Cape Fear (1991)
★★ / ★★★★
Martin Scorsese’s “Cape Fear” was about a man (Robert De Niro) who was recently released from a fourteen-year prison sentence. The moment he got out, he made it his goal to make his former lawyer’s (Nick Nolte) life a living hell by torturing his family (Jessica Lange as his wife and Juliette Lewis as his daughter) and his budding flame (Illeana Douglas). I think I was particularly tough with this film because I expect a lot coming into a Scorsese picture. In trying to analyze things such as motif, consistency of tone, foreshadowing and other elements, I found myself not impressed with the big picture. I thought the storytelling was scattered because there were too many times when De Niro and Nolte would confront and threaten each other and it got old pretty quickly. However, I did like the fact that everything about this film was exaggerated–the soundtrack, the characters’ emotional reactions to certain events, the decisions they chose to tackle–to the point where the film almost felt comical instead of chilling. The style somewhat reminded me of Quentin Tarantino’s. The two scenes that stood out to me were when Lewis and De Niro had a “talk” in the theater and when De Niro broke into the family’s home as they tried to trap him. I felt like those scenes had Scorsese’s signature of wit, irony and just enough tension to keep us engaged because we were completely aware of the fact that the antagonist had the upperhand. Those scenes were so powerful, I felt like I held my breath during those times. Unfortunately, I felt like the rest of the picture did not quite hold up to those highs and I was somewhat underwhelmed when it was over. When I look back on it, while it was nice that De Niro’s character brought out a lot of almost repressed issues of the family, I still felt as though the characters were one dimensional. It was so unlike Scorsese’s movies because most of the time he features characters who are complex because they want to redeem themselves. In here, I saw Nolte’s character as a person who was a cheater and only felt bad for his actions because he got caught and problems were quickly proliferating in her life. If I did not know that Scorsese directed this picture, I most likely would not have guessed that it was indeed his work. Granted, one could argue that I shouldn’t compare “Cape Fear” to the director’s other projects as a basis of a film review. And I agree. I just wanted to emphasize the particular mindset I had while watching the movie. Perhaps with a second viewing I’ll be able to enjoy it more. The elements of creating a great thriller were certainly there but I felt like they did not come together as well as they should have had.
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Adaptation.,” directed by Spike Jonze (“Being John Malkovich,” “Where the Wild Things Are”), had many weapons in its arsenal but its imagination was its most powerful. This was a film about many things: the writer’s struggle to adapt a novel to film (Nicolas Cage as Charlie and Donald Kaufman), a woman’s (Meryl Streep as Susan Orlean) desperation to break out from her loveless marriage and find another soul that she’s compatible with (Chris Cooper as John Laroche), sibling rivalry and the fear of being eclipsed by someone who shares our DNA (or worse, someone who we think is less talented than us), and the fusion of reality and fantasy to tell a story that is not only unique as a whole but utterly unforgettable every step of the way. I was also impressed with this picture’s ear for dialogue. Right from the get-go, the audiences get a chance to hear what was going on inside the main character’s head. And in under three minutes, we get to learn his insecurities, neuroticisms and outlook of the world. With such a rich collection of qualities we had a chance to absorb, we got to see him evolve from when he was at his worst up until he was at his best (which didn’t come without a price). I also enjoyed the scenes with Streep as the lonely author who had no connection with her husband. The way the director showed her lying awake thinking about her life next to her husband was touching and I could feel her silent suffering. Even though the choices she made toward the end of the film were not the best, I understood where she came from so I cared what would ultimately happen to her. Jonze’ ability to wash the material in mystery was outstanding; his use of foreshadowing and double/triple identities made the movie that much more alive and engaging. I thought it was amazing how one new piece of information could instantly alter the perspective from which we saw each character. Like his exemplary work in “Being John Malkovich” (how eerie it was to see the set and actors from that movie in this film!) and “Where the Wild Things Are,” “Adaptation.” had a lot of commentary about our psychologies and philosophies regarding our inner selves and the way influence other people’s lives. What I love about Jonze is he does not give us the easy answers and instead lets us think about what is right answer specifically for ourselves. I absolutely loved “Adaptation” because it was a cinematic experience that was surreal, satirical, stunning, self-aware and not afraid to reference to things that were random. Although it had a lot of insight to offer its audiences, it did not come across as pretentious or preachy. This is a film of rare quality and should be seen by those searching for creativity and vivaciousness.
★★★★ / ★★★★
This is one of those films that I will never forget because of how daring it was (still is) especially back at the time of its release. Lindsay Anderson was able to helm a counterculture film that fuses reality with surrealism and dark fantasy, all the while embracing its satirical nature. This was Malcolm McDowell’s first feature film and it was easy to tell that he was a star. He played his character with such domineering sneer and swagger, it was almost as if he was preparing to star in “A Clockwork Orange” directed by the great Stanley Kubrick. The way McDowell’s character and his friends (David Wood and Richard Warwick) were constantly pushed toward the edge by the faculty was fascinating to watch. Each scene has an implication and a certain bite to the point where I found myself referring back to the earlier scenes and realized that foreshadowing is one of its strongest elements. The final scene involving a bloody student uprising against the school system was done in such a provocative way; I didn’t know whether to laugh or take it seriously. Another element that I found to be interesting was the romance between McDowell and a waitress (Christine Noonan). That one “animalistic” scene was so out of the blue but it was exemplary because it’s as if it symbolizes every student’s frustration in that public school. Lastly, the romance between Warwick and one of the younger boys (Rupert Webster) provided a much-needed sensitivity to the picture. Even though they may not have many scenes where they conversed, when they finally did, I couldn’t help but have a smile on my face. This may have been really controversial back in the late 1960s but I think it’s more relevant today. School shootings have now become far too common because of the way students feel about their teachers, peers and the school’s atmosphere. (On the other hand, one can argue that school shootings happen for no reason at all rather than to inflict pain and violence.) This film does a tremendous job avoiding expected rationalizations for the students’ future actions whenever it could. If one is craving for something different in style and perspective, this is the one to see.
A Simple Plan (1998)
★★★ / ★★★★
The first scene of this film involving a fox and a chicken coop serves as a template for what’s to come. I noticed right away that there are a handful animals that can be found in some scenes, but it’s only until half-way through when I realized their significance. Since this was based on a novel by Scott B. Smith, it’s not unreasonable to assume that the animals and their nature serve as a foreshadowing for the characters’ choices. What I love about this film is its ability to constantly ask the audiences how they feel about a situation after the characters face seemingly insurmountable challenges of lies and deceit. Just when I thought I figured out a group of characters twenty minutes into the picture, twists start piling up and my assumptions couldn’t have been any more wrong. Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thorton, and Brent Briscoe are very convincing as the three men who lead simple lives who happen to find over four million dollars in a plane crash. Thornton and Briscoe wanted to keep the money, but Paxton didn’t. However, despite his intelligence, harmless facade and ability to think his way out of sticky situations, it is arguable that he is the most immoral of them all. His wife, played by Bridget Fonda, isn’t any better because she sees the money as an escape–a way for her family to have better lives–and she is intent on following that path. This film is grim, tense and is able to offer a mirror on how the dark side of humanity can poison even the best of us. It’s also about decisions; how sometimes you only get one chance so you better think things through before jumping to a conclusion. Most of all, it’s about happiness. Sometimes, we forget that we’re happy as is when we’re faced with a chance to become more than we currently are. Having it all is a gamble so are you willing to risk everything to attain more? The moral implications of this film are challenging and insightful; it reminded me of a darker, more serious version of “Fargo.” I was also reminded of a quote uttered by Frances McDormand in the end of that film: “There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well, I just don’t understand it.”