The summer release schedule during the “best year of movies” was very crowded. Which isn’t surprising given that July/ August are some of the peak movie going months of the year. Well… used to be I guess- before the “end times” and all. Point being, summer is usually when Hollywood releases most of its high profile movies. As such there were many films from this period that I wanted to revisit. So instead of doing a ‘deep dive’ on one or two films- for these next couple of articles I’m going to triple-up the movies I’m reviewing. So let’s get to it…
It was almost preordained that Phantom Menace would become the highest grossing movie of the year. And the only film that came within spitting distance of its domestic box office dominance was The Sixth Sense (released August 6, 1999), the second highest domestic earner of ’99. Sixth Sense was nothing short of a cultural phenomenon and everyone that year was talking about the “scary movie with a twist”. At the time, the movie drew comparisons to The Exorcist (marketed as the “Scariest Movie of All Time”) and, notwithstanding Silence of the Lambs (I’ll let you argue whether that’s a horror film or not), was the only other horror film to be nominated for Best Picture.
My memory of Sixth Sense was that it was more of a fun jump-scare, thrill ride, but on a rewatch I was reminded that it’s actually more of a contemplative drama. Therefore with Sixth Sense Writer/ Director M. Night Shyamalan might have single handedly created the sub-genre that has become known as the Elevated Horror film. These are movies like The Witch, Babadook, Midsommar, and especially Hereditary (which incidentally stars Toni Collette, who plays the Mom in Sixth Sense) that play out more as “serious” films dealing with human frailty, loss, and morality. They are “slow burn” stories dressed up in ghost/ monster/ demon concepts told with an unrelenting sense of dread presented with rich atmosphere/ stated visuals which then culminate in final acts that leave the viewer saying “Holy shit, what the fuck?!” and usually possess a memorable and downbeat ending.
So yeah, that pretty much describes most of Shyamalan’s movies, especially the first handful before his unfortunate descent (ascent?) into big budget fantasy/ sci fi filmmaking. It probably goes without saying that Shyamalan has enjoyed a very successful yet tumultuous career (with dramatic sways in public opinion and/ or box office grosses). The “Oh great, it’s a Shyamalan movie with a twist ending” *eye roll* became a strongly held sentiment for quite a while there. But interestingly, Shyamalan has made a successful comeback in recent years by doubling down (and even self financing) his auteur bread and butter… modestly budgeted, high concept, Twilight Zone-esque thrillers (all with that prerequisite twist ending of course).
I also consider Sixth Sense to be one of the key films in the Bruce Willis-aissance of the late 90s where he spun off from being the “Die Hard 80s action guy” by appearing in smaller and/ or more interesting projects- even if they drifted into some tried-and-true genre’s for him (i.e. Pulp Fiction, Fifth Element, 12 Monkeys… even Unbreakable). And his casting in Sixth Sense is perfect because he still embodies that sense (get it?) of strong masculinity, but uses that solid support structure to not just kill some dudes but rather emotionally help this kid going through a real tough time. It’s a performance that is very touching and memorable- maybe even his best. Which is why it has been distressing to see Willis’ later day career turning out these “geezer-sploitation” direct-to-video flicks that are wading into Steven Seagal‘s Dark Territory. I think there’s a way you can go about making a bunch of “cheap genre films” and still have it be worthwhile for all involved. Maybe even come up with the occasional gem like Van Damme, Frank Grillo, and (eventually) Nicolas Cage, or especially who I consider to be the king of doing the “direct-to-video/streaming” thing right Ethan Hawke. But apparently Willis couldn’t give a flying rat’s ass… and trust me- I’ve gotten suckered into watching some of these flicks and his utter disdain for the whole enterprise shows. But Willis can still step up to the plate when he wants to- recent movies like Moonrise Kingdom and Looper come to mind (and yes, even Glass). So I remain hopeful that Willis has got “one more” in him. I’ll gladly suffer through ten more of those “on set for a couple day wonders” if it means getting just one performance like Sixth Sense out of the guy… we’ll see.
So anyway, Sixth Sense is still really good even if you remember “the twist”. And I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that the whole film is centered on the performance of the “boy who could see dead people”; Haley Joel Osment. Which still ranks as one of the best child actor performances of all time.
Switching gears, I recall when I first watched Bowfinger (released August 13, 1999) the whole thing seemed very “sexy” to me. Even though it was a not very flattering depiction of the lower rungs of the indie film industry. It didn’t matter- I wanted to be part of that world. Now it probably helped that I was into weird/ cult/ indie/ low budget schlock- the kind of films being made by Steve Martin‘s titular sleazeball producer. But above all else, I just wanted to be a part of filmmaking no matter what the level. And after all, Bowfinger was just a goofy comedy. Surely the ridiculous behavior of a bunch of delusional ego maniacs was nothing short of a parody of the real thing. And now that I have actually been part of the biz for ten some-odd years (going from working non union crew gigs to directing a few flicks and currently tooling away in film distribution) I can now confidently say that yes indeed what Bowfinger depicts is over-the-top and ridiculous… but not by much.
To be fair, there are plenty of good/ decent/ hard working people in this business trying to make their “art” so I don’t mean to be indicative of the entire industry. But like in Bowfinger, I have been part of guerrilla/ non permit productions that have sometimes put myself and others in mortal danger. I’ve seen productions that have hired day laborers for crew. Even ones that made the actors pay to be in a movie or audition for a role. Long hours. Zero to low pay. Crappy food. It’s all part of the “indie film hustle”. In short, this business is made up of a bunch of desperate/ hungry/ enthusiastic people being taken advantage of by a “Bowfinger type”- a bottom feeding producer/ agent/ manager/ distributor/ whatever. Therefore there are times when the humor in Bowfinger is biting and depressing. Yeah- a lot of it is funny… but it also hits a little too close to home. I still enjoy the movie and will probably be revisiting it again in my life. But something about it is just “mean”.
There are plenty of movies about the shallowness of La La Land. If anything, Hollywood enjoys poking fun at itself. But most of these “movies about movies” are about studio productions/ movie stars- and not so much about the “other” types of films that get made every year. Which is why I decided to pair Bowfinger as a double feature with Dolemite is My Name, another Eddie Murphy starring comedy about “a bunch of misfits trying to make a movie who probably have no business doing so”. Which in turn is something of a spiritual cousin to Ed Wood, another ode to a low budget filmmaker from the same screenwriters of Dolemite, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. And after watching them together I realized that what Bowfinger lacks compared to films like Ed Wood/ Dolemite is “heart”.
I think part of this is because Bowfinger is made by A list studio folks, from writer/ actor Martin to director Frank Oz (yeah, friggin’ Yoda himself). So they always seem to be “punching down” no matter how accurate the characters/ situations are. Dolemite and Ed Wood are still made by studio people, of course, but they are better at showing the humanity and struggle of some “nobodies” trying to make their dreams come true. Bowfinger as a character starts off as kind of a self-serving jerk and is still largely the same huckster by the end of the movie. He didn’t achieve a dream so much as had a con that panned out. If anything he is rewarded for his bad behavior and willingness to lie/ steal/ cheat his way to being a “big shot”. It isn’t about the art or telling a story. It’s about gaming the system for your own end. As such, the movie Bowfinger comes across as cynical and mean spirited when you strip away the goofy/ parody aspects. And that’s probably because it hits closer to everyday reality than we care to admit.
The Bowfingers of the world certainly seem to get away with it- don’t they?
Now, I first checked out the South Korean action flick Nowhere to Hide (released internationally starting in July ’99) at Hollywood Video back in the day. I was generally into Asian action cinema during the 90s and went from scouring stores for any domestically available John Woo/ Jackie Chan flicks and eventually sampling other titles that would become available- I especially got into Takeshi Kitano stuff. So in practice, this involved “blind renting” an Asian action title during my regular Blockbuster/ Hollywood Video visits. In this case, the packaging for Nowhere to Hide promised a Heroic Bloodshed/ “cops and robbers” action fest and had the “stamp of approval” of being programmed at the Sundance Film Festival. Some of these “blind rentals” were good- others forgettable- but Nowhere to Hide was the one that really stuck with me and eventually I sought out and bought my own copy. There’s not much information online about it except that it was well received in Asia and Sundance, but apparently it had a brief and unsuccessful U.S. theatrical run and was mostly “dumped to video” where I assume a handful of folks like myself discovered it. Otherwise it’s not really talked about much which is a shame because I think the movie has a lot to offer.
It’s certainly “style over substance” or “John Woo on acid” if you will. It seemingly uses every editing/ camera trick in the book (slow motion, freeze frames, surreal imagery and sequences, black and white cinematography, flashes of animation, etc.). It’s so stylistic that it makes Run Lola Run seem subdued in comparison (a film I reviewed in June). The narrative of Nowhere to Hide is fairly repetitive where the cops chase and beat the crap out of some suspects, get information/ leads, and repeat the cycle until the final confrontation. But it’s in the execution where it really shines with each sequence designed like its own little art film. It’s also anchored by a charismatic lead performance from Joong-Hoon Park as a “hard ass cop who doesn’t play by the rules”. Park’s take on that archetype is all at once unique and violently unpredictable- thus making it unforgettable. And dare I say, Nowhere to Hide has one of the best uses of Bee Gees music in all of cinema as it plays the song “Holiday” during a rain soaked/ slow mo assassination sequence in the film.
Based upon my enjoyment of Nowhere to Hide I’ve always intended to check out director Myung-se Lee‘s other films, but regrettably I haven’t gotten around to it yet. Nowhere to Hide appears to be one of his only action flicks, everything else he’s made appears to be on the dramatic/ comedy/ art house spectrum. Which is probably why Nowhere to Hide is such a unique film. I say it’s underrated. Check it out when you get a chance.