The Wizard

March 16, 2022

The Wizard is a patched together little movie that starts off as a kind of poor relation to Rain Man but then begins to resemble an extended commercial for Nintendo video games.

Is the whole world in on Nintendo? Children, teenagers, and parents evidently are, although there are still some of us who remain uninitiated. The makers of The Wizard assume that audiences are fully appreciative of Nintendo’s dominant place in the universe.

In any case, the movie is about a traumatized little boy who regularly runs away from home. He’s mute and unresponsive, and his mother and mean stepfather are considering putting him in a home.

This raises the ire of the boy’s half-brother (Fred Savage, from TV’s The Wonder Years), who takes off down the highway with his little brother in tow. In a bus station, they run into a saucy redheaded number who’s just about Savage’s age – though, being a girl, she’s more mature. Savage’s father (Beau Bridges) and other brother (Christian Slater) give chase, as does a creepy private investigator.

The road business, and the discovery of the mute boy’s secret gift, give all of this the flavor of a pint-sized Rain Man. In Rain Man, Dustin Hoffman was found to be an autistic savant, able to apply his peculiar skills to the gambling halls of Las Vegas. In The Wizard, the young savant is a terror at video games, specifically Nintendo.

As fate would have it, there is a Nintendo grand championship about to get under way in Los Angeles, in a building at Universal Studios (Universal also happens to be the producer of The Wizard). So after a brief studio tour, the whole thing comes together at his big Nintendo-off, with results you really ought to be able to guess.

I’m guessing that simply staying at home and noodling at your own Nintendo would be more exciting than seeing The Wizard.

First published in The Herald, December 1989

It has a cult following, you say? Yes, I suppose it would. Director Todd Holland went from this to directing a couple of Twin Peaks episodes, so there. And if you’re wondering, I still haven’t played Nintendo, to my knowledge, but I am grateful to them for rescuing the Seattle Mariners.

Vice Versa

March 18, 2020

viceversaRemember Like Father Like Son? There’s no reason you should, except that it was released less than six months ago, It was the one about a father and son who exchanged personalities through a mysterious process, and lived the other’s life for a few days.

Personality transference seems to be reaching epidemic proportions in the cinema. It even occurs among screenwriters (the mysterious process of plot transference perhaps), because exactly the same premise has turned up in a new film called Vice Versa.

Here the father (Judge Reinhold) is a successful executive, a gotta-go-I’m-late-for-something type who actually orders Grey Poupon in restaurants. Son (Fred Savage, the kid in The Princess Bride) is a grade-schooler who shuttles between his divorced parents; in a restaurant, he’s likely to loose his pet frog on the unsuspecting patrons. To set the plot in motion, dad travels to Thailand to buy some merchandise, and manages to bring back a germ­-encrusted skull that has some special power.

This object zap’s dad’s brain into the boy, and you know, vice versa. Which means that the adult who walks into his business office has the mind of a 10-year-old. And the child in grade school is ordering limos to pick him up after class.

Vice Versa is using exactly the same sort of fish-out-of-water comedy as Like Father, Like Son. But I’d give the very definite edge to this new film. The script by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais does rely on familiar jokes, but it’s a much better acted and directed movie.

Reinhold has some lovely, goggle-eyed moments as the boy­-in-the-man’s body, and he nicely captures the complicated excitement of being kissed by dad’s girlfriend (Corinne Bohrer). Meanwhile, the adult in Savage’s body has to worry about the possibility of going back to live with his ex-wife, who would now also be his mother: “It’s a Freudian nightmare!”

The film is directed by Brian Gilbert, a Britisher who made the fetching Sharma and Beyond for English TV. He’s got a light touch, given the generic limitations, and draws the father-son relationship well. He even makes the dumb subplot, in which the real owner of the skull (Swoosie Kurtz) tries to regain possession, reasonably watchable. In short, if you absolutely have to make a movie about personality transference, this is the way to make it.

First published in the Herald, March 10, 1988

I love Sharma and Beyond so much that I’ve always kept an eye of Brian Gilbert’s career, which has had interesting entries (a couple of literary biopics, Tom & Viv and Wilde, as well as the Sally Field picture Not Without My Daughter, which gave a running gag to South Park). He hasn’t directed a film since 2005, so maybe that’s that. Clement and La Frenais are British writers (both born 1937) who have a near-unbelievable record of produced stuff, going back to writing for Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in the 1960s and including Across the Universe and The Commitments. Reinhold was having his moment at this time, and so was Corinne Bohrer, who made Dead Solid Perfect the same year.

Little Monsters

January 25, 2013

littlemonstersFor a few generations now, kids have been insisting that monsters live under their beds. In Little Monsters, this claim is given irrefutable proof.

As the movie explains, monsters live underneath the Earth’s surface in a vast subterranean world. Once night falls up top, the monsters rise up stairways and slip out from under the beds of little kids, wreaking havoc (for which kids everywhere, the innocent darlings, are blamed the next morning). This explains a lot.

Little Monsters is concerned with one denizen of the underworld, a blue reptilian creature with horns and a Mohawk, who goes by the name of—what else?—Maurice. Maurice, played by comedian Howie Mandel, has arrived to torment the nights of 11-year-old Brian (Fred Savage, the likable little ham from TV’s “Wonder Years”).

Brian’s family has just moved to their new house, his parents (Daniel Stern and Margaret Whitton) are bickering, his little brother is a pill. So he has need of a friend, and Maurice turns out to be an amiable monster, and a good guide to the world below, where kids can play pinball to their hearts’ delight and eat as many cheeseburgers as they please.

Director Richard Alan Greenberg tires hard to give this story the feeling of Ray Bradbury’s writing: a lonely kid, an unhappy family, the promise of something supernatural to spark the boy’s imagination. Unfortunately, Greenberg’s efforts don’t mesh well with the monster stuff.

The monster stuff is dominated by Howie Mandel. Mandel was eminently likable in his role in “St. Elsewhere,” but in his comedy routines he tends toward manic obnoxiousness, and that is the direction he takes here. It becomes clear from the first moments of his performance that he is doing much what Michael Keaton did in Beetlejuice, but without Keaton’s sustained frenzy (or the writing to support such frenzy).

Little Monsters runs out of creative juice long before Mandel runs out of shtick. In fact, there is probably a direct correlation here—a little bit of Howie goes a long way.

First published in the Herald, August 31, 1989

Except for this odd picture, the director mostly stuck to visual effects and titles sequences. This was the first credit for Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott, who have flourished in animation and live-action alike, including the Pirates of the Caribbean business.