Genetic Perfection

Gattaca is one of the most realistic depictions of the not too distant future. This is a future where genetic perfection is the most important thing in society. Scientifically engineered “valids” are artificially conceived through eugenics and genetically imperfect “in-valids” are naturally conceived. In his directorial debut, Andrew Niccol created a less than science fiction future that’s almost indistinguishable from our own. I first watched Gattaca in my high school science class, but I had a hard time following the complex premise. It didn’t surprise me to learn it wasn’t a financial success.

Genetic discrimination doesn’t sound exciting, but the older I got, the more fascinating Gattaca became. Ethan Hawke plays the “in-valid” Vincent who has a low life expectancy, but a dream worth rooting for. In order to go to space, Vincent must assume the identity of “valid” wheelchair bound swimmer Jerome. Jude Law makes a strong impression without the use of his legs. Vincent goes to extreme measures using DNA samples from Jerome just to join the Gattaca space program. A murder mystery makes the possibility of Vincent getting caught surprisingly suspenseful.

The impressive cast includes Tony Shalhoub, writer Gore Vidal, Ernest Borgnine, and a very early role for Maya Rudolph. Alan Arkin and Loren Dean play detectives using genetic testing to find the “in-valid” imposter. Vincent is only found out by his younger “valid” brother Anton and his attractive “valid” co-worker Irene. Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman have great chemistry because they actually fell in love on set. Their steamy romance is kept strictly PG-13. Although it feels open ended at times, Gattaca is a smartly written thriller with an inspirational message to defy expectations.


Vincent (aka Jerome) and Irene look up

The Whalers

Free Willy 3: The Rescue ends the unnecessary trilogy of the freed killer whale. It was dedicated to the real life rehabilitation of Keiko, but the famous orca died not long after his release. Although it was a noble cause, I don’t think anyone was asking for another Free Willy movie every 2 years. The quality began to dip with each passing entry. I can appreciate the animatronics, but Free Willy 3 feels cheap compared to the other movies. They couldn’t even afford a new Michael Jackson song.

Jason James Richter and August Schellenberg are the only returning cast members. The parents don’t appear and neither does Jesse’s half-brother from the second movie. Jesse is now working with Randolph on a research boat. Annie Corley is an unlikable researcher who fills the role of previous female companions. Since Jesse is now 16, child actor Vincent Berry represents the target demographic. Max is another bland kid who can’t compare to the original.

Willy finds a mate, but his pod is now threatened by whalers. Free Willy 3 makes the misguided decision to focus mostly on the bad guys. Rather than the usual greedy businessman, Patrick Kilpatrick is a single-minded whaler who hunts the orcas like Moby Dick. Since Max is the whaler’s son, most of the sequel is about him trying to change his father’s perspective. The life and death story wasn’t enough to keep the movie from tanking at the box-office. Free Willy 3 is all out of fresh ideas.

Free Willy 3

Jesse helps Willy

Preceded by: Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home

Save the Whales

Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home continues the story of the titular killer whale. Despite the fact that Willy has already been freed, Free Willy was a big enough success to spawn a franchise. Similar to the Jaws franchise, except there was also an animated series between the first and second movie. Free Willy 2 picks up with an older teenage Jesse who’s been officially adopted by the Greenwoods. Jason James Richter returns alongside most of the original cast. August Schellenberg, Michael Madsen, and Jayne Atkinson have expanded roles, but Lori Petty was busy swimming around a very different tank (girl).

Mykelti Williamson is mostly a glorified cameo who introduces a younger brother into the movie. Francis Capra plays Jesse’s annoying half-brother Elvis who essentially serves the same purpose Jesse once did. Though his connection to their late mother does bring some heart into the unnecessary sequel. Free Willy 2 does have the same effort put into it. Along with another less memorable Michael Jackson song called “Childhood.” Since Keiko was in the process of being freed, Willy is entirely animatronic along with his orca family Luna and Littlespot.

Jesse reconnects with Willy on a camping trip. Mary Kate Schellhardt plays Jesse’s girl Nadine that he impresses with his knowledge. Conflict only arrives when a carless company causes an oil spill. Without Petty, Elizabeth Peรฑa plays a different well-meaning whale doctor. Jon Tenney is the new greedy businessman and M. Emmet Walsh is a whaler who seek to profit off the orcas. Willy and his pod evade captivitivity, but it’s not as satisfying as his first big jump. So they add an oil fire just to build tension. Free Willy 2 is mostly an excuse to catch up with our whale friend.

Free Willy 2

Jesse meets Willy’s family

Preceded by: Free Willy & Followed by: Free Willy 3: The Rescue

A Boy and his Whale

Free Willy did for killer whales what Jaws did for sharks. There isn’t a single 90’s kid who doesn’t know the iconic image of a whale leaping over a boy. Free Willy is a quintessential animal movie, but I surprisingly never watched it when I was younger. Only Simpsons parodies and other media references. Since I already knew the ending, I guess I didn’t feel the need to watch the movie. Even though a movie called Free Willy has an obvious outcome, I needed to see everything in context. Free Willy has a lot of effort put into it for a family film. It’s nearly 2 hours with widescreen, Lauren Shuler Donner as producer, and an original song from Michael Jackson. “Will You Be There” is a sincere anthem that supports the film’s environmental message.

Willy is an orca ripped away from his pod and held in captivity at the Northwest Adventure Park (an obvious stand in for Sea World). Jesse is a troublemaking orphan who ends up working at the park as punishment for graffiti. Jesse and Willy are two lonely creatures who form a touching bond. Newcomer Jason James Richter is as good as the rest of the impressive cast. Jayne Atkinson and a less intimidating Michael Madsen are Jesse’s foster parents who attempt to connect with him. Before he was Bubba, Mykelti Williamson was Jesse’s well meaning social worker. Since it’s a 90’s movie, August Schellenberg is Jesse’s wise Native American mentor. Lori Petty continues her winning streak as a park trainer who helps Jesse train Willy to do tricks.

Even future screenwriter Michael Bacall and Halloween “scream queen” Danielle Harris have a small part in the movie. Richard Riehle and a non-Military Michael Ironside are greedy businessmen who seek to profit off Willy. When the killer whale grows increasingly homesick, they finally decide to free Willy. Seeing the big jump was more emotional than I was expecting. Willy is part animatronic, part orca actor Keiko. It’s honestly hard to tell the difference, especially when the final scene uses CGI. Free Willy was a major success that led to the real life release of Keiko into the wild. Sadly, Keiko didn’t have the happy ending that Willy had. Nevertheless, Free Willy is an inspiring whale tale.

Free Willy

Willy leaps over Jesse

Followed by: Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home

The Trap is Set

Entrapment entraps the audience with a ridiculously convoluted heist. The movie follows an undercover investigator and an aging master thief who end up pulling high stake jobs in the name of entrapment. Virginia “Gin” Baker is the investigator who poses as a thief in order to take down master thief Robert “Mac” MacDougal. Although I don’t often watch capers, I had several reasons to watch Entrapment. The main reason was Catherine Zeta-Jones. Since she became a sex symbol after Zorro, the movie takes full advantage of her sex appeal.

Gin sleeps naked, but it’s the sexy way that she glides through a series of practise lasers that became iconic. I recognized the scene long before I knew anything about the movie. The actual laser scene is tense and one of the more effective parts of the movie. Another curiosity of mine was the uncomfortable 39 year age difference between the male and female lead. I know Sean Connery was no stranger to younger love interests, but he was 68 while Zeta-Jones was only 29. A fatherly mentor relationship might’ve worked, but I cringe everytime they get intimate.

At least Connery made an impression in one of his last high profile roles before the new millennium. The 1999 Entrapment literally incorporates Y2K into the plot with an international heist at a Malaysian bank. You know it’s dated when Ving Rhames is Mac’s trusted contact and Will Patton is head FBI agent. The climactic heist gets especially ridiculous when they manage to survive hanging from a building. Then there’s the confusing ending where nobody is who they say they are. Entrapment is more of a guilty pleasure that wasn’t very well planned out.


Gin does a laser exercise

A Second Chance

A Christmas Carol (1999) is another traditional interpretation of the Charles Dickens’ Christmas classic. Which is why I call it the one with Patrick Stewart. Though he previously played Ebenezer Scrooge in a one-man show, the made-for-TV movie comes between performances of Captain Picard and Professor X. Stewart is a respected thespian who brings a Shakespearean gravitas to the harsh old miser who says “Bah, Humbug!” to Christmas. To date, he’s the only Scrooge with a bald head. A Christmas Carol (1999) is most similar to the 1984 version, but it does stand out. The first line in the book is worked into an opening where Scrooge attends Jacob Marley’s funeral. Scrooge is cruel to carol singers and turns away charity collectors who are surprisingly never seen again.

Dominic West is a cheerful Fred and Richard E. Grant is a struggling Bob Cratchit. Stewart approaches the visit of Marley’s ghost in a more thoughtful way. Though Bernard Lloyd feels a little off in the part. Joel Grey plays another androgynous Ghost of Christmas Past who retains the candle extinguishing cap. Though Scrooge was sent away after his mother’s death, he isn’t the cause of it. His little sister Fan is renamed Fran. Ian McNeice is a jolly old Fezziwig who opens Scrooge’s heart, but it’s broken again at the sight of losing Laura Fraser as Belle. Desmond Barrit is a stern, but well meaning Ghost of Christmas Present who uses blessed water. The Cratchits are a bit more lively than usual. Tiny Tim sounds sicker than he looks, but it’s always nice to hear him say “God bless us, everyone.”

A Christmas Carol (1999) may have a late 90’s TV budget, but they make up for it with striking cinematography. Fred’s party takes Scrooge back with memories of his sister. The grim tone meant another appearance of a more rabid Ignorance & Want. Present is quickly replaced by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. This version is unique for having glowing eyes. The charwoman who graverobs Scrooge is actually the same actress from the 1984 film. Like the 1935 Scrooge, the impact of Tiny Tim’s death is increased by seeing his body. Scrooge doesn’t fall to Hell, but he is frightened by his dead body. Stewart really shines with Scrooge’s redemption. He nearly chokes on his own hysterical laughter, attends church, and makes merry with everyone around him. His apology to Fred and his wife are enough to make you emotional. Cratchit is particularly shocked by his sudden transformation. A Christmas Carol (1999) is another brilliant showcase of Stewart’s acting talent.

9. A Christmas Carol 1999

Ebenezer Scrooge in the presence of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come

Random Acts of Kindness

A Christmas Carol (1997) is the earliest adaptation I saw of the Charles Dickens’ Christmas classic. I vaguely remember seeing it in elementary school and my brother remembers it being advertised on a Nickelodeon movie block. This version is a 90’s era animated musical by DIC Movie Toons. The animation is cheap and cartoonish and the songs are either sickeningly sweet or forgettable. Although faithful to the book, it’s obviously a disposable kids movie that simplifies the moral. The voice cast is impressive despite the quality of the production. It was only a matter of time before Tim Curry shouted “Bah, Humbug!” as Ebenezer Scrooge.

He’s a miserable miser alright, but they make the mistake of giving him an exaggerated bulldog companion named Debit. Scrooge learning compassion doesn’t exactly work when he has a dog to take care of. They’re nothing compared to the Grinch and Max. Michael York brings some balance as Bob Cratchit. Though another problem is Scrooge seeing Tiny Tim early on and showing pity before the spirits shows up. Ed Asner voices a plump Jacob Marley’s ghost who isn’t at all scary. Voice actress Kath Soucie voices multiple characters including a bell boy version of the Ghost of Christmas Past. The past is the usual amount of Scrooge’s lonely childhood, sister Fan, and apprenticeship with old Fezziwig.

Ariel voice actress Jodi Benson gets her own song as Belle (no, not that Belle). One thing I remembered from my childhood was Whoopi Goldberg voicing a black version of the traditional Ghost of Christmas Present. Apart from the goofy songs, the present is the same with the Cratchit family and Fred’s get together. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is a glowing spectre with the usual warning of death. The ending is slightly different with Scrooge bringing his employee and nephew together before declaring “God bless us, everyone” alongside Tiny Tim. A Christmas Carol (1997) is not without some charm, but it’s lazier than the story deserves.

8. A Christmas Carol 1997

Ebenezer Scrooge encourages Tiny Tim

Thanksgiving of ’73

The Ice Storm is a sad reality for many families on Thanksgiving. Happy Thanksgiving everyone! The Ice Storm may be set in the early 70’s, but it has the relatable cynicism of the late 90’s. The 1994 book was perfect for director Ang Lee’s love of human drama. The Ice Storm centers around 2 screwed up families from a well off suburban town in Connecticut. Most of their problems are connected to the sex, drugs, and alcohol that ran rampant in the 70’s. The Hood family consists of Ben, Elena, Wendy, and Paul. The Carver family consists of Jim, Janey, Mikey, and Sandy. Though it wasn’t nominated for a single Academy Award, the cast is filled with Oscar favorites and newcomers.

As if it wasn’t already similar to The Big Chill, Kevin Kline plays Ben who’s having an affair with his promiscuous neighbor. Sigourney Weaver got most of the awards attention playing the manipulative Janey. Joan Allen is left emotionally repressed as Ben’s mostly unaware wife Elena. Jamey Sheridan is mostly left out as Janey’s husband Jim until he’s faced with a similar situation. The kids aren’t much better with Christina Ricci growing up too fast as the sexually experimental Wendy. She mostly complains about Nixon and fools around with the Carver brothers. Elijah Wood plays the more curious Mikey who spends more time with Wendy. Adam Hann-Byrd plays the more destructive Sandy who wants to get closer to Wendy.

The implication is uncomfortable, but they never show anything. Paul is Wendy’s older brother visiting from a boarding school. Tobey Maguire ironically uses family analogies from a Fantastic Four comic that his character reads. Paul is interested in Libbets played by Katie Holmes in her very first acting role before Dawson’s Creek. An awkward Thanksgiving dinner is merely the set up to an eventful ice storm the following night. The couples confront their marital issues at a key party hosted by Allison Janney. Wendy makes her decision about which boy to be with. Paul gets a chance with Libbets before she passes out. The more dangerous the storm got, the more I expected something terrible to happen. The ending is tragic, but it does succeed in bringing the families together. The Ice Storm may thaw even the coldest of hearts.

The Ice Storm

The Hood family have Thanksgiving dinner

Truth Needs a Soldier

Clear and Present Danger strikes a balance between the previous Jack Ryan movies. Tom Clancy once again distanced himself from the adaptation to his fourth book. The Cardinal of the Kremlin was technically next, but it was deemed too difficult to adapt. John McTernan initially wanted to direct Clear and Present Danger, but Phillip Noyce stuck around instead. One of the changes Clancy didn’t like was how much attention Jack Ryan received since he’s not always the lead. Clear and Present Danger is the only Jack Ryan movie to have a returning actor in the lead role. Harrison Ford returns alongside Anne Archer, Thora Birch, and James Earl Jones who appeared in all three movies.

When Admiral James Greer is diagnosed with cancer, Ryan is appointed Deputy Director of Intelligence at the CIA. Kathy, Sally, and Jack Ryan Jr. aren’t part of the action like they were before. Clear and Present Danger may be the hardest installment to follow since there is a lot of analytics and Government cover-ups. The titular clear and present danger is the war on drugs. It’s a harsh subject, but the rating is PG-13 this time around. A Colombian cartel follows the Soviet Union and Irish terrorists as the latest threat. Joaquim de Almeida is Colonel Fรฉlix Cortez, a “Latin Jack Ryan” who seizes control of the cartel from Ernesto Escobedo.

Aside from an intense SUV ambush, Ryan spends most of his time learning who’s behind a covert Military operation. Willem Dafoe leads the team as important CIA Operative John Clark. Clark seems more ruthless than Ryan, but they end up working together. The climax is an explosive gun fight that makes up for the more limited action sequences. The lines of patriotism are blurred when Ryan realizes the entire incident leads directly to the President. Clear and Present Danger is a clear sign that Ford made the most of his time as Jack Ryan.

3. Clear and Present Danger

Jack Ryan teams up with John Clark

Preceded by: Patriot Games

Let the Games Begin

Patriot Games is even more patriotic than The Hunt for Red October. Tom Clancy’s second book in the Jack Ryan series was not his favorite adaptation. Apparently there were many changes that he couldn’t support. I could follow Patriot Games a little better, but only because there was more action to keep me invested. It’s actually rated R unlike its PG predecessor. Jack Ryan became similar to James Bond after the original actor was recast. Alec Baldwin was phased out in favor of action star Harrison Ford. John McTernan prefered Ford, but didn’t want to direct Patriot Games. Phillip Noyce replaced him as well. Ford is a much more hands on Jack Ryan.

Unlike The Hunt for Red October, the Soviet Union is replaced by the Irish Republican Army. Depicting the controversial Troubles in Northern Ireland was a big reason for McTernan’s exit. Ryan is now a former CIA analyst who encounters a terrorist attack in London. He kills the brother of IRA radical Sean Miller played by Sean Bean in a breakout villain role. Patrick Bergin plays his patriotic superior and Polly Walker plays a deadly redhead assassin. The only neutral Irishman is played by Richard Harris. Ryan’s family plays a much larger role when Miller seeks revenge.

Like Baldwin, Gates McFadden was replaced by Anne Archer as his wife Cathy Ryan. Up-and-coming child actress Thora Birch now plays his daughter Sally. The only returning actor is James Earl Jones as Admiral James Greer. Samuel L. Jackson is also brought in as a friend of the Naval Academy. So Han Solo, Darth Vader, and Mace Windu all attempt to track down the Irish terrorists. The climax is very different compared to The Hunt for Red October since it takes place inside Ryan’s invaded house. Though spared in the novel, Bean needed another violent death for his character. Patriot Games does just fine as a more conventional action thriller.

2. Patriot Games

Jack Ryan takes aim

Preceded by: The Hunt for Red October & Followed by: Clear and Present Danger