Pet Sematary

October 29, 2012

During the end credits of Pet Sematary, a message reminds us that “No animals were harmed in any way” during filming. This is small reassurance, because it’s the animals in Pet Sematary that are threatening harm, not the other way around.

It’s another movie adaptation of a novel by frightmeister Stephen King, but this time King wrote the screenplay himself. Adding interest is the choice of director Mary Lambert, an artsy type who has made some of the better music videos, including Sting’s “We’ll Be Together” and Madonna’s new scandal, “Like a Prayer.”

Pet Sematary turns out to be one of the better King adaptations. Nothing major here, but it delivers the goods.

King’s scary idea in this one is that a family moves into a remote house in rural Maine, and discovers that its property borders on a pet sema—er, cemetery. As the old geezer (Fred Gwynne) across the road informs them, the cemetery does pretty good business, since the road outside carries constant truck traffic and the local critters are not quite fast enough.

But there’s another funny thing about the cemetery. Animals that are buried there have a way of not staying dead, as the young husband (Dale Midkiff) finds out when the family cat is felled by an 18-wheeler. Kitty comes back, but with a distinctly malevolent attitude. The movie’s kicker comes when Midkiff asks the old-timer the inevitable question: Has anybody ever buried a human out there?

Lambert mounts some scary sequences, and a few of the images are truly creepy. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t get much better than merely effective, because there are too many gaps in the narrative. However, any horror movie that ends with a Ramones song can’t be all bad: “Don’t put me in a pet cemetery….”

First published in the Herald, April 27, 1989

The movie seems to have its share of fans. It’s superior to Silver Bullet, and probably Maximum Overdrive too, but I’m not sure that’s saying very much. Denise Crosby was the female lead.

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The Cotton Club

July 27, 2012

A few years ago, Robert Evans, the producer of films such as The Godfather and Chinatown, needed a script rewrite for a project about new York’s famous Cotton Club, a place where white audiences paid top dollar to see black entertainment during the height of the Jazz Age.

Evans had worked with larger-than-life director Francis Coppola on The Godfather, and he called Coppola to get some suggestions for a good script doctor. Coppola, ever alert (and coming off a string of commercial disasters), quickly suggested himself. Thus commenced a series of events that probably made Evans wish he’d never heard of Coppola or the Cotton Club.

Before long, Coppola had thrown out the original screenplay (the film’s “story” credit goes to Mario Puzo) and written a completely new script with Pulitzer Prize-winner William Kennedy. Then Coppola assumed the mantle of director, and the production of the film itself was beset by rising costs and constant script rewrites.

And somewhere in the midst of this Robert Evans went bye-bye. The lawsuits are now flying, but it’s hard to imagine they will have any effect on what is already an incredibly expensive movie (something between $40 and $50 million, at last count).

Coppola seems to be attracted by this kind of guerrilla moviemaking, but whether or not it agrees with him is another matter. The films he produced while he played at being the mogul of his own hectic studio were almost wholly uninvolving.

With The Cotton Club, he’s gotten himself interesting again. This film, which whips up a blend of gangsterism and musical comedy, clips along at a confident pace and has enough flavorful characters to fill a speakeasy.

Richard Gere plays a cornet player (and Gere plays his own horn solos, by golly) whose trajectory through the Jazz Age—in the film, from the late ’20s through the early ’30s—places him in close contact with such figures as gangster Dutch Schultz (rivetingly played by unctuous James Remar), the Dutchman’s moll (Diane Lane), and the men who run the Cotton Club (Bob The Long Goodbye Hoskins and Fred “The Munsters” Gwynne, who make a great comedy team).

Gere’s brother (Nicolas Cage, Coppola’s cousin) is a hothead swept into the violent world around the Cotton Club, with bloody results. This story of the brothers is paralleled by a pair of dancing brothers (Gregory and Maurice Hines) who work their way up through the Cotton Club to different levels of stardom.

The film is obviously chock-full; unfortunately, as enjoyable as much of this is, Coppola has a tendency to rush past the building blocks of characterization. He has atmosphere (kudos to designer Richard Sylbert) and rat-a-tat action down pat, but once the smoke clears, I was left with the nagging feeling that the sound and fury didn’t amount to too much.

The scope of the film calls for the three-hour Godfather sprawl, and Cotton Club clocks in at barely over two. Characters meet, split, and kiss and make up with not much validation for their behavior. Coppola asks you to take a lot for granted.

I wish the extra hour might have had more song-and-dance in it, too; although the film is full of terrific music, few numbers are presented in their entirety (Coppola enjoys cutting routines in pieces rather than letting them develop on their own). Still, Lonette McKee’s “Ill Wind” is a stand-out, and the brothers Hines tread the boards with grace.

Coppola likes to describe himself as a ringmaster/magician of chaos. He may not quite prove that the hand is quicker than the eye in The Cotton Club, but at least he keeps all three rings of the circus busy at once.

First published in the Herald, December 15, 1984

As anybody who’s ever seen this movie knows, you can forget about Gere and Lane: Bob Hoskins and Fred Gwynne are where the action is.


Disorganized Crime

January 11, 2012

Disorganized Crime reworks a formula that has reaped considerable benefits for Disney’s Touchstone Pictures: mixing action with comedy. Touchstone has varied the formula from buddy movies to outright slapstick (examples include Stakeout, Shoot to Kill, and Three Fugitives), but all feature guns and laughs.

The screenwriter of Stakeout, Jim Kouf, has tried his hand at directing with Disorganized Crime, from his own original script. Kouf’s previous work reflects the fact the he has obviously studied some classic comedies. With Disorganized Crime, he has borrowed from the venerable tradition of heist movies.

It’s a pretty smart tack, because a heist movie has almost indestructible appeal. You watch a caper set up, then you watch it play out. The suspense is built in, and the last half of the movie generally takes care of itself.

In Disorganized Crime, the heist is the movie’s best sustained sequence. Unfortunately, Kouf has his problems with the rest of the picture.

A veteran bank robber (Corbin Bernsen) scopes out a bank in a small Montana town and finds it to his liking. He sends messages to four of his best colleagues in crime, asking them to gather for the job. But before they hit town, he’s arrested by a couple of bumbling New Jersey cops (Ed O’Neill and Daniel Roebuck) and thrown in the town jail.

Meantime, the team arrives. Looming, marvelous Fred Gwynne plays the wise old pro of the group, a calm-handed explosives expert. Lou Diamond Phillips plays a cool young robber, while Ruben Blades gets the best wardrobe (and the best lines). Rounding out the quartet is William Russ (terrific last year in a series of episodes on TV’s “Wise Guy”) as a temperamental safecracker.

Without their ringleader, these guys sit around an empty house in the mountains for a while, wondering what to do and getting on each other’s nerves. Kouf runs out of material for them quite soon, and a side plot about Bernsen escaping from the police never takes off.

More damagingly, Kouf doesn’t have much sense of comedic timing (which he established in his first film as director, Miracles). He becomes desperate, using and reusing jokes about pig slop and emphasizing four-letter words when he runs out of things to say, which happens early on.

First published in the Herald, April 20, 1989

Mr. Kouf has had a long career, still going strong, and clearly has a knack for grabby movie-movie ideas (he wrote The Hidden and, with director Robert Greenwalt, Secret Admirer, which ought to be remembered as a classic 1980s youth comedy but for some reason isn’t; Kouf and Greenwalt are currently involved in TV’s “Grimm”). So I got nothing against the guy, except possibly this movie. Co-stars Russ and Roebuck returned for Kouf’s 2010 directing effort, A Fork in the Road. This was a promising time for Russ, a strong second lead, and a nice run for Fred Gwynne, who’d finally gotten out from under the shadow of Herman Munster with unexpectedly awesome appearances in Luna and The Cotton Club and a few other things.