Friday, February 1, 2013

1991 in Film: Best of the Rest

F This Movie Fest is TOMORROW YOU GUYS. Let's talk one more time about 1991.

There are a LOT of great movies from '91. We're going to watch a couple of them at FTM Fest. We've devoted much of this week to talking about some others: Beauty and the Beast, JFK, Dead Again, Point Break, Boyz n the Hood, Star Trek VI and Dogfight. Plus there's The Silence of the Lambs and Thelma & Louise and Cape Fear and Barton Fink and The Fisher King and a bunch of others. Those movies get talked about a lot. Let's talk about some of the others.

I've said a bunch of times on the site that 1991 might be the best year for action movies ever, because the old guard of the '80s was still at its peak, but things were already in a state of flux. The year had one foot in the past and one in the future. Two of the best action movies of all time, Point Break and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, were released in 1991, the latter of which essentially wrote the template for action blockbusters (for better or worse) for the next 20 years. Those are two of the A-list efforts released that year, but there were also a LOT of mid-budget action movies that had theatrical runs. Cemented action stars like Seagal and Van Damme were making some of their best movies. Action was such a popular genre that filmmakers were trying to create new action stars out of former NFL players and international Kenpo champions.

All of these action movies were released in 1991:
Double Impact
Out for Justice
The Last Boy Scout
The Hit Man
Stone Cold
The Perfect Weapon
Showdown in Little Tokyo
The Taking of Beverly Hills

Incredible, right? Best year for action ever.

Sylvester Stallone, correctly reading that there was a new class of action stars on the rise, was already starting to "stretch" himself and get out of the Rambo box, resulting in his first attempt at comedy since Rhinestone created the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. That wound up being the unfairly overlooked Oscar, a great throwback to 1930s comedy and one of John Landis's most underrated movies. It tanked, and Stallone would only attempt comedy one more time (Stop, or My Mom Will Shoot!) before realizing it's not a great fit. '91 was his peak as a comedian.

But it wasn't all broken bones and roundhouse kicks through windows in 1991. Smaller movies had their moment, too. Slacker was released that year, and while I've never quite warmed up to that movie, it's impossible to deny its creativity and the do-it-yourself aesthetic that would define so much of the '90s Sundance "indie" boom. Plus, it gave the world Richard Linklater, one of the most interesting and versatile filmmakers working today; he reminds me of Steven Soderbergh in the way that he bounces back between commercial movies and indies, one-for-them, one-for-me.
There were other good, under-the-radar psuedo-indies released in 1991, too. JB touched on a few of them already, like Jim Jarmusch's Night on Earth and the Mimi Rogers/David Duchonvny fuckfest The Rapture. Also released in '91 was Johnny Suede, the debut movie from Jarmusch's cinematographer Tom DiCillo, starring a young Brad Pitt as a pompadour'd wannabe musician and Catherine Keener as the woman who tolerates him (the making of this movie, which was an unpleasant experience for DiCillo, inspired his even better Living in Oblivion in 1995). Australian filmmaker John Duigan made a sweet and beautiful coming-of-age romance called Flirting, starring Noah Taylor, Thandie Newton and a pre-feline (preline) Nicole Kidman. It's a great movie.

Michael J. Fox found himself in a state of flux in the early '90s. The Back the Future trilogy had wrapped up. Family Ties, the sitcom that made him a household name, was over. His first major attempt to appear in a "grown up" movie, Brian De Palma's Casualties of War, hadn't done so well. Fox was looking to redefine himself. So he made Doc Hollywood, which is a pretty standard romantic comedy (saved by good writing and incredibly likable performances), and then he tried to subvert his image with the very clever and LOUD action comedy The Hard Way. He plays a spoiled dick Hollywood actor who researches a role by pairing up with cop James Woods at his JAMES WOODSIEST: he smokes, he swears, he twitches. He makes coffee nervous. It's a movie with the energy cranked up to MAX VOLUME, but the actors are great at keep the pace up and John Badham knows how to do practical action. It's not a classic by any means, but, like most of the movies on this list, it's the kind of thing that's great to stumble across on cable. "Holy shit, I haven't seen The Hard Way in years!"
Speaking of ridiculous buddy movies, 1991 saw the release of one of the most ludicrous buddy action movies of all time, Harley Davidson & the Marlboro Man. An openly miserable Mickey Rourke is Harley; Don Johnson compensates as Marlboro. Together, they must navigate the FUTURE world of 1996 (!) and take on evil banker Tom Sizemore (!) and his henchman Daniel Baldwin (!) after an armored car robbery gets them mixed up in drugs. This is a movie made solely for 13-year old boys. Luckily, that's exactly what I was.

Keanu Reeves had three movies in 1991: The aforementioned Point Break, Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey (part of F This Movie Fest 2) and Gus Van Sant's male hustler drama/Henry IV/V remake My Own Private Idaho. Julia Roberts put out Sleeping With the Enemy, Hook and the mostly-terrible Dying Young, which was once predicted by Premiere magazine to be the highest-grossing movie of the summer of '91. It was not. Robert De Niro was in Cape Fear and Guilty by Suspicion. Kevin Costner (K-Cost) made Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and JFK, both of which landed in the top 10 highest grossing movies of the year. This year, sandwiched between Dances With Wolves in 1990 and The Bodyguard in 1992, was the height of Costnermania. Jennifer Connelly stole our hearts in The Rocketeer (part of F This Movie Fest 2!) and Career Opportunities, the movie that made me a man. Bruce Willis made The Last Boy Scout (part of F This Movie Fest 2!) and Hudson Hawk. Wesley Snipes had two movies: Jungle Fever and New Jack City (part of F This Movie Fest 2!). River Phoenix had two: My Own Private Idaho and Dogfight, Adam Riske's favorite movie of 1991.

You know who else had two major studio releases in 1991? Richard Grieco. That's right -- 1991 was the year that Hollywood tried to make a movie star out of Richard Grieco. He had a supporting role in Mobsters, a sincere but stupid attempt to revitalize the gangster genre by casting teen heartthrobs as famous gangsters like Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky. It has incredibly production design and is very well-photographed. Anthony Quinn and Michael Gambon deliver very entertaining, insanely over-the-top performances as the two villains, but all of the younger stars -- Grieco, Patrick Dempsey, Lara Flynn Boyle and Christian Slater as the lead -- all feel like kids playing grownup. I have no idea why I loved it when it came out.
Much better is Grieco's lone stab at leading man status, the gloriously stupid If Looks Could Kill, which casts him as a high school student mistaken for a secret agent. If you can ignore how fucking smug Grieco is, there's a very entertaining spy spoof going on around him (no surprise, since the movie was originally conceived by the great Fred Dekker), with Linda Hunt doing her best Rosa Klebb, Gabrielle Anwar making an appealing heroine and even an appearance by Roger Daltry. If Looks Could Kill knows exactly what kind of movie it is, and ends up being a shitload of fun. Even Grieco acquits himself, in that you only want to punch him a couple of times. "If looks could kill...get Grieco a mirror." - Dennis Miller (RIP)

The horror genre was basically dead by 1991. The '80s boom had ended, and the next five years (until Scream in '96) were pretty much a desert as far as good horror movies are concerned. The occasional winner managed to sneak by, and Wes Craven's '91 effort The People Under the Stairs is that occasional gem. It's a big mess, because Wes Craven's ideas don't always match his execution, but it's gleefully strange and has a lot to say about '80s gentrification and the class disparity that the Reagan-era '80s begat. It's a minor gem -- a horror movie that is its own thing and that has something to say at a time when very few did.

Are they classics? Hardly. Would I watch any one of them if they came on TV right now? In a second. That's the kind of year '91 was. The kind of year worth celebrating.


  1. Had a professor in college who used Oscar to illustrate some things about linguistics. Worked quite well, honestly.

    1. Those Tim Curry scenes used to make me laugh. "Here's money...and here's mooore money..."

  2. Damn, I thought I'd seen a lot of great movies from 1991 but apparently barely scratched the surface. When you guys hit the big-time you should set up a scholarship program for one lucky listener (i.e. (not e.g.) - ME) to take the year off and just watch movies because I'm starting to feel anxiety about how many great (or even just good) ones I haven't seen and will never have the time to see. Seriously, out of the dozens of "secondary" titles you ran through, I've seen maybe 10.

    I did see The Hard Way and it is fantastic - also contains one of my favourite overdubbed-for-TV moments with the replacement of "you son of a bitch" with "you slug in a ditch". And yeah, if James Woods has become a caricature of himself, this is the character it's based on. I want to watch it right now!

    Btw, in honour of 1991, I obtained all of the movies for the Fest (except for T2 which I own) the old-fashioned 1991 way - RENTED from one of the city's last remaining rental places. It cost $26 but somehow it made me feel good.

    1. Amazon package just arrived at my door with Blu-rays of "Last Man Standing" (bonus: "The Last Boy Scout" as an extra :-P) and "The Rocketeer" (unavailable on Amazon Instant Video). Already have "T2," "New Jack City" and "Bogus Journey" will be amazon rentals. All set for Saturday here too, the new-fashion 2013 way.

    2. To be honest I had illegally downloaded them all (sadly, the REAL new-fashion 2013 way), which is something I RARELY do (I spend way more than I can really afford on movies already so I don't feel THAT guilty about doing it occasionally for something obscure), but didn't want to rely on a shitty download and it just seemed wrong for the event.

    3. You're a good (Canadian) man, Charlie Brown. :-)

  3. I love "If Looks Could Kill." Grieco is his usual intolerable self (not to mention way too old to be playing a HS kid) but the movie that surrounds him is a pitch-perfect spy spoof. How often do you get the director of "The Monster Squad" co-writing alongside the creator of "Sex and the City" and "Beverly Hills 90210"? If this movie were made today you know this would be a star vehicle for The CW's Jay Rian ("Beauty and the Beast").

    Didn't Hollywood attempt to remake "The Hard Way" in 2002 with Josh Hartnett and Harrison Ford in the Michael J. Fox and James Woods role with "Hollywod Homicide"? I know, I know. :-P

    If you have Amazon Prime membership these 1991 "gems" (YMMV) are FREE on Amazon Instant Video (there are more, including many of the films Patrick mentioned or picked for the Film Fest, but those you have to rent or buy):

    BEYOND JUSTICE (post-"Manhunter" William Petersen)
    WHORE (my #3 movie of '91)

    1. Hmmm...I'm using an IP spoofer to access Netflix US from Canada, I wonder if that would work for Amazon Instant Video too as I'm pretty sure you can't normally access it from Canada - seems like they have a lot of good content on there.

    2. You have to be an Amazon Prime subscriber (with CC on file) to see these though, don't think the IP spoofer can get you there. Sorry.

  4. He makes coffee nervous

    Nice You've Got Mail reference Patrick :-) I'm gonna go to the nut shop where it's fun.