Fresh Horses

April 29, 2020

freshhorsesA couple of years ago, a play called Fresh Horses garnered some good reviews for playwright Larry Ketron. The play has been made into a film of the same title (also written by Ketron), but surely not much else can be the same. The movie makes you wonder how anyone could ever have said anything good about this property.

Fresh Horses is about the troubles of a college student (Andrew McCarthy) who has his whole life set up for himself; he’s got the solid career looming, he’s got the engagement to the rich girlfriend, he’s got the responsible job as a numbers caller at the bingo hall. (Well, two out of three isn’t bad.)

Then he goes with a school buddy (Ben Stiller) out to a very strange house in the country owned by a woman (Patti D’Arbanville), who keeps her home open to strays and derelicts. There, McCarthy meets a red-headed vision (Molly Ringwald) and he flips.

As he begins meeting this woman in a little shack by the train line (he literally goes to the other side of the tracks for her), the rest of his life goes awry. The engagement’s off, and he becomes tortured by the thought that this girl has been consistently lying to him; she turns out to be 16 years old and married. That’s trouble.

Director David Anspaugh, who did a nice job with Hoosiers, struggles mightily to make something out of this story, and he achieves a few very handsome shots of the land as well as some sense of the hero’s isolation and consternation. But it’s a tough go, because there is simply nothing very interesting going on in this movie.

One of the fundamental problems is that the Molly Ringwald character is supposed to be one of those voluptuous earth-mother forces of nature who can captivate and ensnare the young hero.

That idea may be clichéd to begin with, but Ringwald is clearly not the actor who can bring it off. The first time McCarthy sees her, as he opens a door in the country house, it’s supposed to be one of those dramatic life-changing moments; but flinging her hair in front of the kitchen refrigerator leaves Ringwald somewhat shy of The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

First published in the Herald, November 1988

Ben Stiller was in this? I’d forgotten that, and also Viggo Mortensen.  This was getting to the end of Ringwald’s big run – she’d been in Godard’s King Lear and James Toback’s The Pick-Up Artist the year before, and For Keeps was also in ’88. That ain’t gonna get it done for the Pretty in Pink fans. This review sounds a little shortened by editorial hands, but I don’t know what else I would have said about the movie. 

 


For Keeps

April 28, 2020

forkeepsDuring the opening scene of For Keeps, two teen-age lovers (Molly Ringwald, Randall Batinkoff) indulge in some adult passion on a damp forest floor. Then, as the opening credits roll, the screen is filled with clinical depictions of the human fertilization process that resemble something out of a Nova science special. Evidently romantic comedy has entered the 1990s.

Actually, those shots are supposed to be funny, in an intentionally bizarre way. I think. In any case, the young Wisconsin couple has just managed to add pregnancy to their list of high school woes, and For Keeps is primarily about the troubles that ensue.

The resulting comedy-melodrama is summed up by Ringwald when she describes the situation thus: “They write bad country songs about this, okay?”

Ringwald’s snooty mother (Miriam Flynn) is miffed because a baby would mean the mother-daughter trip to Paris is off. Batinkoff’s blue-collar father (Kenneth Mars) is grumpy because he doesn’t want anything to stop his boy from going off to college at Cal Tech. But the kids decide to keep the baby anyway, and move out into a brave new world.

The script, by Tim Kazurinsky and Denise DeClue (they did About Last Night…), pokes some fun at the dewiness of these two. As Ringwald watches her belly rise, she admits that her childhood doll collection may not have properly prepared her for the big event. And when Batinkoff comes home to their ramshackle apartment and needs to express his frustration, he rips the refrigerator door open and takes a long hard swig of chocolate milk.

For Keeps is occasionally sort of cute in a mild way, but it seems rudderless under the direction of John G. Avildsen (The Karate Kid – that’s his movie, not his nickname). The various shifts from comedy to drama seem entirely predictable and shopworn.

Worse, in terms of onscreen effectiveness, the pairing of teen queen Ringwald and newcomer Batinkoff doesn’t take. Ringwald can’t wring anything new out of yet another high school senior (by this time she must’ve attended more proms than any American girl ever). And Batinkoff, a lanky kid with a voice that hasn’t completely changed yet, barely registers. The one thing they have going is authenticity; they’re nothing if not young.

First published in the Herald, January 19, 1988

Coincidences? The idea for posting this week was putting together movies with Brat Pack cast members. As it happens, yesterday I posted About Last Night…, also written by Kazurinsky and DeClue, their two most notable screenplays. Also, yesterday I registered my concern that IMBd did not retain the ellipsis that is undeniably part of the title of About Last Night…. Today, I see that IMDb has added a question mark to its official title listing for For Keeps. What the hell? The movie did not have a question mark in its title upon its initial release, as a look at the poster and Roger Ebert’s review will attest. Now that we’ve got that out of the way: For Keeps is not very good. It was shot in Winnipeg.


The Pick-Up Artist

January 24, 2020

pickupartistFor its first 20 minutes or so, The Pick-Up Artist shapes up as a lively little comedy of manners, as it chronicles a day in the life of a hopeless womanizer named Jack Jericho (Robert Downey) and his fast­-talking cruise-through existence. Jericho can’t drive down the block without spotting a pretty girl, trotting up next to her and laying down a line of pick-up patter.

Usually, this line is, “Has anyone ever told you, you have the face of a Boticelli and the body of a Degas?” Although once, he gets confused and substitutes Chagall and Rubens, with predictably mixed results.

Jericho’s routine abruptly comes up short when he meets a woman (Molly Ringwald) who gives as good as she gets. After an afternoon quickie, she treats him the way he usually treats his women – by walking away, with no strings attached. Naturally, he’s hooked.

But just then, the movie bumps right up against a problem: plot. For whatever reason, writer-director James Toback has decided to take this romantic comedy, charming up until now, and graft it onto another story entirely.

It seems the woman’s dissipated father (Dennis Hopper, doing an amusing rehash of earlier roles) owes $25,000 to some local gangsters (led by Harvey Keitel). Jericho wants to help her, but she insists on finding the money herself. Everything ends up in Atlantic City, with gambling the only solution to making the money fast.

Basically, this is a mess. Scenes aren’t developed, characters are thrown away, motivations are murky. Toback seems to be making two movies in one.

However, Toback, who wrote The Gambler and directed the disastrous Exposed, is nothing if not idiosyncratic. The movie may be all over the place, but at least you get the feeling that it was made by one person, not a committee (although it’s been rumored the film underwent some post-production tinkering; at the very least, a few four-letter words have clearly been blipped out to avoid an R rating).

And the energy level is high, keyed as it is into the performance of Robert Downey, who may be most recognizable as a regular on Saturday Night Live a couple of seasons ago. He gives a full-speed portrait of a guy who does indeed bring an artistry to his vocation.

The film boasts good credits, with nice supporting work by Danny Aiello and Victoria Jackson, and typically tasty cinematography by Gordon Willis. One collaborator is not credited: Warren Beatty, a friend of Toback’s who reportedly served as an unlisted executive producer. Beatty’s own reputation as the all-time pick-up artist suggests the reason for his involvement, but one suspects that he could make a much more interesting movie on the subject.

First published in the Herald, September 19, 1987

Toback, of course, is strongly implicated in monstrous behavior that came out with the #MeToo movement. I suppose that changes this movie these days. Downey had bounced around and gotten noticed, but this one was a real lead. Beatty was apparently the producer and took his name off the movie; this was the period when he was somehow heavily concerned with guiding Molly Ringwald’s career, always a curious movie-history blip.


Pretty in Pink

May 12, 2011

rich, poor, duck

John Hughes has been dubbed “The Word Processor” for the facility with which he turns out screenplays; even since he’s become a director in his own right, he’s kept up a flow of pages. Four films have come from his computer terminal in the space of two years, with another on the way this summer.

They’ve ranged in quality: Sixteen Candles was a charming directorial debut, and The Breakfast Club was a surprisingly ambitious meditation on teenage anxiety. Then came the out-of-control Weird Science, which might better have been cut by an hour and flipped into a TV slot of “Amazing Stories.”

Now we have Pretty in Pink, which Hughes wrote but has allowed someone else to direct. (He was probably facing some sort of union violation with all that productivity.)

It covers familiar teen territory, and has much the same feel as Sixteen Candles (including that film’s star, Molly Ringwald). The situation is basic: A girl from the po’ side of town (Ringwald) falls for a richie (Andrew McCarthy), but they both suffer from peer disapproval of such a mixed matchup.

Undergoing special excruciation is the girl’s pal Duckie (Jon Cryer), a goof who worships her and detests his straight-laced competition. Duckie is a version of the quick-witted, hustling geek played by Anthony Michael Hall in Sixteen Candles, and he provides most of the laughs, especially in the early part of the movie.

Unfortunately, he’s offscreen for far too long in the latter part of the film, as Ringwald passes through a crisis when McCarthy revokes his cherished invitation to the prom. She’s also got to counsel her dad (Harry Dean Stanton), who’s in the dumps because his wife ran out on the family a few years earlier.

Ringwald works at a hip record store managed by a confidante (Annie Potts) who specializes in kitschy fashion chic and lives mainly in the ’60s. At one point Potts cautions Ringwald to give up on a tardy date: “It’s after seven. Don’t waste good lip gloss.” It’s a plum role for Potts, who has enlivened films for a few years now (Crimes of Passion) without quite finding her niche.

In fact, the film is nicely played throughout. James Spader, for instance, invests the small role of the bigoted rich kid with enough hissability to forever typecast himself.

But director Howard Deutch, although he’s aided by cinematographer Tak Fujimoto’s subtle visuals, can’t hoist the material above TV-movie interest. Hughes’ dialogue sparkles now and again, but there’s nothing tying all the pieces together.

This becomes most glaringly evident at the film’s ending, when the three principals face off at the prom. Ringwald must choose between her geeky pal or the dreamy richie, but you don’t know exactly why she chooses as she does. What’s worse, the film waffles on the matter, contriving a convenient partner for the third wheel. (Rumors that the ending was reshot to appease disappointed preview audiences suggest this waffling was not originally intended.)

Not to worry. Hughes can redeem himself with Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, a self-directed comedy scheduled for this summer. But then, by that time, he’ll probably have three new movies in the can.

First published in the Herald, February 28, 1986

What happened was, this movie made at least as big an impression on people as Sixteen Candles, if not bigger. So go figure. Apparently changing the ending paid off nicely; when Hughes and Deutch went to the well again with Some Kind of Wonderful, they rectified things a little as far as the misfit character having a taste of triumph. Spader managed to elude the typecasting, although it was a close call for a while.


The Breakfast Club

May 10, 2011
Nelson, Estevez, Sheedy, Ringwald, Hall: The B-Club

In the light of writer-director John Hughes’ uneven, delightful film debut, Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club is both gratifying and disappointing. It’s gratifying because it proves that Hughes is funny, daring, and brimming with basic movie savvy. It’s disappointing because Hughes can’t quite bring everything together in a way that avoids pat conventions.

It begins brilliantly—Hughes sweeps us into his conceit with economy and zip, and we get introduced to the principals in brief strokes, each indicative of his or her stereotyped role vis-à-vis high school. (The idea of the film is that the stereotypes they embody to us—and each other—will be broken down, and that all share similar anxieties, successes, fears, hopes.) They’re thrown together in a day-long Saturday detention session in the school library. There’s a jock (Emilio Estevez), a princess (Molly Ringwald), a dork (Anthony Michael Hall), a loudmouth nonconformist (Judd Nelson), and a withdrawn would-be runaway (Ally Sheedy). In the course of the day, they find out more about each other, and about themselves, than they ever knew before—and they began the day as strangers.

The first hour—of the film, that is—is very funny, and full of wonderful detail and language (Hughes has a keen ear for high school parlance). As Hughes gets into the serious stuff, the film goes distressingly toward tried-and-true resolution (although it is not without some surprises). As I said, this is disappointing; but in terms of Hughes’ career, it’s not too discouraging. He’ll get better, and there’s plenty here to savor. Certainly the performers are very good, and Judd Nelson, sneering and bellowing, may be better than that.

And every once in a while something leaps out and slaps you with its originality. In particular, there’s a moment when Ally Sheedy is doodling on her note pad (at this point in the film, she may have yet to speak her first line—she’s mute for the first half-hour). We see her shaggy head looking down at her desk, then Hughes cuts to her pad—she’s drawn a little cabin in the woods, picket fence out front, smoke curling from the chimney (just the kind of home this lonely kid probably fantasizes about). Cut back to Sheedy’s face; she looks at the drawing, something is not quite right. She tips her head forward and rubs her fingers back and forth through her thick hair. Dandruff falls down to the desk; Hughes cuts to the picture, and the little cabin in the woods is now covered with snow. That’s beautiful.

First published in The Informer, March/April 1985

Of all the performers to single out in this movie, I had to go with Judd Nelson. Folks, reprinting these reviews is a warts-and-all proposition, and sometimes you have to reach for the Compound W, is all I can say. This film was important to people of a certain age, and I can see why; I sort of wish I’d had a film like it ten years earlier. The idea of it is ingenious, although it still bugs me that it narrows to a very conventional set of conclusions as it goes along, especially the supposed blossoming of Sheedy’s character.


Sixteen Candles

May 9, 2011

John Hughes is a name that appeared on what seemed to be about half of 1983’s screenplays, including National Lampoon’s Vacation, Mr. Mom, and Nate and Hayes. It looks now as though Hughes, a former staffer for National Lampoon magazine, was acting as something of a script doctor for comedies.

Which may be how he got so quickly in position to direct his first film. It’s called Sixteen Candles, and it’s about a girl’s disastrous 16th birthday, which occurs the day before her older sister’s marriage. This means, of course, that the biggest birthday of her life is absolutely forgotten, much to her despair.

Sixteen Candles—which, despite the 1950s song title, is set in the present day—is sophomoric, often tasteless, and frequently obvious. It’s also shamelessly funny. Hughes doesn’t bring anything new to the oft-told growing-up story; the film has none of the grace of American Graffiti, and none of the magical humor of Gregory’s Girl.

What it has is Hughes’ hipness, his deftness with one-liners, and an unerring sense for caricature. Much of the film exists on the level of caricature, admittedly; but it’s so sharply (if cruelly) carried off, you can’t help but laugh. I couldn’t, anyway.

Although Hughes’ prime purpose here is to make us laugh, there’s a suggestion that he’s capable of more. The casting of the fine Molly Ringwald as the high school heroine, Samantha, gives the movie an emotional touchstone. Ringwald is a very open actress, and her presence keeps the film honest. The casting of Paul Dooley as her father helps with this; he’s always good.

As good as Ringwald is, this movie is stolen lock, stock, and barrel by a wispy corn stalk with blond hair named Anthony Michael Hall. He plays Ted, a gregarious freshman who digs Samantha (she’s a sophomore, so she won’t give him a second glance). Hall is all drumming fingers, bony elbows, and nervous virginal energy. He’s anxious to get himself deflowered, and decides that Samantha may be able to help him out.

As the movie unfolds, you almost get the idea that Hughes suddenly realized how funny Hall was, and beefed up his part, because the film starts drifting away from Samantha’s story. Structurally, this weakens the film, but it certainly makes it funnier. Hall has comic timing like nobody’s business, and it’s no surprise he’s already signed up to star in Hughes’ next two movies.

Hughes makes a number of missteps. A glaring problem is his heavy-handed use of familiar musical themes, which pop up for a cheap laugh in the midst of scenes. (I liked the placing of the theme from “Peter Gunn,” though. Listen for it.)

Sixteen Candles is ultimately inconsequential, but, despite its unevenness, I liked it. Hughes may yet get up the nerve to discard easy gags in favor of a fuller, more challenging comedy. But if he doesn’t, and his movies are as breezy and funny as this one, it’ll be okay by me.

First published in the Herald, May 5, 1984

It sounds as though I’m trying to talk myself out of how much I enjoyed this movie, but I enjoyed it a whole bunch. Now that Hughes has been enshrined as the Young Adult Voice of the mid-80s, it’s easy to forget that this movie sort of came out of nowhere and took people by surprise. Anthony Michael Hall’s performance is still a classic. I remember hearing that Stanley Kubrick had cast Hall in the lead of Full Metal Jacket based on this picture, which obviously didn’t ultimately happen. The Hall of Sixteen Candles (maybe not the Hall of subsequent projects) would have been kind of amazing in the Kubrick film, with a kind of comic energy that Matthew Modine didn’t have. In any case, What a Feeling! is overdue for some Hughesiana, so here we go.