Wednesday, August 16, 2017

It Came From the '90s: Essential Films of 1997

This series looks back at the 1990s and its influence on the generation of people who came of age during the decade.

I love lists. Anyone who really knows me knows this. When I feel inspired by something, I'll drop a top five or ten list on you at any time, without warning, like that time I ranked all of the X-Men films (before Logan came out, so today that film would top the list). So I'm a sucker for lists like the one The AV Club compiled for the best movies of 1997. It reaffirmed something I felt twenty years ago, which is that 1997 was an exceptional year at the movies.

After you've read the AVC's list, come back here and I'll opine on some of the choices, probably argue with the rankings, and finally mention a few films from 1997 that didn't make the cut.

18. Grosse Point Blank. I might rank this one higher, but my love for this film is widely known. I was about to graduate from college when I saw it, and Cusack's portrait of a man faced with an uncertain future finding some strange comfort in his nostalgic past strongly resonated with me. The killer soundtrack doesn't hurt, either.

Kevin Kline in The Ice Storm.

14. The Ice Storm. Like many of the great films on this list, Ang Lee's hauntingly beautiful meditation on 1970s suburban ennui remains powerful today. In some ways, it's even more so now that we've had two more decades to further marinate in the specific sort of privileged American malaise this film chronicles. If you grew up in the 1970s through the 1990s, in other words if you are a member of Generation X, then so much of this film will be eerily familiar. From the drab and dreary late-fall setting, to the pitch-perfect period details, to a morose Tobey Maguire reading Fantastic Four on the commuter train, the film remains a deeply affecting work without being sentimental or cloying. The AV Club says it best,
The suburbs roiling with bad behavior and dirty secrets was a long-standing cliché well before The Ice Storm arrived on the scene, but Lee, Moody, and adapting screenwriter James Schamus observe every character in the pair of intertwined families with a clear, sharp vision of behavior that vacillates between soul-searching and self-destructive.
The Ice Storm ranks in my personal top five for 1997.

10. The Game. It's good to see this oft-neglected David Fincher film (released between two of his most memorable works, Se7en and Fight Club), as I've always had a soft spot for it. Still, I wouldn't rank it #10 for that year. Quibbles with rankings aside, the film's stature certainly has grown over the years, and deservedly so. It just proves that Fincher's body of work is so strong that a movie this good still probably wouldn't crack a top five list of his films.

8. L.A. Confidential. Look, #8 is absurd. This one should be in the top five for 1997, easy, maybe even top two or three. I'd rank it in the top ten of the entire decade. This reminds me, I need to revisit the film again, it's been far too long. 

6. Titanic. Look, it's been twenty years but I still haven't seen this blockbuster in its entirety. Every time I've caught portions of it on cable I've wanted to barf. At this point, I think I'm avoiding a complete viewing out of spite, and that's fine with me. I have as little interest in the film today as I did in 1997, which is to say I have no interest in it. So it's no surprise that it wouldn't make my top twenty of 1997. Sorry, Kate and Leo fans.

5. Starship Troopers. I think Paul Verhoeven is an underappreciated cinematic genius, and I've written about his films twice recently, here and here. So I won't wax rhapsodic about this movie's brilliant satire of the military-industrial-media-complex, just know this: Starship Troopers, like many of Verhoeven's films, was woefully misunderstood upon release but eventually people caught on to what he was putting down. Some works of genius are only fully appreciated with time and distance, it seems.

That scene in Boogie Nights.

4. Boogie Nights. This one was rightly celebrated in 1997 as an audaciously ambitious powerhouse ensemble piece that left you breathless throughout. While I've heard some grumblings about it being overrated since then—a friend once laughed derisively when I declared the infamously insane "Sister Christian" scene to be one of my favorites in all of film—it still more than holds up today. Don Cheadle's cowboy hat wearing stereo salesman? Brilliant. Heather Graham's iconic Rollgergirl? Heartbreaking. Burt Reynolds' porn king, Jack Horner? Hilarious yet highly disturbing. Mark Wahlberg, of whom I'd previously had a mostly low opinion, was spectacular. Boogie Nights is Paul Thomas Anderson's first true masterpiece.

1. Jackie Brown. The AVC and I are in complete agreement on the #1 film of 1997, no question about it. I remember loving this movie so passionately back then, and feeling like no one else seemed to get it like I did. I recall an awful lot of complaints from friends and critics that it was a letdown after Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs. "It's too long" and "It's too slow" were the primary reasons given by these folks for disliking the film. Today it seems obvious, in a career filled with several excellent films, Jackie Brown is still Tarantino's best. So it's good to see the critics finally coming around to it these days. I have so much I could say about it that I'd like to write an entire piece about the film instead. For now I'll note that it's one of the most poignant portrayals I've ever seen of two adults navigating both life and their mutual attraction. Pam Grier and Robert Forster are magnificent, each turning in career-best work. And, of course, the film is a beautiful love letter to Grier from superfan Tarantino, which only enhances its appeal. She never had the opportunities to star in truly great films, but this one will always stand as a testament to her charisma, charm, and underrated skills as an actress.

Pam Grier owns the screen no matter the role, but especially as Jackie Brown.

There are so many more great films from 1997 not included on the AVC list, including Cop Land (featuring an all-star cast and Sylvester Stallone's tour-de-force work)Chasing Amy (Kevin Smith's sweet and sometimes naive look at love)The Fifth Element (Luc Besson's manic sci-fi romp)Devil's Advocate (Al Pacino setting the screen on fire with a ferociously fun performance as the Devil)Donne Brasco (featuring another gem of a performance by Pacino), and Lost Highway (one of David Lynch's most disturbing films, which is saying an awful lot), to name a few. Clearly, 1997 was a very good year at the multiplex, and I was fortunate to see many of these films that year. I idolized (and still do) the films of the 1970s, Hollywood's last true Golden Age. So in 1997, I recognized and appreciated the inspiration of 1970s cinema on the new movies I was then watching in the theater. It certainly was a glorious time to be a young film fanatic.

Lastly, let me say a few words about another 1997 film, Anaconda. 

J Lo: bored and a little embarrassed. Cube: cashing in. Voight: batshit crazy. 

Ahem, okay, this one shouldn't be anywhere near a top twenty (or thirty or forty or...) list, but I don't care I love it anyway. It's so outrageously bad, so gleefully absurd, that I can't help myself. For god's sake, it stars J Lo, Ice Cube, Owen Wilson, Eric Stoltz, Kari Wuhrer, and Danny Trejo! And, turning in an all-time great terrible performance, Jon Voight. I'm not sure we've seen a cast this magnificently bizarre since. Plus, let's not forget the giant killer snake. 'nuff said.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Michelle Pfeiffer: Frankie and Johnny

Revisiting—or in a few cases, watching for the first time—and celebrating the work of Michelle Pfeiffer, the best actress of my lifetime.

And then there was the time my two favorites starred in one of the most starkly honest and mature films about grownup relationships this viewer has ever seen. Frankie and Johnny (1991) is a beautifully melancholic tale, laced through with rich and sincere humor aimed at adults—people who've lived long enough to have loved and lost and felt real longing and despair.

Al Pacino is fantastic as Johnny, the new short-order cook at the diner where Michelle Pfeiffer's Frankie works. Johnny is a good man who truly believes that he and Frankie are meant to be together. Johnny is fully alive now to the realization that life is short, so he's resolved to cherish every minute of it moving forward. Frankie is the cynic, the beaten-down diner waitress who masks the pain of previous relationship failures with biting sarcasm and avoidance. She's the emotional core of the film. Pfeiffer makes us believe just how badly Frankie has been hurt before, how frightened and damaged beyond repair she feels. Her performance is simply heartbreaking, so nakedly raw and thoroughly believable. At the time she was cast, there were grumblings about her being "too pretty" to be convincing as the world-weary Frankie. With this ferocious, committed performance, she put those doubts to rest.

Late in the movie, Pfeiffer sobs, almost uncontrollably, through a devastating monologue that guts me every time—"I'm afraid to be alone, I'm afraid not to be alone, I'm afraid of what I am, what I'm not, what I might become, what I might never become." It's truly a tour-de-force moment, the kind that will forever be included in highlight reels celebrating her work.

Frankie and Johnny is an all-time sentimental favorite of mine, one that will always hold a special place in my heart. Sometimes you connect with a film, or with a character, in such a deep and meaningful way that they become an integral part of you. That's my experience with both this film and the two lead performances, but especially with Pfieffer's work as Frankie. She's a revelation here. Some days, I even believe it's her very best work.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

It Came From the '90s: The Hope and Heartbreak of Riley's New York Knicks

This series looks back at the 1990s and its influence on the generation of people who came of age during the decade.

Pat Riley's New York Knicks broke our hearts, every single yearNot only did they break them, but they ripped them out of our chests, stomped on them, tore them in half, and then tossed the pieces in the river. And we loved them anyway.

I grew up in the shadow of Schenectady. In the shadow of the men born and raised on its city streets, including Riley, and most importantly, my father. These were men who didn't complain about life's heartache and misery, but instead just lived, motivating those around them by their work ethic and their true and unwavering principles. Certainly, Riley's Knicks (1991–1995) were the perfect team for the tough 'n' gritty New York City of that era. Yet they were also bruisers, uncompromising, relentless. They beat you by out-hustling and out-working you. In other words, like their coach, they were Schenectady.

Patrick Ewing was their superstar, yet one who'd never tasted much success. Otherwise the roster was stocked full of NBA journeymen, former minor-leaguers, and grocery store baggers. Yet early on these assorted losers and oddballs gelled under Riley. They went from nobodies to serious title contenders by his second year on the bench. Rejects and has-beens like Anthony Mason, John Starks, Greg Anthony, and Derek Harper played their hearts out for Riley. It also didn't hurt they had grizzled vet Charles Oakley to help set the tone and style Riley was after, one that favored tenacious defense over fluid offense. Riley was smart (duh, he's a Hall of Fame coach)—he knew he didn't have an offensive powerhouse so he played to his team's strengths on defense instead.

Tenacious D: what Riley's Knicks lacked in offensive firepower they made up for with smothering defense.

That Riley inspired these misfits to (almost) greatness was astonishing then and remains a minor miracle today. In his four years they won 51, 60, 57, and 55 games. Three out of four of these years they were knocked out of the playoffs by one of their two hated rivals, the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers. I can still see the heartbreaking endings of games, series, seasons, as if they were happening in real time today: Charles Smith blowing what felt like a dozen layups against the Bulls in the final seconds; Reggie Miller shocking New York and the world with eight points in nine seconds to steal a win; Ewing's missed gimme of a finger roll at the buzzer against the Pacers, this one the final nail in the coffin, as Riley left for Miami soon after.

One year stands above all others though, in terms of pure Shakespearean tragedy. In '94, the Knicks finally made it past the Bulls (who, it must be stated, were missing Jordan, inexplicably off shagging fly balls in the deep south). The '94 Finals against Hakeem's Houston Rockets was an ugly yet absurdly addictive series, filled with grueling basketball, amounting to more of a war of attrition than anything. The Knicks went back to Houston with a 3-2 lead and a championship within their grasp. Then it all fell apart. The Rockets, rejuvenated at home, squeaked out wins in the final two games, assisted greatly by Hakeem's last-second block of Starks' jumper in game six, and then Starks' horrific 2-18 shooting performance in game seven. It was painful to watch.

Even today, this screen capture breaks my heart.

It wasn't supposed to end that way. The NHL's Rangers and the Knicks had each been marching towards greatness all season, and watching their twin playoff run concurrently still remains quite possibly the most intoxicating sports viewing experiences of my life. All of New York seemed electrified by these two long-suffering franchises that summer, all of us seemingly living and dying with the outcome of every game. The Rangers upheld their end. The Knicks almost did, but almost doesn't count in the end.

Yet, looking back on it now, I think New Yorkers from across the state loved those Knicks, not despite their falling apart at the end of big games, but because of it. In some twisted way, we identified with and even saw ourselves in their imperfections. Ultimately Riley's Knicks overachieved. Their roster wasn't nearly as talented as the Pacers or Bulls, yet they fought tooth and nail against those squads in some of the NBA's hardest-fought playoff series of the era, maybe ever. I still ache for the championship(s) they almost won, but I also continue to be inspired by how much effort they expended trying to scale that mountain, year after year. It was a wild four-year ride, during which time the Knicks ripped out our hearts often, but dammit if we didn't still love them anyway.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Michelle Pfeiffer: The Fabulous Baker Boys

Revisiting—or in a few cases, watching for the first time—and celebrating the work of Michelle Pfeiffer, the best actress of my lifetime.

Here it is, the iconic performance that made Michelle Pfeiffer a breakout star and a household name while also earning her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989) is an intensely intimate film with some terrific insights into what it's like to be lonely and feel unworthy or unloved. I hate to use this cliche, but it's the kind of film we don't see nearly enough these days. It focuses on a lounge act trio—two piano-playing brothers, Frank and Jack Baker (real-life siblings Beau and Jeff Bridges) and the inexperienced yet undeniably charismatic singer who shakes up their humdrum existence, Susie Diamond (Pfeiffer).

It's no surprise Pfeiffer was celebrated when the film opened to glowing reviews—she's pure electricity here, especially on stage where Susie quickly develops into a stunningly confident singer, putting her entire body and soul into the performances. In the film's most famous scene, when she's wearing that red dress and slinking and writhing atop Jack's piano while singing "Makin' Whoopee," Pfeiffer provides one of the most indelible moments in film history, one that will be played forever in montages celebrating the magic of the movies.

Pfeiffer is equally adept at dishing out Susie's razor-sharp wit, as in this memorable scene:
Frank: Okay, let's hear it. We trashed the Avedon, the Luau Lounge—what's our beef with 'Feelings'?
Susie: Nothing... except who cares? I mean, does anybody really need to hear 'Feelings' again in their lifetime? It's like parsley, okay? Take it away, nobody's going to know the difference. 
Frank: 'Feelings' is not parsley!
Susie Diamond: Frank, to you 'Feelings' may be goddamn filet mignon, but to me, it's parsley. It's less than parsley.
The real magnificence of Pfieffer's performance is in how she allows us inside Susie's delicate vulnerability. She's overcome a lot in her past (she was a prostitute), protecting herself from the pain with biting sarcasm off stage and sultry seductiveness on stage. When Susie finally expresses herself to Jack with heartbreaking honesty, it's devastating to watch. Pfieffer makes us feel Susie's pain. Her speech about how we tell ourselves that we have an empty place inside us to hide away the pain culminates with a devastating truth: "But you do it long enough and all you are is empty."

In 1988, Roger Ebert famously raved about Pfeiffer's performance. He said:
"This is one of the movies they will use as a document, years from now, when they begin to trace the steps by which Pfeiffer became a great star." — Roger Ebert
And also:
"This is the movie of her flowering—not just as a beautiful woman, but as an actress with the ability to make you care about her, to make you feel what she feels."
Ebert was correct. This is the film that launched her career into the stratosphere, and forever after people would point to it as the moment when audiences and critics realized she had not only the raw talent but also the charisma and dedication to become the best.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

An Appreciation: Nicola Scott

Nicola Scott. Photo: Cole Bennetts.

For my money, Nicola Scott is the finest comic book artist working today. Certainly, she's been an excellent artist for a while now, since she first entered the field about fifteen years ago, but recently she's emerged as a truly special artist, with a style all her own. Make no mistake: she's outrageously good now.

Her recent work, especially on DC's Wonder Woman and Image's Black Magick, is astonishingly impressive—seriously, drop everything and pick up the trades for these series right now. These books make it clear that Scott is in the midst of a major moment, and she's grasping those opportunities and making the most of them. Thanks partly to a unique confluence of events, including Wonder Woman's (brief) United Nations Ambassadorship last fall (for which Scott illustrated the jaw-dropping poster), the character's 75th anniversary in 2016, and the new Patty Jenkins film starring Gal Gadot, Scott's work is now reaching a larger audience than ever. In many ways, she's become the definitive Wonder Woman artist in recent memory.

Scott seems to be in total command of her artistic repertoire now, while also continually evolving into something even greater, with each successive issue. There's no one better right now at portraying the full extent of human emotions. When she draws Wonder Woman looking solemn or joyous or determined, you can see each clearly through Scott's emotive illustrations. It's in the way she draws Diana's eyes slightly downcast, or how she might make the Amazon's mouth break into a smile so broad it could light the world, or when she furrows her brow and directs those piercing blue eyes at the reader. She breathes life into her characters, making them feel like so much more than just lines on a page. Like all great art, Scott's work burrows straight into your soul and makes you feel, deeply.

As a lifelong practitioner of art whose true artistic love is portrait drawing and cartooning, I'm inspired by Scott's work. When I sketch now, it's her faces that I see in my head. When she recently talked with W about her philosophies and goals when drawing comics, my appreciation for her work only further deepened. Before you click over to that interview, let's end this appreciation with some examples of Scott's exquisitely beautiful artwork. These images, like my gushing words above, don't completely do her justice; for that, you really need to seek out her work in book form, recline in your most comfortable chair, and simply luxuriate in the glow of an artist at the top of her game.

Scott's ability to convey emotions through her characters' eyes is second to none. From Wonder Woman.

Scott's iconic UN poster art.

A visual feast, a tour de force, from Black Magick.

Nicola Scott with her lifelong hero Wonder Woman.