Valley Girl

November 30, 2010

Cage, Foreman, not at all grody

(Sorry, I have to do a prelude with this reprint: the whole joke of the opening paragraphs is that this review was written in mid-1983. Okay, proceed.)

Remember 1982? Those were the days: E.T., the Go-Go’s, Smurfs. And remember those crazy Valley Girls, who rose up from the shopping centers and hair salons in California, with their wacky sayings—”Gag me with a spoon,” and “Fer sure,” and “Tubular”? Valley Girl mania must have lasted a good four, maybe five months.

Back then, it probably sounded like a great idea to cash in on the trend with a movie—just slap the title Valley Girl on it, throw a bit of plot around the edges, and make a quick little killing.

But life was simpler, more clear-cut, back in ’82. For instance, the big crisis in Valley Girl springs from its Romeo and Juliet situation: our Valley Girl heroine, Julie (Deborah Foreman), falls for punk rocker Randy (Nicolas Cage), and runs the risk of being ostracized by her preppy friends.

Now, as the movie finally opens in the Northwest (six months or so after its initial release), the differences between the preppies and the punks have pretty much disappeared. Lifestyles, fashion, and music have melted into a single mushy mixture of preppy-punkdom.

This might suggest that Valley Girl is already dated, or less believable than it might have been. Maybe so. But if those battle lines between fashion factions have become blurred lately, it doesn’t mean Valley Girl can’t be enjoyed on its own merits.

And, believe it or not, it does have merits. Modest merits, to be sure; but there’s a good-natured feeling about the whole low-budget enterprise that makes it endearing.

Not that the film doesn’t engage in the usual shenanigans of this genre; there are plenty of teen-age girls in bikinis, and a few sophomoric sex jokes. That’s to be expected. But Valley Girl is a world away from the likes of Porky’s.

This film presents its two main characters—winningly played by dimpled Foreman and sleepy-eyed Cage—with a fair portion of sensitivity. Their friendship doesn’t just exist to provide a springboard for a string of gags; it actually seems to matter.

The care with which Valley Girl is made is probably courtesy of the director, Martha Coolidge. Coolidge is not particularly gifted with the camera—although she’s clearly made the film under shoestring conditions—but she has a talent with the young actors, and the film moves along nicely.

There’s a scene in which Julie and Randy go on a walking date through the streets of Los Angeles, and Coolidge frames the couple against the garish neon signs of fast-food places and shopping malls. The sequence manages to be as romantic as if they were walking down a Parisian boulevard, and it’s funny, too—but in a friendly way, not a sarcastic way.

To over-praise Valley Girl is to kill it, so I’ll stop. After all, the Big Decision of the movie involves Julie’s choice for the senior prom. But if that kind of thing can still seem crucial to you, think about giving this little movie a look.

First published in the Herald, 1983.

Oh, go ahead: over-praise! I love this movie. I guess that “mushy mixture of preppy-punkdom” was called New Wave, a patch of music history I remain un-fond of. (However, good soundtrack here, leaning heavily on the Plimsouls’ glorious “A Million Miles Away” and Modern English’s “I Melt with You,” songs that remind you that great music emerges even in the down times.) The opening paragraphs were intended as a joke on the quickness of fads, because the review was written barely a year after that stuff happened. I was wrong about Coolidge’s gifts with the camera (she’s very aware and precise as a visual filmmaker). I interviewed Coolidge for a Film Comment piece when Rambling Rose came out (FC issue Nov.-Dec. 1991) and she talked about how Valley Girl came out of all the research she’d done on a punk love story that was going to be produced by Francis Coppola; when that project went kerflooey, she put all her feeling for music and the milieu into Valley Girl. I’m so glad I pointed out the neon-lit date scene; that’s a magical moment in movie romance, especially given the incongruous setting—but the incongruous setting makes the moment all the more precious.

“A Million Miles Away,” on YouTube.

Maid to Order

February 23, 2021

Maid to Order means to crossbreed It’s a Wonderful Life with Down and Out in Beverly Hills. That’s a pretty strange combination, and it’s a strange, unsuccessful film, although it has a few sweet touches.

The gimmick is this: An irresponsible spoiled brat (Ally Sheedy) lands in jail for possession of cocaine. Her father (Tom Skerritt) idly wishes she’d never been born. Just as in It’s a Wonderful Life, the wish is made true, this time by a fairy godmother (Beverly D’Angelo) who informs the startled Sheedy that she is now persona non grata, with no past.

Sheedy’s family and friends don’t know her, so she must make her own living for the first time. The idea is abhorrent to her: “I didn’t spend six years in junior college to be a maid!” But she jumps at her first opportunity: to be a domestic for a couple of daffy Beverly Hills talent agents (enjoyable overplayed by Valerie Perrine and Dick Shawn). In other words – and this is the film’s “high concept” – she goes from Valley Girl to valet girl.

This setting brings the opportunity for much social satire, most of which focuses on the outrageously tacky outfits that Perrine and Shaw drape over themselves, and the nutty ’80s-babble they spew. And it’s an excuse for Sheedy to be a fish out of water, which is worth a couple of well-worn laughs.

A subplot about a cook (wonderfully warm performance by singer Merry Clayton), who used to be a famous singer, exists to bring the fairy tale to a neat conclusion. And the love interest, Michael Ontkean as the chauffeur, seems extraneous.

Amy Jones is the co-writer and director; her previous features were the satiric Slumber Party Massacre and the arty Love Letters. She brings a few gentle touches to this movie, mostly in terms of mood, but the contrived circumstances of the plot are too much of a strain.

Also, the film cheats on its supposed lesson. Sheedy is supposed to grow up and act responsibly before she can be restored to her old life. This, she accomplishes. But, unlike It’s a Wonderful Life, her past problems – the cocaine bust, for instance – are magically wiped away when she goes back to living her previous life. That’s facing up to your problems?

First published in The Herald, July 30, 1987

Always good to get a bit of stern moralizing in before the end. If that is the end – the review just leaves off there. Amy Holden Jones directed just one more feature film after this, the Halle Berry thriller The Rich Man’s Wife; she wrote Beethoven and Indecent Proposal.

My Chauffeur

November 23, 2020

My Chauffeur is a shapeless, out-of-control mess that unaccountably garnered some good notices (and good business) earlier this year. This may be due to the film’s superiority to the usual exploitation fare, and because writer-director David Beaird tips his hat to a few classic screwball comedies form the past.

But, if Beaird lets us know he’s seen some great comedies, he doesn’t give much evidence of having learned any lessons from them.

The story has screwball elements. A dishwasher (Deborah Foreman, who essayed the titular role in Valley Girl) receives a mysterious employment summons from the millionaire owner (E.G. Marshall) of a limousine service. She reports for duty as a driver and sends the other drivers, an all-male enclave of suit-and-tie fuddy-duddies, into extended dithers when she breezes into the place, popping her gum and shaking her tailfeathers.

Her employment seems to be an excuse to have her meet Marshall’s son (Sam Jones), a joyless workaholic who runs Dad’s companies. She’s driving him to Northern California when they blow a gasket and must trek across the desert, accompanied by much chauvinist-feminist banter. After that, they fall madly into bed with each other.

The comic relief comes from Foreman’s other driving jobs, such as the punk musician named Catfight who tackles an overweight woman in a city park because she’s wearing blue, and a nutty sheik who wants a night out on the town.

The episode with the sheik is an excuse to get the hot Broadway magician-comedians Penn & Teller into the film. The sheik (played by Teller – I think) remains silent throughout, as a fast-talking hustler (that would be Penn, then) strips him of his money and provides the good times.

They pick up some party girls and everyone climbs into the back of the limo, which prompts Penn’s immortal line: “Ladies, it’s time for a little gratuitous nudity. You supply the nudity, Abdul supplies the gratuities.”

That, I’m afraid, is the funniest line in the movie, as the rest of the characters bounce helter-skelter among the disconnected scenes.

Particularly unfunny is Foreman’s performance. She’s been encouraged to mug outrageously, as though trying to lift the film up to her own level of energy (in the way that Bill Murray’s fooling can sometimes transform bad movies).

First published in The Herald, March 5, 1986

Looks like a paragraph or two got lopped off the end of this review. I wonder whether I talked about the (if I’m remembering correctly) weird twist ending. Beaird also directed Scorchers. I don’t recall what the positive reviews were all about. Sam Jones was billed without his middle initial here (J.), an important part of the ineffability of being the star of Flash Gordon, I would think.

Joy of Sex

August 24, 2020

The question is: How did they make a movie out of The Joy of Sex? They didn’t. They made yet another teen exploitation comedy, all about the usual problem of losing one’s virginity. This one takes place at Richard Nixon High School and involves a girl (Michelle Meyrink) and a guy (Cameron Dye) who set out to accomplish this goal.

The birth of this film was difficult. For years people worked on screenplays that might fit the exploitable title, but nothing worked.

When the current film finally came together, it was known as National Lampoon’s Joy of Sex until a couple of months ago, when the Lampoon requested that its name be taken off the project.

That’s just as well. This Joy of Sex doesn’t really have the proper quotient of gross-outs to merit the Lampoon moniker. It has a lot of stupid, tasteless jokes, but it also has a few genuinely funny ideas – and a buoyant spirit, too.

It was directed by Martha Coolidge, the director of Valley Girl, the charming sleeper of 1983. Coolidge is an intelligent person, and that makes her, in a way, the wrong choice to film this kind of movie; she doesn’t quite deliver the down-and­ dirty goods. (It’s almost nudity-free, for example – practically a sin in this genre.)

But she is responsible for the tone of some of the sly, deadpan humor. The situations are stock – like the monkey business in the sex-education class – but Coolidge injects some life in the proceedings by casting Joanne Baron as the repressed teacher who looks starched and proper while hissing lasciviously about the sex life of “The fascinating flatworm!”

And Coolidge has selected some attractive actors. Colleen Camp does funny work as an overdeveloped newcomer to Nixon. There are many oddballs among the supporting cast, and they keep the film watchable even when the material lets them down.

Many of the actors were also in Valley Girl, including the leads. Michelle Meyrink is fetching as the heroine who finds a mole and (naturally) believes it is cancer. Thinking she only has a few weeks to live, she sets out to discover what sex is all about. After a number of failures, she’s discouraged: “I’m trying to be an easy lay,” she sighs. “Doesn’t that count anymore?”

Cameron Dye doesn’t register as strongly as the boy, but the film does shift subtly toward the girl’s story, which manages to touch lightly on the issue of a pregnant girl getting kicked out of Nixon High.

There’s also a subplot about an undercover narc among the kids. Like most films of this kind, Joy of Sex makes no bones about the sexual activity and drug use rampant among high-schoolers. It treats them as matters of fact.

Finally, Coolidge can’t make a silk purse out of this sow’s ear. The film is weighed down by the conventions of exploitation films. But there’s enough offbeat and/or funny stuff in Joy of Sex to make me. look forward to a film in which Coo­lidge works from decent material.

First published in The Herald, August 8, 1984

Yes, big fan of Coolidge here (Valley Girl is a dream), but this doesn’t do it – not that I’ve seen the movie since ’84 (I did a career-appreciation piece on Coolidge for Film Comment in the early 90s and I’m pretty sure I skipped a re-watch on this one). Meyrink was also in The Outsiders and Real Genius and dropped out of movies shortly thereafter.


July 23, 2020

birdyBirdy is one of those nagging movies that can’t quite let you go. It nags you while you watch it, because it’s got a rather inflated sense of self-importance. But it also nags you after it’s over – this time because for all its faults, it’s got little things that stay with you.

Based on William Wharton’s 1979 novel, the film tells a highly eccentric tale of a friendship between two South Philly boys during the Vietnam years. Al (Nicolas Cage) is a normal goofball, but Birdy (Matthew Modine) is a special case. His escape from the hard reality is in the world of birds: He thinks about them, owns them, imitates them. As his sanity gets shakier – and especially as he’s rocked by Vietnam combat expeience – he gets closer and closer to transforming himself into a bird (or at least as close as humanly possible).

When the film opens, Al is visiting Birdy in an Army mental hospital, and we discover the story of their friendship through a series of flashbacks. The film employs a shrewd mix of comedy and drama in etching Birdy’s growing disassociation from reality; his 100-foot fall from a gas tower to a sand pit is lightened by the fact that he and Al are dressed in absurd pigeon suits at the time.

In fact, the difference between Al and Birdy comes out when Birdy tries to explain the necessity for the pigeon suits, which they will wear when catching pigeons to train for carrying messages. “When you put on the suit,” Birdy explains, “the pigeons’ll think you’re one of them.” Al adopts his best are-you-outta-your-mind look and says, “I don’t want the pigeons to think I’m one of ’em.” (Neither seems bothered by the fact that no bird in his right mind would mistake them for a member of the same species.) One’s the romantic dreamer and the other the sardonic realist.

That the film is often obvious and aggravating in its presentation of its themes and ideas seems primarily the fault of director Alan Parker. Parker, the British director of Midnight Express and Shoot the Moon, has demonstrated before his tendency for high-pitched stylization – lots of sunlight streaming through smoke-clouded rooms – and heavy-handedness. There’s not too much about Birdy that’s subtle, particularly in the characterizations of the supporting players.

But the two lead actors – that’s a different story. I don’t know if it’s Parker’s work, the intrinsic fable-like quality of the story itself, or just the sheer talent of the actors, but Cage and Modine are a fascinating couple.

Modine registered his likability in Vision Quest and Mrs. Soffel earlier this year, and his wide-eyed, dreamy performance in Birdy really makes him an actor to watch. He gives his character’s intention to fly an eerie determination.

Cage doesn’t have Modine’s range yet, but he’s got his own funky charm. And, as proven by Valley Girl, Racing With the Moon, and The Cotton Club (the latter for his uncle, Francis Coppola), the camera seems naturally drawn to his energy.

The film is often grating. But the chemistry between these two actors makes much of this offbeat enterprise weirdly memorable.

First published in The Herald, May 12, 1985

Maybe hindsight makes this clearer, but surely the two actors should have switched roles? Also, thinking about the fact that Modine went to work for Kubrick shortly after this film, consider the possibility that Nicolas Cage might have been cast in Full Metal Jacket instead. That would have been an interesting movie. (But then maybe we don’t get Cage in Raising Arizona or Moonstruck, both released in ’87, so that’s no good.) This is not exactly a great review, but perhaps a useful snapshot of where these actors were then. Bruno Kirby and John Harkins were also in it, and there’s an early role for Karen Young. Peter Gabriel did the music.


Plain Clothes

March 26, 2020

plainclothesA teacher staggers into a high­ school classroom, glassy-eyed and mumbling. Nothing too unusual about that, you think, until he falls to his knees, mutters the cryptic phrase “Easy grader,” then falls dead, a knife in his back. The students seize the opportunity for an impromptu recess.

This nutty opening sets the tone for Plain Clothes, which uses a recently popular movie plot – adult returns to high school posing as a student – and finds new, funny material in it. In this instance, the adult is a Seattle cop named Nick Dunbar (Arliss Howard, Cowboy from Full Metal Jacket) whose teen-age brother is accused of the murder; Nick returns to school under the alias Nick Springsteen. “Any relation?” people keep asking him. “Distant,” he says mysteriously.

The uncovering of the plot is the excuse for some utterly pixilated comedy, a mix of rapid-fire offbeat verbal exchanges and daffy character pieces. Nick meets a gallery of suspects, including the sawdust­ covered shop teacher (George Wendt) with the obligatory missing fingers; the semi-hysterical administrator (Diane Ladd) who uses the cast on her arm for different kinds of emphasis; the crazed principal (Robert Stack) whose public address system is his lifeline, and possibly his only connection, to the world.

This movie is stuffed with black­ humored details and bizarre moments (a police SWAT team descends upon a suspect holed up in a kiddie park of elf houses). The sound­ track is full of offscreen asides that recall the layered, did-I-just-hear-­what-I-thought-I-heard gags of a Richard Lester movie. Even the romance is off-kilter, as Nick the student finds himself lusting after a teacher (Suzy Amis).

Up until the time when it has to start paying attention to the matter of sewing up its plot (which doesn’t make much sense, and doesn’t really need to), Plain Clothes establishes the dizziest comic atmosphere of any movie so far this year. Much credit for this goes to director Martha Coolidge, who made the entire film in Seattle and returned recently for some interviews.

While here, she talked about comedy, the form she has found herself in despite her background as a maker of substantial documentaries.

“You have to take comedy seriously,” she says. “It sounds like a contradiction in terms, but it’s true. One of the effects of TV is to dilute certain kinds of comedy. TV skits have invaded movie comedy; you can have one great scene, and that’s it. The great comedies in the world have great characters.”

Coolidge’s features, Valley Girl and Real Genius, were notable throwbacks to a more traditional kind of screwball comedy. Valley Girl, for example, may have begun life as a teen exploitation pie, but Coolidge drew out all the hot, Romeo and Juliet romance of the situation, eschewing the usual titillation of the genre. In movies, she said,”Romance and sex are more powerful the more withheld they are.”

Of casting the serious actor Arliss Howard in Plain Clothes, she says, “I always thought of this as Steve McQueen Goes to High School.” She says she wanted the contrast of the crazy things happening to the non-comedic lead, and admits, “I don’t think anybody would have thought of putting Arliss in a comedy except me.”

Her next film will probably be another comedy, but she’s also been working on a military action movie and a TV pilot full of “male bonding and humor. I’m offered a lot of women’s pictures,” she says. “Directors get typecast. A big hit would be very helpful.”

Regardless of how Plain Clothes performs at the box-office, Coolidge is a hot property.

First published in the Herald, April 15, 1988

I interviewed Coolidge a couple of times over the years; the more substantive one came for a Film Comment story about Rambling Rose, her terrific (and weirdly undersung) 1991 film. A smart filmmaker who deserved the “big hit” that might have given her more opportunities (still, an admirable collection of films). 

A View to a Kill

February 2, 2011

With a Jones to a Kill

Every since 1980’s Moonraker—a vapid, terrible movie—the James Bond series has been undergoing an unexpected renaissance. The last few entries have been surprisingly enjoyable adventure movies.

Perhaps it’s because star Roger Moore doesn’t feel he has to prove himself in the role that really belongs to Sean Connery. Moore is all relaxation these days, and the Bond films—still guided by producer Albert (Cubby) Broccoli, who’s been on board since the first Bond picture, Dr. No, in 1962—whirl around him with solid special effects, some (but not too much) glitzy gadgetry, spectacular stunts, and gorgeous women.

A View to a Kill, the one for summer ’85, fulfills the Bond formula very well. Directed by John Glen, who also did a clean job directing For Your Eyes Only and Octopussy, this adventure takes Bond from the Siberian wasteland (in the pre-credits teaser, which is camped up by the use of “California Girls” on the soundtrack), to the high society of Paris, to a nifty high-wire act atop the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

Most important, this film boasts some fine villains for Bond to play against—and that’s always an important part of the 007 experience. Christopher Walken is the blond, psychotic madman who seeks to—dare we say it?—rule the world, through a devious plan to destroy Silicon Valley and control the world’s microchip sales through his own company. Walken injects lots of little bizarre nuances into his performance, and he seems to be enjoying himself immensely.

His chief henchman (henchperson?) is played by Grace Jones, the androgynous singer. A clever casting idea, and Jones, with her stunning looks, keeps the film from getting stodgy. German actor Patrick Bauchau (the husband in Choose Me) lends his powerful presence as another of Walken’s baddies.

The good girl is Tanya Roberts, who looks great but is pretty insipid. She is, unfortunately, much less interesting than the villains, so the audience’s subconscious sympathies may get confused.

Moore, collecting more wrinkles as the years go by, is bland but smooth, gliding through a party at a French chateau in trademark white dinner jacket, jumping around on the Eiffel Tower, hanging from a rope attached to a blimp, or scuttling around one of the Golden Gate’s towers. It’s business as usual for the man with the license to kill.

It’s business as usual all around. A View to a Kill—theme song by Duran Duran this time out, by the way—won’t knock anybody’s socks off, and it doesn’t’ resemble anything like great cinema. But then, it doesn’t attempt anything more than the playing out of its familiar formula. As such, it must be counted a success. Certainly in box-office terms it has a rosy future.

At the end of the Bond films, there’s always a tag line in the credits: “James Bond will return in…” fill in the title. This time, we just get the vague assurance that “James Bond will return.” Hmmm. Something’s up—Roger Moore may be getting a bit long in the tooth for all the action. I’m guessing this will be his last outing as Bond, but the character will probably go on forever. They’ve replaced him before, after all.

First published in the Herald, May 23, 1985

This is the best I could do right now for a John Barry tribute—where the hell’s my Out of Africa review? I’m not sure A View to a Kill has worn well for 007 fans, but apparently I liked it, and that zany cast of villains seemed fun at the time. I’m guessing Grace Jones hasn’t aged well in the role. (Richard Kiel must’ve been pissed.) In 1985, it was still possible to write “Walken injects lots of little bizarre nuances into his performance” without that seeming like an obvious point. John Barry has brought more to the Bond franchise than perhaps it deserved (his You Only Live Twice is the movie I remember, not the actual film), and although I guess I should be embarrassed to say this I think his Duran Duran collaboration suited the Bond world rather well.