Category Archives: 1985

To Live and Die in L.A. (1985, William Friedkin)

If you’ve ever started watching To Live and Die in L.A. and turned it off because it’s terrible or just heard of it and thought you should see it, let me say… there’s no reason to see it. Or sit through it. Not even morbid curiosity. Or unless you want to see John Pankow’s butt. Director Friedkin does seem to be trying to start a macho male nudity thing with L.A.—including… umm… Little William L. Petersen, but he also does some homophobia in other parts. Not anti-lesbian though. Friedkin’s pro-objectification there.

Also… some vague racism. By some I mean anytime someone who isn’t White is around. But all of it—even the dingus—is C-level L.A. shenanigans. They leave far less impression, for example, than the incredible stupidity of Secret Service agents Petersen and Pankow. Though at one point Pankow identifies himself as a Treasury Agent. L.A.’s based on a novel—by co-screenwriter Gerald Petievich—and for some reason I’d assume Petievich would’ve at least looked up the difference. Not Friedkin (the other screenwriter). Friedkin doesn’t even seem aware real guns weigh more than the rubber guns his actors strut around with.

To Live and Die in L.A., when you toss aside whatever is going on with bad guy counterfeiter Willem Dafoe, is about how adrenalin junkie, dirty Secret Service agent Petersen corrupts straight-edge Pankow, teaching him how to blackmail, exploit, and rape comely ex-cons (Darlanne Fluegel gets all the sympathy for being in this one), strut around in tight jeans (though Pankow doesn’t go with two to three inch lifts like Petersen) and shirts unbuttoned to two above the navel, and… I don’t know, act tough or something.

The scary part of L.A. isn’t the idiotic, toxic masculinity is good, actually, sentiment—Friedkin must’ve read some amazing male empowerment books in the eighties—but the idea it’s an accurate representation of the Secret Service. Though, wait, didn’t they get busted for something stupid and… oh. Yeah.

Okay, so it’s probably legit.

Otherwise the movie would be famous for the agency suing them for how they were portrayed. Because they’re idiots. Like, even if you’ve only watched “CHiPs,” you have a better idea of how to run an investigation than this group of dimwits.

The movie starts with a suicide bomber going after Reagan. The stupidest suicide bomber in the world, who comes up with a rappelling thing when he has enough explosive to just take out the hotel or whatever. Once the bomber fails—in an Islamophobic portrayal out of a GOP campaign ad—we get the Secret Service guys getting hammered and Petersen showing off his base jumping.

Every man wants to be a macho, macho man… you know what, L.A. set to Village People instead of Wang Chung (yes, really, it’s got a Wang Chung “score” and, no, it’s not good). But then Petersen’s partner, Michael Greene, three days from retirement, goes off to the middle of nowhere to investigate a counterfeiter who turns out to be Dafoe. Dafoe gets the drop on him because Greene’s an idiot too and so Petersen swears vengeance.

The best performance in the film is probably… Dafoe? Of the leads, anyway. Petersen and Pankow are risible, like they’re doing a spoof of themselves and don’t know it. Dean Stockwell’s kind of okay but then not, which is too bad because he starts better than he finishes. Fluegel’s not good, just sympathetic because she’s so exploited. Robert Downey’s terrible in a stunt cameo. John Turturro… I mean, you can tell he might be good someday but certainly not here. Debra Feuer, despite having the most potentially interesting story, isn’t any good as Dafoe’s muse.

Some of the Robby Müller photography is good. Some of it is not. They go handheld a lot, which would be a questionable choice if there weren’t so many just plain terrible choices Müller and Friedkin make. M. Scott Smith’s editing… is not bad. It’s not good, but it certainly seems like it’d be bad given Friedkin’s vibe here. It’s not. It’s tolerable. So much in L.A. is intolerable—like Lilly Kilvert’s production design and Linda M. Bass’s costumes—the tolerable parts shine.

To Live and Die in L.A. is an excruciatingly bad two hours. It’s hilariously pretentious and full of itself, but it’s got no laugh value; the joke is on whoever’s watching it.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by William Friedkin; screenplay by Friedkin and Gerald Petievich, based on the novel by Petievich; director of photography, Robby Müller; edited by M. Scott Smith; music by Wang Chung; production designer, Lilly Kilvert; costume designer, Linda M. Bass; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring William Petersen (Chance), Willem Dafoe (Eric Masters), John Pankow (John Vukovich), Darlanne Fluegel (Ruth Lanier), John Turturro (Carl Cody), Dean Stockwell (Bob Grimes), Debra Feuer (Bianca Torres), Steve James (Jeff Rice), Robert Downey Sr. (Thomas Bateman), Christopher Allport (Max Waxman), and Michael Greene (Jim Hart).


Zone Troopers (1985, Danny Bilson)

The saddest thing about Zone Troopers is Biff Manard gives a fantastic performance and there’s no reason to see it. Nothing Manard could do would make Troopers worthwhile; it’s got so many problems—cast, direction, photography, editing, music, budget (though some of the effects are outstanding)—the thing is a wreck. With a few good ideas, a great performance, and a lot of derivative nonsense.

I got ahead of myself. I was being positive—the second saddest thing about Zone Troopers. When it has those good ideas, it can’t figure out how to execute them. You watch it, getting hopeful, then it fails and you don’t just get disappointed, you feel bad for the movie; you can tell what director Bilson (who co-wrote with producer Paul De Meo) and he just couldn’t figure out how to do it. Zone Troopers, visually, needs a lot of things—it needs cinematographer Mac Ahlberg to light sets better, it needs Bilson to figure out how to shoot his actors, and they need a crane. They really, really, really need a crane. The movie takes place in an Italian forest during WWII and there’s not a single good establishing shot in it. Not even when a crane would have helped. Bilson just can’t do it. He’s got maybe three creative shots and they’re not so much good or even better than the standard bland composition, but they’re creative. Someone thought about them. No one thinks about much in Zone Troopers.

If anyone did, Timothy Van Patten wouldn’t happen. Van Patten is the young guy in the movie. He’s the private, Art LaFleur is the corporal, “top-billed but should’ve had an the ‘and’ credit” Tim Thomerson is the sergeant, an atrocious John Leamer is the inept greenhorn lieutenant, and Manard is the wartime correspondent. LaFleur and Manard are definitely in the forties, Thomerson looks a little too old too, so for the battle scenes before the aliens show up, Zone Troopers basically looks like WWII reenactment with middle-aged men. Bilson’s direction doesn’t help with that feeling either.

Anyway, Van Patten is the young Italian kid who reads sci-fi magazines and talks all the time, especially in dangerous situations, and ignores Thomerson’s orders and almost gets everyone killed over and over again. Until the movie evens out a bit in the second act, the only thing Troopers has to keep one occupied is the hope Thomerson will just shoot Van Patten in the head for insubordination.

And Van Patten is objectively terrible. No one could watch what he was doing and think it was a good idea, not even in a movie where the script has commercial breaks in the second half, like Bilson and DeMeo were plotting a three or four-part cartoon… though it’d be a lot better as a three or four-part cartoon. Van Patten wouldn’t be in it.

The effects work is bad when it comes to the lasers and the humanoid aliens are silly, but the bug-monkey alien is at least a good suit and the script handles that character surprisingly well. Again, Bilson and DeMeo have some decent ideas, they’re just in the muck of bad performances and lifts from E.T., The Thing, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and… something else no doubt. They don’t have any lifts from Empire Strikes Back, which is weird because composer Richard Band rips off its score mercilessly. It and Raiders. Clearly likes his John Williams.

And if it’s not going to be a four-part cartoon pilot, Zone Troopers does seem much more like a Spielberg movie. Just an amateur one. A poorly directed and acted amateur one. With WWII re-enactors.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Danny Bilson; written by Bilson and Paul De Meo; director of photography, Mac Ahlberg; edited by Ted Nicolaou; music by Richard Band; production designer, Philip Dean Foreman; produced by De Meo; released by Empire Pictures.

Starring Tim Thomerson (The Sarge), Timothy Van Patten (Joey), Art LaFleur (Mittens), Biff Manard (Dolan), William Paulson (The Alien), Max Turilli (SS Sgt. Zeller), and John Leamer (The Lieutenant),


Return to Oz (1985, Walter Murch)

Return to Oz has gumption. It’s got confidence and professionalism too, but its gumption is something different. Director Murch is making it work with what he’s got—a scale limited by budget and reality—because he’s sure of the project. Gumption.

He knows he’s got the right lead—eleven year-old Fairuza Balk as Dorothy. He knows the special effects he’s going to rely on are going to be impressive, whether the grand claymation as stop motion finale, the various mechanical aspects of the suits (Return raises the question of whether it’s people in costumes or people in suits), the talking chicken as second lead for the beginning of the second act, all of it. Except the street gang villains, who have wheels attached to their hands and feet. The effects are fine because they’re doing it and the design of the outfits is… inventive, but they’re still nerdy white guy street gang villains from the eighties. It’s campy—eighties camp. And Return’s never campy.

Also impressive are the voice performances. Denise Bryer as the chicken, Sean Barrett as the steampunk robot, Brian Henson as the effects-heavier Scarecrow-stand in, Jack Pumpkinhead. Murch knows how to time the effects shots to get the later effect. Return is beautifully edited; director Murch cut his teeth editing before directing it and the film editor Leslie Hodgson has some wonderful cuts. The film’s technically strong. It’s principal cast is good. Balk’s great. So what’s the problem. Besides the budget and effects only being able to do so much? It doesn’t have a good ending. It’s way too small. While the film isn’t a sequel to The Wizard of Oz: The Movie, it does acknowledge that film’s legacy. Return is grittier, late nineteenth century Kansas far less idealized, Balk is a tween in definite danger, there is a villain who takes off their head, and there’s electro-shock therapy. And there’s Piper Laurie as Aunt Em, which is an interesting casting decision and maybe not the best one. Laurie’s playing a literal “Piper Laurie mom-type” to the point I wondered who they got who looked so much like Piper Laurie. Because I assumed Laurie would be able to handle the accent and she’s not. It’s not good. It’s a missed opportunity. Same goes for Uncle Owen (sorry, Uncle Henry) Matt Clark. Missed opportunity. Clark’s fine, but he’s got no added value presence. Return is a perfect franchise starter thirty years too soon; Murch is too busy focusing on how they’re going to realize the magic to worry about the supporting performances. Same goes for Jean Marsh as the bad witch. She’s got no charm, no energy.

On the other hand, Nicol Williamson is amazing as the villain. Like, Murch gets it with Williamson, because he’s voicing the villain; the visual villain is an effects sequence and Murch knows he’s got to sell that effects sequence. So Williamson’s performance matters. Again, bigger budget, more time, it’d probably have been fine. But Return is very much a victim of reality. Besides the budget, there’s the weight of the de facto sequel, there’s the state of special effects. Most of Return is really, really good. They just don’t have the ending. It’s too little. The film’s promising Balk’s Return to Oz, Oz meaning her friends—and the familiar characters—it’s promising the magic. Balk finds herself having to fight through a lot of darkness to find the happy again. She’s got a hero arc and needs a solid resolution to it. Murch doesn’t have the money for it and rushes it, minimizes it. Maybe it could be rushed, maybe it could be minimized, but it can’t be both. It’s too little for what the film’s built up.

And then the epilogue is sweet enough but not strong enough. Return to Oz is almost there. It’s so close and for a good while, it seems like it’s going to make it. And you want it to succeed because, maybe Henson’s Jack Pumpkinhead aside, the new sidekicks are good enough, especially in the grittier Oz.

Finally, David Shire’s score. It’s a perfect metaphor for the film. It gets really close to clicking, then doesn’t. Shire’s music is perfectly adequate for a “kid in the olden times” picture, but not for a magical adventure.

Return to Oz is rather awesome, but it’s also a bummer. They made the magic, they just didn’t know what to do with it.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Walter Murch; screenplay by Murch and Gill Dennis, based on novels by L. Frank Baum; director of photography, David Watkin; edited by Leslie Hodgson; music by David Shire; production designer, Norman Reynolds; produced by Paul Maslansky; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Fairuza Balk (Dorothy), Mak Wilson & Denise Bryer (Billina), Michael Sundin, Tim Rose, & Sean Barrett (Tik-Tok), Stewart Harvey-Wilson & Brian Henson (Jack Pumpkinhead), Stephen Norrington & Lyle Conway (Gump), Jean Marsh (Mombi), Piper Laurie (Aunt Em), Matt Clark (Uncle Henry), Emma Ridley (girl), and Nicol Williamson (The Nome King).


This post is part of the Wizard of Oz Blogathon hosted by Rebecca of Taking Up Room.

Snoopy's Getting Married, Charlie Brown (1985, Bill Melendez)

Right after Snoopy decides to get married–appropriate since the special’s titled Snoopy’s Getting Married, Charlie Brown–Charlie Brown (Brett Johnson) worries about how Snoopy will handle the responsibilities of marriage. Now, Charlie Brown finds out Snoopy is getting married because Snoopy has given him a letter to send to his sort of ne’er-do-well brother, Spike. So Snoopy can write a letter in English but Charlie Brown is worried about him handling marriage. Charlie Brown’s got a lot to say for an eight year-old.

Later on, after Spike has traveled from the California desert to stand up for his brother, Lucy (Heather Stoneman) harshly comments on Spike’s ragged appearance. Because she’s a crappy little kid.

Getting Married is never charming enough to make up for the absurdity of the premise and never absurd enough to be charming. The beginning–when Snoopy meets his bride-to-be–has Peppermint Patty (Gini Holtzman) calling up Charlie Brown to ask for Snoopy to watch her house. Her dad has left her alone to go on a business trip.

She’s eight.

Charles M. Schulz really stretches the suspension of disbelief here. Because every time he spreads it thinner, it’s because it’s lazy writing, not a terrible concept. The Peanuts kids throwing Snoopy a wedding could be charming. But they’re all awful when they’re preparing for it. And most of the special is just Spike traveling cross country, which would be fine if Schulz had anything for him to do once he arrives, but he becomes background. He’s kind of amusing when he just stands around because he’s funny looking, but not enough.

There’s a cute scene or two involving Woodstock and the animation is all fine. Melendez’s direction isn’t great, but the animation is fine. Judy Munsen’s music is fine.

The acting is rough. Only Johnson gets a lot of lines–he’s got to read Snoopy and Spike’s letters after all–and you can almost see the actor sitting there reading them flat off the page. Lousy expository dialogue too.

Sure, Getting Married could be a lot worse, but it couldn’t be much more pointless.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Bill Melendez; written by Charles M. Schulz; edited by Chuck McCann and Julie Maryon; music by Judy Munsen; produced by Melendez and Lee Mendelson; aired by the Columbia Broadcasting System.

Starring Brett Johnson (Charlie Brown), Gini Holtzman (Peppermint Patty), Heather Stoneman (Lucy van Pelt), Fergie (Sally Brown), Jeremy Schoenberg (Linus van Pelt), and Keri Houlihan (Marcie).


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