The Manhattan Project

February 14, 2020

manhattanprojectMarshall Brickman collaborated on the witty screenplays of Woody Allen’s best  1970s  films: Sleeper, Manhattan, and Annie Hall. The latter won Brickman an Oscar.

Since parting company with Allen, Brickman has been trying to get his own directorial career off the ground. He made two small, neurotic movies, Simon and Lovesick, both fitfully interesting, both commercially unsuccessful.

Brickman seems to have wised up a bit, at least in terms of that ever­ present bottom line. With The Manhattan Project, he’s harnessed his customarily amusing dialogue to a plot that fits neatly in the teen-science genre that gained currency – lots of cold, hard currency – with WarGames.

You know how, every few years, some teenager somewhere proudly announces that he’s unlocked the secrets of the atom, and by the way has a Tinker Toy A-bomb sitting in the basement of his parents’ house? That’s Brickman’s jumping-off point here.

Brickman’s protagonist (appealingly played by Christopher Collet) also has an edge of Oedipal fervor in making his homemade bomb. See, his single mother (Jill Eikenberry) is being courted by a new scientist (John Lithgow) in town. The scientist is working on a hot new substance that could make the H-bomb look like a Molotov cocktail – but nobody knows that, yet.

Anyway, Lithgow takes Collet on a tour of the bomb factory, without revealing the true nature of the experiments. Collet, a science whiz, sniffs out the truth, and decides he’ll bring a little attention to the hush-hush proceedings by pilfering some of Lithgow’s mysterious new liquid, which looks like Dippity-Do with iron shavings, and building his own bomb.

With the help of his girlfriend (Cynthia Nixon), Collet gets the stuff, builds the bomb, and carts it to a New York science fair, but just then Lithgow gets wind of it, and the FBI and most of the armed forces are called in to collar Collet at any cost.

This plot feels vaguely recycled, and Brickman has some trouble justifying the motivations of his characters. Most of the time, they’re acting in a manner that suits the plot, rather than anything resembling human behavior. This sometimes makes the characters seem dumb. When Collet is being chased by everybody, you wonder why he doesn’t just blow the whistle on the whole shebang by calling up the New York Times.

But Brickman makes up for a lot of this with his frequently hilarious dialogue (and the skill of his actors in delivering it). There’s a good laugh in almost every scene.

And he ends the film with a fine suspense sequence, as Collet brings his live bomb into the lab, and he and Lithgow must disarm it. Once again, a bunch of things about this sequence don’t make logical sense, but it’s easy to be caught up in the breathlessness of fighting the clock. It also gives Lithgow a chance to show off a little.­ Brickman loads the scene with nervous-funny lines, which Lithgow does just splendidly.

While The Manhattan Project doesn’t seem like an entirely personal project for Brickman, it’s certainly an entertaining summer movie (and it gives him the opportunity to slip in some pointed observations on the subject of nuclear research and production). It should do well, which ought to free Brickman to do the sorts of films that are perhaps closer to his bone.

First published in the Herald, June 1986

Yes, well, except for a 2001 TV movie, this was the end of Brickman’s feature-film directing career, so my clairvoyant skills are nil here. Whole lotta plot synopsis in this review, too. I have no idea whether teens still make atom bombs in their basements, but apparently I thought so at the time.


Harry and the Hendersons

January 11, 2013

harryandthehendersonsFor some reason a full-scale treatment of the legend of Bigfoot has eluded Hollywood, except for quickie horror films and sleazy “In Search Of” pseudo-documentaries. Harry and the Hendersons sets this right; it’s a grade-A production, set in the Northwest, all about one family’s close encounter with the big hairy beast.

I invoke Close Encounters purposely. Harry was produced by Steven Spielberg’s production company, and like his Close Encounters, it describes a supernatural meeting in which the alien presence is benign and friendly.

The Hendersons run into their hirsute friend quite literally—the family station wagon sideswipes a moving mound of fur during an outing in the Cascades. Dad (John Lithgow), a sportsman who runs a Seattle sporting goods store, packs the carcass home, envisioning fame and fortune and the Carson show thanks to the discovery. Mom (Melinda Dillon, also the mother in Close Encounters) and the kids (Margaret Langrick, Joshua Rudoy) just want the smelly beast put in isolation.

Upon returning, they find the sasquatch feeling quite frisky, which results in a very funny sequence of Harry (as the creature is dubbed) making himself at home: raiding the fridge, readjusting the ceilings, solemnly burying Lithgow’s mounted deer heads in the backyard.

Lithgow gets the help of a crusty Bigfootologist (Don Ameche), but also the attention of a crazed hunter (David Suchet) who wants to blow the sasquatch away. After an extended—perhaps overextended—chase sequence, Lithgow must secure the beast’s safety.

The first third and last third of the film are charming and sweet. The middle meanders rather shapelessly, as though unsure of just how to spring the various plot mechanics into motion. Except for this sag, Harry is full of wonderfully cartoonlike sight gags, and a sly sardonic wit that helps defuse some of the overly saccharine moments.

The big triumph is Harry himself, a terrific creation by make-up man Rick Baker (An American Werewolf in London) and a 7-foot-2-inch actor named Kevin Peter Hall, who is inside the fur. Both men do outstanding work, and Harry is never less than endearing.

Director/co-writer William Dear (whose previous feature credit was Timerider) and producer Richard Vane were in town recently to promote the film, almost exactly a year after they filmed much of it here (in Seattle, Index, North Bend, and other sasquatch hangouts).

Dear originally hooked up with Spielberg to make a very funny episode of Spielberg’s TV series, “Amazing Stories,” called “Mummy Daddy.” A few days after delivering it, the phone rang; it was Spielberg, asking whether Dear had any ideas for a feature film.

Dear had been nursing the Bigfoot idea for a long time, and he jumped at the chance to do it with Spielberg. “Steven really challenged us to challenge ourselves,” says Dear. “He’s say, ‘Is this just a good gag, or also a good part of the story?'” Once filming started, however, Spielberg left the crew to their own devices. “He never even saw the dailies,” marvels Vane, referring to the in-progress film.

Perhaps the toughest production challenge was casting Harry. Dear always had Rick Baker pegged as the designer, but….”It was very, very important to find the right actor,” says Dear. “A mechanism, like E.T., wouldn’t have worked.” Says Vane, “We interviewed a lot of big people. But they weren’t actors. They were just big.”

Dear likes the basic normalcy of the set-up in Harry. “This is a real-life situation that has a bump in it,” he says. He still seems knocked out that his long-cherished project has actually been realized. “The phone call from Spielberg sounds very easy and very quick, but that’s after 25 years of being a filmmaker. I refer to it as my own ‘Amazing Story.’ It’s been a long time coming.”

First published in the Herald, June 4, 1987

It’s one of the many Seattle-themed titles included in “Celluloid Seattle: A City at the Movies,” now on exhibit at the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle. And while I haven’t actually watched this movie since it came out, apparently I liked it well enough at the time. Big man Kevin Peter Hall, who also played the title role in the two Predator pictures, died at age 35 in 1991.


2010

June 6, 2012

Every now and then you hear rumors that some bonehead movie producer plans to make a sequel to Gone with the Wind or The Wizard of Oz, and you think to yourself, “How on earth could anyone get such a stupid idea?” Well, somebody got the idea to make a sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even worse, they actually followed through on this stupid idea.

The result, 2010, is a ridiculous addendum to one of the great visionary works of the cinema. It takes up pretty much where 2001 left off, with stills from the first film to remind us of what happened to the first Jupiter mission, which was examining a large, inexplicable black monolith. (This introduction doesn’t make mention of any huge Star Child floating around.)

2010 has Russian and American astronauts cooperating to find out what went wrong with that mission by traveling to Jupiter and boarding the abandoned spaceship. The recognizable crew members for the new flight are Roy Scheider, John Lithgow, Helen Mirren, and Bob Balaban (the translator in Close Encounters).

Oh yes, there are a couple of members of the old crew still around. Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea), who underwent the series of inscrutable episodes at the end of 2001, still exists in some form near that monolith. And HAL 9000, the computer that flipped out so memorably before being dismantled, is resurrected.

The voice of HAL is Douglas Rain, the same actor who gave such unforgettable life to the computer in the 1968 film. Almost the only truly eerie moments in 2010 belong to HAL, because Rain’s voice is in subtly sinister character.

The rest of the film is hooey, with the imminent nuclear war on earth an obvious set-up for the unsurprising, upbeat ending. Writer-director-producer-cinematographer Peter Hyams (he did Capricorn One and Outland) throws in a couple of suspense pieces early on (a dull orbit entry and Lithgow’s shaky spacewalk) to distract us from the main objective, which is finding out what in tarnation that big black thing is.

Hyams gets the look of the film okay, but for all the technical progress of the last few years, it still doesn’t equal 2001. And he certainly can’t equal the earlier film’s stylistic breakthroughs; all he does is overlay his own optimistic view on things.

Stanley Kubrick would probably be disgusted by that. It was Kubrick’s chilly genius behind 2001, of course, and he is nowhere to be seen in this film—except as briefly glimpsed on the cover of Time magazine. Arthur C. Clarke, whose story “The Sentinel” inspired 2001, also wrote the sequel as a novel, and apparently had input on Hyams’ screenplay.

In a way, I’m almost relieved 2010 turned out to be as negligible as it is. Sometimes an ambitious or outrageous sequel can, in weird ways, tarnish the memory of an unimpeachable original. There’s going to be no problem about that with 2010. We can all just forget it.

First published in the Herald, December 7, 1984

Mostly I just remember being annoyed by the effrontery of the movie—the nerve of these people. Along with Rain’s vocal performance hitting the expected moments, there was a shiver conjured up by Keir Dullea’s presence, in part because he looked freakily like the guy from 2001—Dullea hadn’t aged much, and he didn’t have that many subsequent movie reference points to alter the image of Dave Bowman.


Footloose

October 10, 2011

Bacon, Singer, Footloose

Footloose is something of a throwback to those 1950s movies in which the conservative town elders would try to stamp out that satanic menace called rock and roll, a newfangled music that was turning their kids into a tribe of fornicators. These quickie movies were usually an excuse to string a bunch of musical numbers together and sell it as a film. At the end there was always somebody who would turn to the camera and say, “You can’t kill rock and roll!”

They were right. The beat goes on, but now we have pictures that are specially designed to go with the music. In case you’ve been comatose for the last year, it’s all because of MTV, the cable network that shows nothing but non-stop rock epics. It’s the new narrative form: three minutes long, just long enough so that no attention spans are unduly taxed.

Footloose weds the plot about the preacher who wants to crush rock music in a small Utah town with the splashy visuals of an MTV video. And, borrowing a leaf from Flashdance (although I found Footloose more enjoyable, in its own mindless way), there’s a lot of jazzy dancing and superficial characterizations.

A kid from the big city (Kevin Bacon) finds himself in Utah when his mother moves in with relatives there. He’d like to fit in, but things just keep tripping him up. When he gets interested in a girl (Lori Singer), it turns out she’s the daughter of the fire-and-brimstone preacher (John Lithgow) who instituted the laws against sinful music. Great.

Then when Bacon steals the girl away from her boyfriend—a creep who drives a pickup truck with moose horns welded on the hood—he invites even more trouble. There’s nothing for a guy to do but, you know, dance, and that’s what Bacon does. Soon it’s his mission to convince the city council to lift the ban on dancing so the kids can have a senior prom.

It goes on like this, and there’s lots of music. Director Herbert Ross, who took over this project after (of all people) The Deer Hunter‘s Michael Cimino dropped out, tries to give the proceedings some emotional subtext.

Ross is a hack Hollywood director, even though he’s got some well-regarded credits to his name (The Turning Point; Play it Again, Sam), and when he tries to supply subtext, it usually means somebody talks in hushed terms about a lost father, or some other vaguely Freudian explanations. These sequences in Footloose were treated with impatience by the preview-night audience, who wanted to get to the good stuff. In general, the movie did not let them down.

The preview night, incidentally, was marked by a weird extravaganza that preceded the movie in which various local high-school cheerleading teams did routines in front of the curtain at the Town theater. A panel of “judges” rated the squads against each other. (Mercer Island High School won.) After a half an hour of this, the movie began to seem superfluous. And perhaps it was, after all; although you wouldn’t know it from the crowd, which reacted to the entire evening as though it were a pep rally.

First published in the Herald, February 18, 1984

I don’t have to tell you that this is the week the remake of Footloose comes out, thus the re-visit with this review. The movie caught on, in case you hadn’t heard, and it does indeed resemble a model of storytelling next to Flashdance. Seattle’s Town theater no longer exists, by the way, having long since been replaced by a downtown office tower.