Devil in a Blue Dress (1995; directed by Carl Franklin)
I am a sucker for detective stories set back in the 1930s and 1940s, both in books (the novels of Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald) and in movies ("Chinatown," "Farewell, My Lovely"). I had intended to see "Devil in a Blue Dress" when it was in theaters, but it closed before I was able to. I saw it on video, though, and it's well worth renting.
The movie is set in the late 1940s, and Ezekiel ("Easy") Rawlins, played by Denzel Washington, has recently lost his job. He owns his own house, and is worried about losing it if he gets any more behind in his mortgage payments. He hasn't been able to find another job, so he's willing to listen when a man named Mr. Allbright wants to hire him to find a woman. She's white, but hangs out in Black bars and clubs, so Mr. Allbright thinks Easy is the man to find her.
Well, there's a lot more to the assignment than that, of course, and things quickly get dangerous. Most of the action is being manipulated by two powerful men, both running for mayor and each with a secret that he is desperate to hide. Well, Easy quickly realizes that he needs some help, and he sends for his childhood friend Mouse. Mouse is small but heavily armed and very violent, and he helps to even up the odds. The problem with somebody like Mouse, though, is that once you bring him into a situation there's no real way to control him.
The story is fairly complex, but I didn't find it difficult to follow. You do have to pay attention, though, since a character who appears only briefly in an early scene may turn out to be very important later on. There's also a lot of good detail on what life was like in that period, like the segregated (and often illegal) clubs and bars, and that fact that everybody is always surprised that Easy actually owns his own house. At one point a bellhop has to sneak Easy into an all-white hotel to meet with someone he's looking for.
The cast is very strong. Denzel Washington is excellent (as usual). Mouse is played by Don Cheadle, who makes him sort of likable and funny, and yet believably very dangerous. Tom Sizemore plays Mr. Allbright and is excellent as usual (I also liked him in Natural Born Killers and Strange Days). The movie is based on one of Walter Mosley's novels about Easy Rawlins.
With Don Cheadle: Rosewood, Bulworth
The Shawshank Redemption (1994; directed by Frank Darabont)
Several people recommended this to me when it came out, but somehow I didn't get around to seeing it when it was in theaters. That was a mistake. This is an excellent movie, very powerful and moving.
The story starts in the 1940s. Tim Robbins plays Andy Dufresne, a young banker who is convicted of murdering his wife and her lover. He is sent to Shawshank Prison, where he is determined to continue to be himself, not to be ground down, not to become an "institution man" (a man who gets so used to prison life that he loses the ability to function in any other setting).
At first, Andy is a little standoffish from the other prisoners, but gradually he becomes friends with Red (Morgan Freeman), the "man who can get you anything" in the prison, from cigarettes to liquor to posters of beautiful actresses. We see these two men, and many other characters, over the course of nearly 20 years. Andy accomplishes a lot during those years, including becoming the unofficial prison accountant, doing tax returns and devising tax shelters for prisoners and guards alike. He also gets the prison a new library almost single-handedly, mostly by pestering the state legislature with a steady stream of letters for so long that they authorize the expenditure just to shut him up. But, no matter what Andy accomplishes, he never loses sight of the fact that the only thing he really wants to do is get out.
Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman are both excellent, and James Whitmore is particularly good in a small role. He plays Brooks, a prisoner who has been in Shawshank Prison for over fifty years. He is finally paroled, and is terrified of leaving the familiarity of the prison routine. He knows that nothing on the outside will be anything like he remembers (the first automobiles were just being made when he was first put in prison). The sight of him standing on a corner, trying to figure out how to get across the street with the cars whizzing past, is heart-breaking.
The movie is based on a very good story by Stephen King ("Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption" in the volume "Different Seasons"), but it is not a horror story and it has no supernatural elements, unless hope and determination count as supernatural. In this movie, in very believable ways, they certainly accomplish a lot, and the entire story is given additional weight by King's implacable sense of morality.
By Frank Darabont: The Green Mile
What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993; directed by Lasse Hallström)
The kind of movie where nothing much happens, and you can't really figure what's going to happen next, because the rhythms are the rhythms of life, not of Hollywood.
It takes place in Endora, the world's smallest and crappiest town, and mostly concerns the Grape family. Gilbert Grape (Johnny Depp) keeps his family going, working in the local supermarket and looking after his retarded younger brother Arnie (Leonardo DiCaprio). His priorities are all about his family, especially Arnie and their morbidly obese mother (Darlene Cates, who is heartbreakingly good).
His one pleasure, which he doesn't seem to let himself enjoy, is an affair with a local housewife (Mary Steenburgen) who gets him to come over by buying groceries and having them delivered (he's the delivery boy). He's so occupied by his responsibilities that he even sleeps in his clothes.
The cast is terrific, including Juliette Lewis in a wonderfully tender performance as a girl who gets stranded in Endora when her mother's mobile home breaks down. She and Gilbert start making eyes at each other right away, but she obviously sees very quickly that there's really no room for her in his life, and in fact there's barely room for him. He's been squeezed out of his own life by his family responsibilities, and he starts to try to rectify this, not always in the best ways.
With Johnny Depp: Dead Man, Donnie Brasco, Ed Wood, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
With Juliette Lewis: Natural Born Killers, Strange Days
In & Out (1997; directed by Frank Oz)
The Opposite of Sex (1998; directed by Don Roos)
Two fairly similar movies. Both stories about gay schoolteachers in small towns, both including some scathing satire of Hollywood movie cliches, both with reassuring and uplifting endings, plus both have secondary characters who are spinster schoolteachers.
Both are very funny, and recommended. But, much as I enjoyed both, I want to make a case about why I think In & Out is better, because I think there are a couple of general points involved.
The first is that I think The Opposite of Sex is somewhat dishonest. A lot of the humor comes from the way Christina Ricci's voiceovers mock Hollywood cliches ("This part, where I take the gun, is--Duh!--important"), but the movie also utilizes some of those same cliches to manipulate the audience (like the use of music). That's really trying to have it both ways, like a war movie which thrills you with blood and guns for two hours, then sticks an anti-war message on the end, so everybody in the theater can go home happy. Feh.
The Opposite of Sex gets a lot of its oomph from how funny and alienated both of the main female characters are, but in the end all it can think of to do with them is get them all domesticated and pregnant.
Another point in favor of In & Out is that it has much stronger actors in the supporting roles. This is something I've been watching for recently (see my review of Election), and it's frequently the difference between a really first class movie and one which is satisfying but not cosmically great. For example, it's one of the problems with Conspiracy Theory, which I'm also writing about in this batch of reviews. Once you get past the three stars (Gibson, Roberts, Patrick Stewart) there's nobody really striking.
Except for Kudrow and Ricci, the only really notable performances in The Opposite of Sex are Lyle Lovett, who has the only actually touching moment in the movie, and Johnny Galecki, who's hilarious. In In & Out, however, the supporting cast is wonderful from top to bottom. Debbie Reynolds is wickedly funny, plus there are excellent performances by Wilfred Brimley, Tom Selleck, Matt Dillon and of course Joan Cusak. The idea that Lisa Kudrow was somehow robbed of an Oscar is silly (though certainly people less qualified have won them), but Joan Cusak actually was the best supporting actress of 1997. Bob Newhart got more laughs as the principal in In & Out just trying to force himself to say "homosexual" than Martin Donovan and Ivan Sergei got in the entirety of The Opposite of Sex.
Plus, while I will certainly concede that the verbal comedy in The Opposite of Sex is as good as any I've heard recently, the comedy is all verbal. In & Out has funny lines, but it also has great physical comedy (Kline's dance sequence, Kline trying to climb up Selleck as they kiss at the side of the road, any scene with Joan Cusak).
So, go and rent both. Laugh at all the sharp lines, but be aware that there's a sappy ending coming. But I think In & Out has a better sappy ending. I'll take an auditorium of students and townspeople standing up for a gay teacher over an ending which thinks wonderful, cantankerous, funny women like DeeDee and Lucia should be domesticated. It's like watching Katherine Hepburn being humiliated for her inability to make Spencer Tracy his breakfast.
With Joan Cusak: Grosse Point Blank, Cradle Will Rock
With Kevin Kline: Soapdish, A Fish Called Wanda, The Ice Storm
With Christina Ricci: The Ice Storm, Buffalo 66, Sleepy Hollow
12 Monkeys (1995; directed by Terry Gilliam)
I highly recommend this movie. I have always liked Terry Gilliam's work, though sometimes his story-telling has lagged behind his visual imagination (most notably in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen), but this movie has a very good story and tells it very well.
The acting is first rate all around. Bruce Willis carries the movie, including the very difficult task of being moved nearly to tears by "the music of the twentieth century" (Nat King Cole and Fats Domino). As was said in a recent review, "with hair he's a movie star, bald he's an actor."
Madeline Stowe is excellent as the psychiatrist who first doesn't believe and then does (and then has to reconvince her patient that he's sane after she's managed to convince him that he's crazy). Brad Pitt is wonderful as a lunatic (sort of like the character Dennis Hopper played in Apocalypse Now, but really funny), and Frank Gorshin and Christopher Plummer are good in minor roles.
Two things Terry Gilliam thinks that make him different from a lot of Hollywood directors: 1) technology can be amazing, but it seldom works exactly as we want it to, and 2) homeless people are everywhere, and they're not all evil, or all noble, or all pitiful. Also, James Cole (Bruce Willis), like many of Gilliam's protagonists, is haunted by a vision that he sees over and over.
A lot of the elements in the film are familiar, particularly from the movies of Alfred Hitchcock: a race against the clock, an average person dragged into a series of bizarre events against their will (initially dragged along, and then increasingly taking charge), a series of objects and events which we see early in the movie which turn out to be much more significant than we expect by the end, and various chases, but the fact is that until just a minute or two before the credits I didn't really know how this movie was going to end.
By Terry Gilliam: Brazil, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
With Bruce Willis: The Sixth Sense
With Brad Pitt: Fight Club
Braveheart (1995; directed by Mel Gibson)
I resisted seeing this movie for some time mainly because of the length (nearly three hours), but when I finally saw it I enjoyed it tremendously.
It's a large movie in all ways, and I'm not sure how historically accurate it is, but it's very powerful. Mel Gibson's direction is very good. I usually resist big romantic movies like this, but he carries it off. He stars also (of course) and his trademark humor always appears at the right moments. More surprisingly, he's equally good in the moments when his character (William Wallace, who had a lot to do with throwing the English out of Scotland) is rallying his countrymen, or berating the Scottish nobles for giving in to the English king.
Speaking of the English king, he is played by Patrick MacGoohan, and he is terrific also.
When I saw this movie for the first time, I thought that the battle scenes, which are excellent, reminded me of the ones in Orson Welles' Chimes at Midnight, but I didn't mention this in the review I wrote, since I thought it was just my Welles obsession clouding my judgment. Somewhat later, I read an interview with Mel Gibson where he said that he specifically wanted the battle scenes to be like the ones in Chimes at Midnight.
With Mel Gibson: Conspiracy Theory
Lost Highway (1997; directed by David Lynch)
This one took a little while to really grab me, but now it has. A spooky meditation on jealousy, it alerts you almost immediately that it will not "make sense," so you can relax and let it take its course.
Oddly, this movie contains many of the elements which later showed up in "Eyes Wide Shut." The husband obsessed with worry about his wife's fidelity, the opulent house where women stand naked for the approval and pleasure of powerful men, the dreams which may be real and vice versa.
If you rent (or buy) this on video, please be sure to get the widescreen version. It makes a huge difference.
By David Lynch: The Straight Story, Twin Peaks