Marie

May 21, 2012

Give me a screenplay about a woman fighting for truth and justice in a government scandal, against all odds and by herself, and I’ll give you the latest Oscar vehicle for Sally Field, Jessica Lange, Meryl Streep, or Sissy Spacek.

Well, Streep and Lange were busy, and Field may have the good sense to know she’s done this role enough times, so the part fell to Sissy Spacek. This time it’s called Marie, and the government corruption depicted purports to be the real-life story of the Ray Blanton administration in Tennessee in the 1970s, and of the parole board officer who helped expose the scandal.

Based on Peter Maas’s book (adapted by John Briley), Marie tells the story of a divorced housewife (Sissy Spacek) who bagged a job as parole board officer during Gov. Blanton’s term. As the film tells it, Marie was advanced to her position because it was expected she would play ball and shut up while the governor and his boys were allowing prisoners to buy their way out of jail.

Naturally, Marie wises up pretty quickly, although she finds herself in a bind. She owes her well-paying job and her loyalty to one of the governor’s most corrupt aides (Jeff Daniels), and she’s trying to raise her three children by herself. Eventually, after murder enters into the story, she blows the whistle—and risks losing everything, unless she can be exonerated in a courtroom battle with the governor and his big guns.

By the time these courtroom scenes roll around, the audience has no doubts about Marie’s goodness. Not only is she squeaky-clean when it comes to her job, she’s also Supermom, and she’s had to go through a harrowing medical problem with her youngest boy, which involved him swallowing a pistachio nut and having breathing problems thereafter. It’s a rather weird subplot—it’s all true, of course—and is not terribly well integrated into the bigger story.

If we are completely on Marie’s side, the trial is nevertheless a perfunctory affair. The strange thing is that the evidence that Marie provides is not all that strong, which somewhat undercuts the credibility of the film. (By the way, the trial contains dialogue such as, “Gentlemen, need I remind you this is a court of law?”, which suggests that the judge—or the scriptwriter—has watched a lot of courtroom movies.)

Roger Donaldson, who directed the compelling Smash Palace a couple of years back, is good at working up suspense, and at creating little riffs of tension. But he doesn’t bring together the various pieces of plot here, and he really stacks the deck when characterizing the heroes and the villains.

Spacek is okay, but she plays too much into the saintliness of the role. Still, it is hard to imagine what she might have done to make the film less familiar than it seems. The echoes of Norma Rae, Silkwood, Country, and The River are just a little too much to bear one more time around.

First published in the Herald, October 19, 1985

This period saw quite a run of legal pictures, which used the sure-fire third-act courtroom showdown to predictable effect. Nothing against Spacek here, but this is a really dull picture.

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The Golden Child

May 18, 2012

Two years have passed since Eddie Murphy’s Beverly Hills Cop vaulted into the company of the 10 most popular films ever made. In those two years, Murphy has kept busy, touring with his stand-up routine, making a pop album, and setting up his own movie production company.

The Golden Child is the first product of his new company, and it arrives with some pretty hefty expectations. Murphy’s track record has been impressive, and he seems to have canny instincts for what an audience wants.

Thus The Golden Child must prompt some head-scratching. It retains Murphy’s wise-cracking character, of course. That’s to be expected. But it plants him in the middle of an outlandish story that begins in Tibet and ends with a battle for the future of the world as we know it.

If that sounds peculiar, be assured it is only the tip of the narrative iceberg. The film opens with a scene of a child (J.L. Reate), a round little thing with luminous eyes and magical powers, being kidnapped from a Himalayan temple by a severe-looking fellow (Charles Dance, from Jewel in the Crown) who has the backing of the devil himself.

The deal is, this kid is the savior of the world or some jazz like that, and the evil ones want to kill him. The good ones, led by the exotic Charlotte Lewis, need to find The Chosen One, a man who will find the child and save the world.

Who else, you say, but Eddie Murphy, as the scene shifts to Los Angeles and Murphy is tapped for the job. The film veers from Murphy’s street humor to the supernatural events of the search for the kid. It’s a very odd mix, heavy with special effects (not particularly distinguished) and kung fu fighting.

Why did Murphy choose this project? His humor works best in the gritty, realistic world of 48 HRS. and Beverly Hills Cop, and while a side trip to Nepal offers a few opportunities for culture-shock gags, it is not his natural element.

Even the kookiness of the story would be acceptable if the film had any kind of crackle. But it’s lamely directed by Michael Ritchie, whose career continues to slide into hackdom (his previous films were Chevy Chase’s Fletch and Goldie Hawn’s Wildcats). He seems entirely absent from this movie, except as someone to point the camera at Eddie and let the star improvise.

Actually, given the subject matter, that directorial scheme may have been a good idea. The fact is that many of Murphy’s riffs are funny. The film barely exists, but Murphy himself has lost none of his timing, nor his gift for audience rapport. Every once in a while, he glances at the camera, as though to say, “Stay with me on this. I know where I’m going.”

Paramount Pictures was reportedly nervous about this odd film. It had good reason, but the movie is going to make some money, even if it doesn’t top Cop. Besides, Paramount can breathe easy knowing that Murphy has two releases scheduled for 1987: a concert film and Beverly Hills Cop II. With that promised, he’s allowed the occasional oddball project.

First published in the Herald, December 1986

In fact, it opened huge and made a lot of money—the audience desperately wanted Eddie. This was one of those moments when somebody’s career is so hot it absolutely does not matter what the actual movie is (see also Michael J. Fox, Secret of My Success). Maybe it served as an early indication of the fantasy element that comes into a curious number of Murphy’s movies.


Fletch

May 17, 2012

Rarely has a screenplay been tailored for a particular star as smoothly as the script of Fletch has for Chevy Chase. Andrew Bergman, who co-wrote Blazing Saddles and wrote the script for the funny The In-Laws a few years ago, adapted Gregory Mcdonald’s bestselling novel, and it’s clearly been styled exactly for Chase’s talents.

I’ve never read any of Mcdonald’s Fletch novels—the hero is a newspaper reporter who goes sleuthing—so I don’t know how much of a disservice this reshaping might be to the literary figure. Mcdonald himself is reportedly pleased with Chase, and has said that the spirit of the character is in the film.

If that’s true, then the books must be overrated, because the movie Fletch is pretty thin stuff. Bergman’s screenplay (perfunctorily served by Michael Ritchie’s direction) contains plenty of screwball one-liners, and Chase delivers them with his cool deadpan and impeccable timing.

This means that the movie produces laughs (enough to justify Universal’s decision to postpone release until the lucrative summer season—this film will be popular). But it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good movie, and Fletch, frankly, isn’t. There’s nothing underneath the surface wisecracks—you can’t get involved in the film as anything but a stand-up comedy routine.

Chase plays a master-of-disguise reporter (and dedicated Los Angeles Laker fan—in one scene he dreams he’s playing ball with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) who is dragged into a plot to fake the murder of a wealthy industrialist (Tim Matheson). Chase also falls for the guy’s gorgeous wife (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson). Somehow this all ties together with a big drug-traffic story that Chase is rooting out, which involves a Los Angeles police chief (Joe Don Baker).

It’s a typically convoluted detective-movie plot—but it never matters in any significant way. The show is Chevy and his patter, and the movie is fun to watch, even if it seems to evaporate a half-hour later. In particular, there are a couple of running gags—especially one involving a bigoted country-club member, to whose account Chase charges all his meals—that show Bergman’s talent for building comic ideas.

If only the movie had a solid core, these talents might have really put it together. But Fletch is a fluffy exercise, and it falls into that all-too-large category of comedy films that are not so much movies as flimsy vehicles.

First published in the Herald, May 30, 1985

Nothing against Michael Ritchie, by the way, a talented director, but I didn’t get much of him in this one. It was indeed a big hit, and coughed up the sequel, Fletch Lives.


Spies Like Us

May 16, 2012

Within a few weeks, someone is going to write a lengthy thinkpiece on the national anxiety about American-Soviet relations, and how this anxiety has manifested itself in the current crop of Christmas movies.

Don’t worry, it’s not going to be me. But the evidence is there. Rocky IV depicts our indestructible national hero going toe-to-toe with a Russkie fighter, with director-writer-star Sylvester Stallone throwing in a humanistic message at the end. And White Nights presents a blatant portrait of the Evil Empire as a Russian defector is held against his will.

Now, here’s Spies Like Us, which takes an admittedly pixillated view of the U.S.-Soviet standoff. In its own way, it actually goes further than the other films, because it dares to portray a nuclear war—not to mention the failure of a “Star Wars” defense system.

But let’s not take Spies Like Us too seriously. It’s a farce from the “Saturday Night Live” alumni association, teaming Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd with director John Landis, who has often worked with members of the gang (Animal House, The Blues Brothers, Trading Places).

Chase and Aykroyd are inept low-level employees of a certain American intelligence organization. They’d like to be field agents, but they haven’t got a chance of making the grade. Unless….

Unless the organization needs a diversionary squad, a pair of decoys to distract attention from their real agents—”A couple of men you wouldn’t mind wasting,” as one executive puts it. It’s a situation tailor-made for our boys.

So the guys are put through a quick training session and shipped off to the friendly climes of Pakistan, where their arrival is met by a couple of KGB agents. Shrugging off this obstacle, they’re captured by Afghanistan soldiers, who mistake them for doctors and ask them to perform an emergency appendectomy on the son of the head honcho.

It goes on like that, eventually leading Chase and Aykroyd to the Soviet Union and a huge nuclear warhead that could, as Aykroyd puts it, “Suck the paint off your house and give your family a permanent orange Afro.” At this point, Landis and company somehow contrive to have the fate of the world resting on the shoulders of these two comedians.

That’s no small task, and Landis has pulled it off passably well—the film moves at a healthy clip, and seems to contain more one-liners than the standard “SNL” outing. Chase has plenty of opportunities to show off his verbal dexterity, and he gets the majority of the funny lines. He also gets love scenes with Donna Dixon, who in real life is married to Aykroyd. For his part, Aykroyd is more natural on screen than he’s been heretofore.

They’re the show, but Landis has crammed funny bits throughout. Entry into an underground nuclear war room, reached through a drive-in movie, is obtainable only by reaching for a Pepsi, with startling results.

An old Ronald Reagan musical gets a pointed barb. Cameo parts are taken by B.B. King, directors Michael Apted and Costa Gavras, and Terry Gilliam of Monty Python. A desert argument between Chase and Aykroyd is interrupted by Bob Hope, getting in his usual 18 holes before the apocalypse begins.

Hope’s presence is not accidental. Spies Like Us would love to be compared to the Hope-Bing Crosby Road movies. It’s not in their loopy league, but as holiday offerings go, it’s an acceptable try.

First published in the Herald, December 1985

Funny what you learn by reading these reviews—I thought I hated this movie, but apparently it had some moments. Clearly, it should have been remade in about 2004 or so, but that prime moment has passed.


Wise Guys

May 15, 2012

Early in his career, Brian De Palma made some low-budget scrungy counterculture comedies—often teaming with an unknown actor named Robert De Niro. The films weren’t commercially successful, and De Palma turned to the suspense genre (Carrie, Body Double) to make his name.

Now that De Palma has made himself into the bad boy of cinema, he’s gone back to a relatively innocuous comedy. Wise Guys is a standard Hollywood farce, a showcase for the talents of a pair of comedians who perform a traditional buddy routine.

Danny DeVito and Joe Piscopo make up the team, a pair of ultra-low-echelon Newark gangsters (and best friends). This is their position on the Mafioso totem pole: Piscopo gets to wear a new bullet-proof sportcoat during a live-ammunition test, and DeVito lands the job of starting his boss’s car, which, given the customs of gangsters, is pretty inflammatory work.

Clearly, they need a leg up. One day while they’re placing a bet for their boss at the racetrack, DeVito decides to bet everything on a sure thing. They lose it all, naturally, and suddenly they’re $250,000 in hock to their godfather.

For fun, the boss separately tells each that the only way to save his own neck is to rub out the other. The boys are still scheming to get rich, however, and even though they’re liable to kill each other, they head to Atlantic City for one final fling.

The opening few sequences are flat-footed, and it looks as though De Palma has lost his touch for comedy. But after the racetrack debacle, the plot picks up steam, even if it is nonsense. George Gallo’s script gives the film some solid situations, like the deliberate destruction of the Cadillac the boys steal, and a hilarious scene that involves, believe it or not, a murder in a church. I know that doesn’t sound funny, but….

The church scene is engineered by Ray Sharkey, who invests his short cameo with some insane energy. Dan Hedaya (the husband in Blood Simple) plays the boss, but the scene-stealer is “Captain” Lou Albano. As a professional wrestler, Albano has plenty of acting experience, and it serves him well here, as he plays Hedaya’s mountainous, short-fused goon.

DeVito and Piscopo work reasonably well together. Physically they’re a good match, with Piscopo towering over DeVito.

Still, DeVito is at his most effective when he’s sleaziest, and this role doesn’t mine his most productive vein of comedy. And Piscopo, like his fellow “Saturday Night Live” alumnus Dan Aykroyd, seems more at home in the cartoonlike world of TV impersonation than movies, where sustaining a character for 90 minutes requires something more substantial than sketch humor. He’s funny enough, but not quite convincing as a real person.

First published in the Herald, May 14, 1986

Not good, not good at all. For De Palma, the movie came between Body Double and The Untouchables, so try explaining that.


Three Amigos

May 14, 2012

Three Amigos is the latest “Saturday Night Live” reunion masquerading as a movie, and like many such projects, it is all package, no inspiration. It’s so bad it produces two reactions: It makes you uncomfortable, and it makes you sorry for the people on screen, who sometimes literally have nothing to do.

The amigos of the title are a trio of dense movie actors who have gained some slight popularity in a series of programs during the 1920s. Known as “The Three Amigos,” they dress in sequined suits and ersatz Mexican hats and ride in to save villages in the last reel.

One of their movies is spotted in a small Mexican village by peasants who just happen to need immediate help, because a marauding bandit is terrorizing the village, as marauding bandits are wont to do. So, the peasants send to the Three Amigos, thinking they are real lawmen.

Shades of The Magnificent Seven, except that this boils down to The Insipid Three. The Amigos takes the challenge—the invitation has been garbled in transmission, and they think they’re on their way to a lucrative gig.

The Amigos are played by Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, and Martin Short (the latter a brilliant sketch actor, from “SCTV” and “Saturday Night Live,” whose first film this is).

Their casting would indicate that the film is meant to be funny, but most scenes vaporize before they’re over. The script, by Martin, “Saturday Night Live” producer Lorne Michaels, and musician Randy Newman, is so lean on funny ideas that the actors are going purely on their own invention. And there is precious little of that on view.

John Landis directed; he’s participated in such things before, all the way back to the Belushi days of Animal House through last year’s Spies Like Us. Landis appears to be utterly indifferent to the proceedings—almost contemptuous, actually—and he allows scene after scene to fall flat. The occasional songs (by Newman) go nowhere, and Short and Martin singing a fey tune called “My Little Buttercup” in a cantina full of roughnecks is the kind of routine that makes you start looking for the man with the hook.

There is only one scene that is original: the Amigos camped at eventide in the desert, feasting on some barbecued bats while huddled under an obviously painted sky, next to plastic cacti. They seize the moment to croon a Western song, and the animals of the desert join in. This scene is not so much funny as it is weird, but at least it doesn’t dissolve before your eyes.

The only redeeming aspect of the film is the presence of a lovely actress named Patrice Martinez, who plays the Mexican peasant girl with a sly and knowing air. When the bewitched Martin bids her adieu, he whispers, “I’ll come back some day,” and she looks at him evenly and says, “Why?” As a sendoff, I can’t improve on that.

First published in the Herald, December 1986

Over the years I have noticed that this movie has fans, maybe even lots of them. I don’t get it. Despite the presence of funny people (and Martin Short was coming off some glorious TV stuff at that moment), I found the movie absolutely stupefying. And it’s hard to enjoy even the dumb jokes when you’re irritated with a movie wasting some very good people.


Stand by Me

May 11, 2012

I started to tell the story of Stand by Me to a friend the other day, and after I’d gotten through a few sentences’ worth of description, she stopped me. “That’s the third time you’ve used the phrase ‘really neat,'” she said. She was right.

I will do what I can to avoid the phrase, but blast it, Stand by Me is really neat. And it’s something more than that, too.

Rob Reiner directed the film, his third in what should be a long and fruitful career. (The first two were This Is Spinal Tap and The Sure Thing, both utter delights. Once upon a time, he played Meathead on “All in the Family.”) Reiner’s source is unexpected: Stand by Me is adapted from a novella called The Body, by Stephen King.

Stephen King? Then why don’t the TV commercials for this movie have King leering into the camera and saying, “I’m gonna scare the hell out of you”? Well, it’s not that kind of Stephen King. In fact, The Body (which, after filming, was given its vague new title) is a nostalgic non-horror story that turns on a simply beautiful idea.

One summer day in 1959, much like any other in Castle Rock, Ore., a kid overhears two older boys talking about a dead body they spotted some miles away, by the railroad tracks. They didn’t report it, because they were out there doing something illicit.

They know who the corpse is (was?); the missing boy they’ve all been hearing about on the radio.

The young eavesdropper runs to his buddies back at the treehouse. Wouldn’t it be neat to go see that dead body? They’ve never seen one before. Besides, it would be a fun overnight camping trip through the forest.

Out they go, and the rest of the film is their journey. The movie’s main weakness is that this is all too clearly a major rite of passages for the boys. It’s the moment when the two maturing kids will pull irrevocably past the two more childish ones. But the trip itself is so enjoyable, and so rich in deeply felt detail, that the glaringly symbolic nature of the odyssey doesn’t hamstring things.

The script by Raynold Gideon and Bruce A. Evans utilizes salty dialogue and a grasp of the stuff that matters when you’re very young (the best food in the world, it is decided, is cherry-flavored Pez).

The story is set in a flashback, told by a writer—a cameo, and a very nice one, by Richard Dreyfuss—who was the brightest, most imaginative of the boys. During the forest trek, he (played by Wil Wheaton) comes to terms with the recent death of his idealized older brother (John Cusack, star of The Sure Thing). In a weird way, seeing the body of a dead kid by the railroad tracks helps him.

The other boys are played by River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, and Jerry O’Connell, and all are fine. Kiefer Sutherland, Donald’s son, does good mean work as the leader of the toughs who found the body in the first place. The toughs, by the way, swig Rainier beer. Reiner gets the details right.

It’s not a perfect or great film; Reiner might have pruned some of the more touchy-feely dialogue, which 12-year-olds were probably not spouting in 1959. But it’s consistently good, and certain images—a deer in the night, the sound of a train that might just be approaching as the boys walk across a trestle—are for keeps. In short, this movie is really, really—no, I won’t say it again. But you know what I mean.

First published in the Herald, August 1986

The change probably helped the movie’s fortunes, but The Body would have been an excellent title. It’s got the plainness of a classic Ray Bradbury title, and the material is of course very Bradburyesque in its understanding of stuff that actually matters to children. I’m not sure how neat I would find this movie today, although it might be interesting to watch it  knowing how the lives of its young actors turned out.