Skeptic Vs. Gen X Nostalgia: Round 12 – Hook (1991)

Much as “the 60s” didn’t really start until something like 1967 “the 80s” also didn’t truly end at the stroke of midnight on December 31st, 1989.  I might go so far as to argue that culturally the 90s didn’t truly start until Bill Clinton entered office in 1992.  Or maybe it just feels like that to me.  I was around four or five in 1992 so those first couple years of the decade are just as much ancient history to me as the 80s were.  Is all that a stretch?  Maybe, but it’s enough for me to justify finishing off my retrospective of 80s movies with a movie that came out in 1991: Steven Spielberg’s Hook.  The thing is, Hook is one of the main movies that made me want to embark on this little project in the first place.  It’s a movie with what you might call a “mixed legacy.”  On one hand the critics pretty much hated it; it wasn’t panned to the point where it got multiple razzie nominations or anything but it was pretty widely viewed as a one of Steven Spielberg’s biggest stumble after a pretty long win streak.  Spielberg himself also seems to have agreed with the critics, saying in an interview decades later that he “so [doesn’t] like that movie, and [that he’s] hoping someday [he’ll] see it again and perhaps like some of it.”  But it made a lot of money and a lot of the kids who grew up with it still have pretty fond memories of it, or at least they have fond memories of the character of Ruffio, who I seem to hear about all the time.  Between the film’s bad reputation and the fact that it’s a Peter Pan adaptation it has managed to be the one and only Steven Spielberg movie I hadn’t seen, until now anyway.

In interviews about what went wrong with Hook Spielberg has said “I didn’t have confidence in the script. I had confidence in the first act and I had confidence in the epilogue. I didn’t have confidence in the body of it… and I tried to paint over my insecurity with production value.”  Indeed, that production value is clearly the most prominent and strongest aspect of the film.  The film is like a swan song to practical set design before Spielberg formally embraced CGI with Jurassic Park and slowly let it take over blockbuster cinema until we reached the point where he was making movies like Ready Player One which are almost entirely computerized.  However, the part of that quote that really jumps out at me is that he had the most confidence in the opening act and epilogue, which makes no sense to me because the scenes outside of Neverland are irredeemably awful.  I don’t know what it is about family movies in the 90s but for whatever reason they were absolutely obsessed with guilt-tripping fathers for having jobs and not spending every waking moment with their children and boy oh boy does this movie fall into that trend.  You’d think that the adults who are almost certainly “neglecting” their children to make these movies would have some perspective about how providing children with an upper-middle-class lifestyle is its own kind of support, but instead we get movie after movie about how awful it is that people are too busy to show up to school plays and little league games.

The Neverland sections are at least visually interesting but Robin Williams’ Pan character remains really annoying through most of it.  This is a guy who gets transported to another realm by a literal fairy and finds himself surrounded by straight-up pirates and lost boys and yet still seems to act clueless and non-believing for the longest time.  From there he goes through something of a reverse training montage in which he becomes less mature the more he “learns” because for whatever reason being childish in Neverland makes you a better sword fighter.  Not that this ends up helping Ruffio much as he gets killed off with minimal fanfare by Captain Hook right before the shenanigans start right back up again.  Also, why the hell is this thing named after Captain Hook?  Dustin Hoffman brings him to life well enough but the film isn’t emphasizing the Captain Hook character here anymore than usual, he’s just a villain.  That was just one more in a series of strange decisions that went into this movie, and between all of that it’s pretty easy to see why this thing has become a pretty big black mark on Steven Spielberg’s resume… however, it should be noted that even a bad Spielberg movie is going to be better than a lot of directors’ misfires.  The sets do still look pretty cool and the movie is fairly well paced for a two and a half hour movie with no real substance.  It wasn’t a movie that I actively hated watching, but by the standards it was shooting for it is a failure.

To the Scorecard:
Yeah, this is a loss for Gen X, and that means that the skeptic is going to win this one by a clear decision.  The final score has been pretty clear for a while not and Gen X was never really able to regroup and get some kind of knockout.

In Conclusion:

In retrospect, I think I waited a little too long to do this.  I envisioned some version of this years ago and at the time a lot of these Gen X types were sort of in control of a lot of movie sites and podcasts and I was pretty annoyed by the fact that they’d be citing movies like The Goonies as cinematic classics and really letting their nostalgia get in the way of certain conversations.  At the time this disgusted me, and I do still think that’s kind of a stupid way to look at cinema.  However, in the time since then there’s been a bit of a generational changing of the guards.  The Gen Xers who used to run these things have either gone on to other things than talking about movies professionally or they’ve grown up and are looking at movies a little more objectively.  Now it’s my fellow millennials who have taken over a lot of these online outlets and their 90s nostalgia is a lot more prevalent.  I’m sure over time I’m still going to run into people who think Short Circuit is some kind of masterpiece, and I’m still going to roll my eyes at that, but I’ve come to realize I have a couple of my own nostalgic blind spots and I better understand how people can come to think like that.


Skeptic Vs. Gen X Nostalgia: Round 11 – A Christmas Story

A Christmas Story would seem to be a more appropriate movie for my December round of the series than the November round what with its yuletide theme, and it is, but I’m hoping to do something a bit more epic for the final round so the Christmas movie will have to be looked at a month early.  This is also a little different from the other movies that have populated this review series in that it’s not really a Spielberg influenced blockbuster attempt and also because it was more of a cult hit that would become more famous long after the 80s were over. That isn’t to say that it was a bomb when it came out in 1983, it made twenty million dollars on a three million dollar budget and that’s a decent return, but it didn’t exactly take the world by storm.  The film’s rise to fame was actually not dissimilar from that of The Shawshank Redemption in that it sort of came and went in theaters but really became famous when for whatever reason basic cable got its hands on it and people started catching on.  Actually TV programers seem to have had a lot of influence over what movies become “holiday classics,” a similar thing happened to It’s a Wonderful Life as it was adopted as cheap Christmas programing on PBS stations.  According to A Christmas Story’s Wikipedia page (which has a rather detailed account of the film’s broadcast history), the Turner networks didn’t really get their hands on the movie until the mid-90s when I would have been about eight and neither I nor my parents must have been privy its increasing audience because it never became a Christmas tradition in my house, which is part of why I never gave it a shot until now.

Another part of why I hadn’t really seen the movie up to now is that I kind of hate Christmas movies… which is probably an extension of the fact that I think Christmas as a holiday is a load of humbug.  It’s a holiday that’s fun when you’re a kid and you need your parents to get you the coolest toys but once you’re old enough to buy your own shit it immediately becomes a complete waste of time.  The fact that Christmas has become this three month marketing extravaganza with its own music and movies dedicated to it becomes more and more annoying to me every year.  I don’t get it.  Fortunately this movie doesn’t seem wildly invested in the season’s cornier aspects either.  It seems to realize that kids are only really interested in Christmas for the most materialistic of reasons, that it’s often a complete pain in the ass for their parents, and that mall Santas are often just cranky old minimum wage earning slobs.  So there’s certainly an attitude here I can vibe with, but I wasn’t so into was the film’s sense of humor.  The film is in many ways the creation of a guy named Jean Shepherd, who has been described as a “storyteller” and radio personality who made a career of telling mildly funny stories about his childhood… so he was basically the David Sedaris of the 80s.  Shepherd’s appeal seems to be in his folksy observations about his hometown and family and yet the film keeps leaning towards some oddly broad gags like the father’s strange pride in a novelty sexy lamp, which I find more weird than funny.

Ultimately what fuels A Christmas Story is probably nostalgia, although it is somewhat curious that it’s a nostalgia for a time period that was pretty far back.  The usual expectation is that nostalgia is supposed to exist on a 20 year cycle.  The 1970s was supposed to be nostalgic for the 50s (American Graffiti) and the 1990s was supposed to be nostalgic for the 70s (Dazed and Confused), but the 1980s was supposed to be nostalgic for the 60s but this is set in the early 1940s.  People who were Ralphie’s age during the time this was set would have been in their 50s in 1983, and people in their 50s generally aren’t the target market for Hollywood films.  However, even audiences that don’t remember Little Orphan Annie decoder rings and Red Ryder air rifles they probably do remember the disappointment of having bought some other ripoff or some other toy they absolutely had to have.  The movie doesn’t necessarily hit this nostalgia wave in an overly profound or critical way, and at times it just kind of feels like a series of sketches, but I do more or less see the appeal.  I don’t know that I’ll be returning to this in any future Christmases, but it’s pretty alright.

To the Scorecard:

Does this movie live up to the hype?  Not exactly, or at least I certainly don’t see much of a reason that this thing deserves to have ever been broadcast for 24 hours straight by a cable network when other Christmas movies of similar quality are readily available.  That said, the movie is cute and entertaining for the most part and I get why people would mostly like it.

Skeptic Vs. Gen X Nostalgia: Round 10 – The Watcher in the Woods

Of all the film’s I’m watching for this project The Watcher in the Woods is probably the least famous and is more of a Generation X nostalgia deep cut.  I wanted to do something that would tie into Halloween for October and this is what I came up with as the pickings were a bit slim.  I’d already seen some of the better remembered “kids horror movies like Gremlins and Poltergeist” and didn’t want to go with something that was only well liked ironically like Monster Squad or “unintentionally scary” like Return to Oz.  This is not however a completely unremembered movie, it may have more or less bombed when it first came out but a lot of people watched it on VHS over the course of the 80s and many a Gen Xer remembers having found the movie scary as kids.

The Watcher in the Woods was actually made by Disney during a period in which they were having something of an identity crisis and were trying to make live action films that would bridge their way into the teenage audiences while still being more or less family friendly.  The film was based on a young adult novel from the 70s of the same title by Florence Engel Randall and follows a family that moves into a large British mansion for the summer that’s owned by an old lady played by Bette Davis of all people in one of her final film roles.  This mansion is actually the same house that was used in the filming of Robert Wise’s adaptation of The Haunting and as it turns out the house here is plenty haunted as well, but the specter in question seems to be located in the woods surrounding the mansion instead of the house itself.

These sort of haunting movies tend to follow a pretty standard formula: they fritter away time with small spooky things, then once it’s established that the place is haunted the people investigate and learn the backstory, then they try to ward out the evil somehow or other often with questionable results.  This movie is at least competent at the last two steps but is kind of terrible at the first one, which takes up the most screen time.  The film just does not feel like it was made in an overly professional way, the acting is wooden, the atmosphere lacks menace, and aside from a few strong moments like an early near drowning the camerawork is largely pedestrian outside of a few point of view shots.  It largely has the feel of a made for TV production.  That’s particularly apparent in the first two acts, which take up nearly an hour of its rather short of its rather brief 83 minute runtime.

The film’s final act is in many ways its saving grace.  Once we finally figure out the backstory of what’s going on some of what happened before sort of falls into place and the characters’ scramble to ward off “the watcher.”  This ending is in fact the result of a somewhat interesting set of events.  The film was originally given a New York only preview release (back before wide releases were entirely the norm) where critics and audiences reacted very poorly to the original ending.  Disney actually pulled the prints and reshot the ending before releasing the revised movie the next year.  Normally these kind of panicky reshoots are a bad thing but in this case the suits were probably right.  The alternate endings were available as bonus features on the DVD, they involve a rather poor special effect and are indeed inferior to what they finally went with.  Still, even that final revised ending only goes so far to redeem this rather forgettable movie that probably doesn’t deserve the cult audience it has.

To the Scorecard:

This one’s a pretty easy call, though if I’m being honest this probably didn’t belong in the same weight-class as some of the other films.  Horror films for kids are never easy to make but there are better ways to do it as Amblin would prove in the coming years with movies like Poltergeist.  This one didn’t necessarily work in part because it was trying to just act like an adult horror movie but one that pulled its punches and that just doesn’t work.

Skeptic Vs. Gen X Nostalgia: Round 9 – WarGames (1983)

A couple of installments back I saw the movie Short Circuit, which was directed by a guy named John Badham.  Badham is not a guy most people will know by name, and probably for good reason, but he has had an interesting career as a Hollywood journeyman and made a number of films that people remember pretty well.  The son of a U.S. Army General from Alabama and a British actress that he met overseas, the Badham family got an odd entrance to the entertainment industry when his sister was cast as Scout in the 1962 film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird.  Much later Badham would work in television and make one small film before suddenly scoring a breakout hit film when he found himself making Saturday Night Fever and followed that up with the big budget Frank Langella starring adaptation of Dracula and the well-remembered thriller Blue Thunder.  From there though he started to become more of a director of family films.  Had I known ahead of time that the same guy who made Short Circuit also made WarGames I may have waited until I saw the latter before seeing the former, though that probably would have set me up for disappointment because Badham’s earlier film is plainly better than Short Circuit.

If there’s a common thread between WarGames and Short Circuit it’s that both films share a certain skepticism about shady military experiments.  WarGames is meant to be something of a cautionary tale along the lines of The China Syndrome or Fail-Safe but made for a more family friendly post-E.T. Hollywood.  But unlike Short Circuit, which was even more entrenched in a Spielbergian brand of cinema, there’s still a bit of that gritty brand of 70s paranoia to be found in WarGames.  It’s telling that the movie doesn’t start with Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy but instead begins in NORAD with generals and scientists talking in geopolitical technobabble that probably isn’t entirely authentic but certainly doesn’t seem to have been dumbed down too much for kids.  The mere fact that concepts like mutually assured destruction and early web hacking are being discussed here feels a lot more confident than what you’d usually get from PG rated fare today.  Of course the more family oriented material with Broderick and Sheedy isn’t half bad either.  Broderick’s character is interesting in that most movies of this era would make a computer geek like this into a total nerd with pocket protectors and shit but here this hacker is depicted as a slightly awkward but mostly normal teenager and Ally Sheedy’s character is fairly compelling if slightly lacking in things to do in the film.  The film is probably at its weakest when it wants us to believe that this kid can escape from military custody like he was John McClane or something, but for the most part the characters work.

WarGames was more than likely inspired, at least in part, by a 1979 incident in which NORAD detected that a Soviet missile attack was inbound, leading to the president to be alerted and asked to make a decision to retaliate within 3 to 7 minutes.  Fortunately for everyone it was determined within those 3 to 7 minutes that a training simulation had accidently been loaded into an active computer and that the whole thing was a false alarm and nuclear war was averted.  Unbeknownst to audiences that saw the film a similar close call actually happened on the Soviet side in 1983 because their computers misread an unusual weather pattern and crisis was only averted that time because a Soviet Air Defense officer named Stanislav Petrov went against protocol and disregarded the computer detection of incoming missiles.  No one in the west would learn about that near-apocalypse until the 90s but it still underscores that the kind of scenario found in the film was not entirely fantastical and helps explain why the film was actually taken pretty seriously despite its trappings back in 1983.  Ronald Reagan is said to have seen a screening of the film and is said to have put forward a presidential directive on computer security because of it.

To the Scorecard

I was surprised to learn while researching the film that it was pretty well respected by critics at the time of its release.  Roger Ebert gave it four stars and the film earned an Academy Award nomination for its screenplay.  I’m not sure that’s I’d praise it that much, but it’s definitely a good movie and it’s certainly better than its reputation as a mere nostalgia piece.

Skeptic Vs. Gen X Nostalgia: Round 8 – Pretty In Pink (1986)

Most of the movies I’m watching for this “Skeptic Vs. Gen X” series are movies that were targeted as Generation X kids who would have been about eight to twelve at the time of the films’ release, but I’ve made this one exception because no collection of over-rated stuff from the 80s would truly be complete without a little John Hughes.  Now, I don’t hate John Hughes exactly but I’ve always been on the outside looking in on the cult that seems to surround him.  There’s a whole generation of teenager that seems to view him as their bard and they will go on and on about how “universal” his films are and how much “everyone” relates to them.  Most of Hughes’ movies could be said to be “good” but they’re not as innovative as people make them out to be.  Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a fun romp for the most part and The Breakfast Club is a decent enough exercise even if it is, as Pauline Kael put it, a movie “about a bunch of stereotypes who complain that other people see them as stereotypes.”  Sixteen Candles, on the other hand, has held up very poorly and I’ve never got much out of Weird Science either.  If people kept these movies in perspective instead of trying to sell them as “classics” or get them places in the Criterion Collection I wouldn’t have much beef with them but I think they’re widely oversold.  That brings me to the film at hand, which is the most famous film bearing the John Hughes name that I’ve yet to see: Pretty in Pink.

Now, Pretty in Pink was written but not actually directed by John Hughes, which is a technicality that smartasses will be eager to tell you, often in the same breath where they’ll try to blow your mind by telling you that Jason didn’t actually show up in the Friday the 13th series until Part II.  The actual director here is a guy named Howard Deutch who appears to be quite the hack.  Deutch’s first three movies were adaptations of John Hughes screenplays and it’s mostly been downhill for him since then.  His biggest credits since 1992 were Grumpier Old Men (not the original, the quickie sequel) and The Whole Ten Yards (again, not the original, the quickie sequel).  But Deutch really isn’t a problem here, in fact the film’s direction is basically indistinguishable from that of a real John Hughes movie to the point where I think it’s fair to view Hughes as the real auteur behind this thing.  The film has less of a high concept than Hughes’ most famous films and is probably most comparable to Sixteen Candles, which also starred Molly Ringwald as an awkward and disaffected teen girl and the film also features John Cryer in a role that was almost certainly meant for Anthony Michael Hall (who apparently turned it down in an attempt to avoid typecasting).

One of the things that has always kind of galled me about the notion of John Hughes movies being “universal” is that they’re really only “universal” if you grew up in the suburbs.  He was considered bold for making movies about people who were sort of on the outside of the in-crowd, but there was really nothing all that novel about that approach: teen movies from time immemorial have been about the underdogs and I think one of the reasons Ferris Beuler’s Day Off stands out as much as it did was because damn near the only one of these movies that actually was about the popular kid.  The star of Pretty in Pink is mostly considered the underdog because he looks a bit homely but also because she isn’t one of “the rich kids.”  Now that right there is a good example of John Hughes movies being less universal than they claim to be: what kind of public school has both exceedingly wealthy students and students who appear to be one rung above living in a trailer?  Maybe that happens more in the suburbs but the students at the public school I went to ranged from being “ghetto” to being just barely middle class, and those “barely middle class” students were not necessarily the cool kids who ran the place and certainly weren’t going around bragging about their relative wealth.  Maybe this was a special situation where Ringwald had a scholarship to some special Academy, but still, this dynamic does not seem natural to me.

The basic story of Pretty in Pink is simple to the point of almost being boring.  It’s basically the Cinderella story: the downtrodden maiden catches the eye of a prince, they get separated, then come back together at the end.  There’s not a lot to it outside of the trappings, and the “John Hughes” trappings were starting to feel kind of familiar by 1986 as well.  I normally think of John Hughes as having owned the teen genre throughout the 80s but looking at his output now I’m realizing that his “golden period” was basically confined to three years.  He made his first teen movie (Sixteen Candles) in 1984, put out The Breakfast Club and Weird Science in 1985, then put out Ferris Bueler’s Day Off in 1986 and outsourced Pretty in Pink the same year before basically moving on to other things for the rest of his career and never looked back.  He spent all of the 90s writing and producing but never directing lame movies for little kids like Home Alone and Beethoven and was basically M.I.A. during the 2000s before tragically dying of a heart attack in 2009.  I’m not sure why he more or less gave up on the genre he’s most known for, maybe he just assumed he wasn’t going to be able to connect with the same generation of teenagers or maybe he just got addicted to those sweet Home Alone checks, but maybe he was right to cash in his chips when he did because I think his brand of teen movie were on the track to start getting a bit stale if he kept going.

To the Scorecard:

This is an interesting one to score because I don’t think this is really a “bad” movie so much as I think it’s an exceedingly average one.  But scoring for this series isn’t just about whether something is “good” or “bad,” it’s about whether or not the nostalgia surrounding a movie is justified.  For instance, I thought the movie Labyrinth was not very good but I gave it a win because I got why people thought it was fun and remembered it fondly.  Pretty in Pink, by contrast, isn’t bad but it feels like a million other movies and just didn’t seem overly memorable to me.

Skeptic Vs. Gen X Nostalgia: Round 7 – Short Circuit (1986)

Sometimes you hear an anecdote in an interview and you forget about it and sometimes it just stays with you.  One such anecdote occurred in a Hot 97 interview with Aziz Ansari where Ansari recounts a time he was hanging out with Jay-Z and for whatever reason brought up the movie E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial only to have the rapper snap back “I don’t fuck with E.T… but you know what’s dope, Johnny Five from Short Circuit.”  Ansari (who will come up again later in this review) and the hosts riff on this peculiar movie opinion but the comic recounts how Hov’s eyes lit up when he brought up the Short Circuit movies.  The artist formerly known as Jigga does not seem to be alone in his enthusiasm for Short Circuit, it seems to be one of the pre-eminent “nostalgia movies” despite having gotten mixed to negative reviews when it first came out and being only a very modest box office success and it clearly inspired aspects of later blockbusters like Wall-E and non-blockbusters like Chappie.  Also, while I would say that I disagree with Mr. Carter’s assessment that the movie is better than E.T. he is on to something when he compares the movies directly as Short Circuit is almost certainly inspired by the box office success of Spielberg’s film.  Both films feature a cute version of a science fiction mainstay on the run from shady government entities and being taken in by an ordinary person who befriends them and tries to protect them.

At the heart of Short Circuit there is a potentially interesting science fiction idea buried in it but it’s stuck in the middle of a movie with very lame ambitions.  There could be a good movie about a robot gaining sentience and slowly becoming more aware of the world by observing “input” item by item, but that’s really not where this movie’s interests lie.  Instead its main goal seems to be turning Johnny Five into the goofiest and cuddly robot they can.  He’s given a rather annoying voice by a guy named Tim Blaney, whose background is in puppetry and you can kind of tell because this sounds more like the kind of voice you come up with a give a ventriloquist dummy or something rather than a real character.  The human cast is not much better.  I’m not sure who made Steve Gutenberg a star but they need to be stopped and Ally Sheedy stopped being cast in movies people care about after 1989 for a reason, but even better actors probably wouldn’t have been able to do much with these rather stock characters.  Then of course there’s the character of Ben Jabituya (whose renamed Ben Jahveri in the sequel for some reason), an Indian character with a rather Apu like accent played by the decidedly non-Asian actor Fisher Stevens.  This character was highlighted by Aziz Ansari in the “Master of None” episode called “Indians on TV” and has plainly not aged well.  Even setting aside the problematic nature of this casting the character is just annoying and obnoxious.

I also took a look at the film’s sequel, Short Circuit 2.  I had expected it to be much lamer than the original, and in some ways it certainly was.  Ally Sheedy and Steve Gutenberg are easy actors to make fun of but you do start to miss them when they leave the series and the white guy playing an Indian becomes the lead.  The sequel also basically gives up any pretention of being the next E.T. and settles for being the next Harry and the Hendersons, but there are some improvements too.  New York proves to be a more interesting setting for Johnny Five’s hijinks than whatever rural area the first movie was set in and the movie also oddly doubles down on the idea of Johnny Five as something of an oppressed minority.  It’s a slightly hypocritical stance given the film’s brownface lead and it’s less than authentic take on Latin street gangs, but it is there nonetheless.  Beyond that there are also a couple of gags in the film that work better than they probably should.  Ultimately I’m not sure I like or dislike the sequel more than the original or vice versa.  One feels like a good movie turned lame and the other feels like a lame movie made better than it might have otherwise and the two just sort of meet in the middle, but really all they have in common is that they’re cheaply made movies made for cynical reasons.

To the Scorecard:

Officially I’m just counting the original film as my entry for this round but whichever way I went on that the result would have basically been the same as I was not overly impressed by either movie.  There are 80s movies out there that I don’t like but get why they’re remembered nostalgically but this is not one of them.  Anyone who watches this thing over the age of 11 should be able to tell it’s second rate.  Also, Jay-Z, stick to rapping because your opinion about family movies from the 80s is lacking.