Art Vs Commerce: Rise of Oscar Season (90s)

1999

So we’ve had movies I’d never seen.

We’ve had movies I saw long ago and was intrigued to revist.

We’ve had movies I’ve seen over and over and loved each time.

Now it’s time for “Movies I loved then but have no faith have aged well at all.”

At least this one is from Dreamworks, not Miramax, so I don’t have to talk Weinberg. But apparently having no sex offenders involved was asking too much.

[sigh] Here goes nothing.

And The Oscar Goes To…

A character says “There’s nothing worse in life than being ordinary,” and I immediately think of Lindsay Ellis’ quote discussing Independence Day… “Man we were so bored in the 90s.”

Okay. So. Quick breakdown. Lester Burnam (Kevin Spacey) is a depressed shell of a man in a hollow shell of a marriage with cold, cruel, controlling Caroline (Annette Bening), who’s convinced projecting the illusion of a perfect life will make her less miserable. He’s estranged from his daughter Jane (Thora Birch) and just miserable, but has an awakening and begins living his life to be happy, angering Caroline and Jane but freeing him emotionally. But his opening narration warns us he’s gonna die soon, and the question becomes, who’s gonna kill him? Caroline? Jane and her oddball boyfriend Ricky (Wes Bentley), the new neighbour kid who sells weed and films everything he thinks is “beautiful?” His abusive father (Chris Cooper), a former marine who’s deeply, miserably in the closet, and so filled with self-loathing it splashes onto anyone in his radius? Heart disease? (It’s not heart disease.)

(There are many reasons Cooper’s character is a bad man but that he’s laughing at and forcing his family to watch This is the Army is a big red flag to me.)

Let’s… unpack this piece at a time. Which means we’re putting a pin in the Kevin Spacey of it all and the fact that Thora Birch was definitely too young to be taking her top off in this thing. Or that her asshole father made himself her manager but was so impossible to deal with he scuttled her promising career.

First layer. Putting everything else aside. Was life so easy in the 90s that we needed multiple movies about middle aged white men realizing that hollow consumerism had swallowed their life and taking extreme steps to feel alive again? Man. Clinton’s America did not know how good they had it. No endless wars, robust economy, no global pandemics, white supremacy was keeping quiet enough that white men setting off bombs actually got called terrorists, and so bored middle-class life and the president getting a blowjob were what passed for crises. Jesus Christ, Clinton’s America, you had no idea.

Okay our next layer is where it starts getting uncomfortable. Lester’s awakening comes from wanting to fuck his daughter’s teenage friend (Mena Suvari). That’s it. That’s the inciting incident of this whole movie. That’s when Lester goes from passive aggressively sniping at Caroline to openly rebelling against her and revamping his existence. And that’s gross. A middle aged man openly lusting after a teenager is gross, yes even if said teen deliberately broadcasts an image of open sexuality for attention, it’s still gross, the very young intern who didn’t refuse when the most powerful man in the western world demanded a blowie isn’t the one we should have been mad at. It would still be uncomfortable if the actor playing Lester didn’t turn out to have a history of getting handsy with teenagers.

But Jesus Christ on a pogo stick it doesn’t help.

Next layer… Angela, the object of Lester’s lust, is somehow both Madonna and whore. We’re meant to root for Lester’s attempts to reshape himself into someone who can maybe sleep with a high school student until she finally admits she’s (SHOCK) a virgin, and he decides this is now inappropriate. It was always inappropriate, Lester.

Also how much do film students hate Ricky? The famous scene where he talks about how much beauty there is in the world because of a plastic bag in the wind is meant to be very deep but wow it seems silly looking back. Even at the time I feel I thought “Um, okay, you do you,” and tried to connect to the message rather than the bag specifically.

It looks great, because of course it does, Sam Mendes is a great director. Mendes can even make a middling Bond movie like Spectre look incredible. And the cast is mostly great. I say “mostly” because I can’t tell if Suvari’s take on vapid, aggressive Angela, desperate to be special, is kinda bad or absolutely perfect? Is she whiffing it or is the way I rolled my eyes at everything she said what they were going for? I honestly just can’t tell. Spacey in particular crushes Lester’s joy in breaking out of Caroline’s obsessive control, some of those scenes are still really fun to watch, even as you begin noticing that this movie has no interest in digging into what happened to Caroline during this marriage to make her like this. On a purely surface level, there’s a lot about American Beauty that still works and explains why I loved it so much when it came out.

But its core is deeply, deeply troubling, and I don’t think it’s meant to be, I think writer Alan Ball wrote a screenplay where a middle aged man has an awakening because he’s horny for a teenager, thought that was fine, threw in something about the beauty of a plastic bag, now he has an Oscar for writing. There are deep problems in this movie, it has not aged well, I was actively cringing at multiple scenes, and I don’t think I can even say “At least Kevin Spacey is good” without a huge qualifier.

It’s almost on par with Gone With the Wind in terms of “Look maybe we can try to appreciate it, but we have to discuss the flaws with the times it’s representing.”

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: It’s at #58, on spot over Rain Man, which I’m a little mad about, one one spot below How Green Was My Valley, which I’m also mad about? Look I have a lot of issues with American Beauty but come on, How Green Was My Valley?

What’s The Real Best Picture? This would be a lot easier if I’d seen The Green Mile. Or The Insider. Or The Sixth Sense. Hell or even Magnolia. But if we had to give an Oscar to a white man lashing out against consumerism, Fight Club was an option. I’m not saying it’s aged perfectly but at least it’s shorter on sex offenders.

Okay, that was unpleasant, but only one last movie to go this decade, so what are we wrapping our 90s entry with…

oh

Oh

……

no

The Box Office Champ

Well of course this was top of the box office. Sixteen years after Return of the Jedi, Star Wars was back. CG technology had finally reached a point where George could make Star Wars look like it did in his head: no puppets, no miniatures, no models. Everything rendered in the computer precisely how he wanted it. And with real names attached: Liam Neeson, Natalie Portman, Samuel L. Jackson, Ewan McGregor as young Obi-Wan. The hype was strong to see how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader, how the Galactic Republic became the Empire, what exactly the Clone Wars were.

But despite what fans initially felt, what we have here is the exact opposite of American BeautyBeauty was a good execution of a deeply flawed concept. Here the concept is strong let me finish but the execution was lacking.

See the people who initially turned on Phantom Menace were lifelong fans of Star Wars, people who grew up on Luke and Leia and Han. So we did what entitled fans of franchises always, always do… we expected Star Wars to have grown up with us. We expected a new Star Wars for us, as we were now. Whereas George Lucas saw Star Wars the way he always had, the way we always should…

So of course Anakin is a kid. Of course there’s a wacky comic relief character doing slapstick and stepping in dung and getting farted at by CG animals. Of course the villains are mostly droids that can be broken with a clean conscience if you don’t think too hard about how Star Wars droids are clearly sentient. Of course less effort is being put into firm narrative than a presenting series of engaging set piece action sequences no shut up that is NOT also a description of Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol I will mark you

So I’m not going to dock Phantom Menace for any of that, because as the resurgence of prequel appreciation from people who were kids when this came out proves… it aimed for kids, and the kids loved it. That’s a Star Wars movie’s first job, and adult fandom needs to get okay with that. Fans of Zack Snyder’s take on Superman, please take notes.

Also toxic fans had no right to be as cruel as they were to Ahmed Best (Jar Jar) and Jake Lloyd (Anakin). They just took jobs in a huge movie, roles nobody would turn down, and played them as George Lucas instructed, and toxic fans ruined their lives. That was wrong, no two ways about it.

All of that said this movie is bad, it is very bad, it is bad in ways the above statements do not absolve. Let’s do a speed round.

  1. The racial coding for the Trade Federation is awful. Making the villains talk like horrifying Asian stereotypes was bad and they should feel bad. Same note for Watto being coded as offensively Jewish.
  2. Also they’re just uninspiring villains overall. I know the real menace is Palpatine, we all know that, it always is apparently, but still.
  3. Remember in the 70s, when we discussed how the original title crawl immediately told us all we needed and had us fully invested in the Rebellion and the Empire? Phantom Menace doesn’t come close to that. Who are the Trade Federation and what do they want? I still don’t know.
  4. Midi-goddamn-chlorians. Nobody asked where the Force comes from, George. We especially didn’t need it to come from some space-word for mitochondria.
  5. Also Anakin was a virgin birth? Oh come on.
  6. Honestly Jar Jar was a little much and having him openly steal a catchphrase from Stephanie Tanner of Full House was… a weird choice.
  7. Having R2-D2 and C-3PO show up causes plot holes, it just does. Why doesn’t Obi-Wan recognize R2.
  8. How bad a director do you have to be to get performances that wooden out of Natalie Portman, Liam Neeson, Kiera Knightley, Samuel L. Jackson?
  9. What the hell is going on with Sebulba. Why would a species evolve to be that weirdly balanced. Why is he not always falling over from being so front-heavy.
  10. CG Gungans fighting CG droids on a CG landscape just proves how much better Michael Bay’s mostly practical action sequences are.
  11. “Yippee” as a repeated line was a mistake. And yes we all should have been nicer to Jake Lloyd, but honestly? The kid wasn’t up for it. Although if Lucas couldn’t get a good performance out of Portman, what chance did any ten year old have.

It was made for kids and 90s kids dug it enough that they’ve popped up in the past three years saying the prequels are sorely underappreciated (since, let me check… late December 2017, did something happen then that was divisive for Star Wars fans?).

But they’re wrong.

This movie is trash.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: 52% from critics, a dismal 59% from audiences, 90s kids ain’t swung the pendulum far.

What Should Have Won? Two siblings by the name of Wachowski made The Matrix, which we’re still fond of, and Brendan Fraser starred in The Mummy, which over 20 years later remains nearly perfect. Pick one.

Other Events in Film

  • This Year in Bond: Look I’ll defend Tomorrow Never Dies all day and all night but with The World is Not Enough, the Brosnan Bond era was clearly getting bad. Unrelated to the film’s quality: this was the final appearance of series mainstay Desmond Llewelyn as Q, and had him pass the torch to John Cleese; Judi Dench was having a Moment in Hollywood, so her M got a more prominent role. Both things got overshadowed by the perplexing choice to cast Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist.
  • This Year in Superheroes: Some obscure Dark Horse heroes get their time to shine in the underrated Mystery Men, stacked with 90s character actors in the process of breaking out. And it has the one of the best defenses for Superman (or here, Captain Amazing) wearing glasses being an effective disguise I’ve ever heard:
    “He takes of the glasses, and then he transforms.”
    “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard! He wouldn’t be able to see!”
  • Between American Beauty, American Pie, and the documentary American Movie, 1999 is when I started getting cynical about studios slapping “American” onto a noun and calling that a title. American Horror Story maybe didn’t deserve the bill for this growing distrust, and American Ultra definitely didn’t, but American Sniper absolutely did.
  • David Fincher’s Fight Club is a great movie with a very toxic fanbase who really missed the point of the movie. Like, “rooted for the snobs in Caddyshack” missed the point, only more dangerous. Fight Club competes with Rick and Morty for “worst portion of fans who learned the wrong lesson.”
  • 1999 saw the final film of Stanley Kubrick, Eyes Wide Shut, and the breakout film of twist-ending-enthusiast M. Night Shyamalan, The Sixth Sense. Not… the the best trade, but time’s arrow flies ever forward.
  • A better debut was Guy Richie, with the British crime flick Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels.
  • Jim Carrey takes one more shot at getting an Oscar nomination with the Andy Kaufman biopic Man in the Moon, but I guess they were still mad he did the Ace Ventura talk-through-his-butt bit during the ceremony a few years back because they pass.
  • Disney’s Tarzan is considered the end of the Disney Renaissance, but not because it didn’t do well, just because their 10-year streak concluded this year. The 2000s were less kind to the Mouse House’s animation division.
  • The Blair Witch Project makes huge money on a tiny budget and popularizes found footage as a genre.
  • Muppets in Space is the last Muppet movie for 12 years. Why did Disney buy the Muppets if they weren’t going to use the Muppets.
  • Wing Commander makes us all ask the vital question: “Look are we sure movies based on video games are a good idea?”
  • Jean-Claude Van Damme returns to the Universal Soldier franchise, signalling his 90s action career is now in a severe downward swing.
  • Luc Besson takes all the good will he earned with The Fifth Element and sets it on fire with The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc.
  • Kevin Smith tries to explore his faith in Dogma. He gets death threats. Feeling that was an overreaction to a movie featuring a rubber poop monster, he retreats back to goofy comedy.

Next page: Farewell to the 20th century

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