John Gholson is a writer and cartoonist whose work has appeared on Movies.com, Fandango, and GQ. He’s also an actor, and can be seen in the films Zero Charisma, Meet Me There, and the upcoming Seeso exclusive Hidden American with Jonah Ray. You can follow him on Twitter at @gholson.
Though Better Off Dead is widely considered the better of “Savage” Steve Holland’s two John-Cusack-as-a-cartoonist-who-wins-a-sporting-event comedies, I’m partial to One Crazy Summer. When I was 11 years old, the gag in which Bobcat Goldthwait gets stuck in a knockoff Godzilla costume and, in a panic, finds himself tromping around at a fancy real estate party was the absolute pinnacle of comedy.
Does it hold up? Well, the Godzilla bit is a little dusty, but there’s plenty of other absurdity in here to glom onto. The cast is filled to the brim with people I typically like to see in my movies. Besides Cusack and Goldthwait, there are appearances by Demi Moore, Curtis Armstrong, Joe Flaherty, Joel Murray, Billie Bird, William Hickey, Rich Hall, and Tom Villard and Taylor Negron, both of whom are no longer with us. There’s also an extended, memorable background bit about a rabid dolphin movie titled Foam that ends up paying off. If the class struggle “losers vs yuppies” plot was already rote by 1986, Holland still finds ways to work in his unique comedic voice. It’s not quite spoof humor, but there’s a living cartoon element to this and Better Off Dead that unites them as sibling films.
David Lander, best known as “Squiggy” from Laverne & Shirley, stars in this unusual and darkly comedic gem about a theme park clown mascot put out of a job when the park is taken over by new owners. He plots revenge with guidance from the ghost of Humphrey Bogart (Bogie dead ringer Robert Sacchi) and a puppet named Peter Pepperoni.
The movie, early work from writers Bonnie and Terry Turner (Wayne’s World, That 70’s Show) defies description as it alternates between funny, outrageous, tense, and pathetic. There’s an old Stuart Gordon quote that says a movie should show you at least one thing you’ve never seen before. Funland shows about a half dozen things you’ve never seen before and deserves some kind of cult following for it. This was on Netflix for a long while, and was always my go-to recommendation when people asked for something different to watch on Netflix.
“Texas comes from the Caddoan word for ‘friend.’” David Byrne’s sole narrative feature film writing/directing credit (with a writing assist from character actor Stephen Tobolowsky) is a surprisingly warm ode to a Texas town on the cusp of a tech boom. Byrne acts as our guide and narrator through the fictional Virgil, Texas, skirting through vignettes as the town preps for a “Specialness” parade and talent show. Byrne is non-judgmental about consumerism and the impending corporatizing of just about everything, finding optimism in the goodness of the people who push Virgil forward in the name of progress.
The most memorable of the Virgil characters, through sheer burgeoning star power and charisma, is John Goodman as Louis Fyne (“I’m a dancing fool!”). Fyne’s the only character with a thread throughout the film, as he seeks a devoted relationship with the right woman. Other familiar faces include Swoosie Kurtz as a bed-ridden TV junkie and Spalding Grey as a rich land developer. While, these characters have their moments, it’s Fyne that gets a full story.
True Stories is a quasi-musical, but the soundtrack (which I picked up at a $1 store when I was a kid) is light on Talking Heads tunes, and heavy on perky Muzak-like instrumentals and songs sung by the characters sprinkled throughout (almost none of which were on that aforementioned cassette). Fyne’s half-written improptu love song is probably my favorite of these musical moments. True Stories is a gentle, film and it’s a shame we don’t have such a thing as “David Byrne movies.”
I wish I had more information about Jim Varney’s first starring film, Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam. It was Ernest who was popular at the time, and one would think an Ernest movie would’ve been first out of the gate to capitalize on Varney’s growing fame. Instead, Varney (along with regular collaborator John Cherry III) chose to make a super-villain caper comedy that showcases a half-dozen of Varney’s characters besides Ernest. (There’s an Ernest opening that feels tacked on at the last minute, in which the yokel introduces the film.)
It’s recommended if you like stuff like 80’s-era Weird Al and Pee-Wee Herman. Dr. Otto is a maniacal super-genius with a third hand growing out of his head, a smiley-faced robot sidekick named Willie, and his own team of henchwomen, all dedicated to destroying the world economy. When Varney wants to change characters, Dr. Otto steps into his transformation coffin and becomes someone new to further the story along or trick the dimbulb hero Lance . There’s an obvious glass ceiling to the budget here that keeps its sci-fi elements in check, but it’s funky, charming, and often witty. Varney is so outsized here no other performer, save Daniel Butler as his robot, can even come close to matching his levels of energy. One year later, Varney would devote himself fully to Ernest movies, and Dr. Otto would become a side character he dusted off occasionally for his Hey, Vern! It’s Ernest Saturday morning TV show.
Doubly overshadowed, by not being as hip as its John Hughes contemporaries and by being primarily marketed as some kind of football movie, Lucas should be re-considered by modern audiences as one of the better teen films of the 1980’s. There are no easy answers in Lucas, no tidy classifications of nerds versus jocks, and the kids are more real for it.
Corey Haim stars as the title character, a clueless 14 year old, who misses his window of opportunity for a romantic connection with the new girl at school (The Goonies’ Kerri Green) before she’s enamored of the nice guy jock who defies everyone’s expectations (Charlie Sheen). Haim would steer directly into his teenybopper sex symbol persona soon after, and a revisit to Lucas makes us wonder what kind of character actor Haim might’ve been if things had worked out differently.
Lucas is authentically geeky, not “movie” geeky. Puberty hasn’t hit him yet, so he still looks like a little kid in a world of young men. He likes bugs and classical music, and isn’t particularly good at communication. He’s also deeply flawed and insecure, saying things about materialism and his fellow students that seem true at the moment that only turn out to be hypocrisy as Lucas’s story unfolds.
The finale is a little too sweet and treacly, but the journey to that point feels more true about adolescence than the same year’s hit Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I’m sure teens at the time were (and still are) more interested in the unattainable fantasy of Ferris Bueller over Lucas’s struggles, but tonally David Seltzer’s film is the prototype for modern teen indies like The Spectacular Now, Kings of Summer, and Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl.