Beauty and the Beast (1991)

beauty

Starring: Paige O’Hara (her first film), Robby Benson, Richard White, Jerry Orbach, David Ogden Stiers, Angela Lansbury

Director: Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise

Summary: Belle, whose father is imprisoned by the beast, offers herself instead, unaware her captor to be is an enchanted prince

Other Nominations: Original Score*, Original Song (“Beauty and the Beast”)*, Original Song (“Be Our Guest”), Original Song (“Belle”), Sound

Better than I even expected. There’s always something magical about high-quality 2D animation that simply can’t be replicated by 3D animation, and here it has aged beautifully (heck, even the limited 3D animation in the film still looks okay). This is thanks in large part to its art style and the talent that Disney had at this point, where they were tremendous at getting small but crucial facial expressions and emotions across. The voice cast is also excellent from top to bottom and I miss when you could have non-celebrities do voice work on big animated films like this (even if this was the film that started us down that road). Seriously, it’s a shame people like Steve Blum, Mary Elizabeth McGlynn or Billy West, some of the best voice actors on the planet, never get the chance to do a high-profile film role.

Ultimately though, there are a couple things that make the movie special. The score is of course a classic, and it got 3 song nominations and won Best Original Score for a reason, with “Be Our Guest”, “Belle” and “Gaston” as my favorite numbers. The characters are some of the best in the Disney canon-Belle had far more depth than the previous Disney princesses, Beast feels far more fleshed out than he is in previous versions of the story, and Gaston is one of the great Disney villains ever, being wonderfully assholish and basically a parody of the kind of Disney Princes of the past who were mostly handsome and strapping but not much else. Finally, the movie is well-plotted, with the intro being a perfectly compact and visually attractive summation of how Beast came to be, and every scene has a purpose. Along with Aladdin and The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast might be the best of the “Disney Renaissance” era films and was a deserving choice for the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture (and the only one from the five nominee era).

Rating: A-

Bugsy (1991)

bugsy

Starring: Warren Beatty, Annette Bening, Harvey Keitel, Ben Kingsley, Joe Mantegna, Bill Graham (in a posthumous appearance), Elliott Gould

Director: Barry Levinson

Summary: The famed gangster running the mobs in Los Angeles tries to turn Las Vegas into a vacation paradise

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Beatty), Supporting Actor (Keitel), Supporting Actor (Kingsley), Original Screenplay, Original Score, Art Direction*, Cinematography, Costume Design*

Fairly solid biopic on mobster Bugsy Siegel. Beatty and Bening are both very good here, with Beatty playing Bugsy as unhinged and violent flying off the handle at the drop of a hat, a big dreamer and obsessed with Virginia Hill (Bening), yet Beatty is able to make him still quite charming to an extent. Their poisonous relationship is the heart of the film and is done pretty well, with Hill being the classic “woman who led her man to ruin”, but you can’t say he didn’t deserve it. Besides the lead performances and Bugsy’s character, the other thing I liked is the general look of the film, which does a great job of recreating 1940s Los Angeles.

Maybe it’s because I’m gangstered out (3 of the last 4 movies I’ve watched for this project have been about the mafia), but this one didn’t fully click for me. The “Bugsy want’s to personally assassinate Mussolini” subplot should have been dropped-I get that it shows him as a dreamer and as a bit unhinged, but the rest of the movie develops those themes perfectly well and it’s just kind of there, divorced from the rest of the well-focused story. Also, even for biopic standards, it takes huge dramatic license when it comes to his role in building The Flamingo Hotel and Vegas in general-Bugsy Siegel did not come up with the idea of The Flamingo, he just bought a ⅔ stake once the project was well underway). In general, there’s plenty of good aspects and nothing REALLY off about the film, but it never fully engaged me.

Rating: B-

JFK (1991)

jfk

Starring: Kevin Costner, Tommy Lee Jones, Gary Oldman, Sissy Spacek, Joe Pesci, Donald Sutherland, Michael Rooker, Kevin Bacon, Jack Lemmon, Jay O. Sanders, Laurie Metcalf, Wayne Knight, Ed Asner, John Candy, Walter Matthau

Director: Oliver Stone

Summary: A New Orleans district attorney fights to uncover the truth behind President Kennedy’s assassination

Other Nominations: Director, Supporting Actor (Jones), Adapted Screenplay, Original Score, Sound, Cinematography*, Film Editing*

*Note: I watched the theatrical cut (188 minutes) as opposed to the director’s cut (201 minutes) because that’s the version of the film the Academy voters would have seen*

Got a lot to say about this one. First the positives: 1) the cast is loaded and the performances are mostly good; and 2) the last 30 minutes are excellent from a cinematic standpoint, with the editing and cinematography working really well to build to a big dramatic climax.

The rest of the movie has numerous problems coming from seemingly every direction though. Right off the bat is the elephant in the room: the film’s massive, all-encompassing theory about the Kennedy assassination is largely unproven at best or total bullshit at worst. While many have been willing to overlook this problem with the movie, because “hey it tells a compelling story!”, after the last year we’ve had, don’t tell me the using the massive platform Stone had here to make explosive political allegations with little to no factual basis is not reckless or dangerous. Second, I can see why many in the LGBT community did not like this movie, as all the gay characters are portrayed in a pretty insulting fashion. Third, Joe Pesci’s pathetic attempt at play a Southerner is hilarious and distracting when he’s constantly dropping the accent.

However, the single biggest issue I have with this purely as a film is with basic storytelling, especially in the first two hours of the movie. During that portion of the movie, we really don’t have characters: instead, we simply have vessels who are there to vomit loads information in a constant stream at us, and vessels who are there to listen to that information (who exist only because you can’t just outright have characters monologuing directly to the audience). In this regard, it fails as a movie-sure it has intense editing and cinematography so that it feels like a movie, but we have no real character interactions or really anything outside of the movie describing in excruciating detail Oliver Stone’s personal theory about the JFK assassination. This feels more like a book than a film-more specifically, like something Ayn Rand wrote.

Compare JFK to two very similar movies: Z and All the President’s Men. In All the President’s Men, we had something besides scenes where they interview somebody to get information or talk with their associates about the facts of the investigation-we have the scenes with Robards and Balsam where Redford and Hoffman talk about whether they should run the stories, and these are vital. We also get scenes that develop the relationship between Redford and Hoffman, why they’re different, how they approach the investigation, etc. Z on the other hand was focused not just on the investigation behind the murder; in fact, there’s a lot of movie before we even have a reason for there to be an investigation, time which sets up the players and the situation in Greece at the time. Furthermore, the main tension of the second half of the movie is whether the investigator will put himself on the line and do the right thing and prosecute or whether he will find there’s no merit to the allegations of a military planned assassination, especially since he’s extremely skeptical for most of the film. These are the kinds of things that separate a movie and a narrative from a non-fiction book.

After two hours, it does get a little better. We finally get a much-needed scene between Garrison and his wife that’s great and there’s some stuff to break it up the info dump at least until we get to the big summation speech which is guns blazing and effective. Overall though, the film has an extraordinary amount of problems that are at nearly every level of the script and it is fatally flawed as a result.
Rating: D+

The Prince of Tides (1991)

prince

Starring: Nick Nolte, Barbra Streisand, Kate Nelligan, Blythe Danner, George Carlin, Jason Gould

Director: Barbra Streisand

Summary: A troubled man talks to his suicidal sister’s psychiatrist about their family history and falls in love with her in the process

Other Nominations: Actor (Nolte), Supporting Actress (Nelligan), Adapted Screenplay, Original Score, Art Direction, Cinematography

The main attraction here is Nolte’s performance. He has a lot of charisma, is good at playing a character who is realistically trying to hide and bottle up his emotions, and he is the single thing that ties the whole film together. Note actually won the Golden Globe for Best Actor (Drama) over Anthony Hopkins, and I don’t think it was an unreasonable choice, mainly due to him carrying the film and Hopkins simply not being in Silence of the Lambs much screen-time wise. I also like the score, which fits this type of movie well.

Everything else is just alright. The screenplay works, but it has some clunky elements that felt out of place and characters started liking each other quicker than they probably should have realistically. Also, Carlin’s character is a totally disposable, extremely broad gay stereotype that hasn’t aged well over the years (again, this was not a great year for Best Pictures and the LGBT community, due to this film (but in a pretty minor way overall), as well as JFK and Silence of the Lambs. Overall, Nolte is able to elevate this movie from what would otherwise be a totally average to mediocre romance film.

Rating: C+

*Silence of the Lambs (1991)*

silence

Starring: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn, Ted Levine, Anthony Heald, Brooke Smith

Director: Jonathan Demme

Summary: A fledgling FBI agent enlists a psychopath’s help in catching a serial killer
Other Nominations: Director*, Actor (Hopkins)*, Actress (Foster)*, Adapted Screenplay*, Sound, Film Editing

This was only the third (and the most recent) film to win the “Big Five” at the Oscars (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay), and in the context of it vs. the other films from this year, I have to agree with that decision. The lead performances are both outstanding. The movie does a tremendous job of building up an aura around Hannibal Lecter and delivers on it with Hopkins’ performance which is cultured yet demonic and you can understand how he can get into someone’s head so effortlessly. Foster is able to strike exactly the right cord at all times playing character who is smart and driven but also vulnerable and inexperienced, and might be my favorite actress of her generation.

It also has great blocking and knows how to use the camera extremely well. We get lots of facial close-ups and POV shots, which makes it feel like the characters are directly speaking to us and staring into our soul, which works great for an intense thriller and because because of how good the two lead performers are as well with facial expressions. It also knows how to display dominance between characters effectively, and visuals really drive home to the viewer how much of an outsider Foster is as a female FBI agent trainee. While the tools the film uses are all obvious and blunt, they are nonetheless really effective and it’s baffling how it didn’t get a cinematography nomination, especially compared to some that did like The Prince of Tides.

The biggest complaint that dogged the film was from the LGBT community where there was a lot of criticism over the serial killer Buffalo Bill. Here, I didn’t have as big a problem with this aspect specifically (more just that the movie is needlessly exploitive and sleazy in general), as I thought I would, but it’s still really muddled and clumsy. The films says that “transsexuals are very passive” (which is a bizarre statement in itself) and the Buffalo Bill is “not a real transsexual, but he tries to be.” He was rejected for sexual reassignment and hates his sexual identity, but is also a neo-nazi (which doesn’t come up other than that he has swastika bedsheets and a nazi poster in his house) and he clearly doesn’t see his victims as human beings. I feel like they tried to make him some of everything and it kind of becomes jumbled and incoherent and I don’t even know exactly what to make of it. Interestingly enough, director Demme did defend the character as not transsexual, but later came to realize and lament that there weren’t very many positive portrayals of gay characters in studio films, and two years later he ended up making Philadelphia.

Regardless of all that, this is still a great movie. Silence of the Lambs is an accessible but intelligently made, tense thriller-horror film featuring some truly excellent performances.

Random Note: This is amazingly enough the second Best Picture winner that the great maker of cheap but surprisingly good films Roger Corman acted in (the first being The Godfather Part II). He also shows up in Apollo 13-all three of these films were made by directors who got their starts working under Roger Corman (Francis Ford Coppola, Jonathan Demme and Ron Howard).

Overall: A-

1991 in Review

One Notable Film from 1991

terminator

Terminator 2: Judgment Day is to the original Terminator as Aliens (another James Cameron film) is to Alien: an entertaining and well-made action blockbuster sequel to much grittier, seedier and overall probably better film. Arnold is at his peak, Linda Hamilton gives what is easily the best performance of her career and Edward Furlong is ranges from pretty good for a child actor to awful and his dialogue is often cringe-worthy. The two things I mainly want to talk about though are the effects and the franchise as a whole though.

The CG effects here build off of Cameron’s previous film, The Abyss and give us the T-1000, aka the liquid metal Terminator played by Robert Patrick. Here, much like with most early CG effects, them being CG is totally necessary, as it would be almost impossible to do anything like when it goes through the bars or melts into a puddle, with practical effects unless you straight-up animated them. The effects still look decent to this day, and T2 combined with Jurassic Park two years later made it clear that computer generated special effects were going to eventually drive out practical effects in movies in the long run, as there’s more control and no real limits to what they can do or can be used for.

As for the franchise itself, it’s kind of unfortunate that we even have a Terminator franchise honestly. Most bad movie sequels are merely needless extension to stories that didn’t really need another chapter to them; however, every once ia  while we get the rare sequel that actually harms the original in some way-the Highlander sequels are a great example of this, but so is Terminator, and largely for the same reasons. At the end of The Terminator, Sarah Connor stops judgment day by destroying the Terminator and Kyle Reese’s death is not in vain as he gives birth to the man who will save humanity from Skynet in the future. Great! In T2, we learn that they didn’t actually stop judgment day in the first film, they have to save John Connor again, defeat another more powerful terminator, and THIS time they really have stopped judgment day from happening. Alright! Then we get T3, where they send back ANOTHER terminator after John Connor and this time…judgment day still happens? Really? Then we get T4 where…jesus, the timeline is completely wrecked and again they stop skynet from coming online, preventing judgment day…then we learn that no they didn’t. The big problem is that The Terminator series has become like the Final Destination series: no matter what the heroes do, nothing matters because they will just keep sending back Terminators and judgment day is unavoidable. As a result, the endings of the first two (good) Terminator movies lose impact because you know that the good guys accomplished absolutely nothing whatsoever. You can have a good narrative about heroes struggling against odds they know they can’t overcome, but the first two Terminator movies weren’t trying to do that, they were trying to give us happy endings which are now moot after the later films. While this (mostly) isn’t T2’s fault, but it started the ball rolling in a bad direction.

Other Notables from 1991

Boyz n the Hood

Daughters of the Dust

Slacker

The Commitments

Thelma & Louise

Barton Fink

The Fisher King

Once Upon a Time in China

Raise the Red Lantern

1991 Nominees in Review

Silence of the Lambs: A- (Won Best Picture)

Beauty and the Beast: A-

Bugsy: B-

The Prince of Tides: C+

JFK: D+

Any year where 40% of the nominees are genuinely great films is a good year in my book even if I hated one of them (and one I didn’t expect to hate, much less for the reason I did). Silence of the Lambs is a thriller with a lot more cinematic craft than you usually get out of the genre and I still don’t know how it didn’t get a cinematography nomination. It deserved its win, and history has vindicated that choice which wasn’t as obvious as it would seem considering it swept the Oscars; at the Golden Globes, Bugsy won Best Dramatic Film, Oliver Stone won Best Director for JFK, Nick Nolte won Best Actor in a Drama, and Thelma & Louise won for Best Screenplay-only Foster won for Best Actress in a Drama.

For 1992: a film that couldn’t even make up its meager budget in its home country of the U.K., but found great success in the U.S. due to it’s “secret”; The second Merchant-Ivory E.M. Forster adaptation with Helena Bonham Carter to get nominated for Best Picture; the first movie to aired on the Starz network; and the second straight Best Picture winner that Roger Ebert gave a tepid thumbs up and Gene Siskel gave an outright negative review to.