Innerspace

November 28, 2012

Remember Fantastic Voyage? It’s the semi-legendary ’60s film in which a seacraft was miniaturized and injected into the bloodstream of a human being. The movie featured that immortal scene in which Raquel Welch strayed outside the capsule and was attacked by phagocytes. At which point her lucky crewmates got to peel the sticky things from her skin-tight bodysuit.

See? You do remember. That poker-faced film became a camp classic almost immediately; now Innerspace comes along to play the premise for out-and-out laughs.

The basic concept is, shall we way, in a similar vein. This time the capsule contains only one man, a daredevil pilot (Dennis Quaid). The miniaturization experiment is supposed to put him inside the body of a rabbit. Instead, he’s injected via hypodermic needle into the body of a part-time grocery store clerk and full-time nerd (Martin Short).

How this happens is, well, complicated. There’s a scheme that involves a madman (Kevin McCarthy) who wants the secret of miniaturization so he can—dare we say it?—rule the world. Eventually, he’ll mainline his own quasi-bionic hit man (Vernon Wells) into Short’s bloodstream to do battle with the little Quaid.

Like Fantastic Voyage, there’s a time limit on Quaid’s tenancy, which lends some suspense. Also a lot of imaginative human interiors. Quaid’s journey is realized by George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic special effects company; they create some neat internal landscapes, such as Short’s ulcerous stomach and his rushing red blood cells (which look suspiciously like cherry Fruit Loops).

Unlike Fantastic Voyage, the emphasis is on the comedy, and the slapstick opportunities for the gifted Martin Short, who used to do hilarious work on “SCTV” and “Saturday Night Live.” His high point is a frug in the manner of Ed Grimley (his pointy-haired “SNL” character) while Quaid plays tunes inside his body.

Since Quaid can talk to Short from inside, Short gets to do some amusing monologues, particularly one in a public men’s room. But somehow this idea seems warmed-over from All of Me, in which Steve Martin conducted a conversation with the internalized Lily Tomlin.

In fact, much of the film has a warmed-over quality. You’d think the best director for this kind of comedy-action blend would be Joe Dante, who lit the anarchic fire under Gremlins. But here Dante can’t get the overall machinery cooking, and I miss his usual feel for off-the-wall details.

The most interesting possibility is proposed when Quaid’s girlfriend, a reporter (Meg Ryan), gets swept into the intrigue, and becomes attracted to Short. Ordinarily, I’d think Dante would want to explore this unlikely threesome, but she goes back to Quaid and the movie drops it.

Innerspace delivers some good bits. Dante still has a fun touch with supporting players; he slips Henry Gibson in, and hands a juicy scene to Kathleen Freeman, who also stops the show with a similar single-scene tirade in the new Dragnet. But Dante seems underinspired, and the movie can’t run only on the rubbery legs of Martin Short.

First published in the Herald, July 1987

A fun movie, but something didn’t quite come to life. I never watched it again, but I have recently re-watched Richard Fleischer’s Fantastic Voyage, which deserves better than to be relegated to the camp classic category, although there is some of that there. It’s a well-made picture, and very imaginative. I may have been overly influenced by childhood memories of the Mad magazine parody, Fantasteeccch Voyage.


18 Again!

July 11, 2012

It’s happened again. The brain switchers are back. If you quivered at Like Father, Like Son, if you palpitated at Vice Versa, chances are you’ll be tingly all over at 18 Again! Once more, two people switch personalities—that is, they switch bodies—well, you know what I mean. You’ve seen it enough times.

If the title sounds familiar, it may be because George Burns, all 90something of him, has been singing the song “I Wish I Were 18 Again” for years. Someone had the idea to spin a movie out of the tune, and the film 18 Again! was born. Burns plays a wealthy, wisecracking, skirt-chasing tycoon; due to a strange mystical occurrence (did the Harmonic Convergence trigger this rash of brain switchings?), he trades places with his nerdy, withdrawn 18-year-old grandson (Charlie Schlatter).

As it turns out, this means that Burns isn’t in the movie all that much. Instead, we watch Schlatter playing a college kid with all the vinegar and drollness of the elder man. This provides some modestly amusing sequences, as the young nerd metamorphoses into a BMOC. He settles comfortably into the new role, though he startles his father (Tony Roberts) by lighting up a cigar and downing some cognac after dinner one night.

The almost-unknown Schlatter deftly handles the duties of impersonating a teenage Burns. He walks around campus in bow tie and pinstripes, and cozies up to Burns’ old pal (Red Buttons) to share golfing and gambling jokes. It’s a little weird watching an 18-year-old kid spitting out one-liners like an aging Jewish comic at a Catskills resort, but Schlatter makes it work.

Burns spends most of the movie comatose (literally, in the storyline), so the kid’s personality remains moribund while Schlatter frolics. But Burns is crisp in the opening and closing scenes, scuttling around introducing his statuesque vixen friend (Anita Morris, in her umpteenth statuesque vixen role) as “My companion, playmate, and confidante,” and doing everything but wink. Most of his dialogue is along the lines of his reply to a query about his taste for younger women: “I’d go out with women my age. But there are no women my age.”

The director, Paul Flaherty, does an effective job of keeping things simple and clear. Given a more ambitious screenplay, he might concoct a memorable comedy. In this outing, he keeps faith with Burns’ advice to his shy grandson on the technique of talking to women: “It’s not the lines, it’s the delivery.” That, of course, has been George Burns’ governing method through many decades of show business. He still makes it work.

First published in the Herald, April 1988

The next movie directed by Paul Flaherty (brother of Joe and longtime SCTV writer) was Who’s Harry Crumb?, which was not memorable. This can’t be my only reference in these writings to the 1980s phenomenon known as the Harmonic Convergence, but I haven’t uncovered any others yet.


Like Father, Like Son

April 17, 2012

We’re asked to make a pretty hefty suspension of disbelief in Like Father, Like Son. The high concept of this movie is that somehow a brain transference can be triggered by a drug, and that two people exchange personalities in the process.

Got that? Too bad if you don’t, ’cause the movie never attempts to explain it any more than that. We take it on faith that such a switcheroo could happen, and the way is cleared for the ensuing shenanigans.

This brain thing happens between a respected surgeon (Dudley Moore) and his teen-age son (Kirk Cameron, of TV’s “Growing Pains”). Suddenly, the son (in Dad’s body) is expected to make the rounds of his busy hospital. The doctor, in his son’s frame, has to attend high school (where he effortlessly takes command of the biology lectures).

That’s the concept, and it’s basically repeated until the film contrives an antidote.

It’s all impossible to relate, because when you’re talking about the son, it’s the father, and vice versa. I think. But the funniest ideas revolve around the romantic possibilities: Dad finds himself kissing a high-school girl, while Junior feels his glands percolating to a visit from the lusty wife (Margaret Colin, a funny actress) of a hospital chief of staff (Patrick O’Neal).

The movie, directed by Rod (Teen Wolf) Daniel, doesn’t really attempt anything other than dutifully laying out this series of comic situations. A couple of bits of business have some inspiration, such as Moore’s antics during a hospital staff meeting, when he chokingly lights his “first” cigarette and hocks some chewed gum into an associate’s hair.

Did I say that was the inspired part? Hmm. Ernst Lubitsch and Noel Coward may be turning in their graves. Well, that gives you some idea of the level of the rest of the movie. Actually, although Like Father, Like Son is fundamentally brainless, it’s also pretty painless.

First published in the Herald, October 1987

Yes, part of the personality-change craze of the late 1980s. The only about giving this movie a shrug because it’s not completely terrible is that it wastes Dudley Moore, and wasting Dudley Moore at this point in his career was not something that should have happened.


Big

January 31, 2012

Hanks and Zoltar: Big

When a 13-year-old New Jersey boy confronts an automated carnival fortune-teller called Zoltar the Magician, the kid confesses his most fervent wish: to be big. It’s a natural desire; he’s been hurting because his secret crush is a good foot-and-a-half taller than he. Next morning, when the boy rolls out of bed, he’s 6 feet tall and has stubble on his chin. He’s big, and he looks like Tom Hanks.

Big is the latest movie about a personality transplanted to a new body (a craze that includes Like Father, Like Son, and Vice Versa). Evidently Big was in the works before those other films, and it is the slickest of the three—and, in Tom Hanks, it has a most engaging leading man.

As a newly big person, Hanks can’t convince his parents that he is indeed their little son (they think he’s a kidnapper), so he head to New York to try to find Zoltar and reverse the process. During his search, he gets a low-level job with a toy company and, in the manner of Being There, soon rises to the top through his uncomplicated enthusiasm for toys.

His innocence also captures the eye of a jaded executive (Elizabeth Perkins). Admittedly, they aren’t quite on the same level; while riding in the company limo, she’s sensitively telling him, “I’m really vulnerable right now,” as he’s sticking his head out the sunroof and shouting, “Ejector seat!” But they get along.

Up until the point that it has to resolve itself, Big is a regularly funny movie. The director, Penny Marshall (who used to play Laverne in “Laverne and Shirley”), has a nice way of letting comedic scenes develop; Hanks’s introduction to the niceties of hors d’oeuvres at a fancy company party may be the best slapstick scene of the year (he daintily chews the kernels off a cob of baby corn).

Marshall has a real touch with scenes of liberation. There’s a marvelous moment when Hanks bumps into his boss (Robert Loggia) in a toy store and the two of them play “Heart and Soul” on a huge electronic keyboard activated by their feet. And when Hanks gets Perkins back to his apartment, which is littered with inflatable dinosaurs and wind-up toys, he loosens her up by inviting her to jump on his trampoline—a giddy touch.

The finish, which Marshall plays as sentimental, isn’t nearly as inspired as the earlier anarchy. When the movie goes soft, the wind comes out of the comedic sails. But Hanks does a wonderful job throughout, and continues to be our most energetic light leading man. He was not, apparently, the first choice for the part: When Elizabeth Perkins was in the area recently on a publicity tour, she said that Robert De Niro was originally slated to play the lead role, a fascinating if unlikely sounding possibility. Fascinating, but not necessarily funnier.

First published in the Herald, June 1988

The De Niro thing apparently should be “previously,” not “originally,” because some say Hanks was offered the part first but had scheduling problems. This is one of those movies that have the right elements so agreeably in place that the audience agrees to overlook a series of whopping issues (including the sheer weirdness of having a family experience the disappearance of their kid for a few weeks). In any case, Hanks is pretty glorious, and I enjoyed interviewing Elizabeth Perkins.


Dream a Little Dream

December 30, 2010

If you are older than 16, you may not be familiar with the phenomenon of The Two Coreys. The Two Coreys are a pair of young actors of a dewy age, midteen heartthrobs whose exploits are currently celebrated in such as magazines Tiger Beat. (Tiger Beat still exists, doesn’t it?)

Every now and then, The Two Coreys make a movie. Sometimes apart—Corey Haim starred in Lucas, Corey Feldman was one of the boys in Stand by Me—and often together, as in The Lost Boys and last year’s License to Drive. In the ads for their new film, Dream a Little Dream, telephone numbers are listed so that fans may call either Corey. Just two bucks a pop, and 45 cents for each additional minute. As the ads say, “Get Your Parents’ Permission.”

With all of this, does it really matter about the movie? Probably not, which is just as well: Dream a Little Dream is another personality-switch movie. An old guy (Jason Robards) figures out a way to move his spirit, which he thinks will bring happiness to him and his wife (Piper Laurie). Instead, his mind is transferred to a high-schooler (Corey Feldman), through whom he sees things anew.

Not all that much happens; the kid romances a gorgeous girl (Meredith Salenger), freaks out his puzzled parents, and startles Robards’ best friend (Harry Dean Stanton). There is some suggestion that the director, Marc Rocco, had in mind that the lessons of the film be a bit more complex than the usual teen-genre simplicity, but not much.

The movie has one remarkable sequence, the mind-transference routine. At night, Robards and Laurie stand in their backyard and perform some voodoo, while Feldman sprints through the cluster of alleys and yards and Salenger rides her bike through the streets, about to collide. On the soundtrack is Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic,” and a dreamlike quality pervades. The scene is much too good for the rest of the movie, quite bizarre and out of place, but it suggests that this director might make an interesting film someday.

Oh yes, the other Corey. Haim plays Feldman’s best friend, and does yeoman’s service. For now, the twin dynasty continues, but I hope these boys remember the fates of Bobby Sherman and David Cassidy.

First published in the Herald, March 8, 1989

The mind-transference scene is an example of something I love about movies. I saw this movie when it came out (obviously), and haven’t seen it since. It’s not very good. But that scene continues to pop into my head from time to time—it plays around with moonlight, and dreaminess, and I think the wind is blowing through these small-town backyards (at least that’s the way it plays in my mind); plus Van Morrison’s great song does its magic thing. I also really love the spectacle of running when depicted in movies, and here that movement bespeaks youth, especially next to the age embodied by Jason Robards. And all this in a dumb movie with the Coreys.

Marc Rocco was indeed interested in things beyond this sort of film; he made Where the Day Takes You, which aspired to grittiness and seriousness, and Murder in the First. The adopted son of character actor Alex Rocco, he died in 2009, before he was 50. Corey Haim died in 2010, at age 38, having been broken many years earlier.

As for the title song, the best cinematic use I can think of right now for this great standard comes at the end of Dominik Moll’s Lemming, a movie I have a weakness for. There it fits just right; here, not so much.