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Friday, February 27, 2015

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 6: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

The Silence of the Lambs (1991; Orion Pictures)
Director: Jonathan Demme
Writer: Ted Nally adapted from the novel by Thomas Harris
Starring: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Ted Levine

I gave a nod to one of Demme’s other great 90’s classics Philadelphia previously on this list.  While Philadelphia was an excellent film with a career-changing performance for its star Tom Hanks, it did lack one thing, a really good villain.  For that matter....  Why don’t we just have two?!

The Silence of the Lambs is the story of a young FBI academy member named Clarice Starling who finds herself entangled in an investigation into the disappearance of a girl.  Believed to be the work of a serial killer who calls himself “Buffalo Bill”, the very desperate federal agency forces the nervous yet bright young Starling to interview yet another, far worse, killer: the cannibalistic psychopath Hannibal Lecter.  The hope of which being she would be able to appeal to him for a profile to aid in the apprehension of Bill, and the rescue of the missing girl.  

In hindsight it’s easy to miss, but The Silence of the Lambs was a very important demarcation point in procedural filmmaking.  Most commonly, the perspectives in these sorts of movies were fixed.  We would see events from one character, or at least from one side of an investigation.  This is in the vein of the classics of Agatha Christie, who crafted her tales in such a way to keep the reader guessing and involved in the mystery.  The Silence of the Lambs takes things in a different direction.  Instead of being trapped on one side of the struggle, or even being a fly on the wall, the story is told from a rather omnipotent perspective.  We see Clarice being called in to work on the case, we see the creepy and famous scene of her walking to the end of the "dungeon" to find an unsettling image of Lecter waiting stiffly for her arrival, but then we see a girl trapped in a well, we see an insane man dressing in drag and dancing almost comically in front of a mirror, and we even get some perspective from Bill’s dog!  The goal here is to craft a story from all of the facts simultaneously, dropping them all in at once, and all the audience can do is hope and wait.  It answers the question of whether or not you would WANT to know what happened, even if everything did not turn out alright.  

This is a film built entirely on the performance of Hopkins as Lecter.  Aside from the standard serial killer plot that wraps the film, this character is the image and identity of this movie.  Even those who have never seen Silence of the Lambs, any of the other Hannibal Lecter movies (not recommended) or the recent TV show, likely knew who Lecter was by reputation.  He has become the standard by which movie villain performances are measured, and for good reason.  Hopkins’ Oscar-winning performance sold this movie.  The plot is actually quite ludacris, Buffalo Bill is insane in a rather comical way and much of the cinematography is flat, except for a few notable scenes.  No.  This is about Lecter.  Hopkins’ performance is so good in this movie, that not only is he the lynchpin here, but his portrayal of the mad doctor makes it nearly impossible to really enjoy any other cracks at the character from other performers, and for me this includes Mads Mikkelsen, who is good, but nowhere near this good. 

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 7: Casino (1995)

Casino (1995; Universal Pictures)
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: Nicholas Pileggi
Starring: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Sharon Stone

For anyone noticing a distressing lack of Scorsese on my list, here you go.  As the modern master of these long character epics, Scorsese has built his career on telling the tales of the underbelly of urban America.  Casino, his stab at Vegas greed and mob influence, is by far one of his best films.  I say this for a number of reasons, but most of all it comes down to how he reveals these characters to us.

Casino’s plot is somewhat hard to narrow down as it covers the lives of these characters over a time span measured in years.  It centers on powerful Casino boss ‘Ace’ Rothstein (De Niro), who, along with his partner Nicky Santoro (Pesci) manage a successful Vegas enterprise while dealing with conflict and facing down scammers and hand-shaking high rollers.  As the story goes on, Rothstein’s own past and ways, as well has his greed, slowly begins to catch up with him.

Casino isn’t as quotable as Taxi Driver or Goodfellas, but what it lacks in those films’ sharpness, it makes up for with a complex and layered plot that never seems to go too far off the rails, hanging on just enough to remain entertaining without becoming convoluted.  The film goes into technical and business aspects of a Vegas casino as well, some of which are creepy and some are just plain amazing.  Scorsese's’ direction is spot-on, too.  

Directorially, scenes flow together in a near-seamless fashion despite being often separated by months or years.  The narrative sort of moves in rhythm to the flow of the scenes, overlapping then resolving in a somewhat unconventional way.  Over time we see the disintegration of these characters, proving once-and-for-all that gambling is a dirty business, so who better to show us its dark side than the man who does it best?

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 8 - Jackie Brown (1997)

Jackie Brown (1997; Miramax)
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Writer: Quentin Tarantino based on the novel by Elmore Leonard
Starring: Pam Grier, Robert Forster, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert De Niro,

Tarantino is a master at crafting complex stories with a large cast of characters and interweaving stories and in 1997, he would direct one of his best films.  Jackie Brown is both a throwback to 70’s Blaxploitation and the complex filmmaking styles of classic directors like Akira Kurosawa and Fritz Lang.

The interweaving plot follows a flight attendant named Jackie Brown who is drawn into a smuggling scam by a local weapons dealer and is then turned by a cop who becomes oddly enamoured with her.  Throughout the film, Jackie is constantly playing both sides (ala Yojimbo).  On one end, you have a tired, veteran cop who is sick of always doing the right thing.  Then, on the opposite side you have a disturbed arms dealer (Jackson) who is working out a sale to a sleazy thug (De Niro), whom Jackie is running money for by smuggling it through her flights.  Ultimately, the film focuses on a plan executed masterfully by the titular heroine to break out of the cycle in which she has found herself trapped.

Our lead character’s plan is reminiscent of Yojimbo, and the final act of Jackie Brown is a call back to another Kurosawa classic: Rashomon.  The scene is played out multiple times, once for each character’s perspective, until we have seen the big scam unfold from all angles.  Somehow, Tarantino reveals this over and over yet each time we see it we learn something new about what is happening.  This film is worth seeing just for the third act, which is a captivatingly-complex series of events.

Jackie Brown is a darkly comical and deeply intricate story filled with references to exploitation and b-cinema.  The film’s very title is a throwback to the 1974 film Foxy Brown, which also starred a lovely Pam Grier.  The mood, atmosphere and sudden moments of shocking violence seemingly out of the blue are distinctly “Tarantino” and this movie has one trait that is astonishingly rare: There is almost no exposition… at all.  Outside of the occasional reference to an association or what someone does, nothing is spelled out for the audience.  Rather, we see a very self-contained story play out as a visual narrative.  It is a great accomplishment in storytelling through film.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 9 - Quiz Show (1994)

Quiz Show (1994; Hollywood Pictures)
Director: Robert Redford
Writer: Paul Attanasio based the book by Richard N. Goodwin
Starring: John Turturro, Ralph Fiennes, Rob Morrow, David Paymer, Hank Azaria

In November of 1959, wealthy heir and university professor Charles Van Doren approached a House Committee in Congress and confessed to his complicity in a series of deceptive acts involving the super-hit NBC trivia game show “Twenty-One”.  It was a long-brewing and highly televised controversy that brought to light the deception of Hollywood and the way the entertainment industry is more than willing to deceive millions for ratings, a fact we simply take for granted these days.  The controversy began when a former superstar contestant, Herb Stempel, confessed to investigators at the House Committee on Legislative Oversight that he was asked by the popular show’s producers to lose to Van Doren.  In retaliation, he began to pursue aggressive legal action and took steps to expose the deception, not necessarily out of the desire to bring the show’s practices to light, rather it was to do harm to those he felt wronged him, Van Doren in-particular.  Envy and bitterness consumed him.

All of this actually happened, and has gone down as one of the most infamous controversies in Hollywood history, and it was all chronicled masterfully in Richard N. Goodwin’s captivating examination.  In spite of the book’s success at the time, by 1994, most of America had forgotten about the events surrounding Twenty-One, with nearly forty years of powerful events separating and drowning out this seemingly-”trivial” (pardon the pun) federal case.  Leave it to The Sundance Kid and an unknown screenwriter to bring the events to life for a whole new generation in the most fascinating form imaginable.  

Quiz Show is a masterwork of procedural storytelling.  As the events play out, it all feels too real.  The performances are outstanding, bringing these long-forgotten individuals back to life.  John Turturro, still in his prime, and Ralph Fiennes masterfully recreate the show’s embattled contestants, B-list actor Rob Morrow’s performance as a House Investigator ties the story together, and Paymer and Azaria’s sleezy producers are detestable to the extent that you can’t look away.  There is not a boring moment in this movie.  In spite of a seemingly-dull premise, Quiz Show is a gripping portal into the lives and mentalities of a few TV semi-celebrities whose legacies would be forever tainted by their decisions to embrace greed and fame over their own intellectual integrity.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 10 - Clerks (1994)

Clerks (1994; Miramax)
Director: Kevin Smith
Writer: Kevin Smith
Starring: Brian O’Halloran, Jeff Anderson, Marilyn Ghigliotti, Jason Mewes, Kevin Smith

In the early months of 1994, a young independent filmmaker named Kevin Smith would release Clerks, a massively influential black and white Generation-X film centering on the employees of neighboring convenience and video stores.  The worn-down and entirely passive Dante struggles with his boss, his personal life, his distrust of just about everyone and a slew of bizarre and unstable customers.  Jay, on the other hand, is cynical, bitter and entirely disinterested in just about everything, especially his customers.

Clerks is a portrait of the early 90’s.  It captures the cynicism, the uncertainty and the narcissism of the young working class while reflecting a period in time where the music was great, the attitudes were bad and the film industry essentially abandoned the idea of a good comedy.  Keep in mind that, just months after the release of this excellent low-budget movie, Hollywood would release a $40-million disaster called North.  This film is one of my all-time most hated movies and it tanked; I mean, it bombed bad.  Clerks, with around a $350k budget, grossed just over $3 million (while never getting a wide release; only being shown on just over 50 screens) but not only was it better, but most people forgot about North before its home video release (everyone except me it seems) while Clerks spawned a massive cult following, an excellent animated series and a list of other films from the writing talent of Kevin Smith including the excellent Chasing Amy and the lesser (but still hilarious) Mallrats.  

Pinning down an overall plot for Clerks is hard.  The film is told in vignettes separated by title cards with simple titles reflecting the tone or theme of the preceding scene.  While the overarching but simple story of the day in the life of an employee forced to work on his day off plays out, there are a lot of subplots and character moments that range from the slightly eccentric to the absurdly mad.  Outside the Quick Stop are two more working men, dealers Jay and Silent Bob, creations of Smith who would become omnipresent supporting characters in almost all of his films.  Bob stands coolly while Jay dances hits on female pedestrians, and acts boorish to the point of being rather likable.  

There is not one scene in Clerks that isn’t funny.  What’s better is Clerks is not tied down by many of the tropes that so often handicap the comedy genre…  Smith was saving a lot of those for Clerks II.

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 11 - The Sixth Sense (1999)

The Sixth Sense (1999; Hollywood Pictures)
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Writer: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, Toni Collette

I just do not get Shyamalan.  He had a great start.  Wide Awake was corny and sort of Hallmark-Channel-Original-ly, but it had a childlike outlook on ideas of religion, skepticism and mortality that was simultaneously tragic and charming.  After Wide Awake (which wasn’t his first film project, but still…), he created what rates high on most film fans’ list of the greatest films of the 90’s.  The Sixth Sense was an astounding accomplishment in filmmaking.  Forgetting the “trademark” Shyamalan Twist for a moment it was just a great film all around.  Osment left a huge impression on the audience here, with a performance so good that the audience’s fear reflected his own.  To add to that he was entirely sympathetic.  For many years, the tale of the child with supernatural connections has been handled with the kid either being enigmatic or creepy, or was simply sage like and wiser than just about any other character.  In a few cases, they were also “okay” with the presence of the supernatural, never understanding what the big deal is.  Cole (Osment) is terrified of just about everything, and it shows.  It permeates every scene.  He is always pensive entering a room, always looks down to avoid seeing anything scary, and almost never makes eye contact.  It’s subtle characterization you rarely see in modern movies.

The very simple story revolves around a child psychologist named Malcom Crowe (Willis) troubled by a case that went horribly wrong who meets his new patient Cole Sear.  Everything seems to be falling apart in Crowe’s life.  His wife is distant and nobody seems to care that he’s there, nobody except Cole, that is, who suffers from the baleful ability to see ghosts.  There is a strange connection between the two characters that is sudden and, at first, inexplicable.  As the story moves along, Cole is helped by Crowe to overcome his fear and begins to find meaning in what he once considered his curse.

There aren’t many movies like The Sixth Sense, at least not anything of quality released after 1980.  It is a straightforward story with few characters told well through great performances.  It has no villain, no pointless subplots, no focus on any characters except the two leads and their interactions with those around them and no freaking comic relief.  We have a story that reveals itself quickly but steadily, with almost no exposition, with all emotions conveyed through the actor’s faces.  There are actually scenes with little to no dialogue at all, where we just experience the world as Cole does.  It’s truly astonishing how well this tale is told.

So what happened?  Shyamalan has shown a steady decline in quality over the last decade and a half.  The subtlety and sincerity of The Sixth Sense is all but gone, with actors forcing emotion, over-or-underacting or being just plain silly.  It’s the curse of the great filmmaker, really.  If you release your Magnum Opus too soon, you will never be able to make another “good movie” again because all of the other films you release will be compared to the one that made your career.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

My 40 Faovirte Films of the 90's - 12 - The Usual Suspects (1995)

The Usual Suspects; 1995,
Polygram Filmed Entertainment
Director: Bryan Singer
Writer: Christopher McQuarrie
Starring: Gabriel Byrne, Benicio Del Toro, Kevin Pollak, Stephen Baldwin, Chazz Palminteri, Kevin Spacey

I’m not usually a huge fan of ensemble films.  They are often pretty bad.  To me they always harken back to the likes of North or the Ocean’s Eleven sequels (the first one wasn’t really all that bad).  The movies are selling themselves on their cast alone, with little effort in the actual script or direction.  There are always exceptions to this rule, however as we will see in a few entries.  That brings us to the Usual Suspects.  For audiences today, this is a major cast, but in the mid-90’s… Well, many of these guys were known but were not huge stars.  The biggest gets in this movie by far were Gabriel Byrne and Chazz Palminteri, who were already well-regarded and praised actors at the time and they sort of held the unofficial position of being the main draw for audiences.  This was also only the second feature directed by soon-to-be X-Men director, Bryan Singer.

The Usual Suspects just may be the best heist movie of all time.  If it isn’t THE best, it’s up there.  This movie has a great cast of characters you believe were career criminals.  They knew the drill and it showed.  They were cynical, untrusting and just aggressive as Hell to everyone, especially each other.  They were brought together to pull a major job as commissioned by the enigmatic Kaiser Sousse, a shadowy figure that is often the subject of thieves’ lore.  The entire movie is told in flashback as a mentally challenged man named Verbal (Spacey) conveys the tale of a heist gone really, really bad to the impatient Det. Kujan (Palminteri).  He tells the story of the characters, who they were, how they were brought together by the mysterious Sousse and how the job became a total disaster.  

This is a damn-smart movie.  The film scored an Oscar for McQuarrie’s clever, fast and naturalistic screenplay and he deserved it.  He was a regular collaborator with Bryan Singer in the 90’s but sort of fell off the earth for nearly a decade.  He’s made a comeback in recent years, though.  He wrote/co-wrote a few would-be Hollywood epics like the box-office bomb Valkyrie and another Tom Cruise-headed flop The Edge of Tomorrow.  This is sad because, judging by The Usual Suspects, he is a damn-good writer.  The foul-mouthed, quippy and aggressive screenplay to Suspects really highlights the ideas of the 90’s, which were influenced heavily by Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino, and drew from the grim attitude and gritty action of police films of the 70’s and 80’s like The French Connection and Prince of the City.  These influences in the 90’s led to a pretty solid series of b-grade actioners and high-quality independent films like this one.  If you like action, heists and a brilliant script, you will like The Usual Suspects.

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 13 - Being John Malkovich (1999)

Being John Malkovich; 1999, Gramercy Pictures
Director: Spike Jonze
Writers: Charlie Kaufman
Starring: John Malkovich, John Cusack, Cameron Diaz

I adore the occasional quirky, energetic and strangely eccentric film, and therefore I love Being John Malkovich.  It is directed by one of my favorite directors of the last twenty years, written by one of my favorite screenwriters of the last twenty years and co-stars John Malkovich, one of my favorite actors, period.  It’s a perfect collection of amazing performances, a strange and funny premise and a directorial style that fits perfectly.

The premise follows a lowly puppeteer named Craig (Cusack) who stumbles upon a hidden door in a strange office building that leads into the mind of another person.  He can see through their eyes and can even obtain a certain influence.  After a short time he discovers he is occupying the mind of none other than actor John Malkovich (as himself).  He introduces his wife to the experiment and they both become obsessed and rather rejuvenated by the power.

This movie is NOT for everybody.  It is very offbeat, written with that trademark “Kaufman” style and features the soft-spoken charm that is often associated with Jonze’s direction.  Many film fans like myself have been following Jonze very closely for years, and while many have HEARD of his movies, I don’t think he has really began capturing a mainstream audience until his recent film, the awesome Her, which he also wrote.  However, if you like strange, funny and somewhat twisted movies, this is an awesome find if you haven’t seen it.  

If I had to pick a favorite scene, those who saw it would remember the moment when Malkovich finds out that people are actually entering his mind (I will not disclose the explanation for this) and decides to take action.  The results are both hilarious and somewhat terrifying, especially if you put yourself in Malkovich’s shoes.  Check this one out as it really is a brilliantly-clever, albeit bizarre film creation.

2015 Update

I've had a hard time staying consistent with my articles, but here's hoping for a more productive 2015.  I'm going to finally finish my favorite films of the 90's list, then I will be doing articles on more varied topics and will also be covering a lot more ground in terms of reviews and retrospectives.  I should have the next entry in my 90's movie list up here by tonight, and may go ahead and release another shortly thereafter.  I am hoping to keep these last few entries short to make up for lost time. 

Again: Sorry about the dealys.