Toy Commercial Tuesday: Castle Grayskull

I’m pretty certain you can completely trace my love of playsets to this one right here. I was lucky enough to score not just Castle Grayskull but also Snake Mountain. I would set them up next to each other and send my toys on epic journeys and battles against one another using all the fun tricks and secrets of both sets. I love that immersive quality of toys and action figures from the 80s. It’s fun to just play with your toys, but to have a recognizable environment to put them in is just next level. I’ve still got both of these at my folks’ house and I about lost my mind when I saw that Mattel made a new one for their Masters Of The Universe Classics line.

Q: The Winged Serpent Is Awesome

Q The Winged Serpent Last fall a buddy of mine sent a few Blu-rays he got through his work my way. I’m always super appreciative when people do nice things like this because, unless I hit a really good sale, I’m probably not going to get my hands on a great many things. In that package was a little movie called Q: The Winged Serpent directed by Larry Cohen (It’s Alive) and starring Michael Moriarty (Troll), Richard Roundtree (Shaft) and David Carradine (Kill Bill). I was sold solely on Moriarty’s involvement who I had just seen in The Stuff and, as it just so happens, that film was also directed by Cohen, so I guess they bring out the best in each other because I love both of these movies, like hard.

Here’s the basics, as best I can remember them. People in New York City are dying and going missing. The police don’t know why, but it’s because there’s a giant flying monster eating them. Moriarty plays a wheelman dragged into pulling a jewelry heist that goes south. On the run, he winds up in the top Chrysler Building  which just so happens to be the monster’s nest. Meawhile detectives played by Roundtree and Carradine are trying to figure out what’s going on. In the process, Carradine becomes convinced that it’s not only a big monster, but also the reincarnation of the Aztec god Quetzlcoatl.

One of the many elements I love about this film is the fact that Moriarty’s character is so important to how this story plays out. This isn’t the story of a down on his luck hero finding the threat to the city and bringing it to the attention of the authorities. Instead, Moriarty uses the monster to take care of two guys trying to shake him down and he only tells anyone in the local government about what’s going on until after he’s made a deal to get a huge pile of money and pardons for all crimes, even the ones the NYPD might not know about (a “Nixon-like pardon” he says). Since he’s a sneaky, shifty dude, the movie goes places it wouldn’t if this were a more typical Hollywood tale.

For his part, Moriarty really carries this movie. He pulls off this oddly alluring synthesis of charming, down-on-his-luck and  bad that works so damn well. You might like him because he can play the piano so causally, but then you hate how he treats his long-suffering girlfriend. Then, at just the right point, he reveals a piece of his personal history that doesn’t excuse his behavior, but might explain it. That’s another major plus for this film, Cohen reveals bits and pieces of Moriarty’s character when they’re necessary, not before. In that way, it’s a really great example of delving out information at just the right time.

It might sound like I’m going overboard about this strange monster movie from the early 80s and maybe I am, but I still think it’s got a lot of greatness held within. However, it’s not perfect. The special effects don’t look so hot these days. From animated shadows to poorly composited images, there’s a lot for the modern eye to pick apart, but for me that was all part of the film’s charm. It did the best it could at the time and probably looked pretty darn impressive in 1982. I thought the actual Q monster looked pretty solid when it was on screen and there were plenty of dizzying aerial shots of NYC (maybe too many) that acted as monster perspective shots.

Now that I think about it, I think I might like this movie because it’s a combination of two of my favorite films without directly ripping them off. On one hand, all the perspective stuff reflect’s John Carpenter’s Halloween where he puts us in the killer’s perspective for chunks of time. Since we’re dealing with POV on a completely different level, it doesn’t feel like a direct lift. On the other hand, there’s a lot of “you don’t get to see the monster JUST yet” elements taken from Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Around the time I watched Q, I heard a lot of people saying that the latest Godzilla  was like Jaws in the city, but it’s a dynamic that worked well given the setting and time of this film.

Also, like both of those admittedly much better films, Q also makes the locale a huge part of the film. Cohen and company made such good use of the Big Apple that it practically oozes all over ever frame. Obviously, the Chrysler Building plays a huge part in the proceedings, though how accurate the film is or whether they actually filmed inside, I don’t know, but those swooping arial shots also firmly cement the fact that we’re dealing with NYC. There’s even a scene shot at Columbia which I only knew because I’m familiar with another film that made such good use of New York City, Ghostbusters.

At the end of the day, Q: The Winged Serpent benefits from a great many positive notes. Moriarty is stellar, Carradine and Roundtree are great, the setting is perfect, the story works specifically because of the characters involved, the monster looks pretty good and presents a definitely threat and it’s got a pretty well thought out mythology. For all those reasons and more, I fully recommend checking this movie out.

80s Odyssey: Cloak & Dagger (1984)

cloak_and_dagger Over the years, I’ve come to realize just how much I love movies about kids dealing with insane situations. It doesn’t come as much of a surprise considering how much I loved Goonies and E.T. as a kid. I guess the real surprise is how much I still connect to those kinds of movies, even ones that I’ve come to more as an adult like Troll, The Gate, Explorers and Monster Squad. There’s just something so cool about taking pre-teens, putting them in these wild scenarios and seeing what they can do given their not-yet-adult ways of viewing the world.

I recently discovered a movie that perfectly fits this mold on Netflix Instant called Cloak & Dagger starring E.T.‘s Henry Thomas and Dabney Coleman. Thomas plays a geeky kid named Davey who has constructed an imaginary friend based on a secret agent from a table top-turned-video game who looks exactly like his dad (both played by Coleman) in the wake of his mom’s death. In his free time, he hangs out at the local video game store with his friend Kim or creates elaborate spy missions for them to act out in their hometown of San Antonio, Texas. While playing spy, Davey winds up with a copy of a video game called Cloak & Dagger that contains hidden government secrets. Of course, no adults believe him, so he has to go on the run as a series of incredibly serious people try any means necessary, including murder, to get it back. Davey’s imaginary friends appears throughout the film to help him avoid death and figure out his next move until, eventually, he realizes he doesn’t need him anymore.

I’ve got to say, I was surprised by how much intensity went into this Richard Franklin (Psycho II, F/X 2) kids movie. Not only is Davey continually hunted by predatory adults in this movie, but his video game store employee friend gets murdered, he realizes he doesn’t need his imaginary friend anymore and he straight up kills a guy. There’s no way this kid’s going to be okay with all this in the future. And it’s not handled in a wacky, cartoony way, so you get to see Thomas really going through some of this stuff on screen, or actively avoiding it so he can keep moving and live to see another day. I must also admit that it easily played on one of my biggest fears: people not believing you when something terrible’s happening because it sounds crazy. Since he’s just a kid who routintely talked about his made-up exploits, everyone thinks he’s full of it when he tries to tell them this crazy story about video games and spies and whatnot.

I probably sound like a broken record at this point, but you really don’t see movies like this made anymore. These days, when kids encounter craziness, if at all, they’re usually in high school or beyond and a lot of the innocence is taken out of the picture. But, there have been a few films like the Spy Kids movies, Super 8 and even the upcoming Earth To Echo which all seem to take some of their inspiration from the movies of my youth.

If you’re interested in checking out Cloak & Dagger — which I highly recommend — look for it on Netflix Instant. If you’re looking to add it to your DVD collection (far as I can tell, it’s not on Blu-ray), there’s the basic version, a double feature with The Wizard which is another favorite from that era and as part of a 10 movie pack that also includes The Wizard, King Ralph, Matinee and a few others. I’m thinking about grabbing that last one because, of all the options, it’s currently the cheapest at $5 and I love a good deal!

80s Odyssey: Beach Balls (1988)

beach balls 1988

As anyone who reads the blog on a regular basis will know, I’m a big fan of 80s teen and college movies. If it’s goofy, wrought with sexual tension, set on a beach or during spring break, I’m probably on board. That’s basically everything I’ve watched and posted under the 80s Odyssey category and here’s another one.

Netflix is finally starting to understand what kind of movies I like to watch and immediately notified me of Beach Balls‘ presence on the streaming service. I didn’t even notice that it’s a Roger Corman-produced film until after the fact.  Frankly, I was on board when I read that, in addition to this being a movie about a kid pining over a girl, he also wanted to be in a band. That’s a subgenre of 80s teen comedies I didn’t even know I wanted, but I’m in!

The plot follows Charlie (Philip Paley), a beach kid who’s in love with Wendy (Heidi Helmer), but she only digs guys in bands. As it happens, Charlie is a solid musician, he’s just not in a band. At the same time, he’s also dealing with some legal problems after getting drunk one time and borrowing a car from some local toughs who stole the car and think Charlie turned on them when he got arrested. Because of this he’s got to deal with a recovering alcoholic parole officer, his already crazy, super religious mom and Young Republican sister who think he’s a much worse kid than he is. So, can Charlie throw a huge party, get the girl, get the band in front of a record producer and finally get in his own band? Watch the movie to find out.

 

A lot of this movie is pretty by the numbers, but there were some pretty interesting storytelling approaches I wanted to point out. For one thing, all of the car stuff happened before the movie starts, so we find out about it as it becomes relevant and not in one huge info dump. This actually surprised me considering these kinds of films tend to dispense with exposition in the most obvious way possible. I was also impressed by the ultimate reveal that Wendy doesn’t just date band dudes, which was Charlie’s assumption from the beginning. Those are the kinds of assumptions at the heart of plenty of movies like this, so to see it turned on its head in a realistic matter was fun. Plus, guys, I love movies about kids who want to be in bands, house party movies and bits where ultra religious weirdos get shown the error of their ways. So thumbs up all around.

The cast and crew did a solid job to the best of their relative abilities across the board. Cheapo 80s comedies like this tend to be 50/50 when it comes to seeing all kinds of recognizable faces, but this falls on the “not so much side.” There are a few interesting names on board. Director Joe Ritter was one of five writers on the original Toxic Avenger which had a far greater affect on me than I’d like to admit. Also, star Philip Paley apparently starred as Cha-Ka on Land Of The Lost as a kid. Oh and Steven Tash, who plays Charlie’s best friend Scully, was the kid in the beginning of Ghostbusters during the ESP test. I also thought it was interesting that screenwriter David Rocklin never worked on anything before or after this project.

Also, real quick, how weird is this poster/box art? If you look at it real quick, it looks like the woman is pregnant, right? Obviously, I get what they were going for, but I would have gone for a second draft on this one.

Anyway, if you’re like me and have a strange affinity for movies like Spring Break, Hunk or One Crazy Summer, then give Beach Balls a look.

80s Odyssey: Joysticks (1983)

joysticks While looking around for goofy 80s movies on Netflix, I was surprised to find Joysticks, a movie I’d never heard of, but set in one of my favorite cultural artifacts from my childhood: the arcade. From the looks of the poster alone, you get the feeling that this movie’s in the vein of Meatballs. Reading the synopsis about a group of kids trying to save their favorite arcade from a mean old adult in town, my brain immediately went to Empire Records and that combination of those two favorites worked very well in my brain. I moved the movie to the top of our Netflix cue, but between that and actually getting it, I mentioned it to my pal and VHS Notebook proprietor Rickey Purdin who told me he had an extra copy of the DVD I could have!

I think watching Joysticks with Rickey and some of our other pals would have made the viewing experience a much better one because I was kinda disappointed with this flick. I hoped for something along the lines of Animal House as far as mixing fun characters and situations with bits of heart and lots of humor, but instead this movie basically lifts the plot of the John Landis classic, changes it ever so slightly, adds some Pac-Man wipes accompanied by sound effects and puts the whole thing in an arcade.

You’ve got cool guy arcade manager Jefferson Baily running a group of misfits while fighting the chicks off with a stick and dealing with Joe Don Baker who wants to shut the place down because it offers no moral benefit to the kids who line up to play the games therein, specifically his daughter. Said misfits include the nerd Eugene (as if you needed to be told that) and Dorfus, a Hawaiian shirt-wearing combination of John Belushi’s Blutarsky and Stephen Furst’s Flounder, who happens to know everything about video games. There’s even a scene where Dorfus and Eugene go to Baker’s house for reasons that still don’t make a lot of sense and wind up reliving an awfully familiar scene. Oh and much like the nefarious Dean of Faber College, Baker’s wife wants to bone any male within reach. And of course there’s a big meeting at the end where the “good guys” defend themselves against the “bad guy” in a town meeting style scene (that happens to have a ridiculous number of those Pac Man wipes).

I’ve seen plenty of rip-off movies and enjoyed them, but the real problem with Joysticks is that it doesn’t have a single interesting or unique character AND it’s not that funny. The closest you get to interesting and new is the fact that Eugene  — who’s so stereotypically nerdy that I wanted to punch a wall (same problem I had with Gorp) — happens to be the guy who explains the misunderstandings that run rampant in the movie. Meanwhile, the best joke in the whole thing is a weird visual thing where the punk rock gamers — run by an emotionally unbalanced young man who goes by Vidiot — go into the arcade and do a whole Pac-Man riff where they moved around like the ghosts. I laughed hard at that…and that’s about it.

The odd thing about the movie is that it also feels completely ridiculous because I have trouble imagining arcades coming under such fire. Was this really a thing? I wouldn’t be surprised it it was, but the goofiness of the movie — not to mention how crappy it looks — make me doubt everything going on. On the other hand, the movie acts as an inadvertent (I assume) allegory for the kind of scrutiny that comic books came under in the 40s and 50s as chronicled in Davi Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague. You’ve got a thing that parents don’t understand so they attack it. Of course, the parents back then had more of a legit complaint considering how crazy and violent some of those comics got. Still, it’s that classic generational argument of new technology/entertainment coming under fire because, as Fresh Prince so deftly pointed out, parents just don’t understand.

Yes, I’m overanalyzing Joysticks. That’s because I wasn’t super into this movie on my own so I was trying to come up with something interesting to talk about. I think it would have been a completely different story surrounded by friends and filled with beers. I really wanted more from an arcade movie because I don’t know of many other examples of this kind of thing. However, if you’re looking for a goofy comedy PACKED with T&A and a gigantic joystick for playing PVP arcade games, Joysticks is right up your alley.

The number one benefit of watching Joysticks, though, was that it reminded me of an arcade-set story idea I started working on a few years ago. I think I’ll dig that one out and see how far I got with it in the relative future.

80s Odyssey: Summer School (1987)

summer_school This past week has been pretty wonderful because the weather has turned from cold and gray to sunny and nice. In addition to a change in weather, I’ve also noticed a change in the kinds of movies I want to watch. I’ve gone from 80s and 90s action movies to a mix of cheesy 80s summer comedies and favorites. The other day I watched my beloved Dazed & Confused again which seems to get better every time I watch it and now I’m going through Netflix Instant’s “Late Night Comedy” offerings for lighter fare. I did this last year and added plenty of entries in the 80s Odyssey section of the site, but wound up watching a lot more than I reviewed. I could have sworn that Summer School was one of those movies, but decided to give it a whirl anyway.

Well, turns out I was wrong and I’ve never seen this movie, but it’s actually a nice treat. I wasn’t expecting much, but it turned out to be a fun movie with a good deal of heart. The plot revolves around gym teacher Mark Harmon (who plays “cool 80s adult” perfectly) getting roped into teaching summer school to a bunch of kids who seem like lost causes, but instead all have fairly legitimate reasons for not doing well in school (being pregnant, having dyslexia, being tired thanks to working and of course the usual not caring about school). In the process of trying to get tenure (is that even a thing for high school teachers?) and keep his job, Harmon agrees to help the kids do something in exchange for passing the final test.

I really enjoyed this movie. It wasn’t the depraved summer movie I figured it would be, but that was actually a nice surprise. Speaking of nice surprises, there was actually a really rad one for horror fans. Two of the guys — the stoners/drunks, of course — are gigantic horror fans to the point where one of them actually goes by Chainsaw because he’s such a big fan of Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The kids want to scare away a sub after Harmon gets in some trouble, so the horror kids make it look like they went crazy and violently murdered their fellow classmates and it looked awesome! To the point where I’m kind of surprised the film still has a PG-13 rating. I mean, one kid had pencil sharpener sharpened fingers, another had a ruler jammed in their mouth. It looked like much bloodier versions of the Beetlejuice effects. I’d say it looked better than most of the special effects in the horror movies of that year. So that’s a nice little bonus making this movie extra worth checking out.

After watching this movie and writing about it I looked a little more closely at the IMDb and realized two things that are pretty shocking. First off, this movie was directed by Carl Freaking Reiner! He also has a cameo as a teacher, but I didn’t recognize him at the time. He also directed Summer Rental which is high on my summer to-watch list. As if that wasn’t enough Danny Elfman actually worked on the score. This was after he did the Rodney Dangerfield movie Back To School but a little before Beetlejuice.

80s Odyssey: Black Moon Rising (1986)

black moon rising It doesn’t take much to draw me towards a movie. If you’ve got a flick, especially one from the 80s, starring a few people I already like and don’t take more than 100 minutes of my time, I’ll probably watch you on Netflix Instant. That was the case with Black Moon Rising, a movie I’d never heard of but featured Tommy Lee Jones, Linda Hamilton, Bubba Smith and Robert Vaughn as well as a futuristic super-car. I’m in, let’s do this.

Tommy Lee Jones plays a thief who steals some financial records and winds up getting followed. To avoid his would-be captors, he hides the information in the aforementioned super car which happens to be parked outside a restaurant. While he’s inside, Linda Hamilton and her crew of car thieves lock the door of the place and drive off with lots of expensive cars. Jones follows and discovers that Hamilton works for Vaughn, a big time, evil corporate guy. Jones then starts working on Hamilton to get on her good side while also trying to find out more about the car from its creators who are skittish of the whole thing at first. Of course, he gets everyone on board and leads a pretty exciting assault on a high rise to get both the car and the information back.

I realized while watching this movie that it was probably the youngest I’ve ever seen TLJ on film. It’s not that he looks so much different than he did in the 90s or even now, just fresher. It was cool seeing him running around, fighting guys and getting to wear the cool looking black leather suits instead of playing the jaded veteran. Meanwhile, Hamilton plays a very similar role to the one she did in the Terminator movies. She’s tough and bruised on the inside but keeps a hard exterior to the world that’s knocked her around. For his part, Vaughn really nails his role as the business bad guy. He really reminded me of 80s and 90s Lex Luthor from the Superman comics. He basically plucked Hamilton off the street and formed her into who she is today for good and ill solely to have someone who would absolutely follow his orders. He also tends to monitor and record nearly everything which is kind of an interesting aspect back then. He basically uses all the technology available no matter how expensive to keep his criminal empire in check.

I’ve already writen about Black Moon Rising for three paragraphs now and haven’t mentioned the most interesting part: John Carpenter wrote the movie. I haven’t been able to dig up exactly why he didn’t want to direct it, though it looks like Big Trouble In Little China which came out the same year and Prince Of Darkness which came out the following might have taken up his time. Instead, Harley Cokeliss jumped into the director’s chair. I’m not very familiar with his other works, but do believe I have Battletruck somewhere in my pile of to-be-watched DVDs and think I might have come across Malone starring Burt Reynolds at some point. It’s interesting comparing this movie to some of Carpenter’s others, especially Christine which also focused on a special car, though a far more supernatural one and also stars a real bad ass as the lead just like Big Trouble, Escape From New York and They Live. On the other hand, this is a much more real-world and technology-based film than you might expect from the creator of those other stories. It would have been really cool to see what he would have done with the movie had he actually directed.

black moon rising german poster

Before closing out I wanted to say one last thing about this film, I think it’s ripe for the remake mill. I think this one has a lot of potential and would piss off almost no one. Of course, you’re also dealing with a movie that doesn’t have nearly the existing audience, fanbase and name recognition that some of Carpenter’s other movies do. On the other hand, you’re dealing with a really solid, yet open framework for a story that can easily be transferred to the current day. I’m not saying this would be a multibillion dollar blockbuster, but a pretty good vehicle (heh, puns!) for an action movie that has room for improvement and modernization. This could be something like the Jason Statham remake of The Mechanic which worked out pretty well if you ask me. As it happens, I’d also like to see Statham in this one. Heck, the dude already has experience with driving fast cars. Let’s make this happen Hollywood!