Never Too Young to Die/Jake Speed/Code Name: Emerald

August 14, 2012

It’s deadhead time at the movies, as early summer releases begin to die and the studios hold back some heavy hitters for the July Fourth weekend. Filling up all those multiplex screens this week is a trio of losers, soon to be forgotten.

Of the three, Never Too Young to Die is the most entertaining, simply because it’s the most outlandish. It’s all about a kid (John Stamos) who gets mixed up in a maniac’s plot to fill Los Angeles’s water supply with radioactive waste.

See, the kid’s father was a secret agent—in fact, he’s played by Goerge Lazenby, who played James Bond once. This tips off the filmmakers’ intentions; this movie is a gadgety, quick-moving teenage 007 movie. As such, it’s a limp outing, although one character actually says, “An entire city held for ransom by a maniac?” as though no one had ever said that before.

But here are the things to enjoy: ex-Prince protégé Vanity, first spotted wearing va-va-voom black lace at a funeral, then incongruously riding a horse across an Ohio farm, and Kiss member Gene Simmons, who plays the mad hermaphrodite villain named Ragnar. Simmons has no shame, a quality that greatly enhances the viewing experience.

As he cackles, rolls his eyes, sticks out his tongue and sings, “It takes a man like me to be a woman like me,” you know you’ve found the film’s reason for being.

In the same vein is Jake Speed, a relentlessly silly adventure flick that crosses the Indiana Jones movies with Romancing the Stone.

Jake is the fictional hero of a series of best-selling books. However, the writing team (Wayne Crawford—who also co-produced and co-wrote the film—and Dennis Christopher) that created him actually likes to live out his cases. So they contact a woman (Karen Kopins) whose sister has been sold into a white slavery ring in Africa, and propose to bring the girl back.

Naturally they take Kopins with them; she becomes nonplussed when she discovers these guys aren’t adventurers, but writers. Jake meets his arch enemy, played with slimy fervor by John Hurt. Hurt’s the kind of villain who keeps a cageful of lions under a trap door in his headquarters, so you know we’re in 007 country again.

Jake Speed is undone by its own spoofiness. Not so Code Name: Emerald, which is as glum as Jake is bubbly.

Emerald is about a soldier (Eric Stoltz, of Mask) captured by the Germans a couple of months before D-Day. It happens that he knows the date and place of the invasion, and if he talks, it could botch everything.

So the Allies send a spy (Ed Harris) whom the Nazis believe to be working for Berlin. He’s go to get to Stoltz and keep him from talking, without raising the suspicions of the German high command (Max von Sydow, Horst Buchholz, Helmut Berger).

The only intriguing thing about his film is why such fine actors would be attracted to such an enervated project. Harris, in particular, is widely thought to be one of our best actors (with good reason), and he has been, in The Right Stuff, Places in the Heart, and Sweet Dreams, at the peak of his powers lately; what’s he doing in this stillborn effort?

First published in the Herald, June 22, 1986

In fairness to the actors in question, the synopsis of Code Name: Emerald sounds like something that might be a serviceable thriller. The movie itself is just dead. Footnote to film history, though; CN:E was the first credit for screenwriter Ron Bass (based on his novel), who has since become a high-priced writing conglomerate. So there is hope after flops.

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Mask

March 7, 2012

The film begins with sweeping vistas of a California town: The feeling is one of absolute normalcy, of everyday life going on its uninterrupted way. The camera eventually zeroes in on one house, and then one window, where we meet the hero of Mask, Rocky Dennis.

The opening suggests that we could be anywhere, at anytime, in anyone’s home. And Rocky Dennis has all the attributes of the average American kid: He collects baseball cards, listens to rock ‘n’ roll, and dreams of biking across Europe. But Rocky is different, because he suffers from a congenital condition called craniodialphyseal dysplasia, which causes his face to be horribly enlarged and disfigured.

And yet, after the initially shocking presentations of Rocky (played under a heavy load of makeup by Eric Stoltz) the film will go on to stress just how normal Rocky is in almost every way but the physical. We see his adjustments to school, his problems dealing with his hard-living single mom (Cher, who is once again very good), his tentative adventure with first love (in the person of Laura Dern).

The only unusual element is Cher’s social circle, which happens to be a gang of motorcycle riders (led by Sam Elliott). But this film is based on a true story, and that’s the way it was.

It is one of the virtues of Mask that Rocky doesn’t become a goody-goody figure; instead, he remains an average guy in nearly every way. Director Peter Bogdanovich has established a tone of unblinking, unflinching acceptance. He doesn’t emphasize anything, he simply presents Rocky and his story. Soon, we almost forget we’re watching anything strange—and that’s exactly the point Bogdanovich wants us to get.

The film’s only weakness is perhaps its too-easy analogies between Rocky’s “mask” and the various figurative masks worn by others, especially his mother’s self-destructive drug-taking and bed-hopping. But Bodganovich and his actors—and of course, the astounding makeup of Michael Westmore—transcend the occasional message-mongering. They make the film come alive in the immediate moment, and the result is—if admittedly not a perfect film—an extraordinary experience.

Bogdanovich, who was a major force during the 1970s (The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, Saint Jack), has returned after a four-year hiatus. He continues to find his own voice as a director: Some of his early films were disturbingly artificial in their patness, but Mask has a convincingly lived-in quality. He’s rolled up his sleeves and dug down deep for this one, and the result is a potent emotional experience.

Bogdanovich has retained his talent for staying in the news: Lately he’s raised a stink because Universal Pictures has altered his soundtrack by replacing Bruce Springsteen songs with Bob Seger tunes. That may sound like one of those crazy directors going off on a megalomaniacal tirade, but you can see Bogdanovich’s point: Springsteen carries more iconographical weight than Seger anyway, and there’s a poster of Springsteen in Mask that shares a wall with Rocky’s baseball cards and Europe map. Had the songs remained, it would have been one more layer of emotional meaning in Rocky’s story. Too bad they’re gone.

First published in the Herald, March 1985

It seems as though the movie should have a higher profile, or be mentioned more often in discussions of various careers that overlap here. Certainly at the time it seemed Bogdanovich would get a career reboot out of this—yet his next film took three years to appear, and it was Illegally Yours, fercryingoutloud. I guess there’s a cut with the Springsteen songs in place.


Some Kind of Wonderful

May 13, 2011
Stoltz and Masterson, pretending

There’s no way Some Kind of Wonderful should work. Isn’t this tale of a misfit student infatuated with the prettiest girl in school while his true love waits on the sidelines just a gender-reversal of last year’s Pretty in Pink? And hasn’t the high-school well run dry yet for the prolific producer John Hughes , the teen-film potentate (The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off)?

Hughes would seem to be repeating himself here, by pulling the sex-switch on this Pretty in Pink script and hiring the same director, Howard Deutch.

By rights, all of that should make Some Kind of Wonderful a craven commercial effort, designed to repeat the success of Pretty in Pink. Well, commercial it may very well be. Enjoyable it definitely is.

The misfit in this case is a sensitive lad, a hopeful artist (Eric Stoltz, out from under his Mask makeup), basically an okay guy but shy enough for his sister to refer to him as “the human Tater-Tot.”

His confidante is a tomboy drummer (Mary Stuart Masterson), with whom he maintains a close but unromantic friendship. His dream is the school’s most popular girl (Lea Thompson, recovering prettily from Howard the Duck), but she, of course, is hooked with the school’s swaggering jock (Craig Sheffer, perfectly embodying every bully who ever drove you nuts).

The film isn’t five minutes old before we know that Stoltz will have to work through his crush on Thompson in order to discover his true affection for Masterson. And Hughes is starting to run out of ideas for this milieu; the villains, for instance, are stock, without any memorable traits.

Okay, fine. But Hughes’ dialogue and the agility of the actors is enough to distract from the blueprint nature of the thing.

And there are a couple of scenes that take off. Stoltz, trapped in detention, sketches in his notebook, which inspires the punked-out lunk across the aisle to respond with some art of his own. Holding up a drawing of a skull with eyes, the hulk suggests, with disarmingly cheery innocence, “That’s what my girlfriend would look like without skin.”

And there’s a nice version of the beginning-to-see-the-light scene, when Masterson helps Stoltz prep for a possible kiss with Thompson, by acting the role of the latter. The “pretend” kiss between Masterson and Stoltz, held just a moment longer than necessary, has her beating a hurried retreat. “Lesson’s over. You’re cool,” she sputters, barely keeping her awakened hormones in check.

All the actors are good to watch, but Mary Stuart Masterson steals the show. (She’s got the spiciest dialogue, too.) She was previously good as Sean Penn’s girlfriend in the little-seen At Close Range.

Masterson seems to have exceptional range herself. She has a way of swallowing the big emotional moments, only just letting them peek through, that feels utterly honest. When she sits on the hood of a car, shivering with anger and frustration and hurt over Stoltz’ success with Thompson, I get the distinct sense that a mature actress is being born.

I don’t know whether she’ll turn into a conventional leading lady—she looks too short and small-featured for that, somehow—but it’s a career worth following, and Some Kind of Wonderful is a painless place to start.

First published in the Herald, February 1987

Masterson never did turn into a conventional leading lady, but she did a lot of fine work. The rest of the review sounds about right to me—this movie should have suffered from the law of diminishing returns, yet did some pleasant things anyway. For John Hughes, the teen genre was about played out, and other projects (not really better projects) beckoned.