Category Archives: 1990s

American Pie (1999)

*. The legendary screenwriter William Goldman once formulated a rule of Hollywood that has become a kind of holy writ: NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING. What he meant is that there was no way to predict what was going to be a hit. “Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.”
*. It’s had not to be reminded of that bit of hack wisdom when reflecting on the mega-success of American Pie, which did $235 million box office (out of a negligible $11 million budget), and spawned three direct sequels. For what? A generic teen sex comedy (the script’s working title was Untitled Teenage Sex Comedy) about a bunch of high school boys looking to lose their virginity before they graduate.
*. I guess the best that might be said of such fare is that every generation needs its Porky’s. Young people have to go to movies and watch something other than superhero movies. Don’t they?
*. Comedy doesn’t age well. Even the most hilarious raunchy-stupid flicks from this period — Dumb and Dumber (1994), There’s Something About Mary (1998) — aren’t very funny today. Some of the humour here no longer plays as fresh. It’s hard to remember a time when MILF wasn’t a widely known acronym, with its use here being a joke that has to be explained. Or the idea of laughing at a guy tricking his girlfriend into having sex while livestreaming it over the Internet. No, that’s not so funny now.
*. A side note. Here is Roger Ebert on that scene: “When the lucky hero gets the foreign exchange student into his bedroom and she turns out to be ready for a romp, it is funny that he has forgotten and left his CU-See Me software running, so that the entire Internet community can watch him be embarrassed. It would not be funny if he left it on deliberately.” Well Roger, he did leave it on deliberately. That was the whole point. I’m not sure how Ebert missed that part.
*. But the thing is, I’m not sure any of this movie was all that funny to begin with. It’s hard to identify the laugh lines in the 2010s. Fucking an apple pie on the kitchen counter? Well, I suppose. But really, nothing about the script strikes me as very good, and it’s telling that when Eugene Levy came on board he apparently insisted on improvising his lines. Levy’s a guy who knows good material and he clearly wasn’t seeing it here.
*. Nor does the cast do much to help things along. The four horny musketeers (Jason Biggs as Jim, Chris Klein as Oz, Eddie Kaye Thomas as Finch, Thomas Ian Nicholas as Kevin) strike me as being charmless at best. Meanwhile, their girlfriends are only slightly more appealing.
*. Not as shocking today as it was twenty years ago. Perhaps even more nostalgic. I suppose most of it qualifies as being good-natured, but that’s about it. The main comic conceit is that the girls are more mature than the boys, which is a point I think everyone will have grasped in the first few minutes. But then it’s not a movie I was in the target audience for at the time, and I feel even less obliged to care for it now.

Deep Blue Sea (1999)

*. Despite being initially met with mixed reviews, Deep Blue Sea has gone on to gain a bit of a cult following as well as recognition for being one of the best “shark films” ever made.
*. That is a thing. The genre of shark films can now be seen as going a lot deeper than just the Jaws franchise. The interesting thing about Deep Blue Sea though is that the sharks here, despite being super-intelligent, seem even less like characters in their own right than other movie sharks and more like generic monsters-of-the-week. There are, of course, nods to Jaws throughout (the license plate Blake takes out of the shark’s mouth at the beginning is the same as the one Hooper finds in the belly of the shark in Jaws), as well as to Jaws 2 (sharks vs. helicopters), and even Jaws 3-D (the shark smashing through the control room window), but Alien seems to have been a bigger influence. Just the sight of Dr. McCallister in her underwear being hunted by the shark (a scene director Renny Harlin thought obligatory) would be your tip-off there.
*. Put another way, instead of feeling like a shark movie this is more a high-concept action flick, with lots of explosions and stunts and people holding their breath for long stretches underwater. Which is pretty much what you’d expect from Harlin, who was one of the kings of the action genre in the 1990s.
*. Since his glory days in the ’90s Harlin has kept working but he’s been a lot less prominent. I guess movies changed and he didn’t. But then this picture didn’t launch its stars very far either. I had to search the Internet to answer the question of whatever happened to Saffron Burrows, Thomas Jane, Michael Rapaport, and even LL Cool J (though they’ve all kept busy as well). Samuel L. Jackson and Stellan Skarsgård are the only people you still hear much about anymore.

*. The plot here has a research lab doing experiments on growing shark brains as a way of curing Alzeheimer’s. As we were to learn, again, in Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) all this results in is super-smart test subjects that turn the tables on the humans. Or, as the tough shark-wrangler puts it to the doctor: “what you’ve done is taken God’s oldest killing machine and given it will and desire. What you’ve done is knocked us all the way to the bottom of the goddamn food chain.” Damn!
*. It is, of course, all pretty silly. But . . .
*. (1) The effects are quite good. Some of the CGI has, as you’d expect, dated badly. The scene where Jackson is killed does not stand up well. Renny Harlin: “I challenge anyone to tell what is real and what is not.” Well Remy, challenge accepted!

*. But that said, the mechanical sharks are great. They’d really come a long way from Bruce in Jaws.
*. (2) No one seems to have been under any illusions that they were making anything more than a really expensive B-picture. Samuel L. Jackson doing his thing belongs in a movie like that (and few other places, I would argue). As does the scene where one of the sharks “throws” Skarsgård at an underwater window in order to break it. As do lines like the aforementioned demotion of humanity to a lower spot on the food chain. Or when Jackson sees one of the giant sharks and asks in awe “What in God’s creation?” so that Skarsgård can say “Not god’s creation, ours.” A movie like this needs that sort of dialogue, and this script gives you lots of it.
*. (3) It’s formulaic, but still has some twists. The Black preacher is sure of his own impending demise — “Ooh, I’m done! Brothers never make it out of situations like this! Not ever!” — but somehow survives, a miracle that recalls the indestructibility of Mario Van Peebles in Jaws: The Revenge. Meanwhile, the sexy doctor who is, after all, responsible for much of this, has to sacrifice herself to save him. I didn’t see that coming. And indeed in the original version of the film she survived but test audiences wanted her killed because they saw her as being the villain of the piece.
*. (4) They make great use of that Aquatica set, which was constructed above the tanks that had been used for filming Titanic. It looks great and gives the movie a real sense of being grounded (or submerged) in a big physical location that really works. For a movie with this much CGI that helps a lot.
*. It’s a popcorn movie. There are sharks that, as Harlin put it, are just monsters jumping out of the water and saying “Boo!” There are things blowing up and arms being torn off and girls stripping down to their underwear and boys showing off their muscles. There’s Samuel L. Jackson capably filling the shoes of Michael Caine in Jaws: The Revenge, with a similar professional motivation. That is to say, he just wanted to play golf in the Bahamas. More fun than snakes on a plane anyway.

Elizabeth (1998)

*. Again with the Tudors of myth. Henry VIII was a lousy king, and Elizabeth not much of a queen, but they were larger-than-life figures and there was the Reformation and defeating the Spanish Armada so they keep getting trotted out as heroes of a kind of English golden age. For director Shakhar Kapur Elizabeth gets credit for everything from Shakespeare to Virginia (from his DVD commentary: “she discovered Virginia . . . she colonized it”). Good Queen Bess is Astraea and Gloriana and everything else her courtiers, in the great age of such obsequious propaganda, flattered her as being.
*. But as I said in my notes on The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, movies have always preferred the Tudor myth to reality. So it’s only a little surprising that in 1998 that’s still the route being taken here in a movie that might just have easily been called The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Dudley. With “private” in both cases being a euphemism for “made up.”
*. I don’t think anyone expects these costume epics to pass historical muster, but even so there are some wild liberties taken here that don’t pass the test of probability. Most notable is the fact that Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes) never conspired against Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett) and that his marriage was obviously known to her. Did Kapur think he was making Shakespeare In Love with its revelation that Will Shakespeare was married being the plot twist that alienated Lady Viola in that film?
*. A lot of historical dramas have academic consultants or advisers on the payroll. Did they here? What did they think of all this? Listening to the commentary it isn’t clear if Kapur felt that Elizabeth really didn’t know that Dudley wasn’t married. I think he was just content that his Elizabeth had been kept in the dark (as it that were possible!). On the matter of Dudley’s conspiracy Kapur sounds completely confused, saying that Dudley had been in contact with the Spanish ambassador but that he (Kapur) had left that part out because he thought nobody would believe it. So he made up an even more far-fetched and entirely fictional conspiracy?
*. The commentary left me baffled as to where Kapur really stood on such matters. I don’t think anyone believes that Walsingham killed Mary of Guise but Kapur tells us that “It was always said that Walsingham killed her,” and that he is only asking questions. Questions “that don’t need answering, they just have to be raised.” This sounds suspiciously like a former president of the United States, and just as greasy.
*. I did like Kapur’s commentary for the light it shed on some of his creative decisions. Throughout the movie he favours two particular kinds of shots: from directly overhead and shooting through a veil or screen or some other obstruction. I’m not a fan of either, but he does give his reasons.
*. For the first: “I often get asked why I use all these overheard shots. There were two reasons. I think that I’ve always believed that man and woman, everybody ultimately, no matter how powerful or weak you are, are products of your own destiny, and I consistently use these overhead shots to make people look smaller than God, [or] not God so much as destiny. Even the Pope is smaller than destiny. Even Elizabeth is smaller than her destiny.” And a second reason he gives is to “break the grammar” of how some scenes, like the burnings at the stake in the prologue, are usually presented. Overhead shots make these events seem “stranger” because we’re not used to them.
*. Then there are the obstructions. This is paired with his moving camera to add to a sense of sinister voyeurism. “This constant roving camera: I decided at one point the camera must become the greatest conspirator of all, the greatest threat to Elizabeth is me, me the director and the camera. We’ve got to emotionally be like a snake, going around her, going around her, threatening her, ready to strike at any time, from every nook and corner.” Looking at Elizabeth through veils or screens is part of the same thing, giving the sense that people are spying on Elizabeth all the time.
*. Well, you may not care for those justifications, or think they work, but at least he had his reasons and I’m glad he shared them with us. It’s a good commentary, in part for giving us a lot to engage, and disagree, with.

*. As with any bit of Tudormania the settings and costumes are, if not the thing, an absolutely essential part of the whole. The cast seem relaxed in their roles. Fiennes is dewy and a bit of a wimp. Geoffrey Rush as Walsingham (also coming over from Shakespeare in Love), Richard Attenborough as Cecil, pre-Bond Daniel Craig as an albino monk from Opus Dei sent to kill Robert Langdon, Kelly Macdonald as a lady-in-waiting for Gosford Park, Vincent Cassel stealing the show as a cross-dressing Duke of Anjou. Cate Blanchett is great and carries things as an Elizabeth who is, once again, a defender of freedom of conscience and proto-feminist icon, ready to deliver lines like “I am not your Elizabeth. I am no man’s Elizabeth. And if you think to rule, you are mistaken. I will have one mistress here . . . and no master!” You go, girl!
*. Adventures in translation. When the decadent Duke of Anjou first meets Elizabeth he sweet talks her about what he’s going to do to her “chat.” Which is French for cat, so the English translation is obvious. In the English subtitles, however, it is given as “quinny.” Is “quinny” Renaissance slang? I’ve heard of “quim,” but it’s rarely used nowadays. I don’t think I’ve ever heard “quinny” before, or seen it in writing.
*. Seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture (it would lose out to Shakespeare in Love). Unfortunately, such encouragement only led Kapur to double down on all of the problems here when he came to make Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007). In that later film the romance would be even more Harlequin and more ahistorical while the anti-Catholic bias would be pushed even deeper into caricature. And by going further The Golden Age does achieve a kind of badness that is actually a bit of fun. This movie, on the other hand, is entirely forgettable.

My Own Private Idaho (1991)

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*. Leslie Halliwell (d. 1989): “When Sam Peckinpah made Straw Dogs from a novel called The Siege of Trencher’s Farm he thought it unnecessary to explain to his audience the significance of his new title which, his publicists informed us on request, was taken from an old Chinese proverb. And when Stanley Kubrick made A Clockwork Orange he did not bother to retain the section of the Anthony Burgess novel which explained why it was so called. These almost identical incidents exemplify the kind of arrogance which besets film-makers in the seventies.”
*. And the nineties? I mentioned Halliwell’s observation in my notes on Straw Dogs, but it has an obvious application here too. The title of this film comes from the song “Private Idaho” by a New Wave dance band called The B-52s. You never hear it played in the movie. Even if it had been sampled the results would have had about as much relevance as a Chinese proverb. The lyrics are mostly nonsensical, though you could interpret them as perhaps addressing narcissism and materialism in an indirect way. There’s a lot made of a swimming pool, but there is no swimming pool in Gus Van Sant’s movie.
*. The title then is left up for grabs. Mike is from Idaho. For him it is the site of a strongly dysfunctional origin myth, as well as a state of mind that he never breaks free of. I don’t think we can be any more specific.
*. This may sound like I’m being dismissive, but that’s not how I feel about My Own Private Idaho. I think it’s a decent movie, though one that’s hamstrung by a disjointed script (a yoking together of two ideas Van Sant had been working on for nearly twenty years) and by the presence of Keanu Reeves.
*. It’s not enough to say, as many do, that Reeves “actually isn’t too bad in this movie.” He is very bad. As always.
*. As for the script, the two storylines — Mike and Scott, and Scott and Bob — never come together. The latter is a modernization of Shakespeare’s Henriad (Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 and Henry V), but the update is taken both too far and not far enough. That is, Van Sant leans on it too much but for no real purpose or effect. The Gad’s Hill robbery, for example, becomes a silly theatrical set piece without making any kind of point. And while William Richert is very good as Bob/Falstaff, there had to be more of him to make his rejection and death more meaningful, or just help make us understand why he’s behaving the way he does.
*. Richard Schickel found the Shakespeare “a desperate imposition on an essentially inert film,” and I wouldn’t disagree with the first part. “Imposition” suggests the sense we have of something being forced onto the material, not arising naturally from it. A less direct pattern of allusion would have worked better.
*. This leads to an overall sense of awkwardness. The people we meet always seem to be performing (the john who dances while Mike cleans, Udo Keir’s Blue Velvet-style floor show, Mike’s brother/father with his “corny,” and phoney, family history lesson, and of course Bob who seems like he’s always walking the boards). No one naturally inhabits their role. Even the slumming Scott never gives the impression that he’s having a good time.
*. The effect is to leave River Phoenix out on a kind of island. He’s the only one at home in his part, and delivers a terrific performance, especially given that the role was originally imagined as something less. He took what little was there and made it bigger. The campfire scene, for example, was apparently his own invention. I think he’s utterly believable as a hustler going nowhere, someone attractive enough to catch the eye of predatory older men but without the charm or intelligence to make any real friends. It’s hard to have a character like that be something other than empty and pathetic, but Phoenix does it.
*. Aside from Phoenix, I don’t care for the movie much. As I say, it’s awkward. The script is both clumsy and obvious, and most of the cast seem uncomfortable. But perhaps polish in such a film would seem out of place.
*. The ending is left ambiguous. Is Mike being rescued by a Good Samaritan, or picked up as road kill by a serial killer? As cynical a guy as I am, I’m optimistic. I think we’ve seen the bad already with the guys stealing Mike’s gear and his shoes, and it’s worth noting that the driver doesn’t thrown Mike in the back seat or the trunk, but puts him up front (not something you’d do with an abductee). But Mike is, once again, only a passenger. You’d like to warn him about where this is heading, but you know there isn’t any point.

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Mars Attacks! (1996)

*. When I was looking up information and background on Mars Attacks! I was amazed to find that there were some people who liked this movie when it came out. I didn’t see it on its release, but I’d always heard it was terrible.
*. Well, it is terrible. Given the budget and the talent involved I’d call it spectacularly bad. But it did get some decent reviews. Not raves, but positive enough to qualify as middling. It didn’t deserve that much.
*. Given that it was inspired by a series of trading cards that came out in the 1960s (to which a kind of narrative had been attached) is there much point in complaining about how flimsy the story is? Basically Martians attack. With ray guns. We don’t know why. We don’t know why so many people, including the American president, continue to believe that they come in peace even after they started vaporizing everyone. It’s just stupid.
*. As an aside, in 2012, which was the fiftieth anniversary of the trading cards, Topps came out with a commemorative book with high-quality scans as well as a lot of other related artwork. I recommend the book whole-heartedly. Card 22, “Burning cattle,” helps explain the opening scene here. Nothing in the film does.
*. The all-star cast recalls the celebrity-studded disaster flicks of the ’70s. Every star has their own little story, many of them having no bearing on the main story whatsoever. Jack Nicholson has two roles, one as the president and the other as a Las Vegas casino owner. I have no idea why they bothered with the second. But then I don’t know why they bothered with a lot of these characters. Danny DeVito plays a “Rude Gambler.” He doesn’t even have a name.
*. Once you’ve seen all the stars, and the Martians (highlighted by Lisa Marie as a nitrogen gum-chewing, beehived honey trap), there’s nothing else to be interested in. Director Tim Burton, given far too much liberty to indulge himself, can only spark interest with flippant excess. Much of it is just grotesque though, like Sarah Jessica Parker’s head stuck on a little dog’s body, or poor Rod Steiger being miniaturized and then stepped on.
*. I was going to write more on this but I don’t want to. It’s am embarrassment for everyone involved. The aliens look neat but that’s it. The effects are sup-par, the story slop, and there isn’t a single funny line or interesting idea in the whole damn movie. Costing a hundred times as much, it’s less intelligent and entertaining than the grade-Z SF of the ’60s it was supposedly an homage to. By coincidence it came out the same year as Independence Day, which took the same old idea and played it straight, with equally forgettable results. Just how bad were the ’90s for movies anyway? I think they were pretty bad.
*. Kenneth Turan: “not as much fun as it should be.” Or, as I’d put it: no fun at all.

Hoffa (1992)

*. Near the beginning of Hoffa there’s a scene where a “young” Jimmy Hoffa (Jack Nicholson, his character not looking any younger than he does forty years later) is organizing a strike at a produce distribution center. It was a moment that really gave me the feeling of stepping back in time. Not to 1935 but to the 1970s, when American unions were still seen as being great engines of social justice. Remember Norma Rae (1979)? But then came the Reagan Revolution and the firing of the air traffic controllers, followed by a long decline.
*. When David Thomson says of Hoffa that it’s “like a movie from the seventies” I don’t think he was referring to this, but rather to its being a fairly conventional epic biopic. In many ways I actually find it quite inventive, with director and co-star Danny DeVito adding a lot of style points with his imaginative transitions, long Steadicam takes, diopter shots, and fearless use of studio sets (get a load of that forest they go hunting in!). That said, I wish DeVito hadn’t introduced himself into the movie, or at least this much.

*. I understand having a character like Bobby Ciaro as a surrogate for the audience. But Bobby ends up being more a surrogate for DeVito in being someone who idolizes Hoffa. On the commentary track DeVito admits that Hoffa was “no saint,” but as we see him in this movie he’s awfully close. My eyes widened when I heard Gene Siskel compliment DeVito for “not romanticizing Hoffa too much.” Not too much? How could he have romanticized him any more? This is the sort of movie Bobby would have made (Ciaro, not Kennedy).
*. This isn’t because I have anything against Jimmy Hoffa. I do think he was dirty, but that came with the territory. The thing is though, I don’t think he was simply the heroic man of the people and friend of the working man he’s presented as here. I like Nicholson’s performance as much as the next guy, but the character is one-dimensional.
*. As Roger Ebert noted in his review, “It comes as a shock, about halfway through Hoffa, to discover that the Teamsters leader has a wife and daughter. They turn up during a crowd scene. But this film about Jimmy Hoffa has no time to show him meeting his wife, courting her, marrying her, setting up housekeeping, or fathering a child. That is almost as it should be. Hoffa shows a man who lives, breathes, wakes, sleeps and dies for the union.” Note that qualification: “almost as it should be.” I don’t believe in this Hoffa, and even if I did I don’t think I’d find him very interesting, but that’s all we’ve got here to work with.
*. The reason why it leaves out so much, since this is 140 minutes of biopic, is that we’re stuck seeing things from Bobby’s perspective. Hoffa’s story begins when he climbs into Bobby’s cab, and at the end they share the same fate. Bobby isn’t that interesting either, being basically Hoffa’s dog, but he’s a really big part of the movie.
*. Another problem with the Bobby character is that I believe he’s wholly fictional. This makes us wonder how faithful DeVito wanted to be to the historical record in the first place. I think for the most part he did try for accuracy, but his instincts as a storyteller and filmmaker led him in different directions.

*. Chief among these is the ending, which gives us the murder of Hoffa (and Bobby) in the parking lot of a roadhouse diner. This is, from what we know, not how it went down. Hoffa was apparently lured away and (presumably) killed somewhere else. Not only that, but the killing itself struck me as conspicuous and far-fetched in the extreme. I don’t think Frank Sheeran killed Hoffa either, but the presentation of the same events in Scorsese’s The Irishman was at least realistic.
*. Well produced. Good performances, or should I say casting? Everyone around Nicholson seems made to fit. Armand Assante as the mafia guy looks and sounds very much like a Hollywood mafia guy (that is to say, someone far more glamorous than any of Scorsese’s hoods). John C. Reilly as the weasel Petey looks and sounds very much like a Hollywood weasel. And DeVito as a flunky . . . you get the picture.
*. Screenplay by David Mamet, so you know it has good flow. Mamet is good with people talking. So even at this running time it all moves quite well and I can’t think of any part of it that dragged. At the same time, I didn’t think any part of it caught fire either. It’s a good movie, of the kind that we don’t see much anymore, and likely never will again. Even at the time it was a bit of a throwback.

Goodfellas (1990)

*. Martin Scorsese on the edge. By which I mean not on the edge of visionary daring, but in terms of his career. I think his run of great movies ends here. There’d been Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. There’d also been The King of Comedy and After Hours. But Goodfellas, which I think is a great movie, marks a tipping point. Next up would be Cape Fear, a movie I also like but which clearly goes over the top in a lot of ways. Then an avalanche of excess. Indeed, excess became his theme and not (just) his style. Casino. Gangs of New York. The Aviator. The Departed. Shutter Island. The Wolf of Wall Street. The Irishman (a movie I really wish he hadn’t made). Weren’t these movies all too much? Expensive. Overlong. And all about going too far.
*. Like I say, for me Goodfellas marks a watershed, staying just this side of being too much. Still, there are a couple of places where I thought Scorsese was tipping his hand as to where he was going.
*. The first example I’d give is the famous entrance to the Copacabana Club. Scorsese has talked about this single long take as expressing how Henry Hill’s way into the gangster lifestyle has made everything easy for him, opening doors, and his entrance certainly conveys this. His path, and that of the camera, is lubricated by money. But while I appreciating it I couldn’t help thinking of how much it must have cost to set up a shot like that (and they did seven or eight takes). Just as Henry is flashing his cash, Scorsese is flashing his, in terms of budget. It’s a conscious display of excess for both of them.
*. The second example is something that bothered me the first time I saw the movie and still does today. It’s the scene near the end where Henry (Ray Liotta) meets Jimmy (Robert De Niro) at the diner and Jimmy asks Henry if he’ll go down to Florida and whack someone for him. This is just a way of getting rid of Henry out of state. Henry understands this because he’s never been asked to whack somebody before, so “that’s when I knew that I’d never come back from Florida alive.”
*. Why include the voiceover telling us this? And making things worse, why go to two freeze frames on the faces of Jimmy and Henry? I hated this. Why? Because it highlights, underlines, and prints in bold all caps what should have been done quietly, just with faces. Henry has figured out what’s going on, and by this point in the movie so have we. It actually echoes an earlier scene where Henry’s voiceover tells us “that’s when I knew Jimmy was going to whack Morrie.” So here there’s no need to tell us what could and I think should have just been shown. Did Scorsese not trust Liotta in being able to sell it? Or not trust his audience to be able to pick up what was happening?
*. I mention this because it’s part of the lack of subtlety that Scorsese’s filmmaking was increasingly being taken over by. And it upsets me because I think Scorsese is better than this.
*. He really likes setting up corpses as artistic tableaux. I lost count of how many there are here, with every blood spatter lovingly painted on the screen. But this is another place where I think less might have been more.

*. I still think Goodfellas a great movie though. It certainly moves well, at the tempo of Henry’s nervously intense narration. And Henry is a perfect surrogate, if not for the audience then for Scorsese, who has always seemed a gangster fanboy. I’ll bet as far back as he can remember he wanted to be one.
*. This is a point that really exercised David Thomson, who was disturbed by the “trembling, increasingly cocaine-dependent ambivalence” Scorsese presents when it comes to the evil of the wise guys. “Does this film have a secure attitude toward the lives of its guys, or is it giddy with its own ability to ride along in their slipstream?” he asks. “It’s as if Scorsese cannot bring himself to disown this demon, and movement, vitality, mad humor, music, and contempt for women are the ingredients of the lifestyle of the GoodFellas.”
*. I don’t agree with this. One of the things I like the most about the movie is the way the main characters aren’t charismatic in any way. Henry might want to be a gangster, but would anyone want to be Henry, as cool as he tries to make it sound? Tommy (Joe Pesci) is, of course, a psycho. Jimmy is a lying piece of dirt, and not even much of a player. Henry is only a sidekick. With his phoney laugh and obsequiousness he reminds me of no one so much as John Candy’s William B. Williams on The Sammy Maudlin Show. And even his wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco) is only a wannabe bad girl. She’ll be a gangster’s moll if the pay is good, and can be a bully as much as her husband, but she’ll fold at the slightest pressure. These aren’t villains of any stature but only snakes in the grass.
*. So is the gangster lifestyle as presented here seductive? I don’t think so. Even the signature catalogue of corpses revealed to Eric Clapton’s “Layla” is bathetic. The pink Cadillac. The meat truck. Just taking out the trash. And then there’s Henry’s envoi to the audience where he calls us “suckers”: our wasted lives spent among “those goody-good people who worked shitty jobs for bum paychecks and took the subway to work every day, and worried about their bills.” But that house in the ‘burbs looks so much nicer, certainly less vulgar and tacky, than any of the places we’ve seen in the rest of the movie. Henry is laying it on too thick here, trying to cheer himself up. He’s so easy to see through, so unconvincing. Not a real gangster at all, but still only wanting to be one.

Shakespeare in Love (1998)

*. The Best Picture winner at the 71st Academy Awards, with Gwyneth Paltrow picking up a statue for Best Actress, Judi Dench for Best Supporting Actress and Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard for Best Screenplay.
*. In later years this bounty of awards would become quite controversial. I’m not really sure why. Two reasons stand out though. (1) Many people thought Saving Private Ryan was a better movie. I’m not so sure. Saving Private Ryan was a bigger movie, which would have made it a more predictable pick, but that’s all I can say. (2) It was thought that Harvey Weinstein was promoting Shakespeare in Love a little too much behind the scenes. Again I’m not so sure. Certainly Weinstein has fallen a long, long way since those glory days at Miramax, but I don’t know if his campaigning for this movie was wrong.
*. In any event, Shakespeare in Love did clean up with the awards and that’s not something I’m upset about. Partly because I don’t care about prizes, and partly because I like it well enough. At least as well as Saving Private Ryan anyway.
*. It’s a movie with a tortured history, making it even more remarkable that it all worked out in the end. Originally it was slated as a Julia Roberts and Daniel Day-Lewis project but that fell through. Then the script by Marc Norman had to be reworked by Tom Stoppard. Even during post-production there were re-writes and re-shoots based on the responses of test audiences. This is usually a recipe for disaster, but somehow the thing held together.
*. The script helps. It’s clever in language and plotting, but not too clever, which is something Stoppard has sometimes had trouble avoiding (Shakespeare did too). There are plenty of little in-jokes, but they aren’t necessary to enjoy the plot, which is a pretty basic rom-com mixed with a cross-dressers’ ball. It had me smiling throughout most of it.
*. Joseph Fiennes is solid as a romantic young Will Shakespeare. But not too romantic. He’s going places, professionally, after all. Geoffrey Rush is well cast. Colin Firth sports a wicked pearl earring. Judi Dench is just who you thought she’d be, playing the queen as you’d imagine she would. She won an Oscar despite being on screen for only six minutes. Apparently this was not the shortest performance to win a Best Supporting Actress award though. That went to Beatrice Straight for Network. Straight at least had one big scene. I don’t know why Dench got it for.
*. Gwyneth Paltrow before she became a joke selling goop and appearing in superhero movies. I’m not a fan, but she’s fine here as a Renaissance aristo. Better than she was as a Regency aristo in Emma anyway. Though her lack of fire makes her an odd choice as muse.
*. Ben Affleck before he became a joke and started appearing in superhero movies. I’m not a fan but I actually think he’s great here as an actor more than full enough of himself. I’ve never enjoyed him in anything as much.
*. Poor Anne Hathaway. No longer capable of inspiring her husband to great poetry or sparking his libido (the two are directly related), she is kept off stage in Avon, with only a passing reference to her in some funny business between Will and his doctor. This becomes more than a bit awkward later on in the tavern scene when Viola finds out that Will is married. Because, well, what was he thinking?
*. In terms of the plot it’s no big matter. All is soon forgiven. But the question remains, and we can direct it at both of them. Are they really in love?
*. I like how Viola has inspired Will to write Twelfth Night, with that play’s heroine being a plucky woman shipwrecked on a foreign shore and dressing as a man. But the connection might be stronger to the old critical saw about Duke Orsino not being in love but rather being in love with the idea of being in love. Because that seems to be what’s happening here. Will has no intention of divorcing Anne, and is just as aware as Viola is that they have no future together. But they are both actors, players we might say, and they’re in love with playing lovers. It’s a fun release for them, perhaps even therapeutic. But that’s it.
*. So a good little movie, but given Weinstein’s fall from grace and Paltrow’s subsequent transformation into a weird lifestyle brand you watch it with different eyes today. I think it’s still popular though, and has worn a lot better than most of the other fluff of its time. It has a bit of a hole in the middle with the leads only playing at being in love, and ends on a strange note, but it’s still a good excuse to let the world slip for a couple of hours.

Romeo + Juliet (1996)

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*. Restraint? We don’t need any stinking restraint. The play’s first line (after the prologue) is bellowed from the back of a convertible by one of “the Montague boys”: “A dog of the house of Capulet moves me!” We’re not sure why he’s yelling this, who he’s talking to, or what it means. But it’s loud.

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*. The decibel level matches the loud visuals: the bright colours, jumpy editing, quick zooms, etc. It’s a way of inflating the drama of the language. It’s why Mercutio has to both scream and repeat his end of the Queen Mab speech (“This is she!”). And why Romeo has to scream and repeat (three times!) his line to Tybalt just before killing him (“Either thou or I, or both, must go with him!”). Yelling and repeating lines shows you how important they are.

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*. I don’t want to sound stuffy or hyper-critical on this point, but I do think it’s worth stressing. As explained on the DVD commentary “the whole motive of the entire project” was to use “modern-day equivalents to decode the language of Shakespeare.” Shakespeare’s “language is clarified because it’s articulated in familiar images.”
*. But is this true? I think the visuals, full of overripe, kitschy Catholic tat, simply overwhelm the language. Luhrmann has made a movie that is so strong visually it doesn’t need any dialogue. If you went through it with a modern audience and asked them to explain any of the trickier parts that have been retained from the text of the play I don’t see where the presentation would help them a bit. Luckily, Romeo and Juliet is not a terribly difficult play, but my point is that the difficulty in the language remains, it’s only that this doesn’t matter if the audience “gets it” by other means. They can follow along by reading other signs, or by observing what kind of a pose is being struck.

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*. The fact that the actors don’t seem that comfortable with Shakespeare doesn’t help. Again this may sound snobby, but the thing is, Shakespeare wasn’t a “story” man. He tended to borrow them from other sources and they didn’t always hold together that well. The language is what you come to Shakespeare for, especially one advertised as sticking to the original text. If you want a modern, music-video style romance there are plenty of other options at the local cineplex.
*. Of course the deal with any production of Shakespeare, on stage or screen, is how to make it seem contemporary and “relevant.” That’s not a huge problem, since Shakespeare was a popular entertainer, but there are a couple of hurdles. The first is the language, which is finessed in the way I’ve just discussed. The other relates to the updating of historical references.
*. Overall, I think the updating is quite successful and creative. I really liked the network news reading the prologue, Queen Mab turning into a tab of party drug, and M. Emmet Walsh in a sadly truncated version of the apothecary scene.

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*. Other aspects, however, are harder to handle. Calling the pistols “swords” made no sense to me, and I guess there was just no way of making the concept of banishment and exile relatable in a contemporary setting. Is there any jurisdiction where this is still practiced as a form of punishment? Apparently it gave Luhrmann a lot of heartache and he tried to cut any mention of it out entirely, but this made nonsense of the plot. Still, there was just no way to make it meaningful for a contemporary audience.
*. As with the visuals, the music is all over the map. I think if they’d stuck with one particular style it might have helped draw thing together better. Instead there are just bits and pieces of different songs in different arrangements and the sense I had was of a mess, with the snatch of Wagner at the end being a cliché.

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*. I don’t understand Luhrmann’s fascination with gay camp. Why make Mercutio (Harold Perrineau) a drag queen? Because, according to the commentary, he is the most poetic character, but also the angriest (pace Tybalt). Apparently queens are poetic, angry types. It’s weird, but I found it tired. And why are these characters so often Black? The fallout from Paris Is Burning? Chris Tucker as Ruby Rhod in The Fifth Element?
*. Some of the creative decisions are both bold and effective. I really like the hint of something going on between Lady Capulet and Tybalt, and the decision to have both Romeo and Juliet alive together at the end to address each other.
*. The cast has hits and misses, but again what works best is a look. Paul Sorvino as Mr. Capulet appears to be another angry homosexual, for whatever reason. John Leguizamo is feral and feline as the Prince of Cats. Pete Postlehtwaite seems to be having a hard time coming down off of some of his herbs, but he’s the only one who is at all at ease speaking Shakespeare’s language. I share Roger Ebert’s mystification at Brian Dennehy’s role as Mr. Montague. Does he have any lines at all?

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*. I think both DiCaprio and Dames are adorable, as they should be, but don’t show off any real acting chops here, or even any feel for the material.
*. What is it with Romeo’s drenched look? He seems to always appear dripping wet, from sticking his head in the sink just before his first seeing Juliet, getting in and out of the pool with his clothes on, or running around outside in the pouring rain. I think Luhrmann just liked seeing water dripping off of DiCaprio’s stylish locks. At one point in the commentary they are about to say something about the water imagery, but the discussion is immediately sidetracked and it never got addressed. I don’t recall it being part of the play at all.
*. Obviously a movie as hip and noisy as this was going to alienate traditionalists, and it did. I think it works a lot better than it should, all things considered. And I don’t think there’s any way of finally sorting out the good from the bad.

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Nightwatch (1997)

*. This is one of those movies that I pulled from the shelf at random, not having heard anything about it. Something that, in itself, surprised me, as it has a standout cast and was a remake of a Danish film (Nattevagten, which I’m told means Nightwatch) by the original director, with Steven Soderbergh doing some re-writes. You’d think I would have been aware of it.
*. Well, it disappeared for a reason. It’s awful. The plot is so stupid I’m surprised it got made once, though I don’t know if director Ole Bornedal made something good out of it in the original. I think the only other Bornedal movie I’ve seen is The Possession, which came out some fifteen years later, and it was just as hackneyed as this.
*. A law student (Ewan McGregor) gets a job as a security guard working the night shift at a medical centre with a morgue in the basement. This despite the fact that he is nervous being alone. Meanwhile, a serial killer is going around killing women and cutting their eyes out. Believe it or not, this serial killer has a link to the morgue, being a bit of a necrophile. Then the serial killer starts to frame McGregor for the murders! Oh, the humanity.
*. You’d think such a preposterous plot would at least offer plenty of opportunities for suspenseful sequences and crazy twists, but the twists are even more strained than the rest of the story and while there are some nice stylistic touches there are no scary parts.
*. The serial killer stuff is clichéd to the point where it feels pressed out of a template. And despite a line-up of some of the most suspicious faces in Hollywood — Josh Brolin, Nick Nolte, Brad Dourif, and even John C. Reilly (uncredited) — it’s not that hard to figure out what’s going on. The real question is what McGregor’s character is doing hanging out with Brolin in the first place. Nobody else seems able to stand him.
*. What went wrong? Well, I don’t think they got off to a good start. Bornedal said of Nattevagten that it was not “a great work of art, but it did help legitimate the idea that even European film art can make good use of generic stories.” That’s not setting a high bar. But then when it came time for the Hollywood remake the wheels came off.
*. You can just listen to the people responsible in their own words. The film took over a year to finish because of negative test screenings leading to lots of reshoots. Soderbergh was writing new pages of script nearly a year after production began. Bornedal: “the actual shooting of Nightwatch was terrific, everything was totally wonderful, and I was free to do as I pleased, but everything suddenly became extremely complicated during the post-production phase.” Nolte: “As the studio got it, they realized that they had a European-paced film, and they kept hacking at it and hacking at it.” McGregor: “this was the perfect example of a film they would not leave alone. There were constant reshoots, including the ending, and they took all the interesting stuff out, making it bland. The original concept was the reason I accepted it in the first place. I had massive strands of the character removed, which is insulting.” He later added that Harvey Weinstein “ruined that film” and “made us reshoot everything — everything that was interesting about the film he replaced.”
*. So it seems nobody was happy with it. A trite script that still manages to be a rickety mess. A good cast (and I haven’t even mentioned Patricia Arquette) thrown to the dogs. A few moments of visual creativity lost in a dull shuffle. Let it return to oblivion.