Kansas

April 30, 2020

kansasIn the first scene of Kansas, two strangers on a train meet. They’re not riding first class, either; both young men are hopping a freight as it rattles through the Midwest. As in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, one guy is esentially decent, the other is a dangerous psychopath who leads them both into crime.

But any similarities to Strangers on a Train end there. Kansas is a peculiar commodity, a movie that tries to go in a few different directions at once, and doesn’t arrive anywhere.

The two drifters are played by Matt Dillon, as the hard-luck crazy, and Andrew McCarthy, as the average Joe drawn into a violent scheme. Dillon invites McCarthy to stop by his little Kansas hometown, where the two casually knock off a small bank.

During the escape, they split up, and, somehow, McCarthy ends up with the money. Then, somehow, he saves the life of the governor’s daughter, who happens to be in town that day. Within the same hour, he’s a hero and a villain. He doesn’t stick around to see what happens next.

While Dillon is roaming the countryside wondering where the money went, McCarthy stops off at a local farm where he romances a snotty farmer’s daughter (Leslie Hope). At this point, everything in Spencer Eastman’s screenplay falls apart. The first couple of reels are interesting because you can’t really predict  where the movie is going, and there’s the natural suspense of criminals on the lam. But all of that dissipates with the lame love interest.

At times, Australian director David Stevens (A Town Like Alice) shows signs of wanting to tap into a quality of American restlessness, and his landscapes are pretty. But the story itself is unworkable.

Dillon is good, shifty and unpredictable. “I get high by doing the unthinkable,” he says proudly, and be seems as petulantly hurt by McCarthy’s personal betrayal of their friendship as he does by the misplacement of the money. Changing from a teen hunk into an actor must be a difficult thing, but Dillon bas done it.

McCarthy isn’t as lucky. He gives the same soulful-eyed performance he’s given in his last few movies, and it’s getting a little tired. But his character is nonexistent. We never know what this guy is thinking, or why he’s in the state he’s in, and I don’t mean Kansas.

First published in the Herald, September 1988

Screenwriter Spencer Eastman died before this movie came out, of lung cancer (he wrote Hide in Plain Sight, the only movie directed by James Caan). Director Stevens, who had worked a lot in Australian TV, never directed again, although he went back to writing, including the play and movie The Sum of Us. He’d been Oscar-nominated for writing Breaker Morant. Leslie Hope went on to better things; she’s done a huge amount of acting for TV (Kiefer Sutherland’s wife in 24) and also directing and producing. Her first movies were directed by Paul Almond and John Cassavetes, so she could hardly help but turn out interesting. Kyra Sedgwick is in Kansas, too, as “Prostitute Drifter,” according to IMDb.


Fresh Horses

April 29, 2020

freshhorsesA couple of years ago, a play called Fresh Horses garnered some good reviews for playwright Larry Ketron. The play has been made into a film of the same title (also written by Ketron), but surely not much else can be the same. The movie makes you wonder how anyone could ever have said anything good about this property.

Fresh Horses is about the troubles of a college student (Andrew McCarthy) who has his whole life set up for himself; he’s got the solid career looming, he’s got the engagement to the rich girlfriend, he’s got the responsible job as a numbers caller at the bingo hall. (Well, two out of three isn’t bad.)

Then he goes with a school buddy (Ben Stiller) out to a very strange house in the country owned by a woman (Patti D’Arbanville), who keeps her home open to strays and derelicts. There, McCarthy meets a red-headed vision (Molly Ringwald) and he flips.

As he begins meeting this woman in a little shack by the train line (he literally goes to the other side of the tracks for her), the rest of his life goes awry. The engagement’s off, and he becomes tortured by the thought that this girl has been consistently lying to him; she turns out to be 16 years old and married. That’s trouble.

Director David Anspaugh, who did a nice job with Hoosiers, struggles mightily to make something out of this story, and he achieves a few very handsome shots of the land as well as some sense of the hero’s isolation and consternation. But it’s a tough go, because there is simply nothing very interesting going on in this movie.

One of the fundamental problems is that the Molly Ringwald character is supposed to be one of those voluptuous earth-mother forces of nature who can captivate and ensnare the young hero.

That idea may be clichéd to begin with, but Ringwald is clearly not the actor who can bring it off. The first time McCarthy sees her, as he opens a door in the country house, it’s supposed to be one of those dramatic life-changing moments; but flinging her hair in front of the kitchen refrigerator leaves Ringwald somewhat shy of The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

First published in the Herald, November 1988

Ben Stiller was in this? I’d forgotten that, and also Viggo Mortensen.  This was getting to the end of Ringwald’s big run – she’d been in Godard’s King Lear and James Toback’s The Pick-Up Artist the year before, and For Keeps was also in ’88. That ain’t gonna get it done for the Pretty in Pink fans. This review sounds a little shortened by editorial hands, but I don’t know what else I would have said about the movie. 

 


For Keeps

April 28, 2020

forkeepsDuring the opening scene of For Keeps, two teen-age lovers (Molly Ringwald, Randall Batinkoff) indulge in some adult passion on a damp forest floor. Then, as the opening credits roll, the screen is filled with clinical depictions of the human fertilization process that resemble something out of a Nova science special. Evidently romantic comedy has entered the 1990s.

Actually, those shots are supposed to be funny, in an intentionally bizarre way. I think. In any case, the young Wisconsin couple has just managed to add pregnancy to their list of high school woes, and For Keeps is primarily about the troubles that ensue.

The resulting comedy-melodrama is summed up by Ringwald when she describes the situation thus: “They write bad country songs about this, okay?”

Ringwald’s snooty mother (Miriam Flynn) is miffed because a baby would mean the mother-daughter trip to Paris is off. Batinkoff’s blue-collar father (Kenneth Mars) is grumpy because he doesn’t want anything to stop his boy from going off to college at Cal Tech. But the kids decide to keep the baby anyway, and move out into a brave new world.

The script, by Tim Kazurinsky and Denise DeClue (they did About Last Night…), pokes some fun at the dewiness of these two. As Ringwald watches her belly rise, she admits that her childhood doll collection may not have properly prepared her for the big event. And when Batinkoff comes home to their ramshackle apartment and needs to express his frustration, he rips the refrigerator door open and takes a long hard swig of chocolate milk.

For Keeps is occasionally sort of cute in a mild way, but it seems rudderless under the direction of John G. Avildsen (The Karate Kid – that’s his movie, not his nickname). The various shifts from comedy to drama seem entirely predictable and shopworn.

Worse, in terms of onscreen effectiveness, the pairing of teen queen Ringwald and newcomer Batinkoff doesn’t take. Ringwald can’t wring anything new out of yet another high school senior (by this time she must’ve attended more proms than any American girl ever). And Batinkoff, a lanky kid with a voice that hasn’t completely changed yet, barely registers. The one thing they have going is authenticity; they’re nothing if not young.

First published in the Herald, January 19, 1988

Coincidences? The idea for posting this week was putting together movies with Brat Pack cast members. As it happens, yesterday I posted About Last Night…, also written by Kazurinsky and DeClue, their two most notable screenplays. Also, yesterday I registered my concern that IMBd did not retain the ellipsis that is undeniably part of the title of About Last Night…. Today, I see that IMDb has added a question mark to its official title listing for For Keeps. What the hell? The movie did not have a question mark in its title upon its initial release, as a look at the poster and Roger Ebert’s review will attest. Now that we’ve got that out of the way: For Keeps is not very good. It was shot in Winnipeg.


About Last Night…

April 27, 2020

aboutlastnightScan the credits of About Last Night …, and you can start to see “sellout” written all over it. Here’s a film adaptation of a play by Pulitzer Prize-winner David Mamet, but the screenplay has been written by a former Saturday Night Live Not Ready for Prime Time Player.

Not only that, the leads are played by a pair of Hollywood’s Brat Packers, and we all know how shallow and callow they are, right?

Then there’s the title switch, from Mamet’s marvelous Sexual Perversity in Chicago to the utterly innocuous About Last Night …. Sounds like the work of some soulless studio weasel, doesn’t it?

Well, all those things are warning signs, all right. But warning signs alone do not a film make. It turns out that About Last Night … is a thoroughly decent attempt to make some sense out of modern manners and morals. It doesn’t always succeed, but it provides quite a few sincere observations and some memorably spiky dialogue.

The story revolves around Danny (Rob Lowe), a laid-back, non-committal sort who hangs around in bars with his buddy Bernie (James Belushi) and enjoys the no-strings life of one-night-stands.

Then he meets Debbie (Demi Moore) who, naturally, is different. They become an item and move in together, much to the chagrin of both Bernie and Debbie’s roommate, Joan (Elizabeth Perkins). These two, who loathe each othe, share a common goal: to break up Dan and Debbie. Which, eventually, they do.

That’s as much of a plot as there is. Nothing particularly special; we know the movie is going to head toward Danny’s eventual growing up, acceptance of responsibility and all that jazz. As such, the film does fall prey to creeping conventionality, although there’s a clear effort by the filmmakers to try to avoid a sugary happy ending. (They don’t, not quite.)

But the script, by Tim Kazurinsky (Saturday Night Live alumnus, who also has a funny cameo here) and Denise DeClue, creates some good diversions along the way. There is much biting interplay among the main foursome, and Belushi – who also played his role onstage – gets some of the most unrepentantly sexist lines in recent memory.

The film begins with a soaring Belushi monologue about an unlikely sado-masochistic encounter that gets the film off to a hilarious start. He’s fine, and the movie doesn’t go too far in making him do a personality turnaround (many movies these days would have him renounce his Neanderthal ways before the fade-out).

Rob Lowe still seems ill at ease much of the time. He actually handles the big dramatic moments better than the simple business of walking across a room.

But if the movie is held together at all, it’s by Demi Moore, who exudes a fierce authenticity. When things start to lag – and they do from time to time – Moore can be counted on to deliver some small dose of truth.

Television veteran Edward Zwick directed (he did the taut TV-movie Special Bulletin), with a good deal of care, and quite a bit of sexiness. The film has some genuinely steamy scenes, unlike last year’s similar (but much worse) St. Elmo’s Fire, also with Lowe and Moore, which chickened out in the clutch (so to speak).

Zwick’s big failing is the inclusion of a bunch of songs, for the purpose of tethering the film to a hit album (just like – yep – St. Elmo’s Fire, which, come to think of it, was topping the record charts while the movie was slipping out of sight). Even with that, About Last Night … should turn out to be the ideal date movie of the summer.

First published in the Herald, July 1986

I’m not sure a friend and fellow Seattle critic every forgave me for admitting that I thought this movie was pretty good. I suspect I would not be as keen now. Moore‘s performance makes you wonder what she might have done if she’d decided to stick with acting instead of whatever it was she did. This was Elizabeth Perkins’ first movie. Special Bulletin was a TV-movie that took the Orson Welles/War of the Worlds approach to a story about a nuclear incident. Zwick went on to do the TV show thirtysomething with his writing partner Marshall Herskovitz, and then go back into big-movie directing. By the way, IMDb has dropped the ellipsis from the title of this movie, and also capitalizes thirtysomething, so Zwick is having trouble there. 


Troll

April 24, 2020

trollA little girl wanders into the basement of an apartment house that her family is moving into. Between the washing machine and the dryer lurks a gnarly little fellow who magically inhabits her body. This is the title figure of Troll.

He uses her as a vehicle for a plot that he’s been hatching for centuries. He plans to put the world under the domination of the trolls, and he’s going to build his revolution from this San Francisco apartment house (which is really somewhere in Italy, where the movie was shot).

So he goes to each room in the guise of the little girl and zonks the inhabitant with a magical green ring that turns the victim into a pod, which then explodes and changes the room into a verdant expanse of forest primeval. A bunch of little soldier trolls come running out, ready to conquer the world.

Only a few roomers resist: the little girl’s parents (Michael Moriarty and Shelley Hack), and the mysterious lady upstairs (June Lockhart of Lost in Space), who turns out to be a witch – a real one.

This is a weird idea for a movie, and not all of it works out well. In fact, it’s pretty dumb. But the little creatures, designed by director John Carl Buechler, are quite good. Troll is also funny (intentionally, too), and full of odd, pleasant actors.

Moriarty, for example. A decade ago, he looked like one of the hottest young actors around; now, outside of the occasional plum (Pale Rider), he’s become a horror regular (in Q and the upcoming The Stuff). But he’s still good to watch.

And former Charlie’s Angel Shelley Hack gives a warm, intelligent performance as the mother. Hack, who did a superb supporting turn in The King of Comedy, might do interesting work if anyone gave her the chance.

The other boarders are played by a curious band of has-beens, including Gary Sandy (WKRP in Cincinnati) as a gung-ho health nut; Julia Louis-Dreyfus; and Brad Hall, who used to do nothing on Saturday Night Live and who also does nothing here; and most importantly, Sony Bono as a self-professed swinger.

Sonny is the first victim of the troll, and the strangely satisfying sequence in which he is transformed into a forest glen is the film’s high point. The troll makes Sonny’s body turn into a big pea pod and then decomposes his body through various disgusting stages, which is a little repulsive to watch – however, this is Sonny Bono, remember; it’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it.

First published in the Herald, January 23, 1986

The kid’s name in the movie is Harry Potter, so I guess that’s another footnote to Troll’s already-solid legend. Buechler died in 2019, a special-effects maven and sometime director (he did VII in the Friday the 13th series). I’m slinging the snark in this review, so apologies to Sonny Bono and the rest of the gang, and I think it’s fair to say that calling Julia Louis-Dreyfus a has-been (this was her first movie, but post-SNL stint) was probably premature.

 


Torchlight

April 23, 2020

torchlightHollywood, we hear, is awash in a sea of cocaine. If you believe the rumors, the reason movies are so expensive to make is that the budgets of many pictures are ballooned by the coke allowance.

Up to now Hollywood has preferred to turn a blind eye to the subject of cocaine, at least as the main topic for a film. But a new movie tries to do something with the issue – and it comes from some independent producers, not from a major studio.

It’s Torchlight, which seems to be the pet project of Pamela Sue Martin, a former star of Dynasty; she co-wrote the original screenplay and served as associate producer. She’s also, of course, the leading lady; she plays an artist who meets and marries a rich, down-home building contractor (Steve Railsback).

You know their marriage is a little weird when, on their first anniversary, Railsback gives his wife pierced earrings – but she doesn’t have pierced ears. So Railsback pulls out a needle and some ice and, well, performs, the act himself -while the couple has sex.

Hmmm – we may have a screen first there.

He’s supposed to be a real hard-­living, Type-A personality – and so his eventual addiction to cocaine  is partially explained. He’s introduced to the drug by a freebasing friend (Ian McShane), a sleazy pusher. The rest of the film chronicles the collapse of the marriage, as the husband gets more wasted and the wife gets more disgruntled.

It’s certainly high time (excuse the expression) this subject was handled, but this isn’t the way to do it. Torchlight is barely on the TV-movie level of ambition, and for that, it’s not awful. But it really doesn’t exist as a movie, and it plods along at an unforgivably slow pace.

It also works against itself. Steve Railsback wasn’t cast as Charles Manson in TV’s Helter Skelter for nothing; there’s something about his narrow eyes and whiny voice that lets you know he’s a little wacko from the first few minutes you see him. So if this is supposed to be the tale of a normal marriage gone bad, it doesn’t wash. Railsback is so obviously weirded-out that the marriage always seems in jeopardy.

If that was part of the point of the film, it reduces the importance of the cocaine-addiction angle. But that’s typical of the level of confusion here.

The only fun to be had is generated by Ian McShane, who plays the diabolical pusher. McShane is a dark, greasy Mr. Goodtimes who slinks around his groovy bachelor pad in white jammies, cooing to his guests. He’s so slimy that you can’t imagine a cowboy like Railsback buddying up to him, but such is the power of the white powder.

McShane hams it up and gives the movie a bit of life. As for Pamela Sue Martin, she seems to embody the characteristics of the film itself: She’s nice, well-meaning and entirely much too tame.

First published in the Herald, February 8, 1985

A good time for McShane, apparently. Not sure exactly what went wrong with Pamela Sue Martin’s career, but this was a shot she took with her Dynasty clout, I guess, and it didn’t make much of an impression. It was directed by Thomas J. Wright, his first feature as director; he’s still busy in TV. IMDb says he created the paintings for Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, which is yet another amazing IMDb factoid.


Travelling North

April 22, 2020

travelling-northOne of the good things that happens in movies is that people who last long enough will often gather rewards. This is as true for the hardworking, unglamorous character actor as for the writer, director, or leading player.

Sometimes a character actor will wade through a whole career’s worth of quirky, interesting, peripheral work before he or she reaches the capper. Ben Johnson, after a lifetime of wonderful supporting work as a part of John Ford’s stock company, got his Oscar for The Last Picture Show. Harry Dean Stanton hit what will probably remain his peak in Paris, Texas.

Now the exemplary British character actor, Leo McKern, has found a crowning role in a new Australian film. Travelling North. McKern is best-known to American audiences for his consummate work in the English series Rumpole of the Bailey. (Personally, McKern will always be indelible in my memory as the crazed holy man who attempts to get the ring of Kahili off Ringo’s finger in the Beatles’ movie Help!)

Though McKern is identified with English TV, movie, and stage work, he was born in Australia, which makes Travelling North even more of a fitting touch. McKern plays a 70ish engineer, a man of cultivated tastes, domineering demeanor and lacerating tongue, who retires to a lovely home on the Australian coast.

Accompanying him is a slightly younger divorcee (Julia Blake); they both leave their grown children back in Melbourne. But the golden years are not quite idyllic, mainly because a variety of physical problems, especially heart trouble, plague the cantankerous man. Having to slow (and calm) down forces the old fellow into a re-examination of his hot-tempered life, as he sees the end approaching.

Playwright David Williamson has not created a great deal in the way of dramatic action (and the woman remains too much of an enigma), but he has created a golden opportunity for a skillful actor. Under the direction of Carl Schultz (Careful, He Might Hear You), McKern blusters and soars in the meaty role, which allows him to spew a string of well­-chosen words of venom in one scene and delicately wave his conducting baton to a radio broadcast of Mozart in another. McKern uses every ounce of his considerable flesh and every roll of his masterful voice to carry off the part.

The best thing about McKern’s performance is that he genuinely communicates the seasoning of years of experience. You can’t deny the sense of years lived when, anticipating his death, he insists that his companion break out a bottle of champagne upon his passing: “For all my faults, I’m damn well worth a magnum!”

First published in the Herald, June 1987

I don’t remember the film, but it’s nice to see that McKern got a plum here. Careful, He Might Hear You was a fine film, and very well-received on the arthouse circuit; Schultz’s big Hollywood shot was The Seventh Sign, the Demi Moore horror picture. Must find my review of that. Then he went into being a regular director on the Young Indiana Jones series.