Film Review: Empire Records (1995)

Also known as: Rock & Fun, Empire (working titles)
Release Date: September 22nd, 1995 (limited)
Directed by: Allan Moyle
Written by: Carol Heikkinen
Music by: various artists
Cast: Anthony LaPaglia, Maxwell Caulfield, Debi Mazar, Rory Cochrane, Johnny Whitworth, Robin Tunney, Renée Zellweger, Liv Tyler, Ethan Embry, Coyote Shivers, James ‘Kimo’ Willis, Brendan Sexton III, Ben Bode

Regency Enterprises, Warner Bros., 90 Minutes, 107 Minutes (Special Extended Edition)

Review:

“We mustn’t dwell… no, not today. We can’t. Not on Rex Manning Day.” – Mark

Empire Records was not a hit when it came out in theaters but it had a pretty limited release and when it did expand into more theaters, it still didn’t get into a lot of them. In fact, I never even heard of the movie until it came out on VHS in 1996 while I was working at a video store. I checked it out and liked it but I never imagined that it was something that many people would see or that would gain a pretty good cult following.

I think that it resonated with me because I was the same age as the characters, I worked in a video store and a music store and it felt a bit more like an ’80s teen comedy, which were movies I grew up on and had an impact on me as a kid.

Sure, the film is pretty hokey and very goofy but with that it has a lot of charm and an innocence about it, even if it delves into some more serious subject matter. At it’s core, it just follows a day in the life of an indie record store but it is a well crafted coming of age movie.

It is almost fantasy in how it is presented and in that way, it kind of reminds me of Clerks. They’re not even close from a tonal sense but both movies cram a bunch of crazy stuff into a single work day in a way that isn’t realistic but works for these type of films because all of these things could actually happen, just not on a single day.

The acting isn’t great but this does feature some people that would go on to have pretty good careers. It also stars Anthony LaPaglia as the only real adult in the film and the glue that keeps things together and a bit more grounded than the film would be without him.

I can’t say that this has aged well and maybe I still like it because of the power of nostalgia but it’s just a great film to throw on, once in awhile, when you need to be taken back to a simpler time and a simpler life before being buried in adult problems and worries.

I also love how musical it is and how fun it is. You actually do care about these characters and you want a happy ending for all of them. Because they’re all just kids and most of us have been where they are.

Plus, without this film, we never would’ve had Rex Manning Day.

Rating: 7.75/10
Pairs well with: other teen comedies of the ’90s.

Film Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Also known as: Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (stylized on screen)
Release Date: September 4th, 2017 (Venice Film Festival)
Directed by: Martin McDonagh
Written by: Martin McDonagh
Music by: Carter Burwell
Cast: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Lucas Hedges, Abbie Cornish, Samara Weaving, Caleb Landry Jones, Clarke Peters, Željko Ivanek, Sandy Martin, Brendan Sexton III

Blueprint Pictures, Film4 Productions, Cutting Edge Group, Fox Searchlight Pictures, 115 Minutes

Review:

“What’s the law on what ya can and can’t say on a billboard? I assume it’s ya can’t say nothing defamatory, and ya can’t say, ‘Fuck’ ‘Piss’ or ‘Cunt’. That right?” – Mildred Hayes

I’ve been hitting the theater, trying to catch up on some of the indie films I’ve been missing. Luckily, I have a lot of days off to use between now and the end of the year, so playing catch up should be fairly easy now that Cinespiria has gotten through Darktober and Noirvember and there isn’t a theme for the month of December.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was a really nice surprise. While I did expect to enjoy it, it wasn’t as straightforward and cookie cutter as I anticipated. But I probably should have known better with Martin McDonagh in the director’s chair, as In Bruges and Seven Psycopaths weren’t films that one could label predictable.

This picture has a magnificently solid cast but so did Seven Psychopaths and McDonagh has shown that he’s fully capable of managing an ensemble. Although, while this is an ensemble piece and everyone is well beyond satisfactory, Frances McDormand’s Mildred Hayes is center stage in just about every scene and she really put the weight of this picture on her back and succeeded, giving us another masterful performance. She is a tough cookie and she never relents in her quest to find justice for her raped and murdered daughter.

Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell both do fine in this film, as well. Both men play cops and, at first, based off of how the story starts, you aren’t really a fan of either man. Harrelson’s Sheriff Willoughby wins you over fairly quickly, as you sympathize with his illness and the toughness of his job and a system that can’t always catch the bad guy. Rockwell’s Dixon is incredibly unlikable for two-thirds of the film but there is a real turning point where the angry boy with a badge becomes a man. Both cop characters, like all the characters can’t not be affected by the events of the story. People change and this is a film about character evolution and redemption, just as much as it is about justice or lack thereof.

This is the second film where I’ve seen Caleb Landry Jones play a nice and decent character, a departure from the psychos he played in Get Out and the revival of Twin Peaks. This guy has come along way since I first noticed him in X-Men: First Class and he’s really carving out a nice career for himself with a good amount of diversity in his roles. I hope to see a lot more from him in the future.

We also get to see character actors John Hawkes and Sandy Martin and both shine in their small but influential roles. Clarke Peters shows up and I always get excited when I see him, as he was one of my favorites in the underappreciated HBO show Treme. Another HBO alum, Peter Dinklage of Game of Thrones, plays a nice and sweet character in this. Brendan Sexton III, probably most remembered as the young shoplifting shithead in Empire Records and as a bully in Welcome to the Dollhouse, plays a character not too dissimilar from his earliest roles.

Three Billboards is a film that carries a lot of emotional weight and unfortunately exists in our sad reality where sometimes the worst people get away with deplorable acts. The film ends with two of the characters having to make a grave choice but we do not get to see what they decide to do. Like these characters, you want justice for Mildred’s daughter but you also have to ask yourself where the line is drawn while understanding that nothing will bring her back.
Rating: 8.25/10

Film Review: Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995)

Release Date: September 10th, 1995 (TIFF)
Directed by: Todd Solondz
Written by: Todd Solondz
Music by: Jill Wisoff
Cast: Heather Matarazzo, Brendan Sexton III, Eric Mabius, Matthew Faber

Suburban Pictures, Sony Pictures Classics, 87 Minutes

Review:

“Yo, Weiner, you better get ready, ’cause at three o’clock today, I’m gonna rape you!” – Brandon

I saw this a long time ago. In fact, I was probably about seventeen or eighteen when I got a copy of this at my neighborhood video store and decided to check it out, as I was really getting into American indies at the time.

What I remembered about this is that it starred Heather Matarazzo, who I really liked at the time as DJ’s girlfriend on Roseanne. Also, it left me feeling sad, angry but somewhat hopeful. Well, that effect still works, all these years later.

Welcome to the Dollhouse follows the life of a young middle school girl who is struggling with just about everything. Everyone in the entire film, literally everyone, treats her like she’s an afterthought or just bullies her for no real reason other than she’s awkward and not pretty. She really only has one friend, a younger boy, but eventually the pressure of everything causes her to then treat him like shit.

For anyone who had trouble of some sort while going through middle school, which is most of us, Welcome to the Dollhouse can be a pretty real experience. Granted, I hope no one ever had to go through what Dawn Weiner did in this film but the reality is that kids are pretty cruel to one another at the middle school age. In fact, Dawn’s older brother sums it up when she asks him if high school is any different and he says, “All of junior high school sucks. High school’s better; it’s closer to college. They’ll call you names, but not as much to your face.”

Heather Matarazzo was brilliant in this and she really became the role. You really just go through the film with a growing disdain for nearly every character because of how much Matarazzo is able to make you sympathize with her character. However, as much as you’ll hate the bully Brandon in the beginning, Brendan Sexton III plays that part so well that you feel for him and his situation by the end of the film. All these kid actors are pretty damn great and really carry the picture.

Welcome to the Dollhouse isn’t a great film but it is a much better than average coming of age drama mixed with a bit of comedy. It works because of the cast and because it is pretty real and gets darker than you might expect.