1998

Blade (1998, Stephen Norrington)

Back when the movie came out—on DVD, anyway—I tried watching Blade 1 a couple times. The first time I turned it off before I was twenty minutes in, which used to be a soft rule (give the movie twenty minutes, depending on runtime); I think I gave it until Stephen Dorff showed up, then had to stop. Stopping when you see Stephen Dorff is always a reasonable action. The second time I with a friend (because a Blade buddy might help me get through it?); we put it on, I promptly passed out. The funny thing about the latter attempt was I passed out before I had stopped it, though I think I woke up for some of the end… but maybe not. I didn’t know Blade had a bad Raiders of the Lost Ark rip for an ending.

The first failed attempt was during the controversial—amongst my film enthusiast friends—“you don’t stop a movie if you start it” period of nineties film snobbery. That period overlaps, possibly entirely, with the “sit through the end credits to show respect for the crew” period of nineties film snobbery. These periods weren’t me solo, in fact I picked up at least the latter from my film snob peers. The former seemed like common sense, but is, of course, the anthesis of common sense. The second failed Blade attempt—I mean, I was also blasted—was during in a different period; “why bother watching if you’re not learning anything from it.” That period didn’t just cover film, it was for all media ingestion. Why read a novel if it’s not going to teach you (specifically) anything applicable for your writing craft. That third period went the longest, well into when I started blogging about film here on “The Stop Button.” While I see that third period as an organic result of the first two, along with some seasoning from academe, my film snob pals never went for it. Somehow it was too far a leap.

And I’ve also given it the boot, slowly over time, as I discovered how I wanted to write about movies.

In some cases, it’s spending three hundred words talking about not watching the movie. And Blade is the perfect subject matter for that approach. Because Blade is not a good movie. I toyed with the idea, after all these years, of how crazy it would be to give Blade a star. But anything good about it is incidental. Director Norrington just couldn’t manage to make it terrible because he was distracted screwing something else up. The film also has a stunningly bad script from David S. Goyer. Between the godawful exposition (Kris Kristofferson gets a lot of it and can’t do any of it) and the quizzical plotting—when the Raiders of the Lost Ark thing takes over in the second half, along with the big second act surprise, Blade feels like a very different film. Sort of. It’s still ugly in all the ill-advised ways Norrington employs, like the harsh, high often contrast lighting (courtesy Theo van de Sande, who either’s responsible or not but I wouldn’t want to track his career either way) or the crappy CG. Blade is ostensibly super-gritty but only when it’s Wesley Snipes. The nineties emo vampire stuff is never super-gritty. Norrington’s understanding of super-gritty is occasional shaky cam and inept head room and letting editor Paul Rubell chop whole seconds of action out to make it seem speedy. Every once in a while, there will be a sequence—like Snipes with his samurai sword taking out an endless stream of vampires dressed like they’re Joker thugs from Batman ’89—and you can see exactly how Norrington could’ve done it well. Because pretty soon it would be done well. Blade anticipates the visual tone of future films but none of the future style or technical ingenuity. Because Norrington sucks.

Someone also got the idea to have Mark Isham score it like John Williams, which doesn’t make sense until the end when it’s Raiders; for a while the movie pretends it’s Terminator 2—Snipes and partner Kristofferson hanging out with on-the-run-from-the-vampires hematologist N'Bushe Wright in their clubhouse; those scenes are really weird with the Isham score. Goyer’s script isn’t derivative and is bad. Norrington’s direction isn’t ever not derivative and is bad. It’s incredibly interesting how the two collide.

Stuck in the middle are Snipes and Wright. Blade can’t help but give Wright a great role and Goyer and Norrington can’t help but try to destroy it. Norrington’s got some… toxic masculinity issues. Or maybe just rape culture ones. It’s a couple things, with Wright being on the receiving end later (courtesy “no way” ex-boyfriend Tim Guinee), but the first one is Norrington’s onscreen director title card. It’s a gross “really, dude?”

Wright comes out very sympathetic, but she’s a lot better at the urban vampire action than the pseudo-Raiders thing. Some of the problem with the Raiders thing is Norrington’s bad visual storytelling, some of it is Goyer not giving Wright enough to do; if any of it’s Wright’s fault, you basically can’t tell. Goyer and Norrington give their separate badnesses 110%. You can barely make-out the acting through it.

Well, except with Dorff, who’s hilariously bad, Donal Logue, who’s hilariously bad, Udo Kier, who’s hilariously bad but also very obviously just playing a caricature and not trying… every once in a while, you get the feeling Blade could’ve been a lot better if it just let itself camp out on the shitty vampires. Wesley Snipes killing a bunch of silly, shitty white vampires would be a fun movie. Especially if Norrington had long enough shots of Snipes kicking ass. Snipes gives his physical performance his all in Blade and Norrington picks up about twenty percent of it. Other times the camera will be focused on a pillar instead of Snipes doing a jump kick or whatnot. Norrington is a stunningly bad action director, even for bad action directors.

Other bad performances include Arly Jover, who at one point seems like she’s going to give a good performance but then doesn’t. Sanaa Latham is actually good, which takes a few moments to comprehend–unqualified good acting in Blade.

For Snipes, it’s a good lead role. Ish. There’s not a lot of heavy lifting, his occasional personable action hero insert shots are weird, but he gets through it. He and Wright have less chemistry than… I don’t know, Kristofferson and Wright or something. It’s unfortunate and another way the filmmakers fail Wright.

I’m a little curious how the Isham score stands on its own—at one point he’s got to add all the tension to an action sequence because Norrington can’t figure it out–but otherwise, Blade doesn’t have much one could learn from it. Outside the contextual trivia.

It’s nowhere near as bad (or good) as it could be, which is the biggest disappointment of all.

It’s eh.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Stephen Norrington; screenplay by David S. Goyer, based on the Marvel Comics character created by Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan; director of photography, Theo van de Sande; edited by Paul Rubell; music by Mark Isham; production designer, Kirk M. Petruccelli; produced by Robert Engelman, Peter Frankfurt, and Wesley Snipes; released by New Line Cinema.

Starring Wesley Snipes (Blade), Stephen Dorff (Deacon Frost), Kris Kristofferson (Whistler), N’Bushe Wright (Karen), Donal Logue (Quinn), Arly Jover (Mercury), Tim Guinee (Curtis), Sanaa Lathan (Vanessa), and Udo Kier (Dragonetti).


The Mighty Kong (1998, Art Scott)

The Mighty Kong is fairly awful. It’d be nice to say there’s some kind of charm to it, given it’s an animated, family-targeted, period King Kong adaptation, it’s got Dudley Moore’s final performance, and Jodi Benson’s a lot more professional than the production deserves. But it doesn’t have any consistent charm. Not even Benson, who’s the only potential anywhere in the picture; for a while it seems like Benson’s going to be the protagonist.

Okay, let me set it up a little. Moore is the Robert Armstrong character, the movie director. In Mighty Kong he has a nerdy sidekick who’s his cameraman and assistant only the nerdy sidekick (voiced by William Sage). Moore and Sage make musicals of wild animals appearing silly, which is rather imaginative for William J. Keenan’s script. At some point Mighty Kong gives up on having a script—to the point you can forget the movie has a fairly standard first act introducing the characters and situation. Sure, it’s peculiar because Moore’s never it enough to be the lead, even though he’s the lead of that part of the story no question, and the scale of the production is always lacking. Mighty Kong really doesn’t have the animation budget it needs and what the animators end up doing… I mean, it’s bad. There are times when director Scott seems to have a good idea and the animators butcher it.

Except in the finale, which I’ll get to in a bit.

First, back to the characters. So Benson is Fay Wray and Randy Hamilton is Bruce Cabot. Hamilton’s only character trait is he hates women being on ships and is generally a dick. He falls for Benson after the natives on Skull Island threaten her. We know he falls for her because their next scene together is a heavily stylized, including 1998 CGI stars, musical duet where you don’t believe Hamilton or Benson ever met much less sing the duet in the same studio at the same time. Heck, their animated characters don’t even appear on screen together for the duet. It’s godawful and in no way amusing.

Immediately after that duet, it’s time for the giant ape to get introduced—they call him a “Monkey God” in Mighty Kong, never ape. Maybe apes are too big a concept for the target audience, but there isn’t a target audience because it’s such a weird movie. But anyway.

The Kong grabbing Benson and fighting dinosaur after dinosaur section is brief and at least not good in a different way than the first forty-five or so minutes have been not good. Once they get to New York, there’s the absurd Kong breakout sequence where Hamilton and Benson just walk away and ignore the destruction behind them. Even when they should be running. They just walk. Because bad animation.

Though Hamilton looks just like John Cassavetes most of the time, which would be cool if Hamilton were any good. He’s not, though it’s also a terribly written part. Moore gets bad one-liners. The script at least tries for him. Benson does get the “concern for Monkey God” subplot, but very little dialogue in the third act.

The only good part of the movie is when Kong gets into comic hijinks destroying New York. Even when he apparently kills two teens necking in a car. The animation is hilariously executed. Even if Kong’s rarely the same size.

The Mighty Kong is (mostly) harmlessly bad; it’s clearly being done way too cheap. It’s got bad music, bad songs, bad performances of bad lines, bad animation—occasionally excellent editing from Tony Hayman—and it’s not even worth it as a curiosity, which is a shame. An animated musical kids version of King Kong ought to at least be a curiosity.

Though it could qualify as an icky curiosity for the occasional objectification of Benson’s cartoon character in a kids’ movie but… a good curiosity would be nice.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Art Scott; screenplay by William J. Keenan, based on the story by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace; edited by Tony Hayman; production designers, Brendan deVallance and Lyn Henderson; produced by Denis deVallance and Henderson; released by Warner Bros. Home Entertainment.

Starring Dudley Moore (Denham), Jodi Benson (Ann), Randy Hamilton (Driscoll), William Sage (Roscoe), Jason Gray-Stanford (Ricky), and Richard Newman (Captain).


Ever After (1998, Andy Tennant)

Ever After imagines the Cinderella story as a vaguely historically accurate period drama. It’s desperate to present itself as “realistic,” including bookends with special guest star Jeanne Moreau adding some actual French to the film, which is set in France and acted by Americans or Britons of various origin. Moreau’s got a scene and a couple voiceovers; she’s telling the Brothers Grimm they got the Cinderella story wrong and she’s going to tell them the whole truth. No singing birds, just Leonardo da Vinci saving the day.

Until the ball, which is its own thing, Ever After is lead Drew Barrymore suffering or falling in love with Prince of France Dougray Scott. She’s a progressive, he’s a royalist. She challenges him though; he’s never met a noble like her. Little does he know she’s not nobility—it’s unclear why not, given her widower father (Jeroen Krabbé) married a widowed Baroness, Angelica Huston. Of course, Krabbé drops dead—in the flashback—the day after he brings Huston and her two daughters back home with him, leaving his wife without a husband and Barrymore (or the kid who plays young Barrymore) without a father. Huston predictably becomes an evil step-monster immediately and puts Barrymore to work around the house while Huston and daughters Megan Dodds and Melanie Lynskey live it up. Relatively speaking. When the film gets to the main action, Huston’s run up a bunch of debt and is selling off servants and furniture to maintain her lifestyle. All she’s got to do is marry Dodds off—Lynskey’s ostensibly too heavy to deserve a man’s attentions (Lynskey being too “heavy” is only slightly less realistic than the da Vinci stuff)—and it will have been worth it.

Little does she realize Barrymore is sneaking off to seduce Scott with her mind and whatnot.

Huston’s great, Dodds’s great, Lynskey’s great. They’re in this black comedy, set aside from the rest of Ever After, which is de facto about Barrymore showing more agency than any of the other women in… well, existence at the time, and Scott learning maybe he needs to be less of a thoughtless snob. It’s not until the dance, when the film heads into the third act—the plotting is fine, it’s the actual scenes where the problems arise—and, of course, the film avoiding the hell out of Barrymore just when it should be focusing on her.

But that dance. It reveals how little Ever After has done to actually establish Barrymore as protagonist; she’s just the victim and straight man in Huston’s story. Sporting a da Vinci—designed dress (you’d think he’d do better, he thinks some angel wings and glitter makeup are enough), Barrymore shows up at the Ball, apparently has a moment of apprehension, which makes no sense for the character in general or specifically in the scene, and then everything goes to crap so there can be a third act redemption arc for characters needing one. Along with some reveals; one of them raises more questions than it answers. Ever After doesn’t have a good script. Susannah Grant, director Tennant, and Rick Parks turn in an entirely mediocre screenplay, even if you forgive all the “real” nonsense.

Tennant, as a director, does lots of sweeping crane shots, playing up the location shooting, and trying to make it into a grounded fairy tale romance. An intellectualized one, where Barrymore’s peasant pretending to be royalty is able to show Scott how stupid he’s been about his life. Unfortunately it has the result of making Scott the protagonist in the third act, which is a bit of a slight to Barrymore, given it’s supposed to be her story. Her “real” story, which is fake. Either Ever After started with the gimmick of a realistic Cinderella adaptation or it added it later. A better director might do some magical realism, but Ever After doesn’t have much in the way of ambition. Not given how little it actually gives Barrymore to do. It gives her a lot of action, but not a lot of acting.

She’s fine, though. Better at some points than others. Same goes for Scott, who’s never quite charming enough to be a Prince Charming, but he’s likable. Neither of them can compare to the supporting cast; Huston’s amazing, Judy Parfitt’s really good as Scott’s queen mother, Richard O’Brien has a great bit part as a rich lech after Barrymore.

Nice enough score from George Fenton. He plays up the fairy tale romance, which matches all of Tennant’s big shots. Shame Tennant’s big shots are almost always poorly conceived so Fenton’s music is always going on about fifteen seconds too long.

After some genuine drama in the third act, the wrap-up is way too pat. But Ever After is still a lot more successful than you’d think from the tacky prologues.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Andy Tennant; screenplay by Susannah Grant, Tennant, and Rick Parks, based on a story by Charles Perraul; director of photography, Andrew Dunn; edited by Roger Bondelli; music by George Fenton; production designer, Michael Howells; produced by Mireille Soria and Tracey Trench; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Drew Barrymore (Danielle), Dougray Scott (Prince Henry), Anjelica Huston (Rodmilla), Megan Dodds (Marguerite), Melanie Lynskey (Jacqueline), Patrick Godfrey (Leonardo), Judy Parfitt (Queen Marie), Timothy West (King Francis), Jeroen Krabbé (Auguste), Lee Ingleby (Gustave), Kate Lansbury (Paulette), Matyelok Gibbs (Louise), Walter Sparrow (Maurice), Jeanne Moreau (Grande Dame), Anna Maguire (Young Danielle), and Richard O’Brien (Pierre Le Pieu).


Why Do Fools Fall in Love (1998, Gregory Nava)

The most impressive thing about Why Do Fools Fall in Love isn’t how well Tina Andrews’s script does with exposition. Not just exposition as it plays out, but how Andrews foreshadows later revelation. The film is and isn’t a biopic of singer Frankie Lymon, focusing instead on his three widows–and is and isn’t a biopic of said widows–and the timeline is confused, but the audience needs to know how to make sense of that timeline before events occur. So Andrews’s initial exposition sets up the film for later development.

And it’s really impressive, but it’s still not the most impressive thing about the film, which is Vivica A. Fox’s performance as one of the widows. Also Larenz Tate is great as Frankie Lymon, but he’s something of an enigma. None of the wives knew they were married to a trigamist while they were married–or even while Lymon was alive (the film takes place about fifteen years after his death… with lots of flashbacks).

But while Fox is wife number one, she didn’t come into the picture until after Tate romanced fellow singer Halle Berry. So Fools introduces Tate as Lymon in the fifties, hops ahead to introduce Fox in the eighties (then Berry and Lela Rochon as the other widows), then jumps back to the fifties so Tate can meet Berry, then forward to the early sixties so he can meet Fox, then forward a bit for him to finally “settle down” with Berry, then forward again for him to woo Rochon. Rochon is a prim and proper Southern school teacher, Berry is the glamorous singer, Fox is an ex-con and habitual criminal whose troubles got worst thanks to Tate.

The film deals with Tate’s success first. Everything with the widows–except the prologue with Berry in the fifties–is after he’s fallen and gotten addicted to heroin. Andrews and director Nava lay the whole narrative out beautifully. They’ve got some dramatic hiccups in the finale, partially because it’s all tied to the court proceedings (with a solid Pamela Reed as the somewhat bemused judge), partially because Tate’s a bastard. Sorry, Lymon’s a bastard. Though Tate’s really good at playing him.

But there aren’t any answers as to his real emotions. The film has at least one big mystery (though, really, it also raises the possibility of more widows–there are a few years unaccounted) because it’s not Tate’s film, it’s the widows’ film. And when it’s Fox’s film, it’s exceptional. It’s really good when it’s Berry’s film and Rochon’s film, but not like when it’s Fox’s. Fox transfixes with her performance. Berry is glamorous and sympathetic, Rochon is sweet and sympathetic, but they’re not transfixing. In fact, they’re both better in their present day old age makeup scenes than in the flashbacks. Because they’re there to support Tate, who’s fantastic, but he’s not so fantastic he can overshadow Fox.

And not just because Fox is taller than him.

Fox’s flashbacks are about her regular person’s encounter with the famous. Berry’s are about the famous. Rochon’s are about the ex-famous. It’s all very different. Fox just has the best part.

All the supporting acting is good, except Paul Mazursky. He gets a pass for most of it, because he’s not essential. When he’s essential, however, he totally flops it. It’s too bad; another of the third act problems.

Most of the direction is fantastic. Nava can do the big scale of the rock and roll flashback and fame culture, he can do the small dramatic scale. The character moments in the film are just as effective as the musical numbers and the musical numbers are outstanding. Tate’s phenomenal in them. The lip-synching and sound editing of the performances are all wonderful.

Great photography from Edward Lachman, editing from Nancy Richardson, production design from Cary White. Nice score from Stephen James Taylor. Great soundtrack.

Fools has an outstanding script, good performances, a couple great ones, and strong direction. It paints itself into a corner with the narrative structure and takes some hits in the third act. But it mostly works out, which is no small feat given how unsympathetic Tate has to become and how sympathetic he has to remain.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Gregory Nava; written by Tina Andrews; director of photography, Edward Lachman; edited by Nancy Richardson; music by Stephen James Taylor; production designer, Cary White; produced by Paul Hall and Stephen Nemeth; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Larenz Tate (Frankie Lymon), Vivica A. Fox (Elizabeth Waters), Halle Berry (Zola Taylor), Lela Rochon (Emira Eagle), Pamela Reed (Judge Lambrey), David Barry Gray (Peter Markowitz), Clifton Powell (Lawrence Roberts), Lane Smith (Ezra Grahme), Paul Mazursky (Morris Levy), Ben Vereen (Richard Barrett), Miguel A. Núñez Jr. (Young Little Richard), and Little Richard (Little Richard).


Lick the Star (1998, Sofia Coppola)

The opening narration of Lick the Star, which isn’t from the same character as the end narration, explains the ground situation. Ostensible protagonist Christina Turley has just returned to school after her father accidentally ran over her foot. So she’s on crutches. She worries her group of friends has ostracized her for her absence. Good news, they haven’t. Bad news, Turley and her friends are the seventh grade bad girl bully clique.

Audrey Kelly plays the leader, who loves V.C. Andrews books (which almost feels like writers Stephanie Hayman and director Coppola are stereotyping), wears make-up, smokes, gets objectified most by the little boys. And, the age thing is one of the short’s biggest visual problems. Kelly and her crew look older than the middle schoolers they’re bullying. It filmed on location at a middle school, which probably no doubt accounts for some of the awful acting–though given Peter Bogdanovich is terrible in his cameo, amateur actors don’t account for all the acting problems–and the girls are bullying little kids.

Coppola and Hayman move away from Turley as protagonist and de facto give it to Kelly. The short becomes fixated on her glamour, then her cruelty, then her abuse (from the male classmates). She’s got a plan though (straight from V.C. Andrews). Poison the boys with arsenic.

The short only runs thirteen minutes and Coppola is more concerned with montage sequences set to (some good, some bad) indie rock. It’s not diegetic and doesn’t seem like anything the characters would like, so it causes a disconnect. The cast’s painful delivery of the expository dialogue or the mood-breaking montages. Pretty soon, the short becomes a toss-up of what you don’t want to sit through more.

Coppola’s composition is good. Her direction of the cast is awful. The short initially promises some kind of insight into the tween angst, then gets distracted from it (losing protagonist Turley almost entirely by the three-quarter mark), then brings her back to passively witness the finale. Coppola doesn’t even bother trying to straight-face that finish, cutting away from Turley as soon as she can.

Decent black and white photography from Lance Acord.

Lick the Star is thirteen minutes of mediocre disappointments.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Sofia Coppola; written by Stephanie Hayman and Coppola; director of photography, Lance Acord; edited by Eric Zumbrunnen; produced by Coppola, Andrew Durham, and Christopher Neil.

Starring Christina Turley (Kate), Audrey Kelly (Chloe), Julia Vanderham (Rebecca), Lindsy Drummer (Sara), Rachael Vanni (Wendy), and Peter Bogdanovich (Principal).


No Looking Back (1998, Edward Burns)

No Looking Back runs just under a hundred minutes. The first half of the film–roughly the first half–evenly relies on its cast. In fact, top-billed Lauren Holly almost has less than either Jon Bon Jovi and director Burns (acting, second-billed) in the first half. It’s a love triangle and she’s the prize. Burns is coming back to Nowhere, Long Island after running away to California years before. Ex-girlfriend Holly has moved on and in with Bon Jovi, who’s ostensibly a childhood friend of Burns’s but it’s a somewhat reluctant friendship. Burns is a jerk from scene two. He has two honest moments in the film; his first and his last. The rest of the time, he’s basically just a prick.

But he’s a different kind of prick than Bon Jovi, who’s the too perfect man. He wants to be a good dad, can’t wait for Holly to join his mom and sisters in the kitchen for football Sunday (he’s in the living room with his brothers), and so on and so forth. There’s this strange transition with sympathies, which Burns (as a writer and director) doesn’t deal with very well. He tries hard to keep the love triangle restless–the three characters never all interact in a single scene, even if all present–and it strains the film at times. But it also pays off because it means Holly gets more opportunity.

Then around the halfway market, a Bruce Springsteen song comes on the radio and No Looking Back totally changes. The first half soundtrack, with the exception of a Patti Scialfa track or two, is indistinct, bland, late nineties pseudo-alternative songs. Nothing distinct. And then, all of a sudden, Holly assumes the protagonist role decisively. Performance, script, direction. The first half of the movie has been an awkward setup to provide back story to turn the second half into a Bruce Springsteen mix tape set to film. And it’s exceptional. The film’s flow is better, the scenes more poignant–I mean, it’s a soap opera. The thing couldn’t fail the Bechdel test more if it tried. But it’s this exceptional soap opera turned character study. And what ends up saving it is when Burns, as writer and director, stops pretending there’s any depth to he and Bon Jovi’s characters. More, the characters have to stop pretending too. It’s awesome.

Plus, there’s scene payoff for most of the supporting cast. Blythe Danner (as Holly’s mom) gets almost nothing in the first half and ends up being essential in pulling off the big finale upswing. Connie Britton’s great as Holly’s sister, with the first half’s least disjointed arc. Jennifer Esposito and Nick Sandow are both good as various friends, though Sandow’s basically Norm from “Cheers” and Esposito doesn’t get enough to do.

Oh–and Joe Delia’s score is a mess in the first half. There’s this generic hard rock theme running through the score. Maybe Burns could only get the four or five Springsteen songs and had to save them, but it’s not a good theme for Holly as Burns intentionally and maliciously upends her life, albeit through accepted social conventions. Score is much better in the second half.

Great photography from Frank Prinzi. Nice, patient editing from Susan Graef.

Holly doesn’t have a great character here; Burns ignored her too much in the first half to setup the second, but she gives an excellent performance. The stuff she gets to do in the second half, it’s like a reward for having to suffer through the first half’s weaker scenes. Bon Jovi gives a strong performance and once Burns, as an actor, gets to the Springsteen section, he really comes through as well.

No Looking Back has more than its share of problems, all of them (with the exception of the music) director Burns’s fault. It’s also pretty darn great; again, all Burns’s fault.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Edward Burns; director of photography, Frank Prinzi; edited by Susan Graef; music by Joe Delia; production designer, Thérèse DePrez; produced by Ted Hope, Michael Nozik, and Burns; released by Polygram Filmed Entertainment.

Starring Lauren Holly (Claudia), Edward Burns (Charlie), Jon Bon Jovi (Michael), Connie Britton (Kelly), Blythe Danner (Claudia’s Mom), Nick Sandow (Goldie), Jennifer Esposito (Teresa), Welker White (Missy), John Ventimiglia (Tony the Pizza Guy), and Kathleen Doyle (Mrs. Ryan).


Mothra 3: King Ghidorah Attacks (1998, Yoneda Okihiro)

Mothra 3: King Ghidorah Attacks is simultaneously accessible but also one for the Mothra fans, which is a bit of a weird thing to think about. The film presupposes there are going to be dedicated Mothra fans in the audience and gears a lot of references towards them–at the moment I was appreciating the imagination behind the prehistoric larval Mothra, I realized I was definitely in that dedicated audience. While concerning, there’s so much good stuff in Mothra 3, it’s so creative.

Director Yoneda (who skipped the previous entry, but directed the first) has a bunch of differing styles and technologies going on. There’s miniatures, there’s man in suit, there’s CG, there’s CG-aided composites (which aren’t good), but then there’s CG-aided composites where background action moves into foreground and there’s just something to it. It’s a mix of special effects technologies pushed beyond what they can do. In seeing what’s too far, you do get to see where it would’ve been just right, where Mothra 3’s budget could have met Yoneda’s imagination. He’s gloriously, if unrealistically, ambitious with the film.

Suetani Masumi has a relatively solid script this outing (he scripted all three of these nineties Mothra films). There’s this troubled kid–the actor hasn’t ever gotten credit in an English language version apparently–who teams up with Mothra’s fairies to save the world. Except the fairies have a bigger story. There’s troublemaker fairy (Hano Aki, who tries really hard with no return from her costars), well-meaning fairy (Tate Misato) and perfect combination fairy (Kobayashi Megumi). Given how much they have to do in the film, it would really have helped if Tate weren’t awful and Kobayashi were a little better. With Kobayashi, the script fails her too often. But Tate’s bad. Otherwise Yoneda is good with the actors. The family stuff–basically uncredited troubled kid’s moodiness is just dragging down an otherwise happy family, though mom Matsuda Miyuki is way too young to have three kids and way too with it to be married to bumbling Fred Flintstone-esque Ohnita Atsushi.

And then there’s Mothra. Amazing set of Mothra designs in this one, as the creature itself has a fairly solid story arc. The traditional Mothra Christian imagery gets more integrated into the actual plot. There’s the very intentional rapturing imagery–Ghidorah flies over Japan, sucking up the children. And now since Mothra’s the boy giant moth, there’s a whole Mothra as Jesus thing, with Ghidorah graphically beating him and tearing away his flesh. Or wings. It’s a vicious kids movie.

Awesome Mothra song rendition. Yoneda treats it like a special aside, a wink at the audience. The special effects aren’t great–Mothra 3’s composite effects are really bad–but the enthusiasm carries it. There’s a thoroughness and sincerity to the film. Mothra 3 is a mix of story ideas, special effects ideas, acting styles (or lack thereof), yet it all works out. Yoneda brings it all together.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Yoneda Okihio; written by Suetani Masumi; director of photography, Sekiguchi Yoshinori; edited by Ogawa Nobuo; music by Watanabe Toshiyuki; produced by Tomiyama Shogo; released by Toho Company Ltd.

Starring Kobayashi Megumi (Moll), Tate Misato (Lora), Matsuda Miyuki (the mother), Ohnita Atsushi (the father) and Hano Aki (Belvera).


Star Trek: Insurrection (1998, Jonathan Frakes)

Star Trek: Insurrection has a lot of problems, but they’re peculiar ones. None of them affect the film’s overall quality. Sure, it’d be nice if the sci-fi action sequences worked out better, but they aren’t the point. Even though director Frakes clearly has some set pieces in the film, he always relies instead on his actors instead of the effects.

Given Insurrection has some terribly pedestrian CG, it’s a good move.

Characters disappear for long stretches of film–Gates McFadden gets a couple lines at the beginning, a kicker later on, and does hang out, she has nothing to do. LeVar Burton gets a tiny bit more. Michael Dorn gets to hang around Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner. Frakes does give himself an amusing romantic subplot with Marina Sirtis. But, in the end, Insurrection gives everyone enough to do. The characters are appealing, have chemistry, make the plot work well.

Michael Piller’s script is this gentle, “extended” episode of the “Next Generation” show with Spiner going renegade and Stewart and company showing up to figure out what’s going on. It all leads to Stewart going renegade too (and cavorting around with the fetching Donna Murphy). Stewart and Murphy are great together, though Stewart’s just strong throughout. He has a fun time with the film. The light tone helps the film get through some of its other problems, like Herman F. Zimmerman’s questionable production design and Matthew F. Leonetti’s too crisp photography, which never matches the digital composites.

And villain F. Murray Abraham isn’t good. He’s goofy. Gregg Henry’s good as his sidekick though.

The film moves. It never runs long, never has to hurry through anything. It’s not good because it’s likable, it’s likable because it’s good. It’s just a shame the production values are so wonky, because Insurrection would be one heck of a Star Trek picture if the visual tone were right.

Jerry Goldsmith’s score, regardless of it heavily borrowing from his previous Trek scores, is good.

Insurrection stumbles all over the place, but always ends up firmly footed.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Jonathan Frakes; screenplay by Michael Piller, based on a story by Rick Berman and Piller and “Star Trek” created by Gene Roddenberry; director of photography, Matthew F. Leonetti; edited by Peter E. Berger; music by Jerry Goldsmith; production designer, Herman F. Zimmermann; produced by Berman; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Patrick Stewart (Picard), Jonathan Frakes (Riker), Brent Spiner (Data), LeVar Burton (Geordi), Michael Dorn (Worf), Gates McFadden (Beverly), Marina Sirtis (Troi), Donna Murphy (Anij), F. Murray Abraham (Ru’afo), Gregg Henry (Gallatin), Daniel Hugh Kelly (Sojef), Michael Welch (Artim) and Anthony Zerbe (Dougherty).


The Thin Red Line (1998, Terrence Malick)

The Thin Red Line is about fear, beauty, solitude, loneliness. Director Malick’s approach is, frankly, staggering. Thin Red Line is an odd film to talk about because in most ways, it’s my favorite film. One of the great things about a good movie–not even an excellent or an amazing movie, but a good movie (and quite a few bad ones)–is being able to return to it as one matures, learns, comprehends and to appreciate it on additional levels. Returning to Thin Red Line for the first time in many years, I discovered it works in all those ways. Knowing more about film informs it, knowing more about history informs it, knowing more about narrative informs it, knowing more about owls informs it. Film is not static. Film ages with everything else. It grows, it contracts, it makes people laugh at the wrong moment. Malick acknowledges the film’s majesty. He does not give Nick Nolte a big part as a blowhard because he isn’t acknowledging the perfection in that casting choice. He does it because Nolte can do this part and he can make it phenomenal.

So much of the film is about the acting but not the actors. Malick doesn’t let the viewer identify with the characters by actor, rather by emotional impact. The film has frequent–often constant–narration from a variety of characters. I don’t even think the main narrator is ever identified, not for sure, because the viewer is the main narrator. He or she goes through the film as presented, through the fear, through the beauty, the solitude, the loneliness, and comes to this conclusion. To the film’s conclusion.

Or the narrator is just John Dee Smith. Though, if Smith is the narrator, Malick manages to turn the viewer into a Southern boy with an abusive stepfather and bad teeth, because there’s no difference. Malick doesn’t use characters in that manner. Even with Ben Chaplin’s officer turned private, whose entire internal life is about his wife back home, his details aren’t as important as how he reacts with them in frame. Because Thin Red Line isn’t some grand, sweeping melodrama, it’s an intensely focused, intensely personal film, emphasis on the film. Malick’s far more in the Eisenstein school of collision–basically how the presentation of shots and their editing, not necessarily their content, can be used to create emotion in the viewer–than something like David Lean or anyone else. It’s a lyrical assault.

Only Malick is using the content. He’s using the visual content of these beautiful, tropical Eden. He’s using the narrative content of a war movie. He’s using the audial content of the narrators. And he collides them, he separates them, he compares them. Thin Red Line is like going to an island of World War II reenactors and taking acid. And you’re invisible. And everyone looks like a famous person. Malick is speaking directly to the viewer and creating this setting for the viewer’s personal edification.

Malick strips the community out of The Thin Red Line. The way he structures the first act, the way he structures the first half–he’s removing the viewer’s sense of community, sense of stability. It’s far more personal. The poetic narration, separated so much from the characters or the setting, engages with the viewer. Malick is using the narrative content to echo the emotions created by the film’s visuals. Pardon my passive voice.

This sort of tempo isn’t unique to the film or to Malick. It’s the rhythm of good filmmaking. But Malick is playing different music and getting the same emotional beats. He’s got two movies playing side by side, one top of one another, completely transparent. And they’re jointly the film.

Like I said.

Staggering.

Malick gets some phenomenal performances out of his cast. Nolte, Chaplin, top-billed Sean Penn, Elias Koteas, Dash Mihok, John Cusack’s great in his small role. Woody Harrelson too. Though differently.

And then there’s Jim Caviezel. He doesn’t exactly play the film’s lead, but he does play the character who the audience spends the film trying to understand. It’s not clear if Malick thinks Caviezel’s the most interesting guy around; the film’s pretty even between Caviezel, Chaplin and then Nolte and Koteas in the stuff of epical importance. Oh, and then Mihok. He’s got a fairly large part.

But Malick posits he is showing the viewer the world through Caviezel’s character’s perspective. Not his eyes. His perspective (which allows for subplots). And Malick uses that particular perspective with the visual aspects of the film. The narrative level is far looser; Malick’s ability to naturally follow Caviezel around, especially as he inserts himself into the story, is skillful filmmaking. Malick, Caviezel, the other actors, the editors, they do a great job.

The editors are real important for Thin Red Line. Leslie Jones, Saar Klein, Billy Weber. The cuts in the film are sublime. The editors understand Malick’s narrative needs–for example, introducing the characters to the viewer–but also the need to actively force the viewer to make his or her own connections. Thin Red Line has a steep learning curve and unforgiving blind corners.

(Sorry, I needed a good mixed metaphor).

The first time I saw The Thin Red Line, I saw it again immediately following. Opening night. Returning to it over fifteen years later, I’m terrified at the prospective of an immediate rewatch. It’s too much. I like it too much. The Thin Red Line is my Nietzschean abyss. I just can’t too much.

This time watching it–I’d forgotten a lot–I really noticed the change in the weather. The clouds moving across the soldiers. That detail pulled me in. And I can see the film doing it, beckoning me, but it doesn’t matter. Creating something so focused, so controlled, yet so open, so welcoming… it’s just another amazing part of the film and Malick’s filmmaking here.

I also noticed, this time, Caviezel’s character has a Japanese alter ego.

Wonder what I’ll notice next time.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Terrence Malick; screenplay by Malick, based on the novel by James Jones; director of photography, John Toll; edited by Billy Weber, Saar Klein and Leslie Jones; music by Hans Zimmer; production designer, Jack Fisk; produced by Robert Michael Geisler, John Roberdeau and Grant Hill; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Sean Penn (First Sgt. Edward Welsh), John Travolta (Barr), James Caviezel (Private Witt), Adrien Brody (Corporal Fife), Elias Koteas (Capt. James Staros), Nick Nolte (Lieut. Col. Gordon Tall), Ben Chaplin (Private Bell), Dash Mihok (Private First Class Doll), Arie Verveen (Private Dale), David Harrod (Corporal Queen), John C. Reilly (Mess Sergeant Storm), John Cusack (Capt. John Gaff), Larry Romano (Private Mazzi), Tim Blake Nelson (Private Tills), Woody Harrelson (Staff Sergeant Keck), George Clooney (Capt. Charles Bosche) and John Savage (McCron).


SLC Punk! (1998, James Merendino)

SLC Punk! is controlled chaos. Or chaotic control. Director Merendino is incredibly careful about everything–how he uses crane shots to open up the low budgeted film, how he and Esther P. Russell cut scenes, which flashback footage goes where, how protagonist Matthew Lillard’s narration works (hint: it’s in an Austenian sense), how the film fits together. SLC runs just over ninety minutes and the first twenty-five of them are precisely layered flashbacks and flash forwards. Merendino’s meticulous.

But the secret of SLC Punk! isn’t how its not really an extreme comedy or how its Jane Austen with eighties punks, it’s the film’s sincerity. Merendino structures the film–and Lillard’s character and performance–to force an investment and an interest from the viewer. SLC isn’t a passive viewing experience; it isn’t set up to function as one.

The film gets serious once Merendino runs out of fast jokes–not even cheap ones, just fast ones. At the same time, Lillard gets serious too, only since he’s narrating in the past tense, Merendino’s forcing an examination of the previous (comedically played) events. The film’s final flashback, ostensibly promising the great reveal, instead just further shows Merendino’s sincerity and his dedication to it.

Great performances all over–Lillard, Michael A. Goorjian as his best friend and alter ego, then Jason Segel, Adam Pascal, Til Schweiger as their sidekicks. Merendino’s enthusiastic about the actors and in how he showcases them.

SLC Punk! is excellent. Merendino, Lillard and Goorjian do outstanding work.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by James Merendino; director of photography, Greg Littlewood; edited by Esther P. Russell; production designer, Charlotte Malmlöf; produced by Sam Maydew and Peter Ward; released by Sony Pictures Classics.

Starring Matthew Lillard (Stevo), Michael A. Goorjian (Bob), Annabeth Gish (Trish), Jennifer Lien (Sandy), Jason Segel (Mike), Adam Pascal (Eddie), Til Schweiger (Mark), James Duval (John the Mod), Devon Sawa (Sean), Summer Phoenix (Brandy) and Christopher McDonald (Stevo’s Dad).


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