Pet Sematary

October 29, 2012

During the end credits of Pet Sematary, a message reminds us that “No animals were harmed in any way” during filming. This is small reassurance, because it’s the animals in Pet Sematary that are threatening harm, not the other way around.

It’s another movie adaptation of a novel by frightmeister Stephen King, but this time King wrote the screenplay himself. Adding interest is the choice of director Mary Lambert, an artsy type who has made some of the better music videos, including Sting’s “We’ll Be Together” and Madonna’s new scandal, “Like a Prayer.”

Pet Sematary turns out to be one of the better King adaptations. Nothing major here, but it delivers the goods.

King’s scary idea in this one is that a family moves into a remote house in rural Maine, and discovers that its property borders on a pet sema—er, cemetery. As the old geezer (Fred Gwynne) across the road informs them, the cemetery does pretty good business, since the road outside carries constant truck traffic and the local critters are not quite fast enough.

But there’s another funny thing about the cemetery. Animals that are buried there have a way of not staying dead, as the young husband (Dale Midkiff) finds out when the family cat is felled by an 18-wheeler. Kitty comes back, but with a distinctly malevolent attitude. The movie’s kicker comes when Midkiff asks the old-timer the inevitable question: Has anybody ever buried a human out there?

Lambert mounts some scary sequences, and a few of the images are truly creepy. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t get much better than merely effective, because there are too many gaps in the narrative. However, any horror movie that ends with a Ramones song can’t be all bad: “Don’t put me in a pet cemetery….”

First published in the Herald, April 27, 1989

The movie seems to have its share of fans. It’s superior to Silver Bullet, and probably Maximum Overdrive too, but I’m not sure that’s saying very much. Denise Crosby was the female lead.

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Comfort and Joy

July 6, 2012

A writer-director named Bill Forsyth has been carving out a special niche for himself in world cinema. Over the last five years, the Scotsman has been delighting audiences with such wonderful pieces of skewed whimsy as That Sinking Feeling, Gregory’s Girl, and Local Hero.

These films share Forsyth’s absolutely dry sense of humor, as well as his feeling for low-key ensemble acting. Miraculously, without ever seeming drippy or cute (and without ever tooting their own horn about it), they manage to make you feel exceptionally good.

His newest film, Comfort and Joy, carries on this tradition, I’m glad to say. Forsyth, working in his native Glasgow, has this time decided to show us how funny a series of personal disasters can be.

The disasters happen to Alan Bird (Bill Paterson), a disc jockey known to one and all as “Dickie” Bird. It’s Christmas week, but let heaven and nature not sing. Out of a clear blue sky, Dickie’s girlfriend leaves him, taking with her everything in their apartment. A friend visits and insists that this represents a new chance for Dickie to define himself.

Dickie’s not so sure. Frankly, he feels utterly at sea—until one night, he witnesses something that galvanizes him. When he spots a pretty girl (Clare Grogan) in an ice cream truck, he follows the truck until it stops, whereupon he buys a cone and saunters away. Suddenly, the truck is attacked by hooded vandals who bash out the windows. One of them pauses long enough to ask Dickie for his autograph.

It’s the beginning of an adventure in espionage. It turns out rival ice cream companies are warring. The Mr. McCool people control the city, and the upstart Mr. Bunny organization is cutting in. Dickie becomes a liaison between the two factions, risking life and limb—well, maybe only limb—to find a solution.

Meanwhile, he’s communicating strange coded messages during his morning radio show: “Mr. Bunny, meet me tonight at the usual place—it’s urgent.” People are starting to wonder about good old Dickie.

You can sense that Forsyth and his marvelous group of actors are working with the merest wisps of plot. What they capture so beautifully are the details that make up the lives of these characters—ways of talking, of eating, of exchanging concern. Absurd elements always find their way into Forsyth’s movies, but he keeps them from being stupid by never violating the dramatic underpinnings of his situations.

For instance, this Dickie Bird fellow has an enjoyably madcap time of it, but Forsyth doesn’t let his loneliness be forgotten—much of Bird’s spirit at this time comes from his desire to fill up empty hours with something alive and risky.

Forsyth has said the film was partially inspired by the music of Mark Knopfler, the leader of the rock bad Dire Straits, who composed the evocative score for Comfort and Joy (as he did with Local Hero).

Although the title seems to be ironic at the beginning of the film—when even the birds are mistreating Bird by bombing his car—at the end we see that a lot of people have found comfort and joy along the way. And the title is also a perfect description of the film’s effect on an audience. It’s not a blockbuster, it won’t win Oscars, but Comfort and Joy is going to make you feel just fine.

First published in the Herald, October 1984

Perhaps you sense that I love Bill Forsyth’s films. I remember being underwhelmed at first about this one—what, you mean it isn’t at the level of Local Hero?—but it’s a lovely picture anyway. The (mostly) absence of Forsyth from the world cinema stage is one of the great losses in movies of the last 30 years.


Track 29

March 29, 2012

After Track 29, the “Chattanooga Choo Choo” may never sound the same again. The song gives the movie its title (you know—”Track 29/Boy you can give me a shine”), and it’s prominently featured in a sequence in which a doctor gives a rousing revival speech before an audience of railroad enthusiasts, at the same time a truck is crashing through his house, where his wife’s fantasy child is trashing the doctor’s elaborate computer-operated train set.

This thumbnail description doesn’t being to convey the madness of the sequence, so you can imagine what watching it is like. The perpetrators of Track 29 are two of Britain’s most provocative talents: director Nicolas Roeg, the creator of Performance and The Man Who Fell to Earth, and screenwriter Dennis Potter, who previously wrote Pennies from Heaven and Dreamchild.

Roeg and Potter seem to have egged each other on, into the far reaches of the bizarre. Track 29 tells the tale of a bored housewife (Theresa Russell, who is also Roeg’s wife) in a small town in the American South.

Stultified by her marriage to a doctor (Christopher Lloyd) who prefers the company of his train set, she becomes intrigued by the presence of a young Englishman (Gary Oldman, who played Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy).

The drifter says he is her long-lost son who was taken away from her when she was 15 years old and unmarried. She believes him, despite the fact that he appears to be her own age. But then again, it becomes increasingly apparent that the young man exists only in her mind—that he is born out of her frustration and her desire to have a child.

Her husband considers her “totally loco” (no train pun intended); he’s busy spending time with a nurse (Sandra Bernhard) who spanks him while they listen to tape-recorded railroad sounds.

The whole thing plays like something Tennessee Williams might have written after a really, really lost weekend. There is some tired satire of American society, but most of the film examines the peculiar psychosexual unhappiness of the Theresa Russell character. Russell, the star of Black Widow, is a good, daring actress, but there’s never much more than sheer kinkiness at play here, and she has little opportunity to create a performance.

Roeg’s films are getting stranger. They were always odd, but they used to be weird-brilliant, or at least weird-interesting. Now they’re just weird-weird. We have a right to expect more.

First published in the Herald, October 7, 1988

This movie must have some defenders, but I’ve never heard of it crawling up to the level of cult film or anything like that. I stand by everything but the last line of the review; we don’t really have a right to expect anything, and a filmmaker like Roeg can do what he wants. I wish this movie had worked, though.


American Ninja II and Creepshow 2

November 21, 2011

If you recall American Ninja, you’ll remember that our hero (Michael Dudikoff) is an American Army man, trained in the ways of the mysterious, black-hooded ninja. This makes him all but indestructible. If you think about it, this removes a considerable amount of suspense, since the guy can’t possibly be threatened by any conventional opposition.

Nevertheless, he’s back in American Ninja II, again victorious over insurmountable odds. Joined by his Ranger buddy (Steve James, who has become a kind of black Chuck Norris), Dudikoff travels to a tropical island to solve the mystery of disappearing Marines. As the plot unreels—or, rather, unravels—it turns out that a batch of the ninja are carting away American military men to be cloned in experiments to produce a race of “SuperNinjas.”

In other words, “Karate Theatre” meets The Island of Dr. Moreau. Very strange story. However, director Sam Firstenberg, who has made a lot of weird stuff for Cannon Films, keeps this one lively for at least its first two thirds (there’s a barroom brawl about every five minutes). Then the SuperNinja business gets out of hand, and the movie grinds down.

Creepshow 2 is another sequel, but this time spun off from an original film that was quite watchable. The first Creepshow had the indefatigable Stephen King writing a screenplay, directed by George Romero, that paid affectionate homage to pulpy horror comic books. It wasn’t too scary, but it was stylish and fun.

For the sequel, Romero has adapted a trio of King short stories, but the directing reins are held by Michael Gorlick. King’s actual participation is limited to an acting cameo, as a dimwitted truck driver, that is actually one of the sharpest performances in the movie.

The first story is called “Old Chief Wood’n Head,” and it’s a snoozer that wastes Dorothy Lamour and George Kennedy in a tale of Native American justice. The second, “The Raft,” is somewhat better, if only because King’s idea is basically scary. It’s about a quartet of teens trapped on a raft, in the middle of a lake, by a huge gloppy thing that slides across the surface of the water.

The film is rounded off by “The Hitchhiker,” about a woman (Lois Chiles) who runs over and kills a hitcher, only to have him disconcertingly return. It’s the best of the lot, directed and acted with some intensity and black humor, with some of the creepiness inherent in spooky stories about hitchhikers. But it’s not quite enough to justify sitting through the previous tales, brief though they are.

First published in the Herald, June 5, 1987

Creepshow 2 was a bum deal, even if “The Raft” sticks in the mind as one of King’s effective stories. I have forgotten AN II, but the plot sounds agreeably deranged. Firstenberg (I don’t need to tell you) managed a few outrageous Cannon titles, including the stupefying Ninja III: The Domination. The real title of this Firstenberg effort is apparently American Ninja 2: The Confrontation, but I guess I didn’t know that at the time.


Big Trouble in Little China

March 28, 2011

Cattrall, Russell, Pai

Big Trouble in Little China reunites director John Carpenter with Kurt Russell, a collaboration that got off to a flying start with the TV-movie Elvis, in which Russell’s remarkable impersonation of Presley really launched the former Disney child star into a new career.

After Elvis, the two teamed up for Escape from New York and The Thing, a pair of unsatisfying thrillers. Now they’re back together with a much livelier outing; Big Trouble in Little China finds the two of them completely in sync. That’s lucky, because with far-out material such as this, it’s sync or swim.

Russell, who’s been steadily improving in recent years, has never been this loose or comically heroic. He plays a beefy, slightly dim-witted truck driver who delivers a regular load in San Francisco’s Chinatown one night, gets into an all-hours poker game, and somehow is drawn into the disorienting search for a missing girl in Chinatown’s netherworld.

This world is pretty outrageous. Carpenter throws in all sorts of vaulting kung fu action, a Tong war, booby-traps, a mysterious Chinese potion (which prompts an intoxicated Russell, upon drinking it, to good-naturedly observe that he feels, “Kinda—I dunno—kinda invincible”), human sacrifice, and a 2,000-year-old dude who needs the blood of a green-eyed bride to restore him.

As that grocery list might suggest, the tone of Big Trouble is largely comic. Somehow Carpenter avoids making fun of the material—that’s a big booby-trap in itself—so that the tongue-in-cheek tone has the flavor of Raiders of the Lost Ark rather than outright parody.

The kung fu fighting is blown out of proportion, but Carpenter keeps a lot of stuff honest. Near the beginning, there’s a kidnap scene at the airport that quivers with a sense of impending danger and claustrophobia, which the movie’s subsequent jokey tone can’t quite erase.

The goofiness probably keeps it from being anything great or memorable, but it certainly makes for a rowdy fun time. Carpenter and his actors establish an almost immediate audience rapport, sustained by the clever direction and the script. The screenplay bears the stamp of W.D. Richter, who wrote the keen update of Invasion of the Body Snatchers a few years ago.

Richter is credited with “adaptation” among the screenwriters, but it’s a good bet he’s responsible for much of the arch, ’40s-style dialogue. Much of Russell’s delivery, in which he spouts some he-man braggadocio, only to be immediately contradicted by the turn of events, is the ’40s movie adventurer given an appropriate ’80s twist.

Russell is splendid, and Carpenter gets the best work yet from Kim Cattrall, previously wasted in Porky’s and Turk 182!, and Kate Burton, the late Richard’s daughter. Cattrall plays a headstrong lawyer, Burton a naïve reporter—yes, yes, those sound like cliché “types,” but that’s the idea.

So Big Trouble in Little China joins this summer’s weirdly crowded circle of good-summer-entertainment-but-nothing-more films. It may be the most unbelievable, but it never lets that get in the way of the overriding party atmosphere.

First published in the Herald, July 6, 1986

Ha ha—”disorienting”—I kill myself. This movie didn’t cause much of a stir at the time, but it has become a cult picture, and for good reason, I think. And I really don’t find The Thing unsatisfying anymore. Will look for my Turk 182! review. By the way, this opened in Seattle at the Oak Tree, Alderwood Mall, and Grand Cinema, if anyone cares.


Haunted Honeymoon/Maximum Overdrive

January 4, 2011

Here are a pair of chillers with only one thing in common: They’re not scary.

The less said about Haunted Honeymoon the better. If you’re a fan of Gene Wilder’s, as I am, you’ll probably come away from his latest film (he stars, directs, and co-scripts) terribly depressed.

Wilder has a few funny moments as an actor, but he clearly doesn’t know how to make movies. This 80-minute trifle is shockingly inept in the simplest business of storytelling; you’re never even quite sure who the characters are supposed to be, let alone why they’re doing what they’re doing.

Wilder and Gilda Radner play radio actors from the heyday of radio drama who spend an evening in Wilder’s family home, a brooding old mansion straight out of the Universal horror films of the early 1930s. Some lame explanation about Wilder’s uncle (Paul L. Smith) wanting to scare Wilder for medical reasons is given, but it makes no sense.

Once inside, the scares aren’t scary—except perhaps for Wilder’s aunt, played by Dom DeLuise, who isn’t supposed to be scary—and the jokes aren’t funny. Some good actors are wasted, especially the brilliant Jonathan Pryce (Brazil) and Bryan Pringle, who takes the Marty Feldman butler role.

Now to someone who knows how to scare: Stephen King. Having seen a raft of movies released under his name—and reportedly growing increasingly upset about the rock-bottom quality of most—King has finally gotten a chance to direct a movie.

It’s Maximum Overdrive, based on an early King story called “Trucks.” And it’s all about the Earth going crazy when it passes through some kind of force field (possibly a comet’s tail) and all the machines becoming malevolent. Especially these trucks, which descend on a North Carolina truck stop called the Dixie Boy and scare the bewhoozis out of the people inside.

All right, so it doesn’t sound that scary. But Steven Spielberg proved once and for all that a truck could be a very frightening thing, in Duel, so surely Stephen King can do it—right?

No, not really. I’ve not read the story, so I don’t know if King made it work there. But Maximum Overdrive, after a burst of inspiration in its opening sequences, soon becomes mired in the dull situation at the Dixie Boy.

Some of the ingenious and sick touches in the early going suggest a nutty promise. A drawbridge goes haywire and dumps it riders all over the road. A Coke machine goes berserk—all that caffeine, probably—and kills by spitting out cans. A driverless ice cream truck prowls suburban streets looking for human prey, while “King of the Road” tinkles from its bell.

But then King’s well of inspiration runs dry. Back at the Dixie Boy, we watch as the short-order cook (Emilio Estevez) haggles with the redneck owner (Pat Hingle) and romances a hitchhiker (Laura Harrington).

The possessed trucks circle the place endlessly, in a curiously unfrightening way. One good moment: A waitress, distraught, hysterically shouts at the machines, “We made you! Where’s your sense of loyalty?”

King does manage a few gross, effective, perverse touches. What he doesn’t manage to do is to make a particularly scary movie. To give King the benefit of the doubt, I’d like to believe this has more to do with the simple choice of poor material than with his talents as a director. Next time, no trucks. How about an old, dilapidated mansion on a rainy night full of weird people with a lunatic in the cellar….

First published in the Herald, July 1986

It doesn’t seem that a movie with Dom DeLuise in drag could be entirely awful, but there you go. If anybody deserved to make good movies together, surely Gene Wilder and Gilda Radner did, but it didn’t go that way (I have a review ready to go of Hanky Panky here, too, and it’s hard to know which movie is worse).

According to IMDb.com, Stephen King has said he was coked out of his mind while making Maximum Overdrive. I still think it would be interesting to see him direct something, although his “author approved” TV version of The Shining suggests he doesn’t grasp certain things about how scary movies succeed vs. how scary books succeed. Not that I’m questioning his expertise in the latter, but…let’s see how he directs again. 


Over the Top

December 7, 2010

Winner takes it all, loser takes the fall: this is Over the Top

Over the Top is distinctive in that it gives Sylvester Stallone more dialogue to wresle with than his previous three films combined. But, it stands to figure that with something in the neighborhood of $13 million in his paycheck, Stallone could bloody well be induced to contribute something more than just his physique.

The people behind the $13 million are Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, the owners of Cannon Films (the former also directed this outing). Cannon, which has produced a torrent of movies in the last couple of years (mostly of the exploitation kind) has lately found itself in financial trouble, and it desperately needs a hit. So the money is a tribute to Stallone’s track record.

I’ll be surprised if Over the Top is a monster hit, however. It’s just enough of a departure from Stallone’s formula to displease his fans, but it’s not interesting enough to find a different audience.

He plays a footloose trucker who left his family some time before. Now his wife (Susan Blakely) is dying of an unnamed disease. We can tell she’s dying because she wears no makeup.

Which means that the couple’s 12-year-old son (David Mendenhall) needs care. But he hasn’t seen his father in years, and is used to being pampered by his rich grandfather (Robert Loggia, a fine actor trying his best not to look embarrassed about collecting a good fee for a nothing part).

Stallone picks the kid up at an exclusive Colorado military academy, in order to get to know the boy as they truck to the mother’s hospital in Los Angeles. This sets the scene for plenty of cute exchanges. The kid pointedly tells his father that, “There’s a lot more to life than muscles, y’know.” Sly responds by teaching the lad how to find self-worth by challenging loiterers at a truck stop to an arm-wrestling match.

See, the movie is mostly about the relationship between father and son—a Kramer vs. Kramer on 18 wheels—but there’s this arm-wrestling thing mixed in. This insures that the ending, on which Stallone gambles everything, will involve a sporting competition a la Rocky. In this case, it’s a glitzy Las Vegas arm-wrestling championship.

Now, the art of arm-wrestling may have its attributes. Its proponents may be fine people, although the participants in the film are bellowing walruses, one of whom drinks motor oil to rev up for a match.

But there’s something about arm-wrestling as the big event that seems fundamentally giggle-worthy. I mean, arm-wrestling?!? Say what you will about the boxing in the Rocky movies, as least it’s cinematic. The sport here is heavy and static.

The mishmash script is credited to four writers, including Stallone (as usual) and veteran Stirling Silliphant. The most dishonest thing they have done is to have Stallone repeatedly tell his boy that winning isn’t important, that it doesn’t matter if you win or lose, etc. Of course, son, that applies everywhere except Sylvester Stallone’s movies, which make victory the only option.

First published in the Herald, 1987.

Having consumed my own fair share of motor oil before matches, the sanctimonious tone I took in my review here seems hardly sporting. Anyway. Just typing the words “Cannon Films” brings back the cheesy aroma of about half the movies of the 1980s, that bizarre Golan-Globus mix of grindhouse fodder and arthouse experiments. I spent so much attention on Stallone’s price tag because it was much-remarked on at the time, and because well before the movie opened it was clear that this was one of those stupid ideas that wouldn’t have happened if an actor hadn’t decided to cash in and take a giant, absurdly-inflated payday.

For Sammy Hagar’s theme from Over the Top, which reminds us that “Winner takes it all/loser takes the fall,” click here. But hey, possible spoilers.