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Posts Tagged ‘the 1990s’

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

06/23/2011 2 comments

Stephen King is well-known for spinning tales of terror ranging from the supernatural to the mundane, using his considerable storytelling skills to inject fear into such things as a vintage car, a hotel room, and high school awkwardness. What many people don’t know is that happens when he steps outside the realm of horror and offers up an inspirational tale of maintaining hope in a situation that seems utterly hopeless, and in keeping a strong spirit in a setting that seems determined to tear you down. The result is this.

The Shawshank Redemption is a drama film written and directed by Frank Darabont, based on the Stephen King novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. It stars Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Bob Gunton, and Clancy Brown.

It is 1947. A mild-mannered banker named Andy Dufresne has just been convicted of the murder of his wife and her lover, despite his protestations of innocence, and sentenced to two life terms in the infamous Shawshank Prison. While there, he meets and befriends one Ellis Redding (known to his friends as Red), who is well-known in the prison for being able to get things for the inmates, and makes two simple requests: a rock hammer, in order to start and maintain a rock collection while in prison, and a poster of Rita Hayworth, one of the sex symbols of the day. Red takes an interest in Andy over the years as inmates come and go (including a lifer who couldn’t handle the outside world after serving 50 years in prison), watching as every part of Shawshank tries to break his will to go on, from the corrupt warden to the predatory band of rapists known as the Sisters. However, Red is about to learn an important lesson from the quiet banker: Prison is more than the walls that contain you. Prison is a state of mind – and if you don’t let prison get into your mind, you are capable of some amazing things.

I was honestly surprised when I found out this was Stephen King’s work. I’d seen and read a lot of his usual fare (my first taste of him was Carrie), and while there are some terrifying moments like Andy becoming the target of the Sisters, most of the tale is character-driven. Having Red as the point-of-view character allows the audience to observe Andy from a point one step removed from the man, even as we cheer on his efforts to overcome the institution’s restrictions. The main circle of convicts that the narrative follows over 20 years are mostly sympathetic despite their crimes, and as they start to look to Andy as a beacon of hope, we look to him as well: his unbreakable spirit offers us guidance for the times when circumstances seem hopeless. In other words, The Shawshank Redemption is spiritually the complete opposite of The Butterfly Effect. Both movies offer a protagonist who is repeatedly beaten down, but only one ultimately overcomes.

Of course, because it’s stupid to hate an institution, even one as intrinsically oppressive as a prison, the movie offers two groups of antagonists on whom we can focus our hate: The corrupt warden, whose every effort seems angled towards breaking the collective spirit of the inmates (and Andy in particular), and the Sisters, a gang of prison rapists who naturally target the fresh-faced Andy when he first arrives. Of course, this isn’t to say that the two antagonist groups are necessarily working to parallel purposes, as once Andy starts to become useful to the Warden, the Sisters’ reign of terror is brought to a swift – and brutal – end. Both the Warden and the Sisters feel like an intrinsic part of Shawshank, like natural predators in the prison environment, and they are the worst kind of douchebag that can be found in any environment. Specifically, they do what they do because they know they can get away with it, making their respective comeuppances that much more satisfying.

This movie will be an unexpected surprise for those familiar with Stephen King horror: a deep, inspiring story about one man’s unbreakable spirit in a setting designed to trap both body and soul within inescapable walls. Absolutely watch this movie.

Air Force One (1997)

06/14/2011 1 comment

Air Force One is the official air traffic call sign of any United States Air Force aircraft carrying the President of the United States. The two jets to which this title is officially assigned are the most technologically advanced and most secure aircraft in the world, designed to protect the President from any threat. You practically have to give a kidney and your firstborn to get the clearance to board. However, little do bad guys know that the real threat to intruders is not the hordes of Secret Service agents and countermeasures that populate the plane during Presidential excursions – at least not when the President is Indiana Jones.

Air Force One is an action film directed and co-produced by Wolfgang Petersen, and written by Andrew W. Marlowe. It stars Harrison Ford, Glenn Close, Gary Oldman, Xander Berkeley, William H. Macy, and Paul Guilfoyle.

It is 1993. A crack team of elite Spetsnaz and Delta Force commandos have just captured General Ivan Radek, the leader of a terrorist regime in Kazakhstan. Three weeks later, American President James Marshall gives a speech in Moscow, rejecting the idea that he should be congratulated for this victory, instead expressing dismay that it took the United States this long to act. He vows to take a hard line against terrorism, political self-interest be damned. Of course, this is certain to get up somebody’s nose. As he, his wife and daughter, and most of his political posse of advisors and cabinet members board Air Force One to head back to the States, a group of terrorists loyal to Radek board the plane under the guise of a Russian news crew. In the middle of the flight, they seize control of Air Force One and take its passengers hostage with the goal of forcing the President to call Moscow and have Radek released. Meanwhile Secret Service agents hustle Marshall to the escape pod to keep him out of harm’s way. Marshall has other ideas, though; these people are threatening his family and national security, and he is not going to let this stand. It isn’t long before the terrorists realize that they are trapped aboard a highly advanced aircraft with a very angry ex-military Battle President, who is willing to do anything to get them the hell off his plane.

It is clear from the premise itself that this is a pre-9-11 movie. Petersen himself said that with the tightening of national security protocols both civilian and presidential, it would be nigh-impossible for anyone to get the level of access to (and inside) Air Force One, let alone highjack it. As it was, at the time film crews were not even allowed inside either of the Air Force One jets, forcing the filmmakers to make educated guesses about the interior. However, the fact that the setup is dated and the immediate setting for the bulk of the movie was pretty much made up does not make this an uninteresting movie. The idea that terrorists would manage to get this far into the U.S. government’s inner sanctum is thrilling and terrifying, considering that they would be able to wipe out the top tiers of American political authority with frightening ease. While it is still an extremely difficult plan to execute in today’s political climate, this is the scenario that all the security-tightening is designed to prevent, and all it would take is a single hole to render everything moot.

Of course, while this is an action movie, it largely depends on a skilled cast to execute properly. Harrison Ford is excellent as James Marshall, an ex-military man trying to outwit some very dangerous people aboard a relatively tiny space. While he has come a long way since his Indiana Jones/Han Solo roots, he is resourceful and clever, using the resources he has at hand to foil the enemy forces swarming his jet. Glenn Close, playing his Vice President, is a protective and helpful voice on the ground, doing her best to negotiate with dangerous terrorists and guide Marshall to the knowledge he needs while working to prevent the Presidency from being usurped by well-meaning cabinet members. On the other side of the coin, Gary Oldman is a terrifying villain, willingly threatening women and children in pursuit of goals that could throw the civilized world into chaos, in ways that seem a far cry from his villainous role as Zorg in The Fifth Element, released the same year. He is ruthless. He is fanatical. He is unquestioningly loyal to Radek. He will eat your children. (And off-camera, he’s apparently a fun guy to be around.)

If you enjoy gripping, claustrophobic action movies and you’re a fan of Harrison Ford, I highly recommend Air Force One. While the premise may be nearly impossible today, it still plays on modern terrorism fears and keeps you hooked the whole way through.

The Usual Suspects (1995)


“The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

In a world of shadowy morality, something has gone very wrong in a heist on San Pedro Bay. Of all the questions raised, the one the cops most want answered is: “Who is Keyser Soze?”

The Usual Suspects is a neo-noir thriller directed by Bryan Singer. It stars Stephen Baldwin, Benicio Del Toro, Gabriel Byrne, Kevin Spacey, and Kevin Pollak.

Something has gone very wrong in San Pedro Bay, leaving a cargo ship ablaze and only two known survivors. FBI Agent Jack Baer and U. S. Customs special agent Dave Kujan arrive to investigate, and one of the survivors, a hospitalized Hungarian criminal, mentions that someone named Keyser Soze, whose reputation paints him as a legendary boogeyman, was in the harbor killing people. He saw him, though, and can describe him. Meanwhile the other survivor, a palsied con man named Verbal Kint, has his own story to tell, in exchange for near-total immunity. He paints a convoluted series of events leading to the explosion in the harbor, including how his crew was assembled to perpetuate a robbery targeting corrupt LAPD officers, and how they were subsequently hired for another job by the mysterious Mr. Kobayashi, on the behalf of the even more mysterious Keyser Soze. Things start going wrong, as things tend to do in these stories, but not everything is as it seems in Kint’s story, forcing Kujal to try to parse out facts from fiction in order to get to the bottom of what actually happened in San Pedro Bay.

This is not a movie that you can just turn on and zone out in front of. There are twists and turns, betrayals and double-crosses, and you may find yourself wanting to make a flowchart to keep track of all the players and events, only to have your initial theories trashed by later events. There are ultimately three versions of events: two are presented by Kint, and the third is what actually happened. This complicated Rashomon plays with your head as you are forced to not accept the narrator’s account as absolute fact, but rather try to parse out the story yourself – and then the ending hauls off and kicks you in the nuts with the conclusion that you probably still got it wrong the first time. This gives the movie a lot of rewatchability: you watch it the first time at face value, and then you watch it again knowing a lot of things that only come out during the conclusion, and you pick up even more subtle cues and clues with each successive rewatching.

The cast is fun to watch as well. The core group are scoundrels and scumbags, a loose gang of antiheroes out to screw someone over. The two agents are left scrambling in the wake of the massacre, forced to rely on a known con man for the only available account of things. Of the lot, Verbal Kint is glib and helpful and seems willing to aid the authorities – but how far can he be trusted? Everyone has their own motivations and means for reaching their goals, all working at cross-purposes until you’re not even sure who to root for. I won’t spoil anything for those who have yet to watch it, though, except to say that the ending is a HUGE twist, and those who have seen it shouldn’t forewarn people who haven’t. (I had The Sixth Sense ruined that way. Meh.)

If you like your thrillers twisty, your villains terrifying, and your heroes ambiguous, I highly recommend The Usual Suspects. The Rashomon-style storytelling will leave you guessing until the very end.

The Fifth Element (1997)

05/23/2011 1 comment

What do you get when a teenaged art student writes a sci fi film?? What do you get when a French director noted for his contributions to the cinema du look style direct it? What do you get when they’re both the same person? You get this.

The Fifth Element is a Friench sci fi film co-written and directed by Luc Besson, starring Bruce Willis, Milla Jovovich, Gary Oldman, Ian Holm, and Chris Tucker.

In 1914, when planet Earth is on the verge of World War I, an alien race called the Mondoshawan arrives at an ancient Engyptian tomb to retrieve a weapon capable of fighting a Great Evil that appears every five thousand years: four stones representing the four classical elements, plus a fifth element that can unite the other four. They promise to return when the Great Evil returns, presenting a key to be kept safe until then. Fast forward 349 years. Planet Earth is now a bustling, futuristic, visual cacophany, and the Great Evil is drawing closer, eating a Federated Army starship. The Mondoshawans attempt to return to Earth with their anti-evil weapon, but their ship is ambushed and destroyed by Mandalores, a race of shapeshifting mercenaries hired by one Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg. In the remains of the Mondoshawan ship, Earth’s scientists find a sample of astonishingly complex genetic material, and reconstitute it into a supreme being named Leeloo, who escapes and winds up in the company of Korben Dallas, an ex-Army Major with the Federated Army Special Forces turned cab driver. After the situation is explained to him, Dallas is ordered to recover the stones from their current holder, an opera singer. Dallas isn’t so sure about the saving-the-world thing, but he thinks Leeloo is hot, so what the hell. And a very beautiful action movie ensues.

The first thing you will notice about this movie is its beauty. The Fifth Element is a definite treat for the eyes, giving you plenty to see as the story unfolds. The future Mr. Besson offers us is colorful and chaotic, from the costumes to the sets to the vehicles, with everything enhanced with CG just enough that the effects don’t get in the way. New York City of 2263 is just as busy as its modern counterpart, but in three dimensions – perfectly understandable in a setting with flying cars – leading to a unique twist on the car chase seldom seen in science fiction. The costumes are garish and exotic, offering a unique flavor to the setting without making the eyes bleed, though this is turned up until till the dial breaks with Chris Tucker’s near-brush with drag queen fashion as Ruby Rhod (incidentally, the costumes he wears during the Phlogiston scenes are not the most garish the costume designer had cranked out; those were shown to Tucker first to make the actual costumes seem tame by comparison). Pair the Technocolor palette with a handful of unique alien designs (without having the whole movie crawling with weird races), and The Fifth Element is a lot of fun to watch without even touching the story.

Fortunately, unlike some other pretty movies I’ve seen, the plot rises to meet the challenge and doesn’t drown in the spectacle, offering a unique take on the “saving the world” plot, set against the flashy backdrop of this colorful future. The action parts are about average for 90’s Bruce Willis, with gunfights, bad guys, car chases, and snarky one-liners tossed about. Dallas is delightfully deadpan about the whole thing: with his history in the Special Forces, absolutely nothing phases him about getting chased by cops after an alien woman falls into his cab from about five stories up, hostile Mandalores shooting at him while opera plays in the background, or even the impending destruction of Earth by a Big Ball of Hate. He assesses, he reacts, he powers through, and he goes about his business. One unusual point that I didn’t notice for a long time after I watched this movie for the first time, though: You have the hero, Korben Dallas. Fine. You have a human antagonist serving the Hateball, Zorg. These two people never meet. At all. They’re never in the same room with each other at any time in the movie. They never see each other. This seems like it wouldn’t work, until you realize that the movie isn’t about Dallas vs. Zorg, but rather Dallas vs. the Hateball. Zorg becomes an incidental pawn in the Hateball’s plans, and while he’s entertaining to watch, he’s only a part of the grand scheme for the annihilation of all life. Brilliant.

If you’re tired of the same old sci fi action movie with the same cookie-cutter settings and conventions, check out The Fifth Element. It’s sheer eye candy, backed by a solid plot that will entertain any sci fi fan.

Mom and Dad Save the World (1992)


Some kids believe their parents can do anything. Dick and Marge’s children have outgrown that stage, but little does anyone know that this middle-aged couple are about to save planet Earth…

Mom and Dad Save the World is a sci fi adventure film, loosely parodying Flash Gordon and similar space opera serials, directed by Greg Beeman. It stars Jon Lovitz, Jeffrey Jones, Teri Garr, and Eric Idle.

Emperor Tod Spengo has been the leader of the planet Spengo since he overthrew the previous king, It is a planet of idiots, but that’s okay because Tod is an idiot as well. However, he has a clever plan – blow up the Earth so that Spengo will be the greatest planet in the galaxy through sheer lack of competition (I did say he was an idiot). However, when he looks to see where exactly his Death Ray will impact on that stupid blue planet, he sees a middle-aged housewife exercising in the backyard, and is instantly smitten. Planet Earth’s imminent destruction can wait, he decides, until after he has captured his alluring Earth woman and made her his bride. Marge Nelson (said alluring Earth woman) and her husband Dick are about to leave on a trip to Santa Barbara to celebrate their 20th anniversary, little suspecting that some madman wishes to reduce their home planet to atoms. They find out in a hurry, though, when Tod uses his Magnobeam to abduct them, station wagon, luggage, and all, and bring them to Spengo. Now these middle-aged parents are forced to fight for their lives, their freedom, and the continued existence of planet Earth against the forces of unfathomable evil idiotic petulance and atrocious fashion sense in order to escape the clutches of Emperor Tod Spengo and get home safely. Naturally, hilarity will ensue.

This is a pretty silly movie, in the same category as Spaceballs. Tod Spengo is basically Emperor Ming as an overweight, insecure loser, which makes his antics laughable when they would be frightening on a serious villain. In fact, all the denizens of Spengo have a deadpan goofiness about them that makes it hard to take the story seriously. They follow Emperor Tod because he’s the emperor and they’re all idiots. The rebels see rocks as astonishingly advanced technology (perhaps in a shoutout to the Ewoks’ victory over the more advanced storm troopers in Return of the Jedi), and they believe stealth can be found in disguising themselves as birds of a scale that aren’t native to the planet. By far the most dangerous creature on the planet is the Lubb-Lubb, an adorable little mushroom-like creature capable of biting off your arm. You will be laughing and facepalming at everything that happens on Spengo. And that’s the whole point – this movie takes a theoretically serious story, adds a strange twist, and lets the thing spiral off into chaos. It puts a suburban middle-aged couple in the role of unlikely heroes, Spengo et al in the role of unlikely villains, and White Bird’s forces in the role of unlikely rebel reinforcements.

That said, this was a very well-done parody. The special effects were suitably campy, including the creature effects on the bulldog-men and fish-ladies (implied to be the male and female counterparts of the same species), the sets were gleefully complex to the point of absurdity, and the costumes were divided into two categories: state-mandated atrocious fashion, and loincloths. The acting was spot-on and sufficiently overdone for the genre, and the actors seemed to be having a great time poking fun at space opera conventions even as their characters took the whole thing seriously. Except for Eric Idle. He’s like that all the time.

If you’re looking for a goofy little send-up of the space opera genre and you’ve already watched Spaceballs more times than is entirely beneficial to your mental health, hunt down this little gem. It’s goofy and fun and more than a little insane, and that’s just the way I like my parodies.

Speed (1994)


“Pop quiz, hotshot. There’s a bomb on a bus. If the bus goes above fifty miles per hour, the bomb is armed. If it goes below fifty, it blows up. What do you do? What do you do?”

There are relatively few movies out there where the entire premise can be explained in a single line of dialogue. Fortunately, this one sticks to the basics. Bomb. Bus. Nameless potential victims. Mad bomber. Love interest. Heroic cop. Shit blowing up. All that’s left is for you to sit back and enjoy the ride.

Speed is an action thriller film directed by Jan de Bont and written by Graham Yost and Joss Whedon (Yes, that Joss Whedon). It stars Keanu Reeves, Dennis Hopper, Sanda Bullock, Jeff Daniels, and a Santa Monica city bus.

Howard Payne is not a happy man. So show how unhappy he is, he traps a bunch of people in an elevator rigged with explosives, threatening to send who whole mess plummeting to a rather abrupt doom if his demands are not met. He is thwarted by SWAT officers Jack Traven and Harry Temple, who rescue the hostages, but Howard appears to get blown up by yet another bomb. Oh well. Jack and Harry are commended for their bravery, and all seems well, until the following day when a city bus driven by a friend of Jack’s goes boom. Jack receives a call at a nearby pay phone, and learns two things in rapid succession: Howard Payne is (surprise!) still alive, and he has rigged a second bus to explode. Once the bus goes above fifty miles per hour, the bomb is armed, but once it drops below that… well, you get the idea. Since this second bus is an express bus, stopping it before the bomb is armed proves futile, leaving Jack with no alternative but to board the bus at cruising speed in order to ensure the safety of its passengers and try to figure out how to get everyone safe. Now, he and his fellow police officers must think fast during the only fixed scrolling level in cinematic history to keep a city bus from going boom.

This is not a complicated movie, as summarized by Payne. As one of the crew for Die Hard, naturally de Bont would bem well-suited for this “Die Hard on a Bus” scenario, and as far as that goes he does not disappoint. Speed doesn’t try to pretend to be anything but an extended car fu story, and in this respect it does well. The plot is exciting, the villain is Evil with a Reason (which you find out as the cops dip into Payne’s backstory), and the idea of being trapped on a city bus rigged to explode is a commuter’s nightmare.

That said, the acting is… about what you’d expect in a movie like this. Keanu Reeves had made other movies between Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey and this one, but I think this is the first one where he managed to really shake off the spirit of Ted Logan and start to mature as a serious actor. Dennis Hopper is wonderfully hammy as mad bomber Howard Payne, and Sandra Bullock is charming as the frazzled brunette role she would go on to play in later movies. Among the supporting cast, the other police officers were surprisingly competant given the usual trend in the action genre, but amongst the imperiled passengers the only real standout is Alan Ruck’s character Stephens, notable for his diplomatic translation over a radio of Jack’s reaction to finding a second explosive device on the bus.

So, if you’re looking for a decent action movie with a deceptively simple plot, you could do worse than Speed. It’s not complex, but it is engaging in a Snakes on a Plane sort of way, and it would be worth a rental one evening if you had nothing else to do.

The Mask (1994)

04/16/2011 1 comment

Jim Carrey has always been a spaz. From his frenetic stand-up comedy routines to his chaotic stint as a member of the In Living Color troupe, he had already been labelled a human cartoon. Then in 1996, he starred in a movie that showed people how big a spaz he could be by turning him into an actual human cartoon.

The Mask is a superhero fantasy comedy film directed by Chuck Russell, based (generally) on the comic book miniseries of the same title by Dark Horse Comics. It stars Jim Carrey, Cameron Diaz, Peter Greene, Amy Yasbeck, and Richard Jeni.

Stanley Ipkiss is a loser. He gets no respect at work, he is a shy closet romantic, and he is regularly bullied by everyone around him. His only friends are his Jack Russell Terrier, Milo, and his co-worker Charlie. One night after being denied entry to the elite Coco Bongo Club and getting stranded in a broken-down rental car by the harbor, Stanley finds a wooden mask floating in the water. On a whim, he takes the mask home, and puts it on as a joke – and the mask tranforms him into a wild, chaotic trickster with reality-bending powers, manifesting as a live-action version of a Tex Avery cartoon character. While his life seems to be turning around now that the Mask has been unleashed, it is also going to get him in trouble with two groups: The police, who are investigating the Mask’s robbery of the bank Stanley works at, and gangster Dorian Tyrell, who had been planning to rob that same bank just before the Mask hit it, and who owns the Coco Bongo Club. Now Stanley finds himself trying to keep a very odd secret from those who would use the Mask for evil, while keeping his natural Jim Carrey-ness on a leash.

I enjoyed the hell out of this movie. The fact that Carrey’s portrayal of a human cartoon needed only minor CGI enhancement makes the movie that much funnier, but at the same time it offered a glimpse of his ability to play more subdued roles (well, relatively subdued). While Carrey as Stanley was more or less Just a Normal Guy, there were hints and twitches of Not Normal here and there, which only served as foreshadowing of what the Mask would be like, which was, personality-wise, Jim Carrey as a reality warper. Cameron Diaz also fared well in her first movie role as The Hot Chick, starting out as a love-interest/plot device before developing into a genuine character who actually serves a role in the climax beyond the Damsel in Distress. The other characters are borderline caricatures, from the annoying landlady to the bullying boss to the jerkass mechanics, but it works here, since they have to keep up with Jim Carrey in a comic book universe.

Once I heard that the movie had been adapted from a comic book series, I did pick up a couple issues of The Mask to compare. The comics (being from Dark Horse) are a lot darker, and the Mask is more dangerous and sociopathic than just a fun-loving trickster. Here, though, he’s a bit more audience friendly, making the Mask only as dangerous as its wearer, even as it unleashes new heights of hyperactivity that Carrey had previously only dreamed of. The Mask effects were excellent, earning the film an Academy Award nomination for Best Visual Effects (it lost to Forrest Gump) and perfectly translating cartoonish superpowers to a live-action medium. Honestly, I think only Carrey would have had the energy to play a character like this.

In the end, The Mask is a fun homage to Tex Avery cartoons and an exploration to the limits of Jim Carrey’s sheer hyperactivity. It really doesn’t pretend to be much more than that, and it doesn’t need to be. I highly recommend it next time you’re looking for a good comedy – just sit back and watch the chaos unfold.