90’s Film Frenzy: Wicked Round 3

We’ve moved past Halloween and a lot of folks have dived in…atleast emotionally…to the Christmas season. For me though, as much as I love Christmas, it seems a bit premature, which is why I’m glad I have this competition to focus on (as well as football). The quote you are seeing to your left is something I ran across just a few weeks ago, and it makes so much sense to me. I know I’ve mentioned it previously, but while box office receipts & awards are great, what really matters to me is a movie that I’ve enjoyed multiple times and still delight in many years after its initial release. Those movies are special, and unfortunately they are all too rare. At any rate, if you need to catch up on third round results in the Dope, Fly, & Phat Divisions please do so, and then come on back to finish up Round 3 action with the Wicked Division.

 

 

 

 

The Shawshank Redemption                        vs.              Lethal Weapon 4

I’m going to admit something with which few might agree: Lethal Weapon 4 might be my favorite of the series…or atleast it’s right up there with the original. All the elements are in place…Joe Pesci is back as Leo Getz, Rene Russo (aka Lorna Cole) is in a full-fledged relationship with Martin Riggs and about to have his baby, and Chris Rock joins the cast as Sgt. Butters, who (spoiler alert) has secretly impregnated Roger Murtaugh’s daughter. The bad guys are smugglers bringing in illegal immigrants as part of some sort of plot involving organized crime in China. The reason I like it is probably why many critics didn’t…it has a lighter touch and more humor than a typical action movie. Oh there are still shootouts & explosions, but there is also Pesci & Rock riffing off each other while our two favorite cops provoke them then sit back and laugh, and as the conclusion of the film illustrates, all of these characters have become family…to each other and to the audience. It’s about as heartwarming as a buddy/cop movie is going to get. Conversely, The Shawshank Redemption is an unflinching prison movie. It doesn’t attempt to warm our cockles, and that’s okay. The gold star has to go to Morgan Freeman. I can’t imagine that this movie…with all due respect to Tim Robbins…would’ve been nearly as good without Freeman. He simply makes everything he is in better just by his mere presence. It is difficult to fathom…more than two decades later…how Shawshank made less money at the box office than Major League II, I Love Trouble, The Paper, Richie Rich, Timecop, Natural Born Killers, and The Flintstones (with John Goodman, Rick Moranis, & Rosie O’Donnell). Freeman has said in interviews that he thinks the title may have been difficult for some to remember which led to poor word of mouth upon the film’s initial release. If that is true it is a sad reflection on our education system. Easier to understand is why it received seven Academy Award nominations but won none of them. Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction came out in the same year, so that’s pretty tough competition. Anyway, Shawshank is a great example of what we talked about in the preamble. It bombed in theaters and didn’t win any Oscars despite multiple nominations, but because of home video rentals (VHS…cause that’s how we rolled in the 90’s kids) and sweet television package that allowed for repeat viewings on Turner’s TV channels it flourished and has become a modern classic.

The Verdict:       The Shawshank Redemption. This one is tough because I really do love Lethal Weapon 4. However, though according to my own rules it is included in this competition because it’s part of a series rather than a trilogy, the fact is that I tend to still look at Lethal Weapon as a single entity in multiple parts, and it is difficult to separate them. If I am being honest, on a lazy afternoon of couch potatoing I think my clicker might be just as likely stop on the channel showing Lethal Weapon 4, but Shawshank is clearly the superior film.

 

 

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Mrs. Doubtfire                                vs.                        Tommy Boy

I’ll make this short & sweet. Both are delightful comedies. Both have gotten a lot of repeat viewing and are on television with some frequency. But it comes down to Robin Williams vs. Chris Farley & David Spade. Perhaps age is a line in the sand. Those who came of age and went thru their teens in the 90’s would likely choose Farley & Tommy Boy. However, as an 80’s kid who was there from the very beginning of Williams’ rise to prominence and has been a huge fan of his since childhood I must opine that Mrs. Doubtfire is amongst his finest work. It didn’t receive critical praise & award nominations like Good Morning Vietnam or Good Will Hunting, but it came before later, more depressing efforts like What Dreams May Come and Death to Smoochy. There is a terrific scene near the end when Williams’ character is bouncing back & forth between two situations in the same restaurant, and when it is revealed who Mrs. Doubtfire really is the reaction of the Sally Field character is priceless. The children are well cast, and I really like the boss of the TV station portrayed by fine character actor Robert Prosky.

The Verdict:       Mrs. Doubtfire. It just isn’t a fair fight.

 

 

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Scent of a Woman                         vs.              The Truman Show

As much as I have tried to focus on supporting roles in Round 3, one cannot see this matchup and overlook Pacino vs. Carrey, especially since both men practically put an entire movie on their back and carry it to greatness. The Truman Show was way ahead of its time. I am really surprised that no one has tried to pull off a real life Truman Show in the ensuing years. I’m sure it could be done, and frankly it might actually be gratifying to watch a reality show where the star isn’t doing it on purpose in a vain attempt to grab cheap fame & fortune. Of course then there would be a moral dilemma for viewers because the idea of watching another person’s entire life on TV without their knowledge feels a little depraved. Ed Harris received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his role as creator/director/producer Christoff (he lost the award to James Coburn for his role in Affliction), and the religious overtones are undeniable. The reason Harris’ portrayal is so good is because it is so low-key. Christoff is meant to be the villain, but he isn’t a caricature, laughing manically or foaming at the mouth. My favorite scene is at the end of the movie. The viewing public is on the edge of their collective seat as Truman Burbank figures out the truth of his situation and finally escapes. But two seconds after the show ends everybody simply changes the channel and moves on with their lives just that quick. It is profound, as is the entire film. Pacino had been nominated for multiple Oscars for performances in much better movies, but it took his excessive bravado as Lt. Col. Frank Slade to finally win.

The Verdict:       Scent of a Woman. Such is my disdain for reality television that I have had no desire to watch The Truman Show over & over thru the years. I realize that is flawed logic because the film is actually a satirical commentary about such programs, but the fact that a show that seemed so far-fetched two decades ago is now more than plausible is a sad commentary on the direction we’ve taken as a society. It’s too discouraging to even ponder, so…fair or unfair…I avoid the movie. Those that say Pacino’s performance masks a relatively thin plot probably aren’t wrong, but who cares?? Pacino is awesome.

 

 

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Deep Impact                                   vs.                        The Big Lebowski

Deep Impact is a better movie than Armageddon. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. However, it isn’t as memorable. Despite the presence of Morgan Freeman as President of the United States (Barack Obama wishes he could be as cool as Freeman) the rest of the cast doesn’t really rev the engines. Tea Leoni. Robert Duvall. Vanessa Redgrave. Ron Eldard. Laura Innes. Leelee Sobieski. I’m not saying they aren’t talented…but there’s no one there with an It Factor that’ll really attract an audience. Elijah Wood was still a few years away from his adventures in Middle Earth, and Jon Favreau was hardly a household name twenty years ago. But despite all of that, it is still a really good movie. The Big Lebowski has defeated Ten Things I Hate About You and Wayne’s World (which some might consider an upset) to get to this point. It is what one might call a hot pepper movie. Have you ever eaten an allegedly hot pepper with the initial thought of “What’s the big deal??”, only for the heat to sneak up on you a few minutes later?? Not only has it become a cult classic long after being a box office flop, but repeat viewings are almost a necessity. Don’t watch Lebowski once and wonder why anyone likes it. You need to see it a few times before you can begin to appreciate its greatness. It is highly quotable and chockful of memorable characters.

The Verdict:       The Big Lebowski. The Dude is headed to The Sweet 16. Not bad for a movie that ranked 96th at the box office in 1998.

90’s Film Frenzy: Wicked Round 1

Before we conclude Round 1 of 90’s Film Frenzy please go back and check out first round action in the Dope, Fly, and Phat divisions.

 

You have likely noticed that I consistently use two metrics in my evaluation…box office and critic reviews. I utilize Rotten Tomatoes to see what the critics had to say, and I look at Box Office Mojo to see how the movie stacked up financially against its competition. When I was growing up we didn’t have The Internet and movie critics were a rare breed mostly confined to big city newspapers. The big dogs on the block were Siskel & Ebert because they actually had their own television show, so you’re seeing them referenced a lot, mostly out of nostalgia. I also tend to focus on reviews that were written at the time of a film’s release in the 1990s because it is rather bogus and a bit unfair to give credence to something written many years later by a critic who has suddenly jumped on the bandwagon of a cult film that has grown in stature thru the magic of home video. Having said that, neither the box office nor the critics are always an accurate measure of a movie, and something that has achieved cult status for whatever reason shouldn’t be overlooked just because it didn’t make much money or receive critical acclaim two+ decades ago. It’s a delicate balancing act…one I hope that I am doing well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ghost

Release:                       7/13/90

Starring:                        Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore, Whoopi Goldberg

Directed By:                 Jerry Zucker (Airplane!, Ruthless People)

 

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Reality Bites

Release:                       2/18/94

Starring:                        Ethan Hawke, Winona Ryder, Janeane Garofalo, Steve Zahn, Renée Zellweger, John Mahoney

Directed By:                 Ben Stiller (The Cable Guy, Zoolander, Tropic Thunder)

 

If there is one film in this competition that might qualify as “quintessential 90’s” I think Reality Bites fits the bill. It’s right there in the title…Reality Bites. Angst-ridden twenty-somethings try to find their footing in the post-graduate jungle that is life. That’s pretty much the idea. The cast is impressive, and the soundtrack is representative of its era, with songs from Crowded House, Lenny Kravitz, Julianna Hatfield, & The Posies. Not exactly mainstream, right?? I feel like the most enduring legacy of Reality Bites is the hit song Stay by quirky Lisa Loeb. This movie came out right after I graduated college and had entered the workforce, but at the time I was also still clinging to the old college life…hanging out with my friends and patronizing familiar watering holes ‘til 3am. Stay was in heavy rotation on the jukebox, and I have a vague recollection of a female acquaintance of mine dancing to the song and stripping down to her unmentionables right in the middle of the bar. Ghost was nominated for five Academy Awards and won two of them. When a banker is shot & killed by a mugger his ghost enlists the help of a shady psychic to warn his grieving girlfriend of impending danger. The enduring legacy of Ghost includes the zenith of Patrick Swayze’s solid career, Whoopi Goldberg when she was still funny and not a political hack, one of Demi Moore’s best performances, a renewed appreciation for The Righteous Brothers’ hit Unchained Melody, & a sudden interest in learning more about pottery.

 

The Verdict:       Ghost. I was precisely the target audience for Reality Bites and still found it dull. It was the 63rd highest grossing film of 1994, behind such stalwarts as Shaquille O’Neal’s Blue Chips, Pauly Shore’s In the Army Now, & Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Timecop. Rotten Tomatoes scores it at 66%, with the Chicago Tribune calling it “a good example of an anti-establishment comedy crippled by a seeming desire to infatuate the establishment itself”, while The New Yorker observed that “when the movie is over you don’t feel as if you had shared the experience of a new generation…you feel puzzled and vaguely crummy”. Conversely, Ghost won Oscars for Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress (Goldberg). It was the second highest grossing film of 1990, behind only Home Alone, and holds a 74% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Gene Siskel declared that “Moore has never been more fetching”, while his buddy Ebert said that the movie “occasionally succeeds in evoking the mysteries that it toys with”.

 

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Glengarry Glen Ross

Release:                       10/2/92

Starring:                        Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alec Baldwin, Alan Arkin, Ed Harris, Kevin Spacey

Directed By:                 James Foley (Reckless, The Chamber)

 

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Striking Distance

Release:                       9/17/93

Starring:                        Bruce Willis, Sarah Jessica Parker, Tom Sizemore, Dennis Farina, John Mahoney

Directed By:                 Rowdy Herrington (Road House)

 

Just glancing at the cast of Glengarry Glen Ross elicits such high expectations that it’d be almost impossible for a film to live up to them. Based on a 1984 Pulitzer Prize winning play by David Mamet, the story shows us two days in the lives of aging real estate salesmen desperate to keep their jobs. The corporate office has announced that half of them will be fired in a week, so they must do whatever necessary to get the numbers needed to impress the boss. Lemmon, Arkin, Harris, & Pacino are powerful performers on an individual basis, and as an ensemble they are unmatched. Throw Spacey and a brief but memorable appearance by Baldwin into the mix and what you have is a movie in which the plot is secondary to the performances. In the hands of lesser actors it might be a total yawner, but what we end up with is a masterclass in how to make relatively mundane subject matter absolutely riveting. Bruce Willis was already a big movie star by 1993, with two Die Hards, two Look Who’s Talking films, & less appreciated fare like The Bonfire of the Vanities, Hudson Hawk, & The Last Boy Scout on his resume. Striking Distance tells the story of a disgraced Pittsburgh homicide detective relegated to river rescue duty after opining that a serial killer might be a rogue cop. When someone begins stalking him the game is afoot and the only person he can trust is his fetching female partner…or so he thinks. Striking Distance isn’t fondly recalled as one of Willis’ best, but with a cast that includes Parker, Mahoney, & Farina and a Pittsburgh backdrop familiar to this West Virginian I believe it is better than many may recall.

 

The Verdict:       Glengarry Glen Ross. I’m not usually into murder mysteries or police dramas, but Striking Distance works for me in a way it doesn’t seem to for many others. It was the 63rd highest grossing film of 1993 (better than Rudy but behind Pauley Shore’s Son-in-Law) and has an abysmal 14% Rotten Tomatoes score. Entertainment Weekly called Willis “morose” and the movie a “flat, dankly lit, grindingly inept thriller”, while Ebert called it “an exhausted reassembly of bits & pieces from all the other movies that are more or less exactly like this one”. Conversely, Glengarry Glen Ross has a stellar Rotten Tomatoes score of 94%, with Ebert saying that “you can see the joy with which the actors get their teeth into these great lines” and ReelViews opining that “for anyone who loves sharp dialogue, compelling characters, and a stinging social rebuke, Glengarry Glen Ross is not to be missed”. It was only the 94th highest grossing movie of 1992, yet we must consider that it isn’t a big budget epic but rather a stage play put on film. The fact that one can still appreciate its prominence nearly three decades later outweighs any perceived box office shortcomings.

 

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The Big Lebowski

Release:                       3/6/98

Starring:                        Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, Tara Reid, Philip Seymour Hoffman

Directed By:                 Joel & Ethan Coen (Raising Arizona, Fargo, No Country for Old Men)

 

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Ten Things I Hate About You

Release:                       3/31/99

Starring:                        Heath Ledger, Julia Stiles, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Larisa Oleynik

Directed By:                 Gil Junger (Black Knight, If Only)

 

Ol’ William Shakespeare is still inspiring people 400 years after he left this mortal coil, and a big Hollywood trend the past few decades is to take the basic theme of a Shakespeare play and set it in modern times with young & hip movie stars. Ten Things I Hate About You turns Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew into a romantic dramedy about high school students. Stiles, Ledger, Gordon-Leavitt, & Oleynik star as two sisters and the guys attempting to woo them, and the cast also includes Andrew Keegan, David Krumholtz, Gabrielle Union, & Allison Janney. It was the 53rd highest grossing film of 1999 and has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 62%, with Variety observing that it “doesn’t even seem certain which decade it’s set in”, the San Francisco Chronicle opining that the movie “wimped out by blanding down the story and the characters to the point where she isn’t really a shrew and he isn’t really a maniac”, and Ebert chiming in that high school films are “running out of new ideas and have taken to recycling classic literature”. The Big Lebowski has grown in stature & popularity in the two decades since its release when it was the 96th highest grossing movie of the year, behind immense competition like Half Baked, Simon Birch, & Bulworth. It is the very definition of a cult film, although with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 82% it seems like critics recognized its greatness long before the masses caught up. Jeffrey Lebowski is known by his friends and refers to himself simply as The Dude. He is the quintessential slacker who enjoys sitting around in his bathrobe, drinking white Russians, and bowling with his pals Walter & Donny. When two thugs assault him in his house demanding money that is owed to their boss it becomes clear that they have the wrong guy…they’re after the other Jeffrey Lebowski – an old, handicapped millionaire. The thugs leave The Dude in peace but take a wiz on his area rug first, which offends him tremendously because the rug “really tied the room together”. When The Dude seeks out the other Lebowski for recompense he ends up getting caught in a complex plot involving kidnapping, ransom, a porn magnate, & a high school kid named Larry. The Cincinnati Enquirer called The Big Lebowski “loopy, unfathomable, profane, & very funny”, while Ebert simply framed it as “weirdly engaging”. There is actually an annual event in Louisville, KY called Lewbowski Fest which, since 2002, has celebrated the film with bowling, trivia, & costume contests, and a “religion” called Dudeism that advocates & encourages “going with the flow”, “being cool headed”, and “taking it easy” in the face of life’s difficulties, which does sound kind of awesome.

 

The Verdict:       The Big Lebowski. No contest. The Dude abides. But well, you know, that’s just, like, my opinion, man.

 

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October Sky

Release:                       2/19/99

Starring:                        Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Cooper, Laura Dern, Chris Owen

Directed By:                 Joe Johnston (Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Jumanji)

 

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Four Weddings & A Funeral

Release:                       5/13/94

Starring:                        Hugh Grant, Andie MacDowell

Directed By:                 Mike Newell (Donnie Brasco, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire)

 

Hugh Grant first became a thing in the early 90’s mainly because of Four Weddings & A Funeral. The plot is pretty simple, as it follows a small group of people whose lives keep intersecting at various social engagements, specifically…you guessed it…four weddings and a funeral. Andi MacDowell is a charming actress who has been in a few films that I’ve really enjoyed but she mostly flies under the radar. I vaguely recall seeing Four Weddings & A Funeral back in college, and what I remember most is a cover of an old 60’s song Love Is All Around that would be co-opted again a decade later for the British Christmas rom-com Love Actually. I think others enjoyed the movie more than me, as Four Weddings & A Funeral was nominated for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards, holds a 95% Rotten Tomatoes score, & was the 21st highest grossing film of 1994. Gene Siskel observed that it “couldn’t be more psychologically astute in its portrait of a man who defines himself by his bachelorhood”, while Entertainment Weekly raved that its “infectious charm and sunny goodwill can immediately buoy a soul”. Fellow West Virginian Homer Hickam is the subject of October Sky, which is based on his memoir Rocket Boys. We meet Homer as a high school student living amongst the economically and otherwise depressed coal fields of southern West Virginia in the 1950s. Homer and his pals dream of a better live outside of Appalachia, and the launch of Soviet satellite Sputnik into space inspires an interest in building rockets. Unfortunately dreams of success, happiness, & achievement are met with resistance from the redneck masses, and it’s up to the young lads to blaze their own trail and prove everyone wrong. The only person who seems to be in their corner is a kindhearted science teacher, but that’s enough. Homer Hickam went on to become a NASA engineer for nearly thirty years. October Sky was the 63rd highest grossing film of 1999 and holds a 90% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Ebert complimented the movie’s “deep values”, while CNN called it “a sensational character-driven story with a strong narrative and great visual style”.

 

The Verdict:       October Sky. In doing my prep work I was surprised to learn that Four Weddings & a Funeral had been nominated for Best Picture. Perhaps the timing is just off for me. Back then I was at the tail end of my collegiate existence and caught up in other things. I remember seeing it once, and in the ensuing decades I don’t think I’ve ever seen it again. I’m sure if I went back and watched it now I’d find it perfectly delightful, but obviously it didn’t really resonate with me for whatever reason. Conversely, I can identify with certain beats in October Sky that few outside of Appalachia could ever understand. This was Jake Gyllenhaal’s first starring role, and he & the rest of the cast are superb.

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Liar Liar

Release:                       3/21/97

Starring:                        Jim Carrey, Maura Tierney

Directed By:                 Tom Shadyac (Patch Adams, Bruce Almighty)

 

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Doc Hollywood

Release:                       8/2/91

Starring:                        Michael J. Fox, Julie Warner, Woody Harrelson, Bridget Fonda, David Ogden Stiers, Barnard Hughes

Directed By:                 Michael Caton-Jones (Rob Roy)

 

Jim Carrey is a mixed bag for me. His shtick gets old really quick, and I tired of it fifteen years ago. However, between 1994 & 2003 he starred in a handful of memorable films, and Liar Liar might deserve a spot at the top of the list. Carrey plays a hotshot attorney whose focus on his career and deceitful ways have already ended his marriage and are on the verge of costing him his young son Max, who makes a wish on his birthday that his Dad not be able to lie at all for just one day. Max’s wish comes true and hilarity ensues. Liar Liar was the fourth highest grossing film of 1997 and has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 81%. Variety called it “close to an ideal jumping-off point for Carrey”, the Hollywood Reporter opined that “Carrey has never been better, funnier, or more controlled”, and Ebert expressed trepidation that “I am gradually developing a suspicion that Jim Carrey is growing on me”. Doc Hollywood marked Michael J. Fox’s emergence from the Back to the Future niche that he’d been in for over five years, and the results aren’t too shabby. He plays a hotshot Washington DC doctor on his way to Los Angeles to make bank as a plastic surgeon. But when he crashes his classic Porsche in a rural South Carolina town he finds himself marooned for awhile and forced to serve as the local physician for a quirky group of townsfolk. Gradually he starts to mellow and grow fond of his new neighbors, and of course there is a fetching young lady with which he becomes smitten. Doc Hollywood is kind of predictable, but enchantingly so, with a great cast and fun characters. It was the 24th highest grossing movie of 1991, ahead of Bugsy, Thelma & Louise, and Point Break. Rotten Tomatoes scores it at 71%, with Newsweek saying that it “oversells its whimsy and fits its quirkiness into a sitcom formula”, while Ebert called it “a sweetheart of a movie”.

 

The Verdict:       Doc Hollywood. There is a scene in Doc Hollywood involving the exquisite Julie Warner emerging from a lake that rivals Phoebe Cates infamously exiting a swimming pool a decade earlier in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. I can’t get that scene out of my head when pondering the film. I’m a sucker for stories involving big city types being beguiled by easygoing small town life, and the cast pulls this version of the formula off to my satisfaction. I am not swayed by the box office for Liar Liar and like Fox better than Carrey.

 

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Lethal Weapon 4

Release:                       7/10/98

Starring:                        Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Joe Pesci, Rene Russo, Chris Rock, Jet Li

Directed By:                 Richard Donner (Superman, The Goonies, Scrooged)

 

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Can’t Hardly Wait

Release:                       6/12/98

Starring:                        Ethan Embry, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Lauren Ambrose, Peter Facinelli, Seth Green, Charlie Korsmo, Jason Segel, Donald Faison, Selma Blair, Sara Rue, Jenna Elfman, Jerry O’Connell, Melissa Joan Hart, Breckin Meyer

Directed By:                 Deborah Kaplan (A Very Brady Sequel)

 

Fans of the Lethal Weapon series have been anxiously awaiting a fifth installment for twenty years, and though I’m usually a “never say never” kind of guy I believe at this point that it’s too little too late and I’m okay with that. The fourth & final Lethal Weapon finds Riggs reluctant to marry his very pregnant girlfriend Lorna, Murtaugh dealing with the pregnancy of his eldest daughter by a mystery man, and the long in the tooth duo investigating an illegal Chinese immigrant smuggling situation. Rock joins the cast as an overzealous detective who is more than he lets on, and of course Pesci is back as fast talking ex-con Leo. Lethal Weapon 4 was the 11th highest grossing film of 1998, though it was also the most expensive of the four films to produce. It holds a 52% score on Rotten Tomatoes, with Time referring to it as “mindless, sadistic violence juxtaposed with rote sentimentality”, while the New York Times generously pronouncing that it “turns out to be one of the nicer blow-’em-ups around”. Can’t Hardly Wait is another Hindsight Film, full of young actors who have stuck around long enough to be known for other things. It is also a classic high school film, set at a conventional graduation party and deconstructing all of the requisite high school archetypes. It was the 74th highest grossing movie of the year, ahead of Rushmore and A Simple Plan but behind Bride of Chucky and A Night at the Roxbury. It holds a 40% Rotten Tomatoes rating, with Entertainment Weekly calling it “a high-spirited, synthetically raucous house-party comedy” and Ebert saying that it “lumbers ungracefully from romantic showdowns to deep conversations to bathroom humor”.

 

The Verdict:       Lethal Weapon 4. Though rumors of one last movie persist I think 4 provides a fitting conclusion to a very entertaining series. Perhaps the powers-that-be could learn a lesson from Die Hard, a franchise that should have stopped after three installments but has subjected the masses to two additional films with a sixth one possibly on the way. Sometimes it’s better to end on a high note and leave the memories alone. Back in the days of Party of Five I had a huge celebrity crush on Jennifer Love Hewitt, so I’m all in on Can’t Hardly Wait. However, in a sub-genre that has produced so many memorable movies the past few decades it really doesn’t stand out from the crowd.

 

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Backdraft

Release:                       5/24/91

Starring:                        Kurt Russell, William Baldwin, Robert De Niro, Donald Sutherland, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rebecca De Mornay

Directed By:                 Ron Howard

 

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That Thing You Do

Release:                       10/4/96

Starring:                        Tom Everett Scott, Liv Tyler, Johnathon Schaech, Steve Zahn, Ethan Embry

Directed By:                 Tom Hanks

 

Every uniformed profession…policemen, the military, doctors, lawyers (hey…a three piece suit is kind of a uniform)…seems to get their own movie or TV series eventually. After all, life or death situations provide plenty of theatre. Backdraft is an ode to firefighters that tells the story of a wave of suspicious fires in Chicago, with a little family drama, political intrigue, & romance thrown into the mix. Ron Howard is a terrific director and the all-star cast is impressive, helping to make it the 14th highest grossing film of 1991, just behind Fried Green Tomatoes and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II but ahead of JFK and The Prince of Tides, and has a solid 74% Rotten Tomatoes score. Gene Siskel called it “a spectacle worth observing”, Ebert feebly praised it by saying “the scenes involving fire are so good they make me recommend the movie anyway, despite its brain-damaged screenplay”, and the Washington Post said “Backdraft is sure to do for fire what The Poseidon Adventure did for water”, which may have been meant as a compliment…possibly. That Thing You Do was written & directed by Hanks and tells the story of a small town band that quickly rises to fame in the early 60’s on the popularity of an infectious pop hit. Hanks plays a supporting role, while the real stars are the band along with a fetching young female groupie. As with many actual bands egos & personal agendas quickly get in the way and torpedo the group’s success, making the movie a more insightful than expected examination of why one hit wonders are what they are. It was the 60th highest grossing film of 1996 (better than Fargo and Sling Blade) and has a stellar 93% Rotten Tomatoes score. Variety calls it “a sweet, likeable tale”, the New York Times dubbed it “rock-and-roll nostalgia presented as pure fizz”, & Rolling Stone framed it as “a brightly entertaining blend of humor and heartbreak”.

 

The Verdict:       That Thing You Do. This matchup illustrates a few things. First of all, my personal tastes are on full display, with a breezy, lightweight, fun movie beating out an effects laden, action packed melodrama. Secondly, I think it points to the dichotomy that we see even more today than two decades ago when it comes to movies…the action film packed with explosions and A-List talent that inspires awe on the big screen versus the frivolous guilty pleasure that we watch over & over again on television years after its release. And finally, if the material is written well enough then sometimes it’s okay to cast a few under-the-radar performers and help them pull it off with catchy tunes and a good director. Tom Hanks also wrote & directed 2011’s Larry Crowne, so he isn’t infallible…but I’d be willing to give anything he wrote & directed a whirl based on That Thing You Do.

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A Time to Kill

Release:                       7/24/96

Starring:                        Matthew McConaughey, Samuel L. Jackson, Kevin Spacey, Sandra Bullock, Kiefer Sutherland, Donald Sutherland

Directed By:                 Joel Schumacher (St. Elmo’s Fire, Falling Down, Batman Forever)

 

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The Blair Witch Project

Release:                       7/14/99

Starring:                        Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, Joshua Leonard

Directed By:                 Daniel Myrick (Believers, The Strand)

 

In 1999 The Internet was still in its infancy and “going viral” was a new concept. Social media wasn’t a thing yet, but that worked out well for The Blair Witch Project. The movie was highly anticipated before it even hit theaters because of its ingenuous marketing campaign. Reality television wasn’t on anyone’s radar yet either, so many folks were easily duped into believing that the movie was actual lost footage of a student documentary gone terribly awry. One kind of longs for those halcyon days when we weren’t so jaded & cynical. The movie itself follows three student filmmakers investigating an urban legend called The Blair Witch. I’m not a horror film aficionado, but I recall thinking that the movie isn’t really that scary, that it is more fascinating as an examination of the trio’s descent into madness. It was the tenth highest grossing film of 1999, earning more than The Green Mile, Oscar winning Best Picture American Beauty, and the first American Pie movie. That feat is even more impressive when you know that The Blair Witch Project had a budget of only $60k and earned almost $250 million. It has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 87%, with the Associated Press pointing out that “the thought that it might just might be real makes it much scarier”, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune calling it “a no-excuses horror show with an emotional wallop like falling headlong into a bear trap”, and the Washington Post saying it is “not the goriest, the grossest, the weirdest, the eeriest, the sickest, the creepiest, or the slimiest movie…just flat out the scariest”. A Time to Kill might be John Grisham’s best book…even better than The Firm…maybe. The movie takes a few liberties in telling the story of a Mississippi lawyer attempting to defend a black man who murdered two white men that raped & beat his young daughter. McConaughey is superb as the stressed out attorney, and Jackson gives one of his most nuanced performances as the distraught & vengeful father. The main issue I have is that the part of the female law student helping the defense team is beefed up considerably from the book because Sandra Bullock was cast in the part, but I realize that probably only bothers fans of the novel. A Time to Kill was the tenth highest grossing film of 1996, ahead of Scream but behind The Nutty Professor. It has a 65% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Rolling Stone called McConaughey “dynamite in a performance of smarts, sexiness, scrappy humor, and unmistakable star sizzle”, while Ebert thought the movie “a skillfully constructed morality play that pushes all the right buttons and arrives at all the right conclusions”.

 

The Verdict:       The Blair Witch Project. Wow, this is a very difficult decision. Neither film is the kind of breezy couch potato escapism to which I am typically drawn. However, evaluated on their own merits the choice becomes a bit clearer. I am not a big Sandra Bullock fan. There is just something about her that annoys me for no apparent reason. Given that fact, I was more irritated than usual when her character was magnified in the movie far more than she had been in the book. Secondly, while the novel A Time to Kill is probably a better book than The Firm I am not sure that is true when comparing the two movies. I am not at all into horror movies and probably won’t ever watch The Blair Witch Project again, but I cannot overlook its uniquely astounding success and the fact that it was most certainly a product of its time…probably a little ahead of it.

Superfluous 7 Favorite Stand-Up Comedians

My man Michael Wilbon recently posted a video commentary…for no apparent reason…on comedythe PTI Facebook page about his Top 10 stand-up comics. Because Wilbon, as erudite as he seems on TV, is subconsciously a militant black man and a throwback 60’s radical his list was, shall we say, just a little bit prejudiced. It wasn’t too terrible I suppose, but it had Wanda Sykes for God’s sake, a woman who is only mildly amusing at her best, while leaving off 2 or 3 certified comedy legends. My dismay with this absurd display of racially biased poppycock has inspired me to create my own ranking. I have made a concerted effort to eschew the kind of poor taste & obvious sociopolitical slant shown by Wilbon, but to be fair we are all a product of our background, bound to be influenced by the time & place in which we were raised and the things to which we were or were not exposed. I’m about 15 years younger than Wilbon, was raised in small town WV as opposed to Chicago, and watched way too much TV as a kid. I am a child of the 80’s (with fond memories of the late 70’s) and became an adult in the 90’s. I do think my rankings are better & more reasonable than the list that motivated this effort, but others may disagree. So be it.


comedy2In pondering this idea I had a lot of names pop into my head. It became necessary to create parameters. The focus here is on stand-up comedy…just a guy (or lady) on stage with a microphone in front of a live audience. Many of the best comedians have gone on to star in TV series or become movie stars. That’s fine, but that’s not what this is about. Jimmy Fallon may have once done stand-up comedy, but in my mind he is an SNL alum who went on to do a few forgettable films and now hosts the Tonight Show. Same deal with David Letterman. To me he is a talk show host that has been a centerpiece of late night television for ¾ of my life. At any rate, even with those self-imposed boundaries the list was overflowing, so we will begin with some Honorable Mentions that didn’t quite make the cut for one reason or another.

 

Honorable Mention

Tim Allen
His stand-up routines landed him a successful sitcom which he parlayed into a mediocre film career, so I think of him primarily as a comedic actor.

Billy Crystal
I LOVE Crystal, but to me he is an actor & awards show host.

Bob Newhart
His standup career was before my time. I remember him as the star of two of TV’s more underappreciated sitcoms.

Don Rickles
He’s funny, but his career trajectory plateaued before I was born.

Johnny Carson & Jay Leno
I know them primarily as two long time hosts of the Tonight Show.

Bob Hope
An undisputed legend, but one whose career peaked long before I was born and who I fondly recall as hosting the occasional variety show special on TV.

Steve Martin
I realize he was a revolutionary stand-up comic in the 70’s, but I know him mainly as a film actor and for his numerous appearances on SNL.

Garry Shandling
Funny, but not quite elite. I recall him as a frequent guest host on the Tonight Show and remember his first sitcom on Showtime in the late 80’s.

Buddy Hackett
He was before my time. I remember him mostly for his guest appearances on Carson’s Tonight Show in the 1980’s.

Sam Kinison
Sadly Kinison was gone far too soon, killed by a teenage drunk driver at the age of 38. Kinison was obnoxious, controversial, & often blasphemous, but he was funny. It would have been really interesting to see how he might have evolved. Would he have softened with age?? Would he have become a caricature of himself, still trying to be the loud, abrasive rebel even as an elder statesman of comedy?? Or would he have just flamed out & faded away once his shtick started to grow old?? We’ll never know, and that’s too bad.

Steven Wright
Wright’s deadpan delivery is unmistakable yet kind of defines him as a one trick pony. Amusing in small doses, but there is a reason he never became a huge star.

Ron White
I gave this spot to White over Jeff Foxworthy because I think he is funnier. His humor seems kind of restricted to a specific southern demographic, which is fine by me but limits his star power and accessibility to the masses.

Gallagher
You know & love him as the prop comedian who busts watermelons with a sledgehammer. It’s a gimmick that has narrowly defined his career for four decades.

Andrew Dice Clay
He’s funny & memorable enough to get a mention, but just too vulgar to be ranked amongst the best.

Andy Kaufman
It is difficult to describe exactly what Andy Kaufman did on stage. He was more of a performance artist than a traditional standup comedian. It seemed as if he was trying to entertain himself more than anyone else, and if that meant offending, annoying, & confusing the audience then that was just dandy. Kaufman is another artist that we lost far too early, as he succumbed to lung cancer at age 35. I remember him mostly as Latka Gravis on the sitcom Taxi, a role that he allegedly despised.

Redd Foxx
To me he is iconic junk king Fred G. Sanford from the 70’s sitcom Sanford & Son. However, before that role he had a long & successful career as a crude & profane stand-up comic. That was in the 50’s & 60’s though…way way way before my time, and in an era when profanity was actually shocking instead of the accepted norm.

 

Okay, so now that the honorable mentions are out of the way it’s time to move to the main attraction. To be honest I wish more of these guys worked “clean”, but it’s rare to find a comedian who does that nowadays. We live in an era in which F Bombs and sexual humor sells, so that’s what many do. It’s not my preference, but for the most part I think my choices would still be funny if they took the road less traveled instead of conforming to low worldly standards. At any rate, sit down, enjoy a cold beverage, and maybe chuckle, chortle, guffaw, & giggle as I present…..

 

 

 

From the home office in Happy, TX…..

 

 

 

My Superfluous 7 Favorite Stand-Up Comedians:

 

 

 

7 Eddie Murphy / Richard Pryor
murphyY’all should know by now, there will be ties. These guys are legends, with Pryor being the trailblazer who heavily influenced Murphy. Pryor’s stand-up career was en fuego in the 1970’s when I was just a baby. By the time I got to the age where I was consciously making entertainment choices and discovering what I enjoy Pryor, like so many others, had segued into acting. It is really interesting that a vast majority of comedians cite Richard Pryor as a huge influence. He really did make it look easy. His comedy was edgy & vulgar, yet accessible to the masses. Perhaps one of the most regrettable byproducts of Pryor’s legacy is that so many comics believe that peppering their act with a plethora of F-Bombs & other profanities is hysterically funny. I suppose it was humorous in a shocking kind of way when he did it, but now it’s just derivative & tedious. Murphy’s career has been all over the place, with a prominent chunk of the early 80’s spent as a cast member on SNL followed by a three pryordecade movie career with some hits (48 Hrs., Trading Places, Beverly Hills Cop, Coming to America) and a lot of misses (The Golden Child, Vampire in Brooklyn, Pluto Nash, Norbitt). In between those gigs, for a brief time in the mid-80’s, he was a comedy rock star that did a few really good HBO specials that became big sellers on home video. Unfortunately Eddie Murphy seemed to buy into the whole movie star fantasy and has become more aloof & pretentious over the years.

 

6 Chris Rock / Dennis Miller
rockI don’t often agree with Rock’s politics, but there is no denying that he is an intelligent, thoughtful guy whose observational comedy is a cut above. Much of his humor has racial overtones, but I’ve rarely found it racist. It is more like a brutally honest, undeniably subjective worldview to which I can’t relate. In contrast, Miller’s philosophies & attitudes are much more in line with my own. He also is a smart & solicitous dude whose comedy was tinged with insightful commentary about life even before he became a regular guest on political talk shows. Miller doesn’t dumb down his comedy for the masses. You either get the odd analogies & obscure references he makes or you don’t, and he’s not going to slow down and draw a picture for you. Both Rock & Miller had notable runs on Saturday Night Live. Rock has gone on to be a run-of-the-mill movie star in mostly pedestrian films, millerwhile Miller has dabbled in the whole talk show host thing (I really wanted him to be the guy to replace Letterman), did a season in the booth on Monday Night Football (not a good fit), & in recent years has become bogged down as a political pundit. I’d love to see him get back into doing stand-up.

 

5 Jim Gaffigan / Bill Cosby
gaffiganOkay…let’s first address the elephant in the room. I am not here to judge what Cosby may or may not have done in his personal life. That’s not my place, and I think the damage that has been done to his legacy speaks for itself. Both of these men do basically work “clean”, which is good. The foundation of their humor is family, marriage, children, & relationships. They tell stories that many folks recognize from their own lives. It’s easygoing & affable. Their comedy isn’t meanspirited, edgy, or brash. Cosby, of course is…or was…a living legend that has done movies & TV shows and has generally been a part of the entertainment landscape for a half century. Gaffigan has been around for about a cosbydecade. He’s a soft-spoken, self-deprecating guy who likes to joke about being fat & lazy, comedy to which I can relate. Young comedians need to study these guys and understand that intelligent, relevant, witty comedy doesn’t need to be vulgar, obnoxious, or malevolent.

 

4 Frank Caliendo / Denis Leary
caliendoBy far my favorite kind of comedian is one who can do spot-on impressions. If I could ask God for any fun & frivolous talent I’d probably choose being able to do impressions over singing, dancing, or playing an instrument. Older generations might prefer Rich Little, but to be honest I was never that enamored with Little. Caliendo hasn’t become the sort of superstar that landed his own sitcom, but he’s done a wide variety of media appearances…MadTV, Fox NFL Sunday, & a ton of radio shows…and is a regular in Vegas. He does awesome impressions of folks like Al Pacino, Morgan Freeman, President George W. Bush, & Robin Williams, as well as a ton of sportscentric impersonations such as ESPN personalities Mel Kiper Jr., Adam Shefter, & Stephen A. Smith, former coaches John learyMadden & Jon Gruden, Charles Barkley, Jim Rome, and Bill Walton. I think Caliendo is brilliant. Leary has segued into acting now, but at one time in the early 90’s he was a chain smoking, fast talking, “angry” comedian…kind of a toned down Sam Kinison…and he was hilarious. His comedy album No Cure for Cancer is classic and helped make dreary days at a tedious job more tolerable for me in the mid-1990’s. Leary was a much better stand-up comic than he is an actor, and I hope he goes back to what he does best someday.

 

3 Jerry Seinfeld
Yes I am aware that Mr. Seinfeld starred in a highly rated sitcom. As a matter of fact I chose Seinfeld as my favorite TV show of all time just a few years ago. However, that show was based, atleast partly, on the observational comedy of its star. Seinfeld was a celebrated comedian throughout the 1980’s, with his casual, conversational style playing really well on television in appearances with Johnny Carson and David Letterman. Seinfeld comes across as a kind of everyman, a guy it’d be fun to have lunch with or go on a road trip. Much like the beloved television show his standup comedy is about the trivialities, conundrums, seinfeldfrustrations, & contradictions of daily life. In contrast to guys like Kinison or Leary he isn’t particularly angry, and unlike Pryor, Murphy, or Dice he is far from profane. I would describe Seinfeld as perpetually bemused by the fickle nature of humanity. People like him just have a whole different way of looking at the world. They see things that most people overlook…and then they tell funny stories & jokes about what they perceive. Thankfully that perception is often quite entertaining. I always thought Seinfeld would end up hosting a late night show, but the stardom he achieved with his sitcom skyrocketed him past that. He doesn’t have to work that hard or often now. He hosts an amusing talk show called Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, which you can find online, and thankfully he has gone back to doing standup. Maybe one day I’ll get the opportunity to see him perform live.

 

2 Robin Williams
Robin Williams was like Jerry Seinfeld on cocaine. Literally. Sadly we lost Williams last year, but his legacy is rock solid. He, of course, became well-known in the early 80’s on the sitcom Mork & Mindy, and after that starred in a plethora of mostly good films. But Williams began as a standup comedian and never completely left it behind. On stage he did it all…jokes, stories, improv, pratfalls, impressions, observation. It is hard to put him in a box and categorize his williamscomedy. Robin Williams was manic, silly, intelligent, & creative. He was brilliant. His energy was unmatched. He always made me laugh. And not just a light snicker. I’m talking about wall shaking, tears in my eyes laughter that made others think I’d lost my mind. Hindsight informs us that the energy level was often drug induced, and sadly we also know that the comedy that made us laugh hid pain & depression that would ultimately lead to suicide. I don’t really know what to say about all of that. Unfortunately the tragic ending will likely forever alter the opinions of many about Robin Williams. I understand that, but for the purposes of this exercise choose to remember the good times.

 

1 George Carlin
George Carlin had a career unlike any other. He began doing standup in the 60’s and was still working nearly 50 years later. He dabbled a little bit in television & movies, but pretty much stuck to being a standup comedian. His observational comedy was a bit more acerbic, and many might say that in later years he bordered on meanspirited & angry. Carlin was a product of the counterculture 60’s and always had a bit of that “I’m smarter than you” attitude. In the 70’s he came up with his well-known routine The 7 Words You Can Never Say on Television, which seems a bit quaint now. I won’t repeat any of the words, but I will say that, as carlinopposed to four decades ago, I think I’ve heard atleast 3 or 4 of the forbidden words on network TV just this week. I didn’t really discover Carlin until the 80’s when he had several specials on HBO. By then he’d started doing a lot more sociopolitical commentary, much of it the complete opposite of my own worldview. However, I can usually overlook such disagreements and still find someone funny. While Jerry Seinfeld seems amused by humanity’s shortcomings they seemed to really tick George Carlin off. Sometimes this was hilarious, sometimes it wasn’t. The stuff I preferred from Carlin were his observations about language. He would talk about how language had evolved, mostly due to political correctness. Battle fatigue has become PTSD. Used cars are now pre-owned. Stewardesses are now flight attendants. Deaf people are hearing impaired & a person isn’t blind but has a visual impairment. I could go on but you get the point. Carlin was at his best when he was dissecting the idiocy of political correctness, something it seems like he hated as much as I do. That alone vaults him to the top of this list, despite everything he believed in that I disagree with.