Category Archives: 1990s

Hoffa (1992)

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

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

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

Goodfellas (1990)

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

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

Shakespeare in Love (1998)

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

Romeo + Juliet (1996)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nightwatch (1997)

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

10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

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

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

The Insider (1999)

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

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

Galaxy Quest (1999)

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

Men in Black (1997)

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

The Faculty (1998)

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