Being Julia (Istvan Szabo, 2004)
The last of the films nominated for a major Oscar that I hadn't seen, and really watched more for completism's sake than anything else. It's a pretty mediocre film, notable only (if at all) for Annette Bening's Oscar-nominated performance as the title character. Even that isn't necessarily all that impressive - she plays a London theatre diva in 1938, and while at times she is wonderfully catty, at other times she just overemotes and hogs the spotlight. The character is quite reminiscent of Bette Davis in All About Eve, although Davis of course gave a much more full-bodied performance and, furthermore, was working from a much better script. The story here is thin and poorly paced, and Shaun Evans, as Julia's love interest-cum-rival, is flat and vastly overshadowed by Bening. A trifle, and certainly not worth any attention if not for Bening's performance.
Fatal Attraction (Adrian Lyne, 1987)
I don't have the time or inclination to get into the thorny sexual politics of this film, but I have to give Lyne credit for two things: First, he clearly never backs down from the possibility of being labeled a misogynist, and second, damn does he know how to shoot a sex scene. That said, this was one of those movies where a lot of the wind is taken out of the sails because I already knew what was going to happen and was waiting for the iconic moments like the bunny-boiling. Still, it's a good thriller, with some very hot sex and an interesting look at both feminism and its backlash, depending on how you read the film, in the 1980s. Ultimately I took it as a very pro-feminist movie. Look at what the patriarchy has driven women, too, it says: Either completely psychotic because they're denied marriage and family by the relentless pursuit of a career, or bland and unappreciated because they've decided to stay at home and raise a family. Michael Douglas is the real villain here, treating both Glenn Close and Anne Archer like toys to be used for certain purposes when it suits him. In the end, the choices for these two women are just as awful: Either end up dead from your attempt to join the male-dominated corporate world, or be attacked into submission and stuck in suburbia with your philandering husband. It's actually a frightening and illuminating portrait of sexual politics, and probably worth a more thorough examination than I'm giving it here.
Get Shorty (Barry Sonnenfeld, 1995)
Preparation for seeing and reviewing the sequel, Be Cool, next week. It's really hard to believe that it's been 10 years since this first came out, although all you have to do is look at how much fatter John Travolta is now to understand. Also, what the hell happened to Rene Russo? She was really awesome and now she's just drifted into obscurity, which is a real shame. Anyway, this is still a very entertaining movie, probably my favorite Elmore Leonard adaptation after Out of Sight (not coincidentally, both had screenplays by Scott Frank). Sonnenfeld keeps things light, and while he may not be the visionary that Tarantino or Soderbergh are, he strikes a perfect balance here and makes excellent use of the talented cast. I think this was the last time I saw Travolta in a movie and didn't want to punch him in the face; I wonder if that'll change with Be Cool?
His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940)
Another classic that didn't live up to my expectations. Actually, the things about this that are considered classic - the rapid-fire overlapping dialogue, the quick-witted jokes, the sharp acting - did live up to my expectations, more or less, but the plot just left me sour. This is one of the prototypical romantic comedies, and it has your stock rom-com plot: Cary Grant is a cynical newspaper publisher whose reporter ex-wife (Rosalind Russell) comes to tell him that she's quitting the newspaper biz and marrying a milquetoast insurance salesman (Ralph Bellamy). Now, of course she won't end up marrying the boring insurance salesman, and of course she won't quit the newspaper biz, and of course she'll get back together with Cary Grant (I mean, come on, he's Cary Grant). That's all fine. The problem is that Grant's character does so many incredibly odious, cruel and devious things to get her back that I ended up rooting for them not to get back together because he came off as a completely reprehensible person. In every other way, Russell's character is revolutionary for a woman in a movie from 1940 - she's strong and independent and successful in a male-dominated industry (Grant often refers to her as the best journalist he's ever met). But then she falls right into Grant's horrible chauvinistic traps, and treats the poor insurance salesman like dirt. I guess the dialogue and the jokes and the performances (Russell especially is wonderful) weren't enough to overcome the way the plot left a bad taste in my mouth.
Return of the Seacaucus 7 (John Sayles, 1980)
Sayles' first film, and widely credited as an inspiration for The Big Chill, which came out three years later. It's got some typical hallmarks of a low-budget first feature - stiff acting, limited locations, choppy editing - but the script, always Sayles' strong point, is smart and insightful, and it falls perfectly into one of my favorite subgenres: talky movies with aimless twentysomethings trying to figure out what to do with their lives. It's also not trying nearly as hard as The Big Chill did to be generation-defining, and as such it comes off as a lot more genuine.