Grandview, U.S.A.

June 15, 2012

Grandview, U.S.A. is one of those frustrating films that deserve to be much better than they are. On the surface, there’s a lot to like about it.

It has a good cast in fine form, for one thing. Jamie Lee Curtis continues her recent string of vivid parts, with her role as the gritty owner of a demolition derby park (inherited from her father). Curtis, the daughter of Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis, showed signs of intelligence even in her days as the scream queen of Halloween, The Fog, et terrifying al.

Coming off her impressive comedy turn in Trading Places and her moving lead performance in the steamy Love Letters, she’s hooked into another good role. Actually, the role itself is not too original—the tough-but-tender gal who imparts wisdom to a younger man. But Curtis’s direct, humorous style makes this character something special.

The younger boy is C. Thomas Howell, a well-to-do kid from the right side of the tracks, just graduated from high school and the next Jacques Cousteau—that is, if he can get away from the small Midwestern town of Grandview and hit the coast. Howell develops a crush on Curtis. Plot conflict, aside from their 10-year age difference: His father wants to wrest the demolition derby arena away from Curtis and build a swanky country club in its place.

Then there’s the demolition driver (Patrick Swayze, from Uncommon Valor) who works off his frustrations about his philandering wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) by cracking up cars. He digs Curtis, too. Swayze, beefier than in his previous films, is convincing and funny as the perpetual loser.

From this, you can almost hear the clichés lining up to be answered. And line up the do: complications, coincidences, resolutions are all predictable.

The screenplay, by Ken Hixon, bears the formula scent of a debut script—and indeed it is. Probably a good director couldn’t have licked it completely, and Randal Kleiser, the man who brought us Grease, The Blue Lagoon, and Summer Lovers, is not a good director.

Kleiser’s adolescent sensibility permeated his first films, and it continues to dominate here. At one point, there’s a rock dream sequence that exists solely as a free advertisement for MTV. At least Kleiser tries to make a joke out of this. But this is definitely his best whack at a good movie, and he may get to be a grownup yet. Certainly the performances by Curtis and Swayze are nothing to be ashamed of.

Oh yes. Another casting inspiration: As the washing-machine repairman who wins Swayze’s wife, Kleiser cast none other than Troy Donahue, the aging heartthrob of the late ’50s-early ’60s. Donahue, draped with gold chains and clad in polyester, is pretty funny. Too bad he doesn’t get more to do.

And too bad the movie doesn’t make the grade. It’s still a fairly painless 90-minute diversion, made interesting by the devotion of its actors.

First published in the Herald, August 2, 1984

Yes, I seem to have liked Jamie Lee Curtis in this one. Is it still Kleiser’s best film? The discussion rages!


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.

North Shore / Disorderlies

August 5, 2011

North Shore is an inoffensive offspring of the granddaddy of ’60s surfing films, The Endless Summer. It presents an insipid story laced with surfing philosophy and music, wrapped around some nifty stunt footage.

The story is the reliable chestnut about the Arizona surfer kid (Matt Adler) who goes to Hawaii for one gonzo summer before he has to go to college. Once there, he will prove himself before the local bad guys, romance a young wahini (Nia Peeples), and receive the wisdom of the waves from a sort of Zen surfmaster (Gregory Harrison).

It’s formulaic nonsense, but surprisingly easy to take (and remarkably well-timed, given surfing’s cultural resurgence). Some of the stunt photography is good, and there are a few shots where the camera is actually inside the curl of a wave. For those of us too lily-livered to stand on a surfboard, this is the closest we’ll probably ever get to a wipe-out.

But the best thing about the movie is the Eastern wisdom of the phlegmatic Harrison, who disdains competitions and show-off surfing. He says things such as, “He surfs for all the wrong reasons,” and “The pure surfer goes with the wave.” Best line goes to the hero’s girlfriend, who implores him after a spat: “Can’t we find a beach and talk?” Ah, Hawaii.

On an entirely less Zen-like level is Disorderlies, a slob comedy featuring the rap group, The Fat Boys, heretofore glimpsed in Krush Groove. This ramshackle excuse for a movie has been rather astonishingly picked up for distribution by Warner Bros.

The Fat Boys consist of Damon “Kool Rock-Ski” Wimbley, Mark “Prince Markie Dee” Morales, and Darren “The Human Beat Box” Robinson. Their names are the funniest things about them.

The movie casts them as orderlies hired by a mean wimp (Anthony “King Rock Tony” Geary) who wants his rich uncle (Ralph “The Human Groove Master” Bellamy) to die. Naturally, the hefty trio play havoc on Bellamy’s mansion, but win their way into the old codger’s heart in the end.

The comedic style is along the lines of the Three Stooges and Jerry Lewis. There are many fat jokes, and one good line of dialogue (the guys walk into a room furnished with priceless antiques, and one declares, “Man, this guy don’t throw away anything.”). After a half hour or so, the joke—you should pardon the phrase—runs thin.

First published in the Herald, August 19, 1987

Some fond memories of North Shore, mostly because of my weakness for surf-related pictures (and I’m not really so lily-livered, at least not about trying to surf, but the opportunity has been nonexistent, unfortunately). I suppose the key to my embarrassing affection for this movie is buried in the credits: “Story by Randal Kleiser.” The man who made Summer Lovers gets me again. As for Disorderlies, I’m afraid I didn’t keep up with the Fat Boys the way I should have, so I don’t have much to add. I much prefer the Tashlin-Lewis Disorderly Orderly, which I recommend for its sight (and sound) gags and some vintage Lewis babbling: “Oh, friction—burning….”

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.