Movie Review: The Aristocats (1970)

Title: The Aristocats
Release Date: December 24, 1970
Director: Wolfgang Reitherman
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions

I thought I may have seen The Aristocats as a child, but upon watching it for this review, I think I may have only seen some scenes of the movie.  The story is basically Lady and the Tramp (with cats) crossed with One Hundred and One Dalmatians (with cats). It clearly comes from the era when Disney didn’t know what to do next with their animated films.  Dutchess (Eva Gabor) and her three kittens are set to be heirs to their owners fortune, leading the butler Edgar (Roddy Maude-Roxby) to try to get rid of them.

Stranded in the countryside, alleycat Thomas O’Malley (Phil Harris) helps them back to Paris while wooing Duchess.  After dancing with Scat Cat’s (Scatman) jazz band, and some further hijinx, the cats are reunited with their owner and extract their revenge on Edgar.  The animation is limited for a Disney production although there is some interesting color and motion in the dance scenes.  Two floppy-eared dogs and a motorcycle play a part in some great comedic scenes.  On the downside there is a horribly racist depiction of a cat with the worst Chinese stereotypes.

Other than that, there is nothing really bad about The Aristocats, but there’s also nothing really good about the movie.  It’s just kind of is.

Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: Meet John Doe (1941)

Title: Meet John Doe
Release Date: May 3, 1941
Director: Frank Capra
Production Company: Frank Capra Productions

Columnist Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) is laid off from her job but submits one last column in the form of a fake letter from John Doe, who rails against the ills of society and threatens to commit public suicide on Christmas Eve.  The column causes a sensation, and Ann is rehired to write more John Doe columns.  A homeless former bush league pitcher, Long John Willoughby (Gary Cooper) is recruited to play “John Doe.”

Traveling the country delivering Ann’s speeches, John inspires a John Doe movement where people form clubs and get to know and help out their neighbors.  Millionaire newspaper publisher D. B. Norton (Edward Arnold) funds the John Doe movement with the ulterior motive of using John to convert the third-party Presidential campaign.  Norton believes the country needs an authoritarian leader, and when John attempts to expose the plot at a rally, Norton orders the police to go into the crowd and incite a riot against John Doe. (Watching this movie during the same week when peaceful protests across the country were targeted by police violence, made this scene feel on point).

The movie is typical of Frank Capra common-man stories, although it feels a bit uneven compared to his more famous works.  Stanwyck and Cooper are great in their roles although the romance between them is never developed all too well.  The movie falls apart in the final scene where the melodrama is laid on thick, and Stanwyck rushes through dialogue as if she knew it was cheezy and out-of-character, especially the awkward reference to Jesus Christ.  I read that several endings were filmed for this movie, but I don’t think that they picked the right one.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Starstruck (1982)

Title: Starstruck
Release Date: 8 April 1982
Director: Gillian Armstrong
Production Company: Palm Beach Pictures | The Australian Film Commission

Jackie Mullens (Jo Kennedy) is an aspiring pop singer in Sydney, Australia where her family run an hotel bar beneath the footings of the Harbour Bridge.  Her cheeky 14-year-old cousin Angus (Ross O’Donovan) wants to be her agent and works to bring attention to her career. After securing a backup band at a local club talent night, Jackie and Ross set their sights on getting a spot on the tv talent show hosted by celebrity kingmaker Terry Lambert (John O’May).  Things don’t go well as the there are setbacks and betrayals, and then Jackie finds she must win a talent contest to save her family bar.

The movie is extremely corny, but in an irresistibly charming way.  Kennedy and O’Donovan are likable characters even when they’re being idiots.  And the New Wave music and fashions make this movie a terrific time capsule.  The group choreography that goes along with the musical numbers is awkward, and for some reason reminds me of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but it’s still enjoyable.

If you’re like me and wonder if a 1980s Australian musical had any involvement from the Finn Brothers, you would be correct.  Tim Finn in fact wrote one of the most memorable songs of the film, “Body and Soul.” (Watch the video for the great song and extremely awkward group choreography).

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Booksmart (2019)

Title: Booksmart
Release Date: May 24, 2019
Director: Olivia Wilde
Production Company: Annapurna Pictures | Gloria Sanchez Productions | ShadowMachine

Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) are lifelong friends who achieved great academic success in high school and are prepared to move onto elite colleges.  When Molly learns that the kids who partied throughout high school are also moving on to top notch schools and job prospects, her world view is shattered and she convinces Amy that they must enjoy one night of partying before graduation.

The movie depicts their adventures as the two friends end up at two other parties and experience many shenanigans along the way. The supporting characters are extremely eccentric and not at all believable as ordinary teens but they are hilarious, especially Billie Lourd as Gigi.  Dever and Feldstien do a great job portraying the tension in their relationship (Amy is too reluctant to try new things, Molly is too controlling) and how their night out proves cathartic.

The movie has a lot of elements of other teen comedies – it particularly reminds me of Can’t Hardly Wait since it deals with kids trying to find closure before graduation.  But it also feels fresh and original.  Mostly, it’s just really, really funny.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Clueless (1995)

Title: Clueless
Release Date: July 19, 1995
Director: Amy Heckerling
Production Company: Paramount Pictures

Clueless was released just after I graduated from college so I wasn’t in the target audience for a high school comedy.  Nevertheless, I watched and enjoyed the movie.  Revisiting the movie 25 years later the inescapable 90s-ness of the movie dates it considerably.  But a lot of the humor and charm of the movie persists.

Loosely based on Jane Austen’s Emma, Clueless focuses on Cher (Alicia Silverstone), a wealthy and stylish girl from Beverly Hills. Over the course of the movie, Cher learns to put aside self-interest and work to help others. Silverstone’s performance and the script by director Amy Heckerling (who also created Fast Times at Ridgemont High) help make Cher a likable character despite her initial snobbery and carelessness.

Part of Cher’s good deed doing involves adopting the new student Tai (Brittany Murphy) and making her over to be one of the most popular girls in the school.  Murphy’s sweet naivete steals a lot of scenes, although I’ll never figure out what kind of accent she’s supposed to have.  Cher is also transformed by a relationship with her ex-stepbrother Josh (Paul Rudd), a socially conscious college student who has maintained a close relationship with Cher’s lawyer father. I obviously didn’t know who Rudd was in 1995 and was amazed to see him in this movie, not least because he still looks as youthful as he did 25 years ago.

The movie is sweet and silly, part parody of the lives of clueless rich teenagers, but never acerbic about it. It was definitely worth a 25th reunion rewatch.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991)

Title: Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey
Release Date: July 19, 1991
Director: Pete Hewitt
Production Company: Nelson Entertainment | Interscope Communications

This sequel to Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure got good reviews at the time of its release but I never got around to watching it until now. Wisely, the filmmakers went for a plotline that didn’t rehash the gags of the first movie.  Bizarrely, they instead made a movie that is partially a parody of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.

Bill & Ted are high school graduates with their own apartment, hoping to marry their “chaste” medieval girlfriends. In the intervening years, they appear to have become more alternative than metal (Ted in particular is looking grunge and the band Primus makes an appearance). In the future utopia built on Bill & Ted’s music, a rebel gym teacher Chuck De Nomolos (Joss Ackland) sends back evil Bill & Ted robots to kill the real Bill & Ted. Thus begins the Bogus Journey where Bill & Ted must outwit Death (William Sadler) in various board games, travel to Hell and Heaven, and return to Earth to win a Battle of the Bands.

Like its predecessor, the movie is full or cornball gags that grow increasingly weird while also having a wholesome, feel-good sheen. Sadler’s Death is particularly a hilarious scene-stealer and unexpected sidekick.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)

Title: Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure
Release Date: February 17, 1989
Director: Stephen Herek
Production Company: Interscope Communications | Nelson Entertainment

I watched this movie once 30 years ago, found it mildly amusing, and never thought to revisit it until now.  Surprisingly, it holds up better than I remember it.  The movie is basically dumb fun about a the titular high school kids, Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) who love heavy metal and slack off at school.  A time traveler from the future, Rufus (George Carlin), informs them that they must pass their history presentation and allows them to use his time traveling phone booth to study the past.

The basic plot involves Bill and Ted traveling to various historic eras and gathering up historic figures.  Some of the gags fall flat, but most of them remain humorous.  What surprises me is that the movie is rather wholesome considering it covers territory previously explored in much raunchier movies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Weird Science. Bill and Ted also have a hilariously erudite vocabulary.  The characters can be very dumb but also very smart when it’s needed for the plot, and somehow it works.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure remains excellent cornball comedy from the 80s.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Real Genius (1985)

Title: Real Genius
Release Date: August 7, 1985
Director: Martha Coolidge
Production Company: Delphi III Productions

I probably can’t give an objective review to this movie since it has been on of my all-time favorites since I saw in 1985 at a movie theater in the town hall of Edgartown, Massachusetts.  This is a college comedy set at the fictional Pacific Tech (a thinly-veiled CalTech), which is set apart from the raunchy sex comedies of the era by focusing on characters who are really smart.

Mitch Taylor (Gabriel Jarret) is a 15-year-old prodigy in laser technology admitted mid-year to Pacific Tech.  He’s paired with senior genius Chris Knight (Chris Knight) who has taken up a carefree life of partying and pranking rivals like the smug Kent (Robert Prescot), in order to avoid cracking due to academic pressure. The first 2/3s of the movie focus on various highjinx at Pacific Tech as Mitch settles into the college.  Mitch also finds a love interest in the hyperkinetic genius Jordan (Michelle Meyrink).

The arrogant professor Jerry Hathaway (William Atherton in an even more iconic villain role than in Ghostbusters)  drives Mitch and Chris to create a powerful laser. When they succeed, a traumatized genius who has been living in the steam tunnels of Pacific Tach since the 1970s named Lazlo Hollyfeld (Jon Gries) alerts them the laser can only be used as a weapon.  Hathaway has indeed stolen their research for a secret CIA weapons project. And so Mitch, Chris, and friends have their revenge on Hathaway, the military, and Kent for good measure in an elaborate plot involving lots of popcorn.

This move remains hilarious after 35 years, with many iconic scenes and quotable dialogue.  I always appreciated Val Kilmer’s performance and wondered why he seemed to abandon comedy for mostly action-adventure roles for the rest of his career. The soundtrack is also an excellent collection of mid-80s pop and New Wave, with the final scenes perfectly scored to “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears.  If you haven’t watched this movie or haven’t watch it in a while, it’s worth checking out!

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Back to the Future, Part III (1990)

Title: Back to the Future, Part III
Release Date: May 25, 1990
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Production Company: Amblin Entertainment | Universal Pictures

The finale of the Back to the Future trilogy picks up with Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) accidentally being sent back in time to 1885 and Marty is stranded in 1955.  Doc is able to leave a message for Marty telling him where the time machine is hidden and Marty gets 1955 Doc help him restore it to working order.  Learning that Doc will be shot dead in 1885, Marty decides to go back in time to save him.

In 1885, Marty gets caught up in various Western tropes and discovers that Doc is a successful blacksmith (which he uses as a cover for steampunk-style technology).  Lacking fuel for the DeLorean, Marty and Doc work on a plan to have a railroad engine push the car up to 88 miles per hour.  Meanwhile, Doc falls in love with the scientifically-minded school teacher, Clara (Mary Steenburgen) and they have to avoid a showdown with Biff’s great-grandfather, an outlaw named Buford (Thomas F. Wilson).  Marty also meets his own great-grandparents, Irish immigrant farmers played by Michael J. Fox and Lea Thompson.

Despite being set in the rowdy Old West, Part III feels gentler and less violent than Part II.  With only one primary setting the story feels more focused and less gimmicky.  This movie still doesn’t hold a candle to the first movie, but it has its charms and humor, and it definitely shows the growth of Marty and Doc’s friendship.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Back to the Future, Part II (1989)

Title: Back to the Future, Part II
Release Date: November 22, 1989
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Production Company: Amblin Entertainment | Universal Pictures

Having recently visited one of my all-time favorite films, Back to the Future, I felt it was time after 30+ years to finally watch the two sequels for the first time. Picking up from the end of Part I, but refilmed shot for shot because Marty McFly’s (Michael J. Fox) girlfriend Jennifer had been recast with Elisabeth Shue. Not that it proved to be all that vital because Jennifer will be knocked unconcious and left abandoned in various places for most of these two films.  This literal setting aside of a woman character is one of the many odious mistakes of this movie.

As I knew well from previews, Marty and Doc (Christopher Lloyd) end up in the year 2015 where they have to solve a problem with Marty and Jennifer’s children. It’s actually solved fairly easy in scenes which recreate iconic 1955 scenes in a futuristic setting but not as funny.  This repetition of classic bits from the first film will be another big flaw of this movie.

What I didn’t know about this movie is that only a small portion is set in 2015. Upon returning to 1985, Marty and Doc discover that Biff (Thomas F. Wilson) used the DeLorean to travel back to 1955 and give a sports almanac to his younger self.  This creates an alternate timeline where Biff is a Trump-like billionaire who has turned Hill Valley into a dystopian hellscape.  This portion of the film is extremely dark and unexpectedly violent.

Marty and Doc determine that to set things right they have to return yet again to 1955 and destroy the sports almanac.  They also have to avoid interfering with the other versions of themselves as scenes from the first movie play out in the background of this story.  It all seems kind of lazy and the funniest parts are the scenes from the first movie.

Apart from the problems already cited, there are two other flaws to this movie.  First, Marty suddenly has a character flaw that he is unable to back down when someone calls him “chicken.”  This is very contrived for a “Marty learns a big fat lesson” subplot. Second, this movie has way too much Biff.  Tom Wilson is very funny as a bully antagonist in the original movie, but here we have him playing middle age Biff in 1985, Old Biff and his grandson Griff in 2015, alternate universe megalomaniac Biff, and young Biff in 1955.  The character is just too one-note to be elevated to a leading role in the movie.

The movie does have a good cliffhanger ending though, and it sets up what I would so learn is a much better conclusion to trilogy.

Rating: **