St. Elmo’s Fire

May 7, 2012

St. Elmo’s Fire is an attempt—and, by all evidence, a sincere and well-meaning attempt—to treat the current generation of college graduates with the brand of wit and wisdom bestowed on the ’60s crowd in The Big Chill. Which means it’s about a group of close friends who spend half their time getting into various romantic couplings, and the other half talking about getting into various romantic couplings.

Actually, there’s more than that; some examination is made of directionless lives, and the emptiness of even the lives that may appear to have direction. Just like The Big Chill. But unlike The Big Chill, St. Elmo’s Fire does not burn with the sort of witty, rueful, wise dialogue that makes this kind of film work. In terms of ambition, it’s admirable, but in terms of accomplishment, it’s regrettable.

The fault here goes to director Joel Schumacher (who wrote the script with Carl Kurlander). Schumacher, the director of such lightweight fare as The Incredible Shrinking Woman and D.C. Cab, seems to have bitten off more than he can chew. An occasional detail rings true, and the overall atmosphere is funky and pleasant, but the film swerves time and again into cliché and patness, and sometimes plain stupidity.

The actors Schumacher has assembled are among the best young folks in Hollywood today (dubbed “the Brat Pack” in some quarters)—it’s a shame they aren’t shown off to better effect. The best role—that of a self-destructive, irresponsible sax player—goes to the weakest actor, Rob Lowe (Oxford Blues). Lowe’s pretty-boy looks contradict his part, and he’s not good enough to make the contradiction interesting.

Emilio Estevez (Repo Man) has the worst part: a would-be law student infatuated with a former classmate (Andie MacDowell). Estevez’ role is slapstick comedy, unrelated and not meaningful to the other plot lines, and his scenes (through no fault of his) are the film’s more irrelevant.

Judd Nelson (The Breakfast Club) and Ally Sheedy (ditto) play the perfect couple, the two yuppies expected to marry and live happily ever after—except that it might not work out that way. Mare Winningham plays a nebbish social worker in love with her exact opposite, Lowe’s sax player.

The two actors who come off best are Demi Moore (No Small Affair), playing a coke-snorting career woman, and Andrew McCarthy (Class), as a cynical journalist whose lack of romantic activity has the others wondering about his sexual preference. McCarthy is born to play this kind of sensitive part, and he has an appealing way of throwing away lines.

But the actors labor in vain. A good movie about this crucial time in life may yet be made, because it’s a valid subject, and this may well be the cast to play it. But we’ll have to wait for that, and it’ll take someone with more insight than Joel Schumacher to pull it off.

First published in the Herald, June 29, 1985

I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about in half of this review. I think within a few days I thought much less of this dumb movie, and the review sounds almost charitable compared to my memories of the film. I would say more, but I think I want to forget it. (But I am reminded, in searching for a poster image: The Passion Burns Deep.)

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Mannequin

September 5, 2011

With Mannequin, we have the latest variation of the Pygmalion theme; a guy gives life to an inanimate model, which in turn teaches him to be a human being.

It is to be hoped that the age-old story will never again be played out in terms as degraded as these.

The sappy premise is that a struggling young sculptor (Andrew McCarthy) creates a lovingly contoured plastic woman during his brief employment at a mannequin factory. Later, he sees this mannequin, for which he has developed an unnatural yen, in the window of a department store, and he lands a job there.

One night, while talking to his segmented pal after closing time, she comes to life (and is played by Kim Cattrall). She explains that she is the latest incarnation of an Egyptian princess who has enjoyed a series of lives through the centuries. Pygmalion enters the world of Shirley MacLaine.

It turns out she can only come alive when alone in the presence of our hero. She doesn’t offer any explanation; besides, the film would be over if they could go home happily together.

And the movie is full of such nonsensical loopholes. Michael Gottlieb is the director, and he seems to have no shred of style; every composition looks clumsy, every gag shot is held a beat too long.

He’s left his actors at sea. McCarthy, the Brat Pack member usually called upon to be the sensitive type (as in St. Elmo’s Fire), would appear to be good casting as the lonely artist, but he’s too interior-directed to bring off the later comedic scenes, and he doesn’t yet have the star quality to carry the movie on his own.

Cattrall is energetic and well sculpted, but she really has no character to play. The rest of the film is littered with stock types, including the crusty but lovable department-store owner, the swishy window dresser, the malevolent security guard, and the oily store manager. Only the latter is interesting, mainly because the actor, James Spader, is obviously off doing his own outrageous thing, a kind of super-unctuous William F. Buckley (if that’s not redundant). Spader goes too far, but at least he’s trying.

You can sense from the first five minutes that Mannequin is awkwardly assembled and stiff. Sure enough, it never does come to life. In other words, it’s one of those movies too well titled.

First published in the Herald, February 1987

Did not care for this movie. Really did not care for it. But it was a box-office hit, which tells you all kinds of things about timing and certain actors cresting at the right moment and perhaps the durability of archetypal storylines, although I really don’t want to think too hard about it. It was easy to notice Spader, who’d already made an impression in things like Tuff Turf and Pretty in Pink, and was about to break through. I have a terrible feeling there was a Starship song associated with this movie.


Heaven Help Us

June 6, 2011

You can often sense the level of confidence a film studio has in a movie by the kind of title changes that take place. For instance, a subdued teen comedy that began life as Heart and Soul was changed to the leering Getting Lucky and finally to the current Mischief. Clearly, Heart and Soul was not quite snappy enough for the quick kill the studio thought was necessary.

A similar case is Heaven Help Us, which began life as Catholic Boys. That’s not an especially grabby hook, and the film itself does not supply the usual quotient of gross-outs, so Tri-Star Pictures decided to shoot for a little more mass appeal. Heaven Help Us more directly suggests a knockabout romp, and removes any hint of esoterica.

The film itself is neither serious nor slapstick, which probably prompted Tri-Star’s confusion. It’s a coming-of-age comedy, which means there are loads of jokes about sexual awakenings and bodily functions. It also has some modest ambitions involving the importance of friendship and independence in an oppressive situation.

The situation is a Catholic boys’ school, in 1965 Brooklyn. The brothers who run the school are not yet enlightened by Vatican II, and discipline tends to run from harsh to cruel. We are introduced to the school through the eyes of a new kid, played by Andrew McCarthy. McCarthy, who did a similar sensitive-narrator role in Class, is very good at playing this kind of sympathetic innocent, and he keeps Heaven Help Us watchable.

The administrators include the authoritarian principal Brother Thaddeus (Donald Sutherland); the hip newcomer Brother Timothy (John Heard); the cherubic fire-and-brimstone preacher who, at a co-ed dance, lectures on the disgustingly detailed hell that awaits the kids if they give in to Lust, then exhorts them to “Have a nice time” (Wallace Shawn); and a sadistic teacher who enjoys dishing out beatings (Jay Patterson).

McCarthy is also introduced to a core group of friends, most of whom run to stereotype, especially a fat smart kid (Malcolm Danare) and a cocky delinquent (Kevin Dillon, the younger brother of Matt).

Their adventures are alternately predictable and amusing, and every now and then first-time director Michael Dinner captures a mood beautifully, such as the quiet dance enjoyed by McCarthy and his girl (Mary Stuart Masterson) at a lonely beachside café, or the frantic “raid” on the local malt shop by the brothers.

Dinner (and his great cinematographer, Miroslav Ondricek) captures enough privileged moments to suggest that, if he gets his hands on a project that doesn’t require a requisite number of pranks and dumb gags, he might come up with something good and true someday.

First published in the Herald, February 16, 1985

Yeah, so a few years later I watched Heaven Help Us again and found it even better than the first time around. Michael Dinner had gone on to do the lovely Off Beat as well as many fine episodes of “The Wonder Years,” and I wrote an appreciation of his craft for Film Comment in 1991. At that point one assumed that the talented Mr. Dinner would swing back ’round to feature films, but he’s remained mostly in television, content to be one of the top small-screen directors in the business. This movie has many truly funny things in it (including the pranks and dumb gags I seem suspicious of here), and the casting is exceptionally good, especially amongst the brothers: Wallace Shawn would’ve achieved YouTube immortality even if he’d only acted in this movie, and Jay Patterson is one of the most terrifying evil priests committed to film.


Pretty in Pink

May 12, 2011

rich, poor, duck

John Hughes has been dubbed “The Word Processor” for the facility with which he turns out screenplays; even since he’s become a director in his own right, he’s kept up a flow of pages. Four films have come from his computer terminal in the space of two years, with another on the way this summer.

They’ve ranged in quality: Sixteen Candles was a charming directorial debut, and The Breakfast Club was a surprisingly ambitious meditation on teenage anxiety. Then came the out-of-control Weird Science, which might better have been cut by an hour and flipped into a TV slot of “Amazing Stories.”

Now we have Pretty in Pink, which Hughes wrote but has allowed someone else to direct. (He was probably facing some sort of union violation with all that productivity.)

It covers familiar teen territory, and has much the same feel as Sixteen Candles (including that film’s star, Molly Ringwald). The situation is basic: A girl from the po’ side of town (Ringwald) falls for a richie (Andrew McCarthy), but they both suffer from peer disapproval of such a mixed matchup.

Undergoing special excruciation is the girl’s pal Duckie (Jon Cryer), a goof who worships her and detests his straight-laced competition. Duckie is a version of the quick-witted, hustling geek played by Anthony Michael Hall in Sixteen Candles, and he provides most of the laughs, especially in the early part of the movie.

Unfortunately, he’s offscreen for far too long in the latter part of the film, as Ringwald passes through a crisis when McCarthy revokes his cherished invitation to the prom. She’s also got to counsel her dad (Harry Dean Stanton), who’s in the dumps because his wife ran out on the family a few years earlier.

Ringwald works at a hip record store managed by a confidante (Annie Potts) who specializes in kitschy fashion chic and lives mainly in the ’60s. At one point Potts cautions Ringwald to give up on a tardy date: “It’s after seven. Don’t waste good lip gloss.” It’s a plum role for Potts, who has enlivened films for a few years now (Crimes of Passion) without quite finding her niche.

In fact, the film is nicely played throughout. James Spader, for instance, invests the small role of the bigoted rich kid with enough hissability to forever typecast himself.

But director Howard Deutch, although he’s aided by cinematographer Tak Fujimoto’s subtle visuals, can’t hoist the material above TV-movie interest. Hughes’ dialogue sparkles now and again, but there’s nothing tying all the pieces together.

This becomes most glaringly evident at the film’s ending, when the three principals face off at the prom. Ringwald must choose between her geeky pal or the dreamy richie, but you don’t know exactly why she chooses as she does. What’s worse, the film waffles on the matter, contriving a convenient partner for the third wheel. (Rumors that the ending was reshot to appease disappointed preview audiences suggest this waffling was not originally intended.)

Not to worry. Hughes can redeem himself with Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, a self-directed comedy scheduled for this summer. But then, by that time, he’ll probably have three new movies in the can.

First published in the Herald, February 28, 1986

What happened was, this movie made at least as big an impression on people as Sixteen Candles, if not bigger. So go figure. Apparently changing the ending paid off nicely; when Hughes and Deutch went to the well again with Some Kind of Wonderful, they rectified things a little as far as the misfit character having a taste of triumph. Spader managed to elude the typecasting, although it was a close call for a while.


Weekend at Bernie’s

January 6, 2011

Terry Kiser: a signature role

The predicament at the core of Weekend at Bernie’s can be grasped if you understand that Bernie is dead. This puts a damper on the weekend from the start.

That’s the basic idea in this new summer comedy, which takes its black humor from Bernie’s demise. Bernie (played, alive and dead, by Terry Kiser) heads a large Manhattan corporation. He invites two young go-getters in his employ, one a tidy yuppie (Jonathan Silverman), the other a slovenly nerd (Andrew McCarthy), to his beach house for Labor Day. For these guys, getting an invite to Bernie’s is like being called “up to the mountain top.”

Bernie means to have these two schmucks killed by underworld friends, because they’ve discovered Bernie’s profit-skimming system. But the underworld types decide to kill Bernie instead, which they do. So when our lads arrive, Bernie is beyond even his usual weekend comatose state. He’s really, well, dead.

Our guys, once they figure out that Bernie has indeed left this world, realize that, for a variety of reasons too complicated to explain here (though Robert Klane’s script works hard to make it seem logical), it’s best to pretend that Bernie is still alive. At least for the weekend.

So, the guys dust Bernie off, prop him up, and make sure his toupee is watertight. (A staple gun does the trick.) Trouble is, Bernie’s friends on the beach have the habit of dropping in unannounced, and Bernie himself is prone to disappearing, only to wash up later.

This movie gets some laughs out of its tasteless situation, even though the concept seems to take forever to set up. Klane has obviously used some classic comedies as his inspiration, not to mention Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry, in which the trouble with Harry was that he was dead (but given to getting in people’s way). Unfortunately, the director, Ted Kotcheff, is not famous for his light comedic touch, and he probably won’t be any more famous after this film is released.

More damaging is the casting. Silverman is okay, but McCarthy is unconvincing. And together they have no chemistry. Mary Catherine Stewart, who plays Silverman’s budding romance, neither adds nor subtracts anything to the movie. How could she? Her role is window dressing.

Terry Kiser, it must be said, does bravura work as the corpse. At least someone connected with this movie has left a mark: Kiser will probably be hereafter known as the actor who “you know, played that dead guy in that stupid summer comedy.”

First published in the Herald, July 6, 1989

A signature 1980s film, this one. I mean it has Mary Catherine Stewart in it, which pretty much sets the era in stone. I know Terry Kiser has made a lot of movies and TV shots since this film, but he is still the dead guy from Weekend at Bernie’s, right? And I insist that he was, in fact, very skillful in a tricky part. (Also fondly remembered: his multi-episode arc on “Hill Street Blues” as a hapless stand-up comedian named Vic Hitler.)