Category Archives: Campy Comedy

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

Won Ton Ton: The Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 1 out of 10

4-Word Review: Dog becomes a star.

Estie Del Ruth (Madeline Kahn) is a struggling actress still waiting for her big break. While roaming the streets she comes upon a homeless dog (Augustus Von Schumacher) and befriends it. Grayson (Bruce Dern) is a hapless tour guide driving a bus filled with tourists past the homes of the famous Hollywood stars. He’d rather be directing movies and has some great ideas, but is constantly getting turned down. Then one day famous studio mogul J.J. Fromberg (Art Carney) witnesses the dog saving Estie from a lecherous producer (Aldo Ray) and is so impressed that he wants to cast the dog in its own movie. Grayson, seeing this as his chance to finally break into the movie business, pretends to be the dog’s owner and therefore allowed to be in charge of directing the dog’s film, but the dog will only take orders from from Estie forcing him to allow her to tag along, but only if he helps her get a movie contract.

The story was originally titled ‘A Bark was Born’ and written by Cy Howard in 1971 and was an account of the famous 1920’s real-life dog star known as Rin Tin Tin. He commissioned Arnold Schulman to write the script for him. Schulman, who was coming off a good run of films as screenwriter including penning the scripts for Goodbye Columbus and Funny Lady decided to add some satirical elements to the story before finally handing it off to studio head David Picker to produce. However, the owners of Rin Tin Tin sued Picker for producing a film about their dog without authorization causing Picker to remove the fictional elements from the script and turning it into a all-out farcical parody of old-time Hollywood instead.

The film’s biggest problem is that it doesn’t give the viewer a feeling that they’re being transported to a different era as the 1920’s are played-up as being too cartonish and silly to be believable. The characters are caricatures that have no emotional connection to the audience, so watching their ascent into Hollywood success is neither interesting nor compelling. The humor relies too much on throwaway bits that have no connection to the main plot and mostly fall flat while moments that do have comic potential, like the dog only taking orders from Kahn, do not get played-up enough.

Kahn is a poor choice for the lead and single-handily bogs the production down, which wasn’t too great to begin with. She is perfect as a supporting actress playing over-the-top, eccentric characters, but as a normal person trying to elicit sympathy she does poorly. Lily Tomlin was the original choice for the part, but she wanted the script rewritten in order for it to have a more serious edge, which wouldn’t have been a bad idea,  but director Michael Winner wanted to keep the thing silly and lightweight and didn’t agree.

Dern, who expressed in an interview decades later, that doing this film was his one true career regret, is actually quite good and its fun seeing him play in a more lighthearted role versus the darker ones that have made up so much of his onscreen presence. However, by the second half he pretty much gets written-out, which was a shame. Ron Leibman, as the cross-dressing silent film star Rudy Montague, has a few interesting moments, but he plays the part in too much of an intense manner making him seem more creepy than funny.

Art Carney is not funny at all as the big-time studio head and the part would’ve been better served had it been played by Phil Silvers, who gets stuck in a much smaller role that does not take advantage of his comic talents. The rest of the cast is made-up of walk-on bits by famous stars of the past. Most these cameos are not amusing or interesting making their presence much like the movie itself quite pointless.

My Rating: 1 out of 10

Released: May 29, 1976

Runtime: 1 Hour 32 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Michael Winner

Studio: Paramount Pictures

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

!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

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

Some Kind of a Nut (1969)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 1 out of 10

4-Word Review: Grow beard, lose job.

One day while out on a picnic in Central Park with his fiance Pamela (Rosemary Forsyth) Fred (Dick Van Dyke) gets stung on his chin by a bee. The sting takes too long to heal, so in order to avoid having to shave over it he grows a beard, which doesn’t go over well at his job. When his boss (Peter Turgeon) tells him to get rid of it and he refuses it leads to his firing, which mobilizes his co-workers to walk off of their jobs in protest.

Writer/director Garson Kanin has written many funny and award-winning screenplays with Adam’s Rib and Born Yesterday being two of his most famous ones, but this script seems like it was written by a completely different person altogether. The idea of Van Dyke bucking-the-system and discarding conventional mores has definite potential especially since it was filmed in the late 60’s when a lot of that was going on, but the movie goes nowhere with it. Instead of dealing with the ramifications of his rebellion the plot pivots to his ex-wife’s (Angie Dickinson) attempts at reconciliation, which is too contrived and has nothing to do with the main theme.

Van Dyke has one brief moment of non-conformity and then immediately snaps back into being his staid self without showing any real growth or change. Instead of him directly organizing the effort to have his co-workers walk off their jobs on his behalf it’s actually another associate (played by David Doyle) who inspires it while Van Dyke stands back in awe like a main character who has become a passive bystander in his own movie.

There was no need for three female love interests either. Forsyth was the youngest so in some ways it made more sense for her to connect to his rebellious side, but instead it’s Dickinson his ex-wife. However, it’s never made clear what lead to their divorce in the first place, so unless they tackle that direct issue then whatever reconciliation they have will only lead to another break-up down-the-road. Zohra Lampert, who plays this beatnik type lady that Van Dyke befriends and goes out drinking with, is far more lively here than the other two actresses and showed just enough bohemianism traits to fit with the film’s attempted non conformist theme.

There are some interesting camera shots like a close-up of the actual bee sting and a segment, which I thought was real cool when I was in the third grade and first saw this film, showing a map of the nation and then a red miniature car similar to the one Van Dyke and Forsythe are riding in driving around on it to  each city on their trip. However this amounts to just being a shallow way to cover-up how boring and empty the script really is, which meanders too much on scenes that don’t propel the story along. A good example of this is when Forsyth and her two brothers (Elliot Reid, Steve Roland) chase Van Dyke around his apartment complex in an attempt to shave off his beard, which seemed like a futile waste of energy because he could just regrow it in a matter of a few days, so why even bother?

Released: October 1, 1969

Runtime: 1 Hour 30 Minutes

Rated M

Director: Garson Kanin

Studio: United Artists

Available: Amazon Video

Maxie (1985)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 0 out of 10

4-Word Review: Silent film star resurrects.

Nick (Mandy Patinkin) and his wife Jan (Glenn Close) move into a San Francisco home that was once lived in by Maxie Malone (also played by Close) a 1920’s flapper that died in a car crash the night before her big audition and who now haunts the place. She eventually inhabits Jan’s body and with the help of Nick tries to get the big Hollywood break in the 80’s that she missed out on in the 20’s.

The biggest problem is the title character that’s supposed to be amusingly ‘eccentric’, but comes off as obnoxious instead. Her belief that she should be the ‘life of the party’ no matter where she goes and her obsession with becoming a famous star makes her narcissistic and self-centered. She also shows no awareness of social propriety that every other functioning human being does as she throws herself quite literally at every attractive man she sees including married ones, which would be considered outrageous behavior by today’s standards and even more so from the era from which she came. Instead of being a person transported from a different time period she’s more like a cartoonish entity from a completely different universe.

Her affected Jersey-like accent is extremely annoying and why she’d even be speaking in one had me confused. Maxie’s spirit is taking over the body of Jan who does not have an accent. The spirit is using Jan’s legs, arms, eyes, mouth and ears, so then wouldn’t it be logical that the spirit would then use Jan’s voice as well?

Patinkin is equally irritating like the way he puts up with his boss (Valerie Curtain) openly and aggressively coming-on to him at work and for all to see and he doesn’t have her reported for harassment. What’s worse is when she threatens to fire him he begs her for his job even though she should be the one looking for work and not him.

The third makes this dumb script, which is based on believe it or not a novel by Jack Finney who also wrote ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’, even dumber by having Maxie get a part in a commercial, but without the benefit of having any resume, head-shot or agent, which casting directors insist is a must to even be considered.  From that she then gets asked to do a screen test for the starring role of a big budget remake of ‘Cleopatra’, but all she did in the commercial was play this lady victim tied to some railroad tracks, so what from that brief performance made the producers of ‘Cleopatra’ think she’d be ‘perfect’ for a starring role in their big Hollywood project?

I realize Close most likely took the part because she wanted the fun of playing two different characters, but Jan is so buttoned-down and shy that she becomes completely transparent making Maxie the only one you remember.

My Rating: 0 out of 10

Released: September 8, 1985

Runtime: 1 Hour 38 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Paul Aaron

Studio: Orion Pictures

Available: DVD

Spies Like Us (1985)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Losers inadvertently become decoys.

Austin (Dan Aykroyd) and Emmett (Chevy Chase) are two bumbling government agents who get hired by the department of defense to carry out a secret mission inside the Soviet Union. In reality, and unbeknownst to them, they are decoys used to call attention away from the actual agents who were sent to seize a ballistic missile launcher yet things don’t work out as planned. Instead of the decoys getting killed off it’s the actual agents forcing Austin and Emmett to carry out the rest of the plan that the others couldn’t.

A lot of the problem with this film is that it no longer has that National Lampoon’s edge, which when it started out was all about satire and parody and making fun of the establishment. Yet this film has no message, or point of view. Had it had more of a focus like ridiculing the government, war, politics, or even the spy genre then it might of been more meaningful, but instead all we get are a barrage of generic gags and no real story.

The humor mainly falls flat with the writers making up the rules as they go, so there’s no tension or intrigue. For instance the two disguise themselves as Dr’s and are forced to perform an appendectomy on a patient even though they know nothing about medical surgery and yet just as Aykroyd is ready to make the incision the patient for no explicable reason dies, which gets them two off-the-hook, but is really more of a cop-out by the writers. Why not force the characters to earn their way out of their predicament by requiring them to come up with some clever escape instead of conveniently throwing in an act of God that doesn’t really make any sense?

Today’s audiences will find the scene where Chase grabs Donna Dixon’s breasts, a woman who he has just met and without asking permission, quite offensive. She doesn’t respond in shock or anger either and is portrayed as apparently being ‘too stupid’ to know what’s going on, I don’t know about you, but if someone touched one of my body parts I’d feel it. In real-life Dixon is Aykroyd’s wife, and Aykroyd was also one of the scriptwriters, and I thought it was crazy that a guy would come-up with a gag that would allow his co-star to squeeze his wife’s breasts, he actually ends up squeezing both of them, simply for the sake of trying to get a cheap laugh from the audience.

Aykroyd and Chase are an odd pairing as well. Chase has such a glib, sarcastic personality that it’s hard to imagine why anyone would want to be his friend to begin with. Aykroyd’s super smart persona in which he’s an expert on virtually everything is boring and has been played-out before. Supposedly this was meant to be a take-off on the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby road movies and Hope even has a cameo here and despite his advancing age he’s still funnier than either Akroyd or Chase and should’ve been made the star instead of them.

Spoiler Alert!

The film’s original ending had a nuclear bomb blowing up the planet and if they had kept that in then I’d at least give them some credit for being daring and original. Of course after test audiences disliked this (surprise, surprise) the filmmakers ultimately chickened-out and went for a ‘happy ending’ where Aykroyd devises a way (because of course he knows EVERYTHING) to divert the bomb’s route so it explodes in space instead of on earth, but wouldn’t the radioactive fallout of the explosion still rain back down and affect the population anyways?

End of the Spoiler Alert!

The opening bit where an agent is locked inside a cramped closet because he’s not authorized to view the information inside the briefcase that is chained to his wrist I did find amusing although the film could’ve played this up more by having everyone, after they’ve reviewed the information, leave the room with the guy still stuck in the closet and begging to be let out. I also loved the top secret spy headquarters built underneath an abandoned drive-in movie theater. Director John Landis also continues his trend of casting other movie directors in minor roles, but since they’re only seen briefly other viewers may not find this element to be all that interesting.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: December 6, 1985

Runtime: 1 Hour 42 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: John Landis

Studio: Paramount

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen (1981)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Asian detective solves case.

Police Chief Baxter (Brian Kieth) summons the retired Charlie Chan (Peter Ustinov) back to duty in order to help him solve a series of bizarre murders. Chan is also reluctantly assisted by his inept grandson Lee Chan Jr. (Richard Hatch) who shows no ability at solving anything and only causes chaos where ever he goes. As the case unfold Chan is at first convinced that his old nemesis Dragon Lady (Angie Dickinson) is the culprit, but he slowly turns his suspicions onto someone else who no one else suspects.

This is a perfect example of a movie that could never be made today as it features a white actor playing the part of an Asian American although the film did meet with strong resistance even back then. Many Chinese Americans protested by picketing locations were it was being shot and then later demonstrated at theaters that played it. Their complaints hinged around the Chan character being a racist stereotype particularly his ‘Chop-Suey pidgin English and fortune cookie-like proverbs’ all of which were very valid points.

What’s even worse is that the Chan character is not funny at all and the film would’ve been better had he not been in it. Ustinov acts like he’s just walking through the role with no energy or pizzazz and his singing over the opening credits, which I guess is meant to be intentionally bad in an effort to be ‘funny’, comes off as pathetically lame instead and could be enough to make most people want to turn off the film before it’s barely begun. Keith as the exasperated chief is far funnier and enlivens every scene he is in to the point that he should’ve been made the star.

Hatch as the doofus grandson is almost as bad as Ustinov, but even more annoying as he creates all sorts of disasters were ever he goes, but is completely oblivious to the pain and destruction that he causes others, which makes him come-off to being too stupid to be even remotely believable. On the rare occasions when he does realize that his blundering has caused issues to others like when he inadvertently knocks a bunch of TV reporters into a lake, he makes no attempt to help them out of the water, or even apologize for what he did, making him seem deserving of a big punch in his otherwise blank-eyed face. I was also confused as to why, if he’s Chan’s grandson, he wasn’t Asian.

The female actors perform better here. I enjoyed Lee Grant’s rare foray into comedy. Her acting skills are more tuned to drama, but the scenes where she talks to her dead husband’s ashes inside an urn are pretty good. Rachel Roberts, in her last theatrical film before her untimely and tragic death, is diverting as a super paranoid maid. Michelle Pfeiffer is quite engaging too as Hatch’s fiance. Her character is just as doopey as his, but she has enough acting skill to make it interesting and far outshines him, despite having less screen time.

The comedy is flat and has no focus to it as it alternates between slapstick and parody while haphazardly throwing in all sorts of uninspired gags that have little or nothing to do with the main plot and that includes a drawn out car chase in the middle that isn’t funny at all. It also features an ending similar to the one in Blazing Saddles where it becomes a-movie-within-a-movie as the characters run into a theater where a Charlie Chan movie is playing. However, this scene isn’t too well thought-out as it features Ustinov playing Chan on the black-and-white film that the theatergoers are watching, which makes no sense. For one thing the film being shown is an older one, so Chan should look younger on it, but he doesn’t. Also, why would Chan be playing himself in a movie? Isn’t he supposed to be just a detective, or are we to assume he’s also an actor starring in films when he’s not out solving cases? It would’ve been more amusing had Chan walked into the theater and saw another actor playing him on the screen and then started bitching about how he wasn’t doing it right.

Spoiler Alert!

There is one really inspired moment that is so cute it almost makes sitting through the rest of it worth it. I features Pfeiffer and Hatch tied up and being held hostage by a vicious dog who is tied to a rope with a candle flame burning throw it, which will then release the hound to attack the couple. In an effort to stop the flame from burning through they sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to the dog, which then gets the dog to blow-out the flame like a person would blow out candles on a birthday cake.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Release: February 4, 1981

Runtime: 1 Hour 35 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Clive Donner

Studio: American Cinema Releasing

Available: DVD, Blu-ray

Creepshow (1982)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Five stories of horror.

This film was the collaboration of Stephen King, making his screenwriting debut, and George Romero, who filmed the entire thing in his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with many of the scenes done in an abandoned boy’s school. The production was a homage to the horror comics like ‘Tales of the Crypt’ and ‘The Vault of Horror’, which were published between 1950 and 1955 before being shutdown because they were considered ‘dangerous’ to the well being of children and contributing to juvenile delinquency.

The script consists of five stories with the emphasis more on camp than terror and outside of the cool comic book effects fall pretty much flat.  The first story entitled ‘Father’s Day’  comes off more like a one-joke skit and deals with an adult daughter (Viveca Lindfors) who kills her obnoxious father (Jon Lormer) on his birthday with an ashtray and then years later visits him at his grave site where his corpse comes back to life.

The second story entitled ‘The Lonesome Death of Jody Verrill’ should’ve been extended out more as it has some intriguing possibilities to it. It consists of a redneck (played with campy glee by Stephen King) who finds a meteor that’s landed in his backyard, but realizes to his horror that everything it touches grows a greenish foliage including on himself.

‘Something to Tide You Over’ is the third entry and it’s about a man (Ted Danson) being buried alive in the sand and then drowning as the tide rolls in. It’s shot in a way where the viewer sees the water rushing in from the victim’s point of view, which gives it a frightening quality, but suffers from having the victim  too easily lead into the trap and a twist ending that involves a metaphysical phenomenon, but with no suitable explanation for how it could’ve occurred.

‘The Crate’ involves an arctic monster being found inside a crate that was underneath a college stairwell. One of the professors (Hal Holbrook) uses this monster as a way to kill his obnoxious wife (Adrienne Barbeau), but the logic on this one is loopy. First how was the monster able to survive four decades inside a box without any food or water? Having him encased in a block of ice and then unfrozen would’ve been a little more plausible, but the story is further hampered by the casting of Barbeau, who’s too young for the part, which would’ve been better suited for a fat old bitty that was more Holbrook’s age. The biggest question though is why would Holbrook bank on the idea that the monster would kill his wife and not attack him first and why would the wife, or anyone with half a brain, be dumb enough to get tricked into driving all the over to the college campus and then crawling under the stairwell to begin with as the reason he gives her to do it is pretty dumb.

‘They’re Creeping Up on You’ has the most potential and a fun performance by Marshall, but ultimately gets botched. It’s about a rich Howard Hughes-like billionaire (E.G.Marshall) who lives alone in this fancy, hermetically sealed penthouse that gets overrun with cockroaches. Watching the roaches crawl around is creepy and apparently over 20,000 of them were used. Yet having them pile onto each other until they create a roach-like mountain loses the effect, many of them weren’t even roaches by this point but instead nuts and raisins. This segment would’ve been better had it been a fancy penthouse with all the elaborate furniture trappings as King intended instead of a white room with barely nothing in it. This story also features a dead body, which clearly looks like a wax dummy that ultimately ruins the intended effect.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: November 12, 1982

Runtime: 2 Hours

Rated R

Director: George A. Romero

Studio: Warner Brothers

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