Thursday, November 19, 2020

ENG 281 Fall 2020 (Rest of the semester: 1985 - 1999)

(under construction) 


Brazil (UK: Terry Gilliam, 1985) [Criterion: "In the dystopian masterpiece Brazil, Jonathan Pryce plays a daydreaming everyman who finds himself caught in the soul-crushing gears of a nightmarish bureaucracy. This cautionary tale by Terry Gilliam, one of the great films of the 1980s, has come to be esteemed alongside antitotalitarian works by the likes of George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, and Kurt Vonnegut Jr. And in terms of set design, cinematography, music, and effects, Brazil is a nonstop dazzler." MB: Gilliam is a founding member of Monty Python and the visionary force behind their wild visual/animated effects. He brings his zany visual sensibility to one of the great films designed to get us to think about the dystopian nature of  unchecked bureaucratic absurdities, rigid elite stratification and a culture formed around propaganda.]

Ran (Japan: Akira Kurosawa, 1985) [Criterion: "With Ran, legendary director Akira Kurosawa reimagines Shakespeare's King Lear as a singular historical epic set in sixteenth-century Japan. Majestic in scope, the film is Kurosawa's late-life masterpiece, a profound examination of the folly of war and the crumbling of one family under the weight of betrayal, greed, and the insatiable thirst for power." MB: One of the all-time great directors adapts one of the best plays by one of the all-time great playwrights. Stunning visuals, incredible mobilization of large action scenes, impressive reworking of the play's themes into Japan's historical cultural setting.)


Blue Velvet (USA: David Lynch, 1986) [Criterion: "Home from college, Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) makes an unsettling discovery: a severed human ear, lying in a field. In the mystery that follows, by turns terrifying and darkly funny, writer-director David Lynch burrows deep beneath the picturesque surfaces of small-town life. Driven to investigate, Jeffrey finds himself drawing closer to his fellow amateur sleuth, Sandy Williams (Laura Dern), as well as their person of interest, lounge singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini)—and facing the fury of Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), a psychopath who will stop at nothing to keep Dorothy in his grasp. With intense performances and hauntingly powerful scenes and images, Blue Velvet is an unforgettable vision of innocence lost, and one of the most influential American films of the past few decades." MB: A brilliant and disturbing look at the dark-side of small town America. Fueled by committed performances from the cast, infused with Lynch's surreal-dreamlike sensibilities and jammed packed with psycho-sexual themes. The coming-of-age, youthful attraction, small town bully/criminal, and junior-detective mystery story is irrevocably changed after this film. I had friends that watched this film so many times when it came out on video, they could quote entire scenes from memory.]  

Platoon (USA: Oliver Stone, 1986) [Rotten Tomatoes: "Informed by director Oliver Stone's personal experiences in Vietnam, Platoon forgoes easy sermonizing in favor of a harrowing, ground-level view of war, bolstered by no-holds-barred performances from Charlie Sheen and Willem Dafoe. Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) leaves his university studies to enlist in combat duty in Vietnam in 1967. Once he's on the ground in the middle of battle, his idealism fades. Infighting in his unit between Staff Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger), who believes nearby villagers are harboring Viet Cong soldiers, and Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe), who has a more sympathetic view of the locals, ends up pitting the soldiers against each other as well as against the enemy." MB:  A very engaging look at a young idealist's engagement and struggle with two charismatic, forceful (potential) mentor-guides while navigating the dangers of a war zone.  Good acting by all involved and an excellent soundtrack.]


Full Metal Jacket (USA: Stanley Kubrick, 1987) Rotten Tomatoes: "Intense, tightly constructed, and darkly comic at times ... Stanley Kubrick's take on the Vietnam War follows smart-aleck Private Davis (Matthew Modine), quickly christened "Joker" by his foul-mouthed drill sergeant (R. Lee Ermey), and pudgy Private Lawrence (Vincent D'Onofrio), nicknamed "Gomer Pyle," as they endure the rigors of basic training. Though Pyle takes a frightening detour, Joker graduates to the Marine Corps and is sent to Vietnam as a journalist, covering -- and eventually participating in -- the bloody Battle of Hué." MB: Stanley Kubrick, one of the all time great directors, takes a second look at the in/sanity of war (the first time was the excellent 1957 antiwar Paths of Glory ). It is a bicameral film, showing the unrelenting indoctrination of young draftees in the first part (R. Lee Ermey is so memorable he becomes the blueprint for future cinematic drill instructors) and the second part follows, from the first part, the military journalist Joker (Matthew Modine) as he goes deeper into the actual conflict between the Americans and Vietnamese. Kubrick has a savage, incisive eye for the absurdities of war and its effect on the participants (willing or not). The absurd inconsistencies of the American invasion and occupation of Vietnam is memorably represented by Joker's "Born to Kill" helmet and Peace symbol button.] 

Matewan (USA: John Sayles, 1987) [Criterion: "Written and directed by John Sayles, this wrenching historical drama recounts the true story of a West Virginia coal town where the local miners’ struggle to form a union rose to the pitch of all-out war in 1920. When Matewan’s miners go on strike, organizer Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper, in his film debut) arrives to help them, uniting workers white and black, Appalachia-born and immigrant, while urging patience in the face of the coal company’s violent provocations. With a crackerjack ensemble cast—including James Earl Jones, David Strathairn, Mary McDonnell, and Will Oldham—and Oscar-nominated cinematography by Haskell Wexler, Matewan taps into a rich vein of Americana with painstaking attention to local texture, issuing an impassioned cry for justice that still resounds today." MB: A masterpiece: Sayle's powerful narrative about a workers struggle in the Appalachian region, for its portrayal of the way powerful business interests can work to divide workers along race (and the power of overcoming that ploy), for it portrayal of the ways in which people organize to resist powerful interests, and for its naturalistic depiction that made me feel like I had experienced that place & time. Great cast and acting!]

Raising Arizona (USA: Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, 1987) [Rotten Tomatoes: "A terrifically original, eccentric screwball comedy, Raising Arizona may not be the Coens' most disciplined movie, but it's one of their most purely entertaining. An ex-con and an ex-cop meet, marry and long for a child of their own. When it is discovered that Hi is unable to have children they decide to snatch a baby. They try to keep their crime a secret, while friends, co-workers and a bounty hunter look to use the child for their own purposes." MB: One of my favorite comedies. A film that is able to contain and focus Nicholas Cage's over-the-top acting style is admirable enough, but Holly Hunter as Ed is simply amazing. The supporting cast, as is usual in a Coen's Brothers film, is excellent.]

Wings of Desire (West Germany: Wim Wenders, 1987) [Criterion: "Wings of Desire is one of cinema’s loveliest city symphonies. Bruno Ganz is Damiel, an angel perched atop buildings high over Berlin who can hear the thoughts—fears, hopes, dreams—of all the people living below. But when he falls in love with a beautiful trapeze artist, he is willing to give up his immortality and come back to earth to be with her. Made not long before the fall of the Berlin wall, this stunning tapestry of sounds and images, shot in black and white and color by the legendary Henri Alekan, is movie poetry. And it forever made the name Wim Wenders synonymous with film art." MB: I remember in grad school coming across this film in a video store right after I had watched his film Until the End of the World (1991), and like that film Wings of Desire transfixed me with its narrative, its meditative otherworldly story of angels watching over the lives of the citizens of Berlin, and its transcendent moments in which reality becomes just as unearthly as the world of angels. Also, a powerful love story in which one is confronted with how far would you go to be with the one you love?] 


Chocolat (France/Senegal: Claire Denis, 1988) [Rotten Tomatoes: "An affluent white woman named France (Mireille Perrier) returns to her childhood home in Cameroon after many years of living in France. While there, she reflects upon her youth. When she was growing up in the former French colony in the 1950s, her life was one of privilege, escape and ignorance. She bonded with an African servant named Protée (Isaach De Bankolé), even though she was unaware of the larger racial and social tensions stirring all around her." MB: This film would be great to watch while reading Isabel Wilkerson's new and important book Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents (2020). A subtle examination of these theories as played out in this place and time period. For a film about such a serious subject, it is dreamily beautiful in its portrayal of the place and peoples.  Claire Denis is one of my favorite filmmakers because of her sharp focus on "bodies in space" or, if you will, as a practitioner of embodied cinema.] 


Do the Right Thing (USA: Spike Lee, 1989) [Criterion: "Set on one block of Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy Do or Die neighborhood, at the height of summer, this 1989 masterpiece by Spike Lee confirmed him as a writer and filmmaker of peerless vision and passionate social engagement. Over the course of a single day, the easygoing interactions of a cast of unforgettable characters—Da Mayor, Mother Sister, Mister Señor Love Daddy, Tina, Sweet Dick Willie, Buggin Out, Radio Raheem, Sal, Pino, Vito, and Lee’s Mookie among them—give way to heated confrontations as tensions rise along racial fault lines, ultimately exploding into violence. Punctuated by the anthemic refrain of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” Do the Right Thing is a landmark in American cinema, as politically and emotionally charged and as relevant now as when it first hit the big screen." MB: The Criterion description is perfect, this is one of the best films - story and technique - of the 20th Century.]


Goodfellas (USA: Martin Scorsese, 1990) [Rotten Tomatoes: "Hard-hitting and stylish, GoodFellas is a gangster classic -- and arguably the high point of Martin Scorsese's career. A young man grows up in the mob and works very hard to advance himself through the ranks. He enjoys his life of money and luxury, but is oblivious to the horror that he causes. A drug addiction and a few mistakes ultimately unravel his climb to the top. Based on the book "Wiseguy" by Nicholas Pileggi. MB: A masterpiece of the genre and filmmaking in general. The three main actors - Ray Liotta, Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci - embody the characters convincingly and the supporting cast is also top notch. Magnificent bravura long takes and a superb soundtrack. Where Coppola's The Godfather looked at gangsters through the ruling class Corleones, this film's perspective is through the street level gangsters whose lifestyles and lives are much more precarious (we could think of The Sopranos (1999 - 2007) as middle management).

Miller's Crossing (USA: Ethan Coen and Joel Cohen, 1990) [Rotten Tomatoes: "When the Italian Mafia threatens to kill a crooked bookie (John Turturro), Irish mob boss Leo O'Bannon (Albert Finney) refuses to allow it, chiefly because he's dating the bookie's sister, crafty gun moll Verna Bernbaum (Marcia Gay Harden). Leo's right-hand man, Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), is also seeing Verna on the sly, and when he's found out is obliged to switch sides, going to work for the Italian mob amidst a dramatically escalating gang war over liquor distribution." MB: This is easily one of my favorite Coen Brothers films and Tom Reagan's machiavellian machinations are a wonder to behold. The dialogue is jaw-dropping and the style is breathtaking! Once again, an extremely talented ensemble cast cinches the excellence of this film. Tagline: "No one is who they seem to be"]


Boyz n the Hood (USA: John Singleton, 1991) [Rotten Tomatoes: "Well-acted and thematically rich, Boyz N the Hood observes Black America with far more depth and compassion than many of the like-minded films its success inspired. Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr.) is sent to live with his father, Furious Styles (Larry Fishburne), in tough South Central Los Angeles. Although his hard-nosed father instills proper values and respect in him, and his devout girlfriend Brandi (Nia Long) teaches him about faith, Tre's friends Doughboy (Ice Cube) and Ricky (Morris Chestnut) don't have the same kind of support and are drawn into the neighborhood's booming drug and gang culture, with increasingly tragic results." Elvis Mitchell: "Boyz N the Hood implicitly indicts the Reaganite policies that turned South Central Los Angeles into a benighted zone worse off than Eastern Europe. Singleton chose the most straightforward story possible, told in an almost elegiac fashion. In this L.A. that he once called home, the despair is underscored by the continual pounding of chopper blades, reminding us that South Central is a virtual armed camp under perpetual patrol by the police. Teenaged Tre Styles (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), Singleton’s hero, wants nothing more than any other teenager—to hang with his homeys, clock the honeys and dream about a future. But unlike most other kids in the Land of Opportunity, his is a world where dreams are always brutally compromised. (1992)" MB: This film exploded on the cinematic landscape and became a much wider cultural phenomenon as the uprising in L.A. at the acquittal of police in a gang style beating of motorist Rodney King. Singleton set the bar high with his seminal film.] 

My Own Private Idaho (USA: Gus van Sant, 1991) [Criterion: "River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves star in this haunting tale from Gus Van Sant about two young street hustlers: Mike Waters, a sensitive narcoleptic who dreams of the mother who abandoned him, and Scott Favor, the wayward son of the mayor of Portland and the object of Mike’s desire. Navigating a volatile world of junkies, thieves, and johns, Mike takes Scott on a quest along the grungy streets and open highways of the Pacific Northwest, in search of an elusive place called home. Visually dazzling and thematically groundbreaking, My Own Private Idaho is a deeply moving look at unrequited love and life on society’s margins." MB: Inspired by both Shakespeare's play King Henry IV and Orson Welles 1967 film Chimes at Midnight, Gus van Sant's film became a touchstone for 90s queer cinema (name checked in John Cameron Mitchell's 2006 film  Shortbus) and got greater exposure for the time because of the two lead actors.]

The Silence of the Lambs (USA: Jonathan Demme, 1991) [Criterion: "In this chilling adaptation of the best-selling novel by Thomas Harris, the astonishingly versatile director Jonathan Demme crafted a taut psychological thriller about an American obsession: serial murder. As Clarice Starling, an FBI trainee who enlists the help of the infamous Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter to gain insight into the mind of another killer, Jodie Foster subverts classic gender dynamics and gives one of the most memorable performances of her career. As her foil, Anthony Hopkins is the archetypal antihero—cultured, quick-witted, and savagely murderous—delivering a harrowing portrait of humanity gone terribly wrong. A gripping police procedural and a disquieting immersion into a twisted psyche, The Silence of the Lambs swept the Academy Awards® (best picture, director, screenplay, actress, actor) and remains a cultural touchstone." MB: This excellent film with Jodie Foster's great, strong female protagonist, is hijacked by Anthony Hopkin's embodiment of the super-intelligent serial killer that treats others as disposal (or in this case, consumable). Set off a series of sequels focused on Hannibal and a recent successful Netflix TV series Hannibal. This film came out at the beginning of the 90s burgeoning cultural obsession with serial killers, unleashing a glut of novels, true-crime books & TV, and cinematic depictions, that have not abated to this day.]   


Candyman (USA: Bernard Rose, 1992) [Shout! Factory: "This gut-wrenching thriller follows a graduate student whose research summons the spirit of the dead! When Helen Lyle hears about Candyman, a slave spirit with a hook hand who is said to haunt a notorious housing project, she thinks she has a new twist for her thesis. Braving the gang-ridden territory to visit the site, Helen arrogantly assumes Candyman can't really exist ... until he appears, igniting a string of terrifying, grisly slayings. But the police don't believe in monsters, and charge Helen with the crimes. And the only one who can set her free is Candyman." MB: Brilliantly set in the style of the notorious Chicago Cabrini Green housing projects the film already achieves a spookiness well before we enter the actual plot. Then when you factor in the subtext of America's terrifying racist history into the Candyman's origin, we know that Lyle's research is bound to unearth some terrifying realities. Adapted from horror writer Clive Barker's short story "The Forbidden" from his legendary six volume Books of Blood (1984-1985). There is a completed remake that was held back from release because of the pandemic and now due for release in 2021 - it looks great! The recent documentary Horror Noire (2019) situates this film as a important landmark for black horror fans.]

Orlando (UK/Russia/Italy/France/Netherlands: Sally Potter, 1992) [Amazon DVD description: "Tilda Swinton, Billy Zane and Quentin Crisp star in this "hip, sexy and wickedly funny" film based on the gender-bending novel by Virginia Woolf. Swinton stars as Orlando, an English nobleman who defies the law of nature with surprising results. Immortal and highly imaginative, he undergoes a series of extraordinary transformations which humorously and hauntingly illustrate the eternal war between the sexes. Visually stunning and beautifully acted, ORLANDO is an intoxicating blend of romance, adventure and illusion." MB: As stated above, this is based on Virginia Woolf's 1928 novel: "Considered a feminist classic, the book has been written about extensively by scholars of women's writing and gender and transgender studies." In philosophy there is a debate of being vs becoming, this is a masterpiece of the representation of becoming.]

Unforgiven (USA: Clint Eastwood, 1992) [Rotten Tomatoes: "As both director and star, Clint Eastwood strips away decades of Hollywood varnish applied to the Wild West, and emerges with a series of harshly eloquent statements about the nature of violence. When prostitute Delilah Fitzgerald (Anna Thomson) is disfigured by a pair of cowboys in Big Whiskey, Wyoming, her fellow brothel workers post a reward for their murder, much to the displeasure of sheriff Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), who doesn't allow vigilantism in his town. Two groups of gunfighters, one led by aging former bandit William Munny (Clint Eastwood), the other by the florid English Bob (Richard Harris), come to collect the reward, clashing with each other and the sheriff." MB: In an incredibly long career, working both as an actor and later a director/producer, this film can lay a claim as his best work. It is also a landmark in the Western genre.] 


Dazed and Confused (USA: Richard Linklater, 1993) [Criterion: "America, 1976. The last day of school. Bongs blaze, bell-bottoms ring, and rock and roll rocks. Among the best teen films ever made, Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused eavesdrops on a group of seniors-to-be and incoming freshmen. A launching pad for a number of future stars, Linklater’s first studio effort also features endlessly quotable dialogue and a blasting, stadium-ready soundtrack. Sidestepping nostalgia, Dazed and Confused is less about “the best years of our lives” than the boredom, angst, and excitement of teenagers waiting . . . for something to happen." MB: In the time period that this film is set I would have been on the precipice of starting Junior High School (7th grade) and this film completely nails the culture, the aesthetics/style & the attitudes of the era (even though Linklater was in Huntsville, TX and I was in San Diego, CA). It should be no surprise that I adore this film as a snapshot of my youth! I think I'm going to have to take a trip down memory lane and watch it again tonight. If you write a response to this, let me know if there is a film that serves as a generational marker for you.] 

The Piano (Australia/New Zealand: Jane Campion, 1993) [The first lines of this powerful film: Ada: The voice you hear is not my speaking voice - -but my mind's voice. I have not spoken since I was six years old. No one knows why - -not even me. My father says it is a dark talent, and the day I take it into my head to stop breathing will be my last. Today he married me to a man I have not yet met. Soon my daughter and I shall join him in his own country. My husband writes that my muteness does not bother him - and hark this! He says, "God loves dumb creatures, so why not I?" '... Rotten Tomatoes: "The Piano is a truth-seeking romance played in the key of erotic passion. After a long voyage from Scotland, pianist Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter) and her young daughter, Flora (Anna Paquin), are left with all their belongings, including a piano, on a New Zealand beach. Ada, who has been mute since childhood, has been sold into marriage to a local man named Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill). Making little attempt to warm up to Alisdair, Ada soon becomes intrigued by his Maori-friendly acquaintance, George Baines (Harvey Keitel), leading to tense, life-altering conflicts." MB: This film is centered around the stunning performance of Holly Hunter as Ada, who although mute, communicates so much. The other actors are also very effective, most notably a 11 year old Anna Paquin, for which she won a Best-Supporting Actress award. You may know Paquin in a later role as Sookie Stackhouse in HBO's True Blood (2008 - 2014). The relationship of people and the environment, the colonizer and the colonized, and the dynamics of interpersonal relationships are also strong themes in this beautifully shot film! To top it off, at least for me, this is a touchstone feminist film.]


Pulp Fiction (USA: John Travolta, 1994) [Rotten Tomatoes: "One of the most influential films of the 1990s, Pulp Fiction is a delirious post-modern mix of neo-noir thrills, pitch-black humor, and pop-culture touchstones. Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) are hitmen with a penchant for philosophical discussions. In this ultra-hip, multi-strand crime movie, their storyline is interwoven with those of their boss, gangster Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) ; his actress wife, Mia (Uma Thurman) ; struggling boxer Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis) ; master fixer Winston Wolfe (Harvey Keitel) and a nervous pair of armed robbers, "Pumpkin" (Tim Roth) and "Honey Bunny" (Amanda Plummer)." MB: Innovative narrative structure, complex dialogue/delivery, well-drawn characters, a scintillating soundtrack and seriously strange set-pieces. Despite all of that it is amazingly accessible and engaging, as long as you are comfortable with the darker aspects of the plot. Renewed John Travolta's career, made a star/celebrity of Samuel Jackson, and features an extremely talented ensemble cast. Hugely influential as a ceaseless spawn of films sought to imitate this film throughout the 90s onward. I remember seeing this in a sold out theater in Central Illinois as an undergraduate and running into one of my favorite English professors outside afterward. He looked at me with a troubled expression and asked me "Are there people like the characters in the film?" I don't think he was satisfied with my answer that they may be fictional, but there are ... Vincent Vega: "You see, this is a moral test of one's self." Check out the trailer, you will know immediately if you want to see it.]

Queen Margot (Canada: Patrice Chéreau, 1994)  [Rotten Tomatoes: "Margot (Isabelle Adjani) is one of several in line to inherit the crown in France, where Roman Catholics and Protestants are jockeying for power. Margot's mother, Catherine de Medici (Virna Lisi), is intent on seeing her son take the throne once the reign of King Charles IX (Jean-Hugues Anglade) ends. After being married to a man she doesn't love and starting a tryst with one she does, Margot contends with her mother's at-all-costs plan to control the political fate of the volatile country." MB: This was my favorite film that we watched in my French Film Studies course as a MA at Bowling Green State University. It is an incredibly rich and vivid portrayal of the tumultuous society of 16th Century France. For me, the exciting narrative, the rich mise-en-scene, and the great acting, makes this a film I return to from time-to-time. The lead actress Isabelle Adjani was my third cinematic crush (after Maya Deren and Louise Brooks). The intertwining of intense political-court intrigue with seriously hot romance and quickly-shifting alliances makes this a feverish film - I feel a flush just thinking about it.] 

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