Murphy’s Romance

July 23, 2012

In the opening scenes of Murphy’s Romance we see Sally Field bring her young son (Corey Haim) to a small Arizona town where they’ve rented a ranch house, and set about fixing the place up. They get out the hammer and nails and paintbrushes, and Field puts out leaflets for her new horse-stabling business.

You think to yourself: Is this going to be another movie in which the indomitable Field establishes herself against all odds in a rural setting, picking up an Oscar nomination in the process?

The answer is no, not really. Oh, there’s a bit of that in Murphy’s Romance, and Field will probably get another Oscar nomination, but the film has other fish to fry, and they are very flavorful ones.

For the most past, it’s a low-key portrait of people just trying to get by—not winning big battles, but just trying to make life work out. As such, it’s an immensely appealing character study.

Field plays Emma Moriarty, a divorcee who may be getting involved with an older widower, Murphy Jones (James Garner), who owns the town drugstore, and who is something of an eccentric. He’s a stubborn old coot who prides himself on the shine on his 1927 car, plays the fiddle at the town dances, and is reportedly working on a chili cookbook. Garner is a natural in the role, the best film work he’s done in many years.

This maybe romance is interrupted, however, by the arrival of Field’s ex-husband, Bobby Jack (Brian Kerwin), a classic ne’er-do-well who moves back in with her, although their relationship remains platonic. He just needs someone to sponge off of for a while.

It’s a measure of the good feeling of Murphy’s Romance that even Bobby Jack, undeniably a weasel, is seen with some measure of sympathy. Director Martin Ritt, who guided Field to an Oscar in Norma Rae, creates a very placid, likable world in this film, and everyone fits into it in some way.

Ritt’s unhurried rhythms allow time for some lovely moments: three people sitting on a town bench, enjoying the stars on a clear night; a bingo game at the Elks club; a quiet kitchen during a big barbecue, as Emma tries to get Murphy to disclose his age.

These moments are sweet, but not icky, largely because of the charisma of the stars. It’s an old-fashioned movie that way. It unabashedly relies on star power to communicate character traits not contained in the screenplay. Luckily, Field and Garner are well up to these demands.

The score was composed by Carole King, who also sings several songs on the soundtrack. These add to the laid-back atmosphere. So does the small town itself – Florence, Ariz, according to the credits – which, by the authentic feel of its main street, looks like a wonderful place to be.

Ritt allows his story to ramble somewhat more than it needs to, and one may question the use of so many romantic sunsets. But quibbles tend to fade away in the light of the pleasant glow that emanates from this movie’s quiet appeal. Murphy’s Romance provides, in an old-fashioned way, a real nice time.

First published in the Herald, January 30, 1986

Well, I wish I’d done a better job of talking about this movie, which really is pretty nice. Martin Ritt, while not giving off a strong movie-movie vibe, was able to hit the ball solidly now and again, and it’s somewhat surprising to see that he worked steadily through his career. Somewhere in there, if I’m remembering it right, is a scene in which Field suggests going to a movie with Garner, whereupon he gets a faraway look in his eyes and says, “I haven’t been to the movies since the Duke died.” Which is just exactly what that fellow, and many like him, would say. I like the line, I like the movie.


Stand by Me

May 11, 2012

I started to tell the story of Stand by Me to a friend the other day, and after I’d gotten through a few sentences’ worth of description, she stopped me. “That’s the third time you’ve used the phrase ‘really neat,'” she said. She was right.

I will do what I can to avoid the phrase, but blast it, Stand by Me is really neat. And it’s something more than that, too.

Rob Reiner directed the film, his third in what should be a long and fruitful career. (The first two were This Is Spinal Tap and The Sure Thing, both utter delights. Once upon a time, he played Meathead on “All in the Family.”) Reiner’s source is unexpected: Stand by Me is adapted from a novella called The Body, by Stephen King.

Stephen King? Then why don’t the TV commercials for this movie have King leering into the camera and saying, “I’m gonna scare the hell out of you”? Well, it’s not that kind of Stephen King. In fact, The Body (which, after filming, was given its vague new title) is a nostalgic non-horror story that turns on a simply beautiful idea.

One summer day in 1959, much like any other in Castle Rock, Ore., a kid overhears two older boys talking about a dead body they spotted some miles away, by the railroad tracks. They didn’t report it, because they were out there doing something illicit.

They know who the corpse is (was?); the missing boy they’ve all been hearing about on the radio.

The young eavesdropper runs to his buddies back at the treehouse. Wouldn’t it be neat to go see that dead body? They’ve never seen one before. Besides, it would be a fun overnight camping trip through the forest.

Out they go, and the rest of the film is their journey. The movie’s main weakness is that this is all too clearly a major rite of passages for the boys. It’s the moment when the two maturing kids will pull irrevocably past the two more childish ones. But the trip itself is so enjoyable, and so rich in deeply felt detail, that the glaringly symbolic nature of the odyssey doesn’t hamstring things.

The script by Raynold Gideon and Bruce A. Evans utilizes salty dialogue and a grasp of the stuff that matters when you’re very young (the best food in the world, it is decided, is cherry-flavored Pez).

The story is set in a flashback, told by a writer—a cameo, and a very nice one, by Richard Dreyfuss—who was the brightest, most imaginative of the boys. During the forest trek, he (played by Wil Wheaton) comes to terms with the recent death of his idealized older brother (John Cusack, star of The Sure Thing). In a weird way, seeing the body of a dead kid by the railroad tracks helps him.

The other boys are played by River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, and Jerry O’Connell, and all are fine. Kiefer Sutherland, Donald’s son, does good mean work as the leader of the toughs who found the body in the first place. The toughs, by the way, swig Rainier beer. Reiner gets the details right.

It’s not a perfect or great film; Reiner might have pruned some of the more touchy-feely dialogue, which 12-year-olds were probably not spouting in 1959. But it’s consistently good, and certain images—a deer in the night, the sound of a train that might just be approaching as the boys walk across a trestle—are for keeps. In short, this movie is really, really—no, I won’t say it again. But you know what I mean.

First published in the Herald, August 1986

The change probably helped the movie’s fortunes, but The Body would have been an excellent title. It’s got the plainness of a classic Ray Bradbury title, and the material is of course very Bradburyesque in its understanding of stuff that actually matters to children. I’m not sure how neat I would find this movie today, although it might be interesting to watch it  knowing how the lives of its young actors turned out.


Secret Admirer

May 8, 2012

The plot of Secret Admirer is much too complicated to synopsize—and that should be a fundamental recommendation. When a film that appears to be another teen sex comedy is too complicated to describe, it usually suggests something out of the ordinary.

Basically, the movie’s about the myriad repercussions of an anonymous love letter. The letter is intended for Michael (C. Thomas Howell), a graduating high-school senior. But the letter goes astray, and falls into the hands of most of the people surrounding Michael, including his parents (Cliff De Young and Dee Wallace Stone), his dream girl (Kelly Preston), and her parents (Fred Ward and Leigh Taylor-Young).

A few more letters get written, and that botches up everything, because as these letters get traded around, the reader usually assumes himself to be the target—when in fact, it’s only gotten into his hands by chance. If that’s not clear, let’s just say that before long everyone in the movie suspects at least one other person of being the “secret admirer” who sent the thing. They’re almost always wrong.

It’s the stuff of classic farce, reshaped to fit quite neatly into the mode of the current coming-of-age comedy. Secret Admirer is unusually well-played for that genre; some of the actors are recognizable from other teen films. Howell, of The Outsiders and Grandview, U.S.A., makes a fine hero, just a bit on the dense side. Lori Laughlin is just right as the “nice” girl who steadfastly stands by him.

The object of his desire is played by Kelly Preston, who played a similar blond bombshell in Mischief. Her character is ripest for satire, and she’s got the pitch of the babbling, fashion-conscious debutante down to a T. And the parents, who are swept into their own whirl of sexual confusion by the stray letters, couldn’t be better—the actors communicate the illicit, spicy thrill of potential adultery invading their world of PTA meetings and bridge parties. Fred Ward is a standout as Preston’s father, the excitable cop.

Most of all, Secret Admirer reveals the sharp writing and directing talents of scenarists Jim Kouf and David Greenwalt (Greenwalt also directed), who collaborated on the screenplay for Class. They were in town for the premiere showing of Secret Admirer at the Seattle Film Festival, and proved to be as funny in person as the evidence of the film would suggest.

In the process of fielding questions from the audience, they revealed a crucial casting change: The blond-bombshell part was originally to be played by Julianne Phillips, who has become better known lately as Mrs. Bruce Springsteen. Preston replaced Phillips a few days into shooting, when, as Kouf and Greenwalt tell it, it became obvious that Phillips did not look young enough to fit in with the high-schoolers playing opposite her. In so doing, they dealt away an unforeseen commercial boost; but based on Phillips’ performance in the ditzy TV movie Summer Fantasy, they got the better of it in the long run.

First published in the Herald, June 13, 1985

Greenwalt and Kouf got into television and have flourished there. This was a very nicely-made picture, curiously underrated when people talk about good Eighties comedies, with likability all over the place. Uh…Summer Fantasy?


License to Drive

July 19, 2011

Graham, Feldman & Haim

License to Drive is a movie clearly made with the assembly line in mind. The filmmakers have taken the body of Risky Business, the chassis of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and the low rumbling engine of After Hours.

Funny thing is, for a film that should (and often does) feel like a mass-produced vehicle, License to Drive provides a pretty painless ride. I know I chuckled at least 12 times, which is about a dozen times more than I’d expected.

There’s nothing new about the main matter of the film, which is a basic recapitulation of basic adolescent hijinks. One kid (Corey Haim) needs to get his driver’s license so he can impress the girl of his dreams and his best friend (Corey Feldman). Unfortunately, he flunks his driver’s test the day he’s scheduled to have a big first date with the dream girl.

The final two-thirds of the movie is the date, which Haim embarks upon despite the absence of the license. Actually, he’s all but given up on the whole idea, until he receives a phone call from the girl on the night in question: “So, you can pick me up in 20 minutes?” That’s a siren call no hormone-pumping young American could possibly resist.

So Haim sneaks his grandfather’s pristine Cadillac out of the garage and glides away. After that, the roof falls in – quite literally, by the end of the movie. Director Greg Beeman and screenwriter Neil Tolkin have devised every possible catastrophe for our young driver and the soon-to-be-unrecognizable car.

Along with the girl (soon soused on champagne), he picks up two buddies and carries them along for the ride, as they encounter a rumble at a burger drive-in, a violent Communist Party demonstration, a humorless tow-truck driver, and finally a drunken car thief.

Nothing too surprising about any of this, and the humor is entirely tied up in pubescent obsessions, albeit the nightmarish side of them (the movie even opens with a nightmare about escape from a hellish school bus).

But Beeman displays some sense of how to set up an honest joke, and the performers are generally likable, if somewhat nondescript; Richard Masur and Carol Kane do their usual good work as Haim’s hip-but-not-that-hip parents. At the very least, Beeman taps into many of the central terrors peculiar to the state of being 15 ½ years old.

First published in the Herald, July 1988

“Nothing too surprising about any of this”? How did I say that after typing the line about the violent Communist Party demonstration? I guess I was dazzled, to some minor degree, by the movie. It got bad reviews and was one of those movies reviewers could point to in order to trace the collapse of American cinema, but I liked it. This is a shameful thing to admit about a Two Coreys picture, but I remember it having a decent sense of comic timing and momentum. Not that I’ve seen it since it came out. Director Beeman went on to a very successful TV career, including stuff like Heroes and Smallville. I didn’t identify the female lead here, but it was Heather Graham, a year before Drugstore Cowboy.


Lucas

March 10, 2011

Lucas is a precocious 14-year-old who has a few peculiar habits. He collects locusts. He carries a tape recorder that plays a sort of soundtrack to his life at key moments. And he goes to high school—because, “I’m accelerated,” as he says—with a bunch of older kids.

Which means that Lucas is lonely, if bright. And Lucas is the story of a crucial turning point in the boy’s growth, when he finds out the meaning of life and love.

That already sounds pretty wet, and Lucas steps into most of the gooey traps of such a story. Lucas (Corey Haim) meets a new girl (Kerri Green) in school; but she’s 18, and although she befriends the shrimp, she falls more seriously for the school football star (Charlie Sheen, Martin’s son).

This is Lucas’s first heartbreak, and drives him back to his locusts (Lucas—locust—get it?). But Lucas contrives a way to prove his manhood on the football field, and conveniently finds another girl to replace his true love.

This leads to a distastefully manipulative ending. In fact, the ending is so bogus, it makes you forget the fact that writer-director David Seltzer has pulled off a few sensitive scenes along the way.

Seltzer gets a nice offbeat tone to a variety of encounters. When Sheen first notices Green, for instance, it’s at a school laundry, where they duet in an unusually long scene, both of them nervous, testing each other. And there’s a fresh angle to the scene in which Lucas brings his heart’s desire to an outdoor symphony concert—via the sewer. They travel underground until they’re near the performing shell, then they simply crack open a manhole cover not far from the music and enjoy the sounds wafting across the night.

These little touches suggest that Seltzer has some desire to avoid the usual formula for these stories, and he’s got gobs of sincerity.

That makes it all the more irritating when Seltzer slips into the nonsense of the final sequences, as Lucas insists he wants to play on the football team, in some desperate attempt to recapture the attention of his red-headed heartthrob. This, although he’d earlier announced that football players and cheerleaders were hopelessly superficial. He wasn’t quite right; it’s the film that gets increasingly superficial.

Seltzer’s cast is agreeable enough; Haim is an engaging Lucas, Green is underwhelming but steady as the focus of Lucas’s attention, and Sheen, who looks more like his father than his brother, Emilio Estevez, has an interesting quality. Although he’s good, he never seems quite at ease; it’s as though something is eating at him. Rather than detract from his performance, this actually makes it more intriguing.

First published in the Herald, March 1986

I was going to drop the Charlie Sheen Week business but then coming across this review (entirely at random, I swear), I was struck by the final sentences. Because things still are very much eating at Charlie Sheen. This movie brought on a memorable bout of high-rhapsody writing from Roger Ebert at the time, who compared it to The 400 Blows; but hey, the movie’s about a smart, bespectacled Chicago kid wrestling with first love, so let’s give the guy a pass. My review failed to mention another fresh young face in the cast, which belonged to Winona Ryder (let the whispers of the “curse of Lucas” proceed apace). Seltzer went on to make Punchline a couple of years later—and perhaps a man named Seltzer had to make a film about comedians—which wasn’t bad, but his follow-up was Shining Through, a train wreck. He created the Omen series, so he’s probably fine.


The Lost Boys

February 25, 2011
Vampires by Schumacher

The Lost Boys is a film about the adventures of a group of teenage vampires, undead and footloose in a small California coastal resort town.

This isn’t quite as crazy as it sounds: The setting is a good one, and the vampirism serves as a handy metaphor for the homelessness, drug addiction, or (to use the antiquated term) juvenile delinquency of many at-large young people.

Director Joel Schumacher may be aware of those possibilities, and he takes care to make his vampires look like regular kids. They resemble any group of troublemakers out for fun on a Saturday night on the boardwalk. Until they drink blood from wine bottles and sprout fangs and yellow contact lenses, anyway.

But Schumacher botches whatever intriguingly scary-seductive potential the concept has. The Lost Boys exists on an entirely superficial level, and Schumacher fills the movie with a lot of fast cutting and hip fashion, which is supposed to convince us the movie is stylish. Actually, it’s just so much noise. (It’s the same approach he took with his previous film, St. Elmo’s Fire, which was a lot more unintentionally scary than this thing.)

We enter the town of Santa Carlos through the eyes of two brothers (Jason Patric and Corey Haim) who move there with their mother (recent Oscar winner Dianne Wiest). The town is known as “The Murder Capital of the World,” and there are strange disappearances going on constantly.

The older brother, Patric, catches the eye of a local hot number (Jami Gertz), but she turns out to be one of the bloodsuckers, and leads him into the circle of motorcycle-riding vampires.

The leader of the pack is a bleached-blond tough (Kiefer Sutherland, also on current view in Crazy Moon). He holds nocturnal meetings in an underground cavern dominated by a huge poster of Jim Morrison, featuring a wine cellar that has only one vintage, the full-bodied red. It’s up to little brother Haim to rescue his sibling.

Only Sutherland captures a sense of stylization in his performance—he at least seems genuinely haunted—and suggest what the movie might have been had it adopted a spookier tone. Anyone who’s ever walked along a lonely boardwalk at night knows that the resort setting, with its seediness and sense of transience, might have made a terrifically atmospheric locale. Somehow The Lost Boys never quite finds that.

First published in the Herald, July 1987

When Kiefer Sutherland is my favorite performer in anything, something is wrong. Also, I think I was too young when I wrote this to use the word “troublemakers”; that’s off-limits until one turns 55. The spur to dig up this review comes from just having watched Lost Boys: The Thirst, a direct-to-video offering I reviewed for Amazon.com. It returns Corey Feldman and Jamison Newlander, who played the Frog brothers in the original film (and who I did not deign to mention in this ’87 review), to their roles—and actually, the sequel has a fairly shrewd appreciation of its low-budget purpose in life; it also contains a few clips of Corey Haim from the first movie, acknowledging his (and his character’s) death through plot developments. Joel Schumacher, of course, would go on and on.


Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning

February 3, 2011

The Friday the 13th horror series is one of the most depressing success stories in Hollywood today.

Wait a minute—what am I saying? The Friday the 13th series is the most depressing success story in Hollywood. Nothing else really comes close.

Last year, Part IV promised that is was The Final Chapter, thus raising hopes among civilized people everywhere that he trashy series was truly at an end. Not so. These films are much too popular; sad to say, the latest entry opens the door for a whole new cycle of movies.

The subtitle of Part V announces A New Beginning, wherein the bloody duties of a maniac names Jason are passed on to successors. Jason is a brain-damaged fellow clad in a hockey mask who kills indiscriminately. He’s been doing it since Part I, and he has seemed indestructible heretofore.

That’s because, no matter how much punishment he gets, he just keeps going. Okay, he was killed off in Part IV, but somebody seems to be emulating his style in Part V.

Just in case anyone cares (the filmmakers certainly didn’t), the plot happens in a nuthouse—er, a center for social rehabilitation—out in the woods, where the guy who killed Jason in Part IV is sent for therapy. The other inhabitants are freaky guys and nymphomaniacal girls.

People start getting hacked up, and it looks like Jason’s method. The formula is so set by now, these “suspense” sequences are all deadly dull: Two people are out alone, and one of them says something like, “Gee, I think I’ll go over into these dark bushes and look around.” At which point both people are attacked and done away with.

One angry visitor to the rehab center says, “As far as I’m concerned, all these loonies should be killed off one by one.” He probably didn’t know he was describing the plot line for the film—or for any of the Friday the 13th films, for that matter.

So it goes. As usual, the people getting killed are so imbecilic you don’t feel too much sympathy when they buy the farm. That, I guess, is the dirtiest aspect of the Friday movies: the utter cynicism with which they are created and produced, with cardboard characters, situations, effects. It’s all done by rote, so you can’t care about anything.

These films always raise the hackles of decent folk who speak out on the violence and cruelty of the movies. There is a group that should be even more upset: people (such as myself) who like horror films. The genre has been so devalued in the last decade that it’s become difficult to admit you enjoy horror films of any kind—even when good and inventive work is done within the horror form.

So, let’s hope this New Beginning is stillborn. But based on the track record of the Friday movies, don’t bet on it.

First published in the Herald, March 1985

Looking at the actual release date of this film, I see that it opened a week or so after I quit the last full-time non-writing-related job I ever had, and a few days before leaving for my first trip to Europe. So I was really feeling euphoric, which might explain my reaction to being bummed so hard by this lousy movie. There is absolutely nothing else to say about it.