May 24, 2011

Class of 1984 (1982)

IT'S BEEN A LONG TIME COMING, but it’s here at last: a new addition to Trashterpiece Theatre.

The new music teacher at run-down Abraham Lincoln High School, pacifist Andy Norris (Perry King), clashes with student and gang leader Stegman (Timothy Van Patten), who declares the school as his own. The idealistic Mr. Norris soon becomes the main target of Stegman’s gang, as ongoing incidents build to a brutal showdown.


Director Mark Lester (Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw, Commando) puts plenty of substance into Class of 1984 to raise it above typical B-movie exploitation. In addition to frequent and brilliant use of foreshadowing, he balances the sleaze and violence with scenes that give dimension to the characters and earn our empathy – such as Norris and his wife (Merrie Lynn Ross) talking about their pregnancy and Roddy McDowall’s biology teacher, Mr. Corrigan, tearfully lamenting to Norris that he feels like a failure at his profession.

A large part of Class of 1984’s personality is its atmosphere. The grimy, graffiti-covered walls of the high school, paired with the eerie and synth-tastic score by Lalo Schifrin, create a setting of decay and grime that oozes off the screen.

King is perfect as the peaceful Mr. Norris, who tries in vain to play by the rules to have Stegman’s gang arrested. Van Patten portrays one of the most underrated sociopaths in B-movie history as the formidable Stegman, the gifted delinquent who runs his gang, the school, and even the town’s punk nightlife. And while it may seem like he’s slumming here, McDowall gives a terrific performance as the cynical Corrigan, bringing more depth and emotion to the role than expected in a film like this. (Best line, as he raises a drink in his classroom full of caged lab creatures after hours: “To the lower animals. They never kill each other without good reason.”)

Of course, films like Class of 1984 aren’t any fun if the good guy always plays by the rules, and Norris finally takes matters into his own hands – starting with trashing Stegman’s prized car and ending with a brutal, nighttime cat-and-mouse showdown in the catacombs of the high school during a band concert.

Normally, the violence displayed would be repulsive and reprehensible. But in the context of a movie like this, it’s delicious, depraved, and deserving. There are gruesome, over-the-top kills – including a final death that’s a literal showstopper.

Class of 1984 does have its shortcomings. There are one too many “nobody saw them do it” excuses by the school administration and the police for not arresting Stegman and his gang. Van Patten overdoes the “crazy eyes” at times when putting Stegman’s psychosis on display. And Ross’ portrayal as King’s expectant wife is underwhelming and more of a plot device than anything (Ross was once married to Lester).

Class of 1984 is exploitative B-movie fun. True, it has a still-relevant social commentary and a solid story at its core. But it’s the layers of sleaze, grime, and violence that make it a highly entertaining Trashterpiece.

* Co-writer Tom Holland wrote and directed two of the ‘80s biggest horror films: 1985’s Fright Night (also starring McDowall) and 1988’s Child’s Play.
* Lester often shoots Van Patten’s Stegman from below to make him more ominous, following D.W. Griffith’s adage, “Shoot from above for an angel; shoot from below for a devil.”
* Class of 1984 features an early film appearance by Michael J. Fox as Arthur, the innocent trumpeter torn between helping Mr. Norris or facing the wrath of Stegman and his gang.

Is it suitable for your kids?
No. No it’s not. A big part of Class of 1984 is the violence, and it comes in many forms: People are bullied, stabbed, beaten, burned alive, dismembered, run over, hanged, and fall to their death. Two members of Stegman’s gang occasionally wear shirts featuring swastikas, and in one scene they do a mock Nazi salute as Norris takes attendance. There’s also strong use of profanities (including a few gay and racial slurs), a scene of full female nudity, drug and alcohol use, and a classroom of lab animals are shown mutilated after an act of vandalism.

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
I’d love to get my wife, a high school English teacher, to watch Class of 1984 and hear her thoughts (she has a music degree, and both of her parents are retired music teachers). However, I think the brutal violence of the film would be off-putting to her. If you can get your FilmMother to watch Class of 1984, be sure to share her reaction in the comments.

“Hey, weren’t you in The White Shadow?
“Yeah, aren’t you gonna be in Riptide?

Class of 1984
* Director: Mark Lester
* Screenwriters: Mark Lester, John Saxton, Tom Holland
* Stars: Perry King, Timothy Van Patten, Roddy McDowall, Merrie Lynn Ross, Michael J. Fox
* MPAA Rating: R

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May 16, 2011

Son of Godzilla (1967)

TO MY DELIGHT, Dash showed an interest in Godzilla last year when he discovered the Saturday morning animated series from the late ‘70s, which was a childhood favorite of mine during its brief run.

But for Dash and Jack-Jack’s first exposure to the classic Godzilla movies, I needed something just as age-appropriate. That may sound silly, since the Godzilla flicks are essentially men fighting in rubber suits as they demolish models of Japanese cities and villages. But in many of these films, the humans are more violent than the monsters. (In Destroy All Monsters, people are shot in the head and throw themselves off cliffs.)

So after checking the “parents guide” pages of many of the Godzilla flicks at the IMDb, I landed on Son of Godzilla.

Scientists experimenting with changes in weather on a tropical island get more than they bargained for when Godzilla shows up to battle humongous insects and protect his newborn child, Minilla.


Purists of the Godzilla franchise largely disown Son of Godzilla, calling it pandering and childish compared to other entries in the series. But that’s exactly why it felt like a good place to start with my 8- and 5-year old boys.

It’s easy to see why more fervent fans of the Godzilla series find Son of Godzilla a bit corny. A couple of examples:
  • The opening situations involving the scientists on the island, and the musical score that accompanies them, are very lighthearted and reminiscent of the tone of live-action Disney films of the same era.
  • Goofy music plays whenever Minilla is fumbling about, and at one point the filmmakers even have Minilla throw a kicking, screaming temper tantrum on his back.
The film spends too much time trying to give substance to the scientists’ efforts to control the weather, and there’s a budding romance between investigative reporter Goro (Akira Kubo) and native island girl Riko (Bibari Maeda) that’s harmless enough.

But the human storylines aren’t why we watch these films. We want to see giant rubber monsters throw down, which is what makes the classic Godzilla films exciting, cheesy fun (here, Godzilla and Minilla battle giant praying mantises and a monstrous, web-slinging spider). Unfortunately, the battles in Son of Godzilla are infrequent, and the best clash (where Godzilla takes on the praying mantises) is early in the film and too brief to be satisfying.

While Son of Godzilla is by no means a classic (though the ending is oddly touching), it was a good first choice for introducing Dash and Jack-Jack to the Godzilla film series. Now the question is: Which one do we see next? Suggestions are welcome in the comments below.

* A year after Son of Godzilla, Kubo also starred in the aforementioned Destroy All Monsters.
* Director Jun Fukuda directed several other films in the Godzilla series, including Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, Godzilla vs. Gigan, Godzilla vs. Megalon, and Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla.


What did Dash and Jack-Jack think?
After only one brief appearance by Godzilla in the first 25 minutes, Jack-Jack’s patience was tested, while surprisingly Dash was interested in the dubbed dialogue of the Japanese cast. To their credit, they both stuck with it to the end, even when there were long stretches of action-less dialogue (a pitfall of many of the Godzilla films).
Dash (on the praying mantis): “It’s not really scary.”
Jack-Jack: “I think I like the girl the most. I think the girl knows everything.”

Is it suitable for your kids?
Son of Godzilla is rated PG for “sci-fi monster violence.” Godzilla bodyslams and breathes fire on several of the giant mantises, as well as the giant spider. In a couple of other scenes, Minilla is in peril as the monsters pursue him. Also, a man is attacked by one of the giant spider’s claws, but escapes unharmed.
From the humans, there are separate mentions of a concentration camp and having a cold beer, men shoot their rifles at a giant praying mantis, a man gets grazed in the arm by a bullet, and there is a brief scene of smoking.

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
I haven’t met any serious female Godzilla fans in my lifetime, though I’m sure they’re out there. I’m guessing this would be more of a you-and-the-boy(s) situation if you decide to check it out.

And he was stompin' 'fore I knew it, and as he grew,
He'd say, "I'm gonna be like you, dad / You know I'm gonna be like you."

Son of Godzilla
* Director: Jun Fukuda
* Screenwriters: Shinichi Sekizawa, Kazue Shiba
* Stars: Tadao Takashima, Akira Kubo, Bibari Maeda
* MPAA Rating: PG

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May 6, 2011

Rio (2011)

LOOKING AT MY REVIEWS for April, I noticed there wasn’t one kid movie in the whole bunch. (The last was the terrific LEGO movie from mid-March.)

I usually try to alternate kid movies with dad movies, or at least stick to a 2-to-1 ratio to keep things somewhat balanced. But I fell short last month, and I needed to stock up on more reviews of kid flicks.

As fate, luck, and good timing would have it, the four of us got out to see a family-friendly movie together over Spring Break…

Set in Rio de Janeiro and the rainforest of Brazil, Rio centers on Blu (Jesse Eisenberg), a rare macaw who thinks he is the last of his kind. When Blu’s owner (Leslie Mann) is told that there's another — a female macaw — she takes Blue from the comforts of his cage in small-town Minnesota and heads with him to Rio. But it's far from love at first sight between domesticated, flight-challenged Blu and fiercely independent, high-flying Jewel (Anne Hathaway). Unexpectedly thrown together, they embark on an adventure where they learn about friendship, love, courage, and being open to life's many wonders.


With a lavish opening musical number featuring dozens of colorful tropical birds, Rio makes its intentions of a festive experience known immediately. Yet after that opening number, the festivities take a back seat as Blu and his owner make the tough decision to head to Rio and help his species survive by, um, “relating” with Jewel. (FYI: The mating concept is handled lightly and comically, so don’t worry about having to explain the birds and the bees – or in this case, the bird and the bird – to your kids.)

The design and art direction in Rio are truly something to behold – lush, extravagant backdrops and settings, including wide aerial shots that look like true-life photographs of Rio’s mountains, beaches, and iconic Jesus statue.

Eisenberg brings his trademark neurotic delivery to the voice of Blu, which is a perfect fit since Blu is unsure and skittish about much of what (and whom) he encounters during his journey. Hathaway is a good fit and enjoyable as the strong-willed and eventually sympathetic Jewel. And as much I was fearing over-the-top, grating performances from George Lopez and Tracy Morgan, they reeled it in just enough to make their characters (Rafael the toucan and Luiz and the bulldog) a lot of fun. In addition, Flight of the Concords’ Jemaine Clement provides one of the most memorable animated villains since Toy Story 3’s Lotso Huggin’ Bear as the sadistic cockatoo Nigel.

Music – specifically, Latin dance – plays a huge part in Rio, and rightfully so since the film takes place in Rio de Janeiro during Carnavale. Legendary musician/producer Sergio Mendes, along with Black Eyed Peas leader, provide a rich soundtrack highlighted by the film’s signature track, “Hot Wings.” In addition, Rio’s music brings something back to animated features that hasn’t been heard since Disney’s early ‘90s heyday: signature songs by the characters in the film. The best of the bunch is Nigel’s wicked tune, “Pretty Bird."

Character development in Rio is a slow build, but it eventually gets there, along with much more laugh-out-loud comedy. Yes, there’s a pinch of pop culture references, but not too much as to spoil things or jeopardize the film’s freshness ten years from now.

With Rio, director Carlos Saldanha (and a small team of screenwriters) has tapped into something unique in both story and location. Yes, Pixar still has nothing to worry about (though rumor has it they canceled their film Newt because it was too similar in story). But with its gorgeous, vibrant, energetic vibe, Rio is well with the trip.

Will your kids like it?
Absolutely. Rio is a lot of fun, with great songs, fun characters, and a visually amazing execution.

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
The trailers really didn’t sell Rio as anything special, but the film is much better than she may expect. Convince her to make it a movie for the whole family to watch; nobody will be disappointed.

Hmmm...did the filmmakers intend for this
shot to be in 3-D? Guess we'll never know...

* Director: Carlos Saldanha
* Screenwriters: Don Rhymer, Joshua Sternin, Jeffrey Ventimilia, Sam Harper
* Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Anne Hathaway, Tracy Morgan, Leslie Mann, Rodrigo Santoro, George Lopez, Jake T. Austin, Carlos Ponce, Bernardo De Paula, Wanda Sykes, Jane Lynch,
* MPAA Rating: G

Rent Rio from Netflix >>


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