Our review of Empire Records (1995) (Blu-ray), published April 24th, 2015, is also available.
Open 'til midnight
Was there really a time when music acts like the Gin Blossoms and Toad the Wet Sprocket were actually cool? Wasn't that just yesterday?!? Ah, how time flies when you're living in the middle of the 1990s. Along with a spate of other generation X movies (such as Cameron Crowe's Singles and Reality Bites) came the 1995 musical…err, I mean comedy, Empire Records. The film is probably most notable for featuring a gaggle of then up and comers, including Liv Tyler (Armageddon, Stealing Beauty), Robin Tunney (Supernova, Montana), Rene Zellweger (Chicago, Down With Love), and Ethan Embry (Can't Hardly Wait, Dutch), among others. Originally released in the early days of DVD, the movie is back in the digital format for a second spin with Empire Records: Remix! Special Fan Edition care of Warner Home Entertainment.
Facts of the Case
Empire Records spouts off about the evils of stores like Virgin Records and Tower. At the same time it's a comedy about the relationships between co-workers, each with their own set of problems and issues. At Empire Records (est. 1959), the biggest problem to date is the fact that Lucas (Rory Cochrane, Hart's War) took the closing night's till and blew it on one large gamble in Atlantic City. His boss Joe (Anthony LaPaglia, Analyze That) is understandably peeved. An even more crucial plot point is that Empire Records is in dire straits (pun intended) of being turned into a Music Town store where the employees can't dance in the aisles, wear revealing clothing, or sport tattoos and piercing. This doesn't bode well for the employees at Empire, since they all fit into one of those three categories. Speaking of employees, here's a rundown of the characters and the situations: Corey (Tyler) is a level headed girl who's just been accepted to Harvard who is being secretly wooed by the head-over-heels A,J. (Johnny Witworth, Valentine). Gina (Zellwegler) is a promiscuous tramp who hasn't been able to muster the courage to audition for a singer in a band. Deb (Tunney) is a cynical Goth-like girl who has decided to shave her head (coming right on the heels of a suicide attempt with a razor blade). Mark (Embry) is a spastic guy who catches a shoplifter in the act (Brandon Sexton III) and…well, is just an all around goof. In the span of a day in the life of Empire Records, the crew will find strength in each other, comedy in the most unlikely of places (as when a once teen idol shows up for a signing), and lots of jammin' music!
Though I'd never seen Empire Records, it's a movie that reminds me of my college years (specifically, Iowa State…not that you really give a flying fart). I recall seeing the cover of the CD in almost every music store, those perky Zellweger lips and long Tyler legs practically leaping off the cover. And yet…I never saw the movie. I never rented it, never saw it at a party, or even gave much thought if it'd be good or not. Then I heard about this new special edition and thought "well, if they're doing a second DVD edition it must be some kind of mega cult classic!"
That, my friends, is what we call flawed thinking.
I know that there must be a lot of fans of Empire Records out there, but I must ask: why? What makes this movie so special? Clearly it can't be for the comedy—the jokes and laughs are minimal at best, inducing fewer chuckles than some of the worst Rob Schneider features. None of the characters are truly memorable or endearing—a few are likable, but that's about it. So, I ask again: why was this movie so deserving of a new DVD edition?
Empire Records has one of those adorable little plots where everyone has a problem, and by the end they're all resolved in a nice, orderly fashion. One character pines for another? Don't worry, they'll find each other by the end. The record store's in jeopardy? Don't panic! They'll raise the money somehow by the jamming conclusion! And please, don't write me saying I've spoiled the movie—if you can't spot all these clichéd ideas from a mile away, you must be living in an Amish community somewhere in Ohio. The movie is crammed with bland plot threads and even worse characters (except for Cochrane, which will be explained below).
Continuing on with my cranky criticism, I found the most glaring problem to be the lack of a truly distinguishable cast. Remember when '80s master John Hughes used to populate his teen movies with memorable characters and actors? It's as if that has all but vanished in a movie like Empire Records. Rene Zellweger, Liv Tyler, and the rest of the cast are disposable folks without much in the way of depth or personality. The only three truly memorable actors are the hyper Ethan Embry as an employee who appears to be on a constant sugar high, Maxwell Caulfield as an egotistic has been teen idol, and Rory Cochrane as a cynical, funny teen who seems to be the only one in the film who has something interesting to say. If I have any reason of recommending this movie—which I really don't—it would be for Cochrane's sharp delivery of mediocre dialogue.
I'm not above saying that Empire Records could have just caught me on a bad review day. It's altogether possible that in some alternate universe I'm laughing my ass off on my couch, excited about the possibility of sharing this newfound gem with my friends. As it stands, I just wasn't thrilled with Empire Records—rent the far funnier John Cusack / Jack Black flick High Fidelity if you want to really laugh at the hijinks of record store workers.
Empire Records: Remix! Special Fan Edition is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. I don't know a lot about the previous DVD's transfer, so I won't comment on it. As for this image, the colors and black levels were all solid and well defined. Flesh tones are represented accurately without any edge enhancement, edge halos, or dirt marring the image. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised with how nice Empire Records looked in this brand spanking new DVD edition.
The soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround in English. I'm not sure, though I'm guessing this is most likely the same mix as the previous incarnation. Overall this is a fine mix for the film it's supporting—there aren't a lot of directional effects or surround sounds to be found here, though the music is well spread throughout the channels (ah, there's nothing like a song titled "Saddam a Go-Go" to get your blood pumping). The mix is clear of excessive hiss or distortion. Also included on this disc are English, Spanish, and French subtitles.
The head-scratching part of this disc is the supplemental materials. Empire Records: Remix! Special Fan Edition sounds like it'd be jam packed with extra features. Alas, it's only got a few things going for it. The meatiest of the bonus materials are four deleted scenes shown in a rough looking 2.35:1 non-anamorphic widescreen presentation. None of these are especially impressive, though they do give a little more insight into Max Caulfield's character, the egotistic Rex. Fans will be thrilled to have these on this disc—for the rest of us, it's all ho-hum stuff.
Rounding out the supplements (yes, that's about it for the substantial stuff) are three music videos (two of them by the heavy metal and heavily costumed Gwar), a theatrical trailer for the film, and some cast and crew information on the director and principle leads.
There's a fan base out there for everything, and I'm sure that Empire Records is no different. Though I wasn't crazy about it, fans of Zellweger, Tyler, and Caulfield (oh, he was a dream in Grease 2!) will eat this new DVD edition up. Party on, Wayne!
Empire Records: Remix! Special Fan Edition is found guilty of being a lackluster disc (when it comes to extras) and a bland teenage romp through a record store.
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