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Category Archives: 80's Movies

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D-P03NGSP6Y%5D

Ten Word or Less Review: The Wars of the Oz Rings

Besides Krull, I’m not sure there’s an 80’s fantasy film more derivative of its ancestors and influences than Willow.  While George Lucas may claim this movie as an original idea, that would be kind of like me writing a word for word duplicate screenplay of The Shining, renaming it Motel Hell and then passing it off as my own creation and calling myself a genius because of the effort.  Willow is Lucas’s transparent, pent up desire to make Lord of the Rings and combine it with the archetype story structure of Star Wars, as well as a few other choice myths and movies.  And the really weird thing is that while the movie doesn’t have many original marbles rolling around, it’s managed to hold up against the harsh, erosive barbs of time.  At the spry young age of 25, Willow is still an enjoyable, if sometimes senseless and goofy, adventure romp that’s easy to appreciate for its old fashioned vibes.

There’s not much need to say that the story of Willow sounds a shade familiar to these ears.  Willow introduces us to the land of the Nelwyns, little people who like to farm, live in little houses underground, smoke while having festivals and flirt with breaking copyright laws.  Unsuccessful Nelwyn farmer Willow Ufgood (Warwick Davis) dreams of leaving behind his provincial way of life and becoming a powerful wizard.  Detecting a few shades of that annoying teenager who had to go to Toshi Station to pick up power converters?  One morning Willow’s young children wonder off by the river and find a Daikini baby in a basket.  A Daikini is a normal sized person wish isn’t trademarked in any way shape or form.  This little red headed tyke is the scourge of the Evil Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh).  Yes, the Evil is capitalized as that’s her real first name.  She’s a tyrannical ruler who wants the baby destroyed before it grows up and starts wanting its own credit card.  We’ve seen Bavmorda in movies past, usually wielding a broomstick and controlling an army of flying monkeys.  This baby though is a prophesized baby, in fantasy there is no other kind, who will grow up to destroy Bavmorda and free the land from her iron grip and insane interest rates.

After a pack of Bavmorda’s dogs tear apart Willow’s village looking for the baby, he admits to finding the child, as well as swindling cash from the village pension fund.  No one hears the second confession so his head remains attached to his torso.  To make everyone safe, Willow and a group of fellow villagers, a fellowship one might call it, take off for the land of Daikinies in the hopes of finding a willing soul to take the baby off their unqualified hands.  Their first and only choice?  Val Kilmer’s Han Martigan.  I mean Mad Solo.  I mean Madmartigan.  Madmartigan, besides missing a space to separate his first and last name, is a devil may care warrior who looks like he smokes meth.  He’s also locked in a cage for reasons that we can only guess relate to the missing space in his name and IRS tax returns.  Despite the fact he looks like a white trash cannibal, Willow hands off his cuddly and easily marketable little princess to the mad warrior and hopes for the best.  It’s at this point we should realize Willow is a two-bit selfish idiot and stop watching, but we don’t.  It doesn’t take long for the story to correct course.  Before he knows it, Willow has been bestowed with the baby again and given two small sidekicks, C-3PO and R2-D2 turned into Lilliputians, to help lead him through the forest to the wise wizard who knows how to fix everything.  Instead of finding Alec Guinness in a cloak he finds a talking rat.  This is taking way too long.  Basically it’s just like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings and Wizard of Oz and a bunch of other movies all got thrown together and switched up enough so that the Tolkien estate, or anyone else for that matter, wouldn’t be able to file a lawsuit.

So Willow is silly and cloned from too many other sources to count but it’s still fun.  The primary reason Willow remains watchable is the frisky performance of the one and only Wicket himself, Warwick Davis.  Hate on old man Lucas all you want but he almost single-handedly kept little people actors employed throughout the 1980’s.  He’s not like that schmuck Peter Jackson who had to go and use tricks and special effects to make easily employed regular actors take the place of prime little people career opportunities.  But I digress.  Davis is a plucky and lively actor who shows more interest, depth and range than most actors tasked with headlining special effects films of the now.  He’d has easily made a better Green Lantern than Ryan Reynolds.  And he’s equally backed up by a spirited and wound up Val Kilmer, who had not quite reached the heights of Mt. Asshole that he would one day scale.  This was when Kilmer was being primed to become an outright leading man, something he would achieve for a stint, then piss away because starring in films with 50 Cent is so much better than being in movies people actually see.

The rest of the cast is pretty perfunctory.  The future Ex Mrs. Kilmer, Joanna Whaley, had most of the logic of her part cut out.  She’s the daughter of the evil witch and within the film she becomes good because Kilmer’s character spouts some romantic hogwash at her while he’s tripping balls.  It was an opportunity to turn the damsel in distress part on its head but the effort got lost in the writing and editing.  Apparently Lucas and his lackeys didn’t want anyone getting the idea a girl could be in a movie like this and escape marriage or perhaps think for herself some.  Jean March’s evil witch is evil because, well, she’s evil.  She wears an iron cross on her head and she wants to kill a baby, so she’s like Mel Gibson on the weekend.  Fantasy movies aren’t great places to look for motivation so let’s move on.  The guy who got thrown into the airplane propellers in Raiders is here playing a sort of Darth Vader except his mask is a skull.  The Predator would have loved to face off with this asshole.  He dies in the end so he’s no ones father as far as we’re concerned here and the crossover opportunity is squandered.

Ron Howard was recruited to direct Willow and it still stands as one of the best movies he’s ever made.  I’d watch this a dozen times before I sleep through Frost/Nixon again.  Ron and George make a nice working partnership as neither one worries too much about what makes sense or if something comes across as dopey.  This was the 80’s so dopey was par for the course when it came to fantasy movies and if things move fast enough no one besides assholes like me really notice anyway.  Lucas though never let dopey go.  See the Star Wars prequels.  Need a two-headed dragon?  Have Willow strike a troll with his wand and shout a senseless spell.  How does that make a dragon?  What does the evil queen turn an invading army into for defying her?  Pigs.  That part’s just weird in that left field sense that movies like this specialize in.  It’s not Krull’s flying, fire horses but it’s close.  And how do the people in the castle not notice the pig army being turned back into people?  And then digging holes big enough to hide horses in?  Why didn’t they just go make bacon out of them?  Howard keeps things light and breezy and just kind of glosses over these more asinine elements in his screenplay.  He’s got nice, old school special effects backing him and some actors with actual zip to make it work.  And having one of the most badass adventure film scores ever composed, thank you Mr. Horner, certainly makes it all go down smooth.  This music played over movie previews for a decade.  But Howard’s real ace in the hole is that red coiffed baby.

Ladies, you may not realize it but Willow may be the best date movie you can ever watch with a man.  Why?  Howard drops in so many perfectly timed cute baby reaction shots that are poised to steal your heart and make you smile that you’d have to be one jaded, soulless, baby hating mother fucker not to find them at least a little adorable.  Just watch this and see what he does when that baby flashes its mug.  Does he smile or cringe?  When the movie is over ask him, “What did you think of that cute baby?”  “I hated that damn baby!”  No second date for that loser.  He’s a baby hater!  How many films can help you determine if your guy is a well rounded dude with father potential or an intolerant baby hater?  Not many is the answer.  So you’re welcome ladies.  Don’t ever complain about fantasy movies again.

So yes, Willow is kind of dumb and sort of senseless and Lord of the Rings eventually got made and kind of kicked Willow to the curb, but if Willow has one real advantage over Rings it’s that it’s not 12 hours long.  Not being 12 hours long is a real plus when it’s Saturday night and you’re tired and you want to watch something in the fantasy genre and not feel like a complete dope for doing so.  And once again, you’re welcome ladies.  Now go forth, watch some 80’s fantasy and then make some babies.

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Every Halloween you should make an effort to see a horror film or two that has until then missed you. This year I saw a trifecta of 80’s efforts.  Maybe next year I’ll try some stuff from the 70’s.

Scanners (1981) – Some movies get by on the power of just one scene.  The right scene in the right place can make the audience forget whatever drudgery happened before or happens after.  In the case of David Cronenberg’s Scanners, an exploding head at the movie’s beginning mask the fact that Scanners is mostly a bore to sit through.  One of Cronenberg’s first success stories as a director, Scanners is about a bunch of actors, sorry, Scanners, starring at each other really hard.  By starring at people really hard they can manipulate, harm or even kill them.  The plot’s not very interesting and the dialogue, also by Cronenberg, has all the finesse of tapping on a tin drum for 90 minutes.  Cronenberg has made many interesting movies but he can be distant, alienating and emotionless and Scanners has all of these in abundance.  The casting also leaves a lot to be desired. Little known Canadian thespian Stephen Lack is the lead and he seems to have been cast because he can stare.  He can’t emote for his life but he sure can stare.  He’s the Oliver of staring.  Unfortunately when he’s not staring he’s prozaic.  All of this really doesn’t matter because Scanners is all about that exploding head.

 

 

The Howling (1981) – Joe Dante made a splash in 1984 with his delightfully mean spirited Christmas classic Gremlins.  The film that got him on the map though was 1981’s The Howling.  From the glorious age of ambitious physical effects, Howling features all kinds of gruesome werewolf transformations that helped to define special effects of the era.  The more I revisit this stuff the more I wish some filmmakers would bring it back and give CGI a break.  These are some amazing accomplishments and appreciators of early 80’s horror efforts will love it.  The snag is that you have to sit through and hour of tepid melodrama before you get to any of the cool shit.  The Howling is 60 minutes of silly build up capped off by 30 minutes of what the audience really wants.  Once the werewolves make their presence known and start terrorizing the rest of the cast everything is hunky dory.  But that first hour is a chore.

 

 

Night of the Comet (1984) – An unbearable piece of 80’s sci-fi/horror garbage.  A comet passes the Earth and everyone not locked away in a steel room is turned to red dust.  Thank goodness our heroine was having sex with her scumbag projectionist boyfriend in a sleeping bag on the floor of the projection room when it zoomed by.  For reasons unexplained a few people are turned to zombies instead of dust.  Projector floozy and her sister survive and proceed to have idiotic hijinxs such as firing uzi’s on cars and performing fashion shows in abandoned malls.  It’s hard to tolerate a fashion montage under any circumstance but here it’s mind blowing.  The whole world is dead, so let’s try on clothes!  It’s the kind of clueless movie only a special kind of moron could make in the 1980’s.  Why anyone gives this a pass based on nostalgia or camp factor is something I cannot comprehend.

Red Cliff: There’s a massive review to write for John Woo’s epic “Red Cliff” but I’m not going to write it.  It doesn’t quite warrant the effort.  Just know it’s the largest production ever mounted by China’s film industry, it runs a total of 5 hours over 2 films, there’s lots of pros and cons to weigh about the whole thing, but when it was all said and done, I felt mild respect towards it because of some solid performances, but not much else.  It’s brought down several notches by misguided action scenes which are part “Crouching Tiger”, part “Gladiator”, but never anything their own.   Also, a woefully under imagined film score undermines the entire effort.  It’s as if a cheap, temporary score was left hanging over the film instead of conducting a real one for it.  The entire production feels handicapped by this.  If you’re a fan of Woo, historical war epics or Asian cinema in general, then you’ll probably find a lot to like about this colossal effort.  But for all its ambition and points of merit, it’s far from perfect.

Dreamscape: Look at that poster.  That poster sells.  It’s telling me that this is 80’s Spielbergian influenced adventure with action heroes, monsters and Christopher Plummer doing evil deeds.  That poster is a lie of obese measures. “Dreamscape” is an 80’s high concept vehicle being driven by very little actual imagination.  Dennis Quaid plays a talented psychic who starts working with a government project involving dreams.  He’s supposed to enter into peoples dreams as they sleep, find out what’s driving their nightmares and then help cure them.  But like a lot of product from the time the reach comes up woefully short of the grasp.  It doesn’t take much time before “Dreamscape” has turned into nothing more than a routine political thriller with badly dated special effects.  On a conceptual level the movie could be seen as a precursor and influence on seminal works like “The Matrix”, but there’s nothing entertaining on its own merits at play here.  Some 80’s movies are better left as the forgotten relics they are.

The holidays have allowed me to watch a few things, but not much time to elaborate on them.  Nothing really blew me away but I don’t want to get in the habit of skipping stuff.  Next thing you know I’ll have abandoned this whole endeavor.

Fantastic Voyage (1966) – Well known 60’s sci-fier about a bunch of scientist shrunk down to microscopic size and put in the body of an important guy that can’t be operated on with traditional means.  They have 60 minutes to fix his ailment before they start to grow back to normal size.  Some well known heads are here, Raquel Welsh, Donald Pleasance, but the screenplay is pretty cut and dry.  There’s a nice touch here and there and the special effects are kind of a hoot, the human inside often resembles a boundless lava lamp, but there’s just old fashion dryness to most of it.  If anachronistic special effects are your thing, you might enjoy it.

Vengeance is Mine (1979) (Japanese) – True story of an anarchy loving Japanese man who killed 5 people for minimal reasons and expressed little regret about any of his actions.  Its an oddly paced creation with a non-traditional feel.  After he kills his first two victims he takes to the road, creating false identities for himself. It has a fixation on repetitive sex scenes and secondary characters which prolong things more than they need to be.  Had it been a little less drawn out it would’ve worked better.  Still interesting.

Angel Heart (1987) – Made shortly before Mickey Rourke took a nosedive into career suicide, it’s a not bad showcase for his substantial abilities as an actor.  A 50’s set noir piece about Rourke’s gumshoe digging into the past of a lost man at the behest of a creepy Robert Deniro.  It amounts to not much more than a grand “Twilight Zone” episode and the mystery becomes pretty visible well before it’s revealed, but those interested in Rourke before be crashed and burned might enjoy it for his formidable screen presence.  It courted controversy upon its release because of a lurid, blood soaked sex scene that involved then Cosby kid Lisa Bonet.

Overlord (1975) – A little known British WWII film about a sensitive type fellow who is packed off for the war against the Germans.  Odd in that about half of its 80 minute runtime consist of stock footage from the war.  The footage is all fascinating stuff, but it consistently gets in the way of what little actual film there is.  The small bits of movie which exists in between the archival footage work quite well and there’s probably a great movie there if it had been expanded on, but as it is there’s only the sparsest of stories.

 

Ten Word or Less Review: Daddy’s home!  To kill!

Genuine horror genre gems are few and far between.  Many endeavors, old or new, get undermined for an endless list of reasons that there’s no real need to regurgitate here.  But one thing that sabotages the genre more than anything is credible acting.  Material of a sordid or even amateurish, nature can be elevated with great acting.  And the horror genre, a field ripe with the sordid and amateurish, often cast the inexperienced, the outdated or the ‘just here for the paycheck’ level of actor to stand in frame and yelp, scream or monologue.  1987’s horror venture “The Stepfather” rises above these trappings by casting stalwart character actor Terry O’Quinn as the monster of the title.  His is a performance which elevates this genre exercise from one of sure mediocrity to qualified cult classic.

 The opening scene of “The Stepfather” immediately classifies it as a slightly more than average thing to reckon with.  A wild haired, wooly bearded and blood splattered O’Quinn steps into his bathroom.  He begins to discard his clothing and jewelry.  He takes a shower, cuts his hair and shaves, emerging from the bathroom a completely new man in a new set of clothes.  As he walks down the stairs of his house we’re exposed to the terror he’s unleashed.  A wife and three children lay dead on the floor, their throats slashed.  He walks by their bodies completely at ease with his acts, walks out of the house unrecognized by his neighbors and sets off to find his next family.   So begins Joseph Rubin’s film which turns the American dream into an American horror show.  This intro runs against the grain of traditional horror exploits.  “Stepfather” distincts itself by dwelling on the aftermath of the slaughter, a more important aspect in this case, instead of being hung up on the execution of it. 

 This role helped elevate O’Quinn out of the struggling character actor realm, and in a way I think it also limited his future.  He wouldn’t find wide success in films again.  He worked steadily on TV in various series until he broke out on “Lost” 17 years after “Stepfather.”  Much of this is likely due to what can be referred to Anthony Perkins Syndrome.  Perkins embodiment of Norman Bates in “Psycho” crippled his career.  He played crazy too well and in turn many producers shied away from him because of it.  I suspect a similar fate befell O’Quinn when it came to putting him in features.  His portrayal of a family obsessed psychopath is remarkable for a film of this nature.  His scenes of mental breakdown and rage are as convincing and believable as his quiet moments of family life.  Unlike Nicholson in “The Shining”, you believe this man loves his family when he isn’t day dreaming about killing them.  If you were to remove his more horrific moments, you could almost make a convincing drama about a man trying to adopt a new family and the obstacles he faces in doing so.  But as it is, when his idealized view of family life begins to stretch beyond his acceptable field of vision, he cracks.  He begins to plot his family’s demise and to make preparations for the next one.  O’Quinn’s more elevated moments are delightfully insane and occasionally hilarious.  He gradually works himself up into fits of explosive rage which he relays much too convincingly.

All this adoration isn’t to suggest that “Stepfather” is some kind of unqualified masterpiece.  It isn’t by any stretch.  There isn’t much of anyone to note in the rest of the cast, a stock of forgotten 80’s players who didn’t accomplish much outside of genre work and television.  Director Joseph Ruben can’t work out all the inadequacies in his screenplay either.  He’s got a sure hand and knows that O’Quinn is holding up his movie, but there’s an entire subplot involving a previous wife’s brother searching for O’Quinn’s killer that amounts to little more than the necessary placement of a prop during the climax.  It’s an incredible waste. 

Ruben would go on to make a quasi-trilogy of domestic horror tales rooted in the same kind of style as “Stepfather”.  He made another demented husband thriller with the bland Julia Roberts vehicle “Sleeping with the Enemy” and followed that up with the child from Hell, Macaulay Culkin, in “The Good Son.”  Neither was anywhere near as enjoyable as “The Stepfather.”  Though watching the kid from “Home Alone” fall off a cliff to his death was pretty hilarious.

I often find the cult horror genre to be a bit of a joyless crapshoot.  The attributes that fans of this material enjoy often run contrary to my own taste.  The movies are often slogs through gross out nonsense or poorly made exercises that viewers enjoy for nothing more the rank amateurishness on display.  “The Stepfather” rises above this usual blather by having a fun idea, the extreme warping of American family values by a psychopath, and a sure footed performance to shoulder the movie.  Without these it would be just another slasher run through worth no one’s time.  But considering the skill on display here “The Stepfather” comes off as a worthy effort that any horror fan could proudly recommend to film fans without fear of being scoffed at later.

Ten Word or Less Review: Not for me.

“Night of the Creeps” is apparently a long sought after 80’s horror film which has just now seen the light of day on DVD, 12 years into the format and 23 years after its initial release.  Absence apparently makes the heart grow fonder for some.  I’ll give the movie some credit for trying to be different.  From the alien prologue to the 50’s horror movie intro I thought there might be something worth pursuing here.  But as soon as the movie shifts to its contemporary, 1986, setting, things turn formulaic.  The geek in love with the pretty girl who dates the preppy sleaze again?  Then brain slugs start popping out and zombies shuffle around and everything starts getting shot in the head. I just zoned it out about half way through.  It’s a smidgen cleverer than most of what this genre has to offer and it’s never really a rank thing, but at its core it’s a dopey movie with silly characters that doesn’t have a lot to offer those who don’t think of it without a shot of nostalgia in the arm.

Ten Word or Less Review: As fun as cow pie staring.  The mild, mild west.

“Silverado” has been a staple of the home video market for nearly 25 years.  Though only marginally successful when first released, it has been a title consistently at the ready on the shelf, first at video stores, then on DVD and now on Blu-Ray.  No matter how the market changes, “Silverado” goes with it.  To this I can only infer that the determination of western fans is greater than the average person assumes because if the western genre was dead in the 80’s, “Silverado” does nothing to prove it was otherwise.  Its longevity only proves that people dig mediocrity, especially when it has lots of familiar faces and rides a horse.

“Silverado” could easily be whittled down to a 90 minute action/western exercise.  It doesn’t for a minute delve in rule breaking of any sort.  Director Lawrence Kasdan apparently wanted to make an ode to westerns that harkened back to the films of his youth, but divorced from any of the biting social commentary, anti-heroes or subversive character a lot of those films played with.  It has the grand score and the big vistas, the shoot outs and the horse chases, the good guys and the bad guys, but it’s all tiresomely old fashioned and grasps onto conventions of the genre when it doesn’t need to.  The only thing missing, surprisingly, is a pack of Native Americans needing some white people to expose their plight and instill guilt in the audience.  Characters and scenes seem dropped in simply because this type of story demands they be there.  Is there a strong willed woman there wanting to work the land and make a prosperous life?  Check.  Does she serve any purpose to the story what so ever?  Nope.  It she forgotten half way through and barely acknowledged again?  Yup.  There’s a lot of this padding running through “Silverado.”  The first hour of the film plays out slowly, always flirting with being irrelevant, and it never recovers from the lack of story tension.  It’s meant to serve as character building, but none of it builds up to much.

The commonly perceived idea that big names can sell a movie must work in “Silverado’s” favor because it’s got a great cast of pros few films can rival.  Getting top billing is a miscast Kevin Kline.  No one can do quirky and amiable as well as Kline, he’s got an Oscar to prove it, but here he’s saddled with a stoic good guy role that he’s paralyzed when asked to inject life into.  Kline cannot and should not play square jawed hero types which his role fundamentally amounts to.  His character’s only attributes are run of the mill nobility and friendliness.  When did John Wayne ever worry about being friendly?  Riding at his side and fairing a bit better is Scott Glenn, a man with a leathery face meant for westerns.  If Glenn had been born a bit sooner he could’ve been side by side with Eastwood, Bronson or Van Cleef.  Leone would’ve loved his face.  He should be the star of the film, but things are so crowded with dull, unnecessary characters he never breaks away from the pack.  They collectively strangle his bravado.  “Silverado” feels like it was supposed to be about his character, but someone on the other side of the camera decided against that.  A young and thin Kevin Costner gets a showy but minor part as his irrepressible brother.  There was the potential for a great duo here but once again any lasting impression that could be made is cut off because of too much filler.  When it’s finally over Costner’s character barely feels relevant.  Danny Glover hangs around acting humorless and popping out of rocks to save people when they need it.  The next year he would be too old for this shit and would be better off for it.  Brian Dennehy plays the same prick sheriff he played in “First Blood”, except with a different hat.  Jeff Goldblum is here waiting for David Cronenberg to call about that “Fly” remake.  Rosanna Arquette is that afore mentioned woman of virtue with no point.  The list goes on.

I’ve been wondering about “Silverado” for close to two decades.  That’s a long time to think about seeing a movie that turns out to be this uninteresting.  The movie feels like nothing more than tumbleweed blowing by.  If you’re not a boomer aged, western junkie, there’s no need to ride into this sunset.  Watch “Unforgiven” again.