A Lifetime of Hate

American History X explores a hateful mind. The 90’s were filled with movies you just had to be ready for. American History X is an educational film, but I can’t imagine anyone seeing it in school. First time director Tony Kaye made an impression even though he sabotaged his own career by denouncing it. American History X follows a Neo-Nazi skinhead in San Diego who somehow manages to change for the better. It’s not an easy role to get right, but Edward Norton delivered his second Oscar nominated performance in only 2 years.

Derek Vinyard spreads hate, racism, xenophobia, and anti-semitism to a growing number of followers. Fairuza Balk plays his equally twisted girlfriend Stacey and Ethan Suplee goes overboard as his skinhead friend Seth. Stacy Keach is perhaps the most despicable as the older Neo-Nazi leader Cameron. Norton was so committed that he shaved his head and wore a prominent swastika tattoo on his chest. Flashbacks are shown in black & white since that’s where most of the hate is. Most of Derek’s hate can be traced to his deceased father. Derek is left with his chain-smoking mother played by an unrecognizable Beverly D’Angelo.

She causes problems by dating a Jew played by screen legend Elliott Gould. There’s also Derek’s liberal sister Davina played by Jennifer Lien and fellow Edward, Edward Furlong as his impressionable younger brother Danny. Danny idolizes his big brother, but all that changes after a very disturbing curb stomping incident. Only in prison does Derek question his entire identity. Thanks to positive black influences like his former teacher Dr. Sweeney played by Avery Brooks and down-to-Earth cellmate Lamont. Derek wants his brother to be better, but sadly life isn’t that simple. In the end, American History X offers a poignant lesson of not living a life filled with hate.

American History X

Derek gets arrested

You Make Me Want to Be a Better Man

As Good as it Gets is better than good. It’s one a few romantic comedies good enough to be nominated for Best Picture. It might’ve stood a chance of winning if not for the unstoppable force that was Titanic. Ironically, both movies happen to feature a nude drawing scene. As Good as it Gets is the last film from director James L. Brooks to receive Oscar attention. Brooks managed to direct Jack Nicholson to a third Academy Award win after Terms of Endearment. Nicholson winning Best Actor and Helen Hunt winning Best Actress make them the most current co-stars to win for the same movie. Surprisingly, every female lead won an Oscar alongside Nicholson since Louise Fletcher won for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Shirley MacLaine won for Terms of Endearment.

Melvin Udall is a perfect character for Nicholson that could’ve missed the mark in the wrong hands. Melvin is a romance novelist who hates and insults literally everybody. His obsessive-compulsive idiosyncrasies include keeping his hands clean, not stepping on cracks, and eating at the same restaurant every day. Carol is the only waitress that tolerates his behavior. Hunt immediately shows her range with an emotional performance. Carol is a lonely single mother trying to care for her sick son Spencer. The third most prominent performance is from Greg Kinnear in a Best Supporting Actor nominated role as Melvin’s gay artist neighbor Simon. All three performances are terrific, but As Good as it Gets also contains a ton of celebrities in big and small roles. Cuba Gooding Jr. followed up his Oscar win with an equally entertaining role as Simon’s agent who manages to break Melvin.

Skeet Ulrich and Jamie Kennedy have an unexpected Scream reunion. Since it’s a Brooks production, Lisa Simpson herself Yeardley Smith has a small role. There’s also Shirley Knight as Carol’s concerned mother and Harold Ramis as a life changing doctor. Brian Doyle-Murray, Lawrence Kasdan, Julie Benz, and Shane Black also have memorable cameos. Not to mention Missi Pyle, Wood Harris, and even Maya Rudolph in their first or second film roles. Melvin is openly homophobic towards Simon, but he reluctantly agrees to watch his adorable dog Verdell after a devastating robbery. The small act of watching Simon’s dog is enough to soften Melvin up and set him on a path of redemption. Though they seem like an odd match, Carol is the one who makes him want to be a better man. And that’s As Good as it Gets in more ways than one.

As Good as it Gets

Melvin picks up Verdell

The Heart is an Organ of Fire

The English Patient is another standard Best Picture winner. It’s British, nearly 3 hours long, set during World War II, there’s romance, and a sweeping foreign location. I deliberately avoided The English Patient for years, because it was long and sounded boring. I don’t hate it like Elaine did on Seinfeld, but I do think Fargo was the more deserving Best Picture winner. The English Patient was nominated for 12 Academy Awards and won 9 for Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actress, Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design, Film Editing, Original Score, and Sound. Director and writer Anthony Minghella had the difficult task of adapting Michael Ondaatje’s book of the same name.

The English Patient is told from multiple perspectives with real life Hungarian cartographer Count László Almásy at the center. Though the book and movie are highly fictionalized, Ralph Fiennes delivers a star-making Oscar nominated performance as the mostly unlikable map maker. Almásy spends a lot of time in the Egyptian desert with his friend Madox during WWII. He starts a passionate love affair with the married Katherine Clifton. Though she began her career with a Razzie nomination, Kristin Scott Thomas redeems herself in the Oscar nominated role. Fiennes and Scott Thomas have powerful chemistry, but it is still an affair. Colin Firth plays her husband who supplies an airplane that ends up having harsh consequences.

The only thing that makes The English Patient feel especially long is the fact that the mysterious amnesia stricken English patient is slowly dying from severe third-degree burns near the end of the war. French actress Juliette Binoche won Best Supporting Actress for playing the grief stricken nurse Hana who cares for Almásy. She has her own, much more innocent love affair with Sikh bomb defuser Kip played by the Indian Naveen Andrews. They’re also joined by Willem Dafoe as a Canadian spy seeking revenge from the Germans and possibly Almásy himself. The English Patient is an effective character study that could’ve been tightened up a bit.

The English Patient

Almásy dances with Katherine

Huston, We Have a Problem

Apollo 13 made space exploration cool again. Although it contains plenty of language and “emotional intensity,” Apollo 13 was rated PG in order to make it accessible for classrooms and curious younger audiences. Apollo 13 was nominated for Best Picture, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction, Original Score, and Visual Effects. Only winning for Best Sound and Best Film Editing. CGI is only used in breathtaking outer space scenes. It was director Ron Howard’s goal to make the most authentic space travel movie that he could. So the movie had help from NASA and filmed with genuine antigravity.

Rather than focus on the more famous first moon landing, Apollo 13 brings attention to the 1970 failed moon landing by the Apollo 13 crew. As told by astronaut Jim Lovell in the non-fiction book Lost Moon. Apollo 13 popularized the space program and Mission Control with iconic lines like “Houston, we have a problem” and “Failure is not an option.” The all-star cast is great whether they’re in space or on the ground. Fresh off his 2 Oscar wins, Tom Hanks ironically ended up playing a spaceman months before Toy Story hit theaters. Jim Lovell is joined by fellow astronauts Fred Haise and Jack Swigert. It’s game over for Bill Paxton who plays Haise and Kevin Bacon joins the team last minute as Swigert.

Although Ken Mattingly is unfortunately grounded, at least Gary Sinise kept Lt. Dan’s promise of becoming an astronaut. Their mission starts off well, but tension rises when the crew faces electrical failure and oxygen loss. Turning a 3 day trip to the moon into a week long fight for survival. Meanwhile, Ed Harris earned an Oscar nomination as the determined Flight Director Gene Kranz. Both Lovell and Haise have families to think about, but only Kathleen Quinlan was nominated for playing Jim’s worried wife Marilyn. Speaking of family, Ron Howard gave a small role to every member of his family. Apollo 13 lands with an impressive depiction of astronauts and space travel.

Apollo 13

The Apollo 13 crew

Twenty-One

Quiz Show answers all the right questions. 1994 was another really good year for Best Picture nominees that included Pulp Fiction, The Shawshank Redemption, Four Weddings and a Funeral, and deserving winner Forrest Gump. Quiz Show doesn’t have the same dedicated following, but it is underrated in comparison. It helps that I’m already a fan of game shows like Jeopardy. Based on the 1950’s quiz show scandals, Quiz Show is practically director Robert Redford’s answer to All the President’s Men. I had no idea TV game shows nearly ended with the exposure of Twenty-One. A quiz show revealed to be giving answers and coaching contestants for ratings, fame, and financial gain.

Quiz Show keeps things tense and fast-paced with great writing and acting. John Turturro plays the nerdy Jewish contestant Herb Stempel who’s forced to take a dive on an easy question. Even I knew Marty won Best Picture in 1955. Questions of anti-semitism arise when Stempel is intentionally replaced by the handsome English teacher Charles Van Doren. Ralph Fiennes manages to keep Van Doren likeable with his initial hesitation to accept the answers. Charles lives in his father’s shadow and Paul Scofield earned another Oscar nomination because of it.

Christopher McDonald is the perfect smarmy game show host and David Paymer is just right for the villainous producer Dan Enright. Hank Azaria also shows up as one of the other producers. Actor Robert Redford ironically directs director Martin Scorsese with a brief, but memorable performance. Quiz Show doesn’t have a specific lead, but Rob Morrow comes close when he opens up an investigation into Twenty-One. Both Dick Goodwin and his wife played by a young Mira Sorvino are smart enough to know the competition is rigged. It’s just a matter of gathering evidence and contestants who are willing to admit they cheated. Quiz Show keeps you invested like any good quiz show should.

Quiz Show

Jack Barry welcomes Herb Stempel and Charles Van Doren on Twenty-One

My Little Interpreter

The Piano is a fine tuned cinematic instrument. Although she was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director, Jane Campion only managed to win Best Original Screenplay. More significant was Campion being the first woman to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. The Piano is a mostly New Zealand production from a New Zealand filmmaker with a predominantly New Zealand cast. As the title suggests, a piano is key to the entire story. Ada is a Scottish lady sent to New Zealand with her daughter Flora and precious piano because of an arranged marriage.

The most interesting thing about the movie is that Ada is a mute who relies on her 11 year old daughter to interpret for her. Much like The Miracle Worker, both performances are so reliant on each other that they equally deserved Academy Awards. Similar to Marlee Matlin, Holly Hunter won Best Actress without saying a single word. Meanwhile, first time actress Anna Paquin became the second youngest Oscar winner of all time. Her emotions speak for her mother.

Ada’s frontier husband Alisdair seems like another abusive spouse, but Sam Neill makes him a bit more complex. Ada’s affection is instead given to Māori sympathizer Baines. Harvey Keitel isn’t Māori, but you may recognize a young Cliff Curtis in his first film role. Baines helps Ada move her piano in exchange for lessons. I had no idea how erotic The Piano was until they started “tickling the ivories” so to speak. You can tell the movie was directed by a woman since Keitel and Neill are naked just as much as Hunter. Their passion has devastating consequences, but The Piano is more hopeful than it could’ve been.

The Piano

Ada and Flora stay by their piano

It’s a Hell of Thing, Killing a Man

Unforgiven is the Western to end all Westerns. As of 1992, Unforgiven is the last of only three Westerns to win Best Picture. And it was only 2 years after the previous winner Dances with Wolves. While not the greatest Western ever made, Unforgiven does stand out with Oscar winning Film Editing and beautifully shot cinematography. Director, producer, and actor Clint Eastwood intended Unforgiven to be a tribute to filmmakers like Sergio Leone or Don Siegel. Eastwood claimed it would be his final Western, but he’s too synonymous with the genre. Unforgiven is actually a Revisionist Western that deconstructs the often glamorized Old West.

Eastwood won 2 Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director, but not Best Actor. He was only nominated for playing old retired gunslinger William Munny. Eastwood teams up with Morgan Freeman for the first, but not the last time. Freeman plays Munny’s equally old gunslinger partner Ned Logan. Although they were feared in their time, Munny is a rusty pig farming father who gave up killing for his deceased wife and Logan lives a quiet life with his Native American wife. They’re driven to kill again when prostitutes put a $1,000 bounty on the men who cut up one of their girls. It’s a very simple plot, but Unforgiven is a deep and often depressing examination of trauma that’s far from black & white. Frances Fisher and Anna Thomson both play hookers with hearts of gold.

Newcomer Jaimz Woolvett joins the aging gunslingers as the eager young Schofield Kid who quickly realizes killing isn’t as noble as he thinks it is. Richard Harris is memorable as potential bounty collector English Bob. Saul Rubinek plays his biographer who (like the audience) discovers how exaggerated the life of a cowboy truly is. The biggest scene stealer ended up being Gene Hackman as the sadistic and unpredictable Sheriff “Little” Bill Daggett. A role that won Hackman his second Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Though they deal with severe rainstorms and gun fights, Unforgiven subverts expectations by making the outlaws easy to kill and leading to an inevitable path of self-destruction. Unforgiven is unforgivably harsh with a great unforgiving sense of realism.

Unforgiven

Will rides with Ned

Movie, Book, and Food

Fried Green Tomatoes is a 1991 film, a 1987 novel, and a Southern delicacy. I’ll admit I only wanted to watch, read, and eat fried green tomatoes because of a joke made in the Simpsons episode “The Two Mrs. Nahasapeemapetilons.” When Apu asked Manjula what her favorite movie, book, and food was, she cleverly said fried green tomatoes. I’ve eaten authentic fried green tomatoes many times since I’m currently the host of a Southern restaurant. I like them, but they’re not something I’d eat all the time. I also decided to read Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg. Although it took me awhile to understand the format, the book became very engrossing due to its controversial themes and generational story. The story takes place in the past and present with newspaper articles between chapters. The movie has a similar format, but everything is streamlined.

The Past – Most of Fried Green Tomatoes takes place between both World Wars, though the wars are mostly omitted. It follows the strong friendship between tomboy Idgie Threadgoode and Southern belle Ruth Jamison. I’m not too familiar with Mary Stuart Masterson or Mary-Louise Parker, but they both fit their respective characters. Since it was the early 90’s, the movie downplays the obvious lesbian subtext. Race relations are also toned down compared to the book’s liberal use of the “N” word. Though the legendary Cicely Tyson still gets time to shine as their cook Sipsey and Stan Shaw embodies Big George. Characters like prejudice sheriff Grady, kind hearted hobo Smokey, and noble Reverend Scroggins stick around, while other characters are either removed or reduced. Newcomer Chris O’Donnell as Idgie’s brother Buddy makes a stronger impression than the one armed boy who carries on his name. The most intriguing part of this story is a murder mystery involving Ruth’s abusive husband Frank. Let’s just say the outcome is unexpected if you haven’t read the book.

Fried Green Tomatoes

Ruth lies next to Idgie

The Present – The rest of Fried Green Tomatoes is framed with elderly nursing home resident Ninny Threadgoode telling the story to middle aged housewife Evelyn Couch. Like the book, these segments ended up being the funniest. After their respective Oscar wins for Driving Miss Daisy and Misery, Jessica Tandy and Kathy Bates ended up giving the best performances in the film. Miss Threadgoode is similar to Miss Daisy, but the difference is Ninny’s fondest for life and sense of nostalgia. When feminist classes fail to spice up her marriage to husband Ed, Evelyn forms a touching friendship with Ninny that inspires her in real life. Evelyn goes through a major transformation after a nasty supermarket encounter. Though the scene is better in the book, it doesn’t take away how impactful it is. Fried Green Tomatoes has two seperate deaths, but only one got me to cry.

In conclusion, Fried Green Tomatoes retains its strong Christian themes, but loses some of its edge with a safer PG-13 rating. Other artistic liberties were taken in order to maintain some of the mystery. While it isn’t the easiest story to adapt, the late Carol Sobieski and Flagg herself were both nominated for Adapted Screenplay. Tandy was nominated for Best Actress, but Bates only received a Golden Globe nomination. If there’s one thing the movie definitely gets right, it’s how hungry you’re guaranteed to be after watching it. Fried Green Tomatoes doesn’t quite have the bite of the novel, but it’s still a very well acted and emotional adaptation.

Fried Green Tomatoes 2

Ninny tells Evelyn her story

There’s No Such Thing as a Simple Miracle

Awakenings offers an important lesson to appreciate life. Based on the true story of Dr. Oliver Sacks who managed to awaken several catatonic patients in the summer of 69. Between Big and A League of Their Own, Awakenings became director Penny Marshall’s most acclaimed film. Yet it’s technically the most underrated Best Picture nominee of 1990. It’s practically forgotten compared to movies like Ghost, Goodfellas, The Godfather Part III, and eventual winner Dances with Wolves. But Awakenings is a feel good story with a dedicated cast. After proving his dramatic chops with Dead Poet’s Society, Robin Williams brought just as much thoughtfulness to the fictionalized Dr. Malcolm Sayer.

Dr. Sayer is hired to work in a mental hospital, and although it’s presented in a humorous way, there’s nothing funny about what the patients are dealing with. Sayer’s breakthrough comes when he reaches out to the catatonic patients who were stricken with the sleeplike encephalitis lethargica. The titular “awakening” comes when they’re treated with the experimental L-Dopa. Leonard is the primary patient who miraculously awakens after 30 years. Robert De Niro gives a multilayered Best Actor nominated performance. Going from catatonic to curious about the world. The rest of the cast is just as notable.

Marge Simpson herself Julie Kavner plays one of the more caring orderly’s who has romantic interest in Malcolm. No two patients are the same, but Alice Drummond as Lucy stands out for inspiring the tests. John Heard and Max von Sydow both play doctor’s with differing opinions about the treatment. Several well known actors make an appearance, but the most shocking one is a young Vin Diesel (with hair) in his first film role. In her final film role, Ruth Nelson shows the emotional struggle that comes with being Leonard’s mother. Penelope Ann Miller is just as caring as Leonard’s love interest. Leonard unfortunatly regresses, but the way he saw life was enough to leave a positive impact on others. Awakenings is no One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but it is just as tragically inspirational.

Awakenings

Dr. Sayer reaches out to Leonard

The Sensational Susie Diamond

The Fabulous Baker Boys is as fabulous as it is sensational. Writer and first time director Steve Kloves took a chance with an old fashioned low budget film about modern day piano players. The Fabulous Baker Boys did fail at the box-office, but it became one of the most beloved movies of 1989. The Fabulous Baker Boys is notable for two reasons. This was the first movie to feature real life acting brothers Jeff & Beau Bridges. It’s far from a gimmick since their natural chemistry is perfect for the Baker brothers. Beau is the older more responsible and optimistic Frank who runs the show, but continues to get them lousy gigs. Jeff is the younger more cynical and disillusioned Jack who’s no longer passionate about the job.

Frank has a family back home, but Jack has a crappy apartment, one night stands, a sick dog, and a lonely young girl who drops by from time to time. After 15 years it becomes clear that the piano players are in desperate need of a singer. A young Jennifer Tilly stands out as one of the terrible potential singers, but it’s Michelle Pfeffer who steals the show. The Fabulous Baker Boys was nominated for 4 Academy Awards. Best Cinematography for its dreamlike Seattle setting, Film Editing for its creative camera work, and Original Score for its infectious mix of jazz and pop standards. It could’ve won either award, but the most shocking loss was Pfeffer for Best Actress. Jessica Tandy winning for Driving Miss Daisy was more of a lifetime achievement award.

Meanwhile, Pfeffer won every other major award with the most mesmerizing performance of her career. Former escort turned lounge singer Susie Diamond is an icon thanks to Pfeffer’s beauty, spunky attitude, and sexy singing voice that she hadn’t done since Grease 2. Susie saves the Fabulous Baker Boys with several memorable performances. The sexiest, most iconic, and often imitated scene features Susie singing “Makin’ Whoopee” in a gorgeous red dress on top of Jack’s grand piano. Jack and Susie fall for each other until they end up making whoopee themselves. That of course breaks up the trio and Jack ends up ruining every meaningful relationship in his life. He apologizes to everyone, but the ending is left ambiguous. The Fabulous Baker Boys is a smooth examination of small time show business.

The Fabulous Baker Boys

Susie Diamond sings “Makin’ Whoopee”