Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). Some critics have dubbed it “Star Trek: The Motion-less Picture.” Yeah, well bite me. Most people think the Enterprise-in-drydock sequence is too long, but my 14-year-old self found it mesmerizing to see the Enterprise up so close that it was actually possible to read the call letters on the thing (there’s probably still an imprint of my jaw on the floor of the theater). Perhaps I’m seduced by Jerry Goldsmith’s music — the cue for this scene (called “The Enterprise”) damn near made my “Super Soundtracks” Mix Six when I filled in for my good friend Ted Asregadoo. As far as William Shatner’s acting goes, let’s just say that no parody of his “style” can possibly match his work in this film. After all, this is the movie that has him saying, “I need you … Dammit, Bones … I need you … badly!” Director Robert Wise, best known for West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965), released a director’s cut in 2001 that runs 136 minutes. This is generally the preferred version, but since I’m in the minority, I’ll go on record and say I actually prefer the original 132-minute theatrical version. In typical Star Trek fashion, at its heart is a great story. It’s a science-fiction cautionary tale — with Klingons.
1941 (1979). In between Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Steven Spielberg directed this insanely overbudget box office flop. Critics called it “overblown” — and it is — but that’s what I love about it. The screenplay by Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale and John Milius is jam-packed with crazy characters and deals with the general paranoia along the California coast in the days that followed the attack on Pearl Harbor. The movie opens with a clever parody of Spielberg’s own 1975 blockbuster: a girl goes swimming (in fact it’s Susan Backlinie, the same actress who plays Jaws’ first victim), composer John Williams does a send-up of his own Jaws theme, but instead of a shark coming up from the depths it’s a Japanese submarine (the commander, you see, is lost). My favorite moment in 1941 is when the craziest character in the movie — John Belushi’s Wild Bill Kelso — meets the even crazier Col. Madman Maddox (Warren Oats). “Let me hear your guns” insists Maddox and what follows is a cacophony of guns firing, screaming and over-the-top scoring (seen at the beginning of the clip below).
Explorers (1985). I’ll admit up front that I am a huge fan of director Joe Dante —(1984), The Howling (1981), (1987), even Piranha (1978) — I love them all. I think everyone would agree that the first half of Explorers is terrific, with a very young Ethan Hawke, River Phoenix and Jason Presson building a spaceship out of a discarded Tilt-A-Whirl — from technology that Hawke’s character (Ben) receives in his dreams. The early part of the film also deals with common childhood themes, such as Ben being bullied at school and Presson’s character coming from a broken home. For most people, the movie falls apart in its third act, when the boys’ space exploration adventure takes an unexpected comedic turn. I, however, couldn’t stop laughing. I must have some kind of strange comic kinship to Dante, probably because we both grew up watching far too many classic Warner Bros. cartoons. This was the first film for Hawke and Phoenix — only Presson was the “veteran” of the bunch, having already starred in The Stone Boy (1984).
It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963). Critics complained about its length — and they’re right, the movie is really too long. So why was I excited back in 1991 when an even-longer version was released on laserdisc? And if they unearth a version with even more footage, I am there! Director Stanley Kramer, best known for dramas like(1960) and (1961), assembled the greatest comedians of the era for a story of a madcap race for hidden money. The amazing cast includes, in part: Spencer Tracy, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Mickey Rooney, Ethel Merman, Dick Shawn, Phil Silvers, Jonathan Winters and Jimmy Durante (as a guy who both figuratively and literally kicks the bucket). If the idea of watching people being flung one by one from a fire ladder appeals to you, by all means tune in — others beware.
Creepshow (1982). Director George A. Romero and writer Stephen King’s tribute to the EC horror comics of the 1950s received mostly mixed reviews. To be fair, some critics liked it, but most found it mediocre and Newsweek’s David Ansen wrote “For anyone over 12 there’s not much pleasure to be had watching two masters of horror deliberately working beneath themselves.” Well, I’m over 12 and I am here to say that the five segments featured here are more in the spirit of the Tales from the Crypt comic book than any episode of the HBO series (1989-1996). By using mostly still camera framing and some stylized lighting effects, Romero and cinematographer Michael Gornick actually manage to make the film look like a 50s horror comic. It’s five fun, gory tales with great linking material as a bonus. Besides, who doesn’t want to see the wealthy ruthless germaphobe (E.G. Marshall) lose his battle with cockroaches?
Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985). What can you say about a movie that actually begins with an explosion? Critics pretty much universally lambasted this sequel to 1982’s First Blood. It also has the high honor of winning “Worst Picture” at the 1986 Golden Raspberry Awards. I remember watching Leonard Maltin on a daytime talk show when this movie came out, talking about how stupid it was that when Rambo jumps off an exploding boat, the filmmakers feel the need to have another character say “You made it, Rambo!” just in case someone happened to miss it. So okay, yeah that part is kinda dumb. But all in all, it’s a pretty kick-ass 95 minute action flick, well-shot, well-edited, with some great stuntwork. James Cameron co-wrote the screenplay and the director is George P. Cosmatos, who made The Cassandra Crossing (1976) and went on to do Tombstone (1993). Cosmatos gives us glistening sweat, gratuitous close-ups of Rambo’s knife and shots of helicopters from low angles with trees in the foreground to give it scale in terms of movement. Sure, it’s not at all psychological like Ted Kotcheff’s original, but it does have a much higher body count — and what more do you want from a Rambo movie?