Moscow on the Hudson (1984) review-A warm hug in politically divisive times

Most people my age got introduced to Robin Williams’ real acting chops in the late-90s with Good Will Hunting.

One could be forgiven for believing that this was his first foray into serious drama, since most of his other hit movies during that same time period were broad comedies filled with rapid fire jokes, improvised lines, and tons of celebrity impressions (Aladdin, Patch Adams, Mrs. Doubtfire, Hook).

However, little did we know that Williams had been dedicated to taking on more complex projects a full decade before, with a slew of juicy roles that straddled the line between comedy and drama and netted him a handful of Oscar nominations (Dead Poets Society, Good Morning, Vietnam).

While I’m certainly not an expert on Williams’ filmography throughout the 1980s, I’m confident in saying that Paul Mazursky’s Moscow on the Hudson, released in 1984, is a precursor to the actor’s future success, since he carries the entire movie on his back with a sweet, funny and understated performance.

In the film, Williams plays Vladimir Ivanoff, a Russian saxophone player who decides to defect to the United States once the circus that employs him makes a trip to New York City. From there, we follow Vladimir’s ups and downs as he navigates the country’s immigration system and does his best to adjust to the American way of life.

Obviously, the biggest highlight here is Williams, who makes the wise decision to avoid adopting a cartoonish Russian accent and ridiculously stilted English speaking pattern to try and generate laughs from the audience.

Instead, his character shines through his empathy, work ethic and good-hearted nature, which comes across as being much more authentic and funny than some kind of broad caricature.

While a lot of the credit for this dynamic goes towards Mazursky’s script, Williams also needs to be commended for doing his homework.

Reportedly, the actor spent about a year learning the language and other Soviet customs before principal photography began, which is a hell of a lot more preparation than some other Hollywood stars have undertaken for playing Russians in the past.

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But Williams’ performance isn’t the only thing that turns Moscow on the Hudson into a real hidden gem.

On top of featuring a thoroughly likable cast who have great comedic chemistry, the people behind the camera should be given a lot of credit for pulling the film’s different elements together into a cohesive whole.

For example, seasoned director of photography Donald McAlpine does a brilliant job of bringing New York City to life on screen. Not only does he shoot the city’s famous landmarks in a way that perfectly mimics the wide-eyed wonder that a newcomer like Vladimir would feel, but his cinematography also has the added affect of making me feel nostalgic for a place I’ve never visited.

Composer David McHugh also makes a big impression by choosing just the right song or musical sting at just the right moment. Probably one of the funniest sequences in the whole movie is Vladimir’s decision to defect in a large US department store, where Soviet marching music plays overtop of scenes of communist circus performers and their KGB handlers shopping for clothes and jewelry.

But by far the biggest star of this whole enterprise is the script, which really does a great job of crafting a “rah, rah” patriotic American film without veering off into the territory of outright propaganda, like some other 1980s properties I could name ….

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With that being said, Moscow on the Hudson still holds the United States in very high regard, portraying it as a global paragon of virtue and morality, especially when compared to the Soviet Union.

But rather than demonstrating the US’s outright superiority through more regressive characteristics like military might or isolationist policies, Mazursky emphasizes that this country is great because of its multiculturalism and welcoming attitude towards immigrants.

Virtually all of the film’s supporting characters are immigrants, whose kindness and strength come from their ability to adapt to their adopted homeland.

Furthermore, most of the film’s second half takes place inside of distinctly ethnic clubs, grocery stores and restaurants, which communicates the idea that American culture is perpetuated through these sorts of institutions.

As a character, Vladimir even embodies this philosophy through his love of playing the saxophone, since jazz is a uniquely American creation.

Some might feel that this ”touchy-feely” approach robs of the film of any tactile conflict, and what conflict exists is rather forced and manufactured, especially after the KGB agents largely leave the picture following Act One.

And I’ll be the first one to admit that this movie is not without its cheesy moments, especially one scene near the end of the film where the characters literally recite passages from the Declaration of Independence out of nowhere.

But given how toxic and divisive the US political climate is right now, Moscow on the Hudson is a breath of fresh air.

And at the end of the day, I’m sure an actor like Williams, who spent his whole career trying to make people laugh, would be happy to know that one of his earlier films still serves as a heart-warming reminder of how the American experiment can be used to bring people together instead of tearing them apart.

Verdict:

9/10

Corner store companion:

Werther’s Original Caramel Hard Candies (because it’s still remarkably sweet, despite how long it’s been in circulation).

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Fun facts:

-Release date: April 6, 1984.

-Budget: $13 million (estimated)

-Box office gross: $25.1 million.

-Unexpected cameo: Comedian Yakov Smirnoff makes a brief appearance as “Lev,” one of Vladimir’s new friends in New York who is also an aspiring celestial mechanic and astrophysicist.

-On top of learning to speak fluent Russian, Williams also spent months studying how to play the saxophone for this role. According to the actor’s music teacher, Williams learned in two months what usually takes normal people two years to master.

-For a while, director Paul Mazursky tried to get a sequel called Moscow on the Rocks made, although it never came to fruition. The plot of this follow-up film would have followed Vladimir, now a cutthroat New York City businessman, as he travels back to his homeland for his sister’s wedding and falls in love with a Russian doctor.

-The portions of the film that are set in Moscow were actually shot at Bavaria Studios in Munich, Germany.

-Musical highlight: “Freedom” by Chaka Khan (plays over the end credits).

One False Move (1992) review- It sounded better on paper

After suffering through trash like You Got Served, I was pretty excited to pop in Carl Franklin’s One False Move.

Not only is this gritty crime drama a radical departure from anything I’ve looked at so far, but the behind-the-scenes details relating to its production and release is a real heartwarming underdog story that will reaffirm your faith in the power of independent filmmaking.

Shot on a shoe-string budget of $2.3 million and helmed by a then amateur director, One False Move was originally set to go straight-to-video. However, strong word of mouth from critics helped it get a limited theatrical release and strong circulation on that year’s awards circuit.

Legendary film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were some of the film’s biggest cheerleaders throughout this whole process, with the latter praising Franklin’s “powerful” directing and the “extraordinary” screenplay from star Billy Bob Thornton and his writing partner Tom Epperson.

Siskel and Ebert would even go on to name One False Move their first and second favourite movie of 1992, respectively. To put that in perspective, next year both critics would give their number one spot to Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List.

I mention all of this inside baseball malarkey up front because, unfortunately, it’s a lot more compelling than the actual film itself.

Now don’t get me wrong, One False Move isn’t a bad movie. In fact, there are quite a few things to like about it (especially given its humble roots). But nothing about this film really grabbed me on a visceral level.

And I hate to sound like a smug contrarian, but I couldn’t help but feel that I was watching a standard episode of a 90s cop show stretched out to two hours (albeit with a little more hardcore violence and profanity).

Part of my problem has to do with how the film is structured, since the runtime is divvied up into two parallel plotlines.

One story features a trio of criminals (Billy Bob Thornton, Cynda Williams and Michael Beach) who are on the run from the law after committing a horrific drug robbery in Los Angeles that resulted in multiple homicides.

The second story follows the two detectives (Jim Metzler, Earl Billings) tasked with tracking down these outlaws, who are eventually drawn to one of the suspect’s old stomping grounds in Star City, Arkansas. There, they team up with a local police chief (Bill Paxton), whose boy-scout attitude clashes with big city cops’ approach to law enforcement.

Now, taken as two separate stories, both plots feature plenty of tension, snappy dialog and nuanced performances from the entire cast.

Special mention goes out to Michael Beach, who plays the quiet psychopath “Pluto” with a complex level of menace that really got under my skin.

However, much of the film’s dramatic impact is supposed to come from the interaction between the cops and the criminals and the two groups barely spend any screen time together.

This is especially true for Bill Paxton’s police chief, whose shared history with one of the criminals is a key part of the movie, since it gradually peels away his benevolent façade and reveals a more sinister side of his personality.

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Sounds interesting, right? Well, to bad, because this element is only squeezed into the last 20 minutes, which doesn’t give it any room to breathe.

These shortcoming aren’t helped by flat direction, poor editing in spots and a dated score which relies heavily on harmonicas and what I like to call “90s sax.”

Some might view this criticism as a little harsh, especially considering that One False Move marks Carl Franklin’s first big film project after spending most of his career acting on TV and directing low budget schlock for producer Roger Corman.

But now that we live in film industry that’s filled with dazzling first-time directors like Jordan Peele (Get Out) and Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird), it’s really hard to go back and pass off a simply “passable” job as something that is “brilliant.”

Again, I don’t get any joy in dumping on a small production like this, especially since, from what I could gather, every member of the cast and crew had their hearts in the right place while making it.

Sadly, good intentions alone aren’t enough to convince me that this movie is some kind of hidden gem. The various moving parts on display just don’t end up coalescing as a whole, which left me feeling like the movie ended 10−15 minutes before its story was complete.

But be sure to take my criticism with a golf ball sized grain of salt, since pretty much every professional movie critic under the sun disagrees with me.

Besides, who am I to second-guess the benevolent wisdom of the great Siskel and Ebert?

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Verdict:

5/10

Corner store companion:

Lay’s Ketchup Chips (because it’s not for me, but I can understand why other people like it).

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Fun facts:

-Release date: May 8, 1992

-Budget: $2.3 million

-Box office gross: $1.5 million (estimated)

-Despite my reservations about his early work, director Carl Franklin took home a number of accolades from his peers during the 1992−93 film awards circuit, including “Best Director” at the 1993 Independent Spirit Awards and the “New Generation Award” at the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards.

-Two decades later, Franklin managed to carve out an impressive directing career for himself after his initial success in the 1990s. Today, he’s managed to generate steady work for himself on a lot of hit TV shows, sporting directing credits for: Homeland, Bloodline, 13 Reasons Why, and, most recently, Mindhunter. He was even nominated for a Primetime Emmy after helming “Chapter 14” from House of Cards (you know, the episode with the subway).

-This film marks Billy Bod Thornton’s first film writing credit, which would earn him a nomination for “Best Screenplay” at the 1993 Independent Spirit Awards. Thornton would eventually walk way with that prize in 1997 thanks to his screenplay for Sling Blade.

-Co-stars Cynda Williams and Billy Bob Thornton got married shortly after filming on One False Move wrapped. They were divorced before the film was released two years later.

You Got Served (2004) review-“How do you do, fellow kids?” the movie

Honestly, I feel like I’m cheating with this one.

Unlike the two previous films that I’ve covered for this blog, Chris Stokes’ You Got Served is pretty well known among millennials my age, which is evident from the massive box office returns that it raked in during its opening weekend back in January 2004.

It’s also well remembered as being a single piece of a larger movement, since Hollywood was completely obsessed with spitting out these “urban” dance movies throughout the 2000s, which were cheap to produce and (usually) guaranteed a tidy profit.

However, unlike a lot of its contemporaries, You Got Served really hasn’t left a lasting legacy in pop-culture outside of its title, which became somewhat of a meme before most people even knew that memes were a thing.

But outside of that, there’s nothing about this film that sets it apart from the rest.

It doesn’t boast the novelty of starring then up-and-coming actors who would go on to find great success in the industry, like the original Step Up (Channing Tatum) or Bring It On (Kirsten Dunst).

Instead, we are saddled with two dull leads (Omari Grandberry and Marques Houston) who aren’t very charismatic or believable, even with the limited character work that they are given.

The film also doesn’t benefit from the impressive production values that characterized some of the later entries in the Step Up franchise, since You Got Served is noticeably cheap looking, especially whenever the characters venture away from the dance floor.

And, probably the biggest sin of all, the dancing on display isn’t even that distinctive. At least a film like Stomp the Yard had the foresight to anchor its premise around something unique and interesting like competitive stepping.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m sure you’re all dying me to talk about the plot to this magnum opus.

Well, surprisingly, there’s a lot going on plot wise in You Got Served outside of the dancing, which is one of its biggest problems.

Now, I don’t claim to be an expert on this specific genre of film, but from the few 2000s dance movies that I’ve seen I can pinpoint a recognizable formula that works. Most of the time, the plot is just background noise or an excuse to stich together impressively choreographed dance sequences.

But in You Got Served it seems like the dancing takes a back seat to the story, which is horribly clichéd, uninteresting, and full of cringy melodrama.

The main thrust of the plot follows David and Elgin (Grandberry and Houston, respectively) who live out their young lives battling dance crews for cash in a surprisingly sanitized Los Angeles.

The pair have their sights set on greater things, which are never clearly defined, but a number of obstacles stand in their way, including a rival dance crew from Orange Country and the city’s violent criminal underbelly.

Now, this sounds like a simple enough premise, but it gets bogged down in a bunch of extraneous details that detract from the main reason people came to see the film: the dancing.

Here are just some of those dazzling plot points that:

  • David starts falling for Elgin’s sister, which drives wedge between the two of them.

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  • David and Elgin work for a drug kingpin on the side, which inevitably encroaches on their lives in the world of dance.

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  • A precocious child called “Lil Saint” hangs around with David and Elgin’s dance crew for the sole purpose of getting himself caught up in some life-threatening situations later on.

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  • Steve Harvey plays the movie’s mentor character called “Mr. Rad”, who organizes all the local dance battles and spews out fortune cookie wisdom while also serving as an unexpected deus ex machina.

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And even though this film is awash with this extraneous bullshit, they still managed to leave out some really important details.

We never find out how David and Elgin originally met, formed a dance crew, or why they are so passionate about what seems like their full time gig (since we never see them in school or holding down fulltime jobs).

Even when the film gets around to the dancing, it’s nothing to write home about.

Director Chris Stokes doesn’t really take advantage of the medium of film, since the camera remains largely slow moving and doesn’t emphasize the impressive athleticism of that its cast clearly possesses.

As a result, the big climatic dance battle at the end of the film comes across as some lifeless b-roll that would play at the beginning of any MTV program from the early to mid 2000s.

Speaking of MTV, one of the most redeeming things about You Got Served is how desperately it’s trying to appeal to the youth of that era.

The script is stuffed to brim with so much dated hip-hop vernacular and celebrity cameos (anybody else remember Wade Robson???) that it’s actually kind of adorable. I can just imagine a boardroom full of old, out-touch-executives trying to cram in as much trendy fashion and pop-culture artifacts in order to reach that lucrative teen demographic.

Basically, this film is the cinematic equivalent of that clip of Steve Buscemi from 30 Rock. You know the one.

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In the end, even though You Got Served is a hilarious viewing experience in spots, it doesn’t make up for the long stretches of film that are a chore to get through.

And since this movie is supposed to be all about high-energy dance moves, being boring is probably its biggest failing.

Verdict:

2/10

Corner store companion:

Listerine cool mint antiseptic mouthwash (to rinse that bad taste out of your mouth).

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Fun facts:

-Release date: Jan. 30, 2004.

-Budget: $8 million (estimated)

-Box office gross: $40,066,497 (US)

-Became number one at the box office in its opening weekend, which also coincided with Super Bowl 38 (aka, the one where Janet Jackson’s nipple closed out the halftime show).

-Musical highlight: “The One” by ATL.

-Unexpected cameo: Kevin Federline (yes, that Kevin Federline) made his cinematic debut as one of the film’s many backup dancers.

-Both of the film’s leads were members of American R&B boy bands from the mid-2000s, with Grandberry being a member of B2K and Houston belonging to IMx. Several of their tacks are featured on the movie’s soundtrack.

-Personal confession: The copy of the DVD I bought consisted of two discs, You Got Served and You Got Served: Take it to the Streets. I stupidly thought that that second title was a straight-to-DVD sequel, which would have made for a more appropriate to review, since I’ve never heard of it. Surprise!!! It turns out You Got Served: Take it to the Streets is an instructional video, where the cast of the original film walk you through how to pull off those slick dance moves. I haven’t drummed up the courage to watch it yet.

-A straight-to-DVD sequel in name only was finally released in 2011 called You Got Served: Beat the World, which doesn’t star anybody from the 2004 film or have anything to do with the original plot.

Castle Keep (1969) review-You got your Vietnam in my WWII movie

When I originally picked up a DVD titled “5 Classic War Films” for $4.99 I didn’t expect it to include a movie like Sydney Pollack’s Castle Keep.

Judged solely on the low price and the cheesy posters featured on the cover, I strapped myself in to watch some bottom-of-the-barrel, exploitative trash.

The hokey plot synopsis for this film specifically didn’t help matters either, since it centres around a rag-tag group of American soldiers tasked with defending a medieval castle full of priceless art pieces during the Battle of the Bulge.

However, while Castle Keep doesn’t attain “classic” status, as advertised, the filmmakers should be given credit for trying to inject some art house sensibilities into an otherwise formulaic war movie.

Within the first 20 minutes, the movie stomped my expectations into the ground by establishing a detached, laid-back tone that doesn’t initially seem to fit with other “man-on-a-mission” World War II epics of the time (think The Dirty Dozen).

Instead of getting down to business and showing the audience how the castle is being fortified for the on oncoming German assault, most of the first and second act features our main characters just farting around.

They drink, they smoke, they fuck (with several trips to a nearby brothel) and they carry on inane conversations that don’t really go anywhere. Mid-way through the movie one of the soldiers spouts off about how indestructible Volkswagen Beetles are, and that this particular model of car will inherit the earth after the war wipes out all human life.

Coupled together with a dream-like score that seems like it jumped right out of an old perfume commercial, and Castle Keep becomes a truly bizarre viewing experience, to the point where I even wondered if I put in the wrong DVD by mistake.

In the last 40 minutes the story does eventually turn into a more conventional direction, with plenty of explosions and gritted teeth that would satisfy even the most jaded action junky. However, this kind of action climax gets so exaggerated that it veers off into the direction of satire, especially when Germans soldiers start using fire trucks to mount the castle walls.

To be fair, most of these strange choices make sense if you put this film’s release in the right historical context.

By 1969 the United States had been escalating their involvement in the Vietnam War for over a decade, with no real end in sight. With that in mind, it’s understandable that Americans like director Sydney Pollack would have become disillusioned with traditional military heroics and decided to make a film about the tedium and pointlessness that’s involved in a protracted foreign conflict.

Actor Peter Faulk (who plays sergeant Rossi Baker) even reveals the filmmakers’ intentions at one point during the chaotic climax by blurting out “What the hell war is this?”

While the filmmakers should be applauded for this kind of ambition, Castle Keep is not without its problems.

Certain sections of the film suffer from poor ADR and sound mixing, to the point where you can’t even tell which character is supposed to be talking.

Because the movie adopts the look and feel of a waking dream, the middle part of the story really drags, something that could have been solved by chopping at least 20-30 minutes off the runtime.

And while the individual actors do a really good job with the material they’re given, it doesn’t stop them from being flat caricatures with no real depth. This usually what happens when characters are written to hammer home a theme rather than to tell a good story.

Overall, even though I think calling Castle Keep “pretentious” would be a bridge too far, I wouldn’t fault anybody else for using that label to describe it.

After all, the filmmakers are obviously much more concerned about waxing poetic on lofty topics like war, art, and sex rather than telling a good story with fleshed out characters, which definitely prevented me from engaging with the movie on an emotional level.

With that being said, Castle Keep did at least take me by surprise and give me something to think about once it was over. Hopefully this becomes a re-occurring theme throughout my adventures into the darker corners of Corner Store Cinema.

Verdict:

6/10

Corner store companion:

Skor butter toffee (because it looks fancy, but it’s still really just cheap candy on the inside)

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Fun facts:

-Release date: July 23, 1969

-Budget: $8 million (estimated)

-Box office gross: $1.8 (Canada/US)

-Two years after this film was released, Peter Faulk (one of the main supporting cast members) would go on to find great success by staring in the series Columbo. Faulk ended up playing the titular, unassuming detective in a grand total of 69 specials, with the final episode airing on Jan. 30, 2003.

-Mass murderer Ronald Defeo Jr. claimed that he was watching Castle Keep right before he shot his parents and four siblings to death in Amityville, New York on Nov. 13, 1974.

-While this film ultimately flopped, both critically and financially, director Sydney Pollack would bounce back with his next project They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, which landed him 10 Oscar nominations (including one for Best Director).

The Devil’s Own (1997) review-Sexy, terrorist Brad Pitt

One of my main objectives with this website is to showcase movies that have fallen through the cracks in a vast entertainment industry that’s been sent into overdrive thanks to the Internet.

Now, this doesn’t mean every film I review will be a hidden gem or a cinematic monstrosity on par with The Room. However, sometimes it means that the subject in question will be a solid outing with a few noticeable flaws that keep it from attaining greatest.

Enter Alan J. Pakula’s 1997 action-thriller The Devil’s Own, a film that received lukewarm reviews upon its initial release and very little retrospective fanfare in the subsequent 20+ years. Which is too bad, because the movie is quite well put together overall.

This is obvious from the first five minutes of the film, which features an intense Michael Mann quality shoot-out between IRA assassin Frankie McGuire (Brad Pitt) and members of the British Army on the streets of Belfast, Northern Ireland. After McGuire survives this fire-fight by the skin of his teeth, he’s sent on a mission to New York City to acquire a bundle of Stinger Missiles that his terrorist brethren will use to rain hot, sweet death on even more government forces back home.

To complete his mission, McGuire takes refuge with unwitting police sergeant Tom O’Meara (Harrison Ford) and his family, who are eventually caught in the crossfire when this weapons deal gets more and more complicated.

(warning: trailer contains major spoilers)

Obviously, the movie’s biggest surface level draw is its star power, since its two leads were at the peak of their own career trajectories at the time of its release.

In 1997, Ford was in the middle of perfecting his mid-aged, reluctant everyman action hero shtick, while Pitt was just starting to prove himself as a “pretty boy actor” who doesn’t hesitate to take on edgier roles.

The pair also play-off each other really well on screen, hammering home the film’s underlining story about two Irishmen from different backgrounds and how their divergent upbringings colour their outlook on life.

If nothing else, it’s good movie to watch with your parents, since mom gets to ogle mid-90s Brad Pitt and dad gets a chance to live vicariously through Ford’s baby boomer grit.

However, this dynamic also highlights the movie’s biggest flaw.

Even though I’m far from an expert on conflict in Northern Ireland, I know that it’s a tricky, intricate subject that’s difficult to do justice on screen. This is especially true in the mid-90s, when tensions between the IRA and the British government were at a fever pitch.

The filmmakers of The Devils’ Own opted to side step this problem by downplaying the rougher edges of Brad Pitt’s character and portray him as a sexy freedom fighter instead. However, because of this, the film runs into problems with tonal consistency. One minute Pitt’s character is a ruthless killer who doesn’t hesitate to gun down government soldiers, and the next he’s shown to be a sweet, sensitive soul who gets down on one knee when he talks to small children.

While Pitt does his best with this material, the contrast between serious drama and romanticized fluff is still very jarring and hasn’t aged very well in a post-9/11 world.

Also, the less said about Pitt’s Irish accent the better.

Despite these hang-ups, the movie is still very well shot and paced, probably thanks in large part to veteran director Alan J. Pakula (All the President’s Men, Sophie’s Choice) being at the helm.

And while The Devils’ Own probably won’t change your life, it’s still a welcome two-hour distraction that does a great job of showcasing two Hollywood heavyweights in the prime of their respective careers.

Verdict:

7/10

Corner store companion:

Lucky Charms (for obvious reasons)

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Fun facts:

-Release date: March 26, 1997

-Budget: $86 million (estimated)

-Box office gross: $140,807,547 (worldwide)

-Unexpected cameo: Julia Stiles plays one of Ford’s teenage daughters (side note: this film was release theatrically two days before her 17th birthday)

-Musical highlight: “God be with you Ireland” by Dolores O’Riordan (plays over the opening credits)

-Shortly before her untimely death in August of 1997, Diana, Princess of Whales, took 15-year old Prince William and 12-year old Prince Harry to see this film. Diana was fiercely criticized in the media for taking her sons to see a rated-R movie that appears to glamorize the IRA.

The Devil’s Own serves as the final film of director Alan J. Pakula’s career before he passed away on November 19, 1998 at age 70.