1995: The Dream of the Nineties In Film

Time passes through 1995

Wow – half a decade gone by already on this project. By the time 1995 hit, I was well on my way to being a man, at least in the eyes of the law. The films kept coming though. So many films. 1995 was another great year for cinema.

We’ll get right into it this time around – I think I’ll save the ‘So Where Was I…” stuff for the cutting room floor. We all know the movies are the focus here – so, we can talk about the world and my life later to frame this year’s films.

So here we go.

The Schlock

Demon Knight

1995 Demon Knight

When I Saw It: 1999
What It Taught Me: Soundtrack Love

You know… I don’t remember a lot about this film. Something about demons. A dude with a key in his hand. Not like, holding it, but the key being under the skin of his hand. A big painting with something on the other side trying to get through? 

Oh yes, and blood. Lots and lots of blood.

But, for all that I blank on the movie, I remember the hell out of its soundtrack as noted in the last cutting room floor entry.

Interestingly enough, for something this schlocky there’s some names you might recognize here. I wasn’t surprised to see Billy Zane and  Thomas Hayden Church in the cast. Jada Pinkett Smith was a surprise, though, as was John Laroquette.

Johnny Mnemonic

1995 Johnny Mnemonic

When I Saw It: 1995
What It Taught Me: Schlock

Johnny is a Mnemonic Courrier. It’s his job to keep confidental data in his brain implants secure – even from himself. He takes on a job however that is beyond his capacity and finds himself hunted for the data he carries. The data is vital to curing a disease known as Nerve Attenuation Syndrome, and if he doesn’t get it out soon, the data will corrupt and take him out with it.

I saw this on my birthday. It was… a well intentioned gift. It was a no-brainer that I would want to watch this as it is an adaptation of a short story by my favorite author. William Gibson’s Burning Chrome short story anthology contained the story this film gets its name from. It… sort of follows the story. But it ultimately fails to deliver on a lot of fronts. The acting was bad, even by early Keanu Reeves standards (his redemption would come in 1999). The special effects… not as special as you’d hope for. The soundtrack? They got KMFDM… but nothing else of real note. This opened on Memorial Day weekend as well, the season for all-out blockbusters. This film just couldn’t hang.

It gets a few things though that scratch very particular film itches for me. Despite generally uninspired performances, they cast Henry Rollins. Not even as some random dude who they needed because Hank looks scary. He’s a doctor in this! Then there’s Dolph Lundgren as the Street Preacher. Seeing him roll up on people with a knife carved out of a crucifix shouting ‘It’s Jesus Time!’ is one of the best moments burned into celluloid ever. I wouldn’t really appreciate it until later, but Beat Takeshi is also  in this film as (aurprise) a Yakuza boss. Barely speaks a lick of English. When he does, he does it phonetically by my understanding. He’s learned more since I think, but he’s so successful, he can tell directors that if they want him that bad, they’re gonna put up with him speaking in Japanese. 

All three of the parts played by the actors above? Totally not in the original story. So this movie beats a stopped clock, three to two.

Judge Dredd

1995 Judge Dredd

When I Saw It: 1995
What It Taught Me: Crazy Technology

This isn’t quite the origin story – not at first. It goes balls to the wall within the opening credits, with Dredd doing what he does best – serving as judge, jury, and executioner as he de-escalates (read ‘murders his way through’) a Mega City One block experiencing a block war. As the story progresses, Dredd is framed for the murder of a journalist who reported unfavorably on him and is sent to a penal colony in the wretched and irradiated Cursed Earth zone. Predictably, he murders his way back to Mega City One, while also learning more about where he came from.

I have mixed feelings here as well. I like the concept of Judge Dredd, though I cannot say with full faith that I am a Dredd Head. But, even as a kid I could tell you, it was weird to see Dredd take his helmet off. The movie was a good example of how good concepts go bad because of studio choices. When you pay all that money for peak Stallone, you’re gonna get some face time.

Yet, I did like some of the tech stuff that came out of it, primarily the Lawgiver.

The reboot from recent years is a more than suitable replacement for this schlock-fest. But, it does have a special place in my heart for ‘double whammy’ alone.


1995 Waterworld

When I Saw It: 1995
What It Taught Me: Apocalypse Building

The Mariner (Kevin Costner) is a mutant wandering the open seas. Not that that really means much location-wise, since essentially the world is now one big ocean after an ecological catastrophe. The oceans rose drastically further than even the most liberal-swinging climatologists expected. But, if rumor is to be believed, there’s still a dry shore out there. Whispers speak of the peak of one of the world’s largest mountains still being above sea level, though most write this off as optimistic fantasy. While on the way to finding this supposed oasis of dry land, the Mariner falls under the gaze of one of the nomadic gangs with dwindling resources, the Smokers (led by Dennis Hopper).

Now, this movie gets a lot of flak. I think this is mostly because of how much money it cost not just to film it, but how much it cost to re-film it because Kevin Costner didn’t want his bald spot to show while he was underwater. When you take the budget out of the equation, what you have is an interesting (if goofy) post-apocalypse.

They handled it pretty well mostly, though there are always logistical issues I have problems with in this genre. But, all said and done, they covered mutation, resource scarcity, warlords, legends of the world before, and did all of it well considering.

The real crime here was male pattern baldness.


1995 Virtuosity

When I Saw It: 1995
What It Taught Me: Crazy Technology

Sid 6.7 is an artificial intelligence created for use in a proposed police training simulations in virtual reality. It’s core programming is compiled from traits of known violent criminals and psychopaths. Sid 6.7 knows what it is, and also views his existence to be a sort of prison. The programmer of the virtual spree killer has taken quite a fancy to his work though, and he decides that what the world needs is an apex psychopath made out of glass-eating nanomachines running loose in Los Angeles. Once the LAPD gets word that Sid 6.7 is loose, they send the only person that consistently beats him in VR after him: a disgraced former cop turned convict who’s been a guinea pig in the VR training project.

This is a guilty pleasure film for me. Looking back on it, I absolutely cannot tell you this is a great movie. But I was quite taken with the premise.

I don’t know where the fault lays exactly. It’s got Russell Crowe as the killer AI. That should be a point in its favor. It’s not, strangely. He overacts. Abundantly so. I don’t know if this was Crowe taking the ball and running with it, or the director asking for the excessive presentation. The effects, even for the time, were a little unpolished as well. It was the nascent age of modern special effects, so I forgive it that. Then there was the parade of B-Actors that filled out the rest of the piece including Stephen Spinella and William Fichtner. Denzel Washington (as is his way) was the powerhouse actor, and even he seemed a little dulled compared to some of his other amazingly good films.

Regardless, the idea of Sid 6.7 did take root in my mind, and the mechanics of his regenerative technology fascinated me. It made for fertile grounds for new ideas as I went on to write science fiction that focused on merging man with nanotechnology.


1995 Hackers

When I Saw It: 1995
What It Taught Me: Nothing About Hacking (But How To Make It Look Cool), Soundtrack Love

When you breach over one thousand systems and cause the NYSE to drop a couple points as a result, the law takes an interest. Zero Cool did just that, and as a result he got slapped with a lengthy probation on account of being a minor. He’s served his time, and the law has deemed him reformed. Of course, you can’t keep a good hacker down. The minute he and his family moves to a new town to put everything behind them, he starts up again. He finds himself lumped in with a circle of other hackers and phone phreaks of varying skill. He eventually gets himself in trouble again when the lowliest of his new friends gets caught up in some bad business. For some reason, they then don roller blades, and hack the planet for justice.

This is a big title for a lot of my friends that left an impression of sorts. It got a few things right and a few things wrong

By the time Hackers came out, I was starting to get some grasp of the internet and how it worked. I had a pretty good idea of what it could do and what it could not do, even if I didn’t know how to necessarily apply that knowledge. Hacking was (and still is) kind of a magic conceit for me. I know now that most hacking isn’t really even done by people. Code does most of the heavy lifting, with little interaction needed until someone decides to use a little social engineering to get what they want. This film had both the programming part as well as the social engineering. Zero Cool was basically a fictionalization of a guy named Kevin Mitnick, a real world hacker.

What it did not do was faithfully represent what it looks like to hack. Then again, if the producers of the film did opt for the real deal, the movie would take forty-three days to view – maybe longer depending on the types of hacks they wanted to portray. It’s hero would have been a Russian twentysomething in his boxers, fiddling with his phone, occasionally making a call, then typing for twenty hours a day. It would not look like a bunch of kids on roller blades, sitting in front of screens while cool special effects happen.

It did however have three great soundtracks though. I owned two but had them stolen from me before I learned how to rip CDs.

Somewhere in the Middle


1995 Outbreak

When I Saw It: Circa 1996
What It Taught Me: Biological Horror, Government Conspiracy

Outbreak was a science thriller about a virus discovered and curated by the United States government in the 1960’s. After a resurgence of the disease in Africa, it is inadvertently brought back to America where it is transmitted by a monkey to a small town. The CDC descends on the town in the hope that they can stem the tide and find an antidote.

Before I saw this movie, I had seen the miniseries of The Stand (1994) by Stephen King. I had also seen  The Andromeda Strain (1971). So the horror of the biological had started to creep into my life by the time Outbreak was released. Both works showed you the ravaged bodies of those affected by its own deadly disease. Outbreak though… This was the first time I saw something that was so up close, so carefully curated to the screen. This wasn’t a broad stroke presentation. It showed the very ugly reality of a terrifying disease with no need to worry about TV censors.

Additionally, Ebola was something we were just learning about on a world stage. Outbreak took something that was very real, then took a shot at portraying what it would look like if an Ebola-like, hemorrhagic fever hit an American population.

Lemme tell you, that shit was terrifying.

This was also contemporary to the rise of government conspiracy films and television shows. The X-Files had been going on it’s second or third year by this point. Looking back, trust in the government was shaky at best without fictionalization. The generation that had grown up with Watergate and was now making their own films were insinuating government plots behind everything, and this film was no exception.

Bad Boys

1995 Bad Boys

When I Saw It: Circa 1996
What It Taught Me: Contemporary Action Film Formula

Mike (Will Smith) and Marcus (Martin Lawrence) are two loose cannon cops in Miami. In one of their more recent adventures, they come to the aid of Julie (Tea Leoni): a witness to a killing that would implicate a local heroin dealer. Despite their bad reputation, she tells the Miami PD that the only way she’s going to testify is if Mike and Marcus guard her. Explosions and car chases erupt as the titular Bab Boy cops do everything in their power to protect Julie and take down Evil McHeroin’s cartel.

Before Bad Boys, The modern action film’s DNA was delivered in phases. Wikipedia says that the conventions most of us recognize in Action Movies today started in the late-Sixties and early- Seventies. Films like Bullit (1968) or the French Connection (1971) paved the way initially, and then in the Eighties we all saw the breakout that rewrote the template. Die Hard (1988) hit us all as hard as it could upon its release. After that, I think it’s fair to say nothing was the same. The bar was significantly raised for any action flicks after it. But, in 1995, the template got re-written yet again by Michael Bay’s Bad Boys. It’s up for debate if the bar was raised or lowered in comparison to Die Hard if you ask me – but this was still a lot of fun to watch.

It had a lot of the old tropes. Cops on the edge. An unreasonable witness to forward the plot. An army of well armed mooks coming to gun for our heroes. Drugs. Titillation. Hundreds of rounds of ammunition and a ton of explosions. God, the explosions. Explosions came to be the drama in themselves. Or, that’s what Bay believes Drama is.

What else was different? Well, there’s the obvious: Two black men taking the leading roles. Will Smith had exploded onto the film scene to fantastic success, and Martin Lawrence was tapped to be the funny man in the flick (though Smith does admirably himself). I didn’t really notice at the time how much of a big step that was, though in retrospect it seems obvious. While black actors had been prominently featured in mainstream films, I can’t recall too many films to feature two black leads that weren’t also made by African American directors or by the productions caught up in the Seventies’s wave of Blaxploitation.

The other thing that happened was Michael goddamned Bay’s exploding career. He launched many new flicks off the back of this one (we’ll get to some of them in later entries). Bad Boys did amazingly well at the box office (it made seven times what it cost to produce) with a great, though not record-breaking, first-week take. This lead to more derivative films being released by Bay on the tail of Bad Boys, each one adding to Bay’s legend of explosions over plot or continuity. For good or ill, the Action film format was cemented close to something we have today.

I eagerly wait the next step. It’s been over twenty years and we need a new formula now more than ever.


1995 Desperado

When I Saw It: Circa 1997
What It Taught Me: Over the Top Gunfights

Sometimes, when a man has been wronged so badly that he has nothing else to lose, he puts automatic weapons in a guitar case and kills a whole lot of people. That’s more or less what happens to Antonio Banderas’s character in Desperado. He is on a quest for revenge against the men who killed his lover, and he’s not particular about how many bodies he leaves in his wake along the way. At least, that’s what I remember.

Desperado was based on a great little action flick named El Mariachi (1992) on an independent shoestring budget, filmed by a then unknown Robert Rodriguez. El Mariachi slipped by my radar, but Desperado was almost impossible to ignore once the Hollywood machine remade it with relatively big name stars. Antonio Banderas was only known to me from Interview With the Vampire, but I knew of Selma Hayek by watching From Dusk Til Dawn (1996), and of course I could identify Steve Buscemi, Cheech Marin, and Quentin Tarantino who all had parts.

The action was fast paced, ruthless, and relentless. Once the shooting starts, it doesn’t stop. I was rather in awe of this film at the time, though I haven’t seen it in years since. The part that remains clearest in my mind is the scene where Quentin Tarantino tells a joke about a guy who pisses all over a shitty bar. For all of the action I witnessed… it’s faded. But, for its time, it was great.

Empire Records

1995 Empire Records

When I Saw It: Circa 2002
What It Taught Me: Soundtrack Love, Damn the Man

The Empire Records music store is on hard times. After saving up enough money to stall the inevitable, store owner Joe (Anthony LaPaglia) realizes that his well-meaning employee, Lucas (Rory Cochrane), has run off with his nest egg to Atlantic City. Lucas blows a winning streak after pressing his luck, and now, the store will no longer be able to remain independent. This comes as a crushing blow to the store’s misfit employees, who must deal with the shop’s impending rebranding into a corporate chain shop. On their last day as Empire Records employees, things go off the rails quickly. A race to save the store begins and a lot of other stuff happens too.

Many of my friends no doubt would put this way up in their lists, though it has a little bit of a lower rating for me. I missed this film in its cinema run somehow. If you’d have asked me for a rating at the time I watched it, it would have been higher. My girlfriend at the time loved it because she worked in a little indie record store on campus so, I might have been biased then.

I’m not as biased now. And since I’ve aged some since, this film rates somewhere in the middle. It had a pretty good cast. You have, Liv Tyler, Renee Zellweger, Anthony LaPaglia, and Rory Cochrane. It had a feel-good underdog story with several other subplots. More than anything else though, it had a soundtrack that was authentic for its time (see the earlier entry for 1994 here for more about Nineties soundtracks). It had the Gin Blossoms, The Cranberries, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Cracker, and Better Than Ezra. All acts that were just fresh enough and turned out to be evocative of the decade. Listening to the soundtrack alone is worth the time, even if the coming-of-age, angsty, outsider plots are laid on a little thick once you’re no longer in your twenties.


1995 Mallrats

When I Saw It: 1995
What It Taught Me: Timing, The Art of the Vulgar

Mallrats is essentially a story about two slackers who are trying to win back the hearts of their ex-girlfriends who broke up with them the morning the tale begins. They proceed to go where any other twenty-something goes when spirits are low – the mall! Wackiness ensues as they get into misadventures while winning back their lost loves.

Kevin Smith had been launched to stardom with his 1994 release of Clerks. Within a short timespan, he put together Mallrats, another film set in the View Askewniverse – a tangle of separate narratives linked together by continuity and his modern day Rozencrantz and Guilderstern (Jay and Silent Bob). It had a cast of mostly B-Listers at the time it was shot, some of whom went on to have pretty good careers. It starred Jason Lee, Jeremy London, Claire Forlani, and Joey Lauren Adams. It also had a couple of well known folks too – Ben Affleck, Shannen Dougherty, and Michael Rooker. Stan Lee even has a cameo. 

For me, it doesn’t outshine Clerks (an argument I frequently have with die hard Mallrats fans), but it does continue to lay down some of the great comedy that Smith is known for writing, as well as his hallmark vulgarity. The stinkpalm. Stereogram angst. The status of the Easter Bunny’s existence. Flatulence mid fellatio. Mystical third nipples. And, of course, Cousin Walter.

Rob Roy

1995 Rob Roy

When I Saw It: 1995
What It Taught Me: Vengeance

The grand thrust of Rob Roy is that Rob Roy MacGregor (played by Liam Neeson) leads an insurrection after he is sorely taken advantage of and his wife is raped by a scurrilous nobleman. He ain’t having none of that, so he begins a series of brutal and tragic events (because, Scotland) where his vendetta is carried out in a most gruesome fashion, and the wicked are toppled.

You know, here’s a funny thing. My parents were, as noted before, restrictive on films for the most part while they had a good handle on my comings and goings. Things slipped through the cracks of course. Most things, they were on top of. But, sometimes, they threw their restrictions to the wind on account of ‘culture.’ This was one of those films. It is loaded to the gills with rape, murder, theft, vendetta, and general blood, guts, and nifty bone-snapping. I dunno culture was an appropriate ‘out’ here.

The particulars of the film are hazy to me, save for one. The denouement results in a spectacular display of gore, of which I still recall vividly even now. You should really see it for yourself. Impressive stuff.

The Prophecy

1995 The Prophecy

When I Saw It: Circa 1996
What It Taught Me: Just the Right Amount of Creep, Theological Horror

The Prophecy centers around a battle between angels and demons to find a special human soul. This soul will break the everlasting stalemate between the forces of heaven and hell for which ever side can come to possess it. The Archangel Gabriel (Christopher Walken) wants it because… well, he’s kind of a dick, and doesn’t take a favorable view on humanity. Lucifer (Vigo Mortenson) wants it because he can use it to get back into Heaven and take vengeance on the creator that spurned him. Detective Daggett (Elias Koteas), a former seminary student who had a lapse in faith, is caught in the middle of all this now that he’s a cop protecting this crucial soul.

This hit my VCR in college during my first quarter. By this time I had become more than a little fascinated by the biblical apocalypse after reading the RPG rules for a game called The End. This came along a bit after reading it through. It’s a fantastic take on apocalypse and has a pretty good cast between Walken, Eric Stoltz (the Archangel Simon), Mortenson, and Koteas. 

Now, to say a movie is creepy because it has Christopher Walken in it is moot, but he’s particularly good in this one. He provides just that right amount of creepiness between presenting the secret of why we have a dent on our upper lips, as well as the exact and gruesome nature of angels’ acts. What pushes it over to being exceptional is actually the portrayal of Lucifer, and a single line that is uttered by Detective Daggett. Lucifer points out the true nature of Hell, and Daggett has, quite possibly, one of the most chilling lines of dialog about why people might not want to meet an angel.

Quick tip though: you can stop here. For whatever reason, Walken signed on for a bunch of sequels that were… less than sterling. Nothing says quality like direct-to-video.


1995 Friday

When I Saw It: 2002
What It Taught Me: Expanded Horizons, A Movie Can Be More Than One Thing

Craig (Ice Cube) has just been fired on his day off. His friend Smokey (Cheris Tucker) decides that his normally sober friend could use some cheering up of the herbal kind. However, the weed that is proffered is part of a dwindling supply – a supply Smokey was supposed to sell, not smoke. Events unfold as the consequences of Smokey’s decisions and the local neighborhood drama grows.

I think I finally saw this one while I was working at Borders Books on the recommendation of an ex-girlfriend. This movie would have fallen under the category of non-approved films at its time of release. To be honest though, it didn’t really ping on my radar. I wasn’t really introduced to hip hop, and rappers turned actors seemed to be about as good as rockstars turned actors (Freejack, anyone?).

I did get over the hump when it came to my preconceptions of the film. The movie is great and stands the test of time. First of all, Ice Cube is actually pretty good at acting, which I didn’t account for on my first viewing. Less surprisingly, it’s script, also written by Ice Cube, is great. This is also early Chris Tucker stuff, before he really started to get big. The character Deebo is a favorite as well. While I really first remember him as the President of Earth in The Fifth Element (1997), this film adds to my love of Tony Lister.

It also wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that this was my first black produced film. Like any other suburban white family, there was a bit of fear of the hip hop scene on the part of my parents. I like to think that this is not on account of any racism on the parts of my folks who didn’t subscribe to that sort of thing. My sis and I were raised better than to discount things based on culture. Likely it was more the glorification of sex and violence that gangsta rap was espousing that would have turned my parents away from getting to view this film in their house.

This movie also defied a strictly comedic model. The stakes are real in several scenes, such as Felicia’s assault, the people sent by Big Worm to kill Smokey for smoking his allotment of sellable weed, and the ultimate confrontation between Craig and Deebo in the last few minutes of the film. This isn’t really just comedy – this is a fair (if somewhat exaggerated and lampooned) depiction of the black experience in California at the time. If Ice Cube’s depiction through the lens of that time doesn’t qualify as the stuff of drama, I don’t know what does.

Major Payne

1995 Major Payne

When I Saw It: 1997
What It Taught Me: I Don’t Know, But I Like It

Major Payne, played by Damon Wayans, is an elite soldier. Name a black op and he’s been on it. Wherever there is a threat to America, you’ll find him armed to the teeth. But, after a dangerous mission out of country he finds out when he returns that there are no more enemies that America needs killed any longer. Diplomacy has become the path to the future and he finds himself relieved of duty. Out of desperation, he takes on the role of an instructor at a military academy for young children. He goes on to find a new challenge: dealing with a force that he’s not allowed to kill. You know, children. It’s now his job to bring them some much needed discipline and to be a good role model. Things get… interesting for both sides.

I watched this movie under protest. It seemed dumb. It is dumb. While ‘In Living Color’ (1990-94) had left a great experience for my cousins and me, the Wayans were starting to get a little stale. But, it was rented by a friend, and we decided there were worse ways to spend an afternoon.

Holy. Shit. I can’t quite bring myself to put it into the personal blockbuster category as it is a relentlessly goofy comedy (these tend to rank poorly in my movie watching categories). But it’s a very close call.

The things Major Payne says and does (to and in front of these kids) are amazing. My favorite bit in the film is when a five year old child, withdrawn and a little scarred emotionally, comes to Payne with his fear of a bogeyman in his closet. Payne, having been told by the kids’ guidance counselor to be more sensitive, marches the kid into his room. Payne points at the closet and asks: “He in there?”

The result is priceless when the kid confirms the location of the bogeyman. I couldn’t stop laughing for a good couple minutes after that.

Ultimately, this was a movie that I did not expect to be half as funny as it actually was. I heartily recommend this film for anyone in desperate need of a good laugh.

Personal Blockbusters

In the Mouth of Madness

1995 Mouth of Madness

When I Saw It: Circa 1997
What It Taught Me: How To Break a Mind

Sutter Cain, a famous author who is about equal parts Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft, has gone missing. His publishers are very concerned. Cain was to deliver them his Magnum Opus, a work called ‘In the Mouth of Madness.’ Fearing the worst, they send out an insurance investigator (Sam Neil) to look into his disappearance and determine if there’s any foul play (and of course to collect the insurance if something has gone wrong). The investigator and a representative from the publisher go out to find him, only to discover they have driven into the fictional setting of Cain’s novels. The horror unfolds, slowly at first, as they realize that Cain is not just planning on releasing a new best seller – his new book will literally drive his readers mad and usher in a new age of terror.

This movie would have passed me by had I not seen it on the shelf at the Blockbuster Video I briefly worked for. I had it in my hand to reshelve from the previous day’s returns. I inquired into if it was any good. Some of the other folks working with me there recommended it. This was in my early foray into horror – I’d only recently watched the original Night of the Living Dead (1968) and was new to this genre in movie format.

This film gripped me from the start. I was no stranger to the works of H.P. Lovecraft by that point. I’d read Shadows Over Innsmouth, The Call of Cthulhu, and The Rats In the Walls amongst other horror tales by Lovecraft. I remembered that if the film wanted to capture the essence of the Lovecraftian it would take a lot of work to make it look convincing. It was an ambitious film for its time. Special effects were blooming to be sure, but they were a highly expensive proposition at that point. What we take for granted now was very difficult then. So they worked with practical effects. They did things as simple as lens replacement (“Did I ever tell you that blue is my favorite color?”) to the abhorrently grotesque (the scene where the publisher rep twists and contorts into a mythos warped horror still makes me cringe).

The portrayal of madness was also insidious. The crux of the film hinges on the concept that if enough people believe in something strongly enough, it becomes the dominant paradigm. As Cain points out, more people have bought copies of his books than there are copies of the bible. As the books spread, so does his paradigm, and it takes root in a very real and grotesque way. The apocalyptic end of the film still chills me to the bone.


1995 Braveheart

When I Saw It: Circa 1996
What It Taught Me: Scotland Rocks, Medieval Brutality

Braveheart is a biographical film that covers the life of William Wallace, a Scottish patriot who led a revolt against England in the 1200’s. It is largely focused on his struggle against Edward the Long Shanks, a brutal English monarch who instituted policies that greatly injured the highlands and its people. As noted earlier, don’t buy your history from Hollywood. The film is a very loose representation, more focused on the blood and terror of the battlefield than political history or accurate representation of Wallace, his allies, or his rivals.

It was on a trip to Scotland that I both learned about the film and was told our family has a little Scot heritage in it. So it was an experience for me to learn a little more about the country and its history. I actually got to see the places where the film’s many battles played out, particularly Stirling Castle. I developed a thirst to learn more about the country. To some degree, this film helped me learn a little bit more (with careful guidance from my father, an actual history buff).

Additionally, you’ll find some amazing battle scenes here. The film revels in the sheer brutality that warfare brought in the middle ages. No punches are pulled, and some more than unlikely acts of butchery are gorily depicted. I have little doubt that this movie put the seeds of gruesome filmmaking into Mel Gibson’s head that would flower later in The Passion.

Toy Story

1995 Toy Story

When I Saw It: Circa 1996
What It Taught Me: Texture and Lighting Are Everything

Toy Story operates on the premise that our toys are actually alive. They identify with their owners for good or ill, and while they are in use, they suppress their hidden lives. When their owners are away the toys live their own unique lives. Andy’s toys are no exception. Woody the Cowboy (Tom Hanks), a simple toy with a pull-string voice box, runs the toybox as a leader. When the super-cool, battery-powered spaceman, Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), joins the toybox though, everything changes. Andy favors Buzz now among all his toys, and Woody takes offense. In a plan to regain Andy’s affection, Woody gets both himself and Buzz separated and ultimately lost. They must now work together to return to Andy’s room, and hash out a friendship along the way.

I missed this one completely in theaters, only discovering it in my first quarter of college. It was the darling of every student in my major: Computer Animation. As required viewing I saw it in the classroom and immediately went to Tower Video to acquire my own VHS copy. It was more or less love at first sight.

In and of itself, it’s a heartwarming story. Love and friendship, fear and discovery, lessons learned and futures forged. All good stuff. But, I’m not even gonna get into the story here. Because this is all about high tech nerdery for me.

This film was basically the computer animator’s playbook in 1995. While 3D animation had been in use since the early eighties, it never looked quite right. Sure it had its charm, but it always lacked something. This film and Jurassic Park (1993) really broke through that wall. Every Pixar film has not only the goal of telling a great story, but also to advance their craft in a new direction. The key element they explored in Toy Story was texture and lighting. It wasn’t enough to have the right colors or the modeling in place (though they did). What they wanted to show you were completely accurate representations of all of the toys their audience would be familiar with. Mr. Potato Head is an orangey-brown, but there’s also a kind of sheen and surface flow to him. With the right texture mapping and lighting, you could count the raised scales on Rex’s outer shell. You could see the little imperfections and gouges on all of the Army Men. Everything was simulated in the right lighting and with the right mapping to be representative of reality. It was an amazing feat, and that alone showed me the depth and breadth to which my work could aspire.

Strange Days

1995 Strange Days

When I Saw It: 1995
What It Taught Me: Cyberpunk

In the future of 1999 (God, I love typing things like that) a technology has emerged that allows you to record your own sensorium for later review. While this technology was originally deployed to law enforcement divisions for a new kind of wire for officers, the technology went to the black market where it is used to record explicit, racy, and criminal behaviors. It is highly addictive as well, leading to a huge problem in trafficking the resulting recordings called ‘clips.’ Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) is a disgraced L.A. cop from the vice squad. He’s a clip dealer working hustles to make ends meet. He doesn’t have many friends left save for a buddy from the force (Tom Sizemore) and a bodyguard he helped while still on the beat (Angela Bassett). When an old friend leaves a damning clip of a recent atrocity for Lenny, he becomes the target of what looks like a wide conspiracy in the LAPD.

I went on a date to see this movie. I was probably more into it than she was, but there was good reason. As noted before, cyberpunk hits me in all of the feels. There’s relatively few cyberpunk films (or at least a rare few good ones). But, this one ranks way up there.

It’s a noir story at its heart, but its cyberpunk trappings – the clips and their illicit markets – are really what makes the film stand out. They put in just enough technobabble and the abuses of new technologies to give it the cyber part. The punk part comes into play when looking at a near future in which corruption, disaster, and crime have ravaged America. It’s ‘punk to the core, and easily stands up along other cyberpunk masterpieces such as Robocop (1987) and Blade Runner (1982)

12 Monkeys

1995 12 Monkeys

When I Saw It: 1995
What It Taught Me: How To Break a Mind; Terra Cognita

This Terry Gilliam film follows Cole (Bruce Willis), a man who is either mentally ill, a time traveller, or both. He believes he is from a future in which a deadly virus has wiped out humanity save for a few who have taken shelter deep underground. The masters of his of future society have developed time travel to avert the crisis, and they send expendable inmates from their prisons back to do research. Cole’s role is not to intervene, but to collect enough data so that the precise point the virus is released can be targeted, then mitigated. The technology however is flawed and wildly inaccurate. Cole skips between the future, 1990, 1996, and 1916 (briefly), and through the process comes to believe that he may be responsible for the creation of the disease.

Gilliam, per usual, develops a world so plausibly bonkers that you cannot help but be caught up in it. Madness reigns supreme in several different points in the timeline through a time loop of massive scale. Either everyone from the future is insane from living underground, or something about time travel simply unravels people. Through an twisted lens, Cole meets all of the primary actors of the plagues creation and release. He targets Dr Goines (Christopher Plummer), the scientist believed to have created the virus, his deranged son Jeffrey (Brad Pitt) who is believed to have released it, and eventually a lab assistant (David Morse) with an apocalyptic bent. then there’s Katheryn Reilly (Madeline Stowe) a psychologist who tries to treat Cole in 1990 only to fall into Cole’s sway in 1996. Reality and possible mental disorders begin to blur as both Reilly and Cole try to parse out what is really going on.

There’s additionally something wonderful about seeing someplace you know on film. I went to see this movie after touring a college campus in Philadelphia the very same day. Seeing the city I had just walked through covered in apocalyptic levels of snow and populated only with wild animals gave me chills. I know all of the primary locations they shot at because I lived in Philadelphia for four years, close to the time the film was shot. I remember the John Wanamaker building, City Hall, the Schuykill Express view they show toward the end of the film. I know all of the news casters you see on all of the local channels throughout. They spared no expense to shoot where the film was taking place and it made the film all the better.

The Usual Suspects

1995 Usual Suspects

When I Saw It: 1997
What It Taught Me:  Crime

The Usual Suspects hinges on the testimony of Roger ‘Verbal’ Kint (Kevin Spacey), the only surviving member of a group of criminals killed on a boat in a California port. His testimony unravels a very long, very twisted narrative of how he met a bunch of other crooks after being brought in for a line up and find themselves in a position to work together against the people who put them there. As they enact this plan, they become ensnared in a larger scheme with more notorious criminals above them. Eventually, they find they have all been manipulated since their meeting to work the will of a criminal underworld bogeyman. That man is Keyzer Soze. His name is legend, as is his wrath. Criminals view him as no less evil than the devil himself. No one crosses him. No one knows what he looks like. Some criminals don’t even believe in him – but they say that really quietly. When he eventually comes knocking for Verbal’s crew, things go badly.

I find this to be one of the more unlikely entries in my film repertoire. I’m typically not one to go for stories set in conventional reality. When it comes to my favorite films, I tend to go for the fantastical, the macabre, the odd, and the apocalyptic. I do however find the occasional straight crime story to my liking. Well, in this case, kind of straight.

This story really goes through its paces with a great and looping dog-and-pony show. Verbal’s group travels to new places, make friends and enemies, and enact revenge as they are preyed upon. The story zigs and zags. For every step forward, the men in the crew find themselves with fewer and fewer options until the events on the boat unfold and the ultimate truth of Keyzer Size is finally revealed. The movie keeps you guessing right up until the end, which is one of the best shot scenes in crime drama.

The cast was also a wonderful mix. With Kevin Spacey, Benicio Del toro, Kevin Pollack, Stephen Baldwin and Gabriel Byrne feature as the criminal team, Chazz Palminteri is the cop working to uncover the fate of Keaton (Byrne), and Pete Postlethwaite serves as the devil’s right hand man.


1995 Se7en

When I Saw It: Circa 1996
What It Taught Me: Everything

Oh man. Oh man, oh man, oh man. I’ve been waiting for this entry and I’m going to break format here. This is in the running for a three-way tie for favorite movie. I love this movie. Every time I write a scene where there’s an urban hellhole, this movie is channelled hard. Whenever I need to think up of a crime brutal enough to grab someone’s attention, this film’s styling flows out of my hands. Whenever I need someone cynical and broken in a story, Detective Somerset starts speaking in my head.

Seven begins with a hardened and weary homicide Detective, Somerset (Morgan Freeman), arriving to the scene of a gruesome killing. While working out the scene, he meets the partner he’ll be working with for his last week on the force, Detective Mills (Brad Pitt). The crime scene is incredibly elaborate for someone who would have simply wanted a man dead. Somerset knows killings like this one have meaning. Soon enough, he’s proven correct. Another killing leads to evidence that the two killings they know of are linked. And that there will be five more. The murders each embody one of the seven deadly sins, and the killings are likely to become more brutal and personal as they close in on the suspect.

Seven is simply the best crime drama I have ever seen.

This film has it all. The macabre. Humor (if morbid). Drama. Crime. Filth. Sleaze. Even hope. Crime scene by crime scene, more grisly discoveries are made. The killer is poetic and fixated on morality in his work. Every shot simmers with tension and darkness, making a rich stew of human tragedy.  It is a wellspring of dark pathos, and every so often, I ladle out a bowl of it. I savor this horrid thing, because if you’re going to write stories about the dark madness beneath the surface of life you must occasionally taste it for yourself – at arms length of course. The movie is a dark carnival of the soul that serves as a touchstone for the darker elements of fiction.

One of the great things that they accomplish in the film is the faceless city it takes place in. It’s a mad, feral place. Desperation, corruption, justice, mystery, and ever present rain permeate its streets and alleyways. No residence is in an apartment building so much as a dark warren of interconnected, yet isolated, hovels. No highrise or uptown location can really be safe. The streets are slick with oily water and blood in equal measure. There’s always someone there. Watching. Waiting for the right moment to do something truly awful. And it’s all anonymous. They never say what city they’re in. It’s all meant to blend in. It could be anywhere. Maybe it’s your closest metro, seething with darkness and apathy, waiting to swallow you whole. The place is malignant and pulsing with stories – most of them grim.

It’s fine and dark work that sings chillingly into your ear. Some people had The Silence of the Lambs to shock them. Me, I had Seven.

1994: The Cutting Room Floor

A Change In Format

Forgive me for the brief interruption, but I’m feeling like The Cutting Room Floor is shaping up more like a series of lists and one-liners than something more insightful. I’ll still be giving you the content you remember: the good, the bad and the indifferent won’t be going anywhere, nor will my cinematic sins that fell by the wayside. I’ll be trying to expand content in the lists a bit more, but mainly I want to include a couple articles about my experiences and realizations with cinema generally during the nineties and beyond. We’ll get to my topic for this post just after we get through…

The Good, the Bad, and the Indifferent.

1994 True Lies


Cabin Boy (Bad) – Chris Elliott is Chris Elliott in this largely forgettable movie about a man-child brought onto a ship as – you guessed it – a cabin boy. At least his pipes are cleaned.

Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (Bad) – Sorry, this was too much of Jim Carrey in a ninety-minute period for me. A Wacky guy with a knack for working with and retrieving lost animals goes after yet another animal quarry. Courtney Cox falls in love with this idiot along the way. Points given for the bit where Carrey’s butt asks for Binaca.

Blank Check (Indifferent) – This film has something to do with Miguel Ferrer trying to get a lot of dirty money back from a kid who he has paid hush money to in the dumbest way possible. Smart criminals don’t write blank checks, dumbass.

Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult (Indifferent) – No O.J. this time given the Trial of the Century. It’s probably not the only reason the movie is forgettable though. After a while, all of this franchise’s films feel like they’re just the same movie on repeat. Leslie Nielsen does variously dirty and humorous things while fighting crime.

Clean Slate (Indifferent) – Dana Carvey is not Garth in this ho-hum comedy about an amnesiac detective. I think. It’s hard to remember. And I paid theater ticket price too. Lesson learned.

The Flintstones (Bad) – It’s okay to leave some properties alone, Hollywood. We can just watch the old cartoons. They’re better. Put your money into something more innovative next time. I honestly can’t remember anything about this movie other than wanting to escape despite the presence of John Goodman and Rick Moranis in the film.

City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold (Indifferent) – I can only tell you that this involves Jack Palance not being around anymore and something about his supposed hidden gold which Billy Crystal and Daniel Stern look to find. I don’t think they went for a City Slickers III after this one. Yet. Give the studio time though.

Speed (Bad) – Whoa. The bus can’t stop. Whew, I stopped the bus. Kiss me, leading lady person. Where is my paycheck? This must be what it was like to be Keanu Reeves in the nineties. Sandra Bullock also features as leading lady person.

Wolf (Good) – This wasn’t a bad film really. Had a good cast between Jack Nicholson, James Spader, and Michelle Pfeiffer. Nicholson gets bit my a werewolf. Spader gets bit by Nicholson. Then, they fight over sexual access to Pfeiffer. But… that’s really kind of it.

The Lion King (Good) – You can crib worse plots than Hamlet (you can also rip off worse series than Kimba the White Lion). The technical work was good between the rotoscoping and the shading technologies emerging at the time, but this film doesn’t get me back to watch it too often. It’s a definite highmark in terms of technique. Hakuna Matata will always be better than YOLO.  Oh, and Disney, you might pay for the songs you use in your soundtrack too.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (Indifferent) – Where it’s cousin, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) had a conversion that moved the dial for me in my inexperienced youth, this just… didn’t. I may also have finally seen this after actually reading Frankenstein… which kinda ruined it for me since adaptations don’t frequently scratch the itch the same way a novel can.

The Santa Clause (Indifferent) – By the time I saw this, most kid movies had lost their charm. Tim Allen plays a guy who gets roped into becoming the real Santa Claus. Tim Allen’s not bad as a comedian or an actor – I loved Home Improvement (1991 – 1999) – but… eh.

Leon: the Professional (Good) – I saw this one late. Like, last year late (2016). So a lot of the stuff that was over the top for its day didn’t have the punch I suppose to make it one of my higher rated films. It is however definitely worth a watch, not only for Gary Oldman’s performance, but also that of a very young Natalie Portman. Additionally, anything with Jean Reno is worth watching. It’s about a little girl who loses her family to some very crooked people and wants her neighbor – an assassin – to train her for a path to vengeance.

Star Trek: Generations (Bad) – Another Star Trek plot that bring the original series and the Next Generation cast together. I’m assuming that what left a bad taste in my mouth was the thing that kind of gets me with all television-to-big-screen adaptations: it’s just another episode and Trek isn’t really my go to sci-fi franchise. This is just a longer episode with better special effects, a couple tacked on big names, and a mild crossover from the original series. Features William Shatner, Malcolm McDowell, and the Star Trek: the Next Generation(1987-1994)  crew, including Whoopi Goldberg.

Junior (Indifferent) – Another foray into comedy for Schwarzenegger. This time, he’s carrying a baby inside of him! Not as funny as it sounds.

Dumb and Dumber (Bad) – Is there something wrong with me? Maybe I just don’t like comedy?Two idiots embark on wacky adventures in their dog grooming van. While I don’t really like Carrey all that much (as you can probably tell by now), Jeff Bridges is kind of awesome. He at least should have moved the dial up to indifferent but… no.

Maverick (Good) – This western, focusing on gambling and riverboat casinos, didn’t quite move the dial as much as Tombstone did. You do, however, get great performances by Mel Gibson, James Garner, and Graham Greene.

True Lies (Good) – I remember this film clearly. My cousin and I took my dad to go see this as a surprise for his birthday I think. He’d helped my cousin and I a lot that year, and Dad loved it – especially the bits with the Harrier Jet. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays an undercover agent. His line of work gets in the way of his marriage with Jaime Lee Curtis though. She feels alone and wants some excitement in their romance again. Unfortunately, this gets her tied in with his work, which both she and he are totally unprepared for. Good supporting cast in the form of Bill Paxton and Tom Arnold.

Music To Outshine the Movie

Let’s take a moment before we get to my cinematic viewing failures to discuss something that’s been on my mind for the past couple of nineties posts: music.

You’ve no doubt seen music come up in the notes for a lot of my favorite films already. It goes to say that most movies that grip you in your very soul have some musical accoutrements going on, even if you may not be consciously aware of it. Graeme Revell is one of the best guys at doing this, though I’d also credit Trevor Jones and James Newton Howard. You also get the household names who ubiquitously stand out for their significant melodic contributions, such as John Williams or Danny Elfman.

But, there’s another kind of soundtrack that comes up again and again: the ensemble soundtrack. These are performed by the famed and justly popular ‘Various Artists.’ This leads to a weird phenomenon that I’ve noted when it comes to the ensemble soundcast. Their collected artists blend to form exactly what the movies need, above and beyond a score (soundtracks and scores being very different).

But, sometimes. Just sometimes… you get a lackluster or even terrible film that has a great soundtrack.

I have a couple of these in mind, but the one I’m going to use as an example is the movie Mortal Kombat (1995). This movie is pretty awful. While some video game franchise adaptations have gotten big (Tomb Raider 2001, Resident Evil, 2002) this was not the era for that kind of outcome (though Mortal Kombat did spawn several, equally awful sequels – so they must have done something right). Video game adaptations were more likely to come out like the much maligned film, Super Mario Brothers (1993). Mortal Kombat wasn’t quite that bad, but when you cast Christopher Lambert as the Japanese God of Lightning, you have failed spectacularly. Even with Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa as Shang Tsung, they still had a lot of explaining to do.

The soundtrack, on the other hand, is amazingly good. If I’m sitting down to write or to get work done, I am very likely to have Mortal Kombat’s soundtrack on hand. It’s high energy and features a lot of great acts like KMFDM, Juno Reactor, Gravity Kills, Orbital, Fear Factory, and Type O Negative. These are not mainstream acts either. Most of these guys are hailing from the school of electronic and industrial music. But good goddamn do they put on a hell of a show.

1994 MK Soundtrack

Not only bombs get stunning soundtracks, though . There are other good films whose soundtracks really outshine or perfectly compliment the film. Empire Records (1995) comes to mind as a good example of this. While it was a great film at the time I watched it, it’s impact has lessened over time – but the soundtrack has not. It’s not a bad movie per se, but the music definitely outshines it, at least for me.

There are also great movies that get even better soundtracks. Stuff that gets watched again and again, but you listen to the soundtracks way more frequently. A great example of this is Grosse Pointe Blank (1996). It’s soundtrack is like a love song to New Wave and the eighties in general.

Here’s a couple more examples (from both good and bad films) of nineties soundtracks that get listened to more than the movie gets watched. I think you can figure out the good from the bad:

  • Batman Forever (1995) featuring Seal, U2, Massive Attack, and the Flaming Lips.
  • The Crow (1994) featuring The Cure, Nine Inch Nails, Stone Temple Pilots, Jesus and Mary Chain, and My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult.
  • Judgement Night (1993) featuring mashups such as Biohazard with Onyx, Cypress Hill with Pearl Jam, Sir Mix-a-lot with Mudhoney, and Run D.M.C. and De La Soul.
  • Demon Knight (1995) featuring Pantera, Ministry, the Gravediggaz, Rollins Band, Megadeth, and Filter.
  • Dangerous Minds (1996) featuring Coolio… and surprisingly little else, but I listen to that song way more than I watch that film (I don’t think I’ve revisited it since the first watching).
  • Romeo + Juliet (1996) featuring The Cranberries, Garbage, Everclear, Radiohead, Butthole Surfers, and the Cardigans
  • The Matrix (1999) featuring Rammstein, Rob Zombie, Rage Against the Machine, Rob Dougan, Spybreak, Ministry, the Deftones, Marilyn Manson, and the Propellerheads.
  • Space Jam (1996) featuring R. Kelly, Seal (by way of Steve Miller), Tommy Chong with Cheech Marin, and Salt-n-Pepa
  • Clerks (1994) featuring Bad Religion, Stabbing Westward, Soul Asylum, and Alice in Chains.

I am positive that I haven’t even hit a fraction of the soundtracks that are going to push peoples buttons. These are just mine. But the fact that the byproduct of the film can be just as engaging or even better than their films boggles my mind sometimes given the difference between the cost of making a film and finding suitable music.

Cinematic Sins

1994 Natural Born Killers

As always, there were some films that were explicitly blocked by parents, others that came and went too quickly, or that I was too limited in personal growth to see the potential value of. I’d like to think that by the age of seventeen that I’d have something resembling sense, but… nope. No such luck.

Blink – I vaguely remember this title pinging the radar at some point, mostly because it was about a person who through medical advances gets their sight back. Further research showed it features Madeleine Stowe, which is a plus given how much I like 12 Monkeys (1995).

The Getaway – Mostly this would be good to watch just for the basis of its cast. It didn’t have robots, zombies, aliens, or anything ‘weird,’ so it failed to draw my attention. With Alec Baldwin, Kim Basinger, Michael Madsen, Jennifer Tilly, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and James Woods, it probably wouldn’t be a waste of my time.

Reality Bites – Sullen and single me wouldn’t have been down to see this at the time. I’m glad I’m not such a moody shit anymore. This was Winona Ryder in her prime. Plus Ethan Hawke, Ben Stiller, and Janeane Garafalo before she really got famous.

Sugar Hill – Another gritty portrayal of people involved with the drug trade. So you can imagine this one didn’t pass muster for parental funds. Also at that time I hadn’t really got into the genre of crime movies yet. That’d change in the next year with The Usual Suspects (1995). It’s got Wesley Snipes before he went batshit crazy too.

The Hudsucker Proxy  – I like Tim Robbins. Let’s give it a go. I’ve heard you either love this film or you hate it. Not a lot of middle ground.

Threesome – See Reality Bites above for the reason and replace the actresses and actors with Lara Flynn Boyle, Stephen Baldwin, and Josh Charles.

Surviving the Game – I don’t remember this one coming around but it came up in my research for this year. It’s Rutger Hauer and Ice-T. I’m down for that.

Brainscan – I can hear my friend Nick tutting at me for not having seen this. I shall have to reach out to him for a viewing. I would not be surprised at all if he has this on DVD somewhere.

PCU – This film is another example of what I call ‘The Shawshank Factor’. It is a movie that I have seen bits and pieces of, multiple times, but have never watched in total. I am unsure as to whether or not I have seen all of this film. It’s got some great work by Jeremy Piven and David Spade, so I’ll need to get back to this from start to finish.

Crooklyn – Another Spike Lee Joint. He was a voice for both my generation and the one before it. And, arguably for today’s as well. I really need to catch up on his work. Plus one of my favorite actors. Delroy Lindo, is in the cast.

Renaissance Man – I like Danny DeVito. Sure, why not?

Wyatt Earp – I like the lore of the men and women involved in Tombstone’s history, but I never had the three hours and ten minutes to sit down and watch this film on one of the most famous of those people, the titular Wyatt Earp.

The Client – Maybe if I like The Firm (1993) I’ll watch this one too. Lord knows I can’t seem to sink my teeth into Grisham’s novels, so movies are probably the better way to go.

Clear and Present Danger – There are so many Tom Clancy adaptations that this one just became another in the mix. I don’t typically go out of my way for Republican ideology in my fiction either. But this is Harrison Ford. I can trust him, right?

Natural Born Killers – This is where my parents drew the line in 1994. I may have gotten away with Pulp Fiction. I may have snuck in Clerks on VHS. But they were not putting money into my hands to go see a movie that they felt glorified serial killers. It didn’t matter how cool Oliver Stone might have seemed after JFK. I just never got back to this one, not even with its great lineup: Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, Robert Downey Jr, Tommy Lee Jones, and Tom Sizemore.

Quiz Show – So many people have talked this one up and at the time I couldn’t have cared less. Now that I know a little bit more about its background, I think I’d probably enjoy it.

Ed Wood – Given my leanings, I have no idea why I wouldn’t have gone immediately to the theater to watch Tim Burton’s biopic on Ed Wood, starring  Johnny Depp.

1994: The Dream of the Nineties In Film

So, Where Was I In 1994?

This was a year where I started to come together as a human being. I’d been in my high school music program for two years. Along with my visual arts training, this was where I’d finally started to feel like I had a place of refuge. I’d risen to a section leader in the marching band, was swapping in and out of first chair positions between me and a friend of mine who, no shit, was named Tom Jones. This marked a two year period where sometimes, just sometimes, high school could be fun. The bullies got a new target somewhere (I didn’t care where), I wasn’t an underclassman any longer, and I felt strangely in control of where things were headed for once.

This was also the year where the movie theaters couldn’t keep me out. I turned seventeen this year – old enough to show an ID to someone in the ticket booth and validate my presence there. This didn’t mean my folks were always pleased with my viewing habits. It was a push to get in to see Pulp Fiction that year (a film my mother would later see in her sixties and love).

While the internet had been something I’d used for a while, this was the year it really started to gel for me personally. We were still on dial up, using the much maligned AOL service. Squelches and beeps were a part of every day life, as was the vocal shouting of “MOM! I’M ONLINE! DON’T PICK UP THE PHONE!”

The world continued to move along. NAFTA got barreled through congress and was signed by Slick Willie. Congress flipped to Republican control, which set the stage for an impending impeachment. The PowerPC was released by Apple, and the blurring of platforms started a short time later as the internet brought rival operating systems a bit closer together in terms of compatibility. Rodney King got a shit ton of money in reparations for the violation of his civil rights, further blackening the eye of the LAPD’s public image. To add to the mix of crazy in Los Angeles, Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman are found dead at Brown’s home, resulting in the ‘Trial of the Century.’ The nation plastered itself to the television as Brown’s and Goldman’s suspected killer – football hero, OJ Simpson – took off in a low speed chase with one of his former teammates, Al Cowling.

As always the films of the year continued to mold and shape me. This was a great year for film. This year still informs a lot of my writing and creative sensibilities. Some excellent storytelling came to me, and no doubt 1994’s films will continue to shape me in years to come as my fiction continues to grow.

The Schlock

The Shadow

1994 The Shadow

When I Saw It: 1994
What It Taught Me: Pulp Tropes, A Furthered Love For Art Deco
Rating: ★★★

My music courses were not limited to school hours – practices were both before and after the standard six-and-a-half hour school day. Dad would drive me to practices while we listened to audio dramas. One of the dramas was, of course, The Shadow. Sometimes the titular character was voiced by Orson Welles, other times by William Johnstone and Bret Morrison. This time, we’d get to hear Alec Baldwin perform not just the voice, but the man’s visage – provided alter ego Lamont Cranston would let us see him. I remember being really worked up to see this film.

The movie was okay. It lacked the punch of the other year’s films, mostly because of it’s moderately campy leanings. They overdid it a little, particularly with Tim Curry who plays a patsy for the main villain. It’s hard to overuse Tim Curry – but he put in a little too much extra it might have been better to tuck it back.

What remains with me from the film though was the presentation of Manhattan in the forties. Much like with The Rocketeer (1991), there was a heavy deco leaning to the set that lingers with me, informing me (for better or worse) of the motifs of the times. It also gave me more lead in the pencil for describing and setting the stage for that particular era. It also helped to cement a lot of the tropes and plots of that time: two fisted goons working under shady manipulators versus the one man with special abilities that can stop them.

The Mask

1994 The Mask

When I Saw It: 1994
What It Taught Me: 2D to 3D Effect Transition, A Little Carrey Goes Too Far
Rating: ★★★

I am not particularly a Carrey fan (we’ll get into this a bit more in 1994’s Cutting Room Floor). His signature ability in the 1990’s was to be completely and totally off-the-wall. I’m not certain how he got more energy than Robin Williams had (though one might suspect illicit substances which were also Williams’s forte), but he put it to good use in the Mask.

I liked the concept of this piece, though I’m told it did veer from the canon according to fans of the original Dark Horse Comic from the 80’s and 90’s. It’s the story of an everyman guy, Stanley Ipkiss (played by Jim Carrey), who finds a mask that basically turns him into a nigh-invulnerable, green-skinned trickster so long as he wears it. The Mask comes with some unfortunate complications though, and soon Stanley can’t really keep up with all of the things the Mask gets up to when it’s in control – and it manages to get Stanley into binds ever more frequently the longer he wears it. When Tina Carlyle (Cameron Diaz’s first appearance), hits up Stanley’s bank to open an account. She’s really there get info on banks to rob for the mob. Stanley falls in love with her, and soon The Maskis all over her, and the mob doesn’t like this one bit. Slapstick violence and Jim Carrey being Jim Carrey ensue.

This wasn’t a particularly great film, though for its time its effects were remarkable. Additionally, it was the goal of the team to bring the manic energy of not only Carrey, but the well-respected and talented animator, Tex Avery. Tex is regarded as one of my gods in my pantheon of art, so it was no big surprise that I liked at least that part. They more or less got it down in these clips.

Somewhere In the Middle

No Escape

1994 No Escape

When I Saw It: Circa 1996
What It Taught Me: Complex Dystopia, Better Than Lord of the Flies
Rating: ★★★★

I’ll admit that my recollections of this film are somewhat hazy, but I remember really liking it. As far as I am concerned, the plot is easily explained thus: Escape From New York (1984) on an island. Ray Liotta is Snake Plisken, but there’s no President to be rescued. Liotta just wants off the island to clear his name and expose the corruption that landed him on a remote prison island in the pacific.

I mean, really, framing any movie as ‘Escape From New York, But…’ will pretty much get me to watch it (Escape From New York has been a favorite since I watched it in 1993). I love movies like that portray fantastical societies bred by human nature left to its own devices in strange places. I shouldn’t like movies like this based on my reception of Lord of the Flies (see my Disastrous freshman year in an earlier post). All William Golding really needed to say was ‘the fat kid with glasses dies first when society’s rules go away.’ I knew that because I was a fat kid with glasses. Social dynamics weren’t lost on me. But, what Escape From New York and No Escape had was the set dressing and cool toys on occasion. That and a bad ass guy at the center who had the right antihero tropes.

I really want to revisit this now to see if it still holds up well. It had a pretty good cast with Liotta at the center, and a good array of B-listers surrounding him: Lance Henriksen, Ernie Hudson, and Kevin Dillon.


1994 Airheads

When I Saw It: 1994
What It Taught Me: Soundtrack Love
Rating: ★★★★

So, you have a floundering band that can’t seem to get a break. No one is listening because you’re not on the radio. All doors are shut. How do you open one?

Take a radio station hostage.

Of course the guns are fake – these guys don’t have the stomach for real violence. They figure they’ll use plastic (but real looking) uzi-styled water guns, a little bravado, and get the station playing their new single. What could go wrong?

This is a pretty stupid plan so things go wrong almost immediately. From there on it’s a heartwarming tale of rock and roll revolution, the magic of music, and obligatory Stockholm Syndrome.

What I remember though were two things: Harold Ramis’s appearance, and the Soundtrack. In particular the song ‘I’ll Talk My Way Out of It‘ by Stuttering John. Yes, that Stuttering John.  Yes, you may question my good taste.

Additionally, this was around the time that the three lead rockers were all getting big. I knew Adam Sandler from Saturday Night Live and his comedy CD ‘They’re All Gonna Laugh At You’, Steve Buscemi was becoming a favorite after seeing Reservoir Dogs (1992),  and Brendan Fraser had a string of successes. All three were on their way to big things during this movie’s filming and release.


1994 Stargate

When I Saw It: 1994
What It Taught Me: Diaspora
Rating: ★★★★

A fringe Egyptian Linguist (James Spader) is brought into a top secret project initiated by the Unites States Government by an aging scientist who believes his work will unlock a great mystery. He accepts and finds himself under the command of a high ranking military man with a haunted past (Kurt Russel). Russel’s project is related to an ancient artifact found in Egypt and taken by the US military. They have no idea what it does, but they have a couple ideas. Once Spader joins the team, they realize the artifact is a portal – but to where they have no idea. So, they get volunteers led by Spader and Russel to go through the portal and into a world that seems very much like Egypt. The locals at the other end of the portal are shockingly human, they have their own language derived from Egyptian… and they are brutally oppressed by alien masters who appear to have been the architects of the entire ancient Egyptian societal structure. The aliens were, in fact, their gods. Spader and Russel then go on to liberate the oppressed world and to presumably exploit the hell out of the gate system they’ve discovered after the credits roll (the film even got a set of spin off shows on The SciFi Channel).

The idea of extraterrestrial human societies as the norm appealed to me. That humans were not unique to earth or might even be the ‘typical’ species found in space due to a forgotten diasporas in the ancient past really took seed and sprouted story ideas for years to come. The film’s visual effects also served as reference for me  years later in college – a lot of FX heavy films did, though this one sticks out due to the rippling water effect of the gate.

The Ref

1994 The Ref

When I Saw It: 1994
What It Taught Me: Stretching the Concept of a Christmas Movie, Escalation
Rating: ★★★★

Denis Leary hit me like a lightning bolt with his comedy disc ‘No Cure For Cancer’ in 1993. It got listened to a lot, so when he had top billing in this dysfunctional family comedy, I leaped.

Leary plays a career thief. He decides to pull a job on a millionaire’s house on Christmas Eve. He’s caught up by a trap in the house that identifies him.  This sends him on the lam, looking for a place to go to ground and wait out the dragnet. To accomplish this he kidnaps a couple (Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis) who have been at each other’s throats for years. He coerces them into keeping him hidden under the threat of violence against their juvenile delinquent son. This gets Leary embedded in Spacey and Davis’s own family problems when he realizes the best story he can use as a cover for the arrival of their relatives is to pretend that he’s their marriage counselor. When the extended family arrives, things get much, much worse for everyone and things escalate to a spectacular breaking point.

This is not only a great comedy, but it’s a movie I watch around Christmas every year, along with Die Hard and Gremlins. Much to my mother’s disappointment.

Personal Blockbusters

Forrest Gump

1994 Forrest Gump

When I Saw It: 1994
What It Taught Me: A Deeper Sense of a World Before Me, What Special Effects Could Really Do
Rating: ★★★★

This was easily the hit of the year for most audiences (though not my personal favorite if the title banner of the article didn’t give it away). Tom Hanks really showed his chops with this one, and sent his career down a notably different path from most of his past performances.

Hanks portrays Forrest Gump, a good natured man of lower-than-average intelligence. He has a storied and exceptional life despite his many challenges. He starts from humble origins, the illegitimate son of a hard-working mother who does anything she can to raise him right. The story goes from his early years, through adolescence, through his time in the military and Vietnam, and then an improbable celebrity that comes after. Throughout the film, he traverses several high mark moments of history that have been emblazoned into the Baby Boomer experience. It’s an amazing work that encompasses so many themes and emotions that it’s difficult to catalog all of them. It really did deserve its critical acclaim.

One of the (many) things that it won awards for though was its special effects. Up to this point, effects from the computers of hard-working FX staff was on the purely fantastical. We’d seen Jurassic Park, which gave us some of the most realistic looking dinosaurs that have ever been set to film. Space battles were looking cooler. Lava was flowing without causing a hazard to people on sets. No one had yet though to start using computer generated effects to replace what might feel like mundane practical shots. Things like say… a wandering feather. This film showed that you could do the impossible, and make it look practical. The feather wasn’t the only thing though. The film manages to place Hanks in existing and modified footage with known celebrities and politicians; to set an olympic class ping pong game up without having to do take after endless take to get it right; and to get the weather to cooperate on command. It really opened up the boundaries of what was possible.

Additionally, it started to put a lot of what I’d only read about in my history classes into context. I knew that there was a world before I came into it, but no one had really sat me down to show how it affected everyone else – or at least no one had for many of the film’s moments (I actually had wonderful US and World History teachers in my public school, plus my Dad to fill in some blanks). This opened up my understanding on things like the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Era, and the Fifties and Sixties in general.

The Shawshank Redemption

1994 The Shawshank Redemption

When I Saw It: 2017
What It Taught Me: Layers On Layers
Rating: ★★★★★

You read that right – I just watched this movie this year. It’s hard for me to believe I never saw it sooner. Truth be told, I’d seen the back third of the film many times. The movie airs on cable on the regular. It’s one of those movies I have a theory about: you can watch twenty-four hours of television a day and have it all be either The Shawshank Redemption or Law and Order just by flipping through multiple channels. There’s no period of time when those titles are not playing. They’re that popular.

Having had the ending blown for me, I just never really got around to the beginning, which is a shame because the movie is that fucking good. My girlfriend and I sat down to watch it about a month ago after she properly chastised me for not having watched it earlier in life. I am quite pleased with it. The movie deftly performs acts of cinematic magic.

The story opens with the trial of Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) who very well may have killed his wife. He is sentenced to life imprisonment in Shawshank Prison where he has a great struggle adapting to life inside of the prison walls. He does however make friends, notably another lifer named Red (Morgan Freeman), and begins to ease into the life of a convict as much as one can. He suffers a great many indignities. He is beaten and raped; brutalized in mind, body, and spirit. He is often at odds with both his jailers and his fellow inmates. He not only perseveres – he retains his humanity while working toward his elaborate liberation.

The drama is amazing – but I expect that from most Morgan Freeman films. What really got me with this was the depth of the plots. Most good films have subplots – stories that weave in and around the main one. Usually there’s one or two. This one has many. They’re layered in so that the subplots seem to have subplots. It adds to the length of the movie, but in such a gripping way that you won’t mind sitting through 142 minutes of film. Time just melts away. You simply take in all of the layers as easily as breathing. It just takes your breath away.

Interview With the Vampire

1994 Interview With the Vampire

When I Saw It: 2017
What It Taught Me: How To Build a Relatable Monster
Rating: ★★★★★

When I look back at it, this was what started the trend of vampires starting in my youth until my second bout of college. We’ve had zombies in the mind for the last eight years (barring a sudden outbreak of vampirism in the form of Twilight (2008) but we can expect vampires to come back due to a weird kind of political phenomenon. Let’s hope they can get more Anne Rice and less sparkling.

The film opens with a man who has nothing left to live for. Louis (Brad Pitt) has lost both wife and child to a tragic pregnancy. Lost and without purpose, he puts himself in harm’s way, begging for something to put him out of his misery. The vampire Lestat (Tom Cruise) takes this as an open invitation and preys on him, eventually taking him on as his child of darkness, transforming Louis into a vampire. This begins the extended life of Louis the vampire. The two quickly find themselves at odds: Louis will not kill with the glee of his father of darkness, but must lest he waste away and molder in some forgotten crypt.

The film essentially is about Louis coming to terms with his nature, learning to walk the fine balance between man and beast. He suffers great trials of emotional fortitude, navigates moral quandaries, and ultimately suffers terrible consequences for his actions (such as the making of his own child of darkness, an actual child turned vampire named Claudia (Kirsten Dunst). The film is an emotional rollercoaster punctuated with horror and despair. I am a fan of morality pieces and situations where there is no wrong and right. It creates an environment where you’re never really sure what’s going to happen, and this had that effect.

This is also one of the rare cases in which the movie outshone the original book in my opinion. I’ve tried three times to read the book and never finished – yet I’ve seen the film dozens of times.

Pulp Fiction

1994 Pulp Fiction

When I Saw It: 1994
What It Taught Me: Non-Linear Storytelling, Making The Horrific Hilarious
Rating: ★★★★★

It was a fight to see this movie. I mean, I tried like hell to get in. This film was released just a short time before I turned seventeen. The movie’s reputation and outrage of parent groups had ticket sellers checking for IDs. I’d gone to see R-Rated films at the theater before. Even a couple without parents present. But this film. Oh man.

On my fourth try, I finally got the money, the available time, and a license I could slap on the counter that no one would deny. My cousin and I chose one of the oldest, seediest theaters in the area. The last time I’d been there was to see The Jungle Book (1967) when I was a kid. And, oh boy, did we not see anything family friendly when that curtain opened.

This movie was transformative in terms of not just content, but also in terms of storytelling. It covers a couple of different stories: one about two robbers deciding to rob a diner on impulse; another about a pair of hitmen trying to get a suitcase back to their boss; another about a boxer who refuses to through a fight for a crime boss; and another about a crime boss’s goon who’s given the task of taking his lady out on the town so she doesn’t get bored. Each is broken up into its own vignette, and each story ties into each other story in ways either trivial or of great consequence. They’re not told in any order either. In fact, they’re totally shuffled. It’s the kind of film where the end is the beginning is the end. Everyone has read the story where you start in media res and you jump between now and then. But this took that idea to a higher plane of existence. It was masterfully done. Tarantino outdid himself with this film, and it’s the one that made me follow his career for good or ill over the next decade.

It also transformed careers. John Travolta had been in a slump, as had Bruce Willis, but this film got them rising from the ashes anew. Samuel L. Jackson had been working steadily, but this was the film that I feel opened bigger doors for him. Uma Thurman definitely took off, and Tim Roth graduated from quirky roles in unexpected gems to helming films as a lead role. You also got Eric Stolze as a scummy LA drug dealer, Christopher Walken as a family friend I think no one would want, and then you got Ving Rhames, who definitely took off after this film cemented itself into cinema history.

The thing that stuck with me most though was the Car Scene. I’m pretty sure you know what I’m talking about, but I’ll spell it out for you. After Travolta and Jackson finish up a job in which they should have died in a hail of unexpected gunfire, they are taking a man to their boss in the car. Jackson claims epiphany, that god had directly intervened on their behalf, resulting in Jackson’s belief that this is his last day working for crime boss Marcellus Wallace. Travolta isn’t having it and an argument starts. Eventually, Travolta, looking for support for his side of the debate, turns to their passenger in the backseat, gestures his gun at him to emphasize his point… and the pistol goes off accidentally, resulting in a spectacular spray of gore and blood as the passenger’s head disintegrates.

That’s a pretty shocking thing to have happen. It’s the kind of thing that if it happened in front of you in real life, you’d be absolutely horrified. There’d be years of therapy. Lots of neuroses. Total breakdown.

I could not stop laughing.

Neither could the rest of the people in the theater. But, me especially. I was laughing four minutes later, out of breath. People were staring at me. They must have thought I was a psychopath (I wondered this too driving home from the film).

There was just something about it. The suddenness and the fact that after it happens, Travolta and Jackson just continue to bicker with almost no pause. And while they are both upset, they never stop to deal with the morality of killing a dude by accident. Travolta doesn’t hardly even raise his voice. To him it’s like discussing the price of weed. They just argue about how they’re going to finish the job and what to do about having a car filled with blood and brains in the freeway. It was such a shock, followed by an incredibly inappropriate response that the absurdity of it lit up every humor circuit in my head.

I guess that makes me a pretty bad person.


1994 Clerks

When I Saw It: 1994
What It Taught Me: Irreverence, Timing, An Appreciation of Black-and-White Medium In a World of Color
Rating: ★★★★★

I’ve noted before that my parents were extremely restrictive on what I could watch. They might lose in the battle of films on the big screen, but they could police what came into the house. They weren’t always consistent though, and they couldn’t watch me all the time. Public school teachers pretty much work all day, so sometimes I could sneak in a little something.

I missed Clerks in its entirety for it’s film run. This was no big surprise – it was an indie film from Miramax that didn’t get a huge run. I finally saw it on video later in the year when a student of my dad’s brought it over during our weekly comic book run.

Denis Leary had paved the way for comedy that would get me in trouble for listening to it at anything louder than a whisper’s volume, but it still didn’t quite prep me for Clerks level of brutal honesty and total vulgarity. This punched up my obscenity meter by leaps and bounds. Considering I grew up in a school district where the word ‘fuck’ almost could replace birdsong, this was no mean feat. I could swear like a sailor before I was nine and this opened up whole new vistas of foul mouthedness and wholly inappropriate behaviors.

Along with that, it also gave me another great foundation on how to execute timing. Timing is everything, but especially so with comedy. Smith has a great sense for it, and would go on to use it to great effect in further endeavors in the Askewniverse such as Mallrats (1995) and Dogma (1999). It’s timing is almost Sorkin-esque, but with a little more room to breathe.

The thing that really gets me though was that this film was so low-budget that it had to be filmed in black-and-white. I kind of held black-and-white television and film in low regard back in 1994. Mostly, it was because I was stupid – I had this idiotic belief as a kid that newer is always better. Kevin Smith wasn’t from the fifties or sixties, and there was no excuse for outdated film options when you could get ‘better.’ This was a film which set me on a path of being older and wiser.

I don’t think Clerks would have been as powerful if it had been shot in color. As someone who’s had the experience of working in a crap retail job, it kind of robs the color out of your life. Sure, it’s there, but you’re not feeling it. The only thing you feel is the click of the keys at the register, the crying of someone’s baby, throwing a chronic masturbator out of the store, or the complaining of someone who feels ill used (rightly or not) by capitalism. It takes the film’s nature and starkly puts it in front of you. It’s not the only film to have made this deliberate choice in a world of color (The Mist, which showed in color ultimately, had a special cut of the intended black-and-white version in the BluRay edition), but it’s one of the better ones.

The Crow

1994 The Crow

When I Saw It: 1994
What It Taught Me: Everything
Rating: ★★★★★

If you ask me what my favorite book is, I’ll tell you Neuromancer without thinking. If you read that book and then read any of my science fiction stories for just a couple of minutes, it’s likely you’ll see how deeply the book informs who I am as a person and an author.

I mention that book not out of an inherent plot connection, but because The Crow is my cinematic counterpart to Neuromancer. When I write horror in an urban hellhole, you might catch Eric Draven wandering in the alleys, watching.

The Crow is about Eric Draven (Brandon Lee): a man returned to life after he and his fiancee are murdered on Devil’s Night by a gang of arsonists and killers. He finds that he has not only cheated death, but that he is granted powers from a great crow that seems to accompany him everywhere he goes. He seems to be invulnerable to any kind of physical punishment. He has the ability to get psychic impressions from the past by holding objects or touching people. He is stronger and faster, and has a newfound capacity for great violence. He can see through the eyes of the crow. He can vanish without trace. But, lastly, he possesses an eerie knack of being in the right place at the right time to set things as right as they can be set.

He instinctively knows that he will never be able to bring his love back to life – but he can make sure that the men who killed his bride-to-be will never kill again. He will make sure that every last one of them get exactly what they have coming to them.

With his supernatural talents, he goes on to avenge the deaths of his fiancee and himself, cutting a murderous swath through a city infested with darkness and depravity. One by one, he takes on his killers, leaving a trail of fire, blood, and crow symbology in his wake.

This movie drips with all of the dark horror conventions I like to work with in my fiction: The merciless world that often seems to actively work against you – not in some abstract way, but rather a city that attacks you like it’s personal; despair in alleys; dark recesses of urban blight that are best avoided; crews of criminals in an organized nightmare court who will do anything, knowing no restraint; supernatural forces that move within light and shadow; uncaring parents and drug abuse; ubiquitous and callous violence; all-encompassing vengeance; doing the right thing the most wrong ways; moral ambivalence; hope, false or otherwise.

This is fear countryThis is the ultimate in revenge.

It’s also visual poetry. The stage is set, and the actors going through it make it sing. The fights are well choreographed (it helps that Eric Draven is played by Brandon Lee, Bruce Lee’s son). The lighting is just so. Fire and darkness mix to create long shadows and a gothic feel. The performances are solid. It feels real despite the supernatural elements. I have watched it over and over again. There’s not a shot shown, not a line of dialog, not an action cue that I do not know like the back of my hand. This is my toolkit, by bible for portraying darkness – and also redemption.

Because, amongst the other things the film embodies, The Crow is also a romance. Draven doesn’t kill out of some kind of personal vengeance. He does this for Shelley. For his lost love. He has returned, but she has not. What he does, he does for her. All of it. Be it guarding over their local street kid, Sarah; be it connecting with Officer Albrecht (Ernie Hudson) to thank him for staying with Shelley in her final hours; be it taking out not just their killers but the man who stood behind them and ordered it- it is all for Shelley Webster. Once the job is done, he fades with her into the afterlife, her personal angel of vengeance come home for his reward.

It chills me to think about it. It thrills me to write something as in vein. It has been an inspiration, and is easily at the top of all of my film loves.

1993: The Cutting Room Floor

Before We Get To 1993’s Cutting Room Floor

So, it’s been a while since I managed to get the retro running again. My life has been undergoing that old ‘interesting times’ bit. But, I think I’m back on track and getting back in a groove so to speak. Big things on the horizon are forcing me back to ye olde blog and getting the creative and analytical juices flowing.

Another reason I went on hiatus was that I needed to actually watch some of the films I’d mentioned missing. So, here you have some real-time, brief reviews of nineties films that fell through  the cracks! There’s one for each prior year, and I’ll be trying to get to Boyz In the Hood later today – so there will be an update on that as well with any luck. I”ll be trying to fill in the gaps as best I can in additional posts.

Pump Up the Volume (1990)

1991 Pump Up the Volume

Rating: ★★★

I liked this one, though I think I’d have benefitted from watching it when I was in high school. Essentially, I’ll watch just about anything about pirate radio, and this was a pretty good example of the times of the nineties. I remember the FCC had started to be put up as an enemy to free speech about the time this film came out (Howard Stern was always going off on them for obvious reasons), and this film used that sentiment to great effect (even if the primary ‘bad guy’ was Michael J Fox’s dad in Teen Wolf (1985). 

Silence of the Lambs (1991)

1990 Silence of the Lambs

Rating: ★★★★

I figured I had no right to continue this project until I had seen this film. There’s a case to be made that this film changed everything about thrillers when it was released, so I needed to see it for myself.

When I finally watched it, my girlfriend looked to me and said, “So? What did you think?”

The answer to that is kind of complicated.

It is a great movie, at least four stars. Great pacing, great cast, and a film legacy that can be seen to this day in current media. But because of all that, I knew all of the film’s cinematic beats. It really took the impact of the film out, knowing all the tropes that it’s bred in parody, pop culture, and the films and television shows that followed in its foot steps. “Hello Clarice.” Lecter using a downed guard’s skin as a mask.”I’d fuck me.” The guy in the cell next to Lecter’s throwing his semen at Clarice. It didn’t have the impact it would have had back then. But good goddamned that had to be positively shocking for the times.

The nineties film that would do that for me would come much later: David Fincher’s Se7en (1995).

My Cousin Vinny (1992)

1992 My Cousin Vinny

Rating: ★★★

This is pretty much by-the-book in terms of comedy, but Joe Pesci sells it. It’s a classic underdog piece about a guy grossly outmatched has to pick a big fight in court. It’s basically The Night Of (2016) but without all of the shady and horrifying shit that goes on in Riker’s Island happening to Ralph Macchio and Joe Pesci isn’t banging hookers while having his day in court.

Okay, so it’s not like that I guess. But still enjoyable.


To the Cutting Room Floor!

As you can see from the earlier entry, 1993 was absolutely huge. If you can believe it though, there’s a TON more stuff that I either didn’t see but want to now, or that just didn’t quite open my heart up. So let’s take a quick look at the other stuff that ended up by the wayside.

The Good, the Bad, and the Indifferent.

Judgement Night (Good) – This didn’t quite move the dial for me. The soundtrack was sort of better than the movie. It’s about a group of haves taking a wrong turn into a neighborhood of have-nots. They run afoul of hardened criminals and find out what life is like when there’s no cops to save you, nor any way to talk themselves out of a bad situation. It did have one great exchange though for my money’s worth. Denis Leary is chasing down Emelio Estevez and company and he’s trying to pay off a kid for a tip on where they went. Leary hands over a wad of money with actual, real blood on it. The kid points out “That money’s got blood on it.” Leary replies with “Ever seen any money that didn’t?”

Needful Things (Indifferent) – The Book was better. Like it usually is.

Rising Sun (Good) – This was an awkward film to watch with my parents in the theater. I don’t think any of us were expecting death by erotic asphyxiation in the first couple minutes.  It was a technological thriller at heart, featuring things that were impossible to do with the technology of the time. Good cast with solid performances by Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes.

TMNT III (Bad) – Turtles in time. The turtles go back to Japan around the time that guns are first brought to bear on the empire. They kick things and somehow Leonardo never cuts a single samurai in half. What does he think those swords are for, anyway?

Cliffhanger (Indifferent) – Stallone jumps between mountain chasms and otherwise does Stallone stuff. Meh.

Coneheads (Indifferent) – Like most comedies, this was a one and done. Saturday Night Live occasionally gets a good film adaptation, but this one was nothing to write home about.

Robin Hood: Men In Tights (Good) – It’s Mel Brooks, but nothing that beats Blazing Saddles (1974). It also has an early performance by Dave Chappelle, who nobody knew at the time.

So I Married An Axe Murderer (Bad) – This movie needed more of Mike Myers portraying his father and less of literally everything else. “Head! Paper! Now!”

The Fugitive (Indifferent) – Tommy Jones is Tommy Jones in ‘Tommy Jones vs Harrison Ford.’ Still better than Ballistic: Echs vs. Sever (2002).

Cool Runnings (Good) – A heartwarming adaptation of a real life team of Jamaican bobsledders. There are worse ways to pass ninety minutes.

Gettysburg (Good) – If you have to get a portrayal that covers the salient points of the battle at Gettysburg, you can do a lot worse than this. It’s largest downfall is that it’s well over three hours long. Solid portrayals by a lot of good actors like Jeff Daniels, Tom Berenger, and Martin Sheen.

Look Who’s Talking Now (Indifferent) – Babies are talking again, yaaaaay.

Robocop 3 (Bad) – Now he can fly! Peter Weller walked away from this one. That should have been the first hint.

The Three Musketeers (Indifferent) – All of my friends loved this but it wasn’t a huge win for me despite the presence of Oliver Platt.

Addams Family Values (Indifferent) – As much as I loved the first one, this just felt unnecessary. I don’t really remember a lot from it, but I don’t think I remembered it as being particularly awful.

Mrs. Doubtfire (Good) – This was the first movie I took a date to. Robin Williams is excellent as ever he was, going back to his deep comedic roots, though it’s not my favorite film he’s done by far (Dead Poets Society (1989) holds that honor).

Wayne’s World 2 (Indifferent) – Much like Addams Family Values, this film tried to catch lightning in a bottle twice and fell short. But, when you make as much money as Wayne’s World (1992) did, the studio saw the lack of sequel as leaving money on the table.

The Dark Half (Good) – I am not sure how I got my father to see this in the theater with me. I have a soft spot for the story since it’s an adaptation of my very first Stephen King novel. Michael Rooker was in it as the Sheriff of Castle Rock, which was a good start. And looking back I realize Amy Madigan and Timothy Hutton are both in it too (I love their work in both Field of Dreams (1989) and Leverage (2008-2012) respectively).

Fire In the Sky (Good) – A somewhat terrifying account of a man who claims he has been abducted by aliens. Based on a true story. It is rarely revisited due to some of the more disturbing aspects of the abduction that squick me out.

Needful Things (Good) – With Max von Sydow and Ed Harris (also portraying the sheriff of Castle Rock) it’s hard to go wrong. But, much as with the Dark Half, the book is way better.

Fortress (Bad) – Prisoners of a maximum security prison have no chance of ever escaping – uinless they’re Christopher Lambert.

1993 The Sandlot

Filling In the Gaps

With all of the stuff I did manage to cram in for 1993, there were still films I missed. I still feel I need to catch up on these films.

Point of No Return – It’s a remake of La Femme Nikita so… I guess I’m down for that.

Indecent Proposal – This is one of those movies that people endlessly talked about when it came out. Again, my parents probably would have vetoed this one, so it didn’t get seen.

The Sandlot – Given how much my family loves baseball, I don’t know how I missed this. I think it’s returned to Netflix again as of the time of writing. I should get on that.

Dave – A lot of my friends talk about this one and no doubt are judging me right now for admitting this gap in my cinema consumption.

Dragon: the Bruce Lee Story – Interest in martial arts films didn’t really hit until my college years so this totally passed me by.  I wouldn’t really come to appreciate kung fu films until seeing Half a Loaf of Kung Fu (1978) and Legend of the Drunken Master (1994) while working at a Blockbuster Video during my college years.

Sleepless In Seattle -A lot of chatter went on about this film, but I was definitely not in much of a mood for romantic comedies around that time given my general strikeout with dating that year.

The Firm – I’m not entirely sure I’ll care for this film, but it set a kind of precedent for legal thrillers by the impressions I heard. Can’t hurt to see it I suppose.

Hard Target – Jean Claude van Damme and Wilford Brimley? HOW HAVE I NOT SEEN THIS?!

Kalifornia – I seem to recall a lot of my friends who were allowed by their parents to see this liking it. I got the impression is was kind of in the same vein as Natural Born Killers, even though this film technically came first.

A Bronx Tale – This is Al Pacino at his Al Pacino-est by most accounts, so it feels like this should definitely be in there.

Rudy – I just… don’t like American Football. So it’s not a surprise I’ve not seen this. I’ve been told over and over again that it’s a must see because while it is about football, it’s not about football. I reckon I’ll have to get around to this.

Carlito’s Way – As I get older, I find the crime genre to be a little more attractive. I dunno why. Maybe it’s the Dane Cook ‘All men want to do a heist’ thing or not. This film was touted as particularly violent, so there was no way it was gonna make it to my eyes in the nineties.

Schindler’s List – I mean, this is one of the few movies that makes my dad cry every time he sees it (the other is Field of Dreams) and is always going to be socially relevant. It’s a gut churner to be certain so I’m kind of gunshy about seeing it.

Philadelphia – My chosen city’s name adorns this title. If I recall, it’s where Tom Hanks first shone as not just a goofy comedian but a good drama actor.

1993: The Dream of the Nineties In Film

So, Where Was I In 1993?

This was a bad, bad year of school. I’d been targeted by a group of bullies I shared my last period biology class with, and they were as cruel as they were relentless. The bullying was never physical (like most careful tormentors, they preferred mind games to anything leaving a physical trace of evidence), but the wounds still sting even now when I think about them. While I’d come off a year which was academically disastrous, I would have mirthfully taken another like it again just to avoid having to be an emotional punching bag.

Additionally, my failure to live up to my teacher’s standards in freshman year resulted in being dropped from all of my AP courses because of my own dereliction. I’m not built for algebra, and ninth grade English assignments were horrifically boring (I still hate Dickens). Add to this that there were a series of intense storms that year – blizzards in fact. I’d never seen so much snow outside of the state of Wisconsin. This was also the year I started Driver’s Ed. For a kid who’s scared of everything, there’s nothing like learning to drive on a sheet of ice.

Still, there were upsides. I didn’t have to go to confirmation classes any longer. This meant that I’d ditched an earlier group of bullies as well as having escaped having protestantism shoved down my throat multiple times a week. Also, my circle of friends had expanded beyond my own school. I’d met a pair of girls my age in my Junior Achievement activities after school the year prior, and they were from further off high schools. We clicked and their friends came with. It was good to have more than one crowd to run in and to see how people in other places lived. I met a lot of good folk from that experience, some of whom I’m still friends with even though we don’t have occasion to speak very often.

I’d decided I wanted to advance my interest in the arts. My skills weren’t up to task in my opinion (both then and in the present). But they were a starting point and would improve over time. I threw everything I had at my creative studies. By the time I was out of high school, six-and-a-half of my twenty-two and a half credits would be from the arts (2.5 from visual, 4.0 from music).

The Phillies had an exciting, but ultimately heartbreaking season. They made it to the World Series with a team of misfits and unexpected talent only to have the wind taken out of their sails by the Toronto Blue Jays. It was this year that created a love-hate relationship with Mitch Williams. When he was on, he was unstoppable; but on the (frequent) times he wasn’t, it was crushing. I still remember a lot of the names on the roster that year: Incaviglia, Eisenreich, Kruk, Daulton, Dykstra, Schilling, Stocker. I watched a lot of ballgames that year with my dad and my grandmother in her mobile home. Her health was failing, and though I didn’t know it at the time it was getting closer and closer to the day we’d no longer eat Kentucky Fried Chicken while watching Mitch Williams pitch until someone had a panic attack. I wasn’t sure which would destroy my heart first – the food or the pitching.

This was the year Bill Clinton would be sworn in for his first term. It wasn’t so much of an election the prior year as it was a drubbing. I remember my parents being elated, finally being able to shake off the last remnants of the Reagan Era, though they would not switch their political affiliations from Republican to Democrat until some years later.

And during this year, there were some great titles that were released, and it makes for a real hard decision for me to categorize a lot of it. But, here we go. As usual, let’s start from the bottom.

The Schlock

Return of the Living Dead III

Return of the Living Dead 3 1993
When I watched it:Circa 1998
What it taught me: Body Horror, Boundaries
Rating: ★★★

This film came after my reintroduction to zombies in my early college years. I was still known to camp out at my aunt’s house to hang out with my cousin. LIke always, when we got together we’d watch a lot of awful movies (Usually courtesy of USA’s ‘Up All Nite’ films, such as Hell Comes To Frogtown (1988). This was clearly one of them, but it moved the dial for me on account of the nature of its grotesquery.

If you’re not familiar with this particular franchise, zombies in it are the corpses of humans brought back to life by exposure to a chemical called Trioxin. This dunstance is also a hazard to the living – if should it make it into your body it will slowly kill the victim, then reanimates the corpse as a brain-eating ghoul. The victims affected by this retain their strength if they are newly dead, as well as their intelligence. This made for faster, smarter, and even devious zombies. The smarter ones were even quite articulate. One such zombie in the original Return of the Living Dead (1985) is asked “Why do you eat people” and it responds with “Not people, Brains!” When asked why though, there comes the chilling reason: ‘It makes the pain go away.” Zombies felt constant agony as their bodies rotted away. This is a pretty go-to part of the series’ mythology and it comes up again in this title. We’ll come back to this in a moment.

The movie’s plot is nothing to write home about: For kicks, a teenage boy and his girlfriend follow the boy’s dad to his top secret assignment at a local military base. While there, the couple sneaks in (because security is really lax at top secret facilities in the nineties) and they see the research going on inside – reanimating corpses with Trioxin in an attempt to turn them into relentless soldiers. It goes about as well as you’d expect: the test subject manages to kill the shit out of a pair of technicians, spooking both of the hidden observers so badly that they reveal their presence. The two kids bug out, and in the process the girlfriend gets dead. What’s a lovesick, mourning kid to do?

THe boy takes his girlfriend back to the base and reanimates her.

He does this despite the fact that he’s seen what the process does to the reanimated. This plan also goes as well as you’d expect: she comes back and immediately starts eating people while the guy does his damndest to keep her from doing just that. All the time, she’s making new zombies that the boyfriend has to deal with.

And after a while, the reanimated girlfriend starts feeling the pain of being dead and she’s not getting the brains she needs to abate it. She comes to a point where she simply has to do something about it to drive it out. So… she mutilates herself just to forget the other pain, even if for just a few moments.

THis was a new idea for me conceptually, and still a horrifying one. I remember the intense discomfort it brought.  I’be always known instinctively that it  when I write horror, I have to write about things that horrify me for it to be effective. So, while this movie was not a great work, it pushed my boundaries for horror in my future work.

I haven’t watched this film since that first time. I’m unlikely to again. Just the poster makes me shudder.

Army of Darkness

Army of Darkness 1993

When I Watched It: 1993
What it taught me: Embrace the Schlock; It’s a Trick, Get Me an Axe.
Rating: ★★★★

Ah, my introduction to Bruce Campbell. No, I had seen neither Evil Dead or Evil Dead II. I’d seen Darkman, obviously, but Bruce was in it for a grand total of thirty seconds. But, this would cement a life long appreciation of the Chin That Could Kill.

The movie is pure schlock. It doesn’t shy from it. It is what it is and makes zero apologies. It picks up right from the end of Evil Dead II after Ash Williams is whisked away via demonic portal to some time in the past. He finds himself in a medieval fortress under siege by Deadites: undead monstrosities that have besieged the fortress Ash finds himself in. Ash proceeds to be Bruce Campbell, kick demon ass, get himself into trouble, and looks cool doing it. To this day, “It’s a trick, get me an axe” remains in my vernacular and is used frequently.

Ultimately, this serves a purpose as a guilty pleasure film for me. It’s chock-a-block with one-liners, over the top effects, uncomfortable comedy, and general weirdness. And it doesn’t ever try to be anything else than what it is. Sometimes it’s best to just let a thing be what it is all the way to the hilt. To hell with ‘but is it art?’ Just enjoy Bruce Campbell shooting things in the face with a double-barrel shotgun or chainsawing zombies in half.

Demolition Man

Demolition Man 1993

When I Watched It: 1993
What it taught me: Dystopia Design By Lackluster Example
Rating: ★★★

This movie looked to have it all by the trailers and the movie posters. Wesley Snipes was getting to be an incredibly hot commoldity. Stallone hadn’t really gone to seed yet. It showcased a ridiculous utopian world that desperately needed an enema. It looked like it was going to be one of the all time greats.

Well, it didn’t quite live up to expectations (or age particularly well), but… I have a soft spot for this film.

It’s about a legendary cop and a dangerous criminal who both end up in lockup after what they both believed to be their final, explosion-and-bullet-filled confrontation. But, this is no ordinary lockup – they’re to be placed in suspended animation and released in the future as a part of a new rehabilitation system for lawbreakers. When they both are brought back from their stay in frozen pink goop, they find themselves in an almost sterile Los Angeles. There is no longer any kind of violent crime, and antisocial tendencies seem to have been largely worked out of society. Oh, and in possibly the most hubris filled ad placement ever, all restaurants are Taco Bells (violence may have been solved, but I assume gastrointestinal discomfort remains relevant). BOth men renew their rampage in a society that is no longer accustomed to even mild physical conflict, let alone the kind of violence  both ex-cons are capable of. They find themselves embroiled anew in their war against each other, and theymust struggle against a reality that is largely unfamiliar to them. Unbeknownst to both, they are moved like pawns by the new society’s creator into acts of escalating violence and societal consequence to consolidate his power.

There’s a lot to like in it. I love the technologies. I still chuckle whenever someone mentions the three seashells and the crash system that turns cars into cannolis. Bonus points for the Arnold Schwarzenegger Presidential Library. Plus, Denis Leary and the Honorable Governor of Minnesota, Jesse Ventura, all have roles.

However, for an advanced society, it seemed like there was a real lack of forethought here. You can tell five seconds after the release of Simon Phoenix that he’s already working out ways to escape his situation. And the evil mastermind? He doesn’t even see it coming. For somebody who’s supposed to be smart enough to find a way to make Los Angeles into a family-friendly city state, his fatal error seems like it could have been worked out well before his plans were executed.

Somewhere In the Middle

Dazed and Confused

Dazed and Confused 1993
When I Watched It: Circa 1997
What it taught me: Everyone Has Their Own Experience, Coming of Age Formula
Rating: ★★★★

This was a big one for people around my age. It’s not a personal favorite (probably because I don’t remember any of the seventies), but it should resonate with most people. It covers the last day of school in 1976. It follows the lives of jocks, nerds, freaks, geeks, cheerleaders, and outsiders. It’s got a memorable and expansive cast – way too many for me to list (IMDB does it better anyway). It’s a whole hour-and-a-half of seventies teenage culture, spanning the gamut from school politics, to weed culture, to youthful rebellion, to young love.

You know. The general coming of age experience.

It’s pretty stock stuff for me, but it rocks a lot of people I know right down to their core. It wasn’t such a moving thing for me really until I sat down to watch it recently with my girlfriend who did not have a standard high school experience. Whenever we watch a movie set in a public school, I get a lot of “pause this for a second and explain it to me” moments on account of her own education. I remember specifically the scene of the three freshmen led by Mitch being chased down by Ben Affleck and company. “This kind of shit happened?” my girlfriend asked. I told her I couldn’t speak directly to the seventies, but that, yeah – hazing was alive and well when I was in school. I never got a dose of it, but I knew of people who did. Those kids were mostly in athletic teams, which horrified her as a former athlete. She still can’t believe that sports teams would behave that way, but… I suppose it still goes on in high schools when and where people aren’t looking.

Additionally, this film is notable if for no other reason than its soundtrack, which covers the era pretty comprehensively.

The Nightmare Before Christmas

The Nightmare Before Christmas 1993

When I Saw It: 1993
What it taught me: Appreciation of Stop Motion, Absurdity

This movie is damn near perfect. The only reason it’s not in the personal blockbuster category is that it’s a musical, something I was woefully disappointed by at the time I first saw it (musicals are only acceptable for me if Muppets are involved – so sue me). I can hear some of you out there condemning me for this statement. I’m okay with that. It’s still a great film. I just… wish that movie production companies could deviate away from requiring animated films to rely on the musical format a bit more.

I love the idea from top to bottom. Jack Skellington, the King of Halloween Town, is obviously  all about Halloween. However, he’s starting to feel a bit worn out. While out on a walk he discovers a strange forest that hosts an odd circle of trees, each with a symbol on it. Within each tree he discovers a new holiday. But, the one he takes to is Christmas… and he decides that he could do Christmas one better than its apparent ruler: Santa Claus. Chaos and wackiness ensue as his minions kidnap Santa, and Jack takes the reins of the fat man’s sleigh. Wackiness ensues,

Technically speaking, the film is some of Burton’s finest animated works. As noted earlier, a little Tim Burton goes a long way. When you find him the right projects though, you can slather it on as broadly and as deeply as you want. He does his signature thing to great effect here. It’s a film for kids and adults (despite the singing) and it’s still a great watch.

Grumpy Old Men

Grumpy Old Men 1993

When I Watched It: 1993
What it taught me: The Value of Multiple Takes

Some classics never die. Jack Lemon and Walter Matthau go together like peanut butter and chocolate. Their career goes back forever and they always bring the same chemistry to every film they work in. Grumpy Old Men was no exception.

Two old men in the freezing winter of the northern midwest are always at each others throats. Things escalate when a new woman comes to town and gets all of the older men gunning for her hand. The two basically thwart each others advances on her while Burgess Meredith quietly takes the show with amazing one-liners.

I remember how goddamned funny Meredith was. His outtakes were amazing. While I was aware that ad-lib takes were a thing as a kid, I didn’t believe there could be so much material left on the cutting room floor. The gag reel was something else.

Falling Down

Falling Down 1993

When I Watched It: Circa 1994
What it taught me: The Downward Spiral

This film didn’t quite pass muster for parental money at the time, but I caught it sometime later when it came to HBO without parental knowledge. It wasn’t something I think I was fully ready to absorb at that age, and only when I watched it later did all of the nuance of it come in focus.

Michael Douglas is a highly educated man who is having a breakdown. He’s angry, he’s on edge, and while waiting in commuter traffic in L.A.  on the way to visit his daughter, he just… loses it. He begins taking his frustrations out on anyone who gets in his way or who he views as being a part of an unjust society. His ensuing rampage brings about an LAPD manhunt.

I remember watching as a kid and thinking that it would be impossible for someone to just snap like that. Naive to be sure, but it didn’t make sense. I didn’t have a full scope at my age to really grasp it how a life can go so wrong. How external circumstance (random or designed) can snap a person in half mentally. To know the frustration of a world that just isn’t going to yield for you. To know the utter frustration of a man who feels spent and useless. I can’t say I know know all of it feels – but I can definitely see how it works now.

Personal Blockbusters

Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day 1993

When I Saw It: 1993
What it taught me: Films Can Be More Than One Thing, The Language of Comedy

Time makes the difference. I was fifteen when I saw this film, and I had a lot of growing up to do yet. So when this got watched it was just a surreal comedic experience in the eyes of a child

As such, I remember this film being relegated to the rubbish bin for a while. I know. Stupid, right? But to understand this you need two pieces of information. First was my aforementioned lack of an adult’s perspective at the time. The second thing was that it got watched heavily. This movie was always popular, so it was on TV frequently. We had it on VHS at the house (taped from HBO) so we could watch it whenever we wanted. After a while, repetition built  a kind of aversion (“Oh man, Groundhog’s Day again? Do you even see the irony, Mom?”).

Having rewatched it recently, I freaking love it again.

To say Bill Murray is a favorite actor would be to sell him short. He was basically idolized by me for Ghostbusters (1984) alone before tossing in other countless personal hits like Lost In Translation (2003), Stripes (1981), Caddyshack (1980), or Scrooged (1988) just to name a few. He’s a master at… well everything, but comedy stands out. He knows exactly the right time to go fucking crazy, when to deadpan, and when exactly to drop the crucial one-liner. And, like other comedians who find a talent for drama (Robin Williams or Tom Hanks come to mind) he knows how to convey emotion and to lay it all on the table. And he does drama, comedy, and romance in Groundhog’s Day while simultaneously turning the dial up to eleven. He knows how to make a film that is about more than one thing. I just felt Groundhog Day was silly as a kid, but you feel the gravitas of his existence as he goes from doing crazy shit each repeating day, to a loss of lust for life, to existential despair, and then back to a sense of true appreciation for more than his original narcissistic needs.

Seriously, if they don’t teach how to make movies like this in film school, they ought to.

Last Action Hero

Last Action Gero 1993

When I Saw It: 1993
What it taught me: How To Make a Parody

This film had been pumped up for a couple months prior to opening as a standard, go-to, Schwarzenegger-beat-em-up with a fantastical edge. People went in expecting something in the vein of Termintator 2 (1991) and got a quirky movie about subverting the action film genre.

It… did not go well for a couple reasons.

Obviously this was not a follow-up in vein with cool cyborgs doing crazy shit with a veneer of reality over it to thrill the summer crowd with eday action and tense combats. Summer blockbuster, it was not. People were not prepped to have their expectations inverted.

Second, bad timing can kill a film. When you release a film like this within a week of Jurassic Park (1993), you’re kinda screwed from the get go.

But, there is a small sub-set of people like me that ate it up. My family, all of us, loved it. It laid bare everything about action movie logic’s extreme faults and then decided to just run with it. My favorite scene may have been the one where Jack Slater drops a bomb-rigged corpse, and then himself, into the La Brea Tar Pits, effectively pulling off an elaborate setup meant to deliver a goddamned fart joke. Then, he hops out of the tar pit and is handed a paper towel. There’s a single jump cut, and when they cut back to Slater – seconds later – his face is totally clean (2:43).

Runner up mention goes to the scene where a hapless extra gets killed by an ice cream cone.

And for portraying Stallone as the Terminator in Blockbuster Video (remember those?).

And for Robert Patrick as the Terminator 1000 from T2 and Sharon Stone as Catherine Tramell from Basic Instinct (0:23) showing up as cameos in the LA police department.

And, “There’s always a guy in there.”

I could go on. There’s dozens, maybe hundreds of little things that compact in on each other like a lump of coal transforming into a diamond in this film. It’s really at the head of the class for me.



Tombstone 1993

When I Saw It: 1993
What it taught me: An Appreciation of History, Don’t Buy All Your History From Hollywood
Rating: ★★★★★

Westerns were not a part of growing up in a manner of speaking. I don’t know if there was a casual disdain for them in my house, or if it was just something that didn’t come up often. While my dad was an armchair historian of the Civil War / Post-Civil War era, it was almost always exclusive to the eastern states. I knew of westerns, and I’d heard something about a gunfight at the OK Corral – but I hadn’t ever done any homework on either subject. That changed in the winter of 1993.

My father, myself, and a couple of friends all went to see it together. As I watched I got the story of the conflicts of the titular boomtown at the border of Arizona and Mexico (with the standard admonition of my Father to ‘not get all my history from Hollywood’). Of course, this town’s legacy has had many tellings before this film in the form of  dime novels, dry histories, and movies. It’s been romanticized to hell and back, and even the aforementioned histories are debated over by scholars over a hundred years later. But this romanticization was by far one of the best for a lot of folks’ money.

The titanic figures of the old west certainly got a hell of a cast: Val Kilmer’s portrayal of failed dentist and legendary cardsharp and gunslinger will probably go down as the best in cinematic history. Equally powerful was Kurt Russel as the renowned lawman, Wyatt Earp (who in real life was a bit of a bastard I’m told). Bill Paxton and Sam Elliott play Morgan and Virgil Earp respectively. The rogue’s gallery was filled out by Michael Biehn as the bloodthirsty Johnny Ringo and Powers Boothe as Curly Bill Brocius.

This film awoke an interest in the Old West – one that carries on with me to this day. While the Old West usually wasn’t as vicious and action packed as portrayed in the film (violence sells penny dreadfuls and seats at the cinema the world over after all), there was much to learn about the mostly lawlessness territories and the people with enough sand in their boots to brave it. It got me to read more deeply into the topic and to eventually run a year long campaign of Deadlands, a western-horror themed roleplaying game (probably my favorite game I ever ran).

True Romance

True Romance 1993

When I Saw It: 1997
What it taught me: This Christian Slater Guy is All Right, Punchy Dialog, Love Is Messy, What’s Old Is New

I would never have found this film if not for my rapacious viewings of Pulp Fiction (1994) and Reservoir Dogs (1992). Once Tarantino’s name was good and lodged into my frontal cortex, I sought out other works. While this film wasn’t directed by Tarantino, he’d written the script, and it showed. His archetypal punchy dialog was omnipresent, as was his tendency toward extreme violence. The story of the Hooker With a Heart of Gold is an old one (this example probably isn’t even the oldest), but Tarantino manages to rouse it from it’s musty archetype and inject it with all of the stuff we’ve come to love from his quirky style.

It depicts a love that is as deep as it is star-crossed and dysfunctional – another concept that’s probably as old as time. And, let’s be honest, even the healthiest of romances is not without strife and dysfunction along the line at one point or another. This film just decides to pack as much of it as it can into a single two-hour block. And there’s no way you don’t come out of that without great drama and storytelling opportunities. Love is messy. Love is hard. Maybe not as hard as this movie portrays it, but the film sure doesn’t shy away from that central tenet.

The cast was inspiring too – Of course there’s the actor and actress with top billing on the poster – Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette (how many Arquettes has Hollywood pushed out at us?). But on top of it you get a powerful (and horrifyingly racist) torture scene with Dennis Hopper and  Christopher Walken where Hopper has to spout off whatever awful insults he thinks Walken will react to enough to earn a swift, angry death as opposed to a calculated, drawn out one. James Gandolfini gets a bit part as well before he went on to make HBO’s breakout hit series The Sopranos (1999-2007). Other bit parts were there: Gary Oldman as a dreadlocked pimp and Brad Pitt as a couch-bound pothead who takes hits off a bong made out of a plastic honey bear. And of course, Samuel Jackson gets his licks in too for a brief bit.

Jurassic Park

Jurassic Park 1993

When I Watched It: 1993
What it taught me: Dinosaurs Are Awesome, Wonder

I don’t think there was a single person on Earth who was ready for this film at the time it was released. I remember hearing, as a child, the tagline for Superman: the Movie (1978): This summer, you’ll believe a man can fly! Jurassic Park didn’t have such a statement attached to it, but this movie made you believe. From the minute you saw your first panorama of dinosaurs marching along a plain, you were hooked. The illusion was so good, you had to believe.

The story covers the life long ambition of an aging scientist to make an actual nature preserve for cloned dinosaurs. After achieving this goal, he wants to share it with the world via a theme park the likes of which the world has never seen: Jurassic Park. Before he can get it up and running though, he needs scientific endorsements and for his insurance lawyers to to vouch for its safety. What could go wrong on an island full of dinosaurs?

Well… everything. And everything does when a cash poor employee at the park decides to steal embryo samples of the dinosaurs on the island by disabling security in the middle of a hurricane. All hell breaks loose as the predatory dinosaurs skip their pens and start eating anyone they can catch.

The idea that this could be done with realism in 1993, that it wouldn’t look fake, was all but unthinkable. Sure, we had some real good emergent effects up to that point. This went beyond those expectations. Way beyond. Watching that T-Rex chase a jeep, seeing it in the sideview mirror with the tiny print reading ‘Objects in mirror are closer than they appear,’ encapsulates the entire film. I loved dinosaurs like any young boy would as a kid, but this launched the obsession to new heights and really would shape my decisions when it came time to choose a school to teach me computer art.

1992: The Dream of the Nineties In Film

So, Where Was I in 1992?

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

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

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

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

The Schlock

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

Alien 3

Alien 3 1991

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

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

Well… not exactly.

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

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

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

Bram Stoker’s Dracula

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

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

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

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

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

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

Batman Returns

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

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

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

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

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

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


Somewhere In the Middle

Wayne’s World

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

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

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

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

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


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

Unforgiven 1992

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

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

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

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

The Muppet Christmas Carol

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

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

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

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

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

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

Personal Blockbusters

A League of Their Own

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Not planning on stopping.


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

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

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

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

Reservoir Dogs

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

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

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

But, what a rip-off.

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

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

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

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