Back to School Part II #31: Empire Records (dir by Allan Moyle)


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The 1995 film, Empire Records takes place in a fictional record store.  The store is located in a state called Delaware, which I’m pretty sure is fictional as well.  (Have you ever actually met anyone from Delaware?  And don’t say Joe Biden because we all know he’s just a hologram…)  Empire Records is a beloved institution, an independent record shop that’s as well-known for its lively employees as its amazing selection of music!

However, things are not perfect in the world of Empire Records.  The store is owned by a heartless businessman named Mitchell (Ben Bode).  Mitchell hates Empire Records and usually just lets the store manager, former drummer and Scott Stapp-lookalike Joe (Anthony LaPaglia), run the place.  However, Mitchell has decided to sell Empire Records to the soulless and corporate Music Town franchise.  Oh my God!  If Empire Records becomes a Music Town, the employees will have to wear orange aprons!  They won’t be allowed to wear anything too revealing or have any visible piercings!  And nobody will be allowed to dance in the aisles!

Over the course of just one day, can the staff of Empire Records find a way to save their store!?

It would be easier if not for the fact that a hundred other things happen over the course of that same day.  A shoplifter (Brendan Sexton III, who co-starred in the very different Welcome to the Dollhouse the same year that he appeared here) keeps trying to steal stuff and, at one point, he even shows up at the store with a gun!  Is it possible that he just wants to join the Empire Records family and is just hoping that he’ll be offered a job?

And then there’s Rex Manning!  That’s right — it’s Rex Manning Day!  Who is Rex Manning?  Well, he used to star on a show called The Family Way and his nickname is Sexy Rexy.  He has truly memorable hair.  Middle-aged people love him but most young people think that he’s a joke.  Rex is going to signing copies of his latest album at Empire Records and you better believe that he’s brought blue cheese salad dressing with him.  There’s a reason they call him Sexy Rexy and it’s not just that Rex Harrison is no longer around to object.  Rex is played by Maxwell Caulfield.  Caulfield steals every scene that he appears in and it’s hard not to feel that he’s playing a version of who he could have become if Grease 2 hadn’t bombed at the box office.

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And, of course, all the members of Empire Records staff have their own personal problems to deal with.  Fortunately, since this is a breezy and comedic movie, nobody has problem that can’t be solved within ten to fifteen minutes.

For instance, Debra (Robin Tunney) is suicidal and shows up for work with a big bandage on her wrist.  After clocking in, she promptly shaves her head.  Debra is depressed and troubled but guess what?  All she needs is for her friends to hold a mock funeral in the break room.  (And who is taking care of the customers while everyone else is eulogizing Debra?  Probably Andre but we’ll talk more about him in a moment…)

Berko (Coyote Shivers) appears to be Debra’s boyfriend but he doesn’t seem to be that good of a boyfriend.  Berko’s a musician and he wants to make it big.  Solution to his problem: an impromptu concert on the roof of Empire Records!  And you know what?  Coyote Shivers was not the world’s best actor but the song her performs, Sugar High, will stay in your head long after you hear it.

Eddie (James ‘Kimo’ Williams) has no problems, probably because he also works at a pizza place and he makes the best brownies in the world.  Except, they’re not ordinary brownies … hint hint hint….

Mark (Ethan Embry) only has one problem: his character, as written, is pretty much interchangeable with Eddie’s.  But, fortunately, Embry gives such a totally weird performance that you never forget who he is.

Lucas (Rory Cochrane) tried to help Joe out by taking the previous night’s cash receipts to Atlantic City.  Lucas, however, is not a very good gambler and ends up losing all of the money at the result of one roll of the dice.  Lucas’s problem is that Joe is going to kill him.  The solution is to spend almost the entire movie sitting on the break room couch and making snarky comments.

Gina’s problem is that everyone thinks that she’s a slut, mostly because that’s how the character is written.  Fortunately, Gina is played by Renee Zellweger and she brings a lot of depth to an otherwise underwritten role.  One of the film’s best moments is when Gina and Berko perform together because Zellweger really throws herself into the song.  Watching that scene always makes me want to sing along with them.  It’s funny that Zellweger has even a stronger Texas accent than I do and yet, she can really sing while I mostly certainly cannot.

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Then there’s Andre!  Andre’s problem is that he ends up getting cut out of the film.  However, he’s still listed in the credits, which is how we know that he was played by Tobey Maguire.

A.J. (Johnny Whitworth) is an artist.  How can you not love a struggling artist?  His problem is that he’s in love with Corey (Liv Tyler) but Corey is obsessed with losing her virginity to Rex Manning.

Actually, that’s not the only problem that Corey has.  Corey, who is in high school but has recently been accepted to Harvard, is a driven overachiever.  Occasionally, we see her popping a pill.  Oh my God, is she using speed!?  Of course. she is.  How else is she going to be able to both study late and maintain her figure?  If I don’t seem too concerned about Corey’s pills, it’s because I pretty much take the same thing to keep my ADD under control.  They’ve worked wonders for me!

But not so much for Corey.  In fact, they cause Corey to kinda freak out and attack a cut-out of Rex Manning.  Fortunately, the solution to her drug problem is pretty simple.  She just has to splash some water on her face.

As for her virginity problem, well … it is Rex Manning Day!  Judging from this film and Stealing Beauty, it would appear that film goers in the mid-90s were obsessed with Liv Tyler losing her virginity.

Anyway, there are like a hundred overly critical things that I could say about Empire Records.  I’ve seen this film a number of time and there are certain scenes that always make cringe — like Debra’s funeral or when Joe starts banging away on his drum set.  A lot of the dialogue is overwritten and the whole things occasionally seems to be trying too hard.

And yet, I can’t dislike Empire Records.  In fact, I actually really like it a lot.  It’s just such an earnest and sincere movie that you can’t help but enjoy it.  Meanwhile, the cast has so much energy and chemistry that they’re just fun to watch.  This is one of those films where it’s best just to shut off your mind, say “Damn the man!,” and enjoy what you’re watching for what it is.

Add to that, I love that ending.  Everyone dancing on top of the store?  Perfect.

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Insomnia File No. 6: Frogs For Snakes (dir by Amos Poe)


What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

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If you were suffering from insomnia last night, at around two a.m., you could have turned over to Flix and watched the 1998 film Frogs For Snakes.

And if you were suffering from insomnia, watching Frogs For Snakes would probably have been a good idea because this film is amazingly dull.  In fact, I am not sure that I have the words to express to you just how tedious Frogs For Snakes truly was.  It may be necessary for me to go back to school and learn how to speak in a dead language in order for me to express the boredom that I felt while watching Frogs For Snakes.

And yes, I realize that I’m talking about an obscure film that was released nearly 20 years ago and it might seem kind of petty to, at this late date, make a big deal about how terrible this film was.

But seriously, Frogs For Snakes was really, really bad.  In fact, it was disturbing to think that a film this bad could have actually been made.  It was even more disturbing to consider that this film was apparently given a theatrical release and, all these years later, still pops up on cable so that it can proudly display its overwhelming mediocrity.

Now, I’m going to tell you what Frogs For Snakes is about and you’re going to think, “That actually sounds like it might be kind of interesting.”  Don’t be fooled!  The film may sound interesting but it’s not.

Frogs for Snakes takes place in a stylized, neo-noir version of New York City.  Eva Santana (Barbara Hershey) is an aging actress who claims to have quit the business, though it’s clear that it’s more a case of the business quitting her.  She talks about leaving New York and raising her son in a better environment.  However, until she gets around to leaving, she’s making ends meet by working as a waitress at a diner owned by the kind-hearted Quint (Ian Hart).  And, of course, when she’s not waitressing, she’s working as a debt collector for her ex-husband, a loan shark named Al Santana (Robbie Coltrane).

That’s right, this actress has a gun and she uses it frequently.  However, because Eva is good at heart, she rarely kills anyone.  Instead, she just shoots them in the foot and tells them to pay back their loans while they lay on the floor and scream in agony.  (All that agonized screaming got pretty old after a while.)

As for Al, he’s not just a loan shark.  He’s a theatrical impressario.  He’s planning on putting on a production of David Mamet’s American Buffalo.  He promises his driver a role in American Buffalo on the condition that the driver assassinate Eva’s new boyfriend (John Leguizamo, of course).

Soon, actors all over New York are literally killing to get a role in Al’s play.  Meanwhile, Eva just wants to retire and get out of New York but first, she has to do one last job for Al…

In between all the killing, the characters frequently launch into monologues that have been lifted from other films.  John Leguizamo does a Brando imitation.  Lisa Marie (Tim Burton’s ex, not yours truly) delivers the cuckoo clock speech from The Third Man.  A suggestion for aspiring filmmakers: if you’re going to make a bad film, don’t remind your audience that they could be watching The Third Man instead.

Anyway, the plot sounds interesting but none of the potentially intriguing ideas are explored.  I imagine that the film was meant to be a satire of Off-Broadway ruthlessness but ultimately, the film is just another tediously violent indie film from the 90s.  This is one of those movies where nobody can do anything without spending an excessive amount of time talking about it beforehand and, when things do turn violent, it’s the worst type of quirky, sadistic, drawn-out, “look how crazy we are” violence.

There’s a scene towards the end of the film where Al shoots a group of people in a bar.  This is intercut with clips from the Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin.  As Al leave, he shoots the TV showing Battleship Potemkin and, I have to say, that really annoyed me.  Seriously, just as a bad filmmaker should not remind people that they could be watching The Third Man, he shouldn’t invite them to compare his film to Battleship Potemkin unless he’s willing to back up the comparison.  When Al shot the TV, I found myself hoping that Sergei Eisenstein would pop up and shoot him.

Frogs for Snakes is one of the worst films that I’ve ever seen.  It may, in fact, be the worst but I would need to rewatch Ted 2 before I said that for sure.  But, if you have insomnia, Frogs For Snakes will at least put you to sleep.

Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun
  4. Nina Takes A Lover
  5. Black Ice

 

Film Review: Lovelace (dir by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman)


About halfway through the new biopic Lovelace, there’s a scene where former porno actress Linda Lovelace (played by Amanda Seyfried) is hooked up to a lie detector.  The polygraph examiner explains that he’s going to ask Linda a few test questions to get a reading.

“Is your name Linda Lovelace?” he asks.

Visibly nervous, Linda replies, “Can you ask something simpler?”

It’s a great scene because it establishes the central mystery of both the film and the title character.

Just who exactly was Linda Lovelace?

A girl whose main talent was apparently giving head, Lovelace became a star in the 70s when she starred in Deep Throat, the first (and perhaps only) hardcore film to become a legitimate mainstream hit.  For a brief while, Lovelace was the face of the American sex industry.  However, her attempts to have a mainstream film career failed and Lovelace retreated into obscurity.

Several years later, she wrote a book called Ordeal.  In Ordeal, Lovelace claimed that she was forced, by her abusive husband, to perform in Deep Throat.  Whereas Lovelace, during her brief stardom, originally claimed to simply be a sexual adventurer who performed on camera because it was liberating, the post-stardom Lovelace presented herself as being a brainwashed victim.  Or, as Lovelace herself put it, “When you watch Deep Throat, you’re watching me getting raped.”  While several people disputed the authenticity of Ordeal, Lovelace herself passed a polygraph examination.  Lovelace then became an anti-pornography activist before, once again, descending into obscurity and eventually dying in an automotive accident in 2002.

Lovelace deals with the issue of figuring out just who Linda Lovelace was by basically telling her story twice.

During the first 45 minutes of the film, we see how young Linda Boreman first meets Chuck Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard).  Everything about Chuck — from his mustache to his perm to his flashy clothes — practically screams sleaze but, since he’s played by Peter Sarsgaard, he also has an undeniable charm.  (With this film and An Education, Sarsgaard has proven himself to be the definitive older man who your parents warned you about.)  Chuck and Linda eventually marry and, when they need money, Linda turns to “acting” in order to pay the bills.

Under the watchful eye of producers Bobby Cannavale and Chris Noth, director Hank Azaria, and co-star Adam Brody, Linda stars in Deep Throat and becomes the face of the sexual revolution.  While there are occasional hints that things might not be perfect (bruises are often visible on Linda’s arms and legs), Linda seems to truly love the spotlight.  Even Hugh Hefner (played by James Franco, who is way too hot to only have a cameo) says she’s going to be a huge star.

And then, rather abruptly, we jump forward six years.  Linda is now writing Ordeal and we once again see how she first married Chuck Traynor, starred in Deep Throat, and came to be a star..  However, we now see the story through her eyes.  We see that Chuck wasn’t just controlling but that he was also an abusive psychopath who would hold a gun to her head in order to get a performance out of her.  We see that, during the shooting of Deep Throat, she was regularly beaten by her husband.  We see Linda attempting to reconnect with her strict and tradition parents (played by Sharon Stone and Robert Patrick).  We see the ugliness that was hidden underneath the glamour.

Considering the subject matter and the talent involved, Lovelace should have been one of the most interesting films of 2013 but, unfortunately, the two separate halves of the film just don’t come together.  While the first half of the film does a good job of capturing the absurdity of sudden fame, the second half of the film falls apart.

Oddly enough, Chuck Traynor and Linda Lovelace only come across as real human beings during the superficial first half of the film.  During the second half of the film, both Chuck and Linda come across as one-dimensional ciphers.  Linda becomes such a total victim and Chuck becomes such a melodramatic villain that neither one of them is all that compelling as a character.  Instead of being disturbing and revealing, the second half of the film just feels like another generic film about the price of fame.

Most of what I know about Linda Lovelace and Chuck Traynor comes from two sources — the 2005 documentary Inside Deep Throat and Legs McNiel’s and Jennifer Osborne’s book The Other Hollywood.  In both the book and the documentary, Lovelace comes across as being a rather pathetic figure who was exploited by both the adult film industry and the anti-pornography activists who used her as a symbol.  Both the industry and the activists abandoned Linda once her novelty was gone.  Ironically, even though both the documentary and the book are rather critical of her, it is there that she comes across as a far more interesting, sympathetic, and ultimately tragic figure than she does in this biopic.

With all that in mind, Lovelace is not necessarily a failure as a film.  The 70s are convincingly recreated and there’s a few scenes that hint at the type of film that this could have been if the filmmakers had been willing to take a few more risks.

The film is also full of excellent performances.  Seyfried is sympathetic and believable as Linda and, up until the second half of the film requires him to abandon all shades of ambiguity, Sarsgaard perfectly captures the sleazy charm that someone like Chuck Traynor would need to survive.  As Linda’s strict mother, Sharon Stone  is surprisingly strong.  Just watch the scene where Linda’s mom explains to her that she has to go back to abusive husband because that’s what marriage is all about and you’ll see an example of great acting.  Even better is Robert Patrick, who brings a poignant sadness to the role of Linda’s father.  The scene where he tells Linda that he saw her on film is heartbreaking.

Lovelace is a film of hits and misses.  Sadly, it misses the big picture but a few individual parts and performances are strong enough to justify sacrificing spending 93 minutes to watch it.