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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That Was Then…This Is Now

January 13, 2012

The teen crises that form the story of That Was Then…This Is Now will be familiar to anyone who has read the books of S.E. Hinton, or seen the other films adapted from her books (such as Francis Coppola’s The Outsiders and Rumble Fish).

The characters here are typically maladjusted, restless youths, suffering from teen angst or the general malaise or just plain crankiness. As with the other Hinton adaptations, explosive violence is very much a part of life; physical brutality is an outlet for all the psychic turmoil of the characters.

The books have been very popular, although the movies have been less successful—possibly because of Coppola’s quirkily esoteric approach. I’m not sure That Was Then will change that track record. It’s a somber thing, without much pandering to the gross-out sensibility that marks a lot of teen comedies.

In plot terms, it’s dully schematic. There are two close friends: one good (Craig Sheffer), one bad (Emilio Estevez). The good one is going through a rites-of-passage phase, from which he will emerge a man, the bad one is regressing and ends up in trouble with the law.

Estevez’s panic when he sees the friendship dissolving forms the core of the movie. He’s an orphan who’s been brought up in Sheffer’s family, and he can’t seem to slow down his frantic attempts to define himself—which include small-time larceny, such as “borrowing” cars and hustling in pool rooms. His idea of fun is getting a fellow student drunk and cutting her hair while she’s passed out.

Sheffer drifts away from the friendship after one of their escapades accidentally gets a friend killed—and when he falls for a classmate (Kim Delaney) who represents some kind of normalcy. He even gets a job as a check-out bagger at a grocery store, which really sets Estevez’s teeth on edge.

The actors are all good, even in the smaller roles. You can see why Estevez, a charter member of Hollywood’s “Brat Pack” as embodied in The Breakfast Club and St. Elmo’s Fire, initiated the project (he wrote the screenplay): it’s a showy part for him.

Director Christopher Cain and photographer Juan Ruiz Anchia, who collaborated previously on The Stone Boy, have mounted a handsome production (filmed in Minneapolis). A couple of shots are knockouts, such as the skyline at night illuminated by a crack of lightning, while the characters sit in a car parked under a bridge.

But Cain uses some clichéd effects, too. The rain on the window reflected on Estevez’s face while he talks about his parents is an obvious gimmick that’s been used before. And Cain is fond of lighting actors from below, so that their faces get a weird, ghostly look to them.

More damagingly, Cain has a fundamental coolness that seems to work against the story. He did the same thing in The Stone Boy, but that was a tale of an emotional freeze-up, and the distanced style was appropriate. That Was Then requires more heat, but Cain stubbornly keeps his distance.

First published in the Herald, November 12, 1985

Dully schematic. That’s about the best I can do. The movie made the Coppola efforts look very, very sharp by comparison. Morgan Freeman was in this, too.


The Breakfast Club

May 10, 2011
Nelson, Estevez, Sheedy, Ringwald, Hall: The B-Club

In the light of writer-director John Hughes’ uneven, delightful film debut, Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club is both gratifying and disappointing. It’s gratifying because it proves that Hughes is funny, daring, and brimming with basic movie savvy. It’s disappointing because Hughes can’t quite bring everything together in a way that avoids pat conventions.

It begins brilliantly—Hughes sweeps us into his conceit with economy and zip, and we get introduced to the principals in brief strokes, each indicative of his or her stereotyped role vis-à-vis high school. (The idea of the film is that the stereotypes they embody to us—and each other—will be broken down, and that all share similar anxieties, successes, fears, hopes.) They’re thrown together in a day-long Saturday detention session in the school library. There’s a jock (Emilio Estevez), a princess (Molly Ringwald), a dork (Anthony Michael Hall), a loudmouth nonconformist (Judd Nelson), and a withdrawn would-be runaway (Ally Sheedy). In the course of the day, they find out more about each other, and about themselves, than they ever knew before—and they began the day as strangers.

The first hour—of the film, that is—is very funny, and full of wonderful detail and language (Hughes has a keen ear for high school parlance). As Hughes gets into the serious stuff, the film goes distressingly toward tried-and-true resolution (although it is not without some surprises). As I said, this is disappointing; but in terms of Hughes’ career, it’s not too discouraging. He’ll get better, and there’s plenty here to savor. Certainly the performers are very good, and Judd Nelson, sneering and bellowing, may be better than that.

And every once in a while something leaps out and slaps you with its originality. In particular, there’s a moment when Ally Sheedy is doodling on her note pad (at this point in the film, she may have yet to speak her first line—she’s mute for the first half-hour). We see her shaggy head looking down at her desk, then Hughes cuts to her pad—she’s drawn a little cabin in the woods, picket fence out front, smoke curling from the chimney (just the kind of home this lonely kid probably fantasizes about). Cut back to Sheedy’s face; she looks at the drawing, something is not quite right. She tips her head forward and rubs her fingers back and forth through her thick hair. Dandruff falls down to the desk; Hughes cuts to the picture, and the little cabin in the woods is now covered with snow. That’s beautiful.

First published in The Informer, March/April 1985

Of all the performers to single out in this movie, I had to go with Judd Nelson. Folks, reprinting these reviews is a warts-and-all proposition, and sometimes you have to reach for the Compound W, is all I can say. This film was important to people of a certain age, and I can see why; I sort of wish I’d had a film like it ten years earlier. The idea of it is ingenious, although it still bugs me that it narrows to a very conventional set of conclusions as it goes along, especially the supposed blossoming of Sheedy’s character.


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.


Repo Man

December 1, 2010

Stanton, Estevez, the code

You know Repo Man is going to be good when you figure out that its most demented character—an auto-repossession worker (Tracey Walter) who gives every indication of missing a frontal lobe or two—is the only person who really knows what’s going on. Not in a specific way, mind you. But this whacked-out creature has a theory of the way the universe works.

He wonders why, for instance, when you think about a plate of shrimp, that somebody always mentions shrimp, or a plate, or a plate of shrimp, within the next few days—that suddenly all you hear about is shrimp?

Well, maybe that doesn’t happen to you. But this man knows that everything is connected, and he’s right. About a half an hour later, a character walks into a deli, and a hand-painted sign catches your eye: “Special: Plate O’ Shrimp.”

It’s proof that there really is order in the scattered, fragmented world of Repo Man. It would be silly—and beside the point—to summarize the plot, which isn’t particularly important to the movie. But, for the record: It begins with a scientist (I think), on the lam from the nuclear tests at Los Alamos, who drives his radioactive car (carrying the corpses of some extraterrestrials in the trunk) into Los Angeles—where else?

And there’s this kid named Otto Maddux (say it out loud), played by Emilio Estevez, Martin Sheen’s son. He needs a job and gets hooked up with some repo men, retrieving cars when the payments go overdue. The leader of these repo men is played by Harry Dean Stanton, the pock-marked, rat-faced supporting actor who has become a central figure in the history of low-life cinema.

The movie includes their repossession adventures, Otto’s punk friends performing random crimes, and a new romance for Otto with a girl who has an odd interest in aliens. But it’s really a mad crazy-quilt for the punk age, a cornucopia of absurd events that start to make sense after a while. Repo Man has bits and pieces flying all over the place; it can’t quite hold up under the strain of trying to tie them all together, and it falls apart near the end. But it’s fun getting there.

The film is the brainchild of a British-born, California-educated man named Alex Cox, whose first feature this is. Cox clearly has a lively visual imagination (he’s helped by the great German cinematographer, Robby Muller), and a good sense of pace. His dialogue ranges from the loopily brilliant (like Tracey Walter’s ruminations) to the relentlessly profane.

And he knows whereof he speaks. After he went to film school, Cox worked for a while as an auto-repossessor in Los Angeles. Coming from that strange business, it must have seemed normal to jump into the surreal world of Repo Man.

That doesn’t quite explain the plate of shrimp. But I know this much: They’re out there, these shrimp, plates, and plates of shrimp. Don’t be surprised when you start noticing them.

First published in the Herald, 1984.

This was awfully fun when it first arrived – and still is, sure, but really was then. Stanton was having his apotheosis (Paris, Texas was happening, too) and he turned away from the sleazy roles he’d been perfecting for so long. Which was kind of a shame, although you get why he’d do that.