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What is it?
The plot is of the “David beats Goliath” variety, with the store manager (a surprisingly hip looking Anthony LaPaglia) and collection of his employees (Liv Tyler, Ethan Embry, Renee Zellweger, Robin Tunney) rising up to prevent a large music chain from purchasing their independent record store.
1984 was a good year. The Detroit Tigers won the World Series. Van Halen released a great album. Our great nation-state declared war on Eurasia, then Eastasia, then Eurasia again, all while systematically streamlining our language to eliminate thoughtcrime and creating a super-civilization. All hail Big Brother!
But 1984 was also good for one other thing: movies.
Here's a partial list of movies that came out during 1984:
Let's talk for a minute about Steve Martin. He's someone who has been both wildly overrated and wildly underrated at varying points in his career. When he was doing his wacky Steve Martin stuff in the 1970s, with his stand up and SNL appearances, and the 1980s with the movies, his overexposure had him contending with some serious overrated issues. Let's face it: evolving tastes make the things that made us laugh 30 years ago kind of stupid now, but walking around with a fake arrow through your head has always been about as funny as kick in the crotch.
It seems like Spike Lee gets tons of recognition for his good films (Do The Right Thing, Jungle Fever) and tons of flak for his mediocre ones (Crooklyn, Bamboozled). Yet for some reason, he doesn't get much of anything for this film. Maybe it's because he didn't write it (the original novel and the screenplay were both written by David Benioff), maybe it's because it didn't really engender any controversy, but whatever the reason, it's a travesty.
The movie features outstanding performances from Ed Norton, Barry Pepper and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Norton gives a nuanced performance as a drug dealer trying to tie up his loose ends and find the guy who ratted him out before being sent upstate on a possession rap. Even Rosario Dawson, who probably couldn't act excited during the best sex of her life, gives the performance of her career. The film is shockingly raw and startlingly earnest at the same time, while never straying from its purpose. What's more, the movie is shot against the backdrop of post-9/11 New York, making the location as much of a character as the people. (UR: -22.5)
Jeff Bridges stars as Jack Lucas, a former shock jock that's hit hard times because of an on-air rant that caused a listener to shoot up a restaurant. Robin Williams stars as a crazy, homeless guy named Parry (no last name, like Moses). Their paths cross when Parry saves Jack's life, and Jack gets sucked into his bizarre world when trying to repay him.
Both Daniels and Williams are brilliant in their roles and Monty Python alum Terry Gilliam's direction is perfect. Gilliam's a highly underrated director (Brazil being one of the most underrecognized films of the 1980s). This film is his coup-de-grace: a wickedly funny, heartbreakingly sad and breathtakingly beautiful film. If there's a more perfectly shot scene than the Grand Central Station/rush hour scene, it hasn't been made yet. And watching a hairy Robin Williams dance naked in Central Park makes even your worst nightmare palatable.
With all that, its $41MM in box office gross equals the 30th highest grossing film of the year. Films that finished ahead of this one: The Addams Family, The Naked Gun 2 1/2, and Star Trek VI. UR: -23
What is it?
It’s the first movie in which Mike Myers plays more than one part. In this case, he plays Charlie Mackenzie, a San Francisco-based fake beat poet with a total fear of commitment; and also Charlie’s father Stuart, a surly Scot with an affinity for all things Scottish. It’s all directed by a pre-Sorkin Tom Schlamme.
Why is it underrated?
In the pantheon of Mike Myers films, So I Married an Axe Murderer is doomed to sit a distant fourth, behind the two trilogies (Shrek, Austin Powers) that made the man a multi-gazillionaire, and a Saturday Night Live skit turned movie(s) (Wayne's World).1 These movies made Myers a household name and the most quoted man in America. Axe Murderer bombed and sent Myers into a self-imposed exile/shame spiral. The film bombed and grossed just under $12 million, disappointing after the huge success of the Wayne’s World films. In fact, of all movies that Myers has starred in, this one didn’t even rake in 30% of the next lowest grossing film (Wayne’s World 2). Why no love?
This junior status in the Myers canon is undeserved. The movie is 90 minutes of pure entertainment, and really does keep you guessing until the end. Not in a Sixth Sense kind of way, but more in a “does that tall, manly looking woman at the bar have a penis?” kind of way. You just never know until you see it.
The plot is fun, with the little “did she/didn’t she” guessing game they play, but the characters are really what makes the movie great. Mike Myers is solid in his role as Charlie. It’s really the first time Myers got the chance to play himself at his own age. He’s on record stating that Wayne Campbell is himself as a teenager. In his other movies, the characters he plays are funny-talking schticks. But this version of Mike Myers is Mike Myers, and that’s a rare occurrence on the big screen.
Charlie’s fear of commitment causes him to break up with women for reasons like “she smelled like soup” or “she stole my cat,” but he comes off as funny and charming in his pursuit of Nancy Travis’s Harriet. As circumstantial facts seem to implicate her in the deaths of three newlywed husbands, he brilliantly vacillates between love and fear, alternately suspecting and dismissing her being a vicious killer.
The family scenes go down as the best in the entire movie. Brenda Fricker (Academy Award winner for her role in My Left Foot) takes her turn as Myers’s mother and is absolutely scene-stealing. She tries to make out with Charlie’s best friend Tony (the underrated Anthony LaPaglia) whenever she gets the chance, she calls the Weekly World News “the paper” (certainly Men in Black owes the film a debt of gratitude for that little nugget), and spouts lines like, “You’ve got that pickle up your ass again, haven’t you?” She’s the ultimate mother: loving, completely embarrassing and sexually harassing your friends. Hey--moms, right?
As Charlie's Scottish father, Stuart, Myers basically reprises his S.N.L. role as the proprietor of All Things Scottish, but given the greater freedom to insult and threaten those around him, the character becomes a hilarious caricature. He calls Charlie’s brother “HEED” (a Scottish-accented bastardization of the word “head”), and cruelly mocks the kid for having a slightly larger-than-normal noodle. He takes time to torture his son by comparing his head to Sputnik and asserting that the boy would probably cry himself to sleep on his oversized pillow. He’s also a fervent supporter of Lyndon Larouche, and a conspiracy theorist with an active dislike of Colonel Sanders “because he puts an addictive chemical in his chicken that makes you crave it fortnightly, smartass.”
Amanda Plummer plays her the role of Harriet’s sister with her usual “I just chugged three venti lattes and took six diet pills” energy. It isn’t hard for her to play a total psycho on screen (at this point, it’s probably safe to assume she is one), and she comes through again. Alan Arkin is brilliant in just about everything he does (see Little Miss Sunshine or the original In-Laws for proof). He pops up as the police chief who’s so nice, he pretends to be an asshole so Anthony LaPaglia would feel “more like a cop.”
The movie features several well-placed and very funny cameos. Phil Hartman's Alcatraz tour guide, John “Vicki” Johnson, relates a charming anecdote about “Machine Gun” Kelly urinating into the skull of his prison bitch. Steven Wright, Charles Grodin, and Michael Richards all appear in cameo roles as memorable characters / wonderful devices to move the plot along nicely. That’s the perfect combination of form and function right there.
The movie wound up being a stepping stone of sorts for Mike Myers. He proved that he could handle the starring role. And since playing more than one character worked so well in this movie, he stepped it up: playing two wacky lead characters in the first Austin Powers, moving up to three in its sequel, and by the third one, he played four characters. In the inevitable sequel2, they may not hire any other actors and just let Myers play all roles himself.
It’s not the best movie ever filmed in San Francisco (that distinction belongs to the almost-forgotten Sneakers), but it’s damn close. And it uses the city to its advantage. Between Alcatraz, Pacific Heights, Haight-Ashbury, the Embarcadero, and the Golden Gate Bridge, you get a full view of an incredible city. And if you like the song, “There She Goes,” you won’t be disappointed. There’s like ten different versions of it in the film.
There are three Shreks, three Austin Powers, and two Wayne’s Worlds. This begs a particular question: Where’s Axe Murderer 2?
With any luck, it’s coming after Shrek 4: Smack the Donkey.
1 But way ahead of The Love Guru!
2 Because Love Guru sure ain't coming back for more.
Colin Hanks makes a name for himself in this deliciously written tale of a high school senior making his college choice. He’s in a dysfunctional family with a divorced mother who only knows how to communicate with the Hispanic maid by shouting at her in paranoia and a father who is money obsessed. Jack Black is in all his splendor as the slacker brother. The story is good, feel-good even. What really makes it rock the house, other than a splendidly designed poster and plenty of cameos from heavy hitters like Harold Ramis and Ben Stiller, is the soundtrack. If you’re over 30 when you see this, add +10 points to the Underrated Rating because you’re too old to enjoy it at the -24 level. UR: -24
This is an action-packed roller coaster with a great cast and almost nonstop bullets, that bombed big-time at the box office. The failure of this movie is pretty much a failure of marketing. They should have billed this as the next Ocean’s Eleven--a slick crime thriller with a huge ensemble cast including Jeremy Piven, Andy Garcia, Ben Affleck, Ray Liotta, Ryan Reynolds, Alicia Keys, rapper Common, some psycho neo-Nazi thugs, and a hysterical cameo by Jason Bateman. Piven is always awesome, but he really shines here as Buddy “Aces” Israel, a washed-up magician mixed up with the mob who’s flipped to the feds, but the plot really doesn’t matter. Basically, the story is this: every hitman, assassin, mobster, F.B.I. agent, and bail bondsman in town is trying to get Piven. A series of intricately woven connections and coincidences lure everyone to Piven’s penthouse suite in a Reno hotel and the guns start blazing. And they don’t stop! When the action starts it keeps going for the duration of the movie, and the violence here is ludicrously over the top--There is carnage by bullet and chainsaw, and a gunfight between people in two different hotel rooms in two different hotels, shooting across parking lots and pools. Needless to say, most of the cast doesn’t live to see the end credits. Most remarkably, Ben Affleck doesn’t suck. UR: -18