January-April 1994: The Cruelest Season in Film History

You know what rules about having your own blogs? You can write literally anything you want to! Nobody is demanding a long piece where I analyze every single bad movie released between January 1 and April 30, 1994 (ok and the few good ones.) But I’m here doing it anyway.

Why is this, in my opinion, the pit of American cinema? It’s a weird thesis I know. But it’s one I’ve had for many years. Initially I even thought the whole year was this bad but it’s redeemed by some damn fine films starting in May and ending on actually a really brilliant fall. I can’t slander the whole year based on four months. It’s like saying a whole person is cancer because of a tumor. But like a tumor, we can extract it and focus on it. And this tumor is definitely a cancerous one.

It fascinates me in part because 1994 was the year I was really online as a film fan. I had Entertainment Weekly. I had access to Roger Ebert’s reviews. I started renting my own movies. I kinda began finding my own taste. I wasn’t as adventurous as my brother–I still need to know how he convinced my dad to let him rent Kids at 11–but I found my voice. The thing is, this means I’ve seen a lot of these films. I can’t resist.

The first 1/3 of 1994 fascinates me because it’s basically four months of the worst the film industry has to offer. The worst trends. The worst films everyone loves. The worst people. It’s just wall to wall things that shouldn’t be done. And there’s not much here to actually like either. A few of these films are ok and at least a couple are really strong but I’m intrigued by how few of these films are good. It’s a void.

At least that’s how I remember it. See, part of this for me is about testing my memory. I’ll have an impression. It might not be right. Shouldn’t I actually explore this moment and see if I’m right. So let’s test my thesis. Was this really the worst of times? I’ve got a list. And to be clear, I’m using The Numbers as my schedule to be the most concise.

Oh and yes, there were good art house films here and there but they were very limited and your average moviegoer wasn’t seeing Naked or any of the Trois Couleurs Trilogy. I’m reflecting what you could see at an ordinary multiplex. Here we go.

January:

7th:
The Air Up There: A film about a white basketball coach going to Kenya to recruit a prospect and the culture clash that ensues. And I’m already dead inside from typing that. I’ve known a few Kenyans in my life. Usually tech geeks. The movie chooses a very progressive nation as its setting for a return to darkest Africa plots. There’s a reason you don’t know this.
American Cyborg: Steel Warrior: The last theatrical Cannon film. That’s a real heartbreak to see the last film of my beloved Cannon Films. This isn’t a bad final film. It’s a Boaz Davidson sci-fi film so Cannon went out in true form. But it’s still a dark death knell for the b-movie. The end of one of the greats.
Cabin Boy: Let me say something I hate saying. A cult film does not equal a good film exactly. I like this film. It’s funny. It has great production values. But I get why it’s divisive. It’s weird. It’s a film that marches to its own drum. It’s never going to be big. It’s hard to call it good but I like it

12th:
House Party 3: The black themed films open on Wednesdays rule is the worst rule. I went into this in 1997. Black themed films opened on Wednesday to cut their box office and not top the weekend. That’s more interesting than this not well liked film even among series fans.

14th:
Body Snatchers: Here we have a frustrating situation in that this is a well received, smart, scary film. It made no money because Warner Bros. dumped it. Given that it was a good movie being dumped at Christmas 1993 that got me thinking about this again, why did it happen again? Especially as WB is about to unleash hell. Because I’m thinking about mainstream theaters, this movie which barely released, isn’t a plus until video.
Death Wish V: The Face of Death: Cannon’s epilogue came fast with this film. It’s not technically a Cannon film as it came via Trimark but it was from Menahem Golan’s company and in the Cannon Film Guide vol. 1 it gets a reference. I’m hoping one of the key trends of this spring is clear: Sequels nobody wants. This was a long past its day sequel to a dead series with a barely active star who by 1994 was basically broken due to grief. This didn’t get much attention and tanked at the box office. In fact, this made 1/10th what the next film made.
Iron Will: I saw this twice in theaters. I was a weird kid. But you know what? This is a point against my thesis. It’s pretty good. Not great but the kind of boy’s adventure film we used to get a lot of. It’s got a decent cast. Kevin Spacey is sleazy in it. I miss this genre

19th:
The Fantastic Four: I’m putting this here because this was the planned premiere date of this film but it was of course shelved. And I’ve seen it more than any other Fantastic Four movie. Think about this: I like this more than all but 1-2 films I’ll discuss here.

21st:
Intersection: The adult thriller will die hard this year, immolating in Color of Night. This was a more mature, adult version less about sex and more about psychology. It apparently stinks, building to a twist that’s a punch in the face. I’ll point out Sharon Stone sure was used a lot as a symbol for how much Hollywood hated women for as often as she got cast as misogynistic ice queens. Shame as she’s one of the funniest, smartest women in the business.

26th:
Blink: Another thriller though a murder mystery this time. This genre never died. I don’t mind that. Not remembered though. Michael Apted is one of those directors who, when he wasn’t doing documentaries, really didn’t have any mark. He was considered good but I don’t think I like more than a couple of his films. Nell from 1994 was one though. That’s in December.

28th:
Car 54, Where Are You: If I had a nickel for every musical turned into a non musical with Rosie O’Donnell in the cast that I’ll cover in this article, I’d have two nickels. Not much but it’s weird that it happened twice. Within a week no less.

February

4th:
Ace Ventura: Pet Detective: I wrote this piece to hate on this film. There. I admit it. And I didn’t start hating it as I got older. I hated it as a kid. Like even as a kid the transphobia felt weird. I was at a moment where I was starting to question the conventional wisdom and I didn’t get it here. (I also thought it was just not funny in any way.) The transphobia is irredeemable and puts this film on a list of films that just shouldn’t be in mainstream circulation. Except I think the free market kinda did that anyway. This was a monster hit and kicked off a big year for Jim Carrey, largely sustained by the other two films being fantastic. But do you hear about it now? It’s faintly remembered largely for nostalgia. Yet nobody watches it. I hear a lot about Tommy Boy and Billy Madison but not this. It’s a weird film. It’s probably the most 1994 film aside from Reality Bites but it’s stuck in time. I hate this movie but I don’t think my hate matters now. What matters is this ate that month.
Gunmen: Mario Van Peebles and Christopher Lambert in a movie I’m amazed went to theaters. Like even in 1994 that was barely not a DTV film. And then it happened again in 1995 because we were broken. Only really interesting thing? This was written by Stephen Sommers who went on to a really great career including Deep Rising and The Mummy.
I’ll Do Anything: The most legendary unmusical ever. The musical cut surfaces very rarely, occasionally in screenings or the extremely rare online screening. I checked. It’s not available for bootleg anywhere which is wild when a lot of lost media (see above) is out there. Not a film I think ever worked in any form though.
My Father The Hero: I don’t know why anyone ever thought this was a good idea. This was released by a Disney unit but focuses on things like a girl pretending her father is her boyfriend and him looking like a pedophile. Probably because the actress was :nosebleed: 14 when the movie was shot. Oh and they had to digitally edit her swimsuit not to show as much of her backside in the ads because apparently nobody running this movie realized making it would send them straight to hell. How do you open on the same day as Ace Ventura and not have the moral upper hand over that? This is an abomination.
Romeo is Bleeding: Crime movies were a big deal in 1994. This feels very much like a prototype of films like The Professional (which also starred Gary Oldman) and to a lesser degree Pulp Fiction. It’s forgotten now though.

11th:
Blank Check: If you watch Doug Walker’s review, he plays this film as much weirder than it is. I wish it was that. This was one of only two films written by screenwriting guru Blake Snyder, the other being Stop or My Mom Will Shoot. This is a really good example of the kind of kid movie we won’t get now and I’m fine with not getting. It’s just bad on every level. I saw it at 9 and I STILL don’t have nostalgia for it.
The Getaway: I think this movie only worked if you were excited by the casting of then couple Kim Basinger and Alec Baldwin. This kind of film still circulates. I never like them. A remake of the Sam Peckinpah film, I will say the initial impulse to film Walter Hill’s original script was a good one. But then this got blanded down.
My Girl 2: I saw this in the theater and I didn’t hate it but I found it so inoffensive. Which is bad as I think the original is important. It actually tried to talk about death to kids. This has nowhere to go so it spins its wheels. I’m not shocked star Anna Chlumsky quit acting not long after if this kind of banal tripe was all she got. (Glad she went back though. She’s good.) This is a sequel that doesn’t get you raise not lower the stakes. I’m going to say that again.

18th:
Blue Chips: Here we have a nice exception to the norm. A smart film from director William Friedkin and writer Ron Shelton about college basketball just before the NCAA tournament which in 1994 was legendary in my home state as the Razorbacks won. Look, it’s not all bad and I like that a potent film was given a perfect release.
On Deadly Ground: Bad person Steven Seagal had his only big screen directing job with this film. It’s funny how many actors wanted to be Clint Eastwood yet had no idea that Eastwood directed because he had something to say, not (just) to run the show. This movie is almost funny bad as it’s pure excess. But it’s still bad-bad mostly.
Reality Bites: I feel like I should either like or hate this movie more. Like because it’s set in with exteriors shot in Houston, my hometown then and it’s a great chronicle of the town. Hate because it’s basically Rent and I hate Rent. It’s definitely real and heartfelt. But also I find the main characters up their own asses. Maybe the reason I’m so mixed lies in the decision to make the film a love triangle with the director hiring himself as the third? It’s uneven and unbalanced. Ultimately, any film about artistic vision over everything must be a no.

25th:
8 Seconds: John G. Avildsen delivers the Karate Kid of bull riding. It has its fans in that circuit. Not much elsewhere.
Sugar Hill: You mostly know this one from the image of Wesley Snipes holding a gun crying. An ambitious urban drama at least.

March

4th:
Angie: Oh failed Oscar bait… This is one of several films I know nothing about because the Wikipedia entry is paper thin. I know more about this being a rejected Madonna movie than anything about the film. This was poorly received and grossed 1/3 of an obscene 27 million budget.
The Chase: Houston haunts me as this was shot there. This comes from cult filmmaker Adam Rifkin who I’m realizing I absolutely hate from everything I’ve seen from him. This isn’t well liked but it has a cult following because of musicians in it.
Greedy: Michael J. Fox was never a good movie star and he lucked into one great film. He’s just edgeless. This was directed by Jonathan Lynn, whose career is either up or down but never mid. This is low. Shouldn’t satire have teeth?
Sirens: Not a film I’ve seen and a limited release but I’m putting it here for a few reasons. First, it did better than a lot of bigger releases. It’s very well regarded as a rare sex positive film in the 90s. And the big one. This is the last Hugh Grant film before he broke 5 days later.

9th:
Four Weddings and a Funeral: This is the one great beacon of hope in this article. I love every element here. I’ll watch Grant in anything. I love Richard Curtis’ writing. Mike Newell does romcoms well. It’s a fantastic cast with Andie MacDowell, who I think never got her due, Kristin Scott Thomas, and John Hannah. Not only is this the best film in the article, it was by far and away the biggest grosser worldwide. Now did it deserve the Oscar love? Eh. But it’s good.
The Ref: Don’t be fooled that my thesis is dead based on these few films. Because this is good. A funny film about a hostage taker turned negotiator with a fine cast and strong script. Still weirdly misreleased in March.

11th:
Guarding Tess: Hugh Wilson has one of the most insipid film careers. He directed Police Academy and The First Wives Club (an adaptation I hate for gutting basically ALL the edge of the book.) This was him working with Nicolas Cage and his sitcom comedy won over Cage’s strengths.
The Hudsucker Proxy: I’m not sure I like this one like I should. I respect it but the Coens were a bit too removed from reality here. It has laughs but it’s always been minor for me next to Fargo, which redeemed a much worse season/year. That said I do like it. And it’s good enough to be a positive.
Lightning Jack: I was never going to get Paul Hogan, being born too late to get his comedy and from another country. And based on the box office that’s not an uncommon view.

18th:
Monkey Trouble: It’s a cute film but monkeys aren’t funny. Best point Doug Walker ever made.
Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult: I am fascinated by this film because to a great degree, it works. Leslie Nielsen, George Kennedy, and a quietly scene stealing Priscilla Presley are in peak form here. Fred Ward is perfectly cast as the foe, just serious enough a threat but also plays the joke. The film has some violent gut laughs. But… I mean there’s a horrible transphobic joke. And if that was all I could chalk this film up to 1994. But there’s metatext not born of the film. Anna Nicole Smith’s tragic life is hard not to think of watching this. And then there’s the presence of the man who dominated media for 18 months: O.J. What the hell do I make of him? If you can overlook these things, this is the one sequel this year that belongs next to the other films and a rare great third comedy in a series. The one thudding, awful anti-trans joke aside, I think this still works.
The Paper: I feel like we underrate Ron Howard because of the unfortunate way his worst films get attention such as Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas and The Da Vinci Code and to a lesser extent the good but a bit much A Beautiful Mind. He’s one of the greatest actor directors going though. Similarly David Koepp, this film’s cowriter, doesn’t get his due as he’s thought of for films like Kingdom of the Crystal Skull not this personal film. This is a gem.

23rd:
Above the Rim: Hey, a black themed film on a Wednesday. I just…I’ll point these out every time to stress how racist this practice was. This was a Tupac Shakur film. That dude would have been so much bigger if he’d lived. Had everything going for him.

25th:
D2: The Mighty Ducks: If you have nostalgia, leave this entry. OK? This movie was the first time it truly sunk in how bad a sequel could be. Oh I think I was ok with it when I saw it in the undemanding way 10 year olds were. But it was the first time I felt like something was off on a second film and by the third I got it. I think it stems from how nakedly contemptuous this movie is of the first film. Literally everything in the first film is reset for no reason other than to retell it but in California. There’s absolutely no progress. And all the character and edge is gone. There’s no point to Emilio Estevez returning and he has no real plot to the point I admire the third film writing him out and making moving on the entire purpose of the film. This is the why I hate sequels like this. It abuses any warmth you have for the first film for mercenary reasons. The third film though? Really do admire it.

30th:
Jimmy Hollywood: Barry Levinson tried to rebound from Toys with another film he wrote and directed, which really kinda makes me wonder how he wrote Diner and Tin Men because this is a million miles from those fine films in quality. It feels like his Oscar ate all the air in his career though he still had Wag the Dog and Liberty Heights ahead. Also What Just Happened and Man of the Year.
Major League II: It feels weird to me that I’ve had to set afire a lot of movies I actually liked originally. Like of these, the only one I actively loathed in 1994 was Ace Ventura. But the point is to look at what I loved and hold it to account. I hadn’t seen Major League when I saw this. If I had? I wouldn’t accept this heavily watered down, much weaker sequel that suffers from the theme of the spring: Lower stakes. The first film had the stakes of keeping the team alive. This? Like D2 it’s about becoming a victim of your own success. Funny how that’s the plot of so many sequels because it’s all the creators are thinking about. And I’m sorry but those are far lower stakes to the audience. So when you not only lower the stakes and depersonalize the plot but in an utterly baffling decision make a PG sequel to an R-rated film, who are you for?
Thumbelina: There is a story that this got higher test screening ratings when the Disney logo was on this. I believe that. I also don’t think this film is an underrated gem. I think Don Bluth has made some important films as an animator. And none after 1989. After All Dogs Go To Heaven he’s defined by just keeping the lights on. This is a soulless bit of hackwork. But I get it. Trying to keep the lights on.

April:

1st:
Clifford: This movie has gotten a reevaluation in recent years with several warm reviews released after the death of Charles Grodin. WHY? I think this is one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. It’s built on Martin Short playing a child and, well, I shouldn’t be gesturing to Orphan: First Kill as doing anything better even if that did kinda turn out awesome. It’s agonizingly unfunny despite Grodin trying. It’s an attempt at a black comedy that’s hopelessly neutered. This movie is only not the pit of the year because it’s not completely morally broken. But it’s mostly morally broken.

8th:
Holy Matrimony: Back to completely morally broken. I hate as a giant TOS fan having to run down a film directed by Leonard Nimoy but this movie is a middle finger to the Hutterite community. Like the very hook of the film, a levirate marriage where a widow marries her husband’s brother, isn’t even a practice in that community. I liked this as a kid but trying to watch clips made me sick. Seriously, why make a movie mocking a very respectable community?
Leprechaun 2: It’s sad that the needle even for a second spikes up. But hey, the Leprechaun series, well it’s horrible and unwatchable. It’s so bad. But this was a genuine b-movie, the last in the series to play theaters. I like the idea.
Threesome: A film with an actually accurate title as the film does lead up to a sexual encounter between two men and a woman from an openly gay director and a plot that handles things realistically judging by the synopsis I read. :sigh: This really didn’t get good reviews aside from Roger Ebert. It’s from the wildly underrated Andrew Fleming whose hits include Dick and The Craft while Hamlet 2 and The In-Laws were bombs that dammit I loved. I suspect I’d vibe with this.

13:
Serial Mom: John Waters is his own thing. That said, yeah this is lesser Waters. Too polished. Too on the nose. Kind of a sign his inspiration was drained I fear.

15th:
Cops and Robbersons: This movie came out when Chevy Chase was dead in the water. I haven’t seen it. I’ll say this. To me, Chase just isn’t funny. Oh, he was great on Community where the joke was on him. But I don’t think I ever got his appeal in his prime. Too smug.
Surviving the Game: Another take on The Most Dangerous Game. Coming from a black director, the great Ernest Dickerson, and starring prominent black actors including Ice-T and Charles S. Dutton, I can respect the decision to put the focus on race and class here. Not greatly reviewed but one I’ve actually seen and I think it’s at least a nice sleeper.
White Fang 2: Myth of the White Wolf: One thing I want to stress is how much loosely connected sequels stink. The only connection this has to the fine 1991 film is the wolf and a very phoned in vocal cameo by Ethan Hawke who was vocally done with this kind of film. Otherwise this could be any franchise. This was the last film I saw at my beloved North Oaks 6 and it hurts me THIS is how I ended that theater. It’s not ghastly, even ok, but it’s using a brand name to launder mediocrity.

22nd:
Bad Girls: The western got the inevitable “ok but what if women starred” take. This one has toxic buzz and all I had t do was read the Wikipedia entry to see the plot involves four former prostitutes (alarm) on the run and that the woman fired to direct was fired (alarm) and replaced by a man (alarm so loud it shatters time and space) and the script that the cast liked was rewritten to be an action movie (quieter alarm but like screw you.)
Brainscan: Do you realize this is the only original horror movie on this list? The genre was just dead in 1994 though it yielded New Nightmare at year’s end. This is pretty hated. A virtual reality exploitation film with a giant copout ending. No wonder horror was dead. Only notable: The first produced script by Andrew Kevin Walker who was waiting to get his script for Seven filmed.
Chasers: I remember nothing about this and looking at the plot synopsis ad cast I don’t know why this exists.
The Inkwell: I don’t know anything about this either. I do notice that the director, Matty Rich, apparently burnt every bridge in town. It’s not a good sign when Spike Lee, who has earned his arrogance and rage I stress, calls you out for your ignorance. Apparently he boasted he knew nothing about how to make a film which enraged the very educated Lee. Rich never made another film after this. I know that’s irrelevant but I found it interesting.

29th:
The Favor: Like Clifford and Car 54, Where Are You, this was shelved due to Orion collapsing and finally spat out in 1994. The fact that there were three dumped films in 1994 says a lot I think. This was just to early to catch the buzz for Brad Pitt.
No Escape: We have a film set in 2022! It’s about a future where prisons are run by corporations. :closes the entry, walks outside, cries: The plot involves a man sent to the worst after a disastrous situation in Benghazi. :stays outside and screams: This has its fans and it got Martin Campbell on GoldenEye.
PCU: This looked bad. I heard it is indeed bad. No movie about how bad political correctness is can be good.
When a Man Loves a Woman: We’re ending on two weirdly up notes. This is widely considered one of the better films about addiction. Great cast. Script by Al Franken and the sludge king Ronald Bass but apparently Franken’s experiences getting sober override it. Really a well received film.
With Honors: Mostly negative reviews and I’ve never seen it. But I ask. After all we’ve seen in this entry, is ending on a Brendan Fraser/Joe Pesci bit of treacle the worst note? I think that’s fine. Because at least nobody reacted with vomiting because they saw the wrong genitals.

As I look back at the 4000 words I wrote on these four months, I’m left with a thought. I was right. I was absolutely right and I’m mad at how right I was. And I’m glad I have this space to analyze the trends I see here.

But first let me at least be briefly optimistic. There was diversity of fare at theaters. Romantic comedies are hard to come by now in theaters but there were a few of them and of those, um, one was a hit. There were lower budget action movies. There were goofy comedies. There were kids films that didn’t rely on effects. I wish that was still common.

OK, now to knock some heads. First off, I obviously hated the sequels. The amount of lazy franchise work on display here is frustrating. And if I’d kept going another week I would have hit 3 Ninjas Kick Back which, due to a distribution error was the third film in the series and the second released. Movies like Major League II and My Girl 2 only seemed to taint the good will their originals had though time has forgotten them while the original stands. I think a lot of these sequels frustrate me because they all seemed so excited to reopen films that were genuinely over. They were lazy uses of brand.

But it’s not like the original films were much less lazy. A lot of films this season coasted on our love of stars but I’m struck by how almost one of these actors could open a film now because frankly they weren’t really the kinds of stars to make you see a film. Nicolas Cage? Yeah he’s literally done that this year for me. But after him the biggest name I see is Steven Seagal. Ok and Reality Bites was onto something with Hawke who just had a hit. But after that, you’ve got a lot of hoping we like Charlie Sheen. And these were terrible star vehicles! No wonder we created Jim Carrey and Hugh Grant.

It’s frustrating as a comedy fan but I’m fascinated by how many there are and how bad they are. Sure, Four Weddings and a Funeral is an all timer but Richard Curtis is one of my writing idols. I also love The Ref but again, it’s cowritten by the great Richard LaGravanese. But after that and The Paper (by the great David Koepp), it’s a dark time and I think that’s because the writing is so bad by people who don’t have great films ahead. So many of these films just had thin hooks to desperately try to sell a film on and when you’re banking on charmless leads you have nothing.

I noted the lack of horror. It really hits me how vital horror is in shaking a season like this up. The next year gave us Demon Knight, Tales From the Hood and Candyman 2 in wide release. The lack of darkness from good scary movies really makes this season seem flavorless. It needed something to wake people up and Cops and Robbersons ain’t it.

That’s just it. There was a flavor of blandness that ran through everything. Most films were a step or two off that median with the bad films really going off and the good ones not going far enough. There’s this self satisfied smugness that dominates the 90s. I like 1995’s spring and yeah, I’ll probably cover it as an exception at some point, but 1996-1998 are wastelands with the same flavor. I think 1999 shone because we finally shook it off.

When everything is so bland and uninteresting, no wonder Ace Ventura was so big. It was aggressively something. Not good mind you. But it had a voice. It had a tone. And that’s something I get.

What I’m left with is not only confirmation of my theory but frankly optimism for more interesting art getting made. This year I’ve gotten gems like Fresh and No Exit on streaming while in theaters I’ve seen films like The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. I don’t feel like things have been that bad in the end.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s