Category: 1991


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There’s an hour and fifteen minutes section of Django Unchained that is arguably the greatest thing Quentin Tarantino has ever done. As someone who used to worship the man’s stylistics talents, that should say something. When Django and Schultz arrive at Calvin Candie’s plantation, the film becomes an examination of the spiritual costs of Django’s revenge and how he turns his back on his own people in order to save his wife. Unfortunately, the rest of the film is cartoon, bordering on slapstick. Had Tarantino kept the tone of the Candie plantation section up the whole film, Django would have easily been his best work yet. That same tonal inconsistency is the biggest misstep of 1991’s Thelma & Louise.

Hailed as a radical feminist parable when it was first released (a reputation that seems somewhat silly 23 years later), Ridley Scott’s (Black Rain) Thelma & Louise is a frustrating exercise in inconsistency. There are moments of intense, lyrical beauty in this beloved buddy road crime drama and unexpected insights into restless female desperation. But, most of the film operates in the world of cheesy B-movie pulp tropes, and it distracts from the message of the film. I spent most of the last half of the film wondering what a serious treatment of this material would look like and wishing I was watching that instead.

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I’d be hard-pressed to imagine anyone stumbling upon my blog who isn’t familiar with the basic premise of Thelma & Louise, though considering I only watched the film for the first time this week, I suppose anything’s possible. Repressed housewife Thelma (Geena Davis) is convinced by her liberated best friend Louise (That’s My Boy‘s Susan Sarandon) to go out for a weekend in the mountains. Thelma needs to get away from her controlling husband, Darryl (The Iron Giant‘s Christopher McDonald), and Louise needs a weekend away after a bad fight with her boyfriend, Jimmy (Kill Bill‘s Michael Madsen). Unfortunately, they’re never making it to that cabin.

Thelma, who hasn’t had a night of fun in decades, convinces Louise to stop at a roadside honky-tonk so the girls have a couple drinks. Thelma gets very drunk and starts dancing with a man who takes her outside and then tries to rape her. Thelma is saved at the last second by Louise sporting a large gun Thelma had packed for no apparent reason. Thelma and Louise are prepared to leave when the man can’t help but insult them as they’re walking away and Louise murders him in the parking lot. And, thus, the pair embark on a cross-country quest to escape the law as they are now wanted for murder (and eventually other crimes).

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There are elements of Thelma & Louise that are astoundingly wonderful for a film from 1991. Though I think aspects of the film’s gender politics aren’t nearly as radical as they’re remembered, for 1991, Thelma and Louise might as well have been Emma Goldman and Louise Bryant. When the film is focused enough to not be pulpy melodrama, there are quiet moments of Thelma and Louise on the road where you can feel the weight of not just the lawmen that are chasing after them but their whole tired lives and the limited opportunities afforded women of certain backgrounds. But, then the film will shatter that quiet power with gunplay and explosions.

The film’s cinematography from Adrian Biddle is stunning, arguably the best work of his career and some of the best camera work in any Ridley Scott film (Blade Runner seems like the most obvious competition). I disagree with most of the film’s Oscar nominations and consider it’s Best Original Screenplay win to be particularly puzzling, but it’s Best Cinematography nod was well-deserved, and maybe it should have won. Like the best road movies, Thelma & Louise captures the haunting beauty of the American country-side and the restless lives of the women racing through it.

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Unfortunately, Thelma & Louise can’t decide if it wants to be a serious movie or a fun movie, and it never manages to successfully be both. Films can be smart and fun (The Big Lebowski, Annie Hall, American Psycho, The Social Network, etc.). Thelma & Louise will go from being painfully smart and powerful one second to overwhelmingly dumb and pulpy the next. The scenes that are meant to be moments of female empowerment have their heart in the right place, but they come off as ridiculously cheesy when they occur. The most notable example being Thelma & Louise pulling over an obnoxious truck driver and then blowing up his semi.

I like pulp. Justified is one of my favorite shows on TV right now, and though the series got more cerebral in the later seasons, even at the end, Breaking Bad worked within the conventions of pulp storytelling. But those programs do it with internal consistency, and so I’m not brought in and out of two different versions of the same story. That’s where Thelma & Louise falls apart. Had it been all pulp, it would have likely been a riotous, feminist powered-action ride. Had it been all serious, it could have been the 90s response to Badlands. As it is, I felt like I was watching Ridley Scott struggle to decide what kind of movie he really wanted to make.

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None of this is to say that I didn’t enjoy Thelma & Louise. It had its moments of astonishing power, and the “fun” moments weren’t so much bad as they were “out of place.” But, this film is considered one of the true classics of 90s cinema and a definitive classic of feminist cinema and I don’t see how it’s really either. Give me Rachel, Rachel any day. Thelma & Louise simply concerns my belief that Ridley Scott is a good director on his best days, but almost never a great one.

Final Score: B

 

Oh the “joy” that is watching experimental cinema. It’s been months and months since I’ve watched a truly “art-house” film. Persona was the last one (back in January) and before that we had to go all the way back to September for Stroszek. However, I wouldn’t call either of those films exceptionally experimental. Maybe Bergman’s Persona in some ways. I would say the closest I’ve come to a film that simply told normal narrative structure and cinematic artifice to go fuck itself was Inland Empire (thanks David Lynch for a career of works that continue to defy any clear interpretations). Well, we can now add director Todd Haynes’ (Far From Heaven) debut Poison to the small list of films I’ve seen that defy practically any characterization. It was one of those films (like Todd Solondz’ Happiness) where I was forced to ask myself “what the f*** did I just watch?” And at least with Happiness, I knew what the plot was about/the thematic imagery (the “wtf” quotient came from the disturbing sexual content).  Regardless, Poison was an intriguing film even if its experimental structure and thematic obliqueness left me with more questions than answers.

Broken up into three segments (that have nothing at all do with each other besides an exploration of the darker sides of sexuality), Poison bounces back and forth between three distinct and equally disturbing tales. In the first story, “Hero,” a young boy (that has been bullied and abused by his peers and was perhaps sexually abused) murders his father and his mother claims that he simply flew away when it was over. Set up like a documentary, we watch as the town tries to put together the pieces of the incident and slowly unravel the events that occurred that day. In “Horror,” a send-up of 1950s science fiction/horror films, a scientist accidentally ingests a formula that is the derived form of the human sex drive. It turns him into a murderous, leprous sex fiend. Everyone who comes into contact with him also becomes infected with his leprosy and he quickly finds himself hunted by society. And lastly, in “Homo,” a prisoner in the 1940s develops a sexual obsession with one of his fellow inmates as he reflects on the homosexual awakenings he experienced as a boy in a reform school (and the sexual cruelties that his fellow prisoners often inflicted on others).

I’m actually unsure how to even approach analyzing this film because some of its flaws are part and parcel of the entire indie film movement of the early 90s (back when indie films were really indie and not just a place for established actors/directors to regain their “street” cred). Virtually all of the acting in the film is horrendous (though that’s completely intentional in “horror” to sell the whole 1950s B-movie theme). I can’t remember a single interesting performance from “Hero” and the love interest in “Homo” was a shallow mess. However, Todd Haynes found a true, feral talent in Scott Renderer as the protagonist of “Homo.” His quiet intensity was a thing to behold, and in the vignette’s climactic (and incredibly disturbing moments) he released a fierce rage and passion that had been boiling beneath the surface the whole time. On that same note, the sound design in the film was a mess but I’m guessing that Todd Haynes didn’t exactly have much of a budget to go on. And while I actually think I understood the points of “Horror” and “Homo,” I have absolutely no clue what “Hero” was supposed to be about or what it contributed to the film. Yet, the strongest moments from “Horror” and especially “Homo” mostly made up for the film’s rough edges.

It struck me half-way through “Horror” that any story created in the early 1990s (i.e. at the tail end of the worst of the AIDS outbreak in America) where a man getting in touch with his sexuality and then suffering a devastating disease that he spreads to everyone around him made my a gay filmmaker couldn’t be anything other than an allegory for the HIV crisis. The most remarkable aspect of Haynes’ accomplishment with that short was the way that I could easily have seen that as some propaganda film by the “right” of the era about sexual promiscuity because what is all horror if not a moral story (think about the “rules” of horror films and you’ll see what I mean).  It could get a little silly for its own good but it was endlessly watchable. “Homo” was the real accomplishment of the film and was obviously the most personal part of the film. It was unflinching in its portrayal of repressed sexual longing and the violence that occurs in systems that keep us from exploring sexuality in a healthy manner. It was difficult to watch but the most truthful stories always are. There is a very graphic rape scene that hit on a more visceral level than even some of the most infamous moments on Oz, yet there was always a ring of truth and brutal honesty to the whole story.

This is one of those films where I know that 90% of my readers will not enjoy a single second of it. You’ll either be offended by it because you’re religious (the head of the National Endowment of the Arts was forced to resign after he gave Todd Haynes the grant to make the film under pressure from the religious right) or think it’s pretentious, bloated garbage (which is a more acceptable response). I don’t love this film. It’s simply too oblique for me to form a strong emotional attachment to it, but it was obvious that Todd Haynes is an artist with a unique vision and his own bracing stories to tell. Still, if you want a film that toys with the very building blocks of cinema and ultimately could care less whether you understand the director’s intent, Poison has the chance to challenge you in the way that few movies ever do.

Final Score: B

For readers that aren’t familiar with me in person, I originally come from a small town called Philippi in West Virginia. Besides being home of one of the first (if not the first according to some historians) land battles (more like a skirmish) of the Civil War, one of our only other claims to fame is that we are the home town of Ted Cassidy, the actor who played Lurch on the original The Addams Family television program. Of course, The Addams Family franchise (originally based off of cartoons) got a modern face-lift in the early 90’s for two live action films. The first film ended up on my list for this blog because Anjelica Huston got a Golden Globe nomination for her portrayal of Addams family matriarch Morticia, and while it’s not one of the best films I’ve watched so far, it was a fun nostalgic trip back to my childhood because I’m fairly certain that I haven’t watched this movie since I was in elementary school (I turn 23 in 17 days to put this into perspective).

In The Addams Family movie, the creepy and spooky (but endlessly wealthy) Addams family live in their decrepit mansion. Gomez Addams (a delightfully over-the-top Raul Julia) adores his pale-skinned and nearly vampiric wife Morticia (Anjelica Huston) as well as his homicidal children Wednesday (a very young Christina Ricci) and Pugsley. When the family’s lawyer sells the family out to a conniving loan shark, the loan shark comes up with a plan to plant a fake Uncle Fester (Christopher Lloyd) in the household, as the real Fester has been missing for 25 years. Is this Fester look-alike, named Gordan, the real deal and if not, how far will he go to steal from these bizarre but otherwise genial inhabitants of a world far more surreal than our own.

I don’t know how to fill out this review. It’s essentially what you remember from the TV program although a little darker and more explicit perhaps. Pugsley and Wednesday repeatedly try and fail to kill one another. The scene at the school play where they enact Shakespeare and cover the audience in a Tarantino-esque geyser of fake blood was one of the film’s highlights. Raul Julia was brilliantly cast as Gomez. He looks like Clark Gable, swash-buckles like Errol Flynn, and chews the scenery until there’s nothing left. Anjelica Huston is one of the all-time greats for female actresses and she too inhabits Morticia well. I was actually sort of into her whole Elmyra, Mistress of the Dark thing she had going on this film and I’m not normally into the goth look at all. Christina Ricci was just a child when this movie was being made, but this is what made her mark and launched her to a very successful career as a child actress and she’s continuing to find work as an adult. Even as a kid, she had a very dry and deadpan sense of humor. Christopher Lloyd is a comedy legend, and while this wasn’t a Doc Brown caliber role, he made it work.

I enjoyed the movie. The way that it showed how their brand of strangeness and darkness would translate in a real world environment garnered some laughs during the final act even if the film often suffered from some pacing problems. Despite only being an hour and forty minutes long, it felt much longer. If you’re fans of great costume work and set direction, this film is a delight (and received an Oscar nod for Costume Design), and while Tim Burton wasn’t involved with the production of this film, it certainly feels like a film that could have fit in within the Tim Burton canon of movies like Beetlejuice or Edward Scissorhands (although obviously not as good or sharp as those films). If you were a fan of the cartoon or the TV series (or are just a fan of the weird and darkly stylistic Tim Burton films I mentioned), do yourself a favor and watch The Addams Family. It won’t change your life by any means, but it will be a fun and entertaining diversion for a slow afternoon.

Final Score: B

When I was growing up, we had two different VHS’s in the house that were about Peter Pan. I had an old, worn-out copy of the Mary Martin Peter Pan, which for those who aren’t familiar with it was basically a filmed stage play with Mary Martin as Peter Pan. And, boy, was I obsessed with that movie as a kid. That was one of the VHS’s I watched the most growing up. We also owned Hook, 1991’s update of the classic tale directed by none other than Steven Spielberg. This was the very first movie I ever watched that had stars in it like Robin Williams, Julia Roberts, Dustin Hoffman, Maggie Smith, and Bob Hoskins. It is, although maybe not as much as when I was a kid, a great and fun adventure tale that is sure to be magical for all children.

For those rare, rare few who have never seen the film, Hook is about Peter Panning (Robin Williams). Peter Panning is a corporate lawyer who is more obsessed with his job and career success than his family. And more often than not, he puts his work well before his family and misses events like his son’s baseball games. Peter is an orphan, and when he was younger, he was adopted by Wendy Darling (Maggie Smith). Yes, that Wendy Darling. She is the Wendy that J.M. Barrie spoke to and was inspired by when he wrote the Peter Pan story down. Peter takes his family to London to celebrate Wendy’s long, long life in helping the orphans of the city. While there, Peter’s children are mysteriously kidnapped, and we discover that Peter Panning is in fact the Peter Pan of myth and it is up to Tinkerbell (Julia Roberts) and the Lost Boys to whip Peter back into shape so that he can save his children from Captain Hook (Dustin Hoffman) and Smee (Bob Hoskins).

The film is your childhood fantasy of Peter Pan come straight to life. Steven Spielberg brings Never Never Land out of the story book and onto your TV screen through inventive costume and set design. The little tree village that the Lost Boys lives in is an absolute visual delight and the pirate town looks like something you’d expect Disney World to put together. It’s a marvel. You can’t forget John William’s fantastic score either. There’s a reason why this man is one of the most consistently excellent scorers in the history of film, and this movie is no exception. One of the themes of the movie is the power of imagination and you can tell that the group of people who put this film together were chock full of spectacular imaginations.

Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams are the dual beating hearts of the film. It was wonderful to see Robin Williams cast so completely against type for all but the last act of the film. To see him playing a stuck-up, nervous, neurotic lawyer goes against one’s expectations of Williams as the high-strung, manic, perpetual motion machine that he usually plays. It isn’t until he realizes that he truly is Peter Pan that we begin to see that side of him again. And of course, there aren’t enough good things to say about Hoffman’s deliciously ove the top  performance as Captain Hook. I love Dustin Hoffman. He’s one of my favorite actors. However, if I had never seen Hook before, but still knew all of the other stuff I knew about Hoffman, and you asked me who was playing Hook, I would have never in a million years guessed it was Dustin Hoffman. From the wig to the makeup to the prosthetic nose to the ridiculous accent, he completely transformed himself and it’s awesome.

The film has some serious problems. It’s way too long. There’s way too much talking. Yet, I’m about to turn 22 and I still love this movie. Pretty much every critic on the planet hated this film, and I don’t know why. It was never trying to be a great movie. It was just trying to be a fun children’s movie that if you’re the adult taking your kids to see it, you’re still going to enjoy it to. And I firmly believe that in that area, it succeeded. Not every film has to be a high-brow art-house piece, and we should judge movies on what they try to be. This film tried to be fun, and it was.

Final Score: B+

When one is very young, we are indoctrinated by our education system into viewing the founders and explorers and discoverers of this nation as these heroic and mythic figures and the native peoples as savages and heathens. It doesn’t take very long though for us to realize that, in fact, the first Europeans to populate and mark their claim in North America were all sort of ass-hole imperialists and that the Native Americans had their own beautiful cultures and societies that we raped and destroyed. So, when I saw that the next film on my list was a movie about a French Jesuit’s attempts to spread Christianity to the Huron’s, I was mentally preparing myself to become severely pissed off throughout the entire film cause I was expecting some condescending bit of pro-Christianity ridiculousness. Fortunately, the film, Black Robe, gave me a gritty and realistic look at one man’s sincerity of faith in a world where he is guaranteed to fail.

Like I said, the movie is about one man’s attempt to spread Christianity to the Huron people in the northern parts of what is now Canada. He has been chosen by his superiors in the church to be part of a special mission that will go deeper and deeper into Huron territory. It’s dangerous, and the natives leading him don’t particularly care for him. And with good reason, despite the sincerity of his beliefs, he is unable to accept the fact that he is forcing his views and beliefs down the throats of people who already have their own religions and codes. The only other frenchmen to go with him even discusses how their society is ultimately more Christian than our own, except certain aspects of “Christianity” or incompatible with their long-established way of life. So, through the film, you see the full gamut of the native experience and how brutal and nasty it can be. From starving in the winter to the sickness to other tribes that want to kill you and torture you, it wasn’t a particularly pleasant way to live. The film makes the wise decision not to romanticize native life but simply to contrast it with the high-brow condescension of the French.

I’m going to call this film the anti-Dances with Wolves which both romanticized native culture and at the same time was like “the white man is bad. but the white man is also what’s going to save these natives.” It was ridiculous. Don’t get me wrong. I liked Dances with Wolves but its message is contradictory and silly. In this film, the natives aren’t “noble savages” but they  aren’t portrayed as villains either (with one tribe being a major exception). At the same time, the white people aren’t necessarily villains either. But they don’t do anyone any good at the same time. This film is perhaps one of the most realistic portrayals of this sort of time period that I can think of. I respect it’s decision to play it from a neutral stand point.

The film was beautifully shot on location, and much like Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, the sense of time and place is fantastic. The scenery in the film is breathtakingly beautiful. I want to go on vacation in northern Canada now. The only thing that is keeping this film from moving up one spot higher in the score its going to receive was the terrible decision to dub English voice acting over the French actors dialogue. They had the Algonquin and Huron languages in their native tongues but thought we couldn’t handle reading French subtitles. I hate dubbing and this really bothered me. Everyone who enjoys historical films should check this out. Just don’t expect some revisionist fantasy or romantic adventure. This film requires you to think and exam the subject material. But you are ultimately rewarded with a great film.

Final Score: A-

Few careers are as mesmerizing as that of the performer. Whether you’re an actor or singer (or in the film I’m about to discuss’s case, both), there is something positively entrancing about the thrill and rush and power that you can gain from standing in the center of the stage and having the whole world’s eyes on you. Perhaps that is why cinema has been obsessed with itself for so long. There are so many movies about stars and performers that this beautiful documentary about the people in the opera business who aren’t the stars but members of the chorus was so refreshing. You so rarely hear about the little man and his effect in the productions that we love. In the documentary In the Shadow of the Stars, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1991, you get an up close look at the lives of several different members of the chorus of the San Francisco Opera House.

Perhaps, it’s because I have a (slight) background in musical theater, but I found this documentary to be absolutely enthralling. To see people rehearsing and performing and going about even the other aspects of their lives, it brought me right back into the world of performing arts and immersed me in that sense of adrenaline and awe. The film is a combination of interviews with the members of the chorus interspersed with actual performances of their plays and also dress/ regular rehearsals. You become quite attached to the different people who are being interviewed and their stories and hopes and dreams and attachments. It’s a really human picture. One scene struck me as being particularly beautiful. A husband and wife who met each other through the opera sing a song together in their home. And, in any other circumstance, this could have been kitsch and maudlin, but in this film and with this couple, it was so sweet and sincere. It was just deeply touching.

I left the film with an immense desire to go out and watch as many operas as I could. Gosh, the operas showed had such beautiful music and such ornate stage direction and design. It was lovely. I also had a desire to start acting again but that has passed again already fortunately. If you were in theater ever or you simply just love the performing arts but never performed yourself, you need to watch this film. It’s that plain and simple. The only people I wouldn’t recommend it to are uncultured types with no interest in the higher arts. You really owe it to yourself to check this out.

Final Score: A-

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