Last Resort

December 20, 2019

lastresortLast Resort is based on a familiar comic idea: the nightmare vacation. In this case, a tired businessman (Charles Grodin) takes his family to a resort called Club Sand on a Grenada-like island in the Caribbean, where a civil war seems to be taking place

But that’s the least of the problems. When they arrive on the island after a hair-raising plane ride, the family can’t understand why the beach is surrounded by barbed wire and soldiers. And the resort’s cabins are in various states of disintegration which, since the walls are apparently made of plywood, is a serious situation.

The staff is a multinational band of sex-crazed kids (they teach the vacationers the traditional island game called “Show Us Your Breasts”). Both Grodin’s teenage children are seduced by the locals, and his pre-pubescent son is carted off to a mini-camp where the director is into Nazi power games.

All of which would seem to leave a lot of room for comedy. But the low-budget Last Resort is awfully low on laughs, even though it sets up a few good situations and Grodin goes through his usual (often amusing) shtick.

Robin Pearson Rose is funny as Grodin’s wife, who eats psychedelic mushrooms and thinks she’s a horse. And Jon Lovitz, a regular on Saturday Night Live (he’s the guy who lies, hilariously) plays a bartender who can’t get his language straight, prompting a couple of precious moments.

But most of the film, and Zane Buzby’s direction, caters to Grodin’s method of slow-burn reaction, during which a series of outrageous atrocities happen to him while he keeps a steady deadpan. I like Grodin, although his comic style tends to make you smile dryly rather than laugh out loud. The film, by following his lead, is fitfully amusing without ever breaking out.

That, in itself, is OK. But Buzby’s direction, and the script by Steve Zacharias and Jeff Buhai (Revenge of the Nerds) doesn’t take time to give the characters much background. And a number of plot points, such as the fling Grodin’s oldest son has with a local entertainer, are never resolved.

The whole idea of the island’s revolution might have been made more central, which could have made the film an even blacker comedy. It’s a subject for some fiendishly clever filmmaker to exploit, given the Central American situation. As it is, the idea is set up early but not used until the end, when the revolution provides a convenient climax but not much else.

The perverse use of the civil war might have made Last Resort and original comedy. Instead, it satisfies itself with a familiar situation, where the gags are as isolated as the island itself.

First published in the Herald, April 17, 1986

A review written in haste, it would seem. Zane Buzby acts in the film as well, and is notable for her performance as the droning waitress taking Jerry Lewis’s order in Lewis’s Cracking Up. The cast includes a bunch of people soon to become better known, including Phil Hartman, Megan Mullally, and Mario Van Peebles.

Against All Odds

December 19, 2019

againstalloddsAgainst All Odds is another of those sweaty, hot­ looking movies that builds up a great sense of atmosphere. It may be that the director was too busy whipping up this atmosphere to notice that the movie was coming unglued, because Against All Odds is a rambling piece of work that succeeds neither as a love story nor as a thriller. It bears scant resemblance to the 1947 film on which it is based, Out of the Past, directed by Jacques Tourneur. That film was a lean, hard story about a guy with a past, a shady deal and a bad girl. It hurtled toward the hero’s eventual doom with efficiency and terseness.

Against All Odds meanders through a more complicated scenario. The story may be more ambitious, but it’s also more confused. And the film is so awkwardly shaped that it seems to come to a full halt a few times.

This washed-up Los Angeles football player (Jeff Bridges), at loose ends, agrees to go to Mexico to find the girlfriend of a sleazy bookie (sleazy James Woods) who is also the daughter of the football team’s wealthy owner (Jane Greer, who played the lead in Out of the Past opposite Robert Mitchum).

Woods has evidence incriminating Bridges in a fixed game, and Bridges is more or less blackmailed into looking for the girl, who stabbed Woods before she ran away. When Bridges finds the girl (Rachel Ward) on a Caribbean island, he quite naturally falls for her himself. Their island idyll is cut short when they realize that Woods will not give up looking for her.

But Bridges finds out that Ward plays a mean game, too; she leaves him standing on top of a Mayan temple with blood on his hands. At this point, the film switches back to Los Angeles, and you start to get almost as confused as Bridges’ character must be.

The love story gets woven into a bigger scam that involves Greer’s development of a Los Angeles hill into condominiums, and the devious and dangerous ways this is done. But by this time, so many crosses have been doubled that it’s hard to keep up with the complications.

Director Taylor Hackford – who scored such a big hit with 1982’s An Officer and a Gentleman – has paced the film to an inappropriately lazy beat. A fast car chase toward the beginning of the movie and some nice suspense in an office building toward the end are taut sequences, but there’s too much slack in between, and many things don’t make whole lot of sense. For instance, Woods’ henchman (Dorian Harewood) hangs around in a lot of scenes, but ultimately doesn’t seem to be there for any reason.

And the film is almost humorless – a disappointment when you’ve got a very witty actor, Jeff Bridges, in the lead, as well as some supporting players with solid comic credentials (Alex Karras, Saul Rubinek, and Swoosie Kurtz especially; only Kurtz gets to supply some much-­needed comic relief).

The acting of former model Rachel Ward seems to be improving. She’s a whole lot less wooden here than she was in TV’s The Thorn Birds, certainly, and she throws herself into the love scenes with gusto. She’s so gorgeous that the relative merit of her technical skills stops mattering after a short while.

First published in the Herald, March 3, 1984

A lot of plot revealed here. Maybe I didn’t know what else to say about this blah remake. And yet no mention of the impossible-to-escape Phil Collins title song (the film’s only Oscar nomination). My description of Out of the Past sounds odd now, as that movie strikes me as voluptuous rather than lean or terse, but maybe I was trying to make a point. Richard Widmark’s in this movie, too.

Chances Are

December 18, 2019

chancesareA real old-fashioned movie-movie, Chances Are is a welcome addition to the dismal Hollywood scene. It’s not a great film, but it is refreshing to see a traditional comedy format being smartly reworked by people who seem to care about the material.

A prologue, set in Washington, in 1963, shows the marriage of a young couple, their gushy happiness, and then the early death of the husband. But the husband doesn’t take his death lying down; in heaven (the customary version, with dry ice and jazz music) he demands that his spirit be reincarnated as soon as possible, so he can find his wife again. He’s promptly deposited into a newborn baby.

Jump ahead to the present day. The widow, Corrine (Cybill Shepherd), has been constant; never been with another man, despite the faithful and gentlemanly love of her best friend, Philip (Ryan O’Neal), who quite naturally pines for her.

Meanwhile, that same baby boy into whose mortal coil the dead husband’s spirit has shuffled, is now a young man: Alex (Robert Downey Jr.), a bright-eyed journalism student, who is brought to Corrine’s doorstep through a series of clever coincidences.

Alex doesn’t remember his past life – not yet – but he does know there’s something awfully familiar about Corrine’s house. Why, for instance, is he so sure the corn-holders are in the second drawer on the left?

One of the movie’s funniest sequences has Alex suddenly remembering who he was, and becoming very nervous about his attraction to this older woman, to say nothing of his ambivalent feelings about her – and his – college-age daughter (Mary Stuart Masterson).

Obviously, there are elements of such reincarnation classics as Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Heaven can Wait, and Made in Heaven. Director Emile Ardolino, in his first outing since the megahit Dirty Dancing, attempts to conjure some of the magical qualities of those films, and largely succeeds.

And this movie has romance to burn: tuxedos and evening gowns, a waltz to the sounds of a carousel, the Johnny Mathis theme song. The presence of Shepherd and O’Neal evokes a certain bygone style of Hollywood glamour, while the nimble performance of Robert Downey Jr., in his best role since The PickUp Artist, keeps the film lively. For the first time, Downey seems like a real leading man, charming and disciplined; his reactions as he twirls an enormous society matron around the dance floor at a fund-raising ball are evidence of some impeccable comic instincts.

The screenplay is by the sister team of Randy and Perry Howze, who also wrote Mystic Pizza. Aside from a disposable subplot about a corrupt judge it’s a nice piece of work; everything that gets set up in the deliberate, unhurried prologue has a payoff somewhere down the line. That sort of care brings the most satisfying results.

First published in the Herald, March 1989

It seems to have slipped off the radar, and I don’t think it was a big hit at the time. If I’m remembering right, I interviewed Ardolino for this film, and he clearly had a feel for movies, especially classic comedies. He died in 1993 from AIDS complications. Downey is terrific in this film, but so is Ryan O’Neal, displaying the gentler side of his screen persona. So the Howze sisters wrote three movies, and this is their final IMDb credit; what happened to them?

The Deceivers

December 17, 2019

deceiverseThe Deceivers is loaded with elements that suggest its worthiness as a movie property. It’s got scale, pageantry, action. There’s nothing here to prevent a rousing tale along the lines of Gunga Din.

As it turns out, however, there’s simply nothing here at all. The Deceivers is a perfunctory affair that doesn’t begin to tap the story’s possibilities. It’s based on a novel by John Masters, which fictionalizes a true story about a British diplomat (Pierce Brosnan) in India in 1825, who infiltrated the notorious (and murderous) Thuggee cult. The film contrasts his prim and proper existence, in which he marries his superior’s lovely blond daughter (Helena Michell), with his darker side, in which he joins the stranglers and begins to play his role with unexpected enthusiasm.

The split between his light side and his dark side is a rich theme, and the setting lends itself to high drama laced with the romance of the subcontinent. And we do get cobras, many­-armed goddesses and the self­-immolation of widows.

There are also juicy supporting turns from expert Indian actors Saeed Jaffrey (the loyal assistant in The Man Who Would Be King) and Shashi Kapoor (the popular Indian actor who recently starred in Sammy and Rosie Get Laid). But The Deceivers has a surprisingly flat, cheap look, as though the whole thing were produced on the fly.

Which is unexpected, as the producer is the class-A Ismail Merchant (A Room With a View) and the director is the usually reliable Nicholas Meyer (Star Trek II). Meyer can generally be counted on to bring the ingenuity of a precocious 12-year-old to his projects, and he obviously tries to bring some Gunga Din flavor to The Deceivers, with a few grabby moments (a corpse’s hand flopping out of a grave, a crazy fantasia as Brosnan makes love to an Indian girl).

But he’s swamped by the plodding pace, and the frumpy physical look. (It’s a bit shocking to think that any movie filmed entirely in India could be visually boring; but such is the­ case.) Also, Brosnan, who made a charming Remington Steele on TV, is skin-deep; he’s unconvincing as a man struggling with his soul. Brosnan was up for the James Bond role that Timothy Dalton won in The Living Daylights, and this film makes that decision look entirely appropriate.

First published in the Herald, September 1988

Has this film made any kind of impression on anybody? It’s kind of an outlier among Merchant Ivory films, and apparently Ismail Merchant wrote a book about the tangled production. In the odd directing career of Nicholas Meyer, this is a head-scratcher.


A Dry White Season

December 16, 2019

drywhiteseasonIn the opening shots of A Dry White Season, two little boys wrestle happily on a bright green lawn. One boy is white, the other is black. This may seem like an ordinary enough image, but the fact that the boys live in South Africa immediately charges the scene with bitterness.

A Dry White Season is a thoughtful, well-intentioned movie, and strong enough in its ultimate impact. I must say that, to these eyes, it never gets much more complex than that simple opening image; it’s a movie full of feeling and anger, but its characters are broad and obvious. The villains are evil, the complacent whites are shallow, the oppressed blacks are justifiably outraged and righteous.

All of which, in terms of the reality of the situation, sounds correct and appropriate. In terms of drama, it does not provide a particularly interesting story.                           ·

Like Richard Attenborough’s roundly criticized film of South Africa, Cry Freedom, the film centers on a middle-class white who becomes radicalized when the brutal apartheid system butts against his own life. Here the protagonist is a comfortable teacher (played by Donald Sutherland) whose gardener (Winston Ntshona) mysteriously dies while in prison on trumped-up charges. Sutherland’s attempts to find the truth result in his alienating his wife (Janet Suzman) and losing his job.

Susan Sarandon turns up in a peripheral role as a journalist helping Sutherland gather evidence on the police brutality; Jurgen Prochnow (Das Boot) plays the deadly police chief. Zakes Mokae, a South African­ actor now living in the United States, gives perhaps the film’s most intriguingly-shaded performance, as a taxi driver and anti-apartheid activist who alway seems to know more than he lets on.

A Dry White Season is the second film from director Euzhan Palcy, who made an impressive debut with Sugar Cane Alley a few years ago. Paley, who adapted the novel by South African writer Andre Brink, is clearly impassioned about her subject. Through sheer forcefulness, she keeps the movie compelling despite its sketchiness.

The most memorable element of A Dry White Season may be Palcy’s great casting coup. Marlon Brando, who hasn’t made a movie since 1980’s The Formula, and professes to be sick of the business, rolls into the film at about the halfway mark and plays a wily lawyer who conducts a bravura courtroom sequence.

Brando, who did the role for free, is one of our great actors. He is also not dumb: This part is about as juicy as they come. Huge, white-haired, sporting a florid British accent and a mountain of charm, Brando effortlessly seizes the movie and twirls it around his fleshy finger.

Granted, it probably throws the film off balance, but how exhilarating to see the great man at work. Too bad he no longer seems interested in exercising his gift.

First published in the Herald, September 1989

Palcy has been getting re-appreciated lately, which seems overdue. I’d like to watch this movie again, both for Brando and for the possibility that my mixed response had more to do with my own ideas about how stories should be about gray areas rather than good vs. evil fables. But hell, apartheid was about evil incarnate, so fair play.

A Fine Mess

December 13, 2019

finemessBlake Edwards must be plenty tired of A Fine Mess by now. First the screenplay bounced around for a few years, searching for the right casting, at one point slated as a Burt Reynolds-Richard Pryor teaming.

Then, after the movie was actually made (with Ted Danson and Howie Mandel), the opening date was delayed twice – originally scheduled as a Christmas ’85 release, then for spring ’86.

Now that it’s really here, we can guess why Edwards stuck by the project so long. He’s the modern master of the kind of comedy, the delicate combination of sophistication and slapstick, that goes back to such great directors as Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges.

As elegant as some of Edwards’ films are (10, Victor/Victoria), he still loves flat-out slapstick (as evidenced by the Pink Panther series). A Fine Mess tips its floppy hat with its title. This is less Lubitsch than Laurel and Hardy. In fact, buried within A Fine Mess is the kernel of Laurel and Hardy’s most famous short, The Music Box, in which the intrepid but hapless duo moved a piano up a steep stairway to a house.            

But that situation is not recreated, it just happens to be part of the plot. To describe how Danson and Mandel get to that point is to risk total incomprehensibility, but I’ll try.

Danson (who basically plays his Cheers role, which is perfectly okay), a two-bit actor, overhears a horse-racing scam while filming on location at the racetrack. A horse running the next day is to be doped up with a powerful new stimulant – a sure thing.

Danson talks pal Mandel, a roller-skating waiter at a burger drive-in, into putting his savings on the horse. And the horse wins, but the two are spotted and chased by the perpetrators of the fix, a couple of second-rate comic hoods played by Richard Mulligan and Stuart Margolin. They work for an opera-singing underworld Mr. Big (Paul Sorvino).

Somehow, in the process of being chased, Danson and Mandel end up in an auction house, where they inadvertently spend their winnings on a player piano. Mandel romances the auction house curator (Jennifer Edwards), who leads him to a prospective buyer for the piano, a wealthy woman (Maria Conchita Alonso) who is actually …

Well, it gets complicated at that point. Blake Edwards obviously loves the madcap twists and coincidences of the farce, and he turns them nicely. The only problem is, the movie is not all that funny. It’s consistently amusing, in a mild sort of way, but the big payoffs are rare.

Somehow, at the same time that Edwards is expressing his clear love of slapstick, his heart doesn’t seem to be completely in it. A Fine Mess has the air of having been tossed off with Edwards’ left hand while he was writing his next project. In fact, it suggests nothing so much as the possibility that, even during the filming, Edwards was already plenty tired of the whole thing.

First published in the Herald, August 16, 1986

Burt Reynolds and Richard Pryor – it sounds worth a shot, anyway. I remember almost nothing about this film, except that the TV casting suggested a surrender on Edwards’ part.


December 12, 2019

firestarterOverheard while walking out of the theater after Firestarter: “Let that be a lesson to you: never volunteer for scientific experiments.” Words of wisdom. But if people, real or fictional, ever heeded  that lesson, we’d be robbed of a lot of science fiction/horror stories.

In Firestarter, the latest film adaptation of a Stephen King tale, a scientific experiment with hallucinogenic drugs alters the minds of David Keith and Heather Locklear, who develop certain telekinetic powers. Their eventual offspring (Drew Barrymore) is even more gifted: She can start fires just by concentrating.

This makes the little girl a target of interest for the fiendish government agency (called The Shop) that started the whole experiment in the first place. One doctor (Freddie Jones) wants to expunge the kid’s talent before she passes through adolescence and develops nuclear capabilities. Naturally, he’s not long for the world.

The Shop would rather exploit her abilities. The head honcho (Martin Sheen) sends his most fearsome hit man, a psycho named Rainbird (George C. Scott), out to bring back the girl and her father (mother having been killed in a flashback).

Some of this gets a bit murky. We don’t really know what kind of powers Keith has, for instance, or why, if he can control people, he doesn’t just manipulate an effective solution. And, when Barrymore is eventually imprisoned, it should occur to her that she could burn her way out. Evidently it doesn’t.

Plot holes such as these don’t stop the movie from being a fairly good, professional job. Director Mark L. Lester doesn’t have a very clean visual style, but at least he doesn’t let the film become a guts ‘n gore epic. And the star-heavy cast, presumably bankrolled by the inexhaustible executive producer Dino De Lau rentiis, makes it watchable.

Oscar-winners Art Carney and Louise Fletcher have the kind of supporting roles that could have been played by almost any actors. Scott, however, makes the most of Rainbird, who insinuates himself into a friendship with the child, then reveals his despicability in the climactic scene. As he stalks Barrymore through a stable, toting a pistol and wearing an eye patch, he looks like a deranged version of John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn – truly a child’s dream turned into a nightmare.

Someone had the canny idea to cast cherubic Drew Barrymore – the little sister from E.T. – as the tiny heroine. Her naturally likable presence plays well against the reality of her terrifying power. Every few minutes, she gets to burn something to the ground, which she does with deadpan intensity.

All through the film, we’ve been made aware that all the girl wants to do is live a normal life. At the end, after The Shop gets its just reward, our heroine doesn’t quite fade into the general populace. Instead, she finds herself at the front door of the New York Times, ready to reveal all. Good grief. Out of the frying pan . . . .

First published in the Herald, May 1984

I never saw it again, and don’t have much recollection of it. You’d think the George C. Scott stuff would be memorable, but I honestly had no memory that he was in this movie until just now. To say nothing of Heather Locklear, of whom we will say nothing.