Tucker: The Man and His Dream

November 8, 2019

tuckerIn Tucker: The Man and His Dream, director Francis Ford Coppola (yes, his middle name is back for this movie) has not merely undertaken to tell the true story of an American original. What Coppola is really up to here is telling a story about himself.

The real Preston Tucker was a hustler, showman and inventor who created a dream car in 1946 that is still revered by auto aficionados. The Tucker Torpedo was “Tomorrow’s Car Today,” with sleek space-age lines, an engine in the back, and a third headlight in the middle of the front end. But only 50 Tuckers were built before their creator was run out of business by the powerful Detroit automakers who weren’t ready for Tucker’s innovations.

In adapting this story, Coppola has clearly identified with the main character. When Coppola shot to directorial stardom in the early 1970s with the Godfather films, he had his own dream: to build a studio and make movies that no one else would make. It took only a few years for Coppola’s Zoetrope studio to founder and crash, a victim of an uncongenial marketplace and its leader’s excesses.

So in telling Tucker’s story, Coppola is really telling his own tale of a dream that failed. And it is fitting that Coppola brings as much cinematic dexterity to this film as Tucker brought to his car.

Coppola begins the film with a mock newsreel that breathlessly wings us through Tucker’s history up to 1946. The early scenes, establishing the savvy character of the man (another fine performance by Jeff Bridges), his beehive of a family life, and his early plans for the new car, have great crackle.

But the breezy shorthand that Coppola uses may also be the movie’s main problem. By the time Tucker has reached the climactic courtroom sequence, in which he defends his money-raising practices, I found myself wondering whether some crucial scenes had been left on the cutting­ room floor.

Coppola seems to be attempting a variation on Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, with Tucker as the little guy who loses but wins. (Lloyd Bridges, who plays the powerful “Senator from Detroit,” is made up to look exactly like Claude Rains’ corrupt senator in Mr. Smith.) Yet the emotional punch of the finale, in which the 50 finished Tucker Torpedos line up outside the courthouse, is ineffective. It’s as though Coppola himself doesn’t quite believe in his own heartstring-tugging.

The movie should be a half-hour longer, the better to know Tucker and his wife (Joan Allen), his mechanics (Frederic Forrest, Mako, Elias Koteas), and his financier (Martin Landau). Only Landau, in his first good role in many years, makes an impression. In fact, his insecure banker is the kind of comeback role that bags supporting actor Oscar nominations.

Overall, Tucker is a disappointment, but it contains some dazzling scenes, and it’s great to look at; the period design and fashions are lovingly recreated and embellished, and Joe Jackson’s music is sharp. The high point may be the unveiling of Tucker’s prototype before a hyped audience. What the crowd doesn’t know is that the car is being feverishly jerry-built backstage. Like his hero, Coppola has gotten away with last-minute improvisation before. He will again.

First published in the Herald, August 1988

Landau did get an Oscar nomination, and it was a significant career comeback (the Oscar for Ed Wood would come along in short order). Is there a longer cut of this movie somewhere? Because that might be cool. Coppola tried to make the film as early as the mid-70s, and IMDb says he thought of Burt Reynolds for the lead role, which would have been tasty casting. The timing would’ve been much better, too; the nostalgia boom of the 70s might have supported the film’s period setting. Certainly by 1988 nobody was interested in movies about lost causes. Apparently the corny subtitle was imposed by the studio, one of the many things about Tucker that doesn’t feel quite right.

Link/Trick or Treat

November 1, 2019

link2Just in time for Halloween, here are two decently produced horror films, both of which go disappointingly awry from unusual premises.

Link attempts a Stephen King-ish story about some apes getting the better of their master, a scientist (Terence Stamp), at his lonely Cornwall mansion. Actually, it’s just one ape who goes bad, an orangutan named Link who’s been trained to outsmart humans. All too well, as it turns out.

Link gets the upper paw, dispenses with the professor, starts threatening the young house­keeper (Elisabeth Shue) who can’t seem to figure out a way to get out of the house.

The director here is the Australian Richard Franklin, who has made some good chillers (Road Games, Psycho II). And Franklin actually directs the film well – he mounts a few exciting sequences. But the basic idea finally seems so silly that even Franklin’s efforts can’t jerk the movie onto a higher evolutionary plane.

trickortreatTrick or Treat is even more disappointing. It springs from a potentially funny-scary Idea that a demonic rock ‘n’ roller might be raised from the dead by a coded backward message on one of his albums.

A teen-age misfit (Marc Price) is stunned when his hero, heavy metal monster Sammi Curr (Tony Fields), dies suddenly. A sympathetic DJ (Gene Simmons) gives the kid the acetate recording of Curr’s last, yet-to-be-released album: Songs in the Key of Death.

When played backward, the secret messages on the album form an incantation that brings Curr back. He’s as surly as ever, but now he has supernatural powers. When his music is played, it melts the ears of kids who listen to it. He must be stopped, and only our hero can do it.

The excesses and self-importance of heavy metal deserve satirizing, and so do the bluenose attitudes of those who would ban the music. Trick or Treat does some of both but blows most of the good opportunities. The script is all over the place, and doesn’t know what it wants to do. Charles Martin Smith directed the film; he’s the actor who played the nerd In American Graffiti and the lead in Never Cry Wolf. He gets off a few funny ideas – the villaincan reach into a TV set and yank out the person onscreen – but most of the movie is as thick and tortuous as Sammi Curr’s music.

First published in the Herald, October 1986

Charles Martin Smith continues to direct; his 1992 film Fifty-Fifty is an unusual picture that has some old-movie zest to it. Other than that, does anybody remember this film? Link has enjoyed some cult approval, I think, especially with that good cast (and Jerry Goldsmith did the music). Franklin had previously done the creditable Psycho II, and went on to make F/X 2, whereupon he went back to mostly Australian work.


October 30, 2019

dollsIn 1985, a giddy, extravagantly gruesome horror movie called Re­Animator brought a rookie director named Stuart Gordon to the spotlight. Actually, Gordon had been a director for years, in the vanguard of experimental live theater in Chicago. His first movie displayed considerable wit, iconoclasm, and a freewheeling willingness to disgust.

His next movie, From Beyond, was another spinoff of H.P. Lovecraft, and basically another mad-doctor movie. (It never had a regular run locally, but it’s out on cassette.) It was solid enough, but not as original as Re-Animator.

Gordon’s third film is a change of pace, although he remains firmly within the horror film tradition (also within the stable of Empire Pictures, a quirky exploitation-films company). Dolls, which debuted as a midnight movie at the recent Seattle International Film Festival, is a haunted house picture, with the usual group of ill-matched people coming together on a stormy night in a mysterious old mansion.

Basic, well-worn stuff, and it still works, given that Gordon is sprightly indeed about moving the proceedings from one ghastly situation to another. It turns out that the kindly old couple who own the mansion are dollmakers of the old school, the type who labor to make every doll special in some detail. All of these dolls are “special” in the same detail: they can come alive and do mischief to people who rub them the wrong way. Usually these victims are people who don’t like dolls (they also happen to be the ones who get up in the middle of the night and go poking around in the dolls’ rooms).

The concept of dolls rising up against humans may sound goofy, but it has worked before as a horror concept. Remember the old episode of Twilight Zone in which a Chatty Cathy told Telly Savalas it was going to kill him? To many of us given to indiscriminate fears anyway, dolls can be creepy. Most kids seem to go through some phase of doll anxiety – you just can’t trust the little things completely – and Dolls plays upon these childhood fears.

Not that any of this is played straight. Gordon’s tongue is frequently in cheek, and he has fun bestowing demonic powers upon his toys, who screech, claw, and nibble at their victims. Barbie and Ken wouldn’t last a minute in such rude company.

First published in the Herald, August 1987

It seems a more innocent time, that I would have to explain that dolls can be creepy. Child’s Play was a year in the future. Some of us were intrigued by what Gordon was getting up to back then, although it surprises me to recall that From Beyond didn’t even get a proper opening in Seattle. (But it’s on cassette, folks.) Gordon has had an interesting career in theater and film; his non-horror movie work includes a scathing adaptation of David Mamet’s Edmund.

Club Paradise

October 18, 2019

Club-ParadiseRobin Williams has really been fueling his career this year – first a skyrocketing appearance as a co-host of the Oscars (I will never forget him introducing the big cheese of the Motion Picture Association of America as Jack “Boom Boom” Valenti), then a similarly manic stint on Comic Relief, finally a reportedly smashing live tour. Last week he was on the cover of Newsweek magazine.

Now Williams’ summer movie is out, and Club Paradise should have been a knockout punch. It’s not – whew, not by a long shot – although Williams bears little of the responsibility for its failure.

Actually, he’s fine. It’s the film itself that goes belly up, almost from the word go. Screenplay credit is shared by a half-dozen writers, led by Harold Ramis (who also directed) and Brian Doyle-Murray (who also plays a capitalist pig). It’s further proof that writing-by-committee is rarely the way to go; the script is diluted, and lacking in the most basic comic ideas.

It’s also uncannily close to two other films that have been released this year: Water and Last Resort. All want to send up Club Med resorts while satirizing the Grenada-Falkland Island wars.

Kind of a delicate mixture, that, and none of these films pulls it off. In Club Paradise, the sleepy island is being bought up by imperialist running dogs who want to turn it into a vacation spot. They can’t buy out the owner (Jimmy Cliff) of Club Paradise, however, which has just opened as a resort hotel.

Williams plays a retired fireman who helps Cliff keep the club going. While revolution brews on the island, Cliff and Williams, plus the inexplicable (but fetching) love interest of Twiggy, bring in their first load of tourists, a batch of people who are supposed to provide the comedy stuff.

Ramis has assembled a terrific bunch of comedians, many taken from the SCTV crew, of which Ramis was once a member. Rick Moranis and Eugene Levy play schnooks who go to desperate lengths to locate some potent local weed, which they are sure will help them attract feminine company; Mary Gross and Robin Duke are some of the feminine company; Joe Flaherty is a mad airplane pilot.

Also around is Joanna Cassidy, the marvelous actress from Under Fire and TV’s Buffalo Bill, as a New York Times travel writer, who is romanced by the island’s remnant of British rule, a dissolute governor played by Peter O’Toole.

With all these people around, something funny has to happen – right? Well, sure, a few lines pay off; but the only performer to be consistently funny is the fearless Andrea Martin, another SCTV veteran who plays a vacationing housewife.

The film grinds along, allowing these people to attempt some funny business, but never bringing them together in productive ways.

Robin Williams, in individual scenes, shows plenty of both. Will somebody please find a showcase that will allow this fellow to cut loose? It’s frustrating to see him like this, left hung out to dry in the sun.

First published in the Herald, July 15, 1986

I can’t explain the sentence that has Williams showing “plenty of both.” A writing error, or did a paragraph get lopped out? Anyway, a dismal movie, although the reggae soundtrack (which I bought) is fun. How could this many good people not be funny? The waste – and of Peter O’Toole, too – seems cruel. My linkage of these three films (including Water and Last Resort) is one of those memories I flash on when I insist that the 80s were a uniquely bad decade for the cinema. I can’t remember when I saw Williams live at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, but apparently it wasn’t on this tour.

Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol/Down Twisted

October 9, 2019

policeacademy4Is it a lot of fun making the Police Academy movies? I can’t think of another reason the actors in this inane series would come back  time after time.

OK, most of them need the work. But Steve Guttenberg doesn’t, and Bob Goldthwait (Burglar) and G.W. Bailey (Mannequin and Burglar) have found supporting work elsewhere. Maybe Warner Bros. has these people in ironclad contracts.

If, however, the actors do have fun making these things, it certainly doesn’t come across on the screen. Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol serves up the usual hash, this time with the regular buffoons teaching citizen volunteers the nuances of police protocol.

The familiar gags are here, sometimes in homage to the previous films in the series (you can’t get much more desperate than that). Most of the jokes are unconnected to anything else, although the common thread is the mortification of the cruel officer (Bailey) who suffers a variety of scatological humiliations.

One passable thing mounted by director Jim Drake: the irrelevant finale in a balloon race, with a couple of high-altitude stunts that would do justice to a James Bond movie. Other than that, all is gross.

down_twistedDown Twisted does try to be different. It wants to be a Romancing the Stone movie laced with Hitchcock, all about an innocent young woman (Carey Lowell) caught up in some intrigue with a stolen religious artifact. She winds up being shanghaied to South America and thrust into the arms of a mysterious agent (Charles Rocket).

It’s the sort of film that plays better as a coming attraction than a movie. The three-minute trailer moved along intriguingly; the 90-minute movie crawls. The director, Albert Pyun, attempts to jazz the proceedings with some flashy colors and perverse behavior, but this can’t hide the slow pace and the impenetrable plot. However, a few of the  actors are attractive and new; Charles Rocket is a onetime Saturday Night Live cast member who has lately turned up on Moonlighting as Bruce Willis’ brother.

Pyun’s previous film, Dangerously Close (he’s not too good with titles, is he?), also went astray, although it had a striking first 10 minutes or so. Down Twisted should have been his big shot to establish something. Instead, it’s just another curiosity from Cannon Films, due to disappear within a week or so.

First published in the Herald, April 1987

Hard to believe people were still going to the Police Academy movies at this point, but there you are. This was a rare big-screen shot for director Drake, who had some nice credits in TV, including SCTV; Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman; and Buffalo Bill. As for Down Twisted, it was Carey Lowell’s second Albert Pyun film, following Dangerously Close; she immediately went into a James Bond picture and looked like she was on her way. Marriage to Richard Gere and a career cool-off followed. The Pyun enigma continues.

And God Created Woman

October 4, 2019

andgodcreatedThe international success of the original version of And God Created Woman (1956) was influential in persuading French film producers to give money to youthful would-be directors. These included Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Eric Rohmer, and the ensuing French New Wave changed the course of cinema history.

Frankly, the box-office clout of And God Created Woman had less to do with director Roger Vadim’s storytelling powers than it did with the natural wonders of his wife, Brigitte Bardot, who appeared au natural in a couple of scenes. Were it not for BB’s persuasive presence, the New Wave might’ve been a mere trickle.

As for Vadim, he never quite kept up with his New Wave contemporaries. He’s worked steadily, but it soon became clear that he was a lesser artist than his counterparts. Vadim was rather more famous for his love life: his wives (including Jane Fonda, with whom he made the wacky Barbarella in 1968) and mistresses (including Catherine Deneuve).

Now Vadim has remade And God Created Woman, this time in America. Unfortunately, this nutty version is not likely to change history.

It doesn’t even have much to do with the original. The new film tells of the romantic tribulations of an ex-convict (Rebecca De Mornay, of Risky Business) who’s been paroled on the strength of marrying a handyman (Vincent Spano). Also in her orbit: an interested gubernatorial candidate (Frank Langella).

De Mornay is much less a vixenish force of nature than Bardot was. Perhaps Vadim’s view of women has mellowed, for in this movie the woman is really the only person with anything on the ball. The men are such dunces that you’re completely on her side.

The sex is surprisingly tame, considering Vadim’s reputation. And there’s nothing in the remake as stylistically bold as the original’s first glimpse of Bardot, stretched out naked across the bottom of a sunny CinemaScope frame.

The movie is set in New Mexico and uses the dusty location to good use. There’s little else of interest, except to note that Vadim appears in a cameo as a photographer. And for her efforts as a singer in this film (the character wants to start a rock band), De Mornay wins this month’s “Justine” award, so named for Justine Bateman’s vocalizing efforts in Satisfaction.

First published in the Herald, March 1988

This was five years after Risky Business, so things had cooled off for Rebecca De Mornay, although she still had Backdraft and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle to come. Not much of a review here, but it’s something to remember that a remake of And God Created Woman actually existed. Vadim got married again, in 1990, to Marie-Christine Barrault, star of Cousin Cousine and My Night at Maud’s, which is impressive for the old goat. He died in 2000.

Spring Break Redux

April 1, 2013

The webmaster is just a tad overbooked right now, so the Eighties movies flow will pause for a brief break. The rad doings will resume soon; in the meantime, check out the hundreds of titles already here.