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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Fright Night

Fright Night. Vistar Films 1985.

Before watching the movie:

I somehow got the sense that there’s a whole blend of spooky stuff going on in this movie to the point that it might be an anthology movie or at least have an episodic progression. Turns out it’s just “there’s a vampire next door”. I guess the broad title comes from the horror show that the main character likes to watch that he eventually recruits the host from after nobody else believes him.

I’ve also gotten the impression this is really campy in just the right way, but it doesn’t seem to actually be considered a comedy, so I think I probably know what kind of tone to expect, but I thought this was a completely different movie until earlier today.

After watching the movie:

Charley Brewster is obsessed with two things: the late night horror movie show Fright Night, hosted by Peter Vincent the former star of cheesy vampire movies, and getting his girlfriend of over a year Amy to do more than kiss with him. He notices a coffin being carried into the basement of the house next door, and the next day sees a woman entering that house, and later sees the neighbor in the window brandish fangs and begin to bite her. Charley sees her appear on the news the next day as the second killing in town that week. After a failed attempt to get the police to intervene, Charley realizes he’s tipped his hand and now the vampire, “Jerry”, will be coming for him. Charley tries to solicit Peter Vincent’s help, but Vincent dismisses him too. Concerned with Charley’s obsession, Amy and their friend “Evil” Ed pay Vincent to help them prove to Charley that Jerry isn’t a vampire, but Vincent gets spooked off when, after Jerry passes the staged tests, Vincent sees that Jerry has no reflection in a mirror.

The first half of the movie seems very disconnected from the title, since Vincent only appears on TV and Charley is completely alone in his knowledge of Jerry’s secret. Even though this isn’t much more than 90 minutes, it felt like it was an hour of Charley alone and then an hour of Charley with his friends and Vincent. Eventually it comes to the point where it feels like it’s been building to make the title meaningful, but for a long time, it seemed like an afterthought title.

When I read that the horror host’s name was “Peter Vincent”, my immediate thought was that he would be a legally distinct echo of Vincent Price, but Roddy McDowall completely removed any impression of Price from my mind. He has an entirely different take on playing a former B-horror hero.

Jerry Dandridge seems to be an early step in modernizing vampire depictions. There’s a visible line running from him to the characters in Interview with The Vampire to the Twilight vampires. He’s aggressively normal, at least until his illusion slips. Charismatic in a modern sensibility. And they do take advantage of the R rating to demonstrate his seductive abilities. But I don’t think there’s any name that strikes less of a “vampire” chord than “Jerry Dandridge”.

This is just a little short of the true classic quality, but I can definitely see its merit as a cult classic, and it’s not surprising there’s an extensive franchise underneath it. The charm is there, there’s an inventiveness (or reinventiveness) to it, but it doesn’t quite have the polish it could have.

Some Kind of Hero

Some Kind of Hero.
Paramount Pictures 1982.

Before watching the movie:

The first brief summations I read for this just say that the character is a veteran having a hard time coming home and getting into “trouble”. Which also describes First Blood. A slightly more involved summary mentioned that he ends up in a criminal heist for the mob, which I can certainly see being played for laughs or drama, and in fact, the book this is based on was a serious drama, but this is a dramedy because the studio insisted that Richard Pryor do comedic scenes. I think it will be interesting to see Pryor do as much drama as the suits will allow him to.

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