Brighton Beach Memoirs

June 9, 2020

brightonbeachIt is perhaps an index to the current crisis in American playwrighting that Neil Simon is taken seriously at all. Simon’s clockwork comedies come complete with show-stopping punchlines and rim shots, and are as mechanical and soulless as  drama gets.

Still, they are wildly popular. And just days ago, someone – was it Time magazine? – called his new play, Broadway Bound, the best American play of the decade.

I haven’t seen the new play, of course. I know it only as the third leg of his continuing autobiographical series. It may well be a masterpiece.

In that case, it bears no relation to Brighton Beach Memoirs, the first play in the series, which is now adapted (by Simon) as a movie. Brighton Beach, a portrait of the artist as a young nerd, follows an adolescent would-be writer growing up in Brooklyn in the late 1930s. Simon’s own family, fictionalized, is depicted.

When the play opened a few years ago (followed by Biloxi Blues and now Broadway), critics announced that Simon was going back to his roots for the deepest work of his career.

Maybe he did. But the movie of Brighton Beach Memoirs is still a shuck. It’s just a batch of gags strung together, placed in the mouths of stereotypical characters.

The Neil Simon character, called Eugene (Jonathan Silverman, in the role that Matthew Broderick played onstage), is obsessively interested in sex. Baseball too, but to a lesser extent. He leafs through National Geographic and fantasizes about his svelte cousin taking a shower.

His family struggles through some predictable crises, which all get handily resolved. Gene Saks, who also directed the stage plays, lets the material play out in its jokey fashion. I don’t know who was responsible for casting Blythe Danner and Judith Ivey as, respectively, Simon’s mother and widowed aunt. Their white-bread looks in roles heavily shaded for Jewishness just adds to the artificiality of the affair. Bob Dishy, as the exhausted father, fares rather better.

Sure, a few of Simon’s lines are funny. If you throw enough at the wall, some of it is going to stick. He even resorts to that most cherished of vaudeville shticks, the spit take.

Brighton Beach Memoirs may be followed to the screen by its sequels. In which case, be prepared for a torrent of Simon Sez.

First published in The Herald, December 25, 1986

You understand, I love a good spit take. At this point I think I was suffering from Simon exhaustion, and didn’t have much patience for this kind of ancient comedy. The next installment in the trilogy, Biloxi Blues, got a considerable upgrade, with Matthew Broderick and Mike Nichols signing on. The third chapter, Broadway Bound, had Corey Parker as Eugene and Jonathan Silverman as his brother. (Ask me sometime about hanging out with Neil Simon’s brother, Danny, when he came to give a comedy-writing seminar in Seattle in the ’80s.)


Mischief

May 21, 2020

mischiefThere’s nothing new about the situations essayed in Michief: You have your basic high-school high jinks, 1950s vintage, in a small Ohio town.

You have the class virgin. You have the class beauty. You have the perfect couple. And, just when everything seems hunky-dory, you get the class outsider – the kid from the big city who wheels in on a motorcycle.

Nothing fresh there, but the makers of Mischief have taken those elements and fashioned something – well, if not exactly world-beating, then at least rather nice. They’ve succeeded in this despite a screenplay that seems terribly undernourished in inspiration.

That’s funny, because screenwriter Noel Black (he’s also executive producer) directed a very interesting movie called Pretty Poison once upon a time. But Black’s script, which recalls his days as an Ohio youth, resorts to some disappointingly standard adolescent crises.

This is salvaged somewhat by director Mel Damski (he used to direct for Lou Grant), who has a feeling for the atmosphere of the small town – in this case, Nelsonville, Ohio. He also captures a few moments that have truth about them: a guy playing a solitary game of basketball on a slow spring day, or a very evocative malt-shop dance, with some swaying bodies seen from outside a window through the rain, that hits absolutely the right note.

The main attraction of Mischief is its cast of up-and-comers. Doug McKeon, the kid from On Golden Pond, is likable as the youth desperate for deflowering; Catherine Mary Stewart, who cut a very fine figure indeed in Night of the Comet, is half of the perfect couple (the other half, a bully preppy, is played with precision by D. W. Brown); Kelly Preston is very believable as McKeon’s object of desire; and Chris Nash makes an impressive debut as the bike-riding loner.

Stewart, Preston, and Nash were in town recently to promote the film, and they were enthusiastic about the project, which had been a long time in being realized. It had gone through various directors and name changes (Heart and Soul, one of the many ‘50s tunes that dot the soundtrack, was the original title). Nash insists that he must have been involved in the project “for like eight years” before it came time to actually shoot the film.

Once on location, however, things were just swell among the cast members, who rave about the good spirits (and occasional under-water kung-fu bouts) in Nelsonville. In fact, the town barely needed refurbishing to give it that ‘50s look: “It almost looked too precious” at first, says Stewart, “they just made it a little more colorful.” Nash paid it the ultimate movie person’s compliment: When they first got to town, “It looked just like the backlot of 20th Century Fox.” An odd observation, perhaps, until you remember that what we know of small-town values and feelings has come in large part from the movies.

Mischief can’t quite sustain that brand of backlot, small-town charm, and one too many jokes are stale. It works up some good feeling, but, as with the recent Flamingo Kid, the pleasant company can’t quite disguise the fact that we’ve seen all this sort of thing before.

First published in The Herald, February 1985

You’d think this movie would be a little better known, if only for the saucy presence of Kelly Preston, John Travolta’s wife. I left Jami Gertz and Terry O’Quinn out of the cast list. I remember meeting this trio in the lobby/bar of a Seattle hotel (I can picture it, but can’t actually remember which one), and thinking how these Hollywood people certainly were capable of being attractive.

 


For Keeps

April 28, 2020

forkeepsDuring the opening scene of For Keeps, two teen-age lovers (Molly Ringwald, Randall Batinkoff) indulge in some adult passion on a damp forest floor. Then, as the opening credits roll, the screen is filled with clinical depictions of the human fertilization process that resemble something out of a Nova science special. Evidently romantic comedy has entered the 1990s.

Actually, those shots are supposed to be funny, in an intentionally bizarre way. I think. In any case, the young Wisconsin couple has just managed to add pregnancy to their list of high school woes, and For Keeps is primarily about the troubles that ensue.

The resulting comedy-melodrama is summed up by Ringwald when she describes the situation thus: “They write bad country songs about this, okay?”

Ringwald’s snooty mother (Miriam Flynn) is miffed because a baby would mean the mother-daughter trip to Paris is off. Batinkoff’s blue-collar father (Kenneth Mars) is grumpy because he doesn’t want anything to stop his boy from going off to college at Cal Tech. But the kids decide to keep the baby anyway, and move out into a brave new world.

The script, by Tim Kazurinsky and Denise DeClue (they did About Last Night…), pokes some fun at the dewiness of these two. As Ringwald watches her belly rise, she admits that her childhood doll collection may not have properly prepared her for the big event. And when Batinkoff comes home to their ramshackle apartment and needs to express his frustration, he rips the refrigerator door open and takes a long hard swig of chocolate milk.

For Keeps is occasionally sort of cute in a mild way, but it seems rudderless under the direction of John G. Avildsen (The Karate Kid – that’s his movie, not his nickname). The various shifts from comedy to drama seem entirely predictable and shopworn.

Worse, in terms of onscreen effectiveness, the pairing of teen queen Ringwald and newcomer Batinkoff doesn’t take. Ringwald can’t wring anything new out of yet another high school senior (by this time she must’ve attended more proms than any American girl ever). And Batinkoff, a lanky kid with a voice that hasn’t completely changed yet, barely registers. The one thing they have going is authenticity; they’re nothing if not young.

First published in the Herald, January 19, 1988

Coincidences? The idea for posting this week was putting together movies with Brat Pack cast members. As it happens, yesterday I posted About Last Night…, also written by Kazurinsky and DeClue, their two most notable screenplays. Also, yesterday I registered my concern that IMBd did not retain the ellipsis that is undeniably part of the title of About Last Night…. Today, I see that IMDb has added a question mark to its official title listing for For Keeps. What the hell? The movie did not have a question mark in its title upon its initial release, as a look at the poster and Roger Ebert’s review will attest. Now that we’ve got that out of the way: For Keeps is not very good. It was shot in Winnipeg.


Kipperbang

October 7, 2019

kipperbangKipperbang is the latest in a series of charmingly low-key films – produced under the umbrella called “First Love” – by David Puttnam, the busy British producer who walked off with an Oscar a couple of years ago for Chariots of Fire. Puttnam’s series concentrates on that moment in adolescence when the problems of the outside world pale beside the mountainous dilemma of the first crush.

Other films in the series include Experience Preferred – But Not Essential, and Secrets. For Kipperbang, Puttnam called on director Michael Apted, with whom he had worked on the rock movie Stardust in 1974. Apted, who did the lovely Coal Miner’s Daughter and then the muddled Continental Divide and Gorky Park for Hollywood, may have been grateful to get back to the vignette-like scale of Kipperbang.

Anyway, he’s certainly done a very nice job. It’s set in 1948, and concerns a likable 14-year-old lad named Alan Duckworth (known, of course, as Quack Quack). Alan isn’t a bad sort, but he’s not exactly on a lucky streak. To give you an idea of his impact on his peers, when the girls in his grade vote for the “dishiest” – read “most awesome” in today’s vernacular – boy in class, Alan doesn’t suffer the humiliation of pulling a low vote – he isn’t even nominated. The girls forgot about him.

He is bewitched by a classmate named Ann. When he lies in bed at night – or anytime – he bargains with God for just one single kiss from those pouty lips. One kiss, and Alan figures he will have led a happy life. One kiss. That’s not so much, is it?

Of course, it’s never going to happen. How could it? Ann’s got eyes only for Geoffrey, the dishiest boy in class. But never underestimate the mysterious ways of divine providence. A teacher (who is involved in the film’s main subplot, wherein she may be pregnant by the school’s groundsman, who is also Alan’s hero), weary of Alan’s daydreaming, sticks him in the school play.

The other two thespians are Ann and Geoffrey. And when Alan gets to the last page of the play, he discovers – oh ecstasy of ecstasies – that his character actually kisses Ann as the play ends!

Apted directs this wisp of a tale with proper affection for the characters. There’s lots of quirky behavioral business, especially with the class nerds and their polysyllabic nonsense.

And Apted does a wonderful job with the moment onstage when the kiss is called for (in rehearsal, the kiss keeps getting nixed by circumstance). Alan, all a-quiver (and his stage moustache all akimbo), approaches Ann with the life-and-death resolve he knows he needs. It’s the best suspense sequence of the year – Steven Spielberg notwithstanding.

First published in the Herald, June 16, 1984

According to my memory, a really wonderful movie, one of Apted’s best. The little short blurb next to my review had the actors’ names in it, but let’s give them their due: John Albasiny played Quack Quack and hasn’t amassed a great many credits; Abigail Cruttenden played Ann, and has many jobs on her resumé, including being married to Sean Bean for a while. Maurice Dee, who played Geoffrey, also did not stick in movies and TV. One of the biggest adult roles went to the great Alison Steadman, another to the prolific Garry Cooper. The screenwriter was Jack Rosenthal, who wrote a huge amount of British television and also – how do these things happen? – the Barbra Streisand picture Yentl. The film’s British title is P’tang Yang Kipperbang, for the piece of kid doggerel some of the characters say. Puttnam’s “First Love” series made a nice little impression at the arthouse; I reviewed most of them, including Sharma and Beyond, Arthur’s Hallowed Ground, Those Glory, Glory Days, and Winter Flight.


Loverboy

January 7, 2013

loverboyGood farce should glide. You should be able to enjoy the way all the little pieces come together, but you shouldn’t be aware of how they got there. No visible strain. In Loverboy, there’s too much strain, not enough glide.

The story is a kind of young person’s Shampoo. A pizza delivery boy (Patrick Dempsey), home for the summer and frustrated by his sputtering college career, falls under the attention of a wealthy Beverly Hills shopowner (Barbara Carrera). Her attentions include sexual favors, much to the surprise of the skinny lad.

He bungles his first opportunity. “I had a letter to Penthouse staring me in the face, and I let it go,” he tells his dough-slinging buddies. But Carrera persists. Not only that, she recommends his home-delivery style to all of her rich, bored friends whose husbands are cheating on them. Soon Dempsey is carting extra anchovies all over Beverly Hills.

Eventually, his anchovies will come home to roost, as the husbands see through this thin crust of infidelity. All of this is set against Dempsey’s parents’ marital misunderstandings, which include their belief that their son is gay.

The idea of Loverboy is laid out in a somewhat mechanical blueprint, but the movie is brought to comic life on occasion. Part of this has to do with the director, Joan Micklin Silver, whose usual fare is less harried and more gentle (she made the wonderful Chilly Scenes of Winter and last year’s Crossing Delancey).

I have the feeling Silver isn’t too comfortable with the noisier aspects of the Loverboy script. For instance, the wild dorm party that opens the movie is one of the lamest scenes Silver has ever directed. However, she does bring a nice touch to the more lyrical bits: One of the best moments has Dempsey exiting from his first extracurricular encounter and practically dancing across a hotel courtyard, finally tumbling happily into the pool.

There’s a certain level of romance involved in Dempsey’s transactions (for which he accepts money, an awkward point that is never quite smoothed over). He provides roses and back rubs, too. And with a particularly smitten doctor (Kirstie Alley, from “Cheers”) he painstakingly studies the moves of Fred Astaire.

Probably the funniest sequence comes near the end, when Dempsey’s onscreen mother (Kate Jackson) gets fed up with her husband and places an order with the anonymous pizza man. This leads to some Oedipal confusion, but turns out a near-miss.

The picture has some bounce, but it doesn’t consistently work. It’s just a bit too calculated and committee-like to be memorable. Just the same, file it away as a future video pick.

First published in the Herald, April 1989

A few days ago Patrick Dempsey led a group attempting to buy Tully’s coffee, the baby Starbucks chain. Just another twist in the curious career of this actor, who was going through his early leading man phase at this point. Good to be reminded of Barbara Carrera, who loomed large for adolescent boys in the 1970s.


Just One of the Guys

December 18, 2012

justoneofguysJust One of the Guys is an unsurprisingly limp teen romp that lifts the Tootsie formula and transfers it to high school. This time, the gender-switching involves a girl (Joyce Hyser) who wants desperately to be a journalist. We know she’s serious, because there’s a picture of Hemingway up there on her wall, next to Billy Idol.

A local newspaper annually offers an internship to a prize-winning high-schooler. Our girl’s story about hot-lunch nutrition doesn’t make the final cut, and her disappointment leads her to suspect that the decision-making was a sexist frame-up.

So—and you’ll need considerable willpower to swallow this—she enrolls (how? I ask you) at a rival high school as a boy, and enters the same journalism contest there. The hypothetical laughs ensue when this “boy” becomes attracted to another boy at the school—and becomes the object of desire for a healthy (but eventually confused) girl.

So, the basic laugh-getting situations are stolen outright from Tootsie. The big problem is, a good sex farce is supposed to be funny, and Just One of the Guys is absolutely deadly dull.

Everything is by rote. It’s one of those films in which juicy predicaments are set up—Hyser’s introduction to her new all-boy gym class, for instance—and then left quite undeveloped. Evidently, the situation is supposed to be funny enough in itself. Forget about any attempt at comic invention.

The characters are the usual parade of jocks, geeks, princesses, and trollops. The only intermittently funny stereotypes are two incredibly dorky losers who like to imagine they’re from another planet, and thus communicate with each other in metallic barks and blips. But even this idea is stolen from Sixteen Candles, where it was funnier.

The single well-written character is Hyser’s 15-year-old brother, who craves his first sexual encounter with ferocious single-mindedness. (Presumably, the writers felt some deep kinship with this character.) Unfortunately, the kid is so unimaginatively played by Billy Jacoby that all the comic force dribbles out of him.

Just One of the Guys is the debut feature film of director Lisa Gottlieb, whose short film Murder in the Mist attracted some attention a few years ago. Sad to say, Gottlieb proves here a rather depressing equality-of-the-sexes argument: It’s clear now that a woman can make a teen comedy that’s just as mindless and stupid as anything a man could make.

First published in the Herald, April 1985

The movie played endlessly on pay-cable for years thereafter, for reasons that will not be mysterious to anyone who’s seen it. I watched it again during that period, actually, and I think it’s better made than I gave it credit for—at least the skeleton of a screwball comedy is visible here, and Joyce Hyser has something. Billy Jacoby was the brother of Scott Jacoby, adolescent star of TV-movies in the early 1970s (Billy has been known as Billy Jayne since this time). Early outing for Sherilyn Fenn, too.


Soul Man

November 15, 2012

By now, you’re probably familiar with the high-concept idea behind Soul Man, but just in case you missed it, we’ll recap: A jerky white kid (C.Thomas Howell) gets accepted at Harvard Law School and sees a fat future in front of him. Then his rich daddy (James B. Sikking) cuts off the boy’s allowance, which means the kid must find his own method of finance.

Every possibility is painstakingly explored, and darned if it doesn’t turn out that the best idea is for Howell to blacken his skin and apply for a full scholarship awarded to the outstanding black student from California. (Interestingly enough, nowhere in the film’s litany of money schemes is it suggested that this little creep might work to earn his tuition.)

So Howell takes these handy extra-strength tanning tablets that turn his skin deep brown, and he perms his hair. And he’s in Harvard.

This concept may sound distasteful, and, well, that’s about how it plays. The makers of the film, writer Carol Black and director Steve Miner, clearly mean it to be taken as an anti-racist film. Howell sees the racial prejudice directed at him, grows up a little bit, and falls in love with a fellow student (Rae Dawn Chong) who happens to be black.

Most of that doesn’t wash. The intentions may be right, but most of the film is callous buffoonery, and a trivialization of its subject.

Admittedly in some of this callous buffoonery are a few laughs. Howell meets a vixenish student (Melora Harden) who’s looking for the obligatory multiracial college affair. After they sleep together, she sighs, “I felt 400 years of anger and oppression in every pelvic thrust.”

Late in the film there’s a farcical scene in which Howell’s parents come to visit from Los Angeles the same time his two girlfriends show up. It’s a well-managed scene; too bad the rest of the movie doesn’t have the same snap.

James Earl Jones does a John Houseman number as the tough law professor; it’s an unbearably hammy performance that culminates, in the film’s queasiest scene, with Jones admitting that Howell might really have learned a lot about the black experience. This is a little hard to believe.

The only notable performance, outside of Chong’s appealing professionalism, is given in a very small role by Ron Reagan (not to be confused with the other actor who has that name). Young Reagan is as relaxed and convincing here as in his occasional TV appearances, and gives every indication that he might be a likable future player.

That small bright spot aside, Soul Man is a pretty negligible affair—and the title is the essence of irony. This is a film that might have a few laughs, but it’s certainly got no soul.

First published in the Herald, October 30, 1986

I completely forgot that Ron Reagan ever took a stab at acting, let alone that I wrote of his work approvingly. Howell and Chong later married. Carol Black was one of the key people behind “The Wonder Years,” which leads me to suspect there might be more going on in this movie than it seemed at the time, although I clearly didn’t hate it.