Was I Nuts ? – Donnie Darko

Are there still those committed to Sparkle Motion. 15 years ago the cult of Donnie Darko began, but the movie has become more of an early 21st Century antique than a touchstone for future film lovers. With its own nostalgia for the 80s baked into cinematic recipe, Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko doesn’t seem to be developing into the kind of underground classic that each generation of movie-nerd harkens back to. Instead, it’s “I Believe In a Thing Called Love,” liking “Family Guy” or other ideas only twenty-somethings were into when W was first President; an idea from yesterday.

Was the love for Donnie Darko a misguided admiration for an alright film that, just by being a bit different than the time’s norm, was graded on a curve? Are the poorly received follow-ups of Kelly less a sign of decline or proof that the filmmaker was never that good to begin with? Was I nuts?

donnie_darko11

The Film

Released on October 26, 2001 to little fanfare, Donnie Darko is sci-fi/horror/teenage drama by writer-direct Richard Kelly in his feature-length debut. The movie stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Donnie, a suburban teenager whose life is a mélange of boredom, arguing with family and pills. Then a jet engine falls into his bedroom and he begins talking to a rabbit-costumed figure named Frank; as happens. Amidst the normal turmoil of high school life, Donnie grows increasingly distant and angrier, haunted by interactions with Frank and this spectre’s claims that the world will end in 28 days, 6 days, 42 minutes and 12 seconds.

With a middling box-office reception, Donnie Darko did get enough critical acclaim to keep chatter about the picture alive. The movie would receive three Independent Spirit Award nominations, with Gyllenhaal getting into the Best Male Lead race. The film that looked dead kept going. According to The AV Club, “The Pioneer Theatre in New York ran it as a midnight movie for two years.” DVD sales, which began really taking off at this time period, became a boon for Kelly’s work, with numbers generally being quoted that the movie made over $10 million from the format in the first few years. Suddenly, you couldn’t go to a Suncoast, Hot Topic or Spencer’s without seeing Frank the Bunny on posters or someone playing the movie’s soundtrack. Popularity continued to grow, even leading to Donnie Darko: The Director’s Cut getting a release in 2004, featuring 20-plus minutes of footage, a change in the musical cues and a lot more time-travel talk.

donnie-darko-donnie-darko-18659890-1600-900

The Memory

I can rather vividly recall watching Donnie Darko for the first time and imagine the story isn’t too dissimilar from many people’s initial outings. During my junior year of college at Salisbury University, my dear friend Kat (thanks buddy), also a movie-nerd, kept raving about the film and insisted I watched her DVD of it. Slightly hesitant as it featured that kid from The Bubble Boy, I nonetheless gave it a chance. I was quite quickly hooked, in love with the moodiness of it all and the low-key nature of its sci-fi world that manages to mix in a horror tinge. What followed was uber fandom, complete with t-shirt, a Frank the Bunny jack-o-lantern that took three hours to carve and a $30 DVD purchase from fucking Suncoast because Best Buy wouldn’t regularly have it for $10 until a few months later.

Like a virus…but the good kind…of virus…um…I spread the good word of all things Sparkle Motion. Jake Gyllenhaal became someone to watch and I waited with baited breath for what Richard Kelly would do next, which led to the abysmal, yet definitely different, yet definitely abysmal Southland Tales in 2007.

The Prediction

Donnie Darko has to be good, right? I mean, please.

60df1b3cdc6b8dae41ab825c32253666

The Result

With all of the Amblin Entertainment nostalgia that’s creeping into pop-culture of late, and “Stranger Things” being such a success for Netflix, it’s peculiar that Donnie Darko has not been talked about more of late. Especially since it still remains quite fantastic.

All of those bits you recall adoring continue to ring with confidence, right from the first scene. We all recall the sequence of Donnie descending at dawn from the hillside, as we see him bicycling through the suburbs, his father messing with big-sis and Echo & the Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon” scoring it all, the scene aided strongly by the deep, crisp guitar and bass plucks from that tune. There is an immediate sense that something is a little off. Yet, even before that, Kelly’s movie compels, as we slowly zoom along the first glimpses of morning, mountains in the distance, birds chirping and Donnie waking up on the side of the road, confused by it all.

The economy of storytelling continues right after this, as the Darkos chat, or rather loudly argue, over dinner. Sister Elizabeth (Maggie Gyllenhaal), is revealed as a burgeoning Democrat, making papa Eddie (Holmes Osborne) freeze in disgust and mama Rose (Mary McDonnell) sarcastically laugh at the notion. As Donnie delights in the fuss, Elizabeth jabs about his failure to take prescribed therapeutic medication. All the while, little Samantha (Daveigh Chase) sits oblivious. The dynamics of home are set.

The complexities of school then come into focus, with Tears for Fears “Head Over Heels” our chorus. Kelly uses a long-take to show our ensemble as Donnie walks down the hallway. There’s the sneering, rebellious kid. A teacher clinging to a book, shocked by the youth. A young girl that walks alone. Seth Rogen doing drugs. An oblivious principal. In a short-while, Kelly has given us a host of players in two striking sequences, and he’ll use a variation of this towards the close of the movie, but not so much as a one-note crutch.

shot0008

A lot of credit must be given to the cast here. Gyllenhaal is an enigmatic as memory serves, the kid who means well but isn’t concerned with being a prick. His early defense of an Asian classmate hints at his good nature, even as he remains friendly with the teens instigating the cruelty. Gyllenhaal plays Donnie as almost too-smart for his own good, his cockiness and an inability to hold his tongue making himself seem beyond just another high-school kid. That innocence remains though, personified by the initial courting of Jena Malone’s Gretchen. The new kid in town, Gretchen and Donnie are first linked when Ms. Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore) tells her new pupil to sit next to the cutest boy in class, of which Mr. Darko receives the honor. Soon, Donnie is getting comfortable talking to Gretchen as he walks her home from school. She mentions her father’s “emotional problems”, a fact Donnie perks up to, stating, “Oh I have those too!.” This excitement is quickly rebuffed by the tragic fact that Gretchen’s father stabbed her mother multiple times; deflating Donnie’s eagerness. From then on, Donnie frets, with Gyllenhaal’s speech getting anxious and Malone’s character strangely becoming more confident. The ebb and flow of this pair, each thoroughly trying to be cooler than at all, is delightful.

The unsung highlight of Donnie Darko is probably Mary McDonnell’s Rose, both as a piece of writing and acting. For all of the mystery of Frank the Bunny and the time-travel filling, it all comes back to the family dynamic. Rose is vital to that as she profoundly cares for her son, a boy that grows further away from the baby that once resided in their home. Donnie calls her a “bitch,” a sting that goes far below the skin. It’s interesting to see how much Donnie is her son, as his skepticism of people’s motives and the casual snooty responses are definitely a part of her nature. When Beth Grant’s Kitty comes to Rose’s door in desperate need of a Sparkle Motion chaperone, McDonnell’s face is gold, shaping into faux-sadness that Kitty can’t go now due to unforeseen circumstances. This is all vital to make that conclusion, where the sacrifice that must be made occurs, have the required level of weight. There are others close to Donnie that are impacted, but it’s the pure, overwhelming grief on Rose’s face that makes it mean something.

Kelly may have not made another good movie since Donnie Darko. Perhaps Southland Tales doubled-down too much on the peculiarities and The Box went too deep with the over-explanations of oddities; it’s hard to tell. He will always have this one, the cult classic that briefly escaped into the mainstream, before sinking back into the shadows with other offbeat greats.

Was I Nuts ? – The Crow: City of Angels

The Summer Revisit of 1996, with it’s original host of disappoints, comes to a close as it must; a week or so later than intended and with a film I’m pretty sure I’m going to find unbearable.

As has been previously discussed here, 1994’s The Crow was a perfect creation for a suburban white kid like myself entering his teens. It had violence, a bit of goth weirdness and a bunch of rock music. So, when The Crow: City of Angels was announced, I was basically the target audience. Having read a few of the comics, the notion of the character returning in a different persona, with revenge once more being sought for and by a person taken from life too soon, didn’t ring as merely a cash-grab.

Plus you know, a soundtrack with Korn, White Zombie and Seven Mary Three; what could go wrong? I’m going to regret this me-thinks.

The Film

Released to blisteringly bad reviews on August 30th, 1996, The Crow: City of Angels opened at #1 on the box-office charts, raking in a decent $9.78 million. However, that ended up being roughly half of the entire domestic gross ($17.92 million), or roughly about one-third of what it’s predecessor managed to garner.

The film was directed by Tim Pope, he of many a music video for The Cure, which makes sense. It remains his sole feature film credit. Once more finding it’s source in the James O’Barr comic book, City of Angels stars Vincent Perez as Ashe Corven, a young man killed by a drug-lord. Ashe’s end comes violently, with his son Danny (Eric Acosta) being caught in the chaos. The horror of it all is too much, and Ashe’s soul is unable to cross until the next realm without settling the wrongs done to he and his blood. Plus, you know, he’s got to wear leather, make-up and kill people in a manner that leaves little crow-silhouettes.

While Alex Proyas made a film heralded for its melancholy and eerie aura, Pope’s movie was seen by many as an example of music video directors failing to crossover, for the Finchers/Gondrys/Jonze’s were and have always been the exception and not the rule.

the-crow-city-of-angels-3

The Memory

City of Angels came at a time where it was near-impossible for me to hate a movie I was excited to see. I might be bored by the film. I might find the film annoying in huge parts. I might immediately forget the film’s details.

I wasn’t going to say – or honestly feel –  it was bad though.

Though I recall my dad taking me to this R-Rated picture at my St. Mary’s County movie theatre, the only real element of the project that sticks in my brain is the goofy Crow symbols that accidentally get made. In the original movie, Brandon Lee’s character creates these vicious calling-cards of his destruction, as the titular symbol is painted in blood on rusted walls or via an inferno on a dilapidated dock. City of Angels, if memory serves, has the same image, just miraculously appearing on the forehead of a man who’s skull was cracked open.

What hangs deeper in the recesses of the ol’ brain is the soundtrack for the movie, which I basically had on repeat for the summer along with Metallica’s “Load” and Better than Ezra’s “Friction, Baby.” The album had the right amount of droning misery that was a perfect prescription for a teenager who just moved from San Diego, California to a town where the big thing to do was go to the Wal-Mart.

The Expectations

Well, I’m zero-for-three on revisits in this project, meaning that on some level, what was once garbage remains garbage. I never watched any of the subsequent straight-to-video adaptations of The Crow and there has never been much in the way of, “You know, City of Angels is super underrated.” I’m hoping for a couple nice visual touches and for that Hole cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Gold Dust Woman” to be used in a cool manner.

591full-poster

The Verdict

The Crow: City of Angels can barely be labeled a film. There is less plot here than in Andy Warhol’s Empire. Director Tim Pope and – egads!!! – David S. Goyer slightly repurpose the skeleton of the original and little else. We once more have a handsome, young dead guy with black hair, a criminal kingpin who hires terrible help and hangs with a woman who knows mystical stuff, the aforementioned Crow symbols and a hero who literally laughs in the face of danger.

They do bring to the party one Thomas Jane as baddie in a terrible wig named Nemo.

Really, this whole endeavor comes across as schlocky fan-fiction given a small budget by a Hot Topic store manager. The first film took the steps to, you know, build up characters. Yes, more than the at least one that is traditional. Brandon Lee’s Eric Draven wanted to help people amidst his vengeance, as his past humanity bubbled under the scars and cold flesh that currently roamed the land. Vincent Perez gets none of that. His Ashe Corven has the unfortunate back-story of being murdered, along with his son. That’s about it for details. His dead kid gets more shading, as at least we found out the boy liked to paint. Ashe is a walking trench-coat with hair so feathery it’s meant to look like, presumably, the feathers of a crow itself. Yay.

He cackles here and there while attempting to butcher those that led to his downfall, but it never reads as unnerving like it did in the first movie. Here, the giggles read goofily, akin to when children pretend to be crazy by throwing their hands up in the air and bellow “Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!!!!!”

This could still work though. Pope’s career in music videos could just skip past traditional storytelling into something arthouse and enigmatic. Sadly, that’s not the case either. We have a lot of dusty sound-stages and streets smothered in dry-ice to such an extent that the only logical conclusion is the Executive Producer’s brother-in-law must work in the dry-ice business and really needed help this year. Instead of a fresh flair for visuals, we have slow-motion and a crow flying past palm trees, which as it tends to happen, leads to said palm trees exploding into a fiery ball of what-the-fuck. The movie can’t even determine how to use its soundtrack properly, just throwing in a few of its notable covers here or there. Well, we do at least get Iggy Pop playing a villain who wanders into a club where an Iggy Pop song is playing in the background. So, there’s that. Plus, there is Eva Green 1.0 Mia Kirshner.

So at this end of this 1996 project, it’s fascinating to see that Hollywood was often so bad back then too. With 2016’s summer being quite thoroughly trashed, it’s a reminder of the ebs and flows of the studio system and that it’s always, always, always a fool’s errand to claim the death of cinema when there’s a fresh batch of films around the corner and that the goods are typically just outside the obvious purview.

Was I Nuts ? – Multiplicity

The 1996 run rolls on, as we revisit one more disappointment from that summer: Multiplicity. Before Michael Keaton’s career became a joke, which was before Keaton’s career became a thing of pure envy, he was a reliable funny-man. It seemed to happen overnight, or at least if felt that way as a kid. In my head Keaton went from comedic perfection in Beetlejuice to the nightmarishly abysmal Jack Frost in a split second.

That wasn’t the case. However, Keaton’s teaming with a three years removed from Groundhog Day Harold Ramis was supposed to be a piece of greatness. Multiplicity didn’t garner the love that the Bill Murray and Ramis collaboration did. Not by a long, oh-so-long, shot. Perhaps it wasn’t that bad though? Perhaps Keaton playing a father/husband and a bunch of his closes was a secret Ramis-Keaton gem. Perhaps, I was nuts.

The Film

Released on July 19th, 1996, Multiplicity arrived, um, poorly. Caught in the wake of that summer’s biggest blockbuster (Independence Day), as well as a big comedy hit (The Nutty Professor), the film barely beat out the Shaq pic Kazaam at the box-office, opening in seventh for its first weekend out. In the end, the film made a cough over $21 million, closing out at 78th for the year’s total releases, a shade above the re-issue of Oliver & Company.

Keaton plays Doug Kinney, you’re standard overworked 90s dad. Doug’s construction job takes up too many hours, and the ones left are too little for him to properly enjoy the time with his wife Laura (Andie MacDowell) or kids Zack (Zack Dunney) and Jennifer (Katie Schlossberg). What’s a modern man to do? Clone himself of course. Or at least that is the option put forth after Doug meets a doctor (Harris Yulin) who provides that opportunity. Desperate for a change, Doug goes all in and the usual wackiness ensues.

The Memory

This was dumb and annoying as hell, or so that’s how I recall it being. Not getting the HBO/Starz/whatever loop as the hits, the main thought I have of Multiplicity as a product itself is Keaton playing a clone of a clone in silly clothes mugging for the camera in a way that would embarrass Jim Carrey. As a then 14-year-old, I was fickle prick. I went from loving White Zombie one week to laughing at the idea of them the next. It happens. Teenagers, largely, are assholes. With Multiplicity, it dawned on me that Keaton was yesterday’s news and his every leading role for years was met with an eye-roll. His shtick was wearing thin, with every performance being a series of head tilts and screech-y yells.

The Expectations

Two movies into this summer program of watching past disappointments has been zero-for-two in finding new pleasures. That said, it’s also probably the one that could have the best potential for improvement. Ramis, never the most consistent filmmaker, did manage to make quality work again after Multiplicity, while Keaton is arguably in the best spot his career has ever seen, with leading roles in back-to-back Best Picture winners. But…I have literally heard zero people bring this up as a lost classic, or even as a film in and of itself. So, mediocrity is the highest my expectations can go.

maxresdefault_multi

The Verdict

The reason nobody talks about Multiplicity these days is simple. It’s not funny.

This is in a very literal sense. There are no jokes worth laughing at in the entire film. An absurd notion, particularly with the talent involved. This is nonetheless a fact as there is such a vacuum of worthwhile humor that it feels like a Producers con of some sort must have been brainstormed.

If Multiplicity were made today it would feature Adam Sandler and probably have been released in 2007. The only difference would be more t-shirts worn by the lead and a wife played by an actress, oh, eight years younger at least. The comedy is meant to derive from a Mr. Mom-esque routine meets a spoonful of men-gotta-be-men nonsense. Keaton’s pre-cloned character does indeed moan about having to work too much, while balking at the difficulties of his spouse’s daily activities. Soon, the routine of getting the kid wherever and sipping tea-cups becomes his duty, and thus we get a trio of Keatons added to the tale, with the hijinks of hiding the truth from wifey and their oh-so-zany differences being the butt of the jokes.

These variables on how each Doug acts are, well, offensive could be a word for it. Troubling is definitely befitting. The first clone is a near-perfect replica of the original Doug’s personality, if slightly blunter. Doug #3 though, is clearly meant to be a gay Doug, but I guess 1996 wasn’t cool with that notion yet. Keaton portrays this edition as stereotypically fey, with a higher-pitched vocal octave, floaty hand gestures and whatever other ways you’d expect a decades old Hollywood movie to envision a gay man without the guts to call him as such. Then there is Doug #4 aka the mentally challenged one, since he is a clone of a clone. The less said of this one the better, suffice it to say the aforementioned mugging is as remembered, embarrassing,

What’s more annoying about Multiplicity is its portrayal of marriage, managing to even have the line, “Some guys are whipped. It’s okay,” in there from one Doug to another. A lovely notion really. There is nothing wrong about a story on the challenges of raising kids, loving and living with one another, nor the particular troubles that might come from the male perspective. This is whining though. Hovering around family discourse makes sense, as two of the scripts hands created Parenthood, but this telling negates the mother’s role to that of nag. Andie MacDowell, an actress who’s always split viewers, is perfunctory here. Her part is arrive, say that Doug needs to do this or that and then leave, with the exception being the uncomfortable scene where she mistakenly sleeps with all of the Dougs in one evening…which I’m pretty sure would qualify as rape.

But hey, this movie has a lot of saxophones blaring to note that something silly is happening, so laugh why don’t you. Ramis just can’t find that tone he conjured with Groundhog Day; too goofy and undercut by a rushed sense of heart at the end. More than a forgettable dud, Multiplicity is a comedic dud of embarrassing levels. Now, please go back to ignoring it.

Was I Nuts ? – The Cable Guy

Jim Carrey was the undisputed king of Hollywood in June of 1996. He didn’t have the respect, as most people whose fame comes from talking from the butts can tell you. However, Carrey had the money. For his film The Cable Guy, Carrey would be the first actor to make a $20 million paycheck , a large number now that was astonishing then. Why not though? Carrey had become a comedic draw with no equal in the 90s, cranking out massive hit after massive hit. Sure, Dumb & Dumber and Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls weren’t critical darlings, but who needs that when you’re making the kind of dough Carrey was about to garner.

With The Cable Guy that changed. A dark comedy with an R-rating, The Cable Guy failed to be another phenomenon, became the, appropriately enough, butt of jokes for years and though it certainly didn’t end Carrey’s career, suddenly made him human. Was it that bad though? Was it just a film that was monumentally different than his other goofier works of the time? Was I nuts for thinking this was a mediocre mess?

TheCableGuy-3

The Film

Released on June 14, 1996, The Cable Guy stars Jim Carrey as Ernie ‘Chip’ Douglas, a dedicate fan of television whose day job is, obviously, installing cable, a link to the thing he loves the most. Chip isn’t exactly good with people, and when an olive branch of friendship is offered by one of his patrons Steven (Matthew Broderick), the obsession with the idiot box moves to a new place.

With a cast full of soon to be more famous people, including Jack Black, Leslie Mann, Owen Wilson and many more, The Cable Guy was also the brainchild of two of the most prominent voices in 21st Century comedy; Ben Stiller and Judd Apatow. The second directorial effort of Stiller and one of the first few scripts by Apatow, this was a time when neither man’s name carried much weight. Stiller had a cult-favorite television program from earlier in the decade on MTV, but it seemed ages before Meet the Parents or Zoolander turned him into a household name. As such, The Cable Guy was all about Carrey, and with an R-rating hampering his teen boy fans from seeing it, or at least paying to see it, the movie had little chance of maxing out on the actor’s fame. Far from an out-and-out flop, the movie grossed about $60 million domestically, the odd, sole non-$100 million maker over a four-year course that featured seven flicks. Proof of his drawing power this was not.

cable-guy-jim-carrey

The Memory

As a well-established Carrey-nerd from the 90s, having been in middle school when his rise to prominence ascended, I was part of that fandom that was underwhelmed by The Cable Guy. The film-long goofy voice was too much. Matthew Broderick seemed a boring co-lead. It was all just flat. Not bad, but flat. The only real lasting impression the picture had was actually via its soundtrack, which happened to feature new music by Jerry Cantrell and Silverchair and lived in my stereo for months on end.

The Expectations

There is no thought that The Cable Guy will be a masterpiece. I do think there’s a strong chance it’s pretty good though. Stiller, an inconsistent filmmaker, was able to tap into a particularly odd comic vein during the 90s with the aforementioned television series. Equally, while not exactly having a cult following, there have been several pieces written over the years praising the movie’s view of a pop-culture infused mindset infesting citizenry more and more, making it a possibly prescient picture.

cable-guy-dance

The Result

I definitely laughed during this revisit of The Cable Guy. It happened, finally, at the 93 minute mark of this of this 96 minute long picture. It was an earned laugh, I will give the filmmakers that. There’s a narrative beat of the movie where Carrey’s character keeps using aliases inspired by various television personalities. In the closing of the picture, as all the craziness and fights have finally subsumed, Broderick’s character asks Carrey what his real name is, to which the titular character replies with wide grin, “It’s Ricardo…Ricky Ricardo,” and then lets out the classic Ricky howl. It’s the one bit of absurdity that doesn’t scream for you to find it funny.

And yes. This movie screams.

Carrey was only two years away from The Truman Show restructuring his career into one that mixed the slapstick with the pathos, yet here it feels decades from happening. From the lisp to the bellowing of Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love,” Stiller’s camera is less an active participant of the story than a witness of Carrey’s relentless mannerisms. Going this big can work as long as the script provides quality lines or the project has equally engaging presences. The Cable Guy has neither, as Apatow’s script struggles for humor that goes beyond the pronouncement of the word nipple and Broderick’s character is the wettest of fish. This dull, ho-hum nature would be something used to remarkable effect on screen soon after this movie in Alexander Payne’s Election, where Broderick’s ordinariness was a point of despair and regret. Here, we have a nothing-person bewildered by a loud-mouth and little more.

What is supposed to push The Cable Guy to the next level are its theme and darkness. The former is compelling and underdeveloped. Carrey goes on and on about how the world of 1996 is on the cusp of a new future, where kids can play video games with friends across the globe and one can interact with museums a continent away. The film feels scared of this inevitability, with the only one praising its arrival being the loon. Now, the loon is meant to have been raised by television, or as its called in the last act, “The Babysitter.” That loon is too wacky to be seen a real threat, undercutting the darkness of the dark comedy. Blackmail, theft and prostitution can be a subject matter rich for unnerving humor; the tone matters. For Stiller and Apatow, that tone is a notch away from Ace Ventura.

Even the ending skips from digging into an eerie hole, as the world, in a manner similar to The Truman Show, sits transfixed to a real life drama. In this case, it’s a pseudo Menendez Brothers, “Hard Copy/Current Affair” murder case. In both situations, the end comes abruptly, one featuring Truman leaving his world of real make-believe and the other’s jury verdict failing to reach viewers due to the destruction of a satellite. For the Truman Show, that conclusion is met with emotions of joy, anguish and everything in between. For The Cable Guy, an allegedly dark tale, we see a man, Kyle Gas of Tenacious D of all people, turning his eyes from the tube to a book, which he smiles at and begins to read. Oh brother.

Was I Nuts ? – DragonHeart

And so the crap begins. Or possibly not.

This is the first entry into ‘Was I Nuts’ Summer 2016 retrospective of 1996’s quartets of disappointments. Unlike past entries where the focus was on movies I adored in the past I hadn’t seen in years, even decades, the next four months are dedicated to those flicks of which greatness was expected and, at best, mediocrity was received.

We begin things with the old blockbuster staple; a talking animal. Sure the animal is a mythical beast, but nonetheless, isn’t the talk-talk element part of the draw of DragonHeart?

93272181_o

The Film

Released on May 31, 1996, DragonHeart was a blend of medieval hack-and-slash swordplay and the ever-geeky love of dragons; it also really doubled-down on the notion a main character being built entirely from computer effects. This wasn’t the first film to attempt such a feat, but in 1996, special effects on this level were still such an infancy as to be a major talking point.

The creature here is Draco, a massive, and is this tale last, dragon. Voiced by Sean Connery, Draco teams up with Bowen (Dennis Quaid), a man whose job is killing his kind. Both in desperate times, Draco and Bowen team-up to con the countryside, before having to eventually deal with the cruel, vicious King Einon (David Thewlis), who happens to share an important history with the flame-breathing behemoth.

Expected to be significant hit by its studio Universal, DragonHeart was welcomed tepidly. Reviews were literally split, garnering a 50% on Rotten Tomatoes. The box-office wasn’t much better, opening in third place behind Mission: Impossible in its second weekend and Twister, which in its fourth weekend had more people buzzing about its natural disaster computer wizardry than DragonHeart’s monster magic. The movie would wind up ranking at #30 for 1996, before slowly growing a small cult following and having two spin-offs more than a decade later that went straight-to-video.

kara-and-draco

The Memory

A casual Dungeons & Dragons nerd at 14, the premise of DragonHeart certainly drew me to the theatre upon its release, alongside some fellow nerds. The reaction was as lukewarm as the majority’s, as I found the film to be clunky in its telling with a dull dynamic between Draco and Bowen. As a dumb teenager, I wanted more dragons turning towns and people into burnt bits and less chit-chat. Beyond that, it has always remained in my head as a dull, let-down and quickly forgotten in between the hullaballoo of that summer’s towering movie smashes Twister and Independence Day.

The Expectation

Frankly, DragonHeart has the chance to be laughably bad. Directed by Rob Cohen, he of Alex Cross, Stealth, xXx and a lot more crap, along with the original The Fast and Furious installment in all of its Point Break wannabe-ness, a fantasy outing by this man doesn’t sound appealing. Plus, there is a definite concern that an effects heavy production like this, using tools that were still fairly fresh, might have aged in an embarrassing manner.

Or not. I didn’t even remember Dennis Quaid was in this thing, let alone Julie Christie, Jason Isaacs or the terrific David Thewlis. So…

267_3_screenshot

The Verdict

When I was 14, I thought Jim Carrey was the funniest man alive, a fact I’ve covered in the past and will dive into again next month. When I was 14, I was sure the Pamela Anderson dystopian action flick Barb Wire was quality stuff. When I was 14, I thought Live was one of the best bands on the planet. When I was 14, I was wrong about a lot of things.

Oddly enough, I wasn’t wrong about DragonHeart, as despite a nearly two-decade absence in my life and many a taste evolving, I find the movie the same, mostly, bland blockbuster I did at 14.

Certainly not altogether terrible, Rob Cohen’s movie is a mishmash of tones and one-note characters that peaks at the 50-minute mark. Things open up as we see Dennis Quaid’s Bowen training Einon, a whiny prince and soon-to-be king. That soon-to-be-ness comes quick as Einon’s greedy, cruel father killed. Einon isn’t exactly in a good spot though, as he nearly dies and only survives via a heart-transplant. This being a movie with a big fucking dragon voiced by Sean Connery, this heart-transplant comes from a big fucking dragon, who splits his blood-pumper with the little shit.

Much to Bowen’s surprise, because he’s apparently daft, Einon turns out to be as bad, if not worse, than dear-old-dad. Bowen blames the flame-thrower and decides, in a series of edits that come laughably quickly, that he’s going to hunt down and slay every last dragon. Alright then.

A bit rushed and portraying Bowen as kind of blind fool isn’t an especially great starter, this opening is the worst part of the movie until, well, the last part. It is in the creamy middle where DragonHeart actually entertains. We do a, hell, even faster jump to “12 Years Later” as Bowen has butchered every last dragon and also managed to age negative days in the process. Our protagonist then meets Draco, Connery’s previously only seen in shadows creature. They duke it out in a lengthy action sequence that, frankly, recalls the work of Sam Raimi. Sure there’s the obvious use of the camera as point-of-view. Additionally though, the tone hits that kind-of-camp, just fuffing around schtick of Raimi’s. Quaid’s Bowen smacks headfirst into trees as Draco drags him through a forest. An eventual draw is had, with Bowen quite literally stuck in Draco’s giant jaws, holding a blade to the monster’s mouth.

The bond that takes over this portion of the movie is intriguing. Each side is amused and surprised at the skills and backgrounds of the others. Draco admires Bowen’s morality, even if he finds it a tad quaint. Bowen sees Draco as more than a terror to kingdoms and towns everywhere. They may be really basic models for characters, but the shell is enough. The decision to team-up and fleece some locals for fake-dragon slaying provides good laughs. The effects through this all hold together mostly well. When our digital fellow swiftly moves, lunging at foes or crashing from the skyline, the rendering feels akin enough to modern movie-magic. It’s in the quiet, particularly the non-night scenes, where the lack of detail, both in design and fluidity, sticks out.

Of course, DragonHeart’s issue never was a computer based one. Somehow, 20 years on, DragonHeart managed to disappoint me again. In the back of my head, I recalled while watching that the whole storyline with King Einon was a bore. However, I had no appreciation for the talent of David Thewlis at the time, and figured there was a really vital opportunity for that character to work better now because of this fact. Oh well. Einon is still a paper-thin structure, even in the hands of Thewlis. He mopes about the poor, Bowen, the poor again, mom, dad and whatever else. Einon pops into the party at just under an hour into the picture, driving down any momentum the script had until then. Talk of revolution is hinted in the air and for a brief time Draco and Bowen go back to their sneaky game, but the air is out of the balloon. The screenplay has to keep cutting to Einon harping on about not having enough juice-boxes.

The premise of Einon’s heart and health being intertwined with Draco’s is as muddled as memory serves, coming off as a plot device versus plot stirrer. Even when it concludes, with Einon essentially defeated and kicked to the curb, it barges in the door for an emotional payoff that is more illogical than heart-wrenching. Not helping matters is Cohen’s inability to present that or allow any other serious moment to simmer. His handling of the drama is basically less music, quieter talking from his actors and two-shots. Only a man of Cohen’s infrequent skills could make a movie with this cast and have forgettable performances by the likes of Thewlis, Jason Isaacs and Julie Christie.

That twenty-to-thirty minute bit after the first act though, pretty good. Put that on the anniversary blu-ray.

Was I Nuts – A Return to the Summer Crap of 1996

The ‘Was I Nuts’ series has always been about rekindling those flames of movies I once loved and determining whether or not to keep them burning, or perhaps be snuffed for life. There are favorites from yesteryear I realized I still love, now despise and everything in between. At the core though, it has focused on films that at one point meant something to me.

Not this summer.

This summer, ‘Was I Nuts’ will be digging into the dregs of 1996 for a special 20th Anniversary Extravaganza of Crap. Yes, it’s time to get in the way-back machine and revisit four films, one a month, that I was hyped for at fourteen during the biggest summer of my life, and yes, all four turned out to be duds. At least, they were duds then. Time and tastes change, so perhaps these four pictures all have a chance for a new lease on life. The culprits are…

For May…

DragonHeart

Yes, you will believe digital creatures will seem as real as life when Sean Connery voices a dragon and teams with Dennis Quaid in this…wait…Rob Cohen movie? Cohen of Stealth, The Boy Next Door and Alex Cross fame? Fuck’s sake. This should be a hoot.

For June

The Cable Guy

For a moment in time, there was no bigger draw in the United States than Jim Carrey. That little run began it’s slow decline with The Cable Guy, the dark comedy that saw Carrey make record-levels of millions and found his die-hard fans going a little less gaga for the plastic-faced star. Directed by Ben Stiller, the movie has grown a small audience since, and it’s time to see if Carrey’s lisp was misunderstood genius or rightfully derided.

For July

Mulitiplicity

Harold Ramis, three years removed from Groundhog Day, reunites with the writer of Animal House for a comedy with Michael Keaton; what could go wrong? If memory serves, a whole lot.

For August

The Crow: City of Angels

Before superhero sequels became commonplace, and when soundtracks helped hype a film in advance, came this second adaptation of James O’Barr’s gothic comic series of black-haired dudes reborn to avenge their horrific deaths. Mocked upon release and never growing an ounce of the cult following of the original, does City of Angels deserve a reevaluation?

Was I Nuts ? – Happy Gilmore

Happy Feel Old Day; Happy Gilmore is now twenty years-old. To commemorate this occasion, what better time to take one more trip into the Adam Sandler time-machine and see if the comedic actor, who now looks so incredibly bored in all of his films, ever had talent or even energy.

Last year’s venture into this realm found enjoyable results with Sandler’s breakout hit Billy Madison, a peculiar, weird and slightly edgy romp of awkwardness and fuck-you absurdity. Will this round bring more good vibes, or will Happy Gilmore mark the first step into the significant downward spiral of annoyance that became Sandler’s career.

The Film

Released on February 16, 1996, Happy Gilmore is about a traditional Sandler figure; the angry man. This version is a failed hockey player prone to fighting so much that somehow even that sport won’t keep him in the game. Sandler’s character is in desperate need of funds to keep his grandmother’s house and her out of a creep retirement home run by a not-yet big-time Ben Stiller. He turns to golf after discovering an innate talent for smacking the shit out of a ball. Can Sandler’s Happy keep his act together and find the finesse to excel as a professional golfer? Will the stuffed-shirts and khaki pants allow for a man as beer-swilling and profane as Happy to play alongside them? So goes the movie.

If Billy Madison was the film to put Sandler on the map as a possible movie-star, Happy Gilmore was the financial success that began to turn heads. Billy Madison ranked as the 65th highest grossing film of 1995. Roughly a year later, Happy Gilmore rocketed to 37th, making over $41 million, which adjusts to roughly $75 million today according to Box Office Mojo.

7091

The Memory

Happy Gilmore was one of a handful of films I had recorded on VHS from Starz that basically lived on my television in the back half of 1996, right alongside Empire Records, Clerks and Pulp Fiction. The film’s strange gags and pissy vibe were perfect for a teen boy, with a helping of annoyed aggression to put it over the top. This was doubled-down on by the general reception to Sandler at the time by all non-MTV media, which labeled him a loud goofball not worthy of attention.

Had these folks not listened to his comedy albums? There was an angry goat in them? And a hypnotist who farted a lot? Wait…those don’t sound that promising. Uh-oh.

Above anything else Happy Gilmore provided, it gave us Christopher McDonald’s Shooter McGavin. One of the all-time great movie assholes, Shooter, “Ate shit like you for breakfast,” and was an utter joy to root against. I refuse to believe that chunk of this film doesn’t hold up.

happy-gilmore-DI-04

The Expectation

After last year’s successful outing with Billy Madison, I believe the long thought history that Sandler started off strong and lost his touch isn’t merely wishful thinking of men in their mid-30s in the United States. There’s a crocodile waving in the sky. There’s Carl Weathers. There’s Shooter Fucking McGavin. There’s…oh no…Grown Ups, Jack and Jill and The Benchwarmers director Dennis Dugan.

The Verdict

If Billy Madison is a crazy bit of unbridled id that throws its antics everywhere with glee, Happy Gilmore is that mental capacity medicated with a handful of pills and smoothed out for a mass audience. Neither the trainwreck that would be most future Sandler films or the odd bit of genius of its forbearer, Happy Gilmore is a pleasant enough comedy with significant peeks, simultaneously working as a clear roadmap to where Sandler would eventually take his career.

In Billy Madison, Sandler’s protagonist was basically a jackass to all except a few close friends, necessary love-interest and children. With Happy Gilmore the prick who loves his family element that was sprinkled in the majority of Sandler’s later movies enters the picture. It makes sense, even if the choice makes for a more ordinary outing. That standard nature, with the sports movie clichés about an underdog, plays a bit blandly, particularly in a last act that goes on and on far past its ripeness, with one hurtle (being hit by a car) after another (a massive camera rig in the way of his tournament winning putt).

In contrast, the movie launches into its premise quickly. We see Happy as a kid, loving hockey because his dad does. Despite papa getting killed at an actual game, Happy still wants to play the sport. His talent at launching a puck is shown against his uselessness in all other skill-sets. Within about ten minutes, Happy is introduced, his house-saving dilemma is shown and the guy’s uncanny hitting ability is revealed. This nimbleness fails to continue. We get is a lot of okay parts, with Happy getting disciplined by golf muckity-mucks and a romance with Julie Bowen and whatever haircut she is sporting. These scenes, not poorly done per se, stop the laughs and feel like filler.

imrs.php_chubbs

Where Happy Gilmore excels is when it’s ridiculous. The highlight of the movie is easily Carl Weathers as Chubbs, the golf-pro that sees potential in Happy. Plus, you know, he had his right hand chomped off by an alligator. The depiction of the wooden replacement of Chubbs’ appendage, already bulky and flailing, only gets worse as its proceeded to be run over, poorly glued back together and missing several digits. When the movie cuts to Chubbs calmly restructuring the thing as he watches Happy on television, the uselessness of the endeavor is perfectly staged.

Largely, the shorter and less integral to the plot the gags are, the better they turn out to be. As useless as the love-angle is between Sandler and Bowen, it provides for a marvelous moment where they spend a date on an ice-rink to the sounds of Lionel Richie and Diana Ross’ “Endless Love.” With our would-be couple kissing in the background, the camera lingers on the Zamboni driver whom waits to finish his work as he earnestly and tenderly lip-syncs – both parts – of the song.

It all feels less cruel than Sandler’s more recent releases. There are multiple older women in the film; including one Happy sleeps with, yet none of them become the butt of a joke. The one that asks for Happy to sign her breast even gets a big hug. Now, you’d get the sense that Sandler’s character would freak out over their arrival and rag on their freakish nature. Add to that a pair of fun villains in MacDonald’s Shooter, still a superb dick, and Stiller’s ruthless nursing home head, complete with epic handlebar-moustache, and the seasonings of Happy Gilmore are consistently amusing.

The core of the movie isn’t especially engaging though. Happy’s attempts to be a better, calmer person are fine. The montages of turning into a good golfer fine. The jokes are fine. Few of those elements are more than that, making for a perfectly acceptable bit of cinema to have on while organizing your mail, but not a comedy classic.

Was I Nuts ? – So I Married An Axe Murderer

So I Married an Axe Murder was a staple of my middle school life. It was a staple for those attending Coronado Middle School. It was a staple of people named Zitzelman in the 90s. Outside of Zitelmans and people of the 92118 zip-code, I have zero clue if this movie made an impact.

Yet, something tells me it must have. For a few years, you couldn’t turn on HBO without it being on some time that day. Along with that early string of Jim Carrey smashes (Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Mask, Dumb & Dumber), I can’t think of another comedy that spent more time in that cycle. It’s a movie with no legacy whatsoever though. Coming amidst star Mike Myers’ successful transition from television to big screen, and in the middle of a pair of Wayne’s World movies, it seems be entirely forgotten by the world. Perhaps it’s because the character was, even given the title, rather normal. Myers isn’t a music junkie, super spy, plotter of evil or cat in some type of hat. There are – mostly – no fat-suits, wigs or set ups for sequels. So I Married an Axe Murderer just was and then it wasn’t.

But it meant something to me dammit and it’s worth seeing if this dark comedy is worth not just remembering, but being celebrated and quoted endlessly by Zitzelmans once more.

0451234_12962_MC_Tx360

The Film

Released on July 30th, 1993, So I Married an Axe Murderer ranked, appropriately enough, as #100 for the year at the box-office, between cult classics Strictly Ballroom and Army of Darkness, where it made a shade over $11 million. Myers stars as Charlie, a poet living in San Francisco whose love-life is persistent and brief. Charlie doesn’t so much love them and leave them as he is anxious to stay with them. Then he meets Harriet (Nancy Travis), a local butcher that he hits it off with quickly. Things are going well until clues arise that Harriet might in fact be a serial killer; as happens sometimes.

With the help of his best friend and cop (Anthony LaPaglia), Charlie must then figure out whether it’s merely more relationship paranoia or if his life really is in danger.

The Memory

Even though this was Myers working sans bald-caps or caked in make-up, the primary recall of Axe Murderer is Myers doing double-duty as Charlie’s father Stuart. A profoundly Scottish man, Stuart spouted conspiracies and lobbed insults at family members whom happen to have ludicrously large noggins. These scenes were the primary source of the aforementioned quoting, and perhaps its popularity was what spurred on Myers to go further down that rabbit-hole.

The rest of the movie is a bit of a blur. Myers’ Charlie does recites some poetry where he goes, “Whoa man! Whoa! Man. Whoooooooa Man.” There are large coffees. Amanda Plummer and Charles Grodin show up at some point.

What Myers does in the majority of his screen-time, be it romancing or fretting; no clue. Was it bland? Was it too broad? For the life of me I can’t think of a single thing he does.

The Expectation

Did I stop having So I Married an Axe Murderer a part of my life because I was no longer a kid or was it something more? Maybe there’s a reason Myers never went to this well again. Maybe there’s a reason I never, not once, enjoyed Nancy Travis in anything after this film. I believe Myers is a person whose horrid films have drastically overshadowed his best efforts and that this is perchance one said efforts.

marriedanaxemurdererbdcap1_original

The Verdict

Mike Myers sports one of the all-time bad haircuts in So I Married an Axe Murderer. Floppy, weirdly combed and too long in the back; it’s the worst. I say this as a person whom often has had the same haircut; fuck Mike. That is one awful fucking haircut.

As for the film, it’s descent into the world of forgotten movies makes sense. Never quite finding a tone and anchored to a lead performance that is too manic for its own good, Axe Murderer is a ho-hum comedy, which I suppose made it perfect for the HBO and basic-cable slot it managed for a few years. It’s the kind of movie you wouldn’t mind having on for a few minutes while unloading the dishwasher, before looking for something worthwhile to watch.

Let’s begin with Myers, who is almost visibly uncomfortable in the lead part. Occasionally funny for a beat or two, Myers calls to mind your friend who is always on and doing shtick. You know, the one that makes you laugh for a bit until you realize he’s going to tell the same jokes to the next person that enters the room. In his first scene, Myers’ Charlie is the recipient of an obnoxiously large – ie not large anymore – cup of coffee/espresso/I drink soda, I am not positive what the hell it is in fact. Myers makes a comment about its size before shouting, “Hello!!!” This will be repeated. Many. A. Time. It’s either an astute bit of characterization by screenwriter Robbie Fox (In the Army Now) or Myers injecting his own massive persona into the frame. Whatever it is, getting ready to hear, “Hello!!!” a lot.

Which is basically the problem with the movie. Charlie is neither over-the-top enough as a person to be a compellingly ludicrous lead nor sufficiently normal to work as an everyman. When trying to woo his could-be new girlfriend, he sports some accents, shouts and pretends to have a limb severed. He’s a – maybe – paid beat poet, who at one point mentions having insurance. Is the beat poet thing his job? Do cafes provide insurance for these stooges?

I digress.

Myers attempt to be less of a “Saturday Night Live” character never takes hold. That’s not to say funny bit aren’t here or there. When the make-up comes on and he portrays Charlie’s slightly drunken, giddily mean father Stuart, things, as I recalled, pick up. His relentless mocking of one family member’s cranium size still clicks, from the moment he claims the boy will be “Crying himself to sleep tonight on his huge pillow” or when Stuart merely decides to call the kid, “Head!”

896_2_screenshot

Then all things 90s make an appearance. We have some Spin Doctors here and a sampling of Soul Asylum there. That “There She Goes” song is heard so often you’d think director Thomas Schlamme lost a bet. The late Phil Hartman steals a second as an unnerving Alcatraz tour guide. Michael Richards pop in for a second, as do the unforgettably alien eyes of Debi Mazar, making their second appearance alongside Empire Records alum LaPaglia in a “Was I Nuts” selection. The LaPaglia side-plot is perhaps the best thread of Axe Murderer. As a cop bored out of his mind with paperwork and no car-chases, LaPaglia begs for his police captain (a terrific Alan Arkin) to be mean and tear him a new one now and again. When discussing being dragged into the commissioner’s office to explain a case gone wrong, Arkin pleasantly and consolingly states that they don’t have a commissioner to report to. Instead, there is a quorum of different officials, some elected and others not, to bring up issues with. LaPaglia’s bewildered reaction is priceless. Later, Arkin chews into him for digging his nose into murder investigation, which the good-natured captain follows with fretting. As LaPaglia begins to run off to help Charlie, Arkin, with great concern, asks, “Was it too much with the ethnic slurs?”

So I Married an Axe Murderer has the legacy it, basically, deserves. It doesn’t bare the rich, satirical nature of either Wayne’s World picture. Plus, while the Austin Powers quickly grew obnoxious and only led to levels of make-up obsession not seen outside of Eddie Murphy, the original movie remains a rather joyous romp. So I Married an Axe Murderer is your so-so, run-of-the-mill comedy. That it stars an actor out of his element, in part because he’s not willing to give up his usual routine, is the only real noteworthy facet.

Was I Nuts? – Empire Records

For people of a certain age, specifically those on the border of Generation X and Millennial, this next sentence will make you feel old. Empire Records is about to turn 20. If you weren’t in middle school or high school in the mid-90s, Empire Records likely means nothing to you. It came and went in theatres, won zero film-related awards and no long appears on cable every weekend. The only lasting impact it appears to have on internet culture is the rather small, if annual, celebration of “Rex Manning Day,” which ties into the movie’s central plot.

Yet, for people like me, it was a pop-culture milestone. Friends were made over the sole fact that the other person loved Empire Records too. It’s the first film I can remember flatly stating as my favorite film all of time. I gorged on various Monty Python movies, Evil Dead pictures and a handful of other releases. Empire Records was mine. Or ours. It was a combination of Richard Linklater’s chattiness and simplicity with Cameron Crowe’s sweetness and romance. I think many of us believed the thing would stand as the 90s edition of The Breakfast Club, with various personalities finding out how similar they are and uniting for a common cause.

That didn’t occur. Empire Records has faded. Unlike John Hughes’ filmography, the movie is talked about with as much frequency and import as Pogs or other 90s staples that faded as quickly as they came. Why did this happen? Should it have happened? Is Empire Records a forgotten classic, a rightly ignored stab at appealing to America’s youth or something in between?

 buzz

The Film

Released on September 22, 1995 and out of theatres by the end of October, Empire Records earned a tad over $300,000 at the box-office. The movie was directed by Allan Moyle, who had previously done a film also tied to the world of music; Pump Up the Volume. Where that picture dealt with a character played by Christian Slater who ran a pirate radio station, Empire Records took us into a more corporate world, of a sort. It’s characters were employees of the titular record store, an independent shop that is on the verge of coming under the wing of a national chain.

Other than store manager Joe (Anthony LaPaglia), the cast consists largely of teens, or adults pretending to be as such. There is the rambunctious, livewire Mark (Ethan Embry), the counter-culture, melancholy Deb (Robin Tunney), the catty, confident Gina (Renee Zellweger), the arty, lovesick A.J. (Johnny Whitworth), the object of his desire Corey (Liv Tyler) and the one that kicks all of the trouble into gear Lucas (Rory Cochrane). Said trouble erupts after Lucas tries to save the store from corporate takeover by – unsuccessfully – bidding the day’s earnings at a nearby casino.

Over the course of twenty-four hours, jobs are given and lost, love is professed and rejected, alternative rock blares from the speakers and a troubadour singer named Rex Manning (Maxwell Caulfield) ends up surrounded by much of this wackiness.

Screen-Shot-2014-08-11-at-2.58.25-PM

The Memory

For a period of four or five years, as mentioned above, Empire Records was my favorite film. I had a recorded version off of some premium movie channel, then a legit VHS copy, not to mention the soundtrack playing on something close to a loop. Dozens of Saturday night were spent spinning through it with my dear friend Jax; akin to a Rocky Horror Picture Show reenactment for two. If the previously discussed Kevin Smith movies were a key facet of how I joked with friends, Empire Records was the chunk that represented my emotional mindset. As many my age did, I found something to connect with in nearly all of the characters that inhabited.

A.J.’s longing for Corey mimicked so many high school crushes. Mark’s obsession with thunderous guitars echoed my passion for numerous metal bands of the time. Debra’s depression rang close, as I’m sure it did for countless other teens. Despite the fact that not a single moment in Empire Records takes places in a classroom, it felt particularly potent in terms of its teenage sensibilities. These were the people I wanted to spend time with. I wanted to veto someone else’s bad musical choices. I longed to be as witty as Lucas. I dreamed of rocking out on the roof at night.

Each viewing brought fresh details, be they a new recognition of a band’s poster in the background or a song in the faint background of a scene. On what must’ve been my twentieth or so evening with Empire Records, I noticed that Dishwalla’s “Counting Blue Cars” could be heard when Berko (Coyote Shivers) makes his first appearance. My mind was blown. How had I not heard this? Why wasn’t that song on the soundtrack? How did the filmmakers pick that song months before it became a hit?

The fact that much of this was declared by critics as a re-appropriating of serious, genuine alternative culture in order to sell it to white, suburban teens didn’t mean a thing to me. Adult me can recognize that the songs of The Cranberries and Gin Blossoms aren’t necessarily milestones in terms of songwriting. Teenage me literally asked for an album from The Meices, a group whose highpoint was being the background track to a chase scene in a financially unsuccessful film.

Or was it unsuccessful. Yes it lacked the box-office skills, but nearly everyone I knew at Leonardtown High School in southern chunk of Maryland owned Empire Records and its soundtrack. It’s rental and VHS sales numbers have to be significant, though I have been unable to dig up any of these numbers. Still, the movie had appeal through-out that certain niche of American culture. The movie may not be a touchstone many people revisit. It is nevertheless one that had several years of devotion unlike nearly any other movie for my demo in the mid-90s.

The Expectations

I know Empire Records isn’t going to suddenly re-enter the pantheon of personal favorites. That fact I can tell before sitting down for a single frame for the first time since probably 2000. That doesn’t equate crap. Director Allan Moyle’s career may not be littered with classics, just as the movie’s screenwriter Carol Heikkinen isn’t. Still, a lot of quality cinema emerged from people who only managed to tap into something once.

I expect to roll my eyes. I expect to laugh a lot too and to find the majority of the ensemble to have a sweet, simple chemistry. We shall see.

 lucas4

The Verdict

Can something be crassly earnest? Empire Records sure implies this. Though it’s a touchstone for a particular segment of 90s kids, the film actually brings to mind the thought of Emo kids a decade later. There is a raw, flailing sensitivity going on here, which of course would translate well to the raw, flailing nature of being a teenager. Sure the movie has someone shout, “Damn the man! Save the Empire!” in its closing act. Empire Records isn’t really engaging with the counter-culture movement as much as its twenty-somethings going through that faze where the world’s options can be overwhelming. It may not do it with particular nuance or perfect vision, but there is a beating heart in Moyle’s movie that translates.

Aiding matters first and foremost is the cast, especially the trio of Cochrane, Tunney and Anthony LaPaglia. Before becoming staples of television crime-dramas, these three put in rather stellar work here. Cochrane hits the right level of overconfident and good-natured as Lucas, the one who fucks it up and ends up accidentally igniting changes in those around him. His discussions with the camera, where he runs through plans and frets about his mistakes, could read as obnoxious. Cochrane makes it fun, as if we were along for the mischief. Tunney’s Deb is a buzz-saw of feelings; bipolar and pissed at the world for letting her down. It cruises along as the perfect shade of melancholy, without ever overstepping into outright weepiness. LaPaglia has the harder job as Joe, the manager of the store. He is essentially the dad of these misfit toys. His kind, concerned presence bares a tired saltiness that allows Joe some depth.

The rest of the cast is mostly solid. Zellweger is engagingly cruel and broken, showing the fire and occasional goofiness that made her best parts memorably years later. Caulfield is a wonderful prick. He oozes the condescension that pits him alongside Christopher McDonald’s Shooter McGavin as one of the great, love-to-loathe assholes of the 90s. Embry is all energy and excitement as Mark; somehow not annoying in-spite of a part that asks him to basically squeak with joy.

Where things don’t entirely work are in the A.J. and and Corey relationship. Whitworth plays it with the appropriate earnestness, but the pairing with Tyler is close to a non-starter. Some of that is the nature of the script. We see A.J. talk about loving Corey deeply and narrowing down the exact time of day he’s going to tell her his true feelings. What isn’t shown is why. Tyler basically smiles or cries a bunch as Corey; less a person than a cradle of traits. She bakes for everyone. She studies too hard. She is equally messed up. Tyler and Whitworth play what’s on the page as best they can. What’s there is a hole that occasionally swallows up the good parts around it.

The joy in the return comes from comedic bits that hold up well. Lucas pestering a shoplifter by being obtuse and bizarre. Mark getting high and imagining getting eaten alive by heavy-metal act Gwar. A.J. practicing his confessional lines for Corey and conjuring, “You know that feeling when you get out of a warm bath… well… you make me feel like a bath?”

The joy in the return comes from really loving all things Lucas and Deb. That quietly moving scene between LaPaglia and Tunney where she confesses her attempt at suicide via a pink Lady Bic. A soundtrack that may not be littered with great acts, but great songs.

The joy in the return comes from seeing that Empire Records, for its faults and all, is actually a pretty solid film.

Was I Nuts ? – Almost Famous

For a time, Cameron Crowe was one of the most loved voices in American cinema. He was kind of a mainstream version of Richard Linklater, making films about ordinary people, usually with a great soundtrack and a knack for love and heartbreak like few others. Say Anything, Singles and Jerry Maguire each made Crowe a bigger and bigger name.

Then came 2000’s Almost Famous.

Earning raves, awards and a loyal fanbase, if not much money initially, it extended the cult of Crowe. This was aided in no small part because it reached across multiples groups of obsessives; music and film geeks. Add to that a classic Philip Seymour Hoffman performance as the legendary – and real – critic Lester Bangs, and it was sure to become one of the definitive movies of its time.

Yet, that never really went through. Almost Famous is fondly remembered, but not talked about too often. It’s critical status is solid, if in somewhat hushed tones. The movie is the equivalent of an album you loved in high school and fear is so angst-ridden that it’s almost embarrassing to still love. The following year’s Vanilla Sky was too odd for some, not as good as the original to others. Then came 2005’s long-awaited Elizabethtown, a romantic picture that was derided, re-edited and then derided again. The cult was in chaos and then six long years went by without another Crowe release, eventually ending with 2011’s moderately earning, moderately received and barely remembered We Bought a Zoo.

Now, Crowe is about to be back on screens with Aloha. It looks to be mingling romance, comedy and drama; the things he built his career upon. If it’s a hit, perhaps Almost Famous could get a little fire going again and once more be seen as a must-see. If not, that film’s legacy could continue to be viewed as something of a time and place. Either way, I’m taking another run with Crowe, the boys of Stillwater and the movie that made Kate Hudson a star. Uh-oh. Let’s see if this thing is a Golden God.

The Film

Released on September 13, 2000, Almost Famous came out to raves and mediocre box office. While grossing $47.3 million isn’t terrible for a movie with few leading stars and which focuses around a decades old fictional rock band, it cost more than it made ($60 million) and came on the heels of Crowe’s financial and Oscar success Jerry Maguire.

The movie stars Patrick Fugit as William Miller, a would-be music journalist whose love of all things rock emerged when his older sister (Zooey Deschanel) left the house. Receiving her private stash of records, William fell for Led Zeppelin, The Who and the like in fright that his rather conservative mother (Frances McDormand) wouldn’t approve. Eventually accepting her son’s musical preferences, the barely a teenager William gets the chance to do what he loves and write about music, following the band Stillwater on tour. Drugs are offered, so is sex, and William finds himself lost and in love as he travels the country, with the legendary critic Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman) as his only stone of sanity.

almost famous 21

The Memory

Almost Famous came out just after high-school ended for me and I was beginning to write more and more about movies in my spare time. Saying it resonated would be quite accurate. Helping matters was how great it all was, with Crowe conquering a balance of drama and comedy. This was mainstream cinema with intelligence, a variety of creative, live-wire characters and consistently inspired dialogue. Included in that was Hoffman’s energetic and cynical Bangs, an invigorating figure that refused to praise mediocrity and the egocentric guitarist Russell Hammond, which we all expected would make Billy Crudup huge.

Instead, that fame went to Kate Hudson. Almost Famous turned Hudson into a star and the thought was that her excellent, enigmatic performance as ultimate groupie/Band-Aid Penny Lane showed her as an actress on which to keep an eye. A career of genuinely awful romantic comedies though might imply otherwise.

The Expectations

This one has to be good right? I mean, sure Vanilla Sky didn’t’ quite hang together, Elizabethtown fumbled along and We Bought a Zoo was forgettable…but……

I mean, sure Kate Hudson went on to make Bride Wars, Fool’s Gold and You, Me & Dupree…but…

Some filmmakers just peak and that’s how it turns out to be. I’m putting my foot down; Almost Famous is excellent…right?

psh-almostfamous

The Verdict

Almost Famous hasn’t aged a day. In a manner, this makes sense. It always was a period piece, released twenty-some years after the initial semi-fictitious events that were inspired by Crowe’s actual work as a teen journalist for Rolling Stone. Now, those events are removed further as its times remain vibrant, wild and temperamental.

Crowe’s movie is a great one, with a streak of humor that always know the precise time to pop its head in and when to linger a few beats longer on a dramatic note. This all stems from the fascinating characters he crafted, each one complex and flawed in their own particular manner. Kate Hudson’s Penny Lane is an optimist, thinking the words said in private are always the truest. She is smart about the world she surrounds herself with, as long as it isn’t about her. Penny is the kind of person who can give the best advice, while remaining naïve to every lie or emotion aimed her away. Our lead William is a teenager in over his head, thankfully played by the actual teen-aged Fugit. William is talented, perceptive and quick to fall in love, be it with music or a woman, in the way only a person of his age can.

Rounding out our core trio is Crudup’s Russell Hammond, the guitarist and most admired member of Stillwater. Russell is ego run amok. He’s a man so careful about his own persona that he consistently lets William in enough to admire his coolness, but at an arm-distance to conceal the messier bits. A rather sad, pathetic person, Russell’s defining moment comes at the dawn of the last act as the band and their closest crew are under the belief that their airplane is about to crash. In this instant, Russell admits, rather genuinely, that he’s essentially sorry for being a piece of shit and not stating his love and admiration for those dearest to him. Amidst this honesty, they largely throw it back in his face, stating the fact that they hate his guts. Crudup, who is incredible here, plays this beautifully. He is shocked, having finally opened up to get a punch right to the gut.

Crowe controls these high-level revelations, and all of the drug-fueled insanity around it, with a gentle touch. There is intimacy in each scene, with William as the well-rounded entry point. When he is by Russell’s side on a brief sabbatical from the band, William witnesses this rock-star at his silliest/worst. Russell talks about how he just wants to be with “real people.” William gets stuck watching Russell with said people, blabbering about the authenticity of every object in some random teenager’s bedroom. As Russell speaks these ridiculous profundities, his audience is captive only due to the man’s stardom and when a pause is given, one kid just asks, “Want to see me feed a mouse to my snake?”

This knack for ending a scene with a gag to emphasize character is Crowe at his finest. This can be seen from the onset, as we learn of the paranoia and particular nature of William’s mother Elaine, played to perfection by McDormand She rants about the evils of rock music, citing the quaint Simon & Garfunkel of all people as prime examples of the genre’s indecency. Of course, Crowe also depicts the kindness.

Elaine finding Simon & Grafunkel to be frightening pop culture; how quaint. As an even younger William finally learns that his true age has been a lie and that he in fact is a full two years younger than his classmates, Elaine says, in full sweetness, “Honey, I knew you were expecting puberty but you’re going to have to shine-on a few more years.”

Then there is the glory of legendary and actual rock-critic Lester Bangers. Philip Seymour Hoffman never looked as pumped and joyous in a role. Lester is the grounded voice for William, stating time and again that, “You have to make your reputation on being honest and unmerciful.” His love and hatred of music is a loving, rather genuine portrait of the critical community. Comfortable in being uncool, Lester is introduced in a dynamite scene where he yells about the “drunken buffoon” Jim Morrison, before telling William he doesn’t have time to shoot the shit with a fan. Of course, seconds later Crowe shows him on what is likely his seventh cup of coffee babbling and ranting with the young fellow at a diner.

These little touches are ever-present in Almost Famous. Crowe has such control over the tone, never undercutting the progression of his narrative for the sake of a joke, while also saving the heavy stuff for when it will hit the hardest. When we finally get to Penny at her lowest, dumped and alone in a city where so many of her “friends” are also hanging about, the impact weighs all the more because Crowe hasn’t punched that card to that point. It’s a showcase for Hudson, who has never been this good again, but is nevertheless worth the praise she garnered here.

The whole thing bares an earnestness that refrains from tipping into sappy. Many filmmakers have tried for this since, attempting to blend the heart, drama and laughs in a confident concoction. Most of them have failed (Mendes’ abysmal Away We Go), a few handfuls have succeeded (Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right) and some have been by Crowe himself. I hope Aloha is a return to form. If not, we’ll always have Almost Famous.