The Eighties Club
The Politics and Pop Culture of the 1980s
Movie Reviews - U, V
1989, Orion, Rated PG-13

"Weird Al" Yankovich
Victoria Jackson
Kevin McCarthy

Directed by Jay Levey
Written by Jay Levey & "Weird Al" Yankovich

Mr. Parody, "Weird Al" Yankovich, makes a living with silly send-ups of pop culture icons, and this film is a perfect vehicle for that kind of wacky humor. Yankovich plays George Newman, a daydreaming loser who becomes the manager of a faltering television station that his uncle wins in a poker game. His highly unorthodox programming -- Conan the Librarian, in which the penalty for turning in late books is decapitation, and Raul's Wild Kingdom, in which Raul discovers that poodles can't fly by pitching one out a second-story window, are but two of his offerings to the television public -- begins to have a positive effect on the station's ratings. So much so that the villainous owner of a rival station (Kevin McCarthy) resorts to sundry underhanded schemes to put Newman's station out of business. Newman's allies in this battle of the airwaves include a dental hygienist named Teri, played by Victoria Jackson (one of Saturday Night Live's Not-Ready-For-Primetime Players of the 1980s) and a pre-Seinfeld Michael Richards, who plays Stanley Spadowski, a goofy janitor who becomes a hot item as the host of a children's show. Also, look for soap opera star Anthony Geary as the mad scientist-slash-engineer and Fran Drescher in a too-small part as a reporter trying to break into a male-dominated profession.
Yankovich's brand of broad and often bizarre humor is of the same type as that peddled by Monty Python and Benny Hill, and while that kind of comedy may not be to everyone's liking, UHF is good, clean fun that should elicit at least a few laughs from even the most discriminating of viewers. That's because while Weird Al's humor may to some seem merely sophomoric, iconoclasm at its best is endowed with a certain inherent element of sophistication. Yankovich may be silly, but no more so than the cultural idolatry that he lampoons. UHF would have been more consistently funny had Yankovich refrained from such indulgences as the digressions into his personal fantasies, but this is still a rollicking comedy for all that.
Eighties Club rating: **

US box office: $6.1 million
US release date: 7.21.89

"UHF," Weird Al Yankovich
"Let Me Be Your Hog," Weird Al Yankovich
"Spatula City," Weird Al Yankovich
"The Ballad of Jed Clampett"
"Mr. Ed"
"Battle Hymn Of The Republic"
(& more)

(Scotti Bros.)

Uncle Buck
1989, Universal, Rated PG

John Candy
Jean Louise Kelly
Amy Madigan

Written & Directed by John Hughes

I've said it before, but it's worth repeating -- John Hughes was arguably the most important filmmaker of the 1980s, responsible for so many classic films that define the decade: The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Some Kind of Wonderful, Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Planes, Trains and Automobiles, to name but a few. Hughes wrote and directed this movie, with a perfectly cast John Candy in the title role. Uncle Buck is a shiftless but big-hearted gadabout who's never amounted to much, and won't even commit to marriage after eight years of a relationship with Chanice Kobolowski (Amy Madigan), a woman who loves him and wants to have his children and has even provided him with a steady job that Buck tries to avoid like the plague. When Buck is called upon to babysit his brother's children while the brother and his wife have to go out-of-town, he quickly wins over the two little ones -- look for Macauley Culkin in a pre-Home Alone role -- but has a bit more difficulty connecting with the sulky teenager, Tia (Jean Louise Kelly). In fact, Buck spends much of his time trying to snatch Tia from the clutches of her sleazy boyfriend, Bug. Tia pays him back by getting him in deep trouble with Chanice, who's led to believe her Buck is cavorting with a nympho neighbor.
It's to be expected that, in a John Hughes film, Buck will come to the realization that family is everything. That's why so many of Hughes' films resonated in the Eighties -- they glorify traditional values. Surprisingly, though, this well-intentioned movie goes astray, despite an outstanding effort by Candy. Buck's attempts to scare Bug away from Tia are bizarre; he threatens to shave the kid's kneecaps off with a hatchet and, in a later scene, comes at him with a power drill -- behavior that is hardly in keeping with the big ol' lovable Buck we see in most other scenes. He's charming one minute, creepy the next. Jean Louise Kelly's Tia is entirely too sullen and vindictive to squeeze even an ounce of sympathy from the audience, so that one wonders why Buck even bothers trying to save her from herself. Don't get me wrong, there are some very funny scenes here. But the humor is often forced; both Hughes and Candy have to try too hard to keep the laughs coming, while the dramatic subplots -- Will Buck rescue Tia from Bug in time to save her honor? Will Chanice and Buck get back together again and live happily ever after? -- are resolved in a predictable manner. Uncle Buck just goes to show that nobody's perfect, not even John Hughes.

Eighties Club rating: **

US box office: $66.8 million
US release date: 8.16.89

"Got More Rhymes," Young MC
"Thunderbird," Ray Anthony
"Mr. Sandman," The Chordettes
"Juke Box Baby," Perry Como
"Slide," Flesh for Lulu
(& more)

Uncommon Valor
1984, Paramount, Rated R

Gene Hackman
Fred Ward
Patrick Swayze

Directed by Ted Kotcheff
Written by Joe Gayton

Several '80s film projects set out to refight the Vietnam War -- Missing in Action (1984), Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), and this film, to name the most notable. In every case, there is a different result than what history has recorded -- in other words, America comes out on top. Whether it's Chuck Norris, Sylvester Stallone or Gene Hackman, the hero sets out to save American MIA's and in the process wipes out a large segment of the Vietnamese army. It's enough to warm the cockles of any patriot's heart, and according to film scholars represents an attempt by our society to cauterize the open wound that our defeat in Vietnam had caused in our collective psyche. Ronald Reagan started it all by praising our efforts there during the 1980 presidential campaign. There was no need, he said, to be ashamed of trying to stem the tide of Communism. Surprisingly, Hollywood clambered onto the bandwagon.
In this film, Gene Hackman stars as Col. Cal Rhodes, a career army officer and Korean War veteran who, disgruntled by the government's lackadaisical efforts to recover our MIA's (one of which is his son), decides to take matters into his own hands. He rounds up a crew of vets that includes Wilkes (Fred Ward), and, financed by a wealthy businessman named MacGregor (Robert Stack), ventures deep into Vietnam to rescue a handful of Americans held for years in a POW camp. The lives of his gang of misfits have been more or less ruined by their war experience, but with Rhodes they have a chance to redeem themselves, to exorcise all their demons. Throw in a young soldier who has never had combat experience (Patrick Swayze), and you have the full line-up of heroes. What places Uncommon Valor a notch above its abovementioned companion pieces is that these heroes are fallible, providing a measure of suspense -- will they succeed in their mission with all the odds stacked against them? It's something we never have to worry about with Norris and Stallone! As always Hackman is superb as the tormented Col. Rhodes, and he's backed up by a very solid cast that create characters we learn to care about. Directed capably enough by Ted Kotcheff, fresh from his success with 1982's First Blood.

Eighties Club rating: ***

US release date: 12.16.83

"Brothesr In The Night," Ray Kennedy
(& more)

The Verdict
1982, 20th Century Fox, Rated R

Paul Newman
Charlotte Rampling
James Mason

Directed by Sidney Lumet
Written by David Mamet from a novel by Barry Reed

From the medieval font of the opening credits to the eerie score, and from the moody lighting to backdrops that range from Dickensian-bleak streets to the musty stone arches of a courthouse that could as easily have been some ancient Old World castle, The Verdict looks more like a Gothic horror film than a courtroom drama. In fact, it is a film that explores tormented souls in a modern American nightmare; it delves deep into the horror of institutions -- particularly legal and medical -- that suck the life's blood out of individuals. Frank Galvin (Paul Newman) is a lawyer whose life and career are in a shambles. He is a failure, an alcoholic, an ambulance chaser, who is handed a medical malpractice suit against a highly regarded hospital and two renown physicians -- a case that provides Galvin with one last chance to prove that he is a member of the human race rather than a bloodsucking lout. Arrayed against him is a high-priced legal firm led by Edward Concannon (James Mason), accurately described by Galvin's associate as the "Prince of Darkness" himself; behind Concannon's sophisticated civility is a ruthless competitor who goes for the jugular. To prove the point, Concannon pays Laura Fischer (Charlotte Rampling) to be his spy in Galvin's camp -- not to mention Galvin's bed. Stymied at every turn, Galvin seems doomed to lose his case, and if he does he will lose his soul as well. Indeed, by the time we reach the film's climax we've come to the terrifying understanding that our society itself is on trial.
Written by David Mamet (The Untouchables, Glengarry Glen Ross) and directed by Sidney Lumet, The Verdict is filled with gripping performances. Both Paul Newman and James Mason earned Oscar nominations, and rightly so. (Neither would win.) There were more nominations -- Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay Adaptation. There have been better courtroom dramas, and The Verdict came up empty at the Academy Awards, but as a tale of modern terror it is exemplary. When Galvin coaxes from the jury a verdict in favor of his comatose client, we have at least a glimmer of hope that while the cause of justice for the weak may ultimately be hopeless, it's still possible to win a skirmish or two along the way. Trivia buffs should look for a pre-Moonlighting Bruce Willis in the courtroom audience as Galvin gives his closing argument -- if, that is, you can drag your attention away from Newman's exquisite artistry long enough.

Eighties Club rating: ***

US box office: $54 million
US release date: 12.8.82

Vice Versa
1988, Columbia, Rated PG

Judge Reinhold
Fred Savage
Corinne Bohrer

Directed by Brian Gilbert
Written by Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais

In 1987 Dudley Moore and Kirk Cameron starred in a feature film entitled Like Father, Like Son in which the minds of a dad and his boy are magically switched. Critics slammed the film, moviegoers spurned it, and rightly so. The following year, Columbia released Vice Versa. The premise was virtually the same: Marshall (Judge Reinhold) is an ambitious, hard-working department store exec whose son Charlie (Fred Savage) has come to stay with him for a few weeks while his mother (Marshall's ex-wife) takes a vacation. The magical powers of a golden Tibetan skull -- never mind the plot device that places this sorcerous relic in Marshall's possession -- transforms Marshall into Charlie and vice versa. Now Charlie-as-Marshall must somehow survive the fast-paced, cutthroat world of corporate decision-making (and backstabbing), while Marshall-as-Charlie has to go back to school. Worse yet, Marshall-as-Charlie must watch Charlie-as-Marshall carry on a relationship with Marshall's girlfriend (Corinne Bohrer), while he faces the horror of having to go live with the woman he divorced -- as her son.
Vice Versa is a genuinely funny and at times touching film, a far cry from its dismal predecessor. Some of the credit belongs to screenwriters Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, who use the role-transferral device to take an irreverent but probing look at human nature. What's the different between an adult and a child? Experience makes life go more smoothly -- Charlie suffers at the hands of school bullies while Marshall-as-Charlie knows how to deal with them. But adults too often forsake a natural inclination to be forthright to protect themselves from life's slings and arrows -- Marshall can't bring himself to tell his girlfriend how much he loves and needs her, but Charlie-as-Marshall can. The lion's share of the credit for the film's success, however, must go to Reinhold and Savage. It is perfect casting. Reinhold's greatest comedic asset is his boyishness, while Savage emotes a self-confidence far beyond his years. They are in command of every scene and are persuasive in every respect, from tone of voice to facial expression to body language. Their finely nuanced performances make us willing to overlook the occasional silly plot contrivance that one must expect from a film with such a looney premise. The best comedy is the kind that makes us laugh at our own foibles, that gives us a glimpse at the absurdity of the human condition, and Vice Versa does that very well.

Eighties Club rating: ***

US box office: $13.7 million
US release date: 3.11.88

Violets are Blue
1986, Columbia, Rated PG-13

Sissy Spacek
Kevin Kline
Bonnie Bedelia

Directed by Jack Fisk
Written by Naomi Foner

Gussie and Henry (Spacek and Kline) are high school sweethearts in the insular community of Ocean Beach, Maryland, and in the opening scene they spend an idyllic evening on a small island where wild horses run free. You know, as you watch them share this special moment and dream of a picture-perfect future together, that it just isn't going to work out the way they've planned. Fifteen years later, Gussie is a globetrotting photojournalist, one of the best at what she does, while Henry has become the editor of the Ocean Beach newspaper, a position once filled by his father, now deceased. He's married to Ruth (Bonnie Bedelia), but a careless remark on his part leads one to think that it was duty rather than love that made him tie the knot -- Ruth got pregnant and he did the right thing. They had a son, Addy (Jim Standiford) and have moved into his family home on the shore. Both Gussie and Henry seem to have "made it", but they're not happy. In her thirties now, Gussie has come to realize that a life devoted to career lacks essentials. She misses having a home, a husband, a family, a sense of belonging. Henry, on the other hand, feels trapped in the mundane, his life lacks excitement. Then Gussie comes home to Ocean Beach for a vacation. Inevitably, she and Henry discover that they're still very much in love. She provides him with the opportunity to lead a life of adventure, with her. With he leave wife and son and newspaper and the home he's known all his life? Will Henry and Gussie defy the odds by realizing the dreams they shared long ago?
Directed by Spacek's husband, Jim Fisk, Violets are Blue is a film that just about every adult can relate to. Anyone who hads turned thirty (or forty) and realized that life didn't turn out the way they had planned can commiserate with Henry and Gussie. Few people -- particularly Americans of the baby boomer generation -- are able to be satisfied with the cards Life deals them. Perhaps it's part and parcel of the human condition that we tend to dwell more on what we haven't done than on what we have accomplished, on what we don't have rather than what we possess. Violets are Blue is all about the path not taken, and it's a genuine, heartfelt film with genuine, heartfelt performances by the entire cast. Both Kline and Spacek are first-rate actors who never hit a false note here, but the best job is done by Bonnie Bedelia, who's Ruth is one of those rare souls willing to accept her lot in life even though, surely, it isn't what she'd dreamed about fifteen years ago, either. This is not a feel-good film for dreamers, but if you've gotten past the dream stage and into the reality of life, then you'll know it for what it is -- a movie that rings true.

Eighties club rating: ***

US box office: $4.7 million
US release date: 4.11.86