Category Archives: 1998

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).


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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).


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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).


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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).


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