‘Tis the Season 1992

In which we get to hear The Muppet Christmas Carol!

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Sleepy Hollow (1999)

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Villainy wears many masks, none so dangerous as the mask of virtue. in 1799 New York Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) is an annoyingly methodical policeman sent to Sleepy Hollow to investigate the decapitations of three people, with the culprit being the legendary apparition, The Headless Horseman. He finds himself completely out of his depth in the New England town where the supernatural competes with real-life wickedness as Baltus Van Tassel (Michael Gambon) tries to divert the earnest interloper’s scientific approach elsewhere yet his daughter Katrina (Christina Ricci) takes a fancy to Ichabod and tries to interest him in spells … It is truth, but truth is not always appearance. Depp makes for a wonderfully squeamish Crane as he bumbles through an assortment of seedy pantomime characters (Richard Griffiths, Ian McDiarmid, Jeffrey Jones and a one-eyed Michael Gough) decorating Andrew Kevin Walker’s adaptation of the Washington Irving classic.  Director Tim Burton has a whale of a time in this dank Gothic landscape devising more ways to behead the victims. Not scary at all! Will you take nothing from Sleepy Hollow that was worth the coming here?

Army of Darkness (1992)

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If I get the book, you send me back.  After that, I’m history.  Ash (Bruce Campbell) is transported back to medieval days, where he is captured by the dreaded Lord Arthur (Marcus Gilbert) and enslaved with Duke Henry the Red (Richard Grove) and some of his men. Aided by the deadly chainsaw that has become his only friend, he is recognised by Wiseman (Derek Abercrombie) as the saviour who’s dropped from the sky.  So he is sent on a perilous mission to recover the Necronomicon or Book of the Dead, a powerful tome that gives its owner the power to summon an army of ghouls. Wiseman advises that he must say the words Klaatu Barada Nikto to safely get the book. However, Ash forgets the last word and an army of the dead resurrects to attack Arthur fortress and recover the Necronomicon. … My name is Ash and I am a slave. Close as I can figure, the year is thirteen hundred A.D and I’m being dragged to my death. It wasn’t always like this, I had a real life, once. A job. The third installment of the parodic Evil Dead series, this can be summed up as a cross between A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and Jason and the Argonauts. Our reluctant hero Campbell is as compulsively watchable as always in a script by director Sam Raimi and his brother, Ivan Raimi.  Aided and abetted by the wondrous Sheila (Embeth Davitz) who is rendered undead Bride of Frankenstein-style following their romantic interlude, he battles live and skeletal alike assisted by his trusty saw, earning his enemy’s respect by killing monsters in a pit and rising to the challenge of this kinetic military onslaught.  Daft and funny, this is agreeable stuff with an ending straight out of Planet of the Apes. As you were.

Hudson Hawk (1990)

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I’m being blackmailed into robbing a bank by a psychotic American corporation and the CIA. Thief extraordinaire Hudson Hawk (Bruce Willis) has just been released from prison and all he wants is a nice cappuccino which his partner in crime Tommy Five-Tone (Danny Aiello) is happy to provide en route to their co-owned bar which has been yuppified beyond recognition. However, before he can enjoy his favorite beverage, the highly eccentric and wealthy Darwin Mayflower (Richard E. Grant) and his equally odd wife, Minerva (Sandra Bernhard), rope Hawk into an ambitious series of heists involving the local Mafia, the Mario Brothers. Into the fray enters CIA honcho George Kaplan (James Coburn) and before he knows it, Hawk is transported to Rome where he encounters the beautiful Anna Baragli (Andie McDowell) at an art auction.  Soon Hawk is stealing major works by Leonardo Da Vinci, priceless pieces that the Mayflowers plan to use in an exceedingly nefarious way but behind the conspiracy is there another conspiracy?You cease to amaze me, convict.  You are a terrible cat burglar. What one character calls glib repartee is what sustains this breezy exercise in the ridiculous, or what might have been called a vanity project for Willis, who devised the story. It’s a daft, beautifully shot (grazie a Dante Spinotti!) heist caper, with the wisecracking smart aleck Willis repeatedly conned into stealing great works of art. At the conclusion da Vinci’s theory that man would fly is proven. McDowell is cute as the undercover nun, the charismatic Coburn does a witty nostalgic twist on his Our Man Flint character and Grant and Bernhard are reliably ridiculous as the insanely villainous Mayflower Industries husband and wife team. Taken the right way, as a comic book (and part-musical with Willis and Aiello warbling big tunes during their artful burglaries) you won’t worry too much about logic. I have fond memories of it because back in the day, when director Michael Lehmann was a name (Heathers! Meet the Applegates!) I won all of his work on VHS from either Empire or Q. Sigh. The Nineties. Truly another (better) time. Written by Stephen E. de Souza and Daniel (Heathers) Waters.  I’ll torture you so slowly you’ll think it’s a career

Magnolia (1999)

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What am I doing? I’m quietly judging you.  In the San Fernando Valley, a dying father, Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), his guilty young wife Linda (Julianne Moore), his male nurse Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman), his famous estranged son the sex guru Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise), Jim, a police officer (John C. Reilly) in love, Stanley Spector (Neil Flynn) a boy genius on TV’s What Do Kids Know? who’s bullied by his thug father (Michael Bowen), an ex-boy genius Quiz Kid Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) whose parents robbed his winnings in 1968, the dying game show host Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall) and his estranged cokehead daughter Claudia (Melora Walters), each becomes part of a dazzling multiplicity of plots, but one story, over the course of one day when it’s raining cats and dogs… Respect the cock! Paul Thomas Anderson was inspired to create this mosaic of intersecting lives by the songs of Aimee Mann and they dominate the audio to the point (occasionally) of overwhelming the dialogue. It commences with a documentary prologue of chance and coincidence, a kind of Ripley’s about life and gosh-darns that hints at an epic concluding event (and boy does it deliver). At its core this is an analysis of the father-son relationship and the trade-offs that are made throughout life until finally … you just gotta let it go. There is a raft of immense performances in a story which has an epic quality but thrives on the specificity of character in a plot revolving around child abuse in various iterations. We may be through with the past, but the past is never through with us.  The double helix structure finds natural convergence at the point where the protagonists each sings a line from one of Mann’s songs, It’s Not Going to Stop (Until You Wise Up):  this astonishing directing flourish starts with Claudia which is logical because here is a narrative about being generous to damaged people and as we find out, she’s the most damaged of all. Hence her gargantuan cocaine consumption. It’s about what fathers do to their children and sometimes their spouses too. And how mothers can raise children back up, even from their own terrible depths. In the aftermath of Burt Reynolds’ death it’s appropriate to consider that the role for Robards was conceived for Reynolds:  his troubled relationship with Anderson and his dislike of the content of Boogie Nights (for which he received the Golden Globe) led him to decline the part. Which is ironic because he had joked that he would wind up playing Tom Cruise’s father one day (and Cruise is absolutely tremendous here as the fraudulent motivational leader, a lying Tony Robbins for sexist brutes). Anderson saw in Reynolds a kind of darkness and humanity to add to his array of multiply-talented actors – most of the people here were the repertory from Boogie Nights and it’s such a conscious re-assembling of types it still surprises. It’s a shame because when one looks at the totality of Reynolds’ career it’s clear that his loyalty to friends led him to make oddly destructive choices:  while Redford had Pollack and De Niro had Scorsese, Reynolds had … Hal Needham, the stuntman living in his pool house for 11 years. If he had spent those few necessary days on this set and well away from Thomas Jane, who knows what way his career might have swerved in the Noughties?! Goodness knows what made him turn down Taxi Driver, a film that has sway here. Perhaps Anderson is paying tribute to Reynolds by giving Claudia the debilitating condition that he got on City Heat when a stunt went wrong – the excruciating jaw injury TMJ that crippled him for over a decade. This may have started as a series of overlapping urban legends, an operatic disquisition on the damage that men do; it concludes with some tweaked endings and a Biblical purging of shame. How apt that it should be Claudia to break the fourth wall. With a smile. But it did happen

The Straight Story (1999)

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You don’t think about getting old when you’re young… you shouldn’t.  Retired farmer and widower in his 70s, WW2 veteran Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) learns one day that his distant brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton) has suffered a stroke and may not recover. Alvin is determined to make things right with Lyle while he still can, but his brother lives in Wisconsin, while Alvin is stuck in Iowa with no car and no driver’s license because of his frailties. His intellectually disabled daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek) freaks out at the prospect of him taking off. Then he hits on the idea of making the trip on his old lawnmower, so beginning a picturesque and at times deeply spiritual odyssey across two states at a stately pace…  I can’t imagine anything good about being blind and lame at the same time but, still at my age I’ve seen about all that life has to dish out. I know to separate the wheat from the chaff, and let the small stuff fall away Written by director David Lynch’s collaborator and editor Mary Sweeney and John E. Roach, this is perhaps the most ironically straightforward entry in that filmmaker’s output.  He called it his most experimental movie and shot it chronologically along the route that the real Alvin took in 1994 (he died two years later). This is humane and simple, beautifully realised (DoP’d by Freddie Francis) with superb performances and a sympathetic score by Angelo Badalamenti. A lyrical tone poem to the American Midwest, the marvellous Farnsworth had terminal cancer during production and committed suicide the following year. His and Stanton’s scene is just swell, slow cinema at its apex.  The worst part of being old is rememberin’ when you was young

Boogie Nights (1997)

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We’re going to make film history right here on videotape. In LA’s San Fernando Valley in 1977, teenage busboy Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) gets discovered by porn director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), who’s on the lookout for new talent.  He transforms him into adult-film sensation Dirk Diggler. Brought into a supportive circle of friends, including fellow actors Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), Rollergirl (Heather Graham) and Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly), Dirk fulfills all his ambitions, but a toxic combination of drugs and egotism threatens to take him back down to earth.  As 1979 rolls into 1980 the business is changing and Horner is under pressure to switch to video despite his ambitions to be an auteur and he has to make a tough decision when financier The Colonel James (Robert Ridgely, who died shortly after production and to whom the film is dedicated) is caught with an underage girl who’s OD’d …  Diggler delivers a performance worth a thousand hard-ons. Bravura filmmaking from Paul Thomas Anderson which takes lurid content and spins it into a surprisingly sweet morality tale about the lowlifes behind pornos. The leading men are a study in contrasts:  Horner is a clever but kind director who doesn’t flinch from hardcore; while Diggler is the dumb box of rocks who has an enormous penis that dazzles. The running joke about Little Bill (William H. Macy) and his insatiable wife has an unbelievable climax; the revenge Rollergirl takes on a boy from high school is horrifying; and the wrap up sequence of redemption and closure for this makeshift family is fine drama. The final reveal is the money shot that we’ve all been waiting for. Reynolds won the Golden Globe and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Clever, amusing and humane, this is one of the best films of the Nineties.

Any Given Sunday (1999)

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You will not take this from me baby!  The Miami Sharks, a once-great American football team are struggling to make the 2001 Associated Football Franchises of America (AFFA) playoffs.  They are coached by thirty-year veteran Tony D’Amato (Al Pacino), who has fallen out of favour with young team owner Christina Pagniacci (Cameron Diaz) who inherited the team from her father, and offensive coordinator and D’Amato’s expected successor Nick Crozier (Aaron Eckhart). In the thirteenth game of the season, both starting quarterback and team captain Jack “Cap” Rooney (Dennis Quaid) and second-string quarterback Tyler Cherubini (Pat O’Hara) are injured and forced to leave the field. The desperate Sharks call on ambitious third-string quarterback Willie Beamen (Jamie Foxx) to replace them. A nervous Beamen makes a number of errors and fails to win the game for the Sharks, but he plays well and gains confidence. Rooney vows to make it back by the playoffs, with D’Amato promising to not give up on him….  Holy mackerel now that’s what I call football!  Adapted from the book On Any Given Sunday by NFL defensive  end Pat Toomay, this gets a typically robust treatment by writer/director Oliver Stone, who appears in the small role of TV commentator, giving a running narrative on the moves. There are lots of other big names including Jim Brown (what a second act!). If Pacino is a highly unlikely coach, he gets his boo ya moment with more than one big speech which is such a part of his repertoire (since Dog Day Afternoon and latterly in Scent of a Woman) but this was a role that should have been Burt Reynolds’ (Florida! Football!).  Pacino gets his Pacino moments, loud and soft, and a halfhearted romance with a prostitute (Elizabeth Berkeley) who wants to talk football post-coitally with this man who’s given up wife and family for the game, but she deflects his relationship overtures and always charges. However it’s a great ensemble:  Diaz is fine as the young woman trying to make her mark in a sport where her father’s rule was firmly based on friendship but times have changed; her mother’s (Ann-Margret) a lush; Christina wants the Sharks leading again, even if that means giving up Cappy, who gets another chance to be the hero leading the team – down on his luck after a horrible accident in the first sequence. With Willie breaking the rules to get ahead and butting heads with Tony, Dr Mandrake concealing the extent of Cherubini’s head injury, Cappy battling his wife (Lauren Holly) who wants him to keep playing, and Christina planning on offloading the team, this conforms to the playbook of most sports movies with all the storylines converging in Tony and how he responds to the pressures exerted in every direction. The medical subplot with internist Ollie Powers (Matthew Modine) discovering that unscrupulous team physician Dr Mandrake (James Woods, reuniting with Stone long after Salvador) is concealing the extent of Cherubini’s head injury and with Christina’s collusion raises the issue of concussion in sport and its long-term outcomes.  Either we heal now as a team or we will die as individuals.  That’s football. That’s all it is.  Beneath all the gut-busting aggression, the injuries, the quarrels, the deceptions, the betrayals and the on-field activities, this long loud movie has a great structure, with wonderful exchanges exhibiting the different philosophies. Willie goes against the playbook to achieve victory;  Tony is loyal to Cappy who knows he’s had it but plays along;  Christina is in it for money, having forgotten the roots of the team and she has a sharp learning curve that she cannot anticipate.  All the plot threads unite in those final seconds in the brutal race against time on the countdown clock. How apposite that the film within a film when Tony is serving Willie home-cooked dinner should be Ben-Hur:  the following year John Logan would write Gladiator.  The editing and sound mixing is second to none:  the gloss and wham bam and contrasting musical choices (Tony’s cool jazz vs Willie’s rap) eventually give way to something unified, as the theme of team building suggests. If this doesn’t entirely play fair – that twist ending unwinds over the lengthy credits sequence – the gamesmanship does leave a certain satisfaction and don’t say you weren’t warned by the dialogue which plants the ultimate payoff:  When a man looks back on his life he should be proud of all of it

 

Strictly Ballroom (1992)

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If you kept it simpler and danced from the heart … Australian ballroom dancer Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio) wants to do his own thing and make up steps on the dancefloor, much to the disdain of his traditional colleagues. He is denounced by Barry Fife (Bill Hunter) who runs Dancesport, the competitive ballroom scene.  Scott’s partner Liz (Gia Carides) abandons him for Ken (John Hannan) whose partner Pam Short (Kerrry Shrimpton) has broken both her legs. So when a plain, left-footed local girl Fran (Tara Morice) approaches him he has little option but to take up the offer. Her Spanish father teaches them to dance the Paso Doble and her grandmother tells Scott he must learn to dance with his heart. Together, the team gives it their all but they only have three weeks to get ready for the Pan-Pacific competition and Barry Fife tells Scott that dancing their own way cost Scott’s parents while Liz wants him back … You stick with your roles until eventually they bring their own rewards. The first of Baz Luhrmann’s Red Curtain trilogy, this is a low budget adaptation of a theatre improvisation and play which brought him to the world stage in a fairytale manner, much as our heroes take the competition. The faux-documentary style with direct address to camera gives way to more straightforward musical drama which however never rises much beyond the level of caricature in over the top characterisations, plenty of intimidating close ups of faces (the dancing feet, a little less) and restricted locations. However the sheer zip and zest of the performances, the funny Australian stereotyping and the heartfelt Cinderella story combined with the ugly duckling becoming a swan and falling for the daring prince who realises his pathetic dad (Barry Otto) is actually quite a chap, makes it all sequins and spangles and fun and wins you over in the end. There’s a wonderful soundtrack. Along with Muriel’s Wedding and Dead Calm, this film put Australia on the global movie map once again.