On to some of the '98 films that placed in other categories...

Dark City
Lem Dobbs, David S. Goyer, and Alex Proyas, 1998

I saw that this was #17 for direction and remembered that it was one of Roger Ebert's favorite movies ever, so I thought I'd give it a look. It reminded me of something Dan Schmidt wrote recently, referring to Philip K. Dick: "There's a common problem with a lot of speculative fiction, which is that it's a lot easier to come up with an interesting premise than an interesting plot." This movie bored me, so after about half an hour I was ready to quit, but then I read Ebert's article laying out the entire premise, and it sounded sort of interesting, so I went back and watched the rest. It was still kind of a chore. I tried to figure out why and came up with a couple of possible reasons.

One is Pattern 9, the old Matrix/Truman Show problem: "The world isn't real!" doesn't pack as much punch when the world never seems real to begin with. But I've talked about that one at length not too long ago, so will dispense with it here. The other one is that, yes, the premise is interesting — but what Ebert had laid out was not the premise of the movie, but the premise of the backstory! The premise of the movie is "guy wanders around trying to learn the backstory," which is much less interesting. Imagine if the first season of Dollhouse had been told entirely from Agent Ballard's point of view. No actives, no treatments, no missions, just a detective following leads, interacting with mysterious strangers, trying to piece things together, and getting a big infodump at the end. The show would not be its best!

(True story: shortly after watching Dark City I was driving up Telegraph and suddenly noticed that there's scaffolding on the Campanile. For a split second I was terrified — EEEAGH THE CITY IS CHANGING)

The Spanish Prisoner
David Mamet, 1997

From a movie hobbled by its lack of a real plot to one that's all plot. Well, that plus stunt casting: this appeared on the Skandie list for its use of Steve Martin of all people as a brusque and rather humorless scion of old money. The film is initially off-putting due to its extremely mannered performances, the actors reciting obviously scripted lines in a deliberately stilted fashion, but this becomes less of a distraction once the twists and turns of the plot take over. Turns out some of the people in the movie are con artists. Who could've guessed.

One thing I was struck by was the moment when Rebecca Pidgeon's character, Susan, screws up her courage and tells the main guy, "You never get anything in life if you don't speak out for it so here's what I wanted to say. I—I'm a hell of a person. I'm loyal and true and I'm not too hard to look at — what d'you think?" And then: "If you ever feel the need of some company, or you'd like someone to cook you dinner, or dinner and breakfast: 110 Mott Street." Direct! I think I've mentioned that one surefire way to get me into facepalm mode is to remind me of all the times back in college that girls sent me what I can now see were signals of interest but which I was totally oblivious to at the time. I have suggested that all humans should go around wearing these t-shirts to prevent this sort of tragedy from befalling others. Why, I wondered while watching this scene, couldn't I have met a girl like Susan? But a moment later it occurred to me that there's a reason those lines were so refreshingly straightforward: as the Internet kiddies say, "IT'S A TRAP!" The person who came up with those lines wasn't named Susan. Susan is fictional. The person who came up with those lines was named David.

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