Archive for category 1990s

Slacker

Slacker

An odd day’s journey into even odder Austin oddness.

“Slacker” feels a lot like an acid trip, sans the hallucinations. The film meanders from one bizarre conversation to the next, unable to linger too long on any one topic but always fascinated by whatever is happening in whatever instant it is in.  These conversations consist almost entirely of absurd, self-aggrandizing banal nonsense, and yet you can’t help but be excited by the manic energy of the philosophizing weirdos uttering it.  It is like they are determined to find the truth in the mundane, or the mundane in the truth, plausibility and conventionality be damned. In the end, it may be just an extreme form of mental masturbation, but brains have needs too.

I for one am glad there are oddballs like those in “Slacker” out there in the universe, championing whatever causes strike them. If you’ve spent any substantial time in a liberal college town, you can’t help but run into them. Some are students, but even more seem to have wandered in from the sociopolitical wilderness of surrounding communities to wrap themselves in the warm intellectual cocoon of the university, or they seem to have grown from the fertile landscape of the city  itself, feeding off of radical ideas  like eccentric wildflowers. They aren’t just in the city. They are the city.

I have never been to Austin, but I have heard rumors of its prodigious peculiarity. I hope that these rumors are true, and that “Slacker” does it justice. In the film, we arrive in town as passive observers, wandering through the town and soaking up its otherworldly ambiance. The film eavesdrops on a variety of oddities, including a woman trying to sell Madonna’s pap smear, a pop-tart chomping man surrounded by televisions, a robber that is charmed by an elderly anarchist, an expert on JFK assassination theories, and a couple of hipsters positing conspiracy theories related to children’s cartoons over beers. This is by no means an exhaustive list. Many of these characters are as ephemeral as ghosts, drifting back into the ether of Austin as quickly as they appeared, not unlike an early 90s Austin-version of Alice-in-Wonderland.

Whether and to what degree any of these individual ideas appeals to you is, I suppose, a matter of personal ideology. (I don’t have any problems with the theory that some children’s cartoons teach children to expect rewards for completing tasks. Not that this is a revelatory concept.) However, it isn’t the content of any of these ideas that matters. It is the spirit of these conversations which counts. These people are on self-defined crusades against abstractions of all shapes and sizes. I find their rebellion against normality comforting.

“Slacker” provides a strange viewing experience. Aside from evoking the weirdo-derived ambiance of Austin, the film seems to be utterly devoid of agendas. In that sense it feels incredibly unique. I was mystified for its duration, and the odd reaction it generated lingered long after the film is over. Not unlike an acid trip.

4/5

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Dumb and Dumber

Dumb and Dumber

A familiar ode to the blissful joys of perpetual ignorance and heterosexual male relationships.

It was a strange experience seeing this film for the umpteenth time, with my many memories of watching and quoting it having been unregarded for so long. “Dumb and Dumber” was a very early entry into the canon of comedies that would formulate my teenage sense of humor, along with being the world’s first experience with the Farrelly brothers, and one of the three films that helped launch the career of Jim Carrey. (With “The Mask,” “Ace Ventura” and “Dumb and Dumber,” 1994 was a very big year for Jim Carrey.) It is one of those films which has given me more laughter than I could ever hope to recall, though many dusty memories were ignited by watching it again. However, aside from a few forced chuckles, the laughter wasn’t really there. Just the memories of laughters gone by.

Few comedies can truly feel timeless, and “Dumb and Dumber” certainly isn’t, but it has aged better than you might expect. Its “90s” trappings are less the centerpiece here than the quasi-brilliant performances of Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels as Lloyd Christmas and Harry Dunne, two of the most sublimely stupid character to ever to grace the silver screen.  Their endearing affection for one another and childlike zest for life is infectious, bolstered by the compelling reactions of the reasonably intelligent characters that are so baffled by the otherworldly idiocy that spews from Harry and Lloyd’s mouths they aren’t sure if their words are genius or otherworldly idiotic. They sort of transcend traditional notions of intelligence.  The chemistry and timing between Daniels (serious actor) and Carrey (mostly non-serious actor) has to place them amongst the best comedic duos of the 1990s. This film is inconceivable without these two as leads.

As characters Harry and Lloyd are so clueless that they couldn’t possibly sustain narrative arcs. They merely saunter from one situation to another, and react like pair of dogs that keep running into a wall and eating their own poop while smiling contentedly the whole time. You can’t help but root for them. Ostensibly Harry and Lloyd intend to deliver a briefcase from Rhode Island to Colorado, but their attention span is too short to worry about it for long. They have tails to chase.

Do films have a limited number of laughs that they can generate within us? It is hard to laugh when you anticipate every funny moment with the giddiness of a girl at a One Direction concert. Perhaps if I waited twenty years, I might forget enough of the film that it could extract some giggles from me, but I doubt it. More likely I’ll get the same nostalgic bemusement I got this time, only with more potency. This might sound like I didn’t enjoy the film, but that would be the wrong impression to give. This is a film I enjoy immensely, like reminiscing with an old friend that tells you the same-old jokes with the same-old punchlines but that you like hearing anyway.

It does makes me a little sad that a comedy I admire will likely never make me laugh again. Not because I have changed and outgrew the jokes, because I haven’t. I just know all of its moves so well, and have laughed that its originality and spontaneity have been used up. The humor cannot offer anything new. It merely invokes all the laughter that I once experienced. With the return of Daniels and Carrey to the sequel coming out later this year, there is hope for a laughter Renaissance. Until then, “Dumb and Dumber” will continue to remind me how much it used to make me laugh.

4/5

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Home Alone 2: Lost in New York

Home_Alone_2

A bad early 90s classic that is actually good, because it’s bad.

Having just chided “Anchorman 2” for being an uninspired rehashing of its better and more original predecessor, it would seem contradictory for me to heap praise on another sequel for doing the exact same thing. Chalk it up to nostalgic bias maybe, but that is exactly what I’m going to do. In taking the same themes and riffs from the first “Home Alone” movie and cranking them up to 11, “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York” actually improves upon the shameless and bland middle class sentimentality of the original. Its incessant stupidity is like a running in-joke throughout the film, because honestly, how could such a bonkers idea actually resonate with so many people?

None of this is meant argue that “Home Alone 2” is a “good” movie. It isn’t, but I don’t think it has any interest in any traditional notion of quality. Rather, this film goes for some weird form of satire. Honestly it plays like a parody of a “Home Alone” movie, as silly as it is. In hitting all the same beats as the first film, I suspect the makers of “Home Alone 2” wanted to see just how much absurdity they could cram into this film with as little effort as possible, while still keeping the masses on board. In generating over 350 millions dollars in domestic tickets sales, despite receiving a paltry 24% approval rating from critics per Rotten Tomatoes, it looks as though the filmmakers experience was a success. (While Rotten Tomatoes didn’t exist in 1992, nevertheless odds are good that the film critic in your local newspaper told you it was terrible and that you shouldn’t see it, but your family saw it anyway.)

I doubt this film could have stolen any less material from the original. It stars the same emotionally neglected son, Kevin McCallister (Macauley Culkin, whose indelible charisma and sharp delivery as the child star are the only reason these films work at all,) who once again improbably gets the solitude and freedom he so desperately craves when his overlarge family forgets about him amidst their hectic travel plans. The only difference this time is that a mishap at the airport sends him to New York City while everyone else heads south to Miami for Christmas. Armed with his dad’s wallet and an extremely versatile Talkboy device, Kevin’s freedom is initially intoxicating. Slowly, he realizes how big and unmanageable the world is without his family, and of courses misses them. This is an annoyingly superficial and irritating lesson which is further reinforced by an initially horrifying side character who turns out to be a sage with a heart of gold. (The Homeless Pigeon Lady, played with a bemused indifference by Brenda Flicker.) Do flmmakers really think kids and adults are so stupid? (Yes.) We also get the box-office required, Looney Tunes-inspired showdown between Kevin and a couple of buffoonish burglars, the Sticky Bandits, which has nothing to do with anything. This is nevertheless a great source for a lot of cheap physical gags, as Kevin rigs an abandoned house with booby traps that would kill most humans, but not are shockingly durable villains.

This film is a master class in camera-mugging led by legendary overactor Daniel Stern, whose finest moment as one of the Sticky Bandits involves howls of pain caused by an electric current so severe that he is briefly transformed into a skeleton. He is not alone in this, as Tim Curry, Rob Schneider, and Dana Ivey are the goofy members of a hotel staff so stupid they fall for the old “Angels with Filthy Souls” trick. Joe Pesci is as mumbly as ever, while all the other actors generate a different kind of laughter as they drip through all kinds of sappy, self-righteous dialogue, which plays every bit as ridiculous as all the bawdy comedy.

Can a film be terrible and still be a classic? I think so. I, of course, regard “Home Alone 2” with a sort of absurdist brilliance, but even if this review is the insane ramblings of a “Home Alone” homer, its 24% on the Tomatometer is far less important in considering its status as a classic than its box office take. A classic denotes a film which resonated, and keeps resonating with a mass of people. A classic is a collective fond memory that can be relived and shared with others, serious criticism be damned. For my generation, the “Home Alone” films certainly are that. For the millions of us that were under the age of ten in the early 90s, explicating “Home Alone” from your childhood is impossible.

3.5/5

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Porco Rosso

Porco RossoAirborne film noir with spoonfuls of comic relief to help it go down.

 

Hayao Miyazaki makes children’s films. He is not interested in more “mature” animated films, whatever I may wish.  So I had to remind myself after watching “Porco Rosso,” a film which teeters on the edge of hard-nosed film noir before the weird tropes of Japanese comedy come bumbling in to undercut any sense of danger or repressed coolness. Nevertheless, this is a Miyazaki film, and I’ve yet to see one that I didn’t enjoy immensely, even if its most compelling themes get mere passing references before being pushed so far down into the background of the film that they barely register at all.

Amidst a catalog of odd characters, Porco Rosso (voiced by Micheal Keaton in the American dub), may just be the strangest. A crack fighter pilot in World War I, a curse inexplicably transformed him into a man-sized bipedal pig. This turns out to be not much of a problem. Everyone in the world seems to adjust reasonably well to the existence of a man-pig, and Porco himself doesn’t seem too bothered by it. He doesn’t express the least bit of interest in resolving the curse, which to him is a sort of penance for past sins. Instead he spends his time as a freelance pilot, fending off goofy comic relief air pirates for the Italian government at high prices.

In contrast to the casual oddness of Porco, the film’s setting is starkly realist. Taking place in interwar Italy, a country whose difficult social conditions creep into the fringes of the film to paint a sharp portrait of life during that time. A friend in the military warns Porco that leadership has changed and his cushy arrangement with the government is over, to which Porco exclaims “I’d rather be a pig than a fascist.” Porco has to dodge some Italian government agents who now want to bring him in as an enemy of the state. Under conditions of extreme poverty, the men of Italy are off working in far away places. This leaves a whole host of women at home to work on fixing Porco’s plane. Inflation and economic hardship rule the day.

Porco carries a shield of aloof detachment which stems from a deep emotional scar he received during the first World War. Amidst a airfight in which his entire squadron was shot down one by one, Porco flees, leading to the film’s most wondrous sequence. Half awake and delirious, he sees hundreds of dead pilots from every nation with an airfleet ascend with their planes into heaven. So it is perhaps out of shame that Porco wallows around in an existential milieu of nihilism couched in self-loathing and hedonism.

Despite being one of Miyazaki’s most compelling characters, Porco feels oddly wasted in this film. The ending is a big bland mush of shallow character resolution brought on by a plucky young teenage engineer named Fio (Kimberly Williams-Paisley), who helped redesign Porco’s plane after it was shot down despite his concerns that her femaleness somehow prevented her from doing the job well. As a feminist, “We Can Do It!” icon, Fio is fantastic. As a means of resolving Porco’s character arc, Fio is infuriating. Naturally Fio uses her cute, girlish charms to see through Porco’s rough exterior into his soft and sweet core, forcing him to face his unresolved emotions via an airfight with his chief rival Donald (Carey Elwes), all while she reduces the air pirates to bickering boys who just want to do right by her, so enamored are they by Fio’s looks and preachy moralizing.

Despite numerous threats to kill each other, this battle is utterly toothless. The airfight between Donald and Porco devolves into a listless exchange of insults and punches revolving around the affections of a woman. The most interesting aspects of Porco Rosso as a character -his survivor’s guilt, his self-induced emotional exile, and his disgust with the government-go largely unexplored, and the tropes of film noir are completely abandoned in favor of more generic storytelling.

It is not really fair to criticize a film for what it isn’t, but nevertheless, that is where I find myself. Miyazaki usually wows with his ability to incorporate adult concepts into imaginative children’s tale while making those concepts digestible for children without insulting their intelligence or sense of wonder. “Porco Rosso” does not work this way. “Porco Rosso,” wows with its maturity before throwing in childish antics to blunt its edges and render inert the complex psychological forces driving the film. I’m not sure how this film would fair with kids, but I suspect they would get less out of it than any of Miyazaki’s others. Do children really respond to the regret and self-inflicted misery fueled motifs of film-noir? This film certainly hopes they will.

3.5/5

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Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

Star Trek VI

Amidst twelve Star Trek films, it is really easy to forget just how good this film is. When we talk about the best of the Star Trek films, “Star Trek VI” belongs in the same discussion as “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” While “Khan” is admittedly the more iconic film and houses the better villain, “Star Trek VI” has a much tougher job. Needing to part ways with characters that have resided in the pop culture for over two decades without devolving into shameless pandering while still appealing to a mainstream audience, “Star Trek VI” gets the job done by mixing in real-world cold war politics with bits of a murder mystery, a prison escape, and a splash of courtroom drama.

Director Nicholas Myers’ (who also directed “The Wrath of Khan”) most inspired choice was his decision to integrate the end of the Cold War era with the end of this particular iteration of “Star Trek.” Entire generations of children grew up the 60s, 70s, and 80s intuiting that the U.S.S.R. was the enemy of the United States. They heard about the Cold War on the news, read about superheros fighting Communists in comic books, and saw James Bond outsmarting the Reds in the movies. With the collapse of The Soviet Union nearly formalized in 1991, a Brave New World began, in which Russia is an ally and kids like me grew up thinking Russians were just a bunch of bearded guys in silly hats drinking vodka in the snow.

“Star Trek VI” begins with a massive Chernobyl-esque explosion generated from a moon that serves as the primary source of energy for the entirety of the Klingon empire. (Note: in the metaphoric realm of “Star Trek” the Klingons are the equivalent of the Russians.) With that energy source now gone, the Klingon empire is given an expiration date of 50 years.The Klingons have long been the chief antagonists of the Federation, but instead of reveling in victory, the Federation makes plans for talks with Klingon leader, Chancellor Gorkon (David Warner) in order save the Klingons and usher in a new era of peace between these long-warring species.

The Federation sends old battle-ax James T. Kirk (William Shatner) and the hardened crew of the Enterprise to meet Gorkon and get him safely to the peace talks. After a contentious meal between a rash of Klingons and Federation officers, the situation unravels. Amidst a surprise attack from the Enterprise, two of its crew beam aboard the Klingon ship and murder the Chancellor.

Kirk, who has hated and fought the Klingons for most of his life, must rely on diplomacy, not force, to get out of this particular pickle. He and Enterprise doctor Bones (DeForest Kelly) are taken prisoner by the Klingons, convicted of murder, and sent to a brutal prison camp amidst a chilly asteroid. Meanwhile the rest of Kirk’s crew must solve the crime and expose the traitors, before the situation between the Federation and the Klingon empire boils over into all-out war.

One of the most captivating parts of “Star Trek” the television show, is the complex political situations that the Enterprise finds themselves having to navigate. Rarely does this translate onto the big screen, but in “Star Trek VI,” it does.  This is as sophisticated a narrative as you will find in a “Star Trek” film. It is as efficient as it is exciting. The dialogue is sharp, to the point, and thematically rich. Without revealing much more, it is one of film’s better touches that the actions of the culprit(s) ironically endorse a view which is antithetical to their own goals. The film contains numerous reminders that everything expires and that change is unavoidable. These functions both in terms of the changing worldview required of people who have long grown comfortable with despising each other, and as a bittersweet reminder that the original Star Trek crew is about to dissipate from the currents of pop culture. It incorporates all of this without derailing the plot or sacrificing its need to entertain.

Some other highlights include Academy Award-winner Christopher Plummer as a Shakespeare-quoting Klingon, future “Sex and the City” star Kim Cattrall as Spock’s Vulcan protege,  and what is perhaps the most violent act that the now-in-touch-with-his-emotions Spock Leonard Nimoy) has ever performed. All of this fits seamlessly into the confines of narrative which successfully carries a massive load on its shoulders. Needing to say goodbye and accept change is not  a notion limited to the fickle fields of cultural relevance. Life inevitably marches on until eventually it marches without us. As the cliche goes, “All good things must come to an end.” Regrettably, such a statement even applies to “Star Trek.”

4/5

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Fargo

Director Howard Hawks claimed that a good movie constituted “Three greats scenes and no bad ones.” In “Fargo,” there is nary a bad scene to be found, and the number of great scenes it contains far exceeds three.  It is a film that captivates as you watch, yet rattles around your consciousness long after you have watched it. (The past few days I have periodically felt sad or giggly depending on which scene from the film came to the forefront of my mind.) You are hard pressed to find a film snob that doesn’t love it, yet in generating sixty million in revenue off of a seven million dollar budget, the film was a massive hit with general audiences. Such audience-critic crossing films are rare, but so exciting in their ability to instantly resonate with the world.

The opening titles claim that “Fargo” is based on a true story. This is the Coen brothers having some fun. While there apparently was a case in Connecticut in which a husband murdered his wife and disposed of the body by putting it through a woodchipper, the crux of this story resides purely in their imagination, though inspired much by their home city of Minneapolis. As a current resident of Minneapolis for the last two years, I was delighted by all the local references to buildings and suburbs, but not half so much as I was delighted by the colorful cadre of Scandinavian-descended yokums that the film is about.

“Desperation is a stinky cologne” is a quote you’ll find in the film “Super Troopers,” but nobody smells quite so bad as Jerry Lundegard (William H. Macy). Stuck working as a car salesman for a loaded father-in-law who despises him, Jerry’s self-loathing seethes when he scams a couple out of $400 bucks by selling them a paint job that they don’t want, a lame move which cannot net him more than $60 in additional commission. Pathetically drifting through a life in which he has no agency, Jerry concocts a particularly awful scheme in which two strangers will kidnap his wife (Kristin Rudrud) and hold her for ransom. Yet so inept is Jerry, he cannot even make it to the initial meeting with his wife’s kidnappers on time.

Played by Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare, the kidnappers Carl and Gaear are the Laurel and Hardy of sociopaths. Perhaps to compensate for the lack ferocity on his face, Carl constantly runs off his mouth, spraying out a stream of curses, like a small dog with an inferiority complex. Gaear’s unnerving stoicism is almost as frightening as his sudden bursts of violence. Together they blaze a clumsy trail of bloody bodies across Minnesota.

Following that trail is the endearing Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), whose pregnancy and singsong Northern “you betcha” accent masks a reservoir of intelligence, not that the case requires her to delve that deeply into it. Calmly investigating a triple homicide by the side of the road near Brainerd as if she were going through her wardrobe, Marge exudes a perpetual gentle maternal warmth. When one of her fellow officers stupidly runs license plate search for a liscense plate with the letters “DLR” (dealer plates), Marge politely says, “I’m not sure I agree with you 100% on your police work there, Lou.” It even manifests itself when she is confronting the brutal killer of five people, softly admonishing him with, “Don’t you know there is more to life than a little bit of money?”

That Nothern accent is a major delight. It is like a character all on its own. In the actual Twin Cities such accents are rare, but when you do stumble across one, it is such a treat. The film’s funniest scene involves a minor character named Mr. Mohra describing to the police an exchange he had with one of the kidnappers, Carl.  In that folksy vernacular and musical cadence, he explains that Carl asked him if he could find a prostitute for him, and describes Carl’s irritated response when that doesn’t yield successful results. The scene is as spot-on as it is comically brilliant.

Another element of the film doubles as a character is the bleak and oppressive winter weather, captured with superb visual aplomb by none other than Roger Deakins. Both in longshot and in closeups, winter takes its toll on the residents of Minnesota, with all the characters constantly fighting off the elements. In one of those accurate art-imitating-life moments which I’m sure every Midwesterner can relate to, Jerry Lundegard has a particularly frustrating encounter with his father-in-law after which he must trudge out through the snow and scrap the ice off of his windshield. When winter seems to last eight months, there a few things in life more maddening then having to scrap ice of your windshield in the bitter cold after having encountering crummy news.

So I’ve probably babbled on about the greatness of “Fargo” enough. It is deeply gorgeous, deeply thrilling, deeply sad, and deeply hilarious. I think it is a perfect film. (Even the odd and seemingly extraneous scenes involving Mike Yanagita contribute to its perfection, in its own weird way.) It perfectly conveys something truthful about life in Minnesota, despite the obvious fiction upon which the story is based, which makes the false claim at the beginning of the film true. Sort of.

5/5

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GoodFellas

There are many reasons to love and admire Martin Scorsese’s semi-modern classic “Goodfellas.” Most of you are probably familiar with them. The brilliant, invigorating cinematography, particularly as it pertains to several famous tracking shots. There is the fantastic use of a soundtrack littered with oldies and classic rock tunes, and the sharp, punchy dialogue delivered by a vibrant and versatile cast. There is even the deftly handled story-telling which gracefully covers twenty-five years in the lives of New York City mobsters. All excellent reasons for praising the film, to be sure. Yet the aspect of the film which sticks out to me as its strongest is far from one of its most vital components. In the midst of a story being narrated entirely from Henry Hill’s (Ray Liotta) perspective, the film leaps into the mind of Karen Hill (Lorraine Bracco), Henry’s feisty wife, by allotting her some of her own voiceover dialogue.

Far be it from me to offer up a feminist critique of the film, but I consider the abrupt switch to Karen’s voiceover narration at a few key moments in the film to be its greatest touch. It is an odd choice to include such scenes when the only narrator we have had was the protagonist himself. Women are second-class citizens in gangster movies, both in terms of coverage of their perspective and depth as characters. “Goodfellas” may not delve too deeply in terms of the female perspective, but it takes time that it doesn’t strictly need to in order to understand why this particular woman, who is by all means intelligent and strong-willed, chose to be with a guy whom she knew made a living entirely through crime, and why she stayed with him long after he ceased being faithful. Now say what you will about organized crime, but it is an institution the is adamantly in favor of traditional family structures. For Karen, the thrilling prospect of life with a violent mobster was too great an allure to pass up. Of course, life AS a violent mobster was too great an allure for Henry himself too pass up.

It is one of those funny ironies that the deluge of anti-crime films created in the 1920s and 1930s actually helped foster a generation of gangsters. Henry Hill never mentions movies directly, but I imagine as kid he saw James Cagney and Edward Robinson on the big screen making oodles of cash smuggling beer, which coupled with seeing the career criminals in his neighborhood living the high life, assured he never wanted to be anything but a gangster. For most of his life, working for the Mob was everything Henry could hope for. Money, respect, power. He had whatever he wanted. In the famous tracking shot in which Henry takes Karen on a first date, we see the world open up for Henry as they walk right passed a long line of patrons waiting to get into the restaurant and takes a detour through the kitchen to find happy waiters hastily readying a table for him. Later, the film and the cinematography will get more restrictive, as the universe literally appears to constrict around an older and coke-addled Henry, whose options are rapidly evaporating. (The subtle manner in which Scorsese shows cocaine as a game-changer in the criminal underworld is also one of its deftest attributes.)

In the interest of not redundantly stacking praise onto a film which has already received copious amounts of it from better writers, I’ll merely acknowledge the fantastic cast which includes Joe Pesci, Robert DeNiro, Paul Sorvino, along with Liotta and Bracco and a whole host of talent in smaller roles. In a film filled with great moments, the sequence in which the back half of “Layla” plays in the background while the dead bodies of several friends and colleagues are discovered throughout New York City resonates deeply. The glamor of organized crime is an illusion that much eventually collapses in on itself, with years and sometimes decades of friendships earning you no more than a bullet in your back. Yet for me, in this hyper-masculine gangster epic, it is Scorsese’s gutsy inclusion of a few moments in which Lorraine Bracco’s voice addresses us directly, calmly admitting that when her boyfriend handed her a gun to hide, “It turned her on,” which so assuredly evinces its greatness.

4.5/5

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Carlito’s Way

Thank goodness for Brian De Palma’s stylish direction. He injects life into what otherwise might be a dreary tale of the inescapable nature of organized crime. Manufacturing tension out of screenplay that is filled with bland cliches and a dull sense of doom, De Palma gets the most from an uninvolved Al Pacino and a cast that is either trying way too hard or way too little.

Al Pacino is too skilled of an actor to completely mail in a performance, but you could maybe say he hand delivers this one. As retiring gangster Carlito Brigante, Pacino is supposed to be weary of all the backstabbing, every man for himself antics of the criminal underground, but instead he just looks bored by all of it. It is hard to blame him. After three “Godfather” films, “Scarface”, and even “Dick Tracy” playing a mobster must have surely lost some of its appeal. Admittedly Pacino’s filmography provides some solid, built-in character development, but the way Pacino casually slips into and out of his Puerto Rican accent suggests an actor totally invested.

The film begins in 1975 with Carlito’s release from prison after serving five years of a thirty year sentence. Everybody seems to want him to pick up right where he left off, especially his hyperactive attorney Dave Kleinfeld. Played by Sean Penn in a full-on, cocaine-induced paranoid tilt that borders on the surreal, Kleinfeld has made the switch from lawyer to gangster, complete with theft and murder. While all Carlito wants to do is get $75,000 together to head to the Caribbean to start a car rental business, he finds himself doing favors for people, favors which continually blow up in his face. He helps a kid buying $30,000 worth of drugs, and everybody but Carlito ends up dead. A simple boat rescue turns fatal.

Carlito’s hope in getting the money comes in running a moderately successful nightclub. He struggles with a brazen up-and-comer in the criminal underworld Benny Blanco (John Leguizamo), who continually tries to make deals with him, while Carlito’s lover Gail (Penelope Ann Miller) frets that he might slip into his old ways. All this with Kleinfeld growing increasingly erratic and self-destructive, Carlito struggles to keep his head above water and his dream alive.

While I confess that I enjoyed much about Sean Penn’s full throttle performance as Kleinfeld, in particular his proclivity towards colorful barrages of insults, it had the unfortunate side effect of making all the other characters appear catatonic. The action/crime drama is not known for its subtlety, and such vanilla characters might be the death knell for a script filled with unoriginal ideas, uninspired dialogue, and far too much voiceover. Luckily for the film, De Palma manages to (somewhat) save the day.

Sometimes, it is nothing more than a simple camera tilt, but De Palma’s direction makes all the difference in this film. I never quite cared for the characters, but I was curious to see how it would all play out. Ostentatiously 1970s in its aesthetic and cinematic sensibilities, De Palma gets everything out of his setpieces, in particular the periodic tense confrontations between several hotblooded and intoxicated characters, and a thrilling foot chase at the end which isn’t quite “The French Connection,” but nods heavily in its direction. It is when the film stops moving for some scenes of quiet drama and self-reflection that it starts to wither and die. Thankfully De Palma is there to bring the film right back to life, but wouldn’t it have been easier to find a project that had some life of its own?

3/5

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Tomorrow Never Dies

Not having seen Pierce Brosnan as James Bond before, I must say that I was pleasantly surprised by his staggeringly decent showing. While lacking the sheer masculine force of Sean Connery or Daniel Craig, he nevertheless has the smooth swagger and imposing physicality needed to play the enduring British spy. Delivering 007’s typical diet of corny one-liners with a deftness sorely lacking in the antics of Roger Moore, Brosnan’s performance is exceedingly above average, if not quite excellent.

The film itself, however, is an exercise in modern hum-drum action-film proficiency. It hits all of the right notes, and hits them well enough, but the film lacks any real visual punch or creative embellishment. At times the film takes itself far too seriously, throwing in ridiculous slow-motion sequences and treating us to “tragic” scenes in which many innocent soldiers that we are meant to care about are killed for reasons having to do with global politics. Yet that does not stop the film from throwing in goofy kung fu sound effects, wacky gadgets, and far too many puns than is good for any one movie. Striking a balance between high-stakes hard action and a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor is tricky, and this film never quite gets it right.

Jonathon Pryce, however, does a much better job of mixing in knowing satire without devolving into complete camp as the film’s villain, megalomaniacal billionaire media tycoon Elliot Carver. (Though I confess at times he teeters dangerously close to parody.) His plan is to use a covert goon-filled division of his vast media empire to start a third World War, with his news corporation pulling all the strings. While this is all very Big Brother, especially in a scene in which we see Carver’s face covering the side of a skyscraper, but as far as Bond villain’s go, Elliot Carver’s plot has an air of plausibility to it. Somehow it is not out of the question in the age of the internet that someone would create disturbing news in order to consolidate power.

Rounding out the cast is Teri Hatcher as Paris Harver, Elliot Carver’s wife and Bond’s old flame and Michelle Yeoh as Colonel Wai Lin, a Chinese spy also working to bring Carver down. While Hatcher doubtlessly looks good, her sole purpose in the film is to sleep with James Bond and be killed. Yeoh gets to be much more involved, beginning the film as Bond’s rival before teaming up and utilizing her skills as a Hong Kong martial arts star in joint action sequences with Bond and using her good looks to generate loads of sexual tension. The film also features the usual assortment of gadgets, most notably a remote-controlled BMW and a versatile cell phone which might be the world’s first smart phone.

Despite having an above average villain and an above average Bond, the film skimps along mostly by the skin of its teeth on old formulas and dated aesthetics. With the cold war over and technology developing at an ever-increasing rate, you can see this was a franchise running low on ideas and in need of reinvention. This would of course happen when Daniel Craig’s took over as Bond, but here the franchise appears to be running on fumes. “Tomorrow Never Dies” just barely gets the job done, but at least it isn’t one of the Roger Moore Bond films.

3/5 (Bond Scale)

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Die Hard with a Vengeance

If one didn’t know about the existence of “Die Hard 2,” one could easily be led to believe that this is the direct sequel to the first “Die Hard” film. The narrative follows a logical progression for John McClane’s life, as though he never left New York, but his wife left him. With his fifteen minutes of fame from his actions in the first film long expired, he does little else but drink and work, bitter and depressed. It is also worth mentioning that this is a much, much better film than the second in the franchise. As far as sequels go, this is a lot more like it.

Of course, any discussion of character and subtext should be tabled for later, because this film wastes virtually no time throwing us into the action. In the midst of a very brief opening credits sequence, a bomb goes off in a New York City streets, at which point John McClane (Bruce Willis) spends the rest of the film running around New York at the behest of the malevolent Simon (Jeremy Irons), who planted the bomb ands insists that McClane play odd games while holding the entire city hostage through the use of several other explosive devices placed in key parts of the city.

Along the way he picks up a reluctant partner, Zeus Carver, when McClane is forced to wear a sandwich board containing a racial slur in the middle of Harlem. Zeus gets him out of that particular pickle but then becomes embroiled in several more. Zeus is played by Samuel L. Jackson, and his importance to the film should not be understated. Angry and charismatic, in that particularly sassy Sam Jackson way, he matches Willis stride for volatile stride. Virtually the entire film is filtered through their relationship, with a particular emphasis on the racial tension which bubbles underneath their constant bickering. Nearly all of the film’s humor runs through Jackson’s performance, which as virtually the only “Die Hard” film in which the jokes land, is monumental. Zeus is the only character that consistently (and correctly) calls McClane out for being an asshole, enabling us to glean from McClane’s treatment of Zeus why his wife might have left him.

How refreshing it is to see cops and city officials that are not woefully inept, but are instead hard-working people trying to do their best in a difficult situation. Their only flaw is being one step behind evil master thief Simon Peter Gruber. While not rising up to the level of Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber, Jeremy Irons does appear to be having quite a bit of fun playing Hans’ older brother, Simon. Irons utter relishes his opportunity to order McClane to perform a bizarre series of challenges.

All in all, this film benefits greatly from its breakneck pace and streamlined simplicity. It starts with a simple premise which provides, if not a believable reason for John McClane’s situation, then at least a plausible one. The film throws out almost all the extra filler from the first two films, squeezing in small bits of backstory and character development amidst the chaos. It is nonstop adrenaline, as McClane and Zeus scramble around trying to stop explosion after explosion. I can’t recall a single moment in which the film stopped to catch its breath.

“Die Hard with a Vengeance” is very close to being on the level of the first “Die Hard” film, but it isn’t quite. In some ways, it is an improvement over the original. There is not a single character in “Die Hard” nearly as compelling as Zeus Carver, with its action looking much better in “Vengeance” and being on the whole a lot more thrilling then the original. However, “Die Hard” benefits from a grimy realism that “Vengeance” lacks, it has John McClane at his most vulnerable and humanist, and has Alan Rickman playing its villain, which add up to something slightly more then what “Vengeance” offers. Still, it should be said that “Die Hard” and “Die Hard with a Vengeance” are the two films which validate the franchise as a whole. The other films are just filler.

4/5

1. Die Hard
2. Die Hard with a Vengeance
3.
4. Die Hard 2: Die Harder
5.

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