January 27, 2020

firstbornFirstborn is a skillfully manipulative example of American suburban Gothic, with enough jolts and hollers to get the blood pumping at a satisfyingly high rate.

It has a novel subject for a thriller: a pair of brothers (one in high school, the other grade school) watch with increasing anxiety as their divorced mother falls under the spell of a suspicious-seeming new boyfriend.

You’ve seen this kind of creep before: the buzz-word patter, the smarmy heartiness, the incessant talk of just getting that one big score. All the while living off other people; in this case, the mother, who invites him to move in with the family.

To the older boy, it become clear that the freeloader is not just obnoxious – he’s actually dangerous. He appears to be a dope dealer who has the mother so hopped-up on cocaine she doesn’t realize what she’s doing. The showdown, clearly, is going to be the kid vs. the dark invading monster.

Since so many elements of the film work on such a primal level – the invasion of the home, even the hinted-at Oedipal threat – it really gets to you in a basic way. The preview audience with whom I saw the film was whooping loudly when the first-born son started standing up to the boyfriend. This emotional response is carefully prepared for – almost too much so, as the film takes a while to get untracked.

It’s manipulation, but with an interesting idea. After all, just what are children to make of their single parents’ new friends and lovers? This film exaggerates what must be a common anxiety for children in this situation.

Britisher Michael Apted directs from the point of view of Jake, the older boy (Christopher Collet), and he does a shrewd job of revealing sinister bits of information about the menacing boyfriend – who is played with scary intensity by Peter Weller, lately the hero of Buckaroo Banzai. Weller’s dark, ghoulish face and iridescent blue eyes make for a spooky enemy.

You can see how the mother could fall for him; but you can also see why Jake instinctively distrusts him. When the little boy (Corey Haim) asks Jake how he knows mom’s new friend is no good, Jake can only say, “I just know.” No reasonable explanation – but sometimes you just know.

Teri Garr, who plays the mother, has some trouble getting a handle on her character. Garr, usually cast in comic roles (as in Tootsie and Mr. Mom and many others), is by no means out of her league, but the role itself is poorly written. She has to be very passive, or else she would have booted the bum out of her house much earlier. The explanation – that cocaine has clouded her reason – doesn’t quite work in dramatic terms.

But enough of Firstborn does work in dramatic terms to make it tick. There are weaknesses in Garr’s characterization and some serious deck-stacking, but when it comes to the business of making your blood race, Firstborn is quite satisfactory.

First published in the Herald, October 25, 1984

Mostly forgotten, yes? Robert Downey, Jr., and Sara Jessica Parker are in this movie, and it was Corey Haim’s first film. It seems like some sort of cult status should attend to this thing, given that all the elements are in place.


January 22, 2013

leviathanLeviathan has exactly the same plot as Deep Star Six, a film released in January. Both movies are about a station at the bottom of the ocean menaced by a sea monster that attacks the crew members one by one.

Is there something in the collective unconscious that fears big, ugly things that emerge from the ocean floor? Perhaps. Or could it be that two production companies had the idea for ripping off Alien at the same time?

Whereas Deep Star Six was a bouncy exercise in B-movie silliness, Leviathan comes equipped with some A-movie trappings. It’s got some actors, for starters, and a more impressive set design. The basic idea is slightly more clever: The crew of a mining station discovers the hull of a Soviet ship resting on the sea floor. They investigate.

A couple of the crew decide to drink from the ship’s still-intact vodka supply. Bad idea. This causes, as the doctor (Richard Crenna) puts it, “Some sort of genetic aberration,” and the afflicted mutate into big ugly slimy things that want to kill.

The response of the guy in charge (Peter Weller, Robocop) is to fire up all the power tools, zip the bodies in plastic, and set ’em adrift. Unfortunately, he doesn’t see the spare limb that gets sheared off and left behind, like a demonic leg of lamb. When it reconstitutes itself, things really shake loose.

Some of the other crew members include Hector Elizondo, Ernie Hudson, Lisa Eilbacher, and Daniel Stern. A decent enough ensemble, but with very little to do except wait around to get slimed. Also, there’s Amanda Pays, a luscious British actress (from the “Max Headroom” TV show), who is the resident fitness expert. This means the filmmakers must find excuses for her to jog around in tight sweat clothes. Which they do.

Director is George P. Cosmatos, best known as the man who guided, or endured, Sylvester Stallone in Rambo II and Cobra. Cosmatos clearly has his heart in action sequences, and Leviathan gives him a few to play with. Unfortunately, there’s nothing else going on, and the movie stiffs out long before it’s over. Lloyd Bridges, where are you when we need you?

First published in the Herald, March 16, 1989

This film is no relation to the 2012 release labeled “best of the year” by Cinema Scope…or is it? I haven’t seen the other Leviathan, so I suppose I really can’t say.

Dead Heat/Shakedown

September 6, 2011

Last year Robocop proved that you could make an exciting cop movie even when your hero dies in the first reel. Now Dead Heat tries the same thing. Except this time, the revived police officer isn’t mechanically brought back via robotics. Dead Heat simply gives the dead detective a good jolt of electricity, in the Frankenstein tradition.

So, the cop (played by Treat Williams) goes back to work looking pretty normal. Until his flesh begins to decompose. It seems there’s a time limit on his revived status. This provides the impetus for him to find his killers, fast.

Dead Heat staggers along in a discombobulated way; the movie, written by Terry Black and directed by Mark Goldblatt, wants to be both comedic and action-packed. Occasionally it veers into absurdity, as when a restaurant meat locker gets a dose of the reanimating effect, and the cops are attacked by a malicious side of beef.

Williams’ partner is played by Joe Piscopo—a fairly formidable side of beef himself these days—who supplies what is intended to be the comic relief. But both actors take a back seat to the special effects and the make-up, which go into yucky detail. See, resurrected people can’t be killed again, so when dead guys begin riddling each other with bullets, there’s a lot of shooting per square inch. For a long time.

You can tell that the people who made this movie thought it was funny. Every now and then there’s a long pause after a punch line, which makes for some dead air, just one of the many dead things about this film.

Speaking of Robocop, the leading man who was encased in that movie’s hardware, Peter Weller, is back with another police thriller. But in Shakedown, Weller looks like himself. In fact, he’s all too human; he plays a lawyer who came of age in the ’60s, has worked for legal aid for years and, despite his straight-laced appearance, still listens to Jimi Hendrix over breakfast.

He’s about to take a high-paying job with his fiancée’s father’s tony law firm when he lands a case that leads to evidence of police corruption. He should just let it go and ease into his new life, but he can’t. And the presence of his old flame (Patricia Charbonneau), now a district attorney, isn’t helping him keep his head clear.

The outcome of all this is predictable, but it’s an interesting set-up, and Weller gives an offbeat performance. For no apparent reason, he’s given an old pal on the police force (Sam Elliott, last teamed with Whoopi Goldberg in Fatal Beauty), who helps him crack the case. The buddy-picture stuff looks suspiciously as though it’s been added to make the movie more like Lethal Weapon, but Elliott is an enjoyable actor.

The movie’s only skin deep, but it does have its moments, one of which is Elliott’s comic monologue describing how he lost his ideal woman when he accidentally killed her dog.

Writer-director James Glickenhaus goes for a few big sequences, including a tussle aboard a roller-coaster (a good idea that should’ve been better executed) and a chase that ends with a guy catching a ride on the landing gear of a plane. Shakedown is one of those movies that might look better (in a few months) as a 99-cent video rental.

First published in the Herald, May 1988

Dead Heat sounds as though it ought to be better than it is. I’m not sure how I missed mentioning that the Treat Williams character is named Roger Mortis, or that the supporting cast includes Vincent Price and Darren McGavin. Shakedown also stars John C. McGinley, Shirley Stoler, and Blanche Baker; and let us note in passing that for this brief moment, Patricia Charbonneau was understandably considered to be a possible big-time star, although that didn’t happen.