The Couch Trip
1988, Orion, Rated R
Directed by Michael Ritchie
Written by Steven Kampmann et. al. from a novel by Ken Kolb
Dan Ackroyd has never been better than he is in this well-written and well-played comedy that proves to be a perfect showcase for his wry and wicked humor. Ackroyd stars as John Burns, a convicted conman who has managed to get himself committed to a psychiatric hospital, from which he subsequently escapes, posing as the hospital's shrink, who has been selected to replace George Maitlin (Charles Grodin), a celebrity psychiatrist with a highly successful Beverly Hills-based radio talk show. For a while Burns manages to fool everyone -- except a bum named Becker (Walter Matthau), who sees right through his charade. In fact, Burns is so refreshingly unorthodox in his approach to resolving the problems of the radio program's callers that he becomes an instant celebrity in his own right. Maitlin's assistant, Laura Rollins (Donna Dixon) -- at first skeptical of Burns -- becomes impressed by his compassion for the patients, and then falls for him. Burns, however, is only in it for the money; like all good confidence men he knows when to take the cash and run -- right about the time that Maitlin discovers the truth. His concern for Becker, however, who threatens to hurl himself off one of the letters of the famous hillside Hollywood sign, leads to Burns being unmasked and arrested. One can only assume that the idea of a charming crook and an eccentric bum taking advantage of the high-brow folks in Beverly Hills was meant to convey a message about the Eighties. If so, the opportunity is squandered, leaving us with a comedy that is pretty predictable but nonetheless fun to watch, principally because of the remarkable comedic talents of the cast. As always it's a delight to watch Matthau and Grodin work, but they are overshadowed by Ackroyd, whose genius is put on display as well as it ever has been in The Couch Trip (which, for some reason, fared poorly at the theaters.) Look for the hilarious Chevy Chase cameo as the Condom Father in a TV commercial.
Eighties Club rating: **
US box office: $11 million
US release date: 1.8.88
1984, Touchstone, Rated PG
Directed by Richard Pearce
Written by William D. Witliff
In the early Eighties the American family farm faced a grave economic crisis after years of plenty that had lured many farmers into indebting themselves in order to buy more land and new equipment. Country tells the story of one such family in peril. Jessica Lange, who (rightly so) earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her role as Jewell Ivy, felt strongly about the issue, and this film, which she coproduced, became her pet project. (The United States Congress would call upon her as an expert witness in committee hearings regarding the farm crisis.) Jewell and husband Gil (Sam Shepard) are suddenly faced with the loss of their Iowa farm when they can't pay their FmHA loans and the government moves to liquidate their holdings. His wife and children are shocked to discover than when the going gets tough Gil is a quitter; he turns to drink and lashes out blindly at his own family, forcing Jewell to send him packing. She is made of sterner stuff than he, and rallies other hard-pressed farmers to unite and stand firm against heartless bureaucrats. In Jewell Ivy we see a moving testament to the strength and durability of the human spirit.
As always, Lange gives a stellar performance that rings true in every frame -- she was nominated for both an Oscar and a Golden Globe -- and she is ably supported by Shepard (with whom she was having an off-screen romance at the time, so their scenes together sizzle); Wilford Brimley as her crusty father Otis, who pressures his daughter to do something to save the farm even though he's about as useless as Gil when it comes to saving it; and by Matt Clark, who does a fine job as an FmHA administrator so tortured by his compassion for the struggling farm families that he finally quits and offers to help Jewell take her case to court. Yes, Country is propaganda and ignores or downplays some significant aspects of the 1980s farm crisis, but it's not too preachy. Largely ignored when released -- it only grossed $8 million at the theaters -- this moving and well-crafted film stands the test of time as the best cinematic rendering of a largely forgotten piece of American history.
Eighties Club rating: ***
US box office: $8.4 million
Crimes and Misdemeanors
1989, Rollins/Joffe, Rated PG-13
Written & Directed by Woody Allen
Considered by many to be the most ambitious film of Woody Allen's career, Crimes and Misdemeanors tells two stories with interlocking themes. Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau) is a successful, married opthamologist who has an affair with an emotionally needy woman (Anjelica Huston), only to find, to his dismay, that his mistress becomes an inconvenience when she won't fade away. In fact, she threatens to tells Judah's wife about the affair. In desperation Judah goes to his brother, who has Mob connections. Scratch one mistress. Though he is not a suspect in the slaying, Judah finds it exceedingly difficult to go on with life with such a wicked deed on his conscience. Meanwhile, Cliff Stern (Woody Allen), is a serious documentary filmmaker who, for financial reasons, reluctantly agrees to shoot the biopic of a vain and highly successful sitcom producer (Alan Alda.) But Cliff discovers that he can't compromise his values, and is fired. Worse still, he falls in love with a bright, sweet and attractive production assistant (Mia Farrow.) Problem is, he's trapped in a loveless marriage. To complicate matters, the producer is also pursuing the assistant -- and, ultimately, wins her hand.
Both stories are linked by the character of a rabbi (Sam Waterston) who is going blind. His blindness represents the growing sentiment in modern society that, if there is indeed a God, He seems to have abandoned man to his own selfish, craven and violent devices. How else can one explain why a man can commit cold-blooded murder and get away with it? Or why another man -- a good, decent, simple man -- is robbed of happiness when he loses the woman of his dreams to an obviously inferior male? Is God, like the rabbi, going blind?
Crimes and Misdemeanors was an audacious project, even for Allen, blending irony, dark humor, satire, drama and suspense. Amazingly, it works. The film won several Academy Award nominations, including Best Director and Best Supporting Actor (for Landau.) A hugely talented cast deserves much of the credit, but even if you aren't a fan of Woody Allen, you have to admit he is a filmmaker with a style as distinctive as Hitchcock's and, more importantly, one who isn't afraid to tackle philosophical questions or to make us laugh (sometimes bitterly) at our own faults and foibles.
Eighties Club rating: ***
US box office: $18.2 million
US release date: 10.13.89
1988, Hemdale Films/Northwood Rated R
Directed by Martin Campbell
Written by Mark Kasdan
Ben Chase (Gary Oldman) is a cocky young defense attorney who, as the movie opens, is representing Martin Thiel (Kevin Bacon) a spoiled, rich young man accused of the gruesome murder of a woman. Chase is very pleased with himself when he wrangles a not guilty plea out of the jury. But his smug arrogance begins to fade when more young women are murdered in similar fashion -- and Martin begins giving Chase clues that reveal he's the culprit without providing him, or the police, sufficient evidence for an arrest. In the process, Chase doubts himself, his vocation, the law itself, a personal crisis that pushes him beyond the point of desperation, so that he decides to represent Martin a second time in hopes the killer will slip up and give him the evidence police need to justify an arrest, putting not only his career but his life in jeopardy.
Criminal Law is a psychological thriller that starts out in promising fashion. Director Martin Campbell, in his feature film debut, swiftly creates an atmosphere of eerie malice and sets a heartpounding pace. Gary Oldman and Kevin Bacon, formidably talented actors, craft their roles into captivating character studies; Bacon's Martin Thiel is a sociopathic butcher beneath a veneer of polished charm and sophistication, which makes him all the more terrifying. And then we discover why he is the way he is; we see his pain, and only the most reactionary of hardcore law-and-order advocates could fail to empathize, at least for a moment. It's rare for films like this to flesh out the villain so thoroughly, and rare, too, to find an actor who can carry off the difficult task of being repulsive and attractive at the same time. Meanwhile, Oldman must portray Ben Chase in such a way that the audience will forgive his arrogance, and his fascination with his client, and stick by him through his agonizing epiphany as he tries to right a wrong of his own doing. All in all, Bacon's work is flawless while Oldman only occasionally goes overboard with the histrionics, and the scenes they share are mesmerizing. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for the movie as a whole. Early on, Chase agrees to meet Martin, whom he already suspects of being the killer, under a bridge in a remote park in the middle of a rainy night. He doesn't find Martin, but stumbles upon the killer's most recent victim, instead. It's an entirely implausible scene on several levels, and is followed by many more just as egregious, so that by the end of it the viewer is impervious to the cliche-ridden conclusion.
Eighties Club rating: **
US box office: $10 million
US release date: 4.28.89
1983, Sunn Classic/TAFT, Rated R
Directed by Lewis Teague
Written by Don Carlos Dunaway & Lauren Currier from a novel by Stephen King
Following the success of Carrie (1976), the Eighties witnessed the screen adaptations of about ten Stephen King novels, not to mention several stories, like Maximum Overdrive (from the short story "Trucks") and Stand by Me (from "The Body.") With the exception of the latter film, the movie always seemed to fall short. One theory as to why is that King's writing is very "cinematic" and therefore not ideal material for interpretation into film; unless one produces a movie that is faithful to the book, it's bound to disappoint the legion of King fans. And, because of the complexity of the plots, that's virtually impossible in a two-hour movie. (1979's TV miniseries Salem's Lot worked because there was plenty of time to tackle the novel's major subplots in the film.)
Cujo suffers the same fate as most other films based on King; 91 minutes is scarcely enough time to devote to the main plot -- the deterioration of a rabid St. Bernard from lovable family pet into a slavering canine monster -- much less to the subplots that are required to create some sympathy among the viewers for the characters who are being stalked by the beast. This is a morality tale (like so much of King's work); those who do bad things have really bad things happen to them. In this case, Donna Trenton (Dee Wallace-Stone), a wife and mother, is having an affair with Jack Kemp (Christopher Stone, Dee's real-life husband.) She and her son Tad (Danny Pintauro) are trapped in their Pinto by Cujo throughout the film's final, terrifying half hour. (The Pinto, by the way, withstands a lot of punishment for a car that had a bad rep by 1983.) Donna's husband Vic, played by Hardcastle & McCormick's Daniel Hugh Kelly, has learned of his wife's infidelity; away on a business trip, he assumes Donna fails to answer his phone calls because she's with the "other man," when in fact Donna has come to her senses and ended the affair -- the delicious irony that is present, in some fashion, in every King story. With no rescue in sight, Donna and Tad appear to be doomed, and indeed the tension of the film's last thirty minutes is edge-of-your-seat. But the first sixty minutes, which could have been spent to fully establish the adultery subplot (and several others) that would make us care about Cujo's victims, is completely wasted. Dee Wallace-Stone (E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and Secret Admirer) gives a solid performance, but the rest of the cast looks as uninspired as the movie itself. You're not alone if you end up rooting for the dog.
Eighties Club rating: **
US box office: $21.2 million
US release date: 8.3.83
1989, April Films/Gower Street
Directed vy Rospo Pallenberg
Written by Steve Slavkin
Generally ranked with Slaughter High (1986) at the very bottom of the list of slasher films, Cutting Class is as schizophrenic as its two male leads seem to be. If meant to be taken seriously, then it is without question one of the absolute worst films of the genre. But if taken as a black comedy send-up of slasher films -- which, Scream aside, had their heyday in the Eighties -- then it's quite amusing. Paula Carson (Jill Schoelen) is a smart, beautiful high schooler with a lawyer father (Martin Mull) and a jock boyfriend, Dwight (Brad Pitt). Dwight used to be best buddies with Brian (Donovan Leitch) -- until Brian was sent off to the looney bin (thanks in no small part to Paula's father -- after being convicted of murdering his father. Now Brian is back in society, not to mention the high school, where -- wouldn't you know it? -- people start turning up dead. Naturally, Brian is at the top of everyone's suspect list. But that would be entirely too obvious right? Could the killer really be Dwight? Or maybe the eccentric custodian? Or even the somewhat peculiar principal (Roddy McDowell)?
The fact that Cutting Class manages to keep viewers guessing, not only about the killer's true identity, but also with regard to whether the film was meant to be suspenseful or just a spoof, makes it worth watching. So does Jill Schoelen, whose career never took off despite good performances in such films as The Stepfather (1987) and The Phantom of the Opera (1989). And Brad Pitt, in his first major feature film role, shows a glimmer now and then of the charisma that would make him a superstar. Donovan Leitch, son of the pop singer Donovan and brother of actress Ione Skye -- who later became a member of the band Nancy Boy -- is effectively menacing on occasion. The direction, by Rospo Pallenberg in his one and only turn at the helm, is at best uninspired and sometimes sloppy -- and in this kind of movie good direction is essential to building suspense. Still, you'll get a laugh or two out of Cutting Class. Even if you weren't meant to.
Eighties Club rating: **
US release date: July 1989 (direct to video)