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Good Fantasy Movies (1990-95): The Remains of the Clay

MassieTwins2Just as the Cold War came to an end and East and West Germany were again united, other armed conflicts stepped in to take these peaceful resolutions’ places. The Persian Gulf War; the Haitian coup d’état; Somalian food supplies had to be guarded by a U.S.-led force; Rodney King’s assailants were acquitted, resulting in an eruption of violence.

But in the world of fantasy filmmaking, which continued to thrive on improving numbers of theater-goers and technological advances in animation (perfectly augmented by storytelling as seen in “My Neighbor Totoro”, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”, and Jan Svankmejer’s “Alice”), new heights of innovation were ready to be witnessed, particularly as the ‘80s turned into the ‘90s. ~ Massie Twins

The picaresque, the morbid and the revolutionary

‘The Adventures of Baron Munchausen’, though finding limited audiences and meager box-office takings in the United States, fared well in Europe, where it was critically acclaimed and celebrated for its wit, satire, and whimsical approach to the tall tales and picaresque, Brothers Grimm-like fantasies at its heart.

‘Edward Scissorhands’ in the hands of the ever-capable Tim Burton (having just come from reinventing ‘Batman’ with his signature, pitch-black morbidness, and previously leaving a mark with “Beetlejuice,” which boasted a unique marriage of dark fantasy and slapstick comedy), became an instant success – scoring big with fans and critics alike, leading to Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations.

And the start of the decade also saw the influential likes of the first ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ movie, one of the highest-grossing independent films of all time, which spawned two additional sequels and featured a goofy blend of live-action actors and people in rubber suits; and ‘Ghost,’ one of the very first romantic fantasy thrillers, which combined the visualization of purgatory with a revolutionary haircut and erotic pottery-shaping.


Miscellaneous Fantasy movie Recommendations

‘Heart Condition’ (James D. Parriott, 1990)

The plot for this uncommonly forgotten picture is the perfect setup for uncomfortable hilarity: an overtly racist white cop named Jack Moony (Bob Hoskins) has it in for lawyer-to-the-underworld, Napoleon Stone (Denzel Washington), who is currently dating Moony’s ex. But the prejudiced police officer has bigger problems – his ticker has finally given out from years of courting vices.

In an unnerving twist that could only happen in a Hollywood screenplay, Stone is gunned down in a drive-by shooting, orchestrating a perfectly good heart to be transplanted into the needy bigot. The catch is that, with the saving organ comes Napoleon’s agitated soul, who wants the recuperating flatfoot to solve his murder!

Despite a premise that seems incapable of humorlessness – at least of the edgy kind permissible in the early ‘90s, before political correctness began to dominate the playing field – “Heart Condition” was met with overwhelming negativity. The cause boils down to a lack of chemistry between two clearly capable actors, and a script so split between comedy, drama, action, and romance that it can’t do justice to any of those elements.

Still, it’s difficult not to notice just how talented a young Washington is in a lukewarm production – though he would swear off comedies for pretty much the rest of his career.

‘Wings of Fame’ (Otakar Votocek, 1990)

Its selling point is the top-billed duo alone: Peter O’Toole and Colin Firth. And yet this inexplicably hidden gem has never been made widely available to moviegoers, having only ever been given a brief release on VHS to American audiences. Helmed by a Czech Republic filmmaker, working with a screenplay by Dutchman Herman Koch (the acclaimed author of “The Dinner” [2009], for which an English-language theatrical adaptation was once linked to Cate Blanchett), ‘Wings of Fame’ possesses a plot so spectacularly singular, it’s a wonder it hasn’t been remade – or, at the very least, re-released – by now.

O’Toole essentially plays himself – a much-loved movie star on the verge of falling out of the public eye. In an attempt to maintain his celebrity status, he swindles an unknown author (Firth), leading to an enraged, deranged, assassination reprisal. Both victims end up in a purgatory-like limbo, which is conceptualized as a ritzy resort for reputable people only – something of a stardom-based heaven, in which souls are treated and prioritized by their remaining prominence back on Earth.

The irony is that O’Toole earned a spot at the island paradise through his oeuvre, while Firth gains access through the notoriety of killing a famous person. Enmeshed in mind games, changes of heart, angst, and even a touch of camaraderie, ‘Wings of Fame’ is an unsubtle (but no less engaging) commentary on self-absorption, renown, disgrace, and – worst of all for a celebrity – the point at which they slip out of the limelight.

‘Delirious’ (Tom Mankiewicz, 1991)

As swords-and-sorcery peplum started to dry up in the late 80s, the 90s welcomed a completely different type of fantasy – the fantasy-comedy. With the likes of ‘Mannequin’, ‘Splash” and ‘Big’, romance and humor proved to be a more audience-connective means to portray the otherworldly (‘Ghost’ was, of course, a slightly darker take on supernatural misadventures). This is where ‘Delirious’ makes its mark, also serving as one of the tail-end of John Candy’s performances, and as screen legend Raymond Burr’s final theatrical appearance.

The plot presages the comic magnum opus of ‘Groundhog Day’ or even serves as something of a facetious twist on ‘Misery.’ Jack Gable (John Candy) is the lead writer on a soap opera, which affords him the opportunities to fall in love with the actresses taking on the roles he pens. But when he’s not wrapped up in fizzling romantic dramas, he finds himself in a car crash, only to awake into an exact recreation of his fictional melodramatic world.

Clever and witty, though far from a box office success, this unexplored work from the writing team behind ‘S*P*Y*S’ and ‘The Big Bus’ features that now-cliched concept of writing oneself out of harm’s way when inside a story manifested from the creator’s imagination.

‘Truly Madly Deeply’ (Anthony Minghella, 1991)

One of the greatest of all low-budget, unknown, made-for-TV films (produced by BBC Films for their ‘Screen Two’ series), this unequivocal masterpiece is a haunting, touching, emotionally bulldozing character study that, had it reached American audiences in full force (rather than the arthouse route it took), might have been more staggering than “Ghost” (released right around the same time).

The premise is simple yet crushing: Nina (Juliet Stevenson in a role manufactured just for her to showcase all of her additional talents, alongside dramaturgy) is bowled over with grief when her boyfriend Jamie (Alan Rickman) dies. To pull her out of her depression, Jamie returns as a ghost, only to pick up some annoying habits that Nina can’t quite seem to remember (such as messing with the thermostat, fiddling with the furniture, or bringing obnoxious fellow phantasms over for late-night gatherings).

In the end, though, it’s all a ruse to push Nina away from her idealization of him so that she can get on with her life – an astoundingly heartfelt, waterworks-inducing realization sure to get even the most hardened moviegoer a bit choked-up.

‘Last Action Hero’ (John McTiernan, 1993)

Despite extremely negative advanced screenings, an unmanageably tight shooting/editing schedule, and an eventual tanking at the box office, this film-within-a-film fantasy adventure still has early Schwarzenegger charm, loads of humor, and a rather informed sense of satire that makes it more intelligent than many will admit. Plus, the action sequences are nicely shot and sharply choreographed, while the villains (Tom Noonan in particular, as the Ripper), are sensationally over-the-top.

Like an action junkie’s perversion of Willy Wonka’s golden ticket routine, young Danny Madigan (Austin O’Brien) acquires a magical movie stub that transports him directly into the unfolding of the latest Jack Slater thriller, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as the larger-than-life Los Angeles detective, hot on the trail of an assassin.

Convincing Slater that he isn’t real (aided by shifting back and forth from the movie into Madigan’s world) and foiling the plans of the main antagonist – who recruits help by propositioning villains from other Jack Slater episodes – will take all of the heroism and high-octane arsenals available in both celluloid and reality.


A wondrous genre with many forms

The fantasy genre almost always wanders into the realms of historical, biblical, horror, science-fiction (as in space operas), or quasi-medieval environments, giving it a particularly rich and sweeping range for cinematic inclusions.

Even without visualized magic, mythology, or escapism, this wondrous form of speculative fiction (a term popularized by controversial author Robert Heinlein) provides just as many tremendously famous masterpieces as it does a plethora of overlooked works worthy of closer examination or reevaluation.

Do you have a favorite of the era? If so, please don’t hesitate to mention it in the comment section below!

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