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.


Youngblood

January 3, 2012

The influence of Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky films may be much more devious than we ever expected. There is a bad, bad lesson that other filmmakers seem to have learned from the Rocky saga, and it is this: You give ‘em the same thing over and over again, and they’ll keep coming back for more.

The Rocky films became formalized long ago, so that there is no longer any sense of invention in them. It’s pure ritual, like the stations of the cross. In other words, there’s barely any movie left—more like a string of recognizable and reassuring sensations.

This theory of filmmaking is becoming more and more common. In recent years, we’ve seen a score of films in which an individual fights the odds to achieve a victory, often in athletic tournaments. Nothing wrong with that story, but the movies themselves seemed to discard any notion of originality; and the success of the narrative shorthand of Flashdance fueled the movement toward superficiality and non-narrative.

All of which leads us to the latest in this unwelcome hybrid, Youngblood, a film so unoriginal and inoffensive that it hardly seems to exist at all, even while you’re watching it. Youngblood has major studio production values, and it’s cleanly and professionally edited and photographed. Even the acting isn’t bad, although Rob Lowe gets less interesting with each film he makes.

But there isn’t a single memorable instant in the film. It’s all by rote, and cynically includes every cliché in the playbook.

This kid (Lowe), who labors on his dad’s farm in upstate New York, gets a tryout with the junior league hockey team in Hamilton, Canada. The kid has a tough time in the tryout, being knocked down by a particularly vicious rival, but he gets the position.

Lowe’s problem is this: He’s fast, but is he tough enough? Something tells me he will wrestle with this problem, then have to prove himself in the last second of the championship game.

Something also tells me he will have to prove himself in a drinking session with his teammates, and then develop a friendship with the team leader, who turns out to be a real nice guy, in an inarticulate kind of way. And, furthermore, something tells me he will avail himself of the lusty charms of his oversexed landlady, but then fall for the cute girl he meets coming out of Slumber Party Massacre (really).

But something tells me she’s going to turn out to be the coach’s daughter. However, something also tells me that eventually Lowe is going to win the respect of the hardnosed coach.

Miraculously, all of these hunches (and more) are proven right during Youngblood. Director-writer Peter Markle (Mr. Hot Dog…The Movie himself) makes dead certain every predictable plot point is in place, and guides the proceedings with the proper eye for shots that can later be lifted to fashion a nice music video.

Against the odds, some of the supporting players do professional work. Cynthia Gibbs is the warm-eyed girl, Ed Lauter is the hawk-eyed coach, and Patrick Swayze (Red Dawn) actually gives a little life to that nice-if-inarticulate guy. They all deserve better than this.

First published in the Herald, January 1986

Keanu Reeves was in the movie too, the same year as River’s Edge. Youngblood is a terrible picture, although I might give it the nod, barely, over Oxford Blues, when it comes to really rotten Rob Lowe movies.


The Hotel New Hampshire

June 23, 2011

British film director Tony Richardson seems happiest when he can make his movies just as loud and frenetic as he possibly can. His jumpy, New Wave treatment of Tom Jones shocked traditionalists but brought him the 1963 best director Oscar.

His next film, The Loved One, was advertised as “The motion picture with something to offend everyone.” In a way, Richardson has been living up to that ad line ever since; The Loved One flopped, and he hasn’t had critical respect—or commercial success—since then.

Much criticism of Richardson’s films has focused on his emphasis on jazzy effects at the expense of characters and storytelling. Richardson often seems unable to resist getting in satiric cheap shots, even after he’s constructed some truth in character and situation.

In The Hotel New Hampshire, Richardson’s adaptation of John Irving’s most recent novel, the thrust is less satiric than in some of Richardson’s work. Instead, the world in the film is similar to the mix of comedic and horrific events that arc through the lives of the protagonists in The World According to Garp, another, much better version of an Irving novel. The difference between the two films is in their tone; Garp took a bittersweet, mater-of-fact approach to its peculiar story, but The Hotel New Hampshire fairly stampedes through its even weirder goings-on.

Richardson keeps things movie so quickly that there’s little time to savor what might have been a stimulating narrative. As it is, the story describes the lives of the Berrys, an American family who run a hotel in New England, then move to Vienna, manage a hotel there, and become involved with terrorists. Father and mother (Beau Bridges and Lisa Banes) keep extending themselves mainly because the father is more interested in pursuing his dreams than in dealing with reality.

Their five children (the three eldest are played by Jodie Foster, Rob Lowe, and Paul McCrane) are somewhat adrift due to this attitude. McCrane is a gay youth tormented by his classmates; Foster is a tough, smart girl who loves a loathsome football quarterback who later rapes her.

Lowe, giving his best performance, plays the central character, the brother who is at a loss during adolescence but knows one thing absolutely: he loves Foster in more than just a brotherly way.

This relationship, we are to understand, is at the heart of the film, but we don’t really discover what it has to do with the rest of the world that the movie creates. Foster’s older, wiser sister remains an obtuse character, although this is by no means the fault of the actress.

Richardson clip-clops his characters through the paces, interspersing the terrible events—such as the rape, and a plane crash that kills two family members—with scattershot comedy and very black humor. Some of the surreal bits hit home; more often, they seem simply misanthropic.

It’s not an entirely dismissable film, and it certainly is a puzzling one. But what can you say about a film that casts playwright Wallace Shawn (of My Dinner with Andre) as a blind man named Freud, and Nastassja Kinski as a bear named Susie? It’s strange.

First published in the Herald, March 1984

Does anybody go to bat for this movie? I remember hearing somewhere that it was a significant experience for the younger actors in it, but I can’t remember who said it—maybe it was Jodie Foster. Richardson went to do TV projects after this, with one final feature, Jessica Lange’s Oscar-winning performance in Blue Sky, a film I remember liking.


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