Monday, April 13, 2009

Revisiting 1999: When Bad Movies Happen to Good Directors

This is another in a series of remembrances of the year 1999, a year I feel is greatest year of film I have experienced (keep in mind I'm only 27, so I wasn't able to experience the glory years of innovative cinema in the 60's and 70's). So far I've discussed the sorta-forgettable films and the films that just don't hold up. Also, here's me waxing nostalgic about 1999.

The term bad, as it will be used here, is a relative term. I’m thinking more of the kind of bad movie that were it directed by a lesser auteur (lesser compared to some of the names you'll see on this list) would be a good movie . For example: when I go to a movie and I see that Sydney Pollack has directed it, I expect the film to be decent enough; inevitably (and probably unfairly) the cinephile is bound to thrust a certain set of expectations onto the film they are about to watch. So, take this list for what it’s worth – I know I am bound to ruffle a few feathers with some of these titles – in no way, though, am I saying that all of these titles are dogs…just some of them. More thoughts after the ellipses…

Any Given Sunday (Oliver Stone):

This film is Oliver Stone’s failed attempts to bring the gridiron to the big screen. He wanted to make it flashy and gritty all at once – grabbing your attention by putting you in the moment as if the viewer were “in the trenches” with the “big uglies” (see that’s football speak). However, what Stone does is make a mess of a film filled with glutinous scene after glutinous scene, which seems to exist solely to bludgeon the senses. The fake football teams don’t help (it’s no surprise either that the NFL would not want to be associated with this movie) and neither do the fake football moments; leaving the film feeling more like the The Program. Al Pacino is at his over-the-top best, and the film almost succeeds as camp; however, you cannot help but feel that Stone was going for something serious here, a love song to his favorite sport perhaps? I don’t know, but it goes to show that unless you are doing a retelling of a famous football event, football films never work because they can never match the drama associated with the actual sport, no matter how in-the-moment the director thinks he’s placing the audience. The obvious evidence here that Any Given Sunday is just a sad attempt at one-upping real football is when Stone has a players eye pop out on the field, and we get a nice close-up of the goriness. Uhhh yeeaaaahhh. What is this a Fulci film? Also, the less said about Lawrence Taylor’s performance the better.

Fight Club (David Fincher):

Here we go: I am sure to get some comments about this one, but allow me to explain myself the best I can. I remember going to see this in the theater and being blown away by the opening half of the film: the IKEA catalog scene, the self-help group hoping, Meat Loaf (!), and the irreverence of it all; it felt so fresh and new like a slap across the comatose face that the film industry needed. Yes, Fight Club’s first half fit with all of the other films of 1999 I associated with those same adjectives (Three Kings, Bringing Out the Dead, Magnolia, Being John Malkovich). However, once the film goes into Militia mode I began to lose interest: the constant fighting, the dilapidated house scenes, the ending with the split personality ending; it all felt so stale compares to the opening of the film. That stuff never much interested me as a 17 year old (maybe it was above me), so I thought I would give the film another chance.

Upon further review I still feel like the beginning of the movie is an unquestionable masterpiece, but like most of my feelings towards Palahniuk’s work I felt the stories message was too smug and self-aware (those are my 27 year old thoughts). The performances are good here (Pitt at the genesis of his great performance run, and Norton had yet to become stale and one-note – or as like to call him the American Anthony Hopkins) and Fincher’s camera finds the right note. This is a perfect example of what I mean by a movie that is not criminally bad; I just don’t think it’s as great as everyone claims it is. Maybe I need to rage against the machine more, I don’t know, but the end of the film and its core philosophies just don’t jive with me. But man, that opening 45 minutes is something else. This film is only considered bad because of how brilliant it started. I never thought much of Fincher’s prior work (Seven is a gruesome, but affective and absorbing thriller; The Game and Panic Room are nothing more than glossy garbage) but his visual eye was undeniably one of the best (and freshest) working within the Hollywood machine. Fincher of course would make his masterpiece with 2007’s Zodiac.

The Loss of Sexual Innocence (Mike Figgis):

Mike Figgis is a director is wild-card. You never know what you’re going to get with is eclectic mix of avant garde and mainstream Hollywood style of filmmaking. His Leaving Las Vegas is a masterpiece, and not just because of the performances by Nic Cage and Elisabeth Shue; no the film works so well because of the nuances and the way he juxtaposes pain and love scene after scene – in the hands of a lesser filmmaker (or perhaps a more mainstream filmmaker) Leaving Las Vegas would most likely have been a mess. Sandwiched in between some Hollywood clunkers (Mr. Jones, Cold Creek Manor) and some indie darlings (Mrs. Julie, Leaving Las Vegas, Time Code) is the peculiar, experimental film The Loss of Sexual Innocence.

The film is such a bizarre experience: on one hand you want to praise the film for the way it intercuts the exploratory sexual moments of Adam and Even in the Garden with a retelling of the sexual misadventures of a film director; however, on the other hand you are always aware that you’re watching nothing more than an exercise, and that the filmmaker storyline only exists so that the more experimental, and better, Adam and Eve scenes can “make sense”. The Garden scenes are beautifully shot and have an odd aura, or pull, to them – you simply can’t take your eyes off it. The non-linear storyline is a bit odd and like most of Figgis’ experiments they either succeed (Time Code) or fail (this film), but they are always interesting. It’s worth seeing if haven’t yet, but don’t expect it to be a great experience.

The Ninth Gate (Roman Polanski):

Before Johnny Depp became a poster on the wall of every emo/goth girl he made this clunker of a film directed by the great Roman Polanski. Depp is a rare book dealer who is recruited to find a book about 17th century occult happenings. Well, crazy evil-doings ensue and what follows is a plodding exercise in the horror genre. It’s not nearly as good as the film it wants to be, Angel Heart, and not as much fun, either. Depp is good enough, and Polanski does some decent stuff with the camera, but really it’s so sad to see this throw-away film added to his resume; especially since he is the man that gave us such fantastic thrillers as Knife in the Water, The Tenant, and of course Rosemary’s Baby. Of course we all know about the history of Polanski and his eviction from La La Land, but his string of films were pretty mediocre before this film came out, so there was a lot of buzz about his return to the thriller/horror genre (although I should point out that Frantic is one of the unsung classics of the thriller genre, and one of Harrison Ford’s most forgotten films), but apparently the bad tastes left by the likes of Pirates, Bitter Moon, and Death and Maiden were not forgotten by the time this film came out in 1999. Of course, Polanski would bounce back in a big way with his Holocaust film The Pianist, which earned him a much deserved Academy Award for Best Director, which sadly, he wasn’t allowed to receive. Skip this mess and just cherry pick his good films; this one is a real stinker.

Random Hearts (Sydney Pollack):

Oh boy, could there be a more boring movie in all of 1999? This romantic flop starred Harrison Ford and Kristen Scott Thomas as two people who, as the tagline informs us, would have never met in a perfect world. Which is disturbing, because the film is about how two people find out their loved ones died in a plane crash, and while investigating the deaths they find that their respective spouses where cheating on them. The contrivances abound in this mopey, dopey romance that is devoid of any kind of sexual tension. It also lacks the ability to evoke any kind of sympathy from the viewer because these two characters are so poorly written and so boring, that by the time the inevitable does occur, we could care less. The film meanders and takes full advantage of its 133 minute running time using every last second to alienate the audience with tedium and minutia.

Pollack is an old-fashioned filmmaker, that’s for sure; his films meander and wander, and sometime over stay there welcome, but I’ve always kind of liked that about his films – there’s something classical about that. I really liked his Sabrina even though it was too long; but I liked the characters and didn’t mind sticking out the overly long running time because the film was nice looking and the actors were charming. The Firm, too, is another of Pollack’s films that had a great ensemble cast and some wonderfully tense moments that otherwise would have been lost in the 150+ minute running time had it not been for those likable Pollack qualities. That’s what Random Hearts is completely without: charm. I didn’t care one iota about these characters. Pollack of course directed much better films, and that’s what makes this one so bad (and disappointing) is because the talent is there for him to make a great tragic love story, but a lot of the film feels like great workers of their craft simply phoning it in. Pollack would have better projects associated with his name in 1999 as he produced a much better film (The Talented Mr. Ripley) and acted in a flawed, albeit much better film than Random Hearts (Eyes Wide Shut); so, perhaps it was a case of Pollack having too much on his plate at once. I’d like to think so. The man was a genius and made a habit out of playing cynical, amoral older characters years after this film was made (his run of great performances includes, but are not limited to: Eyes Wide Shut, Changing Lanes, and Michael Clayton). It was a sad, sad day when he passed way too early in his life, and I prefer to remember for work much better than Random Hearts.

Ride With the Devil (Ang Lee):

Hot off the heels of one of the best films of 1997 (Gene Siskel called it the best) The Ice Storm, there was much anticipation for what Ang Lee would direct next. Unfortunately what we got was murky and ultimately failing Civil War picture starring Johnny Depp look-a-like Skeet Ulrich and folk star Jewel. All of the elements of a great Ang Lee film are here: well defined characters, non-judging from the filmmakers, the ambiguity found in Lee’s better movies, and on paper – some great actors. However, the film is a mess, edited horribly and surprisingly poorly acted by the likes of Tobey Maguire and Jeffrey Wright and Mark Ruffalo. I don’t know what went wrong, but Lee’s story of the Bushwacker’s during the Civil War seems dry and despondent, and quite frankly a bit pedantic. Lee has always been one to take a popular subject and throw it under a microscope, hoping to get the opposite effect of what similar films get (think about how he plays with the suburban family drama in The Ice Storm, the comic book/superhero film with Hulk, and homosexuality in Brokeback Mountain), but for some reason his microscopic look at semi-unknown events from the Civil War left me wanting more. Like I said, coming off the heels of The Ice Storm, which I thought was a masterpiece, this was a big misfire.

The Story of Us (Rob Reiner):

Some would argue that this film shouldn’t even be on here because Rob Reiner isn’t a good director. Pshaw, I say. The man was a part of the Spinal Tap brain trust and his early films (The Sure Thing is a forgotten gem, Stand by Me) aren’t bad. Plus he created the blue print for the modern romantic comedy (I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but it’s an impressive thing) with his wonderful When Harry Met Sally. The man can bring the funny as is evident in the wonderful Aaron Sorkin penned The American President. The man has his flaws, though, and really if it weren’t for The American President he’d have a run of truly awful and forgettable films: North, The Ghosts of Mississippi, Alex and Emma, and The Bucket List. However, it’s apparent that Reiner doesn’t mind phoning it in – in fact I’m sure he thought he was making a good to great movie with Ghosts of Mississippi, but that movie was a dramatic failure – because in between every two or three bad films the man makes a good one (2007’s Rumor Has It was a charmer of a movie), but his worst offense may have come in 1999 with the sappy, overwrought, drivel that was The Story of Us.

The film is an insult to those who have had to truly work at their marriage or long-term relationship, as Reiner and co. make light of the hardships involved with such a commitment. Michelle Pfeiffer and Bruce Willis play a married couple who are going through some rocky times, and possibly a divorce; so, we’re treated to their history as they meet cute and love each other. We also see the ugly times when love isn’t simply enough to sustain a relationship. The formula is there for Reiner to make an interesting movie, but he seemed determined to implement the snarky and cutesy romantic comedy formula he made so popular with When Harry Met Sally, and it just doesn’t work here. There are too many scenes where it’s obvious that all that was asked of the actors was to yell and throw things. Why? Because they are in a bad relationship, and that’s what husbands and wives who are having problems do. Terrible. I will say this for the film: Pfeiffer gives it a good go. She has a scene at the end of the movie that seems like the only honest and genuine moment in the entire film. Every line, every shouted piece of dialogue, every plate thrown…it’s all so contrived. Not a good movie at all.

True Crime (Clint Eastwood):

This one was a lot harder to put on here…there’s some stuff in this movie that I really like. But after I watched it again recently, just like in Fight Club, the good stuff is there as a reminder of just how good this movie could have been. I liked the way Eastwood, a local small town newspaper writer, has this smug way of dealing with his boss (the always wonderful James Woods). I also liked the way Eastwood as a director shows us the inner workings of a smaller newspaper and the types of people and stories they follow. I really liked the interactions between Dennis Leary, Woods, and Eastwood as they have this fast talking dialogue that reminded me of the Noir films based around journalism. What I didn’t like was the way Eastwood relies so heavily on the conventions of the race-against-time plot when it comes to trying to save a man from death row. I also thought the stuff with Eastwood and his young daughter (who of course he never has time for and makes promises he can’t keep) were a bit contrived and heavy handed.

The film is a lot like Eastwood’s work of the era, he made it and released it and moved on to the next project. He had a run of middling projects like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, The Bridges of Madison County, Absolute Power, Space Cowboys, and Blood Work; all of these films were post Unforgiven (and A Perfect World, which I think is a masterpiece) and pre Mystic River, which is a tad overrated, but kick started his recent fame as a master director (even though he’s always been good). I’ve always thought of Eastwood the director like a musician: they record something and move on, good or bad the musician just wants to get it out there for people to hear. Such is the case with Eastwood as he pumps out films at an impressive rate, and even if this so-so bunch of films is nothing to write home about, you can always count on Eastwood coming out with something the next year that may impress you. At least that explains things like The Rookie, right? So, True Crime is harmless Eastwood fare, and if you haven’t seen the film yet, it won’t kill you, but he’s made far better films; this is one of his most banal.


  1. I love your post, you write with such passion! Good to know these things, Would want to watch them soon. Hope you get to blog more in the near future. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Thanks for the kind words. I'm always grateful for the ability to share my opinions on film. It's something that I love through and through (film, not my opiions, ha).