The 20 year gap seems the most painfully embarassing for me to revisit now. 1998 was in many ways representative of a point in my life where I started developing my own personal tastes apart from my family and friends, where I started choosing the kind of movies I wanted to see. I started reading movie magazines and wanted to venture beyond the “kid” movies I had been well-versed in up to that point. I was a teenager who was suddenly armed with a little bit of movie knowledge, didn’t know exactly how little he knew, but was extremely confident in the correctness of my opinions. In other words, I was the worst.
The intervening years have done quite a bit in helping me refine the worst of my views (no, The Thin Red Line isn’t boring, and yes, Armageddon is the worst). But that still left me this list below of several movies where I had a high reason to believe my original assessment of these movies were slightly off, thus begging a revisit. Oh, and I’ve also been dying to rip the 1998 Godzilla. So here we go:
GODZILLA dir. Roland Emmerich
If I had to pick out the perfect movie to encapsulate the late 90s – with its market tested slickness, undying belief in the power of capitalism, and all round optimistic view of the corporate-powered affluent life – I would be hard-pressed to find a better example than this American remake of Godzilla. To say that the attitudes encapsulated by a triumphalistic late-90s America is a poor fit for adapting the ultimately morose and sobering tale of the original Kaiju is an understatement.
The movie starts out on a promising note as the opening crawl is a disconcerting collage of images that, in keeping with the Japanese versions, reminds us of our complicity in nuclear proliferation and gives the hint of a potential reckoning. Meanwhile the opening scene, where an unseen Godzilla destroys a fishing vessel with terrifying ease, perfectly builds on the suspense of the opening crawl.
Then Matthew Broderick appears as a worm scientist, and the whole thing falls apart. First there is the illogical notion that somehow out of all the nuclear-based scientists of the world, the military would tap the worm guy as their expert. Moreover his casting reveals just how little the filmmakers cared about the source material as he is there mostly to play up some easy laughs (due to his dorkiness! Get it?). The rest of the casting meanwhile is a pastiche of comedic actors (Harry Shearer, Hank Azaria, Kevin Dunn, Vicki Lewis, Michael Lerner), an anemic blonde love interest (Maria Pitilo), and a very, very French Jean Reno leading a very French secret strike team (because the French are naturally very hilarious no?). And as you might expect from any cast of this composition, they exist mostly to play up the yuks for a 90s audience looking to have a mildly exhilarating good-time. All sense of the tragedy inherent in the original series is buried under a movie that has more in tonal similarity with a Friends episode than anything resembling sobering poignance.
Nowhere is this more clear than when the monster finally arrives on Manhattan’s shores and begins to wreck cataclysmic havoc. The movie’s most iconic scene, where Hank Azaria’s cameraman is nearly stomped by the Kaiju but through sheer luck avoids death is played strictly for laughs. After this initial attack the rest of the cast acts with a complete lack of urgency that beggars defies belief as they are focused on the sub-plots that doubtlessly a studio-executive put them in (My mayoral career! My journalism career! My love life! My schmuckness!) while suffering absolutely no trauma whatsoever from the destruction and more importantly, death of people in the city. This more than anything else makes ruins any sense of believability in the movie because post-9/11 we know exactly what it looks like when a city (and New York in particular) goes through cataclysmic destruction. It most certainly does not look like Emmerich’s vision.
Meanwhile it is easy to cynically sift through exactly what the studio executives wanted with this movie by the changes they made to Godzilla itself. Instead of a lumbering and unstoppable force of destruction they went with a lizard like creature that bears a striking resemblance to a T-Rex, even going so far as to make the same tell-tale stomping sounds made famous by Jurassic Park. Furthering the Jurassic Park theme, they decided to make this particular Godzilla give birth to a bunch of baby Godzillas who, as luck would have it, bear more than a passing resemblance to Spielberg’s iconic velociraptors. Toss in a good amount of heavy military firepower and collateral damage ala Independence Day along with the aforementioned comedic influences and you have basically reverse engineered everything you need for the perfect summer blockbuster.
Today it is easy to call the latest blockbuster that gets released a soulless money-making machine. Godzilla proves that Hollywood has been at that game for a long time.
Does it hold up? No. I will always maintain that this movie had the absolute coolest promotional campaign – at least for this-then teenager. But even back then the final product failed to live up to its trailer’s potential. And it’s only gotten worse with time.
OUT OF SIGHT dir. Steven Soderbergh
It is hard to imagine, but there was a time when Steven Soderbergh was exclusively an indie-film darling whose imprint was mostly felt by those who paid attention to the film-festival circuit. It is remarkable then that Out of Sight, his crossover into mainstream blockbusters, arrives so fully formed in the medium. Propelled by the source material from Elmore Leonard’s novel and buoyed by a cast that includes the “fresh-off-TV” George Clooney, peak film career Jennifer Lopez, and a solid cast of supporting players like Ving Rhames, Albert Brooks, and Don Cheadle among others, its success seems all the more inevitable in hindsight.
The story starts simple enough – Foley (Clooney) a bank robber crosses paths with the federal marshall Cisco (Lopez) when he tries to escape from prison and ends up locked with her inside her trunk. Naturally they fall slightly in love with one another even as she is obligated to arrest him leading to a cat-and-mouse chase between the two. And of course, given that this is Soderbergh, there are about several other subplots in the works to make the whole scenario all the more complicated.
But what is most interesting about Out of Sight isn’t necessarily the tightly wound plot of the movie, even if it quite satisfying. Borrowing from the detached and glib form of crime films pioneered by Pulp Fiction, Soderbergh’s thriller is one that seems to be more interested in observing human absurdity and comedy than in providing thrills. While the action scenes are fairly perfunctory, it is the dialogue of this movie that is a highlight. The conversations between Lopez and Clooney play like a throwback to screwball comedies, and the movie seems to be most at ease when its characters are steeped in conversation with one another. Additionally the depth of conversation also helps to fill out the characters so that it becomes clearly evident, in a genre that typically employs stock characters, that everyone involved has a much deeper life than what we see in the film – with complexities that do not necessarily exist to serve the larger plot of the movie.
It is this strength of character building and dialogue evident here that helps us see how the man responsible for indie-darlings like sex, lies, and videotape and King of the Hill. Yet it is the visual style that gets afforded to Soderbergh with the bigger budget of mainstream Hollywood that helps cement his aesthetic and draw a through line to his most successful movies like the Ocean’s trilogy, Traffic, and Erin Brockovich. Out of Sight might not be Soderbergh’s best movie, but it could be the most important in his career arc.
Does it hold up? Outside of the Ocean’s trilogy, this is Soderbergh’s most blatantly entertaining picture. And that is a good thing.
RUN LOLA RUN dir. Tom Twyker
Run, Lola, Run manages to pull off a phenomenal trick. It is a movie whose premise – Lola relives a twenty minute stretch of her life three times as she tries to save her criminal boyfriend from an untimely end as a result of a botched job – is undeniably steeped in art-house form and substance. But it is dressed up as an undeniably cool exercise in style as its thumping techno soundtrack, frenetic editing style, and youthful 90’s energy of Franka Potente and her fiery red hair easily trick the viewer into watching some international art-house without them knowing it. It’s central conceit, that minor variations of Potente’s actions end up impacting the outcome and fate of the characters gives the veneer of depth to the pop philosophical notion of a butterfly flapping its wings in America causing a hurricane in Asia but any attempt of drawing profound conclusions from the proceedings are going to feel slightly disappointed. Mostly the movie is successful because it replicates the then still emerging art-form of video games to absolute perfection, as we relive each iteration of Lola’s runs and watch her adjust and change her runs based on how the previous ones went. Potente is the charismatic heart of this movie that helps it stretch its thin premise to the 81 minutes that it is (side note: Potente has also been criminally been underused by the film community) while the propulsive nature of the plot and its stylistic accents make those 81 minutes fly by.
Does it hold up? Yes. And there are few better introductions to the world of international art-house films for the uninitiated.
SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE dir. John Madden
I’ll be frank, I revisited Shakespeare in Love to see if my earlier dismissal of the film was overly harsh. You see I only saw this movie after it unfairly won the Best Picture Oscar instead of the obviously superior Saving Private Ryan. Watching Shakespeare in Love after watching a movie as groundbreaking, revolutionary, and viscerally terrifying as Saving Private Ryan was the beginnings of my life-long obsession with the Academy, and how it so often got things wrong. But taken on its own terms, it is a sweet, funny, and smart reimagining of the origin of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet that features great performances from the cast, including a never-better Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes who form the nexus of a very believable couple, as well as great supporting performances from Ben Affleck, Judi Dench, and Geoffrey Rush. The production qualities meanwhile of this movie are top notch with an attention to detail with regards to historical accuracy that is both rigorous and yet never stodgy. The central plot, where Shakespeare apparently draws inspiration for Romeo and Juliet from his real-life romance, is one that could have easily descended into cheese and it is credit to screenwriters Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard that the script remains witty and vibrant while even believably sounding like a Shakespeare play itself. In other words, this is a very good romantic comedy that was working with a high-level of difficulty and managed to pull it off, which it should be applauded for. It is only because of the reputation it garnered as the picture that was emblematic of Harvey Weinstein’s aggressive and coercive tactics to win Oscars that ultimately (and unfairly) sullies its reputation. (That and the fact that Gwyneth Paltrow is one of Weinstein’s many victims of sexual abuse) While I still maintain that it had no business taking the Best Picture Oscar from Saving Private Ryan, it is encouraging to realize that – 20 years removed from that controversial win – Shakespeare in Love has more than enough merit to stand on its own.
Does it hold up? Yes, and I think it’s quality will be only more apparent the further away it is “consciously uncoupled” from Saving Private Ryan.
LOCK, STOCK, AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS dir. Guy Ritchie
It is easy to forget that before he became synonymous with giving us bland reboots of franchises nobody was asking for (Sherlock Holmes, The Man from U.N.C.L.E, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword) Guy Ritchie was known as a director who cut his teeth on gritty and often-times funny hyper-stylized crime films. More importantly he was known for being really good at it. Similarly Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels has suffered due to a slew of mostly mediocre British gangster films that followed in the wake of its cult success. This is a shame because the movie still more than holds up today. I had forgotten just how funny this movie – about a group of four friends who find themselves enormously in debt to a gambling and porn kingpin – truly is. Their quest to get back the money involves them stealing money from their neighbours who themselves are planning to rob a rich drug dealer which provides a calamitous level of competing subplots that invariably you will find yourself lost in. But like any great screwball comedy, the way all of these subplots coalesce and come together is both highly comedic and highly satisfactory. Perhaps the weakest part of this movie is that I don’t find myself caring for any of the people in the moving pieces of this plot as the movie is very much about being stylistically cool (with a raucous soundtrack to boot). But it is undeniably fun – a great bloody farce of a movie.
Does it hold up? Yes. And Guy Ritchie might do his career some good to return to these waters again.
ENEMY OF THE STATE dir. Tony Scott
In 1998 there was no star bigger than Will Smith, especially if you were a teenager at the time. I remember the chance to see Smith take on a more “grown-up” role after his break-out turns in Independence Day and Men In Black. And indeed looking back at Enemy of the State now, it does look and feel like a “grown-up” movie for someone (like me) who hasn’t seen a lot of grown-up movies before. In many ways the conspiracy-thriller seems less like an homage to the great 1970s thrillers like The Parallax View or Three Days of the Condor and more derivative of them with a 90s visual style. Twenty years later it also suffers from feeling slightly dated. The movie’s primary concern is “the surveillance state” as Smith plays a DC lawyer who finds his digital life destroyed when he inadvertently stumbles upon some scandalous videotape evidence of a congressman’s murder that had been reported as a suicide. But the exaggerated paranoia about 90s technology is at once grossly overboard when compared to what technology was actually capable of doing back then while also being quaint when compared to our current fears about security and technology in our much more digital contemporary situation. Still, we are still in the peak-Smith years which means the movie remains eminently watchable even if it is too over-the-top to be taken too seriously.
Does it hold up? Peak Will Smith and a typically excellent Gene Hackman performance ensure that the movie is worth revisiting, even if other elements of the film haven’t aged well.