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.



January 3, 2012

The influence of Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky films may be much more devious than we ever expected. There is a bad, bad lesson that other filmmakers seem to have learned from the Rocky saga, and it is this: You give ’em the same thing over and over again, and they’ll keep coming back for more.

The Rocky films became formalized long ago, so that there is no longer any sense of invention in them. It’s pure ritual, like the stations of the cross. In other words, there’s barely any movie left—more like a string of recognizable and reassuring sensations.

This theory of filmmaking is becoming more and more common. In recent years, we’ve seen a score of films in which an individual fights the odds to achieve a victory, often in athletic tournaments. Nothing wrong with that story, but the movies themselves seemed to discard any notion of originality; and the success of the narrative shorthand of Flashdance fueled the movement toward superficiality and non-narrative.

All of which leads us to the latest in this unwelcome hybrid, Youngblood, a film so unoriginal and inoffensive that it hardly seems to exist at all, even while you’re watching it. Youngblood has major studio production values, and it’s cleanly and professionally edited and photographed. Even the acting isn’t bad, although Rob Lowe gets less interesting with each film he makes.

But there isn’t a single memorable instant in the film. It’s all by rote, and cynically includes every cliché in the playbook.

This kid (Lowe), who labors on his dad’s farm in upstate New York, gets a tryout with the junior league hockey team in Hamilton, Canada. The kid has a tough time in the tryout, being knocked down by a particularly vicious rival, but he gets the position.

Lowe’s problem is this: He’s fast, but is he tough enough? Something tells me he will wrestle with this problem, then have to prove himself in the last second of the championship game.

Something also tells me he will have to prove himself in a drinking session with his teammates, and then develop a friendship with the team leader, who turns out to be a real nice guy, in an inarticulate kind of way. And, furthermore, something tells me he will avail himself of the lusty charms of his oversexed landlady, but then fall for the cute girl he meets coming out of Slumber Party Massacre (really).

But something tells me she’s going to turn out to be the coach’s daughter. However, something also tells me that eventually Lowe is going to win the respect of the hardnosed coach.

Miraculously, all of these hunches (and more) are proven right during Youngblood. Director-writer Peter Markle (Mr. Hot Dog…The Movie himself) makes dead certain every predictable plot point is in place, and guides the proceedings with the proper eye for shots that can later be lifted to fashion a nice music video.

Against the odds, some of the supporting players do professional work. Cynthia Gibbs is the warm-eyed girl, Ed Lauter is the hawk-eyed coach, and Patrick Swayze (Red Dawn) actually gives a little life to that nice-if-inarticulate guy. They all deserve better than this.

First published in the Herald, January 1986

Keanu Reeves was in the movie too, the same year as River’s Edge. Youngblood is a terrible picture, although I might give it the nod, barely, over Oxford Blues, when it comes to really rotten Rob Lowe movies.

The Natural

September 9, 2011

The table is so full of starpower it fairly trembles. There sits America’s star, Robert Redford, looking superb in a film that shrouds his character within the cloak of the Great American Myth; a cloak that inevitably surrounds the actor himself. Across from Redford is Robert Duvall, the actor’s actor who is riding a crest of respect (including the Oscar, of course) and a surge of activity. It is well within Duvall’s powers to command any scene in which he appears, especially with a juicy role like sportswriter Max Mercy, but his performance in The Natural is typically considerate of his fellow actors. Between the two heavyweights sits Kim Basinger, a hot starlet who shot from being a James Bond girl (Never Say Never Again) to being the funniest thing in a Blake Edwards movie (The Man Who Loved Women) to this key role in the company of legends and near-legends.

They’re sitting at this table in a posh nightclub, where Duvall has brought Redford to meet the local gambling kingpin. This is the fourth person at the table. It’s Darren McGavin.

Now, here’s a guy, a journeyman actor, been in movies off and on for years—actually, done mostly TV for the last decade or more. And it’s an interesting thing, because he’s got to sit amidst the cream of the Hollywood crop, and he’s got to run the scene. Actually, the Redford character controls the scene, in a subtle way, but McGavin’s character has to orchestrate it. Not only that, but McGavin is playing a bigshot, an important man surrounded by underlings—in the exact opposite of his real-life position vis-à-vis the other actors at the table.

I’m thinking about this scene, and about McGavin’s good performance in general, because it’s one of the few things in The Natural that strikes me as being truly intriguing, or weird, or out-of-place. The film is a series of perfect dream images, the effect of which becomes sort of numbing after a while. At first, the interlocking elements of the plot promise something majestic: a boy’s father succumbs under a tree in the backyard; lighting hits the tree; the boy carves a baseball bat out of the cleaved wood, a bat with a lightning bolt carved on it.

The stuff of myths and legends (as Barbara Hershey points out to us, in case we hadn’t noticed); and the sunset scene in which the boy, now grown and on his way to a big-league tryout, whiffs a baseball legend named the Whammer (played with Ruthian magnitude by Joe Don Baker), is a wonderful slice of history-in-the-making. (Is there any doubt the little boy to whom Redford’s Roy Hobbs gives the strikeout ball is the same Nebraska farmboy who steps up to face Hobbs for the last out of the last game of the pennant race sixteen years later?) And I, for one, will always cherish Hobbs’ first at-bat, when he takes his manager’s idle bit of baseball chatter—”Awright Hobbs, tear the cover off the ball”—quite literally.

But the movie starts to have a clockwork feel to it. And there’s very little genuine baseball funkiness here; the closest it gets to that kind of thing is the scene in which the manager (Wilford Brimley) and the coach (Richard Farnsworth) play a laid-back game of “Name That Tune” in the dugout. You would guess that Barry (Diner) Levinson would be a perfect choice to make a baseball movie, but The Natural exists in a carefully-composed ozone layer where the sweat and dirt and grease of Diner are not allowed. Clearly, this is what the filmmakers wanted, and there are many beautifully-realized bits of action (like the business with Brimley and the dugout water fountain). But you wonder if the film might have been more satisfying if it wasn’t trying so hard to be a Great Film.

It’s tempting to envision Levinson as a slave to the awesome talents of cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, whose film this seems to be as much of Levinson’s. But remember that the movie was initiated by the producers, who also wrote the screenplay and cooked up the alterations of Bernard Malamud’s novel. And there is the possible influence of Redford, whose Ordinary People featured similarly fastidious production design. The submersion of directorial personality in The Natural, due (perhaps) to the collaboration of many very talented people, is reminiscent of a couple of other big films this year that hark back to the “Tradition of Quality” school of filmmaking. I like Greystoke and The Bounty as well as The Natural, and was variously enchanted and riveted by all of them, but had a similar feeling as the lights came up after each: Is that all? Somehow the emphasis on story and production value seemed to eclipse the men who made the movies. Official classics have a tendency to become—well, official, and the lifeblood can drain out of them quickly. A number of people who have seen The Natural have pointed out the irony of its title. For all of its loveliness, grace, and good intentions, it’s just not natural.

First published in The Informer, May/June 1984

As the late great “Voice of the Mariners” Dave Niehaus used to say, it’s corn-growin’ weather, so the warmth of early September seemed like a good time to print a baseball review. I watched this movie two nights in a row, for a variety of quirky reasons that we need not go into now (but one of them involved the opening night of the Seattle International Film Festival that year). As a person who loves baseball and the Malamud novel, I want it to be a great movie, but I can’t get past the over-dressed myth-making or the serious selling-out of Malamud’s final act. There’s still quite a bit to love, don’t get me wrong, including the locked, ominous close-up of Barbara Hershey as she shifts her gaze from west to east, her focus changing from established star to newcomer as Hobbs strikes out the Whammer by the railroad tracks on a late afternoon. The thing that amazes me is that I didn’t mention Randy Newman’s score in this review, a modern classic later re-purposed to exultant end in Chuck Workman’s montage Precious Images.

North Shore / Disorderlies

August 5, 2011

North Shore is an inoffensive offspring of the granddaddy of ’60s surfing films, The Endless Summer. It presents an insipid story laced with surfing philosophy and music, wrapped around some nifty stunt footage.

The story is the reliable chestnut about the Arizona surfer kid (Matt Adler) who goes to Hawaii for one gonzo summer before he has to go to college. Once there, he will prove himself before the local bad guys, romance a young wahini (Nia Peeples), and receive the wisdom of the waves from a sort of Zen surfmaster (Gregory Harrison).

It’s formulaic nonsense, but surprisingly easy to take (and remarkably well-timed, given surfing’s cultural resurgence). Some of the stunt photography is good, and there are a few shots where the camera is actually inside the curl of a wave. For those of us too lily-livered to stand on a surfboard, this is the closest we’ll probably ever get to a wipe-out.

But the best thing about the movie is the Eastern wisdom of the phlegmatic Harrison, who disdains competitions and show-off surfing. He says things such as, “He surfs for all the wrong reasons,” and “The pure surfer goes with the wave.” Best line goes to the hero’s girlfriend, who implores him after a spat: “Can’t we find a beach and talk?” Ah, Hawaii.

On an entirely less Zen-like level is Disorderlies, a slob comedy featuring the rap group, The Fat Boys, heretofore glimpsed in Krush Groove. This ramshackle excuse for a movie has been rather astonishingly picked up for distribution by Warner Bros.

The Fat Boys consist of Damon “Kool Rock-Ski” Wimbley, Mark “Prince Markie Dee” Morales, and Darren “The Human Beat Box” Robinson. Their names are the funniest things about them.

The movie casts them as orderlies hired by a mean wimp (Anthony “King Rock Tony” Geary) who wants his rich uncle (Ralph “The Human Groove Master” Bellamy) to die. Naturally, the hefty trio play havoc on Bellamy’s mansion, but win their way into the old codger’s heart in the end.

The comedic style is along the lines of the Three Stooges and Jerry Lewis. There are many fat jokes, and one good line of dialogue (the guys walk into a room furnished with priceless antiques, and one declares, “Man, this guy don’t throw away anything.”). After a half hour or so, the joke—you should pardon the phrase—runs thin.

First published in the Herald, August 19, 1987

Some fond memories of North Shore, mostly because of my weakness for surf-related pictures (and I’m not really so lily-livered, at least not about trying to surf, but the opportunity has been nonexistent, unfortunately). I suppose the key to my embarrassing affection for this movie is buried in the credits: “Story by Randal Kleiser.” The man who made Summer Lovers gets me again. As for Disorderlies, I’m afraid I didn’t keep up with the Fat Boys the way I should have, so I don’t have much to add. I much prefer the Tashlin-Lewis Disorderly Orderly, which I recommend for its sight (and sound) gags and some vintage Lewis babbling: “Oh, friction—burning….”

The Best of Times

July 29, 2011

Ever since 9:22 p.m., November 15, 1972, there has been an overriding reality in the life of an otherwise ordinary man from the small town of Taft, California. It was at that very moment, 13 years ago, that Jack (Robin Williams) dropped a last-second pass that would have given the Taft Rockets their first-ever victory over the hated Bakersfield Tigers.

Instead, Jack muffed the catch, Bakersfield won the high school rivalry again, and Jack was doomed to a life as The Man Who Dropped the Ball.

This is the situation for the protagonist of The Best of Times, a spunky, endearing slice-of-life comedy. As the film begins, Jack is recounting a brief history of the town of Taft, which has never seemed to win at anything. In a way, he’s like the town itself—small, unassuming, bloody but not bowed.

Jack gets it into his head that he can remove the nagging memory of that dropped ball—extricate himself from “the bowels of hell,” as he puts it—by replaying the game; that is, gathering all the now-paunchy players from the two squads and going through it all again.

But he’ll need the help of the greatest high school quarterback in the history of Taft: Reno Hightower (Kurt Russell). Reno resists, but a terrorist attack by a man dressed in a tiger suit—everyone thinks it’s a Bakersfield bad buy, but it’s actually Jack, trying to whip up enthusiasm for the game—changes Reno’s mind, and the preparations for the battle begin.

These are amusing; but at least as important to the heart of the film are the marital tribulations of Jack and Reno. Jack’s wife (Holly Palance) has thrown him out of the house because of his insistence on the replayed game. And long-standing problems have driven Reno’s wife (Pamela Reed) to temporary residence at the Top Hat motel.

A sequence with the two couples coming together for a reconciliation dinner is the comic centerpiece. The wives swig wine from the bottle in anticipation, the husbands try to bolster themselves with a game plan (“Be bland, but strong—careful, but with a touch of reckless”).

The women have deliberately scheduled the dinner for a Monday night, with the attendant televised football game; the dinner is a test to see whether the boys can resist the temptation. If that that setup seems a bit familiar, the results are funny nevertheless.

It all builds up to a conclusion that is also familiar and predictable: Every person who watches this movie knows that the big rematch will come down to a single play in which Jack will either redeem himself or become the goat of all time.

The plot may strike some as formula—how many movies can we take with a big sporting event as the finale? And yet The Best of Times has a wonderful freshness; it combines humor and heartache in a beguiling combination—in scenes such as Reno’s off-key rendition of “Close to You” at his wife’s motel room door, or the touching entreaty Jack makes to his wife in the gymnasium restroom during a pregame sock-hop.

Director Roger Spottiswoode (Under Fire) has a keen sense of how people talk, and behave; and he’s well-served by his actors. Williams and Russell have nice chemistry, and Palance (currently appearing in the Seattle Rep’s The Real Thing) and Reed (The Right Stuff) are attractively unglamorous.

The Best of Times doesn’t break new ground, and it’s a decidedly self-effacing work. But it’s a tremendously agreeable movie, and very easy to enjoy.

First published in the Herald, January 29, 1986

Lovely movie. I didn’t mention its screenwriter, because like most people I didn’t know who Ron Shelton was; Bull Durham was still a couple of years in the future. But of course Shelton’s spirit is all over this film, in the best ways. As for the director, this seemed like the moment Spottiswoode was going to settle onto the A-list, which didn’t happen although he did get some high-profile jobs, including a Bond picture. He was married to Holly Palance (yes, daughter of Jack), who didn’t really stick with the movie thing. This film just radiates a good feel, and everybody’s doing top-line work; of course, it didn’t do anything at the box office.

All the Right Moves

April 13, 2011

In the first shot of All the Right Moves, we see a smoking factory sitting in the middle of a small mining town. A young man and an older character actor walk out of the factory, carrying their standard-issue lunch pails and hardhats, and wearily making their way home.

I’m not clairvoyant, but it was at this moment—30 seconds or so into the film—that I leaned back and said to myself: “Uh huh. It’s going to be the one about the kid who has to win the sports scholarship so he won’t get trapped in this suffocating existence the way his father and brother did.”

It’s unfair to pigeonhole any movie based on the first few moments. Good movies can always surprise you.

But dog my cats if All the Right Moves didn’t go exactly where I thought it was going. What I couldn’t predict was how lame it would be about getting there.

Tom Cruise, who was so good as the enterprising innocent in Risky Business, appears as the football-playing hero who learns the true meaning of teamwork, loyalty and whatever else it is that kids learn the true meaning of in stories like this. He wants to wangle a football scholarship at a major college so he can become an engineer and enter the mining business with a whiter collar than his father and brother.

But Cruise derails his plans when he cusses out the coach after his team loses the Big Game—thanks to a coaching error. Not only that, but he gets drunk with some of the town’s rowdy alumni and throws garbage all over the coach’s house. Wrong move.

Pretty soon the coach has him blackballed from all the right colleges. It looks as though Cruise is going to get stuck in the small town.

But wait. Our hero’s steady date, a slip of a girl played by Lea Thompson, has other ideas. She has an excruciatingly dopey heart-to-heart with the coach’s wife, and the tide starts to turn. Now it’s up to Cruise to show a little decency.

But that’s enough synopsizing: you get the picture. The best thing about All the Right Moves is Craig T. Nelson’s performance as the coach. Nelson, who played the father in Poltergeist, has a bizarre off-center delivery that makes everything he does fun to watch.

The worst thing about the movie is that it bodes ill for the directing career of Michael Chapman, the excellent cinematographer (Raging Bull, Personal Best), whose first directing job this is.

A word about a disturbing trend in recent cinema: This is the second film this year in which a spunky kid pursues a goal that will allow him/her to break out of a Pennsylvania mining environment. The first, of course, was that phenomenon—one does not actually want to refer to it as a movie—known as Flashdance, a word that will live in infamy.

All the Right Moves should not have the same bewildering success; still, it’s time to nip this thing in the bud. We’ve got to put an end to the trend, and soon. It’ll be a tough job, but then it’s a chore just to sit there and watch these movies. Besides, maybe we’ll learn the true meaning of teamwork.

First published in the Herald, October 1983

A review from my first month at writing for the Herald, and I already sound plenty jaded. But one gets jaded quickly with a movie like All the Right Moves, my friend. The awfulness of the title itself seemed to point the way toward many an Eighties handle: vague and stupid, as fitting for an aerobics film or a martial arts picture. Michael Chapman directed again after this, with Clan of the Cave Bear, so there you go with that (strangely, it was during this time that he went from being one of Hollywood’s absolute top cinematographers—Taxi Driver, Fingers, the Kaufman Invasion of the Body Snatchers as well as the two mentioned above—to being a very, very good cinematographer. The movie was a step up the ladder for Cruise, who never looked back.

American Anthem

April 12, 2011

American Anthem begins with helicopter shots of the Statue of Liberty and some Southwestern mesas, and right away you know this film is going to grab for your patriotic jugular vein and never let go. The fact that this display has been timed to coincide with the major-league hootenanny surrounding the Statue of Liberty refurbishing is, of course, no coincidence at all.

As a matter of fact, despite its broad title, American Anthem turns to some pretty small-scale matters very soon. It’s all about a bunch of gymnasts, see, trying out for a big meet coming up. It won’t be easy; both protagonists have attitude problems.

Janet Jones (The Flamingo Kid) plays a new member of the TOPS gymnastic team. She’s got her nose just a tad high in the air, and gets so darned mad when the gruff-but-lovable (how could he be anything but?) coach forces her to conduct her floor routine to some creepy classical music instead of the neato disco tune composed by her friend, a non-threatening type who doesn’t like to leave his room.

Mitch Gaylord (gold medal gymnast in the 1984 Olympic Games) is a troubled youth. He used to be a big sports star, but something went wrong. Now he hangs around wearing a leather jacket and working at the garage as a welder—since Flashdance, the occupation of choice.

One look at Jones and he’s interested in gymnastics again. But hey, it’s more than that—it’s about proving something to yourself, to your parents, to your coach.

So Gaylord goes to the woods, sticks a metal pole between a couple of birch trees, and starts to swing, to the tune of some Gregorian-style chants that were left over from the Omen soundtrack.

He’s trying to perfect the triple-super-kahuna (or something along those lines), which he may or may not uncork in the final attempt of the big meet in the last minute of the film. Your guess.

The source of Gaylord’s problems is supposed to be his strained relationship with his father, an amazingly clichéd contrivance that drags the movie down. Providing understanding is his mother, played by Michelle Phillips, who used to be with the Mamas and the Papas.

That’s another musical connection, all part of the American anthem. There’s music throughout, and whole sequences are available for lifting as music videos if needed. Not surprising that this is the work of Albert Magnoli, the director of Purple Rain; it’s probably safe to conclude that whatever harmonizing moments that film had—and it did have a few—were created by Prince and his entourage, not Magnoli, whose newest anthem is decidedly off-key.

First published in the Herald, June 28, 1986

The movie opened just a week before that Lady Liberty bicentennial, a real orgy of nationalism (though the statue itself is extremely right-on) presided over by Ronald Reagan, who didn’t seem like much at the time but who we now know was so awesome he makes George Washington and Abraham Lincoln look like, well, Mitch Gaylord, if you know what I mean. Janet Jones, who always seemed slightly bionic, would soon marry Wayne Gretzky, who was not even American. Footnote to nothing: this movie is one of the few film credits for Patrice Donnelly, the real-life athlete who very memorably starred in Personal Best. Plus, really terrible soundtrack.