Primal Fear – Can a Movie So Stuck in the 90’s be Enjoyed Today?

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High school is a pretty good time to start watching Edward Norton’s hot streak of movies from the mid 90’s to the early 2000’s. They’re often very serious and not all that subtle. That’s a perfect combination for a high school-aged kid; you get to watch adult movies that deal with mature themes that don’t run too deep so that you don’t miss any real subtext. Norton hit the apex of this with Fight Club: the ultimate high school movie. It has big performances, enough pseudo-intellectualism to kill a liberal arts student and a crazy fucking twist. Even at age 16, I was able to look at Fight Club and think to myself, “Nah. This is a piece of shit.”

No matter how some of his movies turned out, Norton is an undeniably magnetic performer. He can play intensity with ease, as many dramatic actors can, but also slip into softer characters with just as much success (something over-acclaimed actors like Leonardo Dicaprio and Jack Nicholson are genuinely terrible at). The movie that allows Norton to flex both of those muscles is his big screen (and Academy Award nominated) debut in 1996’s Primal Fear.

Norton plays Aaron Stampler, an altar boy accused of murdering an Arch Bishop in Chicago. Richard Gere plays the lead character, Aaron’s lawyer, and honestly gives what should be hailed as one of his career’s best performances, but gets overshadowed by Norton’s meatier supporting performance (ain’t it always that way?). What we get, is a relatively standard courtroom thriller with just enough twists and turns in its pocket to keep you interested, buoyed by powerhouse performances.

What struck me as I re-watched it for the first time in at least 5 years is just how 90’s it is. Yes, there are the shaggy haircuts, parted down the middle, the goofy-looking suits and actors like Maura Tierney (who isn’t given enough to do) and Laura Linney (who should have rocketed to fame after this) to remind us that this movie was made right in the thick of the 90’s but there are also some indescribable features that place us in that decade. Maybe it’s the music cues, maybe it’s just the general swagger people held back then, I’m not sure, but if you showed this movie to someone without any prior knowledge, it’s likely they’d guess it was made somewhere between 1994 and 1998.

So, does it hold up, despite being undeniably 90’s? To be honest, I’m never quite sure what “holding up” means. Yes, there is the direct interpretation of, “is it still a good movie, all these years later,” but everyone seems to have their own take on what it means. It’s definitely dated but I also think it still works. The performances aren’t any less captivating today and the story structure still works well enough. So, if that’s the case, what would have to happen for a movie not to “hold up?” Short of new social and societal revelations, I see no reason why a movie should work in one decade and crumble in another.

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Primal Fear’s biggest asset is its performances and characters. Gere’s Martin Vail actually has layers that go beyond the normal “hot shot lawyer” archetype, not many layers… but layers nonetheless. Even the supporting players, like Andre Braugher have backstory that doesn’t smack you in the face. For a blunt courtroom drama about a sociopathic murderer, there is a fair amount of restraint at play.

Of course, Norton runs away with the movie, thanks to his character’s mid-story revelation of multiple personality disorder, but the snappy dialogue between the rest of the characters keeps you watching almost as much. There’s a certain composure these actors hold, that keep them from getting bogged down by some of the cheesier lines they’re forced to spit. And the quippy banter? As always, when quippy banter is done right, it’s nothing short of delightful.

Tommy: That’s the worst bullshit story I’ve heard in my entire life.

Martin: Now it’s our bullshit story.

I was talking about this movie with a friend once who said it was the perfect kind of movie to remake in the modern era. At first, I was intrigued by the idea, maybe giving it a new coat of paint could revitalize it for a new generation. Throw Bradley Cooper into Gere’s role, stick Scarlett Johansson in Laura Linney’s place and find a fiery new talent for Norton’s role… why not? But then I firmly stood against the notion. Beyond the fact that studios don’t make movies for $30 million anymore, this movie can’t be remade now because it would be trash. It should have been trash in the 90’s but it isn’t. Thanks to the right talent all coming together, the material is elevated to something much better than it had any right to be. Leave it alone. Don’t touch it. Look what happened to Total Recall, another clinically 90’s movie. When they tried to update it for the modern era with new actors, all of a sudden it became clear that it was the talent involved that made that cheesy movie work, not the convoluted story.

After watching it again, it became clear to me that Primal Fear doesn’t really have anything to say. It boils down to being an entertaining-as-hell film adaptation of a murder mystery novel you would probably see sitting on your grandma’s coffee table, with a menacing ending that I legitimately never saw coming (at age 16, at least). To me, that’s fine. Maybe not every movie has to be a musing on what it means to be human or what makes someone crazy (maybe we’re the crazy ones!!). Some movies can just be about a killer in a courtroom. Nothing wrong with that.

I Can’t Believe I Enjoyed Isle of Dogs

 

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There’s a window in your late teens and early 20’s where you have a chance to appreciate the idiosyncratic nature of Wes Anderson: old enough to get what he’s going for but not too jaded to dismiss it. Unfortunately for me, I tried watching his body of work when I was a little too young to appreciate it, thus spent the rest of my time eschewing his movies as best I could and completely missed the window where I would have been transfixed. Something about watching A-list stars acting deadpan and quirky was off-putting to me.

I watched some of his movies along the way. I saw Moonrise Kingdom and Fantastic Mr. Fox around the time each of them were released and ended up liking them slightly more than I had liked his films in the past. Simply put: I find his brand of goofiness easier to digest when it involves children or animation. It just feels better suited to the material. I found myself watching The Royal Tenenbaums recently (7 months ago) and I just couldn’t get past the painfully dry performances from Luke Wilson and Gwenyth Paltrow; it doesn’t feel right coming from adults.

I also hate seeing his movies (and other movies of his ilk) in packed theaters. I would much prefer to be alone. His fanbase gets so excited about his new releases that they end up being a more annoying crowd than the folks that turn up to see a Marvel movie on opening night. They have this tendency to laugh as loud as possible at every little comedic flare so that everyone in the theater knows how much they love Wes Anderson and how much they “get it.” Anderson’s movies are comical for sure but the aim isn’t go for big belly laughs; there are maybe two quick ones in each movie. To laugh so hard so often does a disservice to the gentle humor he’s trying to convey.

Naturally when I was dragged to see Isle of Dogs last night, I was dreading it. My girlfriend didn’t know it was opening night and didn’t realize the movie we were seeing, combined with the artsy theater we were seeing it at were going to attract a frenzy of Anderson die-hards like gnats to a light. I sat down in the packed theater and prepared for the worst. Initially, I was validated in my worry: Isle of Dogs opens with a comical little haiku, that should, at best, put a little smirk on your face. That didn’t happen. Of course, the entire theater was uproarious with laughter. Congrats people of Brooklyn: you get his humor. This continued in a similar fashion for the first 12 minutes or so and I wasn’t surprised, after all, his fans have been waiting four years for him to release a movie.

But then something happened that I’d never experienced in a screening of an Anderson movie before: people seemed to settle down once it got going. As soon as the pacing started to roll into motion and the audience became captivated in the charm of the story, they started appropriately responding to the comedy and in that moment, so did I. I was actually able to relax and just enjoy the movie and I have to say… the movie is pretty delightful.

Everything rolls along nicely and while I was at first a little apprehensive to tone of the animation, I came around to really enjoying the beat-up nature of it. It’s fitting; the movie takes place somewhere called Trash Island, so why not have the characters look like they’re covered in dirt? While watching, it starts to make sense why it took Anderson four years to make this; the animation is pretty meticulous in a way that feels a step above Fantastic Mr. Fox. There are some scenes that are so simple yet so perfectly crafted that the whole thing ends up looking easy (there is a brief scene everyone is talking about that involves making sushi that is an absolute pleasure to watch).

The world Anderson creates is really cool to watch both from a visual and storytelling standpoint. Some of the voice cast is a little underutilized (I’m fairly certain Scarlett Johannson spent a total of 40 minutes in the voiceover booth and Bob Baliban has said that he, Murray and Goldblum were only in there for about a day, maybe a bit more) but the ones we do spend time with are pretty fully realized, mainly Chief and Atari and the narration from Courtney B. Vance is honestly pretty great.

So what’s the point of Isle of Dogs? What is Anderson trying to say? I honestly am at a loss here. It’s not just the story of a boy and his dog. It’s not necessarily a “love letter to Japan,” (love letters to *insert place director loves here* are some of my least favorite kinds of movies; yeah, I’m looking at you, Boyhood) although it is clear Anderson has a great affinity for Japan and its culture. He’s trying to say something political but it’s either too obvious or too vague and I don’t know which. There are a lot of political overtones to it and that’s basically the thing about the movie that doesn’t work (more on that in a second). There is something of a Holocaust allegory that gets tacked on late in the movie that made me scratch my head.

So unfortunate piece of the movie is in the final act when the Holocaust allegory takes prominence and things start to fall apart a little bit, to the point where it almost seems like they had spent so much time on the movie that they scrapped a more fleshed out ending in favor of just wrapping things up quickly. It doesn’t ruin the movie but it isn’t as satisfying as the early scenes of just watching the dogs hang out on Trash Island are.

I can’t say that this movie makes me excited for the next Wes Anderson movie, especially if he goes back to live action but it does make me consider seeing another one. A movie as delightful as this is pretty hard to come by. In an age where we have superheroes being taken too seriously and five new horror movies every month, it’s nice to have something like Isle of Dogs come along to relieve us of unneeded stress in our lives.