April 13, 2022

Vampire comedies are all the rage, it seems, although only last summer’s Fright Night was a worthy entry in the subgenre (Love at First Bite and Once Bitten are among the more debased representatives). Now comes Vamp, which attempts a more stylish tack than most, but suffers from a thinning familiarity.

Coupla guys at a boondocks college need to drive into town one night to procure a stripper for a frat party. They borrow a car from a rich kid (who insists on tagging along). Nothing unusual there, except these guys stumble into the wrong place at the wrong time: the After Dark club, after dark.

The joint, it turns out, is crawling with vampires, and the queen of ’em all is a supple dancer (Grace Jones) who wears a wire bikini over leopardskin body paint. When she asks what the boys in the back room will have, they naturally answer: her.

She has a surprise for them; she loves the hemoglobin of college guys. After she drains the essence out of one of the kids, the hero (Chris Makepeace) just wants to get out of the place, while the third-wheel rich kid (Gedde Watanabe of Gung Ho in another amusing performance) is busy ogling the girls on the runway.

This film has some silly zip in its early reels, considerably buoyed by the zombified dance routine by Grace Jones, who wears (with the aforementioned costume) red geisha hair and blue contact lenses. It’s just hubba-hubba enough to nudge the boundaries of the R rating.

Director/co-screenwriter Richard Wenk clearly wants Vamp to have some visual style, so he tries to inject some by flooding the dark milieu with green and purple lights. Unfortunately, an armful of filters and gels do not a visual style make.

Most of the gags are tired, too. By now the jokes about stakes in the heart have been heard; and Wenk can’t marry the goofy stuff to the scary vampirization of some of his main characters.

He clearly intended a black comedy, though; in fact his model seems to have been not Love at First Bite but After Hours, Martin Scorsese’s nightmare comedy about a one-nighter gone bad. Wenk achieves a comic-horror balance once in a while. When Sandy Baron, as the club owner, wistfully muses about opening a vampire lounge in Las Vegas, it’s a good freaky moment.

Then there’s Grace Jones, who isn’t really in the movie much (although she’s been emphasized in the film’s ad campaign). She’s otherworldly enough to carry this sort of thing off, and the movie wimps out a bit when she’s not around. Wenk could have learned something about visual style from her; a smooth, hard enigma, she seems to exist – even in appearances “as herself” on talk shows – purely as an exotic figure of style.

First published in The Herald, July 25, 1986

Always nice to have a Sandy Baron reference. Also in the movie: Dedee Pfeiffer, Francie Swift, and Billy Drago. (“Dedee, meet Gedde. Gedde, Dedee.”) As for Wenk, since his screenplay 16 Blocks was filmed in 2006, he’s gotten a lot of writing work on action pictures. The trivia on IMDb claims Grace Jones’ stripper chair involved creative input from Dolph Lundgren and Keith Haring.

Patti Rocks

December 9, 2021

Even before it was released, Patti Rocks managed to brew up a bit of controversy.

That’s because the Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings board (an entity that almost no one likes, for different reasons) slapped an X rating on the film.

The X came despite the fact that Patti Rocks contains no explicit sex. It does have a lot of talk, however. Some fairly explicit talk.

The MPAA board decided that the talk was obscene enough to merit the X, a death warrant for a mainstream movie’s commercial life, particularly for a low-budget American independent film.

Luckily, and sensibly, the X rating was overturned in favor of an R, without any cuts in the film. But that wasn’t the end of the controversy. People have been walking out of the movie before it’s half over.

Serves ’em right. The first two-thirds of Patti Rocks follow a road trip between two old buddies who are driving along the Mississippi River to see Patti, the girlfriend of one of them. No question of their outrageousness: Billy and Eddie engage in a skyrocketing sexist dialogue that includes some riotously funny anatomical discussions.

What the early walk-outs don’t realize is that, rather than endorsing this frenzied misogyny, the film is setting these two up for an ironic payoff. The comeuppance arrives when they show up at Patti’s apartment; she’s pregnant by the more Neanderthal of the men, Billy.

Patti turns out to be more than a match for these two; when Billy gruntingly fantasizes about a world without women, she counters tartly, “Then who would you have to feel superior to?”

But the film is even better than its own schematic intentions. For Billy and Eddie aren’t sexists in black hats; actually, they’re both likable and funny.

Their furious male-bonding ritual during the drive down from Minneapolis includes such hilarious topics of conversation as the possibility of chucking everything and becoming professional water-skiers in Florida, or getting involved in a secret Mormon breeding camp in North Dakota.

The actors have low-budget roughness, yet they’re all exactly right: John Jenkins as the detached Eddie, Karen Landry as the with-it Patti, and especially Chris Mulkey as the thundering Billy. They all collaborated on the screenplay with director David Burton Morris.

Morris made Patti Rocks as something of a sequel to an even lower-budgeted movie he made in 1975, Loose Ends. That little-seen film featured the same lead actors as the same characters. That’s not a bad tradition; these people are so raucously entertaining, you wouldn’t mind checking in on them every few years.

First published in The Herald, January 1988

This was a pretty notable indie in its time. Most of the director’s subsequent credits were in TV, and as far as I know the third part of a potential trilogy never happened. Mulkey and Landry were married in real life.

Losin’ It

October 26, 2021

Dear Penthouse,

I never thought that I, a shy and moderately winsome high school boy, would be writing you, but I guess that just show you how wacky life can get. Little did I know when I set out with my three buddies on that fateful weekend trip to Tijuana that we would find ourselves knee-deep in prostitutes, border police, fireworks, angry Marines, and Spanish flies, and all before the first 24 hours had passed. It was all in this movie, Losin’ It, and man, did we ever – I don’t think I have to explain what I mean to you hep cats.

Anyway, Tom Cruise – that guy in Risky Business – he played me, and my best friend, a really weird looking kid, was played by Jackie Earle Haley, who was that short one in Breaking Away. So we took his ’57 Chevy down to TJ to get a tuck ‘n roll (whatever that is). But before we even got there, we stopped at this grocery store to rip off some Fritos and stuff and picked up this woman (Shelley Long) who was really cute and funny and wanted to get a divorce and so she went to Tijuana with us.

TJ is this really boss place. It looks like this movie I saw once called Touch of Evil, except that there are more people now. Also color. So anyway, we weren’t in town more than five minutes when this mean Mexican policeman (Henry Darrow) started hassling us. But this was just the tip of the iceberg. That night we went to a bar where some women took us upstairs. We gave them ten dollars (I think the peso has been devalued or something) in the hopes that we would soon be “losin’ it.” But I got spooked or I don’t know what, but I couldn’t go through with it. (The lady I got was like 30, at least.) So I cut out of there and felt really blue. But then I ran into Shelley Long, who had just filed her divorce papers. So then I felt better, ’cause I really liked her. She must have thought I was moderately winsome, because we wound up going to a motel, and she showed me the ropes, if you catch my drift. So you see, this story has a happy ending, because I really did wind up “losin’ it” after all.

But poor Jackie Earle Haley and his little brother Wimp got into trouble when they bought some Spanish flies (they really exist! I’m not kidding!), and tried to slip one to a comely Mexican lass. Man, when her brother found out, he was unhappy. But the worst thing was, our other buddy got himself arrested when he got into a fight while he was hanging around the Blue Fox, waiting to see the donkey – and the arresting officer was that mean cop, who said he’d throw our buddy in the clink if we didn’t hand over the ’57 Chevy with the new tuck ‘n roll. Whoa! We got away okay, though – we threw some illegal fireworks into his police car, and junk like that – and even though Shelley Long went back to her husband (and, eventually, to an Emmy nomination for Cheers), I chalked it up as an eventful, successful weekend; like my Psych teacher would say, it was a learning experience.

But what I really want to know, and what we never found out from Losin’ It, is this: What is this donkey thing at the Blue Fox? I know it must be something really crazy, but what? I know there’s a movie called The Blue Fox, ’cause I read the ad in the P-I, and they even mentioned the donkey, but they didn’t say what it was! So is it real, or is it like the way you never find out what’s behind the Green Door? Please, if any of your readers know, let them tell me. If I don’t find out soon, I’m really gonna be losin’ it!

Anxiously yours,

Borderline Bob

First published in The Informer, September 1983

Concept review. What can I say? In those days the “Letter to Penthouse” parody was reliable comedy gold. Funny thing is, the movie has some impressive credits; it was directed by L.A. Confidential maker Curtis Hanson, written by B.W.L. Norton, shot by Gil Taylor. I haven’t re-visited the film (some day, surely), but I remember it as not a bad movie, but just smutty. This must have been shot before Risky Business and thus is Cruise’s first lead role. For those of you outside the Pacific Northwest, the P-I was the second daily newspaper in Seattle, and if I’m remembering correctly, the joke here was that they printed the ads for X-rated movies, which the Seattle Times most assuredly did not do.

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.

Casual Sex?

November 5, 2020

For its first 20 minutes or so, Casual Sex? looks as though it’s going to be a distaff version of the stupid, emotionally arrested male sex movie. The main characters, played by Lea Thompson and Victoria Jackson, address the camera and tell us about how weird men are and how difficult relationships have become.

When they take off for a vacation at a health resort, where most of the movie is set, the men there all seem to be either obnoxious guys with hair all over their bodies or pea-brained hunks. So far, Casual Sex? is proving that a movie made by women (it’s directed by Genevieve Robert) can be as sexist as the many awful sex comedies made by men.

Oddly enough, once the movie gets the easy jokes out of its system, it becomes likable, on a relatively minor level. Part of this is because Thompson and Jackson (she’s the baby-voiced blonde on Saturday Night Live) give some realistic dimension to their characters, and partly because the men, while secondary, are allowed some humanity.

In particular, the chief caveman, a bellowing would-be stud named Vinnie (aka “The Vin Man,” played by Andrew Dice Clay) slips out of the noose of caricature and becomes unexpectedly sympathetic. He tries reading The Pretend You’re Sensitive Handbook, but still can’t get anywhere with women until he learns to be himself, whatever that might be.

The script by Wendy Goldman and Judy Toll ticks off the major anxieties of the sexual scene, including AIDS.

The film is a little too pleased with itself, especially when it comes to saying naughty things; the filmmakers seem to think they’re making some of these jokes for the first time. But the last scenes of the movie, which look ahead a few years, are genuinely warm and cozy, and give a concise impression of how far the characters, and the movie itself, have come.

First published in The Herald, April 1988

That paragraph that consists of just one sentence, mentioning AIDS – I wonder if I said something else that got cut out of the review. Evidently the ending I liked was a re-shoot, engineered to get the Diceman (who tested well in previews) more screentime. Director Robert is married to Ivan Reitman. Writers Goldman and Toll were members of the Groundlings, and separately did a bunch of performing and writing after this; Toll died in 2002. It will not surprise that the question mark in the title was added by the studio. By the way, has anybody used the word “distaff” in years?

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.

Personal Services

January 23, 2020

personalservicesEvidently, Personal Services is based, loosely, on the life of one Cynthia Payne, who became something of a popular heroine in England by running a genteel brothel in the London surburbs. The film, which debuted last week at the Seattle International Film Festival, is a fictional treatment of her rise from everyday waitress to no-nonsense madam.

Aside from the opportunities for social comment and bawdy-house humor, the film provides a broad vehicle for Julie Walters, the actress best known for her Oscar-nominated work in Educating Rita. Walters uses her brassy drive to chart the character’s changes. At first she’s tentative, not quite knowing all the sexual terminology, but cheerfully playing along. (I would quote specific jokes here, but then this review would have to be rated R).

Later, she’s a bureaucratic whirlwind, organizing teas for the clients, moving her girls from dingy apartments to a polished house in the suburbs, barking orders at the clients who agree to clean the place up (many of them enjoy being – how shall we say this – “disciplined”).

David Leland’s screenplay is every­where at once, jumping around among wacky situations, never quite settling down. But he has just the right director for this sort of thing in Terry Jones, a Monty Python member who has had much experience in sketch comedy (on the Python TV series and as the director of The Meaning of Life, among others).

Jones brings a lively and amoral presence to the proceedings. The brothel caters to elderly, civilized men, and Jones gleefully depicts these upper-crust British gentlemen dressed in knickers, dresses, schoolgirl’s uniforms, and bikinis – all outfits for their, um, satisfaction.

Some of the savage satire of the Python troupe is evident, and of course the typically self-lacerating British sense of humor – but Jones manages to find time for quieter moments during which Walters’ loneliness is suggested. There’s a nice, silent scene when she’s on vacation, and accidentally glimpses two young people making love. She gazes wistfully at them, as though remembering that sex can be something other than a commodity.

I’m glad that reminder is in the movie, as opposed to Working Girls, another current film about prostitution, in which sex in general is made to look dingy and ugly.

Probably Jones means us to see the film as a broader metaphorical statement about the state of England today, but the movie’s too scrappy and blunt for this to be effective. Personal Services is, however, a frequently funny, knowingly ironic success story.

First published in the Herald, June 5, 1987

RIP Terry Jones, who just died at age 77. I think this film is mostly forgotten, at least outside Britain, but at the time it found an appreciative audience at SIFF. Interesting that I included a mention of Lizzie Borden’s Working Girls, which is well-thought-of today.