Toy Story 2
John Lasseter, Ash Brannon (co-director), Lee Unkrich (co-director)
Voices of: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Kelsey Grammar, Don Rickles, Jim Varney, Wallace Shawn
(Pixar; US theatrical: 24 Nov 1999 (General release); 1999)
Viewed allegorically, Pixar’s 1995 debut release Toy Story is as much a movie about the rapidly changing technological landscape—namely, the mainstream emergence of the Internet—and how it fits into traditional customs, as it is a children’s buddy film, concerned with the acceptance of new friends and being comfortable with yourself; the first instance of a duality that would go on to personify the spattering of critically acclaimed releases from the studio. It addressed the sudden and drastic change in ideology (arrival of Buzz Lightyear), the fearful destruction of society (Sid’s sadistic torture of toys), and an ultimate acceptance of the future, giving way to new possibilities and success (the family’s move to a new house and the treaty between Woody and Buzz). All of this to say nothing of the revolutionary CGI presentation.
The film’s 1999 follow-up Toy Story 2 coincidentally, is markedly post-millennial. In a world that was increasingly concerned with things like Y2K and the turn of the century, Toy Story 2 was a film so self-aware and firmly entrenched in its cultural niche that it transcended these issues and acted as a cultural critic. From the film’s casual mockery of cinematic forbearers (Star Wars most prominently among others) to its own psychological evaluation (toys walking through a toy store, encountering cultural touchstones), the film, like its predecessor, exists above its immediate storyline. Even the film’s opening scene (Rex playing a Buzz Lightyear video game, a notable concession to the questions and hidden themes of the first film) acknowledges this societal awareness and introspective understanding.
But this is reductive. Toy Story 2 is more obviously and overtly a movie about self-discovery and acceptance. The movie opens only a few weeks after the end of Toy Story. The family—who remains mostly unnamed, save for the deity-like Andy whose known more for his permanent-marker brand than any plot advancements—is living in their new house, Buzz and Woody are friends, and Andy has barely grown up, exuding the same childish excitability that was a hallmark of the first film. However, it’s Andy’s aging interests that sit as the focal point of the film, making Woody increasingly concerned about obsolescence, so much so that the film delves into a psychedelic nightmare of dismembered toys and trance-like children.
The film’s real acknowledgement of its own post-millennial status though, is through the perversion of the past (Al’s Toy Barn and the selling of the Woody’s Roundup collection) and turning it into an off-putting fetish. After Woody is abducted during a yard-sale rescue mission by Al, the twisted toy store owner, he’s taken into a world of limited technology, a stagnated past. Woody quickly uncovers his true beginnings only to later be betrayed by those same origins.
Throughout Woody’s self-discovery and after his betrayal by Stinky Pete the Prospector, Woody and his new friends are faced with the question of where they belong. He is confronted by the very real possibility of becoming only a childhood memory, as Andy grows older and Woody’s usefulness wanes. Where he and his newly found cohorts finally land, however, is far away from the fetishized world they were previously held captive in, be it Stinky Pete’s mint condition in a box or the glass case that Woody was placed in for display. In fact, they end back in Andy’s bedroom, a place that has been established as a room of the future, video games, and progress.
Ultimately though, Toy Story 2 is another buddy film. It just happens to know exactly what it is, where it belongs, and manages to critique societal norms and occurrences within the constraints of a children’s film. Chris Gaerig
Robert DeNiro, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Miller, Daphne Rubin-Vega
(MGM; US theatrical: 24 Nov 1999 (General release); 1999)
The worst thing about the 1999 film Flawless is that the plot leaves something to be desired. Some dirty money disappears from a small time operation, some poor excuse for a gang terrorizes the residents of a crumbling apartment building as their thugs search out the missing cash, a homophobic retired cop named Walt (Robert De Niro) suffers a severe stoke that leaves him rigid with paralysis, and a flamboyant pre-operative transsexual named Rusty (Philip Seymour Hoffman) prepares for the Flawless drag queen competition. Borderline formulaic, seemingly overloaded with caricatures, contrived subplots, you may wonder: how could such a crap movie really have become such a memorable, noteworthy success?
Simply put, the answer is the two leading characters, both of which are anything but flawless. Take Walt, for example, a man whose wife left him for a young tattoo artist years ago, the same man who inadvertently helped his former partner escape the country with 400K, now suicidal and depressed, ever fearful of leaving his apartment and embarrassing himself on the street, unable to return to his former existence tango dancing with gorgeous women, now walled up in his small one bedroom, stuttering, emasculated, weeping over a childproof medicine bottle he can’t open.
And how about Rusty? Here’s an excessively emotional man who performs drag shows while saving money for the gender reassignment operation that may finally bring him some measure of happiness, but even then he’s constantly confronted by his abusive, married boyfriend who steals money to gamble, not to mention the fact his unloved mother dies but a few of days before the penultimate competition, the same competition over which he’s been slaving, tailoring dresses for the gals, practicing songs, nothing but gruff from his junky, unsupportive neighbors.
To top matters off, on the recommendation of his physical therapist, Walt decides to approach Rusty for singing lessons in order to improve his speech, needing someone who he, as Rusty later points out, “wasn’t afraid to be crippled in front of.” As you can probably guess if you’ve seen any of director Joel Schumacher’s previous formulaic movies, the these two different characters eventually bond as they ceaselessly trade insults about flaming queers and wife-beating republicans, huddled over a piano, laughing as they sing scales.
What’s worth noting about this movie, however, is the stunning performances of De Niro (The Awakening, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) and Hoffman (Capote, Magnolia, Happiness). Despite teetering on overblown caricatures that could prove to insult both the Left and the Right, both these acting powerhouses fully absorb their characters and somehow believably turn them back into humans. One moment they’re spitting and cursing, the next they’re unable to stop confessing their deepest loneliness and fears to each other, trying desperately to console the other with playful insults and no-nonsense attitudes.
For example, a little drunk after the surprise singing lesson graduation party, Rusty glides across the confettied living room wearing a sequin dress and inquires about Walt’s worst fear now that he’s disabled, whether it be falling in the street or someone making fun of him. “That women won’t sleep you me anymore,” hesitantly mumbles Walt, to which Rusty simply replies, “Guess what, honey? Some of them won’t. So you’ll just have to find the ones who will then.”
Honestly, Schumacher should have concentrated on the undeniable chemistry between De Niro and Hoffman’s characters, mostly because both of them nailed their respective parts beautifully, not to mention the fact that the basic plotline forcibly shows irrelevant characters and insists on scenes like Rusty’s confrontation with the Gay Republicans and goons slapping around other residents that don’t really contribute to the overarching story. That aside, the movie Flawless still deserves our attention, if for nothing more than a glance at those intimate moments between Rusty and Walt, so completely isolated, so utterly lost, and so desperate for real intimacy that neither can resist confiding in the other, like a brother and a sister sharing a secret before bed. Justin Dimos
The Green Mile and more
Sweet and Lowdown
Vincent Guastaferro, Anthony LaPaglia, Brian Markinson, Gretchen Mol, Samantha Morton, Sean Penn, Uma Thurman, James Urbaniak, John Waters
(Sony Pictures Classics; US theatrical: 3 Dec 1999 (Limited release); 1999)
Sweet and Lowdown’s Emmet Ray is a familiar figure—the hard-living roustabout and troubled genius—with one crucial modification: he’s been purged of any trace of charm. He’s arrogant, misogynistic, insecure, covetous, stupid and shallow. We know all of this before he even speaks.
In a masterful bit of overacting, Sean Penn contorts his face into a rat-like perma-scowl, his lips twitching, his nose sniffing, his eyes darting around as if looking for an avenue of escape or attack. Movies are filled with anti-heroes, morally questionable or repugnant characters, but a protagonist this deeply unlikeable is almost unheard of. Penn doesn’t flinch—he switches off everything ingratiating and appealing about his personality. His voice is nasal and piercing; he’s constantly defensive and angry.
Until he picks up his guitar.
It’s as though he’s saving all of his good stuff for that guitar. His tensed features relax into an expression of serene concentration, and the most heartfelt, soulful, masterful music emerges. It seems impossible that anyone capable of creating such delicate beauty could be otherwise devoid of empathy and virtue.
Ray, one of Allen’s most brilliantly loaded characters, subverts the romantic cliche of the sensitive artist turning pain into beauty—he’s a black-hearted rat bastard, small-minded and blind to the needs of the people around him. The common belief is that talent is the result of some kind of moral or spiritual strength —Sweet and Lowdown suggests that talent might be a gift bestowed randomly on the wise and the wretched alike. Maybe genius doesn’t imply anything deeper than being awfully good at playing your guitar.
The film is loosely disguised as a documentary biopic, with talking heads both real and fictional breaking into the action to frame the funny and sad vignettes that make up the plot. This gives it the feel of an oral history, and in the minds of the jazz scholars setting the scene Ray is a lovable bastard, a real character. His myth is made of tales that are told and retold, burnished and exaggerated and constantly made new – a fact that Allen makes clear by staging certain scenes several times to match conflicting accounts. History has rendered his destructive behavior eccentric and charming – it’s all just another great Emmet Ray story.
Sweet and Lowdown is a rambling shaggy-dog tale of a movie—like Penn’s jazzbo genius, it doesn’t quite know where it wants to go, so it just wanders around stubbing its toes on things, swearing a blue streak. The comedy rides on Penn’s brilliant, vicious timing and a number of great running slapstick gags involving Ray’s chronic stage-fright, obsessive fear and awe of Django Reinhardt, and his hobby of shooting rats at the dump. What little plot there is centers around Ray’s courtship and eventual abandonment of the mute laundress Hattie, played by Samantha Morton with a sweetness and warmth that look almost horrifying when placed into proximity with Ray’s selfishness and casual cruelty. (“I got a goddamned mute orphan half-wit,” Emmet whines.) When he unthinkingly, unguiltily throws her over for Uma Thurman’s sexy manipulator, any hope of redemption is destroyed.
Until the final moments of the film, when Ray’s heart is deservedly crushed, and we learn through a talking head that all of his greatest music was made in his coming years of isolation. Fools that we are, we can’t give up the thin strand of hope that his beautiful songs might be an emanation of something real and honest in his spirit. It makes little difference that we’ve spent nearly two hours watching the portrait of the asshole as a young man—we still hear his music ringing on our ears. Joshua O’Neill
The Green Mile
Tom Hanks, Michael Clarke Duncan, David Morse, Sam Rockwell, James Cromwell, Barry Pepper
(Castle Rock Entertainment; US theatrical: 10 Dec 1999 (General release); 1999)
1999’s The Green Mile opens with one of the greatest sights of mass black fear in America: The white vigilante mob. Then, the ritual pandering of class: Poor people are criminal, rich people are spoiled, and everyone else is, by virtue(s), normal. Yet, normal in The Green Mile is anything but apparent.
In the film, the black man has a mysterious power to heal, which most critiques have insufficiently contrasted against the State’s miraculous power to destroy. Life or death quandaries continually emerge to push the plot forward. Given that the miraculous black man ultimately colludes in his own death, which is therefore suicide, the critique here seems to be about the green pathway. It’s as if the filmmakers demonstrate that by choosing the normal, grassy green path, we are collectively committing ourselves to the awesome power of destruction, even when faced with evidence of our ability to heal (the world). The race/class war in the film—the institutionalized monopoly the state exercised over black and poor people’s lives—is contested on The Green Mile. As a society we would even deny ourselves the right to heal ourselves rather than stray from this path of destruction.
“Let’s look alive,” Hanks’ character says, rounding up his death troupers for the arrival of John Coffey, the Magic Negro. This dialogue betrays the superficial nature with which life is normally respected; they may only “look”, or pretend to be alive. “Big ass dead man walking,” the sissy character, Percy, repeats almost predicating his own fate; he continually chooses death and is even portrayed as having a sadistic pleasure in pain. Percy’s S&M tendency materializes as a normal consequence of being (treated like) a sissy.
Though a career arbiter of death, Hanks’ character showed that he was unable to deal with his own illness, suffering and loss, a prelude to how he would face his own death dilemmas later in the film. Hanks’ character’s only proposed resolution to Coffey’s life or death situation was to face death as a n*gger-lover by releasing Coffey to run free in the Apartheid/Jim and Jane Crow South during the Great Depression. True to form, the Magic Negro provided the necessary moral authority to move on: reviving the mouse the sissy slaughtered, and boosting Hanks’ sex life. The Magic Negro unlocks everyone’s fates.
When I get to heaven, gon’ scream-n-shout! Be nobody there to put me out
Consider Negro Spirituals as the strongest, indigenous cultural references that would have informed contemplations of life and death of a Southern black character like Coffey. Admittedly culturally intricate and nuanced, Soon ah will be done wit’ da troubles o’ dis worl’ is not a death wish. Goin’ home to live wit’ God is not some damn permission slip absconding white guilt of this torrid past. Hence, Hanks asking Coffey if he should execute or release him is the product of pure S&M fantasy and masturbation, not a power shift. This life or death dilemma also sealed Hanks’ character’s fate. Rather than see life as a gift, the characters see life as punishment, as Hanks’ character didactic, irreconcilable relationship with inevitable loss very reveals in the penultimate scene. This is not a cry to be maimed, harmed and abused—the perverse S&M assumption that this is a plea for pain. Imagine Mahalia shouting:
Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel, then why not every man. He delivered Daniel from de lion’s den / Jonah from de belly of de whale / An’ de Hebrew chillun from de fiery furnace / An’ why not every man
Negro Spirituals consistently emphasize overcoming, i.e. choosing life over death, which is established by the beat and forceful melisma. The lyrics and beat are in constant dialogue, with what might sound like counterpoints or competition. Instead of a separate but equal harmony and melody, the beat simply presses everything forward with such a force that resolves the apparent musical discord or ‘dilemma’. Indeed, the polyrhythmic beat resolves conflict through dialogue between these beats, in Mahalia’s case a stomping piano and a strong belting register. Miles did this with his quintet; James Brown did it with Maceo, Fred, Jimmy and the rest. More recently, consider LL Cool J and Cut Creator. The swing of the beat provides the earnest, incontestable resolution: Choose life. Diepiriye Kuku
Magnolia and more
Paul Thomas Anderson
Jason Robards, Julianne Moore, Tom Cruise, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Melora Walters
(New Line Cinema; US theatrical: 8 Dec 1999 (Limited release); 1999)
Director Paul Thomas Anderson, at 29, with Hard Eight and Boogie Nights already to his credit, was firmly established as an amazingly talented young filmmaker with technique to burn when he brought his audacious, overstuffed, messy, unapologetic, and impossibly confident vision of Magnolia to the screen in 1999. The film is a thickly-layered intersection of seemingly disconnected lives in a California that seems to be crashing at a very high speed, unknowingly, into an unmovable mass of coincidences.
Throughout, Anderson reaches for moments to express the almost inexpressible; the feelings that come with realizing the real terms of loss, with trying for a connection that’s so real and genuine that it almost can’t possibly exist. Early on, Jason Robards’ cancer-ridden Earl Partridge cries from his death bed that he can’t hold onto it all any longer, all of the immense regrets and immense amounts of love and feeling and the need to put it across to someone who will be there for you in spite of everything. And in a way, this was Anderson’s way of trying to come to terms and say all of it with a film.
To come close, he needed a three-hour epic that never stops whirring, bouncing non-stop among its sprawling cast who cushion their character’s loneliness with overflows of words. As the movie climbs towards its break point, with each story coming apart almost simultaneously, William H. Macy’s Quiz Kid Donnie Smith almost breaks down in a bar to Supertramp: “It’s an electrical charge that finds its way across the universe and it lands in your body, and your head…” He’s trying to make three strangers understand what it was like to be struck by lighting as a child but he could have just as easily been referring back to Magnolia.
That it goes over the top is an inseparable part of its appeal. The dialog can be clunky at times, with some single lines that feel like entire speeches, and the film’s open-hearted emotional pitch never lets up. It aims high and misses, of course, but it misses spectacularly and brilliantly. And its final achievement isn’t in the missing or even in the attempt, but in how its shortfalls show how incredibly far it dared to go. Like Anderson’s best films it doesn’t just fall apart or sputter out, it screams off the tracks in a fireball. Here, in the end, when the clouds finally explode, the LA sky just doesn’t rain but instead it pours frogs.
So often when we go to the movies we just hope that the filmmakers can give us something, anything, that rings true, or mad, or real, that we can hold onto. Perhaps this is because so many seem incapable of delivering on even our diminished expectations. The something that Anderson’s films give to us is beyond our wildest hopes, truly wide-screen in both its cinematic scope and in the emotions and truths that they sometimes clumsily, other times gracefully, chase after. He’s one of this generation’s finest filmmakers, taking liberally and nakedly from his touchstones at the service of his expansive vision; evolving, outpacing his contemporaries, still exploring his pure love of the form.
With Magnolia, Anderson faced down the pressure of outdoing Boogie Nights with a film even more massive, but one that drilled even closer to the human heart, that got more involved with its characters’ messy interiors while it distracted you with the noise of events outside. And one that was even more willing to come out and say that, no matter how far gone we can become, it’s only the connections that we choose to make with each other that can save us. Jon Langmead
The Cider House Rules
Tobey Maguire, Charlize Theron, Michael Caine, Erykah Badu, Delroy Lindo
(Miramax; US theatrical: 10 Dec 1999 (Limited release); 1999)
The Cider House Rules, the lush adaptation of John Irving’s novel of the same name, is the most tasteful movie ever made on the topic of orphans, abortion, and father-daughter incest.
This genteel, semi-Dickensian period piece, set in rural Maine during the Second World War, will make viewers want to go out and get the original novel, because it’s possible to glimpse, behind the uneven performances and the beautiful but too-obvious score by Rachel Portman, the outline of a fascinating story of moral choices.
But, as in too many movie adaptations of thoughtful novels, the subtleties get Hollywooded away, leaving only the heavy-handed symbolism and cringingly obvious dialogue. Consider, for instance, the moment when the wise and kind Dr. Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine), the head of an orphanage who also is an ether addict and abortion doctor, intones over the grave of a young woman who tried to give herself an abortion: “She died of secrecy. She died of ignorance.”
The movie deals with the question of abortion in a perhaps too-evenhanded way. It doesn’t hesitate to show Dr. Larch’s young assistant, Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire) disposing of aborted fetuses in an incinerator, nor his distaste at doing so. (He was born at the orphanage, and into this life.)
And when a gorgeous young unmarried couple, played by Paul Rudd and Charlize Theron, arrive at the orphanage for an abortion, their choice is implicitly called into question when Rudd, a serviceman, is later paralyzed from the waist down and thus unable to father any more children.
The movie ultimately comes down on the side of abortion rights, but not very courageously: After young Homer, who’s opposed to abortion, leaves the orphanage and ends up at an apple farm owned by Rudd’s family, one of the migrant apple-pickers is impregnated by her own father. Wells has a change of heart and helps end the young woman’s pregnancy – and who, but for a few pro-life fanatics, would not have done so in similar circumstances? The moral choice is hardly a choice at all.
There is a second choice in the movie that feels limp and unexamined: All along, Dr. Larch has told young Homer that he has a heart condition and is unfit for military service. But near the end of the movie, when Homer, and the audience, learn that this was Larch’s fabrication, designed to keep Homer out of the clutches of the local draft board and forever at the orphanage, Homer does little more than grin with gratitude.
But this was the Second World War, not Vietnam, and the moral choice could not have been clearer: Isn’t it likey that most young men of the time would have been furious at the deception, or at the very least conflicted?
There’s a moment of inadvertent comedy earlier in the movie when Tobey Maguire’s Homer Wells, describing what he thinks to be his heart ailment, says, in his typical expressionless and murmuring style, “I’m not supposed to get excited – no strain, no stress.”
It’s the most believable line of dialogue in the movie and, for that matter, in Maguire’s entire career. In Cider House Rules, not only do Michael Caine (who won a best supporting actor Oscar for this role), Delroy Lindo, and Charlize Theron all out-act him, even Paul Rudd does!
Maguire seems deeply depressed throughout this movie, even when he’s having a fling with the delectable Theron, while Rudd’s off fighting for his country. His acting style is perhaps unique in the history of the cinema: It’s utterly wooden, yet in a disturbingly limp kind of way. (Although he’s gone on to earn many millions as Spiderman, Maguire here and in his other roles most resembles another legendary cartoon character, Pinocchio, suspended somewhere between puppet and real human being.) In a movie filled with moral soft spots, his performance is the softest spot of all.
There isn’t much more to say about this rapidly rotting would-be classic except for this: Buy the book. Michael Antman
Topsy Turvy and more
Jim Broadbent, Ron Cook, Allan Corduner, Eleanor David, Shirley Henderson, Lesley Manville, Kevin McKidd, Martin Savage, Timothy Spall
(USA Films; US theatrical: 15 Dec 1999 (Limited release); 1999)
Topsy-Turvy is quite different than your garden variety musical biography film. Of course, director Mike Leigh—who trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and began his career in theatre—wouldn’t have it any other way. The Happy Go Lucky director helmed this look at a short phase in the long career of Gilbert and Sullivan back in 1999, and managed to create a compelling glimpse at both the nature of creative conflict and a vignette of British Victorian society.
Structured around the creation of The Mikado, Gilbert and Sullivan’s most popular and enduring comedic opera of the 19th century, Topsy-Turvy shows a highly successful and lucrative creative partnership in peril and disarray. Composer Sir Arthur Sullivan, suffering mightily from a kidney ailment and bed-ridden, is adamant about not continuing his work with librettist Sir William Gilbert.
Gilbert has concocted yet another improbable “topsy turvy” plot for their next opera following Princess Ida, and Sullivan is sick of the convention and wants nothing more to do with it. “It is impossible for me to do another piece of the character of those already written by Gilbert and myself,” said Sullivan. Richard D’Oyly Carte, the man who originally brought these two creative geniuses together and the manager of the Savoy Theatre—which was built explicitly for Gilbert & Sullivan operas—attempts to mediate.
In the end, it’s Gilbert’s wife who helps save the day by taking Gilbert, offended by Sullivan’s rebuff, to a showing of Japanese antiquities in Knightsbridge. As the film has it, a samurai sword falling off his office wall that he purchased at the exhibit gives Gilbert the idea for The Mikado. Of course, this is a theatrical device and an effective one for the film, but it’s patently untrue as the exhibition in question actually occurred well after work on The Mikado was underway.
Fresh with this new innovative plot, Gilbert is able to cajole Sullivan back into partnership. A good bit of the film is then spent detailing the development of the work and the roll-out of the production. So, from where we begin with the nugget of an idea, we are taken all the way through the development of a work—called an “industrial process” by Leigh—illuminating in no uncertain terms that any theatrical work is the result of massive effort by a large group of collaborators, not just the “artistic genius” who happened to write the words or the music.
Leigh acknowledged as much in a 1999 interview with The Guardian where he explained his ultimate motives in tackling the Gilbert & Sullivan subject matter: “I felt it would be a good thing to make a film about us, what we do, we who suffer and go to hell and back taking very seriously the job of making other people laugh… I just felt I wanted to turn the camera around on us and our problems. Though part of that are the creative problems of creative people.”
Topsy Turvy illustrates the growing conflict between high art and popular art that began brewing with more intensity in the 19th century as Industrial Age era city dwellers and growing ranks of the middle classes began demanding more popular comedic fare. It seems Sullivan would rather be regarded much like his contemporary, Richard Wagner; that is, considered a serious composer. Sullivan is tormented by the feeling that he is wasting his talent on popular art. On the other hand, Gilbert fully embraces the “popular”, knowing instinctively he can more effectively wrap clever skewering of Victorian mores into a witty, mass art form, and that’s far preferable to creating some rarified work for a small audience of elites.
Topsy Turvy seems a simple story on the face of it, but the film is packed with rich detail of the period as well as an engaging backstage look at the development of a popular masterpiece. Ultimately it also concerns issues of eternal concern to artists of all stripes: how to best communicate ideas to an audience; how to create something popular without “selling out”’ struggles in creative visions between partners and; that long divide between high and “low” art that Gilbert and Sullivan bridged better than anyone. Gilbert and Sullivan may indeed be the world’s first pop stars, as their works went on to be performed all over the world everyone from small community theatres to professional opera troupes, past and present. Sarah Zupko
Winona Ryder, Angelina Jolie, Whoopi Goldberg, Clea Duvall, Brittany Murphy, Jared Leto
(Columbia Tristar; US theatrical: 21 Dec 1999 (Limited release); 1999)
1999. The era of grunge is inching towards its demise, its icons and idols teetering or fallen. Generation X is about to succumb to Y2K, and the poster girl for 1990s quirk shines in one of her final major roles.
Winona Ryder, the pre-millennial queen of rebellious black dresses, scruffy hairdos and sardonic lip curls is Girl, Interrupted. Based on a true story, Girl, Interrupted is about Susanna Kaysen (Ryder), a young woman whose introspective nature and self-doubt don’t fit into the expectations of her 1967 middle class culture. On the precipice of the late 1960s rebellion but without access to the counterculture that would later burn up America, 1967 suburbia feels hollow and hypocritical to the likes of Susanna.
Think of the world of 1967’s The Graduate. Dustin Hoffman’s uncertainty after graduation leads him to sleep with an older woman and then run off with her daughter. Susanna Kaysen’s self-doubt at her high school graduation leads her to wash down a bottle of aspirin with a bottle of vodka.
Susanna’s attempted suicide embarrasses her family, who then ship her off to a respectable asylum where people of means go to “rest for two weeks,” as her doctor tells her. The asylum is her home for the next year. She is diagnosed with “borderline personality disorder;” the 1960s definition for this disorder includes uncertainty about goals, a contentious personality, and other traits that by the 1990s we considered typical of adolescents across the board.
There she encounters women with a hodgepodge of issues – Elizabeth Moss, now of Mad Men fame, as a burn victim trapped in her childhood, Brittany Murphy, later one of the Sin City hotties, as a deluded girl obsessed with chicken (yes, chicken), and a flurry of women struggling with anorexia, Tourette’s and lesbianism. And of course, in her Oscar-winning role as the ward’s resident sociopath, Angelina Jolie.
Oh, Angelina, all sultry lips and wild antics and sexy manipulations. This is America’s definitive introduction to the woman who would captivate the world for the beginning of this century. Her role on the screen is appropriate – an outsized personality too large for the institutions that hold her. She is fully committed to living life on her own terms. In the film, this adds up to fabulous gestures and cheap tricks to deny the institutions’ claim on her soul. In the tabloids culture of the 2000s, this means high-profile affairs and media speculation about her tattoos. But that’s all the norm – she cemented her role in celebrity royalty as the matriarch of America’s most beautiful and diverse family and a passionate representative of justice across the world, to which her film career is secondary.
Girl, Interrupted marks a changing of the guards. Angelina wins an Oscar for best supporting actress, burning Winona off the screen and into history. Only two years later, in 2001, Winona is a forgotten starlet of yore caught in a pathetic attempt at shoplifting, a deed that overshadows a decade of being every misunderstood teenaged girl’s idol. The same year, Angelina kills it as Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and then becomes a UN Goodwill Ambassador. Winona goes on to be an extra on shows like Friends, where Jennifer Aniston outshines her. We all know how Angelina outshone Jennifer and became the fabulous mother of six Jolie-Pitt children.
Girl, Interrupted is essentially a coming-of-age tale of a young woman who attempts to find her place – against or within the institutions of the day. Kaysen eventually chooses to work within the institution rather than fight it, whereas Jolie’s character Lisa fights till the end. Even though Ryder represented teenage rebellion and resentment for a decade, we all know who wins out in the new millennium. Anita Schillhorn
Man on the Moon
Jim Carrey, Courtney Love, Paul Giametti, Danny DeVito
(Universal; US theatrical: 22 Dec 1999 (General release); 1999)
Andy Kaufman’s cancer had gotten to the point that traditional treatment would no longer be worth it. So there he was in the Philippines, at a “healer”‘s shanty. Out of the corner of his eye, the healer’s trick is revealed and Andy smiles wryly. All of life is a gag. At his most serious moment, there was damn good reason to smile.
Man on the Moon came at an important time for a number of its participants. First and foremost, the role of Andy Kaufmann, coveted by Jim Carey, was the physical comedian’s chance to show that he was capable of more than slapstick. In many ways he accomplished this with Man on the Moon. Secondly, REM was at risk of becoming a relic when they were tapped to do the soundtrack. Finally, resurrected was the man himself; to a generation of college students Kaufman was nothing more than the funny talking mechanic from television’s Taxi. One of our greatest comedic geniuses was nearly lost to us. Man on the Moon saved him.
Released in 1999, Director Milos Forman seemed to play loose and fast with Jim Carrey who had spent months in character. His reincarnation of perhaps America’s best Elvis impersonator was eerie. While a great deal of time was given to the love angle with a less than adequate performance by Courtney Love, the real beauty and complexity of the film was delivered by lounge singer “ Tony Clifton”. Alternately portrayed by Carrey and sidekick Bob Zmuda, Andy’s partner in crime (a revelatory performance by Paul Giamatti) it was Clifton who genuinely made performance out of life. His appearance at a filming of Taxi is legendary. That Kaufman refused to acknowledge Clifton as his own – and to be fair, there is still some disagreement of this fact- made his post modern point; that identity and staging in life are all fluid.
At the apex of his fame, Kaufman suffered what we have gone on to see people like Tom Green or Ashton Kutcher experience. If the premise of your gag is to catch a real reaction in real time, fame can become an unconquerable barrier. As this became more apparent to Kaufman, his antics became more extreme, feuding with professional wrestlers and staging wrestling matches with women on his own. While we look back and acknowledge his act as groundbreaking, it was born out of the frustration that being famous brought. He could no longer play the angles he once had.
It’s like that Andy would have taken humor in the fact that the movie won a series of awards (a Golden Globe for Carrey) and was hailed as the “film of the year” but still lost money. The line between successful and unsuccessful would be just as blurry as every other line in Kaufman’s life. The cost of all of this reality blending is most evident in the film when Andy tries to tell his family and friends that he is dying. Like the crowd in the famous children’s parable The Boy Who Cried Wolf, his friends/audience were incredulous. If this struck the viewer as sad, then they have too missed the point. That none of these people could be sure may well have been Kaufman’s greatest accomplishment.
Kaufman was a carnival huckster with a brilliant vision of expanding the “act”. Stages, film screens etc were no longer the only place you might experience theater. In 1999, we were reminded that it was not safe to assume anything. Man on the Moon introduced a generation of “Latka” fans to Andy Kaufman and, in doing so, ensured that his legend would live on. Joseph Carver
Snow Falling on Cedars and more
Snow Falling on Cedars
Ethan Hawke, James Cromwell, Richard Jenkins, Sam Shepherd, James Rebhorn, Max Von Sydow, Youki Kudoh, Rick Yune
(Universal; US theatrical: 22 Dec 1999 (General release); 1999)
Based on David Guterson’s 1995 novel, Snow Falling on Cedars is richly layered, both thematically and visually. Indeed, the setting, the fictional San Piedro Island in the Pacific Northwest, is almost a character unto itself. Nominated for multiple awards for its cinematography, Snow Falling on Cedars intersperses that wintery titular image with lush verdant forests, strawberry fields, and stony beaches pounded by churning surf. It’s visually stunning, to be sure. But perhaps more stunning looking back on it 10 years later is the almost eerie prescience of its storytelling. Intertwining a love story and murder mystery during and immediately after World War II, Snow Falling on Cedars is a not subtle lesson on racism under the guise of nationalism and national security. In 1999, it seemed a timely warning. In 2009, it seems sadly prophetic.
Set in 1950, local fisherman Karl Heine is found tangled in his fishing nets in a bay, his skull crushed. Soon after, his childhood friend, Kazuo Miyamoto (Rick Yune), is arrested and charged with the crime. Ishmael Chambers (Ethan Hawke) is a reporter covering the trial and the childhood love of the defendant’s wife, Hatsue (Youki Kudoh). The second plot involves Ishmael’s memories of his and Hatsue’s failed romance. The link between the past and present stories is more than just the coincidence that Ishmael is reporting on the trial of a former lover’s husband: racism is a driving force behind Kazuo’s trial, just as it was the wedge that divided Hatsue and Ishmael several years earlier.
This racism, however, is disguised as a fierce U.S.-American nationalism, which climaxed after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 and is still palpable in the San Piedro Island community at the time of the trial. Witness testimony and the prosecutions questions, even the judge’s instructions to the jury, are all ultimately informed by the collective psychological trauma of the Pearl Harbor bombing and the subsequent reduction of all Japanese to enemy status.
The coroner connects Karl Heine’s head wound to the Japanese martial art of Kendo (which he learned about fighting the Japanese in the war) and testifies that he told the police to “look for a Jap.” Prosecutor Alvin Hooks (James Rebhorn), after repeated references to Pearl Harbor, appeals to the jury to “consider [Kazuo’s] face—the truth is self-evident in him.” Kazuo’s defense attorney, Nels Gudmunsson (Max Von Sydow) recognizes this dual appeal to nationalism and racism, pointing out that it works both ways: he notes that Kazuo lied in his original interview with the police because he assumed (correctly, as it turns out) that he could not trust the whites to treat him fairly.
While many, if not all, of the secondary characters in Snow Falling on Cedars are defined as clearly racist (like the coroner) or not (Nels Gudmunsson), Ishmael complicates the issue. He is both a victim of racism (in that he’s rejected by Hatsue because he is white, or more specifically, because he is not Japanese) as well as a perpetrator of it: In the agony of rejection, and in an attempt to regain a wholeness of identity through obliterating hers, Ishmael mutters to himself and reduces Hatsue to a single racist and sexist epithet, “Fucking Jap bitch.” Though it’s obvious as he covers the trial that he still loves and longs for her, the memory of that moment illustrates how quickly and how easily one can fall into the trappings of conditioned racism.
Released within a few years of the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, Snow Falling on Cedars spoke to mounting U.S. fears of both domestic terrorism and the threat of international terrorist acts within U.S. borders. Of course, in less than two years, those fears would be realized on 9/11. With the resulting fear and surging nationalism, the Patriot Act and domestic detention policies, the Japanese internment camps of World War II seem both far away and so close. Renee Scolaro Mora
The Talented Mr. Ripley
Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Cate Blanchett, Phillip Seymour Hoffman
(Miramax; US theatrical: 25 Dec 1999 (General release); 1999)
There is a sly ambiguous little comment in a brief almost insignificant scene about half-hour into this film that neatly summarizes the ambiguity of Tom Ripley’s chameleon sexuality and character. Gwyneth Paltrow, as Marge Sherwood, is out grocery shopping and buys some fruit from a rather plain-looking young Italian girl. The young shop girl collects various fruits for her and then asks casually in Italian ‘and figs as you always both want.’
Now the word ‘figia’ in Italian has many layers of meaning; it can also be used as slang for ‘chick’ and a woman’s vagina. Ah, the slippery uncertainties of a foreign language. Is the shop-girl quietly snubbing Marge for failing to see Dickie Greenleaf, (played by Jude Law) Marge’s rich handsome playboy boy friend, unfaithfulness? Or is she merely venting her own frustration in an underhanded manner; after all she is the other woman.
The idea that language is unstable is very much a post-modern conceit as is the notion that the self is fluid and plastic and rejects the old-fashioned idea of a stable character or ego. Anthony Mingella’s screenplay adoption of Patricia Highsmith’s novel of the same name is founded on this very hip post-modern idea.
Minghella directed The Talented Mr. Ripley right after his huge success with The English Patient in 1996. Minghella’s problem in The English Patient was how to transform the novel’s beautiful poetic and evocative prose and challenging plot by the Canadian poet and writer Michael Ondaatje on to the big screen. In The Talented Mr. Ripley Mingella’s problem was how to transform Highsmith’s sparse tight minimalist prose and pacing into a visual narrative. He succeeds first by giving us a visual feast.
Italy in the late ‘50s is the backdrop and there are some stunning shots of landscapes; curved ancient roads, cobble stones and olive covered hills as well as postcard perfect and beautiful frames of Rome-the ancient Roman Forum at sunset for example and Venice’s majestic baroque masterpiece Chiesa Della Salute is set squarely behind Tom Ripley in the final frames of the movie. He also delineates step by step the creepy transformation of Tom Ripley played by Matt Damon from plain nerdy New York washroom attendant and sometime piano player into a murderous and covetous and sexually ambiguous sociopath.
Ripley is extraordinarily manipulative—you could say it is his ‘talent’—and he sets out to deliberately ingratiate himself on Marge and Dickie. Mr. Greenleaf, Dickie’s father, has sent him to Italy to check up on his son after mistaking Tom Ripley as a Princeton man because he is wearing a Princeton jacket borrowed to wear at a piano recital. In Italy both Marge and Dickie are also busy reinventing themselves. Marge is playing at writing a novel and Dickie has discovered the jazz of the ‘50s. He pursues playing the saxophone and women with almost the same zeal being far from the imposing discipline of his rich ship-magnate father.
They are both young, beautiful, come from rich entrepreneurial families and even though Dickie is a rake and louche, in love. Tom Ripley is the opposite. Socially clumsy and a loner, he arrives in sunny Italy, as one of the characters notes, with one corduroy jacket and few shirts. He is not socially connected to anyone but everyone nevertheless assumes at first he comes from good breeding (the Princeton scam again) and Dickie falls for his contrived taste in jazz. Tom Ripley is an Iago like character. He schemes by drawing people into his confidence and without qualms slips back and forth between pretending to be Dickie Greenleaf—who he murdered in a fit of rage—and Tom Ripley. His motivation at first seems to be a jumble of desires. He covets Dickie’s clothes and jewelry as well as clearly being drawn to him sexually.
After the murder, Ripley plays a cat and mouse game in terms of identity as he eludes the police and Dickie’s girlfriend questions about Dickie’s disappearance and murder. Minghella makes him appear to be a corrupted version of Jay Gatsby.
Then the near the end of the movie it seems Ripley is drawn to the sensitive and ethereal world of renaissance music and 19th century opera. After escaping the clutches of the Italian police and Mr. Greenleaf’s inquiries about his son, Ripley announces to his new lover Peter Smith-Kingsley, ‘that is better to be a fake somebody, than a real nobody’ although at this point Ripley himself at times no longer has any idea who he really is and what he is doing.
Trapped on board a ship to Greece by two people who know him under different alias he must murder again-this time his new lover- to protect his hard won status and identity. Unlike in The Great Gatsby, were we see purity behind the desire for reinvention, Tom Ripley’s desire for reinvention is self-serving. ‘Pure’ love or the nobility of his cause does not motivate him but instead greed, an unbearable desire to be free of the hot push and servitude of being classless in America, and his own unrecognized sexual confusion make Tom Ripley a creepy loathsome character. In short, to borrow a phrase from current recession media language, the talented Mr. Ripley at his core turns out to be a Ponzi character. Carmelo Militano
Titus and more
Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange, Alan Cumming, Colm Feore, James Frain, Laura Fraser, Harry J. Lennix, Angus MacFadyen, Matthew Rhys, Jonathan Rhys Meyers
(Fox Searchlight; US theatrical: 26 Dec 1999 (General release); 1999)
The Imperial Rome of Julie Taymor’s flamboyant and delightfully innovative adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus is a crazed mishmash of historical anachronisms, its Roman heads of state (and their families) warring amidst Weimar Republic architecture, 1920s swing music and 1970s glam-rock fashions. It is history as distilled into a pure, amorphous representation of The Past, reality now indistinguishable from the distorted carnival mirror images that pop culture—and cinema in particular—has rendered it through our eyes.
Opening with a chaotic view of a modern day child engaged in a violent war game with his toy soldiers, just before a live Roman warrior bursts through his walls and carries him off into the story proper, and concluding with the action in play’s Grand Guignol climax suddenly frozen to reveal its staging in front of a theatrical audience, Titus is less about the insane carnage of the story itself (based on what is often cited as Shakespeare’s bloodiest play, if also one of his least respected) than it is about the ways in which we have come to view both violence and history through the gratifyingly aestheticized prism of popular entertainment.
With well-established theatrical roots, having previously directed the beloved Lion King musical on the Broadway stage, Taymor drives Shakespeare’s narrative with a flurry of sound and imagery that is anything but stagy or prosaic. The story is the typically Shakespearian revenge fantasy amped up to eleven, with Roman general Titus Andronicus (Anthony Hopkins) slaying the eldest son of Goth Queen Tamora (Jessica Lange) in a ritual triumphant sacrifice, setting off a mercilessly gory back and forth between the two families after the now-vengeful Tamora marries newly appointed Emperor Saturninus (Alan Cumming).
Rape, cannibalism, disembowelments and too many severed limbs to count—Titus is a horror show projected onto an ornate yet robust canvas; most memorable for a barrage of outlandishly indelible images: a haunting slo-mo reveal of Titus’ daughter, freshly deflowered and mutilated by her father’s enemies, tree branches substituting her hands and blood pouring from her mouth in place of her absent tongue; a pool house orgy interrupted by a deluge of enemy arrows descending through an open ceiling; the gleeful malice in Hopkins’ face as he serves his rival a bloody meat pie made out of the flesh of her own sons; Lange’s ice cold stare directly into the camera as she delivers her devious monologue.
Titus is meticulously crafted right down to its brilliant meta-casting, with Hopkins bookending the decade he began as the iconic Hannibal Lector with another character that descends into a palpably Lectorian bloodthirsty mania. Likewise, find Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, then fresh off of playing a Bowie prototype in Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine, here evoking the same seductively pan-sexual danger that has been his trademark ever since, and Alan Cumming a winking, effete caricature of his own hipster celebrity status.
Titus is a movie about archetypes and staffed with the same, a cheerful bloodbath about violence as a spectator sport culminating in the finally-hopeful image of an innocent child rescued by the viewers’ avatar within the film. Prescient in its anticipation of the current decade’s steady stream of films—from A Knight’s Tale to Shrek to Moulin Rouge to Marie Antoinette to Taymor’s own Across the Universe—that compress history into knowing pop representations of itself, Titus is far from reverent, but it is nevertheless the perfect cinematic Shakespeare adaptation for a generation saturated in its own media savvy. Jer Fairall
Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.
Fred A. Leuchter, David Irving, Ernst Zündel
(Channel 4 Films; US theatrical: 29 Dec 1999; 1999)
“The Holocaust is the central mystery of the 20th century. The mystery isn’t, ‘Did it happen?’ but ‘How could it possibly happen?’ And by looking at someone like Leuchter, maybe we can learn something about that.”- Errol Morris
Mr. Death courted controversy for its sympathetic portrayal of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., an execution specialist whose infamous Leuchter Report, used in the defense trial of German Neo-Nazi Ernst Zundel, set out to prove that the gas chambers at Auschwitz never existed. Yet, Morris’s film is less a defense of Leuchter’s ideology and methodology than an examination of his cultural psychology, how a man so inexorably linked with death could come to defy the world’s greatest atrocity narrative.
Leuchter considers his credentials in the capital punishment industry to be of humanitarian intent, a tenuous assertion at best. However, he participates in some pretty incredible leaps of faith to arrive at his report’s conclusions. His refusal to consider, or even consult, the historical record in his examination of Nazi atrocities seems to betray an inherent disbelief in empirical study in favor of his own personal expertise.
Leuchter’s self-confidence arises from a lifelong career as the go-to-guy for reparation of state execution devices. After making a name for himself building the modern model for the electric chair, he soon found himself contracted for jobs in other areas of execution that he was admittedly not qualified for. “Simply because I’m capable of building an electric chair doesn’t mean I’m capable of building a lethal injection machine. They’re two completely different concepts,” Leuchter states at one point in Mr. Death, clearly unable to apply this same logic towards his qualifications for testing ruins and artifacts.
Though he claims not to be an anti-Semite, Leuchter took amicable company with white supremacists, published himself proudly in hate journals, and presented a callously insensitive attitude towards the families affected by his “revelations”. His disavowal of the gas chambers has less to do the pernicious implications than the practical limitations of its transaction. “Why not just shoot them…or blow them up,” he asks at one point in the film. “It’d be cheaper”.
Leuchter’s question illustrates how massively ignorant he is of the sociopolitical circumstances of the holocaust, which is crucial to understanding the culture of denial that grew out of it and how genocide can continue unrestricted in a post-holocaust world. The camps were themselves a denial, a privately fostered state secret that induced state subsidies (including contracts to American corporate partners like IBM) to simultaneously get rid of unwanted populations and modernize the technological economy of a thoroughly militarized state. Another reason often given (though not likely believed) for the expenditures was that the death camps were thought to be a more humane method of execution.
Thus, Mr. Death is not just about a marginal subculture, but about America’s own uncomfortable connections to the culture of denial and state killing. After all, the only reason Leuchter was called by Zundel’s defense was because the U.S. is the only industrial country left with functioning gas chambers (though they haven’t been used since 1999, the same year Mr. Death was released). The unspoken subtext of the film asks; can a government really take away any one’s life and retain that person’s dignity, as Leuchter claims? If we’ve relied on opportunistic bureaucrats like Fred Leuchter to design our instruments of death, can we be sure our humane methods of execution are reliable? And what’s the point of building elaborate devices to perform morally reprehensible acts on unwanted populations when we could just lock them up in jail? As Leuchter says, it’d be cheaper.
Late into the first decade of the 21st century, pseudoscience still reigns over the hearts and minds of both the right (in the form of creation science) and the left (in the form of the 9/11 truth conspiracists). Because of a distrust in all established or imagined orthodoxies, our relationship with history, particularly current and ongoing history, is amorphous and vague. It allows us our own denials, of participation in atrocity, or complicity in crisis, for instance. Telejournalism’s pressures to be balanced allow for the creation of new truths to be birthed out of denials, making empirical data and the historical record largely irrelevant. Our construction of reality is regularly shaped by carefully-placed omissions, retractions, and qualifications, the corpses of the slaughtered often dragged out of their graves by a slide of the tongue against the teeth.
Despite all this, it is exactly Leuchter’s defense of his and Zundel’s and Morris’s freedom to speak that remains at the moral core of Mr. Death. Leuchter argues in the film what shocked him at Auschwitz was not what he found, but what he didn’t find. Similarly, the free speech at issue in Mr. Death rests not only with the voices that we hear, but with those that we don’t hear—the dead, whose story deserves much more responsible narrators than Leuchter, but who were never given a chance to speak for themselves. And Morris’s film would be doing them a great disservice if it didn’t grant even a despicable old man like Leuchter a chance to do just that. Timothy Gabriele