Red Dawn

November 16, 2012

Red Dawn is a trashy, silly movie that seeks to whip up a little bloodlust in all of us. It proposes that the Soviet Union has invaded the United States, and concentrates on the efforts of a small group of renegades in the Colorado mountains to overthrow the invaders.

The group consists of a bunch of teenagers who fled to the hills the morning of the attack. Their hometown of Calumet becomes a village controlled by the Russkies, where insurgents are rounded up in the local drive-in movie theater and “re-educated.” From their mountain command post, the teens develop guerrilla skills and strike back.

This sounds like nutty stuff, and it is, but the first few minutes of the film are promising. We see the high-schoolers going to classes, everything normal, except maybe for the sound of distant planes. Then we casually notice that some paratroopers have landed, and then—suddenly—it’s on, folks, World War III, the big one.

It’s an exciting sequence, with battle action aplenty as the kids jump in a pickup truck and speed away. The movie quickly degenerates into a collection of different methods of blowing up those Commie rats, with not much time out for the felicities of characterization.

Red Dawn is the work of John Milius, a renegade figure in Hollywood. He’s a film-student pal of many of the young directors (he co-wrote Coppola’s Apocalypse Now), and he showed some interesting directorial moves in his debut film, The Wind and the Lion. (He showed little of anything, though, in his most recent movie, Conan the Barbarian.)

Milius is notorious for his conservative politics, his reverence for guns, and his predilection for hard action. All of these concerns are well served in Red Dawn, almost to the point of hysteria.

The Milius philosophy may be presented most clearly in the moment when the guerillas decide to execute one of their own guys (he betrayed their location). Faced with the prospect of shooting down a former comrade in cold blood, someone points out that if they do this, “What’s the difference between us and them?” The hero turns a beady eye to this. “Because,” he says, cocking the gun and aiming it, “we live here.”

Milius serves notice every now and then that he’s not unaware of the ambiguities of this sort of statement, but still the movie works best as a rave-up revenge piece.

The most recognizable of the guerillas are Patrick Swayze and C. Thomas Howell, who seem to have some sort of tandem acting agreement, since they were together in The Outsiders and Grandview, U.S.A., too. The rest of the Wolverines—they take their name from the high-school sports mascot—consist of stock types from war movies, although there are a couple of pleasantly hard-nosed girls (Lea Thompson and Jennifer Grey), given to the Wolverines for protection by their uncle (Ben Johnson).

By the way, Red Dawn is the first film released with the new PG-13 rating, which suggests more stringent parental watchfulness over their sub-teen children. The new rating went into effect after the hue and cry over the comic-strip violence in Indiana Jones and Gremlins. Unfortunately for the huers and criers, the system seems to be backfiring already: Red Dawn might previously have gotten an R rating for its violence, but now it fits right into the PG-13 category—after all, it’s got no sex or foul language in it. And so the war goes on.

First published in the Herald, August 13, 1984

I forgot about the PG-13 milestone. Nice to see that the system was already completely flawed. This movie looks pretty accomplished next to the remake, which opens a few days from when I type this.


Soul Man

November 15, 2012

By now, you’re probably familiar with the high-concept idea behind Soul Man, but just in case you missed it, we’ll recap: A jerky white kid (C.Thomas Howell) gets accepted at Harvard Law School and sees a fat future in front of him. Then his rich daddy (James B. Sikking) cuts off the boy’s allowance, which means the kid must find his own method of finance.

Every possibility is painstakingly explored, and darned if it doesn’t turn out that the best idea is for Howell to blacken his skin and apply for a full scholarship awarded to the outstanding black student from California. (Interestingly enough, nowhere in the film’s litany of money schemes is it suggested that this little creep might work to earn his tuition.)

So Howell takes these handy extra-strength tanning tablets that turn his skin deep brown, and he perms his hair. And he’s in Harvard.

This concept may sound distasteful, and, well, that’s about how it plays. The makers of the film, writer Carol Black and director Steve Miner, clearly mean it to be taken as an anti-racist film. Howell sees the racial prejudice directed at him, grows up a little bit, and falls in love with a fellow student (Rae Dawn Chong) who happens to be black.

Most of that doesn’t wash. The intentions may be right, but most of the film is callous buffoonery, and a trivialization of its subject.

Admittedly in some of this callous buffoonery are a few laughs. Howell meets a vixenish student (Melora Harden) who’s looking for the obligatory multiracial college affair. After they sleep together, she sighs, “I felt 400 years of anger and oppression in every pelvic thrust.”

Late in the film there’s a farcical scene in which Howell’s parents come to visit from Los Angeles the same time his two girlfriends show up. It’s a well-managed scene; too bad the rest of the movie doesn’t have the same snap.

James Earl Jones does a John Houseman number as the tough law professor; it’s an unbearably hammy performance that culminates, in the film’s queasiest scene, with Jones admitting that Howell might really have learned a lot about the black experience. This is a little hard to believe.

The only notable performance, outside of Chong’s appealing professionalism, is given in a very small role by Ron Reagan (not to be confused with the other actor who has that name). Young Reagan is as relaxed and convincing here as in his occasional TV appearances, and gives every indication that he might be a likable future player.

That small bright spot aside, Soul Man is a pretty negligible affair—and the title is the essence of irony. This is a film that might have a few laughs, but it’s certainly got no soul.

First published in the Herald, October 30, 1986

I completely forgot that Ron Reagan ever took a stab at acting, let alone that I wrote of his work approvingly. Howell and Chong later married. Carol Black was one of the key people behind “The Wonder Years,” which leads me to suspect there might be more going on in this movie than it seemed at the time, although I clearly didn’t hate it.


Grandview, U.S.A.

June 15, 2012

Grandview, U.S.A. is one of those frustrating films that deserve to be much better than they are. On the surface, there’s a lot to like about it.

It has a good cast in fine form, for one thing. Jamie Lee Curtis continues her recent string of vivid parts, with her role as the gritty owner of a demolition derby park (inherited from her father). Curtis, the daughter of Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis, showed signs of intelligence even in her days as the scream queen of Halloween, The Fog, et terrifying al.

Coming off her impressive comedy turn in Trading Places and her moving lead performance in the steamy Love Letters, she’s hooked into another good role. Actually, the role itself is not too original—the tough-but-tender gal who imparts wisdom to a younger man. But Curtis’s direct, humorous style makes this character something special.

The younger boy is C. Thomas Howell, a well-to-do kid from the right side of the tracks, just graduated from high school and the next Jacques Cousteau—that is, if he can get away from the small Midwestern town of Grandview and hit the coast. Howell develops a crush on Curtis. Plot conflict, aside from their 10-year age difference: His father wants to wrest the demolition derby arena away from Curtis and build a swanky country club in its place.

Then there’s the demolition driver (Patrick Swayze, from Uncommon Valor) who works off his frustrations about his philandering wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) by cracking up cars. He digs Curtis, too. Swayze, beefier than in his previous films, is convincing and funny as the perpetual loser.

From this, you can almost hear the clichés lining up to be answered. And line up the do: complications, coincidences, resolutions are all predictable.

The screenplay, by Ken Hixon, bears the formula scent of a debut script—and indeed it is. Probably a good director couldn’t have licked it completely, and Randal Kleiser, the man who brought us Grease, The Blue Lagoon, and Summer Lovers, is not a good director.

Kleiser’s adolescent sensibility permeated his first films, and it continues to dominate here. At one point, there’s a rock dream sequence that exists solely as a free advertisement for MTV. At least Kleiser tries to make a joke out of this. But this is definitely his best whack at a good movie, and he may get to be a grownup yet. Certainly the performances by Curtis and Swayze are nothing to be ashamed of.

Oh yes. Another casting inspiration: As the washing-machine repairman who wins Swayze’s wife, Kleiser cast none other than Troy Donahue, the aging heartthrob of the late ’50s-early ’60s. Donahue, draped with gold chains and clad in polyester, is pretty funny. Too bad he doesn’t get more to do.

And too bad the movie doesn’t make the grade. It’s still a fairly painless 90-minute diversion, made interesting by the devotion of its actors.

First published in the Herald, August 2, 1984

Yes, I seem to have liked Jamie Lee Curtis in this one. Is it still Kleiser’s best film? The discussion rages!


Secret Admirer

May 8, 2012

The plot of Secret Admirer is much too complicated to synopsize—and that should be a fundamental recommendation. When a film that appears to be another teen sex comedy is too complicated to describe, it usually suggests something out of the ordinary.

Basically, the movie’s about the myriad repercussions of an anonymous love letter. The letter is intended for Michael (C. Thomas Howell), a graduating high-school senior. But the letter goes astray, and falls into the hands of most of the people surrounding Michael, including his parents (Cliff De Young and Dee Wallace Stone), his dream girl (Kelly Preston), and her parents (Fred Ward and Leigh Taylor-Young).

A few more letters get written, and that botches up everything, because as these letters get traded around, the reader usually assumes himself to be the target—when in fact, it’s only gotten into his hands by chance. If that’s not clear, let’s just say that before long everyone in the movie suspects at least one other person of being the “secret admirer” who sent the thing. They’re almost always wrong.

It’s the stuff of classic farce, reshaped to fit quite neatly into the mode of the current coming-of-age comedy. Secret Admirer is unusually well-played for that genre; some of the actors are recognizable from other teen films. Howell, of The Outsiders and Grandview, U.S.A., makes a fine hero, just a bit on the dense side. Lori Laughlin is just right as the “nice” girl who steadfastly stands by him.

The object of his desire is played by Kelly Preston, who played a similar blond bombshell in Mischief. Her character is ripest for satire, and she’s got the pitch of the babbling, fashion-conscious debutante down to a T. And the parents, who are swept into their own whirl of sexual confusion by the stray letters, couldn’t be better—the actors communicate the illicit, spicy thrill of potential adultery invading their world of PTA meetings and bridge parties. Fred Ward is a standout as Preston’s father, the excitable cop.

Most of all, Secret Admirer reveals the sharp writing and directing talents of scenarists Jim Kouf and David Greenwalt (Greenwalt also directed), who collaborated on the screenplay for Class. They were in town for the premiere showing of Secret Admirer at the Seattle Film Festival, and proved to be as funny in person as the evidence of the film would suggest.

In the process of fielding questions from the audience, they revealed a crucial casting change: The blond-bombshell part was originally to be played by Julianne Phillips, who has become better known lately as Mrs. Bruce Springsteen. Preston replaced Phillips a few days into shooting, when, as Kouf and Greenwalt tell it, it became obvious that Phillips did not look young enough to fit in with the high-schoolers playing opposite her. In so doing, they dealt away an unforeseen commercial boost; but based on Phillips’ performance in the ditzy TV movie Summer Fantasy, they got the better of it in the long run.

First published in the Herald, June 13, 1985

Greenwalt and Kouf got into television and have flourished there. This was a very nicely-made picture, curiously underrated when people talk about good Eighties comedies, with likability all over the place. Uh…Summer Fantasy?


Tank

May 3, 2012

There’s nothing like a good revenge fantasy to get the blood working. Especially when you make the object of the audience’s hatred a bigoted Southern sheriff. It’s practically sure-fire.

As it turns out, Tank, the newest cinematic revenge story, is so-so. The plot is formulaic: hard-nosed Army sergeant moves into a military base near a small Southern town. He manages to make the town’s sheriff very angry. To strike back, the sheriff arrests the sergeant’s lightweight son on a bogus drug charge and sends him away to a work farm. The sergeant must go outside the law and make his own kind of solution to the problem: vigilante justice.

The curve ball here is that the sergeant owns his own customized Sherman tank. Now, when you’ve got a mind to bust your son out of a heavily-guarded prison farm, one of those tanks can come in pretty darned handy. And this tank does the trick: Sarge and son are soon off on the lam through the Georgia underbrush, heading for the state line.

Tank doesn’t really take any of this too seriously. It attempts a light-hearted approach during its first half, and then settles in for the big chase. Unfortunately, the results are just lame; in this case, the predictability of the story’s outcome takes the gas out of the narrative’s forward drive.

James Garner is in agreeable form as the sergeant; Shirley Jones plays his spunky wife. She says grown-up things here the likes of which she hasn’t spoken since she won an Oscar playing a prostitute in Elmer Gantry in 1960. Jones is probably a very nice woman, but she couldn’t act hip if her life depended on it, which I hope it never does.

G.D. Spradlin adds bite to the movie with another one of his roles as a thoroughly despicable, barely human villain. If you don’t recognize the name, perhaps you remember the snake’s eyes or the shark’s grin, from the butt-breaking coaches in North Dallas Forty and One on One to the Army bigwig who sent Martin Sheen up the river in Apocalypse Now. Spradlin plays the sheriff, of course, and he’s as irredeemably vile a creature as you’d ever want to see. Thank heaven for that, or the movie would really be a drag.

Actually, once the big chase starts, the basic dramatic tension of how they’re going to get to the state line takes over, and Tank becomes sporadically involving. But even the chase goes on too long, and you start thinking, can the Tennessee state line really be that far?

Director Marvin Chomsky should probably take the rap for that. He’s helmed a bunch of those respectable TV miniseries, such as “Holocaust” and “Roots.” You could look at five minutes of Tank and say, “Yep. TV director.” There’s a world of difference between the media, or art forms, or whatever you choose to call them. A miniseries can plod along for hours, but a motion picture has to move. Chomsky’s misplaced deliberateness insures that Tank remains a clunky vehicle.

First published in the Herald, March 15, 1984

It seems that, even if most movies drop into obscurity, you might hear mention of them once or twice in your lifetime. I don’t think I’ve ever heard or seen a reference to this utterly blah movie, a non-event of the blandest kind. It sounds as though Spradlin might’ve been worth seeing, and Garner has his persona. But that is assuming this movie actually existed in the world, which I can’t verify.


The Hitcher

June 1, 2011

A kid drives alone through the just-before-dawn darkness of Texas. Lightning crackles over the mountains, and rain begins to fall. Despite pumping coffee, the kid can’t keep his eyes open, so when he sees a hitchhiker on the side of the road, he lets the hitcher in.

“My mother told me never to do this,” the kid says. The hitcher proves mom right by coolly informing the driver that he just finished carving up his last chauffeur, and he wonders if the kid knows how far blood spurts when the jugular vein is cut. The hitcher’s grin chills the air: “Scared?”

You bet. This is the adrenaline-surging opening of The Hitcher, a promising first film from director Robert Harmon and screenwriter Eric Red.

Their conceit is that the hitcher (played by the magnetic Dutch actor Rutger Hauer) is malevolently inspired to ruin the life of this kid (C. Thomas Howell). He’s a mad killer—and yet, almost perversely, he doesn’t kill Howell. He wants something else from the hapless traveler.

This something else seems to do with self-destruction, although Red’s screenplay makes the reasons for this mysterious. The Hitcher, looks, in fact, like an existentialist horror film, with the hitcher (whose name is John Ryder—hmmm) as the kid’s own darker self, a maniacal ghostly double who need to be exterminated before the kid can go on with his journey; all of which is played out against the stark nothingness of the American Southwest.

As befits such an elemental premise, the first half-hour is appropriately stripped down. After Howell shakes his unwanted passenger, he spots him again the next morning—sharing the back seat of a passing station wagon with some bright-eyed toddlers. Howell freaks out, tries to flag down the other driver, but in vain. He comes across the wagon later, its riders murdered. Not only has the hitcher committed this foul act, he’s also managed to get Howell blamed for it.

The more Howell gets involved with the local police—and he is for the rest of the movie—the more he gets away from Hauer and the basic duel, and the less compelling the film is. The terror of those opening minutes is so fundamental, it’s hard for anything else in the film to match it.

But every time Hauer comes back, the movie lights up. This is not a revisionist villain, whose evil is explainable because he grew up without social advantages or mother love or proper hygiene. He’s just plain bad.

Hauer’s performance is chilling; Howell (Red Dawn, Secret Admirer) is fine. Jennifer Jason Leigh adds a nice bit of humanity as a sympathetic waitress.

Harmon’s direction is sometimes reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s Duel, a classic battle between a man and a demonic truck. Harmon might have taken a lesson in minimalism from that film and kept The Hitcher closer to is elemental struggle. But he still provides a pretty good ride.

And, for you people in the expensive seats who require such things, he also provides some socially redeeming value: No one who sees this movie will ever pick up a hitchhiker again.

First published in the Herald, February 27, 1986

Well, now I want to see it again. At this point in his career, it was still possible to anticipate Hauer’s next move with some excitement; he hadn’t yet committed to that strange road that would lead all the way to Hobo with a Shotgun. The movie does indeed fall short of Duel and the “Twilight Zone” episode called The Hitchhiker, but that opening hook is hard to beat.


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