July 1, 2012

An Underrated Classic Turns 25

“Nuclear weapons, Jack. They mean nothing. Everybody’s got ’em, nobody has the balls to use ’em. Am I right? Space, you say. Space is a flop. Didn’t you know that? An endless junkyard of orbiting debris. Ahhh…..but….miniaturization, Jack. That’s the ticket. That’s the edge that everybody’s been looking for. Who will have that edge, Jack? What country will control miniaturization? Frankly, I don’t give a shit. I’m only in this for the money.”

I can’t say why exactly, but that has always been one of my favorite pieces of film dialogue. You’ll never find it alongside universally regarded Classic Movie Lines/Speeches like Humphrey Bogart’s final words to Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca or Marlon Brando’s “The horror” passage from Apocalypse Now, but I hold it in comparable esteem. And I’m guessing that only about three potential readers of this post might recognize it. The line comes from Innerspace, one of my all-time favorite movies, which was released 25 years ago today – part of my seminal summer of 1987 that I wrote about in May as the time when I fell fatally in love with the movies. Lots of films are celebrated when they reach milestone anniversaries, but I figured that little attention would be lavished on Innerspace. Today, I’m here to speak for it.

Innerspace is a forgotten 80’s classic. There were so many great movies in the 80’s that some of them are bound to be neglected. But like many of the decade’s best movies, this one was executive produced by Steven Spielberg, putting it on a list that includes Poltergeist, Back to the Future, The Goonies, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Gremlins. These are all movies that are discussed fondly and frequently in circles of movie geeks who came of age during that decade, yet despite being firmly in the same wheelhouse as these classics, Innerspace is seldom mentioned. It was even directed by Gremlins helmer Joe Dante, whose 80’s output also included The Howling, Explorers, The ‘Burbs and a great segment in Twilight Zone: The Movie. So where’s the love? A few months ago, a fellow WordPress blogger and mega movie enthusiast who runs a site called “Fogs’ Movie Reviews” put a question to his readers: What Are Your Favorite Films From the 1980’s? The topic elicited a wealth of responses. Some titles, like The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ghostbusters, Aliens, The Princess Bride, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Back to the Future, were mentioned frequently, while many others were championed only here or there. I was sad to see only one person cite Innerspace…though to be fair, some people – myself included – didn’t want to repeat titles that others had already named. Still, I’d hoped Innerspace might come up a few times.

I wrote in my summer of ’87 piece that Innerspace was the first movie my friends and I went to see without any parental accompaniment, which lends it special significance for me. Being old enough to go the movies ourselves was a key rite of passage. Innerspace is one of those movies that I will always associate with a certain place and time. I even remember seeing commercials on HBO heralding its impending pay cable premiere; to this day, certain shots will pop as I watch the movie because I remember them being in those commercials. But I promise, my enduring love for the movie is no mere byproduct of nostalgia. And the movie isn’t one of those that I loved as a kid only to discover as an adult that it doesn’t hold up. Innerspace totally holds up. I have such affection for this movie, which I don’t deny is expressly tied to being 10 years old when I first saw it. This particular blend of sci-fi and comedy was perfect for me at a time when I was really getting into movies, I loved special effects and my sense of humor was taking shape. Dante is a huge Looney Tunes fan, and the comedic influence of those classic cartoons is often reflected in his work. It certainly was here, and as a Looney Tunes lover myself, it surely helped explain my appreciation for the movie. (Legendary Looney Tunes director Chuck Jones has a cameo in the film, as he did in Gremlins.)  I was also getting familiar with Saturday Night Live‘s legacy at that time – watching classic sketches in rerun, and marveling that Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Billy Crystal and Martin Short all had that show in common…though of course for Short, the legacy really dates back to SCTV. (My family’s traditional Christmas Day movie in ’86 was Three Amigos, which also helped me understand the influence and importance of SNL.)

If you’re unfamiliar with the movie, I should probably give you the lowdown. Set in and around San Francisco, it’s a sci-fi comedy starring Dennis Quaid as a military test pilot with the improbably macho name Tuck Pendleton, who agrees to participate in a top-secret experiment in which, manning a tightly confined flying capsule, he will be miniaturized and injected into a laboratory rabbit to run a series of experiments. Unfortunately, a case of poorly timed international espionage disrupts the procedure, and Pendleton winds up injected into a somewhat nerdy grocery clerk named Jack Putter (Martin Short), who also happens to be the world’s biggest hypochondriac. He’s a stressed out Nervous Nellie, and according to his doctor, the last thing he needs is excitement or danger. Wanna guess how that’s gonna work out? Once Pendleton establishes contact with his host, the duo have no choice but to work together and try to get the shrunken man out before his oxygen expires or other nefarious forces interfere. It’s essentially a buddy movie…in which one buddy is flying around inside the other buddy’s body. (The movie’s stellar visual effects were created by Industrial Light & Magic, and went on to win an Oscar the following year. In fact, the first Oscar prediction I ever made was that Innerspace would beat Predator for Best Visual Effects. Little did I know how deep that rabbit hole would go.) Meg Ryan, in one of her earliest film performances, also stars as Pendleton’s estranged girlfriend Lydia, a journalist who Tuck and Jack enlist for help. Without spoiling how it all turns out, I’ll say that as a kid, I always hoped there would be a sequel, as the final scene totally sets up the story to continue. But there was never any real intent to make a follow-up; it’s just meant to be a fun finale. I suppose it’s better that no sequel was made. I’m sure it wouldn’t have been as good. (Though maybe Dante could have pulled it off; he certainly did with Gremlins 2: The New Batch.)

The role of Pendleton was originally intended for an older actor, maybe in his forties. But the filmmakers met with Quaid, who was only 32 at the time (I can’t believe that!), and felt that he was a great fit for the part. Although he and Short wouldn’t share any substantial screentime together, the buddy dynamic still had to work just as well as it does in, say, Lethal Weapon, so the part of Jack Putter was cast with that in mind. They hadn’t really thought about someone as out-and-out comedic as Martin Short, but when they met with him, and then put him together with Quaid, the chemistry was clear. I don’t know what they had in mind for Putter initially, but Short seems like ideal casting when you consider that co-writer Jeffrey Boam (who also penned Lethal Weapon 2 and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) envisioned the movie as a Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis comedy; what would happen if Dean was trapped inside Jerry’s body? It’s a pretty interesting relationship to create from a technical standpoint, because Tuck can see Jack’s point of view on his capsule monitor, and they can talk to each other. In order to preserve the spontaneity and improvisation that comes out of two actors working together in the moment, Quaid and Short were always on set during the filming of each other’s scenes, feeding lines to the other through a microphone. In addition, many of Short’s scenes had to be filmed twice: once with the camera on him, and once with him wearing a helmet-cam in order to capture his POV for Tuck’s monitor. Both actors are so great in the movie, and Quaid especially deserves credit for making his character so engaging when he’s stuck sitting in a tiny cockpit for nearly the full two-hour duration.

The rest of the cast is great too. Ryan was excellent, and clearly bound for stardom. Many of the smaller parts, meanwhile, were populated by actors frequently featured in Dante’s work. Wendy Schall plays a co-worker of Jack’s, and has a moment in her first scene that spun me into a fit of uncontrollable giddy laughter when I first noticed it (it took me a few viewings of the movie before I caught what she did). She only has a few scenes, and while they’re all intended to be funny, she actually manages to add an unexpected bit of depth to the character that makes her kind of sad. Another actor worth mentioning wasn’t really an actor at all. The scientist at the lab in charge of the experiment, Ozzie, is played by John Hora, who was the cinematographer for all of Dante’s previous films. When describing the slightly absent-minded professor quality they wanted for the character, Hora was named as an inspiration, so Spielberg suggested they cast the man himself. Again, it’s a small part, but he  plays it really well – funny, and like Schall, a little sad. Dante’s gallery of recurring actors are all so great I could spend time talking about each one – Robert Picardo as the bizarre stolen goods trafficker The Cowboy, Kevin McCarthy as refined villain Victor Scrimshaw – but I’ll resist the urge to mention them all. I suspect that at this point I’ve already alienated the few people who might have cared about this post to begin with. Just trust me when I say it’s a colorful gallery of characters.

I miss seeing movies by Joe Dante. He’s only directed two features since 2000, and one of the those – 2009’s The Hole – has yet to receive U.S. distribution. (Actually, news just broke a few days ago that it’s apparently heading to DVD on September 25th.) Point is, Dante was responsible for some damn fun movies back in the day. They were skillfully made and had a distinct sense of humor. I’m not sure if his limited output of late is a personal choice, or an inability to get his desired projects funded, but whatever is stopping him, I consider it a shame. He notes in the DVD commentary for Innerspace that after the box office failure of his previous film, Explorers, he wanted to do something with more mainstream appeal. The sweetness and romantic comedy aspects of Innerspace were supposed to satisfy that desire, but he jokes that the finished product still comes off as another wacky Joe Dante movie. Which is just fine by me.

So if you’re a child of the 80’s who is passing on the decade’s cultural legacy to your own children, or nieces and nephews, or cousins, or kids you’ve kidnapped, or whatever, don’t forget to include this gem amongst the more expected fare. It’s a guaranteed happy-fun time, and if even a couple of people who’ve never seen it check it out as a result of reading this, I’ll be pleased.

Happy 25th, Innerspace.

May 12, 2012

25 Years of Brain-Saturating, Personality-Defining, Socially-Crippling, All-Consuming Movie Fandom

Filed under: Movies — DB @ 1:38 pm
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In May 1987, a couple of months after I turned 10, my family went on vacation to Florida. We spent a few days at Disney World, then it was on to Delray Beach to visit my grandparents. They lived in a large, multi-building retirement complex that was, I’m sure, entirely occupied by other Jewish grandparents. There was a clubhouse on the property used for various social activities, including weekly screenings of recent movies. This was back in the dark ages when a year or so elapsed between a movie’s theatrical release and its arrival on home video. The movie playing during our visit was Nothing in Common. Do you know it? Tom Hanks plays a hotshot Chicago advertising executive who’s on the cusp of landing a major client when he learns that his mother (Eva Marie Saint) has left his father (Jackie Gleason, in his final film) after 36 years of marriage. Hanks’ character hasn’t been the most attentive son, and has never been close with his parents, but he finds himself drawn into their lives after they split. Gleason eventually faces a serious health problem, and Hanks is forced to choose between being with his father in the hospital or attending a meeting with his major client. I don’t want to spoil what happens in case you’ve never seen it and suddenly find yourself moved to add it your Netflix queue, but here’s the important part of the story: when the movie ended, I was sobbing.

Serious, severe sobbing.

I was destroyed, racked by gushing tears, the kind that prevent you from catching your breath, and cause your words to come out in a heaving staccato. I’d been overtaken by an emotional tidal wave that I was utterly unprepared for. My parents were equally unprepared. They had no idea what to do with me. Strangers stared at them. Whispered aspersions of their parenting skills drifted around us as we made our way out to the warm air of the parking lot and walked back to my grandparents’ apartment. The movie was PG-13, but the commercials from when it had been in theaters made it seem harmless enough. It was marketed as a comedy, Tom Hanks was in it (I was already a fan of Splash and The Money Pit), Jackie Gleason was in it, it looked amusing…I’m sure my parents figured it would be fine to take me.

Quick pause here while I say to anyone who read my Titanic post last month, you might be getting the impression that these tearful breakdowns are commonplace for me. Not the case. I have no problem admitting there are movies that make me cry, but the Titanic experience and this one were far and away the most dramatic and irregular. In this case, it was the first time I had been so emotionally affected by a movie. I never could articulate why it struck me so profoundly. Sure, I guess I was a sensitive kid, tuned into emotions, but even so…this movie did a number on me. (For what it’s worth, I also remember laughing a lot, even though I didn’t understand all the jokes.) I still have a soft spot for Nothing in Common. The story and the performances hold up well, although there’s a distinct 1980’s vibe that occasionally dates it, and there is one unforgivable scene where Hanks and his new love interest, while visiting her family’s farm, observe a pair of horses in heat and proceed to enact their own mating ritual, all set to a bland 80’s pop song. It’s comically horrifying.

Anyway, what is the point of this slightly embarrassing anecdote from my childhood? Well, in the years since, I’ve wondered if subconsciously, my unprecedented reaction to Nothing in Common contributed to my becoming such a devout movie fan. This was the first time a movie had been more than just fun or cool. This was different. And it was shortly after this incident that I officially became a certified – and some might say certifiable – Movie Lover…meaning this year marks my 25th anniversary of being obsessed with movies.

I always loved movies, but it was around the summer of 1987 that they began to consume me. That was when movies took over my life. They were like a vampire, and I was the unsuspecting chump walking down a dark street alone at night. I was grabbed, I was bitten, I was turned. There’s been no going back. I have been, forever since, a creature of the movies.

It was a pretty solid season of offerings. Among the movies that hit during the summer of ’87: The Untouchables, Predator, Robocop, The Witches of Eastwick, Roxanne, Harry and the Hendersons, Stakeout, and The Living Daylights. There was also Adventures in Babysitting (hello Elisabeth Shue…or as I probably knew her up until then, Hot Girl from The Karate Kid) and The Lost Boys, which not only looked badass, but introduced another hot girl whose name I would soon know as Jami Gertz. Mind you, these aren’t even the movies I saw at the time. It would be at least a couple of years before I watched any of these, but I still associate them with that summer. When weekly movie review shows like Siskel & Ebert came on, I watched them just to see the clips of each movie. (I was also feeling the residual effects of spring releases like The Secret of My Success and Project X.)

So what did I see? Naturally, Spaceballs was a highlight. As a fan of Star Wars and Mel Brooks (or at least Young Frankenstein, which I’d recently been introduced to), I pretty much hounded my parents about that one. Innerspace was the first movie my friends and I went to alone, without adults. Masters of the Universe was essential viewing, given that I was really into He-Man. (Even at 10, I was disappointed in that awful movie.) I had a crush on a girl in my class, and counted myself lucky to be one of five friends invited to go to the movies on her birthday. We saw Ernest Goes to Camp.

I lapped up movies however I could. With my friend from across the street, I started hanging out around the corner at our neighborhood video store, Video Adventures. The owner was a friendly guy named Dan, and he was amused by our near-daily company. He would let me have his trade magazines when he was done with them, and I would flip through them, cutting out pictures with the idea that I might make a big collage one day. (I haven’t done it yet…but I still have the clippings.)

I was starting to crave a way to own a piece of the movies, and movie posters seemed like a good way of doing that. So Dan would give us the posters from the store windows when he took them down (I remember being especially eager to get my hands on Little Shop of Horrors). Movie poster collecting became a sub-obsession during my teens. Convinced that I was going to be a rich and famous movie director someday, I didn’t think twice about buying tons of posters, since I would obviously have a huge mansion where I could hang them all. Yes, I really thought that. And no, none of them are currently displayed in my one-bedroom apartment. They remain rolled up in tubes in a closet at my parents house. So…many…posters.

I would flip through the movie section of Sunday’s Boston Globe to pore over the movie ads. I started saving my stubs from movie theaters. Movie quotes became my vocabulary. The geekiest extreme to which my fandom extended was probably figuring out which movie studios had deals with which cable companies, so I could determine what would eventually come to HBO (which we had) vs. what would go to Showtime (which we didn’t), based on whether the movie was from Warner Brothers, Paramount, Universal, etc. Tell me this was not the mark of an ill child.

Before I started buying movie posters (and continuing after I did), my spending money began going toward cassettes of movie soundtracks. Beverly Hills Cop, Ghostbusters, Return of the Jedi…pop songs or instrumental scores, I wanted it all. I watched MTV every day for any music video that was from a movie. That summer’s slate included Bob Seger’s “Shakedown” from Beverly Hills Cop II (later nominated for an Oscar)…

…Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” from Mannequin (a February release, but close enough…and also nominated for an Oscar)…

…and the Dan Aykroyd/Tom Hanks rap “City of Crime” from Dragnet. I see now that it’s terrible, but back then I knew it by heart.

That one was NOT nominated for an Oscar….although even there it was pretty obvious Hanks was bound for greatness.

There was this INXS/Jimmy Barnes (whoever he is) collaboration “Good Times” from The Lost Boys (no film-related video available, but here’s the song)…

…and of course, “La Bamba.” Yo no soy marinero, soy capitán, soy capitán, soy capitán.

It was also the summer of Dirty Dancing. Even at 10 years old, “Hungry Eyes” stirred up distinct ideas about things I wanted to do with girls.

“The Time of My Life” was less sexy, but I didn’t care. It was from a movie, and at the time, that was good enough for me. Plus, I may have been the only kid in the world who thought Jennifer Grey was hot. Was I alone there? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller? (See what I did there?)

(Oh, and since we were keeping track, that song won the Oscar.) I know the quality of these videos isn’t great, but if you remember them, seeing them again even in poor condition probably sparks some memories.

I could go on and on about my descent into madness, but I think the point has been made. I called it socially crippling in the title of the post, but that’s not true. Sure, it wasn’t lost on me that while other kids were following the careers of Larry Bird and Wade Boggs, I was more interested in Harrison Ford and Robin Williams. While other kids were collecting baseball cards, I was collecting Who Framed Roger Rabbit cards. (But also Garbage Pail Kids and World Wrestling Federation cards, so at least that was normal.) Soon enough though, I saw that the world is full of movie geeks like me, so I seldom lacked for friends who spoke my language.

So here I am at 35, thinking about the fact that the primary interest of my life was locked in 25 years ago. Now that I’m blogging, I thought I’d make an effort during the rest of the year – or at least the summer, since that was the key time period – to use the “anniversary” as an occasion to explore a few other things that fed my development as a movie fan. Seeing as I write about this kind of stuff anyway, I don’t know that I need such an excuse to dive into these influences…but just because I don’t need it doesn’t mean I can’t take it. So…more to come.

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