultimately, with guilt and empathy, Miller comes around and offers to represent the man.  This leads to a rough trial both in the courtroom and in the life of a horribly afflicted man.

Philadelphia is an emotional and complex exploration of the time and the fear and unfair prejudice surrounding the AIDS epidemic.  The associations of the characters reflect of a variety of feelings about the subject, discrimination and acceptance and the struggle of a man who becomes the center of a charged political melee.  Hanks won his first of two Academy Awards for his performance in this film, as only the third actor to be nominated for playing a gay character in a Hollywood film.  Philadelphia won other awards including a Golden Globe for best drama as well as a list other international statuettes.  

Philadelphia is a rough sit made even more emotional by its characters.  Tom Hanks gives an incredibly moving performance here.  In particular, during his scenes on the stand, which most likely netted him the Oscar win.  The years leading up to Philadelphia were marked with a few hits and a lot of misses for the now-lauded actor, who was mostly known for comedies.  Philadelphia was not Hanks’ first Oscar nomination as he was nominated for the 1988 classic Big, and he received critical acclaim for his performance in the touching drama Sleepless in Seattle.  However, despite his recognition before the release of Philadelphia, the film marked a turning point in Hanks’ career, where he began focusing on more dramatic performances almost exclusively, with a line of Oscar nominated movies after 1993.

Denzel Washington gives an excellent performance as well, strengthening his already established dramatic resume as an outsider’s point of relatability to the subject.  The ideas of others change as he changes from a bigoted man to one who befriends and begins to care about Beckett and his plight.  Washington was perfect for this role.  He has a strong voice, tremendous screen presence and has always been an excellent dramatic performer.  Here, however, I would argue he gives the best performance of his excellent career.  We see a transformation in Joe Miller through him, and throughout the movie, even when the character’s views are detestable, he has a charm that is instantly gripping, and as he warms to Beckett, we feel their bond growing.  The two actors have an admirable chemistry that works and paints a vivid picture of a man whose heart steadily changes over the course of the story.

These performances, along with just about every other aspect of the film, makes Philadelphia a must-watch classic.  It is one of the most celebrated films of the 90’s for good reason, it is a strong, heart-wrenching story told wonderfully through masterful performances.  Jonathan Demme, who won an Academy Award for his Oscar-sweeping 1992 film The Silence of the Lambs, was a perfect choice for this movie.  He uses an interesting device throughout the film showing us a number of scenes with actors appearing to break the fourth wall.  While this begins as a strange little idea that would likely take one out of the movie, instead, here it puts us in the shoes of the characters and as the film goes on, is used to show us the pain and fear of Andrew Beckett as he steadily deteriorates.  There is a love for these characters that we feel through Deme’s direction, which makes the movie that much more powerful.  When screenwriters and directors really care about the characters they are creating on screen, the viewer can certainly tell.  They feel like real people, and in Philadelphia, it is very, very easy to forget, from time to time, that despite the film being loosely based on a true story, is not real itself.  Philadelphia is easily one of the greatest, and most heartbreaking films ever made.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 18 - American History X (1998)

American History X (1998; New Line Cinema)
Director: Tony Kaye
Writer: David McKenna
Starring: Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, Ethan Suplee

Kaye and McKenna’s tragic tale of a reformed Neo-Nazi is one of those movies I’m kind of struggling to write about.  The basic plot of American HIstory X follows Darek Vinyard (Norton), a high-ranking member of a Skinhead gang in Los Angeles.  After going to prison for murder, he reforms and begins to change his ways, starting with the rejection of his former Nazi beliefs, but during his sentence, his brother had joined the gang and is now a full fledged member.  The bulk of the story is told in flashbacks to Darek’s growth as a Neo-Nazi from his father’s death to his early adulthood all the way up to his prison stint, and in present time where Darek struggles to separate himself from his lifelong friends while mixing in moments of time during his incarceration.  Meanwhile we get glimpses into his brother’s own downfall that reflect those in Darek’s life.  

American History X is a very, very rough sit.  It’s brutality reflects the evil in the beliefs of its characters.  They are bigoted, violent, and unapologetic.  Darek’s reformation begins to show us an outsider’s view of the reality that surrounds the character, but even with this, the movie is still unflinching in showing the lengths that some will go to to achieve their evil goals.

This film has a great narrative structure.  There are three timelines told parallel to each other, one showing us Darek after he has begun to reform leading up to the film’s powerful conclusion, one showing the events from the time Derek commits the crime that has him put away up to his release, and one showing Darek’s influences and growths from his teenage years up to the point where he commits the life-changing crime.  The nonlinear approach is what gives American History X its voice, giving it strength and showing us how and why he originally became what he did.  The film challenges you to actually empathize with this man, and then we see how one event changed him to a hate-fueled, violent gang member to his ultimate return to humanity.  It is a strong psychological study as well as an excellent story that is told with a fearless approach.  That said, if you plan to watch this film, be prepared because this movie does not hesitate to show us hate in all of its ugliest forms.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 19 - Princess Mononoke (1997)

Princess Mononoke (1997; Studio Ghibli,
Miramax (U.S. Distributor))
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Writer: Hayao Miyazaki
Starring: (Original Japanese Cast) Youji Matsuda, Yoriko Ishida; (English voice cast) Billy Crudup, Claire Danes

Anime is a modern type of filmmaking that spans many genres and ranges from quality dramas to silly romps.  Spanning decades in Japan and growing immensely in popularity in America in the late 90’s due to the domestication of series like Dragonball Z, Neon Genesis Evangelion and Cowboy Bebop, and with the help of movie releases like the cult classic Akira and the wondrous piece of fantasy Princess Mononoke or もののけ姫 (Mononoke-hime) in Japanese.  Written and directed by the Walt Disney of Japanese animation, and arguably the second greatest animation director in film history (after the great Disney, of course), Hayao Miyazaki, Mononoke is a fantasy that is powerful and brilliant in every way.

The story begins following a warrior name Ashitaka, who is cursed by a rogue boar that became possessed by a evil spirit.  When he returns home he is forced to exile so as not to curse the rest of his village.  He travels a great distance on the back of his companion, a “red elk” (that isn’t a freaking elk, by the way) named Yakui.  Hoping to find a cure for his ailment, he seeks aid from the spirits of the forest that guard the untouched natural landscape from the fires of man, in particular those coming from the nearby forge fortress of Irontown.  Run by a headstrong matron named Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver), who rescued many of her working girls from the cities’ brothels to help forge more powerful weapons, the town awaits the return of its men and readies itself for war against the animal spirits.  When the town is attacked by a nimble and fearless girl named Mononoke, who refuses to identify herself as human as she grew up with the guardian wolves in the nearby forest, Ashitaka rescues her from her fate but is wounded in the process.  Nursed back to health by the wolf girl, the young warrior is now caught in the middle of a war between his fellow man, and the spirits of nature that could cure him of his curse.

Typically, the man versus nature theme is done very, very poorly.  This is especially the case when the story has a shoehorned, heavy-handed environmental message in it.  Films like Avatar always came off to me as more PSA than film, especially since that movie in-particular is just several hours of Cameron telling everyone how “awesome” he is.  However, Mononoke actually shows us the struggle of violence against nature and puts us in the shoes of the creatures and lives destroyed by man’s lust for power.  Mononoke herself is a direct contrast to Eboshi. The titular heroine is gruff, strong and devoted to her forest family, while Eboshi is arrogant, beautiful and willing to sacrifice her own people to get what she wants.  The most interesting thing about this contrast is how the characters are introduced.  When we first meet Eboshi, it is a natural assumption to assume she is good, while Mononoke, clad in furs and a wooden mask, wields a dagger and slashes and dives at the frightened villagers.  

Princess Mononoke plays with expectations, and is actually, and surprisingly, not bound by too many cliches, despite the obvious references to Burroughs’ Tarzan novels as well as a number of other man-vs.-nature stories.  It is an inspired story that is both empowering and heartbreaking.  We see the once-mighty spirits stumbling and bleeding from the powerful weapons of the humans of Irontown.  They are prophets of their own doom, so willing to give in to their collective fate.  We see that nature becomes helpless against man’s rage unless some are willing to help fight with and for it.

Like all of Miyazaki’s writings, this film has touches of Japanese folklore and spiritualism in it as well, and the cultural elements of his movies are often some of the of most fascinating parts.  Environmental themes aside, this is a great allegory to growing into one’s self, overcoming the past and accepting who you really are.  It pulls you into the world and shows you the pain each character is feeling without being emotionally-manipulative, instead it relies on one’s own empathy to truly relate to and understand what these characters are going through.  What is even a greater testament to the complexity of this film: I did not even scratch the surface in terms of plot.  There is a lot going on here that tie the emotional elements and themes of the film together better than most that have tried have been able to do in narratives past.  Miyazaki created a masterwork here, and it is widely regarded as one of the greatest animated films of all time.  It earned this title, as Princess Mononoke is a deep, engaging masterpiece, and even though it is only my second favorite film of Miyazaki’s (Spirited Away is my #1), it is certainly high among the greatest animated features in the history of movies.

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 20 - Army of Darkness (1992)

Army of Darkness (1992; Universal Pictures)
Director: Sam Raimi
Writers: Sam and Ivan Raimi
Starring: Bruce Campbell, Marcus Gilbert, Anabeth Davidtz

Way back in 1981, two decades before he turned Spiderman into a blockbuster series, a young director named Sam Raimi brought together a small group of actors to star in a low-budget horror film called The Evil Dead (inflation-adjusted, the movie cost just under $1m, Daddy Day Camp cost $6m. Was it worth it, Hollywood?).  It is the story of Ashley “Ash” Williams and his group of friends who vacation to a cabin and find that the previous resident had gotten himself involved some unworldly stuff during his research into the Necronomicon ex Mortis: The Book of the Dead (A reference to the writings of H.P. Lovecraft).  What he found opened a portal to another world, allowing vile demons to enter our realm.  The young vacationers get more than they bargained for and things get kind of tragic.

What Raimi intended here was to make a legitimate horror film, one that is both terrifying and entertaining.  What he made instead was an unintentionally-funny cult classic (which is actually better, honestly).  Raimi was not discouraged by this and he set out to do one better.  The Evil Dead II was a combination of a sequel, a remake and a sendup of horror movie tropes.  There may be no single horror comedy (or horror film for that matter) that is more beloved by fans.  It is laugh-out-loud funny with tons of gore, over-the-top moments and very, very quotable lines.  The film ends with our hero Ash being sucked into a wormhole and waking up in the middle of a wasteland, with only his chainsaw arm to accompany him… at least in the beginning.

The above build-up was essential as the story of Ash getting here is part of Army of Darkness’ greatness.  As a direct follow-up, it takes the story in a direction nobody saw coming: Army of Darkness is a fantasy/action/comedy.  Now, I do not mean a comedy in that it has a few jokes in it among the actual action and horror, no, this movie is a straight up comedy starring the epic Bruce Campbell fighting the undead in a medieval world… and it’s AWESOME!  Army of Darkness is a work of perfection because Raimi set out to make a movie that just goes all-out and does the most ridiculous things, and as a result, makes a fun, exciting and damn-entertaining flick.

AoD starts with Ash in that strange world from the end of 2 in a chain gang locked in a yoke, forced into slavery.  When he proves himself an asset in helping to defeat the Deadites that plague the land, he is tasked with defeating the titular army, but first he must retrieve the fabled Necronomicon from its resting place.  It all culminates in an epic battle with the Deadite army as Ash does everything he can to save the day and finally get home to his job at S-Mart.

Occasionally silly and always energetic, Army of Darkness goes into some cartoonish territory, but at least for me, that’s a plus.  The movie does not take itself seriously at all, embracing the insanity wholeheartedly and just doing everything it can to mock its genre and utterly abuse its poor hero.  However, beyond the intermittent slapstick humor, there is a legitimate adventure film here, with some pretty good action and great makeup effects.  The film was fortunately made before the advent (and eventual abuse) of computer animation, so the practical effects have a spirit and a tangibility to them.  Knowing the actor is actually on screen with the makeup-covered actors helps to maintain the illusion of actual stakes.  CGI has, in more recent years, taken the place of classic makeup, puppetry, stop motion and animatronics and, as a result, much of the heart of special effects is lost.  Army of Darkness just may mark the last really good fantasy adventure released before CGI gave us sweeping shots of cartoonish castles and lazily-animated copy and paste creatures.  This is a film with actual sets and costumes, rather than a few actors standing in front of a green screen.

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 21 - Fargo (1996)

Fargo (1996; Polygram
Filmed Entertainment)
Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Writers: Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare

The Coen Brothers have been appeared on my list numerous times thus far and Fargo marks their final film featured in this series.  Fargo is a twisted black comedy from two filmmakers who know how to direct the most disturbing things in such a way that they are actually funny.  This is not uncommon, but what makes Fargo work so well is its tone.  The film itself seems rather condescending towards its own characters, which is strange and, for some, off-putting. However, I find it to simply add to the humor already on display.

The film centers on a small town family man named Jerry (Macy) who, motivated by a personal financial crisis, pays two thugs to kidnap his wife for a ransom he intends to collect.  However, when the hired guns (played by Buscemi and Stormare) botch the kidnapping significantly, resulting in a triple homicide, they are forced to push up the time frame and get the job over with so they can get out of town.  What they did not count on was a smart and unrelenting small town sheriff named Marge (McDormand) who, despite being very, very pregnant, is hot on their trail.  

Fargo is a film that can be interpreted in any number of ways.  Typically, in a film like this, the Keystone Cops trope takes hold, and things go haywire, but ultimately a mess is left.  I see the Coen brothers playing with expectations here.  The idea of the smart cop running a tight ship in a small town in North Dakota is not entirely unbelievable, however film cliches dictate that if you are not a big city cop in a trench coat, you are bad at your job.  Here we have a movie that could have easily played it safe, keeping things very simple and doing nothing fresh and it would have still been a funny romp of a crime flick.  Yet, the Coen brothers transform what would have been (in likely any other hands) a completely generic murder flick into something clever and unique.  

Other elements that are open to subjective opinion are the details of what exactly Jerry is really trying to pull.  We know he pitches to his boss (who is also his father-in-law) that he wants money for a “lot”, possibly intending to start his own auto dealership, but there is also a running subplot involving him being unable to verify a list of serial numbers for some merchandise.  The widely-accepted opinion regarding this is that he was, in some way, involved in fraud, and is possibly responsible for embezzlement.   This is never clearly fleshed out, however.  Many of the details of whatever he is involved in are provided, but there is no overt exposition, and it as a result, the audience is never entirely sure what Jerry wants the money for, and why he was willing to go to such lengths to get it.

Friday, July 18, 2014

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 22 - Seven (1995)

Seven (1995; New Line Cinema)
Director: David Fincher
Writer: Andrew Kevin Walker
Starring: Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, Kevin Spacey

I have already featured two of Fincher’s films on my top 40.  He is a talented director with a standout voice.  After heading his first feature, Alien 3, in ‘92, this music video director needed a challenge.  Seven was a pretty obvious screenplay, taking the episodic structure of “this many of this thing is going to happen over this period of time”, giving a moody, grim and violent tone and putting two opposing styles of detection in the same room together to solve the case.  From the screenplay, you would think there was not an original idea in there.  However, this is no ordinary procedural.  Seven is more than a crime thriller, it is a study in the psychology of a killer, and as a movie, it is an examination of how subtle techniques in filmmaking paint a deeper image of the story that you may not even know you are seeing.  It delves into the mind of the villain long before we see or even hear him, and we can almost see his face in every scene leading up to the character’s introduction.

When an attorney is found facedown in a bowl of spaghetti, force-fed to death, a series of other strange crimes begin to occur, each one tagged with one of the Seven Deadly Sins, as taught in Catholic literature and explored in classical writings like The Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost., of which the killer deemed them guilty.  Morgan Freeman plays Det. Somerset, a soon-to-be-retired veteran who is known for his “over-analysis”.  He is tagged to show his replacement the ropes, and it turns out he is to be succeeded by an overzealous and occasionally petulant younger detective named Mills (Pitt).  Initially unwilling to take the case as he felt it would never end, Somerset is stuck trying to solve the murders as Mills and his wife slowly begin to break Somerset’s tough exterior.  However, this is a crime with a counter, and the killer will not give up until at least seven souls are punished for their sins.

Like so many of Fincher’s films, Seven has a great ending.  It is a film that actively involves the viewer, drawing them into the events as they unfold.  Concentrating makes you feel the tension and stress of each scene.  An air of dread fills every room, hall and street as Fincher plays games with your brain by choosing very specific levels of lighting and ambiance to match each moment in the script.  Every line of dialogue matters, every drop of rain is deliberate and the moments of slow dialogue bring some of the ambiance to a haunting silence, as though you did not notice it until it was gone.  All of Fincher’s subtleties executed here make Seven a stunning example of filmmaking.  Aside from it being a good movie, it is a good point of study for the psychology of film, in how sights and sounds effect the audience.  In a way, a movie hypnotizes you into feeling or thinking a certain way about a character, and the more subtle, the better.  Seven is on my list, not only because I think it is an excellent thriller, but also because it is an exceptional exercise in suggestion from a master of his craft.

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 23 - Barton Fink (1991)

Director: Joel Coen

Writers: Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: John Turturro, John Goodman

The fourth film from the acclaimed Coen Brothers is a masterfully-complex, harrowing, slow burn (literally) of a black comedy.  The movie centers on the titular upstart playwright who is commissioned to write a screenplay for a B-grade Hollywood picture.  Despite being somewhat uncomfortable with the proposition, he travels from New York to Hollywood and checks into a dreary hotel.  The room is hot, dank, grim and he is unable to sleep due to the endless racket from his neighboring tenants.  As he struggles to even begin writing an outline, Fink is befriended by his neighbor Charlie, a noisy but friendly man whom he takes an immediately liking to.  As he continues to overcome the crippling frustration of writers’ block, Fink runs into conflict with an agent and a producer as well as a writer he looks up to, who is constantly protected by his seemingly-imprisoned wife.  Things eventually go haywire, however, as a shocking series of events unravels Finks idea of what Hollywood really is.

As the movie goes on, the film seems somewhat disjointed, and this is the problem I have with Barton Fink: It is damn hard to write about.  Anyone can write a short synopsis, but the film is a very detailed and intricate series of visual ideas and queues and, probably most essential, sounds.  Every sound in the movie reflects an image shown then or in a different scene, and much of it is so subtle as to be subconscious, as the sounds we hear trigger memories of moments we may or may not even really remember.  Every sound in the film helps paint a picture and while this is always the case with movies, Barton Fink’s sound, mixed with its eerie production design (the sets, setting, scene layout, ect.) create a moody tone that is intensified by the very dark contrast and saturation used in the hotel scenes.

One thing that makes this one difficult to really summarize is it is hard for me to really convey the plot without spoiling anything.  I used the word “disjointed”, and I mean that as a positive.  Barton Fink arrives in Hollywood an outsider.  He is intimidated by seemingly everyone, from the fast-talking, energetic Bellhop named “Chet!”, to the imposing figures of the film industry, who have sudden bipolar changes from excitement to anger in what seems like a single, jarring second.  We explore this strange world through Fink’s own experiences, and everything seems insurmountable.  Therefore, the events that dominate the third act of the film cannot be truly discussed without ruining the movie.  It would be like visiting a fortune teller to find out every detail of your next day.  Nothing would be a surprise.

Barton Fink is a “put yourself in his shoes” sort of film and that can only work if the direction and acting is just right.  The Coen Brothers have a long history of masterful films, from the chilling Blood Simple, to the cult classic The Big Lebowski, to the tense and powerful No Country For Old Men.  So, even though I only listed a few of their titles, it is easy to see why these two filmmakers are considered to some of the best (of not the best) filmmakers of their generation.  In their more-than-capable hands, John Turturro gives one of his best performances in his storied career.  He is an actor who dominated in some of the best films of the 90’s, but has, in recent years, fallen victim to dreadful blockbusters and moronic comedies, which has caused somewhat of a slump, despite steady work.  John Goodman, like Turturro, has a strong career spanning the last twenty-five years or so.  Starting in the 80’s as a bit and character actor before moving on to the super-hit TV series Roseanne (which lasted nearly a decade, a lifetime in sitcom-years).  Goodman became a household name by the early 90’s and during his time on the Award-winning show, he appeared in number of successes, and some of his performances stand out significantly, in-particular those he did with the Brothers Coen.  These are just three people involved in this complex movie which also features supporting performances from the likes of character actor Michael Lerner, Judy Davis, Steven Buscemi and Tony Shalhoub, just to name a few.  Ultimately, Barton Fink has the names, the brains, and the mood that makes for one hell of a climax.  If you have not see this movie, do yourself a favor: Watch it.

Monday, July 14, 2014

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 24 - Misery (1990)

Misery (1990; Castle Rock Entertainment)
Director: Rob Reiner
Writers: Stephen King (Novel), William Goldman
Starring: James Caan, Kathy Bates

Rob Reiner used to direct good movies.  He does not do that anymore, and has had a rather bad track record since the mid 90’s, really starting with the dreadful bane of my existence that is North.  That said, during the 80’s and early 90’s he had a good run, and Misery is one of his best directorial works, lagging just behind the powerful A Few Good Men, the charming When Harry Met Sally and the fan-favorite fantasy The Princess Bride.  Reiner has a knack for visual style and Misery has a really cool idea behind it, focusing the camera mainly in a series of wide shots of a single room, putting the audience in the shoes of a man who is royally screwed, although, at least he is not the poor guy from Audition.

Misery follows the story of an author named Paul Sheldon.  After being injured in a car accident, Sheldon is nursed back to health by a woman named Annie who turns out to be a crazed fan.  Under her care, Sheldon is stuck in his present state, with nobody knowing where he is, and thus begins to finish the last novel of his beloved series in a bed in her cabin.  However, when Annie discovers his intent to kill off her favorite character, her already present insanity turns into utter rage, with events that build and tension that has a steady climb over the course of the film.

Misery is freaking terrifying.  It is not the lazy sort of horror with things jumping out at you shouting “BOO!”  No, this is a story where you are meant to empathize with Sheldon as an artist and a victim.  He cannot leave, he cannot fight her, he is almost entirely helpless through most of the film, and Annie knows it.  She has complete control over him, and as events play out, her attempts to keep him there to “fix” the story become more and more desperate, and violent, and a feeling of dread slowly fills the air over the course of the film.  It is a helpless situation that is elevated thanks to two very excellent performances from two superb talents.  Reiner’s direction goes a long way as well, with wide angle shots that appear as Sheldon’s perspective of the room, which has this strange effect of seeming smaller and smaller as the film goes on, and the low angle shots of Annie, stiffly towering over the severely injured man give a sense of intimidation very early in the movie, really before Annie even does anything all that crazy.  This is a creepy story executed flawlessly thanks to three talents in their prime.

Friday, July 11, 2014

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 25 - Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)

NOTE: I apologize for my absence, life and sickness have made it difficult for me to focus or even get motivated to write anything.  Hopefully I can pick up the pace here some.  Also, a lot, if not most, of the coming articles in this series will be much shorter than the last fifteen because I am so far behind.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998;
Summit Entertainment & Universal Pictures)
Director: Terry Gilliam
Writers: Hunter S. Thompson (Book), Terry Gilliam, Tony Grisoni, Tod Davies, Alex Cox
Starring: Johnny Depp, Benicio Del Toro

When Hunter S. Thompson decides to write an indictment of society’s ills, he does it through his own experiences.  Drugs, travel, paranoia, success and failure all present themselves in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a film adaptation of a seemingly unadaptable story.  Hunter S. Thompson writes himself under the pseudonym Raoul Duke as he travels across the American Southwest towards Las Vegas on the dime of Sports Illustrated as he is commissioned to cover a racing event in Sin City.  However, he and his attorney Dr. Gonzo (a slightly-fictionalized version of real-life attorney and public figure Oscar Zeta Acosta) are constantly sidetracked due to their rapid and excessive abuse of a hodgepodge of mind-altering substances.

On the surface, Fear and Loathing seems like a disjointed, meaningless, drug-fueled romp through Vegas, however, it is much more than that.  Upon its release, many mainstream film critics dismissed it as a “mess” and disputed its value thereby missing the point entirely.  The reality is, this is a film where it is almost required to understand the backstory to get the real gist of what is going on.  It is unfortunate, and normally I would knock off points for requiring supplementary materials, but this makes perfect sense.  If we were given thirty minutes of setup for this movie we would be disconnected from Thompson’s own perspective of the events that were occurring, which is 100% essential to the films’ quality.  The real backstory is complex but the long-and-short of it is, in real life Thompson was hired by SI, just like in the book, but the magazine rejected his novel on grounds of being “out there” and therefore he responded with this story, which is a cursory glance at the reality of Americana told from the perspective of an outsider who rejected the ideals of this fictionalized way of life.  The anti-establishment ideas in the film come across in some subtle (and some not-so-subtle) moments in the film, but it is never outwardly given to us in any form of narration or exposition with the exception of a few passing lines.  Thus, the film is difficult to digest for those who do not fully understand its origins.

Myself being somewhat of an outsider to both the world of Americana and the drug-driven anti-establishment movement of the 60’s and 70’s, I look at the film as an opposing voice to the “way things should be” as sold to us by our “leaders” and a shocking glimpse into the mind of the conflicted and disenfranchised.  It has always been a fascinating movie to me, as it is worthy of hours of dissection, discussion and debate and is still analyzed to this day.  Bad movies generally do not get this honor, so that can only mean that Fear and Loathing means a lot to a lot of people, and, at least in my view, has ascended above what some would consider “cult status”.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 26 - Toy Story (1995)

Toy Story (1995; Walt Disney/Pixar Studios)
Director: John Lasseter
Writers: John Lasseter, Joe Ranft, Andrew Stanton, Joss Whedon, Joel Cohen, Alec Sokolov
Starring: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen

In July of 1928, Steamboat Willie became the first “talkie”, with a full spoken audio track playing over an animated short film.  It was a landmark achievement in filmmaking from an idealistic young director named Walt Disney.  A decade later, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs became the first feature-length animated film and set the standard for the art of animation in its time.  Walt did much more for filmmaking than adapting classic fairy tales and building theme parks, though.  He designed and engineered the multiplane camera, allowing for the effect of perspective and depth in 2D animated films and was responsible for implementing many new forms of editing and effects that would revolutionize the way we look at the art of movies.

By the 70’s, however, Disney, as a company, was at an all-time low in terms of morale and success.  When Walt Disney died from cancer in 1966, the studio had a hard time keeping up the pace and begin producing fewer and fewer successes until the late 80’s saw the Disney Renaissance, a period of massive growth for Disney as a company.  In 1994, Disney gave us The Lion King, a massive achievement in filmmaking, and a year later, a small group of animators introduced the world to the first feature-length computer animated film: Toy Story.

Toy Story is an incredibly simple, timeless story told very, very well.  It follows the secret lives of toys when their owner, a boy named Andy, is not around.  They have a hierarchical ruling structure based on how much Andy loves them, with Woody (Voice of Tom Hanks), a pull-string talking cowboy, being the favorite and thus, the leader.  On Andy’s birthday he is given the next big toy, an electronic space hero named Buzz Lightyear.  Immediately Woody feels cast aside as Buzz appears to become Andy’s favorite new toy.  The only problem is, Buzz does not believe he is a toy, and thinks he is a real interstellar action hero.  Over time, Woody becomes so angry and envious of Buzz, that at one point he is accused by the other toys of killing Buzz when the space hero disappears.  This forces Woody to take action to find Buzz and prove his innocence, the two becoming friends in the process.  The film takes several turns in the story, with one surprisingly dark subplot involving a toy-torturing, truly messed-up kid who temporarily gains possession of Buzz and Woody.

Toy Story is a tale of unlikely friendship told through the a technology that was, at the time, still very new to general audiences.  Computer animation had been around for well over a decade but it was always very shallow-looking.  Bright colors and blocky figures dominated the artform, so imagine audiences’ collective surprise when Toy Story featured fully-animated characters in highly-detailed scenes.  It was a shock to most people, and it put Pixar near the top of the animation totem pole, right up there with Walt Disney Studios (a separate entity from Pixar) and Studio Ghibli.  The characters are interesting and relatable without being too cliched, the voice performances are all top-notch and art is still astounding by today’s standards, even after we spent years sitting through one mediocre CGI-fest after another, with the medium no longer being novel, just boring.  Toy Story is a reflection on a time when talented filmmakers were still very excited about a new art-form, and the potential of this new style of animation was still on the horizon.

NOTE: I would also point out that this was an early major screenwriting project for fan-favorite filmmaker Joss Whedon, so there's that, too!

Thursday, May 8, 2014

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 27 - Fight Club (1999)

Fight Club (1999; 20th Century Fox Pictures)
Director: David Fincher
Writer: Jim Uhls
Starring: Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, Helena Bonham Carter

Fight Club is the 1999 film adaptation of the novel of the same name from writer Chuck Palahniuk.  It is a funny indictment of unbridled consumerism, drawing comparisons to shopping from Ikea with enslavement and disease.  It is certainly an anti-establishment message shoved into a strange series of parallels and metaphors.  So, who better to put together a plot puzzle like this than the man who directed The Game and Seven?

Edward Norton plays a (sort of) unnamed narrator who is tormented by his endless fight with daily life and his sudden urge to buy increasingly-useless crap from the consumer catalog du jour.  Depressed and struggling with crippling insomnia, our narrator begins to attend various support groups for disease and addiction for things he does not even suffer from, only to feel… something.  This therapy works, until a woman named Marla (Carter) begins showing up for the same groups, becoming a plaguing distraction.  During a business trip, he meets an outgoing, fast-talking man named Tyler Durden (Pitt), who seems to have none of the same fears and worries he suffers from.  Essentially, he is the narrator’s polar opposite.  A freak disaster leads the narrator to contact Tyler and they meet up, becoming friends, and eventually, this leads to them fighting in an alley.  Over time, this one fight evolves into hundreds, all over the country, from multiple groups of Fight Clubs, and replaces any need for support groups and shoulders to cry on.  Things grow and grow, becoming even more desperate, and Marla is dragged back in with Tyler, with whom she begins a very, very loud sexual relationship.  With the narrator's own vision of what Fight Club becoming distorted into a movement that has grown far out of his control, the film’s tone becomes extremely dark and more than a little threatening, all leading to a climax that is surprising and kind of terrifying..

Fight Club is a brutal rejection of casual consumerism.  It mocks marketing, and even has the Club members use that marketing as a weapon against the system they feel has enslaved them.  The mood shifts from comic to thriller steadily throughout the film, but from the very beginning there is a sense of unease.  We are told early in the film that “With insomnia nothing’s real.  Everything’s far away.  Everything’s a copy of a copy of a copy…”, and that is exactly what much of the first act feels like.  Scenes are very dreamlike, full of strange imagery of floating catalog price information and CGI penguins.  There are subliminal images that flicker and disappear, almost like hallucinations, and the whole production has this very cold, artificial feel to its benefit.  The surrealist elements of the film never feel too out of place since we are meant to be seeing this world through the eyes of a troubled man.  

David Fincher was the perfect choice to direct this movie.  He is able to weave incredibly complex and layered narratives into a cohesive and captivating story.  He is probably better at this than just about any other director working in Hollywood today, with successes like Zodiac and The Social Network telling stories that span several years with a great deal of coherence, something that is very difficult to do without losing your audience.  Fight Club just may be one of the most ambitious film adaptations of all time.  Not because of thousands of fighting soldiers and castles that need to be modeled and CGI’d, but because it is a story told in first person, from the perspective of an individual who sees the world very differently from the way most people do.  Fincher’s ability to put you in the eyes of this one broken and desperate man is simply astounding.  

Now, I am trying to stay vague with this article because if you have not seen this movie yet, it is a must-watch.  It is violent, gritty, and even a little convicting.  You could have been doing something great, and you did nothing productive.  In a shocking and brutal, but funny scene, Tyler holds a young man at gunpoint for “wasting his life” and not pursuing his dream career, for which he lets the man live with the promise that he will pursue a better life.  It is mean, but it is also honest.  Fight Club certainly has a little bit of preachiness to it, which is usually a turn-off, but I never got the feeling that this was based on some schizophrenic’s insane ramblings like I did with tripe like The Day After Tomorrow or overwrought, heavy-handed ripoff material like Avatar.  I was entranced by the film’s fun visuals and darkly humorous tone.  The screenplay is freaking outstanding and every performance is damn good.  Brad Pitt gives what is probably my favorite performance of his career as Tyler Durden and Edward Norton is bringing his A-Game as an awkward, nerdy doormat who is transformed into a tough-as-nails, takes-no-crap badass over the course of the movie.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 28 - Rushmore (1998)

Director: Wes Anderson
Writers: Wes Anderson, Owen Wilson
Starring: Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray

Wes Anderson makes his first appearance on my list with his 1998 film Rushmore.  This is Anderson’s second feature film and the first one he did to really get promotion, thanks to a more recognizable cast and a higher-profile marketing campaign.  Rushmore is a strange film, as is typical for Anderson, only, it is strange in a proper way.  I will go more into Anderson’s style of filmmaking later but suffice it to say for now, if you have not seen a film by Wes Anderson, then  you have not really seen anything like it.

Rushmore is the story of a super-intelligent teenager named Max Fisher (Schwartzman) who has a great deal of influence at an exclusive private academy called Rushmore.  He is followed by his much younger protege who more or less acts as his secretary as he heads and organizes a bevy of time-consuming clubs.  As a result of his devotion to extra-curricular activities, Max’s grades are suffering and he finds himself at odds with the headmaster, who places him on academic probation.  Meanwhile, a beautiful young teacher named Ms. Cross becomes the target of Max’s affection, a crush that comes between him and his much older friend named Herman Blum (Murray), when she and Blum begin dating.  The plot shifts to focus primarily on Fisher and Blum’s fight over Ms. Cross, which increases in desperation.

If the synopsis seems a little broad, that would be because it is a Wes Anderson film.  Anderson’s stories are usually a series of layered plots that are intermingled with the film never focusing firmly on just one for too long.  There is enough of an underlying focus for the story for there to actually be a movie, but it never becomes the center of the film, it is just there to tie together the various other subplots.  Rushmore is a constant stream of sight gags and an odd awkwardness that may come off as ineptitude, until you actually watch the entire film.  The strange pauses, fourth-wall-breaking montages and tone throughout the film all add up to a strange experience, but a funny one.  Chances are, however, that if you do not like one Wes Anderson movie, you will probably dislike all of them, with the one exception of the more recent Moonrise Kingdom, which was an excellent movie, and a definite evolution for Anderson as a filmmaker.  

Rushmore is a funny, slightly disjointed and unhinged movie about teenage awkwardness and social standing and it challenges norms of filmmaking in just about every scene.  Anderson has made it part of his style to break the established “rules” of direction, and what comes of it is both a funny film, and a unique artistic idea.  All of his movies have a distinct palette as well, which further add to their identity.  Anderson makes a distinct sharp yellow the chromatic focus of every scene, with browns and soft greens becoming compliments.  These earth-tones are then contrasted with foreground elements like Max’s bright red beret.  Another interesting trademark of Anderson is how he makes certain performances stand out in scenes by have them follow slightly more subdued acting from other lead characters.  This makes some more dramatic scenes seem louder than they really are, giving the illusion of a heightened series of events, without ever breaking the sardonic feel of the movie.