End of the Line

February 18, 2020

endofthelineIn its first 20 minutes, End of the Line establishes a pleasant small-town feel. It’s set in a little railroad burg in Arkansas, where the livelihood of the locals depends upon the presence of the trains.

Townsfolk hang out at the Iron Horse bar or drop by Rose’s Beautyrama, while every night pals Haney (Wilford Brimley) and Leo (Levon Helm) look forward to a game of cards and a hot helping of Mrs. Haney’s deep-fried salmon patties. As Leo puts it, “She makes ’em taste almost like fish.”

Then the railroad company announces that it’s pulling out of town, a move that effectively signals the disappearance of the main source of income for most of the inhabitants. Only desperate action will do, and Haney and Leo come up with a doozy of a plan: They’ll steal – well, borrow – an engine and ride it all the way up to company headquarters in Chicago. When they get to the city, someone will listen to them.

As it turns out, the president of the company (Bob Balaban, in a funny caricature) gets wind of the journey and decides to twist it into good public relations for himself. He’ll turn the train thieves into backwoods heroes and somehow use them to his advantage.

At this point “End of the Line” turns regrettably cute. The little guy vs. the system stuff is pushed for all it’s worth, and the script by Jay Russell (who also directed) and John Wohlbruck isn’t shy about ladling on the heavy homespun syrup. This, despite the best efforts of Brimley (the cuddly codger of Cocoon and TV’s Our House) and Helm (the member of The Band who played the father in Coal Miner’s Daughter), who make a likable team.

The best moments of the railway odyssey come when these two fellows are chewing the rag about anything and everything that enters their minds, even if that includes drunkenly vowing to kill each other rather than be captured alive. (They’re too sloshed to carry through.)

By the time they make it to Chicago, where Balaban tries to turn them into commercial spokesmen for the company, the film has softened up considerably. It’s as predictable as those prefabricated salmon patties, and just about as flavorful.

There are some interesting faces  among the supporting cast: Kevin Bacon as Brimley’s shiftless son-in-law, Holly Hunter (Raising Arizona) as Bacon’s wife, and Mary Steenburgen as Helm’s beautician wife. Steenburgen also produced the movie, and End of the Line is perhaps most acceptable as an act of homage toward her home state, Arkansas.

First published in the Herald, November 13, 1987

I read through some of these ancient reviews and I have to wonder at times, Did I really mean to end the piece like that? Feels like another sentence or two was coming. Or maybe I just wanted to end a review, for the first and (I suspect) only time, with the word “Arkansas.” 

She’s Having a Baby

October 17, 2012

No, She’s Having a Baby isn’t a cash-in on the sudden popularity of such boffo baby movies as Three Men and a Baby and Baby Boom. Actually, this movie was made about a year ago and originally advertised for release last summer

However, writer-director John Hughes got caught up in the making of his subsequent film, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, which needed to be completed in time for a Thanksgiving release date. So She’s Having a Baby was put off until now, though the postponement prompted rumors of a bomb in the making.

The rumors were unwarranted; She’s Having a Baby is much in the Hughesian vein, which means it’s an amusing, observant, slickly enjoyable movie. This one is, by all accounts, a largely autobiographical film, a reflection of Hughes’ own life as a young married ad man who yearns to be a real writer.

Hughes’ alter ego, Jefferson Briggs (Kevin Bacon), narrates his own story, beginning with his marriage to his high school sweetheart, Kristy (Elizabeth McGovern). His best friend (Alec Baldwin) resents the marriage with rather mysterious forcefulness.

Over the next few years, Briggs puts aside the Great American Novel and takes a job at a Chicago advertising agency in order to support his household (located in a suburbia that seems to be throwing an eternal backyard barbecue). Hughes sketches this life with some authority, having lived much the same existence in the years before he entered filmmaking.

Briggs is tantalized by his friend’s tales of the glamorous life in New York City; and he’s intrigued by a gorgeous, available woman (Isabel Lorca) who keeps bumping into him. Hughes manages to get some admirable freshness into this familiar material, even punctuating the movie with surreal touches—for example when the galloping conformity of suburbia breaks out into a synchronized dance on the front lawns, in which wives pirouette with lemonade and hubbies step-kick with their power mowers.

The baby-making takes up the last third of the movie, up to and including the teary conclusion. The couple’s determined attempts to produce culminate in a session in which the exhausted Briggs goes to duty to the strains of Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang” (one of Hughes’ typically blunt musical cues).

Though this film is enjoyable in many ways, there is the nagging sense that Hughes too often falls prey to the facility of the advertising images, much like his protagonist. There are too many emotional shortcuts, as though Hughes is unwilling to scratch the surface he has fashioned.

It’s an attractive surface, nevertheless, and incidentally provides Bacon and McGovern with their best film work in a few years.

First published in the Herald, February 1988

I seem to have enjoyed it. Bacon, McGovern, Hughes…it all seems like a different world now, doesn’t it?


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.


August 8, 2011

Bacon, Fishburne, headgear

Here’s a story for you: A young, hotshot stockbroker loses everything in one disastrous day at the market, then becomes a bicycle messenger and destroys a leading New York dope dealer.

Sound far-fetched? Absurd? Believe it or not, people get paid huge amounts of money for ideas such as this. In the case of Tom Donnelly, who wrote Quicksilver, he was even allowed to direct the danged thing (it’s his first film).

The hero (Kevin Bacon, from Diner and Footloose), who begins the film with a very bad fake mustache, drops a wad on Wall Street one day. When asked what happened to all his money, he replies, “Nothing happened to it. The money’s still there, it just belongs to somebody else now.”

Actually, he feels pretty rotten, especially because he blew his parents’ life savings, not to mention his own.

So, for some reason, Bacon scans the want ads and decides that the exciting world of bicycle message-delivering is the career for him. He takes to the streets and delivers messages through the brutal New York City traffic. See, he’s lost his nerve for the big time so he consoles himself with the heady rush of dodging cars.

While on the job, he meets some people who, I suspect, are intended to be warm and wonderful characters. Hector (Paul Rodriguez) dreams someday of owning a chain of hot dog stands. Bacon looks at him and says, “You are one optimistic Mexican,” which seems an accurate comment.

Bacon also meets a cute young thing (Jami Gertz) who foolishly gets involved delivering drugs for a bad dude (Rudy Ramos) who never seems to get out of his car. She says her parents are in Vegas as the opening act for Frank Sinatra, but we sense that this is merely a brassy subterfuge to cover up her deeper feelings. It is.

All of this leads to Bacon going back out on the stock market floor, kicking a little you-know-what and then cornering the dope pusher and doing the same with him.

It’s a strange film, full of loose ends and unmotivated actions, and the whole subplot of the drug dealer appears to have been grafted onto the story after the first few drafts of the screenplay, to add a little blood and guts to the goings-on.

There are, of course, a few sequences that are available to be lifted intact for music videos, including the obligatory Giorgio Moroder (he scored Flashdance) tune, this time sung by Roger Daltrey, who really should know better.

As for Bacon—well, he’s still a likable sort, but he should choose projects that are more like movies than mere star vehicles. This particular vehicle is as light as his high-speed bike.

First published in the Herald, February 15, 1986

A quintessential Eighties title, not nearly as much fun to sit through as it sounds like it might be. Once again I fail to mention Larry Fishburne in the case, although this has more to do with the movie than the actor. The Moroder song has a de rigueur quality to it, as Hollywood admitted that MTV was in charge. Bacon, of course, has made his career in not being a likable sort, so I don’t know why I said that.