Tony Goldwyn’s A Walk on the Moon (B+) is an unexpected sleeper of a melodrama and a highly recommended movie of 1999. An unfulfilled homemaker, played beautifully by Diane Lane, quietly suffers as the tumultuous events of the summer of 1969 unfold on the surface of her TV screen. But, when she invites a dashing traveling salesman (Viggo Mortensen) into the safety of her living room for the live broadcast of the historic moon landing, they begin a passionate affair that threatens to destroy her marriage to her by-the-books high school sweetheart, sturdily played by Liev Schreiber. Goldwyn does a great job working with the actors, including Anna Paquin as the wise family daughter, who give lived-in qualities to the characters. The film is also a superb depiction of a time period in transition, with Woodstock and Vietnam era references and songs such as “Purple Haze” on the soundtrack. It’s sexy, symbolic and pulls you in.
John Lasseter’s Toy Story 2 (B) expands the emotional landscapes of Pixar’s playscapes. The animation is stronger and the story more expansive, but the novelty isn’t quite as nifty. The energetic ensemble faces displacement due to Woody’s discovery of his origins in a televised Western puppet show, and adventure ensues. Woody gets a countrified love interest in Jessie, accompanied by plaintiff music. This series has a habit of piling on new characters to mixed effect. All in all, it’s a fun sequel.
It’s the prequel turkey that will live in infamy: George Lucas’ Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (D). Presenting virtually no interesting characters that inhabit early galactic life and a storyline about tax disputes, the film sends two Jedi knights (Ewan McGregor and Liam Neeson) with mullets and rat-tails and their piercingly annoying CGI sidekick Jar-Jar Binks to pick up a bratty kid (Jake Lloyd) and an inexpressive queen (Natalie Portman). It’s not clear what they’re supposed to do then except bide time between now and when this moppet becomes an angsty teenager. Meanwhile, there’s an interminable pod race, a cool double-edge lightsaber battle and some revisionist history about how you activate the Force in your bloodstream. Lucas’ clunky direction and dialogue miss the mark in each and every way in this very embarrassing opening salvo to the prequel trilogy.
M. Night Shyamalan’s supernatural thriller The Sixth Sense (A-) pairs Bruce Willis and child actor Haley Joel Osment for a tender and suspenseful look at the afterlife. As a psychologist helping a boy who believes he sees and talks to people who have died, Willis is absorbing and effective. Newcomer Osment is very good in his role. Shyamalan turns the screws with great suspense, leading to a stunning showdown with fate.
Alexander Payne’s Election (A) is a hilariously dark comedy set in high school about the lengths one student (Reese Witherspoon) will go to rise to the top ranks of student government. Witherspoon’s “Tracy Flick” can heretofore be a metaphor for overly motivated political animals. Matthew Broderick is amusing as the teacher who may find he’s created a monster. Chris Klein is fun as the jock rival for Flick’s political ambitions.
Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (A-) is a chilling psychological thriller with Matt Damon playing an American sociopath and scam artist in Italy who covets the life of a couple (Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow) and devises a plan to make their life his own. Picturesque settings and mystery twists and turns mark this beguiling film. Damon is spectacular in the lead role.
There is more than meets the eye behind both Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening’s picture-perfect marriage and nearly everything going on in their neighborhood in Sam Mendes’ revealing dark comedy American Beauty (A). The acting is superb and the satire biting in this cautionary tale with parallel tales of unhinged, unfulfilled adults and teens acting out fantasies in modern-day suburbia gone horribly awry.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (A) is a rich canvas of interweaving Los Angeles stories about the wounds people inflict on each other and the redemptive qualities the right people can bring to each other at just the right time and just the right moment. Tom Cruise and Julianne Moore are among the standout performers in this miracle play, in which you feel frogs really could start falling from the sky. Anderson’s quick pacing and cross-cutting also leaves room for some very long conversations and extremely poignant conversations. The songbook of Aimee Mann is almost a supporting character as it features prominently in many of the film’s vital scenes. This is a dramatic tour de force and will challenge the viewer in myriad ways.
David Fincher’s Fight Club (A-) is an awesome underground action drama with Edward Norton and Brad Pitt playing the opposite ends of the spectrum of modern men of today. Fed up with his WASP-y life, Norton’s character finds himself lured into a nihilistic world of fighting and vulgarity, where he can finally feel again. But it’s not as simple as it seems, when you can’t tell anyone about fight club. Helena Bonham Carter is great in a supporting role as a love interest of both guys. Norton and Pitt are outstanding in their parts and add iconic cult characters to their repertoire.