The Best Movies of 1998

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Now it’s time to go to take a look back at the movies of 1998, the same year when California started the ban on smoking in bars and restaurants. What else happened that year? John Glenn became the oldest astronaut to go into space, and it gave us a reason to watch the space shuttle launch on television for the first time in years. The Denver Broncos became the first AFC team in 14 years to win the Super Bowl when they beat the Green Bay Packers (I’m so glad I didn’t bet on that game). The whole controversy of President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky exploded, which the President’s enemies seized upon like teenagers going through their dads’ Playboy magazine issues while he is out of town. And, most ironically, a court in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan ruled Osama Bin Laden was “a man without a sin” in regard to the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Well, we knew better.

As for myself, I was in my second year at UC Irvine and my fourth year in college. I still had a dorm room all to myself, and I was busy with school work and appearing in plays like “Enrico IV,” “The Scarlet Letter” and “Twelfth Night.” Of course, I tried to get out to the movies as much as humanly possible. Many of the movies on this list were ones I actually didn’t get around to seeing until years later, so it’s probably best I am giving you this list now.

10) There’s Something About Mary

Theres Something About Mary poster

Bobby and Peter Farrelly gave us one of the most gut bustlingly hilarious movies ever made with “There’s Something About Mary.” I was dying with laughter while watching this, and I wasn’t expecting to. In retrospect, I should have though since this came from the same directors who gave us “Dumb and Dumber” as well as “Kingpin.” On top of having so many funny moments, the movie also has a lot of heart in the way it portrays the two main characters played by Ben Stiller and Cameron Diaz. Those of you who think Diaz can’t act need to revisit this one because she is so good at playing a teenager who we later see as a well-meaning adult with a few too many stalkers.

9) American History X

American History X poster

So much has been said about the making of “American History X” and the bitter disagreements between director Danny Kaye and actor Edward Norton. Regardless of whoever deserves the majority of the credit, there is no denying this is a powerful and unforgettable motion picture. Norton gave one of his very best performances as white supremacist Derek Vineyard, and the look he gives the camera after killing two people is a very chilling moment which is not easily erased from the conscious mind. Norton also gets great support from Edward Furlong who plays Danny, Derek’s brother, who threatens to tread down the same hateful path Derek has. Kaye, even if he didn’t get final cut, gives the movie an amazing look in black and white which captures the escalating tension of Derek’s journey from a world of hate to a place of compassion.

8) Dark City

Dark City movie poster

Alex Proyas followed up his brilliant adaptation of “The Crow” with this visionary sci-fi epic about a man who wakes up not knowing who he is, and of those who seek to capture him for their own twisted experiments. Like many great sci-fi movies “Dark City” was a box office flop upon its release, but it has since found an audience to where there’s no denying it is a cult classic. You’re along for the ride with Rufus Sewell as he tries to understand his place in a world ruled over by the Strangers. This movie remains suspenseful to the very end, and the look of the movie feels like no other I have ever seen. Jennifer Connelly also stars in the film and looks beautiful as always, and it is interesting to watch Kiefer Sutherland play a complete wimp after watching him for so long on “24.”

7) Out Of Sight

Out of Sight movie poster

Here’s the film which brought Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney together, and it also serves as one of the very best adaptations of an Elmore Leonard novel. With “Out of Sight,” Clooney proved without a doubt there was going to be life for him after “ER” with his performance as Jack Foley, the most successful bank robber in America. When Jack escapes from jail, he ends up sharing some trunk space with Federal Marshall Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez). “Out of Sight” also marked the beginning of a career resurgence for Soderbergh, and he got to work from a truly great screenplay written by Scott Frank. Also starring is the fantastic Catherine Keener, Ving Rhames, Steve Zahn, Dennis Farina, Isaiah Washington, and the always reliable Don Cheadle. This movie was a lot of fun, and Clooney and Lopez had such great chemistry together.

6) Rushmore

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This was my introduction to the highly creative world of Wes Anderson. “Rushmore” is an instant comedy classic with more depth to it than many others of its genre at the time. Max Fischer is an original eccentric character; a young man involved in just about ever extra-curricular activity at school, all at the expense of his report card. Jason Schwartzman is great fun to watch as Max, and Bill Murray gives a performance which damn well should have earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. With Anderson, his comedy is fueled by the sadness and isolation of his characters, and of the things they desperately want in life. “Rushmore” is filled with as much meaning as it does laughter as both Schwartzman and Murray battle over the same woman played by Olivia Williams. It also owes a lot to the late Mike Nichols’ enduring classic “The Graduate.”

5) Happiness

Happiness movie poster

Todd Solondz’s follow up to “Welcome To The Dollhouse” may very well be the most ironically titled film in cinema history. Controversy followed “Happiness” all the way to its release, and the MPAA of course just had to give it an NC-17 (it ended up being released unrated). One of the blackest of black comedies ever, it follows the lives of three sisters and the various people who are a part of their fragile lives. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman gives a frighteningly memorable performance as an obscene phone caller, and it was one of the first real examples of the brilliant character actor we came to see him as. But the bravest performance comes from Dylan Baker who plays Bill Maplewood, a psychiatrist, husband and loving father who, unbeknownst to his family, is a pedophile. Baker ends up making you empathize, but not sympathize, with a man who we would instantly despise once we discovered his terrible secret. As unappealing as these characters may seem, Solondz makes us see ourselves in them and to where we cannot see we are not all that different.

4) The Big Lebowski

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I didn’t get to see this when it first came out in theaters, but my parents did eventually strap me down in a chair to watch it, and this should give you an idea of how much they love it. The Coen brothers follow up to “Fargo” did not get the same reception when originally released, but it has since built up an amazing cult following. Much of this is thanks to Jeff Bridges’ brilliant performance as Jeffrey Lebowski, aka “The Dude.” What could have been a performance built on stereotypes of the slackers we know in life turns out to be perhaps the most memorable character in Bridges’ long and underappreciated career. It’s an ingenious comedy with not so much a plot as a connected series of events which start with the theft of Lebowski’s carpet which he says “tied the whole room together.”

3) The Truman Show

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It still seems criminal how Peter Weir’s film was surprisingly, and infuriatingly, snubbed for a Best Picture nomination. Jim Carrey gives a truly astonishing and powerful performance as Truman Burbank, a man who slowly becomes aware he is the star of a reality show about his life. Yes, he should have been nominated for an Oscar alongside his co-star Ed Harris, but there will always be the unforgivable snubs. “The Truman Show” has become a prophetic movie of sorts as reality shows are the norm in today’s culture, and this obsession we have over them remains very strong to this day. Andrew Niccol’s screenplay was a brilliant examination of how we might view our own life if we found out it was based on a lie, and that everything we know is actually wrong. This stands as one of Weir’s best American movies in a long and justly acclaimed career.

2) Shakespeare In Love

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While it may have gotten overwhelmed by Miramax’s Oscar campaign, there’s no denying “Shakespeare In Love” is a brilliant and highly entertaining romantic comedy. The film tells the story of how Shakespeare goes about writing “Romeo & Ethel The Pirate’s Daughter” which eventually evolves into “Romeo & Juliet.” Gwyneth Paltrow gives a most entrancing performance, and I loved watching her every second she appeared onscreen. Joseph Fiennes is perfectly cast as Shakespeare himself, a passionate writer who is hopelessly enamored with Paltrow’s Viola. I also got a huge kick out of Geoffrey Rush’s performance as theater manager Philip Henslowe, a brilliant comic creation who steals every scene he is in. “Shakespeare In Love” serves as not just a great story of how Shakespeare may have written one of the most immortal plays ever, but also as a great satire of the film industry and how it deviously profits from unsuspecting participants.

And now, drum roll please…

1) Saving Private Ryan

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It would be so easy to put this as my top choice thanks to some of the greatest and most vividly realistic depictions of war ever put on film. Steven Spielberg’s depiction of the landing on D-Day is nothing short of amazing, and it was one of the reasons why I saw this film five times before it came out on DVD. But moreover, it is a deeply respectful salute to those war veterans who served in the armed forces during World War II. “Saving Private Ryan” is filled with great performances from a great cast of actors including Edward Burns, Jeremy Davies, Giovanni Ribisi, Tom Sizemore, Adam Goldberg, Vin Diesel, Matt Damon, and Barry Pepper among others. But it also has one of Tom Hanks’ best performances ever as Captain John Miller, a military man who leads his men to find Private Ryan and bring him back home to his grieving mother. Just when you thought Spielberg had peaked with “Schindler’s List,” he gives us yet another astonishing piece of filmmaking which shows him at the height of his powers.

Honorable Mentions:

Primary Colors – Great Mike Nichols movie based on the book by Joe Klein. It features great performances from John Travolta, Emma Thompson, Kathy Bates as well as an extraordinary cameo from Mykelti Williamson.

Bullworth – Warren Beatty’s scathing political satire may be a bit too broad, but it is a very effective indictment of how the Democratic Party let the American people down.

Elizabeth – Definitely worth mentioning for the brilliant breakthrough performance of Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth.

Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas – Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s crazy novel is a true acid trip nightmare with Johnny Depp channeling the reporter all the way to what he was famous for wearing and smoking.

God Said, Ha! – Wonderful concert film of Julia Sweeney’s one-woman show which deals with the time her brother got cancer, and of how she later got cancer herself.

Hurlyburly – Film adaptation of David Rabe’s play dealing with Hollywood players and their dysfunctional relationships with one another. Features a great cast which includes Sean Penn, Chazz Palminteri and Anna Paquin among others.

Affliction – Another emotionally bruising movie from Paul Schrader which is based on the novel by Russell Banks. Features career high performances from Nick Nolte and the late James Coburn who deservedly won an Oscar for his work.

Next Stop Wonderland – An eccentrically unusual kind of romantic comedy which helped introduce actress Hope Davis to a wider audience.

Ronin – One of the last films from the late John Frankenheimer which stars Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, and Jonathan Pryce among others. It also features some of the very best car chases of the 1990’s.

Run Lola Run – Kinetic German thriller with Franka Potente that views her attempts to save her boyfriend’s life in three different ways. This was a great teaser for what would come in 1999, when movies of different kinds proceeded to change the rules of where a story could go.

The Thin Red Line – Terrence Malick’s first movie in over 20 years threatened to be more meandering than anything else, but it is filled with such powerful imagery and to where many considered it more anti-war than “Saving Private Ryan” was.

John Carpenter’s Vampires – It was advertised as a horror movie, but it is really a more of a western and the closest John Carpenter has ever come to making one. James Woods’ performance alone is worth the price of admission as he plays the most badass of vampire hunters, Jack Crow.

Star Trek: Insurrection – Much better than its reputation may suggest, being an odd numbered Star Trek movie and all.

 

 

‘Tomorrowland’ is Imaginative, But it Also Feels Incomplete

Tomorrowland movie poster

Tomorrowland” is to Brad Bird as “Interstellar” was to Christopher Nolan, an opportunity for a well-regarded filmmaker to wear their heart on their sleeve and give us a motion picture which aims to inspire and lift us up from the cynical worldview we have grown accustomed to for far too long. But whereas Nolan found success with “Interstellar,” Bird comes up short with “Tomorrowland” as his love letter to all the dreamers out there becomes undone by a thin plot lacking in narrative drive.

Britt Robertson stars as Casey Newton, a highly optimistic and tech savvy teenager who lives in Cape Canaveral, Florida and gets into trouble while trying to save a launch pad from being demolished. In the process, she comes into contact with a “T” pin which takes her to a futuristic place where imagination is infinite and possibilities for a better world are endless. When the pin suddenly loses the power to take her to that place, she seeks out Frank Walker (George Clooney), an inventor who showed a lot of promise while living in Tomorrowland but was later banished from there when his work started to frighten people off. Together, they find their way back to this wondrous place and work to save it before it is forever destroyed.

Now I love how Bird has made a movie which encourages all the dreamers out there to keep on dreaming. Despite how dark the world can seem at times, his encouragement to those who want to use their imagination to make it a better place is commendable. Many will snicker at this optimism, but their snickering will end up saying more about them than it will Bird.

Having said that, “Tomorrowland” isn’t entirely sure of what it wants to say or how to say it, and it takes forever for the movie to get to where it needs to go. By the time we do make it back to the futuristic place, the movie has devolved into a typical good versus evil plot which robs it of any uniqueness it could ever hope to have. In this kind of movie, we know good will triumph over evil, so the stakes never feel very high as a result.

It’s a real shame because Bird gets things off to a fantastic start with the movie’s prologue which introduces us to Frank Waller when he was a young boy who gets invited into the magical world of Tomorrowland, and our imaginations are quickly aroused by what we see. Watching Frank discover a place that exceeded his wildest dreams had me thinking about when I was a child and where my imagination often took me, and it was a time where anything seemed possible. Now while we find ourselves trading fantasy for reality as we get older, I like to think I have not lost any childlike innocence after all these years and watching this part of “Tomorrowland” made me realize I have not.

But after the prologue is over, “Tomorrowland quickly becomes a film unsure of what tone it wants to set, and it devolves into a typical story of an optimistic teenager trying to get a broken-down adult to reignite their potential before everything goes to hell. Furthermore, we are introduced to a number of evil robots who aim to take Casey out with extreme prejudice, but it feels like they belong in a different movie. In the process of trying to balance out the darker elements with the lighter ones, “Tomorrowland” becomes a total mess.

I felt sorry for Clooney as he is forced to play a character who has long since become embittered about the sour lemons life has handed him. As a result, he gives one of his weakest performances to date as he is forced to take Frank Walker from a state of disbelief to one of true belief in a very unbelievable way. Clooney remains one of the most dependable actors working in movies, and if he can’t make a character like this work on the big screen then no one can.

“Tomorrowland” also has a scene with Clooney and other actors travelling to another dimension in a rocket, and this is bound to bring back bad memories “Batman & Robin” which had the Oscar-winning actor in a similar situation. I guess some bad movie memories can never be permanently erased.

Robertson makes for an appealing heroine as Casey, and she is one of the reasons why “Tomorrowland” works to a certain extent. Even as the movie suffers through its various flaws, she keeps us engaged as we root for her character to triumph over those who are far too quick to crush the wonder she has about life. Without her, this movie could have been worse.

When we do get to the end of “Tomorrowland,” the whole venture ends up feeling incomplete as the writers appear to be uncertain as to how to tie everything up. You could say the ending gives hope to all the dreamers out there, but it frustrates more than anything else as “Tomorrowland” feels like it ended sooner than it should have. Judging from this movie’s opening box office weekend, the odds of it getting a sequel are pretty bad.

It really sucks to give a movie like this a bad review. “Tomorrowland” has its heart in the right place and has some wonderful images, but its story seems stuck in stasis and lacks the imagination to really inspire us. Bird remains a gifted filmmaker and has directed a number of highly entertaining movies like “The Iron Giant,” “The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille” and “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.” “Tomorrowland” marks his first directorial misfire, but I have no doubt he will be back on top before we know it. It’s just a shame he made a movie about wide-eyed optimism which was constructed in a half-hearted way.

I would also like to add this movie’s commercial failure made Disney cancel a third “Tron” movie. Blasphemy!

* * out of * * * *

‘Ocean’s Thirteen’ is a Better Than Expected Sequel

Oceans Thirteen movie poster

Ocean’s Thirteen” was one of the few threequels from 2007 which really delivered without any frustration, and I was relieved how it did not suffer from an overabundance of plot and characters. True, the story and twists in plot are a bit hard to follow at times, but this was also the case in the last two movies in this trilogy, so why should this one be any different? This is a movie which invites you to sit back and relax and to have some fun, and for me it delivered.

The gang is back with the exception of Julia Roberts who was in the previous two movies, and Catherine Zeta-Jones who appeared in the last one. It’s just as well because there really is not much they could do here. They would have been wasted in bit parts which would not have required much from their presence. As George Clooney and Brad Pitt point out at the beginning in regards to the characters Roberts and Jones played, “IT’S NOT THEIR FIGHT!”

This one starts off with their friend Reuben Tishkoff (Elliot Gould) in the hospital where he is recovering from a nasty heart attack. This was brought on when he got screwed out of a partnership by the devious Willie Bank (Al Pacino) who is legendary in Las Vegas for stabbing everyone who ever worked for them in the back without any remorse. None of Ocean’s gang is happy about this, and they quickly begin to plot their revenge against him. Their plan is to essentially bankrupt Willie on the opening night of his new casino, and whether or not they win is irrelevant as long as he loses big time.

Clooney and Pitt are as cool as ever in returning to Las Vegas, the scene of their insidiously clever crime from the first movie. They never miss a beat as their confidence remains unbreakable while they attempt to screw over Pacino’s character. Matt Damon is great as always as Linus, the guy who always wants to put more into the plan, and he remains convinced of how he can pull it off if those around him would just give him a chance. However, I could easily spot who his character’s father was from a mile away. Don Cheadle has some great scene stealing moments as Basher Tarr, especially when he tries to divert Pacino’s attention in one key scene.

Pacino has been ridiculed for some time now as he is constantly accused of giving the same bombastic performance over and over again. Ever since his Oscar winning turn in “Scent of a Woman,” people keep saying he overplays every role given to him, and while there is a lot of evidence to this fact, I don’t think it’s always the case (“Donnie Brasco” anybody?). He succeeds in underplaying his role here, and his usual bombast is not on display as much. He has a quiet menace in some scenes which really works, and Clooney plays off of it very effectively to where they both generate some good chuckles along the way.

It’s also great to see Ellen Barkin again and reuniting with her “Sea of Love” co-star Pacino as his chief assistant, Abigail Sponder. She still looks very hot, and it’s nice to see her acting again instead of hearing about all those divorce stories between her and her millionaire ex-husband. She is a lot of fun to watch here, and there is a great moment where she ends up getting seduced by Matt Damon’s character, and the way she plays her inevitable seduction is both hilarious and quite believable.

Carl Reiner and Elliott Gould return as well to the Ocean’s franchise, and their presence is very welcome. Hollywood is as always obsessed with youth, so it’s nice to see two older guys still being allowed to make their mark in a big Hollywood movie like this. And I don’t want to leave out Shaobo Qin who plays Yen. Qin gets more to do here than he has in the other Ocean’s movies, and his acrobatic skills come into focus when he has to make his way across a very unpredictable elevator system.

Andy Garcia is also back as Terry Benedict, and the Ocean crew is forced to partner with him in order to complete their revenge against Pacino’s character. How Garcia’s character gets done in is too good to spoil here, and it results in one of this sequel’s most inspired moments.

Steven Soderbergh, or Peter Andrews if you really want to call him that, keeps the coolness factor up and running, and he provides us with what this movie is supposed to give, a good time at the movies. With a movie like this, you can’t ask for much more. This must serve as a vacation for Soderbergh from all his more serious movies like “Traffic” and “The Good German,” and it is always great to see him jumping from one genre to another.

Whereas a lot of sequels have underwhelmed mostly because of constant overhyping, this one is smart enough not to fall victim to that. I was always surprised when I heard they were going to do a sequel to “Ocean’s Eleven,” and then another sequel after “Ocean’s Twelve.” Each one delivered for me, and this one does as well.

* * * out of * * * *

 

‘Gravity’ is the Ultimate Outer Space Movie

Gravity movie poster

I remember being fascinated and terrified by outer space movies when I was a young boy. Seriously, I kept getting vertigo when I saw all those stars shining brightly to where I was afraid I would fall into space and be lost forever. Of course, back then I still had a lot to learn about gravity. It’s been a long time since an outer space movie gave me this kind of sensation. The last one was Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13” which, when it came out in 1995, was perhaps the most realistic motion picture about life in space and of how dangerous it can be. But now that same sensation has come back in an exhilarating rush with Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity,” which may very well be the greatest movie about life in outer space I have ever seen.

“Gravity” is an amazing movie, just amazing. It left me speechless with its amazing visual effects and the tour de force performances from George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, and it made me feel like I was right up there in outer space with them both. The movie opens with the following:

At 372 miles above the Earth

There is nothing to carry sound

No air pressure

No oxygen

Life in space is impossible

For 90 minutes, Cuarón never lets you forget this as we watch astronauts Matt Kowalski (Clooney) and Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock) struggle to survive after their space shuttle is destroyed by debris from a satellite. From there, they are floating in space with little oxygen and very few options. It may sound like a thin plot for a movie, but it’s more than enough to make “Gravity” one of the most nail biting films to sit through in some time.

I almost don’t want to know how the special effects were accomplished for fear the film’s magic will forever be ruined for me. “Gravity” reminds you of how great going to the movies can be as it sucks you right in to a world many of us have never seen up close. Cuarón shows the inherent dangers of space as well as the sheer beauty of it, and there’s no beating the view of planet Earth hundreds of miles above its surface.

Cuarón, just as he did with “Children of Men,” gives us truly brilliant scenes which look like they were all done in one shot. I’m still trying to wrap my head around how he managed to keep the camera rolling for such a long period of time. “Gravity” starts in space and pretty much ends there, and it’s the lack of gravity which makes the film seem like a new kind of roller coaster ride. I bet a number of audience members will get motion sickness while watching this movie as they’ll be struggling to find their center of balance just like Bullock does when she becomes untethered from the space shuttle. I remember all those trailers for horror movies like “Dawn of the Dead” which said the theater had barf bags available for those who needed them. Well, “Gravity” is proof movies don’t have to inhabit the horror genre for you to need a barf bag. Anyway, that’s more information than you need to know.

But as technically brilliant as “Gravity” is, it never forgets the human element which other filmmakers don’t pay as much attention to. We come to care deeply about the characters Clooney and Bullock play because they are not just a couple of stereotypical astronauts spouting clichéd dialogue. They are flesh and blood human beings with needs and desires, and they need each other to survive. Seeing them tumble through space will make you appreciate the brakes you have on your car.

Clooney rarely, if ever, lets us down as an actor, and he is perfectly cast as the veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski. He immediately gives the sense Matt has been to outer space countless times without having to point it out. From start to finish, Clooney is the calm center in the middle of the storm, and he gives the movie the positive energy it needs. Even as things get worse, he gives Dr. Stone a reason to keep on going.

But when all is said and done, “Gravity” really belongs to Bullock. She may still wonder if she deserved her Oscar for “The Blind Side,” but after watching her here, it’s clear she did, and she may be getting another one. Bullock gives the performance of her life as she reveals her character’s inner struggles which illustrate how there’s more going on with her than just trying to stay alive. The more we learn about Dr. Stone, the more we see this is not so much a movie about a woman lost in space as it is a woman trying to escape the darkness which has engulfed her soul.

Bullock can just draw you into a scene with her eyes which easily reveals much of her character’s inner torment as her oxygen continues to run out. I’ve always admired her as an actress, and her roles in “Demolition Man” and “Speed” showed her to be an unforgettable talent. In recent years, we have seen her do an endless number of romantic comedies, so it feels rare to see her in a dramatic film. But Bullock is so enthralling to watch here, and there is not a single false note to be found in her performance.

I don’t think it’s too much to say Cuarón is a magician when it comes to making a movie. He gave us an enchanting childlike vision of the world with “A Little Princess,” a marvelous coming of age story with “Y Tu Mamá También,” the first truly great Harry Potter movie with “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” and one of the more unique dystopian science fiction movies of recent years with “Children of Men.” From one film to the next, he has given us astonishing visions which have us in awe over what he can accomplish. Cuarón leaves you with a strong sense of wonder with “Gravity,” and it’s a quality seriously lacking in most movies these days.

Cuarón is also aided tremendously by a strong creative team which includes his son Jonás who co-wrote the screenplay with him, Steven Price who composed the movie’s hypnotic score, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki who makes space look as beautiful and inhospitable in equal measure, and David Heyman who makes this his first film as a producer outside of the “Harry Potter” franchise. All have come together to create something which redeems our collective hope in the possibility of cinema.

“Gravity” demands to be seen in a movie theater and, yes, I’m going to say it, in 3D. Few film going experiences have been as enthralling as this one, and it is not to be missed. Thank you Cuarón for this film and reaffirming what can be accomplished in Hollywood today. But more importantly, thanks for creating a movie which gave me the sensation of being in outer space I used to have as a child.

* * * * out of * * * *

 

‘Full Tilt Boogie,’ the ‘From Dusk Till Dawn’ Documentary, Screens at New Beverly Cinema

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After a double feature of William Friedkin’s “To Live and Die in L.A.” and “Rampage,” which is not currently available on DVD, the audience members at New Beverly Cinema were in for a special midnight treat as the theater held a screening for the 20-year-old documentary “Full Tilt Boogie.” Directed by Sarah Kelly, it chronicles the making of Robert Rodriguez’s action horror cult classic “From Dusk till Dawn” which starred George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino as outlaw brothers who, along with a vacationing family, end up at a rowdy Mexican bar which turns out to be infested with vampires. The documentary introduces us to those people who worked behind the scenes on the movie, of why they want to be a part of show business, the fun they have when the cameras are not rolling, and of the complicated relationship between movie studios and unions.

Introducing this screening of “Full Tilt Boogie” was Kelly, and she was joined by her producer and friend Rana Joy Glickman. The emcee who welcomed them remarked about how cool it was this documentary was playing at the New Beverly and that it was sharing a marquee with Friedkin’s “Cruising.” To this, the emcee said about Kelly, “Whoa! She scored good!”

Kelly welcomed all the “insomniacs” who came out to see her documentary and explained how it became a reality.

“The reason this movie came about was that Robert Rodriguez and Quentin were about to start shooting ‘From Dusk till Dawn,’ and it was an $18-million-dollar independent movie and the unions were pissed,” Kelly said. “They were like, ‘What do you mean? No, you have to go union.’ And so, there was a big threat of a strike, and Quentin thought it would be cool to document it.”

“I had worked for him on a little movie called ‘Pulp Fiction’ and a couple of other movies he was involved with,” Kelly continued, “and he knew that I was studying to be a director so he gave me a shot. At the time, I was taking a break from production and I was working part-time in a law firm and I was like, ‘So is this for real? Should I quit my job?’ And he said, ‘Uh, quit your job yesterday.’ So, I did. We wrangled our little, tiny, hardcore crew and we started shooting, by the way, on 16mm film. Nobody shoots documentaries on 16mm film anymore, but we did. The union threat kind of turned into a cold war and I asked Quentin if we could keep shooting and just do a love letter to the crew. I pitched it as kind of like ‘Hearts of Darkness’ (Eleanor Coppola’s documentary on ‘Apocalypse Now’), but not that dark. Quentin said, ‘Yeah, that’s really fucking cool!’”

As for Glickman, she claimed to have hundreds of stories to tell about the documentary and “From Dusk till Dawn,” but she chose to tell only this one.

“When we finished ‘Full Tilt Boogie’ we were just so pleased that we finished and we got to make the posters for the film, not the one that Harvey Weinstein had selected,” Glickman said. “Our favorite poster is Sarah’s design, and it was Ken (Bondy), the craft service guy on ‘From Dusk till Dawn,’ standing there with a tray of lattes and it said, ‘From the maker of coffee on Pulp Fiction, we bring you Full Tilt Boogie.’”

Kelly responded, “That’s a great poster, right?”

“Full Tilt Boogie” may not be the masterpiece “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse” is, but it’s still a very entertaining documentary which takes you behind the scenes of a movie’s production in a way few others do. We get to see the challenges crew members constantly face on a movie set, and we also get to take in the fun they have outside of it as well. For these people, this is a job done out of love and far more preferable than working a 9 to 5 job which has them sitting at a desk all day. Kelly certainly did create a love letter to these crew members, and we revel in the festivities they have from one day to the next.

Thanks to Sarah Kelly and Rana Joy Glickman for taking the time to come out, and at such a late hour, to talk about “Full Tilt Boogie” at New Beverly Cinema.

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The Ides of March

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This movie’s title refers to the day Julius Caesar was assassinated by a group of senators who feared his role as a dictator would forever destroy their constitutional government. Some of these senators were close friends of his which make their actions all the more shocking. In the political arena, then and now, you would think those running for office would have their friends and loyal advisors to instill their trust in. But as history shows, the quest for power can tear friendships apart and corrupt the seemingly incorruptible. In William Shakespeare’s play of “Julius Caesar,” a soothsayer warns him before he is stabbed to death:

“Beware the Ides of March.”

George Clooney’s film is based on the play “Farragut North” by Beau Willimon, and it looks at how dangerous a political campaign can be for all those involved. They may not get stabbed in the back literally, but there is a lot of backstabbing to go around figuratively speaking. It all makes for an intense political thriller which never lets up.

Ryan Gosling stars as Stephen Meyers, a Junior Campaign Manager for Governor Mike Norris (Clooney) who is seeking the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. As the movie opens, Norris is campaigning in Ohio where a win there will all but guarantee him the nomination. Meyers is a strong believer in Norris and what he stands for, but his belief in him and the world of politics is in for a rude awakening. After a secret meeting with rival campaign manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), trust becomes a precious commodity in very short supply. Meyers also stumbles on an even bigger situation which could destroy the campaign to where it can never recover.

This is Clooney’s fourth movie as a director, and the abilities he shows behind the camera are never in doubt. “The Ides of March” doesn’t necessarily break any new ground in the political movie genre, but Clooney does great work in generating tension throughout as characters suddenly find themselves on a precipice which threatens to fall out beneath them with little warning. He also gets great performances from the entire cast as they face off against each other as if they are playing a game of chess. Everyone is holding their cards close to their chest, and only the eyes can give them away in showing where they are most vulnerable.

Gosling had a heck of a year in 2011 with this, “Crazy Stupid Love,” and “Drive.” As with the latter, he brings a smoldering intensity to his performance as he takes Meyers from a political idealist to one who sells out his values when things get rough. With one look, he can let us inside his thoughts without saying a single word.

Two of my favorite performances in “The Ides of March” come from two of the best character actors ever: Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti. Playing campaign managers for their individual candidates, they brilliantly bring out the moral complexities of each person as their agendas become clear as the story continues to unfold. Both of them also make what could have been seen as convoluted actions or maneuvers completely believable as they try to get the upper hand in a fragile political environment. They essentially represent the cynical side of politics where idealism vanished a long time ago and the path Meyers may be forced to go down if he wants to continue working in this realm.

The fabulous Evan Rachel Wood is great as always as Molly Stearns, a campaign intern whose confidence collapses when her secret is realized. Seeing her go from a sexy seducer to the campaign’s most vulnerable employee is handled by her like a pro, and she makes us see Molly as a person while others view as a crippling concern which needed to be quickly and quietly removed. The cruelty of politics comes to hit her character the hardest.

And then there’s the equally fabulous Marisa Tomei who portrays New York Times reporter Ida Horowicz. She enjoys a friendly banter with Gosling from the start which draws us in on a more personal level. It’s there where Tomei traps not just Gosling, but the audience as well. She provides us with a friendly face, but she is later revealed to be a manipulative journalist who wields more power than you might expect a journalist to have. I have yet to see Tomei give a bad performance in anything she does.

What I really like about the screenplay of “The Ides of March” is it’s not about good guys and bad guys. It’s all about shades of gray and how the hope in politics can be easily and quickly worn down to a cinder of what it once was. Some of the actions in the movie almost feel like something out of the “Saw” movies as they almost seem illogical and impossible to put together, but it makes sense in regards to the political realm it takes place in. This would make a great double feature with Mike Nichols’ “Primary Colors” as both movies deal with the moral compromises made in getting your candidate elected. But while “Primary Colors” sees a light at the end of the tunnel, “The Ides of March” doesn’t let the viewer off as easy.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

Money Monster

Money Monster poster 1

2016 has been a good year for pulse-pounding thrillers, and “Money Monster” is the latest example. While not as intense as “10 Cloverfield Lane” or as viciously gruesome as “Green Room,” it certainly gets the adrenaline running thanks to taut direction and terrific acting from a star studded cast. While the handling of the material is at times scattershot and you come out feeling like it could have been better, what ended up on screen makes for solid entertainment.

“Money Monster” opens up on the set of a cable show with the same name which is hosted by wall street financial guru Lee Gates (George Clooney), a man whose ego is bigger than his knowledge of stocks. During what seems like a normal day of filming an episode filled with tips for investors as well as dancing and graphics to keep viewers entertained, Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell) somehow makes it onto the set, fires a gun in the air and takes Lee hostage. It turns out Kyle invested in a company Lee was especially enthusiastic about, but he ended up losing his entire savings in the process. After making Lee put on a vest filled with plastic explosives which could level a skyscraper, Kyle becomes intent on making him apologize not just to him but millions of investors who lost all their money thanks to the “advice” they received on his show.

Watching this movie reminded me of others which dealt with morally duplicitous human beings who, whether they intended to or not, ran into monsters they created out of their own greed and lack of understanding. Costa-Gavras’ “Mad City” quickly come to mind, but “Money Monster” stands above it because the filmmakers don’t deal with the subject manner in such an obvious way. There’s more going on here than what we see on the surface, and this makes what seems like an average movie one of the more intelligent ones I have seen in a while.

Clooney is perfectly cast as a man whose over confidence has long since gotten the best of him, and he shows a lot of vulnerability as his character of Lee Gates is exposed for all his falsehoods. We watch as his regularly scheduled program is interrupted in one of the worst ways possible, and it forces him to think fast on his feet in order to stay alive. Clooney excels in this kind of role as he is not afraid to show the deep cracks in this man’s façade, and this is even after he is revealed to be a three-time divorcee, the kind we see a lot of in movies.

As Kyle, Jack O’Connell brings the same fierce intensity to this role as he did in “Eden Lake,” “Starred Up” and “Harry Brown” among others. It’s almost exhausting to watch him here as his he starts at such a high pitch of energy to where he can’t allow himself to go slack for very long. This is definitely an actor to keep an eye on.

After suffering through the hideous debacle of “Mother’s Day,” Julia Roberts rebounds here as Lee’s long-suffering director, Patty Fenn. Now Patty may not be the star of the show, but she’s the one who makes it a reality on a daily basis. Roberts doesn’t need to do much to show how much of a veteran Patty is at her job as it involves dealing with dozens of people in a high pressure environment, and she truly shows grace under pressure when Kyle turns everyone’s world upside down. Patty quickly becomes the voice that keeps Lee sane as she continues directing the show which threatens to be more unpredictable than it already it is. Roberts is riveting to watch throughout as she does her best to keep her cool while everyone else loses their own much too easily.

In fact, what’s notable about “Money Monster” is how the female characters are much stronger than their male counterparts. This is the case not just with Patty, but also with Diane Lester (the excellent Caitriona Balfe), a high ranking executive who shows little hesitation in digging through her boss’ dealings in order to get to the truth. Just watch as one of her male bosses attempts to fire her; she doesn’t even break a sweat. Or how about Kyle’s pregnant girlfriend Molly (scene stealer Emily Meade) who has a show-stopping scene where she brutally berates Kyle without any hesitation.

Many of the male characters on the other hand are quick to crumble as their egos cannot handle defeat easily. Some might look at this as a bit sexist, or maybe the movie and its screenplay just exposes the reality that women are stronger because they have more to overcome both in society and in the workplace.

“Money Monster” marks Jodie Foster’s fourth film as a director, and she does a very good job of keeping the tension ratcheted up high throughout. Along with screenwriters Alan Di Fiore, Jamie Linden and “Stakeout’s” Jim Kouf, she takes what looks like a predictable story and messes around with the elements to where second guessing what’s about to happen becomes pointless. At the same time, she does have some trouble balancing out both the dramatic and comedic aspects here, and the more comedic the movie becomes, the more it loses its dramatic power. It’s a strong movie for sure, but you do come out of it thinking it could have been even better.

Still, “Money Monster” is an entertaining thriller that benefits from strong direction and terrific performances from its talented cast. It’s no “Network,” but it does have a lot to say about how money rules our lives and has us making rash decisions for the purpose of staying one step ahead of losing everything. While its ending is a bit too pat, it’s not just another mindless thriller. And in the end, it’s always nice to see wall street take a beating in any movie.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

* * * ½ out of * * * *