The Chronological Spielberg: 1941 (1979)

Is it possible to have too much talent involved in a film? If there was ever an argument for that theory presented in theaters, I think it might be 1941. This flick was directed by Steven Spielberg directly after Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It’s written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale who would write a little film called Back to the Future six years after this was released. It stars an A-list crop of comedic and dramatic actors from Slim Pickens and John Belushi to Christopher Lee and Toshiro Mifune. Even with all that going for it, 1941 is simply not a good movie. I wish I could explain simply why that is, but the closest thing I can come up with is that the script is too unfocused, the film is too long and maybe Spielberg was trying to fit his square peg into a more John Landis-shaped hole.

I didn’t know all of the above when I went into this film, so I was definitely surprised by the huge amount of silly, slapsticky humor that kicks this film off, including a nude woman swimming in the ocean to the Jaws theme music who happens to be swimming under a Japanese sub. The idea here is that it’s right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and everyone’s freaked out. The film takes place in California where they’re specifically freaked out about another attack like the one in Hawaii. This acts as the backdrop for a huge number of gags, storylines and sources of conflict.

The problem is that I don’t care. When the film’s supposed hero is presented as a goober bus boy who just wants to dance with a girl in a contest and then we’re shown a military group that’s made up of mostly boring or jerky people. Worse yet? That group is made up of Dan Aykroyd, John Candy and Treat Williams and they’re somewhat wasted.

Or are they? Honestly, it was hard for me to focus on this movie because its subject matter was treated in such a goofy manner that I just didn’t care. Apparently a huge anti-sub gun really was placed in a person’s yard in real life, but the way its handled in this movie with its cartoony nature, it’s just another piece of an overly complex movie.

The funny thing is that I think someone like Landis could have done a lot better with this film. Maybe Spielberg didn’t know who or what to cut. Maybe Landis would have utilized his talent a little better (from what I remember, Candy does little to nothing but mug in the movie). I definitely think he would have kept the film significantly shorter. Many people believe comedy should be kept around the 90 minute mark, especially zany ones because its easier for an audience to suspend their disbelief over a shorter period of time. I tend to agree with that and if this film had been less cartoony and had more of an actual emotional center, as well as had been roughly 60-90 minutes shorter, it could have been a much better film.

Computer Movies: Sneakers (1992) & The Net (1995)

How can you not love movies from the 90s about technology? Especially computers. Everything was so new and foreign back then. Most of us didn’t know jack about those ever-shrinking boxes of information and even less about this internet thing. I love these movies so much, I’ve given them their own category and can’t wait to explore even more as time goes on. I’ve got War Games and Hackers high on my Netflix queue right now. In the mean time, I’m getting what I can off of instant watch. And luckily one of those options is one of my all time favorite movies, Sneakers.

I have no idea why I first rented Sneakers back when I was a kid. I was 9 when it came out and don’t quite know when I first saw it, but I loved it and rented it a number of times and watch it any time it’s on TV, but this is the first time I’ve watched the whole thing unedited in a while and it still holds up. Had I not seen this movie when I was younger, I don’t know if I would hold it in such high regard. The acting talent in this thing is top notch as you can see from the cast list on the poster there and the computer aspects of the plot were probably groundbreaking at the time, but in the end it’s a heist movie. I would like to think that the subject matter and cast put this up there with the better heist movies, but I am definitely biased.

The plot revolves around Redford and his business partners who test businesses security by pulling elaborate jobs to expose the weak points of their systems. What adds some depth to the movie is the fact that Redford and Kingsley used to be friends back in college who were on the forefront of the hacking world, stealing money from the rich (and right) and giving it to the poor (and left-ish). From what I’ve seen and read since, that really does fit in with the early computer mentality, so that’s cool. Anyway, some guys approach Redford, threatening to reveal his past crimes in exchange for them stealing a box that has a de-encryption key. They do, but it turns out they’re not from our government. Now they’re on the run and have to break back into Kingsley’s place to get the key back. It’s funny how much easier this stuff is to absorb after (ugh) 18 years of computer knowledge. Heck, I bet my folks could watch this now with no problems, maybe even my grandma who is impressively computer savvy. That’s what I like most about the movie, even if you don’t understand computers, you can follow the movie. I think it’s about time I got this one on DVD because the sound was screwed up on Netflix instant (the sounds were coming before the actions/sounds on screen) and I want to be able to watch it whenever I want.

The Net is not a movie I want to own. It’s not that it’s bad, I did like it and it plays on some of my biggest fears, but I just don’t need to watch it all the time. The plot is as old as stories, but gussied up with a “new” technological coat. Sandra Bullock plays a woman who debugs computer software. She unwittingly gets thrown into events that have nothing to do with her when a fellow de-bugger sends her a virus that leads to some crazy de-encryption software. In this case, a guy who designed anti-virus software put a backdoor program in so he could do whatever he wanted, crash systems and then make more money when people panicked and bought his anti-virus software. The details aren’t all that important, but like I said, it plays on some of my fears. First off, since Bullock’s character is basically a shut in who doesn’t know any of her neighbors or talk to anyone face-to-face (her mom even has Alzheimer’s), the bad guy very easily changes some information about her on the internet and no one knows her well enough to say anything different. It’s kind of a new play on that old storytelling convention where no one believes the person who’s seen the crazy thing even though it really happened. That idea of not being believed when something bad is happening and also being so easily erased freak me out.

There’s also the very popular idea that with a few strokes of the keys, someone’s identity can be erased or replaced with someone else’s. Identity theft hadn’t become a big dealin the meantime, but it doesn’t go quite as far as the movie does because almost everyone knows at least someone who could vouch for them and the whole “but computers can’t be wrong” excuse doesn’t fly anymore, but for a very brief time and for a very specific kind of person (basically me if I wasn’t married) this could have been pretty scary. Like being afraid of exploding Mini Disk players.

I will say that, even though I don’t need to watch The Net again, the script is fairly intricate. There are all kinds of pieces that fit together for this story to work and make you go “Ohhh” later on, like her mom having Alzheimer’s. It just seems like a regular thing at first, but then it turns out to be an integral piece of the puzzle because her mom can’t identify her. So yeah, it’s a pretty good thriller, but also a fun look back at 90s internet technology. The chat room sessions with the creepy robot voices coming out of the computer reminded me of my Prodigy days, but without the text-reading because I’m pretty sure that was impossible back then. Anyway, fun stuff. Also keep an eye out for the big laptops and Dennis Miller in one of his less conceited roles!

Dragnet (1987)/Fletch Lives (1989) Double Feature

Today was a pretty busy day. I was thankfully so busy with freelance work that I still haven’t had a chance to listen to the podcast I was on, nor was I able to go outside and enjoy the nearly 70-degree weather, but I was able to watch a few movies while I worked. I also got a chance to check out my brand new column on Maxim.com called We Like To Watch, which covers various TV shows you should check out. Anyway, the two movies I watched were Dragnet and Fletch Lives. I had never seen Dragnet before, but a few months ago I picked up a Tom Hanks 2-disc, 3-movie pack featuring Money Pit, The ‘burbs and it. After seeing the video at the end of the review on Maxim.com I figured I’d finally give it a watch.

And man, this is a really weird movie (I should have guessed from the video), but I really enjoyed it. In addition to being a really funny movie (you’ve got prime Tom Hanks and Dan Aykroyd here), it also plays to my love of continuity. See, I’m not a fan of the original Dragnet, but I do appreciate that Aykroyd plays a relative of the original Joe Friday and that Harry Morgan reprises his role from the original series as now-Captain Gannon. By doing this they’re not dumping on or forgetting the original and it fits in with the rest. Not every adaptation can work like this, but I like when it does (they did something similar with the Sam Jackson Shaft movie). This one turned out to be pretty long, so hit the jump for the whole thing.

Anyway, like I said this is a weird movie. Aykroyd and Hanks are on the trail of this group called P.A.G.A.N. (People Against Goodness And Normalcy) who…well, they’re trying to do a bunch of bad stuff. I’ll be honest, some of the finer details of the movie might have been lost on me while I was working, but I do know that a lot of dudes were dressed up in goat legs while the P.A.G.A.N. leader threw a woman in a big pool with a giant snake. From there, Aykroyd, who plays the super-uptight and by-the-book officer in LA, comes a bit undone as Hanks’ loosened-up-ness rubs off and the case gets crazier and crazier.

One interesting thing about this movie is that it was co-written and directed by Tom Mankiewicz who mostly wrote more serious flicks like Diamonds Are Forever, Live and Let Die and The Man With The Golden Gun along with uncredited runs on the scripts for both Superman and Superman II. Meanwhile, he directed one of my favorite comedies of all time Delirious. I think he’s a big reason the movie has such a fun feel since he;s clearly comfortable in both the action and the funny. And now for the video, which hopefully won’t make you want to NOT watch the movie. I give you Tom Hanks and Dan Aykroyd rapping:

I come by my love of the Fletch flicks and Chevy Chase honestly thanks to my dad. I distinctly remember renting both Fletches a number of times and watching with him. As I got older I bought both movies on DVD (and I think I might have had them on VHS too, but can’t quite remember). The DVDs are pretty paltry and I can’t believe they went with that weird cover for Fletch Lives with the snapshots instead of this hilarious and awesome poster painting here which I remember from the VHS cover.

Anyway, something about Dragnet made me think of Fletch Lives, I’m guessing it was the bigness of it and something about the P.A.G.A.N. “ritual” reminded me of R. Lee Ermey’s Jimmy Lee Farnsworth shenanigans. Whatever the reason, I had a great time watching Fletch Lives as usual. I’m not sure if someone who’s not a fan of Chase will like the movie, but I’m a huge fan of his characterization of Fletch, a man who uses words to get out of whatever crazy situation he finds himself in and comes out on top (eventually). Plus, he’s a writer so I of course love that. He even makes grammar joke in this one!

The plot finds Fletch heading down south to take over the plantation house his recently deceased aunt left him. As you might expect, things aren’t quite what they appear as Fletch runs into a Bible-themed theme park, someone who wants to buy his land, a dead girl he had sex with (before she died of course, this isn’t Weekend At Bernie’s) and the Ku Klux Klan. There’s a lot going on with the story and I probably would have missed a lot of the details had I not seen the movie a bunch of times.

Seriously, if you haven’t seen Fletch or Fletch Lives, just go do it. Right now. If I know, you can even borrow them. I like the movies so much I’ve gone on to read two of the Gregory McDonald books the movies were based on and have two more in my to read pile. On a completely different note, I found out that Fletch Lives director Michael Ritchie also produced and co-directed the weak slasher movie Student Bodies, which is pretty interesting.

You might notice that this post has a Saturday Night Live label on it. In addition to the fact the SNL alumns star in both of these movies, I also wanted to bring up one of the first things I ever noticed about the relationships between movies, actors and directors. That is that any movie starring a current or former SNL cast member usually has another one in at least a bit part. At first, from looking at the Dragnet credits, I thought my theory might have been busted, but it turns out that Dan’s brother Peter not only had bit parts on SNL, he was also a writer. In Fletch Lives, Phil Hartman has a bit part as the man running a lab. So, as far as I’m considered, the theory still stands (but I haven’t watched all of Chevy Chase’s or Bill Murray’s movies, which will surely kill my theory).