American Ninja II and Creepshow 2

November 21, 2011

If you recall American Ninja, you’ll remember that our hero (Michael Dudikoff) is an American Army man, trained in the ways of the mysterious, black-hooded ninja. This makes him all but indestructible. If you think about it, this removes a considerable amount of suspense, since the guy can’t possibly be threatened by any conventional opposition.

Nevertheless, he’s back in American Ninja II, again victorious over insurmountable odds. Joined by his Ranger buddy (Steve James, who has become a kind of black Chuck Norris), Dudikoff travels to a tropical island to solve the mystery of disappearing Marines. As the plot unreels—or, rather, unravels—it turns out that a batch of the ninja are carting away American military men to be cloned in experiments to produce a race of “SuperNinjas.”

In other words, “Karate Theatre” meets The Island of Dr. Moreau. Very strange story. However, director Sam Firstenberg, who has made a lot of weird stuff for Cannon Films, keeps this one lively for at least its first two thirds (there’s a barroom brawl about every five minutes). Then the SuperNinja business gets out of hand, and the movie grinds down.

Creepshow 2 is another sequel, but this time spun off from an original film that was quite watchable. The first Creepshow had the indefatigable Stephen King writing a screenplay, directed by George Romero, that paid affectionate homage to pulpy horror comic books. It wasn’t too scary, but it was stylish and fun.

For the sequel, Romero has adapted a trio of King short stories, but the directing reins are held by Michael Gorlick. King’s actual participation is limited to an acting cameo, as a dimwitted truck driver, that is actually one of the sharpest performances in the movie.

The first story is called “Old Chief Wood’n Head,” and it’s a snoozer that wastes Dorothy Lamour and George Kennedy in a tale of Native American justice. The second, “The Raft,” is somewhat better, if only because King’s idea is basically scary. It’s about a quartet of teens trapped on a raft, in the middle of a lake, by a huge gloppy thing that slides across the surface of the water.

The film is rounded off by “The Hitchhiker,” about a woman (Lois Chiles) who runs over and kills a hitcher, only to have him disconcertingly return. It’s the best of the lot, directed and acted with some intensity and black humor, with some of the creepiness inherent in spooky stories about hitchhikers. But it’s not quite enough to justify sitting through the previous tales, brief though they are.

First published in the Herald, June 5, 1987

Creepshow 2 was a bum deal, even if “The Raft” sticks in the mind as one of King’s effective stories. I have forgotten AN II, but the plot sounds agreeably deranged. Firstenberg (I don’t need to tell you) managed a few outrageous Cannon titles, including the stupefying Ninja III: The Domination. The real title of this Firstenberg effort is apparently American Ninja 2: The Confrontation, but I guess I didn’t know that at the time.


Down by Law

November 18, 2011

Jim Jarmusch must have been hard-pressed to conjure a follow-up to his low-budget New Wave comedy, Stranger Than Paradise. It won a top prize at the Cannes Festival, the New York crowd canonized the movie (it even won the best-picture award form a slightly perverse National Society of Film Critics), and hipsters everywhere fawned over it.

Jarmusch’s latest is now here. And Down by Law will very likely disappoint a lot of people who loved Stranger. The New York setting is gone, it has less of the punk archness, and the style is slightly more conventional.

Down by Law may very well not be as good as Stranger. But 15 minutes into this film, I was not inclined to bother making comparisons. That’s because Down by Law is an utterly fetching film itself, and needs to apologize to no one for the fact that it is broader and more normal than its predecessor.

The film begins with two separate stories, bridged by some sleek tracking shots of New Orleans housefronts. Zack (Tom Waits), a sometime disc jockey, is getting thrown out of the house by his girlfriend (Ellen Barkin). Jack (John Lurie), a natty pimp, is exchanging stylish B-movie clichés with one of his girls (Billie Neal).

These guys don’t know each other yet, but some truly bad fortune is going to lead them into the same jail cell. Their misery there is brightened by the arrival of Roberto, also known as Bob (Roberto Benigni), a terminally happy-go-lucky Italian who is fascinated by American slang. His fix on the mantra-like rhythms of “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream,” turns this familiar saying into a triumphant tribal chant.

Somehow these guys escape, and their irritable journey through the bayou takes up the remainder of the film. The cosmically comic high point of this comes when the freedom lovers arrive at a ramshackle, deserted house where they can spend the night. Its severe interior looks exactly like their jail cell.

The feel of Down by Law is much like Stranger. Jarmusch still uses long pauses and apparent improvisation to approximate the languor of conversation, while also relying on movie-made clichés.

But the look of the movie is sunnier, somewhat loopier. Robby Müller, one of the world’s best cinematographers, gives the black-and-white images great suppleness; he can go from the desolation of Zack sitting out on a curb at night, surrounded by his possessions, to the sun-bleached farewell that Bob gives his friends.

The three leads succeed brilliantly. Lurie, the star of Stranger, does a similar hip routine here (and also composed the music for the film). Benigni, a big star in Italy, is an energetic fellow with a long, dopey face you can’t help but like.

Waits steals the show. The growly singer displays a comic sense that is at once precise and frowzed-over. Authentic, too; the hair piled unrealistically high on his head cannot distract from a face that has met a few barroom floors. If anyone ever figures out how to use his singular gifts, Waits might find a specialized place in films.

First published in the Herald, September 28, 1986

The National Society of Film Critics decision doesn’t seem all that perverse today; see my own Ten Best list for 1984. Down by Law is a delightful movie and it certainly shows how much, in his third feature, Jarmusch was in command of his moviemaking skills and his view of the world.

Amazon Women on the Moon

November 17, 2011

In some ways, Amazon Women on the Moon is a return to roots for John Landis. Landis, who directed such blockbusters as Animal House and The Blues Brothers, got his entrée into mainstream filmmaking with the mid-1970s success of Kentucky Fried Movie, a zingy low-budget collection of sketches and parodies.

Amazon Women is in much the same vein, and Landis serves as the film’s executive producer; he also directed some sequences, along with Joe Dante (Gremlins), Carl Gottlieb, Peter Horton, and Robert K. Weiss.

As is inevitable with such omnibus films, some things score, others flop. I think Amazon Women has too many misses, but certain gags could attain cult status.

Except for a bit in which a man (Lou Jacobi) gets zapped into his TV set and wanders through various reruns and movies, the opening sketches are weak. But around the time we begin a parody of ’50s sci-fi movies, the collection perks up.

This bad movie-within-the-movie, which is constantly interrupted by commercial spoofs (B.B. King pleads for donations for a charity called “Black Without Soul”), is an inspired parody, all about space travelers who encounter a race of extremely tall women on the moon (see, the title does make sense). The sets are cardboard, the special effects tacky. And the actors are vintage: stalwart Steve Forrest, formidable Sybil Danning, and Robert Colbert, who used to be one of the time-trippers on the TV show “The Time Tunnel.”

A “Believe It Or Not” rip-ff suggests, through dramatic re-enactment, that Jack the Ripper was in fact Nessie, the Loch Ness monster. There’s a comedy roast (featuring Steve Allen, Slappy White, and Rip Taylor) for a dead man, at his funeral. And a man watching television is shocked when two TV movie reviewers suddenly turn thumbs-down on his own life, decrying it for its lack of originality and dullness (the man’s wife assures him that “They didn’t like Gandhi, either”).

This is the sort of movie best viewed under specialized circumstances—namely, with a group of like-minded friends, fueled by some small measure of liquid refreshment. It’s sophomoric, but that doesn’t preclude the possibility of a certain amount of shameless fun.

First published in the Herald, September 22, 1987

That last paragraph is how I remember seeing Kentucky Fried Movie, a film that was required viewing for a certain demographic of nerdy teenage boys. Amazon Women must have been hit and miss, as indicated, but the sci-fi movie was dead-on.

Adventures in Babysitting

November 16, 2011

There are many reasons to hate Chris Columbus. This is a guy whose first screenplay sale was a little thing called Gremlins, which was purchased and produced by none other than Steven Spielberg and which went on to make a mint.

He wrote a couple of other scripts under Spielberg’s wing, The Goonies and Young Sherlock Holmes, and was even tapped to write the next Indiana Jones movie.

Now he’s made his directing debut, which is what all those frustrated screenwriters want to do anyway. And he’s 27 years old. You see why he’s easy to hate?

The film that Columbus has directed at this disgustingly youthful age is called Adventures in Babysitting, and unfortunately the title is just about the best thing about the movie. Columbus didn’t write this one—a first-timer named David Simkins did—but it shares with Columbus’s earlier work a penchant for cute head-over-heels action.

It’s a kind of After Hours for teenagers. A perky 17-year-old high school student (Elisabeth Shue) takes a babysitting job in the suburbs when her boyfriend stands her up for the night. Her charges are a pint-sized little girl (Maia Brewton) and a 15-year-old guy (Keith Coogan). Well, the guy isn’t really under her care, but he’s got major crush on her, so he and his geeky friend (Anthony Rapp) hang around to make moon eyes at the babysitter.

The babysitting adventure really begins with a phone call from a pal stranded at the downtown Chicago bus station, begging for a ride home. Shue piles her three hell-raisers in mom’s car, and heads into town for a wild and semi-surreal night of catastrophes.

Some of these scrapes are gently amusing, yet most of the film’s situations are so heavily contrived that they undercut the fun. When Shue & Co. stumble into a smoky jazz club and are forced to improvise a blues number to earn their passage, it’s sort of funny. Funny, except that even with a generous suspension of disbelief, I can’t quite buy the concept of a blues club that lets a quartet of suburban squares on its stage, or that forces them to sing, badly, as an exit visa.

The movie has a string of these near-miss scenes. Columbus can’t quite find the rhythms or the look to kick this sitcom into high gear. For instance, his cast is likable, but they’re on a low flame. The acting honors go to people in smaller roles: Calvin Levels, immediately intriguing as a soft-spoken car thief who takes the kids into a dangerous circle of crime; and John Chandler, former Sam Peckinpah regular, as the nasty leader of that ring.

And one other actor, for trivia buffs: Vincent D’Onofrio, who gives a sensational performance as the fat, frightened Marine in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, here turns up in a small role as a garage owner. If you don’t recognize him, it’s forgivable; he’s about 60 pounds lighter here than he was in Kubrick’s movie.

Adventures in Babysitting has “summer movie” written all over it, but it’s not even quite good enough to make the grade in that unexalted category. And we should be even harder on Chris Columbus for not making the material work. He has no excuse, since his own experiences with babysitters are presumably more recent than those of any other Hollywood director.

First published in the Herald, July 1987

I guess you can sense that my own screenwriting efforts were not attracting much attention, thus my enmity for CC (which I hope comes across as tongue-in-cheek, mostly). He has gone on, of course, to much more. The movie’s got its fans, and it fits into that run of post-Bueller teen escapades that were around for a while. And it’s got Elisabeth Shue, a should’ve-been-bigger-star who didn’t go there.

Apartment Zero

November 15, 2011

Apartment zero is actually apartment 10, but the “1” has rubbed off the 10, leaving only the vacancy. This is appropriate, because the occupant of the apartment has no real life—a neurotic zero, he pieces together bits from the movies he loves and invents his own dry, isolated existence.

Apartment Zero is also the title of the most stylishly strange film of the year, directed by Martin Donovan and written by Donovan and David Koepp. The man in the apartment is Adrian (Colin Firth), who runs a revival moviehouse in Buenos Aires.

When we first see him, he is weeping at the ending of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, but this private moment is about the last emotion he will show; uptight and foppish, he keeps his distance from people (“There is only one rule: avoid the neighbors”). The only human company he has in his tidy apartment are the photographs of the silver screen legends he loves.

He’s forced to take a roommate, and the man who swaggers into his life is a vulgar American named Jack (Hart Bochner) with movie-star good looks. These two aren’t just an odd couple; they’re extremely peculiar. Eventually, the story takes a turn into darkness and paranoia, as Jack’s presence coincides with some violent events.

With the chemistry of his two actors and the exotic backdrop of Buenos Aires, director Donovan creates a sense of unease that nevertheless verges on giddiness, as though Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train had been adapted by David Lynch on a particularly playful day.

The layers of movie trivia, the baroque supporting cast, the tremors of Argentine political unrest, all make for a perversely intoxicating nightmare. The film seems to move in dream time, too, a weird, off-rhythm—ungainly, perhaps, but original. Donovan is a talent to watch.

So is Colin Firth, the English actor who gives Adrian the solicitous sweetness of Anthony Perkins in Psycho. Firth visited Seattle for interviews last week, as this engagement is the film’s premiere American run.

Firth appeared as the radicalized student in Another Country and in the unjustly neglected A Month in the Country. He appears set for greater things, as he will soon star in Milos Forman’s new version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, called Valmont.

Firth says he enjoyed playing the unhealthy Adrian: “I like playing screwed-up, paranoid, neurotic people,” he says. “They’re fun. The more problems the character has, psychologically, the more there is to work with. I also find it quite relaxing, because if everyting goes into that, you feel like you’ve got no problems of your own.”

He noted the movie’s odd construction. “I see the flaws that I see in the movie. But I think that it triumphs on its own terms.”

The film brilliantly captures a sense of unease, which seems to come from the exoticism of the setting, a tension that pervades the air like the Argentine tango music of the soundtrack. Firth suggests that he always felt uncomfortable in Buenos Aires, adding, “I come away from watching the film with the same distaste, unease, slight headache, nervousness, that I felt when I was there.”

First published in the Herald, September 1989

Nice fellow, that Colin Firth—self-deprecating, casual, profane. I wonder what ever happened to him. Apartment Zero dates from just about the end of the era when an independent film could rely on Seattle as a place to get launched; that stuff isn’t happening anymore. The lavishness of my praise for this movie didn’t quite hold up on a second viewing, as I recall, but it’s a good film, and Donovan (whose “talent to watch” was well into a career at this point) and Koepp (his first screen credit) both brought their own stuff to an interesting project.

The Man Who Wasn’t There

November 14, 2011

Guttenberg and a Tab: TMWWT

There are bad movies, and then there’s The Man Who Wasn’t There, a new film without a single redeeming feature. Movies like Flashdance and Staying Alive, which, no doubt about it, really stink up the joint, at least provide a kind of appalled fascination, and scream their availability as fodder for a good end-of-the-cinema-as-we-know-it article. Not so The Man Who Wasn’t There. It’s just plain deadening.

This junior State Department official (Steve Guttenberg) is framed for murder and gets stuck with a formula that, when ingested, turns the ingester invisible. The guy goes through some would-be adventures, finds a troo luv, and is duly surprised by a would-be surprise ending.

With a lot of movies, it takes a long time before you realize that the film is just not going to cut it. Not so with The Man Who Wasn’t There, which establishes its utter incompetence in the first incomprehensible minutes. It goes downhill from there because of a complete lack of anything resembling narrative logic. Every scene has a “conflict” that could easily be resolved by any one of the characters thinking about the problem at hand (like, Why doesn’t he just shoot the guy? or Why doesn’t he just give up the formula? or Why doesn’t he simply tell the police what the deal is when he’s caught at the murder scene?).

This is the kind of movie where you start watching the extras in the crowd scenes because it’s too excruciating to concentrate on the principals. In particular, look for a blond guy in the scene in a Washington rotunda—he’s standing behind the tour guide, and he’s making all these ridiculous faces to indicate interest, dismay, etc. Even the 3-D is cruddy—there’s no reason for the process, actually—and the cinematography itself is dirty and ugly. But the worst thing is, this is supposed to be a comedy as well as an adventure. I looked for some comedy, but couldn’t find any. But then I, fool that I am, looked for something like a movie, in any way, shape, form. It wasn’t there.

First published in The Informer, August 1983

I saw it a long time ago, and have notched many bad movies since then. But this goes high a list of the very worst. Null, void, a non-movie. Of course, it had Steve Guttenberg in it, so put that on top of everything else. Happily, the Coen brothers came along and made a movie of the same title, thus neutralizing the toxic aura around, at least, the words The Man Who Wasn’t There.


November 11, 2011

Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd are a study in contrasting comedic styles. Murray is loose, anarchic, and insouciant; Aykroyd is precise, focused, and clean-cut. These traits define their big-screen presences: Aykroyd, while clearly a gifted comedian, looks prissy and out-of-place in movies. His mimicry and parody are well suited to TV, but in movies, to a certain extent, you’ve got to be yourself. And there just doesn’t seem to be that much there.

Murray, however, moves across the screen as though he owns it. He appears absolutely at ease and in control. Improvising wildly, he can make you laugh during movies that barely deserve to be released (to wit—although that seems an inappropriate word—Meatballs and Stripes, two low-budget box-office champs).

Murray and Aykroyd have teamed up for Ghostbusters, which Aykroyd started writing as a vehicle for himself and John Belushi a few years ago. Murray has stepped into the Belushi role, and he dominates the film; Aykroyd remains pretty much in the background throughout. Given their respective film personalities, this is just as it should be. Murray infuses the movie with as much of his anarchic spirit as possible.

They play a couple of parapsychologists (you know, people who study weird things) who, with fellow scientist Harold Ramis, set up shop for themselves after getting kicked out of their university research positions. They agree to track down any supernatural phenomena that may be bothering people.

It happens to be a good season for ghosts, so the boys are busy capturing the troubled spirits. When a musician (Sigourney Weaver) sees a demon of some kind in her refrigerator, she goes to the ghostbusters—but this is one ghost they can’t find. Murray, however, finds himself liking Weaver a lot (you can’t blame him, either).

It turns out Weaver’s apartment is the key to some crazy scheme that could bring about the end of the world. Well. Best not to go into that. Basically, the movie would like to provide a few good scares, a lot of laughs, and some special effects.

Scary it isn’t. And some of the special effects are good, but most are just okay. Funny is what the film needs to be, especially a heavily promoted (and very expensive: somewhere around $30 million) summer release.

On that score, Ghostbusters is a draw. The performers have some nice moments. But the producer-director, Ivan Reitman (he directed—yes—Meatballs and Stripes), has one of the feeblest senses of comedy I’ve ever seen. He has no instinct for basic moviemaking, for that matter; there’s no rhythm, no structure to the scenes. Bit after bit will build to a funny conclusion that doesn’t conclude. Ghostbusters is better than his previous efforts, but it’s still seriously hampered.

In the past, Reitman’s directorial successes (he produced Animal House, but that was directed by John Landis, who does understand comedy) have been carried on Bill Murray’s shoulders. Murray and company may carry Ghostbusters along too, at least for a while.

Murray himself may need either a strong director to harness his improvisatory talent, or maybe no director at all. His next film will sidestep comedic considerations: in his first serious role, he plays the spiritually minded central character of Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge. That’s the kind of bizarre casting that could lead to disaster or triumph, but probably nothing in between. If nothing else, you’ve got to admire Murray’s fondness for extremes.

First published in the Herald, June 9, 1984

Apparently I didn’t quite anticipate what a blockbuster this would become. But it is pretty blah overall, except for Murray, who summons up some classic moments. For the results of the Razor’s Edge experiment, see here.