Baby…Secret of the Lost Legend

May 20, 2011

Baby…Secret of the Lost Legend may well be the ugliest “family” film in recent memory. It’s the latest entry—following Splash and Country—in Disney Studio’s attempt to bring its movies into modern times.

But Baby is a strange and misbegotten enterprise—and a maddening one; there are the seeds of a wonderful film here.

The set-up is great: A youngish couple (she’s an anthropologist, he’s a sportswriter) are in Africa doing research. Well, she’s doing research, and he’s teaching the locals how to play softball.

Deep in the jungle, they discover dinosaurs: a genuine brontosaurus family, unchanged for millions of years. An evil scientist discovers the dinosaurs, too, and wants to bring them back for his own nefarious reasons.

Okay, great. There are classic elements there. Almost a King Kong meets E.T. with a little bit of Bambi thrown in when the dinosaur’s mother is killed.

But Baby flubs it. The basic screenplay—by first-timers Clifford and Ellen Green—is not so bad. But director B.W.L. Norton (More American Graffiti) mismanages darn near everything: The visuals are dowdy, the actors are undisciplined, the structure is lumpy.

Norton tries for a comedy-adventure atmosphere—the kind that has been in vogue since Raiders of the Lost Ark put tongue firmly in cheek—but his light touch is absolutely leaden. When the film tries to mix laughs with action, there are some very weird effects. There’s a lot of violence in the film—dozens of natives are shot or blown up—and the chuckles have a tendency to stick in your throat.

Against the violence of the chase, there’s the cuteness of the baby dinosaur, who is led by our heroes to safety after being separated from his parents. The baby’s doe eyes and friendly smile are inspired by E.T. and the good gremlin in Gremlins. As a special effect, created by Isidoro Raponi and Roland Tantin, it’s pretty good work. But as the focal point for the movie, the little fellow is soulless. The original stop-motion King Kong had more humanity.

There are a couple of local actors who ring true (location filming took place in the Ivory Coast). The real trouble spots are the leads: William Katt (likable leading man of TV’s “Greatest American Hero”) is perhaps too lightweight; Sean Young, memorably sultry in Blade Runner, is ludicrous as the anthropologist. When someone comments that she’s “one of the best in her field,” you snicker.

Disney executives may have been dismayed by the finished product. Up until about a month ago, the film was known simply as Baby. Then the subtitle Secret of the Lost Legend was added in a desperate attempt to approximate the cadence of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Those sorts of changes are warning signs that a movie’s in trouble. In this case, the Disney executives were right.

First published in the Herald, March 22, 1985

I’m not saying that the cameo appearance of a couple of dinosaurs in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life had anything to do with posting this particular review, but on the other hand, hey, this lousy Disney misfire is also a part of the Tree of Life, if you’re hip to the cosmic vibe I’m laying down. This really is a stiff, a classic of second-guessing (as epitomized by the pitiful title change) and bandwagon-jumping, and I’m glad I haven’t had to think about it since the dismal day I saw it.

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Bachelor Party

May 19, 2011

Bachelor Party is a prime example of what is known in Hollywood circles as “high concept.” Now, as everyone is aware, Hollywood is a world unto itself, with its own language, and high concept is a term that has no real meaning.

But among movie folk, high concept is a quality that is lustily sought in film packaging today. If a film has high concept, it means you can convey the entire subject matter, approach, and general mood of a movie with one sentence. The idea is, if it takes much more than that to explain a film, you’ve lost the public’s attention.

A cynical notion, but this is truly what goes through the minds of people down Southern California way.

Take Ghostbusters: Ghosts chased by “Saturday Night Live” alumni. High concept. Gremlins has high concept. Another Country has low concept. Once Upon a Time in America has rock-bottom concept.

But Bachelor Party—ah, it must have been a publicist’s dream. It’s all in the title, folks: the two words promise naughtiness, booze, bare chests of all kinds, music, dancing, the high spirits of the final fling, and a donkey.

All those things are in Bachelor Party, and more. I’m not telling what the donkey does, but everyone else has a wild, noisy time. The audience at the preview screening had a wild time, too, apparently undaunted by the film’s crassness, disorganization, and rampant sexism.

The movie is divided into two parts: a likable guy announces his engagement, and his friends announce the bachelor party. The groom tries to assure the bride that nothing bad will happen at the party, while the girl’s rich parents—and her preppy ex-boyfriend—try to halt the wedding by whatever means possible.

The film’s amusingly sarcastic tone turns raunchy, as the second half of the movie is the bachelor party itself. The boys rent a hotel room, hire some hookers, and proceed to get into most kinds of trouble. A side plot develops as the bridal shower going on at the bride’s house moves downtown to a male strip joint.

Bachelor Party was scripted by Neal Israel and Pat Proft, who also worked on the Police Academy screenplay. As with that film, you envision people setting around a table, composing a screenplay by trying to outgross each other: “Okay, we got the proctologist jokes, we got the transvestite surprise—howzabout we have the donkey overdose on amphetamines and drop dead?” Which is exactly what they do.

For all of its sophomoric excesses, there are funny moments in Bachelor Party, almost all of which are attributable to Tom Hanks, who plays the prospective groom (Hanks was the hero of Splash). Hanks needs a director’s discipline to be really good (and he certainly doesn’t have that here), but he is energetic, a freewheeling comic presence, and he keeps the film alive, even when it’s pursuing crudeness with the same relentless fervor with which the guys have their last fling.

“Relentless” is the word for Bachelor Party. It may be tasteless, but it does have drive; whether or not that drive will also drive you out of the theater will probably depend on your tolerance for anatomy jokes. I stayed, but I was glad to get out.

First published in the Herald, June 30, 1984

With Hangover II steaming into view, it seemed time to look back at a movie that made its mark in an era full of movies about young dweebs gettin’ some. It was obvious that Hanks was about to be way, way beyond this kind of thing very soon, and he certainly proved me wrong about needing directing discipline to be really good. I got through the review without mentioning such prime Eighties stalwarts as Adrian Zmed and Tawny Kitaen, for which I can only, belatedly, apologize.


The Sure Thing/Into the Night

May 18, 2011

I happened to see The Sure Thing and Into the Night as an informal double bill one Friday night. But that’s not the only reason they stick together in my mind. Both have their roots in the lovely traditions of screwball comedy; both update the form with wit; and both are, as David Bowie puts it in Into the Night, “very nice, very impressive.”

The opening sequence of The Sure Thing gives us Rod Stewart’s obnoxious “Infatuation,” a perfectly gorgeous (and perfectly uninteresting) California beach nymph, and lots of sun, sand, and skin. It looks like every other teen comedy made in the last five years. But director Rob Reiner is having a joke on us: as we get to his credit, the music fades out, the camera tilts up from the nymph’s bod, and we’re looking at the heavens. We’ve suddenly traveled across the continent, where we will take up the story of Walter “Gib” Gibson (John Cusack), whose early college career—i.e., inability to get dates—we will follow.

This is amusing, but enchantment really sets in when Gib sets out for L.A. (where a high school buddy has arranged a “sure thing”—the nymph on the beach), having procured a ride for Christmas vacation off a bulletin board at school. Problems ensue—not from the squeaky-clean freak couple doing the driving, even if they like to sing show tunes. The problem is the other passenger, Alison (Daphne Zuniga), who has reason to loathe Gib. She’s traveling to L.A. to meet her boyfriend; they’re going to be lawyers, move to Vermont, and reconstruct an old farmhouse. Obviously, Gib and Alison are hopelessly mismatched and destined to fall in love.

That process makes for a nifty movie. Among other things, this cross-country trek feels like a journey, unlike many movies that try to capture an It Happened One Night feeling and somehow leave you with the impression that you haven’t traveled very far. There is something in the way Reiner chronicles the many road signs, billboards, motel rooms, that defines a rhythm of travel and movement. (Telling sign of Reiner’s sense of the importance of life’s simple but peculiar pleasures: Gib and Alison are stranded by the road outside Nowheresville, U.S.A., without food, money, or transportation. He extends a bag of junk food and speaks the gallant line, “Care for a fried pork rind?” Reiner knows.)

And Reiner has a healthy—if not fully developed—appreciation for the sort of zanies that should fill the supporting roles in a screwball adventure like this, so by the time Gib sidles into a cowboy joint to share a Christmas brewski with a wizened cowpoke and an enormous man who can’t understand his failure to pick up the waitress (his charming come-on line is something like, “You know I had fried food for lunch today?”), we accept it happily. But most of all, Reiner has gotten superb work from his two leads; they’re thoroughly winning, and you sense that a director has shaped and encouraged these performances. All of which proves something: that This Is Spinal Tap, which could have been perceived as a non-directed movie, given its eccentric and collaborative nature, was no fluke. Meathead is a budding auteur.

Into the Night attempts a similar kind of screwball enchantment, but with a more Hitchcockian flavor. Jeff Goldblum is an aerospace engineer who suffers from insomnia and cuckoldry. Thanks to John Landis and Michelle Pfeiffer, Goldblum gets his feet knocked out from under him and falls into an L.A.-by-night world of smugglers, movie people, millionaires, bloodthirsty Arabs, and finally, a Ramada Inn.

I had a hell of a good time watching all this sharp and funny stuff go tumbling by, although I felt slightly guilty afterwards. Did Landis earn all his laughs? Were the lapses in plot justified by the film’s rushing, cavalier attitude toward coherence—do we buy it all “on good faith,” as Goldblum says late in the film? Were the lurches in tone—there are some ugly deaths in the film—intended to be jarring, or is that just clumsiness on Landis’s part? Or is it just my problem?

That may well be. By the way, the real ongoing guessing game here has nothing to do with the plot—it’s trying to spot all the Hollywood cameos Landis has crowded into the movie (Landis himself plays a fairly sizable role as a gunman). It’s especially crammed with directors, some of whom—maybe especially David Cronenberg and Amy Heckerling—are delicious. But that takes nothing away from the stars. Pfeiffer has definitely got something that would make a normal guy want to follow her all night long, and Goldblum gives a very controlled, special performance. All through the night, he keeps up an unflappable exterior, as though he knew he were asleep and dreaming all this nonsense, and about to wake up in another minute. So, bemused, he decides to enjoy it while it’s going on.

First published in The Informer, March/April 1985

Not everybody was keen on Cusack at this moment, but in 1985 he was the guy I was casting in the youth movies I was making inside my head. Reiner was off on his unexpected run to the A-list of Hollywood directors, where he resided for a while; it seemed as though he’s cooled his engagement with movies, having found politics a more urgent source of interest. Landis’s career is even more of a puzzle, and he followed this interesting effort with Spies Like Us and Three Amigos, a couple of absolute stinkers.


Cocktail

May 17, 2011

Cruise, with flair

Have you ever had the experience of knowing what people are going to say before they say it? If you haven’t, go check out Cocktail, the new Tom Cruise movie. You’ll be spouting the dialogue ahead of the characters.

This trick has nothing to do with clairvoyance. It has everything to do with dorky screenwriting, of which Cocktail has an abundance.

The premise takes a young go-getter, played by Cruise, who arrives in New York with a lust for success. Fate, however, has a bitter lesson in store for this young pilgrim, as he can’t get in the door on Wall Street and instead lands a job as a bartender in a singles bar.

His guru is a worldly mixologist (Bryan Brown) who dispenses Cuervo Gold and street wisdom in equal doses, disdaining Cruise’s college career and slapping the bar as he declares, “You couldn’t find a better work-study program than right here.”

Cruise finds false love, bounces down to a bar in Jamaica, finds true love in the form of a vacationing waitress (Elisabeth Shue), loses true love, and get hooked up with the kind of “rich chick” that Brown always advised him to find. But when Cruise and the woman (Lisa Banes) return to New York, he discovers that all he does is fetch her carrot juice in the mornings. And that, my friends, is a handful of dust.

Cocktail is a morality play, dressed in flashy colors and fronted by Hollywood’s premiere boy-hunk. Like Wall Street, it delivers a familiar lesson in the value of personal happiness over material wealth, a lesson that seems to be making a return in the late 1980s.

It is a mostly vacuous two hours, with screenwriter Heywood Gould providing his characters with some by-the-numbers dialogue. Cruise to his sugar mommy: “I tried to sell out to you, but I couldn’t close the deal.” Cruise to Brown’s sexy wife: “I can’t make it with my best friend’s lady!”

That Cocktail is occasionally dumbly enjoyable has to do with the cast and with director Roger Donaldson’s instincts. Donaldson directed last year’s No Way Out, but he can’t come up with a companion piece to that film’s steamy limousine scene. Here, a scene with sex under a waterfall is just your basic sex-under-a-waterfall scene.

Cruise isn’t exactly an actor yet, but at least he seems to want to be an actor, which is something. Bryan Brown, the Australian actor who starred in Tai Pan, brings some underpinnings to his role. And Elisabeth Shue, of Adventures in Babysitting, is always nice to watch—I am probably in the minority on this, but I think she’s prettier than Tom Cruise.

First published in the Herald, July 1988

Sadly, perhaps the last time I used the word “mixologist” in a review. This is a really terrible film, and Roger Donaldson’s participation is mystifying. In its own way, this is as representative of the 1980s as any film out there, and Cruise’s dedication to studying and perfecting the art of “flair bartending,” which he seemed to do with as much commitment as his research for, say, Born on the Fourth of July, is somehow depressing. I could expand on this, but I think I’ll go fix a drink.


sex, lies, and videotape

May 16, 2011

The most highly touted arthouse movie of the year is sex, lies, and videotape, the low-budget debut effort of a 26-year-old writer-director named Steven Soderbergh. Advance word on the film has been high since its first festival in January, which was followed by two important prizes at the Cannes Film Festival this spring: best actor (for James Spader) and the best picture award.

Such praise sets the table for a letdown, but sex, lies, and videotape turns out to be a mightily intriguing film, true to its own odd nature and utterly mesmerizing. Soderbergh’s story, set in Baton Rouge, begins when a black-clad wanderer named Graham (Spader) rolls into town to visit an old college friend, John (Peter Gallagher).

These two have gone different ways since college. John is now in the suspenders-and-racquetball league, a yuppie climber married to Ann, a beautiful but unhappy woman (Andie MacDowell). Ann is a cool, repressed Southern belle, with a tendency to disavow problems; when her analyst asks how her relationship with her husband is going, she airily replies, “Fine, except I’m kinda going through this thing where I don’t want him to touch me.”

Meantime, John is carrying on with Ann’s sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo), who is decidedly unrepressed. When Graham arrives, he develops an instant rapport with Ann, but that disappears when she discovers his vocation: He videotapes women who describe their sex lives for his camera.

But if this is the only way Graham can enjoy sex, he is no more unhealthy than the other principals, none of whom is connecting with anyone else. Soderbergh’s own camera is much like Graham’s; he tends to shoot characters in isolation, each is his own separate space. People don’t so much communicate as they watch each other talk.

This creates a hypnotic effect, an eerie, arid dance of anxiety. Soderbergh stumbles only with the character of John, who is something of an easy caricature. The other characters are niftily drawn, and superbly acted. Andie MacDowell, heretofore best known as a ubiquitous model (she was also Jane in Greystoke, the Legend of Tarzan), consistently discovers a fresh way to read a line or wrinkle her nose.

Laura San Giacomo finds a full-throated, lusty swagger for her sexy character. And James Spader demonstrates why he won the Cannes prize, with a mysterious, quietly smoldering performance; he’s always holding back something, as though his character knows enough about cameras to hide from them. Spader’s been stuck with mostly geeky supporting roles in recent years, but he always brought intensity to them. In sex, lies, and videotape, he finally gets to shine.

First published in the Herald, August 1989

That young lad Soderbergh is now making noise about his upcoming retirement, so either it’s been a long time since this movie came out or directing careers are getting shorter. Years ago I interviewed Soderbergh onstage once for a Seattle International Film Festival event, which seemed to go fairly well, although the most interesting part for me was talking to him backstage beforehand and comparing notes on early experiences reading Mad magazine movie parodies. In his book interview with Richard Lester (fascinating book) Soderbergh indicates his dislike of critics in fairly strong terms, so whatever. I wonder what this movie looks like now; in memory, it seems as much a part of its time as the John Hughes films, albeit with a greater degree of maturity and ambition.


Some Kind of Wonderful

May 13, 2011
Stoltz and Masterson, pretending

There’s no way Some Kind of Wonderful should work. Isn’t this tale of a misfit student infatuated with the prettiest girl in school while his true love waits on the sidelines just a gender-reversal of last year’s Pretty in Pink? And hasn’t the high-school well run dry yet for the prolific producer John Hughes , the teen-film potentate (The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off)?

Hughes would seem to be repeating himself here, by pulling the sex-switch on this Pretty in Pink script and hiring the same director, Howard Deutch.

By rights, all of that should make Some Kind of Wonderful a craven commercial effort, designed to repeat the success of Pretty in Pink. Well, commercial it may very well be. Enjoyable it definitely is.

The misfit in this case is a sensitive lad, a hopeful artist (Eric Stoltz, out from under his Mask makeup), basically an okay guy but shy enough for his sister to refer to him as “the human Tater-Tot.”

His confidante is a tomboy drummer (Mary Stuart Masterson), with whom he maintains a close but unromantic friendship. His dream is the school’s most popular girl (Lea Thompson, recovering prettily from Howard the Duck), but she, of course, is hooked with the school’s swaggering jock (Craig Sheffer, perfectly embodying every bully who ever drove you nuts).

The film isn’t five minutes old before we know that Stoltz will have to work through his crush on Thompson in order to discover his true affection for Masterson. And Hughes is starting to run out of ideas for this milieu; the villains, for instance, are stock, without any memorable traits.

Okay, fine. But Hughes’ dialogue and the agility of the actors is enough to distract from the blueprint nature of the thing.

And there are a couple of scenes that take off. Stoltz, trapped in detention, sketches in his notebook, which inspires the punked-out lunk across the aisle to respond with some art of his own. Holding up a drawing of a skull with eyes, the hulk suggests, with disarmingly cheery innocence, “That’s what my girlfriend would look like without skin.”

And there’s a nice version of the beginning-to-see-the-light scene, when Masterson helps Stoltz prep for a possible kiss with Thompson, by acting the role of the latter. The “pretend” kiss between Masterson and Stoltz, held just a moment longer than necessary, has her beating a hurried retreat. “Lesson’s over. You’re cool,” she sputters, barely keeping her awakened hormones in check.

All the actors are good to watch, but Mary Stuart Masterson steals the show. (She’s got the spiciest dialogue, too.) She was previously good as Sean Penn’s girlfriend in the little-seen At Close Range.

Masterson seems to have exceptional range herself. She has a way of swallowing the big emotional moments, only just letting them peek through, that feels utterly honest. When she sits on the hood of a car, shivering with anger and frustration and hurt over Stoltz’ success with Thompson, I get the distinct sense that a mature actress is being born.

I don’t know whether she’ll turn into a conventional leading lady—she looks too short and small-featured for that, somehow—but it’s a career worth following, and Some Kind of Wonderful is a painless place to start.

First published in the Herald, February 1987

Masterson never did turn into a conventional leading lady, but she did a lot of fine work. The rest of the review sounds about right to me—this movie should have suffered from the law of diminishing returns, yet did some pleasant things anyway. For John Hughes, the teen genre was about played out, and other projects (not really better projects) beckoned.


Pretty in Pink

May 12, 2011

rich, poor, duck

John Hughes has been dubbed “The Word Processor” for the facility with which he turns out screenplays; even since he’s become a director in his own right, he’s kept up a flow of pages. Four films have come from his computer terminal in the space of two years, with another on the way this summer.

They’ve ranged in quality: Sixteen Candles was a charming directorial debut, and The Breakfast Club was a surprisingly ambitious meditation on teenage anxiety. Then came the out-of-control Weird Science, which might better have been cut by an hour and flipped into a TV slot of “Amazing Stories.”

Now we have Pretty in Pink, which Hughes wrote but has allowed someone else to direct. (He was probably facing some sort of union violation with all that productivity.)

It covers familiar teen territory, and has much the same feel as Sixteen Candles (including that film’s star, Molly Ringwald). The situation is basic: A girl from the po’ side of town (Ringwald) falls for a richie (Andrew McCarthy), but they both suffer from peer disapproval of such a mixed matchup.

Undergoing special excruciation is the girl’s pal Duckie (Jon Cryer), a goof who worships her and detests his straight-laced competition. Duckie is a version of the quick-witted, hustling geek played by Anthony Michael Hall in Sixteen Candles, and he provides most of the laughs, especially in the early part of the movie.

Unfortunately, he’s offscreen for far too long in the latter part of the film, as Ringwald passes through a crisis when McCarthy revokes his cherished invitation to the prom. She’s also got to counsel her dad (Harry Dean Stanton), who’s in the dumps because his wife ran out on the family a few years earlier.

Ringwald works at a hip record store managed by a confidante (Annie Potts) who specializes in kitschy fashion chic and lives mainly in the ’60s. At one point Potts cautions Ringwald to give up on a tardy date: “It’s after seven. Don’t waste good lip gloss.” It’s a plum role for Potts, who has enlivened films for a few years now (Crimes of Passion) without quite finding her niche.

In fact, the film is nicely played throughout. James Spader, for instance, invests the small role of the bigoted rich kid with enough hissability to forever typecast himself.

But director Howard Deutch, although he’s aided by cinematographer Tak Fujimoto’s subtle visuals, can’t hoist the material above TV-movie interest. Hughes’ dialogue sparkles now and again, but there’s nothing tying all the pieces together.

This becomes most glaringly evident at the film’s ending, when the three principals face off at the prom. Ringwald must choose between her geeky pal or the dreamy richie, but you don’t know exactly why she chooses as she does. What’s worse, the film waffles on the matter, contriving a convenient partner for the third wheel. (Rumors that the ending was reshot to appease disappointed preview audiences suggest this waffling was not originally intended.)

Not to worry. Hughes can redeem himself with Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, a self-directed comedy scheduled for this summer. But then, by that time, he’ll probably have three new movies in the can.

First published in the Herald, February 28, 1986

What happened was, this movie made at least as big an impression on people as Sixteen Candles, if not bigger. So go figure. Apparently changing the ending paid off nicely; when Hughes and Deutch went to the well again with Some Kind of Wonderful, they rectified things a little as far as the misfit character having a taste of triumph. Spader managed to elude the typecasting, although it was a close call for a while.