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.


Adventures in Babysitting

November 16, 2011

There are many reasons to hate Chris Columbus. This is a guy whose first screenplay sale was a little thing called Gremlins, which was purchased and produced by none other than Steven Spielberg and which went on to make a mint.

He wrote a couple of other scripts under Spielberg’s wing, The Goonies and Young Sherlock Holmes, and was even tapped to write the next Indiana Jones movie.

Now he’s made his directing debut, which is what all those frustrated screenwriters want to do anyway. And he’s 27 years old. You see why he’s easy to hate?

The film that Columbus has directed at this disgustingly youthful age is called Adventures in Babysitting, and unfortunately the title is just about the best thing about the movie. Columbus didn’t write this one—a first-timer named David Simkins did—but it shares with Columbus’s earlier work a penchant for cute head-over-heels action.

It’s a kind of After Hours for teenagers. A perky 17-year-old high school student (Elisabeth Shue) takes a babysitting job in the suburbs when her boyfriend stands her up for the night. Her charges are a pint-sized little girl (Maia Brewton) and a 15-year-old guy (Keith Coogan). Well, the guy isn’t really under her care, but he’s got major crush on her, so he and his geeky friend (Anthony Rapp) hang around to make moon eyes at the babysitter.

The babysitting adventure really begins with a phone call from a pal stranded at the downtown Chicago bus station, begging for a ride home. Shue piles her three hell-raisers in mom’s car, and heads into town for a wild and semi-surreal night of catastrophes.

Some of these scrapes are gently amusing, yet most of the film’s situations are so heavily contrived that they undercut the fun. When Shue & Co. stumble into a smoky jazz club and are forced to improvise a blues number to earn their passage, it’s sort of funny. Funny, except that even with a generous suspension of disbelief, I can’t quite buy the concept of a blues club that lets a quartet of suburban squares on its stage, or that forces them to sing, badly, as an exit visa.

The movie has a string of these near-miss scenes. Columbus can’t quite find the rhythms or the look to kick this sitcom into high gear. For instance, his cast is likable, but they’re on a low flame. The acting honors go to people in smaller roles: Calvin Levels, immediately intriguing as a soft-spoken car thief who takes the kids into a dangerous circle of crime; and John Chandler, former Sam Peckinpah regular, as the nasty leader of that ring.

And one other actor, for trivia buffs: Vincent D’Onofrio, who gives a sensational performance as the fat, frightened Marine in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, here turns up in a small role as a garage owner. If you don’t recognize him, it’s forgivable; he’s about 60 pounds lighter here than he was in Kubrick’s movie.

Adventures in Babysitting has “summer movie” written all over it, but it’s not even quite good enough to make the grade in that unexalted category. And we should be even harder on Chris Columbus for not making the material work. He has no excuse, since his own experiences with babysitters are presumably more recent than those of any other Hollywood director.

First published in the Herald, July 1987

I guess you can sense that my own screenwriting efforts were not attracting much attention, thus my enmity for CC (which I hope comes across as tongue-in-cheek, mostly). He has gone on, of course, to much more. The movie’s got its fans, and it fits into that run of post-Bueller teen escapades that were around for a while. And it’s got Elisabeth Shue, a should’ve-been-bigger-star who didn’t go there.


Cocktail

May 17, 2011

Cruise, with flair

Have you ever had the experience of knowing what people are going to say before they say it? If you haven’t, go check out Cocktail, the new Tom Cruise movie. You’ll be spouting the dialogue ahead of the characters.

This trick has nothing to do with clairvoyance. It has everything to do with dorky screenwriting, of which Cocktail has an abundance.

The premise takes a young go-getter, played by Cruise, who arrives in New York with a lust for success. Fate, however, has a bitter lesson in store for this young pilgrim, as he can’t get in the door on Wall Street and instead lands a job as a bartender in a singles bar.

His guru is a worldly mixologist (Bryan Brown) who dispenses Cuervo Gold and street wisdom in equal doses, disdaining Cruise’s college career and slapping the bar as he declares, “You couldn’t find a better work-study program than right here.”

Cruise finds false love, bounces down to a bar in Jamaica, finds true love in the form of a vacationing waitress (Elisabeth Shue), loses true love, and get hooked up with the kind of “rich chick” that Brown always advised him to find. But when Cruise and the woman (Lisa Banes) return to New York, he discovers that all he does is fetch her carrot juice in the mornings. And that, my friends, is a handful of dust.

Cocktail is a morality play, dressed in flashy colors and fronted by Hollywood’s premiere boy-hunk. Like Wall Street, it delivers a familiar lesson in the value of personal happiness over material wealth, a lesson that seems to be making a return in the late 1980s.

It is a mostly vacuous two hours, with screenwriter Heywood Gould providing his characters with some by-the-numbers dialogue. Cruise to his sugar mommy: “I tried to sell out to you, but I couldn’t close the deal.” Cruise to Brown’s sexy wife: “I can’t make it with my best friend’s lady!”

That Cocktail is occasionally dumbly enjoyable has to do with the cast and with director Roger Donaldson’s instincts. Donaldson directed last year’s No Way Out, but he can’t come up with a companion piece to that film’s steamy limousine scene. Here, a scene with sex under a waterfall is just your basic sex-under-a-waterfall scene.

Cruise isn’t exactly an actor yet, but at least he seems to want to be an actor, which is something. Bryan Brown, the Australian actor who starred in Tai Pan, brings some underpinnings to his role. And Elisabeth Shue, of Adventures in Babysitting, is always nice to watch—I am probably in the minority on this, but I think she’s prettier than Tom Cruise.

First published in the Herald, July 1988

Sadly, perhaps the last time I used the word “mixologist” in a review. This is a really terrible film, and Roger Donaldson’s participation is mystifying. In its own way, this is as representative of the 1980s as any film out there, and Cruise’s dedication to studying and perfecting the art of “flair bartending,” which he seemed to do with as much commitment as his research for, say, Born on the Fourth of July, is somehow depressing. I could expand on this, but I think I’ll go fix a drink.