Short Circuit

September 30, 2011

Number Five, awful robot

The main character of Short Circuit is a robot named Number Five. It’s intended as a military death machine, armed with a laser-zapper on its left shoulder. But one day Number Five is itself zapped, by an errant bolt of lightning, effectively cleaning its clocks and turning it into an $11 million steel-plated tabula rasa.

The robot escapes its Army camp and wanders into the streets of Astoria, Oregon, where it is given shelter by a sympathetic animal lover (Ally Sheedy). Number Five then absorbs the encyclopedia and 12 hours of television. Understandably, this drives the robot quite insane, and it starts believing—and the movie starts insisting—that the robot is now alive.

Of course, we’re not supposed to think it is now insane. Number Five means to be cuddly and humanoid, dishing out advice as well as breakfast and making with the jive slang. See, he’s picked up little bits of information from everywhere and incorporated them into his button-pushing biorhythms. He’s likely to segue from a stalwart John Wayne imitation to a TV anchorman’s pomposity to a re-creation of the physical profundities of the Three Stooges.

Ahem. What we have here is a movie engaging in a little unwitting self-description. Like its metallic hero, Short Circuit incorporates (read: steals) ideas from a gaggle of recent sources, most glaringly E.T., and regurgitates them with breathless hipness. So what you get is something fast and occasionally funny, but not remotely new.

Short Circuit is from director John Badham, who has made strikingly similar berserk-hardware movies before (WarGames, Blue Thunder). There was a time when Badham seemed like a promising director, with his lively version of Dracula and Saturday Night Fever (the latter is cannibalized by Badham for input fodder for Number Five, who apes a John Travolta dance routine on his able treads).

But Badham’s technique here, so clearly inspired by what has worked before, is pretty empty. The stranger-in-a-strange land routine is reliable, but it’s time to give it a rest. In fact, this movie might kill it: Not only does Number Five spout his cute newly learned American slang (to an opponent robot: “Hey, laser lips, yo’ momma was a snow-blower!”), so does a scientist (Fisher Stevens) from India (to his partner: “Let us go pick up some female chicks”).

Badham’s cast doesn’t help. The robot has more depth than Sheedy or Steve Guttenberg, who plays the robot’s inventor (yeeh, suuuure); he tries to find Number Rive before a gung-ho Army commander (G.W. Bailey) gets his hands on the thing.

They’re secondary to the technology. Number Five is constructed with great ingenuity—his wide-set eyes inevitably recall E.T.’s—but for all his savvy talk, he is a uniquely charmless being. This was a minority opinion at the laughing full-house preview where I saw the film, but even the laugh-getting seemed like a mechanical process, just a matter of pushing the right buttons.

First published in the Herald, May 8, 1986

Really bad movie, really a quintessential Eighties success story. I do recall being sort of fascinated by Fisher Stevens’ impeccably rendered Peter Sellers-like Indian character, because one had thought that such a stunt was long past doing. But there it is. (And he returned in the sequel, too.) This movie was a big hit.

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Sudden Impact

September 29, 2011

Clint Eastwood, who has directed eight films since 1971’s Play Misty for Me, has shown an interest in making smaller, more personal movies lately. And since he still reigns as one of Hollywood’s top box-office draws, if he wants to make a small, personal movie, he can make it.

But some of his pet projects have fizzled with audiences accustomed to Eastwood’s gunslinging or his comedic partnerships with orangutans. Bronco Billy died in the summer of ’81, and Honkytonk Man disappeared last Christmas.

Eastwood—who has displayed competency behind the camera—is no dummy (even though some of his critics have accused him of being as animated as the average ventriloquist’s prop). He knows his fans love to see him stalking the streets of San Francisco in the guise of Inspector “Dirty Harry” Callahan.

Just in time for the lucrative Christmas season, then, arrives Sudden Impact, the new “Dirty Harry” installment, the first one since The Enforcer in 1977. Eastwood produced and directed this entry, as well as essaying the role of Harry Callahan once again.

Clint’s hair may be a little thinner on top these days, but he still has the steely gaze and the steady walk that embody Callahan’s brutal code of justice—a code that doesn’t always sit too well with Harry’s superiors at the San Francisco Police Department.

Sudden Impact isn’t 10 minutes old before Harry’s wiped the floor with a whole bushelful of assorted Bay Area punks, psychos, and culturally backward types. But he doesn’t look for trouble, he says; it just seems to follow him around.

The bloodletting gets so bad that the department sends Harry off to the sleepy coastal town of San Paulo, to check up on a lead in a murder case, and mostly just to get him out of San Francisco. He doesn’t know—although the audience does—that the murderer is in San Paulo, right under his nose.

We learn early that the strange series of murders is being perpetrated by a painter (played by longtime Eastwood leading lady Sondra Locke) who is avenging the 10-year-old rape and beating of her younger sister and herself.

So she’s got her code of justice, too; clearly a woman after Harry’s heart. And sure enough, the two find themselves in a tentative romantic involvement.

But there can’t be too much time devoted to the mushy stuff in an action movie such as this one, and Eastwood shrewdly piles on the gun play. He’s done a pretty good job of it, considering the fact that the script is a fairly old-hat series of showdowns.

As usual, the bad guys aren’t just bad, they’re vermin, engaging in every kind of animalistic behavior. By the end of the movie, the audience was cheering each extermination.

It’s a good finale—a whirring, spinning shoot-out at a carnival. Eastwood may not be Alfred Hitchcock, but he knows how to stage a fight.

And Sudden Impact may not be great cinema. But Eastwood fans are going to like it.

First published in the Herald, December 14, 1983

It was nice of me to allow that Eastwood had displayed competency behind the camera, but to be fair to me, he hadn’t reached Unforgiven levels yet, and Sudden Impact is no great film. It did give the world an all-time catchphrase in “Go ahead…make my” etc., cannily appropriated by the sitting President at the time.


Dead Bang

September 28, 2011

Don Johnson is without his pastel T-shirts and his palm trees in Dead Bang, but he’s in familiar territory all the same. The Miami Vice star is playing another sour, growling policeman absorbed in a big murder case.

And doing a pretty decent job of it, too. Johnson’s character is a guy who’s just split with his wife, drinks too much, and is in danger of getting kicked off the Los Angeles police force. Don Johnson may not have a lot of range, but he does convince you that he’s looked deeply into the bottom of a few whiskey glasses in his time. He provides a good, angry, ravaged center to the film.

The movie is good in other ways, too. It’s well directed by John Frankenheimer, a powerful moviemaker who has been restored to good graces recently by the re-release of his long unavailable masterwork, The Manchurian Candidate. Frankenheimer has had a curiously errant career since the late 1960s, but with 1986’s 52 Pick-Up and now Dead Bang, a couple of competently mounted action movies, he could be on his way back.

Dead Bang is a movie with personality, thanks to Johnson and Frankenheimer, but it sure doesn’t have much of a script. (What there is of one is credited to Robert Foster.) It’s about the murder of a policeman that eventually leads to the uncovering of a large organization devoted to white supremacy.

That’s a meaty topic and it provides plenty of opportunity for Johnson to get involved in shootouts. But it’s also nonsensical. A woman (Penelope Ann Miller) picks Johnson up at a party early in the film, reveals a secret about herself, and then absolutely disappears, never to be referred to again. A parole officer (Bob Balaban) helps Johnson, to some comic effect, then he too vanishes.

In fact, the funniest scene in the movie has Johnson and Balaban chasing down a suspect; when Johnson finally catches the man, the exertion has so traumatized Johnson’s broken-down body that he proceeds to vomit all over the prisoner (a technique that turns out to be a useful threat when trying to get information, minutes later.)

Frankenheimer does stage all of this very well. The final half-hour is the big showdown, competently managed but rather standard; the movie loses its quirkiness, save for the eccentric performance by William Forsythe as a stiff FBI agent. Still the signs are promising: Frankenheimer could be one movie away from another great one.

First published in the Herald, March 1989

Of the Frankenheimer pictures during this erratic time in the director’s career, this one really fades from the memory, but obviously I got something from it in the moment. I have a certain inexplicable fondness for Don Johnson’s end-of-Vice streak, which also includes The Hot Spot and Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man; there’s something so seedy and blown-out about his person then, and it works for the movies. I sincerely apologize.


Licence to Kill

September 27, 2011

The James Bond movie series, which has been going strong since 1962, got an infusion of fresh blood last time around with the introduction of a new actor to play the famous member of Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Timothy Dalton, in The Living Daylights, brought a good mean edge to the role, thus wiping away marshmallow memories of lightweight Roger Moore.

Dalton is a welcome addition, but what the series needs now is some new talent behind the camera. Under the stewardship of producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, the same team has been churning out these things for years; writer Richard Maibaum and director John Glen have been associated with Bond, in one way or another, virtually since the beginning. Their age is showing. Bond may have been the epitome of turtlenecked, martini-sipping hip in the 1960s, but he’s beginning to look a bit square.

Licence to Kill is Bond’s summer workout, and there’s effort expended to give 007 some bite, by increasing the urgency of his mission and by splashing his female associates with a touch of women’s lib. The film opens in Key West, where Bond and longtime friend Felix Leiter (here played by David Hedison) are celebrating the latter’s wedding when a notorious Latin American drug lord (Robert Davi) escapes from custody, kills the bride, and dangles Leiter into the mouth of a great white shark.

Bond is peeved. When he meddles in the case, after being officially warned off, his license—er, licence—to kill is revoked. But then, our man Bond never really needed a permit, did he?

Then 007 goes to a fictional Latin American country to find and kill Davi. Bond gets the help of Davi’s sultry mistress (model Talisa Soto) and a mysterious but entirely capable American agent (Carey Lowell). Lowell is the most appealing “Bond girl” to come along in quite some time. She has a memorable introduction to the secret agent when the two have to battle their way out of a Bimini bar infested with bad guys.

Other scenes include Bond water-skiing behind a seaplane, throwing a villain into a tank with electric eels, and leading a merry chase down a mountainside in four tanker trucks full of gasoline and drugs. The stunts are up to the customary standard.

In fact, Licence to Kill is, at least on the surface, a solid enough outing. But there’s little life in the proceedings, and not nearly enough fun had with the usual gadgets and lavish locations (no globe-hopping this time, either). It’s time to open up a window on the series, lest Bond wither away.

First published in the Herald, July 13, 1989

And so that was it for Dalton, who gave way for Pierce Brosnan, who might have been Bond a few years earlier were it not for contractual issues. I think the lack of globe-trotting had to do with the attempt to carve a new “serious” Bond, which was going a bit far, but on the other hand this movie also had Wayne Newton and Don Stroud in it, so whatever. (A young Benicio Del Toro, too.) Nice that David Hedison got some work.


Ishtar

September 26, 2011

Chuck and Lyle: Road to Ishtar

Rumors are funny things; nobody knows how they begin, but the bigger the subject, the looser the talk.

The rumors about Ishtar probably started with the collision of egos involved: Stars Warren Beatty (he also produced) and Dustin Hoffman have been known to infuriate their collaborators and inflate budgets, and writer-director Elaine May is a notorious perfectionist. Then the movie had its Christmas ’86 opening date scrubbed, which is usually a bad sign. The grapevine word was: Columbia Pictures had a $40 million turkey on its hands.

Well, Ishtar is here, and it’s just fine. Nothing great, no instant classic, but a smooth-running comedy with some keen satiric digs. It’ll make, well, some of its money back.

The movie pays homage to the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby Road movies of the 1940s. It doesn’t have the improvisational loopiness of those films, but it borrows the same basic situation: Two ill-matched schmucks (Beatty and Hoffman) have a song-and-dance act, are trundled off to an exotic location, get into a terrible mess, and fight over a girl (Isabelle Adjani).

This being the ’80s (and with Elaine May’s penchant for topical humor), the mess has strong satiric overtones: Our heroes land in the North African country of Ishtar, where they are dragged into the middle of a dispute between a CIA-supported right-wing government and a left-wing rebel organization. Hoffman is recruited for work by a slick CIA man (Charles Grodin), while Beatty bumps up against Adjani, who supports the rebels and keeps saying things such as, “This means my life.”

May’s humor is effectively played, from the high-minded satire to some low comedy about a blind camel (a superbly acted role, by the way), although the climax doesn’t quite soar and there’s an abruptness about the ending.

One gag she milks is the duo’s pitiful songwriting efforts. The film’s original songs, written by May and Paul Williams (with some assists from Hoffman and Beatty), are monumentally bad, and the stars perform them with unbridled glee. (It may be relevant to note that neither Hoffman nor Beatty can sing his way out of a paper bag, and Elaine May knows it).

Primarily the film relies on the two stars to carry the comedy. They work well together, both visually (Beatty tall, Hoffman short) and vocally (Beatty soft, Hoffman hard). There’s also some play about their offscreen personalities; it’s an understood joke that Beatty’s doltish character is unsuccessful and inexperienced with women, when we know that the real Warren Beatty has probably had more women than any other man alive.

Their characters, dimwitted and hapless, are given a nice winsome quality by the actors. Early on, before they leave for Ishtar, Hoffman climbs out on the ledge of his Manhattan apartment; Beatty joins him to talk him out of this sudden depression. Hoffman laments that he has no job, no wife, no money. Beatty helpfully points out, “Hey, it’s taken a lot of nerve to have nothin’ at your age.” The film endorses that kind of nerve, which is one of the reasons I like it.

First published in the Herald, May 14, 1987

The movie’s made back a little of its reputation in the intervening years, but until it comes out on DVD the full-scale critical restoration will have to wait. It’s a really funny movie, partaking of some pleasant Sixties-style comedy with a dose of SCTV‘s “Sammy Maudlin Show” played out over 107 minutes. But Americans don’t do “satiric,” and the dumb conventional wisdom about this movie help kill it.


Fatal Attraction

September 23, 2011

Paramount Pictures, via a heavy advertising campaign, is clearly positioning Fatal Attraction as the big thriller of the season. Its confidence is probably well-placed, since this movie is as slick and manipulative as they come, which is to say, it’s also often distastefully effective.

It’s from director Adrian Lyne, and Fatal Attraction displays the same sort of superficiality and gloss as his Flashdance and 9 ½ Weeks. Unlike those films, here Lyne at least has subject matter that is innately compelling.

The story is an utterly simple littler shocker. Married man has a one-night stand with a woman; woman turns out to be crazy and hounds the man and his family; man and family must defend themselves. It’s the kind of devilishly relentless plot that might have burbled up out of the nightmare novels of Cornell Woolrich or Jim Thompson.

However, Lyne dresses things up a bit. The man (Michael Douglas) is a high-priced Manhattan lawyer; the woman (Glenn Close) works for a publishing company he represents. They meet at a party and spend a torrid weekend together while his wife (Anne Archer) and daughter are away. When Douglas tries to break off the affair, Close insists on pursuing it, and she starts calling his office, sending him mad taped messages, and finally showing up in his living room.

Eventually her madness leads to a violent series of conclusions, and Lyne orchestrates the thriller aspects of the movie with some sledgehammer success. He’s still a terribly obvious filmmaker: Are there many directors gauche enough to cut away from a lovemaking scene to a percolating pot of coffee?

Amid the sound and fury, the three main actors are working hard. Anne Archer is one of those people about whom film critics keep wondering—Gee, when is this smart/sexy/funny actress going to get in a good movie? In Fatal Attraction, she suffers a lot, but she does get a few licks in.

Douglas trades on his sagging jowls and hollowing eyes to suggest this man’s moral shiftiness, and he’s pretty good casting. Douglas is about 10 times more interesting when he’s playing weak characters than when he’s playing good guys—a fact he seems finally to be realizing.

Then there’s Glenn Close, who, since The World According to Garp and The Big Chill, has been working to change her image: No more Ms. Nice Guy. She’s certainly not nice here. Most good actors are susceptible to psycho roles, because they’re so darn much fun to play, and Close is probably as good in this role as anyone, quite chilling at times. But finally there’s nothing to this part, regardless of its showiness; the woman’s crazy and she scares people. Neither the movie nor Close can give the character any more meaning than that.

Lyne seems to be mining a number of different subtexts, including fear of women, fear of the city, and (so help me) fear of telephones. But the main undercurrent is probably fear of AIDS. While the disease is never mentioned, the movie is after all about the horror of a casual sexual encounter that produces a lingering, fatal aftermath. In its grim way, Fatal Attraction is a hysterical, anxiety-streaked recruiting poster for fidelity.

First published in the Herald, September 18, 1987

The picture was a smash, confirming Douglas’s big run of significant parts and changing up Close’s image, at least for a while. (Great headline from the National Enquirer or equivalent rag: “The Most Hated Woman in America!” next to a photo of dear Glenn Close.) The movie’s a real scare show, very Old Testament, seemingly designed to shock the rubes into toeing the line. And speaking of Lyne, he hasn’t had a feature out since 2002’s Unfaithful, an attempt to capture the old magic.


84 Charing Cross Road

September 22, 2011

The origins of the friendship were innocent enough: One day in 1949 a New Yorker, fed up with local bookstores that didn’t stock the English classics, wrote a London bookstore with a series of inquiries. After that, she did much business with the humble store, and the relationship that developed through the next two decades enriched the lives of everybody involved.

84 Charing Cross Road, the address of Marks & Co., Antiquarian Booksellers, is a film based on this true story, and composed entirely of the long-ranging correspondence. Now, if that sounds like an impossible prospect for a movie, be assured that the filmmakers have found attractive ways of making it all work.

Much of the film consists of outright narration from the letters. Helen Hanff (Anne Bancroft), a script reader and struggling writer, writes primarily to Frank Doel (Anthony Hopkins), the bookish manager of the store, who quickly becomes intrigued by the feisty, knowledgeable American on the other end.

She soon breaks up the businesslike exchange with impromptu literary criticism, presumptuous personal questions and eventually a crate of meats and fruits (Britain was suffering through food rationing at the time). As the correspondence grows more personal, we watch glimpses of the lives of these people: Hanff’s sometimes lonely spinsterhood, Doel’s wife and daughters at home.

The director, David Jones (Betrayal), finds just the right visual scheme for this. Sometimes Hanff and Doel are seen writing and reading the letters, sometimes they are simply going about their lives while we listen to their words and sometimes they address the camera. This last culminates in a concurrent exchange, as though they were speaking directly to each other over thousands of miles. The technique becomes emotionally effective when we learn that Doel has died in the interim, and that this was their final dialogue. (They never did actually meet.)

84 Charing Cross Road is about a lot of things, like the sheer sensual pleasure of books—not literature, but books themselves—and the delicate fantasies that can spring up in lonely people who take to writing to strangers. Most of all, it’s about finding love in the oddest places.

This is beautifully captured when Helene must cancel a proposed trip to London, and Doel receives her letter of explanation. He stands awkwardly in the middle of the store, gazing wistfully as he murmurs, “She’s not coming.”

How does a movie like this get made? In this case credit probably goes to, of all people, Mel Brooks, whose production company made it (he’s Bancroft’s husband). It takes a lot of faith, or chutzpah, to believe that audiences will respond to such a singular storytelling method and subject matter—surely this is the first film in anybody’s memory that relies on jokes about John Donne and William Blake.

First published in the Herald, March 20, 1987

I haven’t seen this movie since, but reading this again, it sure sounds like something I’d like to watch. I guess somebody might put a spoiler arrest on me for this review, although the revelations seem logical with this subject matter. David Jones, the man who so ably guided this film and the tricky Betrayal, ended up doing a great amount of U.S. television, which doesn’t seem quite right.