1999: The Greatest Year in Film? A Review Re-View
1999 was a big year for me. I was 17 years old and heading into my senior year of high school, I was getting a stronger sense of who I was and my interests, one of them being the world of film, and this translated itself into my rudimentary start of written film criticism. I’ve always had a lifelong love for cinema instilled in me from my father. I grew up eagerly watching the latest Siskel & Ebert reviews in my parents’ bed on Saturday mornings. It’s been twenty years since I first began knocking on keyboards to put together some sort of half-shaped analysis on movies. It’s a bit strange to consider that I’ve lived longer writing film reviews than I have before I began writing film reviews on a regular basis.
These humble beginnings were fortunate to be tied to what I consider the greatest year in film. Sure many will rightfully cite the powerhouse of 1939 with your well-regarded classics like The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, amongst others, or 1982 for rarefied genre films like E.T., The Thing, Poltergeist, Blade Runner, Tootsie, Star Trek II, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, or plenty of other years with various bursts of creative high points (say 1974, 1994, 2007).
However, I will argue that 1999 not only had an astonishing number of quality movies, it also changed the movies. No other year had such a varied degree of remarkable movies that dared to be different. We had releases by the likes of *deep breath* Paul Thomas Anderson, David Fincher, David O. Russell, Michael Mann, Kevin Smith, Alexander Payne, Martin Scorsese, Tim Burton, David Lynch, Steven Soderbergh, Doug Liman, Frank Darabont, David Cronenberg, Anthony Minghela, James Mangold, Ang Lee, Oliver Stone, Milos Foreman, John Lasseter, Spike Lee, Luc Besson, Trey Parker, Mike Leigh, Ron Howard, Robert Altman, Laurence Kasdan, Harold Ramis, David Mamet, Norman Jewison, Neil Jordan, Barry Levinson, Atom Egoyan, Sydney Pollack, Roland Joffe, Sidney Lumet, John Sayles, Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood, and even George Lucas had people excited for maybe the last time; we had Stanley Kubrick’s last film; debuts by Spike Jonze, Sofia Coppola, Brad Bird, Lynn Ramsay, Sam Mendes, Guy Ritchie, Mike Judge, the Polish brothers, Rob Marshall, Kimberly Pierce, Julie Taymor; a breakout from some nobody named M. Night Shyamalan; foreign releases by Hiyao Miyazaki, Tom Tyker, Pedro Almodovar, Takashi Miike; and highly influential zeitgeist-shaking movies like The Matrix, The Blair Witch Project, American Pie; and TWO movies apiece directed by Gary Marshall, John McTiernan, and Joel Schumacher. And sure, not every name on that list released an artistically audacious or even good film that year, or had for some time, but has there been any other year with that kind of name recognition at the helm? The year was overflowing with directing talent old and new. You had the old guard cresting, a vital and experimental new guard emerging, and we never looked at apple pies, slow motion, or frogs again the same way. This is even more impressive considering that there were far, far fewer releases in theaters and on home video than we have today. It’s utterly astounding.
In the interest of looking back at this magical year, I will be doing something I might soon regret. I’ll be looking back on my reviews of select 1999 films, both good and bad, during their month of initial release, and I’ll be reflecting on how the movie holds up, what if any cultural impact it has had or its filmmakers, and honestly, I’ll just be reviewing my own critical analysis skills and general taste. I’m sure I’ll be more than embarrassed by portions I wrote way back when I was but a smart-allecky teen who thought his opinions meant something (some things never change I suppose). I’ll be doing this for the reminder of 2019 as I look back month-to-month at where my film criticism career began and how I’ve honed my voice since. This should be worthwhile and not at all embarrassing, right? Enjoy the trip back through time, dear reader.
Go (1999) Released: April 9, 1999
The sophomore outing of director Doug Liman, the man who put the swinger in Swingers baby, is far from any slump – no it’s more like an achievement. Liman is a man that knows what he wants and an excellent visual artist. Go is a spinning tour-de-force joyride of energetic fun. The movie is down right infectious. It stays in your system for many days, no weeks, after viewing. Consult your physician for proper treatment.
Born in the shadow of Pulp Fiction with the disjointed narrative structure, interlocking plots, retelling of events through different perspectives, and out-of-place editing, Go is the first movie to deserve having the comparisons to Tarantino’s masterpiece of blood and violence. It’s like a child of Fiction, with teens as the main stars and doing some awfully idiotic things mainly because… they’re teenagers. The story of Go is bursting to the seams with clever and embraceable characters, witty and hilarious dialogue, and enough plot twists to keep any viewer frothing at the mouth for more. Again, consult your physician.
The movie reminds me in a way as a American Graffitti or Fast Times at Ridgemont High for the fresh stable load of young talent displayed. Everyone fits nicely and performs excellently, like Timothy Olyphant’s devilishly charming and dangerous turn as a drug dealer, and Taye Diggs who helped get Stella’s groove back and is now the too cool for words friend of a grocery clerk on their trip to Vegas which turns into a comedy of errors. But the standout amongst all the talent is that little delectable Canadian bundle of joy known as Sarah Polley. Playing one of the chief protagonists, she is fascinating and compelling. She takes the role and shines the brightest in a movie filled with equally bright stars. I look forward to seeing what she does in the future.
Set against the L.A. rave scene Go tells the story circling around a 24-hour period of tantric sex, drug deals, a police sting, a lap dance, gay soap stars, and good ole’ chew-able aspirin. The movie is driven by an awesome soundtrack of techno and rock that seems to act like the narrator of our little tale. Go is brisk, breathless, rigorously hip and smart. Finally an INTELLIGENT teen movie. Too bad not too many teens went to see it at the theaters judging from box office scores. I guess they all wanted to see Ryan Phillipe’s ass one more time in Cruel Intentions. But Go is a fascinating trip you’ll want to take over and over and wish the sun would never come back up. Do not pass Go.
Nate’s Grade: A
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
I’m relieved to report that Go has held up fairly well in the ensuing twenty years. It was labeled as a Tarantino knockoff during its release and it clearly aims to utilize his same sense of narrative switcheroo, irony, and dark comedy. It may actually be the best Pulp Fiction imitator because it takes the tools of Tarantino and claims them for its own purposes, never forgetting that what made that man’s movies so enjoyable wasn’t its sense of attitude or trickery but the characters and clever storytelling. Go, the first film from screenwriting legend John August, is so well structured, not just in how the narrative bends and folds upon itself, revisiting and reshaping our understanding of scenes, but simply within those segments as well. August is masterful at creating a dilemma and then spinning it in new complications, pressing more danger and escalation. Take for instance the film’s best segment, its first, where Ronna (Polley) needs rent money, so she agrees to supply ecstasy for a party, but she doesn’t have enough money, so her friend is left behind at the dealer’s as collateral, then she flushes the ecstasy to avoid a police bust, then she replaces it with over-the-counter duplicates, then she returns them to the dealer to retrieve her friend, all the while we wait for the dreaded moment he realizes he’s been had and goes looking for vengeance. It’s a brilliant chain of cause and effect organically developed. The second sequence in Vegas follows a similar comedy of errors that gets serious by the end but it’s more the consequences of one very stupid, impulsive imbecile. It’s an entertaining sequence because August knows how to keep the surprises coming at a clip but is clearly the weakest and falls prey to some boys-will-be-boys hijinks. By design, the third sequence is more married to Ronna’s segment, which makes it an improvement. The extended awkward home visit with the police officer is cringe-worthy but doesn’t overstay its welcome before transitioning into even darker comedy. The low-stakes conclusion is a funny and satisfying way to end the fun without any ill will.
This was only Liman’s second film and I wish he would go back to something small again. He has such a natural ability to infuse an exciting energy into his pictures, which may be one of the reasons he translated so well to big-budget Hollywood action movies (The Bourne Identity, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Edge of Tomorrow). Liman keeps things moving and makes great use of August’s characters and scenarios to impart a buoyant sense of fun and frivolity. Even when things get dark and characters lives are on the line, the movie doesn’t alter its tone and energy, letting the viewer know to have faith and things will still keep to its entertainment mission. August made a hell of a debut for himself and it’s a shame that his tightly structured and clever script isn’t given the credit it rightfully deserves. There are lines of dialogue that are hilarious and cutting, there are monologue asides that come from nowhere but are rich and impactful (Victor Sr.’s introduction where he bemoans how incompetence changes expectations and leaves behind ignorance is a stunning addition for a guy who is essentially The Scary Boss), and the characters are immediately engaging with different personalities and perspectives. Take this witty exchange between Scott Wolf and Jay Mohr:
Zack: “All things considered, it didn’t really go as bad as it could have.”
Adam: “A girl is dead, Zack.”
Zack: “I didn’t say it went perfectly.”
The dialogue pops throughout the movie and the actors sing it in lovely cadences. It all culminates in a very entertaining story that keeps your attention with a bevy or surprises. The ensemble is so large that it doesn’t hurt when a clear majority of supporting roles are underwritten or more plot devices than people.
The ensemble is a treat. Polley is a wondrous lead and has the cold stares, attitude, and overchecked confidence on lockdown, enough so that I was thrilled with the way she held a bottle of bleach, the way she looked contemptuously drinking a beer, the way she could invite the viewer into the interior of this clever girl that gets in over her head. Polley seemed destined to be an indie darling and took a separate turn in the mid 2000s as a film director, notable the Oscar-nominated debut, Away From Her. Another immediate standout I even cite in my review is Olyphant, who right away makes such an impression. There’s an unnerving sexual tension to him that helps out later when he reunites with Katie Holmes’ underwritten character. Olyphant would go on to become a major TV star in Deadwood, Justified, and thrilled me with his comedic chops on Netflix’s delightful Santa Clarita Diet. Taye Diggs is effortlessly charming. William Fichtner (Armageddon) finds plenty of laughs walking a narrow line so perfectly. The biggest alum from Go is actually someone who was only onscreen for maybe one minute and that’s Melissa McCarthy, playing an ebullient friend-of-a-friend. Even in that minute though she makes a favorable impression, enough that I remembered her when she was given another one minute of screen time in August’s screenplay for 2000’s Charlie’s Angels.
Another thing I noticed while re-watching Go was how many of the lines rolled off my tongue, how many moments became crystal clear memories, and even tidbits from the commentary track on the DVD all came flooding back shot-by-shot. I don’t remember watching this movie for at least ten years if not more, but I must have watched it plenty in 1999 to leave that much of a foundation to come back to. Part of this review retrospective will become a personal diary, as it’s hard not to reminiscence while thinking back on your initial impressions of films from twenty years ago. I remember being 17, traveling to the theater with my good pal Tim Riley in his family’s Thunderbird, and just feeling good about my life, and that came back to me. It has a special place for me because of my age when I first saw it and how it excited me about storytelling.
Looking back on the review from 1999, I can see what I’m sure will be a trend, namely my forced use of blurb-ready phrases. I don’t think I’ve ever written “tour-de-force” in any review in the last 15 years, but don’t hold me to this. Some of the jokey statements are corny or cringe-inducing, like “consult your physician,” and “delectable Canadian bundle of joy” in reference to Polley. Apparently I was offended that people were seeing Cruel Intentions in abundance rather than Go and felt it needed to be taken down a peg in this review. I’ve noticed in past reviews a regrettable fault I had where I would personalize things that had no reason to be personalized. My early reviews were comparatively brief, usually fewer than 500 words, and this one sticks mostly in general statements, and I like to think I’ve gotten better at explaining my reasoning. I have to say, I’m a little impressed at my teenage self’s occasional turn of phrase, vocabulary use, and critical analysis, in particular: “Born in the shadow of Pulp Fiction with the disjointed narrative structure, interlocking plots, retelling of events through different perspectives, and out-of-place editing, Go is the first movie to deserve having the comparisons to Tarantino’s masterpiece.” That’s a pretty damn good sentence that I’d be happy to have written at age 37 let alone age 17.
Overall, Go is a sprightly comedy with a sharp creative voice and strong characters that has held up mostly well and deserves more consideration. I might not rank it as high on my year-end re-do of a Top Ten but I think it’s still deserving of its initial grade or an A-.
I got started writing film reviews in June of 1999, so I missed out writing about several big movies beforehand, including The Matrix and the long-awaited, much-hyped Phantom Menace. I suppose I could have gone back and reviewed them later as I did with some other movies I fancied, including some from 1998 that had recently been released on DVD that summer. But I didn’t. I have an idea that my Matrix review would be lots of adjectives expressing the same sentiment of “whoa,” but I’m curious about what my thoughts at the time would have been with the new Star Wars. I can recall a classmate of mine wearing Star Wars shirts for weeks in high anticipation of the new film, and after its release, he proclaimed its greatness even in the face of criticism. I wonder if I would have been one of the deluded fans who worked so hard convincing themselves that the flaws of the film weren’t there, that it wasn’t a disappointment. I barely recall feeling that the movie was fine; I may have even said “good” at the time. The investment in it being a good film was hard to cast aside. Here was a new Star Wars with modern-day special effects that could make the movies even more exciting. In reality, the special effects became a storytelling crutch for George Lucas, who showed more and more disinterest in his own story as he tried to squeeze what he could into three prequels. I wonder if my own review would have given a microcosm to this psychological denial or been something I would have been embarrassed about. In my review for Gladiator a year later I was already using Phantom Menace as a punchline, fair or not.
Something I’ve also discovered as I look back on the 1999 film releases is just how few of them there were. Nowadays a month has potentially hundreds of film releases thanks to the expanded marketplace. There are more ways than ever to get your movie seen, from online streaming to crowdfunding to festivals. In the late 90s, only one of those was a viable option, so self-releasing or boutique releases weren’t much of a reality beyond the established gatekeepers. In general, there was one or two studio releases a week. Wikipedia only cites nine movies getting a theatrical release that month. I’m used to nine releases coming out on a weekly basis. It was a shock to remember that the cinematic landscape was far more pruned back then, which also made my selection for this retrospective more limited. If you didn’t see a movie in the theaters, you went to the video store. That was about it.
Looking back on the month of May 1999, Star Wars was the big name but the pleasant surprise for me was The Mummy, a rollicking action-adventure that got close to the appeal of Raiders of the Lost Ark, established Brendan Frasier as a dashing leading man, and introduced the world to the amazing Rachel Weisz. I remember my grandmother, in her 80s at the time, being so taken with the new Mummy that she requested to see it twice in the theater, which was an astonishing feat for her. She said the old Mummy, the one with Boris Karloff, was so scary at the time, so we bought the 1932 movie and watched it as a family and my grandmother went to sleep. She said she remembered it being scarier. The other notable film for me was The Thirteenth Floor, a solid sci-fi thriller that was about uncovering a hidden virtual reality simulation. It’s easy to see in the wake of the The Matrix how this film became an also-ran. At the time Gretchen Mol had been declared the next “It Girl,” though she never seemed to reach that status in Hollywood. She turned in a terrific performance in 2006’s The Notorious Bettie Page as the title heroine, but it wouldn’t be until HBO’s Boardwalk Empire where she finally got her notoriety.
The next month was when I started writing film reviews and began this writerly journey of mine. I’ll be looking at two films, one bad (Wild Wild West) and one good (South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut).
Wild Wild West (1999) Released: June 29, 1999
This movie should have been re-titled “Wild Wild Mess.” After much speculation, the truth finally comes out about the overly hyped Will Smith vehicle: It is the loser of the summer season.
Rehashed from a 1960s series that no one under 30 will remember unless they stay up late watching Nick at Nite, it is full of special effects, headlining stars, and a talented director. So what went so terribly wrong?! The main problem is the story, or more accurately, the absence of one. This movie meanders through the entire plot, characters are thrown in, but there is NO story whatsoever.
Will Smith is a real disappointment. Even though he is such a charismatic actor and has a natural likability, he couldn’t save this disaster in the West. There is so little chemistry between Smith and Kline that it probably would’ve been better if ILM just created a Western Jar Jar for Smith to banter with. The jokes are so lame and unfunny that I slapped myself in the face more often than I laughed.
The beautifully delicious Salma Hayek plays peek-a-boo with the audience as she disappears and then reappears periodically throughout the movie. She has no real purpose except for some T&A and a forced romantic love interest. After playing every possible Shakespearean character, Kenneth Branagh now focuses on being an evil Lt. Dan of the South. His villain is more kooky than dangerous and provides more unintentional laughs than thrills.
This is an incredible lumbering mess that shows what can go wrong when children are not supervised while playing with daddy’s toys. May John Peters’ mechanical spider rot in hell! I want two hours of my life back!
Nate’s Grade: D
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
Wild Wild West is the kind of big-budget studio misfire that almost leaves you in awe. How did so many people with so much money manage to make something like this? At any point did they know they were making a bad movie and what was the response? The budget was reportedly around $150 million, which would be the equivalent of $230 million today. For further context, the 2002 Spider-Man budget was $149 million, the 2007 Transformers budget was $147 million, and the other big special effects blockbusters of 1999, The Matrix ($66 million) and The Phantom Menace ($111 million), cost fractions compared to the Triple W. It’s not just that this movie was miscalculated from an artistic standpoint, it was also absurdly expensive, which only magnifies it more as a cautionary tale. So what went so badly?
It must have seemed like a good idea on paper, re-teaming Will Smith with his Men in Black director for another sci-fi-infused buddy comedy. It’s not like the Wild Wild West TV show created an indelible impression with the American public; it was essentially a spy show set during the West, which means the big screen edition could have gone in a myriad of directions, and that may be the problem. The film feels far too scattered and the result of the extensive rewrite process. Scenes feel disconnected to one another and more like orphans from other drafts of the script, stitched together poorly. This also occurs with the wildly varying tone.
The attempt at humor was another big reason for this movie misfiring, and the “comedy” hasn’t aged any better in the ensuring twenty years. Some of the moments of humor are so misguided that they took my breath away. The jokes are generally obvious and mean-spirited. Branagh’s villain, Dr. Arliss Loveless, lost his legs in the Civil War, so every joke at his expense involves not having his legs. Get it, it’s funny because he’s handicapped. There’s one spectacular exchange where Smith and Branagh trade insults about Smith being black and Branagh being legless, and it goes on for like four exchanges (“…will keep you from being a slave to disappointment”). It’s so cringe-worthy. There’s a sequence where an angry mob literally throws a noose around Smith’s character and plans on lynching him unless his quick wits can save him. It’s a scene you would never see in a mainstream movie today, using a lynching as a comedy set piece. Who thought this was a good idea? Then there’s more than a few jokes where the sole punchline is “gay people or trans people are weird.” Kline’s character, Artemis Gordon, has a penchant for dressing like a woman in disguise, which merits Smith’s mockery of how ugly he looks. See it’s funny because he looks like a man in drag. There’s a scene related to this where Kline is bragging about his prototype fake breasts and Smith shows him how to make them feel more real, and there are two cutaway reaction shot jokes about overhearing this exchange out of context. It doesn’t make it better when Smith goes undercover as a woman to seduce Loveless. He also shoots fire from his bra. These scenes aren’t funny but they also feel uncomfortable for where people felt the humor should be targeted.
Even when the jokes are on surer territory they often sputter. Smith’s innate charisma seems to be searching for elusive jokes throughout, looking to save scenes from falling flat. His character’s introduction involves him getting frisky with a lady while skinny dipping in the town’s water tower. First off, that’s just gross. People are going to drink from that water supply. He’s looking out a hole in the tower to spy on a criminal he’s meant to follow. His distraction annoys her so she stuffs a piece of cloth into the hole, and that’s when this moment happens:
Will Smith: “You can’t just go ramming a man’s personal things into some hole like that.”
Woman he’s trying to bone in the water tower: “Oh really?”
Will Smith: “I didn’t mean it quite like that.”
And they play it like it’s coy flirting! Sheesh (Fun fact: the actress in the water tower was recast because of “chemistry issues,” but she wasn’t told she had been replaced until she saw the scene at the L.A. premiere – consider it a blessing). The sex jokes are fairly obvious and as groan-worthy as the more egregiously miscalculated racial humor. It’s a comedy that is trying to be a mass appeal blockbuster while also having jokes about cuckolding and steam-powered dildos. These things happened.
Then there’s Salma Hayek’s character, Rita Escobar, who is so underwritten it hurts. She begins as a saloon girl that doesn’t want to be a brothel girl, gets saved by the boys, and then comes along for the adventure to… simply fret and be a trophy to be won. Her sole purpose in the film is to be the prize that Jim West and Artemis Gordon compete over. Do they know anything more about her than we do? The movie adopts their objectification and also views Hayek as eye candy. I had forgotten about her brief nude scene in the movie, though I remember it leaving an impression on my 17-year-old self at the time. She’s (seemingly) oblivious to her own nudity, a pajama outfit where the bottom flap is exposed. The boys catch on, sputter comically, and then ask her to essentially turn around again so they, and we, can get another look. If only her character mattered or had anything of importance to do onscreen. For half of the movie she’s a damsel needing rescue. The rest of the movie she’s commented upon for being sexy. As I wrote in my review back in 1999, she is simply here for the T&A, all of which gets commented upon repeatedly.
There is a weirdness that pervades the film that you can tell is director Barry Sonnenfeld trying to maintain a sense of interest. These moments attempt to combine the spywork and gadgetry of the spy genre and adjust it into a new time period, and it can prove interesting, like illuminating a man’s eyes to see the final image burned into his brain like a photograph. There are flying blades meant to follow unfortunate men with magnet neck braces. Sonnenfeld can go overboard and over indulge these whimsical impulses to the point that when real, bloody violence happens it feels like a bad cartoon. However, insofar that Wild Wild West has anything of entertainment, it’s because of Sonnenfeld whose career was never quite the same after this high-profile dud. He re-teamed with Smith for two more Men in Black films to diminishing returns, but he never had another high-budget, buzzy film project afterwards. In the twenty years since, Sonnenfeld has only had three non-MIB films, and that includes Nine Lives where a pre-Me-Too-ed Kevin Spacey was turned into a cat to learn important lessons about family. Sonnenfeld’s quirky visual style has translated more successfully into the realm of TV looking to adopt his tone, like Pushing Daisies and Netflix’s Lemony Snicket series.
It’s hard for Will Smith’s ebullient charm to not have appeal, so he walked away from this mess with his career mildly wounded at best. He says he turned down The Matrix to be in this film, and what a different world we would have with Smith as Neo. Smith began to step away from his “Big Willie” blockbuster roles for more dramatic and idiosyncratic roles, netting two Oscar nominations as well (Ali, The Pursuit of Happyness). Smith has called his movie his biggest career regret and it’s easy to see why. Despite what my initial review reports, I think Kline actually does have an enjoyably combative, smarmy chemistry with Smith. You feel some of his thinly veiled contempt at performing some of the “funny scenes,” which amused me more. All of the actors have rebounded in some way. Branagh has become a Hollywood favorite when it comes to directing studio films across a multitude of genres (Thor, Cinderella, Murder on the Orient Express). He was also nominated for an Oscar for 2011’s My Week with Marilyn. Hayek was nominated for an Oscar in 2002 for Frida and has produced several long-running TV shows like the American version of Jane the Virgin. Ted Levine, who played a Confederate secondary villain with a gramophone ear, delighted for years as the beleaguered police captain on USA’s Monk. Even that woman in the water tower (the second one, the one actually in the film, Garcelle Beauvais) had a robust career, appearing in NYPD Blue for its latter seasons and as the wife to Michael Keaton’s villain in 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming.
Looking back over my 1999 review, this may have been the first I ever wrote that appeared in public. At the time Bolt.com was a website catering to teens and attempting to build an online community. I remember when my parents got their first computer in 1998 that signing up for Hotmail asked if you wanted to enroll in certain features, and Bolt.com was one of them (it was either Hotmail, Yahoo, or AOL in those early days). This was my first venue for my film reviews and it’s also a place where I met some young and passionate cinephiles to form friendships with, some of whom I still talk with to this day. I became a regular contributor to Bolt.com with my timely film reviews, which only further encouraged me to continue writing them to get published again. I submitted film reviews through 2000, and then they changed their review system, possibly because corporate sponsors became involved. I don’t know if I’d still be doing this without that early platform and the positive response. Much of my original review holds up. I’m a fan of some of my pithy lines like citing Branagh took the gig after “playing every Shakespeare character.” The Jar Jar Binks slam seems like an attempt to just pile on, and I’ve noticed more than a few times descriptions of actresses that highlight their attraction in ways I’d wish to avoid now. Still, the overall points are cogent. The John Peters reference was a sign of my Kevin Smith fandom as this element was a holdover from a defunct Smith-penned Superman film that Peters had been producing. You can watch Smith recount the tale himself on his 2001-2002 college Q&A tour, where you can see me on the DVD as well from the parts filmed at Kent State (I had pink hair at the time).
As the film began, I was wondering if maybe Wild Wild West would surprise me and if we had misjudged it at the time. Nope. As for a current revised grade, I’d probably bump it up into D+ territory. This is a mess of a movie that’s miscalculated in its humor, characterization, story, and tone. This IMDB trivia bon mot says it all:
“After post-production, Warner Brothers had already given up on the movie, considering it the ‘black sheep of the family.’ The movie/concept being so bad that nobody on the staff in the Quality Control Department wanted to work on it. Begrudgingly, they did.”
“Begrudgingly, they did.” Somebody ought to cite that as the new tagline for Wild Wild West.
South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut (1999) Released: June 30, 1999
I’ll start off and say I had fallen out of favor with the show at the time and really wasn’t interested in seeing the movie. But after being dragged along by a group of friends against my will I’m very glad I did.
I don’t fall into hysterics by hearing eight-year-old cartoons use the F-word profusely like many in my theater, but luckily for me there was plenty of wit to go around. The movie is riotously funny and I often found myself at times having to grip the armrest so I wouldn’t tumble out of my seat.
The movie could have been easily re-titled South Park: The Musical with the batch of 14 original songs they have that parody the Disney formula tunes and classic Broadway renditions. The songs are dead-on perfect at parodying their designed targets. The music is so brilliant and catchy that it deserves to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Comedy or Musical score if there is any justice in the film community. Never thought you’d see the words South Park and Oscar in the same sentence did you? Well neither did I.
The movie even plays witness to issues circling our country today like knee-jerk reaction to assess blame, responsible parenting, and blaming Hollywood media. This is a true piece of comic brilliance as they satirize anything and everything and so damn well. There are those that might take offense to some of the racial jokes but take it with a grain of salt because pretty much every person of race, creed, culture, and what not will be a source of humor. After all, that’s what Brian Boitono would do.
Nate’s Grade: A
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
It’s hard to believe that South Park is still on the air twenty years later. It was beyond belief in 1999 that only two years removed from its potty-mouthed cable debut that a South Park movie would be as satirically inspired as Bigger, Longer, and Uncut. People knew Trey Parker and Matt Stone as crass goofballs, but their big screen adventure was an eye-opening and ambitious statement about what these men could accomplish when they put their talents to a bigger project. The other major surprise from the film was just how much of a full-blown musical it was and what an excellent musical too. This is about eleven years before Parker and Stone took Broadway by storm with their record-breaking, delightfully vulgar Book of Mormon (where is that movie, guys? Come on!). The movie is barely 75 minutes long and the soundtrack album is 50 minutes long, so by my estimate a solid half of the movie is people singing. The composition of the songs was impressively assembled, with strong hooks and running melodies and themes that could serve as reprises. Marc Shaiman (the Hairspray musical) helped compose and write several of the tunes with Parker. Each one feels like a clever parody of a particular Broadway show or style or musician, and part of my fun this time watching was determining what each song’s artistic influences were supposed to be (“Oh that’s the Sondheim homage, that’s the Disney princess song, that’s the Les Miz ensemble mash-up…”). The songs are stupidly good entertainment.
The South Park movie has aged well as far as its music and satire but the comedy? Less so. At the time the film came out, I had kind of veered away from South Park as a series. I recall eagerly watching its debut because it was the naughty show that was boundary-pushing. I remember laughing along with my 16-year-old friends about the profane adventures of Stan, Kyle, Cartman, and Kenny. So much of the humor seemed predicated on shock value, and as any child in the age of the Internet can attest, that wears off in due time with continued exposure. After a while the TV show just didn’t seem funny anymore. It seemed to pick up another life when it first went topical, satirizing the Elian Gonzalez debate in April 2000, and from there on out, with future scandals, it became a waiting game to see what South Park would say. I’m sure if you reviewed those episodes they haven’t held up at all, victims of the cultural currency of being topical. But those episodes continued a re-framing of South Park as more than what people thought it was destined to be, and the 1999 movie was the biggest declaration.
Many of the sillier jokes are still enjoyable but it feels like the humor of watching children use inappropriate language has become another artifact of the past. It gets old fast. I feel like the gratuitous nature of the vulgarity and profanity in the movie is almost the point. Parker and Stone genuinely felt they were going to be canceled at the time and so they put their efforts into a big proof of what they could be capable of if the content shackles had been loosened. The excessiveness is almost the point, which serves as a meta commentary of how people viewed the show, which in hindsight has never been as dumb as people protested and never as smart as people contended. The show-within-a-show, Terrence and Phillip, is indicative of the kind of show its critics felt South Park was, so it’s only fitting that the Canadian fart-enthusiast comic duo would serve as the focal point for a war between the United States and Canada. The blaming of media and Hollywood as scapegoats for behavioral issues was a constant presence in the 1990s, and especially in the wake of the Columbine school massacre in April 1999, a mere two months before the opening of Bigger, Longer, and Uncut. Politicians were quick to blame violent video games, Marilyn Manson, The Matrix, and other media byproducts rather than easy access to guns, mental illness, bullying, and other culprits we concentrate on today in the sadly common occurrence of mass shootings. With the movie, Parker and Stone blew up the hypocrites and incompetence.
The MPAA, the secretive organization that rates movie releases, was a thorn in Parker and Stone’s side and an easy target for ridicule. In the insightful 2006 documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated, Parker and Stone credit the MPAA with actually making the final movie better and dirtier. They purposely put in content they knew would run afoul with the MPAA with the intent of removing it as a compromise in order to keep the stuff they really wanted, and it worked. Not only that, the suggestions and re-edits allowed Parker and Stone to slip even more things in knowing the specious MPAA guidelines. For example, when Saddam Hussein has a photo realistic penis in his hand, it would be unacceptable for an R-rating unless it was after revealed as a toy. They go through this joke twice, to note what an irritating douche Hussein was in his toxic relationship to Satan but also as a means of tweaking the MPAA morality gatekeepers with their own arbitrary regulations. The myopic perspective is typified in the character of Kyle’s mom, Sheila Broflovski, a person always looking for someone or something else to blame rather than look inward at her own lapses in parenting (that is if there is even a problem worthy of concern). Her zealous crusade to make the world safe for kids creates a lot of unexpected and bloody collateral damage, but she’s so blinded by her sense of self-righteousness that it doesn’t matter. You could apply this to any number of topics and it could still feel apt because this kind of person hasn’t gone away.
From a structural standpoint, this super-sized edition of South Park handles a number of character arcs well, establishing clear setups and payoffs that tie into the larger story. It feels like the universe of the show grew much larger and more ambitious. The boys were rewarded for their accomplishment. “Blame Canada” was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song and was performed by Robin Williams onstage. It lost out to the Phil Collins’ song from Disney’s Tarzan, a decision even more baffling when you take into account the other nominees that year were Aimee Mann for her “Save Me” track from Magnolia and the poignant Sarah McLaughlin song from Toy Story 2. The fact that all three of those songs lost out to a cheesy and forgettable Phil Collins song is downright absurd.
Going back over my review in 1999, this was actually my first official film review. I had written up a few others for a friend of mine months before when she had asked for my take on movies, but this was the start of a twenty-years-and-counting hobby that has, frankly, made me a better writer and consumer of movies. I think my 17-year-old self was trying to sound a little too above it all in the opening, distancing myself from liking South Park any longer, but it works to sell my love for the eventual movie. I remember going to a packed theater with my friend Kevin Lowe and others at the time. I was resistant about going out and seeing it, partially because of my rising indifference to the show, but also because, if I remember correctly, an ex-girlfriend of mine was also going to be in our viewing party. That’s a whole other story. I’m very happy I went and I remember the theater rolling with laughter. It was a much-needed and appreciated escape.
Overall I’d say while the comedy might not be as funny but the satire is still strong and the music is still outstanding. I’d grade the movie either in the A or A- range.
Eyes Wide Shut (1999) Released: July 16, 1999
There’s a certain awe one has to this film. It’s Stanley Kubrick’s last movie, took over two years in development, has the big name star couple, and no one knows ANYTHING about it. All I can say is that Eyes Wide Shut the movie is a challenging and engaging work from a titan of a director that will sorely be missed.
The first movie from Kubrick in over a decade comes sweeping in and I couldn’t take my eyes off it. The steady cinematography is gorgeous, coupled with the dream like lighting that seem glowing about on the frames. The story captured my attention and drew me in quickly as I was enthralled. It’s all about the tale of a husband and wife with sexual inadequacies, fantasies, delusions, and jealousy. It’s about the trust in a marriage, and how sex can be used not only as an intimate showing of feelings but as a weapon and as a tool. Journey with Tommy Cruise as he ventures through the city exploring all the different characters and how sex has influenced, controlled, or manipulated their lives.
The movie is adult, yes, but not pornographic. Those who argue it’s expensive porn don’t know what they’re saying. Though there are probably more butt shots of Kidman then necessary the movie never becomes exploitative or gratuitous. The sex here is portrayed more like a Victorian era arrangement instead of the hard-core stuff of today. In fact the sex is far more creepy than erotic. The actors all contribute nicely to the ensemble, even though Nicole Kidman is the slowest talker in the world here. But I couldn’t wait to see what she’d say next; she had me. The movie as well had me mostly.
The movie will certainly not go over well with audiences planning to see a Basic Instinct sequel in this. I blame the poor marketing that made it into something it was far from: a sexy and steamy adult thriller with TONS o’ nudity. So when people file in and find out it’s a two and a half hour art movie with depth, symbolism, and layers they are no doubt disappointed. Especially those who show up in raincoats. The movie is a fitting final work to Kubrick’s collection. Rest in peace Stanley.
Nate’s Grade: B
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
It’s also hard to believe that cinema legend Stanley Kubrick has been dead for twenty years. The mercurial filmmaker only had about a dozen films to his name but they were so influential, so different, and so ambitious and challenging that the Kubrick name is held in the most rarefied of terms. For teenage me in the late 90s, I was exploring my own burgeoning taste in film by taking a deep dive into the works of Kubrick. I remember sitting in a class my junior year and some other student said to me, dismissively joking, “I bet you’re one of those kids whose favorite movie is, like, A Clockwork Orange.” But at the time it totally was! His prototypical hipster jab was correct. Well it’s not my favorite film, per se, but definitely a movie that had captured my attention and made me reconsider what movies could achieve. It was one of my earliest DVD purchases and I recall loaning it out to several high school friends to also expand their horizons. Even when he was doing studio work, like 1960’s rousing epic Spartacus, he was still operating at a level that was astonishing. Paths of Glory to me is still the greatest anti-war film ever made. The Shining is still my favorite horror movie to this day, and I don’t care what Stephen King says how it radically veers from his source material because those changes were improvements. An axe is an improvement over a croquet mallet. No living hedge monsters is an improvement. No last-minute redemption is an improvement. There’s a reason nobody talks in awed reverence about the mid 90s Shining miniseries that allowed King a redo on his own terms. The ratio of masterpieces or near-masterpieces for Kubrick’s filmography is so high that it puts him in a class almost all his own (Hitchcock directed over 40, Spielberg over 30). He’s a man who rejected the familiar and challenged audiences as well as himself and did so until his death on March 7, 1999.
The speculation behind his final film Eyes Wide Shut was rabid in the late 1990s. He hadn’t made a film for over a decade, 1987’s Full Metal Jacket (brilliant first half of military boot camp and a relatively good second half at war). He had developed a Holocaust drama about a family evading capture called The Aryan Papers, based on the book Wartime Lies, but before he went into production, Spielberg released eventual Best Picture-winner Schindler’s List. Kubrick felt the projects were too similar and scrapped his Holocaust drama. He had been circling the source material for Eyes Wide Shut, the 1926 novel Traumnovelle by Arthur Schnitzler, for several decades, shifting his view of the project over that time from a comedy to a drama. He latched onto having a real-life couple for the leads, at one point targeting Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger. But Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman won the lead roles and Kubrick put them through an emotional grinder. They filmed for over a year straight and spent so much time in London filming that their children developed British accents. Cruise was stressed so much over the filming that he developed an ulcer and never told his director.
It’s important to remember the anticipation of this film because it was cloaked in mystery. The Internet had been around, as well as industry speculation, but it was easier to keep movie details under wraps in that age, and nobody knew what this movie was going to be about. There was speculation that Cruise and Kidman would play married therapists who each start sleeping with their clients (that’s actually not a bad idea, I mean… as a film). Nobody knew what this movie was about, and the promotional and preliminary buzz was on how sexy as movie it was going to be, how Kubrick was fighting with the MPAA, how Warner Brothers inserted digital figures to obscure portions of an orgy to secure the safer R-rating. After his death, the movie took on an even bigger profile and became a waiting statement to close out the man’s career, at least for an army of eager arts essayists waiting to place a final period on the famous Kubrick film legacy.
What of the actual film? That’s a harder discussion to have now that the rose-colored glasses of post-Kubrick assessment has passed (Scorsese rated Eyes Wide Shut as his #5 film of the 1990s). It certainly has latter-day Kubrick trademarks, like the slow Steadicam tracking shots, character breakdowns, and unhurried pacing. This movie is a whopping 159 minutes; its vignette-heavy structure mitigates this to some degree but it’s hard not to watch certain portions and grow impatient. Scenes just sort of glide at their own pace, contributing to the overall movie feeling partially like a dream. The Christmas decorations and lighting kept at the edges of the frames also contribute to this feeling, giving the film a glowing halo, almost reminiscent of Saved by the Bell episodes when they wanted to immediately communicate visually that what was unfolding was a dream or fantasy (yes, that’s right, I just compared Saved by the Bell with Stanley Kubrick). The movie seems intended to feel like a walking dream, where Cruise’s character, Dr. William Harford can stumble into all sorts of sexual fantasies through one long New York City stroll. Even the production design helps achieve this feeling, as the New York streets have an in-authenticity to them, as they were studio sets because Kubrick is notoriously averse to travel and flying. From the dream-like establishment, it gives the movie a lot of artistic leeway, allowing characters to behave in exaggerated and contradictory manners, as well as certain coincidental peculiarities. Dr. Harford flashes his medical license at like half a dozen people, stating “I’m a doctor,” as if it’s meant to convey the same legitimacy as showing a police badge. But it works. Every freaking time.
If I had to gather a theme, I would posit that it’s about the deception of appearances. Dr. Harford doesn’t believe his wife Alice (Kidman) could have the same sexual appetites as a man. She blows his mind and his conception of their relationship when she recounts, with the assistance of some marijuana, that there was a Navy man she bumped into once, and the feeling of desire was so immediate, so overwhelming, that she could have lost herself in it and given away everything she had known, including her husband and child, to pursue that urge. In just a fleeting moment, a relationship can be over. She says she was relieved when this Navy officer was gone, as the potential temptation too had safely vanished. This is the moment that sets Harford off, stewing in rising jealousy and potentially the opportunity to “get back at her,” whatever that may mean. He goes from location to location, visiting an enchanted group of strangers, eventually winding up at a private costumed orgy for the elite that provokes portentous danger and alarm.
At each turn, there is more than what he sees. An acquaintance declares her unrequited love for Harford after he visits, and he’s baffled at her affections, saying they hardly know one another. The kindly hooker Domino (Vinessa Shaw, 3:10 to Yuma) that Harford almost sleeps with ends up being the bigger danger than the rich scary orgy participants. It’s revealed late from her roommate that Domino just learned she was HIV-positive, which then serves as a wake-up call for Harford. The costume shop owner (Rade Sherbedgia, Snatch) aghast at grown men fooling around with his underage daughter (Leele Sobieski, Joyride) the next day becomes a would-be pimp, assuring Harford that if he wants anything, “anything at all” as he nods at his daughter, he needs simply ask. Then there’s the big headline-grabbing masked orgy, the real lasting image of Eyes Wide Shut. I’ve never attended an orgy of any sort (yet), but I have to think this one goes out of its way in the name of performative ceremony. The incantations, the carnival masks, the secret codes and rituals. It all seems like a living urban legend, and when Harford is found out and threatened, it feels like he’s captured the wrath of some very powerful people who will do anything to keep their secrets. That’s the Hollywood movie version of those events. In this film’s reality, it’s just a bunch of rich people who were scared an outsider discovered their naked masquerade. Upon my re-watch, I must have been watching the copy of the film without those added digital figures, because I couldn’t see them anywhere at the orgy, and yes my eyes survived, MPAA. Even the orgy, built up with such anticipatory hype, seems destined not to live up to expectations. The naked servant woman who sacrificed herself to save Harford that night is just an unrelated death.
As themes go, it’s not exactly deep or too provocative, and I think that’s a snappy summation of Eyes Wide Shut as a whole on this twenty-year re-watch. It’s interesting for several reasons throughout, from the performances to the vignette nature of new characters popping up and the narrative starting over setting up this next little world. I feel like some of its lessons are not exactly as challenging today as they might have been back then (women have sexual appetites too?!). The concluding dialogue hits the dream imagery very hard to the point of self-parody. The husband and wife have a conversation noting what they have learned from this crazy night, and he says, “No dream is ever just a dream,” hinting at untold desires, and she says, “The important thing is we’re awake now, and hopefully for a long time,” talking about their awareness of one another’s drives. I mean I can keep going but it’s poetically pretentious and overwrought. That could be most people’s summary of the film and they might not be wrong.
The acting overall is good, with Kidman as the standout, even though as I stated in my initial 1999 review she is the…. slowest… talker. It’s like she’s on Quaaludes or some sedative. When she started smoking pot, I said to myself, “Oh no, she’s going to talk even slower.” Cruise is perfectly acceptable but he’s much more a blank slate meant to serve as the entry point for the audience. He’s inquisitive when we need to learn and confrontational when called for, but the character is more a useful cypher. He has the annoying habit of repeating people’s statements and questions over and over, like he’s practicing a new language and noting the words. Kubrick put the couple through some pretty heinous preparations to get the performances he sought. He directed each separately and swore them not to tell the other what he had said; he attended intense couples sessions where they bared their collective insecurities; he even filmed the Alice dream sequences with the Navy man, the jealous fantasy that haunts Cruise, over the course of six days, a variety of sexual positions, and had Kidman never divulge to her husband what had taken place. Then there’s his demanding shooting style, taking upwards of 100 takes in order to get the performance he desired. It would not surprise me in the slightest if, after all this, Kubrick and his ways contributed to the dissolution of their 11-year marriage (they divorced in 2001).
Three other interesting and bizarre facts relating to Eyes Wide Shut: 1) The woman at the orgy who volunteers as tribute to save Harford, she had her lines dubbed by an “American” actress, and it was only revealed in 2019 that this actress was none other than THE Cate Blanchett. Why was this a twenty-year secret, especially as Blanchett’s star rose? 2) The piano player that first introduces Harford to the concept of the masked orgies, Nick Nightingale, is played by Todd Field, who would go on to write and direct In the Bedroom and Little Children, and who frankly needs to make more movies because my God those two are amazing. 3) Eyes Wide Shut is partially responsible for Hugh Jackman being Wolverine in the X-Men films. How? Well, dear reader, the production on Eyes Wide Shut went wildly over its target dates, which affected the next projects for Kidman and Cruise, which happened to be Mission: Impossible II. That sequel’s production went longer than expected with delays and because of that Dougray Scott, the originally cast Wolverine, was unable to join the X-Men, and so in stepped Jackman. You fanboys should be thanking Stanley Kubrick’s ghost for being so mean to Tom Cruise.
Looking back on my original 1999 review, it’s actually pretty solid all around. What feels most gratuitous about the film isn’t its nudity but the pacing. I feel like I too was caught in the swirl after the man’s death and tried to make it sound more important than it was ultimately. Eyes Wide Shut won’t be found in anyone’s top five Kubrick list. I don’t think it quite has the layers that my 17-year-old self was looking for to make it feel like a “fitting final film” for a man that helped define what cinema could accomplish for decades. I saw this movie in the theater with my father beside me, which should have been more awkward than it was considering the ornate orgy. Thinking back, I’ve seen several movies heavy with sex and nudity or crude humor with my father sitting right beside me and curiously I’ve never felt too uncomfortable (Species, Lost Highway, American Beauty, Scary Movie, Unfaithful, Team America, both The Girl with the Dragon Tattoos, The Wolf of Wall Street). This even carries on to this day, having recently watched 2019’s Midsommar which has some heavy, older full-frontal nudity (for the record, my father loved the movie). Maybe I’ve just been able to see the movie content as a reflection of art and not feel too weird when people get naked. Or maybe I’ve just been watching these movies long enough. I think my father must have been elated when I hit my teenage years because he had an excuse to go see all these movies he’s been wanting to see now regardless of rating. Anyway, Kubrick’s last-last movie was a collaboration with Spielberg, 2001’s A.I., something they had developed for years. That movie is notorious for a tacked-on happy ending that many, including me at the time, credited/blamed on Spielberg, saying Kubrick surely would have ended at the more downbeat point 15-20 minutes prior. Not so. Apparently, it was always Kubrick’s intent. Even that grouchy, mercurial, belligerent man could love a big happy ending like the rest of us. Eyes Wide Shut isn’t quite that but it has enough going for it that it’s a minor curiosity all gussied up in artifice. I initially rated it an A but brought that grade down to a B, and that seems appropriate.
So long, Stanley. Thanks for helping to make me love movies even more.
The Blair Witch Project (1999) Released: July 30, 1999
Who’s afraid of the big bad witch? Well apparently a nation of audiences and studio heads. I’ve heard all kinds of horror stories from people lying in the corners of theaters until the movie was over, to people running out screaming, to the distribution of barf bags by theaters (of course it might be due to the hand held camera and motion sickness). Well after all the hype I finally ventured out to see it after some failed attempts at evening shows that managed to be sold out. I’ll say right now that I was never very afraid. Of course there may have been some effect being that I saw it around three in the afternoon.
But I did come away with a great appreciation for what these kids have done. They themselves with a mere $100,000 budget have practically reinvented horror and given it a complete turn from where the Kevin Williamson post-irony pseudo hip teen slasher films were leading us. And I for one couldn’t be happier. The anticipation of the unknown is far more frightening than being slowly chased by a man in a rain slicker. That’s exactly what Blair Witch offers. It’s no typical horror flick, it lets you create the fear in your head and let you drive yourself mad with it. The tension is slowly building and building as the trio get even more lost, paranoid, and frightened. It really is a truly innovative effort and done so realistically that people still swear to their hearts it’s all true. I think more credit should go to the actors then the directors for how effectively real the movie was. When they’re not yelling profanity all the time they do manage to come off as very believable and we see how they are all slowly breaking down internally like a case study. Just remember people, money doesn’t equal scares.
Nate’s Grade: B
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
In 1999, there were two movies that immediately, forcefully became phenomenons and prominent members of the cultural zeitgeist, inspiring numerous imitations and parodies. The Matrix was the first and revolutionized action cinema and special effects, and the second was The Blair Witch Project, the little indie that could. At the time more attention was given to the big-budget Haunting remake with Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta-Jones, not some Sundance indie where a bunch of nobodies film themselves getting lost in the woods. It was experimental in more ways than one, including its novel use of viral marketing. Blair Witch was the first film that made a splash thanks to Internet marketing, with a website promoting the film as a real documentary and the actors as real missing people. Some people were so thoroughly convinced that the movie was real I can recall having weirdly pointed arguments with acquaintances and strangers online over this dispute. They swore up and down it was real. I would point out that these “missing people” were just seen on MTV’s TRL very much alive and promoting the movie that week. It didn’t matter because the lore and legend of the marketing had worked its witchy spell.
The Blair Witch Project wasn’t the first movie to utilize a found footage aesthetic but it made the biggest impact of them all (Cannibal Holocaust came out in 1980, and even 1998’s The Last Broadcast had a similar premise about a group of lost documentary filmmakers looking for the mythical “Jersey devil” in the woods). It introduced mass audiences to a different kind of horror movie, relying heavily upon the imagination of the viewer and the verisimilitude it carefully constructed. There was a mystery factor not just to what was happening onscreen to the three people but to the entire nature of the production, creating a narrative to make sense of their disappearance. With every moment you were supposedly watching the last moments of real missing people. It took actors Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael Williams eight days to film. It took writer/directors Daniel Myrick and Edwardo Sanchez eight months to edit their results.
I remember overly enthusiastic blurbs saying Blair Witch will do for the woods what Jaws did for the ocean. That statement is a bit too happy to be studio-friendly catnip, but the success of the movie, as most horror films, comes down to whether or not it’s actually scary. I find The Blair Witch Project, then just as now, to be a more admirable exercise than a scary one. It has an unnerving quality as you feel the desperation of the characters as they get more and more lost, as well as their response to the spooky shenanigans. As I stated in my original 1999 review, I think more credit should deservingly go to the actors than the directors. First, it was the actors who shot every single moment in this movie. All of those memorable lines and images, most notably the close-up confessional of Donahue’s teary red eyes, was because of these actors. They were given notes and direction from their directors from afar, but they stayed in character and improvised all of their lines, and those factors go a long way to making the final product feel more “real.” Interestingly, there was supposed to be a moment where you saw the actual Blair Witch. When the characters run out into the woods screaming, Heather shrieks, “What is THAT?!” and Joshua was supposed to pan over to see a man in the distance dressed in a white gown… but he forgot and kept running. Oops. Well now it’s canon. The directors deserve admitted credit for picking the right people for the job and for constructing the boundaries of a play space for them to experiment with. But this movie isn’t a success because of the writing but because of the sense of realism, which was accomplished from the gung-ho actors.
Thanks to the record-breaking success of Blair Witch (a reported $60,000 budget that earned over $250 million at the box-office) there was a rush of parodies and imitators. Even I remember filming a hasty parody. The found footage concept became a familiar narrative formula, which only exploded further in 2008-2009 with the one-two punch of commercial hits Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity. While today it seems found footage movies have cooled, in truth we’re only waiting for the next big hit to rejuvenate the sub-genre again. It’s because the found footage aesthetic relies on cleverness, which can often benefit from being cheap as well. With the democratization of film, thanks to greater access to affordable digital equipment and platforms, the found footage aesthetic has become a mainstay because it’s immediate, it’s personalized, and it’s inexpensive. It also further taps into a cultural desire for self-documentation, the thing that Heather’s character in Blair Witch declares is the “only thing [she] has left.” While re-watching Blair Witch, I kept asking myself why people would be filming everything they are filming, but the movie was just ahead of its time, pointing toward an audience that is assembling their own found footage record of their existence with daily posts, retweets, videos, and the like (including likes). We’re curating our time on Earth as if we’re our own editing team from the future.
It’s little surprise that the cast and crew associated with Blair Witch struggled to find continued success. Donahue said she received death threats after the movie (also a sign it was ahead of its time with toxic and misogynistic fan culture) and had trouble finding acting work after. She appeared in 2000’s Boys and Girls with Freddie Prinze Jr., Claire Forlani, and Jason Biggs (oh man, just writing those names feels like a time machine) and hasn’t been credited with anything since 2008. Williams has managed a few credits after, including a recent episode of the TV series F.B.I., but has mostly stuck to the occasional short or TV appearance. Leonard has easily had the most robust career. He was a supporting figure in smaller studio films like Men of Honor and Deuce’s Wild before really striking it as a mumblecore pro, rising to renewed notoriety from the likes of Lynn Shelton (Humpday) and the Duplass brothers (Togetherness). He was recently seen as the creepy ex-boyfriend in Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane, which, borrowing from the Blair Witch, was filmed entirely on an iPhone to give it a more immediate sense of rough reality. He also married Alison Pill (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, The Newsroom) in 2015 and good for him. The Blair Witch directors parted ways in the early 2000s after a failed Fox horror series, FreakyLinks. Both would go on to write and direct several direct-to-video genre titles, though Myrick was more prolific before 2008 and Sanchez more so after with genre television.
Blair Witch’s runaway success naturally meant its studio couldn’t leave it alone and a sequel was commissioned, directed by Joe Berlinger, best known for the startling Paradise Lost films. It seemed like an interesting match, attaching an award-winning documentary filmmaker to a series purporting to be a disturbing documentary. However, the found footage aspect that made Blair Witch famous was dropped within minutes of 2000’s Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. Apparently, there was substantial creative meddling from the studio execs and reshoots and re-edits, delivering a movie that veers back to the old, hackneyed staples of horror iconography. The franchise died one year after exploding. In 2016, producers tried reviving it again with a reboot that followed Heather’s younger brother gathering a team to go into the woods to find her. It was made by Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett, the team responsible for the enjoyable genre riffs You’re Next and The Guest, but even they couldn’t restart this dormant franchise. At least their movie returned the found footage conceit. Is the film franchise cursed? Even the studio that got rich from Blair Witch was eventually sold to Lions Gate in 2004.
Looking back at my original 1999 review, I was already trying to measure the movie in comparison to the massive hype. I remember two previous times I had tried to see Blair Witch with friends, including opening weekend where we had to see Watergate comedy Dick instead (I probably was too harsh on that film as a result in my review). At the time, horror was drenched in irony and meta-recognition, thanks to Kevin Williamson and Scream. It felt refreshing to get something that wasn’t just a braless woman running from a masked killer. I think Blair Witch is more interesting than scary, and at a scant 77 minutes before credits, it doesn’t wear out its welcome. In my review I graded it a B and I think that’s fair considering its technical merits
There are so many ways this could have gone wrong but all the elements worked together, from the right casting to the right approach to the right edits. It was like capturing magic itself, which is what the best movies feel like when they work. The impact of The Blair Witch Project cannot be understated when it comes to horror, found footage, viral marketing, and DIY filmmaking. You can also blame the movie for the 1000 films of “people lost in the woods” horror. Also The Bare Wench Project. So, you know, there’s that too.
The Sixth Sense (1999) Released: August 6, 1999
August is mostly thought of as a time of dead water for summer movies. But now I think it should be regarded as the best month for film this whole mediocre summer, and The Sixth Sense is one of the main reasons. Though the title kinda sucks.
In a summer low on genuine chills here’s one movie that offers honest-to-God-grip-the-armrest-chills. It’s very moody when it needs to be and creepy when it never has to be but is anyway and constantly moving. The Sixth Sense also offers audiences something they haven’t seen this summer: real characters with depth. The characters leap from the screen and are slowly established as complicated, rounded, and very thoughtful people. Now that’s something that took me for surprise.
Bruce Willis achieves his quiet mode and teams up yet again with another child (a la Mercury Rising). Willis’ acting is solemn and just enough to drive his character through his quest. You haven’t seen Bruce Willis show this much emotion since he walked over glass in Die Hard! But the story of The Sixth Sense is a little tyke that comes from out of nowhere and redefines child acting. To say Haley Joel Osment carries the film is an understatement – he throws it on his back and runs a 4.3 with it. If Anna Paquin can win an Oscar for babysitting a piano then this kid deserves one too. This is the greatest child actor I’ve seen in years and I begin to wonder why Lucas chose his miscast young Anakin.
The best thing The Sixth Sense has is intelligence. It rewards those who stood up and paid attention with a knock-out terrific ending that wraps everything up you questioned before. And you will rerun things in your mind over and over when you leave the theater. My only complaint, and it is small, is that the direction could be tighter at times. But for everything The Sixth Sense has to offer I will gladly wait in line for seconds. The best summer chiller and one of the best movies of the year. The title still sucks though.
Nate’s Grade: A
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
The Sixth Sense wasn’t writer/director M. Night Shyamalan’s film debut but it might as well have been considering the seismic impact it left behind. He released a movie in 1998 called Wide Awake with Rosie O’Donnell about a boy looking for God, though it was shot in 1995, and there’s even one earlier movie, 1992’s Praying with Anger, his coming-of-age Indian transplant NYU film project at the age of 22. Before that fateful weekend, Shyamalan was a name nobody had heard of, and afterwards he became a wunderkind, heir apparent to Steven Spielberg and New Hollywood, and then eventual pariah, punchline, and comeback kid. It all was launched with The Sixth Sense, which really and truly benefited from essentially coming out of nowhere. Bruce Willis was an A-lister and the movie had a buzzy concept but it was easy to lose track of this smaller ghost story between the breathes of summer explosions. With that lack of expectations, it really felt like audiences had discovered something special, something new, something… unexpected. The twist ending became the talk of the summer and my go-to example for twist endings (I have since discovered that enough time has passed and contemporary teenagers have rarely watched the movie, meaning this “everybody knows” example of a twist ending has fallen back into an age-bracket of ignorance). What was really surprising was simply how freaking good the movie was, and twenty years later it still is upon my re-watch.
It’s challenging to separate one’s holdover feelings of the future Shyamalan when evaluating this big breakthrough because it’s such a major statement. The complete control Shyamalan exhibits in the film, from a writing and directing standpoint, is thrilling and impressive. The scenes are allowed to breathe and gestate, naturally expanding and finding their intended direction, and it feels so wonderfully natural. That is huge considering that hiding in plain sight was that dynamite twist ending that Willis had been dead from the opening scene onward. The fact that all the pieces would add up on reviewing, where the clues we didn’t realize added up to a different equation, and it doesn’t detract from the drama at the center of the action, a distraught and disturbed little boy willing to confront his unique gifts, is just incredible screenwriting. Yes, there are some lingering questions to make everything work, something I’ll go into later, but watching this level of execution, on multiple levels, without faltering is just inspiring. Shyamalan also wasn’t afraid to make his scenes unsettling without being redundant or gratuitous. I initially dinged the direction of the movie in my original review and I’d like to take that back. The direction isn’t showy visually but serves the greater story in smaller, smarter ways. A long take following Cole (Haley Joes Osment)’s mother (Toni Collette) in the kitchen only for her to turn around and have every single drawer and cabinet open is a wonderful little jump scare without feeling cheap. Shyamalan holds off on even unveiling his “I see dead people” twist until halfway through the movie, which is admirable restraint. Afterwards, it allows him to open up even more tools in his toolbox to spook an audience, because now we too can see the specters haunting Cole. Shyamalan has given us the signs (no pun intended) and rules for his ghost story, and now the second half he lets us dwell with them and squirm as we anticipate the encounters.
I’m still impressed how well The Sixth Sense works on many levels, from a creepy ghost story, to a splendid mystery, to a character-driven drama about our response to trauma. None of these elements come in competition with the next; they complement and better inform, and that’s what’s so remarkably rare about what Shyamalan was able to pull off here. He never quite attained that same screenwriting feat even with enjoyable movies after The Sixth Sense. This was peak Shyamalan before his style become codified into a too-recognizable formula.
The acting in this movie was terrific and both Osment and Collette were nominated for Oscars (still Collette’s only nomination of her career). That’s not the kind of thing that generally happens to summer ghost stories starring Bruce Willis, but that’s the kind of attention that Shyamalan placed on crafting three-dimensional characters and finding the perfect conduits. Osment was the biggest revelation of the movie, instantly launching to the top of the child actor pack where his name alone could open a movie, at least for a period of time. His performance was so assured, so free of transparent acting tics that child stars usually cling to, and what’s more there was a genuine sense of heaviness with his performance, a child trying to navigate the scary forces that only he seems destined to see and resigned to the fact that life might not improve. It’s a powerful performance and he brings out the best in Collette, playing a widow who is at her wits end trying to care for her child, keep her family afloat, but also someone struggling to understand her little boy who refuses to let her in on his mounting worries. Collette’s one-to-one with her son in a traffic jam, where she finally understands her boy and accepts his “gift” is the emotional climax of the movie in my eyes. It’s a family healing through love. The rest, the twist ending, is just icing on a sumptuously composed cake. The characters are what mattered the most.
Let’s get back to that much ballyhooed twist. I had a girlfriend that had a supernatural ability to sniff out twist endings, even better than my own abilities I must admit. She recalled how she watched The Sixth Sense and as soon as the screen flashed to “one year later” she went, “Oh, he’s dead. He’s a ghost.” I feel like she was in the minority on this one, though after the opening weekend the twist became a marketing selling point, to not give it away, and thus the viewing experience was altered. Now you knew there was a twist coming and part of your brain was reserved for a Sherlock-level search for clues to this eventual reversal. To see The Sixth Sense without that knowledge was its own reward. However, there are some facets of this twist that bear further scrutiny. Cole says that he sees ghosts that don’t know they are ghosts, who see what they want to see, and this is used as a catch-all explanation. The problem is when you start to think about Willis’ character in the ensuring year since his death. Did he never interact with another human being? Did he never wonder why Cole’s mother wasn’t responding to him when he was in her presence? For that matter how did the boy ever get referred to him? I can understand not seeing a table in front of a door, but not seeing every single human being collectively ignore your presence and never respond to your interactions? And it’s here you can argue, “Well does that stuff really matter? We needed the illusion to be held for the power of the twist,” and I would heartily agree. We are selectively given Willi’s perspective and the missing gaps are essential to preserving the nature of the twist, despite Willis being super ignorant.
Osment would go on to lead a few more films like Pay It Forward, A.I., and Secondhand Lions, but it seems like that age-old killer of child actors would ultimately strike yet again — puberty. He took some time off and has been acting regularly for the last five years, from Tusk to the Entourage movie to Amazon’s series, The Boys. Collette has been acting steadily and appearing in numerous movies testing her ever-expanding range, including last year’s Hereditary. Olivia Williams, playing Willis’ wife, has also acted steadily in the ensuing twenty years. In 1999, she had only been acting in movies for a handful of years but quickly earned attention in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore and in Kevin Costner’s The Postman. Willis was one of the bigger stars of the 1990s and held that entrenched star power for about another ten years before he seemed to stop caring, taking on whatever direct-to-DVD role he could shoot over a weekend and make use of a double to film the rest of his scenes. It’s rare for Willis to seem like he even tries anymore, though his later appearances in Shyamalan movies (Unbreakable, Glass) prove he can still be capable of something worthwhile when he puts forth the effort. Another actor that developed a career after The Sixth Sense was The O.C.’s Mischa Barton, who played the ghost of the young girl poisoned by her mother. It was also a strong debut for Donnie Wahlberg, the older brother to Mark, as the disturbed former patient of Willis’ that ends up murdering him. Wahlberg was turning to acting and would later star in a couple Saw sequels, a misbegotten Dreamcatcher adaptation, and over 200 episodes of TV’s Blue Bloods, a show I don’t know a single person who watches.
The biggest alum of this movie was, naturally, Shyamalan himself. His follow-up in 2000, Unbreakable, was a moody psychological thriller that was ahead of its time, bringing a grounded reality to superhero films. He became a one-man industry, a genre unto himself that could be positioned and marketed as a cinematic event. His next film was even bigger, 2002’s Signs, and was the first to start to show the signs (no pun intended) of Shyamalan’s twist-first problematic writing. Then it got worse and worse, from The Village to Lady in Water to The Happening to The Last Airbender, and then perhaps at its lowest, 2013’s After Earth. The man who was touted as an heir apparent to none other than Spielberg had expended his capital and become a joke. His name wasn’t even being used in the marketing for After Earth. At that point, the name had become a liability. Then a funny thing happened when Shyamalan went smaller with Blumhouse, first with 2015’s The Visit and then the surprise Unbreakable sequel, 2017’s taut thriller Split. He hit that stride in his career where he was in the redemptive arc, and we could look forward to a new Shyamalan joint again now that he had stripped down his writing to the creative restraints of a lower budget. I enjoyed Glass as a ballsy capper to his 19-year Unbreakable trilogy.
Looking back over my review, the basic points are the same. I don’t recall why I was so irritated with the summer of 1999 movies considering that there were several films I even reviewed for this retrospective that were good to great. August has also become a noteworthy release month, though the final weeks can still come across as a wasteland of studio films fizzling and smaller indie not quite catching on (which is happening as I write this currently, during those “dog days of summer”). I do enjoy the Anna Paquin line from the review. Even as a smart-alecky 17-year-old budding film critic, I could turn a phrase. I’m still not a super fan of the title but I’ve watched more than my fair share of mediocre titles that it seems like a pittance. I would still grade the movie a solid A.
The Sixth Sense is a movie with so much to unpack because of its instantaneous success. Few movies come out of relative nowhere, get nominated for six Oscars including Best Picture, gross over $670 million dollars worldwide, launch its creative force as a genre filmmaker with the freedom to tell his stories on a grand stage, and remind you of the impact of the movies.
The Iron Giant (1999) Released: August 6, 1999
There is a magic that animation has that a regular film can never capture. It can delve into our imaginations and conjure up emotions and laughter that regular celluloid can rarely get a firm grip on. So why has every animated film this decade fallen under a strict formula that bogs down the quality of the efforts? Now comes a movie like The Iron Giant, which restores faith in all that is good with cinema.
The Iron Giant is reminiscent of E.T. but has a distinct voice of its own. The main question might be, “Is it enjoyable for people other than kids who can’t touch the floor with their feet?” I can answer that question easily: Yes! Adults, teenagers and children will have just as much fun with this picture together. It is a movie for all ages and for all time.
The animation is strikingly brilliant and deserves an ovation of its own. Never have I seen voice-over-to-mouth animations done so fluidly. The sight of the giant itself is awe-inspiring but never terrifying. The movie also perfectly captures the innocence, patriotism, and Cold War hysteria that defined American living in the ’50s.
But the truly biggest thing The Iron Giant has to offer is magic and heart. The characters are all well-developed, and the audience is made to feel great attachment to each one. The script for the feature is right on, and never is a scene wasted. And the tale is very touching as it heads toward its climax. I don’t mind admitting my eyes were quite moist toward the end.
The Iron Giant breaks the common mold of animated flicks. There are no cuddly animals and slapstick sidekicks, no dopey forced love interests, no one-dimensional villain, and thank God, no Grammy wannabe songs breaking up the drama. The Iron Giant sends out a strong message and breaks free of a Disney-controlled industry. I dare say this is the greatest animated film of this entire decade, by far. I urge everyone to go out and experience some of the magic and warmth that is The Iron Giant. This is destined to become a classic, mark my words.
Nate’s Grade: A+
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
Simply put, we are blessed to exist in a time with The Iron Giant. This movie is a gift. I knew it the first moment I saw it twenty years ago, and I’ve known it every viewing since. Brad Bird’s directorial debut was a stunner, able to melt the chilliest of heart and tap into something so universal and powerful and applicable. Watching The Iron Giant again filled my heart with happiness; it was literally minutes in and I just felt like I was floating, I was so happy. Rare is any movie that can continually give you that kind of emotional nourishment, but this is one of those movies and, in my estimation, the greatest animated film of all time. It is a perfect movie.
Seriously, there are no flaws to this movie. I’m naturally a sucker for “a boy and his dog” tales and what little kid wouldn’t want their own giant robot from space as a new pet/best friend? It’s a dream come true but it’s also a big responsibility and involves plenty of hiding, from our protagonist’s mother, to the townspeople, to the government agents looking for signs that the Soviets might have a next-level weapon. Bird’s amazing movie manages to tap into so many aspects of life with precision, whether he’s lambasting Cold War paranoia, emphasizing physical comedy, or teaching moral lessons about choice and identity, it all works. That’s an understatement. It doesn’t just work, it sings, it sings so well that it fills you with glee. Even upon dozens of re-watches, I will like clockwork tear up and, by the end especially, be red-faced from sobbing. However it’s not just sad tears, there are plenty of happy tears to go around, because Bird’s movie (Let’s not forget to credit the screenplay by Tim McCanlines from Bird’s story, based upon Ted Hughes’ book, The Iron Man) has a beautiful bonding relationship between our little boy, Hogarth (voiced by Eli Marienthal), and the titular Iron Giant. The movie’s screenplay is so elegantly simple, with each sequence naturally braiding into the next, so that not a moment is wasted. It’s proof that with an excellent storyteller that an emotionally involving tale can be had and in such a short amount of time. This movie isn’t even 80 full minutes! I paused it when the credits began and it was still only 79 minutes long. It can be done, folks. You can emotionally wreck an audience in a way that doesn’t have to feel like exploitation. I was amazed that another classic like Fargo tells its story in only 90 minutes, and The Iron Giant sees that number and says it can manage with even less running time.
Bird’s movie is a gorgeous love letter to classic sci-fi comics and television and movies, which tapped into a social fear of the unknown and calamitous future that technology could bear. This can be done in comedy, like the bad sci-fi movie Hogarth stays up late to watch, but it can also relate to the central message of the movie, choosing who you will be rather than having others choose for you. The Giant is a mystery, his origins a mystery, but he’s packed with overwhelming firepower, so one might assume his originators had invasion designs. The dichotomy is encapsulated when Hogarth shares his comics collection with the Giant, and the metal man looks at another metallic giant ferocious destroying the city named Atomo. Our gentle spirited mechanical man is more interested in being Superman, a helpful alien figure not interested in conquering but in helping others. When he and Hogarth play pretend, he insists on playing as Superman, and in the end this designation provides the Giant a sense of peace as he ultimately makes the final sacrifice to save thousands of innocent people below. Even just typing that last sentence brought tears to my eyes, that’s how emotionally invested I am with the film. The Giant rejects being a “gun” with the sole designation of hurting others. He doesn’t want to cause pain and suffering. He wants friends. He wants to help. “I am not a gun,” he informs. We can all be capable of destruction but that doesn’t have to be our lone definition. Even though the inclusion of guns will (no punt intended) trigger certain audiences, the lesson is wonderful. “You are who you choose to be,” Hogarth tells the Giant. And he chooses to be a hero to the end.
I miss tradition hand-drawn animation. There’s a classical beauty to it and the character expressions in particular are so delightful, able to show great nuance through small variations in their faces. Bird’s movie emphasizes a lot of expressions through how characters hold their teeth. It’s little things you don’t see as often in CGI animated films, and I miss it. The Giant himself was a 3D animation made to look like traditional 2D animation, and it’s dazzling. The level of expression and communication given to this creature is brilliant. The design follows that elegant simplicity the rest of the movie exudes while still managing to be effortlessly expressive. Something else I noticed on my recent re-watch is just how fluid Bird’s camera is. In hand-drawn animation, there are fewer in-camera moves than the expansive 360-degree realm of CGI animation. It’s just part of the process. Yet The Iron Giant moves away from that staid concept of how a 2D animated film should look, and brings a renewed visual energy with camerawork. The lighting styles can also be breath-taking, especially early on with visuals like Hogarth’s mother (voiced by Jennifer Aniston) addressing her son between car headlights.
The Iron Giant didn’t do great business at the box-office upon its initial release but became a video and DVD staple. The Cartoon Network had an ongoing tradition where they ran the film on a loop during Thanksgiving so hat families could at any point indulge over the day. Bird moved onto Pixar afterwards and found the highest levels of success with The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and The Incredibles 2, racking up two Oscars as well for his efforts. He got so popular that he transitioned into the realm of live-action directing and helmed the franchise-rejuvenating Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol in 2011. He’s in the senior brain trust of Pixar and is revered for his storytelling prowess. The vocal cast was mostly filled with smaller character actors with the exception of Aniston (We’re the Millers), Harry Connick Jr. (New in Town) as the beatnik artists who becomes an ally for Hogarth and the Giant, and Vin Diesel (The Fate of the Furious) as the voice of the Giant. That casting floored me, though after two Guardians of the Galaxy movies it feels less confounding. He’s great at giving the Giant an endearing sense of innocence and wonder. When the Giant is beside himself trying to make sense of what he believes is the death of Hogarth, I cannot hold back my empathy. He is in pain, and Diesel gives life to this character to make his growing emotions feel all the more real and rewarding. Say what you will about his monotone grumble but he slays as the Giant.
In my original review I made a lot of veiled and not-so-veiled references to a decade of formulaic animation thanks to the popularity of the Disney model, which itself eventually petered out in the early 2000s. The Iron Giant was such a welcomed escape, something so different and mature and magical and honest that even then I knew it was destined for classic status, and I don’t want to brag or anything, but it’s completely upheld that prediction. It’s also amazing to think that two instant classics, The Sixth Sense and The Iron Giant, were released on the exact same frigging day of the year. That seems like a remarkable coincidence. I would say that The Iron Giant maintains its A+ laurels and has only gotten better with age. This is one of those movies that makes you realize how powerful and transporting filmmaking can be when a collection of artists are working in tandem on something truly magical.
This is a perfect movie. It was in 1999. It is in 2019. It will be in 2039. It will be always.
SEPTEMBER: American Beauty, Double Jeopardy
OCTOBER: Fight Club, Bats
NOVEMBER: Dogma, The World is Not Enough
DECEMBER: Man on the Moon, The Green Mile, Magnolia