Film Review: Trading Places (1983)

Also known as: Black or White (working title)
Release Date: June 7th, 1983 (limited)
Directed by: John Landis
Written by: Timothy Harris, Herschel Weingrod
Music by: Elmer Bernstein
Cast: Dan Aykroyd, Eddie Murphy, Ralph Bellamy, Don Ameche, Jamie Lee Curtis, Denholm Elliot, Paul Gleason, Kristin Holby, Bo Diddley, Jim Belushi, Al Franken, Tom Davis, Frank Oz, Giancarlo Esposito

Cinema Group Ventures, Paramount Pictures, 116 Minutes

Review:

“I had the most absurd nightmare. I was poor and no one liked me. I lost my job, I lost my house, Penelope hated me, and it was all because of this terrible, awful negro!” – Louis Winthorpe III

Since I watched The Blues Brothers a week ago, I wanted to revisit this movie, as well. I’ve been on a John Landis comedy kick, as of late.

Like The Blues Brothers, this was one of my favorite comedies, as a kid, because it featured two comedic actors I loved and still do.

While these aren’t my favorite roles for either Dan Aykroyd or Eddie Murphy, they’re still iconic and the guys had tremendous chemistry. So much so, I had always whished for a sequel to this. I kind of hoped it would happen after this film’s villains had cameos in Coming to America, which saw them potentially get their lives back.

Speaking of the villains, played by Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche, they were superb and charismatic for being total pieces of shit. They contributed just as much to the greatness of this picture as the two leads.

However, I also have to give a lot of credit to Denholm Elliot and Jamie Lee Curtis. The two of them rounded out the group of protagonists and formed a solid team alongside Aykroyd and Murphy, as they fought to take down the two rich bastards that were going to completely destroy them.

The story sees a commodities broker have his life ruined by his two bosses over a one dollar bet. That bet sees someone from the furthest end of the social hierarchy take his place to see if he can overcome his environment and succeed at the level that a man born into privilege could.

Essentially, Aykroyd and Murphy play switcheroo but neither are aware of why. Once they find out, they decide to work together to teach the villains a hard lesson. In the end, they outwit them at their own game and walk away with their fortune, leaving them broke.

The film does a pretty amusing job of analyzing “nature versus nurture”. While it’s not a wholly original idea and has similarities to the classic The Prince and the Pauper story, it at least makes the switching of lives involuntary and with that, creates some solid comedic moments.

Even though this isn’t specifically a Christmas movie, it takes place over the holiday, as well as New Year’s, and it’s a film I like to watch around that time of year.

Trading Places has held up really well and it feels kind of timeless even though it is very ’80s. It’s story transcends that, though, and the leads really took this thing to an iconic level, making it one of the best comedies of its time.

Rating: 8.75/10
Pairs well with: other John Landis comedies, as well as other films with Dan Aykroyd or Eddie Murphy.

Film Review: Little Shop of Horrors (1986)

Release Date: December 19th, 1986
Directed by: Frank Oz
Written by: Howard Ashman
Based on: Little Shop of Horrors by Howard Ashman, The Little Shop of Horrors by Roger Corman, Charles B. Griffith 
Music by: Miles Goodman (score), Alan Menken (songs)
Cast: Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene, Vincent Gardenia, Steve Martin, James Belushi, John Candy, Christopher Guest, Bill Murray, Levi Stubbs (voice), Tichina Arnold, Tisha Campbell, Michelle Weeks, Vincent Wong

The Geffen Company, 94 Minutes, 102 Minutes (original cut)

Review:

“Does this look “inanimate” to you, punk? If I can move and I can talk, who’s to say I can’t do anything I want?” – Audrey II

I used to watch this quite a lot when I was a kid. It was always on cable and I liked everyone in it, so when channel surfing in the late ’80s, I often times stopped when this was on.

Oddly enough, I haven’t seen it since the ’80s but I’ve always meant to go back and revisit it, especially since I love the original Roger Corman film and revisit that one every five years or so.

This version of the story was actually an adaptation of the off-Broadway musical, which was inspired by the Corman film from 1960. I’ve never seen the musical on-stage and there are some story differences but it’s something I’d like to see, even if it’s just on television, assuming there’s a version I can watch.

Anyway, back to this film.

This will always hold a nice spot in my heart because it features two I guys I really enjoy, especially when together, Rick Moranis and Steve Martin. This also sprinkles in Bill Murray, Jim Belushi, John Candy and Christopher Guest. Needless to say, it’s chock full of great ’80s comedic talent.

I also dig the hell out of Ellen Greene and Vincent Gardenia, who rounded out the cast nicely and played their parts perfectly.

The real gem of this picture, though, is the monster, Audrey II. The monster evolves into a massive, talking, man-eating venus flytrap. Audrey II is actually an alien trying to kickoff a full alien invasion but to do so, he needs to grow and to do that, he needs human blood.

What makes the monster so cool is two things, the first of which is the voice acting of Levi Stubbs, the lead vocalist of the Four Tops. Stubbs was stupendous and he made Audrey II one of the coolest villains in ’80s cinema.

The second thing is the practical effects, animatronics and puppeteering that brought the giant plant to life. This isn’t some CGI bullshit that takes you out of the movie, this is a real, physical beast that was live and on the set, interacting with the actors on film. The character just looks great, moves great and it’s incredibly easy to suspend disbelief and get caught up in this bonkers movie.

The real cherry on top of it all is the music. It’s great and I say that as someone that usually turns away from musicals because it’s the one genre that doesn’t really resonate with me. For me to care about a musical, it’s got to work on a level beyond that and attract me to it with some sort of cool twist. This picture does that well and I honestly don’t simply see it as a musical.

In the end, I’m glad that I finally revisited Little Shop of Horrors and it somewhat exceeded the expectations my memory had for it.

Rating: 8/10
Pairs well with: the original film, as well as other comedies featuring Rick Moranis, Steve Martin and John Candy.

Film Review: Jingle All the Way (1996)

Also known as: Could This Be Christmas? (script title)
Release Date: November 16th, 1996 (Mall of America premiere)
Directed by: Brian Levant
Written by: Randy Kornfield
Music by: David Newman
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sinbad, Phil Hartman, Rita Wilson, Jake Lloyd, Curtis Armstrong, Robert Conrad, Martin Mull, Jim Belushi, Richard Moll, Mickey Rooney, Paul Wight, Mo Collins

1492 Pictures, 20th Century Fox, 89 Minutes, 94 Minutes (Director’s Cut)

Review:

“We get one day a year to prove we’re not screw-ups, and what do we do? We screw it up.” – Myron Larabee

I never saw this movie in its entirety until Christmas Day, 2018.

When it came out in 1996, I thought it looked terrible. I was also a senior in high school and going out with girls was more important than watching bad movies with Arnie, Sinbad and young Anakin Skywalker crying over a lame toy.

Since I have exhausted so many Christmas classics, I figured that I’d give this a chance. Besides, I actually love Arnie, Sinbad and the great Phil Hartman. Plus, this also has small roles for Curtis Armstrong (Booger from Revenge of the Nerds), Martin Mull, Jim Belushi, Richard Moll (Bull from Night Court), Mickey Rooney, Robert Conrad, Mo Collins and “The Big Show” Paul Wight.

So if I’m being honest, which I always am, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this stupid movie. It’s a lot of fun, there isn’t a dull moment and the chemistry between Schwarzenegger and Sinbad is really good. I actually just wish that they would’ve shared more scenes together.

The rest of the cast also did well and the rivalry between Arnold and Phil Hartman was entertaining. Man, Hartman was great as a neighbor creeper moving in on Arnold’s wife but in all seriously, was he insane? Arnie’s the f’n Terminator!

The only big problem with the movie is that it all falls apart in the finale. I was on board and digging everything up until the parade where Arnold and Sinbad are dressed up like a superhero and a supervillain and Arnold actually has a functioning jetpack. I know that this is a dumb, mindless movie but watching Arnold fly around downtown without proper jetpack training, moving in a way that isn’t possible by physics, made it so that I couldn’t suspend disbelief any longer. It was total cringe and destroyed the fun movie that this was before that shoddy action sequence kicked off.

Ignoring that atrocious ending, I probably would have given this about a 7.25. Seriously, I enjoyed it that much for 90 percent of the movie.

Still, I’d watch this again but probably not for several years once I’ve run through a few dozen other holiday films.

Plus, the cast keeps things pretty engaging for the most part and the reindeer fight was the stuff of legend.

Rating: 6.25/10
Pairs well with: other Schwarzenegger comedies: Kindergarten CopTwins and I guess Junior but no one should suffer through that one.

Film Review: Last Action Hero (1993)

Also known as: Extremely Violent (working title)
Release Date: June 13th, 1993 (Westwood premiere)
Directed by: John McTiernan
Written by: Shane Black, David Arnott, William Goldman (uncredited), Zak Penn, Adam Leff
Music by: Michael Kamen
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, F. Murray Abraham, Art Carney, Charles Dance, Frank McRae, Tom Noonan, Robert Prosky, Anthony Quinn, Mercedes Ruehl, Austin O’Brien, Bridgette Wilson, Ian McKellen, Tina Turner, Rick Ducommun, Angie Everhart, Al Leong, Colleen Camp, Professor Toru Tanaka, Sharon Stone (cameo), Robert Patrick (cameo), Joan Plowright (cameo), Danny DeVito (voice), MC Hammer (cameo), Karen Duffy (cameo), Maria Shriver (cameo), Little Richard (cameo), Leeza Gibbons (cameo), Chris Connelly (cameo), James Belushi (cameo), Damon Wayans (cameo), Chevy Chase (cameo), Timothy Dalton (cameo), Jean-Claude Van Damme (cameo), Melvin Van Peebles (cameo), Wilson Phillips (cameo)

Columbia Pictures, 131 Minutes

Review:

“Well I’m sorry to disappoint you but you’re gonna live to enjoy all the glorious fruits life has got to offer – acne, shaving, premature ejaculation… and your first divorce.” – Jack Slater

Man, this was a film I really loved when it came out. It was imaginative, fun and truly balls to the wall, even for not being an R-rated movie.

While it is still pretty fun, it isn’t a movie that has aged very well. At its heart, it is still a great homage to over the top, high octane action films from the ’80s, much like the ones that starred Arnold Schwarzenegger. It features lots of explosions and a ton of gun action and great vehicle chases but it is pretty toned down for a PG-13 audience unlike the hard R-rating that these movies typically get. Overall, it is more like a tongue in cheek parody of the genre. Schwarzenegger and the director, John McTiernan, poke a lot of fun at themselves and the films that they were instrumental in creating.

One cool thing about this movie is the over abundance of cameos it has. Since it takes place in a fantasy world and also goes into the “real world”, we get to see a lot of stars playing themselves, as well as some of their most famous characters within the fantasy movie world.

The story sees a young boy get a magic golden ticket that was supposedly passed down from Houdini. The ticket whisks the boy away into the movie he is watching, a film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as a character named Jack Slater. The boy gets caught up in Slater’s in-movie adventure and gets to experience the fantasy fiction world of action films, which just so happens to overlap with other genres. Eventually, the big bad guy discovers the power of the ticket and uses it to go from world to world in an attempt to pull off heists and to gather other villains to stand against Slater.

The movie is full of late ’80s/early ’90s cheese but it is the best kind. Sure, the kid can get a bit grating at times but he’s not as bad as a lot of the kid actors from the time. This was also the young Austin O’Brien’s first movie. But ultimately, he is the eyes and ears of the audience, swept into this world and it was effective. Plus, I was the right age for this movie when it came out and he really just seemed like one of my peers from school.

Last Action Hero wasn’t a hit when it came out and critics weren’t kind to it. It’s a better picture than the experts would have you believe though, especially if the subject matter is something you’re a fan of. I grew up loving ’80s and ’90s action movies, so this is my cup of tea. Besides, Schwarzenegger is always great when he’s hamming it up. He really hams it up here.

Rating: 7.5/10

Film Review: Red Heat (1988)

Release Date: June 14th, 1988 (premiere)
Directed by: Walter Hill
Written by: Walter Hill, Harry Kleiner, Troy Kennedy Martin
Music by: James Horner
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Belushi, Peter Boyle, Ed O’Ross, Gina Gershon, Laurence Fishburne, Richard Bright, Brion James, Peter Jason

Carolco Pictures, Lone Wolf, Oak, TriStar Pictures, 103 Minutes

Review:

“Since I figure cops are cops the world over, how do you Soviets deal with all the tension and stress?” – Commander Lou Donnelly CPD, “Vodka.” – Ivan Danko

Red Heat was a part of a string of really good Schwarzenegger films (omitting the weak Raw Deal from that string). There was just something great about Arnie in the 80s and Red Heat is another good example of how cool and bad ass the Austrian Adonis was in his prime.

The film also benefits from being written and directed by Walter Hill, another man that was at the top of his game in the 80s, coming off of directing a string of great pictures: Hard TimesThe WarriorsThe Long Riders48 Hrs. and Streets of Fire. He also directed Brewster’s Millions, which wasn’t his normal forte but was still an entertaining vehicle for both Richard Pryor and John Candy.

The film also has some notable other actors in it: Laurence Fishburne, Peter Boyle, Gina Gershon, Brion James and Richard Bright. Then there is James Belushi, the other star and comedic half of the cop duo but oddly, I’ve never been a big Belushi fan and find his presence kind of distracting and the main negative aspect of the picture. But hey, at least this is better than K-9.

Honestly, there was probably a ton of great comedic actors that could have played alongside Schwarzenegger better than Belushi but this film is almost thirty years old and Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray or Richard Pryor probably cost too much. But hell, they couldn’t get Dan Aykroyd or Harold Ramis? Dudley Moore? Dabney Coleman? Roger Dangerfield? Tony friggin’ Danza?

Walter Hill has a very straightforward style with his directing. However, he still captures a certain sort of magic that set the quality of his films apart from others in the 80s action genre. His pictures look crisp and pristine and just very well produced. The mix of the Soviet Union scenes with urban Chicago gives this picture a cool visual dichotomy that enhances the contrast between the Soviet cop and the Chicago Police Department. The urban scenes also have that same sort of lively grittiness that Hill gave us with The Warriors48 Hrs. and Streets of Fire.

Ivan Danko is one of the coolest Schwarzenegger characters of all-time, to the point that it would have been cool to have seen him return in some form in another project or a sequel – preferably without Belushi. Arnie was just able to nail the role and he just looked like a tough as nails manly man in his Soviet cop uniform. He was an intimidating presence and the persona and visual vibe fit the actor to a t.

While this is not the balls out action masterpieces that Commando or Predator were, it definitely fits in the upper echelon of Schwarzenegger’s work. Walter Hill and Arnie worked really well together and it would have been cool to see them re-team but as of yet, that hasn’t happened.

Rating: 7.5/10