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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The Toxic Avenger

The Toxic Avenger.
Troma Entertainment 1984.

Before watching the movie:

I hadn’t heard of this movie until I stumbled across it on a streaming platform, but apparently it has a cult following. It’s from about 20 years later than I initially thought, but I also thought it was played straighter. This is going for satire, not camp.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the grotesque deformity the accident that gave him his super powers came from is a specific take-that to all of the superheroes and villains that got their start from chemical or nuclear accidents and end up looking amazing, or at most with a cool scar on the face, completely unlike most things that suddenly and dramatically change a human body in reality.

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Movies of My Yesterdays: UHF

As I grew up, I eventually discovered my parents’ music collection, and among it, my father’s Weird Al CDs (and eventually the Doctor Demento cassettes and tape recordings of Weird Al vinyl albums). I considered myself a fan of Al Yankovic, but eventually I learned that there was a lot more than just the self-titled album, Even Worse, and Alapalooza. But I think I was in high school before I found UHF.

UHF. Cinecorp 1989.

While I usually came to these kinds of things through library catalog raids, I distinctly remember my favorite high school teacher showing this movie on a slack day, and a lot of the most iconic parts of the movie were definitely new to me at the time, so except for possibly passing some of the more random elements while channel surfing and not knowing what it was, I’m confident in saying that my teacher playing it in class was the first time I saw this movie, although I don’t think we finished it then (a common theme among movies played at school, considering a class period is a little less than an hour and a movie is at least 75 minutes). I eventually saw it on DVD, the menus of which are how I first encountered Al’s updated (hair down, no mustache, no glasses) look that was probably old, old news by then.

As recall, the plot is probably the most forgettable part of the movie, though it’s clearly constructed as a means to let Al’s comedic ideas and abilities (and those of his writing partner) play. Al’s character George comes into control of a tiny local TV station and builds it into the area’s most must-watch TV through just having weird ideas nobody in the TV industry would have, a sure threat to the big network that wants him out of competition for their ratings.

There’s more story and fewer sketches than I remember. Stanley is shown at the beginning to be a daydreamer, but that’s not carried through most of the movie. The cutaways are almost entirely station ads once the story gets going until the big Rambo parody daydream at the end. The Beverly Hillbillies music video could be argued to be continuing his flights of fantasy, but it’s framed as a dream instead of a daydream, and it’s so different from the imagination sequences that it just seems awkwardly shoved in.

I’m not sure if RJ Reynolds seems like a parody of someone specific in broadcasting or if Kevin McCarthy is just that much of a presence in his own right. He feels like the most noteworthy actor in a movie with Weird Al, Kramer, and The Nanny despite the fact that I had to look up his name. He seems like a Leslie Nielson type whose serious appearance is usually played for comedy.

It’s unfortunate that this movie didn’t do well enough to let Al continue to make movies in the 90s. He’s only in the last few years been able to take the time to pursue comic acting alongside his music career as he reached the end of his album contract. This is at least as good as a classic National Lampoon or Airplane!-type movie, and he seems like he could’ve done more. I should probably look up AlTV, which sounds somewhere between talk show parody and actual talk show, but more in this vein would have been on another level.

Rewind: Adventures in Babysitting

Yesterday’s Movies began in December 2009. I’m marking ten years of … uh, zeitgeist hitting the fan, apparently, with a look back at the first movie I reviewed on a weekly update schedule.

Adventures in Babysitting.
Touchstone/Silver Screen Partners III 1987

I remember this movie positively, so I’m surprised how negative my review sounds. My topics still might not necessarily flow into each other, but I try to be coherent on at least the level of paragraphs. I’m pretty sure my original review is more jumbled than the movie seemed to me at the time.

While Thor is still a random character to be enamored with for the 80s, his film appearances in the last decade have certainly raised his relevancy now. In 2009, if I even knew that Marvel Studios was making a Thor movie, I was aghast and perplexed that someone thought he was a movie superhero. His first two solo movies didn’t do much to change my mind, but as an ensemble player and in Ragnarok, I enjoy him a lot now.

Chris’s boyfriend cancels on their anniversary dinner at the last minute, and Chris ends up agreeing to babysit Thor fan Sara and her older brother Brad, who has a freshman crush on Chris. When Chris’s friend Brenda spends all her money running away to the bus station downtown, Chris takes her charges into the city, along with Brad’s lecherous friend Daryl. A fast succession of misadventures soon causes them to be targeted by a murderous gang of car thieves.

It’s a lot easier to complain about movies than to discuss what’s good or analyze them. I still think Daryl’s initial portrayal is way over the top, but that comes from a combination of him being a kid who doesn’t know or care what’s not okay in a time when they didn’t know as well what wasn’t okay. Everyone’s characterizations as they’re introduced are a little heavy-handed, it’s just that Daryl’s really hasn’t aged well.

For a city as diverse as Chicago, it seems a little odd that the three different music venues visited are all into rhythm and blues. It’s good music, and the Babysitting Blues is a highlight of a scene, but I think it reveals where someone’s taste in music lay.

I think Sara’s love of Thor might be meant to draw a parallel between comic book adventures and the gang’s series of travails. Every time they get themselves out of trouble, they quickly land in a new kind of it. Also Thor may a bit of an odd choice, but he definitely is one of the easiest comic book superheroes to accidentally cosplay as, which leads to the most important Sara scene.

Looking back at what I was writing ten years ago, I think it’s easy to see how much I’ve grown into this. I don’t always feel like my writing makes sense, but I’ve developed a sensibility that I don’t think would let something that disjointed get published now. A good movie deserves better than a pile of disconnected complaints.

The Final Days

The Final Days.
Multicom Entertainment Group 1989

Before watching the movie:

Long ago, in another time, a corruption scandal went all the way to the top and there were consequences. This is the story of what was happening in the White House as Nixon’s power and psyche crumbled.

As interesting as the intrepid reporting profiled in All The President’s Men was, it’s a story told from the outside. It’s a mystery, but one where every reader will know who did it, just not the path the sleuths took to figuring it out. As I watched that movie, and more so as I read the book, I was more interested in the legal and political processes that, as the story went on, seemed increasingly out of focus as Woodstein followed the money. So I was glad to find that their followup book was a reconstruction of what was happening in the Nixon White House as everything fell apart, put together from interviews with basically everyone involved except Nixon himself. The Happily Never After of the political fairy tale.

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