Who Framed Roger Rabbit

January 20, 2012

Whatever else one might say about it, Who Framed Roger Rabbit unquestionably represents one of the most remarkable technical achievements to come out of Hollywood in the last decade. This movie is an ambitious blend of live-action and animation, brought together in a seamless, inventive, and sometimes exhilarating combination.

It’s the brainchild of Robert Zemeckis, the director of Back to the Future and Romancing the Stone. Having accrued some clout with those consecutive hits, Zemeckis was able to undertake this expensive production (the budget, rumored to be in the $50 million range, was bankrolled by Touchstone pictures—Disney, that is—and Steven Spielberg’s Amblin).

Roger Rabbit was so expensive because of the high cost of animation and the elaboratness of Zemeckis’s design. This movie takes the cartoon/live-action interplay of something like Disney’s Song of the South and whips it up into a silly symphony.

In the late-’40s world of the film, flesh-and-blood people share space with “toons,” the animated character stars of the movies. One toon, Roger Rabbit (voice by Charles Fleischer) is framed for a murder, and he must go to a hard-boiled private eye (Bob Hoskins) to help clear his name. Prominent in the investigation is a sinister judge (Christopher Lloyd) who wants to rid the world of toons by dipping them in a nasty green acid.

The plot is an excuse for the spectacular visual effects, some movie in-jokes, and a gallery of animated characters. There are cameos by most of the great cartoon figures, including Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Dumbo, Tweety Bird, and Betty Boop.

Aside from the excitable and elastic Roger Rabbit, the most arresting newcomer is Roger’s wife, Jessica, a sultry, vixenish bombshell who purrs, “I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.” (Her voice, uncredited, is unmistakably that of Kathleen Turner at her most provocative.)

Zemeckis doesn’t let anything sit still for a single minute. His camera is continually swooping and panning, and he’s constantly staging tussles and clinches between his real and unreal characters, all of which must’ve added to the astonishing difficulty of painstakingly drawing in the animation. (Hoskins and company, needless to say, made their live-action movie first, which means that the actors were mugging and exchanging dialogue with thin air.)

The affectionate in-jokes poke fun at cartoon conventions such as the omnipresence of falling safes and flattening steamrollers. One of the funniest moments comes during a piano duet—no, make that duel—between Donald Duck and Daffy Duck. After a dose of Donald’s bellicose quacking, Daffy turns to the crowd and asks a question that has been on the minds of cartoon lovers for years: “Does anybody understand what this duck is saying?”

Zemeckis enjoys rubbing our faces in the amazing effects. Which is typical of him; I’ve always found his movies rather witless, even when they were enjoyable. If it were an ordinary movie, Who Framed Roger Rabbit would be none too interesting. But then, as it demonstrates at almost every moment during its running time, this is no ordinary movie.

First published in the Herald, June 1988

The absence of the question mark in the title was an early example of puctuaphobia that would creep into films. I never loved WFRR, but have grown to like Zemeckis more since, especially Cast Away and Beowulf.


January 19, 2012

Unicorn, Cruise, Sara

Tom Cruise was the hottest thing in movies in the fall of ’83, on the heels of Risky Business and All the Right Moves. In that position, he could pick and choose the projects he wanted to pursue.

He chose to work with Ridley Scott, the director of such visually elaborate works as Alien, Blade Runner, and the Pepsi commercial with Don Johnson and Glenn Frey.

Well, by my watch it’s now April 1986, and Cruise’s follow-up film finally has arrived. Legend has been finished since at least summer of last year, when its release was originally set, but studio executives must have been perplexed about how to sell it.

You can hardly blame them—it’s not your average teen flick. A prologue coyly informs us that the film takes place when there was no such thing as time. It’s a magical world of fairies and sprites, of people living in the forest among the elves and the animals.

Cruise plays Jack, a hermit nature boy. He loves Lily (Mia Sara), an equally innocent country lass. The sun streams through the trees; all men are brothers; in short, your basic peace is reigning throughout the land.

Then Jack goofs by showing Lily the sacred unicorns who seem to be the source of all this goodness. This is forbidden by the laws of the elves. Worse, they’ve led the henchmen of darkness to the unicorns. These nasty goblins steal one of the unicorn’s horns, thereby plunging the landscape into a freezing world of eternal night.

It’s up to Jack and his elf friends to invade the underworld and rescue Lily, who has fallen into evil clutches, and retrieve the horn. This prompts a showdown with Darkness (Tim Curry), a huge, red, bullish character with big black horns and a nasty chuckle.

You can see that, whereas the art direction is busy and imaginative, the story is as uncluttered as can be. That’s intentional, I assume; Scott and screenwriter William Hjortsberg seem to want to tap into the traditional mythic elements, with the resourceful hero, the fair maiden, the unmitigated evil, and the talismanic unicorn horn.

They fulfill all those elements; but there’s some question, I think, as to whether that makes a good movie. At barely 90 minutes, there’s not much room for anything but story, and I missed knowing more about these characters and their connections with each other.

There’s also a lot of anachronistic dialogue—elves say, “Adios, amigo,” and a goblin tells Darkness, “Hey, can’t you take a little joke?” Technically, since the film claims to be timeless, I guess it’s okay, but it still smells like cheap laughs.

Cruise gropes for his character. Most of the other actors are dominated by Rob Bottin’s amazing makeup (a lot of viewers may watch the film and then wonder where Tim Curry was—that’s how overwhelming his costume is).

As a director, Ridley Scott remains a puzzle. He’s as good at conjuring vivid visual textures as anyone, but his storytelling ability, even with the basic legend of Legend, is variable. We may be better able to judge from his next film, which, if he hurries, could be out before the 1990s.

First published in the Herald, April 23, 1986

There’s another version, which proponents suggest is a better movie. Maybe that’s worth a look, although when push comes to shove, it’s still about unicorns. By the way, “talismanic unicorn horn” is my lost book-length poem from the Beat era, if I’m not mistaken.

Once Upon a Time in America

January 18, 2012

Because Once Upon a Time in America has been in various stages of planning for the last dozen years or so, a little history seems in order.

The Italian director Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns with Clint Eastwood—A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly—made a mint during the 1960s. When Leone got American backing in 1968 to do another Western, he seized the opportunity, and made a film that is, in many ways, the ultimate Western: Once Upon a Time in the West. The film shared the breathtaking cinematic invention of the other three Westerns, but it was a resounding flop—a situation that was not helped (as it never is) when Paramount Pictures lopped a half-hour or so out of the movie’s three-hour running time.

The screenplay for a crime movie called Once Upon a Time in America was written soon after that, but it bounced around for years—Leone couldn’t find the financing. In that time—and while Leone remained oddly inactive as a director—the project assumed legendary proportions. Would Leone ever get the film made?

It finally happened a couple of years ago, and so titanic was the scope of the film that it was announced it would be released in two parts. Then the news took an all-too-familiar turn: studio philistines had the scissors out, and the film was gradually being pared down.

When it opened last week, the final American version was 150 minutes long, and Leone’s flashback structure no longer intact. A couple of weeks ago, the European cut debuted at the Cannes Film Festival at 227 minutes.

We may see that version someday, but right now, the short cut must stand on its own. And as it is, it’s a disappointment. In the first hour or so, as we watch a group of teenage friends flirting with crime and girls on the streets of New York, a beautiful spell is cast. Every detail in their lives seems oddly meaningful, and there’s a strong sense of camaraderie.

One of them goes to jail and emerges a few years later as Robert De Niro. As adults, the gang (also including James Woods, William Forsythe, and James Hayden) has set up a smooth speakeasy operation during the 1920s. We see them become involved in bigger criminal activities, which coincide with the disintegration of the friendship.

De Niro can’t come to terms with his childhood sweetheart (Elizabeth McGovern) and is unable to consummate their relationship except through violence. He seems to be equally out of touch with the world around him—and wrongly regards the growing ambitions of his best friend Woods as a peculiarity rather than a warning.

The film ends in 1968, as an aged De Niro—in an evocative reversal of the revenge motif that spurred the plot of Once Upon a Time in the West—refuses to take vengeance on someone who betrayed him. By this time, we’re aware that some pretty substantial chunks have been taken from the film. There is clearly a story that more involved the Treat Williams character, but that plot seems to have been discarded.

The promise of the early scenes is not fulfilled—their detail and richness does not have counterpoint in the later adult scenes. The two-and-a-half hours of the movie sped by, but were ultimately not satisfying. I wanted more.

First published in the Herald, June 5, 1984

The longer cut eventually came around, and what a vast improvement it was. But at the risk of sounding heretical, I have to say I’ve never truly felt strongly for Once Upon a Time in America, and it feels as though something at its very conceptual center is wrong, or at least severely flawed, despite all the impressive movie-making around it (and in the way that some film classics are blissfully well-cast, this one has a group of actors who remain stubbornly hard to get close to, De Niro included). I have to will myself to really get behind the movie, which I don’t want to do.

Gorky Park

January 17, 2012

During Gorky Park, you should be thinking about the murder mystery: Did the KBG kill those three people in Moscow’s Gorky Park? Or was it that rich American furrier (Lee Marvin)? Will the Russian detective (William Hurt) fall in love with the mystery woman (Joanna Pacula) who may have known the dead people, or will he betray her? And what about the American (Brian Dennehy) who keeps sticking his nose into everybody’s business?

These are things you should be thinking about during Gorky Park. Maybe you’ll be able to, but I wasn’t. Nope, I was thinking about William Hurt’s accent.

For some reason, Hurt has adopted a British accent for this movie. Maybe it’s because most of the other actors are British—even though they’re all supposed to be Russians, anyway—and Hurt isn’t supposed to stand out by comparison.

Hurt is the kind of exciting actor who is always taking chances; he’ll read a line as though nobody had ever said anything like it before—even if it’s a dumb line. When he’s cooking—as in Altered States, Body Heat, or The Big Chill—there’s no one more interesting to watch.

But speaking in this absurd accent seems to have taken up the better part of his artistic concentration for Gorky Park. Now he’s not just trying to give a line a fresh reading, he’s struggling to get the pronunciation right, too. I tell you, it’s distracting.

And the mystery is so convoluted that, if you get distracted, you’ve lost it. That may be part of the point of the film—that the various plots and reasons for the murder are so tied up in knots that they become meaningless.

That’s fine, but director Michael Apted and screenwriter Dennis Potter are not quite up to the challenge of spinning this yarn with the clarity it needs (it’s based on a best-seller by Martin Cruz Smith). Gorky Park lacks focus; it’s missing the thread that would pull together its shadowy elements.

The locations are nice, thought—most of it was shot in Helsinki, Finland—and some of the supporting players seem to be enjoying themselves, especially Ian Bannen as a Soviet prosecutor and Rikki Fulton as the head of the local KGB. Like almost everyone in the film, they’re both completely untrustworthy.

And Lee Marvin is good to have around. He plays the rich fur trader who wants to get some live sables out of Russia so that he can break the Soviet Union’s monopoly on that expensive fur. Somehow this leads him to an involvement with four young people, three of whom wind up in shallow graves, buried by the falling snow at Gorky Park.

The surviving member of the group, played by Pacula, has her hands full—not only is she connected to the ghastly murders, she’s also caught in a sexual tug-of-war between Hurt and Marvin.

Hurt, despite the distractions, has his moments. But I hear his next movie is Kiss of the Spider Woman, now shooting in Brazil. Uh-oh. Let’s hope he plays an American tourist, not a Brazilian generalissimo.

First published in the Herald, December 15, 1983

I can remember watching this again on a drowsy winter afternoon on TV, when it seemed endless and wintry and dull. The cast alone suggests giving it another try, but I think I’ll tackle The Russia House again before that happens.

Oxford Blues

January 16, 2012

While the end credits of Oxford Blues roll, we get to watch the hero (Rob Lowe), dressed in various changes of clothing, strutting his stuff in front of a full-length mirror. It’s an ironically appropriate ending for the film: a sequence of pure, ain’t-I-cute self-admiration. It may as well be undisguised here, because that’s what the whole movie is about.

There’s nothing but adolescent smugness in this story of a Las Vegas doorman who winds up at Oxford. He cheats his way there because he worships Lady Victoria (Amanda Pays), a member of the royal family and a regular in scandal-sheet newspapers.

Once in England, he alienates almost everyone with his irresponsible behavior—everyone except fellow American Rona (Ally Sheedy, from WarGames) and his roommate Geordie (Julian Firth). However, he does have a talent: He can row, and that makes him desirable to the Oxford sculling squad.

As for Lady Victoria, she’s engaged to a snooty Brit (Julian Sands), but one look at Rob Lowe and she practically wrestles him down into the royal bedchamber.

After running roughshod over everyone for most of the film, Lowe finds the true meaning of comradeship and comes through for the Oxford crew at the end. Surprise, surprise.

We’re supposed to be impressed by the change in the lad from opportunistic cad to unselfish team player, but about all you can feel is irritated at this shallow creep, particularly given Rob Lowe’s one-note performance.

It’s not all Lowe’s fault. Actually, based on the evidence of The Hotel New Hampshire, he could be an amusing leading man, given some good direction. But in Oxford Blues, he poses and postures, all in the latest fab clothes. Considering that his good looks are almost mannequin-like already, Lowe is coming dangerously close to parodying himself.

As I was watching the movie, I kept thinking about what a good fashion commercial it would make. And it turns out that writer-director Robert Boris did cut his teeth as a director of TV commercials before writing screenplays (which include Some Kind of Hero and Dr. Detroit). It figures—the film is all surface, full of people posturing and spouting dialogue, but never behaving like human beings.

Like a commercial, that surface just zips right along, not allowing time for characterization. The director doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing – the hero is supposed to be a brat at the beginning of the film, but we’re encouraged to cheer his every move. Near the end, the Oxford crew extends a hand and asks for his help. He turns them down, and Rona gives him a good talking-to. He insists on thinking of himself only, and the film finally disapproves of his attitude, but the audience, in his corner from the start, was applauding him on. Some kind of hero.

There’s also some tired stereotyping of British and American cultural differences. You know: stuffiness vs. rowdiness, cool vs. hot. This stuff is getting as stale as those stand-up comedians who point out the humorous differences between New York and L.A.

Anyway, Oxford Blues is the latest of the quick-fix movies in which doses of sugar are doled out for instant energy. For the preview audience that watched it last week, this seemed to be enough. But believe it: This movie, just like its hero, is a cheat.

First published in the Herald, August 1984

Not to be confused with Youngblood. This one is even worse.

That Was Then…This Is Now

January 13, 2012

The teen crises that form the story of That Was Then…This Is Now will be familiar to anyone who has read the books of S.E. Hinton, or seen the other films adapted from her books (such as Francis Coppola’s The Outsiders and Rumble Fish).

The characters here are typically maladjusted, restless youths, suffering from teen angst or the general malaise or just plain crankiness. As with the other Hinton adaptations, explosive violence is very much a part of life; physical brutality is an outlet for all the psychic turmoil of the characters.

The books have been very popular, although the movies have been less successful—possibly because of Coppola’s quirkily esoteric approach. I’m not sure That Was Then will change that track record. It’s a somber thing, without much pandering to the gross-out sensibility that marks a lot of teen comedies.

In plot terms, it’s dully schematic. There are two close friends: one good (Craig Sheffer), one bad (Emilio Estevez). The good one is going through a rites-of-passage phase, from which he will emerge a man, the bad one is regressing and ends up in trouble with the law.

Estevez’s panic when he sees the friendship dissolving forms the core of the movie. He’s an orphan who’s been brought up in Sheffer’s family, and he can’t seem to slow down his frantic attempts to define himself—which include small-time larceny, such as “borrowing” cars and hustling in pool rooms. His idea of fun is getting a fellow student drunk and cutting her hair while she’s passed out.

Sheffer drifts away from the friendship after one of their escapades accidentally gets a friend killed—and when he falls for a classmate (Kim Delaney) who represents some kind of normalcy. He even gets a job as a check-out bagger at a grocery store, which really sets Estevez’s teeth on edge.

The actors are all good, even in the smaller roles. You can see why Estevez, a charter member of Hollywood’s “Brat Pack” as embodied in The Breakfast Club and St. Elmo’s Fire, initiated the project (he wrote the screenplay): it’s a showy part for him.

Director Christopher Cain and photographer Juan Ruiz Anchia, who collaborated previously on The Stone Boy, have mounted a handsome production (filmed in Minneapolis). A couple of shots are knockouts, such as the skyline at night illuminated by a crack of lightning, while the characters sit in a car parked under a bridge.

But Cain uses some clichéd effects, too. The rain on the window reflected on Estevez’s face while he talks about his parents is an obvious gimmick that’s been used before. And Cain is fond of lighting actors from below, so that their faces get a weird, ghostly look to them.

More damagingly, Cain has a fundamental coolness that seems to work against the story. He did the same thing in The Stone Boy, but that was a tale of an emotional freeze-up, and the distanced style was appropriate. That Was Then requires more heat, but Cain stubbornly keeps his distance.

First published in the Herald, November 12, 1985

Dully schematic. That’s about the best I can do. The movie made the Coppola efforts look very, very sharp by comparison. Morgan Freeman was in this, too.

Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise

January 12, 2012

The original Revenge of the Nerds took a very funny title and a tried-and-true comic formula (vengeance) and became the surprise hit of the summer of 1984. It had its genuinely mirthful moments, in large part because the two head nerds were played with some inspiration by Robert Carradine and Anthony Edwards.

A sequel was inevitable, and so was the return to formula. In Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise, once again the geeks are abused and tormented, until they must slip their pocket protectors in place and turn the tables on the evil jocks at the Alpha Beta fraternity. In this session, Carradine is back as the grandmaster nerd, leading his nearsighted brethren. Edwards, however, has enjoyed a healthy career upswing and is less nerdy now. Thus he appears in just a couple of scenes (a broken leg explains his absence from the action).

As the subtitle suggests, our heroes are on vacation in Fort Lauderdale for a convention of fraternities. Things are bleak from the outset, however. The mean hotel manager (Ed Lauter) announces: “I don’t want nerds in my hotel!” So the pencil-necked geeks end up in a fleabag, where there are no computers to repair or cute girls to repulse.

The movie ping-pongs between the humiliations of the nerds and their vengeful plotting. There are a few funny scenes, especially the nerds’ rap party, where they mutate into something like the Beastie Nerds; and a sequence that has Edwards, dressed like Obi-Wan Kenobi, appearing to a dispirited Carradine in a dream. His sage advice? “Stop acting like a wienie!”

But for the most part, Nerds II remains only slightly superior to your average teen gross-out movie (director Joe Roth also produced the similar Bachelor Party). Many of the good gags are repeats from the first film, such as the overuse of Carradine’s donkey laugh. There’s a heavy emphasis on bodily-function jokes, nose-picking, and bikini jiggle.

The most disgusting nerd, Booger (Curtis Armstrong, now a regular on TV’s “Moonlighting”), is back with his usual habits. Characteristic of his behavior, and the movie’s high point of blecch, is a belching duel he has with an inexplicable Asian man (James Hong). Nerdhood, reassuringly, know no ethnic boundaries.

First published in the Herald, July 1987

Beyond the fond recollection that Orson Welles recorded the voiceover for the first Nerds movie, I got nothing. It seems Anthony Edwards deserves credit for being a good sport.