D.O.A.

April 8, 2020

doaA primer on how to begin a movie: A man with a story to tell staggers into a police station. He says, “I want to report a murder.”

“Who was murdered?”

“I was.”

The hook is in. It worked in 1949, in a taut little film noir called D.0.A. It still works in 1988, although those opening lines of dialogue and the film’s basic premise are nearly all that are left from the original.

That basic premise has a man discovering that he’s been fatally poisoned, then spending his last 48 hours trying to solve his own murder. There’s no antidote, no hope of survival, just the the grim satisfaction of learning the reason for his own death.

In the 1949 film, Edmond O’Brien played the doomed hero, a small-town businessman overwhelmed by the terrors of the big city; a victim of circumstance. In the new D.0.A. screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue (who also penned the excellent remake of The Fly) has completely changed the milieu, and invented a new set of explanations for the poisoning.

Here the central figure is an English professor (Dennis Quaid, doing solid work) at a Texas college, who ingests the “toxic luminous solution” at some point during a drunken evening. When he learns he’s been mortally wounded, he enlists the aid of a sympathetic student (Meg Ryan, Quaid’s co-star in Innerspace) in finding out whodunit.

He can’t imagine why anyone would kill him – “My Mark Twain lecture drove somebody into a homicidal rage?” – yet there are possibilities everywhere: his estranged wife (Jane Kaczmarek), two colleagues (Daniel Stern, Jay Patterson), the school’s strange benefactor (Charlotte Rampling) and her unstable daughter (Robin Johnson).

As it turns out, the fun comes less from trying to guess the guilty party than from watching the flashy story­telling of directors Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel. They’re the British team who invented that ultimate computer creature, Max Headroom, and their first feature film shows an admirable measure of energy and audaciousness.

Some of it, inevitably, is busy visual noise, but a lot of it is just plain exciting moviemaking. As the film moves toward its resolution, you may notice the color slowly fading away to black-and-white, like the blood draining from the dying man’s face.

And they add a layer of redemption to Quaid’s investigation; he’s a once-promising author who’s been dead to the world and dead to his talent for a few years. The prospect of real death, ironically, has him feeling alive again.

Actually, Pogue’s script is a bit too obvious on this point, and some of the film is overwritten. But he also gives the characters some nicely twisted ’80s-noir dialogue, and he gets to indulge in some whiplike irony, as when Quaid is menacingly threatened, and can only smile: “What’re you gonna do – kill me?”

First published in the Herald, March 1988

I liked this movie, and was surprised when nobody else did. Will it look too 80s-flashy and mechanical now? Not sure, but one thing is certain: Almost nobody ever talks about this movie.


Suspect

January 15, 2020

suspectLike many movie packages, Suspect appears stuffed with possibilities; it’s got two attractive stars, a strong supporting cast, the aura of Hitchcock­ian thrills and romance, and a director who’s been known to make some nondescript but entertaining films (Peter Yates, of Eyewitness and Breaking Away). Unfortunately, it also has a script that, in terms of invention, merely rounds up the usual suspects.

The idea is that a public defender (Cher) takes on the defense of a deaf-mute transient (Liam Neeson) in a murder trial. Nobody particularly cares about the case, since victim and suspect are equally insignificant. The judge (John Mahoney) wants to get the trial over quickly, so he can accept a higher appointment; the prosecutor (Joe Mantegna) wants to fatten his political resume.

But there’s more here than meets the eye, as if you couldn’t guess. The first person to catch errant clues is a juror (Dennis Quaid), a high-powered Washington lobbyist who’s been roped into jury duty. He starts seeing discrepancies in the evidence. But he can’t pull a Perry Mason and thunder from the jury box, so he contacts the defender on the sly, and together they compile some tantalizing evidence.

The fact that such attorney­-juror interaction is highly unethical adds an extra layer of suspense, which Yates exploits in the movie’s best scene, a wordless sequence when the judge enters a law library where Cher and Quaid are doing research – if he sees them together, it’ll blow everything sky-high.

Elsewhere, Yates relies on standard tricks. Dark hallways, hands entering frames with heavy music cues, all designed to jolt you out of your seat. Some of it actually works.

But not much of it feels that good, at least to these jaded senses. The ethical touch-and-go seems borrowed from the success of Jagged Edge, and the remarks about the inadequacies of the justice system are tired. Cher the defender talks about her spiritual dissatisfaction, but that’s about all the evidence we have of it; otherwise, the actress is on her own in filling out the character (which she does rather well, in fact).

Quaid’s lobbyist is even more underconceived; he remains a blank. We don’t really know the connection between his amoral political activities and his jury­-bound bloodhound routine.

The movie even fails to bring these two together for prurient interest, I’m sorry to say. (Obviously, the prurient interests need a better lobbyist.) Somehow it’s OK to tamper with a juror, but no slow dancing ’til the trial is over.

I enjoyed watching John Mahoney and Philip Bosco as two cagey politicos. Joe Mantegna, currently on view in House of Games, is disappointing as the prosecutor. He’s occupying the same position George C. Scott had in Anatomy of a Murder – a hotshot young stage actor who comes in for a juicy featured part (prosecutors are reliably nasty roles). But Mantegna plays it low-key, when the role calls for him to show off a little.

Suspect has large patches that are enjoyable. But its fundamental weakness is that it doesn’t quite play fair; if you’re going to mount a whodunit, play by the rules.

First published in the Herald, October 22, 1987

Another one from that legal-thriller craze of the era. The movie did well, despite its reluctance to put Cher and Dennis Quaid in the clinches (I guess; or do they get together eventually?). The long-careered Eric Roth wrote the script.


Innerspace

November 28, 2012

Remember Fantastic Voyage? It’s the semi-legendary ’60s film in which a seacraft was miniaturized and injected into the bloodstream of a human being. The movie featured that immortal scene in which Raquel Welch strayed outside the capsule and was attacked by phagocytes. At which point her lucky crewmates got to peel the sticky things from her skin-tight bodysuit.

See? You do remember. That poker-faced film became a camp classic almost immediately; now Innerspace comes along to play the premise for out-and-out laughs.

The basic concept is, shall we way, in a similar vein. This time the capsule contains only one man, a daredevil pilot (Dennis Quaid). The miniaturization experiment is supposed to put him inside the body of a rabbit. Instead, he’s injected via hypodermic needle into the body of a part-time grocery store clerk and full-time nerd (Martin Short).

How this happens is, well, complicated. There’s a scheme that involves a madman (Kevin McCarthy) who wants the secret of miniaturization so he can—dare we say it?—rule the world. Eventually, he’ll mainline his own quasi-bionic hit man (Vernon Wells) into Short’s bloodstream to do battle with the little Quaid.

Like Fantastic Voyage, there’s a time limit on Quaid’s tenancy, which lends some suspense. Also a lot of imaginative human interiors. Quaid’s journey is realized by George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic special effects company; they create some neat internal landscapes, such as Short’s ulcerous stomach and his rushing red blood cells (which look suspiciously like cherry Fruit Loops).

Unlike Fantastic Voyage, the emphasis is on the comedy, and the slapstick opportunities for the gifted Martin Short, who used to do hilarious work on “SCTV” and “Saturday Night Live.” His high point is a frug in the manner of Ed Grimley (his pointy-haired “SNL” character) while Quaid plays tunes inside his body.

Since Quaid can talk to Short from inside, Short gets to do some amusing monologues, particularly one in a public men’s room. But somehow this idea seems warmed-over from All of Me, in which Steve Martin conducted a conversation with the internalized Lily Tomlin.

In fact, much of the film has a warmed-over quality. You’d think the best director for this kind of comedy-action blend would be Joe Dante, who lit the anarchic fire under Gremlins. But here Dante can’t get the overall machinery cooking, and I miss his usual feel for off-the-wall details.

The most interesting possibility is proposed when Quaid’s girlfriend, a reporter (Meg Ryan), gets swept into the intrigue, and becomes attracted to Short. Ordinarily, I’d think Dante would want to explore this unlikely threesome, but she goes back to Quaid and the movie drops it.

Innerspace delivers some good bits. Dante still has a fun touch with supporting players; he slips Henry Gibson in, and hands a juicy scene to Kathleen Freeman, who also stops the show with a similar single-scene tirade in the new Dragnet. But Dante seems underinspired, and the movie can’t run only on the rubbery legs of Martin Short.

First published in the Herald, July 1987

A fun movie, but something didn’t quite come to life. I never watched it again, but I have recently re-watched Richard Fleischer’s Fantastic Voyage, which deserves better than to be relegated to the camp classic category, although there is some of that there. It’s a well-made picture, and very imaginative. I may have been overly influenced by childhood memories of the Mad magazine parody, Fantasteeccch Voyage.


Enemy Mine

June 7, 2012

The situation is this: A human (Dennis Quaid) and a space creature (Louis Gossett, Jr.) are duking it out in a space battle. Each sustains spaceship damage, and both crash-land on an unexplored and uninhabited planet. They are the only survivors.

It looks like it’s going to be a duel to the death, no holds barred, right? I mean, this movie is called Enemy Mine, after all.

No dice. The movie might better have been called Buddy Mine, because the two creatures become pals. Oh, there’s some bickering at first, but it doesn’t take long before these two are thick as thieves. After they strike up a friendship, they busy themselves more with surviving the harsh volcanic elements of this weird planet than with destroying each other.

So the human Quaid and the reptilian Gossett teach each other a few things about peaceful co-existence and brotherly love, and how it’s always the crazy leaders of this world—er, universe—who make war, not the simple people.

Gossett also teaches Quaid—in scenes more poetically handled than the other homilies offered—about his religion, the bible of which is a small metallic book that hangs around his neck. Gossett sings his hymns in a strange, lonesome lilt.

As cuddly as all this harmony is, it leaves the film in something of a pickle, dramatically speaking. The conflict between these two “enemies” is withdrawn so quickly—except for some weak attempts to inject cattiness into their relationship—there’s no real friction for the film to play with, and the heat goes out of it early on.

It is not until the last third, when the film goes into a conventional suspense plot regarding Gossett’s child (his race is asexual, and so he gets pregnant and gives birth automatically), that director Wolfgang Petersen (Das Boot) kicks in with some driving action. But it’s nothing spectacular, and it’s too late anyhow.

Perhaps the fact that Petersen had relatively little preparation time on the film (he replaced another director) accounts for the queer lack of mood or direction. There’s also evidence that the film’s cozy, cute humor is not his own. It’s awkwardly handled.

The reptilian creature’s makeup, designed by Chris Walas (he did Gremlins), is functional, if not exactly visionary. Gossett, who is completely covered with brown lizard skin, bears a powerful resemblance to the Creature from the Black Lagoon. For his part, Quaid, who is starting to sound too much like Harrison Ford, is buried under ragged hair and beard; he’s supposed to look like Robinson Crusoe.

Neither man registers much, although Gossett’s gurgling vocal delivery has its charm. But then Enemy Mine is not really supposed to be an actor’s movie, which brings up an interesting point: What kind of movie was this supposed to be?

First published in the Herald, December 20, 1985

I didn’t realize the extent of the re-shooting; IMDb.com says that Richard Loncraine directed a version of the movie in Iceland, which was scrapped when Petersen came in and shot the whole thing over again with a different emphasis. No wonder the movie feels tired-out.


Dreamscape

November 29, 2011

We’ve seen this set-up dozens of times before in the movies. You take a guy, and you establish that he’s got psychic powers.

Fine. Now make him the pawn in a nefarious government plot to—oh, control the world, for instance. Trick him into helping an innocent-sounding research project, and then drag him into the nasty business.

In just the last year, The Dead Zone, Brainstorm, and Firestarter have all used this serviceable plot line, more or less. Dreamscape joins the ranks. But like almost all movies about psychic characters, it conveniently avoids the question that always presents itself with this plot.

To wit:

If this guy’s so psychic, how come he can’t see the bad guys for what they are?

Well, he just can’t, I guess. You’ve got to suspend disbelief a little—make that a lot—in Dreamscape, or you’ll never go along with it.

You may not go along with it anyway. It’s about a man (Dennis Quaid) with the telepathic “gift,” who gets drafted into a project that will unlock the key to dreams. Some scientists (Max von Sydow and Kate Capshaw) have discovered a way to transport highly psychic people into the dreams of others, in the hope that the dreamer may be cured of whatever demons may be haunting him.

Turns out the whole thing is a plot by a covert government group led by Christopher Plummer, who looks and talks like a National Security advisor. He practically is one; he’s an old buddy of the President of the United States (Eddie Albert), who has been having these nightmares lately.

I don’t want to give everything away, but Plummer doesn’t agree with the president’s plan for nuclear disarmament, and would like to get him out of the picture. This coincides with the discovery that a dream-visitor can cause heart attacks in dreamers by terrifying them during a nightmare. So Plummer invites the president over the research center for a short nap….

Fill in the rest. Dreamscape is a pretty cheesy piece of work: hokey story, actors fumbling around for a unifying tone, awkward use of “cute” repartee. And the dream sequences—we see them while Quaid goes on his trips inside other people’s minds—are a gyp. No interesting ideas here, with the possible exception of an encounter with something called “The Snakeman.”

About halfway through, I began to enjoy the movie anyway, in that lazy way yiou can get into the simplest potboiler that comes on TV late at night. Dreamscape has no pretensions, which makes it both disappointing and pretty palatable. It has no intelligence either, but it does have Kate Capshaw, in her third movie in as many months (the others were Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Best Defense). I continue to find her an attractive actress, despite her bad luck with roles.

And it’s got von Sydow and Plummer, who are silky-smooth. But then they could do this kind of thing in their sleep—which maybe they did. After all, everybody else in the film is asleep at one point or another.

To top it all off, it has a human heart being ripped out of a chest, just like the one in Indiana Jones. Which means, of course, an automatic PG-13.

Look, what can you expect from a director (Joseph Ruben) who began his career with The Pom Pom Girls? Still, look for Dreamscape on cable-TV in six months. You may very well enjoy it.

First published in the Herald, August 16, 1984

Of course Ruben’s next movie was The Stepfather, an excellent picture, so I paid for that crack about the Pom Pom Girls. (Still, he was responsible for Gorp, so you can understand where I was coming from.) I’m not sure if Dreamscape is an actual cult movie, but it has its fans, and way back then I seem to recall Pauline Kael was one of them, which means the movie must still have fans amongst her followers. I would actually like to see this again, but apparently I’ve had other things to do in the past 27 years.


The Big Easy

April 1, 2011

Industry insiders assure us that the Hollywood movie of tomorrow will have far less sexually oriented material—a reaction to the conservative climate and the fear of AIDS, supposedly. Which means we’d better enjoy the steam heat in films such as No Way Out and The Big Easy while we can.

Actually, there’s not even any explicit nudity in The Big Easy (the title’s not what you think—it’s the nickname of New Orleans). But the wonderfully sexy atmosphere conjured up by director Jim McBride and stars Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin far outstrips many more graphic films.

Quaid plays a New Orleans detective who has built much of his career on casual kickbacks; indeed corruption is pervasive in the department. New Orleans saints they ain’t. That’s why district attorney Barkin is suddenly hanging around. She’s going to put the bad cops away, even to the point of prosecuting Quaid, a good guy who’s just gotten lazy.

But the film wastes no time in getting to its more delectable concerns, namely putting Quaid and Barkin in close proximity and allowing them to melt the nearby wallpaper. There’s one sex scene that’s erotic and funny, the more so for being interrupted by a police emergency—Quaid has to dash out into the night and investigate a murder. “How long does a murder take?” Barkin asks, hopefully.

If there is logic to the world, The Big Easy is the film that springs these two fine actors into more recognizable prominence. Quaid has never been so assured before (and he’s very adept at his Cajun accent). Barkin, the sad-eyed wife in Diner and the homewrecking sister in Desert Bloom, is immediate and reactive as always. And they look very good together.

Director McBride’s stock should rise, too. He started out making underground films, and The Big Easy and his underappreciated Breathless are his only mainstream features. His sense of style is often breathless.

Daniel Petrie Jr.’s screenplay was originally set in Chicago, but McBride had the good sense to move it to New Orleans, a much fresher setting, where the corruption seems as liquid as the humidity. As with the Los Angeles McBride created in Breathless, the city is very much a participant in the drama, and has probably never been more vividly realized.

There’s some business about gangland murders that Quaid is solving, but this is almost impossible to follow, except that it eventually comes back to Barkin’s investigation. Ned Beatty plays another corrupted cop, and the late Charles Ludlam contributes a witty performance as a defense attorney (“the man that got the governor acquitted,” someone says admiringly).

McBride doesn’t pay that much attention to the difficult storyline, and neither should the audience. There’s simply too much pleasure to be taken in the seductive atmosphere, the Cajun music, the spice of the two main characters.

First published in the Herald, August 1987

This was a nice movie to champion back then. I always thought it was a great example of the party movie, the kind of film where it didn’t matter much whether it all hung together because the sense of it being a traveling party was so strong and sustained. Quaid and Barkin did go on to bigger things, although the Quaid-McBride Great Balls of Fire turned out to be a rather large letdown.