Ernest Saves Christmas

December 22, 2010

The fact that Ernest Saves Christmas has opened a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving means either a) Touchstone Pictures is confident the film will play well though the holiday season, or b) Touchstone Pictures hopes the movie will make some quick money before people realize what a stinker it is, and then disappear so screens will be left open for more promising movies.

I don’t know which of these possibilities is true, but I’m leaning toward the latter. Like its predecessor, Ernest Goes to Camp, Ernest Saves Christmas is a ramshackle collection of gags centered on the cartoonlike character from TV ads, Ernest P. Worrell (the guy whose catch phrases are “Hey Vern!” and “Know Whut I Mean?” as if you didn’t know).

Ernest Goes to Camp had a surprisingly good opening weekend last summer, though business dropped off quickly. Perhaps the same fate is in store for Ernest Saves Christmas, in which the putty-faced handyman Ernest (played by Jim Varney) is instrumental in preserving the happiness of millions of children all over the world.

That’s because Santa Claus (Douglas Seale) is calling it quits, and handing over the reins and reindeer to a successor. But because of a series of misunderstandings, Santa’s not going to complete the hand-off, unless Ernest brings Santa his magic toy bag, corrals the reindeer, and picks up the elves at the airport. (This is as embarrassing to write as it is to read.)

All of this is an excuse to put the camera in regular, disturbing proximity to Varney’s face, which is landscaped like Colorado, and let him wiggle and grimace. To be sure, this technique drew some laughter from the younger people in the preview audience, who seem to be Ernest’s target crowd.

Incidentally, Ernest Saves Christmas contains an interesting social aside. When Santa tells how he can circumnavigate the globe and deliver toys in a single night, he notes that he excludes, quite naturally, those children “whose cultural beliefs don’t include Santa Claus” (simple Christian non-believers still get presents, as I understood it). I believe this is a revelation, though something tells me Ernest is probably immune to the subtlety of the distinction.

First published in the Herald, November 18, 1988

Whenever you’d see Jim Varney outside his Ernest character, he always seemed to have something potentially interesting going on – or perhaps I am responding to the inherent poignancy of the actor who gets identified with a single outlandish role (completely irrationally, I root for Paul Reubens whenever he takes a part that doesn’t require him to be Pee-wee Herman). In any case Varney died at 50, so Ernest it mostly shall remain.



December 21, 2010

Gremlins may well be the most sheerly outrageous movie of this about-to-be-busy summer season. It’s a giddy, frenetic horror/fantasy stuffed with jokes, frights, and hyperactive little creatures called gremlins.

In the opening scenes, in a rundown store in Chinatown, an inept inventor (Hoyt Axton) picks up a cute pet for his son. He is sold the creature with a warning: Never let it in the sunlight, never get it wet, and never—ever—feed it after midnight.

Of course, all those things will happen to the adorable fuzzball. It gets wet, which causes it to multiply. Then the offspring are accidentally slipped some fried chicken after midnight and they experience a transformation. When they leave their cocoons they turn mean and set out on a rampage of dirty tricks.

Before long, the small-town setting is overrun by the beasties, and it’s up to Axton’s son (Zach Galligan) and his girlfriend (Pheobe Cates) to try to beat the little monsters.

From the basic outline, there’s no way to convey the madcap high spirits of this tale. Director Joe Dante has created a fantasy small town that exists as a kind of movie memory: He’s given it the flavor of It’s a Wonderful Life (which plays on a TV screen at one point) and the fairy-tale atmosphere of The Wizard of Oz (Polly Holliday plays a hissable bank owner as the Wicked Witch of the West).

The look of the movie is sitcom-ordinary, but Dante pushes things into high gear when the gremlins get loose on Christmas Eve. The mayhem that results is scary, funny, and absurd. It’s also ferociously imaginative. You can picture the filmmakers sitting around cooking up ideas: “Wouldn’t it be wild if the gremlins did this—and this, and this?”

It’s at this point that Gremlins jettisons any sort of realistic underpinnings, but the film is just too fast and clever for that to really be a problem. Besides, the whole idea of gremlins is that they’re bugaboos who get into the machinery and make mischief, so it’s fitting that the movie starts going crazy when they take over the screen. (The gremlins were created by Chris Walas, who deserves star billing.)

The screenplay was discovered by Steven Spielberg when he was looking for someone to write the script for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Spielberg, who is credited as executive producer, may have seen the opportunity to do a flip side of his E.T., and probably jumped at the chance to do something less sweet. Choosing Dante to direct—he’d made the witty horror films Piranha and The Howling—was a brilliant stroke. There isn’t a lax moment in the film.

Dante is a sharp satirist and a very able conductor of action. There’s not a whole lot of emotional depth among the people onscreen, but that’s not really what the movie is about. It’s a bright, noisy funhouse, and Dante is the gremlin behind the camera—throwing everything he can think of into the mixer. Except that, unlike the gremlins, there’s a method to Dante’s madness, and somehow the finished product emerges as both efficient and stylish.

First published in the Herald, May 1984.

That screenwriter was Chris Columbus, who went on the bigger things. I’m not sure what I was thinking in proposing that Gremlins had anything like “realistic underpinnings” to begin with, but so be it. Of course Gremlins 2 pushes even more into the realm of satire, and ought to be better known. I go on more about Joe Dante’s movies in a piece at the Crop Duster.

She’s Out of Control

December 20, 2010

On a recent “Siskel & Ebert,” Gene and Roger stopped their Punch ‘n’ Judy routine long enough to give special attention to a new film called She’s Out of Control. Siskel (the bald guy) said that during the screening of this movie, he actually considered quitting his job as a film critic. It was that bad.

Ebert (the big guy) noted that the moviemakers had robbed him of two hours of his life. “They did us a wrong that can never be righted,” he said to the camera. Siskel summed things up by describing the film as “one of the worst experiences of our professional lives.”

Wow. Can a movie be that bad? Oh, sure. She’s Out of Control is not appreciably worse than a dozen other movies released in the last 12 months, but it’s bad. Ordinarily, I would expect a movie like this to land directly in the bargain bin at the video store, but actually releasing it in theaters provides some advertising, free reviews (on the premise that there is no bad publicity), and brings its star out on the interview circuit.

The star is one-note Tony Danza, who plays a radio executive whose plain-Jane daughter (Ami Dolenz, daughter of Monkee Mickey Dolenz) suddenly blossoms into a hot babe. She is all of 15 years old, so Danza is distressed by the attention of a stream of pimply young suitors.

The movie, which means to be a comedy, comes close to suggesting that there’s something creepy about Danza’s own close-eyed attention to his daughter. In one beach scene he watches her emerge from the surf as her body jiggles and jumps, all in leering slow motion. Then he attacks the men who are, as he is, watching her. Weird.

In Danza’s frenzy to control the situation, he sees a psychiatrist (Wallace Shawn) who has written a step-by-step self-help book for fathers in exactly this situation. Meanwhile, Danza proposes to his girlfriend (screechy Catherine Hicks) thinking it might bring his daughter back.

Just about everything flops.

Tony Danza is a TV star who ought to know his limits by now. And Siskel and Ebert are still in their jobs, no thanks to this movie.

First published in the Herald, April 29, 1989

The thing I remember about this disaster is that it was part of a package of films released around this time by Weintraub Entertainment Group, a distributor bearing the name of longtime showbiz player Jerry Weintraub. (I think they’d picked up Luc Besson’s Big Blue for stateside release, too.) And the publicist for the movie got me to show up at the Sorrento Hotel lounge and sit with a Weintraub representative as he pitched their exciting new slate. This is one of the reasons I never, ever do that kind of thing. It was the sort of non-event that had me thinking the sorts of existentially urgent thoughts that gripped Gene Siskel while he was watching this movie: why am I here? How can I get out of this? What do I need to change in my life to have this never happen again?

Looking at how short this review is and how dangling the sentence “Just about everything flops” is, I wonder whether this review was shortened by an editor. I don’t think there was much else to say. Today, seeing Catherine Hicks’s name again gives me a chill, and looking through the credits of the film, I see it did have Matthew Perry in a supporting role pre-“Friends,” which makes me halfway curious to see what he did. But that’ll never happen.


December 17, 2010

Andrew Sarris, in his landmark The American Cinema, said that Blake Edwards’ movies “manage to be funny in spite of repeated violations of the axioms of classical slapstick….A Shot in the Dark lurches from improbability to improbability without losing its comic balance…only the most captious critic has to raise the question of logic.” Apparently Sarris doesn’t count himself as one of those logic-questioning critics: he is generally pro-Edwards. And I think Edwards is to be admired for putting his faith in cinematic logic above and beyond physical realities, when called for (some of the more outlandish Pink Panther gags surely qualify, and there are some jokes in this new movie, like a bit with lightning, or some shrunken clothes—an echo of Robert Wagner’s impossibly elongated sweater in The Pink Panther?—that lack rational probability; however, those unlikely shrunken clothes do have their cinematic logic, as they lead to the discovery of Victor/Victoria‘s chief plot device).

Sarris’s comments have other interesting suggestions in them; the hint that Edwards will violate whatever conventions will suit him may be instructive when considering some of the more curious aspects of his new Victor/Victoria. Edwards is both old-fashioned (rightly considered one of the few classicists remaining in Hollywood; and one thinks of the mildly indulgent moment in S.O.B. when two old-school filmmakers discuss their dislike and non-comprehension of Last Tango in Paris—which could serve as an alternate title for Victor/Victoria!) and he is receptive to modern sensibility and language (the bedtime bickering over the word “broad” airs a number of concerns which will be taken up by the rest of the story in 10). In Victor/Victoria he has a period film—Paris, 1934—to which a very accommodating, modern outlook is applied. In fact, there’s a bed scene between Julie Andrews and James Garner that recalls the one in 10, with two lovers discussing sexual chauvinism and emancipation—but in 1934? Period violation? Perhaps, and Sarris seems to be right in saying that Edwards doesn’t necessarily work most logically in getting what he wants. It should be noted that the two characters in this scene occasionally make fun of the clichés they step into, which makes the whole thing more palatable.

Period is nicely created in the opening scenes of Paris during a snowfall—I can’t think of another movie recently that has looked this handsome, in an old-fashioned studio sense. And it’s in these early scenes, with a starving Julie Andrews trudging the streets in search of a singing job or a hot meal, in which Edwards tips his interest in stylization over earthly reality—particularly, there’s this apparently sourceless reddish light that plays on Andrews’ hair…but it’s not a stylization that Edwards applies for his own amusement merely—Victor/Victoria is about people and situations that are stylized. Everyone is either pretending to be what they’re not, or exaggerating what they are.

This is really the only way to survive: Andrews’ character Victoria is broke but imaginative; she invents a scenario involving a cockroach to get a restaurant to pay for her first meal in four days. While dining, she meets the even more inventive Toddy (Robert Preston), an unemployed gay entertainer who stumbles on an idea which could make them both rich: have Victoria pretend to be a man pretending to be a woman—that is, impersonate a female impersonator. This ruse leads to financial gain but sexual confusion, especially for Victoria and a visiting Chicago gangster (James Garner) who digs Victoria’s stage show and then has to worry about his own inclinations when Victoria reveals that she—or he—is actually Victor.

There may be one too many spoken defenses of alternative lifestyles (the film’s benevolent attitude may be summed up best in an early exchange between Victoria and Toddy: “How long have you been a homosexual?” she asks him, and he shrugs, “How long have you been a soprano?”), but mostly the quicksilver permutations and multiple confusions are handled wittily. Edwards’ sense of slapstick is seen in best light when dealing with classic situations—like the aforementioned trying-to-get-out-a-restaurant-without-paying scheme, complete with hilariously surly waiter (Graham Stark); or a good hotel sequence wherein Garner and his bodyguard (Alex Karras) must delicately avoid getting caught snooping in Victoria and Toddy’s room, while the poor schmuck who lives across the hall becomes more and more bewildered.

Victor/Victoria is enjoyable just in terms of production values and art design; and every once in a while the narrative stops for a moment of delicious elegance like the one when Toddy and Victor do an impromptu softshoe in a small nightclub, dressed to the teeth in white tie and tails. Like the shiny surfaces of Edwards’ movies, this scene may seem less important than the ultimate coming-to-terms-with-self that his movies lead up to. But if this moment of effortless classiness isn’t quite the stuff that dreams are made of, it is at least an example of the stuff that dreams can make. And that, Blake Edwards seems to insist in film after film, is still worth something.

First published in The Informer, April 1982

RIP, Blake Edwards, died Dec. 15, 2010. I can’t say this is an impressive piece of writing, but I am fond of the work of this director, from a childhood experience with The Great Race (“Leslie escaped with a chicken?”) to the absolutely splendid physical gag that accompanied his acceptance of a special Oscar in 2004. He was prolific in the 1980s, as though he’d stored up a lot of stuff while getting through the rocky previous decade in his career. Someday I’ll actually re-watch some of these movies again.

Ninja III: The Domination

December 16, 2010

I’ve got a little confession to make: This film is the first of the Ninja series I’ve seen. Don’t ask me how I managed to miss the two preceding segments; I have no good excuses. All I know is, now that I’ve seen Ninja III: the Domination, I’ll never miss another one.

It’s just great. Well, maybe I should clarify my terms: “Great” is an overused word these days, as we all know, and I don’t mean to compare Ninja III with Citizen Kane or Birth of a Nation. In fact, cinematically, it’s abysmal.

But I don’t think I’ve seen another movie that was so weird in so many ways—and with such verve. For the first fifteen minutes, we watch this guy wipe out about two dozen people, destroy a helicopter, and crush a golf ball with one bare hand (this one-man ambush begins on a golf course). You never find out why any of this happens, but that doesn’t matter. You get used to that in this movie.

So, then, the cops pump him full of lead, but they can’t kill him (because, as we later find out, he can only be killed by another Ninja). So he drags his body to a girl (Lucinda Dickey) who works as a telephone lineman and gives her this sword.

The gag is, his spirit (which, as you’ve probably gathered, is none too chipper) enters her body. Okay. She can still lead a normal life as a telephone lineman and part-time aerobics instructor, but every once in a while, she gets the urge to crush a policeman’s noggin.

Perfectly normal, of course, but sometimes she—possessed by the bad Ninja, of course—carries through with it. Once she even crushes a billiard ball with her bare hand (this is clearly an important stylistic motif).

Sometimes at night, her closet starts to glow, and the sword gives lifts itself up and gives off some kind of heat. (This may be symbolic.) Also, the video game in her apartment comes alive and zaps her with a laser.

I could go on and on. She visits the doctor for a check-up, and the doctor says (this is the gospel truth): “Nothing very wrong with you, outside of your preoccupation with Japanese sculpture.” Gad! Maybe that’s not wrong, but it sure isn’t right.

To the rescue: a friendly cop (Jordan Bennett), who takes her to a backroom somewhere and pays an old Japanese gentleman to tie her up with chains and try to exorcise the demon out (it doesn’t work); and the nemesis of the bad Ninja, a fellow named Yamada (Sho Kosugi), apparently a familiar figure in the Ninja series.

He doesn’t really play a big role here, but he does come in at the end, in an unlikely Japanese temple nestled in the Arizona hills, to do final battle with the bad Ninja. This is a doozy—the bad one twirls himself down into the sand and starts an earthquake, so the actors get to move back and forth and wave their hands while the cinematographer jiggles the camera around.

Tremendous stuff. And I left out the massacre at the cemetery and the hot-tub murder. I just hope that, for Ninja IV, they make it even weirder. But how can you top a film that’s a cross between Enter the Dragon, Poltergeist, and Flashdance? My hope is that, if anyone can, it’s Kosugi & company.

First published in the Herald, 1984.

Sometimes sheer recitation of a plot, with appropriate annotation, is fitting, and obviously I thought that was the case with this movie. It conquered me. Lucinda Dickey had an abbreviated career, with this film and Breakin’ and its notoriously named sequel, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo her main credits. I have not revisited the world of Ninja III or its predecessors, but I’m fine with keeping it that way: one memory, kept pristine, untouched by time or age. And here it is.

Above the Law

December 15, 2010

Above the Law is a violent, bloody shoot-’em-up that presents the screen debut of famous martial-arts master Steven Seagal.

I know—I’d never heard of him either. But who’d ever heard of Chuck Norris back in the days before he karate-chopped his way to mega-stardom? So keep an eye out; Seagalmania may soon be upon us.

Actually, Seagal (I don’t think his name is pronounced like the moniker of the Seattle Seahawk cheerleaders) has a couple of things on Norris. Three, in fact: He’s tall, dark, and handsome, which Norris is not. His acting, on the other hand, is at roughly the same level.

In Above the Law, he’s cast as an ex-CIA operative, now a Chicago cop and family man. His CIA past comes back to haunt him when a shipment of plastic explosives that turns up in Chicago is tied to the killing of a priest and an imminent assassination attempt on a U.S. senator.

Our man goes into action, with the help of his partner (Pam Grier) and the support of his wife (Sharon Stone), who seems to be around to provide the bad guys with someone to threaten. The action sequences are regular and persuasive, and Seagal, who moves well for a big guy (and also speaks fluent Japanese), breaks a few of the villains in half.

Most of the bad guys cower and say things such as, “Don’t do me ugly, man,” as Seagal is about to discombobulate them. The head heavy is played by Henry Silva, whose icy eyes and razor-sharp cheekbones have carried many a B-movie into evil territory.

Interestingly, the movie turns more and more into an anti-CIA tract. Seagal, who worked on the screenplay with director Andrew Davis, comes down hard on the unchecked operations of the secret agency. Of course, Seagal can condemn the CIA for being above the law and out of control, but it’s OK for him to use illegal wiretaps and searches when he’s doing his thing.

In today’s customary action-movie fashion, Above the Law tries to be sardonically funny as it notches its body count. Seagal is not above allowing the occasional one-liner to slip out of the corner of his mouth, and at one point he forces a CIA agent to strip down to shorts and jump into Lake Michigan. Trying to make amends, the agent looks up at Seagal and says, “Maybe I’ve judged you too harshly….”

But for the most part Seagal just has to look mean, which he does. When, at a tense moment, somebody asks him, “What are you gonna do?” he answers, “You don’t want to know.” And you don’t.

First published in the Herald, April 1988.

Who knew the surprisingly good Under Siege and the massively weird On Deadly Ground were just around the corner? The cheerleaders joke might be wasted on non-NFL fans, but the Seattle dance squad is indeed called the SeaGals; how they missed doing a tie-in with Steven Seagal is a mystery. Nobody ever heard of Sharon Stone again.


December 14, 2010

It’s weird: Herbert Ross is this choreographer-turned-director, and one might expect that he would bring a quality of dance to his films. One would be wrong, though, because Ross, even when ostensibly dealing with dance in his movies (in The Turning Point and now his latest film, Nijinsky), photographs his action in the flattest manner possible; and what’s worse, he shoots the dancing sequences as though they were stretches of dialogue. The clumsy direction of the ballets in Nijinsky (cutting off George De La Pena’s brilliantly gliding figure at the waist, or using slow-motion that is absolutely awe-deflating during jumps) is the biggest disappointment of the movie; dance is quickly dispensed with so we can watch more very unshocking soap opera.

There is one aspect of this movie that is potentially intriguing: the film begins with a lengthy dolly into the insane face of Nijinsky, strait-jacketed in an asylum. Dissolve into the story proper, and then at the finish of the meat of the movie (volatile relationship between Diaghilev and Nijinsky, teacher and student, master/slave—you know) another dissolve into Nijinsky’s eyes, still mad, as we saw him in the first shot. Hey! Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, right? The whole thing was from the point of view of a crazy man, so everything in the movie is thrown into question…that would be great, if the movie worked that way, but nothing’s made of it; this framing device is no more than just that: a device, and the subtle ways in the Nijinsky’s point of view might change and disrupt the narrative are not dealt with. There’s nothing like the expressive Expressionism of Caligari here: is the director trying to tell us that the vision of an artist like Nijinsky is as pedestrian as that of a Herbert Ross?

Gee, this is sounding more down than I intended it to be—Nijinsky is a watchable film, nice to look at (the adjective “handsome” keeps cropping up in reviews, and it seems appropriate—well-tailored but unexciting), with a good feel for the backstage maneuvering and compromises of a traveling company (true of The Turning Point as well), and featuring a very funny supporting performance by Alan Badel as the weary, bitchy benefactor of the Ballets Russes. But at the end, when a series of stills of Nijinsky are flashed on the screen, we’d like to feel, ah, yes, here is the man as history can remember him, motionless and flat, but we’ve been privileged to view him in full vibrancy, defying gravity—except that that isn’t the way we have seen Nijinsky. By the end of the movie, there’s very little evidence that he is any less ordinary than the other people, and perhaps that’s the film’s greatest failing.

First published in The Informer, May 1980.

Yes, I sensed the popular demand growing: give us something on Herbert Ross’s Nijinsky! This one feels like a Seventies film, which in some ways it is, with a certain over-dressed, air-brushed aspect. I was just coming to the end of my own “career” as a “dancer” at about this time, which might explain some of my tsk-tsking at Ross’s ham-footed shooting of the ballet scenes, but whatever—I still don’t understand how a former dancer like Ross could fail so thoroughly to visualize the dance scenes. I haven’t seen The Turning Point since it came out, but I think it was shot better than this.