June 20, 2012

There are few things sadder than the unmistakable chill of a craze gone cold. The first two Superman movies captured the imagination of the movie-going public and made a star out of the likable leading man, Christopher Reeve. The excitement was already cooling when Superman III appeared, awkwardly tailored to incorporate Richard Pryor.

Reeve has long since hung up his cape, but those industrious producers of the series, the Salkind family, insist on going to the well at least one more time. Yes, it’s Supergirl, the Man of Steel’s feminine counterpart—also a longtime DC Comics character—but this time out, the thrill is gone. And, apparently, not too many people care.

The Salkinds went back to the formula that made the original Superman such a delight: an unknown player as the hero, a big-star villain, a largely comic tone, and the fate of the world hanging in the balance.

Some of these elements actually work. Helen Slater, making her film debut in the title role, is quite adorable. She shares Reeve’s ability to communicate goodness without making it seem yucky. But she doesn’t always hold the screen too well against her fellow actors—one of whom is Faye Dunaway, the villain who has a hunger for “total world domination,” as she demurely puts it.

She gets her chance. In the undersea community of Argo, Kara (Slater) asks the great Zaltar (Peter O’Toole) what a certain funny round ball is all about. Zaltar explains that the glowing orb is the power source for the whole society (at least, I think that’s what he says—the sound went out at this point when I saw the movie). Kara accidentally lets the ball slip through the Saran Wrap covering of the planet. She goes to the Earth’s surface to retrieve it.

This little doohickey happens to land in Dunaway’s lunch. She’s a witch, picnicking in the vicinity. Sensing (correctly) that it may instill her with ultimate power, she grabs the thing and heads back to her lair, in an old amusement park, and starts doing nasty things to people.

Meanwhile, Kara enrolls in a local girls’ school, claiming to be the cousin of Clark Kent. As luck would have it, Dunaway is often on the scene, and the two lock horns when the witch flexes her magical muscles by trying to make the campus hunk (Hart Bochner) fall in love with her. Instead, he loves Supergirl, and Dunaway starts twitching those magnificent eyebrows and flaring those unforgettable nostrils.

I wish this had been more fun, but the fact is, Supergirl is without style or wit. The early scenes are rushed—there’s none of the lovely myth-making of Superman—and the action is just plain silly. Superman was funny, but when the chips were down, you (admit it) cared about what was going to happen next. That never happens here.

Director Jeannot Szwarc, of Jaws 2 fame, used to be a pretty decent television director—he made many episodes of “Night Gallery” and “Columbo”—and he still is a decent television director. The good news is, he probably won’t be allowed near another Super… project (if there is ever another one). The bad news is he’s already filmed Santa Claus, another legend cinematized by the Salkinds.

The big S and the red cape may be retired for good with this one. On opening night of Supergirl, the thundering music and traditional stormy credit-roll were greeted by a half-empty theater. Nobody seemed excited in the way they did when the Superman movies opened. Regardless of what you think of Supergirl, that’s a little sad.

First published in the Herald, November 24, 1984

Obviously Reeve would later climb back into the role, but the proposed Supergirl franchise was not to be. Szwarc had his big-screen shot, then returned to television, where he is still crankin’ ’em out. He did only one “Columbo,” according to (the one with Vera Miles), but many a “Night Gallery” and other series fare.


Iron Eagle

June 19, 2012

It would be tempting to rip into Iron Eagle for its crude manipulation, phony-baloney patriotism, and distasteful xenophobia. But the film itself saves you the trouble; it’s so bad on the level of plain narrative, it cancels itself out.

The situation is this (as anyone who has seen the innumerable TV ads in the past few weeks already knows): An American pilot is shot down in a Middle Eastern country. The U.S. government, its hands tied by protocol and red tape, can do nothing to save him. The flier’s son steals an F-16 and flies to rescue Dad with the help of a veteran pilot.

That’s it. Now, you’d think that such a streamlined plot would be easy to pull off—and as an action film, it might be good, cathartic, mindless fun.

Nope. Director Sidney J. Furie (who co-authored the script with Kevin Elders) pulls a thorough botch-up. Unbelievably, although the father’s capture occurs in the first minute, it takes Furie more than a hour of screen time to get his big rescue mission off the ground.

In the meantime, he presents the long, boring preparation for the mission. The son (Jason Gedrick) must prove himself time and again—first to the bullies who make fun of him for wanting to go to the Air Force Academy (there’s a big showdown at the local A&W), then to the ace pilot (Louis Gossett, Jr.) who’s going to help him with the mission.

There are many pearls of wisdom along the way. When Gedrick thinks his father may suffer through protracted custody like the hostages in Iran, a friend disagrees: “No, this is different—Mr. Peanut was in charge back then.”

As it turns out, however, the current president is just as unable to get Gedrick’s father out as Mr. Peanut was. Someone tells Gedrick sympathetically, “They got too many people to make decisions—takes too long.”

Maybe this guy should go live in the unnamed Middle Eastern country in which a bloodthirsty dictator (David Suchet) makes all the decisions, without consulting anybody. This dictator is, to borrow a phrase, flaky, and he does zany totalitarian antics, such as sentencing Gedrick’s father (Tim Thomerson) to hang in three days.

So Gedrick and Gossett go charging in, and “Gimme Some Lovin'” plays on the soundtrack as they blow dozens of extras away with a Hades bomb, which incinerates everything around.

It’s a mechanical movie that seeks to do for the Middle East what Rambo did for Vietnam. At least Rambo had some sense of forward motion; Iron Eagle is dead in the water until its final third.

Gossett doesn’t come off all that bad, because he’s a pro, although his character is forced to perform a switcheroo; first he’s dead, then he miraculously returns. This emphasizes the indestructibility of our guys, and makes certain the happy ending will be achieved without any true, bothersome sacrifice. It also answers the question: Just how shameless can this movie be?

First published in the Herald, January 1986

It took me a moment to remember why I used the construction, “to borrow a term, flaky,” but it had to be a Reaganism, and it was, in Ronald Reagan’s immortal characterization of Ghadafi with that term. (Reagan’s geopolitical genius resulted in Ghadafi falling from power 25 years later – score another one for the Gipper.) One might not have predicted a long career for Gedrick based on this performance, but in fact he’s done pretty well for himself. And Sidney J. Furie? He just keeps going.

Killer Klowns from Outer Space

June 18, 2012

Killer Klowns from Outer Space delivers just what its title promises. For some reason, these murderous greasepaint aliens have landed their spaceship, which resembles a Big Top, in a small town. Then these klowns—er, clowns—proceed to eliminate the populace.

The first victim is a lanky rural type (Royal Dano, who always plays lanky rural types). He spots the ship, declares, “Well I’ll be greased and fried!” and is promptly killed and wrapped in pink cotton candy.

Then the clowns, large mechanical contraptions with oversized hands and red noses (the noses turn out to be their Achilles’ heel, as it were), move into the town. This provides the film’s rare passages of amusement, as another good character actor (John Vernon) gets to cut up with the clowns before he is inevitably killed off.

The presence of the clowns puts into perspective the insipid love triangle involving a young cop (Grant Cramer), a girl (Suzanne Snyder), and a dork (John Allen Nelson). These three put aside their differences long enough to track the clowns to the amusement park. How do they know the clowns are at the amusement park? Well, as one of the kids puts it, “Where would you hide if you were a clown?”

The movie asks a number of questions. When the kids are chased by the clowns and pelted by popcorn, one asks, “Why popcorn?” The reply is, “‘Cause they’re clowns, that’s why.” Later, someone sensibly brings up the crucial question about the movie itself: “Why clowns?” And the even more tantalizing follow-up query: “And how come they’re not funny?”

These legitimate questions are left unanswered by screenwriters Charles Chiodo and Stephen Chiodo (Stephen also directed). Personally, I suspect that the goofy title came first, the movie second.

Other than that, there’s not much to say about the film; it’s almost nonexistent, really. A lot of bad movies tend to evaporate once they’re finished. This is one of those rare films that seem to evaporate while you’re watching it.

First published in the Herald, May 1988

It was the era of “funny” titles, which were usually not funny in direct proportion to how hard the title tried (Surf Nazis Must Die—lousy movie). The Chiodo brothers went on to careers in puppetry and stop-motion work in everything from “The Simpsons” to Team America: World Police, so they’ve done well by themselves.

Grandview, U.S.A.

June 15, 2012

Grandview, U.S.A. is one of those frustrating films that deserve to be much better than they are. On the surface, there’s a lot to like about it.

It has a good cast in fine form, for one thing. Jamie Lee Curtis continues her recent string of vivid parts, with her role as the gritty owner of a demolition derby park (inherited from her father). Curtis, the daughter of Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis, showed signs of intelligence even in her days as the scream queen of Halloween, The Fog, et terrifying al.

Coming off her impressive comedy turn in Trading Places and her moving lead performance in the steamy Love Letters, she’s hooked into another good role. Actually, the role itself is not too original—the tough-but-tender gal who imparts wisdom to a younger man. But Curtis’s direct, humorous style makes this character something special.

The younger boy is C. Thomas Howell, a well-to-do kid from the right side of the tracks, just graduated from high school and the next Jacques Cousteau—that is, if he can get away from the small Midwestern town of Grandview and hit the coast. Howell develops a crush on Curtis. Plot conflict, aside from their 10-year age difference: His father wants to wrest the demolition derby arena away from Curtis and build a swanky country club in its place.

Then there’s the demolition driver (Patrick Swayze, from Uncommon Valor) who works off his frustrations about his philandering wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) by cracking up cars. He digs Curtis, too. Swayze, beefier than in his previous films, is convincing and funny as the perpetual loser.

From this, you can almost hear the clichés lining up to be answered. And line up the do: complications, coincidences, resolutions are all predictable.

The screenplay, by Ken Hixon, bears the formula scent of a debut script—and indeed it is. Probably a good director couldn’t have licked it completely, and Randal Kleiser, the man who brought us Grease, The Blue Lagoon, and Summer Lovers, is not a good director.

Kleiser’s adolescent sensibility permeated his first films, and it continues to dominate here. At one point, there’s a rock dream sequence that exists solely as a free advertisement for MTV. At least Kleiser tries to make a joke out of this. But this is definitely his best whack at a good movie, and he may get to be a grownup yet. Certainly the performances by Curtis and Swayze are nothing to be ashamed of.

Oh yes. Another casting inspiration: As the washing-machine repairman who wins Swayze’s wife, Kleiser cast none other than Troy Donahue, the aging heartthrob of the late ’50s-early ’60s. Donahue, draped with gold chains and clad in polyester, is pretty funny. Too bad he doesn’t get more to do.

And too bad the movie doesn’t make the grade. It’s still a fairly painless 90-minute diversion, made interesting by the devotion of its actors.

First published in the Herald, August 2, 1984

Yes, I seem to have liked Jamie Lee Curtis in this one. Is it still Kleiser’s best film? The discussion rages!

Red-Headed Stranger

June 14, 2012

Willie Nelson has instant, effortless screen presence; he seems quite comfortable on film, and he’s physically unusual, with his weathered face adorned with its biblically curled beard and large, intense eyes.

Those qualities make Nelson an interesting person to watch. But his facility in the medium also lets him lay back; he appears content to coast on his magnetism. “Acting,” as we casually know it, does not enter into the process.

Nelson’s simple style, which conjures up an air of mystery, is well used in Red-Headed Stranger, a Western somewhat spun off from Nelson’s album of the same title. It’s an uneven film, but one that gets a lot more interesting as it goes along.

The first 50 minutes or so are misleading. Nelson plays a preacher who journeys with his new bride (Morgan Fairchild—no, really!) from Pennsylvania to a tiny Montana town. There we find a conventional clash of wills between Nelson, the evil fur-trapper (Royal Dano) who owns the town’s water supply, and the compromised sheriff (R.G. Armstrong).

All of that is no better than an average episode of “Gunsmoke,” but then the film takes a turn that shows the preacher to be an entirely darker character, and he becomes a self-willed wanderer until the opportunity arrives to redeem himself.

It doesn’t ever jell, but at least Nelson and writer-director Bill Witliff explore some interesting territory. Next time, let’s see them leave out the conventional stuff altogether.

First published in the Herald, October 1986

Witliff had a run there, scripting The Black Stallion and “Lonesome Dove” and some other Nelson projects; this remained his lone directing credit. Willie Nelson really did have an intriguing presence, although how Morgan Fairchild got mixed up in this one is puzzling.

Beat Street

June 13, 2012

Considering the fact that its subject matter is new and hip, Beat Street is a surprisingly traditional film. It reworks the tried-and-true formula of poor street kids who dream of using their artistic talent as a means of breaking out of the urban inferno.

In this instance, the ghetto is in New York, and the ticket to freedom is no longer the ability to play the violin or sing like a bird. These kids are break dancers, graffiti artists, and rappers (rapping, defined by the handy press kit glossary, is “talking rhythmically with and over the instrumental breaks in records”).

These methods of expression may be new and unusual, but the basic story is the same. The kids have dreams and hopes, which are fulfilled and squashed in various ways during the story. Some of the kids want to dance; one is a budding rapper; and another expresses himself by spray-painting subway trains.

Director Stan Lathan never quite licks the problems of an overly formulaic scenario, but I did like his refusal to prettify the setting and characters. None of the actors (except Rae Dawn Chong) has much screen presence, which works two ways: It contributes to the sense of reality that the filmmakers are clearly shooting for, but it also makes the story rather less compelling than it ought to be.

The real interest in Beat Street lies in the break dancing, which involves human beings whirling and spinning around on the ground in positions and at speeds that confound anatomical reality. The best scene in the movie occurs at a big dance, when the plot just shuts down for about 10 minutes and the camera watches some of these amazing performers do their thing It’s exhilarating, and nothing else in the movie can match it for excitement.

Beat Street was co-produced by Harry Belafonte, who developed the project from its inception. Apparently Belafonte insisted on being true to the subject, and not glitzing up the soundtrack with easily accessible pop tunes (in the movie business these days, a pre-digested, commercial soundtrack album sometimes comes before the movie—as though the film itself were an afterthought).

Belafonte is to be commended for the honorable intentions behind Beat Street. It’s a shame the screenplay hews so close to cliché.

First published in the Herald, June 1984

Gotta love that rap definition. And hey, I may not have loved Stan Lathan’s work here, but the man is due some career recognition; not only has he directed everything from “Sanford and Son” to “Hill Street Blues” to “Def Comedy Jam,” he’s also the father of Sanaa Lathan.

Critters 2

June 12, 2012

The original Critters was a decent little monster movie—the little monsters being round, furry cantaloupe-sized creatures who terrorized a small town and finally were blown away with the help of bounty hunters from space. There is, naturally, a sequel, not surprisingly titled Critters 2.

As this one begins, the red-headed farm boy (Scott Grimes) who helped vanquish the critters in the first film is returning to the burg of Grover’s Bend, Kan., where it all happened. The locals eye him warily; to them, he’s the Boy Who Cried Critter, and brought a lot of unwanted publicity to the town. At that moment, someone uncovers a batch of funny-looking eggs stashed in a corner of a barn, and, well, you can put two and two together.

This film has some perverse jokes, such as the fact that it’s Easter, and the monster eggs are placed out at an egg hunt. Their first victim is the new sheriff, who is felled while dressed in a Peter Cottontail outfit. This act of bunnycide is followed by more terror from the critters, including an all-out assault on the local fast-food joint.

Luckily, the same space bounty hunters are in the vicinity, and willing to lend a hand. But it still comes down to the young hero’s tenacity in fighting the “man-eatin’ dust-mops” to save the day.

Critters 2 was directed by Mick Garris, who was involved in Spielberg’s “Amazing Stories” TV series. Garris emphasizes the humor here, and there are a couple of funny moments, but there aren’t many flavorful additions to the first movie (although the giant critter, formed when all the little guys Velcro themselves together, is unusual).

The best character is still the Earth-born schmuck (Don Opper) who now flies with the bounty hunters; he’s a morose type who philosophically explains his wandering ways by saying, “I gotta go where the cosmic winds blow me.” That’s the spirit that distinguishes man from critter.

First published in the Herald, May 5, 1988

Garris wrote the script with future Pitch Black director David Twohy, so I wonder if it’s better than I thought at the time.