Film Review: The Phantom (1996)

Release Date: June 7th, 1996
Directed by: Simon Wincer
Written by: Jeffrey Boam
Based on: The Phantom by Lee Falk
Music by: David Newman
Cast: Billy Zane, Treat Williams, Kristy Swanson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, James Remar, Patrick McGoohan, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Casey Siemaszko, John Capodice

Boam Productions, The Ladd Company, Paramount Pictures, 100 Minutes

Review:

“When darkness rules the earth, America’s in financial ruin. Europe and Asia are on a brink of self-annihilation. Chaos reigns. Like I’ve always said, there is opportunity in chaos. And so, my brothers, I give you… [raises out the first skull] The skull of Touganda. This skull is one of three. When all three skulls are united, they will produce a force more than any army on Earth.” – Xander Drax

A lot of people, myself included, slept on this movie when it came out because even for 1996, it looked hokey and cheap. Granted, it was actually made by a larger studio and it was a more expensive picture than one might think.

I feel like the tone was off for what was becoming the popular trends at the time and that this would’ve fared much better, half a decade earlier. But even really solid comic book movies like The Rocketeer and The Shadow struggled to find an audience before this flick was even greenlit.

While I’ve seen this a few times over the years, I think there are things within it that one can appreciate that would’ve most likely been overlooked in 1996.

To start, this is just a fun adventure movie, a popcorn picture at its core that features good actors, cool characters and period piece sets that show you where most of the budget went.

There is a very pulpy vibe to this and it almost calls back to the tone of old school swashbuckling epics without having any real swashbuckling in it.

It mostly taps into the film serial genre that helped make The Phantom character more of a household name in the ’30s through ’50s. For modern audiences, it will play like a superhero picture with elements of an Indiana Jones or Pirates of the Caribbean vibe to it.

While it’s not particularly well-acted, the core cast still give good performances that really show that they’re committed to this film’s pulpy goodness. Treat Williams’ over-the-top antics as the villain are superb and I liked him immensely in this. I also thought that Billy Zane made a really solid Phantom and Kristy Swanson was a good choice for her role. I can’t say that this is Catherine Zeta-Jones’ best work but she did look like she was having a blast hamming it up in this goofy but stylish movie.

The Phantom is far from being a classic in the superhero genre but its much better than a lot of the other offerings in the pre-Dark Knight and MCU era. Frankly, I wish it would’ve done well enough to have had a few sequels but since this felt somewhat dated for 1996, I can’t imagine any sequels connecting with the audience of that era.

Rating: 6.75/10
Pairs well with: other comic book adaptations of the era like The Shadow, Dick Tracy, The Rocketeer and the early, cheap Marvel attempts at live-action.

TV Review: Boston Common (1996-1997)

Original Run: March 21st, 1996 – April 27th, 1997
Created by: Max Mutchnick, David Kohan
Directed by: various
Written by: various
Cast: Anthony Clark, Traylor Howard, Hedy Burress, Steve Paymer, Roger Rees, Tasha Smith, Vincent Ventresca, Sam Anderson, Margot Kidder, Zach Galifianakis

KoMut Entertainment, Castle Rock Entertainment, Columbia TriStar Television, Sony Pictures Television, NBC, 32 Episodes, 22 Minutes (per episode)

Review:

Recently, while on YouTube, I went down the sitcom rabbit hole and started to rewatch a lot of the stuff I used to like, back in the day. I was curious to see how these shows held up and if I would still enjoy them. This one, particularly, was one I would watch in the late ’90s when the USA Network would do that morning block of shows called USAM.

Boston Common was unfortunately short-lived, as it was a mid-season replacement in its first season and then only got a full second season later that same year.

I remember thinking that Anthony Clark was hilarious and I was crushing hard on Traylor Howard, who played the apple of his eye on the show.

In 2020, I still enjoyed this quite a bit. It’s hokey in the way that traditional multi-cam, studio audience sitcoms were back then but it has character and depth beyond what’s on the surface. The characters develop well over the short time they had to exist and it’s hard not to find something to like in all of them. Even Jack, the pompous professor.

Shows like this don’t seem to really work nowadays but its a shame. They were a good, light-hearted way to escape from reality. And even if they did touch on some tougher or topical subjects, they always did it in a way that was more palatable and fair than the heavy-handed, overly biased shows of today.

Rating: 7/10
Pairs well with: other late ’90s sitcoms.

Film Review: Original Gangstas (1996)

Also known as: Warzone, Hot City (working titles)
Release Date: May 10th, 1996
Directed by: Larry Cohen
Written by: Aubrey K. Rattan
Music by: Vladimir Horunzhy
Cast: Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, Pam Grier, Paul Winfield, Isabel Sanford, Ron O’Neal, Richard Roundtree, Oscar Brown Jr., Christopher B. Duncan, Dru Down, Shyheim Franklin, Robert Forster, Charles Napier, Wings Hauser, Godfrey Danchimah, Bushwick Bill (cameo)

Po’ Boy Productions, Orion Pictures, 99 Minutes

Review:

“Big talk coming from a faggot who don’t even know what sex his mother is.” – John Bookman

Strangely, I’ve never seen this until now. I actually owned the soundtrack, back in the day, but I never did get around to seeing the film.

This was directed by Larry Cohen, a guy who helmed a few blaxploitation classics back in the ’70s and then made a career out of directing some iconic B-movie horror flicks. This also re-teamed Larry Cohen and Fred Williamson, who worked together on Black Caesar and Hell Up In Harlem.

The film is a sort of modern homage to the blaxploitation films of the ’70s while also capitalizing off of the early ’90s urban movie craze. It doesn’t just callback to the blaxploitation era by re-teaming Cohen and Williamson, it also brought in other actors from blaxploitation and general exploitation movies: Jim Browm, Pam Grier, Ron O’Neal, Richard Roundtree, Robert Forster and Charles Napier.

Sadly, the plot is pretty weak and the film isn’t very good. I had higher hopes for it, as Larry Cohen can knock the ball out of the park when he wants to.

This is bogged down by a shitty script, shitty dialogue, predictable scenarios and absolutely nothing that doesn’t feel derivative. It’s a carbon copy of all the carbon copy hood movies of its era and adding in blaxploitation legends doesn’t raise the film up, it actually just holds those actors down. They’re better and more capable actors than what we get in this picture.

Frankly, Original Gangstas misses its mark but that’s not to say that it’s unwatchable. I enjoyed it simply because these actors were all together in one movie. However, if you take them out, this is abysmal and completely forgettable.

Rating: 4.5/10
Pairs well with: the blaxploitation films it is an homage to, as well as early ’90s urban cinema.

Film Review: Freeway (1996)

Release Date: January, 1996 (Sundance)
Directed by: Matthew Bright
Written by: Matthew Bright
Music by: Danny Elfman
Cast: Kiefer Sutherland, Reese Witherspoon, Wolfgang Bodison, Dan Hedaya, Amanda Plummer, Brooke Shields, Michael T. Weiss, Bokeem Woodbine, Guillermo Diaz, Brittany Murphy, Conchata Ferrell

The Kushner-Locke Company, August Entertainment, Davis-Films, 104 Minutes (uncut), 102 Minutes (cut)

Review:

“Holy shit! Look who got beaten with the ugly stick! Is that you, Bob? I can’t believe such a teeny weeny little gun made such a big mess out of someone! You are so ugly, Bob! And, hey, I heard you have one of those big poop bags that’s like attached to where the shit comes out the side, you’re just a big old shitbag ain’t you, Bob! You just think of me every time you empty that motherfucking thing, motherfucker!” – Vanessa Lutz

Freeway is a batshit crazy movie. I’m not a massive fan of it as many others are and honestly, I wasn’t even sure what to think about it when it came out back in 1996. I was in high school at the time but I found it hard to grasp, as it feels more like a sequence of ideas wedged into a singular film. It also has a disjointed tone and a weird narrative structure.

I never hated the film but it wasn’t my cup of tea when it came out. I’m able to enjoy it more now but that’s also because an extra two and a half decades of life experience and film watching has made me more open to experimental and nontraditional filmmaking.

I mostly liked the film now, seeing it for the first time since it hit VHS. I never had much urge to revisit it but I figured I’d check it out because it’s been so long and my tastes have changed. Plus, I like Reese Witherspoon when she’s not in romantic comedies and I’ve always dug Kiefer Sutherland.

Additionally, this boasts a strong cast that wouldn’t have meant as much to me as a teenager. We’ve got Dan Hedaya, Brooke Shields, Bokeem Woodbine, Guillermo Diaz, Brittany Murphy and Conchata Ferrell.

The story is a modern retelling of Little Red Riding Hood. It’s vastly different, though, as Witherspoon plays a trashy teen brought up by a speed addicted prostitute and pedophile stepfather. She’s essentially Little Red Riding Hood while Kiefer Sutherland plays the Big Bad Wolf, trying to hunt her down on the way to grandma’s house. The Wolf in this case is a famous (and still at large) Interstate serial killer.

Along the way, Sutherland’s Bob picks up Witherspoon’s Vanessa, after the car she stole broke down. They spend some time together but things get weird as the trip rolls on. Eventually, Vanessa discovers that Bob is the I-5 Killer. She is able to escape and puts several bullets into him. Vanessa ends up getting arrested and Bob survives, although he is severely disfigured.

In the second half of the movie, Vanessa is locked up in juvenile jail while the media makes Bob out to be a victim and heroic survivor. Vanessa eventually escapes juvie and makes her way to her grandma’s house where Bob is waiting for her, disguised as her grandma in bed ala the Big Bad Wolf.

While the film is tapping into the famous Brothers Grimm story, it definitely takes tremendous liberties and only seems to channel Little Red Riding Hood where it is convenient. In a lot of ways, the films plot is all over the place. It’s not hard to follow but it doesn’t follow any sort of structure. Frankly, there really isn’t a three act structure, either. You can break it out into four parts. I’m also not saying that this is a bad thing as it makes for a film that isn’t formulaic or predictable and in some regard, that’s refreshing. I’m actually glad that I forgot most of the plot details over the years since first seeing this.

Furthermore, Reese Witherspoon and Kiefer Sutherland are both tremendous in this. Witherspoon, in only her fifth film, shows that she’s got real chops. Sutherland also brings his A-game and he’s so nuts in this that he really makes the movie better than it should have been on paper. He does crazy well and this may be the most bonkers role he’s ever played.

I’ve also got to point out the musical score by Danny Elfman. I dug the hell out of it and it’s one of the most unique Elfman scores of all-time. While it has the Elfman aesthetic, it’s different and unusual enough that had I not seen his name in the credits, I might not have realized it was him.

Freeway is nowhere near a perfect film but it’s a damn interesting one that’s carried by two solid performances and a story that takes you on an unexpected and wild journey.

Rating: 7/10
Pairs well with: it’s sequel, as well as two other ’90s Reese Witherspoon movies: S.F.W. and Fear.

Film Review: Bad Moon (1996)

Also known as: Thor (working title)
Release Date: November 1st, 1996
Directed by: Eric Red
Written by: Eric Red
Based on: Thor by Wayne Smith
Music by: Daniel Licht
Cast: Mariel Hemingway, Michael Paré, Mason Gamble

Morgan Creek Entertainment, 80 Minutes

Review:

“Ted, you know you’re always welcome here. Here’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to park your Airstream in my backyard, and you’re going to live out of my fridge.” – Janet

I’ve never seen this film, which is pretty strange as it came out around the time that I was working in a video store. I certainly remember the poster and thinking it was badass but for whatever reason, I never took the tape home to watch.

I’m glad I checked it out now, though, as it was better than what I had anticipated and it was cool seeing Michael Paré in it, as I really dug that dude when I was a kid because he was the coolest thing in a cool movie that I watched a lot: Streets of Fire.

It also stars Mariel Hemingway and Mason Gamble, the kid from the ’90s Dennis the Menace movie remake. But more importantly than that, it stars Primo, a German shepherd that played the dog Thor. Why am I bringing up the damn dog? Well, because I’ve never seen animal acting this good and I’ve seen thousands of movies.

The dog was just superb, seriously. He stole every scene that he was in and he conveyed emotion, greatly. While the Academy would never watch a fine motion picture like Bad Moon, the film is a good example for the argument that maybe animal actors should have an Oscar category. But that will never happen because Hollywood hasn’t been fun in years and they’d actually have to pull a lot of sticks out of asses and learn how to be human beings again.

Anyway, this film mainly uses practical special effects and they look fantastic. The werewolf in this is one of the best I’ve ever seen in any movie. Granted, I have a strong bias towards bipedal werewolves.

The only special effects hiccup was the werewolf transformation scene in the final sequence of the film. They went the CGI route and while some of it looks okay, there are very weird and wonky moments that look terrible even for 1996 standards. CGI was still in its early stages, though, and this film didn’t have a budget the size of Jurassic Park‘s. I can look beyond that scene, however, as the rest of the film is pretty f’n awesome.

Now some of the acting is a bit off but I think that it was due to the editing and direction. The worst scene that comes to mind is the one with the con-artist baiting the dog to bite him. Unfortunately, this scene introduces us to two of the main characters, so it kicks off the film with a rocky start. Luckily, everything sort of slides into place and the rest of the film is mostly fine.

One thing that really stood out for me was the musical score. It was intense but good. It reminded me a lot of the scores by Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner. It had that heavy, brassy, orchestral vibe in the best way possible. I’ve never heard of Daniel Licht or recognized any of his scores in other films but looking him up on IMDb, he’s done a lot of cool ’90s horror pictures. Sadly, he died a few years back.

I was really surprised by this picture. It was a lot of fun and a really cool, campy, werewolf flick. It’s not perfect but it doesn’t need to be. While it has the flaws that I’ve already mentioned, everything else more than makes up for them.

Rating: 7.25/10
Pairs well with: ’80s, ’90s and early ’00s werewolf movies: Silver Bullet, Ginger Snaps, Dog Soldiers, the original Howling.

Film Review: Tremors II: Aftershocks (1996)

Also known as: Tremors 2 (informal title), Tremors 2: Aftershocks (video box title)
Release Date: April 9th, 1996
Directed by: S. S. Wilson
Written by: Brent Maddock, S. S. Wilson
Music by: Jay Ferguson
Cast: Fred Ward, Michael Gross, Christopher Gartin, Helen Shaver, Marcelo Tubert

Universal Pictures, Stampede Entertainment, MCA, 97 Minutes

Review:

“I am completely out of ammo. That’s never happened to me before.” – Burt Gummer

I was surprised as I watched this. The first half of the film I enjoyed more than the original Tremors. But things did go downhill about midway through, making this a weaker film overall.

That being said, this was still a worthwhile sequel and while it is missing Kevin Bacon, Fred Ward and Michael Gross just get more time to shine and frankly, their characters are better and more developed than Bacon’s was.

The first half of the film sees our Graboid hunting heroes go down to southern Mexico to fight a new infestation. They kick ass, have this whole killing Graboids game down but then things change. This is where the film takes a bad turn.

You see, the Graboids evolve over their life cycle. So we have a new threat in this movie. But it’s that threat that’s the problem, as the Graboids have now become Shriekers.

The problem I have with Shriekers is that they are smaller creatures that live above ground and are damn easy to kill with something as simple as a regular shotgun blast. I guess the threat is that there are a lot more of these than the Graboids but the fear factor in this film drops significantly.

You no longer have to worry about the Graboids pulling you through the Earth, chomping you and drowning you in dirt. Gone is the tension of wondering whether or not each footstep will be the death of a character. There’s no more tiptoeing around and having to develop a strategy to survive. Now it’s just run and gun like a round in Call of Duty.

But Fred Ward and Michael Gross still make the movie worth watching. I’m not saying that it isn’t fun, it certainly is. It just lacks the immense danger that the first film had, once these creatures evolve.

This is still mindless escapism and it’s not a bad way to spend an hour and a half. And even if it lowered the ante, in some ways it is better than the first movie.

Rating: 6.5/10
Pairs well with: all the other films in the franchise, as well as any other killer animal movies.

Film Review: Vampirella (1996)

Release Date: September 28th, 1996
Directed by: Jim Wynorski
Written by: Gary Gerani
Based on: Vampirella by Forrest J. Ackerman
Music by: Joel Goldsmith
Cast: Talisa Soto, Roger Daltrey, Richard Joseph Paul, Brian Bloom, Angus Scrimm

Cinetel Films, Concorde-New Horizons, Showtime Networks, 82 Minutes, 86 Minutes (DVD cut)

Review:

“You are much stronger than I am.” – Vampirella, “At the risk of sounding egotistical, I am stronger than anyone.” – Vlad

I don’t think I even knew about this movie at the time of its release and I worked in a video store then. I was also a fan of comics, horror and movies that were made with the involvement of Roger Corman, the King of B-Movies.

Well, I didn’t expect much from this film but it was still pretty entertaining seeing Roger Daltrey of The Who get to ham it up pretty hard. He looked like he was having a good time, committing to this character and this film, regardless of the production value.

On the flip side of that, I have no issues with Talisa Soto, but I don’t think that she was the best choice to play Vampirella. But the script was bad, the dialogue was terrible, her hair was wrong and her outfit looked like dime store cosplay and didn’t really work. But I also realize that the traditional Vampirella costume is even racier and way more revealing. But it’s not the skin that’s the issue, as much as it is the poor, kind of unflattering design of the suit.

Also, Vampirella should be more curvy. Soto has a great body but it’s more athletic than curvy. Tia Carrere would have been a better fit but she was also probably more expensive in 1995, when this was made. But she looks more the part and if she had the same hair style that she did the first moment you saw her in Wayne’s World, it’s even a better fit.

But nothing would’ve really saved this picture from itself.

The plot was nonsensical and the pacing and editing were pretty bad. I just watched this movie and I don’t even remember what it was about other than an evil alien vampire (Daltrey) escapes from execution, heads to Earth, Vampirella follows and they fight. But hey, Angus Scrimm, Phantasm‘s the Tall Man, plays an elder vampire on their home planet.

Calling Vampirella a disappointment is an understatement. It’s a movie that really shouldn’t have been made. You think Corman would’ve learned after his experiment with Fantastic Four a few years earlier.

Unless you are an absolute die hard Vampirella fan, you should ignore this film. If you insist on checking it out, do so at your own risk. But it is free on YouTube, at the moment.

Rating: 3.25/10
Pairs well with: Roger Corman’s unreleased adaptation of Fantastic Four, as well as the 1990 Captain America film.

Film Review: Beastmaster III: The Eye of Braxus (1996)

Release Date: May 24th, 1996
Directed by: Gabrielle Beaumont
Written by: David Wise
Based on: The Beast Master by Andre Norton, characters by Don Coscarelli, Paul Pepperman
Music by: Jan Hammer
Cast: Marc Singer, Tony Todd, Keith Coulouris, Sandra Hess, Casper Van Dien, Patrick Kilpatrick, Lesley-Anne Down, David Warner

Stu Segall Productions, MCA, NBC Universal, 91 Minutes

Review:

“Your aim is poor for one with three eyes.” – Dar

The original Beastmaster is a sword and sorcery classic. Beastmaster II is hated by most but I really enjoy it for its hokiness and characters. Beastmaster III, however, is a hard film to get through, even with Marc Singer, Tony Todd and David Warner.

What sticks out like a sore thumb the most is how bad the acting is. Now I’ll never claim that Singer is an Oscar caliber performer but he at least has charisma and can carry an action movie. Here, the charisma is stifled by terrible line delivery and an abhorrent script.

However, I do like that this film is a call back to the first and that we get to see what happened to Seth and Tal. Even if Seth was no longer played by John Amos and Tal was now grown up, it was cool seeing these characters coming back into Dar, the Beastmaster’s life after being absent from the time traveling weirdness of Beastmaster II.

But that’s also not enough to carry the film or its shoddy plot.

David Warner played the villain here but he pretty much just phoned it in. Not that I blame him but when Warner wants to give a great performance, it’s something he is very capable of. He just looked bored here, as did most of the actors and frankly, the film suffers from a complete lack of interest from the cast. Granted, I think Singer still gave it his all, despite the horrible direction.

Additionally, the music in this film is so bad that it’s distracting. I was shocked to see that the composer was Jan Hammer, because that guy did a tremendous job when he worked on Miami Vice in the ’80s. Here, the score just sounds like cliche, generic, straight to video, ’90s synth bullshit.

I remember seeing this back when it was a new release at the video store and I know I wasn’t fond of it but I didn’t remember it being this bad.

This was a terrible way to end the film series but if I’m being honest, it didn’t need to stretch beyond the first movie unless Don Coscarelli was involved.

Rating: 3.25/10
Pairs well with: washing poop off of your shoes.

Film Review: Jingle All the Way (1996)

Also known as: Could This Be Christmas? (script title)
Release Date: November 16th, 1996 (Mall of America premiere)
Directed by: Brian Levant
Written by: Randy Kornfield
Music by: David Newman
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sinbad, Phil Hartman, Rita Wilson, Jake Lloyd, Curtis Armstrong, Robert Conrad, Martin Mull, Jim Belushi, Richard Moll, Mickey Rooney, Paul Wight, Mo Collins

1492 Pictures, 20th Century Fox, 89 Minutes, 94 Minutes (Director’s Cut)

Review:

“We get one day a year to prove we’re not screw-ups, and what do we do? We screw it up.” – Myron Larabee

I never saw this movie in its entirety until Christmas Day, 2018.

When it came out in 1996, I thought it looked terrible. I was also a senior in high school and going out with girls was more important than watching bad movies with Arnie, Sinbad and young Anakin Skywalker crying over a lame toy.

Since I have exhausted so many Christmas classics, I figured that I’d give this a chance. Besides, I actually love Arnie, Sinbad and the great Phil Hartman. Plus, this also has small roles for Curtis Armstrong (Booger from Revenge of the Nerds), Martin Mull, Jim Belushi, Richard Moll (Bull from Night Court), Mickey Rooney, Robert Conrad, Mo Collins and “The Big Show” Paul Wight.

So if I’m being honest, which I always am, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this stupid movie. It’s a lot of fun, there isn’t a dull moment and the chemistry between Schwarzenegger and Sinbad is really good. I actually just wish that they would’ve shared more scenes together.

The rest of the cast also did well and the rivalry between Arnold and Phil Hartman was entertaining. Man, Hartman was great as a neighbor creeper moving in on Arnold’s wife but in all seriously, was he insane? Arnie’s the f’n Terminator!

The only big problem with the movie is that it all falls apart in the finale. I was on board and digging everything up until the parade where Arnold and Sinbad are dressed up like a superhero and a supervillain and Arnold actually has a functioning jetpack. I know that this is a dumb, mindless movie but watching Arnold fly around downtown without proper jetpack training, moving in a way that isn’t possible by physics, made it so that I couldn’t suspend disbelief any longer. It was total cringe and destroyed the fun movie that this was before that shoddy action sequence kicked off.

Ignoring that atrocious ending, I probably would have given this about a 7.25. Seriously, I enjoyed it that much for 90 percent of the movie.

Still, I’d watch this again but probably not for several years once I’ve run through a few dozen other holiday films.

Plus, the cast keeps things pretty engaging for the most part and the reindeer fight was the stuff of legend.

Rating: 6.25/10
Pairs well with: other Schwarzenegger comedies: Kindergarten CopTwins and I guess Junior but no one should suffer through that one.

Documentary Review: Lon Chaney: Behind the Mask (1996)

Release Date: 1996
Directed by: Bret Wood (uncredited)
Written by: Bret Wood

Kino International, 75 Minutes

Review:

Lon Chaney Sr. was really the first horror icon. So his story is quite an interesting one.

This documentary does a decent job of giving context to Chaney’s work and a bit about his life.

However, like many older documentaries about old school Hollywood legends, this doesn’t do much to excite you about its subject or that subject’s body or work.

This is more academic and informative than it is exciting. I feel like film history documentaries have gotten much better in the last decade or so. At least, much better than the slew of ’90s PBS style documentaries that I grew up with.

I don’t want to sound like I’m trashing this film, as I enjoyed it and found a lot of it interesting but it was pretty dry and relied on playing old footage too much.

If you are a big fan of the man’s work, this is worth a look but if I’m being frank, I wish someone in the modern era would work on a documentary worthy of the man’s stature.

Also, no trailers are available that I can embed here, so I put something cooler at the bottom.

Rating: 5.5/10
Pairs well with: other biographical documentaries on Chaney, as well as other legends of the silent era. There are a ton of documentaries like this one.