Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Quietly Magical 1990s Revival

It’s been over a hundred years since turn-of-the-century author Frances Hodgson Burnett was a hip, happening commodity on the children’s literature circuit, but her work’s been perpetually floating around the cultural zeitgeist ever since. That’s mostly due to the ongoing popularity of Burnett’s 1911 novel The Secret Garden, which is constantly being adapted for stage, television, and silver screen for each new generation of young audiences. Just last year, a big-budget reworking of The Secret Garden passed through theaters like a fart in the wind, unnoticed by most audiences despite the source material’s apparently evergreen popularity. I didn’t bother with the 2020 version of The Secret Garden, mostly because the gaudy CGI & overbearing orchestral swells of the trailers looked like they were adding way too many bells & whistles to a story mostly loved for its sweetness in simplicity. Had the movie been a proper hit (something it never had a chance to accomplish, if not only due to the COVID pandemic’s across-the-board-kneecapping of theatrical distribution), it would not have surprised me that its CG Magic additions to the story were welcoming to a younger generation of kids who are used to that digital patina. For me, the latest Secret Garden movie’s release mostly served as a reminder that Burnett’s novels had another, earlier Cultural Moment when I was a kid, something I can’t help but regard as their best era of adaptation to date.

Way back in the ancient days of the mid-1990s there were two wonderful, beloved adaptations of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s most popular novels, both shot by A-list cinematographers. Of course, the decade saw just as many forgotten, mediocre film & television versions of The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, and Little Lord Fauntleroy as any other era in popular media, but there were two exceptional films that stood out among the dreck. The first (and most substantial) of the pair is 1993’s adaptation of The Secret Garden, directed by Agnieszka Holland and shot by industry legend Roger Deakins. Half a G-rated Gothic horror about haunted, lonely children and half gorgeous Technicolor nature footage, the 1993 Secret Garden is a tender, incredibly patient children’s classic that I should have caught up with sooner. Where the treacly, desperately whimsical trailers for the 2020 Secret Garden push the delicate magic of the source material past its breaking point, Holland’s interpretation is interested in the more cinematic magic of Mood. The protagonist is a “queer, unresponsive little thing,” a prideful young orphan known to her lower-class bunkmates as “Mary Quite Contrary.” Displaced from a life with servants & extravagant parties to a spooky mansion haunted by her depressive, reclusive uncle who can’t stand the sight of her, she’s a child who’s proud of her prickly, don’t-even-fucking-look-at-me exterior. The magic of the film is subtle, represented mostly in her environment’s transformation from a dark, moody estate with possible ghosts lurking in the shadows to a sunshiny, springtime garden that she collaborates on restoring with the fellow lonely children she meets in & around the surrounding moors. Watching her guarded personality bloom into openness & empathy along with time-elapsed photography of the blooming, lush garden as she makes her first genuine friends is beautifully, genuinely magical, something the film is confident in highlighting without much in the way of special effects – computerized or otherwise.

The 1995 adaptation of A Little Princess—directed by Alfonso Cuarón and shot by Emmanuel Lubezki—admittedly does indulge in some shockingly cheap, overstepping CGI, but it at least sequesters those images within its story-time fantasy sequences. The set-up of the story is much the same as The Secret Garden, with a once-wealthy British child being knocked down the ladder of class once she is orphaned, now forced to work as a servant at her boarding school or face a destitute life of homelessness. This is a film I actually remember seeing as a kid; it was Baby’s First Cuarón in fact, something I did not at all connect to my high school-love of Y Tu Mamá También until decades later. It follows a much more traditional, familiar fairy tale premise for a kids’ movie than The Secret Garden, but it still squeezes in some gorgeously artificial illustrations of The Ramayana (told as bedtime stories at the boarding school), with Lubezki doing his best possible precursor to The Fall, give or take some ill-advised mid-90s CGI. Outside those bedtime story fantasies, the real magic of A Little Princess is still fairly subtle & unstrained. Its thesis is that “All girls are princesses”, whether they’re a spoiled boarding school brat or the orphaned peasant who mops the floors and serves them breakfast. I can’t claim that the movie matches or exceeds the heights of Cuarón’s later, more critically lauded works, but that “Everyone’s a princess” sentiment clashes against the horrors of labor exploitation the protagonist stuffers in a way that really left an impression on me as a kid; the Ramayana fantasy sequences only underline the magic of that much more grounded, “realistic” frame story. The only glaring faults of the film is that the Ramayana demons should have been rendered in traditional stop-motion animation and the unavoidable fact that 1993’s The Secret Garden is by far the better film.

Since I haven’t seen the 2020 The Secret Garden and I’m only contrasting these films against its trailers, I can’t make any objective claims about their superiority as works of art. The two major 1990s adaptations of Burnett’s novels did make a lasting impression on the generation who grew up with them, though, whereas the most recent film seems to have been an instantly forgotten blip. In fact, most adaptations of Burnett’s work appear to be routine, disposable, going-though-the-motions children’s media tedium, which makes those two 90s films stand out as an exception to the rule. At the very least, they’re both commendable for the subtle, controlled way they accentuate the magic & the beauty of Burnett’s novels, which is a funny thing to be able to say about two films where children live in fairy tale castles and communicate with animals. It’s apparently very easy to cheapen & deflate that magic if you desperately push it to the forefront instead allowing it to quietly bloom.

-Brandon Ledet

Robin Williams’s Undervalued Restraint in The Birdcage (1996)

Usually, when we praise comedians for their acting, it’s when they Get Serious in a dramatic role. When Melissa McCarthy goes dark for a Can You Ever Forgive Me? or Bill Murray dulls down his irreverence for a Lost in Translation, it almost feels like a cynical Oscars play – because those are the roles that get prestige-circle accolades. Robin Williams’s career is an excellent sample of this pattern, since the hyperactive goofballery of his comedy and the reserved vulnerability of his dramatic performances are at such drastically opposed extremes. Williams’s dramatic turns in grounded, sober films like Dead Poets Society & Good Will Hunting are paradoxically showy in their restraint, considering how starkly different they are from the frantic, coke-rattled mania of his comedic sidekick roles and his on-stage stand-up routines. His awards attention for those more somber, restrained performances practically register as a child getting a lollipop for good behavior.

If we’re going out of our way to highlight Williams’s finest roles as the ones where he’s most restrained, there is at least one frantic screwball comedy that belongs in the conversation: 1996’s The Birdcage. A collaboration between comedy legends Nichols & May (as director & screenwriter, respectively), an early credit for overachieving cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and a remake of a popular French farce, The Birdcage has enough built-in prestige to appear Respectable in a way that other Robin Williams comedies like Mrs. Doubtfire & Death to Smoochy do not. More to the point, it’s a performance that explicitly asks Williams to tone it down and keep his flamboyance under wraps for the sake of the plot – a self-inflicted restraint that you can practically see is eating him alive as the rest of the world around him gets exponentially zanier. The Birdcage might just be the one movie where Robin Williams is the best-behaved adult in the room, and much of its humor derives from the fact that he so badly wants not to be.

The Birdcage is a traditional screwball comedy about a tense, disastrous dinner party in which a gay couple (Robin Williams & Nathan Lane) hide their true personalities from the straight Conservative parents (Gene Hackman & Dianne Wiest) of their child’s fiancée (Calista Flockhart). Ironically, Williams is cast as The Straight Man in this comedic set-up, a proud but accommodating nightclub owner who’s willing to tone down his eccentricities to appease his monstrous asshole of a son. His main job is to sweat & fret as the deception unravels from every direction. Meanwhile, other comedic performers are set loose to go as over-the-top as they please: Lane as a drag queen doing Barbara Bush schtick; Hackman as a cartoon exaggeration of Republican Party cruelty (one that’s only become closer to the truth in the past couple decades); Hank Azaria as a hot-to-trot houseboy; etc. It’s a rare instance where Williams sets aside his usual “Look at me! Look at me!” manic comedy to merely react to the buffoonery that surrounds him, and that silent frustration elevates every other performance handily.

There is one isolated moment in The Birdcage where Robin Williams is set loose to do his usual hyperactive child routine. In a scene where he’s choreographing a stage number for his drag club, he excitedly shouts the directions “You do Fosse, Fosse, Fosse! You do Martha Graham, Martha Graham, Martha Graham! […] Madonna, Madonna, Madonna!” while acting out each impersonation in pantomime. It’s a brief moment where his manic stand-up persona (later repurposed for the eccentric sidekicks he voiced in kids’ movies like Aladdin & Happy Feet) is allowed to invade the screen. For the rest of the runtime, he’s asked to keep that flamboyance in check, and the act of bottling it up is visibly crushing him in a consistently hilarious way. If Robin Williams’s acting chops are mostly going to be remembered & lauded in roles where he exercises a toned-down restraint that contrasts his over-the-top comedies, I think it’s worth singling out The Birdcage as a performance where we can see that self-discipline being practiced in real time. If nothing else, it’s a lot more fun to watch than snoozers like Good Will Hunting or What Dreams May Come.

-Brandon Ledet

Reality Bites (1994)

If there’s any one clear enemy that Gen-X kids rallied against in the 90s it was “Phoniness.” It was as if the entire Slacker generation had taken Holden Caulfield’s tirades against “phonies” as gospel instead of mocking the blowhard for his own vapid narcissism, creating a kind of low-effort religious movement that worshipped Authenticity as the main driver of counterculture. Any artist in search of a self-sustaining paycheck was labeled a sell-out. Any bozo who debased themselves by wearing a suit was a corporate clown. Anyone caught caring especially deeply on any topic at all was a sucker & a loser, at least in the eyes of Generation Apathy. That anti-phonies mindset made Gen-X especially difficult to pander to as a movie-going audience, since any studio actually caught putting an effort into marketing to that demographic had already committed their intended audience’s cardinal sin: putting effort into anything at all. So, the few times that Hollywood did openly pander to Gen-X sensibilities mostly produced flops – both critically & financially. While “indie cinema” flourished, Slacker Era studio pictures like Empire Records, Airheads, and Reality Bites were slapped aside as phonies by the Gen-X audience they were actually aimed at, only to gradually gain cult status among younger viewers who foolishly looked up to that generation as The Cool Kids.

Speaking as a foolish Millennial myself, I’m highly susceptible to being charmed by these big-studio attempts at X-tremely 90s Gen-X pandering, which is why I recently gave Reality Bites a shot despite its contemporary critical dismissal. It’s easy to see why this film in particular was such a target for claims of corporate phoniness, while goofier titles like Empire Records & Airheads were merely forgotten as trivialities. It’s just so achingly sincere as a romantic comedy in a way that just does not jive at all with Gen-X apathy politics. Reality Bites tries to have it both ways in “giving voice” to a generation that only wants to eat pizza, watch syndicated television, and smoke weed out of half-crushed soda cans while also committing wholeheartedly to a traditional romantic triangle plot. Because all three participants in that central melodrama are such Apathetic brats, it’s difficult to care at all about who ends up with whom as the story shakes out, which I’m saying even as a product of the Radical Empathy generation that eagerly followed in the Slackers’ footsteps. Reality Bites is terminally phony, but only because it can’t find a proper way to marry genuine heartfelt emotion with the who-cares slackerdom of its target demographic. In the attempt, it amounts to nothing at all, just wasted time.

The one saving grace of this big-studio Slacker facsimile is the charm of its Ultra 90s cast. If nothing else, Winona Ryder is always some baseline level of delightful, apparently even as a privileged brat with no sense of morals, goals, or an internal life. Jeanine Garofalo & Steve Zahn are likewise adorably chummy as her pizza-loving, couch-dwelling roommates, so much so that you wish the movie were solely about that trio’s friendship so you could spend more time in their smoky living room with them, just hanging out. Instead, the film details a romantic rivalry in which a greasy go-nowhere musician (Ethan Hawke) and a yuppie corporate stooge (Ben Stiller) play tug of war with Ryder’s confused heart – a literalized conflict between Authenticity & Phoniness. I’ll spare you the reveal of which undeserving beau she chooses in this review, but know this: the movie would have been vastly improved if it didn’t care about that romantic conflict at all. Reality Bites pretends to be interested in the static ennui of a generation with no sense of ambition or enthusiasm for participating in established social norms, but it quickly bails on that inert navel-gazing to instead dive headfirst into the normiest bullshit I can possibly think of: a potentially flourishing young woman wasting her time on two bonehead men who don’t deserve a second’s pause.

Directed by Ben Stiller around the time when he was producing much more successful Gen-X comedy with The Ben Stiller Show, Reality Bites does make some admirable motions towards actively mocking its own Slacker sensibilities instead of merely pandering to them. Stiller was genius to cast himself as the nexus of this sarcastic, self-effacing humor. As a suited network exec for an MTV-parodying cable channel called In Your Face Television, Stiller positions himself as a money-grubbing goon who literally peddles youth counterculture for cheap payouts. Ryder’s character is an amateur documentarian who interviews her immediate social circle about their post-college ennui as a self-satisfying art project, which Stiller turns around to sell to his network as a slapstick comedy mutation of The Real World. This line of generational parody brilliantly goes one level deeper in the end credits, when Stiller’s network exec bozo turns the love triangle drama that drives the film into a scripted Gen-X soap opera. If Reality Bites were ever going to speak directly to its intended audience, this self-parody would have to have been way more pronounced & exaggerated to mean much of anything. As is, it takes the romantic lives of the privileged brats it lightly ribs very seriously, so unfortunately all that registers is its tragic phoniness as a corporate product.

Aesthetics-wise, there’s a lot to admire here. The film’s soundtrack is peppered with some pure 90s car-cassette gems, including the 5-star Lisa Loeb classic “Stay,” which it popularized with a tie-in music video (sadly, a dead artform). Ryder & Garofalo’s costuming is distinctly College Grad 90s chic, which is a pleasure in itself. However, the movie’s strongest asset is its VHS camcorder-style cinematography meant to mimic Ryder’s D.I.Y. documentary project, a vivid visual texture achieved by a young Emmanuel Lubezki of all people. The thing is, though, that you can get those same camcorder vibes from Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape without having to hang out with total dipshits for 100 minutes. Nothing is good enough to survive the contrived, dispiriting dirge of this film’s love triangle conflict: not Lubezki’s spectacularly Authentic camerawork, not Stiller’s astute Gen-X self-parody, not even Ryder’s consistently stellar on-screen charm. Reality Bites isn’t a total waste of time, but it’s also not much of anything at all. It’s ultimately stuck between two disparate sensibilities—the romantic & the apathetic—and thus ultimately panders to no one. This is one of those cases where the Gen-X kids were right to shrug it off, of which there are many since their collective impulse was to immediately shrug off Everything.

-Brandon Ledet

The Revenant (2015)

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threehalfstar

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest is a difficult film to pin down in terms of quality. The Revenant is at times an intense spectacle of intricately detailed action choreography, but it’s also a meandering slowburner of a film that constantly reminds you that you’re watching Important Art. Its cinematography (provided by master of the form Emmanuel Lubezki) is gut-wrenchingly beautiful, but is often employed for such an empty purpose that it leaves you feeling cold. It aims for High Art severity in its narrative consequence, but the grotesque savagery of its rape & pillage masculinity feels like a well-constructed exploitation pic from a bygone era. I’m tempted to group it in with other arty, all-dressed-up-with-nowhere-to-go slowburners that were impressive but impossible to connect with (for me, anyway) like Only God Forgives & The Tree of Life, but I enjoyed too much of the film to dismiss it that easily. What is clear is that Iñárritu should at the very least be commended for not following up the critical success of Birdman (a film I was less than kind to) with a carbon copy of his most high profile film to date. I appreciate him sticking his neck out there, even if the results were the ultimate mixed bag of soaring successes & cringe-worthy missteps.

Part of what makes The Revenant so frustrating is its daunting 156 min runtime. The film’s opening battles between white men fur trappers & tribes of Native Americans and Leo DiCaprio’s protagonist & a pissed-off mama bear are breathtakingly savage, epically orchestrated orgies of visually striking violence. At the other end of the film, a  concluding knife fight between DiCaprio’s beaten-to-shit protagonist & Tom Hardy’s selfish brute who wronged him ranks up there with Friedkin’s The Hunted as one of the best hand-to-hand combat scenes ever committed to film. The long stretch between those heart-racing anchors, however, are painfully in need of some shrewd editing. It’s tempting to think of The Revenant as a revenge film floating somewhere between a Western & an exploitation, but a majority of the film is a travelogue. DiCaprio, Hardy, two opposing bands of American & French Fur trappers (one headed by Domnhall Gleeson, who’s been batting a thousand lately), and a revenge-hungry native tribe all slowly trudge toward an inevitable climactic bloodshed (while still recovering from the one that opened the film) in an unnecessarily-detailed step-by-step procession. At times the film itself feels like DiCaprio’s broken protagonist, crawling & gurgling blood for days on end under the weight of an over-achieving runtime.   Shave a good 40 minutes of The Revenant by tightening a few scenes & losing a shot here or there (as precious as Lubezki makes each image) & you might have a masterful man vs. nature (both human & otherwise) revenge pic. As is, there’s an overbearing sense of self-importance that sours the whole ordeal.

For the most part, though, the self-importance on display in The Revenant isn’t nearly as off-putting as it can be in Birdman. For instance, Lubezki’s camerawork is just as showy here as it was in Iñárritu’s Oscar Winner, but it ditches the single-extended-shot gimmick of that film in favor of a more tasteful line of highfalutin action cinematography. There are some gorgeous transitions from intense close-ups to long tracking shots in impossibly smooth single-swoops, but these shots are broken up in a way that Birdman‘s unrelenting gimmick of a structure allow for. Plot wise, The Revenant echoes the loud & obnoxious majority vs. the righteous intelligence of the few in the know that turned me off so sharply in Birdman (with Hardy anchoring the obnoxious brute end of that equation & DiCaprio serving as the righteous), but it’s not quite as much of a turn-off here. At worst, the preciousness & empty philosophy of lines like “As long as you can still breathe, you fight”, “Remember what mother used to say about the wind?”, and endless mutterings of “You are my son, you are my son,” (similar to the way Sean Penn whispers “Mother” into the void for hours in Tree of Life) are worth a hearty eyeroll or two. At best, they’re a nice break from watching DiCaprio gurgle & crawl his way through the snow. The dialogue in Birdman was much more off-putting.

Like I said, there’s too much of The Revenant that resonated with me to dismiss it outright. I’m more than willing to forgive an overwrought image or two (there’s a particularly egregious moment when a white bird emerges from a bullet wound, for instance) in exchange for the film’s more successful flashes of brilliance (like the bear & knife fights). For all of The Revenant‘s try-hard stabs at achieving High Art through hyper-masculine brutality, there’s a hell of a lot of praise-worthy ambition & striking imagery that’s well worth the patience required to make it through the perilous journey of its over-inflated runtime. Shorten some its travel time through montage & soften the cheese factor of its philosophical mumblings & I might even have heralded it as a masterpiece of brutish revenge cinema.

-Brandon Ledet