1997: The Cutting Room Floor

So Where Were Things In 1997?

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

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

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

Nana was a pistol.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life got better once I pushed through.

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

The Good, the Bad, and the Indifferent.

1997 first strike

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cinematic Sins

1997 boogie nights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1997: The Dream of the Nineties In Film

College, Round One

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

The Schlock

Starship Troopers

1997 starship troopers

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

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

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

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

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

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


1997 face off

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

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

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

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

Event Horizon

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

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

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

Somewhere In the Middle

Chasing Amy

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

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

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

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

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

Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Good Will Hunting

1997 good will hunting

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

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

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

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

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

Personal Blockbusters

Men In Black

1997 mib

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

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

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

The Postman

1997 postman

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

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

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

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

The Fifth Element

1997 fifth element

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

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

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

The Game

1997 game

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

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

This is how you fuck with people.

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

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

The Devil’s Advocate

1997 devil's advocate

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

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

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

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

Grosse Pointe Blank

1997 grosse point blank

When I Saw It:
What It Gave Me:

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

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

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

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

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

Triple Feature: The Special Edition Star Wars Films

1997 star wars banner

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

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

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

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

The Experience of the Second Coming of Hamill

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

Well, it turned out to be a mixed bag.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Report Card of Change

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

Star Wars Changes

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

The Empire Strikes Back Changes

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

Return of the Jedi Changes

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

1996: The 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.

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.

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.

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