Part 3: The Sixth Sense to Fight Club (August - October 1999)

[24 March 2009]

By PopMatters Staff

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Better Than Chocolate

Director: Anne Wheeler
Cast: Wendy Crewson, Karyn Dwyer, Christina Cox, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Marya Delver, Kevin Mundy, Tony Nappo

(Trimark Pictures; US theatrical: 6 Aug 1999; 1999)

Better Than Chocolate Director: Anne Wheeler

To the average Canadian movie-goer, let’s call him Joe Hockey Player, I imagine that the phrase “Canadian film” suggests only National Film Board documentaries about maple syrup production, or the strange art house films discovered by an insomniac channel surfer at 3 a.m. While I value many NFB productions, and I even have a penchant for the strange and arty, I am surprised when a Canadian film—by Canadians, about Canadians—becomes popular, especially when it’s popular at home. Why are Canadians still surprised by our own success when film after film suggests we can produce both entertaining and critically praised films? Don McKellar’s Last Night (1998), Emile Gaudreault’s Mambo Italiano (2003) and Sarah Polley’s Away From Her (2006) come readily to mind.

Anne Wheeler’s romantic comedy Better Than Chocolate was the first Canadian film I saw as a teenager that struck me as relevant and contemporary without sacrificing its northern quirkiness. In 1999, it placed 31st in the Hollywood Reporter’s list of the top 100 independent films of that year. The film’s story line tackles issues of sexuality, censorship, and inclusion (before Canada’s same-sex marriage laws made a perceived openness to sexuality one of our cultural exports.) While the movie has become a classic of lesbian cinema, it appeals to viewers across orientations because of its emphasis on disengaging fear from sexuality.

Written by Peggy Thompson, the movie centres on Maggie (Karyn Dwyer), a young lesbian in Vancouver, and her relationship with a drifter/artist named Kim (Christina Cox). Their affair is all bliss until Maggie’s mother and brother show up (both of whom don’t know that Maggie’s gay.) Much of the comedy stems from Maggie’s mother (played by the veteran Wendy Crewson) and the ways in which her suburban, soccer mom sensibility contrasts with Maggie and friends’ expressive sexuality. Other characters include Frances (played by actor, playwright and novelist Ann-Marie MacDonald), owner of the lesbian bookstore where Maggie works, and Judy (Peter Outerbridge), the transexual woman in love with Frances.

Some might argue that the film’s coming out theme had already been well-tread even before the turn of the century. But as the success of Milk attests, we are still interested in producing and watching films that discuss the role of sexuality in public and social life. Wheeler’s execution of Thompson’s script makes Better Than Chocolate a refreshing coming-out tale since it’s not just the queers coming out of the closet. As Maggie’s straight brother learns, “boys like toys, too.” And speaking of toys, the scene when Crewson’s uptight character discovers a veritable warehouse of vibrators under her bed and finally learns to let loose is worth the rental fee alone.

Better Than Chocolate reminds us in the time of the personal-is-political, that sex, like the proverbial box of mixed chocolates, provides one of life’s sweet and diverse delights. Kevin Shaw

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The Iron Giant

Director: Brad Bird
Cast: Eli Marienthal, Jennifer Aniston, Harry Connick Jr., Vin Diesel, Christopher McDonald, John Mahoney

(Warner Brothers; US theatrical: 6 Aug 1999; 1999)

Official Site

The Iron Giant Director: Brad Bird

Before being catapulted into the top tier of American cartooning through the massive successes of his ace pair of family fare for Disney/Pixar, 2004’s The Incredibles and 2007’s brilliant Ratatouille, director Brad Bird was famous only amongst an elite cult of animated film geeks who reveled in the nuggets of his impressive albeit countercultural resume. A resume that included the development of The Simpsons from minute-long shorts on the original Tracey Ullman Show on Fox to what would become the longest half-hour sitcom in TV history, writing, directed and producing the beloved “Family Dog” episode on Steven Spielberg’s short-lived 1980s NBC series Amazing Stories, working on the woefully out-of-print 1981 animated Olympiad parody Animalympics, and an early stint at Disney, where he worked on The Fox and the Hound.
However, it wasn’t until 1999 did Bird first get his beak wet as a major film director with the release of his brilliant Atomic Age era feature The Iron Giant.  Anyone who caught the nuanced (albeit updated) references of late 50s/early 60s culture in either The Incredibles or Ratatouille can clearly see Bird’s unequivocal fascination with that section of American history, and The Iron Giant serves as his eloquently mushy love letter to those early days of his youth when rock ‘n’ roll was in its infancy, every town square had an appliance store and a malt shop, and the impending threat of World War III with the Soviet Union was a frantic decision away from reality.

Perfectly set against the backdrop of Cold War America, where the art of science fiction enjoyed its first big boom by playing up on the public fear of a possible invasion, the story itself is loosely based on poet Ted Hughes’s 1968 masterwork The Iron Man. However, the film more closely resembles a retro spin on the inherent concept of E.T., replacing a cuddly, organic extraterrestrial with a gigantic metallic robot (whose origins are never fully explained in the film) who crash-lands on Earth and is discovered by young Hogarth Hughes, who befriends the robot and hides him away in a local beatnik’s metal scrapyard.

That is, however, until a meddling federal agent comes into town with all of his McCarthyist paranoia about intergalactic warfare propelled by the Russians’ launching of Sputnik, thus provoking a witch hunt on the gentle giant that ends in a nuclear standoff threatening the small Maine town where the film is based. When The Iron Giant hit theaters at the tail end of the summer of 1999, it was lavished with the kind of critical praise seldom seen or heard of with regards to a children’s animated feature, having enjoyed a rare 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and was nominated for several awards, including the coveted Hugo.

Unfortunately, thanks to the poor choice of a release date and a terribly mismanaged promotional campaign on the part of Warner Bros., The Iron Giant tanked at the box office, though it remains a cult classic to this day for animation geeks. Hopefully, in the advent of Bird’s back-to-back successes with The Incredibles and Ratatouille, more people wallowing in the mainstream will revisit The Iron Giant and appreciate it for the classic piece of animated film it is. Ron Hart

The Sixth Sense and more

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The Sixth Sense

Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Cast: Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, Toni Collette, Olivia Williams, Donnie Wahlberg, Glenn Fitzgerald

(Buena Vista Pictures; US theatrical: 6 Aug 1999; 1999)

The Sixth Sense Director: M. Night Shyamalan

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away—let’s call it 1999—M. Night Shyamalan was a budding talent in film—not a punchline synonymous with bloated self-parody (see: Lady in the Water, The Happening). His 1998 effort Wide Awake, the story of a fifth-grader inspired by his grandfather’s death to seek answers from God, had generated neither the commercial triumph nor critical buzz to hint at what was to come. And so, to look back with the benefit of hindsight at the film that suddenly made Shyamalan a household name—the box office figures! the six Oscar nominations! the canonization of “I can see dead people” among unforgettable movie quotes!—is to wonder, What happened?
But it’s also to acknowledge that it wasn’t always this way. The Sixth Sense was the coming of age of a director confident in his tone and his actors, both aspects moody and understated, as the film hurtles towards a climax as inevitable as it is shocking. There is nothing new, of course, about the use of children as supernatural gateways in film; The Shining, Poltergeist, and The Exorcist are only the most famous examples. But Haley Joel Osment gives the sort of convincing, nuanced performance rare for so young an actor, capturing skillfully the distinctly childlike fear and insecurity that plagues Cole Sear’s character. He is not like other children, he tells us: he sees dead people, and these bloody apparitions seem to haunt the boy at every corner, giving the film its misleading horror label. (Michael Cera, in an interesting bit of trivia, gave an unsuccessful first audition for this role, for which Osment garnered an Oscar nomination at 11 years old.)
Shyamalan constructs this quietly unnerving atmosphere, and at the center he places Cole’s brooding interactions with Dr. Malcolm Crowe, a child psychologist whose determination to help Cole is fraught with painful irony, given that he can scarcely understand his own problems. Why, for example, has communication with his wife become so strained? We see Crowe get shot early in the film by a former patient who felt betrayed by his help; with Cole, eerily reminiscent of that patient, the psychologist is determined not to repeat his mistakes. Shyamalan’s choice of Bruce Willis for this role is perhaps inadvertently wise. The actor “usually plays his characters flat and matter of fact,” noted Roger Ebert in his 1999 review; “Here there is a poignancy in his bewilderment.” It’s true: Crowe’s bafflement throughout the film is ours, too; and we share his ultimate shock and comprehension.
I write now with the assumption that you have seen the film: spoilers follow, because spoilers are what give the script its meaning and its depth. Dr. Crowe is not what he appears, and neither is The Sixth Sense. Considered by some one of four horror films ever to receive a Best Picture nomination, this is only a horror film in the absolute loosest sense of the term. Its chief tool is suspense more than violence, and its climax pulses not with terror but drama.
And speaking of depth, watch the film a second time and you’ll swear there never was anything to spoil. “I see dead people,” announces Cole; cue the close-up on Crowe. And then: “They only see what they want to see. They don’t know they’re dead.” You wonder how anyone (and everyone) could miss the hint.
Yes, that’s what makes the film work: the twist never feels like a cop-out because it’s entrenched from the beginning—Crowe’s telling lack of interaction with anyone besides Cole, his puzzling inability to open that basement door, even his unchanging outfit. And the patterns!—cold temperatures, representing anger; bright red, dousing with unanticipated relevance objects “in the real world that have been tainted by the other world.” It’s all quite clever. Too clever?
Shyamalan takes a unique delight in his own cleverness. The flashbacks at the end—as if he doesn’t trust the viewer to go back and put the pieces together—suggest a need to be smarter than his audience, and smarter than his character. And the DVD’s special features go further, providing for you a “Rules and Clues” segment, even an admission that the filmmaker was initially loathe to include that close-up of Dr. Crowe: wasn’t it too obvious? Can you take that, viewer!? He’s mocking you!
Perhaps this is the clue to Shyamalan’s downfall: the brilliance of The Sixth Sense cemented the filmmaker’s ego and self-importance; and with schlock like The Happening, he only sees what he wants to see: another masterpiece. The last laugh is ours. But as critics and film fans alike rush to declare his irrelevance, we’d be remiss not to recognize The Sixth Sense as an essential relic from a millennium past. Once, he was the one mocking us—and with a film as well-crafted as this, I’ll be damned if he didn’t earn the right. Zach Schonfeld

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Director: Frank Oz
Cast: Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, Heather Graham, Terence Stamp

(Universal Pictures; US theatrical: 13 Aug 1999; 1999)

Official Site

Bowfinger Director: Frank Oz

Frank Oz and Steve Martin’s Bowfinger opens with surprising melancholy for a madcap comedy.  The camera pans across the shabby interior of Bowfinger International Pictures as its one permanent employee, Bobby Bowfinger (Martin), reads through a script, forlorn answering machine messages playing in the background.

Oz can afford to begin with such an easy pace because Bowfinger, written by Martin, turns out to have supreme confidence, unfolding with clear comic logic. We’re introduced to Bowfinger’s group of losers and hangers-on as he pitches them on Chubby Rain, a science-fiction screenplay written by his accountant (“and part-time receptionist”) that he sees, if he squints, as their last great chance to make a movie. Someday, Martin waxes to his audience, the Fed-Ex truck will stop in front of Bowfinger International Pictures and bring them important scripts and offers. Their desperation is funny, yes, but also immediately recognizable, and kind of touching.

The film brings us up to speed with paranoid action star Kit Ramsey (Eddie Murphy) just as efficiently: his first scene is a fiery knockout, with Murphy delivering bravura rapid-fire rants about catchphrases and racial suspicions. Ramsey and Bowfinger will intersect because the misbegotten Chubby Rain needs a star. Bowfinger, desperate to offer hope to his friends as well as himself, finds an inventive solution: he and the crew will film around Ramsey without his knowledge and insert his six key scenes into their sci-fi spectacular.

Back in 1999, it was easy to overlook Bowfinger. It came out during a then-record-grossing summer movie season, a minor hit amidst a Star Wars prequel, an Austin Powers sequel, The Sixth Sense, Blair Witch, and so on, and by year’s end it would be lost among the year’s serious, ambitious triumphs. But with the added ten years of perspective, it’s easier to see what a terrific comedy it is.

On a technical level, it is polished and surehanded, with fine performances all around. Murphy in particular, playing both Kit and his nerdy, sweet-natured lookalike brother Jiff (employed for much-needed close-ups), has never been better. Martin’s screenplay supplies affectionate but clear-headed jabs at Hollywood, and the film actually offers some observations on the order of those so recently celebrated in Tropic Thunder: at one point, Kit Ramsey complains that he won’t win an Oscar until he plays a “retarded slave,” and a pre-comeback Robert Downey Jr. even puts in a brief, droll appearance as a studio executive.

Beyond the laughs, the film is surprisingly heartfelt. When Chubby Rain is eventually screened in all of its cut-rate glory, the shots of its beaming cast and crew are touchingly reminiscent of the closing of Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. Bowfinger International Pictures is rewarded—via Fed Ex!—with an offer to make a movie in Taiwan “starring Kit Ramsey’s brother.” Our brief glimpse at this film—a hilariously cheap kung fu adventure called Fake Purse Ninjas—takes Bowfinger out on a splendid high note. Coming from 1999, at the end of the mid-nineties indie movie boom, this pure childlike glee in moviemaking feels especially infectious. I laugh at the end of Bowfinger not just because Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy are punching through a low-budget exploitation movie, but because the film makes me genuinely happy for their characters; this is exactly what Bobby Bowfinger, Jiff Ramsey, and company want to be doing.

I’d hope the same could be said of the film’s major players, who all hit simultaneous comedy peaks they have yet to match since. Since the release of Bowfinger, Frank Oz has made two comedies that don’t work; Eddie Murphy has continued his career-long trend of working with the hackiest, least challenging comedy directors-for-hire available; and Steve Martin has starred in some of the worst and most profitable movies of his career, appealing primarily to undemanding family audiences.

Maybe Oz, Martin, and Murphy haven’t since equaled Bowfinger because this kind of broad, star-driven studio comedy seems slightly outmoded now—older comic stars take aim for the family audience, while the Ferrell/Stiller/Apatow model dictates, not unwisely, that stars should bring along plenty of scene-stealing, improvising back-up. But even ten years later, Bowfinger‘s old-fashioned farcical craftsmanship still gives me new-millennial hope that Martin, Murphy, or Oz—or Dan Akroyd or Chevy Chase or Harold Ramis, for that matter—could make a great comedy again. Jesse Hassenger

East is East and more

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East Is East

Director: Damien O’Donnell
Cast: Om Puri, Linda Bassett, Jordan Routledge

(Miramax; 1999)

East Is East Director: Damien O’Donnell

Even if it has been overshadowed by another comedy about the British Asian experience (you may have seen it—it involves soccer), East Is East is a whimsical, moving and hilarious film.

East Is East follows the familial dramas of the mixed-race Khan clan in 1970s Salford, England.  These dramas include three arranged marriages, a painfully late circumcision and any number of minor rebellions.  Scripted by Ayub Khan-Din, a Lancashire boy himself, from his own stage play, it’s a riotous and vibrant exploration of cultures clashing within the one family unit.

The patriarch, George “Genghis” Khan, is a Pakistani fish-and-chip shop owner who left his first wife in the old country and married a fiery Englishwoman as well.  This decision comes back to haunt him in many ways.  Despite George’s stubborn resistance to many of his new homeland’s customs, he is cursed with a new generation who have more than one foot firmly planted in England.

The Khan brood of six boys and one girl are a fascinating mixture of old and new world.  While some of the sons are responsible and dutiful—the gentle and polite Abdul and the devoutly Muslim Maneer—others have embraced the rebellious possibilities of Swinging Salford.  The cinematic style veers between these two extremes, the sombre and the jubilant.

The entire film is a mixture of high drama and low comedy, drawing mostly on the British movies and TV of the 1960s.  The dramatic moments conjure the nail-biting tension of classic British kitchen sink films, the rebellious bursts have the antic energy of the Beatles’ movies—and the sexually enthusiastic Dalmatian is straight out of Benny Hill.  At its best, East Is East is as clever a blend of comedy and drama as John Schlesinger’s 1963 classic Billy Liar.

The art of creating a coherent film out of so many moods lies in the smooth transitions.  Little nuances in the acting performances can allow for radical changes in style without giving the viewer whiplash.  Director Damien O’Donnell and his cast achieve this with ease.  By infusing the comical scenes with dashes of pathos and finding levity in even the darkest moments, the entire film feels of a piece.

Much of East Is East’s success comes from the magisterial performance of Indian cinema veteran Om Puri as the tyrant George.  He is completely unreasonable, constantly bullying and yet relentlessly charismatic.  His good humour and a hint of self-awareness frequently creep in around the edges, sometimes diluting his tyranny, at other times only making it more absurd and dangerous.

The rest of the cast, including Linda Bassett as the long-suffering mother Ella and an assortment of young talents, is uniformly terrific.  Standouts are the mischievous Archie Panjabi (later wasted as the shrewish older sister in Beckham) as the sole Khan daughter and Jordan Routledge as Sajid, the eccentric and endearing youngest child, constantly encased in a furry jacket.

For a film about multiculturalism, racism plays a curiously small part.  In fact, it’s solely represented by the comical figure of old Mr Moorhouse, a grouchy Enoch Powell supporter whose complaints about “piccaninnies” have little impact on the Khans.  Race may be an issue in East Is East, but the cultural tensions are mostly within the family rather than without.

Yet unlike a lot of films about cultural clash, East Is East isn’t interested in simplistic messages about tolerance.  It takes the existence of multicultural society as an inevitable fact and then explores the consequences with humour and insight.  There’s nothing heavy-handed about this impossibly likeable film.  Politics has never been so charming. David Pullar

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East-West (Est-ouest)

Director: Regis Wargnier
Cast: Sandrine Bonnaire, Oleg Menchikov, Sergei Bodrov Jr.

(Sony Pictures Classics; 2000)

East-West Director: Régis Wargnier

In a December 2008 essay, , PopMatters’ own Bill Gibron pointed out the continued over indulgence of Hollywood into the Holocaust-inspired film genre. However, the real crime here is not the abundance of films inspired by the Nazi Holocaust, but the simple fact that by concentrating only on Germany and the Nazi Party, Hollywood – and most international filmmakers for that matter – has grossly neglected film depictions of the other people, groups, events and even countries that were also involved in World War II.

Of these media lapses, none is so glaring as the infinitesimal number of films that have examined the Soviet Union during World War II. Although Communism is still a popular topic in Hollywood –The Majestic (2001), Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) and The Watchmen (2009),  to name a few – there are very few noteworthy films set in and around Stalinist Russia and the Soviet Union. In the last 25 years, I can only think of four high-profile films focused on this issue – Elem Klimov’s Come and See (1985), Olli Saarela’s Ambush (1999), Regis Wargnier’s East/West (1999) and Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Enemy at the Gates (2001). Though three of these films were international collaborations – Come and See was solely produced in the USSR – none was as massive in terms of its production scale as East/West, which is perhaps why it is still one of the best World War II-era films.

Though categorized as a French film by a French director, East/West was truly an international picture as it was written by Azeri (Azerbaijan) writer Rustam Ibragimbekov, Russian writer Sergei Bodrov and Wargnier, the French director. It was also a unique film collaboration between France, Russia, Ukraine, Spain and Bulgaria. Further, though the film was in French, neither of the Russian leads, Sergei Bodrov, Jr. (son of the screenwriter) nor Igor Menshikov, knew French so they learned their lines phonetically!

When I watched East/West, I was reminded of those older, grandiose tales like Ben-Hur (1959) and Mackenna’s Gold (1969), but set around war like the modern epics, such as The English Patient (1996). The film is a rich, humanistic drama set in 1946 after the end of World War II. Though Soviet General Secretary Joseph Stalin was no people person, this film deals with a particular aspect of his treachery – his invitation to Russian exiles to return to their motherland after the war and join society again. It seems like a plausible idea, but Stalin had no interest in fulfilling his promise. He used this tactic to throw thousands of returned exiles in prison, execute the majority and save a few to use as “model citizens.”

One of those spared is Alexei Golovin (Menchikov), a doctor, who along with his French wife Marie (Sandrine Bonnaire) and their son, is sent to Kiev to work in a communal hospital. This marks the beginning of the end for Alexei’s relationship with his wife – while he does not like his job, his love for his country seems to trump any another feelings of disappointment and treachery. Marie on the other hand, refuses to play the game and instead of adopting the habits of those used to living in a totalitarian state – stealth, secrecy and acquiescence – she rebels and becomes vocal of her anti-Soviet misgivings.

Though not a pure anti-Communist or anti-Soviet totalitarian themed movie, East/West does present certain degrees of symbolism that represent Marie’s desire for Western “freedom” in the face of Eastern “oppression.” One such symbol is her relationship with Sasha (Bodrov Jr.), a young swimmer, who is trying to win a place on the national team for an international meet. When director Wargnier shows scenes of Sasha’s rippled body swimming against the current with Patrick Doyle’s lofty, James Horner-esque score in the background, one senses the desperation of the young swimmer fighting against oppression towards freedom.

Wargnier introduces another symbolic element in the arrival of Gabrielle (Catherine Deneuve), a French actress on tour, who visits the Soviet Union. Seeing this as an opportunity to let her story be told, Marie gets in contact with her and Gabrielle agrees to help. However, her attempts are short-lived as Marie gets arrested by the KGB for her influence on Sasha, who escapes a training camp and swims to a tanker. Soon, Sasha’s story becomes public.

Marie is sent to serve in a GULAG and spends several years in prison before being released after the death of Stalin. In a combination of Bollywood drama and A Tale of Two Cities-esque sacrifice, Alexei gives up any chance he has at leaving the Soviet Union by brokering a deal with the authorities so that his wife and child are allowed to leave the country, while he must stay.

In the end, East/West is a fine film, which will appeal to all those interested in European cinema, war-inspired movies and dramas. Its only weak point truly is its desire to be grandiose and epic, when not all of the elements are always present – basically it tries over and over again to be more like Dr. Zhivago (1965) and less just as itself. But, its greatest success is its director’s ability to take strong acting talent and a solid script and bring a story to light that most of us were unaware of and probably now, will never forget. Shyam K. Sriram

American Beauty and more

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American Beauty

Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Chris Cooper, Thora Birch, Peter Gallagher, Scott Bakula, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari

(DreamWorks; US theatrical: 1 Oct 1999 (General release); 1999)

American Beauty Director: Sam Mendes

Sam Mendes’ American Beauty wasn’t the first piece of art to probe the gnawing hollows in the American dream. Disaffection from marriage, school, kids, death, has been around as long as artists have tried to fashion visions within and without this standardization of human life.  David Lynch, even through several layers of surreal distortion, found small town life a Pandora’s box of perversion and sublime cobbler.  But the subtlety of Mendes’ vision (and Alan Ball’s writing), though it would later come to represent the amorphous and incoherent “Hollywood Values” was less an expose than a series of characters in crisis, people who had done what they thought they should, absorbing the collective momentum surrounding them, but still ending up alone and afraid trapped in a kind of insanity hidden by its ubiquity. 

Both Mendes’ and Ball’s exploration of the ways in which bad desire and repressed desire shatter people who “have it all” in nuzzled suburbia accomplished the feat of making a truly successful existentialist blockbuster.  Despite a few moments of sex and violence, American Beauty is a film of internal struggles unresolved, a question begging narrative that is not condemnation, but complex characterization.  Despite retrospective bitching, American Beauty was a welcome broadening of the themes of the indie mainstream, which had been sidelined by Tarantino’s canonization, a director’s values who have never been counter-cultural as hyper-hipster implications of traditional blockbuster obsessions:  violence, wit, and sexual fantasy.  Mendes (with cinematographer Conrad Hall)  had a cleverly veering eyes, forcing strange arrests in the narrative to simply meditate upon a beautiful frame or image.  Whether parodied or admired, the rose petals raining from the Pre-Raphaelite cheerleader stuck to the ceiling, or the moody teenager filming a bag caught in currents of wind, Mendes clearly wanted to have as much as he could:  the story, the characters, and the iconic frame. 

Any one of these elements would have made a great film, but Ball’s cast pulled masterful performances from roles were made of painfully incomplete masks, people desperate to win a game of charades that would provide them with the “it” that was supposed make them permanently happy.  Carolyn Burnham (Annette Benning) tightly holds a role that’s more of an unravel, as the Jekyll and Hyde-ing real estate climber, starving for upward mobility and trying to jam a falsely passionate affair into the weeping gaps in her life.  But Ball is a sensitive writer, lesser scribes would have made this the “crazy bitch” role, but both he and Benning sink us into her frustrations.  Kevin Spacey certainly earned the Best Actor Oscar for his dry turn as Lester Burnham, the husband who quits his drone job; leaving one fantasy of the fulfilling life for one with even more magical thinking.  Lester falls for one of his daughters young friends, eager to be reborn and reinvigorated by the validating sexual desire of youth.  He is insightful, but too detached to realize anything fully. 

Spacey gives Lester a barricaded comic persona.  A glib asshole, he has as much clarity as he does self-pity.  The viewer wants to invests him with the responsibility of the hero, but he’s clearly more interested in escaping into a regressive hallucination about his daughter’s hot friend.  No one finishes the work of their questionings and some, like the festering and tunnel-eyed Chris Cooper (Colonel Frank Fitts), have epiphanies that simply rip them from sanity.  With everyone such a Russian Nesting Doll of dysfunction, it’s hard to believe that the film didn’t simply come off as the narccisstic tangents of the loudly incomplete.  Its skill as a film rests in the acrobatic task of preventing the cerebral from losing the emotional.  Fortunately, this is Alan Ball’s aesthetic dialect.

Since its release, American Beauty has taken fair knocks for the density of the characters’ pathologies, for aspiring to be more emblemattic than prodding, but it deserves recognition for making a thoughtful film with boldly open-ended aspirations.  Even if it retroactively became misconstrued as a critique of blue state Americans’ lives (The National Review cites it often as typical of liberal disdain for the Palin-olithic block.), it deserves to be remembered as a movie that bravely asked questions about the friction between desire and dream, between cultural fantasies and individual agony. Terry Sawyer

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Three Kings

Director: David O. Russell
Cast: George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, Spike Jonze, Nora Dunn

(Warner Bros.)

Three Kings Director: David O. Russell

George Clooney’s starring role in Three Kings seemed at the time yet one more attempt by the good-looking prime-time soap star to break into the movie big time, a transition still very uncertain, even after his turns in Batman & Robinand One Fine Day.  Now the role of Major Archie Gates, for which Clooney lobbied hard, and to which he remained committed, despite well-documented on-set tensions with Three King’s director, indie improviser David O. Russell, seems like the first step on a thoughtful actor/director/producer’s serious journey to question the impacts of American domestic and foreign policies on both national and international communities.  In movies like Syriana and Good Night and Good Luck, and the documentary, Sand and Sorrow, which Clooney narrated, he not only stokes his mojo as an influential Hollywood player but also, as he noted in a recent NYTimes video, works his celebrity to bring not just attention but action to the exterminations and mass displacements on Darfur.

In contrast, the film itself, set in the immediate aftermath of the first Gulf War, looks much less radical than it did in 1999. Major Gates and his cohorts, Barlow (Mark Wahlberg), Elgin (Ice Cube) and Vig (Spike Jonz), take advantage of the laxity of the US army, whose anti-climactic desert war has ended all too soon, to indulge in a little unilateral action and liberate one of Saddam Hussein’s stashes of looted Kuwaiti gold.  En route, they meet a group of Shiite anti-Hussein rebels, now abandoned by the United States which had encouraged them to rise against the Iraqi dictator.  After a deadly encounter with Saddam’s forces, they commit themselves to escorting the rebels to the Iranian border (thus establishing their moral superiority to the government they represent) but at the last moment find themselves in a stand-off with their own American forces. In yet another moment of righteousness, the remaining soldiers, under Gates’ leadership, trade the gold for the rebels’ escape.  They leave the scene morally empowered and, due to the presence of media cameras, famous, a commodity they subsequently can trade for material wealth.

Three Kings thus falls neatly into the sub-genre of war movie in which experience of war (or its immediate aftermath in this case) unveils for ordinary soldiers the deliberate deceits of official foreign policy and the by-the-book ineptitude of their nation’s military establishment.  As did the much broader Vietnam-era World War II comedy, Kelly’s Heroes, on which Three Kings is based, the later movie glorifies the maverick whose clear-sightedness about the corruption all war entails, and the specific corruption endemic to his own military organization, opens up space for individual initiative and private profiteering which will allow the maverick both to escape the war while also achieving success in the terms his society valorizes, the acquisition of wealth. Crucially, too, in both films the outlaw heroes’ apparently subversive actions inadvertently advance the American war effort.  In Kelly’s Heroes, the mobilization of logistical support to pursue the gold drags the front line ever closer to Germany.  In Three Kings, the actions of Gates and co. allow the US to solidify its alliance with the Kuwaitis through the return of the gold.

Thus, while Three Kings does enjoy itself in exposing the hypocrisy of American policy in the Gulf – the war is about oil, not about Kuwait’s “freedom,” for example, and the pusillanimity of American leadership in not pursuing the war to Baghdad exposes Saddam’s opponents to unprecedented punishments – it has no basic argument with American intervention, only with the kind of intervention and its results.  As Lila Kitaeff notes in her 2003 Jump Cut essay on the movie, despite Russell’s claims for the unconventional, oppositional stance of his film, the colonial mindset is well and truly embedded in Russell’s work.  The Iraqis still need Americans to sort out their problems: the crux of the matter in Three Kings is not the wrong war, but simply the wrong policy. This was exactly the kind of thinking which led to the second, and still continuing, Gulf War four years after the movie’s release.

Yet the movie is not all about feeding into the war-making frenzy that animated so many of those who became advisors to Bush II.  Ten years after its release, Three Kings seems most prescient about the ever more complex imbrication of waging war and mass media.  From Gates’ trading of sex for scoops with a female journalist at the beginning of the moving to the sealing of the closing deal because of the inquisitive presence of television cameras,Three Kings highlights the artificial framing of real war as a pervasive corrupter of genuine knowledge.  The irony of Gates’ and Elgin’s making money out of their maverick soldiering as advisers to Hollywood war movie-makers seems prophetic of the retired US senior officers who worked as consultants for hire to major TV news organizations during the second Gulf War.

The banning from the local and national news of images of the returning coffins of Iraq and Afghan conflict casualties renders both those wars as fictional as anything in the movies for the majority of Americans who have neither friends nor family involved in the conflicts.  Where journalists shill for political policies in the guise of reporting and fictional images of war shape both citizens’ and soldiers’ perceptions of war as much, if not more, than the fragmentary crisis clips of ever-shrinking daily news reporting (as opposed to opinonating), the ability of citizens in the world’s most powerful democracy to understand what war actually costs is fatally skewed. Three Kings reminds audiences of how that corruption spreads, and warns of its eventual cost. Lesley Smith

Boys Don’t Cry and more

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Director: Takashi Miike
Cast: Ryo Ishibashi, Eihi Shiina, Jun Kunimura, Tetsu Sawaki

(The Film Company; US theatrical: 6 Oct 1999; 1998)

Audition Director: Takashi Miike

The title of Takashi Miike’s unsettling horror film refers to the main character’s unorthodox way of finding a wife, but also marks Audition as a test of audiences’ mettle.

Audition (Odishon) was in the forefront of a wave of films from Japan that combine the characteristics of traditional Japanese ghost stories with contemporary settings and an emphasis on character development unusual in Western, and especially American, horror. Often classified under the category J-horror, Ringu (1998), Odishon (1999), Honogurai mizu no soko kara (2002), Ju-on (2003), and Chakushin ari (2003) incorporate vengeful ghosts, hauntings, and a notion of karmic balance that calls for expiation of past wrongs; and rely on traditional movie effects—set design and decoration, atmospheric lighting, make-up, and analog processes such as stop- or reverse-motion—for suspense and chills. All but Auditionwere remade as American releases, as, respectively, The Ring (2002), Dark Water (2005), The Grudge (2004), and One Missed Call (2008).

Don’t expect an American version of Audition to come to your multiplex any time soon. Halfway through the film, characters and audience plunge into a sadomasochistic nightmare of betrayal, torture, and mutilation that might not sit well with mainstream U.S. audiences.

The film begins innocently enough, with Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi), along with his young son Shigehiko, at the hospital bedside of his dying wife. Our sympathy for Aoyama established, the film jumps forward seven years. Aoyama, who wants to remarry, is convinced by his friend Yoshikawa (Jun Kunimura) to interview candidates under the guise of auditioning actresses for a film.

From the moment he reads her application, Aoyama is intrigued by one prospective actress, Asami Yamazaki (Eihi Shiina), who seems to possess all the qualities he desires in a mate: she’s young, sweet, and docile, with poise and grace derived from her training as a ballet dancer. They begin dating, and the film promptly veers from romantic comedy and family drama territory to something darker. Iconic J-horror shots of Asami, her face obscured by her long hair, sitting on the floor in front of an old-fashioned rotary phone waiting for Aoyama’s call, introduce a feeling of dread.

When Asami eventually disappears and Aoyama tries to find her, the film’s heretofore linear, logical narrative begins to unravel. Aoyama’s search takes him to the boarded-up ballet studio where Asami studied as a child, and the bar where she claimed to work. In both locales, ambiguous scenes play as either flashback exposition, or Aoyama’s imaginings: Asami being burned by her stepfather, the ballet master; fingers and a tongue writhing on the bar floor.

Dreams, waking fantasies, and reality eventually become indistinguishable. When Aoyama passes out at home one evening (drugged by Asami?), the ensuing montage—conversations with Asami, the appearance of his dead wife to warn him about the young woman, Asami’s murder of her stepfather, which Aoyama could not have known about—unspool, as if Aoyama’s and Asami’s perspectives mingle in Aoyama’s feverish mind.

Aoyama awakes to the notorious torture scene. Asami, having paralyzed her erstwhile lover, inflicts excruciating pain with carefully positioned acupuncture needles, then moves on to mutilation. Eihi Shiina plays the scene brilliantly. Gone is the shy reserve and subservience of the Asami Aoyama fell in love with, replaced with the forced sweetness of a waitress or salesperson, with a demonic edge. “Deeper, deeper”, Asami chirps, as she inserts yet another needle. “Right foot, please”, she says, like a crazed shoe clerk, as she attends to that part of Aoyama’s body.

Is Asami’s revenge a dream? Is she a ghost or a living woman? Which scenes really happened: the perfect dates between Aoyama and Asami, the childhood abuse of Asami, both, neither? Finally it doesn’t matter. Docile dream girl and avenging ghost alike seem the product of sexist, male-dominated Japanese culture as Miike renders it. Each is as far from the reality of real women as the other. One plays as fantasy, the other as nightmare, with the suggestion that the man who conjures the fantasy has to suffer from the nightmare, too. Despite our sympathy for Aoyama, Audition succeeds in making us feel for both versions of Asami, and also consider that maybe Aoyama deserves his fate.

Ten years after its release, when a flowering of American horror films such as the Saw franchise have pushed the boundaries of acceptable screen violence and drawn the charge that their scenes of torture and gore are gratuitous, Audition stands as an example that violence can work in the service of serious themes, and push audiences to reach revelations not possible with less graphic representation. Michael Curtis Nelson

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Boys Don’t Cry

Director: Kimberly Peirce
Cast: Chloe Sevigny, Hilary Swank, Peter Sarsgaard, Brendan Sexton

(Fox Searchlight)

Boys Don’t Cry Director: Kimberly Peirce

Boys Don’t Cry is set in Falls City, Nebraska, an environment in which gender roles are traditionally and rigidly defined. The men in the film, like John (Peter Sarsgaard) and Tom (Brendan Sexton III), drink, fight and “bumper ski” with their pick up trucks, while women like Lana (Chloe Sevigny) sing karaoke, daydream at their jobs at the spinach packing factory and acquiesce to the desires and tempers of the men around them. The men and women of Falls City spend a lot of time together, but they don’t seem to like or understand each other very much.

In this polarized setting Brandon Teena’s (Hilary Sawnk) gender confusion is particularly dangerous. This danger is established early in the film when Brandon is forced to flee his hometown of Lincoln after his secret is discovered. As Brandon hops into his car his cousin, Lonny (Matt McGrath), shouts a warning: “They hang faggots in Falls City, too!” We watch events unfold with the knowledge that “they” do far worse things to “faggots” in Falls City. Indeed, most contemporary viewers would have been familiar with the true story of Teena Brandon/Brandon Teena, a young woman who successfully passed as a man until he was beaten to death in 1993 by his former friends.

What is most striking about this movie is not its tragedy—which is so abundant and overwhelming at times as to be unbearable—but rather its scattered moments of joy. Hilary Swank’s Oscar-winning performance elevates the character of Brandon Teena to something more than just a martyr or victim. In addition to capturing the mannerisms of a woman who is learning how to act like a man—how to hold a cigarette or throw a punch—Swank also portrays the almost childlike giddiness Brandon exudes every time he successfully navigates the world as a man.

For instance, early in the film, Brandon finds himself embroiled in a bar fight with a man much larger than himself. John lends Brandon hand both because Brandon cannot handle the large opponent on his own and because John is always ready for an opportunity to perform his masculinity. Later, as the new friends catch their breath in an alley, John grabs Brandon’s face and examines it, telling him “Yup, you’re gonna have a shiner in the morning.” A slow smile spreads over Brandon’s face as he turns to examine his reflection in a window “I am?” he asks. “Oh shit!” This black eye is an achievement for Brandon, a hard won prize of his new masculinity.

As the film moves inextricably towards its conclusion, we get the sense that Brandon’s final undoing comes not so much from the physical violence enacted on his body, but rather by the unmasking of his carefully cultivated gender identity. First he is stripped down to his underwear in front of Lana and later he is beaten and raped. If Brandon will not acknowledge his biological sex, then John and Tom will force his sex upon him. These violations culminate in a heartbreaking scene in the Falls City police station where a battered Brandon is interrogated by an all male police force. The police ask him questions like “When he poked ya, where’d he try to pop it in first?” We see Brandon’s puffy face in a close up, his swollen lips barely able to form the words “My vagina.”
Director Kimberly Pierce manages to make Boys Don’t Cry about so many things—how ignorance and boredom breeds contempt and violence, how socially proscribed gender roles limit desire and happiness, how men and women remain a mystery to one another. But the film’s sporadic moments of happiness—when Brandon is first called “Sir” or when he and Lana tenderly make love after his rape—are a reminder of how difficult it can be to find joy in life. Ten after the release of this film, in the wake of Proposition 8, we still, very clearly, are in need of this reminder.  Amanda Ann Klein

Fight Club and more

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The Limey

Director: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: Terence Stamp, Lesley Ann Warren, Luis Guzmán, Peter Fonda, Barry Newman, Nicky Katt

(Artisan Entertainment; US theatrical: 8 Oct 1999; 1999)

The Limey Director: Steven Soderbergh

Situated in between Out of Sight (1998) and the Oscar-winning couplet of Erin Brockovich and Traffic, both from 2000, The Limey is an easily overlooked line on Steven Soderbergh’s IMDB page. Despite its appearance as a minor work, or maybe because of it, The Limey’s artistic significance to the director’s filmography is easy to establish.

The movie follows an aging English hood, Wilson (Terence Stamp), as he travels to and through Los Angeles, seeking answers about the death of his daughter, Jenny (Melissa George). At the center of this search is a fellow relic of the 60s, music promoter Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda), whose general smarminess easily turns Wilson’s desire for information into one for revenge. The narrative is that simple and spare, but the way that the story is edited complicates its interpretation.

From the very beginning, time and space, sound and image, are frequently out of sync and linear alignment in The Limey. Voices from one scene are heard over shots of another. The action flashes forward and back, both within the time-frame of the present and to the past via clips of Stamp taken from Ken Loach’s Poor Cow (1967). By film’s end, an argument can be made that what we’ve seen is a collection of fractured memories or even an elaborate fantasy dreamed by Wilson on some long plane ride to somewhere.

These formal qualities are easy to contextualize within Soderbergh’s body of work. There are similar, though less jarring and persistent, experiments with time and space in Out of Sight. More generally, “reality” is an important thematic in many of the director’s films, from both before and after The Limey, including Kafka (1991) and Full Frontal (2002). In a separate vein, Traffic extends the earlier work’s interest in the novel use of sound. Today, The Limey is easily read as a foray into 1960s cool, presaging the Ocean’s franchise, particularly the New Wave-y Ocean’s Twelve (2004).

The movie’s playfulness with time and space not only marks it in relation to Soderbergh’s own works, but to other films from 1999 as well. Among the additional titles from that year that make puzzles of the real are The Matrix, Being John Malkovich and The Sixth Sense, but I think that Run Lola Run, with its multiple variations and outcomes, liberal use of flashbacks, and fundamentally simple story, is the closest kin to The Limey.

While unlikely to top many people’s lists of Steven Soderbergh’s best, The Limey, with its limited popular appeal and unconventional handling of a conventional narrative, is the kind of film destined to be “rediscovered” many times over by film geeks and students on the lookout for gems in the oeuvres of noted American directors. Shaun Huston

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Fight Club

Director: David Fincher
Cast: Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, Helena Bonham Carter, Zach Grenier, Jared Leto, Meat Loaf

(20th Century Fox; US theatrical: 15 Oct 1999)

Fight Club Director: David Fincher

“You have to realize that someday you will die. Until you know that you are useless.”
—Tyler Durden

Stereotypically, the ‘90s man was a trapped-in-a-PC-box version of his ‘60s counterpart. On the surface, it was about “sensitivity”, but underneath was a suppressed pack of lies, hiding behind a face that choked on diversity and synergy. Fear of death, such as consumes the narrator of Fight Club, manifests itself in the proliferation of material goods and vacuous non-friendships. As whitewashed media became increasingly influential on how Americans chose to see themselves, Chuck Palahniuk’s polemic of the new elite read like a bible for the meat-eating, sex-starved, selfish and un-PC Id of pre-millennial male consciousness.

As a movie directed by David Fincher, it became a touchstone for thrill-seeking boys and thrill-starved men everywhere, an unlikely zeitgeist for the very culture it attempted to expose. That Palahniuk’s book tours have since been filled with fan feedback about real-life fight clubs suggests that the stylized film adaptation glamorizes what it satirizes. That, and that Palahniuk had an eerily astute understanding of office drones with shelled cavemen personalities everywhere.

The premise of Fight Club is simple: the nameless narrator (Edward Norton), a cynical man lost in the middle of the corporate ladder, has his reality literally blown up, ending up with new friend Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). Together, Durden and the narrator live in a Hobbesian state of nature, squatting in a filthy, run-down house cut off both physically (it’s in the middle of nowhere) and informatively (no internet, no TV, no phone) from society. It is from these primal beginnings that a fight club emerges, wherein the narrator, Durden, and a host of other damaged men smack the snot out of one another in an attempt to shed their feminine sides and unleash the inner alpha male. In the character of Bob Paulson (Meat Loaf), the emasculation is more than just metaphorical – battling cancer, he’s lost his testes and grown a set of what the narrator eloquently describes as “bitch tits.”

Ironically, the narrator begins his quest for emotional fulfillment in a more traditionally feminine way – he talks and hugs. Addicted to a number of support groups (all for diseases he does not have), the narrator manages to quell his nagging malaise by crying in Bob’s decidedly unmanly bosom. It takes the presence of Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter), a bold (and therefore hated) female character, to send the narrator running for the comfort of fighting.

Where the film differs drastically from the book is that it all ends up looking unbelievably cool. Pitt’s Durden is every teenage boy’s fantasy – the baddest motherfucker in the room, ripped, nonchalantly making bad decisions about his health (fighting and smoking), and yet still able to tame as seemingly Sapphic a beast as Marla. Palahniuk’s anti-heroes possess this outsider chic on the page, but sleekly filmed in dank, foreboding environments, and overlaid with the Dust Brothers’ incredible tech-noir soundtrack, Fight Club the movie slaps cyberpunk cool on this anarcho-primitivist parable. Collecting the social extremes and cultural middle fingers of the source text, Fincher made an incredibly stylized action flick with some disturbing psychological subtexts. From the beginning, when the credits role over a tour of the narrator’s brain, Fight Club is a slick production, garnished with subliminal images, saturated colors, and rotating camera angles that suggest thrill-ride more than satire or drama. To Fincher’s credit, he never loses the point of Palahniuk’s work, but it comes out in subtle ways, buried beneath the action.

Pitt makes for an interesting Durden, a mainstream heartthrob playing the leader of a reactionary cult of generally less-than-photogenic men. Often seen without his shirt, Pitt’s intimacy with the Norton establishes a homoerotic subtext to their relationship, not to mention fight club in general. As the narrator describes, with a passionate flair, the sound of flesh hitting the ground, there’s a sensual overtone, as though fight club was a BDSM club without the sex. The subtle queerness makes the popularity of the film with hypermasculine teenagers all the more amusing – behind the alpha male, Palahniuk and Fincher quietly reveal suppressed homosexual tendencies, hand in hand with the misogyny of a self-hating gay man.

Superficial misogyny aside, the coolness-factor becomes potentially seriously problematic once Durden takes the reigns of fight club and turns it into the fascist Project Mayhem. While fight club, by its very structure, proved egalitarian (if faceless), Project Mayhem is a top-down operation, in which the stakes are higher, and Durden is the undisputed dictator. The price of admission is a broken spirit, ready for indoctrination. Initially repulsed by Project Mayhem, the narrator soon begins to fear it, as Bob’s death during a botched commercial sabotage exercise forces him to reckon with the lethal and fascist end-game of his and Durden’s anarchic – and relatively innocent – beginnings. Here, again, it’s hard to deny that Pitt’s Durden is an even greater badass when he’s commanding an army.

Like a cinematic Frank Zappa, Fincher subverts and satirizes action movies by making a great one himself, peppered with subtle critiques and visual confusion. Fight Club oozes testosterone, and through the adolescent fantasy of its story, managed to be seen and cherished by the people to whom it made it directed its most damning criticisms. Unfortunately, Fincher’s suave masking of critical themes has resulted in a subculture which, ironically, lionizes the film for its portrayal of men. David Abravanel

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