Category Archives: 1985

Zone Troopers (1985, Danny Bilson)

The saddest thing about Zone Troopers is Biff Manard gives a fantastic performance and there’s no reason to see it. Nothing Manard could do would make Troopers worthwhile; it’s got so many problems—cast, direction, photography, editing, music, budget (though some of the effects are outstanding)—the thing is a wreck. With a few good ideas, a great performance, and a lot of derivative nonsense.

I got ahead of myself. I was being positive—the second saddest thing about Zone Troopers. When it has those good ideas, it can’t figure out how to execute them. You watch it, getting hopeful, then it fails and you don’t just get disappointed, you feel bad for the movie; you can tell what director Bilson (who co-wrote with producer Paul De Meo) and he just couldn’t figure out how to do it. Zone Troopers, visually, needs a lot of things—it needs cinematographer Mac Ahlberg to light sets better, it needs Bilson to figure out how to shoot his actors, and they need a crane. They really, really, really need a crane. The movie takes place in an Italian forest during WWII and there’s not a single good establishing shot in it. Not even when a crane would have helped. Bilson just can’t do it. He’s got maybe three creative shots and they’re not so much good or even better than the standard bland composition, but they’re creative. Someone thought about them. No one thinks about much in Zone Troopers.

If anyone did, Timothy Van Patten wouldn’t happen. Van Patten is the young guy in the movie. He’s the private, Art LaFleur is the corporal, “top-billed but should’ve had an the ‘and’ credit” Tim Thomerson is the sergeant, an atrocious John Leamer is the inept greenhorn lieutenant, and Manard is the wartime correspondent. LaFleur and Manard are definitely in the forties, Thomerson looks a little too old too, so for the battle scenes before the aliens show up, Zone Troopers basically looks like WWII reenactment with middle-aged men. Bilson’s direction doesn’t help with that feeling either.

Anyway, Van Patten is the young Italian kid who reads sci-fi magazines and talks all the time, especially in dangerous situations, and ignores Thomerson’s orders and almost gets everyone killed over and over again. Until the movie evens out a bit in the second act, the only thing Troopers has to keep one occupied is the hope Thomerson will just shoot Van Patten in the head for insubordination.

And Van Patten is objectively terrible. No one could watch what he was doing and think it was a good idea, not even in a movie where the script has commercial breaks in the second half, like Bilson and DeMeo were plotting a three or four-part cartoon… though it’d be a lot better as a three or four-part cartoon. Van Patten wouldn’t be in it.

The effects work is bad when it comes to the lasers and the humanoid aliens are silly, but the bug-monkey alien is at least a good suit and the script handles that character surprisingly well. Again, Bilson and DeMeo have some decent ideas, they’re just in the muck of bad performances and lifts from E.T., The Thing, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and… something else no doubt. They don’t have any lifts from Empire Strikes Back, which is weird because composer Richard Band rips off its score mercilessly. It and Raiders. Clearly likes his John Williams.

And if it’s not going to be a four-part cartoon pilot, Zone Troopers does seem much more like a Spielberg movie. Just an amateur one. A poorly directed and acted amateur one. With WWII re-enactors.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Danny Bilson; written by Bilson and Paul De Meo; director of photography, Mac Ahlberg; edited by Ted Nicolaou; music by Richard Band; production designer, Philip Dean Foreman; produced by De Meo; released by Empire Pictures.

Starring Tim Thomerson (The Sarge), Timothy Van Patten (Joey), Art LaFleur (Mittens), Biff Manard (Dolan), William Paulson (The Alien), Max Turilli (SS Sgt. Zeller), and John Leamer (The Lieutenant),


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Return to Oz (1985, Walter Murch)

Return to Oz has gumption. It’s got confidence and professionalism too, but its gumption is something different. Director Murch is making it work with what he’s got—a scale limited by budget and reality—because he’s sure of the project. Gumption.

He knows he’s got the right lead—eleven year-old Fairuza Balk as Dorothy. He knows the special effects he’s going to rely on are going to be impressive, whether the grand claymation as stop motion finale, the various mechanical aspects of the suits (Return raises the question of whether it’s people in costumes or people in suits), the talking chicken as second lead for the beginning of the second act, all of it. Except the street gang villains, who have wheels attached to their hands and feet. The effects are fine because they’re doing it and the design of the outfits is… inventive, but they’re still nerdy white guy street gang villains from the eighties. It’s campy—eighties camp. And Return’s never campy.

Also impressive are the voice performances. Denise Bryer as the chicken, Sean Barrett as the steampunk robot, Brian Henson as the effects-heavier Scarecrow-stand in, Jack Pumpkinhead. Murch knows how to time the effects shots to get the later effect. Return is beautifully edited; director Murch cut his teeth editing before directing it and the film editor Leslie Hodgson has some wonderful cuts. The film’s technically strong. It’s principal cast is good. Balk’s great. So what’s the problem. Besides the budget and effects only being able to do so much? It doesn’t have a good ending. It’s way too small. While the film isn’t a sequel to The Wizard of Oz: The Movie, it does acknowledge that film’s legacy. Return is grittier, late nineteenth century Kansas far less idealized, Balk is a tween in definite danger, there is a villain who takes off their head, and there’s electro-shock therapy. And there’s Piper Laurie as Aunt Em, which is an interesting casting decision and maybe not the best one. Laurie’s playing a literal “Piper Laurie mom-type” to the point I wondered who they got who looked so much like Piper Laurie. Because I assumed Laurie would be able to handle the accent and she’s not. It’s not good. It’s a missed opportunity. Same goes for Uncle Owen (sorry, Uncle Henry) Matt Clark. Missed opportunity. Clark’s fine, but he’s got no added value presence. Return is a perfect franchise starter thirty years too soon; Murch is too busy focusing on how they’re going to realize the magic to worry about the supporting performances. Same goes for Jean Marsh as the bad witch. She’s got no charm, no energy.

On the other hand, Nicol Williamson is amazing as the villain. Like, Murch gets it with Williamson, because he’s voicing the villain; the visual villain is an effects sequence and Murch knows he’s got to sell that effects sequence. So Williamson’s performance matters. Again, bigger budget, more time, it’d probably have been fine. But Return is very much a victim of reality. Besides the budget, there’s the weight of the de facto sequel, there’s the state of special effects. Most of Return is really, really good. They just don’t have the ending. It’s too little. The film’s promising Balk’s Return to Oz, Oz meaning her friends—and the familiar characters—it’s promising the magic. Balk finds herself having to fight through a lot of darkness to find the happy again. She’s got a hero arc and needs a solid resolution to it. Murch doesn’t have the money for it and rushes it, minimizes it. Maybe it could be rushed, maybe it could be minimized, but it can’t be both. It’s too little for what the film’s built up.

And then the epilogue is sweet enough but not strong enough. Return to Oz is almost there. It’s so close and for a good while, it seems like it’s going to make it. And you want it to succeed because, maybe Henson’s Jack Pumpkinhead aside, the new sidekicks are good enough, especially in the grittier Oz.

Finally, David Shire’s score. It’s a perfect metaphor for the film. It gets really close to clicking, then doesn’t. Shire’s music is perfectly adequate for a “kid in the olden times” picture, but not for a magical adventure.

Return to Oz is rather awesome, but it’s also a bummer. They made the magic, they just didn’t know what to do with it.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Walter Murch; screenplay by Murch and Gill Dennis, based on novels by L. Frank Baum; director of photography, David Watkin; edited by Leslie Hodgson; music by David Shire; production designer, Norman Reynolds; produced by Paul Maslansky; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Fairuza Balk (Dorothy), Mak Wilson & Denise Bryer (Billina), Michael Sundin, Tim Rose, & Sean Barrett (Tik-Tok), Stewart Harvey-Wilson & Brian Henson (Jack Pumpkinhead), Stephen Norrington & Lyle Conway (Gump), Jean Marsh (Mombi), Piper Laurie (Aunt Em), Matt Clark (Uncle Henry), Emma Ridley (girl), and Nicol Williamson (The Nome King).


This post is part of the Wizard of Oz Blogathon hosted by Rebecca of Taking Up Room.

Snoopy's Getting Married, Charlie Brown (1985, Bill Melendez)

Right after Snoopy decides to get married–appropriate since the special’s titled Snoopy’s Getting Married, Charlie Brown–Charlie Brown (Brett Johnson) worries about how Snoopy will handle the responsibilities of marriage. Now, Charlie Brown finds out Snoopy is getting married because Snoopy has given him a letter to send to his sort of ne’er-do-well brother, Spike. So Snoopy can write a letter in English but Charlie Brown is worried about him handling marriage. Charlie Brown’s got a lot to say for an eight year-old.

Later on, after Spike has traveled from the California desert to stand up for his brother, Lucy (Heather Stoneman) harshly comments on Spike’s ragged appearance. Because she’s a crappy little kid.

Getting Married is never charming enough to make up for the absurdity of the premise and never absurd enough to be charming. The beginning–when Snoopy meets his bride-to-be–has Peppermint Patty (Gini Holtzman) calling up Charlie Brown to ask for Snoopy to watch her house. Her dad has left her alone to go on a business trip.

She’s eight.

Charles M. Schulz really stretches the suspension of disbelief here. Because every time he spreads it thinner, it’s because it’s lazy writing, not a terrible concept. The Peanuts kids throwing Snoopy a wedding could be charming. But they’re all awful when they’re preparing for it. And most of the special is just Spike traveling cross country, which would be fine if Schulz had anything for him to do once he arrives, but he becomes background. He’s kind of amusing when he just stands around because he’s funny looking, but not enough.

There’s a cute scene or two involving Woodstock and the animation is all fine. Melendez’s direction isn’t great, but the animation is fine. Judy Munsen’s music is fine.

The acting is rough. Only Johnson gets a lot of lines–he’s got to read Snoopy and Spike’s letters after all–and you can almost see the actor sitting there reading them flat off the page. Lousy expository dialogue too.

Sure, Getting Married could be a lot worse, but it couldn’t be much more pointless.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Bill Melendez; written by Charles M. Schulz; edited by Chuck McCann and Julie Maryon; music by Judy Munsen; produced by Melendez and Lee Mendelson; aired by the Columbia Broadcasting System.

Starring Brett Johnson (Charlie Brown), Gini Holtzman (Peppermint Patty), Heather Stoneman (Lucy van Pelt), Fergie (Sally Brown), Jeremy Schoenberg (Linus van Pelt), and Keri Houlihan (Marcie).


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Police Story (1985, Jackie Chan)

Much of Police Story operates on charm. If it’s not co-writer, star, and director Jackie Chan’s charm, it’s charm of the scenes. There are some painfully uncharming moments–mostly Chan’s frequent neglective abuse of girlfriend Maggie Cheung–but even when Police Story is in its stunt spectacular mode, there’s charm.

The film doesn’t open with charm, however. It opens with this all-exposition police briefing introduction to drug kingpin Chor Yuen. The cops, including Chan, are getting their assignment. Next scene is execution of that assignment, the cops trying to just Chor and his large gang of gunmen in a shanty town. Things go wrong almost immediately (because the cops assumed the criminals wouldn’t notice a bunch of guys around wearing earpieces?), leading to a big shootout.

Chan, as star, hangs back for most of the shootout proper. He comes in to save the day, chases Chor up the mountain (the shanty town is the side of it), then chases him back down–in cars, destroying the shanty town. The scale of the sequence is amazing, making up for Chan’s middling shot composition. He and editor Peter Cheung are showing off the effects executions in Police Story; they’re sensationalizing, not trying to fit into the film’s tone.

Admittedly, given the tone is genial slapstick, the brutal violence of the action sequences (and fist fights) would be hard to fit into that geniality.

After another great action sequence where Chan boards a moving bus and fights off some henchmen, then gets thrown from said bus and still manages to stop it, he ends up poster boy for the Hong Kong police department. For some reason, his bosses also give him the job of protecting hostile witness Brigitte Lin, who works for drug lord Chor.

Lin doesn’t want protection, leading to a montage sequence of Chan following her around while the peppy, cartoonish score (from Michael Lai and Tang Siu-Lam) blares. After some narrative diversion, the bad guys strike, leading to Chan bringing Lin back to his place, where they run into Cheung (and a surprise birthday party for Chan). The next fifteen minutes or so is Chan passively and actively abusing Cheung, which is off-putting, though the movie has enough sensitivity for bad girl Lin to immediately (and sincerely) befriend good girl Cheung.

That C plot character relationship is one of the best things in Police Story, at least as narrative goes; it helps Cheung and Lin give the film’s two best performances. Ninety percent of the male cast (Cheung and Lin are the only female cast members, at least of substance) just mug for the camera.

There’s a really funny courtroom scene, there’s a bunch of great action scenes–the strangest thing about Police Story’s action (and its emphasis on the stunts) is how the biggest stunt, despite being an accomplishment for Chan (they show it from three different angles), is narratively inert. Chan knows how to stage a fantastic stunt sequence. He just doesn’t have much sense as for how narratively effective that sequence is going to be. Same goes for the slapstick set pieces. There’s a lengthy one involving Chan and a bunch of telephones ringing and he contorts his way around to answer all of them. It’s charming enough, but runs way too long. Chan and editor Cheung think because they’ve got that peppy music going, a sequence can go forever. It’s not good peppy, cartoonish music. It’s just peppy, cartoonish music.

The second half of the movie is Chan gone rogue, trying to bring down Chor. Its non-action scenes are some of Chan’s better directing. In the first half, despite being an acrobatic, unstoppable supercop, Chan’s a doofus. In the second half, he’s much less a doofus (leading to the film’s most awkward moment, Chan monologuing about being an unappreciated cop). But the scenes work better, direction-wise. Even if Cheung does pop up just to take Chan’s gentle but intentional verbal abuse or, you know, screw things up.

The big finale, despite the three-peated stunt being narratively blasé, is fantastic. Police Story’s stuntwork isn’t just fantastic for the abuse Chan puts himself through for a shot, it’s the abuse he puts the film’s other stuntmen through. And Lin. She’s obviously performing a bunch of her own stunts, even if the action is only there to shock cruelty value.

None of the villains stand out. Chor’s a thin Mr. Big, overshadowed by his henchmen (who are even more shallow but their performances aren’t) and particularly his lawyer, Lau Chi-wing. Bill Tung’s fun as Chan’s supervisor. Lam Kwok-hung is a little much as the straight-edge accountant police commander though. Police Story goes with caricature even when the actors seem capable of more. And the character consistency, script-wise, is always a little questionable. But with Lam… it’s like he’s not in one the joke when he needs to be.

Police Story is a spectacular spectacle of stuntwork. And the rest is a reasonable enough packaging of said spectacle. But a feature-length expansion of the end credits, which show the behind the scenes of the stunts, would probably make for a better film.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Jackie Chan; written by Chan and Edward Tang; director of photography, Cheung Yiu-Tsou; edited by Peter Cheung; music by Michael Lai and Tang Siu-Lam; production designer, Oliver Wong; produced by Leonard Ho; released by Golden Harvest Company.

Starring Jackie Chan (Chan Ka Kui), Maggie Cheung (May), Brigitte Lin (Selina Fong), Lam Kwok-Hung (Supt. Raymond Li), Bill Tung (Inspector Bill Wong), Chor Yuen (Chu Tao), Lau Chi-Wing (Cheung, the Lawyer), and Kam Hing-Yin (Inspector Man).


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