Category Archives: 1990s

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)

*. Samuel Johnson remarked that “Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last.” This wasn’t an accurate prophecy, as Tristram Shandy has lasted, but, as always, Johnson did have a point, and since he provides the epigraph for this film I thought I’d start with his observation.
*. Johnson planted his own critical flag on a preference for observations of general human nature, and so had little time for more idiosyncratic works. He was less interested in the ways that people, and the times they live in, are quirky and unique. It would take a cultural revolution, Romanticism, to open this side of things up.
*. But I think of what Johnson said when considering works like Hunter S. Thompson’s/Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, or William Burroughs’/David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch. Do these movies, reflecting very particular cultural and historical moments, have much to say to us today?
*. The drug culture in particular has changed so much. Today the madcap bohemianism of the ’60s is dead. A death that is, of course, part of what Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is about, with its long build-up to a poetic envoi for the children of Timothy Leary: a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, and freaks in the freak kingdom.

*. So can we say that this film has lasted? Yes and no.
*. Yes because the initial response to it was mostly negative (Roger Ebert: “a horrible mess of a movie, without shape, trajectory or purpose — a one joke movie, if it had one joke”) but it has gone on to become a minor cult favourite, with these earlier takes dismissed as not being able to “get it.”
*. But no because the world that it elegizes, the drug culture of the ’60s, isn’t even a memory now, and not just because if you still remember it then you weren’t there. In the ’60s drugs were fun and liberating. Today they’re a tragedy. A movie made about the meth or opioid epidemic wouldn’t be quite so madcap.
*. Terry Gilliam took over directing duties from Alex Cox, which resulted in some extra levity. I could definitely see this as an Alex Cox movie but it would have been darker (and if Oliver Stone had made it, it would have been angrier, but he’d been here already in Salvador). I think Gilliam made a good fit though for the material. Or at least as good a fit as I can imagine. As with Naked Lunch it’s hard to imagine just what a faithful adaptation of the source would look like. I think this is probably as good as any. To the point where I’d rather re-watch these movies than re-read the books they were based on.

*. It’s a road picture, with Johnny Depp as Raoul Duke (Thompson’s alter ego) and Benicio Del Toro as Dr. Gonzo, a Samoan attorney who’s based on a real person (the activist Oscar Zeta Acosta) but who seems to be more of an imaginary friend in the film.
*. As a road trip it’s engaging and breezy. Depp gets to ham it up non-stop and he doesn’t hold anything back, though he starts to feel reduced to the level of his props: the hat, the sunglasses, the cigarette holder. The narration has a lot of rambling highlights. It’s visually inventive. But granting all of this I still find it kind of disappointing. David Thomson on Gilliam’s penchant for indulging art direction at the expense of any other values: “There are times when ‘visual imagination’ is a diversion from failures of content or sensibility.”
*. I don’t mind that it’s tacky and full of cameos. Vegas is tacky and full of cameos too. But how many of these cameos work? I was left shaking my head at Tobey Maguire and Gary Busey. Cameron Diaz and Christina Ricci are just faces. Ellen Barkin’s waitress I couldn’t figure out.
*. But more than this, it feels in need of greater weight. I mentioned how Alex Cox would have made it darker and Oliver Stone angrier. Those were different visions of the ’60s. So were Ralph Steadman’s drawings, which had plenty of darkness and anger too. Where Gilliam falls down, I think, is in making this version of the ’60s just seem silly. The paranoia, so big a theme in the thrillers of a previous generation, is now entirely self-induced, with our protagonists afraid of themselves and filled with self-loathing. Instead of taking aim at The Man, the system, or the government, Duke and Dr. Gonzo are entirely complicit in everything bad that’s happening, authors of their own destruction, and that for no larger purpose.
*. I wouldn’t deny it cult status though, because it’s certainly offbeat and not quite like anything else out there. But I’m not a fan of the book and it’s not a movie I come back to, mainly because I just don’t think there’s anything much here aside from the bats in the desert and the lizards in the bar.

Naked Lunch (1991)

*. In my notes on Burroughs: The Movie I mentioned how I really don’t care for the writing of William S. Burroughs. Naked Lunch is by most accounts his best known work and I’ve made two determined efforts to get through it, both of which failed. In fact, they failed very quickly, which is really out of character for me. I can stick with a bad book for quite a while. I never came close to finishing Naked Lunch.
*. Is that a barrier to my enjoying Naked Lunch, the movie? Not at all. In the first place, it’s not really an adaptation of the book at all, but in David Cronenberg’s words an “amalgam of many writings of Burroughs” fused with biographical material. This was an approach Burroughs himself approved of, claiming that “all of his work was one work” anyway.
*. But even more than just a Burroughs mix-tape, it’s an amalgam of Burroughs and Cronenberg. The bug-typewriter that talks through it’s (human) anus? I think that’s all Cronenberg. Or take this bit from the DVD commentary track he did: “Joan was a junky, whether she shot up in her breasts or not I don’t know. But . . . the strange drug, the sexual, perverse, sadistic, masochism of it appealed to me so that’s why I wrote the scene this way.”

*. Not saying that Burroughs was uninterested in strange drugs and perversity, but this was definitely a meeting of kindred spirits, at least in terms of some of their obsessions. So when Cronenberg goes off on his own, like inventing the character of Cloquet (Julian Sands) he could do so with the assurance that while Cloquet was “not a character I think that appears directly in Burroughs [he was] very much a Burroughsian type character.”
*. In short, I think this film version is a triumph in taking unfilmable material and making it over into something both entirely new and at the same time true to the spirit of the original. And if I came away from it thinking it was maybe a bit more Cronenberg than it was Burroughs, then that’s all to the good.
*. If anything, I think Cronenberg was too deferential in some ways. He met Burroughs before filming and clearly admired him, even saying he found him sweet and vulnerable. On the commentary track he glides over the question of what sort of culpability Burroughs had in killing his wife. Maybe it was an accident. Who knows.
*. I did, however draw a line at what he says during the scene where Bill Lee (Peter Weller) gifts Cloquet the boy Kiki. “I suppose now this scene would be seen something along the lines of two sexual predators and their prey, but of course times have changed and in Tangier in the ’50s the relationship of the locals and the boys and the gay men who tried to seduce them, I think it was a very complex, intricate relationship and set of dynamics amongst them.” Oh, David. It’s really not complicated at all. They were sexual predators in the 1950s too.

*. Another pleasant trip back to that wonderful time before CGI (for some of Cronenberg’s thoughts on CGI, see my notes on The Fly). I think the puppets here — the typewriter-bug and the Mugwumps — still look terrific thirty years later. The only scene I don’t like is Cloquet and Kiki in the bird cage. On the commentary track Cronenberg admits it’s “the weakest scene in the movie in terms of effects” but that they ran out of time and money and couldn’t do it right. Which really is too bad because visually this is a movie that hardly ever puts a foot wrong.
*. I was surprised to find out that they were actually intending to go to Tangiers to shoot the Interzone stuff (the trip got called off because of the First Gulf War). I think having it look like a studio makes more sense, and visually it’s more of a piece with the rest of the film. But the disjunction of making Interzone more documentary in style might have been fascinating too.
*. Outstanding casting. Peter Weller nails Burroughs, the man as the mask. Judy Davis manages to avoid being just a victim, despite getting killed twice. Ian Holm is surprisingly sinister as Paul Bowles (or Tom Frost, as he’s called here). I thought Roy Scheider may have been enjoying himself a bit too much as Dr. Benway, but it’s a movie that was aiming for black comedy and he plays well off Weller’s dryness.
*. I’m a bit surprised Cronenberg got away with the Mugwump jism-milking scene. That’s pretty explicit fellatio. But I guess the Mugwumps were weird enough to let it get through.
*. Nice credits, made to mimic the style of Saul Bass. Which means they aren’t all that original, but they do fit the period. Naked Lunch was published in 1959 which was also the year of North by Northwest.
*. The DVD box says it’s “from the director of Crash and eXistenZ.” Both of which were still to come. I would have played up Cronenberg’s previous two films, The Fly and Dead Ringers, both of which were commercially successful at the time and have better name recognition today. Along with Naked Lunch I think it’s these three movies that mark a middle peak in Cronenberg’s career. I still might enjoy the early horror flicks like The Brood and Scanners more, but after this film I found him getting a lot less interesting. Still, he has more good movies to his credit than any other Canadian director I can think of. And I give him high marks for making something this good out of Burroughs’s mess.

Looking for Richard (1996)

*. Looking for Richard presents itself as an exercise in taking Shakespeare, specifically Richard III, to “the people in the street.” Many people met there see the language as too difficult and the plays as unrelated to everyday life. Hence the popularity of Shakespeare being translated into “everyday English” and discussions about his continuing “relevance.”
*. I think Looking for Richard addresses these issues in a responsible way, though it ironically does so in the form of a movie that I don’t think anyone outside of Shakespeare’s usual audience will find all that interesting. Put another way, I found it fascinating, but I’m not sure the man or woman on the street would feel the same way about it.
*. Basically what we have here is a documentary look behind-the-scenes at a fictional production of Richard III. It was Al Pacino’s first turn at directing and he shot it over a four-year period, ending up with over 80 hours of footage. A remarkable job of editing then, if nothing else, as it flows seamlessly, as though shot in a couple of months.
*. The politics behind the play Richard III are notoriously complicated, so some of the background material consists of interviews with historians and the like explaining what’s going on in the scenes we see being performed. Just what was “the winter of our discontent”? Now you know. It’s sort of like Coles Notes on video.
*. What I found more interesting though is the discussion behind how the play was going to be presented. For example there’s the letter Edward gets warning him that G of Edward’s heirs the murderer shall be. Should the G be changed to C so as not to confuse people who don’t know that the Duke of Clarence’s name is George? Or would that be taking too big a liberty?
*. If there’s a disappointment in this approach it’s in the fact that this sort of discussion only revolves around issues relating to a stage production of the play. There is little to no talk of how to make Richard III into a more engaging or popular sort of movie. I missed that. For example, I really liked the angle of the shot of the soldiers coming downhill to finish Richard off after sticking him with arrows. But to what extent was that a conscious decision, for whatever reason, and how much of it was dictated by the location?
*. Pacino’s brand of Method acting can run very hot or cold, but in his favour I think he managed to pull Shakespeare off very well, both her and playing Shylock in The Merchant of Venice (2004). He does give a good sense of Richard enjoying himself, or Pacino enjoying himself being Richard. This led me to wonder whether this was really Pacino behind the scenes, or if he was still hamming it up for the camera, or if there is a difference. I have a hard time imagining Pacino not being “on.”
*. The cast runs hot and cold too. Winona Ryder, who specialized in being miscast in her career, is hopeless here as Anne. And I say that as a Ryder fan (she should have won an Oscar for her turn in The Age of Innocence). Alec Baldwin is also hopeless as Clarence. Some people should probably avoid Shakespeare.
*. Meanwhile, I know that he’s a fallen star now but I would have liked to have seen more of Kevin Spacey as Buckingham. A good choice for the part, especially as he would go on to play Richard on stage in a Sam Mendes production that ran from 2011 to 2012, and reprised the role in House of Cards. You’d think he’d have some real insights into the part.
*. Another interesting angle I wish they’d developed a bit further has to do with the different attitudes toward Shakespeare taken by British and American actors and producers, informed by snippets of interviews with the likes of Derek Jacobi, John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave, and Kenneth Branagh. At one point it’s suggested that Brits are less deferential to the Bard, and I think this may be right. Perhaps it’s a comfort thing. I’d note that Pacino originally wanted to just make a film of Richard III but then didn’t think he could compete with Olivier’s 1955 version. But Olivier took some pretty big liberties with the text, as he did with all of his Shakespeare adaptations (especially Hamlet). Ian McKellen would too.
*. All of which underlines the point I began with. I find Looking for Richard to be a real treat, but I doubt it does much to bring Shakespeare to the people. For all its jokiness and backward ball-cap style points, I think it plays better as a master class.

Richard III (1995)

richardiii3

*. An hour and a forty-four minutes. That’s impressive. Richard III is a long play (second longest in the Shakespearean canon, after Hamlet) and they had to cut half of it out. They even got rid of the ghosts!
*. The cuts, however, are no great loss. Richard III isn’t a fun play to read as it’s thick with a lot of impossible-to-follow historical (or pseudohistorical) detail, dull rhetoric, and unnecessary characters. It has, however, always been popular on stage and screen because of the magnetic character of Richard, the villain-hero who enjoys being bad. So keep the grinning soliloquies and the general House of Cards atmosphere (the original 1990 BBC television series, itself a re-imagining of Richard III), but lose the stichomythia.

richardiii1

*. In theory, casting the American actors Annette Bening and Robert Downey, Jr. as representatives of the Woodville clan (Queen Elizabeth and Earl Rivers) makes perfect sense. Being American cousins even helps explain the accents. But Bening just barely holds her own in what should be a stronger part and Downey . . . should not do Shakespeare.
*. Not that the casting makes much of a difference. Richard III has always been a one-man show, and it is again here with Ian McKellen giving a standout performance. How can his interpretation be characterized? He doesn’t have a scrap of sexuality, unlike Olivier’s Byronic version, but he can still seduce. Instead of sexual magnetism he charms with lively pathos. He does have an authentic martial air and can create the (false) impression of someone who would like to be better than he is. This works because like most such figures you can understand why he despises the people he fools so much: their sympathy has made them into his enablers.
*. Not that he’s entirely asexual. When he’s having his arm massaged the shot is introduced in such a way that it looks like he’s receiving sexual favours. And while looking at pictures of the dead Hastings’ corpse he might almost be masturbating.

richardiii2

*. A telegraph, and then a tank crashing through a wall of books. Surely a Collected Works of Shakespeare was in there somewhere. This lets us know we aren’t in the 1400s any more.
*. I think on the whole the 1930s setting works very well at least in terms of the look of the film. The Cyclopean locations (a couple of deserted power stations, including the iconic Battersea) and Masterpiece Theatre costumes actually complement each other. The Nazi angle though is a bit trite. I guess it helps to reach a mass audience with all the old familiar imagery, but the historical parallels aren’t there. Though Olivier apparently wanted his Richard to remind us of Hitler.
*. There are other bits thrown in for the mass audience that I didn’t care for. Did we need to see Richard made over into a wild boar? That’s exactly the kind of thing that I don’t want to see; actors should be left to do their own thing without the aid of such crazy prosthetics.
*. The other scrap thrown in for popular tastes is the murder of Rivers. Now obviously Shakespeare had no problem with special gory effects. See Titus Andronicus. But the old stabbed-from-under-the-bed trick, a staple of slasher cinema going back to Friday the 13th and laughably unrealistic, just seems out of place here.

richardiii4

*. I like Richard’s laughter as he falls into the flames of hell. He had fun playing the game, and if he didn’t win at the end, well, at least he got to go out with a bang. But what of Richmond’s smile? In the play he’s less a character than an embodiment of divine providence, putting an end to the Wars of the Roses and inaugurating the Tudor dynasty. We’re spared his final address (“Now civil wounds are stopp’d; peace lives again.”) but given something in a quite different spirit. Richard recognizes in him a kindred spirit and passes him the baton, suggesting that Henry VII is going to be no better. Or perhaps McKellen makes his exit with thoughts of the all the money he was soon going to make playing Magneto. Meanwhile, Dominic West (in his first feature film) may have been thinking of The Wire. They both had something to smile about.

richardiii5

Everest (1998)

*. Everest is an IMAX movie, which I think tells you nearly everything you need to know. But I’ll go into a little more detail here.
*. IMAX is a super-large film format used to shoot movies that were originally designed to be shown in special cinemas on huge screens. Hence the popularity of nature documentaries dealing with subjects that exploited this format.
*. An expedition to the top of Mount Everest was an obvious choice of subject matter, but one that presented enormous logistical difficulties given the weight of the camera (a special miniature version was constructed that “only” weighed 40 pounds) and the film (10 pounds of film were needed just to shoot 90 seconds of footage). In the thin air of high elevations lugging around this kind of weight was a major problem, not to mention operating the equipment in extreme cold.
*. That the film team managed to summit, while filming, was a tremendous achievement. And adding to the drama is that the 1996 Everest climbing season was the most dramatic ever. Just days before the IMAX team made their ascent several other groups met with disaster, as recounted most memorably in Jon Krakauer’s bestselling book Into Thin Air.
*. All of this should have made Everest a documentary classic. But it isn’t, and partly for the most obvious reasons. Given the extreme conditions it would be too much to ask for the hours of great footage that go into most documentaries. Instead we only get a few great shots and some filler, in a movie that is only 44 minutes long to begin with. Add in the fact that you’re likely not watching this on an IMAX screen and I think the results are going to strike most people as disappointing.
*. Also, despite the DVD box telling us that this is “The True Story of the 1996 Mount Everest Disaster that Killed Eight Climbers” that’s not the story the team was sent to capture, and they didn’t. It’s a part of the story, but only a chapter.
*. Ten years later the Discovery Channel would turn Everest expeditions into reality TV with the series Everest: Beyond the Limit. Comparing the two doesn’t show this film to advantage, at least on a small screen. In Beyond the Limit they had a lot more time to tell a much fuller story, and a lot more footage that was more easily captured with devices like high-def helmet-mounted cameras. It pains me to say it, but I got a lot more out of watching the series.
*. So it’s not as spectacular as you might be expecting — especially for audiences used to the current state of the art for filming nature documentaries — and doesn’t engage that much with the drama of the historical event that it was a part of. The fate of Rob Hall is addressed, for example, but Scott Fischer doesn’t come up. But the elisions are even a bit worse than that.
*. I’ve read Krakauer’s book, and the companion volume to this movie by Broughton Coburn, Everest: Mountain without Mercy. The story as told here is streamlined quite a bit, presumably to make it more audience-friendly. I understand this, but for a documentary, however given over to scenery, I found it misleading.
*. The biggest thing to note is that the leader (or co-leader) of the expedition, David Breashears, who also co-directed the film, isn’t included. I mean, his name isn’t even mentioned (though it appears in the credits). Nor is that of cameraman Robert Schauer. Also, the four camps set up on the ascent are reduced here to three. I’m not sure why, as it doesn’t make the story that much simpler or easier to understand.
*. This streamlining seemed excessive to me, taking things to the point where it didn’t seem like an accurate a portrayal of the events. It seems as though the three stars — Ed Viesturs, Araceli Segarra, and Jamling Tenzing Norgay (son of the famous Tenzing Norgay) — were almost on their own the whole time. The Japanese climber Sumiyo Tsuzuki was part of the team but broke some ribs in the early stages and couldn’t make the final ascent. She was on radio duty then, as the movie says, “despite her cracked ribs.” As I understand it, she was left behind because of her cracked ribs. She couldn’t physically make the summit.
*. A final point that keeps coming up with any book on Everest is the contribution of the Sherpas. There’s usually some lip service given to how they’re essential to the expedition, or even the real heroes, but that’s it. This is a point that’s always bugged me. I mean, the Sherpas are climbing with the others, and even having to lug the majority of the gear and pre-secure the ropes for the summit push. Would playing that up diminish from the achievement of the Americans and Europeans? Because it does seem kind of racialized, to use a trendy word.
*. None of this is meant to take away from what I think was an incredible physical achievement, both in climbing Everest and filming it the way they did along the way. But there’s no denying that given that effort and the surrounding story this movie registers as a major let-down. The fact is, the “making of” featurette included with the DVD is a lot more interesting than the film itself, and almost as long. It’s more accurate and more detailed too. Which is a plus if you have the DVD, but it’s not the way things are supposed to work.

Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

muchado4

muchado3

*. Did Patrick Doyle nail the score for this one or what? Now that’s what I call an overture! It’s one of my all-time favourites. And indeed the entire opening credit sequence is terrific, triumphantly drawing us in to its world while introducing us to the playful gals and Don Pedro’s colour-coded courtiers. We see the different sides getting dressed up in their respective uniforms and then the doors open like curtains parting, with the music sounding a fanfare. It’s all wonderfully theatrical and natural at the same time.
*. That’s Doyle, by the way, playing the musician Balthasar and singing the “Sigh no more” song. Nice of Branagh to get him in there.
*. Now on to other matters of casting.
*. I don’t mind American actors doing Shakespeare. What usually doesn’t work is mixing British with American actors in the same production. The accents can become discordant. It would be easy to use this film as a case in point, but would that be fair? Yes, Keanu Reeves is out of place. But then Don John is out of place, isn’t he? He’s a melancholy bastard, which means he’s always out of sorts. And Michael Keaton overplays Dogberry something awful, but then Dogberry overplays himself, what with his always using big words that he doesn’t know the meaning of. He’s a caricature.
*. And finally there’s Denzel Washington, who is perfect as Don Pedro: formal and reserved and oozing authority. He dominates every scene he’s in, and not in a flashy or annoying way. This is as it should be, since Don Pedro is very much the man in charge. But he is also cut off from the others, notably in the beautifully played scene when he asks Beatrice if she would have him as a husband (a response to her own signaling, it should be said), and in the final shot of him standing apart from the nuptial revels. If only Branagh was more comfortable with such subtlety.

muchado2

*. OK, I’ve been playing devil’s advocate here. I do love Washington but in fact I think Reeves is much too heavy as the heavy here, with a scowl that never lifts and black leather pants that set him and his fellow malcontents (Borachio, Conrade) off from the good guys. He also seems to have real difficulty with the language, like he’s fighting to get the words out of his mouth. Keaton, meanwhile, is more Caliban than Dogberry, all dirty teeth and greasy hair. I do think it’s a part that’s hard to play subtly, though I think Nathan Fillion does just this, and effectively, in Joss Whedon’s film version. Keaton just seems to be too much of a distraction here, less tedious (as he should be) than grotesque.
*. Claudio and Hero are the Ashley Wilkes and Melanie Hamilton of the drama. Nobody gives a damn about them. We all just want to get back to Scarlett and Rhett (Beatrice and Benedict). But the drab couple are well cast. Robert Sean Leonard looks suitably drippy and dim as Claudio and Kate Beckinsale, in her film debut, is hard to recognize as someone who would turn into an ass-kicking fury in the Underworld franchise and the remake of Total Recall.
*. The weakness of the main plot, especially in comparison with the Beatrice and Benedict story, has always been a problem with the play. The paired gulling scenes are the highlight — as they are here — and they occur at the halfway mark. This is hard for any production to bear, but Branagh manages it as best he can.
*. I think Branagh is a great populizer of Shakespeare. He has a knack for making the bard work on screen, seeming to translate the lines into a modern idiom just by having them delivered in a hyper-realistic way. Sometimes, however, he tries too hard. I love his Henry V and this movie, though even here you can see signs of his trying to be too broad. His Hamlet (1996) was an epic production, but one that finally collapsed under its own weight. I didn’t like his As You Like It at all.
*. The script is a smooth adaptation. Most of the cuckolding stuff is dropped, which I think makes sense for a modern audience. I wonder, however, why Leonato’s quick rejoinder to Benedict’s asking if he had any doubts about being Hero’s father was cut: “Signor Benedick, no, for then were you a child.” That’s a zinger! Did Branagh not want us to think of Benedict as that much of a playboy? There is a sort of innocence about him. In Whedon’s version I think it was a mistake to show him at the beginning in bed with Beatrice. Yes, there’s some textual support for it (“I know you of old”), but I think it’s putting the cart before the horse.
*. I’ve said I love this film and I do, but even the play itself is a mixed bag and the movie is full of hits and misses. I think the good outweighs the bad though. Branagh and Thompson (married in real life at the time, though not for much longer) are as good a Benedict and Beatrice as you’re likely to ever see. The setting nicely captures a rustic court life not so much of luxury as of recreation and ease. Everyone is having a good time. Don John will be dealt with another day. Until then, we dance.

muchado1

Heat (1995)

*. Back in 2015 Daniel Engber wrote a piece for Slate looking back on the oeuvre of Michael Mann that started out like this: “Have you seen the newest Michael Mann film? No, not the one about the ex-con who falls in love as he tries to take a final score—you’re thinking of Heat. Nope, also not the one about the ex-con who falls in love as he tries to take a final score—that was Public Enemies. I can see why you’re confused, but this is certainly not the one about the ex-con who falls in love as he tries to take a final score—that was Thief. I’m talking about the one that arrives in theaters Friday, about an ex-con who falls in love as he tries to take a final score. It’s called Blackhat. Have you seen that film before?”
*. Engber’s point humorously underlines the repetitive quality of Mann’s work, the way throughout his career he has recycled not just this same story arc but individual scenes and exchanges of dialogue, sometimes word for word. Indeed, this film is actually a remake of L.A. Takedown, a TV movie he did in 1989. This is not a condemnation of Mann, but I think it does point to one of his big limitations. There’s less to him than the stylistic signatures.

*. If Mann’s work is of a piece then I’d have to say, and I think I’m probably in good company saying it, that Heat is his masterpiece, the movie that marked the arrival of Peak Mann. Opinions may vary on how good a thing that is though.
*. I didn’t like Heat when it first came out. I thought it was dull. I don’t mean it dragged, even though at 3 hours it was too long. It moved well enough, but it just felt dead. Perhaps the best way I can put it is my reaction to the ad copy, which made such a big thing about De Niro . . . and Pacino . . . together! And sure enough, they are together. Cop Vincent Hanna (Pacino) and robber Neil McCauley (De Niro) even sit down and have a coffee. So what happens when these two heavyweights face off? Nothing. Not a damn thing. Their meeting has no purpose and doesn’t advance the plot an inch. Not to mention it being kind of silly.
*. And the dialogue! There they are, Pacino . . . De Niro . . . together! . . . and they have nothing to say to each other. Vince: “You know, we are sitting here, you and I, like a couple of regular fellas. You do what you do, and I do what I gotta do. And now that we’ve been face to face, if I’m there and I gotta put you away, I won’t like it. But I tell you, if it’s between you and some poor bastard whose wife you’re gonna turn into a widow, brother, you are going down.” Neil: “There is a flip side to that coin. What if you do got me boxed in and I gotta put you down? Cause no matter what, you will not get in my way. We’ve been face to face, yeah. But I will not hesitate. Not for a second.” Yeah. I dig it. Heavy, man.

*. What I liked in 1995, and like today, is Ashley Judd. At the time I was infatuated, and I might still argue that she turns in the best performance here. I don’t know what’s behind David Thomson tacking her at the end of a list of supporting players to watch as “even Ashley Judd.” She’s great. What I wondered this time out was if the same hair stylist was doing her coiffure as Val Kilmer’s. They look so alike. And I think his might have even taken more time in the chair.
*. As for the two stars, is it unfair to say that they’re dancing on the line of giving parody performances? Pacino gets to break out several “Hoo-ah!” moments (in early drafts of the script Vince had a cocaine habit) before relapsing into gum-chewing alert indifference, while De Niro is all threatening reticence and shrugs. But, and I’m struggling to defend them here, the fact that they’re going through the motions in such obvious ways does fit. Vince and Neil are characters stuck in routines. Vince is playing the cop and Neil is playing the bad guy. It’s fate, or some spin on the old line about how a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. They lay out the ground rules in the diner.

*. At least we can say that this may have been the last time they were realistically attractive stars (though Pacino was just coming off facelift surgery). They look great. Great enough to rope in younger women? Diane Venora was 12 years younger than Pacino (but the same age as his character), Amy Brenneman 21 years younger than De Niro. But Brenneman is a struggling artist in L.A. and De Niro looks like he might make a good sugar daddy. So there’s that.
*. I am making light of these relationships because I think they’re a joke. Mann likes these problematic pairings but they play out in such predictable, clichéd ways they become unbearable. These women must suffer until they can come to some kind of tearful understanding of their troubled men. The business with Natalie Portman’s attempted suicide bringing Pacino and Venora together at the end, temporarily, was laughable and sickening at the same time. Sorry, babe. That ship has sailed. Back to your weed and Prozac. And Ralph.

*. The epic gunfight in the streets of downtown L.A. is justifiably famous. Indeed, I tend to think it’s really the whole point of the movie, despite how ridiculous it is. How much ammo were the gang carrying on them to keep firing like that? As I’ve pointed out before (see my notes on Predator) ammunition is heavy, and apparently some 800-1000 rounds were being expended here in every take. Also: Nobody can hit the robbers even as they are standing out in the open in broad daylight and being fired on from all sides?
*. And then it ends . . . why? Did everyone just run out of bullets? Did Mann yell “Cut!” Finally, De Niro gets into a car and just drives away and . . . that’s it. Next thing we know he’s getting Kilmer patched up by some hairy sawbones. This isn’t a script that cares very much for connecting tissue.
*. As far as heists go, I’m not sure Mann develops the idea of how professional a crew this is very far. Their big plan for knocking over the bank is to disable the alarm system and then walk in with assault rifles and balaclavas and emptying all the cash in the vault into duffel bags. Then drive away. Wow. As Vince puts it admiringly: these guys are good!
*. You may be getting the impression that I still don’t like Heat very much. However, I did think I liked it more this time than I have previously. It has grown on me somewhat. In some ways it plays almost like a period piece, not as obviously as the MTV cops of Miami Vice but still very much as a ’90s gangster flick. Perhaps it’s the music. Perhaps it’s a style thing, and for Mann style always was the thing. So much else seems disposable. I still think it’s overrated, but there’s no denying it’s watchable and even at times entertaining.
*. As noted by Engber, Mann went on to do a lot less of the same. Pacino and De Niro would appear again — together! — in risible CGI-assisted performances in The Irishman. Val Kilmer got a reputation as being difficult to work with, and has more recently been suffering health problems. Ashley Judd doesn’t do as many films, concentrating on humanitarian work. She came out tops again.

Twelfth Night (1996)

*. I started out resisting Trevor Nunn’s Twelfth Night. There’s some narration by Feste at the start that isn’t in Shakespeare and then some talk of a state of war that’s also new and unnecessary. Then there’s the general look of the film. This is Illyria, which is to say another magical Shakespearean setting that’s just meant to be some romantic place far away. Meaning far away from the real world. But here Illyria is Cornwall and it looks almost like realism was what Nunn was going for.
*. This put me on my guard. But once this Twelfth Night gets going, and it gets going slowly, it’s a movie that won me over. I actually found myself believing in the nonsense plot, with Imogen Stubbs and Steven Mackintosh actually looking pretty similar as the twins Viola and Sebastian. And there was a feeling of real romantic attraction among the perfect couples. None of the characters comes across as a simple caricature, with even the love-junkie Orsino (Toby Stephens) and the gull Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Richard E. Grant) having multiple sides.

*. I’m inclined to give a lot of the credit to Nunn, a veteran stage director who doesn’t do much with the material here as a movie but lets his cast do their thing and puts them in the best possible position to succeed. Meanwhile, the players are all well cast, with the possible exception of Ben Kingsley as Feste. I’m still trying to make up my mind about him. He’s certainly not a very jolly clown. But then, is he meant to be?
*. The quality of the actors also lets Nunn add some subtle wrinkles and texture to the proceedings. There’s an implication, for example, that Feste knows that Cesario (Stubbs) is a woman that I liked. And we can see that Maria (Imelda Staunton) has her doubts about Toby’s treatment of Malvolio even if she’s just observing in the distance. I call these wrinkles because they do roughen a conventional, smooth reading of the play, but I think they both work.
*. In his review, Roger Ebert references something important that can’t be stressed enough: “Shakespeare’s language is not hard to understand when spoken by actors who are comfortable with the rhythm and know the meaning. It can be impenetrable when declaimed by unseasoned actors with more energy than experience (as the screaming gang members in Romeo + Juliet demonstrate).” This is the problem with so many realistic or contemporary updates of Shakespeare that keep the original language but give us characters who either have no sense of the rhythm of those lines or who have been directed not to deliver them in a dramatic manner but more realistically. Which ends up being less realistic because it just make a hash out of everything.

*. One of the abiding difficulties with Twelfth Night has to do with the treatment of Malvolio (Nigel Hawthorne here). Personally, I’m in the camp of those who think he is “most notoriously abused,” and I don’t find all that he is put through very amusing. I think this is where Nunn’s sympathies lie as well, as Sir Toby (Mel Smith) is not a very likable figure here.
*. You can also see this redirection of our sympathies in the way the film ends. Toby and Maria are ushered off in hugger-mugger (will she even go through with the wedding?), while Malvolio’s big line about being revenged on the whole pack of them is downplayed (tossed off, over the shoulder, as he climbs the stairs). He later exits all cleaned up and heading off, one assumes, to a new position.
*. Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing had come out just a few years earlier and I wonder if its presentation of the scene where Benedict is fooled was in Nunn’s mind when he did the scene where Malvolio finds the letter. Of course they’re very similar scenes anyway, but the way it plays out here really makes me think Nunn had Branagh’s film in mind.
*. Yes, there are time when it misses a lighter, more cinematic touch, especially given the running time. But overall this is an entirely satisfying production without any real weak spots. It’s one of the few Shakespeare films I know of that I can honestly say made me like the play itself a little better. That’s impressive.

Trainspotting (1996)

*. I’ll start with the book. Irvine Welsh was among the first of a generation of bad-boy authors who burst on to the scene around the same time, with early bestsellers being quickly adapted into movies. Think Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho, 1993 and 2000) and Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club, 1996 and 1999).
*. Trainspotting is usually described as a novel but always struck me as a series of linked stories (there is a difference). It was a smash success when it came out in 1993, leading to this fairly quick adaptation. Then after Trainspotting Welsh, like Ellis after American Psycho and Palahniuk after Fight Club, went into an almost instant decline. I appreciated Filth, but found the rest of Welsh’s output nearly unreadable. Glamorama wasn’t bad, but I can’t look at anything by Ellis after that. Palahniuk was a total one-hit wonder.
*. Danny Boyle gives Welsh a lot of the credit for the movie Trainspotting but I think this is being very generous. It’s a good book, but a better movie. Screenwriter John Hodge did a terrific adaptation, cutting a lot of the unfilmable parts while giving the whole a structure and a bit of heart. Welsh’s book I remember as being a nastier bit of work. I get the sense reading Welsh that he really hates people, and the feel of the movie is quite a bit different.
*. Hodge did, however, leave out any explanation of where the title came from. At least I don’t recall the business of trainspotting ever coming up. This is the sort of thing that drove Leslie Halliwell crazy, and he had a point.

*. A nice assembly of talent on the way up. Director Danny Boyle and writer Hodge getting together again after Shallow Grave (they’d go on to further collaborations). And an ensemble cast that gelled perfectly. Ewan McGregor, also back from Shallow Grave, as Renton. Ewen Bremner as the caricature Spud. Jonny Lee Miller as a glam Sick Boy. Robert Carlyle as Begbie, sporting a moustache that projects a surprising amount of threat.

*. And introducing Kelly Macdonald, who’d been working as a barmaid and answered an open casting call. I guess there is something in being a natural, a quality some people have when it comes to acting. I’m not alone in wishing there was more between Rent Boy and Diane here, and Boyle and Hodge tried their best to expand her character. It’s just that in the end this is a movie about the lads.
*. Directed in what was known then as the flashy MTV style, which worked well with the soundtrack. (Today I’m not sure that reference works, as MTV turned away from playing music and music videos are no longer on the cutting edge of visual culture.) When T2 came out twenty years later it wouldn’t have the same edge, though that’s not to say that this movie is merely fashionable. I think it’s effective. Even if things like the freeze frames were done, in Boyle’s admission, “just because it was cool to freeze your favourite shot.”

*. Boyle also remarks in his commentary, and quite correctly, that all the flash in the world can’t help a movie where you don’t care about the characters. I think this is the real triumph of Trainspotting, as I didn’t care for the characters in the book, and wouldn’t want to meet any of the guys in the movie, but I still found them sympathetic beyond the conventional “wages of sin is death” message tossed in with the drug use. These aren’t nice people, and none of them are redeemed.
*. Instead they’re launched at us, and into our world, like a virus. Sick Boy is going into “business” and Renton is a star on the rise. The way he leaves the others at the end must have been meant to recall Johnny walking away with his girlfriend’s money at the end of Naked, but I don’t recall Hodge or Boyle mentioning the connection on the commentary.
*. I think that in 1996 we could see how everyone was going to turn out, and the reunion in T2 was unnecessary. Watching the films together now, the first time still seems fresher. For whatever reason, and I’m thinking again of the literary zeitgeist too, follow-ups seemed to be difficult around this time. Perhaps success was becoming a bigger catastrophe, at least creatively, than ever.

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.