Tag Archives: the 80s

Killer Elite

As Killer Elite begins, assassin Danny Brice (Jason Statham) decides to hang up his gun. But clearly, it’s not so easy for an assassin to retire, because before long Danny’s best friend Hunter (Robert DeNiro) has been kidnapped by a sheik, held hostage until Danny takes revenge for a murder committed by British secret agents. Danny doesn’t a1140135_killer_elite_3rgue much and sets out to joylessly kill the four British agents on the revenge list.  As the agents start dying, retired superagent Spike (Clive Owen) catches on to Danny’s mission and inserts himself in the middle of the action.

The main problem with Killer Elite is that it’s a showdown between anti-heroes who are either trying to kill or save other anti-heroes. I simply had no idea who to root for. It’s not Jason Statham, who so easily falls into this revenge plot imposed on him by the sheik, who brings no personality at all to this role, and whose dead eyes confirm regret in ever getting involved with this movie. It’s not Clive Owen, who somehow is even less charismatic than dead-eyed Statham. It’s not Robert DeNiro, who is totally forgotten during all but the opening and closing scenes. There’s a huge empty void at the centre of this movie that no one even attempts to fill.

The void is all the more glaring because the action scenes are almost as flat as the characters. They’re not terribly executed but since Killer Elite has nothing else to offer, the fights needed to be great to compensate for everything else that’s lacking. And they’re not. At best they’re a slight change of pace from a mundane story that you’ll be too bored to care about, and at worst they increase the viewer’s boredom by being as lifeless as Statham’s dead eyes.

 

The Wizard

Proudly brought to you by Nintendo, Vision Street Wear, and young Fred Savage, the Wizard is a movie I somehow avoided for 30 years until Netflix shoved it in my face last night. Even in 1989 there was really no reason for me to see it since I had already played Super Mario 3 at my friend Justin’s house (he somehow imported it from Japan).  And revealing that new game was the Wizard’s raison d’être. 

Jimmy Woods (Luke Edwards) is a non-verbal kid who’s been stowed away in a care home by his mom and step-dad. Until Jimmy’s half-brother Corey (Savage) busts him out and stows him away on a delivery truck faster than you can say “tanooki suit”, destination California. After the two boys meet tween runaway Haley (Jenny Lewis) at a bus station, their destination becomes more specific. They’re off to Video Armageddon, a world championship of gaming featuring only 8-bit Nintendo games because Jimmy is secretly a wizard at Double Dragon. But will Jimmy be able to beat his Power-Glove-wielding rival Lucas (Jackey Vinson) at a new Super Mario game that no one has played yet? You’re damn right he will.

At the time, Super Mario 3 was the next great Nintendo game. But now, countless Super Marios later, Super Mario 3 is an ancient relic, rather than a selling point like it was in 1989 (because it had not yet been released in North America. The one point of interest for today’s audience is seeing a very young Tobey Maguire make his very first film appearance (blink and you’ll miss it).  In hindsight it’s clear that Maguire isn’t really acting here in his non-speaking role as Lucas’ tiniest sidekick, and that he was always destined to become one of the biggest assholes in Hollywood.

Otherwise, the Wizard is unforgivably forgettable. It’s not a good movie (and it never tries to be) but it’s also not an enjoyably bad one. Savage does his precocious tween thing, Christian Slater does his precocious teen thing, Beau Bridges does his earnest dad thing, and a bunch of other people presumably do their best acting which was not good enough for them to ever get any other major movie roles. Maybe if I had seen it as a kid I’d be more nostalgic, but without the benefit of nostalgia the Wizard is nothing more than a 96 minute commercial for 30 year old Nintendo games.

Better Off Dead

Random thoughts while watching the 1985 John Cusack film, Better Off Dead

  1. How fragile was glass in the 80s that a single newspaper issue could punch a hole right through it?
  2. Lane (Cusack) showers with his (mismatched) tube socks on. And then he blow dries them. Because why?
  3. How is it that, in a very normal suburban home, a teenage boy has been granted an entire room to use as his personal closet? Especially considering said boy is the same one who showers with his socks on. Not exactly the height of sophistication.
  4. Clearly the dad is supposed to be the bad guy. He’s so grumpy! But really: his garage door is full of holes, one kid is systematically ruining his breakfast while the other has left an eyesore dragging in the driveway for months. I must be old, because now I’m feeling sorry for the dad!
  5. Lane and his girlfriend Beth have 8×10 framed photos of each other in their bedrooms. But why do the teenagers all have large, black and white head shots of themselves?
  6. Did he just attempt to street race someone blindfolded??? OF COURSE the guy he hit was mad! We’re supposed to excuse him or something? Lane is a horrible human being! I don’t know if HE’s better off dead, but I’m starting to suspect that everyone else would be (better off without him, that is).

7. Why does everything the mom makes turn out green?

8. I’m not sure which is more disturbing: that the almost 8 year old, cereal loving little brother has leopard print loungewear, or that he seems to be retrofitting toys into real weapons.

9. The script is so bad, Lane has to constantly narrate his stream of consciousness out loud so we know how deeply saddened by his girlfriend of 6 whole months (the aforementioned Beth) dumping him for the hunky new ski fiend. As if the suicide attempts weren’t doing it for us.

10. The paperboy is such a little punk. But do you remember paper boys? And the little card that you’d keep track of, that they’d hole punch each week that you paid. But they’d ring the bell at random times, and always claimed you owed for 5 weeks, which somehow came up to $2.60, but of course you never had it? What a weird time in human history that that was how we got our news.

11. You know how you get up in class to solve an algebra problem at the board but then just stand there fantasizing about the night you lost your virginity in a station wagon (which is only slightly better than losing it TO a station wagon)? Yeah. No.

12. So Lane attempts to take up roller skating to impress a girl (white guys, amirite?) and somehow manages to accidentally tear all the clothes off a cheerleader, who just happens to be wearing a matching set of lingerie under her uniform. As teenager girls do. Obviously.

13. Lane skis in a variety of Bill Cosby sweaters which makes no sense. But still makes slightly more sense than his buddy who complains about not being able to get real drugs in this small town, and yet he somehow procured a top hat in which to ski.

14. Three suicide attempts later, the movie has made 0 mentions of mental health, and Lane’s parents address the situation by a) telling him to “mellow off” and b) forcing him to go on a date with a girl of their choosing against his will. Yes, I’m as surprised as you are that this method of treatment seems to have not really caught on.

15. Did any of your high school dances have live bands?

16. There’s a claymation interlude of a hamburger singing Van Halen’s Everybody Wants Some. It is very bad but still a welcome break in the actual movie.

17. I can’t believe that a French teenager came all the way to America for an exchange semester, and in her 2 allotted suitcases for 6 months, she packed a coverall. Suspicious.

18. Oh he’s legit going to try to seduce her with a saxophone? A SAXOPHONE IS NOT AND WILL NEVER BE AN ACOUSTIC GUITAR, LANE.

19. They take turns skiing under each other’s crotches. Can this possibly be interpreted as romantic?

20. In what I can assure you is an extremely lame showdown, Lane proposes a ski-off to his bully. And despite being the vastly inferior skier, AND having only one ski, AND being relentlessly pursued by the paperboy, he somehow wins. Somehow.

21. But that’s not even half as lame as when he uses the poles to duel his loser neighbour, and then throws the french exchange student over his shoulder when he wins her. Ahem.

22. And then he parks his Camaro on a baseball diamond and makes out with her??? Ladies and gentlemen: peak American obnoxiousness.

23. John Cusack has only ever seen the first 20 minutes of this movie because he walked out, embarrassed and furious at the director. I watched all 97, but can assure you that even 20 is too many.

TIFF18: White Boy Rick

The trailers for White Boy Rick deceived me. I expected a frenetic, over-the-top throwback full of 80s excess, rollerskating, and outlandish behaviour as fifteen year old Ricky (Richie Merritt) breaks into the Detroit crime scene in 1984, assisted by his gunrunning dad (played by the madcap Matthew McConaughey). I expected a dark comedy. I hoped for Scarface, the teenage years, with lots of action and quotable dialogue. I would have settled for half-assed ripoff of Boogie Nights, with a naive rising star breaking into a criminal enterprise.

But instead, I got a melancholy family drama about a group of deadbeats with whom I had no interest in spending any time at all. Not as friends, not as neighbours, and certainly not as the subjects of a two hour feature. Ricky’s story is not a story that deserves to be told on screen, and that’s fatal. I never could bring myself to care about him or his family, not even a little bit. That is in no way the fault of Merritt or McConaughey. It is also not an issue arising from the screenplay or the direction. It’s more basic than that: there was no saving these characters. They were simply irredeemable.whiteboyrick_01

It’s unfortunate because there is a story underlying White Boy Rick that does deserve our attention: the fact that the 80s “War on Drugs” was primarily a scheme to keep America’s prisons stocked with young black men. And, as a bonus in many states, strip them of their right to vote once convicted of a felony, which many might even plead to if they were locked up and mistreated for long enough prior to trial.

That is a story that has been much better told by Ava DuVernay’s 13th (which is definitely worth your time). That is also a story that should probably not be told from a white family’s perspective, as doing so suggests that mandatorylife sentences without the possibility of parole for crack dealers are only a problem when white people start getting locked away too.

Yet, here we are. Ricky’s life is onscreen for you to shake your head at, if you so choose. But you have much better options available to you in the coming weeks (such as The Predator and Life Itself, to name two I saw this past weekend at TIFF). Then again, if you are about bad choices, like choosing White Boy Rick over either of those, then maybe you will find the movie more enjoyable due to having something in common with little Ricky and his family, who never met a bad choice they didn’t like. Yes, I just went there, but it’s for your own good.

Rampage

dimsI didn’t know what to make of this movie after seeing the trailer but I had a bad feeling this would be one of those movies that Jay uses as leverage against me. But I knew I would drag her to anyway. You see, when I was a kid one of my favourite quarter-munching arcade games was Rampage, because it let me be Godzilla, smashing buildings, eating army guys, and grabbing helicopters out of the air. So when I did not realize this movie was based on that videogame until the title popped up at the very end of the trailer, I was more than a little skeptical.

After seeing the movie, I can confim my skepticism was totally warranted. Rampage is just another middling entry in the Rock’s mindless action movie portfolio. It’s not a standout as an action film generally, and not even noteworthy when compared to the Rock’s other action films. At least Rampage knows it’s dumb and has some fun at its own expense (a Rock specialty), and it actually feels quite a lot like the videogame once the action starts.

images (1)Where Rampage fails is that it takes FOREVER for the action to start, which is the worst thing a dumb action movie can do. That plodding pace is particularly egregious when the video game version is as light on exposition as anything ever made, while the movie wants to include a lentghy origin story for the monsters. I didn’t care how the monsters came to be (“radiation” has always been a good enough reason) and I definitely didn’t care to spend time with a sociopathic brother-sister team who made this DNA modifying thingamajig that fell from the sky. Three city-destroying monsters fighting the Rock would have been enough. No more was needed.

So Rampage manages to be too dumb for someone like Jay, who doesn’t like dumb action movies, and not dumb enough for someone like me, who just wanted to see an old mindless videogame become a new mindless blockbuster. If you liked the game you could do worse when Rampage is available on Netflix (but probably also do better), and if you didn’t know Rampage was a game until reading this review then you should probably skip this one altogether.

Ready Player One

ready-player-oneThere are very few immutable truths in this world, but here’s one: if you don’t like Steven Spielberg’s movies, then you don’t like movies. The brilliance of Ready Player One (and it is brilliant) is that it’s a Spielberg movie through and through, only because its source material references Spielberg repeatedly, the result is something exponentially more Spielberg than you could ever have though possible.  Ready Player One is a true blockbuster and a worthy addition to Spielberg’s list of classics.

All the references contained here, not just to Spielberg’s past work but to every pop culture thing ever, are essential for this movie to work, and Spielberg clearly knows it. Moreover, he embraces it without reservation. After all, the book (which should be read immediately by anyone between ages 30 and 50 who grew up playing videogames) is the perfect vessel for 80s nostalgia. The movie clearly is trying to top the book’s reference count, and it may have succeeded (the totals are way too high to accurately count).

What is great about the book remains great in the movie. And yet, the movie and book tell significantly different stories, which is greater still because there are all sorts of some amazing surprises to be found in the film even if you’ve read the book repeatedly. At tonight’s SXSW world premiere, Spielberg introduced the film by stating he approached it as pure fan service and his mission was to give the people in the seats exactly what they wanted, and I can confirm he accomplished exactly that. Oh, yes, that’s right, WE GOT TO WATCH READY PLAYER ONE WITH STEVEN SPIELBERG. It was every bit as mindblowing as it sounds.

Also mindblowing: one particular sequence in the movie that pays homage to a classic film (incidentally, it’s not an homage to a Spielberg film; rather, it’s to a film directed by someone who influenced Spielberg – and it’s not something that was in the book).  I do not think I am exaggerating to say it is one of the finest sequences that Spielberg has given us, which obviously is a big deal because we are talking about STEVEN FUCKING SPIELBERG. You will know this sequence when you see it, and as soon as you do you will want to immediately see it again. And again. And again.

That amazing sequence is a standout but it’s not alone. There are several other incredible set pieces in Ready Player One, containing some of the best visual effects we’ve ever seen. Of course, the effects are only window dressing. What makes the scenes so great is Spielberg. As the camera swerves and dodges, and as avatars fight monsters, drive cars through obstacle courses, and traverse epic battlefields by leaps and bounds, the viewer is never lost for a second, because we are being guided through the chaos by a master. I loved this movie and I bet you will too. I’m just sorry to have to wait two weeks before I can watch it again.

 

Blade Runner

Jay provides an excellent litmus test anytime I’m unable to separate nostalgia from quality.  It happened with Star Wars, it happened with Indiana Jones, and it has now happened with Blade Runner.  As I write this, it occurs to me that Jay may just hate Harrison Ford, but let’s leave that aside for now.

Yes, because Blade Runner 2049 is on the horizon, I was able to convince Jay to watch Blade Runner with me earlier this week.  Anytime I can get Jay to watch what I will call nerd-fi, a category that includes most movies I saw in the 80s and 90s, it feels like a major brunner4victory.  But only until the movie starts, because so far, about 5 minutes into each movie I proudly show to Jay, she wonders why I bothered to beg her to watch this one, asking things like, “Do you remember it being this bad?” when the flying cars first come into view.

Maddeningly, I can’t even argue against her assessments.  In 2017, Blade Runner is not a great movie.  It’s not really even a good movie.  It’s a movie with vision, it’s beautiful to look at (though the flying cars do look as horrible as Jay pointed out), it brought dystopian futures and particularly Philip K. Dick to mainstream cinema, and it has an ambiguous ending that becomes even more so with every new cut issued by Ridley Scott.  But it’s also a movie with cornball acting, disposable characters that we are barely introduced to, and a ton of sequences that are beautiful but: (a) extremely repetitive (how many times do we need to see a car fly by a Coke billboard or the offworld blimp ad);  (b) essentially silent (like Ford’s visit to a food cart/open air diner); and (c) do nothing to advance the plot (which, let’s be honest, is probably about 35 minutes worth of movie without being padded by all the beautiful shots of futuristic Los Angeles).

brunnerStill, there is something to be said about Blade Runner and something reassuring about its continued relevance.  A big reason that the movie feels thin today is because it has been so influential.  We’ve seen so many films build on what Blade Runner started, and in comparison, Blade Runner is like a wheel made out of stone.  In that way, it’s important but if choosing between the original or the best that the genre has to offer today, the modern film is going to be the better one.  But there is still room in my heart for the rickety original, the one that was ahead of its time (and ahead of ours, as Blade Runner is set in the “distant” future of 2019).

And in some distant future of our own, maybe I will find a movie that I feel nostalgic for that also stands up to Jay’s critical eye.  Your suggestions are welcome!