Film Review: The Burning (1981)

Release Date: May 8th, 1981
Directed by: Tony Maylam
Written by: Brad Grey, Tony Maylam, Harvey Weinstein, Bob Weinstein, Peter Lawrence
Music by: Rick Wakeman
Cast: Brian Matthews, Lou David, Leah Ayres, Brian Backer, Larry Joshua, Jason Alexander, Ned Eisenberg, Carrick Glenn, Fisher Stevens, Holly Hunter

Miramax Films, Filmways Pictures, 91 Minutes

Review:

“You’re crazy.” – Karen, “Yeah, I know. Crazy for you.” – Eddy

Sure, The Burning was made to cash in on the success of the previous year’s smash hit, Friday the 13th. In fact, the whole 1980s slasher genre was just riding on the coattails of Friday the 13th and Halloween but that doesn’t take away the fact that The Burning is a pretty good film in its genre and I would dare say, a classic.

Sadly, it is underappreciated today and maybe it wasn’t even that appreciated when it came out, as it was one of many Friday the 13th clones lost in a sea of teenage blood.

In this slasher picture, there is a summer camp caretaker named Cropsy. Some teenage boys decide to play a prank on him late at night. The prank has disastrous results, as the frightened Cropsy accidentally sets himself and his home on fire. He nearly burns to death but falls into the river. Years later, he returns to the camp to get murderous revenge. Of course, he doesn’t just look for the teens who pranked him, he just goes on a killing spree of all teenagers because that’s what you do in a slasher film.

There are a few highlights to this film. The first being the cast.

Several people here would go on to be pretty notable stars. George Costanza himself, Jason Alexander, is in this, slimmed down and with a full head of hair. It is actually weird seeing him very un-Costanza-like. He is almost a cool jock type, which is pretty amusing.

The film also features Leah Ayres, who might be more recognizable as the leading lady in the Jean-Claude Van Damme classic Bloodsport. There’s also Brian Backer, who I will always love for his role as “Rat” in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and his one-off appearance in Police Academy 4: Citizens On Patrol. You have Fisher Stevens, who would star in the two Short Circuit movies and play the villain in Hackers. Ned Eisenberg, a guy who is in just about everything, plays the generic teen asshole that exists in every proper slasher flick. I also have to point out Carrick Glenn, who didn’t do very many movies, but really steals the show in this and not just because of her bare boobs. The biggest star of this thing, other than Alexander, is Holly Hunter. While her role here is far from massive, she would go on to have a hell of a career.

Another highlight is the special effects and the makeup. This thing was essentially made on a limited budget but the practical effects are absolutely top notch. I actually think the effects in this are superior to the much more famous Friday the 13th. The burnt flesh of Cropsy is fantastic and his face is truly disgusting without looking cheesy or having to be visually obscured to hide some sort of cosmetic imperfection. The raft murder scene is particularly well done, especially the killer’s point-of-view shot where he chops off Fisher Stevens’ fingers.

While so many slasher flicks miss the mark, The Burning just gets it. I’m kind of surprised that this didn’t generate sequels, as Cropsy was a spectacular slasher, his origin story was simple but well-handled and the overall vibe of the picture was a good balance of creepy and fun.

That final pursuit scene, through the woods, is one of the best in the genre, even if Brian Backer was the intended victim and not a damsel in distress. Granted, he was still a damsel in distress and required rescuing from the bad ass male hero. But the ending does make it rather unique, as there isn’t a scream queen present.

The Burning is a remarkable picture for what it is. While it isn’t as beloved, to me, as the entirety of the Friday the 13th film series, I do enjoy it more than the first couple movies in that franchise. It is kind of hard to top Friday the 13th parts IV and VI. However, The Burning is an example of how good a slasher picture can be, even if the vast majority of them are just rehashes of a few that came early in the genre.

Film Review: Batteries Not Included (1987)

Also stylized as: *batteries not included
Also known as: Miracle On 8th Street (international)
Release Date: December 18th, 1987
Directed by: Matthew Robbins
Written by: Mick Garris, Brad Bird, Matthew Robbins, Brent Maddock, S.S. Wilson
Music by: James Horner
Cast: Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Frank McRae, Elizabeth Pena, Dennis Boutsikaris, Michael Carmine

Amblin Entertainment, Universal Pictures, 107 Minutes

Review:

“The quickest way to end a miracle is to ask it why it is… or what it wants.” – Frank Riley

Batteries Not Included sort of came and went in the theater. At least, I wasn’t really aware of it until it popped up on HBO about a year later. Once I saw it though, I was captivated and would try to catch it every time it was playing on television. It is one of those movies I loved as a kid but hadn’t really seen since. So when I came across it on Netflix, I wanted to see how it played, thirty years later.

The film was actually intended to be an episode of Steve Spielberg’s awesome television show Amazing Stories. Spielberg liked the story so much that he wanted to have it expanded into a feature film. Also, this was Brad Bird’s first time writing for a theatrical release. He would go on to write and direct the beloved animated films The Iron GiantThe Incredibles and Ratatouille.

The movie tells the story of the residents of a rundown building in New York City. The area is being torn down and the residents forced out by thugs hired by developers who intend to build modern massive skyscrapers. The thugs go around destroying the resident’s homes and property. Two tiny alien spaceships show up and start fixing everything. The little spaceships are actually alien lifeforms that take junk and appliances and use them to repair and enhance themselves. They even give birth to three baby alien ships in the film.

The movie is really about miracles and how when you are pushed to your limit and all seems hopeless, sometimes things can happen to pick you back up. Batteries Not Included is about not losing hope and it is also about family and friends and turning to those around you who are good people. It’s interesting that it takes non-human lifeforms to bring the humans in the story together.

For 1987, the special effects are fantastic. The movie still looks stellar today and it held up really nicely.

The cast were all really good but the bulk of the picture rests on the shoulders of Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy (just a few years before her big Academy Award win for Driving Miss Daisy). It’s kind of nice revisiting pictures like this and Cocoon, as they feature elderly actors as the main characters. It is something that you don’t see very often anymore, at least not in major studio sci-fi releases. But the 80s were a magical time for film.

I was happy that I revisited this, so many years later, because I wasn’t disappointed, as I often times am with movies I once loved as a kid. It was actually just as I remembered it without any extra romantic flourish added to it from my memory.

Batteries Not Included is sort of forgotten today and it wasn’t a big hit in its day, anyway. It is a movie that probably deserves more recognition than it got, though. It just looks good, plays good and most importantly, feels good.

Film Review: Re-Animator (1985)

Also known as: H.P. Lovecraft’s Re-Animator
Release Date: October 18th, 1985
Directed by: Stuart Gordon
Written by: Stuart Gordon, William J. Norris, Dennis Paoli
Based on: Herbert West – Reanimator by H.P. Lovecraft
Music by: Richard Band
Cast: Jeffrey Combs, Bruce Abbott, Barbara Crampton, David Gale, Robert Sampson

Re-Animator Productions, Empire International Pictures, 86 Minutes

Review:

“I must say, Dr. Hill, I’m very disappointed in you. You steal the secret of life and death, and here you are trysting with a bubble-headed coed. You’re not even a second-rate scientist!” – Herbert West

Re-Animator is one of those movies I have to go back and rewatch every couple of years. And every time that I do, I am always surprised by it, even though I’ve seen it multiple times.

Reason being, is that much of this movie, especially the final third is so bizarre and surreal that it still sort of shocks the senses. The last fifteen minutes or so crosses certain lines that still make you feel uncomfortable, regardless of how many times you’ve seen the picture. I don’t want to go into the details of it, because I’d prefer not to spoil this movie for those who have yet to see it.

This is a 1980s modernization of an H.P. Lovecraft story. It is somewhat of a spin on the Frankenstein tale but goes to even darker places than Mary Shelley’s literary masterpiece.

The villain (or hero, depending upon your point of view), Herbert West, is a medical student that has just returned from a stint in Switzerland. He has expanded on the work of a notable doctor and has found a way to reanimate the brains of the deceased and thus, their bodies or what’s left of them. It sort of marries the Frankenstein concept and the zombie genre.

The special effects in this film are pretty well done for the most part but the budgetary limitations are very apparent. For instance, the scene where the zombie cat is on West’s back is pretty silly and plays like slapstick but the film really is a black comedy and this plays that up with its hokiness. However, the majority of the zombie effects are well handled and executed.

The cast is decent but it is Jeffrey Combs, as Herbert West, that steals the show and this was a launching pad for his career. He’s since gone on to be a horror icon and become an accomplished voice actor. He also had some great roles in different Star Trek television series, most notably as various incarnations of the villain Weyoun on Deep Space Nine.

Barbara Crampton holds her own and she had to deal with some seriously bizarre and uncomfortable situations in this movie. Props to her for that.

For many, Re-Animator is a bonafide horror classic. It’s a really good film from its era but I’m not as gung ho of a fan of it as many are. I certainly enjoy it and appreciate it but there are many more films from its time that I would put ahead of it. Still, it is effective and has had a lasting impact. It also spawned a few sequels, which I will review in the near future.

Film Review: Streets of Fire (1984)

Release Date: June 1st, 1984
Directed by: Walter Hill
Written by: Walter Hill, Larry Gross
Music by: Ry Cooder
Cast: Michael Paré, Diane Lane, Rick Moranis, Amy Madigan, Willem Dafoe, Deborah Van Valkenburgh, E.G. Daily, Richard Lawson, Bill Paxton, Lee Ving, Stoney Jackson, Robert Townsend, Grand Bush, Mykelti Williamson, Ed Begley Jr., John Dennis Johnston, Lynne Thigpen

Universal Pictures, 93 Minutes

Review:

“Well, it looks like I finally found someone who likes to play as rough as I do.” – Raven Shaddock

I have always looked at 1984’s Streets of Fire as a sort of spiritual successor to 1979’s The Warriors. They share the same director, some of the same themes, some of the same acting talent and take place in a vivid and surreal fantasy version of urban America.

While music often times drove the narrative and the action of The Warriors it takes over Streets of Fire and propels this picture forward as a perfect balance between the action and musical genres. Granted, this isn’t a traditional musical, it is mostly a string of live performances setting the tone, as the action flows around it. It is a movie full of energy and it is incredibly kinetic.

The film also has a neo-noir look, which was becoming popular in the 80s thanks to films like Blade Runner and slew of independent movies employing the visual style. While made in the 80s, the picture mostly looks like an homage to the 1950s and the rockabilly scene of that decade. The movie is a hybrid of 1950s and 1980s culture but the 50s were on a comeback in the 80s and this film really embraces that.

Streets of Fire also crosses over into the biker gang genre of film and Willem Dafoe’s Raven Shaddock seems to channel his character Vance from his debut film The Loveless, a biker gang picture that was also Kathryn Bigelow’s directorial debut.

The film also stars Michael Paré, Diane Lane, Rick Moranis and Amy Madigan.

Paré was a good hero and it is unfortunate that he didn’t do a whole lot after this movie. His acting was a bit better than average, at this point in his career, but he had a presence and just epitomized cool. Diane Lane was beautiful and did great with the musical numbers, even if it wasn’t her voice. Rick Moranis was incredibly unlikable but even then, who doesn’t like Moranis? This film was Amy Madigan’s coolest role and second only to her part in Field of Dreams. I wish she would have got more roles like her character McCoy.

There are a lot of cameos by up and coming actors, as well as Walter Hill regulars. We get to see a young Bill Paxton, as well as Ed Begley Jr., Deborah Van Valkenburgh, Lynne Thigpen, Lee Ving of the punk band Fear, as well as small roles played by Stoney Jackson and Robert Townsend, who were members of the band The Sorels.

For the most part, the acting is not exceptional and the script is often times cheesy and bare bones but for this picture, it works. This is exactly what it markets itself as, “A rock & roll fable.”

The film is exciting and fast paced and never has much downtime. Sure, the plot might not be as developed as many would like but this isn’t that sort of movie. It is a roller coaster ride of bad ass tunes and bad ass characters where two manly men duel in a fairly original fashion. Plus, Dafoe’s presence adds so much to the picture, despite his lack of experience when this was made.

Streets of Fire was a true throwback when it came out and it still fits that mold, over thirty years after its release. It doesn’t need to be set in a defined space and time. It is imaginative and well executed and it has gone on to become a cult favorite among film aficionados.

Film Review: Police Story 2 (1988)

Release Date: August 20th, 1988 (Hong Kong)
Directed by: Jackie Chan
Written by: Jackie Chan, Edward Tang
Music by: Michael Lai, Tang Siu Lam
Cast: Jackie Chan, Maggie Cheung, Charlie Cho

Golden Harvest, Media Asia Group, 101 Minutes 

Review:

I was a big fan of Police Story, as a kid, but I never saw this one until now. I’m glad I did, as it bridges the gap between the original film and the third one, which was released theatrically in the United States as Supercop.

This chapter in the series is a true continuation of the first movie and it features much of the same cast. It goes deeper into the relationship between Chan’s Chan Ka-kui and his girlfriend May, played by the returning Maggie Cheung. It also shows the repercussions of Chan’s actions from the first film, as he starts out being demoted to traffic patrol.

The version I got to see of this film was in its native language and subtitled, which was a huge improvement over the dubbed version of the original Police Story, which I have watched for years. Although, the subtitles kept referring to Inspector Chan Ka-kui as “Kevin”.

This film is not as good as the original but it is still a solid Chan flick. It is tamer in nature and not nearly as gritty as its predecessor. The humor, while still there, seems to be a bit toned down too. It is still a lighthearted movie but the slapstick shtick is more reserved, even though the stunts still employ the typical Chan style.

Police Story 2 is a bit all over the place, from a narrative standpoint. It reintroduces old villains but then brings in some new ones. It just doesn’t seem to work and it feels like the addition of these new baddies, when it pops up, is sort of out of nowhere.

While most people don’t really watch Jackie Chan outings for a great story, a good narrative helps to set apart which of his films are in the upper echelon and which aren’t. In that regard, this one fails to live up to the standard bearer that is the first Police Story.

The stunts are still top notch and pretty impressive. Nothing is as iconic though, as the big finale of Police Story, the original. While the factory finale here is really good, it just doesn’t hit the mark like the shopping mall finale.

All things considered, if you love Chan, you will probably still really enjoy this picture. It came out in his prime and his athleticism and charm are incredible.

Film Review: Band of the Hand (1986)

Release Date: April 11th, 1986
Directed by: Paul Michael Glaser
Written by: Leo Garen, Jack Baran
Music by: Michel Rubini
Cast: Stephen Lang, Michael Carmine, Lauren Holly, Leon, John Cameron Mitchell, Danny Quinn, Al Shannon, James Remar, Laurence Fishburne

TriStar Pictures, 109 Minutes

Review:

“One sharp knife can feed you, clothe you, keep you warm and dry.” – Joe

I have been a huge fan of Miami Vice my entire life. Somehow, Band of the Hand eluded me until recently. It is sort of married to that show, as they were both produced by Michael Mann, came out around the same time, have similar themes, similar style, similar music and take place in and around Miami.

Band of the Hand also stars a young Stephen Lang, who is a guy that has become one of my favorite actors in recent years. It also features a young Lauren Holly, Leon and another one of my favorites, James Remar.

The film really has two parts to it. The first half sees a bunch of teenage punks sent into the Everglades. They are given a last chance, if they can learn from Miccosukee bad ass, Joe (Stephen Lang). They have to survive and make it to the end of their swamp quest becoming bad asses themselves. The second half sees the teens return to Miami and become vigilantes alongside Joe, in an effort to rid the city of the drug dealers who hold it hostage.

The two halves of the movie really have different tones. The first half is mostly goofy and comedic, as our urban teens can’t get along and want nothing to do with life in the Everglades. The second half becomes much darker and serious and plays like an episode of Miami Vice but with more violence, as it isn’t catering to television executives.

Band of the Hand is pretty enjoyable. It is far from a classic and not as good as the better episodes of Miami Vice but it fills its 109 minutes well.

The action is great, especially the big street shootout between the gangsters and the teens at their home.

Stephen Lang was exceptionally bad ass in this and it was cool seeing him in his younger days, as he’s just now becoming more of a household name due to being in Avatar and Don’t Breathe.

If you are into 1980s crime movies, you’ll probably enjoy this. If you are also a big Miami Vice fan, this is a good companion piece to the show.

 

Film Review: Commando (1985)

Release Date: October 4th, 1985
Directed by: Mark L. Lester
Written by: Steven E. de Souza, Jeph Loeb, Matthew Weisman
Music by: James Horner
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rae Dawn Chong, Alyssa Milano, Vernon Wells, James Olson, David Patrick Kelly, Bill Duke, Dan Hedaya, Bill Paxton, Drew Snyder

Silver Pictures, 20th Century Fox, 90 Minutes

Review:

“These guys eat too much red meat!” – Cindy

Commando is the quintessential 80s Schwarzenegger flick. This is the standard bearer for any motion picture featuring Arnie, where he isn’t a Terminator or a barbarian. It is straight up action with the right balance of Arnold’s style of comedic delivery. I mean, you could really even make the argument that this is a comedy – not to take away from the fact that it is balls to the wall bad ass.

Arnold Schwarzenegger plays John Matrix, a swollen and hard manly man that is a purebred killing machine. However, Matrix loves his daughter, the very young Alyssa Milano – before she was every 80s boy’s crush on the sitcom Who’s the Boss?

Matrix’s home is attacked and his daughter is kidnapped by bad men that have ties to his past. The bad men want Matrix to carry out an assassination. However, Matrix doesn’t take any shit whatsoever and he evades the bad guys and starts picking them off, one by one, in a race against time to save his daughter before the baddies discover that he didn’t carry out his mission.

What we get with this film is a big beefy charming bad ass with great one-liners and an arsenal that would make the Punisher weep in shame. In fact, just about everything in this movie explodes. Even Rae Dawn Chong, his cutesy fish out of water sidekick, gets to fire a rocket launcher a few times.

This movie also has a plethora of great actors. The evil and very homoerotic Bennett is played by Australian heavy Vernon Wells, probably most known as Wez from Mad Max 2 a.k.a. The Road Warrior and a parody of Wez in John Hughes’ Weird Science. You also have Bill Duke, who got to star alongside Schwarzenegger as Mac in Predator. Then there is the always enjoyable David Patrick Kelly, the leader of the bad guys in The Warriors and known for his time on Twin Peaks. The cast also includes Dan Hedaya, a guy who never gets enough props, and a small role by a young Bill Paxton.

Commando has just about everything you want in an 80s action flick without a lot of the stuff you don’t want. It isn’t an artistic masterpiece, per se. That is, unless you consider an intense crescendo of exploding buildings and flying bodies to be fine art: I friggin’ do. If that’s the case, this is true art in a classical sense that rivals the Sistine Chapel. Director Mark L. Lester is Michael-friggin’-angelo and Arnold is Adam reaching out to touch the finger of God.

The film is also only ninety minutes, so a bunch of boring character development and filler doesn’t get in the way of Schwarzenegger waving his peen around like a lasso trying to capture the hearts of 80s action fans.

The plot is simple, that is all you need to blow up an island fortress. Movies today try to get overly complicated and seem to have a guilty conscious about gratuitously shooting bullet holes in everything and everyone. Commando doesn’t have time for that horse shit. It throws its dick on the table and says, “Yeah, let’s fuckin’ rage!”

Commando was the perfect template for all Schwarzenegger movies going forward. Predator took it and added in a bad ass alien killer. The rest of his movies fell a bit short and tried to fill up the running time with annoying things like plot and character development.

If you watch Commando and you don’t have a fun time, we probably can’t be friends. Growing up in the 80s, this is one of the greatest things that ever happened to me that didn’t involve Harrison Ford or ninjas. It is actually a good thing that this didn’t have Harrison Ford or ninjas because it would have literally shattered the Earth’s crust with its intensity and the weight of its gargantuan gravitas.