Film Review: 1941 (1979)

Also known as: The Night the Japs Attacked (working title)
Release Date: December 13th, 1979 (Los Angeles premiere)
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale, John Milius
Music by: John Williams
Cast: Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Ned Beatty, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton, Christopher Lee, Tim Matheson, Toshiro Mifune, Warren Oates, Robert Stack, Treat Williams, Penny Marshall, Nancy Allen, Eddie Deezen, Slim Pickens, Dianne Kay, Wendie Jo Sperber, John Candy, Frank McRae, Lionel Stander, Michael McKean, Joe Flaherty, Don Calfa, Elisha Cook Jr., Mickey Rourke, John Landis, Dick Miller, Donovan Scott, James Caan, Sydney Lassick (uncredited)

A-Team, Columbia Pictures, Universal Pictures, 118 Minutes, 146 Minutes (Director’s Cut), 142 Minutes (TV cut)

Review:

“You get me up in that plane, then we’ll talk about forward thrust.” – Donna Stratton

Considering that this was directed by Steven Spielberg and is loaded with dozens of stars that I like, having not seen this until now seems like a crime. But honestly, it came out when I was a year-old and it wasn’t something that I saw on TV growing up in the ’80s. Frankly, it flew under my radar for years and even if I saw the VHS tape in a mom and pop shop, the box art wouldn’t have piqued my interest.

I have now seen the film, though, and while I enjoyed it, I can see why it wasn’t held in the same esteem as Spielberg’s other work at the time.

This features a lot of characters and ensemble pieces like this can be hard to balance. With that, this felt more like an anthology of separate stories that don’t really come together until the end, even if there is a bit of overlap leading to the climax.

Everyone was pretty enjoyable in this but at the same time, they all just felt like tropes and caricatures, as none of them had much time to develop. That’s fine, though, as this isn’t supposed to be an intense dramatic story about war coming to US soil.

One thing I will point out as great in this movie is the special effects and being that this featured World War II military vehicles, it almost felt like Spielberg’s test drive before directing the Indiana Jones ’80s trilogy, which employed some of the same techniques and effects style that this film did.

The miniature work was superb and I loved the sequence of the airplane dogfight over Hollywood, as well as the submarine sequence at the end. The action was great, period.

I also generally enjoyed the comedy in this. It’s almost slapstick in a lot of scenes and it kind of felt like Spielberg’s homage the comedy style of Hollywood during the time that the movie takes place in.

That being said, the costumes, sets and general design and look of the film was great and almost otherworldly. This felt fantastical but in the way that the films of the 1940s did. There was a cinematic magic to the visuals and the film should probably get more notoriety for that.

What hurts the film, though, is that it just jumps around so much and it’s hard to really get invested in anything. There’s just so much going on at all times that your mind loses focus and starts to wander.

The story, itself, isn’t hard to follow but nothing seems that important, other than the Americans need to defend their home from this rogue submarine that appeared off the coast of Los Angeles.

In the end, this is far from Spielberg’s best and I’d call it the worst film of his uber successful late ’70s through early ’90s stretch. However, it’s still an enjoyable experience.

Rating: 6.25/10
Pairs well with: other comedies with Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi or other Saturday Night Live cast members of the era.

Film Review: Stripes (1981)

Also known as: Cheech and Chong Join the Army (original script title)
Release Date: June 26th, 1981
Directed by: Ivan Reitman
Written by: Dan Goldberg, Harold Ramis, Len Blum
Music by: Elmer Bernstein
Cast: Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, Warren Oates, P. J. Soles, Sean Young, John Candy, John Larroquette, John Diehl, Judge Reinhold, Joe Flaherty, Dave Thomas, Bill Paxton

Columbia Pictures, 106 Minutes, 122 Minutes (extended cut)

Review:

“Who’s your friend? Who’s your buddy? I am, aren’t I? You’re crazy about me, aren’t you?” – John Winger

This is considered one of the all-time great Bill Murray comedies. While I do like it, it was never really at the top of my list. I’m not quite sure why, as it also features Harold Ramis, John Candy, John Larriquette, Judge Reinhold, Joe Flaherty and Dave Thomas: all comedy legends I love.

Stripes is funny and amusing but from a narrative standpoint, it always felt kind of sloppy and pointless. Sure, these new recruit losers (mainly Murray and Ramis) do rise to the occasion and become heroes for a day, however, things in this movie just sort of happen without much purpose.

I get it, though, this is sort of just a goofy, mindless comedy. However, I guess I hold these guys and director Ivan Reitman to a higher standard because they’ve made much better films.

Without Bill Murray and someone as great as Ramis to play off of in nearly every scene, this would be reduced down to just a run of the mill screwball comedy like Meatballs or Porky’s.

I also know that Reitman probably didn’t have much of a budget to work with but this picture looks more like a television movie than a cinematic one. However, the film’s success did pave the way for the Ghostbusters movies, which are, to this day, my favorite comedy films of all-time.

Stripes is a movie that I still watch about twice a decade, as I can put it on and not think. But ultimately, it’s just never been as beloved by me as it seems to be by many others.

Rating: 6.5/10
Pairs well with: other Bill Murray films of the ’80s, as well as comedy pictures directed by Ivan Reitman and John Landis.

Film Review: Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

Release Date: July 7th, 1971 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Monte Hellman
Written by: Rudolph Wurlitzer, Will Corry
Music by: Billy James
Cast: James Taylor, Warren Oates, Laurie Bird, Dennis Wilson, Harry Dean Stanton

Michael Laughlin Enterprises, Universal Pictures, 102 Minutes

Review:

“Performance and image, that’s what it’s all about.” – G.T.O.

1969’s Easy Rider really left its mark on people, especially the film industry. It’s pretty apparent that it had an effect on this picture, as far as its tone and narrative. But that’s not a bad thing, as Hollywood really started to evolve around the turn of the ’70s. Films got darker, more personal and much more experimental, as indie filmmakers started to redefine what a motion picture could be.

I also find it interesting that this came out the same year as Vanishing Point, which also features a cool car, a plot full of hopelessness and a gritty realness that wasn’t common in films before this time.

Now this can feel like a slow moving picture but it’s got a lot of energy and a strong spirit. None of these characters are all that likable but there’s something about each of them that is intriguing and lures you into their orbit.

I really think that the glue of the picture is Laurie Bird, who plays a character simply referred to as “The Girl”. She is the object of every man’s desire in this film and it is kind of unsettling, as she is very much a minor and isn’t, in any way, glammed up or all that beautiful. She’s pretty obviously a runaway that sleeps her way to free rides across the country with no real direction in life and no personal aspirations to speak of. But her part in this really puts the other characters into perspective, as they are all vying for her companionship, even though she’s just a ghost that comes into their lives for a brief moment in time, probably because she’s got nothing else to do. And ultimately, she bolts at the end of the story, leaving the men pining over her in her dust.

If anything, this film is a strong character study with understated performances, except in regards to Warren Oates’ G.T.O. Oates was stellar in this as a pathological liar, who gives riders in his car a different backstory every step of this journey. But he provided just about all of the personality in the film, even if he comes off as a middle aged loser running away from a life he failed at.

The plot is pretty lose and not focused but it doesn’t need to be, as we aren’t so much concerned with the beginning and the end of this “race” in the film, so much as we are just peeking into the lives of broken people in an era where America sort of had a dark cloud over it between the Vietnam War, the Nixon presidency, a drug boom and coming out of the Free Love Movement.

This will not be a film that everyone will enjoy and those looking for car action should look elsewhere. Maybe check out the original Gone In 60 Seconds. But for those who enjoy films like Easy Rider and Vanishing Point, they’ll probably also enjoy this.

Rating: 8.25/10
Pairs well with: Vanishing Point, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry and Easy Rider.

Film Review: Race With the Devil (1975)

Release Date: June 27th, 1975
Directed by: Jack Starrett
Written by: Wes Bishop, Lee Frost
Music by: Leonard Rosenman
Cast: Peter Fonda, Warren Oates, Loretta Swit, Lara Parker, R.G. Armstrong

Saber Productions, 20th Century Fox, 88 Minutes

Review:

“What the hell happened to your van here? Your back window is all busted up!” – Gas Station Attendant, “I don’t drive too well when I’m asleep.” – Frank Stewart

Race With the Devil may have been distributed by a major studio but it was still a pretty bad ass grindhouse-esque picture during the heyday of those movies. Maybe it didn’t quite cross the line like the harder edged grindhouse action fare but it still had gargantuan gravitas and did a great job with its build up of suspense and its truly satisfying ending.

The film mixes a few genres that were popular at the time and honestly, should always be popular: horror, thriller, action, road trip and car chase. The road trip and car chase genres need better names, by the way.

From a narrative standpoint, the film is well balanced between its genres. It does great with the dramatic aspects and builds tension while mixing in the action at the right times. It isn’t an over the top action epic, per se, but those parts of the film are finely executed. The big car chase battle in the film’s climax is superb in all the right ways and delivers something great and gritty.

Peter Fonda and Warren Oates are both manly men and while their wives can get ridiculously annoying with the dumb damsel in distress shtick, these two men hold their own and never back down from the crazed Satanic cultists that are hunting them across Texas.

It is the inclusion of the cult that makes the film so cool, not to ignore the two leads and the awesome action. The heroes witness the Satanic cult sacrificing a nude women in the wilderness. The cultists see that they are being watched and spend the rest of the movie terrorizing these nice vacationers.

There are a few negatives but nothing major.

One, when they are sacrificing the nude babe, the film sort of blurs out her bare skinned sexual bits. C’mon, you’re sacrificing some naked babe on screen and you’re going to pull punches?

Secondly, the rattlesnake battle was poorly edited and confusing. I didn’t realize that there were actually two snakes until the tail end of this battle and the whole thing goes on entirely too long with the wives screaming like cracked out banshees. Real “nail on the chalk board” type stuff. But I do love rattlesnake danger in movies.

Another thing that kind of works against the picture, is that even though it all takes place in Texas, everything just looks the same geographically. Texas is a huge state with a lot of geographical changes.

Additionally, this cult is huge, as just about everyone in Texas seems to be in on it. There is some sort of large sinister network at work here but I’m not really sure how they are tracking the heroes and communicating when all the phones are “dead”.

But this isn’t the type of film that one should sit there and nitpick. I can’t help it though. But honestly, the flaws don’t bother me. I don’t watch these types of movies expecting Oscar caliber masterpieces. I watch them to be mindlessly entertained for 90 minutes. However, if one goes above and beyond mindless entertainment, which this film does, you’ve truly got something special.

Ride With the Devil is a solid piece of work. It has stood the test of time and still plays great today. And while not truly a grindhouse film, it does carry that same vibe and is a much more approachable picture for audiences that might not want to be overwhelmed with sex and violence.

Rating: 8.25/10