Mike Flynn is a writer and pop culture enthusiast who makes a mean bowl of sangria. He has written for CHUD.com and Wikia, and has appeared on the podcasts Director’s Club as well as Cage Club and Keanu Club on The Cage Club Podcast Network. He lives in New Jersey, but unfortunately not the part where Buckaroo Banzai was set.
Still polarizing audiences to this day, The Cable Guy arrived at a time when Ben Stiller was little known to mainstream audiences as an actor and Jim Carrey had set expectations for low-brow humor on a hot streak of box-office smashes. Audiences dropped out after opening weekend, discontent with the film’s true, magnificent nature: a parody of 90’s “_____ from hell” thrillers, one so successful that in the hands of a director without humorous leanings, it would be trashed as a worthless Brian De Palma clone. Watching Carrey’s apparition-like repairman destroy Matthew Broderick’s life in the name of friendship and pop culture is a master class in dark comedy. Stiller never pulls punches, actively wanting to squander civility at the expense of Chip Douglas (not his real name) turning all of his psychotic antics into a pop-culture reference (which, in today’s world, obsessed with convenience and irony, feels prophetic). I love this movie enough that a trip to Medieval Times means wishing death on the red knight and wanting to hum the Kirk/Spock fight music from Amok Time.
Yeah, it’s not called Escape from New York. What’s your point? With the notable exception of Roger Ebert—who preferred it to Independence Day and mostly every other ’96 blockbuster—the return of Snake Plissken has been called a pale retread of John Carpenter’s 1981 dystopian classic. The similarities are never hard to clarify, and there’s plenty of silliness abound, from the dodgy CGI to life-or-death games of street basketball. However, Carpenter and Kurt Russell revel in the scowling, often exasperated Plissken, who gets a raw deal from the government (again) to retrieve a dangerous weapon (again) being held by a dangerous criminal (again) in a ravaged metropolis (again), and it works because that’s what happens to the fallen World War III hero.
Russell plays Plissken as if no time has passed, a testament to the simplicity of what made the character iconic. Escape from L.A. is less a remake than a modernization of New York, where society has corroded even further, and measures to outlaw sex, drugs, violence,alcohol, tobacco, and red meat are necessary. New York was raging against post-Watergate America; L.A. is giving the finger to the dawn of political correctness born out of Reagan and legitimized under Bush and Clinton. It’s personified with bacon-wrapped hamming by Cliff Robertson, who plays a crypto-fascist, God-fearing President that plays as a reflection of reality in the era of Ted Cruz and making America great again.
Like the original, Carpenter surrounds Russell with a terrific supporting cast, with Steve Buscemi (playing a mashup of the original’s Cabbie and Brain), Pam Grier, and Peter Fonda all assisting. Bruce Campbell has a hilarious moment of camp as a grotesque crime boss and plastic surgeon. Its rep is haunted by a need to live up to the original, but Carpenter, Russell, and Debra Hill are never concerned with the next level. If there’s any moral to the narrative, the future grows weak and dark, but the heart of an outlaw never dies.
Recently, a younger friend of mine asked me about this movie, having never seen it, thinking I’d offer some ironic wisdom about it—and I couldn’t. Oh, I explained the silly moment where Mark Wahlberg fingerbangs Alyssa Milano on a rollercoaster to Bush, but Fear is the rare teen thriller that cuts deeply through its exploitation roots. Riffing on Play Misty for Me and Fatal Attraction with teens shouldn’t be this good, but James Foley is that good of a director. Wahlberg’s jealous, possessive sociopath and Reese Witherspoon’s sheltered bookworm are heightened for dramatic effect, but their chemistry relies on a psychological element that conveys a realistically abusive relationship that could fall this far into extremity. You’re also not going to skimp on the material when William Petersen gets involved as Witherspoon’s tough-loving dad, who, as he should, gets the defining moment of badassery in the climax. Getting this kind of material right can earn an easy exile to video or cable, but with rich talent like this, it embraces its B-movie trappings and turns out an entertaining and complex yarn. Speaking of Reese Witherspoon…
…this movie is a blast. The rise of Quentin Tarantino spawned hundreds of quirky, self-aware crime thrillers. Weeding out the frequency of awful hopefuls like The Boondock Saints and 2 Days in the Valley are gems like this psychedelic retelling of Little Red Riding Hood. Reese Witherspoon is spellbinding as a white-trash runaway whose street smarts elevate her above the scummy bourgeoisie in 90’s Los Angeles—the most of which is highway murderer Bob Wolverton, played to the lecherous hilt by Kiefer Sutherland. The prey-predator chemistry between Witherspoon and Sutherland is a highlight, gradually moving from plausibility to the kind of heightened reality Matthew Bright’s script aspires to be in. There’s a unique transgression to its structure that’s worth seeing to be believed, one that fully embraces the insanity of its premise in the second half, lampooning American media consumption in a similar fashion as Natural Born Killers, albeit better restrained.
This one has developed a cult following over the past 20 years, but I still find a hard time finding people who love this movie that I don’t know because of the Internet. Shane Black’s low-tech spy thriller is a slick, sleazy, and morally ambiguous masterwork, directed with necessary levity by Renny Harlin, who shows a little more warmth here than in his bigger-grossing and more accessible Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger. It’s played to the hilt by a lethal Geena Davis and Samuel L. Jackson cashing in on his Pulp Fiction glory as a private eye who hasn’t been blown since candy bars cost a nickel. Craig Bierko plays the hateful CIA villain with a level of charm most romantic comedy leads lack and nails down the film’s best line, a crack involving Baywatch Nights that’s uttered while torturing a man to death. That unpretentious charm is what makes Black’s script—the highest-paid spec at the time—the star. Unlike the same year’s original Mission: Impossible, the espionage is dirty and far from realistic, and every other line of dialogue tries to outdo the cool vulgarity of the next. How this was never a hit from the beginning still puzzles.
If pressed, this is my favorite film of 1996. Milos Forman has always exceled at telling stories of conscientiously misanthropes, and Woody Harrelson’s embodiment of the Hustler publisher is a career high, an eccentric but humane figure whose belief in the American Dream transcends an industry susceptible to conservative repulsion. Forman’s directorial style is skillfully paired with Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski’s screenplay, which strikes a perfect tonal balance amongst the hedonism and pathos in Flynt’s life. The details are a reflection of his belief in the First Amendment and how far the right to free speech can extend. Flynt’s courtroom battles are brilliantly staged with a stranger-than-fiction vantage point that Alexander and Karaszewski have returned to with FX's sublime American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson. Much like the show, the hijinks of Larry Flynt are riveting but hilarious to watch, with a multitude of emotional beats delivered to maximum eloquence.
Insubordinate students roam the hallways. Very competent administrators keep their job earning personal gain from bad deeds. When history teacher Diane Venora is nearly killed by gangbanger Marc Anthony, little does this broken school system know that her replacement is her boyfriend and badass for hire Tom Berenger. As such, people get hurt to death. The Substitute is a perfectly daft B-movie that is predictably less like Lean on Me than reading a stack of Punisher comics with a Death Wish marathon on in the background. Hell, I think Frank Castle did pose as a substitute teacher in an issue or two. Whatever the case, the result is a pulpy delight rendered politically incorrect by current events and is bolstered by an all-star lineup of character actors (Ernie Hudson stands out as a corrupt principal who speaks mostly evil fortune-cookie wisdom).