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[Article] – Eight Overlooked Movies… 1995-2000

 

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Posted April 29, 2018 by

 
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After the big studio revival of the 1980s, new film-makers again decided to take up their cameras and make unique films on a small budget. In consequence, the 1990s proved to be a fertile time for independent cinema and led to a resurgence of the film-making ideals of the 60s and 70s.

Here are some overlooked films from the very heart of a decade which saw a fervent revival of the indie spirit – some of these 1990s movie gems are comedic; some are surprising; some are downright strange. Most of these directors went on to bigger (if not always better) things.

To Die For (1995)

Director: Gus Van Sant

Nicole Kidman hits her best form in this bitter, black comedy from Gus Van Sant, who has his tongue firmly in cheek throughout this seedy murder story.

The film follows a housewife named Suzanne (Kidman) who desperately wants to be a news-anchor, so much so that she has taken to hosting a limited access show on teens in the local high school.

When she meets impressionable teenager Jimmy (Joaquin Phoenix), she takes him as a toy-boy lover, and contrives a sinister way in which to get her oafish husband Larry (Matt Dillon) out of the way, as she feels that he is holding her back.

The film is an embittered attack on the desperation for fame, as Suzanne gradually sells her soul for success. The comic tone allows for many stand-out performances, not least Ileana Douglas as Suzanne’s sister in law Janice, who has long suspected Suzanne of nefarious activities.

There is wicked humour, betrayal, lies, and murder, and the film is vividly shot and stylized. The plot will keep you guessing, and sometimes even laughing, in spite of yourself.

Clockers (1995)

Director: Spike Lee

Nineteen-year-old ‘Strike’ Dunham (Mekhi Phifer) is a small-time drug dealer for Rodney Little (Delroy Lindo), who asks Strike to kill a former dealer who stole from him. When the dealer turns up dead, Strike is suspected, but before homicide detective Rocco Klein (Harvey Keitel) has a chance to investigate, Strike’s brother, Victor (Isaiah Washington), confesses to the crime.

Klein is a weary professional who routinely witnesses death.  His business is not to linger too long over the death of one young drug dealer, but he cannot get stubborn questions out of his mind. Klein suspects that Victor, a virtuous family man, is trying to cover up for Strike.

The movie takes place mostly in and around a New York housing project where Strike and his friends work as “clockers” – the lowest link in the drug supply chain. They work “around the clock” from benches and street corners, selling to white men with money. Strike feels trapped in a world of drugs and crime and at a loss as to how to escape.

‘Clockers’ is ostensibly a murder mystery. It may go as far as solving the murder, but it doesn’t even begin to find a solution to the system that led to the crime, and that may be the point Spike Lee is trying to make.

Hard Eight (1996)

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

‘Hard Eight’ is a neo-noir crime thriller originally titled ‘Sydney’, and was Paul Thomas Anderson’s first feature.

Sydney, (Philip Baker Hall) a gambler in his 60s, finds a man called John (John C. Reilly) sitting forlornly outside a diner. He gives him a cigarette and offers to buy him coffee. Sydney learns that John is trying to raise money for his mother’s burial. He offers to drive John to Las Vegas and teach him how to make money by gambling. Although he is sceptical, John agrees to Sydney’s proposition.

Two years later, John, having long acquired the money for his mother’s funeral, has become Sydney’s protégé. John is attracted to Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow) a cocktail waitress in Reno.

Sydney encounters Clementine at night, and learns that she has a secret job as a prostitute. Although Clementine initially thinks that Sydney is a client, Sydney actually wants to set her up with John.

Sydney receives a frantic late-night phone call, summoning him to a motel. He arrives to find John and Clementine holding a hostage – a customer who had refused to pay Clementine for sex. John also reveals that he and Clementine are married.

Sydney manages to calm the situation, advising John and Clementine to leave town and head to Niagara Falls for their honeymoon. After the two leave, Sydney cleans up the motel room to remove any evidence. He is then confronted by a friend of John’s called Jimmy, (Samuel L. Jackson) who threatens to tell John that Sydney killed John’s father, unless Sydney gives him $10,000.

Sydney gives him $6,000, but later sneaks into his house, waits for him to return and exacts his revenge.

‘Hard Eight’ reminds us of what original, compelling characters can bring to a movie.

Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)

Director: George Armitage

The title is a pun on ‘Point Blank’ – a 1967 tough-guy, neo-noir, crime film directed by John Boorman and starring Lee Marvin.

I may not be entirely unbiased about recommending this movie as it’s one of my personal favourites – a scintillating, fast-talking, pitch-black comedy, impressively co-written by star John Cusack (he really needs to get together again with Jankiewicz, DeVincentis and Pink to write himself another screenplay, he’s never been better than he is in this film).

Professional assassin Martin Blank (John Cusack) finds that he is having difficulty focusing on his work. This results in a botched assignment.

His loyal personal assistant Marcella (Joan Cusack) tries to persuade him to return to his hometown, Grosse Pointe, Detroit, to attend his 10-year high school reunion. He thinks not, but although he has failed in an assassination attempt, an interesting coincidence is that he can redeem himself by fulfilling another job there – killing two birds, so to speak, with one stone.

He discusses his plight with his nervous psychiatrist (Alan Arkin), a man deeply and hilariously alarmed to learn he has a hit man for a client.

On his arrival at Grosse Pointe, Martin looks up local radio DJ Debi Newberry (Minnie Driver), a fondly remembered girlfriend that he inexplicably stood up at their high-school prom.

Martin’s PA Marcella has set up the second hit for him while he is in his home town, but, while evaluating his relationship with Debi and his old friends, Martin starts to reconsider his life choices.

Meanwhile, he is being hounded by a kookily unstable rival hitman Grocer (Dan Aykroyd) and is being shadowed by other assorted mysterious figures who appear to be set on killing him.

One of the many things that makes this movie shine is the dialogue. The exchanges between Cusack and Driver as the reunited couple embarking on a long-delayed date, have a particularly wry and sparky charm, as real affection and chemistry smoulders between them. You won’t have come across a cuter, more unconventional pair in any of our dull, by-the-numbers, contemporary rom-coms.

It’s not often that a film about professional killers has a high-school reunion dance as its centrepiece, (Cusack manages to rope in most of his real-life family) and rarer still that the antihero kills an assailant during the proceedings and manages to dispose of the body.

The screenplay uses this quirky story as a backdrop for truly original comedy and some exciting action pieces. The film can also boast about having one of the best soundtracks ever. ‘Grosse Pointe Blank’ is loads of fun – if you haven’t seen it yet, you must rectify the oversight immediately!

The Spanish Prisoner (1997)

Director: David Mamet

‘The Spanish Prisoner’ does not take place in Spain and has no prisoners. The title refers to a classic con game. Mamet, whose favourite game is poker, makes films where characters play tricks and negotiate their way through a sea of falsehoods.

Joe Ross (Campbell Scott) is a financial whizz-kid who has invented a ‘Process’ that will make enormous amounts of money for his company. When he outlines his plan the eyes of his executives all shine with unabashed greed – he assures them that the goal is “by means of the Process, to control the world market”. They get dizzy with the prospect.

He works for Mr. Klein (Ben Gazzara), who has convened a meeting in the Caribbean to discuss the Process. On hand is George, a company lawyer (Ricky Jay) and Susan Ricci (Rebecca Pidgeon, Mamet’s wife) Joe’s assistant, who is in love with him.

A man named Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin) comes to the island – he may or may not have arrived by seaplane. Dell offers to help Ross protect his new business mechanism, as anything as valuable as the Process would be a target for industrial espionage – when millions of dollars are involved, few people are above temptation.

However, soon Ross finds himself falsely accused of murder. Working with the FBI and his assistant Susan, Ross sets out to prove his innocence and disentangle himself from a diabolical and complex entrapment.

The characters in ‘The Spanish Prisoner’ are all given motives–romance, greed, pride, friendship, curiosity—but all of these motives are inventions and misdirection; Mamet the magician cuts the deck, and behold, the joker wins.

Very Bad Things (1998)

Director: Peter Berg

‘Very Bad Things’ involves five friends who go on a bachelor party to Las Vegas. Kyle Fisher (Jon Favreau) is on the eve of marriage to the wedding-obsessed Laura (Cameron Diaz). His pals are a real-estate agent named Robert Boyd (Christian Slater), antagonistic Berkow brothers Adam (Daniel Stern) and Michael (Jeremy Piven), and a mechanic named Charles (Leland Orser).

In Vegas they begin gambling, tossing back shots and snorting cocaine. A stripper (Carla Scott) arrives, does lap dances and is steered into the bathroom by Michael. He lurches drunkenly about with her until her head is accidentally impaled on a coat hook.

Initially they want to dial 911, but Robert objects, ‘How will it look if a dead hooker turns up in their room?’ Remove the horror and tragedy of her death and all moral and ethical considerations, and what are you left with? “A 105-pound problem,” apparently.

Robert’s solution is to dismember her body and bury her in the desert. He browbeats the others into agreement, but then a black security guard enters with a complaint about noise. The guard (Russell B. McKenzie) sees the dead woman and Robert stabs him with a corkscrew. Now they have two bodies to dispose of.

Back home, Kyle has difficulty hiding his guilt from his fiancée. Meanwhile, to ensure his own safety, the callous Robert Boyd begins killing the others. The men are tormented by guilt and fear and the last act spins to a grisly, weird denouement. By the time the wedding comes around, it’s too late to laugh.

‘Very Bad Things’ is a very odd film.  It attempts black comedy but it isn’t funny. The acting is fine – Slater has played the amoral villain since his turn in ‘Heathers’ (now THAT was a good satire) but director Berg doesn’t manage to inject any real amusement or irony here. The material fares better if we consider it as a disturbing drama.

It’s not a feel-good movie, quite the opposite, it’s deeply misanthropic. However, if you like leaving a film asking the question ‘What was all that about?’ this may be for you.

A Simple Plan (1998)

Director: Sam Raimi

While in the woods near their small town, upstanding family man Hank Mitchell (Bill Paxton), his older brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton) trapped in a lifetime of dim loneliness, and their good-time waster friend Lou (Brent Briscoe) discover a crashed plane in a nature preserve. The plane contains two things – a dead pilot, and a stash of over four million dollars.

Hank is initially reluctant to keep the money, but the lure of the actual money and under pressure from Jacob and Lou, Hank finds his principles begin to weaken. The trio devise a plan to split the fortune, and all three men begin to dream of what they will do with their cut.

The premise may be simple enough, but rarely is a film so skilful at drawing us gradually into the consequences of immoral and criminal action. Things quickly go wrong, dramatically affecting the men and those around them – circumstances inspire one reckless act after another.

Like ‘Very Bad Things,’ mentioned above, ‘A Simple Plan’ is about friends stumbling into crime and then into greater sins in an attempt to conceal their guilt. One difference between the two films is that ‘A Simple Plan’ does not try to mock; instead it faces all the moral implications. We are not allowed to stand outside the characters and feel morally superior; we are taken along for the ride and cringe as the protagonists must make compromises that lead to consequences they could never have imagined.

Pi (1998)

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Numbers genius Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) is stunted by psychological delusions of paranoia and by debilitating headaches. He lives in a messy Chinatown apartment, barricaded behind a triple-locked door and wants nothing to do with society outside.

In his solitude, he tinkers with and tests equations on with his customized, super-advanced computer, looking for mathematical patterns. He is convinced that, if he can find patterns – if he can find a key to chaos, then he will be able to predict anything, including acts of God, stock prices, the weather, history, the future, baseball scores and the response to all moves in the game ‘Go’.

One day, Cohen encounters a mysterious number. Soon after reporting his discovery to his mentor Sol, (Mark Margolis) and after he runs into a Hasidic Jew named Lenny (Ben Shenkman), who has a hidden agenda, Max finds himself the target of sinister Wall Street agents bent on using the number for profit. If Max is on to something, they want it.

For both the stock market people and a shadowy Hasidic cabal, Max’s mathematical formula represents all they believe in and they will go to any lengths to acquire it.

‘Pi’ written and directed by Darren Aronofsky, is a study in mental obsession, genius and madness. The movie is a thriller about a man who risks his mind in the pursuit of a dangerous obsession. The trick with mathematics is that you can’t prove it except by its own terms. Has Max really found something, or does he only think so?

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Written by:

Ren Zelen
@RenZelen
Lethal Lexicon
Freelance Contributor

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