Bright Lights, Big City

April 19, 2012

The hero of Bright Lights, Big City spends a lot of time looking into mirrors. Half the time he’s desperately trying to see if he’s still there. The rest of the time, he’s using a mirror to avail himself of a few snorts of cocaine, the drug that fuels his melancholic tailspin.

This fellow is instantly recognizable as the nameless protagonist of Jay McInerney’s bestseller, a novel that deftly charted the void of the New York City night scene. Here McInerney’s hero has a name, Jamie Conway, and is played by Michael J. Fox.

Now, Michael J. Fox is so clean-cut, you have to wonder if he isn’t the only actor around who doesn’t get regularly brain-dead on cocaine. Still, this bit of anti-typecasting has the benefit of making Conway a more instantly likable character than might otherwise have been the case.

McInerney’s book (very faithfully adapted by the author himself) takes Jamie through a few days at rock bottom. Jamie’s wife (Phoebe Cates), a fashion model, has just walked out on their marriage. He’s blowing his job at a New York magazine, where he works as a fact-checker. And he can’t help but drown his sorrows in “Bolivian Marching Powder” (coke), double vodkas, and wee-hour nightclubbing with his decadent friend, Tad Allagash (Kiefer Sutherland).

Jamie also can’t make any headway on the novel that he’s hoping will turn him into the next F. Scott Fitzgerald, and he’s haunted by the death of his mother (Dianne Wiest, in flashback) a year ago. All in all, the bright lights have gotten dark.

As directed by James Bridges (Urban Cowboy) and photographed by Gordon Willis, Bright Lights, Big City retains many of McInerney’s literary devices, including the second-person narration and the symbolic presence of the continuing newspaper accounts of the Coma Baby. But, although some of the opening scenes have promise, Bridges manages to make the material oddly unenthralling.

The movie, unlike the book, seems as superficial as the scene it is describing. Bridges skims the surface, and many of the novel’s big moments—Jamie’s foolish bluster at his wife’s fashion show, or his date with a woman (Tracy Pollan) who promises a safe port—are lost without the literary language.

This means that much of the weight is on Fox’s shoulders, particularly in the scene in which he drunkenly bares his soul to a sympathetic workmate (Swoosie Kurtz).

While Fox (who is appreciably better here than in his previous “serious” role in Light of Day) does his darnedest to appear self-destructive, there is still something lightweight about his presence. He gives a solid performance, yet there seems an inauthenticity in his despair.

This film might have been more interesting all the way around if it had been helmed by its original director. Joyce Chopra, who made the intense, intriguing Smooth Talk a few years ago, was directing this film into the first couple of weeks of shooting, but parted company at that point. Bridges was imported, presumably to provide a professional’s steady hand at the wheel. Bright Lights, Big City is steady, and it’s nothing if not earnest. But it needs a bit more of its protagonist’s recklessness.

First published in the Herald, April 1988

It felt like a real misfire. The book’s popularity made McInerney a target, although it’s difficult to feel any sympathy for him. The novel is good, and Darkness Falls is even better.

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Making Mr. Right

April 18, 2012

Making Mr. Right carries all the funky earmarks of a New Wave comedy; it’s full of bright Miami colors, hip turns of phrase, and wacky fashion. Just what you would expect, in fact, from the director of Desperately Seeking Susan, Susan Seidelman.

Seidelman revels in trash chic. But for all her ’80s credentials, Seidelman has now filmed a pair of stories that recall nothing so much as the screwball comedies of the 1930s. Making Mr. Right is like a classical old structure jammed to the rafters with rubber chickens and X-Ray specs.

It’s all about the perfect man: Ulysses, an android created for long-term space flight. He performs human functions, and (this is a plus) he lacks the feelings that would create loneliness on a long voyage.

The only thing Ulysses needs is public relations; the flimsy plot excuse is that this will make him attractive to members of Congress who can fund the project. So his creators hire a public-relations expert (Ann Magnuson) to make the android cuddly.

This leads to the predictable conclusion that Ulysses begins to develop feelings for this human woman, thus short-circuiting his supposed heartlessness.

There are a bunch of nutty sidebars to this, including the woman’s erstwhile boyfriend, a politician (Ben Masters), and her oversexed girlfriend (Glenn Headley, in a very funny performance) who introduces Ulysses to the joys of uncomplicated sex. Except that sex becomes complicated for Ulysses, because it makes his systems overload and his head rotate.

And of course there’s a lot of fish-out-of water stuff with Ulysses’ discovery of the outside world (he’s been cooped up in a research lab). His rovings through a modern mall provide the most amusing adventures.

John Malkovich, who plays both Ulysses and the android’s egghead inventor, is a gifted actor. He isn’t a conventional leading man, but he is inventive; in the early scenes of Ulysses’ education, he uncannily recreates the look and movements of an infant. All the performances are good, notably Ann Magnuson, who has just the right combination of smarts and adorability.

It’s a charming little movie. But Seidelman’s heart doesn’t quite seem in the machinations of the screwball plot. She can’t quite resolve the split: Her attitude is Andy Warhol, but her story is Frank Capra. For instance, a wedding scene puts all the principals together, and begs for comic collisions. Seidelman gets the tacky look right, but the scene barely touches the possibilities.

She’s better at catching little offbeat details: a wedding picture taken in front of a painted seaside backdrop, which is perched in front of a real seaside; Magnuson shaving in the car on the way to work—her legs and underarms, that is; and poor lovestruck Ulysses getting a dreamy look in his undreaming eyes as he sighs, “I guess I’m just not interested in space travel anymore.”

First published in the Herald, April 12, 1987

By “New Wave,” of course, I refer to the cultural movement of the 1980s, not a cinematic cycle from France or any such place. I’m too far away from the movie to know whether I was right about Seidelman being closer to the downtown hipster world than the spirit of screwball, but I will say that her 2005 film Boynton Beach Club was a warm and generous comedy about the sex lives of older people that didn’t condescend to its subject.


Like Father, Like Son

April 17, 2012

We’re asked to make a pretty hefty suspension of disbelief in Like Father, Like Son. The high concept of this movie is that somehow a brain transference can be triggered by a drug, and that two people exchange personalities in the process.

Got that? Too bad if you don’t, ’cause the movie never attempts to explain it any more than that. We take it on faith that such a switcheroo could happen, and the way is cleared for the ensuing shenanigans.

This brain thing happens between a respected surgeon (Dudley Moore) and his teen-age son (Kirk Cameron, of TV’s “Growing Pains”). Suddenly, the son (in Dad’s body) is expected to make the rounds of his busy hospital. The doctor, in his son’s frame, has to attend high school (where he effortlessly takes command of the biology lectures).

That’s the concept, and it’s basically repeated until the film contrives an antidote.

It’s all impossible to relate, because when you’re talking about the son, it’s the father, and vice versa. I think. But the funniest ideas revolve around the romantic possibilities: Dad finds himself kissing a high-school girl, while Junior feels his glands percolating to a visit from the lusty wife (Margaret Colin, a funny actress) of a hospital chief of staff (Patrick O’Neal).

The movie, directed by Rod (Teen Wolf) Daniel, doesn’t really attempt anything other than dutifully laying out this series of comic situations. A couple of bits of business have some inspiration, such as Moore’s antics during a hospital staff meeting, when he chokingly lights his “first” cigarette and hocks some chewed gum into an associate’s hair.

Did I say that was the inspired part? Hmm. Ernst Lubitsch and Noel Coward may be turning in their graves. Well, that gives you some idea of the level of the rest of the movie. Actually, although Like Father, Like Son is fundamentally brainless, it’s also pretty painless.

First published in the Herald, October 1987

Yes, part of the personality-change craze of the late 1980s. The only about giving this movie a shrug because it’s not completely terrible is that it wastes Dudley Moore, and wasting Dudley Moore at this point in his career was not something that should have happened.


Johnny Be Good

April 16, 2012

I haven’t looked through my records, but I feel comfortable in declaring Johnny Be Good the worst American film of this still-young year. In fact, this movie is so inept on every level that it may land the title for all of ’88.

The subject matter of the movie is a familiar one to sports fans; it’s all about the rampant unscrupulousness involved in college athletics today, particularly the sometimes shady “inducements” offered to talented players recruited out of high school.

In Johnny Be Good, the star quarterback of a small-town high school team, played by the slight Anthony Michael Hall, is wooed by the major college programs. In Texas, he’s thrown an elaborate beef feast, and an alumni wife takes him out to the 50-yard-line for some unsportsmanlike conduct. In California, he’s introduced to the women of Hollywood and comes back wearing an atrocity that makes him resemble, as someone puts it, a cross between Liberace and Prince’s mother.

None of this sits too well with his girlfriend (Uma Thurman) or his best friend (Robert Downey, Jr.), who realize he’s reneging on his previous decision to attend the state college in his hometown. And his coach (Paul Gleason), an appalling creature, has a job offer from a wealthy college contingent on Hall coming along, too.

This linear outline may leave a misleading impression of coherency. There is none in Johnny Be Good, not in the screenplay by Steve Zacharias, Jeff Buhai, and David Obst (the original Revenge of the Nerds boys), not in the director of Bud Smith. This movie is so bland and feeble, it looks like it might have been directed by a guy named Bud Smith.

Smith, a former editor whose first (and very likely last) directing job this is, has attempted to apply an improvisational quality to the movie, and he’s successful insofar as you never can be quite sure the actors knew what they were supposed to say when the cameras were turned on. Downey, recently capable in The Pick-Up Artist and Less Than Zero, is given to nonsense raps that fall into some pretty frightening dead air. Poor Hall, who was so funny in Sixteen Candles, has been encouraged to adopt a Bill Murray-like airiness, but he simply looks lost. Given the opening-day audience reaction, he is not alone.

First published in the Herald, March 1988

Even in the company of other bad movies? This is a bad movie.


Out of Africa

April 13, 2012

Out of Africa is a chronicle of the early womanhood of Danish author Karen von Blixen, based on her writings (under the name Isak Dinesen) and on biographies about her. The film traces the years approximately surrounding World War I, a period in von Blixen’s life during which she lived in Africa.

What a story it is, full of adventure, exotica, disaster, and romance. But what a frustratingly pedantic film version, with few flights of poetry.

On a sheer storytelling level, the film gets off to a good start. We see a glimpse of Karen (Meryl Streep) in 1913 Denmark, proposing marriage to a casual friend, the Baron von Blixen (Klaus Maria Brandauer). They’re not in love, but she wants his title, and he wants her family’s money, so they agree to the match.

Soon after, she joins him in Africa, where they establish a coffee plantation. Their idyll, during which she surprises many with her pre-women’s lib gumption, is broken when she contracts syphilis, a side effect of the Baron’s philandering. She goes to Denmark for a cure, and on her return to Africa, the marriage exists in name only.

That clears the way for her friendship with Denys (Robert Redford), a hunter who encourages her uncanny skill for telling stories. Soon he’s keeping residence at her house, for the few days when he returns between safaris.

This love story takes up the last 90 minutes of the movie—and as I examine the thumbnail synopsis above, it is difficult to believe that this film actually takes more than two-and-a-half hours to tell its story. But it does.

The problem is that, after the promising opening, director Sydney Pollack (Tootsie) falls prey to the curse of the Big Movie Syndrome, in which ideas and events must be drawn out and overemphasized, so that the people who vote for the Oscars will be sure to notice. He pads the carefully constructed screenplay by Kurt Luedtke with countless shots of breathtaking plains and hills.

Most of this travelogue stuff is impressive indeed, thanks to the beauty of the continent and David Watkin’s handsome cinematography. The high point of this is a lovely sequence wherein Denys pilots his new plane for Karen, and they fly over an ocean beach, scattering thousands of pink flamingos.

But Pollack overdoes things. He doesn’t just put Karen in peril of a lion attack once—he does it three separate times. And he can’t integrate the importance of the war or the issue of native freedom in any sensible way.

Even more troubling, he hasn’t gotten his actors up to snuff. Redford, in what is essentially a supporting role, appears uneasy and distant. Streep is technically very impressive, but she doesn’t have the depth to reach the nitty-gritty of what must have been an amazingly gutsy woman. Together, they fail to strike sparks—both are inward-directed actors.

This all makes Out of Africa sound worse than it actually is; it’s not an inept film, and there’s a lot to look at and enjoy. But, given the material and the credentials of the filmmakers, it certainly is a disappointment.

First published in the Herald, December 19, 1985

Perhaps you heard this went on to win the best picture Oscar? I would watch it again, as a big fan of Dinesen and a big fan of Africa on film. But I mean I thought some things needed to be said, right? And though Meryl Streep hardly lacks depth, I did think she missed a level, even if she’s still very good in the picture. Brandauer’s great, by the way, slinking off with the movie under his arm.


Colors

April 12, 2012

When legendary freakazoid Dennis Hopper dried out and went straight a couple of years ago, his acting career understandably got back into long-delayed gear; for a while, it seemed as though every other Hollywood movie had Hopper in a juicy supporting role (Hoosiers, River’s Edge, Blue Velvet).

It was inevitable that Hopper would try to revive his directing career, which had blossomed with the epoch-making Easy Rider and then crashed and burned with one of the most notorious flops of all time, The Last Movie. Apparently it was Sean Penn’s idea to recruit Hopper to direct Colors, a cop movie about gangs in East Los Angeles.

This combination of card-carrying bad dudes would seem to promise a combustible collaboration, especially with Robert Duvall, himself a Hollywood renegade, added to the mix. As it turns out, given its already explosive subject matter, Colors has gobs of gutter-level power. It’s also often inarticulate, and it operates only under the loosest of structures.

Penn and Duvall play cops, partners in the war zone. Penn is a cocky young strutter who attacks petty criminals with overt sadism; his girlfriend (Maria Conchita Alonso) tells him, “You have a mean heart.” Duvall is a year away from retirement, and he takes a slower approach, content to throw the little fishes back in the water in hopes of making a really big catch.

These two cops could almost be seen as different parts of Dennis Hopper’s personality. Penn is the hot-blooded kid who thinks he needs “the edge” to do his job well; Duvall warns him that he went through the same kind of insanity himself once, “and what I remember most from that time is regrets.” Hopper directs this relationship with the authenticity of one who has been there and back.

The movie is so gritty and relentless, you may not notice how choppy the actual storytelling is. Hopper is stronger at finding the inside of individual moments, such as the terror of a bust that goes bad when the wrong man is shot, or a dying cop’s face bleached out by the harsh white light of a police helicopter. Overall, Colors may not quite hang together, but the devotion of the actors, the punchy music of Herbie Hancock, the late-afternoon cinematography of Haskell Wexler, all combine to create some heat. Dennis Hopper, it seems, has not made his last movie.

First published in the Herald, April 15, 1988

And it was even a box-office success. Hopper did direct again, and seemed to settle comfortably into his aging-celebrity role. This movie’s a mess, but on some level it got the job done, and became a key part of the man’s rehab.


Student Bodies

April 11, 2012

A lonely house on a dark ‘n stormy night…a title appears, to orient us in time: “Halloween.” Wait, another title replaces it: “Friday the 13th.” But now, the final title, the true date of our story: “Jamie Lee Curtis’s Birthday.” This is Student Bodies, a movie that seeks to spoof the recent horror film cycle, and particularly the central notion of that series: teenagers who play fast-and-loose with their budding sexuality run a high risk of being hacked to death with a kitchen knife.

Now, the narrative conventions of the likes of Prom Night and When a Stranger Calls are certainly ripe for dissection, and the first scene here is funny: babysitter is dogged by a series of phone calls, boyfriend drops by for a little passionate necking, and we watch, horrified, as the killer’s hand gropes for a murder weapon and comes up with—gasp!—a paper clip. But after this sequence, which at least has a tautness inherent in the situation, Student Bodies loses pep, and slack, scattershot gags become the order of the day.

Writer-director Mickey Rose (who has written with Woody Allen) doesn’t display too much good filmic sense—he lets a few nice comedic set-ups just dribble away—and the cast is uniformly lackluster (a shop teacher with an obsession about horsehead bookends should be funnier than he is). But budget limitations—and it sure looks like Student Bodies was shot on a shoestring—may have come into play there, and hamstrung any comic ambitions. It’s not a good movie, but I find it difficult to actually dislike a film that considers Jamie Lee Curtis’s birthday a well-known holiday.

First published in the Weekly, August 12-August 18, 1981

Yes, that’s right—a Scary Movie before its time, predicting the Wayans brothers by all those years. Mickey Rose wrote Bananas and Take the Money and Run with Woody Allen, but this was his only directing shot; some reports suggest he co-directed with Michael Ritchie, who declined credit.