Cinema Double Features

Double Feature Theater: 4 More Mismatched 1990s

The official first part of my “Unorthodox 1990s Double Feature” list will appear on the Netflix DVD blog sometime this month. That list features, obviously, pairs of movies that are both available to rent through the Netflix DVD service. This list features the misshapen double features that could not be included on that list because either one or both films were unavailable for rent. It goes without saying that I find value in each movie individually — but in some instances (see: Encino Man) I believe the juxtaposition enhances a film by bringing in new ideas that might not have otherwise been present (or necessarily intentional).

Time for an obligatory and perhaps superfluous introduction to the double feature.

A merely adequate double bill keeps you awake and engaged, whereas the best double feature bills create opposing and complementary forces that allow for a dialogue between films. In his New York Times feature, “In Praise of the Double Feature,” J. Hoberman states “the double feature created the art of programming.” Home moviewatchers fancy themselves festival programmers every time they plan a multi-movie lineup or invite friends over for a marathon. Picking any two random movies from your shelf requires no nuance or consideration. That’s not programming. Good doubles (or triples!) hold our interest throughout and leave us wanting more – no matter how much movie we endure. But what’s the difference between adequacy and excellence? 

While there’s scholastic value in comparing The Thing From Another World (1951) and John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), for example, it requires no creative matchmaking to associate an original with its remake. Likewise, it’s not viewer-friendly to program tonal stasis. Since we’ve made the 1990s the topic at hand, consider the following coupling: Malice (1993) and Pacific Heights (1992) – dark, effective 90’s thrillers with similar narrative backbones. Monotony sets in after more than three hours of income properties gone horribly wrong. The juxtaposition of seemingly disparate films, however, teaches us something about how we watch movies. The greatest doubles allow viewers to discover new threads of connectivity that might not have been otherwise apparent.

For the sake of conversation, I’ve come up pairs of films from the 1990s that might seem incompatible. These movies are curious yins to misshapen yangs. Some connections will be more obvious, while others might benefit from – dare I say – discussion with other humans. Don’t just take my word for it – look to find your own mysterious connections and plan some of your own double features. 

As I brainstormed dysfunctional 1990s doubles my list grew to voluminous proportions (24 and counting!). I’ve presented four suggestions here (with more to follow on this bl-g and Netflix DVD’s Inside the Envelope) – and I’ll share the B-sides in the near future. In the meantime, Tweet me your bizarro double features from the 1990s at Let’s start a revolution.


double feature kuffs gridlock'd

Kuffs (Bruce A. Evans, 1992) & Gridlock’d (Vondie Curtis-Hall, 1997)  

Class, Privilege and Self-awareness Double

This duo of underseen and underappreciated 1990’s comedies traffic in the same brand of knowing artifice. Early 90s Christian Slater oozes charm even as the film backslides into Ferris Bueller in Beverly Hills Cop. The feather-lite Kuffs might make you feel guilty for enjoying every second of its genre regurgitation, but winks and nods ameliorate its sins.

The flipside of Kuffs could very well be Vondie Curtis-Hall’s debut feature, Gridlock’d, starring Tim Roth and Tupac Shakur. Released four months after Shakur’s death, Gridlock’d showcases the best of his burgeoning on-screen talent. Alongside Roth’s manic comedy, Shakur anchors the film’s gritty depiction of two heroine addicts trying to get clean, in spite of bureaucratic apathy preventing them from entering a rehabilitation program. It’s funny, savagely political and occasionally heartbreaking. Look at the pair of films with that tricky subject of class and privilege in mind — but also how each uses tone and pacing to propel narrative.


double feature spice world fear of a black hat

Spice World (Bob Spiers, 1997) & Fear of a Black Hat (Rusty Cundieff, 1994)

The Evolution of A Hard Day’s Night… Double

Here’s the thing. If you look at Spice World as the Spice Girls imploding the concept of the Spice Girls from the inside so that only people who don’t like the Spice Girls get the joke, this movie is GENIUS. From our holy thrones of 2019 we condemn Spice World as a movie that shouldn’t have been made about a girl group that shouldn’t have existed and was born from an artificial pop-culture landscape we pretend doesn’t still exist. But it was, and in 1997 it made all kinds of sense.

Rusty Cundieff’s This Is Spinal Tap for the first decade of rap provides the perfect counterbalance. Fear of a Black Hat lovingly mocks the genres conventions while Spice World… well…. as I said, might have been made as a subversive attempt to end the madness. I’m not going to tell you how to feel about the former (I love it), but I can only suggest that this pairing amplifies the singularity of both experiences.

double feature encino man zero effect

Encino Man (Les Mayfield, 1992) & Zero Effect (Jake Kasdan, 1998)

The Shapes of Shepherds Double

Pauly Shore plays a modern Virgil, ushering Brendan Fraser’s born-again caveman through the nine layers of hell California. (I’ve just been informed that now that I’ve compared Encino Man to Dante’s Inferno I’m being forced into early bl-gger retirement. I’m told it’s for the good of everyone.) I think it’s time to redeem the affable but incredibly insipid comedy from the trash heap of 1990s cinema. Ouuuuoooooooooooo, buddy — lest we forget the film became a $40 million success at the box office (on a $7 million budget) and spawned beautifully inarticulate catchphrases like “If you’re edged cuz I’m wheezin’ all your grindage, just chill.”

By placing it alongside the forever underseen caper comedy Zero Effect (a movie I plug ad nauseam), I’m hoping to highlight the tradition of “the shepherd” and its many forms. Ben Stiller plays Steve Arlo, stressed out assistant to the unbearably eccentric detective/songwriter/social misfit Daryl Zero (a delightful Bill Pullman). Consider the ways in which each supports (and endures) their Cro-Magnon protagonists and how this tradition also extends to the literary/cinematic legacies of Sherlock Holmes and Watson. Expand the bounds of this challenge to include the Holmes riff Without a Clue (1988) for a cracking triple feature.

double feature party girl cool as ice

Party Girl (Daisy von Scherler Mayer, 1995) & Cool As Ice (David Kellogg, 1991) 

The Manic Charms of 1990s “It” Persons Double

When I first conceived this pairing, I dismissed it as madness. Would anyone else see the mainline connections between Vanilla Ice’s so-bad-its-still-bad-but-wildly-entertaining disasterfest and Parker Posey’s coming-out party as the 1990’s indie It Girl? Nevertheless, the thought of attending this pairing with a eager crowd stuck with me. Bold personalities in uniquely 90s films that don’t necessarily work as narrative. Party Girl’s pastiche of dialogue-laden character sketches serves to highlight Posey’s Holly Go-Lightly via Denise Huxtable librarian. She’s a free spirit, throwing parties and creating her own fantastical existence.

Speaking of “fantastical existence,” let’s talk about the big screen debut of Robert Van Winkle, aka Vanilla Ice. No more than a year separated the release of the hit single “Ice Ice Baby” and Cool As Ice — and yet the artist, who fancied himself a legitimate rapper, had already become a punchline, ridiculed by peers and scorned by the same public that made him an ironic instant success. A cornball mixture of The Wild One, the David Lee Roth aesthetic, and low-budget thriller — but most viably Cool As Ice showcases Robert Van Winkle’s charisma and misguided, workmanlike devotion to the Ice persona.


Tune in to the next Double Feature Theater… when in the same sentence I’ll champion Neil LaBute and the Wachowskis!


Underrated 1998 Cinema

originally published on Rupert Pupkin Speaks, April 2018. 

During the summer of 1998, I worked a rather menial retail job and came home in the evenings and watched movies on my tiny bedroom television. I’d just finished my first year of college. I thought I’d feel different, more adult, but the shock of being right back in my old room, with my old stuff, erased that confident sense of adulthood I’d gained after a year on my own. I turned to the video store for solace.

I’d come home with stacks of VHS tapes from multiple rental stores (I had three within a two-mile radius) and watch them until I fell asleep in a puddle of Doritos and ennui. I rented anything that struck my fancy. I pursued director filmographies. I tried to find the best/worst movie in the store. I also stalked the new release shelves and looked for overlooked oddities. And from this summer of obsessive moviewatching I chose zero films for this list. Not one.

I don’t know where I was going with that story actually. It seemed like a good intro at the time. Maybe my point is that the 1990’s offered so much unique and underappreciated cinema that now is always a good time to catch up on the stuff you missed. We’ll go with that, but feel free to inject your own interpretation. Here are a few picks that you might want to put in your own VHS stack to watch tonight. Modern malaise, after all, wasn’t isolated to 1998.

Zero Effect (Jake Kasdan, 1998)

zero effect underrated 98Poster child for underappreciated 1990’s cinema alongside Joe Versus the Volcano. I exited the theater on opening night convinced the film would be a huge success. I’m still waiting.

Bill Pullman gives the performance of his career as a reclusive and socially inept Sherlock Holmes who hires Ben Stiller to be his Watson/administrative assistant. The hopelessly neurotic detective fails to function outside his investigations, but a burgeoning relationship with prime suspect number one (the deft and underappreciated Kim Dickens) threatens to deconstruct his barriers between work and life.

The film wanders through genres like Holmes through opium dens of ill repute. It’s a personality-driven dramedy and thriller. Movies that defy easy categorization often fail to find their audience, and I think that’s ultimately why Zero Effect fell through the cracks. Jake Kasdan’s film constantly undermines expectation in both form and function. One might consider this on the same frequency as Grosse Pointe Blank – a film that reveals a beating human heart beneath a familiar and palatable genre-based exterior.

zero effect bill pullman

Zero Effect has been made available on DVD once again from the beautiful people at Warner Archive. 


The Big Hit (Kirk Wong, 1998)

the big hit 1998 posterSpeaking of goofy, let’s talk about the John Woo, Terence Chang, Wesley Snipes-produced The Big Hit, an action film that dares to ask the question: How much self-awareness and masturbation humor can one audience tolerate?

I’ve never had a good handle on this film’s popularity (or lack thereof). I know I’ve always enjoyed it precisely because it dares to be 100% obnoxious and not give a damn. Like this is just the way movies were in the 90’s. I also worry that when the asteroid hits, future civilizations will find only copies of this movie to paint a picture of life in 1998. Consciously clunky jokes, stage-y action scenes and random Elliott Gould sightings. Put-upon Mark Wahlberg’s Melvin Smiley leads dual lives with different girlfriends as a hitman and as a not-hitman. A big deal goes sour and Melvin unfairly takes the fall. This requires him to shoot a lot of guns and dodge a lot of bullets.

To best summarize why I like this film, allow me to select a snippet from Roger Ebert’s overall negative review. He says, “I guess you could laugh at this. You would have to be seriously alienated from normal human values and be nursing a deep-seated anger against movies that make you think even a little, but you could laugh.” Roger, I watch a lot of movies that make me think. I watch a lot of movies that don’t make me think. The Big Hit is one of the select few movies that make me think about how little I actually need to think.

the big hit 1998

The Big Hit is available on Blu-ray. And thank goodness for that.


Belly (Hype Williams, 1998)

belly 1998Avant-gard Blaxploitation? Hyper-extended rap video? Music video director Hype Williams’ only big screen feature weaves stunning visual imagery into a rather rote narrative about anti-hero drug dealers slipping into a grizzly criminal underworld for which they’re not appropriately prepared.

Belly’s sensational indulgence in style over substance presents itself in frame one. The film opens with crushed blacks, neon light, glowing eyes, a club scene set to Soul II Soul’s “Back to Life.” Visuals override narrative. They override everything but an emotional reaction to the image itself. We’re left with fleeting moments of serenity and bursts of violence. Often the dialogue isn’t even intelligible – either as a result of the speech patterns of Nas, DMX’s muted gravel tones, the multitude of Jamaican accents – and it doesn’t even matter. Williams trains his camera on experimental visuals coupled with an aggressive hip-hop soundtrack. More than a music video, but less than a feature film.

The intersection of ineptitude, hyper-realism and genius cool. I’ve gone back and forth on this film a couple of times. After my last viewing, I’m back to calling this a near masterpiece of pop-culture auteurism.

belly 1998

Belly is available on Blu-ray, but it could use a Criterion release to juice it’s prestige a bit. 


New Rose Hotel (Abel Ferrara, 1998)

new rose hotel 1998Less a narrative than an experience, a sequence of vignettes told through voyeurism, found footage, security cameras, digital sunsets, and Dutch angles. Challenging in its raw simplicity, but compelling due to the force of images. Ferrara’s ill-received but fearless film deserves a re-evaluation. In many ways, New Rose Hotel shares the same DNA as Hype Williams’ Belly in that it foregrounds the artifice of cinema to make a simplistic story more impactful.

Willem Dafoe plays small. Christopher Walken goes broad. Both men give confident, heartbreaking performances. But their excellence is expected; it’s Asia Argento upon which this whole film hinges. She sells Ferrara’s contorted premise about a pair of long-play corporate schemesters attempting to steal a scientific genius away from his family and employer. She’s the lynchpin, the chanteuse, the bait in this transaction and she delivers her lines with naiveté and guile – the viewer never knows how much she understands about the nature of these shady dealings. Without Argento’s performance the film falls apart in a heap of pretentiousness.

Ferrara wants to convey the duplicity of the image, the ways a filmmaker can manipulate signs and symbols and thereby the audience. This reflects the potency of the William Gibson source material as well as Ferrara’s brash confidence. New Rose Hotel takes the shape of a kinetic three-person chamber drama or one-act play about the male code of honor and female objectification. It’s an enigmatic film that further reveals itself through multiple viewings.

new rose hotel 1998

New Rose Hotel is barely available on DVD, let alone a Blu-ray. A movie with this brand of visual style deserves something better.

Monument Ave. (Ted Demme, 1998)

monument ave 1998Time for a slow jam that slipped under most everyone’s radar. I only caught up with it recently when I went back to watch some 1998 films that lingered in Watchlist purgatory.

Instead of a hyperactive style or an amalgamation of genre (as has been the trend on my Underrated 98 list so far), this low-key Boston mob flick satisfies due to a surprising lack of narrative. Monument Ave. isn’t about double or triple crosses—merely the morality of inaction. Leary gives a strong performance as Bobby O’Grady, a middling member of an Irish neighborhood gang run by Jackie O’Hara (Colm Meaney) who must choose whether or not to act when Jackie kills one of Bobby’s old buddies. Denis Leary’s Hamlet. A strong supporting cast, including Famke Janssen, Billy Crudup and Marin Sheen, props up the comedian’s surprising turn.

Contrary to genre expectations, there’s no scheme. No plot gone wrong. Childhood friends grow up in a rough and tumble neighborhood and eventually become consumed by the violent elements that have always threatened to invade their lives. Ted Demme’s film reminds me of the kind of creative, character-driven dramas that dominated the 1970’s. Monument Ave. appears aimless in ambition, but resonates emotionally due to the weight of O’Grady’s guilt and ultimate release from these shackles.

monument ave 1998

At least Monument Ave. is semi-available on DVD. It’s OOP but still readily available secondhand. It’s one of those movies that will just disappear and few would notice. 

Thursday (Skip Woods, 1998)

thursday 1998 posterThe Pulp Fictioning of the 1990’s continued through the tail end of the decade. The lasting legacy of Pulp Fiction wasn’t just brutal criminals swinging Grade-A overworked dialogue; it was also about the criminal element broaching the everyday. The “Royale with Cheese” effect

In Skip Woods’ Thursday (his only outing as director), Thomas Jane plays Casey Wells, a false everyman, newly married and living as an architect in posh suburbia – albeit with an uncertain nefarious past. When old buddy Aaron Eckhart floats into town, this uncertain past manifests in the form a trunk of heroine, a missing bag of cash and a procession of ne’er-do-wells on his doorstop. All the while, our protagonist must convince a social worker that he fosters an environment fit for adoptive child rearing.

This low-budget gem boasts standout set pieces, including a spectacular opening volley of comedy and carnage where Eckhart shoots up a convenience store over an overpriced cup of coffee. Just when you think the movie has gone sufficiently off the rails, Mickey Rourke shows up as a crooked police officer named Kasarov. The dialogue and surprising direction during the final third make this one of the better Tarantino-lites to come downthe pipe during the latter half of the decade.

thursday 1998

Unfortunately Thursday is only available in a German DVD or a UK Blu-ray release. Apparently Europeans appreciate this movie more than we do. Shame on us. Go region-free, people. It’s the only way to movie. 


Shattered Image (Raul Ruiz, 1998)

shattered image 1998File under “movies I’d completely forgotten about but felt like a really big deal at the time.” Fatter than you’d probably imagine, this file of mine contains a whole slough of a certain kind of movie I devoured in the 1990’s – barely-released indie thrillers. Shattered Image stands out (now that a Letterboxd list of movies from 1998 has jogged my memory) as a film that people loathed upon release. Chilean director Raul Ruiz made this one final attempt at breaking into the American market. Blurbs like “the execution is bad enough to put you off movies for good…” from Edward Guthmann of the San Francisco Chronicle sent him scurrying back to Chile, never to return.

I can’t tell you with any certainty if Ruiz’s Shattered Image functions as an homage or a tongue-in-cheek parody of Hitchcock. Misdirection and confusion seem to be his primary tactics. The film gives the viewer zero footing, and Ruiz flaunts the nonexistent barrier between reality and a De Palma-esque dreamstate. Is Jessie (Anne Parillaud) a ruthless hitwoman or a paranoid schizophrenic on her Jamaican honeymoon? Does Ruiz suggest the existence of a third reality? Is this an atmospheric, obtuse art film or a mangled Hollywood production by an experimental director who found himself at odds with the American system? Does Billy Baldwin have any idea what year it is? How much dialogue can be whispered in one film?

That said, does any of it even matter when Shattered Image proves to be so wildly eccentric and impossible to decipher? Yes and no. This is about the many and varied personalities within us that inhabit the same space. I think. You know what? Forget everything I just said. Just get lost in Shattered Image and see where it takes you.

Shattered Image 1998

Shattered Image is available on an old school Full Frame DVD. An abomination. It’s also available, from what I can tell, on a widescreen DVD that looks exactly like the elder Full Frame.