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Tag Archives: 1995

I Legitimately Hate 1995’s Mallrats

Mallrats is an awful movie with almost zero redeeming qualities whatsoever. It was a considerable box office flop that instantly made a ton of critics as well as the general public immediately reconsider writer/director Kevin Smith’s talent only two movies into his career. Mallrats is an unpleasant, amateur affair that’s about as stupid as Clerks, Smith’s first effort, is good. That is to say, Clerks is a quality piece of entertainment that holds up as a time capsule of the early to mid-90s (with some truly inventive and funny dialogue), while Mallrats is a garbage film perhaps best remembered for its clunky, forced dialogue about superhero penises Jason Lee’s breakout performance (the film’s lone highlight). I have not seen Mallrats in years, but I unfortunately remember it almost beat-by-beat (it is not a complicated movie). I hate that film so much that I really want to write about it and relish in my hatred.

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I remember Mallrats so well because I have actually seen it dozens of times, despite never really liking it all that much in the first place. In the late 90s, I rented this film multiple times from the rental store and watched it on a near loop with friends and siblings for months at a time. I spent the majority of the years 1999 and 2000 watching everything Kevin Smith and his cohorts had a hand in. I purchased Chasing Amy and Clerks and watched them dozens and dozens of times as well. Dogma had recently been in theaters, and I watched that one over and over again as well. To my 17 year old self, there was no one cooler than Kevin Smith. Except for Mallrats – I never truly liked Mallrats. I liked then (and still like now) Clerks and Chasing Amy, but I always thought Mallrats just didn’t fit in with those films.

One particular difference is that Mallrats is Smith’s sole film from his early days not released by Miramax. Miramax very famously purchased and distributed Clerks in 1994 and then Chasing Amy (which had a budget of $250,000 amazingly) in early 1997. But Mallrats is immensely different from those two, as it was a Universal production backed by a budget of several million dollars (estimated to be seven million). It is shot and directed like a studio film from the 90s, and thus suffers in comparison with the other two, as they are far more “indie” looking. Mallrats is also different in that there is actually a very complicated story behind what appears (and is) to be a simple movie.

The originally filmed opening took place in some sort Revolutionary War-era reenactment/governor’s ball, wherein Jeremy London (who spends the entire movie looking uncomfortable with his hands in his pockets and who was clearly not cast by Smith) accidentally shoots a musket (why was he carrying a loaded musket in a reenactment) at the governor. This sets up a chain of events wherein London’s girlfriend Brandi’s father loses his job. Brandi wants to cut ties with London (his name in the movie is T.S. but I’m just gonna call him London), so she breaks up with him, inspiring him to find solace in a shopping mall with best friend Jason Lee, who was also recently dumped by Shannon Doherty. The theatrical cut of the film excises most of this, up until the point where Brandi breaks up with London. Hence, the film takes almost 30 minutes to get to the mall setting. The film is already painful at 94 minutes. I can’t imagine watching a two-hour version of this movie.

The edits, reshoots, rewrites, etc also lead to several continuity errors throughout the film, but these are only a few of the bizarre errors/things that make no sense present throughout Mallrats. Other than the dialogue that doesn’t fit in because the first 30 minutes of the film were redone, there are also moments of inaudible/barely audible dialogue that you can see in the captions but cannot actually hear. Moments like this include a the scene where fans wait to meet Stan Lee, where a child is trapped on an escalator, and where Brandi’s father Jared (Michael Rooker, who is usually money but is awful here) fires an underling. I have to imagine this was not done on purpose despite it being so prevalent throughout the film.

I mentioned earlier that Jason Lee, playing lovely slacker Brodie Bruce, is the sole highlight of the film. He truly shines in this film and it’s easy to see why the ex-professional skateboarder went on to have a solid career in Hollywood. He’s charismatic, funny, and a naturally good actor. There are groan-worthy moments throughout Mallrats, but few involve him. He seems to be the only one who understands the kind of movie he’s in. Contrast this with co-star London, who seriously spends the entire fucking movie with his hands in his pockets. He looks uncomfortable with Smith’s (admittedly dumb) dialogue as well as with his co-stars. There’s very little chemistry between he and Brandi. I hate to pile on the notoriously difficult Shannon Doherty, but she’s just about as awful as London. It’s hard to believe she’d ever even be seen with Jason Lee’s character, let alone date him.

I really like Clerks and Chasing Amy. I really like how they managed to be small-scale movies but still have really investing and emotional stakes. Clerks is about the daily grind of a man who has absolutely no direction in his life. He can’t make a decision about which girl he wants to date and he feels like life is slipping past him at age 22. There’s some pretty serious, heavy material in the depths of that film. Chasing Amy is about one man’s failure to keep the past in the past, which negatively impacts his relationship with the woman of his dreams as well as his relationship with his best friend and business partner. Ben Affleck’s Holden is too short sighted to look past things that happened in high school and move on to the next chapter in his life, not unlike Bryan O’Halloran’s Dante from Clerks. London and Lee aren’t deep enough as characters in Mallrats to get invested in.

Clerks and Chasing Amy garnered critical acclaim and awards for being mature looks at life in the 90s for people in their 20s. No one else was really doing that. Mallrats has a character fly face-first into a ladies dressing room for no reason that to show off a pair of tits. Clerks sees its main character struggle to balance a job, a relationship with a woman he doesn’t have much in common with, and a previous toxic relationship with a high school girlfriend. Chasing Amy explores how fluid human sexuality truly is. Mallrats’ final act hinges on a sex tape that exposes a clothing store manager as a sexual deviant. Simply put, Clerks and Chasing Amy are smart and mature movies, whereas Mallrats is immature, obnoxious, repellant, and just plain dumb.

I’ve spoken to a lot of people my age about Mallrats – many of them really like it. They are, of course, entitled to their opinions (just as I am). Though I suspect they view the film with a heavy dose of nostalgia, because I truly find it difficult to find merit of any kind in Mallrats outside of a charismatic Jason Lee performance. Roger Ebert once claimed to sit in on a panel with Kevin Smith where Smith claimed he’d be happy to make the kinds of movies studios want as long as the studios were paying. Ebert thought Smith was joking until Mallrats came out. The best I can say about Smith as that he hasn’t truly gone mercenary since. Zack and Miri was not a good movie, but it attempted to be heartfelt at least. Cop Out could have (and should have) worked, but was at least a fun misfire at worst. The movies he makes now (such as Tusk and Yoga Hosers) couldn’t be less commercial. I’ll commend him for making what he wants to make, but I still get to hate Mallrats. I’ll always hate Mallrats.

-Z-

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The Experimental Treatment Continues with 1995’s The Cure

Joseph Mazzello and Brad Renfro were two very important child actors in the early 1990s. Mazzello starred as young Tim Murphy in 1993’s blockbuster Jurassic Park and Renfro burst onto the screen in 1994’s big hit The Client. In 1995, the two were paired on-screen in the AIDs drama The Cure, a melodramatic but eminently watchable film that made little impact on the box office but has a place in my memory for sure. Though it wasn’t a hit by any measurable standards, the film successfully blended comedy and drama in a way that few films can, and it stands as a watershed moment for me in understanding what AIDs was in a time when there were still quite a few myths about the disease.

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Growing up, AIDs was always explained to me as something that only homosexuals get. Although I had heard stories about children contracting HIV from blood transfusions, I didn’t really know what that meant. Watching The Cure helped give me a better understanding of the disease, and Mazzello’s performance as Dexter, the lovable pre-teen moppet who unfortunately got HIV (and then later, full blown AIDs) from a life-saving blood transfusion, is humanizing and full of depth. Likewise, Renfro’s portrayal of the teenaged Erik, a young man with a lot of questions and a lot of (incorrect) assumptions about AIDs, is believable and relatable.

The film opens with Erik’s peers verbally attacking him with vulgarity simply because his neighbor, the aforementioned Dexter, is suffering from AIDs. Erik and his mother believe that perhaps even Dexter’s breath could cause someone to get AIDs, though Erik quickly moves beyond his fears after befriending Dexter when the two realize they have common interests. They soon become best friends, with Erik’s mother being away at work most days and Dexter’s mother happy to see her sickly son has a new friend. Dexter teachers Erik not to be afraid of people with diseases, and Erik teaches Dexter how to better enjoy life, taking him rafting, to the grocery store, and to various other boy-friendly activities.

It isn’t long before Erik decides he’s going to help his dying friend find a cure for AIDs, and the two begin to experiment by making herbal teas out of random plants and flowers, which Erik catalogues in a notebook. When this doesn’t work out (shocking!), the two come up with an idea to travel down the Mississippi river to New Orleans in order to find a doctor they believe can help with Dexter’s illness. Thus, the two run away together on an adventure on the Mississippi, where they meet up with some no-goodnicks who threaten our young heroes. Though this is the most unbelievable part of the film (though to be fair, I guess it was pre-Amber Alert days), it does allow Erik and Dexter a chance to become even closer friends.

Dexter, in the final stages of his illness at this point, becomes even sicker and clearly needs both his mother and medical attention. Erik takes him back to his mother via bus, where Dexter is immediately taken to the hospital. His last few days on earth allow him to grow even closer to his best friend and protector Erik. When Dexter does finally pass away, Erik has clearly grown and changed for the better as a person. His journey from tough new kid on the block to wise and mature young man now well on its way. The Cure is a very sad film in the end, but the journey is enjoyable. I liked this film quite a bit even now in 2016. Though we know quite a bit more about the AIDs virus, it is still a touching film that successfully attempts to remove the stigma of this horrible disease. I think there’s still value in watching The Cure, and I would recommend it. I enjoyed it back in 1995, and I still like it quite a bit two decades later.

-Z-

1995 Continues – Breakthrough, Knockdown, Drag-out Edition: Rumble in the Bronx

Jackie Chan has been a household name for so long that it’s hard to imagine a time when the 61-year-old martial arts superstar wasn’t Hong Kong’s most famous export. For years and years, though, Chan was unable to breakthrough to American audiences. In the early 90s, Chan starred in and choreographed (and occasionally directed) several big Hong Kong hits that garnered him cult status in America. Films like Supercop, Legend of Drunken Master, and Operation Condor grossed buckets of money overseas and cemented Chan’s status as the king of Hong Kong action films. Finally, it seemed Hollywood was ready to give him a real chance, and thus Rumble in the Bronx was born.

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The American marketing for the film really brings back memories.

Rumble in the Bronx, a Golden Harvest production, was primarily a product for the Hong Kong market, but New Line Cinema execs saw potential so with participation from the cast and crew, they fashioned a version of the film (with various edits, additions, and cuts) for American audiences. The film was marketed as Chan’s first foray into America, which was not technically true. The Bronx-set film was actually shot in Vancouver (where mountains in the background are noticeable), and Chan had shown up in American-produced films in the past as well. But New Line’s gamble and ensuing marketing campaign paid off, however, when Rumble in the Bronx opened strong and eventually grossed over thirty million dollars in the American box office, almost unheard of for a Chinese film production.

Rumble in the Bronx became a breakout film for star Jackie Chan for many reasons. First and foremost, the film wisely positioned Chan’s acrobatics and martial arts prowess at its centerpiece. When you’ve got a magnetic star like Chan, this is always the best course of action to take. Secondly, the film, set in America, was marketed as Chan’s first foray into American cinemas. While not technically true, the marketing campaign worked. New Line took a somewhat exotic (and definitely foreign) element and turned it into a buzzworthy news event. Remember, this was the time of no Internet viral marketing, so New Line obviously had to put a lot of faith in the project. Lastly, the film looked good for its time — its 7.5 million dollar budget was much bigger than the average Hong Kong production of the era. The extra time, care, and budget put into the film once again contributed to it being something of an event.

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Chan’s stunt work in Rumble in the Bronx was a noted highlight of the film.

The film opened to decent reviews, with Roger Ebert championing Chan as the second coming of stars like Buster Keaton. Chan, nearly forty years old at the time of release, was a budding star in America but Hong Kong’s biggest draw, and his performance was met with rave reviews. Some aspects of the film drew criticism, however, with the story and some of the acting being noted as amateurish overall. Co-star Francoise Yip, the Canadian-born model and actress, appears obviously uncomfortable in some scenes (perhaps with good reason – it was reported at the time that many people were injured on set during filming). I like the performances of Anita Mui, an underrated actress who didn’t get nearly enough credit for her work in these types of movies during her short lifetime, and Bill Tung, who often appears as “Uncle Bill” in Chan’s movies. Tung has a screen presence not unlike a warm, friendly grandfather and is always a welcome addition.

Critics were right to slam the story. Rumble in the Bronx has a paper-thin plot that isn’t really set in motion until about an hour into the film. Chan plays Keung (this pre-dates him basically just being “Jackie” in almost every subsequent movie), a recent immigrant to New York City. His job is to help his uncle (Tung) transition ownership of an international grocery store to a new owner, the mousy and shy Elaine (Mui). The first quarter of the film seemingly sets Chan up to fall in love with Mui and defend her store from the Hokuto No Ken thugs that seemingly populate New York City. The film takes a somewhat bizarre turn, however, when Chan meets and falls for Nancy (Yip), after her differently-abled brother takes a liking to Chan. Eventually, there’s a diamond heist, and Chan comes into possession of stolen diamonds. He must forge an alliance with the neighborhood toughs and fight off the mafia, who want their diamonds back. Rumble in the Bronx is a weird movie.

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Bill Tung always plays well off of Jackie Chan.

If I had to offer my own criticisms of Rumble in the Bronx, I would lay some of the film’s failures at the feet of director Stanley Tong. Tong can direct a decent action sequence, but a sense of weird silliness permeates the film, and not in a good way like in Supercop (another Tong film) or Legend of Drunken Master. Even Tong’s next film, First Strike (one of my favorite Chan films of the 90s), lacks the silliness that dominates some of Bronx. Tong was very young when making these films. He directed Rumble in the Bronx at the age of 24, for example. This is both impressive and also somewhat hard to believe. I can let some of the shortcomings of the film go because of his young status, but I feel like this film in particular could have easily been tightened up. The film is both self-serious and incredibly silly, creating a somewhat jarring tone. I can’t necessarily let this criticism completely go; I just wanted to note it.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Rumble in the Bronx is seeing Jackie being Jackie. I remember first watching the film as a seventh grader and being mesmerized that a human being could do what Chan does in the film. Seeing Chan leap across a building onto the balcony of an adjacent building remains a jaw-dropping stunt. Chan’s charming acrobatics and willingness to do anything for the shot are what drew me to him then and still draw me to him two decades later. I wish that I could watch this film with fresh eyes so that I could be mesmerized once again. At this point, I’m so familiar with Chan’s work that it’s not as special as it once was. I would love to go back to a time when Chan was a cult star and be exposed to his work for the first time all over again. That’s the kind of star-making role this is, and Chan nails it.

It’s easy to see why Rumble in the Bronx made Chan a star in America. It directly led to a glut of Chan’s Hong Kong film oeuvre being released into American theaters. After the success of Bronx, films like Mr. Nice Guy, First Strike, Twin Dragons, and Legend of Drunken Master all saw theatrical release, most by New Line Cinema or Dimension Films. None of these films received the same buzz as Bronx, but each left its own impact and each is special in its own way. Bronx also directly led to the Jackie Chan/Chris Tucker/Brett Ratner Rush Hour franchise, a hugely successful film franchise that has generated hundreds of millions of dollars (and made Chan wealthy multiple times over). None of that happens without the success of Rumble in the Bronx. It’s a pretty silly film overall, but Chan is magnetic and uses the film as a showcase for his impressive talents. Check it out while it’s still available on Netflix. Or, if you’ve already seen it, go ahead and revisit it.

-Z-

What Went Wrong?/20 Years Later/Disappointing Childhood Movies/1995 All Rolled Up Into One Edition: 1995’s Congo

Released almost two years to the date after Steven Spielberg’s massive hit Jurassic Park, 1995’s Congo was another science fiction Michael Crichton adaptation expected to conquer the box office and do for Paramount what Park had done for Universal. Directed by frequent Spielberg collaborator Frank Marshall (Arachnaphobia) and produced by his wife Kathleen Kennedy, Congo was met with harsh reviews from critics, who compared it unfavorably to Jurassic Park, and disinterest from audiences. Though it tripled its budget in international grosses, it became almost universally a symbol of the failed summer blockbuster and was considered a massive creative disappointment, especially when compared to the culturally huge Jurassic Park.

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After a failed expedition into the jungle rain forests of the African Congo results in seven dead men, TraviCom CEO Joe Don Baker (I refuse to look up the character’s name… he is Joe Don Baker) sends Dr. Karen Ross (Laura Linney) after an expedition group led by Dr. Peter Elliott (Dylan Walsh) who are headed into the jungle under the guise of releasing an ape back into the wild. In actuality, they are after diamond crystals, which can be used in order to get a leg up in the communications industry somehow. It’s a whole lot of techno babble that really makes no sense. They meet up with Captain Munro Kelly (an excellent Ernie Hudson) and Herkemer Homolka (a scenery-chewing Tim Curry) and form a party to search for the lost city of Zinj, where apparently the diamond crystals are located perhaps.

The biggest “star,” however, of the movie is Amy, the talking gorilla. Unconvincingly portrayed by several actors in a crappy costume and an annoying voice over artist, Amy is one of the most horrifying things I’ve seen in a movie. Looking less like a gorilla and more like a twisted monstrosity with a nightmare-inducing non-articulated face, Amy is awkward, unconvincing, and an overall bad special effect, particularly for a big budget film considered the follow up to Jurassic Park, one of the biggest special effects extravaganzas of its time. If the writing were better perhaps the gorilla might be less distracting, but Amy’s lines are clunky, unfunny, and embarrassing. At no point did I ever believe Amy to be an actual gorilla, unlike something found in the recent Planet of the Apes movies (and yes I know technological advancements have obviously made this easier).

I remember when Congo was released into theaters. It was one of the hottest summers on record, and the film had a tie-in deal with Taco Bell. I remember the giant plastic Congo cups sold at Taco Bell, and how similar they were to the color change Jurassic Park cups sold at McDonald’s two years previous. We had a few of them, and I remember carrying one with me filled with ice water while I delivered newspapers throughout my neighborhood. Funny that my most distinct memory about Congo is its product placement tie-ins. I also remember the terrible toy line for Congo, and how the film was obviously expected to be a huge hit but turned out to be a flop, sending the merchandise to the clearance bins pretty quickly.

I also remember how the film was highly anticipated, heavily hyped, and expected to be one of the biggest films of 1995. That did not turn out so well, as only 22% of critics gave it a positive notice, according to Rotten Tomatoes. The film, to its credit, features some interesting and entertaining aspects, however. As noted earlier, Ernie Hudson is great as Captain Kelly, the group’s guide into Africa. The film is actually decently shot and edited, and is appropriately tense and entertaining when it needs to be (the plane chase sequence, for example, is well done). Clearly director Frank Marshall had some idea of what he was working with. Additionally, though the script isn’t great, the film has an adventurous spirit that is sorely lacking from a lot of modern movies.

Unfortunately, the movie is chock-a-block with shit. Dylan Walsh and Grant Hezlov make for uninteresting and bland lead male characters (it doesn’t help that they each have the worst possible haircuts I’ve ever seen for leading men in a film). Walsh is totally unconvincing in his role, and his line readings are downright amateur in places. He is neither dynamic nor charismatic. Laura Linney is a talented actress, but she is not an action star and is clearly miscast here. She’s neither Sigourney Weaver nor Jamie Lee Curtis, and it shows. The script is also atrocious, and the film in places looks like a made-for-tv movie (the parts with the “authentic” African tribes are downright offensively bad).

It is the ape costumes, however, that make for the most embarrassing and crappiest parts of the movie. In addition to Amy’s unconvincing costume, there are the dreaded grey “killer apes” that act in this film like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park do. However, for as good as the dinos look in that movie, that’s how bad these apes look in Congo. They are meant to be scary and intimidating, but come off looking like a total joke. Marshall does his best with the material and I believe he is a capable and competent filmmaker, but what he’s working with is almost total crap. The fact that he had to use slo-mo to the point of absurdity shows the cheapness of the costumes he is working with.

It’s not surprising that after Congo, no other Michael Crichton film adaptation was deemed a critical success, and commercial success eluded all of theatrically released works except one. Sphere proved to be another flop, The 13th Warrior is notorious for all the wrong reasons, and Timeline is completely forgotten, having tanked worse than any other Crichton adaptation. His only other box office success came in the form of Spielberg’s The Lost World, a movie that has more than its fair share of problems. In a post-Jurassic Park world where every movie studio was looking for the next Jurassic Park, Congo must have surely seemed a safe bet. But it was a botch job based off of less than fantastic source material, and its legacy is ultimately one of almost total critical failure and commercial disappointment.

-Z-

1995 Lives on in The Hunted

Christopher Lambert has got to be one of the least likeliest success stories in the history of Hollywood. Despite never starring in a bona fide hit (the closest he came was probably Mortal Kombat), he has nevertheless built an incredibly impressive resume over some thirty odd years of acting, and was even married to Diane Lane, one of the most beautiful and talented women to ever live. Lambert also has the uncanny ability to bring his best to the cheapest, most thankless of roles. I’ve never seen him not try in any film he’s appeared in, which can’t be said of higher paid, more popular actors like Bruce Willis. I love Lambert, despite (or perhaps because of) his overall incredible oddness.

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Born in the United States yet looking, speaking, and acting almost entirely European (his French father was a diplomat who worked for the UN), Lambert is almost totally unbelievable as an American everyman, which is almost every role he plays. This is no exception in 1995’s forgotten thriller The Hunted, wherein Lambert plays Paul Racine, a normal, everyday American computer chip salesman (is there a job more 1995 than computer chip salesman?) on a business trip in Japan. After another successful sale, Racine heads back to his apartment, skipping out on celebrating with his two business associates. He runs afoul of the mysterious and beautiful Kirina (Joan Chen), and spends the night with her. When Kirina is attacked and murdered by ninjas, Racine is the only witness as well as a marked man.

Written for the screen and directed by J.F. Lawton (who also wrote, among other works, Pretty Woman), The Hunted is poorly paced, badly choreographed, barely acted, and an incredibly painful in places. It is also a total guilty pleasure. Lawton’s writing, which can generously be referred to as stilted, is unintentionally campy and goofy, treating the subject matter as if it were an actual super serious drama film rather than a contemporary tale of an American businessman on the run from ninjas – a premise which is already silly and awesome enough. The premise for the film is actually super interesting (I’m a sucker for a story about someone on the run from a malevolent force I guess), and part of me likes The Hunted not for what it is, but for what it could be. In the hands of a more skilled action director, this could have become a well-remembered cult classic.

The film unfortunately suffers from an incredibly high amount of Orientalism. Asian women are often sex objects – Joan Chen’s character Kirina really serves no purpose except to be an object of desire by Racine for example. The best character in the movie, Ichirou Takeda (Yoshio Harada), is a modern day samurai and expert on the various ninja clans of Japan. The movie is shot as if Japan is on another planet completely, treating most, if not all, of its characters as if they’re aliens from outer space. While it is true that the film reveres and respects some of its characters (particularly Takeda and his partner and wife Mieko are treated with respect), by and large the film more often than not gawks at its characters as if to say, “Wow, look how crazy these Japanese people are!” While this may have been somewhat more acceptable in the 1980s (when there was indeed a fear in the U.S. that Japan could one day become the world’s preeminent financial superpower), it feels incredibly outdated in a film from 1995.

As noted earlier, the pacing in this movie is somewhat glacial. It takes practically 40 minutes to get to the meatier parts of the story, and the movie runs an interminable 111 minutes overall. There’s a fantastic action sequence on a bullet train that is probably the high point of the movie. But the follow up scenes, on a samurai training ground (once again, in modern Japan), slow the film down to a screeching halt. A brisker, 90 minute cut would have helped the film immensely (but also probably cut down on villain Kinjo’s (John Lone) motivations). Action choreography is also laughably cheap throughout, and the whole production looks like it spent about a dollar fifty on fake blood (Lambert’s character sports a bloodied bandage pretty much throughout the entire running time of the film). Again, in the hands of a more skilled director, this could have been a whole lot cooler.

Christopher Lambert just doesn’t work as an everyman. He is just too odd, like a less perverted European version of James Spader or Nicolas Cage. In the long pantheon of unlikely leading men (which obviously includes Jeff Goldblum as its most famous member), Lambert is perhaps the least likely. Despite this (or again, perhaps because of it), Lambert is almost never disappointing in any role. He really gives it his all in The Hunted despite a crappy script, low budget, and almost complete and total lack of direction or spirit. This is an incredibly dumb, forgotten movie that wastes its goofily awesome premise by being far too serious for its own good.

-Z-

A 1995 Two-For-One: Strange Days and Fist of the North Star

It’s been perhaps too long since I last explored the greatness of cinema circa 1995. As discussed many times already, the year has long been one of the most fascinating years in modern movie history for me. In the past few days, I’ve caught a couple of 1995’s most brilliant movie gems streaming on Netflix. I’ve had some time to process these films, even though I have seen both multiple times, and have found some parallels between the two. Neither were commercially successful whatsoever. One of them, in fact, debuted on premium cable television. One was a critical success, while the other met with scorn from both critics and fans. The films I’m going to talk about today are Strange Days and Fist of the North Star.

Strange Days debuted in theaters in October 1995, where it was met with critical acclaim but complete audience disdain, eventually losing a ton of money for 20th Century Fox. Directed by eventual Academy Award winner Kathryn Bigelow, written and produced by then-husband and eventual Academy Award winner James Cameron (with an assist from the future Academy Award-nominated Jay Cocks), and starring Academy Award-nominated Ralph Fiennes (in his U.S. film production debut), Strange Days had a very high profile pedigree behind it. In terms of technical talent, the film was also notable for its innovative use of handheld cameras for first-person sequences, as well as Bigelow’s attention to action direction and slick editing.

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Taking place in the far off year of 1999 (set mostly against the backdrop of New Year’s Eve and thus at the dawn of a new millennium), Strange Days is a sort of end-of-the-world story in Los Angeles. An outlawed new technology, called SQUID (for Superconducting Quantum Interference Device, a sort of memory recorder and playback), accidentally captures the execution-style killing of a prominent rap artist. Ex-cop Lenny Nero (Fiennes, in a charismatic, slick performance), who illegally peddles SQUID devices and taped experiences to a rich but seedy clientele, must break the case wide open with the help of Mace (a fantastic Angela Bassett), a no-nonsense limousine driver and friend, as well as Lenny’s ex-cop buddy Max (a manic Tom Sizemore) and former girlfriend Faith (a strung-out Juliette Lewis).

Cameron wrote the initial screenplay after being heavily affected by the 1992 L.A. riots. A bad economy, rampant violence, escapism (in the form of SQUID recordings), drug addiction, racism, police brutality – all of these ugly aspects of humanity are explored in the script for Strange Days, to the point where the film can feel somewhat unfocused and over-stuffed in places (but it is never boring). The film is also totally unsubtle, hitting its points over the head of the viewer near countless times throughout its lengthy running time. But the whole thing is just so damn beautiful to watch – Strange Days is a gorgeously shot and well-directed film, with a pacing that ramps up considerably in the film’s second half, much like with Bigelow’s breakthrough commercial hit Point Break a few years earlier.

Angela Bassett's performance is notably bad-ass.

Angela Bassett’s performance is notably bad-ass.

Strange Days is also unescapably 1995. Glammed up hookers (with requisite hearts of gold), rock stars, and street peddlers permeate the screen. Ralph Fiennes looks like he stepped out of an October 1995 issue of Vogue or Vanity Fair. A rock performer in a club wears overalls ironically as was the style at the time. The video-phone and even the SQUID technology (which just looks like a Sony mini-disc player) are vintage 1995 to be sure. I also love how everyone in this film seems to either be an ex-cop or a hooker (and every locale is industrial or filthy), almost as if the film was ghost-written by Frank Miller. In the universe of Strange Days, everyone knows everyone else through someone else, and everyone has some kind of detailed backstory or former relationship that haunts them. The film is like a cyber-punk neo-noir thriller, though I get the feeling that calling it that would earn me a thousand years of scorn on the internet.

As noted earlier, Strange Days was a total box office failure. It grossed just under 8 million dollars against a large 42 million dollar budget, setting back Bigelow’s career in the process (she wouldn’t direct a film again until 2002’s box-office bomb K19: The Widowmaker). Critics, however, enjoyed the film; Roger Ebert praised the production, giving it a four-star review, for example. Strange Days bombed anyway, probably because it was incredibly ahead of its time, both technically and in terms of its writing, which was prescient despite being largely based on an event that happened in 1992. A few years after the release of Strange Days, the LAPD would be plagued by the Rampart scandal (an event that inspired the television series The Shield as well as the film Crash), somewhat echoing the execution-style killing that set off the plot of the film.

On the opposite end of the critical spectrum stands 1995’s feature film adaptation of Fist of the North Star, a Japanese manga property famous pretty much everywhere except the United States (for a variety of reasons too long and complicated to get into within the confines of this write-up – I hesitate to write at length about the more famous manga and animated versions, so this review will focus solely on the events of the 1995 film adaptation). Fist of the North Star is the story of Kenshiro (Gary Daniels, miscast despite an apparent appreciation for the source material), who is betrayed by his friend and rival Shin (Costas Mandylor, equally miscast) and left for dead in the wastelands of a post-apocalyptic earth. Kenshiro is fated to become the Fist of the North Star, a martial arts master, and must defeat Shin, thus saving the innocent residents of the wasteland and helping them rebuild society in the process.

Fist_of_the_North_Star_(live-action_movie_poster)

Despite its release direct to cable, Fist of the North Star is filled with considerably recognizable actors, if not outright acting talent on the whole. Malcolm McDowell, in a glorified cameo, plays Ryuken, Kenshiro’s adopted father who teaches the “North Star” fighting style. The aforementioned Costas Mandylor, who has popped up in many various productions for the past twenty years – including the hit Saw franchise – portrays Lord Shin, the master of the “Southern Cross” fighting style. Lead actor Gary Daniels played in another film adapted from a Japanese property, the Jackie Chan vehicle City Hunter, and showed up in 2010’s hit film The Expendables as The Brit, a lead henchman. Daniels is perhaps the only one in the cast with any real martial arts experience, having accumulated 29 victories in professional kickboxing in the 80s and 90s.

Despite a love of the source material, Gary Daniels is miscast as Kenshiro.

Despite a love of the source material, Gary Daniels is miscast as Kenshiro.

The film also features a bevy of recognizable actors in supporting roles. Sean Penn’s younger brother Chris (who sadly died in 2006) is clearly having the time of his life as the villainous Jackal, hamming it up at every available opportunity. Clint Howard gives it his creepy all as a villainous neo-Nazi named Stalin. Former WWF and Japanese pro-wrestler Vader has a cameo appearance/poorly-staged fight scene with Gary Daniels about two-thirds of the way into the movie. Additionally appearing in the film are Dante Basco, Melvin Van Peebles, and Downtown Julie Brown, making The Fist of the North Star a veritable who’s who of “that guy’s.” The love interest, Julia, is unfortunately played an unknown, Japanese actress Isako Washio, whose English speaking-talents are, let’s say, non-existent.

A detailed college thesis could be written about how Fist of the North Star fails as a film adaptation, but again I feel as if that is beyond the scope of this write-up. Fist of the North Star would have failed as a movie regardless of its source material, I feel. The director, Tony Randel (known for 1988’s Hellbound: Hellraiser II), doesn’t seem to have much of an eye for martial arts choreography. He doesn’t seem to have much of an idea how to adequately pace a movie either, as Fist of the North Star feels interminably slow in certain areas. It seems to take an eternity for Kenshin to accept his destiny, leading to numerous scenes of Gary Daniels standing the rain looking forlorn and lost. In the hands of a more skilled martial arts film director, this could have been a neat little B-movie gem.

Despite the massive fan criticism of the film adaptation, however, I do find certain aspects of Fist of the North Star admirable and notable. The practical special effects are pretty cool, especially the scenes with Shin wrecking people’s worlds. Kenshiro’s first fight scene, against three nameless thugs harassing an innocent couple, also feature some good practical effects work, including a broken jaw, a massive chest contusion, and an exploding head (which the film ultimately cuts away from, but which was apparently filmed). There’s some good makeup work going on with the biker gangs, including a large man with a messed-up eye that kind of haunts me still. Chris Penn’s Jackal is also disgusting to look at, and his untimely end is pretty cool to watch as well. The film was obviously shot on the cheap, but some of the effects work is decent.

Ultimately, Fist of the North Star just isn’t a very good movie. It is slow and plodding, the story could stand to be more personal and a lot more focused, and the martial arts choreography and action sequences aren’t that great. Additionally, Daniels is miscast and doesn’t physically fit the role of Kenshiro, though I do find him somewhat charming, in a goofy way, in the role (I actually kind of wish he would have broken out as an action star). Randel doesn’t seem to know what to do with the film, and while his background in horror helped in terms of practical effects, it does him no favors in framing action sequences. Against all logic, I still find the film somewhat appealing. There’s some pretty notable quality within the cast itself, and really there just aren’t many films out there like this. I just wish the damn thing was a bit more competently made.

-Z-

1995 Continues with The Last Supper

Black comedies are rare entities in the movie world. Very rarely are we, the audience, treated to the delights that reside within the confines of the black comedy. These sorts of films often lack commercial prospects and likable protagonists. This happens to alienate the mass audience by and large, which obviously isn’t good for exposure. 1995’s The Last Supper is another in a long line of failed black comedies. Like most of them, however, there is a lot to like about The Last Supper, primarily its strong cast and interesting, prescient premise.

I don’t remember much about the political climate of the early 90s. I remember voting for Bill Clinton in a mock election in my elementary school, and I remember my parents being upset with me for that. I kind of sort of remember George H.W. Bush, but I’m probably thinking of Dana Carvey’s famous impersonation. I cannot profess to be intimately familiar with the politics of that time period, as I was just a kid during the early 90s, not entering high school and becoming more politically aware until 1997, when the economy seemed strong to me and Clinton saw mass popularity and appeal. I cannot imagine that America was as grim at this time period as it is portrayed in The Last Supper, but I appreciate the great lengths the film goes to in order to try and get us to feel this way.

The film opens with Norman Arbuthnot (Ron Perlman), a Rush Limbaugh-like political cult of personality, espousing right-wing viewpoints on what appears to be a cable-access television show. Our group of protagonists, a group of liberal college graduate students, watches on in horror as they wait for their friend to show up for dinner. The group all rents an old farmhouse-style place while they work on their advanced degrees, and all bond over their liberalism and idealism. Their friend and roommate Pete (a nerdy Ron Eldard) finally shows up (his car died on the way home) and along with him is blue-collar truck driver Zack (Bill Paxton), who the group invites in for dinner for being kind to their friend. During dinner, however, the group is horrified to find out that Zack is a right-wing ex-Marine, and doesn’t cotton to their liberal ways. Events spiral out of control, and Zack is stabbed to death by one of the friends, Marc (a young Jonathan Penner), who is Jewish and took offense to Zack’s anti-Semitism and violent tendencies.

What follows could have been a look at what happens when five friends, united by a common political ideology, must share a horrifying secret. Instead, the group decides that they can replicate their actions, murdering anyone who doesn’t share their liberalism. They will, of course, give each person a chance to recant their over-the-top right-wingism first. The group racks up a significant body count, including an anti-gay crusading priest (Charles Durning), a corporate fat-cat and anti-environmentalist (Jason Alexander), and a date-rape apologist (Mark Harmon). The group of friends eventually begins to drift apart and act downright out of character, with Jude (a young Cameron Diaz) and Paulie (a cute Annabeth Gish) becoming antagonistic towards each other, Pete becoming more violent (shooting at birds instead of clay targets), Marc growing discontent in his relationship with Paulie, and Luke (Courtney B. Vance) becoming increasingly sociopathic.

The tension comes to a head nicely when Marc and Pete, who are about to leave town to get away from the problems the group has created for themselves, suddenly run afoul of Norman Arbuthnot in the airport. The two realize they have an opportunity to do the world a great “justice” by murdering him. Norman accepts their invitation into the house, and what follows is one of the greatest takedowns of politics that anyone committed to the screen in the 90s. It’s even better as it comes from the great Perlman, who at this point was probably best known from his days as a sitcom star on Beauty and the Beast. Perlman, the out-spoken right wing talker with the cigars and the loud mouth handily destroys each and every argument presented his way with a calm, cool wit and a sly smile at every turn. He knows what he’s doing, and he leaves the roommates absolutely stunned.

The full scene isn’t available on YouTube, but there is a clip uploaded at least:

The Last Supper is worth watching whether you’re a liberal or a conservative. Some of the themes it espouses are quite prescient, and though it was released in 1995, it still feels as if it could have come out more recently. It isn’t overly politically dated with specific references to the era, which was a smart choice by the writer and director. The Last Supper also works as a takedown of idealism, which is fairly rare in Hollywood. I can totally understand why it was a failure at the box office almost solely due to this aspect of the film. There are countless movies where the little guy is the hero and the big, loud, rich people are the enemies. In this movie, the big guy wins almost by default – the group is shown to absolutely be in the wrong because of their heinous actions. Of course, Arbuthnot himself is no angel either – and neither were the dinner guests that our protagonist roommates so ruthlessly murdered time and time again. The film asks us: did the murdered dinner guests really deserve to die? At the end of the day, the message of the film is that it’s ok to have your political beliefs, but for the love of everything please be reasonable about them as well.

-Z-

Going Back in Time: 1995 Continues with The Baby Sitter’s Club Movie

I was lucky enough to grow up with the Majestic Theatre as my local movie-going joint.  I always considered the place a fantastic venue to see a flick, even if it wasn’t that great a flick. The atmosphere made up for many short-comings a film might have. Some of my formative childhood viewings took place in the old Majestic, including seeing blockbuster films like Home Alone, Batman Returns, and Jurassic Park. But every movie I saw in the old Majestic was special, because even as a child I wondered how long the theater could possibly remain open for business. I cherished my time in that place, was disheartened when it finally did close for good in the fall of 1995 (only to reopen permanently in 2007). I come not to wax nostalgic about the Majestic, as much as I’d love to (maybe another day?). Instead I come to once again talk about the greatest year cinema has ever seen, 1995. So, on with the show.

Despite being an absolutely wretched movie filled with bad performances, a lousy script, and direction that could best be described as “sparse,” The Baby Sitter’s Club, the live-action adaptation of the Ann M. Martin series of best-selling young adult novels, was the last movie I saw as a child in the majestic, thereby deeming it somewhat “special” to me. The Baby Sitter’s Club, released theatrically in August 1995, is the story of a group of teen and pre-teen friends who in their spare summer time open up a day-camp for youths. In the midst of this wacky and unforgettable summer, the friends go through all kinds of personal journeys of growth and discovery, each of which is less interesting than the last.

The film is anchored by the awful performance of Schuyler Fisk as Kristy Thomas, ostensibly the lead friend. Fisk, who appears to be about 13 years old in the film, is clearly in the midst of an incredibly awkward phase of her life. She’s also, once again at this point, an incredibly lousy actress. Her story arc, about reuniting with her flibbertigibbet of a father, should be poignant,  moving, and redemptive but is instead laughable and ridiculous, as if it were filmed by the second unit director of a Saved by the Bell episode.

Other story arcs are equally uninteresting and unintentionally comedic. Second lead Kristy McGill (an actress who has appeared on nearly every television series ever), is embarrassed by her juvenile diabetes (the horror!) and too scared to tell her would-be love interest Luca (German actor Christian Oliver) about her disease. Speaking of which, Luca is a 17 year old Swiss relative of a friend, and his relationship with a 13 year old Kristy is another cringe-worthy aspect of the film. Tertiary stories involve the Asian member of the group failing her summer science class (like we’re really supposed to believe an Asian would ever fail a science class!) and a young Rachel Leigh Cook coming to terms with lying to her friends all summer long.

One of the most interesting aspects of this film is its young cast. Though most of the actors performed poorly in this film, many of them have gone on to appear in other work quite often. The cast includes Larissa Oleynik, whom older fans of Nickelodeon will surely remember, as well as the aforementioned Rachel Leigh Cook (She’s All That) and Marla Sokoloff (Party of Five, The Practice) as the “villain” of the movie. Famed actress Ellen Burstyn and solid character actor Bruce Davison also appear, adding gravitas to a movie that should have been direct-to-video or at least premiered on network television.

The Baby Sitter’s Club is filled with embarrassing performances and moments throughout its hour and a half running time. I can’t imagine many people would want their twelve or thirteen year old selves preserved in this manner (I know I wouldn’t). Most of us are so awkward we spend the rest of our lives trying to forget this time period. From its humiliatingly dated rap scene (immediately placing this movie squarely in 1995) to its slobs-vs.-snobs aesthetic (borrowed from the many 80s classics that preceded it), this unfortunate gem of a movie is best left forgotten about, even if it was the last movie I saw in a beloved local theater.

-Z-

Beating a Dead Horse: 1995 Continues with Houseguest

I know, I know… I haven’t updated this feature in months and months. But I had to bring it back, because the Sinbad/Phil Hartman comedy vehicle Houseguest popped into my head over the weekend for some godforsaken reason. I haven’t seen this film in years, but I’m going to attempt to write at length about it anyway. So, here goes:

The ’90s were a weird time in film. Harmony Korine somehow became an indie darling and was allowed to make several trashy, horribly-dated-at-this-point movies about teenagers having sex. Die Hard 2: Die Harder and Die Hard 3: Die Hardest (With a Vengeance!) came out, cementing Bruce Willis’ legacy as an unkillable, unholy spectre. Also, someone decided that it would be a good idea to combine the talents of Phil Hartman (who is sadly missed) and Sinbad (who is not). It probably wasn’t the best idea.

Directed by Randall Miller and released in the winter of 1995, Houseguest is the story of Kevin Franklin (Sinbad), who pretends to be the childhood friend of Gary Young (Hartman, in one of his first and only leading roles) in order to escape the mafia, whom he owes a significant debt to. Hijinks inevitably ensue, as Franklin is put into all kinds of awkward situations (like pulling teeth — because Gary’s real friend is a dentist and also because surgery performed by an unlicensed impostor is hilarious) as well as many identity-based near-misses, double entendre, and what not.

One of the things I found interesting about the movie were its attempts to (unsuccessfully) blend genres as well as drop in bits and pieces of popular culture that don’t really fit in. In one scene, Hartman’s young daughter pulls a Home Alone and disposes of two mafia bad guys using only her kindergarten-level wits and moppish cuteness. In another, Sinbad name drops grunge rock gods Pearl Jam, dating this movie almost instantly. Hartman’s daughter Brook, played by Kim Murphy, is almost hilariously Goth, playing into the then emerging underground techno/industrial movement. Oh, and the film features copious amounts of product placement, including a gratuitous McDonald’s commercial in the middle of the film.

There was once a time when Sinbad was popular enough to be a leading Hollywood comedic actor, but that time has long since passed. I would be lying if I said Sinbad didn’t have any charm. He’s clearly a smooth-talking, good-natured, and charismatic presence. He’s just not very funny. Hartman, on the other hand, had immense talent, especially as a voice over actor for The Simpsons (where he played multiple characters, including Troy McClure and Lionel Hutz) and as a sketch comedian (where he appeared on Saturday Night Live for an extended period of time). He gives a decent performance in Houseguest, but I was never convinced he was totally all in on the role. Honestly, I can’t really blame him; the film just isn’t that good.

The supporting cast is a mixed bag as well. Kim Greist (who has never been good in any movie ever) plays Hartman’s wife, a would-be frozen yogurt mogul whom Hartman is actually secretly envious of in a not-predictable-at-all-plot ploint. In a minor role, excellent character actor Jeffrey Jones (Ravenous, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) plays an antagonist and rival dentist to Sinbad’s Franklin. Also starring are The Wire’s Paul Ben-Victor and long time “That guy!” Mason Adams.

I haven’t seen this movie in ages, but I remember it almost beat for beat. That’s probably because it’s such a generic movie. Even if I don’t really think about this movie all too often, I do think about Hartman’s senseless death every now and then. His was one of the most shocking celebrity deaths of my lifetime, and it still hurts that he’s gone. He no doubt would have continued to be a great comedic force, and I’m certain he would have ended up in better films than this. As for Sinbad… well, when was the last time anyone even thought about him? It’s weird to think of a time when Sinbad was a legitimate leading man in Hollywood. I guess in a way Houseguest is kind of a relic of a long-forgotten time. May it rest in peace.

-Z-

The Continuing Adventures of 1995: Tommy Boy

The early 90s were an Oasis in the desert for long-running television stalwart Saturday Night Live. Dana Carvey, Mike Myers, David Spade, and Adam Sandler are just a few of the big-name stars of the era who turned out to have solid to spectacular Hollywood runs (of which Sandler still enjoys). When I was a kid, I was always a huge Chris Farley fan. He seemed to have the bravado to go for anything, and make the stupidest of subject matters funny with his great gasps, exasperated cries, and unbelievably agile antics. He was the heir apparent to Jon Belushi (unfortunately in more than one way) and a breakout star during his time on the show. It’s unfortunate that he was also a severe drug addict and a people pleaser to a fault.

Moderation was a word not in Farley’s vocabulary, and ended up dead in his prime. I remember where I was when I heard the news of Farley’s death in 1997. I was 15 years old and leaving high school for the day when my mom picked me up. We heard it come across the newswire on the radio. I immediately felt a hole in my heart and a deep, sinking feeling in my stomach. A piece of my childhood passed away that cold December day. Farley left a brief legacy and cut short what could have been a fantastic career.

1995’s Tommy Boy was Farley’s first starring vehicle after his departure (or rather, his firing) from Saturday Night Live. A safe vehicle for Farley’s talents (it was co-written by long-time SNL writer Fred Wolf), Tommy Boy also stars the aforementioned David Spade as well as Brian Dennehy, Bo Derek, and a fantastic Rob Lowe. When his father unexpectedly passes away, Tommy Callahan (Farley) must take over his family’s business, win the respect of his father’s clients, and essentially save a whole town from economic collapse. Farley plays the role with a contradictory world-weary childlike wonder. He is simultaneously grossly incompetent and completely capable of his job, but it takes a journey, a friend (Spade), and a love interest (Julie Warner … what ever happened to her?) to help him realize it.

I first saw Tommy Boy in the spring of 1996 and immediately loved it. It’s a well-made movie with some fantastic physical comedy and hilarious set-pieces (Tommy haphazardly walking through the factory is a favorite scene of mine; another has him struggling to change clothes in a tiny airplane bathroom). Spade, at his snarkiest, gets some great, quotable lines in (and gets to sort-of reprise some of his SNL magic as a sarcastic flight attendant). Rob Lowe, positively noted earlier, is a great slimeball, at one point punching a window a young child has his face against and tossing an empty milk carton into a bassinet.

Many of the films I have covered in this feature have been pretty legitimately bad. I feel differently about Tommy Boy. Watching it a few weeks ago, via Amazon’s On-Demand service, I was surprised by how well it held up. I hadn’t seen it in maybe five years, but laughed heartily and was engaged throughout. When Tommy Boy ends, I tend to get really bummed out that Chris Farley didn’t go on to have a long, fruitful career. I can’t say I was surprised that he ended up dying so young, but that didn’t make his loss hurt any less. I’ll always have Tommy Boy though.

Next up in 1995, Die Hard With a Vengeance.

-Z-

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