Too Reel: Underrated Movies from 1991

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Here we are again, diving back into the nostalgia of childhood and the thrill of seeking out the great gems we may have missed when we were too young to fully grasp the marks they made on the entertainment world. There’s been a rising trend in the film world of something I’d like to call “Modern Nostalgia”. Films like Woody Allen’s meet-cute-filled romance, Cafe Society (Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart), Ty West’s sunburnt western, In A Valley of Violence (Ethan Hawke, John Travolta), and Damien Chazelle’s optimistic musical, La La Land (Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone) bring us back to the stylings of yesteryear while maintaining a grounded sense of modern times. One of the best parts of movies like these is to go back and see where their influences were derived from and the way things have evolved since.

As far as the 90s go, we don’t have to travel too far back in time, but it’s still just as fun to look at some of the overlooked films of the time to find something that may spark the inspiration we’ve been in search of. Either that, or simply to laugh at how ridiculous old special effects could be. This time, we’re moving on to 1991, the era of Desert Storm, Boris Yeltsin (someone still loves you), the first introduction of the internet for unlimited commercial use (thank’s Al Gore!), and the release of Nirvana’s game-changing album Nevermind. Let’s do this before I go on a rant about Nirvana t-shirts…

6. My Own Private Idaho (Dir. Gus Van Sant, Starring: Keanu Reeves, River Phoenix, and Flea?)

Do you know why sad Keanu is so sad? Did you know Joaquin Phoenix had a brother? The two go hand in hand, as Keanu and River were extremely close friends until Phoenix’s untimely death in 1993. Unfortunately, this was the only movie the two starred in together. My Own Private Idaho has a wonderful script that is sadly dulled by the young actors’ wooden deliveries. Phoenix plays the narcoleptic character Mike Waters who is in search of his biological mother. He befriends Scott Favor (Reeves) who teaches him the streets as the two travel together.

The most interesting thing about this movie actually has nothing to do with the stars, their acting, or the writing, but with the song that was the inspiration for the title: “Private Idaho” by The B-52’s. The lyrics in the song can be translated as a cryptic metaphor for either depression or addiction as a warning of staying off a path to the “bottom of a bottomless pool”. The “Private Idaho” term itself could represent isolation through the imagery of the huge rural state and the only thing it’s known for being lonesome roads looked on through the eyes of potatoes, which, in all honesty (sorry Idahoans, but you probably agree), is pretty unexciting. Who knew the band that brought us “Rock Lobster” could be so deep? They actually have some really cool songs in their back catalog, but that’s a conversation for another column, altogether.

Where the meaning behind the song and the connection to the movie meet is left for personal interpretation. Look into both. It just goes to show that inspiration can come from just about anywhere at any time.

 

5. Barton Fink (Dir. Joel & Ethan Coen, Starring: John Turturro, John Goodman) 

Many a DVD collection would have a big empty hole if not for the Coen bros. and their extensive library of black comedies, genre satires, and perspective character pieces. Films like Fargo (which has its own well received television spin-off), O’ Brother, Where Art ThouInside Llewyn Davisor their recent ensemble statement on communism in Hollywood, Hail Caesar! have given the two filmmakers a reputation of quality and unpredictability. It’s one of their more lesser known works from early into their stardom that is truly a hidden gem.

Barton Fink took the Cannes Film Festival by storm with its release and went on to inspire later gems such as Spike Jonez’ enigmatic meta-film, Adaptation (starring two versions of a Nic Cage that you’ve never seen before). With John Turturro as its star, it tells the story of a NY writer who goes to Hollywood to try and bring more theater-esque screenwriting to the world of blockbusters and shallow theatergoers. He soon falls into the nightmare of writers block and is simultaneously thrown head first into the strange events around him.

If you’re only experience with John Turturro on screen is the Transformers franchise (which he is funny in) or maybe his relentless villain in Secret Window, definitely seek this film out, if not at least O’ Brother… where he is equally as unique and captivating. Whether his character, Pete, does or does not get loved up and turned into a horny toad is for you to find out.

 

4. An American Tail: Fievel Goes West (Dir. Phil Nibbelink & Simon Wells, Starring: John Cleese, Jon Lovitz, Amy Irving) 

Disney has long, long been king of the animated world. Period. That is not an alternative fact. Hell, based on box office numbers and ratings, it’s not even a matter of opinion, technically. That said, it doesn’t go without saying that there were still plenty of incredible animated films over the years made by different studios (duhhhhhhhh Ghibli). Those just don’t receive as much talk while they stand proudly in the shadow of giant mouse ears. An American Tail was one such film and its sequel, An American Tail: Fievel Goes West is in much the same way.

While it didn’t have as touching or poignant of a story as the original film, Fievel Goes West still has plenty of charm as the Russian family of mice (the Mousekewitz’s) try to make a life for themselves in the wild west. Little do they know that they are being lured into a trap by a nefarious cow-cat. Cat-boy? Cowboy-ca….whatever. He’s an evil cat in a ten gallon hat. Rhyming aside, his name was very hilariously made to be Cat R. Waul. It doesn’t really get anymore clever than that.

Universal Studios — who brought Fievel  to the big screen both times — also brought us the wonderful, yet famously drawn out film series The Land Before Time. It’s very popular to ask what your top 5 Pixar films are, but what about your top 5 non-Disney animated films? Disclaimer: if The Brave Little Toaster isn’t somewhere on there, we’ll never be friends.

 

3. Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead (Dir. Stephen Herek, Starring: Christina Applegate, Joanna Cassidy) 

Most of us have been babysat at least once in our lives, either by a relative or friend of the family. Sometimes by a complete stranger who was (hopefully) thoroughly vetted to make sure he or she would not abuse or neglect the children somehow (or turn out to be a fuzzy comedian in an old lady costume). For some reason, the image of a babysitter has always been female but that’s a discussion that could take many a dark turn, so let’s stick to the movies here.

Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead is about an extremely coincidental situation where not only does a mother of five decide to spend an entire summer away from her children, but the sitter she hires to do so happens to be a nasty old lady who ends up having a heart attack and dying soon after mom leaves. As teenagers are expected to in the land of shallow assumptions, they expect to be able to get into as many adolescent hijinks as they see fit in the time alloted them. Unfortunately, all their summer money was buried with the babysitter. Enter a baby boomer’s wet dream where young people have their hopes smashed and are forced to do hard work to get what they want. If you’re quiet enough, you’ll be able to hear the maniacal, cigarette-filtered laughter.

In the end, of course, they do learn valuable lessons about (yawn) responsibility and (snore) working together. The movie definitely has some very funny moments though, making it worth the face full of life lessons.

 

2. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze (Dir. Michael Pressman, Starring: Paige Turco, Francois Chau) 

Before children’s show franchises started to get all Michael Bay’d up, they made much more fun attempts at bringing some of these characters to the big screen. And, by that, I mean they used practical effects and didn’t force actors to talk to tennis balls while filming. The costumes were real, the stunts were real, and egos weren’t quite as monumental. Many filmmakers turned to Jim Henson’s Creature Shop for their practical costume effects and animatronics. Naturally (thankfully), this route made sense to the team that wanted to bring the “Heroes in a Half-shell” to the big screen without animation.

Arguably much more lame than the first movie (probably because Corey Feldman didn’t return as Donnie), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze was still full of 80s screwball antics and ridiculous food and reptile puns. Surprise, surprise, Master Shredder is after the four heroes once again, this time by trying to find the last known canister of the ooze that was used to create them and use it to, in turn, create a new mutant army at his command. He eventually uses it on himself to become Super Shredder (also causing actor Francois Chau to mysteriously transform into pro-wrestler Kevin Nash) and the turtles come together to karate chop him into submission.

Does anyone else ever wonder why they named four mutant turtles, trained in the martial arts, no less, after Renaissance Italian artists? I get that they love pizza, but that seriously can’t be as far as the joke goes, right? Regardless, they roll with it. They even did a short-lived, live-action show in ’97, called Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation, where they introduced a female turtle named Venus de Milo. Looking beyond the reasoning for naming the original turtles after artists, we have to hand it to them for naming the female turtle after a priceless work of art.

 

1. Hudson Hawk (Dir. Michael Lehmann, Starring: Bruce Willis, Andie MacDowell) 

Everybody has a favorite Bruce Willis movie. You have the die hard…Die Hard…fans as well as those who can watch The Fifth Element once a month for the rest of our lives and be perfectly sane (smiles without blinking). But are there any who would actually tell you that Hudson Hawk is their favorite of the action star’s myriad of flicks? Here’s an argument as to why it’s at least his funniest.

Brucey plays a vain cat burglar who’s blackmailed by a shady corporation and the CIA to rob the Vatican. Throughout each caper, he and his partner sing show tunes (not kidding, watch the trailer) and shoot their way through to their target. There’s even an extended scene where Hudson is careening down a busy highway on a hospital gurney, screaming his head off. He then takes a moment to ask some young women in a car how he looks before continuing to scream. They don’t waste a single second without a campy action one-liner or goofy bonk on a bad guy’s head. It’s pure “fuck it, write it in” entertainment.

In the end, as he does, Hudson gets the art and the girl and smirks as the camera fades to black. Is this movie as brilliantly made as The Fifth Element or as timeless as Die Hard? Not quite. But at least it makes more sense than Looper