(PG-13, The Weinstein Company, 106 mins., theatrical release date: April 15, 2016)
In the 1970s, Van Morrison mused on the transcendent promise of rhythm & blues in his own thickly-brogued, folksy fashion, rekindling the romantic charge in Jackie Wilson's honeyed voice as well as his own passion for live performance as channeled by the 11-piece Caledonia Soul Orchestra. To cite one of Van's influences, Sam Cooke, he could no longer fight the feeling, and the It's Too Late to Stop Now LP of 1974, as well as its three-volume companion piece released over 40 years later, is on par with the Cooke who played the Harlem Square Club or James Brown at the Apollo back in the 1960s.
Fellow Irishman John Carney aims to capture that same revitalization of spirit through song, which is tricky business since his forte is narrative filmmaking. Through sheer force of intimacy, 2007's Once managed to convey that passion through the professional and romantic union of a busker and an immigrant on the streets of Dublin. It was also hailed as a miracle for the movie musical format due to its naturalistic, nuts-and-bolts scale. Carney's third film is a period piece set in 1985, neither the freshest or the most honest era for pop music let alone nostalgia. Not only that, but it's a teen film set in 1985, the year the genre exploded for the American market.
Chalk it up to Carney's grounded sincerity and filmic lyricism that Sing Street, were it time-warped back into the heyday of Hughes, could've usurped 92% of its competition on the strength of imagination alone.
Lots of youth-oriented pictures in the first half of the 1980s touted music-as-escape, the majority of which simple-mindedly reduced the concept to flashy montages or raucous house parties or dance bonanzas. In the hands of hucksters, such freedom came across as trivial. John Carney communicates the shared bond people can form over late night turntable binges, as well as the inspiration it can yield. There is a moment a little over 30 minutes in where two boys spin Joe Jackson and The Jam, crack jokes about rabbit pellets and brainstorm an original song. Carney fluidly expands that confidential moment of creativity into a band practice of the same tune and goes further from there. The rhythm of the film and the song interlock gracefully, and you can sense the main character's growing confidence handled with majestic precision.
Carney's human touch is more than fitting given that budding singer/lyricist Conor Lawlor's dizzying coming-of-age is all for love, specifically one for the beguilingly beautiful older girl who stands in waiting across from Conor's parochial school on Synge Street. She's Raphina, an aspiring model with a drug-dealer boyfriend whom she claims will whisk her off to London, land of opportunity. Conor asks if she'd be interested in being a video vixen in the meantime for his rock band. Before he knows it, Conor and his new friend, prepubescent entrepreneur Darren Mulvey (Ben Carolan), are hustling to form said group and produce said video for a non-existent song.
Advised by his college dropout brother Brendan and allied with homely multi-instrumentalist Eamon, who names the ragtag five-piece band Sing Street, Conor's individuality blossoms upon exposure to the likes of Duran Duran, Hall & Oates and The Cure. The band practice Conor & Eamon's new songs and film a second video on the way to their first gig at the midterm dance. Conor falls deeper for the orphaned Raphina whilst having to confront his own disintegrating family unit as well as the pressures from draconian school headmaster Baxter (Don Wycherley) and ruffian classmate Barry (Ian Kenny).
Forget all that you can read about Sing Street being a youthful version of The Commitments (do watch for Maria Doyle Kennedy as Conor's ma opposite Aidan Gillen), because this is on a higher level of cinematic nirvana. Think more of Bill Forsyth, who made the winsome Gregory's Girl in 1981. Think more of John Duigan, author of the affecting Danny Embling saga with The Year My Voice Broke and Flirting. Imagine a School of Rock if it had been written by Richard Linklater as well as directed by him. Carney's charm is reminiscent of those films, so rich with character-building sensitivity and mundane-seeming quirkiness and a naturalistic, guileless treatment of growing pains. It would seem to be a dreamer's version of a depressing reality, especially given how Dublin appears a one-horse town (the end credits offer an assurance that things have progressed in the economy and educational system), but there is way too much courage, wisdom and tenderness in Sing Street's slice-of-life playlist to ever write off as sappy, closet-pretentious button-pushing.
As Conor himself puts it to his bandmates, looking for the words to clarify Raphina's diagnosis that he's not happy being sad, "it means that I'm stuck in this shithole full of morons and rapists and bullies...I'm gonna try and accept this and get on with [life] and make some art."
Ferdia Walsh-Peelo is a terrific discovery as Conor Lawlor, the pint-sized New Romantic whom Raphina pet-names "Cosmo." More than just another lovesick archetype, Walsh-Peelo turns Cosmo's clumsiness into the stuff which makes him secretly the coolest kid on the block. It's got nothing to do with the fact that he walks into Christian Brothers School one day resembling a junior Nick Rhodes (although I smirk every time I notice it), but it's the incremental integrity and bottomless joy of discovery he demonstrates. Getting the girl may be a top priority, and rooting for him is an irresistible inevitability, but if he has more songs in his heart, then he truly deserves his name written in the cosmos.
Lucy Boynton perfects that same attractiveness of soul and body as Raphina, a sophisticated 16-year-old whose innocence is renewed by the affections of Conor. The Sing Street band mates, trained musicians all, appear to have less material to excel with than the leads, but John Carney does right by them regardless. Mark McKenna has that droll, lanky demeanor which automatically signals introversion, but there's a spark in his Eamon that makes him an invaluable asset for Connor. Percy Chamburuka gets a great introduction as "golliwog" keyboardist Ngig, whilst Karl Rice & Conor Hamilton shine as the elementary-aged bassist Garry and drummer Larry. Rice's impromptu costume for the band's first video shoot turns out be a corker, and he also dances with an elderly lady on the shuttle.
As Brendan, Jack Reynor plays the kind of boisterous, slacker savant that Jack Black does so well, but while he gets a handful of opportunities to demonstrate such (there's a putdown of Phil Collins worthy of Black's overbearing clerk from High Fidelity), Reynor also gets at the inner resentment brought on by his dysfunctional parents and his kid brother's prodigious ascent. When Conor sings "You just can't stand the way/That I turned myself around" in one song, it feels closer to his relationship with Brendan than Raphina. But Carney shades in lovely bondings between Conor and both these respective muses, and Reynor finds the soul in his own character as much as Walsh-Peelo and Boynton.
And then there's that soundtrack, which is another impeccable touch to add alongside Carney's proficiency with his actors here: "Rio," "A Town Called Malice," "Maneater," "Steppin' Out," "In Between Days," Motorhead's "Stay Clean," Genesis' "Paperlate," Flash & The Pan's "Waiting for a Train," and Spandau Ballet's "Gold." All of these top-notch selections are matched by the original compositions which take cues from the hits on show, written by Carney with assistance from Gary Clark of "Mary's Prayer" renown. "The Riddle of the Model" flaunts John Taylor-style slap bass and Walsh-Peelo's spot-on impression of Phil Oakey's monotone. "Up" takes flight both lyrically and musically, and "Brown Shoes" is a singular kiss-off anthem from Conor to his tormentors (although skinhead Barry is sold on being a roadie). But Clark's solo compositions, the gorgeous "To Find You" and the giddy "Drive It Like You Stole It," are the surest and best candidates for Oscar consideration, even with Adam Levine, the Maroon 5 singer who starred in Carney's Begin Again, collaborating with "Falling Slowly" award-winner Glen Hansard for "Go Now."
The synergy of song and plot in Sing Street is intoxicating. Conor and Raphina exchange a possible video idea for "Drive It Like You Stole It" modeled on the Enchantment Under the Sea dance from Back to the Future. An unspoken betrayal reflecting cruel reality is wrapped around Conor's fantasy of the video during rehearsal, where a group of oblivious teens fail spectacularly to emulate the '50s choreography from the movie. In Conor's mind, there is peace between his parents, Brother Baxter does back flips and Brendan comes through for true love with switchblade and motorbike. Only one of the latter will happen in the end, which isn't hard to guess, but I've never seen a reverie on film this magnificent.
Sing Street is one of 2016's most pleasant little miracles. Like the best of its decade's pin-up pop, it has been blessed with an everlasting hook and a vivacious sense of itself. Carney weaves proven material both in teen movies as well as his own oeuvre into the best long-form music video never made in the ‘80s. It may hit the sweet spot for the fanatically nostalgic, but a coming-of-age movie this superior deserves its own DIY cover version, no vampire teeth required.
TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES: OUT OF THE SHADOWS
(PG-13, Paramount Pictures/Nickelodeon Films, 112 mins., theatrical release date: June 3, 2016)
It must be just like the endtimes to see a Michael Bay production brought to the screen by Nickelodeon Films. The shock of Bay directing under Steven Spielberg's auspices for the Transformers assembly line is now a thing of the past, even if Platinum Dunes is still pillaging innocent memories of everything from Friday night to Saturday morning. Besides, any functional adult can now appreciate the riskier jokes from Animaniacs or Who Framed Roger Rabbit? they were once too young to comprehend. But Nickelodeon has long since been removed from gross subversion ever since Ren & Stimpy got the axe (I like Spongebob, but did you ever seen him whiz on the electric fence?), and Michael Bay's idea of family fun is to patronize every age bracket instead of just the manchild.
Granted, I am totally non-acquainted with the current Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon Nickelodeon does air, nor did I bother to watch the preceding live-action TMNT movie. Judging by the reactions to that 2014 moneymaker, I wouldn't care to remember even had I screened it. Apparently, the Jonathan Liebesman-helmed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was a joyless experience that made the comparatively grittier Steve Barron prototype from 1990 look like Schumacher's Batman. But at least they weren't extraterrestrials, because then I genuinely would've had some post-Transformers stress disorder, a very real form of shell shock.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows suggests these turtle boys (the producers) have cut the diehards some slack. The tone of the sequel is closer in spirit to the Murakami-Wolf-Swenson animated series which defined the property in the late 1980s, going so far as to import the beloved theme song ("They're the world's most fearsome fighting team"), and the script incorporates several familiar-sounding characters. Casey Jones, the hockey-masked vigilante played by Elias Koteas in those ‘90s movies, debuts in Bay's universe here, as do mutant antagonists Bebop & Rocksteady, brain monster Krang and Baxter Stockman, who is represented here as a nefarious black scientist like in the original comics, but loses his prized creation, the Mousers, familiar to his backstory.
Baxter (Tyler Perry) mobilizes the Foot Clan to free the captured Shredder (Brian Tee) from armored transport, but the plan is intercepted by investigative journalist April O'Neil (Megan Fox) and relayed to the four half-shell heroes following a pizza-related blunder at a Knicks game. A freak transportation accident sends Shredder to Dimension X, where he is swayed by Krang (Brad Garrett) to retrieve the pieces of a portal which will allow the grotesque being world destruction. To ensure success, Krang spills the "secret of the ooze" so that Shredder may transform a pair of fugitive henchmen into, respectively, hybrid creatures Bebop (Gary Anthony Williams) and Rocksteady (Sheamus). It is up to Leonardo (Pete Ploszek), Raphael (Alan Ritchson), Michelangelo (Noel Fisher), and Donatello (Jeremy Howard), as well any willing human allies, to dismantle either the portal or Krang's mighty Technodrome.
The ever-endangered April is rescued from a scoop gone awry by the passenger of Shredder's prison van, renegade security officer Casey Jones (Stephen Amell). This time around, the goalie-masked crusader is less a sullen vigilante and more a beleaguered scrappy, a department underling with dreams of becoming a true detective. Casey poses no threat to Raphael's ego and is taken aboard as a partner fast due to April's solidarity with the Turtles. Casey's only real motive is validation for his fantastical story about that Tortugas van with the grill that shoots manhole covers and the robotic arms swinging nunchakus on the side, which he doesn't get from Police Chief Rebecca Vincent (Laura Linney).
The directing gig for TMNT: Out of the Shadows has somehow wound up in hands of a filmmaker more promising than the promo-centric hacks Bay's production company usually employs. That would be Dave Green, whose 2014 feature debut Earth to Echo paid direct homage to Spielberg, but here the only allusion to the maestro behind E.T. is when orange-coded party animal Mikey runs into Bumblebee at a costume party. Green is, as far as Michael Bay productions go, not a total stooge and doesn't redden your eyes during the all-important action sequences, dialing down on the over-editing and disorienting staging as opposed to what Bay typically accomplishes. It's paced briskly, too, and with a lot less of the jejune mogul's patented mean streak to stink the film up like eau d'égout.
Or at least as far as Green's work is concerned. The screenplay by returning scribes Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec, meanwhile, bears all the worst traits of working by committee. The movie's subtitle reflects the lip service paid to the friction within the four "brothers" to either carry on as concealed weapons at the beck and call of a capricious populace or exploit Baxter's synthetic experiments under the chance at normality. They could've more aptly titled it "There's No I in Turtle Power" given the more protracted but equally futile strain for de facto leader Leonardo to manage the conflicting personalities around him, especially the short-fused Raphael. Donatello is a witless expository technophile, and Michelangelo, the one with the potential for dim-witted good cheer on the scale of Bill & Ted, is shockingly unfunny.
For all they're given to work with, the flesh-and-bone actors may as well be CG-inserted to match their blocky, bulky co-stars. Megan Fox continues to give the impression of pouting plasticine, the spunk that once spurred her to rake Bay over the coals now so diluted that she'll forever inspire genuine reappraisals of Jessica Alba every time she's on screen. Poor Stephen Amell, meanwhile, never once convinced me that I wasn't watching the second coming of Chris O'Donnell. One can only pray Will Arnett's well-worn presence as the vaingloriously bogus hero, self-nicknamed "The Falcon," will inspire impressionable youth to seek out the complete Arrested Development so they may watch him be typecast properly. Ditto Tyler Perry in the role of Smart Brother once played by Bebop himself in Undercover Brother. In my mind, Perry's more of a burlesque performer than a comic genius, but that's a minor strength here among a predominantly flat cast.
As for Laura Linney, give her the Frances McDormand Honorary Award for Most Overqualified Supporting Actor and be on your way.
This MSG-enhanced sequel just feels so crushingly prefabricated from the self-referential dialogue (Mikey mourns over a planned hip-hop Christmas album), workhorse pop music cues (Lionel Richie's "Hello," Edwin Starr's "War," Elvis Presley's "Little Less Conversation," and Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit in the Sky" ALL need to be retired for a while) to the finale which blatantly rips from The Avengers, not to mention Star Wars, Ghostbusters, etc.. It's as if they started off with minimal inspiration despite the increased awareness of the franchise's history, resulting in a disposable act of obligation rather than entertainment, a cut-rate Franken-sequel as regrettably overbearing as the new iteration of these happy-go-lucky crime-fighters as the Incredible Hulk's droppings. I wish Dave Green all the luck in the world that he might someday gain a possible mentor in Steven Spielberg, so that he no longer has to bet on the Bay.
Diane Franklin, Savage Steve Holland, Olivia DeLaurentis
Enchantéd: A Retrospective Tribute to Diane Franklin
X. The Future of Enchantéd: Olivia DeLaurentis
When I first began this project, Diane Franklin simply served as the muse for my writing abilities. The dream of Monique Junet was renewed, and it was her warmth and wisdom which has kept me steadily evaluating Diane's "1980s babe" stature as a whole. Such reverence has been incredibly beneficial to me, but I haven't been so successful at leaping over hurdles in my endeavors. One of the biggest problems was that I wanted to be as comprehensive as possible, but realizing I had to enforce strict rules upon myself, particularly the decision to focus on feature films alone, be they theatrical or made-for-television. It hasn't turned out as well as I hoped, and a real reason is one Diane herself makes plain in the last chapter of her book:
Diane Franklin was finding it harder to advance her acting career.
One of the most unfortunate stigmas young actors encounter is that industrial predilection for typecasting. From The Last American Virgin to Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, Diane was constrained to a certain archetype, namely that of the "ingénue," even with the mid-1980s likes of Better Off Dead... and TerrorVision demonstrating an incredible yen for comedy. And while I have watched enough of her to know that she had the chops to make for a brilliant adult star, Diane's legacy is tied down to a series of movies which only see her as merely "That Girl." Once you realize the inequality of countless performers reflected in someone whom you honestly wanted to succeed, that muse starts to slip away.
Diane Franklin's transition to Diane DeLaurentis began after How I Got into College, and the stunning young performer with the curly brunette hair began a respectable domestic life as a dyed-blonde acting coach, full-time family woman and suburban expatriate. In short: she disappeared, bowing out of the public eye to an audience of seemingly few of great faith. And yet somehow, this undervalued movie star never really left the minds of an her generation, and the result has been Diane's recent blitzkrieg of autobiographies, radio programs and convention appearances. What's even more promising was the knowledge that she was getting back her acting groove, that her second wind as a legitimate, mature performer could actually arrive through the efforts of one amazingly passionate and powerful person: her teenaged daughter, Olivia DeLaurentis.
Thanks to Stuart Morris of Misty Moon Film Society/Gallery.
Olivia was born on April 23, 1996, and much like in Diane's own life story, there was a natural talent just waiting to emerge and be nurtured. In her youth, Diane navigated multiple avenues as a model, commercials star and high school drama student. And Olivia's development appears to just as all-encompassing, with one of her earliest roles being The Cat That Looked at a King, an combination live action/animated short produced exclusively for the 40th anniversary home video release of Disney's Mary Poppins. This was based on the original P.L. Travers novel Mary Poppins Opens the Door from 1943, the third in said series, and featured Julie Andrews reprising her famous role alongside such talents as Tracey Ullman, Sarah Ferguson and...David Ogden Stiers, Mr. Al Meyer, himself.
Olivia looks stunning in a junior Marlo Thomas fashion, so the genetic and professional similarities between mother and daughter are further delighting. However, at the age of 12, Olivia DeLaurentis had precociously developed a drive as an honest-to-goodness, jack-of-all-trades filmmaker. Not just an actor, but also director, writer and editor, thus making her the California suburban equivalent of Robert Rodriguez. In 2008, Olivia made The Adventures of Lass with the help of family, friends and pets. In two subsequent years, she spun that off into sequels, Sweet Potato Rush and Going to America. According to the IMDb, the Lass trilogy is a satire of dysfunctional foreign families migrating to United States. You can see a clip for yourself in Diane Franklin's recent acting reel:
The promise of Diane's daughter is very much worth taking into consideration, as she has already notched several festival nominations in Los Angeles and the United Kingdom. This year alone (it is 2014 as I begin writing this), both she and Agoura High schoolmate Jeremy Elder were awarded the Dominique Dunne Film Festival award for Best Documentary for Cinco, a profile of Despicable Me creator Cinco Paul and a supporting star in one of Olivia's films. And she was also awarded the Jim McKay & Mike Wallace Memorial Scholarship, news which I need to dearly thank Diane Franklin herself for relaying to me in person before the ceremony took place:
Diane's enthusiasm for her daughter has been nothing short of endearing, yet as much as I dream of sharing that glow with her, the fact remains that Olivia's work remained hesitantly unavailable for me to really process. I never asked Diane, who has produced Olivia's short films with her husband Ray, for screener copies and I haven't had the chance to trek out to see them in their many exhibitions. Even a fellow fan I met in San Francisco proved to be somewhat stingy in letting me know these were available to watch online. A vital part of Diane's story which I never thought I would ever see for myself remained out of my reach, and I felt like I've exhausted all I can say about Diane based on her 1980s resume.
Thankfully, Olivia DeLaurentis has uploaded her post-Lass oeuvre to the hosting site Vimeo. The opportunity to pay honest and heartfelt tribute to two generations of incredible beauty and talent has presented itself. Thus my impulse is to dive right in and give each of Olivia's short films their due, hopefully doing right by her and Diane in completing one's exposure (although Diane has a couple of movies in development to keep the series running a little longer) and charting another's beginnings (please read to the end for more information). It's all so stereotypically Semisonic, this fateful development.
Without further delay, and with the blessings of both Mrs. and Ms. DeLaurentis, I present to you my latest entry in the Enchantéd retrospective: Five Long Shorts (And Five Matching Briefs) from Diane & Olivia DeLaurentis.
Our semi-complete origin story of Olivia DeLaurentis begins in the future, 2035 to be exact. A war has been waging against rebel androids and man for three years, so the latter team decides to send one of their own back through time to retrieve the access code to a valuable disintegrator. The code was once the high school locker combination of resistance leader Alexis Winters(!), and because her memory has been erased, a cyborg called the X-1 has been dispatched with a "primitive emotional program" in order to gain her trust.
The fifteen-year-old Alexis, alienated from her family and her school, is pursued by the X-1 under the guise of Mac (Drew Cullinan), a laser-shooting postal worker whose software doesn't extend to social graces, thus a most reluctant friendship is formed when the X-1 starts to incapacitate her foes, be they the mean girls who push her around or Alexis' wannabe stepmother Bree, a bar-hopping plastic surgery disaster. But Mac's slow process of humanization clashes with his mission, and as days pass, chances are the vulnerable Alexis is going to be betrayed for the extinction of the human race unless Mac learns from the true meaning of failure.
Basically, Humanized is a young girl's equivalent of the Terminator 2 buddy dynamic. With his perpetually wide eyes and piercing voice which resembles the speech pattern of Beldar Conehead, Mac is less adept at fitting in than the Schwarzenegger prototype, blending mostly though sheer belittlement. But they do get along, although not without some friction. Mac bluffs his way into spending the night at Alexis' house, gets confined to the guest room and utters the deathless line "I am enjoying our restraining order slumber party complete with boundaries."
Olivia's blend of energy and empathy does set the tone for her future short films, and as a teen actor she appears to have picked up a few welcome lessons from John Cusack. The writing itself is where Olivia really comes into her own. Mac's cybernetic database allows him to deduce how to impress teenage girls through such advice as "purchasing nutrients," "do not contact mothership" and "eliminate the cyborg that lives with her." Putting the plan into action, though, his insufficient knowledge causes him to miscalculate even the simplest acts of chivalry. Picking her up from school in a red Honda SUV similar to another student's ride, Mac assures Alexis that he is of "minimal guilt," which...you can guess what that means.
Also worth commending are the montage scenes of Mac shadowing and bonding with Alexis, where Mac's further idiosyncrasies play out and there's even a pretty cool cameo from a woman only heard in voiceover, Mrs. DeLaurentis herself (nearly getting in a car wreck due to reckless Mac). She's even given a hometown legend salute in the pizzeria.
In short, this is a focused and fun starting point into the young filmmaker's catalog and proof that Olivia DeLaurentis is not a talent to be missed. Another touch to look out for is the soundtrack, which ends with a tune from Olivia's favorite comedy duo. Next to Diane, the other recurring adult player in the repertoire, Steven Houska, has a brief part as the neglectful father with the Bluetooth headset, a perfect transition into the first of the interstitial segments...
This Mad Libs-indebted goof on a sins-of-the-father melodrama is also known as the "Llama Movie." See for yourself, as it may be your regular Satyr-day night thing. Sarah Crosthwaite co-writes and co-directs with Olivia, playing the straight-laced younger sister alongside Olivia, Diane and Max Kennedy as the impressionable youngest child. My close friend Dana Saravia ought to get as much of a kick out of the inclusion of Neil & Tim Finn's "Nothing Wrong with You" as I did. Filmed for the 2012 Agoura High student film festival.
Violet Young (Olivia DeLaurentis) dancing with Claude Rains.
II. MY BETTER HALF
A fugue state is defined as a type of psychogenic amnesia stemming from one's loss of identity, often associated with spontaneous travel which is blacked out of mind. Violet Young (Olivia), a straight-A+ student who has denied herself a social life for the perks of higher education, is warned of this disorder by her counselor (Bill Wise), a transvestite surfer dude whose desk is cluttered with Darth Vader figurines and a Billy Bass perched on a mini-Hulk pinball machine. However, his definition is more aligned with average, everyday schizophrenia, or to invent a new clinical term for it, Fredophilia.
That's because Violet's repressive super-ego has caused her to imagine a subconscious prankster named U2 (Cullinan), and like Phoebe Cates' Lizzie before her, Violet is exhibiting indecent, demented behavior she frantically, futilely attributes to an invisible manchild. Diane Franklin gets the Marsha Mason role as Violet's hyper-masculine mom, such a relentless scold that her husband (Houska) is reduced to being Mr. June Cleaver. "He's wearing an apron," snarks Mrs. Young in a hush, "You don't want to end up like that!"
U2, a neon-dyed Peter Pan in Goodwill glam, only wants what's best for Violet, who is forbidden from school dances, on the cusp of driver's ed and diverted from her talents as a fashion designer. If that means wrestling her with a boa (which onlookers can only see as her doing frustrated pirouettes), habitually stealing cars or calling her through a banana, then this cuckoo life coach surely will help Violet realize her own personal fulfillment is hardly as nutty.
My Better Half plays as a more confident variation on the fractured fairy tale of Humanized, and Olivia's generosity with character quirks and unique comic portrayals is reminiscent of Savage Steve Holland's amiable absurdity. The understatement she displayed as Alexis Winters has given way to a broader but equally precise show of rampant, robotic neurosis. Olivia has upped her game in terms of physical comedy to match the lunacy, the highlight being when she knocks herself out with a frying pan and lumbers puppet-like down the stairs of her mansion, her Stepford Father looking on with mortification.
Drew Cullinan also feels more natural in front of the camera here, and makes a case that he could improve upon the late Rik Mayall's Rotten routine. Playing the roles of Violet's misfit friends are Sydney Heller (Olivia's co-conspirator at Barely Legal Comedy) as the academically jealous Cindy ("I write poetry about your body being found in a ditch") and Sarah Crosthwaite as OCD-addled Christian athlete Annie, each making an excellent impression. As for Diane...well, I get the feeling she is a spiritual godmother to all of the young actresses. Her sourpuss streak is luminously spot-on, and Steven Houska also makes the most of his expanded screen time as the emasculated hubby.
Olivia the filmmaker has also markedly improved, exhibiting a deft touch with the montage at the very start by giving us a compact knowledge at Violet's study-centric all-nighters. The temp soundtrack backing her up is also the best of her films, especially if you're an art rock nerd like me who fancies Sparks, Brian "Baby's on Fire" Eno and The Modern Lovers. The homecoming ball is set to the tune of Billy Idol's "Dancing with Myself," natch, as the Violet triggers independent-minded revolt amongst her peers and does the one-girl rhumba in a sexy costume she literally stitched together in her sleep.
A comedy trailer in which Olivia teases her own Agoura Hills environment, caught in a rat trap of sealed fates, multiple iPads, "long shorts," and heated debate over semi-fast Mexican restaurants. "No one escapes from Stalag 16," her peers and the prophecies warn her, but can she defy the Big Pig in the Sky and, once and for all, break away?! Tune in next life for the thrilling conclusion.
Sarah Crosthwaite, Diane Franklin, Sydney Heller, Steven Houska
III. ROYAL EFFUPS
The Adventures of Lass trilogy was an indication that Olivia had a yen for crackpot revisions of historical developments, although sadly it is not available to watch. Instead, her next mini-movie, Royal Effups, is a Monty Python-style burlesque of the Enlightenment in 17th century Europe, an "Idiocracy: The Early Years," if you will. Set a half-century before the Intellectual Revolution, the first thing you'll notice is that even medieval babes like the fine, faire Princess Joanna were peasants once.
In a time of free amputations and children selling potato-shaped stones as food (it's a shame they didn't serve moss on the side to garnish them), a poor girl from Lemmingsville named Jane Iver (Olivia) dreams of being a Feudalist Tart. Upon inventing a heretofore unknown taste sensation called "candy," she is summoned by the royal cardinal (Evan Laffer) to be the arranged bride for King Ferdinand VIII.V. Alas, she has just been married into the royally insane, as Ferdinand's surname is an indication of his age.
Now officially betrothed to a child (Kyle Lewis) only interested in her candy, Jane is run further ragged by the rest of the monarchy, including a declaratorily conniving close heir in pirate wear (Cullinan's Duke of Transvestia) and Elizabeth the Cursed (Sydney Heller), the smeared-lipstick simpleton whose mental deficiencies stem from being the daughter of the Earl and Earless of Incestia (Houska and Diane).
Running about ten minutes less than My Better Half, the more loosely-structured Royal Effups embraces its dumbed-down premise with gusto. Ferdinand's chalice is a sippy cup and he rubs hard candy all over his chest after getting a huge bowl from Jane in exchange for a necklace. Jane herself binges on sweets for supper, although the cross-dressing Tranvestian would sooner she wash them down with vitriol. Sadly, we never quite see the Earless of Incestia pull back her hair or exaggerate her deafness enough to justify her position, but the celibate Cardinal does stick his fingers in his ear when Jane threatens to explain coitus and flicks about holy water to suppress any erotic tension. This time around, Evan Laffer is the film's MVP (although Sydney Heller and Drew Cullinan are incredible foes) and will return in a future paragraph.
There's an early visual gag which suggests the Imbecilic Revolution made ripples across the Atlantic, but we never do get to see any satisfying satire from this connection. I hope for a deleted scene of the pint-sized emperor holding a ridiculous public assembly or palace monologue. Royal Effups is a time-traveling variation on Olivia's subversive adolescent angst, this time putting Cinderella in a kingdom of pumpkinheads and watching her squirm and bluff her way into affirming her own grasp of power. The wit and the triumph which paid off splendidly in My Better Half is there, especially when the Cardinal confesses his crush on Jane at the least possibly requiting time.
Also, pip pip and Golden Crisps for the soundtrack, which is duly orchestral but contains many familiar modern melodies from the stables of Jimmy Eat World, Jason Mraz, Eric Clapton, and, of course, Queen.
I'd rank it only slightly behind My Better Half, but it's still goofily, gallantly imaginative and Olivia's personal artistic voice still registers above the royal ruckus.
c. Recruiting Violations
Olivia's Gwyneth Diaz goes scouting for colleges, but learns that it's better to call them than vice versa, especially when they phone you up after midnight on a studying bender. The admissions reps who phone her each represent a passive aggressive form of unsavory interest, concluding in a failed romantic misunderstanding/rejection from Bay Area University. It's scarier than the remake of When a Stranger Calls, to be sure.
Olivia DeLaurentis, Evan Laffer
The fourth of the "long shorts" takes us to the 46-minute mark, thus making Lovechild feel like the alpha of the bunch by virtue of its plotting and length. Once again, Olivia has fashioned a farce based on personality crisis, only this time her character is more in control and demonstrates more agency. As an actress, Lovechild may be her single most substantial vehicle, although My Better Half is still determinedly on the Honor Roll. It's an amalgam of both Charles Dickens and Harold Gray in terms of story ideas, but an influence which I hinted at in the earlier reviews finally swims on deck. And that influence is, blessed be, Better Off Dead.
Olivia's character is named Layna Meyers, whilst Diane Franklin herself plays Jenny Meyers, which is a pluralized direct tribute to the role Kim Darby played in that 1985 favorite, which was as Christmas-related as Lovechild. The dynamic between real-life and onscreen parent and child is also more pronounced than before, so there is a added layer of poignancy in this film which I cannot be a Scrooge about. As someone who came into this project holding firmly onto the elder DeLaurentis' festive spirit, it's a little hard to be objective because the chemistry is profoundly authentic and their hearts in the absolute right places. Forgive me for saying this, but one viewing will make you want to go out and hug the both of them.
Especially Diane, whose Jenny Meyers has been injured on the job at a factory run by crooked millionaire Gregory Rhodes (Houska), who has unjustly fired his entire staff after a disastrous crane accident. Because of this miserly misdeed, Jenny can't claim worker's comp and owes $10,000 in back rent summed up in an eviction notice. But she doesn't know that latter fact, only her thespian daughter Layna is keen to it, thus sparing her any more indignity.
Irate and vengeful, Layna hits upon an ingenious scheme to milk Rhodes for damages, pointing to a 17-year-old tryst as research for the role of her lifetime: Rhodes' illicit, long-orphaned teen daughter. With the help of her best friend Reagan (Tyler Matylewicz), the gay son of a right wing pigeon, she pulls all the right strings to land at the callous CEO's doorstep. Layna learns that she's not his lone black sheep, as Rhodes has a son named Plato, or Plates (Evan Laffer) who has been repeatedly expelled from boarding schools and is caught up in his own brooding, Machavellian angst. But with her own weekly allowance of $3,500, Layna only needs to keep up the charade for a month to clear her mom's debts. But as she is confronted with her own transgressions whilst bonding with her sexually confused, arch-martyr half-brother, can Layna improv her way back out of the ruse in time?
Fittingly enough for a movie which opens with an on-the-fly rendition of A Christmas Carol, Lovechild is its own improvisational Christmas pageant. And yet it comes together a lot better than its loose beginnings imply, another token of Olivia's single-handed skills on the order of her last three films. The character moments continue to find just the right mix of embarrassment and sweetness, and Olivia's writing has many effective dynamics besides the aforementioned mother/daughter bond. Layna's liaison with Plates is especially ripe for schadenfreude. Her machination drives the boy so mad, he raids the kitchen sink for anything that will hinder his love-damaged dementia.
Steven Houska's Rhodes also allows for the recurring star to open himself up more in terms of dramatic material, striking a note of convincing vulnerability when he recounts the real love he felt for Layna's pretend mother and the shame of his fatherly confidence gone sour. His money-throwing notion of defective responsibility is, in a way, humanized.
The clever black comedy as much as the conflicts are as universal as they are individual, and are relaxed enough so that it doesn't leave a ham-fisted bruise. There's an intelligence behind Olivia's talents which makes the silliness stem from authentic surroundings. Sure, she can aim at easy targets (we'll get to that in a few) and make as juvenile of humor as the "big boys" in comedy, but if the teen flicks of her mother's past are any yardstick, then Olivia is a preternatural heir to the primo youth movies of John Hughes and Rob Reiner.
A confessional board game bought at an indie Chinatown voodoo shop worries Olivia-as-Jamie. Rightfully so, if you've seen Gremlins, but instead the twist of this five-minute filmlet is basically the opening skit from Movie 43 about the perfect bachelor with the physical malady filtered through a FreakyFriday/Big-style shot of supernatural fantasy. Drew Cullinan returns as the dashing mystery date, who loves Bowie but has inherited the butt of Barf from Spaceballs.
Jeremy Elder, Adam Fisher, Diane, Olivia, Steven Houska
V. DEVON BRIGHT & THE SENSITIVE BOYS
Ladies and gentlemen, live from the Epicene Theater (may as well be), comes the newest, truest and bluest romantics ever assembled. Meet Devon Bright and the Sensitive Boys, too chaste to chase just any young girl, but one whose purity comes from Nicholas Sparks stories and can cry just a little to make them demonstrate the proper use of Kleenex.
Fawns, Cougars and even caged tigers from all correctional facilities hear the hyper-compassionate cry of this latest breed of teenage wildlife: cherubic tube-top victim Kendall Bae (Adam Fisher), tough-talking softie Ashley (Jeremy Elder) and the central low-thario, the most valiant knight in shining capris to come to your emotional rescue, Devon Bright (Drew Cullinan). They are at the height of their fame, thanks to canny marketing agent Rick Martini (Houska), deceptive mothering on behalf of estrogen pill dealer Mrs. Bright (Diane) and an audience who capriciously get full body tattoos and scream their fanaticism to Ed Gein degrees. And that makes Kendall Bae sad.
Devon Bright is also broken up when he fails to avert his eyes during a detour through the ghetto and sees...like, omigod, a bum! This harsh reality presses Devon to abandon the incubatory safety of his family mansion and group bed to investigate further, first by engaging with a delusional hobo psycho (David Neale) whose oracle is Cap'n Crunch and then coming tear-to-tear with his disgraced progenitor and hero, Jesse Holiday (Christopher Mathieu). The green-eyed golden boy whose career stalled thanks to green soda, Jesse now rules his own street-smart trio of down-and-out child celebrities and initiates Devon into the X-Faction.
I am old enough to remember that made-for-MTV mockudrama 2gether, way back when Justin Timbaland was a distant dream of the future. You know, the one that had such dead-on style parodies as "Rub One Out," "U + Me = Us (Calculus)" and "The Hardest Part of Breaking Up (Is Getting Back Your Stuff)." Devon Bright and the Sensitive Boys takes that conceit fourteen years later in a present day universe of Directioners and Beliebers, and Olivia fashions it into another skewed but relatable journey for independence.
Backing her up is brother Nick DeLaurentis on the composing side, and the two original songs they have come up with are more purposefully bad than you would expect a satire of banal teenybopper pop to be. It's a moderately successful joke to hear neutered Iron Johnny Angel catchphrases ("I won't eat red meat/No, it's all about soy"), but not so over-the-edge as to make for genuine novelty.
Having now grown up enough to employ liberal profanities and a fondness for punk rock (Dead Kennedys poster, seedy scenery, Television and Marilyn Manson cues), 18-year-old Olivia seems ready to rumble in the comedy ring. But off-hand references to the choosey pitfalls of fame and the gullibility of pop crack addicts don't land with the blows they ought to pack, even when voiced by mincing caricature-com-conscience Kevin (Sean McSweeney), a reformed crack baby who evinces a genuine love for Devon's positive pabulum.
Devon Bright's guppy-out-of-pond sojourn results in a literal poor man's victory at the end, busted down to strutting in the park with his codependent siblings to shallow tweens who shrug off their social awareness. The satire runs through a series of tenuously-grasped poses towards a fitting but limp dead end.
There are some hearty laughs to be had, though, like the benign inner city pressure Devon encounters set to a thrash cover of "A Whole New World" from the Aladdin soundtrack as well as the proposed concession to ethnic diversity which is met with a defensive shriek by the homogenized Brights. The funny foreigner character at the end, though, is more hackneyed than I expected. The performances also strike me more as a serviceable collection of improv troupe tics in need of a human touch, especially in the central trio of stars. This is not Spinal Tap, to put it lightly.
Strangely, this is the first of Olivia's movies where I found myself willingly wanting more of her mother, who proves the most sustainable resource in the film. Diane's mixture of natural buoyancy and instinctive wryness gives her an advantage as the sidelined Svengali. Mrs. Bright's introduction is simultaneously sexy and sardonic.
Devon Bright and the Sensitive Boys is a minor diversion by comparison to her last four efforts, and whilst she still demonstrates chops with non-sequiturs, sharp one-liners and good-hearted rebellion, I can only anticipate Olivia's growth in the college circle and cheer on her great crowd leap forward. The evidence I've gathered here is enough to ensure her promise rings.
e. Chapman Application Movie
Olivia's parents play their own worrying selves as their daughter suffers an amnesia-inducing mule kick to the head. A concise formal parody of handheld identity crisis and frenetically-edited B&W flashback stock footage that ends with an even more satisfying near-hit than Devon Bright. Sarah and Cinco co-star. Music via Weezer and The Buzzcocks. Length at two minutes long, so here's to the lost 30 seconds of footage gone the way of The Magnificent Ambersons. Vaya con dios.
This will be my 99th official movie review on this site, so if you are reading this, thanks for your time and support. I already plan on doing something special for my #100, to extend my support to a great talent who I feel deserves the recognition. But going through all I have written so far, I'm surprised to have got this far even if I had to struggle in some regards. For one, I had to retract my presence from social media for a spell because it wasn't doing my soul or my creativity any good. This meant I ended up sacrificing a connection which ran very deep to me, as well as losing touch with several very receptive people. I have been taking steps to getting back in the stratosphere, mostly on the strength of my devotion to writing.
I don't want to get too deep into this, instead resolving to continue to revitalize and strengthen my passion. So on the eve of my celebratory post, here is my latest review:
EAT THAT QUESTION - FRANK ZAPPA IN HIS OWN WORDS
(R, Sony Pictures Classics, 93 mins., limited release date: June 24, 2016)
Growing up in Apache Junction High School, I may have been the only person in my drama class to bring a Frank Zappa CD to the dressing room.
My tastes will still formative and a lot of what I was getting into musically were cult artists. I was big on Paul Westerberg and The Replacements then and still am, but I also picked up on every Mother's Father through a compilation album called Have I Offended Someone? I preferred short, simple songs at the time, and the album at least contained some Zappa tunes for the neophyte: "Dinah-Moe Hummm," "Catholic Girls," "Bobby Brown (Goes Down)," "We're Turning Again," and "Valley Girl." This was barely scratching the surface of Zappa's discography, as the CD contained nothing as old as "Harry, You're a Beast" or "Call Any Vegetable," but it boiled down a lot of highlights from Overnite Sensation to The Mothers of Prevention.
And it did so by culling a lot of Zappa's bawdiest tracks, at least in terms of lyrics. One of the songs was "Jewish Princess," which was condemned by the Anti-Defamation League for such lines as "I don't want no troll, I just want a Yemenite hole." Like I said in the last review, tons of people had Porky's to get their illicit kicks. I chose Frank Zappa.
But Have I Offended Someone? turned out to be a gateway of sorts into Zappa's past, which has enough material for a companion volume devoted to his 1960s work. I eventually started hearing the kind of material Zappa wrote which earned him a reputation as a "composer" instead of "rock musician." The xylophone-heavy, jazz-structured perversions of R&B in which no runaway melody was strident enough to become a bar on Zappa's sheet. The discordant experiments with woodwinds and brass, like chamber-of-hell pop. The multitude of distorted voices spouting some dadaist catchphrase, especially in regards to such buzz words as "creamcheese" and "tinsel cock."
Frank Zappa was a genuine freak in a world eager to compartmentalize him, and the music exceeded his grungy attributes. And when it came to promoting himself on television, he drew blood with his sardonic estimations on a society that knew little about his recorded legacy, but held him in esteem or fear as an eloquent dissenter against the lowest common denominator. In 1981, upon the release of his TinseltownRebellion LP, one talk show host senses "a deep, permanent, irreversible cynicism" within Zappa, but is he really that different from George Carlin or Groucho Marx when you get right down to it? Zappa's immediate response is that he hopes his skepticism will prove contagious. A moment later, Zappa monologues about the subpar state of modern American culture, from designer jeans to schlock rock, a deprivation of identity upheld patriotically, and pathetically, with poison gas and neutron bombs.
Having read The Real Frank Zappa Book hoping to contract some of Zappa's righteous disdain, Thorsten Schütte's Eat That Question - Frank Zappa in His Own Words does the job visually, a feature-length mosaic drawing from videotaped cross-examinations and the occasional live performance. Going as far back as Zappa's boy wonder slot on Steve Allen's show in 1963, where the multi-instrumentalist improvised a deliriously discordant concerto for Allen's house band accompanied by bicycle, Eat That Question seeks to balance Zappa's outspoken public persona with a wider appreciation of Zappa's desired reputation as a composer in a cultural environment where your only chance at livelihood is to write jingles instead of suites.
Although hardly as all-encompassing as one would hope for a man who wrote 300 different arrangements and put out albums at a steady clip, Schütte does cull a chronologically satisfying array of song selections. From a version of "Plastic People" sung to the tune of "Louie Louie" to such Flo & Eddie-period highlights as "Penis Dimension" to a smidgen of "Approximate" from 1974's A Token of His Extreme special (featuring Ruth Underwood on the vibes and Chester Thompson on the drums) to his 1980s work bolstered by the presence of Ike "Thing-Fish" Willis ("Tinseltown Rebellion," "When the Lie's So Big"), Schütte gives you enough of Zappa at his band-leading best. The cherry on top are Zappa's conducting duties for both the London Symphony Orchestra and the Ensemble Modern (the German musicians captured for posterity on 1992's The Yellow Shark).
Lest you think this but a conduit for welcome renditions of "The Air" and "Cosmik Debris" (so good you'll demand another movie to piece together Zappa's musical accomplishments), Schütte gives Zappa a posthumous solo examination of the artist at his most Frank. When he released 1968's We're Only in It for the Money, Zappa ridiculed the "flower power" generation who flocked to San Francisco without mercy: "I'll stay a week and get the crabs and take the bus back home/I'm really just a phony but forgive me, ‘cause I'm stoned." Incidentally, he was still dogged by the perception that he was for the counterculture. Schütte finds the right sound bites to solidify Zappa's distance from the hippie scene, the highlight a notorious anecdote about Zappa's refusal to assist a group of Berlin radicals escalating into a riot during a Mothers concert.
Zappa refrained from habitual drug use, showing zero tolerance for any of his musicians getting high on the road to impede the flow of "entertainment on time." He also turned down numerous offers to play outdoor festivals in France for the benefit of the communist party. "Some people think that I am some sort of a political rebel," he says at one point. "Isn't it strange the fantasies that people have?" The only instance where Zappa was moved by international politics was when his once-blacklisted music helped bring down the Iron Curtain in Czechoslovakia, inspiring Vaclav Havel to fly Zappa over for a hero's welcome and a short-lived appointment to cultural ambassador. This was a rare triumph for Zappa in terms of opposing the forces of reaction; a few years before, he took the PMRC to task for trying to legislate warnings against "obscene" messages and content.
Like Carlin, Zappa frequently debunked the concept of Dirty Words as a barometer of moral impurity, less an affront to America's integrity than the movement of a "fascist theocracy" whose beliefs were so far right as to invoke Attila the Hun. But it's a fight Zappa had to bear arms against as far back as the late 1960s, when MGM Records reps would clandestinely remove a reference to a waitress' pad (in "Let's Make the Water Turn Black") because they thought of the more sanitary definition. A planned orchestral performance of the 200 Motels score at the Royal Albert Hall was canceled at the 11th hour by manager Marion Herrod because of such trigger words as "brassiere" (nowadays, Adele can drop more R-rated words at the same venue and sell at platinum).
Schütte doesn't include snippets of Frank Zappa's few U.S. novelty hits ("Don't Eat the Yellow Snow," "Dancin' Fool," "Valley Girl"), nor his music video for 1981's "You Are What You Is" (immortalized on Beavis & Butt-Head), but we do hear Zappa's international hit "Bobby Brown." The song was a chart-topper in Norway and Sweden, one would guess because of its doo-wop melody and not the perverted black comedy Zappa grafts onto it. Over a 1978 performance of the song in Munich, Zappa confesses his amusement upon learning it was a popular slow dance number despite its references to sadomasochism, date rape and premature ejaculation.
Eat That Question is not the conventional summation one might expect, but that's no excuse to hold out for Alex Winter's planned documentary. Zappa may have equated interviews with the Inquisition, but that didn't mean he wasn't about to shut up, proving dastardly enough to stymie his tormentors. Goaded into revealing the primary audience for his work, Zappa snipes back "That's none of your business." Winning a Grammy for the title song from Jazz from Hell, Zappa isn't the least bit amused until he demonstrates the Synclavier on the morning news and outright praises it for removing the human element.
Every documentary, even piecemeal ones like this, need an arc, and Schütte gets it from Jamie Gangel's candid discussion with Zappa on the Today Show from 1993. 52 years old and wasting away from prostate cancer, the degenerating fruits of his labor finally granting him massive European success, Zappa is as unrepentant, hilariously upfront and caustically bitter as earlier in the documentary. And then comes one of Zappa's final answers, in regards to how he wants to remembered: he simply scoffs, and says "That's not important." To Zappa, it's an egotistical act of gross spending more suited for former presidents than a simple composer.
The enigma of Frank Zappa remains despite all his testimonials which Schütte has assembled. He was passionate about free speech because it allowed him to spend years proving that nothing was sacred, and that he could offend everybody. And being misunderstood and stereotyped and censored for so long, Zappa could have been conditioned to believe that remembrance isn't a top priority. Cultural apathy, rigid conformity, closet fascism...all things Zappa is given the chance to denounce are surely worth the outrage. This is one movie where you should stay until after the closing credits if you really want to honor Zappa's spirit. But Thorsten Schütte, bless him, has made an effort, and all the ugly people can be happy he did.
Eat That Question - Frank Zappa in His Own Words is a perfect introduction for a world that can finally understand what made Frank Zappa so controversial but also a man who is dearly missed in spite of himself. There will always be hungry freaks, daddy, in need of a little motherly love. Let them eat Uncle Meat.
Young man rhythm got a hold on me, too. I got the writin' pneumonia and a bad case of the flu.
Watching Less Than Zero only made me feel groggier, so maybe it's time I aimed in a different direction. How about the sleeper hit of 1982, the definitive guy's movie and the most dubious trendsetter of early 1980s cinema? The film forever associated with locker room peeping, industrial-size rubbers and prank calls to Michael Hunt. The one and only, for better or for worse, it's either this or NyQuil...
(R, 20th Century Fox, 94 mins., theatrical release date: March 19, 1982)
You know, Bob Clark used to have a pretty impressive resume, just like Dino De Laurentiis. I believe this on the strength of the horror movies he started out with in the early 1970s. Flanked regularly by screenwriter Alan Ormsby, Clark started out with the amateurish but promising Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things, but the two really came into their stride in 1974, when they blitzed the screens with some highly influential, historically-revered shockers. Before audiences were introduced to Leatherface and his Texas chainsaw, Ormsby and Clark put to screen the grisly true crimes of Ed Gein in Deranged, and also did their previous Romero homage one better with the haunting ghost story/family drama Deathdream (Dead of Night). Those two movies also introduced someone named Tom Savini to the world, perhaps you've heard of him.
And then there was Black Christmas, which shares with Tobe Hooper's classic a preface to the coming ubiquity of the "slasher" film. This formula would be solidified and monetized by the popularity of Halloween and Friday the 13th, so I must give Bob Clark the credit he's due despite whatever opinions I or others may have said. He was an originator, a maker of great independent spook shows and deserved better than to go out on something like those Baby Geniuses stinkers.
And did you know he directed Jack Lemmon to an Oscar-nominated performance in Tribute?
But Clark's ultimate legacy in popular culture might not be AChristmas Story, but a project he allegedly spent 15 years fielding material for, drawing upon his own memories as those of his peers. Yes, we're talking about Porky's now. I was just spermatozoa when this film was spending eight weeks atop the U.S. box office and raking in hundreds of millions from North American audiences. It was the biggest success story in Canadian cinematic history until 2006, when the bilingual Bon Cop, Bad Cop and a Resident Evil sequel(?) usurped it.
To the dismay of Siskel & Ebert (and perhaps myself, to be honest), Porky's made enough bank to ensure an endless series of sniggering, superficial rites-of-passage flicks that are nowhere near the greatness of Animal House and more in league with such desperately raunchy fare as Gorp or The Hollywood Knights. Hell, Porky's wasn't even the first of its breed. You had nostalgia-fueled totems of adolescent irresponsibility as early as Summer of ‘42 and American Graffiti, and there was also Lemon Popsicle. Perhaps it was the audiences getting burnt out on the bastard sons of Friday the 13th that ensured Porky's outrageous success and stream of imitators, a few such as Risky Business and Revenge of the Nerds offering more than the same smug sex jokes. It is a sociological curiosity if not the over-hyped cause célèbre time would convince you.
But I'm not trying to write a term paper, I only want a satisfying film review. So here I am, sneezing my way through every paragraph, to give my take on Porky's. Let's sty one on.
In the great tradition of these "autobiographical" blackout sketch movies, there's not much I can say about the plot as a set-up. The setting is Angel Beach High School in Florida's Seward County, 1954. I assume Bob Clark was simply trying to reach the spot between between Robert Mulligan's 1942 and George Lucas' 1962, but he was 15 years old at the actual time this movie sticks its flag in. The central character is Edward Morris, affectionately/mockingly nicknamed "Pee Wee" (Dan Monahan), and he stupidly strains his member trying to hide his morning wood from his mother on this average school day. No wonder he gets further bent when he busts out the ruler to measure his "progress."
Among his circle of bros, Pee Wee is the most neurotic with his libido. He can't even think right when he's flaccid, let alone hard. This leads to him being gullible on a level that ought to demote him to the level of nerd, only he doesn't have the horn-rims. Recently, he's won the ridicule of Wendy the waitress (Kaki Hunter) for deigning to wear a condom before trying to score. He inadvertently eggs the campus behemoth, Anthony "Meat" Tuperello (Tony Ganios). And he outright hectors the hotshot alphas, Tommy Turner (Wyatt Knight) and Billy McCarty (Mark Herrier), into taking him along on a field trip to the shack of redhead prostitute Cherry Forever (Susan Clark). Naturally, it turns out to be too easy to be true.
Where there's a will, there's a way, so for Pee Wee and pals the path to sexual salvation compels them to Porky's, the fabled redneck dive further out in the Everglades. This time, the joke's on all of them, as Porky Wallace (Chuck Mitchell, four years before berating Lane Meyer) fails to deliver on the action, dumps them out in the swamp water and extorts the rest of their cash with the help of his brother, also the local sheriff (Alex Karras). This development doesn't sit well with Mickey Jarvis (Roger Wilson, previously seen on this site in Second Time Lucky), who alternates between driving back out for revenge and returning home with nastier signs of bodily harm.
The whole of Porky's is as erratic as the synopsis so far, shifting from convivial smut to not-quite-redeeming social value. The Angel Beach Boys finally work out a suitable comeuppance for the Wallaces, but that's saved until the very end. Outside of the blue ha-ha set pieces, there's a subplot for the boys' 23-year-old basketball coach, Roy Brackett (Boyd Gaines) and his pursuit of the luscious Miss Honeywell (Kim Cattrall), whom his mentor Mr. Goodenough (Bill Hindman) refers to as "Lassie," which confuses Brackett until he gets her alone in the laundry room. Also, there's lightweight friction between flagrant bigot Tim Cavanaugh (Cyril O'Reilly) and the Semitic Brian Schwartz (Scott Colomby), who can defend himself verbally and physically.
And then there's Coach Balbricker (Nancy Parsons), the corpulent laughingstock of both the student body and faculty. In a movie where the male leads provide their own laugh track in every scene, Parsons at least gets some deserving chuckles through her nonplussed reactions to their shenanigans. Alas, her prudish devotion to "moral turpitude" descends into psychotic mania, and the broader the character becomes, the nastier Clark treats her, and the more I want to see Parsons as the devious Ida Vincent in Motel Hell.
I want to like Porky's, I really do. The same way that I do Animal House or Slap Shot or Stripes or even Hardbodies! I crave vicarious belly laughs that thumb their nose at authority and explore the multiple ways attempted conquests can go farcically sour. Sometimes going through the "innocent" antics of past generations can be entertaining, hilarious, even insightful. I mean, American Graffiti is a gold standard for lots of reasons. And The 40-Year-Old Virgin, forget about it!
Porky's is also more of an equal-opportunity offender, take that as you will, than the shit it spawned. Yes, there is a lot of ooh-gling and ahh-gling, but at least in the case of Wendy and Honeywell, the girls can give as much as they take. The Angel Beach community feels like a community, where incompatible personalities can unite in some sense of pride (getting one over on Porky) or shame (the generational racism of Cavanaugh). And as the series went on, even Balbricker was humanized somewhat, although she doesn't escape the automatic instinct to mock the obese you find in politically-incorrect sops to the plebeian moviegoers.
It's just that the movie operates on this common tendency among raunchy comedies at the time to filter bygone eras through distinctly modern, unrepentantly vulgar eyes. When it works, you get Animal House, but they can also go way, waaayyyy too far, just look at the Lemon Popsicle series. Bob Clark wants to have his beaver hunt and shoot the ones in the barrel, too. That's how you get such thorny showstoppers as the peephole scene, where the boys reveal their outright hostility to the naked girls on show, who seem to take the voyeurism a little too in stride. It's also where you glean similarly unenlightened attitudes toward blacks and Jews, which at least pays dividends in the performance of Scott Colomby as the ostracized Schwartz, which is more natural than any of the other boys (honorable mention to Boyd Gaines from Fame and The Sure Thing).
Furthermore, the Porky's series as I recall is more about schadenfreude than the joys or dangers of sex. This prevents it from trying to develop a lot of unconvincing sincerity, which I guess beats the alternative as presented by the Lemon Popsicle franchise, but it's still conservative in its own way. By the end, Pee Wee is rewarded with sex after all his mania (again with Wendy, natch), but it's during the end credits and he's the only of the goon squad (read: I don't count Coach Brackett, even if he is one of the boys at heart) to actually make it. There's more fighting than fucking, which I guess says something abut the male ego. And except for a few token exceptions (Pee Wee, Meat, Wendy), the characters are interchangeable and acting is on a strictly sitcom level, right down to the overage actors feigning teenage attitudes (Grease, anyone?). Even Film Freak Central got it wrong when Travis Hoover mistook Mickey for Cavanaugh.
And on the basic level, Porky's is a hangout movie about schmoes who let it all hang out. You'd think something like this would be entertaining in an insinuating, loose manner, but sometimes Bob Clark shows a tendency to let moments stretch out to the point where the humor starts to get less of a reaction. The Honeywell scene drags on...and on...and even with Kim Cattrall baying in heat, Clark could've used a proper editor. It doesn't build to anything unexpected, it's just the joke about why they call her "Lassie." And for a lot of people, apparently that's enough. But it's just not good comedy.
Do I feel Porky's got extremely overrated? Yes, I do. But did I actually cave in and laugh at times? Well...like I said, Nancy Parsons is better at reactive giggles than others, and much of Dan Monahan's overbearing eagerness ("Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus!" after he strips buck naked) delivers the titters. And Susan Clark as Cherry Forever, sizing up the studs in a single file line, she's amusingly salty. And if you had a prophylactic fit for King Kong (although Balbricker is nicknamed "Kong" constantly, another sour running joke), you'd blow it up and start ramming into every foxy lady's groin in sight for the amusement of your friends. It's not entirely an arid desert of comedy, if only because the enthusiasm of getting away with improper behavior is a reliable fantasy.
But to deny the film has problems is to admit to wearing blinders on your eyes. Having engaged in social media, I find myself inundated with a bevy of nostalgia for a period piece set in an era its audience would have little knowledge about. It's not like in 1981 we pined for Patti Page, Hank Williams and The Crew Cuts on our jukeboxes, right? (Well, as the Eighties continued, it certainly felt like a brazen attempt to recapture the Fifties) In the blaze of wisenheimer quips, innuendos and expletives, there are bound to be groaners, from the joke about angel food cake to the dopey deputies of the finale.
Bob Clark would remain proud of Porky's until his untimely death, getting his say in on a special edition DVD release, and its mammoth success remains undeniable. But in 2016, I can't help but feel that this will never turn up on a list of my all-time favorite comedies, eliciting nothing more than a shrug and minor confession of what did strike me as funny. Hardly proportionate to its status as the fifth most lucrative release of 1982 (luckily, Tootsie bested it as the year's blockbuster comedy). Sometimes, bad jokes are simply bad jokes, no matter how loud the canned laughter is. And though I think I prefer Porky's to much of its suckling spawn, that same year brought us Diner, which rings of greater truth and camaraderie. Porky's was a smash, but even though the reasons for it are obvious, I wouldn't want to wallow in that thought for too long.
(PG, De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, 100 mins., video release date: May 6, 1992)
I have made passing references to Dino De Laurentiis in several of my reviews, twice in my DianeFranklin retrospective and once at the start of my Under the Cherry Moon review, when I listed off a bunch of his more Razzie-worthy releases of 1986. Dino's career managed to outlast Golan/Globus, who profiteered off the De Laurentiis-produced Death Wish, and he also began honorably in the Italian neorealist genre. He produced Fellini's La Strada and Nights of Cabiria. In the midst of all the James Bond knock-offs and barely-remembered war films he shepherded, Dino De Laurentiis was the mover and shaker behind a vast catalog of familiar flicks, including Barbarella, Serpico, Mandingo, Orca, Flash Gordon, Ragtime, Conan the Barbarian, The Dead Zone, Dune, and many others. He worked with Ingmar Bergman, Luchino Visconti, Mario Bava, Robert Altman, William Friedkin, Don Siegel, and John Huston.
What I'm saying is, Dino De Laurentiis, who passed on in 2010, maintains a healthy respectability which his peers did not. Or at least did until the mid-1980s, at which point financial, critical and commercial fortunes began to dwindle precipitously.
In 1984, Dino launched his own production/distribution label, De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, which didn't begin putting out movies for a couple of years. Take that window of the company's inactivity as an omen. Which is a shame, because DEG released Manhunter, Blue Velvet, Near Dark, and Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn by the time DEG folded in 1989. You could even trace your nostalgic enjoyment of Transformers: The Movie to Uncle Dino. But Million Dollar Mystery, Date with an Angel, King Kong Lives and Maximum Overdrive (as well as, sadly, my beloved Near Dark) weren't turning huge enough profits. Dino may have had the better legacy, but his own company went bust faster than Cannon Films.
This meant naturally that several projects got abandoned in the wake of DEG's bankruptcy. One of them I've already talked about is, of course, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, which was scooped up by Orion Pictures (irony alert) by 1989 and went on to everlasting popular appeal. Another of these was completed the same year, but came off the shelf in 1992 only to get buried on home video and forgotten by the world at large...except for the fascination of people like Nathan Rabin, Jack Sommersby, Jerry Saravia, and now me.
I'm talking about Pat Morita and Jay Leno in Collision Course.
You read those names right, as in the same Pat Morita who was once Oscar-nominated for Mr. Miyagi, the sensai of the Karate Kid series, and the same Jay Leno, Boston-bred overbite and all, who went from stand-up comedy fame to carrying on after Johnny Carson's retirement from late-night NBC. How does a movie like this find itself in such a maze of obscurity?
Well, thanks to Google News, IMDb, and other reliable online sources, I can tell you that an interview with Jay Leno dated Jun 17, 1987 reported that filming began in Wilmington, NC (at DEG Studios) six weeks prior, but they had trouble keeping a director on the project. There was protest within the DGA, which would go on strike for 12 minutes in July 1987, but this was still a month later. Yet Collision Course reportedly blew through John Guillermin (who directed both of Dino's King Kong movies as well as The Towering Inferno), Bob Clark (who directed From the Hip for Dino before finally seeing through his own buddy cop caper with Hackman and Aykroyd in Loose Cannons), and Richard Fleischer (a regular for Dino from Mandingo to the career-ending Million Dollar Mystery) in its hastened production schedule. This information comes from one Greg Laughlin, a former DEG employee, who dishes further dirt on the Unknown Movies page.
Their final and credited choice of director was Lewis Teague, whose previous credits include Alligator, Cujo and Stephen King's Cat's Eye. The latter was another Dino De Laurentiis production made at the same time Teague was courted by the majors with The Jewel of the Nile, the sequel to Robert Zemeckis' Romancing the Stone. Unfortunately, Collision Course would go wildly over-budget to the point where they barely had enough money for the final day of shooting let alone the entire post-production process. When rising star Leno began promoting the film on national television throughout 1988, there was no flow for a wide American release from DEG. Since he was under contract to appear in two more vehicles but dismayed at the delay of his first starring role, Leno briefly sued DEG for $3 million before the company filed for Chapter 11.
Worse for Leno, nobody bought the distribution rights for Collision Course away from the floundering DEG. Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure was rescued. Earth Girls Are Easy was adopted by Vestron Pictures (again, irony alert). United Artists scooped up both Stan Winston's Pumpkinhead and Peter Bogdanovich's Illegally Yours. Miramax salvaged Bill Friedkin's Rampage, although Friedkin undertook some controversial alterations before it played theatrically. Collision Course, meanwhile, languished under ownership of Wells Fargo Bank until May 6, 1992, the day HBO Video finally premiered the film on the wave of publicity surrounding Leno's ascension to full-time host of The Tonight Show.
Nowadays, Collision Course is most infamous as the movie with which Steve Martin once pranked Jay Leno. In December 2005, Martin, who was promoting both Shopgirl and Cheaper by the Dozen 2, engaged Leno in a televised game of "Name That Clip," with Leno ponying up $20 if he guessed wrong differentiating each excerpt taken from the two Martin vehicles. The final round was a moment worthy of Paul Rudd's trolling of Conan O'Brien, as Martin snuck in a scene from Collision Course. Leno was embarrassed when he recognized the movie, but Martin insisted that, even though he was right, Leno would still have to pay for making the film.
For anyone who ever rented the tape back in 1992, Steve Martin's stunt resembles a vicarious act of long-awaited revenge.
Collision Course is clearly an attempt to cash in on the 1980s trend of comical cop movies, and I don't mean the Police Academy series. This is more aligned with 48 Hrs., Beverly Hills Cop, Armed & Dangerous, Red Heat, Alien Nation, Downtown, and a handful of other pre-Rush Hour touchstones in the odd couple sweepstakes. The Eddie Murphy movies, in particular, are most pivotal in understanding the career breakthrough Jay Leno likely wished Collision Course had generated back in 1988. Both 48 Hrs. and Beverly Hills Cop launched a beloved entertainer into Tinseltown royalty, playing on Murphy's defiantly vulgar, race-baiting, talking-at-120-wpm personality from the stand-up circuit. You remember those moments:
"[I've] never seen so many backwards-ass country f*cks in my life!"
"I'm your worst f*ckin' nightmare, man. I'm a n*gger with a badge, that mean I got permission to kick your f*ckin' ass whenever I feel like it!"
"Michael Jackson can sit on top of the world just as long as he doesn't sit in the Beverly Palm Hotel ‘cause there's no n*ggers allowed in there!"
"Tell Victor that Ramon...I found out that I have herpes simplex 10, and I think Victor should go check himself out with his physician to make sure everything is fine before things start falling off on the man."
Surely, Leno wasn't as confrontational or blue as Murphy's patter was in the 1980s, and in that same 1987 interview with Leno I found, Leno wanted a movie that was hardly as R-rated as the edgier stuff Eddie made. Maybe he felt he could've done something closer to Chevy Chase in Fletch, instead. Which is bizarre, because Collision Course feels like a watered-down version of 48 Hrs., which was full of white cop vs. sarcastic minority anti-chemistry but in Walter Hill's film, Murphy and Nick Nolte were playing off each other with top-tier precision. But all the racial jibes hurled in Noriyuki "Pat" Morita's direction, despite his deadpan superiority to them, are spouted casually without being even the least bit transgressive or aggressive.
One-liners like "I ought to stir fry your face" and "Would you call a Jap a John Doe?" die on the screen in that patented way familiar to any handful of tone-deaf late-1980s would-be comedies. Maybe it's just a sign of the times the movie wants to capture, a blue-collar Detroit embittered by the rise of Japanese auto industry and the damages done to the economy. But there was an entertaining culture clash comedy about car manufacturers made two years before Collision Course started shooting, which starred Michael Keaton and Gedde Watanabe, and it was called Gung Ho.
Morita plays Inspector Fujitsuka Natsuo, a Tokyo espionage agent sent by his commander Kitao (Soon-Teck Oh) to track down a rogue engineer, Oshima (Danny Kamekona), who has fled to Detroit with the prototype for a spectacular new turbocharger. Oshima plots to make a quick fortune selling it off to mobster Philip Madras (Chris Sarandon), but his goons Scully (Tom Noonan) and Kosnic (Randall "Tex" Cobb) accidentally kill him during a shakedown. In disposing of the body at the nearby junkyard, night watchman Mac (Jack Poggi) witnesses the deed, so Scully fires off a rocket gun to silence him. Turns out he has murdered the former partner of robbery-assigned Detective Tony Costas (Leno), which drives him into a fit of vengeful sleuthing upon which he encounters Natsuo.
Guess what? Costas thinks Natsuo is a criminal, and Natsuo thinks Costas is a thug! Can you imagine what would happen when they realize that they're really both lawmen and have to begrudgingly partner up to take down Madras? Well, it takes a while for the skeptical Costas to accept this, because he tails Natsuo to the one-hour-photo stand and the headquarters of unscrupulous automotive chairman Derek Jarryd (Dennis Holahan). When they finally do work together, the Eastman and the Westerner bungle their way through the investigation until they end up getting one over on Scully both without a warrant and with excessive force. Costas' superior, Lieutenant Ryerson (John Hancock) breaks the act up, orders them off the case and plots to send Natsuo back to his own hardheaded boss. Again, think about the possibilities if these two unlikely friends were to disobey direct orders and retrieve the prototype despite Madras' muscle. Aren't they exciting?
Well, save for a finale which is unexpectedly brutal for a PG movie (to wit: Natsuo doesn't know karate, but he knows ka-razy!), Collision Course is standard procedure for its genre. Even getting past the leaden xenophobia, there are so many clichés on parade (barroom brawling, inebriated bonding, chase-giving cars slamming into fruit carts and flower stands) that Siskel & Ebert could've fueled an entire "They'll Do It Everytime!" episode on just this movie. Costas is a slovenly bachelor for whom Natsuo is like a mail-order Felix Unger. He cuffs the foreigner to the steering wheel to pursue a purse-snatcher, but it's the bound outsmarting the blind. Scully is a God-fearing survivalist wacko who doesn't even graze the heroes despite his arsenal of rocket launchers, automatic rifles and hand grenades. Lewis Teague turns pedestrian on the action scenes, and it's not as if Leno and Morita's banter, written by Robert (The First Power) Resnikoff and Frank D. Namei, tries to compensate with fresh humor.
Morita, who was actually a comedian back when, is at his best when he's most bemused by his inner city surroundings, from the doorbells on front porches to the inequities of the justice system. Leno, meanwhile, may be just a little too low-key to command the screen. Meant to be a fast-talking rogue and ladies' man, his moony (and moon-shaped) face hits the sweet spot between George Clooney and Robert Z'Dar, and there's an unfortunate squeak in his voice that he mistakes for "dramatic." His métier is purely comedic, like when he calms a hysterical woman on a hotel elevator down by screaming, "Shut up, lady! You're not on a game show!" There isn't a solidly-written female in the cast, to be sure, as Leno is counted on to generate chemistry with either Pat Morita or Ernie Hudson (playing Costas' doormat sidekick, Shortcut).
And comic moments are to be found, if fleetingly and frustratingly undone by conventional punch lines. The aforementioned brawl involves Natsuo initially being accosted by a group of affluent bowling alley goons (including Mike Starr in a brief role) before Kosnic's disdain for diplomacy causes all hell to break loose. Indeed, given more dialogue here than in Raising Arizona, Cobb is an amusing lunkhead, while Tom (Manhunter) Noonan, who forever looks like a new age healer brainwashed by the Manson Family, puts a wisecracking touch on his perennially psychotic demeanor early on. But Chris Sarandon, saddled with a John Oates ‘stache, is powered entirely on whatever traces of snark he didn't burn as the delightfully cocky bloodsucker from Fright Night, coming across as a mediocre heavy. And the dismally broad material routinely lets down reliable talents like Morita and Hudson.
Collision Course seems like it should be an all-time stinker on the level of Leonard Part 6 or Mac & Me, but it seems as though this film has thoroughly evaporated since 1992. And rightfully so, as it didn't damage Leno's reputation and was shrugged off by Pat Morita for the next couple of Karate Kid sequels. Lewis Teague, however, had only one more mainstream project in him with Navy Seals before sticking to TV for the remainder of his career, kind of like Jay Leno. Despite the efforts on the internet to condense the film to adequate rubbernecking length, Collision Course is hardly Showdown in Little Tokyo let alone Another 48 Hrs.
It is so, how do the Japanese put it, "wasure rare-gachina."