Meatballs Part II

December 29, 2011

I never would have believed that any movie could make the huge-grossing (in every sense of the term) Meatballs look good, but here it is: Meatballs Part II, a dead-in-the-water comedy about summer camp.

The fact that it’s about summer camp is the sole similarity with the original Meatballs. That film, the most successful Canadian release in history, cleaned up at the turnstiles solely on the strength of a hilarious central performance by Bill Murray.

Meatballs Part II doesn’t have Murray, and it doesn’t have anything to replace him. It’s a summer-camp session with the usual jokes about counselors trying to make whoopee under difficult conditions.

The main plot has the zany Camp Sasquatch trying to best military Camp Patton (“Where Outdoor Living Molds Killers”) in the annual boxing championship. Sasquatch’s boxing hope (John Mengatti) is a street kid who starts to like a shy girl (Kim Richards).

The only remotely humorous moments in the film are had by Hamilton Camp, doing a rabid disciplinarian number as the leader of Camp Patton, and John Larroquette, who plays his swishy assistant. It’s old and disreputable humor, but these two actors have a certain chemistry.

Otherwise, funny Richard Mulligan (of “Soap” and S.O.B.) is wasted, as is Paul Reubens, better known to one and all in his comic incarnation as Pee-wee Herman. It’s too bad the producers didn’t see Reubens’ potential, because a passable comedy might have been constructed out of this mess with Reubens as a manic center, as Murray was for Meatballs.

There are two oddities about Meatballs Part II. One is that there is an outer-space angle: a little E.T. imitation is dropped off by his parents to enjoy the summer camp. Apparently, he does. Very strange.

Also, one of the main campers is a handicapped boy in a wheelchair. This is not a first. There was a paraplegic kid who was a victim—er, character—in the summer camp of Friday the 13th, Part 3.

But it’s unusual to see a handicapped character as simply another person in an exploitation comedy. Except for a joke at the beginning when this guy’s motorized wheelchair outraces the camp bus, the handicap is barely mentioned. No cheap pathos, no sob story. He’s just another camper. That’s a peculiarly enlightened attitude for this otherwise uninteresting film.

First published in the Herald, August 1, 1984

If I’m using the phrase “make whoopee” I must be pretty disengaged. No excuse for that, except the movie itself, which is grueling. The original Meatballs might be awful, but Bill Murray is heroic in it—in his early movies he seems liberated not just as a comedian but as someone unwilling to pretend to be part of a movie. The director of Meatballs Part II is Ken Wiederhorn, who previously helmed King Frat and Eyes of a Stranger, and whose next film would be Return of the Living Dead Part II. That’s a helluva movie marathon for some lost weekend.

Flight of the Navigator

December 14, 2011

Back in the relatively innocent days of 1982, Steven Spielberg updated and energized the old chestnut about a boy and his dog, with an extraterrestrial standing in for the pooch. The success of E.T. had Hollywood scrambling to make movies about kids and creatures (while Spielberg flipped the formula with Gremlins).

Many of the creatures turned out to be mechanical; robots marching in the electronic wake of the Star Wars machines. But by and large, the movies were pretty mechanical, too.
In just the last couple of months, the boy-and-machine formula has been used in Short Circuit, SpaceCamp, even The Manhattan Project if you count Christopher Collet’s closeness to his atomic bomb. And who could deny that Tom Cruise’s most meaningful relationship in Top Gun is with his F-11?

Given this recent, largely regrettable track record, all who approach Flight of the Navigator (the latest from the revitalized Disney studio) with clenched teeth are to be forgiven. This time the boy’s best friend is a wise-cracking flying saucer.

But I must report that my own clenched teeth relaxed considerably during the running time of this film. It’s nothing great, but it’s efficiently entertaining and based on a neato idea that ought to impress a lot of 10-year-olds. And it’s cute without being cutesy—most of the time, anyway.

One reason may be that the flying saucer, which is basically a flying computer with a dash of personality, doesn’t enter the film until halfway through. Until then, we’re tantalized by a mystery.

One night in 1978, a 12-year-old boy (Joey Cramer) falls into a ravine near his parents’ house. Knocked cold, he rouses himself later and scampers home. But his parents (Cliff de Young, Veronica Cartwright) aren’t at the house; in fact, they don’t even live there anymore.

Eventually, the kid finds them, but they’ve aged eight years (they’d given him up for dead). His little brother now stands a foot above him. Our hero can’t have been unconscious more than a couple of hours, so what gives?

Fans of time-travel stories will figure out that the kid must’ve been traveling at the speed of light, where aging is slowed—he didn’t change, while eight years went by on Earth. That’s exactly why NASA grabs the boy—they want to find out why he reappeared just when a pretty silver spaceship plonked down on Florida soil.

Turns out the kid had taken a little intergalactic trip, and his flying days aren’t over yet. For the last half of the film, he’ll reacquaint himself with his spaceship friend, who unaccountably sounds a lot like Pee-wee Herman.

Strictly lightweight fare, but under the direction of Randal Kleiser (who guided Grease and the memorably vapid Summer Lovers), it doesn’t get too stupid. Mindless, maybe, but not stupid. There is a difference, and for Kleiser, good-hearted mindlessness is actually a step up. And if you don’t think that’s saying much, you obviously didn’t see Summer Lovers.

First published in the Herald, August 1, 1986

I try to get in a Summer Lovers reference whenever I can. I have to say this movie has been wiped from the brain pan, but the basic idea sounds sort of interesting, and more than a little freaky for the core Disney audience.

Big Top Pee-wee

March 29, 2011

As it must to all little boys, time has caught up with Pee-wee Herman. Not content to fritter away his life in the throes of the Peter Pan syndrome, Pee-wee shows in his new bigscreen opus, Big Top Pee-wee, that he is growing up.

Two questions come to mind. The first is: How can one tell? True, Pee-wee still looks like a curiously powdered 12-year-old caught in a 6-year-old’s clothes, but there are subtle differences. The second question is: Why?

Why, when Pee-wee Herman has been such a successful commodity in the last few years (hit movie: Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, hit TV show: “Pee-wee’s Playhouse”), would creator Paul Reubens tinker with his formula? Perhaps it’s because Reubens, who plays Pee-wee, is leery of getting trapped in an unchanging persona, of Pee-wee becoming just another forgotten fad.

So Big Top Pee-wee brings the goofy character up to date. Here, Pee-wee is a happy-go-lucky gentleman farmer, who lives with his horses, cows, sheep, and his best friend, Vance, a talking pig. Pee-wee is also working on developing some botanical experiments that will, in time, make the world of tomorrow a beter place. (This greenhouse stuff never quite gets integrated into the movie.)

In the opening scenes, we discover that Pee-wee does have a sex life. Well, at least he wants a sex life, which is the first important step. His fiancée, Winnie (Penelope Ann Miller), is more interested in making him egg-salad sandwiches (Yuck!) than in smooching.

Then the circus blows into town. Pee-wee invites the circus folk to stay on his farm, and the ringmaster (Kris Kristofferson, arguably Pee-wee’s unlikeliest possible co-star) gladly accepts. When our manchild spots the trapeze artist Gina Piccalapoopala (Valeira Golino—hubba hubba), he promptly faints dead away.

As the movie tracks Pee-wee’s circus aspirations and his girl trouble, there are some amusing bits. The opening scene of Pee-wee waking up the farm recalls the sight-gagginess of Big Adventure, and a few of the circus act send-ups are similarly inclined. For sheer wigginess, nothing tops an elephant ride taken by Pee-wee and his new sweetheart (accompanied by the strains of what sounds like an old Yma Sumac record, as bellowed by Pee-wee; the music, as in Big Adventure, is by the gifted Danny Elfman).

Big Top Pee-wee inspires the occasional chuckle, but it is not nearly as funny or original as Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. The script, by Reubens and George McGrath, just doesn’t have enough things going on, and director Randal Kleiser (Grease) is busy picking inappropriate camera angles and alluding to other movies, such as A Place in the Sun (for the big kiss between Pee-wee and Gina), The Gold Rush (a hungry lion suddenly sees Pee-wee as a man-sized sirloin steak), and circus movies of the 1950s (such as The Greatest Show on Earth and Trapeze).

The main problem may be that Pee-wee is funny and outrageous as an anarchic child, not so funny as a sort-of civilized adult. Memo to Paul Reubens: Don’t let Pee-wee grow up. He’s too valuable right where he is.

First published in the Herald, July 24, 1988

Bad sequel. Still, I wonder in retrospect: was Reubens trying to do something interesting/creepy/transgressive by making Pee-wee sort of adult in this movie, or was it just a complete bungling of a franchise? The circus also seems like a misstep; part of the joy of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is seeing this freakish individual walking around in the real world, but the circus is already exaggerated, and Pee-wee becomes not as funny. In any case, I’m solid on one thing: Back to the Beach, featuring a Pee-wee Herman cameo but top-lined by Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, is a much better movie than this.