Heat

June 30, 2011

It’s hard not to root just a little for Burt Reynolds at this moment in his career. The most self-mocking of 1970s movie stars has fallen on tough times lately: Right when he suffered through a string of box-office stiffs (notably Stroker Ace and Stick), he took an inadvertent punch to the chin from Clint Eastwood during filming of City Heat.

This accidental realignment of his jaw caused Reynolds some nagging medical problems, which in turn—it’s getting to be inevitable these days—produced rumors that he had AIDS. He had to go on “Entertainment Tonight” with Rona Barrett to deny the stories. (Denying rumors of AIDS has become the latest Hollywood game: recently Richard Pryor and Isabelle Adjani have gone public with denials.)

All of this has taken Reynolds out of the movie-making business. So Heat represents a first step back into the broad-shouldered stardom that he’s enjoyed for the past decade and a half.

Superficially, it’s a good choice. Heat is one of those two-fisted action things about an enforcer who takes care of business his own way (in other words, just the sort of movie that has kept Eastwood’s superstardom secure).

A friend (Karen Young) gets beaten up by a despicable rich twerp (Neill Barry) who has Mafia connections. Reynolds goes after the creep, with the violent consequences you’d expect. Simultaneously, there’s a plot about a wealthy Easterner (Peter MacNicol, the young writer in Sophie’s Choice) who asks Reynolds to give him lessons in self-defense.

All of this takes place in the cinematically exploitable Las Vegas, and it’s been written with some pepper by veteran screenwriter William Goldman. Yet Goldman’s script is weirdly shaped; the two different stories don’t quite mesh, and the action plot gets suspended during a lengthy sequence in which Reynolds’ addiction to gambling is detailed.

Maybe a strong director could have made sense of this. Unfortunately, Heat has considerable directorial problems—starting with the fact that Dick Richards (Farewell, My Lovely) left the film halfway through shooting. He was replaced by Jerry Jameson, director of Raise the Titanic, who could not get this vessel out of the water. (Credit goes to R.M. Richards, which suggests that Dick Richards is not too pleased to be associated with the project).

Reynolds labors manfully to keep it alive, and luckily he’s got some good actors in support. They can’t make this shapeless film work, but it’s easier to watch than most films with two directors, which isn’t saying terribly much.

First published in the Herald, November 1987

What a drag, remembering the days of actors denying they had AIDS. (And what a drag, remembering the reign of Rona Barrett.) Reynolds couldn’t catch a break back then, with movies flopping and his injury (according to IMDb, it was a chair in the face, not Eastwood’s fist, that did the number). He had been at the top for a while, and then he wasn’t, and nothing really clicked. I have memories that Heat and Malone had a certain appeal in part because of their modesty—the great run was over, and now Burt was just making movies. But I’m not going to confirm that.


Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II

June 29, 2011

Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II has no relation or connection with the original Prom Night. (Which is just as well.) In fact, this new film is more of a sicko spinoff of Peggy Sue Got Married, since both movies bring a former prom queen back to high school, and both borrow titles from old rock ‘n’ roll songs.

But Hello Mary Lou is certainly a lot more depraved than anything in Peggy Sue (with the possible exception of Nicolas Cage’s voice). In this film, Mary Lou (Lisa Schrage) is a high school vixen who is accidentally immolated at the ’57 prom.

Cut to 30 years later. The spurned boyfriend who inadvertently caused the fatal fire is now the principal (Michael Ironside) of the school. And the spirit of Mary Lou continues to haunt the hallowed halls of Hamilton High. When perky prom-queen-to-be Vicki (Wendy Lyon) opens up a locked trunk in the school prop room, Mary Lou’s vengeance is unleashed.

Mary Lou is apparently possessing Vicki. The latter begins seeing hallucinations at school: the walls peel, the school lunchroom is staffed by zombies, the hot meal features soup with worms. Some may argue that, far from being hallucinations, these are documentary glimpses of high school. Be that as it may, Mary Lou wreaks much havoc during the last week of school, and of course at the fateful prom.

None of this, thankfully, is taken seriously by director Bruce Pittman, whose background is in Canadian television. Pittman keeps things funky, and he’s not above zipping in one-liners to deflate the action. The final few minutes devolve into a hodge-podge, but at that point it frankly doesn’t matter much.

First published in the Herald, November 1987

Canadian-produced horror: it’s so much more than just Cronenberg. They gave it a shot, anyway, between the Prom Night series and Terror Train and a few other items. The first Prom Night was bad enough that this sequel has no air of desecration about it—unlike, say, the stench that surrounds the Halloween sequels. No idea what Rick Nelson thought about any of this.


Her Alibi

June 28, 2011

Selleck’s back and Porizkova’s got him; it doesn’t really have a ring to it, does it? Her Alibi is a new film that would like to summon up some old-fashioned movie romance, but they just don’t make movies like that anymore, nor do they seem able to.

Tom Selleck, riding high off the success of Three Men and a Baby, evidently thought Her Alibi would be just the thing to exploits his talents as a light leading man. It may have looked that way on paper, too; as a blueprint, Her Alibi contains some attractive possibilities.

Selleck plays a writer of detective novels whose pen has dried up. He’s been blocked since his wife left him a few years back. But, hanging around the courthouse one day, he spots a murder suspect (Paulina Porizkova) and decides that she will be the subject of his new mystery.

It follows that he invents an alibi for her, which gets her out of jail and into his Connecticut house (and eventually into his bed). There’s supposed to be some tension in the possibility that she’s actually guilty and might try to kill her alibi, but I doubt that audiences will worry much about that. The big question, and nearly the only question, is how long it’s going to take for Tom and Paulina to get into a clinch. (The answer is, not long.)

At one point, Selleck’s editor (William Daniels) takes a look at the chapters Selleck has written about this encounter and declares that the characters display “cretinous” behavior. I’d have to agree with that assessment. Almost every character acts like a moron: “Do I look like an idiot?” Selleck asks. Yes, in this movie, he does.

The script (by Charlie Peters) is so flimsy, it’s amazing anyone could have thought it ready to be filmed. But the most disturbing thing is that a respectable director, Bruce Beresford, would fall for this. Beresford, who made Breaker Morant in Australia and Tender Mercies over here, is strictly doing hack work. There’s nothing that suggests he’s interested in the material.

He doesn’t even get good work from Selleck, who never quite finds the groove. Paulina Porizkova, of course, is a model—excuse me, supermodel—turned actress. She made her acting debut in Anna a couple of years ago, and acquitted herself well. In Her Alibi, she doesn’t have anything to do except look fabulous, so there’s no problem. But there really isn’t much heat between the two stars.

Her Alibi even sells short its hero. Selleck is supposed to be a best-selling author, and the film is narrated with snatches of his new novel. Based on these, he’s a terrible writer, clichéd and obvious. So the movie doesn’t merely make him look like a schmuck, it makes him look worthless. The guy never had a chance.

First published in the Herald, February 1989

Selleck finally got the bigscreen thing going with Three Men and a Baby, and then he went right back into bad choices. This is an absolute stiff. It came out a few months before Beresford’s other 1989 movie, Driving Miss Daisy, which worked out a little better (I’m not sure why I expressed surprise at Beresford’s falling for the project; he’d already made a few clunkers). Charlie Peters, by the way, also wrote Blame It on Rio, a very difficult memory for me. My opening phrase was meant to conjure up the tag line for Adventure with Clark Gable and Greer Garson, which evidently I felt enough people would recognize in order to make the reference worthwhile.


Howard the Duck

June 27, 2011

A friend of the three-foot duck hero of Howard the Duck looks him right in the bill and comments, “I’ll bet you were born from a hard-boiled egg.”

That’s the best of the movie’s duck jokes, mainly because it aptly describes the prickly waterfowl protagonist. Howard T. Duck, a Marvel Comics character created by Steve Gerber, is an outspoken bird given to no-nonsense jibes and haughty pronouncements.

He has a right to be perturbed. He’s sitting at home in an easy chair, pounding a brewski, when he is suddenly pulled from his duck planet to our Earth, through some sort of laser-beam, force-field thing. To make matters worse, he lands in Cleveland.

He’s befriended by a rock singer (Lea Thompson) and examined by a would-be scientist (Tim Robbins), who sees a Nobel Prize in the offing. Then Howard’s led to the man who can send him back to his home planet: the scientist (Jeffrey Jones, the slow-burning principal from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) who built the laser-beam thing.

The first half of the film is taken up with Howard’s predictable difficulties adjusting to the human world. He tries to hold a job, demonstrates “quack fu” on those who would harass him, and dabbles in a love scene with Thompson.

The movie then shifts gears, into an extended chase, complicated by a laser-beam malfunction that zaps a dark overlord of the universe into Jones’ body. This prompts a bunch of spectacular special effects, as Jones changes shape and creates mayhem around him, and Howard and his friends try to save the world from this alien menace.

All these special effects, and the creation of Howard himself, come to us through the wizardry of George Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic (Lucas is also the film’s executive producer). It’s all first-class work. Howard, primarily embodied by Ed Gale, but credited to a host of actors and technicians, is every bit as expressive and complex a piece of machinery as E.T.

Lucas’s old film-school chums, Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, teamed as director and producer, respectively, and wrote the script. The scripts they’ve written for Lucas—American Graffiti and Indiana Jones at the Temple of Doom—were fine, but the movies they’ve made as a director-producer combo have been less impressive; French Postcards went nowhere, and Best Defense was perhaps the worst major-studio comedy of the last decade.

They’ve fared better with Howard, although the film has its problems. The schizophrenic structure, for starters, plus the dumb, illogical opening scene, in which Howard’s planet is seen as a collection of duck variations on Earth products (some easy laughs, but nonsensical).

The funniest scene takes place in a roadside diner, where Jones is transforming into the dark overlord, hissing malevolent pronouncements about the impending doom of the Earth. Naturally, a waitress mistakes him for a TV evangelist.

Most important, Huyck and Katz succeed in making Howard an unsentimental duck, and that’s the key to enjoying the film. Rather than being overly cutesy, he retains his obstreperous edge. It’s not surprising; if you had to endure this many duck jokes, you’d be a fowl mood too.

Sorry.

First published in the Herald, August 5, 1986

Before the movie came out there was no hint its title would become synonymous with Worst Movies of All Time, although that is quickly (almost within a week or so) what happened. Mostly that’s because the movie flopped, and also because the title sounded stupid to most people, therefore it must be a terrible film. But seriously, Howard the Duck looks like Grand Illusion compared to Best Defense, the Huyck-Katz opus I cite here. (I actually have a small residual fondness for the engagingly cast French Postcards, one of those semester-in-Europe movies.) Howard the Duck isn’t very good, but it’s a long way from the bottom. Usage footnote: This was back when I still used “schizophrenic” in the lazy old way that people use it to mean “split personality.” That’s not what it means, so I don’t use it like that anymore.


House

June 24, 2011

House should at least have provided some dumb fun, given its basic premise of a haunted house and the horror-novel writer who comes to live in it. You’d think there’d be some rich ideas there—the writer whose fantasies come true, whose characters becomes flesh, whose calm approach to fear gets jumbled.

Naaah. Producer Sean Cunningham and director Steve Miner, two of the boys instrumental in bringing the Friday the 13th series to the screen, prove themselves utterly vapid when it comes to conjuring the dark dreams that inform the best horror films.

They’ve got a somewhat ambitious idea. The writer (William Katt) is a Vietnam vet who’s trying to work through an extended writer’s block when it comes to recounting his war duty. He’s also distraught about the disappearance of his young son, and the recent breakup of his marriage.

Then his aunt hangs herself in her old house, and he decides to move in. Naturally, he’s broken a cardinal rule of horror films, to wit: when a relative hangs herself in the upstairs bedroom, always sell the place immediately.

Instead, he moves in and starts hearing creepy sounds at midnight, and then a big ugly thing comes out of a closet and scratches him. Then his neighbor from across the street comes over, also big but not as ugly (George Wendt, of “Cheers”), carrying a six-pack and offering help.

Katt has a lot of warnings, but he remains in the house. It’s got something to do with solving his Vietnam problem, and also with finding his son. This doesn’t make much sense at first, but it will be explained at the end of the film, at which time it still doesn’t make much sense.

The beasts in the house are an inadequate lot. Except, perhaps, for the one that impersonates Katt’s wife (Kay Lenz), then mutates into a gray squishy thing with red fingernails. When Katt kills this monster, and is distributing the chopped-up pieces in Glad garbage bags, the soundtrack plays “You’re No Good,” an inexplicable touch.

But when Miner resorts to revivifying a mounted marlin, which flaps menacingly on the wall (if such a sight can be said to be menacing), and a bunch of farm tools come to life in Katt’s garage, you know the director is in trouble. This stuff isn’t scary, it’s dorky.

The only genuinely strange business involves Katt’s final descent into the Vietnam mystery, when he travels through the medicine cabinet into a black hole that leads him to a Southeast Asia swamp, and to the location of his lost son. But this big emotional payoff doesn’t come through, because the rest of the film is so stupid.

First published in the Herald, March 5, 1986

It has fans; of course it does, it had a long life on cable-TV and VHS. And it’s better than any Friday the 13th movie, and it has a few laughs, and it has Kay Lenz. But the mounted marlin on the wall lost me, and I never went back.


The Hotel New Hampshire

June 23, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First published in the Herald, March 1984

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


Harry and Son

June 22, 2011

Here’s a movie that boasts an impressive set of credentials: It has a fine cast, with some big names taking relatively small parts; the technical credits are impeccable; and the story is the admirably uncommercial tale of a father/son estrangement.

And most of all, it’s the pet project of Paul Newman, a man of high ideals and integrity whose films as director have been marked by earnestness and right-mindedness. Harry and Son finds Newman wearing the hats of not just star and director, but also co-producer and co-writer, so his commitment to the film is clear.

It’s also clear that, unfair as it seems, commitment and good intentions do not a good movie make. Not always, anyway; and Harry and Son, while not unenjoyable, never really shakes itself out of its well-meaning dullness.

Newman plays Harry, a lonely, widowed construction worker (he knocks down buildings) who loses his job at the beginning of the film. There may be something wrong with his heart, but he’s too stubborn to have it checked out.

He lives with his son, Howie (Robby Benson), who spends his time surfing, washing cars, and wanting to be a writer. Harry wants Howie to stop this writing foolishness and get a real job, which Howie manfully—if not wholeheartedly—tries to do.

The kid is obnoxiously well-adjusted, but he can’t endure his father’s withdrawal from the human race. He also yearns for the terms of endearment that dad is holding back.

During Howie’s search for work, he runs into his old flame Katie (Ellen Barkin), whose yen for men led to their breakup. Things start to rekindle between the two of them, unencumbered by the fact that Katie is nine months pregnant with a child whose parentage is a subject of some debate.

Newman develops plot threads in a spare, laid-back style, without any frills but without much forward motion. I was disappointed that the film veered away from Harry’s character after the first 15 minutes or so; in many ways, the movie becomes Howie’s story. There’s nothing intrinsically bad about shifting emphasis like that, but Harry is a vastly more interesting character than his son.

Newman has tried to add a little tarnish to Howie’s character, but the boy is too good to be true: energetic, loyal, forgiving. If you like Robby Benson, whose wet blue eyes match Newman’s peepers, then this may work. Benson has impressive emotional range, and he throws himself into the part. But for those of us who can’t stand him, the goody-goody role is made even more oily. It’s a tall order to expect us to believe he could be a budding Great American Novelist.

At the end of the film, a character says, “Life is like that,” as a way of making clear that you can’t explain life’s happenings. I suspect Newman wanted to give Harry and Son a true-to-life flavor; he takes pains to make sure everything does not come out okay. But that in itself is a kind of contrivance. As director, Newman is like his character: he just isn’t willing to cut loose. His movie isn’t bad; it’s merely constricted.

First published in the Herald, March 1, 1984

This came just about at the end of the Robby Benson Era of American filmmaking, as the star of Ode to Billie Joetransitioned into a career as director and actor. Plus he married Karla DeVito almost thirty years ago, a touch that, if you were a consumer of Seventies culture, you could not have seen coming. The movie itself just didn’t spark, despite (or because of) being an obviously sincere project on Newman’s part. But life is like that.