In the summer of 1991, I was gainfully employed at a local movie theater. Actually, I acquired the job in the fall of 1990, but couldn’t do much with the gig due to my underage status. I spent a long holiday enduring the monumental crowds that turned out for the likes of “Home Alone” (“The Bonfire of the Vanities” and “Three Men and a Little Lady” weren’t as lucky), but the summer season that followed was where I fully embraced the position of nerdly movie theater lackey -- I was a pubescent goofball in a tight red vest, cursed with an undying interest in the cinematic arts. My experience at the five-plex dragged on for several years, encountering countless blockbusters and bombs, solidifying friendships and kick-starting a few lifelong grudges. Yet, the summer of 1991 is where the job formed in full, permitting an opportunity to fully inhale the intricacies of film exhibition, along with recognizing a maturing sense of taste, once again captured on the yellowed pages of the Brichives, a book that now resides at the Smithsonian.
Some spend the twinkly lights of youth chasing the opposite sex, killing time with drugs and drink, or perhaps devouring substantial academic pursuits. I craved the recycled air release of a darkened theater, reaching a point where boyish wonder began to transform into teenage angst. Or whatever passed for angst in my frighteningly insular world.
The summertime adventure was starting all over again. And I was still on a damn bike.
Nutshell: A slacker with a loose sense of responsibility, Brian McCaffrey (William Baldwin) has returned to the family business of firefighting, a job that killed his father and turned his older brother Stephen (Kurt Russell) into a bitter hard-ass. Sent to work in the same company as Stephen, Brian endures the rough education of a probationary firefighter, soon stumbling upon a series of arson jobs planned by a uniquely talented criminal, leaving Investigator Rimgale (Robert De Niro) puzzled as to why these fires are being set. Clashing with his brother and tentatively working back into the arms of a former love (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Brian finds himself overwhelmed, yet maturing with his newborn responsibility, taking pride in himself and his profession while the city of Chicago erupts into chaos.
1991: It’s difficult to imagine an R-rated Ron Howard drama about firefighters kicking off the summer moviegoing season. The prospect seemed to spook Universal Pictures at the time as well, who dropped sizeable moolah to promote a picture that wasn’t just a fiery melodrama, but a full-out call of heroism. The marketing wasn’t shy about building “Backdraft” as a tribute to the men and women of the job, making the Average Joe feel like a heel of they didn’t purchase a ticket to support the cause. Firefighting was suddenly front-page news, pointing a spotlight on a gig that’s always taken for granted.
The propulsive push behind “Backdraft” piqued my curiosity, turning something potentially routine into gotta-go event cinema. Audiences suddenly knew what a backdraft was, while happily putting their leading man faith into a lesser Baldwin brother (placing second out of four ain’t bad). In a summer of terminators and arrow-based outlaws, firefighters found a pop culture foothold. It was an amazing achievement, and, thankfully, there was a dynamic film to back it up. Even if it took me a few tries to slap it all together.
In a rare bit of starting time folly, I was late to my first viewing of “Backdraft.” Not that the picture’s beer-can-smooshing narrative was akin to “Memento,” but missing a good chunk of the opening left me with a greater appreciation for Howard’s sense of spectacle, pushed into the middle of the inferno with some famous actors and a blaring score from Hans Zimmer. It was a mistake I rarely make, but my accident seemed to boost my first impression of the film. The story quickly settled in, but for a moment there, it was all visceral fire-dodging and grunted F-words. *Chris Farley voice* It was awesome.
2011: I was quite taken with “Backdraft” as a kid, scribbling in the Brichives how much the technical achievements of the picture blew me away, while providing me with a “better appreciation for firefighters.” I bought into Howard’s love letter to the profession wholeheartedly, relishing the amped, smoke-stained heroics.
Rewatching the picture allowed me to step back and observe the nuances of Gregory Widen’s screenplay, which seemed so one-dimensional 20 years ago, yet reveals itself today to be a keen observation of struggle, especially within a testosterone-fueled vocation that doesn’t tape off much room for personal expression. There’s sadness misting around the movie that eluded me before, written across Brian as he returns to firefighting out of financial desperation, and Stephen, who’s locked away his vulnerability to protect his pride, facing the dwindling support of his engine house and loss of his marriage (Rebecca De Mornay has a few tender scenes as Stephen’s exasperated wife). Howard’s extremely focused on the working-class details of the script, with boozing and classic rock love, but for all the spectacle of the picture, there are moments where the churning feeling of failure and defeat are thoroughly expressed between the fireballs and intrigue.
“Backdraft” is manipulative and overblown at times, but I fail to see the downside when Howard keeps such a tight command of his actors and orders up some chilling moments of inferno interaction. Promotional featurettes and a former Universal Studios Hollywood stunt show have informed me that the picture was looking to make a character out of the fire, giving it a specialized life for the camera. The effect is hypnotic, intensified by macabre, breathy sound effects that creep me out, even to this day. “Backdraft” does a helluva job placing the viewer in the center of the blaze, capturing the necessity of safety along with Stephen’s unmasked cowboy attitude (debunked long ago as Hollywood hooey by real firefighters). The practical effects and tricks are seamless, permitting the camera to seize the majesty and ferocity of fire without distracting the eye through overt artifice. “Backdraft” is a visual marvel, perhaps the most evocative firefighting movie ever made, admittedly in a field of few contenders. It’s easy to be king with stuff like “The Hellfighters” and “Ladder 49” around.
A few elements of “Backdraft” annoy these days, one of them being Jennifer Jason Leigh, who was sandpaper casting back in 1991 and remains a puzzler to this day. Blessed with the sex appeal of a knitting class, Leigh is a drip, moping around as the token love interest in a film that has no time for such distractions. She’s awful in an ensemble of sturdy, deeply felt performances, including Russell’s clenched-fist work as Stephen, Baldwin’s swell read of fear as Brian, and Donald Sutherland’s sinister work as imprisoned arsonist Bartel -- a lip-licking demon of a man who holds the clue to the arson ring. This, of course, was Sutherland at a time in his career when he actually read scripts before accepting jobs.
The plot is also sits a bit uneasily, with the second half jettisoning the firefighting gymnastics to play detective, working out a revenge plot that feels oddly superfluous to the action at hand. Howard hustles to tighten the story in the end, but it’s left a little incomplete, taking time away from far more satisfying domestic trials for the characters. The frayed bond of brotherhood and the rituals of firefighting are considerably more compelling than a slack whodunit. Despite the manner it carries the feature, the plot feels secondary, and for good reason. Removing the realism, that pressure, to tinker with thriller mechanics is a bit of a letdown. Thankfully, Howard saves the day with a powerful, tear-jerking finale. Manipulative? Yes. But damn, citywide funerals, a cranked score, and some Baldwin blue steel redemption poses clears away any irksome storytelling dissatisfaction.
“Backdraft” remains a thunderous, entertaining picture. And, despite the way it assertively pushes its agenda, it’s a wonderful feeling to reflect on the sacrifice of firefighters, taking a few hours to grasp the impossible bravery of the vocation. Preferably scored by Hans Zimmer.
Straight Out of Brooklyn
Nutshell: Dennis (Larry Gillard Jr.) leads a troubling life in the projects of Brooklyn, NY. Watching as Ray (George T. Odom), his abusive, alcoholic father, beats the stuffing out of his mother while blaming the “white man” for all of his problems, Dennis is left hopeless, turning to the comfort of his dingbat friends Larry (Matty Rich) and Kevin (Mark Malone). Looking for a way out of his toxic environment, Dennis plans to rob a local drug kingpin, hoping the cash will wipe away his troubles and offer the boy a shot at the American Dream.
1991: When Spike Lee began churning out movies with increasing box office success, Hollywood took notice. The public took notice. Stimulated by the rise of African-American positivity and cultural pride, Lee’s triumphs paved the way for a new generation of filmmakers interested in providing a unique perspective to the world -- a screen education of bright young directors using cinematic tools to impart their hopes for a divided community. 1991 alone brought a new film from Lee and the debut of John Singleton, yet Matty Rich’s “Straight Out of Brooklyn” captured quite a remarkable amount of attention that year. Not bad for $450,000 movie written and directed by an 18 year old.
“Brooklyn” made a minor splash in limited release, but that it was released at all was the real miracle at play. Snatching an opportunity to siphon off Lee’s victories, the releasing studio pushed Rich’s feature as a brave new voice of African-American concern, with the movie a potent warning shot on the perils of criminal activity and the ravages of domestic discord. Unless my mind has failed me, I didn’t view the picture until it reached the home video market, yet I vividly recall the excitement it caused at film festivals and pre-release screenings, with the press falling over themselves to anoint Rich the new face of Black Cinema. Here was a tiny picture they could shape into a statement, overlooking its lackluster technical merit to focus on the accomplishment at hand. The very fact that Matty Rich made a message-minded movie as a teenager was enough to celebrate. The actual quality of the movie would rarely come up for discussion.
I supposed I bought into the hype as well, feeling smugly victorious to have endured the picture’s grim assessment of life in Hell. A moronic attitude, but hey, I was young and suburban. It was a badge of pride to rent something beyond the average blockbuster, much less a somber story of ghetto survival nobody outside of Premiere readers had ever even heard of.
2011: “Straight Out of Brooklyn” is an impassioned picture, sincerely looking to disturb with its portrait of a life gradually unraveling. It’s also hopelessly amateurish, with Rich revealing his directorial inexperience throughout the picture, with much of the film resembling the early works of John Waters, with a little sprinkling of 1970’s pornography dusted on top. It’s a crude production of little to no visual value.
The irritated core of the material is what drives the viewing experience. While Rich figures out what awful angle to use to cover the action, the performances breathe fire and articulate the depression, gifting pathos to a film that doesn’t always earn the depth. Talented folks, such as Odom, basically ignore Rich’s clumsy direction and look for the truth of the moment, isolating that throb of defeat that turns hope into resignation, leading once proud men to destroy their lives, setting a cataclysmic example for the next generation. Rich scripts in an obvious manner, and his manipulations often backfire (a scene where Ray is scolded by his racist gas station employer is pure farce), but the cry is earnest. It’s impossible to ignore the passions put forth, it’s just a shame Rich’s inexperience can’t carry the workload.
Though evocative of the era, with bleak urban locations to help encourage the dread, Rich is desperate to pad the film to the professional run time. Much of the script is devoted to Dennis and his dopey pals, who yammer on and on about “big butts” (oh, the ass fixation in this movie!) and assorted sexual yearn, adding brevity to a picture that works best in a frigid, frowning state. Uneven and unfunny, “Brooklyn” is awfully difficult to watch outside of its 1991 womb, with its limitations cringe-inducing, reducing a powerful statement of frustration to no-budget After School Special.
Perhaps it’s unfair to knock Rich for his immaturity, but “Brooklyn” is such a grab bag of emotions, slapped with a tragic summation that sprints into melodramatic overkill. The filmmaker shows no sense of control, stumbling through the story one painful scene after another. It’s a product of its time, bested by more professional, focused efforts. I treasure the feature’s sense of alarm and critical attitude, but the lackluster execution erases any lasting impact.
Away from fawning festivals and rabid reporters, with its new car smell now faded, “Straight Out of Brooklyn” doesn’t register as a primal war cry for change or a poignant nostalgic trip back to a burgeoning cultural revolution. It’s just a flat film with incredible timing and a behind-the-scenes Cinderella story that could be sold with greater ease than the grueling subject matter.
It’s interesting to note that Rich went on to make only one other film, the polished but tepid 1994 Disney comedy, “The Inkwell.” Rich faded into obscurity for a decade, only to turn up as the creator of “187: Ride or Die,” a video game that celebrates violence and general thug life baloney.
Consider the final card of “Brooklyn.”
And here’s the cover art for “187: Ride or Die.”
It appears that during his absence from creative endeavors, Matty Rich not only lost industry favor but his integrity as well.
1991: As explored in last summer’s diary, Bruce Willis was king. Starting with “Die Hard” (actually, my fandom could be traced back to the “Moonlighting” years), I was hooked on the actor, finding his particular everyman spark carrying the needs of most pictures. I was a devout fan, giving the benefit of the doubt to even the most suspect nonsense Willis was intent on making. Perhaps this is why I was so amped up about “Hudson Hawk.”
On one hand, it was a new Bruce Willis picture, gifted a gusty marketing campaign reserved for the most triumphant of blockbusters, handed a heavy “WE HAVE THE NEW WILLIS!” slant that’s seems positively alien in this current era of franchises and high-concept jalopies.
Just look at this teaser poster. If you walked by it fast enough, you wouldn’t even know the movie had a title.
Willis was all TriStar Pictures needed to create some identity in a crowded summer marketplace.
While hounded by ghastly press that fixated on the sheer magnitude of ego attached to the making of the film, along with its bloated budget, I was still hopeful for something powerfully Willis to emerge from “Hudson Hawk.” TriStar attempted to market the picture as an action-filled caper, clearly aiming to appeal to the core fanbase with visions of explosions, one-liners, and babes. Well, Andie MacDowell. Close enough.
I managed to attend a promo screening a few days before “Hudson Hawk” officially opened. That was a rare occurrence back then, making the prospect of seeing the new Willis picture early practically explosive. Sadly, I can’t quite recall the reaction of the sold-out crowd in attendance. It doesn’t really manner anyway, I was hooked. I fell in love with “Hudson Hawk” that night, perhaps because it was such an overwhelmingly odd flick with a real sense of comedic insanity about it. I hadn’t been exposed to films of that nature up to that point, leave me open to this brazen mischief in a pure way hardened critics couldn’t be. Couple genuine enchantment with an early bird viewing and a free XXL t-shirt (one I proudly wore to school immediately, despite the fact that I could fit three of me inside of it), and my night was set. Hell, my summer was set. “Hudson Hawk” was it.
It also helped that the guy who made “Heathers” directed it. That was also a huge deal in 1991. Today he makes junk like “Because I Said So,” but there was a brief time when a new Michael Lehmann film meant something positive. I know, hard to believe.
I secured the soundtrack on cassette and the bizarre video game for the NES, and generally carried on as if the picture was some type of national holiday. In hindsight, it wasn’t. Most audiences were appalled with this slapstick/musical/actioner/caper/thingee, baffled by the mixture of wacky and winky. It wasn’t a bitter brew to me. In fact, I hooked right into the whimsical nature of the beast, embracing the shrillness with a youthful purity. Candy bar henchmen? “Swinging on a Star” duets? The original Da Vinci code? Pretty damn cool to this 15-year-old kid, mister. Imagine my disappointment to watch crowds dwindle at the multiplex, with each day bringing in less and less adventurous audiences eager to sample the madness Willis either designed or survived, depending on his interview mood.
For years I wore my enjoyment of “Hudson Hawk” like a badge of honor, defending its worth to anyone who would scoff. The movie even pushed me to taste a cappuccino. Yuck. I suppose I didn’t fully grasp what the drink was at the time. Chalk it up to the miracle of the film: it made coffee look cool. An impossible accomplishment.
2011: I wrote a review of “Hudson Hawk” a few years ago that sums up my current reaction to the film. You can read it here.
Only the Lonely
Nutshell: Danny Muldoon (John Candy) is an affable cop with a domineering, bigoted mother named Rose (Maureen O’Hara) constantly by his side. Feeling the grind of his domestic routine, Danny finds his spirits brightened by Theresa (Ally Sheedy), a shy woman who spends her days making up the dead in her father’s funeral home. While the two have chemistry together, Danny can’t help but feel guilty for leaving his mother behind as he pursues a rare shot at love. Theresa also feels the burn, as Rose’s sense of honesty leads to a torrent of insults, threatening to keep her away from Danny until he can decide on future plans for himself.
1991: This was a major year of transition for John Hughes. Fully ensconced in his producer duties, the mulleted maestro was in the process of weaning himself off teen and adult entertainment, heading straight for the nosepicker hills after “Home Alone” clobbered the competition in 1990 and made Hughes a very wealthy and powerful man. 1991 saw the release of “Career Opportunities” (a film I simply adore, sorry world), “Dutch” (we’ll get to that one in July), and “Only the Lonely,” while also offering Hughes’s final directorial effort, the whimsy-caked “Curly Sue.” Hughes enjoyed a busy year, his last of any discernable artistic maturity. Why be goofy and poignant when pratfalls make you filthy rich? It’s easy to understand why Hughes retreated to the comfort of his cheek-slapped kingdom.
Hughes only produced “Only the Lonely,” leaving the primary filmmaking duties to Chris Columbus, who also contributed to the “Home Alone” explosion. In this, the second of their three pairings, Columbus met Hughes halfway, constructing a gentle romantic picture with a decent comedic fastball, merging the sweet and the silly with a developing confidence helped along by one heck of the cast. The feature was a breath of fresh air for Columbus, wedged quietly between his time on the two “Home Alone” pictures, allowing him a chance to play with adults for a change.
Despite rather adult concerns of marriage and elderly mother worries, I took to “Only the Lonely” wholeheartedly in 1991, primarily because of Candy, who was God-like at the time, thanks to his work with Hughes and his own impossibly brilliant way with punchlines. While I arrived at the theater with my giggle bib tied on, the romanticism and familial deliberation of the film (sold with humorous nightmare sequences highlighting Danny’s fear of his mother’s demise) brought another level of engagement, with that good old Columbus warmth assuming command through rounded characters and restrained conflict. Even if I couldn’t quite relate to the resignation of a single man nearing forty finally finding love, I felt for these characters, sucked into the urban poetry of this endearing picture.
2011: These days, Columbus’s name is mud after misfires such as “I Love You, Beth Cooper” and “Percy Jackson & the Olympians.” The opportunity to forget his recent offenses and relive a moment in time when a Chris Columbus film was a welcome multiplex occasion was enticing, and it’s a pleasure to report that “Only the Lonely” retains its sweetness and sturdy tonality, with additional dimension provided by my own creeping maturity.
Soaked in primo Chicago locations, perennial home to the Hughesian shuffle, “Only the Lonely” is such an affable, gentle film, I have no idea why 20th Century Fox pushed it into a summer release. Counterprogramming confusion aside, the picture stands comfortably after all this time, combating the staleness of the kissy face genre with a wit and honest place of reflection, with Danny a genuinely conflicted lead character forced to juggle his motherly concern with a shot at true love. Columbus plays the plot simply enough, but takes his time sketching out the characters, feeling the fear of abandonment and loneliness that threatens to destroy critical relationships.
Of course, the whole endeavor is coated in a cutesy Irish glaze, charmingly buttressed by Maurice Jarre’s pipe-infused score. The beer flows mightily in the film, conveying a tight working-class community for Danny he’s hesitant to abandon. The picture feels homey and loose without seeming slack, and there’s a terrific gut-buster of a scene early on featuring some of the locals and their quest to fulfill a dead man’s dying wish by enjoying one last drink with his corpse at the local pub. “Only the Lonely” isn’t primarily interested in laughs, but it orchestrates a peaceful stream of gags and one-liners while piecing together a puzzle of broken hearts.
In a rare offering of dramatic substance, Candy carries the film beautifully, capturing the terror within Dennis as he gradually phases out his troublesome mother. Candy supplies laughs, but there’s this sincere tremble of hesitance as he pursues Theresa, a guarded sense of faint optimism as he meets a quiet woman equally in need of outside companionship. Candy and Sheedy make for a believable couple, with the leading man supplying a generous heart to balance out the tortured soul. Talked out of retirement to play Rose, O’Hara is a captivating presence, skillfully dishing out the hate speech with ace maternal aim, squeezing the role for all the old world moxie it can bleed. She’s marvelous, sharing organic chemistry with Candy while providing the picture with a jovial sense of edge, courtesy of some friendly intolerance and prickly interactions with horndog Anthony Quinn, having a blast here as Rose’s lovesick neighbor. His crime? He’s Greek.
“Only the Lonely” doesn’t crack open the genre, but it distributes the clichés with sincerity, hoping to reaches places of vulnerability and frustration that develops a bond with the viewer. It’s one of Columbus’s best films, and easily ranks as Candy’s most dimensional performance. He’s a joy to watch here.
Man oh man, I just miss the hell out of him sometimes.
Drop Dead Fred
Nutshell: Suffering through divorce, unemployment, and emotional abuse from her overbearing mother (Marsha Mason), Lizzie (Phoebe Cates) is a wreck, necessitating the return of her imaginary friend from childhood, Drop Dead Fred (Rik Mayall). An obnoxious troublemaker who’s missed his old pal, Fred proceeds to raise hell to keep Lizzie on her toes, dragging her through several misadventures that make the bothered girl seem like a destructive mess to the outside world. Desperate to reclaim her old life, Lizzie comes to find Fred a nuisance once her lecherous ex-husband (Tim Matheson) makes himself suspiciously available for a reconciliation.
1991: It might come as a shock, but I didn’t see “Drop Dead Fred” during its brief run in theaters. Gasp! Or maybe I did and just failed to record the experience in my mind computer. The film was eventually viewed on home video, but not because of any hunger to see Rik Mayall in action, I assure you. Curiosity about the picture stemmed from its Minneapolis shoot, a rare opportunity to see my home city on the big screen. Hey, it was exciting at the time.
Up to this point, Minneapolis hadn’t been used extensively for film production, with only a handful of memorable motion pictures employing the city as a backdrop. “Drop Dead Fred” emerged during a renaissance period for the state, where the Minnesota Film Board rolled up their sleeves and encouraged more substantial projects to brave the snow and shoot some drama in the heartland (leading to movies like “Grumpy Old Men,” “Untamed Heart,” and “The Mighty Ducks”).
“Drop Dead Fred” was a big deal when it arrived to spin filmmaking gold in 1990, with the set’s daily activities making the rounds on local television news, showing up in newspaper gossip columns, and buzzed about in social circles. Hollywood magic was knocking on my back door for a change, making the feature something unique.
There were local landmarks!
And cameos from MN celebs!
The enthusiasm didn’t last for very long.
Upon release, “Drop Dead Fred” was eviscerated by critics and generally ignored by audiences. After all, a film built around the antics of a monumentally unfunny British comedian bombing around the frame at top volume, often with his index finger dug hungrily up his considerable nostril, wasn’t destined to incite much interest. Mayall wasn’t well known in America in 1991, and was reduced to a complete unknown after the feature hit theaters. When I eventually caught up to the movie, it wasn’t to sample Mayall’s cartoon goofballery, I took the hit to see my stomping grounds on film. Oh, and to study the effortless awesomeness of Phoebe Cates.
Ah, Phoebe Cates…
2011: Well, Cates shuttered her acting career not long after the debut of “Fred.” Perhaps the endearing actress just lost her taste for the spotlight, more content to have babies with Kevin Kline than spend 15-hour days trading booger swipes with Mayall. I can’t blame her.
There’s really no special way to put it: “Drop Dead Fred” is an appallingly unpleasant, unfunny, and deeply disturbed motion picture. It’s an ear-splitting slapstick comedy for an unknown audience, unifying parents and kids in discomfort with its aggressive movement, which bubbles over with toxic characters and tired physical stunts. It’s an ugly picture from director Ate de Jong, who reveals a distinct lack of imagination for imaginary friend exploration, engineering all the antics to showcase Mayall’s gift for annoyance (far more than the character requires), not digging into the playful possibility of the script’s early going. The filmmaker uses the comedy as a plastic shopping bag, pulling it tight across the face of the viewer, leaving anyone who comes near this thing gasping for life.
Aside from Minneapolis swoon and the opportunity to see Carrie Fisher (here as Lizzie’s pal) in her last role before drugs destroyed her feisty physicality, “Drop Dead Fred” doesn’t offer any type of distraction that keeps the bad movie mojo at arm’s length. Mayall is a particular screen poison even the sunny day rays emerging from Cates can’t repel. She’s effortlessly adorable and vulnerable as Lizzie, but Cates is swimming upstream when sharing scenes with the comic, though her feats of physical comedy (e.g. Fred manipulating her arms during a spastic dinner scene) expose a skill that was never properly realized during her brief career.
Over the years, “Drop Dead Fred” has developed some minor, gulp, legitimacy as work of genuine psychological complexity, with Lizzie’s spinning Fred adventures springing from the emotional torment freely distributed by her loved ones. Truthfully, the abuse asides in the film are unsettlingly heartfelt, spotlighting a script that perhaps at one point was drilling somewhere distressing to articulate the fragility of mental health. It’s an admirable quest, but not for an unsophisticated movie like this, with Fred’s anarchy more tasteless than enlightening. The delicate unraveling of a cocooned woman (Lizzie eventually enter her own subconscious to right herself) shouldn’t involve bouncing magic men and, yes, booger-smearing acts of empowerment. It makes it hard to take anything the script offers seriously.
Oh, and what the hell was Bridget Fonda doing in this? At least she had the sense to refuse credit.
Coming next week…
Sally Field and Kevin Kline satirize the satirical world of satire in a satire.