Endless Bummer: Fraternity Vacation (1985)

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For some odd reason, our “Endless Bummer” series has featured a heck of a lot of future superstars, either in their first starring roles, or in tiny uncredited ones. “Fraternity Vacation” is no different, with future Oscar winner Tim Robbins right at the beginning of his movie career. By the way, someone who really hates Robbins wrote his IMDB trivia, as it’s full of mocking references to his political activism – way to be passive aggressive, IMDB person!

 

Iowa is so snowy and miserable in the spring that it’s in black-and-white, and out of that hellscape and into the airport come three likely lads from Iowa State University- “Mother” Tucker (Robbins), Joe (Cameron Dye, who was so generic I had to look up his name again between starting this sentence and typing it out), and Wendell Tvedt (Stephen Geoffreys, who’s probably called “Evil Ed” by his own family these days). Wendell is an “awkward” sort, the most uncoordinated nerd of all time, but he’s pledging to a fraternity anyway, and thanks to his rich Dad owning a condo in Palm Springs, he’s got the two coolest guys in the frat to come along with him. The Dad is a super-nice guy and asked Mother and Joe to look after him and perhaps help him out with the ladies, and off they all go.

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As an outsider to all these US youth rituals, I tend to look a lot of things up if movies feel less than authentic. Right at the beginning, they’re cruising down the street with hundreds of other cars filled with hotties, and super-annoying DJ Madman Mac (Charles Rocket, former SNL cast member) talks about how it’s raining in Fort Lauderdale at the moment, so the only party is happening in Palm Springs. So, dear reader, I apologise for wandering off on a “there’s no way!” tangent.

 

The words “spring break” are never mentioned, at least partly because Palm Springs was never a spring break destination, being the home of the rich and famous and not wanting a bunch of drunk college scum raiding it. There’s lots of hotties of both genders around, though…but during several outside scenes in the evening, you can hear crickets. Where are all the partiers? Madman Mac makes reference to some end-of-season blowout party…what season? And hell, where’s the party? It happens entirely off-screen. And, going a little further down the rabbit hole, they’re in Wendell’s parents’ place, which is right next to a large pool, full (occasionally) of partying, horseplay and other shenanigans. Why would a middle-aged couple spend so much to live in such a place?

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It’s a frustrating movie, feeling like it was slapped together out of bits and pieces. Our three heroes meet two guys who go to a different fraternity at Iowa State, who have two women with them. Now…because of frat wars or whatever, they decide to play a prank on Mother and Joe, which involves sending the women to seduce them, get the guys naked together in the same bed, strip off for them, go into the bathroom and then loudly talk about having herpes before coming out, ready for sex. Mother and Joe freak out and leave the room, to find their laughing nemeses waiting for them in the lounge…let’s say the bathroom door had been thicker, or the guys had decided to put on a condom and risk it, or whatever. This is a terrible plan! Also, what relationship do these women have with the frat guys? Because I’m pretty sure no girlfriend I’ve ever had would agree to do this for me, if I wanted to play a prank on someone.

 

If you’ve wondered why I’m not getting on with the plot, it’s because there’s really not much of one. After seeing Sheree J Wilson in a neighbouring condo, looking beautiful but sad, Joe and Bad Frat Guy #2 have a $1,000 bet to have sex with her, and the way that plays out is as pathetic and creepy as all these bets in all these movies have ever been, with exactly the same result (she finds out and hates them both). Wendell meets Nicole (Amanda Bearse, future sitcom second-banana par excellence) at a bar and it turns out she just wants a pathetic loser to make her Dad angry – oh, and her Dad is the Chief of Police, so when Wendell gets accidentally arrested for attempted rape, then the next day is invited to meet Nicole for lunch…hijinks!!

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SIDEBAR: This lunch-date, and the subsequent disappearance of Wendell, happens a very short time before another “important” scene, at a party the Police Chief is holding at his home, because Nicole calls Mother and Joe in tears that he’s disappeared. Would you go for lunch to a restaurant an hour before hosting a large party? I feel like maybe the restaurant paid to be in this, and that’s the only way they could crowbar them in.

 

Anyway…we’ve got douchebags converting to the side of light, an unexpected visit from Wendell’s parents, Wendell finding love eventually, and all being well with the world. Plus, perhaps the worst soundtrack ever – as well as a bunch of songs which I hope were written specifically for this movie, there is a lot of Bananarama. Wow, Bananarama were terrible singers! As great a song as “Cruel Summer” is, if they’d done that on any talent TV show, the hosts would have been all “nice tune, terrible delivery, I’ll pass” (or whatever it is they say on those shows).

 

As I hope I’ve gotten across to you, this is a curious movie. When they arrive at the condo, the living room is completely unfurnished (yet the fridge is stocked with beer)…best guess, the production people found an apartment to film in but couldn’t get hold of any furniture? That sums up the entire movie, to me – it’s people wanting to make a movie to cash in on the trend of summer raunch, but not really having any other reason to. So much of it doesn’t make a bit of sense if you think about it for more than a few seconds, and for a raunch film, it’s surprisingly un-raunchy (lots of bare behinds of both genders, though, if that’s your cup of tea).

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It’s safe to say that Tim Robbins doesn’t give much indication of the Oscar winner he would eventually become. The rest of the cast range from excellent (John Vernon as the Police Chief and Max Wright as Wendell’s dad are both old comedy hands), to okay (the women are all picked for acting ability, not nudity, which is a nice change) to awful (third billed Cameron Dye, as Joe; and Matt McCoy as Bad Frat Guy #1, both painfully generic). Oh, and Britt Ekland pops up for what I can only assume was “I’m in town and have half an hour to spare” circumstances.

 

There’s a funny bit here and there, and when Wendell calms down a bit and his performance is a bit less…annoying?…the film warms up. But it feels like half a film – not enough people, not enough furniture, not enough comedy, not enough anything.

 

Rating: thumbs down

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Tapeheads (1988)

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Directed by Bill Fishman

Working in the Security Industry can be extremely monotonous. You tend to find that your mind wanders and you think up all kinds of crackpot ideas during your unfairly long shift. You might one day wander into Poundland on your lunch break, buy a couple of crap DVD’s and then decide on a hunch to start a site about cult films. Then later, as you wander around on patrol, you find yourself deconstructing forgotten films from the late eighties.

The heroes of ‘Tapeheads’ Ivan Alexeev (John Cusack) and Josh Tager (Tim Robbins) have ideas above their station, and when they lose their Security jobs after throwing a rowdy party in the site they are guarding, they get an unlikely shot at chasing their dreams and making it big as video producers.

The humour in ‘Tapeheads’ is reminiscent of what is found in Pauly Shore’s early filmography. Although it could also be considered the runt of the comedy films with music themes family that includes ‘Airheads’, ‘Wayne’s World’ and ‘The Blues Brothers’. As an aside, it’s surprising to think that had ‘Tapeheads’ taken off then Tim Robbins could’ve become an Adam Sandler figure.

Set in the back end of the eighties, these aspiring filmmakers are using VHS technology, and at the time I suppose this was cutting edge. Have you ever tried to explain to a young person today the concept of a video tape? Told anecdotes about the time it took to rewind a tape, the harrowing process of borrowing film tapes from Blockbusters that had not been rewound, and therefore this meant you would sit in the living room with your eyes closed, waiting for the film to rewind, hoping you didn’t accidentally witness a spoiler in reverse.

‘Tapeheads’ attempted to criticize the superficial MTV culture of the time, and makes the bold claim that soul music is not soulless music like shitty bratty hair metal bands or Swedish synth hunks. Ivan and Josh champion a couple of soul singers called The Swanky Modes. When you consider how big MTV was in the eighties, how it was effectively the worldwide barometer of youth culture. Only that the culture was commercially co-opted by major labels who cashed on in every fad, and trend. The good thing was that at least back in those days the emphasis was on the music, and although some of the popular acts were ridiculous, it is a far cry from the channel’s abysmal current ‘Reality’ based programming which comes across as the nadir of culture; a sad indictment of how far we’ve fallen as steroid ridden Geordie’s attempt to sire drunken skanks in club land, and pregnant American teens revel in misplaced celebrity. The music side of MTV has become almost obsolete given music consumers can instantly get their fix from YouTube. So again, for the young folk it must be astonishing to think that you would sometimes wait for hours to see your favourite band pop up on MTV. There was no choice; you waited until the latest Metallica video was rotated.

Ivan and Josh try and shoot music videos under their production company name Video Aces, working in a grotty warehouse that they rent from a kooky artist called Belinda. To build their profile they freelance at funerals and at the request of terminally ill people who wish to make their last will and testament. The duo also document social gatherings for politicians and it is this gig that gets them in a serious pickle with a presidential candidate, as a dodgy tape falls into their hands and puts the feds on their tail.

There are cameos from Jello Biafra, Doug E Fresh and the ska punk band Fishbone. I suppose they were somewhat counter cultural or edgy figures at the time. Despite being a Pop Culture junkie, a significant amount of the cameos and references went over my head, being English, and four years old back in ’88. I didn’t recognize Don Cornelius or King Cotton, and their ‘hilarious’ inclusion in the film meant nothing to me.

‘Tapeheads’ is a screwball comedy that carries a handful of laughs. Like the feeling you get after opening a time capsule, it is difficult to understand why most of this shit mattered in the not too distant, but seemingly a lifetime ago past.

– RJW
5/10

Tapeheads on IMDB
Buy Tapeheads [1989] [DVD]