Tag Archives: 90’s

Mystery Men (1999)

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How many movies can it be said are actually so bad they’re painful to watch? There have certainly been quite a few throughout film history, but I tend to watch movies that I like, or at least can tolerate. Oh, I’ve seen my share of stinkers, but seldom have I seen a comedy like “Mystery Men” where joke after joke falls pitifully flat; where even admittedly creative ideas (a superhero who can only turn invisible when no one’s watching) are executed with cringe-worthy ineptitude.

If you go onto Imdb, you will find people desperately exulting “Mystery Men” as ‘hilarious’ and ‘underrated’ and ‘unfairly maligned by the critics.’ Okay. To say something is ‘underrated’ is to imply it has value. Even Ben Stiller hates this movie, which is funny, because he’s one of the worst things about it. The biggest ‘mystery’ is how they got actual actors like William H. Macy and Geoffrey Rush to play in it.

Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller,) The Shoveler (William H. Macy,) and the Blue Raja (Hank Azaria) are desperate superhero wannabes operating in the futuristic Champion City. Their ‘powers’ are debatable- Blue Raja hurls forks at people (nicked from his mama’s silverware drawer,) Mr. Furious gets mad… really, really mad… to no particular effect, and The Shoveler, well, hits people with a shovel, but not particularly well, because superhuman ability isn’t a strong suite with this trio.

They are overshadowed by Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear,) a snarky, arrogant a-hole as well as the the city’s champion (harkening to the insufferable Captain Hammer and the later- and much more preferable- “Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.” The problem is, Amazing doesn’t have any villains to fight to make himself look good, so he poses as his lawyer alter ego Lance Hunt (unrecognizable when he puts glasses on- a contrivance of Clark Kent absurdity) and single-handedly releases maniacal supervillain Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush, sporting one of the most ridiculous accents- German? Austrian?- in film history and armed with razor-sharp fingernails) from an institution for the criminally insane.

When Captain Amazing reaps what he sows and ends up in Casanova’s evil clutches, it’s up to Champion City’s three affable superhero-wannabe losers- joined  by some fresh faces- to save the locals from a disastrously malignant machine and a plan for world domination, courtesy of Casanova and his two disco-dancing sidekicks. Although this movie is terrible, William H. Macy doesn’t totally embarrass himself and Hank Azaria is tolerable (how cute were Blue Raja and his mother together?- “Cheerio, Mummy!”)

It just seems like “Mystery Men” is going for very obvious, broad gags (like Paul Reubens as a repulsive little weirdo with a severe speech impediment whose superpower- shall we call it that?- is atomic flatulence.) Hate to break this to the studios, but farts are not quite as funny as they are imagined to be. I mean, I don’t break into hysterical laughter every time someone rips one. The jokes featured in “Mystery Men” are about 1/10 as funny as the writers presume they are, with actors that seem like they are playing an extended game of dress-up on their off time and accidentally got filmed.

Which is too bad, because some of the ideas are pretty good. I thought routinely, “This joke could be funny, if it was put in a funnier context and refined a little.” Champion City was an interesting setting, and the premise could work with a drastically different approach. But ultimately “Mystery Men” is hard to watch, filled to the brim with ludicrous dialogue, insipid characters, and wasted talent. On the up side (?), this movie would make amazing blackmail material– “Send me 50 grand or this gets sent on disc to all your potential employers.” Oh, the horror. But seriously, AVOID. If you rent this travesty, you’ll be sorry.

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Scarfies (AKA Crime 101) (1999)

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Take this film for what it is (an uneven and extremely low budget thriller and morality play) and you may find yourself enjoying the effective acting displayed within and bruising social commentary concerning the self-absorption and sometimes outright shittiness of humankind. It’s Danny Boyle’s “Shallow Grave” meets “Lord of the Flies” meets early Quentin Tarantino with a distinct lack of the technical verve Tarantino showed even early on into his career.

That said, this is one of the more psychologically harrowing and disturbing ‘black comedies’ of recent times. Dark humor, or just plain dark? When the douchebag college kids glue their weed-peddling captive’s lips and hands together and force him to squat with his pants pulled halfway down and shit into a bucket, I was struck by the indignity of it all. “Scarfies” remains relatively compelling despite the almost nil production values and contemptuous cast of characters because it starts out with a somewhat sympathizable ‘what would you do?’ scenario until it takes a sudden plunge into the darkest of places, where sadistic mind games and senseless violence overtake rationality and basic human decency.

The film follows a group of college students who squat in an abandoned house that incongruously has electricity. Initially they are relatively carefree, partying and drinking like there’s no tomorrow, bonding and making love and getting high. Impulsive frat boy-type Alex (Taika Waititi) uses a monumentally awful pick-up line on the object of his affections, straight-laced Nicola (Ashleigh Seagar) and coaxes her into his bed, while Scott (Neill Rea) and Emma (Willa O’Neill) make moon eyes at each other but don’t act on their mutual attraction. Graham (Charlie Bleakley) has a crush on Nicola, but waffles around it and acts generally irritating.

It’s all fun and games until the five students open and jammed-up door in the basement of the squalid building and find a collection of pot plants, all primed and ready to smoke. After a fierce debate, they sell the lot and blow the entirety of their drug money on various electronics and personal vanities. So when the dealer (Jon Brazier) shows up volatile and royally pissed at the loss of his crop, they lock him in the basement. And that’s when the real fun begins.

Movies and literature continually show that kids are scary as hell. So why shouldn’t a group of well-groomed, outwardly innocuous college youngsters be any different? It is Alex (Waititi,) however, who makes me suspect that his brain is made of bits and bobs and cogs that render him not quite a person, at least not in the spiritual sense. Despite being good-looking, calm, seemingly ordinary, and well-liked, Alex possesses the heart of killer, a sense of apathy and sadistic glee at his misdoings, and the self-confidence to coerce his frightened roommates into obedience and stunned silence.

Graham, however, while initially appearing to be a ineffectual innocuous type (pining pitifully for Nicola and crying at the slightest provocation,) proves to be the kind of guy who held your hands behind your back as you got punched in the gut in high school. He enjoys the high-stakes excitement of having a prisoner to heckle and hurt, so he follows the smugly cruel Alex’s lead in what is essentially torture, culminating in a electronic device to control the prisoner’s behavior through electric shocks.

“Scarfies” is not really a comedy, except in the sense of ironic human indecency. However, it is an interesting study of human behavior and the innate sense of self-interest exhibited by people everywhere. “Better him than me.” How many times have we innately said that to ourselves, believing that it would be ultimately preferable that someone else take the fall for us? The acting and the story are better than you might expect, and there are a few laughs to be had among the dark sense of foreboding and transgression.

If nothing else, you’ll watch to the end hoping the ‘protagonists’ get what they deserve. Taika Waititi definitely shows early promise in a precursor to his work as a director. His not only smug and self-satisfied, but (in this reviewer’s humble opinion) downright sociopathic character’s face needed punching. Make no mistake, this movie is no masterwork of cinema, but if you like cynical social commentaries that pull no punches in regards to how they view people (superior to apes? I think not!) you’ll probably enjoy this movie. Just don’t expect a laugh riot or a glossy Hollywood film.

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American Heart (1992)

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Cinematic lessons on how NOT to parent don’t come much wiser or more dire than the portrayal of Jeff Bridges’ boozy, wildly irresponsible father in “American Heart,” director Martin Bell’s bleak narrative film debut. The deadbeat dad in question is Jack (Jeff Bridges,) ex-convict on parole and absentee father of troubled 14-year-old Nick (Edward Furlong.)

Jack really doesn’t want much to do with his jaded yet impressionable teen son, but Nick butts into Jack’s life after Jack is released from prison, where he has been incarcerated for bank robbing. Jack aspires to make an honest living, but raising Nick  isn’t part of the plan- and Nick soon falls in with a group of disaffected punk kids, including child prostitute Molly (Tracey Kapisky.)

Jack is helpless, hopeless, incompetent at truly being a father but capable of the persistent wish for his son to do better… to not screw his life up as badly as his old man. As Nick sinks deeply into questionable company and petty crime, Jack makes one last effort to be a father not worth being ashamed of.

There’s an admirable amount of development of Jack and Nick’s characters throughout the film. Initially, Jack came of as a pathetic loser (the first thing that occurred to me while watching him- uncharitably- was ‘you can take the trash out of the trailer, but you can’t take the trailer out of the trash’) but you get a sense by a certain point in the movie that he’s still a mess but he’s… well, trying, maybe not always succeeding, but making an actual effort all the same.

In many ways “American Heart” is a doomed (platonic) love story between father and son. Theirs is a complicated, fraught, relationship, but touched by love nonetheless. The romantic relationship between Jack and a woman who wrote to him in prison who he fancies (Lucinda Jenney) is a featured plotline but it seems insignificant compared to the meat and bones of the story- Nick and Jack’s relationship as Jack struggles to make ends meet washing windows in Urban Seattle.

I think this is now my favorite Jeff Bridges role (yes, it even beats out his part in “The Big Lebowski,” an overrated movie if there ever was one.) He is understated and effective in this movie, and Edward Furlong backs him up nicely as his frustrated teenage son. Although “American Heart” is grimy and tragic, it also feels very real to a large extent. It sheds light on a side of life many people experience, and which the comfortably middle class and reasonably functional shudder to think of or even vicariously find fascination in.

If there’s any fault to be found in this movie, it’s in the relentlessly grim depiction of just about everything. But that’s okay, because it works, but moviegoers should know this isn’t a saccharine drama where a father and son bond to a sappy orchestral soundtrack. It’s rough. It’s raw and it stings like a fresh wound. But on the upside, when Nick makes it to adulthood, if he makes it at all, I see a best-selling tell-all memoir in his imminent future. All that childhood pain has to make it to some use, I figure.

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Air Bud (1997)

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Okay, so I like “Air Bud.” What can I say?- I was a 90’s kid. Unfairly maligned because of its truly awful sequels, “Air Bud” certainly isn’t the best ‘boy and his dog’ movie out there, but you could do worse for a rainy Saturday afternoon with the kids. Sure, there’s more slapstick than a “The Three Stooges” episode (rule of thumb- if there’s a decadent cake introduced at the beginning of a scene in a children’s movie, said cake will be fallen into before the sequence is done,) but there’s genuine heart  too. Maybe I’m seeing it through the distorted lens of a former soppy, dog-loving preteen, but I believe it’s there.

12-year-old Josh Framm (Kevin Zegers) is having a rough year- his pilot dad died in a plane crash, he’s starting up at a new school, and the bullies have picked him as the target for mild but annoyingly insistent bullying.) Josh has probably been struck by the puberty fairy too, though the more sensitive implications of this have not been touched on for obvious reasons. He’s moody, distant, and unresponsive to his mother (Wendy Makkena)’s attempts to reach him.

Into Josh’s life walks Buddy, an abused, highly intelligent Golden Retriever on the run from his children’s entertainer owner, Norm Snively (Michael Jeter) who’s not a very nice man at all. Buddy takes some urging due to his fear of people, but ultimately proves to be a good and loyal friend to the lonely Josh. Soon, it is revealed that Buddy has a secret- he can play basketball!- and the lovable dog serves as an icebreaker to help Josh get over his shyness and play sports with his classmates.

I really like the late Michael Jeter as a character actor- unfortunately, he doesn’t have much to do here except be knocked into everything. Still, he’s fine in the role he was given, and offers a few laughs (mostly to very small children.) Nevertheless, “Air Bud” is a cute movie with several good subplots going for it. One of these concerns Arthur Chaney (Bill Cobbs,) a former basketball star who now works as a simple janitor at Josh’s school, and offers his friendship and guidance to Josh and ultimately, to the team.

The heart of the film is Josh and Buddy’s relationship, which is carried out effectively for this kind of movie. By allowing plenty of scenes of Josh and Buddy simply spending time together, the movie lets us root for their friendship- which is threatened when the dastardly Norm returns on the scene. I like the way Buddy is allowed to act like a dog, despite his extraordinary sports-playing talents, and I like how Josh has to win his trust by laying down a trail of vanilla pudding containers.

Frankly, I still like this movie from when I was a kid and I enjoyed watching it with my 11-year-old sister and listening to her laugh. “Air Bud” isn’t a great movie by any means, but it’s cute and charming and fun. Let me just save you the time and tell you not to watch the sequels. If your kids have any sense, even they will hate them.
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American History X (1998)

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It’s natural to be discomforted by the racist language and the violence in “American History X.” After all, what are we if we can’t be rattled and unnerved by terrific fiction? Don’t watch this movie if you’re not prepared for a film about racism where both the blacks and the whites act like absolute animals. This is not a story where the unending compassion of the African-Americans spells redemption for the biased white men. There is startling evil on both sides, just like in real life. And there are good, decent people of both races just trying to get by or to help others, just like in real life.

Danny Vinyard (Edward Furlong) is the kid the students feel antagonized by and the teachers don’t hold out much hope for. His latest travesty- “My Mein Kamf,” a response to a school assignment championing Hitler as a civil rights hero. However the principal of Danny’s tough inner-city school, Bob Sweeney (Avery Brooks,) is determined to help him grapple with his demons and someday, maybe, see the light.

Danny’s neo-Nazi brother, Derek (Edward Norton, in a fantastic performance,) gets out of prison for a sadistic racially-motivated crime a changed man. He wants nothing more to do with the white supremacist existence, and has decided to steer his younger brother, who places Derek on a lofty pedestal, away from the skinhead life. As Danny listens to Derek’s story of his life in prison and his change of heart, he realizes that breaking away from his racist beliefs might be the most important thing he ever does.

But disassociating with old friends and influences might be harder than it sounds, as Derek and Danny soon find out. Meanwhile, Sweeney instructs Danny to write a paper about the events that put his brother in prison and beforehand, led to the Vinyard brothers’ legacy of hate.

Anybody who knows anything about the making of “American History X” knows that the production of the film was a bit of a disaster. Tempers flared, Edward Norton micromanaged the script, and director Tony Kaye eventually wanted his name taken off the finished product and changed, oddly, to ‘Humpty Dumpty’ (hhmm, that’s not weird.) So it might be “American History X”‘s greatest wonder that the movie is not bad at all, despite it’s production woes; on the contrary, it’s very good.

The film does a great job in making you believe in the unlikely premise that Norton could change, after years of being a vicious skinhead and an all-around terrible person. The cycle of hate and of the Vinyard’s beliefs are really well-done. The terrifying thing about Derek’s character (one, of certainly many) is how he runs the gamut from almost rational (saying things that, on the surface make sense, then devolve into racist gobbledygook)) to batshit crazy.

Rather than making Derek a cartoon, he’s written as a terrifyingly believable monster- you can palpably feel the charisma he most hold for frustrated young men who want someone to blame for their screwed-up lives. Edward Norton is an acting powerhouse in this movie. It might still be the best performance of Norton’s career.

Bile and rage and pure adrenaline run through Derek’s veins- he’s scary intense, and you can fully comprehend the fear and even disgust his mom (Beverly D’Angelo) and sister (Jennifer Lien) must have felt before the prison term, simply living with him on a day-to-day basis.

I’ll give credit where it’s due- the whole cast does a great job. But it is Norton who will haunt you for days. Now for the low points. Well, the ending actually worked for me. I’m not sure it was the best way to end the story, but it was overall effective, albeit brutally so. Honestly, the only major problem for me was the music. It was a little too “Oh, let me make you experience major emotions!”

“American History X” is not only worthy for Edward Norton’s performance, although that may be what you remember most about it. It’s a genuinely powerful drama, one of the best of the 90’s. Many movies have preached the power of love over hate and enlightenment over prejudice, but rarely to such a meaningful effect.

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Clay Pigeons (1998)

Apparently, filmmaker David Dobkin was inspired to make this after seeing “Fargo.” Despite never reaching the creative heights as the Coens’ 1996 masterpiece, “Clay Pigeons,” set in a small Montana town peopled with idiosyncratic  characters, functions well as a unique independent film with bite and quirky oddness to spare.

Here’s the deal- loser Clay (Joaquin Phoenix) is banging his best friend Earl (Gregory Sporleder’s) white-trash girlfriend, Amanda (Georgina Cates). When Earl gets sick of being two-timed, he gets drunk and commits suicide in front of Clay, trying to frame him for his death.

This leads to a string of events that leave Clay totally shaken and out of his comfort zone, as bodies pile up, friendly serial killer Lester Long (played by Vince Vaughn, but don’t let that run you off) befriends Clay, and acerbic FBI agent Agent Shelby (Jeanane Garofelo) is on the case.

I found the beginning of this film a little shaky in terms of acting and writing, but I’m glad I hung in there because the film got a hell of a lot better after the first twenty-or-so minutes. I never fell in love with Joaquin Phoenix as Clay. I understand that maybe he was supposed to be sort of a boring, reactionary character, but I never connected with Clay or the performance.

I’ll admit, I haven’t seen Vince Vaughn in much and had no expectations except maybe low ones from the general opinion- which is, well, that Vaughn can’t act his way out of a paper bag. I was pleasantly surprised. Vaughn did great in this role as Lester Long, he was revalatory in his villain performance in the way that Matthew McConaughey was in “Killer Joe.”

Vaughn’s laugh- like a alien entity playing at being human- was particularly chilling. I will say his character may have been more compelling than either of the kidnappers in “Fargo.” My favorite character, hands down, was Detective Shelby, played by Jeanane Garafelo.

She was so smart and tough! She was a woman who was afraid to let her guard down, and had picked her job over having a regular life. I really respected her. The way she handled the amateur small town police force was hysterical.

Although I don’t think this is in the same category with “Fargo,” “Clay Pigeons” is still a intriguing comedic thriller with strong acting and character development.

I would call it the Vince Vaughn movie for people who hate Vince Vaughn, and the Jeanane Garafelo movie for people who get sick of her Liberal politics but would like to see her play a fabulous character. “Clay Pigeons,” despite it’s flaws, is an exciting debut, and a worthwhile movie.

The Boondock Saints (1999)

“The Boondock Saints” is an extremely over-hyped vigilante thriller that contains no depth beyond its initial macho revenge fantasy, but, despite moments of painful camp, doesn’t have the sense to go all the way as a comedy. It would better serve as a satire on America’s obsession with Machismo posturing and the view that violence is the best way to solve problems than the self-important bloodbath it becomes.

I’m not adverse to revenge movies, even extreme ones. “Taxi Driver” featured Travis Bickle blowing away pimps and thugs, but it was more of a character study than a vigilante movie. “God Bless America” trivialized violence, but it was a satire, and a good one at that. “Dead Man’s Shoes” was a powerful statement on the consequences of violence.

I don’t have any problem with violence in the media at all, except when it is portrayed as an easy way to solve real-life problems. People, I cannot stress this hard enough — there are consequences to violent retaliation and vigilante justice.

If this movie had taken a closer look at the psychological effects of murder on the perpetrators, it might have earned an extra star. But Connor and Murphy MacManus (Sean Patrick Flanery and Norman Reedus) treat their new vocation like a new video game.

Now that I’m done beating you over the head with my Liberal values, let’s talk shop.  “The Boondock Saints” is the story of the McManus twins, two Irish-Catholic brothers who, after killing two Russian mobsters in self-defense, take it as a calling from God to clean the scum out of their crime-filled Boston home town, one criminal at a time.

The way they go about this is utterly unbelievable- they just purchase a bunch of guns and knives and off they go, blasting away thugs like they came straight out of “Duke Nuke’m.” There’s no depth to the McManus boys here — they don’t have a thought in their heads other than the initial need for justice in their crime-filled city.

The only character with any depth is Paul Schmeck (Willem Defoe), an arrogant but brilliant gay cop who hates and fears his fellow homosexuals, even as they find themselves in his bed. I fear this happens far too often, when “straight guys” find the need for man-love, but still aren’t willing to take on the stigma of being gay.

Initially, Schmeck wants nothing more to catch the McManus brothers, who the sympathetic masses have dubbed the “Saints.” But as the Russian Mobsters start dropping like flies, Schmeck starts to believe that maybe the “Saints” aren’t so detrimental after all. This could be an interesting revelation, except for the way it’s done, which is just silly.

Along with Schmeck’s arrogant brilliance and the brother’s gleeful responses to the bloodletting, a lot of hyperkinetic fight scenes proceed. I just didn’t buy our protagonists as badasses, and I’m not a fan of stylized violence unless it is directed by one man: Tarantino. The Russian characters were extremely stereotypical and one of them, Boris, had the corniest lines.

I know I’m going to offend a lot of people with this review, but “The Boondock Saints” wasn’t my cup of tea. Many people may really like it, but I felt it was a simplistic, shallow, and meaningless excursion into something we’ve all felt like doing (vigilantism), but without the courage of its convictions to make us care about it’s characters. And don’t even get me started about a cross-dressing Defoe passing as a woman. Just… don’t.