The Journey of Natty Gann

December 19, 2012

journeyofnattyThe folks at Walt Disney Pictures have their fingers crossed: They’re banking on The Journey of Natty Gann to pull the studio out of a costly and humiliating slump.

The last Disney-produced feature to draw decent crowds was Splash; since then, it’s been a series of disasters: Baby… Secret of the Lost Legend, Return to Oz, The Black Cauldron. Those three were all expensive failures.

Natty Gann is a throwback to an old-fashioned adventure tale, featuring a youngster encountering danger, action, and friendship in the course of an extended escapade. It’s also a literal throwback—set in the past, in the depressed 1930s, against a backdrop of out-of-work drifters and disintegrating towns and cities.

A father-daughter team (Ray Wise and Meredith Salenger) are living a frugal life in Chicago when the father suddenly gets a job offer at a lumber mill near Seattle. He has to leave town immediately, and can’t find the daughter, Natty, so he leaves her in care of the landlady (Lainie Kazan) with a promise to send the girl along in a couple of weeks.

The landlady proves less than reliable, and when she makes plans to have the kid carted off to an orphanage, our heroine escapes her clutches by tying some old bedsheets and crawling out the window. Nice touch—what could be more reminiscent of a traditional adventure movie than the old bedsheets-out-the-window trick?

The girl starts hopping freights on her way west, and this accounts for most of the running time of the movie (as well it should); it’s all about the people and places she encounters on the road.

She gets caught in a train wreck, a reform school for orphans, and a cattle-rustling ring. Through it all she is accompanied by her trusty companion, a wolf she befriended (in this, the film gets perhaps a little too Disney).

If the outcome of this journey is never in doubt, it is nevertheless a pleasantly rendered quest. Jeremy Kagan’s direction is heavy on plush landscapes (shot in Canada), and the movie tends to be more pictorial than anything else.

Perhaps it tries to cover too much ground, because few of the experiences that Natty has linger in the mind. Even her most important encounter, with an experienced drifter (John Cusack), is too short on dramatic incident.

The time for that development might well have come out of the final 20 minutes, which are a drawn-out account of the girls’ discovery of her father once she hits Seattle. Jeanne Rosenberg’s screenplay comes close to shamelessness here, as the build-up to the reunion is milked for all it’s worth.

Fifteen-year-old Meredith Salenger, in her first movie role, gives Natty convincing life, and gives every evidence of being a tough little cookie. The film itself is a little softer than its heroine, but it doesn’t go mushy on you.

It ought to raise Disney’s respectability, but Natty Gann is not quite big enough and not quite good enough to break Disney out of its slump single-handed. An “A” for effort, but don’t look for it to be—if you’ll pardon the expression—a runaway hit.

First published in the Herald, October 9, 1985

Not too enthusiastic, although if this movie ever pops into my head, it usually generates a fond feeling. Probably because it has something to do with trains. Rosenberg scripted The Black Stallion not long before this. Jeremy Kagan is sometimes billed as Jeremy Paul Kagan, apparently at random. Unless there are two Kagans, like a whole Paul Thomas Anderson/Paul W.S. Anderson kind of thing.

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The Sure Thing

May 9, 2012

Don’t believe the ads. If you do, you’ll think The Sure Thing is just like every other teen comedy that ever raunched its way onto movie screens—but it’s in a league by itself. If anything, it’s a collegiate update of the classic screwball comedies of Hollywood yesteryear.

Like those comedies, the situation is absolutely basic: It’s grounded in the attraction of opposites. We’ve got a likable, sports-minded, non-intellectual guy (John Cusack), and a bright, organized, somewhat repressed girl (Daphne Zuniga), who are freshmen at a New England university.

Right off the bat, she has reason to dislike him after he makes a disastrous pass at her (his rehearsed opening line is, “Did you know that Nietzsche died of syphilis?”). Besides, she has a boyfriend in Los Angeles (they’re going to be lawyers) whom she plans to visit during Christmas break.

As it happens, Cusack has a friend in Los Angeles, too, one who has promised to set up a “sure thing”—a gorgeous and willing one-night stand—for Cusack when he visits during Christmas. Fate, of course, has other plans for our two protagonists. They wind up answering the same bulletin-board ad for a ride west, and are stuck with each other for the duration.

This journey is delightful. We know perfectly well these two are going to fall for each other, and the fun is in watching the process, with its many setbacks. Those begin with their chauffeurs, a horribly cheerful couple who like to sing show tunes while driving. Cusack and Zuniga last through Ohio or so with these two; then they start hitching.

The thing that lifts all this above the average road-trip movie is the beautiful feeling for being on the road—the many oddball trading posts and motels, the weird characters who turn up, the junk food consumed as a staple along the way. It’s all just as sweet-natured as can be.

Clearly, the credit for this goes to the director, Rob Reiner. Yes, that’s the same Rob Reiner who played Meathead on “All in the Family” for so many years. His only previous directorial outing was This Is Spinal Tap, that mad pseudodocumentary. As funny as that was, nothing in it prepares you for the unerringly light comic touch present here. This guy is going to be a good director.

There’s another TV name with a connection: actor Henry Winkler, who is listed as executive producer (but does not appear in the film). It was probably Winkler who had the good sense to hire Reiner—although it must have been something of a gamble.

It was presumably Reiner who chose the leads, and they’re winners. Cusack is a fresh-faced kid capable of wild comic invention, able to slip into different voices at will (he turns into a frothing maniac when trying to scare a famer who’s gotten too friendly with Zuniga). Zuniga has a great sidelong glance that communicates both her mistrust of Cusack’s aggressively wacko ways and a growing attraction to him.

In comparison, when Cusack’s sure thing (Nicolette Sheridan) shows up, she is gorgeous, tan, blond, and absolutely boring. By that time, we know where the heart of the film lies, and it’s not with the perfect fantasy figure—even if that’s what the ads lead you to think.

First published in the Herald, March 1985

Although what happened was, Reiner seemed to decline in originality and interest from about this point onward. This film, which I haven’t seen since the Eighties, may be the equivalent of comforting snack food on the road, but that’s still something. Cusack did all right for himself after this.


The Sure Thing/Into the Night

May 18, 2011

I happened to see The Sure Thing and Into the Night as an informal double bill one Friday night. But that’s not the only reason they stick together in my mind. Both have their roots in the lovely traditions of screwball comedy; both update the form with wit; and both are, as David Bowie puts it in Into the Night, “very nice, very impressive.”

The opening sequence of The Sure Thing gives us Rod Stewart’s obnoxious “Infatuation,” a perfectly gorgeous (and perfectly uninteresting) California beach nymph, and lots of sun, sand, and skin. It looks like every other teen comedy made in the last five years. But director Rob Reiner is having a joke on us: as we get to his credit, the music fades out, the camera tilts up from the nymph’s bod, and we’re looking at the heavens. We’ve suddenly traveled across the continent, where we will take up the story of Walter “Gib” Gibson (John Cusack), whose early college career—i.e., inability to get dates—we will follow.

This is amusing, but enchantment really sets in when Gib sets out for L.A. (where a high school buddy has arranged a “sure thing”—the nymph on the beach), having procured a ride for Christmas vacation off a bulletin board at school. Problems ensue—not from the squeaky-clean freak couple doing the driving, even if they like to sing show tunes. The problem is the other passenger, Alison (Daphne Zuniga), who has reason to loathe Gib. She’s traveling to L.A. to meet her boyfriend; they’re going to be lawyers, move to Vermont, and reconstruct an old farmhouse. Obviously, Gib and Alison are hopelessly mismatched and destined to fall in love.

That process makes for a nifty movie. Among other things, this cross-country trek feels like a journey, unlike many movies that try to capture an It Happened One Night feeling and somehow leave you with the impression that you haven’t traveled very far. There is something in the way Reiner chronicles the many road signs, billboards, motel rooms, that defines a rhythm of travel and movement. (Telling sign of Reiner’s sense of the importance of life’s simple but peculiar pleasures: Gib and Alison are stranded by the road outside Nowheresville, U.S.A., without food, money, or transportation. He extends a bag of junk food and speaks the gallant line, “Care for a fried pork rind?” Reiner knows.)

And Reiner has a healthy—if not fully developed—appreciation for the sort of zanies that should fill the supporting roles in a screwball adventure like this, so by the time Gib sidles into a cowboy joint to share a Christmas brewski with a wizened cowpoke and an enormous man who can’t understand his failure to pick up the waitress (his charming come-on line is something like, “You know I had fried food for lunch today?”), we accept it happily. But most of all, Reiner has gotten superb work from his two leads; they’re thoroughly winning, and you sense that a director has shaped and encouraged these performances. All of which proves something: that This Is Spinal Tap, which could have been perceived as a non-directed movie, given its eccentric and collaborative nature, was no fluke. Meathead is a budding auteur.

Into the Night attempts a similar kind of screwball enchantment, but with a more Hitchcockian flavor. Jeff Goldblum is an aerospace engineer who suffers from insomnia and cuckoldry. Thanks to John Landis and Michelle Pfeiffer, Goldblum gets his feet knocked out from under him and falls into an L.A.-by-night world of smugglers, movie people, millionaires, bloodthirsty Arabs, and finally, a Ramada Inn.

I had a hell of a good time watching all this sharp and funny stuff go tumbling by, although I felt slightly guilty afterwards. Did Landis earn all his laughs? Were the lapses in plot justified by the film’s rushing, cavalier attitude toward coherence—do we buy it all “on good faith,” as Goldblum says late in the film? Were the lurches in tone—there are some ugly deaths in the film—intended to be jarring, or is that just clumsiness on Landis’s part? Or is it just my problem?

That may well be. By the way, the real ongoing guessing game here has nothing to do with the plot—it’s trying to spot all the Hollywood cameos Landis has crowded into the movie (Landis himself plays a fairly sizable role as a gunman). It’s especially crammed with directors, some of whom—maybe especially David Cronenberg and Amy Heckerling—are delicious. But that takes nothing away from the stars. Pfeiffer has definitely got something that would make a normal guy want to follow her all night long, and Goldblum gives a very controlled, special performance. All through the night, he keeps up an unflappable exterior, as though he knew he were asleep and dreaming all this nonsense, and about to wake up in another minute. So, bemused, he decides to enjoy it while it’s going on.

First published in The Informer, March/April 1985

Not everybody was keen on Cusack at this moment, but in 1985 he was the guy I was casting in the youth movies I was making inside my head. Reiner was off on his unexpected run to the A-list of Hollywood directors, where he resided for a while; it seemed as though he’s cooled his engagement with movies, having found politics a more urgent source of interest. Landis’s career is even more of a puzzle, and he followed this interesting effort with Spies Like Us and Three Amigos, a couple of absolute stinkers.


Better Off Dead

April 7, 2011

Better Off Dead is possibly the oddest entry in the endless cycle of high school coming-of-age movies; it takes a cartoonish approach that travels somewhere between Airplane! and Mad magazine to score its comedic points.

And comedic points are the sole objective here; the film has no ambitions toward including a tender or thoughtful or even realistic side. It seeks goofiness to the extent of frequent surrealism, and this strategy has some amusing payoffs. The side effect, however, is almost complete lack of involvement with the characters, which means that the energetic gags eventually become meaningless and a little tiresome.

An introduction to the hero’s family might give an idea of the flavor of the film. Dad (David Ogden Stiers) does futile battle with the paper boy, a demonic figure who smashes the windows of the garage with his well-aimed newspaper tosses. Mom (Kim Darby), a cooking enthusiast, counts among her specialties a raisin-laden slime that develops a life of its own, as well as a delicacy consisting of octopus tentacles. Little brother builds laser devices and somehow entices sleazy women to pajama parties in his bedroom.

Within this family, the protagonist (John Cusack) is relatively normal—although he is a bit obsessed with his girlfriend (Amanda Wyss). Photographs of her cover his walls, and when she dumps him for the captain of the ski team, he toys with various methods of suicide as a means toward ending his suffering.

What he doesn’t know is that his salvation lies in the foreign exchange student (Diane Franklin) who just moved into the neighbors’ house next door. She has to endure her hosts, an insanely grotesque woman and her mountainous son, but she has her eye on Cusack.

The movie kills time until the happy ending by throwing all kinds of weird detail at you. Barney Rubble of The Flintstones turns to Cusack during a telecast and states speaking to him. An ill-fated job at a hamburger joint ends after Cusack fantasizes himself as a Dr. Frankenstein, giving life to little mounds of ground chuck. Christmas is marked by the traditional giving of the TV dinners and dressing up in aardvark outfits (“Everyone’s going to be wearing these,” explains the mother).

These things spring from the mind of Savage Steve Holland, who wrote and directed Better Off Dead. Many of his ideas, while bizarre, have a certain structure to them, and he does know how to exploit a running gag.

But the overall concept of the movie is so foolish, you can’t do much more than sit back and say, “Well, yes, that’s amusing,” without getting much drawn into the proceedings. Holland gives us no reason to care about any of this and I, for one, didn’t.

First published in the Herald, October 1985

And yet it has a huge cult following, thanks to the HBO. Cusack and Holland did another one a year later, One Crazy Summer, and then SSH went into television, where he has thrived. (When I find my review of One Crazy Summer I’ll get into my problem with naming characters after Steely Dan references—Hoops McCann, in that case.) The movie has spawned some catch-phrases, which I suppose counts for something, and it does have echt-Eighties sidekick Curtis Armstrong in it, which I neglected to mention in my review. But he’s in the photo above.


Eight Men Out

March 9, 2011

Certain true stories add up to more than just the random events of a particular place and time; they tattoo themselves onto the shared consciousness of an entire nation. Such a story is that of the notorious Chicago “Black Sox,” who threw the 1919 World Series.

If you were ever a child who loved baseball, chances are you heard this story. If you heard it, you never forgot it. The Chicago White Sox of 1919 were heavily favored to win the series, but they lost, and in the months after the series, it was revealed that eight Chicago players were involved in a payoff to dump some games. All eight were banned from baseball forever.

Director John Sayles (Return of the Secaucus Seven), who has been wanting to film this story for years, recognizes that there is much more in this tale than the tragedy of Eight Men Out (as the title of the movie has it, held over from Eliot Asinof’s book). The “Black Sox” scandal was a sharp disillusionment to the national character, a tear in the nationwide return to normalcy in the postwar years.

The affair is still haunting, and it contributed one of the most wistful moments in all Americana: the little boy who confronted the incomparable hitter “Shoeless Joe” Jackson and pleaded, “Say it ain’t so, Joe—say it ain’t so.”

That moment is retained in Sayles’ film of Eight Men Out, which lovingly re-creates its era. Sayles skillfully sketches the circumstances that led to the players’ sellout, including the hard cheapness of Chicago owner Charles Comiskey, and the ruthlessness of the gamblers who set up the fix. The players are drawn into the fix with an offhandedness that belies the deep scar their actions would leave.

It’s an ensemble piece, but Sayles gives special attention to three players: Jackson (D.B. Sweeney), the illiterate but gifted player who went along with the fix almost casually; Buck Weaver (John Cusack), who knew about the fix but did not participate in it, and was banished from baseball anyway; and Eddie Cicotte (David Strathairn), who saw the end of his career coming and agonizingly went along with the deal.

The many characters fly by, but Sayles keeps them distinct. Sayles himself plays Ring Lardner, and writer Studs Terkel plays a fellow journalist. Other ballplayers are played by Charlie Sheen, Michael Rooker, James Read, and Don Harvey. John Mahoney does his usual excellent work as the team’s bewildered manager. Some of the sleazier money men are played by Kevin Tighe (he was also a meanie in Sayles’ Matewan), Michael Lerner, and Richard Edson.

As opposed to the black-and-white world of greed and culpability in Matewan, Eight Men Out has no easy villains; everybody seems to have their reasons. The film is most poignant as a study of a few men who made a mistake, whose names were permanently blackened, and who wound up losing their livelihood and their joy.

First published in the Herald, September 1988

A fine job on a great American story, even if the film sometimes seems to have been made by a journalist dabbling in cinema. Aside from the tracing of national disillusionment, of course Sayles’ interest in the story had much to do with its portrait of the rift between ownership and labor, a tale that keeps re-telling itself (as it is right now in both the sports world—an NFL lockout looms—and an epic union-busting showdown in Wisconsin). When I said everybody had their reasons, it referred mostly to the players whose names were tarnished. The owners kept their jobs.


Hot Pursuit

February 15, 2011

A few years ago a film called Tron got a lot of attention because of its elaborate computer-generated sequences, which wove in and out of a live-action story. The computer-animated stuff was pretty interesting, but the live-action material was lame and predictable enough to make the movie a flop.

The director of Tron, Steven Lisberger, has now made another film (he worked in animation before Tron). Hot Pursuit lacks high-tech experiments; it’s all just flesh-and-blood characters. Unfortunately, this is still Lisberger’s weak point, which makes Hot Pursuit as tepid as Tron without the welcome distraction of wild computer work.

It’s not awful in conception: A college kid (John Cusack) struggles to catch up with his girlfriend (Wendy Gazelle)) and her family while they’re on a Caribbean trip (filmed around Ixtapa, Mexico). But he has a run of bad luck. He keeps getting shanghaied, thrown in jail, that sort of thing, and his struggles provide the situation comedy.

Lisberger knows enough to lay the structure out well enough, but nothing about the film comes alive. It’s supposed to be an adventure comedy, but the laughs fall in dead spots and the lurch into violent action near the end—something about hijackers or terrorists, I’m not really sure—is awkward.

And Lisberger locks the movie into a tired and silly groove by having Cusack hook up with an old salt (an apparently unembarrassed Robert Loggia) who takes Cusack out on his sloop in pursuit of the girlfriend. This modern-day buccaneer swigs whiskey, rubs his pirate stubble, opens a can of Spaghetti-Os with an axe, and says things like, “Some of us drink from the fountain of knowledge; other gargle.” If the movie is giving us those choices, I think I’ll spit.

First published in the Herald, May 13, 1987

Such an odd grouping coming together here: the Tron guy, Cusack right after Better Off Dead and One Crazy Summer (which made this movie seem like another in that chain), Ben Stiller in one of his first pictures (and dad Jerry), and of course Wendy Gazelle. You will find people who like it, because there are people who like everything.


Say Anything…

January 7, 2011

Cusack, Skye, awesomeness

Film observers are fond of despairing about the state of movies today by pointing out that most films are aimed at a teenage audience, because teens make up the heftiest percentage of the movie-going public. It follows that a lot of movies are also about teenagers.

Despite conventional wisdom, not all of these teen movies are bad. Witness, for example, Say Anything…, a mostly wonderful new movie that happens to be about teenagers and their problems. Say Anything… treats its milieu with freshness and spunk and an absolute refusal to condescend to its characters.

The central situation is familiar enough. It’s the last summer after high school, before kids go off to college. Normal guy Lloyd (John Cusack) finally summons up the courage to ask out Diane (Ione Skye), the school’s best scholar, a gorgeous gal but heretofore unapproachable. The differences in their backgrounds (she’s headed for England to study on a prestigious scholarship; he’s destined to schlump around and maybe pursue his dream of being a professional kick-boxer) suggest a traditional mixed romance.

But writer-director Cameron Crowe isn’t interested in merely connecting the dots. The relationship between these two is handled in unorthodox terms; virtually every scene has some delightful surprise in it. And equally important is the character of Diane’s father (John Mahoney), who has been the driving force behind his daughter’s academic success. (The suggestion that a parent might be something other than a nuisance is also an unorthodox touch in this genre.)

Eventually the movie reveals that the father has some serious problems of his own, and for a while it seems that Say Anything… is made up of two separate movies, co-existing somewhat uneasily. In retrospect this doesn’t seem too troublesome, especially given the fine performance by the superb character actor Mahoney (from Tin Men and Eight Men Out and Moonstruck).

This is Crowe’s first film as a director. He isn’t quite fluid as a filmmaker yet, but that hardly matters. He has caught some beautiful scenes, such as the talk between Diane and her father in which she explains frankly why she and Lloyd spent the night together (they agreed not to sleep together, she says, but “then I attacked him anyway”), and a terrific ending that reminded me of how few moviemakers know how to end things well and wittily.

Some moments I’ll remember a long time. After their first date, Diane impulsively hugs Lloyd (a lovely awkward moment) and goes into her house. She wonders whether he feels bad because she called him “basic,” then looks out the window. Lloyd is standing in the middle of the empty residential street, ceremonially taking bows. No, he’s not feeling bad.

First published in the Herald, April 20, 1989

It was great then, it’s still great now. The casual-yet-expressive use of Seattle locations is more effective than the more picturesque and site-specific Singles. One thing I have never known, but could probably answer by making with the Google, is why the title has an ellipsis. Imagine how many problems this has caused over the years.

I wrote something else about the movie here.