Friday, March 30, 2012

some fun, some silly and some dramatic 90s picks: a guest post by karen g.

Here's a fun list of 90s film favorites from Karen G.!

Directed and co-written by Baz Luhrmann, the story centers around an Australian ballroom dancer Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio) and his desire to dance in his own style to win a big Dancing Contest that is riddled with archaic rules and traditions.  After losing a competition, Scott, who is dumped by his regular dance partner, ventures out and finds a disheveled girl, Fran (Tara Morice) who he teaches to dance, in secret, at his parents studio.

One of the most visually intriguing and disturbing movies I’ve seen, Peter Jackson’s “Heavenly Creatures” tells the gritty true story of an obsessive relationship between two friends Juliet Hulme (a then unknown Kate Winslet) and Pauline Parker (Melanie Lynskey), who in the 1950’s, murdered Parker’s mother while on a picnic.  The strong and passionate performances by the young actresses carry this thought-provoking and difficult story to new heights.  The unraveling of these young girls is beautifully and tragically portrayed in the film.

Looking over my movie list, I realize I have quite a thing for movies about women who have lost touch with reality.  Muriel’s Wedding is a romantic comedy about an awkward and overweight young woman who has a mild obsession with ABBA, pathological lies and getting married (in no particular order).  Muriel’s belief is that by having a glamorous wedding, her life will miraculously change.  This movie has delightful performances by Toni Collette and Rachel Griffiths before their big breaks in Hollywood.

This movie made me realize that I HAD to get out of my home town.  Depp stars as Gilbert, the “man of the house," caring for a mentally challenged brother, a morbidly obese mother and a needy mistress in a small town in Iowa.  When a young woman named Becky (Juliette Lewis) gets stuck in town with her aunt in their motor home, Depp starts to realize the urgency of his desire to leave the responsibilities that have befallen him and the want to live a “normal” life.  A touching story about how guilt and fear can stop us all from following our dreams.

A coming-of-age indie about an unattractive, extremely unpopular high school girl, Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo).  Dawn’s brother is a nerdy musician who tries to start a band while her little sister is the family’s little “princess”.  Scenes of baby sister, Missy, doing ballet in the background as their mother dotes and Dawn skulks is particularly funny, and at times, unsettling.  Dawn is ignored by her parents, bullied at school and her brother has little patience with her even though he is an outcast as well.  When handsome teenager, Steve Rodgers, (Eric Mabius) joins Dawn’s brother’s band, Dawn falls deeply and pathetically in love.  This is a dark, but extremely enjoyable and relatable comedy about that “awkward phase” in our lives.  Sadly a phase that some of us never grow out of.

Directed by Luc Besson, Léon tells the story of a quiet hit man living in Little Italy, who takes in a young girl Mathilda (played by 12 year-old Natalie Portman) after her family is murdered by the mob.  Portman plays the young “Lolita-type” Mathilda, who smokes cigarettes and is hardened and wise beyond her years.  Mathilda’s abusive father does wrong by some corrupted DEA agents and he and the rest of his family is murdered, leaving Mathilda at the mercy of a reluctant and solitary Léon.  Mathilda is drawn to Léon in an attempt to learn his skills as “a cleaner” to take revenge on the people who killed her family.  The unlikely friendship that forms between the hitman and the young girl is the basis of this stunning and original story. 

This visually fascinating film by Luc Besson, can only be described by me as a science fiction fashion feast.  The survival of humanity takes the form of a young girl (Milla Jovovich) that is known as the “Fifth Element” and is protected by Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis) a cab driver who is a former special forces Major.  Earth’s impending attack is surrounded by electrifying music, a beautiful opera performance by a blue alien diva and over 950 costumes designed by Jean Paul-Gaultier.  A hilarious performance by an unstable Gary Oldman with a terribly bad hair day gives the movie part of it’s comedic “element”. 

I don’t know if I love this movie because it’s so easy to watch or because of the incredible soundtrack, but Dazed and Confused is probably one of my favorite movies, centering around a day in the life of some Texas teens during the last day of school in 1976.  The movie has a particularly enjoyable performance by a stoned and idealistic Matthew McConaughey as a high school grad that refuses to grow up. 


The movie that redefined marketing!  The legend of the Blair Witch crept through the world before the film was released and the anticipation of seeing the “recovered footage of the students that went missing in the Black Hills” was what drew millions to the box office when it was released in 1999.  One of the first of what has now become an annoyingly familiar genre, "recovered real life footage of things gone terribly wrong."  I have to say at the time, the movie had the world of horror buffs like myself buzzing with excitement and peering into the dark corners of our homes at night.  While so many people hate this film I have to say I have always found it intriguing, original for the time, extremely fun and enjoyable.  Watch it one day and then go camping. I dare you.

Clerks (1994)

Kevin Smith in 1994, when I was a young, hope-filled teenager, put the idea in my head that I could shoot a movie in my local convenience store with just enough money to cover a few Alice in Chains songs.  Then I grew up and realized that Hollywood does not work that way and luck has EVERYTHING to do with it.  Still, one of the movies I quote and laugh out loud at to this day.  A quirky black and white picture about two disgruntled Clerks who rant about the future, the state of their lives, ex-girlfriends who are getting engaged and a riveting conversation about The Death Star.  The perfect movie for comic book nerds who lived and breathed during the grunge-era of the 90s. 

The Craft (1996)

If you were a teenager in the 90s, dabbling in all sorts of curiosities, you’d be a liar to say you’ve never seen this movie (and liked it).  It’s silly, on every level, but oh so fun!  I find it on cable even now and find myself unable to look away.  The story centers around three teenage girls who use witchcraft to get what they want.  When new girl Sarah (Robin Tunney) moves to town, the three teenage girls quickly befriend her and invite her into their “circle."  When head witch Nancy (Fairuza Balk) decides during one of their rituals to “invoke the spirit” all hell breaks loose in L.A. and the power-hungry witch quickly starts turning on the people around her.  Being the only one with real powers, Sarah starts to fight back.  Witches gone Wild!

Some more gems:

Boogie Nights (1997)
Fear And Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
The Big Lebowski (1998)
The Devil's Advocate (1997)
Fear of a Black Hat (1994)
Kids (1995)
A League of their Own (1992)
Tank Girl (1995)
Clueless (1995) - Make over!!!
Blast from the Past (1999)
Benny & Joon (1993)

Monday, March 26, 2012

a tale of springtime

I haven't seen many of Eric Rohmer's films but his A Tale of Springtime (the first of his "Tales of Four Seasons") made me want to see more.  Two women, one, Jeanne (Anne Teyssèdre) a philosophy professor, the other, Natacha (Florence Darel), a somewhat precocious young pianist, meet at a party.  Eventually, out of some sense of shared loneliness, Jeanne ends up staying at Natacha's apartment.  Natacha's father is distant and cold and dating a much younger woman Ève (Eloïse Bennett) whom Natacha dislikes.  Soon Jeanne becomes between all of them.

The movie is impressively acted with naturalism by the principals and their supporting counterparts. Bennett, in particular, is subtly unnerving.  When Ève first appears at a dinner scene, she's probing of Jeanne in a way I found irritating.  The story quietly pulls you into Natacha's disdain for Ève but also Jeanne's defense of her. Stripped of accouterments, the core of Rohmer's piece is dialogue and the actions of the characters.  Minute tics or comments become larger ramifications for everyone involved.  In that sense it behaves more like a play sometimes than a film though glimpses of the quiet, laconic interiors and exteriors (of a gorgeous Fontainebleau in bloom) help create the movie's tension. ***

-Jeffery Berg

Friday, March 23, 2012

looking back at the films of 1990

The first year of the 20th-century's last decade proved to be an interesting and varied year for Hollywood.  Martin Scorcese's Goodfellas is regarded in most circles as the year's best film and it's still an enduring classic today. With its snappy editing, freeze-frames, use of soundtrack and incredible long tracking shots, it continues to inspire the style and look of modern motion pictures.  Pauline Kael aptly wrote, "watching it is like getting strung out on pure sensation."  Also worth a watch from the same year is the more subdued mob film, State of Grace, mainly for its great cast (Sean Penn, in a lovely performance, Gary Oldman, and Ed Harris) and its depiction of a changing New York City cultural landscape.  Both of these pictures and the clumsy third entry in the Godfather saga are part of a long history of gangster movies (the quick rush of the rise and the downbeat fall) but notably amp up the gore.  Scorcese's film is the deeper and most complex of the bunch as it winks at the carnal desires of the audience (Lorianne Bracco famously points her gun directly at us).  Jim Shepard writes, "In Goodfellas, violence may not happen when we think it will, and it can happen whenever we relax."  Since most of our film's today are glossed over in CGI, looking back, the pre-CGI 90s seems like a particularly violent and bloody era of movies. In 1990, the cartoonish antics of little Kevin McAllister (Macaulay Culkin) in Home Alone seem so gleefully portrayed that it seems somewhat disconcerting today and difficult to do now in post-Columbine America (word is that the film version of The Hunger Games infers gore rather than presents it by utilizing shaky-cam and quick edits).  In another particularly violent movie of the year, Misery, the horrors and traumas are of the mind and the body and also peppered with black humor (a stylistic technique that would be used in decade-defining films such as The Silence of the Lambs and Fargo).

It's hard to imagine a historical epic movie like Dances With Wolves scoring well at the box-office today, but in 1990, it was a smash and swept the Oscars.  It does have some problematic issues but the movie is sensitively and handsomely made by Kevin Costner and gorgeously-scored by John Barry.  In Robert Baird's essay "Going Indian," he notes: "... Dances With Wolves is a cinematic myth that addresses still unresolved traumas and contradictions of American History." Perhaps there was a desire to attempt to heal past wrongs of cinematic depictions and look back at (and romanticize) previous centuries as one was about to close.  Because of its success and appeal, Dances With Wolves would be a harbinger of Western-tinged historical male action dramas that were popular in the 90s, like Last of the MohicansBraveheart, and Legends of the Fall.   

Two of the year's biggest hits were Flatliners and Ghost.  Both had relatively small budgets for studio pics and yet, somehow, struck a nerve with audiences.  It's interesting to see the parallels in the storylines of these two films.  Both are interested in pursuing the idea of what the afterlife is.  The Jerry Zucker film is a treacly romance while Flatliners is the somewhat preposterous tale of medical students who experiment with near-death experiences by going under themselves.  Rita Kempley, of the Washington Post, noted in her review of Flatliners that "Movies about dying, grief and life after death are cropping up like corn in the Field of Dreams as a response to on-screen violence, a reaction to AIDS, a desire for something beyond materialism. And we're grateful for their reassurances even when they overreach themselves. Though it's got its excesses, Flatliners does brings a certain warmth to the chill of the decade."  Whether these films were intentionally responding to a cultural mood is uncertain but audiences certainly responded to them with enthusiasm.

Total Recall is another film that plays with the "other life" concept.  It's cheesy, entertaining sci-fi (Paul Verhoeven is known for movies that toe the line between camp and tony seriousness), with a twisty, boom-bam Flash Gordon style that seems to be inspired by video games of the era.  Loosely based upon Philip K. Dick's "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale," it takes place somewhere in 2084, although the costumes (Arnold Schwarzenegger's dark green barn jacket and Sharon Stone's spandex workout outfits) are distinctly 1990, where Schwarzenegger plays a man on Earth, plagued by nightmarish memories of a past life on Mars.  How Schwarzenegger gets back to Mars, a planet taken over by a fascism, and why his memory was tampered with are the film's sources of adventure.  I really liked Total Recall and I am no fan of Schwarzenegger or action pics, but this one had energy and a tongue-in-cheek vibe to it.  Arnold doesn't say much, which helps, but he's believable and he reels through the picture mostly on his amazing physicality.  The Oscar-winning special effects are quite corny by today's standards, but I can appreciate the work that went into them, and some of the sets are dazzling.  Total Recall 2 was never made until Steven Spielberg's much slicker Minority Report in 2002. 

Die Hard 2: Die Harder was another success story in Hollywood's blockbuster sequel formula.  It takes place in at snowy Dulles airport and is merely nothing but a visceral plane crash and Bruce Willis shooting terrorists.  It's sort of a throwback to the doom-and-gloom shtick of 1970's Airport without the cheeky soap opera subplots.  Despite some good action sequences and a nice, brisk opening, it's pretty dumb, and lacks tension, mainly because of its predictability.  If the stagnant, dated feel of The Hunt for Red October signaled the end of the Cold War thriller, for better or worse, mostly worse, the box-office successes of Total Recall and Die Hard 2: Die Harder, would usher in a new era of action pictures with unbelievable plots, full of bombastic effects, explosions, guns, and overly-buff male heroes delivering one-liners.

While there were big action flicks that year, Hollywood reaped a lot of success with sleepers.  Based upon Carrie Fisher's memoirs, Postcards from the Edge features a tumultuous mother-daughter relationship and is one of the few, but successful studio movies of that era with two women as the main protagonists (Thelma & Louise would become the ultimate feminist blockbuster of that time).  1990 was a year of some unusual tales.   Edward Scissorhands is the Tim Burton and Johnny Depp I miss and no longer recognize, then at their most creative, poignant and quirky.  Today, hit movies are often sequels or reboots bloated with expense and effects, but in 1990, many smaller-budgeted projects like Pretty Woman (and aforementioned Home Alone and Ghost) had original stories that were appealing to wide mainstream audiences.  Even though the merits of these movies are debatable, I sort of long for that era of smaller, quality studio pics.

Meanwhile The Awl fondly remembers the films of 1995.