Thursday 29 June 2023

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991)

Director: Pete Hewitt
Writer: Chris Matheson & Ed Solomon
Stars: Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter, William Sadler, Joss Ackland, Pam Grier and George Carlin

Index: The First Thirty.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is one of my favourite movies. It holds an underlying truth even though it’s utterly ridiculous throughout and it’s pure unadulterated fun. I’ve gone back to it often since the eighties and it always hits the spot for me.

When I put together the list of Pam Grier’s First Thirty, I was surprised to find that a) she was even in that film’s sequel, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, as I had zero recollection of her in it and b) that I haven’t gone back to it once since it came out. I was suddenly very worried about how it would hold up, not least because the much delayed third film in the series, Bill & Ted Face the Music, is truly awful, however amazing Brigette Lundy-Paine was as Ted’s daughter.

What I found was that it’s very much stuck between the two, not a patch on the original but much better than the third. It’s a triumph of the imagination, with most praise going to the writers, Chris Matheson & Ed Solomon, as they deconstruct and reconstruct not just the Bill & Ted mythos but cinematic history with The Seventh Seal a particularly key template.

They ratchet up the silliness even further and most of the best bits work simply because they went there, wherever there is from a list of “wouldn’t it be cool if” moments that I’d be shocked weren’t generated using recreational drugs. Eventually, however, the sheer weight of its cleverness prompts it to collapse in on itself, so I’m unlikely to go back to it again any time soon, but I’m happy to have acquired fresh memories of this bit and that one and especially the other bit over there.

For anyone who doesn’t know this trilogy, the idea is that the music of a pair of slacker nobodies in San Dimas, California, namely Bill S. Preston, Esq. and Ted “Theodore” Logan, is destined to turn the world into a utopia. The catch is that their band, Wyld Stallyns, sucks, because neither of them know how to play and they can’t be bothered to learn. So how does a band save the world with that attitude?

Monday 26 June 2023

Class of 1999 (1990)

Director: Mark L. Lester
Writer: C. Courtney Joyner
Stars: Bradley Gregg, Traci Lin, John P. Ryan, Pam Grier, Patrick Kilpatrick, Joshua Miller, Stacy Keach and Malcolm McDowell

Index: The First Thirty.

There are a lot of cult movies to be found in Pam Grier’s filmography, especially during the seventies when her forte was women in prison flicks and blaxploitation. I’d seen most of them before, but I hadn’t seen her later cult films, 1981’s Fort Apache, the Bronx and this 1990 gem.

I see the names on lists and I’m very happy that this project allowed me to catch up with them. Of all the films in the second half of her First Thirty, it’s these, and The Vindicator, that I enjoyed most and am most likely to revisit.

This is the second in a trilogy of Class films that are only loosely connected. The original was 1982’s Class of 1984, a cult film in its own right, then this and finally Class of 1999 II: The Substitute, which featured a few flashbacks to this film but was otherwise unrelated.

The common factor is that they’re all set in a dystopian near future. Mass shootings didn’t prompt police forces to emulate the military as they did in our world; instead they led to an abdication of effort. The Constitution has been abolished, private businesses are banned and control of cities has fallen to street gangs. Free fire zones now exist where the police have no jurisdiction and what little law enforcement happens is by the Department of Educational Defense, which is part of the C.I.A.

Kennedy High School in Seattle is located in the middle of a free fire zone and the D.E.D. is taking an innovative approach to martial law there. They’re partnering with Dr. Bob Forrest of MegaTech, who looks and sounds utterly off his rocker but clearly has the clout to make a heck of a difference with his secret program, XT6, to deal with disciplinary problems.

What’s XT6? Why, thank you for asking. It’s where MegaTech repurposes humanoid robots previously used by the military into teachers. What could possibly go wrong, as they say?

Friday 23 June 2023

The Package (1989)

Director: Andrew Davis
Writer: John Bishop
Stars: Gene Hackman, Joanna Cassidy, Tommy Lee Jones, Dennis Franz, Reni Santoni, Pam Grier, Chelcie Ross, Ron Dean, Kevin Crowley, Thalmus Rasulala, Marco St. John and John Heard

Index: The First Thirty.

While Steven Seagal would star in a second movie for director Andrew Davis, Under Siege in 1992, a host of other actors did that a little quicker, returning for his very next film, The Package. Pam Grier’s back. Chelcie Ross is back. Joe Greco’s back. Thalmus Rasulala is back. We soon recognise bit part actors so half the cast must be back.

This is a very different film to Above the Law though, starting out as a late Cold War thriller and growing into a sort of precursor to Davis’s best film, The Fugitive. And when I say late Cold War I do mean about as late as it gets. This is August 1989 and Americans and Russians are talking peace in East Berlin.

For something that sounds talky, it starts as pure testosterone. Lots of soldiers. Lots of VIPs with grey hair sitting around big tables. An agreement is reached, which will be signed at the United Nations ten days later. But there’s a group of rogue generals, from both sides, with zero interest in losing their nuclear shields, so they have a week and a half to do something to throw a spanner into the peace works.

Gene Hackman is there in East Berlin and he knows even more people than we do, but he’s merely a sergeant, Johnny Gallagher. He seems capable but he becomes an easy fall guy for an assassination, by a couple of fake hikers, of an American general who chooses not to be part of whatever nefarious plot is unfolding.

That lands him what seems to be a nothing job as punishment, that of escorting another Army sergeant back home for a court martial, as he’s acquired quite a habit of punching his superior officers. He’s the Package of the title.

Tuesday 20 June 2023

Above the Law (1988)

Director: Andrew Davis
Writers: Steven Pressfield, Ronald Shusett and Andrew Davis, from a story by Andrew Davis and Steven Seagal
Stars: Steven Seagal, Pam Grier, Sharon Stone, Daniel Faraldo, Ron Dean, Jack Wallace, Chelcie Ross, Joe V. Grieco and Henry Silva

Index: The First Thirty.

One of the influences for these First Thirty runthroughs was a set of three books edited by David C. Hayes, which covered everything that a trio of action legends did on screen (and, in a few instances, off it too). They’re anthologies, with many hands writing chapters, and three in Hard to Watch: The Films of Steven Seagal are mine, though not this one, which marked his debut as an actor rather than a stuntman.

In Hard to Watch, Joshua Knode treated it as a sort of introduction, highlighting something that became very obvious as that book ran on: that, at this point in his career, Seagal brought something new but it quickly got old. Here, he was a wish fulfilment action hero: handsome, incredibly fluid in his movements and able to solve any problem, however complex, with a mere punch to the face. Before long, however, he bloated up substantially, lost the ability to move and complicated his film’s issues with dubious morals and off screen baggage.

This isn’t his best film but it’s from his best period, when he was working with director Andrew Davis, also responsible for Under Siege, and actors of the calibre of Pam Grier (as his partner), Sharon Stone (as his wife) and Henry Silva (as the villain of the piece, just in case you were in any doubt there).

It’s a simple story and an ironic one, given the core theme that’s summed up in the quote abbreviated into the movie’s title: “No man is above the law and no man is below the law.”

Saturday 17 June 2023

The Allnighter (1987)

Director: Tamar Simon Hoffs
Writers: M. L. Kessler and Tamar S. Hoffs
Stars: Susanna Hoffs, Dedee Pfeiffer, Joan Cusack, James Anthony Shanta, John Terlesky, Pam Grier, Phil Brock, Kaaren Lee and Michael Ontkean

Index: The First Thirty.

From The Vindicator, far more fun than it has any right to be, to The Allnighter which, well, isn’t. That said, it has a certain charm to it that got me on board by the end. It’s not as bad as its 0% on the tomatometer might suggest.

For one thing, it feels like a Hollywood film that was just shot a little freer than usual, but it was an indie film that only cost a million to make. By comparison, Predator the same year allocated three and half just for Arnie’s salary.

Then again, the star here was Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles, who isn’t awful but does show why she’s known as a musician not an actor. Her character, Molly Morrison, is uncertain. How did she get through four years of college without a grand romance? What will she say in her valedictorian speech? Hoffs is uncertain about acting, so actor and character merge.

Molly rooms with Val, in the form of Dedee Pfeiffer, in the biggest role I’ve seen her have. However, this is an ensemble piece and there are a bunch of others ready to attempt to steal the movie, starting with Joan Cusack as Gina, their other roommate, who’s shooting a documentary about her last days at Pacifica.

She starts out with an observation—if you see this in twenty years, you’ll remember us this way—that works for The Allnighter too. It feels nostalgic and, as it was inspired by (not based on) co-writer/producer/director Tamar Simon Hoffs and her friends at Yale, it could be seen as a somewhat belated documentary that the real Gina never shot.

Wednesday 14 June 2023

On the Edge (1986)

Director: Rob Nilsson Writer: Rob Nilsson Stars: Bruce Dern, Pam Grier, Bill Bailey, Jim Haynie and John Marley

Index: The First Thirty.

This is a fantastic film for star Bruce Dern, a passion project that he worked for a deferred salary. It gave him opportunity to showcase what he can do as an actor and as a runner, as it takes a fictionalised look at a real race, the Dipsea Race in California, translated here into the Cielo-Sea race that’s about twice as long.

The Dipsea is a crosscountry trail race that’s been held almost every year since 1905, from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach. It’s seven and a half miles but they include a mountain, Mount Tamalpais, which means 2,200 feet up, in one section via 688 steps called Dipsea Trail Stairs, and 2,200 feet back down again. That’s tough.

And Bruce Dern, as a runner, ran the Dipsea in 1974. In fact, he apparently ran so regularly that he put in between 2,500 and 4,000 miles a year from the ages of 28 to 70. Clearly he was well cast for this movie, because most of the best parts are him running.

There is a story here that’s wrapped around the running, which ties to his character, Wes Holman, having been suspended from the race a couple of decades earlier. Apparently he tried to organise to legalise payments, in the form of airline tickets, to amateur athletes. It seems to be a detail of immense importance to the runners themselves, but not to the viewers who either don’t understand the importance of it or really don’t care. It’s a MacGuffin.

Sunday 11 June 2023

The Vindicator (1986)

Director: Jean-Claude Lord
Writers: Edith Rey and David Preston
Stars: Teri Austin, Richard Cox, Pam Grier, Maury Chaykin, Lynda Mason Green, Denis Simpson, Stephen Mendel, Larry Aubrey, Micki Moore, Catherine Disher and David McIlwraith

Index: The First Thirty.

The Vindicator is not a good movie. Let me get that out of the way right from the start. It deserves most of the jabs and criticisms hurled at it over the years. There are plenty of things objectively wrong with it. But, goddamn, it’s a heck of a lot of fun!

It’s as quintessentially eighties sci-fi schlock as the typeface used its the opening credits. I couldn’t remember its name so I googled “’80s computer font” and it was the first result. And, of course, it rolls onto the screen to the sound of a dot matrix printer but in the mainframe shade of green. Oh, and there’s a score that’s a clear knockoff of John Carpenter’s style.

What’s more, everything looks familiar and I don’t mean the movie. I think I recognise the car park and the glass architecture of the desk the receptionist sits behind. It’s that generic. It didn’t bode well but it picked up quickly.

We find ourselves in a clearly unethical lab with long suffering scientist types figuring out how to turn a mild mannered chimp into some sort of raging monster. Like you do. Of course, then the amoral lead scientist wanders in and promptly takes it too far so the chimp dies and he provides absolutely no emotional response.

He’s Alex Whyte, played to icy perfection by Richard Cox. Carl Lehman works for Alex and is wildly pissed at him for stealing his budget, his computer chips and his research. I wonder what might happen next, especially given that David McIlwraith got an “introducing” credit as Carl Lehman/Frankenstein. Take a wild stab in the dark. You’ll be on the right lines.

Thursday 8 June 2023

Badge of the Assassin (1985)

Director: Mel Damski
Writer: Lawrence Roman, from the book by Robert K. Tanenbaum and Philip Rosenberg
Stars: James Woods, Yaphet Kotto, Alex Rocco, David Harris, Steven Keats, Larry Riley, Pam Grier, Rae Dawn Chong and Richard Bradford

Index: The First Thirty.

Pam Grier’s career began with the seventies, with 1970’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and it kept her busy until 1977 with women in prison movies and blaxploitation flicks bringing her a level of exploitation stardom. Transitioning to respectable cinema, though, was a struggle.

She made eighteen features in a mere eight years from 1970 to 1977, many as the lead. In the next eight years, she made only five, none as the star and only one with a sizeable role. It isn’t this one, because she’s firmly kept in the background, as support for a supporting actor.

This was a TV movie and, if I hadn’t told you that, you’d figure it out within a few minutes, because it looks and feels like a TV movie and it only gets more like a TV movie as it goes. It’s unmistakably a TV movie, for all the good and bad that might suggest.

It starts out rather like Fort Apache, the Bronx with a couple of cops being murdered by black folk, this time in Harlem, but this is different. It’s not a strung out hooker, it’s a black power terrorist group making a statement: the B.L.A., or Black Liberation Army, an offshoot of the Black Panthers. And so this isn’t framed like a mystery; it’s another story about race and, as you might imagine, given that it’s a TV movie, it’s also based on a true story.

Even though this was 1985, the real events took place in 1971 and were written up in the 1979 true crime book by Robert K. Tanenbaum and Philip Rosenberg. Tanenbaum’s the name we should focus on there, because he was the A.D.A. who prosecuted the case and he’s the lead character, in the form of James Woods.

Monday 5 June 2023

Stand Alone (1985)

Director: Alan Beattie
Writer: Roy Carlson
Stars: Charles Durning, Pam Grier, James Keach, Bert Remsen, Barbara Sammeth, Lu Leonard, Luis Contreras, Willard Pugh and Bob Tzudiker

Index: The First Thirty.

That’s such an eighties font on the opening credits and such eighties music behind them that we’re almost expecting Charles Durning to star in his very own eighties Arnie movie. That music has a patriotic bent to it and that matches the huge American flag on the poster. However, all these things are misleading.

This is a drama before it’s an action movie and the patriotic angle is never overplayed. It goes for character over setpiece and the hero is as scared as he is brave. Of course, if we’re true to definition, he’s a hero because he does what he needs to do even though he’s scared, not because he happens to be a U.S. army vet who killed five enemies in a cave back in 1943 with the bayonet they stabbed him with.

Also, while Arnie is doing some interesting action work now he’s in his seventies, Durning was never the muscleman and doesn’t try to be here, at the age of 62. He’s Louis Thibadeau, who merely wants to live a quiet life with his grandson, Gordie, and Gordie’s mum, Meg, so Louis’s daughter-in-law rather than daughter. That says something about his character right there and it’s an excellent way to start.

He lives in a small town, which initially feels like a nice place. He hangs out at the Virginia Cafe, which is run by an old army buddy called Paddie who constantly talks about the hero in their midst. There’s a parade every year and Gordie’s going to march with his trumpet this time out. Louie’s going to join him.

Of course, there’s a dark side, as there tends to be in small towns. You don’t need to listen to Jason Aldean songs to know that. One day, with Paddie in the back, a young man comes in and steals a couple of doughnuts. Louie tries to get him to do the right thing but a couple of others show up and shoot up the place, taking the thief down with extreme prejudice.

They’re memorable villains: sunglasses, gold teeth, tattoos on their hands. And very large weapons. Maybe this isn’t such a decent small town after all. This is gang territory and Louis escapes that skirmish with some shrapnel in his arm after diving into one of the booths.

Friday 2 June 2023

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

Director: Jack Clayton
Writer: Ray Bradbury, based on his novel
Stars: Jason Robards, Jonathan Pryce, Diane Ladd, Royal Dano and introducing Vidal Peterson and Shawn Carson

Index: The First Thirty.

It’s been a long time since I watched this, a Disney feature made when I was a kid young enough to be under their spell and not yet old enough to know what damage they’d done to the public domain.

I was twelve when it was released so I may well have seen it on TV a few years later as a mid-teen. I don’t think it was the right time, because I was old enough to have graduated to bona fide horror movies and would have been disappointed that the something wicked didn’t come with more gratuitous gore.

Now I’m a grandfather who’s very aware of just how much Ray Bradbury did for fantasy, I can see this from a couple of angles. After all, it’s a story about kids, like so many others, and about the magic that they can still see in the world, but it’s also a story about a father (old enough to be a grandfather) who’s allowed his life to slip by unfulfilled and who finally finds his purpose and reason to truly live.

I’m surprised at how well it stands up today, but Ray Bradbury did adapt his own novel for the script and, while I didn’t know who he was when I first saw this, I certainly do now. Most of the best aspects of the film come from him and the way director Jack Clayton, a couple of decades on from The Innocents, brought power to his fictional small town.

It’s a town where everyone knows everyone and they all have eccentricities. Mr. Halloway never takes risks, he says, smoking a cigar; he has a bad heart and feels old. Mr. Tetley sells cigars and only cares for money, playing the numbers in search of riches. Mr. Crosetti, the barber, sells youth and dreams of women. Ed the bartender only has one leg and remembers his glory days on the football field.