Nothing in Common (1986) How did Garry Marshall wind up making one of the best movies of the 1980s? (Surely I’m not the only person who thinks Nothing in Common is one of the best movies of the 1980s. Wait, I am? Huh.) For all its uneven pacing and telltale Marshallisms (hello, Hector Elizondo!), it’s also a brilliant portrait of family, the perfect movie for Father’s Day. Watch how the film spends its early moments playing with notions of how the father and son are so alike despite themselves. We get mirror scenes of Tom Hanks and Jackie Gleason gliding through their worlds, masters of smooth talk; these elements are far more effective than later conversations of the characters actually discussing their similarities and differences. And even as the runaway subplots – the advertising campaign, the wooing of the client’s daughter, the repeat visits to the former flame – steal screen time away from the story’s emotional center, they remain, in their own way, variations on a theme of family and connectedness. When the film finally shakes loose its spare parts and hones in on its father-son center, it becomes something extraordinary: a tearjerker that’s emotionally true. The film’s most impactful scene is its last, but its smartest comes shortly before, in a wordless moment where the son sits in his father’s chair, listening to his father’s music, examining his father’s glasses, trying to understand.
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) Forget complexity. This one’s all about race, and nothing else. Conquest jumps us to the then-speculative future of 1991 (and if there’s one thing I dig, it’s 1970s sci-fi flicks set in a super-bleak future), building on ideas laid down in Escape and effectively erasing the whole point of the original movie’s ending. Instead of apes evolving from men some two millennia after nuclear war, we get apes rising up after less than a decade of slavery; it’s convoluted and ridiculous, but the movie makes it work. There’s some brutal stuff on display here, first with the apes “conditioned” by torture, then with them striking back at their human captors. It’s an intriguing journey, getting us instantly sympathizing with the apes, then testing us to see how far along in their rebellion we’ll go before deciding they’re going too far. The studio’s decision to lighten the ending by hastily adding a kinder, gentler speech from Caesar inadvertently gives the ape leader a similar character arc, seeing how coldblooded he can be driven to be before drawing back. The backpedaling re-edit also adds a tighter focus to the allegory, reminding us with greater clarity how the movie’s ultimate theme is “You need to get angry, but how angry is too much?”
Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) And now, at long last, I arrive at Battle. Often derided as a top grade dud and a ramshackle attempt to keep the franchise going despite a diminished budget and an increasingly ridiculous mythology. And here’s the part where you expect me to say “yes, but…” and launch into a defense of what I find to be a much-maligned gem. Except, no, not really, not this time. I do find it better than its reputation suggests, but I also find I admire it more than I actually like it. Its first half (once you get past the clunky use of footage from the previous films in an effort to pad the run time and paste together some continuity) makes a valiant effort to push the story forward despite its limitations, creating some intriguing set pieces (most notably the journey into the humans’ underground lair). The second half, meanwhile, is indeed an embarrassment, with a handful of stuntmen barely filling the screen for what should be a Peter Jackson-sized battle. More problematic, though, is the film’s sudden desire to make the violence cinematically exciting, a major contradiction to the series’ – and this film’s – central anti-war message. The result is a film bogged down with conflicting ideas, a rambling plot, and a cheap look. (The heavy-handedness of John Huston’s monologues as the Lawgiver don’t help much, either.) Battle ends the classic Apes franchise with a whimper.
That’s Entertainment! (1974) What an odd duck, this one. Purportedly a documentary celebrating MGM’s fiftieth anniversary, That’s Entertainment! offers next to nothing in terms of behind-the-scenes history. Instead, it’s a greatest hits package, delivering a sampling of the most popular scenes from its hit musicals, plus some montages of top stars in lesser pictures, all pasted together with host segments filmed on the studio’s decaying backlot, with folks like Jimmy Stewart, Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, and Gene Kelly offering up a handful of reminisces and a heap of praise. The end result is something along the lines of a fluffy DVD extra or an AFI countdown special, and, aside from those host segments and the occasional rarity, it’s doesn’t have much to offer that you couldn’t find these days in a decent home video collection or a trip to YouTube. (At least That’s Entertainment! III featured deleted scenes and other little seen gems.) But it’s not just the convenience of seeing the clips in the pre-VHS, pre-internet days that made it a hit; there’s something genuinely charming – and genuinely relaxing – about this goofy, gushy compilation reel. These scenes are hits for a reason, and the cheesy host bits soothe, even if they barely educate. It might not be the definitive thesis on classic musicals it wants to be, but it’s a heck of a pleasant way to kill two hours.
Beach Blanket Bingo (1965) That’s the name of the game! Oh, how I love the Beach Party series, with their corny songs and cheap laughs and scrambled plots. There’s an anarchy in these films fueled by an “anything for a good time” principle – Don Rickles doing five minutes of unscripted schtick does nothing to help the story, but it’s fun stuff, so in it goes. Same with Buster Keaton chasing a busty dame, Harvey Lembeck goofing around with pool hall slapstick, Jody McCrea falling in love with a mermaid, etc., etc…. With AIP churning out roughly seventy Frankie and Annette movies each year, mid-franchise entries like Bingo become a pile of loose ideas inspired less by artistic ambition and more by “OK, we have access to some skydivers for a couple days, so let’s put that in there somewhere.” While not as sharp in its comedy as, say, Beach Party or Bikini Beach, it’s just as instantly likable.
Weekend at Party Pier (1964) Generally a mess, this flimsy Beach Party rip-off is best remembered these days for its behind-the-scenes troubles than for its final on-screen product.