Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The 1994 Project: Nell & Barcelona

1994 turns 18 this year and we're celebrating! I’ve routinely cited this as my favourite year of film – it’s my 1999 if you’re a fan of that other particularly vintage year of the 1990s – and, just to stretch the birthday analogy as far as it can possibly go, I thought I’d investigate the year even further. Invite back old favourites as well as hopefully discover a lot of new ones. Being comprehensive is sexy, isn't it?

I've lumped these two films together not because they share any commonalities, but merely because they didn't really inspire all that much in me to devote their own entry. While they both share an air of prestige, they both fail to capture that lightning in a bottle that is so necessary when dealing with films of a very observational nature. In an amusing twist that I hadn't even considered until right now, Nell and Barcelona both rise and fall thanks to the opposite thing: Nell's major selling point is its actors, but let down by a simplistic screenplay; Barcelona's major selling point is its quippy screenplay, but let down by actors that don't have enough magnetism to sell the material. What on Earth are we to do?

Nell was directed by Michael Apted - curiously, this is not only his second film of 1994, but the second I've discussed at this early stage of this lil project - and, like a lot of his films, it can easily be described as "workmanlike". There's nothing particularly spectacular about it from a technical standpoint, although Dante Spinotti's cinematography (again working with Apted after Blink) is impressive. Then again, it'd be hard for somebody as talented as Spinotti to screw up North Carolina countryside vistas. Still, nothing else raises much of an effort and I suspect that is because they never felt the need to, as Nell's screenplay dictates that it is little more than an acting exercise for its impressive actors. Jodie Foster, nominated for an Oscar and winner of the Screen Actor's Guild award, is deserving of all the kudos she received in late '94 and early '95. She's fantastic as the eponymous Nell, a woman who grew up in the forest away from civilisation and learning her language from a stroke-affected mother and a long-absent childhood sibling. It's a marvel to see Foster weave throughout the dialogue, filled with missing and mispronounced words as well as invented ones and audible ticks. While obviously not on par with Foster, it would be easy to forget about the work given by Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson, who were married sometime after the filming of this movie. Far from the type of work that wins, or even courts, lofty plaudits and award consideration, they are nonetheless rather great and find intriguing beats to play out of the screenplay by William Nicholson and Mark Handley. B-

Barcelona was the followup to Whit Stillman's much ballyhooed Oscar-nominated Metropolitan. I've sadly never seen that one, but I have seen The Last Days of Disco and this sophomore effort definitely pales in comparison to that disco delight. Stillman's screenplay about two American cousins in Spain and the women they mingle with is as typically tart and witty as I have been lead to believe the man's work is, but - and I may be in the minority here - I didn't think the actors did enough with it to make the final product more than a mildly entertaining distraction. Taylor Nichols and Stillman regular Chris Eigeman do enough to not be perceived as bad, but the women are all void of personalities. Mira Sorvino is the only one that viewers would recognise and this performance fits right into the same problems as her Oscar-winning performance from Woody Allen's Mighty Aphrodite. There's no laughs in her dumb blonde with broad accent routine here, it's just annoying. She would finally nail it down for Romy & Michelle's High School Reunion a few years later, but by that stage people had stopped caring about this flash in the pan actress. The less said about Tushka Bergen the better, yeah? It's rather unengaging visual style doesn't help matters, either. C+

Previously on The 1994 Project
Blink (B-), Reality Bites (B)

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