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.

Crazy Moon

May 1, 2020

crazymoonCrazy Moon is one of those relentlessly cute movies about a pair of mismatched misfits who find each other and fall in love. Except that, society being what it is, their love affair must be made rocky by the insensitive people around them.

The male misfit is Brooks (Kiefer Sutherland), a decidedly eccentric rich kid who listens exclusively to Big Band music and dresses as though the zoot suit never went out of style. The female misfit is Anne (Vanessa Vaughan), a deaf girl who is just summoning up the courage to speak out loud.

Their “meet cute” takes place at the clothing store where she works, when Brooks steals a mannequin from the window. Somehow this endears him to the girl, and they get together for some sustained hand-holding sessions.

That’s about all there is to this Canadian film, as Brooks helps Anne with her speaking, and she helps him with his – swimming? Well, it’s a start. In the meantime, Brooks is victimized by his jerky brother (Peter Spence) and questioned by his wealthy father, who thinks the boy needs psychiatric help.

The big problem with Crazy Moon is the cardboard atmosphere. The characters are either cute and good or mean and nasty. The villains are so one-dimensionally cruel they’re not believable for a second.

Director Allan Eastman pushes the quirkiness of the misfits to the point where it becomes laborious, which kills the intended spirit of whimsy. The contrivances of the script by Tom Berry and Stefan Wodoslawsky are ever so neat and tidy; sending Anne away to Europe at the finale, for instance, pushes the tear-duct button without sacrificing a happy ending.

The two lead actors battle the ponderous pixieness. Kiefer Sutherland, son of Donald, has been steadily developing his talents (he was the menacing heavy in Stand by Me). He isn’t called upon to be much more than dreamy and odd in this outing. Vaughan, who is a deaf actress, is an affable performer, although she’s forced to be overly perky throughout.

The film comes to life when it portrays the shy difficulties the two have with their communication problem. When Anne spray-paints the words “What is Music Like?” on a concrete playground, it introduces a potentially touching theme, one that might have been more affecting if it weren’t so very similar to another music scene in Children of a Lesser God. That film, which also features a deaf woman in love with a hearing man, obviously bears some resemblance to the central relationship in Crazy Moon. This new film seems diminished by the comparison.

First published in the Herald, July 26, 1987

Sutherland was sticking to his Canadian heritage here, with a shot-in-Quebec story and Canadian filmmakers. I sense it has not left much of a shadow. The director did a lot of TV and also the 1996 feature Danger Zone, with Billy Zane, Robert Downey, Jr., and Ron Silver. Must see that.



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. 


April 6, 2020

relentlessArriving home in L.A., an ordinary guy listens to the message on his answering machine. “I called to see if you were home,” the calm voice says. “I have to kill you tonight.”

Sooner than you can say “Sorry, wrong number,” the ordinary guy has indeed been killed and the plot of Relentless has been set in motion. It’s a basic city-held-in-­the-grip-of-a-serial-killer movie, with Brat Packer Judd Nelson as the mad murderer. The creepy phone message is just about the last interesting touch in the movie, which quickly deploys itself in search of any kind of unpleasantness it can find.

Mostly it goes in the direction of buddy-cop formula. The two cops on the mad killer case are, of course, enjoying their first week as partners. And, wouldn’t you know it, they are exact opposites. One is an LA veteran (Robert Loggia), who’s gotten soft from all the sunshine and tofu; when he checks out a murder scene, he’s busy sizing up the layout. (Stepping over a body, he wonders, “What do these condos go for?”)

His new younger partner (Leo Rossi) is recently moved from New York, where they do this with a bit more zeal. His laid­ back wife (Meg Foster, wasted as usual) coaxes him into being more agreeable, by urging him to take out his hostility by talking nasty to plants, but the serial killer sends him into full Bronx throttle.

Much of the film is taken up with the leaden banter between tile two cops. Loggia and Rossi are good character actors, but director William Lustig, who recently weighed in with Maniac Cop, appears to have no touch with the lighter material.

As for the heavier material, well, it takes care of itself. Judd Nelson walks around looking a bit like Conrad Veidt in the silent classic Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, his eyes buggy, his cheeks sallow, his arms held out from his sides. He also runs around the edges of building roofs.

Flashbacks reveal that the problems are the fault of his father, a brutal policeman who tormented his son. Rossi tries to unravel this psychological tangle by consulting a police psychiatrist. The doctor offers a refreshing opinion on the profile of the killer: “Maybe he’s just crazy.” The way Nelson plays the guy, that’s good enough.

First published in the Herald, August 1989

I know Lustig has a following, but obviously I was not into this one. I am intrigued by one sentence here: “He also runs around the edges of building roofs.” It must have been distinctive, or absurd, enough for me to mention it. But is it one of Judd Nelson’s signature things here? The film was written by Phil Alden Robinson, who used a pseudonym, presumably because Field of Dreams was already in theaters at this point.