Spring Break Redux

April 1, 2013

The webmaster is just a tad overbooked right now, so the Eighties movies flow will pause for a brief break. The rad doings will resume soon; in the meantime, check out the hundreds of titles already here.


Best Seller

March 15, 2013

bestsellerThe main pleasure of Best Seller comes from watching two of Hollywood’s best actors play off against each other in weird and wonderful ways. James Woods plays a longtime hit man who’s hatching a bizarre plot. Brian Dennehy plays a cop who is also an author, turning his experiences into books a la Joseph Wambaugh. He’s currently suffering from writer’s block and looking for a story to tell.

Woods is about to give him one. He’s murdered a long list of “liabilities” for a stupendously wealthy corporate criminal (Paul Shenar). Now Woods wants to bring down Shenar’s empire, and he knows where all the bodies are buried. He approaches Dennehy with a proposal: Woods will give him the crime story of the century. All Dennehy has to do is get it down right, and maybe humanize Woods in the process.

So the two of them forge a dubious partnership; Dennehy, in particular, doesn’t know whether to believe any of this or not. Now, this story is already eccentric—not your usual cops and robbers. But the screenwriter, Larry Cohen, has even more up his sleeve. Which shouldn’t come as a surprise, since Cohen is an original and maverick talent who puts his quirky mark on everything from horror films (It’s Alive) to biographies (The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover).

Although Best Seller contains the requisite guns blasting and cops running down darkened side streets, Cohen and director John Flynn are really fashioning a character study. The hit man and the cop are trapped in this improbable relationship, which keeps getting weirder as Woods becomes more and more insistent on the two of them becoming friends.

The cold-blooded killer turns out to be a guy who just wants some brotherly love. He presents Dennehy with an engraved watch, takes him home to meet his parents, and flashes some jealousy at Dennehy’s publisher (Victoria Tennant).

The film does a sufficient job of fulfilling the thriller plot while embroidering it with these oddball touches, although the big climax is somewhat wanting, I think.

But the two actors make it work. Woods, who was Oscar-nominated last year for Salvador and just won an Emmy for the TV-movie Promise, is simply one of the most exciting actors going. Here he easily slides from cool menace to hurt boyishness.

Dennehy is the monument-sized fellow from Cocoon and FX, and his girth plays well off Woods’ lean shiftiness. Dennehy plays the straight man role, but this actor is so authentic that he gives it considerable presence.

It’s truly a left-field movie, unpredictable and odd. But there are sequences in it that really reach a high, such as the bar scene in which Woods roams through the room, hitting on a woman, provoking a fitstfight, and testing his pain threshold by burning himself with a cigarette. Best Seller certainly goes its own way.

First published in the Herald, September 1987

The filmography of Larry Cohen: a great Hollywood subject in itself. I can’t say I remember this movie well, but from the sound of it, somebody could easily do a remake today and make it work.

Spring Break

February 18, 2013

Another brief hiatus as the author finds himself at sea. We’ll resume the Eighties march the week of March 4.

Holiday Off

December 24, 2012


Yes, it’s The Christmas Without Eighties Movies. But hundreds of old reviews are posted here, so we’ll rest on that for a few days.

Soul Man

November 15, 2012

By now, you’re probably familiar with the high-concept idea behind Soul Man, but just in case you missed it, we’ll recap: A jerky white kid (C.Thomas Howell) gets accepted at Harvard Law School and sees a fat future in front of him. Then his rich daddy (James B. Sikking) cuts off the boy’s allowance, which means the kid must find his own method of finance.

Every possibility is painstakingly explored, and darned if it doesn’t turn out that the best idea is for Howell to blacken his skin and apply for a full scholarship awarded to the outstanding black student from California. (Interestingly enough, nowhere in the film’s litany of money schemes is it suggested that this little creep might work to earn his tuition.)

So Howell takes these handy extra-strength tanning tablets that turn his skin deep brown, and he perms his hair. And he’s in Harvard.

This concept may sound distasteful, and, well, that’s about how it plays. The makers of the film, writer Carol Black and director Steve Miner, clearly mean it to be taken as an anti-racist film. Howell sees the racial prejudice directed at him, grows up a little bit, and falls in love with a fellow student (Rae Dawn Chong) who happens to be black.

Most of that doesn’t wash. The intentions may be right, but most of the film is callous buffoonery, and a trivialization of its subject.

Admittedly in some of this callous buffoonery are a few laughs. Howell meets a vixenish student (Melora Harden) who’s looking for the obligatory multiracial college affair. After they sleep together, she sighs, “I felt 400 years of anger and oppression in every pelvic thrust.”

Late in the film there’s a farcical scene in which Howell’s parents come to visit from Los Angeles the same time his two girlfriends show up. It’s a well-managed scene; too bad the rest of the movie doesn’t have the same snap.

James Earl Jones does a John Houseman number as the tough law professor; it’s an unbearably hammy performance that culminates, in the film’s queasiest scene, with Jones admitting that Howell might really have learned a lot about the black experience. This is a little hard to believe.

The only notable performance, outside of Chong’s appealing professionalism, is given in a very small role by Ron Reagan (not to be confused with the other actor who has that name). Young Reagan is as relaxed and convincing here as in his occasional TV appearances, and gives every indication that he might be a likable future player.

That small bright spot aside, Soul Man is a pretty negligible affair—and the title is the essence of irony. This is a film that might have a few laughs, but it’s certainly got no soul.

First published in the Herald, October 30, 1986

I completely forgot that Ron Reagan ever took a stab at acting, let alone that I wrote of his work approvingly. Howell and Chong later married. Carol Black was one of the key people behind “The Wonder Years,” which leads me to suspect there might be more going on in this movie than it seemed at the time, although I clearly didn’t hate it.

The Delta Force

October 11, 2012

The Delta Force is two films laid end to end. For its first 45 minutes or so, it depicts a plane being hijacked in Athens and flown to Beirut and then Algiers. The emphasis is on the terror of the passengers and the brutality of the hijackers.

For the remaining hour and 15 minutes, the adventures of the Delta Force, a crack American military rescue unit (if you couldn’t guess) take center stage, so that the hostages are pretty much forgotten about until they’re rescued.

This second half is normal, perfunctory blood and guts stuff, with Chuck Norris and Lee Marvin leading the exploits and dodging the bullets. It’s about what you’d expect, especially from a Norris picture.

It’s the first section that’s unusual. The hijacking is obviously based on last year’s Beirut hijacking, including the hostages being sequestered in Beirut, the pilot giving an interview at gunpoint, and the gutsy blond stewardess.

What the film makes explicit is the idea that the hijacking in The Delta Force represents a return to concentration-camp mentality, because the Jewish passengers are singled out for brutality. One of the passengers (Martin Balsam) is, in fact, a camp survivor, and his wife (unfortunately played by Shelley Winters) screams that the passengers must resist, not go along with the terrorist demands. And there’s the German stewardess (Hanna Schygulla) who is haunted by the horrible irony of her having to select Jewish-sounding names among the passengers.

These sequences make for unexpected tension, somewhat undercut by the overly emphatic direction and the built-in campiness of the casting, which has Winters, Joey Bishop (who intones sadly, “Beirut was once the Las Vegas of the Middle East”) and George Kennedy among the passengers. Still, it’s effectively creepy.

Then Norris and Marvin kick in, and the ammo starts flying. If anybody knows how to mix it up, it’s these guys, and the film delivers jolt after jolt of cathartic boom-boom as the rescue mission continues. It’s got a zillion lapses in credibility, and the mission as we see it is nothing but incredible. But that certainly didn’t bother the foot-stamping crowd at a weekend matinee.

The Delta Force is the most recent product of the prolific Cannon Films, which specializes in Norris movies, Ninja films, and the occasional bid for respectability (Runaway Train and the upcoming Fool for Love). It’s run by two Israeli moguls, Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan, who set up shop in Hollywood a few years ago and have been churning out successful movies since.

They also take occasional screenwriting and directing credits. Golan co-wrote and directed The Delta Force, and the victimization of the Jewish passengers and this hostility of the Arab terrorists obviously makes the film more important to him than the usual shoot-’em-up. This angle makes The Delta Force the year’s most unlikely message movie.

First published in the Herald, February 19, 1986

A strange concoction. You might actually miss the fact that Lee freaking Marvin starred in this movie (his last, alas), but when it registers that he’s taken second billing to Chuck Norris, you have to weep a little. The cast included Lainie Kazan and Susan Strasberg, with Robert Forster as Abdul. (And, according to IMDb, Liam Neeson as a Delta Force member.) And yes, there was Fassbinder icon Hanna Schygulla, occupying the most interesting section of the film.

Autumn Break

September 4, 2012

In which What a Feeling! pauses for a spell, so you can catch up on all the Eighties reviews here. Also so that the author can head to the Eurozone for a fellowship, thanks to RIAS and the Radio Television Digital News Foundation.

I will attempt to blog the trip. Catch that action at North by Nordwesten.

What a Feeling! resumes its tread on September 24. See you then.