Category Archives: 1990s

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.

10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

*. I’m not a big fan of high school rom-coms, in part because I find the humour dates very quickly and perhaps more because I hated high school with a passion. There was nothing romantic or funny about the experience, as far as I was concerned.
*. Nevertheless, such movies have proven durable. Not only because they appeal to the chief demographic of what remains of the moviegoing public, but also because a handful of titles have kept their charm. 10 Things I Hate About You being one such film. It was fun in 1999, and is still enjoyable today.
*. I don’t think that’s because Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, which the story is based on, is such a timeless tale. It isn’t, and when you get down to it, this updating of Shakespeare only maintains a superficial connection to the original (Padua High School, some of the character names, etc.). The whole business of Kat’s “taming” is disposed with completely, and Patrick Verona (Heath Ledger) is just out to win her love the old-fashioned way.
*. This was Heath Ledger’s star-making turn, and I don’t think he was twenty yet (though he still seems too old to be in high school). It’s just one example of the film’s knowingness when he asks Cameron “Are you telling me I’m not a pretty guy?” Let’s face it, he’s a dream.

*. At the same time, in hindsight it’s easy to see the Joker peeking out from behind the preternaturally wide rubber smile and the long curly locks. Add some garish make-up and some grease in the hair and he’s right there.
*. Julia Stiles was in a couple of other high-profile Shakespeare adaptations around the same time — as Ophelia in an art-house Hamlet in 2000 and as “Desi” in a high-school based Othello (whose release was delayed until 2001) — but she never went on to become a big star. In my notes on the remake of The Omen I wondered what else she’d been doing. She’s probably best known today, outside of this film, for playing in the Bourne franchise. I wonder if she projects as too intellectual. It makes her a convincing Kat, but Kat is a special kind of part.
*. All the world’s a stage. and it’s also a high school, which is another reason for the appeal of these films. High school is a dramatic microcosm of the real world, with all of humanity organized into different tribes (cowboys, white Rastas, nerds, future MBAs, jocks, etc.). It can contain Jane Austen (Clueless was on their mind here), it can contain Shakespeare. And when your high school looks like this — palatial Stadium High School in Tacoma, Washington — then it really does seem a world unto itself.
*. I’ve already mentioned the script’s knowingness and this is something worth emphasizing. Though conventional and predictable (does anyone doubt how all this is going to end?), it’s a script that doesn’t let the characters get away with anything (not even a make-up kiss, Patrick is going to have to do better than that). The way Kat’s feminist rant in English class is shot down as white, middle-class privilege by her teacher is a great initial example.
*. The production itself seems pretty rough around the edges. On several occasions (I counted at least three) lines are muffed or stumbled over. I can see why they wouldn’t shoot re-takes though, as the slips give it that extra sense of a student production.
*. Speaking of which, how common was it in 1999 to roll a blooper reel with the end credits? This movie wasn’t the first to do it — I think it might have started with The Cannonball Run — but I think it only became really popular later.
*. It’s not a laugh-out-loud funny movie, but like all the best rom-coms it has charm to burn. It really is impossible not to like, and it knows it.

The Insider (1999)

*. I was looking forward to this one. It had received a lot of critical accolades, and I’m a fan of the heroic-journos genre. But then the credits began to roll and we get to the part where it says it was co-written and directed by Michael Mann . . .
*. It’s not that I really dislike Mann’s work. It’s more that I think he’s one of the most overrated directors going. Time and again I’ve been directed to examples of his genius only to come away shaking my head. What do people see in him?
*. As for this movie, like I say, I’m a fan of the genre. The intrepid reporters who uncover a scandal/conspiracy and who have to fight the establishment in order to reveal the Truth to the People. It’s a story that’s worked from All the President’s Men to Spotlight. You really can’t go wrong with it.
*. Unless, like this movie, you stretch things out to an appalling 2 hours and 37 minutes. I have nothing against long, or even slow-moving movies. But a full hour should have been chopped from this one. The pacing is leaden. What’s with all the operatic musical interludes? Why does Mann feel the need to underline how important a particular moment is by stretching it out interminably? That’s just not efficient or effective filmmaking.
*. The real genre being worked here, I think, is that of award bait. This is why it’s so damn long and why everything (the script, the performances, the music, the direction) is so damn serious.

*. You know you’re watching award bait when every big scene is telegraphed far in advance, with our cast delivering set-piece speeches, or the director presenting set-piece displays of his art that have the look of being looked at. Like the bit at the driving range, for example, which isn’t suspenseful or unnerving at all precisely because it’s presented in such an obvious look-at-me kind of way. And don’t even get me started with Wigand’s crisis of conscience as he stares alone out at the ocean (or the Gulf, as the case may be).
*. Despite feeling so much like a shop-window display, I didn’t think there was much worth looking at here. Pacino does his usual thing. I thought Russell Crowe’s performance affected. Christopher Plummer is a good actor but he’s totally miscast here as Mike Wallace. I didn’t buy him for a second in the part.
*. There isn’t even a strong central narrative driving things along. At the end the movie just loses interest in Wigand completely. He gets an approving look from his daughter and that’s it. The people watching 60 Minutes are us, the People, and we are the real winners in this battle for the soul of America. This is so even if we’re not watching, or are bored with what’s going on. A good point, but one that comes far too late to be fully appreciated.

Galaxy Quest (1999)

*. Like any successful franchise, Star Trek quickly spawned a cottage industry of parodies that never let up. The only comparison I can think of is to the wave of spy spoofs that followed in the wake of Bondmania and which have never gone out of style.
*. I’m not just talking about movie take-offs. The Star Trek formula has been parodied most recently by such popular SF authors as John Scalzi in Redshirts and Steven Erikson in Willful Child. Because Star Trek, like Bond, never went away the send-ups could continue, mining the same nostalgic ore year-in and year-out.
*. In the case of Star Trek there was also the phenomenon of its fandom, the conventioneering covered in such films as Trekkies and Free Enterprise (Fanboys would do the same for Star Wars fans). Trekkiedom is a cult, but a good-natured one that doesn’t take itself too seriously. They constitute the sort of crowd expected to get all the jokes in a movie like Galaxy Quest, and laugh.
*. Galaxy Quest is very much a movie in this same spirit of spoof, sending up both Star Trek and its fans in a way that generously affirms the spirit of both. This even lets it get away with the shameless trick at the end of the crowd at the convention standing to applaud the cast, sending everyone home happy.
*. Star Trek is also like Bond in that the formula is so well known even outside of the fan base that you don’t have to be steeped in what’s being sent up to get the joke. When Gwen (Sigourney Weaver) rants about having to repeat all the captain’s instructions to the computer, or at the giant pistons they have to navigate without being crushed, it’s funny regardless of how well you know the original show.
*. I don’t think there’s anything special about the script here. It’s basically Three Amigos! in space. But the cast is impeccable, with Tim Allen as the captain (or commander), Weaver as his sexy lieutenant, Alan Rickman as a very jaded Spock, Tony Shalhoub as the easy-going engineer, Daryl Mitchell as the Wil Wheatonesque wunderkind who’s grown up, and Sam Rockwell as the redshirt. Together they go through the usual stages of a Star Trek plot, beaming down to a deceptively innocent-looking planet and saving some peace-loving aliens from the Klingons, with the help of a time-reversing device that would later be adopted, out of sheer laziness, by the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And then everyone cheers.
*. So it’s good-natured, and given what it’s sending up doesn’t suffer for its small-screen feel. An aware film that never goes full meta. One for the fans who were, in turn, so appreciative that there have since been many calls for a sequel. I don’t know if that’s necessary though, given how thoroughly they blew everything up here. Not to mention the fact that the basic premise wouldn’t work a second time around. In any event, it’s a genre that, along with its parody versions, has basically become a self-replicating loop. And, of course, there are always reruns.

Men in Black (1997)

*. 1997! That surprised me. I seemed to remember this as coming out much earlier, sometime in the late ’80s perhaps. It feels so long ago now. Chalk another one up to the parallax of aging: objects in the mirror seeming closer or further away depending on how my memory is functioning.
*. When it came out I think most people recognized it as being the heir to Ghostbusters, with its team of well-armed alien hunters taking on various monsters. It was based on a short-lived comic book serial that came out in the early ’90s, coincidentally just a year or so before Mike Mignola’s Hellboy launched, which had a very similar premise (with the B.P.R.D. being like the special branch of the F.B.I. here).
*. I won’t go over the similarities between the two movies, but instead point to another interesting correspondence. Ghostbusters is a great movie that, somewhat surprisingly, has held up very well over the years. It was not, however, a successful franchise, only spinning off a bunch of disappointing sequels and resets. That’s why I think of Men in Black as its true follow-up, though in much the same way this movie also failed to launch as a franchise. The next Men in Black movies were far inferior and the attempted relaunch Men in Black: International in 2019 was very poorly received. I might go even further and draw in Hellboy here as well, another action-comedy with a similar theme that had a great launch and then fizzled out right away. In every case what we got was a one-off.
*. Why? Perhaps the basic premise was incapable of further elaboration. Successful, long-running franchises have been based on far less. If anything, Ghostbusters, Men in Black, and Hellboy had too much to work with. In each instance the first film was just a case of catching lightning in a bottle with a weird concept. I don’t know. That’s one attempt at an explanation. But back to Men in Black.
*. It really couldn’t miss. Loads of money. Steven Spielberg producing. Will Smith (acting like he’s trying to channel a bit of Axel Foley) and Tommy Lee Jones (channeling himself) both at or near the apex of their celebrity. Linda Fiorentino, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Rip Torn all providing first-rate back-up. Rick Baker doing the monster effects.
*. All of this helps disguise the fact that there’s nothing much going on here aside from the initial concept itself. The plot is actually quite stupid and there are few jokes. Still, watching it again twenty years later I was surprised at how well it played. I don’t think it’s held up as well as Ghostbusters, but it’s still pretty good. I can’t say nearly as much for what was to come.

The Faculty (1998)

*. Back in the ’90s it was the thing to describe every movie like a pitch, as a blend of Movie X and Y (and maybe Z). The Faculty happily adopted this approach, and I think very few reviews avoided calling it Invasion of the Body Snatchers (of whatever vintage) and/or The Thing meets The Breakfast Club.
*. That it should be such a knowing hybrid is no surprise, coming from the pen (or keyboard) of screenwriter Kevin Wiliamson (who had been called in to make a story by David Wechter and Bruce Kimmel more hip for the target audience). As Kim Newman puts it in Nightmare Movies, Williamson “became the go-to guy for teen demographic terror” at this time with Scream (1996), I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), Scream 2 (1997) and this film. Before fizzling out career-wise. I mean, he went on to write a lot for TV, but while people still watch these silly horror movies, who watches Dawson’s Creek today? Who?
*. The Faculty is actually a fascinating movie in terms of career arcs. Look at the cast. Josh Hartnett in his virtual debut and before Black Hawk Down, Elijah Wood before The Lord of the Rings, Jon Stewart before The Daily Show, Jordana Brewster before Fast 5 (and counting). Oddly enough, Laura Harris’s career may have been winding down, though she’s very good here. There’s also Salma Hayek, Piper Laurie, Famke Janssen, Robert Patrick, Usher, and instantly recognizable character actor Daniel von Bargen. This really was Hollywood High in the ’90s.
*. Directed by Robert Rodriguez, another interesting figure career-wise. Was it all downhill after El Mariachi? Well, Sin City was pretty good. But that’s about it for me. He’s certainly an odd, and probably a poor fit for this material.
*. So a curious blend of people coming up, people at the top, and a handful of veterans in various roles. And it’s also a movie that marks a watershed in terms of its effects, with some decent practical work unfortunately overwhelmed at the end by lots of very shaky CGI.
*. It’s a movie that couldn’t miss, but also couldn’t really work either. It’s just too derivative even for Williamson’s brand of knowingness. Take the roll call of kids: the nerd, the jock, the bitchy hot chick, the new girl, the goth girl, the rebel bad-boy. And yes, the token Black guy. Familiar. Well played, but just not that interesting.
*. Maybe they should have focused more on the faculty. They seem like they might be an interesting bunch. At times they even seem to enjoy messing with the kids. But as with most if not all alien body-snatchers they ultimately don’t have a very compelling story or motivation. Yes, they’re going to take over and then there won’t be any more of the bad feelings that you experience in high school. But just what will life be like? Will we all splash around like dolphins in freshwater lakes and streams? Will the parasitic slugs ditch their human bodies completely? Why keep them?
*. So OK, we’ve been here before. Even the jump from society at large to high school had already been made in the remake of Invaders from Mars. There’s just not enough that’s new here, so it ends up playing more like a rehash than a new interpretation of what’s being sampled. The Thing is obviously referenced in the testing scene and the business with the spider head, but those scenes aren’t done nearly as well as in the original and they don’t add anything new by way of homage.
*. Still, it’s a movie that has its fans. It’s a bit of fun and goes down easy. I wouldn’t say it has a cult following, but it’s a minor favourite that I look at and think should have been something more. Instead of being a mix of this and that it would have been better served if it had a clearer idea of what it wanted to be and stuck to it. But high school is a tough place to forge an identity. All anyone wants to do is fit in and be popular. Maybe the original story had more punch to it, but in Williamson’s hands it settles for just wanting to be liked.

The Puppet Masters (1994)

*. Robert Heinlein’s novel The Puppet Masters has been described as the original SF story of aliens taking over human bodies, but the novel itself was a long time coming to the big screen. Instead we got movies with similar themes made in the 50s like Invaders from Mars and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. A film version of The Puppet Masters was in the works at the end of the ’50s but the release of The Brain Eaters apparently jinxed it, so we had to wait another thirty-five years for this adaptation to arrive.
*. Was it worth the wait? Well, even though it’s largely forgotten today I think this is a darn good flick and a solid, indeed better than solid, adaptation of the novel, mostly faithful but updated in necessary ways that make it both more contemporary and cinematic.
*. Of course, when I say “contemporary” I mean by 1994 standards. There’s a wonderful scene here where one of the military guys holds up a 3 ½ inch floppy disk and tells the war room that “this disk contains every emergency contingency we’ve drawn up dealing with this kind of crisis since 1959.” Well, at least it’s nice to know they did have contingency plans for things like this.
*. I know I’ve said it before many times, but it’s so nice to go back to a time of in-camera creature effects. And I think they came up aces with the aliens here. They remind me a bit of the flying pancakes in one of the original Star Trek episodes (“Operation — Annihilate!”), in that they’re basically rays not slugs, with a whip-like tail they use for zipping around. This makes them a lot more threatening than the creeping terrors in the book or their cognates in The Brain Eaters, who can only crawl around on the floor after being transported in glass jars by their human hosts. They’re also given a bit of an Alien vibe as they come forth from their eggs ready to attach themselves to a host right away. Which made me think, again, of just how influential Alien was, in so many ways. Its fingerprints are everywhere.
*. I want to get back to the script. It’s credited to Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, and David Goyer. Elliott and Rossio went on to write films like Aladdin, Shrek, and I believe all or most of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, so they’re professional hands when it comes to entertainment. They were also fans of Heinlein’s novel and wanted to stick as close to it as possible. The studio was less in love with the novel and wanted something a little more generic. This led to a lot of rewrites, in a process that went on for years.
*. For example, it’s interesting that the head of the studio didn’t like the idea of the aliens arriving by spaceship and instead suggested “spores.” When told this was just ripping off Invasion of the Body Snatchers he then went with having them come back hitching a ride on the Space Shuttle. Which they didn’t go with (they had a spaceship), but which is the delivery vehicle used in The Invasion. No idea ever goes unused in Hollywood, no matter how weak. The “B version” of the script for this movie was actually set on a military base as well, but then Body Snatchers came out and that part had to be changed. You see, people do at least try to be different.
*. One curious divergence from the novel is in the eschewing of Heinlein’s heavy political preaching about the evils of communism. I say this is curious because ever since Don Siegel’s 1956 film the Body Snatchers movies have always invited discussion of their metaphorical meaning, with all kinds of different interpretations as to what the pod people represent in our own time. There’s none of that here. The aliens are just aliens. They don’t mean anything. If there’s a political message to this movie then I missed it completely.

*. Otherwise, the changes the writers made mostly struck me as improvements. Of course, there was no way the nudity of Operation Bare Back and Sun Tan was going to work on screen. However sensible, it just would have just looked ridiculous. It made sense that Sam’s love interest is a scientist and not another agent because the plot didn’t need another agent but it did need someone to explain stuff to us along the way. As for the ending, well, it was a mess in Heinlein too. What they have here isn’t good, but it isn’t any worse, and is at least more cinematic.
*. There are other nice additions too, like the way the host chimps can communicate with the humans by way of typing on a computer. The aliens in this movie have actual personalities, and they’re mean little bastards. They like to mess with people.
*. So the alien that was smart enough to lower its body temperature so as to avoid being discovered wasn’t smart enough to realize that its host walked with a cane and so couldn’t go striding around nimbly without one? Hm.
*. Not a huge budget, and I’m afraid it shows at times. I like the fight in the helicopter at the end, but there’s some shaky blue screen (or green screen) going on there. The mother ship in the basement of the Des Moines City Hall, however, registers as a real disappointment, as it was to Rossio when he visited the set and argued that it wasn’t a spaceship but only “a slime-covered parking garage.” There are some things that you need money to build, and clearly they didn’t have it.
*. Donald Sutherland anchors things as the Old Man. He was quite reliable in roles like this at the time, and I got a kick out of him telling his son “Oh Sam, give it up,” in their fight at the end. Yaphet Kotto is also here, though he just seems to stick his face in the door. Richard Belzer is a wonderful presence, without any dialogue that I can remember. There’s a tradition of roles like that in conspiracy thrillers.
*. The leads — Eric Thal as Sam and Julie Warner as Mary — aren’t household names but she’s attractive and smart and he has a magnificent mane of hair and can take his shirt, and indeed all the rest of his clothes off and not look ridiculous. I was going to praise him for that wide, gaping thing he does with his mouth when ridden by an alien but then I noticed that he does the same thing at other points in the movie when he isn’t possessed. So maybe it’s just something Thal does to show intensity.
*. Director Stuart Orme wasn’t well known at the time, mainly having directed a lot of Genesis/Phil Collins videos. But I think he does well enough, especially considering the genre he was working in and the aforementioned budget constraints. This is a movie that so wants to be an alien-invasion blockbuster but it’s set in Des Moines.
*. It flatlined at the box office, though I remember going to see it when it came out so it got my money. I’ve heard it’s gone on to be recognized as a “good bad movie” but I don’t think that’s right. I’d call it a good little movie that’s only undercut by its aspirations to be something bigger.

Body Snatchers (1993)

*. A word you’ll hear in most retrospective reviews of Body Snatchers is “underrated.” A lot of its muted initial reception had to do with its very limited release by Warner Brothers, giving it a domestic gross of under $500,000.
*. Not everyone underrated it though. Roger Ebert, most notably, awarded it four stars and thought it “by the far the best” of the Body Snatcher films, which was a ballsy call at the time and, despite its growing reputation, still is. But was he right?
*. It’s certainly a more interesting movie than I think you’d anticipate. You can get that much just from the credits. Abel Ferrara was a surprising choice to direct. A story from Larry Cohen and screenplay by Stuart Gordon? It’s indie-o-rama in here. Then Meg Tilly, Lee Ermey, and Forest Whittaker among the cast. One anticipates something different.
*. And for the most part you get something different, though it sticks to the staple elements that worked so well in the past. There’s the atmosphere of paranoia and “is s/he or isn’t s/he one of them?” There are the garbage trucks and dustpans. There’s the point-and-scream, which is here used to great effect in a couple of scenes but is a well they go to once too often.
*. There is also a similar structure to the story: a slow build-up followed by a lot of running around. Suspense turns to action. I think most people, most critics anyway, think the first part of these movies shows them at their best. Danny Peary complained of the 1978 version that “about halfway though it stops being suspenseful,” while Gene Siskel thought it turned into “just another chase story.” That’s also the effect here. I absolutely love Meg Tilly’s “Where you gonna go?” scene and its climactic air-raid siren howl, but after that things do get a lot less interesting and the explosive climax is less cathartic than lazy.

*. It’s a tight production, what Ebert called “a hard-boiled entry in a disreputable genre,” but one that indubitably works. I like how quiet the first part of the movie is, beginning with that obligatory overhead car shot taking us to the military base. A setting where we might expect to find Lee Ermey, but one that also makes us question its significance.
*. There is a question here that can be asked of all the Body Snatchers movies, including 2007’s The Invasion. Horror is a genre that often exploits contemporary social anxieties: radiation (giant monsters), environmental disaster (ecohorror), venereal disease (body horror and the slaughter of promiscuous teenagers), the breakdown of the family (anything by Stephen King). But the Body Snatchers movies, by the very way they insist upon being read metaphorically, resist clear analysis in this manner.
*. Stephen King thought the initial story capable of so many different renderings because it tapped into a primordial well of fear that new interpretations could be layered on: “although the uneasy dreams of the mass subconscious may change from decade to decade, the pipeline into that well of dreams remains constant and vital.”
*. Here’s Ebert again: “The first film fed on the paranoia of McCarthyism. The second film seemed to signal the end of the flower people and the dawn of the Me Generation. And this one? Maybe fear of AIDS is the engine.” Hm. You could debate all of this. But just on the last point, how is this a movie about AIDS? Only if you want to see everything at the time as being about AIDS (Cronenberg’s The Fly being another example of a movie that got so labeled).  If I had to plump for one interpretation I’d guess this is a movie that has something to say about militarism and the way the army turns individuals into killing machines. But even that’s a message that’s made complicated.
*. I guess the most basic point is just the one Jack Finney wanted to make about individualism vs. the group. That’s made more explicit here in Ermey’s speech to Whittaker about the necessary for him to be “conformed”: “It’s the race that’s important, not the individual.” This is a somewhat new idea: earlier pod people had worked together without conflict but there was still a sense that they had individual identities, even without the ability to feel or show emotion. What Ermey is invoking is something more like the Borg Collective from Star Trek: The Next Generation, whose drive to assimilate made resistance futile.

*. The Borg were first introduced in 1989 so they’re worth mentioning in this context, but what do they, or the pod people here, represent? Commies? By this point the Cold War was over and the Wall had fallen. So, cult members? Groupthink? Corporatism? Was a loss of individualism such a pressing anxiety at this time?
*. I like the effects and the dark, formal, and rigidly posed photography. I like the cast. Terry Kinney (I had a hard time placing his face, but he was a regular on Oz) looks overmatched by his wife even before she’s transformed. We know he’s not going to be up to the job. Meg Tilly, “the woman who replaced your mom,” is wonderful. I love how, in the big scene that I mentioned, she’s the one trying to calm Kinney down as he goes into hysterics (“that’s right, that’s good, you’re listening now, that’s very good, I know you’re frightened, I know you’re scared, that’s OK, I understand that you’re confused”). Billy Wirth already looks like he’s an alien, doubling down on the ambiguity these movies revel in. Gabrielle Anwar projects as smart, and as vulnerable as a girl who looks like she weighs about 70 pounds would be.
*. The chances still are that you don’t know this movie, unless you were around at the time. So it remains underappreciated, if not underrated. And while I wouldn’t call it the best of the series it does full credit to the franchise and stands out as one of the better horror efforts of this period.

Animal Farm (1999)

*. I made the point in my notes on the 1954 Animal Farm that its style of animation was very much of its time. The same might be said of this adaptation, directed by the Academy Award-winning veteran effects man and former head of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop John Stephenson. Stephenson had, most notably, done the effects for Babe (1995), which this movie will immediately put you in mind of.
*. Orwell’s novel is a classic, both dramatic and accessible. Stephenson was an obvious choice to direct. The cast was all-star, with Pete Postlethwaite as Mr. Jones and the voice of Benjamin the donkey, Peter Ustinov as Old Major, Patrick Stewart as Napoleon, Kelsey Grammar as Snowball, Ian Holm as Squealer, Julia Ormond as Jessie (an Australian shepherd), Julia Louise-Dreyfus as Mollie, and Paul Scofield as Boxer (his final film role). Whew! Add to that a budget of $22 million, a fortune for a TV-movie, and you should have really been expecting something great.
*. Those expectations, alas, are cruelly dashed. This version of Animal Farm is awful.
*. It’s not too hard to say why. The story is trashed even worse than in the 1954 version, which at least had the excuse that it was being financed by the C.I.A. In this movie we get a subplot added involving the relationship between Mr. Jones and Pilkington (and Pilkington’s wife) which I thought totally unnecessary. A narrator is added in the form of the aforementioned Jessie, an animal not in the original. Napoleon’s canine praetorians have disappeared, to be replaced by a Rottweiler, while there aren’t enough pigs to constitute a social class. The ending is changed, again, to something a lot more upbeat, indeed uplifting.
*. I don’t think any of these decisions work, or add anything of value. Another new wrinkle, that has the pigs producing Stalinesque propaganda films, is another such novelty. At least in that case I could say it was kind of interesting, even if it was an idea that, like the other creative decisions, didn’t make sense. I also didn’t think the all-star voices were very apt. Stewart does well enough as the tyrant, foreshadowing his later turn as Macbeth, but he’s the only one who I thought passed muster.
*. I was thinking of writing more about this, but there’s no point. Given the talent involved it’s a huge disappointment that seems to have gone off the rails right from the planning stage. Save your time and go back and read Orwell.