March 7, 2012

The film begins with sweeping vistas of a California town: The feeling is one of absolute normalcy, of everyday life going on its uninterrupted way. The camera eventually zeroes in on one house, and then one window, where we meet the hero of Mask, Rocky Dennis.

The opening suggests that we could be anywhere, at anytime, in anyone’s home. And Rocky Dennis has all the attributes of the average American kid: He collects baseball cards, listens to rock ‘n’ roll, and dreams of biking across Europe. But Rocky is different, because he suffers from a congenital condition called craniodialphyseal dysplasia, which causes his face to be horribly enlarged and disfigured.

And yet, after the initially shocking presentations of Rocky (played under a heavy load of makeup by Eric Stoltz) the film will go on to stress just how normal Rocky is in almost every way but the physical. We see his adjustments to school, his problems dealing with his hard-living single mom (Cher, who is once again very good), his tentative adventure with first love (in the person of Laura Dern).

The only unusual element is Cher’s social circle, which happens to be a gang of motorcycle riders (led by Sam Elliott). But this film is based on a true story, and that’s the way it was.

It is one of the virtues of Mask that Rocky doesn’t become a goody-goody figure; instead, he remains an average guy in nearly every way. Director Peter Bogdanovich has established a tone of unblinking, unflinching acceptance. He doesn’t emphasize anything, he simply presents Rocky and his story. Soon, we almost forget we’re watching anything strange—and that’s exactly the point Bogdanovich wants us to get.

The film’s only weakness is perhaps its too-easy analogies between Rocky’s “mask” and the various figurative masks worn by others, especially his mother’s self-destructive drug-taking and bed-hopping. But Bodganovich and his actors—and of course, the astounding makeup of Michael Westmore—transcend the occasional message-mongering. They make the film come alive in the immediate moment, and the result is—if admittedly not a perfect film—an extraordinary experience.

Bogdanovich, who was a major force during the 1970s (The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, Saint Jack), has returned after a four-year hiatus. He continues to find his own voice as a director: Some of his early films were disturbingly artificial in their patness, but Mask has a convincingly lived-in quality. He’s rolled up his sleeves and dug down deep for this one, and the result is a potent emotional experience.

Bogdanovich has retained his talent for staying in the news: Lately he’s raised a stink because Universal Pictures has altered his soundtrack by replacing Bruce Springsteen songs with Bob Seger tunes. That may sound like one of those crazy directors going off on a megalomaniacal tirade, but you can see Bogdanovich’s point: Springsteen carries more iconographical weight than Seger anyway, and there’s a poster of Springsteen in Mask that shares a wall with Rocky’s baseball cards and Europe map. Had the songs remained, it would have been one more layer of emotional meaning in Rocky’s story. Too bad they’re gone.

First published in the Herald, March 1985

It seems as though the movie should have a higher profile, or be mentioned more often in discussions of various careers that overlap here. Certainly at the time it seemed Bogdanovich would get a career reboot out of this—yet his next film took three years to appear, and it was Illegally Yours, fercryingoutloud. I guess there’s a cut with the Springsteen songs in place.

Fatal Beauty

January 5, 2012

With Fatal Beauty, the mystery of Whoopi Goldberg continues to deepen. The mystery, unfortunately, is: Why is this gifted performer determined to make such nondescript movies? Fatal Beauty is the third dud in a row, after Jumpin’ Jack Flash and Burglar, and it seems clear now that Hollywood doesn’t know what to do with her.

In her new film Goldberg has been unequivocally cast as the distaff Eddie Murphy; it’s her Beverly Hills Cop. As in Murphy’s movies, the role of a cop provides excuses for the character to go undercover and indulge in off-the-wall comedic riffs. So Goldberg gets to try on wacky clothes, test different accents, etc.

Insofar as this allows for some impressive mimickry, fine. But in between Goldberg’s bits of improvisation, there isn’t much of a movie going on.

It’s standard fare, with the emphasis on some deadly drugs that are making the rounds of Hollywood. Whoopi knows the culprit is a fatcat (Harris Yulin), but she’s kept at a distance by his hunky security chief (Sam Elliott).

There’s some slight romance going on between Goldberg and Elliott. We must infer much of it, however, since a love scene between the two was cut out after preview audiences expressed their disapproval. Goldberg is black, Elliott is white; you may also infer what you like about MGM’s lack of guts. (Chastity seems to be another thing Goldberg shares with Murphy, since, with the exception of a few randy outbursts in 48 HRS., Eddie’s screen life has also been curiously loveless.)

Well, the sex scene might’ve added some interest. Now all that’s left is a series of shootings and a few Whoopi wisecracks. The script has that mish-mashy quality that comes from too many writers putting too many hands on it, and it gets small life from director Tom Holland, whose Fright Night of a couple of years ago was a sprightly little horror flick.

A few of the supporting actors run wild. Yulin and John P. Ryan do their usual sleazoid numbers, and Brad Dourif does his patented long-haired weirdo. But when you start savoring these sorts of distractions, you know the movie’s in trouble.

First published in the Herald, October 1987

This could easily have been a decent picture, and it did catch Goldberg in that phase where she still seemed new and talented and sort of hip. Winning an Oscar for Ghost will definitively end that phase for a person.

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.