Saturday, November 25, 2023

#2,937. SpaceCamp (1986) - Random Musings


In my review of 1987’s Project X, I said how the final scene of that movie was “so outlandish that you could only find it in a Hollywood movie”. But as I pointed out, Project X was a Hollywood movie. “And because we like the characters”, I continued, “it wins us over, no matter how over-the-top or unlikely its grand finale might be”.

With 1986’s SpaceCamp, a family adventure directed by Harry Winer, we know after seeing the trailer that the film’s entire premise is going to be outlandish, unlikely, and over-the-top.

And, yes, it is also a Hollywood movie.

Still, I went in wondering if I could overlook its ridiculous story, or if I’d instead be rolling my eyes throughout SpaceCamp.

Set at an actual facility in Huntsville, Alabama, the film is about five kids and their incredible experience during a summer at Space Camp. Wise-ass Kevin (Tate Donovan) never wanted to go to Space Camp in the first place, but agreed to do so after his dad bought him a new jeep. Kathryn (Lea Thompson) dreams of being the first female commander of a shuttle mission, and takes the training very seriously. As does Rudy (Larry B. Scott), who gets teased at school because he loves science. Tish (Kelly Preston) is your typical teenager with one exception: she has a photographic memory, and can remember everything she’s ever read; while 12-year-old Max (Joaquin Phoenix, billed here as “Leaf Phoenix”, making his big-screen debut) is a Star Wars afficionado who longs to experience space travel.

Their instructor is astronaut Andie Bergstrom (Kate Capshaw), who laments the fact that, unlike her husband, NASA specialist Zach (Tom Skerritt), she has never been to outer space.

Initially, the group has trouble working as a team, and young Max finds his only real friend is a malfunctioning robot named Jinx (voiced by Frank Welker), which takes everything it hears literally.

One night, after being chastised by Kevin, Max runs away crying, saying to himself he wishes he could live in space. Jinx overhears this, and the next day, when all five students and Andie board the Space Shuttle to experience a test firing of the rocket boosters, Jinx arranges it with the NASA computer to force an error that will result in Max and the others being launched into space!

Stuck in orbit with a group of frightened kids and cut off from NASA (because it was a test launch, long-range communications had not been installed), Andie must do her best to pilot the shuttle and bring everyone home safely.

Crazy, right?

Hard to swallow? Of course.

To make matters worse, SpaceCamp was also the victim of terrible timing. It was released to theaters less than six months after the 1986 Challenger tragedy, when that shuttle exploded soon after lift-off, killing everyone aboard (including school teacher / observer Christa McAuliffe). With accusations that the movie was trying to capitalize on the tragedy (it was actually written and shot well before the disaster), SpaceCamp proved a box-office flop.

But that was then. How does SpaceCamp hold up today?

Yeah, I did roll my eyes a few times, and the first half of the movie, devoted to building the characters and their relationship to one another, is as routine as they come. No surprise that the five kids, with their differing personalities, worked poorly together during their training, making mistakes and constantly bickering with one another (which begs the question: why was their team, and not one of the other half-dozen or so, chosen to sit in on the shuttle's firing test?).

Once in outer space, though, I forgot my initial “yeah, right” reaction to this amazing turn of events, and found myself actually getting into the movie! Writers Clifford Green and Casey T. Mitchell concoct a number of tense moments - from lack of oxygen to missing their window for re-entry - that keep the viewer biting their nails throughout. Yes, far-fetched things happen in space as well, but by that point I was invested, and wasn’t worrying about how preposterous it all seemed. Hell, there were times the tension was so unbearable I found myself talking to the screen!

All this, plus another rousing score by the great John Williams, made SpaceCamp a lot more fun than I ever expected.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Saturday, November 18, 2023

#2,936. Hot Pursuit (1987) - John Cusack in the '80s Triple Feature


It says more about me than it does the movie, but I would love to go on the adventure that Dan Bartlett (John Cusack) experiences in 1987’s Hot Pursuit!

After failing his mid-term in chemistry, Dan has to tell his girlfriend Lori (Wendy Gazelle) that he’ll have to stay behind to make up the test, and won’t be able to join her and her family on the resort Island of Laguna Del Mar for Spring Break. But when the teacher (Joseph E. Foster) cuts him a break at the last minute, Dan hops in a cab and races to the airport, hoping to catch Lori, her parents (Monte Markham, Shelley Fabares), and Lori’s younger sister Ginger (Dah-ve Chodan) before their plane takes off.

He misses them by a couple of minutes, tops!

So, Dan books another flight to a nearby island, where he’ll catch a taxi and eventually join Lori on what will surely be a dream vacation.

But fate intervenes, and Dan finds himself tagging along with a trio of helpful locals (Keith David, Paul Bates, Ursaline Bryant) before joining renegade tugboat Captain MacLaren (Robert Loggia), who, it turns out, is after the very same Yacht Lori and her family are currently cruising on… only for very different reasons than Dan’s.

By 1987, John Cusack was already an established star, and while he plays Dan a bit too manic at times, he’s as likable as ever in Hot Pursuit. The comedy comes by way of his misadventures, though many of the tight spots that Cusack’s Dan finds himself in are of his own doing, and not the fault of those trying to help him. When their jeep gets stuck in a swamp, Dan leaves Keith David and the others to set out on his own, only to realize soon after that he would have caught up with Lori had he stayed with them.

The film’s romantic aspects work just as well thanks to Cusack and Gazelle, who have good chemistry as the young lovers, and the locations featured throughout the movie are as gorgeous as they come (with Ixtapa, Mexico standing in for the Caribbean).

The real fun of Hot Pursuit, though, is Dan’s adventurous journey to reach Lori. There’s never any chance that he’ll fail in his attempt. We realize early on, by the tone of the film, that this 1987 comedy isn’t the type of movie that’s going to disappoint its audience in the end. Even the sticky situation that Lori and her family get into, when they butt heads with a group of pirates (two of whom are played by real-life father and son Jerry and Ben Stiller), never feels as much of a threat as it might in another movie.

So, while Hot Pursuit is short on genuine suspense (save one exciting sequence when Dan and Capt. MacLaren are sailing through a hurricane), it is a non-stop good time all the same, with Cusack proving yet again why he was one of the ‘80s most appealing stars.
Rating: 8 out of 10

Saturday, November 11, 2023

#2,935. Better Off Dead (1985) - John Cusack in the '80s Triple Feature


While director Savage Steve Holland and star John Cusack were in the process of making One Crazy Summer, which marked their second collaboration, Cusack broke away for a few hours to finally check out the first film they did together: 1984’s Better Off Dead.

And the actor was not happy with what he saw. In fact, it is rumored he walked out before it was over.

Worked into a frenzy, Cusack approached Holland and (according to the director) told him Better Off Deadwas the worst thing I have ever seen”. The enraged star then told Holland “I will never trust you as a director ever again, so don’t speak to me”.



And more than a bit unfair, because while Better Off Dead doesn’t always work, Holland and his team gave it their all, throwing everything at us but the kitchen sink and putting a madcap spin on what could have easily been another run-of-the-mill ‘80s romantic comedy.

Lane Myers (Cusack) is crushed. Not only did he miss out on making the high school ski team, but his girlfriend of six months, Beth (Amanda Wyss), broke up with him to instead date Roy Stalin (Aaron Dozier), the obnoxious captain of that very team. Neither of Lane’s parents (David Ogden Stiers and Kim Darby) seem sympathetic to his plight, so the heartbroken teen decides to kill himself.

Try as he might, though, Lane can’t finish the job. So, his good friend Charles (Curtis Armstrong) offers another possible solution: beat Roy in a downhill race on the K-12, the most dangerous slope in Northern California, and win back Beth.

The only problem is… Lane never seems to win at anything! That is, until he meets Monique (Diane Franklin), the French foreign exchange student who recently moved in with his neighbor Mrs. Smith (Laura Waterbury) and her portly teenage son Ricky (Dan Schneider). With Monique’s help, Lane may have a chance to recapture Beth’s heart.

That’s the main thrust of the story, but only scratches the surface as to the insanity thrown our way during Better Off Dead’s 97 minutes. Lane, who bought a ’67 Camaro but can’t get it running, drives the family’s station wagon to school every day, and during the trip is usually challenged to a drag race by two Japanese brothers (Yuji Okumoto and Brian Imada), one of whom speaks no English while the other only talks like his favorite sportscaster: Howard Cosell!

Curtis Armstrong, so good as Booger in Revenge of the Nerds, has his moments as Lane’s drug-obsessed best friend, Charles. At one point, looking for the ultimate high, Charles even tries snorting snow! Also funny is the sequence where Lane, coerced by his father, gets a job at Pig Burgers, a disgusting fast-food joint. While making the burgers, Lane fantasizes that he is Dr. Frankenstein, and even brings one of the burgers to life! This leads to a very entertaining stop-motion segment, in which the “live burger” performs a song.

And let’s not forget Johnny the paperboy (Demian Slade), who harasses Lane throughout the film, demanding his two-dollar fee for the newspaper subscription. I also got a kick out of the side story featuring Lane’s always-silent younger brother Badger (Scooter Stevens), who, unbeknownst to everyone, is a scientific genius. Holland keeps the energy high throughout Better off Dead, hitting us with one insane scene after another.

Of course, along with the “hits”, there are a few misses. I thought Stiers and Darby were wasted as Lane’s oblivious parents; Dad’s “war” with the paperboy to keep his garage windows safe from flying newspapers never really goes anywhere, while Darby’s schtick as the goofy mom who can’t cook gets old quick.

Also, the initial plight of Monique, the cute exchange student, came off as… creepy. Turns out Mrs. Smith only signed up to sponsor Monique so she could date her son Ricky (played by regular Holland collaborator Dan Schneider). And the minute we are introduced to Monique, we know in which direction the film’s story will go.

Then there is the exaggerated Roy Stalin, who is such an over-the-top blowhard that we have no idea what Beth, or any other girl, could possibly see in him.

As for Cusack, he’s good as the oft-pathetic Lane, though I wouldn’t rank it as one of his best performances. In fact, I had more fun with the film’s supporting characters than I did Lane.

Cusack has softened his stance on Better Off Dead over the years. In a 2013 online Reddit chat, he said he didn’t hate making Better Off Dead, just that it could have been better, adding “But I think that about all my films“. He closed by saying he has “nothing against the film” and is glad people “love it still”.

And despite its weaknesses, there is definitely a lot here to love!
Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Saturday, November 4, 2023

#2,934. The Sure Thing (1985) - John Cusack in the '80s Triple Feature


Rob Reiner followed up his comedic masterpiece This is Spinal Tap (which was also his big-screen directorial debut) with 1985’s The Sure Thing, a romantic comedy starring John Cusack and Daphne Zuniga.

And with it, Reiner proved he was in Hollywood to stay. The Sure Thing is an absolute delight.

College Freshman Walter “Gib” Gibson (Cusack) has lost his touch with the ladies. Even his attempt to seduce his pretty but uptight classmate, Alison (Zuniga), ends in disaster. With Christmas break approaching, things are looking bleak for poor Gib.

But his luck may soon be changing. His best friend from high school, Lance (Anthony Edwards), tells Gib that he has set him up with a “Sure Thing”, a girl who loves sex as much as Gib needs it. And what’s more, she’s gorgeous (Nicolette Sheridan). All Gib has to do is make his way from New England to L.A. before this “Sure Thing” heads home for the holidays.

So, Gib hitches a ride with Gary (Tim Robbins) and Mary Ann (Lisa Jane Persky), who had posted a flyer on the campus bulletin board looking for people to join them as they drive out west.

To Gib’s dismay, only one other passenger will be tagging along: Alison, who is heading to UCLA to visit her boyfriend (Boyd Gaines).

Still reeling from their experience together, Gib and Alison bicker the whole time, until Gary and Mary Ann have had enough, and abandon them on a deserted road in the Midwest. Left on their own, Gib and Alison must team up if they’re to have any chance of making it to Southern California. The trip will be tough, even perilous, but through it all, they find they might be able to teach each other a thing or two about life.

John Cusack is hilarious as Gib, an outgoing, charismatic guy who knows how to have a good time. In fact, if The Sure Thing has one weakness, it’s that we don’t believe for a second that a guy like Cusack’s Gib would have any trouble with the ladies. Cusack oozes charisma in this part, and if we the audience see that, wouldn’t the girls at his school?

No matter, though, because Cusack owns this role, and he and Zuniga - also excellent as the smart but mousy and uptight Alison - are wonderful together. And it is how Reiner and screenwriters Steve Bloom and Jonathan Roberts handle the duo’s journey to California, slowly bringing them together, that makes The Sure Thing an excellent romantic comedy.

Reiner would follow up The Sure Thing with one amazing movie after another, a string of hits including Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, and his adaptation of Stephen King’s Misery. Now that’s a hell of a stretch! Quite often, The Sure Thing gets overlooked when people discuss Reiner’s early filmography, and that’s a shame. The Sure Thing deserves its place alongside all these films, and showed the world that Reiner, Cusack, and Zuniga had bright futures ahead of them.
Rating: 9 out of 10