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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 29 - Trainspotting (1996)

Trainspotting (1996; Channel Four Films)
Director: Danny Boyle
Writers: John Hodge
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Carlyle

My number 29 is the film that was voted by the UK public as the greatest Scottish film of all time, Trainspotting.  An examination of the lives of a group of twenty-somethings living in poverty in late-80’s Edinburgh and their constant struggle with heroin addiction, Danny Boyle’s award-winning film is a smart and occasionally horrifying melodrama.  This is easily one of my favorite films based on the theme of drugs and drug abuse as it has one of the best tonal shifts of any film I’ve ever seen.

The film primarily centers on Renton (McGregor), who narrates the film and expresses his thoughts on shooting up and coming down, as well as his inner-struggle about getting clean.  The film starts off with a funny series of narrations that run down why he and his friends do the things they do.  Unlike many other characters we see in movies, Renton is represented as loving heroin.  We hear from him the details of the high and the way it is narrated it seems almost as though the film is trying to sell the drug to its audience.  However, about halfway through the film the events take a dark turn and things get more than a little out of control.

Trainspotting is funny, but also very, very dark.  There is violence, tragedy and consequence, however the film never feels preachy.  Danny Boyle shows us some of Renton’s hallucinations that come in escapism, but also come in the form of terrifying torment as his family executes a harsh plan to force Renton to clean up, keeping him in a room as he is left to go cold turkey, a truly painful and awful experience.  As Renton writhes, sweats and screams, we see it and feel it with him thanks to Boyle’s masterful use of camera work and his flawless execution one of the most horrific scenes in film history.  I will not ruin it, though, as Trainspotting is a must-see.

Danny Boyle went on to direct the awesome 28 Days Later and was shortly-thereafter acknowledged by the Academy for his film Slumdog Millionaire.  Trainspotting is a film that looks very good, while also being occasionally unwatchable.  It is graphic, gruesome and disturbing but is never gratuitous.  Every scene has meaning to the plot, as Renton and his friends struggle with moving on from their addictions, but the drugs always seem to win.  It is tragic and smart.  It is neither a pro-drug comedy or an anti-drug propaganda film.  Instead Boyle just shows us these characters’ respective realities, as grim as they may be.

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 30 - The Game (1997)

The Game (1997; Polygram Filmed Entertainment)
Director: David Fincher
Writers: John D. Brancato, Michael Ferris
Starring: Michael Douglas, Sean Penn

The Game is the first film by David Fincher to appear on this list.  The story revolves around a wealthy businessman named Nicholas Van Orton who seems to have lost his way, at least in the eyes of his brother, Conrad.  For Nick’s birthday, Conrad gives him a pass for a company that provides a strange role playing game that is interweaved into the "player's" daily life.  He reluctantly follows through with the gift and what follows is a bizarre, twisting and dark series of events where you never know what is truly real, and what is all part of the game.  Along the way, he meets a woman who becomes an unexpected ally through the course of events.

By the time The Game was released, David Fincher had already established himself as a talented filmmaker with his 1995 film, Seven.  His dark, complex cinematic style has become a trademark and his talent for weaving together complex ideas into solid and cohesive stories is undeniable.  The Game is an extremely deep fantasy, where the real world seems to disappear into the background as the events become more and more bizarre.  The interesting aspect of The Game is how the story is told.  We experience the events almost solely from the perspective of the protagonist, where rarely a single scene goes by where Nick is not present, so the audience experiences the threatening “game” exactly as he does.

The distinct style of Fincher begins to mature in this film.  The dark imagery, the creepy use of things like clowns and more abstract images like formless shadows and even the simplest reflections on stone walls are used to create a dreamlike atmosphere.  The mood of the film is easily its biggest strength.  It is unsettling, and this sense of unease throughout is palpable and effective.  Michael Douglas gives a good performance as a man who transforms through the film, starting off as a cynical and almost bitter man.  As the film goes on, and the game becomes more and more unnerving, we experience this arc with him.  Survivalist instincts take over and we see this in Douglas’ most subtle actions and expressions.  It is a great performance from a seasoned actor and it only adds to the strangeness of the events, as we can read his response and mimic him sympathetically.

The first time sitting through The Game is quite the experience.  It really is not the kind of movie that holds up to countless re-watches, however, because once we see the end, there really is no journey anymore.  Still, a new watcher of this film will likely find themselves puzzled, captivated and excited about the unfolding story.  This is a must-see for fans of complex films and puzzling mysteries.

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 31 - The Lion King (1994)

The Lion King (1994; Walt Disney Studios)
Directors: Roger Allers, Rob Minkoff
Writers: Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts
Starring: Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Matthew Broderick, Jeremy Irons, James Earl Jones

The Lion King is Disney’s telling of Hamlet.  That’s it.  Well… Okay, the story follows Simba, a young lion who is the heir to an undefined “kingdom” in Africa called the Pride Lands.  The story is “adapted” from a number of sources including the works of Shakespeare, the Bible and an anime from the 1960’s from Japanese Animation pioneer Osmau Tezuka titled Kimba the White Lion.  The various sources of the film, with the exception of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, were not properly cited when the film was originally released (as is unfortunately typical with Disney).  This led to some notable controversy surrounding the film.  With all that, is the Lion King still a quality production?  Well, yes.

Despite the stolen premise and the disingenuous way in which it is presented, The Lion King is a strong production that set the standard for animation for years upon its release.  The film follows Simba, a young lion cub who, after witnessing the murder of his father, the king Mufasa, flees and lives his life in exile from his homeland.  There, he befriends two layabouts named Timon and Pumba, who act as the obligatory comic relief of the film but also as a parallel to Simba’s real responsibility to his homeland.  When Simba meets up with his childhood friend and promised future mate Nala, he learns of Scar’s overthrow of the crown, and his oppressive and destructive rule.  It is now Simba’s duty to return to his home and face the usurper of the throne to face his true destiny.

The story is a rather simple one, really.  It is about denial of one’s true self, and about the ideas of reason and responsibility.  Shakespeare, being a playwright for the people, often depicted the ruling class as slovenly or lazy to an extent and this story reflects that trope.  Simba, as an adult, starts off absorbed into Timon and Pumba’s laissez faire lifestyle, forgetting his roots and role in the world entirely.  The arc is his facing of adulthood.  It is a strong character shift and a well done part of the film.  It all culminates in a climax where Simba squares off against the evil Scar in the wasteland that was once his home.

Production-wise, everything about this film is top-notch.  The animation is some of the best of the studio’s history, the music is quite good, despite a few slightly annoying numbers that go on a little too long, and the story is big in scale yet it is told very accessibly for all audiences despite its source material.  The voice acting is also very good, especially Jeremy Irons as Scar.  I do love Irons as an actor and here he is funny and intimidating as Hell as one of the best movie villains ever, right down to one of the best damn musical numbers in the history of film “Be Prepared.”

As far as the rest of the music goes, it features some powerful moments.  Much of the film’s music was composed by one of my favorite artists, Elton John, and his contribution is notable.  It is a much more sophisticated soundtrack for the time.  The Disney Renaissance was littered with “kid-friendly” musical moments and for every “Part of that World” or “Be Our Guest” there was an over-silly and rather schmaltzy number like “You’ll be in My Heart” or this film’s contribution to bad Disney Music, the reason for the creation of the Mute and Fast-Forward Buttons, “Hakuna Matata”.  Still, there is one moment in this movie that hits me to the core every time I see it. The film ends as it begins, hence the film’s theme, “The Circle of Life”.  It plays as Simba’s son is presented to his subjects and the film ends on a triumphant pound of the drum.  It is a fantastic use of exposition-free storytelling and is one of the most powerful moments in cinema.

All-in-all, this was definitely the best animated film of the period, and I am not the only person to say so.  Disney was on a roll with hits leading up to this film and yes, I do like The Little Mermaid, and I am not ashamed to say it.  I think it’s a lovely story told quite well with likable characters and top-notch production value.  Beauty and the Beast was good, but not great, and Pocahontas was a successful little piece of shameless revisionism with a nice coat of paint, so take that for what you will.  However, this period also gave us Hercules, a film I most certainly did not like (except for James Woods as Hades, because Woods is a badass no matter what he does.  He wins forever.)

The Lion King has also been the subject of much accolade since its release.  Its music and score was nominated for and won multiple Oscars, it won best Comedy/Musical at the Golden Globes, it currently ranks at #57 in IMDB’s Top 250 and is a common fixture in books and lists of “Greatest Films of All Time”.  It is a memorable, nostalgic and vibrant work and, despite its flaws, it is a classic movie that I think will become one of the principal staples of the best of modern cinema that will be remembered, preserved and revered for generations to come.

Monday, April 28, 2014

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 32 - The Truman Show (1998)

The Truman Show (1993; Paramount Pictures)
The Truman Show
Director: Peter Weir
Writer: Andrew Niccol
Starring: Jim Carrey, Ed Harris, Laura Linney, Noah Emmerich

Before 1998, I do not think anybody would have thought that Jim Carrey star in a film that would be nominated for multiple Academy Awards.  The Truman Show, however, was Carrey’s chance to prove that not only could he act, but he could act in a great film and still bring his trademark energy and cheer to the role.  This is a film about a man who discovers everything he ever knew was a fabrication, a design by a few people, and a man who sees himself as “the Creator”.  It is an incredibly complex idea built on a far-fetched, but still somewhat believable, premise.

Truman was born on live TV.  He was adopted before birth to become the subject of a television show that would document his entire life in real time.  A massive town was created, with everyone but Truman in on the act.  Myths and lies were made upon which his entire life was built and the show went so far as to have his father “killed off” to make him afraid of water, as the set is built inside one of the largest structures ever created.  Truman’s world is a perfect one, where everyone knows and loves him and his happiness is a comfort for his millions of viewers, even if he does not know he is being watched.  However, as an adult, his adventurousness and restlessness get the better of him and, after a series of events that cause him to become more than a little paranoid, he begins to discover the truth about his whole life.

Jim Carrey gives one of his best performances here as a kindhearted man living a carefree existence.  Carrey’s bright smile and warmth really shine through here as all of his previous films more or less required him to subdue those traits.  Here, however, he is completely and totally convincing as a once-oblivious man faced with a shocking reality.

The Truman Show is a must-see for all movie fans, casual or otherwise.  The film is funny, smart and existential and it has a great screenplay.  Ed Harris gives an awesome supporting performance as Cristof, the director of The Truman Show, a man obsessed with Truman but, whose career depends on the show’s continued run, yet seems to also care at the same time.  I see Christof as the idea of a deity, one being who can control the world of any man.  He is dichotomous, both moral and immoral, selfish and selfless, and his actions are both reprehensible and fathomable.  

How far will one man go to preserve his legacy?  If you have lived your whole life in utter comfort only to find it was a fabrication, would you reject it to embrace freedom?  The Truman Show is a social experiment and a smart idea written and filmed with love and patience.  It is allegorical.  Escaping slavery to embrace the responsibility of freedom.  It is an astounding concept, but this is not a fast comedy romp.  It is a deliberate light drama and a movie that lets us really get to know Truman as a character before his world crumbles around him.  It is definitely a journey that everyone should experience.

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 33 - Falling Down (1993)

Falling Down (1993; Warner Bros. Pictures)
Director: Joel Schumacher
Writer: Ebbe Roe Smith
Starring: Michael Douglas, Robert Duvall, Barbara Hershey

Have you ever had a bad day?  I mean a really, really bad day?  Well, William Foster had a bad day in 1993.  Falling Down is about one man’s travels through Los Angeles in the middle of a heat wave where he faces many of societies ills and decides he will deal with them in his own vigilante style.  That style, however, turns into an increasingly violent rampage as he essentially threatens his ex-wife about coming to “see his daughter on her birthday”.

The film opens with Michael Douglas sitting in his car on the freeway, stuck in a traffic jam in the smoldering Summer heat.  He makes the rash and uncalculated decision to up and abandon his vehicle and this begins his journey.  As he travels the city he crosses street gangs, Nazi sympathizers and cynical fast food workers, and as he moves from place to place, his ultimate destination being a visit to his daughters’ home.  Along the way, he exacts revenge of sorts on those who he deems to be “problems” in society.  He is the living embodiment of that frustrated feeling you get while driving behind a complete idiot on the road multiplied by one hundred.  He is society’s rage and bitterness and violence all rolled into a simple, psychotic package.

Michael Douglas nails it in this movie.  I would go so far as to say, this is my favorite performance of his entire career.  He hits the nail on the head with the mood swings, the sudden swing from rational to utterly mad, and as the day goes on, he becomes more and more dangerous.  My favorite scene in the film is actually one of my personal favorite film scenes period.  It takes place in a fast food restaurant and I really do not want to ruin it so just watch this movie, even if only for that one scene.  Douglas’ acting here is laugh-out-loud funny and more than a little disturbing.

The supporting cast is good here, though most characters are only in the film for a brief time as they are archetypes that Foster is forced to deal with.  The main supporting character is the obligatory “one-day-before-retirement” detective, obviously played as a gag on the cliche.  Detective Pendergast is acted with energy and a contrasting level of self control by the super-talented Robert Duvall, who can give a performance in a local car dealership ad and it would be Oscar material.  

The typical cat-and-mouse plot is actually only secondary, however, as the crux of the film is focused on an array of societal issues like racism, gang violence, and even the simplest acts of selfishness.  Foster is the Id.  He is the first, unfiltered, violent, extreme that one with no moral compass or social filter would become while surrounded by the things he or she despises.  Of course, he is also a caricature of judgement from On High, as he hands out the best punishment he can, even if it is him simply yelling what we are all thinking while wielding a machine gun.  

Falling Down is a brilliant work of social satire told with wit and from a surprisingly non-biased position.  It is a clever idea executed very well.  Now, about the execution: Did you note the director’s name?  Yep.  This is from the man who directed one of the most despised movies of all time: Batman and Robin.  Do not let that fact spoil this, though.  Falling Down is great fun and, despite being a little over-the-top, is actually even a little cathartic as it is a reminder that maybe you are not the only one who is “sick and tired”.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 34 - Jurassic Park (1993)

Jurassic Park (1993; Universal Pictures)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers Michael Crichton, David Koepp
Starring: Richard Attenborough, Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum

Here is an obvious one!  Jurassic Park is Spielberg’s very well-made adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel.  Considered unmakable at the time, this movie was a tremendous undertaking.  The film had a massive budget, loaded with huge sets, large-scale animatronics, scientific advisors and some of the best computer animation the early 90’s could offer.  However, despite its lowered expectations due to skepticism given the scale of the production, the film nearly made its entire $63 million-dollar budget back on its opening weekend in June of 1993 (sources:,

Jurassic Park tells the story of an eccentric billionaire named John Hammond (Attenborough) who opens a theme park populated by genetically-engineered dinosaurs.  A group of scientists and specialists, as well as Hammond’s grandchildren, arrive at the island park for its dry run, only they were not expecting a dangerous tropical storm and a slimy hacker to cause a lot of trouble for the awed visitors.  What transpires is a high-tension monster movie filmed with a lot of love for the material.  The money also shows on screen, with big sets and convincing effects.  One downside of the movie I would say is how Spielberg uses the night setting and the tropical storm to obscure some of the technical limitations, giving the movie a dark, occasionally colorless look.  It is a monster flick, though, but it is important to know that the dark imagery standard set in the 70’s was also to hide effects and makeup, so take from that what you will.

The acting is fair, with Ariana Richards giving a solid performance as the Hammond’s granddaughter, Lex.  However, she has not appeared in much outside of some B-movie material.  Laura Dern, Attenborough, and Jeff Goldblum are all quite good in their lead roles and Wayne Knight and Samuel L. Jackson give entertaining supporting performances in the few scenes they are in, and over all, there are no performances that come off as stilted or annoying, as is often the case with Spielberg's films, especially from the child actors who appear in his movies.  That said, Sam Neil is good with his lines but he really seems to be sleepwalking through the movie and his character Dr. Alan Grant only seems to exist to provide exposition about the dinosaurs.  

All-in-all, Jurassic Park is not a flawless movie, but it is an entertaining one.  It has some good effects work, some pretty tense moments and a few quotable lines.  There was effort here, and sometimes that is all you need to put something fun on screen, and despite all of the effort to make a big effects movie, Spielberg is usually pretty good about keeping the focus on the characters, which he does do here.  You never feel disconnected from the action and there is a sense of dread and fear for the lives of the park’s patrons.  You can not really go wrong with this material either, I mean it is a T-rex chasing a jeep in the rain.  That is so badass.

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 35 - L.A. Confidential (1997)

L.A. Confidential (1997; Warner Bros.)
Director: Curtis Hanson
Writers: Brian Helgeland,  Curtis Hanson
Starring: Guy Pearce, Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey, Danny DeVito, Kim Basinger

Curtis Hanson’s film adaptation of James Ellroy’s novel is an exploration of politics and corruption in the Los Angeles Police Department in the 1950’s.  Focusing on the investigation of a multiple homicide at a diner, the story reveals the investigation of this brutal crime from four perspectives: A sleazy tabloid writer and his LAPD celebrity detective ally, a crooked cop, and a young idealist.  The murders seem to lead in many different directions including a group of teens who abducted an Hispanic girl, a corrupt cop’s illicit dealings and a brothel specializing in celebrity lookalikes.  

Putting a simple label on the plot of L.A. Confidential, I would say it is a study of how corruption leaves death in its wake as it corrupts as many as it can in its path.  It shows us how the few corrupted by power can bleed everyone beneath them for more of that power and how even the most just men can be seduced by the promise of a medal, a photo-op and a prestigious label.  However, the story is much more complex than a simple few sentences can describe.

The interweaving stories are set into motion after a detective named Dick Stensland is identified as a victim in the dining shooting.  Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce) is a young cop who wants to keep the investigation on the up and up, but he is constantly in conflict with the violent and trigger happy Bud White (Russell Crowe), Stensland’s former partner.  White finds himself caught up in a part of the investigation leading to an illicit escort service through a romance with a call girl named Lynn (Kim Basinger).  A media-hungry celebrity cop named Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) uses his considerable connections to pull his weight in uncovering who was truly behind the killings.  Misdirections and dead ends abound in the investigation, as the officers are constantly deceived by everyone, including people in their own department.  Ultimately, the investigation leads to answers that get Exley and White in deeper than they had ever expected.

The film benefits from a considerable supporting cast including Danny DeVito, David Strathairn,  James Cromwell, Matt McCoy and Ron Rifkin and while it does tend to meander about quite a bit, it has a solid screenplay.  The branching plotlines tend to veer a little too much at times and there are way too many characters, many of which ultimately have little-to-nothing to do with the actual plot.  Obviously attempting a film Noir style, L.A. Confidential misses many of the key elements of Noir.  The narration is told to us through the perspective of tabloid writer Sid Hudgens, who is not directly involved with any but one of the major characters, so we are not able to get the traditional Film Noir introspection on first impressions of characters and events.  In fact, of the numerous characters in the film, there are several that could have made a better narrator than Hudgens and there would have still been issues with perspective.  

Needless to say, L.A. Confidential is not a perfect film.  It is an entertaining movie though, full of elements you would expect from a mid-20th century mystery film but with much more sex, drugs and violence thrown in the mix.  It has a rough edge to it that makes it cast a shadow over the idealized 1950’s of classic cinema and the performances of Pearce, Spacey and Crowe make up for any plot detours and slow pacing.  It is a solid procedural piece told with an aggressive style and lot of polish.  

Thursday, April 24, 2014

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 36 - Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)

T2: Judgement Day (1991; Tristar Pictures)
Director: James Cameron
Writers: James Cameron, William Wisher, Jr.
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Edward Furlong, Robert Patrick

I am pretty sure it is safe to call The Terminator one of the best thrillers of the 80’s.  It is a very simple movie in its story and structure, yet it was intensely explosive and entertaining.  In the film Linda Hamilton plays Sarah Connor, a waitress who becomes the target of a time-traveling killing machine called the T-800 sent from the future by a computer-controlled consciousness called Skynet.  She was to bear the child who would lead the resistance against the machines.  Her death would mark the end of the fight for man in the future, so a time travelling human named Kyle Reese was sent back to protect her, but inadvertently falls for her, and well-shot love scene marks a major turning point in the film.  In the end, Sarah successfully destroys the machine that pursued her and shortly after the events of the film, she finds that she was pregnant with Kyle’s child, who she named John, and this brings us to Terminator 2: Judgement Day.

The titular Judgement Day is in reference to a nuclear attack from Skynet that was its first strike in the war against mankind.  The sequel is set a few years before Judgement Day, this time the Terminator is reprogrammed and sent back by the human resistance to protect John Connor.  It is discovered that Skynet is making the first move on the teenage John’s life by sending back a deadly new type of Terminator called the T-1000, a cybernetic liquid metal alloy that can take any solid shape and even replicate the face and voice of humans.  It is Skynet’s deadliest weapon yet, and sending back a requisitioned terminator is the only hope to save John’s life.  

The film focuses on the T-1000’s pursuit of John Connor, and the T-800’s attempts to protect him.  Along the way John orders his protector to help him break his mother out of a mental institution where Sarah Connor was incarcerated after her traumatic encounter with the machine in 80’s had led her to warn of their coming threat and the authorities’ rejection of her warnings resulted in her becoming increasingly violent.  After a successful rescue, he three heroes meet with a weapons dealer, gather a small arsenal, and make an attempt to stop Judgement Day by finding the machines’ architect Miles Dyson and killing him, but ultimately they acquire his aid and attempt to stop the devastating nuclear attack that was only a few years away.

Judgement Day was a mix of ideas from the start.  It was part high-concept science fiction, part action blockbuster and it featured solid performances from everyone.  A big takeaway from this film is Robert Patrick as the T-1000, which is a seemingly-unstoppable juggernaut willing and able to kill anyone and do anything to accomplish its task.  Like the Terminator that tried to kill Sarah before, it is a terror that does not sleep, eat or even slow down.  Yet, the T-1000 is even more deadly as all weapons seem useless and all attempts at eliminating it are futile.  The villain is easily the best thing about this movie, but it still quite excellent as a whole.

I do want to take just a moment and talk about James Cameron as a director.  I will not go on too long here, but I do want to say that he is incredibly talented visual artist, able to weave together great action scenes and has always been ahead of the curve in his ability to harness the latest visual effects technology to its fullest potential.  That said, he has never really come across to me as a particularly capable storyteller.  The Terminator series has a pretty straightforward story as a whole, despite a few attempts to add depth.  Yet, it seems to me that, while Cameron can certainly write an action scene and a solid David vs. Goliath plot, he does not seem particularly good at handling human characters.  One major flaw with Terminator 2 is how Sarah is a normal working woman in the 80’s yet finds herself institutionalized then escapes this facility a trained tactical weapons expert.  There is also the fact that John Connor is a conveniently-skilled hacker, an ability that is necessary for the plot to work, but not fully utilized or expounded upon.  Lastly, there are the plot holes surrounding the Terminator himself.  If he was reprogrammed, how is he being controlled?.  For that matter, how is Skynet controlling him?  If he was assigned orders before he was sent back, then why is he able to deviate from these orders at all?  We see in the unbelievably-flawed Terminator 3 that the machine is more than capable of defying the orders of anyone that sent it back in order to accomplish its ultimate task.  How are the humans able to send anyone back at all?  All of this has been addressed to an extent by outside media like books, comics and (to a certain degree) the later films, but Terminator 2 seems to exist solely for the action.  There is not much of an attempt to expound upon the basic premise, there is only the effort to make everything big and pretty.  This is a problem I would continue to have with Cameron’s films even up until today.  There is simply so much that makes no sense in all of his films, yet these problems are readily dismissed.  I just cannot let him off the hook for his films’ issues, however, because there are just too many of them.

So, why then is Terminator 2 (or T2, as it is known from its early-90's marketing campaign) even on my list at all?  Well, that is a very easy question to answer.  Terminator 2 sits at number 36 because it is a loud, aggressive, fun action flick.  Nothing more, nothing less.  For the same reason Die Hard is held at such high regard, Terminator 2 is a movie I love because it is simply fun to watch.  The performances, while written in a hackneyed sort of way, are still acted well, and the action set pieces and effects scenes are all some of the best of the 90’s.  It is a driving, high-energy film with very little downtime, and that pace keeps me coming back to it every once in a while.

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 37 - Ransom (1996)

Ransom (1996); Touchstone Pictures
Director: Ron Howard
Writers: Richard Price, Alexander Ingon
Starring: Mel Gibson, Gary Sinise, Rene Russo, Delroy Lindo

This one will be a little shorter as Ransom is a rather straightforward movie.  Ron Howard was on a roll for a few years there, directing some really solid films in the 80’s and by the mid-90’s, thanks largely to the success of Apollo 13, Howard had become one of the biggest directors of his day.  He continues to establish himself as a reliable, talented filmmaker capable of bringing great performances out of actors and taking a story from the biggest idea to the simplest one and making it captivating on screen.

Now, how do you follow up a modern historical epic like Apollo 13?  Howard’s very next film was a simpler project called Ransom.  It was no special effects extravaganza nor was it even really all that bombastic, it was a simple story told naturally through solid direction and good performances.  Sometimes, it is easy to get caught up in the idea of a “blockbuster” that we forget that, every once and a while, the simplest stories can be the most powerful.

Ransom is the story of a wealthy father and mother named Tom and Kate Mullen (Gibson and Russo) whose son, Sean, is kidnapped during a city science fair in New York.  What follows shows us two sides of a gripping story.  We focus mainly on the perspective of the parents who mostly remain at their apartment, surrounded by police and negotiators working to bring their child home safely.  On the other hand we get into the minds of the kidnappers as well.  Instead of doing the typical Hollywood shtick of the faceless bad guys, we get very human kidnappers who are all very bad people, but they are still people nonetheless.  The small gang of villains is led by Gary Sinise, who is intense as Hell portraying a violent, corrupt detective named Jimmy Shaker, who is looking to make a payday off of the parents’ fear of their young boy’s death, but is also motivated by a personal vendetta against the Mullens.

What makes this movie work is, as the story goes on, and the police (led by the excellent Delroy Lindo) begin to look more and more incompetent, Tom takes it upon himself to offer his own ransom for the safe return of his son, turning the tables on the negotiations entirely.  The intensity of Gibson and Sinise squaring off indirectly over the safety of Sean is powerful stuff.  These are two actors who can really be both intimidating and forceful on screen, and the conflict between one father’s rage versus the villains’ greed is a major factor in why I like this movie.

Ron Howard does a good job guiding each scene with a rhythm and a nice pace so that the film never feels to stagnant.  Even scenes of the parents waiting for a phone call are filled with tension and each performance reflects that building pressure while never becoming emotionally-manipulative.  We empathize with the parents’ fears because they are fears we can understand.  This is not like Commando where a child is at risk but we are ensured their safety with the promise of a heroic rescue.  Ransom is pretty realistic in how it approaches its story, and there is a constant threat of tragedy throughout the film.

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 38 - Pleasantville (1998)

Pleasantville (1998); New Line Cinema
Driector: Gary Ross
Writer: Gary Ross
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Reese Witherspoon, William H. Macy, Jeff Daniels, Joan Allen

Americana: The mid-20th Century ideal of white, upper-middle class families in the United States.  You have a husband, a wife, two perfect kids, a dog, a picket fence, a promotion always right around the corner and a feast on the table whenever the husband gets home from work.  There was no bigger advertisement for this Perfect LifeTM than television in the 50’s and 60’s.  The reality of the times, however, did not reflect the escapism of the world we were being sold.  Segregation and discrimination of blacks in America was prevalent, women’s rights were a relatively-new concept that was still not fully embraced, and the Cuban Missile Crisis and news reports of looming death by atomic fire had the Eastern Seaboard cowering in their collective basements.  It was a time of unrest and fear cloaked in a veil of idealism and propaganda.  So, what better way to expose and explore these ideals versus the reality than through a stark contrast?

Pleasantville was the directorial debut of Gary Ross, who specializes in social commentary with his films, the most recent being the successful 2012 film, the Hunger Games.  It is an exploration of the darker side of society as told through the perspective of a few characters living in a once-utopian world.  David is a modern-day American teenager with an obsession for pop-culture.  In-particular, he finds himself lost in escapism while watching his favorite 1950’s television series, Pleasantville: An Ozzie and Harriet nightmare of successful white American perfection.  Long awaiting a marathon of the series, David clashes with his sister Jennifer over possession of the TV after she lands an at-home date with a popular guy from school.  Their struggle leads to the inadvertent destruction of the remote, which (by means of contrivance) renders the television unusable.  So, a mysterious TV repairman (played by the Andy Griffith Show’s Don Knotts in a perfect cameo) arrives with a replacement remote, seemingly out of nowhere.  When the two begin fighting over this new remote the same as the last, they find themselves sucked into Pleasantville through their TV.  Yep.  It is one of THOSE!

Only, unlike other fantasy films of its ilk, Pleasantville actually does something clever with its premise.  Shocking, right?!  After arriving, the two find they have taken over the bodies of the two lead teenagers from the show, Bud and Mary Sue (I love her name here).  They aren’t themselves, they are living the lives of the characters in the show.  However, they remain conscious of their own personalities at the same time, aware of their predicament.  So, they are trapped in a reality that is both familiar and foreign at the same time.  David uses his extensive knowledge of the show, its characters and events to survive and aid his sister in making it out of this prison they’ve created after they find that they are trapped there for at least one week.  

Over the course of the film, Mary Sue and Bud’s modern influences and instincts take over, however, and as a result, they being to alter things.  As ideas that were absent from Pleasantville, like art, literature, king-sized beds, sex and even the outside world are introduced to the unaware fictional characters, things begin to change.  Surroundings and eventually people start appearing in color, and this disturbs the town committee.  After Bud and Mary Sue’s mother finds herself in color, while their father remains in black-and-white, a conflict emerges within their own family.  Ultimately, these changes result in the town banning the new introductions and eventually leads to widespread prejudice against the characters that find themselves in color.  Destruction of art, book burnings, and other acts of violence break out, and the once-perfect world of Pleasantville becomes a reflection of modern, post war America.  

Needless to say, I love this movie.  It takes a smart idea and actually makes it work.  The concept of being sucked into a fictional world was not new at this point, it was just never done particularly well.  The only exception being the personal affection I have for a small 90’s comedy called Stay Tuned, in which a married couple find themselves in Hell, only Hell is a series of increasingly-sadistic television shows (Think, UHF as written by Charles Manson).  However, Pleasantville executes this overused premise originally and cleverly, creating an allegorical commentary on society and how we perceive ourselves and others.  It is about racism, acceptance, sex, romance, censorship, and the furthering of one’s self.  It is a surprisingly-intellectual study given its premise and its predecessors, executed nearly flawlessly.  

A lot of credit goes to Pleasantville’s excellent cast.  This film is a Who’s Who of character actors including Joan Allen, William H. Macy, J. T. Walsh and Jeff Daniels.  Tobey Maguire gives the best performance of his career, Reese Witherspoon is energetic and funny and they both play off each other quite well.  There is even a very solid performance from the late Paul Walker, who shows early promise as a charming-yet-derpy jock. The acting as a whole is good, right down to a scene in City Hall where David (as Bud) gives a speech about tolerance which is an obvious throwback to Gregory Peck’s legendary monologue as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.  Everything works here, from the references to sitcom cliches to the social commentary thanks to a smart and funny screenplay and the way the film is directed.

This leads me to the production design and effects.  Holy crap is this movie gorgeous.  Even if one does not get all of the more complex ideas of the film, it is undeniable that this movie is a visual work of art.  The black and white creates a very traditional contrast and as things fill with color, such as a bright red apple hanging from a gray tree, and a pink dress against a colorless backdrop, it makes for a vivid and beautiful series of scenes.  This is a breathtaking movie that can and should be enjoyed by most audiences.  It was a success and most movie fans adore it, but if you have not seen this one, it should be a priority “must see”.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 39 - Groundhog Day (1993)

Groundhog Day (1994; Columbia Pictures)
Director: Harold Ramis
Writers: Danny Rubin, Harold Ramis
Starring: Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell

Comedy is hard to get right and so few writers, directors and actors have been truly successful in the genre because of this challenge.  The 70’s and 80’s were really good to comedy for a couple of reasons.  The rise of popular variety and sketch comedy shows in the 60’s and 70’s, as well as a vibrant and influential independent movie boom that started to take root in the mid-60’s helped to opened the doors to comedy in forms most had not even imagined.  A handful of essential comic writers and directors also came out of this small group of influential individuals, including Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Terry Gilliam and a focus of this article: the late Harold Ramis.

Starting later than his high-ranking peers, Ramis began working on the star-making 1970’s television series Second City TV, alongside fellow comic talents like Rick Moranis, John Candy, Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy, just to name a few.  These connections, and their associations with performers on the even-more-successful Saturday Night Live (which debuted in 1975), allowed for a period in the 70’s and 80’s of some of the greatest comedies of all time, during which numerous close bonds were formed between actors, producers, writers and directors, many of which remain in-tact to this day.  This melting pot of talents worked with each other consistently over the years in films such as Trading Places, The Great Outdoors, Vacation and Ghostbusters.  Still, those films just scratch the surface of the groundwork that was laid during this ten year comedy boom.

However, by the end of the 80’s, in spite of their influence and success at the start of the decade, comedies had taken more of a sideline to successful thrillers and big-budget action movies, as the high-powered producers struggled with the rising indie talents for control over the box office.  Ultimately, thanks to big-box sequels like Aliens and Lethal Weapon 2, and franchise hitmakers like Batman and Robocop, the little guys that made such an impact just a decade before were starting to dwindle in their ability to stand up against the studio titans.  One common step taken by a number of 80's stars was to embrace the new reality, and start making films that were marketable thanks to star-power, a few of these movies worked, but most of them did not.  

At the same time all of these late-80’s blockbusters were taking over the toy aisles and home video market, a new, younger generation of filmmakers were rising in the ranks in the underground.  They were inspired by that previous generation of independent filmmakers that had seemed forgotten by the masses.  This led to an impasse.  On one side were the “sellouts”, who many fans believed were just conforming, and on the other were rising filmmakers like Spike Lee, who were fighting the conformist filmmaking style and crafting a voice of their own.  This parallel ebbs and flows throughout all mediums in popular culture from time to time.  David versus Goliath, the little guy versus the Man, ect.  Still, by the time this war had started around 1990, a few of the guys who were once embraced as the young, fresh talents had already given into the Hollywood lifestyle and its accompanying ideals of fame-first and the selling of market-ready, prepackaged crap.

Groundhog Day seems to be a rejection of those ideals, but I believe any subjective or objective analysis of the film could produce arguments in either direction.  Is Groundhog Day a cliche-ridden, one-joke Hollywood comedy?  Or, is it an indictment of the cynical style of screenwriting and film production that has led so many careers into the proverbial gutter?  It is certainly an interesting film conceptually, either way.  It is made even more interesting as it was written and directed by Ramis and starred Bill Murray, a close friend of his and frequent collaborator.  These two were both accused by some for becoming “sellouts” by the end of the 80’s, so there is definitely a jab or two at those accusations of their supposed rejection of artistic values in favor of fame in the film.

A bored, tired and arrogant big-city weather man named Phil arrives in Punxsutawney, PA on February, 1, the eve of the day the titular groundhog, named  Punxsutawney Phil, will predict whether Spring has come or if there will be six more weeks of Winter.  Ready to be done with this gig he sees as demeaning, Phil takes his crew, including producer Rita (played by 80’s superstar Andie MacDowell) and cameraman Larry (Chris Eliot) and prepares for the trip home.  Only, things do not work out as planned.  Unable to leave due to a blizzard (which Phil had incorrectly predicted will miss the area), the weather team set up in a hotel for a night to wait out the winter storm.  Only…

The movie really starts here, as the film has Phil living the same day over and over again.  The same events happen time and time again and the only thing that changes are our lead’s reactions to each situation.  During the film, Phil is forced to rethink his treatment of others as the long-term effects of several, seemingly innocuous, actions and statements are seen to end in a surprisingly tragic or simply unhappy way.  The film takes a darker turn as it progresses and each repeated scene becomes a way for us to see any possible outcome.  

There is a lot to Groundhog Day from a story standpoint.  Who knows? I may be reading too deep into what is essentially a film that has Bill Murray be himself while everyone else acts out the same scene ad nauseum, but I have always liked this movie for being a comedy that intentionally does what so many films do, repeat the same ideas and fade into the background.  I see Phil’s shifting reactions to these moments as a reflection of many film fans to the ever-present and constantly growing blob of Hollywood’s contempt for its very audience.

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 40 - Audition (1999)

Audition: 1999; Basara Pictures
Director: Takashi Miike
Writer: Daisuke Tengan
Starring: Ryo Ishibashi, Eihi Shiina

Kicking off this list of my 40 favorite movies from the 90's is one of the hardest sits of my life.  I watched Audition shortly after its release and was disturbed, disgusted, shocked and yet I loved every minute of it.  I will not hold back in saying that Audition is easily one of the most disturbing films ever made as director Takashi Miike is a master of sensory filmmaking and with films like Gozu and the Happiness of the Katakuris he blends different visual and tonal ideas, all having a certain visceral feel to them.  Audition is built upon a very simple, yet structural, use of tension and as it grows and grows the events in the movie become even more disturbing, revealing one of the most hard-to-watch final acts of any film I have ever seen.  

The plot follows a widower named Shigeru (Ishibashi) who is convinced by his brother to hold a fake audition for musicians, with the true intention being to find a new wife for the lonely man.  The one perfect girl, Asami (Shiina), seems so beautiful and so sweet to Shigeru and we get the same impressions of her from the start.  However, this expectation is promptly crushed as the film progresses and, at the start of the 2nd act, we finally get a glimpse into just how disturbed she really is.  The conclusion of this film is a prolonged, slow and quiet torture scene, where we can hear and even feel the acupuncture needles going behind the eyes and the piano-wire sawing Shigeru's feet off.  It is all done in graphic detail and with a shocking level of intimacy, especially in the sound production, which is some of the best in the horror genre.  Every sinew, every severed vein, ever prick and prod is heard over a deafening silence, otherwise only broken by a heavily-drugged and nearly-paralyzed Shigeru’s stifled cries of pain and Asami’s gleeful yet eerily-soft singing.

Now, despite its disturbing premise and final scenes, Audition is a beautiful film.  It is all very soft and delicate, with lots of close shots and lingering scenes that do not feel dragged out, instead they all add to the boiling pot.  There are a few scenes in particular that are framed just beautifully.  Long shots down a dark hallway lit in the foreground by a soft blue fluorescent light, and beautifully-framed scenes of silhouette and interior scenery that are surprisingly not boring.  Miike is very good at visual tone, and he uses the cold, sterile fluorescent lights of Shigeru's life to contrast with the warmer golden of Asami’s.  It is meant, I believe, to be a siren’s song for the audience, as though she can bring warmth and color to his world again.  We know in the end, however that this will not happen.

My 200 Favorite Video Game Themes- Part 20: Fin.

Magic City
from Sim City 3000
Composer: Jerry Martin
Maxis; 1999

So, I open the final chapter in this series with an entry that is probably not on anyone else’s top 10 favorite VGM.  This personal choice comes from hundreds of hours over many years playing Sim City 3000.  I adore this song.  The pace, the tone, the piano, the way it builds and the melodies that overlap and play off each other are all just astounding to me.  There are a lot of great themes from the Sim City franchise but Magic City is the one that fits my taste and idea of an “amazing song” better than any of this storied series’ other tunes.

Aquatic Ambiance
from Donkey Kong Country
Composer: David Wise, Evellyn Fisher Novacovic, Robin Beanland
Rare; 1994

Aquatic Ambiance really stands out for me as a 16-bit era song that not only uses the system’s audio capabilities better than any other song on the Super Nintendo (though it is not my favorite SNES theme), but also as another composition by David Wise that crushes the standards of game music.  It is an achievement in terms of stunning sound design and for pushing the limitations of 16-bit, midi-format music.  Aquatic Ambiance has a slow build, not getting to the song proper until the time when most game themes would have already begun looping.  All of the little details of this song, from the ambient synth filling the background to the beautiful piano melody that plays throughout come together to form a tune that does not simply live up to its pedigree, but it sets the standard for the sound of the entire series.

from Mega Man II
Composer:Takashi Tateishi
Capcom; 1988

The Intro theme from Mega Man II is one of the most well-known and revered themes among gamers.  It reflects all of the sounds and musical ideas that are expressed throughout the entirety of the game in one short, memorable tune.  The song has been covered time and time again, and has even had lyrics written for it in numerous fan videos.  It plays over the introduction to Mega Man II, the game I believe bears the best soundtrack of any single game in the history of the medium so far.  It is vibrant, bright, fun and catchy, and like just about every song in the game, it is timeless.

Duff McWhalen
from Mega Man X-5
Composer: Naoto Tanaka
Capcom; 2000

Duff McWhalen’s theme is another song that likely does not show up on a lot of top tens, so let me see if I can express why I have this song featured so high on my list.  The piano melody is complex in the right way, the time signature and respective beat is catchy and lively, and the song’s tonal shifts are just perfect.  Duff McWhalen’s theme from the PSX game Mega Man X-5 is actually a cover of Bubble Crab’s stage from Mega Man X-2, and while melodically that version is just as good, as it is the exactly same, I love this version for its use of a set of synth sounds that just fit perfectly.  It is moody and simply brilliant.  

Chill Penguin
from Mega Man X
Composer: Setsuo Yamamoto
Capcom; 1993

Another fan-favorite, Chill Penguin ranks as my second favorite Mega Man theme of all time.  It’s high-energy sound, insane use of a brain-melting synth/bass combination and classic melody make it stand out as the perfect tune for its stage.  It is has a fast lead riff that keeps the energy of the song high while still having a relatively slow tempo, and while those may sound like conflicting ideas, listening to the theme should help that make sense.  The tune has a slightly slower pace than most other songs on the soundtrack, but that does not detract from its intensity, accentuated by that phenomenal synth riff.  It also has a sound that perfectly reflects its stage, another major contributor to its placement in my top ten.  

Dancing Mad
from Final Fantasy VI
Composer: Nobuo Uematsu
Squaresoft; 1994

Considered by most to be the ultimate boss theme, Dancing Mad is the official Kefka battle theme from Final Fantasy VI.  It plays as the player engages one of the most powerful video game bosses of all time and is the iconic example of the “perfect” battle theme, feeling grand and threatening.  Many fans of the Final Fantasy series extol Kefka as the greatest villain in the series, and considering he quite literally becomes God by the end of the game (right down to the Michelangelo imagery and Shekina behind his head), I can understand why.  The theme to battling a deity had better be amazing, and Dancing Mad nails it.

Moon Theme
from Duck Tales
Composer: Hiroshige Tonomura
Capcom; 1989

To more casual game music fans or younger gamers, the inclusion of this 1989 licensed title from Capcom may seem a little odd.  However, while the original Duck Tales game was actually quite good, it is the soundtrack that kept its legacy alive.  It is full of great tracks and the quality of the soundtrack lies squarely on the shoulders of composer Hiroshige Tonomura, who only composed six titles under the Capcom label before leaving the company to work for Taito, whom he then left in the mid-90’s to pursue other projects.  Of his entire career, however, Tonomura has left one song behind that is among a few themes that really set the standard for what game music can and should be.  The Moon Theme is a beloved tune because of its cheery mood, tonal complexity and sheer breadth.  It is energetic, too, but it has a warmth to it that many game themes really lack.  It is a fun and endearing song that is always in the back of my mind when the subject of game music comes up.

Wily - Stage 1
from Mega Man II
Composer: Takashi Tateishi
Capcom; 1988

Of all the themes in the outstanding Mega Man II soundtrack, the theme from Wily’s Castle 1 is by far my favorite.  It is hard to really put a finger on why, but I believe it falls mostly on the energy.  The minor key, the pace and the tone all give the feel of a song written to drive the player forward.  It is a perfect accompaniment to its stage, complimenting the flow well, despite the level’s more lazy vertical segments.  Still, there is an urgency to it, and it just feels right.  Also, it really just seems to stand out on the soundtrack.  It does not clash, mind you, rather it is like an evolution of the sounds heard up to that point.  It is actually a quite brilliant when you think about it.

Bowser in the Dark World
from Super Mario 64
Composer: Koji Kondo
Nintendo; 1996

The Mario series of games has been hit or miss for me in terms of music.  Occasionally, I will hear a song that expresses the franchise’s trademark whimsy and self-aware sensibilities well and it will stick with me, but more often than not, it just comes off as forced.  However, Super Mario 64’s soundtrack is quite an achievement.  It has a mix of a lot of different musical ideas and all of them work astonishingly well.  The one song on the soundtrack that ranks above the others as my favorite is the Dark World theme.  The three courses in in the Castle where Bowser has hidden the keys to the varying floors have a song that is, for a lack of a better word, awesome.  The percussion, the build, and that moody melody during the song’s main section are all just intensely-classic.  I played this game a lot in my teens when it came out and it remains one of my favorite games of all time to this day, and this song is, believe it or not, part of the reason.  When I enter these worlds and that song kicks in, it just hits me with an overwhelming sense of nostalgia.

Hyrule Field
from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Composer: Koji Kondo
Nintendo; 1998

Alas, the finale.  My number one pick.  Cliched?  Okay.  Obvious?  Maybe?  However, why is this one song held in such high regard by so many gamers?  Well, it is a masterful composition and an amazing achievement in sound design in games, but I do not think this is solely the reason.  I believe it is a combination of things.  Forget the argument that Ocarina of Time is among a handful of contenders for what could objectively be called the “Greatest Video Game of All Time”, and consider this one aspect of the game: When you enter Hyrule Field, this song plays for the first time contrasting a sorrowful and silent goodbye to a childhood home for Link.  The flutes break the day and the camera pans showing us what is really the first vast, open landscape any gamer had ever really gotten a chance to explore.  Sure it is not quite as big as it may seem, thanks to some clever design tricks that allow for the illusion of scale while remaining within the bounds of the console’s limitations, but the promise of exploring this world the first time we see the field and hear this song is a striking memory, at least for me.  The song is a orchestration of the classic Legend of Zelda theme music but unlike a vast majority of game music up to the time this game was released, this tune does not really loop.  It opens with the break of day and then, just as the song would begin its loop, fades out as night falls leaving behind an unsettling silence, broken only occasionally by the howling of a wolf or the chirps and shakes of midnight ambiance.  The song goes through several segments, all flowing to a triumphant climax as dusk approaches.  Koji Kondo’s theme for Hyrule Field is not only a good theme in terms of composition, but is equally stunning in terms of how it is used in the game.  It is a flawless implementation of an already breathtaking song, and that is why it is my number one.  

It took me a while to get through this list, but now that it is over, I have another list to start working on, here.  Keep watch because very, very soon I will be sharing my favorite movies of the 90’s.

Thank you for reading.