Friday, February 6, 2015

1993 in Film: The Outliers

by Patrick Bromley
We've spent the week talking about a bunch of movies from 1993. Here are a bunch more!

Tomorrow is F This Movie Fest 4. You probably already know that. And while we've got a pretty kickass lineup of 1993 movies (WE KNOW WHAT WE'RE DOING), there are a LOT of movies that came out that year that are worth a look for a number of reasons -- some because they're really good, some because they're messing with interesting elements and some because they're completely crazy (cough barf Super Mario Bros. barf cough). While the titles below might not represent the best of the rest, they do represent a lot of movies that don't often get talked about when talking about that year. Or ever, for that matter.
Though the Golden Age of the action film peaked in 1991, it was still going strong two years later. 1993 was a particularly big year for Jean-Claude Van Damme. In addition to bringing John Woo to the U.S. with Hard Target (he doesn't really get enough credit for this, but maybe it's because a) the experience was not great and Woo wasn't really allowed to make a "John Woo movie" or because b) Woo didn't quite change the face of American action cinema the way some of us expect he might; except for Face/Off [and sometimes Hard Target], his U.S. output isn't particularly well-remembered), Van Damme starred in the incredibly underrated Nowhere to Run with Rosanna Arquette and a Culkin. It's not the traditional Van Damme movie in that there's not a ton of action (there's actually quite a bit of drama) and it feels very old fashioned in a good way -- part western, part '50s melodrama. Van Damme is good at playing the quiet stranger with a dark secret, Rosanna Arquette is incredibly foxy and Ted Levine is a great bad guy, because OF COURSE HE IS. The movie is co-written by Joe Eszterhas, but don't hold that against it -- there's hardly any of his usual hot garbage on display save for a gratuitous sex scene about which I am unable to complain. Richard Marquand -- director of Return of the Jedi -- has story credit. Crazy, man. This is one of the best-kept secrets in Van Damme's filmography.
Early '93 saw a pair of less-than-successful remakes hit theaters on the same weekend: Jon Amiel's Sommersby, an American remake of the 1982 French film The Return of Martin Guerre, and director George Sluizer's American remake of his own Dutch thriller The Vanishing (aka Spoorloos). I've never seen Martin Guerre, but I remember thinking Sommersby was a beautifully shot and well acted melodrama even if I had a difficult time accepting the central premise. The music is good, though, and was used over the Morgan Creek title card (I think?) for years until they switched to the theme from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (much to the delight of Heath Holland). The remake of The Vanishing is more problematic because the original is a brilliant thriller and in adapting it for American audiences, Sluzier seems to have lost most of what made it special. The biggest problems are that it's miscast (obviously Jeff Bridges and Kiefer Sutherland are playing against "type," but the movie might have worked better had they switched roles) and that the climax has been rewritten because we Yanks can only accept happy endings. The remake was recently released on Blu-ray by Twilight Time; you're better off picking up Criterion's Blu-ray of the original.
One of several great Chicago movies released in 1993, John McNaughton's Mad Dog and Glory is another film that has its two stars switching roles to play against type, only this time to much better effect. Robert De Niro is a painfully shy and awkward crime scene photographer who saves the life of gangster (and wannabe stand-up) Bill Murray; as his payment, he gets to "have" Murray's employee (a young Uma Thurman) for a week. Murray's performance makes the movie for me (though David Caruso makes quite an impression as De Niro's co-worker), but Richard Price's script is also tough and profane and says some interesting things about masculinity. It's an underrated dark comedy.

Chris Rock's first real attempt at breaking out as a movie star following his SNL success was the 1993 hip hop satire CB4, which is a real mixed bag. Some of it is incredibly observant and clever in the way it goes after a particular style of music (one which really doesn't exist anymore), but then there's a bunch of stuff that's broad and unfunny in the way that a lot of early '90s studio comedy was. Still, unlike most studio comedy of the time (especially that born out of Saturday Night Live), there's a voice and a point of view to CB4 that makes it stand out even when it's not working. Chris Rock would spend the next two decades floundering as a movie star; messy as it is, this one showed promise.
Like The Big Chill for actors who you recognize but whose names you don't know (particularly in 1993), Indian Summer stars Alan Arkin, Bill Paxton, Vincent Spano, Matt Craven, Kevin Pollak, Julie Warner, Kimberly Williams, Elizabeth Perkins, Diane Lane and, in a rare (and slapsticky) acting role, Sam Raimi in a story of friends who reunite as adults at their childhood summer camp. The scenery is very pretty and the cast appealing, even if the whole thing is incredibly slight. It's the kind of movie that's just...nice. Pleasant. That's a rarer thing than you might think.
There's a really good workplace black comedy somewhere inside The Temp, but studio interference kept that version from every seeing the light of day (this from the movie's director Tom Holland). The first half hour sets it all up in spectacular fashion, with a still-recognizable Lara Flynn Boyle vamping it up and people being killed off by office equipment. The longer it goes on, though, the more ridiculous and uninteresting it becomes -- just another example of the many " _______ from Hell" that were so popular in the early '90s (girlfriend, student, nanny...and in this case secretary). It's a bummer to watch it all slip away, but for a while it really seems like The Temp has something.
Though shot a few years earlier, Timothy Hutton also starred in George A. Romero's adaptation of Stephen King's novel The Dark Half, which finally made it to theaters in 1993. It had a rough road getting there; the shoot was tough, actors didn't get along (for more on this, check out Scream Factory's recent Blu-ray release of the movie), Romero fought with the studio over the edit. It didn't make much money when it came out, but it's a film that's only recently being rediscovered and appreciated. The location photography is gorgeous (it's a great movie to watch in the Fall) and Timothy Hutton, despite apparently being difficult on set, is quite good in the movie. Romero didn't make a ton of studio movies, but this one proves that he had the ability to work inside the system and still retain a sense of himself. If you've never seen it or wrote it off back in '93, it's worth another look.
The 1993 sports comedy Rookie of the Year will always hold a special place in my heart because it's really the first time Doug and I hung out together socially -- what we refer to as our first date. Over 20 years later and we're still as close as two friends can be. The movie is silly and stupid and harmless, featuring a lot of good Chicago stuff but way too much "floating it." It features a rare normal Gary Busey performance (a really good one, actually) and is the first and only movie directed by actor Daniel Stern, who gives himself a wacky and wildly overacted comic relief role, too. Just think: this is the movie that begat the music career of Tomas Ian Nicholas.
'93 was the year that Jason Voorhees was finally meant to be killed off for good. Again. Though it's often considered the worst in the franchise, Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday is more energetic and inventive than a few previous entries. I understand that people hate it because it doesn't feature much of Jason, but then why is it ok to love Halloween III? I've always been a bit of an apologist for this one, but maybe because I've only ever seen it on DVD. That means I've a) listened to the commentary track from director/writer Adam Marcus and writer Dean Lorey, who have a real sense of humor about the project that informs the way I see it and b) only ever seen the incredibly gory "unrated" cut, which is the only version worth seeing. If nothing else, the final shot of the film -- in which Freddy Krueger's glove pulls Jason's hockey mask underground and into Hell -- made horror fans' heads explode for nearly 10 years...until Freddy vs. Jason finally got made and disappointed us all.
Launched in 1992, Dimension films was the "genre" arm of Miramax, responsible for most of the low-to-mid budget horror and sci-fi that got any kind of theatrical release during the decade. Released in the early days of Dimension, Stuart Gordon's Fortress represents a dying breed for theatrical genre films in the '90s; just a few years later and a movie with this budget, this cast and this story is going straight to video. Christopher Lambert plays an inmate a futuristic prison who is plotting an escape; the cast also includes Kurtwood Smith, Tom Towles, Jeffrey Combs, Clifton Collins Jr. and Vernon Wells. The movie is tacky and schlocky and incredibly violent, but also fun and incredibly entertaining if you're the right audience for it.
Though it went under the radar in 1993 because three of its four cast members had not quite yet become huge stars, Kalifornia is an excellent movie about a photographer (David Duchovny) and his girlfriend traveling cross country with a serial killer (Brad Pitt in an early, unwashed, good-looks-be-damned-I-can-ACT performance) and his significant other (Juliette Lewis, heartbreaking). Kalifornia tends to get overshadowed by Pitt's scene-stealing performance in True Romance the same year and Juliette Lewis' turn as a similarly white trash serial killer in Natural Born Killers one year later, but it's a really solid early-'90s thriller. This is the movie that made us think former music video director Dominic Sena was going to have a career of real substance. To prove us wrong, he went on to direct Swordfish and Gone in 60 Seconds and Season of the Witch.
Harold Becker's Malice is a ridiculously trashy, twisty thriller passing itself off as A-list thanks to a great screenplay (by Scott Frank and Aaron Sorkin!) and three rock solid performances from Bill Pullman, Nicole Kidman and (especially) Alec Baldwin. It's the kind of stupid movie I'm willing to along with because everyone digs in and embraces it and even pretends that it's smart. I don't think Nicole Kidman has ever been foxier than she is here (though Eyes Wide Shut might disagree) and Alec Baldwin gives good sociopath. I saw Malice in theaters back in '93 (because of course I did), but it's the kind of movie you might accidentally come across on cable on a Saturday afternoon and be pleasantly surprised. I've seen it more time than I've seen many more respectable movies.
Judgment Night is one of 72 movies released in 1993 to star Denis Leary, but this one gives him what might be his biggest role as the leader of a group of criminals hunting down some friends (Emilio Estevez, Cuba Gooding Jr., Stephen Dorff and Jeremy Piven) after they witness a murder. The movie is just ok and would be forgotten entirely if not for its groundbreaking, one-of-a-kind soundtrack that paired up every popular alternative and rock band of the time with hip-hop artists: Pearl Jam and Cypress Hill, Helmet and House of Pain, Slayer and Ice-T, Teenage Fanclub and De La get the idea. The irony is that now the soundtrack is far more dated than a movie in which Denis Leary and House of Pain's Everlast play bad guys.
A really solid movie from '93 that hardly anyone talks about is Flesh and Bone, a crime drama starring Dennis Quaid and James Caan as father and son and Meg Ryan and a very young Gwyneth Paltrow as their respective lady loves. It's one of only two films directed by screenwriter Steve Kloves, who previously made The Fabulous Baker Boys and would go on to adapt a bunch of the Harry Potter films. It's a moody, quiet and very deliberately paced Southern gothic drama, but well acted and made for adults in a way that movies seldom are anymore. It's amazing how many movies were greenlit and released in theaters in 1993 that would never see the light of day anymore. This is one. Track it down if you can.
Fred Dekker's directing career came to a premature end with RoboCop 3, and that sucks. It's not his fault, as he was in an impossible position. RoboCop 3 was a bad idea. I know this because RoboCop 2 was a bad idea. In an effort to move away from mean-spirited violence and nihilism of RoboCop 2, the studio insisted that 3 be the PG-13, "kid-friendly" RoboCop. So there's that. Frank Miller was back to work on the script, so there's a lot of shit like robot ninjas and cyber yakuza or something. Peter Weller was done with the part, so Robert John Burke stepped in to play RoboCop. He's a good actor, but no substitute for Peter Weller. Also, RoboCop flies. And Anne Lewis dies for no reason. Everything about this installment feels more like the RoboCop TV show that would come later on, but it's not Dekker's fault. At least he directs it with energy and casts EVERY SINGLE role with a character actor who would go on to bigger things. That's the most fun thing about watching the movie now.

There are other movies worth mentioning from '93, of course. Several of them are titles we've written/talked about already: The SandlotSuper Mario Bros.FearlessFree WillyHocus Pocus, Tombstone and Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.

Was '93 a GREAT year for movies? Not really. There were some great movies; we're watching a few for F This Movie Fest. There were some great movies that we're not watching for F This Movie Fest, too (like Groundhog Day and Schindler's List and Matinee and Mr. Nanny). What the year had going for it was that there were a lot of movies. Studios released a ton of stuff -- mid-budget movies that could turn a little profit without having to gross hundreds of millions of dollars. Those days are over. That's a bummer. But while the system has changed for the worse, the movies live on -- on TV, on DVD, on streaming, on sites like this or just in conversation. Like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, life finds a way.

See you all for F This Movie Fest.


  1. Excellent article, as always. :) But I wasn't disappointed by FvJ. Not in the slightest.

  2. This was a fantastic read and really brought me back to some of these that I saw in theater in '93 and have not revisited nor thought about since!
    You are dead on about "Malice". I remember being in the theater and thinking - whoa! Kidman is freakin' hot as hell in this! Wait?! I remember watching "Flesh and Bone" thinking Whoa! Ryan is looking good! I remember watching Kalifornia thinking - Michelle Forbes- damn she's pretty hot! I remember seeing the Temp cause of Flynn Boyle coming fresh off of Twin Peaks whom I already thought was hot (how things change). I also already had a crush on Elizabeth Perkins from "Big" in an "hot/older" woman kind of way.

    Anyway, the reason for my tale of hotness is that in '93 I was a junior in high school - so I associate many of these films with teenage hormones being out of control :) Then college came - the pretentious years began. Oh how I loved me some Truffaut, Godard and Fellini back then! haha.

  3. Great piece. The one that sticks out for me is Kalifornia. I love that film.

    Eesh, The Vanishing...

    Flesh and Bone! I had completely forgotten about it! I liked it a lot way back when and will need to seek it out for a rewatch.

  4. CB4: making a N.W.A. Biopic irrelevant all these years later.