Monday, January 25, 2010

Orange On the Aisle: 1941

Sometimes you read an article or an online discussion that makes mention of a movie, and it sparks a curiosity to check it out. Sometimes, it's best to ignore that curiosity.

Steven Spielberg's 1941 was such a movie for me. It came up in some random AV Club conversation (I think) and, as 1941 infrequently airs on cable, I wanted to watch it for the first time in probably 20 years to see how it held up, and if it deserved all the derision it receives.

In short — yes, 1941 deserves the derision. And then some.

My vague recollections of the movie were even vaguer than I realized, as John Belushi running around being John Belushi was really the only bit I accurately remembered. My impression of the film from back in the day was that it wasn't good, but not as horrible as most said. Rather, I remembered it as a giant mess.

Well, it's a giant mess, yes, and a pretty horrible movie too. Even worse, at about 2 hours and 20 minutes long, it's grating and often boring as Spielberg spends an inordinate amount of time on really lame subplots.

Supposedly, Spielberg admitted to not really knowing what to do with the movie, and so threw as much as he could think of at the wall. The resultant product seems to bear that out. It's like five bad movies formed up like one idiotic Voltron — if Voltron was designed by a team of geriatrics, 9-year-old kids and horny high schoolers who each stuck their favorite stuff into the movie.

I should note here that the movie watching experience was in no way enhanced by the quality of the movie offered on the "Collector's Edition" DVD — a quality best described as shit (technical term). The picture quality was so bad that I had to pause the movie a half hour in to research what the deal was. The thinking is that this was a copy from the laser disc version of the movie, and a bad one at that. It's presented in a non-anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen, but it shows up small on your screen for some reason. Blowing it up might not help anything though, as the film looks really bad at times — sometimes grainy, sometimes overexposed. If you burned a DVD from an old VHS copy of a movie, I imagine it would look something like this. This review takes the DVD to task pretty well.

Anyway, there actually was some good to be had in 1941:
— Spielberg's direction was pretty fun (when he wasn't relying on some obvious airplane model shots) and even reminded me of the Cohen brothers in terms of camera movement. And there were a few stunts that actually looked pretty scary for the stunt men, who took some real slams for bits that took up 3 seconds of screen time.
Slim Pickens is never not awesome.
—No one gets good writing here, but Treat Williams at least gives it a game effort early on ... before his character basically spends the last two-thirds of the movie trying to rape the ostensible female lead. Hilarious!
Dan Aykroyd, after his character gets bonked on the head, proceeds to look absolutely insane and act like he's on drugs (and in 1979, he may have been).
— A ventriloquist's dummy appears without warning at one point and remains without any explanation. When it talks it looks funny. I'm serious.
— The main players are listed in the end credits along with a clip from the movie, and almost all of them feature the actor screaming. This amused me for some reason.

And that's about it. There are a ton of great actors and performers in this — John Candy, Warren Oates, Toshiro Mifune, Ned Beatty, Nancy Allen, Tim Matheson, Joe Flaherty had a line that made me laugh — and so there are some funny moments (although Candy, Mifune and several others are either completely wasted or given terrible material). It's just that no one involved and none of the funny moments in any way justify sitting through 2 hours-plus of this movie.

Not even Belushi, who early on in 1941 appears to modern eyes to be doing a John Belushi parody, only this movie came out in 1979, so that's not possible. That said, by the time he reappears near the end of the movie he's actually a breath of fresh air, as the preceding hour-plus has been so exhaustively bad.

— 1.5 out of 5 Wendie Jo Sperbers

NOTE: If for some reason you want to watch this mess, the version at looks much better than this cruddy DVD's transfer.

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