March, 1998: The Newton Boys

Richard Linklater directs this surprisingly mundane look at the true-story of four brothers that robbed nearly 200 banks from 1919-1924 across North America. Unfortunately for Linklater, the brilliance that was shown in his other films like Dazed and Confused, Bernie, and Boyhood is completely absent from this observation of the Newton brothers.

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The film opens with Willis Newton (Matthew McConaughey) returning from a four-year stint in prison for stealing cotton– it turns out that the eldest brother, Dock (Vincent D’Onofrio), actually stole the cotton, but brought Willis down with him. He returns home to his brothers Jess (Ethan Hawke) and Joe (Skeet Ulrich), only to leave shortly after.

He’s roped in to the bank-robbing business by a skittish and nerdy Brentwood Glasscock (Dwight Yoakam) and a seedy gangster named Slick. The first mission is hardly successful as Glasscock is injured, Willis barely escapes, and Slick is caught by the local sheriff. From there, Willis and Glasscock decide to team up with Jess, Joe, and Dock to rob nearly 200 banks over the course of five years.

In all of this, Willis falls in love with a beautiful, charming woman named Louise (Julianna Margulies) and they quickly move in together. While Willis is attempting to become a bonafide man in the booming oil business, his fortunes change and he is brought back into the vagabond lifestyle by mobsters in Chicago. This last job focuses on stealing nearly 3 million dollars from a postal train that carries money from town-to-town.

During this heist, Dock is mistakenly shot by Glasscock, which prompts the group to seek medical attention. The next day, nearly everyone is apprehended and interrogated by the feds. Willis is given a proposition: return all the money and rat-out the inside man who gave them the information on the train and receive a shortened sentence for him and his brothers. At first, Willis is hesitant, because he does have some honor. In the end, he decides the incentives are too enticing.

The Newton Boys is one of those films that does nothing right or wrong; it’s so completely mediocre that it’s frustrating because it can neither be despised, nor revered. It was forgotten after a disappointing bout at the box-office– making only 10.2 million dollars back off of a 27 million dollar budget.

Some solid performances from the main-ensemble and decent character arcs make an otherwise uninspiring look at a group of bank robbers bearable. In the end, a film about such an exciting topic should have yielded a much more exciting product. Because we only see a montage of bank robberies and not much strife or pursuit, there’s nothing to root for or worry about.

Matt: Watch once
Gabe: Watch once if you like Linklater

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January, 1998: Phantoms

Before Armageddon, before Dogma, before Changing Lanes, after… Goodwill Hunting? There was Phantoms. Why Ben Affleck took this inexplicable step backwards, I’ll never know; maybe he thought it would be good, maybe it was for the money, maybe he was already filming before Good Will Hunting was released.

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Phantoms is loosely based on a popular study from the early nineties: that flatworms were able to ingest other, ground-up flatworms and could inherit their memories and experiences. In this particular instance, they were able to solve a maze more quickly if they ate one of their kin. This script takes that hypothesis, adds some demons, and runs wild with it.

We open in a sleepy, winter town where two sisters, Lisa (Rose McGowan) and Jennifer (Joanna Going), plan to settle down for a while; mainly to get Lisa away from her abusive boyfriend in Los Angeles. What they find is an empty town and some putrefied, dead bodies.

When they try to find help, they run into some local law enforcement in Bryce (Ben Affleck) and Stu (Liev Schreiber). Shortly after, things go south and Stu is claimed by whatever has taken over the town. Timothy Flyte (Peter O’Toole) is recruited by the FBI to join in on the fun and explains that demons have been terrorizing the town and have been growing in strength for centuries because, when they consume people, sometimes entire armies, they learn what they fear and use that to claim more lives.

Naturally, there is a mysteriously helpful serum that Bryce uses to vanquish the monster once and for all, dispatching the threat for good.

Phantoms’ weaknesses are numerous and are equivalent, but not limited to: script, acting, sound design, and cinematography. It’s a flat movie with uninspiring performances and a coherent, but unimaginative plot, and many scenes will burst your ear drums if you aren’t careful. It’s hard to recommend even for some laughs with friends– there are much, much better bad movies for that.

Matt's rating: Don't watch
Gabe's rating: Watch once if you like this sort of thing

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Phantom of the Paradise

In what can only be likened to the tortured love-child of Phantom of the Opera and Faust, Phantom of the Paradise surprises with a shockingly good score and a rich, fun world.

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A starving artist, Winslow (Bill Finely), catches wind that his pop cantata about a disfigured musician searching for love has been stolen by a local music tycoon named Swan (Paul Williams) in order to open his new, world-class music venue, The Paradise. After confronting Swan, Winslow is framed for selling drugs and is sent to the notorious Sing Sing prison. During his stint in prison, Winslow’s teeth are removed, to prevent infection, and replaced with two rows of striking, silver implants.

Being forced to listen to canned, radio-versions of his music, Winslow breaks free and attempts to destroy Swan’s record company, Death Records. In a freak accident, his face is horribly mutilated by a vinyl press and he disappears.

At The Paradise, it becomes clear that Winslow, now the Phantom, is attempting to prevent his music from being destroyed by Swan. After a brief altercation, the Phantom signs a contract with Swan to finish his work and help launch The Paradise.

When auditions are held for the cantata, Phoenix (Jessica Harper), a young woman with a marvelous voice, is cast in a titular role since Winslow believes she’s the only one that should sing it. Swan also abuses this conceit later as he replaces her with Beef (Gerrit Graham), a glam-rock superstar with a deep, gruff growl.

Pushed to the end of his rope, the Phantom destroys the venue and ruins The Paradise’s opening, voiding his contract with Swan and killing them both.

Unlike a film of a similar vein that was released at around the same time, Rocky Horror Picture Show, Phantom of the Paradise digs a bit deeper and comes out on top as a more complete film. By taking a closer look at what it truly means to love and sacrifices that must be made in the face of danger, the film actually has something to say.

The movie is just flat-out entertaining. With such a small budget, it’s a wonder that such a memorable world could be created at this time. Every performance is rock solid, from top to bottom, and the entire album should be saved on your Spotify account immediately.

Matt's rating: 4.5/5
Gabe's rating: 3.5/5
Roy's rating: 5/5
Rewind Cinema composite: 13/15

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December, 1980: Stir Crazy

With their stock on the rise, Stir Crazy is the second film that Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor wrote and starred in together during their hot streak in the 70s and 80s. While this isn’t the best film of the bunch, that title is reserved for Silver Streak, which was released shortly before this, Stir Crazy does some things well and some things not-so-well.

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The plot focuses on two friends, Skip Donahue (Gene Wilder) and Harry Monroe (Richard Pryor). Skip and Harry are both fired from their jobs, which prompts them to advertise for a local bank in woodpecker suits– their song and dance being a great encapsulation of Wilder and Pryor’s dynamic. After they go on break, two thieves break in, steal their outfits, and rob the bank. When Skip and Harry return, they are promptly arrested in a classic mix-up.

The duo is sentenced to 120 years in prison (only 30 of which will be fully served, assures their lawyer). Upon their arrival in prison, they quickly make friends and settle in after a bit of discourse. The warden reviews their case, but also makes Skip ride a mechanical bull because this prison is rivals with a coterminous prison that they square off with once a year in a bull-riding competition. The prisoners are enlisted against their will.

It turns out that Skip is a natural, so he is chosen, but resists just long enough to make a few demands: a bigger cell and that his posse will be his crew for the event. The competition serves as a front for an elaborate escape plan where Skip and Harry’s crew break them out of prison and they all go their separate ways. In the end, it turns out that their lawyer got them acquitted, so none of that ended up being necessary.

Stir Crazy is a great example of why Wilder and Pryor were so successful– this film’s gross was only third to Star Wars Episode V and 9 to 5 that year. When the two are together and are allowed to be themselves, they are electric. It’s even more impressive when you consider that most of their scenes together are improvised.

The film falls apart when the two are separated and the focus shifts from their hi-jinks to Skip’s love interest. With such a powerful duo, why would you make Pryor play second fiddle for nearly half the film? And why interject a meaningless love story an hour in? These are just a few of the questions we had and you’ll probably feel the same.

Matt's rating: 2.75/5
Gabe's rating: 2.25/5
Rewind Cinema composite: 5/10

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November, 1980: Raging Bull

It’s appropriate that Raging Bull was shot almost entirely in black and white; it feels like a tragic dream ballet, or a fading memory of a once-great champion that stumbles closer and closer to his demise without really trying. The real artistry stems from the fact that Martin Scorsese doesn’t attempt to make this story larger than life– he steps aside and lets Jake LaMotta destroy himself.

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The script is based on the life of the aforementioned boxer, Jake LaMotta (played by Robert De Niro). In his time, LaMotta was a world-class, middleweight boxer. His accolades included a 14-0-1 start to his career and the claim to the middleweight title in 1949 with a successful defense in 1950. Raging Bull focuses less on LaMotta’s time in the ring and keys in on his notorious temper, jealousy, and paranoid tendencies.

In the beginning, we follow his meteoric rise to stardom and his budding relationship with his second wife, Vickie La Motta (played by Cathy Moriarty). Throughout time, Jake becomes increasingly wary of his wife’s sexual fidelity, confronting her in nearly every other scene about her whereabouts and intentions. He even goes as far as questioning his own brother, Joey (played by Joe Pesci), about his relationship with Vickie.

By the end of the film, Jake has alienated everyone that he knows– his emotional, and physical, abuse seemingly knows no bounds– so he ends up friendless, hopeless, and wifeless, working as an MC in the bar that shares his namesake.

This movie is a treat, but not the sweet kind. It’s more like dark-chocolate– it lingers on the tongue, it’s bitter, and, depending on the quality, it can make you reflect on your own life. Raging Bull is a meditation about one man’s struggle with the emotions that made him a champion. His quick temper, his focus, and his intensity made him a great boxer, but it also made him impossible to love. That’s a true tragedy.

Matt's rating: 4.5/5
Gabe's rating: 4/5
Rewind Cinema composite: 8.5/10

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October, 1980: Private Benjamin

Private Benjamin is, ultimately, half a movie. It starts out strong, goes a little haywire nearly 45 minuets in, and then completely falls apart thereafter. We’re still not quite sure what the creatives in charge of the film’s production were thinking, but we’re also not media professionals.

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The film chronicles the antics of a young woman, Judy Benjamin (played by Goldie Hawn), that can’t quite keep a relationship together and is aware of her parent’s disdain for her work ethic. After her most recent husband dies on their wedding night during an act of passion, she decides that the army seems like a nice change. Well, she’s conned into thinking so by an ambitious recruiter that promises condos, yachts, and a laid-back lifestyle.

Her world is turned upside down when she attends basic and is stonewalled by Captain Doreen Lewis (played by Eileen Brennan)– a hard-nosed, aggressive leader that quickly puts Judy in her place. After Judy is nearly bailed out by her parents, whom she neglected to inform that she was leaving for the military, she has a change of heart and decides to prove her worth to everyone that counted her out. She becomes highly respected and is reassigned to France after an unwanted, sexual encounter with a superior.

In France, she reconvenes with a man (Henri) she met in a bar prior to her reassignment. It turns out that he’s not quite what he seems and the two have a nasty altercation during their wedding ceremony. In the end, Judy finds her independence, we guess, and comes out stronger in the end.

There’s no way around it, Private Benjamin is clunky. It quickly shifts from a lighthearted, and funny, military-based comedy to a deeply unsatisfying and uninteresting drama centered around a failed engagement. If the script had stuck to the tone and stayed true to the characters in the first half, this would’ve been a much better movie. Instead, it’s only half of a good movie.

Matt's rating: 2.5/5
Gabe's rating: 2/5
Rewind Cinema composite: 4.5/10

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The Master

Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the greatest theatrical minds of my time. He writes, directs, and produces nearly everything that he works on. He works with A-list actors that he coaxes flawless performances out of. He creates worlds with incredible amounts of depth and often showcases the depravity of life in a tangible way. The Master is no different.

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Although the script doesn’t follow a formulaic plot, it’s rather easy to explain: Freddie Quell, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is a WWII vet that is fresh out of the war. It’s clear that he has troubles with drink, has an incredible temper, and has a very narrow-minded view of women– you can probably guess how.

He stumbles onto a party boat where he meets Lancaster Dodd, portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Lancaster happens to be not only the captain of the boat, but the leader of a cult that is analogous to L. Ron Hubbard’s highly successful religion, Scientology. From there, Freddie shacks up with Lancaster and his followers across the country, linked by a bond that no one seems to understand, not even the men in question.

The Master is truly a work of art. It has cinematography that is unparalleled in most modern film with deep, dark shadows, unrelenting close-ups, and long, sweeping shots that seem to take minutes to complete. As mentioned before, the performances are awe inspiring; Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman light up the screen like never before in the skin of two incredibly demanding, tough characters.

The real beauty of the film stems from the central questions that it breeds, but never fully answers: Do the ends justify the means? Does true companionship have a bond deeper than reason? Can someone ever truly be changed for the better if they’re unwilling? Paul Thomas Anderson gift wraps the questions, but expects you to open them up.

Matt's rating: 4.5/5
Gabe's rating: 4/5
Josh's rating: 5/5
Rewind Cinema composite: 13.5/15

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