The Fat of the Land

Of Mice and Men (1992) is another perfect adaptation of an already perfect John Steinbeck novel. To be fair, it is difficult to mess up such a simple story, but it helps to have great performances. My mom actually met Gary Sinise and John Malkovich during her college days at Steppenwolf Theater. Sinise was a fan of the play since high school. His passion for Of Mice and Men led to him both directing and acting in his first lead role as George. Sinise’s George has a more tough love friendship with Lennie.

Malkovich isn’t the first person I’d think of to play the large and unintelligent Lennie, but he does well with a more mentally disabled take on the character. Ironically, this won’t be the last time Sinise has to deal with a slow-witted companion. George & Lennie’s dream to own their own land and rabbits remains the same. The difference is all the profanity and occasional use of the “N” word that made the book so controversial. When they get to the ranch, George & Lennie are greeted by Ray Walston as Candy.

Candy’s dog is put down like the 1939 original, but he’s the only one made aware of their land owning plan. Joe Morton has Crooks crooked back, but he’s only around to question Lennie. John Terry is a likeable Slim and Casey Siemaszko is an unlikeable Curley. Curley’s wife remains unnamed like the book, but Sherilyn Fenn is always around to cause trouble. Lennie doing bad things is more realistic and just as disturbing by showing more. His ultimate fate is sudden and more heartbreaking on George’s part. Of Mice and Men (1992) is a dream come true.

Of Mice and Men 1992

George and Lennie get work

Open ’til Midnight

Empire Records is as dated as it sounds. Record stores use to be the hippest hang out spot for young people. Although they’re a thing of the past, Empire Records has managed to stay relevant all these years. Even though it got harsh reviews and bombed hard at the box-office. Although Empire Records released the same day as Se7en and Showgirls, $303,841 is suspiciously low for a $10 million movie. I guess it was just too niche for casual audiences. The soundtrack is a major draw, but the songs are very Indie.

Empire Records also launched the careers of several popular actors. Even though I was mostly familiar with Renée Zellweger and Liv Tyler. Empire Records takes place primarily in one day with teenage characters dancing together and having angst filled meltdowns. It’s basically a 90’s Breakfast Club. Anthony LaPaglia is the hip store manager Joe facing a possible buyout from a major chain. The teen employees do everything they can to fight the man. Rory Cochrane plays the philosophical Lucas who blows all of Joe’s money in an attempt to save the store.

Tyler stands out as the desirable good girl Corey and so does Zellweger as her promiscuous best friend Gina. Robin Tunney had to shave her head as the equally interesting suicidal outcast Deb. Johnny Whitworth is artist A.J. who’s in love with Corey and Ethan Randall’s Mark is just trying to have fun. Most events are random with an overeager shoplifter and the meme generating Rex Manning Day. The teen drama feels like Saved by the Bell, but their chemistry is infectious. Empire Records is a decent place to hang out for 90 minutes.

Empire Records

Empire Records employees

Gen X

Reality Bites is all about navigating life from the cynical perspective of Generation X. Writer Helen Childress based it on her own personal life experiences and friends. Although the title isn’t supposed to mean “life sucks,” it does capture all the problems that they were facing at the time. Reality Bites is the 90’s equivalent of St. Elmo’s Fire with four twenty-something friends and roommates dealing with life after college. There’s an awesome soundtrack that includes grunge music, reality TV style filmmaking, and fear of the AIDS epidemic.

Reality Bites wasn’t an immediate success, but it did become a cult favorite that launched many careers. Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke increased their appeal while Janeane Garofalo and Steve Zahn had their first major film roles. Lelaina is an aspiring filmmaker who videotapes her friends being themselves. She has a bickering love/hate relationship with her philosophical slacker friend Troy who has a grunge band. Their promiscuous friend Vickie is worried she has AIDS and their celibate friend Sammy comes out as gay.

Several celebrities make appearances since this was the first movie directed by Ben Stiller. He also plays Lelaina’s older yuppie love interest Michael who comes between her and Troy. I can’t personally relate to Generation X or the constant smoking, but being unable to find a job, trying to please your parents, and feeling like your life isn’t progressing like everyone else is pretty universal. Reality Bites has a great understanding of how young adults think.

Reality Bites

Lelaina hangs with Troy

$1,000,000

Indecent Proposal is an indecent viewing experience. Sometimes there are movies that you hear are bad, but you don’t know why until you watch it. Indecent Proposal won 3 Razzies for Worst Picture, Worst Supporting Actor, and Worst Screenplay. Despite having proven director Adrian Lyne and starring a trio of A-listers, the problem with the movie becomes obvious when you see the premise. Based on a 1988 book of the same name, Indecent Proposal is about a billionaire who offers $1,000,000 for one night with a married man’s wife.

No matter how good the actors are, there’s literally no way not to make this sleazy and/or uncomfortable. Woody Harrelson plays David and Demi Moore plays Diana. Although I feel like Moore was picked on a lot in the 90’s, it’s Harrelson who won the Razzie. They try to reinforce their marriage through passionate love making, but they still end up accepting the deal. When the couple falls on hard times, they try to win money at the casino until billionaire John Gage makes the titular indecent proposal. The normally charming Robert Redford is very unlikable with his never ending pursuit of Diana.

You’d think he’d be the worst offender, but everyone in the movie is a bad person. David grows increasingly jealous and hostile towards his wife. Diana hates Gage at first, but she still ends up going back to him. It feels like the movie should end several times, but they just keep dragging it out until a forced happy ending. The Simpsons parody “Half-Decent Proposal” got more accomplished in 30 minutes than this nearly 2 hour movie. Indecent Proposal proves greed and adultery aren’t very romantic topics.

Indecent Proposal

Diana lays on a pile of money

Shoot Your Shot

White Men Can’t Jump is a slam dunk. Despite the title, White Men Can’t Jump is a more iconic part of black cinema. Complete with playful trash talk and emphasis on streetball. White Men Can’t Jump is steeped in the 90’s with colorful outfits, a hip-hop score, an Atari video game, and a cast that got big around the time. The titular white man who can’t jump is Woody Harrelson as college basketball player Billy. Since he’s white and geeky looking, Billy manages to hustle streetballer Sydney and his crew.

Wesley Snipes is hilarious, but Syd is no chump. So he decides to join Billy and his fiery Puerto Rican girlfriend Gloria played by a scene stealing Rosie Perez. Basically Blade, Carnage, and Renee Montoya hustle streetballers to pay off gangsters. At least gangsters are Billy’s problem, Syd is more concerned with buying a house for his family. Harrelson and Snipes play off each other well whether on the court or bonding. I even believe Harrelson and Perez as a couple, but Billy does make a lot of stupid bets.

It feels like the movie will end several times, but there are countless hustles going on that bring the characters back to square one. When a basketball competition doesn’t work, Gloria gets her wish to be on Jeopardy. I expected appearances from real life basketball players, but I wasn’t expecting Alex Trebek. It feels like the end once again, but Billy still needs to prove to Syd and himself that he can jump. White Men Can’t Jump is a basketball film that any race can enjoy.

White Men Can't Jump

Billy plays ball against Syd

I’m Tired, Boss

The Green Mile is a long and emotional road. After the Oscar nominated success of The Shawshank Redemption, Stephen King wrote The Green Mile. Both stories are set in prison while dealing with intense themes and an interracial friendship. Frank Darabont wrote and directed both films, but they couldn’t be more different. I’ve been wanting to see The Green Mile for years, despite how depressing it was. The Green Mile is a realistic depiction of death row with supernatural elements. Though not quite the same as fellow 1999 Best Picture nominee The Sixth Sense. The Green Mile is over 3 hours long, but it was the only way to understand every inmate and prison guard. Tom Hanks gets very prominent top-billing as Warden Supervisor Paul Edgecomb. The movie is from his perspective as an elderly Paul (played by Dabbs Greer in his final film role) talks about being a warden in the Great Depression.

Paul does his job effectively, but he suffers from a severe bladder infection since Tom Hanks can’t make a movie without peeing. Paul is joined by several supportive guards including David Morse as second-in-command Brutal. The cast is especially impressive with small roles for Harry Dean Stanton, Bonnie Hunt, and Gary Sinise in his third and final role alongside Hanks. Jeffrey DeMunn and William Sadler are the only actors who also appeared in The Shawshank Redemption. James Cromwell plays the head warden who oversees the process. Everything you never wanted to know about the electric chair is explained in graphic detail. Like most Stephen King antagonists, Doug Hutchison plays one of the most hateable movie villains of all time. Percy is a sniveling prison guard who gleefully torments the inmates in their final hours. Most of the inmates are infinitely more sympathetic than he is.

Graham Greene briefly appears as Native American inmate Arlen who sets the executions into motion. Michael Jeter is the friendly Cajun inmate Del known for his bond with prison mouse Mr. Jingles. Mr. Jingles is an iconic trained mouse who adds much needed levity to the depressing film. The only irredeemably evil inmate is Wild Bill played by a scene stealing Sam Rockwell in his breakout year. But The Green Mile truly belongs to the late great Michael Clarke Duncan. The 6ft. 8in. John Coffey is the very definition of gentle giant. Forced perspective made Duncan massive, but his genuinely kind-hearted acting should’ve won Best Supporting Actor. Coffey remains in the background until he displays his miraculous power to heal others. He manages to heal Paul and the warden’s terminally ill wife played by a very appreciative Patricia Clarkson. Though it’s clear Coffey didn’t commit the awful crime he was convicted of, he’s simply tired of living in such an ugly world. I couldn’t stop crying from Coffey’s powerful speech and first viewing of Top Hat to his inevitable execution. The Green Mile is a genuine milestone.

The Green Mile

Paul and Brutal escort John Coffey down the Green Mile

A Lifetime of Hate

American History X explores a hateful mind. The 90’s were filled with movies you just had to be ready for. American History X is an educational film, but I can’t imagine anyone seeing it in school. First time director Tony Kaye made an impression even though he sabotaged his own career by denouncing it. American History X follows a Neo-Nazi skinhead in San Diego who somehow manages to change for the better. It’s not an easy role to get right, but Edward Norton delivered his second Oscar nominated performance in only 2 years.

Derek Vinyard spreads hate, racism, xenophobia, and anti-semitism to a growing number of followers. Fairuza Balk plays his equally twisted girlfriend Stacey and Ethan Suplee goes overboard as his skinhead friend Seth. Stacy Keach is perhaps the most despicable as the older Neo-Nazi leader Cameron. Norton was so committed that he shaved his head and wore a prominent swastika tattoo on his chest. Flashbacks are shown in black & white since that’s where most of the hate is. Most of Derek’s hate can be traced to his deceased father. Derek is left with his chain-smoking mother played by an unrecognizable Beverly D’Angelo.

She causes problems by dating a Jew played by screen legend Elliott Gould. There’s also Derek’s liberal sister Davina played by Jennifer Lien and fellow Edward, Edward Furlong as his impressionable younger brother Danny. Danny idolizes his big brother, but all that changes after a very disturbing curb stomping incident. Only in prison does Derek question his entire identity. Thanks to positive black influences like his former teacher Dr. Sweeney played by Avery Brooks and down-to-Earth cellmate Lamont. Derek wants his brother to be better, but sadly life isn’t that simple. In the end, American History X offers a poignant lesson of not living a life filled with hate.

American History X

Derek is placed under arrested

You Make Me Want to Be a Better Man

As Good as it Gets is better than good. It’s one a few romantic comedies good enough to be nominated for Best Picture. It might’ve stood a chance of winning if not for the unstoppable force that was Titanic. Ironically, both movies happen to feature a nude drawing scene. As Good as it Gets is the last film from director James L. Brooks to receive Oscar attention. Brooks managed to direct Jack Nicholson to a third Academy Award win after Terms of Endearment. Nicholson winning Best Actor and Helen Hunt winning Best Actress make them the most current co-stars to win for the same movie. Surprisingly, every female lead won an Oscar alongside Nicholson since Louise Fletcher won for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Shirley MacLaine won for Terms of Endearment.

Melvin Udall is a perfect character for Nicholson that could’ve missed the mark in the wrong hands. Melvin is a romance novelist who hates and insults literally everybody. His obsessive-compulsive idiosyncrasies include keeping his hands clean, not stepping on cracks, and eating at the same restaurant every day. Carol is the only waitress that tolerates his behavior. Hunt immediately shows her range with an emotional performance. Carol is a lonely single mother trying to care for her sick son Spencer. The third most prominent performance is from Greg Kinnear in a Best Supporting Actor nominated role as Melvin’s gay artist neighbor Simon. All three performances are terrific, but As Good as it Gets also contains a ton of celebrities in big and small roles. Cuba Gooding Jr. followed up his Oscar win with an equally entertaining role as Simon’s agent who manages to break Melvin.

Skeet Ulrich and Jamie Kennedy have an unexpected Scream reunion. Since it’s a Brooks production, Lisa Simpson herself Yeardley Smith has a small role. There’s also Shirley Knight as Carol’s concerned mother and Harold Ramis as a life changing doctor. Brian Doyle-Murray, Lawrence Kasdan, Julie Benz, and Shane Black also have memorable cameos. Not to mention Missi Pyle, Wood Harris, and even Maya Rudolph in their first or second film roles. Melvin is openly homophobic towards Simon, but he reluctantly agrees to watch his adorable dog Verdell after a devastating robbery. The small act of watching Simon’s dog is enough to soften Melvin up and set him on a path of redemption. Though they seem like an odd match, Carol is the one who makes him want to be a better man. And that’s As Good as it Gets in more ways than one.

As Good as it Gets

Melvin picks up Verdell

The Heart is an Organ of Fire

The English Patient is another standard Best Picture winner. It’s British, nearly 3 hours long, set during World War II, there’s romance, and a sweeping foreign location. I deliberately avoided The English Patient for years, because it was long and sounded boring. I don’t hate it like Elaine did on Seinfeld, but I do think Fargo was the more deserving Best Picture winner. The English Patient was nominated for 12 Academy Awards and won 9 for Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actress, Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design, Film Editing, Original Score, and Sound. Director and writer Anthony Minghella had the difficult task of adapting Michael Ondaatje’s book of the same name.

The English Patient is told from multiple perspectives with real life Hungarian cartographer Count László Almásy at the center. Though the book and movie are highly fictionalized, Ralph Fiennes delivers a star-making Oscar nominated performance as the mostly unlikable map maker. Almásy spends a lot of time in the Egyptian desert with his friend Madox during WWII. He starts a passionate love affair with the married Katherine Clifton. Though she began her career with a Razzie nomination, Kristin Scott Thomas redeems herself in the Oscar nominated role. Fiennes and Scott Thomas have powerful chemistry, but it is still an affair. Colin Firth plays her husband who supplies an airplane that ends up having harsh consequences.

The only thing that makes The English Patient feel especially long is the fact that the mysterious amnesia stricken English patient is slowly dying from severe third-degree burns near the end of the war. French actress Juliette Binoche won Best Supporting Actress for playing the grief stricken nurse Hana who cares for Almásy. She has her own, much more innocent love affair with Sikh bomb defuser Kip played by the Indian Naveen Andrews. They’re also joined by Willem Dafoe as a Canadian spy seeking revenge from the Germans and possibly Almásy himself. The English Patient is an effective character study that could’ve been tightened up a bit.

The English Patient

Almásy dances with Katherine

Huston, We Have a Problem

Apollo 13 made space exploration cool again. Although it contains plenty of language and “emotional intensity,” Apollo 13 was rated PG in order to make it accessible for classrooms and curious younger audiences. Apollo 13 was nominated for Best Picture, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction, Original Score, and Visual Effects. Only winning for Best Sound and Best Film Editing. CGI is only used in breathtaking outer space scenes. It was director Ron Howard’s goal to make the most authentic space travel movie that he could. So the movie had help from NASA and filmed with genuine antigravity.

Rather than focus on the more famous first moon landing, Apollo 13 brings attention to the 1970 failed moon landing by the Apollo 13 crew. As told by astronaut Jim Lovell in the non-fiction book Lost Moon. Apollo 13 popularized the space program and Mission Control with iconic lines like “Houston, we have a problem” and “Failure is not an option.” The all-star cast is great whether they’re in space or on the ground. Fresh off his 2 Oscar wins, Tom Hanks ironically ended up playing a spaceman months before Toy Story hit theaters. Jim Lovell is joined by fellow astronauts Fred Haise and Jack Swigert. It’s game over for Bill Paxton who plays Haise and Kevin Bacon joins the team last minute as Swigert.

Although Ken Mattingly is unfortunately grounded, at least Gary Sinise kept Lt. Dan’s promise of becoming an astronaut. Their mission starts off well, but tension rises when the crew faces electrical failure and oxygen loss. Turning a 3 day trip to the moon into a week long fight for survival. Meanwhile, Ed Harris earned an Oscar nomination as the determined Flight Director Gene Kranz. Both Lovell and Haise have families to think about, but only Kathleen Quinlan was nominated for playing Jim’s worried wife Marilyn. Speaking of family, Ron Howard gave a small role to every member of his family. Apollo 13 lands with an impressive depiction of astronauts and space travel.

Apollo 13

The Apollo 13 crew