Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure

August 23, 2012

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is a little like the old “Rocky and Bullwinkle” show. You know the thing is aimed primarily at 11-year-olds, and the characters are all idiotic, but jokes keep whizzing past that are neither idiotic nor pre-adolescent.

In fact , this movie is pretty funny. But where “Rocky and Bullwinkle” was sly, Bill & Ted is goofy. It makes certain demands on the viewer; you’d better have a high tolerance for cretinous dialogue and vacant, glassy-eyed stares.

Bill and Ted (played with unfailing vacuousness and in perfect Valley-speak by Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves, respectively) are two high-schoolers who are flunking out of history class. When the teacher asks who Joan of Arc was, they’re stumped: “Noah’s wife?” And they wonder whether Marco Polo refers to a watersport.

For some reason, these two dorks are chosen by an emissary (George Carlin) from the 27th century, who lends them a time machine in the form of a telephone booth. With this, they’re able to travel around through the centuries, pick up interesting historical figures, and come back in time to present a really bodacious final report, and thus avert the most dreaded F.

That’s the concept. And there aren’t many complications along the way. The movie, written by Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon and briskly directed by Stephen Herek, touches down in a variety of historical locales but never stays long enough for anything to get stale. From the wild West, the boys take Billy the Kid; from ancient Greece, Socrates (“a most bodacious philosopher”). They grab Joan of Arc, Napoleon, Lincoln, and Sigmund Freud (who is greeted in the Vienna of 1900 with a friendly, “How’s it goin’, Frood-dude?”).

There’s also room for some low comedy when the time travelers return to the presnt and deposit the great figures in a shopping mall. Billy the Kid and Socrates try to put the make on a couple of babes (this doesn’t sound like the Socratic method), but Freud ruins things by showing up at the wrong moment, corndog in hand (though sometimes a corndog is just a corndog). “Way to go, egghead,” Billy snarls.

The movie’s characters are so moronic they become strangely endearing after a while, and it’s all over before it wears out its welcome. In short, most bodacious.

First published in the Herald, February 1989

A genuinely funny movie. I guess I couldn’t figure out a way to make the duo’s pronunciation of “Socrates” understandable, which is a shame. And just a few days ago, Reeves announced that he’d signed on for a new sequel, which might be a good idea if only to alter the memory of the DOA Bogus Journey.

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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!


Morons from Outer Space

July 17, 2012

Morons from Outer Space doesn’t quite prove worthy of its inspired title, but it does have some laughs in a typically British vein. It takes off from this premise: We always assume that extraterrestrial visitors would be of a higher intelligence than we earthlings. But what if the only representatives who made it to our planet were among the stupidest people from their world?

This happens when three moronic spaceship workers strand their commander (Mel Smith) in space and land in England. The aliens are quickly scooped up by the military, with a little help from gung-ho American allies (led by James B. Sikking, who plays Hunter on “Hill Street Blues”).

One journalist (Griff Rhys Jones) penetrates the press blackout, and watches as the aliens are interrogated. Slowly, the truth comes out. They can’t remember the name of their planet. They sing imbecilic songs. They yearn for a green beer called Loob. That does it: These aliens are clearly morons.

However, by virtue of being aliens, they are celebrities. When Rhys Jones saves them from the brutal military, he introduces them to the world and becomes their business manager. They roll up big bucks in endorsement fees, and set their first live performance for New York City.

Meanwhile the commander has crash-landed in the American Southwest, where he attempts to make contact with the entity he perceives to be the planet’s leader: a garbage can in an Arizona national park. When he reaches civilization and sees the other aliens on TV, he starts ranting about being the fourth alien—whereupon he lands in an insane asylum.

From there, he organizes an escape with his fellow inmates, most of whom think they are Hitler or Christ. He gets out and heads to New York, eager to establish that the people from his planet are not all cretins.

Smith and Jones are two of England’s most popular TV comics, and they’ve written the script for Morons. In so doing, they’ve quite generously given many of the funniest bits to the supporting players, especially the three aliens.

This may have been a mistake, since their own parts are underwritten. The rotund Smith, in particular, seems to have inexhaustibly funny body language, but he isn’t actually on screen for much of the movie. (His sight gag involving the effect of a sneeze inside a space helmet is perhaps regrettable, but it gets the biggest laugh of the show.)

The humor may sometimes be broad, but it’s hardly broad enough to appeal to someone who doesn’t already have a taste for English humor. And even if you do, you may find the jokes here a bit too few and far between.

First published in the Herald, November 17, 1985

It’s tough when a movie has to live up to its title. But there was every reason to expect this picture to be better; or at least, you know, funny.


Killer Klowns from Outer Space

June 18, 2012

Killer Klowns from Outer Space delivers just what its title promises. For some reason, these murderous greasepaint aliens have landed their spaceship, which resembles a Big Top, in a small town. Then these klowns—er, clowns—proceed to eliminate the populace.

The first victim is a lanky rural type (Royal Dano, who always plays lanky rural types). He spots the ship, declares, “Well I’ll be greased and fried!” and is promptly killed and wrapped in pink cotton candy.

Then the clowns, large mechanical contraptions with oversized hands and red noses (the noses turn out to be their Achilles’ heel, as it were), move into the town. This provides the film’s rare passages of amusement, as another good character actor (John Vernon) gets to cut up with the clowns before he is inevitably killed off.

The presence of the clowns puts into perspective the insipid love triangle involving a young cop (Grant Cramer), a girl (Suzanne Snyder), and a dork (John Allen Nelson). These three put aside their differences long enough to track the clowns to the amusement park. How do they know the clowns are at the amusement park? Well, as one of the kids puts it, “Where would you hide if you were a clown?”

The movie asks a number of questions. When the kids are chased by the clowns and pelted by popcorn, one asks, “Why popcorn?” The reply is, “‘Cause they’re clowns, that’s why.” Later, someone sensibly brings up the crucial question about the movie itself: “Why clowns?” And the even more tantalizing follow-up query: “And how come they’re not funny?”

These legitimate questions are left unanswered by screenwriters Charles Chiodo and Stephen Chiodo (Stephen also directed). Personally, I suspect that the goofy title came first, the movie second.

Other than that, there’s not much to say about the film; it’s almost nonexistent, really. A lot of bad movies tend to evaporate once they’re finished. This is one of those rare films that seem to evaporate while you’re watching it.

First published in the Herald, May 1988

It was the era of “funny” titles, which were usually not funny in direct proportion to how hard the title tried (Surf Nazis Must Die—lousy movie). The Chiodo brothers went on to careers in puppetry and stop-motion work in everything from “The Simpsons” to Team America: World Police, so they’ve done well by themselves.


Critters 2

June 12, 2012

The original Critters was a decent little monster movie—the little monsters being round, furry cantaloupe-sized creatures who terrorized a small town and finally were blown away with the help of bounty hunters from space. There is, naturally, a sequel, not surprisingly titled Critters 2.

As this one begins, the red-headed farm boy (Scott Grimes) who helped vanquish the critters in the first film is returning to the burg of Grover’s Bend, Kan., where it all happened. The locals eye him warily; to them, he’s the Boy Who Cried Critter, and brought a lot of unwanted publicity to the town. At that moment, someone uncovers a batch of funny-looking eggs stashed in a corner of a barn, and, well, you can put two and two together.

This film has some perverse jokes, such as the fact that it’s Easter, and the monster eggs are placed out at an egg hunt. Their first victim is the new sheriff, who is felled while dressed in a Peter Cottontail outfit. This act of bunnycide is followed by more terror from the critters, including an all-out assault on the local fast-food joint.

Luckily, the same space bounty hunters are in the vicinity, and willing to lend a hand. But it still comes down to the young hero’s tenacity in fighting the “man-eatin’ dust-mops” to save the day.

Critters 2 was directed by Mick Garris, who was involved in Spielberg’s “Amazing Stories” TV series. Garris emphasizes the humor here, and there are a couple of funny moments, but there aren’t many flavorful additions to the first movie (although the giant critter, formed when all the little guys Velcro themselves together, is unusual).

The best character is still the Earth-born schmuck (Don Opper) who now flies with the bounty hunters; he’s a morose type who philosophically explains his wandering ways by saying, “I gotta go where the cosmic winds blow me.” That’s the spirit that distinguishes man from critter.

First published in the Herald, May 5, 1988

Garris wrote the script with future Pitch Black director David Twohy, so I wonder if it’s better than I thought at the time.


Death Watch

June 11, 2012

Death Watch has probably disappeared from local screens by now, but it’s an ambitious and interesting film that deserves a little notice. Director Bertrand Tavernier has had three intriguing movies hit Seattle screens in the last few months: A Week’s Vacation (1980) at the Film Festival, The Judge and the Assassin (1975) at the Seven Gables, and Death Watch, the French Tavernier’s first English-language film, at the Crest. Shooting in English seems to have been a bit of a problem for Tavernier, as Death Watch doesn’t flow quite as smoothly as A Week’s Vacation. But there are so many ideas flying around in Death Watch—maybe too many ideas—that it’s always fascinating to watch.

For one thing, Death Watch is engaging just in terms of storyline: a TV producer (Harry Dean Stanton) comes up with an idea for a ratings bonanza. He puts movie camera in the eyes of one of his cameramen (Harvey Keitel) and has the guy record the final days of a patient with a terminal illness (Romy Schneider). Schneider doesn’t want her last days filmed, and she tries to escape; when Keitel finds her and stays with her, she doesn’t know she’s being filmed, so her life is recorded, and she becomes the highest-rated show for days without knowing it.

When Keitel begins to have second thoughts about the humanity of his filming, there’s a problem: he cannot close his eyes, because if the cameras are deprived of light for more than a few minutes, they will malfunction and blind him. (This means that he no longer sleeps, and there is much made of the fact that his dreams have been taken away from him.)

An overload of rich cinematic material here, and Tavernier isn’t quite the accomplished juggler to pull it all off—not yet. But the thing remains compelling, a fact that is in large part due to Romy Schneider’s superb performance. Keitel is erratic, and gives a non-directed performance, but Schneider, seen against the stunning landscape of Scotland, makes her private character seem quietly triumphant at film’s end, and leaves behind a record of a very human being.

First published in the Herald, November 1982

This is a complete coincidence—I just pulled out this review because I was looking for sci-fi titles last week—but apparently Death Watch is currently enjoying a restored re-release in Britain, and getting a little of the attention it failed to get the first time around. It is well worth a look, and Romy Schneider’s performance is special. By the time this opened in the U.S., she was already dead.


The Ice Pirates

June 8, 2012

Somewhere within the 90 minutes of silliness that comprises The Ice Pirates is a halfway-decent science-fiction plot. But the movie plays so broadly you won’t find much time being spent developing anything like a storyline. It would get in the way of the goofy gags.

If you did search for the plot, it would sound like this: In the world of the future, water is almost nonexistent, and more precious than oil. A bunch of hooligan pirates trade in the stuff, but they are sidetracked from their standard dastardly deeds when they steal a princess (Mary Crosby) during one of their pickups.

Our heroes (Robert Urich and Michael D. Roberts) get caught, and are scheduled to be subject to a new painless operation whereby they will be turned into eunuchs, and thus slaves. At the end of the assembly line process, they look like Liberace groupies—white pompadours, tight silver lamé jumpsuits, high, squeaky voices.

Luckily, the princess has intervened, and halted the machine at crucial moments. They’re just pretending to be eunuchs (not an easy trick in a tight silver lamé jumpsuit). It seems the princess is searching for her missing father (has there ever been a princess without a missing father?), and can use the help of the ice pirates to journey to the much-fabled, but never discovered, seventh planet, where they say water covers most of the surface of the orb.

If you can predict from this that 1) the princess will be reunited with her father, 2) the fabled planet will turn out to be our own Earth, and most importantly, 3) that the princess and the pirate leader will start panting after each other pretty heavily, well, you can go to the head of the nebula. All will turn out well.

So what’s wrong with the movie? Most everything, really. The special effects are crude, the characters are cardboard, and the forward motion is haphazard. Of course, it’s supposed to be cartoonish, but good cartoons have a basis, if not always in reality, then in some kind of logic.

The worst thing is, The Ice Pirates wants to be funny, but it winds up falling flat on its tongue-in-cheek. The thing is being sold, via a series of teaser ads, as a kind of Airplane! for the Star Wars audience, but its humor is of a coarser kind. Airplane! got laughs by playing everything with a straight face; in The Ice Pirates, characters all but wink at the camera.

The tone is low camp, which encourages some of the actors—especially Ron Perlman, who was one of the apes in Quest for Fire—to go off on the occasional improvisation. There’s also a swishy planet lord who is decapitated but nevertheless continues to supply a stream of one-liners. (A number of things go unexplained in this film.) And then there is this thing that jumps out of an egg, scuttles across the floor a lot, and attaches itself to people. It’s called a space herpes, and we will not discuss it here.

First published in the Herald, March 20, 1984

I don’t remember this movie. Yes somehow I feel confident in standing by this review. I just want to point out that the cast also includes pre-Oscar Anjelica Huston, John Matuszak, John Carradine, and Bruce Vilanch.