Follow the Money

All the President’s Men wasted no time covering the 1972-1974 Watergate Scandal. It’s the quintessential 70’s political thriller that has nothing to do with All the King’s Men. 1976 was another tricky Best Picture race that saw All the President’s Men go up against Taxi Driver, Network, and eventual winner Rocky. Some say All the President’s Men should’ve won, but I tend to root for the underdog. The film did win Best Supporting Actor, Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction, and Sound. All the President’s Men was adapted from the non-fiction book of the same name that Robert Redford picked up immediately.

Alan J. Pakula was chosen to direct and Redford played one of the two Washington Post reporters responsible for getting the scoop on Watergate. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein are practically synonymous with journalism. I won’t act like I fully understand all the politics, technical terms, or methods that went into a story like this, but all I know is that I was fully invested. Performances are top-notch and the paranoia fueled tension is palpable. Redford plays Woodard with journalistic integrity. Dustin Hoffman plays Bernstein as high-strung, but capable.

Together they report on the initial burglary, seek out uncooperative sources, face cover ups, and deal with the fact that their lives might be in danger. Their most famous informant who tells them to “Follow the Money” is the mysterious “Deep Throat” played in the shadows by Hal Holbrook. “Deep Throat” has been parodied so many times throughout the years. The cast is particularly stacked with Ned Beatty making another significant cameo the same year as Network. Only Jason Robards managed to win for playing the hotheaded head of The Washington Post Ben Bradlee. While Jane Alexander was nominated for playing the hesitant Bookkeeper. Richard Nixon is only ever seen on TV. All the President’s Men is an effective portrayal of the power of free press.

All the President's Men

Bob Woodward (right) and Carl Bernstein (left) work on their story

The Rat Symbolizes Obviousness

The Departed is the only Martin Scorsese movie to win Best Picture and Best Director. We all know it should’ve been Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, or Goodfellas, but I’m glad it was something that emphasised what he does best. A hard R crime thriller with shocking gang related violence, heavy profanity, and morally grey characters. The Departed sounds like it was tailor-made for Scorsese, but it’s actually an American remake of the 2002 Hong Kong crime thriller Infernal Affairs. Which technically makes The Departed the first remake to win Best Picture. I’ll admit my only knowledge of the movie was from the Simpsons parody episode “The Debarted.”

Scorsese elevates the foreign source material with a stellar all-star cast and a scenery change to Boston. “I’m Shipping Off to Boston” is the perfect song to kick things off. Jack Nicholson’s last great film role was playing Irish mobster Frank Costello. He’s a laid back gangster based on Whitey Bulger who takes a liking to young Colin Sullivan. Although Brad Pitt produced with the intention of starring, the role went to Boston native Matt Damon instead. Sullivan is the first rat who works as a mole for Costello inside the state police department. Scorsese’s new golden boy Leonardo DiCaprio plays dropout recruit Billy Costigan Jr. Costigan is the second rat who works undercover for the police in order to put Costello away.

Sullivan and Costigan don’t meet until the end, but they’re both flawed and desperate to maintain their cover. Their only direct connection is a psychiatrist played by Vera Farmiga that they’re both sleeping with. Aside from Costello, Costigan has to prove himself in front of his brutal right-hand played by Ray Winstone. The Massachusetts State Police has several big names including Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen, and Mark Wahlberg. I’ll admit I sometimes get Damon and Wahlberg mixed up since they both have thick Boston accents. Wahlberg is surprisingly the only actor nominated for his role as the profane Staff Sergeant Dignam. The climax is intense, unexpected, and lives up to the title with characters departing left and right. “X’s” are a perfect way to signal death, but ending with a literal rat is a little obvious. The Departed is a well-crafted product of its environment.

The Departed

Costigan confronts Sullivan on a rooftop

The Scorpion and the Frog

The Crying Game is all about human nature. Something I was never aware of, because I only ever knew about its shocking twist. Spoilers were unavoidable since shows like The Simpsons and movies like Shallow Hal both gave away the big reveal. Much like Soylent Green, I doubt I would’ve seen The Crying Game without knowing the twist ahead of time. The Crying Game is mostly about a volunteer member of the Irish Republican Army during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The movie deals with a variety of controversial subjects that practically guaranteed its nomination for Best Picture.

Nationality is most present when Fergus struggles with remaining loyal to his country. Race is apparent when the black British Jody is held hostage at the beginning. Miranda Richardson is especially cruel as the woman who lures him in. The bond Fergus forms with Jody showcases a brief but memorable performance from Forrest Whitaker. When their friendship is tragically cut short, Fergus tries to make a mends by comforting Jody’s girlfriend Dil back in London. Dil is a hairdresser who frequents a bar and ultimately sparks a romance with Fergus under the alias “Jimmy.”

Sexuality is the most major theme, because (SPOILER ALERT!) Dil is actually a man. The character is transgender, but first time actor Jaye Davidson plays the part. His androgynous look and feminine British accent probably fooled a lot of people back in 1992. Davidson’s transformative performance earned him a nomination for Best Supporting Actor, but Stephen Rea’s subtle performance was equally deserving of a Best Actor nomination. The stories complex nature did earn it an Oscar win for Best Original Screenplay. The Crying Game is a matter of fact thriller that feels realistic.

The Crying Game

Fergus and Dil in a bar

Monsters Come in Many Forms

10 Cloverfield Lane is a different kind of fight for survival. Although sequels to Cloverfield were discussed, I never would’ve guessed this would be the eventual follow up. 10 Cloverfield Lane is a thought provoking psychological thriller with a limited cast set in a confined space. Connecting it to J. J. Abrams’ found footage film actually happened after the fact. The original script was called The Cellar, but filmmakers felt it was too similar to the spirit of Cloverfield. I’m not sure I agree, because 10 Cloverfield Lane is almost too good for the sci-fi franchise.

The set up is almost the exact opposite with characters taking up a majority of the story and anything alien related happening closer to the end. The small cast consists of Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, and John Gallagher Jr. After leaving her boyfriend (voiced by an uncredited Bradley Cooper), Michelle ends up trapped in an underground bunker owned by a farmer named Howard. I didn’t think John Goodman could be scary, but this is one of his all time best performances as the paranoid conspiracy theorist.

He tries to convince Michelle that the air is toxic and it’s never made clear how right he is. Emmett is a more neutral third party who believes Howard’s stories, yet tries to help Michelle escape. They do develop stockholm syndrome, but the movie remains incredibly tense whether aliens are present or not. The writing is so good that I wasn’t surprised to learn Oscar winner Damien Chazelle contributed to it. Despite the title, it is a little jarring to see aliens after all the character drama. That being said, 10 Cloverfield Lane still manages to transcend genre expectations.

10 Cloverfield Lane

Michelle tries to escape Howard’s bunker

Preceded by: Cloverfield & Followed by: The Cloverfield Paradox

Put the Bunny Back in the Box

Con Air is literally Die Hard on a plane and I love it. Between The Rock and Face/Off, I knew I needed to complete the Nicolas Cage 90’s action trilogy. I just wish I’d seen it sooner. Con Air is just as cheesy and far fetched as most movies starring Cage. Especially if it’s produced by Jerry Bruckheimer or directed by Simon West. This time Cage has an interesting Alabama accent and sports a glorious mane. Of course they play “Sweet Home Alabama,” but I never knew “How Do I Live?” originated from this film (or that it was Oscar nominated).

Cameron Poe is an Army Ranger turned convict who spends years in prison after defending himself from punks. He leaves behind his wife and unborn daughter who turns 7 by the time he’s paroled. Poe is transported on the titular Con Air airplane filled with murderous convicts. What could possibly go wrong? Aside from the guitar riff that plays whenever he does something badass, Cage isn’t the biggest overractor in the movie. The cast is loaded with familiar faces from the 90’s. John Malkovich is the insane, yet calculating Cyrus “The Virus” who organizes a prison escape. You got Ving Rhames as a black militant, Dave Chappelle as a coke fiend, Danny Trejo as a sex criminal, and several other criminals with their own trademark.

Steve Buscemi is a particularly fascinating serial killer who feels like he belongs in another movie. Poe’s only allies are his diabetic cellmate ironically played by Buba himself Mykelti Williamson and Rachel Ticotin as the only female prison guard. John Cusack and Colm Meaney take care of things on the outside as a feuding US Marshall and DEA agent. Although there’s an extended sequence at a landing zone and a tacked on climax on a firetruck, most of the action is on the plane. It’s tense, action-packed, and hilarious. The most memorable moment involves a criminal threatening the stuffed bunny Poe got for his daughter. Con Air gave Cage the perfect vehicle to unleash.

Con Air

Cameron Poe runs from an explosion

Truth Lies Beneath the Surface

Serenity (2019) has nothing to do with Firefly. Have you ever seen a movie with terrible reviews, yet no idea why that was the case? Serenity (2019) looked promising with an Oscar winning cast that included the likes of Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway. That kind of star power was better suited for Interstellar. Djimon Hounsou, Jason Clarke, Diane Lane, and Jeremy Strong are also fairly respected actors given nothing good to work with. Serenity (2019) was nominated for 2 Razzies, has a 21% on Rotten Tomatoes, and bombed so hard they had to stop marketing it.

I admittedly wouldn’t have bothered seeing Serenity (2019) if not for the opportunity to review it the day after Serenity (2005). The difference is this Serenity refers to a boat, not a spaceship. At first the movie seemed like a boring sea voyage. Watching it was borderline incomprehensible with McConaughey’s trademark southern drawl and all the excessive swearing. I figured out Baker Dill was some kind of fisherman living in a small community obsessed with catching tuna.

When Hathaway comes along as a sexy blonde femme fatale, the movie suddenly feels like noir. Clarke unsurprisingly plays the abusive villain who they plan to kill. At that point my only question was why they kept cutting back to Dill’s estranged son playing a computer game. Serenity (2019) has a twist that comes completely out of nowhere. One that makes all the bad acting seem somewhat deliberate. It’s the kind of twist that thinks it’s more meaningful than it is. I’d almost recommend Serenity (2019) for just how ridiculous the twist is, but it’s not enough to endure a lousy film.

Serenity

Baker and Karen on Serenity

The Chase Continues

French Connection II kept the train going a little longer. After the success of The Godfather Part II, a sequel to Best Picture winner The French Connection seemed like a good idea. Even though I never heard of it beforehand. It’s a strong follow up, but it does take away from the ambiguity of the first film’s ending. New York police officer Popeye Doyle never caught his French assailant Alain Charnier.

French Connection II continues the chase and gives Gene Hackman more time to shine in his Oscar winning role. Directing reigns were handed over to John Frankenheimer, while Roy Schneider was too busy making Jaws. Popeye is now all by himself in Marseille, France. He deals with the language barrier, has trouble ordering drinks, fails to pick up French women, and can’t carry a gun. All while attempting to work with the French police department in order to catch his Frog.

Fernando Rey is the only other returning cast member. Charnier is still a sophisticated drug trafficker who proves increasingly difficult to catch. The pacing is a lot slower with more time dedicated to Popeye being forced into a heroin addiction. It’s only after he gets clean that Popeye becomes the violent cop in desperate pursuit again. The sequel ends with a decent chase from the streets to a rail bus. Popeye loses Charnier once more on a yacht, but I knew they wouldn’t end another movie without a resolution. French Connection II offers closure to an already perfect crime thriller.

French Connection II

Popeye Doyle gives chase

Preceded by: The French Connection

Missing the Train

The French Connection changed the rules in Hollywood. Considered to be one of the greatest movies of all time, The French Connection feels realistic with documentary style filmmaking, flawed protagonists, and a real life drug smuggling case at the center. Based on a 1969 book about two police detectives involved in the titular case. Before The Exorcist, Superman, or Jaws, director William Friedkin and stars Gene Hackman and Roy Schneider hit the mean streets of New York. Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle is an iconic police officer distinguished by his pork pie hat. Even his entrance dressed as Santa Claus is iconic.

Popeye Doyle isn’t exactly a crooked cop, but he does drink, sleep around, disobey orders, and show many racist tendencies. Seeing him shakedown a bar full of narcotics is when I knew he meant business. Popeyes actually got its name from Doyle. Although he faced stiff competition, Hackman was the best casting choice. Just as good is Schneider as his more cautious partner Buddy “Cloudy” Russo. Together they perform stakeouts in order to track a drug smuggling ring with a French connection. I don’t always understand police procedurals, but I gathered that it was all about stopping the flow of heroin into the U.S. Alain Charnier is a dapper French criminal with multiple hitmen under his thumb.

The French Connection is best known for its exciting chase scenes. Popeye pursuing Charnier in a subway is tense, but it’s a later car chase that really steals the show. Popeye in a civilian car pursuing a sniper on a train concludes with an exhausted Doyle shooting the assailant in the back. His almost obsessive need to catch the criminal ends on a suitably ambiguous note where the chase never truly ends. The French Connection is a Best Picture winner I knew I had to prioritize. No matter how many cop movies I’ve seen. It also won Best Director, Actor, Screenplay, Film Editing, and was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, Cinematography, and Sound. The French Connection marked a welcomed shift towards realism at the Academy Awards.

The French Connection

Popeye Doyle waves

Followed by: French Connection II

Operation Neptune Spear

Zero Dark Thirty chronicles the decade long manhunt for Osama bin Laden. It was the natural follow up to The Hurt Locker for Oscar winning director Kathryn Bigelow and her journalist screenwriter Mike Boal. Their original intention was to make a film about the 2001 Battle of Tora Bora, but all that changed when bin Laden was killed. Zero Dark Thirty was released only a year after 2011 Operation Neptune Spear. The military themed movie was met with understandable critical acclaim and Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Film Editing. It only won Best Sound Editing in a rare tie with Skyfall.

Although Zero Dark Thirty wasn’t without controversy. However factual, I view the film as matter of fact without getting into any moral or political discussions. Although I was 6 years old, I was too young to fully understand 9/11. I remember learning about bin Laden’s death very clearly. Zero Dark Thirty only depicts 9/11 as an audio recording. The true focus is on the almost obsessive manhunt by fictional CIA analyst Maya Harris. Jessica Chastain commands attention throughout. She’s joined by an all-star cast that includes Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler, James Gandolfini, and Jason Clarke as fellow CIA officers.

The latter participates in uncomfortable torture methods in order to extract information. Most of the time is dedicated to finding any lead connected to bin Laden. Other terror attacks follow before the Abbottabad compound is located. The Navy SEAL compound raid is a highlight of the movie that captures the tense atmosphere in total darkness. SEAL Team 6 consists of Joel Edgerton and majority Marvel actors like Chris Pratt, Mike Colter, Frank Grillo, and Callan Mulvey. Bin Laden’s death brings a sign of relief, but the impact will never truly go away. Zero Dark Thirty does the best with the facts it was given.

Zero Dark Thirty

Maya Harris oversees Navy SEAL Team 6

Stupid Bunny Suit

S. Darko is another inferior sequel released too many years later for anyone to care. Donnie Darko has a lot of cult appeal that can’t really be replicated. That didn’t stop them from trying anyway. S. Darko refers to Samantha Darko, sister of the late Donnie Darko from the first film. She wanders the road with her vapid best friend Corey. They wind up in a small town where several disturbances try to mimic the original.

Except the new cast of characters can’t back things up. You know you’re in trouble if Jackson Rathbone and Elizabeth Berkley were the best they could do. Although I have a personal appreciation for Daveigh Chase, her role is essentially a less interesting substitute for her brother. Now Sam is the one hallucinating, facing an end of the world scenario, and using the confusing time travel of the original. Only none of the minor alterations make it any less derivative.

An imaginary rabbit is replaced by an undead Sam (Samara Morgan she is not). The end is now 5 days before the 4th of July in 1995. Time travel is used twice in order to make the entire movie feel utterly pointless. Two separate deaths are reversed and the world nearly ends via meteor shower. Religious commentary is handled with far less grace. Meanwhile, the iconic bunny suit is only used as a recognizable image. S. Darko is just as unnecessary as it sounds.

S Darko

Sam and Justin stare at each other

Preceded by: Donnie Darko