1996: Part 1

The Birdcage. Directed by Mike Nichols. Even with the R rating – my parents were surprisingly lax when I was under ten – I have loved this movie since I was little. Robin Williams shines brightest when he’s not acting too crazy or stuck with a dumb plot (see: Cadillac Man, Man of the Year, License to Wed, Old Dogs, etc.). The ensemble helping him also do terrific jobs: the genius that is Nathan Lane (he works wonders with a wig), Gene Hackman (ditto), Dianne Wiest (one of my absolute favorites, especially in Woody Allen films), Dan Futterman (“Judging Amy” is what I know him from), Calista Flockhart (someday I’ll watch “Ally McBeal”), Hank Azaria (as the hilariously ridiculous “Agador Spartacus”) and Christine Baranski (another good character actress). The screenplay, adapted by the tremendously talented Elaine May from the original play and film La Cage aux Folles, is witty and wonderful. (Lane’s explanation for his choice of pink socks to complement his otherwise “masculine” attire: “Well, one does want a hint of color.”) The Oscar-nominated art direction/set decoration is best illustrated by the atmosphere and stage shows of the title club. Hey, any film that has Gene Hackman in drag is worth it.

Independence Day. Directed by Roland Emmerich. Winner of the Oscar for Best Effects (Visual Effects) and nominated for Best Sound, this alien magnum opus is well-made and entertaining. To be fair, my initial reason for watching this was Jeff Goldblum – always great in whatever he’s in – but Independence Day turned out to be great fun in its own right. Bill Pullman, who can currently be seen as the serial-killer-turned-celebrity Oswald Danes on “Torchwood: Miracle Day,” is quite good as the president and Will Smith is his usual heroic self. Oh, and Harvey Fierstein has a small role as a colleague of Goldblum. I always laugh at the scene when Vivica A. Fox and her dog escape an explosion in a tunnel but for the most part, the scenes aren’t too silly. The first time I saw the movie I was actually kind of frozen in my chair because some of the human/alien tension, although I do have a tendency to jump at scary stuff. (I jumped at the first possible moment in Fright Night.) My biggest problem with the film: Harry Connick, Jr. He was pretty good in Little Man Tate (1991), so why did his role in this movie have to be so laughably bad?

Marvin’s Room. Directed by Jerry Zaks. This movie, along with 1994’s The River Wild, made me a fan of Meryl Streep. Unlike in some of Streep’s most acclaimed films – Sophie’s Choice, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Out of Africa – the character she plays in Marvin’s Room feels normal; or, should I say, not famous. Her performance as Lee is matched by Diane Keaton’s performance as her sister Bessie. Keaton deservedly received Academy Award and Screen Actors Guild nominations for Best Actress, while Streep received nominations from the Golden Globes and Chlotrudis Awards. The cast also includes Leonardo DiCaprio as Streep’s unruly and unstable son, Robert De Niro as a kind doctor, Hume Cronyn, Gwen Verdon, Hal Scardino and Dan Hedaya. The film feels like a more realistic version of Crimes of the Heart (1986 and also starring Keaton), thankfully devoid of all the Southern-fried melodrama and overdone makeup. The Lackers’ family dynamic and the problems they face make for a simultaneously heartbreaking and touching story. I was crying by the end but also smiling.

The Rock. Directed by Michael Bay. Despite Michael Bay’s reputation as one of the worst directors in Hollywood (Pearl Harbor – I rest my case), I found The Rock to be a real thrill ride. As was noted in a previous post, Nicolas Cage is a guilty pleasure favorite of mine. Even when spouting such ridiculous lines as “You know, I like history too, and maybe when this is all over you and I can stop by the souvenir shop together but right now I just… I just wanna find some rockets!” and “I’d take pleasure in guttin’ you, boy!” I can’t help but enjoy what I’m laughing at. (It may interest you to know that Quentin Tarantino and Aaron Sorkin did uncredited work on the script… oy. Also, can we talk about how this movie – again, a MICHAEL BAY movie – is in the Criterion Collection?!) I mean, when you have Ed Harris as the baddie and Luenell as a tourist locked up in Alcatraz and screaming for someone to release her, you know you’ve got gold. Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Sound, The Rock is a great 90s action flick. That car chase is killer!

William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet. Directed by Baz Luhrmann. Alright, so there are two great Leo movies from 1996. This modernized version of the Shakespeare classic stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes as the star-crossed lovers. The late, great Pete Postlethwaite steals his scenes as the helpful Father Laurence. (Watching the film after he died brought a few tears to my eyes.) Other great supporting players include Harold Perrineau, who puts his all into a flamboyant portrayal of Mercutio, and John Leguizamo as the violent and sadly humorless Tybalt. (Faring worse is Paul Rudd, who’s goofy but dumb as Dave Paris.) Tying the whole movie together is its excellent soundtrack. Highlights include “Talk Show Host” by Radiohead, “Kissing You” by Des’ree (who makes an appearance singing this in the film), “Lovefool” by The Cardigans, a cover of Prince’s “When Doves Cry” by teenaged singer Quindon Tarver, Wagner’s “Liebestod” (from the opera Tristan and Isolde) and my favorite one, the brilliant song used in the credits, “Exit Music (For a Film)” by Radiohead. This Romeo + Juliet is filled with romance, great music, fantastic cinematography and Oscar-nominated art direction/set decoration that add to the beauty of the locale: Venice Beach, California. I can’t wait to see Moulin Rouge! on the strength of this earlier Luhrmann masterpiece. Yes, I said it: William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet is a modern masterpiece.

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