The Couch Trip

January 31, 2013

couchtripAmong the myriad inanities of our touchy-feely, psychobabble culture, there are many juicy targets for satirization, perhaps none more deserving than radio pop psychologists. In Alan Rudolph’s Choose Me, there was some subtle play around the radio shrink, Dr. Nancy Love, although that movie had other flavorful fish to fry.

More conventional satire is found in The Couch Trip, the plot of which somehow shoehorns a mental patient and “pathological misfit” (Dan Aykroyd) into the role of Beverly Hills psychiatrist. As with most movie mental patients, Aykroyd is merely a brilliant free spirit, saner than his doctors, etc.

When he impersonates a doctor and breezes into Los Angeles to replace a popular radio shrink, it gives Aykroyd the opportunity to tear into some amusing riffs. His on-the-air free-associating constitutes the film’s funniest moments, as this impromptu healer gives his callers straight talk and profanities instead of the standard audio hand-holding.

It’s healthy satire, but the film doesn’t stay in this vein. Instead, The Couch Trip becomes too interested in following Aykroyd’s attempts to squeeze big money out of the real doctor’s sleazy partners (Richard Romanus and Arye Gross), and trying to squeeze anything that belongs to the doctor’s curvy assistant (Donna Dixon, who’s married to Aykroyd in real life). And the real doctor himself (Charles Grodin) is having a nervous breakdown in London, though he begins to realize that there is something strange about his replacement.

On the story level, The Couch Trip never quite gets in sync. The best parts of the film are the peripheral bits, such as the radio show and the occasional intrusive commercial announcement (Chevy Chase cameos in a condom ad, and there’s a straight-faced plea for the members of a hang-gliding memorial society).

When Walter Matthau first appears, as one of those loonies who hang around airports pushing a cause, it looks as though the movie may strike sparks with his belligerent character (he’s demonstrating about Violence Against Plants and shouting, “Who speaks for horticulture?”). But he softens up quickly and melts into the scene—the joke, a rather tired one, is that in Hollywood the crazies fit right in.

The Couch Trip suffers from the too-many-screenwriters syndrome. Aside from the original novel basis, there are three writers listed, with countless typewriters uncredited. Michael Ritchie, the director, used to be known as a keen satirist back in the days of Smile. The Couch Trip finds him more engaged with his material than he’s been in a while, but there’s too much emphasis on the labored plot and the one-liners, and Aykroyd isn’t strong enough to carry the movie alone.

The movie betrays its desperation when it sinks to reaching for gags about mass hysteria and mass transit. Freud himself found puns an intriguing part of psychoanalysis, but this is going too far.

First published in the Herald, January 1988

The day it opened, the film already seemed to have missed its moment—Matthau and Grodin, at least, should’ve been on to better things by this point. Does it have any boosters?

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Cold Steel

January 30, 2013

coldsteelCold Steel is a throwaway action flick, given some weight by the presence of a few good actors. Almost every idea in the film comes off as half-baked, and even the action sequences are strange.

The opening sequence promises a little something. We watch as two cops grab a container marked for the bomb squad, throw it in their car, and race across town through a series of stunts. They end by racing into a bar, where they have just won a speed contest for a Christmas party; there was no bomb involved at all.

Pretty good chase, and a pretty good twist. But this leads nowhere, like almost everything else in the movie.

One of the cops is a hothead (Brad Davis, from Midnight Express) whose father is murdered in a robbery of his jewelry store. This prompts the required scene in which a superior demands the wronged cop’s badge and gun, saying that he is “too close to the case.” Naturally, there’s no doubt Davis will continue to pursue the killers on his own.

Davis’s life is soothed by the presence of a woman he picks up in a bar one night. She’s played by Sharon Stone, an attractive actress who always seems to make terrible movies (she was the female lead in those excruciating Richard Chamberlain King Solomon’s Mines films).

Davis is being stalked by a bad guy (Jonathan Banks)—”They call me Iceman,” he says—and a stooge (Adam Ant) who are completing a bizarre revenge. Very bizarre, in fact; when the reason is revealed in a flashback near the film’s end, the incident that prompts this revenge is so lame it renders Banks’s ferocity unbelievable.

But then the movie has lots of problems, and loose ends. What to make of the implied relationship between Davis and a barmaid, or even the supposed recklessness of Davis’s lifestyle? None of this goes anywhere.

When the film, directed by Dorothy Ann Puzo, tries to be different, the consequences are mixed. A big car chase ends up in an auto speedway, where the incredible stunts are laughable. And when a dope dealer who operates a pet store is done in by a villain who shoves a poisonous fish in his mouth, it’s unintentional humor time, as is the other fish-feeding scene, when the supposedly hard-living, hard-loving Davis plies his new girlfriend with sushi. These really must be the ’80s.

First published in the Herald, December 15, 1987

Nope—this one doesn’t ring the vaguest bell. But I saw it, and there it is. IMDb reports that this movie was AFI-funded and the only directing credit in film for Director Puzo, who is, yes, the daughter of Mario Puzo.


Deadtime Stories and Starship

January 29, 2013

starshipThe two cheesy exploitation movies that hit the area last weekend are a real study in contrasts. Deadtime Stories is low-budget and silly, and just marginally watchable. Starship, while boasting a superior budget, is as dull as dried clay.

Deadtime Stories takes the time-honored omnibus route, presenting three scary stories. The first, about a pair of medieval witches and their unwilling servant boy, seems left over from some other movie—it doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the film.

The other two stories are modern updates of fairy tales. “Little Red Riding Hood” is here a nubile teen in a scarlet jogging outfit who runs afoul of a werewolf. The third story is a variation on “Goldilocks,” wherein the three bears are humans, escaped lunatics who find Goldi living in their abandoned house.

Goldi herself is a statuesque vixen blessed with a telekinetic power a la Carrie, which allows her to terminate her long line of suitors. She gets along very well with the bear family, and they even live happily ever after.

Under the clumsy hand of director Jeffrey Delman, this is all done tongue-in-cheek, as is the framing story of an insomniac boy having the tales told him by a babysitting uncle. It’s very clear that most of the budget went for special effects, with little left over for such niceties as professional actors.

Still, Deadtime Stories is comprehensible. Not so Starship, a completely incoherent space thing, directed and co-written by Roger Christian (a name to be shunned in the future). The ads promise, “The adventure of a million lifetimes”; actually, it only seems that long.

I honestly can’t tell you what the film was about, except it had something to do with some people trying to get off a planet that was being taken over by robots. Not a whit of humor, or even intelligible action.

First published in the Herald, April 1987 (?)

IMDb says that Jeffrey Delman is related to Bernard Herrmann; also, Deadtime‘s cast included Melissa Leo in one of her first movie roles. It opened at the Coliseum in Seattle. Roger Christian did design stuff for Star Wars and Alien, which would explain his move to sci-fi directing; he eventually did Battlefield Earth, which is a lot more fun than Starship. The movie apparently opened in Australia in ’84, but knocked around and was re-cut before playing the U.S. sometime later.


The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover

January 28, 2013

cookthethiefPeter Greenaway, the exceedingly provocative English director of The Draughtsman’s Contract and A Zed and Two Naughts, has said of his new film that “I wanted to engage in some of the excitements of unrestricted license.”

Mm-hmm. That is an elegant way of saying that Greenaway has tipped over a number of taboos in his new movie, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. It’s a film that happily seeks to offend and outrage.

And, oh, it succeeds. But Greenaway is such a witty and imaginative filmmaker that he makes his outrageousness watchable. At the very least, this film is visually stunning, even when it is at its most grotesque, which might be any of a number of moments.

The title provides the basic situation. A gangster (Michael Gambon) comes every night to the lavish restaurant he owns. He has no taste whatsoever, for food or anything else, but he likes to parade around with his entourage. His wife (Helen Mirren) is at his side, apparently for the sole purpose of giving him someone to abuse.

Across the restaurant sits a lone diner (Alan Howard), who spots the unhappy wife and sneaks off for the first of a series of trysts with her, in the hidden corners of the restaurant. The head chef (Richard Bohringer) watches all this with a steady, unflappable gaze.

The film is about the wife and her lover’s attempts to come together, while the gangster tries to figure out what is afoot (Gambon, the brilliant British actor who starred in the BBC’s “Singing Detective,” must have 85 percent of the film’s dialogue, and he thunders magnificently).

But the plot does not describe Greenaway’s gallery of effects. His films are not meant to be realistic; they are theatrical, melodramatic. Costume and set design and music are main characters, and they tend to dominate the puny human concerns.

As far as the taboos are concerned, the film pays disgusting detail to torture, scatological excesses, regurgitative functions, and finally cannibalism, in a climactic scene that will probably send people either screaming or chuckling from the theater. Like him or loathe him, Greenaway completely creates his own world, and it’s like nothing else in the movies.

Incidentally, this film grossed out the MPAA ratings board to such an extent that it received an X rating. Unfortunately, the X has come to be associated with hardcore porn (which this film is not, although it contains much nudity), and some newspapers and TV stations won’t accept ads for X-rated films, regardless of content. In Seattle, the movie is being released without a rating. These sorts of problems suggest that it’s time to rethink the current ratings system.

First published in the Herald, April 8, 1990

Caused some excitement at the time, that’s for sure, and Greenaway was really on a roll at that moment. I wonder whether I’d like it as much now.


Little Monsters

January 25, 2013

littlemonstersFor a few generations now, kids have been insisting that monsters live under their beds. In Little Monsters, this claim is given irrefutable proof.

As the movie explains, monsters live underneath the Earth’s surface in a vast subterranean world. Once night falls up top, the monsters rise up stairways and slip out from under the beds of little kids, wreaking havoc (for which kids everywhere, the innocent darlings, are blamed the next morning). This explains a lot.

Little Monsters is concerned with one denizen of the underworld, a blue reptilian creature with horns and a Mohawk, who goes by the name of—what else?—Maurice. Maurice, played by comedian Howie Mandel, has arrived to torment the nights of 11-year-old Brian (Fred Savage, the likable little ham from TV’s “Wonder Years”).

Brian’s family has just moved to their new house, his parents (Daniel Stern and Margaret Whitton) are bickering, his little brother is a pill. So he has need of a friend, and Maurice turns out to be an amiable monster, and a good guide to the world below, where kids can play pinball to their hearts’ delight and eat as many cheeseburgers as they please.

Director Richard Alan Greenberg tires hard to give this story the feeling of Ray Bradbury’s writing: a lonely kid, an unhappy family, the promise of something supernatural to spark the boy’s imagination. Unfortunately, Greenberg’s efforts don’t mesh well with the monster stuff.

The monster stuff is dominated by Howie Mandel. Mandel was eminently likable in his role in “St. Elsewhere,” but in his comedy routines he tends toward manic obnoxiousness, and that is the direction he takes here. It becomes clear from the first moments of his performance that he is doing much what Michael Keaton did in Beetlejuice, but without Keaton’s sustained frenzy (or the writing to support such frenzy).

Little Monsters runs out of creative juice long before Mandel runs out of shtick. In fact, there is probably a direct correlation here—a little bit of Howie goes a long way.

First published in the Herald, August 31, 1989

Except for this odd picture, the director mostly stuck to visual effects and titles sequences. This was the first credit for Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott, who have flourished in animation and live-action alike, including the Pirates of the Caribbean business.


Lock Up

January 24, 2013

lockupSylvester Stallone’s new movie, Lock Up, begins with shots of our hero exchanging loving hugs with his girlfriend and sifting through sentimental old photographs, all accompanied by sensitive piano music.

Piano music? And they call this a Stallone movie? Well, yes, as it turns out. Soon enough, Lock Up gets back to basics. It turns out Sly is a convict on a weekend furlough; he’s quickly back in prison, where he awaits his upcoming release. (His crime, of course, is completely justifiable, so there’s no problem being on his side.)

Unfortunately, he gets transferred from his comfy county club jailhouse to the state’s “garage dump,” a place run by a psychotic warden (Donald Sutherland) who has it in for Stallone. When Sly arrives at the prison, the warden takes him down to look at the nice electric chair and, bathed in red light, announces, “This is hell. And I’m going to give you the guided tour.”

The tour consists of the next 90 minutes, wherein Stallone is beaten up, slammed into the mud, knifed, and driven into the sewers. Such masochism is, of course, a Stallone hallmark, and as always he revels in getting shellacked. There’s also a lot of absurd buddy-bonding, as well as the customary Stallone catch phrases (“Nuthin’s dead ’til it’s buried, man,” is the favorite here).

Director John Flynn (Best Seller) does a competent job in terms of moving things along, but the film is watered down, colorless. The only suspense comes from waiting to see which of Stallone’s little buddies is going to get killed and thus set him off into a climactic rage.

You find yourself waiting for Donald Sutherland to glide into view, because it’s such a relief to see someone who’s interested in doing a little acting. Sutherland doesn’t have very much to work with—most of his role consists of walking over to a window to watch Stallone be humiliated in the courtyard below—but he does bring an elegant sense of depravity to his scenes.

First published in the Herald, August 1989

Not often mentioned when Stallone’s 1980s career is cited, and it was no blockbuster. But as you can see, it taps into some of the man’s most cherished obsessions, and nothing is dead until it’s buried, man.


Let’s Get Lost

January 23, 2013

letsgetlostAs sad and romantic as its evocative title, Let’s Get Lost is a documentary about the great jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, whose death in a fall from an Amsterdam hotel window in 1988 was the final step in a lifelong dance of self-destruction. Much of the movie was shot in 1987, when Baker was clearly near the end of his long, painful road.

Let’s Get Lost is no straightforward documentary. Filmmaker Bruce Weber, a longtime fan of Baker, has created a dreamlike, black-and-white collage of interviews, music, old photographs, film clips, and new footage. It tells Baker’s history, but also conjures the feeling of a long, mournful jazz wail.

In the 1950s, young Chet Baker was a great white hope of jazz, a key figure in West Coast cool jazz, a beautiful trumpet player and a wispy, romantic vocalist. He also looked like James Dean, and Hollywood was grooming him for stardom.

He had talent, he had charm, he had…something ineffable. William Claxton, whose famous photographs of Baker in the ’50s are featured prominently in the film, says that photographing Baker gave him his first indication of what photogenic meant.

These early glimpses of the young Baker are interspersed with the wreck Weber interviewed in 1987. Baker, not yet 60, looks like an angel of death, his face heavily lined and toothless, his spirit shredded by constant drug use. Interviews with his wives, girlfriends and children create a portrait of a master manipulator, a totally unreliable friend and father.

Some will see this film and dismiss Baker as a self-destructive jerk. Fine. But that doesn’t explain the music, which is as graceful and fugitive as a trail of smoke. Baker seems to have been a person so racked with pain and hurt that he was simply unable to function in the world, except to express himself through music.

Bruce Weber is a fashion photographer whose Calvin Klein campaign set the tone for advertising in this decade. As a filmmaker, he’s still drunk on images: the story in Baker’s face, the glamour of the jazz set in the 1950s. (This movie is unimaginable in color.) Weber may be mostly concerned with surfaces; he can’t explain Chet Baker. But he can fashion Baker’s dream state, his lost world.

First published in the Herald, April 1989

Slightly surprised this isn’t considered more of a classic documentary, but maybe it doesn’t fit the mold; also, it was out of circulation for a long time. The treatment fits the subject, for sure.