Spies Like Us

May 16, 2012

Within a few weeks, someone is going to write a lengthy thinkpiece on the national anxiety about American-Soviet relations, and how this anxiety has manifested itself in the current crop of Christmas movies.

Don’t worry, it’s not going to be me. But the evidence is there. Rocky IV depicts our indestructible national hero going toe-to-toe with a Russkie fighter, with director-writer-star Sylvester Stallone throwing in a humanistic message at the end. And White Nights presents a blatant portrait of the Evil Empire as a Russian defector is held against his will.

Now, here’s Spies Like Us, which takes an admittedly pixillated view of the U.S.-Soviet standoff. In its own way, it actually goes further than the other films, because it dares to portray a nuclear war—not to mention the failure of a “Star Wars” defense system.

But let’s not take Spies Like Us too seriously. It’s a farce from the “Saturday Night Live” alumni association, teaming Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd with director John Landis, who has often worked with members of the gang (Animal House, The Blues Brothers, Trading Places).

Chase and Aykroyd are inept low-level employees of a certain American intelligence organization. They’d like to be field agents, but they haven’t got a chance of making the grade. Unless….

Unless the organization needs a diversionary squad, a pair of decoys to distract attention from their real agents—”A couple of men you wouldn’t mind wasting,” as one executive puts it. It’s a situation tailor-made for our boys.

So the guys are put through a quick training session and shipped off to the friendly climes of Pakistan, where their arrival is met by a couple of KGB agents. Shrugging off this obstacle, they’re captured by Afghanistan soldiers, who mistake them for doctors and ask them to perform an emergency appendectomy on the son of the head honcho.

It goes on like that, eventually leading Chase and Aykroyd to the Soviet Union and a huge nuclear warhead that could, as Aykroyd puts it, “Suck the paint off your house and give your family a permanent orange Afro.” At this point, Landis and company somehow contrive to have the fate of the world resting on the shoulders of these two comedians.

That’s no small task, and Landis has pulled it off passably well—the film moves at a healthy clip, and seems to contain more one-liners than the standard “SNL” outing. Chase has plenty of opportunities to show off his verbal dexterity, and he gets the majority of the funny lines. He also gets love scenes with Donna Dixon, who in real life is married to Aykroyd. For his part, Aykroyd is more natural on screen than he’s been heretofore.

They’re the show, but Landis has crammed funny bits throughout. Entry into an underground nuclear war room, reached through a drive-in movie, is obtainable only by reaching for a Pepsi, with startling results.

An old Ronald Reagan musical gets a pointed barb. Cameo parts are taken by B.B. King, directors Michael Apted and Costa Gavras, and Terry Gilliam of Monty Python. A desert argument between Chase and Aykroyd is interrupted by Bob Hope, getting in his usual 18 holes before the apocalypse begins.

Hope’s presence is not accidental. Spies Like Us would love to be compared to the Hope-Bing Crosby Road movies. It’s not in their loopy league, but as holiday offerings go, it’s an acceptable try.

First published in the Herald, December 1985

Funny what you learn by reading these reviews—I thought I hated this movie, but apparently it had some moments. Clearly, it should have been remade in about 2004 or so, but that prime moment has passed.

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Three Amigos

May 14, 2012

Three Amigos is the latest “Saturday Night Live” reunion masquerading as a movie, and like many such projects, it is all package, no inspiration. It’s so bad it produces two reactions: It makes you uncomfortable, and it makes you sorry for the people on screen, who sometimes literally have nothing to do.

The amigos of the title are a trio of dense movie actors who have gained some slight popularity in a series of programs during the 1920s. Known as “The Three Amigos,” they dress in sequined suits and ersatz Mexican hats and ride in to save villages in the last reel.

One of their movies is spotted in a small Mexican village by peasants who just happen to need immediate help, because a marauding bandit is terrorizing the village, as marauding bandits are wont to do. So, the peasants send to the Three Amigos, thinking they are real lawmen.

Shades of The Magnificent Seven, except that this boils down to The Insipid Three. The Amigos takes the challenge—the invitation has been garbled in transmission, and they think they’re on their way to a lucrative gig.

The Amigos are played by Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, and Martin Short (the latter a brilliant sketch actor, from “SCTV” and “Saturday Night Live,” whose first film this is).

Their casting would indicate that the film is meant to be funny, but most scenes vaporize before they’re over. The script, by Martin, “Saturday Night Live” producer Lorne Michaels, and musician Randy Newman, is so lean on funny ideas that the actors are going purely on their own invention. And there is precious little of that on view.

John Landis directed; he’s participated in such things before, all the way back to the Belushi days of Animal House through last year’s Spies Like Us. Landis appears to be utterly indifferent to the proceedings—almost contemptuous, actually—and he allows scene after scene to fall flat. The occasional songs (by Newman) go nowhere, and Short and Martin singing a fey tune called “My Little Buttercup” in a cantina full of roughnecks is the kind of routine that makes you start looking for the man with the hook.

There is only one scene that is original: the Amigos camped at eventide in the desert, feasting on some barbecued bats while huddled under an obviously painted sky, next to plastic cacti. They seize the moment to croon a Western song, and the animals of the desert join in. This scene is not so much funny as it is weird, but at least it doesn’t dissolve before your eyes.

The only redeeming aspect of the film is the presence of a lovely actress named Patrice Martinez, who plays the Mexican peasant girl with a sly and knowing air. When the bewitched Martin bids her adieu, he whispers, “I’ll come back some day,” and she looks at him evenly and says, “Why?” As a sendoff, I can’t improve on that.

First published in the Herald, December 1986

Over the years I have noticed that this movie has fans, maybe even lots of them. I don’t get it. Despite the presence of funny people (and Martin Short was coming off some glorious TV stuff at that moment), I found the movie absolutely stupefying. And it’s hard to enjoy even the dumb jokes when you’re irritated with a movie wasting some very good people.


Coming to America

April 5, 2012

In his new movie, Coming to America, Eddie Murphy plays an African prince whose marriage is to be arranged by his parents. The king and queen, played regally by James Earl Jones and Madge Sinclair, have chosen a beautiful girl who has been raised to serve the prince and obey him unquestioningly. But wait. Our hero halts the proceedings. He wants a woman with an independent mind, a voice of her own. “Only a dog is to obey,” he says.

How could it be. Has Eddie Murphy’s consciousness been raised? The megapopular actor-comedian has been criticized of late (especially for his aptly titled concert movie, Eddie Murphy Raw) for demeaning and/or adolescent attitudes about women. But in Coming to America, Murphy wipes away some of the sourness of those criticisms with a sweet and likable movie.

The concept here is a reliable one. A privileged man, in this case Murphy’s Prince Akeem of the mythical kingdom of Zamunda, resists the idea of an arranged marriage and pretends to be a commoner in order to find a wife. This premise is so familiar that we all know what will happen—he’ll romance the woman, she’ll find out he isn’t what he seems to be, they’ll reconcile by the end.

Prince Akeem and his sidekick (Arsenio Hall) travel to the likeliest place to find the bride of a future king: Queens. New York, that is, where they spot the daughter (Shari Headley) of a fast-food maven (John Amos). She’s a dream, says Akeem, and the two Zamundians land jobs cooking French fries just to be near her.

The set-up, which includes an opening sequence in a lavish studio version of an African palace, contains some workable comic situations, although this movie is decidedly low-key. Murphy and director John Landis (they previously teamed on Trading Places) avoid the boffo laughs of a Beverly Hills Cop in favor of a more gently amusing tone. (One of the funniest moments here is a Trading Places in-joke involving that film’s Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche.)

In some ways this is nice, and in some ways it means Coming to America isn’t as funny as Eddie’s usual. But the most agreeable result of this approach is that this film becomes Murphy’s first real romantic comedy, with smooches and sweet talk and slow dancing to a jukebox. It’s a role Murphy handles suavely, and he’s quite appealing as an innocent, a change from his hipster guise.

The film also provides the opportunity for Murphy and Hall to essay kooky character roles, under heavy makeup. Some of Murphy’s funniest moments come when he’s romping through these alternate incarnations: a loquacious barber, an ancient Jewish character, and a supremely over-the-hill singer who mangles a Whitney Houston song as he lunges about the stage in a powder-blue tuxedo, fronting his band, the Sexual Chocolate.

First published in the Herald, June 1988

It wasn’t the “earlier, funnier” Eddie Murphy, but it did mark a pleasant enough way to spend a summer evening at the multiplex in ’88. Landis and Murphy had a falling-out after the picture, although they later did Beverly Hills Cop 3, which didn’t work out for either man.


Amazon Women on the Moon

November 17, 2011

In some ways, Amazon Women on the Moon is a return to roots for John Landis. Landis, who directed such blockbusters as Animal House and The Blues Brothers, got his entrée into mainstream filmmaking with the mid-1970s success of Kentucky Fried Movie, a zingy low-budget collection of sketches and parodies.

Amazon Women is in much the same vein, and Landis serves as the film’s executive producer; he also directed some sequences, along with Joe Dante (Gremlins), Carl Gottlieb, Peter Horton, and Robert K. Weiss.

As is inevitable with such omnibus films, some things score, others flop. I think Amazon Women has too many misses, but certain gags could attain cult status.

Except for a bit in which a man (Lou Jacobi) gets zapped into his TV set and wanders through various reruns and movies, the opening sketches are weak. But around the time we begin a parody of ’50s sci-fi movies, the collection perks up.

This bad movie-within-the-movie, which is constantly interrupted by commercial spoofs (B.B. King pleads for donations for a charity called “Black Without Soul”), is an inspired parody, all about space travelers who encounter a race of extremely tall women on the moon (see, the title does make sense). The sets are cardboard, the special effects tacky. And the actors are vintage: stalwart Steve Forrest, formidable Sybil Danning, and Robert Colbert, who used to be one of the time-trippers on the TV show “The Time Tunnel.”

A “Believe It Or Not” rip-ff suggests, through dramatic re-enactment, that Jack the Ripper was in fact Nessie, the Loch Ness monster. There’s a comedy roast (featuring Steve Allen, Slappy White, and Rip Taylor) for a dead man, at his funeral. And a man watching television is shocked when two TV movie reviewers suddenly turn thumbs-down on his own life, decrying it for its lack of originality and dullness (the man’s wife assures him that “They didn’t like Gandhi, either”).

This is the sort of movie best viewed under specialized circumstances—namely, with a group of like-minded friends, fueled by some small measure of liquid refreshment. It’s sophomoric, but that doesn’t preclude the possibility of a certain amount of shameless fun.

First published in the Herald, September 22, 1987

That last paragraph is how I remember seeing Kentucky Fried Movie, a film that was required viewing for a certain demographic of nerdy teenage boys. Amazon Women must have been hit and miss, as indicated, but the sci-fi movie was dead-on.


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.


An American Werewolf in London

February 23, 2011

David Naughton, Griffin Dunne, parkas: AWIL

An American Werewolf in London is a super title; it suggests an arch, off-the-wall approach to a certain film genre, but also manages to affectionately evoke older, much-beloved horror movies, like Werewolf of London. It also provides enough information for an audience to be fairly sure of what they’ll see (Although writer-director John Landis has reported this his favorite interview question he’s been getting asked is, “An American Werewolf in London…now, what’s that about?”).

Funny thing is, once our American friend (head Pepper David Naughton) gets out on the streets of London (the lucky dog is accompanied by Jenny Agutter), the inventiveness and spirit that Landis has displayed in the first part of the movie starts dribbling away. Almost as though the title, finally, was enough; as though inspiration has been exhausted by the mere act of luring an audience into a theater (Mel Brooks’ History of the World, Part 1, and Escape from New York are a couple of examples of this kind of thing: a wonderful premise for a movie—and audiences did come—gives way to the film itself turning out to be a lackluster disappointment).

Still, before Landis gets his werewolf to London, there is a good deal of fun to be had: two vacationing American boys disengage themselves from the back of a truck carrying sheep (“We’re gonna miss you guys”) and set off across the lonely moors of Northern England, with their backpacks and brightly colored down parkas distinguishing them as aliens in this world (a very striking, right touch). They don’t exactly seem like innocents abroad, however; in fact, they’re both likably wiseass. This is clearly a modern monster movie, not attempting to recapture the feel of old Universal horror films; still, Landis wants it to be scary as well as hip, and manages that up through Naughton’s stay in a London hospital (I won’t say what happened out there on the moors) where he has a really terrifying nightmare. In fact, this sequence—Naughton dreams his family is attacked by creatures from –well, from his own imagination—hints at ambitions in the film that are never quite confronted head on; could be Landis doesn’t want to risk bumming out his mostly teen audience, or maybe he’s just not ready to confront such issues within himself.

At any rate, most of the stuff that follows is pretty tame, and the finale is particularly disappointing. The ending is vaguely reminiscent of Altered States; though at that ending, Ken Russell had the delirious courage to back up Chayefsky’s contention that Love is the civilizing and conquering factor over darkness. Landis doesn’t seem to know quite what to do with a similar situation, and the movie just sort of stops. Or should we take this ending—the werewolf cannot answer a woman’s cry of love—as an autobiographical confession on Landis’s part? The filmmaker as werewolf, compulsively howling and shocking, needing to grab our attention but unable to articulate his feelings? Okay, I’ll let it go, even though the werewolf in Werewolf literally does rampage and suck the blood from a Piccadilly movie audience. John Landis has provided some very enjoyable times in the last few years (Animal House and The Blues Brothers) and one hopes that he might reconcile his cleverness with the expression of that hint of ambition; although his next project, Dick Tracy, would not seem to encourage that prospect. Landis has shown enough so that we might expect more than just genre-tweaking revelations such as the fact that a silver bullet is actually not necessary to kill a werewolf.

First published in The Informer, September 1981

Head Pepper? David Naughton was indeed the star of a series of all-singing, all-dancing commercials for Dr. Pepper. It seemed sort of logical that he would get the lead off a movie after that, even if bigger stardom never happened. There’s a lot to be said for the film’s remarkable effects and that opening sequence with the guys in their down parkas, even if the mixed review seems sound. I always enjoy the armchair psychologizing of these reviews written by a 23-year-old – but hey, maybe Landis wasn’t ready to confront such issues within himself. He didn’t make Dick Tracy, at least.