Denver Bar Association
February 2000
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Hollywood: Make Better Films

by Greg Rawlings

To say that 1999 was a strange year for film is an understatement. No great films, nothing even close, and very few good ones.

The most imaginative film of the year was the bizarre "Being John Malkovich," video whiz Spike Jonze’s debut as a feature film director. That a film about being able to enter John Malkovich’s brain for 15 minutes at a time, and then be flung out beside the New Jersey turnpike was probably the film of the year, says more about how weird 1999 was than any dozen despairing articles in "Sight and Sound." That the high point of the film was either Charlie Sheen dispensing stony wisdom or a chimp with issues . . . need I say more? Well, one thing more: Orsen Bean as a 105-year-old letch. What has our culture come to? And to think the year only gets weirder.

"American Movie" is an often hilarious documentary about Mark Borchardt, a Wisconsin wannabe director. Borchardt is trying to finish his horror short, "Coven," so as to get financing for his would be classic, "Northwestern." His drunken, profane travels, with his stoner/ex-stoner buddies providing cheap labor, straight man deadpans and acoustic guitar accompaniment, is a "cheesehead with a dream" epic. This film is actually incredibly compelling, and in the end, quite sad. It may be the best documentary since "Hoops."
The French film "The Dreamlife of Angels," while not the masterpiece its champions declared it, was a dark slice of life, set in Lille, far from fashionable Paris. In this tale of two girls trying to get by, France is depicted just as class-bound as the UK, or the US, for that matter. The acting was superb, better even than "American Beauty," although the direction could have used more vigor.

Another very foreign film, albeit shot in English, "My Son the Fanatic," dealt with the juxtaposition of secularism and religious fundamentalism in a Pakistani family in northern England. Written by the same deft screenwriter/novelist who penned "My Beautiful Laundrette" in the late 1980s, Hanif Kureishi, the film built to a violent climax that felt uncomfortably real. I just can’t imagine an American studio having the guts to do a film like this about American religious fundamentalism. Then again, we don’t have any screenwriters like Kureishi.

The above-mentioned "American Beauty," had some beautiful cinematography, but there was something staged and unreal about the whole film. On the other hand, the acting was uniformly good, with Annette Bening in her best role since "The Grifters," upstaging the usually brilliant Kevin Spacey. This film, like 1998’s "Pleasantville" and 1997’s "Ice Storm," showed that there is a great deal of young acting talent out there, if they’ll just be given the chance to act—rather than merely "Scream."

Other films worthy of some mention included: Robert Altman’s very funny, "Cookie’s Fortune"; Kevin Smith’s equally funny (especially for a preacher’s kid) "Dogma"; John Boorman’s gripping "The General"; and the ditzy Watergate comedy "Dick."

Last but not least, both "Tarzan" and "Toy Story II" showed that animated films could be just as fun for parents as for kids, if the studios would make the effort. My 4-year-old daughter Hannah gave both these films two pig-tails up! And I liked them, too.

On video, look up Bill Murray’s late-1998 gem, "Rushmore," the best film this maniac has ever smirked his way through (he really deserved an Oscar nomination). Another worth your while is the grossly underappreciated "Babe: Pig in the City," the acid-trip sequel to the charming original—this may well be the weirdest film ever made. Seriously. Even Fellini at his most, well, Felliniesque, never went this far over the top.

Avoid the creepy, but stupid, "Blair Witch Project," with a cast that needed its collective mouth washed out with soap (the latter view is a comment that could apply to the casts/writers of "Dogma" and "American Movie" too).

One final mention. "The Talented Mr. Ripley," Anthony Minghella’s film of the brilliant Patricia Highsmith novel (one of the five or 10 best crime novels of the century), will find many admirers, but it has one major problem—the director has destroyed the hard, psychological unity of this perfect story. Tom Ripley is to suspense stories, what Hamlet is to theater—a paradigmatic figure of unending depth. Minghella subverts his tale with a homoerotic subplot that is unnecessary, and forces the usually likeable Matt Damon into some embarrassingly bad scenes. The "real" Tom Ripley, of the novels (and the other films of his multi-volume saga), is sexless, calculating and altogether singular. Almost saving the film is the spectacular scenery and the equally fine acting, especially by Philip Seymour Hoffman (who gets better every film), the dazzling Cate Blanchett and Jude Law. Another beautiful, flawed film by a director who someday could make a keeper, but who has yet to rise to that vaunted level. At least it’s not as long as "The English Patient," his last equally flawed work.

Here’s hoping that 2000 will inspire better things. Or at least a moratorium on screenplays seemingly based on how many times you can write the F-word in 120 pages. The American moviegoer deserves better.

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