On demand time machines

Not a new concept here, but a renewed appreciation for the way a movie made 30+ years ago can just take you back to the world you first started noticing around you when you were a kid. We have this little device that lets us watch Netflix on demand on our TV, and so now we hardly ever rent a movie or even watch the actual DVD that we happen to have from Netflix. The selection of movies “on demand” isn’t great if you want the latest releases or the blockbuster hits of the past, but if you’re looking for lost gems I’ve found a few you might want to check out.

The first one is called Breaking Away, filmed in 1979 in Bloomington, Indiana. We used to have this movie for some reason on VHS tape, probably taped off of television or something, and my brother and I watched it a bunch of times when we were kids. Forgot about it until I saw it as an on-demand movie, and it certainly stands the test of time as a great coming of age movie for a young aspiring cyclist. The cast has a young Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern and other actors you’d recognize… so it’s entertaining just seeing them so young. And then everything from the cars on the street to the domestic scenes just takes you back to a different era in America. I was almost going to say to a simpler more innocent time, but that’s not at all true, I’m sure (just seemed that way when I was six). This was ten years after the late ’60s and all of the upheaval the country saw then. After Vietnam and Watergate… and there’s sort of a wistful glorification in the movie of the working class Americans who built up the country, only to see themselves marginalized and treated as second-class citizens by the more privileged folks who later enjoy the fruits of their labors.

Disillusionment is a recurring theme in the movie… the main character with the visiting Italian cycling team, with his own father briefly, his friends with the working world. There’s a great arc of character development with a bunch of the main characters in the movie, not just one. The main thing I like about this movie and others of this vintage and quality is that there’s something about the effort that went in to the screenplay, the soundtrack, the casting, the whole production that brings you into the story and captures the attention and imagination of even my five-year-old. Maybe she was just getting to stay up late and that’s why she was behaving and seeming to have a longer attention span than usual… but still, I feel like the movies made 30 years ago or so were still attempting to be something more than cash cows at the box office. And they aren’t so self-consciously derivative of the countless other movies in the genre that have come before them as today’s all seem to be.

Another film I saw recently after stumbling across it on Netflix was called Runaway Train, starring Jon Voight and made in 1985. He plays a crazed prison escapee in Alaska who ends up fighting for his life and his freedom on, you guessed it, a runaway train. This is a really powerful performance by Voight and the other actors, including a young Eric Roberts. Pretty scary movie towards the end, so not one to let the little ones stay up and watch with you… but well worth the 2 hours of your life. It was hilarious to see the “high-tech” traffic control center for the train traffic with what looked like an Atari computer system as its backbone.

An all points bulletin (text message) went out between my brother, myself and our oldest friend a few weeks ago when our friend noticed that “Going Ape” (1981) was now available on-demand. Haven’t heard of it? How could you let this little masterpiece starring Tony Danza (who apparently was born looking the way he did then and still looks now) and Danny Devito and a bunch of dancing orangutans escape your VCR? This was another one we had on tape and for some unknown reason watched again and again, mostly to just laugh at the apes dancing or throwing food across the room. I psyched up Isaac to watch this on a day he was banned from daycare for being sick the day before… and while we were mildly entertained by the dancing monkeys, I have to say this one barely stood the test of time. Danny Devito has some funny moments as a sort of lovestruck barbarian, but mostly it’s a series of hijinx of Cannonball Run caliber, i.e. hilarious if you’re one of the people there at the time. Which is not typically the goal of the moviemaker, to put private jokes on film that leave the audience feeling like their stuck looking in.

Anyway, so that’s my roundup of movies for the homebound, ekeing out the economic downturn as we are, entertained by what we’ve got most easily, affordably and at a moment’s notice, after the kids finally get to sleep. Red carpet glamor it is not… but some good film as art, it remains.

Until next time, I’m yours in your instant queue (I don’t know what that means),

-Eric

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About ericf73

A modern-day combination of Noah, Godot and Clark W. Griswold.
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