The Eighties Club
The Politics and Pop Culture of the 1980s
Movie Reviews - D
1985, Paramount, Rated PG

Barret Oliver
Michael McKean
Mary Beth Hurt

Directed by Simon Wincer
Written by David Ambrose, Allan Scott & Jeffrey Ellis

The possibilities of robotics was a topic of endless speculation in the 1980s, with some predicting the imminent extinction of the blue collar worker, replaced by machines, or of computers making life-and-death decisions regarding national security, etc. When Hollywood turned its attention to the subject, the issue was invariably obfuscated by the basic moral dilemma of if and when an artificial lifeform deserves human rights. We went down that road with Short Circuit and its sequel, and we venture down it again with this light-hearted, inventive, and very Eighties movie. The title character is a Data Analyzing Robot Youth Lifeform -- a machine disguised as a flesh-and-blood boy played by Barret Oliver. D.A.R.Y.L. escapes his government handlers and finds himself suffering from memory loss and in the loving foster home of Joyce and Andy Richardson (Mary Beth Hurt and Michael McKean). He is such a charming and special kid -- he can hit a home run every time he goes to the plate in Little League games -- that the childless Richardsons become very attached to him -- so attached that, when they discover he's not normal, they don't care. (When D.A.R.Y.L. discovers the truth about himself, however, it's another story entirely. Naturally he doesn't want to be a machine.) Then the scientist creator of D.A.R.Y.L . shows up to claim his invention, only to risk everything in an attempt to save him when the government decides the experiment has to be shut down -- i.e., D.A.R.Y.L. has to be terminated. The end result is two movies in one, with the first half being the kind of idealized life-in-small-town-America that smacks of Disney, and the second half being a Hardy Boys-meets-James Bond sci-fi thriller, with our young hero fleeing the bad guys in an SR-71 Blackbird, striving to be reunited with his human "family." It's all rather campy and heartwarming entertainment lite, an interesting concept handled in a fairly mundane manner; the standard Hollywood axioms are here -- love conquers all, the military-industrial complex is evil personified, kids are more in touch with what truly matters in life than grownups are. Oliver and McKean give strong performances, and Marvin Hamlisch does a competent job with the score, but there's no escaping the fact that the first half of the film is much stronger than a second half that will leave many viewers feeling let down.

Eighties Club rating: **

US release date: 6.14.85

"Somewhere I Belong," Teddy Pendergrass

1989, Warner, Rated R

Don Johnson
Penelope Ann Miller
William Forsythe

Directed by John Frankenheimer
Written by Robert Foster from a story by Jerry Beck

This rock-solid cop thriller stars Don Johnson of Miami Vice fame as Detective Jerry Beck, whose search for the killer of a fellow cop leads him on a nationwide investigation of a white supremacy group. Beck is the stereotypical film cop -- he's an abject failure in his personal affairs, divorced, prevented by a restraining order and an embittered wife from seeing his kids, and (hampered by maxed-out credit) lives in a dumpy apartment. The only thing he has left is his job, and even that is jeopardized by his Dirty Harry-approach to police work. We've seen this before -- i.e. James Woods' performance as Sgt. Lloyd Hopkins in 1987's Cop (see Film Reviews of July 2000.) But Johnson plays it as well as anyone has; his performance only deepens the mystery of why his film career sputtered.
Apart from Johnson, Dead-Bang has two other things going for it -- the consummate skill of director John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, Black Sunday) and the timeliness of its white supremacy theme. It's always a joy to watch a master at work, regardless of whether you appreciate the material, and Frankenheimer's sure hand deftly guides this film through even its weakest moments, the most egregious of which is the useless role played by Penelope Ann Miller, wasted as the dead cop's widow who lures Beck to bed in the hopes that he'll feel obliged to honor a request to kill her husband's murderer in cold blood. Thanks to Frankenheimer, though, we're inclined to overlook such dross; he keeps the tension mounting as Beck pursues his thoroughly reprehensible prey cross-country, to a climactic gun battle in an underground bunker on a Colorado ranch. It is in the late Eighties that the white supremacy movement picked up steam in the U.S., and for that reason if none other, Dead-Bang is of cultural interest. Gary Chang's above-average score is a plus.

Eighties Club rating: ***

US box office: $8.1 million
US release date: 3.24.89

Dead Heat
1988, New World, Rated R

Treat Williams
Joe Piscopo
Vincent Price

Directed by Mark Goldblatt
Written by Terry Black

Back in the "old days," Vincent Price made a name for himself appearing in numerous low-budget horror flicks, some of which have become campy cult classics. Dead Heat is certainly camp, but we doubt anyone will ever call it a classic. Treat Williams is Roger Mortis (get it?), a plainsclothes cop who, with partner Doug Bigelow (Joe Piscopo) is investigating the strange goings-on at Dante Laboratories. It seems that a mad scientist by the name of Arthur P. Loudermilk (Vincent Price), has perfected a "rejuvenator" that can bring people back to life. He has experimented on dead thugs who, once resurrected, are committing a rash of crimes. But Loudermilk's goal is to offer eternal "life" to wealthy folks. Mortis is killed in a clash with one of the undead goons, is rejuvenated, and has twelve hours to close the case and avenge his own death.
The Eighties hosted a plethora of cross-genre movies, from Ghostbusters to Goonies, Gremlins to Big Trouble in Little China. Some were good, some better than good. Dead Heat is worse than usual for several reasons. While for its time the special effects are noteworthy, they are also too often excessive, turning the shocking into the grotesque. Watching one scene in which dead animals in a butcher shop come to life and attack our hero and his partner is guaranteed to convert some viewers into vegetarians. Less emphasis on this and perhaps more on how Mortis reconciles himself to his fate might have helped. It also might have helped had Piscopo spent less time flexing his muscles and spouting one-liners; Joe has a natural screen presence, and squanders it completely in this film. Thanks to Williams, Dead Heat is watchable, but just barely. We owe him

Eighties Club rating: *

US box office: $3.6 million
US release date: May, 1988

The Dead Pool
1988, Warner, Rated R

Clint Eastwood
Liam Neeson
Patricia Clarkson

Directed by Buddy Van Horn
Written by Steve Sharon

In this the fifth (and final) Dirty Harry film, one can't help but conclude that Clint Eastwood and colleagues set out to parody all that had come before. Inspector Harry Callahan (Eastwood) is the San Francisco Police Department's cowboy cop, a homicide detective who solves his cases the old-fashioned way -- with his Smith & Wesson .44 and plenty of ammo. (In the first thirty minutes of The Dead Pool he knocks off nine bad guys.) Callahan's Old West mentality is usually at odds with the modern techniques of police work and the sensibilities of the SFPD administrators, who worry about little things like police-community relations and the rights of the accused.
This time around, Callahan has become a celebrity because he put a crime boss behind bars. Our hero balks at all the media attention he gets, but what bothers him even more is that the crime boss has ordered him killed. While turning Frisco into a war zone as he battles the thugs who try to terminate him, Callahan investigates a string of celebrity murders. (Look for Jim Carrey in a small role as the first victim, a drugged-out rock star who mugs his way through the Guns 'n Roses heavy metal hit "Welcome To The Jungle.") Seems the names of the recently deceased are on a list that is part of a bizarre game called the Dead Pool. The players of this game each make a list of celebrities they think may die within a year. The player with the most dead people on his list at the end of that time wins. The murder victims in Callahan's investigation all happen to be on the list of one Peter Swan (Liam Neeson), an insufferably arrogant British horror-film maker. Best of all, Callahan find himself on Swan's list. But he rules out Swan as a suspect -- and indeed the murderer turns out to be a crackpot with a grudge against the filmmaker. Along the way, Harry finds time to instruct hotspot reporter Samantha Walker (Patricia Clarkson) on the dire consequences of reckless media coverage.
In the Seventies, Dirty Harry was an intriguing antidote to society's wimpish and muddled approach to crime-and-punishment issues. By the Eighties, however, the character had become at best a curiosity; a whole host of action movie heroes were blowing the bad guys away and doing it with more spectacle and aplomb. Eastwood glides through The Dead Pool with tongue firmly planted in cheek; he must have known all along that the movie would be a sly, slick send-up of the genre he had created. Three examples will suffice. One: the obligatory car chase scene is turned on its head when Callahan is pursued through the streets of San Francisco, a la Bullitt, by a foot-long radio-controlled Corvette packed with high explosives. Another is the film's climax, when the villain tries to kill Callahan with the cop's own Smith & Wesson; Dirty Harry just gets a bigger weapon -- a harpoon gun -- with which to dispense rough justice. And finally, as everyone knows, a Dirty Harry movie must give us one memorable line, such as "Do you feel lucky, punk?" and "Go ahead, make my day."  In this installment, however, Callahan offers us only "You're shit out luck" -- and indeed, with The Dead Pool, we certainly are. R.I.P., Harry.

Eighties Club rating: **

US box office: $37.9 million
US release date: July 1988

"Welcome To The Jungle," Guns 'N' Roses

The Dogs of War
1980, MGM/UA, Rated R

Christopher Walken
Tom Berenger
Jobeth Williams

Directed by John Irvin
Written by Gary DeVore & George Malko from the novel by Frederick Forsyth

A taut and intelligent action thriller adapted from a bestselling novel by Frederick Forsyth, The Dogs of War is probably the best Hollywood rendering of the world of a soldier of fortune -- in this case, a quiet and dangerous loner named Shannon, played to perfection by Christopher Walken in a performance every bit as riveting as the one that garnered him an Academy Award in The Deer Hunter. Shannon is hired by a multinational corporation to overthrow the brutal dictator of an African country that happens to be rich in platinum. The current tyrant won't deal with the corporation, so he has to go. Shannon conducts a hazardous reconnaissance, barely getting away with his life. When Jessie (Jobeth Williams), the woman he loves, refuses to go away with him, Shannon gives up any idea of starting a new life and proceeds to carry out his mission, aided by a band of mercs that includes his friend Drew (Tom Berenger). A large portion of the film is devoted to a very detailed accounting of how the mercenaries prepare for the invasion while trying to avoid notice from nosy reporters and alert authorities. The tension builds nicely to an explosive climax. And there's a surprising twist at the end, as well, when Shannon foils the corporation's plot to install their own bought-and-paid-for tyrant. Walken captures every scene as a man tormented by his inability to escape the life he has forged for himself; it's a neat turn of events when Jessie, rather than Shannon, proves to be the one who "loves 'em and leaves 'em," giving Shannon no escape route. The Dogs of War is commendable because it provides a realistic portrayal of the unglamorous life of the mercenary as well as the ruthless intricacies of geopolitics -- an action film for the thoughtful moviegoer.

Eighties Club rating: ***

US release date: 2.13.81

Down and Out in Beverly Hills
1986, Touchstone, Rated R

Nick Nolte
Bette Midler
Richard Dreyfuss

Directed by Paul Mazursky
Written by Paul Mazursky & Leon Capetanos from a play by Rene Fauchois

Siskel and Ebert gave this comedy two thumbs up, and certainly it is one of the most scathing cinematic commentaries on the American nouveau riche made during the so-called Decade of Greed.  But as comedy it falls flat, with the only truly funny scenes being those graced with the presence of a very talented border collie named Matisse and rock'n'roll legend Little Richard, who makes the most of a small role as neighbor to Dave and Barbara Whitehouse (Richard Dreyfuss and Bette Midler), denizens of Beverly Hills who seem to have everything but can't figure out why they are so unhappy.  Along comes street bum Jerry Baskin (Nick Nolte), who tries to drown himself in the Whiteman's pool.  To assuage his guilt for being one of the "haves," Dave Whiteman takes this down-and-out "have not" into his home, and Baskin proceeds to cure all the woes inflicted upon the Whitemans and their progeny by the "curse" of wealth.
Director Paul Mazursky uses his films as vehicles for cultural commentary, and in this case adapts the 1932 masterpiece Boudu Saved From Drowning to poke fun at the fads and foibles of the upper class.  It's clear from the start that his goal in this movie is to expose the superficiality and hypocrisy of the Beverly Hills lifestyle.  In so doing he renders a perfect example of the self-flagellation Hollywood loves to inflict on itself.  No doubt such work is cathartic for all involved, as it allows them to apologize for their success even as it bolsters their sense of superiority.  The message of the film is righteous enough: True happiness cannot be found in materialism.  But there's more.  What we have here, in essence, is a lamentation of the passing of the Sixties counterculture; Dave Whiteman is never happier than on the night he spends at the beach singing songs with Baskin's aging ex-hippie friends.  Down and Out in Beverly Hills is a perfect example of American angst about the new and uneven prosperity of the 1980s, and as such is a must-see film.  But as comedy it doesn't rate two thumbs up.   

Eighties Club rating: **

box office: $62.1 million
US release date: 1.31.86

"It's A Matter Of Time," Little Richard
"Once In A Lifetime," Talking Heads
"California Girls," David Lee Roth
"I Love L.A.," Randy Newman
(& more)

The Dream Team
1989, Imagine/Universal, Rated PG-13

Michael Keaton
Christopher Lloyd
Peter Boyle

Directed by Howard Zieff
Written by Jon Connolly & David Loucka

Billy, Henry, Jack and Albert (Michael Keaton, Christopher Lloyd, Peter Boyle and Stephen Furst) have something in common -- they're inmates at a New Jersey mental institution. Billy is angry and delusional, Henry is a neat freak who thinks he's a doctor, Jack is a former advertising exec with a Messiah complex, and Albert is in a semi-catatonic state and doesn't talk to people. The head of their group therapy, Dr. Weitzman (Dennis Boutsikaris) is far more optimistic about their recovery than the rest of the hospital staff. He convinces a reluctant boss to let him take the four to a day game at Yankee Stadium. But when Weitzman is waylaid by a couple of crooked cops who have just committed a murder he witnessed, the four inmates are left to fend for themselves in the Big Apple. All but Albert have an opportunity to revisit their past, and discover that they're not as crazy as everyone thinks. Or could it be that the world is as crazy as they are? But one thing's for sure -- the four, who once had done nothing but bicker in therapy, learn that they make quite a team when they stick together.
The Dream Team derives its premise from a scene in the film One Flew Over A Cuckoo's Nest, the one in which Jack Nicholson leads fellow mental patients on an unauthorized outing. It's a premise that has a lot going for it, and so does The Dream Team cast; Keaton, Lloyd and Boyle make us believe in and sympathize with their characters, which is a particularly difficult task for Keaton, whose Billy is a somewhat violent and unpleasant person in the early going. The dialogue is clever and full of great one-liners -- so many, in fact, that in subsequent viewings you'll probably catch one or two you missed before. The movie has only one shortcoming. Unfortunately, it's a big one. The formulaic murder plot involving bad cops is contrived; worse still, it wastes time that would have been better spent exposing Billy and the other guys to more imaginative and satisfying interactions with a world they couldn't cope with before, but now must survive in. Had this been tried, The Dream Team might have become a comedy with something meaningful to say about the state of American society's collective mental health, and in so doing compared favorably with Cuckoo's Nest. As it is, the filmmakers opt for playing it too safe. Still, this film has enough going for it to lift it above your average Eighties comedy.

Eighties Club rating: ***

US box office: $28.9 million
US release date: 4.7.89

"Hit The Road Jack," Ray Charles
"Walk The Dinosaur," Was Not Was
"Nighttime," Diego's Diner
"Dance With The Devil," UB40
"Crazy (For Loving You)," Cherrelle