Category: 1990


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Plus or minus 5 movies (I think I might have forgotten to put a handful on my big list of all of my review scores), this will be my 448th review. That’s a lot of movies in the last three years. And, if there’s one thing that I’ve learned having reviewed nearly 450 films, it’s that there’s a depressing homogeneity to the vast majority of movies. The stories are nothing more than a variation on a theme, the details never vary too far, and years of watching movies have trained you to guess every twist and turn. Silver Linings Playbook was one of my favorite films of 2012, but even it is a conventionally structured romantic comedy that just happens to change up all of the details to beautiful effect.

But, occasionally, movies come along that are truly their one. There are few coming-of-age films as beautiful and insightful as Life of Pi. There are few American comedies as riotous and “screw-the-rules” as Wet Hot American Summer. Charlie Kauffman’s entire ouevre is one-of-a-kind, but when Being John Malkovich came out, it was one of the most revolutionary films of the already revolutionary 90s. 1990’s King of New York is far from a great film, but it’s dedication to pure style and its glorious subversion of the 80s crime picture make it one of the most memorable and unique crime films of the 90s.

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After serving years in prison, powerful New York City drug lord Frank White (The Dead Zone‘s Christopher Walken) is released into his beloved city and his only goal is to make up for lost time. With a primarily African-American gang, Frank White isn’t your tpical 80s/90s crime boss. He’s a committed community activist that is willing to spend $16 million of his own cash to build a children’s hospital, and (mostly) he only resorts to violence when people aren’t willing to play ball with him in a civilized and cooperative manner. But, if you’ve pissed off Frank White, prepare to die in a hail of bullets that would make John Woo jealous.

Frank doesn’t have much trouble consolidating power back under the umbrella of his organization upon his release from prison. When tasked with violence, his men (including a young Laurence Fishburne who was still calling himself Larry at the time) are more than up to the task. Frank’s troubles come from a group of overzealous cops who are willing to get their hands as dirty as Frank in order to bring him back under the heel of the law. And when Frank’s men walk away clean from a clear murder conviction, the cops decide vigilante justice is the only answer.

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The number of great character actors in this film besides the always mesmerizing Christopher Walken is ridiculous. King of New York predates Boyz N the Hood by just one year, and it’s astounding to see Laurence Fishburne in a role that is less Furious Styles and more Ice Cube’s Doughboy on PCP. Breaking Bad‘s Giancarlo Esposito has one of his more recognizable non-Do the Right Thing roles as another of Frank’s henchmen, and although he isn’t in the film very long, it blew my mind to see such a young Steve Buscemi as a technology-minded henchman.

And, the cops are another Who’s Who. David Caruso (Session 9) steals the show as Dennis Gilley, one of the cops who is most hellbent on bringing Frank in by any means necessary. Between this and Session 9, I was reminded how great he can be in eclectic character roles, and it was a shame he had to waste years of his life on a network crime procedural. Wesley Snipes isn’t given much to work with as another of the rage-fueled cops, but there’s a scene where he’s arresting Laurence Fishburne where Fishburne threatens to “slap the black off” him and Snipes’s reaction is priceless.

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Christopher Walken is absolutely transfixing as Frank White. There are many things that make King of New York such a unique and “different” film, and Walken’s take on Frank White is chief among them. Moving beyond Walken’s unique diction and the phrasing of his sentences with the deep, pregnant pauses, Walken’s Cheshire cat grin and electric magnetism make it clear why all these gangsters would want to work for him. But when the role calls for it, Walken flips the switch and White becomes an explosive outlet for violence. Frank White is like “What if Tony Montana were actually an interesting character?”

King of New York is “urban” to its core. The hip-hop soundtrack is always spot-on; there’s a scene where Schooly D’s “Am I Black Enough For Ya?” is played where the Public Enemy-esque political lyrics and hard-pounding beat perfectly fit the bloodbath that’s about to arrive. And while there are moments where Fishburne’s Jimmy Jump seems like a Run DMC stereotype, the movie’s urban sensibility is always played with tongue slightly in cheek. And in a decade where crime movies were either white mobster films or black “gangsta” movies, it’s so god damned refreshing to find a film that is both.

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King of New York‘s cinematography is also neo-noir perfection. Whether it’s capturing the neon-streaked lights of late 80s/early 90s New York or following Frank and his crew through their criminal enterprises, King of New York is a beauty to behold. On the other hand though, the film also knows not to take itself too seriously. Too many “crime epics” think they’re high art (*cough* Scarface *cough*); King of New York knows it isn’t and plays its hand accordingly. There’s a moment in the film where Frank backs down a group of thugs on the subway that exists just to show what a bad-ass Frank is, and the film is better for it.

If you’re wanting deep characterization or a serious commentary on urban crime, look elsewhere; Baby Boy this ain’t. When King of New York first came out, it was a critical disaster because of its over-the-top “glorification” of crime (that’s not really what the film does though), and if you like your films centered in reality, King of New York is going to disappoint. But for those with a taste for films with the touch of a true auteur’s style, Abel Ferrara’s King of New York is one of the most memorable and entertaining crime dramas of the 90s.

Final Score: B+

 

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Film noir’s heyday may have been 60 years ago when the Sam Spades and Philip Marlowes of the world ruled the dime book stores and the big screen, but it’s clung to life with the same tenacity as the molls, private eyes, and hoods that populate its culture. My favorite film of 2010 remains the noir-influenced Winter’s Bone, and 2005’s Brick was one of the breakout indie hits of the aughts. There’s something about the seediness and moody atmosphere of noir that draws us in even when it’s a noir where the bad guys are the main characters. The lurid appeal of criminal activity scratches that itch in our baser instincts that we don’t want to admit is there in the first place. 1990’s multiple Oscar nominee The Grifters combines elements of noir with shades of Oedipus Rex. While it may not live entirely up to that compelling description, it’s still a dark (and surprisingly comic) descent into the world of matchstick men (and women).

Centered on three con artists, each trying to get the leg up on the other, The Grifters is a tale of family and betrayal. Roy (Being John Malkovich‘s John Cusack) is a small-time grifter, running minor-league cons to get by. His girlfriend, Myra Langtry (The Kids Are All Right‘s Annette Bening), used to be a “long con” swindler (think Sawyer on Lost), leading scams with her old boyfriend to milk tens of thousands of dollars out of rich oil men. Finally, you have Roy’s mother, Lilly (Choke‘s Anjelica Huston), who helps adjust the odds at horse races for the mob, all while skimming some money off for herself on the side. When Roy gets injured trying to scam a measly $15 off a bartender and the mob sends Lilly to California to cover their races, a mother and son who haven’t spoken in eight years are finally reunited only for the jealousy and greed of Myra to threaten to cause everyone’s world to come crashing around them.

Noir is all about the details. It’s about that sense of immersion you get because the world feels so lived in and so run down. More than many other genres, it’s about not having to suspend your disbelief because the script and direction have created enough of a real universe that these characters are inhabiting. In that regard, The Grifters is a success. Heavily reliant on con-man lingo and with a rapid-fire deliver that would make Aaron Sorkin proud, the dialogue pops off the screen all while subtly informing you about the world these grifters live in. There’s a brilliant moment where Lilly’s boss is about to torture her and he forces her to explain why insurance scammers would beat people with oranges in a towel. If it had been handled any other way, it would have seemed like unnecessary and artificial exposition (i.e. two characters would never say it) but the way its used to terrify Lilly makes for one of the film’s best scenes.

Unfortunately, noir also boils down to how great the crime is (because the film is either defined by the attempts of the protagonists to pull of the perfect crime or for the private eye to unfurl a seemingly unsolvable mystery), and in that respect, The Grifters falls a little short. The story plods along, and although the film teases you (and years of film noir conditioning subconsciously trains you) with the idea that there are going to be three different schemes working simultaneously in the movie (as in each person is trying to scheme the other two), that isn’t what happens. There isn’t an actual grand plot in the film, and it’s more of a character study of three desperate grifters whose lives suddenly spin madly out of control. Perhaps, the next time I watch this film, I’ll be able to appreciate it more for what it was, but during the film, I kept expecting a pick-up that never really arrived.

Movies like this and Being John Malkovich make me wonder what could have happened to John Cusack’s career if he hadn’t decided to go down the (admittedly more profitable) route of conventional rom-coms. Back when he was still making bold career decisions like playing a low-life con man with deep-seated mommy issues, he had the making of being a real star. I’m not saying his performance was Oscar-worthy (though Annette Bening and Anjelica Huston totally earned their nominations), but he has a thinking man’s star appeal, and he’s let it squander in lesser roles. I think Annette Bening is one of the greatest female actresses of her generation, but her performance in this film was confusing at first. She almost came off as too ditzy and bizarre, until you finally realize that it’s all an act. Bening’s ability to flip in and out of the various shades of Myra’s personality was a great indication of her future star power, and it’s easy to see why she’s received so many Academy Award nominations.

Of course, leave it to screen legend Anjelica Huston to steal the whole show. Along with Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, Lilly is one of the molls to end all molls. She’s tough as nails and at one point elbows a drunk in the throat who wouldn’t stop harassing her at a diner. She threatens to have a doctor killed if he isn’t able to save her son who she hadn’t even spoken to in eight years. She intimidates everyone around her, but underneath that tough edge, there’s a mother who (at least thinks she) cares about her son and is willing do what it takes to look after him. Yet, she’s also a fragile woman who’s aging, and when her world collapses, she lets it show. Anjelica Huston conveys all of this and more with her nuanced performance. I honestly can’t decide if she was better or Kathy Bates in Misery (who won that year’s Best Actress Oscar).

If you want a grand mystery or even a film noir with a plot that will leave you constantly wondering how it’s all going to turn out, The Grifters might not be for you. It’s got a compelling character study beating away at the core of the film, but The Grifters still always left me wanting a little bit more. With a world so magnificently created, it deserved to have a little more meaningful action populating the frames. Still, the excellent performances and eye for detail make The Grifters more than just your average crime story. For fans of the neo-noir revolution that has swept Hollywood the last twenty years, it’s a must see movie and for all fans of Anjelica Huston, it’s another check mark in her brilliant career.

Final Score: B

Continuing my trend (for however long my patience for it lasts) of trying to use older songs after a month straight of mostly newer bands for Bonnaroo, my Song of the Day series takes its second turn towards Goth Rock (the first was “Pictures of You” by The Cure). Depeche Mode’s seminal album Violator might sound like it came right out of the 80s but with a release date in 1990, it remains one of the greatest album of the 90s. I know what you’re thinking. Why am I not using “Personal Jesus”, the most famous track on the album? There’s your answer and also, it’s just not one of my favorite tracks on the CD. There are a ton of amazing tracks on this nearly perfect record, but I was mostly torn between “World In Your Eyes” and “Sweetest Perfection.” I went with the latter, and I’m still not entirely sure why. There’s just a dark, seething, angry sexuality to this music. It’s very intimately sexual, but when it’s over, you feel a little filthy for having listened to it. I get the same response from Bjork a lot of the times. Anyways, enjoy. (I told you I’d do an actual movie review today).

 

It’s been almost exactly one month since I’ve written a movie review for this blog (and it was likely nearly a month before that review). I saw The Hunger Games with a friend here in NYC, but for the last month and a half, the movies I’ve had at home from Netflix have been gathering dust in my living room. That changes today. I’ve got three films at home (Cyrano de Bergerac, The Butcher Boy, and 1776). By this evening’s end, I will have watched all of them. I’m going to get work done tonight. If the initial film in the series is any indication, it should be a great night. The 1990 adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s play,Cyrano de Bergerac, starring French film icon Gerard Depardieu was an enchanting and faithful adaptation of its source material with a mesmerizing performance from Depardieu as the legendary warrior/poet/philosopher/lover. While the film certainly dragged at moments, the lavish production values kept their hooks in me from start to finish and as my formal introduction to the story, I couldn’t have asked for a better way too see this tragic tale for the first time.

In 17th century France, Cyrano de Bergerac (Gerard Depardieu) longs for the love of his beautiful cousin Roxane (Anne Brochet). Cyrano is more intelligent and eloquent than any man in France, and at the beginning of the film, he fights off nearly a hundred men all by himself. He can afford to throw his money away to appease a theatre when he threatens to disembowel a play’s star for ruining the good name of thespians everywhere. But Cyrano’s enormous nose (which makes Nicole Kidman’s nose in The Hours look relatively modest) has crippled his self-esteem and he believes that he will never be able to win the heart of his beloved cousin. When Cyrano has finally worked up the courage to tell Roxane how he feels, she confesses her love for a local soldier, Christian (Vincent Perez), and because Cyrano wishes to put the happiness of hisamour ahead of his own desires, he secretly helps the dim-witted Christian woo Roxanne. Ghost-writing all of Christian’s letters to Roxanne, Cyrano helps his cousin fall in love with his words but another man all as our star-crossed trio hurtle towards a tragic end.

I’m not generally a huge fan of period costume dramas. They tend to put too much focus on the “costume” and “period” parts of that equation rather than the actual drama, and while Cyrano de Bergerac might suffer from this a little bit, it’s only because of how exquisitely detailed the period material is. The film is gorgeously shot. It wasn’t until half-way through that I realized this film was made in the 1990s because it had an ephemeral air of classical film technique that I would have placed in the 1970s. While I realize I just complained about people paying too much attention to the period production, it was so engrossing in this film that you couldn’t help but revel in it. Whether it was the seemingly endless array of expertly constructed costumes which represented the diverse beauty of 17th century French fashion or the elaborately orchestrated action sequences, it was obvious that this film was given the budget to truly be a spectacle, but it used these moments to enhance the tragic love story at the center of the film rather than distract. My only complaint about the film’s technical aspects is that Cyrano’s nose might have in fact been too large because it was almost at the point of parody when Depardieu’s naturally large nose could have nearly done the trick.

I’ve only reviewed one other Gerard Depardieu film for this blog (La Chevre), and I’ve only seen one other Depardieu film outside of the context of this blog (The Man in the Iron Mask). After watching Cyrano de Bergerac, I finally understand why he’s one of the premier stars of the French screen. His performance was incendiary, deeply funny, surprisingly vulnerable, and ultimately human. There’s a lot of talking in this movie. It’s based off a play so that shouldn’t be shocking, but even by drama standards, the people in this film never shut up. Yet, I could listen to Depardieu sputter line after line of Cyrano’s triumphant wit if he’s going to make it all seem so fun while doing it. With the exception of his vanity over his looks, Cyrano is such a powerhouse of a character that it would be easy for an actor to overplay his wit, valor, or charisma or on the other hand to make him too much of a pitiable figure. Depardieu tapped right into the perfect balance of all of Cyrano’s characteristics to make a hero that you wanto root for but at the same time, he plays him with just the right amount of being a jack-ass that is so clearly written into the character. The beautiful Anne Brochet was also a gem as Roxane who was the only person mentally equipped to go toe-to-toe with Cyrano.

If I have a major complaint with the film, it ultimately goes back to the source material. For a play written in the late 1800s, the story seems to beholden to the tragic drama archetype of Shakespearean plays like Romeo & Juliet or Hamlet. It’s not that I’m not a fan of tragedies (King Lear is probably my favorite story of all time), but drama was finally starting to become a little more complicated and ambitious by the time that Rostand wrote the play. I was able to foresee virtually every single plot point from the moment that Roxane attempted to beguile Comte DeGuiche with her womanly ways in order to keep Cyrano and Christian from being sent away to war. Being predictable isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but all in all, there was a considerable feeling of having seen some variation of the tragic romance at the core of the story many, many times before. There were certainly plenty of great scenes though. When Cyrano tries to feed lines to Christian to woo Roxane from her terrace and he suddenly has to speak to her himself under the cover of darkness, my heart was legitimately moved at the heartbreak of Cyrano’s unrequited love and the doom I knew was going to fall before long. However, the film’s (and the play’s) biggest problem is its ending which drags on at least ten minutes longer than it should have and robs the otherwise touching moment of any meaning because it ends up so absurd and unbelievable.

I was telling a friend of mine from work about my movie blog last night a concert I was covering and that fact along with the simple truth that I hadn’t watched one of my movies from Netflix in two months has inspired this little resurgence of the movies in my blog. Considering the fact that the first 5o posts or so were only movies, it’s kind of absurd that I ever go long stretches like this without reviewing a film. Yet it manages to happen every so often. The next two movies are a musical (starring Mr. Feeney from Boy Meets World) and a very, very dark Irish comedy (directed by Neil Jordan so I hope it’s as good as Michael Collins). I’m just hoping that this little spurt of inspiration will get me back on track to start reviewing all of the films that were nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards. I was halfway done when my initiative and drive died on me. Let’s hope I get back on that wagon again.

Final Score: B+

We’re nearing the one-year anniversary of this blog (and I’ll have a major Best of Year One list that covers all of the media I’ve worked on for this blog during that time. Should be fun), and it’s given me some interesting perspective on the many paths my movie-watching has taken me over these last 365 days. The first two French films I watched for this blog (if you don’t count Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress which was French-produced but essentially a Chinese film) were turgid and slow affairs that either didn’t live up to their own thematic potential (Belle de Jour) or nearly incomprehensible for possible cultural reasons (La Ceremonie). I haven’t actually seen many French films for this blog, but the next two I watched proceeded to either completely wow me or at least be very good if not great. Louis Malle’s Lacombe, Lucien remains one of the best WWII films I’ve reviewed thus far, and Monsieur Ibrahim was a quiet and sentimental film that turned out to be quite a tear-jerker. Well, god bless Luc Besson for keeping up the streak of high quality French films (and foreign films in general) that I’ve been on with his marvelous study of violence, loyalty, love, and penance, the remarkable 1990 original version of La Femme Nikita.

La Femme Nikita is the tale of a young, drug-addicted French woman (whose real name may or may not be Nikita played by the marvelous Anne Parillaud) who murders a cop when the robbery of a pharmacy with her junkie friends ends in a shoot-out with the police. Sentenced to life in prison with virtually no possibility of parole, Nikita is forcibly entered into a secret government agency to be trained as a top-level assassin for the French government. Her death in her old prison is faked and all ties with her old world are cut off. Nikita was chosen because of her almost psychotic fieriness and natural toughness and she’s a natural fit for the violent world of espionage and assassinations. Though she initially rebels against the life she’s forced into, she eventually complies and over the course of the film carries out several missions that take increasing tolls on her sanity and happiness. When she is sent on a mission to a remote part of France and falls in love with a local clerk, her newfound love and bliss is instantly put at risk by the dangerous other life she inhabits.

Anne Parrillaud was such a natural and instantly riveting talent that I have trouble believing that she wasn’t the primary influence of all of the other action heroines to come over the last two decades. Before Lisbeth Salander was investigating Nazis and torturing rapists, before the Bride was slicing and dicing her way through hordes of Yakuza, and before Sidney Bristow walked the tight-rope of being a CIA double agent, you had Nikita. Her transformation over the course of this film simply has to be seen to be believed. When we first meet Nikita, she’s a drugged-out junkie without even a hint of femininity or grace. By the time she leaves her assassin training program, she’s a knock-out beauty that knows how to use her wiles to get what she needs. On that same note, Parrillaud is able to flip between an almost feral aggression and anger (that I’ve only ever seen matched by Rooney Mara) to a wrenching vulnerability. This was a complex and dynamic role and Parrillaud stepped up to bat and hit a home run.

What separates La Femme Nikita from other hyper-violent action films (this may seem tame by today’s standards, but when it was released, it was shockingly violent) is the emphasis it places on story and character development. This isn’t a series of action sequences supported by a bare-bones excuse plot and forgettable characters. Rather the action serves to complement and enhance the running narrative which is Nikita’s journey from complete destitution to something akin to an empowered female force (although with plenty of commentaries on how her power is still being manipulated by the state). It is a tragic film and the violence is never glorified but rather shown in some gritty and harsh light. Feeling emotionally connected to characters in an action film is always an impressive feat, and La Femme Nikita is able to achieve that not just with Nikita but also with her fiancee and other smaller characters. Any complaints some people might have that the film runs a tad too long seem to not get how much emphasis this film places on putting the audience squarely in this world and achieving complete empathy with its heroes and villains (and it’s hard to tell who’s who).

This is the thinking man’s action film (along with Besson’s later film The Professional). For every intellectual out there who wants an action movie you can enjoy without feeling guilty, it’s right here. And even for those who don’t feel guilty about their action viewing pleasures, well, I still recommend La Femme Nikita because it’s simply better than 99% of the action films out there. I’ve loved both Besson films I’ve seen now, and I’m really curious to see what the rest of his library of movies feels like because he’s really solidified himself to me as one of the top-tier action directors out there. As long as you can enjoy films with subtitles, La Femme Nikita is must see.

Final Score: A-

Violator

Maybe it’s the hipster in me, but I am immediately wary and cautious when approaching extremely popular and commercially successful music (from the last two decades anyways). There’s a nagging intellectual condescension that if that many people enjoy it, then it has to be too low-brow and not artsy enough to be truly great. My familiarity with Depeche Mode is mostly with their reputation as one of the most popular electronic rock acts of all time and the occasional listen to their biggest hit, “Personal Jesus”. It wasn’t until their album Violator in 1990 that the band would really begin to cement their legacy and the album has sold nearly 15 million copies, which is a lot to put it lightly. So, when I popped Violator in I was expecting a fairly mainstream electro-rock album along the lines of The Killers and that it would be fairly accessible and easy to contend with. I was wrong. Violator is an artistic tour-de-force of dark, sinister passions and wildly experimental electronic orchestrations. After several listens over the last two days, I’m at a loss at how this album was so successful. It’s spectacular but the subject matter is so dark and the style is so experimental that this should be beyond the range of the average listener.

The albums that are considered to be the pioneers of specific genres are often very difficult to appreciate after the fact as decades of popular music has distilled and explored and mutated what they created. While Violator probably isn’t a pioneering album of synthpop (since the entire decade of New Wave that preceded it thoroughly explored the genre), I don’t believe it’s hyperbole to state that Violator was the most appropriate curtain call for New Wave as it masterfully combines the best parts of the genre while simultaneously laying the groundwork for the next decade’s worth of electronic music. While it may be fair to say that this album couldn’t exist without Disintegration, it is even more accurate to say that OK Computer or Kid A would just be a pipe dream were it not for the obvious influences of this album. For the last several years (or since my music tastes matured), it’s been apparent that sonic texturing and emotional escapes into pure music are as effective as traditional melodic structures or vocals. Most albums I’ve reviewed usually fall into one of those two camps, but Violator jumps back and forth across the sonic line and comes out the better for it.

The most obvious track from the album to mention is “Personal Jesus” which still stands as the groups most visible and culturally significant hit. I can only describe the song as intelligent arena rock, although there’s an irony there as it is one of the most simply constructed and, therefore, accessible songs on my album. It’s a great pop anthem, but one of my least favorite songs on the album. For me that honor goes to either the album’s opening number “World In My Eyes” which is a darkly sinister and sexual bit of synth-funk centered on the foreboding vocals and lyrics of lead singer Dave Gahan or “Sweetest Perfection” which is possibly the darkest track on the album which fully explores a vast sonic landscape and sound effects against a tale of obsession and deep and dark chords with a nice change-up towards the end of the song. The entire album is strong from the surprisingly beautiful “Waiting for the Night” which feels like a big influence later on for Radiohead to the dark tale of S&M and sexuality that is “Halo” which is a challenging song but worth wrestling with.

I said at the beginning of the review that I was unable to comprehend how this album sold as well as it did with its dark themes and often disturbing sound, but (after listening to it again while writing this review), I think I understand it. At a surface level, the album is simply stellar electric-pop/funk/rock that anyone can listen to and enjoy. However, the discerning ear can delve into the poetry of the lyrics and the complex orchestration and find so much more to enjoy outside of the funky synthesizers or Dave Gahan’s appealing voice. This is an album that simply demands multiple listens and its perfectly edited length, many listens won’t tire you but will be a pure joy to jump back into the album again and again. It’s one of the most challenging albums I’ve reviewed so far with its heavy subject matter and intense and provocative lyrics, but that is one of many things that makes this album great. If you’re a fan of intelligent pop music, this is a must listen.

Final Score: A

Mermaids

Well, after a three week hiatus, I am finally back on the blogging train. I made a promise to myself that I would continue on with this blog and not quit it like I have most of my other ventures, so after a break from burning myself out from watching so many movies in such a short period of time, I have returned (also three weeks is a ridiculously long time to keep DVD’s from Netflix). The movie that marks my return was neither great nor as bad as I thought it would be, and at times turned out to be an enjoyable dramedy with some serious pacing and mood whiplash issues. I am referring to 1990’s Mermaids starring the always fabulous Cher, Winona Ryder fresh off the success of Heathers, the under-appreciated Bob Hoskins, and an extremely young Christina Ricci.

First things first. Mermaids is not about actual mermaids. It tells the story of the Flax family, led by single mother Mrs. Flax (Cher), who is never given a first name and is often referred to by said title by her daughter Charlotte (Winona Ryder). The family is rounded out by the youngest daughter Kate (Christina Ricci). The Flax family moves often because whenever a relationship fails or there is any trouble in their lives, Mrs. Flax simply moves the family somewhere else by closing her eyes and pointing at a spot on the map. The film takes place in the 1960’s, and Mrs. Flax is no June Cleaver, let’s put it that way. She sleeps with men on the first date, she smokes, she curses. She’s pretty much Cher playing herself. The family is ethnically Jewish but despite this, Charlotte is obsessed with Catholicism and wants to be a nun when she gets older. Kate is a fantastic swimmer. The film begins with the family moving to a new town in Massachusetts and the conflict of the film arises from Charlotte falling in love with the caretaker of the local convent (who looks like the unholy love child of Matt Dillon and Billy Crudup) and Mrs. Flax beginning to date a local businessman (Bob Hoskins), and the natural clash of personalities between mother and daughter.

When the movie first started, I thought I was in for a quirky family comedy. I did not expect this film to be as dramatic as it was. The further and further the film goes along, it tries less and less to be humorous and more and more to explore the dynamic of this rather complicated family. Thank Christ that Winona Ryder was such a fantastic actress when she was younger. I honestly can’t think of a female actress who was able to embody teenage angst as well as her until Linda Cardellini came along for Freaks and Geeks a decade later. Maybe that’s why her career disappeared after she grew up. But in this film and in Heathers, she really plays the emotional turbulence of being a teenager just spot on. Her inner monologues are always fantastically delivered. And Cher is a surprisingly good actress as well. Now, maybe, I don’t have to be so skeptical of her Oscar win for Moonstruck. However, the movie’s constant shift in tone and emotion can be really disconcerting. It’s not that individual scenes fail (except for the emotionally overwraught scenes after Kennedy’s assassination); it’s just that they don’t all work very well together. Although that’s kind of what being a teenager is like, but I really doubt that was intentional.

Well, this movie left me conflicted. I thought Winona Ryder was absolutely fantastic and definitely deserved the Golden Globe nomination she received for the film, and Cher and Bob Hoskins were both great as well. And certain parts of the story worked really well for me. However, it was so all over the place in tone and mood that I could never really get comfortable with the film, and certain parts were just too ridiculous. If you love Cher (as I do. I don’t care that she’s like 70; she’s still gorgeous) or Winona Ryder, you should check it out for nostalgia’s sake. But don’t expect too much.

Final Score: B-