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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Critters

October 4, 2011

Critters is a modest sleeper, all the more unexpected because it appears to be nothing more than another of the occasional rip-offs of Gremlins.

And, in fact, it is another rip-off of Gremlins, but it’s quite cheerful about its borrowings, and hard to dislike. The film’s tone, like Gremlins, is comic-scary, but it doesn’t have the distasteful spoofiness of some imitators.

The movie’s about some bowling-ball-sized renegade beasties who escape their planet and zoom across the galaxy on an inevitable collision course with the third planet from the sun. They’re chased by a pair of cosmic bounty hunters who can change their appearance to fit the planet they work on (these guys are borrowed from The Terminator).

On the way, one hunter tunes in to MTV, and he metamorphoses into the appearance of a fictional rock star (a funny idea that isn’t really developed).

Everybody crash-lands in a Kansas cow field, near the house of your typical all-American family. The critters invade the house and terrorize the family, while the bounty hunters go into the small town nearby and search for the fugitives, meanwhile knocking things around pretty good.

These critters are furry, with large mouths and three or four rows of teeth. They speak in intergalacticese, but subtitles make their language comprehensible (and, incidentally, provide the biggest laugh of the movie when a critter uses an earthbound expletive).

The little guys are distinguished not by their cunning, but by their ferocity. They love biting into a leg or a shoulder and holding on for dear life.

Co-writer and director Stephen Herek leans heavily on the comedy, but he keeps the suspense genuine (will the family be able to hold off the critters until the bounty hunters get there?) and he doesn’t trivialize the family. It helps that he cast good actors as the parents (Dee Wallace Stone and Billy Green Bush), and a lively kid (Scott Grimes) as the precocious son who gets the family out of a few scrapes.

The local color in the town is provided by M. Emmett Walsh (Blood Simple) as the sheriff and Don Opper (Android) as the town simpleton, who believes he picks up alien radio conversations in the fillings of his teeth.

Herek’s aim is too small, and finally a bit too silly, to attract the crossover crowd that made Gremlins a huge hit. The popularity of Critters will probably be limited to those who are fans of the genre already. But those fans are likely to get a kick out of it.

First published in the Herald, April 16, 1986

Fun movie. Herek’s next film was Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, a very sharp effort that left the impression he might be a real comer, although he hasn’t fulfilled the quirky promise (he had a family-film success with the first Mighty Ducks picture and competently did the Oscar-bait thing with Mr. Holland’s Opus). Don Opper, a memorable presence, stuck with the Critters sequels, one of which, Critters 3, was Leonardo DiCaprio’s first movie.