Movies of my Yesterdays: The Secret of My Success

I’m not sure how this evaded my first pass through the filmography of Michael J. Fox in middle school/high school when I discovered Back to the Future. Maybe it was because the library didn’t have it. This one, I found in a rummage sale. I feel like the idea of seeing his character get rich successful quick was an element that attracted me, but mostly it was just that I was a fan of his work.

The Secret of My Success. Rastar 1987.

I think there’s a reason I get a bit of a similar feeling to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in parts of this movie aside from the fact that they both use “Oh Yeah” by Yello, which I’m sure is the main link between them. Perhaps it’s a general 80s yuppie aesthetic.

Brantley Foster, fresh out of college from Kansas, arrives in New York with the promise of a job in big business and high hopes of growing an impressive career from it, only to find that the job evaporated the day he arrived. Stymied everywhere by entry level jobs demanding experience he hasn’t got, he seeks an audience with Howard Prescott, the CEO of Pemrose Corporation, with whom he has the sketchiest of family ties. Impressed by his brief moment with his “nephew”, Prescott begrudgingly gives him a job in the mailroom. Eager to make the most of this opportunity, Brantley uses his position in the mailroom to learn everything about Pemrose’s operations, and after answering a phone in a vacated office and making good executive decisions for the harried manager on the other end, Brantley hatches a plan to create a fictional executive named “Carlton Whitfield” from his vantage point in the mailroom and commandeer that vacant office to prove his worth to everyone who won’t give “Brantley from Kansas” a chance. Not only do “Whitfield’s” ideas shake up the status quo so much that Prescott worries that he’s a spy from the corporate raider trying to make a hostile takeover of Pemrose, they get him close to the beautiful executive of his dreams Christy Wills. However, his time in the mailroom also got him the attention of an executive’s wife seeking revenge on her cheating husband by having an affair of her own, the executive in question turning out to be Howard Prescott himself.

While the first few times I watched this movie I learned a lot about how hostile takeovers work and vaguely got the idea that the trendy but panicked cuts to expenditures would cause a panic in the market while bold expansion could strengthen the company’s value, what struck me this time is just how much inefficiency is in the upper levels of Pemrose. Of course, Brantley notes in his studies that there are departments with overlap that don’t talk to each other or do their job well, but for all the talk of cutting the company’s expenses to the bone, no mention is made of options like reducing executive salaries, putting the space taken by the company gym to better use, or not using the limousines from the motor pool to chauffeur around non-employees (though Prescott’s wife is technically the company owner). The Suits really do live comfortably on the backs of the trench workers they’re ready to turn out in the streets to raise stock prices a few cents.

The directorial choices often feel like a dream. There are multiple mopey montages set to sad power ballads. Flashbacks aren’t accompanied by any visual language identifying them as flashbacks, leaving it to the intelligence of the audience to work out that this already happened. There’s also one or two dreamy imagine spots just intercut with the scene like they’re supposed to be diegetic. The climax also feels a bit underwhelming. After spending so long frantically keeping all these plates spinning with some big, madcap close calls, Brantley gets outed relatively quietly.

This movie is the main source of my interest in mailroom work. I’ve also since gotten experience that translates well to a corporate mailroom, but mostly I always thought what I saw Brantley, or rather his slacker partner, doing in the mailroom, was work I could handle pretty well. Even that looks better than anything I’ve done until my latest job. And there are plenty of “worked their way out of the mailroom” stories, even if most didn’t do it with the flash of Brantley Foster.

When I first saw this movie I was a bit entranced by not only the elegance of the executive lifestyle, but also the raw independence of Brantley’s meager life on his own in a new city. Having lived through my own “starting out alone in a new city” and gotten jaded by the excesses of the wealthy, a lot of the shine has worn off this movie, but there’s still a kind of melancholy splendor to it. It’s a more mature movie than I could really appreciate at first.

Yellowbeard

Yellowbeard. Hemdale Film Corporation 1983.

Before watching the movie:

This looked like a bit of a mess when I first passed by it and taking a closer look now it seems like it’s even worse than it initially appeared. The huge cast of big names probably means that nobody except Graham Chapman’s Yellowbeard gets much time to be all that important to the plot. There’s a whole lot of Monty Python alums here, but it’s not a Monty Python or Terry Gilliam project. Though as Chapman is a writer, it’s easy to see how they were assembled.

At this point, it seems that the most marketable names in the movie are Cheech and Chong, and it’s not just weird that they’d be in a movie together and not at the center of it, but I don’t understand what they’re doing in such a Python-y movie.

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The Toy

The Toy. Rastar 1982.

Before watching the movie:

I’ve seen many stories about an obscenely rich person obtaining living characters as a personal plaything for themselves or their children, but I doubt any of them were direct references to this story so much as just yet another commentary on how rich people live in a completely different world.

I think Jackie Gleason is primarily known for playing a decidedly blue collar guy, so it seems like an unusual choice to cast him as the eccentric millionaire. However it seems like most of Richard Pryor‘s movies in the 80s were about him reacting to finding himself in impossible situations, so the dissonance of agreeing to something bizarre he doesn’t believe in because he needs the money fits that pattern.

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Wheels on Meals

Wheels on Meals. Golden Harvest 1984.

Before watching the movie:

This seems relatively obscure, at least in this country, as a Hong Kong import. Though it did launch a franchise under the title it was distributed with in Japanese.

The first summary I saw didn’t give me much of an idea of what to expect and the other summary appears to lay out the entire movie, so i still don’t know what to expect beyond a couple of cousins running a food truck getting sidetracked by getting involved in… taking down a crime ring? Rescuing a Spanish heiress? I don’t have a whole lot to go on, but something something probably not The Pink Panther with kung fu (well, kung fu outside of the Kato scenes), but that’s the best thing I can connect it to with what I have.

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K-9

K-9. Universal Pictures 1989.

Before watching the movie:

The only thing I knew about this movie was the broad strokes “buddy cop with a dog” concept that made it forever paired with Turner and Hooch (along with both coming out the same year). I’m also vaguely aware of some sequels that appear to have come along very late, which makes me wonder if this left a better mark than the other movie, since I wasn’t aware of any sequels. However, it turns out that there was in fact a pilot for a Turner and Hooch series in the 90s and another remake series is currently in production because of course it is, so I guess it’s really just a matter of which one had more success getting greenlit.

I see some emphasis on the dog in this movie being really smart, which I thought for a moment meant there was going to be some experimental lab program he came from, but on closer inspection it looks like it’s just normal smart comedy dog kinds of canine intelligence. That’s less surprising but also not as interesting. It will probably be fun enough anyway. It did get three sequel/spinoff movies after all, so there must be something here they’re trying to replicate.

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Jane and the Lost City

Jane and the Lost City.
New World Pictures 1987.

Before watching the movie:

The legend of the comic strip “Jane” is of a series of contrived pretenses to get the attractive young woman character to lose her clothes, especially around soldiers, drawn as a morale booster for British soldiers in WWII. When I was investigating the background of what this movie is based on, I couldn’t even get much more out of Wikipedia, because the legend is that pervasive. But that just made me even more curious how this pulp adventure-sounding story could relate to that beyond jamming an attractive girl named Jane whose clothes keep falling off into the plot.

I was able to find an article that traces a somewhat more comprehensive history (part 1 of 4, sequential parts are backward in the archive for some reason), where I was able to learn that it started as a high society satire/romance comic a bit like how I imagine early Blondie was before it fossilized around Dagwood’s suburban atomic family, and only later did the titillation creep in, and the war only took it over still later than that, but that reaches the end of the scope of the article, so while I have an impression that Jane was getting into war-related scrapes as an officer’s secretary, I still don’t have much of an idea of how that translates into a movie described as “Winston Churchill sends Jane on a mission to retrieve diamonds from a lost African city before the Nazis can get them.”

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Explorers

Explorers. Paramount Pictures 1985.

Before watching the movie:

I know pretty much nothing about this. I’d never heard of it before it languished in one of my streaming queues for years untouched, looking vaguely interesting, but not all that exciting. Looking closer now, I see it’s a story about a couple of boys who build an intergalactic spaceship in their backyard and have a fantastical coming of age adventure and… how did I not encounter this growing up? A kid-oriented sci-fi movie from square in the middle of the 80s, which produced such sci-fi-ish legends most of the best Star Trek movies, two-thirds of the original Star Wars trilogy, Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, and such childhood classics as Stand By Me, Labyrinth (I thought I reviewed that one?), The Never-Ending Story, and of course the most-known member of both categories, E.T.? This seems like it could have had the chance to have been my favorite movie at age nine, maybe as a companion to Flight of the Navigator if I’d known about that before my teens.

I think I’ve experienced movies too late before (see most classic slasher movies, which I was too scared of to watch when they wouldn’t have seemed cheesy to me), so I’m hoping that watching this movie as an entire adult won’t diminish the magic it looks like they’re trying to capture here too much.

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Movies of My Yesterdays: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

I recall this movie coming into the house through a joint garage sale with my aunt’s family. Or rather, I remember seeing the tape at one of the garage sales, and then I remember finding it in our collection months or years later. I don’t know why it didn’t interest me for a long time, but I think I didn’t get to it until I was in my 20s or late teens. I can’t recall now if the portion I saw on TV (I mainly remember hearing “Mele Kalikimaka” for the first time) got me interested, or if I was just going through the video collection and connected it with the Christmas movie everybody liked and decided to watch it for that reason. I’m a little surprised I didn’t seek it out when I was in my significant “all the traditions” phase, but I think I would’ve been scandalized at the time if I had.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
Hughes Entertainment 1989.

Clark Griswold and his family is hosting Christmas for the extended family for the first time, and Clark is determined to make it perfect. He marches his wife Ellen and their children deep into the forest to find The Perfect Tree, he blankets the house in 25,000 lights that he can’t get working, and packs every room with family members, including the son and daughter of his wife’s uninvited cousin Eddie, who drove the rusty trailer they live in to join the family. Clark is also starting to wonder where his Christmas bonus check is, which he badly needs to cover the deposit he already laid out to install a swimming pool.

I seem to recall that before I first saw the movie,I didn’t think the poster was very much help in understanding what it’s about, but the problem is that it’s an extremely episodic movie that doesn’t have a more significant overarching plot than “Clark tries to make a perfect Christmas for his extended family”, which is hard to convey on a poster. Just about every scene is a vignette of a crazy family Christmas, but the lights and the bonus check are the most consistent throughlines. So a lighting accident it is.

While it’s a Chevy Chase vehicle with many scenes stolen by Randy Quaid, this is the first time I noticed that Clark’s son Rusty is played by a young Johnny Galecki, best known for The Big Bang Theory. Even at the young age, there were moments where I recognized his acting style. My wife also pointed out that Beverly D’Angelo has a strong resemblance to Amy Pohler. I don’t know if any of the elderly uncles and grandparents are notable actors, but many of them are also doing very memorable character work.

This movie is somehow pitched to the point of absurdity yet relatable to the point it at times feels almost like a set of generic scenes of the Christmas experience. John Hughes may have hit a bigger classic with Home Alone, but I think this is better at creating the adult experience of Christmas. I suspect that there are people for whom it’s so relatable, it’s too stressful, like my experience watching The Long, Long Trailer so soon after driving a trailer across the country. It may not be a Christmas staple to me, but it’s always welcome. Because while we have plenty of opportunities to remember warmth and generosity at Christmas, it’s also just a real catharsis to have a laugh at the hassle we impose on ourselves too.

Weekend at Bernie’s

Weekend at Bernie’s.
Gladden Entertainment 1989.

Before watching the movie:

I never considered before that this is one of those movies that everyone references and nobody really goes beyond the log line. I couldn’t say much more about this movie than the poster does. Two hapless guys puppet their dead boss through a weekend to avoid getting blamed for his death. I don’t think I even knew it had to do with a mafia hit until I tried to read up on it a little. I think there’s a scene where they use him to withdraw money from a bank. That’s all I know.

I’m surprised I haven’t heard of any of these actors. I would’ve thought somebody involved was a household name in comedy, even if just the corpse.

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Electric Dreams (1984)

Before watching the movie:

I wanted to find a positive movie about the internet, telepresence, computers and communication bringing us together. Here in the holiday season of 2020, people are either lamenting not being able to join family gatherings or participating in the greatest infection spike of the year by going anyway. I wanted to find a story about people who are separated for Reasons being able to bring light into each others’ lives through the internet, video chat, hologram, or virtual reality communication.

Nobody wants to tell optimistic stories about technology. We get movies like The Net, where hackers can destroy a target’s entire life because the internet enables them, The Matrix, where the Machines put humans into a VR simulation of the 1990s so they wouldn’t notice they’re being enslaved, Lawnmower Man, where a mentally disabled man is plugged into a VR world and decides to become a god, and just so very many movies about killer computer programs being unleashed on the real world.

The most positive candidates I could come up with were Surrogates, a movie about a world where most people plug their brains into lifelike androids and never leave the safety of their homes (which I’ve already seen, and it’s not all that positive), Avatar, where the military plugs a disabled man’s brain into an alien body and he gets to know the aliens’ culture and decides to side with them over the military that wants to destroy their home (again, already seen), and Hyperland, a very odd TV special where virtual Tom Baker teaches Douglas Adams about the lifechanging ways that computers are going to change his life in the coming decades (not a movie, and already seen). I have not seen Ready Player One, but it seems maybe too positive on the idea of escaping into virtual worlds. I get the idea that it’s less about creating virtual communities and more about how it’s cool to base your life on pop culture.

Electric Dreams. Virgin Films 1984.

In fact, the only stories about the internet bringing family together that I can think of are thirty-second short films about things like Spectrum saving Christmas. Because it seems the only people who want to tell inspiring stories about the internet are the companies who are selling you the internet. Everyone else is just much more fascinated with technology gone wrong.

So, I’ve settled on this obscure romantic comedy about a love triangle between a man, a woman, and a computer. Does it probe my thesis about the internet bringing people together? Almost certainly not. But it’s about a computer character and nobody gets murdered (probably), so I’m going to take it.

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