Wednesday, April 25, 2018

A Little Sex + Casual Sex?

(R, Universal Pictures, 95 mins., theatrical release date: April 2, 1982)

(R, Universal Pictures, 88 mins., theatrical release date: April 22, 1988)

Nobody goes to the movies for a sex education class, but most coitus-based mainstream comedies are actually more invested in the equally dirty deed of romance. This is especially true for both A Little Sex and Casual Sex?, then-contemporary '80s throwaways whose forthright titles are pillow talk concealing more pressing concerns on the minds of voraciously carnal singles. Is marriage a surefire cure for a wandering eye? How do you measure physical compatibility when you're fretting over the danger of STDs? Can you be seduced by either of these movies tonight and not hate yourself in the morning?

In the case of Bruce Paltrow's A Little Sex, there's nothing a TV-based sensitivity and some pixie dust can't do for a naïve beeline to the Chapel of Love. This is only natural considering MTM Enterprises (as in Mary Tyler Moore, of course) optioned this as their first theatrical release, splitting the $6,000,000 bill with distributor Universal Pictures (who also loosed Casual Sex? upon us). Paltrow (creator of MTM-TV's The White Shadow) and writer/producer Bob DeLaurentis have ported over the fairytale of New York from Mary's flagship sitcom and skewed it to a more male curiosity, but their overall philosophy is no different than the one voiced in her theme song: "You're gonna make it after all." This is true even if you're a freshly-wedded stud who's been tirelessly cuckolding your future spouse during the 10 months you were live-in lovers.

Michael Donovan (Tim Matheson) works as a commercials director, so he's confronted with temptation no matter where he goes, be it on the set or at a dinner date or strolling down a Madison Avenue past a hallucination's worth of provocatively-dressed women. His older brother Tommy (Edward Herrmann), a veterinarian at the Central Park Zoo, knows via regular conversation that Michael's raging libido is as natural as a "birth defect" and bets the $82 in his wallet that his brother will slip up and cuckold his bride, Katherine Harrison (Kate Capshaw), who teaches at the Mother of Christ parochial school for girls.

And Michael does slip, first with Philomena (Wendie Malick), the clarinet-playing girlfriend of Kate's longtime friend and Julliard teacher Walter (John Glover), and then with an aggressive wannabe actress named Nancy (Susanna Dalton). Kate catches him in the latter clinch, and all comedy goes out the window as Michael stews in the resulting guilt and loneliness. The rest of the film is an arduous string of failed reconciliations (Mike types out a list of 18 past conquests to demonstrate previously nonexistent honesty) and pleas for advice from both sides. The dejected Kate turns to her mother, Mrs. Harrison (Joan Copeland), who relates the time she caught Kate's father in bed with her grade school teacher ("their own private PTA meeting"), an act she confronted first with sober discussion and then with a broken ankle.

DeLaurentis' script cheats as often as his central character, withholding substantial information about Michael & Kate's affair (they've been going together for years rather than months, which Michael offhandedly complains about at the onset) and indulging too much in cutesy tricks and on-the-nose banter. Their introductory encounter finds Michael and Kate, presented as perfect strangers, provoking "Why, I never!" reactions from old ladies at a fruit stand as he challenges her to a foot race. "You always cheat!" Kate protests after Michael trips her up on the stairs of their apartment complex. "And I always will," Michael counters, "as long as I get you in the end." This symptomizes the faults of DeLaurentis and Paltrow, who lack the genuine sophistication or the lively comedic touch needed to invest us in the splintered relationship at hand.

Tim Matheson and Kate Capshaw are underserved by such regressive schmaltz. Having hunked himself up considerably since Animal House, Matheson labors to find the sincerity in a caddish character limited by his entitlement and hang-ups. Michael appears to have real intimacy issues no amount of Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo on the part of Mary Tyler Moore can counter. He's open about his nuptial responsibility to an old flame, Sandy (P.J. Mann), who arrives out of the blue and asks him out to a harmless dinner. But he (and DeLaurentis) disregard this for dreary scenes of Michael being overpowered by callow stereotypes of maneater femininity: Philomena assures him he'll get better at removing his wedding band on the next tryst, and Nancy all but tears off her clothes in her seduction of Michael. Capshaw, in her feature debut, is infinitely more charming under Paltrow's boxy direction than even Steven could manage. But her Katherine never develops a consistent personality. She hops into bed with Walter seeking to understand the concept of loveless sex, but is finally reduced to an indignant doormat who delights in walloping Michael with a field hockey stick.

Tis a pity, since Walter is played with refreshing subtlety by John Glover. Known for officious supporting roles in the likes of 52 Pick-Up and Gremlins 2: The New Batch, Glover refuses to turn Walter into a cauldron of self-absorbed ressentiment. He demonstrates a beguiling warmth in his scenes with Capshaw epitomized by his farewell delivery of the inevitable question all platonic friends should ask when eyed for a rebound. The good sense Glover demonstrates is more abundant in Edward Herrmann's droll portrayal of Tommy, and both actors realize the amiable honesty DeLaurentis attempts in his script. Herrmann, bless his departed soul, is the movie's saving grace, providing a no-nonsense combination of intellectual and fraternal superiority. He also gets DeLaurentis' funniest one-liners. When his brother arrives late for his wedding rehearsal on account of a back massage from a buxom mattress spokesmodel, Tommy zings Michael thusly: "Science is the art of observation. You got lip gloss on your ears."

Casual Sex? has its own stifling mundanities to overcome, attempting a farcical look at female sexuality instead of male and with the death's-head specter of AIDS plaguing the "whole man-woman relationship thing." Lea Thompson, perky as ever, is Stacy Hunter, who played the field during the sexually active first half of '80s, with a peculiar weakness for artistic types. Her best friend Melissa (Victoria Jackson) has feared to tread, blooming late during her second year of college and nearly hitching herself to an inattentive slob. What with her straight-to-the-camera philosophy about "sex [being] a good way to meet new people," Stacy appears blithely disinterested in romantic union as opposed to revolving-door boyfriends and daredevil nymphomania. The next thing you know, Stacy is pondering celibacy in the face of mounting health scares and crinkling her face at the very thought of "safe sex," as if prophylactics were an automatic dealbreaker.

Stacy and Melissa opt for a week's vacation at the Oasis Spa, which caters to fitness-conscious singles and welcomes patrons with gift baskets full of condoms (enough to safeguard the entire planet, sez Melissa). On their first night, they and the other guests engage in a geographically-themed matchmaking party ("Ecuador? Ecuador?") where Melissa is paired with the negging Matthew (Peter Dvorsky) and Stacy is stuck with Vinny Valcone (Andrew "Dice" Clay), a palooka from Paterson, New Jersey, who refers to himself in the first person as "The Vin Man," often to the sing-songy refrain of Tom Jones' "She's a Lady" ("I'm the best from the East/I'm a wild, crazy beast"). Stacy would much rather be with aerobics instructor Nick Lawrence (Stephen Shellen), a bohunk with stunted adolescent dreams of becoming a rock god, while Melissa is pined for by another staffer, Jamie (Jerry Levine), the closest thing to a Perfect Man at the resort.

Screenwriters Wendy Goldman & Judy Toll have adapted their 1985 musical performance piece of the same name, the question mark at the end a reflection of the lip service paid to AIDS and other venereal maladies. But under Ivan Reitman's production auspice and his wife Genevieve Robert's one-shot direction, Casual Sex? wouldn't have felt out of place a year before the play's debut, when Blame It on Rio and Where the Boys Are '84 premiered theatrically. The heroines sunbathe at a nude beach and engage in slumber party conversations about vibrators and orgasms. Men and women alike are characterized in the broadest terms befitting the typical low-rate sex comedy of those "innocent" years. The caliber of actors and filmmakers here are surely better than the bulk of those, but Casual Sex? is only two steps up the evolutionary ladder from, say, The Allnighter.

This hedging of bets is there in the way the soundtrack flogs Buster Poindexter's "Hot Hot Hot" from the main titles on down to almost every scene transition to follow (a far more tolerable Kid Creole song is withheld until the end credits, and the nominal composer is Brian Wilson collaborator Van Dyke Parks). It's there in gags involving girl-watching goons getting hit in the groin by projectile tennis balls. It's there in the tender lovemaking scene between Stacy and Nick, only now the ingénue breaks the fourth wall a la Ferris Bueller for a wry punchline. And it definitely shows as the movie strains to wrap itself up by rewarding Stacy and Melissa their happily ever after coda. In much the same way as A Little Sex and its deliberately juvenile competition from Porky's on down, Robert takes a preoccupation with sex and removes all the pleasure from it. With the exception of Jessica Rabbit, the cold hard truth about cartoons is that they just aren't sexy.

The leading ladies certainly are, even Victoria Jackson as the inexperienced Melissa. Her spacey comic style is like Kimmy Robertson emulating Melanie Griffith, and it's wholly endearing. And yet the vivacious Lea Thompson, a seasoned starlet if ever there was one by 1988, runs into more trouble here than when she played Beverly Switzer in the woeful Howard the Duck. She is hardly the Ms. Matthew Broderick that Genevieve Robert tries to coax out of her (Elizabeth Shue would've been more natural were she willing to go au naturel), and Thompson's reliable effervescence peaks early on during a montage of Stacy's oversexed past (e.g.: her dilettantish guffaws at a hack comic's pelvic undulations) and never builds back up again.

And then Robert rolls the Dice.

Having declared his John Travolta parody the best thing about the otherwise lousy Making the Grade, Andrew "Dice" Clay builds upon that muscular goofiness to deliver an honest-to-goodness comic creation as the Vin Man. All the ingredients of his impending superstardom are here, the leather jacket and "bada bing, bada boom" dialect and dimwitted machismo (complete with pet name for his dong), but they fuse with Goldman & Toll's sketch-minded satirical acumen to make the Vin Man like something Clay could have conceivably workshopped for the Groundlings troupe. When he raps a long-winded confession joke at Melissa that lands with a plop, he bounces back with "Well, they're not all golden, honey." Although it is implied that Vinny and Melissa make a meatball sandwich on the beach, the Vin Man saves the cheese for Stacy, who is so initially charmed she refers to him as "a living argument for birth control."

The guido can't help it. Not even a demonstration of dating tips gleaned from "The Pretend You're Sensitive Handbook" makes him seem less of a nuisance to Stacy, who has agreed to let Nick live with her back home in L.A. But Nick turns out to be even more of a selfish deadbeat than Vinny, who retreats back to Paterson only to experience a rush of soul-searching ("I've forced myself to take a closer look at the Vin Man. Ya know, open 'im up, pull him out, dissect 'im like a frog"). A dynamite ending would've had Vinny arrive on the same soundstage as Stacy and Melissa, during which Stacy would say the rightful closing line ("What can I say? Life is bizarre!") and then proceed to jump him the same way she did her old sous-chef, Gunter Kroger. It would've made more sense than the tacked-on joint New Year's/Christmas epilogues we do get, which unbecomingly smothers both Clay and the film in creamed corn.

(An alternate ending, preserved on the DVD, involves a character played by Bruce Abbott of Re-Animator fame, whom I hate to admit I didn't notice at all when I watched the film.)

As it stands, Casual Sex? is another perfunctory late '80s studio comedy. Goldman & Toll don't really do much with the resort setting besides recycle the usual dream sequences (the funniest involves Nick sweeping Stacy off her feet as her past lovers interrupt to inform her of what else came next), schlock rock numbers (Nick miming a godawful Dan Hartman ballad to Stacy's face) and deadpan asides to the audience ("I'm concerned about this penis size thing"). On the evidence of their respective sex comedies, Genevieve Robert and Bruce Paltrow are the more compatible soul mates next to their hetero-genous seekers. Mating social commentary with celluloid conventionality, A Little Sex and Casual Sex? are, to quote Rick Moranis, "a long ceremony [leading to] a short honeymoon."

Monday, February 5, 2018

Parenthood + The Rocketeer + Moving Violations

(PG-13, Universal Pictures, 124 mins., theatrical release date: May 26, 1989)

Gil Buckman seems like a former latchkey kid frantically seeking out the door for his own young son. In his head, he still feels the disappointment of his own paterfamilias taking him to baseball games without the added element of bonding, except for when dad has paid off a stranger to talk to him. Decades later, and close to his own family in ways his father never was, Gil is happier, more confident and surprisingly well-adjusted, and he wants things to pan out similarly for nine-year-old Kevin, whom he coaches on the Little League team and who is exhibiting signs of abnormal psychology which Gil and his wife Karen cannot rationalize.

This is but one of several generational anxieties which unfold in Ron Howard's Parenthood, where well-meaning adults butt heads with the inevitable dysfunction practically hereditary in nature. Gil, not unlike his father (as well as Mr. Howard), has a family of four to his credit and his three siblings are also at loggerheads with responsibility. The youngest, Larry, is black sheep cloth all the way, chasing after easy money through schemes and wagers but with an illegitimate child whom he brings to Thanksgiving dinner as a sign of his supposed well-being. The two sisters, Helen and Susan, haven't run from their crises, whether it's concern over grooming a three-year-old as a hyper-intelligent prodigy or facing loneliness when son and daughter alike discover sex.

"It never, never ends," says Frank Buckman about the ties that bind. Luckily for Howard, Parenthood is far breezier and good-humored than the retiring head of the bustling Buckmans. Nowadays, Steve Martin has parlayed Gil Buckman into a new life as family movie figurehead and Ron Howard's done his own dirty work with the novels of Dan Brown. In 1989, Parenthood was a sign of growth for both these showbiz stalwarts. The young star of American Graffiti and Happy Days was at his peak a few films deep into his career as director, which began under Roger Corman's auspices (Grand Theft Auto) and encapsulated Night Shift, Splash, Cocoon, and Willow. Martin, meanwhile, saw his face-pulling legacy balloon into genuine stardom by 1987 thanks to Roxanne and Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

But Parenthood is an ensemble piece, with as much proven talent as well as rising newcomers across the board. Oscar-winners Mary Steenburgen and Dianne Wiest under the same roof as SCTV's mega-talented Rick Moranis and Tom (Amadeus) Hulce. Goonies standout Martha Plimpton acting opposite her Running on Empty co-star's kid brother Leaf (Joaquin) Phoenix as well as Keanu Reeves. Jason Robards on one end, Harley Jane Kozak at the other. Child actors who'd go on to the likes of 1990's excellent The Witches, John Hughes' final directorial effort and...erm, Problem Child 2. There's also Dennis Dugan and Clint Howard, for what it's worth, too.

Reeves is the most interesting of the bunch, his performance as "That Tod" (whom Wiest's Helen refers to derogatorily) completing the trio of hilarious breakout roles Reeves launched himself with. At first, Tod comes off like another cad boyfriend who can't balance allegiance to Helen's daughter Julie (Ms. Plimpton) and ambitions of stock car racing. He inspires a particularly blunt mother-daughter exchange due to his negligence, but turns out to have more noble qualities than even the supremely disappointing Larry (Mr. Hulce). Tod even breaks the shell of Helen's moody young son Garry (Phoenix), whose rebellious pastime is coveting porno tapes in defiance of both his eager, distressed mom and the absentee dentist dad who wants nothing to do with him. He's hep to the same spiritual awareness as Gil, but in his own recklessly youthful way.

Harley Kozak had previously done walk-on parts (Clean and Sober) as well as one vintage slasher effort (The House on Sorority Row), but proves to be a find herself as Susan. She's paired with Moranis' Nathan Huffner, an orderly intellectual who has taken to child rearing with scientific madness. "They're like sponges just waiting to absorb," he tells Gil after wee Patty (Ivyann Schwan) demonstrates her precocious mathematical skills. Nathan fills his pint-sized vessel with all manner of intellectual and cultural delicacies at the expense of his wife's restlessness over having a second child as well as training the firstborn to be more sociable. Nathan, like his wisecracking brother-in-law, is chasing blindly after his own ideals of parental perfection.

Parenthood in Parenthood is a game of extremes. If Gil succeeds in his own affections toward Kevin (Jasen Fisher), he grows up as a model college graduate ready to take on the world. Should Gil fail, Kevin is tomorrow's terrorist, shouting "You made me play second base!" as he picks off another of his campus mates from the bell tower. Gil is so hung up on his pride that in both imagined outcomes, his doting wife Karen (Ms. Steenburgen) is nowhere to be found, let alone the adult analogues of his other children. Not that Gil is totally selfish, as he rescues Kevin's birthday party when the cowboy balloon artist they've hired is waylaid by a scheduling snafu. He genuinely loves Karen as well as Taylor (Alisan Porter) and Justin (Zachary Lavoy), but as the school psychiatrists have it in for Kevin, Gil sees Kevin's adolescence as a one-man crusade to avoid the failures of father Frank (Mr. Robards).

And then there's the phenomenal Dianne Wiest (nominated here for an Academy Award following her deserving win on Hannah and Her Sisters) as Helen, a bundle of nerves and repository of the script's most honest dialogue. A single mother who cannot hide the scars from her divorce, Helen puts on a brave face even as her children out-sophisticate her and the advice she tries to offer gets subverted. A romance with Garry's biology teacher Mr. Bowman (Paul Linke) hints at salvation and satisfaction not battery-powered, but she needs to find common ground with teenage Julie as well as grade schooler Garry. Wiest's droll realism rivals Martin's own sardonic humor, whether Helen's flipping through photos of Julie & Tod's bedroom antics or putting the odds to their impromptu wedding and pregnancy.

Much like Patty, Parenthood is itself a sponge which collects all the foibles and neuroses between Ron Howard, producer Brian Grazer and Howard's frequent writing partners, Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel, family men all. Their success with Parenthood is one which most MOR filmmakers have since had the hardest time trying to replicate, the union of broad comic vignettes with hard-earned emotional honesty. Howard's deft touch with light/heavy-hearted character interactions is on constant display, especially whenever Frank alternates between protecting his youngest son Larry, who is the true chip off the old block, and revealing his own guilt to Gil. Rich with one-liners as Parenthood is, many of those mingle with moments of devastation and cruelty, particularly in the scenes between Helen and her children.

Episodic and sitcom-sterile as it may look, Parenthood's storylines have more than enough bite to belie the size. An ambiguity hangs over the many strained relationships Howard and his crew depict. Larry is desperately trying to recoup overdue gambling debts to the point where he sneaks out his father's 1935 Ford DeLuxe to get it appraised. Both he and Frank share more quality time together than they are willing to spare for Larry's son Cool (Alex Burrall), whose mother was an ebony showgirl with whom Larry had a one-night stand. Frank tries to set his reckless son on the straight-and-narrow with a well-thought compromise, inducting Larry into his plumbing supplies business, but it turns out to be a bitter failure. The circular drama which finds Frank essentially adopting the fatherless Cool is understated but powerful.

There are many strands like these woven throughout. Gil is disgusted when he is passed over for a lucrative partnership to a man with shady child support practices, and he quits his job hoping for a righteous allegiance to family only to discover Karen is bearing his fourth child. "Women have choices, men have responsibilities," he protests in a tense moment, although he will have an epiphany that will let him concede in peace in a way Larry stubbornly denies. Susan will leave the supercilious Nathan feeling that romance is gone, and Nathan's sincerely embarrassing atonement is endearing though not a proper resolution. Helen and Julie stand by each other as Tod makes his disastrous racing debut, and contrary to Frank's negative philosophy, Kevin does something on the Little League field that allows Gil the opportunity to do the rare "happy dance."

Triumphs are where you can find them, often small but immensely gratifying, which is certainly a characterization of real adulthood. This culminates in a waiting room finale which is also a touch pat but is best taken as a warm victory for one of the many expecting mothers in the movie, including Karen and Julie (and the biologically anxious Susan, who pricks holes in her diaphragm). It also feels like one more group portrait of unified contentment before the pain and pleasure waves start crashing down all over again. "It never, never ends," indeed. If you are as invested in the characters as I, there's bound to be more squabbles and soul-searching to match the many bundles of joy.

Steve Martin would finally become a father in his 67th year, but he fits well in Ron Howard's suburban surroundings. A lot of it is the reflexive wit and outrage Martin brings out in Gil, but there is also his priceless Cowboy Gil routine, dressed up in modified rugs and boasting kitchen utensils for spurs. He's always been a marvelous physical goof, and that side of Martin gets to play regularly, but like in his Hughes collaboration, Martin calibrates it to the moods of his character. He bounces well off the beaming Steenburgen (the inspiration for Randy Newman's "I Love to See You Smile") and has one choice moment with Moranis, his Little Shop of Horrors/My Blue Heaven companion. If the picture lost something in order to fit it into two hours, one wonders if it was more time spent between Gil and Nathan, who share kindred woman troubles that a nice double date could fix. 

Parenthood is a film of constant interactivity which has been calibrated very exquisitely by Howard and his team. You get the "Diarrhea" sing-a-long, improper bedtime attire and vomit gag early on to ease you into the more potent adult-oriented comedy which immediately follows and the unabashed gem of a birthday party set piece. It works on a level of true cross-generational appeal which doesn't trivialize the subjects it condenses and embellishes, a testament to the skills of its large cast as well as its creative hub. No matter how desperate the characters become or how pressing the situations, Ron Howard loves to see them smile. And so do I.

(PG-13, Walt Disney Pictures, 108 mins., theatrical release date: June 21, 1991)

Clint Howard turns up in Parenthood as the archetypical ballgame loudmouth mocking Coach Buckman from behind the fence, but apparently he also appears in Joe Johnston's failed blockbuster The Rocketeer. Having watched the movie three times, I can't place Clint at all. Either he's the frustrated day player dressed in friar's robes storming off a movie set or the diminutive mobster on the right side of the frame during the final act showdown. He doesn't have a single line of dialogue and his unmistakable mug never commands the camera's attention. Still, when Clint Howard turned up to play the Ice Cream Man, what was the name of the preteen clique he tormented? It sure wasn't called the Rugheads.

Johnston, an ILM visual designer who graduated to associate producer for Ron Howard's Willow and finally director on Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, moulds The Rocketeer in the image of a Lucas/Spielberg adventure yarn. The time and place is southern California in 1938, taking off from the lavish recreation which kicked off Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom for feature length while incorporating tropes from Return of the Jedi and the inaugural Raiders of the Lost Ark. Cliff Secord, the Fearless Freep, tests the jet pack on his back in an attempt to rescue a drunken townie spinning out of control in the skies above only to skip across the pond once the device gets the better of him. When the forces of institutionalized evil come looking for Secord, the main threat turns out to be Nazis who covet the rocket for a marquee name spy.

Errol Flynn, W.C. Fields, Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, and Rondo Hatton (cf. "Tiny Ron" Taylor as the slope-faced assassin Lothar) are all clearly evoked amongst its cast, but not Bettie Page. In the original Dave Stevens creation which premiered in 1982, a year after Raiders modernized our Republic Pictures past, Cliff Secord's girlfriend was modeled after the pre-Marilyn sex symbol who was in reality 15 years old in the era favored by Stevens. Not that the new model love interest Johnston's film subs in is any less achingly sexy: Jennifer Connelly, a former child actress turned 20-year-old knockout in Dennis Hopper's The Hot Spot, could've been the queen of pinups herself in 1991 on the strength of both The Rocketeer and the shrewdly/lewdly-marketed John Hughes throwaway Career Opportunities, had these two films performed better. 

The Rocketeer harkens back to the antiquated Commando Cody serials in which a tweak of the nipple knobs (thanks, J. Elvis Weinstein) allowed for a homegrown Superman changeover. No purple nurples or star-spangled tights for Cliff Secord, a gum-smacking model of boyish fearlessness who sees "borrowing" the experimental engine as a chance to revive his flagging fortunes as a pilot. In just the opening scene, his test run of a prize airplane, the Gee Bee, is rudely interrupted on the ground by one of the Cirrus X-3 rocket's gangster smugglers, who fires his tommy gun in the air and takes out one of the plane's legs. Secord, who can be self-absorbed and klutzy at odd intervals, listens to reason and even considers returning the Cirrus to the FBI before the jeopardy becomes expectedly personal.

Joe Johnston's hero caper, alas, was produced by Disney during an inter-company backlash dictated by Jeffrey Katzenberg in the wake of the faulty Dick Tracy blitzkrieg. The Rocketeer, which isn't as opulent as Warren Beatty's own pulp throwback, unravels on a small scale plotwise as opposed to budgetary. It operates on a strange kind of cult movie disposability where it looks sumptuous but tastes unfulfilling, and thrice have I watched it with rapt admiration but no lingering affection. The elements are all there for a transcendent if nostalgic crowd-pleaser on the order of the decade-old (at the time) Raiders of the Lost Ark, but they don't gel as craftily as they should.

Bill Campbell, who was romantically linked to Connelly off set and on, plays the hotdog stunt pilot Secord without setting off sparks in the manner of Harrison Ford or Mark Hamill (it's more a problem with the script than the capable performer). Timothy Dalton, fresh off his double 007 duty, gleefully sinks his teeth into the role of swashbuckling warmonger Neville Sinclair yet minus the humor he got to demonstrate a decade later in Edgar Wright's Hot Fuzz. Paul Sorvino, who was also in Dick Tracy, is the all-American mobster who holds his own against the vain Sinclair. And as Howard Hughes, presented as the brain behind the rocket pack which lands in Secord's hangar, Terry (The Stepfather) O'Quinn is as commendable as ever. 

The Rocketeer's true marvels are of the visual kind, however. Johnston, who'd later launch the Captain America franchise during the modern comic book superhero boom, orchestrates a few pips of set pieces as grand as anything past its $40 million price tag. You can't deny the brilliance of the production design whether its the small town Bulldog Café which Secord and his mentor Peevy (Alan Arkin) frequent alongside ole reliable William Sanderson or the more ritzy South Seas Club which the devious Sinclair takes Secord's day player paramour Jenny Blake (Connelly) to upon overhearing the true identity of the famous Rocketeer (his headline-dominating name coined by Jon Polito as Bigelow). And I loved the animated newsreel of doom which lays out the Third Reich's plans of jet-propelled conquest more convincingly than all of the dialogue which involves Sinclair. It reminded me of Brad Bird's The Iron Giant, which was more confident in its Spielbergian heritage than The Rocketeer. 

(PG-13, Twentieth Century Fox, 90 mins., theatrical release date: April 19, 1985)

Moving Violations, alas, confirms the nagging suspicion I had about the writing team of Neal Israel & Pat Proft plagiarizing the blockbuster legacy of producer Ivan Reitman. In just three examples: 1) they still can't write a role worthy of the real Bill Murray, so this time, they've caved into nepotism and hired Bill's younger brother John for a deliberate imitation; 2) not content to rehash their own Police Academy, which was already coasting on borrowed Stripes, the finale of Moving Violations is a direct steal from National Lampoon's Animal House (there's also a motivational speech from John Murray that is clearly a half-assed echo of John Belushi's legendary "Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?!" spiel); 3) the Israel-directed Moving Violations demonstrates not only that the success of the same year's Real Genius was attributable to outsider Martha Coolidge, but that even Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment managed fresher comedy with a new creative hub as well as the unforgettable screen debut of Bobcat Goldthwait.

Bob Zemeckis regular Wendie Jo Sperber starred in the uproarious Used Cars five years prior to this, Sally Kellerman benefited as much as Rodney did by going Back to School the next summer and Fred Willard, who is the lone spark of comic life to be found in Moving Violations, was previously in This Is Spinal Tap. Brian Backer plays another lovesick dweeb as if to remind us that the worthier Fast Times at Ridgemont High would forever be his career highlight. Ned Eisenberg (who co-starred with Backer in 1981's The Burning) does the goofy gorehound shtick owned by Dean Cameron's Chainsaw in Summer School. James Keach was in Walter Hill's The Long Riders (opposite brother Stacy) and National Lampoon's Vacation. Jennifer Tilly would become a worthy comedienne on the basis of Let It Ride and Liar Liar.

I named all these actors and their past or future accomplishments to stress one simple point: You could see them all do much better than Moving Violations. I've already listed a dozen funnier movies, 13 if you want to be kind to Police Academy. At least that had some surefire R-rated set pieces, a more amiable batch of misfit stereotypes and the vocal talents of Michael Winslow as Larvell Jones, who I know can do a better Bill Murray impression than even his sibling can. I've read one reviewer compare the pudgy-cheeked John Murray to a teenage George Takei, but he's easily a dead ringer for a younger Bill Hicks, especially the one seen in Sane Man.

There. My baker's dozen of superior comedy is now officially complete. 

Moving Violations is a flunky starring James Keach as Deputy Halik, the bike cop responsible for busting John Murray's slobby Dana Cannon, who immediately retaliates by baiting Halik into a misdirected rage which costs the policeman a recent promotion. That particular punchline you notice in advance like a train you'd hear hurtling towards your stalling automobile perched atop the railroad tracks. Don't laugh (easy to do in regards to this film), but that very cliché turns up at one moment. Other hoary chestnuts include the inadvertent conjugation of jailbait, replete with mad dash out of the bedroom window, and a bumbling examination ride that doesn't even try to one-up a similar moment with Officer Hooks from the first Police Academy. And these happen to the same character, Brian Backer's hapless puppeteer Scott (Backer would go on to Police Academy 4 as a skater boy, opposite a pre-SNL David Spade). He, Dana and several others are thrown together in court-appointed traffic school taught by the disgraced Halik.

Wendie Jo Sperber is Joan , a dim hypochondriac who misconstrues the terminology of auto body doc Terrence Williams (Fred Willard, with a corn-cob pipe and seasoned straight man sincerity) as a regimen for physical wellness. Thus, when he advises Joan to lube up her rear end, it's not the Valvoline she reaches for. The joke is pushed further than Neal Israel can handle it when Joan turns up at his repair shop office and undresses for a supposed physical. Nadine van der Velde (Critters) plays the aforementioned underage love interest, closet punkette Stephanie. Nedra Volz (Lust in the Dust) is the requisite senior demolitionist who drives friend Clara Peller (of Wendy's commercial fame) onto an airport runway. Willard Pugh (The Color Purple) is on hand simply to say "My father's going to kill me!" Again, you could be watching Fast Times at Ridgemont High instead of this.

As for Jennifer Tilly, she is curiously unfunny as the requisite Stupid Smart Girl, known in this script as Amy. She looks like Julie Kavner and tries to sound like Julie Hagerty, and her love for Cannon is too much a placebo to even suggest Bad Medicine. There's one cute sight gag in an anti-gravity chamber, but the dialogue and performances don't justify it. Israel & Proft cram the movie with too many dud one-liners, musty innuendos and hackneyed anti-establishment sniggers. Sally Kellerman's Judge Nedra is an unflatteringly unsexy bondage case (seriously, I can't watch her leather-studded straw dog without hearing Fred Willard's Buck Laughlin) who conspires with the bitter Halik to deny the rejects their confiscated licenses as well as make a profit off their impounded vehicles.

Israel has effectively diluted the convivial anarchy of his forebears, thus resulting in a painfully episodic structure which emphasizes humiliation, banality and tangential dead ends. In his petty vengeance, Halik goes so far as to frame Cannon for a convenience store robbery, but at that point, throwing the book at the charmless jester is likely to be on the majority of people's minds. In any case, this development is worthless. A recurring joke is made about Halik's female partner, Deputy Morris (Lisa Hart Carroll: Terms of Endearment...really?!), being mistaken for a man because of her short, "butch" haircut (apparently, none of the manchildren has ever seen Jamie Lee Curtis in Trading Places). Wendie Jo Sperber and Brian Backer play characters who are nothing but objects of mean-spirited debasement, no different from the authority figures whom Israel & Proft code as authoritarian killjoys. Everything about Moving Violations tastes so much more curdled compared to not only Police Academy and Bachelor Party, but also Revenge of the Nerds and Ghostbusters.

And yet here I am reviewing it, having listened to charlatans and contrarians tell me it's some kind of discovery. That I'm supposed to overlook Neal Israel's pathetic direction, ripe with egregious continuity and ADR flubs, as well as the tired slapstick and tedious characters so as to appreciate it on the same level as Airplane! or Better Off Dead. I don't think so. If I had paid to see this theatrically, I'd have torn up my ticket like one would do any unfair writ. Even the Netflix DVD sleeve is steeling my hands for destruction: "Traffic school turns into a prison sentence in this comedy from Neal Israel, the director of Police Academy." If you're dumb enough to believe that, then Moving Violations is the perfect movie for you.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Ice Cream Man + Disconnected

(R, A-Pix Entertainment, 86 mins., video release date: May 9,1995)

(R, Generic Films, , 84 mins., video release date: July 1984)

Vinegar Syndrome's triumphant release of Liquid Sky in its first genuine digital video incarnation (Arrow Video, eat your heart out) was one of three Black Friday 2017 exclusives at their online store. I've procured copies of the other two after being wowed by Slava Tsukerman's cult film, and while the movies are nowhere near as essential as Liquid Sky, Vinegar Syndrome have issued them with similar TLC and are a boutique label to adore for their efforts.

To be true, neither Norman Apstein's ICE CREAM MAN nor Gorman Bechard's DISCONNECTED are particularly cosmic discoveries. The former not only has the misfortune of being reissued following Andy Muschietti's successful adaptation of the adolescent chapters of Stephen King's It, but is also the sole skin-proof effort from porn stalwart Norman Paul Apstein. The latter is a student film from the future director of Psychos in Love, whose acquisition by Vinegar Syndrome has allowed Disconnected the luxury of escaping the obscurity to which it has long been confined. 

Ice Cream Man presents Clint Howard in his first headline role since 1982's Evilspeak, when he was in his early 20s and already settling into his storied career as the king of the celebrity sibling B-actors. This was undoubtedly the ironic thought process when MTV bestowed upon Clint their Lifetime Achievement Award at their 1998 movie-based ceremony, but it happily backfired thanks to Clint's sincere acceptance speech. He was in the same pantheon as Godzilla, Chewbacca and Jason Voorhees, but also Jackie Chan, Richard "Shaft" Roundtree and The Three Stooges. The joke forever deflated, Clint Howard was instead allowed his rightful legacy as a genre icon.

And Ice Cream Man, which made its "world television premiere" the following year on TNT's MonsterVision with drive-in critic Joe Bob Briggs (a.k.a. John Bloom), is a better showcase for Clint's oddball charisma than the revenge fantasy of Evilspeak. Although his hairline receded faster than Phil Collins, his facial features hardened to perfection in adulthood. Squinty-eyed and scowling, Clint resembles a baby-faced Larry Drake. He also blew his vocal cords in preparation for each take, the resulting rasp a wonderfully OTT counterpart to his deranged countenance. He goes all the way so as to deliver such lines as "Not every day is a happy, happy, happy day" with the respect they deserve. When he digresses towards soft-shoe shuffling and grisly puppetry, Clint is still no less the proper combination of diabolical and entertaining.

Norman Apstein (of the Edward Penishands series, which is no joke) and screenwriters David (The Wedding Crashers) Dobkin and Sven (one-flick wonder) Davison are less assured in their method than Clint. Story creator Dobkin may have intended a sick-humored Pied Piper update for the Spielberg Generation, but at least Clint Howard can claim biological rights to his derivations from brother Ron. The child's eye perspective of the story is muddled, to say the least, with hackneyed parent drama (fundamentalism and infidelity) and conflicting characterizations of the titular menace. It may do wonders for Clint Howard's range to go from affectionately retarded loner to wisecracking novelty maniac, but it robs the film of any believable danger.

It's ludicrous from the get-go, as little Gregory Tudor finds his neighborhood ice cream vendor gunned down for reasons undefined and is placed in psychiatric care at Wishing Well, a Funland for the criminally insane where Gregory's prescribed alternating doses of brain-freezing treats and mind-altering drugs. Released under the custody of Nurse Wharton (Olivia Hussey, who is certifiably ageless), Clint Howard's Gregory resumes the practice of the late Butch Brickle while adding a secret ingredient in his hand-picked hard pack which draws the flies and cockroaches to nestle in the containers. Woe onto thee who ask for a cherry on top.

This sounds like it should be a hoot, with the toy piano jingle heralding the unpacking of icky delights for the local brats, particularly the four which form The Rocketeers. When one of them, the brainy Small Paul (Macaulay clone Mikey LeBeau), is abducted by the friendless Gregory, the remaining trio (Justin Isfeld of American Pie semi-fame as Johnny, voiceover pro Anndi McAfee as Heather, JoJo Adams plus obvious pillow padding as the husky Tuna) try to obtain proof of Gregory's malevolence as a pair of detectives (Jan-Michael Vincent, Lee Majors Jr.) follow a hunch which leads back to the supposedly harmless ex-inmate. But Apstein, who was initially chasing a PG-13 rating even with three severed heads and a joke involving a dead tramp's diaphragm, is insufficiently sordid despite his adults-only past.

The flavorful cast also includes David Warner as Heather's preacher dad, David Naughton & Sandahl Bergman as Tuna's splintered parents and a few more less accomplished but familiar names from the realms of sports, TV and Apstein's true vocation. But despite their efforts as well as those of the principal child performers, Ice Cream Man is still curiously soupy. Vinegar Syndrome's DVD includes the actual MonsterVision "Summer School" broadcast of Ice Cream Man, with Joe Bob Briggs interviewing Clint Howard during commercial breaks. TNT's work was cut out for them, given editor André Vaillancourt's frequent use of fade-to-black scene transitions which also suggests Apstein may have been shooting straight for cable.

Thankfully, Clint Howard has one or two scenes above marginal interest. There's a moment where Gregory visits the grave of his fallen hero and tries to pay respects with the most appetizing ice cream cone on show throughout the entire movie. His feelings get hurt upon hearing (to himself) Butch Brickle's spirit as well as those of his cemetery neighbors: "You guys having a party?" Howard elevates the material with his hearty good humor (ahem) even as the writers fail to ply him with a decent catchphrase; I groaned twice when he opened his mouth during the abduction of Tuna.

Still, for all its low-cal silliness, Ice Cream Man landed a minor cult following, one which sadly wasn't enough to warrant a proposed sequel in a 2014 Kickstarter campaign. Disconnected was a strictly regional effort filmed in Waterbury, Connecticut (budget: $40,000; camera: Bolex 16mm) and soon relegated to the kind of VHS rental shops its main character works at. She is Alicia (Frances Raines), a lonely young woman whose life devolves into a low-budget horror film, to borrow an observation from a different character. An elderly stranger vanishes mysteriously from her apartment after he's invited in, but eventually her mind plays greater tricks on her. Alicia has dumped her boyfriend of two years, Mike (Carl Koch), under suspicion of cheating on her with her twin sister Barbara Ann (Raines), who has been long been sabotaging Alicia's love life. Since then, she's been inundated with what seem to be prank calls bombarding her with shrill white noise.

There's also a sex maniac on the loose, which might explain those creepy calls, but who actually turns up in person at Alicia's job asking for a date. He's Franklin (Mark Walker), the kind of introvert who is likely to exclaim "see ya, bye" as one word instead of three. But we see the threat he poses her when he butchers a pick-up to the tune of XTC's "Complicated Game," of all songs. The movie begins and ends with Aussie rock legends Hunters & Collectors' 1982 single "Talking to a Stranger" (also heard in Brian Trenchard-Smith's Dead End Drive-In from 1986) for bonus alt rock cred, and future Hollywood composer/album producer Jon Brion appears with power-pop outfit The Excerpts (whose "You Don't Love Me" plays throughout) after the smartest guy in the room name-drops Talking Heads and Elvis Costello. And if you own Haysi Fantayzee's eternally oddball Battle Hyms for Children Singing LP, guess which cut ends up used as a tool of seduction in Disconnected (it isn't "John Wayne Is Big Leggy").

Given that Gorman Bechard would go on to direct Color Me Obsessed, a fan's-eye view of Minneapolis cult rockers The Replacements (surely one of my all-time favorite bands), these aren't hollow hipster throwaways. In fact, they seem as off-kilter as the film's narrative, which is part slasher cash-in, part ghost story and part psychological study. There's even time out for a police procedural, with Psychos in Love lead/co-writer Carmine Capobianco addressing the camera in a precursor to the Woody Allen flourishes of that future bad taste treat. Bechard edits these strands together for all the maximum disorientation his shoestring budget can afford, which isn't very much. He gooses up the soundtrack with enough screeches and portentous sound effects as compensation.

Mark Walker, a veteran of Canadian productions who previously starred in Cronenberg's Rabid, is suitably creepy even in agonizingly long takes of dialogue. But the real draw for '80s exploitation experts is Frances Raines (Claude's niece) in her only lead role, which also happens to be a double. Best known for The Mutilator and a handful of porn purveyor Tim Kincaid's schlock (Breeders yes, Robot Holocaust no), Raines is groomed by Bechard as the '80s B-movie answer to a Hitchcock heroine rather than your standard "final girl." As Alicia, Raines handles the ambiguously disorienting material with reactive aplomb, whereas Barbara Ann allows her to dolly up her voice, curl her hair and enthusiastically deliver some of the requisite nudity.

Bechard provides a couple of twists in the mundane murder plot, from the lecherous and rude customer who ends up dating Barbara Ann to the resolution of Alicia and Franklin's sex scene. There's still only so much he can do with the means at his disposal, as when the sun is glaring right onto the camera lens for a good 45 seconds or his lifelessly static shots even during the police's showdown with Franklin. Making allowances for the shift in plot nearly an hour into this 84-minute feature debut, there are still points in the movie which drag in the familiar style of most outré, student-directed micro movies. What virtues Disconnected possesses are mostly in music and minutiae: the cutaway to a Groucho Marx doll, the posters on Alicia's living room walls (one, naturally, for Hitchcock's The Trouble with Harry), a second Hunters & Collectors track played on the radio, the DJ announcing Cheapskate Records selling X's More Fun in the New World album for $5.99 before queuing "the #1 song in the country," The Excerpts' "Death in Small Doses," to soundtrack Alicia's weepy relapse back into isolated terror.

What both Ice Cream Man and Disconnected have going for them in the long run are their eccentricities, from Clint Howard's dominating performance to the bizarre if well-scored mulligan stew of horror tropes Gorman Bechard cooks up. Vinegar Syndrome have given both films renewed purpose on Blu-Ray with 2k transfers, sourced from original negatives, that bury all previous tape and disc presentations. Ice Cream Man has its share of gauzy lighting but is also presented with a clarity and attention to detail which belies whatever statements I made about it being worthy of a cable TV creation. This 1.85:1 widescreen image is consistently as cool as its confectionary namesake. Disconnected, digitally scanned from "16mm vault elements," can't help but look hazier, grainier and more dated by comparison. But rescued from full-frame purgatory as it is, there is much to admire about Frances Raines' luminous looks and dresses. Flesh tones are actually solid all around, and there are plenty of rich colors outside of Carmine Capobianco's Hawaiian shirts.

Ice Cream Man has an equally above-average DTS-HD 2.0 audio mix, whereas Disconnected is pitched at monaural 1.0 with all its limitations on display, especially in regards to speech and song cues (not hearing XTC and Hunters & Collectors in glorious stereo is a crying shame). Luckily, each package has their proper bounty of bonuses. Bechard & Capobianco reunite for Disconnected's audio commentary track as well as provide individual video testimonies. Capobianco, who comes across as a cuddlier Joe Spinell, seems to retain pictographic memory of the locations as well as a jovial presence which complements Bechard, whose recollections have become fuzzier with age. The biggest surprise is the inclusion of Bechard's initial foray into documentary filmmaking, the hour-long Twenty Questions (1987), as well as footage from its premiere at the 2017 New Haven Film Festival. In it, a diverse group of Waterbury citizens attempt to answer intimate questions from 20 flash cards, surrounded by magazines and TV sets which air sensational clips from Bechard's own filmography. One visual artist is as stumped as anyone having to simply name five books: "The Great that a book?"

As for Ice Cream Man, you can watch the movie as it was aired on TNT's MonsterVision (clocking in at two hours even with minor copyright-minded edits), with Clint Howard dishing out amiable anecdotes as well as fielding Joe Bob's questions about past glories in Evilspeak and The Wraith. It's interesting to note that only a couple instances of gore had to be censored, specifically the disposal of a dog. Howard also appears in a contemporary interview, as do Norman Apstein (who passably handles the audio commentary gig) and producer David Goldstein. All three are candidly critical of the movie and/or the pressures of the production, especially Goldstein. His seven-minute piece is so full of disgust that Clint Howard, who also provided set photos for a stills gallery, is allowed to be the hero for the first time since I saw him on MTV.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Flatliners (2017)

(PG-13, Columbia Pictures, 109 mins., theatrical release date: Sept. 29, 2017)

Did you know that when you die, apparently your spirit leaves your body and swoops down the same CG cityscape as seen in the current HBO Feature Presentation bumper. That's all there is to learn from the 2017 revival of the previously-discussed Flatliners. I'm not fond of Joel Schumacher's 1990 brood feast in an everlasting way, but at least it once played on HBO with a minute-long introduction (in SPACE!) which earns its nostalgia. There are no specs rosy enough to make the new model seem appealing now let alone in 2044.

Schumacher had been a fickle, flippant filmmaker throughout the entire 1980s (following the "hip" ensemble dramedy St. Elmo's Fire with the "hip" ensemble horromedy The Lost Boys), whereas Niels Arden Oplev at least has the original 2009 adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to his credit. But it hasn't been a good year for Tomas (Let the Right One In) Alfredson let alone Oplev, on top of everything else you can think of going wrong in 2017. Screenwriter Ben Ripley adapts Peter Filardi's original story, but he's not at Source Code efficiency this time. Despite his user friendly surname, Ripley is slumming it in a dimwitted regression to the DTV half of the Species saga he began with.

Full disclosure: I needed the fast-forward button on my DVD player to keep me from death by boredom. Flatliners runs a grueling two hours thanks to protracted, derivative scenes of creeping terror but still manages graceless transitions and a dearth of investment. Oprev and Ripley ignored the notion that flatlining creates the kind of rush which one character suggests should be bottled and sold as a "club drug." Theirs is instead a sleepy-time depressant you swig once the party's over.

Kiefer Sutherland re-emerges from Schumacher's gothic amber playing not the older version of ringleader Nelson Wright, but instead an inconsequential cameo as the movie's Dr. House, "Woolfson." It's Ellen Page as Courtney Holmes who assumes Nelson's obsession with the afterlife nine years after drowning her kid sister Tessa in a texting-while-driving wreckage. Courtney strong-arms second year womanizer Jamie (James Norton) and the fearfully studious Sophia (Kiersey Clemons) into assisting her two-minute demise. The Oliver Platt-like outsider is Diego Luna's morally assertive yet mischievous Ray, and our Julia Roberts manqué is the woeful Nina Dobrev as Marlo.

Working in the basement of their hospital in order to take advantage of a functioning MRI machine, they competitively stop their hearts by lowering their body temperature via a cooling jacket and receiving a fatal hit from the defibrillator. Courtney claims that her astral projection was actually "a little sexual," but good luck sensing this based on the screensaver visuals Oprev preserves. The carnality is strictly TV-PG, as Sophia has a vigorous if ridiculous tryst with Jamie and moony Ray confesses his love to Marlo. Save for Ray, the resurrected med students tap into repressed mental faculties whether it's book knowledge or bread recipes or, in the 25-year-old Sophia's case, standing up to her mother, who demands she Win At All Costs.

Sure enough, they also dredge up their guiltiest secrets in the form of vengeful apparitions. Courtney is haunted by the Samara-style ghost of her sibling. Player Jamie, instead of being shamed by all of his conquests a la Billy Baldwin, is pestered by one long-lost lover he deserted upon impregnating. And in a racial inverse of Kevin Bacon's sin, it's black Sophia who humiliated a smarter schoolmate by hacking and dissembling her naked photos. This entails the same quest for forgiveness as before, but only after one of them is flatlined permanently by his/her demon.

The urgency of their predicament is euthanized by the deadening ways in which they go about killing themselves and then celebrate their complicated resuscitations with slow-mo hedonism before their interminable torment by Paranormal Activity spooks. Flatliners has no soul to lose. Without visuals worthy of Jan de Bont's breathtaking cinematography from the original, the numbing cycle instead comes on like probable outtakes from Platinum Dunes' A Nightmare on Elm Street 2. Schumacher, for all his flaws, was at least wittily portentous and filmed the original's crises of conscience with variety and elegance. Oprev's Flatliners has no identity of its own away from the most crushingly familiar of "quiet...quiet...BANG!" exploitation.

Even more so than the original, there is a airbrushed vacancy to the characters' games of one-upsmanship and their ability to function as promising healers. Though Courtney and Jamie come out of the experience with amazing powers of diagnosing rare diseases and administering life-saving drugs, I didn't feel the overriding sense of real, irresponsible danger in these egotistic tests. There's no mortality to their madness, and whatever invigoration they get from playing chicken with death doesn't seem worth the possibility of brain damage or psychological instability or terminal malpractice.

Flatliners flits from one half-assed conceptual triviality to another, freed from gravity just like its cast during those out-of-body experiences. Not since posing as Kitty Pryde for disgraced hack Brett Ratner has Ellen Page been so egregiously squandered. Diego Luna (has it already been 16 years since Y Tu Mamá También?) and Kiersey Clemons (a comedic charmer as seen in Neighbors 2) have too proven themselves overqualified for this tedium, which is more than can be said for small screen ciphers Nina Dobrev and James Norton. The work Oplev and Ripley have done could've been accomplished by any slumming work-for-hires toiling under the Screen Gems banner. There's nothing exquisitely tricky or emotional to make their Flatliners come alive, just 110 minutes which transition into rigor mortis early on and never lets up. It's the kind of stiff which you don't so much as review as perform an autopsy on. And with so many people trying to look on the bright side of a downer year, the sooner we bag and tag Flatliners '17, the better.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Liquid Sky

(R, Cinevista, 112 mins., U.S. theatrical release date: April 15, 1983)

It's a rare but welcome surprise when a cult film manages to trip you up. Midnight movie masses tend to flock towards the most inept, most earnestly dreadful movies ever brought to fruition, so the discovery of one which actually is novel and assured rather than derivative and amateurish is something I celebrate. James Nguyen is a hero to the Rifftrax audience, and Tommy Wiseau has his own Ed Wood treatment thanks to James Franco. But I was burnt out with both Birdemic and The Room instantly because they don't reward ritualistic viewing thanks to being both hopelessly shoddy and thematically sloppy. They exist purely for ironic pleasure, and this is one of the biggest turn-offs I have developed in response to a world of online criticism where arch glad-handing has allowed mediocrity to thrive in the places where genuinely great films deserve to occupy.

Liquid Sky is a deathlessly kinky anomaly in a cult movie pantheon that often requires neon signs advertising a film's ineptitude to get recognized. It's safe to say Liquid Sky has osmosed itself into fringe appreciation, especially when you ponder the inspiration for such musical provocateurs as Peaches and Lady Gaga. But I have the hardest time trying to explain Liquid Sky categorically. Is it a new wave Ms. 45 via Paul Morrissey and David Cronenberg? What do I make of a glamorous lead actress who plays a supporting role in male drag? Are the performance art take-offs embellished satire or another stretch at anthropological authenticity? How do I deal with the micro-plots involving a deadbeat junkie husband and a Jewish TV producer seducing a German astrophysicist? Are the heat vision visual effects transcendent of their shoestring appearance?

When a movie raises that many questions, my instinct is to watch it over and over looking for my own answers. And Liquid Sky hit me with that laser beam, in 1980s parlance, relaxing me with its deadpan charms enough to let the film's casual cruelty and "fashionable" desperation swirl around in my mind instead of slapping me upside the head. Conceived by Russian émigrés in tandem with an American performance artist, Liquid Sky is at once inside and outside the nihilistic DayGlo pageantry of the post-punk club scene. There is heroin, rape, catfighting, necrophilia, and enough free-floating hostility to make George Carlin seem like a pussycat. It's also visually and aurally sumptuous.

Liquid Sky takes place in the span of one day, and Slava Tsukerman labors to preserve a more unique portrait of New York than usual when compared to its seedier contemporaries. The Empire State Building is viewed as a shrine in the glow of golden hour cinematography. Not content with mere aerial shots, Tsukerman manages fresh footage of an airplane landing and makes the most of the window and rooftop motifs. The city streets are reassuringly heavy with traffic during lunchtime, and there is a dazzling make-up session conducted under black light that epitomizes the richness of the primary colors. There is also a nightclub sequence near the end which is rendered more extraterrestrial than the requisite UFO, which is no larger than a dinner plate and inconspicuously settles atop an apartment building cluttered with empty bottles and crates.

The alien craft is drawn to the penthouse suite occupied by model Margaret (Anne Carlisle: Desperately Seeking Susan, Crocodile Dundee) and dealer Adrian (Paula E. Sheppard: Alice, Sweet Alice) on the promise of heroin, which upon injection stimulates a chemical reaction in the brain which the aliens harvest for sustenance. Or at least so until now, as West Berlin scientist Johann Hoffman (Otto von Wernherr) has gone from noticing the bizarre pattern of deaths in drug-abusing punk circles to finding a connection involving sexual intercourse, particularly the rush of endorphins at the orgasm stage. The defiantly androgynous Margaret proves useful in the alien's mission as she is exploited by predatory soap stars, professors and failed artists, all of whom wind up with glass arrows lodged in their heads and/or vanish completely post-coitus.

Margaret was once of "Mayflower stock" before moving from Connecticut to Manhattan to pursue indoctrinated ideals of fortune, going from the notion of marrying a lawyer ("And on the weekends, we'd barbecue...") to waiting tables and wishing upon an acting agent instead. These modes of subservience and blind luck are shattered completely by the realization of her newfound power of sexual agency, which isn't limited to men. With her already outré face paint and hairdos, Margaret reaches the depths of her alienation even before she is emboldened to snatch a naive mate off the Danceteria floor ("Be nice to your audience") and send him off to a euphoric oblivion.

Her roommate Adrian is made of harder stuff, "concrete mazes, stone and glass." Confrontational and vulgar, this child of a hospitalized mother who once baptized a fancy restaurant with her urine is more of an outspoken nihilist than Margaret, who still retains tokens of gentle femininity (even when she turns primal, she's essentially Fay Wray as King Kong). Though she talks about relocating to Berlin, the European hub of glam culture and creative freedom, nothing becomes Adrian so much as her decadent New York environment. Whether reciting a ferocious poem devoted to her rhythm box ("It is preprogrammed/So what?/Who of your friends is not?") or writhing sensually atop the corpse of Margaret's acting teacher Owen (casting director Bob Brady), Adrian takes to being one of the damned with sardonic, sickening relish.

Trafficking in smack, Adrian's most pathetic client is Margaret's boyish opposite number, Jimmy. He latches onto Margaret at the start just so he can raid her apartment looking for the fix he can't afford, and proceeds to act even nastier to her as they share photo shoots. Anne Carlisle gender bends in the grand tradition of David Bowie by playing both these rival models, with trick photography and seamless doubles allowing them to be within striking distance of each other. As Jimmy, Carlisle flashes a 1000 watt sneer and takes cues from the Bowie/Ferry image of the debutante, slicked blonde hair and dapper tuxedo. The heated confrontation near the end between Margaret and Jimmy, where she is goaded into performing oral sex on the spiteful Jimmy, has to be seen to be believed.

The interactions between Margaret, Jimmy, Adrian, and the overbearing types courting them (from cocaine-huffing designers and their catty underlings to snooty reporters) are highly vitriolic comedy. Jimmy mocks Margaret by referring to her as an "ugly chicken" and steps on her toes, and her sadomasochistic response is to flatter his enabled ego as "the most beautiful boy in the world." Margaret is constantly defensive of her colorful style, as when Owen chastises her for looking like a hooker despite his history of wearing blue jeans as his own form of theatrical rebellion ("You thought your jeans stood for love, freedom and sexual equality while we at least know we're in costume"). Adrian's eulogy for the horny professor is delightfully profane and bitter ("You dropped dead fucking! It suits you well..."). And when Margaret is assaulted for the first time by soap opera hunk Vincent (Jack Adalist), who forces Quaaludes down her throat to render her docile, she resists with dry gusto. Incidentally, I didn't realize until a second viewing that Vincent would return later in the movie when Margaret accepts that there is one more score to settle.

Luckily, not all the humor is that black. Otto von Wernherr is endearingly straight as Dr. Hoffman, who asks his colleague Owen "How can I study the behavior of this creature if it's on private property?" His failed attempt to warn the defensive Adrian of the alien invasion is misinterpreted as a narco threat. And when he finds suitable space to conduct his studies, it's with Jimmy's mother Sylvia (Susan Doukas), the aforementioned Semite who works in television and throws herself at the duty-minded Donald Sutherland analog with an arsenal of playful bon mots ("You have protection from aliens? You have a laser gun in your pants?"). These lighter touches are effective counterpoints to the vagina dentata exhortations of Margaret, whose sci-fi venereal disease may arouse connotations with the then-nameless AIDS epidemic which was claiming hundreds of lives as early as 1982.

Credit joint screenwriters Slava Tsukerman, Nina Kerova (Tsukerman's longstanding wife) and Ms. Carlisle herself that Liquid Sky, while unavoidably rough due to a filming budget of less than $500,000, is never stilted or cloddish. Even as Tsukerman and DP Yuri Neyman seek to dazzle you with their ace location photography and vivid lighting, the characters in Liquid Sky possess inner lives and aggressive personalities. Margaret, jaded as she is, is played by Anne Carlisle with a voice as enthralling as her appearance. Paula E. Sheppard finds the sexiness in Adrian's hippie-gone-hostile patois. And the snide monotone Carlisle adopts for Jimmy is its own comic reward: when Sylvia tries to offer him a ride uptown, he matter-of-factly states "No, I'm going down."

Tsukerman also helped out on the film's eccentric score, composed on a Fairlight CMI handily available for public access at a library. This pricey synthesizer, which was big among experimental musicians for its ability to program natural sounds as musical notes (think Peter Gabriel's fourth album and Kate Bush on The Dreaming), allowed for variations on new and existing melodies, sometimes coming across as harsh (in that traditionally fast, processed "new wave" style) and other times gentle (bell-like and carnivalesque at a stately pace). He even feeds spoken dialogue into the keyboard for added disorientation, particularly the point where Margaret is taunted by all sides, especially from Jimmy, at her last modeling gig.

Liquid Sky has been a hard movie to come by, but Vinegar Syndrome offered a limited edition BD/DVD combo package (3000 units total) which sold out fast over the 2017 Black Friday shopping weekend. Restored from 35mm elements and remastered in 4k resolution, Liquid Sky is a revelation even if you only check out some of the screen caps posted at the AV Club. Slava Tsukerman and Anne Carlisle discuss the film in brand new interviews as well as an Alamo Drafthouse Q&A session (co-composer Clive Smith is also in attendance), although their commentary track is disappointing; recorded in what appears to be another apartment room, there are stretches of awkward silence which last for minutes where it would've been better to revert back to the soundtrack proper. The best option of all these bonuses is the 50-minute Liquid Sky Revisited, which boasts a wider array of participants (Kerova, Neyman, Doukas, and many more) as well as the chance to see Carlisle revisit shooting locations. The nightclub no longer stands, but I smiled knowing that a Petco has taken its place.

Liquid Sky has fast become one of my favorite movies of the 1980s. Here's hoping this alien artifact touches down again in a reissue format.

Friday, December 1, 2017

The Crush + The Hand


(R, Warner Bros. Pictures, 89 mins., theatrical release date: April 2, 1993)

There's an old maxim about horror movies and thrillers where one's enjoyment is directly proportional to the grandiosity of the villain. How many of the most beloved hair-raisers can you recall which were as good as their principal antagonist? Die Hard remains a towering inferno of a popcorn pic largely because of Alan Rickman's deceitfully debonair Hans Gruber, whose propensity to praise designer suits in one moment and then blow someone's brains out the next brought out the fiery urgency in the equally interesting hero, John McClane. In the Line of Fire worked a similar magic between Clint Eastwood and John Malkovich (Cyrus the Virus, anyone?), and who can forget Hannibal Lecter even after all those inferior spin-offs? There's even poker-faced appreciation of such slasher behemoths as Freddy, Jason and Leatherface, mythical characters who were never meant to be relatable to in the first place. The Crush wants to be on that plain so badly, you can hear writer/director Alan Shapiro's back snap like chilled celery at his self-elevation. 
His anti-heroine is certainly a familiar type even by the lax standards of 1993, where Drew Barrymore graduated to femme fatale (cf: Poison Ivy) and Amy Fisher was a gossip rag fixture. But what really got me interested in revisiting The Crush reaches past an entire decade prior to Shapiro's film (and the year before my birth date), way back when a TV movie called Summer Girl premiered on CBS. That Diane Franklin vehicle casts a large shadow over every and all subsequent film I will ever see involving a teenage girl whose sexuality is so sociopathic, it threatens to expose the adult victims as even more childish than their adolescent tormentor.

And thanks to Shapiro, I've never felt more confident about such a generalization in my entire life, because The Crush is just that shallow.

This has nothing to do with nostalgia in regards to Alicia Silverstone, who rode MTV's gravy train to It Girl super-stature on the back of this film. Surely, I can remember seeing Aerosmith's string of Get a Grip video singles ("Cryin‘" and "Crazy" and "Amazing") knowing full well that the blonde starlet anchoring them was the joint winner of the network's trophies Best Breakthrough Performance and Best Villain for her portrayal of  "Adrian" Forrester. And I grew up watching Silverstone's career reach the heights of Clueless and plumb the depths of Batman & Robin. And once Blast from the Past with Brendan Fraser came and went, so did Ms. Silverstone, making way for Reese Witherspoon and fading into the ether of '90s kid memories just like Diane Franklin at the end of the '80s.

More important is that The Crush occupies that nutty boom in Hollywood post-Fatal Attraction involving that most programmable of stock villains, the Deranged Interloper. I saw it in Pacific Heights, The Good Son and a dozen other movies involving crazed lovers, roomies, policemen, and nannies. There was hardly anything subversive about them except for their vocation, concocting cheap paranoia among the upwardly-mobile who had every reason to believe their temp secretary or their fruit-of-the-loom progeny were out to get them. The Crush is the jailbait-next-door equivalent of those films, and as good a reason as the death of the music video to feel upset stomach at the rise of MTV as pop culture gatekeeper.

Alicia Silverstone's first-time luck is certainly more fascinating than anything in The Crush, including the central character. While MTV and Fangoria latched onto her star, nobody in 1993 was singing the praises of Cary Elwes, not even with the forthcoming release of Mel Brooks' Robin Hood: Men in Tights, a deliberate echo of the goofy charm Elwes demonstrated in The Princess Bride. The Londoner was instead saddled with one of the weakest lead roles in cinematic history, his "hero-victim" Nick Eliot being the epitome of complicit dullardry. A bespectacled milquetoast and journalistic writer of the teensiest skill evident, Nick nevertheless cruises out to Seattle once hired for Pique magazine, a coastal tabloid whose managing editor (Matthew Walker) thinks his investigative talents are esteemed enough to land an interview with a notorious embezzler. He finds suitable living and working residence in the guest house of Cliff and Liv Forrester (Kurtwood Smith, Gwynyth Walsh), but nearly mows down their 14-year-old daughter Adrian before setting one foot on their property.

Nick's apparent detriments of intuition and acclimation come into greater focus once Adrian starts making her play on the dopey if handsome writer. No review would be complete without mentioning that Silverstone's character was named Darian when the movie initially circulated, based on a genuine underage suitor Alan Shapiro had the misfortune of attracting. The real life Darian's parents threatened to sue James G. Robinson, thus the name was changed to protect the guilty for subsequent television and home video releases, including its BD debut from Shout! Factory. Soundalike actors dubbed all instances of the name "Darian" and an obvious insert appears at one point, although those who still have eagle eyes at the end will notice one slip. And the theatrical trailer has yet to be tampered with, either on disc or YouTube.

Anyway, "Adrian" (quotes will be dropped as long as you know who I'm actually referring to) is half of Nick's 28 years and the Valley Girl as bookish overachiever, with advanced knowledge of entomology, equestrianism and classical piano performance. It's hard to watch The Crush in any format and not see Cher Horowitz shoehorned into the role of a lonely, disturbed prodigal child, albeit one with a truly Californian hardbody Shapiro ogles in scantily-clad close-ups to the tune of Auto & Cherokee's "Taste," which was previously heard in the end credits of Stay Tuned minus the female moans. This happens after she has stolen a kiss and sucked Nick's fingers whilst assuring him "Don't be afraid of me." She even calls him up to taunt him with the phrase "I got my period," getting a rise out of Nick despite no actual puppy sex going on.

Teasing is the nature of Adrian's game, as when Nick sneaks into her bedroom looking for a missing photograph and hides in her closet while she disrobes for a bath. He bumbles further, she turns around and flashes him full frontal with a grin. Making a break for the front door, Nick is greeted by Cliff Forrester, who takes him up to the attic where his failed childhood present, a restored carousel, sits in neglect while he does the usual possessive daddy shtick with a pair of pliers. Forget about the name change: this doting fruitcake of a father alone seems more like a lynchpin for legal matters. No wonder Kurtwood Smith's insult of choice on That '70s Show was "dumbass."

When voyeurism fails to sway him, Adrian gets really steamed and scratches an obscene word onto Nick's snazzy car. Having screwed herself out of any future acts of endearment, she erases the floppy disk containing his deadline interview with the reclusive embezzler after having successfully rewritten his previous article. In the single most ludicrous moment of this consistently overheated film, Nick realizes Adrian's sabotage during a staff meeting, drives all the way back to his house, calls out for Adrian, wanders into the girl's candlelit shrine to him in the basement, gets duly creeped out, seals up the basement with hammer and nails, rewrites the entire article from memory whilst ignoring Adrian's desperate phone calls, drives all the way back to the office, and arrives with his salvaged article well before sundown. We see that Nick had asked his photographer girlfriend Amy Maddk (Jennifer Rubin: A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, Screamers) to stall for him, and I can only assume that she performed the same trick Winona Ryder used to wow the troops in South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut.

Nick sleeps with Amy, who is then attacked in her bolted-up darkroom by a hive of wily bees...erm, wasps (?) fed through her air duct in a plastic bag but reappears at the end looking just as Karen Duffy-ish as ever, if not more so. Adrian also promptly arranges the horseback "accident" of her best friend Cheyenne (Amber Benson) when she sees her attempting to warn Nick somewhere more private. Only after Nick is evicted, fired and arrested on a sexual assault charge does Cheyenne, who was clearly out of the hospital before his disgraces (and why didn't he visit her there?), does she confess to Adrian's murderous past in time for her to be tied to Mr. Forrester's prized merry-go-round for a predictably vicious, slow motion-enhanced climax. You see what I mean about the previous paragraph highlighting the film's piece de ridicule?

There will be those in the bottom-feeding world of online critics who will tell you The Crush succeeds on some dubious camp level. Don't bother. Not only does Alan Shapiro, who previously toiled in Disney's made-for-TV wing, fail to measure up to the entertainingly lurid gaslighting and dementia found in Summer Girl let alone the rabbit-stewing tension of Fatal Attraction, but The Crush is far less provocative and sexier than David Fincher's music video for Billy Idol's 1990 hit "Cradle of Love." For all her deliberate Lolita poses, Adrian emerges as another somnambulant psychotic akin to Macaulay Culkin from The Good Son. And the exceedingly passive and bland Nick is a torpid substitute for Humbert. Romanticism is evoked through another literary staple, Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, both physically (a poster for the 1939 William Wyler movie adaptation) and verbally, but the contributions of first-rate cinematographer Bruce Surtees and veteran suspense composer Graeme Revell are staggeringly unambitious, tailored as they are to Shapiro's prevalent crassness.

If his autobiographical elements are to be believed, The Crush is at once embarrassing and reprehensible. Nick is a hack writer whose work is improved by the proofreading of a 14-year-old girl and who, for all his supposed snooping credentials, can't even creep inside her house without acting the fool. He seems completely devoid of moral confidence let alone common sense (these have to be voiced by Jennifer Rubin, who makes the best of her ancillary love interest role), cloddish qualities unbecoming of a mature professional and which hinder any genuine sympathy for his mounting plight. Cary Elwes' faltering American accent attests to the lack of real sophistication in Shapiro's handling of this mild-mannered victim. 

Adrian functions in a psychological vacuum just as well, nothing more or less than a vindictive brat whose fanatical devotion to Nick is, as is often the case with these movies, skin deep. Proffered as sumptuous virgin flesh ("You can taste it if you want"), Shapiro fails to establish Adrian as a social misfit from an wealthy if unhappy family and instead ratchets up the pout-lipped pathology to numbing indifference. She's a prurient sop to male vanity who makes a handy punching bag knowing you're too stupid to match wits with her. And because Elwes and Kurtwood Smith are that dense, it's naturally appalling to see Adrian taking a hit which sends her literally flying across the room.

But don't worry about a thing. Adrian gets such great psychiatric care, they don't even straitjacket her so as to prevent her from writing letters to the man whose life she tried to ruin. And there's a friendly staffer who keeps the cycle intact for the open ending. At which point, I mourned tearfully not for the direct-to-video which never was, but for the Channel Awesome episode that remains to be seen.


(R, Orion Pictures/Warner Bros. Pictures, 104 mins., theatrical release date: April 24, 1981)

Oliver Stone's The Hand comes with an equally auteur-minded reputation for having aired some deep psychological sludge from the toxic waste barrel of the mind. To be fair, Stone (already having won an Oscar for his script for Midnight Express) is working from a Marc Brandel novel, The Lizard's Tail, whose bitter aftertaste was too strong not to fester into the movie adaptation. And given the choice between The Hand and The Crush, I'll take Oliver Stone over Alan Shapiro in a millisecond. He directs Michael Caine to an edgy, volatile extreme that is more grounded yet cheerfully over-the-top than Alicia Silverstone was allowed. Tinges of honest humor shake up the nastiness, especially when Caine's Jon Lansdale, a displaced comic strip creator, pounces on a lucrative teaching engagement only to wind up in California's closest equivalent to Hicksville, with its redneck bar, doltish students and woodsy cabin home raring to fall down around his ears.

Sadly, The Hand has a ridiculous plotline of its own and even shakier execution that draws more from classic creature features than contemporary baby boomer thrillers. A dispute between Lansdale and his unfulfilled wife Anne (Andrea Marcovicci) over her relocation to New York is settled prematurely by the accidental severing of Lansdale's right hand. The appendage is lost in the nearby grass field, and Lansdale finds his career takes a similar nosedive given he's no longer able to draw anymore. His burbling resentments are reciprocated by the missing hand, which goes about killing those who have angered him. These murders proceed even after Lansdale relocates to his professor gig, and come Christmastime with his family (also including Mara Hobel from Mommie Dearest as the Lansdales' daughter), he's dreading Anne's killing at either his loose hand or its mechanical replacement.

David Cronenberg made his name on a similar demonstration of biological revenge with The Brood, but Stone gets it started only to shut it down with attack sequences worthy of Ed Wood and a mean streak at the expense of fleshing out a juicy pulp premise. It's not required that a film about a repressed man's seething anger over his dippy wife's yoga fetish and his comic strip's unauthorized overhaul try to be tactful, since it does achieve a slow-burning cauldron of rage deserving of spillage. When Annie McEnroe (Beetlejuice, Howling II) as lustful local girl Stella Roche, a checkout clerk who plays teacher's pet in a fit of boredom, gets strangled by Thing for her carnal indiscretions, it's like...sheesh, the slasher movie lives. 

The sentient hand restrains itself by not wrapping its rotting fingers around the neck of Charles Fleischer as the opportunistic "collaborator," David Maddow, who essentially overthrows Lansdale with the blessing of his agent, Karen Wagner (Rosemary Murphy). This makes Stella's demise seem all the more queasy and sexist, especially given Lansdale's grudge against Anne's self-help guru, a stereotypically fruity sensitive man. Caine's egomaniacal loner operates on a level of mental darkness that doesn't mesh with the B-movie revelation that he may himself be the real killer, an expository dump which falls upon the lovely Viveca Lindfors, guest appearing as a psychiatrist and who is as welcome here as in Creepshow and The Sure Thing.

Oliver Stone sacrifices himself by playing a drunken vagrant whose laughably convulsive death scene is made worse by the lack of a zipper on the front of his hobo pants. Needless to say, this doesn't mitigate the bilious disappointment of the ensuing movie, which doesn't earn all of its male pattern paranoia. Michael Caine, for what it's worth, remains a class actor who brings measured intensity to his character and who isn't as shouty as The Hand's reputation suggests. He did more braying in the opening scenes of Deathtrap, a better film but also a more deliberately stagy one. My own memory of The Hand is inexorably tied to viewing it Joe Bob Briggs' late night cable show MonsterVision, where the drive-in critic was caught off guard by faulty censorship during Caine's most vulgar dispute between him and Andrea Marcovicci (The Stuff, Jack the Bear). What better endorsement can you give Caine's work other than the fact that the folks at TNT were so invested in Lansdale's meltdown that they let a couple of four-letter words slide? Top that, Vincent Canby!

Stone bettered himself easily once he finally got to direct Platoon (again for Orion Pictures) and Born on the Fourth of July, projects which needed an intriguing failure like The Hand and a couple of sideline gigs for Milius and De Palma to attain some gravity as well as the all-important greenlight. The Hand tries for atmosphere even during its requisite POV shots and it all leads to nothing. At least here, as opposed to The Crush, tech levels appear to have more finesse. Can you imagine an effects team including Carlo Rambaldi, Stan Winston and Tom Burman giving it the college try? James Horner on the soundtrack, Richard Marks' editing prowess and J. Michael Riva doing the production design? Bruce McGill and Tracey Walter in supporting roles? That's my idea of Hollywood catnip if there I ever imagined such a brand.