Red Dawn

November 16, 2012

Red Dawn is a trashy, silly movie that seeks to whip up a little bloodlust in all of us. It proposes that the Soviet Union has invaded the United States, and concentrates on the efforts of a small group of renegades in the Colorado mountains to overthrow the invaders.

The group consists of a bunch of teenagers who fled to the hills the morning of the attack. Their hometown of Calumet becomes a village controlled by the Russkies, where insurgents are rounded up in the local drive-in movie theater and “re-educated.” From their mountain command post, the teens develop guerrilla skills and strike back.

This sounds like nutty stuff, and it is, but the first few minutes of the film are promising. We see the high-schoolers going to classes, everything normal, except maybe for the sound of distant planes. Then we casually notice that some paratroopers have landed, and then—suddenly—it’s on, folks, World War III, the big one.

It’s an exciting sequence, with battle action aplenty as the kids jump in a pickup truck and speed away. The movie quickly degenerates into a collection of different methods of blowing up those Commie rats, with not much time out for the felicities of characterization.

Red Dawn is the work of John Milius, a renegade figure in Hollywood. He’s a film-student pal of many of the young directors (he co-wrote Coppola’s Apocalypse Now), and he showed some interesting directorial moves in his debut film, The Wind and the Lion. (He showed little of anything, though, in his most recent movie, Conan the Barbarian.)

Milius is notorious for his conservative politics, his reverence for guns, and his predilection for hard action. All of these concerns are well served in Red Dawn, almost to the point of hysteria.

The Milius philosophy may be presented most clearly in the moment when the guerillas decide to execute one of their own guys (he betrayed their location). Faced with the prospect of shooting down a former comrade in cold blood, someone points out that if they do this, “What’s the difference between us and them?” The hero turns a beady eye to this. “Because,” he says, cocking the gun and aiming it, “we live here.”

Milius serves notice every now and then that he’s not unaware of the ambiguities of this sort of statement, but still the movie works best as a rave-up revenge piece.

The most recognizable of the guerillas are Patrick Swayze and C. Thomas Howell, who seem to have some sort of tandem acting agreement, since they were together in The Outsiders and Grandview, U.S.A., too. The rest of the Wolverines—they take their name from the high-school sports mascot—consist of stock types from war movies, although there are a couple of pleasantly hard-nosed girls (Lea Thompson and Jennifer Grey), given to the Wolverines for protection by their uncle (Ben Johnson).

By the way, Red Dawn is the first film released with the new PG-13 rating, which suggests more stringent parental watchfulness over their sub-teen children. The new rating went into effect after the hue and cry over the comic-strip violence in Indiana Jones and Gremlins. Unfortunately for the huers and criers, the system seems to be backfiring already: Red Dawn might previously have gotten an R rating for its violence, but now it fits right into the PG-13 category—after all, it’s got no sex or foul language in it. And so the war goes on.

First published in the Herald, August 13, 1984

I forgot about the PG-13 milestone. Nice to see that the system was already completely flawed. This movie looks pretty accomplished next to the remake, which opens a few days from when I type this.

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Some Kind of Wonderful

May 13, 2011
Stoltz and Masterson, pretending

There’s no way Some Kind of Wonderful should work. Isn’t this tale of a misfit student infatuated with the prettiest girl in school while his true love waits on the sidelines just a gender-reversal of last year’s Pretty in Pink? And hasn’t the high-school well run dry yet for the prolific producer John Hughes , the teen-film potentate (The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off)?

Hughes would seem to be repeating himself here, by pulling the sex-switch on this Pretty in Pink script and hiring the same director, Howard Deutch.

By rights, all of that should make Some Kind of Wonderful a craven commercial effort, designed to repeat the success of Pretty in Pink. Well, commercial it may very well be. Enjoyable it definitely is.

The misfit in this case is a sensitive lad, a hopeful artist (Eric Stoltz, out from under his Mask makeup), basically an okay guy but shy enough for his sister to refer to him as “the human Tater-Tot.”

His confidante is a tomboy drummer (Mary Stuart Masterson), with whom he maintains a close but unromantic friendship. His dream is the school’s most popular girl (Lea Thompson, recovering prettily from Howard the Duck), but she, of course, is hooked with the school’s swaggering jock (Craig Sheffer, perfectly embodying every bully who ever drove you nuts).

The film isn’t five minutes old before we know that Stoltz will have to work through his crush on Thompson in order to discover his true affection for Masterson. And Hughes is starting to run out of ideas for this milieu; the villains, for instance, are stock, without any memorable traits.

Okay, fine. But Hughes’ dialogue and the agility of the actors is enough to distract from the blueprint nature of the thing.

And there are a couple of scenes that take off. Stoltz, trapped in detention, sketches in his notebook, which inspires the punked-out lunk across the aisle to respond with some art of his own. Holding up a drawing of a skull with eyes, the hulk suggests, with disarmingly cheery innocence, “That’s what my girlfriend would look like without skin.”

And there’s a nice version of the beginning-to-see-the-light scene, when Masterson helps Stoltz prep for a possible kiss with Thompson, by acting the role of the latter. The “pretend” kiss between Masterson and Stoltz, held just a moment longer than necessary, has her beating a hurried retreat. “Lesson’s over. You’re cool,” she sputters, barely keeping her awakened hormones in check.

All the actors are good to watch, but Mary Stuart Masterson steals the show. (She’s got the spiciest dialogue, too.) She was previously good as Sean Penn’s girlfriend in the little-seen At Close Range.

Masterson seems to have exceptional range herself. She has a way of swallowing the big emotional moments, only just letting them peek through, that feels utterly honest. When she sits on the hood of a car, shivering with anger and frustration and hurt over Stoltz’ success with Thompson, I get the distinct sense that a mature actress is being born.

I don’t know whether she’ll turn into a conventional leading lady—she looks too short and small-featured for that, somehow—but it’s a career worth following, and Some Kind of Wonderful is a painless place to start.

First published in the Herald, February 1987

Masterson never did turn into a conventional leading lady, but she did a lot of fine work. The rest of the review sounds about right to me—this movie should have suffered from the law of diminishing returns, yet did some pleasant things anyway. For John Hughes, the teen genre was about played out, and other projects (not really better projects) beckoned.


All the Right Moves

April 13, 2011

In the first shot of All the Right Moves, we see a smoking factory sitting in the middle of a small mining town. A young man and an older character actor walk out of the factory, carrying their standard-issue lunch pails and hardhats, and wearily making their way home.

I’m not clairvoyant, but it was at this moment—30 seconds or so into the film—that I leaned back and said to myself: “Uh huh. It’s going to be the one about the kid who has to win the sports scholarship so he won’t get trapped in this suffocating existence the way his father and brother did.”

It’s unfair to pigeonhole any movie based on the first few moments. Good movies can always surprise you.

But dog my cats if All the Right Moves didn’t go exactly where I thought it was going. What I couldn’t predict was how lame it would be about getting there.

Tom Cruise, who was so good as the enterprising innocent in Risky Business, appears as the football-playing hero who learns the true meaning of teamwork, loyalty and whatever else it is that kids learn the true meaning of in stories like this. He wants to wangle a football scholarship at a major college so he can become an engineer and enter the mining business with a whiter collar than his father and brother.

But Cruise derails his plans when he cusses out the coach after his team loses the Big Game—thanks to a coaching error. Not only that, but he gets drunk with some of the town’s rowdy alumni and throws garbage all over the coach’s house. Wrong move.

Pretty soon the coach has him blackballed from all the right colleges. It looks as though Cruise is going to get stuck in the small town.

But wait. Our hero’s steady date, a slip of a girl played by Lea Thompson, has other ideas. She has an excruciatingly dopey heart-to-heart with the coach’s wife, and the tide starts to turn. Now it’s up to Cruise to show a little decency.

But that’s enough synopsizing: you get the picture. The best thing about All the Right Moves is Craig T. Nelson’s performance as the coach. Nelson, who played the father in Poltergeist, has a bizarre off-center delivery that makes everything he does fun to watch.

The worst thing about the movie is that it bodes ill for the directing career of Michael Chapman, the excellent cinematographer (Raging Bull, Personal Best), whose first directing job this is.

A word about a disturbing trend in recent cinema: This is the second film this year in which a spunky kid pursues a goal that will allow him/her to break out of a Pennsylvania mining environment. The first, of course, was that phenomenon—one does not actually want to refer to it as a movie—known as Flashdance, a word that will live in infamy.

All the Right Moves should not have the same bewildering success; still, it’s time to nip this thing in the bud. We’ve got to put an end to the trend, and soon. It’ll be a tough job, but then it’s a chore just to sit there and watch these movies. Besides, maybe we’ll learn the true meaning of teamwork.

First published in the Herald, October 1983

A review from my first month at writing for the Herald, and I already sound plenty jaded. But one gets jaded quickly with a movie like All the Right Moves, my friend. The awfulness of the title itself seemed to point the way toward many an Eighties handle: vague and stupid, as fitting for an aerobics film or a martial arts picture. Michael Chapman directed again after this, with Clan of the Cave Bear, so there you go with that (strangely, it was during this time that he went from being one of Hollywood’s absolute top cinematographers—Taxi Driver, Fingers, the Kaufman Invasion of the Body Snatchers as well as the two mentioned above—to being a very, very good cinematographer. The movie was a step up the ladder for Cruise, who never looked back.