The Monster Squad (1987)

2017 #43
Fred Dekker | 79 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / PG-13

The Monster Squad

When I rewatched The Nice Guys on Blu-ray, I also watched the (pathetic selection of) special features, in which Ryan Gosling mentions being a fan of Shane Black before he knew who Shane Black was because growing up he loved The Monster Squad. To cut to the obvious, that inspired me to watch the thing.

It’s about a group of young kids who idolise classic monster movies, but basically find themselves in one when Dracula and friends come alive and set about finding an amulet that will allow them to control the world. The film wasn’t a success on its original release, but has gained a cult following since. It feels like that kind of movie, too.

It’s also the kind of film I can imagine you’d love if you saw it at the right age, but the “right age” is not, it would seem, the one I am now. Really, it’s a kids’ movie, despite the BBFC’s 15 certificate. There’s more swearing and stuff than you’d typically expect from a kids’ movie, which I’m sure led to that classification, though as it’s not been submitted since 1990 perhaps they’d give it a 12 today. Nonetheless, the tone feels more aimed at, say, ten-year-olds — it stars kids who are 12 and under, and I bet they’re a moderately realistic version thereof, despite what ratings bodies would like.

Frankie comes from Hollywood

That’s not to say it’s without value for those of us coming to it late. There’s great make-up and creature effects, better than you might expect given the overall quality of the film, which is what you get when Stan Winston’s involved. It’s under 80 minutes long, which keeps things pleasantly fast — there’s very little titting about with bits of plot that we know where they’re going, it just gets there. There are some good lines too, as you’d expect from a Shane Black screenplay, although it’s surprisingly scrappily constructed. Perhaps that’s Fred Dekker’s limited skill as a director rather than Black’s screenplay? This was early in his career, mind, so maybe Black wasn’t up to scratch yet — it came out the same year as the film that made his name, Lethal Weapon… which I didn’t actually like much either, so…

The Monster Squad wasn’t a huge success for me, then, but I imagine if you saw it at the right age it would become a nostalgic favourite.

3 out of 5

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Beetlejuice (1988)

The 100 Films Guide to…

Beetlejuice

The Name In Laughter
From The Hereafter

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 92 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: PG

Original Release: 30th March 1988 (USA)
UK Release: 19th August 1988
Budget: $15 million
US Gross: $73.7 million

Stars
Michael Keaton (Batman, Birdman)
Alec Baldwin (The Hunt for Red October, Glengarry Glen Ross)
Geena Davis (The Fly, Thelma & Louise)
Winona Ryder (Heathers, Edward Scissorhands)

Director
Tim Burton (Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Edward Scissorhands)

Screenwriters
Michael McDowell (The Nightmare Before Christmas, Thinner)
Warren Skaaren (Beverly Hills Cop II, Batman)

Story by
Michael McDowell (see above)
Larry Wilson (The Addams Family, The Little Vampire)


The Story
Adam and Barbara Maitland are living an idyllic life in their lovely small-town house… until they die. What’s worse is that they’re condemned to haunt their old home while a family of city-slickers move in and destroy everything they loved about it. To get them out, Adam and Barbara may be forced to call on disgraced ‘bio-exorcist’ Betelgeuse…

Our Heroes
Adam and Barbara Maitland are a sweet couple living a quite life in a quaint little town, until they’re killed in an accident (swerving their car to avoid a very cute dog, to be fair) and have to cope not only with haunting their old home, but also with the afterlife’s bizarre bureaucracy.

Our Villains
Betelgeuse, Betelgeuse, Betelgeuse! He may be offering to help the Maitlands, but in the end he’s their biggest problem. Before that, though, there’s Charles and Delia Deetz, the new occupants who seem determined to ruin the Maitlands’ beloved home.

Best Supporting Character
The Deetz’s daughter, little goth Lydia. She’s the only human who can see the Maitlands, and quickly finds she gets on with them better than her own parents.

Memorable Quote
Juno: “What’s wrong?”
Barbara: “We’re very unhappy.”
Juno: “What did you expect? You’re dead!”

Memorable Scene
When the Deetzes hold a dinner party for some of their city friends, Adam and Barbara attempt to frighten them away by puppeteering them into a bizarre rendition of Day-O (The Banana Boat Song). As well as the supporting cast gamely engaging in a dance routine (er, kind of), they really sell it by simultaneously looking confused and troubled about what’s going on with their bodies. Unfortunately for Adam and Barbara, however, the stunt backfires…

Memorable Music
The famed collaboration between Tim Burton and Danny Elfman dates right back to the director’s first film, making this their second together. But that recognisable Elfman style — so familiar from, er, every other Tim Burton movie (as well as others, of course) — is already very much in evidence. The main theme almost sounds like a greatest hits package for the composer, which does make you wonder how much it’s style and how much he’s been ripping himself off ever since…

Truly Special Effect
According to IMDb, the visual effects budget was just $1 million, leading Burton to decide to make the effects look “as tacky and B-movie as possible” — which is interesting because a lot of them are pretty good, bearing in mind that the film hails from the late ’80s. Obviously they’ve aged now, therefore, but it’s so packed with creative and varied visual trickery that I assume it once played as a kind of effects showcase. It’s only that in an historical sense now, but there’s still a lot of striking and memorable stuff here.

Letting the Side Down
Betelgeuse, Betelgeuse, Betelgeuse! Ironically, I’d like the whole film a lot more if the title character wasn’t in it. Okay, I know not everyone’s going to feel this way — I imagine some people love him — but, for me, he’s by far the worst thing about the film. He starts off with just a couple of small appearances that are only a little irritating, but when he enters the story properly… ugh.

Making of
Believe it or not, the original script was a straight horror film. Betelgeuse was a winged demon, only transforming into a man to interact with humans, whose goal was to rape and kill the Deetzes rather than just scare them off. Lydia was a minor character, with a younger sister who could see the Maitlands. I don’t know how exactly it went from that to a comedy, but maybe it was for the best.

Next time…
An animated TV series, which reconfigured Betelgeuse as the hero and teamed him up with Lydia, ran for 94 episodes between 1989 and 1991. Apparently it was a big hit, and aired on both ABC and Fox simultaneously, becoming “one of the few shows in American television history to be aired concurrently on two different broadcast networks.” Aside from that, a sequel movie has long been mooted, and continues to be an on-again-off-again prospect to this day.

Awards
1 Oscar (Makeup)
2 BAFTA nominations (Make Up Artist, Special Effects)
3 Saturn Awards (Horror Film, Supporting Actress (Sylvia Sidney), Make-Up)
5 Saturn Award nominations (Supporting Actor (Michael Keaton), Director, Writing, Music, Special Effects)
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation

Verdict

I knew that I’d seen Beetlejuice many years ago, but I could barely remember anything about it, other than a general sense that I didn’t like it much. So watching it again now was almost like a first viewing, and was almost a revelation too: it’s a very enjoyable film. Pretty much my only problem with it is Betelgeuse himself (as discussed above); but, in fact, he only makes up a relatively small proportion of the movie: he’s in just 17½ minutes, less than 20% of the film. The good qualities in the remainder keep it up at a 4-star level.

The Terminator (1984)

The 100 Films Guide to…

The Terminator

Your future is in its hands.

Country: USA & UK
Language: English
Runtime: 107 minutes
BBFC: 18 (1984) | 15 (2000)
MPAA: R

Original Release: 26th October 1984 (USA)
UK Release: 11th January 1985
Budget: $6.4 million
Worldwide Gross: $78.4 million

Stars
Arnold Schwarzenegger (Conan the Barbarian, Predator)
Michael Biehn (Aliens, Tombstone)
Linda Hamilton (Children of the Corn, Dante’s Peak)

Director
James Cameron (Piranha Part Two: The Spawning , Avatar)

Screenwriters
James Cameron (Rambo: First Blood Part II, Strange Days)
Gale Anne Hurd

Based on
not Harlan Ellison’s The Outer Limits episode Soldier. (Ellison sued production company Orion, who settled out of court for an undisclosed sum and an acknowledgement in the film’s credits. James Cameron disagreed with this decision, and still does.)


The Story
Two time travellers from a future world beset by a war between ruling robots and a human resistance arrive in Los Angeles 1984 to find the mother of the future human leader, Sarah Connor — one to kill her, one to protect her.

Our Heroes
Sarah Connor is just an ordinary young waitress in ’80s L.A. who suddenly finds herself marked for death by an unstoppable robot from the future. Her only hope is Kyle Reese, a soldier also from the future, sent back in time by Sarah’s unborn son to protect her.

Our Villain
In the Year of Darkness, 2029, the rulers of this planet devised the ultimate plan. They would reshape the Future by changing the Past. The plan required something that felt no pity. No pain. No fear. Something unstoppable. They created… the Terminator.

Best Supporting Character
Paul Winfield is the kind, dryly humorous police lieutenant who lands the tough job of protecting Sarah Connor. He thinks Reese’s story makes him mad (who wouldn’t?), but then he comes face-to-face with the Terminator itself…

Memorable Quote
“Come with me if you want to live.” — Kyle Reese

Memorable Scene
Having learnt Sarah Connor is being held at a police station, the Terminator walks in and asks the desk sergeant if he can see her. He’s refused, but told he can wait. Sizing up the room, the Terminator informs the sergeant: “I’ll be back.” And he is — in a car.

Memorable Music
Composer Brad Fiedel’s main theme is surprisingly catchy, I find, as well as now being rather iconic. Some of the rest of his score has dated terribly, though.

Truly Special Effect
Despite being a relatively low budget production, The Terminator is stuffed with memorable effects work. The stop motion and models used to depict the future war look fantastic even when placed alongside live-action elements, but best of all must be the full-size Terminator endoskeleton from the climax. The prop weighed a ton and was hard to manoeuvre on set, but it looks fantastic.

Letting the Side Down
For all the brilliant effects, the model of Arnie’s head used for when his robot eye is exposed is… less than convincing. Apparently it took six months to create. Maybe during all that time they forgot what Arnie looked like…

Next time…
Seven years later, Cameron revisited the Terminator universe for one of the most acclaimed action movies and sequels of all time, Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Then Cameron was done, but where there’s a popular film there’s money to be made, and so twelve years later Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines turned up. It was less remarkable. Since then, there have been multiple attempts to exploit the IP: TV series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles rewrote continuity and was well regarded, but was nonetheless cancelled after two seasons; Terminator Salvation attempted to kickstart a new trilogy but didn’t go down that well (and is probably best remembered for star Christian Bale’s on-set rant); and Terminator Genisys attempted to start another trilogy by bringing back Arnie and revisiting events from the first film. It didn’t do well either. Now, Cameron is about to get the rights back… and intends to start another new trilogy. We’ll see.

Awards
3 Saturn Awards (Science Fiction Film, Writing, Make-Up)
4 Saturn Award nominations (Actor (Arnold Schwarzenegger), Actress (Linda Hamilton), Director, Music)

Verdict

When I published the list for my 100 Favourites back in 2016, I tried to remove anything I felt was being included on autopilot — films that are such accepted greats that I wasn’t considering how much I actually liked them. Eliminated as part of that were the first two Terminator movies. I liked them a lot, but I hadn’t bothered to watch them for years — they seemed a definite case of films I thought should be there rather than ones I was really passionate about. Rewatching the original for the first time in well over a decade, I realised pretty quickly that I’d made a mistake. The more mediocre movies you see, or even just “quite good” ones, the more you realise how perfect the great ones are — and The Terminator is a great movie. It’s full of superb sci-fi ideas, well-directed action sequences, quotable dialogue, and memorable characters — not least the instantly iconic title role.

Comedy Review Roundup

Let’s have a laugh (or, perhaps, not) with…

  • Police Academy (1984)
  • Black Dynamite (2009)
  • Four Lions (2010)
  • Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)


    Police Academy
    (1984)

    2017 #27
    Hugh Wilson | 92 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Police Academy

    I watched some of the Police Academy movies when I was younger — yes, plural — but I never saw the first one. It never seemed to be on TV (though the second always was), and the fact it’s rated 15 (weren’t all the later ones, like, PG?) would surely mean my parents would never have let me rent it (I’m pretty sure I never saw any of the series after I hit double-digits age-wise). So there was an element of box ticking in finally seeing the original — a film that Roger Ebert gave zero stars.

    It doesn’t start well: the opening credits incompetently cover up the onscreen action. That’s not for the sake of a joke, like in, say, Austin Powers 2 — it’s not overt or thorough like a joke — it’s just poorly done. From there… it might be generous to say that things pick up, but they’re not so bad. In fact, I passingly enjoyed it. It’s not aged particularly well, but there are some funny bits. Remember the sound effects guy? I used to love him when I was a kid. There’s surprisingly little of him here, though. I guess he got amped up for the sequels.

    Police Academy isn’t some masterpiece that’s been buried under the weight of its increasingly shite sequels, but it isn’t that bad as an hour-and-a-half of mindless comedy.

    3 out of 5

    Black Dynamite
    (2009)

    2017 #47
    Scott Sanders | 81 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Black Dynamite

    A spoof of cheap blaxploitation movies, Black Dynamite hits every nail on the head. I’ve not actually seen many films from the genre (the original Shaft may be the extent of it, unless Live and Let Die counts), but you only need a passing awareness of the ludicrousies of low-budget ’70s genre cinema (the third act sidesteps into a spoof of kung fu movies) to get the overall joke. Plus there are plenty of generally funny riffs and sequences for the layperson to laugh at, the highlight being a deduction scene that makes no sense whatsoever. At a brisk 80 minutes, it’s hard to go wrong.

    4 out of 5

    Four Lions
    (2010)

    2017 #65
    Chris Morris | 97 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK & France / English, Urdu & Arabic | 15 / R

    Four Lions

    A comedy about Muslim suicide bombers? You don’t need me to tell you all the different minefields that idea is tiptoeing into. But it’s by the guy behind Brass Eye, so it less tiptoes more bounds, and barely puts a foot wrong either.

    The most important point, of course, is that it is very, very funny. There’s a stream of good one-liners and exchanges. But it also winds up making you feel for some of these guys, which, considering their goal, is a feat unto itself. At the same time, the attempted emotional pull in the third act doesn’t quite come off — asking us to care for “the stupid one”, who’s merely been the butt of jokes until that point, comes a little out of left-field. I mean, if we’re suddenly meant to be concerned about his (mis)treatment, why have you been making us laugh at him all along?

    Anyway, if you just ignore that unwarranted about-turn, Four Lions is absolutely hilarious.

    4 out of 5

    Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
    (1986)

    2017 #50
    John Hughes | 103 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15* / PG-13

    Ferris Bueller's Day Off

    Is this or The Breakfast Club the archetypal John Hughes movie? Argue amongst yourselves — I’ve never seen The Breakfast Club. I hadn’t seen Ferris Bueller until this year either (I mean, obviously — it wouldn’t be here otherwise), though I’m not sure why. Despite it being quite well-known and referenced, it just didn’t seem to come up that often. (Incidentally, are references to it on the increase? Both Deadpool and Spider-Man: Homecoming had significant riffs on it within the past couple of years.)

    Anyway, for those as in the dark as I was, it’s the story of cool kid Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) who has an elaborate plan to bunk off school for the day, which involves persuading his best mate Cameron (Alan Ruck) to ‘borrow’ his dad’s Ferrari and head off into Chicago with Ferris’ girlfriend (Mia Sara). Meanwhile, the school’s suspicious principal (Jeffrey Jones) tries to catch Ferris out.

    Going back to what I was saying a moment ago, part of why I didn’t watch it before was that I felt like I’d find it annoying. Turns out, not so much. Ferris is indeed a bit of a dick, but I’m not sure the film doesn’t know he is. Because he talks to camera and makes the viewer his confidante, the assumption might be we’re meant to admire him, but there’s an almost “unreliable narrator” aspect to him. Or maybe I’m projecting that because I didn’t like him but did enjoy his antics, who knows.

    5 out of 5

    * The film was reclassified as 12A for a 2013 theatrical re-release, but I watched it at home, where it’s still technically a 15. Ah, the oddities of the BBFC. ^

  • Fandango (1985)

    2017 #22
    Kevin Reynolds | 91 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / PG

    Fandango

    In this coming-of-age comedy drama, pitched as “celebrating the privilege of youth”, a group of college buddies — two of whom are about to be drafted into Vietnam — go on a final road trip to celebrate their graduation and defer the impending seriousness of adulthood.

    Fandango began life as a student short made by writer-director Kevin Reynolds that just featured the skydiving sequence. That was seen by, of all people, Steven Spielberg, who liked it enough that he gave Reynolds the money to develop a feature film around the idea. But when he saw the finished result, Spielberg distanced himself from it — he even had his name taken off the credits. No idea why — it’s a super movie. If we’re being picky then its structure is a little episodic, but the scrapes the gang get into are linked by arcs that chart their characters’ development, which is where the film has it’s heart. It’s also resplendent with nice little touches, like well-composed shots (for a first timer, Reynolds clearly knew what he was doing), poignant character moments, and some occasionally profound dialogue, too. A sequence that sees the guys fighting with fireworks in a graveyard, foreshadowing the war several of them are about to head off to, is a particular standout.

    Boys will be boys

    Kevin Costner, tearing through Texas as a free-spirited college flunk-out wearing one-armed sunglasses, an increasingly grubby tailcoat, and a shit-eating grin, has never seemed cooler. That almost masks the fact that it’s also a very good performance, actually. It might’ve been forgotten under some of the blockbusters he did, and some of the crap in more recent years, but the guy can act. The lead cast surrounding him is equally as likeable — it genuinely feels like hanging out with a ragtag gang of college mates on their last hurrah. The final act stretches credibility pretty darn thin with what those guys are able to pull off, but it’s nonetheless a suitably emotive finale.

    I’d never even heard of Fandango until the ghost of 82 recommended it to me last year, which is possibly the end result of Spielberg having disowned it. The history of cinema is no doubt littered with these little gems that, for whatever reason, only resonated with some people at the time. One of the real benefits of the blogging era is that we can recommend them on.

    4 out of 5

    Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)

    2017 #129
    Joe Dante, John Landis, George Miller & Steven Spielberg | 97 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 12 / PG

    Twilight Zone: The Movie

    I can’t remember when I first heard of Twilight Zone: The Movie — certainly not until sometime this millennium — but I do remember being surprised I hadn’t heard of it before. Why wasn’t it more often talked about? After all, here’s a film based on a classic TV series, directed by some of the hottest genre filmmakers of the time: John Landis just after An American Werewolf in London; Joe Dante just before Gremlins; George Miller fresh from Mad Max 2; and, most of all, Steven Spielberg, coming off a run that encompassed Jaws, Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T. I mean, Jesus, even if the movie wasn’t great then surely it should be well-known! It was only later still that I learnt about the infamous helicopter crash. Couple that with a mediocre critical reception and relatively poor box office results, and suddenly it’s no wonder no one ever talked about the film. My viewing of it was primarily motivated by attempting to complete the filmographies of Spielberg and Miller, but I’m glad I did because, on the whole, I rather enjoyed it.

    As the original Twilight Zone was an anthology series, so is the movie — hence having four directors. Although the original plan was to have some characters crop up in each segment, thereby linking them all together, that idea didn’t come off. The end result, then, is really just five sci-fi/fantasy/horror short films stuck together — composer Jerry Goldsmith is the only key crew member to work across more than two segments. The advantage of that as a viewer is, if you don’t like one story, there’ll be another along before you know it. Because of that, I’ll take each part in turn.

    The Trump Zone

    The film begins with a prologue, directed by John Landis, featuring Albert Brooks and Dan Aykroyd as a driver and a hitchhiker chatting about classic TV and scary stories. Although obviously the shortest segment, it’s good fun and sets a kind of comic tone — not one the rest of the film follows, to be fair, but it’s kind of effective in that it has a knowing wink to the audience: “we all know The Twilight Zone is a TV show. Now, here are four stories from it.”

    Landis also directs the first full segment, Time Out, the only one of the four not adapted from an original TV episode. Basically, it’s about a Trump supporter. You might not have noticed that if watching before last year, for obvious reasons, but viewed now it’s kind of hard to miss. What’s depressing it that the point of the film is this guy’s views are outdated in 1983, and yet you have Trumpers spouting the same shit in 2017, three-and-a-half decades later. That aside, as a short moral parable it’s effective. It doesn’t have the ending that was scripted (thanks to the aforementioned tragedy), I think the conclusion it does have is actually more appropriate. It feels kind of wrong to take that view, because the only reason it was changed was that terrible accident. Obviously it wasn’t worth it just for this segment to have a better ending, but there it is.

    Scary kid? Check.

    Segment two, Kick the Can, is Spielberg’s, and anyone familiar with his oeuvre — and the criticism of it — will see that right away: it’s shot in nostalgic golden hues and contains positive, sentimental moral lessons. In fact, it’s so cloyingly sweet, it’s like a parody of Spielberg’s worst excesses. It was originally intended to be the last film in the movie, and you can see why: it would’ve formed a positive, upbeat finale to the picture. I’m not sure why they moved it — possibly because they felt it was the least-good. That’s what a fair few critics believe, anyway.

    Personally, segment three was my least favourite. This is Joe Dante’s short, titled It’s a Good Life, and is about a woman who accidentally knocks a boy off his bike, gives him a lift home, and finds a pretty strange situation therein. I found it to be kind of aimless; weird for the sake of weird. It’s prettily designed and shot, with bold cartoon colours, but if I watched the film again I’d give serious thought to just skipping it.

    The final segment remakes arguably the most famous Twilight Zone episode: Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. It’s about a paranoid airplane passenger on a turbulent flight, who thinks he sees a monster on the wing. Naturally, no one believes him. I’ve not seen the original version so can’t compare, but director George Miller and star John Lithgow do a fantastic job of realising Richard Matheson’s story, loading it with tension and uncertainty — is it actually all in the passenger’s head? And if it isn’t, can they survive?

    Fear of flying

    On the whole, I liked Twilight Zone: The Movie more than I’d expected I would. Nonetheless, as a series of shorts, it’s destined to be a footnote in the career of all involved (even Landis has done a fair job of moving on from the controversy — as I said, I hadn’t even heard about it until relatively recently). The only truly great segment is Miller’s finale, but the others all have elements that make them worth a look.

    4 out of 5

    Muppet Review Roundup

    In today’s round-up:

  • The Muppet Movie (1979)
  • The Great Muppet Caper (1981)


    The Muppet Movie
    (1979)

    2017 #77
    James Frawley | 91 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | UK & USA / English | U / G

    The Muppet Movie

    “The Muppets Begin” in their big-screen debut, which sees Kermit going on a road trip where he encounters most of the key Muppets one by one, while being chased by a businessman who wants Kermie to be the poster-frog for his frog legs restaurant.

    It feels like a succinct distillation of the Muppet style, driven by gentle surrealism, meta humour, musical numbers, and a ton of cameos. How well the latter have aged in four decades is debatable — I knew a fair few (James Coburn, Telly Savalas, Elliott Gould, Bob Hope, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, Mel Brooks, Orson Welles), but, looking at the list on Wikipedia, there were plenty I didn’t get. Time has also added humour where none was intended: Gonzo’s comment that he wants to go to India to become a movie star isn’t actually a Bollywood reference — Jim Henson picked the least likely place Gonzo could become a movie star, unaware they produce twice as many movies as Hollywood. Oops. On the other hand, I don’t know if the subplot where Gonzo seems to fancy chickens was ever just wacky, but today it feels weird and kind of disturbing.

    Aside from the recognisability of the cameos, the Muppet style has aged pretty well — some things that were once outré just become part of the culture as time wears on, but much of the Muppets’ material is still entertainingly irreverent today.

    4 out of 5

    The Great Muppet Caper
    (1981)

    2017 #87
    Jim Henson | 94 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | UK & USA / English | U / G

    The Great Muppet Caper

    The second big-screen outing for the Muppets casts Kermit, Fozzie Bear and Gonzo as reporters who travel to England to investigate a jewel theft. Of course, this being a Muppet movie, the plot is less important than the crazy comical antics.

    To that end there are some good songs and sequences: the opening number about it being a movie, the Happiness Hotel song, a couple of dance routines centred around Miss Piggy — one of those underwater! There are plenty of good individual lines as well, particularly when it breaks the fourth wall, which is often. Favourites include the commentary on the opening credits, noting an exposition dump, a gag about brief cameos, and a variety of neat running gags, in particular one about Kermit and Fozzie being indistinguishable identical twins.

    Other sequences are sadly less effective: the one in the park (even if the use of bikes is quite impressive); or, most disappointing of all, an extended skit with John Cleese. It also comes up short on the cameo front. There are a couple, but they don’t feel as frequent or all as well-known as in the first film. Maybe it shouldn’t matter, but it’s part of the Muppets’ schtick, so that aspect is left feeling rather anaemic by comparison to some of their other movies.

    Overall, The Great Muppet Caper is a solid, largely entertaining Muppet outing if you like these characters and their style of humour, but otherwise nothing exceptional.

    3 out of 5

  • Road Games (1981)

    aka Roadgames

    2016 #132
    Richard Franklin | 100 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Australia / English | 15 / PG

    Road Games

    I hadn’t even heard of Ozploitation thriller Road Games before April last year, when Make Mine Criterion posted an excellent write-up proposing it for release by Arrow Video. That piqued my interest, so when it was announced for release by Australia’s Umbrella Entertainment the very next day, I jumped on a pre-order lickety-split. Just a couple of months later, a film I had only recently found out about was in my hands, in a better-than-its-ever-looked remaster, having arrived from literally the other side of the world, for about the same cost as a new release from Masters of Cinema or Arrow, i.e. under £14, including postage. (Makes you wonder how Criterion justify their £17.99 price tag…)

    Leaving aside the wonders of today, the film stars Stacy Keach as lorry driver Pat Quid, who one night happens to witness some shady goings on that may’ve been a murder. The next day he’s given the task of transporting a container full of carcasses to the other side of the country, because there’s a butchers’ strike over there and Aussies need their meat goddammit! On the road, he spots a vehicle connected to the possible-murder, and wonders if he’s on the trail of a killer — or if the killer’s on his. The tension only deepens when he picks up a hitchhiker (Jamie Lee Curtis), who may become the next victim…

    It's impossible to find good quality stills from Road Games

    Road Games’ low-budget roots and exploitation-derived genre tag may give the impression it’s a slasher movie or something, but nothing could be further from the truth (though there is one gory shot — so gory it’s a wonder the film got a PG in the US). Rather, it could best be described as Rear Windscreen, because fundamentally it’s the same story: our hero spies on a guy from a distance because he thinks he saw him commit a murder, but is it all in his head? Where Hitchcock staged that impressively in a single confined location, writer-director Richard Franklin opens it up to the whole Australian outback. In some respects that’s an even more impressive feat — of course neighbours are smooshed up against each other, but long-distance travellers? However, it doesn’t feel like a stretch that Quid keeps bumping into the same people, such is the skill of the construction.

    Keach makes for an affable lead, whether chatting to his dog early on or bonding with Curtis after he picks her up. Their shared ponderings about the possible murderer are just as effective as the Stewart/Kelly interactions from the Hitchcock film, though perhaps more conspiratorial. It’s easy to draw these comparisons and mirrorings with Rear Window, but it does Road Games a bit of a disservice — it’s not simply an off-brand remake or set-in-a-different-location pseudo-sequel. That said, the parallels are equally unavoidable. There’s also some Duel in the mix, as the killer notices he’s been noticed and turns the tables on our hapless trucker — an inversion, of course, as in Spielberg’s film it’s the trucker who’s the villain.

    Seeing red

    Basically, while acknowledging these undoubted similarities, I’m trying not to make Road Games sound too derivative, because I don’t think it is. It’s a masterful mystery, using ever-building tension to create a properly nail-biting thriller, which leads to an unpredictable final act (the benefit of many an independently-produced thriller is that it doesn’t necessarily have to comply with a studio’s view on how it should end). While it may owe a debt to one or both of the aforementioned movies, it’s a gripping work in its own right; one which deserves a bigger audience.

    5 out of 5

    Road Games placed 12th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here, and also featured on my list of favourite movies from the past decade, which you can read about here.

    The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984)

    2016 #134
    W.D. Richter | 103 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG

    The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension

    Buckaroo Banzai seems to have quite the cult following in the US, but, as far as I understand, it never made an impression over here; not until the internet enabled such cults to go global, anyway. It has big-name fans (one, Kevin Smith, was developing a remake for Amazon until legal wrangles got in the way), so of course it’s been noticed in more recent times. I’ve been somehow aware of it for ages, but finally got round to seeing it last year after Arrow put it out on Blu-ray.*

    For those equally unfamiliar with the film, it’s an action-adventure sci-fi satirical comedy (kinda), concerning an adventure (one of many, I imagine) of Dr. Buckaroo Banzai (RoboCop’s Peter Weller), the famous physicist, neurosurgeon, test pilot, and rock musician. While testing a device that allows him to pass through solid matter, Banzai briefly travels to another dimension. This kickstarts a series of events that leads to the escape of evil aliens the Red Lectroids, who Banzai must defeat lest it brings about the end of the world. That’s the streamlined version, anyway.

    To be perfectly honest, I’ve found it quite hard to tell what I thought of Buckaroo Banzai. On the one hand, I can definitely see where it gets its cult appeal, and I appreciate some of the ways it’s being different and boundary pushing. On the other, there’s been a definite backlash to it and I can appreciate where that comes from too — the criticism that some of that “boundary pushing” is merely sloppy storytelling and crazy overacting. There are parts where it’s hard to tell if it was deliberate and quite clever, or just incompetently done. Part of the problem (but also the appeal) is that it’s played so straight. It’s unquestionably a comedy — it’s too ludicrous to be anything else, and the sheer build-up of comedic lines becomes clear as it goes on — but it’s all played with such a straight face that I can see why you’d think everyone involved believed they were making something serious.

    Dr Buckaroo Banzai

    There are ways it could be ‘normal’, too: it contains so many elements that could be used to construct a traditional narrative — a new member being introduced to the gang, a love interest, an inciting incident which kicks off the events of the narrative, and so on — but it chooses to use none of these in a traditional way, instead being batshit crazy and thoroughly unique with it. Interestingly, director W.D. Richter was also one of the writers on Big Trouble in Little China, which is another action-adventure movie featuring a similar loose, crazy, fever-dream style. (Of all things, he also wrote Stealth, the forgotten-as-soon-as-it-was-released jet-pilots-vs-AI action thriller starring Jessica Biel and Jamie Foxx from 2005.) I can see how, after a diet of mainstream adventure cinema, something like this could feel refreshing. It’s almost like counter-culture pulp; like a Rocky Horror for the ’80s, but without the camp. (Or, at least, not the same kind of camp — I mean, have you seen what Jeff Goldblum’s wearing?)

    In the booklet accompanying Arrow’s Blu-ray, James Oliver talks about cult movies and their history. “Cult” is sometimes used nowadays as a catch-all term for anything in the broad sci-fi / fantasy / horror realm, or with a dedicated and eager fanbase. It’s almost mainstream. The term’s roots lie in the opposite direction, of course — films that critics and mass moviegoers disliked but that developed a following of people who appreciate and defended them nonetheless. This is a lot easier and quicker than it used to be since VHS came along, and even more so in the era of DVD and Blu-ray. Banzai was possibly the first cult film to benefit in this way. Oliver concludes by reasoning that the film “resists easy assimilation. It plays too many games to be embraced by everyone and is, accordingly, often patronised or even denigrated, even by some of those who usually like cult movies. But such resistance just makes those who love it love it just that little bit harder. So it is a cult movie and, no matter how much the meaning of that phrase may mutate over time, it likely always will be.” Based on the aforementioned backlash — how it’s had a chance to move in a more widely-known direction but hasn’t done so — I think he’s right.

    Villains

    Personally, I’m still conflicted. I sort of didn’t think it was all that great, but also loved it at the same time. “Loved” might be too strong a word. I admired some of the ways it was different from the norm. Plus there are some very quotable lines, and the music that kicks off the end credits is relentlessly hummable. On balance, I really wanted to like it more than I actually did like it. Maybe I’ll get there on repeat viewings (because we know how good I am at getting round to those…)

    3 out of 5

    * Said Blu-ray was actually released two years ago this month — where does time go?! ^

    Raising Arizona (1987)

    2016 #164
    Joel Coen | 94 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Raising Arizona

    Once upon a time I did a Media Studies A level, and (for reasons I can’t remember) our teacher showed us the pre-titles sequence of Raising Arizona because it was noteworthy for being the longest pre-titles sequence ever. As it happened our teacher was wrong, because The World Is Not Enough had already exceeded it a couple of years earlier.* And now it’s completely meaningless because most blockbusters don’t bother to show any credits until the end of the film, technically rendering the entire movie as the pre-titles “sequence”.

    My point here is twofold. One: I miss the structure of all films having title sequences somewhere near the start. Two: before now all I could have told you about Raising Arizona is that “it has the longest pre-titles ever (except it doesn’t)”. Well, that and it stars Nic Cage and was directed by the Coen brothers. But now I’ve watched it and, three months after the fact, …that’s still almost all I can tell you. I also remember there was a kinda-cool semi-fantastical thing going on with, like, a demon biker or something. Oh, and it’s quite funny. Not very funny, but quite.

    I have an awkward relationship with the Coen brothers. I always feel like I should be enjoying their movies more than I actually do, and I think some of their stuff is downright overrated. Unfortunately, Raising Arizona has done little to change this situation.

    3 out of 5

    * For what it’s worth, the length of TWINE’s pre-titles wasn’t intended. It was originally supposed to be just the stuff in Spain, with the MI6 explosion and subsequent Thames boat chase coming after the titles, but it was decided that didn’t make for a strong enough opening and it was recut. It runs about 17 minutes vs Raising Arizona’s 11. ^