Creative Dispatch – August 14, 2017

Its like, news or something… but creative.

Apologies for the missed blog post last Thursday – the past seven days have been my first week on the path back to steadier income. I driving for Uber now, and I am learning the ropes while investigating a few other options. It’s been an overwhelmingly positive change so far. I like the work, I meet lots of new people, and they talk. I like to talk. When you meet new people and they like to talk, you learn about things you’d never have thought about before. I learned a couple things about recovering from addiction, what it’s like raising money for schools in West Africa, as well as the people in neighborhoods I’ve never been in before. I’ve also been drumming up a lot of old memories about places I haven’t been to in years. Then there’s the facet of a whole new way of employment – that in itself has a story brewing in my mind.

Speaking of which, let’s talk a little bit more about what’s been on my creative docket.

Creative Progress

  • Ossua: This has unfortunately stalled. I need to restructure it after reports back from my critique group. As is typical of a big idea, you need other people to show you the flaws in what you think is already concrete. It’s very much like the scientific method. In this case, if you’re going to do something extraordinary, you need to make sure you’re showing it in the best and most accessible way possible to others who do what you do. So… this could take a while. The story while interesting lacks some common things the group pointed out. So I have a lot of work ahead of me after I have figured out the way forward.
  • The Dream of the Nineties In Film: This has been a blast to write, and it’s coming to a conclusion soon. I think when it is complete, I will have the basics for a non-fiction piece that covers the nineties in film as well as my own personal experience of growing up in the decade. A lot of it has been cathartic. And a lot of it has simply been great fun. The completed work will need to be edited and then formatted (the whole format has been an evolution in progress since day one). I’ll need to add in some extra things – but that’s good. It will give new content and also show some growth hopefully. I’m not sure if it will be something I sell or provide as a portfolio piece for people who want to look at my blog writing capabilities or want an example of my ability to use InDesign, Photoshop, and Illustrator. Perhaps both on a long enough timeline.
  • New Short Story Seed: A gypsy cab driver with a slick, tech-capable ride in a cyberpunk future has an interesting night.
  • New Short Story Seed: Quantum Entanglement sheds new light on the very existence of life on earth as our sun begins to gutter out.
  • Short Story Mashups: I submitted a trunk story about societal collapse to my critique group against my better judgement last week. I liked the story when I wrote it two years ago, but when I look at it now I feel it needs something more. It turns out the group really liked it, and they noted that it dovetails with another story I submitted earlier. They’re completely right. It should have been really obvious to me, but it wasn’t. In the process, I’ve tagged at least two other stories that would also mash up to create a solid narrative. It needs more meat on the bones to become more than a novella, but it’d be worth the work as a great, Lovecraftian science horror piece. A new sticky joins my Kanban board.
  • Blog Work: I submitted an application to work for an online blogging company and also am speaking with a marketing company in Philadelphia after an interesting opportunity cropped up. Apparently, I may be able to put my storytelling ability to work for them. Hoping to learn a little more about that soon.

In Other News

I’ve been working on getting things done around the house. In addition to the usual stuff that keeps our house pest free and makes sure I don’t get arrested for public indecency, Project Retro has come out from its storage bin and awaits proper cabling. I have several of my old gaming systems lined up on a rack that was previously used to hold storage bins but has finally been cleared. I look forward to a chance to finally play Burning Rangers, as well as several of my old favorites like Xenogears or Sonic Adventures. They’ve been mothballed for a long time, so it’s good to see them out again. Once everything is set up, I shall have to celebrate with other gamers of the retro persuasion. I’m a little short on games (I’ve had to sell many) but 2nd and Charles is right around the corner.

On top of that, driving for Uber occasionally means waiting around to catch a ride. While waiting in the PHL ride share lot for the next person in queue, I had a chance to find a new author: Duane Swiercynski. Well, new to me. He has been working in crime and spy thrillers on the novel end of things for a while, and also writes a lot of capes and cowl work at Marvel. I started out with Severance Package, a tidy little story about an intelligence front company that goes incredibly pear shaped. It was Tarantino-esque in its over-the-topness. This has led me to acquire copies of further works, specifically The Blonde and Canary as well. If those go well, I may dig deeper in my quest to branch out a bit from Sci-fi, Fantasy, and Horror. I always felt that thriller genre stories needed more aliens, cyborgs, monsters, and ghosts. So to add them, knowing the original formulas helps. I’ve tried a little Hammett and Chandler in the past year or so. I also have some good examples in the Jonathan Maberry vein from the Joe Ledger series. The repertoire is building.

So, that’s the post for this Monday. It may take some time before I can really tackle the next phase of Dream. 1998 has a very long list of films to get to, but we’ll get there.



1997: The Cutting Room Floor

So Where Were Things In 1997?

There was too much personal stuff to really go over much else, so pardon me if this gets heavy and without a lot of political, pop culture, or technological history. But, I promise, there’s an upswing.

So many things changed this year. It was a truly amazing, yet utterly gut-wrenchingly introspective kind of year. It felt like it almost destroyed me. I was facing new challenges weekly if not daily. The year front loaded me with the worst.

One of the people most important to me passed away in January. My grandmother and I were close. When I was born, she butted my grandparents from mom’s side out of the way, proclaiming: this one is mine. This is not hyperbole. She actually did this. By her reckoning, my mom’s parents received the lion’s share of my sister’s allotted grandparent time, and she was due hers. We’d visit frequently, and vice versa. When mom and dad went away on trips, she would be the one who watched me. When she came to pick me up from elementary school one afternoon, she found me cornered by a bully. Seeing the aggressor had his arm in a cast, she screeched her yellow Pontial right along side of us and screamed: Get away from my grandson or I’ll break your other goddamned arm!

Nana was a pistol.

It was hard watching her in the last four months of her life. She almost burned her mobile home to the ground one afternoon. When people got there she was confused and disoriented. They thought maybe it was from the smoke. And, in a way, it was. It just wasn’t the smoke from kitchen fire. It was Emphysema. It was sixty years of cigarettes. It was her brain starving of oxygen until she couldn’t remember who the people visiting her were. I don’t remember any signs of her going soft before the fire, though dad remembers having to keep her away from losing money to scams. To me, she was Nana one day, then the next day she mistook me for my father and had no idea what year it was. It happened so fast, yet the four months she spent in a godawful nursing home (where the attending orderlies robbed her blind) seemed to drag on like Napoleon’s march through Russia. She begged us to get her out of there. Begged me. And there was nothing to be done for it. She couldn’t live on her own, and we couldn’t keep an eye on her twenty-four hours a day. When the place got shut down for negligence and fraud a few years later, I was not surprised.

It was 1:00 AM when dad came down into the basement – my room while I was home – and told me that nana passed away in her sleep. Part of me completely came undone as I went upstairs and just sat in the family room of our house and watched snow come down over our quiet street. The next couple of days were a blur. So was the funeral. I could not collect myself. I cried through the whole thing. My family was there for each other, including my other grandparents. And, in my pain, in my inexperienced youth… I distanced myself from my surviving grandparents with a determined and conscious effort for the next ten years. I didn’t ever want to hurt like that ever again. Ever. And I wasted that long span of years, thinking that if I could just stay away from my other grandparents… it might not hurt as bad when they died.

Anyone with a brain and any kind of actual life experience can tell you that’s bullshit. But tell a nineteen year old that. They already know everything. I was no exception.

God, I was stupid. It took me a long time to figure out just how stupid.

I got dealt another blow a few weeks later. As foretold in last week’s post, I had my first serious relationship go catastrophically sideways. When a girlfriend stands you up on Valentine’s Day to go hang out with a bunch of other guys, it pretty much signals the end of the relationship. It was over within a week after that. Between the break up and my grandmother’s death, I was sullen and broken for the better part of that year.

Then came the moment where the city of Philadelphia itself came after me. It’s a theory between my friends from college and I that a trial of sorts happens whenever someone comes to live in Philadelphia from elsewhere. After six months in the city, it will make an attempt on your life. This could be physical, like a mugging (this happened to more than one of my friends). It could be social, in the form of isolation or alienation from a new and often unforgiving city. Or, as it was in my case, it could be emotional.

The guy didn’t look like he’d eaten for a long time. His clothes were threadbare, his feet barely wrapped in several pairs of hole-ridden socks. He had no blanket, no coat. His skin was ashy and lifeless, his lips chapped and cracked, bleeding and scabbed in places. He laid on a stinking grate just a block away from the Franklin Institute. And, for the life of me, I could not tell if he was alive. I had possibly just seen my first corpse. It made me pause and wonder about exactly the kind of place I was living in; not just the city, but our whole damn planet.

I don’t know what was more telling: That we, as people, could let things like this happen, or that I simply looked away and walked on.

God and I had already been on the outs. I haven’t spoken to it again save for once in the winter of 2014. Maybe I feel guilty that I did nothing to help that guy. It could be that I felt that if god wasn’t going to look after either me or maybe-dead-guy on Arch Street, that keeping up prayers to it was just shoveling so much shit against the tide. It’s possible I was just angry; at myself, at god, at everything. Perhaps, I just had too much emotional shit on my plate and my heart hardened against the world. I don’t know. I broke down in the car while dad drove me home that weekend. I thought about just… quitting. Told him that I didn’t know if I could hack the city. That, maybe, I should just go back home. Conceding defeat to a superior enemy seemed like a real option. Dad didn’t say anything. I don’t know if there was anything to be said.

If I am anything though, I am a stubborn bastard. Once I got through to the other side of February, things did get better after six months of shit sandwiches. Improvements were not instant. I had to double down to get what I needed. I got a job at the Institute’s Print Bureau to aid in my studies and quit Blockbuster Video. I spent weekends in the city to continue my studies. I spent time with my growing group of friends who are now like family. John, Joe, April, Corrine, Kate, Greg, Melissa, West, Marc, Mike. I started to work out who I was. I started learning things not because some state imposed education system demanded me to – I learned things because I wanted to. And, it was about this time that I realized something inside of me. I wouldn’t really get serious about it for years later, but this was the year I learned I had stories in me.

I sat down and wrote several stories on my black and white Macintosh Plus or in the computer labs. I ran my own adventures for Shadowrun when I’d come home for the weekend. Sometimes, I finished them. Sometimes, I did not. I didn’t share my work all of the time. But, out the emotionally disturbed soil of my life in 1997, something grew.

Life got better once I pushed through.

In the months of 1997, I had a lot of time in Philly to watch some films in my studio apartment while I got my shit together and started turning into an adult. Let’s take some time to put all of my personal baggage behind me for now and make with what you came here for. Here’s what didn’t make the A-List.

The Good, the Bad, and the Indifferent.

1997 first strike

Jackie Chan’s First Strike (Good) – Jackie Chan saves China. Or something? It was fun if for nothing else than the fight scene with the ladder (3:20 mark).

Private Parts (Good) – I was a fan of Stern back then. This covers his life and career up until 1997. After 1997… eh. His star waned for me.

Liar Liar (Good) – Carrey does good as a sleazy Lawyer who finds himself unable to lie after making a promise to his son to only tell the truth for just one day. Short, shriveled, and always to the left. That’s how it’s hanging.

The Devil’s Own (Good) – Brad Pitt is an IRA agent taken in by a family… I think? I remember it being fairly good, though it was watched rather late with my family if I remember. I’m hazy on the details, but I remember liking it.

The Saint (Indifferent) – Val Kilmer plays a kind of super spy with a guilty conscience? It was largely forgettable, despite the presence of Elizabeth Shue.

Anaconda (Bad) – A big snake picks off unmemorable cast members one by one. Like Alien, but not nearly as entertaining. Also, the only time a snake that size moves that fast is when it falls out of a fucking tree.

Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion (Indifferent) – Mira Sorvino and Phoebe from friends are stuck in the eighties while everyone else from their high school years have moved on. Like, oh my god. It’s… a movie you can watch. Not my speed, exactly. But not terrible.

Volcano (Bad) – Los Angeles has a volcano under it. Things catch fire and people burn up. You can skip this unless you really have a mad on to watch parts of L.A. go up in lava.

The Lost World: Jurassic Park (Indifferent) – Jeff Goldblum and his daughter must survive dinosaurs. Again. Or at least Ian does. His daughter never saw dinosaurs until this movie. Effects were good sure, but… it wasn’t particularly a great film. 

Batman and Robin (Bad) – Booo! Now George Clooney is Batman, fighting Poison Ivy, Bane, and Doctor Freeze. Stop, Joel Schumacher. Just… stop.

Hercules (Indifferent) – Another Disney tale ripped from the pages of the public domain! It was well animated as is Disney’s way, but I can take this one or leave it. It does have Danny DeVito and James Woods though.

Spawn (Bad) – A bad man comes back from the dead because the Devil wants him leading his army. He doesn’t do it, because even though he’s a bad man, he’s not that bad. Ugh. Don’t give Todd McFarlane money if you can help it.

Conspiracy Theory (Indifferent) – Mel Gibson thinks he’s being tracked by the government and he’s actually right. Patrick Stewart is okay in this. You can do much worse.

Masterminds (Indifferent) – Kids in a private school are taken hostage and must outsmart their captors. Criminal misuse of Patrick Stewart commences. Ho hum.

Mimic (Indifferent) – There are giant roaches that can mimic people living in the sewers. Mira Sorvino and Josh Brolin try to kill them all before they can sufficiently breed. I think. Guillermo Del Toro directs, but fails to make an impression as impactful as his later works.

In & Out (Indifferent) – Kevin Kline is gay and ends up telling everyone in town, including his finacee. He also kisses Tom Selleck. Hilarity ensues. Or that’s what it said on the box. Probably.

The Man Who Knew Too Little (Indifferent) – Bill Murray is a witless bystander in this comedy about a guy who thinks he’s going to a mystery dinner party and is mistaken instead for a hitman by a group of unsavory spy types. He thinks it’s all fun and games, but the other ‘guests’ are playing for keeps. It’s not his best work.

Alien: Resurrection (Bad) – Weyland-Yutani still hasn’t figured out that Xenomorphs will never be adequately controlled for profit. So they mix Ripley’s DNA with aliens a bunch of times  because… why? It’s not like Ripley was the most controllable asset they ever had, so it seems… foolhardy. The movie is just dumb. Ron Perlman fails to make it better.

Flubber (Indifferent) – Robin Williams is a wacky scientist who performs a wacky experiment to make a wacky state of matter. Meh. I don’t even remember what he meant Flubber to actually be used for or what the film’s antagonist(s) wanted to do with it.

Scream 2 (Good) – The franchise continues, only now they’re talking about how they’re all in a horror movie sequel where the rules change slightly. It was good, but it doesn’t quite re-capture the greatness of the original film.

Titanic (Indifferent) – Kate Winslett and Leonardo DiCaprio win every award at the oscars when they portray star crossed lovers on an even more star crossed ship. Points granted for when that one guy bongs off the propeller and impressive visual effects. For all that I love great computer animation, the film bored me. It’s too long, Billy Zane is annoying in everything, and the romance wasn’t really interesting to me. If you want a better long movie about a boat and relationships, I recommend Pirate Radio (2009) instead. Plus, you don’t know if this boat sinks or not going in.

MouseHunt (Bad) – Nathan Lane hates mice and hires Christopher Walken to get rid of a mouse troubling he and his brother. Failed to really crack any smiles – not a good sign for a comedy. Turns out, this was also William Hickey’s last film. Godspeed you, Uncle Louis.

Tomorrow Never Dies (Indifferent) – More formulaic James Bond stuff. Still haven’t found a great Bond movie yet, though I’m told Daniel Craig’s films are more than adequate.

Cinematic Sins

1997 boogie nights

Of course there’s some oversights from 1997 – pretty glaringly obvious ones too. Here’s the next installment of my ever growing to-do list:

Absolute Power – When the president murders someone, Clint Eastwood and Gene Hackman apparently butt heads. I love Gene Hackman and Clint Eastwood is fair enough as an (albeit crotchety) actor. I’ll put this on the watch list.

Donnie Brasco – I definitely feel I missed something here. I remember people loving this film, but at the time, crime films didn’t generally appeal for me. I have a growing affection for them now, so it makes sense to finally put this one to bed.

8 Heads In a Duffelbag – This was a popular one at the video store, at least among the staff who would rent it out all the time. Come to think of it, it’s probably why I never actually got a chance to watch it.

Murder At 1600 – More murder in proximity to the White House! Plus Wesley Snipes. So why not?

Con Air – I think by this time I had wised up to Michael Bay. But, so many people tell me that this is a must-see film. Plus the cast lineup is like cinematic catnip for me. John Cusack, Ving Rhames, Steve Buscemi, John Malkovich, and Colm Meaney all star.

Air Force One – It’s Harrison Ford telling people to get off his plane. I can probably dig it.

One Eight Seven – This is a serious hole in my Samuel L. Jackson repertoire. Again, this was a film that was big at the video store, so it was hard to get it on an employee rental. Perhaps it is streaming somewhere.

L.A. Confidential – Noir seemed to have a big comeback in the mid nineties, and I like noir generally speaking. Also stars Kevin Spacey, Kim Basinger Russel Crowe, and (goddamn!) Danny DeVito.

Kiss the Girls – Looks like a psychological thriller. They had me at Morgan Freeman really.

Seven Years In Tibet – I don’t think I cared very much about most of the larger world (apart from Japan) at this point (once you see Scotland, you’re tempted to stop at perfection). So movies set outside the US weren’t personally focused on when this came out. Now that I’m older and not stupid, I think it’s time to watch this period piece about Germans stuck in India and Tibet during the second World War.

Boogie Nights – Yes, yes! I know! Bad writer, no biscuit! I guess I’ll have to watch this movie about making porn and shattering lives, starring Heather Graham. Oh, what shall I do?

A Life Less Ordinary – Well, it’s a Danny Boyle movie so I’m inclined to give this one a try. It has Ewan McGregor, plus I get bonus appearances by Stanley Tucci, Delroy Lindo, and Tony Shalhoub! I don’t really even care what it’s about at this point!

The Jackal – I remember having a couple friends who were really into this movie. Bruce Willis is a sniper I believe, and if I remember right he does some very, very bad things. Looking over the basics for it, it also has Sidney Poitier which is an extra added bonus.

Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil – This was another standard sounding crime flick I think, which is why I probably avoided it at the time. If it wasn’t Tarantino, I wasn’t really paying attention to crime. But, it has Kevin Spacey and John Cusack, so I’m struggling to see how it could be bad.

Jackie Brown – Another cinematic failure on my part. It’s one of the few early Tarantino gaps I have in my viewing history. It’s based on an Elmore Leonard book and is stocked with a decent cast. Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert De Niro, and Bridget Fonda all star.

1997: The Dream of the Nineties In Film

College, Round One

We’re looking at some changes in format for this entry, because 1997 was a big year. Make sure to stick around after where the credits usually roll – because this is a Double (even possibly Triple) Feature entry.

The Schlock

Starship Troopers

1997 starship troopers

When I Saw It: 1997
What It Gave Me: Tons of Great Effects To Chew On

Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) is a rising star in his high school class. As a member of a rich and influential family in Buenos Aires, he knows that he could live a good and long life with little hardship. If he wants any say in his society though – if he wants to vote or hold office – he’ll have to serve four years in the military as a Starship Trooper to earn that privilege. He wants to be more than just a bystander in his government, so he signs up for service. Shortly after, Earth comes under attack by an alien race known only as ‘The Bugs,’ and he is sent out to war on the front lines of the Bugs’ home system. Along with several of his high school friends, now also Troopers, he learns the terror of war and the price of citizenship.

This movie is… not good. At least not when you hold it up to the book by the same name, written by Robert Heinlein. The book is about much, much more than going to interesting planets, discovering fascinating aliens, then killing them. It’s about civics. It’s about duty. The film gives that some lip service – but, mostly it’s about killing Bugs. It fits the director, Paul Verhoven, though. This is the same guy who puts up his film Robocop (1987) (an admittedly beloved movie for me) as a Christ story (I seem to recall fewer brutal shootings committed by Christ’s direct hand in the Gospels).

It does however excel in a couple other ways. The first was the special effects side. Looking back now, the effects are okay. In 1997 I remember coming out of the theater on Front Street with my friends and being completely jazzed. This was what we were going to school for: to learn how to do the spectacular animation work we’d just seen on screen. My friends and I spent a lot of time reading magazine articles and scouring the web for tidbits on how to replicate the effects. It was a wonderful rabbit hole to dive deep into.

Another great aspect was that it brought back Doogie Howser. I mean Neil Patrick Harris. Not that he ever left, really. It’s just that Doogie Houser M.D. (1989-93) was largely remembered as a joke by most of my friends at that point. By the time he shows up as Intelligence Officer and psychic, Carl Harris, in Starship Troopers, he’d managed to grow up enough to shake off the typecasting and start climbing the ladder to bigger and better things.

Lastly, this film may have missed some of the messages of the original novel, but it did get propaganda right. ‘Would you like to know more?’ is still cited around the gaming table or among friends to this day. Usually accompanied by the mental picture of a Bug getting a probe right up the wazoo.


1997 face off

When I Saw It: 1997
What It Gave Me: Great Running Action Sequences

Castor Troy (Nicholas Cage) is a notorious terrorist. Sean Archer (John Travolta) is the FBI Special Agent who brings him down. There’s still work to be done though, and Castor’s brother, Pollux, knows where the next strike is going to take place and how it all will go down. Pollux is in custody, but doesn’t know where his brother is, leaving him vulnerable – but not entirely. The only person the feds know he’ll talk to is Castor. Fortunately for Sean, there’s a ‘highly experimental’ (read: plot-convenient) surgical process that may give him an opening. Sean and Castor have the same build, and with a little pseudo-science, they transplant Castor’s face onto Sean’s in the hopes that Archer can go undercover in the supermax black-site prison where Pollux is being held to get what the feds need from him. Unfortunately, while Archer is on assignment, Castor gets loose and forces the staff to place Sean’s face on him. They both assume each other’s lives and go after each other in a cat-and-mouse style arrangement after that, with a trail of explosions and dead bodies that follow them.

You have to put aside things like medical science, consistency, plot loopholes, reality for just a second, now. It’ll be waiting for us when we get back, I promise.

The reason this film makes the list is its Director. John Woo was the man in the big chair. This is the guy who made some little films from Hong Kong you may have heard of, like A Better Tomorrow (1986), The Killer (1989), or Hard Boiled (1992). This guy does action well. His style is singular (watch for the doves). If you wanted Chow Yun Fat at his pre-American best, you watched him under the direction of John Woo. That’s what Woo brought to Face/Off. He manages to take an almost entirely impossible premise, then sells it. The actual acting parts are overwrought by Travolta and Cage, but man-oh-man are the fights good. Good enough at least to forget the really obvious problems with plausibility and the entirety of medical science.

Event Horizon

When I Saw It: 1997
What It Gave Me: An Unreasonable Amount of Terror and Unease

In our first pioneering steps into the great void of our cosmos, we sent out a ship. It was called The Event Horizon, and it was fitted with an experimental travel system. Through insanely complex physics, the technology involved would ‘fold space’ in such a fashion that two corresponding places would be connected and a hole punched between both, making a gate the ship could fly through to cross great distances. The ship made its maiden jump successfully insofar as it went into the gate… but never came out again. Until now. When The Event Horizon suddenly reappears years later, a survey crew is sent out to investigate what happened and to piece together the mystery of where it went and why it came back now. When they find out where the ship has been… things do not go well for the crew. See, the ship was travelling through an alternate dimension that could best be described as hell. It might even have been the actual hell. And, when the ship returned, it brought back a little hell with it.

This is another one of those films that made an impression, but comes with a few caveats. While this film is good, and the premise sold me, and it’s well executed, I cannot wholly recommend it. I am not entirely averse to graphic violence. I don’t have a huge tolerance for gore, but I can stomach most things. This was on an entirely different level of magnitude and it struck me on several truly uncomfortable levels. It is not for the faint of heart. While I liked this film, I am unlikely to return to it any time soon. This is the kind of film you probably only need to see once.

Somewhere In the Middle

Chasing Amy

When I Saw It: 1997
What It Gave Me: Massive Love Complications

Boy (Ben Affleck) meets girl (Joey Lauren Adams), boy falls in love. Girl is a lesbian, but turns out to be a great friend. Boy can’t keep feelings inside, boy manages a strained romantic relationship with girl while alienating Boy’s best friend (Jason Lee). Personal histories come out, tempers flare. Love gets really complicated.

The above is an oversimplification of course. But let’s be honest, romance plotlines are typically variations on ‘x’ meets ‘y’ and then something romantic happens (successfully or not) while other factors make life interesting for both. In the mainstream, x is usually the girl, and y is usually the guy (just like in genetics!). And this really didn’t deviate from a boy meeting a girl, but it made it a hell of a lot more complicated than what mainstream romances typically did in the nineties.

In traditional Kevin Smith fashion, he didn’t waste a lot of time getting the audience into the topic of sexuality up to your elbows while also making his prerequisite dick and fart jokes. The film really showcases all involved parties as more than just a cardboard cutouts or tropes. Anyone who has been in love can tell you that while there’s a lot of great things to come out of it, it’s also a raw nerve for a great number of people. This film is fully populated with raw nerve characters.

I remember the film making some of Smith’s ardent fans uncomfortable at the time. It was a noted departure from his surreal comedies, which I suppose his fans weren’t entirely wrong to have expected or wanted. I didn’t feel that way. As a fan of his from the beginning of his career, I feel that Chasing Amy is one of his great films. It did great at the box office (which Smith needed after Mallrats (1995) experienced a box office flop) but its diversion from the over-the-top wacky antics of Clerks (1994) or Mallrats (1995) left a bad taste in some Smith fan’s mouths. Their loss, I suppose.

Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery

When I Saw It: 1997
What It Gave Me: Lots of Laughs; A Thorough Mocking of the Sixties

Speaking of the expectation of goofy comedies, 1997 definitely got one in the form of Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. Austin Powers (Mike Myers) was the best British superspy of the Sixties. When Powers thwarts his nemesis, Dr. Evil (also Michael Myers), the mad doctor is placed in suspended animation. Powers, the only man to truly know and defeat Dr. Evil, also goes into stasis as well should his archnemesis return. When Dr. Evil is retrieved by his henchmen in 1997, the British Intelligence Service retrieves Powers as well, and the hunt begins.

This film is a no holds barred spoof of every James Bond and James Bond knock-off film ever made. It additionally adds in a scathingly mocking portrayal of the sixties versus the (then) present day. When you sit down to look at it, it very much took the tack of Scream (1996) in some ways. AP:IMoM readily shows all of the plot holes, inconsistencies, and sheer bad ideas ever to grace the genre of Sixties and Seventies Spy films through several great scenes (the best one being the one with Dr. Evil’s son, played by Seth Green).

Beyond Wayne’s World (1992), Myers often falls flat for me. He really does well though in this film by playing both the hero and the villain. You can also probably stop here. There’s more movies after this one, but they feel a little too much like the franchise has beaten all it can from a long dead horse.


When I Saw It: 2017
What It Gave Me: A Decent Thought Experiment

This is a film adaptation of the novel Contact, by Carl Sagan. A signal is received by a young scientist (Jodie Foster) that is revealed to be extraterrestrial in origin. When analyzed, it reveals a complex set of instructions that details the creation of a vast machine, presumably meant to transport one human passenger to an uncertain destination. Faith and science both have things to say about the device, it’s potential, and how to best use it or not use it. Once a plan of action is determined, the human race marches toward whatever mysteries the device holds to tell us more about life beyond our own planet.

This movie got a lot of flak from people. Some complained about the length of the film (150 minutes), yet the same people sat through Titanic (1997) (194 minutes) which bored me to tears and made my butt numb. Another reason might be that the film spends most of its time waxing philosophical about what the signal means for the world. There’s a lot of conjecture about aliens instead of something flashier, like the mega-invasion in Independence Day (1996) that came just a year before it.

It sounds snobbish I guess to say that this was a film made for the more cerebral set, but we’re talking about a film based on the writings of Carl Sagan. Cerebral was guaranteed given Sagan was a genius and a visionary. I guess people just want to see people blow things up more than they want to see a movie about peaceful contact by benevolent aliens. It’d explain Michael Bay.


When I Saw It: 1997
What It Gave Me: Another Good Dystopian Setting (That Could Be Real Soon)

An ‘in-valid’ (Ethan Hawke), naturally born without genetic enhancement, struggles to be exceptional in a world where perfection is measured by your genetic engineering. Sickly and disadvantaged, he grows up alongside his ‘valid’ genetically modified brother. While his brother excels based on no other merit than his ‘perfect’ genes, Hawke chafes in a society that does not value him despite his intelligence. Undeterred by his social ostracization, he comes up with a plan to excel using the genetic material made available to him by a ‘valid’ who was crippled. Hawke is determined to get to Titan, a moon of Saturn, using his stolen ‘valid’ blood, urine, and hair samples. Once he gets there, he figures he can show everyone just how valuable ‘in-valids’ can be.

Gattaca wasn’t particularly well received by me the first time around. It should have been. Further views got me on board though. The cast is good between Ethan Hawke (who I’ve liked since seeing Dead Poet’s Society (1989), Uma Thurman, and Elias Koteas.

Furthermore, I remember the whole concept of eugenics at that level being in the realm of flights of fancy; an interesting and plausible idea that we were dozens of generations away from (no matter what futurists might say). Now, we live in the age of CRISPR. Gattaca is catching up faster than I would have given it credit for. It feels less like a science fiction fable now, and more like a cautionary tale.


When I Saw It: 1997
What It Gave Me: More Great Animation Magic

A fictionalized story of the Romanovs is presented in this Don Bluth animated film. In particular, it details the life of the lost Grand Duchess, Anastasia Romanov. When the Bolshevik’s overthrew her Tsar Nicholas’ rule in Russia, all the Romanovs were killed and their bodies retrieved, save for Anastasia’s. There are rumors though in St. Petersburg that the lost daughter of Tsar Nicholas was not killed. In fact, she’s said to be living in the city, her true identity unknown to even herself. Anyone who could find her and return her to her grandmother in Paris would stand to make a fortune. In fact, Dmitri (John Cusack) and his partner (Kelsey Grammer) are looking to claim that wealth. They’ve found a young woman (Meg Ryan) with no memory of her childhood who they think can serve as a ringer for the unaccounted for scion of the Romanovs. However, it turns out she really is Anastasia! Furthermore, Rasputin (Christopher Lloyd) is not actually dead. He yet lives through necromantic magic, seeking to crush the last remaining Romanov.

The story in and of itself isn’t much to write home about. The voice performances were well done and involved a lot of great cast (including the voice of Rasputin’s animal sidekick, Barktok, played by Hank Azaria). But, that’s not where Anastasia gets my admiration.

What stood out in this was the traditional animation and the way they managed to seamlessly work in computer animation alongside it. 3D and traditional animation had been married well before this film by Walt Disney’s Animation Studios and a handful of others. However, this did it in a way that really sat in the background through subtle compositing. The best example can think of is the scene in which Anastasia sings ‘Once Upon A December’ and imagines what the life of the Tsar’s palace must have been like. You get this wonderful combination of several separate animations and a partially computer designed background.

Bluth’s former pictures had not been particularly known for this kind of approach, and his studio’s films hadn’t really changed all that much since films like American Tail (1986), The Land Before Time (1988), The Secret of NIMH (1982), or All Dogs go To Heaven (1989). Bluth’s studio stuck with traditional cel animation and had taken a beating as other studios like Dreamworks and Pixar (who had the capital) went on to more tech-heavy productions. Anastasia was their first foray into digital, and it made an impression. Between the 3D techniques they employed and the use of a color and shading program called Toonz (previously employed in the film Balto (1995) by Universal), they created a work that far outshone their previous films. Bluth’s studio would only go on to do a few more films, but those films had finally caught up with their competition in terms of technical savvy.

Good Will Hunting

1997 good will hunting

When I Saw It: 2017
What It Gave Me: An Example of Putting Yourself In the Work

Will (Matt Damon) is troubled young man with a lot of personal issues. He lives in Southie, a collection of South Boston neighborhoods that have hit the skids for a long time. He spends most of his time there with Chuckie (Ben Affleck) and their fellow childhood friends. They all drink beer, get into fights, and work a variety of blue collar gigs in order to keep what little they have. Underneath it all, Will has a hidden gift for all stripes of academia that he keeps from his friends. That gift is recognized by one of Harvard’s mathematics professors after Will is caught solving an almost impossible formula on a public blackboard while working as a janitor. Soon after, Will instigates an altercation that turns into a multiple assault brawl and an arrest. He’s bailed out by the observant professor under the provision that Will seeks counseling alongside his academic pursuits. After going through the best of the best, the doting professor sends Will to his college roommate (Robin Williams) who is himself a guy from Southie. Together, Williams and Damon go through his inadequacies, his fears, and, ultimately, his place in the world.

I’ll admit, I didn’t give a shit about this film while I was in college. I had big special effect movies to pick apart. Dramas generally weren’t something I was willing to spend a hell of a lot of time on. I’m a lot mellower now and my wife and I watch a variety of films and television programs. Most still bend to the fantastical, but since I started this series, I have been catching up on the films that I probably should have caught the first time around. I was greatly pleased by this film in my efforts to catch up.

For all of the shit that you hear people give both of these actors, Damon and Affleck are amazingly good acting alongside one another. This is no surprise since both are actually kids who grew up in Boston. They wrote the film, and a lot of the underlying content is autobiographical (if somewhat altered) which gives it some punch. They really bring out the best of their capabilities in this film. When you add in Robin Williams playing a dramatic role as he did in Dead Poet’s Society (1989), the film builds a head of steam that can’t be stopped.

It’s also worth noting a great scene in which Will is asked why he shouldn’t want to work for the NSA. It’s freaking amazing.

Personal Blockbusters

Men In Black

1997 mib

When I Saw It: 1997
What It Gave Me: The Lighter Side of UFO Conspiracy

Aliens are on Earth and living among us. We’ve known about them for a long time, and we’ve developed an understanding between the rest of the universe and the few people who are in the know. We hide the existence of these aliens to avoid widespread panic and give certain allowances to sensitive alien visitors looking for an out of the way place to live. In exchange we gain closely guarded alien technology to keep up the charade and pay for the Men In Black program that maintains the conspiracy by patenting said technologies. Everybody wins – mostly. Jay (Will Smith) learns of the MiBs after running down a hard to catch alien and is recruited by Kay (Tommy Lee Jones) to help protect Earth from the worst scum of the universe.

This film crept up on me. It was heavily marketed, but I was so damn busy at college I hadn’t hardly looked up from my pegboard and lightbox long enough to catch a commercial. My dad took me to see it at this new place they’d built in Brandywine called Funland: a three story building that hosted parties, laser tag, a full arcade, mini-golf, and a sixteen cinema theater. It was goddamned heaven. With the X-Files now in full swing, government conspiracy and alien stories were peaking. This film added a layer of humor and special effects magic to great performances by not just Smith and Jones, but also from Linda Fiorentino, Rip Torn, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Tony Shalhoub.

The Postman

1997 postman

When I Saw It: 1997
What It Gave Me: Just Enough Post-Apocalypse

The world as we know it is history. There was a global war, and the skies went dark for three years after a limited nuclear and biological exchange. When the sun finally came back up over the horizon, civilization was all but gone. America and all of the other superpowers were no more. In the remains of our society, only the strong survive. In the former American west, The Holnists rule through intimidation and military might. They may not have the weapons of the past, but what they do have is enough to make everyone in their territory fear them enough to conscript their children and pay them tribute. After escaping the Holnist Army, a drifter (Kevin Costner) comes across a the skeleton of a postal worker who was carrying a sack of undelivered mail when he died. The drifter takes the uniform and the mail, then begins to use it to con settlements into letting him in their walls. His story is that the government back east is back, and that he’s bringing their mail (better late than never) with more to come in the future. He builds up a reputation from the con and eventually causes people to gather to his phony cause of a restored United States. This brings down the wrath of the Holnist Army, and he soon becomes a patriotic figurehead he never knew he wanted to be.

I love post-apocalypse films. This one isn’t as grim and gritty as, say, the setting of The Terminator (1984), or The Matrix (1999), but it’s good. And by good, I mean believable. The settlements look just like they’re supposed to: unplugged and more than a little run down. You can still get power – usually by a generator hooked up to some kind of burnable fuel. You might even have running water if you have close enough access to something clean enough. Horses are again the best way to travel long distances. Barter is the rule of the day.

The film runs toward the sappy and somewhat melodramatic, but there’s still a lot to like. It’s book by the same name (written by David Brin) has a bit more depth to it. The film adaptation has a lot of heart, however. Two of the better reasons to watch the film are the villain played by Will Patton, and Ford Lincoln Mercury, played by Larenz Tate.

The Fifth Element

1997 fifth element

When I Saw It: 1997
What It Gave Me: A Visually Brighter, Yet Tonally Darker, Future

In the twenty-third century, Earth is home to billions upon billions of humans, and there are even more of us living across the entire galaxy. We live in general peace with our galactic neighbors, and everything seems fine until Evil (yep, that’s it’s name) awakens in the depths of space. Evil begins to home in on Earth at great speed. When it arrives there, it will wipe out not just all human life, but all life. It’s chosen Earth to destroy first because the Ultimate Weapon that can stop it was hidden there by a wise alien race in the early 1900’s. If it can destroy the weapon, nothing will keep Evil from quieting the entire universe. Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis), a special ops legend, is reinstated from civilian life by Earth’s government to aid a priest (Ian Holm) who knows the secret to the Ultimate Weapon. It turns out that the corpse of a woman was the Ultimate Weapon, and they rebuild her (Milla Jovovich) in a lab in order to defeat Evil and its minion, Jean Baptiste Emmanuel Zorg (Gary Oldman).

This film was billed as ‘Star Wars for the nineties.’ It’s not, but it is fantastic, regardless of its marketing hype. This was my first introduction to Luc Besson, and it’s launched a general appreciation of his work since. Anything he touches, I’m open to viewing just based off of the strength of this film. He managed to pull off a wonderful visual style for the future that still holds up remarkably well. It’s a riot of colors in a genre where the future is often not so bright. It brings whimsy to an outer space setting that typically feels hard and cold in other movies in the same vein. It’s funny and touching and totally bananas. Yet, it’s also violent and dark at times. Society is united, but also not necessarily great. Everyone in the cast does an amazing job, even the side characters like Ruby Rhod (Chris Tucker) and the President of Earth (Tommy Lister)

The Game

1997 game

When I Saw It: 1997
What It Gave Me: What A Proper Mindfuck Looks Like

Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) is the very image of success. He is a successful business man, lives in a beautiful home, and has access to the finest country clubs and restaurants. He wants for nothing. Sure, he has a failed marriage and a brother Conrad (Sean Penn) who is in and out of rehab. Sure, he lives alone with only his maid as his regular human contact. Sure, his dad committed suicide on his birthday when he was a young child. But he’s comfortable. He has no wish to rock the boat. He’s content to live a life of privilege away from others. Then, Conrad swings by with a birthday present. It’s an invitation for a game. Conrad tells Nicholas that he’s played it before and it changed his life. Eventually, Nicholas agrees and goes to the offices of the game’s provider, Consumer Recreation Services (CRS). They put him through a battery of tests ranging from the innocuous to the deeply psychological under the pretense that it will help them customize his own personal game experience. His game begins when someone leaves a clown marionette in his driveway. After bringing the clown into his home, his television speaks directly to him and he retrieves a key from the clown’s mouth. He’s given little other information by the television apart from the fact that his game has begun and the key is important. And then the real oddities start piling up. Old friends seem to turn on him or go strange. Elaborate pranks and ‘coincidental’ accidents occur. Soon, the events surrounding him become more sinister and he begins to see CRS everywhere. Eventually, he comes to learn of a conspiracy that ties everything together through his mysterious game, and his life spirals way out of his control. Who are the people who run the game? What do they really want? Can Nicholas uncover enough to come out alive?

This is how you fuck with people.

It’s directed by David Fincher, a personal favorite of mine who also directed Seven (1995) and Fight Club (1999). His visual style and thematic presentations outline the titular ‘game’ as it events grow from simply intriguing to the lethal. The paranoia sets in from the moment Nicholas begins taking the test and reaches through every character interaction. By the time you’re a third of the way through the film, the paranoia becomes infectious. Everyone’s in on it. They have to be. How else could you get so thoroughly into someone’s life? The movie basically keeps you guessing until the film’s climax (which I have some trouble with admittedly). Your brain will not be able to shut off while you watch everything unfold.

While it’s not as crazy as the climax of the film, there’s a great scene that really drives across the feeling of total violation when Nicholas returns home to a vandalized home. The walls are lit by UV lights and fluorescent graffiti scrawls and plastered messages mock him, preying on his inadequacies and revealing his deepest fears and secrets. As he continues through the home, White Rabbit plays in the house louder and louder as he finds that whomever is coming after him has left police photos of his father’s body from the day he committed suicide. It’s the first time he shows true fear in the film. Truly chilling stuff.

The Devil’s Advocate

1997 devil's advocate

When I Saw It: Circa 1998
What It Gave Me: Theological Horror, A Better Devil

After successfully defending an accused child molester (who was guilty as hell), Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves)  gains the attention of a New York City law firm. They headhunt him and bring him into the influence of John Milton (Al Pacino), the head of the firm. Milton lavishes Kevin and his wife, Mary Ann (Charlize Theron), with a king’s welcome. He gets the great digs in Manhattan, a huge salary, a corner office, and immediately assignment to some… interesting trials. Not long after, his long hours begin to destroy his relationship with Mary Ann. Mary Ann has trouble adjusting to the new lifestyle as she feels increasingly judged by her new circle of peers. Then she begins to have gruesome visions. Her new ‘friends’ writhe with demons beneath their skin, and she sees an infant playing with her own severed reproductive organs. As odd events and potential seeds for marital infidelity occur, both Kevin and Mary Ann begin to suspect something sinister at play. It seems that John Milton is behind everything going wrong. Oh, and that Milton is the Devil himself.

While I’m not a religious man, I like theological horror. When you’re talking about the devil, it’s hard to get the balance right. So often, the devil is an almost farcical or even a cookie cutter villain. He is the kicker of puppies… because reasons. He’s the guy who shoves people in front of buses for kicks. It’s so easy to portray the devil as a simple foil because he’s just evil by nature. It’s easy to just make him an archetype and be done with it. Not so in The Devil’s Advocate. The Devil has an agenda here. He has what he feels just cause to be angry; he has motivation to both push men toward sin and to do evil himself if it’s called for. The devil comes across as nuanced, experienced, calculating, and methodical in this film. I don’t think anyone else has quite pulled off a portrayal of the devil quite like Pacino does here.

The film also has wonderful visuals as well, and they don’t skimp on horrific imagery. Yet, the gore presented is momentary. They don’t slather it on so much as they give you just enough brief glimpses for your mind to fill in even more horror than what is presented. The swirling sinners in the stone work and the sinuous demons waiting beneath the skin of Milton’s minions leave enough vagary to conjure up even more unsettling ideas in the imagination. The effects seem a little dated now – but they manage to pull off just enough to leave an impression even by today’s standards.

Grosse Pointe Blank

1997 grosse point blank

When I Saw It:
What It Gave Me:

Martin Blank (John Cusack) is a professional killer. He’s good at his job, but he’s growing more and more distracted and dissatisfied with his work. After a run in with rival assassin Grocer (Dan Ackroyd) and botching a job for a client, he decides to take a trip back home. Not only is there a job there waiting to be done on behalf of his pissed off client, but it’s also the weekend of his high school reunion for the class of 1986! While he’s there, he reconnects with his old flame Debbie (Minnie Driver), and grapples with the existential crisis that his life has become.

The film’s population of misfits is peopled with a perfectly curated cast. In addition to the leads played by John Cusack and Minnie Driver, you have Doctor Oatman, Martin’s terrified psychiatrist, played by Alan Arkin. You get Jeremy Piven as Paul Spericki, Martin’s best friend from Grosse Pointe High. You also get Hank Azaria as a government spook trailing Martin, and to sweeten the pot, Joan Cusack plays Martin’s high energy assistant who runs his empire of death. It’s probably one of the best assembled group of actors I’ve ever seen. They may not all be headliners, but the chemistry they have is amazing. I’d probably give an eye tooth to have had the opportunity to see them filming this behind the scenes. It had to be a blast.

The soundtrack is also pure bliss for me since I grew up not only in the nineties, but also the eighties. It runs the gamut of great period music from The Specials, Guns ‘n’ Roses, the Violent Femmes, The Clash, Echo & The Bunnymen, The Jam, The Pixies. I could go on, but it’s a huge list. Too big to get into here. The collection for either of the two soundtracks are one of those great examples of CDs to just pop in and set to repeat. You could do worse.

And then there’s the writing. This has to be one of the most quotable films I think I’ve ever seen. It comes up everywhere I go since the movie has a broad kind of appeal for a lot of my friends.

The really curious thing to me is why there’s not more work by the film’s director, George Armitage. Armitage has few directing credits to his name on IMDB, and most of them seem to be exploitation flicks, TV movies, and one action film before making a handful of films like Grosse Pointe Blank, Miami Blues (1990), and The Big Bounce (2004). After that, like Keyzer Soze… poof, he’s gone. He hasn’t directed another film in thirteen years as of writing this in 2017. Come back, George. If you have another Grosse Pointe Blank style hit in you, I want to see it. The world needs to see it.

Triple Feature: The Special Edition Star Wars Films

1997 star wars banner

The keen eyes among you may have noted an omission here. It may have seemed like a million voices cried out at once in something like elation and rage mixed together. It would have felt like a ripple in some universal force which guides us all and binds us together.

No. I have not forgotten the re-release of the Star Wars Trilogy. And 1997 was one hell of a year for Star Wars.

There’s a good reason I haven’t rated these films – as far as I am concerned, Episodes IV through VI of Star Wars are from the years 1977 (Star Wars), 1980 (The Empire Strikes Back) and 1983 (Return of the Jedi). These films were known quantities save for the scant bits where Darth Lucas opted to make a few tweaks. By technicality, they aren’t really Nineties films so much as older films with tacked on footage. For the sake of argument, the originals are all five stars. I’d give them more actually. There’s a rating system I’m adhering to, though. So, five stars.

As for the re-releases, well, you have to really look at what they changed before you can sufficiently quantify any inherent goodness. But, we’ll get to that in a moment. Right now I want to tell you how it felt to me when the films were brought back to the big screen.

The Experience of the Second Coming of Hamill

The news of a re-release of the Star Wars Trilogy in 1997 was not secret. Once it was announced in mid 1996 that not only would the Star Wars films return to theaters (one a month starting in January and ending in March), but each film would be fully restored and have new material added! George Lucas wanted to take advantage of emerging visual technologies to add in new elements to enhance his original work. Considering how he’d collaborated in the great hits of my youth (Star Wars IV through VI and the Indiana Jones Trilogy), I was greatly anticipating bonus footage.

Well, it turned out to be a mixed bag.

Millions of loyal fans and new generation of Jedi worshippers came out to the theater to see it. And at first, it was glorious. The film was really cleaned up. Everything looked so much more amazing on the screen. My dad had told me for years that until you saw first scene in Episode IV on the big screen – the one where Princess Leia’s (Carrie Fisher) Corellian Corvette is being chased by the Star Destroyer – you ain’t really seen it. And he was right. I was struck anew with awe and love for the films. I loved seeing the expanded port of Mos Eisley as Luke (Mark Hamill), Ben (Sir Alec Guiness), and the droids move toward their destinies. There were neat aliens, more jawas, more Star Wars. I loved it.

Then, we meet Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and everything is going well. Greedo and Han are verbally sparring and then… what? What?! WHAT THE FUCK? Greedo takes a pot shot at Han before the footage we all know takes over and the film continues.

My mind screeched to a halt. I thought to myself, ‘that’s not the way it goes! That… that’s not my movie! What did you do that, George? WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT?’ Admittedly, it didn’t take priority for that long – there was still more of A New Hope to go. And most of the changes were good in Episode IV. Except for that one. That one, near-total-movie-ruining shot. I had a reduced enthusiasm after that for the remaining films – but not by much.

A month later, Empire was re-released in February (because rebellion is for lovers), then Jedi followed to close it out in March. None of the other films had anything nearly as jarring as the Cantina Shooting, and I could deal with most of the remaining edits (I loved some of the edited shots of Cloud City in Empire). A lot of people are glad the original Yub Nub Ewok ending was pulled from Jedi and replaced by shots of a Victory Celebration on Coruscant (the home base of the Empire). I’m not one of them – I felt the original ending was okay, but I don’t really care about the location so much as how they’d later put in young Vader (Hayden Chrstiansen) next to Ben Kenobi.

But, Greedo. Greedo is still a sore spot for a lot of people. Followers of the Scoundrel did not take kindly to Han Solo being reactive. The original Han was not exactly a good guy. Le was a Lancer (per the definition at He was a smuggler in illegal goods, and he had a dangerous reputation. He was the dark to Luke Skywalker’s light. You need that dynamic, because Luke eventually pulls Han Solo up from the pit of criminal ambiguity and into the cause of the just. It works that way, and we grew up with that version. Even if you couldn’t have voiced it then, you can certainly see it now. At least that’s how it worked for me.

George Lucas instead claims that Solo was always meant to be John Wayne, but if that was the case… why didn’t you have him act like that before? It would have required near to zero effort to shoot it that way in 1977. Just one more blaster shot. It feels more like Lucas made a change to satisfy a film rating issue (a shooting like that would probably bump them to PG-13 in 1997), or to soften his image for the benefit of children. Regardless of the case, we’re stuck with it. It is now almost impossible to get the original cut of the film, particularly on DVD. Darth Lucas declared the scene as canon. He has altered the deal, and we should pray he does not alter it further.

Thankfully, he’s unlikely to make any further changes. Disney now dominates the destiny of the franchise. Rumors continue to circulate though that we’re going to get un-Lucased prints of the original trilogy soon from the Mouse House, but they always prove to be unfounded. Lucas himself claims that the remaining original prints are too old to be salvaged… but I find his lack of faith disturbing).

Now, on the side of the Devil’s Advocate, I also understand one thing as a creative. My work, my vision. Technically speaking, we don’t get to judge him. This was his baby, his magnum opus. In 1997, Disney wasn’t telling George to do anything. He owned it, lock, stock, and barrel. And honestly, if I go to make changes in my work, I’d feel justified too. Art isn’t something you ever feel is complete so much as you abandon it. This is a paraphrased sentiment of not only Lucas, but from others in the past as well. He felt there was room for improvement – even though, in many people’s opinions, he’s wrong.

It’s a thorny quandary for any aspiring nerd looking to make great fiction. Maybe someday, I’ll have to make it too.

A Report Card of Change

So, we all know that there were changes to the original trilogy, but what of them? How did they rate? Well, let’s look at the highlights, shall we? I’m sure we missed some stuff. And, I’m sure I’ll hear from you to let me know what I missed.

Star Wars Changes

  • Expanded entry into Mos Eisley (Good) – More everything! More Jawas, more weird stuff! This was all pretty cool! I was really taken with this great montage of Mos Eisley in its full strangeness.
  • Jabba In Docking Bay 94 (Indifferent) – Some people trash this edit, but it’s not a big deal for me. You can make the claim that the scene is dramatically unneccesary, or that the scale of Jabba is obviously off. And, yeah, the squeak shot where Han steps on Jabba’s tail is a terribly obvious edit given how video editing can be done now. But, at the time, it legitimately seemed like magic. If somewhat imperfect magic.
  • The Cantina Shooting (Bad) – We covered this. This is an abomination to both me and any gods that may or may not exist. Han. Shot. First.
  • Yavin IV Updates (Good) – You can see more of the rebel base on Yavin when the Millennium Falcon lands, which I thought was cool.
  • Biggs Darklighter and Luke Skywalker Reunion At Yavin IV  (Good) – I can see why the footage of Luke and Biggs meeting up before the Battle of Yavin was dropped. It’s not needed, but it adds a little flavor. It shows that Luke is connected to the larger world around him, no matter how isolated he was on Tatooine. It doesn’t mess up the film’s pacing for me, which was the reason it got dropped in the first place by my understanding.
  • Battle of Yavin X-Wing Update (Good) – They beefed up the number of X-Wing Fighters and gave them a bit of a retrofit using computer animation techniques. More was better in this case.
  • General Dialog and Audio Tweaks (Indifferent) – There’s all sorts of re-edited audio – not just in Episode IV, but all of the re-releases. Some of it comes from alternate takes or even different actors according to the research I did on this. Ultimately, they’re all so minimal that I never noticed.
  • General Explosion Updates (Indifferent) – I’m okay with these. The original effects were a bit dated, but I’m really fine with either way the Death Star (or anything else really) blows up.

The Empire Strikes Back Changes

  • The Wampa (Good) – Wampas gotta eat, so go ahead and change some footage to show a little more of the grisly details. There’s a few minor changes where the wampa can be seen and where he can’t, and a reaction shot was added when Luke saws his arm off. Plus you get to see the leavings from other critters the Wampa managed to down, giving him a bit of a morbid trophy room. I’m okay with all of this.
  • Transition Updates (Indifferent) – Some of the wipe transitions are a little cleaner, or they’re switched to jump cuts. Personally, I didn’t think anything was wrong with the old ones, but… sure. Why not? Doesn’t affect me.
  • Cockpit Corrections From Hoth (Good) – In the original cuts, the battle scenes shown through Snowspeeder cockpits were imperfect. If you look closely, you can see through the black frames of the cockpits. They touched this up in Empire. Good change, because once you realize the error in the original, you can never unsee it.
  • Bespin Touchups (Good) – I seem to remember a few scenes in Bespin where the formerly flat and smooth corridors of Bespin were replaced to show sweeping vistas of the clouds through long windows. I thought it was a nice touch.

Return of the Jedi Changes

  • Jabba’s Palace Band Edits (Indifferent) – The musical number at Jabba’s Palace got switched up a little bit to showcase even more alien band members. I liked the old music better, but the change wasn’t offensive.
  • Expanded Twi’lek Rancor Sacrifice (Good) – This added emphasis that Jabba was a bad mofo. Plus it gave you a little more Rancor footage to work with when it comes in to eat that poor dancer.
  • Expanded Sail Barge Content (Indifferent) – Much like the Mos Eisley additions, these were inserted to expand on the setting when the heroes are on the way to the Sarlacc. But, this was mostly little stuff that I don’t really remember a lot of. Not as cool as Mos Eisley was.
  • Yub Nub Ending Swapped With Victory Celebrations (Indifferent) – I’m kind of torn on this. We’re looking at a decent enough original ending in my opinion. I know – most people hate Ewoks. But… I kinda like ‘em. Might have helped that I was five when I saw Jedi (I was the target Ewok demographic). But, I also really liked the added footage from Coruscant. The music change is what really bothered me, but the trade off of seeing a statue of Vader come down is pretty cool. It sucks that in further re-edits, they put in Hayden Christiansen to replace Vader’s original actor.

1996: The Cutting Room Floor

So Where Were Things In 1996?

1996 started with Philadelphia and its greater metropolitan area (including my hometown) seeing one of the worst blizzards in the history of the East Coast. It closed down New York, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. for several days – to say nothing about the canceled week of school I got as a result (this came to be called ‘Martin Luther King Week’). That May, my high school career ended, and I transitioned into the working world before going to college. I spent two-and-a-half months working as a busboy at a country club, then later as an employee at Blockbuster Video until late spring of 1997. I attended my first quarter of college in my adoptive city of Philadelphia starting in late-August. Everything was new. I found out who I was when I was truly allowed to be on my own. I spent a lot of time in Chinatown. I spent too much money from my summer job at Tower Records and Showcase Comics on South Street. I found the food carts that wouldn’t give me food poisoning in the shadows of Liberty Place. My friends and I also frequently exploited an establishment that delivered pizza and beer without even the pretense of checking an ID. I had my first nights with booze aplenty, both home and away, and experienced my first all-night parties (with subsequent sobering at the local Denny’s). I learned to like Chinese food because it was amazingly cheap and delivery was free. I met lifelong friends whose input I value, not only pertaining the courses we took, but the decisions I made (and continue to make). Things got real in my art training, fast. I had a few good instructors growing up, but I really met some great talent in college both among my classmates and among my instructors. I also had what I consider to be my first real (though unhealthy) relationship starting that Summer. It would completely fall apart the next year after about eight and a half months – though truth be told it was probably falling apart way before then. I learned much of what I did and did not want out of a relationship after that one  – enough that I didn’t seriously date again for another six years (though I’d occasionally fumble through a first date that went nowhere or get shot down about every year or so).

As far as general culture went that year, Alanis Morrisette won Album of the year at only twenty-one years old. The album, Jagged Little Pill, was regularly played in my parents’ home; not just by me, but also by my sister. It is the first album that both of us owned, and one of the few things in those years that we could both appreciate musically (or at all). The Ramones (who I’d only discovered two summers before) played their last show that year. An iconic punk band was scattered – not that it stopped several of the individual members from doing their own things and riding the ailing cash cow until it was dead. By year’s end, people finally turned their attention from the OJ trial to the JonBenet Ramsey murder. America’s appetite for tragedy has always been infinite.

On the larger horizon, Whitewater put Hillary Clinton in the hot seat as she gave defense testimony. The Fox News channel was launched to compete with CNN, lowering the bar of journalism so low that Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes might deign to crawl out their swamps to step over it comfortably. Yugoslavia was formally recognized by the EU after years of conflict and prolonged violence in the region (that would not stop then). Northern and Southern Ireland came to the table for peace talks, though both decided to cut out Sinn Fein and put them at the kids’ table while they did it. The Troubles would continue through the next few years. Iraq continued to be a total clusterfuck as UNSCOM was routinely denied access to assess their military capabilities and a suspected stockpile of weapons of mass destruction. And, after a decades long hunt, the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, was finally captured in a Montana cabin. He did not look nearly as pimp as his wanted posters made him out to be.

Technology continued its march as well. Deep Blue – an early AI created by IBM – defeated Grandmaster Garry Kasparov in a game of chess. He requested a rematch about a month later in Philadelphia in which he defeated the machine, presumably pushing back Skynet’s plan to exterminate the human race from August 1997 to sometime further back. The Nintendo 64 (or N64) arrived in Japan, paving the way for its eventual release in the US. America lost its shit and the console took off to rave reviews. Nintendo took a bullish stance on its game format as well, opting to continue with cartridge based games as opposed to embracing optical media. Somehow, it managed to hold its own against Sony’s booming PlayStation platform.

The Good, the Bad, and the Indifferent

If 1996 seemed thin in terms of movies that affected me, perhaps it’s because there were a lot that didn’t. Let’s visit those films now.

1996 escape from la

Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice In the Hood (Indifferent) – The Wayans Brothers produce yet another of their endless parade of spoof movies, this time taking a shot at Menace II Society (1993), Friday (1995), and a handful of other African-American films. I laughed, I think.

Broken Arrow (Bad) – John Travolta steals a nuke, Christian Slater has to get it back while engaging in a forced romance. Fresh off his ascension back into the Hollywood scene, Travolta makes as bad a movie as Pulp Fiction was good. It at least has one memorable line.

Muppet Treasure Island (Indifferent) – The Muppets latch on to another classic story and people it with scruffy puppets. To be fair to the Muppet franchise, I can’t honestly tell you if this was good or bad. I was in a darkened theater while the film played. That I can claim with certainty. The problem was that I was also watching the imminent implosion of one of my best friend’s relationships in progress just two seats down from me. I hope to some day see this film without a fight in progress to gauge if this or Muppets From Space (1999) marks the decline of my devotion to this franchise.

The Truth About Cats and Dogs (Indifferent) – Another rom-com love triangle in which people lie about who they are in the belief that people will magically fall in love with them. My wife and I watched this about two years ago. It’s okay.

The Craft (Bad) – Four girls do magic to become powerful and popular. This is another film so many of my friends love that just didn’t grasp me. Neve Campbell should have been enough to sell it for me, but her appearance in Scream was much better.

Twister (Indifferent) – Bill Paxton chases tornados in a special effects showcase film. It’s a standard disaster movie, though it was impressive on the technical side of things. It got a few awards to that effect as well (Best Sound, Best Special Effects). It also took home a fair chunk of box office money for the year, coming in at the number two slot for money earned behind Independence Day (1996).

Mission Impossible (Good) – A reboot of the classic television show of espionage and spycraft. The MI movies are generally fun – at least for a few films. They pulled off a lot in this one in terms of great effects and action sequences. Mostly, I love the updated theme song, a derivation of the original theme with an electronic edge. It was good fun, but nothing groundbreaking or impactful for me.

The Phantom (Indifferent) – A D-list (super?) hero film. Billy Zane rides a horse in a costume can best be described as the prototype design for the purple Teletubby. Superhero movies wouldn’t get good until we got X-Men (2000).

The Rock (Indifferent) – Ed Harris threatens to gas San Francisco after taking over Alcatraz. Only Nicholas Cage and Sean Connery can stop him. I watched this the first time and hated it. I then watched it a second time and felt I was too hard on it. It’s not terrible, but… it’s still just another action film by Michael Bay. As far as Bay films go, there are many, many more that are terrible in comparison. Like every single one of the Transformers films.

The Cable Guy (Good) – Still not a big Carrey fan, but he does a great job in this incredibly dark comedy about a lonely (and deranged) cable repairman who increasingly stalks Matthew Broderick. It’s worth a viewing for the Medieval Times scene all by itself.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Indifferent) – See also, Pocohontas. Only this time, they milk a public domain story lots of people know already, and, again, take incredible liberties with it to make it friendly for the kids. I did have a hilarious moment though watching this film with one of my close friends. He noted, with my mother in the room, that Esmerelda was pole dancing in one of her musical numbers. My mother immediately fired back with “And what would you know about pole dancing, young man?” He immediately blushed and said, “Uh… nothing, Mrs. Hop.”

The Nutty Professor (Indifferent) – This wasn’t exactly the start of Eddie Murphy’s slide into irrelevance. But, after this, the tenor and tone of his films started to get less edgier than he was known for. Haunted Mansion (2003), in my opinion, is when the slide truly cemented itself.

Phenomenon (Good) – A sad but interesting tale of a man whose tumor makes him super smart, and eventually psychic. I consider this Travolta’s counterweight to Broken Arrow (1996) for the year.

Courage Under Fire (Good) – A military drama starring Denzel Washington and Meg Ryan. I almost forgot that I watched this. I remember it as being pretty good, though admittedly my memories of it are hazy. I watched it with mom and dad on one of the weekends I’d returned from my apartment in Philadelphia. Probably another Blockbuster rental.

Bordello of Blood (Indifferent) – Vampires versus Dennis Miller. Meh. This was kind of a let down. This is what happens when your leading role is played by a conservative gasbag who left his best work behind in Saturday Night Live. I don’t remember much of Demon Knight (1995), but I do remember it was better than this.

Escape From L.A. (Bad) – Snake Plisken is back. He’s more or less doing the same thing he did in Escape From New York (1984)… only worse. Don’t do this to yourself. Save yourself from the ninety minutes of crap-fest you’d otherwise have to wade through.

The Crow: City of Angels (Bad) – Another guy who isn’t Eric Draven comes back from the dead with the same deal from The Crow (1994), but doesn’t make it nearly as interesting. It’s not great, and Iggy Pop and the rest of its forgettable cast fails to save it.

Bulletproof (Bad) – Adam Sandler and Damon Wayans form an unlikely pair in this action comedy about witness protection and personal betrayal. Thus began the crap movies of Adam Sandler’s career. Don’t get me wrong. I love me some Adam Sandler comedy – from the CDs. But, after Happy Gilmore, it just wasn’t hitting the right buttons.

Bound (Indifferent) – Two women steal a lot of money from the mob and try to pin it on one of their shady boyfirends. Every Y-Chromosome (and a not inconsiderable amount of XX Chromosomes, too) in the world rented this one to watch Jennifer Tilly get it on with Gina Gershon in this crime thriller. Despite that concept, this movie failed to deliver much that was memorable for me.

The Ghost and the Darkness (Good) – Lions eat people in Africa. Which sounds unsurprising, despite that they don’t usually develop a taste for long pork. But, when they do… Jesus. Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas pull of good performances in this film. Scarily enough, it’s based on true events.

Michael Collins (Good) – Again, I wouldn’t go about buying my history from Hollywood, but this was still a pretty good film covering the life of Irish Patriot, Michael Collins. Liam Neeson, Alan Rickman, and Julia Roberts all star.

Sleepers (Good) – Molested and tormented kids get back at the the people who abused them while in juvie. I didn’t catch this one in the year it was released. When I finally got around to it, I thought it was a pretty solid drama.

Ransom (Indifferent) – Mel Gibson wants his son back and acts like Mel Gibson to do it. This was another date movie where I didn’t so much care about what was going on as I did being in a darkened place with a girl.

Space Jam (Bad) – A ‘basketball’ movie where there’s only one human player (Michael Jordan). The rest of the players are animated aliens and Looney Tunes characters. It was a technical experiment, as well as an attempt to sell a lot of Nike products. It was also trying to keep Looney Tunes relevant. Not really sure it did any of those things too well. Just remember: Larry Bird isn’t white, per Bill Murray.

Jingle All the Way (Indifferent) – Arnold Schwarzenegger goes to great lengths to make sure his kid gets the big toy of the season for Christmas. This holiday film has a cult following and… I guess I’m just not a member of that particular cult. It’s okay to watch, but I don’t really seek it out.

Star Trek: First Contact (Indifferent) – The Enterprise crew from Star Trek the Next Generation follow the Borg back in time to prevent them from assimilating the human race. Another longer episode of Star Trek, again. It’s okay. I like the Borg enough I guess. But it wasn’t particularly memorable for me.

Sling Blade (Indifferent) – Billy Bob Thornton plays a mentally disabled man who does stuff he shouldn’t, both in his past and in the main narrative. Then he calls for a hearse.

Jerry Maguire (Indifferent) – Tom Cruise romances Renee Zellweger and also yells into a phone at Cuba Gooding Jr. This movie haunted me for months. Not because of any stirring drama, but because I had to ask every customer at Blockbuster if they wanted to pre-order it when they reached my counter. I got the most pre-orders for the film though, and as a prize got fifty dollars. This pissed of a shitty manager who earlier in the year accused me of stealing from the till (an error on my part let a customer off the hook for a twenty dollar late fee, not dipping my hand in the cookie jar). The fact that he had to put up this money from his own pocket – more than double the amount he accused me of stealing – made it that much sweeter.

Mars Attacks! (Bad) – Aliens from Mars attack with weapons that have no connection to conventional Physics. It’s… pretty bad. Another case of a little Tim Burton going a long way, but slathering it on anyhow.

The House of Hooded Eyes (and Near Infinite Loopholes)

I’ve talked a little bit about my parents and their guidance of my film intake as a child in the previous posts, but I wanted to really break it down how they affected me in terms of of my cinematic upbringing. If it seems like my parents dropped the ball of were highly inconsistent in what got by them… that’s because your suspicions are correct. Balls were dropped, subversive content got through, and, sometimes, we all got surprised.

We’ll start with my mom.

She meant well.

Mom’s overall opinion was that everything should be strictly monitored. While nudity didn’t really bother her so long as it wasn’t explicit, she was not a fan of violence. In particular, she was averse to military violence. The cause was two-fold.

First, she objected to military violence after years of watching footage come back from Vietnam. She, and most of the country I think, had a belly full of war. Year after year of dead kids coming home in flag covered boxes and the most explicit war footage seen by civilians on TV will do that. A lot of folks in her generation were exhausted by it. She didn’t want to see anymore (let alone show it to her young kids), thank you very much.

Secondly, she wanted to keep either of her kids away from any glorification of the military. I assure you my mother appreciates the military because she was raised right next to it. It was about what life in the military had done to her and her family. She was a Navy brat. While she loved my Grandfather and she appreciated everything that his naval career brought, she also knew a life of moving from base to base every couple of months, never getting opportunity to be a kid. She wasn’t averse to the career itself (though she feared for my safety until I was too old to be drafted). She just hated being rootless as a kid. With all of the constant moves from base to base, my mother didn’t have any childhood friends save for my aunt. Almost her entire circle of friends come from her college and professional life. She didn’t want that for my sis, myself, or our kids.

As for dad, he was… generally lax. He took stands on things at odd angles. Violence was nothing he particularly worried about. When he would shield me from violence, it was usually from the most explicit kind involving gore or frightening images. I’ll admit that as a kid I was easily frightened, so this made perfect sense. Dad was sensitive to that more than the idea of violence or brutality. He’s a fan of Ancient Rome, so war and up-close violence is something he’s well acquainted with from reading the histories. And hey, if it’s cultural (or if dad just liked a thing) he’d let my sis and I settle down and watch what we wanted (lots of Clash of the Titans (1981) on TV, where they cut out all of the nudity). Sex he was likely to censor because he probably didn’t want to have that talk with his kid any sooner than he had to. After I was wise to what sex was, I’d gather that he continued to censor explicit images so that I wouldn’t try to go out and try anything that I saw on screen (as a dateless wonder for many years, he had zero reason to worry).

Both parents took their stances on things they felt were negative, either usually as a team or individually. Generally, stuff that got deep into racism, gang violence, exploitation, fell by the wayside unless there was something in there to instruct or had a historical bent. Mom had particular prohibitions on things she felt were blasphemous, where dad was perfectly fine with letting me watch The Life of Brian (1979). Once I’d completed my Confirmation classes, of course.

Their prohibitions left much room for either relaxed interpretations or total blindspots, though.

One of the blindspots was when I was let out to any friends’ homes. I had a lot of friends whose parents were much more liberal with their childrens’ watching habits. A lifelong friend of mine had a television in his basement with full cable hook-up right next to his bedroom (I wouldn’t get a cable ready room until 1997). We’d have weekend nights where I’d crash there for a sleepover and we’d watch all of the late night HBO we could get our hands on. A particularly memorable yet wholly glazed over memory was getting to watch Robot Jox (1989) there, as well as Demon Knight (1995), The Class of 1999 (1990), and Dream On (1990) and Tales From the Crypt (1989-96) episodes. Other friends had similar arrangements, and this got me on board with either racy content, over-the-top graphic violence, or military action films.

In other cases, there were deceptions. Kids are the best negotiators. They are relentless, they know what they want, and they know all of their parents’ buttons and weakneses. My sister and I were both skilled at this. Sometimes it was a game of wearing them down. Other times it was simply downplaying the violence, swearing, or sexy bits. There were a million ploys. Any parent can tell you these tactics work. Not all the time, mind you. Just enough times to get certain things past the gate. Especially with cable television available.

There were also accidents. My parents were often times exhausted from their jobs. Both of them worked as public school teachers. Despite what right-wing pundits may tell you, teaching is not a luxurious gig. When teachers leave their classrooms, they usually have papers to grade and papers to read – sometimes until very late. In the summer, they have to come up with the next year’s plans to justify their existence to administrators that probably don’t have the same goals in mind. Given their workaholic natures, mom and dad sometimes had errors in judgment, like the hilarious twelfth birthday party where they decided Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man (1991) might be a great film to keep my friends and I entertained for ninety minutes. It did, but not in the fashion they had hoped for. The film probably lasted more like fifteen minutes after boobs showed up on screen.

The greatest loophole though was the one right under their nose – my Aunt’s house. Which boggles my mind. Tove and my mother speak constantly. Practically inseparable, they should have been able to wholly monitor or course correct everything my cousin Michael and I watched. It never happened though, and here’s a few reasons why:

The first reason was that Aunt Tove was a lot more lenient with Mike’s viewing habits. He got to watch a lot of stuff I didn’t, so by proximity I caught a lot of stuff mom wouldn’t have approved of. I was there having sleepovers with their family every week during the summers (and a lot of school year weekends, too). This got me a lot of military themed cartoons like G.I. Joe (1985), Robotech (1985), or Starblazers (1979). It also got me my first horror movie, George Romero’s Day of the Dead (1985) when I was maybe thirteen years old. I was horrified for weeks.

Second, Michael was a certifiable evil genius. If he couldn’t get his parents on board with certain films, he had a seemingly inexhaustible network to obtain that which he was looking for in terms of films. He was not shy about discretely sharing these finds with his friends and family.

And then there was my uncle.

Uncle Jim is awesome, and he didn’t actively contribute to this loophole. He was just great at late night channel surfing, then falling asleep in his recliner with Mike and I still in the room. This led to Mike and I getting unhealthy doses of Up All Night with Gilbert Gottfried and Rhonda Shear on the USA network. Up All Night would show some of the absolute crappiest films ever made, many of which were cult or sexploitation joints. It’s this show, some ill-advised cable selections, and my gently snoring uncle that led to Mike and/or I watching stuff like CHUD (1984), Night of the Lepus (1972) or Hell Comes To Frogtown (1988).

The floodgates really opened though in 1997. But, we’ll talk about that in it’s appropriate year’s entry. Promise.

Cinematic Sins1996 a time to kill

The list of missed opportunities is short for 1996. But, unwatched films from this year not non-existent. Let’s add the following onto my ‘to watch’ list:

Beautiful Girls – I had this film recommended to me by a few friends as they observed that at one point in my life it seemed like something that would resonate with me. My life always feels like it’s at a crossroad, but this looks to have a good cast. I’m adding it to my to do list.

Mulholland Falls – A noir, period piece? Jennifer Connelly? Yes, please.

Eraser – After a few tentative steps into other types of roles, Arnie goes back to starring in what he’s great at: films where he gets to shoot as many extras as humanly possible. Plus, he does it with cool guns by the look of it. I know this probably won’t be great, but I’ll probably watch it anyway.

A Time To Kill – Samuel L. Jackson yells some more in a courtroom thriller. I’m game, I guess. This film got a lot of play that year, and as a result, I know a lot of the stuff that happens. But, it’s another film like Silence of the Lambs (1991) that I feel I should watch.

The Island of Dr. Moreau – Again, I know this probably won’t be good. But, it’s a H.G. Wells adaptation. It feels wrong not to have watched it.

Last Man Standing – Bruce willis shoots people in a period piece about gang war. That’s enough for me. I’m a simple creature.

Get On the Bus – A film about the Million Man March by Spike Lee. As noted from the history segment in a previous post, the March was a relevant part of the African American experience of the nineties. Even though I remember seeing news coverage for the March, I was a white kid looking in on an experience I don’t think I was equipped to understand at the time.

The People Versus Larry Flint – Porno magnate and professional pot stirrer, Larry Flint, stands up for the First Amendment using pornography. I’m a fan of the First Amendment. This seems like a shoe in.

1996: The Dream of the Nineties In Film


For as busy as 1995 was, 1996 was a noted cooldown. There’s fewer movies that made impressions at this point. I’m not sure if it was the fact that I graduated high school, got into a longer-than-usual relationship, started working a regular job, or some other influence. Regardless of cause, this year had fewer entries than I thought it would. What the year does have a bit more of are movies that got watched that year. Timely watching seemed scattershot on previous years. There were films that didn’t get watched until late, but mostly in the next year as I got a job at the local Blockbuster Video with my own membership card.

But enough of that, let’s start with…

The Schlock

From Dusk Till Dawn

When I Saw It: 1996
What It Taught Me: Inappropriate Movie Behavior

Two hardened criminals on the lam take Harvey Keitel and his family hostage in an attempt to smuggle them over the US-Mexico border in order to lose the Texas Rangers and Feds tailing them. Once in Mexico, they decide to lay low in a place their contact suggests – a seedy bar called the Titty Twister. Once they get there, they find out that the bar is home to a lair of vampires with a hearty appetite for carnage. The only way for the robbers to get to their payday and the hostages their release is to try to survive until sun up.

The best thing about this film was seeing it with my friend, Jimmy. We settled in for a matinee showing at the local-ish theater, waiting for all of the crazy vampire shit to happen. We get to the scene where Selma Hayek is doing her big striptease. When she morphed into her vampiric visage… Jimmy flipped his shit.

He didn’t know!

As it turns out, Jimmy went into this film blind, expecting stock Quentin Tarantino stuff. He hadn’t a clue that vampires were even a factor. After that moment, we all went a little nuts in excitement because Jimmy was now super into the film.

The bonus part of the film experience was when Harvey Keitel blesses a bunch of condoms filled with water. As noted above, we were all really wound up by this point, and I shouted “Start throwing those rubbers!” which in turn caused the rest of the gang to act up even more and probably pissed off some other viewers. It was mostly our group in the theater though (who sees a horror movie at a matinee?) so I suppose it was all in good fun.

I’d have been pissed at me now.

Happy Gilmore

When I Saw It: 1996
What It Taught Me: Absurdity

A washed up hockey player with a penchant for mayhem faces financial difficulty after his grandmother is put in a nursing home. It’s the shittiest kind, with abusive and apathetic staff because he can’t afford something better for her. In an attempt to make enough scratch to get her moved someplace nicer, he looks to transfer his hockey skills to a high-class, money fueled game: golf. Eventually, he finds himself with a coach, a lady, and a shot at winning one of the most prestigious payouts in the sport. This is provided that he can overcome his anger issues and the smug current champ, Shooter McGavin.

For me, golf is its own joke. Have you looked at it? The pants in specific? It’s basically an excuse for men to go out into a field, drink, and avoid life for four hours while trying to put a small ball in a small hole in a large field. It’s all kind of absurd.

I know – come down off your high horse, you say. I know golf requires skill, I know it requires finesse. I know you have to be strong and smart. It just… doesn’t transfer to the screen for me (and there’s no way in hell I’m watching golf live). I’ve gone over this before. I don’t see all of that nuance. I see old, rich men in stupid pants. Usually drunk. I worked in a country club grill as a busboy that year, so I would know.

Now, add peak Adam Sandler to subvert it, thereby making it even more surreal. Hilarity ensues. This was probably my most watched comedy behind Clerks at the time. I’ve not watched it for many years at this point, but now I feel like I owe it to myself.

Somewhere In the Middle

The Birdcage

When I Saw It: 1996
What It Taught Me: Living La Vida Drag Queen

Robin Williams and Nathan Lane are two gay men living in Miami above their nightclub, the Birdcage. Before Robin Williams came out, he was married, and he fathered a son who thinks the world of him. When his son shows up to announce he’s getting married, things get complicated. His fiancee is the daughter of a conservative Republican congressman, and a fierce defender of ‘family values.’ Together, father and son try to hide Williams’s and Lane’s sexual orientation just long enough to get to the altar. Things… go sideways in a manner only Lane and Williams can pull off.

By this point, I was familiar with the concept of homosexuality, though I had few direct interactions with actual homosexuals. We had a single girl who came out publicly in my high school class, but… I didn’t really meet anymore gay people (that were open about it) until I went to college. My folks had taught me there wasn’t anything wrong with non-heterosexual people, that there was nothing to be freaked out about. They’re right. But, there’s also a culture there that I think they still might have been a little hesitant to watch with their son in the room (ah, Protestant anxiety). Regardless, we watched this on video that year and it’s pretty good. It has a lot of range. Some would categorize this film as a comedy. There’s a lot to back that claim up given the two leading men. But there’s a lot of good drama in here too, which is the category I’d place this film in.


When I Saw It: Circa 1997
What It Taught Me: Not a Comedy

A lot can go on in relatively small, out of the way towns. Fargo, North Dakota is not an exception, and a lot of things go terribly wrong there in the runtime of this film. It centers around a husband (William H. Macy) who looks to kidnap his wife so he can fleece his father-in-law out of a lot of money. This ends up going fantastically off track when he hires two less-than-stunning career criminals to help him with the heavy lifting. It’s up to the town’s pregnant sheriff to find out what’s going on. Bodies end up on the side of the road, and, eventually, Steve Buscemi ends up going into a wood chipper.

The film made its way to my attention during my time working at the video store. My friends had focused on the comedic aspects of it. They furthermore told me that it was must see, so when the video came off the new releases shelf, I rented it… and presented it to my parents as a comedy.

This, uh… this is not a comedy. It’s the Coen Brothers. If i had known anything about them, I would have known better. I wouldn’t really become cognizant of them or their reputation until 2000 when I saw a film archetypical of their standard modus operandi in an art history class (Blood Simple, 1984).

A fun, family afternoon was thus kind of ruined on account of my not setting the right expectations. It is memorable if nothing else for that.

So… Sorry, mom.

The Arrival

When I Saw It: 1996
What It Taught Me: Crazy and Implausible Technology

Two people discover that the Earth has been visited by an alien species. The visitors however are angling to become natives by upping the overall climate and altering the mixture of gasses in our atmosphere until it feels like home – and will kill all human life. The pair of heroes are targeted by being disgraced, blacklisted, divested of equipment, and ultimately by becoming the focus of an all out manhunt by the aliens in a cover-up effort.

This was before we all got to find out that Charlie Sheen is batshit crazy. He’s surprisingly reserved in this little-acclaimed film. I really remember being taken with it, but I don’t think it had a very good legacy. This is partially on account of alien saturation in film and television (see last article), but also by its direct-to-video sequel which failed to get the budget, stars, or writers to do anything else other than go for a par-for-the-course cash grab by Artisan Entertainment.

The thing I absolutely loved from this was the idea of the singularity bomb. The aliens had this gizmo that they could throw into a room in order to create a timed, minuscule black hole. It could swallow equipment, evidence, people, you name it, within a localized space, leaving no trace behind. Sure, there’s some problems with this conceptual device (like the whole of physics) but it was still pretty boss at the time.


When I Saw It: 1996
What It Taught Me: Dragons Can Be Heroes

After an insurrection topples a tyrant, the ruler’s son is grievously wounded. A knight to the tyrannical King makes a bargain with a dragon to save his lord’s prince whom he is sworn to protect. The boy receives half of the dragon’s heart under the caveat that the kid grows up to not be a dick like his dad. It turns out, the prince is an even bigger douchebag than his father, and he starts really screwing things up in the fief, giving the knight the impression the dragon’s heart was to blame. The knight vows vengeance against all dragons. After several years, the prince has become king, and the knight has gone on to become the best goddamned dragonslayer the world has ever seen. On a hunt for a dragon sighted in the area, he corners the beast only to discover some good news and some bad news. There sure is a dragon around – that is the good news. The bad news is that the dragon reveals to the slayer that he is the last of his kind. No more dragons.… no more dragonslaying. They manage to not kill each other long enough to develop a kind of a con since the knight doesn’t want to be out of work. They team up and begin a hustle in which the dragon shows up, does a little damage, and the knight shows up to ‘kill’ the dragon. This works well until they run afoul of the shithead prince once more and must team up to save the fief.

This film catches a lot of flak. I get the impression from most of my friends that this movie was bad, but… I don’t remember it that way. It’s got Douglas Quaid as Bowen the slayer, and (even better) it has Pete Postlethwaite as a bard following Bowen around (mostly unasked for) to chronicle his deeds. As noted before in 1992, there is nothing Pete Postlethwaite is in that he does not make at least a little better (even Alien 3 (1992).

This film did manage a little something to tweak my expectations. Up to this point, dragons were bad guys. Tolkien, Shadowrun, Dungeons and Dragons – all of those sources made dragons out to be villains, be it the calculating or simply feral kind. I mean, yeah, there was Puff, but… c’mon, he hardly counts given how dopey (and possibly high) he is. This turned that expectation for me, personally. Humans are, after all, the real monsters most of the time.

Independence Day

When I Saw It: 1996
What It Taught Me: Effects Aren’t Everything

A mysterious signal appears among our satellites as a strange fleet of alien ships descend into our atmosphere. They hover over our largest populations centers as humanity clammers to determine why the visitors have arrived without any kind of warning. A few hours later, the signal stops and the extermination begins. Humanity unites together on the Fourth of July to defend the Planet and scourge the alien armada from our home.

This had too many big names and too much budget to go into the Schlock bucket. But, it’s close. Taking a page from the Michael Bay playbook, this film is mostly about special effects and explosions. I mean, it’s not really a big reach insofar as big summer action movies go. I remember loving it at the time. Because most hormone fueled boys are easily impressed, especially if you put them in a dark place with a girl. I think the girl I was dating at the time went to see this twice with me actually.

The film aged poorly however, and it didn’t take long. I remember being blown away by the visuals in the theater, then watching it in my apartment on VHS a couple months later. What worked on the big screen for some reason does not work on television. The effects were no longer seamless, and the whole thing seemed… cheaper. I don’t know if it was lost in conversion or if I really was just too easily impressed at that age. Maybe it was because at that time I was learning how to do the behind the scenes effect stuff.

The Long Kiss Goodnight

When I Saw It: Circa 1998
What It Taught Me: Samuel L. Jackson Cannot Be Killed; New Jersey Is Hard To Get Out Of

Gena Davis plays a woman living a happy but ordinary life. She has a husband, a child, a decent job as a teacher. She also has amnesia. She was found on a beach a few years back, pregnant, with no memory of how she got there. She’d all but given up on untangling the mystery of her old life when suddenly she begins to do things she can’t explain after a car accident. The publicity from the accident gains the attention of her former life’s acquaintances. They are not nice people. Turns out, Geena Davis wasn’t a nice person either, but now that she has a child and a husband in her life, she decides to get as far from them as possible before they get hurt. She gets tangled up with Samuel L. Jackson along the way. They go on the offensive to take out her former associates. Sam Jack swears a lot.

This was an unusual find for me. This is pretty action trope heavy – not usually a good sign. The hero with amnesia finds out she was a super spy and denounces their life of wickedness. Pretty hackneyed plot. But, it’s really good. I swear. It was really surprising seeing Gena Davis in an action role for me, and Samuel L. Jackson is absolutely great working alongside her (or did she work alongside Samuel L. Jackson – food for thought).

There were two scenes which really endeared the film to me. One reflects on the difficulty of escaping New Jersey, the other is a battle cry.

Beavis and Butt-Head Do America

When I Saw It: 1996
What It Taught Me: Absolutely Nothing, But I Still Liked It Quite A Bit

The dim-witted duo from the hit MTV cartoon, Beavis and Butt-Head, come to the big screen! After their idiotic behavior gets them tangled up with a pair of criminals, they go on a series of misadventures through America. Beavis is once again allowed to say the F-word (and by that, I mean Fire) and many immature sexual references are made.

I’m sorry, but there’s something about these two morons that is soothing to the soul. You get the bonus of not having to think very hard to be amused, and additionally you get to see stupid behavior rewarded with the two often times getting exactly what they deserve.

They also take part in the classic fool’s journey. They wander in and out of trouble largely without ultimate consequence, yet failing to really learn anything. You know, like Congress. God bless America. Huh huh huh huh.

Personal Blockbusters

Primal Fear

When I Saw It: 1996
What It Taught Me: Edward Norton Is an Awesome Actor

In this psychological thriller, a hot shot lawyer takes on a murder case. The client is an emotionally damaged altar boy accused of the killing of a publicly beloved Catholic Archbishop. The lawyer discovers the case is very complicated, and things get much more interesting when the kid sprouts multiple personalities and brazenly admits to killing the archbishop. Sensing that this is just what he needs to get the kid off charges, he pursues it, but finds out that things are not exactly right.

This really sounds straight forward. Shouldn’t be anything to write home about. Then, you get the performance that made me sit up and remember Edward Norton, who plays the altar boy. He’s just a kid in this film. But holy hell does he deliver. I remember this film chilling me down to my toes. It made me a life long Norton fan. To this day, I’m willing to give any film he does a fair shake. Even The Italian Job (2003), which I still haven’t got around to yet.

Romeo + Juliet

When I Saw It: 1996
What It Taught Me: Sometimes Updates Can Be Good

Do I need a synopsis for this? Okay, here’s the sum up of the Bard’s classic tale: Boy meets Girl. Girl loves boy, and boy feels likewise. They want to get it on, but their families hate each other. They get married in secret, bad shit happens, and boy gets exiled. Priest meets girl, cooks up desperate scheme in which love might conquer all. Plan goes bad. Boy and girl die. Families grieve and rethink their blood feud. Maybe.

Oh, and the Shakespearean classic is ported to a modern setting. The dialog is chopped up and moved around, but mostly in the intended language style. Kind of.

This was a movie that arrived in an odd and fortuitous moment in which two things intersected. First, I had some Shakespeare under my belt (I didn’t go to public school for nothing), so, like some moody teenagers, I developed a thing for this particular story. Second, I actually had a girlfriend that I’d been seeing for a while by this point. Romance wasn’t a theme I investigated until then because I was pretty sure it wasn’t going to be in the cards for me after an earlier dating disaster. But, it felt like I was in love then (I wasn’t), so the movie had a little more charge in it for me.

I also had to toggle my opinion of Leonardo DiCaprio on this film. He does a solid job here as Romeo and is backed up by a great cast between John Leguizamo (Tybalt), Harold Perrineau (Mercutio – favorite role), and Pete Postlethwaite (the Priest) again! It was a good couple years for Pete in the nineties, I guess. The It Girl of the time, Claire Danes, also helped in the leading role of Juliet Capulet. Most of the young men in the nineties probably had a thing for her, and I was no exception.

As a final observation, I am not always hip to updated classics. Sometimes it works better than you’d expect, though. This was an example of when it really works. You see modern ads with antiquated language, guns named after swords, corporate logos for both Montagues and Capulets, and gangs that froth at the mouth with some vengeful sounding cries and taunts. Good stuff if over the top.

Dear God

When I Saw It: Circa 1997
What It Taught Me: It Doesn’t Take a God

Con man Tom Turner (Greg Kinnear) gets sentenced in court to find legit work within one year. If he cannot keep that job for an additional year and cannot keep his nose clean in that time, he will go to jail. Eventually, Tom settles on postal work in the Dead Letter Office (DLO), believing it to be a great way to continue some side hustles. People mail valuable stuff all the time that gets lost, so it’s like a free grab bag. Tom starts opening letters for profit while posing as a model citizen. In the process, he finds a dead letter – addressed to god – in which a man declares he’s going to throw himself into the ocean to end it all. Tom comes clean to his assembled misfits (the DLO is apparently the dumping ground of the post office per his fellows) and they avert the man’s suicide after deducing a couple of clues from the text of the letter and its postal stamp. Feeling a rush off of doing something so good, they all start addressing the issues from more letters to god. Eventually they get caught and charged with mail tampering and the con man turned savior must defend himself in court.

This is not a film I’d expected to love as much as I did. I’m pretty sure this was an impulse rental – nobody at the store vouched for it. It went to the box office and completely tanked, and reviewers aren’t kind to it. I’m not really a big fan of Greg Kinnear either. The film’s pedigree is low. But, it pleasantly surprised me. For as much flak as it gets, critically speaking, anyone I mention the film to typically has a favorable view on it.

There are three scenes in particular that I love. The first is Kinnear’s first time around in court. The judge is played by a character actor we can all identify, but not by name (his name is Larry Miller and you can find his IMDB entry here). And, man does Miller sell it. After Kinnear tries to con the judge on the bench, he’s asked to approach and Miller spout this great bit about how he’s never had anyone with balls big enough to try to con a judge on the bench. I wish I could find a clip of this, but the internet doesn’t seem to care about this film. I recommend watching the whole movie just to see it.

The second is the scene where Dooley (played by Tim Conway) relates the tale of how he got dumped in the DLO by actually biting a dog.

The last was a throwaway line when Vladek (Hector Elizondo) is taking Kinnear through the post office on an orientation and points to a bright purple machine that looks like a kids slide:

Vladek: This is Barney Machine. You know why we call it Barney Machine?
Tom: Um. Because it’s big and purple?
Vladek: You’ve been here before?

And lastly, this mixes a redemption story with a personal outlook. The redemption story is easy – everyone likes those because we’re mostly wired that way as human beings. We like seeing the good rise up from someone who once was not. But the bigger thing is that it shows people doing good deeds on behalf of an unresponsive god. I am on the fence about sky fathers, benevolent creators, and punishers of the wicked on a cosmic scale. I’d like to believe – but, it would be a tremendous relief to just know. I lack faith in the theological arena. It may seem bleak, but it appears to me that if there is a god, it is highly likely that it is indifferent to us at best (in fact, it may even be Durden-esque per Fight Club (1999). So, when people take up the reins of that indifferent watcher in the sky and start assisting the people doing the god-asking… that feels good. People taking responsibility for each other is uplifting. It feels just in a concrete way that ‘giving it up to god’ does not.

Even if it is super illegal how they go about it.


When I Saw It: 1996
What It Taught Me: Horror Tropes and Lots of Them; Kill the Headliner

A small town is plagued by a series of brutal murders. The victims are mostly young high school kids, and the police are baffled. This all has one teenage girl, Sidney (Neve Campbell), particularly freaked out. Her mother was murdered a year ago; the new killings seem to have some similarities. Rumors fly, and the kids get to making suppositions about how it all feels like it’s a horror movie. Horror movies have rules, right? And if you follow them, you won’t get killed by some serial slasher, right? Well… maybe, maybe not. The film gets increasingly meta the further it goes, and ramps up to a conclusion that is predictable, yet wholly engaging.

Horror was starting to get a more steady repertoire in my viewing diet by this point. While I went in (and still do) for less-is-more style films like The Haunting (1963), or Stir of Echoes (1999), I had (and still do) a general lack of one of the more popular horror sub-genres: slasher films. This is a lampoon of that sub-genre, and it more or less gave me the template for the it without really having to hit any other works. I still have seen zero Jason or Freddy movies, and have seen only a single Halloween film (the original Halloween (1978), which… left me with a flat impression. Slasher flicks aren’t my thing, but this was different and very tongue-in-cheek.

This really got a second sub-genre going: Meta-horror. In this film type, the characters are just short of realizing they are actually in a horror film. They recognize horror tropes and either try to follow them to survival, or subvert them enough to make things interesting. It’s kind of fascinating – but it can wear off quickly.

It’s arguable that the film’s biggest shocker was the decision to kill off Drew Barrymore – one of the headlining performers – within the first ten minutes of the film. She’s a big name who’d you’d expect to get plenty of screen time given how much it costs to hire her. But if there’s one thing we know about Wes Craven, it is that he does not give a good goddamn about what you expect.

The Frighteners

When I Saw It: 1996
What It Taught Me: How to Build an Underworld; You Can’t Keep a Good Canadian Down

Frank Banister is a con man with a unique hustle. He styles himself as a paranormal investigator, which is half true. He’s not much of an investigator, but he can see and interact with the spirits of the departed after experiencing a near-death encounter in a car accident that he – but not his wife – survived. He has four ghosts that he uses to stage hauntings which he then conveniently shows up to solve. Together with his band of ghosts, he manages to hustle successfully until a particularly nasty spirit, the Soul Collector, begins to kill with great frequency, laying suspicion on Frank for his spectral crimes. Beyond that, the malevolent spirit’s activities reopen Frank’s old wounds and personal secrets as the story advances toward grim and shadowed paths.

This is a film I feel is vastly underrated. Of course, I love ghost stories. It’s not a stretch that this was my best film for 1996. I really liked the internal logic of the way spirits worked. Some were weak, some were strong. There was an implied social structure enforced by cemetery guardians. It meshed well, it was consistent, and more importantly it was entertaining.

The truly amazing thing though was the change of tone as the film progresses. It starts slow and light-hearted. Sure there’s dead people involved, but they provide comedic relief and everything sets up as wacky and a little off color. By the time you reach the end, the film is now stark and ominous. There is evil in the region that is manifest. That evil is determined, ruthless, and calculating. The Frightners starts out comedy, but ends up horror.

As a point of interest, Michael J. Fox plays the lead (Frank Banister) and did so just after announcing that he had Parkinson’s Disease the year prior. Turns out he’d known since Doc Hollywood and it wrecked him for a while. It was a big thing during the filming, as it showed that Fox wasn’t about to let the disease keep him down.

1995: The Cutting Room Floor

So Where Was I In 1995

It was a pretty big year for me. It was the end of my Junior year and the beginning of my senior year of high school. Music and Art were the dominant force in my life. I was preparing to seek out a college, taking as many arts credits as I could stack in now that I had all of my prerequisites lined up for graduation. The music gang in particular became my peer group. They were and are, to this day, some of the best people I’ve known. Many of them, while not seen on the regular, are still very much like family – even if the only way we can easily speak is on Facebook.

As for the larger world around me, OJ’s murder case ramped up and was concluded over the course of ten months. It was all anyone could talk about it seemed for not only 1995, but also 1996. The verdict of the case caused as much drama as anything else did in the whole mess and everyone had an opinion; some for, some against. Kevin Mitnick, hacker par excellence was finally caught after years of social engineering and system breaches. A two-and-a-half year phone cloning, computer, and wirefraud investigation led to his arrest and landed him a roughly five-year sentence. A doomsday cult released Sarin gas on the subways of Tokyo, amplifying a fear of terrorism that would only grow once Timothy McVeigh took out the federal building in Oklahoma City a month later using easily available chemicals and fertilizer. Vietnam and the US restored relations with one another after twenty years of chilly avoidance in the wake of the war between the two. The Million Man March was held in Washington D.C., and continued the legacy of still-needed civil rights activism in America.

On the tech front, a little company named AuctionWeb set up shop in Silicon Valley and eventually became eBay, changing the way millions of people across the globe would shop. Likewise, after a first struggling year, Amazon also emerges as an online bookseller under Jeff Bezos. This was also a big year for Microsoft. They released a highly popular graphic user interface, Windows 95. Apple had already introduced a GUI for their computer, the Macintosh in 1984, a year before Microsoft even got started with their first Windows releases. Microsoft won out in the narrative though, and Windows 95 was a big factor. They gobbled up the support of all but a small percent of home and business users over the following years. Apple wouldn’t really catch up until the early 2000’s, and even then would have trouble penetrating the business sector.

There is one big thing though that really plays into the whole topic of film that happens in this year. VHS tapes in 1995 were the almost universal format for home viewing of movies and television shows. They were relatively cheap, ubiquitous, and capable of letting viewers record anything they wanted from live television. There were a couple other options. LaserDiscs were still a thing, as were the relatively new MiniDiscs. Both were prohibitively expensive however for most people, and these efforts were never really mainstream. Both platforms didn’t have a recording capability that wasn’t wildly expensive (I remember pricing for MiniDisc recorders being somewhere around $6K, making it easier to finance a car than record digitally). To add to it, the quality of the images on both platforms didn’t really even provide any concrete benefit. America was still using the NTSC format which was a cobbled together solution to keep color and black-and-white broadcasts on the same signal, resulting in a less clear picture than other options like PAL. Televisions were mostly built to support the aging format at the time and wouldn’t have been able to display a better image. Several tech companies had been collaborating, however. Their aim was to create an affordable, new digital medium for both audio and video purposes. What emerged from this was a format still in use today, though it has had a few evolutions since it’s announcement in 1995.

The format was the Digital Versatile Disc.

Within a few years, everyone would come to know it as the DVD.

The Good, The Bad, and the Indifferent

1995 Die Hard With A Vengeance
And here is where I have to explain to my younger readers what a ‘pay phone’ was.

Billy Madison (Bad) – Adam Sandler plays a rich idiot who has to get an education to keep his daddy’s business (and the family money). Happy Gilmore was better in every conceivable way.

The Quick and the Dead (Indifferent) – It’s an okay western about people coming to a town in the middle of nowhere for a gunfighting competition. People get shot, morals are generally absent, and, ultimately, they shoot Leonardo DiCaprio. Gene Hackman is in it as yet another insufferable bastard on the frontier (Unforgiven anyone?).

Tank Girl (Indifferent) – It’s a post-apocalyptic world where water is scarce and everyone fights to get it from one giant corporation. Lori Petty plays the eponymous Tank Girl, and carries the fight to the water hoarding Malcolm McDowell. I can’t really say it’s great for me, but it’s not bad either. It’s campy, and I get to see Malcolm McDowel drain a guy of all of his water with a high-tech, collapsable bottle. It’s also my wife’s favorite movie.

Die Hard With a Vengeance (Good) – A piece to redeem the franchise, DHWaV came out swinging after a lackluster second entry (Die Hard 2, 1990). This time, Hans Gruber’s brother is out to steal a lot of money while also killing his brother’s murderer: John McClane.  Featuring Samuel L. Jackson as a hapless (and constantly swearing) bystander caught up in Bruce Willis’s crazy life, this film is one of the two films in the franchise that I truly love.

The City of Lost Children (Indifferent) – This was a curious little title from France starring Ron Perlman. That should rank it much higher than it is, but to be honest I just don’t remember anything from it apart from its great trailer music and general weirdness. Perhaps I shall revisit it to place it in its proper category.

Congo (Indifferent) – Gorillas. Or was it apes? Something about a diamond and a laser too. I don’t care. This was a largely forgettable film without nearly enough primate fighting to catch my attention.

Batman Forever (Bad) – Batman fights Two Face and the Riddler in this lackluster abomination. Boooo! Joel Schumacher should be ashamed of himself. Pretty decent soundtrack though.

Pocohontas (Indifferent) – The greatly modified story of Pocohontas and John Smith. Another Disney children’s feature that manages to get history, in general, wrong. I suppose it was well animated.

Species (Indifferent) – A sci-fi film about a genetic hybrid between man and an alien with a whole lot of tentacles. It had a lot of promise (H.R. Giger designed the creature), but ultimately fell flat. Well, except for the part where they get Forrest Whittaker drunk. That was pretty funny.

Kids (Good) – Kids in the age of AIDS awareness get up to heinous trouble and give each other HIV. This film left a bad taste in my mouth. I suppose it was designed to be that way on purpose. The ending will hit you in the gut. This makes it objectively good because it left an impression, but… you’ll only ever need to watch it once. In  my opinion, the song ‘Natural One’ by Folk Implosion is the best thing about the film (you don’t need the soundtrack or any of Folk Implosion’s other work).

Dangerous Minds (Indifferent) – Another case of a good teacher bringing around a bunch of wayward, at-risk students. It’s formulaic and soundtracked by Coolio. You could do worse. But, in the face of Lean On Me, this film just isn’t as good.

Mortal Kombat (Bad) – Don’t. Just don’t. Play the video game. I don’t think there really was a plot here save for putting together fight scenes with mostly bad actors. The soundtrack is amazing (still in my regular rotation). But seriously? Christopher Lambert as the Japanese god of Thunder? Nope. Not. Buying it.

Get Shorty (Good) – I’ll be honest, I don’t remember much of this one, though I remember laughing and having a good time watching it. It’s almost impossible to not enjoy a Delroy Lindo film. Solid cast. I ought to refresh my memory on this one too.

Powder (Indifferent) – Sappy, but all right, I suppose. An outcast kid with weird powers changes people’s lives. Or something.

Goldeneye (Indifferent) – Gonna take some heat for this… I don’t care about James Bond. Old Bond. This bond. Daniel Craig Bond. I just don’t care. Something about a Russian satellite in this one I think? Two hot girls, one good, one bad? Meh.

Heat (Bad) – A crime drama featuring a cat and mouse came between Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro. Given those two names, this should have been great. Two American film legends playing against one another. How does this go wrong? His name is Val Kilmer. Which should have been a win. I’m not sure why, but he has all of the performance ability of a wooden plank in this and I cannot fathom why. I can’t hate him though. His Doc Holiday is the best and it earns him credit for more or less any other less-than-stellar job.

Casino (Good) – Joe Pesci murders people who get in his way as he runs a crime empire from a casino in this overly long film. I rented it while I was working at Blockbuster Video and it was good, but wasn’t a huge deal for me.

Jumanji (Indifferent) – A board game comes to life, destroying the home of its owners and taking them on a magical adventure through a jungle dreamscape. I was a little old for this by the time it was released. Never grabbed me like it did some of my younger friends.

Grumpier Old Men (Good) – Older, grumpier, but not better. The same plot from Grumpy Old Men is born again but with more hilarious Burgess Meredith outtakes.

A Trip To Television – The X-Files

This series is about films and how they followed me through formative years, but we’re going to take a brief detour again. We did soundtracks last time, but this time we’ll take the small screen over the silver one. I could talk about all of the cool TV shows from the nineties, but I’m going to single out one. Because, at the end of the day, none of the others matter all that much for me. The biggest and best was the X-Files.

As noted in the Outbreak review, trust in the government was pretty low in the nineties. We no longer put it beneath most of our elected officials to do shady business, or to even actively work against its own people. This came from a lot of sources – Watergate and Vietnam being two of the most prominent catalysts in the decline of trust- and it colored a lot of media in the eighties and nineties. There was this weird undercurrent in the 90’s  that focused on whether or not we had been visited by aliens in the 1940’s. It was about as close as UFOlogy came to being mainstream, and the X-Files just happened to catch the lightning.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the show drew not only a lot of tropes from Twin Peaks, but a lot of cast as well. Duchovny’s breakout had been on Twin Peaks where he played Denise, a transgendered undercover cop. Watching the show now (and having watched the original two seasons of Twin Peaks as an adult), I can see the show’s roots in almost every episode of the first twenty. I don’t think that the show would have been half as ambitious without Twin Peaks to show what was now possible in the medium.

A Change In Format

To my memory, most television shows were not in the habit of practicing strict continuity, favoring a new, complete story in every episode. Mostly I write it off to lazy writing. When you’re filming escapist television, it was easy to ignore continuity beyond the staple cast unless you were in drama pieces like say Dallas, Dynasty, or Hill Street Blues. Also, there was no twenty-four hour outlet for fans to call lackluster writing out. The internet wasn’t all-pervasive yet. You were more likely to complain to your friends on AIM or post to a forum than to actually get the ear of studio types. Even if you could get through to studio types, the idea that they could get valuable viewer data and feedback from the internet hadn’t really germinated yet.

Bottom line was that my types of shows didn’t get much in  way of continuity. Sci-fi was for geeks and Saturday morning cartoons. How much continuity did you really want to invest in for low-end returns? Geeks were usually poor and kids were only targeted as an audience to sell merchandise from the shows they watched (which were more often than not twenty minute commercials for toys). There were exceptions on TV (Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek were two good examples), but typically only for those with incredibly rabid fan bases (Trekkies having earned their mixed reputations well earlier).

The X-Files was different. I largely missed the first season, only having picked up on it after Jamie, an almost lifelong friend, told me about it on one of our game nights. “It’s aliens and ghosts and monsters,” he said. “Like Scooby Doo, only no dog, and the stuff the main characters chase are real. Oh, and they’re feds!” So, I set the VCR to tape the next episode that came on and was hooked after that. I want to say my first episode was either the Erlenmeyer Flask or Little Green Men – it’s been so long I can’t be sure. With either episode, it was clear that I had missed previous content. But, it was still enjoyable. There were non-story arc episodes that weren’t forwarding the mythos too. Monster of the Week episodes were plentiful. It was easy to sit back and enjoy, even with gaps in the narrative.

Ice was one of the initial episodes to really start me down the path of fandom.

By the time I got to college, I could start filling in some of the blanks. They released six episode VHS packs that covered not only the essential mythos episodes, but also creator favorites. It let me cut my teeth on the basics from the Pilot and Deep Throat episodes, while also getting first season classics like Fire and Ice (Ice still being in my top ten episodes). More VHS packs followed for the second season with some episodes left out. Completionism wasn’t quite in the budget for Fox at the time I guess. The die hards were recording broadcasts at home anyway. I know I was. I still have two copy paper boxes of recorded episodes.

A Lasting Legacy – Sort Of

The X-Files was my first tried and true fandom. Everything about it was as if it had been directly marketed to me, specifically. I had my timer set on the VCR for 9:00 PM, EST, every Friday night. Then, every Thursday night when the schedule shifted. I could tell you who all of the important characters were. From the original informant, Deep Throat, the Alien Bounty Hunter (when he morphed back to his default appearance), Rat Boy (you gotta be a fan to get that one), or any of the other weird recurring characters (Tooms comes to mind), I had my mental rolodex set to identify them all. Leastwise up to season six.

By that season, life had become too fast paced for me to really keep up and I sensed that somewhere in my rear view of the series, a shark had been jumped. They brought in a lot of guest writers. The episodes got a bit lazy. The set location changed from brooding Vancouver, British Columbia to bright and sunny Los Angeles, California when Duchovny got hitched to Tea Leoni. It declined in my estimation. Eventually, the fandom loosened its grip, but my love of those first wonderful five seasons stayed with me.

The show would continue on for three more seasons in the original run, nine total. By the time the show had come to a close, it had suffered several setbacks, up to and including the absence of both main characters from the cast. Mulder and Scully were replaced by Dogget and Rayes. The dynamics between David Duchovny and Gillian Andersen’s main roles were what had kept many watching for years, and I thought for sure the show would come to an ignoble end once Robert Patrick and Annabeth Gish stepped in. Yet, the juggernaut could not be stopped.

For a good ten years, the series ran. Could it have stopped? Maybe. I would have thought that the movie should have been enough to end it. With ratings like that, though, it must have felt to Fox like leaving money on the table.

The Top Five Episodes

1995 bruckman
Bruckman: Well, at least I won’t die of auto-erotic asphyxiation. Mulder: Why are you telling me this?

In the name of brevity (and because top ten lists suck, per High Fidelity), I’ve taken the time to comb through my favorites and give you the highlights. It’s funny that few of them were mythos episodes. Most of them are Monster of the week deals. I was in it for the overall plot, but good goddamn if the one-offs weren’t some of the best work. The items are listed in chronological order, not by favor.

  • Shadows (1993) – Lauren begins experiencing hauntings after two assailants try to abduct her at an ATM and are killed by a protective spirit. Mulder and Scully show up when the bodies are identified as wanted terror suspects. As they investigate the murders, Mulder shares his belief that Lauren is being haunted by the ghost of her former boss who was killed after he discovered one of his partners was involved with a known terrorist group. I’ve always loved ghosts, and this one had some surprisingly good special effects for a season one episode.
  • Ice (1993) – Mulder and Scully are sent to Nome, Alaska to investigate why an entire team of amicable scientists murdered each other before sending out a final, cryptic video message. The culprit is a kind of ancient worm that was preserved in an ice core sample, then brought to the surface. The worms infest human hosts and trigger their fight response to lethal levels. This is a great cabin fever style episode. With nowhere to run and no backup able to arrive until a blizzard passes, the episode dials the tension up scene by scene until Mulder and Scully figure out a way to determine who is infected and who is not.
  • Sleepless (1994) – A Vietnam Veteran from a squad with the highest number of confirmed kills in action appears to be murdering all of his old squad mates. All the victims however seem to show all of the secondary, but none of the primary, means of violent death, drawing the attention of Mulder and Scully. It is eventually learned that the killer was a part of a military experiment which eradicated his squad’s need to sleep. Mulder (correctly) theorizes that this experiment seems to have opened a latent psychic ability within the killer to project fatal illusions in the minds of other people. The concept of this requires more than a little magical thinking to grok, but it has been one of my favorites between the idea itself, and the portrayal of the psychic soldier by none other than Tony Todd.
  • Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose (1995) – An aging insurance salesman leads an unsatisfying life because of his psychic ability to foretell how any person is going to die. He comes under the scrutiny of the X-Filed division when self-proclaimed psychics start to be murdered in his otherwise humdrum town. Using his abilities, he assist Mulder and Scully in tracking down the killer. This episode actually won an award. It’s one of the more heartfelt, yet comedic, episodes in the series. Peter Boyle plays the role of Clyde Bruckman as well. It’s amazing, and I think that this episode is probably my favorite out of all the ones I’ve seen.
  • Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man (1996) – The Cigarette Smoking Man is arguably the primary foil of the entire series (barring the faceless aliens looking to exploit us). But, even he has a past. This episode goes through bits of collected evidence by the Lone Gunmen (a conspiracy watch group) that paint a picture of who he is and why he is what he is. It very much takes a ‘sympathy for the devil’ approach and nails it. After the episode is done, there’s some sympathy for him – but not nearly enough to wash the blood off his soul.

Cinematic Sins

It’s time to wrap this up with a list of movies that I regret having missed or seem like obvious holes in my viewing history. Given how many films from this year that I actually saw, I am sort of shocked I missed any. Here’s what I’ve got for 1995:

Higher Learning – Hell of a cast here between Omar Epps, Lawrence Fishburne, Ice Cube, and Jennifer Connelly. Not surprising I missed this film. I wouldn’t have particularly sought this out on my own even if my folks would have let me watch it in 1995. I was too into escapism for the most part, with some noted exceptions. I’ve seen bits and pieces since it’s played on TV, but I have yet to see it from start to finish.

Village of the Damned – This is probably a bad film, but I remember wanting to see it based off of its creepy trailer. I reckon this has to be on streaming somewhere for free by now.

Clueless – I initially filed this under the dumb comedy category, though I am told by many that this was a mistake. At least this is what my wife tells me. So, I reckon it’ll get watched eventually.

Lord of Illusions – I’m told this is worth the time, though with leading role being played by Scott Bakula… I have my reservations. It’s based off of a Clive Barker story though, so here’s to hoping.

Clockers – This would assist in filling up my Spike Lee film gap while also netting me a great cast. It’s another Delroy Lindo film too! Harvey Keitel and John Turturro star as well.

The Doom Generation – This film has been recommended to me over and over again by friends who know me well. I don’t know what this says about me or my friends given that it sounds like it’s about a trio of accidental spree killers, but… I’ll give it a watch for a dark and twisty entry.

The American President – I like The West Wing, and this even has Martin Sheen in it too (though Michael Douglas is actually the President). I’ll take another White House drama I guess.

Balto – An animated film about a sled dog voiced by Kevin Bacon. Sounds like there’s worse ways to spend an afternoon.

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