Category Archives: 1990s

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.

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)


*. 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.


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.