Good Will Hunting (Gus Van Sant, 1997) – One of those “little movies that could,” Good Will Hunting was a release that no one could have ever predicted would become a box office smash. The multiple Academy Award nominations and general critical acclaim for the Matt Damon and Ben Affleck written and Gus Van Sant directed production doesn’t seem that surprising, but becoming a $100 million dollar grossing film in the same holiday moviegoing season that gave audiences Titanic and As Good as It Gets definitely was. Equal parts a paean and an elegy to the reconciliation of misspent youth, it’s a small film, but one that’s easily relatable and intriguingly left of centre.
Making his own role with writing partner Affleck, Damon plays the titular closeted genius that likes to challenge himself on his own terms; a young man bounced in and out of juvie, jail, and foster homes that has grown to become a bitter 20 year old floor mopper at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts where he displays the ability to solve mathematical theorems that often take some people (including Stellan Skarsgaard’s curious and envious professor) years to complete. He would rather spend time with his best buddies (Affleck, his brother younger brother Casey, and Cole Hauser) drinking and starting shit on the streets of Southie, but following an incident, Will Hunting begins to question his own life through his dealings with a sympathetic shrink (Robin Williams) and through a blossoming romance with a Harvard student (Minnie Driver).
Despite some clunky plot exposition regarding the details of Will’s past towards the beginning of the film, the Oscar winning screenplay from Affleck and Damon holds up wonderfully 15 years later. Themes of finding a true sense of identity coming out of being a teenager and on the cusp of true adulthood still resonates today in a way that’s almost as timeless as something like Rebel Without a Cause or Ordinary People. Damon knows the role so well thanks to a closeness to the material that few writers have that his performance is the live wire that holds the film together, and Van Sant is the perfect director to handle such a story. The film’s interesting structure doesn’t even position Will as the hero of his own story. It’s not hard to want Will to succeed and get his act together, but Williams actually gets the bulk of the heroics in the showy “actorly” role that Damon and Affleck knew the film needed in order for the film to get made in the first place, and his Best Supporting Actor Oscar winning performance still remains a crown jewel in his career. The scenes between Damon and Affleck might stretch the credibility of a doctor-patient relationship, but the film wouldn’t have the same impact if it stayed cold and clinical. That doesn’t mean the film isn’t realistic in any way, since the emotions and actual psychology at play here is as serious as a heart attack.
The 15th anniversary edition Blu-ray of Good Will Hunting definitely improves on previous home video incarnations with easily the best picture and sound quality yet, despite porting over a great deal of special features from the original DVD release, including a commentary from Damon, Affleck, and Van Sant, an archival featurette, and some B-Roll, and Elliot Smith’s music video for the song “Miss Misery,” but the real appeal of this set comes from an all new, hour long 4-part documentary looking back on the production. In new talks with Affleck (sporting his current look for Argo) and Damon (with his hair slowly growing back from his work with Neil Blomkamp’s upcoming Baja Dunes), Williams, Van Sant, producer Chris Moore, and executive producer Kevin Smith holds more inside information and new insight than the older commentary track. The documentary documents everything from the script’s initial sale to Rob Reiner’s Castle Rock Entertainment (who eventually backed out), Matt and Ben’s struggles to find a studio that would let them star, the sale to Miramax, and the search for a director that included versions almost helemed by a then post-Braveheart Mel Gibson (who was apparently awesome, nearly played Williams’ role, and walked away out of respect for Ben and Matt) and Michael Mann (who apparently hated Matt and Ben and wanted to turn the film into a movie where Will and his buddies boosted cars all day). It’s incredibly candid and a must watch for late 90s film buffs. (Andrew Parker)
High Fidelity (Stephen Frears, 2000) – High Fidelity might not be the most line-for-line faithful adaptation of the great Nick Hornby’s novels, but it’s easily the best Hornby adaptation around. The reason is fairly simple: it’s a rom-com for guys and no one does that better than him. Transported from London to Chicago, the theme and general story is the same. It’s a movie about men-as-children, struggling to accept responsibility and a life partner at a time in their lives when they should already be settled down. In the Apatow era, that theme may be played out, but in 2000 it was fairly fresh and High Fidelity still holds up these days because it isn’t some improv festival about man/children who revel in naughty words and sexual obsession. It’s a very truthful and even personal look at men overcoming immaturity and it’s also hilarious.
If you somehow haven’t seen the movie, John Cusack stars as Rob, a guy who owns a record shop where he can trade trivia with his employees/reluctant friends (Jack Black and Todd Louiso) and bitch about his latest women troubles. Cusack speaks directly to the camera and after opening the movie with his latest heartbreak he rattles off a list of his top five (the man loves his top five lists) greatest breakups, bringing the audience into a serious of idotic romantic failures that only guys can be responsible for. From there, we see Rob finally pull it all together for a good girl that’s worth it (Iben Hjejle). Pretty basic rom-com stuff and yet it works thanks to uncomfortable honesty from Hornby and a team of screenwriters headed up by Cusack.
Longtime British director Stephen Fears directs and gives the movie a sense of style, class, and realism above most comedies that ensures when the story gets serious, it feels real and the drama is earned. It’s probably one of Cusack’s finest performances, balancing his light comedy charm and proto-emo brooding well. The entire cast is excellent under Frears’ steadying hand (especially the impossibly uncomfortable music obsessive Louiso and Tim Robbins as the hilarious long-haired new age boyfriend of Rob’s most recent ex). However, one man in the cast stole the show then and his performance still blows everyone else off the screen now. This is the movie that launched Jack Black out of third tier character parts and indie LA comedy clubs. He does all his usual wild man ticks and tricks, but as a burned out judgmental record store constantly proclaiming himself a musical genius, the persona feels real and justified. Cusack was longtime friends with Black and tailored the role for the comic’s manic scene-stealing ways. It worked, the guy has never been funnier, and frankly Black has still never gotten a role as well suited to his shtick. High Fidelity would have been a funny movie without Black, but with him it transforms from sadsack dramedy into a full on comedy and a pretty underrated one at that.
The film slides onto Blu-ray in a pretty lackluster package. The transfer is nice (and yet another sign that Disney is getting better at handling their catalogue titles) and the sound mix does justice to the fantastic soundtrack (a must in any movie about music fanatics). The thing is that while High Fidelity is a well-crafted movie, it’s also one just about people talking without offering much eye-candy that demands an HD facelift. (Phil Brown)
The Proposition (John Hillcoat, 2005) – With Lawless now on screens, the powers that be have seen fit to re-release John Hilcoat’s breakout feature on one of those new-fangled Blu-ray discs. Time has been kind to the gritty neo-Western from Australia. The gut-punch impact of the violence and thoughtful storytelling are just as resonant today. While Hilcoat has gone on to make his recent gangster tale, the underrated apocalypse misery of The Road, and unexpectedly supervise the cut scenes in Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption, The Proposition remains his best work. Something about the sparse angst of Nick Cave’s screenplay and score combined with Hilcoat’s filth-based production design, landscape visuals, vicious violence, and the pained performances of the actors just seem come together right. The film remains just as gruelling of a watch now as it was when it debuted as a harsh and pleasant surprise on the big screen. The combination of art house pretensions with grindhouse violence in an extinct genre doesn’t exactly make The Proposition a crowd-pleaser, but taken on it’s own alienating terms it’s certainly a wild, ponderous ride.
The general population of Western archetypes is present in The Proposition, just combined in unexpected ways. Guy Pearce plays the pained existential anti-hero and he’s a part of a gang of desperado brothers. Pearce stars as Charlie Burns who along with his young brother Mike (Richard Wilson) are caught by Ray Winstone’s Captain Stanley in the opening scenes. Winstone was assigned by the British army to ‘civilize’ Australia and one of his primary goals in doing so is to take out the Burns bros. Specifically, he wants to end the reign of terror caused by the eldest brother Arthur (Danny Huston) and assigns Charlie the task, promising to kill his baby brother if he fails. So Charlie heads out across the Aussie outback in a pretty crappy lose/lose situation. As he wanders the harsh landscape on his painful quest, he meets various other outcasts who have settled into a meagre existence away from society in the wild (most memorably John Hurt in possibly his most twisted performance). If you haven’t figured it out yet, this one of those journey into darkness tales with a none-too-positive view of humanity and a sparsely poetic point of view reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy. It’s an intelligent and dark tale, but certainly not for everyone.
Hilcoat’s aesthetic and themes seemed to emerge fully formed here, to the point where it almost seemed redundant for him to actually adapt McCarthy in his follow up (though The Road was obviously worth it). Ray Winstone does his gravely baddie thing well with Emily Watson providing a human side to his wife despite playing a character who is ultimately just a symbol of innocence in a world of savagery. Compared to his work in Lawless, Guy Pearce is quiet and subdued as the lonely wanderer (which is what he’s best at) while over-acting duties are assigned to John Hurt who chews scenery and steals scenes like it’s his job…because, you know, it is. Hilcoat balances the weighty themes and gritty thrills of Cave’s impressive debut screenplay well. While the movie is immediately recognizable as a Western, it’s also unlike anything else. An unfamiliar, dirty, and inhospitable side of the outback serves as the setting while artistic influences range from ancient poetry to drive-in pulp. (Phil Brown)
Adventures in Babysitting (Chris Columbus, 1987) – Director Chris Columbus has been responsible for a lot of crap over the years that he’s probably made obscene amounts of money for(Bicentennial Man, Rent, Percy Jackson, etc.), but he’s not someone easy to write off either because he has made a handful of pretty fantastic works of children’s entertainment. Home Alone and the first two Harry Potter films of course made a bazillian dollars and in the 80s the guy made a few kiddie flicks with an edge you could only get away with in that decade. He wrote Gremlins and The Goonies, which are classics that he followed up with his directorial debut, the delightful slice of 80s cheese that was Adventures in Babysitting. As any child of the 80s/90s with a VCR or access to TBS can attest, the movie is a guilty pleasure. Looking at it now as someone who is technically an adult, I’ll admit I’m smitten with nostalgia, but it’s still pretty good fun. As with any piece of 80s fluff, the laughs aren’t always intentional. Yet, there also isn’t a moment when this thing isn’t at least mildly entertaining either and it’s hard to imagine any intentions for the movie beyond that.
Elizabeth Shue stars in her first leading role as Charlie, a smitten student body president about to celebrate her anniversary with her boyfriend (amusingly played by Bradley Whitford who already had the comedic sleazeball thing down). He ditches her, so the girl is instead stuck babysitting a pint-sized girl Thor fan (Maria Brewton) and her preteen acne-scarred brother Brad (Keith Coogan) who’s not-so-secretly in love with Charlie. When Charlie’s friend (Penelope Anne Miller) needs help in the city, the gang hits the road along with Brad’s pervy friend Daryl (Anthony Rapp). Almost instantly, the car pops a tire and the group is left stranded on the highway without a spare or any money. A kindly truck driver with one hand agrees to help them out, then spirals off to beat up the man cheating on his wife. Somehow all the kids end up in a carjacker’s vehicle and soon they are off on an all-night adventure in the city until their parents get home. They are supposed to be in New York, the film was clearly shot in Toronto, and the whole thing is essentially After Hours for kids.
The After Hours structure of an inadvertent wild night in the big city is pretty damn perfect for a comedy/adventure and with that solidly built structure, Adventures in Babysitting works surprisingly well. Columbus still had a little darkness left in him and John Carpenter ex-wife/filmmaking partner Debra Hill served as producer, so kids have guns pointed at them, the 17-year old Charlie is confused for a Playboy bunny, and at one point the dreaded F-bomb even makes an appearance. It’s all ultimately just harmless fun, but at least less sanitized than current kiddie flicks. A few moments are embarrassingly corny (like Shoe being forced to sing a blues song about babysitting to escape bad guys), but that’s just part of the fun of any dated product of the 80s. The performances hold up as well from the playful Shoe through all the kids and even the small cameo roles like an oddly cast Vincent D’Onofrio as an auto mechanic/Thor look alike.
There’s no point in pretending a movie called Adventures in Babysitting is a masterpiece. It’s just cornball entertainment that will work for little tykes and overgrown children with a sweet tooth for nostalgic trash. The new Blu-ray is listed as a 25th Anniversary edition, yet has no special features whatsoever. That’s a real bummer, since it’s hard to imagine the entire cast and crew not having a soft spot in their heart for a semi-cult hit that was the first major project for everyone involved. I’m sure there would have been plenty of happy memories and stories to share, but sadly that ain’t going to happen. Instead we just get a fairly nice Blu-ray transfer that does look better than any previous incarnation since murky night time photography was never the friend of DVD. There are a couple of show off sequences, but this came from an era when comedies were shot with VHS in mind as much as the theatrical run, so all of the framing is fairly bland and open framed. Still, it’s a fun movie worth picking up for any 80s obsessive or kids. You’ll be surprised how well it holds up, especially after the soul-crushing adventures in The Sitter. They just don’t make cheese like they used to, do they? (Phil Brown)