On this final day of PopMatters' 1999 overview, awards season hype gives way to pure acting prowess and definitive directorial flair.
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Toy Story 2
Director: John Lasseter, Ash Brannon, & Lee Unkrich
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
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Director: Joel Schumacher
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