Lock Up (1989): #Watch1989

Lock Up (1989): #Watch1989

Lock Up original film art

Lock Up (1989)

Your body has to be here, but your mind can be anywhere.

As I watched my latest 1989 film, Lock Up, I began contemplating the future of the #Watch1989 enterprise. According to the original tenants of the program, my 1989 movie marathon would conclude on December 31st, 2019. At that time, however, I anticipated having felt some sense of closure. I’d have watched a few dozen movies from 1989, discovered some gems along the way and completed a handful of chapters (all of them?) in the manuscript about the Summer of 1989. Alas, reality has clubbed me upside the head as I’ve taken stock of my year of #Watch1989.

I’ve watched around 65 movies from that great year. But there’s so many left to watch. I’ve barely scratched the surface. I’ve discovered some gems, but I also still have a bunch on my “must-watch” list that just haven’t been handled. I still haven’t seen My Left Foot, for example, and that’s a problem. Don’t talk about the manuscript. I got a new freelance job a few months ago and I’ve been struggling to make time with my own writing. So I went ahead and devoted a sleepless evening hyped up on non-drowsy antihistamines to watch Sylvester Stallone’s Lock Up (1989) which had just arrived from Netflix DVD.

Maybe I don’t need to put an expiration date on this, after all…

Netflix DVD Lock Up

Netflix DVD, those fine distributors of physical media, came through with a copy of LOCK UP, delivered to my door.

A Sylvester Stallone movie from the 1980s that I hadn’t seen? I suspect foul play based on reputation. Indeed, I’d never bothered with Lock Up due to it’s less than stellar reputation. And by less than stellar, I mean steaming pile of prison-cell fungus. That said, I’m still surprised I’d somehow sidestepped the movie entirely considering I watched everything indiscriminately during the late 1980’s.

While Lock Up plays like a stripped down Escape Plan (2013) prequel, it has the distinct benefit of featuring Stallone without a shred of self-awareness and a nefarious prison warden played by Donald Sutherland. Both hit all the predictable, necessary, and occasionally delicious 1980’s cinema beats. The result is a film that adheres to an outdated model of filmmaking, the delusional B-movie that masquerades as top-flight entertainment. We love the 1980s and the 1980s loves us back with entertaining mid-budget refuse like this.

Sylvester Stallone Lock Up

Sylvester Stallone confronts the bully (Sonny Landham) trying to take his lunch money in Lock Up (1989).

Shackle Your Disbelief

If we are to go along with Lock Up‘s absurd premise, we have to accept a series of absurd events that take place even before the events of this film. Sylvester Stallone’s Frank retaliated against a bunch of goons that beat the owner of the body shop in which he worked. That he was then incarcerated for a very long time and eventually escaped said prison because the warden (Donald Sutherland) committed unspeakable acts against his inmates. Instead of being fired, the warden gets reassigned to a hellhole maximum security prison where his further misdeeds can go even more unnoticed. The warden also exists in a prison system that would then somehow permit the transfer of the prisoner (from a minimum security facility) back into his custody.

I understand that our penal system is a shit show, (I read the New York Times and am therefore m’f’ing informed), but even this stretches the limits of the imagination.

Donald Sutherland Lock Up

Donald Sutherland as Lock Up’s evil Warden Drumgoole.

Warden Drumgoole launches an initiative to break Frank and cause him to do something that would result in his life imprisonment at his maximum security hellhole. He employs inmates to bully, intimidate, bait and torture Frank. He throws him in solitary whenever possible. I won’t reveal the straw that finally breaks Frank’s back, but it’s absolutely despicable. The lengths to which Drumgoole will go, give the film its only sense of surprise. Let’s face it. We know Frank’s going to get out. We know that somehow Sylvester Stallone is going to mug and grunt his way to freedom. The twist comes during the final act when you think just maaaaaybeeeee the Warden’s finally snared the fly in his web — and yet Sly evades him yet again. How he manages to escape an unwinnable scenario might also require some more suspension of disbelief (if you haven’t already exhausted it).

And you might shed a tear at what they do to a newly refurbished classic mustang.

Sylvester Stallone

Frank (Sylvester Stallone) picked the wrong day to quit knocking heads.

Lock Up Verdict

The director, John Flynn, made a name for himself making gritty 1970’s neo-noir like The Outfit (1973) and Rolling Thunder (1977). After a slow period to begin the 80’s, he wound up directing Lock Up and Out for Justice, a far cry from the kind of freedom he had been afforded.

Despite the intermittently laughable melodrama that speckles the Lock Up landscape, the movie finds it limited range and delivers a watchable exercise in “giving the bad guy what’s coming to him.” Stallone suffers constant physical and emotional torture — some of it rather undigestible and viscerally unnerving.

The supporting cast gives more than the movie’s worth — the cast of familiars like Tom Sizemore, Frank McRae and John Amos carry some of sly’s Sly acting burden. Oddly, when Stallone faces off against Donald Sutherland, their give and take styles (constant overt vs. underperformed rage) fit together like puzzle piece that someone mashed into place. It doesn’t work, but it kinda does if you don’t look too close — much like the entire movie.

If you’re the kind of person that enjoys Sylvester Stallone vanity projects for all the wrong reasons, you’ll definitely have some fun with Lock Up.

Check out some past #Watch1989 write-ups: Sea of Love / Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure / The Experts

Sylvester Stallone

Sylvester Stallone strikes a statuesque pose in Lock Up (1989)

James David Patrick is a writer. He’s written just about everything at some point or another. Add whatever this is to that list. He hosts the Cinema Shame and #Bond_age_Pod podcasts. Follow his blog at www.thirtyhertzrumble.com and find him on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook.

Disclaimer: I earn rewards from DVD.Netflix.com, which has thousands of movies to choose from, many that you won’t find on streaming services. I do this because the availability of physical media is important. The popular streaming notion of “everything available all the time” is a myth. We are always our own best curators. #PhysicalMedia #DVDNation #ad

1989 Flashback: Sea of Love

1989 Flashback: Sea of Love

Helen: I always like to think I live for love. What else is there? Food?

Sea of Love (1989)

At some point during my ongoing #Watch1989 marathon, I polled Twitter for some suggestions. I received many wonderful ideas  — one, however, stood out due to the presentation. I wish I’d taken better notes so I could give specific credit to those who stepped forward and whispered Sea of Love, like it was a dirty, dirty, oh so dirty little secret.

I’d always been conscious of Sea of Love without knowing much about it. Al Pacino. Ellen Barkin. I could also describe the poster. Pacino pointing his gun forward like he’d been startled by the sudden arrival of a wayward James Bond gun barrel. As he turns to seize his moment, he realizes he’d mistaken the gun barrel for the space between necks of almost smooching silhouettes. Then his gun jams, and he just makes “pew pew” sounds to salvage the moment. This is where I show you exactly how all of this plays out on a two-dimensional poster. Zoom in on the look on his face. I nailed it.

It wasn’t the actual recommendation that teased me. It was the guilt behind the recommendation. I’d seen that guilt before in the eyes of moviewatchers with whom I’ve discussed the secret pleasures of Jade (1995). I queued up Sea of Love on Netflix DVD and awaited sexy times in my mailbox starring Al Pacino and perhaps the most captivating and least appreciated actress of the era, Ellen Barkin.

sea of love netflix dvd

How Sea of Love slipped through the cracks

Released the week before Ridley Scott’s Black Rain, the two prowled the same adult-thriller audience. Both succeeded moderately, but neither left a lasting impression.

I rented Black Rain as soon as it hit video. Black Rain popped up as a rainy day movie at baseball camp. Someone gave me a Black Rain DVD. Naturally, I picked up the Blu-ray. I wasn’t Black Rain obsessed, but it was as if Black Rain was obsessed with me. Michael Douglas and his dead-eyed gaze watching from behind the bushes in my backyard. Meanwhile, Sea of Love just seemed like a lukewarm trifle, a jilted lover, the movie that lost out to the more aggressive suitor.

Based on trailers for the film, Sea of Love just looked like every other barely scandalous Hollywood thriller. For comparison’s sake, let’s watch the trailers for both Black Rain and Sea of Love. You tell me which one you’d rather watch just based on the trailer.

Sea of Love:

Black Rain:

Coming Soon
Black Rain or Sea of Love
Black Rain or Sea of Love
Black Rain or Sea of Love

Some of you probably picked Sea of Love. Congratulations on your ability to see through ham-fisted September studio marketing.  Neon veins coursing through a dark and gritty Tokyo in the Black Rain trailer made me a believer. It might sound like I’m suddenly anti-Black Rain. I enjoy the movie for what it is, but those slightly guilty suggestions that brought Sea of Love to my attention understood something about the film — even if they didn’t articulate it in words.

sea of love

The Appeal of Mainstream Sexy Times

Based on a screenplay by novelist Richard Price (The Color of Money), Sea of Love marks Al Pacino’s first film in four years after the disasterfest that was Revolution (1985). Despite solid scripting, plotting, and entertaining performances from Pacino and vampy Ellen Barkin, fans are often hesitant to admit their affection, like the film belongs to some kind of cultish and unsavory underbelly of mainstream cinema.

Becker’s serial-killer thriller knowingly plays with Film Noir conventions and conscripts them into a thoroughly modern genre film that also touches on existential loneliness and mid-life crises. John Goodman co-stars as Pacino’s investigative partner and provides some welcome comic relief. It might feel like a guilty pleasure, but Sea of Love joins a storied tradition of steamy 1980s R-rated potboilers born out of the subtext and embers of Film Noir.

There’s a major difference, however, between Sea of Love and something like Body Heat. Body Heat, for all its deliciously sweaty double-crossing (and Ted Danson) wears its Noir convention as proudly as Noel Coward wore ascots. Price’s script dares to transplant and update the formula to foreground modern anxieties and uniquely late-20th-century ennui.

Al Pacino’s Frank Keller appears on screen already in the middle of an existential midlife crisis. The killer finds his/her prey through the singles ads in the paper. While the technology of finding love through a print publication dates the film, the mechanics behind the narrative device easily translate to online dating. Looking for love while simultaneously hunting a killer provides a powerful playground for emotional fragility and cocksure swagger from both leads. Al Pacino’s not the only scene hungry thespian in this movie (and I’m not referencing Sam Jackson’s boisterous 20-second appearance).

The Ellen Barkin Factor

Like Walter Neff in Double Indemnity (and scores of other classic Noir), at once obsessed with cash money and Barbara Stanwyck’s legs, Frank’s blinded by his desire for connection, for this intervention into his ordinary New York life. Midway between greenhorn and retirement. Divorced. Lonely. Not only is his police detective fallible, but he’s often downright unlikable. He wallows, drinks, picks fights with Richard Jenkins, and makes late-night phone calls to his ex-wife seeking emotional affirmation.

In one of his last pre-Scent of a Woman roles, Pacino contains the eruptions that plague many of his later performances. He’s terrific, but like Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, Sea of Love hinges entirely on the guile of its female lead. The viewer must see what Frank sees in Ellen Barkin’s Helen — a potentially deadly femme fatale with the power to heal a mid-life crisis with a torrid affair. It’s not just that she’s sex in designer heels, she also has to be a grounded single mother and career woman. We have to expect her guilt and hope for her innocence.

ellen barkin sea of love

If you doubt the power of prime Ellen Barkin, pair Sea of Love with Mary Lambert’s unfairly maligned Siesta (1987) — only available on a region-free Italian release. While Kathleen Turner received higher profile roles in better movies, Ellen Barkin toiled on the fringe of superstardom. It’s unfortunate that many of Barkin’s films just didn’t deserve her.

Al Pacino gets the clammy, “Who Me?” spotlight on the poster, but Ellen Barkin sells this movie. Ellen Barkin is sex and fragility; she’s a dominatrix living with her mother and doing her best to exist in a cinematic world that doesn’t know how to put a label on her.

Sea of Love Verdict

Harold Becker made a few standout films in his career (Malice and The Black Marble, for example), so the “discovery” that Sea of Love proved to be a competent and knowing manipulation of the genre shouldn’t have been entirely unexpected.

The way Price’s script inserts elements of the romantic comedy into a drama about an apparent serial killer makes for a movie that constantly puts he viewer on uneasy territory… until it lets everyone off the hook in the final moments. I’ve read nothing about the production, but I’ve seen enough of these “movie things” to recognize the telltale signs of studio intervention. Between an atonal final scene to an easy-bake ending, Sea of Love does all the heavy lifting but lacks the conviction to follow through on the promise of something more daring, something that would have catapulted the film into genre royalty.

Don’t let any of that dissuade you. Despite last-minute whodunnit stumbles, the Sea of Love serves up a delicious dish. It’s sexy, but not scandalous. Tense with a side of nail-biting and naturally funny when it needs to break tension. I just wish it had dared to be great instead of aiming for a higher test-screening CinemaScore.

As one of the biggest surprises of my #Watch1989 series, I’ll point you in the direction of the other surprising pleasure for a wild double feature. It’s not a perfect pairing, but I wouldn’t mind indulging in fun the double of Sea of Love and Gleaming the Cube. Give it a chance. You’ll come around.

Sea of Love is available on a budget double-feature with Scent of a Woman and in single-disc edition.

SEA OF LOVE, from left: Ellen Barkin, Al Pacino, 1989, © Universal

James David Patrick is a writer. He’s written just about everything at some point or another. Add whatever this is to that list. Follow his blog at www.thirtyhertzrumble.com and find him on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook.

 

1989 Flashback: Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure

1989 Flashback: Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure

bill and ted's excellent adventure poster

Bill: So-cratz – “The only true wisdom consists in knowing that you know nothing”.

Ted: That’s us, dude.

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)

I didn’t have the pleasure of seeing Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure in the cinema. It snuck into theaters and snuck out of theaters before I or any of my friends really knew what to make of it. I remember, vividly, however the Friday I rented the VHS. In Marcellus, Michigan, a town of only about 2000 residents, we were blessed with as many video rental locations as gas stations/convenience stores (2). Surprised to see one copy remaining on the first weekend of release, I grabbed it and rushed to the counter.

On the following Saturday afternoon, I convinced my parents to sit down and watch this movie about high-school dimwits who travel through time. At this moment in 1989, I can say with the utmost assurance that I’d worn out my father’s patience for movies featuring dimwits. I was, after all, a devout Police Academy (and its sequels) fan and watched Three Amigos! almost every week.

bill and ted's excellent adventure

My father boasts a laugh of a certain magnitude. It’s impossible to mistake pure enjoyment from snores of indifference. If he does not care for a movie he will just fall asleep or start reading a book and then probably fall asleep, totally immune to anything happening around him. He watched Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure from start to finish. I don’t remember his exact words (he’s always prepared with an immediate post-movie assessment) but it felt like “Let’s watch it again right now.”

Why Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure Resonates

To me, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure represents the best of the 1980’s modus operandi. An inherently absurd high-concept that falls apart upon any scrutiny — but the viewer’s too entertained by the movie’s pure joy of existence (and puerile historical gags and references) to bother with anything as tedious as how an entire high school career can depend on a single oral history report. Screenwriters built and entire decade on arbitrary goals.

bill and ted's excellent adventure

The film also — and this is perhaps the most important aspect of Bill and Ted’s success — celebrates positivity rather than sneering derisively at its characters. Consider the basic differences in approach between Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and something like the certain Bill & Ted descendant, Dude, Where’s My Car?

Despite the slacker wrapping, Bill S. Preston, Esq. and Ted Theodore Logan are given agency that turn caricatures into fully-rendered, relatable humans. A movie in which two failures (in the near future) have already saved the world with the power of a transcendent guitar riff — but first have to pass an oral English exam by traveling back in time to collect figures of historical interest.

bill and ted's excellent adventure

Bernie Casey had a long and interesting acting career, but he’ll remain best known as Bill and Ted’s history teacher.

It’s like borrowing the 1927 Yankees to coach your kid’s T-ball game — if upon that T-Ball game the fate of the world rested. If you spend too much time dissecting the time travel mechanics of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure you will break your brain. It will also lose the magic that makes it special.

The Problem with Critics and Low Intelligence Characters

Contemporaneous critics struggled with Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure because it was, as Chris Williams of the LA Times suggested, “a glorification of dumbness for dumbnesses’ sake.” The New York Times’ Vincent Canby called it “painfully inept.” WaPo’s Hal Hinson: “undernourished.”

I’m not going to give critics a pass just because they’re critics. I’ve been in their seat and I chose to walk away after a couple of years because the job of being a critic started to suck the joy out of moviegoing. If my job is to watch a movie and find fault, my focus naturally drifts toward negativity. I found reasons to dislike movies and hated the terrible movies even more. Dumb characters in a high-concept movie full of logic gaps and impossible (not just improbable) scenarios almost necessitates a killjoy hammer.

bill and ted's excellent adventure rufus

One of the most ingenious casting decisions and happy accidents of all time — George Carlin as Rufus, Bill & Ted’s “Virgil.”

How often have you read a review by a critic that acknowledged that a movie fails most standard narrative tests of success, but excels because it’s just a good time? (It happens, but it’s rare and I’m always surprised to see it.) Can you ever imagine Bosley Crowther admitting something was pretty dumb but still a ripping good time? (If you know of a review in which this happens, I’d love to read it.)

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure outsmarts its audience?

Moviegoers, however, are not saddled with the honus of specific scrutiny at the expense of the overall experience. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, like the best of the pure entertainment 1980’s, presents joie de vivre. The characters’ intelligence doesn’t pose an artificial barrier to their success. In many instances stupid characters arrest the narrative as a result of an inability to movie the plot forward.

Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter boast tremendous on-screen chemistry, as if they’re acting as displaced halves of the same brain. You could analyze Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure from dozens of different directions, but the success of the film relies on this synergy.

bill and ted's excellent adventure napoleon

Napoleon fighting a teenage girl for the last spoonful of ice cream remains an inspired narrative aside.

Though lacking in book smarts (Caesar will always remain “a salad dressing dude”), Bill and Ted demonstrate quick wits and even an ability manipulate the logic of the film, thereby outsmarting the viewer that’s assured himself of his higher intelligence because he knows a thing or two about Napoleon. One of the most magnificent moments in the film undermines that relationship and involves Ted’s dad’s missing keys.

Early in the movie, Ted’s dad asks Ted about these keys, but he has no clue to their whereabouts. When Bill and Ted need to rescue their historical figures from jail, they claim they’ll go back in time, steal the keys, and put them outside the police station. Presto! The keys appear, as if by magic behind the sign — but it’s not magic — it’s our “dumb” characters riffing on the concept of the time-travel film and playing with audience expectation. They might not know how to pronounce “Socrates” correctly, but they’re clever enough in a crisis to manipulate time and space on the fly. “Hey! It was me who stole my dad’s keys!”

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure Final Thoughts

When I revisited Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure for the first time in many years, I worried it wasn’t going to hold the same spell over me. Indeed, I started to dissect the movie to see how the nuts and bolts held it together. I focused on the time-travel fallacy and questioned how or why any of it would have worked.

It still didn’t matter.

bill and ted's excellent adventure circuits of time

The “circuits of time” have no aged well, but they still fit the scale and aspiration of the film.

I found myself enjoying the ways the movie manipulated expectation (the scene with the keys, for example, or the early meeting of the Bill and Teds) despite acknowledging the smoke and mirrors. A viewer will only care to pick apart a narrative if they’re not entertained to distraction. Pure entertainment doesn’t necessitate the “how” or the “why;” it just requires a willing ignorance… or embrace of our own dumbness as viewers. With regards to Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure I’m more than happy to glorify my own dumbness if it means I can still feel childlike enjoyment while watching movies.

The face-value absurdity of Joan of Arc taking over an aerobics class or Genghis Khan attacking a sporting goods store on a skateboard, Beethoven commandeering two electric pianos. Napoleon throwing a tantrum at a water park called Waterloo. These remain simple, bordering upon lazy gags — albeit simple gags blessed with an ingenious high-concept wrapper.

Director Stephen Herek had a solid 1980’s movie career before the studios got ahold of him and ushered him into routine, forgettable fare. He began his career with Critters, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, and The Mighty Ducks (all crowd pleasers) before taking on more “grown-up” films like Mr. Holland’s Opus, Rock Star, and Holy Man. The pace of those so-called “dumb” movies just agreed with him.

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure cost $10million to make and returned $40million, but it wouldn’t be made today. $10million for a dumb teen comedy (without more exploitative elements) has no place in our present day box office. Thankfully its stars and writers (Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon) recognize that the Bill and Ted chemistry remains special. Even if studios would never greenlight that movie today — at least someone had the sense to continue the Excellent Adventure.

Casting Martha Davis (The Motels), Clarence Clemons (Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band) and Fee Waybill (The Tubes) as the Leaders of the future made for great cameos that I wouldn’t totally understand until I finally recognized Clemons. And I was a big fan of The Motels.

Bill and Ted will return in the Summer of 2020 with Bill & Ted Face the Music. Not bad for two idiot teens from Sam Dimas, California that surprised us all with a deceptively smart, super dumb movie back in 1989.

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is available on a Shout Factory Blu-ray set — Bill and Ted’s Most Excellent Collection — alongside it’s totally bodacious sequel, Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey.

bill and ted's excellent adventure

James David Patrick is a writer. He’s written just about everything at some point or another. Add whatever this is to that list. Follow his blog at www.thirtyhertzrumble.com and find him on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook.

1989 Flashback: The Experts

1989 Flashback: The Experts

the experts 1989

The Experts (1989)

If The Experts is known for anything at all (and it’s really not, I’m being generous), it’s known as the origin of the John Travolta and Kelly Preston love affair. On a related note, if it’s known for anything else, it’s known as the movie in which Kelly Preston dirty dances the hell out of mullet-clad John Travolta.

The Experts Story

In a town inside the Soviet Union, the KGB trains future spies in a fake American town called “Indian Springs, Nebraska.” All of the Soviet residents of the town speak perfect English and adhere to American customs — except that the town’s stuck in the era of its establishment and more resembles 1950’s Mayberry than Reagan-era America.

Agent Smith (regular character actor and poor-man’s Rick Moranis — Charles Martin Smith), one of the progressive KGB trainers believes that the town needs to get hip in order to compete in this brave new  world. His bright idea? Hiring aspiring club owners and mid-30’s losers Travis and Wendell (Travolta and Arye Gross) to teach the town how to be cool cats. He hires them to run his club in “Nebraska,” sedates them, and ships them off to the good old U.S.S.R. Here they will run their own nightclub and certainly never discover that they’re behind the Iron Curtain.

the experts 1989

The Experts Bombs, But Nobody Notices

After Urban Cowboy and De Palma’s Blow Out, John Travolta released Staying Alive — a box office success but practical disaster. He followed this up with the one-two punch of Two of a Kind (1983) with Olivia Newton-John and Perfect (1985) with Jamie Lee Curtis. Other than a TV movie and an appearance in Michael Jackson’s “Liberian Girl” video, Travolta wouldn’t make another movie until 1989’s The Experts. He’s still trading on his 1970’s It-Boy status. In the late 1980’s. At the age of 35.

Made for $3million and dumped onto screens during mid-January of 1989 opposite DeepStar Six, The January Man and Gleaming the Cube, The Experts failed to reach the Top 20 ($169,000 at the domestic box office). It would have been called a bomb if anyone had noticed the explosion.

I assume the film was panned upon its “release” by critics, but good luck finding a contemporaneous review to blurb. I’m sure Vincent Canby of the New York Times would have said something like “The comedy, less amusing than the perestroika it’s attacking with a Louisville slugger, required similar ‘cool’ coaching to become anything more diverting than a half-page advertisement for Happy Days reruns in Tiger Beat.”

And yet. If you’re going to phone in a comedic premise rooted in culture clash and political aphorisms, The Experts made a fundamentally wise decision in creating a U.S.S.R. stuck in old-fashioned Main Street U.S.A. Accents? (Who needs them?) Exotic Soviet locales? (Why bother? Actors cost money.) A Tiki-inspired night club? (Absolutely!) Fun character actors that all just act like stiff white dudes no matter the color of their skin? (Done!)

This allows the film to indulge in comedic freedoms that might not have otherwise been available. The downside? The freedom they chose? Mostly laziness.

The Experts, Accidental Genius

Having just directed Strange Brew (1983) based on his and Rick Moranis’ SCTV characters Bob and Doug McKenzie, Dave Thomas manages to imbue The Experts with little of his wit and timing. What’s present feels like a first draft, but an amiable and often entertaining piece of low-aspiration entertainment. Not quite kitsch, exactly, but time has actually improved The Experts.

Thomas’ film gives his agency-free characters just enough to do so that the audience sees their attempts to succeed in this wonky endeavor as futile. Sporting rat-tail mullets and dangly earrings Travis and Wendell come off as pathetic, fad-chasing pop-culture sheeples. Success eludes them at every turn. As a result the audience’s perspective offers a very interesting relationship between them and the film they inhabit.

Among the many talented supporting actors, The Experts offers Tony Edwards and Steve Levitt. Not pictured: Brian Doyle Murray, Rick Ducommon, and James Keach.

The Soviets see them as cool Americans. The movie itself portrays them as if they’re part of some insular “scene.” As the audience, however, we know the premise and we recognize that Travis and Wendell represent studio-manufactured “cool.” Some old studio suit wanted to grasp one last slice of Cold War hilarity. The Wikipedia page even mentions that Paramount chief Ned Tannen requested several uncredited rewrites of the script.

Practically, this means that the movie stumbled into something interesting and wholly unintentional. There’s something perfect about the parallels between the pathetically out-of-touch Soviet KGB agents in The Experts and the studio execs pushing this movie through the birth canal that think this is 1989 hip. Do not discount the utility of unintentional entertainment.

Yes, the woman in the terrible hair is the amazing Deborah Foreman. In The Experts she’s forced to be a button-down Soviet stick-in-the-mud who makes out with Arye Gross. The movie’s greatest sin is wasting her effervescence.

The Experts Verdict

The Experts wants to cobble together a movie based on other more successful 1980’s films and fails, at least at face value. It wants to be a fish-out-of-water comedy like a Soviet Gung Ho, a spy comedy like Spies Like Us, and trade on the 1950’s nostalgia in the same way as Back to the Future.

It’s pleasantly xenophobic and wallows in the narcissism of its main characters to such a degree that it’s impossible to see them as pro-active humans. When the movie forces Travis and Wendell into action upon discovering their actual location in the Soviet Union, they rely upon the townspeople who’ve tasted U.S. freedom in the form of microwaves and massaging showerheads to lead them to freedom.

But because of all this — and not in spite of — The Experts becomes surprisingly likable. The Experts gives Travolta time to ooze charisma and dance sexy sexy with Kelly Preston and lip-sync a cover of “Back in the U.S.S.R.” Travis and Wendell don’t mature. They stumble through life and fail to achieve any kind of self-recognition. We don’t need moralizing here. We just need a decent way to spend 90 minutes. The Experts inadvertently complies with that dictum despite all evidence to the contrary.

The Experts can be rented or purchased on Amazon Streaming. It was released on VHS and Laserdisc, but has to date not made an appearance on DVD.

the experts 1989

James David Patrick is a writer. He’s written just about everything at some point or another. Add whatever this is to that list. Follow his blog at www.thirtyhertzrumble.com and find him on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook.

 

1989 Flashback: Skin Deep

1989 Flashback: Skin Deep

Dr. Westford: A scorpion who couldn’t swim asked the frog to carry him across the river on his back. The frog said, “Do you think I’m crazy? Halfway across the river, you’ll sting me and I’ll drown.” “That’s not reasonable,” said the scorpion. “If I sting you and you drown, I’ll drown too.” Frog thought about it, he said, “Climb on.” Halfway across the river, the scorpion stung the frog, and as the frog was drowning, he said to the scorpion, “But now you’ll drown too.” The scorpion said, “Yes. I know.” “That’s not reasonable,” said the frog, and the scorpion replied, “Reason has nothing to do with it. I’m a scorpion. It’s my character.”

Zach: You know what I feel like saying to you?

Dr. Westford: Yes. You feel like telling me to go fuck myself, and you probably will, because it’s your character.

Zach: See you next Tuesday.

skin deep 1989

Skin Deep (1989)

What is it with Blake Edwards, weird beards, and unhealthy relationships with women? Because Blake couldn’t get enough of all these things in The Man Who Loved Women (1983) with Burt Reynolds, he’s back to the grindstone with Skin Deep. John Ritter’s deeply troubling facial hair reflects the grotesque human that is Zach Hutton beneath the Jack Tripper skin.

I’m sorry. I’m not ready to move on yet. It’s just such an awkward length. No one grows a beard like that, a don’t tell me it was just “the 80’s” and shrug.

skin deep 1989

A Skin Deep Story

John Ritter plays an unrepentant alcoholic womanizer who says he wants to change but does everything he can to preserve his selfish, self-destructive ways. He compulsively chases every pretty skirt, his wife leaves him, his agent’s dying, and he gets arrested for drunk driving on the average Tuesday.  It’s Clean & Sober (1988) or Leaving Las Vegas (1995) wrapped in screwball gift wrap.

John Ritter vs. Burt Reynolds

The differences in John Ritter being a huge dick and Burt Reynolds being a womanizing asshole boasts so many unsubtle nuances. While I like Ritter in most everything, he’s a little out of his element here. His travails feel utterly pathetic rather than symptomatic. Skin Deep doesn’t do enough to differentiate his legitimate metal illness from his leering, roguish tendencies. At a certain point Skin Deep can’t even highlight any of the character’s redeeming qualities.

The viewer must believe that women cannot resist Ritter’s Zach — that their attraction to him occurs at such a primal level that his face value inadequacies fail to pose obstacle to copulation or god forbid, a relationship. We don’t, and yet every single woman that crosses his path cannot help but be pulled into his black hole. He’s amiable, but he’s no Rudolph Valentino… or Burt Reynolds.

That said, the movie still has something to say about alcoholism. It’s just buried a little bit deeper than you would have liked. Blake Edwards has attempted to delve into the unrepentant mind of the alcoholic through a haze of farce and bleak humor all while serving up a puerile and unlikable anti-hero.

Skin Deep’s Redemption

The women needed more time to become human rather than brief caricatures and conquests. Even the woman that’s supposed to ultimately change his life feels like a cardboard standup that walked out of Blockbuster Video. It’s a scriptural-level problem that will cause many people to tune out before the 30-minute mark. No amount of Ritter charm could make that completely palatable.

If you can overcome a rough start, the movie offers a few base pleasures, namely one truly inspired comedic set piece. Zach overcomes his crippling erectile dysfunction by turning his penis into a lightsaber. It’s true. This happens.

The bit reminds us all that Blake Edwards had some creative demons, but we reaped the benefits of that mania though the beauty of glow-in-the-dark penile slapstick.

Get it? Slap. Stick? Oh never mind.

Skin Deep Final Thoughts

I hadn’t caught up with Skin Deep until this #Watch1989 exercise because it’s just never seen much fanfare. It certainly wasn’t a film I caught at the Multiplex during it’s theatrical run and it’s never received a Blu-ray release. Skin Deep has its proponents, but there’s not a lot here to recommend over a dozen other movies that dare explore the effects of alcoholism on-screen.

And yet.

There’s just enough that works beyond glow-in-the dark penises to warrant a watch. I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that the movie dishes out a number of quotable exchanges and enough Ritter charm to smooth out the roughest edges. It might be personally damning, but if I’d seen this movie at a more formative age, I have no doubt I’d be a Skin Deep fan.

Skin Deep is available to view on Amazon Prime Streaming.

James David Patrick is a writer. He’s written just about everything at some point or another. Add whatever this is to that list. Follow his blog at www.thirtyhertzrumble.com and find him on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook.

1989 Flashback: Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects

1989 Flashback: Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects

[after making the pimp named Duke swallow a diamond-encrusted watch]

Duke: I’m dying!

Lieutenant Crowe: No, you’re not… But you are gonna have to stick your head between your legs to tell the time.

kinjite 1989

Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects (1989)

I’m certainly capable of acknowledging some of the more problematic aspects of older films with regards to their treatment of gender and race. Without getting into a much broader philosophical debate about placing films in their appropriate context, some movies are merely a reflection of contemporaneous pre-evolved attitudes and some movies are just plain gross.

Welcome to Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects — where the population of Asians becomes a scourge on Los Angeles and the only man standing between your daughter and child prostitution is Charles Bronson.

Kinjite’s “Perspective”

Released on February 3rd, 1989, the ninth and final collaboration between Bronson and director J. Lee Thompson requires a bit more editing to make the 67-year-old Bronson a believable action hero. As part of his character makeup, Bronson’s Lieutenant Crowe is a xenophobic revenge-filled vigilante surrounded by lunatics with even more warped frames of references.

And to showcase exactly how warped this movie’s point of view is, I’d like to highlight one particular scene. Crowe confesses to his captain that he’s off his A-game because some sombitch oriental  molested his daughter on a bus. The captain, straight out of the angry-for-no-reason police captain playbook, goes off his rocker. He tells Crowe about how his “nephew Stevie was touched by a priest in choir practice. NOW WHAT THE HELL’S THAT GOT TO DO WITH YOUR WORK?”

Why is that dialogue in your movie? Not even the “It was the 80’s!” defense can make that okay. That wasn’t ever okay! None of it, but then again, the movie never actually ties up that molestation thread because it doesn’t think so much of it either. Like the police captain, Kinjite suggests “Hey, this daily mistreatment of women doesn’t much matter because THERE ARE MINORS BEING KIDNAPPED AND FORCED INTO PROSTITUTION.”

Just to clarify, while we all believe that just because one is totally heinous that doesn’t absolve the relatively lesser, but still abhorrent, sin, right? I’m not insane here.

Kinjite’s Story

Bronson’s hot on the trail of a pimp by the name of Duke who runs a child prostitution ring. Now Duke’s not Asian (he’s reliable bad-guy character actor Juan Fernández) and Duke’s crew is mostly black so at least the movie spreads around it’s racism.

The movie’s focus on the growing Asian influence in southern California seems ancillary to the premise of the film. The movie borrows the Japanese term “kinjite” for the title. There’s also that aforementioned secondary narrative about how it’s apparently permissible to molest women on public transportation — specifically in Japan. Due to their culture of shame they won’t speak out. None of this, however, ties directly into Crowe’s vendetta against Duke.

If the kidnapping and ultimate “rescue” of a Japanese girl from Duke’s clutches intends to soften our protagonist, there’s no on-screen evidence to suggest his newfound appreciation of cultural diversity. He’s just satisfied that he’s achieved his goal of putting baddies behind bars.

Kinjite: A Verdict

Though a dud at the box office (for good reason), Kinjite offers viewers a few lasting images in exchange suffering through the gross bits and hackneyed Golan-Globus dialogue.

Charles Bronson waves around a dildo for a brief moment in the opening scene and later makes Duke swallow a massive watch. He accidentally drops a perpetrator off a balcony because he’s wearing fancy loose boots. When he gives Duke some “poetic justice” by gleefully walking the “pretty boy” into prison, Danny Trejo makes an early film appearance as one of the very hardened catcalling inmates excited to welcome their new friend.

Like I said – gross.