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by James Arnold

'98 Movies:
Long, Thoughtful, Profitable


WHERE MOVIES WENT IN 1998: Customers went mostly to see Titanic. And they stayed a long time, not only at Titanic but also at The Horse Whisperer and Meet Joe Black. We'll just have to reorganize our lives for three-hour movies.

Television was a subject for pondering. What if a man's life was "made-for-TV" and he didn't know it? (The Truman Show). What if you got transported back into a 1950's family TV series? (Pleasantville). Something like this reality shifting also happens, remarkably, in Life Is Beautiful, in which a child is convinced he's involved in an elaborate game instead of being in a concentration camp.

Such films were about the power of art and imagination to enlarge and ennoble life. As Sister Wendy says, "So many people live in a prison of daily life with no one to tell them to look out or look up. If you don't know about God, art is the only thing that can set you free."

Cartoon features, whose core audience is age seven, are suddenly adult and cutting-edge. Competing bug epics (Disney's A Bug's Life, DreamWorks's Antz) had totaled $221 million by December. Mulan by itself hit $196 million. DreamWorks's The Prince of Egypt, the story of Moses cut down to 97 minutes—compared to DeMille's almost four hours—opened simultaneously on 7,500 screens in 40 countries in 25 languages after being run past almost 700 clerics and theologians. (It must be safe!) Are moral values commercial or what?

Another trend is klutzy comedy. Gross-out There's Something About Mary reached $305 million in December. At least Jerry Springer's Ringmaster flopped. Consider the moment in Bulworth (Warren Beatty's raucous satire) when the senatorial campaign debate was canceled so it wouldn't bump the Springer TV show.

The Hitchcock Replay Derby included A Perfect Murder and Psycho: Hitch 2, Replays 0. And there were end-of-millennium thrillers (Armageddon, Deep Impact).

Post-death imaginings (What Dreams May Come, Meet Joe Black) may be with us awhile. But if heaven is this complicated, we're all going to have to smarten up.

THE BEST (of those reviewed here):

The Best (of those reviewed here): The Apostle, The Truman Show, Saving Private Ryan, Life Is Beautiful, The Horse Whisperer, Smoke Signals, Out of Sight, Next Stop Wonderland.

Also Worth the Price: The Mighty, As Good As It Gets, Ronin, Mask of Zorro, Wild Dog Blues.

The Basil Rathbone Memorial Award (for most rotten villain): Ed Harris, as the omnipotent TV director in The Truman Show. Runners-up James Gandolfini, as the evil convict Dad (The Mighty), and Stuart Wilson, as the baby-stealing Don Montero (Zorro), are traditional heels with wicked careers ahead of them.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa Prize (for a good idea most gone bad): Michael Crichton's Sphere, in which the mysterious globe that gives one the power to make real the images of one's imagination is used to create only horror (like too many 1990's movies).

Most Instructive Warning: How easily emotions and perceptions of reality are manipulated by music and images (Wag the Dog).

Films About Grace: The Apostle, in which a flawed minister helps people save their souls; Simon Birch and The Mighty, in which severely disabled children find heroic destinies; and Life Is Beautiful, in which a father saves his young son from despair.

The Ludwig Van and Wolfgang Amadeus Medals (for very clever use of music): Offenbach's Barcarolle, played on a record by the hero for his wife over the prison-camp loudspeaker at a dark moment (Life Is Beautiful). Also loved the bossa-nova themes for joy and poignancy (Next Stop Wonderland), and Adam Sandler teaching Grandma to sing "'Til There Was You" for her 50th anniversary (The Wedding Singer). Best concert film: Wild Dog Blues.

The Robert Flaherty Award (for best use of real locale): Coney Island (He Got Game). Runners-up: Montana (The Horse Whisperer), and the French Riviera and Paris (Ronin).

Favorite Female Actor (unlikely to be Oscar-nominated): Drew Barrymore, as both the innocent waitress looking for romance (The Wedding Singer) and as the lovable Cinderella (Ever After: A Cinderella Story). Also, really liked Ashley Judd, as the luminous mom (Simon Birch), and Marcia Gay Harden, as the daughter who is less loved but adores her father anyway (Meet Joe Black).

Favorite Male Actor (unlikely to be Oscar-nominated): Barry Pepper, as the sharpshooter who prays before he does his work (Saving Private Ryan). Also, Jeff Bridges, as the marvelous grizzled hippie (The Big Lebowski), Nigel Hawthorne, as the aging gay theater critic struggling with tragic loneliness (The Object of My Affection), and J. T. Walsh (rest in peace), as the last defender of the white-male power structure (Pleasantville).

Doting Grandpa Award (for best A-2 movie): Mask of Zorro. Also-rans: Ever After, The Mighty.

Best Action-movie Climax: Out of Sight's ending had wit, surprises, even touches of nobility. It also had one of the all-time unusual meetings of hero and heroine: They're locked in the same car trunk during a prison break and talk about old movies.

Memorable Moments and Images: The Omaha Beach assault and the letters-of-condolence sequence (Saving Private Ryan), Sonny Dewey's night argument with God (The Apostle), gay hero George (Object of My Affection) watching young father in park playing catch with son, the latest recycling of "I am Spartacus" scene as "I am Zorro" (Mask of Zorro), the role reversal when mother and daughter discuss sex (Pleasantville), the metaphorical biblical temptation scene when the big-shot agent offers high school basketball phenom Jesus Shuttlesworth all the masculine power toys of the modern world if he'll just turn pro (He Got Game).

Ingmar Bergman Award (for best new symbol): The pet armadillo in Simon Birch that represents the deformed Simon himself.

The Leo and Kate Titanic Award (for best romantic moment): In City of Angels, former angel Nick Cage always used to ask the recently dead what they liked most about life. Beloved Meg Ryan, dying in his arms, says, "When they ask me, I'll tell them it was you."

Among Many Contributors to Film Culture Who Died in 1998: director Akira Kurosawa (Ran); producer Alan Pakula (To Kill a Mockingbird); choreographer Jerome Robbins (West Side Story); Disney artist Kendall O'Connor; cinematographer Freddie Young (Lawrence of Arabia); writer James Goldman (Lion in Winter); western stars Roy Rogers and Gene Autry; singer Frank Sinatra; actors Jean Marais, Lloyd Bridges, Alice Faye, Maureen O'Sullivan, Robert Young, J. T. Walsh, E. G. Marshall, Dane Clark, Binnie Barnes, Roddy McDowall.

Lines to Remember: "If I tell them who you are, no one will stay for dinner." (Host to Death, Meet Joe Black)

"The last thing I'd ever do is lie to you." (Truman's fake brother, The Truman Show)

"Tell me I've led a good life and I'm a good man." (Pvt. Ryan as an old man to his wife at the Normandy military cemetery, Saving Private Ryan)

"Don't smile like that! Get stoic. Look mean. Like a warrior!" (Native American to his easygoing pal, Smoke Signals)

"Did you ever love me?" (Cinderella, Ever After) "How can anyone love a pebble in their shoe?" (Stepmother's response)

"It's love when your friend lets you have the window seat on the plane." (The Wedding Singer)

"'Honey, I'm home' doesn't work anymore." (Puzzled father, Pleasantville)

THE YOUTH THING is the big news of the departed television year. When you glance at the schedules or zap through the channels, it often seems as if you wandered into a dorm or a sports bar. The crisis is final-exams week or figuring out who to date or room with. What happened to life and death?

The 800-pound gorilla in the living room, of course, is advertising, TV's lifeblood. The networks say they want ages 18-49, but 18-34 is even better.

High-tech research tells gurus more things about watchers of every stupid TV series than even their mothers know: gender, income, education, where they live, what they buy, abdominal scars.

The demos are the law, especially at the newer, on-the-make networks, like Fox, UPN and WB. "Sure, the networks might tell you they welcome all viewers," an Entertainment Weekly journalist writes, "but don't believe it. If you're over 50, TV ain't programming for you."

FELICITY (Tuesdays, WB), this season's most hyped new series, fits the scenario. Its smashing-looking, sensitive heroine (Keri Russell) is an idealistic California girl who follows boyfriend Ben to college in New York. She talks about her experiences into a recorder.

Plots deal with anxiety at leaving home, making new friends in a new place, going home for Christmas. There are also moral issues (cheating, date rape), but romance is key (so far, inconstant Ben vs. new guy Noel).

With Ron Howard as one of its exec producers, the series has some quality and a romantic-comedy tone. The "finals week" episode had much humorous whispering in the library's "silent reading room," with dialogue comically in subtitles.

Felicity is not War and Peace or even the long-departed, wonderful Paper Chase, but so far it's not Melrose Place either. Unfortunately (unfelicitously?), cocreator J. J. Abrams promises Felicity "will have sex" before the end of the year. (As a 1990's motto, that could be carved in stone.) Just the thing to cure the impeachment blues.

QUO VADIS DEPARTMENT: Commenting on our celebrity culture and the trivialization of the newsmagazines, The New Republic noted a recent cover of Newsweek sporting a sexy, come-hither portrait of an actress who has a nude moment in a new play. The caption: "Nicole Kidman bares all—about her daring Broadway debut, marriage to Tom Cruise and their fight for privacy." TNR wryly observes: "Baring all in a fight for privacy: It is an epitaph for the way we live now."

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