Blame it on Rio

March 22, 2011

Johnson and Caine, less than razor-sharp

Blame it on Rio? Oh, I don’t know—surely the city itself is not to blame. Why don’t we blame it on screenwriters Charlie Peters and Larry Gelbart, not to mention director Stanley Donen, instead?

We’re blaming them for Blame It on Rio, an excruciating comedy set in Rio de Janeiro, where the two main characters (played by Michael Caine and Joseph Bologna) are vacationing with their teenage daughters. It happens that Bologna’s daughter (Michelle Johnson) has a crush on Caine, who is enduring a separation from his wife.

Rio being Rio, and this being a situation comedy, sparks fly between the two. The girl then tells her father that she’s had a fling, but doesn’t tell him who the lucky man was—which sets Bologna raging. He decides to find the defiler himself, and—of course—enlists Caine to help him.

Much commotion follows, usually in the direction of colorful Rio scenery. This is a wise move: when the story’s a dog, use anything that distracts from it. But you can’t avoid the plot forever, and the film regularly grinds to a halt.

This is something of a surprise, since director Stanley Donen instilled so much verve in the musicals he made with Gene Kelly (including Singin’ in the Rain) and in such movies as Charade and Two for the Road. Donen contributes some splashy color, but with Rio as the backdrop, that’s almost a given. And Gelbart, who apparently served as script doctor here—he performed the same function on Tootsie—is one of the wittier writers around.

Poor Michelle Johnson, who launches her screen career as the excitable girl, is a remarkably untalented performer. She reads her lines in the kind of insipid tone that makes you wonder how the other actors were able to keep straight faces (which, unfortunately, they do). She takes her clothes off a lot, though, which is another lesson from the distract-’em-with-scenery school of filmmaking—in this case, a perfectly understandable decision.

Blame Blame It on Rio on these people, but don’t blame it on Caine. It’s not easy for Michael Caine to be bad, even in bad movies (and he’s had his share of them). In Blame It on Rio Caine fulfills the role of the slapstick dupe with relative ease. Even when flying into dithers, he manages to retain a certain class.

He’s so classy, in fact, that when questioned on a recent TV interview about the histrionic qualities of his co-star, the aforementioned Johnson, he gamely offered, “Well, she’s not Katharine Hepburn yet.” Now there’s classic British restraint for you. It’s a shame Blame It on Rio couldn’t have been as droll.

First published in the Herald, February 1984

I had a horrible night the night I saw this movie. I think it actually ruined a party for me. So even people like Gelbart and Donen have a lot to answer for. The other main actress was Demi Moore, who isn’t mentioned by me here, but then it was hard to make a good impression in this film. At least the writing of the review allowed me to make a cheap Elvis Costello reference. But even he is soiled by association with Blame It on Rio.

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Dune/Runaway

March 21, 2011

Freddie Jones and Sting, a la Dune

I had been warned that Dune was confusing, so I was set to pay close attention from the very beginning. Surprisingly enough, I found that, on the plot level, Dune was rather easy to follow. There is a lot of information discharged in the first half hour, but the main movement of the story, and the many characters, are pretty easily identifiable. Oh, there’s the occasional weirdness–the bit with the potion that makes the user’s lips turn red went by too quickly for me to catch, so that when Brad Dourif came on muttering an incantation and applying the nectar to his mouth, I wasn’t sure what it all meant. But any frustration I felt due to ignorance of that particular detail was overruled by my delight with Dourif’s wacked-out performance (which unfortunately ends much too early in the film).

No, those unexplained details didn’t bug me too much. The most confusing thing about Dune is: What does this movie think it’s doing? Dune may be the most bewildering movie of the year, and not because of its plot. What was David Lynch thinking about when he decided to have people provide voiceover explanations of events we’ve just seen? “The spice…the worms…is there a relationship?” Of course there is, you bonehead, how could there not be, based on the information already provided to us?

These voiceovers are just one symptom of what’s wrong with Dune; the main problem would seem to be that Lynch has tried to be overly faithful to Frank Herbert’s novel. But that’s conjecture, since a) I haven’t read Dune, and b) I can’t hear what’s going on in Lynch’s mind, thank heaven. But there are things in the film that cry out for capsulization. For instance, Lynch got Sting to play one of the bad guys; given that, why not combine his role with that of the other bad guy played by big Paul Smith? Any reason that couldn’t be just one character, who could do twice as many mean, nasty things, thus providing a strong opposite number for the hero? (To be crass about it, that would make commercial sense too, since Sting is a big rock star and a certain audience is going to come to this film just to see him.)

As it is, Der Stingle is barely in the film at all, and the climactic knife battle with hero Paul Atreides is ho-hum time. But more than that, Sting, who has proven himself a fairly dynamic performer elsewhere, is out-and-out bad in Dune—he glowers and rolls his eyes without a trace of subtlety (and thus without a trace of menace). Or take the case of the University of Washington’s own Kyle MacLachlan, who plays the main character. MacLachlan is physically right for the part; he’s all heroic chin and hair, and he looks as though he’d have the necessary stamina to housebreak a sandworm. But he’s a bit on the stolid side, and there’s no humor in his performance. That I blame on David Lynch, who doesn’t seem to have conceived of the tone that his performers—or that the film itself—should carry. That uncertainty combined with a lack of rhythm and forward motion doom this Dune to be scattered to the winds.

After I saw Dune and Peter Hyams’ ridiculous 2010, was I ever in the mood for Runaway, the Tom Selleck vehicle about murderous robots in the near future. It is, to be sure, substantially inane; but it also has a friendly, funky spirit. Besides, it’s basically a cop movie in sci-fi trappings, as Selleck is out to catch a madman (Gene Simmons of KISS) bent on ruling the world through robot domination. Doesn’t that sound great? I thought so too. Add to that some killer spider robots, who clatter noisily before they exterminate their prey, and add Selleck’s partner, Cynthia Rhodes, the blond dish from Staying Alive, who sweats very appealingly in the scene where Tom removes an explosive bullet from her shoulder. When you mix in Simmons’ performance, which consists entirely of curled lip and bug-out eyes, you step back in time about three decades or so, and settle comfortably into the realm of chewy B-cinema. As such, Runaway works just fine. Writer-director Michael Crichton has a few good uses for Vancouver, B.C., and he gives us a shot from the point of view of a heat-seeking bullet. He also stages a genuinely exciting top-of-a-skyscraper finale (compounded by Selleck’s vertigo—say, where have I seen this before?). What’s it all add up to? Not much, really, but when you’ve been assailed by hours of pretentious science fiction hoohah, this sort of thing is a tonic.

First published in The Informer, January/February 1985

Still haven’t read Dune, and I haven’t been tempted to follow up this original experience with seeking out any alternate cuts or anything like that. Well, maybe during that sabbatical year. Sorry to say that I didn’t review Crichton’s crazy Looker at the time it came out, and thus can’t reprint anything on this Eighties website, but I did write an editorial review for Amazon.com, which can be accessed here.


Gorillas in the Mist

March 18, 2011

In the opening scene of Gorillas in the Mist, we see a young Dian Fossey attending a lecture by the great scientist Louis Leakey.

Leakey sums up his interest in tracing man’s lineage through the apes by saying, “I want to know who I am and what it was that made me that way.”

We may assume Fossey went to Africa to investigate that premise and, in the 18 years she spent there, must have made both an anthropological expedition and a voyage of self-discovery in her study of mountain gorillas.

The film of her story can only hint at the connection she made with the gorillas, although it presents a watchable treatment of her work. Fossey, played by Sigourney Weaver (who does fine, uninhibited work in the most demanding role of her career), is seen as a stubborn and self-possessed woman who cared immediately and deeply for the endangered animals she found on a mountainside in Rwanda.

The more she observed her groups of gorillas, the more distinct their personalities became, to the point where she gave them names and recognized their regular habits—all of which she recounted in some landmark “National Geographic” articles and in her book, Gorillas in the Mist.

Equally importantly, she fought against poachers who were killing the apes. She’s given credit for single-handedly saving the mountain gorilla population. It’s her war with poachers that is generally believed to be behind her murder under mysterious circumstances in 1985.

The movie, to its credit, shows Fossey not as a white goddess, but as an increasingly autocratic and, toward the end, somewhat crazed zealot. Sigourney Weaver is good at catching the slightly mad dreaminess in Fossey’s gaze, even at the film’s beginning.

There’s also a romance with a “Geographic” photographer (Bryan Brown), skirmishes with a sleazy zoo contractor and a warm friendship with her tracker (a wonderfully gentle performance by a non-actor, John Omirah Miluwi).

The director, Michael Apted (Coal Miner’s Daughter), working from a screenplay by Anna Hamilton Phelan, does nicely by the lush locations and the presence of the gorillas. (Many of the apes are real while others are the creations of Oscar-winning makeup man Rick Baker.)

But Apted doesn’t quite find the key to unlocking this story; except for the touching relationship between Fossey and her favorite gorilla, Digit, the movie is superficial, providing some interesting information but little compelling drama.

There’s no question Fossey found herself when she went into Africa; but this film can’t find out who she was or what made her that way.

First published in the Herald, September 23, 1988

Rick Baker again, inescapable under these circumstances (he’s now won Oscars in four consecutive decades, did your realize?). If Sigourney Weaver was going to win an Oscar, this was the year that might’ve done it; she was nominated for best actress for this performance, and for supporting actress for Working Girl. Jodie Foster won best actress for The Accused, and Geena Davis won supporting for The Accidental Tourist. As for the monkey aspect, I couldn’t find my review of Link, so that’ll have to wait.


Project X

March 17, 2011

Project X shapes up as one of springtime’s probable movie hits: it has all the clean efficiency of WarGames or last summer’s unjustly neglected The Manhattan Project.

Project X shares with those films a thriller format in which the plot turns on a super-secret government project (with a whiff of nuclear disaster). Naturally, I can’t reveal much more—why do you think they call it “Project X”?—but I can say that this project involves apes.

Chimpanzees, to be precise. We follow the story of one bright chimp in particular, a simian who goes by the name Virgil. Virgil is trained at a university program by a graduate student (Helen Hunt) and reaches an advanced capability with sign language and conceptual thinking. But eventually that program ends, and Virgil is carted off to a military base in Florida.

Seems he’s been drafted to participate in a government test, along with a few dozen other apes. The test requires chimps to train on flight simulators, so they might, uh, ape the behavior of human pilots under severe conditions.

The exact nature of those severe conditions is not revealed until late in the film. But it’s something that gives pause to Virgil’s trainer and pal (Matthew Broderick), a would-be Air Force pilot who’s been busted down to monkey duty because of some lapses in military etiquette. (He got caught with a girl in a plane during an unauthorized night flight.) The swift-moving second half of the film has Broderick bucking his superiors and getting Virgil out of a very hairy situation.

Stanley Weiser’s script takes some rather long leaps in plausibility, especially during the climax. But director Jonathan Kaplan manages to make the whole film so inventively entertaining, you may well be sold on it by the time the ending rolls around.

Kaplan is one of these filmmakers who has busied himself on the fringes of the mainstream for years now, often doing interesting low-budget work. Finally Heart Like a Wheel gained him cult status (and critical acclaim). This is his first at-bat with big-league material, and it surely won’t be the last.

Kaplan mounts a couple of genuinely exciting suspense sequences (and a very disturbing one when Broderick finally learns the true nature of the “testing”). He’s got a crisp, uncluttered approach, so that you always know what’s going on. And he know to take time out for quieter moments; the wordess prologue shows little Virgil in his African home, before he’s bundled up by hunters. The chimps spots a bird, and expresses a yearning to fly, which will eventually lead to his talent in the training center.

Inevitably, there are a few too many shots of chimps acting cute. This, of course, is the standard drawback with animal movies. But Kaplan has fewer of them than usual, and even Matthew Broderick doesn’t act cute. Those are two solid achievements, and the rest of the film isn’t bad either.

First published in the Herald, April 1987

This is the movie Broderick made after Ferris Bueller and while on top of the bankability world. What a strange choice. Kaplan, who came up through the Roger Corman ranks, always had a good touch; he came to Seattle when Heart Like a Wheel was re-launched and re-discovered in part by future Big Lebowski life model Jeff Dowd—this was at a moment when Seattle was the place where indie movies (before they were called that) could be nurtured and given a fresh start.


Missing Link

March 16, 2011

Missing Link is one of the more ludicrously misguided movies of recent memory. It covers roughly the same territory that the first 20 minutes of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 did; all about the passing of ape-men into men. But what Kubrick did with such visionary economy, Missing Link does with uninterrupted simplemindedness. And it takes 100 minutes to do it.

It’s sort of like Quest for Fire without the sex. Set in Africa one million years ago, Missing Link documents the final journey of a fuzzy, red-haired Australopithecus robustus. His days are numbered, because he’s an ape-man surrounded by ever-increasing numbers of more highly evolved humans.

In fact, when his clan is slaughtered, he’s the very last of his kind. So he roams around, ponders the blunt object that killed his pals, and drifts across the savannah in search of sympathy. In the end, we are given a flower-child message about this thick-skulled creature’s gentleness, as opposed to the nastiness of man.

Throughout his journey, the Fuzzy One encounters nature. And here is where the credentials of writer-directors David and Carol Hughes come into play. They are veteran wildlife filmmakers, and they take every opportunity to display the oddities of the African landscape (they filmed entirely in Namibia).

So we get the “National Geographic” tour of the territory: lions attacking water buffalo, a python swallowing a duck, a lion toying with a turtle, who has, understandably, drawn himself up into his shell.

Sometimes the wonders of nature prompt Fuzzy to chuckle, in his primordial way; it’s pretty funny when a lizard zaps a beetle with its tongue and crunches the bug until the guts spew out. It’s so funny that our ape-man even imitates the behavior.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with interesting wildlife footage, and some of the footage in Missing Link is interesting.

The undaunted actor playing the ape-man is Peter Elliott, who does exact physical work. (He’s encased in hair and mask designed by Oscar-winning makeup man Rick Baker.) Elliott’s good at this, but he’s getting into something of a rut, career-wise. He has appeared in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Harry and the Hendersons, King Kong Lives, and Gorillas in the Mist. You guessed it, all ape roles. Nice to have a specialty, but if I were Elliott, I’d have a long talk with my agent.

First published in the Herald, November 1988

By gum, Peter Elliott is still at it, playing simians (and acting as “performance coordinator” on Where the Wild Things Are), and needing no career advice from me. Good for him. Rick Baker’s still at it, too, evidenced by his recent Oscar win for The Wolfman. As for the rest of this, I swear “a python swallowing a duck” is the middle of a Buddy Hackett routine, but for the life of me I can’t think of the punchline.


Monkey Shines

March 15, 2011

Of the Hollywood directors who specialize in the much-derided horror genre, whose ranks include Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven, George Romero is the elder statesman. Romero traces his legacy back to the low-budget classic Night of the Living Dead, the 1968 movie that definitively validated Romero’s license to chill.

Romero mixes his own modestly budgeted movies, mainly filmed around his home turf of Pittsburgh, with the occasional studio product like Creepshow. His newest, Monkey Shines, is in the latter category; it’s handsomely-produced and well-acted, two qualities that are not always present in Romero’s smaller movies.

And the subject matter is intriguing and offbeat. The story draws some of its inspiration from a successful real-life program in Boston in which monkeys are trained to perform duties for quadriplegics—a sort of simian variation on the seeing-eye dog.

A law student (Jason Beghe) is rendered a quadriplegic when he is hit by a car. His good friend, a scientist (John Pankow), has been working on experiments with monkeys that enhance the animals’ intelligence. This somewhat mad doctor donates his most gifted monkey, Ella, for training by a professional (Kate McNeil) who’s been working with monkeys that help disabled people.

So Beghe gets a primate helper—but soon, he begins to suspect that the monkey is developing a weird telepathic connection with him. Ella, who has free run of the house, starts acting out Beghe’s more mean-spirited wishes, including the murderous feelings he has for his unfaithful wife.

The first hour and more of Monkey Shines presents a lot of effective scenes, horrific and otherwise. Ella and her master share an unexpected fondness for the music of Peggy Lee, for example, and they also share a dislike of his cranky nurse and her bothersome parakeet (the little bird, you may guess, has a limited lifespan).

I think the film gets overextended in the final going—things should really wind up about 15 minutes before they do. But Romero brings his usual intelligence to the proceedings, and plays the horror scenes with an unusual degree of gorelessness. This film also contains a treatment of a disabled character that is as unsentimental as any I’ve seen in a movie.

The monkey can really act, too, suggesting malevolence and sweetness and braininess. Her real name is Boo.

First published in the Herald, August 4, 1988

If John Pankow is in a lead role, it must be the Eighties. I saw a little bit of this movie on cable a few nights ago and I’m not sure I can stand by the review’s assertion that the film is in general well-acted. But Romero always brings value, and Monkey Shines is full of ideas, embracing what so many horror films and fairy tales implicitly suggest: that the monster (or monkey) is no more than our own impulses let loose, doing our bidding while we keep our hands clean. I don’t know where else Boo’s career went, but we will look at a well-traveled simian actor in tomorrow’s posting.


King Kong Lives

March 14, 2011

Dino De Laurentiis is the Italian producer who now runs his own studio in North Carolina. His films these days run a bizarre gamut from the artfully adventuresome (Blue Velvet, Manhunter) to the broadly trashy (Raw Deal, Tai-Pan). That range suggests a mogul who is willing to try different things, without really understanding why.

Dino is nothing if not a character. And when he gets an idea into his head, it is apparently there for good.

Witness his devotion to a 50-year-old movie legend, once billed as “the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood.” We speak, of course, of King Kong.

The greatest of the great apes was hatched in 1933, with the magnificent film by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack. That movie, even with its occasional creaks, is simply one of Hollywood’s all-time imaginative triumphs.

It’s also one of those films, like Gone With the Wind or Casablanca, that should never be remade. But back in 1976, no one could convince Dino of that.

Not that Kong was sacrosanct. He’d been ripped off many times, including a couple of sequels, Son of Kong and Mighty Joe Young, by his original creators. And then he got trashed in a series of cheap Japanese movies, in which he squared off against Godzilla and that ilk.

Still, Dino was going back to the source, and there was something impudent about that. Instead of climbing up the Empire State Building at the end, Kong went up the World Trade Center. Despite Dino’s promise that “When my Kong die, everybody cry,” audiences only yawned.

The film was notable—strictly in retrospect—only for launching the career of Jessica Lange, who played Kong’s leading lady. Unaccountably, she deigned not to appear in the new sequel, King Kong Lives, except in a prologue that recaps the end of the 1976 film. The ape died, you will recall.

King Kong lives, it seems. Like the rumored suspended animation of John F. Kennedy, Kong has been in some sort of coma for years, waiting to be revived and come save us all. He finally is reanimated, thanks to an artificial heart—one humongous artificial heart—implanted by a specialist in the field of giant gorilla hearts, played by Linda Hamilton. Kong gets a love interest in Lady Kong, a 50-foot-tall redheaded babe, who is imported from Borneo by an adventurer (Brian Kerwin).

There really isn’t much to say about any of this. The Kongs run amuck, as they always do, and tear up a lot of miniature trains and trees, and snap a few people in half. There is a Baby Kong thrown in, but he’s too late, too little.

Carlo Rimbaldi designed the ape suits, which are okay. They’re no match for the eerie stop-motion effects of the 1933 films. John Guillermin directed, as he did on the 1976 Kong. He is guilty of allowing the Kongs to exchange too many humanlike wistful glances.

King Kong Lives shapes up to be as big a box-office snoozer as the ’76 version. Dino, let’s agree to let this once-noble beast rest in peace.

First published in the Herald, December 1986

How did Dino unleash this movie and Tai-Pan in the same year and stay in business? Oh please. Nobody actually knows how the business works, or how somebody like Dino De Laurentiis just keeps going year after year, and maybe it’s best not to know. On the other hand, this was getting close to the end of the road for the man who directed The Towering Inferno, the ineffable and perhaps inflammable John Guillermin, who made one more TV-movie before hanging it up. Reading this review now, I can’t fault Guillermin for giving the apes humanlike wistful glances—because what else do apes do, if not exchange humanlike wistful glances?