Johnny Dangerously/The Flamingo Kid

December 9, 2019

johnny dangerouslyTwo offbeat comedies are being released on the same day, just in time for the Christmas movie rush – and you can see why. The studio is hoping they’ll benefit from the general holiday upsurge in movie attendance, and help swell the fortunes of two somewhat hard­-to-sell items.

Johnny Dangerously features the star of Mr. Mom (Michael Keaton) and the director of Fast Times at Ridgemont High (Amy Heckerling), but its guiding spirit (although he had no actual involvement in the film) is Mel Brooks. This is a movie send-up a la Brooks’ Blazing Saddles, in which genre conventions are teased.

The Warner Bros. crime pictures of the 1930s are the raw material, and Johnny Dangerously is very much in the mold: Keaton is the street kid who stumbles his way into the syndicate; Griffin Dunne (last seen as a decomposing corpse in An American Werewolf in London) is his brother, who grows up on the right side of the tracks, no thanks to their salty mom (Maureen Stapleton).

Johnny becomes the kingpin of crime (with accompanying songbird/moll, Marilu Henner), while his brother is the crusading district attorney, who sends him to the chair. Everybody speaks in delicious James Cagney phrases: “Yeah – I like da sounda dat,” or “Who’s da nightingale? She sure sings good.” The writers have watched a lot of movies.

It’s also got its share of anachronistic humor, in the Mel Brooks tradition. Prison inmates eat quiche and sushi. Johnny break­-dances in 1930 (“Gee Johnny, I never seen that kinda dancin’ before”). A fat mobster insists he is about to start the Cambridge diet.

The jokes are like the machine guns that rattle away: More miss than hit. When in doubt, go for the human anatomy jokes – and this film, in a brief self-help newsreel that Keaton shows his brother, dwells on certain body parts that have rarely been dwelled on in legit films be­fore. Enough said on that.

What darn near carries the whole thing is the jaunty perfomance by Michael Keaton, who is confident throughout. He seems to have been born to live in a Warner Bros. film, and his movements recall Cagney in their cocky grace.

flamingokidThe Flamingo Kid is a more conventional film, but it’s also something of a special case among comedies – which is to say, it doesn’t rely on gross-out jokes in place of humor. As a modest growing-up piece, set in 1963, it’s a nice try, but it doesn’t really have anything new to say, and it runs out of gas long before it’s over.

Matt Dillon plays a Brooklyn kid who wangles a job at a swank Long Island country club where he meets a girl (Janet Jones), with whom he gets hot and bothered, and a gin player (Richard Crenna) who takes him under his wing to teach him the cutthroat nuances of gin rummy and life in general.

There are some nicely observed family dynamics (Dillon’s dad, Hector Elizondo, doesn’t like the capitalist pig Crenna putting ideas in his son’s head), but the film is finally about too many things: the girl, the game, the mentor, the family, the gang. It doesn’t spend much time on any of them, and director Garry Marshall (creator of TV’s Happy Days) can’t decide which element he wants to emphasize.

Dillon is better than he has been (he’s a little sunnier than usual) but there’s just not much to go on here. I doubt if even a Christmas bonus is going to help the Kid much.

First published in the Herald, December 22, 1984

I didn’t mention Joe Piscopo in my JD review, so apparently the then-popular SNL star did not make a big impression. I remember it as a really terrible movie. The Flamingo Kid, however, I remember more fondly than my review would suggest – a nice laid-back Florida feel to this film, I think, less constructed as a joke machine than many of Garry Marshall’s pictures.


Leviathan

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.


Table for Five

July 19, 2012

It’s a well-known fact: everybody likes a good cry. But I think we can assume, based on the evidence of Table for Five, that Jon Voight likes a good cry more than the rest of us. In fact, this man loves a good cry, and he’ll open his ducts at the drop of a plot development. Voight gets through half of Table for Five in pretty good shape, but when the major plot bombshell falls—I’m not telling, but it’s a doozy—he starts doing some serious bawling in every other scene or so.

It gets to be too much, even if Voight is one of the best criers around. He’s playing a golf pro/divorced father who hopes to come back into the lives of his three children by taking them on a cruise to Egypt. Mom (Millie Perkins) gives her okay; her new man (Richard Crenna, in another slice-of-ham performance) is somewhat more skeptical. Voight’s character has a reputation as a loser, and the trip represents a last chance for his family and his self-respect. He quickly screws up, and is preparing to throw in the towel on the whole deal when circumstances force him to try again.

And that’s when Voight starts to get all trembly and quivery—he has to talk to his kids, but every time he tries to squeeze the words out, his face goes into contortions from the strain of holding back the tears, and he holds the words in after all. This goes on through the second half of the film, since the filmmakers—screenwriter David (Six Weeks) Seltzer and director Robert Lieberman—have decided it would be keen to put the audience through the emotional wringer every ten minutes; allowing Voight to be the weepy hesitator just increases the mileage they can get out of the eventual (and, in real-life terms, quite devastating) confrontation Voight must have with the children, and turns the movie into a tearjerking striptease.

The great cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond captures some lovely light in the outdoor ocean liner scenes, and the scenery elsewhere is pretty, but…let’s hope he was paid well, enjoyed the traveling, and now wants to get back to work for Altman or Spielberg.

The title Table for Five, incidentally, refers to the dining arrangements that Voight reserves on the ocean liner for himself, his kids (played by three fairly excruciating child actors), and—someone else. The cute Frenchwoman that Voight hopes to get clubby with en voyage? The old widower who is conspicuously lonely? Or the audience itself—might the open chair be an invitation to cozy up to the principals? I doubt it. That would be assuming a level of complexity that the filmmakers don’t otherwise suggest. Either way, it’s an invitation that is awfully easy to resist.

First published in The Informer, March 1983

The “It’s a well-known fact” is, of course, from Gregory’s Girl. Other than that, not too many good memories of this wet movie, and I can’t remember whether Voight’s water works here pre-dates his reaction to the Laurence Olivier Oscar speech or merely repeats a tendency that proves all too facile for the actor’s toolkit.


Rambo III

February 2, 2012

Rambo III lurches under way with one of Sylvester Stallone’s most outrageous concepts ever: that the “full-blooded combat soldier” and full-time war wacko John Rambo would find solace in a Buddhist monastery in Thailand. Yes, the one-man wrecking crew is seeking inner peace when he’s dragged again into the violent fray.

But this time, as the ads so lugubriously put it, it’s for his friend. That is, the colonel (Richard Crenna) who appeared in the first two Rambo films.

He’s been kidnapped by the Soviet army while on a covert mission within the borders of Afghanistan. When Rambo gets wind of this, he suspends his Buddhist studies and heads west.

That’s the set-up, and if you can’t guess the rest of the movie, you obviously lead some sort of rarefied life. With the intermittent help of some Afghan rebels (one labeled Comic Relief and one labeled Youthful Apprentice), Rambo lays waste to a lot of desert country.

Once the clunky half-hour opening is past, Rambo III really gets into its weave of destruction, and jogs through a bunch of sadistic details: Rambo and the Afghans playing an ancient game that involves the corpse of a sheep; Rambo and friends navigating the sewer system underneath the Soviet prison; Rambo shooting down a state-of-the-art helicopter with a bow and arrow; and, most spectacularly, Rambo removing a piece of shrapnel from his side and cauterizing the wound, a sequence that had the preview audience stamping its feet with approval.

Moments such as the latter almost suggest that Stallone is aware of the ridiculousness of these movies. If so, he didn’t tell director Peter MacDonald, who shoves the action sequences along with grimly efficient regularity. There isn’t anything like character development here. As in comic books, it is assumed that the audience already knows the characters and expects them to do what they always do.

The movie cost something in the neighborhood of $63 million, which puts it among Hollywood’s most expensive ever. (Most reports have pegged Stallone’s fee at $20 million.) The sum is amazing, especially since there’s no sense of it on the screen; how can it cost so much to blow things up? There certainly weren’t any cost overruns on rehearsal time for the actors.

Rambo III will make back a good chunk of that money over the next few weeks, though it will have to perform strongly to match the take of the previous sequel, Rambo: First Blood Part II. remember, was about refighting the Vietnam War, and in its own pulpy way it touched a national nerve. You have to wonder: Were Hollywood producers kicking themselves when the Soviets began withdrawing from Afghanistan, thus robbing Rambo III of its cultural urgency? But that may be as cynical a suggestion as Rambo himself.

First published in the Herald, May 1988

I know what you’re thinking: I saved the “most spectacularly” designation for Rambo pulling shrapnel out of his side, not for shooting down a helicopter with a bow and arrow. That should tell you something about the shrapnel scene. How Stallone resisted sending Rambo back to Afghanistan when he brought the character back in the 21st century I don’t know, but perhaps by sifting again  through this original somebody will find a foreshadowing of the U.S. war there. I myself won’t be doing that.