Awakenings (1990)

awakenings

Starring: Robin Williams, Robert De Niro, Julie Kavner, Ruth Nelson, John Heard, Penelope Ann Miller, Max Von Sydow

Director: Penny Marshall

Summary: A doctor’s experiments bring a group of comatose patients back to consciousness

Other Nominations: Actor (De Niro), Adapted Screenplay

A pretty engaging story, especially in the first half that reminded me somewhat of Flowers for Algernon aka Charly. The mostly light tone with some good sincere moments worked in was effective and just seeing Williams investigate these patients was really interesting to me since I had no idea anything like this was a real condition people suffered at one point in time. I liked Williams a lot as the main doctor and I would have nominated him for Best Actor before De Niro (which is what the Golden Globes did), although De Niro gives a good performance as well.

The second half of the movie is more of a straight drama, but I think it misses the mark by a bit and could have been stronger. The premise is fantastic and there are so many ways that could have had more emotional resonance and would have cut deeper, but it only skims the surface of exploring what it would be like for someone in these patient’s situation. It goes for an easy and simple message and basic sentimentality when much more profound and existential questions could have been asked, and that’s really a shame for me considering how well the situation was set up. Nevertheless, this is still a good movie with good performances, it’s just that I believe it could have been a great movie in the hands of a different writer and director.

Rating: B-

*Dances with Wolves (1990)*

dances

Starring: Kevin Costner, Graham Greene, Mary McDonnell, Rodney A. Grant, Floyd Westerman

Director: Kevin Costner

Summary: A Union soldier stationed in North Dakota leaves his post to join a nearby Sioux tribe
Other Nominations: Director*, Actor (Costner), Supporting Actor (Greene), Supporting Actress (McDonnell), Adapted Screenplay*, Film Editing*, Original Score*, Sound*, Art Direction, Cinematography*, Costume Design

*I am watching the original 3-hour cut of this film (vs. the 4-hour extended version that came out later), because it is the one Academy voters would have seen)*

First the good: the movie looks fantastic with excellent cinematography and beautiful locations on the American plains, and sounds just as good with an outstanding score from John Barry. There was clearly a lot of craftsmanship and sincere passion that went into making it-that they decided to have the actors speak in Sioux language (or at least an admirable attempt at it) with subtitles is worthy of praise. I will also say the big “epic” scenes are impressive in scale and execution, especially the buffalo hunt scene.

The rest of the movie is a mixed bag and there are some relevant comparisons for me. First, unlike The Mission or Mississippi Burning, it at least gives some people from the affected minority population established, individualized characters, some of which are very likable and well-acted (even if they ultimately tend to fit into stereotypes). What drags this film down on a relative scale for me though is the story and our main character. In many ways, this film bears a striking similarity to Lawrence of Arabia in numerous aspects: our protagonist is a white Army officer who is sent during wartime to a territory predominately populated by non-white persons where he ends up sympathizing with the native population and ends up defending them against his own army. So why was Lawrence a far superior movie? One, Peter O’Toole give a far superior performance than Kevin Costner does here, who I thought was generally mediocre. Second, T.E. Lawrence is a far more interesting and layered character than John Dunbar-he has impulses towards violence and self-aggrandizement and is flawed vs. Dunbar who is close to a Gary Stu. This generally applies to the whole movie, with the supporting cast being nigh unbeatable and the characters they portrayed less stock (although I will say Greene is very good). Finally, although the film never bored more, Lawrence is 42 minutes longer yet has much quicker pacing and it feels much more dynamic. Dances With Wolves is a good movie, but it feels a little bland and uninspired compared to better, similar movies.

Random note: in this movie, the Pawnee Indians are flat-out villains; I guess the Wamapoke tribe got what was coming to them in Parks and Rec.

Rating: B

Ghost (1990)

ghost

Starring: Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore, Whoopi Goldberg, Tony Goldwyn, Rick Aviles

Director: Jerry Zucker

Summary: After a shooting leaves a young man dead, his spirit stays behind to warn his lover of impending danger, with the help of a reluctant psychic

Other Nominations: Supporting Actress (Goldberg)*, Original Screenplay*, Film Editing, Original Score

This movie was nominated because it was a box-office smash (it grossed over $1 billion worldwide, adjusted for inflation), and honestly, it was better than I expected even if it’s not one of the best romance movies I’ve seen for this project. There were a couple of performances that were clear highlights for me: Goldberg was charismatic and entertaining and I can totally buy her winning an Oscar, and Goldwyn was also perfectly cast for his role that I won’t spoil. The movie also has some weird, fun creativity when it comes to the ghost aspects (probably Zucker’s influence, considering he co-directed Airplane! and The Naked Gun) and whoever came up with the visual and sound design for the hell demons earned his or her paycheck big time.

The big thing that lets down this movie for me are the leads to an extent. Swayze is attractive and great when he’s not called upon to do much emoting other than rage (i.e. Road House), but he just isn’t a good actor when he’s called upon to get emotional. His “freaked out/stunned” faces are especially hilarious. Moore is fine, but again these two together just aren’t on the level of say, Gregory Peck & Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, or Maurice Chevalier & Claudette Colbert in The Smiling Lieutenant. Perfectly decent romance movie that has some unique aspects and great supporting performances, but I wouldn’t put it on my list of great romance movies.

Rating: C+

The Godfather Part III (1990)

godfatherIII

Starring: Al Pacino, Andy Garcia, Eli Wallach, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire, Sofia Coppola, Joe Mantegna, George Hamilton, Franc D’Ambrosio, Donal Donnelly

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Summary: An aging Michael Corleone tries to go legitimate but is slowly drawn back into the world of organized crime

Other Nominations: Director, Supporting Actor (Garcia), Film Editing, Original Song (“Promise Me You’ll Remember”), Art Direction, Cinematography

This is not a bad film, but it’s reputation as a disappointment is well-earned considering how good the previous two movies are. Michael Corleone feels like a deflated balloon, which is sort of the point, and he’s about where one would expect him to be after the events of the second film; the problem a lot of people at the time probably is that this strips away most of what the general public liked about the first two, even if his character arc makes sense on a narrative level. I did like the theme of redemption and how it played out and that it serves as an adequate finale for this character who grew and changed so much over the course of the three films. Garcia feels like the lifeblood of the film since most of the other cast members and their characters feel old and worn out (again, somewhat intentional), and I can see why he was nominated.

There are a host of issues here though. The one that everyone points to is the casting of Sofia Coppola as Michael’s daughter; while she isn’t good at all, she by no means sinks the movie for me. I feel bad for both her and her father, as she was a last-minute choice (after Julia Roberts and Winona Ryder were both cast but dropped out) and they needed someone immediately. Second, Robert Duvall is gone because he wanted too much money (and justifiably so, as this movie was solely done to make money, so why shouldn’t he get his cut) and his replacement is essentially George Hamilton who has no established character and the movie doesn’t bother giving him one. Finally, a big issue was that Coppola wanted six months to work on the script and the studio gave him only six weeks. The result is a needlessly convoluted plot, dialogue that isn’t that great and we have a bizarre incest subplot where Michael is portrayed as the bad guy for not letting his daughter get romantically involved with a violent and dangerous man WHO IS ALSO HER FIRST COUSIN EW. Are they from Shelbyville or something?

If you can’t tell, the movie was plagued by problems that really ruined whatever chance it had to be something anywhere near the quality of the first two films. How it got nominated for Best Picture is a mystery to me, as there have been plenty of sequels to acclaimed films that didn’t get nominations.

Rating: C

Goodfellas (1990)

goodfellas

Starring: Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino, half the future cast of The Sopranos

Director: Martin Scorsese

Summary: A young man works up through the New York City mobs

Other Nominations: Director, Supporting Actor (Pesci)*, Supporting Actress (Bracco), Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing

While The Godfather is an incredible character saga and a definitive gangster film, Goodfellas does the best job of any film in getting the audience to understand what it’s really like to live the life of a gangster and how it always seems like you’re teetering on the edge of oblivion. From a story standpoint, very rarely do you get a woman’s perspective in a gangster movie, which this movie does extremely well through Bracco’s character. It does a good job of showing how someone could be swept up into that world and eventually feel like it’s perfectly normal and rationalize everything, much like someone in an abusive relationship. The violence is also extremely visceral and shocking, something that helps get the audience to really build up a disgust to the characters which is sort of the ultimate point of the film-on the outside, the lifestyle looks glamorous, but there’s an incredible amount of harsh reality and truly monstrous people underneath it.

The acting is strong all-around, with Pesci at his Pesci-ist, intimidating in spite of his height and a human powderkeg being the biggest standout. However, what I noticed this time that I overlooked when I watched it in high school is how incredible the cinematography and editing are. The famous one-shot in the nightclub works not only as something impressive on a technical level for the timing and blocking, but it also puts us in Bracco’s shoes and it makes the audience understand how quickly she could be wooed by seeing Liotta as a big shot in this setting. How did this not get a Best Cinematography nomination? Not just that scene, but there’s lots of them-like with Bracco and the first-person perspective holding the gun and the grave-digging scene.

The editing is stellar, especially the last 30 minutes or so where the previously kinetic pace goes off the rails completely in a wonderful way and it should have easily won over Dances With Wolves. This was far and away the best of the 1990 nominees and should have dominated the ceremony over the inferior Dances with Wolves.

Rating: A

1990 in Review

One Interesting Film from 1990

I just talked about a Paul Verhoeven movie with Robocop a couple years back, so instead of talking about Total Recall (which is excellent), I’m going to talk about Troll 2.

I am a connoisseur of terrible movies, from MST3K, to the “works” of Neil Breen, to The Room, and Troll 2 is absolutely in the pantheon of most entertaining bad movies. The story behind the making of the movie is legendary, and was covered in the great documentary about the film called Best Worst Movie, but or those who are unaware: this movie was made by Italian director Claudio Fragasso (under the pseudonym Drake Floyd), who wrote this movie with an English cast (with almost no trained actors) and filmed in Utah, yet spoke almost no English himself, nor did anyone on the production crew with one exception; the script and dialogue make no sense, and yet when the actors tried to correct him on the grammatical or syntax errors, he demanded they deliver the lines as written; the costumes for the “trolls” (who are goblins, not trolls and the movie has nothing to do with the original) were made out of rubber store-bought masks and burlap sacks; there’s a character who appears to be insane-he was not acting, he was actually recently out of a mental hospital and high on pot.

Everything is a glorious trainwreck in the best sense, with horrendous overacting, nonsensical line-readings, horrible effects and costumes. But it also has what makes something that’s always necessary for a great bad movie as well-as opposed to something like Sharknado, which is intentionally cheesy and terrible, everyone involved was trying to make something good (or at least profitable). That element of sincerity is crucial, because if the people making the film are in on the joke, it becomes desperate and unfunny and they can’t replicate the unintentional magic movies like Birdemic and Space Mutiny. For those into schlock and bad movies, Troll 2 gets the highest of recommendations.

Other notable films from 1990

Home Alone

Pretty Woman

Total Recall

Misery

Life is Sweet

Close-Up

Tremors

The Hunt for Red October

Miller’s Crossing

Darkman

Jacob’s Ladder

Tremors

Edward Scissorhands

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

The Grifters

Reversal of Fortune

1990 Nominees in Review

Goodfellas: A

Dances With Wolves: B (Won Best Picture)

Awakenings: B-

Ghost: C+

The Godfather Part III: C

If you take out Goodfellas, this is one of the weakest fields probably ever in my opinion. History has vindicated Scorsese’s film as far and away the best of the year and Dances with Wolves as a well-meaning and gorgeous looking and sounding film that’s often hollow. The other three films range from mediocre to pretty good, and it’s still embarrassing that The Godfather Part III got nominated despite getting very mixed reviews even back in the day.

For next year: the only (primarily) 2-D animated film to ever be nominated for Best Picture; after Warren Beatty saw Annette Bening’s audition for the leads, he said “she’s terrific. I love her, I’m going to marry her”-he would later do just that; Oliver Stone released an annotated and sourced version of his screenplay due to how controversial his claims in this movie were; George Carlin was in a Best Picture nominee?; and the last Best Picture winner to have been released between January and April, and the only one from January since 1953.