Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Never an Absolution: 15 years later, a look at the 5 best films murdered during Titanic's 4-month reign of box office terror.

This winter will of course mark the fifteenth anniversary of the momentous box office run of Titanic.  For over three months, the James Cameron epic dominated the box office in a fashion unseen since E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial during its initial 1982 release.  The film sat atop the box office for an unprecedented fifteen weekends, a record for unbroken domination and the second most weekends at number one on history (E.T. had sixteen weekends atop, but only six of them were in a row).  From December 19th, 1997 until April 3rd, 1998, it caused crushed pretty much everything in its path.  Aside from a few offhand Fridays were a new film temporarily took the top spot (US Marshals, The Man With the Iron Mask and the re-release of Grease during its March run), but the first three months of 1998 were all about Titanic.  But while we must remember this astonishing run of utter and complete domination, which was the last of its kind, we must also take a moment to remember the many many films laid to waste in its path.  Oh there were a few survivors, such as the aforementioned Fugitive spin-off and the Three Musketeers sequel that happened to also star Leonardo DiCaprio, along with Adam Sandler's break-out smash The Wedding Singer (as well as um, Everest IMAX which slowly earned $87 million after opening on March 6th). But otherwise Winter 1998 was merely mass grave.  Ironically, there were actually at least several worthwhile films, now mostly forgotten in the dustbin of history, that bombed during those cold winter months.  So this is a place to remember five worthwhile pictures that were flattened by the mighty ship.  All deserved their moment in the spotlight, some have become cult favorites while others are barely remembered at all.    

Fallen (01/16/98):
Released over the Martin Luther King day holiday weekend, this absolutely superb supernatural thriller remains one of Denzel Washington's best movies, certainly among his very best genre entries.  Gregory Hoblit has been in director jail since the appallingly terrible 2008 Diane Lane thriller Untraceable, but he had a heck of a run in the mid-90s, culminating with the terrific time travel thriller Frequency.  His most famous film is the 1996 legal thriller Primal Fear which launched the career of Edward Norton and introduced most of America (those who hadn't seen Congo) to Laura Linney.  But his best film remains his follow-up, a coldly clinical but genuinely emotional drama concerning a would-be demon who leaps from body to body in order to kill and kill again.  Washington is terrific as the cop who slowly discovers this terrible secret while John Goodman and Donald Sutherland provide fine support.  Elias Koteas has a terrific extended cameo, one which announced his transition from 'that guy who played Casey Jones in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' to a top-notch character actor. The film mostly forsakes gore and merely treats the very act of murder as a tragic horror in-and-of-itself.  Fallen is a somber and surprisingly weighty mix of theological drama and supernatural thriller, but there's a good chance you've never even heard of it.  It's currently available in various physical media formats (DVD, Blu Ray, etc.) as well as free of charge on Amazon Instant for Prime members.    

Deep Rising (01/30/98):
I've had friends and colleagues telling me for years to check out this early Stephen Sommers picture, and I have to say they were right.  Released during the middle of a half-decade or so run of big-scale monster movies (brought on by the surprise success of Spieces in 1995 and/or the CGI boom represented by Jurassic Park), this is an energetic and unapologetically trashy bit of B-movie fun.  The cast, including the likes of Treat Williams, Famke Janssen, Anthony Heald, Wes Studi, Cliff Curtis, Djimon Hounsou, and Sommers mainstay Kevin J. O'Connor, is obviously having fun, and the Sommers-penned screenplay sparkles with genuinely humorous interplay.  The plot concerns a crew of seemingly good-hearted mercenaries hired by less good-hearted mercenaries to commit apparent piracy on a nearby cruise ship.  Alas, fate has intervened and they arrive to discover an empty ship with the walls and floors painted in blood.    More than that I will not say, but you can guess where this is going.  Nonetheless, despite some dodgy climactic CGI (which also slightly marred The Mummy Returns), this unapologetically R-rated comedic monster thriller delivers the goods right up to the end.  It may have tanked at the box office (just $11 million on a $45 million budget), but it was a pioneer in its own way.  Just as Die Hard set the 'lone man trapped in a single location against bad guys' template for a generation of straight-to-VHS action pictures,  Deep Rising, with its rogues gallery up against a giant unstoppable monster, gave way to a sub-genre of direct-to-DVD horror films.  It also feels like the big-scale predecessor to every SyFy Saturday night original film ever made.

Dark City (02/27/98):
I distinctly remember seeing the trailer for this one attached to the opening night prints of Scream 2 and thinking it was going to be a monster hit.  Alas, it was not to be, and it merely settled for being one of the best science fiction films of the last twenty years.  This modern classic proceeded The Matrix by a year and is perhaps forever doomed to be 'the one that isn't The Matrix'.  That's a shame.  The Matrix is pretty great, but Dark City is better.  Of all the various 'your life isn't really your life' films to follow in the wake of Total Recall, this is the only one that deals with the emotional and moral fall out of such a revelation.  The visually dazzling film deals with the very nature of how the absence of consequence affects our choices while tossing in a strong 'nature versus nurture' debate in the bargain.  While The Matrix plays as a textbook Joseph Campbell hero's journey, with all the cathartic wish-fulfillment empowerment that goes along with that, Alex Proyas's Dark City instead aims for mournful introspection and becomes a richer entertainment for it.  There are unforgettable images throughout, including a third-act reveal that is genuinely breathtaking. And while the acting isn't what anyone would call 'showy', Rufus Sewell and Jennifer Connolly are terrific (this is the film that broke Connolly out of her post-Rocketeer rut) while Keifer Sutherland and William Hurt give fine turns as well.  There are a hundred wonderful ideas in this science-fiction classic, and a hundred wonderful images to go with them (the special effects are terrific and always in service of the story), as well as a twisting story that keeps adding layers right up to the final scenes. Track down the director's cut and lose yourself in one of the best and most original science fiction films of my lifetime.     

Twilight (03/06/98):
No, not *that* Twilight.  This delicious bit of film noir is Paul Newman's second-to-last lead role.  Like a lot of 'final' films of aging stars, this one confronts the mortality of its lead(s) head-on, telling a somewhat conventional mystery while also dealing with the realization that the once great giants of their ages are mostly ready to be put out to pasture.  Also starring Susan Sarandon, Gene Hackman, and James Garner, the picture works in plays out a bit like John Wayne's The Shootist, with a bit of the old 'one last quest for the aging warrior' thrown in.  But aside from end-of-life pathos (Hackman's character is dying of cancer), it's a riveting and entertaining thriller, both suspenseful and witty with plenty of quirky gumshoe dialogue for the veterans to chew on.  Also joining the fun are John Spencer, Giancarlo Esposito, M. Emmet Walsh, Stockard Channing. The plot involves the usual blackmail, potential murder, and rediscovery of decades-old sins, along with very early performances from Reese Witherspoon and Liev Schreiber plus the American theatrical debut of current Zero Dark Thirty star Jason Clarke as 'cop 1'.   This was one of Robert Benton's last films and everyone in the cast, even the comparatively young Susan Sarandon, has a lifetime's worth of regret and sorrow that makes the film more than just an old-school film noir.  Although it's also a darn-good old-school detective movie.  The film may never have been a true break-out hit, but it surely deserved more than the mere $15 million in domestic bod office that it got during that bitter March winter.

Primary Colors (03/20/98):
It's weird how in just six months we ended up with three of the best political comedies of recent years opening right on top of each other.  Wag the Dog arguably got the attention it deserved, even as it was accused of ripping off the Monica Lewinsky scandal that broke *after* the film's December 1997 release.  Warren Beatty's Bulworth was both incredibly insightful and frustratingly uneven, although I'd imagine its saga of a morally empty politician hitting rock bottom would resonate even more today.  But lost amid the shuffle is Mike Nichols's absolutely terrific adaptation of the Joe Klein novel, itself allegedly based on the Democratic primary campaign of Bill Clinton in the run up to the 1992 general election.  John Travolta plays "not Bill Clinton" while Emma Thompson does not play Hillary Clinton.  But what makes the film work as more than a gimmick is its refusal to be defined by the events that it is loosely based on.  This is a universal political fable, one about the constant struggle between winning 'the right way' versus just winning at all.  Kathy Bates was justly Oscar nominated while Adrian Lester is the proverbial lead and our eyes and ears into this up-close look at the 'war room' in all of its forms.  Primary Colors is a sprawling, intelligent, and absolutely adult political dramedy, one that never condescends to its audience or (unlike a certain George Clooney potboiler from 2011) adds implausible thriller elements in order to goose up the melodrama.  Fifteen years later, Primary Colors transcends its subject matter to become an all-encompassing look at the morality of victory even when victory is the morally superior outcome.

And that's a wrap for this memorial service.  Now before you ask, I didn't include The Big Lebowski for two reasons.  A) I don't love it as much as others do and B) with $17 million, it was still the Coen Brothers' third highest grosser at the time (behind Fargo and Raising Arizona), meaning that it arguably didn't make all that much less than it otherwise would have without Titanic mowing down everything in its path.  And, for what it's worth, it should be reiterated that Titanic was and still is an absolutely terrific film, so the recognition of some other great films released during the same period is not about bringing down the James Cameron masterpiece but merely about sharing the love.  So your turn... what were your favorite theatrical releases during that blood-drenched winter of 1998?  Share below as always.

Scott Mendelson


corysims said...

Keep Dark City alive, Scott. I've always called that film that "Matrix before the Matrix" but as you said, it's easily the better film. And I like the Matrix.

What did you think of the Blu Ray director's cut?

corysims said...

PS, still has one of the best teaser trailers EVER.

Aaron Neuwirth said...

How far back our we going, because Jackie Brown came out a week after Titanic and was no huge hit, even though it's y'know, amazing.

Also - Firestorm with Howie Long! and Hard Rain, with Howie Long's Broken Arrow co-Star - Christian Slater!

ZERO EFFECT is a wonderful underseen Neo-Noie, Pre-Monk film with a great turn from both Bill Pullman and Ben Stiller

Wild Things is trashy great fun (superior to The Paperboy)

and I like Mercury Rising more than many.


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