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Monday, March 2, 2009

Misery and Citizen Ruth

This weekend I watched two films from the 90s that I have neglected to see up until now. One I watched mainly because I've heard so much about its lead performance (Kathy Bates in Misery), while the other I watched because I love the director (Alexander Payne's Citizen Ruth).

Misery (1990)

On the whole, I was a bit disappointed in Misery. Maybe I had seen enough clips of the movie so that nothing really surprised me. Kathy Bates does give a very entertaining performance, and Jame Caan does a perfectly fine job as the writer stuck under his number-one fan's control, but the movie got a little repetitive and didn't hold my attention the entire time. The premise, I admit, is a good one. A deranged fan takes her favorite author hostage and rages at him when she finds out her favorite romance-novel heroine is killed off. As the movie goes on, the neuroseus of Bates' character get stranger and stranger. For most of the movie, it is suspensful and entertaining to see where her obsessions will go next. By the end of the movie, we are in full-blown horror mode, and it didn't quite work for me. If she had stayed equally crazy but perhaps less dangerous, I actually think this movie would have been more powerful.

Another thing that I noticed while watchign this movie is the utterly boring and lazy way that many films from the 1980s/early 1990s were shot. Perhaps cinematographers and directors have gotten much more daring, but the production values seemed very workman-like and almost appropriate for a TV-movie. Of all the decades in which film was made, I think I have the least love for movies made in the 80s, and this picture (while released in 1990), shows me why so many films from this period are difficult to get really excited about.

Grade: C+

Citizen Ruth (1996)

While suffering from a few ending problems of its own, I found Citizen Ruth a much more satisfying movie to watch. Alexander Payne is one of my favorite modern directors. I absolutely love Election and About Schmidt, and I really like Sideways as well. This was his first movie, and it provides a taste of what Payne is able to achieve in his later films.

Citizen Ruth is a comedy about Ruth Stoops, a glue-sniffing pregnant woman who becomes an unlikely symbol in the battle between the pro-life and pro-choice movement. The movie satirizes both sides of the issue (although perhaps the pro-life side a little more brutally) and their blind allegiance to a cause. As we watch both sides battle over "Ruth," we see how easy it is for people to spout slogans without thinking about the actual people involved.

The most successful part of the film is probably Laura Dern's gutsy performance as Ruth. She plays a woman with barely any redeeming qualities and of limited intelligence, yet by the end of the film she has made this woman so vivid that the audience is cheering her on. She could have played her role for more sentiment or for more cheap laughs, but instead she fully inhabits her character.

Most of the supporting cast is great as well. Mary Kay Place (Big Love, Being John Malkovich, My So-Called Life) is wonderful as the pro-life activist who first takes Ruth in. Swoozie Kurtz is also amusing as her pro-choice counterpart. In fact, the whole cast provides an array of vivid characters until the end, when Burt Reynolds overplays his part as a national pro-life leader. He seemed to be coming in from a slightly broader movie.

All in all, Citizen Ruth is a highly entertaining movie. What Alexander Payne did not provide here, that he does in his other movies (even Election I think), is an emotional hook for the audience. While we do cheer Ruth on, it is hard to fully identify with her, and it is certainly difficult to connect with any of the other characters. What Payne leaves us with, then, is some quite good satire that is fun to watch, gives food for thought, but lacks the emotional heft of his other films.

Grade: B

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