1992: The Dream of the Nineties In Film

So, Where Was I in 1992?

This was a big year for me personally. It was my last year in middle school and also my first year in high school. That summer I travelled a lot. I went to England with my father in June, met a lot of distant relations in the Midwest, caught pneumonia and almost died, then ended up going to my first Band Camp late on account of my recovery. It was the first year I’d be put against incredible challenges for my love of music on account of orthodontics. A lot of good, and a lot of bad. I count this as the first year where I was truly confronted with the reality that I was not at the center of the universe. I also got into a lot of my favorite fiction that year. Neuromancer, The Gunslinger, and 1984 all were read in this timeframe and shaped me just as much as the films we’ll be discussing here.

The Cold War seemed to have finally come to a close with President Bush and President Yeltsin meeting at Camp David. Bill Clinton was on the rise for the upcoming election and managed to wrest the Presidency away from the Republican party while inheriting one of the more memorable uncooperative congresses. Hurricane Andrew wreaked havoc across the Bahamas and Florida, causing huge amounts of damage to both and taking a lot of lives. While distant from my home in Delaware, the mid-Atlantic states were all biting their nails, wondering where the hell the storm would go after landfall. Storms terrified me then, almost irrationally (except for the part where they kill people). They scare me now too to be honest.

Pope John Paul II also decided that Galileo had been in Hell long enough, and lifted a 400 or so year edict of Inquisition by the church for heresy against him. And, my own religious upbringing started here, and not for the better. My contentious relationship with the Christian faith began once it was shown to me that churches were filled with people. Regular, often shitty, people. While there were proverbial diamonds in the rough in my church, I learned that bullies often times went to church for everything from communion to confirmation – both of which I kind of went into with a lack of enthusiasm due to the elbows with which I was rubbing. For people of supposed Christian values, they did not make me feel welcome.

Also, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 arrived on Christmas. Hells. Yes.

The Schlock

The schlock returned with a vengeance this year, with several entries coming to my attention in ways that were unexpectedly wonderful looking back on them now. So, let’s hit the big names in film from the bottom of my barrel.

Alien 3

Alien 3 1991

When I watched it: 1992
It taught me: Disappointment, Tone
Stars: ★★★

I had only recently seen the film Aliens (1986) at this point, and had seen Alien (1979) even more recently (I came to this particular franchise backwards, so the original Alien felt kind of like a let down at the time – don’t judge me, I was young). But, I was very enthusiastic about the film’s impending release at the time. I’d played the videogame tie in at my cousin’s house, and it was awesome. The producers, theoretically, had six years to work on it. So the movie had to be spectacular, right?

Well… not exactly.

The crew and production company had a lot to potentially work with, but the film in many ways felt phoned in and rehashed. They killed off all of the survivors from Aliens (off camera no less) save for Ripley and Bishop (who as a synthetic, arguably couldn’t ‘die’) which felt like a shit way to treat characters who fought so hard for survival in the second film. Then they didn’t really get any big names to round out their cast save for Sigourney Weaver (as much as I like Lance Henriksen, he’s never quite made the A-List for actors). What I did get though were a couple of great second fiddles, some of who later turned into fairly recognizable actors (Charles S. Dutton,  Charles Dance, and, one of my favorite B-listers who never got the leading roles, Pete Postlethwaite). And to be honest, if you take the experience of Aliens away from the film… what you get isn’t necessarily bad. One could even say it harkened back to the ethos of the first film: one monster, a rapidly dwindling cast, and a story of desperate survival. And they got better practical and computer-aided effects to do it with.

The only thing it was guilty of was not living up to the blockbuster convergence of awesomeness that its predecessor, Aliens, successfully deployed. There were no cool sentry turrets, pulse rifles, flamethrowers, dropships, or bad ass Colonial Marines. Just a lot of grubby convicts and lice. They had so much material they could have worked with from the Aliens comic books released by Dark Horse that could have lived up to Aliens… but it just didn’t get used.

Plus, they killed a dog. Automatic negative points are given for that infraction in most films I watch.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Dracula 1992When I watched it: 1992
It taught me: Gothic Structure, Mood, A Love of the Underdogs, Gary Oldman Can Do Anything
Stars: ★★★

I had, at this point, not truly been introduced to Dracula. I’d later buy an abridged audiobook on tape in Ireland in 1996 based off my experience of this film, then later come to read the full book several times over. But, this was my first introduction to the story, altered as it was.

Looking back, I don’t know why I was so impressed – this is not a great movie despite its starpower (Winona Ryder as Mina Harker, Sir Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing, and Gary Oldman as Dracula). But, I was moved by this film in the way only thirteen year-old boys can be. Of course, half naked vampire harlots probably helped, though the effect was lessened by seeing the film not only with my parents, but also with one of the friends of the family.

I simply remember being moved by the overpowering mood of dread and desperation. By the efforts of heroes truly unprepared for the full extent of the horror of the undead. These were not action movie heroes. They were fragile, under pressure, lacking most tools to deal with the problem, and the hero is an old man, Abraham Van Helsing (possibly my favorite gothic hero), fighting in the darkness to save the souls of dear friends if not the greater good of the world. The set and lighting details were great for their time, and did much to set the tone of darkness and vile monstrous intent.

Sure, Keanu Reeves still had the acting ability of a wooden board (which in my opinion aligns with Victorian England pretty well). Broad liberties were taken with the actual story. It’s not perfect. But it’s great in it’s own way in my memories.

This film also introduced me to Gary Oldman, whom in subsequent films I had trouble identifying. This was not due to his extreme makeup and ridiculous hairstyle, but because he can seemingly portray anything in all of his roles that came after (and before), many of whom looked radically different (I mostly have him set in my mind as Jean-Baptiste Emmanuel Zorg from The Fifth Element (1997).

Batman Returns

Batman Returns 1992When I watched it: 1992
It taught me: Foriegn Film Experience, Temperance
Stars: ★★★

Wait… it taught me what? Hold on. Let me explain.

I’d seen Batman (1989) a few years before while on vacation with the family on the Delaware Beaches. I hadn’t wanted to (god, I was a dumb kid) and turned out to love it. So it was obvious to me – when the sequel came out I’d see this. What I did not know was that I would see it London. As mentioned in my intro to 1992, I went to England for the first time that summer. Dad and I did a lot of the stuff you’d expect, hitting cultural points, historical destinations, and otherwise touristy stuff. But, one day, we decided we were going to be thoroughly American – we were going to go eat pizza and watch a movie.

And so we did.  But, it wasn’t our first choice. We tried to see The Lawnmower Man (1992) (addressed in The Cutting Room Floor for 1992). And the first thing I learned about British cinemas was that when Britain makes a fucking rule, they actually enforce it. I was too young by one year to watch the film by British ratings, even with an adult guardian present. So, Batman Returns it was.

Most of my memories of this film are actually tinged by that simple experience.

And why should I categorize this as Schlock? This was Tim Burton being allowed to be Tim Burton just a little too much for the subject matter. Joel Schumacher would go on to film greater atrocities to the franchise in Batman Forever (1995) and Batman and Robin (1997), so I kind of give Burton a pass. I love me some Tim Burton, but sometimes he needs to tuck it back a little, and this film was a great example of where a little temperance could have worked out. A little Tim Burton goes a long way.

 

Somewhere In the Middle

Wayne’s World

Wayne's World 1992When I watched it: 1992
It taught me: The Appreciation of a Good Soundtrack
Stars: ★★★★

Oh man. I was not prepared for this. It never crossed my mind that this could make a translation from Saturday Night Live (despite loving the Blues Brothers (1980) which I did not know the origins of at the time) to the big screen.

Needless to say, this was the film when it came to comedy this year by a country mile. It was great from top to bottom, even if it did talk shit on my home state.

And, of course, the scene everyone remembers is the one that taught me how wonderful a good soundtrack was in a film: the car scene in which all parties in the car recreate the song Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen. This is credited as the way most kids who weren’t already exposed to Queen while young how to sing Bohemian Rhapsody. I’d already been exposed of course. I’d seen Highlander (1986) and Flash Gordon (1980), but at the ages I saw those films, I didn’t care who the hell was singing those songs.

This would be a force that pushed me on to really start remembering the music I heard in films. I remember getting the audio cassette (remember those!) and playing it to death in my parents’ car all summer long. Good times.

Unforgiven

When I watched it: Circa 2009
It taught me: Vengeance, Descent
Stars: ★★★★

Unforgiven 1992

The redemption story is popular. People love watching Vader come back to the light like in Return of the Jedi (1983). They line up for The Shawshank Redemption (1994) which has the word in the title. They feel good.

This is the exact opposite of redemption, but is just as compelling a watch.

Clint Eastwood is a reformed killer. He hung up his guns, built up a farm, started a family. Then he lost it. Because farming is hard, he takes up a bounty job put forth by the nearby town’s soiled doves after one of them is cut up by a local cowboy. In the process, he begins a slide back into his murderous life of violence to do what he feels is owed to the local cowboys and the town’s harsh lawman (played by Gene Hackman).

If this movie doesn’t give you pause at every level, I wonder what’s wrong with you. By the time you get to the end of the film, you truly feel the hot fury of Eastwood’s vengeance radiating out from the screen like hell’s own fire. It’s a human trainwreck so large you can see it from space. If I could take any inspiration from this film, it was its unforgiving perspective of how deep vengeance can go.

The Muppet Christmas Carol

TMCC 1992When I watched it: 1992
It taught me: Classical Adjustments, the Last Hurrah
Stars: ★★★★

What can I say. Everybody loves Muppets (except for my girlfriend, but I forgive her).

I grew up on a steady diet of Muppets from the classic show, through The Muppet Movie (1979), The Great Muppet Caper (1981), and The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984), so this was a no brainer. The family and I watch it regularly in December, sometimes a couple of times. It’s just fun.

I’m also not usually a big fan of quirky adaptations of classics with a couple of notable exceptions (a few being Romeo + Juliet (1996), Strange Brew (1983) – don’t laugh, Strange Brew is essentially Hamlet!). But seriously, add in Muppets and it’s usually all good.

However, that being said… this was my last hurrah for the Muppets I knew in my youth. After this we would get Muppet Treasure Island (1996) which… didn’t quite do it for me. It didn’t have the memorable qualities of what I refer to as the Core Muppet Movies (CMM, patent pending). The movies after lost some of their magic. Maybe it was the death of Jim Henson (which admittedly happened well before The Muppet Christmas Carol) that sent the franchise on its present course. Maybe it was the Disney buyout. Maybe it was just that I grew up.

But if I grew up… would I still love the Core Muppet Movies as much as I do?

Personal Blockbusters

A League of Their Own

ALoTO 1992When I watched it: Circa 1998
It taught me: History, How to Make a Sports Movie
Stars: ★★★★

Given I’m not a sports fan in the broadest sense, I don’t see a lot of sports films. But, I do love baseball. It’s the family religion in its own way. Both sides of my family are baseball people, and many a Sunday was spent at my grandmother’s home or in my parent’s home, or my aunt’s home (the sports bug missed my aunt entirely, but since my grandfather was there frequently, so were the games).

Field of Dreams (1989) opened the floodgates for baseball movies, with my introduction to The Natural (1984), Major League (1989), and Eight Men Out (1988) rounding out my baseball film repertoire. This one, I caught late. But, I am very glad I caught it.

This movie was different for the obvious reasons. I had no idea, no inkling, that baseball would have been affected by the war effort in World War II as a kid. I still had a kind of assumption that sports stars then were immune to anything like they are now. But it wasn’t the case. There was a womens league (they called the All American Girls League), and this told the story of this league. Now, as I was raised to believe, don’t buy your history from Hollywood. This was a fictionalized account, though the subject matter was very real.

And what a cast they got to do it, too. Gena Davis, Madonna, Lori Petty, Rosie O’Donnell, Tom Hanks… they deliver admirably, bringing a unique American event into a focus with drama, comedy, and passion for the game.

Aladdin

Aladdin 1992When I watched it: Circa 1992
It taught me: Soundtrack Matters, Traditional Animation Matters
Stars: ★★★★★

I am not, generally speaking, a fan of musicals. Don’t get me wrong, I love music – dedicated ten years of my life to it growing up and would still play if given space and time to do it.  But musicals… if it doesn’t have Muppets, I’m generally not interested. But Aladdin had a soundtrack that even years later I can remember the words to.

Aladdin is also a perfect confluence of two things I love very much. Music you obviously have pegged already. But the other is animation. When I trained to become an animator, I was taught one thing very quickly – 2D animation, as we knew it, was going to die. 3D was going to eat its lunch and the world would forge ahead without the old guard because it took too much time. 3D was (comparatively) faster and cheaper. The industry would abandon 2D.

They were… wrong. Just not in the way they anticipated.

Aladdin was a couple of years before I would have this lesson imparted to me. But it’s also part of the reason I don’t think it will ever die out. Aladdin had its share of 3D enhancements, but a lot of it is based on good, old-fashioned 2-D techniques. Hand drawings. Keyframes. A lot of the old skills are still here in spades, and it’s a wonderful thing to see. The 2D world is definitely still around though. And Aladdin is one of the films to preserve the legacy.

The film is just magic in every way. Robin Williams was at his prime here. The work holds up. Kids still watch it. I still watch it.

Not planning on stopping.

Sneakers

Sneakers 1992When I watched it: Circa 1994
It taught me: Espionage, Cryptography, Politics
Stars: ★★★★★

I remember first hearing about the concept of ‘the information age’ around the time Sneakers hit the video store. As noted earlier, I was also beginning to learn about politics of the global kind. This film was the first to put both of these things into context, and it was a humdinger of a film. It’s still easily one of my favorite films of the decade.

It focused on an oddball assortment of highly capable misfits with a talent for doing illegal things. Said misfits turn these skills toward compromising big businesses in order to test their security and readiness at businesses’ request. When a pair of Feds approach their de facto leader, Martin Bishop, and blackmail him into a job, things get interesting. From there it goes into world politics, spies, cryptography, and conspiracy. Old wounds are reopened as Bishop goes down a rabbit hole that results in his team taking on the biggest sneak operation of their lives, playing between technically savvy corporate masterminds, the NSA, rogue spies, and the Russian government.

The cast is stellar and the performance shines. Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, Dan Ackroyd, River Phoenix, Ben Kingsley, Mary McDonnell… there’s no way to lose.

Reservoir Dogs

Reservoir Dogs 1992When I watched it: Circa 1994
It taught me: Soundtrack Matters, Crime, Dialog
Stars: ★★★★★

While this is one of Tarantino’s earliest works, I only saw it after seeing Pulp Fiction (1994), and even then only after a considerable gap.

Tarantino, while known for his visual styles and snappy screenplay dialogs, is not known for his originality. That’s certainly true here. If you have seen the film City On Fire (1987) you can tell this film is a direct rip-off.

But, what a rip-off.

I had not seen City On Fire yet. The film blew me away.  While it copied City On Fire, it took a different page in portraying the dominant side of it.

The story opens on a pair of criminals staggering into a safehouse that may no longer be safe. One is bleeding out slowly from a gut wound, the other is trying to pick up the pieces of their jewelry heist that has just gone sideways. As the film progresses and more of the thieves’ crew appears at the safehouse, flashback vignettes unravel a web of betrayal, crime, drama, and acts of unconscionable violence.

I was barely able to process it. It’s a jangle of raw nerves, lurid criminality, and tense dialog that delivers shocks to this day. The song ‘Stuck In the Middle With You’ now evokes a strong reaction in me even years later.