The Boys Next Door

October 5, 2011

Roy and Bo are celebrating their graduation day from high school. Since the other kids in their small Southwestern town don’t like them, they must make their own fun. To that end, they hop in a car, drive to Los Angeles, and look for an outlet for their energy, which, next week, will be channeled into the local factory, where the two will run the drill press for the rest of their lives.

The outlet they find is, to them, almost as casual as playing video games or drinking beer: They start killing people. This is the disturbing premise of The Boys Next Door, a strong youth-alienation film from director Penelope Spheeris (Suburbia).

The title is a bit of a misnomer. Although these boys are attractive and of average intelligence, at least one, Roy, is already deeply maladjusted. During the drive to Los Angeles, Roy confesses to Bo, “I got stuff inside of me”—stuff about to explode. Bo, not as explosive but malleable, goes along for the ride.

They arrive in town and, without planning, start lashing out at people who irritate them—foreigners, homosexuals, women. Meanwhile, detectives on the case search for some clue in the series of seemingly unconnected crimes.

All of this may sound overly distasteful, and it’s not a nice film, but Spheeris has a gift for portraying the banality of the terror these boys wreak. When they beat a gas station worker over a money dispute, Bo takes time to grab a handful of chewing gum from the front counter. A visit to the LaBrea Tar Pits inspires the concept for “Caveman Day,” in which the boys envision a society where all rules are overturned.

This banalization of murder is reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s Badlands, which also portrayed a pointless murder spree. What makes The Boys Next Door so compelling is the acting from Maxwell Caulfield, who plays the simian Roy, and Charlie Sheen, who plays Bo. Sheen is the son of Martin Sheen, who starred as the killer in Badlands.

It’s a bit puzzling to speculate about the film’s potential audience. Without heroes or a happy ending, the teen crowd will not be much interested. And by not wearing its pretensions on its sleeve, the film will probably be ignored by the critics who applauded Badlands. But, while it’s ugly at times, this is an impressive piece of filmmaking.

First published in the Herald, March 1986

Spheeris really does have a feel for this kind of thing, and if the movie might be derivative of A Clockwork Orange or Badlands or some other banality-of-evil texts, it is pretty potent. Or so it seems from 25-year memory The film never got any particular traction, with audiences or critics, so I suppose my observation in the final paragraph held true.


September 14, 2011

Dafoe and Berenger: Platoon's Homeric Gods

In the current issue of American Film magazine, writer-director Oliver Stone describes himself in Vietnam in 1967: “(A) solitary, wide-eyed youth standing under those raggedy Asiatic clouds, looking out at the sea with his fantasies of Lord Jim and Julie Christie, an anonymous infantryman…and I knew that someday, somehow, I would write my story and join the flow of time.”

Almost 20 years later, Stone’s time has come. His new film, Platoon, tells the straightest, truest Vietnam story of any film yet. He served 15 months as an infantryman in the war, was wounded a couple of times, and won the Bronze Star. The movie is about the kinds of men he served with, and covers a year’s service through the eyes of a raw recruit.

From the opening images of Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) arriving in the yellowish haze of Southeast Asia, the film tracks the relentless march of his platoon. Harrowing jungle attacks are alternated with rests at base, until the year is over. In its gritty, riveting action, Platoon is reminiscent of such classic war movies as Samuel Fuller’s The Steel Helmet and Anthony Mann’s Men in War.

Part of Stone’s intent, clearly, is to provide an immediate sense that this is the way it was. In this, he succeeds spectacularly; the movie has the authentic feel that qualifies it as a work of someone who’s been there. (Filming took place in the Philippines.)

But Stone has also provided a mythic backbone to Taylor’s coming-of-age story. It lies in the good vs. evil struggle between two sergeants in the platoon—”Homeric gods,” as Stone has described them. Barnes (Tom Berenger) is brutal and amoral; “Our Ahab” Taylor calls him at one point, when the platoon destroys a My Lai-like village in insane retribution for sabotage, the film’s most horrifying sequence.

The other sergeant, Elias (Willem Dafoe), is poetic, almost divine. Despite the differences between them, however, Stone draws no simple conclusions. Barnes may be a black presence, but he repeatedly proves himself a good soldier who saves the lives of his men.

The entire film sustains this ambiguity. Platoon is no easy anti-war screed; Stone knows the issue is too complex for that. There are no cheap shots here—even the generals, the apparently lily-livered lieutenant and the kill-happy grunts have their moments of self-realization. They are all at sea in this nightmare.

The actors who play them are magnificent. Even the small, fleeting roles are finely etched. Sheen is appropriately dazed as the unformed youth (he is the son of Martin Sheen, who played the lead in Francis Coppola’s Vietnam film Apocalypse Now). Berenger, who played the TV star in The Big Chill, is a limited actor, but he transcends himself as the scarred Barnes, especially in the scene where he confronts the angry soldiers: “You smoke this dope t’escape reality?…I am reality.”

Dafoe, previously stuck with playing villains (as in To Live and Die in L.A.) because of his stark features, is superb as the angelic Elias. He brings an odd mystery to the role, a hinting at past unspoken experiences that give shading to his heroic character.

With all Stone’s capacity for subtlety, he also has a tendency to go too far. This was more evident in last year’s vivid Salvador than here, although it might be said that the narration in Platoon, in the form of Taylor’s letters home, may state too much that has already been shown. But for the most part, the film is a personal triumph. Stone can use it; since winning the best screenplay Oscar in 1977 for Midnight Express (a movie directed by someone else), he’s wandered around the Hollywood fringes. Now, via the circuitous route of his own past, he seems to have finished his odyssey.

First published in the Herald, January 15, 1987

I haven’t seen the film in a long time, although I recall getting to see it twice before I wrote about it. Stone was never this on-point again, but I continue to have a soft spot for his excessive tendencies—the grandness suggested in the opening quote. When I interviewed him (he did a press tour in Seattle for World Trade Center), he was pleased that I appreciated The Hand, his pre-respectability horror film, which somehow did not surprise me. Platoonis small and big at the same time, a tricky act, passionately achieved.

Major League

March 11, 2011

*Not named in review.

Just in time for the opening week of baseball season, Major League arrives to kick off another round of baseball movies from Hollywood. This movie better hope for a quick jump out of the batter’s box, because it doesn’t figure to have much speed on the base paths.

Major League is in the unfortunate position of being compared with last summer’s Bull Durham, a wonderful baseball movie that covers some of the same ground as the new film. Let us be brief and merciful. Where Bull Durham was sharp and quirky and sexy, Major League is dull and predictable and flat. While the former film steeped itself in character, the new movie is a situation comedy.

The situation is that a new owner (Margaret Whitton) has inherited the hapless Cleveland Indians. She’s had an offer to move the franchise to Miami, but she can’t legally uproot the team unless they draw fewer than 800,000 fans during the season. How can this goal be underreached? Just lose, baby.

So she gathers the sorriest bunch of cast-off players she can find, hires them, and sits back to watch the numbers in the “L” column pile up. Naturally—you could probably see this one coming—the team begins to win, and win big, when they hear of her insulting attitude.

The main players include a battle-weary catcher (Tom Berenger), a prima donna shortstop (Corbin Bernsen, from “L.A. Law”), a fleet outfielder (Wesley Snipes), a spitball pitcher, a voodoo practitioner, and other colorful types. Garnering the most laughs is actor-announcer Bob Uecker, as the Indians’ play-by-play man, a booster who isn’t above slandering the opposing players (“He’s a convicted felon, isn’t he? Well, he should be”).

Director-writer David Ward cooks up some conventional situations for these characters. The relationship between Berenger and an ex-girlfriend seems particularly superficial stacked next to the original, adult attraction between Kevin Costner and Susan Sarandon in Bull Durham.

Elsewhere, Ward has written enough snappy one-liners to keep the film moving (he won an Oscar for writing The Sting), but, as he proved with his first directorial outing, Cannery Row, he does not seem to have the touch as a director.

Of course, Major League should provide some wish-fulfillment for Cleveland fans. Their team does great, in the movie. When I drove home after seeing the film, I flipped on the radio and the Mariners were losing, 11-1. Do you think anyone is interested in making a movie about a team that has never had a winning season?

First published in the Herald, April 6, 1989

Hmm, I didn’t even mention Charlie Sheen’s role as the dangerously wild pitcher, a genuinely funny turn. Of course I was wrong about this movie’s staying power; it caught on with audiences, although I stick with my original opinion. Uecker’s role is something of a precursor to Fred Willard in Best in Show, now that I think about it. By the way, does anybody remember the Margaret Whitton era? It lasted for this movie and a couple of other things. The less said about the curren state of Mariners baseball, the better.


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.

Eight Men Out

March 9, 2011

Certain true stories add up to more than just the random events of a particular place and time; they tattoo themselves onto the shared consciousness of an entire nation. Such a story is that of the notorious Chicago “Black Sox,” who threw the 1919 World Series.

If you were ever a child who loved baseball, chances are you heard this story. If you heard it, you never forgot it. The Chicago White Sox of 1919 were heavily favored to win the series, but they lost, and in the months after the series, it was revealed that eight Chicago players were involved in a payoff to dump some games. All eight were banned from baseball forever.

Director John Sayles (Return of the Secaucus Seven), who has been wanting to film this story for years, recognizes that there is much more in this tale than the tragedy of Eight Men Out (as the title of the movie has it, held over from Eliot Asinof’s book). The “Black Sox” scandal was a sharp disillusionment to the national character, a tear in the nationwide return to normalcy in the postwar years.

The affair is still haunting, and it contributed one of the most wistful moments in all Americana: the little boy who confronted the incomparable hitter “Shoeless Joe” Jackson and pleaded, “Say it ain’t so, Joe—say it ain’t so.”

That moment is retained in Sayles’ film of Eight Men Out, which lovingly re-creates its era. Sayles skillfully sketches the circumstances that led to the players’ sellout, including the hard cheapness of Chicago owner Charles Comiskey, and the ruthlessness of the gamblers who set up the fix. The players are drawn into the fix with an offhandedness that belies the deep scar their actions would leave.

It’s an ensemble piece, but Sayles gives special attention to three players: Jackson (D.B. Sweeney), the illiterate but gifted player who went along with the fix almost casually; Buck Weaver (John Cusack), who knew about the fix but did not participate in it, and was banished from baseball anyway; and Eddie Cicotte (David Strathairn), who saw the end of his career coming and agonizingly went along with the deal.

The many characters fly by, but Sayles keeps them distinct. Sayles himself plays Ring Lardner, and writer Studs Terkel plays a fellow journalist. Other ballplayers are played by Charlie Sheen, Michael Rooker, James Read, and Don Harvey. John Mahoney does his usual excellent work as the team’s bewildered manager. Some of the sleazier money men are played by Kevin Tighe (he was also a meanie in Sayles’ Matewan), Michael Lerner, and Richard Edson.

As opposed to the black-and-white world of greed and culpability in Matewan, Eight Men Out has no easy villains; everybody seems to have their reasons. The film is most poignant as a study of a few men who made a mistake, whose names were permanently blackened, and who wound up losing their livelihood and their joy.

First published in the Herald, September 1988

A fine job on a great American story, even if the film sometimes seems to have been made by a journalist dabbling in cinema. Aside from the tracing of national disillusionment, of course Sayles’ interest in the story had much to do with its portrait of the rift between ownership and labor, a tale that keeps re-telling itself (as it is right now in both the sports world—an NFL lockout looms—and an epic union-busting showdown in Wisconsin). When I said everybody had their reasons, it referred mostly to the players whose names were tarnished. The owners kept their jobs.

Young Guns

March 8, 2011
Brat Packing Heat

It’s easy to chuckle at the thought of a bunch of Hollywood’s pampered Brat Packers essaying the roles of rough-and-ready cowboys. But the fact is, the stars of Young Guns are probably better suited to pay these roles than many of the actors who have played historical Old West figures through the years.

After all, Billy the Kid was only 22 when he died. Many of the upstart gunslingers of the West were brats in their own right. Why shouldn’t they be played by kids?

Young Guns, in fact, at least tries to veer near historical truth now and again, as it pertains to the budding career of Billy the Kid. John Fusco’s screenplay picks up young William H. Bonney (played with bright-eyed craziness by Emilio Estevez) as he rolls under the kindly wing of John Tunstall (Terence Stamp), who is raising a hellion troupe of young “regulators.” When Tunstall is murdered, the regulators band together under Billys’ exuberant leadership, and their bloody ride of revenge begins.

The other young guns—”The flotsam and jetsam of frontier society,” as somebody puts it—are played by Kiefer Sutherland, Lou Diamond Phillips (of La Bamba), Dermot Mulroney, Casey Siemaszko, and Charlie Sheen (in real life, Estevez’s brother, and by now a bigger star). They go through some reasonably familiar formula paces, which means the movie has a cardboard quality but also has a few good old-fashioned moments.

The view of Billy as a fun-lovin’ psycho is not especially new, though Estevez does play the role as an almost modern-day character, not too far from his anti-establishment smarty-pants in Repo Man. Sutherland’s cowboy poet leads the movie into its ickiest sections, as he falls for a Chinese girl and begs her to run away with him.

Elsewhere, though, director Christopher Cain does capture some of the unpredictable violence and fever of the youthful desperadoes. A scene in which Billy flies off the handle and blows away some captured bad guys catches the hair-trigger violence of the character, and a later scene in which he deliberately disarms a would-be bounty hunter in a bordello taps into some wicked black humor.

Cain also has an evident affection for Westerns in general. He’ll let characters say things such as “The only chance I have is to run hell-bent for leather.” (No one knows what that means, but it sounds good.)

And he nods toward the traditional Western with the casting of Jack Palance, the all-time evil hired gun of Shane, to play a similarly despicable villain here, plus a cameo by Patrick Wayne, John Wayne’s son, who plays Pat Garrett. Wayne’s presence is a nice link to the Western of old, though it can’t help suggesting the likelihood that the Duke could’ve mowed these whippersnappers down before supper.

First published in the Herald, August 1988

This sounds a little generous to me now; I remember when Young Guns II came along, I thought it was a distinct improvement, in part because of the energy boost supplied by the New Zealander at the directing reins, Geoff Murphy. But if every era gets the Billy the Kid it deserves, then Young Guns can accurately be said to represent the late 1980s.

Wall Street

March 7, 2011

Gekko and Fox: Morning in America

In the opening scene of Wall Street, our young hotshot stockbroker hero wheels into his office for another big day. When his secretary asks him how he’s doing, he says, “If I was doin’ any better it’d be a sin.”

That’s about the size of it. In Oliver Stone’s morality play, this hungry kid sins by becoming the Faust of the stock exchange, selling his soul to a devil/madman/genius who controls half the money in New York City (and this the relevant world).

Stone has mapped out the struggle of good and evil before, most impressively in his battle-zone dramas, Platoon and Salvador. This time he’s indoors, but these soldiers still talk about making a killing, and they even wear uniforms—the suspenders and yellow power ties of the Wall Street infantry.

As the film opens, greenhorn Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) has his eye on the imminent main chance, which means he’s trying to land the ultimate high-roller Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) as a client. When he finally blusters his way into Gekko’s office, the great man is sitting among his Cuban cigars and $600,000 paintings taking his own blood pressure. “Whatever you do,” he tells the kid, “don’t upset me.”

Bud manages to make a modest killing by using an inside tip. Gekko rewards him with a visit from a paid companion and a lunch of (appropriately) raw meat. It isn’t long before the rest of Bud’s life is looking up; Gekko’s former mistress (Daryl Hannah) is now installed as a girlfriend, and Bud musters enough for the down payment on a million-dollar Upper East Side condo, complete with appalling modernist design.

At some point Bud begins to get the idea that his illegal procurement of inside information, including dressing up in a janitor’s outfit to sneak into lawyers’ offices, is going to catch up with him. And even that it may be wrong.

Hollywood folks have been wondering whether this bull-market movie might have lost some of its relevancy, in the wake of the big crash. I suspect not. Presumably the same cutthroats are safely in place in the real Wall Street, despite Black Monday; there weren’t that many brokers jumping out of windows. And greed knows no off-season anyway.

Besides, Wall Street would be an enjoyably entertaining movie anytime. Stone occasionally allows large philosophical observations to drift into his characters’ mouths, and the movie’s a bit too long for its flimsy weight. But most of the dialogue, by Stone and Stanley Weiser, is crackling, and spoken by a colorful cast.

Stone can’t quite make anything interesting out of Daryl Hannah’s role, and Gekko’s wife, played by dishy Sean Young, is around much too little. But Douglas is forceful and reptilian in his Mephistopheles role, with a lot of juicy speeches culminating in his declaration that “Greed is right.”

Sheen, who also played the central role in Platoon, is fine as the callow trader. His father, Martin Sheen, plays his father here, the film’s voice of blue-collar reason, who can’t brook his son’s strange insider language and $400 suits.

Stone has made the movie as an ethical lesson, and he tries to demonstrate that all those dollars that have been flying merrily around for years may actually be connected to ordinary peoples’ lives. Actually, I suspect that the thing audiences may remember about this movie is how much fun it is to be in the limo and the Lear jet. That may not be what Stone intended, but it’s certainly the spirit that made Wall Street what it is today.

First published in the Herald, December 1987

That last paragraph turned out to be true, to the point that the real-life buccaneers of the early 21st century made their role model Gekko look like a piker, an idea Stone got some play out of in the Wall Street sequel. Some young actors involved with the film might have drawn some unintended lessons from it too; give Stone credit for spotting the buzzing grandiosity inside Charlie Sheen, which has lately been on such prominent display. The movie’s overstated in the manner of High Stone, a style that manages to seethe with a certain jangly energy even when it makes you want to slap your head. The sequel did not catch the old crazy fire, possibly because fiction had been embarrassed by reality at that point.