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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
And no, this doesn’t have anything to do with the time that Will McKinley and I ducked down the back stairwell after a movie in the Chinese Multiplex and uncovered the employees’ pot smoking hideaway.
The 2019 TCM Film Festival schedule fell into our laps Tuesday morning, which meant that whomever wasn’t filling out their NCAA brackets was now consumed with festival mapping and weighty decisions about whether to see The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg or Mogambo on Thursday night.
So a quick recap for those stumbling onto this post without backstory. Each spring for the past nine years, TCM has hosted a four-day film festival in Hollywood. The movies start at 9:00am and run until 2:00am. If love classic film, this is your Super Bowl. If you aim for mass consumption, you could see 20-21 movies during your stay.
#ProTip: I stress this every year — don’t aim for mass consumption. This is an overall experience that doesn’t begin and end with moviewatching. TCM offers other programming and special events that you may not want to miss. Maybe you need a break for real food — or a drink with a friend you only see once a year. Seeing movies is the point, but also remember to breathe.
And now let’s engage in that yearly tradition of sharing our observations and festival-going plans. By all means share your own — I’m told these conversations help first-timers navigate what tends to be an overwhelming experience.
Three Quick Observations About the 2019 TCM Film Festival Schedule:
They’re playing some of my all-time favorites, but they’re playing them opposite movies I haven’t and would love to see for the first time at TCMFF. Raiders of the Lost Ark played during my first festival (a repeat!) so skipping that in favor of Sunrise:A Song of Two Humans doesn’t weigh on my conscience. Elsewhere I’ll be missing Kind Hearts and Coronets, featuring perhaps my favorite Alec Guinness performance, to see Tarzan and His Mate because where else would I ever make the effort to see this movie… or I could just default to Kind Hearts. Never a wrong decision.
I can again see a movie in every slot and not watch something I’ve already seen. It’s a nice problem to have. It’s less nice when four of those unseen films play at the same time, which happens Saturday afternoon when my love of Working Girl will come to blows with four movies I’ve never seen.
All in all, I’m less enthusiastic about this schedule than past years. This won’t hinder my experience. The last time I felt merely whelmed by a TCM Film Festival schedule I wound up having one of my best overall collection of first-time watches. There’s the rub. You can’t get too excited about the stuff you haven’t seen until you see it. #Logic
Also, the Chinese Multiplex Theater 4 has gone AWOL. Theater 4 has been the source of much consternation among festival-goers because of the limited capacity, and TCM’s tendency to stick the ferociously attended pre-code films in it. It became such a source of rage-fueled moviewatching that I created this design for a button that I never actually made:
TCM branded the 2019 TCM Film Festival “Follow Your Heart: Love at the Movies.” While there are a few more romance and romantic comedies on the schedule, it’s not exactly a hard and fast rule — plus, can’t you fall in love with a movie from any genre at the movies? This year also marks the 10th year of the TCMFF. Pardon me while I post the obligatory:
I arrive in Los Angeles about 1pm on Thursday, which gives me a little bit of time to grab food, get to the hotel, and hopefully sneak in an on-location 2019 TCM Film Festival @CinemaShame special with Jessica Pickens before programming begins at 6:30pm.
Before you jump headfirst into TCM Film Festivaling, let’s go over a few choice pieces of advice for every new attendee:
Drink lots of water. Buy bottles of the stuff at CVS or Trader Joe’s and keep them handy. You’re going to be eating more than your share of salty food. Plus hydration keeps disease at bay…
…and speaking of disease, build up your immune system before arriving. Lots of sleep. All the Vitamin C you can manage. Travel, lots of people with weird regional diseases, lack of sleep, irregular sustenance require a fully-operational immune system. You do not want to come down with something on Day 2.
Eat food when you have the opportunity. Especially breakfast. You can bring food into the theater. Go directly to your movie queue and wait for your numbered voucher. Once you have that, you’re free to leave. If you’re in a hurry, toss a burrito or a sandwich into your bag and return to your queue. They load the theaters 30 minutes prior to showtime. Once you’re seated, break out that meal and finish before the film rolls. Do not be a hero.
Bring a portable phone charger. Even if you’re not on social media and burning through your battery at every break, you’ll still want to make sure you can communicate with other people at the festival. Things like “Save me a seat!” or “Where are you in line?” or “What are you seeing at 7?” will be oft-repeated. I use this one — it’s a small brick, but it charges multiple devices at once… and fast. Plug it in at the beginning of the movie and you’ll have a fully charged phone by the time you leave.
Embrace the social aspects of the TCMFF. Some of it may seem daunting. The mass of people, the constant go-go mentality. Here more than anywhere else you’re among friends. Talk to the people in line next to you — because you will be in lines. Collect the pins and buttons. Compare schedules. Talk about your favorite festival experiences. I love the movies, but I come back every year because of the people.
Get on with it, already, bub.
Thursday, April 11
“O” denotes unseen. Check = seen it.
6:45pm – Night World (1932) – Chinese Multiplex 6
Let’s take another opportunity to mourn the disappearance of the Chinese Multiplex 4 from the 2019 TCM Film Festival circuit because Night World would have definitely played in Theater 4.
The 2019 TCM Film Festival kicks off the entire shebang with a doozy of a Catch-22. The effervescent Gentleman Prefer Blondes (1953), Bogart and Bacall in Dark Passage (1947) or the lesser known Night World featuring Boris Karloff, Mae Clark, and Lew Ayres. I’m opting for the movie I haven’t seen (as I tend to do) but kicking off your festival experience with either of the other choices wouldn’t be wrong choice.
#ProTip: So many variables come into play when choosing a film to see at any given time slot. Have you seen it? Is it rare or unavailable on home video? Is it being shown on film or digital? Who’s speaking before the film? Unseen. Shown on film. Guest speakers. This is the trifecta of TCM Film Festival essentials.
9:30pm – The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) – Chinese Multiplex 1
Cary Grant, Myrna Loy, and Shirley Temple in The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947) on a Nitrate print. John Ford’s Mogambo (1953) in 35mm? I adore Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg but it’s being shown on DCP. At least I can rule out Gary Cooper in Sergeant York (1941) because that movie gives off so many “Let’s Sell War Bonds” vibes. It’s most definitely not among my favorite of Howard Hawks’ films. While my first inclination is to default to Catherine Deneuve on the big screen, I could just as easily wind up at Mogambo because it checks all my TCMFF boxes.
Fun fact: TCMFF plans are meant to be broken.
Friday, April 12
“O” denotes unseen. Check = seen it. “X” means No, Just No.
It’s lovely when a TCMFF schedule gives me easier choices by eradicating options I would never entertain. Goodbye High Society (1956) and The Sound of Music (1965).
9:00am – Merrily We Go To Hell (1932) – Chinese Multi 1
It’s almost sacrilegious, but I don’t really care for The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). It’s not even the best adaptation of James M. Cain’s source material. That honor belongs to Visconti’s Ossessione (1943). I haven’t seen The Clock (1945), but my thoughts about Judy Garland’s non-musical screen presence get me in trouble so they’ll remain unsaid. That leaves me with some more delightful pre-coding starring Sylvia Sidney and Fredric March. Directed by Dorothy Arzner, Merrily We Go To Hell has been on my radar for some time. It’s DCP but we can’t hit the trifecta every time.
11:15am – Out of Africa (1985) – Chinese Multi 1
Cinema Shame confession: I have not seen Out of Africa. I’ve claimed for many years that I’ll get around to it. (I really wasn’t going to get around to it.) Being on the big screen at TCMFF, however, proves to be a game changer. While Sleeping Beauty would surely look magnificent on the Egyptian screen, and Love in the Afternoon‘s super charming — I own both on Blu-ray. Only the special Republic Serials presentation might dissuade me from the 161-minute Out of Africa.
3:00pm – Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans – Chinese Multi 1
The Cinema Shame rolls on with a film that’s been on my Shame Statement for the past two years, F.W. Murnau’s supposed masterpiece Sunrise. It’s a good thing I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark at the El Capitan during my first festival experience or I’d be tempted to ignore the unseen Sunrise and A Patch of Blue. Broadway Danny Rose shouldn’t be overlooked at Post 43. It’s a wonderful (and probably underseen) Woody Allen film with tremendous central performances.
5:30pm – Vanity Street (1932) – Chinese Multi 6
My wife has been actively lobbying for me to see Steel Magnolias (1989) on her behalf (and it would fit my #Watch1989 year quite well) — but, well, no. I’ll be happy to watch it with you at home some other time, love. Had I been covering the festival for Action-A-Go-Go as planned, I’d have been locked into seeing Escape From Alcatraz again. Then there’s Truffaut’s Day for Night. It’s a difficult slot to nail down. I don’t know anything about Vanity Street other than unseen, pre-code, and 35mm. Plus opting for the 67-minute film also allows me to pad my movie totals by catching dinner and an extra flick…
7:30pm – Open Secret (1948) – Chinese Multi 6
A movie that was once thought lost (save for a few unfortunate public domain prints) until UCLA recently found a source and restored the film. A rarely seen thriller from the 1940’s sounds like the kind of thing that fits squarely in the TCM Film Festival wheelhouse.
9:30pm – Desert Hearts (1985) – Post 43
While I might have opted for Do the Right Thing (1989) on the big screen at the TCL Chinese Theatre, Open Secret lets out just as the Spike Lee joint gets going. With the director and stars of Desert Hearts appearing in a post-film conversation, this is the moment I should choose to embrace one of the films I haven’t seen. Desert Heart trumps Goodbye, Mr. Chips because the talent’s quite literally in the house. If Winchester ’73 were playing at another time you would have found me front and center.
Midnight – Santo vs. The Evil Brain – Chinese Multi 1
And back to the Chinese Multi for some crimefighting masked Mexican wrestler action. A midnight I never thought I’d see happen. One of the tremendous surprises of the 2019 TCM Film Festival. It’s no SH! The Octopus, but it’s a damn fine consolation prize. I haven’t seen this specific Santo film — though I’ve seen quite a few.
Saturday, April 13
Generally speaking every TCM Film Festival Saturday can sit and spin. This Saturday is no exception.
9:15am – When Worlds Collide (1951) – Chinese Multi 1
I’m back in my favorite venue this TCMFF. Chinese Multi 1 houses the minor classic Sci-Fi epic When Worlds Collide. It’s also the title of a righteous Powerman 5000 track. I’m not going to cast shade on any of the other films during this block either — From Here to Eternity should ONLY be seen on the big screen, Double Wedding is firmly in the middle of the non-Thin Man Powell and Loys, and All Through the Night is a nifty Bogart thriller that most probably haven’t seen.
And then the rest of the day becomes an interminable battle against the unseen versus the known and loved commodities.
11:45am – Tarzan and His Mate (1934) – Chinese Multi 6
Sigh. I love Kind Hearts and Coronets. It’s one of my favorite films of all time. Upon last calculation it resided at #52. But Gena Rowlands introduces John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence (unseen) at the Egyptian and this one, Tarzan and His Mate, plays on 35mm. I honestly have no idea where I’m headed during this block. My head says Tarzan because it’s unknown, but my heart’s screaming Kind Hearts… and if I don’t see A Woman Under the Influence at the Egyptian, I might not even see the inside of that theater this festival, which is inconceivable considering I rented space there the last two years.
2:45pm – Love Affair (1939) – Chinese Multi 6
I love Irene Dunne. I adore her. I would light candles and create shrines for her if I knew how one even went about creating a legitimate shrine. My experience in shrines dervies from Jobu in Major League. Probably not the best influence, especially regarding the chicken sacrifices. I know I promised everybody I’d be there to support the festival’s screening of Working Girl, but what am I supposed to do here? I live for the party scene with Harrison Ford drinking exotic umbrella-clad drinks.
I haven’t seen Love Affair and it’s something I need to make right. Meanwhile I’m just flat out ignoring A Raisin in the Sun, which I’d love to see, and the Tom Mix Double Western Feature would surely be a good time.
Love Affair also has the timing of getting out earlier to allow for the acquisition of food and the option to catch anything at all during the next block.
5:15pm – Blood Money (1933) – Chinese Multi 6
…assuming I actually choose this path. Once again we’re faced with beloved commodities in the form of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Nashville and Wuthering Heights versus two films from the 1930’s that I never knew existed until this week.
7:30pm – Life Begins at 40 (1935) – Chinese Multi 6
Part of me is still wondering if I can hoof it over to the TCL Chinese Theater for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid at 6:15pm since Blood Money falls just shy of the 60-minute mark. At the very least It Happened Here (1964) starts at 6:30pm at the Egyptian. This is where the games begin and it’ll all depend on how much I want to run my ass down Hollywood Boulevard at 6pm on a Saturday. Life Begins at 40 and Will Rogers just represent the convenient option.
Fun fact: I have no idea what the hell I’m going to do in the heat of the moment!
9:45pm – Escape from New York (1981) – Chinese Multi 1
Even though it’s the bloody “Special Edition,” I’d still love to see Star Wars on the screen at the TCL Chinese Theatre. Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in Indiscreet would be swoon-worthy, and Waterloo Bridge is a fine pre-code melodrama… but Kurt Russell and John Carpenter are going to be present before a screening of Escape from New York, so all the rest is just background noise. I’m actually in line for this one as I type.
Midnight – The Student Nurses (1970) – Chinese Multi 6
Love-ins, acid trips, Mexican radicals, secret abortions, and naughty nurses. Thank you, Roger Corman. Stephanie Rothman’s The Student Nurses provides a measure of exploitation that the TCMFF hasn’t seen, and I’m excited to be a part of it.
#FunFact: I was looking over my picks for the 2018 TCMFF and it’s like I didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. I ignored every planned movie on 2018’s Friday except for Sweet Sweetback and The Exorcist. You should probably not listen to anything I say except the parts about keeping your options open!
Sunday, April 14
Unfortunately this is the bittersweet portion of our program when I again announce that in order to catch the sensible non-stop back to Pittsburgh, I’ll need to leave the festival sometime just before 1pm. I’ll miss out on some terrific offerings, but turning 9 hours of travel time into a single 5-hour flight always seems like the right play. One of these years I’ll get to stay for the Closing Party… in the meantime, let’s send the 2019 TCM Film Festival out with one more Cinema Shame viewing.
9:00am – Hello, Dolly! (1969) – TCL Chinese Theatre
Mad Love, Holiday and The Defiant Ones are all great options. If you haven’t seen Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in Holiday, I’d make that a priority of your festival. Instead, I’m turning to Barbara Streisand and the big, boisterous, silver screen adaptation of Hello, Dolly! (In no small part because of the role it plays in Wall*E.)
So that’s it. I might consider popping into the discussion prior to The Robe (1953) for one final nugget before heading back to LAX for my flight home.
#ProTip: Don’t kill yourself getting home. My first two years, I took the red-eye and that form of transportation should be outlawed by the Geneva Convention. You’re already sleep deprived and generally not ready to go back to public life. Stay the extra night if you can afford it. Lodging, as you may have noticed, is very expensive. With two kids under 10, I need to return to regular life first thing on Monday morning. Taking the red-eye means I’m a miserable human for at least another day. Probably two.
Read my previews of past TCM Film Festivals for more info — I tried not to be too redundant!
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Billy: We’re a special combat unit looking for some Libyan terrorists. In fact, I think we have them cornered at a bagel shop across the street. Now if we could just get some pants for the colonel.
Army Surplus Store Owner: Give me a break.
Billy:Alright, we’re four escaped lunatics.
Army Surplus Store Owner:This I believe.
The Dream Team (1989)
Few movies and actors stand out as representatives of the 1989 movie scene more directly than The Dream Team and Michael Keaton. Keaton, of course, would don the Batman cowl later this very same year.
Released April 7th, 1989, The Dream Team met with modest reviews and a lukewarm box office. It finished second behind Major League for the week and went on to take a total of $28million in 7 weeks in release.
Contemporaneous critics considered it One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest-Lite and even in 1989 cited its flippant attitudes toward mental health and treatment. Even as they wagged their fingers, critics like the curmudgeonly Vincent Canby appreciated “the talents of the principal performers.”
Michael Wilmington of the Lost Angeles Times hit a home run with the following observation:
The union of four oddballs–rebel-writer, obsessive noodge, religious fanatic and couch potato–is almost too schematic, as if the writers were somehow trying to define ’80s dissidence. But even though you can predict virtually everything that happens from the first five minutes on, the director and actors manage to hook you in.
Howard Zieff’s The Dream Team doesn’t do anything that hasn’t already been done and done better, but there’s something about the film that resonates with fans despite the obvious, face-value criticisms.
The Dream Team Story
Dr. Weitzman, a psychiatrist working in a New Jersey sanitarium, takes his four primary patients on a field trip to the Yankees game, but along the way he accidentally stumbles upon two crooked cops as they murder a fellow officer. He’s assaulted and knocked into a coma. Now stranded in New York City on their own, the patients must work together despite their differences and relative inefficiencies to find their doctor and protect him from the cops that want to eliminate the final witness to their nefarious doings.
The Dream Team Cast
Michael Keaton, Peter Boyle, Christopher Lloyd and Stephen Furst turn an average script about “runaway” mental patients with a predictable narrative into something warm and comfortable.
The appeal is not just watching these eminent characters each given the green light to chew scenery under the guise of mental instability (although one can’t help but enjoy that aspect of the production). The real appeal of The Dream Team might just be the way these actors make us feel just by being on screen together.
Part of this belongs in the realm of extratextual nostalgia for each of their careers. Keaton, Boyle, Lloyd and Furst have been given characters that tap into themes and elements from past performances. That “nostalgia factor” can’t be discounted. They are also merely talented comedic and dramatic actors who understand that the art of playing broad comedy isn’t inherently connected to playing loud and louder.
Even Michael Keaton, whose character Billy Caufield displays violent tendencies, turns it off at a moment’s notice (which makes you think it’s mostly just an act to escape a world that just sucks a little bit too much). He’s introduced, in fact, as he plays ping-pong with a patient named Kenny who can’t move his paddle fast enough to make contact with even the slowest volley. It’s played for a laugh, but Billy displays empathy. There’s even a callback later when he makes sincere mention that he’s going to be disappointed to miss his regular ping-pong date.
“If you ever work up a serve to go with that backhand it’s going to be a dark day in Peking, baby,” he says after Kenny once again fails to return his very easy serve. These are jokes — yes — but they’re not the point-and-laugh kind of gag, and I think that’s an important distinction.
Each of these actors plays caricature, but with a tether to regular human compassion. Christopher Lloyd ends up doing the bulk of the heavy lifting when he’s faced with returning to his family to ask for help. He’s shut himself off because he’s embarrassed and expects they’ll all have moved on without him. The movie slows and among the chaos, a quiet moment of insight and relatively fragile emotion.
Without the abilities of Keaton, Lloyd and Boyle, there’s nothing holding together the erratic tone of the film. I don’t want to sell the small moments as anything approaching the level of dramatic profundities. They’re drama among swirling chaos, but the imbalance somehow contributes to a more complete whole.
The Dream Team’s view on mental illness, though…
Jon Connolly and David Loucka’s script provides a safe playing field for the mass consumption of mental illness. While One Flew Over attempts to humanize patients without scrubbing them clean, The Dream Team presents average humans with a slightly more drastic case of offbeat. Michael Keaton spins compulsive lies and flies off handle. Peter Boyle rebels against corporate America by becoming a nudist born-again Christian. Christopher Lloyd just wants things in their right place. Stephen Furst has insulated himself from the world by quoting baseball commentary. In another movie, they’d just be colorful eccentrics without agency. This narrative, however, forces agency.
The movie has no interest in delving into mental illness on a serious level. I’ve seen casual condemnations of the film suggesting that it undermines the very foundation of the mental health industry. While I understand the frame of reference that would lead someone to make this kind of assertion, I can’t take such a thing seriously when the film offers caricature and innocent humor at the expense of grim reality. The Dream Team plainly recalls One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but it has no interest in anything other than escapism, which it does at no one’s specific expense (except maybe some misguided psychiatrists).
The Dream Team in 1989
Let’s return to my introductory thought that The Dream Team is a movie that represents the moviegoing year at large. 1989 remains a year best known for the movie events of the summer — Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Ghostbusters II, Lethal Weapon 2, and, of course, Batman. Those movies didn’t define 1989 in my mind, however. The movies that slipped between the first-run cracks defined 1989.
UHF, Tango & Cash, Major League, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Weekend at Bernie’s, Say Anything, Troop Beverly Hills — lesser budgeted Hollywood fare that didn’t make waves at the box office but ultimately found a devoted and lasting audience. As the last gasp of the 1980’s, the year offered audiences so much more beyond the tentpole productions. The greatest tragedy is that none of these movies would actually be made in 2019.
The Dream Team Final Thoughts
Though this isn’t as laugh-out-loud funny as I remembered, I’m drawn more to the moments when The Dream Team becomes an somewhat quietly effective drama amidst the face-value silliness — and that it works at all feels somewhat miraculous, if not held together with spit, duct tape and Michael Keaton hyperbole.
Christopher Lloyd, most notably, provides this balance and he’s probably not given enough credit when Boyle and Keaton are blustery forces of nature. And maybe this is nostalgia talking, but I’m not here to dissect Hollywood’s treatment of mental illness. I’m only here because The Dream Team still resonates as a feel-good, low-aspiration comedy and a showcase for three brilliant comedic actors.