Protecting the night with “Darkman,” talking hard with “Pump Up the Volume,” and clowning around with the “Men at Work.”
1990: Sam Raimi wasn’t my personal directorial hero when I snuggled up with “Darkman” during its initial theatrical run. He would come to wear the bejeweled crown later, after a chance interaction with “Evil Dead II,” but late in the protracted summer of 1990, Raimi was an up-and-comer I wasn’t familiar with yet. He was just a spunky filmmaker who brought a ghoulish, neurotic superhero triumphantly to the screen.
To their credit, Universal Studios sold the stuffing out of “Darkman,” taking a very outlandish romp through heroics and utter romantic despondency and made it feel like a must-see genre encounter right before schools went back into session. The “Who is Darkman?” teaser campaign was an eye-catcher, with trailers and commercials highlighting Raimi’s cartwheeling visual design, attempting to brand the title character as a new breed of antihero, crouching in the shadow of Burton’s “Batman.” The R-rating didn’t help matters at the box office, but the picture ended up with decent numbers, making a dent in the dog days of summer.
I was immediately struck by “Darkman” in 1990, bowled over by its very Raiminess -- a gonzo directorial flair I wasn’t accustomed to at the time. A violent, trembling tale of loss and revenge, the movie wasn’t your average superhero escapade, reflecting the director’s interests in the macabre side of life. I was smitten, soon kicking off a fascination with Raimi’s work that continues to this day. Yes, I even enjoyed “For the Love of the Game.”
2010: I’m going to cheat a bit here, since I recently reviewed the Blu-ray release of the film. It’s crammed with positive feelings on the picture. Nutrition for the cinema soul. Check it out here.
Pump Up the Volume
Nutshell: Relocated to a small Phoenix suburb from the wilds of New York City, Mark (Christian Slater) spends his days in high school paralyzed by shyness, and his nights in his basement as “Hard Harry,” the naughty, outspoken host of a pirate radio show. Learning his cathartic rants on teen fears and irritations are finding an audience at his school, Mark finds himself in a difficult position, caught between the needs of his audience and escalating pressure from outside forces who would love to shut Hard Harry down. Encouraged by Nora (Samantha Mathis), his biggest fan, Mark is forced to confront his broadcast legacy, which threatens to shatter his anonymity.
1990: Most generations have a film that ideally defines their position in the world. The movies aren’t always the definitive statement of time and location, but something fashioned with a fragrant generational personality that plants a cinematic flag along the way. I believe I missed out on that opportunity, falling somewhere between the dreamy John Hughes years and the hipster hustle of “Reality Bites,” stumbling a few steps behind the cultural markers. “Pump Up the Volume” never became a beacon for the class of 1990, but it’s a perfectly acceptable stand-in. At the time of its release, I was drawn to the film like a dopey metalhead to a Metallica bootleg concert recording from the St. Paul stop on the “Master of Puppets” tour.
I adored “Pump Up the Volume” in 1990, despite lacking any high school experience, with all the meddlesome parents and ruthless faculty that appeared to go along with the package. To me, the film was a peek into my near future, steered by the everlasting charms of Christian Slater, who, to be completely ridiculous about it, was something of a Rob Pattinson figure of his day -- screamy popular with the ladies, famous for cheekbones and an abundance of hair, and the star of a few hits between many bombs. That’s not to equate acting styles or personal thespian achievements, but the career trajectories are awfully similar. However, Pattinson will never have a “Heathers.” Hell, at the rate he’s going, he’ll never have a “Gleaming the Cube” either. But Slater was the tits back in 1990, and I was a fan of his menthol approach, enjoying his rascally spark.
Slater’s performance was a gas to behold, but writer/director Allan Moyle had more on his mind than simple shirtless theatrics, attempting to infuse the film with a sincere depiction of teenage disturbance. It was a film about mangled communication, exploring the gap between parents and their children, with Hard Harry the great white hope, allowing the kids of the area a voice that was being meticulously smothered. Since I wasn’t exactly an oppressed kid, the censorship subplot of the movie was lost on me at the time, thought I did respond to the idea of a guy who couldn’t bear to converse with his classmates, preferring to stare into the night, pouring his soul out over the airwaves, where there was no immediate judgment to shred intimate feelings. That shyness spoke to me in a profound manner, shoving the high school hysteria of the feature into an unnerving realm of realism, despite Moyle’s attempts to cartoon the film up with the creation of a mustache-twirling villain in shifty Principal Creswood (Annie Ross). Even though I wasn’t as old as the characters on the screen, their frustrations and dismay read perfectly clear. “Pump Up the Volume” was one of the first times I can recall honestly relating to a fictional character. It’s a powerful moment for any devotee of cinema.
Placing fourth on my Top Ten list for 1990, “Pump Up the Volume” blew my hair back quite a bit at the time, settling in as the teen movie to beat while I endured the next phase of my education.
2010: Although I’ve revisited “Pump Up the Volume” over the years, it’s been a quite a while since my last official viewing. Fearing the film would be rendered ridiculously dated in this sarcastic age, I watched the picture through my fingers for the opening ten minutes, hoping to successfully prepare myself for the earnest rush of the 1990s and the birth of the alternative generation.
Turns out, no such safety measures were needed, as the film plays as beautifully as it always has. Of course, being pre-internet, “Pump Up the Volume” isn’t a cynical film, resulting in some goofy thumbs-up approval scenes and an overall use of clique clichés to makes its points about the unity of high school oppression. Getting past that, along with fashion choices (passé, of course, though Mathis is a “120 Minutes” wet dream in her layers and short haircut), the film plays fairly modern if one replaces the radio uprising with blogs and social networking. The movie is about the need to be heard, with the young characters facing a community of distracted guardians as their woes deepen, with some taking to suicide as their lives spiral out of control, often without anyone noticing. While still a feature about a modest radio revolution, the corners of Moyle’s screenplay touch on uncomfortable truths, and the picture’s consciousness still resonates today.
Also retaining its original power is Christian Slater’s highly theatrical performance as Mark/Hard Harry, capturing the frantic highs and lows of a kid who’s stumbled upon a fault line of discontent. Much of the film is devoted to Mark’s confessional, philosophical on-air approach, allowing Slater to seize a juicy role that makes the best out of his vocal identity (the whole Jack Nicholson thing still offends people to this day, but it never bugged me) and his ability of capture the freedom of expression, boosted by an incredible soundtrack with highlights from Leonard Cohen, Concrete Blonde, Soundgarden (and that’s the "Louder Then Love" Soundgarden, not this “Black Hole Sun” malarkey), and, of course, The Pixies. Slater is Moyle’s generator, powering the film through some sludgy melodramatics, and while his separation of Mark and Hard Harry is practically Kabuki theater, the effort is just wonderful.
Insightful and evocative, “Pump Up the Volume” surprisingly never made it to generation-defining status. As a wise man once said, “So be it.” The film still means so much to me, and while it’s a trip back in time to a more contained era of expression, it’s incredible to see the picture retain some relevancy.
Men at Work
Nutshell: Carl (Charlie Sheen) and James (Emilio Estevez) are a pair of garbage collectors dreaming of opening their own surf shop. When a prank with an air rifle goes wrong, the boys are confronted with the dead body of a politician, who they incorrectly assume they’ve killed. Taking the body back to Carl’s apartment to sort the matter out, the guys, along with their corporate observer, unhinged war vet Louis (Keith David), uncover a vast conspiracy of illegal toxic waste dumping in their city, using Susan (Leslie Hope), the only known outside connection to the body, as their guide to clearing their names.
1990: The credit “An Emilio Estevez Film” actually meant something to me twenty years ago, as I was an admirer of the actor’s directorial debut, the 1986 caper, “Wisdom.” With “Men at Work,” his filmmaking follow-up, my curiosity was already piqued by this release -- the promise of a garbageman comedy was irresistible, taking a humorous look at the most fearless of professions. The marketing played up the vocational angle vigorously, promising a picture of perpetual alleyway shenanigans, sold by two acting brothers happily indulging their funny bones.
Unfortunately, “Men at Work” wasn’t a sanitation industry free-for-all. Not even close. The Brichives sums up the film as, “Funny, but only when it wants to be.” Now there’s a passive-aggressive tone befitting an easily distracted comedy that contained a few giggles, but hardly the tidal wave of titters expected. Instead, Estevez took his tiny budget and made a stoner comedy sans weed, focusing on the easily distracted ways of two off-duty garbagemen as they’re confronted with corruption and murder, falling deeper into a mess of trouble they’ve been led to believe they created.
Glacially paced and absent any sort of machine gun sense of humor, “Men at Work” wasn’t something I criticized too deeply at the time, but the throb of disappointment was there in a major way. Two hours of dudes horsing around with garbage cans, playing pranks, bantering about life…now there’s a movie. A tepid action/comedy with little to no vocational mischievousness wasn’t a riveting replacement.
2010: I honestly thought my initial lack of tolerance with “Men at Work” was a bit of youthful impatience. Actually, it was a pretty accurate read of the film’s pace, which is astonishingly sluggish at times, especially once the first act concludes and the film morphs into a lukewarm hostage comedy. Today, Estevez’s blunt-igniting directorial vision is more obvious (the reggae-infused soundtrack helps set the mood), but holy hell is this movie leisurely. During a few select scenes, it practically moves in reverse.
Regardless of its zombified state of mind, “Men at Work” retains a few hearty laughs, most emerging from Charlie Sheen, who slips into the dimwit role with ease, clearly enjoying the vacation from the harder dramas and actioners he was making. Sheen’s funny here, especially playing off brother Estevez, who takes more of a straight man position in the garbled script. As a director, Estevez works his cast well, with David growly and paranoid as the hard-assed Vietnam vet, and Hope giving the thankless expositional role a nice shot of clarity. The cast has to contend with dreary slapstick, overall lethargy, and a polite shattering of the fourth wall, but they make an impressive ensemble impression, getting the film to payoffs it would otherwise be too sleepy to pursue.
Though environmentally minded, the “Men at Work” screenplay really wants to be a chase picture, with Carl and James storming the gates in the end to stop the baddies and their evil pollution business. By the final 30 minutes, the entire film is deflated, making the swerve into action contrived and unfunny. The finale of the feature seems more tuned in to investor demands than an extension of the film’s tonal intent. A shame, because there’s nothing quite as discouraging as an action picture that doesn’t deliver convincing action.
“Men at Work” is such a strange movie, even while it barely makes an effort to breathe. Hanging with the mulleted Estevez boys has its high points, and their beach-bum chemistry is idiosyncratic enough to making the viewing experience halfway tolerable. It’s just not much of a motion picture, dropping the potential of a unique workplace perspective to deliver static monkey business, streaked with leftover clown make-up from “Weekend at Bernie’s.”
And for that, I offer a polite golf clap.Gone, baby, gone…
And that’s the end of another summer moviegoing adventure. If you’ve made it this far, I extend my deepest gratitude, and I hope this diary has triggered many warmly nostalgic feelings for past theater-hopping accomplishments. As always, I do enjoy hearing from people, and if you have any comments, praise, suggestions, praise, and praise, please feel free to e-mail me. The code word is “1991.”