Part 1: The Thin Red Line to Star Wars Episode I (January - May 1999)

[22 March 2009]

By PopMatters Staff

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The Thin Red Line

Director: Terrence Malick
Cast: Sean Penn, Adrien Brody, Jim Caviezel, Ben Chaplin, George Clooney, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Elias Koteas, Nick Nolte

(20th Century Fox; US theatrical: 8 Jan 1999 (General release); 1998)

Official Site

The Thin Red Line Director: Terrence Malick

Terrence Malick is the Axl Rose for people who use terms like “visual poetry” on a regular basis.

In the 1970s, Malick directed Badlands and Days of Heaven, two beautiful films that won over critics and art film lovers, if not the general public. After the release of Days of Heaven in 1978, Malick took a two-decade hiatus from filmmaking, ending with his announcement that he would be adapting James Jones’ novel The Thin Red Line to the big screen.

Unfortunately, like Chinese Democracy, or The Phantom Menace, or just about every other return of a cultural hero to the main stage, The Thin Red Line did not meet the highest hopes audiences had set for it. The film is very good, and it made plain that Malick still had his game from 20 years back. The film’s problems, in fact, seem to stem from the same quality that makes the film admirable: Malick’s bold ambition. Why would a filmmaker with a penchant for thoroughly visual and pastoral studies of American lives attempt to adapt a novel with about a dozen main characters fighting the Battle of Guadalcanal? Perhaps it was hubris, or a bar bet, but whatever the cause, Malick managed to make a film out of it that is sometimes frustrating, sometimes thrilling, and sometimes just plain boring. But the film is also consistently gorgeous and, even when not all that enjoyable, thoroughly rich and impressive.

The contradiction of Malick’s visual style and the multi-character war narrative inform many of the salient aspects of The Thin Red Line. Malick clearly did not have a general audience in mind for this film (or, if he did, he clearly does not understand people), but The Thin Red Line has the kind of all-star cast that is designed for box office success and absolutely belies the art house nature of the film. However, that art house nature becomes clear in the film’s first moment, when an alligator slides into murky waters to the sound of a swelling chord on an organ. The movie continues with thoughtful visual beauty for about the first hour.

Once the battle that is the film’s narrative focal point gains momentum, the visuals become less compelling (how many times must filmgoers be subjected to gunfights in slow motion with an orchestra playing sorrowfully in the background? By 1999, shouldn’t filmmakers have devised a new, better way to make viewers feel the tragedy of war?). However, the characters gain depth as the battle narrative unfolds. Nick Nolte, Elias Koteas, James Caviezel, and Sean Penn all play compelling characters whose competing philosophies on the nature of war, self, and mortality give the narrative heft and make the film’s shift in tone forgivable. The love story of Private Bell (played by Ben Chaplin), however, is remarkably annoying. The incessant flashbacks to he and his wife cuddling and the melodramatic end to his story recall the most painfully maudlin moments of From Here to Eternity.

About two hours into The Thin Red Line, the battle narrative reaches what seems like a conclusion, but the film continues for another 45 minutes. Some of the stunning visuals return during this time, and the stories of several characters gain resolution, but this final third of the movie feels like an epilogue, as if the dual needs for narrative and filmic resolution were too much for one ending.

Even as the film tests one’s patience, though, it creates the desire to spend more time with it. The Thin Red Line is a complicated, even messy, film that undoubtedly frustrated moviegoers expecting another Saving Private Ryan. But for those viewers up for the challenge—the kind who think a befuddling final image is good cause to see a movie all over from the beginning—The Thin Red Line is rich with opportunities for rediscovery and revelation. Many of the best movies of 1999 supplied audiences with rich visual fun. Maybe it’s not so bad that Terrence Malick made one visual experience that demanded something in return. David Camak Pratt

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Blast from the Past

Director: Hugh Wilson
Cast: Brendan Fraser, Alicia Silverstone, Christopher Walken, Sissy Spacek, Dave Foley

(New Line Cinema; US theatrical: 27 Jan 1999; 1999)

Blast from the Past Director: Hugh Wilson

It is the tendency of fans everywhere to ascribe profound meaning to the things they love, even (or especially) if that meaning isn’t evident to the unbiased observer. After all, who hasn’t felt a mounting frustration when trying to describe just what makes that book / film / song / painting so amazing? If only they could only see it like I do, you think, they would understand how good it really is.

When I tell people that Blast from the Past is one of my favorite films, I’m usually rewarded with a smirk. When I try to explain why, the smirk usually grows into a full-fledged grin. But the film has depth, goddammit, and until I can bring more people around to my point of view I’m going to keep on yapping away about it, because that’s what fans do.

The film manages the rather neat trick of semi-plausibly depositing a child of the ‘50s into ‘90s Los Angeles: during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Calvin Webber (Christopher Walken) hustles his pregnant wife Helen (Sissy Spacek) down into their ingenuously-designed bomb shelter in anticipation of the coming nuclear apocalypse. When a fighter jet crashes into their house, their worst fears are confirmed, and Calvin seals up the bomb shelter—activating a complex system of locks that will keep them in (and the presumably mutated holocaust survivors out) for the next 35 years. They occupy their time by raising their son Adam (Brendan Fraser), until the day that he must inevitably leave—to find his way in the world, and to meet the girl (Alicia Silverstone).

The film is commonly read as a nostalgic look back at the 1950s, and indeed Adam spends much of the film being charmingly quaint. But to take it only at that level is to miss how dark (and interesting) the film truly is, and what vision of the 1950s it really portrays.

First of all, the only characters from the film who were actually alive during the ‘50s—Calvin and Helen Webber—have serious problems. Calvin is well-meaning but eccentric, and Helen, trapped with him in their thousand-square-foot prison, takes to drinking to pass the time. But he’s so perpetually clueless that in the 35 years they live in the bomb shelter he never realizes she’s become a chronic alcoholic. They might be a typical couple for the era, but they’re certainly not a perfect one.

That’s a moot point, though, because Adam is charming not because he grew up in 1950s America but because he didn’t. He grew up in a bomb shelter, an entirely artificial world that had the lovable aspects of the ‘50s (the Perry Como, The Honeymooners) and none of the many things that blighted the era (McCarthyism, racism and segregation, or the Korean War). The film plays off our nostalgia for the ‘50s, sure, but it also satirizes those same feelings of nostalgia by showing how they have little to no basis in reality. Adam isn’t just unprepared for life in the ‘90s—he’s unprepared for life. He’s been raised like Beaver Cleaver, and as a consequence he has profound trouble interacting with society.

And therein lies the beauty of the film. Adam is damaged because of his upbringing, and so too is Eve, in her way—she’s angry, and cynical, and has trouble with men. The two fall in love not because of their backgrounds but despite them; what Blast from the Past says is that broken people have the capacity to mend one another. That what matters is not where we are from but instead who we choose to be with.

Or maybe I’m just reading too much into things. But even if none of that is right then it’s still a damn likeable film, with a good cast and funny jokes and a plot where everything falls nicely into place.  So wipe that smirk off your face. Kyle Deas

Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and more

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Office Space

Director: Mike Judge
Cast: Ron Livingston, Jennifer Aniston, David Herman, Ajay Naidu, Diedrich Bader, Gary Cole, Stephen Root

(20th Century Fox; US theatrical: 19 Feb 1999; 1999)

Office Space Director: Mike Judge

It might be easy these days to get Office Space confused with The Office, versions of which have been hits on two continents now, and the American version of which still draws a commanding audience—especially for a half-hour comedy—in its fifth season. Both are documents of the banality, frustration, and unlikely camaraderie that stems from working in a cube farm for 40 hours per week, after all, and both have, over the last ten years, slowly drawn the sort of devotion usually reserved for niche sci-fi/horror exercises or arthouse films. Both Office Space and The Office are alternately slapstick and deadpan, and both speak to a sort of white collar angst that has pervaded the middle class, more so now than ever as we watch pay get cut, benefits get slashed, and millions lose the jobs they may have hated, but still absolutely needed.

There’s a major difference between the two however, an important difference that allows the persistence of television to be a perfect format for The Office, and the brevity of cinema to be the perfect format for Office Space: The Office is built on the banality of real life (albeit a slightly exaggerated version of such), while Office Space, at its heart, is pure fantasy.

Office Space starts a lot like The Office, but all of that changes once Peter Gibbons sees a hypnotherapist (who dies in the middle of the session, of course), and suddenly he finds peace with his lot in life.  Gibbons is then promoted for telling Bob and Bob—the consultants—that he sneaks into work late and basically does nothing the entire day, that he is motivated entirely by the avoidance of harassment.  It’s at this point that the true-life office worker starts to feel the pangs of recognition, followed by the wish that such candor, if it were offered, would be rewarded as it is here.

Of course, promotion never comes without a price, and two of Gibbons’ friends, Michael Bolton and Samir, are laid off.  Relaxed as ever about his own situation, he then devises an ill-fated “retirement plan” with his two friends, with the goal that none of them will ever have to work again as they cheat the company that wronged them fractions of a penny at a time.  Of course, things don’t work out as they plan, but red-stapler-guy, the most comic/tragic character in the entire movie as an employee laid off years previously who just never realized as much given that he pulled a paycheck anyway, burns the place down and everyone lives happily ever after anyway.

Writer/director Mike Judge’s use of gangsta rap is perhaps the most direct indication that what he is showing us is a fantasy; that these three characters, by all appearances and actions some of the least likely people in the entire world to be listening to gangsta rap would, in a roundabout way, be identifying with it is a stroke of genius.  When your existence has been reduced to that of a rat in a sterile white maze looking for cheese that may or may not exist, you eventually get to the point where you just want to fuck some shit up.  Of course, this is just what Peter, Michael, and Samir do in perhaps the most iconic scene in the movie, the death of the printer.  One can only imagine how many times this scene has played out the minds of office denizens in the time since then.

Of course, most of us know that if we were to play out the fantasy that Judge presents, we’d end up jobless, or in jail, or worse. That’s what makes the movie so fulfilling, so enduring—the mere fact that there is literally nothing else like it, that grabs a certain segment of the population and allows them to vicariously live out the fantasy of getting back at the corporate entity responsible for their own, personal hell.  In the end, Peter Gibbons gets off scot free, gets the girl, and finds a job that he actually finds satisfying, a fantasy that in 2009 feels as relevant and as distant as it ever has. Mike Schiller

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Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels

Director: Guy Ritchie
Cast: Jason Flemyng, Dexter Fletcher, Nick Moran, Jason Statham, Steven Mackintosh, Vinnie Jones, Sting

(Universal Pictures; US theatrical: 5 Mar 1999; 1998)

Official Site

Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels Director: Guy Ritchie

As Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels blinks into existence, Jason Statham is on a street corner, pushing stolen goods on a crowd of otherwise respectable middle-aged shoppers with an absolutely irresistible mix of rhyming slang, smutty innuendo, and the kind of vaguely criminal good looks that have made him into a B-movie star in the decade since its release. “Treat the wife! Treat someone else’s wife; it’s more fun if you don’t get caught,” he bellows conspiratorially. He’s an absolute pro at this, and has the crowd, both on screen and off, completely riveted. But then, the cops show up, and everyone has to run away (half in slow motion), a great song plays, and it’s on to something else.

This scene is Lock, Stock in a nutshell: a world of sleazily arresting underworld types, heavily stylized visuals, amazing music, a lot of running around, and not a lot of explanations. It’s a heist comedy at heart, with a highly convoluted plot involving several dozen criminals grouped into nearly as many competing gangs of thieves, murders, drug dealers, gangsters, and loan sharks. It’s a man’s world (there are something like three women in the entire film), where everyone is tough, sure of themselves, and willing to do whatever it takes to get ahead, preferably while having a few pints and a fag.  It is, in short, an almost unbelievably cool film.

“Cool” is an elusive concept, to be sure, and applies equally to Miles Davis, Fonzi, and Animal Collective. Lock, Stock is a particular kind of cool: a rough, street smart brand of British cool that hearkens back to films of the 1970s like Poor Cow and The Italian Job. The kind of cool where characters lounge in leather jackets under neon signs while James Brown plays in the background. The kind of cool where how tough someone sounds while talking in rhyming slang goes a lot further to determining their worth than how they dress. Lock, Stock was the leading edge of this trend, which has been continued by films and TV shows like The Bank Job and the BBC’s Life on Mars.

Like most cool things, Lock, Stock does not benefit from deep analysis. It has a moral code of sorts (only the honest crooks win out in the end), but it does not actually have anything to say.  There’s an almost shocking amount of violence, but it’s played for laughs on all but a few occasions: a man is beaten to death with a dildo, a man running out of a bar on fire only merits bemused looks from our protagonists, a weary “Oh, Dog” is all one hood says to another after he kills a hostage with a foot-long bowie knife, etc. The film is geared to a supremely solipsistic view of the world, where horrible things are hilarious as long as they’re happening to someone else. It’s a film built for a teenager with an inflated sense of self-regard, which is most likely why I loved it as a self-assured 16-year-old.

Lastly, we must say a few words about the man behind all of this, writer/director Guy Ritchie. For, as much as Lock, Stock catapulted him to international stardom, it also contained the seeds of his (hopefully temporary) demise as a filmmaker. First, while fun, Lock, Stock does not strictly make sense. Full of improbable events, one-note characters, and half-mumbled dialogue, it showed a certain technical weakness in storytelling that would not serve him well as he attempted to progress as a filmmaker. Ritchie also doesn’t shy away from stunt casting here, populating his film with real-life gangsters, the soccer star Vinnie Jones (absolutely terrifying as Big Chris, a violent tornado of a man), and even Sting, making what is to date his last on-screen appearance. This would of course come to disastrous conclusion with Swept Away, Ritchie’s attempt to revive the film career of his then-wife and perpetually aspiring-actress, Madonna. Possibly one of the worst films ever made, Swept Away effectively ended Ritchie’s career for half a decade.

This was, of course, all still well in the future when Lock, Stock came to America in 1999. As the film closes, one of our heroes is hanging from a bridge, obscenely valuable guns in one hand, his only grip on the bridge in the other, and his cell phone in his mouth, just as it begins to ring. Will he save the guns and help his friends come out on top? The film cuts to black before we find out.  Like that hood, precariously perched over the Thames, Ritchie’s career is something of a mystery. He could very well come out on top, his latest, RocknRolla was reasonably well reviewed, and his upcoming Sherlock Holmes (starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law) looks like it could match fellow ‘90s filmmaker John Favreau’s Iron Man. Or, he may well lose his grip, and tumble back into obscurity. Either way, we’ll still have Lock, Stock. Chris Chafin

The Matrix and more

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The Matrix

Director: Andy and Larry Wachowski
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Ann Moss, Laurence Fishburn, Hugo Weaving

(Warner Brothers; US theatrical: 31 Mar 1999 (General release); 1999)

Official Site

The Matrix Director: Larry and Andy Wachowski

It’s tough to convey how much The Matrix meant to me, as a 12-year-old sci-fi nerd, when it came out ten years ago. Until that point, my experiences with science fiction had been solitary ones, unshared with my peers; in the early ‘90s, sci-fi was not cool. Star Wars, and the mania associated with it, was 15 years in the past. Star Trek: The Next Generation was the main sci-fi touchstone of the era, and indeed I went on the air (as it were) on the same day as “Encounter at Farpoint”. I have fond memories of reading Robert Heinlein and watching Babylon 5 as a child, but in all of them I’m alone, and throughout my youth I kept very quiet about my obsession with all things futuristic.

The Matrix was not a particularly original film. Its story was equal parts Ghost in the Shell and Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, with a dash of Philip K. Dick thrown in for good measure; its cinematic style was mostly borrowed (read: ripped-off) from kung-fu films and from John Woo. Nor was it a particularly intelligent film. Despite all of its philosophical pretensions and its absolutely serious attitude, there were plot holes in the film big enough to drive a Mack truck through. (“I thought you said it wasn’t real,” Neo says after exiting a training program, touching his lip and coming away with blood on his fingers. “The mind makes it real,” Morpheus responds. Um, how does that work, exactly?)

But The Matrix was, for all that, an intrinsically, almost effortlessly cool film. Dark without being disturbing, thrilling without being distressing, The Matrix existed for no reason other than to excite. And by succeeding so wildly it made a lasting impact on both film and science fiction, redefining what a sci-fi film could be and to whom it could appeal. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that without The Matrix, films like Minority Report, Children of Men, and The Dark Knight simply would not exist.

The film itself holds up surprisingly well, a decade down the road. The “bullet-time” sequences, despite the countless imitators they inspired, still have a sort of strange and entrancing beauty to them. The fake world is beautifully shot, green-tinted and sleek, but the special effects applied to the real world—especially the spider-like Sentinels—are just as impressive. And the shoot-out in the skyscraper lobby remains one of the greatest gun-fight sequences of all time, pure excellence from the moment that Neo opens his jacket to reveal his personal arsenal (the security guard’s reaction—“Holy shit!”—was my favorite line from a movie for most of high school) to the slow, techno-scored fight to the way that Trinity’s boots slide on the polished marble floor when the bullets have stopped flying. That scene, more than any other, made the film, and watching it now, it’s easy to see why.

The Matrix also remains, 10 years on, the highest achievement of almost everyone involved. Joel Silver, who prepped for The Matrix by producing genuinely great films like Lethal Weapon 4 and Predator, has in the years since confined himself to titles like Thir13en Ghosts and House of Wax. The Wachowski Brothers adapted V for Vendetta, a reasonable accomplishment, but were also responsible for the two regrettable Matrix sequels and last summer’s Speed Racer. Laurence Fishbourne is now on CSI; Hugo Weaving spent much of the last decade speaking Elvish to Liv Tyler; Carrie-Anne Moss hasn’t been heard from since Memento wrapped in 2000; and Keanu Reeves (his work in The Replacements notwithstanding) has become an easy punch-line. Call it the curse of The Matrix, if you like, but the film still looms, unsurpassed, over the careers of those who made it. Kyle Deas

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Director: Doug Liman
Cast: Sarah Polley, Desmond Askew, Scott Wolf, Katie Holmes, Jay Mohr, William Fichtner, Jane Krakowski

(Columbia Pictures; US theatrical: 9 Apr 1999; 1999)

Go Director: Doug Liman

Ronna: The Heart
It’s a Christmas movie that could never become a Christmas tradition. It’s about kids in their late teens without a high school or college in sight. It revolves around an epic rave, but has somehow aged with grace. It’s unexpected.

Go is 1999’s follow-up to Doug Liman’s cult hit Swingers. Like its predecessor, the movie’s personality is built around a musical genre. Unlike Swingers’ hip neo-swing atmosphere, Go is spirited by the frenetic chaos of electronic dance music. There is a pulse to this movie. It starts out simple: grocery clerks in their late teens working far too long on a Christmas Eve. But over the course of three acts and an epilogue, the pace and complexity ramp up until the narrative—like the soundtrack—is barreling through itself.

Simon: The Banter
In developing an “Alice in Ecstasy-land” concept to this multi-narrative full-length debut, screenwriter John August exhibits a command of craft. It’s an intricately-twisted formalist construction under a free-spirited guise. There are hints of Tarantino or Kevin Smith: dialogue centered on storytelling, the casual shooting-of-shit to develop characters. Yet it’s not Tarantino or Smith, as nearly every exchange explicitly drives the plot, highlighting elements which become obstacles or agencies as the plot bends back over itself. Take the inclusion of Simon’s story: an ill-fated action- and titty-packed Las Vegas romp that’s removed from the movie’s main thread. Pulling Simon out of the primary scenario allows Ronna to unwittingly fox her way into his predicament: in the reticules of Adam and Zack, two movie stars recruited for a sting operation on Simon.

But, throughout Simon’s act, John August’s seemingly carefree chatter is at its most immediately functional. A comment about one character’s yellow jacket sets up a toss of Ferrari keys into his hands near a casino’s valet stand. A brief conversation about iodine-infused shrimp explains two of the characters’ exit via illness from the story’s travels. Simon uses a borrowed credit card to secure a room and fund a lap dance. That same card—left behind in the strip club after a minor shootout—gives a pair of smalltime mobsters enough info to call and confirm Simon’s room number with the bedridden, diarrhea-stricken characters, and give chase.

It’s like a steel roller coaster, constantly looping and twisting but always a smooth ride. Sometimes we see turns coming, sometimes we don’t, but it’s fun throughout.

Adam and Zack: The Stars
Costing under $7 million to produce, Go is an improbable juncture of careers caught at just the right time. August would go on to write a series of high profile Tim Burton films, including Big Fish and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Liman became attached to the Bourne franchise.

And the cast is essentially the Minnesota Twins of cinema: no superstars, but fresh talent of varying levels all giving banner performances. At the core is Sarah Polley, whose career is marked by deliberate steps away from almost being famous, including dropping out of the role of Penny Lane in Almost Famous in favor of a Canadian indie (Polley most recently wrote and directed the award-winning Away from Her). Surrounding her are Timothy Olyphant (Live Free or Die Hard), Katie Holmes (Dawson’s Creek and that whole Tom Cruise thing), Jay Mohr (SNL, Last Comic Standing), Scott Wolf (Party of Five), William Fichtner (Prison Break), and even quick bits from Jane Krakowski (Ally McBeal, 30 Rock) and Meghan McCarthy (Gilmore Girls). It’s a whirling combination that gives just enough screen time to each character.

The Epilogue
Visually, Go is saturated with holiday imagery, but every spritely decoration has a worn, weary, or flat-out sleazy underbelly. There’s a man in a Santa suit, but he’s critically injured. There’s a Santa hat, but on a bare-chested drug dealer. It reflects a spirit of giving that fuels the film’s actions, but that generosity is always with reluctance.

And that sums up Go: a modestly budgeted film that comes across as a bigger picture. One that came out of nowhere, but at a natural place in many careers. Mike Martens

Open Your Eyes and more

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Open Your Eyes

Director: Alejandro Amenábar
Cast: Eduardo Noriega, Penélope Cruz, Chete Lera, Najwa Nimri

(Canal+; US theatrical: 16 Apr 1999; 1997)

Open Your Eyes Director: Alejandro Amenábar

To riff on Winston Churchill, Open Your Eyes is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma… which is then ensconced inside an infinite number of Russian nesting dolls, buried deep inside an impenetrable fever dream, brought to a heady boil of controlled lunacy, and then set adrift on an uncharted sea of madness. Written, directed and scored by Alejandro Amenabar when he was just 25, it is a bravura high wire act of daring, ambition and invention, a slippery changeling of a film that morphs so frequently and so brazenly between styles, tones and genres, that it’s some sort of miracle that it works as a film at all, let alone works so well.

From the opening darkness, we hear a whispered female voice, repeating over and over, “Open your eyes, open your eyes”. A young man, Cesar, awakens in his bed, goes through his morning routine, leaves his apartment, and drives through quiet city streets - too quiet. They have been drained of sound, of all activity, of all humanity. Is he dreaming? Is he the last man on earth? Is he mad? Darkness, again - the voice imploring, again. He awakens again, the film begins again, and the world begins again, this time loud and appropriately populated.

We discover Cesar is a smug, vain, filthy rich Casanova, living off an inheritance, bedding a different woman every night. One particular disturbed castoff, Nuria, starts to stalk him at a party, and Cesar tries to discourage her advances by chatting up his best friend’s girl, Sofia. Later, he accompanies Sofia home, they spend a sexless night talking and flirting, and he leaves in the morning, smitten and in love. Immediately he is pounced on by Nuria, who’s been lurking outside Sofia’s apartment.  She offers a weary Cesar a ride, and promptly goes crazy, sending the car careening off the highway and crashing into a wall, killing herself and gravely injuring Cesar.

And appropriately enough, this is where the film goes flying of the rails as well, transforming itself from a blithe romance into a sinister, dreamlike fugue where events and themes start splaying out recklessly in divergent directions, folding back in on themselves and looping in orbit around an unknowable center. To give away too much would be to ruin the sheer enjoyment of watching Amenabar’s “everything and the kitchen sink” aesthetic play out, of trying to unravel the inner workings of the film’s confounding internal logic.

Cesar emerges from the crash with his face horribly disfigured, a lumbering wreck clinging desperately to his fledgling love for Sofia. OR, he is miraculously cured, his face restored, and his love for Sofia consummated. OR, his world has been inverted, fragmented, Sofia forever lost to him, and he is being punished for his sins. OR, he finds the redemption and the love and inner beauty he never had before. OR, he becomes a paranoid wreck, driven to despair and murder. As the film—and Cesar and we the audience—repeatedly fades out to black and reawakens to an ever increasingly disoriented world, are we blinking in and out between reality and dream? And where does the one end and the other begin? Or is there a difference at all? And does it matter? The only certain thing is uncertainty, and eventual madness, as we fall with Cesar down the rabbit hole.

Or maybe he’s just been mad all along. From early in the film, the events depicted are framed and punctuated by an ongoing discussion between an incarcerated Cesar and a prison psychiatrist.  As more layers and twists are added—from the hideous to the miraculous, from the just plain confusing to the outright insane—we start to wonder if everything we have seen has been just the ramblings and memories of a diseased mind; or its dreams run amok; or the memories of a dream; or dreams of memories; or the last dying dreams of… Oh but wait!  What if all this—the prison, the story—is itself just a dream too! But then, what if… oh, you get the idea. Open Your Eyes is confusion without end, reveling in its definitive refusal to be definitive about anything.

As the film careens towards its heady conclusion, Amenabar offers an explanation of sorts, an answer that seems to be a bit of a cheat until you realize that it has so fundamentally altered everything you’ve just seen—recasts not only the events of the film but the very apprehension of it—that any hope of clarity is put forever out of reach. Plummeting over the edge (quite literally) of sanity in its final frame, Open Your Eyes crashes straight back into its opening scene - the darkness, the voice—looping back around on itself like a Mobius Strip, telling you again to “open your eyes, open your eyes”. Jake Meaney

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Director: Alexander Payne
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Matthew Broderick, Chris Klein, Jessica Campbell, Mark Harelik

(Paramount; 1999)

Election Director: Alexander Payne

Tracy Flick is the kind of girl who’s got a 50/50 shot at becoming President of the United States or a sociopathic serial killer.

That much is clear from our very first glimpse of the ultimate overachiever. She sets up a rickety card table as if the dingy hallway of her high school hallway were a cabinet war room, tape perfectly shaped around a pen and clipboards exactly aligned. You get the feeling that if anyone were to ruin all of her perfect, 90-degree angles, that the tiny, angelic-looking blonde would go medieval on them without a single thought. Election made plenty of contributions to the annals of pop culture. Reese Witherspoon’s portrayal of Tracy established her as a potential It girl. Director Alexander Payne earned his first Oscar nomination for the screenplay. Chris Klein was plucked from Nebraska obscurity to play Paul Metzler and set out on the path to a bit part as “pre-Tom Cruise fiance” in the Katie Holmes E! True Hollywood Story.

But the movie’s greatest gift was Tracy Flick, a tightly wound ball of single-minded determination and barely concealed rage.

Tracy gains a nemesis in sad sack government teacher Jim McAllister (a doughy Matthew Broderick.) While Tracy spends the initial scenes of the movie unleashing her campaign for student body president, McAllister is down the hall peering into a refrigerator full of his co-worker’s moldy lunches.

Tracy doesn’t care who she needs to walk over to achieve success. But she’s definitely going somewhere fast and that appears to be the very reason that McAllister hates her. McAllister’s attempt to dash Tracy’s dream of becoming student body president pulls in the Metzler siblings – puppy dog Paul and emo chick Tammy (Jessica Campbell). The two are the comic relief, pawns in a much larger game, though Paul is too innocent and Tammy too self-absorbed to notice. Tracy and “Mr. M” are so focused on what they don’t have, that they both spend the movie slowly coming apart at the scenes.

Tracy earns “A” after “A” and takes up more than her fair share of pages in the yearbook, but her fling with a teacher friend of McAllister’s destroyed a marriage. McAllister, a nice guy stifled by a narrow life, is incensed that Little Miss Perfect’s life continued unscathed, undeserving halo firmly in place. McAllister’s pursuit of an election victory for Paul is a substitute for what he can’t achieve for himself.

Witherspoon is pitch perfect as Tracy and shades of her portrayal appear in just about any female character in film or television who is driven to the point of recklessness (for example, add a hair band and a pedigree and you’ve got Gossip Girl’s Blair Waldorf). But the one place that has truly picked Flick is the American political scene. The list of politicos reportedly accused of being Tracy clones includes former Vice President Al Gore, New York senator Kristen Gillibrand and the woman she replaced in that job, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Slate created an ingenious mash-up that casts young upstart Barack Obama as the target of the more experienced Clinton’s (and Tracy’s) scorn. You can see Tracy in the forced smile Amy Poehler adopted to play a defeated Clinton on Saturday Night Live, and hear her as an inspiration for Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin drawl.

Election provides ample material for any number of Republican vs. Democrat allusions (although truthfully, most of the leaders of either party were probably a bit of a Tracy Flick in high school.) McAllister pulls clueless Paul into the election because he knows that the student body will be drawn to a “regular guy,” someone they could sit down and have a drink with (a six pack, perhaps?). Ultimately he’s wrong. As Election draws to a close, however, Tracy the victor begins to realize that she too has lost something. Rachel Kipp

eXistenZ and more

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Director: David Cronenberg
Cast: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jude Law, Ian Holm, Willem Dafoe, Don McKellar, Callum Keith Rennie, Christopher Eccleston, Sarah Polley

(Alliance Atlantis; US theatrical: 23 Apr 1999; 1999)

eXistenZ Director: David Cronenberg

eXistenZ is clearly the finest film in which Jude Law eats a platter of mutant frogs. David Cronenberg’s take on virtual reality is Matrix-like in trippyness, but with greater ambiguity, satire, and gristle. It’s classic Cronenberg: part eschatology, part scatology; a distressing blend of the biological and metaphysical. The progressive physical disintegration detailed in The Fly is applied on a cognitive level with surreal results. 

Jennifer Jason Leigh plays video game designer Allegra Geller, whose newest game (“eXistenZ”) is being shared with a testing group in the film’s opening sequence. Nintendo Wii these games are not: The game consoles are amorphous maggot-hued blobs that plug an umbilical-like chord into a “bioport” located in each player’s spine. The game world is indistinguishable from real life and the game experience is considered sacred by many players.     

When Allegra is attacked by anti-game “realists” she goes on the run with Ted Pikul (Jude Law), an uptight square turned ad hoc bodyguard. Unsure if her gamepod is damaged Allegra and Pikul port into “eXistenZ” to test the system, entering a confused and decaying universe that’s easier to enter than to leave.

What makes the film so wild is it’s never exactly clear when Allegra and Pikul stop playing “eXistenZ”. Reality becomes indeterminate and formless and Cronenberg never tips his cards. Each time players port into the game, events become more dreamlike. In contrast with The Matrix, corporeality diminishes as plot develops. It’s clearly inspired by sci-fi philosopher Philip K. Dick, known for novels and short stories that question the nature of reality. Dick fans are sure to love eXistenZ. Attentive ones will recognize the Perky Pat’s fast food Allegra and Pikul scarf as a nod to the Dick novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

The prismatic plot development in eXistenZ would become unmoored without Cronenberg’s recurring visual signatures and aesthetic underpinnings. His realm is unnatural and maimed, with tooth-shooting guns made from cartilage and video games that run on mutated organs. The game world has a William S. Burroughs quality (all exotic tissues and corruption), possibly a residual effect from Cronenberg’s 1991 film adaptation of Naked Lunch. It’s vivid and grotesque, and you can’t look away.   

It is also magnificently acted. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Allegra Geller with both introverted geekiness (she’s a game designer) and knowing self-confidence (her games cause devotees to fall prostrate before her). Jude Law as Ted Pikul is a cautious dweeb, new to virtual gaming, who becomes progressively freaked out. Great together, Leigh and Law develop a tense and unconventional on-screen chemistry.  Also good is Ian Holm as a sinister game technician, and Willem Dafoe, more psychotic than usual, in his bit as an illegal bioport installer.   

Doubting the fabric of reality isn’t the only trouble eXistenZ is happy to stir up. As players are forced to perform out-of-character actions to advance the game, free will becomes increasingly difficult to define. Or even to prove. Genetic modification and animal rights are examined through the use of the mutated amphibians that are butchered for video game parts. And with all things Philip K. Dickian, it’s not complete without a schizophrenic close. Resolved, but not conclusively, eXistenZ remains a troubling nesting doll through repeated viewings. Michael Pursley

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The Winslow Boy

Director: David Mamet
Cast: Nigel Hawthorne, Rebecca Pidgeon, Jeremy Northam, Gemma Jones.

(Sony Pictures Classics; US theatrical: 30 Apr 1999; 1999)

The Winslow Boy Director: David Mamet

The characters of The Winslow Boy, a film by David Mamet based on Terence Rattigan’s 1946 play, live in an Edwardian England ruled by moral absolutes. When the youngest member of the Winslow family, 13-year-old Ronnie (the “Winslow Boy” of the title, played by Guy Edwards) is expelled from the Royal Naval College for stealing a five-schilling postal order, his father asks him if the accusation is true.  When Ronnie denies the charge, that’s all the evidence Arthur Winslow (Nigel Hawthorne) needs. A retired bank examiner whose means are comfortable but not unlimited, he is prepared to spend them “down to the last collar stud” as they say at Lloyd’s of London in what becomes a two-year campaign to clear the boy’s name.

In the process Arthur subjects his family to nationwide scorn (inserts show the Winslow Boy mocked in everything from political cartoons to sheet music), drives off his daughter’s fiancé, and damages his own health, while the expense of pursuing the case force his older son to leave Oxford and take a job. The fact that Ronnie is settled happily into a different school long before his case is heard is beside the point: Arthur is pursuing justice for its own sake.  He enlists the noted attorney Sir Robert Morton (Jeremy Northam) to argue Ronnie’s case, and finds in him a man equally devoted to absolutes.  Sir Robert’s justification for pursuing the case before the House of Lords (because the Royal Naval College is run by the Admiralty, a branch of the English government, it cannot be sued in an ordinary court) is simple: “Let Right Be Done.”

Arthur Winslow and Sir Robert Morton are as ruthless in their way as the real estate salesmen in Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross are in theirs, which may explains the appeal of this rather traditional play to the director. Mamet is not interested in establishing the truth or falsity of the accusation, but rather in observing how it characters to reveal their true moral fiber through their reactions to it.

The merits of being true to your principles are echoed in a parallel plot in which Catherine Winslow (Rebecca Pidgeon), Ronnie’s older sister, must choose the course her adult life will take. As the film opens, she has accepted a marriage proposal from John Watherstone (Aden Gillett), a convenient but apparently loveless choice: when questioned by her mother (Gemma Jones), Catherine’s protestation that “I love John in every way that a woman can love a man” rings entirely false. John can do no better: in the obligatory interview with Arthur Winslow, the best account he can give of himself is that of course he wants to marry Catherine “because I’ve proposed to her and she’s accepted me.”

Ronnie’s misfortune proves to be Catherine’s salvation: in the wake of the ensuing scandal, John withdraws his proposal. To her credit, she refuses the easy option of a safe but passionless marriage to the family solicitor, Desmond Curry (Colin Stinton), who’s been carrying a torch for years. Instead, she embraces grossly underpaid work in support of women’s suffrage and accepts the possibility of living out her life as an old maid. 

Or perhaps not: the film hints at the possibility of a future marriage of true minds between Catherine and Sir Robert. Seemingly as dissimilar as chalk and cheese and in disagreement on many major issues,  over the course of the trial they come to recognize that they have one important trait in common: the passion to pursue what they believe to be right. Mamet gives them the final scene, and suggests that each may have met their match in the other. Having been informed by Sir Robert that women’s suffrage is a lost cause, Catherine responds “How little you know women.” Being told that it’s unlikely they will meet again, he gets the last word: “How little you know men.” Sarah Boslaugh

Star Wars Episode I and more

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Director: Lynne Ramsay
Cast: William Eadie, Tommy Flanagan, Mandy Matthews, Michelle Stewart, Lynne Ramsay Jr., Leanne Mullen

(BBC Films; US theatrical: 13 May 1999; 1999)

Ratcatcher Director: Lynne Ramsay

A boy appears onscreen, swaddled in drapery, spinning himself ever tighter. Suddenly, he’s dealt a smack upside his head, and berated, apparently by Mom, for playing in her precious curtains. The boy, blond-haired Glaswegian Ryan Quinn, heads out to play by a fetid canal with his mate, 12-year-old James. Before Lynn Ramsay’s stark 1999 drama Ratcatcher hits the five-minute mark, Ryan lies dead by the waterside. Ramsay’s camera records the lad’s corpse quite leisurely, in a series of disquieting stills.

How often does one see a film where the protagonist is offed before one can blink?  But we—the viewers—stand corrected. The visual language of Ratcatcher’s opening sequence tells us that Ryan is our “hero”, but he isn’t; rather, the sharp-faced, jug-eared James (William Eadie) is, and the accidental death of his friend hangs over the film all the way to its elliptical, melancholy climax.

Ratcatcher  represents a particular mode of cinema vérité, currently in vogue, as evidenced by recent festival favorites like Ballast, Chop Shop, and the somewhat talkier Frozen River, not to mention Ken Loach’ 2002 Sweet Sixteen or the banal whimsicality of Scotland’s own Bill Forsyth. It’s a film of smothering silences, decidedly spare in dialogue, but what verbiage exists is delivered in dense, mumbling Scotch accents, probably unintelligible to anyone outside that tiny remnant of England’s once-global empire, the land of haggis, Sean Connery, and the Baskerville Hound’s fabled moors.

The story unfolds during Glasgow’s punishing 1973 garbage collectors’ strike, and the title refers to the all-too-necessary “job” of trapping vermin, plentiful in numbers thanks to aromatic heaps of refuse piling up outside the ancient row houses James and his neighbors inhabit. James’ daily activities seem to exist simultaneously inside and outside the social world of the people around him. He isn’t keen on sports, unlike his football-obsessed “Da”, and finds his sister Ellen endlessly annoying—I know, what pre-teen boy doesn’t? His “friendship” with some older ne’er-do-wells is ambiguous, wavering between camaraderie and bullying sarcasm. He covertly lusts—romantically and otherwise—after plain-Jane Margaret Anne (Leanne Mullen) who entices a more threatening desire from his raffish mates, while enjoying some sweet private moments with James.

All this occurs on the eve of the family’s subsidized relocation to council housing, far outside the city, as part of an urban redevelopment project. In one sequence, James hops a bus to see the unfinished flat his family will eventually occupy, in the UK’s. own version of America’s exurban fringes. James wanders the empty house like a prospective squatter, later frolicking in a desolate wheat field, seemingly alone in the world. It’s a distinctly American image for this Scottish neo-realist import, reminiscent of John Ford westerns or the teenage Clark Kent embracing his adopted mother amidst the amber waves of grain in Superman, but here, it seems to hint at the increased isolation James may feel in his new locale, away from the busy confines of his inner-city ‘hood. A dreamy boy like James might ultimately become ambivalent about these bucolic surroundings.

If the rancid waterway lurking outside James’ home is symbolic of danger in his precarious life, then perhaps the gray, post-industrial drabness of working-class Glasgow is as much of a trap for the family as a maze is for the titular rats, who will surely be eliminated under renewal dictates. The film’s mysterious anti-climax is certain to provoke argument, but Ratcatcher’s character-driven anomie mostly suggests that James’ family—and their fellow proletarians—are superfluous in a shrinking, de-industrialized economy, and are in fact “pests”, better brushed under the rug, by transportation to areas with even fewer employment opportunities than where they already are. If the early 1970s are James’ Wonder Years, one shudders to think what could follow. Somehow, I doubt it will be a headlining show at the Hammersmith Odeon. Terrance Butcher

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Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Director: George Lucas
Cast: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Pernilla August, Frank Oz, Terence Stamp

(20th Century Fox; US theatrical: 19 May 1999; 1999)

Official Site

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace Director: George Lucas

There may be no way to gauge such things, but it’s possible that the release of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was the most hyped entertainment event in history. Ironically, only a fraction of the pre-release fervor was created by George Lucas himself, since the film’s advertising blitz—two trailers, a handful of TV spots and a music video—seems quaint by today’s viral-marketing standards. 

Instead The Phantom Menace’s status as a genuine cultural event was caused by a self-fulfilling prophecy, in which seemingly every magazine, website and entertainment news show took turns praising the film, sight unseen. I remember browsing in a bookstore in early 1999 and seeing an issue of George (the now-defunct political magazine founded by JFK Jr.) with a headline on the cover that announced: “How Star Wars Will Change American Politics.” Taken at face value that statement sounds ridiculous, but it actually makes perfect sense. Star Wars wouldn’t change American politics, but a magazine that featured Star Wars on the cover would sell more issues, while at the same time doing its part to convince one more sector of the populace that the movie was a work of great importance.

There are some apologists for George Lucas who would argue that any movie built up to such stratospheric heights would invariably disappoint, but the fact remains that The Phantom Menace is a mediocre film by any reasonable standard. Lucas hadn’t directed a movie in 22 years and his filmmaking instincts had atrophied badly; as a writer it’s debatable if he was ever that talented. The result was a lumpy, pretentious film that succeeded as neither art nor as simple entertainment. If the movie was made for adults, why did it contain terrible dialogue, awkward performances and lame jokes like Jar Jar stepping in a pile of dung? If the movie was made for kids, why were its characters so bland that it was tough to cheer for the heroes or root against the villains, while the plot was centered around political and tax disputes?

Unfortunately, I believe The Phantom Menace is the best of the prequel trilogy (even if “best of the prequel trilogy” is practically synonymous with “damning with faint praise”). It’s the only film of the three that possesses even brief flashes of life or energy, but the real reason The Phantom Menace occasionally works can be summed up in two words: Liam Neeson. 

Most of the actors in the prequels can be separated into two camps: those that almost seem embarrassed to be there (Natalie Portman, Samuel L. Jackson, Ewan McGregor) and those untalented enough to fit right in (Hayden Christensen, Jake Lloyd). But Neeson not only manages to sell every line of dialogue, he creates a character with a surprising amount of humanity and ambiguity. He nails one of the few well-written scenes in the movie, in which Anakin Skywalker notices his lightsaber and asks if he’s a Jedi, to which Neeson mischievously responds, “perhaps I killed a Jedi and took it from him.” Anakin then says he doesn’t believe that a Jedi could be killed, and Neeson’s weary delivery of his next line—“I wish that were so”—perfectly captures someone who’s both a larger-than-life hero and an imperfect human being.

The Phantom Menace does have a few other high points.  The pod race and lightsaber duel sequences are imaginative and fast-paced, and John Williams’s score is terrific (in particular, I love that the track “Anakin’s Theme” turns the iconic “Imperial March” into a haunting, childlike melody). But these seem like such meager pleasures for a film that was greeted with the same level of anticipation as a religious experience.

Yet in spite of the movie’s actual quality, I have to admit that I did have a lot of fun eagerly awaiting it. As our culture continues to splinter into ever-smaller niches, it’s rare to find events that can get a large mass of people excited. This decade has produced a few so far – the last Harry Potter novel, “Hey Ya”, The Dark Knight, Captain Jack Sparrow impressions during the summer of 2003 – but even those look a little small compared to the mania that preceded The Phantom Menace. 1999 is generally remembered as a great year for cinema, with a number of films that reaffirmed the importance of the movies. By uniting so many filmgoers with a collective desire to see a corny sci-fi movie, The Phantom Menace deserves to be included on that list. Jack Rodgers

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