Finders Keepers

May 4, 2020

finderskeepersRichard Lester, one of the most inventive directors of the last couple of decades, spent the last five years or so working on the various Superman movies. He made a clean job of it and was probably responsible for much of the buoyant humor and satire of the latter two Superman films.

When a director guides big-budget projects to successful release, he’s usually rewarded by getting to do a more personal film. At this point, it’s hard to speculate whether or not Lester actually had that option, but if Finders Keepers is the direction he wants to take, one of our best filmmakers is in trouble.

Lester brought his razor-sharp comedic sense to A Hard Day’s Night, Help!, and The Knack, in the mid-’60s; his darker films of that period – Petulia and How I Won the War – now are considered to be among his best work.

Finders Keepers is an out-and-out comedy, but it has little of the zip of Lester’s earlier movies, and it’s also a deeply cynical film. It’s something of a throwback to screwball comedies, in which a series of wildly improbable circumstances throw a group of people together in a busy adventure.

In this case, it’s a hustler (Michael O’Keefe) who steps into a kidnapping plot involving an heiress (Pamela Stephenson) and five million dollars, which is sitting in a coffin on a train. O’Keefe gets wind of the plot, but his efforts to secure the money for himself are hampered by a spacey actress (Beverly D’Angelo), the menacing kidnapper who’s actually in cahoots with the heiress (Ed Lauter), an inept FBI man (Jack Riley), and the world’s oldest train conductor (David Wayne).

Sticking a bunch of weirdos on a train is revered comic tradition in American movies: It always seems to work. You can see that the story might have had possibilities, but the screenplay itself is a shambles. There’s none of the graceful escalation of mayhem that Lester has orchestrated so well in the past – just chaos.

The choice of Michael O’Keefe to play the hero is indicative or the film’s troubles. O’Keefe got an Oscar nomination for playing the son in The Great Santini, but he’s a sarcastic actor, and can’t really provide the anchor needed for the center or the farce.

Louis Gossett, Jr., strolls into the picture midway, as a cool con man, but there’s absolutely nothing for him to do. It’s disturbing to think this is the best thing to come along for him since An Officer and a Gentleman. Maybe some of his footage got cut out of the finished film; the movie has that kind of feel to it.

It’s also being dumped with a minimal advertising outlay, just before the summer blockbusters are let loose. Finders Keepers has truly been lost in the shuffle – although it’s unlikely anyone would have missed it anyway.

First published in the Herald, May 1984

Jim Carrey’s in there too, and Brian Dennehy. Is there a re-appreciation of this film yet? I am unaware of one. The only thing I really remember is a Supertramp song at the end, along with a sense of resignation. Lester made just one more feature, the ill-fated Return of the Musketeers, before more-or-less retiring, which is a damn shame.

Iron Eagle

June 19, 2012

It would be tempting to rip into Iron Eagle for its crude manipulation, phony-baloney patriotism, and distasteful xenophobia. But the film itself saves you the trouble; it’s so bad on the level of plain narrative, it cancels itself out.

The situation is this (as anyone who has seen the innumerable TV ads in the past few weeks already knows): An American pilot is shot down in a Middle Eastern country. The U.S. government, its hands tied by protocol and red tape, can do nothing to save him. The flier’s son steals an F-16 and flies to rescue Dad with the help of a veteran pilot.

That’s it. Now, you’d think that such a streamlined plot would be easy to pull off—and as an action film, it might be good, cathartic, mindless fun.

Nope. Director Sidney J. Furie (who co-authored the script with Kevin Elders) pulls a thorough botch-up. Unbelievably, although the father’s capture occurs in the first minute, it takes Furie more than a hour of screen time to get his big rescue mission off the ground.

In the meantime, he presents the long, boring preparation for the mission. The son (Jason Gedrick) must prove himself time and again—first to the bullies who make fun of him for wanting to go to the Air Force Academy (there’s a big showdown at the local A&W), then to the ace pilot (Louis Gossett, Jr.) who’s going to help him with the mission.

There are many pearls of wisdom along the way. When Gedrick thinks his father may suffer through protracted custody like the hostages in Iran, a friend disagrees: “No, this is different—Mr. Peanut was in charge back then.”

As it turns out, however, the current president is just as unable to get Gedrick’s father out as Mr. Peanut was. Someone tells Gedrick sympathetically, “They got too many people to make decisions—takes too long.”

Maybe this guy should go live in the unnamed Middle Eastern country in which a bloodthirsty dictator (David Suchet) makes all the decisions, without consulting anybody. This dictator is, to borrow a phrase, flaky, and he does zany totalitarian antics, such as sentencing Gedrick’s father (Tim Thomerson) to hang in three days.

So Gedrick and Gossett go charging in, and “Gimme Some Lovin'” plays on the soundtrack as they blow dozens of extras away with a Hades bomb, which incinerates everything around.

It’s a mechanical movie that seeks to do for the Middle East what Rambo did for Vietnam. At least Rambo had some sense of forward motion; Iron Eagle is dead in the water until its final third.

Gossett doesn’t come off all that bad, because he’s a pro, although his character is forced to perform a switcheroo; first he’s dead, then he miraculously returns. This emphasizes the indestructibility of our guys, and makes certain the happy ending will be achieved without any true, bothersome sacrifice. It also answers the question: Just how shameless can this movie be?

First published in the Herald, January 1986

It took me a moment to remember why I used the construction, “to borrow a term, flaky,” but it had to be a Reaganism, and it was, in Ronald Reagan’s immortal characterization of Ghadafi with that term. (Reagan’s geopolitical genius resulted in Ghadafi falling from power 25 years later – score another one for the Gipper.) One might not have predicted a long career for Gedrick based on this performance, but in fact he’s done pretty well for himself. And Sidney J. Furie? He just keeps going.

Enemy Mine

June 7, 2012

The situation is this: A human (Dennis Quaid) and a space creature (Louis Gossett, Jr.) are duking it out in a space battle. Each sustains spaceship damage, and both crash-land on an unexplored and uninhabited planet. They are the only survivors.

It looks like it’s going to be a duel to the death, no holds barred, right? I mean, this movie is called Enemy Mine, after all.

No dice. The movie might better have been called Buddy Mine, because the two creatures become pals. Oh, there’s some bickering at first, but it doesn’t take long before these two are thick as thieves. After they strike up a friendship, they busy themselves more with surviving the harsh volcanic elements of this weird planet than with destroying each other.

So the human Quaid and the reptilian Gossett teach each other a few things about peaceful co-existence and brotherly love, and how it’s always the crazy leaders of this world—er, universe—who make war, not the simple people.

Gossett also teaches Quaid—in scenes more poetically handled than the other homilies offered—about his religion, the bible of which is a small metallic book that hangs around his neck. Gossett sings his hymns in a strange, lonesome lilt.

As cuddly as all this harmony is, it leaves the film in something of a pickle, dramatically speaking. The conflict between these two “enemies” is withdrawn so quickly—except for some weak attempts to inject cattiness into their relationship—there’s no real friction for the film to play with, and the heat goes out of it early on.

It is not until the last third, when the film goes into a conventional suspense plot regarding Gossett’s child (his race is asexual, and so he gets pregnant and gives birth automatically), that director Wolfgang Petersen (Das Boot) kicks in with some driving action. But it’s nothing spectacular, and it’s too late anyhow.

Perhaps the fact that Petersen had relatively little preparation time on the film (he replaced another director) accounts for the queer lack of mood or direction. There’s also evidence that the film’s cozy, cute humor is not his own. It’s awkwardly handled.

The reptilian creature’s makeup, designed by Chris Walas (he did Gremlins), is functional, if not exactly visionary. Gossett, who is completely covered with brown lizard skin, bears a powerful resemblance to the Creature from the Black Lagoon. For his part, Quaid, who is starting to sound too much like Harrison Ford, is buried under ragged hair and beard; he’s supposed to look like Robinson Crusoe.

Neither man registers much, although Gossett’s gurgling vocal delivery has its charm. But then Enemy Mine is not really supposed to be an actor’s movie, which brings up an interesting point: What kind of movie was this supposed to be?

First published in the Herald, December 20, 1985

I didn’t realize the extent of the re-shooting; says that Richard Loncraine directed a version of the movie in Iceland, which was scrapped when Petersen came in and shot the whole thing over again with a different emphasis. No wonder the movie feels tired-out.