1996: The Cutting Room Floor

So Where Were Things In 1996?

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

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

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

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

The Good, the Bad, and the Indifferent

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

1996 escape from la

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The House of Hooded Eyes (and Near Infinite Loopholes)

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

We’ll start with my mom.

She meant well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then there was my uncle.

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

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

Cinematic Sins1996 a time to kill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1996: The Dream of the Nineties In Film


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

But enough of that, let’s start with…

The Schlock

From Dusk Till Dawn

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

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

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

He didn’t know!

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

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

I’d have been pissed at me now.

Happy Gilmore

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

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

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

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

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

Somewhere In the Middle

The Birdcage

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

So… Sorry, mom.

The Arrival

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Independence Day

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

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

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

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

The Long Kiss Goodnight

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

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

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

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

Beavis and Butt-Head Do America

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

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

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

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

Personal Blockbusters

Primal Fear

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

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

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

Romeo + Juliet

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

The Frighteners

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

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

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

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

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

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