When we last left our heroes, they had just finished their first year of cinematic truancy with Quentin Tarantino’s 3rd film- Jackie Brown! Christmas break ended and they came back to school with a fresh new year and a fresh new look at life. Free period was no longer a stunt – it was a lifestyle. The risk of being caught was almost as addictive as the lure of the cinema, but with the heightened thrill also came the heightened consequence. Truancy laws were being enforced more thoroughly in our little suburb, so we had to be clever. There was no wiggle room for carelessness. If you wanted to play, you had to commit. There was no backing out or calling it quits. With the roster of films in 1998 you had to be all in. The first film that we saw in the year of our lord- 1998, was a game changer for us, although it took a little more work to see.
In 1998, we only knew Dave Chappelle from ROBIN HOOD: MEN IN TIGHTS. I had seen his set on a Young Comedians special where he talked about Wonder Woman’s Lasso of Truth, which was hysterical to a 17 year old, so I was sold on this film. The big draw for us was that it was a stoner movie, and we were all fans of Cheech and Chong, even though we had never partaken of the reefer ourselves at that point. We met in the school parking lot for free period and made our way to the box office. However, our normal connection wasn’t there. Instead we had to deal with a middle aged woman who carded us immediately. Funny she didn’t ask us about school, but busted our 16 year old compatriot for being underaged to see an R Rated film. With no ride back and taking a risk of getting caught by truant officers, we divided and conquered. Two of our group bought tickets to Half Baked, while my underaged friend and I got..
“Two tickets to SPICE WORLD please.”- In one door, out the other, and into Half Baked.
The film starts off like a John Singleton movie, with a group of young boys who are about to embark on an experience that will push them into manhood. But instead of seeing a dead body in Compton, they smoke a joint and have a euphoric experience in a New York City Bodega, where candy bars are the size of surf boards and Jerry Garcia plays inside your skull. They grow up to be a group of slackers in a state of arrested development whose nightly ritual consists of smoking weed and spending more on junk food than they do on rent. They consist of Thurgood Jenkins (Chappelle), Kenny (Harland Williams), Brian (Jim Breur) and Scarface (Guillermo Diaz, who has the most quotable lines in my opinion.) After Kenny accidentally kills a police horse by feeding it candy (It’s a DIABETIC!!), he gets sent down the river and risks spending his life in jail if the boys can’t raise $100,000 to get him out. Being slackers, the only thing they can think of is to sell the weed that Thurgood can get from his work, as he is a janitor in a medical research building. Can they pull it off, or is Kenny doomed to a life in jail where inmates by the name of Nasty Nate and the Squirrel Master fight over his “sweet virgin ass”?
Even with some jokes going over our heads, I can tell you that Chappelle made a fan for life out of me that day. The fact that it bombed at the box office made it even better, as it remained a cult favorite for years, and was just the drive Chappelle needed to create what’s potentially the greatest sketch comedy show ever made.
The next few outings were quite enjoyable, what with DEEP RISING, THE WEDDING SINGER (which I later got to see with my first serious High School Girlfriend and had my first movie make-out session..), and two Neo Noir favorites of mine, PALMETTO with Woody Harrelson and ZERO EFFECT, an underseen and underappreciated black comedy with Ben Stiller and featuring Bill Pullman’s best ever performance. But nothing could prepare us for what was coming…
DARK CITY was a mystery to us. With very little marketing and a trailer that made less sense than the movie itself, all we knew about it was that it was a sci-fi/noir film directed by THE CROW’S Alex Proyas and starring the girl from Labyrinth. We took a bigger risk with this one, having to drive to the artsy theater 30 miles away. This would mean missing the whole last half of school, not just free period. Trips like these were rare and risky, so this film had better been worth it. The lights dimmed, and after the forgettable art house trailers played (what does a 17 year care about a movie called A PRICE ABOVE RUBIES, and who the fuck is Renee Zellweger?), the opening credits rolled on the first serious MIND-FUCK of my young life. A whole year before THE MATRIX, this film made me question existence, humanity, love, and why Kiefer Sutherland used a Peter Lorre accent?
The story begins with a man named John (Rufus Sewell) waking up in a bathtub. He has no memory of who he is or why he’s there, but he’s immediately on the run as he is suspected of being a serial murderer. He is also being pursued by a group of men in long black coats and wide brimmed hats called “Strangers”, who seem to be other worldly beings that can “tune”, a term for using telekinesis to alter their surroundings and change the structure of the environment. Once they realize that John has the ability to tune as well, he becomes public enemy number one, putting everyone in his life, including his wife Emma (played by a childhood crush of mine, Jennifer Connelly) in danger. His only source of help seems to be a crazed and neurotic scientist named Dr. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland in a truly bonkers performance) who may or not be looking out for John’s best interest. What will be come of him, and what world are we really living in?
Over 20 years later, this film still packs a punch. Even having been altered by the studio before it’s release (a director’s cut has since been released and is superior) the film still packs a wallop, both visually and mentally. Similar to films like POSSESSION (1980) and 2001 (1968), you could spend hours discussing it and never even scratch the surface of what it truly means. Never the less, we tried and failed to make sense of it, resulting in multiple viewings. All I can say is have a good time at SHELL BEACH.
The hits kept coming over the next few months. BIG LEBOWSKI made and impression on the world (a decade after it’s release), THE PLAYERS CLUB showed us that Ice Cube was more than just a rapper who got lucky with FRIDAY, and SUICIDE KINGS became one of our most quoted and re-watched films of the year.
As the school year came to an end, the film that we were all most excited to see was nearing its release. The last week of school would be an easy one to miss, what with all the teachers and truancy guards wrapping up for the summer. But…. we had a problem. Two of the kids in our group were Latter Day Saints, you know, the Mormons. One of them had gotten a sudden change in conscience and told his dad. Oddly, his parents were not as upset about free period as they were that we had been going to see R rated films, and grounded him from any activities other than school. How crazy is that? It didn’t change my plans, I was going hell or high water, but the group was sympathetic to our fellow soldier’s plight. If we couldn’t get him out of school to see the last film of the year, how were we going to do it?
So, in the LDS faith, men (boys) of the age of 19 are expected to spend two years of their life serving a religious “mission” where they spread the word of their gospels to those who haven’t heard of it (must be harder these days with the internet and such..). Now at this time most of us were 17 and 18, so many people that we knew were getting prepared to go on their spiritual journeys.
“How many of you own a suit and tie?” I asked my buddies.
One did, as he went to church with his family, but the other three of us secular assholes did not. We spent that afternoon at the thrift store trying on suits, ties, and fancy shoes. If it helps, you can play a cheesy song from a “buying clothes” montage from a romantic comedy if it helps set the tone. Once we secured the clothes, it was back to school to use their computer lab. With a scanned picture of some dude in the yearbook, we created a masterpiece. A perfectly constructed invitation, which we presented to our friends dad bright and early that Sunday morning.
“You are cordially invited to the Mission Farewell of Brother Preston Smith” our friends dad read aloud. “Service will be held from 12 p.m. til 4 p.m. with refreshments served after at the Smith home.”
He looked at us, already in our “church” clothes suspiciously.
“You just got this today?” he asked.
“Friday!” I chirped quickly to avoid further suspicion. “We didn’t think you’d let him go because of him being grounded, but we’re not gonna see Preston for two years, so we thought we’d take a shot.”
To this day I don’t know if our friend’s dad knew I was full of shit, or if he just decided to be cool for once in his life. Either way, it worked. 20 minutes later we were on our hour drive to the only theater in the state of Utah playing the film we had been waiting to see. If we had missed this chance, I probably would have joined the Mormon church and left the world for two years. That’s how important it was.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a beast with with many heads. Goddamn if I was a clerk at Blockbuster trying to figure out what category to put this in (they put it in comedy by the way…). Terry Gilliam’s nightmarish and psychedelic masterpiece was totally trashed by critics and ignored by theatergoers upon it’s release. When we saw it, we were the only ones in the theater… on a Sunday. Starring Johnny Depp, cast against type as the balding, unsexy Rauol Duke (alter ego of the story’s writer Hunter S. Thompson), and an up and coming actor named Benicio Del Toro as Dr. Gonzo, a metaphor for his real life attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta. Taking us through their demented and drug addled journey through Las Vegas, Gilliam and crew’s mission is to hurt us, make us sick and get us begging for more. From the tour de force performances from Depp and Del Toro to the kinetic camera work, there is nothing out there like it. Originally to be directed by Repo Man’s Alex Cox, many said this book, like Confederacy of Dunces, was unfilmable, so it was a perfect project for certified madman Gilliam to tackle. Did he succeed? Fans of the film say yes, as it has gained a massive cult following over the years, and has turned Hunter S. Thompson into a pop culture icon, even for those that had never read any of his works.
We knew nothing of Thompson in high school, but this film changed that. It changed a lot of things. We finished the school year off with a bang, and the Summer brought some great films too. 1999 would bring our Senior Year, and in my opinion, the greatest year for cinema in my lifetime.
But that’s another story.