St. Elmo’s Fire

May 7, 2012

St. Elmo’s Fire is an attempt—and, by all evidence, a sincere and well-meaning attempt—to treat the current generation of college graduates with the brand of wit and wisdom bestowed on the ’60s crowd in The Big Chill. Which means it’s about a group of close friends who spend half their time getting into various romantic couplings, and the other half talking about getting into various romantic couplings.

Actually, there’s more than that; some examination is made of directionless lives, and the emptiness of even the lives that may appear to have direction. Just like The Big Chill. But unlike The Big Chill, St. Elmo’s Fire does not burn with the sort of witty, rueful, wise dialogue that makes this kind of film work. In terms of ambition, it’s admirable, but in terms of accomplishment, it’s regrettable.

The fault here goes to director Joel Schumacher (who wrote the script with Carl Kurlander). Schumacher, the director of such lightweight fare as The Incredible Shrinking Woman and D.C. Cab, seems to have bitten off more than he can chew. An occasional detail rings true, and the overall atmosphere is funky and pleasant, but the film swerves time and again into cliché and patness, and sometimes plain stupidity.

The actors Schumacher has assembled are among the best young folks in Hollywood today (dubbed “the Brat Pack” in some quarters)—it’s a shame they aren’t shown off to better effect. The best role—that of a self-destructive, irresponsible sax player—goes to the weakest actor, Rob Lowe (Oxford Blues). Lowe’s pretty-boy looks contradict his part, and he’s not good enough to make the contradiction interesting.

Emilio Estevez (Repo Man) has the worst part: a would-be law student infatuated with a former classmate (Andie MacDowell). Estevez’ role is slapstick comedy, unrelated and not meaningful to the other plot lines, and his scenes (through no fault of his) are the film’s more irrelevant.

Judd Nelson (The Breakfast Club) and Ally Sheedy (ditto) play the perfect couple, the two yuppies expected to marry and live happily ever after—except that it might not work out that way. Mare Winningham plays a nebbish social worker in love with her exact opposite, Lowe’s sax player.

The two actors who come off best are Demi Moore (No Small Affair), playing a coke-snorting career woman, and Andrew McCarthy (Class), as a cynical journalist whose lack of romantic activity has the others wondering about his sexual preference. McCarthy is born to play this kind of sensitive part, and he has an appealing way of throwing away lines.

But the actors labor in vain. A good movie about this crucial time in life may yet be made, because it’s a valid subject, and this may well be the cast to play it. But we’ll have to wait for that, and it’ll take someone with more insight than Joel Schumacher to pull it off.

First published in the Herald, June 29, 1985

I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about in half of this review. I think within a few days I thought much less of this dumb movie, and the review sounds almost charitable compared to my memories of the film. I would say more, but I think I want to forget it. (But I am reminded, in searching for a poster image: The Passion Burns Deep.)


Johnny Be Good

April 16, 2012

I haven’t looked through my records, but I feel comfortable in declaring Johnny Be Good the worst American film of this still-young year. In fact, this movie is so inept on every level that it may land the title for all of ’88.

The subject matter of the movie is a familiar one to sports fans; it’s all about the rampant unscrupulousness involved in college athletics today, particularly the sometimes shady “inducements” offered to talented players recruited out of high school.

In Johnny Be Good, the star quarterback of a small-town high school team, played by the slight Anthony Michael Hall, is wooed by the major college programs. In Texas, he’s thrown an elaborate beef feast, and an alumni wife takes him out to the 50-yard-line for some unsportsmanlike conduct. In California, he’s introduced to the women of Hollywood and comes back wearing an atrocity that makes him resemble, as someone puts it, a cross between Liberace and Prince’s mother.

None of this sits too well with his girlfriend (Uma Thurman) or his best friend (Robert Downey, Jr.), who realize he’s reneging on his previous decision to attend the state college in his hometown. And his coach (Paul Gleason), an appalling creature, has a job offer from a wealthy college contingent on Hall coming along, too.

This linear outline may leave a misleading impression of coherency. There is none in Johnny Be Good, not in the screenplay by Steve Zacharias, Jeff Buhai, and David Obst (the original Revenge of the Nerds boys), not in the director of Bud Smith. This movie is so bland and feeble, it looks like it might have been directed by a guy named Bud Smith.

Smith, a former editor whose first (and very likely last) directing job this is, has attempted to apply an improvisational quality to the movie, and he’s successful insofar as you never can be quite sure the actors knew what they were supposed to say when the cameras were turned on. Downey, recently capable in The Pick-Up Artist and Less Than Zero, is given to nonsense raps that fall into some pretty frightening dead air. Poor Hall, who was so funny in Sixteen Candles, has been encouraged to adopt a Bill Murray-like airiness, but he simply looks lost. Given the opening-day audience reaction, he is not alone.

First published in the Herald, March 1988

Even in the company of other bad movies? This is a bad movie.


Oxford Blues

January 16, 2012

While the end credits of Oxford Blues roll, we get to watch the hero (Rob Lowe), dressed in various changes of clothing, strutting his stuff in front of a full-length mirror. It’s an ironically appropriate ending for the film: a sequence of pure, ain’t-I-cute self-admiration. It may as well be undisguised here, because that’s what the whole movie is about.

There’s nothing but adolescent smugness in this story of a Las Vegas doorman who winds up at Oxford. He cheats his way there because he worships Lady Victoria (Amanda Pays), a member of the royal family and a regular in scandal-sheet newspapers.

Once in England, he alienates almost everyone with his irresponsible behavior—everyone except fellow American Rona (Ally Sheedy, from WarGames) and his roommate Geordie (Julian Firth). However, he does have a talent: He can row, and that makes him desirable to the Oxford sculling squad.

As for Lady Victoria, she’s engaged to a snooty Brit (Julian Sands), but one look at Rob Lowe and she practically wrestles him down into the royal bedchamber.

After running roughshod over everyone for most of the film, Lowe finds the true meaning of comradeship and comes through for the Oxford crew at the end. Surprise, surprise.

We’re supposed to be impressed by the change in the lad from opportunistic cad to unselfish team player, but about all you can feel is irritated at this shallow creep, particularly given Rob Lowe’s one-note performance.

It’s not all Lowe’s fault. Actually, based on the evidence of The Hotel New Hampshire, he could be an amusing leading man, given some good direction. But in Oxford Blues, he poses and postures, all in the latest fab clothes. Considering that his good looks are almost mannequin-like already, Lowe is coming dangerously close to parodying himself.

As I was watching the movie, I kept thinking about what a good fashion commercial it would make. And it turns out that writer-director Robert Boris did cut his teeth as a director of TV commercials before writing screenplays (which include Some Kind of Hero and Dr. Detroit). It figures—the film is all surface, full of people posturing and spouting dialogue, but never behaving like human beings.

Like a commercial, that surface just zips right along, not allowing time for characterization. The director doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing – the hero is supposed to be a brat at the beginning of the film, but we’re encouraged to cheer his every move. Near the end, the Oxford crew extends a hand and asks for his help. He turns them down, and Rona gives him a good talking-to. He insists on thinking of himself only, and the film finally disapproves of his attitude, but the audience, in his corner from the start, was applauding him on. Some kind of hero.

There’s also some tired stereotyping of British and American cultural differences. You know: stuffiness vs. rowdiness, cool vs. hot. This stuff is getting as stale as those stand-up comedians who point out the humorous differences between New York and L.A.

Anyway, Oxford Blues is the latest of the quick-fix movies in which doses of sugar are doled out for instant energy. For the preview audience that watched it last week, this seemed to be enough. But believe it: This movie, just like its hero, is a cheat.

First published in the Herald, August 1984

Not to be confused with Youngblood. This one is even worse.


That Was Then…This Is Now

January 13, 2012

The teen crises that form the story of That Was Then…This Is Now will be familiar to anyone who has read the books of S.E. Hinton, or seen the other films adapted from her books (such as Francis Coppola’s The Outsiders and Rumble Fish).

The characters here are typically maladjusted, restless youths, suffering from teen angst or the general malaise or just plain crankiness. As with the other Hinton adaptations, explosive violence is very much a part of life; physical brutality is an outlet for all the psychic turmoil of the characters.

The books have been very popular, although the movies have been less successful—possibly because of Coppola’s quirkily esoteric approach. I’m not sure That Was Then will change that track record. It’s a somber thing, without much pandering to the gross-out sensibility that marks a lot of teen comedies.

In plot terms, it’s dully schematic. There are two close friends: one good (Craig Sheffer), one bad (Emilio Estevez). The good one is going through a rites-of-passage phase, from which he will emerge a man, the bad one is regressing and ends up in trouble with the law.

Estevez’s panic when he sees the friendship dissolving forms the core of the movie. He’s an orphan who’s been brought up in Sheffer’s family, and he can’t seem to slow down his frantic attempts to define himself—which include small-time larceny, such as “borrowing” cars and hustling in pool rooms. His idea of fun is getting a fellow student drunk and cutting her hair while she’s passed out.

Sheffer drifts away from the friendship after one of their escapades accidentally gets a friend killed—and when he falls for a classmate (Kim Delaney) who represents some kind of normalcy. He even gets a job as a check-out bagger at a grocery store, which really sets Estevez’s teeth on edge.

The actors are all good, even in the smaller roles. You can see why Estevez, a charter member of Hollywood’s “Brat Pack” as embodied in The Breakfast Club and St. Elmo’s Fire, initiated the project (he wrote the screenplay): it’s a showy part for him.

Director Christopher Cain and photographer Juan Ruiz Anchia, who collaborated previously on The Stone Boy, have mounted a handsome production (filmed in Minneapolis). A couple of shots are knockouts, such as the skyline at night illuminated by a crack of lightning, while the characters sit in a car parked under a bridge.

But Cain uses some clichéd effects, too. The rain on the window reflected on Estevez’s face while he talks about his parents is an obvious gimmick that’s been used before. And Cain is fond of lighting actors from below, so that their faces get a weird, ghostly look to them.

More damagingly, Cain has a fundamental coolness that seems to work against the story. He did the same thing in The Stone Boy, but that was a tale of an emotional freeze-up, and the distanced style was appropriate. That Was Then requires more heat, but Cain stubbornly keeps his distance.

First published in the Herald, November 12, 1985

Dully schematic. That’s about the best I can do. The movie made the Coppola efforts look very, very sharp by comparison. Morgan Freeman was in this, too.


From the Hip

November 10, 2011

A lot of movies, not to mention TV shows, restaurants, tennis shoes, and assorted cultural artifacts, are casually condemned when the work “yuppie” is hurled their way. “Yuppie” has become such a contemptuous putdown that there is almost no defense against it: if someone says The Big Chill is a yuppie movie, there is little for an admirer of that film to do except swallow hard and try to change the subject.

So if “yuppie” has been embraced as a wholly negative buzzword, it is surprising to hear it used as self-deprecation. In a scene in From the Hip, young marrieds Judd Nelson and Elizabeth Perkins refer to themselves as yuppies, thus perhaps making cinema history, and also providing the film with its lone moment of self-reflection: At least these people know what they are.

If these are yuppies, and typical ones at that, we may all be worse off than we feared. Nelson, a Gold Card holder in the Brat Pack (St. Elmo’s Fire), plays a first-year lawyer who is looking to make it big in his dusty, respectable Boston firm. Perkins (About Last Night…), the faithful wife, works with underprivileged kids—even the movie can’t get that one out with a straight face.

The film is made up of two of Nelson’s grandstanding trials. In the first, he breaks most of the ethical rules of the court in defending a minor assault case.

The second trial is longer and trickier. Nelson’s headline-grabbing tactics have the blue-blooded partners (Nancy Marchand and Darren McGavin) asking that the twerp be disbarred. But the headlines also attract the business of a wealthy new client: an academic (John Hurt) described as “a cross between Charles Manson and William F. Buckley,” accused of murdering a prostitute, who wants Nelson to personally defend him.

Nelson goes heavily into his standard bag of courtroom antics—waving a hammer at the jury box, pulling a rabbit out from beneath the witness stand, placing a vibrator in the prosecutor’s briefcase—before considering the possibility that Hurt is probably guilty as sin.

This, of course, prompts the big soul-searching that we are to understand represents the hero’s Growing Up. Phooey. It’s all by the numbers, as the entire film has been.

The unbelievability of From the Hip—and not five minutes goes by without Nelson doing something that would have him thrown out on his keister in any courtroom—might have been acceptable if there were any trace of charm in the movie. There is none.

Nelson, who was appropriately insufferable in The Breakfast Club, seems to be insufferable even in supposedly sympathetic roles. This, naturally, hampers the movie’s efforts (and they are relentless) to charm. The other actors do stock characterizations. Elizabeth Perkins’ lopsidedness may prove interesting somewhere else, someday; and of course John Hurt does professional work as the sinister defendant.

From the Hip is from the hip of Bob Clark, the man who brought us Porky’s. Clark seems to have discovered the right buttons to push, in terms of formulaic plotting and yuk-getting, and so far it’s kept him working. I hope he enjoys his success; it’s unlikely many others will.

First published in the Herald, February 12, 1987

So, yes, “yuppie” was still relatively new. The Brat Pack was always a dumb idea, and Judd Nelson was getting toward the end of his run, and this movie just sat there, really awkwardly, in the middle of all that. But hey, I never knew this: it was an early effort by David E. Kelley, future TV titan with a specialty in law.


The Breakfast Club

May 10, 2011
Nelson, Estevez, Sheedy, Ringwald, Hall: The B-Club

In the light of writer-director John Hughes’ uneven, delightful film debut, Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club is both gratifying and disappointing. It’s gratifying because it proves that Hughes is funny, daring, and brimming with basic movie savvy. It’s disappointing because Hughes can’t quite bring everything together in a way that avoids pat conventions.

It begins brilliantly—Hughes sweeps us into his conceit with economy and zip, and we get introduced to the principals in brief strokes, each indicative of his or her stereotyped role vis-à-vis high school. (The idea of the film is that the stereotypes they embody to us—and each other—will be broken down, and that all share similar anxieties, successes, fears, hopes.) They’re thrown together in a day-long Saturday detention session in the school library. There’s a jock (Emilio Estevez), a princess (Molly Ringwald), a dork (Anthony Michael Hall), a loudmouth nonconformist (Judd Nelson), and a withdrawn would-be runaway (Ally Sheedy). In the course of the day, they find out more about each other, and about themselves, than they ever knew before—and they began the day as strangers.

The first hour—of the film, that is—is very funny, and full of wonderful detail and language (Hughes has a keen ear for high school parlance). As Hughes gets into the serious stuff, the film goes distressingly toward tried-and-true resolution (although it is not without some surprises). As I said, this is disappointing; but in terms of Hughes’ career, it’s not too discouraging. He’ll get better, and there’s plenty here to savor. Certainly the performers are very good, and Judd Nelson, sneering and bellowing, may be better than that.

And every once in a while something leaps out and slaps you with its originality. In particular, there’s a moment when Ally Sheedy is doodling on her note pad (at this point in the film, she may have yet to speak her first line—she’s mute for the first half-hour). We see her shaggy head looking down at her desk, then Hughes cuts to her pad—she’s drawn a little cabin in the woods, picket fence out front, smoke curling from the chimney (just the kind of home this lonely kid probably fantasizes about). Cut back to Sheedy’s face; she looks at the drawing, something is not quite right. She tips her head forward and rubs her fingers back and forth through her thick hair. Dandruff falls down to the desk; Hughes cuts to the picture, and the little cabin in the woods is now covered with snow. That’s beautiful.

First published in The Informer, March/April 1985

Of all the performers to single out in this movie, I had to go with Judd Nelson. Folks, reprinting these reviews is a warts-and-all proposition, and sometimes you have to reach for the Compound W, is all I can say. This film was important to people of a certain age, and I can see why; I sort of wish I’d had a film like it ten years earlier. The idea of it is ingenious, although it still bugs me that it narrows to a very conventional set of conclusions as it goes along, especially the supposed blossoming of Sheedy’s character.


Young Guns

March 8, 2011
Brat Packing Heat

It’s easy to chuckle at the thought of a bunch of Hollywood’s pampered Brat Packers essaying the roles of rough-and-ready cowboys. But the fact is, the stars of Young Guns are probably better suited to pay these roles than many of the actors who have played historical Old West figures through the years.

After all, Billy the Kid was only 22 when he died. Many of the upstart gunslingers of the West were brats in their own right. Why shouldn’t they be played by kids?

Young Guns, in fact, at least tries to veer near historical truth now and again, as it pertains to the budding career of Billy the Kid. John Fusco’s screenplay picks up young William H. Bonney (played with bright-eyed craziness by Emilio Estevez) as he rolls under the kindly wing of John Tunstall (Terence Stamp), who is raising a hellion troupe of young “regulators.” When Tunstall is murdered, the regulators band together under Billys’ exuberant leadership, and their bloody ride of revenge begins.

The other young guns—”The flotsam and jetsam of frontier society,” as somebody puts it—are played by Kiefer Sutherland, Lou Diamond Phillips (of La Bamba), Dermot Mulroney, Casey Siemaszko, and Charlie Sheen (in real life, Estevez’s brother, and by now a bigger star). They go through some reasonably familiar formula paces, which means the movie has a cardboard quality but also has a few good old-fashioned moments.

The view of Billy as a fun-lovin’ psycho is not especially new, though Estevez does play the role as an almost modern-day character, not too far from his anti-establishment smarty-pants in Repo Man. Sutherland’s cowboy poet leads the movie into its ickiest sections, as he falls for a Chinese girl and begs her to run away with him.

Elsewhere, though, director Christopher Cain does capture some of the unpredictable violence and fever of the youthful desperadoes. A scene in which Billy flies off the handle and blows away some captured bad guys catches the hair-trigger violence of the character, and a later scene in which he deliberately disarms a would-be bounty hunter in a bordello taps into some wicked black humor.

Cain also has an evident affection for Westerns in general. He’ll let characters say things such as “The only chance I have is to run hell-bent for leather.” (No one knows what that means, but it sounds good.)

And he nods toward the traditional Western with the casting of Jack Palance, the all-time evil hired gun of Shane, to play a similarly despicable villain here, plus a cameo by Patrick Wayne, John Wayne’s son, who plays Pat Garrett. Wayne’s presence is a nice link to the Western of old, though it can’t help suggesting the likelihood that the Duke could’ve mowed these whippersnappers down before supper.

First published in the Herald, August 1988

This sounds a little generous to me now; I remember when Young Guns II came along, I thought it was a distinct improvement, in part because of the energy boost supplied by the New Zealander at the directing reins, Geoff Murphy. But if every era gets the Billy the Kid it deserves, then Young Guns can accurately be said to represent the late 1980s.