Stand by Me

May 11, 2012

I started to tell the story of Stand by Me to a friend the other day, and after I’d gotten through a few sentences’ worth of description, she stopped me. “That’s the third time you’ve used the phrase ‘really neat,'” she said. She was right.

I will do what I can to avoid the phrase, but blast it, Stand by Me is really neat. And it’s something more than that, too.

Rob Reiner directed the film, his third in what should be a long and fruitful career. (The first two were This Is Spinal Tap and The Sure Thing, both utter delights. Once upon a time, he played Meathead on “All in the Family.”) Reiner’s source is unexpected: Stand by Me is adapted from a novella called The Body, by Stephen King.

Stephen King? Then why don’t the TV commercials for this movie have King leering into the camera and saying, “I’m gonna scare the hell out of you”? Well, it’s not that kind of Stephen King. In fact, The Body (which, after filming, was given its vague new title) is a nostalgic non-horror story that turns on a simply beautiful idea.

One summer day in 1959, much like any other in Castle Rock, Ore., a kid overhears two older boys talking about a dead body they spotted some miles away, by the railroad tracks. They didn’t report it, because they were out there doing something illicit.

They know who the corpse is (was?); the missing boy they’ve all been hearing about on the radio.

The young eavesdropper runs to his buddies back at the treehouse. Wouldn’t it be neat to go see that dead body? They’ve never seen one before. Besides, it would be a fun overnight camping trip through the forest.

Out they go, and the rest of the film is their journey. The movie’s main weakness is that this is all too clearly a major rite of passages for the boys. It’s the moment when the two maturing kids will pull irrevocably past the two more childish ones. But the trip itself is so enjoyable, and so rich in deeply felt detail, that the glaringly symbolic nature of the odyssey doesn’t hamstring things.

The script by Raynold Gideon and Bruce A. Evans utilizes salty dialogue and a grasp of the stuff that matters when you’re very young (the best food in the world, it is decided, is cherry-flavored Pez).

The story is set in a flashback, told by a writer—a cameo, and a very nice one, by Richard Dreyfuss—who was the brightest, most imaginative of the boys. During the forest trek, he (played by Wil Wheaton) comes to terms with the recent death of his idealized older brother (John Cusack, star of The Sure Thing). In a weird way, seeing the body of a dead kid by the railroad tracks helps him.

The other boys are played by River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, and Jerry O’Connell, and all are fine. Kiefer Sutherland, Donald’s son, does good mean work as the leader of the toughs who found the body in the first place. The toughs, by the way, swig Rainier beer. Reiner gets the details right.

It’s not a perfect or great film; Reiner might have pruned some of the more touchy-feely dialogue, which 12-year-olds were probably not spouting in 1959. But it’s consistently good, and certain images—a deer in the night, the sound of a train that might just be approaching as the boys walk across a trestle—are for keeps. In short, this movie is really, really—no, I won’t say it again. But you know what I mean.

First published in the Herald, August 1986

The change probably helped the movie’s fortunes, but The Body would have been an excellent title. It’s got the plainness of a classic Ray Bradbury title, and the material is of course very Bradburyesque in its understanding of stuff that actually matters to children. I’m not sure how neat I would find this movie today, although it might be interesting to watch it  knowing how the lives of its young actors turned out.


License to Drive

July 19, 2011

Graham, Feldman & Haim

License to Drive is a movie clearly made with the assembly line in mind. The filmmakers have taken the body of Risky Business, the chassis of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and the low rumbling engine of After Hours.

Funny thing is, for a film that should (and often does) feel like a mass-produced vehicle, License to Drive provides a pretty painless ride. I know I chuckled at least 12 times, which is about a dozen times more than I’d expected.

There’s nothing new about the main matter of the film, which is a basic recapitulation of basic adolescent hijinks. One kid (Corey Haim) needs to get his driver’s license so he can impress the girl of his dreams and his best friend (Corey Feldman). Unfortunately, he flunks his driver’s test the day he’s scheduled to have a big first date with the dream girl.

The final two-thirds of the movie is the date, which Haim embarks upon despite the absence of the license. Actually, he’s all but given up on the whole idea, until he receives a phone call from the girl on the night in question: “So, you can pick me up in 20 minutes?” That’s a siren call no hormone-pumping young American could possibly resist.

So Haim sneaks his grandfather’s pristine Cadillac out of the garage and glides away. After that, the roof falls in – quite literally, by the end of the movie. Director Greg Beeman and screenwriter Neil Tolkin have devised every possible catastrophe for our young driver and the soon-to-be-unrecognizable car.

Along with the girl (soon soused on champagne), he picks up two buddies and carries them along for the ride, as they encounter a rumble at a burger drive-in, a violent Communist Party demonstration, a humorless tow-truck driver, and finally a drunken car thief.

Nothing too surprising about any of this, and the humor is entirely tied up in pubescent obsessions, albeit the nightmarish side of them (the movie even opens with a nightmare about escape from a hellish school bus).

But Beeman displays some sense of how to set up an honest joke, and the performers are generally likable, if somewhat nondescript; Richard Masur and Carol Kane do their usual good work as Haim’s hip-but-not-that-hip parents. At the very least, Beeman taps into many of the central terrors peculiar to the state of being 15 ½ years old.

First published in the Herald, July 1988

“Nothing too surprising about any of this”? How did I say that after typing the line about the violent Communist Party demonstration? I guess I was dazzled, to some minor degree, by the movie. It got bad reviews and was one of those movies reviewers could point to in order to trace the collapse of American cinema, but I liked it. This is a shameful thing to admit about a Two Coreys picture, but I remember it having a decent sense of comic timing and momentum. Not that I’ve seen it since it came out. Director Beeman went on to a very successful TV career, including stuff like Heroes and Smallville. I didn’t identify the female lead here, but it was Heather Graham, a year before Drugstore Cowboy.


Dream a Little Dream

December 30, 2010

If you are older than 16, you may not be familiar with the phenomenon of The Two Coreys. The Two Coreys are a pair of young actors of a dewy age, midteen heartthrobs whose exploits are currently celebrated in such as magazines Tiger Beat. (Tiger Beat still exists, doesn’t it?)

Every now and then, The Two Coreys make a movie. Sometimes apart—Corey Haim starred in Lucas, Corey Feldman was one of the boys in Stand by Me—and often together, as in The Lost Boys and last year’s License to Drive. In the ads for their new film, Dream a Little Dream, telephone numbers are listed so that fans may call either Corey. Just two bucks a pop, and 45 cents for each additional minute. As the ads say, “Get Your Parents’ Permission.”

With all of this, does it really matter about the movie? Probably not, which is just as well: Dream a Little Dream is another personality-switch movie. An old guy (Jason Robards) figures out a way to move his spirit, which he thinks will bring happiness to him and his wife (Piper Laurie). Instead, his mind is transferred to a high-schooler (Corey Feldman), through whom he sees things anew.

Not all that much happens; the kid romances a gorgeous girl (Meredith Salenger), freaks out his puzzled parents, and startles Robards’ best friend (Harry Dean Stanton). There is some suggestion that the director, Marc Rocco, had in mind that the lessons of the film be a bit more complex than the usual teen-genre simplicity, but not much.

The movie has one remarkable sequence, the mind-transference routine. At night, Robards and Laurie stand in their backyard and perform some voodoo, while Feldman sprints through the cluster of alleys and yards and Salenger rides her bike through the streets, about to collide. On the soundtrack is Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic,” and a dreamlike quality pervades. The scene is much too good for the rest of the movie, quite bizarre and out of place, but it suggests that this director might make an interesting film someday.

Oh yes, the other Corey. Haim plays Feldman’s best friend, and does yeoman’s service. For now, the twin dynasty continues, but I hope these boys remember the fates of Bobby Sherman and David Cassidy.

First published in the Herald, March 8, 1989

The mind-transference scene is an example of something I love about movies. I saw this movie when it came out (obviously), and haven’t seen it since. It’s not very good. But that scene continues to pop into my head from time to time—it plays around with moonlight, and dreaminess, and I think the wind is blowing through these small-town backyards (at least that’s the way it plays in my mind); plus Van Morrison’s great song does its magic thing. I also really love the spectacle of running when depicted in movies, and here that movement bespeaks youth, especially next to the age embodied by Jason Robards. And all this in a dumb movie with the Coreys.

Marc Rocco was indeed interested in things beyond this sort of film; he made Where the Day Takes You, which aspired to grittiness and seriousness, and Murder in the First. The adopted son of character actor Alex Rocco, he died in 2009, before he was 50. Corey Haim died in 2010, at age 38, having been broken many years earlier.

As for the title song, the best cinematic use I can think of right now for this great standard comes at the end of Dominik Moll’s Lemming, a movie I have a weakness for. There it fits just right; here, not so much.


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