Thursday, October 12, 2017

Million Dollar Mystery

(PG, DEG, 95 mins., theatrical release date: June 12, 1987)

How do you go from distributing seminal films by David Lynch, Michael Mann and Kathryn Bigelow to declaring bankruptcy by promoting trash bags and the reconstructed London Bridge in Lake Havasu City, AZ? That is the Million Dollar Mystery of Dino De Laurentiis' eternal miscalculation. Legend has it that Dino observed a crowd lining up in New York and was told they weren't waiting to see a movie, but instead wanting to gamble on the state lottery. I believe the producers of The Squeeze were also inspired by the same procession. And who knows? Maybe they were in that very line.

Dino De Laurentiis, however, wanted to give something back to the people who forked over hundreds trying to gain millions, to make undemanding entertainment for the serfs of our proudly democratic country while dangling a Glad waste bin liner full of $1,000,000 cash in front of them (that was actually the poster). The Glad Products Company were official sponsors, and specially-marked boxes offered clues that the film may not have provided viewers in guessing where the million was hidden in the movie so that they could fill in the entry form, name that location and win De Laurentiis' personal jackpot. The final tally: 356,306 people gave the correct answer, and a drawing was held to narrow the field down to one winner. So when you get right down to it, Million Dollar Mystery was essentially Dino De Laurentiis' excuse to stage his own lottery competition.

The winner, for the record, was preteen Alesia Lenae Jones from Bakersfield, CA. You'd think that, in the spirit of showmanship, perhaps Dino would select 10 or so people and someone would broadcast their own race for the prize in the manner of a game show like Supermarket Sweep. Surely, it would've helped ease the financial loss of the movie. I don't know how many wary patrons actually slammed down the $6 to watch Million Dollar Mystery, or decided on Predator instead, or if they just stayed home with their Glad products and went from there. But multiplying the number of correct applicants times the ticket price, you get $2,137,836 in potential box-office earnings. Here's what Million Dollar Mystery, budgeted at $10 million, actually grossed in the summer of 1987: $989,033.

Can't you hear its heartbeat?

The most entertaining thing about Million Dollar Mystery in retrospect is in seeing some of the premier critics of the time shilling this branded gimmick in their newspaper columns and on TV. Consider Janet Maslin of the New York Times, who actually wrote down the P.O. Box address where one could obtain a blank entry form in her very review of the film. And get a load of poor Roger Ebert, in the very same year he'd go on to obliterate Bill Cosby, "the richest man in show business," for hawking Coca-Cola to appease his corporate gods in Leonard Part 6. Maslin rightly called the movie an "afterthought" to the contest, but tries to look on the bright side in that most passive of statements: "All things considered, it could be a lot worse." Gene Siskel, Ebert (to some extent) and the Washington Post's Hal Hinson were far less forgiving than Maslin.

Boy, they're upset. And you know, I am, too!!

That's because Million Dollar Mystery is not just capitalizing on the theatre-going public's deeper-seated needs for financial security, escapist fun and waste removal supplies, but the premise itself is one of the baldest "stop me if think you've heard this one before" knock-offs this side of the equally cynical Mac and Me. A stranger dies in front of a gaggle of goofballs, but not without asking them how they'd like to get rich off a strategically-placed bounty. Dollars dancing in their heads like sugarplums, these dopey commoners run out to their cars and engage in reckless pursuit of the loot, with plenty of property and vehicular damage along the way. And the fates will conspire to make sure none of them will discover or recover the money without various slapstick encounters and comeuppances.

Your premonition is correct. Million Dollar Mystery is the 1980s model of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, which had been ripped off many times before, like in Scavenger Hunt (to be fair, that 1979 version has the best cast outside of Mad, Mad World) and some obscurity called Flush (1977), which must have been made exclusively for Keith Bailey. And as I mentioned previously with The Gumball Rally, the entire automotive subgenre of Cannonballsploitation is also in debt to Stanley Kramer's wacky touchstone. With but a lonely few exceptions, you can usually tell these comic charlatans apart from the real thing by the lack of star power, their amateur replacements, the derivative gags, their abysmal timing, the harebrained characters, their crummy dialogue, the inferior filmmaking, their complete and utter indifference towards who makes the goal first. Million Dollar Mystery, alas, is no Rat Race.

Why even talk about Million Dollar Mystery as a movie, when it's so transparently a product? [sigh] Here goes nothing. Instead of Jimmy "Smiler" Durante having skimmed $350,000 in tuna factory profits, it's Tom Bosley, the TV pitchman for Glad bags himself, as government traitor Sidney Preston, who has embezzled $4 million worth of kickbacks from the Libyans. After divvying up the bounty and secreting it in four ways, he pulls over at the Apache Acres Motel and Restaurant for a bowl of their special chili. You know the old man is in mortal danger when the cook proudly lists rattlesnake and armadillo as his choice cuts, so it makes no sense to write the phrase "faster than you can say 'Change my order to the soup.'"

Faster than you can say "Change my order to the soup," Preston has a fatal heart attack and everyone else in the diner swarms around him as he hips them to the four million-dollar placements, "each one is in a bridge." He won't tell them where to begin until the redheaded waitress he's obsessed with gives him a kiss goodbye. George Kennedy in Bolero had smoother moves than the former Mr. C. A newscast on TV validates his story by declaring him a wanted man likely hiding out near his hometown of El Puente, and awaaaayyy we go!

The abovementioned hostess, Dotty (Pam Matteson), and her brother/chef/co-owner Tugger (Royce D. Applegate) lead the charge. We get Eugene...erm, Eddie Deezen and Wendy Sherman as four-eyed newlyweds mad with consummate lust. There's Rick Overton, wife Mona Lyden and moppet son Douglas Emerson, who is such a dead ringer for Peter Billingsley, I was anticipating Stephen McHattie would arrive to stalk him and kill him. I knew that was my heart's desire when, watching the nerdy nymphomaniacs suck face in the diner, he quips: "Can you imagine what their kids are going to look like?" I'm guessing they'd all resemble Ronny Howard from Village of the Giants, just like Douglas Emerson. Even more annoying are three blonde Bananarama wannabes and their handler, played by who could care less (I‘m told one of them is a Playboy centerfold).

Along the way, they encounter Rich Hall, a one-season wonder on SNL in the Carl Spackler mold; H.B. Haggerty as a pro wrestler once again, but without the fatherly twist afforded him in Blake Edwards' Micki + Maude; Mike Farrow as P.I. Tommy Sledge in a noir parody which, as Tugger is quick to proclaim, "looks right out a 1940s movie," but is still not ready for prime time even if your mind doesn't drift to Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid; and Kevin Pollak playing a deputy officer in his screen debut, wearing out his welcome fast with gong-banging impressions of Dudley Moore, Ronald Reagan and Peter Falk. That he comes across as a nightclub performer is no surprise, but his preferred destination isn't the Comedy Store, but the Bomb Shelter from Albert Brooks' Defending Your Life.

This was 71-year-old Richard Fleischer's glum finale, the dismal capper for a slump in the ‘80s that began with Neil Diamond as The Jazz Singer and encompassed additional De Laurentiis productions Amityville 3-D, Conan the Destroyer and Red Sonja. I got the impression that this decade wasn't kind for a lot of Old Hollywood royalty when you find out that Diamond's co-star was Laurence Olivier (next stop: Inchon) and that Stanley Donen had gone from Charade and Singin' in the Rain to Saturn 3 and Blame It on Rio. Fleischer, meanwhile, had done Soylent Green, Fantastic Voyage, Doctor Dolittle, 10 Rillington Place, and Tora! Tora! Tora! among many others. His loyalty to De Laurentiis is touching, but just like Donen in his last movie, dumb comedy is a depressing means to bolster your retirement funds. And Million Dollar Mystery is the lowest of the low. Red Sonja is a great deal funnier accidentally than this one is purposely.

It's a bad, bad, bad, bad film. Since the talent pool in front of and behind the camera is practically non-existent, the shrill, stupid characters aren't worth enduring even for the now-hypothetical cash prize. It's so unpleasant, you feel like a hostage taken at ransom by the world's worst comedy improv troupe. Stanley Kramer's 1963 prototype escalated the absurd jeopardy to suspenseful extremes and pushed its greedy characters past the point of civil obedience amusingly. The hoary Fleischer and his writing team go at justifying De Laurentiis' gimmick with no invention or investment. The great Jack Cardiff is wasted as cinematographer, the music consists of bland boogie songs and a synth-pop cue which is a shameless nick from The Art of Noise's "Paranoimia" (where's Matt Frewer when you need him?) and the Southwestern setting makes an unintentional parallel to the barren landscape of humor on screen.

But what else can you say? Million Dollar Mystery only exists because of the contest, and while you'd never see Golan & Globus pony up a fortune in cinematic reparations ("combat pay"), the slapdash feature it spawned isn't even as rewarding as the best/worst of Cannon. Please offer a moment of silence, though, for Hollywood stuntman Dar Robinson, who died on set November 23, 1986, the result of a motorbike leap which went awry. His name pops up in the credits while Mack Dryden & Jamie Alcroft, who are the federal agents trailing the money-hungry mob, try to pad out the "It's up to you!" reveal with more third-rate shtick. Unfortunately, Dar Robinson's dedication isn't saved until the end and is also bracketed in quotes, as if it were another glib line in a movie that is nothing at all if not artificial.

Sunday, October 8, 2017


(PG, Warner Bros., 116 mins., theatrical release date: March 19, 1982)

Sidney Lumet's Deathtrap, based on the long-running Ira Levin twister which premiered on stage in 1978, plays to win and then plays all over again, becoming more playful with each curveball. It's a blatant pun to hang an opening statement on, but Levin and the characters he wrote kid knowingly with the impetus of creation, the huffing motivation and the dramaturgic glossary of the pre-production stage. And Lumet, whose Christie adaptation Murder on the Orient Express will be getting revamped by Kenneth Branagh, has relinquished his grittier side (12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead) for sprightly humor and potboiler suspense. The main character, an over-the-hill author of theatrical murder mysteries (with names such as "Gunpoint," "In for the Kill" and "The Murder Game") realizes while clutching his own outside goldmine: "Even a gifted director couldn't hurt it." One can easily picture Lumet coming to the same epiphany with Levin's sure thing, rewritten for the screen by Jay Presson Allen.

Sidney Bruhl (Michael Caine) could use such a windfall more than Sidney Lumet. "Murder Most Fair" has just opened appallingly at the Music Box, his fourth successive flop and the catalyst for derisive jeers from producer Seymour Starger (Joe Silver) and the theater critics on TV, among them Joel Siegel and Jeffery Lyons. "I'm doing the only sensible thing," Bruhl screams at his wife Myra (Dyan Cannon), who's resting up back at his Easthampton abode. "I'm getting pissed!" But he gets too soused and misses the train station, reaching the end of the line at Montauk ("Bloody symbolic"). Further humiliating him is the unimpeachable first draft of a play called "Deathtrap," written and sent by one Clifford Anderson, who attended Bruhl's most recent college seminar. Estimating its value at up to $5,000,000 (not including T-shirt sales), Bruhl looks at the antique mace on his wall mount of weapons, stage props and genuine articles both, and contemplates making a killing.

The purse-clutching Myra, whose angina has set her constantly on edge, is catatonic at how serious Bruhl is about the murder plot. He calls Anderson up and invites him over under the pretext of collaboration and counseling. When Bruhl goes to pick up the first-time protégé, it's not a "glandular case" or a stammering dolt he encounters, but a handsome boy scout. Anderson (Christopher Reeve), taking along the proof of his beckoning career's work, coyly rebukes Bruhl's egomaniacal assistance, all the while Myra raises a voice of frazzled conscience. Alas, Bruhl bluffs his way into one-upping Anderson by proclaiming he's got two hot new projects. One of which is based on Harry Houdini, the better for Bruhl to entice Anderson to try on "trick" handcuffs.

Welcome to Act I of Ira Levin's (filmed) play, the 40-minute set-up for ever more chicanery fraught with suspicion, envy and homicidal urges. Deathtrap continues the battle of wills between Anderson and Bruhl, but what happens is far too eccentric and witty to dictate in review form. 35 years later, it is fairly known that a chaste smooch between Caine and Reeve appalled straight audiences, inspiring novelty musician Tom Smith to claim that "Two Guys Kissin' (Ruined My Life)." Mad Magazine ridiculed the film in their October 1982 issue, and Dyan Cannon was singled out by the Golden Raspberry committee for a Worst Supporting Actress nomination (Cannon, Rutanya Alda from Amityville II: The Possession and Colleen Camp in The Seduction all lost to Aileen "Annie" Quinn).

Come on. I just tore Seltzerberg a fresh asshole for their thoughtless crimes against parody. I wouldn't trust an obscure "filkie," a poor man's National Lampoon and the homeless man's Stinker Movie Awards to make fun of what already is an immensely humorous effort. And there is a lot to laugh at in Deathtrap without acting on juvenile superiority. Dyan Cannon is advertently playing Myra for laughs. Her every doting exclamation of "Sidney" or "darling," even going so far as to call Sidney "my darling darling," is a friendly, ticklish poke in the ribs instead of a balled fist. But she is also convincingly fearful in those speechless moments as she watches Bruhl scheme, her cupcake-sweet face going haggard and pupils dilating in close-up, nervously clutching her ring finger in the backdrop. The guilt she confesses in her attempt to tell Sidney to move out is palpable.

And Cannon isn't the only one with a firm grasp on the insanity of it all. Michael Caine has been in a lot of schlocky movies where he was reduced to a stick of dynamite begging for a match. The character of Sidney Bruhl puts the flame to the fuse. Christopher Reeve was clearly still fixed in the collective conscious as a mere comic book hero. As Clifford Anderson, he's sexier, smarter and phenomenally sinister when the occasion calls for it. Caine and Reeve would recycle the same personae in Peter Bogdanovich's version of Noises Off a decade later, but Lumet not only scratches the surface, he gets these actors' exposed marrow. Reeve feigned nosebleeds as the dimwitted hunk in Noises; Deathtrap allows him uncut hilarity after rising from the dead in the Bruhls' vegetable patch.

And there's a fourth party, the Dutch empath next door who occasionally surveys the hazardous shack while sensing "pain, pain, pain!" every foot of the way. Helga Ten Dorp is a budding showbiz personality with a book about her fantastic life of ESP-assisted criminal investigation and a slot on The Merv Griffin Show. And she is played by Irene Worth in one of the most amusing supporting performances of 1982, a comic blitzkrieg on the level of Sean Penn's Jeff Spicoli, Bill Murray's Jeff Slater and Joe Bologna's King Kaiser. She will, in as much as the principal stars, be diagnosed with Bruhl calls "thrilleritis malignus," or "the fevered pursuit of the one-set, five-character moneymaker." And like the "master plotter" himself, the fortune awaiting the run of "Deathtrap" strikes her as an enticing retirement fund, as she is aging out of her precognitive talent as much as Bruhl.

The biggest change from Levin's original amorality tale comes at the end, which wraps up in cautionary fashion with Anderson and/or Bruhl's play causing Helga and the porter to become starry-eyed over the prospect of their very own shot at "Deathtrap." The movie diverges in that, complementing the addition of an opening scene depicting Bruhl's pitiful opening night, we actually see who reaps the rewards (here, the porter is played by Henry Jones). The decision strikes me as less of a cheat than the Hollywood ending of Noises Off, if only because there is some context and the kind of irony you'd find in the non-directory yellow pages. The shock cut which takes us there, however, makes it come across as a rushed, if not false, note.

Sidney Lumet does more wonders with the baked-in staginess of Deathtrap than Bogdanovich on Noises Off. Once again assisted by Andrzej Bartkowiak (of Prince of the City and the subsequent The Verdict), Lumet fashions a homely menace out of the countryside mansion, replete with dapper door and windmill, and judiciously moves his camera to get over the one-set, two-act treachery. The foreboding storm which darkens the house at the conclusion works the strobe light a bit too much, and the same overkill is applied to Dyan Cannon's piercing scream during an equally scary set piece, which results in an obvious dubbing gaffe. Would that those were as natural as Johnny Mandel's frisky score, the presence of Tony "Signore Bumbacelli" DiBenedetto (as Burt, the Bartender) and Tony Walton's astute contributions to both production and costume design. 

Deathtrap's ultimate enjoyment comes down to a quartet of excellent performances, the moments where fanatical ambition gives way to sociopathic psychoses and the inflating manner in which real life writes the play. What compels Sidney Bruhl and Clifford Anderson to succeed by nefarious pragmatic necessity is either a self-loathing yearning for the simplest possible life or the cocky, deranged reverence which is the downside of most aspiring self-starters. Bruhl wants to hold on to upper-class prestige without being lumped in with the "ex-mistresses of ex-presidents, former CIA assassins and happy hookers" just out for publicity. Anderson's giddy demeanor just feeds off that fantasy. Where Myra Bruhl and Helga Ten Dorp fit into this story...well, I suggest you find out for yourself. Deathtrap is really that good. Even a gifted reviewer couldn't hurt it.

[Thanks to Drew McWeeny and Scott Weinberg of the '80s All Over podcast for lighting the fuse of this particular rundown.]

Friday, October 6, 2017

Cult of Chucky + Spy Hard + The Money Pit

(R, Universal 1440, 91 mins., video release date: October 3, 2017)

The Chucky saga isn't as overbearing as Freddy or Jason, but ever since Karen Barclay bought the possessed play pal for her son Andy in 1988‘s Child's Play, the trajectory proved fairly similar. First, there was that intriguing and clever original from director Tom Holland. Then came a routine “the terror continues” sequel wherein the rebuilt Chucky proceeded to menace Andy Barclay and his adoptive family. It was tolerable, but the third installment made it look like Aliens by comparison. Controversial for the time as a lynchpin for the Video Nasties furor over in England, Child's Play 3 was also the series' nadir for a spell. Writer Don Mancini steered his creation through a couple of pomo revivals with the decent Bride of Chucky and the tired Seed of Chucky, which veered off too far into winking camp.

2013's Curse of Chucky gave Mancini's psychotic toy a fresher sense of purpose and also introduced the gifted Fiona Dourif (daughter of Chucky vocalist and character actor Brad) into the fray. This wasn't the Friday the 13th idea of a new beginning, but instead a leaner, meaner chamber thriller with a transfusion of new blood. Cult of Chucky, a.k.a. Child's Play 7, follows the path of Curse, but incorporates the more self-aware elements of the post-Scream Bride/Seed as well as tries for a trickier third act than expected from the reliable formula. The combination still seems unrefined: self-promoted director Don Mancini is no Wes Craven, and to watch Chucky brag about beating mean old Ms. Kettlewell with a yardstick is to cringe once again at the diminished returns which set in too early. Cult is a lesser movie than Curse despite its ambitions, but more tempered than previous rehashings and hinting at what could be a decent finale if Mancini tries for a third effort.

Andy Barclay (Alex Vincent) and Nica Pierce (Fiona Dourif) are most assuredly not well off for having made it out alive. Andy has never experienced a real childhood thanks to Chucky, and his adult life is even more abnormal. When another blind date ends in rejection because of his violent past, Andy retreats home to torture the disembodied, taunting head of his lifelong tormentor. Andy (and the child actor who played him in the first two movies) may have grown, but he's still mentally 12 and burning his action figures in a mutually spiteful dynamic. Paraplegic Nica, meanwhile, took the rap for the mass killings of Curse and is now in psychiatric care, with deliberate echoes of Brad's Oscar-nominated debut role as well as Fiona's association with the crowd-funded indie chiller Fear Clinic.

In a fraction of the time it takes for Nica to be rehabilitated, who should come interrupting her group therapy sessions but a Good Guy Doll with the familiar name of Chucky! The body count rises and Nica's warnings go unheeded by her lecherous shrink (Michael Therriault as Dr. Foley). Outside of these confines, Andy is mocked over the phone by Charles Lee Ray's paramour Tiffany Valentine, whose soul continues to live on in the body of actress Jennifer Tilly. Turns out there's an even more abridged version of the Damballa voodoo chant which Charles exploited to inhabit the Chucky toy. Worse, there's enough of the Lakeshore Strangler to go around when there are eventually three Chuckys going to murderous work at the funny farm.

Mancini quotes the visual tricks of De Palma and Kubrick (split screens and sterile palettes) as he peppers his dialogue with throwaway references to not just earlier Child's Play movies, but even the Hannibal TV show. Just as ham-fisted are his attempts to discredit Nica's sanity by having Dr. Foley hypnotize her into believing she is the real homicidal maniac, which only serves to set up the big ironic twist to come. There's a strong Elm Street 3 vibe to the proceedings, especially when Andy arrives to take care of Chucky but is punk'd in much the same way Nancy Thompson was at the end of Dream Warriors. Alex Vincent has less screen time than Langenkamp, but he does make a stronger impression up until he ends up in the cell. The characterizations of Nica's fellow inmates, which include the smooth-talking former vagrant Michael (Adam Hurtig) who believes her as well as the nastily skeptical Claire (Grace Lynn Kung), are as stock as a supermarket's inventory.

What remains good about Mancini's series are both Brad and Fiona Dourif, the delirious mixture of graphic violence (the worst saved for an unsuspecting orderly who walks into Dr. Foley‘s office) and psychological trickery (Elisabeth Rosen as Madeleine forms a deranged attachment to Chucky in repose) and his willingness to embrace unconventional narrative outcomes. I've come around to the diabolical fates for Andy and Nica in hindsight, and the film's reliance on practical puppet/splatter effects is old-fashioned in the best ways. And like Curse, the unrated version of Cult of Chucky is baited with a credit cookie that brings back another beloved survivor (“You seen dolls that pee?“) and gooses up Mancini's cliffhanger finale. It's tempting to suggest that Don Mancini, whose energies are better spent on writing, should hand over the directorial reigns to, in Chucky's vulgar parlance, your “goddamn women drivers!” You think the Twisted Twins would sign on for it? This is 2017, after all, and at least in the entertainment world, the honor of saluting the good old days of horror should itself transfer to a more progressive body.

(PG-13, Hollywood Pictures, 81 mins., theatrical release date: May 24, 1996)

Turner Classic Movies aired Who's That Girl recently as related from a tweet by Bill Chambers of Film Freak Central. But having reviewed it myself, it's just another sub-mediocrity which has benefited way too much from glib nostalgia. I dread TCM turning into I Love the '80s, but 1996’s Spy Hard doesn't make me pine for the dregs of the next decade to end up on the suspect list of modern "classics." Another case of something which stunk from the beginning and has rightly decomposed, Spy Hard appears to be a feature-length vehicle for director Rick Friedberg and spoof comedy superstar Leslie Nielsen. But it was also the debut screenplay credit for Rick's son Jason and his college roommate Aaron Seltzer, and one's heart not only sinks at this, it forces you to leave your seat to ensure it didn’'t fall right out of your ass.

The seminal send-up of espionage tropes already came from the ZAZ trio with Top Secret! All Spy Hard adds to it is "Weird Al" Yankovic's send-up of the Maurice Binder title sequences from umpteen James Bond movies and the discreetly bombastic theme songs accompanying them. Without his Airplane!/Police Squad benefactors, Nielsen winds up in his very own Leonard Part 6 as secret agent Dick "WD-40" Steele, facing arch-nemesis General Rancor (Andy Griffith) 15 years after blowing up his helicopter, but merely ridding him of both arms in the process. Rancor has taken hostage Barbara Dahl, daughter of Steele's deceased one-and-only Victoria (both Dahls played by Stephanie Romanov), but what the 80-minute Spy Hard is most concerned with are the kind of toothless pop culture references Friedberg & Seltzer have beaten to death since then as amateur parodists: from Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid to Sister Act to Speed, with an already-expired swipe at Cliffhanger (and a Michael Jackson gag better used in Neil Young's "This Note's for You" video) and an aimless recycling of Pulp Fiction's dance sequence which fails to do for that iconography what “Straighten the Rug” from Top Secret! did for Elvis movies.

With Nicollette Sheridan as the Yurrupean love interest (or Agent 3.14), Charles Durning as the Agency's master-of-disguise chief, Marcia Gay Harden as Moneypenny, and Barry Bostwick & Robert Guillaume as the reigning top agents, Spy Hard doesn't lack for a willing ensemble. Bostwick affects Ted Kennedy's Brahmin accent with blithe merriment, and the times when Nielsen simply coasts on his mugging, velvety charisma are comparatively painless to the inferior jokes he delivers. But the Friedbergs and Seltzer and fourth writer Dick Chudnow can't even do right by the cameo talent they've corralled, let alone their principals. Aside from both Mr. T and Alex Trebek in the opening riff on Mission: Impossible, there are the wasted likes of Ray Charles as a bus driver, Pat Morita (first Collision Course, now this) as a gay maitre d' and, as passengers on Charles' bus, both Curtis Armstrong and Michael Berryman. That I didn't notice or laugh at Curtis Armstrong at first watch is a special form of stupidity (the late Taylor Negron is in this, too, as a painter, but I don't want to see any more Savage Steve Holland MVPs pissed away like this). Eddie Deezen is in this, too, but so what? He's been too good for a lot of his post-Grease career.

Spy Hard plays like a dark omen for the way spoof movies would devolve into mean-spirited, cheapjack redundancy rather than genuine subversion or anarchy. Bond movies tended to be in on the joke even at their laziest and lamest, and Spy Hard doesn't push their inherent ridiculousness over the edge in an amusing way. Seeing Talisa Soto, the gangster moll from Licence to Kill, and Robert Culp, the other half of I-Spy who's not Cosby, doesn't lend it any charitable relevance. We get a lot of femme fatales and ancillary characters dispatched in cartoonish ways, including a dancing fool who pops up frequently to take bullets and throwing stars for Steele. But they are about as unfunny as the Home Alone rip-off (read: NOT parody, just regurgitation) which casts John Hughes' Dennis the Menace, Mason Gamble, to be Macaulay Culkin only to have the thugs rough him up as revenge for Getting Even with Dad and both My Girl movies. That Gamble-as-Culkin has to say he wasn't even in My Girl 2 only reinforces this malignant recognition-as-joke approach would get worse in the future with the "movie" movies. Ian Pugh, also of Film Freak Central, said it so well in his book-exclusive takedowns of Friedberg/Seltzer's Meet the Spartans and Disaster Movie from the FFC 2009 Superannual. And so did Doug "The Nostalgia Critic" Walker in this editorial.

It took "Weird Al" Yankovic seven years after UHF to come up with the single funniest element of Spy Hard. In a shorter time frame, Seltzerberg have been distressingly rewarded for their brainless, repetitive, shoddy contributions to the genre. There have been six of them ranging from Date Movie to The Starving Games, and there isn't one moment in any them that could light the menorah like Yankovic did when he married the music from "Money for Nothing" to the lyrics of "The Ballad of Jed Clampett." Mark Knopfler is no match for such dire straits as this. In the spirit of Yankovic, here's my final thought on Spy Hard courtesy of Rip Torn's Artie from The Larry Sanders Show and the aforementioned Savage Steve Holland: "You opened with a showstopper. The movie's over...You can go home now." Move-ah, move-ah.

(PG, Universal Pictures, 91 mins., theatrical release date: March 26, 1986)

Had Richard Benjamin's only directorial credit been My Favorite Year, I would embrace him as a legendary one-shot akin to Charles (The Night of the Hunter) Laughton. Alas, the retired actor kept plugging away from behind the camera, his follow-ups from 1984 being the romantic Racing with the Moon, starring Sean Penn and Nicolas Cage, and the pedantic City Heat, starring Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds. Benjamin took the latter gig when Blake Edwards was booted from the production, and it turned out to be a thankless task. Neither of the macho marquee idols lived up to the charming self-deprecation of the great Peter O'Toole, and it was clear that not only had Edwards' muse abandoned him (he fittingly declined credit for the sloppy script by changing it to S.O.B.), but that Benjamin couldn't handle tonal changes even in a B-grade gangster movie.

Still, My Favorite Year was a pleasant surprise back in 1982, and the box-office king of that year was paying attention. The Money Pit should've closed out another banner year for Steven Spielberg as a Christmastime release in 1985, but with his own The Color Purple bucking for Oscar-validated prestige that he did not get, it was delayed until the following spring, upon which it was razzed all over in the critical press as a disappointing ancestor of both the Cary Grant/Myrna Loy gem Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House and Spielberg's own Poltergeist. Tom Hanks and Shelley Long, Benjamin's leads here, each provided good work for Ron Howard in the past (Night Shift, Splash) but make a lackluster impression together, even if their individual appeal breaks through on occasion.

If Pacific Heights were a broad domestic comedy instead of a middlebrow thriller, The Money Pit is what springs to mind. Walter Fielding (Hanks) and his girlfriend Anna Crowley (Long) have respective gigs in the music biz (he as a legal advisor, she as a concert violinist), but they are dirt poor and crashing in the home of Anna's symphony conductor/ex-husband Max (Alexander Gudonov) on his European engagement. His tour ends prematurely, forcing them to decide upon buying a home just as swiftly. With luck, Walter and Anna hit upon a million-dollar mansion being sold at a $200,000 song by Estelle (Maureen Stapleton), whose husband Carlos has been detained by Israeli spooks. Or at least that's what she tells Anna; she neglects to mention the house is so decrepit, it's practically as stable as a castle made of Elmer’s Glue and popsicle sticks.

The entire staircase comes loose and collapses. The water main appears to be connected to the sewage system. One flick of a light switch sends wily sparks shooting up the electrical wiring. The naïve couple invest whatever cash they have for repairs in the service of men named Shirk (Joe Mantegna is the grossly disreputable carpenter) and hellion laborers who tear out the ground and leave holes in the walls. The ones who do renovate work for weeks on end, which doesn't prevent further destructive chain reactions. The lovers' morale is eaten away like a cartoon termite feasting on the Pink Panther's cottage, which leaves them to vulnerable to suspicion and infidelity.

Richard Benjamin is on surer footing here than he was with City Heat, and a couple extended scenes of the house wreaking havoc harken back to the slapstick vigor of My Favorite Year. Compared to Spy Hard, Benjamin is better at stacking his cards and toppling them than Rick Friedberg. And when it comes to peripheral jokes, writer David Giler shames Seltzerberg as much as The Nostalgia Critic. Walter seeks a cash advance from a prepubescent multi-millionaire he represents, coming up with this assertive form of blackmail: "If you don't loan me that money, I’ll not like you anymore!" There's also a fine gag involving Anna's medicine cabinet, and Gudonov's conceited, contemptuous Max upstages even the hysterical Tom Hanks.

But like Hanks' previous The Man with One Red Shoe, another terribly wan spy caper, The Money Pit lacks a black comedy foundation to go along with the elaborate catastrophe. It's inevitable that the unmarried Walter and Anna will require some patching up of their own, but this is thrown at us half-baked and hastily. Spielberg and Giler, as executive producers, have commissioned the house to be the star at the expense of Hanks and Long, still small-screen personalities in 1986 and saddled with a script that lets them down not just physically, but materially. The contrivance of their love story eventually shows up the limited capacity of the comedy, and since The Money Pit isn't as whimsically demented as Back to the Future or Gremlins, the Spielberg productions it truly recalls are the more labored, self-conscious carnival rides of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and The Goonies, and still on a lesser scale.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Project X (1987) + The Accused (1988)

(PG, 20th Century Fox, 108 mins., theatrical release date: April 17, 1987)

The Roger Corman Academy is known for turning out some formidable directors back in the 1970s: Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante, Ron Howard, and Jonathan Demme (R.I.P.). But the most ignored of them has to be Jonathan Kaplan, which is a shame because he has a skill with economy that could've only come from filming on the cheap and tawdry. Scorsese himself broke Kaplan into Corman's good graces, which resulted in the sexploitation efforts The Student Teachers and Night Call Nurses. Then he directed Jim Brown in The Slams (for Roger's brother, Gene Corman) and Isaac Hayes in Truck Turner (for AIP). In 1975, Kaplan delivered a B-movie hit for Columbia with White Line Fever, only to bomb two years later with the Terence Hill vehicle Mr. Billion.

The failure of that film must have caused some apprehension amongst the majors, because nobody paid attention when Jonathan Kaplan rebounded in 1979 with what I consider one of the greatest teen angst movies of all time, Over the Edge. Funded by Orion Pictures and starring both Matt Dillon and Vincent Spano in their debut roles, it should've restored the Parisian Kaplan to the top of the B-list. Over the Edge was instead handled with kid gloves due to the controversy kicked up by Walter Hill's hoodlum-rousing The Warriors. It got buried as a limited release, only to reemerge in 1981 through the festival circuit and HBO. By 1983, Kaplan got his chance to return to the big screen, after a trio of TV movies, with Heart Like a Wheel, a biography of drag racer Shirley Muldowney which netted Bonnie Bedelia a Golden Globe nomination.

Much of what Kaplan did in the aftermath of Heart Like a Wheel wound up on MTV, since he directed videos for Rod Stewart ("Infatuation," co-starring White Line Fever actress Kay Lenz, and "Lost in You") and John Cougar Mellencamp ("Lonely Ol Night," "Small Town," "Rain on the Scarecrow"). Which leads us to PROJECT X and THE ACCUSED, two of the topical dramas which were among his last feature directorial efforts of the 1980s. Kaplan graduated from Corman's fringy New World Pictures to a pair of heavyweight production teams responsible for some substantial blockbusters. Project X came from Walter F. Parkes & Lawrence Lasker, whose WarGames managed to conquer a sizeable chunk of the summer of 1983. The Accused came from established mogul Stanley Jaffe and his partner Sherry Lansing, as well as Paramount head Dawn Steele, who boasted the second-biggest hit movie of 1987 with Fatal Attraction.

From what I've researched, Project X is loosely based on real accounts of the U.S. Air Force having exposed roughly 3,000 rhesus monkeys to radiation far beyond the standard lethal dose in order to gauge human endurance during a nuclear war. But there was a larger controversy involving Kaplan's own dramatization when the Los Angeles Department of Animal Regulation, as spurred on by TV personality Bob Barker and the United Activists for Animal Rights, investigated an alleged 18 felony counts of animal abuse from several trainers. This went against the reports of the American Humane Association, who were officially active during filming, but Barker pressed on by going public with photos from the set which he believed showed chimpanzees being threatened with blackjacks. He was hit with a multimillion defamation suit from the AHA which was settled for $300,000.

Project X's lukewarm reputation has not been helped by being caught in such a scandal, and one might be tempted to view the movie with eagle eyes to see if the chimps' behavior may have been provoked by blunt force stimuli to validate what some claim is hearsay and others harmful. All I can say is that the movie did work on that visceral, primal level which helped make Over the Edge such a surprise.

The film pivots on one simian actor, Willie, in the role of Virgil, who is captured from his jungle habitat and put on the black market. He eventually lands in the care of Theresa "Teri" MacDonald (Helen Hunt), a grad student at the University of Wisconsin's psych department. Her intentions are to teach the playful animal sign language, although she strikes up a friendship with Virgil which ends once her grant is cancelled. She is told Virgil will be moved to a Houston zoo to receive proper care, but given his innate desire to fly, fate detours Virgil to the Strategic Weapons Research wing of the U.S. Air Force in Lockridge, FL.

His ‘sapien counterpart is Jimmy Garrett (Matthew Broderick), an insubordinate airman who is grounded against his will and assigned to the "Experimental Pilot Performance Project" at the Lockridge laboratory. It would appear that Garrett's ultimate goal is to innocently teach Virgil and the rest of the caged primates how to master a flight simulator, but Garrett notices the morale of his fellow draftees, Isaac Robertson (Johnny Ray McGhee, Kaplan‘s A-1 regular) and Watts (the great Stephen Lang), calcifying into stony silence. And he's picked up on Virgil's aptitude in talking with his paws, forming a bond just as deep as the creature once had with Teri. So when Garrett takes Watts' position as "lord of the apes" and is granted clearance to witness the end results of the chimps' VR air travels, he too is rattled by the radioactive death sentence Dr. Lynnard Carroll (William Sadler) has planned for the primates.

WarGames found Broderick, as the teenaged instigator David Lightman, in a race against the machine, one designed to simulate extreme and destructive conditions (like the arcade-friendly flight cabinets in Project X) but working of its own rationale and buying into the non-existent threat of "Global Thermonuclear War" with missiles bared and ready to launch. Project X renders the recycled peril a frigidly manmade decision as opposed to mechanical (Sadler, playing the first in his singular repertoire of chilly antagonists, specializes in evasively academic validation) and doesn't shy away from the physical casualties. However, it is also comparatively lighter in the lead-up to the nefarious reveal, with composer James Horner offering a dry run of the sounds that would make Titanic unsinkable a decade later and some cute monkey business in which Virgil's cellmates pick up on less civil gestures than the domesticated hero, who clutches a toy alligator in his first encounter with Garrett.

Jonathan Kaplan keeps a commendable pace before and after the 42-minute mark, the point where Garrett's affable naiveté as caretaker is shattered by his powerlessness upon witnessing the "graduation" ceremony for Bluebeard. Matthew Broderick, subdued in a way that must have thrown his Ferris Bueller fan base for a loop, adapts to the material with his reliably superb wits and expressiveness. Having been established as a miscreant, wheedling a ridiculous excuse for treating a girl to a champagne-fueled night flight, Garrett asks the right questions about the illogic of the experiments (namely, that a human pilot's knowledge of impending death is unlike how a chimp thinks) to get him fired by Dr. Carroll. He reaches out to Teri in fear but just as cravenly tries to take his mind off the horror by getting drunk and playing poker at an Air Force tavern. Just as excellent as Broderick is co-star Willie the Chimp as Virgil; when he discovers the frightening truth, his shrieks of alarm startle the viewer as much as it does Garrett.

Aided by master cinematographer Dean Cundey, Kaplan offers no-frills contrasts underlining the remoteness in Garrett's environment as another freshman to the project receives the same routine from Sgt. Krieger (Jonathan Stark, of Fright Night and House II: The Second Story) he once gave Jimmy. The movie does succeed at its stated goal of making the chimpanzees as intelligent as the humans, and there is a moment where the chimps in the vivarium taunt and stare at Dr. Carroll that is like a moment of eerie calm before they act upon their primal rage. The biggest hurdle in the story comes when Garrett and Teri lead the monkeys on their escape, a moment of uplift which allows Virgil to realize his wildest wish (as well as for Garrett to echo the misdemeanor which busted him down to the project) at the expense of credibility. Yet Kaplan's sleek effectiveness gives what could have been shameless melodrama a potent urgency, and both sets of actors are handled with care.

As a fan of Kaplan's Over the Edge, I suggest one watch out for appearances by Daniel Roebuck, who made a strong impression in OE scriptwriter Tim Hunter's River's Edge, as well as the two leads of that that ‘79 film, Michael Eric Kramer and Pamela Ludwig, in minor roles. Peter Gabriel's oft-misinterpreted "Shock the Monkey" (which literally happens at one point during the finale, as Dr. Carroll futilely tries to control the escalating revolt) is deployed for the opening credits, which leads to a cameo by none other than Dick Miller.

(R, Paramount Pictures, 111 mins., theatrical release date: October 14, 1988)

Inspired by the New Bedford assault case of Cheryl Araujo from 1983, The Accused is the adult flipside to the family-oriented science fiction of Project X, a fight for autonomy from the perspective of a rape victim instead of a lab animal. Sarah Tobias (Jodie Foster), who is as uncouth as Goliath but graced with enough integrity as Virgil, is a low-class waitress who decides to release a thick cloud of steam from a domestic quarrel by visiting her best friend at a roadhouse dive, The Mill. One thing leads to another, and soon Sarah, her senses weakened by casual marijuana and alcohol use, is sexually assaulted by three men on a pinball machine in the recreation room, a rowdy batch of yokels egging them on. This is staved off until the final act, though. Kaplan begins at the climax, fixating on the Mill's freeway-stationed exterior for the main credits, followed by Sarah bursting out of the front door in obvious distress, hitching a ride to the hospital where the doctor inquires about her recent bouts of intercourse and whether she carries a venereal disease.

Birchfield County Deputy D.A. Katheryn Murphy (Kelly McGillis) appoints herself Sarah‘s prosecutor, but the battered client poses a huge risk as a case subject. Outside of being stoned and intoxicated, her ordeal could be cheapened by such looming double standards as provocative dress and flirty banter, the latter Sarah doesn‘t confess to until far too late in the investigation. To the goons who were there, Sarah was obviously teasing and putting on an exhibition; this "consensual" chauvinism is paralleled by Ms. Murphy's chief executive boss, Paul Rudolph (Carmen Argenziano). Leveling a lesser charge of reckless endangerment at the plea bargain, Murphy commits a flagrant offense to Sarah by denying her a proper courtroom recounting. It isn't until after Sarah has an unpleasant encounter with her aggressors' head cheerleader, Cliff "Scorpion" Albrect (Leo Rossi), and rams his pick-up truck in retaliation does Murphy seek a proper legal statute to go to trial with: criminal solicitation. "No deals," the women finally agree to demand in a precedent-setting act of litigation which will set the record straight.

There is transparent foreshadowing when Ms. Murphy and Lieutenant Duncan (Terry David Mulligan) consult the initial rape case with Mr. Rudoph while watching an ice hockey game, where the violence is expected to be cheered if not goaded on by the carefree spectators. Barmaid Sally Fraser (Ann Hearn) is only good for pointing out Scorpion and the two other aggravators; she provides unflattering truths to Murphy about Sarah's carnality and fled the scene of the crime without so much as an anonymous call. The only significant testimony could come from Ken Joyce (Bernie Coulson), the college student who has kept a sullen distance since reporting the gangbang. Murphy gets to him, but Ken becomes reluctant to take the stand once he's aware that his frat buddy, Bob Joiner (Steve Antin), will be indicted for the rape Ken knew he'd committed and serve the full prison sentence of five years.

In its own generous if grueling way, The Accused is a fitting reprise of the major theme of Project X, as studied complacency stirs a righteous call for justice. For Sarah, defiantly regaining her self-confidence by kicking out her dealer/musician boyfriend Larry (Tom O'Brien) and cutting her hair so as to resemble a trailer-park Laurie Anderson, it's the betrayal of her lawyer and the badgering of that odious bystander which activates her sensitivity to the beleaguered Ms. Murphy and the frightened Ken. Murphy's patronizing careerism gives way to bold humanity by acknowledging an equally independent, gutsy soul as vulnerable as she is unrefined. And Ken, the silent witness, selflessly experiences a moral awakening in distinct opposition to the nasty machismo of Bob and Scorpion.

The Oscar-winning Jodie Foster plays Sarah so phenomenally close to the bone to that it would seem to elbow out the solid work of Kelly McGillis (Witness, Top Gun) and "newcomer" Bernie Coulson, a Canadian actor who did one notable exploitation role as aggressive townie Jimmy Cullen in Paul Lynch's Bullies. McGillis does live up to her character's given name by turning in a performance as exquisitely composed as Kathryn Harrold (cf: Modern Romance, The Sender). Kaplan directs both the moodily blue-eyed Coulson and even schlock stud Steve Antin (that conspicuously gay monotone aside, it's his best work to date) within their element. The plot's true catalyst is Scorpion, the most boisterous of the six indicted cretins, embodied with disturbing gusto by Leo Rossi (Heart Like a Wheel, River's Edge, both Halloween and Maniac Cop's first sequels).

Foster, 25 at the time and painfully self-conscious, found herself at the second wave of her career but with trepidation about the alchemy of her character. It's a confidently heartbreaking portrayal, built from offhand sheepishness and bravado but suffused with a lonely pathos Tom Topor's script and Kaplan's more stylish camera seize upon. After returning to the Mill with Murphy and Lt. Duncan to locate two of her violators, Sarah is driven home and, her voice still cracked, asks whether her face looks good. She tries reaching out to her mother, who is typically frigid, hoping for a vacation which will allow her to recompose herself. The fact that Sarah's vanity plate reads "SexySadi" is tempered by the discovery that it's referring to her pet cat. The one subject she does have deep-seated knowledge about, astronomy, is cathartic rather than insular, especially since Sarah is not your average dippy star child or grotesque palm-reader.

When The Accused takes us to "show time," reconstructing the night of April 18 from Ken's confessional, it is very unpleasant and charged with a volatile sexuality brought on by Sarah's cocksure cock-teasing. Entertaining it is most certainly not, given one does not defend the predominantly piggish male crowd, but it is effective given the degree of character investment we've been spoiled with. You know enough about Sarah to realize she's flawed and fascinating, but the test which arrives 30 minutes near the end is whether you can deny the "blame the victim" outlook and perceive not just the three-pronged crime of forced entry, but also of excessive verbal abuse. Jonathan Kaplan puts us in Ken's horrified position over by the arcade on that night and as well as under oath (it pains me to consider Bernie Coulson another case of drug-addicted showbiz insouciance, since he is so capable under Kaplan's guidance).

Since his career peak with Over the Edge, Kaplan's ability to spin sensationalism into gold has been taken for granted. Both Project X and The Accused confirm that his talent runs deeper than most people have given him credit for. Whether it's restless teens banding together to send a destructive message to the PTA or a reckless young adult who commands our sympathy if not our pity in the wake of a degrading molestation, Kaplan paints broadly but knows well enough to keep a can of gray primer at his side. More so than the populist Ron Howard or even brilliant formalist Martin Scorsese, Kaplan is both accessible and resonating. That his fortunes waned after Bad Girls (1994) and Brokedown Palace (1999) is Hollywood's loss as much as it is ours. Give him some of our brightest contemporary talent and a worthy script again, and maybe we can all flash that signature Roger Corman grin.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Gumball Rally + The Allnighter

(PG, Warner Bros., 105 mins., theatrical release date: July 28, 1976)

"Carsploitation" is in no way associated with Gary Numan, but is instead a handy, catchall term for the type of movie designed to show off chromium enhancements and monochromatic riders. The post-Easy Rider models usually crashed against the brick wall of existentialism, while the two-wheel designs were less heady and built expressly for hedonistic speed, with a catchall term of its own. With the release of both Gone in 60 Seconds and Dirty Mary Crazy Larry in 1974, the era of solemnly-fueled chase pictures like Vanishing Point and Two-Lane Blacktop was supplanted by undemanding, goofier action flicks which emphasized zany characters and projected demolition derby set pieces onto screens. Paul Bartel's Death Race 2000, made under Roger Corman's aegis, is the gonzo masterpiece of this particular lot, in which its annual Transcontinental Road Race is a dystopian blend of bread-and-circus and hit-and-run; Race with the Devil, also from 1975 and starring Peter Fonda and Warren Oates, is as bizarre as a Larry Miller Toyota salesman pitching you a hearse.

1976 was the year when Death Race writer Charles B. Griffith induced Ron Howard to pop the clutch and tell the world Eat My Dust! Another New World title, Moving Violation, recycled the familiar theme of lovers (Stephen McHattie, Kay Lenz) on the run from corrupt authority. And Bartel reluctantly followed up Death Race 2000 with a movie based unofficially on Brock Yates' well-publicized Cannonball Baker Memorial Dashes, only this time facing big studio competition when Warner Bros. rolled out The Gumball Rally in the same summer.

Directed by Charles Bail (Black Samson), The Gumball Rally acts as a PG-rated alternative to the saucier fare Corman marshaled. There's no nudity, the violence is strictly auto-destructive and the dialogue doesn't get any racier than the notion of sniffing butts. It confirms the sea change in carsploitation by repurposing not Easy Rider, but It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Norman Burton takes the Spencer Tracy role of the fanatical policeman who blows his top trying to trap the speed demons, and there's even a throwaway gag involving the incineration of a mass of fireworks. Alas, Stanley Kramer's ambitious slapstick, which built up to delirious chaotic juxtapositions, remains out of Bail's reach.

That's because the stakes in The Gumball Rally are comparatively lower, promising only a fleeting sensation of glory as opposed to the cash prize buried under that giant W. And the characters are less colorful not simply because of the lack of seasoned muggers, but primarily due to Leon Capetanos' dry-witted script. Michael Sarrazin, filling in for Peter Fonda, plays rally organizer and champion Michael Bannon, who starts the movie looking bored at a conference call and picks up little charisma during the race. At least Burt Reynolds, in the better of his Hal Needham collaborations, seemed liberated and sociable behind the wheel. That boardroom ennui extends to the ensemble, as very few of the characters appear truly joyful to be on the road, often times squabbling and screaming and enduring dopey setbacks which should've played a lot funnier than they come across. Broad comedy is handled either way too stoically or far too stridently for The Gumball Rally to ever reach the red line of hilarity.

The varied drivers Bannon puts out the call for include Barney (J. Pat O'Malley) and Andy (Vaughn Taylor, in his last role), elderly Englishmen who ride slow and steady in a classy Mercedes; Joanne Nail (Switchblade Sisters) and Susan Flannery (The Towering Inferno) as Jane & Alice, Beaver Falls housewives who take to a souped-up Porsche Targa; stock car daredevil Ace "Mr. Guts" Preston (Gary Busey) and his mechanic Gibson (John Durren), who drive each other crazy in their Camaro; Steven Keats and Wally Taylor as the LAPD officers comprising the Dodge team; and Bannon's longtime competitor Smitty (Tim McIntire), who brings in a ringer named Franco (Raul Julia) and whose Ferrari stands the closest chance of catching up with Bannon and Professor Graves (Nicholas Pryor) in their Cobra. A lone Hungarian on a Kawasaki (Harvey Jason as Lapchik) is the primary source of pratfalls, basically a human Wile E. Coyote on an Acme motorbike. A gofer (Lazaro Perez as Jose) answers a classified ad to commandeer a Rolls Royce and sweet-talks his buxom Queens girlfriend (Tricia O'Neil as Angie) into tagging along for the trek.

Having listed the makes of the vehicles as well as their pilots, The Gumball Rally is obviously far more interested in the former. Schlock cinematographer Richard Glouner frames the cross-country marathon in 'Scope, with ample shots of the automobiles bulleting down tunnels, bridges and wide open highways spanning Times Square to Tulsa to Long Beach. Every once in a while, the action pauses so that Lt. Roscoe (Burton) can be humiliated in some way, from getting robbed of his pants by Lou David (Cropsy from The Burning) or overlooking a cargo truck which carries Smitty and Franco past a checkpoint. Less amusing are the tangents involving the rally's participants, which tend to lack payoffs (the cops, who use state-specific decals to evade capture, are stopped by an expecting father in a traffic jam) or are just dully derivative (Jose and Angie being harassed by a noxious chopper gang).

Gary Busey is fittingly insufferable as the death-defying yokel who's a feeb outside of the stadium, but he'd need another decade to ripen into a real showboat. The only character here who is as sleek and magnificent as his/her ride is Franco, a lustful Italian whose hot-blooded confrontations usually end with him firing a squirt gun at his foes. He snaps the rearview mirror off his Porsche in accordance with the central rule of Italian driving: "What's-a behind me is not important!" In the middle of the contest, Franco leaves Smitty hanging so he can go to bed with Colleen Camp and then catches up with him the next morning, leaving Camp his scarf as a token of their one-night stand. Raul Julia, the Puerto Rican dynamo of stage and screen up until his untimely passing in 1994, is zestfully entertaining in his early showcase, even if Julia never gets to flash a mischievous smile to the viewer. The rest of the cast fail to rise above this affliction, but what can they do since Bail & Capetanos are themselves stuck in the mud? The Gumball Rally, true to its confectionary code name, is a chalky thing which gradually loses its flavor the longer you eat it up.

(PG-13, Universal Pictures, 108 mins., theatrical release date: May 1, 1987)

Issue another citation for pulling up lame to The Allnighter, which would've been the perfect title for a superior version of The Gumball Rally. It refers here to a sundown fiesta held by the imminent graduates of Pacifica College, a USC which looks like it only doles out GEDs. The valedictorian is a demure beach bunny named Molly who, just like Bo Derek before her, is a minor in Love. Her roommate is a totally bitchin' surfer boy (C.J., dude) who hangs a tubular ten but is, like, wow, a wipe out with the babes. Her best friends are Val, a bombshell blonde engaged to an emasculated preppie, and Gina, an oddball redhead preserving their eternal bond on VHS, a surrogate mother kissing her babies goodbye as well as the female equivalent of Mark Cohen from Rent.

And Gina is played by Joan Cusack! Like, reality bites, bud.

Cusack is perhaps the only good aspect of The Allnighter, in hindsight. Towing her camcorder, Gina catches the pre-hangover waves of the Latin-themed blowout, delivering cautionary commentary straight out of a B-horror film. Joan's got Boy George's fashion sense and Brother John's wry faculty with dialogue, a built-in mega-weapon defending her from the inanities of this script. And Dedee Pfeiffer, Michelle Jr., plays Val appealingly enough to merit a silent slow clap when she stands up for herself and her friends. Sadly, try as they can, this is neither Cusack nor Pfeiffer's film. The Allnighter is tailored specifically to The Bangles' pin-up attraction Susanna Hoffs, with her mother Tamar Simon H. co-writing, producing and directing. The result is All Over the Place, Everything for no one and too dismal to view in a Different Light nowadays.

Early in her career, Susanna was a beauty of Audrey Hepburn proportions who, along with the Peterson sisters and ex-Runaway Michael Steele, toughened paisley-tinted harmonies/guitars with lyrics that were from the unflinching eyes of women, not idealized "September Gurls." The glossy makeover which heralded their pop superstardom in 1986 caused mixed feelings, and Susanna's elevation to leading lady only worsened the suspicion. Instead of encouraging the starlet to honor Hepburn or Shirley MacLaine, The Allnighter taps from the drained keg of the '60s beach romp, which had been grossly modernized ad nauseum during The Bangles' inaugural prime. To wit: Where the Boys Are was remade badly in the same year their debut LP premiered.

Susanna is hung out to dry as just another naïve sex kitten, when she could've benefited from demonstrating a smidge of the photogenic grit she and her mates showed musically. The nonstarter of a plot involves the anxious Molly, who is staggeringly invisible to surfin' bohunk C.J. (John Terlesky), hoping for a whirlwind romance courtesy of elder Pacifica alumnus and has-been pop icon Mickey Leroi (Michael Ontkean), who isn't as eager and willing as she. Left stranded on the terrace of his luxury suite at the Playa Del Rey, Molly calls her girlfriends for help, but they get wrongfully imprisoned for solicitation (the hotel detectives, played by Mannequin's Meshach Taylor and The Wizard's Will Seltzer, assume they're hookers). Meanwhile, C.J. and Killer (James Anthony Shanta) trade secondhand Spicoli musings ("A babe in the kitchen is worth two on the beach") in between shooting the curl, or at least until a tidal wave washes C.J. up to some moot degree of common sense.

It's phenomenally bogus, all gleaming-teeth amateurism and suntanned stupidity. The coed camaraderie would've been a noble focal point for T.S. Hoffs to build upon (the three leads show some chemistry), but The Allnighter is more concerned with soft-core scenarios for its insipid main character. That poster art of passive Susanna Hoffs in a bikini IS how Molly is conceived. Molly is supposed to be a bright young woman, holding out for a Sam Shepard-style paramour, but the male population surrounding her is staggeringly ridiculous, from the imbecilic surfer dudes to Val's anal-retentive fiancé Brad to the worthless Mickey, who dismisses her as a groupie. She has to lower her standards to the shallow environment in a bid for affection, which makes the concluding sex scene a hollow bore. Val and Gina possess the spunky intelligence denied to the one-dimensional ingénue Susanna is stuck playing.

It should also come as no surprise that T.S. Hoffs arranges scenes with promo video redundancy, not just with her nubile daughter (she gives herself a lascivious makeover to the tune of Aretha Franklin's "Respect") but the characters of the surfer dudes, their ocean escapades serving as interminable relief(?) from the girls' rote dramedy. Timbuk 3's satirically chipper "The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades" plays over one of the longer surf digressions, cementing its sad legacy as declawed montage music for dopey comedies (right, Tommy Boy?). The big doll house blues which greets Val and Gina, replete with Pam Grier as the icy sergeant, is also a comedic/narrative dead zone, robbing Dedee Pfeiffer, Joan Cusack and even Ms. Grier of their tested charms. And aside from the two songs I mentioned, even the soundtrack is negligible. When we hear Mickey's band, The Rhinos (which the grads keeps confusing for The Hippos in one of many strained attempts at comedy), it's clear that The Bangles sounded more convincingly like '60s relics. Speaking of, Susanna Hoffs doesn't sing a note in this movie, not even in front of the mirror. Why?!

The tedium is framed by Gina's earnest documentary ambition: both the starting and ending credits catalog her most extreme close-ups. She ends up showing more directorial finesse than T.S. Hoffs, although they both could do well to have Martha Coolidge as their cinematic guidance counselor. "And I hope, like, if you see this maybe in 20 years at a film festival or…maybe in a theatre," Gina warns at the onset, "you'll remember us this way." Her project is untitled, but The Allnighter serendipitously provides one for her: "Heroine Takes a Fall." And I'm feeling bad all over for writing that. Gee, didn't Frankie & Annette reunite in 1987, too?

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Real Genius

(PG, Tri-Star Pictures, 108 mins., theatrical release date: August 7, 1985)

When Amy Heckerling directed Cameron Crowe's script for Fast Times at Ridgemont High in 1982, she demonstrated a rare sense of objectivity in an era of gross objectification. Since a lot of these teen exploitation movies were either transparently calculated or stiffly personal, what redeemed Fast Times wasn't just the savvy in casting the roles, from Sean Penn's dominating doper to the Martin Twins who stormed out of Captain Hook Fish & Chips, but Heckerling's finesse in handling the many tones of the film. It was as situational as a Porky's, but not as sensational. Her outsider's perspective (as well as Crowe's) didn't force the amiability or leaden either the melodrama or the madcap tangents. What resulted was a hang-out movie worthy of its Sherman Oaks Galleria setting, as well as a more perceptive and less shallow depiction of the worn rites-of-passage tropes.

Martha Coolidge's Valley Girl arrived next year to confirm the welcome difference in hiring untested female formalists of collegiate breeding as opposed to utter schlock merchants. Though staler than Fast Times, given a subplot that deliberately quoted The Graduate as well as the star-crossed romance which was its crux, Valley Girl took a social idiosyncrasy which was the stuff of Zappa-worthy disdain and made a genuine effort to invest us in the fashion plate heroine and her vulgar but charismatic love interest. Deborah Foreman established her perky cult credentials (it's a real shame she never got the Kim Cattrall breakout she deserved) and Nicolas Cage's rise started out in captivating earnest. Frederic Forrest and Colleen Camp weren't bad nor badly-written as the parental units, and the soundtrack actually corralled both The Plimsouls and Josie Cotton to perform on camera. Like Fast Times, Valley Girl seemed like a more authentic scene than most chintzy movie campuses.

As the '80s teen movie finally stopped getting lucrative on its basic/base fascination with puberty, Heckerling and Coolidge's careers differentiated quite starkly. Amy Heckerling branched out to mainstream comedy quite unevenly with Johnny Dangerously and National Lampoon's European Vacation before getting associated with the decent Look Who's Talking! and its abysmal sequels. She waited until the 1980s were well over before going back to the teen mill, starting all over with 1995's own trend-defining Clueless. Martha Coolidge, meanwhile, stayed in the youthful groove as Paramount's hired gun for their overdue adaptation of The Joy of Sex. Alas, pressure from the studio to conform to the lowest common denominator, echoing her previous struggle with Valley Girl, resulted in her considering the fabled Alan Smithee credit, which she later regretted declining. In 1985, Coolidge returned to form with Real Genius.

At first glance, Real Genius looked as unpromising as The Joy of Sex for Ms. Coolidge. It's all in the presence of hack scriptwriters Neal Israel (Amy Heckerling's former husband) & Pat Proft, creators of the runaway smash Police Academy as well as Bachelor Party and Moving Violations. The comedic trend these men were cashing in on is better associated with producer Ivan Reitman and his slob comedy touchstones Caddyshack, Meatballs and Stripes. Reitman's films, which harkened back to the anarchic culture clash scenarios of the Marx Brothers and The Three Stooges, launched Saturday Night Live's sardonic Bill Murray as movie star (their shared peak being Ghostbusters), the 1980s heir to inveterate wisenheimer Groucho Marx. And it was Murray's shadow in which Tom Hanks, Steve Guttenberg and Bill's own sibling John were cloaked. Just as John Belushi set the gold standard for chunky party animals (and by my estimation, that includes Rodney Dangerfield as much as Joe Rubbo), Bill Murray epitomized the slacker's swagger through playing the kind of puckish schmoe it pays not to underestimate.

For Real Genius, Israel & Proft provided yet another Bill Murray replica in the form of Chris Knight, the senior stud at Pacific Tech who came to an epiphany after observing the mental breakdown of a fellow whiz kid and now applies his own advanced intellect to less introverted pursuits. No longer shackled to white shirts and hush puppies, Chris embraces mock-sloganeering tees ("Surf Nicaragua") and penguin slippers. His thermos of frozen nitrogen can be carved into coins to outsmart the rec room's vending machines. And in lieu of brain-frying study work, Chris preoccupies himself with such extracurricular amenities as mutant hamster races, Madame Currie look-alike contests (there was one contestant, and he was later disqualified) and crashing the tanning invitational held by the Wanda Trussler School of Beauty. If he's going to embrace being a smarty-pants, Chris figures he's going to work on the smart-ass which best fits.

Had Neal Israel directed this himself, the actor playing Chris would no doubt look like another Bill Murray doppelganger, too. Retooled by Martha Coolidge, who coaxed a convincingly lovesick but playful Nicolas Cage in his first leading role, she notched another victory by landing Val Kilmer, fresh off the ZAZ trio's Top Secret! After a heated career in which, during its height, he played Jim Morrison, Bruce Wayne and Doc Holliday, it took a Gay Perry to remind us what a find Kilmer was in the mid-1980s. Whether acting an Elvis send-up whose hits included "Skeet Surfin'" and "Straighten the Rug" or as the sassy foil to Robert Downey Jr., Kilmer had both impeccable taste in comedy projects and the mischievous, self-effacing charisma to match. Kilmer gets an exquisitely snappy, high-energy showcase here not unlike Cage's Randy from Valley Girl, as well as a fully-rounded character.

But despite the promotional materials, Val Kilmer wasn't all that Real Genius had to offer. 14-year-old newcomer Gabriel Jarret (we'll discount his brief appearance in Going Ape!) is also appealing as Mitch Taylor, the freshman prodigy who is plucked from the Western Regional science fair by celebrity brainiac Dr. Jerome Hathaway (William "Wally Wick" Atherton, officious as ever) to join Chris Knight in his research development team. The kids' mission is to unwittingly invent a new five-megawatt laser capable of vaporizing an object from space, thus Real Genius offers a tantalizing take-down of the "Star Wars" initiative of the Reagan presidency. This death ray, the Crossbow as named by its CIA backers, is even introduced like a toy following a credits sequence pitting diagrams of various tools of destruction against the jazz standard "You Took Advantage of Me."

Mitch, a guppy with advanced theories in florescent compound physics, is the kind of idealist Chris was in his first three years as the smartest person in the room. There's also a third young man with the same jaded trajectory as Chris, Lazlo Hollyfeld, played by Jonathan (TerrorVision) Gries. Hollyfeld, who is smarter than Mitch and Chris combined, used to slave over his own scientific breakthroughs before being told that was he designing was potentially lethal. This rendered him a gentle hermit with a mysterious ability to walk into Mitch's closet and vanish into thin air. Pacific Tech has the kind of atmosphere where it's sink or swim, some students managing to thrive under pressure and others cracking. Since Mitch is still a child, he seems poised for an early breakdown, especially thanks to ruthless sycophant Kent (Robert Prescott), who's angling for team leadership in between substitute teaching gigs and dry cleaner errands for Dr. Hathaway.

Certain plot elements in Real Genius cater to Israel & Proft's puerile flavor of humor, especially the character of PR executive Sherry Nugil (Patti D'Arbanville), a "genius groupie" who tries to seduce Mitch in a surprise visit. That it doesn't devolve into another Private Lessons comes down to Martha Coolidge and co-writer P.J. Torokvei's decision to introduce a female Pacific Tech student who is more compatible for Mitch in both intelligence and innocence. Enter the director's good luck charm: Michelle Meyrink (also from Revenge of the Nerds as well as Coolidge's previous comedies) as the tirelessly inventive Jordan Cochran, which can charitably be called the Joan Cusack role. Assertive in her own spaced-out way as Chris and Dr. Hathaway, Jordan lacks the filter preventing all of her idle thoughts from verbal expression. She holds her own compared to her rambunctious male counterparts and, with her bobbed hair and spontaneous work ethic, struck a blow for female representation in the campus comedy. The character of Gadget Hackenwrench from Disney's Chip 'N' Dale Rescue Rangers was directly inspired by Jordan.

With a bevy of likeable characters and adroit performers (Atherton imbues his flagrant villain with OCD hang-ups and a few colicky outbursts), Real Genius does achieve a sort of delirious chemical bond. There are wittier lines and gags in Coolidge's film alone than any five sons of Animal House fused together. A student nicknamed Ick (Mark Kamiyama) transforms dry ice fog into solid matter suitable for indoor skating and sledding. Pressed by Chris to reveal his secret, Ick retorts: "Oh, sure. I tell you, then you tell somebody else, and the next thing you know, we're in the middle of another ice age." Hollyfeld, who has finally acquired "certain materialistic needs," breaks a Frito-Lay sweepstakes like it was the bell curve. And Mitch's initial impression of campus life is thrown into a loop by a math class which grows increasingly remote; the absent students set up boom boxes and tape recorders to record, resulting in a hilarious pay-off.

Ed Lauter (the principal shadow man), Stacy "Dogtown" Peralta, Louis Giambalvo, Severn Darden ("I think the young people enjoy it when I 'get down' verbally, don't you?"), Sandy Martin, Paul Tulley & Joanne Baron (Mitch's dim parents), and Deborah Foreman (kissing off Chris like his name was Tommy) do well peripherally. Among the outstanding tech credits, which include a fine batch of production/set designers doubling Caltech, are Risky Business editor Richard Chew and the esteemed Hungarian cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. To my memory, this is one of the rare '80s teen movies shot in 2.35:1 Panavision, which accommodates the sleek design of the Crossbow as well as the irresistible way it is recalibrated to get revenge on the unethical Dr. Hathaway. The use of Tears for Fears at the end clinches the deal, with the soundtrack also boasting Tonio K., Don Henley, Bryan Adams, The Call, The System, and The Comsat Angels.

Alas, for as many quality teen movies which came out in the overcrowded year of our Lord 1985 ("This is Jesus, Kent, and you've been a very naughty boy!"), the trend as a whole seemed to be disappearing quicker than Lazlo Hollyfeld. With the exceptions tied to Steven Spielberg (Back to the Future no doubt gave a push to Teen Wolf at the summer's end) and John Hughes, youthful comedies weren't topping the box-office surveys or sticking around long enough to earn anything beyond breakeven sums. The Sure Thing and Porky's Revenge each finished around the $20 million mark, and not even Top 10 singles by Madonna (the chart-topping ballad "Crazy for You," which she performed in the actual movie), Journey ("Only the Young") and Pat Benatar helped Vision Quest ($13 million) and The Legend of Billie Jean (stalling at $3.1 million during the summer of '85, Benatar's theme song "Invincible" peaked months after the movie flopped). All these underachieving teen movies released that year became strictly cult classics, be they Real Genius or Better Off Dead or Girls Just Want to Have Fun or Just One of the Guys (another surprise teen romp from a female filmmaker) or both of Kelly Preston's star turns.

But if there is has to be some kind of honor roll, even if it's a "moral imperative" that you grade on a curve (maybe do that for Better Off Dead and Just One of the Guys), Real Genius is a definite shoo-in for the very best teen comedies not just of 1985, but the entire decade. It's as fluffy as the nougat in a Three Musketeers bar, to be honest, but Martha Coolidge took what could've been another formula comedy and teased out honest-to-goodness belly laughs, a veneer of pacifistic satire within the subterfuge and a really solid string of performances. You could spend hours trying to determine who were the real geniuses of this genre of comedy, but Coolidge was undeniably a true savant.