Grandview, U.S.A.

June 15, 2012

Grandview, U.S.A. is one of those frustrating films that deserve to be much better than they are. On the surface, there’s a lot to like about it.

It has a good cast in fine form, for one thing. Jamie Lee Curtis continues her recent string of vivid parts, with her role as the gritty owner of a demolition derby park (inherited from her father). Curtis, the daughter of Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis, showed signs of intelligence even in her days as the scream queen of Halloween, The Fog, et terrifying al.

Coming off her impressive comedy turn in Trading Places and her moving lead performance in the steamy Love Letters, she’s hooked into another good role. Actually, the role itself is not too original—the tough-but-tender gal who imparts wisdom to a younger man. But Curtis’s direct, humorous style makes this character something special.

The younger boy is C. Thomas Howell, a well-to-do kid from the right side of the tracks, just graduated from high school and the next Jacques Cousteau—that is, if he can get away from the small Midwestern town of Grandview and hit the coast. Howell develops a crush on Curtis. Plot conflict, aside from their 10-year age difference: His father wants to wrest the demolition derby arena away from Curtis and build a swanky country club in its place.

Then there’s the demolition driver (Patrick Swayze, from Uncommon Valor) who works off his frustrations about his philandering wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) by cracking up cars. He digs Curtis, too. Swayze, beefier than in his previous films, is convincing and funny as the perpetual loser.

From this, you can almost hear the clichés lining up to be answered. And line up the do: complications, coincidences, resolutions are all predictable.

The screenplay, by Ken Hixon, bears the formula scent of a debut script—and indeed it is. Probably a good director couldn’t have licked it completely, and Randal Kleiser, the man who brought us Grease, The Blue Lagoon, and Summer Lovers, is not a good director.

Kleiser’s adolescent sensibility permeated his first films, and it continues to dominate here. At one point, there’s a rock dream sequence that exists solely as a free advertisement for MTV. At least Kleiser tries to make a joke out of this. But this is definitely his best whack at a good movie, and he may get to be a grownup yet. Certainly the performances by Curtis and Swayze are nothing to be ashamed of.

Oh yes. Another casting inspiration: As the washing-machine repairman who wins Swayze’s wife, Kleiser cast none other than Troy Donahue, the aging heartthrob of the late ’50s-early ’60s. Donahue, draped with gold chains and clad in polyester, is pretty funny. Too bad he doesn’t get more to do.

And too bad the movie doesn’t make the grade. It’s still a fairly painless 90-minute diversion, made interesting by the devotion of its actors.

First published in the Herald, August 2, 1984

Yes, I seem to have liked Jamie Lee Curtis in this one. Is it still Kleiser’s best film? The discussion rages!


July 6, 2011

The collaborators who brought us Urban Cowboy in 1980 have gotten together again. This time, the popular-culture trend they’ve harpooned is the mania for physical fitness—but more precisely, the mania for health clubs, and the ways these clubs have become the singles bars of the 1980s.

Director James Bridges, star John Travolta, and writer Aaron Latham (who based his script on his Rolling Stone story “Looking for Mr. Goodbody”) have whipped up Perfect, a morality fable in which Travolta, as a Rolling Stone reporter, learns certain lessons about journalistic accountability.

He journeys to Los Angeles to get the scoop on a health club, where he meets a publicity-shy aerobics instructor (Jamie Lee Curtis) with whom he falls quickly into bed. She’s been burned by an insensitive news story before, so she doesn’t have much trust in him. The film is about the ways in which a trust is worked out between them.

In the process, Perfect trots out the usual wisdoms about what a reporter is willing to do to get a story, what the reporter’s responsibilities are to the people he’s interviewed, etc. These themes are so stale—and Bridges and Latham’s treatment of them so unimaginative—that the prominence they’re given is embarrassing.

Since journalistic morality is the main theme of the movie, the health-club angle turns out to be more of a backdrop than the main focus. It’s milked for all it’s worth, though, as there are many scenes of sweaty bodies aerobicizing.

But it does provide a somewhat disturbing context: At one point Curtis, incensed at Travolta’s article, which suggests that there may be something pathetic in the way people are searching for physical perfection, shouts at him, “What’s the matter with trying to be perfect?” He’s got no comeback, and the film mutely endorses what she’s said.

Thus the film starts to steer clear of an ironical view of the health clubs, instead suggesting they may be the last bastion of self-improvement. There may be some truth in that, but surely there are people for whom the perfecting of the body is a sad and hollow exercise. Perfect prefers to ignore that; even the unhappy woman played by Laraine Newman, who seeks to physically rebuild herself from top to bottom, apparently has the film’s blessing.

The slings and arrows are saved for the journalists, including the Rolling Stone publisher (played, oddly enough, by Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner) and photographer (Anne DeSalvo). Aside from its loaded-deck brand of social concern, Perfect is a slick entertainment. Travolta is okay after the humiliations of Staying Alive and Two of a Kind, and Curtis displays her usual brand of gravity and directness.

But the film is too long and the pace is droopy. Perfect is not going to set the Flashdance crowd on fire, even if it does have an awesomely high leotard quotient.

First published in the Herald, June 8, 1985

I am haunted by the fact that IMDb lists a 128-minute version of this film for Canadian release, 13 minutes longer than the official release. (Perhaps it was a response to the demand created by Canada’s own aerobics opus, Heavenly Bodies.) The endless workout scenes in this movie were the source of much hilarity at the time, especially in conjunction with the movie’s overall seriousness of purpose. I seem to recall that Rolling Stone published Travolta’s production diary, which had some very peculiar reflections on making the film and his proximity to Jamie Lee Curtis. James Bridges completed only one more feature, the non-starting adaptation of Bright Lights, Big City; his movies are sincere.

Road Games/Dead and Buried/Hell Night

November 28, 2010

Horror-film fans, weary of the numbing dreck that quick-buck artists have cranked out in recent years, may be in for a modest surprise when they see Road Games. This intelligent thriller, shot in Australia, relies almost entirely on suggested rather than explicit violence.

A lonely truck driver (Stacy Keach) is carting a load of slaughtered pork across the Australian desert. He recites poetry, plays the mandolin, and shares bad puns with his pet dingo, Boswell. Gradually he begins to suspect that a fellow highway traveler is the perpetrator of a series of brutal hitchhiker murders.

Keach picks up a hitchhiker (Jamie Lee Curtis) out of protectiveness and personal curiosity, and they proceed to carry on a duel of wits and wheels with the presumptive killer.

An intriguing element in these road games is that we’re clued in early that Keach is exhausted, and as the suspect becomes increasingly devious, we begin to wonder (along with Keach) whether Keach is losing his sanity. Director Richard Franklin (of the award-winning Australian horror film Patrick) underscores this by having Keach’s usually cheery soliloquies answered in voice-over by his own fevered words.

The movie takes on the quality of a dream, with peripheral characters reappearing in the unlikeliest circumstances. There’s one scene that is like a classic frustration dream: The killer abducts a victim and drives off while Keach watches helplessly a few hundred feet away, where he’s been forced to stop his truck. Another good suspense scene involves—no kidding—a walk down rows of hanging pork in the back of a refrigerated truck.

The case doesn’t need overstating; Road Games is no masterpiece. But don’t let the lurid ad campaign fool you—it’s a cut above today’s average horror fare.

Dead and Buried is pretty much today’s average horror fare, but it benefits from a wild central plot that sets it apart from a basic adolescent-slasher flick: Horrible murders are performed (and recorded on film) so that a madman may artfully reconstruct the disfigured dead and build his own army of zombies. All this fun takes plays in a sleepy resort town, Potter’s Bluff, where the town motto is “A New Way of Life.”

It’s become obvious that a subgenre of horror films mainly exists as an excuse to invent spectacularly grotesque makeup effects, like those in Maniac and Friday the 13th. Dead and Buried is explicitly about the process of makeup—making the dead look alive—so it’s very frank about lingering over some of the more grisly moments. The quality of the makeup ranges from gross-but-pretty-good to plain lousy.

The film also gives clench-jawed James Farentino the chance to let loose a couple of healthy screams, and the presence of the late Jack Albertson lends an eerie tone to speeches about the living dead.

The title Hell Night unwittingly, but conveniently, describes sitting through this grade-Z shocker. It’s the tale of an initiation ceremony that requires four fraternity/sorority pledges to spend the night in an abandoned spooky mansion. Seems that some years before, the family crazies that lived in the house had been massacred by one of their own, and legend has it the surviving lunatic may still be lurking around the place.

Of course he’s still lurking around the place, and soon the kids are dropping like flies, which corresponds to the level of humanity they’re treated with by the filmmakers. One of the boys (whom we have been led to believe is smart) suddenly decides he should go after the hulking maniac in the dark cellar with a pitchfork. It’s the beginning of about five minutes of the dullest would-be suspense in cinema history.

Poor Linda Blair is still being preyed upon, though rather than being possessed, as she was in The Exorcist, she seems bored for the duration of Hell Night. There is no reason whatsoever to blame her for this.

First published in the Seattle Times, May 18, 1982.

This was my first review for the Seattle Times, which means I’ll never forget my excitement at buying some copies on the day it came out. Won’t forget the disappointment, either: an editor had done what some editors do, which is tinker just enough with word choice and rhythm to muck up my stuff. I recall only one specific change, which was my word “dreck” being replaced by “junk” in the first sentence. So I restore the original here: nyah-nyah. (You don’t forget these kinds of things, folks.) I did a few reviews when Times reviewer John Hartl would go on vacation, and then I started writing reviews at the Herald, a Washington Post-owned daily in Everett, Washington. I did a summer on the TV desk at the Times, too, after which they contracted amnesia about me. As for the movies, Road Games is the real deal, Dead and Buried seems to have an appreciative following today, and Hell Night is still to be avoided.