Tag Archives: the 80s

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.

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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!

Man vs Snake: The Long and Twisted Tale of Nibbler

I am too young to remember Nibbler from the arcade but it was on my computer at some point during university, along with Solitaire, Hearts, and Free Cell.  In Nibbler, the player controls a snake with the goal of eating all the dots on the board.  But every dot you eat makes your snake get longer (in a very non-sexual way), and if you let the snake run into itself then it dies (I guess because it is super poisonous?). All in all, a pretty simple concept, but like most 80s games, you can playmanvssnake-cartoon-billionpoints-700x374 the game forever doing the exact same thing over and over, just a little faster each time.

As a natural-born procrastinator, I played a few rounds of Nibbler while avoiding writing research papers.   Is it just me or has YouTube/Facebook/Twitter made all those games obsolete?  Anyway, back in the day I became quite good at Free Cell but mastery over Nibbler always eluded me.  Part of it was that I found the game extremely boring (possibly more boring than writing the paper I was trying to avoid), so I’d only last one or two games and then I’d move on to something else.

Unlike me, there are 40+ year olds who seem not to get bored by Nibbler, and who play that game for marathon sessions, 30 hours or more, in order to score a billion points.  Nibbler’s claim to fame is that the developer had the foresight to display a score nine digits long instead of the usual six, so Nibbler’s whirring numbers went that much higher than its contemporaries before flipping back to zero (which may be part of why we feared Y2K so much, because in all these games you could lose everything by playing just a bit too long).  Nibbler focuses primarily on the first player to hit a billion in the game, the unfortunately named Tim McVey.  He hit the high score back in 1983 and promptly moved on to other games because after playing the game for 40 hours straight he couldn’t bear to touch a Nibbler machine ever again, but hemanvssnake_1280-720x405 returns to the competitive Nibbler arena in his 40s when he learns he might not actually have held the world record all those years.

We’ve reviewed some very good documentaries on Netflix recently (like Ava DuVernay’s excellent 13th).  Man vs Snake does not come close to those heights.  It is unlikely to inspire you or educate you or show you anything worthwhile.  This lifelong quest for high scores in a dull, repetitive game is led by people who like dull, repetitive things and inevitably are stuck in the past due to their nature.  Certainly, the gameplay footage, which features prominently in a whodunit-type post-mortem of one marathon attempt, is going to hurt your eyes because it’s painfully archaic.  I don’t know how I ever stared at any of those screens.  It’s impossible for me to stare at them now or hear the incessant beeping that was a staple of the arcade experience back then, the equivalent of the bells on a slot machine, over and over and over.

While it is interesting to peek inside these people’s lives for a few minutes, my interest faded long before the movie wrapped up.  At its core, Man vs Snake is a dull, repetitive experience, much like Nibbler itself.  It’s a decent time-waster that you will likely get bored of before it ends, and you may want your quarter back.  There are much better documentaries to be found in the Netflix arcade.

The Abyss

Rewatching the original Star Wars trilogy seems to have made me nostalgic for the 80s.  And when the latest Star Wars instalment recently sailed past Avatar and Titanic to become the highest grossing movie ever in North America, I couldn’t help but think of James Cameron’s other work, the stuff that he made before appointing himself the king of the world.

Aliens, Terminator and Terminator 2 are all wonderful and all high on my list of movies to make Jay watch (a list that has shrunk considerably in the last few weeks), but the first James Cameron movie that comes to my mind is The Abyss.  To me, that’s the true precursor to Avatar and Titanic, the movie that hinted at what James Cameron was capable of (both good and bad).

The Abyss is near and dear to me, mainly because it provided one of the first signs that I was destined to become an Asshole Watching Movies.  In the early 90s I became really obsessed with letterboxed movies even though we had a 30 inch (at best) tube television.  This was before DVDs so my options

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LaserDisc on the left, DVD on the right.  I have enough trouble finding shelf space for my DVDs, thank you very much.

were either letterboxed
VHS (few-and-far-between) or LaserDisc (too-expensive-for-an-unemployed-teenager).  But my parents, seeing my interest, indulged me by renting a LaserDisc player on a few occasions, and The Abyss was the first movie I ever watched on that strange format (on two 12″ discs!).

As for the movie itself, The Abyss is an underwater odyssey that is a bit of a mess, both on screen and behind the scenes.  Again, it seems obvious in hindsight given James Cameron’s later works, but at the time it seems to have been a surprise that The Abyss’s production went way over time and way over budget.  Filming consisted of 15-18 hour days and lasted 140 days total.  Total cost: a reported $70 million, which if accurate would make it the most expensive movie ever at the time (surpassed by Terminator 2, which was surpassed by True Lies, which was surpassed by Waterworld, which was surpassed by Titanic).  It is not a coincidence that all but one of those movies was made by James Cameron.  He clearly has a talent for spending money.abyss13

When you watch the Abyss, though, you can see where the money went.  All the diving scenes are practical effects and the movie looks amazing for it.  The underwater scenes were shot 30 feet deep for up to five hours at a time in 40 pound helmets.  There were
other costs than money that resulted from this underwater mayhem.  Complaints from cast and crew were rampant.  Ed Harris refuses to ever talk about the film to this day.  James Cameron almost died when he lost track of time and ran out of air at the bottom of the 7,000,000 gallon water tank, and then on his way to the surface was given a broken emergency regulator, so when he thought he would finally get a much needed breath of air, he got a lungful of water instead.  Knowing all that makes me wonder whether the end product, as beautiful as it is, was worth the trouble.  Watch it and tell me what you think.  In my view, the climactic visit to the “aliens” is a bit of a letdown and the ending seems rushed (which is particularly problematic for a movie that’s this long).

The original theatrical cut (which I have never seen) was released in 1989 and was 145 minutes long.  The Abyss is one of the first forays into CG but the technology was not quite there yet so a climactic scene had to be cut because Industrial Light & Magic just couldn’t get the world-The-Abyss-Water-Facedestroying waves to look right.  Technology had advanced significantly by 1993, and so a special edition was released with 25 minutes more footage, including the ending as it was originally conceived.  The CG effects hint at what is to come from Cameron and ILM (or, by the time the special edition was released, what had already come).  The tentacle water effects in particular are very close relatives of the T-1000’s liquid metal goodness in T2 and they seem to hold up a lot better than most early CG (maybe because CG is used so sparsely in The Abyss).

Interestingly, we’ve kind of come full circle, moving away from CG in favour of practical effects (Mad Max: Fury Road being a prime example).  Kwame Opum of The Verge calls practical effects, “vinyl for cinema”, and as someone with a large record collection, that comparison feels right.  It makes me wonder where James Cameron, formerly a practical effects adherent, stands on the issue today since Avatar was so CG-heavy.  Perhaps we’ll get a sense of that if Avatar 2 ever gets made, but that’s a long way off as it’s been delayed again and will not come out until 2018 at the earliest.

In the meantime, dust off your LaserDisc copy of The Abyss and enjoy!

Over the Top

Strange things are happening lately.  Sylvester Stallone won a Golden Globe and is nominated for an Oscar.  I’ve made Jay return to George Lucas’ glory days and watch the original Star Wars trilogy for the first time, which is something she swore would never happen.  And since these sorts of things come in threes, I like my chances of convincing Jay to watch Over the Top, whiover the topch I just found out is on Netflix.  Especially because Jay is still on oxycontin recovering from her back surgery.

Over the Top is a hidden gem in the same way as a lump of coal.  It was a very 80s attempt to reboot Rocky: take Stallone, put him in another salt-of-the-earth role where his muscles do the talking, give him a wholesome never-quit attitude, and add in Robert Loggia as the villain for good measure.  The ingredients are all here but this movie is absolutely awful.  So awful I can’t help but love it.

First, Robert Loggia.  This is exactly how I feel when I see him in anything.

He was the best (RIP, Mr. Loggia) and he really chews the scenery here.  Which is fortunate because in Over the Top, Stallone shows absolutely no charisma, the arm-wrestling bad guy is the most boring villain you could think of, and the kid Stallone is fighting for is so annoying, spoiled and entitled that you think all the way through that Stallone would gladly take $500,000 to never have to see him again.

over-the-top-poster

Second, trying to get us to cheer for Stallone’s down-on-his-luck arm wrestler is so misguided it hurts.  Is there even such a thing as an up-on-his-luck arm wrestler?  Are any of these guys in good financial standing?  I don’t know how legitimate the World Armwrestling League is, but the champion only gets $20,000.  So that was probably like $10,000 in 1987 dollars.  If you’re driving a semi across the country like Stallone does in Over the Top, I guess you can save money by sleeping in the cab, but how much are you left with at the end of the day even if you are good/lucky enough to win?  Just one more reason you wonder why Stallone wouldn’t take the $500,000 [SPOILER ALERT] rather than selling his truck (HIS ONLY SOURCE OF INCOME) so he can pull a Pete Rose and bet on himself to win the contest [END SPOILERS].  See how much you are going to love this movie?

Third, the music is the worst thing imaginable.  Any song that was cheesy to make the cut for Rocky IV can probably be found on Over the Top’s soundtrack.  No Easy Way Out is literally too good a song to be in this movie.  I didn’t think that was even possible but it’s true.  The featured ballad is a Kenny Loggins wuss rock gem, and the soundtrack also features songs from Sammy Hagar, Eddie Money and Asia.  It is probably the perfect music to arm wrestle to, if you have the urge.  And after watching Stallone [SPOILER ALERT] rock his way to victory [END SPOILERS], I predict that you are going to have that urge.

I give Over the Top a score of one man against the world out of the world.  But since the one man is 2016 Golden Globe winner and 2016 Academy Award nominee Sylvester Stallone, that’s actually a very good score.