Category Archives: 80’s Movies

The Gig (1985)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Band’s first paid engagement.

Marty (Warren Rogers) works as a used car salesman during the day, but in the evening he gets together with 5 other middle-aged male friends and takes part in a Dixie style jazz band. For 15 years they’ve been doing this until they get an offer with pay to play at the Catskills for two weeks. Marty is initially quite excited, but the others have family and job obligations and aren’t sure if they can do it. He’s finally able to get 4 of them to agree, but with one bowing out due to surgery is forced to add in a professional bass player named Marshall (Cleavon Little) who is talented, but also arrogant and opinionated. Once they finally arrive at the location they find their living quarters to be small and cramped and the resort owner (Joe Silver) to be overbearing making them wish they hadn’t come and  leads to the group’s unraveling.

The film, which was written and directed by Frank D. Gilroy, takes a realistic view of middle-aged life. Most films have the perspective that middle-aged people in the affluent suburbs are in control of their lives and do things on a whim if they so please while here it’s the exact opposite. In fact the whole first act, which I found to be the most entertaining, is spent showing how each member frets about whether they’ll be able to get time off from their jobs and permission from their wives to go, which perfectly illustrates how even doing something on a lark can have potentially far reaching consequences.

Unfortunately the second half stagnates as certain potentially interesting conflicts get introduced, but then all end up getting resolved in pat and uninteresting ways a few minutes later making it feel like the story isn’t really going anywhere, or leading to anything. A few of the characters become a bit too strained even for henpecked suburbanites especially Arthur, played by Daniel Nalbach, who is in his 50’s, but still a mama’s boy who becomes guilt ridden when he’s away from his mother for even a couple of days, which gets a bit pathetic. There’s also the issue of Rogers speaking in a sort of slick-salesman type dialect, which I found annoying.

The third act offers some spark with arrival of an obnoxious singer, wonderfully played by Jay Thomas, whose over-sized ego outweighs his talents and who openly clashes with the band, which promises to lead to potential fireworks. Yet the film doesn’t play this part up enough having the band leave before the brewing anger can come to a full peak.

Those that have played gigs in amateur bands may take to this better as I’m sure they’ll relate a lot to what goes on here and I really did love the final shot showing the band playing a moving tribute along the roadside of a busy highway, but everything that come in-between is trite. The drama is too contained making it feel, especially when coupled with its dull, low budget cinematic look, more like a one-hour TV dramedy than a theatrical feature.

It also would’ve been nice had more of a backstory been done of the group and their many years of playing together instead of starting right away with them getting the gig offer. Showing them during the good times where they got along would’ve then made the scenes where they eventually unravel more compelling.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: November 26, 1985

Runtime: 1 Hour 32 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Frank D. Gilroy

Studio: Manson International

Available: VHS

Harry & Son (1984)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Looking for a job.

Harry (Paul Newman) is a construction worker who starts to have seizures involving headaches and blackouts that causes him to lose his job. He asks his son Howard (Robby Benson), who lives with him, to help out by finding a full-time job of his own, but Howard, who has graduated from college, seems content with his part-time car washing gig and no aspirations for anything other than one day becoming a famous writer. Harry feels Howard is not being practical and prods him to take working life more seriously or risk getting thrown out of the house.

Although this wasn’t a critical darling when it was released it still has a nice slice-of-life feel to it dealing with believable people going through some very real everyday problems, which keeps it compelling. Newman does well as a director and co-scripwriter, but his performance is one-dimensional. Normally he’s a terrific actor, and one of my favorites, but Harry remains too grouchy and bitter, almost like he’s channeling his character from Hud, and only near the end shows a different side to him, which is too late.

Benson’s scenes prove to be more interesting although as an actor he’s just as one-dimensional in the other way as he continually shows a deer-in-headlights expression all the way through like that’s the only type of emotion he can convey and it’s no wonder that his career in movies eventually faded. There is one moment though where he shows intense anger and gets in his father’s face to the point that I thought a fist-fight would break out, which would’ve been cool, but ultimately it doesn’t happen.

What I did like about his scenes was when he goes to work at a ‘real job’, which features a wonderful performance by Morgan Freeman as his supervisor, and he’s unable to keep up with the demands of  it, which perfectly illustrates how kids getting out of college can be highly educated but woefully underskilled to everyday work demands. His scenes with Ossie Davis, where he tries to steal his car as a re-possessor, are quite memorable as well.

What I didn’t like about his character was that he gets back into a relationship with a girl, played by Ellen Barkin, who had cheated on him previously by sleeping around with a lot of different guys. If a person is prone to cheat on you once they’re apt to do it again, so why put yourself through heartache a second time? She’s also carrying a baby, which is not is, in fact she isn’t sure whose it is, so why agree to take on all the bills, responsibility, and stress of a kid if you don’t actually have to?

The female roles here are not needed and tend to just make the movie longer than it needs to be. The title of the film promises to examine the relationship between a father and son, but it does not delve into it as much as it should. Having Harry’s daughter, played by Katharine Borowitz, enter into the story does nothing but add needless drama that goes nowhere. Judith Ivey’s character is not necessary either as she plays a nympho who sleeps with both father and son at different times and the two men then talk and joke about it afterwards even though in real-life I’d think most fathers and sons would feel very awkward talking about their mutual sexual conquests making this scene insincere.

Spoiler Alert!

The film’s ending goes against the entire grain of the flick by having Howard receive $1,500 check after he sends out a story submission to a publisher, but most publishers like to work through an agent and I don’t think they’d blindly send out money to an unproven writer without first coming up with some sort of contract. Since the film starts with a blue collar theme that’s where it should’ve ended by having Howard adjust to jobs requiring manual labor instead of inserting the Hollywood pipe dream.

Howard’s reaction to Harry’s death is odd too. He runs into his dad’s bedroom only to find his father lying on the floor motionless and then proceeds to just sit there and cry  even though the more normal thing would be to call 9-1-1 or attempt to resuscitate him. It’s also annoying that we never find out exactly what Harry’s ailment was making it like one of those cliched, generic mystery illness that befalls movie characters for no other reason than to keep the drama going.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: March 2, 1984

Runtime: 1 Hour 57 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Paul Newman

Studio: Orion Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video

Heartbeeps (1981)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 1 out of 10

4-Word Review: Robots fall in love.

Val (Andy Kaufman) and Aqua (Bernadette Peters) are two robots who meet one day at the factory while awaiting repairs. They quickly fall in love and decide to escape out into the wilderness while bringing alone Phil a small robot who does not speak as well as Catskill (voice of Jack Carter) a robot made to resemble a cigar smoking vaudeville-type stand-up comedian. However, two employees from the factory, Max (Kenneth McMillan) and Charlie (Randy Quaid) go on a pursuit to retrieve them. There’s also the malfunctioning law enforcement robot known as Crimebuster who also chases after the robots and will stop at nothing to bring them back.

This is a highly unusual film in that it uses robots as its main characters and has their point-of-view the whole way through. Other films have had robots of course, but they are put in supporting roles to the humans.  Here director Allan Arkush was determined to keep it authentic to the ‘robot experience’, by implementing a computer-type logic to everything that goes on, which creates  some surreal moments, but ultimately falls flat.

To be a successful film you still need to have characters that the viewer finds relatable and the robots are too, pardon the pun, mechanical. They never say anything that is interesting or funny and while they at times have an endearing child-like quality they do not create any emotional bond with the audience.

There still needed to be a human as the centerpiece, maybe someone the robots met during their escape, who takes them in and helps them in their quest to hide from those that are after them while also having the robots in some way help their new human friend in whatever personal challenges or battles they were going through.  They are a couple of times that the robots do come into contact with people with one occurring when they crash a party at a swanky hilltop resort with Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov playing two of the partiers, but the guests at the party are broadly played caricatures and the scene itself too brief. They also later meet-up with a couple, played by Melanie Mayron and Christopher Guest, who run a junkyard, but this occurs too late in the movie and should’ve been introduced earlier.

While the wilderness setting is scenic it fails to add much in the way of either excitement or comedy. Having the two escape into a big city would’ve been more compelling. The crimebuster robot that chases after them is too goofy and offers no tension or intrigue. Sometimes even in a comedy it’s good to have a little bit of that, or at least a bad guy that is competent enough to make the viewer wonder, if even for a second, whether our heroes are going to safely outsmart him or not, which doesn’t occur here.

It would’ve been nice too had there actually been some genuine laughs. The only attempts at humor are when Catskill cracks one of his long line of incredibly dumb jokes, which are intended to be lame, but having a few that were actually clever, would’ve helped. Even the talented Kaufman flounders as he uses the same accent of his famous foreign man character that he did during his stand-up routines as well as in the TV-show ‘Taxi’ ultimately making it seem like Latka in a robot disguise.

The make-up effects by Stan Winston are impressive especially the opening credit sequence at the beginning where the camera focuses onto the robots’ various parts close-up. Winston used a gelatin substance that gave off a authentic looking metallic appearance versus how it had always been done before where it had been painted on. However, two holes where created around the robots eyes, which gives it a mask-like appearance and ultimately ruins the attempt although it gets kudos for at least making a strong effort. I also liked the  clicking sound effect every time one of the robots blinked their eyes, which resembled the noise of a camera taking a picture. but it’s not consistent as it’s heard during the first half, but not during the second part.

My Rating: 1 out of 10

Released: December 18, 1981

Runtime: 1 Hour 18 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Allan Arkush

Studio: Universal

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, YouTube

Sweetie (1989)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Sister is mentally ill.

Kay (Karen Colston) has begun a relationship with Louis (Tom Lycos) and things seem to be going smoothly as they move into a home together, but it quickly unravels when he sister Dawn ‘Sweetie’ (Genevieve Lemon) shows up with her boyfriend Bob (Michael Lake). Sweetie has been institutionalized in the past and her wild mood swings and erratic behavior quickly cause turmoil particularly with Kay. She asks her parents (Jon Darling, Dorothy Barry) for help, but her dad refuses to recognize Sweetie’s tragic current state and instead continually hearkens back to her childhood years when she was a cute kid with budding talent who would perform songs and dances to the family’s entertainment and delight.

This is a hard film to critique  as it starts off as a quirky comedy, but by the midpoint it becomes more dramatic and filled with a lot of uncomfortable even cringe worthy scenes as Sweetie’s mental decline becomes achingly apparent. Not only do you feel sad for her, but also for how it causes such a severe strain for the rest of her family, which accurately illustrates how mental illness isn’t just a one person issue as their behaviors will adversely affect those around them too.

The fact that the film’s tone switches halfway through, which would be considered a major no-no by Hollywood standards, is part of the reason why it works as it replicates real-life where sometimes you can have a touching, humorous moment only to suddenly get thrown into a troubling one.  This also shapes what life is like living with a mentally-ill individuals who may seem ‘okay’, but can turn erratic sometimes without warning and this ongoing tension vividly comes through for the viewer until they feel the same way as the characters.

I found the father though to be the most entertaining and interesting. One minute he’s scheming to get Sweetie out of the family car, so they can leave on a trip without her and then the next minute he’s driving back to pick-her-up, so they can be ‘one happy family’ again. While this may sound overly contradictory to some I felt it brought out  the inner turmoil many parents feel in dealing with their grown children where at times they can’t stand them, for whatever reason, but at other points can’t stand to be without them either.

Director Jane Campion, in her feature film directorial debut, adds in interesting touches like having the camera frame the characters off-center where instead of seeing them captured in the center of the screen they are shown in the right-hand corner, which helps accentuate the tone of the subject matter. There’s also an odd time-lapsed cutaways detailing a seedling tree pushing its way through the dirt and above ground, which wasn’t exactly necessary to the main plot, but kind of cool nonetheless.

Campion also wisely doesn’t insult the viewer’s intelligence with pat answers to a complex problem. Mental illness cannot be cured or even  always stabilized with medications, so leaving the viewer with a feel-good ending where everything works out and everybody is happy would be a cop-out and thankfully gets avoided here. Instead the we’re left pondering troubling questions, which stays with you long after it’s over and makes this a far better movie than most because of it.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: September 28, 1989

Runtime: 1 Hour 37 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Jane Campion

Studio: Filmpac Distribution

Available: DVD, Blu-ray (Criterion Collection), Amazon Video

Fort Apache, The Bronx (1981)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Cops on the beat.

Murphy (Paul Newman) is a middle-aged cop working a beat in a tough Bronx neighborhood while partnered with Corelli (Ken Wahl) who is much younger. Murphy has become jaded to the corruption around him, but still feels a sense of purpose about coming forward when he witnesses a fellow cop killing an innocent bystander. Corelli, who also witnessed it, feels they should keep quiet about it, fearing the backlash they will inevitable get if they don’t, but Murphy quarrels with his conscious and considers risking his own safety and career in order to do the right thing.

While the film opened to mainly positive reviews and did quite well at the box office it was not without controversy as author Tom Walker, who had written the novel ‘Fort Apache’ which had a similar theme and storyline as this one, sued the production company claiming they had stolen many ideas from his book. However, the courts decided in the film’s favor arguing that the movie was filled with a lot of generalized stereotypes that is present in just about every cop film and therefore could not be signaled out as copyright infringement, which seemed more like a backhanded victory as it admits that a lot of what  you’ll see here is just one giant cliche.

From my perspective though I still enjoyed it especially the street scenes where the two protagonists find themselves dealing with petty crimes that makes up a lot of what real-life policemen have to deal with, as opposed to the sexy murder mysteries that cops in other police dramas get to investigate. The scene where Newman chases a suspect, but then runs out of breath and is unable to catch him nicely examines the exhausting physical nature of the job as well.

My biggest gripe has to do with a scene that comes right away, which involves a prostitute, wonderfully played by Pam Grier, who shoots and kills two unsuspecting cops sitting inside a squad car. The excuse is that these two were rookies and therefore not seasoned enough to catch the warning signs of what was going on, but I felt right away that something was off by the way the prostitute was fishing around her purse making me sense even before it happened that she was going for a gun and if I the viewer could’ve caught on to this then the two cops, whether they were new on the job or not, should’ve too.

Spoiler Alert!

I was disappointed that this storyline involving the psycho prostitute does not get fully played-out as she ends up getting killed in the middle of the film in a very random and uninteresting way, which ruins the anticipation/suspense of seeing her and Newman ultimately confront each other, which is what the viewer is primed into believing will happen.

The storyline dealing with the cop killing a defenseless man gets botched too as it occurs during the middle, but with no satisfying conclusion. We never get to see how Newman’s decision to come forward ultimately effected his life and safety.

I had problems with the sequence of events concerning Newman’s girlfriend, played by Rachel Ticotin, as well as we see her die from a lethal drug overdose, but this occurs before some gunmen take over the hospital where she worked as a nurse and held everyone hostage. It would’ve been far more suspenseful had the viewer at least thought that the girlfriend was one of the hostages instead of knowing upfront that she wasn’t, which ultimately makes this sequence less emotionally compelling.

End of Spoiler Alert!

Newman as usual gives a great performance and this marked the last role he played where his age was not a factor as his roles after this all dealt in some way with him becoming elderly. However with that said he still looks very much to be in his 50’s and he states at one point that he’s divorced with two daughters making me believe that they were most likely young adults, but instead we see a brief scene where he picks them up from school showing that they’re still young children, which given his very middle-aged appearance looked ridiculous.

Wahl is good as his young partner, but I felt his character should’ve been the one that was idealistic and wanted to go to the authorities while Newman, being older and more desensitized the one who tries to talk him out of it. Ed Asner, as the cantankerous new police chief gets wasted as does Pam Grier who’s real creepy and should’ve had both her character and motives explored much more.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: February 6, 1981

Runtime: 2 Hours 5 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Daniel Petrie

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: DVD

!Three Amigos! (1986)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Western stars travel south.

El Guapo (Alfonso Arau) and his gang terrorize a small village in 1916 Mexico by demanding that its residents pay him ‘protection money’ or risk getting pillaged. Carmen (Patrice Martinez), who is the daughter of one of the village elders, tries to come up with a plan to stop them and finds her solution after watching a silent film featuring The Three Amigos (Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, Martin Short) who  fight evil doers and injustice. Thinking they are real heroes she sends them a telegram inviting them to her town to fight El Guapo. The Amigos, who have just gotten fired, think it’s an invitation to do a show and in desperate need of money travel across the border unaware of the dangers that await.

While the concept is ripe for great comic potential the script almost immediately starts showing its cracks. Now, I was not around in 1916, but it seems to me that people would’ve still been sophisticated enough to know the difference between movie acting and the real thing and the fact that Carmen, who is well over 18, doesn’t makes her seem a bit too naive. The three amigos aren’t much better as they fail to know the meaning of such words as infamous, tequila, or even veranda. Comedies based on misunderstandings can be highly enjoyable, but it still depends on the characters being reasonably intelligent to make it work and the group here are just too dumb to be believed making the whole scenario weak and watered down from the get-go.

What’s even more aggravating is that the film cheats on its own rules. Steve Martin scolds the bandits for using real bullets, as at that point he was still under the impression that they were fellow actors, but then the amigos’ guns end up having real bullets too even though if they were really just actors they should’ve been stage props with blanks. They turn out to be great shots too, able to shoot the bad guys even from long distance making them seem like actual gunfighters and not actors at all. There’s also a scene where Martin gets shot in the arm and while this might not be fatal it could still cause severe pain and infection, but there’s no scene showing it getting removed and bandaged up and  he continues to move it like it wasn’t even injured.

While it was interesting seeing Chase getting laughs for being a doofus as opposed to his snarky quips I still felt the three characters were too transparent. Not only is there very little contrast between their personalities, but there personal lives are never shown. These were supposedly big stars who should’ve had a big fan base, agents, friends, or wives/girlfriends, so the idea that they had ‘nothing to go back to’ and thus decided to remain in Mexico didn’t really make sense. Even with the argument that they had recently gotten fired from their jobs they should’ve had enough fame and connections in L.A. to find other gigs without immediately being so hard-up.

There’s a scene too where the three are shown sleeping together in a small bed, which seemed to intimate that they were gay. This never gets confirmed, but the film might’ve been more interesting had they been.

The moment where the three sing ‘My Little Buttercup’ inside a rough Mexican bar filled with bandits is the high point, but everything else is downhill. Instead for forcing these dimwitted actors to face the harsh realities of true western life outside of their Hollywood safe place it deviates into ill-advised surreal fantasy that contradicts the whole premise. The worst moment is when they sing a song in front of an incredibly fake looking sunset backdrop that features talking animals, which is so stupid that it destroys everything else that comes either before or after it.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: December 10, 1986

Runtime: 1 Hour 43 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: John Landis

Studio: Orion Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, YouTube

Taps (1981)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Cadets take over academy.

At the conclusion of another school year at Bunker Hill Military Academy, General Harlan Bache (George C. Scott) announces, to his shocked cadets during the commencement proceedings, that their school has been sold to real estate developers and will be closed in 1 year. Then that evening tragedy strikes forcing the board of trustees to close the school immediately. The students lead by Brian Moreland (Timothy Hutton) who had just been promoted to Cadet Major decide to take matters into their own hands by taking over the school with force and refusing to leave it unless guarantees are made to keep it open.

The film is based on the novel ‘Father Sky’ by Devery Freeman and the first half has excellent potential. The drama is intense and on-target and brings up a myriad of interesting conundrums dealing with the thin line between loyalty versus rebellion and how at different times both can be good and bad. It also deftly examines how bad things can come from the best of intentions.

Unfortunately all the action takes place in the first hour leaving the second half woefully undernourished with nothing happening. Everyone stands around expounding until all the tension that had been so nicely built-up at the beginning gets sapped away leaving boredom in its wake. The film also tries too hard to make its point becoming overwrought and preachy in the process. The dialogue between the characters loses its conversational quality and instead starts to sound like mini speeches.

The acting by the soon-to-be-stars is good and includes Sean Penn in his film debut as well as Tom Cruise in a breakout role that originally he rejected because he was only hired to be a background character, but his presence during rehearsals so impressed director Harold Becker that he decided to give him a bigger part and he  leaves a lasting impression particularly at the very end. Hutton, who was just coming off his Academy Award winning work from Ordinary People is effective too despite his thin frame and the scene he has where he discusses the situation with the cadets’ distressed parents are his best moment.

Scott on the other hand comes off as old and tired, granted that was the type of character he was playing, but it still isn’t a showy role for an otherwise famous actor and in fact he only appears in the film’s first act. The scene dealing with him trying to break up a ruckus between a group of students and cadets is poorly edited. One shot has his gun being taken out of its holster by another student only to magically reappear in Scott’s hands in a later shot, which comes off looking like a jump cut.

From a simply logical perspective it becomes abundantly evident right from the beginning that these kids have gotten in way over their heads with no endgame and nothing is worse than seating through a plodding plot that you know won’t end well.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: December 9, 1981

Runtime: 2 Hours 6 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Harold Becker

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, YouTube

Cookie (1989)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Daughter becomes getaway driver.

Dino (Peter Falk), a longtime racketeer, gets released from prison after a 13-year sentence. He meets up with his long time crony Carmine (Michael V. Gazz0) only to learn that Carmine sold off his share of the business, but now refuses to give him his entitled proceeds. Dino then plots an elaborate revenge and uses his estranged daughter Cookie (Emily Lloyd) to help him. At first the two don’t get along,but eventually forge a friendship when she proves to be quite resourceful as a getaway driver.

This movie proved to be the start of Lloyd’s career downfall. She burst onto the scene with her acclaimed performance in Wish You Were Here, which had all the critics fawning over her including Roger Ebert who called her performance “one of the great debut roles of a young actress”. With her new found fame she moved to New York at the age of 17 and immediately got the starring role in this film, which unfortunately proved to be her undoing as she showed erratic behavior on the set due to a condition that was later diagnosed as being attention deficit disorder. At one point during filming her irritated co-star Falk slapped her because she repeatedly flubbed of her lines, which caused her to then reportedly slap him.  It was behind-the-scenes stories like these that made studios reluctant to hire her and costing her to miss out on a lot of big roles.

While I’ll commend her ability to put on a very effective Brooklyn accent where you can’t even hear a hint of her native British one I still felt overall her performance here is quite weak and one of the main reasons that the film fails. Her facial expressions are too one-note and she shows an aloof detachment in all of her scenes almost like she really doesn’t want to be there. It’s evident onscreen that she and Falk didn’t care for each other making the bonding that their two characters have come-off as forced and insincere. I didn’t know why her character was even needed, I presume it was done to attract the all-important teen demographic, but she’s not funny and there’s long stretches where she doesn’t even appear. Her attire looks too much like the clothing style worn by Molly Ringwald during the 80’s and while that may have been the fashion it’s still good to have a character come up with a clothing style that is unique to them, so she doesn’t end up looking like just a leftover cast member from a John Hughes’ movie.

The supporting cast are what make this movie funny and had the story centered around them it could’ve been special. Gazzo is great as the mob boss who is intimidating one minute and then frightened and contrite the next. Dianne Weist, is quite funny too, particularly her extended crying bouts, as Falk’s mistress and Brenda Vaccaro steals a few scenes as his dog groomer wife. You can also spot Joy Behar in a brief bit as well as Jerry Lewis although his part is quite colorless and I’m surprised he even took it.

The script by Nora Ephron and Alice Arden relies too much on Mafia cliches while failing to add a unique or interesting spin to it. There’s also too many scenes, three of them to be exact, involving the explosion of a limo. One time is okay, but it saps away the surprise/shock value when it keeps happening and much like the movie itself fizzles out with a whimper.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: August 23, 1989

Runtime: 1 Hour 33 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Susan Seidelman

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: DVD-R (Warner Archive), Amazon Video, YouTube

Explorers (1985)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Kids go into space.

Ben (Ethan Hawke) is a teen who keeps having dreams dealing with a spacecraft and eventually writes down the dimensions of it onto paper and then sends it to his super smart friend Wolfgang (River Phoenix) who uses it as a blueprint to eventually create it in real-life using various parts that they find in a junkyard. Once completed Ben, Wolfgang, and their other friend Darren (Jason Presson) decide to take it for a ride. Initially they fly it around their coastal California town, which catches the eye of the police (Dick Miller), who chases after it to no avail. Eventually though they decide to take it into outer space where they visit aliens inside a intergalactic space station.

Out of all of the sci-fi movies that came out during the 80’s this one has gotten lost in the shuffle and wasn’t too well received by the critics when it was first released though it has achieved a cult following since then. Director Joe Dante has complained that the final cut was taken out of his hands and he was never able to complete the ending that he wanted though for the most part the film never really gels, has a slow pace and only spotty moments where it becomes even halfway amusing.

One of the things that I did like was that the cast is age appropriate for their parts and the scenes done on a junior high campus have a student body that really looks to be teens instead of older college age actors trying to look younger, which happens in so many other teen films. The three leads thankfully aren’t crude or foul mouthed and aren’t obsessed with parlaying a ‘cool’, trendy image, which is also nice, but they seem just a bit too smart and able to do things that most adults can’t like welding and carpentry and  building a craft to exact specifications without any hitch or screw-up. Sure that Wolfgang kid is supposed to be smart, but even geniuses can make incorrect estimations, but this guy never does.

Watching the silly looking contraption actually get off the ground is farcical as in reality it most likely wouldn’t and the science gets completely thrown out the window. When they go out into space on their second trip they don’t even bother to equip themselves with oxygen and since there’s none in space I wasn’t able to figure out how they could breath. There’s no explanation either for how they were able to survive the extreme drop in temperature that occurs in high altitudes nor how the craft was able to get back through the earth’s atmosphere without burning up.

Spoiler Alert!

The scenes where the boys fly the craft around their town and even disrupt a sci-fi movie that is being shown at a local drive-in is when its funny and where the story should’ve stayed. Having it venture out into space and meeting other teen aliens is when it jumps-the-shark. The first hour plays like a whimsical fantasy, which is passable, but the third act becomes too campy. It also criminally under-uses Amanda Peterson, who plays Ben’s attractive love interest, who gets barely seen at all even though she should’ve gone on the trip with the other three boys, which would’ve bolstered the entertainment value and the fact that she doesn’t makes this already weak file even weaker.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: July 12, 1985

Runtime: 1 Hour 49 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Joe Dante

Studio: Paramount Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Midnight Madness (1980)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: All night scavenger hunt.

Leon (Alan Solomon) is a geeky college student who comes up with an elaborate scavenger hunt to be played by his fellow students. The object of the game is to pick-up on certain clues hidden throughout the city of Los Angeles and each team must solve the clue given to them before they can move onto the next one. The game is played by 5 teams who have 5 members each: David Naughton heads the preppy Yellow team, Maggie Roswell plays the leader of the nerdy girls red team, Eddie Deezen leads the geeky white team, Brad Wilken leads the green team, which is made up of party animal jocks, and Stephen Furst heads the anti-social/misfit blue team.

On the surface this comes off as just another crude, sophomoric 80’s teen comedy complete with gross out humor of having to watch overweight Furst constantly stuffing his face with food, which is genuinely painful to watch when you realize that in real life he had a big issue with diabetes that made him retire from acting and he ultimately died from the illness. The film fails to have anything all that funny in it and it doesn’t even show any skin from its attractive female cast, which most likely was a result of it being financed by Disney.

The game itself though is kind of interesting and posses some legitimate logic oriented clues that force both the viewer and participants to think it through in order to solve. There is also some interesting on-location shooting done in famous landmark locations throughout Los Angeles including the Griffith Observatory, Grauman’s Chinese Theater, and the Westin Bonaventure Hotel, which helps give this otherwise low budget production a bit of a visual spark.

Even with these elements in place the film fails to take full advantage of its setting. If this is all supposed to take place during the wee hours of the night then there really shouldn’t be such large crowds present at the locations they go to including tours going on at the Pabst Blue Ribbon beer plant. It would’ve been more of a surreal ambiance had it just been the players of the game roaming around an otherwise shuttered city while everyone else was fast asleep. The final part of the game takes place in the daytime, which again ruins the nightime/midnight theme and effort should’ve been made to have the entire story take place while it was dark.

The story is also full of a ton of logic loopholes including never explaining how Leon was able to get his face painted on the side of beer cartons at the beer plant as well as a wide assortment of other issues. One also had to wonder why Leon goes to such great lengths to create such an elaborate game that doesn’t really seem to benefit him directly. If this kid is so smart to create such an intricate game then why doesn’t he put his creative energies into forming a profitable business so he doesn’t have to live in a rundown apartment that has paper thin walls and a crabby landlady screaming at him every time he makes any noise?

The cast has some familiar faces in small roles including Paul Reubens (aka Pee Wee Herman) in a bit part at a game arcade and Marvin Kaplan, an aging character actor best known for his work in Adam’s Rib and the TV-show ‘Alice’, as an overwhelmed hotel desk clerk. Kudos also go out to Irene Tedrow as an elderly and quite obnoxious landlord and Dirk Blocker, who is the son of famous ‘Bonanza’ star Dan Blocker and looks just like him, as a dim-witted party animal who just can’t get enough beer.

Naughton though is quite stale in the lead and doesn’t seem to have much acting talent at all although I did like the in-joke of seeing him drink a Dr. Pepper since he’s probably best known for singing the ‘I’m a Pepper’ jingle in TV commercials during the 70’s. This also marks Michael J. Fox’s film debut who plays the younger brother to Naughton though the subplot dealing with his anger at being taken for granted by his older sibling is misplaced and heavy-handed in a film that is otherwise super silly.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: February 8, 1980

Runtime: 1 Hour 52 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Micheal Nankin, David Wechter

Studio: Buena Vista Distribution Company

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube