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 he 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.

Back to School Part II #17: The Boys Next Door (dir by Penelope Spheeris)


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Three years after starring in Grease 2, Maxwell Caulfield starred in another (albeit far different) film about teenage delinquents, 1985’s The Boys Next Door.  Directed by Penelope Spheeris (who also did Suburbia, another film about wayward youth), The Boys Next Door is a frequently harrowing film about a road trip gone very wrong.

The film opens with a series of black-and-white photographs of real-life serial killers, so you know what you’re about to get yourself into before the main action even begins.  Caulfield plays Roy, a not-very-smart teenager who lives in an industrial town in the southwest.  With his generally bad attitude and violent temper, Roy is one of the least popular kids at the local high school.  In fact, his only friend appears to be Bo (Charlie Sheen).  Bo is just as stupid as Roy but he’s not as violent.  Bo’s problem is that he’s a follower, the type who is incapable of making his own decisions.  If Roy says, “Let’s beat the Hell out of someone,” Bo is going to agree because … well, why not?

When Roy and Bo graduate from high school, they don’t have much more to look forward to than a life of working in a factory.  After an angry Roy violently lashes out at a graduation party, he decides that he and Bo should get out of town.  Fortunately, Bo has received $200 as a graduation gift.  Roy and Bo decide to use that money to take a trip to Los Angeles.

On the way to L.A., it quickly becomes obvious that Roy is more than just an angry kid.  When he and Bo rob a gas station, Roy savagely beats the attendant.  When they get to Los Angeles, all Roy can talk about is how much he hates the city and everyone who lives in it.  Roy is especially vocal about how much he hates anyone who he perceives as being gay…

Of course, even as Roy is loudly expressing every homophobic thought that pops into his tiny mind, it’s hard not to notice that he seems to be rather obsessed with Bo.  In fact, he is so obsessed with Bo that he basically kills anyone who shows the least bit of interest in Bo.  Paranoid that Bo is going to abandon him, Roy is willing to do anything to keep that from happening.

The Boys Next Door is one of those films that really took me by surprise.  It may start and look like your typical low-budget thriller but The Boys Next Door ultimately reveals itself to be a disturbingly plausible portrait of a sociopath.  The film suggests that, as individuals, both Roy and Bo are somewhat laughable but, as a team, they’re deadly.  It’s no wonder that Roy is so insistent that Bo always stay with him because, without Bo around, Roy wouldn’t have any motivation to do anything.  Everything that Roy does — from theft to murder — is largely to impress Bo.  Unfortunately, Bo is too stupid to understand what’s going on in his friend’s head.

Especially when compared to some of the other performances that they are known for, both Sheen and Caulfield do surprisingly good work as the two murderers.  Penelope Spheeris wisely directs the film as if it were a documentary and the end result is a harrowing film that deserves to be far better known.

Back to School Part II #14: Grease 2 (dir by Patricia Birch)


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So, the whole reason that I watched Grease last week was so I would be prepared to watch the 1982 sequel Grease 2 over the weekend.  As I’ve mentioned many times on this site, I absolutely hate Grease and I know what you’re probably asking yourself:

“But Lisa, if you hate Grease so much, why did you want to see Grease 2?”

Well, there’s a very good answer to that question but I’m not going to reveal it.  I’m going to encourage you to learn to love the mystery.  For whatever reason, I wanted to watch Grease 2.  Perhaps it was because I’ve heard that Grease 2 is the worst sequel ever made.  I really didn’t see how that was possible.  How, I wondered, could a film be any worse than the original Grease?

And, so, I watched Grease 2 on Netflix and yes, it was really, really bad.  But you know what?  It was so bad that it became almost compulsively watchable.  Unlike the first Grease, which is full of slow spots, Grease 2 is oddly exciting in its mediocrity.  I watched much of it in open-mouthed horror, wondering if things could possibly get any worse.  And, with each scene, it did get worse.  It was so overwhelmingly and shamelessly bad and so thoroughly misguided that, strangely enough, I really want to rewatch it.

Grease 2 takes place in 1961.  There’s a whole new gang of students at Rydell High!  Well, actually, Frenchy (Didi Conn) has returned.  You may remember that, in the previous film, Frenchy dropped out of high school and went to beauty school.  (She was also visited by Satan, who came to her disguised as the Teen Angel.)  But now Frenchy is back, trying to pass a chemistry class so she can … well, I’m not really sure what the whole deal with Frenchy was.  I imagine that Didi Conn was probably free for a weekend.

The T-bird and the Pink Ladies are still around but they have a whole new membership.  The head of the Pink Ladies is Stephanie Zinone (played, in her film debut, by Michelle Pfeiffer).  Her boyfriend, Johnny Nogorelli (Adrian Zmed), is the chain-smoking leader of the T-birds.  Actually, Johnny is now her ex-boyfriend.  He cheated on her over the summer.

And there’s a new boy at Rydell!  He’s originally from England and he’s Sandy’s cousin!  His name is Michael Carrington (superhandsome Maxwell Caulfield, who is perhaps fated to always be best known for playing Rex Manning in Empire Records) and, when we first meet him, he’s getting off a school bus and he’s wearing a suit!  Michael really likes Stephanie but you have to be a T-bird if you’re going to date a Pink Lady and…

AGCK!

Sorry, that was a primal scream.  Trying to describe the plot of Grease 2 inspires a lot of primal screams.

Anyway, this is a film is also a musical but apparently, none of the original Grease composers were involved with the sequels.  All the songs kinda sound like something you would hear in a parody of Grease, as opposed to a sequel.  Also adding to bizarre feel of this sequel is that everyone delivers their lines as if they’re appearing in a stage production, projecting to the back of the theater and overenunciating every single syllable.  This may have made sense for Grease, which was adapted from an actual stage show and, despite efforts to open up the action, was still deliberately stagey.  Grease 2, meanwhile, is an adaptation of a stage show that never actually existed.

The film starts with a 7 minute production number called Back To School Again.  As the Pink Ladies and the T-birds and all the other students show up outside of Rydell, they sing, “Woe is me!  The Board of Education took away my parole.”  And the scene just keeps going and going, until you start to wonder if Rydell High is a cult compound.

This is followed by a song about bowling (!) that’s called “Score Tonight.”

And it just keeps getting worse from there.  The film becomes sickly fascinating as you find yourself trying to predict how much more worse it can possibly get.  You may be tempted to give up but you’ll definitely want to stick around for the scene in which Michael discovers that Stephanie wants a “cool rider.”  How does he know that?  She sings a song about it!

Naturally, Michael gets a motorcycle, a helmet, and pair of goggles and he starts to romance Stephanie.  Stephanie doesn’t know who that Michael is the mysterious motorcyclist, despite the fact that Michael is just wearing a helmet and a pair of goggles.  Though you have to admire Pfieffer’s commitment to her role (and she gives a fairly good performance, considering the material she was working with), you can’t help but feel that Stephanie might not be the smart.  Especially after she sings, “Who’s that guy?”

Uhmmm … it’s Michael.  It’s not like he’s dressed up like a bat or wearing the Iron Man armor.  He’s just got a helmet and goggles on.  Add to that, while Maxwell Caulfield doesn’t give a bad performance (he seems to be doing the best he can with what he’s been given to work with), he also doesn’t attempt to act any differently when he’s the mysterious motorcyclist than when he’s Michael.

There are other things going on as well.  The film is full of vignettes about life in 1961, all featuring the students and teachers at Rydell High.  For instance, former teen idol Tab Hunter shows up as a substitute teacher and sings a song about reproduction.

And again, it’s so bad that you can’t look away and you watch knowing that you’ll never get the images and the songs out of your head.  So compulsively watchable is this bad movie that I may have to watch it again after I finish this review.  (Then again, I’ll probably just rewatch the fifth season of Degrassi…)

(That said, I would actually argue that Grease 2 is a better directed film than the first Grease.  Grease 2 was directed by Grease‘s choreographer and, as opposed to the first film, the dance numbers are actually framed with modicum of care.)

(By the way, I’ve always wanted to use the phrase “modicum of care” in a review.)

Anyway, Grease 2 apparently bombed at the box office and, as a result, there have been no further Grease films.  It’s a shame because you so know that Grease 3 would have taken place in 1967 and featured hippies.

Oh well.

We’ll survive…