The Night Before

December 11, 2012

nightbefore2_5“I was supposed to have her home by midnight. Instead, I sold her to a pimp.” Such is the existential lament of the high-school hero of The Night Before, a nerd who’s lost his date on prom night.

The only reason the popular cheerleader (Lori Laughlin) is going out with the school pencil-neck (Keanu Reeves) is that she lost a bet, and is stuck with his company. But the nightmare doesn’t really begin until they’re deep into the inner city, having taken a few wrong turns along the way. There, with unerring dimwittedness, Reeves manages to misplace his car, his wallet, and his date.

At a club called the Rat’s Nest, Reeves has been served a Mickey, in the form of a tequila and ginger ale. In this state, he unknowingly sells the cheerleader for $1,500 to a pimp (Trinidad Silva). A bystander notes that Reeves should’ve held out for at least $3,000. The rest of the movie has Reeves trying to recover the girl before she is sold into white slavery and shipped off to Morocco.

This movie shoots itself in the foot right away, since it begins with the night already half over and Reeves piecing together the preceding events in flashback. This device effectively halts any healthy narrative development, not that there is much to begin with.

Director and co-writer Thom Eberhardt piles on the bad news for our hero, but the inner-city disasters pale next to the recent model for such nightmare comedies, After Hours.

Reeves, who was the kid with a conscience in River’s Edge, gives an utterly graceless performance here, although that appears to be what the director wanted. Laughlin spends the entire movie in an attitude of perpetual (and occasionally amusing) disdain. The only performer to strike an interesting note is Theresa Saldana, who plays a good-natured lady of the evening. Other than that, this film is best consigned to that burgeoning population of films that are soon to be seen at a video store near you.

First published in the Herald, March 15, 1988

Eberhardt had directed Night of the Comet in ’84. Trinidad Silva should be fondly remembered for his ongoing role as the gang leader in “Hill Street Blues”; he died in a car accident a few months after The Night Before came out. Saldana had, earlier in the decade, been attacked and seriously wounded by a deranged man. Nobody remembers this movie.

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Dangerous Liaisons

September 26, 2012

Dangerous Liaisons is the slightly more pronounceable title given to the movie version of the Broadway hit, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, by Christopher Hampton. In any language, the movie is witchy fun, though overall it’s a bit underwhelming.

Hampton’s play was drawn from the 1782 French novel by Choderlos de Laclos, in which a pair of cold-blooded aristocrats play a sort of sexual parlor game with other peoples’ lives, only to trigger their own comeuppances. The central character seems to be the Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich), a “conspicuously charming” seducer; but he is in fact manipulated by the Marquise de Merteuil (Glenn Close), a waspish widow.

They wager that Valmont will seduce the most virtuous woman in France and also deflower a young bride-to-be (Uma Thurman), all during a summer stay at a lavish estate. Valmont is successful, of course, but he finds himself uncharacteristically moved by the innocent Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer).

The web that Hampton and director Stephen Frears are spinning here is designed to catch their amoral characters, and it is, for the most part, elegantly managed. The script is laced with sharp, pointed insults and double entendres; when Valmont flatters himself over seducing the young virgin, the Marquise derides the conquest as “insultingly simple. One does not applaud the tenor for clearing his throat.” You can’t help thinking that the whole thing plays like “Dynasty” in powdered wigs.

Through all of this, as enjoyable as it often is, I had a sense that it wasn’t quite coming off. Frears, who is better known for his looks at English blue-collar life (My Beautiful Laundrette, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid), is a fine director and he handles the change in scenery adeptly. Like Amadeus, the movie features American actors, without pretentious posturing or the traditional stuffy approach to such material. (Frears told Premiere magazine, “It’s a film like all my others; about sex, power, money…I enjoy playing off the modern sentiments against the facny dress. Of course, scholars of French literature will undoubtedly be appalled.”)

Some of my reservations have to do with the cast. The smaller roles are fine: Swoosie Kurtz as an anxious mother, Thurman as the young virgin, Keanu Reeves as her doe-eyed suitor. But Close and Malkovich dominate. Close, who carries over a certain Fatal Attraction vibe to the role, is small-eyed and crafty, and suitably wicked.

Malkovich (the black marketer in Empire of the Sun) is such an odd actor, and this is an odd part for him. Malkovich is not a conventionally attractive guy, and the Casanova role seems an awkward fit. He remains a cold figure, although what happens to him at the end of the film clarifies the character. It’s something of a stumbling block for the movie, and it’s one of the reasons I doubt Dangerous Liaisons will seduce its way to being a hit.

First published in the Herald, January 12, 1989

It was enough of a hit, and won three Oscars, and probably should have won one for Glenn Close. Malkovich’s lizard-like qualities threw me, but it’s a casting inspiration, no doubt about it. The competing DL movie, Milos Forman’s Valmont, had to wait for this one to get out of the way, and then quietly died when it opened a year later. Too bad it wasn’t made in the era of the instant reboot.


Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure

August 23, 2012

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is a little like the old “Rocky and Bullwinkle” show. You know the thing is aimed primarily at 11-year-olds, and the characters are all idiotic, but jokes keep whizzing past that are neither idiotic nor pre-adolescent.

In fact , this movie is pretty funny. But where “Rocky and Bullwinkle” was sly, Bill & Ted is goofy. It makes certain demands on the viewer; you’d better have a high tolerance for cretinous dialogue and vacant, glassy-eyed stares.

Bill and Ted (played with unfailing vacuousness and in perfect Valley-speak by Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves, respectively) are two high-schoolers who are flunking out of history class. When the teacher asks who Joan of Arc was, they’re stumped: “Noah’s wife?” And they wonder whether Marco Polo refers to a watersport.

For some reason, these two dorks are chosen by an emissary (George Carlin) from the 27th century, who lends them a time machine in the form of a telephone booth. With this, they’re able to travel around through the centuries, pick up interesting historical figures, and come back in time to present a really bodacious final report, and thus avert the most dreaded F.

That’s the concept. And there aren’t many complications along the way. The movie, written by Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon and briskly directed by Stephen Herek, touches down in a variety of historical locales but never stays long enough for anything to get stale. From the wild West, the boys take Billy the Kid; from ancient Greece, Socrates (“a most bodacious philosopher”). They grab Joan of Arc, Napoleon, Lincoln, and Sigmund Freud (who is greeted in the Vienna of 1900 with a friendly, “How’s it goin’, Frood-dude?”).

There’s also room for some low comedy when the time travelers return to the presnt and deposit the great figures in a shopping mall. Billy the Kid and Socrates try to put the make on a couple of babes (this doesn’t sound like the Socratic method), but Freud ruins things by showing up at the wrong moment, corndog in hand (though sometimes a corndog is just a corndog). “Way to go, egghead,” Billy snarls.

The movie’s characters are so moronic they become strangely endearing after a while, and it’s all over before it wears out its welcome. In short, most bodacious.

First published in the Herald, February 1989

A genuinely funny movie. I guess I couldn’t figure out a way to make the duo’s pronunciation of “Socrates” understandable, which is a shame. And just a few days ago, Reeves announced that he’d signed on for a new sequel, which might be a good idea if only to alter the memory of the DOA Bogus Journey.