Tag Archives: 80’s

Movie Review: Apartment Zero (1988)

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Rating: B/  Colin Firth is an infinitely watchable lead. I have yet to see him give a performance I didn’t care for. Apartment Zero is one of his earlier roles, in which he plays a kind of Norman Bates incarnate, a uptight, somewhat simpering young man named Adrian DeLuc who is utterly disinterested in other people but endlessly fascinated by the old black-and-white films. Continue reading Movie Review: Apartment Zero (1988)

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Aliens (1986)

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There’s something inherently terrifying and grotesque about the creatures in Alien and it’s sequel, Aliens. The way they scuttle across the floor like crabs. The way they latch onto your face and impregnate you with their evil spawn. But nothing has posed quite as epic a threat as the alien queen mother in James Cameron’s 1986 sequel, Aliens. She’s fucking huge, for one thing. She has a vendetta. No wonder, Ellen Ripley, our heroine, abhors her.

Let me just say that Aliens is not a bad movie, by a long shot. It has good production values, effective acting, a solid story, and sympathetic characters. But, frankly, it just didn’t measure up to Ridley Scott’s original in my opinion. I know, right? Let the incredulous comments begin.

The plot of Aliens picks up right where the original left off. Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) hops in an escape pod on the doomed spaceship the Nostromo and puts herself in cryo until rescue arrives. hopefully sooner rather than later. Fifty-seven years later (later, definitely later) a large ship picks her up and she soon finds herself at war once again with her mortal enemy, the face-huggers. Engineering her return to the vile creature’s planet is the weasley, manipulative Burke (Paul Reiser,) and she sets forth to save the settlers that have inadvertently arrived on the planet from the original with a bunch of soldiers with huge egos who, in the end, don’t stand a chance.

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The character of Ripley is consistent with the original, but we learn new things about her, like she has a daughter that aged and died while she was in cryo. Ripley’s new daughter figure comes in the form of Newt (Carrie Henn,) a little waif who’s whole family has been killed and who has been living in the ventilation system in the  compound where the face-huggers attacked. This adds an emotional component, as Ripley struggles to protect Newt and the soldiers from a larger-than-life menace and her extra-terrestrial children.

Now on why I think this is a good movie, but not as good as the original film. The first movie in the series was claustrophobic and loaded with atmosphere, whereas this one is more of a standard action flick. Alien incorporated modest practical effects and was done on a fairly low budget, while Aliens has a much larger budget and is much bigger and brassier than the original.

Now for the good. The characters are more sympathetic and more fully developed in this one, from the soldiers played by the likes of Bill Paxton and Michael Biehn to the little girl, Newt. You didn’t care as much about the protagonists in the first movie (other than Ripley,) but the side characters here are given some serious consideration by the writer. Aliens is also much less of a slow-burn, so if you like fast-paced action films that are not so much mood pieces as roller-coaster rides, this is the movie for you. The first was less of a Hollywood film, which was what I liked about it. But this one has more of a character arc, exciting mood, and a sense of mainstream appeal.

I was occasionally not as into Aliens as I probably should have been, I’m not much of a action fan. It gets to the point where I actually get bored by explosions and gunfights no matter how well they’re done for that sort of movie. I very much enjoy more atmospheric/ ‘slow burn’ films, but don’t let that deter you from this action-packed, entertaining movie. Alien and Aliens are very different films, despite being linked by the same heroine and universe, and they’re both worth watching in their own way.

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The Changeling (1980)

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Old houses are evil. But if I owned a mansion as nice as the one George C. Scott has in this movie, I’d take a chance on the vengeful child spirit. Scott plays John Russell, an unflappable musical composer coping with the unexpected death of his daughter (Michelle Martin) and wife (Jean Marsh.) Russell moves into a gorgeous old house intent on doing some work on his music and attempting to move on from his loss, but before you can say “I ain’t afraid of no ghosts” strange and eerie things start happening in the mansion. Largely unperturbed, and aided by lady friend and love interest Claire Norman (Scott’s real-life wife, Trish Van Devere,) John decides to investigate.

I won’t go into who haunts the house or why, because it would cheat you out of the experience of seeing the movie and finding out for yourself, but I will say The Changeling is an eerie (a bit too dated to be truly frightening) horror classic with a great deal of mystery. The best part was when John Russell finds a secret passage behind a wooden shelf in his closet that leads to a hidden room. That meant a great deal to me, because when I was a youngster I used to spend vast expanses of time searching for hidden panels and doors in my a hundred-year-old but strangely unexceptional home (I might have also been looking for a wormhole to Narnia, but let’s not focus on my childhood obsessions.)

The characters were a bit underdeveloped (John being weirdly nonreactive to the supernatural mayhem around him while Claire plays the role of the typical classic heroine, shrieking and fretting constantly until you want to tell her if she can’t deal with a little ghostly hi jinks, she needn’t get involved at all.) John’s motivations actually make a lot of sense; as a recently bereaved husband and father a suggestion of life after death should be a relief to him. He’s already experienced so much grief, more than he lets on, why should the spooky antics of a spirit not at rest break him? However, although George C. Scott does an amazing job balancing stoicism and unfathomable grief, his character left me a little cold. And I had no use for Van Devere’s shrieking woman in peril, who falls in little flat from the perspective of someone who has seen so many bad-ass women portrayed in movies, or at least women with something to do in the script except wail and tremble in abject terror.

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That said, I really do like The Changeling. It’s a classical ghost story with a lot of atmosphere; no gore or lurid shocks to be seen. If you like movies like The Others with Nicole Kidman (one of my favorites, and superior in many ways to the much-hyped The Sixth Sense,) you’ll like this.  I love that The Others in all likelihood borrowed the character idea of a elderly caretaker named Mr. Tuttle, a homage that none but the most perceptive horror fans will probably  catch. Although I feel sorry in a way for the wronged spirit, just a boy at the time of his death, I thought he acted a little harshly in punishing the senator (Melvyn Douglas,) indirectly related to his murder but still the only remaining opportunity to get revenge on a living person.

I really felt for Melvyn Douglas’ character, who discovers something no one should have to learn about their much-loved father. While Douglas is the ‘changeling’ of the title, he’s not as much a perpetrator as a fellow unfortunate who was nevertheless lucky enough to live to a ripe old age and achieve success, while the spirit languished and limbo and allowed his hate to grow.

  The Changeling isn’t really a horror movie of a keep-you-up-all-night variety, it’s low-key and dated and in  all actuality not terribly scary. On the other hand, if you like murder mysteries that will keep you guessing and that incorporate a creepy supernatural element, this movie is for you. It takes a somewhat old soul or fan of older horror to appreciate this; it isn’t for those that crave instant gratification or get impatient easily. It’s a mood piece, graced by the formidable presence of George C. Scott. But it will survive when the majority of modern fright flicks are forgotten in junkyards somewhere.

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Au revoir les enfants (1987)

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A single look can change everything.

Louis Malle’s heartbreaking autobiographical film is set in 1944 at Catholic school in Nazi-occupied France, and chronicles a naive preteen’s wrenching coming-of-age. Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse,) a well-to-do adolescent mama’s boy, thinks he knows everything there is to know about the real world, but things are about to get a whole lot realer, and life a lot more harrowing, during a seemingly uneventful stint in boarding school.

A pixyish, somewhat androgynous child already contending with impending puberty, a harrowing experience in it’s own right, Julien is first seen bawling out his doting mother (Francine Racette) at the train station, where she prepares to send him on the train to school. “I don’t give a damn about dad, and I hate you,” he sniffles, caught in the throes of typical adolescent self-absorption and angst.

But Julien finds unexpected pleasure and enjoyment at the academy, where he roughhouses and plays with the other boys in his age group, sells black market jam to the crippled kitchen hand and school outcast Joseph (François Négret,) and strikes up a tentative friendship with a low-key, musically gifted boy named Jean Bonnet (Raphaël Fejtö.)

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The nosy Julien does some prying and discovers that his new friend is actually a Jew, named Jean Kippelstein, and smuggled into the school by the altruistic and rebellious Father Jean (Philippe Morier-Genoud.) A hell of a priest and a hell of a good guy, Father Jean quietly defies the Nazi Occupation and does what he thinks is right regardless of what society expects of him.

You might think that 20th-century upper-class French kids are somehow less rambunctious than the modern American preteen, but this movie will inform you otherwise. The boys in this movie, are rowdy, wild, combative, and often rude and mean. They just don’t have an Xbox to lull them into complacency. Most of them are more or less completely unaware that their country is in discord, preferring to roughhouse, haze the new guy, and read each other the dirtiest book they know (The Arabian Nights, the veritable Fifty Shades of Grey of their time.)

Filmmaker Louis Malle chooses wisely not to make the boy characters too worldly or introspective, instead deciding to stick to a more realistic approach to adolescence. And the movie is not without it’s humor- when Jean and Julien wander off during a treasure hunt and get lost in the woods, they run into a scared wild boar and are charitably wrapped in a blanket in the back of a German military vehicle and returned to school.

When they return home to their peers, however, Julien elevates the story to legendary heights- now there was not one, but one hundred mad boars and the soldiers shot at them as they ran through the woods. Why, they barely escaped with their lives. This provides some comic relief, but it also has a lot of truth to it- stories all seem to get bigger in the minds of young boys.

Au revoir les enfants is tender, true-to-life, and achingly sad. The children behave as children will, ignorant of the impending storm, and the adults talk worriedly among themselves. The matter of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is a series of decisions and choices, and morality doesn’t always triumph over doing the cowardly and ultimately shitty thing.

There is at least one main character who does a terrible thing (not Julien, whose ultimate act is comprised of folly. not malice) This person screws the others over and is presumably rewarded for it. The movie teaches a sad but true lesson- Happily ever After can occur for the most undeserving people. The righteous man is not always the one who gets a good outcome. And doing the right thing should be because it’s the moral thing to do, not because you’ll be rewarded for it.

The child actors do an admirable job in a foreign film that almost everyone with a taste for a rich narrative should find accessible. At the end of the movie, Julien says he’ll remember that last morning in January til the day he dies. You should remember this movie as such;  not because it is traumatic, but because it is moving and beautiful, without a hint of bitterness for a carefree childhood torn asunder by life’s cruel ironies.

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Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)

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Imagine a time way, way back, when Tim Burton wasn’t considered a joke by most film enthusiasts. He had his whole career ahead of him, and he had just been picked by off-the-wall children show host Paul Reubens to make a film adaptation of his show, “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” (Reubens, similarly, had his whole career ahead of him, before becoming  the receiving end of a ‘masturbation-in-an-adult-theater’ scandal.) Two off-the-wall artists putting heads together with one another. Why, anything could happen.

“Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” is a lot like any other comedy, especially of of an absurdist, crazy nature- some jokes work, some don’t. Unhinged man-boy and inventor extraordinaire/ idiot savant (some people might shorten that uncharitably to ‘retard’) Pee-Wee Herman (Reubens) is too obtuse to note his friend Dottie (Elizabeth Daily)’s affection for him. In fact, Pee-Wee can’t see the forest for the trees- the main tree in question being his much adored bicycle.

Naturally, Pee-Wee is distraught when Francis (Mark Holton,) resident spoiled brat and privileged heir, steals the bicycle for himself. The fact that Pee-Wee is almost as much of a self-centered infantile brat as Francis is beside to point as far as the viewer’s loyalties are concerned- the bike is Pee-Wee’s, and no one loves it as much as he does. For Francis it would be just another addition to his massive collection of expensive shit.

Anyway, unable to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that it was Francis that stole the bike, Pee-Wee heeds the rants of a deceitful fortune teller and goes on a wild goose chase looking for his treasure. Along the way he meets lots of interesting (i.e. bizarre) people and gets himself embroiled in myriad weird encounters, in what seems more like a series of comedic vignettes than an actual movie.

The movie gives Reubens a chance to get in touch with his not-so-deeply inner spastic nut, and for Burton to place him in a world where nobody acts quite like they should. Reubens is unleashed on the set like a kid in a ball pit, and this is not one of those cases where the actor bends to the will of the set- the set bends to the will of Pee-Wee, with lots of destruction and mayhem in the process.

Basically, you’ll either think Pee-Wee’s endearing and funny or you’ll want to cram plastic packing peanuts down his throat until he chokes to death (take that, funny man!) As for me, I wanted to scratch my retinas out for the first two minutes, then I settled down and enjoyed the movie- let me tell you, it was quite a ride! At it’s worst this movie is self-indulgent, with comic sequences that go on for far too long and Reubens ferociously chewing the scenery. At it’s best, it’s quite funny, even cute and charming, like Reubens’ particularly bufoonish brand of physical comedy.

I think it makes people happy to see a trickster character, kind of a developmentally deficient Brier Rabbit, who acts totally out of line to the point of criminal offense and gets away physically and spiritually in one piece, his tomfoolery unfettered by human cynicism and codes of proper social behavior.

In real life, a guy like Pee-Wee would get beat up all the way to the bus stop for special kids, so it’s kind of nice to see a  shameless man-child who makes no effort to conform to others’ expectations for him get ahead for once. It makes the world seem a little less mean, even through the lens of fiction.

“Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” is definitely an out-there movie, set in a film universe subtly but drastically unlike our own (for one thing, it’s a world where someone like Pee-Wee could receive positive female attention other than abject pity.) There’s a handful of really funny moments, such as Pee-Wee’s act of heroism in the burning pet store (the way he revoltedly rescued the snakes  last cracked me up.)

Basically, you don’t mind the character than Reubens has created, annoying affectations and all, you might like this movie. If you think Pee-Wee Herman is funny, you might love this movie. I didn’t love it, but my appreciation for absurd humor left me enjoying the gags, even when they fell a little… well, flat? All I can say is I’ve warmed up to Pee-Wee, which is more than I can say for many similarly infantile characters. A modest win.

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Baxter (1989)

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While I stand by my belief that human beings are the only creatures capable of true, premeditated evil, a film premise concerning a homicidal, misanthropic dog with a razor-sharp human intellect was too fascinating to pass up. That’s what this movie is all about, really… even if it’s rough around the edges in some parts and so, so hard to watch at others, you can’t fault it for creativity. For a dog, who is considered ‘man’s best friend’ and a protector of humankind, to be a incarnation of human’s worst qualities, is a innovative idea, to say the least.  But, ultimately, one can’t help but feel sympathy for the titular Baxter. As always, the ‘superior’ evil of man wins over the force of a clawed, toothed animal’s will.

We are introduced to Baxter’s world in a distorted, bizarre sequence featuring the dogs in a pound making a ruckus and baring their teeth. It’s a normal real-life scene, except for the way it’s handled, which is uncanny and eerie at best, completely surrealistic and mundanely terrifying at worst. This sets up the development of the canine anti-hero, a bull terrier who should be considered immoral and malicious, to say the least. Meet Baxter. He’s not like other dogs.

Baxter is adopted and given to an elderly lady (Lise Delamare) as a birthday present by her daughter. To say that Baxter dislikes the old woman is an understatement. Bored and infuriated by the uneventful life of a docile, neglected house pet, Baxter knocks the old woman down the stairs twice, finally killing her.

After the lady’s death, Baxter goes looking for a perfect human to spend the rest of his life with, ideally, one who ‘feels neither love nor fear’ (Baxter’s ugly thoughts are brought to life by the late French actor Maxime Leroux, who maintains a creepy, almost sociopathic inflection throughout.) After another failed endeavor aimed at finding the ideal master, Baxter gets saddled with Charles (François Driancourt,) a sicko adolescent obsessed with Hitler. At first Baxter finds he can respect the youth’s nihilistic worldview, but what is the price of this twisted partnership? And when the boy’s degenerate behavior surpasses that of even Baxter, what price will be paid?

Firstly, if you find yourself particularly unnerved by cruelty towards animals in movies, don’t bother to watch this movie. It won’t inspire you, ingratiate you, or offer you anything but hopelessness and violence. However, if you like dark, unusual films with a hint of horror, this might prove to be your type of flick. I wouldn’t necessarily characterize “Baxter” as black comedy, though there are certainly some who may disagree with me on that point. Despite a lack of likable characters, the movie becomes twistier and more tragic by the minute.

I really liked the scenes shot from Baxter’s point of view. The choice to make the actor who plays Charles so young was a good one- his youth paired with his complete ammorality makes the situation all the more disturbing (it deserves to be mentioned that the kid actor does a very good job, despite this being his only movie.)

I was a little quizzical about the portrayal of the human characters. Maybe it was written as such to drive home Baxter’s belief about the inferiority of certain people, which ties into the kid’s Neo-Nazi ideology, but the people featured in the film display a dazzling ignorance. From the rotten teen’s parents, who decide not to confront him about his Nazi paraphernalia because he’s ‘going through a phase’ to the pretty brunette who sleeps with the youth after he compares her beauty to that of Eva Braun, the humans don’t seem to have a brain among them.

This mostly works, except for one scene that almost ruined the movie for me in it’s ridiculousness. Let me set the scene, if I may, of a couple (Jany Gastaldi and Jacques Spiesser)   that have adopted Baxter (post- dead old lady but pre- Nazi scuzzbucket.)

The duo have a new baby who Baxter has a deep and abiding hatred for. The baby has almost fallen (or been pushed?) into the fountain in the yard once, so what do the mom and dad do? They go in to have sex, leaving the tyke on the lawn. Whether or not you know the dog is trying to kill the baby (which you wouldn’t, let’s be honest,) would you leave the child in a yard with a fountain he has a propensity for crawling toward? No.

Pretending two people of non-retarded intelligence would do this just to advance the plot is lame to say the least. But if you overlook that scene (argh,) “Baxter” is a thought-provoking film and a singularly bizarre character study. I would like to get a hold of the book on which it was based, “Hell Hound” by Ken Greenhall. Also, is it weird that now I want a bull terrier? 😛

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Batman (1989)

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Tim Burton’s “Batman” is often overlooked in favor of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, but the 1989 version is in many ways better, not to mention more light-hearted and fun. I think “Batman”‘s charm lies in the fact that it doesn’t try to be anything more than a goofy, campy superhero movie. It’s dark, sure, as is Burton’s incarnation of a bleak, crime-ridden Gotham, but it doesn’t try to be as ‘gritty’ and ‘edgy’ and ‘realistic’ as Nolan’s series.

Plus, Jack Nicholson as Joker! Now, I am not going to hate on the late Heath Ledger (it is Chris Nolan who kind of lost me after “Memento,”) but Nicholson is really boss as Batman’s nemesis and owned the role in a way that Ledger couldn’t quite muster (to be fair, picking between the performances is kind of like comparing apples and oranges.)

Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) is an eccentric millionaire who uses his massive fortune to fight crime as Batman. Jack Napier (Nicholson) is a thug who is two-timed by his boss (Jack Palance) and left for dead, emerging from a vat of chemicals as the deformed, maniacal joker. Bruce is pursued by newspaper photographer and Batman enthusiast Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger,) who doesn’t know his true identity.

Unfortunately, he doesn’t know the first thing bout relationships- and the Joker is on the prowl,  promising, in the spirit of generosity, to make Gotham’s 200th anniversary an occasion to remember (whether that memory will be regarded fondly is an entirely different matter.)

Michael Keaton is enjoyable as an obtuse vigilante who doesn’t know how to balance his love life and his self-appointed job as a crime-fighting superhero. I wasn’t too impressed with Vicki Vale. Kim Basinger was not too bad, but as with many superhero’s girlfriends, I felt very ‘meh’ about Vicki’s character. Unlike, say, Mary Jane Watson in “Spider-Man”, I never really felt like Vicki cared about either her boyfriend or his heroic alter ego. She seemed to only be after a good story for the newspaper.

She was also constantly doing stupid things like just standing there in the museum Joker besieged when she has an opportunity to get away (why don’t you take the oxygen mask with you) and reaching for the Joker’s hand to pull her up when he and Batman are dangling from a building (because the bad guy’s going to have a road to Damascus right halfway through trying to kill you, mmm-kay.)

Whereas Vicki is typically lifeless, passive female lead who suffers vague but persistent sexual threats from the baddie, Nicholson’s Joker is terrific- a villain worth cheering about (if not for.) His performance is a triumph of black comedy while still being frightening and sinister (I remember being scared by the “Love that Joker’ sequence with the smiling corpses of the models  when I watched this movie as a kid.)

Keaton proves to be a more fun, lighter, and  less self-serious Batman than Christian Bale (another plus the compete lack of Bale’s annoying growly Batman voice.) “Batman” features creative sets, great humor, and an outstanding turn by Jack Nicholson. I remain unsure whether to watch the sequels, as I’ve heard repeatedly that it’s all downhill from here, but the original should go down in history as a effective superhero movie that’s a cut above the rest.

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