Category Archives: 1990s

Ashes of Time (1994)

Director: Wong Kar-Wai

This is, specifically, the “redux” version we’re dealing with, cos that seems to be the only one easily available; the original international version, to say nothing of the original original version from the Venice Film Festival, may still be out there in dodgy form, but this seems to be the one Wong himself wants out there. Apparently it came about because he got a call from the film lab storing the film materials, advising they were shutting down the very next day, so if he wanted his stuff, he’d better get it right there and then… and the materials were apparently in such a mess that a complete overhaul was the only way to go. Which involved recutting, making the seasonal structure clearer, new music, and a completely different colour grade (which, apparently cinematographer Christopher Doyle isn’t thrilled by). Bordwell has a whole piece on it, and on the connections between the film’s various characters. The film was notorious for baffling its original audiences, and I can see why; you actually can piece the relationships together, but Wong doesn’t make it terribly easy, and the loose, semi-episodic structure makes everything just that little bit more remote. It’s kind of an anti-wu xia film in some ways, determined to take the usual sword-slinging characters and make them more recognisably human than mythic… although the extent to which it succeeds at doing so is, I think, arguable, and the film’s general approach is a highly aesthetic and artificial one that kind of further undercuts that. It’s so self-conscious in its “artisticness”—a tendency I’ve always gathered was kind of frowned upon by the Hong Kong film industry at large in those days; Wong might’ve been playing with big stars but he was never really accepted at home as one himself the way foreign critics fawned over him—that it becomes quite teeth-grinding. I may find more in it on a second watch, but that might be a while in coming.

An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn (1997)

Director: Arthur Hiller

Arthur Hiller died a couple of weeks ago after a lengthy and somewhat variable career, and so, out of sheer perversity, I’ve been driven to finally hunt down possibly his most notorious film. It’s another film about film-making (seen a few of those lately, haven’t I), this one turning on one of Hollywood’s most infamous non-figures… “Alan Smithee” was the name the Director’s Guild of America used when a director wanted their name taken off a film cos of studio interference or whatever, and though one of the conditions of being allowed to use it was that the director was supposed not to talk about “Smithee” really being them, he was pretty much an open secret (I’d first heard of “Smithee” via Reader’s Digest, I think, a long time before this film). So the great idea was had to make a film about a director actually called Alan Smithee (played by Eric Idle) who hates the horrible action film he’s making, but he can’t take his name off it cos, you know, Alan Smithee is his real name…

The crowning irony, of course, would be that Hiller would have his own name replaced by “Smithee” after conflicts with writer Joe Eszterhas, and the whole thing seems to have been remembered as one of the great Hollywood fiascos (Idle was apparently scathing about it in promotional interviews). Hence I was kind of amazed to find that, well, it’s not actually that bad. Not actually that good as such either, of course, but not really the catastrophe I’d expected. To be honest, the central conceit only really works if you know the story behind “Smithee”—the film doesn’t actually play this up as much as it perhaps should’ve done—and the mockumentary form of the thing probably wasn’t the best way to tell the story. For all its problems, though, I actually did find myself kind of amused by the thing in spite of myself, and perhaps even in spite of the film; Roger Ebert’s zero-star review enumerates what he saw as its many problems, and it’s hard to entirely disagree (he’s right about how good Harvey Weinstein of all people is). I laughed at it a number of times anyway. Take that however you like.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

Director: Nicholas Meyer

And now here I boldly go, cos hitherto Final Frontier was the most recent Trek film I’ve seen… hence why I actually chose to watch my own copy of it cos SBS2 were running it and the sixth film together, so I thought I’d better get this write-up out of the way before sitting down with the next film. Anyway, again, Memory Alpha has a wealth of detail on the production nightmare; to be honest, I vaguely recall being surprised at the time that this film was made at all, cos I knew the fifth film was generally considered something of a tanker, but it seems Paramount thought the old crew deserved a better final hurrah than Final Frontier. However, they also decreed that film number six absolutely must not cost so much as a dollar more than number five had done, and things apparently only got worse from there… Anyway, the finished film takes us back into M-rated territory (I presume the remarkable zero-gravity gore played some part in that), and also into fairly old-fashioned noir thriller territory too; the Klingons are suing for peace at last but Kirk—still not exactly over the murder of his son at Klingon hands—is accused of murdering the Klingon Chancellor. Gene Roddenberry saw the film two days before he died, and was reportedly unhappy with the racism towards the Klingons, but surely that’s actually a large part of the point of the film, Kirk realising the misguidedness of his prejudice against them (and Spock realising his own prejudice in favour of one of his own people)… Whatever, I enjoyed it immensely; a terrific and honourable send-off for the original crew which kindly allows the viewer to forget Final Frontier ever happened. And “not everyone keeps their genitals in the same place” may well be the single best line in the entire franchise…

The Phantom Menace (1999)

Director: George Lucas

It’s… really not very good, is it? On TV tonight, so I decided to give it a second go, mostly cos I frankly didn’t remember it very well; I never saw it at the cinema, only on VHS, so tonight was the first I actually viewed it in widescreen (and HD, cos it was on 7mate). I don’t know, my interest in the Star Wars series cooled around 20 years ago, i.e. the last time the original trilogy was actually reissued before Lucas decided to tamper with them and shit on our childhoods, etc, so I had no great desire to see the new trilogy of prequels. And, yeah, I’m not sure that lack of interest was ultimately misplaced, considering how those films turned out…

Anyway, I wasn’t bowled over by Phantom Menace when I did finally see it, though I don’t recall loathing it or anything either. On rewatching I find myself rather less forgiving of its faults, the most notable of which, obviously, is that Binks fellow. I don’t know how convinced I ever was by the argument that the Gungans were meant to be some sort of racist stereotype—which may just be me; I do think the “Chinese” accents of the Trade Federation members are far more overt and dubious on that front—but dear god/dess Jar Jar is irritating. The weakness of the comic elements in this film (I mean, Jar Jar is surely not meant to be treated as anything else) really is impossible to overlook, as is the sheer badness of much of the acting. I mean, the original trilogy was hardly a masterclass in the Method, but there was a charisma from those performers remarkably absent from these ones.

And the story, well, who even really cares? It looks like Lucas certainly didn’t. If you’re one of those people who likes arguing that the modern blockbuster is all about the effects at the expense of the narrative, you really could use this as key evidence. In fairness to it, it does look amazing, if sometimes rather on the video game level (the CGI in which PM is drenched is never as engaging as the original trilogy’s practical effects); as a piece of technical and production design, it’s quite something. As a piece of storytelling… less so. Quite apart from the specifically clumsy and weakly managed not-quite-subplot of Queen Amidala’s “decoy”, the rest of the thing’s just generally as clunky as hell. The sheer amount of stuff Lucas tries to fit in is, frankly, too much for the film’s good. And, as Mr Machete notes, in the long run not much of it was important anyway.

In fairness, again, the film had a frankly impossible task, having to start laying the groundwork not only for episodes two and three but also for the original trilogy—everything had to lead back to that (I recall the film poster featuring young Jake Lloyd as Anakin casting a long shadow in the shape of Darth Vader, which I always thought was a brilliant illustration of the new trilogy’s purpose)—and to do so without disgracing that trilogy. You can judge for yourself how well it managed that, personally I kind of come down on the negative side, obviously… it’s an undeniably flashy bit of product that is, ultimately, somewhat cold and remote; when it comes to the crunch, Phantom Menace just isn’t anywhere near as fun as the 1977-83 films were.

From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)

Director: Robert Rodriguez

Well, here’s a change of pace, courtesy of SBS (whose October horror films have spilled over into a season of vampire films this month)… given they showed the TV series recently, I suppose it makes sense for them to go back to the source. This really is a particular kind of “none more mid-90s” film, isn’t it? Robert Rodriguez directing, Quentin Tarantino writing, George Clooney starring (ooooh he was young then), plus Harvey Keitel and Juliette Lewis in supporting roles and a shitload of violence and movie references… and, well, Tarantino trying to act. He’s probably not actually that bad—the character of Richie doesn’t exactly call for subtlety or nuance—but the people at the Razzies and the Stinkers Bad Movie Awards begged to differ, both nominating him for worst supporting actor that year. But he is, obviously, outshone by Clooney (whose magnetism is much more immediately striking) and Keitel (who’s really good as the preacher who’s lost his faith), not to mention Tom Savini’s jaw-dropping crotch piece. I’m presuming this was one of the first films of this kind to be kind of reliant on CGI for certain things, and to be honest I was a bit surprised by the amount of it (I keep forgetting CGI had already been around for quite a while since then; ILM had been doing it since the 80s), though I’m guessing there was still a fair bit of traditional animatronics and so forth… One thing is hard to deny, though: FDTD is a massive cheesefest of a particularly unabashed kind. Shit exploding, vampires on fire, miscellaneous severed body parts, all round carnage, no finer feelings or higher thoughts or greater ambition to be anything other than what it is in evidence, it’s kind of what I was hoping for. If it does anything wrong, it’s probably that it lets the setup—i.e.  the Gecko brothers’ adventures before arriving at the Titty Twister—go on for too long before its gloriously abrupt transition from a hostage thriller into balls-out vampire action, and could’ve done with being trimmed accordingly. On the whole, though, it basically delivers on its ludicrous B-grade promise; no high art, but that’s not always a bad thing…

Three Colours: Red (1994)

Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski

Yeah, I kind of get what Ebert meant when he described this as an “anti-romance”. Red is about as heavy-handed as Blue and White, possibly even more so when it comes to the colour work; each film is full of things that are the colour in each title—blue pool lighting, big fields of snow, etc—and Red seems to be even more overtly full of “red business” than the other two films are of their respective colours. That said, I also felt Red possesses a degree of emotional warmth and resonance neither of the other two films particularly radiated, so that, whatever its issues, this is the one film in the trilogy I actually probably could watch again one day without undue distress. If Blue was about a woman on her own and White about a man on his own, both forcibly separated from their other halves, Red is about a man and a woman on their own but coming together. She’s a student and model who discovers him after she accidentally runs down his runaway dog; he’s a retired judge who spends his time spying on the telephone calls of the people who live near him (including hers). Not the most promising ground from which to grow a friendship, but that’s what happens, sure enough, as the two of them come to more of an understanding about each other; she brings him out of his shell of loneliness and bitterness and gradually comes to learn why he retreated into it in the first place. All played in lovely fashion by Irene Jacob and Jean-Louis Trintignant. I wish the other two films could’ve been more like this. The storm ending is a bit more melodramatic than anything in the trilogy and kind of out of place, and Red still suffers the problem the other two films do of having stories that could each have been told in about an hour without losing much, but I still got more from this than I did either of the other two films, and given my experiences of those I frankly wasn’t expecting that.

Three Colours: White (1994)

Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski

Never did work out why this was never in the 1001 Movies book with the other two. Ebert characterised Blue, White and Red as anti-tragedy, anti-comedy and anti-romance. I can kind of see what he meant about the anti-tragedy and I’ll be able to judge the anti-romance when I see that one, but what about the anti-comedy? What is an anti-comedy? A comedy that’s not funny? That sort of thing doesn’t take an arthouse master… Anyway, our “hero”, Karol, is a somewhat more immediately appealing figure than Julie in Blue; his wife, Dominique, has dumped his sorry Polish arse in a fairly bitter divorce, and, left homeless, he encounters another Polish man who contrives to get him back to Poland, where, over time, he re-establishes himself and, having done so, sets about taking his revenge on Julie by faking his death and framing her for his murder. OH MY ACHING SIDES! Yes, this is comedy in only a fairly nominal sense as most people would probably understand it; I think the only actual laugh-out-loud moment I had with it was the scene where the airport baggage handlers nick the suitcase he’s been concealed in and find him inside. And even that was more of a mild chuckle than a proper LOL. (Do you have any idea how much I hate myself for typing those three letters in a non-ironic manner like I just did?) I’ve seen the word “droll” used to describe White, and it’s probably the best descriptor of its rather particular humour, more funny peculiar (as the scene just described may indicate) than funny ha-ha, and possessing a distinct undercurrent of unpleasant sourness. I liked it better than Blue, which is not to say that I actually particularly liked it per se; it’s not as dull as Blue, but I did still find it about as cold and not much more engaging.

Three Colours: Blue (1993)

Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski

I’ve always been a bit of a “Three Colours” sceptic, despite only having seen this, the first part of it. Just something about the idea of it, I don’t know… cos Kieslowski evidently knew he would retire after making it (as he did, though I don’t think his death just a couple of years later was expected in quite the same way), and so it was obviously designed as a summation and Defining Artistic Statement (capitals used advisedly). Therefore it had to be Big, and Serious, and stuff like that. A rather deliberate and self-conscious monument. And, frankly, I wasn’t convinced, especially after I actually saw Blue; I missed it at the cinema and saw it later on video, but I obviously knew at the time, even when it was brand new, that it came bearing a vast reputation as this sort of epic pinnacle of early-to-mid-90s European Art Cinema. It was French and it was a Trilogy and you had to love it if you were a Serious Film Lover. And I didn’t. It actually rather bored me, and I never did bother with the other two films, although I’m remedying that now. In between times, I did also see L’enfer, directed by Danis Tanovic but written by Kieslowski (who seems to have left behind a number of scripts for other people to film once he’d retired), and I kind of hated that; it gave me the impression of Kieslowski having decided there was a certain formula to European Art Cinema, that there were certain things it should be about and do. This formula evidently included a certain quantity of ponderous self-serious wank, a good deal of which found its way into L’enfer and made me reluctant to explore Kieslowski further.

Still, you know me and my unfortunate tendency to think “I really need to give so-and-so a second chance in case I misjudged them when I was younger”, which is partly what’s driving me now to give the rest of the Three Colours trilogy a chance at last. Which, obviously, meant revisiting Blue first. And, well, it still bored me to tears all these years later. There’s one IMDB review that acknowledges the lead character, Julie, is pretty impenetrable, trying to cut herself off from everything in her grief, and so comes across as hard to like or connect with, but the film’s rather remote approach is actually more respectful of the audience because it’s not trying to manipulate us. I can kind of see what they mean but I don’t buy it; I think that in trying to depict what that IMDB reviewer calls “emotional frigidity”, the film itself just becomes emotionally frigid, and I don’t think there was ever a point at which I actually did give a damn about Julie’s grief. I don’t know, to be honest, if I was even supposed to; I don’t think I ever felt Kieslowski giving me much to work with. And I found the music hideously overbearing, which is a fairly major problem in a film that is, in some part, about that very music. Not an auspicious start to the trilogy for me at least; I’m sure I’ve seen it said somewhere that Blue is actually the comparatively weak link and the other two are better, and, well, I dearly hope that’s the case…

Army of Darkness (1992)

Director: Sam Raimi

Well, I said I’d need to see this after Evil Dead II, and, thanks to SBS (who aired the film last night; I recorded it for later viewing) I now have done so… more precisely, I appear to have seen the director’s cut. The film’s IMDB entry lists a bewildering array of alternate versions and one day I dare say I’ll be able to read it without getting a headache from trying, but I’m gathering what I just saw was Raimi’s preferred edit. ANYWAY, Ash is more sorely beset in this film than ever before, facing various threats posed by disgruntled medieval warriors, his own demonic double, the titular army, slightly ropey process photography and post-production tampering by Universal (who’d stumped up half the budget). At least this time the film looks like it’s had some money thrown at it, even if in the end it still wasn’t enough for all Raimi’s ambitions, the eventual appearance of the army of deadites makes for a remarkable spectacle… Again, he gets great mileage out of Bruce Campbell (whose Ash has a distinct tinge of madness to him in this film; I imagine that if I’d been through the shit he has by this time I’d be a little crazed too), what a terrific, game performer he is and what gurning he can do. And if I still doubt the precise tone of The Evil Dead, this one is pretty unambiguously skewed towards humour; there’s something… I don’t know, kind of juvenile (for want of a better word) about the forces of evil in the series, and Raimi really ramps that aspect up to the level of cartoon here. It’s all quite fun, obviously never takes itself remotely seriously, and yet something about it seemed slightly lacking and I can’t work out what or why. Maybe that “visceral” element the first film has. Maybe the compactness the first two films have. This one does seem to flop about a bit more at times. It’s good, but I’m not hugely blown away by it.

Scream (1996)

Director: Wes Craven

So the last horror film I reviewed was a film with which Wes Craven reinvigorated a stagnating genre, and, well, here he did it again… SBS2 are running a season of horror films for October, kicking off with this, so I thought I might as well take the opportunity to revisit it. I last saw it when it was newly released in cinemas, early ’97 in Australia, although for the life of me I have no idea any more why. After all, early ’97, I wasn’t really a horror fan as such. Look at the list of films it references according to IMDB; not only had I only seen a handful of the films on that list—in fact there’s quite a number I’ve only fairly recently got acquainted with, or STILL haven’t seen—I don’t think I’d seen an actual slasher film at that point. In other words, my effective introduction to the genre was actually via a parody of it; this is where I learned “the rules” of the game, and it’s probably coloured my limited appreciation of the genre ever since. On the other hand, Wes Craven’s a capable director with a track record in the genre, so the film was probably going to do OK in his hands, and it did; Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson turned out a pretty neat horror film that you didn’t really need to be into horror as such to enjoy, because I enjoyed it just fine (and, nearly 18 years after the fact, I’m not sure that having seen more of the films it references actually added much to my enjoyment of it again tonight). Scream was/is much vaunted for its self-awareness, being at some pains to point out the tropes it’s satirising, which could’ve been tiresome in lesser hands but I think Craven keeps on the right side of things for the most part, and it contributes to the black humour running throughout the film, which revels in its own excesses (particularly the musical ones). Unfortunately, in some ways it behaved a little too much like a “proper” slasher film; various production difficulties, a censorship battle with the MPAA who wanted to rate the film NC-17 and only gave it an R after Bob Weinstein told them it was a comedy as much as if not more than a horror film, and, least happily of all, a run of sequels that looks like continuing after number four was unexpectedly a hit…