Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997; directed by Clint Eastwood)

"Nobody knows anybody, not that well."

That's a line from Miller's Crossing, but it fits this movie perfectly. A wonderful movie about what a mystery other people can be. And the casting is perfect, since no actor today implies more while revealing less than Kevin Spacey, and no actor today listens to other actors better than John Cusak. The rest of the cast provides excellent support, especially The Lady Chablis playing herself (this is based on a true story). She takes over the movie whenever she appears, and some of her scenes don't have anything to do with the plot but apparently Eastwood couldn't bear to cut them, and it's easy to see why.

There is an unnecessary subplot with Alison Eastwood as John Cusak's love interest, but I suspect this is the elder Eastwood's commercial sense coming to the fore. Since one of his two major characters is gay, he probably wanted to emphasize to the audience that the other isn't, which is a reasonable concern since Cusak and The Lady Chablis have great chemistry in their scenes together.

The movie is overlong. I could have done without some of the "colorful Savannah characters" and the final scene weakens the impact of the film's real climax a little, but on the whole it's well worth renting.

Also Recommended:

With Kevin Spacey: L.A. Confidential

With John Cusak: Grosse Point Blank, The Thin Red Line, Cradle Will Rock


Best of 1999 / Best of the Decade

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Conspiracy Theory (1997; directed by Richard Donner)

Not as obscure as some of the movies on this list, but less successful than it should have been. Mel Gibson plays a New York City cabdriver who's a loony conspiracy theorist in his spare time. He publishes a crackpot newsletter with five subscribers, and he stalks Julia Roberts, who works for the Justice Department.

But then, to everybody's surprise, people are actually trying to kill Gibson. Apparently at least one of his crackpot theories must be right after all. Gibson's performance is the best thing in the movie, he's convincingly jittery and semi-coherent, full of strange theories (like his belief that Jerry Garcia isn't really dead, because the Grateful Dead are really agents of British Intelligence), the type of person who's so paranoid that he not only padlocks his refrigerator but even the containers inside it. The scenes where he watches Roberts in her apartment with his binoculars are really disturbing, but, of course, he's still Mel Gibson, so the way she eventually sides with him is not completely unconvincing. Their relationship is moving and not completely predictable, her feelings for him are at least as much maternal as anything else.

The movie was criticized for raising a lot of interesting X-Files-like ideas about the world, and then dumping them all when the plot started to move, but an attentive viewing reveals that this isn't true, and that many of them are actually confirmed later on in the film. You have to pay attention, though.

On the whole, well worth renting.

Also Recommended:

With Mel Gibson: Braveheart

With Julia Roberts: Erin Brockovich


Best of 1999 / Best of the Decade

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Contact (1997; directed by Robert Zemeckis)

The first thing that intrigued me about this movie was the cast. I thought that any movie with Jodie Foster, James Woods, Tom Skerritt and Angela Bassett would probably be worth seeing. Well, it is, and in fact it's very good. It's based on Carl Sagan's novel, about what will happen the first time the human race encounters life from other worlds. In Sagan's view, which this movie shares, it is not a question of whether we will but only of when it will happen, and how we will handle it when it does.

Jodie Foster plays Ellie Arroway, a scientist driven (and perhaps even obsessed) with the idea that we are not alone in this huge universe. She is a wonderful character, insisting in dealing with the world as if it's a logical place. When her father dies, she refuses to believe it was "God's will," insisting that it was simply because they didn't think to have his heart medicine easily available in all parts of the house. As a scientist and an idealist, though, she is somewhat thrown by all the opportunism and irrationality that comes to the fore when the first contact is made and suddenly her small scientific station is the subject of major political infighting and scheming.

James Woods plays a slimeball (as he does so well), a politician who has no understanding of the implications of what is happening and insists on treating it as just another political crisis. Tom Skerritt plays the former director of Ellie's project who (now that it's suddenly producing results) wants to jump back on board and take all the credit. Angela Bassett plays President Clinton's press secretary and she's pretty good but she isn't in very many scenes. (Clinton himself shows up a few times, inserted into scenes as Zemeckis did with various historical figures in "Forrest Gump" a few years ago.)

The movie is a little too long, and it tries too hard to straddle both sides of the faith vs. science debate (I imagine Sagan's book was a little more partisan on this question), but the best scenes are wonderful. The fifteen or twenty minutes right after Ellie hears the first signal are the most exciting I've seen in a movie in a long while (especially striking since most of the scientific terms the characters are barking at each other are in a foreign language as far as I'm concerned).

The only big flaw in the movie is the character of Palmer Joss, played by Matthew McConaughey. He's supposed to be a best-selling author of spiritual books and an advisor to the president, but he is far too young to be either of these things, and in addition he seems rather smug and insincere. It is typical of the movie's attempt to avoid offending anybody that he's supposed to be a nationally famous religious figure, but he doesn't seem to have any specific religion.

It is amusing, though, to see how thoroughly McConaughey has (as Foster put it in an interview) the "girl role" in the movie. He's much younger and prettier than she is, and much younger and prettier than somebody who would do what his character does in life (the effect is sort of like seeing Alicia Silverstone play a high-level corporate lawyer, for example). They sleep together once and then Ellie says, "Leave your number, I'll call you." I could hear many of the women in the audience get a good laugh out of hearing her say that to him. Throughout the movie, Ellie makes decisions and acts on them, and then Palmer reacts, usually trying to convince her not to take risks. She is blunt and direct, and he often operates in a sly way. This reversal of the usual male and female roles in movies is amusing, but it's not enough to justify such an unbelievable character.

I've read that originally they were considering Ralph Fiennes to play Palmer Joss, and it's interesting to imagine how that would have worked. The romance would have been more believable, and the question of science versus faith would have seemed like more of a fair fight. But, all that aside, the movie is definitely worth seeing, and the best thing about it is Jodie Foster. She doesn't act in very many movies, so it's easy to forget how good an actress she is. She plays Ellie as a real person, not an idealized movie hero. She's driven and impatient and idealistic and sometimes undiplomatic and blunt, but she carries us through the movie's slow parts and fuzzy ideas by the force of her belief and excitement.

Also Recommended:

With Angela Bassett: Strange Days

With Matthew McConaughey: Lone Star

With David Morse: The Green Mile


Best of 1999 / Best of the Decade

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Donnie Brasco (1997; directed by Mike Newell)

See this one.

This is the story of Joe Pistone (Johnny Depp) who infiltrated the mob in the 1970s under the name "Donnie Brasco." He became friends with Lefty Ruggiero (Al Pacino), an aging wiseguy who is starting to realize that no matter how many hits he does (he's done 26) he is never going to make it any further up the ladder than he has already.

The undercover assignment was supposed to last three months, and it ended up going on for years, much to the dismay and eventual anger of Pistone's wife (Anne Heche) who is stuck being both parents to their three daughters. And, much as "Donnie" wants to be back with his family, he knows the minute he "comes out" Lefty will be killed.

Pacino is excellent, but the real star is Depp. This is the best performance I have ever seen him give, portraying a character who is almost always being a couple of different people at once. Anne Heche is good as well (the role of "the wife" in these kinds of movies can be pretty thankless), making it convincing that she would stay with Joe, but would never just nobly accept the situation. I read an interview recently with Pistone, who pointed with some pride to the fact that he and his wife are still together, since (as I can well believe) almost everybody who did what he did ended up divorced.

The direction is not showy or fancy in any way, but thinking back I realize how good it was. When you've got a good story, good dialogue and great actors, it's like managing a great baseball team. Just sit back and don't screw it up.

As I said, go see this one. Coming out of it, I thought that this was, in the best and most literal sense of the term, an adult movie. The concerns are grown-up concerns, the characters are multi-dimensional, they are changed by what they go through (at least some of them are), and there is no pat Hollywood ending.

The moral of Mother Night applies equally well here: "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be very careful about what we pretend to be."

Also Recommended:

With Johnny Depp: Dead Man, Ed Wood, What's Eating Gilbert Grape?, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

With Al Pacino: The Insider

With Anne Heche: Wag the Dog


Best of 1999 / Best of the Decade

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Rosewood (1997; directed by John Singleton)

I thought this movie was going to be a downer, since it's about a real incident where an all-Black town in Florida was burned to the ground by white racists from the neighboring town. And much of it is painful in that way which fiction never is. But there is a hopeful ending (though certainly not a happy one) which comes out of but doesn't diminish everything which has come before.

It verges on oversimplification at times, but it never crosses over the line, chiefly because of the way it puts characters in situations they never expected to face, and then seems to step back and watch what they do. Like The Shawshank Redemption, it portrays people who are a little larger than life, but instead of making you feel it's an exaggeration, you come out of it feeling that maybe people are a little larger than you thought.

I suspect it plays fast and loose with historical accuracy, but that's fine with me.

Also Recommended:

With Don Cheadle: Devil in a Blue Dress, Bulworth


Best of 1999 / Best of the Decade

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Alien Resurrection (1997; directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet)

I was originally not that impressed with this picture, but it has grown on me.

It would seem to be a difficulty that Ellen Ripley, the only continuing character in the franchise, died at the end of the last Alien picture, but the writer and director have turned this into an advantage, basically recreating the character with a new sardonic humor which is a welcome development.

Ripley destroyed herself at the end of last movie in order to destroy the alien which was growing inside her (a queen). Now, two hundred years later, she's been cloned by military scientists in order to examine and tame the alien she was trying to kill. Of course, she warns the scientists that the alien will get loose, and of course they don't listen, and of course she's right. As with all movies of this type, we meet a group of characters most of whom will not survive, and we get to figure out which ones will make it and which ones won't.

Within this rather predictable structure, though, there are some definite pleasures. The main one, of course, is Sigourney Weaver herself. When Ripley was cloned, there was some mix of alien and human genes, so now she has somewhat divided loyalties. When the aliens first break free and she hears their roar, a flicker of a smile crosses her face. This, plus the fact that she's alive again after two hundred years, facing the same menace she already wiped out once before, gives her a great wry humor about things. When she explains to a terrified crewman that there's a monster growing inside his chest which will eventually burst out and kill him, he asks, "Who are you?" and she smiles and replies, "I'm the monster's mother."

Except for Wynona Ryder, the cast is very good. J.E. Freeman, Ron Perlman, Dan Hedaya, Michael Wincott and Dominique Pinon are all solid, giving their rather stock characters a little extra flair whenever possible. And even Ryder's character Call is enjoyable, because she gives Ripley so many opportunities to make fun of her.

Also Recommended:

With Sigourney Weaver: The Ice Storm

With J.E. Freeman: Miller's Crossing, Go

With Michael Wincott: Strange Days


Best of 1999 / Best of the Decade

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