The Whoopee Boys

January 20, 2011

Oh, the legacy of Animal House. Ever since the megabuck success of the landmark gross-out comedy, the stream of crude and rude films that rely on leering goofballs and subterranean body noises has continued unabated.

Sensitive observers of film are quite correct to lament this sorry state. It is a valid complaint. But, you know, raunchiness and ribaldry have their place, too. Come to think of it, Animal House was a pretty funny movie.

Now comes The Whoopee Boys, a film that deliberately seeks the crudest level of comedy. We can decry this film for its lack of erudition. But, speaking on an uninsistently personal level, I can’t deny that this movie has a few shamelessly funny sequences.

Before that is interpreted as an out-and-out recommendation, I would hasten to add that the funny moments in The Whoopee Boys are outweighed by the just plain gross. Lots of stuff doesn’t work in this scattershot affair.

The material that does pay off is an affront to common decency, which frankly can afford to be affronted now and then. This isn’t going to elevate our sensibilities or bring us closer to international understanding, but it can provide some low-level gratification.

It comes as no surprise that the screenplay is mainly the work of Steve Zacharias and Jeff Buhai, who wrote Revenge of the Nerds, another reasonably funny slob comedy. (They collaborated here with David Obst.)

They’ve invented a pair of freewheeling goombahs (Michael O’Keefe and Paul Rodriguez) and turned them loose on polite society in Florida. There’s a plot in here somewhere, an absurd thing about a nice heiress who needs to marry before she can inherit a fortune. She doesn’t want to marry the rich creeps around her, so O’Keefe offers his services.

But he’s much too outrageous to mingle in Palm Beach society, so he and Rodriguez go to a mad school of etiquette. This is mined for a few formulaic laughs, then they return to take Palm Beach by storm.

I would like to share some of the comedy of the film, but propriety dictates against it. It’s safe to say that it would appeal to a narrow, and decidedly lowbrow, sense of humor.

John Byrum directed; it’s another blip in a very odd career. He’s gone from an almost-unseen X-rated Richard Dreyfuss movie (Inserts) to a sympathetic homage to Jack Kerouac (Heart Beat) to the gruesome meeting of Somerset Maugham and Bill Murray (The Razor’s Edge).

Byrum encourages an appropriately loosey-goosey atmosphere, and O’Keefe and especially Rodriguez exploit the improvisatory situation. Like them or loathe them, these guys can really clear a room.

First published in the Herald, September 24, 1986

Who recalls The Whoopee Boys? It’s true there’s a poster for the film in the background of a set in Hot Rod, which is a much funnier picture. This is a weird review, and I don’t even bother to cite the handful of low-humor scenes that apparently made me laugh. Byrum must be sort of an interesting character; at any rate, I genuinely liked Heart Beat, and perhaps someday I will actually watch the Murray version of The Razor’s Edge again, just to see anew one of the strangest Hollywood projects ever.

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The Trouble with Spies

January 19, 2011

There are subtle ways of surmising that a movie has been sitting on the shelf for a while. You can check the dated fashions, listen for year-old speech anachronisms, or note the untimely subject matter.

Then there’s the acid test: How many of the cast members have died since the film was made?

Sounds macabre, right? But when actors who’ve been dead for a couple of years turn up in a new movie, you know the film was in no hurry to be released.

Such a film is The Trouble with Spies, which features Ruth Gordon in a supporting role. Not to dwell on the morbid, but Gordon has been deceased for a while now, which suggests that The Trouble with Spies has been collecting dust for a couple of years.

The reason for the delayed release is abundantly clear. The Trouble with Spies is excruciatingly bad, without an ounce of wit, charm, or suspense.

There was a time when the basic premise—a bumbling spy set up as a Judas Goat by his own government, with comic consequences—would have been appropriate material for director-writer-producer Burt Kennedy. Kennedy made a few funky Westerns in the 1960s, such as The Rounders and Support Your Local Sheriff!, which proved his talent for mixing comedy with action.

But Kennedy doesn’t find any of the comedy here. This film’s idea of funny is summed up in its opening scene: British spy chief Robert Morley asks clumsy agent Donald Sutherland to please be careful with that machine gun in Morley’s neat office. Sutherland assures him not to worry; the gun isn’t loaded. At which point the gun begins spraying lead all over Morley’s walls. Gee, we haven’t seen that gag before, have we?

Sutherland, who seems to be following Michael Caine’s policy of taking every job offered, is sleepwalking through this one. The oddest thing is that, despite the film’s official status as a comedy, Sutherland remains quite stolid.

Elsewhere, Gordon does the cute-little-old-lady thing, and Michael Hordern and Ned Beatty are similarly wasted. Lucy Gutteridge manages to make the phrase “love interest” a contradiction in terms.

Another oddity: Though the film includes Sutherland’s walk along a topless beach on the island of Ibiza, it gets a tame PG rating. Presumably the censors were (understandably) asleep by that time.

First published in the Herald, 1987.

Another forgotten movie, produced by DEG, Dino De Laurentiis’s shingle at the time. Had some hopes going into this, because of Burt Kennedy, but obviously it appears to have fallen short of expectations, and everything else. For the record, Ruth Gordon died in August 1985, and this movie was released in December 1987. I still think the length-of-actors-being-deceased is a good yardstick for suspecting something amiss about a movie. In any case, this is the kind of thing that would go straight to video today, but was able to actually secure a release in those innocent days. Another reason not to be nostalgic.


Nightfall

January 18, 2011

One of the fun things about science-fiction novels is the way they create a complex world unto themselves, a world full of fresh history, science, rules and regulations, with weird new names for everything.

The problem with adapting such an ambitious work—Dune, for instance—for the movies is that a movie doesn’t have 400 or 800 pages in which to detail and describe its brave new world. A movie has to do it in two hours.

Perhaps this is why a movie such as Dune, despite the interesting contributions of director David Lynch, doesn’t really come alive on the screen. In trying to acknowledge the novel’s many subplots and details a film can end up giving short shrift to everything.

That seems to be the case with Nightfall, a movie based on Isaac Asimov’s novel. I haven’t read the book, but from the outset, the film is obviously trying to catch us up on a huge amount of information.

It’s an onslaught, really, of plot: a community, on a planet somewhere, ruled by a man of reason and science (David Birney). Three suns have provided a millennium of constant daylight.

However, there is a group of naysayers who run around in purple terrycloth robes and quote from the Book of Illuminations, which sayeth that a nightfall will come and plunge the planet into darkness. The natives, not thinking that nighttime might be survivable and even enjoyable, regard the coming sunset as apocalyptic. One by one, the suns start dropping below the horizon.

It’s a fine idea for a sci-fi story, but writer-director Paul Mayersberg has decided to cram in as much of the story’s paraphernalia as he can. This means that scenes tend to last about 30 seconds or so, and it’s all exposition.

Much of it is incomprehensible, unless, I suppose, you’ve read the book. We never have any idea why the ruler’s first wife (Sarah Douglas) would go over and join the purple terrycloth people, or why she would be so eager to have her eyes pecked out by hawks (the movie’s big oooh-yecch scene).

Nightfall is so bewildering that I began to look forward to appearances by the chief villain, a blind prophet of doom played by Alexis Kanner, who chews each word of dialogue as though he were paid by the minute. Kanner hams it up so mercilessly that he’s always a welcome presence; he would’ve made a great Roman crazy in those biblical epics of the 1950s.

By the way, the movie carries one of the raunchier PG-13 ratings in recent memory, with a couple of peekaboo sex scenes. It also has the year’s most gratuitous snakebite scene, in which a woman must suck the poison out of a man’s thigh. Both people are naked at the time, as bad luck would have it.

First published in the Herald, October 20, 1988

It will be obvious to Asimov fans that this entire review is based on a false assumption: indeed I had not read the “novel,” which is actually a short story. So yes, a valid argument about the principle of abridging novels into movies is somewhat invalid here. I can only defend myself by noting that this movie is indeed so complicated and subplot-heavy that it feels as though it had been adapted from a sprawling novel. If you saw this movie you’d wouldn’t care where it came from either, and you wouldn’t care about much else, for that matter.

So Paul Mayersberg co-founded Movie magazine in Britain in the early Sixties, wrote the screenplays for The Man Who Fell to Earth, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, and Croupier, and also directed this crazy thing. I’m not sure how that happened, but you can read more about him here. It was odd to see David Birney in the lead role of a big-screen movie, but that’s what this picture is like.


The Wraith

January 17, 2011

The Wraith is an insane little movie that tries to graft the black humor and nihilistic action of the Mad Max films onto the teensploitation genre. As you might guess, this produces one of the biggest head-scratchers of the season.

Some tortuous exposition lets us know that a kid who was murdered by a gang of hooligans has come back to Earth from outer space or heaven or somewhere. He retuns to his small Arizona hometown to avenge himself.

He doesn’t look like his former self (he looks like Charlie Sheen), so nobody recognizes him. He takes his revenge by challenging the town bullies to high-speed car races, which he always wins because he parks his supernatural car in the middle of the road and lets the opponent run smack into it at 100 miles an hour. Sheen, of course, has the advantage of being already dead, so he just reconstitutes himself from the wreckage.

This is pretty nutty in itself, and there’s also the dead guy’s ex-girlfriend (Sherilyn Fenn), who is now dating the “genetic misfire” (Nick Cassavetes) who was responsible for the murder.

When she and Sheen get alone together, it prompts sappy dialogue and thus some of the film’s unintentional humor. The writer-director, Mike Marvin, doesn’t seem too inspired by the straight stuff. He likes the car crashes and creepy villains much better.

Marvin appears to be under the spell of not just The Road Warrior but also Repo Man, which sustained a loopy supernatural humor much more effectively (and starred Sheen’s brother Emilio Estevez).

Where Marvin shows some flair is with the second-rank crazies, the minions of Cassavetes. They’re a bunch of quivering, punked-out weirdos with names such as Skank and Gutterboy, and they get all the funny lines in the film—that is, if a non sequitur like “Hey, we got our constipational rights,” qualifies as a funny line.

The most otherworldly of these fellows is played by Clint Howard, erstwhile child star (“Gentle Ben”) who’s kept his career going by playing goofy little roles in his brother Ron’s films. Here he plays a car nut named Rughead, and he wears a tall fright wig just like the one worn by the title character of David Lynch’s Eraserhead.

Whenever I see Howard, I always think of David Letterman’s description of him as “that guy who looks like he got his head caught in a paint shaker.” That’s him, all right. This movie is a bit like that—caught in a paint shaker, and going every which way. Even so, I’ve got a feeling that, given the right mood and a tendency toward cultishness, some people are actually going to like this thing. I’ll wait for the next Mad Max sequel.

First published in the Herald, November 27, 1986

“The minions of Cassavetes”—how did I not start that band? This film, a typical artifact from the age of Fenn, followed close on the heels of Mike Marvin’s other 1986 film, Hamburger—The Motion Picture, but he seems to have lost his way after that. Also, nothing against Clint Howard, who’s done lots more things that just pop up in brother Ron’s movies, although he does that admirably. The Letterman line simply stuck.


Twins

January 14, 2011

After weeks of coming attractions, magazine teasers, TV commercials, and honest-to-goodness billboards, the movie seems a bit redundant. Yes, Twins is here at last, the film that dares to suggest a fraternal kinship between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito.

The joke of the movie is basically that these two preposterous actors could possibly be brothers. Twins, yet. There have been worse excuses for movies, to be sure, and Twins plays out its concept at a reasonable level of good-natured fun.

The explanation for this strange set of siblings? A genetic experiment, an attempt to create an ideal human specimen. The baby that grew up to be Schwarzenegger got all the good genes and chromosomes, all the brains, sweetness and build. And the baby that grew up to be DeVito got—well, in his words, “all the crap that was left over.”

That’s how baby Julius, Schwarzenegger, was taken to a remote island and raised in isolation by an egghead professor. Baby Vincent, DeVito, was dumped in an L.A. orphanage and left to fend for himself. When Julius learns he has a twin, he leaves the island and ventures out into the world for the first time.

So the first hour of the movie consists of some familiar fish-out-of-water situations, as Schwarzenegger learns the ropes; how to eat junk food and kiss the girls, that sort of thing. Meanwhile, he’s trying to convince Vincent, a low-life hustler in debt to some mobsters, that they are really brothers. And Vince is marveling at this “230-pound virgin.”

The middle section of the film works the best, when the brothers take a road trip to New Mexico with girlfriends (Kelly Preston and Chloe Webb), and actually learn to like each other.

The mob plot keeps intruding; it wears the movie down a bit, and also overextends it. Producer-director Ivan Reitman organizes things in his usual slipshod fashion, but he seems to have a knack for knowing what people want (he directed the megahits Stripes and Ghostbusters). Reitman gets DeVito to do his rolling sleazeball routine, which is generally on-target. Schwarzenegger tackles his first (intentional) comedic performance with good cheer, though he might have been funnier if no one had told him to play this as comedy.

First published in the Herald, December 10, 1988

Arnold and Ivan Reitman would make two more comedies, Kindergarten Cop and Junior; the latter, I really don’t need to tell you, is the choice for aficionados of the collaboration. The success of this film must also be held accountable for Sylvester Stallone’s forays into comedy, which did not work out as profitably as Schwarzenegger’s. I sound somewhat bored in this review, and I can’t blame me.


The Running Man

January 13, 2011

Dawson and Arnold, together again

There’s some hard, mean fun to be had in The Running Man, the new Arnold Schwarzenegger film, in which he plays yet another version of the monosyllabic man. Much of the fun, no doubt, comes directly from the novel by Richard Bachman, a pseudonym for the appallingly prolific Stephen King.

The book and film propose a futuristic game show in which the contestants are criminals who are hunted down and killed by professional stalkers. And it all happens live, in living color, on nationwide television. The most dangerous game indeed.

The show doesn’t merely generate rating points, it also pacifies the population, which suits the shadowy totalitarian government just fine. They supply the criminals, the cartoonish stalkers provide the bloodshed.

Schwarzenegger stumbles into all this when he’s falsely convicted of mass murder. Now known as the “Butcher of Bakersfield,” he’s delivered into the diabolical hands of the creator-host of the “Running Man” show (played by former “Family Feud” host Richard Dawson with all the evil unctuousness he can muster, which is a lot).

So, of course, the better part of the movie is taken up with Arnold’s battles against the stalkers, who have names such as Fireball, Buzzsaw and Dynamo. As expected, this makes for some punchy action sequences set in a war-zone vision of Los Angeles.

Also expected in Schwarzenegger films are the terrible puns that the actor spouts with alarming regularity; after cleaving Buzzsaw in two, he reports that the stalker “had to split.” There’s a bit of love interest, too, with Maria Conchita Alonso coming along for the run. (Arnold’s most charming line to her, before they become friends: “Remember, I could snap your neck like a chicken’s.”)

But the film’s at its best in the realm of nightmare fantasy. We see commercials for shows such as “Climbing for Dollars,” in which contestants must scrap for cash in a room full of bloodthirsty Dobermans. And any time Dawson is holding forth to his rabid studio audience, the movie really falls into its black-humored groove.

Directing is Paul Michael Glaser, who used to be Starsky in “Starsky and Hutch,” and thus knows something about violence and television. Glaser herds all the action effectively, but someday some director is going to have to work up the nerve to tell Arnold: Please, no more puns, no more puns.

First published in the Herald, November 1987

This opened a few months after Predator, and in both reviews I make a cute little oblique reference to the classic short story, The Most Dangerous Game. Well, sue me. I blame the movies for having a limited imaginative spectrum. Also, I think this was about the last time you could use the phrase “in living color” and assume your audience took it as a reference to the Sixties slogan about color television programs rather than the Wayans brothers’ TV series (not that either would register today). All in all, this has to be counted another shrewd outing for Arnold, blending pure action with the hip irony that tries to distance itself from that action. And the casting of Richard Dawson really does make the picture—why don’t people think of stuff like that more often?


Predator

January 12, 2011
Schwarzenegger, Weathers, Predator

As surprises go, Predator isn’t much. But the new Arnold Schwarzenegger film is still an unexpectedly gripping action movie, with no slack moments and few neat twists up its gore-splattered sleeves.

It begins with one of those American special-forces units dropping into one of those unnamed Central American countries to perform a routine bit of covert rescue work. We’ve certainly seen plenty of that lately, onscreen and elsewhere. They’re a bunch of muscle-bound dudes who, when wounded, say things like, “I ain’t got time to bleed.” But Schwarzenegger and his crack team run into a new sort of enemy during their jungle mission.

Somewhere out there in the trees is a thing that grabs his men and strips them of their flesh, then hangs them out like trophies on display. (This is not a movie for the squeamish.) Big Arnie and his men race through the forest to meet their helicopter pick-up, but this thing is silent, impervious to pain—and it wants to play a most dangerous game.

Predator is basically Alien in the jungle, broken down into a series of stalking scenes until Schwarzenegger and the thing can go at it: Two otherworldly mounds of beef slugging it out in the primordial ooze.

Under John McTiernan’s well-paced direction, this actually becomes an effective chase movie. There’s some great jungle photography by the talented Don McAlpine, who wrings all the green sweaty paranoia out of the setting; almost the entire film takes place within the choking vines and trees.

Schwarzenegger indulges his penchant for James Bond-style wisecracks, which he squeezes out through the thick molasses of his accent. He implores an enemy soldier impaled on a knife to “Stick around,” and when he finally gazes upon the face of the predator, he marvels, “You’re one ugly (insert 12-letter expletive).” The audience goes nuts at that one.

Good monster. At first, through some special-effects wizardry, we glimpse only a shimmering shape that seems to assume the look of the forest around it. Later the beast makes itself seen, in an outrageous design that features synthetic dreadlocks and a praying-mantis face. Inside the costume is the tall actor Kevin Peter Hall, who also plays the sasquatch in Harry and the Hendersons. I wonder if we’ll ever get to see him?

Predator isn’t much of anything, but it has a punchy, ground-level force to it and a suspense ratio that holds up. There are bad action movies and good action movies, and this is one of the good ones.

First published in the Herald, June 1987

It is one of the good ones. I guess I could’ve named some of the other actors in the movie, but apparently I was very taken with Don McAlpine’s cinematography, so sorry, Jesse Ventura and Carl Weathers et al. The reference to Central American adventures “onscreen and elsewhere” reminds one of how so many of the action pictures of the Eighties were in tune with the national mood during the Reagan years. It is becoming clear, seeing these reviews in a row, how constantly I bemoaned the puns and the accent. There’s more of that to come.