Benji: The Hunted

August 22, 2011

Oh my god, how adorable is that, right?

You’d probably forgotten all about Benji, the scenery-chewing little mutt who starred in a series of movies and TV specials during the late 1970s and early ’80s. But the pooch was a bona fide phenomenon, and Benji: The Hunted just goes to show you can’t keep a good dog down.

This time out Benji plays “himself,” as the credits have it. (And, by the way, this is the first film in my experience to acknowledge “special cougar work” in the opening credits. Must have a strong union.) As the film begins, a reporter breathlessly announces that the internationally famous canine star has been washed overboard in a storm at sea. Trainer Frank Inn (who also, interestingly, plays “himself”) sets out in a helicopter to try to locate his prize pup, but he mourns that he may already be too late.

Not a chance—Benji, as we will see in the course of the film, is one resilient puppy. He dog-paddles through the surf to splash ashore on the Oregon coast. No sooner does he shake himself dry than he witnesses the shooting of a mountain lion. Then Benji stumbles upon the cat’s four orphaned kittens, alone and hungry in the woods.

Benji scopes out the situation very quickly, and the film is taken up with his care for these cougar cubs, even at the risk of his own scruffy neck. The main threats are a hunter, a big Kodiak bear, and a black timber wolf.

This goes on for better than 90 minutes, which, for a movie aimed primarily at children, is a mite too long, particularly since the movie is almost entirely without dialogue—dialogue that we humans can understand, anyway.

The writer-director Joe Camp, who has made all of the Benji movies, is pretty shrewd about pleasing the crowd. He also takes some surprising care in building an authentic sense of danger by composing shots of Benji and his predators within the same frame, although he could more easily have used separate shots. He dallies too much, especially toward the last 15 minutes, but the gags and the wet-eyed cubs will amuse kids.

Benji’s performance is quite dexterous—how does this dog do all those double-takes on cue, anyway? Reportedly this is not the original Benji, but the offspring of that first major star. Clearly, the genes are strong, and the pup learned a lot from Papa. Let’ just hope he also learned about not letting success swell his shaggy head, else the pooch “Go Hollywood” like that insufferable prima donna, Spuds Mackenzie.

First published in the Herald, June 20, 1987

IMDb.com says the running time is 88 minutes, so either this thing has been cut or I got something wrong all those years ago. In any case, the movie deserves some tiny amount of credit for eschewing dialogue (anticipating Jean-Jacques Annaud’s The Bear by about a year?) and for actually bothering to follow some filmmaking rules about the importance of integral shots. If you don’t know Spuds Mackenzie, well, you really missed an era.

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Red Sonja

August 19, 2011
Arnold and ‘Gitte, happy at last

Red Sonja, a medieval semi-epic, may be the first example of a sequel without a predecessor. As the film begins, we see the title character (played by model Brigitte Nielsen) waking up among the ruins of her home. Something big has happened, though we don’t know what. A ghost appears and tells Sonja to avenge the carnage here—a convenient expositional device to let the audience know how all this happened.

The ghost says that Sonja’s family was killed by an evil queen (Sandahl Bergman of Conan the Barbarian) and that Sonja must avenge the deaths and retrieve this big glowing green ball, which contains the power to destroy the whole world. Sonja fulfills this revenge, naturally, which constitutes the rest of the film.

So, basically, the filmmakers have saved themselves the trouble of shooting the whole first half of the story by summarizing it in this introduction. You’ve got to give them credit for being smart; unfortunately, this leaves the film a bit shy of motivation and meaning. We don’t care too much about what happens here—we just know who’s good and who’s evil.

Included in the good is Arnold Schwarzenegger, as a warrior who helps Sonja along her sword-swinging way. Since the film is basically a showcase for the long, lanky physique of Nielsen, Arnold is to be forgiven for looking a bit miffed during the action. Just when he’s riding hotter than ever (on the strength of last year’s hit The Terminator), he gets saddled with a smaller role.

Sonja and Arnold attack the castle of the evil queen with the dubious help of an obnoxious child king and his obedient slave (Paul Smith). They’re the comedy relief, such as it is.

Even though Red Sonja is only half a movie (at barely 90 minutes), there’s little evidence it would have been any better longer. Veteran director Richard Fleischer, whose career has ranged from interesting small films (The Narrow Margin, 10 Rillington Place) to sprawling epics (The Vikings, Conan the Destroyer), clearly hasn’t got his heart in the proceedings.

He manages only one good sequence—a nifty fight with a mechanical monster, in an underground cave in which the water keeps rising—and the rest is perfunctory. Even the pretty photography of Giuseppe Rotunno doesn’t help.

Mogul Dino di Laurentiis, who also executive-produced the Conan films, brought these folks together after having spotted Nielsen in a magazine ad. She’s moved on to a co-starring role in Rocky IV, alongside Sylvester Stallone (a role she inhabits in real life, too).

About the only element of interest here, for those who wish to bother about it, is the women’s lib subtext. These kingdoms—or queendoms—are ruled by women who wield their swords and decapitate men. Sonja herself has an aversion to men, which blocks Arnold’s hopes for hanky-panky until he can “conquer her,” or vice versa. It’s all a little weird. A decade from now, someone may evaluate Red Sonja in Freudian terms and proclaim it a rediscovered masterpiece. Until then, give it a wide berth.

First published in the Herald, July 1985

This weekend brings the new Conan the Barbarian, so here’s a shard from that world. Can’t find my Conan the Destroyer review, but I remember it as being pretty lame—I like Fleischer as a director, and along with his top-line stuff he did nice work on lesser material, but I can’t recall anything really noteworthy about these two pictures.


Bad Medicine

August 18, 2011

Bad Medicine is a situation comedy that relies solely on its situation to get laughs. The situation is this: A kid who can’t get into a reputable medical school buys his way into a tawdry Central American university just to get a medical degree—any medical degree.

Okay, that’s a funny setup. But Bad Medicine leaves us with that and doesn’t supply any material that might have fleshed out the premise.

The kid (Steve Guttenberg, late of Cocoon) is not all that sure he wants to be a doctor, and his college grades seem to reflect that. But his father (Bill Macy) is a wealthy plastic surgeon, and his son is bloody well going to follow in his footsteps. Mom insists the boy has a choice of careers, to which the kid replies, “Yeah, like Prince Charles has a choice.”

So Guttenberg finds himself in the unnamed Central American country, where he surveys his cockroach-infested apartment with dread and nausea. But the school itself is a worse shock: a sleazy operation where students experiment on the school’s five-year-old cadaver (the only one the institution can afford, so they say).

Predictably, Guttenberg finds some love interest, in the form of Julie Hagerty (Airplane, Lost in America), the spacey actress who never quite seems in touch with this particular planet. Her character’s presence actually strains credibility—if she’s as competent and intelligent as she seems to be, what’s she doing at this two-bit school?

She catches the eye of both Guttenberg and the owner of the university, a moody dictator (Alan Arkin). Arkin, as he often does when he plays offbeat supporting roles, finds ways of making this character interesting. He’s a widower who wants to make Hagerty his next bride, so that she may bear him the sons his first wife was unable to give him: “I believe that God has sent you to me so that I may spawn,” he says, in the film’s funniest line.

The movie ambles along, playing out tired gags. One sequence centers on a corpse-snatching escapade (the students need another cadaver, after all). Corpse-snatching is sure-fire comedy, as we all know.

And writer-director Harvey Miller tries to develop a heart-warming subplot, as the students steal medicine to help a group of poor villagers whom Arkin denies assistance. It meshes with the low-comedy med-school antics about as well as you’d expect.

All in all, Bad Medicine is just another space-filler as the studios wait for the Christmas movies to open. As such it can be pretty easily ignored, which is the suggestion from this corner.

First published in the Herald, November 28, 1985

Steve Guttenberg and Julie Hagerty—funny, you’d think it was a can’t-miss Eighties comedy. All right, possibly not. Harvey Miller was an old school comedy guy with lots of experience in sitcoms but not much luck, it seems, in directing pictures; he got Oscar-nominated for co-writing Private Benjamin. Julie Kavner and Gilbert Gottfried are in the cast, and, oddly, so is Allan Corduner, who played Sullivan in Topsy Turvy.


Top Gun

August 17, 2011

Cruise and the flag: the future of movies

Top Gun has all the earmarks of a summer blockbuster. It has glitz, it has stars, it has high technology, it has the new patriotism (or is that the old xenophobia?). Every little element seems calculated to produce a true-blue audience-pleaser.

Doubtless it will please audiences. But there may be too many earmarks. Somewhere within the yards of shiny jet fighters and the approximately 1,095 close-ups of sweat-drenched faces, somebody forgot to make a movie—a movie, at any rate, with anything like a sense of recognizable life.

The brainchild of those packaging wizards, Paramount producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer (Flashdance, Beverly Hills Cop), Top Gun is the story of a Navy pilot (Tom Cruise) who enters an elite flying program called Top Gun. He’s obsessed with being the best there is and he’s willing to break the rules to do it.

At the program, he attracts the rivalry of a fellow hotshot (Val Kilmer), the fatherly interest of the school’s commanding officer (Tom Skerritt), and the non-fatherly interest of a knockout instructor (Kelly McGillis, late of Witness).

Most of these relationships are programmed to fulfill their particular niche in the story, as is Cruise’s friendship with his goofily likable Radar Intercept Officer (Anthony Edwards)—that’s the guy who sits behind him in the F-14. Edwards serves much the same—no, make that exactly the same—function that the David Keith character served for Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman.

In fact, the screenplay for that film might have served as the blueprint for Top Gun, so familiar are the new film’s plot turns. The big difference is in directorial style. Where An Officer and a Gentleman was straightforward and traditional, Top Gun is full of diffused light, screeching Dolby, and high-powered techno-sheen.

This comes courtesy of British director Tony Scott, whose first film, The Hunger, also was marked by irritating visual tics. Scott is undeniably nervy with the aerial battles, which include a couple of encounters with Soviet MiGs.

But he can’t shoot a simple scene of people talking without turning it into a battle of close-ups. This insistent style becomes oppressive, and shuts down whatever life the actors might have provided. I can think of only one scene, when Cruise and McGillis share a dinner and listen to Otis Redding’s “Dock of the Bay,” when the human element enters. When Scott labors to inject some humanity, as when Edwards (who displays some nice comic flair) and Cruise jam on “Great Balls of Fire,” it’s forced.

Having said all this, I have to admit that there are sequences in Top Gun that are entertaining. Most of the dogfight stuff is engrossing, even through there’s a consistent problem with knowing who’s who in the sky.

But Top Gun really reminded me of Short Circuit, last week’s supposed early summer blockbuster. Both seem wholly derivative of past successes, and overwhelmingly mechanical in their appeal. If they are any indication of the ’86 summer season, we are in for a long dry spell.

First published in the Herald, May 1986

As it turned out, the Year in Film 1986 was indeed not one for the ages. This film, of course, did all right; apparently I didn’t quite see the phenomenon coming, and it’s absolutely in the running for the representative film of the decade. I actually think it’s a very significant title in terms of influence, at least as much as Star Wars. The shadow of Top Gun is still in play, as Bruckheimer and Tony Scott continue to make pictures and Michael Bay and his ilk are directly descended from this movie, but the movie lives in our culture in ways that go far beyond the multiplex; the gross mindset on display here has gone everywhere, and may even have determined a few elections along the way. Right, Maverick?


Earth Girls Are Easy

August 16, 2011

Carrey, Damons, Goldblum, in furry phase

As kooky as a lava lamp, as tasty as a strawberry-chocolate Pop-Tart, Earth Girls Are Easy is as much fun as its title. This Day-Glo romp about aliens on the loose in Los Angeles is a wonderfully pixilated mix of classic movie musicals, beach party aesthetics, and old-fashioned romance.

The heroine of the piece is a manicurist (Geena Davis, the recent Oscar winner for The Accidental Tourist) who works at the Curl Up & Dye beauty parlor. Her fiancé is a doctor (Charles Rocket), but he’s a philandering fink. She’s wondering whether she’ll ever meet a decent guy when—oh happy chance—a spaceship crash-lands in her swimming pool.

The ship carries three decent guys; decent, that is, except that they don’t speak English and are covered with fur. The first problem is solved by absorbing the language of television, the latter with an extensive makeover at the Curl Up & Dye. There three are played, with tremendous agility, by Jeff Goldblum (Davis’s real-life husband and frequent co-star), Jim Carrey, and Damon Wayans.

The adventures that follow are a swirl of fish-out-of-water jokes and campy cultural references, which range from a cameo by Los Angeles celebrity Angelyne (a massively proportioned starlet who is famous solely for her Sunset Strip billboards) to homages to Jerry Lewis’s The Nutty Professor.

The film is also punctuated by zany musical numbers, featuring Julie Brown, who plays Davis’s hairdresser friend. Brown, best known heretofore for her underground hit “The Homecoming Queen’s Got a Gun,” contributes some uproarious one-liners and songs, including, “‘Cause I’m a Blonde,” an ode to air-headedness, and “I Like ‘Em Big and Stupid.”

This madness is orchestrated by director Julian Temple, an English filmmaker who has done exciting work in the music-video field.

Temple has a taste for atomic-era décor and raucous color schemes. Don’t look for understatement here; Earth Girls goes for oversize, including Geena Davis’s 6-foot frame (she spends a good portion of the film in a bikini), and the Griffith Park Observatory, which doubles as a disco. Like the giant doughnut the looms over Hollywood at a crucial moment, the movie is high silliness.

First published in the Herald, May 1989

Funny movie. Expected more from Julie Brown and Julian Temple based on this, and that Jim Carrey fellow really fell off the map.


WarGames

August 15, 2011

We’ve had years of warnings. We’ve all known that computers were going to take over the world someday. But the books and the movies that predicted it never said it would be such a quiet overthrow. The machines slipped into our homes and businesses and modestly suggested that they serve us; we jumped at the offer, and they made us dependent on them. Quietly—with only the low purr of entering and the gleeful chattering of printing to mark the shift of power.

Don’t get me wrong—I like the computer at my workplace. It knows so much. And it tries to keep me from going wrong—when I give it the wrong date, it stops me and says, “WHAT YEAR?” When I move to eliminate information, it wonders whether I should reconsider: “DELETE? ARE YOU SURE?” Like a wise grandfather—but without the accommodating knee—it cares about the decisions I make, and wants me to do the right thing, though it won’t actually stop me, as long as I’m sure about what I want.

We even share secrets, like the special password that will let me into its system. So why is it I don’t really trust the thing? Maybe it’s the influence of all those paranoid fantasies about computers seizing control of the world, plus the nagging suspicion that they’re like those dogs who serve the master faithfully for years and then turn homicidal one day, without apparent reason.

Popular culture has played with that suspicion for a couple of decades now, and WarGames—officially designated this summer’s E.T., even before it opened—is in the tradition of computer mistrust. This Seattle kid (Matthew Broderick) has an astonishingly elaborate set of computer terminals in his bedroom, which he uses to make long-distance airline reservations, change his computer-recorded high school grades, and the like. One day he realizes he’s bumped up against the system of the U.S. National Defense. Neat! But he can’t get in—until he hears that computer programmers sometimes leave a “back door” (that is, a secret password) in systems they design so that they can go back in someday, if they ever need to. Broderick comes up with the password, and asks the system if it would like to play a little game. Chess? Naah. Mebbe some checkers? Forget about it. Thermonuclear war? Cowabunga! The computer takes the American side, Broderick is the Russians (among his first moves: nuke the Emerald City) and they’re off and running on some harmless fun.

A boy and his computer; it’s a new twist, but it had to happen. The only problem is, the head honcho (Dabney Coleman) down at the War Room just convinced the government to switch responsibility for a nuclear retaliatory strike from human operatives (too unreliable) to the monster computer known as WOPR (as in, “Aren’t You Hungry?”). So when Broderick start playing hide-the-densepack, WOPR thinks it’s for real, flashes an image on the War Room screen of a warhead arcing toward the Space Needle, and prepares for a full-scale counterattack. Broderick has to interrupt the game when his Dad calls him downstairs to clean up the garbage in the driveway, but the computer wants to keep right on playing the game…and so it does.

You get the idea. And a good idea it is, too. It’s a shame WarGames never really gets past the level of being a good idea; the plot starts to go kattywampus about the time Broderick gets arrested while sucking down a Big Gulp outside the local 7-Eleven. The holes in the script begin to whistle in the wind; more important than that, there’s that Something Missing that keeps good movies from being great ones—the absence of commitment, of artistic investment. The blame for this hollowness is most handily given to the switch in directors during shooting—Martin (Going in Style) Brest began the movie, but it was A John Badham Film before the cameras stopped rolling.

Mr. Big Close-Up tries hard to pump some suspense into the proceedings, but that’s tough to do when the audience can sit there and say, “Uh, why doesn’t somebody just pick up the phone and call the War Room….” There’s nothing wrong with Badham’s method, but it’s not particularly inspiring. Still, Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy (the morsel of jailbait on a recent “Hill Street Blues”) are likable, and John Wood does more with his confusedly-written part than it deserves. It just seems as though we deserve a more coherent and unified piece of filmmaking, especially with the stakes so high.

First published in The Informer, June 1983

Densepack: I had to Google it just now to find out what it meant in 1983. I watched Martin Brest make a shot for this film one day on the University of Washington campus, a brief look at Broderick crossing some stairs by Red Square. I worked in an office with a computer back then, and I was still in the early stage of wonder about the thing. Watched this movie again about a year ago, and sure enough, it isn’t as good as it should be. Also: RIP John Wood, who died a few days ago, and whose patrician air somehow fit his name.


Choose Me

August 12, 2011

Lesley Ann Warren, with "radio" and "telephone"

In the opening shot of Choose Me, characters wander into a street scene and start dancing to the sounds of the funky music on the soundtrack. Highly unrealistic, and it serves as a warning: You either sway to the peculiar rhythms of this idiosyncratic film, or you will be left behind.

I’ve seen Choose Me with two separate audiences, and the reaction was quite different with each. One crowd was with the film every step of the way, knowing when to laugh and when to stop laughing. The other audiences seemed puzzled by the whole thing, almost as if it couldn’t see where anything was leading.

The latter reaction is understandable, because Choose Me is a comedy and a romance and a film noir and even a musical, all rolled up into one mysterious package. But getting to the heart of that mystery is an intoxicating journey. It’s true; you never know quite know where you stand with this movie, as though it were deliberately keeping you off balance. But if felt I was in capable hands throughout, and never for a moment feared that the film was heading for a fall.

It has the logic of a screwball comedy, in which strangers meet, sparks are kindled, and everyone becomes accidentally and inextricably involved with everyone else. Beneath the comic structure, Choose Me simmers with urgent passion, so that its laughs have meaning.

The film considers the various romantic entanglements of: Dr. Nancy Love (Geneviève Bujold), a radio psychologist who counsels her callers about love but doesn’t know much about the subject; Eve (Lesley Ann Warren), owner of a bar and one of Love’s frequent callers; Mickey (Keith Carradine), a habitual liar who walked into Eve’s bar looking for the previous owner but fell in love with the current proprietor; Pearl (Rae Dawn Chong), barside poet; and Zack Antoine (Patrick Bauchau), self-styled gangster, Pearl’s husband, and Eve’s lover.

Each relationship builds on the other ones, in a grid of coincidence and cross-purpose. Orchestrating all this is writer-director Alan Rudolph, who is probably tired of being called a protégé of Robert Altman. But he was, and he’s since made Welcome to L.A., Remember My Name, Endangered Species, and others. Rudolph’s films have always taken chances, but this film takes even more. It also pays off on more.

With cinematographer Jan Kiesser, and with a very low budget, Rudolph has created a sensual look for the movie (and, with the Teddy Pendergrass songs, a very sexy sound, too). Much of the action takes place at night, and the characters resemble nighthawks on the prowl, scouring the lonely edges of Los Angeles for a little companionship.

The people are special, and the fact that they are played by misfits and almost-stars adds to this. Carradine, who was in Rudolph’s Welcome to L.A., continues to carve his own niche in the recent cinema, always seeming to turn up in small, personal projects. Warren, queen of the TV-movie in the early ’70s, rings true, even when saying things like, “I don’t own any man—and no man owns me,” one of the many lines that seem inspired by old movie dialogue.

Bujold, who doesn’t work all that often and never quite became the big star she could have been, is superb as the talk-show host. It’s easy to satirize this particular kind of pop figure, and the film does get funny material out of it, but there is much subtlety in Bujold’s performance. It’s a wonderful part, and Bujold, as the omnipresent goddess of the airwaves, becomes the glue that holds the many enticing aspects of this film together.

First published in the Herald, August 24, 1984

This was kind of an important independent film, although it doesn’t get a lot of credit for that. It was a gigantic hit in Seattle, a city that has cozied up to Rudolph’s films in general (and he to Seattle, having shot Trouble in Mind here a couple of years later and keeping a house hereabouts). Choose Me  has a real appreciation for people, without ever losing its odd, stylized snap.