St. Elmo’s Fire

May 7, 2012

St. Elmo’s Fire is an attempt—and, by all evidence, a sincere and well-meaning attempt—to treat the current generation of college graduates with the brand of wit and wisdom bestowed on the ’60s crowd in The Big Chill. Which means it’s about a group of close friends who spend half their time getting into various romantic couplings, and the other half talking about getting into various romantic couplings.

Actually, there’s more than that; some examination is made of directionless lives, and the emptiness of even the lives that may appear to have direction. Just like The Big Chill. But unlike The Big Chill, St. Elmo’s Fire does not burn with the sort of witty, rueful, wise dialogue that makes this kind of film work. In terms of ambition, it’s admirable, but in terms of accomplishment, it’s regrettable.

The fault here goes to director Joel Schumacher (who wrote the script with Carl Kurlander). Schumacher, the director of such lightweight fare as The Incredible Shrinking Woman and D.C. Cab, seems to have bitten off more than he can chew. An occasional detail rings true, and the overall atmosphere is funky and pleasant, but the film swerves time and again into cliché and patness, and sometimes plain stupidity.

The actors Schumacher has assembled are among the best young folks in Hollywood today (dubbed “the Brat Pack” in some quarters)—it’s a shame they aren’t shown off to better effect. The best role—that of a self-destructive, irresponsible sax player—goes to the weakest actor, Rob Lowe (Oxford Blues). Lowe’s pretty-boy looks contradict his part, and he’s not good enough to make the contradiction interesting.

Emilio Estevez (Repo Man) has the worst part: a would-be law student infatuated with a former classmate (Andie MacDowell). Estevez’ role is slapstick comedy, unrelated and not meaningful to the other plot lines, and his scenes (through no fault of his) are the film’s more irrelevant.

Judd Nelson (The Breakfast Club) and Ally Sheedy (ditto) play the perfect couple, the two yuppies expected to marry and live happily ever after—except that it might not work out that way. Mare Winningham plays a nebbish social worker in love with her exact opposite, Lowe’s sax player.

The two actors who come off best are Demi Moore (No Small Affair), playing a coke-snorting career woman, and Andrew McCarthy (Class), as a cynical journalist whose lack of romantic activity has the others wondering about his sexual preference. McCarthy is born to play this kind of sensitive part, and he has an appealing way of throwing away lines.

But the actors labor in vain. A good movie about this crucial time in life may yet be made, because it’s a valid subject, and this may well be the cast to play it. But we’ll have to wait for that, and it’ll take someone with more insight than Joel Schumacher to pull it off.

First published in the Herald, June 29, 1985

I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about in half of this review. I think within a few days I thought much less of this dumb movie, and the review sounds almost charitable compared to my memories of the film. I would say more, but I think I want to forget it. (But I am reminded, in searching for a poster image: The Passion Burns Deep.)


Oxford Blues

January 16, 2012

While the end credits of Oxford Blues roll, we get to watch the hero (Rob Lowe), dressed in various changes of clothing, strutting his stuff in front of a full-length mirror. It’s an ironically appropriate ending for the film: a sequence of pure, ain’t-I-cute self-admiration. It may as well be undisguised here, because that’s what the whole movie is about.

There’s nothing but adolescent smugness in this story of a Las Vegas doorman who winds up at Oxford. He cheats his way there because he worships Lady Victoria (Amanda Pays), a member of the royal family and a regular in scandal-sheet newspapers.

Once in England, he alienates almost everyone with his irresponsible behavior—everyone except fellow American Rona (Ally Sheedy, from WarGames) and his roommate Geordie (Julian Firth). However, he does have a talent: He can row, and that makes him desirable to the Oxford sculling squad.

As for Lady Victoria, she’s engaged to a snooty Brit (Julian Sands), but one look at Rob Lowe and she practically wrestles him down into the royal bedchamber.

After running roughshod over everyone for most of the film, Lowe finds the true meaning of comradeship and comes through for the Oxford crew at the end. Surprise, surprise.

We’re supposed to be impressed by the change in the lad from opportunistic cad to unselfish team player, but about all you can feel is irritated at this shallow creep, particularly given Rob Lowe’s one-note performance.

It’s not all Lowe’s fault. Actually, based on the evidence of The Hotel New Hampshire, he could be an amusing leading man, given some good direction. But in Oxford Blues, he poses and postures, all in the latest fab clothes. Considering that his good looks are almost mannequin-like already, Lowe is coming dangerously close to parodying himself.

As I was watching the movie, I kept thinking about what a good fashion commercial it would make. And it turns out that writer-director Robert Boris did cut his teeth as a director of TV commercials before writing screenplays (which include Some Kind of Hero and Dr. Detroit). It figures—the film is all surface, full of people posturing and spouting dialogue, but never behaving like human beings.

Like a commercial, that surface just zips right along, not allowing time for characterization. The director doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing – the hero is supposed to be a brat at the beginning of the film, but we’re encouraged to cheer his every move. Near the end, the Oxford crew extends a hand and asks for his help. He turns them down, and Rona gives him a good talking-to. He insists on thinking of himself only, and the film finally disapproves of his attitude, but the audience, in his corner from the start, was applauding him on. Some kind of hero.

There’s also some tired stereotyping of British and American cultural differences. You know: stuffiness vs. rowdiness, cool vs. hot. This stuff is getting as stale as those stand-up comedians who point out the humorous differences between New York and L.A.

Anyway, Oxford Blues is the latest of the quick-fix movies in which doses of sugar are doled out for instant energy. For the preview audience that watched it last week, this seemed to be enough. But believe it: This movie, just like its hero, is a cheat.

First published in the Herald, August 1984

Not to be confused with Youngblood. This one is even worse.


Short Circuit

September 30, 2011

Number Five, awful robot

The main character of Short Circuit is a robot named Number Five. It’s intended as a military death machine, armed with a laser-zapper on its left shoulder. But one day Number Five is itself zapped, by an errant bolt of lightning, effectively cleaning its clocks and turning it into an $11 million steel-plated tabula rasa.

The robot escapes its Army camp and wanders into the streets of Astoria, Oregon, where it is given shelter by a sympathetic animal lover (Ally Sheedy). Number Five then absorbs the encyclopedia and 12 hours of television. Understandably, this drives the robot quite insane, and it starts believing—and the movie starts insisting—that the robot is now alive.

Of course, we’re not supposed to think it is now insane. Number Five means to be cuddly and humanoid, dishing out advice as well as breakfast and making with the jive slang. See, he’s picked up little bits of information from everywhere and incorporated them into his button-pushing biorhythms. He’s likely to segue from a stalwart John Wayne imitation to a TV anchorman’s pomposity to a re-creation of the physical profundities of the Three Stooges.

Ahem. What we have here is a movie engaging in a little unwitting self-description. Like its metallic hero, Short Circuit incorporates (read: steals) ideas from a gaggle of recent sources, most glaringly E.T., and regurgitates them with breathless hipness. So what you get is something fast and occasionally funny, but not remotely new.

Short Circuit is from director John Badham, who has made strikingly similar berserk-hardware movies before (WarGames, Blue Thunder). There was a time when Badham seemed like a promising director, with his lively version of Dracula and Saturday Night Fever (the latter is cannibalized by Badham for input fodder for Number Five, who apes a John Travolta dance routine on his able treads).

But Badham’s technique here, so clearly inspired by what has worked before, is pretty empty. The stranger-in-a-strange land routine is reliable, but it’s time to give it a rest. In fact, this movie might kill it: Not only does Number Five spout his cute newly learned American slang (to an opponent robot: “Hey, laser lips, yo’ momma was a snow-blower!”), so does a scientist (Fisher Stevens) from India (to his partner: “Let us go pick up some female chicks”).

Badham’s cast doesn’t help. The robot has more depth than Sheedy or Steve Guttenberg, who plays the robot’s inventor (yeeh, suuuure); he tries to find Number Rive before a gung-ho Army commander (G.W. Bailey) gets his hands on the thing.

They’re secondary to the technology. Number Five is constructed with great ingenuity—his wide-set eyes inevitably recall E.T.’s—but for all his savvy talk, he is a uniquely charmless being. This was a minority opinion at the laughing full-house preview where I saw the film, but even the laugh-getting seemed like a mechanical process, just a matter of pushing the right buttons.

First published in the Herald, May 8, 1986

Really bad movie, really a quintessential Eighties success story. I do recall being sort of fascinated by Fisher Stevens’ impeccably rendered Peter Sellers-like Indian character, because one had thought that such a stunt was long past doing. But there it is. (And he returned in the sequel, too.) This movie was a big hit.


WarGames

August 15, 2011

We’ve had years of warnings. We’ve all known that computers were going to take over the world someday. But the books and the movies that predicted it never said it would be such a quiet overthrow. The machines slipped into our homes and businesses and modestly suggested that they serve us; we jumped at the offer, and they made us dependent on them. Quietly—with only the low purr of entering and the gleeful chattering of printing to mark the shift of power.

Don’t get me wrong—I like the computer at my workplace. It knows so much. And it tries to keep me from going wrong—when I give it the wrong date, it stops me and says, “WHAT YEAR?” When I move to eliminate information, it wonders whether I should reconsider: “DELETE? ARE YOU SURE?” Like a wise grandfather—but without the accommodating knee—it cares about the decisions I make, and wants me to do the right thing, though it won’t actually stop me, as long as I’m sure about what I want.

We even share secrets, like the special password that will let me into its system. So why is it I don’t really trust the thing? Maybe it’s the influence of all those paranoid fantasies about computers seizing control of the world, plus the nagging suspicion that they’re like those dogs who serve the master faithfully for years and then turn homicidal one day, without apparent reason.

Popular culture has played with that suspicion for a couple of decades now, and WarGames—officially designated this summer’s E.T., even before it opened—is in the tradition of computer mistrust. This Seattle kid (Matthew Broderick) has an astonishingly elaborate set of computer terminals in his bedroom, which he uses to make long-distance airline reservations, change his computer-recorded high school grades, and the like. One day he realizes he’s bumped up against the system of the U.S. National Defense. Neat! But he can’t get in—until he hears that computer programmers sometimes leave a “back door” (that is, a secret password) in systems they design so that they can go back in someday, if they ever need to. Broderick comes up with the password, and asks the system if it would like to play a little game. Chess? Naah. Mebbe some checkers? Forget about it. Thermonuclear war? Cowabunga! The computer takes the American side, Broderick is the Russians (among his first moves: nuke the Emerald City) and they’re off and running on some harmless fun.

A boy and his computer; it’s a new twist, but it had to happen. The only problem is, the head honcho (Dabney Coleman) down at the War Room just convinced the government to switch responsibility for a nuclear retaliatory strike from human operatives (too unreliable) to the monster computer known as WOPR (as in, “Aren’t You Hungry?”). So when Broderick start playing hide-the-densepack, WOPR thinks it’s for real, flashes an image on the War Room screen of a warhead arcing toward the Space Needle, and prepares for a full-scale counterattack. Broderick has to interrupt the game when his Dad calls him downstairs to clean up the garbage in the driveway, but the computer wants to keep right on playing the game…and so it does.

You get the idea. And a good idea it is, too. It’s a shame WarGames never really gets past the level of being a good idea; the plot starts to go kattywampus about the time Broderick gets arrested while sucking down a Big Gulp outside the local 7-Eleven. The holes in the script begin to whistle in the wind; more important than that, there’s that Something Missing that keeps good movies from being great ones—the absence of commitment, of artistic investment. The blame for this hollowness is most handily given to the switch in directors during shooting—Martin (Going in Style) Brest began the movie, but it was A John Badham Film before the cameras stopped rolling.

Mr. Big Close-Up tries hard to pump some suspense into the proceedings, but that’s tough to do when the audience can sit there and say, “Uh, why doesn’t somebody just pick up the phone and call the War Room….” There’s nothing wrong with Badham’s method, but it’s not particularly inspiring. Still, Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy (the morsel of jailbait on a recent “Hill Street Blues”) are likable, and John Wood does more with his confusedly-written part than it deserves. It just seems as though we deserve a more coherent and unified piece of filmmaking, especially with the stakes so high.

First published in The Informer, June 1983

Densepack: I had to Google it just now to find out what it meant in 1983. I watched Martin Brest make a shot for this film one day on the University of Washington campus, a brief look at Broderick crossing some stairs by Red Square. I worked in an office with a computer back then, and I was still in the early stage of wonder about the thing. Watched this movie again about a year ago, and sure enough, it isn’t as good as it should be. Also: RIP John Wood, who died a few days ago, and whose patrician air somehow fit his name.


The Breakfast Club

May 10, 2011
Nelson, Estevez, Sheedy, Ringwald, Hall: The B-Club

In the light of writer-director John Hughes’ uneven, delightful film debut, Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club is both gratifying and disappointing. It’s gratifying because it proves that Hughes is funny, daring, and brimming with basic movie savvy. It’s disappointing because Hughes can’t quite bring everything together in a way that avoids pat conventions.

It begins brilliantly—Hughes sweeps us into his conceit with economy and zip, and we get introduced to the principals in brief strokes, each indicative of his or her stereotyped role vis-à-vis high school. (The idea of the film is that the stereotypes they embody to us—and each other—will be broken down, and that all share similar anxieties, successes, fears, hopes.) They’re thrown together in a day-long Saturday detention session in the school library. There’s a jock (Emilio Estevez), a princess (Molly Ringwald), a dork (Anthony Michael Hall), a loudmouth nonconformist (Judd Nelson), and a withdrawn would-be runaway (Ally Sheedy). In the course of the day, they find out more about each other, and about themselves, than they ever knew before—and they began the day as strangers.

The first hour—of the film, that is—is very funny, and full of wonderful detail and language (Hughes has a keen ear for high school parlance). As Hughes gets into the serious stuff, the film goes distressingly toward tried-and-true resolution (although it is not without some surprises). As I said, this is disappointing; but in terms of Hughes’ career, it’s not too discouraging. He’ll get better, and there’s plenty here to savor. Certainly the performers are very good, and Judd Nelson, sneering and bellowing, may be better than that.

And every once in a while something leaps out and slaps you with its originality. In particular, there’s a moment when Ally Sheedy is doodling on her note pad (at this point in the film, she may have yet to speak her first line—she’s mute for the first half-hour). We see her shaggy head looking down at her desk, then Hughes cuts to her pad—she’s drawn a little cabin in the woods, picket fence out front, smoke curling from the chimney (just the kind of home this lonely kid probably fantasizes about). Cut back to Sheedy’s face; she looks at the drawing, something is not quite right. She tips her head forward and rubs her fingers back and forth through her thick hair. Dandruff falls down to the desk; Hughes cuts to the picture, and the little cabin in the woods is now covered with snow. That’s beautiful.

First published in The Informer, March/April 1985

Of all the performers to single out in this movie, I had to go with Judd Nelson. Folks, reprinting these reviews is a warts-and-all proposition, and sometimes you have to reach for the Compound W, is all I can say. This film was important to people of a certain age, and I can see why; I sort of wish I’d had a film like it ten years earlier. The idea of it is ingenious, although it still bugs me that it narrows to a very conventional set of conclusions as it goes along, especially the supposed blossoming of Sheedy’s character.


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