February 22, 2022

John Belushi, according to the new film Wired, was either the comedy genius of his time or “Just another fat junkie who went belly-up.” Both opinions are rendered, but substantial evidence is provided only for the latter.

Probably that’s because it’s easy to show wanton self-destruction, not so easy to suggest the talent that lay beyond that. In a film biography of a singer, the songs can always be dubbed in and mouthed by an actor. For a film about a comedian, the actor must capture the charm, timing, style of the comic. Thus Michael Chiklis, who plays Belushi, has an incredibly difficult task, especially since the subject is so fresh in our memories.

Wired can’t get past that central problem.

It’s based on the book by Bob Woodward, a book that was a bestseller and an object of scorn for Belushi’s friends, as it depicted the unpleasant and drug-ridden last years of the shooting star. Announcement of a movie version, inevitably, brought even more nasty feelings; during filming a year ago Dan Aykroyd declared that he had witches working to hex the project.

As it turns out, the film version is a good deal more interested in encouraging pity for Belushi than in damning him. (It’s not interested in naming names; many have been left out.) But it’s a weird item in any event, a sometimes audacious mix of A Christmas Carol (without the happy ending), Hollywood critique, and anti-drug statement.

Belushi dies at the beginning of the movie, then leaves the morgue and is picked up by a Puerto Rican taxi driver (Ray Sharkey) – actually his guardian angel – who takes him on a “ride through your life.” They go on a non-chronological journey through high and low points in Belushi’s years of success, ending up in the bungalow at L.A.’s Chateau Marmont where Belushi died in 1982.

There are some offbeat ideas here, in the way Belushi’s morgue sheet becomes a toga like the one he wore in Animal House, or the Japanese coroner who mutates into Belushi’s samurai character.

The comedy sequences are mostly drawn from Saturday Night Live sketches, which appear unconnected to anything else in the film. And there are a few songs by the Blue Brothers, Belushi and Aykroyd’s soul-singing team. The songs are pointless, the sketches, inept. Chiklis looks uncannily like Belushi (and he ably mimes the gruff voice and roving eyebrows), but he has no comic touch. Gary Groomes plays Aykroyd in an effective impersonation.

Bob Woodward is himself a character in the movie (played by J.T. Walsh); he even turns up in a strange fantasy sequences, at Belushi’s death bed. Director Larry Peerce and screenwriter Earl Mac Rauch seem to view Woodward’s investigating as something less than admirable. When Belushi’s corpse spots Woodward talking to his friends, the angel says, “He’s gonna do for you what he did for Nixon.” There may be an interesting movie on the loose in here somewhere, but it doesn’t quite make itself heard.

First published in The Herald, August 25, 1989

This is the final theatrical film in the curious career of Larry Peerce, who worked mostly in TV after his initial success in the 60s. And it’s the first theatrical film for Chiklis, who has done well for himself since; evidently the witch’s hex did not affect him. The picture flopped.


October 28, 2021

Bill Murray, along with his fellow ghostbusters (Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, who also wrote the script) has been prowling the corridors of a swank hotel in search of a green spirit. Unfortunately, Murray finds it. We cut away before the ghost engulfs him, then follow Ayrkroyd as he runs to Murray’s aid. Murray, prone, is covered with goo. “He slimed me,” says Murray, as Aykroyd gives comfort. A moment later, Murray, still supine, rolls his head back, looks heavenward, and lets loose with an oddly satisfied sigh, “I feel sooo funky.”

I don’t know what this line means. I’m not sure I want to know. But I know that it made me laugh all through the next few scenes in Ghostbusters. There is something divine about Bill Murray, and I mean that adjective in the truest sense. Murray’s screen persona walks among men, but he is apart from them. He can’t really be called courageous, yet he faces danger, authority, and sexual aggression without the slightest trace of fear. As Newsweek‘s David Ansen put it, “His response stays the same, whether he is confronted by a green demon or an ordinary man in the street: nothing fazes his lunatic disengagement from reality.” We cannot imagine a life for Murray outside the running time of his films; he’s unreal, he couldn’t survive in the world of the flesh.

Murray is not yet on the same plane as the great Groucho Marx, but I thought about Groucho while watching Ghostbusters. Like Groucho, Murray’s anarchic insouciance is a liberating force; he gives gleeful life to all the comebacks that we would like to be able to make to authority figures and incompetents. Part of Murray’s popularity must stem from the fact that his humor is rarely laced with malice; rather, he floats his words on a breeze of laid-back cheer. This is, of course, the opposite of Groucho’s rapid patter. But Murray has a scene with Sigourney Weaver – who is both beautiful and funny in Ghostbusters – after she’s been possessed by the spirit of a ghost who’s been haunting her apartment refrigerator, during which the two of them achieve a comic dialogue the likes of which has not been seen (or heard) since Groucho parted ways with Margaret Dumont.

Weaver is writhing in heat on her bed (she is about to levitate above the bed, which prompts Murray to later remark, “I like her because she sleeps above her covers – four feet above her covers” – but still, no big deal), and she entices Murray hither. He’ll have none of it. The scene he sees before him is too fraught with possibilities for one-liners, and he is drunk on comic opportunity. It’s impossible to imagine Murray and Weaver actually bedding down after the movie ends just as it was impossible to imagine what Groucho might do if he actually convinced one of the objects of his desire to join him between the sheets full of cracker crumbs.

So what about the movie itself? Well, Ivan Reitman continues to be the worst comedy director at work today, but he seems to be Bill Murray’s guide, what with Meatballs and Stripes and all. And presumably he provides the improvisational atmosphere in which Murray thrives. Aykroyd and Ramis maintain second-banana status; there is also an inexplicable fourth ghostbuster, Ernie Hudson, who seems to be there to get the black vote.

And Rick Moranis is so good as Weaver’s geeky neighbor that it makes up for Streets of Fire. Well, almost. With these people hanging about, plus the Sta-Puft Marshmallow Man, Ghostbusters can’t miss being agreeable. As for Murray, he won’t have Reitman to fall back on for his next movie. He plays the seeker-of-the-infinite in The Razor’s Edge. It’s unfair, but you can’t help imagining him experiencing his moment of oneness with the Absolute, putting his head back against a tree trunk, watching the sun rise, and whispering softly, “I feel sooo funky….”

First published in The Informer, May/June 1984

At this point in my budding career I was writing reviews in a daily newspaper, The Herald, and also editing the Seattle Film Society’s newsletter, The Informer; I rarely wrote two reviews of the same movie (something I did a lot of when I later wrote for The Herald and Film.com at the same time), but I guess Ghostbusters was one of them. I posted the other review almost ten years ago – man, time flies. I suppose I would watch it again someday, but only for Murray.

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?

Nothing Lasts Forever

September 11, 2020

The children of Saturday Night Live continue to populate movie screens. That landmark show was great television, but it has been responsible for some of the worst film comedy of recent years.

The newest big-screen arrival is a real oddity. It’s not a vehicle for an SNL cast member, although Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd have small roles. No, Nothing Lasts Forever is the debut feature of the director of those eccentric short films that used to show up toward the end of the show.

His name is Tom Schiller, and he’s the writer and director of Nothing Lasts Forever. Not only that, he’s gotten Lorne Michaels to produce the film for him. Michaels was the producer and instigator of SNL in its glory days.

Schiller and Michaels have continued the tradition of their fellow alumni. This movie is a mess of disconnected, intermittently funny bits. The sketch humor that flourished on Saturday Night Live doesn’t work in a 90-minute, sustained-narrative format.

Nothing Lasts Forever does have a plot – sort of. A boy (Zach Galligan, the hero of Gremlins) returns to New York City to be an artist. He’s not sure what discipline he wants to pursue, but no matter – the drive is there. After a series of surrealistic events, he lands a job watching cars go through the Holland Tunnel. There he meets a fellow would-be artist (Appollonia Van Ravenstein – no kidding), who introduces him to conceptual art, as well as other less highbrow pursuits.

One night he is informed by some mysterious underground dwellers (chief among them Sam Jaffe and Paul Rogers) that he has been chosen to lead a mission that could save the world (it’s impossible to tell just when the film is set, but it seems to be in some futuristic society).

All he has to do is travel to the Moon, which he does by sneaking aboard a tour bus marked “Miami Beach.” Its true destination is La Luna, and there he meets his soul mate (Lauren Tom) while everyone else is shopping in the moon’s extensive mall. After the trip, the hero returns to Earth, where he is a successful pianist at Carnegie Hall.

All right. All of this is pretty well jumbled out of any recognizable cinematic form. Still, some yuks might have been gotten out of it. But the film’s unevenness just becomes grating after a while.

There are also pointless cameos: Eddie Fisher sings “Oh My Papa,” and is so pathetically bad that it’s not campy (as was presumably intended). Mort Sahl and singer Anita Ellis are Galligan’s uncle and aunt, Imogene Coca a fellow passenger to the Moon, and you’re left to guess at what the possible casting strategy might have been. Even Bill Murray, playing an unctuous flight attendant, seems ill at ease.

Most of the film is in black-and-white; some of it is in color. For a while, I thought I knew what the distinction was for; but then the movie changed its ground rules. If you can figure out what the idea is, fine. I’ve got better things to do.

First published in The Herald, August 1984

When you read about this film online the standard line is that MGM/UA dumped it after a single test screening in Seattle. But here is proof that is actually opened for a regular run, which presumably was a test engagement that did not go well (it was not uncommon in those days for movies, especially difficult ones, to be taken out to Seattle to test the waters). It played at the Crest theater, if anybody wants to know.

Now, in part because of its impossible-to-see status, the film has a strong cult following. I would give it another try. Schiller did not direct another feature, although he made a lot of commercials – and, of course, many SNL shorts. Howard Shore did the music.

Cross My Heart

September 1, 2020

Since almost everyone is familiar with the joy, terror and anxiety that make up the ritual of dating, it would seem that Cross My Heart has a guaranteed audience. This is a movie that takes us through the fundamentals of a single, epic date, with plenty of all-too­ familiar problems that most people will recognize.

As the film begins, our two principals are preparing for their night out. David (Martin Short) has just been fired that day, so he considers calling the whole thing off. But his pal (Paul Reiser) offers the use of a car and a swinging bachelor pad. On the other side of town, Cathy (Annette O’Toole) worries that, after two dates, she still hasn’t told David about her daughter; she doesn’t want to scare him off.

When they meet that night, they both keep their secrets. Mistake. One little lie leads to another, and by the end of the evening they’re completely misrepresenting themselves.

Other disasters dog this date. After handing the borrowed car over to a valet parker at a fancy restaurant, David is distressed to learn that the restaurant does not have valet parking.

The car is gone, but at least the bachelor pad is still there. Sex is on the agenda; and eventually accomplished, but not until Cathy assuages her nervousness by giving David a magazine sex quiz. She asks, “Are you a giver or a taker?” He answers, “A giver – you might say I’m a sexual Santa Claus.”

The script by Armyan Bernstein and Gail Parent is full of funny date situations. They have clearly survived a few dates themselves. Bernstein, as director, does not push things. If anything, the movie is too lazy in getting to its points. But Bernstein has recognized the movie’s most important aspect: That the casting of the two daters is crucial to the film’s success.

Even though they have their faults, especially the man, both characters must remain sympathetic. Martin Short, glorious on SCTV and Saturday Night Live, keeps his man on track, even though the character does some things that aren’t terribly nice. Short’s vocal timing is perfect, and his physical skills are sharp. He even gets to do his impression of Montgomery Clift.

But if this movie is memorable for anything, it’s for giving the largest screen role yet to Annette O’Toole. This lovely actress has been appearing in peripheral roles in such things as Cat People and Superman III. She’s so appealing here that it’s a mystery why she’s so underused in moviedom. Maybe she’s always been a little too well-scrubbed. This performance, by turns funny, worried and flirtatious, should earn her way back into the Hollywood fold.

First published in The Herald, November 1987

It would seem that Cross My Heart did not have a guaranteed audience. The movie wasn’t a financial success, and O’Toole continued on with a career that progressed steadily without breaking through into top-tier status. Which is probably fine with her. She married Michael McKean and they co-wrote the Oscar-nominated song “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow” from A Mighty Wind. This was the final film directed by Armyan Bernstein, who went on to be a prolific producer.

Eddie Murphy Raw

February 27, 2020

eddiemurphyrawFilm reviewers are commonly being called to task for giving away the funniest lines of a movie. Often, this is an accurate accusation, and it’s a complaint that’s also sometimes true of TV ads, which pack all of a film’s boffos within 30 seconds.

However, neither reviewers nor TV commercials are going to give away the best lines of Eddie Murphy Raw, the comedian’s new concert film. They can’t. Murphy’s familiar predilection for “blue” material precludes the opportunity to quote him in any context not contained within a brown-­paper bag.

His stand-up routine was taped at New York’s Felt Forum before an appreciative crowd. Murphy begins the show by acknowledging the flak he’s taken for his outrageous material, and recounting a disapproving phone call from a square Bill Cosby. Murphy’s imitations of Cosby and Richard Pryor are among the movie’s best bits.

Murphy quickly settles into the topic that will fill the greater portion of his routine: men and women. Or, more appropriately, boys and girls, since frankly Murphy’s appreciation of human relationships doesn’t seem to have advanced past the high-school level. He’s funny enough in describing sexual foibles, but his perspective is that of a brat; there’s no wisdom in his work.

When Pryor’s at his best in concert, he is scandalous and cutting too, but his cuts go deep. Murphy’s schoolboy pranks stay on the surface. However, past Murphy’s obsessions about alimony and the deceit of women (“All women have a skeleton in their closet – some women have a cemetery”), Murphy is often funny. A lot of this has to do with the fact that he is so physically gifted, his precise timing and range of expressions can make even subpar material amusing.

And too much of the material of “Raw” is mediocre. It’s well-directed by Robert Townsend, the director-comedian who scored such a hit with his low-budget Hollywood Shuffle, and Murphy the performer is in good shape. But the routine lacks the insight and bite of a comic who is really cooking.

The movie opens with a sketch purporting to show a prepubescent Murphy entertaining his family with a batch of off-color gags, most of them concerning various bodily functions. Since Murphy covers some of the same territory in his adult act, it might be suggested that he hasn’t exactly developed very far as an artist. Then again, when jokes about bodily functions have made you millions, it’s difficult to clean up your act.

First published in the Herald, December 1987

Murphy was riding high at the time, of course, although the thinness of the material here suggested the tank might be going dry.

Johnny Dangerously/The Flamingo Kid

December 9, 2019

johnny dangerouslyTwo offbeat comedies are being released on the same day, just in time for the Christmas movie rush – and you can see why. The studio is hoping they’ll benefit from the general holiday upsurge in movie attendance, and help swell the fortunes of two somewhat hard­-to-sell items.

Johnny Dangerously features the star of Mr. Mom (Michael Keaton) and the director of Fast Times at Ridgemont High (Amy Heckerling), but its guiding spirit (although he had no actual involvement in the film) is Mel Brooks. This is a movie send-up a la Brooks’ Blazing Saddles, in which genre conventions are teased.

The Warner Bros. crime pictures of the 1930s are the raw material, and Johnny Dangerously is very much in the mold: Keaton is the street kid who stumbles his way into the syndicate; Griffin Dunne (last seen as a decomposing corpse in An American Werewolf in London) is his brother, who grows up on the right side of the tracks, no thanks to their salty mom (Maureen Stapleton).

Johnny becomes the kingpin of crime (with accompanying songbird/moll, Marilu Henner), while his brother is the crusading district attorney, who sends him to the chair. Everybody speaks in delicious James Cagney phrases: “Yeah – I like da sounda dat,” or “Who’s da nightingale? She sure sings good.” The writers have watched a lot of movies.

It’s also got its share of anachronistic humor, in the Mel Brooks tradition. Prison inmates eat quiche and sushi. Johnny break­-dances in 1930 (“Gee Johnny, I never seen that kinda dancin’ before”). A fat mobster insists he is about to start the Cambridge diet.

The jokes are like the machine guns that rattle away: More miss than hit. When in doubt, go for the human anatomy jokes – and this film, in a brief self-help newsreel that Keaton shows his brother, dwells on certain body parts that have rarely been dwelled on in legit films be­fore. Enough said on that.

What darn near carries the whole thing is the jaunty perfomance by Michael Keaton, who is confident throughout. He seems to have been born to live in a Warner Bros. film, and his movements recall Cagney in their cocky grace.

flamingokidThe Flamingo Kid is a more conventional film, but it’s also something of a special case among comedies – which is to say, it doesn’t rely on gross-out jokes in place of humor. As a modest growing-up piece, set in 1963, it’s a nice try, but it doesn’t really have anything new to say, and it runs out of gas long before it’s over.

Matt Dillon plays a Brooklyn kid who wangles a job at a swank Long Island country club where he meets a girl (Janet Jones), with whom he gets hot and bothered, and a gin player (Richard Crenna) who takes him under his wing to teach him the cutthroat nuances of gin rummy and life in general.

There are some nicely observed family dynamics (Dillon’s dad, Hector Elizondo, doesn’t like the capitalist pig Crenna putting ideas in his son’s head), but the film is finally about too many things: the girl, the game, the mentor, the family, the gang. It doesn’t spend much time on any of them, and director Garry Marshall (creator of TV’s Happy Days) can’t decide which element he wants to emphasize.

Dillon is better than he has been (he’s a little sunnier than usual) but there’s just not much to go on here. I doubt if even a Christmas bonus is going to help the Kid much.

First published in the Herald, December 22, 1984

I didn’t mention Joe Piscopo in my JD review, so apparently the then-popular SNL star did not make a big impression. I remember it as a really terrible movie. The Flamingo Kid, however, I remember more fondly than my review would suggest – a nice laid-back Florida feel to this film, I think, less constructed as a joke machine than many of Garry Marshall’s pictures.