*batteries not included

July 17, 2020

batteriesThese days Steven Spielberg is garnering justified praise for having moved past mechanical sharks and aliens with Empire of the Sun. It’s very gratifying to see Spielberg at work in the adult arena, especially for those of us who have been his supporters all along.

Now Spielberg’s production company gives us *batteries not included. It’s about these people in a New York tenement who are trying to save their building and are helped by, uh, er, these – well, aliens.

Spielberg did not direct this film, although his name is prominently displayed in the credits. Matthew Robbins, who wrote the screenplay for Spielberg’s first theatrical film (The Sugarland Express) directed, and to him goes the lion’s share of the blame. We can only hope that Spielberg was so busy with Empire that he never saw the rushes of this one.

*batteries not included has  the worst of everything: condescendingly adorable old people, relentlessly cute spaceships, grossly oily villains. Worse, it can barely tell a story coherently.

That leaves the special effects, executed by George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic people. They’re quite seamless, but with a movie this bad who cares about technical proficiency?

Despite the presence of theatrical heavyweights Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy as the keepers of the flame in the old building, the actors make almost no impression at all. Elizabeth Pena (La Bamba) has a sleepy beauty, but her role is nonexistent. Michael Carmine fumes a lot, as the thug who bashes things up in an effort to get the tenants to move out.

Frank McRae plays a washed­up ex-boxer with a tender side (this film doesn’t miss a cliché) who tinkers with toys and speaks exclusively in lines he has learned from TV commercials. The two spaceships fly about, doing sweet things for these poor tenants. Then they begin cannibalizing hardware – coffee pots, Pepsi cans – in a process that turns out to be procreative. This, of course, means that the spaceships will give birth to little spaceships even sweeter and more huggable (not to mention merchandisable) than themselves. Which prompts the operative response to these baby ships and the film as a whole: Yuck.

First published in The Herald, December 1987

So, not a good impression with me. I did like Robbins’ Dragonslayer, so this was a letdown. Everybody was tracking the growing-up of Steven Spielberg at this time, all but demanding that he put away childish things, so that explains my lede. The screenplay features a battery of names, including story credit to Mick Garris and co-writing credit to Brad Bird, both of whom had worked on Spielberg’s Amazing Stories and would go on to bigger things; screenplay credit also goes to Brent Maddock and S. S. Wilson, who did Short Circuit and Tremors.


The Last Starfighter

November 14, 2019

laststarfighterThis is one marvelous idea for a movie: A kid who lives in a trailer park just outside of Nowheresville, U.S.A., is a champion at the community’s one and only video game. Un­beknownst to him, when he breaks the game record, a signal is loosed that travels across the galaxy, to a planet that needs rocket pilots – or “star­ fighters.”

The lad is promptly picked up by his interstellar recruiter and whisked away to another world, where bad aliens are threatening the defense system of good aliens.

Since he’s already a master of the control board, he just needs to be plunked down at the helm of a rocket ship and he’s on his way to save the universe. Maybe.

When the other recruits are wiped out, he becomes The Last Starfighter, which is also the name of the movie. It’s a friendly, good-hearted film that’s rather too slim to support itself. It also provides a good portion of inoffensive fun along the way.

It begins with some wonderfully low-key exposition in this trailer park, which turns out to be the proper setting for the stuck-in-low-gear characters: they’re portable people who never go anywhere. All except Alex Rogan (Lance Guest), who dreams of going away to college and making something great of himself – and taking his girlfriend Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart) along with him.

Shades of It’s a Wonderful Life, in which the hero is also trapped in a small town. When Alex’s college loan doesn’t come through, things look bad for his escape.

To blow off a little steam, he has a go at the “Starfighter” video game, and breaks the record. This precipitates a visit from the alien emissary (Robert Preston, doing perhaps a bit too much Robert Preston).

Oddly enough, for all of the perfectly adequate special effects on display once we get into outer space, the small-town sequences are the most memorable. I found myself wanting to stay with the run-down rural landscape more than the high-tech other world. Happily, there is cross-cutting between the two arenas, since a robot double of Alex has been left in his place so no one will notice his absence (this leads to some amusing shtick when Maggie becomes overly affectionate and almost corrodes Alex II’s inner workings).

The big disappointment is in the blah nature of the space-age stuff. Director Nick Castle, who has a friendly feeling for his characters, seems to be working from an under­ nourished script.

One influence on The Last Star­ fighter – without having any actual involvement in it – is that of John (Halloween) Carpenter, who went to film school and wrote the screenplay of Escape From New York with Castle. Lance Guest played in Carpenter’s Halloween II, and Dan O’Herlihy, who plays a humanoid who resembles a lizard in The Last Starfighter, had a juicy role in Halloween III. Here, he plays it overly cuddly – too cuddly for a 6-foot iguana, in my opinion.

Castle, however, seems to have his own distinctive style. I’d like to see him tackle something less fantastic next time. Maybe The Last Starfighter never quite blasts off because Castle’s talents are more down­-to-earth.

First published in the Herald, July 1984

At the time I had my eye on Castle as a guy who might be an interesting auteur-in-the-making, and I enjoyed interviewing him on his next picture, The Boy Who Could Fly. Mary Catherine Stewart was having her 80s moment at this point (I interviewed her, too, for Mischief), and Lance Guest is still working. I am going to guess this movie has a following.

Deadtime Stories and Starship

January 29, 2013

starshipThe two cheesy exploitation movies that hit the area last weekend are a real study in contrasts. Deadtime Stories is low-budget and silly, and just marginally watchable. Starship, while boasting a superior budget, is as dull as dried clay.

Deadtime Stories takes the time-honored omnibus route, presenting three scary stories. The first, about a pair of medieval witches and their unwilling servant boy, seems left over from some other movie—it doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the film.

The other two stories are modern updates of fairy tales. “Little Red Riding Hood” is here a nubile teen in a scarlet jogging outfit who runs afoul of a werewolf. The third story is a variation on “Goldilocks,” wherein the three bears are humans, escaped lunatics who find Goldi living in their abandoned house.

Goldi herself is a statuesque vixen blessed with a telekinetic power a la Carrie, which allows her to terminate her long line of suitors. She gets along very well with the bear family, and they even live happily ever after.

Under the clumsy hand of director Jeffrey Delman, this is all done tongue-in-cheek, as is the framing story of an insomniac boy having the tales told him by a babysitting uncle. It’s very clear that most of the budget went for special effects, with little left over for such niceties as professional actors.

Still, Deadtime Stories is comprehensible. Not so Starship, a completely incoherent space thing, directed and co-written by Roger Christian (a name to be shunned in the future). The ads promise, “The adventure of a million lifetimes”; actually, it only seems that long.

I honestly can’t tell you what the film was about, except it had something to do with some people trying to get off a planet that was being taken over by robots. Not a whit of humor, or even intelligible action.

First published in the Herald, April 1987 (?)

IMDb says that Jeffrey Delman is related to Bernard Herrmann; also, Deadtime‘s cast included Melissa Leo in one of her first movie roles. It opened at the Coliseum in Seattle. Roger Christian did design stuff for Star Wars and Alien, which would explain his move to sci-fi directing; he eventually did Battlefield Earth, which is a lot more fun than Starship. The movie apparently opened in Australia in ’84, but knocked around and was re-cut before playing the U.S. sometime later.

Blade Runner

August 3, 2012

I don’t think I’ll ever quite get over my sense of disappointment upon walking out of the first screening of Blade Runner at the Cinerama theater in 1982. Expectations were high, of course, so maybe disappointment was understandable.

But a second viewing confirmed my feeling, and even a decade’s worth of growing cult appreciation hasn’t changed my mind. Among other things, I thought the movie was a comedown from a rather brilliant science fiction novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick.

To be fair, the Blade Runner released in 1982 was a compromised film. Over the objections of director Ridley Scott and star Harrison Ford, voiceover narration was added to the movie, as well as an absurd happy ending. Those were two of the worst elements of the film. In fact, Ford spoke the narration so poorly that I always wondered whether he was deliberately tanking it.

Now the film has been recut by Scott, who has subsequently made Thelma & Louise and Black Rain and the upcoming 1492: Conquest of Paradise. Scott persuaded Warner Bros. to let him yank the narration and lop off the happy ending, as well as perform some minor tinkering. (I believe there’s a brief dream shot of a white unicorn that’s been reinstated.)

It’s a better movie. The cutting of the stupid narration makes the film seem denser and more disorienting, which was probably why the studio wanted it inserted. And the nicely ambiguous ending is a huge improvement over the tacked-on finish of the 1982 release.

Scott shows a certain grand disdain for ordinary storytelling in Blade Runner. In simplest terms, the movie is about a hired gun (Ford) who goes out to exterminate some replicants—that is, humanoid robots—who are running loose. The replicants are trying to get to the head (Joe Turkel) of the megacompany that built them, to discover how they can extend their intentionally short life spans.

The replicants are beautifully played by Rutger Hauer, Daryl Hannah, Joanna Cassidy, Brion James, and nonrenegade Sean Young. The movie teases around some basic ideas about what it is to be human, especially in Hauer’s climactic speech about the false “memories” he’s been programmed with, and how they are doomed to inevitably vanish—”like tears in the rain.”

Even in this fine new version, Blade Runner still doesn’t strike me as a masterpiece. There’s much to admire about the film’s eye-popping production design; its vision of Los Angeles circa 2019 has never been topped. And Scott’s druggy, slowed-down pacing is fascinating.

But the profound ideas that Scott is clearly searching for remain mostly untouched. Because the film aims high, it is glaringly obvious when it fails to reach. But what an intoxicating attempt.

First published in the Herald, September 18, 1992

I didn’t review Blade Runner the first time around, so it seems legit to reprint this ’92 reappraisal, even if this isn’t much as a piece of writing. See, I really don’t dislike the movie!

Electric Dreams

March 8, 2012

Electric Dreams is not a bad idea for a movie. In fact, it could have been something special if handled with care.

It’s about this young architect (Lenny von Dohlen) who rigs up a computer in his home—a computer that turns out to be unusually advanced for its tender age. At the same time, a gorgeous cellist (Virginia Madsen) moves in next door.

One afternoon, the cellist is practicing and the computer overhears. It starts to imitate her music, and transmits some harmonies that waft through the walls. By the time the interface is over, the computer is in love with the cellist.

The cellist is knocked out, too, but she thinks it’s the architect who created the music. He is content to let her think just that, but pretty soon the computer really gets its circuits overloaded, because it wants the girl.

There are a few agreeably weird ideas floating around here, most of which come to naught. Watching this movie, you don’t have to be told that director Steve Barron is a veteran of more than 100 music videos to see that the characters and their problems exist on a surface level only. The tone is light and comedic, yet it’s a claustrophobic movie—so much of the action takes place within the architect’s apartment.

It’s claustrophobic in other ways, too. Beyond the three main characters, there are no supporting people to provide relief. There are lots of snazzy technical effects, but most of them are dead ends. They don’t lead us anywhere—they just show us that the camera can do acrobatic stunts.

Von Dohlen tries to bring a stumbling humanity to his role, and sometimes he succeeds. Madesn is not required to do anything but look pretty, which she does effortlessly.

The star is the computer, and the filmmakers have dreamed up some amusing things for the machine to do. It fills its cells with television, so most of its creative impulses come out of commercials. It controls all the electric gear in von Dohlen’s apartment, so when it gets ticked off at him, it plays pranks—such as increasing the power when von Dohlen has the electric toothbrush in his mouth.

The computer develops a voice, and it is played by Bud Cort (he was the suicidal half of Harold and Maude). Cort doesn’t just take over von Dohlen’s life—he also takes over the movie. The computer, sometimes bellicose, something winsome, is the most likable character in the film.

When 2001 came out, people criticized it because a computer was the most recognizably human character. That was, of course, the point. With Electric Dreams, those same criticisms will probably be heard. This time, they may be right. The film is so one-dimensional, it’s hard to know just what the filmmakers intended.

First published in the Herald, July 1984

Does anybody think of this movie, except for the people who bother to post on IMDb? Every hot MTV director got a shot at a feature in those days, and Barron’s was certainly unusual, a comedy that occasional took on disturbing hints of Demon Seed.

Short Circuit 2

February 9, 2012

The producers of the Short Circuit movies are in a secure position with their star property. Unlike other Hollywood heavyweights, the collection of hardware known as No. Five will never require a percentage of the gross, never demand a bigger Winnebago, never need to take a month off to detox at the Betty Ford Center.

He probably shouldn’t be left out in the rain, but other than that, No. Five is pretty reliable. So, for that matter, is Short Circuit 2, which uses the same brand of funny-robot humor as the original film.

Steve Guttenberg and Ally Sheedy, the other stars of the first Short Circuit, have gone on to other projects. This may be part of the reason Short Circuit 2 is a better movie than the first film. In the new installment, the first film’s scientist (Fisher Stevens) from India occupies center stage. He’s the one who’s given to tortuous, subcontinental-inflected malapropisms. If you think ethnic dialect humor is funny (and I plead nolo contendre to this guilty pleasure), his performance contains a few laughs.

The Indian scientist and No. Five, now known as Johnny Five, are in a large metropolis (filmed in Toronto) trying to assemble small robots for the toy market. Somehow, they’ve gotten hooked up with a street hawker (Michael McKean) who eyeballs Johnny Five’s $11 million price tag and figures he can make a real killing.

But this isn’t the only plot a-hatching. There’s also a bank robbery being planned, and the robot-assembly warehouse stands in the way.

This last bit overextends the movie and even takes it in the direction of pathos. See, when the bad guys get hold of Johnny Five, they gum up his wires and disconnect his whangdoodle. The robot is in danger of dying, or as much as an input-satiated machine can be in danger of “dying,” anyway.

The robot is the same perky compendium of modern culture; he spits out rock ‘n’ roll and biblical references with equal facility, and even alludes to such up-to-date cultural icons as Chuch Lady from “Saturday Night Live” and the ubiquitous California Raisins. (The robot’s voice is dubbed by Tim Blaney.)

I couldn’t stand the original movie. That robot was just too cutesy-poo. The sequel still has a lot of cutesy and quite a bit of poo, but I have to admit that Short Circuit 2 is shrewdly assembled. The original writing team, S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock, repeat their roles here, and director Kenneth Johnson, a TV veteran, keeps things running.

There’s even one scene that finds real charm. The shy scientist has a crush on a toy executive (Cynthia Gibb) and invites her out, but he needs the words of Johnny Five when it comes to wooing her. So, Cyrano-like, the robot’s proddings are transmitted to a large readerboard that the scientist can easily scan—a procedure that works fine until technical difficulties interrupt the broadcast. Just for a moment, though, that robot does seem almost human.

First published in the Herald, July 7, 1988

The law of low expectations wins out here; this movie had to look okay, compared to the first one. I understand a reboot is afoot. With luck, I’ll be out of the business by then. And I still like dialect humor, sadly.

Flight of the Navigator

December 14, 2011

Back in the relatively innocent days of 1982, Steven Spielberg updated and energized the old chestnut about a boy and his dog, with an extraterrestrial standing in for the pooch. The success of E.T. had Hollywood scrambling to make movies about kids and creatures (while Spielberg flipped the formula with Gremlins).

Many of the creatures turned out to be mechanical; robots marching in the electronic wake of the Star Wars machines. But by and large, the movies were pretty mechanical, too.
In just the last couple of months, the boy-and-machine formula has been used in Short Circuit, SpaceCamp, even The Manhattan Project if you count Christopher Collet’s closeness to his atomic bomb. And who could deny that Tom Cruise’s most meaningful relationship in Top Gun is with his F-11?

Given this recent, largely regrettable track record, all who approach Flight of the Navigator (the latest from the revitalized Disney studio) with clenched teeth are to be forgiven. This time the boy’s best friend is a wise-cracking flying saucer.

But I must report that my own clenched teeth relaxed considerably during the running time of this film. It’s nothing great, but it’s efficiently entertaining and based on a neato idea that ought to impress a lot of 10-year-olds. And it’s cute without being cutesy—most of the time, anyway.

One reason may be that the flying saucer, which is basically a flying computer with a dash of personality, doesn’t enter the film until halfway through. Until then, we’re tantalized by a mystery.

One night in 1978, a 12-year-old boy (Joey Cramer) falls into a ravine near his parents’ house. Knocked cold, he rouses himself later and scampers home. But his parents (Cliff de Young, Veronica Cartwright) aren’t at the house; in fact, they don’t even live there anymore.

Eventually, the kid finds them, but they’ve aged eight years (they’d given him up for dead). His little brother now stands a foot above him. Our hero can’t have been unconscious more than a couple of hours, so what gives?

Fans of time-travel stories will figure out that the kid must’ve been traveling at the speed of light, where aging is slowed—he didn’t change, while eight years went by on Earth. That’s exactly why NASA grabs the boy—they want to find out why he reappeared just when a pretty silver spaceship plonked down on Florida soil.

Turns out the kid had taken a little intergalactic trip, and his flying days aren’t over yet. For the last half of the film, he’ll reacquaint himself with his spaceship friend, who unaccountably sounds a lot like Pee-wee Herman.

Strictly lightweight fare, but under the direction of Randal Kleiser (who guided Grease and the memorably vapid Summer Lovers), it doesn’t get too stupid. Mindless, maybe, but not stupid. There is a difference, and for Kleiser, good-hearted mindlessness is actually a step up. And if you don’t think that’s saying much, you obviously didn’t see Summer Lovers.

First published in the Herald, August 1, 1986

I try to get in a Summer Lovers reference whenever I can. I have to say this movie has been wiped from the brain pan, but the basic idea sounds sort of interesting, and more than a little freaky for the core Disney audience.