In the Mood

January 10, 2013

inthemoodIt must have been a marvelous moment in media history. The uneasy year was 1944 and the story came (of course) from California. One Ellsworth “Sonny” Wisecarver eloped with an older woman, which is not unusual in itself until you realize that the woman was a married mother and Sonny was only 15. Then, a few months later, the little dickens did it again—with a different married woman.

Sonny had his moment of glory, and his legendary wooing technique even earned him the nickname “The Woo Woo Kid.” This technique, unfortunately, also landed him in juvenile halls, for breaking certain archaic laws. Then he slipped into a (probably welcome) anonymity.

But In the Mood, which recounts these tumultuous months in the life of Sonny Wisecarver, returns this unique American character to his rightful place of prominence. It’s an ingratiating movie, not quite as good as it might have been, perhaps, but with plenty to like.

Sonny (Patrick Dempsey, late of Can’t Buy Me Love) is portrayed here as a normal guy who simply wears his heart on his sleeve. Who can blame him for thinking that running off to Yuma, Ariz., is more fun that the ninth grade? Or for gravely noting to himself, after spending a few hours with his first amour, that “Women are good”?

His first conquest, the young mother (Talia Balsam, a wonderful performance), is a sweet and quiet girl, and quite swept away by Sonny’s romantic way of expressing himself. His second elopement is with a brassier, more experienced woman (Beverly D’Angelo), but she’s no less impressed by Sonny’s heartfelt honesty.

The writer-director is Phil Alden Robinson, who wrote the fine script to All of Me. This is his first directed feature, and he doesn’t really have all the moves yet—there are missed opportunities, I think, and some uncertainties in tone. The movie never sings in the way that you imagine it would if, say, Jonathan Demme had directed it.

But Robinson finds many charming things in the course of Sonny’s wacky journey, such as the nurses who tend the newly famous Sonny when he lands in the hospital, and who give him curiously frequent sponge baths; or the shot of Sonny and a lady conversing through an apartment wall, while the camera pulls back to reveal the romantic night that surrounds them.

Then there’s a rundown diner where Sonny and his paramour have dinner; he gets carried away enough to ask the slatternly waitress, “What kind of champagne do you have?” (to which she responds, without missing a beat, “Schlitz”).

The film’s probably too low-key whimsical to be very popular, but at least it restores the glory of the Woo Woo Kid (the real Sonny Wisecarver pops up in a cameo role in a mock newsreel sequence). And you can’t argue with a film that openly endorses Sonny’s unfettered philosophy: “Sensible is boring.”

First published in the Herald, October 1, 1987

Another from the early career of Patrick Dempsey, new owner of Tully’s. Curiously, or not, just before the movie came out Dempsey, age 21, married a 48-year-old. Which is not really like the movie’s plot, but there you go. I am glad to have lauded the work of Talia Balsam, that excellent actress who should be more lauded in general (what a family life she has—married to her Mad Men co-star John Slattery, ex-married to George Clooney, daughter of Martin Balsam and Joyce Van Patten). I hadn’t remembered liking this movie this much. Robinson’s next was, of course, Field of Dreams.


The Little Mermaid

January 9, 2013

littlemermaidThe Little Mermaid is No. 28 in one of the movies’ great traditions: It is a full-length animated feature from Walt Disney studios. And, like many of the films Uncle Walt supervised, it is based on a classic fairy tale.

It’s a loose adaptation of the Hans Christian Anderson story (one that ends rather more happily in the Disney version). ‘Tis the tale of a mermaid, Ariel (voice by Jodi Benson), who falls in love with a prince and dreams of joining him in the world above the sea. To do this, she would have to sprout legs, which involves driving a hard bargain with a dreadful sea witch, an octopus called Ursula (Pat Carroll). Ariel also runs the risk of displeasing her father, a ruler named Triton (Kenneth Mars).

As is the Disney wont, there are some cute characters who play off the heroine (and who, to speak more cynically, make themselves very available for mass merchandising). Flounder (Jason Marin) is, as you might guess, a fishy friend; Scuttle (Buddy Hackett) a frequently confused seagull; and Sebastian (Samuel Wright), the Jiminy Cricket of the movie, a musically inclined crab.

After an opening reel in which it appears the movie might drown in cuteness, The Little Mermaid begins to swim in its own high spirits. The vernacular is modern and the songs (by Alan Menken and producer Howard Ashman, the team who created the musical Little Shop of Horrors) are fun, particularly the two Jamaican-flavored numbers sung by Sebastian. There’s also a funny patter song by a French chef (at the prince’s castle) who warbles on about the joys of cooking—horrors!—seafood.

But, as is so often true, the movie is stolen by the villain. The great purple-and-black octopus Ursula is the Disney animators’ triumph, a rolling mass of tentacles, each of which seems to have its own life. She taunts the goody-two-shoes Ariel with her devilish bargain; later, when she takes the form of an above-water maiden, she surreptitiously kicks the prince’s dog. Hissing is allowed.

Ariel is a bit of a drip, as is often the case in these Disney films; she’s perfect-looking, and her waving hair tends to overwhelm any sign of personality, aside from a certain spunkiness. (In case you’re wondering, the mermaids wear what appear to be little sea-shell brassieres, a Disney tradition of modesty that goes back at least as far as the nymphs in Fantasia.)

The film is directed and written by John Musker and Ron Clements, who also created Disney’s enjoyable The Great Mouse Detective. Their assured work, which manages to be both respectful of tradition and just a bit hip, plus the top-notch achievements of the younger animators, bodes well for the future of Disney’s most cherished legacy.

First published in the Herald, November 17, 1989

Well, yes, it’s an understatement to say that it worked out well for Disney after that, animation-wise. In that sense, the turning point that The Little Mermaid represents makes it one of the more significant movies of its era—this was the moment Disney went from being a moribund dinosaur to a giant player again. This is also a chance to remember how important Howard Ashman was to Disney’s turnaround; by most accounts he had a lot to do with making The Little Mermaid a smart movie.

Listen to Me

January 8, 2013

listnetomeIn Listen to Me, college coach Roy Scheider describes his avocation as “probably the scariest, most fascinating sport on the face of the planet.” What is this thrilling sport: Basketball? Football? The four-man luge?

Of course not. It’s debating. Yes, Scheider plays the wily coach of one of the country’s best debate squads. Now, I apologize in advance to debaters and debate fans everywhere, but let me suggest that debate is perhaps not the most scintillating subject for a movie. Probably debate is very exciting in and of itself, but it does have a tendency to make a film somewhat talky.

Listen to Me is plenty talky, although it does make an attempt to mix its scary/fascinating sports scenes with coming-of-age drama. The story, from director Douglas Day Stewart (He wrote An Officer and a Gentleman) deals with three students on the debate team, all of whom carry their own problems into battle.

The team leader (Tim Quill) comes from a Kennedyesque clan of wealthy politics; his father (Anthony Zerbe) wants him to use debate as a springboard into political life. But Quill’s secret wish is to be a tortured writer.

Another student is an engaging Oklahoma hayseed (Kirk Cameron), another is a beautiful-but-distant Chicago sharpie (Jami Gertz). Cameron’s main goal is getting Gertz to go out with him, and he becomes peeved when she won’t: “If you’d look at this empirically, you’d see that it’s all your fault,” he tells her, a debater to the end. Frustrated, he and Quill wind up frolicking in a fountain with debate groupies.

The print ads for Listen to Me have been suggesting that the film somehow tackles the abortion issue. Abortion happens to be the topic chosen for the debate teams, and it’s argued in the scary/fascinating climax, which is a debate in a Washington before some members of the U.S. Supreme Court. But the film has nothing to do with the subject; it’s strictly a theoretical football, to be tossed back and forth.

This brings up one of the irritating things about Listen to Me. The movie argues both sides of the abortion question. It does this so skillfully that you’re left with no feelings at all on the subject. This, according to the movie, is exactly what good debaters should be able to do: argue either side of a case at the drop of a hat. In other words, the characters learn how to say almost anything, with no regard to what they really think or feel. Presentation is everything. In this way, the film makes a good case for debate as a training ground for future politicians.

First published in the Herald, May 11, 1989

Which is why I’ve always found the idea of debate totally weird—we should teach people how to successfully argue empty arguments? It sounds like a recipe for creating terrible people.


January 7, 2013

loverboyGood farce should glide. You should be able to enjoy the way all the little pieces come together, but you shouldn’t be aware of how they got there. No visible strain. In Loverboy, there’s too much strain, not enough glide.

The story is a kind of young person’s Shampoo. A pizza delivery boy (Patrick Dempsey), home for the summer and frustrated by his sputtering college career, falls under the attention of a wealthy Beverly Hills shopowner (Barbara Carrera). Her attentions include sexual favors, much to the surprise of the skinny lad.

He bungles his first opportunity. “I had a letter to Penthouse staring me in the face, and I let it go,” he tells his dough-slinging buddies. But Carrera persists. Not only that, she recommends his home-delivery style to all of her rich, bored friends whose husbands are cheating on them. Soon Dempsey is carting extra anchovies all over Beverly Hills.

Eventually, his anchovies will come home to roost, as the husbands see through this thin crust of infidelity. All of this is set against Dempsey’s parents’ marital misunderstandings, which include their belief that their son is gay.

The idea of Loverboy is laid out in a somewhat mechanical blueprint, but the movie is brought to comic life on occasion. Part of this has to do with the director, Joan Micklin Silver, whose usual fare is less harried and more gentle (she made the wonderful Chilly Scenes of Winter and last year’s Crossing Delancey).

I have the feeling Silver isn’t too comfortable with the noisier aspects of the Loverboy script. For instance, the wild dorm party that opens the movie is one of the lamest scenes Silver has ever directed. However, she does bring a nice touch to the more lyrical bits: One of the best moments has Dempsey exiting from his first extracurricular encounter and practically dancing across a hotel courtyard, finally tumbling happily into the pool.

There’s a certain level of romance involved in Dempsey’s transactions (for which he accepts money, an awkward point that is never quite smoothed over). He provides roses and back rubs, too. And with a particularly smitten doctor (Kirstie Alley, from “Cheers”) he painstakingly studies the moves of Fred Astaire.

Probably the funniest sequence comes near the end, when Dempsey’s onscreen mother (Kate Jackson) gets fed up with her husband and places an order with the anonymous pizza man. This leads to some Oedipal confusion, but turns out a near-miss.

The picture has some bounce, but it doesn’t consistently work. It’s just a bit too calculated and committee-like to be memorable. Just the same, file it away as a future video pick.

First published in the Herald, April 1989

A few days ago Patrick Dempsey led a group attempting to buy Tully’s coffee, the baby Starbucks chain. Just another twist in the curious career of this actor, who was going through his early leading man phase at this point. Good to be reminded of Barbara Carrera, who loomed large for adolescent boys in the 1970s.

Arthur 2: On the Rocks

January 4, 2013

arthur2“It doesn’t matter whether you’re rich or poor, as long as you can buy anything on the planet you’ve ever wanted.” The sage speaker here could only be that rich source of tipsy philosophy, Arthur Bach. When last we saw our sozzled friend, in 1981’s Arthur, the millionaire scion was tottering off to marriage with his “commoner” girlfriend and turning his back on his society fiancée and her wrathful father.

As Arthur 2: On the Rocks opens, we find Arthur (played again by Dudley Moore as a fountain of unbridled hedonism) largely unchanged. Married life agrees with him, as wife Linda (Liza Minnelli, also back from the first film) puts up with his childish, or is it childlike, behavior because, well, the guy is a ball to be around.

But there is trouble on the horizon. That spurned ex-fiancee (Cynthia Sikes) still wants her old flame, and her father (Stephen Elliott) hatches a plot to bankrupt Arthur—the better to blackmail the little fellow into getting a divorce and marrying the daughter. Naturally, Arthur will have none of it. So the Rolls disappears, the servants vanish, and the formerly wealthy couple are out on the street.

This is the concept, and in Andy Breckman’s script there are opportunities for fish-out-of-water jokes in Arthur’s search for an apartment, his hunt for a job (applying at a hardware store, he submits his last job held as “Millionaire Playboy”), and finally his drop into the substrata of New York’s flophouses. Meanwhile, the couple’s plan to adopt a child, already in jeopardy because of Arthur’s fondness for the bottle, has been put on permanent hold.

Breckman provides Moore with some zingy one-liners, and much of the early going is in the same spirit, and spirits, of the first Arthur. And speaking of spirits, Arthur 2 has an appearance by the butler (John Gielgud) who died in the original film. Here the sardonic Gielgud returns as a ghost to counsel his wayward ward.

As amusing as some scenes are, the director, Bud Yorkin (Twice in a Lifetime), doesn’t find the sustained comic rhythm that the movie needs. (The writer-director of the original Arthur was Steve Gordon, who passed away in the interim.) The timing is off, and scenes seem to dangle long after they’ve yielded whatever funny stuff they contain.

All the sober-minded critics (and there were quite a few of them) who complained that the first film glorified the ingestion of alcohol will be relieved to find that Arthur clambers on to the wagon in this sequel, thereby neatly defining the difference between the early part of this decade and the end of it. I guess that counts as a victory for the bluenoses over the rednoses.

First published in the Herald, July 1988

It might have some funny moments, but such a disappointment after the wonderful first movie, which was the only film directed by Steve Gordon. Cynthia Sikes was on “St. Elsewhere,” you will recall; here she replaced an actress, Jill Eikenberry, who was a regular on another long-term series, “L.A. Law.” I don’t think that means anything.

Angel Heart

January 3, 2013

angelheartAmong the artistically ambitious movie directors of today, Alan Parker is the kid with the sledgehammer touch.

He seems bent on describing his personal vision of hell, whether it’s in a Turkish prison (Midnight Express), a failed marriage (Shoot the Moon), or a paranoid rock ‘n’ roll fantasy (Pink Floyd: The Wall). And he wants to do it in terms we can’t miss: Parker exults in rubbing our faces in it.

In his new, already-much-discussed film Angel Heart, Parker goes deeper into the netherworld than ever before. It’s an unclean, frequently sickening journey, but also often a compelling one. This has as much to do with the actors and the fiendishly intriguing storyline (adapted from a novel by William Hjortsberg) as with Parker’s heavy-handed approach.

The distributors of the film have made a special point of asking reviewers not to reveal the surprises of the plot. That’s good, because this is a film that turns down some very dark alleys indeed.

Roughly, then, it’s about a dead-soul Brooklyn private eye named Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke, disturbingly in his element) hired by the shiveringly eccentric Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro) to find a certain Johnny Favorite. Favorite was a minor-league crooner before the big war (the film is set in 1955), and Cyphre wants him found, for mysterious reasons.

The bloody quest takes Angel eventually to New Orleans, where he runs into a fortune teller (Charlotte Rampling), some voodoo practitioners, and a haunting girl named Epiphany Proudfoot (Lisa Bonet of “The Cosby Show,” who is very good).

You can tell just from the characters’ names that Angel Heart is laden with symbolic overtones. Parker, unfortunately, overplays the overtones. He can’t let anything pass by unemphasized; De Niro, for instance, wears a marvelous set of long pointed fingernails for his role, but Parker has to cut to big close-ups of the nails drumming, just so we notice. He keeps the camera close so we can’t miss the slime running down the walls or the pimples erupting on Mickey Rourke’s face.

It was probably Parker’s over-the-top storytelling methods that earned this film an X rating, when it first went to the ratings board; the body count here is not higher than in comparable films, but Parker does play up the gore and the sex.

It’s even been suggested that the board slapped Parker with an X because he had the audacity to cast a “Cosby” kid, Bonet, in a very sexy role. I doubt that had much to do with it, although it was one of her scenes—a sexual episode within a montage of voodoo blood rites—that Parker trimmed by 10 seconds to get an R rating.

With all its greasiness, there’s a good deal of power in this film. It’s not an exhilarating kind of power—more the kind that, by the end of the movie, makes you feel like Mickey Rourke’s seedy, wrung-out overcoat. Take that recommendation for what it’s worth.

First published in the Herald, March 1987

Alan Parker in his element, all right: down and dirty.

Turk 182!

January 2, 2013

turk182Turk 182! is one of those inscrutable titles that film studios hope will prove intriguing enough to lure the ticket-buying public. That’s what they think, anyway.

The movie behind the title turns out to be an ordinary entry in the reliably popular (and populist) little-guy-against-the-system genre. These plots usually spring out of some injustice that our hero needs to make right, which gives the filmmakers the chance to whip up some Pavlovian rage and send the audience into a good heavy-lathered sweat.

Well…Turk 1982! doesn’t perceptibly raise the perspiration level. It punches the right buttons in getting its anti-Establishment points across, but the proceedings are too automatic to lift it above the level of a programmer.

The injustice here centers on an off-duty New York firefighter (Robert Urich) who, while having a beer, sees a fire taking place across the street. He rushes over, fights his way through the blaze to save a little girl’s life, then accidentally falls through a window and racks himself up pretty seriously.

Cut to six months later: The fireman’s physical wounds have healed, but he’s off the force and ineligible for his pension benefits because he was under the influence while performing the rescue mission. Enter his shiftless younger brother (Timothy Hutton), who revs himself up with righteous anger and takes the case to city hall.

When the slimy mayor (Robert Culp) won’t listen to him, Hutton papers the walls of the mayor’s office with his brother’s benefit-rejection letters. Then he figures if he goes on a spree of graffiti-perpetrating, he might just get the attention of the powers-that-be.

He aims his barbs at the mayor, to embarrass him into examining his brother’s case. He plants a mysterious signature (Turk 182) on highly visible landmarks—a graffiti-proof subway car that the mayor is dedicating personally; on the posterior of the city’s mounted police; on the huge scoreboard at a Giants game, where the mayor hopes to pick up a campaign boost and gets booted instead.

The unknown Turk 182 becomes a local hero, and the mayor sends some cops (Peter Boyle and Darren McGavin) out to track him down.

It’s not a bad idea, but let’s face it, it’s not particularly great either. The execution of this idea, under the loose (and sometimes agreeably funky) direction of Bob (Porky’s) Clark, is similarly wishy-washy. There’s the perfunctory love interest (Kim Cattrall) for our sensitive hero, and the perfunctory tender scenes of brudderly love, etc.

Hutton is okay; he clearly enjoys playing rebellious roles, and he’s effective in them. One note to the filmmakers: in Hutton’s last scene, when he is supposed to be triumphant, his face is bathed in stark lighting from below. Such is the topography of Hutton’s face that this lighting emphasizes his resemblance to a weasel, which is probably not the effect the filmmakers wanted to get for this outlaw hero in his ultimate victory.

First published in the Herald, February 1985

This was maybe the most mystifying of the mystifying run of movies Hutton made after winning an Oscar for Ordinary People and presumably having some heat in Hollywood (see also Iceman and The Falcon and the Snowman). It is very much of the Eighties, even if the basic idea seems like a Seventies stick-it-to-the-man leftover.