Reality Bites (1994)

If there’s any one clear enemy that Gen-X kids rallied against in the 90s it was “Phoniness.” It was as if the entire Slacker generation had taken Holden Caulfield’s tirades against “phonies” as gospel instead of mocking the blowhard for his own vapid narcissism, creating a kind of low-effort religious movement that worshipped Authenticity as the main driver of counterculture. Any artist in search of a self-sustaining paycheck was labeled a sell-out. Any bozo who debased themselves by wearing a suit was a corporate clown. Anyone caught caring especially deeply on any topic at all was a sucker & a loser, at least in the eyes of Generation Apathy. That anti-phonies mindset made Gen-X especially difficult to pander to as a movie-going audience, since any studio actually caught putting an effort into marketing to that demographic had already committed their intended audience’s cardinal sin: putting effort into anything at all. So, the few times that Hollywood did openly pander to Gen-X sensibilities mostly produced flops – both critically & financially. While “indie cinema” flourished, Slacker Era studio pictures like Empire Records, Airheads, and Reality Bites were slapped aside as phonies by the Gen-X audience they were actually aimed at, only to gradually gain cult status among younger viewers who foolishly looked up to that generation as The Cool Kids.

Speaking as a foolish Millennial myself, I’m highly susceptible to being charmed by these big-studio attempts at X-tremely 90s Gen-X pandering, which is why I recently gave Reality Bites a shot despite its contemporary critical dismissal. It’s easy to see why this film in particular was such a target for claims of corporate phoniness, while goofier titles like Empire Records & Airheads were merely forgotten as trivialities. It’s just so achingly sincere as a romantic comedy in a way that just does not jive at all with Gen-X apathy politics. Reality Bites tries to have it both ways in “giving voice” to a generation that only wants to eat pizza, watch syndicated television, and smoke weed out of half-crushed soda cans while also committing wholeheartedly to a traditional romantic triangle plot. Because all three participants in that central melodrama are such Apathetic brats, it’s difficult to care at all about who ends up with whom as the story shakes out, which I’m saying even as a product of the Radical Empathy generation that eagerly followed in the Slackers’ footsteps. Reality Bites is terminally phony, but only because it can’t find a proper way to marry genuine heartfelt emotion with the who-cares slackerdom of its target demographic. In the attempt, it amounts to nothing at all, just wasted time.

The one saving grace of this big-studio Slacker facsimile is the charm of its Ultra 90s cast. If nothing else, Winona Ryder is always some baseline level of delightful, apparently even as a privileged brat with no sense of morals, goals, or an internal life. Jeanine Garofalo & Steve Zahn are likewise adorably chummy as her pizza-loving, couch-dwelling roommates, so much so that you wish the movie were solely about that trio’s friendship so you could spend more time in their smoky living room with them, just hanging out. Instead, the film details a romantic rivalry in which a greasy go-nowhere musician (Ethan Hawke) and a yuppie corporate stooge (Ben Stiller) play tug of war with Ryder’s confused heart – a literalized conflict between Authenticity & Phoniness. I’ll spare you the reveal of which undeserving beau she chooses in this review, but know this: the movie would have been vastly improved if it didn’t care about that romantic conflict at all. Reality Bites pretends to be interested in the static ennui of a generation with no sense of ambition or enthusiasm for participating in established social norms, but it quickly bails on that inert navel-gazing to instead dive headfirst into the normiest bullshit I can possibly think of: a potentially flourishing young woman wasting her time on two bonehead men who don’t deserve a second’s pause.

Directed by Ben Stiller around the time when he was producing much more successful Gen-X comedy with The Ben Stiller Show, Reality Bites does make some admirable motions towards actively mocking its own Slacker sensibilities instead of merely pandering to them. Stiller was genius to cast himself as the nexus of this sarcastic, self-effacing humor. As a suited network exec for an MTV-parodying cable channel called In Your Face Television, Stiller positions himself as a money-grubbing goon who literally peddles youth counterculture for cheap payouts. Ryder’s character is an amateur documentarian who interviews her immediate social circle about their post-college ennui as a self-satisfying art project, which Stiller turns around to sell to his network as a slapstick comedy mutation of The Real World. This line of generational parody brilliantly goes one level deeper in the end credits, when Stiller’s network exec bozo turns the love triangle drama that drives the film into a scripted Gen-X soap opera. If Reality Bites were ever going to speak directly to its intended audience, this self-parody would have to have been way more pronounced & exaggerated to mean much of anything. As is, it takes the romantic lives of the privileged brats it lightly ribs very seriously, so unfortunately all that registers is its tragic phoniness as a corporate product.

Aesthetics-wise, there’s a lot to admire here. The film’s soundtrack is peppered with some pure 90s car-cassette gems, including the 5-star Lisa Loeb classic “Stay,” which it popularized with a tie-in music video (sadly, a dead artform). Ryder & Garofalo’s costuming is distinctly College Grad 90s chic, which is a pleasure in itself. However, the movie’s strongest asset is its VHS camcorder-style cinematography meant to mimic Ryder’s D.I.Y. documentary project, a vivid visual texture achieved by a young Emmanuel Lubezki of all people. The thing is, though, that you can get those same camcorder vibes from Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape without having to hang out with total dipshits for 100 minutes. Nothing is good enough to survive the contrived, dispiriting dirge of this film’s love triangle conflict: not Lubezki’s spectacularly Authentic camerawork, not Stiller’s astute Gen-X self-parody, not even Ryder’s consistently stellar on-screen charm. Reality Bites isn’t a total waste of time, but it’s also not much of anything at all. It’s ultimately stuck between two disparate sensibilities—the romantic & the apathetic—and thus ultimately panders to no one. This is one of those cases where the Gen-X kids were right to shrug it off, of which there are many since their collective impulse was to immediately shrug off Everything.

-Brandon Ledet

War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

After Kong: Skull Island, War for the Planet of the Apes is the second time this year I attempted to put my boredom with cinematic war narratives aside to feed my hunger for eccentric creature features. The results were moderately better on this second go. Matt Reeves’s conclusion to his Apes prequel trilogy felt like a sincerity antidote to Skull Island‘s disingenuous SyFy Channel genre film throwback, which was far more conventional than its What If King Kong Fought In The Vietnam War? premise should have allowed. Not only does War for the Planet of the Apes cover similar territory in a more satisfying way; it also adds shades of World War POW camps, the Holocaust, American slavery, and the Malcolm X/Martin Luther King Jr philosophy divide to deepen the context of its Apes vs Humans war for the planet. It takes its wartime primates premise far more seriously than Kong: Skull Island attempts to, yet somehow emerges as a notably better example of summertime blockbuster spectacle, despite the season’s usual penchant for dumb fun. Its superiority to that overpriced B-movie aside, I can’t honestly say much else in praise of War for the Planet of the Apes. It’s an interesting film & a welcome excuse to escape the heat in a dark, air-conditioned room for two hours; but its nature as a straightforward war movie & a CG spectacle franchise cornerstone never allows it to amount to anything more substantial than that.

We rejoin the talking ape Caesar, played by eternal mo-cap prisoner Andy Serkis, as he attempts to maintain peace & order among his primate followers through simple credos like “Apes together strong,” and “Ape no kill ape.” Their plans to live peacefully in the woods are disrupted by a human militia headed by Woody Harrelson, who plays a warmonger who’s seen either Platoon or Full Metal Jacket one too many times in his life. This rogue colonel refuses to accept the apes’ peaceful request to be left alone in the wilderness. He slaughters large numbers from their ranks and eventually imprisons the survivors in an isolated stronghold he converts into a primate labor camp. Caesar and the colonel grimace at each other and trade gruff lines about who started/escalated the war and who they’ve both lost along the way for as long as the movie can put off two inevitabilities: an escape plan hatched by the ape prisoners & an all-out fire fight initiated by the humans. Somewhere during this grudge match two new characters introduce themselves to the fold: a mute child who’s clumsily coded as an archetype of Innocence & a Steve Zahn-esque buffoon played by sub-David Arquette buffoon Steve Zahn. As the war rages on, the developing details of the virus engineered in the first film are gradually revealed, opening the door for a kind of decisive finality to the series. The events of the film are tightly contained to a singular conflict, but dialogue hints that the struggle is linked to a more significant global crisis we never get to see.

I’m not sure that if you swapped out the apes with a more plausible rebel group like, say, Anarchists or Socialists, that I would find that same plot all that interesting, given my general aversion to this dour wartime end of cinema. That’s not the only issue making War for the Planet of the Apes feel like a moderate-at-best success, though. The apes look great; they’re believably animated in an eerie, modern CGI rendering that recalls the Disney-funded majesty of last year’s live action Jungle Book remake. The problem is that kind of CG spectacle isn’t all that interesting in the long run. As realistic as the apes look, they’re still just slightly off in a way that’s more distracting than it likely would have been if their image were more stylized. I’m not sure there was any point during the picture where I wasn’t thinking about the quality of the special effects, which isn’t anywhere near the top of my list of cinematic priorities. That kind of summertime special effects showcase typically comes with a long line of normalizing, Major Studio requirements too. There’s an oddly conspicuous Coca-Cola ad placement involving an abandoned 18-wheeler the camera lingers on for an eternity. The movie opens with a labored text scroll that attempts to walk the audience through the plot points & the “Rise/Dawn” title confusion of its two predecessors. It attempts to head off critics’ readymade puns like “Ape-ocalypse Now” & “The Great Esc-Ape” by making those allusions itself, which feels like a Major Studio brand attempting to control the conversation instead of allowing the film to be its own weird self. The whole ordeal just feels meticulously calculated & restrained.

 Without question, the second entry in the Apes trilogy, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, remains my favorite film in the franchise. There was something oddly wild & unpredictable about that film, which gifted the world one of my all-time favorite action movie images: the ape on horseback simultaneously operating two machine guns. I’m not sure there’s anything to be found in this follow-up that’s half as exciting as that image. Even Woody Harrelson’s character, who’s clearly supposed to echo Brando’s Colonel Kurtz performance from Apocalypse Now, feels fairly run of the mill for a crazed war movie villain. He nonchalantly shaves his head with a straight razor, wears sunglasses at inappropriate times, and eats apple slices off a combat knife; all of that macho posturing feels cinematically overfamiliar. By the time a Jimi Hendrix needle drop finds him listening to Vietnam War era rock alone at his boozy command station I felt as if I had already met this character a thousand times before. It was a beat that made me roll my eyes just as hard as any of Steve Zahn’s attempts to resurrect Pauly Shore humor or his silent little girl companion’s similarly cliché visual representations of Wartime Innocence (complete with tenderly earnest offers of a single flower). If it weren’t for the presence of CG apes in its central roles or the movie’s lengthy, silent stretches of sign language communication, War for the Planet of the Apes wouldn’t feel much different from any number of big budget war movies or grim franchise-closers. It’s competently made and visually impressive. It’s got a strikingly sorrowful brutality to it that helps distinguish it slightly from the other bombastic works of calculated studio bloat floating out there in the summertime blockbuster heat. Still, titles like Dawn or, better yet, Okja are exciting reminders that CG spectacle can be something much more idiosyncratic, more passionate, and more memorable than that. At least Kong: Skull Island is a fresh-on-the-mind counterpoint signaling that it also could’ve been much worse.

-Brandon Ledet

Pop Music Cinema & That Thing You Do! (1996)

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After spilling what most likely already amounts to way too much ink on pro wrestling movies, we here at Swampflix decided to collect all of our reviews & articles about the “sport” on a single page titled Wrestling Cinema. As time has gone on it’s become apparent that we have more than wrestling on our minds. We also like movies about pop music. From Björk to ABBA to KISS, movies about or featuring musicians are apparently a source of fascination for us, so we’re starting a Pop Music Cinema page to give those movies their own home as well. To commemorate the birth of our Pop Music Cinema page, I’d like to revisit one of the most delightful examples of the genre I can remember: 1996’s That Thing You Do!

The first feature film written & directed by America’s goofy uncle, Tom Hanks, That Thing You Do! is remarkable both in its effortless charm and in its perceptive mimicry & satirization of pop music clichés. The only film that’s maybe covered more pop music ground in the twenty years since its release is 2007’s Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. The difference is that Walk Hard, while gust-bustingly funny, is poking fun at the pop music biopic & all of its genre-trappings while That Thing You Do! proudly wears the costume of the pop music biopic, playing some jokes at its expense, but mostly honoring it through homage. It toes a fine line between honoring & making fun, between nostalgia & derision, between parody & the real thing. Tom Hanks wrote & executed a very funny, perceptive script with his first feature, something that he failed to do a second time with his back-to-college midlife crisis comedy Larry Crowne just five years later.

Part of what makes That Thing You Do! work so well is its succinct accuracy. Framed as the biopic of a single American, Beatles-imitating one hit wonder group, the story is more the biopic of every American, Beatles-imitating one hit wonder group. It follows the entire birth, rise, and fall life-cycle of the fictional group The (one hit) Wonders. The film opens with the band writing their signature song & trying to agree on a name for their group. They then win a local talent show that leads to a steady gig at a restaurant near the airport where their fan base swells to the point where they decide it’s time to cut a record. An upstart manager takes an interest in the band, gets their song played on the radio, and books touring gigs that eventually lead to them losing touch with the friends, families, and lovers they leave behind in their small town. The band bombs their first major concert, but lands an incredible record deal anyway and begin to tour with much bigger acts, groups they’ve idolized for years. While on tour their hit song climbs the Billboard charts in the inevitable climbing-the-Billboard-charts montage. They land opportunities to appear in movies & television until their popularity reaches a breaking point where their egos are far too oversized for the band to continue. They then dissolve & separate, the band of their dreams now a pleasant, but distant memory as they assume new identities as studio musicians & has-beens. As Tom Hanks himself says in the film, “It’s a very common tale.”

As cynical of a take on pop music as a business as all that sounds, the film is still remarkably celebratory. There’s an infectious nostalgia for the mic’d handclaps, groovy wardrobes, and shoddy Gidget movies of yesteryear. The hit song at center of the film is legitimately enjoyable, which is a great advantage since it plays at least a dozen times throughout the runtime- the same way you’d expect to hear a hit song repetitively on the radio. The cast (which includes Tom Hanks, Charlize Theron, Liv Tyler, Giovani Ribisi and a brief early glimpse of Bryan Cranston) is thoroughly likeable. Even Steve Zahn, who can grate on me in large doses, is nothing but charming as the world’s only lead guitarist who can’t seem to get laid. His brand of smart-ass comedy is the funniest it’s ever been; the way he sells lines like “A man in a really nice camper wants to put our songs on the radio!” are among the best moments of his entire career. It’s as if the entire cast and, by extension, the film itself borrowed Tom Hanks’ likeability as if it were a pair of shoes. The main protagonist, played by Tom Everett Scoott, borrowed so much that he even eerily looks like he could be Hanks’ offspring.

That Thing You Do!‘s central message seems to be encapsulated in the line “Ain’t no way to keep a band together. Bands come and go.” It’s smart to recognize, however, that when a band is in full glory it can be a magical thing. The ecstatic look on girls’ faces as The Wonders play on television, the excitement musicians feel when meeting their idols & living their dreams, and the inevitably sappy true-love conclusion to the story all make the fleeting, somewhat meaningless success of a pop group seem like the most important thing in the world. That Thing You Do! showed me that you can be critical of how a thing works on a fundamental level while still finding a deep appreciation for its benefits. It also taught me that Tom Hanks can be terrifying when he’s acting mean. It’s not the most important film about pop music ever made, but it is an immensely enjoyable one & it’s one that has a lot to say about what the genre means as an art form. I’m sure as time goes on that we’ll cover many films that have a lot to say about the genre as well. The nature of pop music seems to be be an endlessly fascinating subject for both folks behind the camera and the rest of us here in the audience.

-Brandon Ledet