1994 - Part 2
TWENTY HOURS I WANT BACK
1. FORREST GUMP
Okay... I am going to get this out of my system, once and for all. I am going to vent my feelings about this film here, and then I have promised those around me that I will never speak of it again. I had to promise them. They've heard my rap on this film for six years now. I've converted a fair number of people in discussing the film with them, and I think it‚s because I am 100% dead serious when I say that this film makes my skin crawl. I'm not trying to just buck the mainstream, take an anti-populist stance. I think the film is a technical masterpiece, as stunning a piece of filmmaking craft as anything Robert Zemeckis has ever touched. I only fault him in one way in this film: he used that Eric Roth script. I have heard this script praised over and over and over now, and I don't understand why anyone would consider this a successful adaptation.
Winston Groom's original novel, FORREST GUMP, is a pretty wicked little piece of satirical fiction, in line with the work of Thomas Berger (LITTLE BIG MAN, NEIGHBORS) or early John Irving (THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, SETTING FREE THE BEARS). Forrest is a big bruiser of a guy as he cruises through several decades, making profound marks on society, pop culture, politics, and the people in his life. He's a big dummy, but he‚s no fool. He's used somewhat like Chauncey Gardener in BEING THERE, as the simple character against whom other people react, exposing themselves, somehow making more of him than he is. GUMP had a lot of that, and it was a pretty great little read. In bringing it to the screen, it was obvious that some changes would be needed in order to make a story out of it that worked as a film. I understand changes. I can live with changes.
What Eric Roth's script did was take the politics of the book and twist them, pervert them, turning the film into an indictment of the '60s generation that ironically embraced the film and bought enough copies of the soundtrack to choke a landfill. The film carries a fairly simple, fairly clear cut agenda now that strikes me as hateful, ugly, and a complete violation of the whole purpose of the novel.
The theme of the film can be beautifully summed up by the main visual motif that Zemeckis uses in the film, the feather floating on the wind. The feather is Forrest. That point couldn't be made any clearer. I know people who have tried to convince me that the theme of the film is that "life is like a box of chocolates," that the world is random, and that we should just roll with whatever it throws at us, but that's not true. That's just one half of the equation. Forrest is stupid. Roth couldn't make that any more clear in his screenplay, where he uses one adverb or the idea. He is that feather, carried by the wind, never questioning, never damaged.
Roth believes we should all try to be like Gump. We should all just hand ourselves over to fate and give up. We should be feathers on the wind, because trying to be anything else will only get us killed. Proof? Well, let's look at the way the film treats Bubba versus the way it treats Lt. Dan. Bubba is, like Forrest, a very funny retard. He rambles on and on monotonously about shrimp, and it's all very funny because he's so apparently stupid. He's just floating through life, waiting for the moment when he can open his shrimp place. Even though Bubba is killed, his stupid idea gets into Forrest's stupid head, and when he follows through on it (stupidly, I might add), Forrest and Bubba's family become very, very rich. Lt. Dan, on the other hand, is not a very good feather. He has specific ideas about what his life is going to be, and he is determined to do whatever it takes to make those ideas come to pass. When he is robbed of his chance to die in battle, when he is robbed of his legs, Lt. Dan does something decidedly un-featherlike. He rails against God, against fate. He crawls into a bottle. He tries to destroy himself. Gump tries to rescue Lt. Dan, but it‚s not until Dan faces God in the form of a storm and gives up to it, becoming the feather, that he is able to find peace in his life. Once he does, life immediately improves for him. He coasts along, right into new legs and a second chance at life. All because he quits.
And then there's Jenny. Poor, poor Jenny. You see, Jenny makes a fatal mistake in this film. She decides to fight the hand that life has dealt her. She refuses to accept the circumstances of her life. Jenny is that part of the '60s generation that reached out for new experiences, new ideas, that tried anything in an effort to attain bliss, to change the world, to better themselves. Jenny chases love, chases a dream, chases even simple affection, and she is rewarded the way anyone who dares to take the helm of their own life should be reasonably rewarded in the world according to Gump: she gets AIDS, and she dies. You see, Jenny couldn't just be punished a little for her trangressions. She never once bows to anyone else's idea of what or who she should be, and as a result, she gets AIDS, and she dies.
I am horrified at the message that this film sends, but I'm more horrified by just how peacefully people embraced the film as "feel-good" or as "funny." It's a film that is full up to the top with horror, a film with an ending as black and pitiless as SE7EN. It's a film that is frosted with sweetness, but which is bitter and cold at its heart. This film hates the '60s, hates the era of experimentation, hates the way idealism motivated people to fight impossible odds, trying to make some statement no matter how futile it might seem. Boomers rushed out to buy the soundtrack in record numbers (no pun intended), never stopping to absorb that the film that music was used in had open contempt for the generation that music represents. FORREST GUMP is a dishonest film, a hateful film, and I will be glad now to put it behind me, never having any need to see it or discuss it again.
2. THE CROW
This is, very simply, a film that should never have been released. I don't care how skillfully Alex Proyas manages the mise-en-scene of The Crow's world. I don't care how charismatic Brandon Lee is as the doomed lead. When a man died on the set playing the lead role, under the conditions he did, in the way he did, the producers of this film suddenly fell under a moral obligation, one at which they failed completely. Yes, I've heard the argument that the film had to be released, that it was Brandon Lee's legacy, but there's no getting around the fact that he was shot and killed because of negligence on a film set, and most of this movie is made up of images of people shooting Brandon over and over. It's the closest thing to a big-studio snuff picture I've ever seen. It's not like James O'Barr's story is some sort of poetic masterwork that demanded translation. It's a fairly simple revenge fantasy that was obviously very personal to O'Barr when he wrote it. That doesn't really make it good. The movie's virtues are all technical. Proyas makes the most of his budget, and he really does pull off some nerve-rattling sequences. If Brandon had not been hurt, I might feel very differently about this film. As it was, I remember being tricked into a test screening of the movie, back when Paramount still owned it. They didn't tell us what it was until the title hit the screen. As soon as it did, people started leaving. I made it about forty minutes in before I stood to leave, my girlfriend and several others in tow. Two of the girls in our group were crying, and I felt sick to my stomach. When the NRG drones asked us why we were leaving, I exploded at one of them, asking them how they could drop this film on an audience without telling them what it was going to be. I believed then, as I believe now, that Paramount should have taken the loss and simply put the film away. It was the only decent thing to do, but filthy lucre spoke louder than decency then, just as now, and so this horrible mistake is preserved for future generations to enjoy as mindless entertainment.
There is no taste more bitter than disappointment, and this film should be taught as an example of just how bitter that can be, of how to take a near-perfect script and totally destroy it. The project got off to a solid start as a spec script by Steph Lady. In the wake of the box-office success of BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA, it made perfect sense for Sony to try and bring gothic horror's other great character back to the screen. Lady's script was the closest thing to a classicist take, and after it was purchased, Frank Darabont was chosen to polish it up for production. That polish evolved into something else, though, a complete rewrite that satisfied Darabont's lifelong dream of bringing the Mary Shelly novel to the screen. One of the things that made reading the script so evocative was that Bernie Wrightson gave Frank permission to reprint his artwork in the script. It was all right there, that little extra push to sell the tone, the look of this particular take on the familiar tale. The script was genuinely scary, poetic for stretches, and it featured the best interpretation of the Creature I've ever read. He had a soul, but he had no idea what to do with it. His rage against his "father" after being abandoned is wrenching and understandable. This was an Oscar-level role as written. With that clear-cut visual plan and that script, all a director had to do to look like a genius was step in and not fuck it up.
Enter Kenneth Branaugh. If there was a way to make a wrong choice on that film, he did it. Casting, cinematography, set design, costuming -- all are held captive to the mediocrity of his vision. De Niro is howlingly bad in the film, but Helena Bonham Carter seems determined to be worse. There should be a law that prohibits Branaugh from even renting a crane again after his swooping MTV-style excesses here, and even if I never see his shirtless pasty English midsection again, it will still haunt my nightmares. The only possible explanation for how completely this movie misses the mark is ego, pure and simple, and we're all the poorer for it.
4. THE FLINTSTONES
It took 3,273 writers to cobble together this joyless, soulless little piece of plastic that manages to set the new high watermark for how phony a film can be.
In William Goldman's upcoming book WHAT LIE DID I TELL?, he writes to harrowing effect about a disastrous test screening of his film THE YEAR OF THE COMET. While I almost wish I'd been at that one just to have seen it happen, I can tell a survivor's story of another truly painful screening I did attend. You have to remember who Rob Reiner was in 1994. He was a guy coming off one of the coolest creative hot streaks I've ever witnessed. It seemed he could do no commercial wrong as he went from THE SURE THING to THIS IS SPINAL TAP to STAND BY ME to THE PRINCESS BRIDE to WHEN HARRY MET SALLY to MISERY to A FEW GOOD MEN to...
... well, there's the rub. There was a screenplay Reiner found that he fell head over heels in love with. He wanted to make it his next film. He was ready to direct it before he even finished reading it the first time. The problem was, the writer of the script also wanted to direct the film, and since he owned the script, he wasn't going to sell it without that guarantee in place. Even after that hot streak, even with that track record, Reiner couldn't get the script he really wanted. He had to settle. He settled for producing the film. He settled for directing another script, a script that aimed for the whimsy of his earlier THE PRINCESS BRIDE, a script written by acclaimed humorist Alan Zweibel. Rob Reiner settled on NORTH.
Never settle. If your heart's not in a film, it shows, especially coming off of a streak of passionate, heartfelt movies. I was at that very first test screening of the film that Rob Reiner didn't want to make, the film he settled on, NORTH, at a theater in Sherman Oaks, and it's the only time I've seen over 2/3 of an audience bail from a free show. The crowd that stayed just got openly hostile. It was remarkable, and I felt truly awful for Rob Reiner. To this day, I don't think he's the same filmmaker he was. Before NORTH, he was fearless, having never been burned by failure. He settled, though, and he almost never recovered.
6. JIMMY HOLLYWOOD
Rob Reiner had an excuse. Barry Levinson, I don't understand.
7. IT'S PAT
Take the most obnoxious SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE character, figure out the one thing that makes people hate that character the most, magnify that one thing by 1,000, then do it for 90 minutes and call it a movie. When people roll their eyes at the mere mention of an SNL-inspired film, it‚s this crap they're thinking of.
8. BEVERLY HILLS COP III
I never thought I‚d see a movie that made BEVERLY HILLS COP II look good, but this was it. For John Landis and Eddie Murphy to do a film together and get absolutely nothing... no comic energy of any sort... well, that's a film that no one wanted to make. Watching this film makes me very, very happy the '80s are over.
9. EXIT TO EDEN
You do know, of course, that the only reason Rosie O'Donnell is building a media empire is so that she and Dan Aykroyd can one day pool their financial resources and buy every existing copy of this film, along with the rights from Touchstone, and destroy the film and all evidence of it. Then she will retire and just grow old while she enjoys her kids. You may laugh now, but you watch.
This is the film that people who hate Altman movies are seeing every single time they see one of his films. From this perspective, I get their point.
Jim Carrey, ACE VENTURA: PET DETECTIVE
This isn't the kind of performance that wins awards, but maybe it should be. It's certainly the kind that makes movie stars. There is a sense that this performance was either going to work, or it was going to kill Jim. He knew full well what he was capable of, and he was determined he was going to share that. Actually, Ace isn't sharing. Ace is just inflicting himself at random. There's a manic energy to the work that's just this side of scary. Carrey does things with his body and his face in this film that defy explanation or recreation, brave, risky stuff. If nothing else, this is a record of a man who had nothing to lose and everything to gain, and who had the balls to try.
Tommy Lee Jones, COBB
This is Ron Shelton's buried treasure, and it's probably one of Tommy Lee Jones‚ finest turns on film. It's a difficult film about a deeply unlikable man that pulls no punches. For that reason, it can be hard to take. The film goes into dark places that were hinted at but deftly avoided by SCENT OF A WOMAN. Cobb is a monster, a man of towering intolerance and hate. There's nothing to celebrate about him. He was amazing as a ballplayer, but that can't possibly justify the life he led. I wish Robert Wuhl was the equal to Jones in the movie's biggest moments, but it's one of those adequate performances that you can ignore while taking in the glory of one perfect sonofabitch as he howls at the moon.
Brandon Lee, THE CROW
Brandon Lee was going to be a movie star. There's no doubt in my mind. As much as I feel it was a mistake to release this film, it does prove one thing: his time had finally come. This movie was a stepping stone, a good place to build from. It's like the action movie equivalent of ACE VENTURA, a performance that seems designed for only one thing, to turn someone into an icon. Brandon's coiled physical presence, his grace, his lean beauty -- they all elevated him easily past any competition he might face. His biggest secret weapon was that he could also act. Like River Phoenix, Lee left a specific and unique hole in the industry with his untimely death. Also like Phoenix, the question of what might have been is the thing that hurts most of all.
Johnny Depp and Martin Landau, ED WOOD
When I think of this film, a few key moments flash for me. First and foremost among them is the image of Ed and Bela sitting on that couch, watching Vampira on late-night TV. Bela is using his Hungarian hand gestures on her, and the two of them are just sort of talking back and forth. It's one of the single most honest images of a friendship I've ever seen, the two of them content just to be there, doing what they're doing, happy. The whole movie is in that one scene.
Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet, HEAVENLY CREATURES
If I were Peter Jackson, I would have been so afraid of losing control of these two as they created their secret world, that bond that plays so powerfully onscreen. Lynskey looks like she's in awe of Winslet in much of the film, flowering when she follows lead. When she finally finds strength in powerful rage, it's both exhilarating and crushing. It's the integrity of their work that this film manages to avoid any of the trappings of the typical American film about teenagers. There's no outsider here who simply takes off a pair of glasses to suddenly become beautiful and popular. This film deals with girls who are drawn to one another when they recognize something that keeps them truly outside, something which makes it easier to be alone. They find each other because they need each other. They become so lost in this private thing of theirs that they are capable of real horror, and it's because we recognize so much of ourselves in these gifted young performers that we are able to feel the true weight of the film's final shocks.
Tom Cruise and Kirsten Dunst, INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE
Here's another strange and complicated relationship involving a very young girl in what is ostensibly an adult role. At first glance, I can't imagine letting a 12 year old girl play Claudia. It's a violent role, and there's some heavy material in there. Then again, look how Kirsten Dunst seems to have turned out. She's one of the genuinely normal young actresses. Hell, Fairuza Balk played Dorothy in an OZ film, and she turned out to be much crazier than Dunst. Hmm... maybe there's something to that. At any rate, Cruise does some great sly work here, managing to be both funny and vile, frequently at the same time. It's a supporting performance, and that's a problem, since he ends up so much more interesting than Brad Pitt's Louis, the film's central character. It's the truly horrific characters that make Anne Rice's work come to life, and she's helped greatly by what Neil Jordan has done in bringing them to the screen. There's a great deal of his earlier THE COMPANY OF WOLVES in this film, in his approach to the fantastic. Working with Cruise and Dunst, he crafted truly memorable, enduring monsters.
Jean Hughes-Anglade, KILLING ZOE
"Now... now we do heroin." This is said with authority as a car packed with men races at dangerous speeds through the streets of Paris. Jean Hughes-Anglade, the man who makes that pronouncement, manages to strike a note here that I've never seen in a simple action film like a DIE HARD. I believe that this man is absolutely willing to die at any second if he doesn't get his way. If there is even the slightest chance he's going to be punished, he would much rather go out swinging, take someone with him. This is perhaps the most nihilistic character since David Thewliss in NAKED, without any sense of conscience or remorse. Again, it all comes down to that one line of dialogue, a confession to himself as well as to his friend. When he says it, it's obvious that he is revealing a pain so great that he doesn't even allow himself to feel it. He keeps it locked away, numbing it with random sensation, with a constant barrage of drugs and sex and violence. Watching him flail his way through the second half of the film is like watching something in the road that has been run over, but that doesn't know it's dead yet. He struggles, flounders, thrashes about, but there's no getting up for him, no going free. It's liberating to witness in some strange way, no matter how sad.
Nigel Hawthorne, THE MADNESS OF KING GEORGE
I can't think of anything more horrifying than to have your mind just gently slip away from you. When the physical side of things starts breaking down, there's ways we can compensate for that. When the mind starts to go, though, there's no way to pick up the slack. Hawthorne etches a memorable portrait of a man who simply staggers under an enormous weight, allowing it to crush him for a time. He never goes for easy sympathy, either, playing the role with a sense of quiet humor.
Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis, NATURAL BORN KILLERS
There was nothing in any earlier films or television shows to suggest that either of these actors was capable of the work they do here. Harrelson is explosive, oozing reptilian charm, a menacing presence. Still, he's shrewd enough to take specific shots at his sitcom background -- check out his entrance in his scenes with Rodney Dangerfield. He takes a moment when he enters to acknowledge the studio audience, basking in it as they go nuts, like he's Fonzie circa 1977. For him to take that shot suggests that he has no investment in any of it. He's free to do anything in his film work. Juliette Lewis is one of those actresses who had a lot of opportunities this decade that I thought she failed in, but she makes up for it all here as Mallory. She would fall in love with Mickey, and she would be this good as his partner. I believe her in the film. More than that, I am drawn to her in this film. She and Mickey certainly make a convincing argument for the joys of anarchy and mayhem.
Paul Newman and Bruce Willis, NOBODY'S FOOL
What's really remarkable here is watching one movie star who doesn't have to lift a finger to be the most charismatic person in the room share a scene with a guy who was just starting to figure out how to best harness his own specific appeal. Bruce Willis has never had the greatest track record, but he has made some seemingly odd moves in his time that have truly paid off. This was one of them. Newman is an old pro, maybe one of the greatest movie stars to ever live, and he owns the camera when he's on. He can't even help himself. He's just that magnetic. He also radiates a sort of calm, a centeredness. I think Willis picked it up on this set, because it's excellent supporting work from him here that kicked off what I consider the most productive phase of his career. The only question I have about Newman is just how long he's going to be able to continue like this, his appeal untouched by time. Based on the evidence of this film, he's still got some great years to go.
John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, and Ving Rhames, PULP FICTION
Who would have guessed that the Batusi, a crazy Afro wig, a Louise Brooks cut and the word "medieval" would carry quite the weight they did? Travolta cuts through this movie like the biggest fattest shark you've ever seen, a side of beef that glides on charm and a sort of languid energy, like he's always just a little bit doped, a little bit slow. He rips into QT's words with zeal, obviously enjoying himself at every turn. Samuel L. Jackson is the very voice of wrath in the film, and he has been basically riffing off of Jules ever since. Uma Thurman is one of those actresses who can be enormously sexy without being what I would consider "beautiful," and she definitely pulls it off in this film. Her look is so iconic, so instantly recognizable, that we were thankfully spared imitations. There's no way to top what's already been done. As far as Ving Rhames goes, this is another of those performances that simply drops someone onto the national radar, fully formed. His scene with Zed and friends in the basement was so perfect that the phrase, "I'm gonna get medieval on your ass" entered the popular lexicon overnight. QT should open a service where he just makes people into movie stars for a nominal fee. This film is all the resume he needs.
Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis, THE REF
We all secretly wish that when we fight with our significant other, we could be this witty, this savage, and this damned entertaining. Spacey and Davis are both dangerously funny here, with timing that has to be seen to be believed. Because of them, this minor Denis Leary vehicle has to be taken seriously. It's like a workshop on comic teamwork.
Morgan Freeman, THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION
There's no sound in the world more soothing, more relaxing than Morgan Freeman's narration in SHAWSHANK. Normally, that would be a bad thing since you don't want to lull your audience too much. Sleepy audiences are a bad thing. It works here, though, because of the world that Red is talking about in his voice-overs. His slight sense of disconnection from the horror of Shawshank makes it bearable, and his refusal to oversell his story keeps him from telegraphing the film's twists too early. It's a thankless job, narrating a film, since too many people think of it as reading, not acting. This film proves that a great narration can make all the difference in the world.
Jeremy Davies, SPANKING THE MONKEY
He may look like Henry Thomas, but he's got the chops of a young Anthony Perkins. Davies may be the current king of barely controlled geekhood, ready to jump out of his skin at the slightest provocation. He's got plenty to be jumpy about in David O. Russell's first film, a black comedy about incest that manages to be outrageous without being offensive. Davies gets the lion's share of the credit here, since its his work that makes everything else believable. He is so freaked out by sex and the future and his life and girls and school that when he acts out in a completely insane manner it almost makes a perverse kind of sense. I also love that he doesn't seem to be all better by the end of the film. Indeed, he's just barely hanging on, but he's doing it, and maybe that's enough.
Sandra Bullock, SPEED
Admit it. The only reason you bought Keanu as the hero of this film is because she bought Keanu as the hero of this film. It was her we didn't want to see blow up. Given basically nothing to do but drive, Bullock still stole the film out from under actors like Reeves, Dennis Hopper, and Jeff Daniels. She's so into it, so completely sold on the ridiculous premise, that we just have to agree to take the ride with her. Just like PRETTY WOMAN, this is the kind of film that earns you enough goodwill to survive almost any box-office dud.
Jamie Lee Curtis, TRUE LIES
I know that many of you feel that James Cameron's better-than-Bond action/comedy was sexist, or that Jamie Lee Curtis got abused by Arnold in it, but if that's the case, no one told Jamie Lee. She has never been this good, this sexy, this funny. Even in A FISH CALLED WANDA, she was still the girl playing among men. In this film, and especially in the dance she performs for a man she doesn't know is her husband, she is Woman, and she is outstanding. I'm surprised she hasn't had an action lead crafted for her away from the HALLOWEEN franchise. After this film, she deserves it.
Even though the show seems to be caught in dramatic inertia these days, unable to recover from the loss of George Clooney and facing the additional loss of Julianna Marguiles, the lasting influence of the show cannot be underestimated on television. It turned up the pace across the board. Before this show, no one had ever tried anything that was cut this fast, this frantic, on a weekly basis. Now, we see things like THE WEST WING and SPORTS NIGHT and THIRD WATCH, and it seems old hat.
Like PULP FICTION, this show has a lot of imitators that have tarnished its achievement simply by volume, but there's two big reasons this show is still a powerhouse seven years later: casting and writing. Give someone a cookie for putting this ensemble together in the first place. Everyone has gradually focused their characters to the point that any one of them could carry an entire episode with ease. They're all that well-defined, that full of life and energy. It's amazing that none of them have had anywhere near as much success away from the show as they've had on it, but maybe that's because it's easy to get spoiled when you really are the best at what you do.
"SPACE GHOST COAST-TO-COAST"
If you have not seen this show, then I cannot possibly begin to convey to you the sheer majesty of its madness. I can't express to you the simple joy of Space Ghost blowing up a guest or maybe his band leader. If you've never seen Zorak ruin an interview, you can't know what staggering joy it brings. The idea of turning one of the stupidest characters in the Hanna-Barbera library into a talk show host is one that shouldn't work by any rights, but it does. There's a cheerful absurdity to the whole enterprise, and the 15-minute episodes keep things brisk. Find it. See it. You will love it.
Michael Moore is a great rabble-rouser, and there's a pretty obvious reason why his show didn't last on network TV. He didn't pull any punches in his attacks on various (mostly) deserving targets, and neither did correspondents like Janeane Garafolo and Rusty Cundieff. This show is definitely the model for Moore's new show THE AWFUL TRUTH which is shown on Bravo here in the US, and even though it didn't last, it's nice to salute the brief moment, the impassioned gesture.
... AND, FINALLY, A MOMENT OF SILENCE, PLEASE, FOR...
George "Spanky" McFarland
They certainly aren't the only people we lost in those years, but they are definitely the ones I miss the most.
That's it for part two, Fellow Geeks. Click here if you want to look back at The Big Damn '90s List, Part I for any reason. I'm sure we'll have some reason to talk again before Harry gets back. Things always come up. Until then...