Mike Binder might not quite be a household name, but he's had a varied and interesting career on both sides of the camera. In my early days as a movie theater projectionist, his name caught my eye as the director of two movies released within a few months of each other which Kino has now brought together on one Blu-Ray disc through its new licensing deal with Disney's Touchstone Pictures.
The first is Crossing the Bridge, released in September 1992 which was a typically ‘dead' month for theatrical releases for a long time as remaining summer blockbusters finished playing out and studios saved their bigger releases for around Thanksgiving. This has changed a bit since then but is still pretty much the pattern. I saw the trailer for this many times, but the theater I worked at never actually played the movie and I never got around to seeing it until now. It interested me because it's one of the first movies I recall that looks back retroactively at the 1970s, a decade I'm just old enough to remember but wish I could have experienced more of. In the year 1975, Mort (Josh Charles) is 21 but still living at home in Detroit with his parents without much of a future, hanging onto his high school glory days with buddies Danny (Stephen Baldwin) and Tim (Jason Gedrick) who are in the same boat. (Charles and Baldwin appeared again together in 1994's Threesome.) During high school the three of them acquired a beat-up car they named "The War Wagon" and never formally registered it to any of them, which they now still use for cruising around town and sometimes across the bridge of the movie's title (the Ambassador Bridge, which I remember travelling across one time back in 1984) to Canada to visit a strip club famous for serving beer to underage patrons.
One day while hanging around town getting stoned with friends, a pre-"Friends" David Schwimmer mentions that they could have a chance to make some good money smuggling drugs across the Canadian border, since they often go across it for fun already. This becomes the movie's big event, though they don't get around to carrying this out until the movie's final act. As they contemplate doing this, the running time is filled with a number of episodes that don't carry the story along much but simply showcase the characters and time period. Each of the three leads runs into conflict with their families, and they also cross paths with former school peers who are on a better path to success than them. The production doesn't overdo the 70s references, but there are plenty of views of 8-track tapes (which always makes me smile) and even one of those plastic sunflowers which I saw many of back then but they all seemed to have disappeared by 1980. Unfortunately they do let a few elements of later years creep into the frame, one thing I can never help looking for in movies that take place in the past. One of the most obvious is in the frame below, where I'll present another game of spot the error. Again, the title card at the beginning clearly states the time is 1975, and the shot following this is a close up of the April 18, 1975 date on the letter he's looking at.
Still, Crossing the Bridge is enjoyable for the most part, with plenty of humor and drama. Just a few months after its release in spring 1993, another relatively ‘dead' time for theatrical releases, Binder's Indian Summer hit screens. My theater did play this one so I'm quite familiar with it, though I've never thought very much of it since then. It's certainly not a movie I ever expected to have on Blu-Ray, but fate has now brought me two Blu-Ray discs of it as I had first picked up Mill Creek's release at Dollar Tree as I could not resist that price (I've since gotten more discriminatory even for a buck), and it's now shown up again on this disc as the price of admission for finally getting to see Crossing the Bridge which makes its Blu-Ray debut here.
Indian Summer is a rather light-hearted ensemble comedy where childhood friends reunite at a summer camp they attended 20 or so years ago. Head counselor "Unca Lou" (Alan Arkin) invites them to come up after that summer's group of campers have left, wanting to share a week with those from its "golden age" before closing the camp down for good. Among the lucky campers are cousins Brad and Matthew Berman (Kevin Pollack and Vincent Spano), who are running a clothing company together but aren't getting along too great, a rich guy (Matt Craven) who brings along his hot young fiancé (Father of the Bride's Kimberly Williams) and for some reason, the kid who got sent home early one summer (Bill Paxton). They play it out mostly like a regular time at camp, with guys sleeping in one cabin and girls in the other. A bit of silent movie style physical comedy comes from none other than Sam Raimi, who plays the camp's maintenance man acting more socially awkward than creepy, hardly saying more than a few words through the whole movie. No, there is no deranged killer, monster or anything else out in the woods coming after them, they're just having a good time other than a few interpersonal conflicts for dramatic effect (you can see where the rich guy's marriage is heading pretty quickly.) This movie also features what was likely the first on-screen use of the word "shrek", years before that series of animated movies using that as its title- here it's meant as ongoing practical jokes played on fellow campers in their sleep. (Pollack proclaims himself the "Shrek King" but later wakes up with his bed hoisted several feet above the ground.)
The thing I've always had with this movie is that the story is certainly a good idea, but we simply don't know enough about these people to really care about them. It feels like barging in on a reunion of old friends when you never knew any of them until now. While the opening credits have a brief flashback and then quickly introduce the characters in present day as they head back to camp, that's not nearly enough of a setup. Making the movie twice as long with the first half showing them as kids attending camp might have worked out better- or at least making this a decades-later sequel to a summer-camp comedy like Meatballs where everyone comes back older and wiser. As it is, the characters reminisce about their younger days and there's a few more brief flashback scenes, but it still feels like something's missing. 25 years hasn't changed my opinion much- the theatrical audiences I projected this to were never very large, since then through the magic of home video it's gained a bit more of a following mainly amongst people who have actually been to summer camp. I guess my weakness is that I never did get that experience and didn't really want to at the time, though now I feel more like l missed out on something. At least I got to experience college dorm life for a year- a reunion of that sort would make for a good movie.
Crossing the Bridge making its hi-def debut is framed properly at 1.85. Focus appears a bit soft on purpose, but the picture is still nicely detailed and looking like a properly projected film print with no digital tweaking applied. The color scheme is cold for the most part, reflecting the tone of the events as well as the general weather in Michigan.
Indian Summer on the other hand, shot in 2.35, has a very warm tone to its colors. Having projected this on 35mm it certainly looks true to that here, with some shots not quite in perfect focus which is a common artifact of anamorphic photography (something which sometimes had me too eager to tweak the focus knobs without calling attention to it onscreen.) I compared this disc with the previous Mill Creek edition (which I already thought looked very good) and didn't see any dramatic differences, but can't say for sure if this is the exact same transfer or not.
Both films retain their 2-channel matrixed Dolby Stereo mixes encoded in DTS Master Audio. Crossing the Bridge is more music-heavy, while Indian Summer focuses more on ambient sounds such birds, wind and the lake. Dialogue is decent in both, and English subtitles are included which weren't on the Mill Creek disc of Indian Summer. I checked them out during Crossing the Bridge and at least on that movie they're done rather sloppily, with numerous typos and mis-interpreted song lyrics.
Kino has shot a new 20-minute interview with Mike Binder titled "The Bridge to Camp Tamakwa" for this disc, which makes for a good intermission between the two movies as the first was new to me and the second I'd seen already a few times. He provides some interesting info on both movies, saying that they were both drawn from his real-life experiences and in fact the camp depicted in Indian Summer actually was and still is a real summer camp that he, Sam Raimi and a number of other famous people went to as kids. He also states that a fault with that movie is that he wanted to have its soundtrack be far more music-heavy than it was, but the producers didn't want to spend a lot of money on licensing.
The theatrical trailer for Crossing the Bridge in 4x3 standard-def (looking to be open-matte) is included and is just as I remember it. Indian Summer however lists a "trailer" that turns out to only be a minute-long clip from the movie which appears to have been done for Vudu and other on-line movie rental services- it's in 4x3 and quite low resolution. I remember the trailer for that having a cheesy song with "I wanna go back" lyrics and a shot of Alan Arkin playing fiddle by the lake which wasn't used in the final movie, alas I can't even find it online right now.
These two so-so movies make for a good double feature, showing what one director can accomplish in a few months' time. While neither one is perfect, each has its moments and the insight from Binder provides a good context looking at them 25 years later.