Category: 1994


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[Author’s note: Hello readers. It’s been a while… October to be precise. If you don’t know me in real life, I’ve just been through a bit of a major life change. I left my job in New York City as the Managing Editor of a music site to return home to West Virginia to take care of some college related stuff. It’s either the most responsible decision of my life or the worst decision I’ve ever made. Honestly, it’s 50/50 either way. That said, culture writing is how I make my living. It’s how I pay my bills and although I won’t be writing about music every day for the foreseeable future, I don’t want my writing to get rusty so don’t be surprised to see me updating this site again with more regularity. You might have also noticed that I changed the name of the site to Lost Again. That feels more appropriate at 27 than Hot Saas’s Pop Culture Safari which is something I thought was cute at 21 when I made this site but feels a bit out of place now. Welcome back.]

In the first scene of Krzyszstof Kieslowski’s White, a bird defecates on the shoulder of beleaguered hairdresser, Karol Karol (Zbigniew Zamachowski). The Polish Karol is standing outside the courthouse where his French wife, Dominique (Julie Delpy), is suing him for divorce. A bird shitting on his coat is the least of Karol’s worries.

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(A quick aside before my actual review. Yes, I know there’s supposed to be an accent mark over the “e” in “Léon” in the title of this piece but I have no idea how to add it. Also, it feels like it’s ten million degrees in my room right now so I apologize if any of my writing is unintelligible. My brain is totally fried.)

The poetic action film is the Great White Whale of film-making for men that don’t want to feel guilty about testosterone-fueled entertainment. We want to believe it’s out there somewhere, but despite all of that, 99% of the time we’re chasing a myth. 1994’s Léon: The Professional from French director Luc Besson (1990’s La Femme Nikita) is likely the closest cinema’s ever come to the truly poetic action film. Though the film is not without its flaws, its devotion to story, mood, and characters alongside a hyperviolent tale of both revenge and love marked Luc Besson as one of the rare purveyors of action cinema that is also a true auteur. The Professional is the sort of film that early period Tarantino could have been proud of, and thanks to an electric big screen debut from Natalie Portman (Black Swan), The Professional is the definition of a flawed masterpiece.

Léon (Margaret‘s Jean Reno) is a cleaner. But, he’s a cleaner for the Italian mob which means he’s a hitman. And he’s a damn good one though his code of “No women. No kids,” means he has a moral system he operates by. And besides the fact that he’s an almost mind-bogglingly efficient killer, Léon is almost a child at heart. He can not read English. He cares for a single potted plant like it were his own child. And he goes to watch old Gene Kelly movies at the theatre with the pure adulation of only the most innocent at heart. He barely even spends the money he earns which mostly just sits in the “bank” of his mobster boss, Tony (Moonstruck‘s Danny Aiello). But, when he crosses path with Mathilda (Natalie Portman), a 12 year old girl living in his apartment building, his simple life is thrown violently off track.

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The chain-smoking, frequently-cursing Mathilda is the emotionally and physically abused daughter of a local hood who gets himself in over his head with a corrupt and borderline psychotic D.E.A. Agent, Stansfield (The Dark Knight Rises‘s Gary Oldman). When Mathilda’s father and the rest of her family is murdered by Stansfield and other corrupt cops, Mathilda’s life is only spared because she was out buying milk at the time the hit went down. And, against his better judgment, Léon welcomes Mathilda into his home to protect her. Though Mathilda could care less about her abusive father, Stansfield’s men killed her four year old brother, and she desperately wants revenge against the men that killed her family. And so, she forces her way even more into Léon’s life and makes him teach her how to be a cleaner so that she can get the revenge she so desperately craves.

Out of the three principal leads in the film (Portman, Reno, and Goldman), you have one simply jaw-dropping performance, one deliciously hammy performance, and one “meh” performance that works within the context of the character. Natalie Portman’s ferocious turn as Mathilda is easily one of the top 10 child performances of all time, and it should be no surprise that she would later go on to win an Academy Award for Black Swan. She should have been nominated for this. There’s a scene midway through the film where Mathilda puts a gun to her head to force Léon to teach her to be a cleaner where the sadness and desperation that is consuming Mathilda is painfully apparent. Most adult actresses would have struggled with the part. Portman blew it out of the water as a 13 year old.

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Gary Oldman’s performance is the one that I refer to as being deliciously hammy. There is no question that it’s over-the-top. It is insanely over the top, but Stansfield is a villain of monstrous, pure evil, and Luc Besson gave Goldman the freedom to run crazy with the performance. There are two moments in particular that stand out. One is him sashaying to Mozart as he massacres Mathilda’s family. And the other is the infamous “EVERYONE!” quip during the climactic action sequence. Jean Reno is, unfortunately, not the world’s greatest actor. His English wasn’t very good in the 90s, and it shows in this film. But, Léon is a man of quiet contemplation and few words, and so, though Reno doesn’t deliver one of the most exciting performances of the film, he certainly delivers what is needed for his character.

As I’ve said earlier, beyond Portman’s star-making performance (had she never made another film, this would have been legacy-cementing in its own right), The Professional soars because of its singular commitment to character-development and genuine emotional pay-offs over typical action pyrotechnics. Let their be no mistake. The climax of the film is as thrilling as it gets, but its power rests in the fact that two hours into the film, we are now incredibly invested into the outcome of Léon and Mathilda’s lives. They are fully rounded, three dimensional characters, and just like in La Femme Nikita, the psychological aspect of these characters throws off more sparks than action scenes ever could. As a warped coming-of-age tale as well as an equally warped romance, The Professional finds the poetry in its carnage.

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When The Professional was first released in 1994, it generated a fair bit of controversy for the seemingly Lolita-esque nature of the relationship between Mathilda and Léon. And while I think Mathilda’s attraction to her mentor and savior was decidedly one-way (and based mostly around the lack of a reasonable father figure in her life), I have an entirely new set of contentions with the film’s handling of a thirteen year old heroine. The Professional sexualizes Mathilda. That’s just a fact. From the many angles that the film shoots her, it’s clear that Besson’s camera views Portman as a sexual object. Though it’s clearly not to the level of exploitation of Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby, I lost track of the number of times that the film shot Portman from the ass down. It was weird and it made me incredibly uncomfortable. I think the controversy surrounding Mathilda’s love for Léon was mostly misplaced because this is why people should have been upset.

When the film was released in America (where it was called The Professional as opposed to Léon in Europe), we were given a massively pared down version of the film, and though I’ve fallen in love with the European cut of the movie, I would be interested in seeing the edited version of the film because besides the sexualization of Natalie Portman, my most substantive complaint about The Professional is that it drags a little towards the end. I understand that I love this film because of the character development and commitment to building these characters up, but at times, certain elements felt like filler. Also, there’s one scene during the climactic action sequence where Jean Reno bellows (there really isn’t a better word to use here) that is the bad kind of hammy.

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If you’ve not seen The Professional, you need to drop whatever you’re doing and watch it immediately. I’m not exaggerating when I say that outside of the confines of particular war films, it’s arguably one of the greatest action films ever made. It has its flaws, and its particularly French (i.e. Louis Malle committed the same sins in Pretty Baby) with the sexuality of a young girl struck me as heartily disturbing. However, I can forgive Luc Besson his trespasses when the rest of his storytelling and character-building are so strong. From the first time I watched this film more than ten years ago, I fell in love with The Professional. And with each viewing, I find something new to appreciate and notice. Luc Besson is an auteur, and in a world where seemingly every action film (outliers like Looper the glorious exception) feels like a Michael Bay debacle, one must take the time to appreciate the art of a movie like Léon: The Professional.

Final Score: A-

 

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(A quick aside before my review proper begins. This is one of the most beloved films of the 90s and the viciousness with which I’m going to examine this film will probably offend its more hardcore fans. You’ve been warned. Also, though I usually attempt to review films purely on their own standards, Forrest Gump is such a cultural icon that I will have to also look at why that is and why I find that so distressing.)

If you were to ask the average movie-goer to compose a list of their top 10 films of the 90s, I’m probably not assuming too much when I say that Forrest Gump would be one of the films to make an appearance most often (and probably rank the highest on average). It is one of the most popular films, not just of the 1990s, but of the entire modern Hollywood era. The fact that this is true says something unspeakably sad about the tastes of the average movie fan. I’m concerned that I lack the vocabulary and the writing acumen in general to describe the melodramatic drivel that is the beating core of Forrest Gump in powerful enough terms. In my two and a half year tenure running this blog, there are probably less than five films that I can name that even come close to the blatant and cheap emotional manipulation that cranks Forrest Gump‘s gears.

Only the treacly garbage known as The Help and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close wear their absurd emotional and plot contrivances as the badges of honor that Forrest Gump so shamelessly employs. Forrest Gump is sappier than a maple tree in New England come syrup season. Sentimentality isn’t a bad thing in films. Movies like Monsieur Ibrahim or Cinema Paradiso are capable of generating real, strong emotions without relying on cheap, unearned histrionics to achieve that emotional payoff. Cheap sentimentality is achieved when writers and directors exploit tragedy and suffering without adding anything new to storytelling conventions that have been abused literally for centuries now or when a film is so patently unrealistic but still set up to evoke a specific set of emotional reactions that it has no right trying to grasp. Forrest Gump commits both sins of sentimentality and it became nearly unwatchable during this particular viewing.

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If, by some miracle you haven’t seen Forrest Gump (hopefully this encourages you to not waste your time watching it), the plot is as simple as it is absolutely fucking absurd. Forrest Gump (Big‘s Tom Hanks) is a sweet and innocent man born in the 1940s in a small town Alabama. But Forrest was born with an IQ of 75 and were it not for his loving mother (Lincoln‘s Sally Field), Forrest wouldn’t have been allowed to attend normal schools. But with the help of his mother who pushes him to not let anyone put him down because of his IQ and the fact that he has to wear leg braces, Forrest learns how to get by. He’s assisted in his childhood by his friend Jenny (played as an adult by The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo‘s Robin Wright Penn), a troubled girl physically and sexually abused by her father, but it’s when Forrest becomes a teenager that he sets on a world of adventures all his own.

It turns out that once Forrest loses his leg braces, he can run incredibly fast. And he becomes a star collegiate football player and even gets to meet President Kennedy (the first in a string of presidents and celebrities that he’ll meet) as part of the All-American Team. And after he graduates from college, Forrest is drafted to Vietnam where he meets Bubba (Justified‘s Mykelti Williamson), a shrimp-obsessed black man, and Lieutenant Dan (Gary Sinise), a death-seeking officer from a long-line of soldiers. Forrest becomes a war hero by saving most of his platoon after a Viet Cong ambush and is even awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Forrest becomes a world-class Ping Pong player and is involved in more or less every major historical event from the 1950s up until the 1980s.

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There’s probably, actually a good movie in there somewhere if you were to remove all of the bits where Forrest finds himself involved in literally practically every major historical event of the decade. The idea of a mentally disabled man struggling to find his place in life all while trying to come to terms with his love for a woman that is not mentally ill… there’s a good screenplay hidden in there somewhere. But, at literally (I’m probably going to abuse that word during this review) every opportunity Forrest Gump chooses to forego authenticity in favor of outrageous coincidences and unearned emotion. Every emotional scene is underwritten, over-directed, and pompously scored. If you don’t know what you’re supposed to be feeling in a scene (which should be impossible considering the film’s overbearing theatrics), don’t worry; the constantly obvious score will simplify things for you.

And, with a handful of exceptions, the performances are also all too on-the-nose. Tom Hanks won an Oscar for this film, and ignoring for a second that this means both John Travolta and Tim Robbins couldn’t win for their roles in Pulp Fiction and Shawshank, there’s hardly anything great about Hanks’s performance. With the exception of his scene at Jenny’s grave at the end of the film (SPOILER i suppose but I don’t care), he never taps into any genuine emotion in his performance as Forrest. Maybe also when Bubba died. He plays a mentally ill person well, but great acting is synonymous with powerful emotion (even if that power is tapped into in a subtle way like Joaquin Phoenix in The Master), and Hanks’s performance is mostly bland from an emotional perspective throughout. Of course, Forrest is a bland and passive protagonist so that makes sense.

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It should be no surprise then that the only two memorable performances in the film come from the movie’s two best characters. She’s hated by most of the film’s fandom (because she is an actually flawed and broken heroine compared to the perfect but slow Forrest), but Jenny is arguably the most interesting character in the film. Coming from a broken home and making a series of endless bad choices who can only find loves in the arms of a man who may not really understand how love works (despite his famous quote), Robin Wright Penn captured all of the loneliness and desperation that would consume a woman in her shoes. And, of course, Gary Sinise is spectacular as the embittered and cynical Lieutenant Dan who rages against God and Forrest himself for not allowing him to die in the jungles of Vietnam and forcing him to spend the rest of his days as a cripple.

Of course, I can’t make the argument that Forrest Gump isn’t a well-made film from a technical perspective. From the way that Robert Zemeckis seamlessly integrated Tom Hanks into actual classic TV and news footage to the generally beautiful cinematography, Forrest Gump is a competently well-made film. In fact, the skill with which it was made is part of the reason that I suspect so many people are tricked into believing the emotion of the film. Robert Zemeckis is such a skilled director that he utilizes every cinematic trick of the trade to elicit the reactions he wants because the writing of the film sure as hell isn’t strong enough to do the job. And, obviously, the movie has an absolutely killer soundtrack of the best songs of the 60s and 70s once the movie makes its way to Vietnam.

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More than 1300 words is plenty on a film that I distinctly dislike, but because Forrest Gump is so well-loved I had to explain in as clear a language as possible why this film is, from every objective standard I can think of, a total train-wreck.It’s movie trickery that has fooled people into thinking this is some type of profound and grand film. And that’s funny because almost any time the movie espouses some bit of homespun wisdom (usually from Forrest’s mother), it’s contradicted less than ten minutes later. I apologize if you’re a lover of Forrest Gump and this review offends your adoration of this film; I used to like it myself. But, after this particular viewing and as a much more sophisticated movie watcher than I was ten years ago (when I last saw the film), there’s no possible conclusion I could come to than that Forrest Gump cheaply plays with audience’s emotion and uniformly never earns the emotional payoff it so desires.

Final Score: C

 

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I really fucking miss the 90s. A lot of the mainstream music was as bad as it’s ever been and by the middle of the decade, the “corporate rock” explosion of bands like Nickelback and Creed was about to begin, but man, for those first five years, things were pretty great. And do you want to know why the early 90s were so great .The mainstream music was the great alternative bands, whether than means grunge or more alt-rock influenced artists like Blind Melon. I’m about to maybe lose all my hipster cred here, but one of the 90s alt bands that I really enjoyed was the jam band Blues Traveler with the harmonica virtuoso John Popper. I actually made a joke on twitter earlier today about John Popper’s harmonica bandolier which is probably what inspired me to choose their big hit, “Run-Around” as today’s Song of the Day. Enjoy.

 

The Cranberries 7/01 Photo Credit:  Andy Earl

Is it an unwritten rule that if you’re a rock band from Ireland in the 90s or 80s that you had to write a song about the Sectarian violence going on between the Irish Republican Army and the government of the United Kingdom? I’m not complaining cause “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is one of the greatest rock songs of the 1980s (and my favorite U2 song), but it seems like all of these Irish bands have a song about the terrible violence that was consuming Northern Ireland. And 90s alt rockers The Cranberries are no different with their biggest hit “Zombie.” It’s kind of weird actually that this song was such a bit hit cause it’s incredibly depressing and it’s about two boys who died during an IRA bombing. Still, it’s certainly one of the better alt-rock tunes of the 1990s and it has a pretty bad-ass music video. Enjoy.

 

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(A quick prelude before the actual review begins. I’M BACK! So, I’ve been on a hiatus since early November. Long time readers/friends in real life know that I’ve been working on a screenplay. I’ve written five, count ’em, five drafts of my original screenplay Aftertaste. I’ve plotted out scene-by-scene the direction of two other screenplays and written about 30 pages of the actual script of another. I’ve read Syd Field’s book on screenwriting and just generally, I’ve been in the midst of a creative renaissance. It’s been really fantastic. So take into account all of the writing I’ve been doing, the fact that I had finals at the beginning of December and I’ve spent the last month and a half as the assistant manager at my local FYE working 30-40 hours a week, it’s easy to see why I’ve been too busy to update this blog. But, I have THREE consecutive days off in a row from work for the first time in what feels like an eternity, so I thought I’d return to the hobby that got me my internship in NYC last spring as well as the hobby that inspired me to write my screenplay in the first place. I’m back everybody!)

Barry Levinson’s Diner is one of the great under-appreciated coming of age films of all time. It didn’t gloss over the awkward pains and embarrassments of growing up or try to tidy up the ambiguities we face as we enter the real world. With subtlety and a terrific cast, it succeeded in delivering a realism that almost no other coming-of-age tale could hope to equal. 1994’s Reality Bites, directed by Ben Stiller, has a reputation as being the ultimate Gen-X coming of age film and while it has moments of almost heart-breaking veracity and is supported by a stellar cast at the top of their game, the film at times comes off like a blatant hodge-podge of 90s hot-button issues.

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The mid-90s was the end of an era. Grunge was beginning its slow descent into being corporate sell-outs and only a few years removed from post-grunge atrocities like Nickelback and Creed. Generations of teenagers who had rejected the “Generation Me” mindset of their Reaganite parents were about to learn the cold hard truth that their own counterculture would eventually have to grow up. You can fight the power as long as you want but eventually, someday, somebody’s going to have to pay the bills. In the angst-fueled Reality Bites, a small group of friends face the post-college world and come to terms with becoming an adult in their own painful ways.

College valedictorian Leilana Pierce (The Age of Innocence‘s Winona Ryder) thinks she’s on the right track. An aspiring documentary film-maker, she’s a production assistant on a popular television talk show. She’s beginning a healthy relationship with TV producer Michael (Ben Stiller), and her parents just gave her a BMW. But when her slacker best friend Troy (Ethan Hawke), who may also be in love with her, moves in with Leilana and her friend Vickie (Janeane Garofalo), Troy and Leilana’s complicated history and Leilana’s unexpected unemployment force everyone in their circle of friends to grow up more quickly than they expected.

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Similar to Diner, much of the film’s appeal can be attributed to the movie’s strong cast. As terrible as this may be to say, Ben Stiller’s acting career likely peaked with this performance as the sensitive and mature but still screwed up Michael. Winona Ryder’s career performances fluctuate from brilliant (Heathers) to awful (The Age of Innocence) but she was at her best here as the ambitious, bitchy, vulnerable, and lovelorn Leilana. It was a demanding role which required her to vascillate between sympathetic audience surrogate and angsty, whiny brat at the drop of the hat and she pulled it off.

The real star of the film though was the intense and naturalistic performance of Ethan Hawke. Although the writing of the Troy character occasionally bordered on ridiculous and some of his actual dialogue was absurd, Hawke’s mesmerizing performance made you forget any flaws with the writing. With his piercing stare and James Dean wounded vulnerability, Hawke turned this performance into the stepping stone for the rest of his star career although said star has been on the wane lately. It’s a shame Hawke never become a true top-tier talent.

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The film’s writing doesn’t always due justice to the film’s wonderful cast. Although the angsty, self-centered narcissism of the film’s cast may have seemed authentic and gripping in the mid-90s, it makes the cast seem remarkably unlikeable for most of the film and not necessarily in interesting ways. And while Leilana’s characterization seems sufficiently 3-dimensional, the supporting players often act in ways that are utterly unbelievable and the film can never seem to get a tag on what role they want Troy to inhabit. That may have been the intention but at times, it just makes the film seem muddled.

And on that same note, the film’s use of “facing the camera” vignettes (which are part of Leilana’s in-universe documentary) tell parts of the story to directly when a more subtle approach would have been affective. The film isn’t afraid to “tell” the audience the story it wants to portray rather than showing it. When the film tackles themes like sexuality and finding a meaningful job or alienation, it does them well but Reality Bites is just as likely to have a character make some type of bland platitude directly into the camera and insult the audience’s intelligence in the process.

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Minor complaints aside, Reality Bites is still a wonderfully charming indie romance and it’s easy to see why so many people that were teenagers in the 1990s find it so meaningful. My screenplay Aftertaste actually shares many thematic similarities to Reality Bites and could almost have the exact same logline. So, this film gave me some ideas about some pitfalls that I need to avoid in my own film as I continue to write more drafts of Aftertaste in the hope of selling it. If you’re a fan of indie coming of age films, Reality Bites might not be perfect, but it’s a genuine and deeply enjoyable gem from the indie film’s heyday.

Final Score: B+

 

So, I was playing Rock Band with my little sister today. We used to fight like cats and dogs but ever since I started college many moons ago, we’ve gotten along significantly better. Rock Band is one of the activities we can partake in together without eventually wanting to kill each other. One of the songs that came up during our jam session was “Feel the Pain” by seminal indie rock band, Dinosaur Jr. Of course, the age difference (and taste difference) between my sister and I showed up because she had never heard of them before we played the song. If there is one thing that Dinosaur Jr. is known for (besides epic debates on how to pronounce J. Mascis’ name) it’s their loudness, and “Feel the Pain” is one of their tunes that subverts that whole trend (at least partially). I’m not sure why I like the song so much. It’s just a great lo-fi indie rock tune. Enjoy.

What do Pretty Woman, Working Girl, and Ever After have in common? They’re all remakes of the Cinderella story. In fact, the tale of a young woman going from rags to riches (and snaring a wealthy man in the process) is one of the oldest and most popular stories of all time. There are, without fail, at least one or two loose or direct adaptations of Cinderella released as a movie every year. Although there may be modern spins on the story (Working Girl sees her as a secretary under the spiteful hand of her evil boss), the tale is so ingrained in our conscious that if a female character is down on her luck when a film begins, we expect her to work her way out of said hole. Pygmalion has created the same expectations for women who are unattractive and uncouth in a film’s beginning (though was Audrey Hepburn ever unattractive in My Fair Lady?). Muriel’s Wedding wants you to believe it’s a surrealist, Australian take on Cinderella, but by the time the credits roll, it’s left an entire genre battered in its wake.

America (except for perhaps in recent years) has never really adapted surrealism as a mainstream form of comedy. Broad sophomoric antics and a standard joke-pun-reaction structure rule the day. Even among (American) independent film makers, there’s more of a reliance on socially awkward tension and dark malaise than excursions into whimsy. The two most successful American comedies that embrace surrealism were flops when they came out and only garnered critical and commercial love later, The Big Lebowski and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. P.J. Hogan’s brutal and darkly comic Muriel’s Wedding slides back and forth between nearly grating levels of quirkiness and surrealism on to gut-wrenching moments of drama and real life. While the emotional rollercoaster the film presents may be too much for some, it’s whole-hearted deconstruction of the Cinderella fantasy and its visceral capture of the total emotional spectrum makes it one of the most compelling (if flawed) comedies I’ve seen in years.

Muriel (Little Miss Sunshine‘s Toni Collette) is a shy, homely chronic liar who is nearly sent to prison at the beginning of the film by wearing a stolen wedding dress to her best friend’s wedding. Except, she (and the other women that Toni finds to be her friends) isn’t really Muriel’s friend, and her whole female peer group unceremoniously dumps her at a bar as they plan a group getaway, leaving Muriel a hysterically weeping mess. In truth, the closest thing that Muriel has to a real friend is her ABBA records which she’ll listen to for days at a time without leaving her house. With no looks, no personality, and no career prospects (she’s a high school drop out that also failed out of secretarial school), Muriel’s life has gone nowhere and will go nowhere. But, one day, her father cuts her a blank check for a possible beauty salesman job that Muriel instead uses to go on a lavish vacation that changes her life forever.

I was actually left somewhat cold by the beginning of the film (though it all makes sense later) because it wasn’t especially funny. Muriel’s life is almost satirically pathetic. Her father (Bill Hunter) is an obviously crooked businessman. She and the rest of her siblings are layabouts who milk their parents for whatever meager benefits they can while contributing nothing in return. Her mother (Jeanie Drynan) loves her children but is passive and submissive to the point of oblivious, and her most beloved daughter, Muriel, cares nothing for her. Muriel isn’t your average “quirky” film heroine. She’s awkward to the point of causing the audience physical pain to watch her stumble her way through life. It makes her dramatic change after meeting Rachel Griffith’s Rhoda all the more surprising, but by not knowing where the film’s final two acts were heading, the beginning of Muriel‘s Wedding sends the false impression that the film’s comedy will be flat.

However, the film picks up, when Muriel takes her vacation to the same resort get away that her friends had no intention of taking her. She is rejected by them almost immediately and her public degradation continues. Muriel’s life is forever altered when she meets the wild and rebellious Rhoda (Six Feet Under‘s Rachel Griffiths) at the resort bar. While Rhoda went to the same high school as Muriel, Muriel never spoke to anyone and Rhoda left town. She doesn’t know how pathetic Muriel’s life is and Muriel is able to convince her she has a fiancee and that she’s a successful saleswoman (the latter being the same lie she’s fed her family about her trip). Rhoda inspires Muriel to actually live her life (even if the details of said life are a lie), stand up to the girls who looked down on her, and after a brief return to her parents’ house, move to Sydney to finally start a life of her own. As Muriel (who changes her name to Mariel) and Rhoda live the fast life in Sydney, tragedy, hypocrisy, and lies wait around the corner to devastate their new friendship.

From the moment that Rhoda and Muriel do a side-splitting rendition of ABBA’s “Waterloo” at the resort talent show (interspersed with Muriel’s faux-friends getting into a massive cat-fight), Muriel’s Wedding springs to life. Muriel begins the film a frumpy, poorly-kept mess, and while Toni Collette is never going to be pretty by any standard (I know. I know. It’s a terrible thing to say.), she gets a nice make-over that makes her look like an actually presentable person (instead of some bad caricature of everything wrong with 1980s fashion as how she starts the film). That’s the Pygmalion side of the film. There’s a riotous scene where Muriel is attempting to have sex (presumably for the first time) with a new boyfriend (as Rhoda has an orgy with two American sailors in her bedroom) that is perhaps one of the most hysterical, awkward, and painful love scenes ever. It also marks the drastic tonal shift that comes out of left field (which I will not explain for fear of spoiling the film).

However, when the film changes moods, just let me say that Muriel’s Wedding goes for the knockout punch. After spending the first half of the film setting up how low Muriel had become and then helping her rise, we quickly discover that Muriel doesn’t just want to be happy or better. She wants fantasy at the expense of an already pleasant reality. She keeps lying to her only real friend about her non-existent fiancee and everything else about her life. Muriel’s creates such a complicated web of fantasy that it’s inevitable that it will all come crashing down on her. The genius part of the film is that it allows Muriel’s lies to give her all the things a girl in a Cinderella fantasy could want: wealth, a husband, the adoration and jealousy of her peers. But, you also see the spiritual toll that her deceit and betrayal takes on her and Rhoda, especially in Rhoda’s ultimate moment of need.

Every time you think that the film can’t go to a darker place, it does. The film regularly interplays pitch-black, About Schmidt style comedy with outrageous humor. You may find yourself laughing til your sides hurt one second only to be on the verge of tears (the non-laughter variety) the very next. That’s what life is like though (although hopefully yours is full of less sad sacks than Muriel’s) and P.J.’s Hogan captures love, death, friendship, betrayal, depression, isolation, hope, and renewal. I’ve seen Muriel’s Wedding referred to as a feel-good comedy, but this was the most emotionally draining film I’d watched since Synecdoche, New York. It ultimately has a hopeful and positive message about life which is that Muriel can change her position, she can escape the dour fatalism of her early film life, but she has to embrace her roots and learn to be herself, not the idealized version she thinks she should be. Yet, you wander through a parade of misery and tragedy to get there. Once again, that’s life.

The performances from the two female leads are flawless. Along with Diane Keaton in Annie Hall and Sally Hawkins Happy-Go-Lucky, Toni Collette has delivered what should be one of the definitive female comedic performances of all time. Muriel becomes nearly so deluded with the fantasies that she’s created for her life that she starts to buy into them herself. Her idea of drastically changing her identity is to change one syllable in her name (Muriel to Mariel) and create wild lies. She convinces bridal shop owners that her mother is dying so she can try on a million wedding dresses and have her picture taken. She’s willing to marry a man just for money and still manages to convince herself that it’s a fairy tale blessing. When her illusions are shattered (and those close to her call her on her bullshit), she withdraws into the hysterical, broken girl she really is. Toni Collette bravely consumes herself in this complex and demanding role.

Fans of Six Feet Under know Rachel Griffith’s ability to take on volatile roles. Brenda was easily the most dynamic character on SFU. Rhoda manages to nearly steal the show from Muriel. When Rhoda first appears, Muriel is still queen of Pathetic-ville, and her joie de vivre and “take no bullshit” attitude imbues the film with the charm and wit it needed to not be too depressing. And as the film progresses, she continues to up the ante to still seem wild in comparison to the newly free Muriel, until the film violently shoves the audience back to Earth with a side of Rhoda that starkly changes her character. Just like Toni Collette (and the emotional range of the film itself), Rachel Griffiths takes Rhoda through an emotional maelstrom, and you’re never once left doubting the veracity of her performance.

If you find yourself tired of the same, conventional staid Hollywood romances, Muriel’s Wedding is as drastic a departure from the norm as possible. It may drag slightly at the beginning, and some moments ring as artificial (and even worse, kitsch), but for a brutally honest story of growing up and self-realization, Muriel’s Wedding is another classic cult comedy from Australia. Toni Collette was robbed of an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. If you can make it through its rough introduction, you are rewarded with a film that gets to the truth that so many of us can’t face. We are ourselves, and while we can always improve ourself, we will never be something that we aren’t. If we try, we’re just destroying ourselves and hurting those that love us.

Final Score: A-

There comes a time in many young men’s lives when they are forced to face the reality that all of their friends are getting engaged, becoming married, or having children whilst they remain in a perpetual state of bachelorhood. Whether through a fear of commitment or an inability to find “the one”, it can be an emotionally devastating realization that can push already neurotic types off into the deep end of loneliness and despair. This conflict forms the emotional core of Mike Newell’s (Donnie Brasco) surprisingly delightful romantic comedy, Four Weddings and a Funeral. The film that shot Hugh Grant to international superstardom, Four Weddings and a Funeral is a simple and conventional love story that is elevated far above its source material by a rollicking British wit and memorable performances from its lead and supporting cast. Only unfortunate contrivances at the film’s end along with the less than impressive Andie MacDowell hold this film back from being a romantic comedy classic.

With one of the most self-explanatory titles of the 1990’s, Four Weddings and a Funeral is the story of Charles (Hugh Grant), a bumbling but endearing Brit who constantly finds himself attending the weddings (and a funeral) of various friends and acquaintances. Charles has been a bit of a lothario in his day, and his inability to commit or open to any of the women in his life has held back from finding true happiness. At the first wedding of the film, Charles runs into Carrie (Andie MacDowell), an American woman, and the two share an instant and passionate connection which culminates in a sizzling one-night stand. Three months later, another wedding is being hosted and Charles runs into Carrie yet again, but she is now engaged to the boring but rich Scotsman, Hamish (Corin Redgrave). Forcing Charles to assess where his life is headed, the film follows Charles’s coping with his interminable bachelorhood and simultaneously facing that he has feelings for a woman that’s soon to be married, all while there are still two weddings and one funeral that I simply must not spoil to come.

With the glaring and unfortunate exception of Andie MacDowell, this film is grounded in a simply stellar cast. While Hugh Grant has made a career off of rehashing essentially the same character over and over again, this was the original role, and it’s no wonder he’s one of the most popular stars from across the pond. Channeling the foot-in-mouth neuroses and self doubt of Woody Allen with the stuttering charm of James Stewart (with even more Anglicized influences), Hugh Grant is a comedic revelation. He can spout off an obscene tirade in a church and still come of as immaculately polite and likeable. At the same time, he is able to achieve a level of sincerity in his performance that solidifies the emotional connection the audience is able to make with his character. Outside of the more noticeable fantastical elements of the plot, this a very real and recognizable tale and Grant brings the emotional insecurity and doubt home with his performance. Andie MacDowell on the other hand was terribly miscast. Her lack of emotion and also her lack of any nuance robs the film of a significant amount of credibility as I often had trouble understanding why Charles could ever fall so heavily for such a cold character.

Thankfully, if Andie MacDowell faltered, she was carried on by a sterling supporting cast. Kristen Scott Thomas (The English Patient) exudes elegance and class (as always) and simultaneously a tender vulnerability and loneliness as Fiona, one of Charles’s closest friends who has always carried a torch for him. With a simple glance or turn of her cheek, she is able to evoke an entire range of emotions that the lead love interest couldn’t achieve in the whole film. The real scene-stealer of the film is Simon Callow as Gareth, the exuberant and lively elderly boyfriend of Matthew (John Hannah) who is prone to drunken reveries and head-turning dancing. His clear and commanding diction, which seems straight from Shakespeare, only adds to the humorous dichotomy of his boorish but entertaining antics. John Hannah is no slouch either as he provides some of the film’s most emotionally powerful and dramatic moments.

For a fairly traditional romantic comedy, Four Weddings and a Funeral strikes a perfect match between intelligent, dry British humor with a rather healthy smattering of raunchy humor for good measure. Much like Grant’s later picture, Notting Hill, the film takes great pleasure in creating humor by contrasting Grant’s polite and endearing image with a surprisingly large amount of British curse words and sexual comedy. For those out there who have created some mental image of the movie as a staid “chick flick”, those worries can easily be cast aside as there are enough jokes for both sexes to ensure that everyone in the audience is in stitches by the film’s end. Richard Curtis (Love Actually) penned the wicked sharp script and its end excepted, it will have you laughing while also forcing you empathize with painfully familiar life crisis that Charles finds himself facing.

As mentioned, the film’s end seems unfortunately artificial and forced in an otherwise painfully realistic movie, but that shouldn’t stop you from watching this otherwise lovely and hilarious gem from across the pond. So many romantic comedies are painfully formulaic and derivative, that when one comes along with a fresh voice and a sincere tone, you simply must take those chances to find new and original entertainment. While it may not be one of the greatest romantic comedies of all time, it still stands as a genuinely entertaining and endearing production which transcends so much of what the genre produces. Hugh Grant has made his entire career off the image he created in this film, and he’s never been able to get it quite as right or sincere than in the original artifact.

Final Score: B+

With the large and prominent place that the Holocaust plays in 20th century history, a lot of people forget that there were many other genocides committed before the Holocaust and many committed after. We have the Armenian genocide in Turkey. There was the genocide in Rwanda, and we still have continuing genocide today in Darfur. The film I just finished watching explores the genocides committed against the Albanian Muslim minority group during the Balkan wars of the 1990’s through the eyes of two Macedonian men caught right in the middle of it. Before the Rain is an astonishingly powerful and emotional piece of foreign film-making, and it helped to continue renewing my faith that this blog is going to expose me to many classic foreign films I never would have seen otherwise. This Independent Spirit Award winner for Best Foreign Film ranks among some of the best foreign films I’ve watched for this blog.

As stated, Before the Rain is about the civil wars breaking out in all of the various Balkan states that resulted in tragic “ethnic cleansings” against the Albanian minorities. As the film’s subtitle at its opening states, the movie is a tale in three parts. The first part of the film is about a young man named Kiril. Kiril is a priest, living in the monastery of an Eastern Orthodox church in rural Macedonia. He awakes to find that an Albanian woman has snuck into his room to escape from the Macedonian militia trying to find her and kill her. Kiril, who has taken a vow of silence, makes its mission to protect and hide the girl from certain death. The second part of the film (and the weakest) is about an English woman named Ann living in London. She works for a photography company and is sleeping with Pulitzer prize winning photographer Alexsandar, a Macedonian immigrant, despite the fact that she’s married. She is especially struck by the horrors of the photographs coming from the Balkans but lives an otherwise normal suburban life until her world is turned upside down when the violence of the Balkans erupts in England. Finally, the last and longest act of the film follows Alexsandar as he returns to Macedonia to continue chronicling the civil war until he finds himself swept up in the violence and must choose sides.

The main themes of the film are the cyclical and futile nature of violence and revenge and how this fuels the never-ending fires of ethnic conflict and strife. It’s done masterfully. When the film is over and you realize how the film was actually structured (I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say its non-linear), you see how the director even worked the theme of cycles into the very structure of the film itself. The film does not shy away from the violence and blood shed inherent in a civil war, but it plays it all on a very person and intimate level rather than showing a grand scheme of things. While most films that deal with hot button issues like genocide tend to be very large scale like Hotel Rwanda or Schindler’s List, you get a very specific series of portraits painted in this film, and it adds higher levels of intensity to many of the films most heart-wrenching scenes.

While the entire film is great (even the second act which seems strangely out of place until its explosive end), the first story, that of the young priest, is some of the finest film-making I’ve seen for this blog. The entire movie almost seems disappointing after that until you realize each part is trying to achieve something different. There is such quiet intensity in practically every second of Kiril’s story. I found myself sitting straight up with my covers near my face because the scenes filled me with so much dread. It’s a simple tale of one man trying to take a stand against evil and injustice, but it is done with such emotional strength that you simply have to applaud. If I were judging the movie based on that scene alone, this film would be an A+. It’s especially astounding considering how little dialogue is present during that chapter. Kiril has taken a vow of silence, and yet his actor does a superb job of expressing the tragedy and inhumanity of his surroundings. It was spectacular.

Foreign cinema has the opportunity to tell stories that I would not otherwise be exposed to in an intellectually engaging way. Take for example, Lacombe, Lucien. Before I saw that film, my idea of the French during German occupation was that of noble resistance fighters and valiant subterfuge. History has left out the tales of the Vichy and French cooperators. Prior to Hotel Rwanda, much of the Western world was ignorant of the events of the ethnic cleansings of Africa, but now, we know a little more than we did. I had always assumed that most of the fighting and civil war of the Balkans was limited to Yugoslavia and Bosnia. I did not know how far the cancer of war and violence had spread. As well as being an emotionally powerful and politically courageous film, this film educated me about the injustices and atrocities that are happening in this world, and that simply adds to its appeal. I’ve currently got two other foreign films at home from Netflix and I hope they are as good as this one.

Final Score: A