Friday, November 06, 2009

Pointless List : 5 90s Mainstream Hollywood Films

I came of age as a Moviegoer in the 1990s. I studied film and got an education, learned about the masters of World and Classic cinema, read books of theory and plenty of criticism. But i also went to the cinema an awful lot. Twice a week, every week. To all sorts of films, most of them American, Hollywood, mainstream productions. I saw a lot of bad stuff. And some great stuff.
And some stuff nobody seems to talk about or care about much anymore.
Well, I do:

Fearless (Peter Weir, 1993)
A very convincing case can be made for Jeff Bridges as the greatest American actor of his generation. His most obvious competition is New york Italian, but Bridges has shown greater range than either Bobby or Al, from his early "cocky teen" roles in The Last Picture Show ( Peter Bogdonovich, 1971) and Bad Company (Robert Benton, 1972) through the square-jawed hero roles in King Kong (John Gullerman, 1976) and Tron (Steven Lisberger, 1982). He has also lately moved into villain parts in the likes of Iron Man (Jon Favreau, 2008) and has always been most at home in drama, where his range and easy grasp of emotion has been easiest to discern and meant that he has played an extraordinarily varied group of characters across what is proving to be an exceptional career. To top that off, he has created at least one absolutely immortal comic character too - the Dude in The Big Lebowski (Joel Coen, 1998). Through all those parts in all those movies, he has always been perfectly natural and normal, without any of the movie star glow that always - in every single role - surrounds the likes of Cruise and Roberts, which is what really marks him out as special. I have come this far without even mentioning what are, for me, his standout performances alongside The Dude. He was at his best in Thunderbolt & Lightfoot (Michael Cimino, 1974), Cutters Way (Ivan Passer, 1980), Starman (John Carpenter, 1984), Tucker: The Man And His Dream (Francis Ford Coppola, 1988) and in Peter Weir's outstanding Fearless. Fearless tells the tale of the survivor of an airplane crash who is robbed of his fear by the event. Having come so close to his mortality, he loses all fear of it, and is choking on a massive case of survivor's guilt, and his life is utterly changed - he views all of his relationships and life-choices differently and alienates the people around him while pursuing the connection he feels with another survivor, a young mother whose infant child died in the crash (Rosie Perez). at the same time he has begun to take crazy risks, like walking calmly into heavy traffic and balancing on the edge of a skyscraper's roof, and eating strawberries, to which he has a fatal allergy. This is a rare mainstream drama interested in our awareness of our own mortality and unafraid to confront that awareness. But then Weir, who has never really made a bad film, with only mild missteps like Green Card (1990) marring his record, has always been interested in this theme, evident in his work as far back as Gallipoli (1981) and Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975) and his great gift as a director is an ability to investigate his themes without sacrificing any emotional impact or cinematic beauty in his films.
Fearless is full of great scenes - the awed opening scene, the terrifying crash when we finally see it in flashback, Bridges driving a car into a wall to make a point to Perez - and the performances are uniformly excellent. Perez matches Bridges, and Isabella Rosselini, Benicio DelToro and John Turturro aren't too far off that standard either. The way Weir and the actors portray the new tensions in Bridges' marriage to Rosselini is impeccable and extraordinarily moving, as is the films great climax. One of the best American films of the 90s and seemingly forgotten today.

Pleasantville (Gary Ross, 1998)
Tobey Maguire, Reese Witherspoon, William H Macy, Joan Allen, J.T. Walsh and Jeff Daniels star. Paul Walker too, in the kind of minor dumbass Jock role he was born for. Pleasantville came out too close to Peter Weir's brilliant The Truman Show (1998) to be appreciated. For it covers similar territory - the reality behind the perfect image of 1950s America, and hence, America itself, created by television - even if it goes about it in a radically different way. The premise is straight from a vintage Twilight Zone episode: a quarrelsome brother and sister are zapped into the reality of the brother's favourite classic sitcom, where they have to learn to live until they can find a way home. While the girl shakes things up with her modern sexuality, the boy tries to fit in with a world he loves for its wholesome innocence, but their presence has changed things already and conflict follows their arrival. Gary Ross was best known prior to Pleasantville for writing Big (Penny Marshall, 1988), and this film captures something of that ones melancholy feelings about lost innocence and worldly experience. Ross is clever, if a little trite in his fusion of narrative with style: the gradual encroachment of vivid colour into the monochrome world of Pleasantville allows for several beautiful sequences, a biblical reference (a girl with a shockingly red apple) and an incredibly euphoric feelgood ending. But the film is unexpectedly touching - in Macy's heartbreaking, stunned confusion at the sudden destruction of the only life he understands. In Daniels joy at discovering art and the beauty of the world. And in Maguire finding himself in another life and realising what is most important. All that, and J.T. Walsh as the bad guy. Its all very 90s in its fusion of a very sentimental mainstream vision with a slightly indie sensibility in its casting and sensibility. But it works.

Rounders (John Dahl, 1998)
One of the reasons Matt Damon has risen to be perhaps the key leading man of his generation has been the fact that he has never really been typecast. Indeed, he doesn’t even really have a type. He plays stoic killing machine, neurotic corporate spy, traumatised grunt, ambitious oil executive and conjoined twin with equal skill and relish. His superficial blandness – the fact that he is of average height and build, good but not great-looking, moderately athletic and intelligent enough in an unthreatening way – aids him in this respect, giving him a malleability denied to many of his contemporaries.
Early in his careeer, however, it was different for him. The success of Good Will Hunting (Gus Van Sant, 1997) gave Damon a new profile and suddenly he was pursued for a variety of projects. But those projects did generally cast him in the whizzkid role, aiming to ape the success of Van Sant’s film. In Francis Ford Coppola’s the Rainmaker (1997), he plays a whizzkid lawyer, and in Robert Redford’s The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000) he plays a whizzkid golfer, albeit one who has lost all his whizz. Between those films, he played a whizzkid Poker shark in John Dahl’s Rounders. Dahl began the 90s as the rising talent of Neo-Noir, with Kill Me Again (1989), Red Rock West (1993) and the Last Seduction (1994) forming a major statement within that sub-genre, each nicely, even boldly directed and well-cast. He seemed to understand Noir in a way few contemporary directors do, and in a way that was palatable for modern audiences. He could only get better. Until he made Unforgettable (1996). Its critical and commercial failure rocked his career, and Rounders seemed like work-for-hire.
Except it might in fact be his most entertaining film. It feels almost like a 70s crime drama in its combination of strong characterisation and atmosphere, in the mix of grit with solid plot mechanics. And crucially it has been well-cast. Damon breezes through on that effortless whizzkid vibe, allowing his quick mind to transmit his calculations through his face in the poker scenes. Edward Norton, as his no-good ex-convict ex-Partner, is at his most Dustin Hoffman-esque, all tics and theatricality, ferreting away in the edges of the frame, an itch the film can't quite scratch. But Norton owns every scene hes in, aware of his own charisma and how best to use it. There is strong support from Martin Landau and Famke Jansen and John Turturro, and even Gretchen Mol before she best understood her own appeal, in what should be dull "girlfriend" role.But Rounders is too good for a dull girlfriend role, and so Mol - and screenwriters David Levien and Brian Koppelman - make her character a conflicted, complex human being, with her own reasons and rationales for everything she does and says in her relationship with Damon. And then there is John Malkovich, chewing ham and just about making it all work as Teddy KGB, the villain of the piece. His Russian accent is ridiculous, but Malkovich is still scary, and still riveting in his final showdown with Damon. For Rounders is surprisingly similar to a western, in its fall-and-rise-again heroic narrative structure, in its basic tenets, with its men duelling for money, and its long Leone style close-ups during the card games. The final card game is an epic battle played out almost entirely in close-up, with biscuits playing a key role. Dahl's direction is understated, with a muted colour scheme and a nicely defined use of space, and no pyrotechnics. Instead he focuses on these characters and on creating this fully realised, convincing world in which they exist. If it had been made during the 70s it would be a minor classic with an upcoming Criterion release, which is a big compliment to bestow on any film. As it is, its still a minor Classic, and you can go buy it on DVD right now...

Beautiful Girls (Ted Demme, 1996)
Scott Rosenberg was perhaps the hottest screenwriter in Hollywood at one point during the 90s. With Shane Black languishing in semi-retirement, if a producer wanted a quality brush-up on a dumb action Blockbuster, Rosenberg got the gig. He wrote Con Air (Simon West, 1997) and Gone in Sixty Seconds (Dominic Sena, 2000), but it was hard to detect any Rosenberg at all in either film except for a cracking line of dialogue here or there and the odd self-parodic wink of the eye at the audience. The film that had attracted the attention of Jerry Bruckheimer was Things to Do in Denver When you're Dead (Gary Fleder, 1995), a post-Tarantino crime movie filled with characters and situations from a thousand other pulp cliches but some great, if overly "written" dialogue. Rosenberg could write a funny line, that much was obvious. He finally showed he could write human beings and realistic relationships in Beautiful Girls. Based on his own old friends in his hometown, the film follows a successful New York Pianist (Timothy Hutton) back to his snow-covered hometown where he reconnects with his old gang of friends and observes their various failures with commitment and ageing. He has a ragged but tight crew of solidly working class guy-friends, still seeing high school girlfriends and living off former glories, played with easy charm and impeccable authenticity by Matt Dillon, Noah Emmerich, Max Perlich and Michael Rapaport. Rosenberg's script makes each a distinct figure with his own foibles and warmth, and the strength of their group bond is convincing and even a little moving.
More complex are the films women, played by Uma Thurman, Lauren Holly, Mira Sorvino, Natalie Portman, Annabeth Gish and Martha Plimpton. Rosie O'Donnell's character sums up the men's problems in a lengthy rant about unrealistic expectations based on physical beauty created by MTV and Playboy, but the film itself seems conflicted. Hutton's character seems happy to settle into a warm relationship with his longtime New York girlfriend (Gish) and is only really given pause by his instant connection with the 12 year old "Old soul" next door (Portman) and a long, revealing conversation with a Chicago dreamgirl (Thurman), but Dillion and Rapaport are overgrown adolescents, and Emmerich's marriage seems strained and uncomfortable.
Rosenberg finds solace in the warmth of friendship, in the support of family and community. Along the way there are a series of brilliant one-liners and funny monologues (Rapaport: "You let her behind the curtain, I know you did. You never let them behind the curtain, Willy. You never let them see the little old man behind the curtain working the levers of the great and powerful Oz! They are all sisters Willy... They aren't allowed back there... they mustn't see!"), there is a great soundtrack of vintage jukebox and modern indie, and the entire cast is note-perfect, particularly Portman and Dillon.
Demme used the first act of the Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978) for inspiration, which explains a lot, and Rosenberg was inspired by his friend's responses to write the recent TV Series October Road, which is set in the same fictional town as Beautiful Girls, and shares many themes and ideas.

The 13th Warrior (John McTiernan, 1999)
Even at his commercial peak, John McTiernan was bafflingly underrated as a director. A master of mise en scene, he has few equals in his use of space and movement. His action scenes were, in his pomp, elegant, beautiful and muscular, but crucially always coherent and well-organised. Die Hard (1988) is perhaps the greatest action film of the 80s, transcending its own cliches even as it set them in stone for a hundred imitators, Predator (1987) is a thrilling, simultaneously bloated and pared down study of hunter vs hunted which manages to skirt Arnold Schwarzenegger's limitations as it faces him off against a creature even more alien and bizarre than he is, The Hunt for Red October (1989) is perhaps the only truly successful Tom Clancy adaptation and a great study in cinematic space, as McTiernan's camera prowls the confined setting of a nuclear submarine. Even the mostly deservedly maligned Last Action Hero (1993) has it witty moments, and is a bravely self-reflexive move on the part of this particular filmmaker. By 1999, when he came to adapt Michael Crichton's early novel "Eaters of the Dead", itself a retelling of "Beowulf", McTiernan had lost most of his clout, and the filming and editing processes were bedevilled with problems and studio interference. It is to his credit, then, that the result is such a bracing adventure film, telling this Viking legend in the style of Kurosawa with style and wit and an epic feel.
Antonio Banderas is a Muslim poet and courtier who accompanies a band of Vikings back to their homeland in the barbaric North in order to combat a terrifying, all-devouring beast. Along the way, of course, he comes to appreciate their values, courage, friendship and loyalty, while they learn to appreciate him as a Warrior and man.
The action scenes are terrific - not least the commando-style Viking raid upon the lair of the "creature" and the final attack upon the Viking fortress, shot mainly in slo-mo as the rain pelts down, in apparent homage to Seven Samurai (1954). But it is the smaller moments that best convince - Banderas gradually learning the Viking tongue just by listening and watching, his prayer before the final showdown, the Viking politics of challenge and combat put to cynical use, their contempt for his tiny arabian stallion trumped by its athleticism..
A year later Gladiator (Ridley Scott) would come out and sweep all before it, but McTiernan's film is just as good, if less overblown and more of a pure genre exercise. Now, what about a Directors Cut on DVD...?

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