Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Cutting Class

(R, Vestron Pictures, 91 mins., limited release date: March 24, 1989)

Arriving far too late to capitalize on either the slasher or sex comedy cycles that were meant to amuse undiscriminating children of the 1980s, Cutting Class functions more like a remedial-friendly term paper on both of these genres. It's a tough sit for anyone with the slightest appreciation of what is a mostly overqualified cast, from luminous Jill Schoelen (cf: The Phantom of the Opera) on down to slumming vets Martin Mull and Roddy McDowall. One might be compelled to give it a spin on the basis of Brad Pitt in a prominent, pre-marquee supporting performance. But this isn't even on the same plane as rediscovering, say, Tom Hanks in He Knows You're Alone or Leonardo DiCaprio in Critters 3, as Cutting Class is to Pitt what Shadows Run Black was to Kevin Costner. George Clooney, all is forgiven.

It's also the kind of movie that made me appreciate more the things Pet Sematary Two got right, particularly the scene-stealing vigor of Clancy Brown, his sadistic one-liners having worked as comic relief based on his professionalism. Cutting Class is also peppered with smart-alecky dialogue: "I'm going to change my IQ. Is 300 too high?" and "I'm the custodian of your fucking destiny!" and "I was a murderer. It wasn't as prestigious as being a doctor or a lawyer, but the hours were good." The first is spoken apropos by the school exhibitionist (Brenda Lynne Klemme, who'd go on to James Gunn's superior Slither) while her friends are searching through the school files hoping to learn about a creepy kid. I guess this is meant to justify the unfounded Heathers comparisons some fools throw at Cutting Class, but this doesn't wash due to poor timing and performance.

The second quote comes from the janitor (Robert Glaudini), a nutty veteran who cleans up after the aforementioned girl's grisly demise. It would've worked better had the janitor not turned away from the students twice before saying it, because it does come off as desperate. I'll leave the third quote alone, as it easily the best of the bunch and the closest thing to successful humor Cutting Class nearly pulls off. But the point stands in that I've seen Friday the 13th sequels with more finesse than this, and there isn't a single funny line to compare with what you'd find in a cheesy Juan Piquer Simon bloodbath like Pieces or Slugs.

Wholesome Paula Carson (Schoelen) says goodbye to her father William (Mull), a district attorney off on a week's duck-hunting vacation which is sabotaged by a homicidal archer. The body count would seem to begin, but one lone arrow isn't enough to kill Mr. Carson, and Martin Mull spends the rest of the movie trudging along the marsh looking for unwilling help. Paula, meanwhile, rebuffs the advances of her boyfriend Dwight Ingalls (Pitt), a dim jock on the verge of failing out of school and blowing his basketball scholarship because of his mean streak. The bane of Dwight's ire is his former best friend Brian Woods (Donovan Leitch), who has returned to school after being institutionalized for the murder of his father and develops a spooky crush on Paula. Brian and Dwight in turn become the only tangible suspects when members of the faculty and a couple of Paula's friends get killed.

Rospo Pallenberg, in his sole directing credit after a career under John Boorman's mentorship, and writer Steve Slavkin (who transitioned to children's entertainment starting with Nickelodeon's Salute Your Shorts) lack the basic motor function which keeps their tongue inside cheek, so they instead blow raspberries at the target audience. You would expect a satiating supply of gore and nudity, but both these obligations are carried out half-heartedly. The art teacher is cooked alive in a kiln and the gym coach lands on the blunt end of a flagpole during trampoline exercises (Eli Roth was indeed paying attention). These are the only interesting set pieces, and they are both insufficiently nasty. Only at the end of the film is the splatter quota jacked up, but the resolution of the central murder mystery is as predictable as the flippant turn of the killer.

Excepting some mandatory locker room flesh (two breasts, as Joe Bob Briggs would point out), the camera leers at Jill Schoelen to such an overbearing degree that it makes her shower scene in The Stepfather a model of high class. Schoelen is well and truly sexy, but in the asinine context of Cutting Class, the peek-a-boo panty shots put you in the loafers of the opportunistically perverted principal (Roddy McDowall, losing all dignity on his way to Shakma). Not helping matters is the stultifying blandness of her character, who is both the only student aware of the missing persons as well as so desperate for her cocky squeeze's ring that she breaks into the school with him just to ridicule Brian. Again, this is the exact opposite of Jill's solid work in The Stepfather.

Schoelen is capable but squandered here, which is more than you can say of the male leads. Brian is meant to remind us of the Norman Bates of Psycho II, a reformed murderer nervously trying to preserve his dwindling sanity even as he's vilified by an angry mob who takes it on faith that he's no better even after being exposed to more shock therapy than any of Nurse Ratched's charges. But as played by Donovan Leitch (son of "Sunshine Superman" and brother to Ione Skye), Brian is an uninspiring mixture of Emilio Estevez's Kirbo from St. Elmo's Fire and Lawrence Monoson's Gary from The Last American Virgin, which is bad enough chemistry on its own. Brian's not even the Norman Bates of Psycho III. Brad Pitt's hothead stud is just as embarrassing, from a "cute" opening in which he nearly runs over a child ("Same time tomorrow?") to a horrendously simpering breakdown over a payphone (he's not the Norman Bates of Psycho IV). Paula's supposed moment of Final Girl triumph is utterly ridiculous given the reprehensibility of both Brian and Dwight. 

Cutting Class is absolutely needless, to say the least. There was only one real attempt at parodying slasher movies in the 1980s: Student Bodies, a hit-and-miss gagfest clearly inspired by Airplane! On the whole, though, horror comedies walked a very thin line back then, with An American Werewolf in London and Fright Night managing to work on both levels and others like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 or TerrorVision (and countless others, judging by your memory) coming across as just plain goofy. Cutting Class doesn't even fulfill that low standard. Even the soundtrack, with its original tunes by new wave has-beens Wall of Voodoo, cannot set a convincing tone. Never has a campus movie held itself back with such mechanical indifference as Cutting Class.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Pet Sematary Two

(R, Paramount, 100 mins., theatrical release date: Aug. 28, 1992)

Campier yet chillier than its predecessor, Pet Sematary Two allows returning director Mary Lambert to replay what was once tragedy mostly for laffs. The Stephen King mill having exhausted itself by 1992, the original author/scriptwriter opted to debase himself with the screenplay for Sleepwalkers, leaving Lambert and new blood Richard Outten (with revisions from David S. Goyer) to fashion this mercenary sequel directly for teen boys, as Lambert herself was fascinated by the ridiculous motivations of the adolescent mind. That mythic patch of dirt which undid Louis Creed and his family now becomes populated with not just unfairly deceased family, but also a couple of accidental stiffs who were already reprehensible to begin with and are foolishly re-animated to deter homicidal suspicion. Lambert spins a nasty twist on the original thesis that "dead is better," even if at the expense of humanity and intelligence.

Lambert's not-so-unusual approach here is fitting with what horror had largely become in the early 1990s, especially in regards to sequels. Like the sixth Freddy venture and the third outings for both Pinhead and Chucky, the monsters are incorrigible wise-crackers who offer mocking bemusement as well as beheadings. When a zombiefied cop stalks after his prey, he reads the Miranda rights with a perverse addendum to each statement. Hellhounds die at inopportune moments ("I was building a doggie door!"), one victim's callous justification is parroted with demented relish and a ghoul takes a bullet only to wince and mutter "I hate it when that happens." The makers of those aforementioned rehashes, however, don't have Lambert's impressive c.v. in music videos, as it was she who made four of Madonna's earliest and most striking MTV touchstones, including "Like a Virgin" and "Like a Prayer."

What Lambert does with these credentials is to, so as to cater to teen boys, make overkill herself by amping up the sadism and the soundtrack to numbing degrees. It isn't enough now to rely on a single dead cat, a box of tabbies and a pen full of bunnies and one white wolfhound (twice}must all be sacrificed in provocatively gory tableux. The town bully threatens to gnaw a peer's nose off with a motorbike wheel, and will turn up later with a literal axe to grind. And alt-rock cult heroes such as The Jesus & Mary Chain ("I wanna die just like Jesus Christ") and L7 (the same song which later introduced us to Mickey & Mallory) blare over the carnage, with Dramarama, Traci Lords and Patti Smith disciple Jan King providing incidental support. The Ramones chose not to grace us with a "Pet Semetary" sequel of their own and instead donated "Poison Heart," the first single from the Mondo Bizarro LP which premiered the Tuesday following the movie's release.

Edward Furlong, fresh off his T2 fame, plays central character Geoff Matthews while Anthony Edwards, soon to transition from Northern Exposure to ER, is Jeff's veterinarian father, Dr. Chase Matthews. Estranged in the wake of a separation, the two reunite after the freak, fatal electrocution of Jeff's mother and Chase's wife Renee Hallow (Darlanne Fluegel), a B-list actress, on the set of her latest project. With Renee's funeral held in her hometown of Ludlow, Maine, Dr. Matthews decides to move there to help his grieving son and set up his own practice. At the dilapidated kennel, Geoff befriends Drew Gilbert (Jason McGuire), the obese stepson of surly sheriff Gus (Clancy Brown) and caretaker of a Siberian husky named Zowie. At school, Geoff is singled out for abuse by brawny Clyde Parker (Jared Rushton), who misses not a single chance to mock the recently deceased mom.

Clyde takes Geoff and Drew on a ride to the pet cemetery, which will come in handy when Gus, fed up with Zowie spooking his rabbits, fells Drew's beloved pooch with his rifle. Burying Zowie in the cursed soil over the hill, the canine returns to the Gilbert household with glowing eyes and his lethal wound still gaping. As Dr. Matthews comes to realize the truth about Zowie's condition while tending to him, a Halloween beer blast Clyde throws in the woods is broken up by Gus, who attacks Drew before getting his throat ripped out by Zowie. Naturally, Drew buries his stepdad in the Indian graveyard, which turns out to be a huge mistake. And all the while Geoff ponders what it would be like if mommy were still alive, even with the strange behavior of Zowie and Gus becoming ghastlier.

The original Pet Sematary was not one of the better Stephen King adaptations, even if King himself was responsible for its onscreen translation. The central performances were uninspiring, the story stripped down to the point of losing Gothic credibility and Mary Lambert's stylistic acumen was heavy-handed. Pet Sematary Two falls prey to the very same traps. The tragedy of the Matthews family is effectively overpowered by the gruesome shenanigans of the latter half of the movie. And some of these vignettes stop the film dead itself, particularly a blue-rinse erotic nightmare Chase has involving Renee as well as an aimless rape scene between the revived Gus Gilbert and his passive wife Amanda (Lisa Waltz). Edward Furlong and Anthony Edwards are directed to play their roles with more one-dimensional solemnity than repressed warmth. Unlike John Connor, there's very little bratty spark in Geoff Matthews for Furling to ignite. Edwards, now with thinning hair and full beard, loses the personable charms of his best roles from the past decade, from Gilbert to Goose to Harry Washello (from Miracle Mile).

While Jason McGuire is a fitting doppelganger for Stand by Me-era Jerry O'Connell, Pet Sematary Two's only actors of fascination are those playing  the figurative heavies. Jared Rushton, best remembered as Josh Baskin's best friend from Big, has the bleached hair and simmering malevolence of a junior Chris Penn, and is every bit as alluringly despicable as Kiefer Sutherland was in his early career. And then there's Clancy Brown, who is suitably unsettling whether in mundane domestic affairs (he likes rationalizing his brutish side within the verbal contexts of frustrated dad and macho officer) or murderous supernatural antagonism. He looks comparatively thinner and less hulking as Gus than when he played Viking in Bad Boys (his screen debut from 1983) or the Kurgan of Highlander, but the sadistic gleam in Brown's eyes is preserved by Lambert's camera. Lambert and Outten proceed to make black comic hash out of King's inaugural premise, but the anarchic glee Clancy Brown offers in return justifies the burlesque.

One three-minute chunk of the movie in particular drips with some of the finest ham any disposable '90s gorefest has to offer. It is the showdown between Dr. Matthews and Gus, who has dug up Renee's corpse for unspeakable reasons and offers it to Geoff so that he may realize his wildest wish of an impractical family reunion. The very power drill Gus has been using in his charnel workshed to build that doggie door for Zowie comes in handy to intimidate Dr. Matthews: "No brain, no pain! Think about it." That Gus himself dies again is inevitable, but that doesn't set you up for the hilarious way in which he drops to the floor. Save for a stretch before the final credits which can be interpreted either as a ridiculously sentimental farewell for the film's victims or a joke on Orson Welles, Clancy Brown's confidently twisted performance in Pet Sematary Two reminds me of that classic Bo Diddley line: "I got a tombstone hand and a graveyard mind." It's a shame Lambert, Outten and the rest of the cast fail to heed such inspiration.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey + Alive + Toy Soldiers + The Good Son

(G, Walt Disney Pictures, 84 mins., theatrical release date: Feb. 12, 1993)

Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey first roamed as a children's book by Sheila Burnford in 1961 before Disney commissioned a live-action adaptation two years later. Both Burnford's tome and Fletcher Markle's movie hew closer to something like The Journey of Natty Gann compared to the cutesier Homeward Bound, which shares more in common with The Adventures of Milo & Otis but with a Look Who's Talking! twist. Don Ameche, Sally Field and Michael J. Fox (reportedly recast from Donald Sutherland, Annie Potts and Jon Cryer) speak the animal characters' inner dialogue in this case, a trio of happy pets forced to traverse the Sierra Vistas to reunite with their young masters.

Bulldog Chance (Fox), in spite of being rescued by the Burnfords (the central family here named after the story's author, yes), isn't the least bit serious about loyalty and more interested in slobbering havoc. Golden retriever Shadow (Ameche) and Himalayan cat Sassy (Field) have their own solemn bonds to child companions Peter (Benji Thall) and Hope (Veronica Lauren) to uphold when they're not trying to keep rascally Chance in line. But when Peter, Hope and Jamie's (Kevin Chevalia) mother, Laura (Kim Griest), remarries to schoolteacher Bob Seaver (Robert Hays), the Burnfords have to uproot to San Francisco on business, leaving the animals behind at the ranch home of Kate (Jean Smart).

It isn't long before Shadow starts fearing the worst, and flees Kate's sanctuary with Chance and Sassy towing behind him. All of the all-natural wilderness pitfalls greet them, from grizzlies and porcupines to waterfalls and forest rangers, but the furry leads are steadfastly adorable and the name-brand voice stars taunt each other with glee, specifically the pugnacious Fox and prissy Field (Mr. Ameche, in his last hurrah, convinces us of Shadow's bountiful wisdom). Chance has been beefed up considerably from the original prototype in terms of breed (no longer the button-eyed Muffy the Bull Terrier) and presence, the screenplay from Linda (Beauty and the Beast) Woolverton and Caroline (The Addams Family) Thompson, with uncredited punch-up from Jonathan (The Sure Thing) Roberts, allowing Fox's hound to out-wisecrack Arnold Schwarzenegger, referenced in the presence of a mountain lion.

More surprising is the choice of director, Duwayne Dunham, a reliable editor for David Lynch who has momentum on his side as much as the locale and the cute animals. The movie can't help but lag whenever Dunham focuses on the humans, mostly because the writers simply trot them out for melodramatic relief. A late-inning stretch at an animal control center goes the other way just as roughly. But Dunham's knack for adversity does allow for a couple of raw heart-clenchers: Sassy is swept away by a raging salt river, and the aged Shadow suffers a crueler fate due to unstable woodworks.

By that point, Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey does leave you whimpering like Chance for the prospect of a happy ending, which is delivered on pure family-oriented terms. Having spent a year in post-production repair, Homeward Bound is undemanding, to be true (this isn't a game-changer like Babe), but with a surefire paw up on Look Who's Talking Now! or any of the Benji films (watch out for Joe Camp's credit as "animal coordinator").

(R, Touchstone/Paramount Pictures, 120 mins., theatrical release date: Jan. 15, 1993)

Whereas the strays of Disney's Homeward Bound cure their hunger pains via a stream of fresh fish, the survivors in Touchstone's (and Paramount's) Alive dine on philosophical and primitive red meat. Piers Paul Read's literary document of the 1972 Andes flight disaster lends itself less to feel-good perseverance than The Incredible Journey, unless I missed the part where the golden retriever was devoured whole by the saucer-eyed kitty and the spotted mutt. Indeed, an ordeal like the one experienced by the Uruguayan rugby players, God-fearing alumni of Montevideo's Stella Maris, and their extended family would've been slightly improved by having Homeward Bound's critters scurry through the snow. Knowing my Touchstone Pictures, chances are they would've encountered Sidney Poitier and Tom Berenger instead.

Actually, the leveling of Flight 571 on Friday the 13th, October 1972, is more unsettling than any Jason kill. An unforgiving cloud blinds the pilots to craggy disaster, with both wings and the tail end clipped off on collision. The dismembered aircraft slides violently to a halt, all of the passengers' seats thrusting forward to suggest a flesh-and-blood highway accident. The aftermath doesn't skimp on visceral images of women's legs pinned down by metal rods or the accompanying mania brought on by "altitude sickness." By the time the food and drink supply is rationed, only 27 out of the initial 45 boarders remain, the pilots and a dozen-plus others dead. The mantle of leader eventually shifts from team captain Antonio Balbi (Vincent Spano) to the revived Nando Parrado (Ethan Hawke, embodying this very film's technical advisor) as the situation grows further desperate.

Indeed, it is Nando who declares his budding stewardship with the immortal line: "Well, then I'll cut some meat off the pilots. After all, they got us into this mess."

Director Frank (Arachnophobia) Marshall and writer John Patrick (Moonstruck) Shanley downplay grisly sensationalism in favor of a rousing emphasis on perilous endurance. When one poor hiker sinks into the snow and the ground falls away right in front of him, it's got a charge above and beyond the call of Rene Cardona. Alive doesn't hack it as a group portrait, given the cast is predominantly nondescript even while their numbers are thinning, but Marshall and Shanley do convey the plight tougher than most disaster movies have been known to muster. For a while at least...

...Because what they cannot do is reconcile the tactful horror of the situation with the pronounced spirituality of the characters. Portentous wraparounds featuring John Malkovich as one of the athletes (we're never clear who) speak of enlightenment in the eeriest of tones. Even though guilt and "innocence" are queried as sacrificial, the direct connotation made between cannibalism and the Communion has the effect of making those corpse cuts take on the significance of altar bread. As the lone female survivor, Illeana Douglas takes no place at this Donner Party until she whimsically decides to be fruitful, but given that the one agnostic of the bunch pays for his refusal to pray, tragedy is inevitable, and curiously weightless. Collapsing in on itself despite the technical finesse, Alive makes like an Outward Bound expedition convinced it's a vision quest.

(R, Tri-Star Pictures, 111 mins., theatrical release date: Apr. 26, 1991)

Ethan Hawke may be nobody's image of South American machismo, but Andrew "The Djinn Genie" Divoff is a native Venezuelan with the same hot-blooded grit as Robert Davi's Sanchez from Licence to Kill. Toy Soldiers wants to position him as Hans Gruber in this particular hostage crisis, but first-time director Daniel Petrie Jr. is frustratingly adept at cannibalizing proven action flick tropes in as perfunctory a manner possible (cf: Shoot to Kill). Co-scripting this time with David Koepp, Petrie's own "triumph of the spirit" is a Red Dawn Reform School where the unruly sons of privilege outwit heavily-armed Latino and Aryan thugs under the volatile lead of Luis Cali (Divoff), whose biggest crime is loving his own cartel-kingpin daddy a bit too much.

Sean "Goonie 4 Life" Astin, Wil Wheaton (angstier here than he was in Stand by Me) and Keith Coogan (the twice-babysat misfit, inheriting Mikey's asthma) play a thrice-expelled discipline case, the bitter progeny of a Mafioso (Jerry Orbach) and the gawky offspring of a Republican figurehead. These self-described "rejects" of the Regis academy fall in line once Luis arrives; having arrived too late to single out a judge's son for vengeance in his father's imprisonment, he blockades the campus with remote-controlled plastic explosives, rooftop snipers and all manner of military-grade firepower. Cali also devotes hourly intervals to head counts where for one missing student, five are to be executed.

Billy Tepper (Astin) leads the kiddie insurgence and manages to deliver crucial information to the authorities within one recess period. But both parental attention and Special Forces tend to stifle (in this case, fatally) young minds, so Billy and his buds, as well as two preteen electronics whizzes, risk a do-or-die attempt to diffuse the bombs and defeat the terrorists. But the only real urgency resides in Michael Kahn's proficient editing, brisker than it was in the equally-lengthy Alive so as to be on the level of his Indiana Jones assignments. Despite the ventilation shafts, clandestine confrontations and adrenaline-fueled heroism, Die Hard, this movie's closest forebear, packed a meatier punch. The youthful hunks tend to spend their free time sans pants, and it apparently made no sense for Petrie & Koepp to damage the merchandise even slightly. 

Toy Soldiers, adapted from a novel by William P. Kennedy, bears no relation to the '84 film of the same name nor does it utilize Martika's hit ballad ("We all fall down...") as Eminem eventually would. Aside from Kahn and Divoff, the film's major assets include dependable supporting turns from Louis Gossett Jr. as the stern but lenient dean and Denholm Elliott's wryly funny headmaster. And I would be remiss if I didn't say that Sean Astin does the best he can with his overbearing delinquent hero, who in one moment is subjected to corporal punishment by Cali, once a private school attendee in his teens. Spare the rod, as they say, but spoil the child by seeking out Class of 1999. Lil' Petrie still needs to learn some discipline himself.

(R, 20th Century Fox, 87 mins., theatrical release date: Sep. 24, 1993)

What's trashier than Toy Soldiers, grimmer than Alive and fraught with more behind-the-scenes turmoil than Homeward Bound? The Good Son. Novelist Ian McEwan whipped up the screenplay in 1986 as commissioned by 20th Century Fox, but the studio balked until 1991, during which time it reached pre-Blacklist levels of curiosity. With Michael (Heathers) Lehmann attached to direct and a cast including Jesse Bradford and Mary Steenburgen, McEwan watched with growing disillusionment as Kit Culkin blackmailed Fox into casting his golden boy son Macaulay in the titular role and Lehmann was traded for Joseph Ruben, no stranger to iconoclastic star vehicles thanks to Sleeping with the Enemy, who unceremoniously brought in a friend to rewrite McEwan's script. McEwan fought to claim sole writing credit, keeping distance from the finished product on his own terms.

His is not the only disgrace. The same Joseph Ruben who crafted 1987's low-budget creeper sleeper The Stepfather only has formalism going for him here; thus, he's prematurely interchangeable with John (Pacific Heights) Schlesinger. Cajoled into rewiring his endearingly bratty image, the distressingly humorless Macaulay Culkin doesn't seem to be having as much fun as his wicked Henry Evans suggests we should. So numbingly interested in death Henry is that he seems to have stumbled out of River's Edge rather than The Omen. The adults are mindless pushovers devoid of any psychological investment, cheating us out of a revelatory performance on a par with Terry O'Quinn, Margaret Colin (cf: True Believer) or Kevin Anderson. And no matter how effectively it is lensed, Maine is so synonymous with Stephen King as to invite unfair if educational contrast (watch out for Daniel Hugh Kelly, of the movie version of Cujo, as another father on a poorly-timed business trip).

Only Elijah Wood, who for all intents and purposes is the focal character, assures us of McEwan's sullied integrity. Cousin Mark's guilt-addled devotion to his deceased mother, which he projects onto the similarly mournful Aunt Susan (Wendy Crewson), is a solid hook for a psychological fable that declares a tyke war. The mind reels as to how Joseph Ruben could've handled the material back when The Stepfather showed he could deconstruct the idea of a nuclear family, resonantly pitting '50s idealism against '80s cynicism. Repackaged for Macaulay, whose burglar-bashing Home Alone fame could have been subverted in surer hands, every malevolent misdeed, spot of profanity and vindictive overture is patently calculated. The antagonism Mark endures from Henry and his blind protectors is ludicrously contrived. And the cliff top showdown is the only point where the film spills over with juicy camp.

More than any post-Bad Seed celebration of adolescent sadism in the first degree (or even the excellent Nick Cave song written sympathetically about Cain), The Good Son stirred within me memories of David Keith's The Curse. In it, Wil Wheaton acted alongside his own real-life sibling Anne, who in her only film credit is remembered for being attacked by a coop of homicidal chickens. Macaulay's sister Quinn Culkin experiences a similar fate, as Henry tries to dispose of his last biological rival, 8-year-old Connie, by tossing her onto thin ice. Had Joseph Ruben enjoyed himself in this case, the latent dysfunction would've made for some sprightly (or is that spritely?) mischief. Alas, that old adage of resignation sets in early and never gets lifted: "Playtime's over."

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Return of the Killer Tomatoes

(PG, New World Pictures, 98 mins., theatrical release date: Apr. 22, 1988)

Remember when Fox Kids managed to crank out botched animated series based on the strangest choices of movies? In the early 1990s, there was a 13-episode run for Little Shop of Horrors, in which Audrey II was defanged and rechristened "Junior" alongside teenage variants on Seymour and Audrey. Once that wilted on the vine, Wes Craven's inaugural adaptation of DC's Swamp Thing begat both the live action program on the USA Network (former home of the Toxic Crusaders!) as well as Fox's Saturday Morning spin-off which lasted a paltry five episodes. Actually, Fox Kids' Swamp Thing probably hewed closer to the spirit of Jim Wynorski's The Return of Swamp Thing rather than Craven's 1982 film, notorious for its international version which unshackled Adrienne Barbeau's bosom.

But the one which managed to outlast all of them was adapted from a movie nobody ever expected to be revived, even for children. And I include the Toxic Avenger saga in the mix. That was about an eco-friendly superhero (think Captain Planet with elephantitis squeezed into a tutu) on the most basic of levels; although the films were incredibly debased, they could plausibly be toned way down for possible "Toxic Tots." Instead, the genesis for this ne plus ultra of schlock cinema kiddie adaptations came from an episode of Muppet Babies ("The Weirdo Zone"), which made a sight gag out of 1978's Attack of the Killer Tomatoes!

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes! was widely dismissed as a overworked attempt at sending up monster movies, reveling in its own ineptness but hardly as funny as any random segment from The Kentucky Fried Movie. That reputation still exists, but in the VHS boom such sins were completely forgiven and it got celebrated as a proto-Airplane! despite the fact that Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker's embryonic Kentucky Fried Movie existed a year before, and remains the funnier movie to this day. A lot of people felt Attack of the Killer Tomatoes! was merely cynical in its openly amateurish satire, with a ratio higher in the misses than in the hits.

It garnered its expected cult following just the same, and when that aforementioned Muppet Babies installment achieved surprisingly high ratings, New World Television sent the word to their film distribution wing and Four Square Productions was enticed to make a sequel on a $2,000,000 budget. The result was Return of the Killer Tomatoes, which became the nerve center for the revived Attack of the Killer Tomatoes franchise to come, from the Fox show to the NES video game (although an 8-bit Sinclair version was developed in 1986) to a succession of further sequels and re-releases of the '78 film, including a "Director's Cut" vidcassette from Disney!

I'm here not to squash Attack of the Killer Tomatoes! but instead shine a grow light onto Return of the Killer Tomatoes, which endures for better reasons than its predecessor and recently got the red carpet treatment from Arrow Video. Whereas Attack! labored witlessly to spin its cheap conceit into a kitsch ruby, this time creative partners John De Bello, Costa Dillon and James Stephen "Rock" Peace settle more into a pleasantly silly groove worthy of, say, Killer Klowns from Outer Space minus the Chiodos. The mostly unfamiliar cast includes one obvious standout (we'll get to him) and is tarted up by someone who knows how to play to the lowbrow material the right way. And several of the jokes actually manage to seem good enough to have really inspired future movies which I also like.

Framed within a mock-public access late show in which the host (Michael Villani as Bob Downs) advertizes a call-up contest to win a "Pot o' Gold" worth $9.22, Return of the Killer Tomatoes cheerfully preempts itself at the beginning and several times during the movie proper, which picks up in the aftermath of the Great Tomato War. Having foiled a corrupt politician as well as leading the do-or-die charge during the Battle of San Diego Stadium, Lt. Wilbur Finletter (Peace) is now a pizzeria owner who works around the government ban on marinara by any means necessary, from mayonnaise to peanut butter to boysenberry sauce. He employs his nephew Chad (Anthony Starke), who makes a fateful delivery to the house of Professor Gangreen (John Astin), the mad…er, angry scientist committed to breeding a new strain of ferocious fruit by genetically evolving them into human form through toxic waste and a 25-cent Seeburg jukebox with no pesky 45s of "Puberty Love" (Alex Winter must have taken note when he made Freaked).

Chad, however, experiences said emotion when Gangreen's assistant Tara (Karen Mistal) greets him, unaware that she as well as the commandos guarding the lair evolved from the Finletter family foe. Tara isn't the kind of girl you take home to uncle, especially if yours flashbacks an entire five-minute montage whenever the Red Menace is invoked, but before you can say "nice stems," Chad gets beet-cheeks even though the reception is both unrequited and hostile. He returns to the shop to create his banana-and-Raisinets signature pie, but Tara has fled from Gangreen's with a neglected mutant tomato, F.T., in tow and delivers herself to Chad.

Can Chad learn to love a literal hot tomato? Will Gangreen and his sidekick Igor (Olympic swimming champ Steve Lundquist), a blonde bohunk with dreams of anchorman glory (watch out for the Ted Baxter degree and Diane Sawyer cut-out in his bedroom), steal Tara away from Chad and facilitate the breakout of a double-crossing archenemy of Uncle Wilbur? Which lucky lady shall win a date with Rob Lowe? And is Wilbur ever going to get rid of that dumb parachute?!

Nobody was jumping off New York's Golden Gate Bridge to know the answers, but that doesn't make Return of the Killer Tomatoes an overripe failure. Maybe because the 1980s were the salad days of ZAZ, "Weird Al" Yankovic, The Dead Milkmen, and Savage Steve Holland, but John De Bello has made tremendous strides compared to the undemanding humor of the original. Oh, it's still sophomoric and senseless enough to honor its lineage, but the energy level is cranked up and there is more follow-through in both premise and parody.

The biggest surprise is the influx of legitimately amusing running gags, from the self-explanatory skin flick "Big Breasted Girls Go to the Beach and Take Their Tops Off" teased at the intro to Igor's wildest wish to host the nightly news (his KIGR van is a garbage truck) to the ipecac-friendly menu items at Finletter's Pizza to the undeniable show-stopper, a fourth-wall obliteration as riotous as the "Spaceballs: The Video" premiere which cuts shameless product placement deeper than Wayne's World and challenges the generic inventory out front in Repo Man. If George Clooney sees his participation here as a Secret Shame, that's only because there is an alternate universe where his character of horny schemer Matt is Clooney's life, pitching Subway sandwiches, Geico insurance and Honey Nut Cheerios to save his bacon project after project.

On the contrary, this is the best vehicle for Facts of Life-period Clooney (no contest when the competition includes Return to Horror High and the unfinished Grizzly II: The Concert), as it is he who sets the sponsorship lampoon into motion and commits so hilariously to it. Even for a stock character of the era, Clooney demonstrated potential which would serve him well once the Coens harnessed his comic abilities. It's every bit as infectious as watching the more seasoned John Astin dramatize his maniacal archetype to the highest hilt, a precedent which helps loosen up the proceedings so that even the central lovebirds have their opportunities to land a decent joke. The absurdly alluring Karen Mistal, who'd go on to play Cake Lase in Savage Steve Holland's New Adventures of Beans Baxter, is alternately sensual, spacey and subservient, a Weird Science-caliber dream girl in extremis ("I cook 815 international dishes, perform 637 sexual acts [and] use all the popular home appliances").

With black-market tomato smugglers ("the real Acapulco Red"), a Sinatra-style "love theme" suitable for toaster shopping and punching mimes, Miami Vice and Mr. Potato Head jokes, and "master of disguise" Sam Smith (Frank Davis) instigating the first and best ever barroom brawl located within a pizzeria, Return of the Killer Tomatoes is a welcome reversal of fortune compared to its predecessor. The conventions Lampshaded in this film are more flexible in regards to self-aware sarcasm, from a rejiggered theme song calling attention to its own prefab development to a romantic hero who gets heartsick over produce, hallucinating "giant zucchinis and man-eating artichokes."

Sadly, Crest wouldn't go on to manufacture tomato toothpaste despite the valiant efforts of George Clooney, who instead shilled the Bat Credit Card to our eternal damnation.

In a healthier show of interest, Arrow Video picks up the slack from prior distributors Anchor Bay, who never bothered to correct their bare-bones, full-frame DVD release in the time we knew them. Arrow's BD transfer, a 2k scan from a 35mm interpositive, places it in the proper 1.85:1 theatrical format and buffers the film to its proper 80s movie sheen. The LPCM 2.0 track allowed me enough fidelity to understand the theme song's processed-vocal lyrics, which accounts for something. Extras aren't as copious here as they were for Vamp or Slugs, but director John De Bello's audio commentary and lead actor Anthony Starke's video interview are comprehensive and entertaining. "It's okay for you to drool."

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Shoot to Kill

(R, Touchstone Pictures, 110 mins., theatrical release date: Feb. 12, 1988)

A pip of an opening sequence heralds the decade-long comeback of the Civil Rights era's leading man in Roger Spottiswoode's Shoot to Kill. On a sleepy San Franciscan night, a jewelry heist bursts onto the scene, the perp revealed as the store's owner, Mr. Berger, undisguised and still in his evening dress. In walks Sidney Poitier as Special Agent Warren Stantin, a G-Man of 22 years experience, to suss out the reason for Mr. Berger's jittery self-theft: someone is pointing a gun at his wife, having previously shot their dog, and is demanding two pounds of stones or else. To prove he's not bluffing, the faceless criminal lets the maid out of the Berger's mansion in plain view of Agent Stantin and the SWAT team, and pops her just as ruthlessly.

Stantin submits to the gunman's demands whilst taking a sniper for back-up, though once they've driven out to the pier, Stantin is left with another dead body, that of Mrs. Berger, and a fugitive who has successfully eluded his tail. This instills a determination in both parties as one flees north towards Washington and the Canadian border, the other struggling to identify the cleverly-concealed psycho on the slimmest of descriptions. It will get worse once Stantin receives a report of a fisherman's death in Bishop Falls, murdered in the same manner as Mrs. Berger and all of his clothes stolen as the thrill-killer blends himself in with the slain sportsman's wilderness expedition.

This looks like a job for the man we once called Mr. Tibbs, but is indeed Sidney Poitier in his first starring role since 1977's A Piece of the Action, his third partnership with Bill Cosby and his fifth time behind the camera, to boot. Those lighthearted capers, which also included Uptown Saturday Night and Let's Do It Again, showed Poitier attempting to break away from the steely prestige he was associated with, an iconoclastic populism Poitier carried on when he limited himself to directing in the ten year hiatus from acting. But his frustratingly spotty track record, which peaked with Stir Crazy and would go on to include such stiffs as Hanky Panky and Ghost Dad, created a longing for Poitier's greatest gift to cinema: his very own unmistakable presence.

Being 1988, Sidney Poitier came back to a Touchstone-distributed action programmer where he shared top billing with rising star Tom Berenger, whose post-Platoon glories are as inconsistent as Poitier's directing credentials, but acquits himself well under the circumstances as much as the returning Poitier. Berenger is wild man Jonathan Knox, a guide-for-hire whose girlfriend Sarah Rennell (Kirstie Alley) just so happens to be leading the hiking quintet which includes the clandestine killer. Agent Stantin, having never roughed it once in his metropolitan life, demands Knox's assistance to prevent a vigilante rap, the solitary tracker knowing full well Stantin is going to slow him down.

Sarah's out there, though, with four happy-go-lucky tourists and one impostor, though in a shrewd display of casting, the expedition is a rogues' gallery of venerable character actors. Who can it be? Is he Andrew Robinson, who cuts the widest swath in unsettling villainy by his association with Dirty Harry and Hellraiser? Or Richard Masur, who was in Spottiswoode's Under Fire as the spokesman for El Presidente and also once perverted Dana Hill's innocence in the 1981 TV movie Fallen Angel? I thought I recognized the late Frederick Coffin, a.k.a. "Holden McGuire," as Ike, the orange-haired yokel ("Disco's stupid!") from the eternally skeevy Mother's Day! And just where do I even start with Clancy Brown! Poor Kevin Scannell (Turner & Hooch) is the odd man out, but that can throw one off, just as well.

I will refrain from spoilers (thanks for nothing, Touchstone Home Video!) except for one minor reveal: It isn't Richard Masur. His recently-divorced Norman is the only supporting role written with deliberate red herring traits (he shares an elevated cart over a gorge with Kirstie Alley and queries about her boyfriend's potential for jealousy), but Masur is too endearingly anxious to come off as a threat, even if Fallen Angel, which was directed by the same man who gave me the Moon Goddess of Summer Girl, proved otherwise.

When the villain inevitably outs himself, he sends the rest of the men plummeting to their rocky doom, the better for Alley's Sarah to guide him to the border without incident. At the same time, Stantin and Knox have their own reluctant game of "follow the leader" to navigate, and it's not without danger, either. Take the aforementioned conveyor cart, which the killer has sabotaged by jamming a large trunk in the clutch. Knox has to climb the rope from one side of the gorge to the other, which is scary enough given the distance below him, only to make it halfway there before the trunk comes loose and the cart slides down and knocks him off the rope. Hurtled violently against the cliffs, Knox has to rely on Stantin using all the strength in his aging body to hoist him back up to safety.

Spottiswoode and cinematographer Michael Chapman (who also plays a minor role as lawyer for the diamonds broker whom the villain keeps in touch with) create for that first 40-odd minutes leading up to the killer's reveal an efficient genre pastiche with pure currents of dry humor (e.g.: a fried marmot dinner between Knox and Stantin), gut-twisting set pieces and Poitier jumping back in the saddle with both his authoritative charisma and his overlooked comic timing intact. Once Sarah becomes hostage, though, the script becomes a protracted grind in which those once consistent pleasures are reduced to fleeting embers.

Shoot to Kill's confidence goes so downhill that the movie doesn't even conclude in those treacherous natural environs, with a literal cop-out on land which belabors the inevitable scene of déjà vu involving Poitier aiming his gun at the madman, once again using a human shield. The slickness finally becomes helplessly transparent and the script is revealed for the shambles it is. And then you start questioning the killer, whose frightening intelligence at the start is bogged down by formula dunderheadedness which makes you wonder if he has any real accomplices ("my men" he refers to at the start), why he's keeping Sarah alive given his hair-trigger temper and just what happened to his lethally calm aim when the bullets start firing in all directions.

Suffice to say that whichever of the line-up (Scorpio, Ike, the Kurgan, the Other Guy) is our baddie, it ends up being a waste of one man's evident talent. Or all of them, including Masur. And perhaps even spunky, endangered Kirstie Alley.

Poitier and Berenger, though, are given enough action and rapport so that Shoot to Kill becomes entirely watchable thanks to them. The manhunt eventually becomes a chore to sit through, but Knox cracking wise about Stantin's newfound ruggedness as well as the immortal grizzly encounter show glimmers of life which kept me interested despite the script, which originates with story writer Harv Zimmel (a real-life outdoorsman) but also includes touch-ups from Michael Burton (Flight of the Navigator) and, most pertinently, formula action specialist Daniel Petrie Jr. (Beverly Hills Cop, Toy Soldiers). There's a single comic-relief allusion to Stantin's racial identity, and Knox has but one zinger about "mountain boys" as he tries to warm up Stantin's body during a blizzard. Mostly, it's a battle of persistence that is highly entertaining up until the domesticated final stretch.

Shoot to Kill winds up with its barrel jammed once there is no more Pacific Northwest to take in. But for the excitement our then-60-year-old Sidney Poitier inspires, it's fairly irresistible. Do note that the film's international title was changed and that, in this particular trailer, there is a line which doesn't appear in the movie, just to deter you from suspecting a cross between The Defiant Ones and Survival Quest.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Micki & Maude

(PG-13, Columbia Pictures, 118 mins., theatrical release date: Dec. 21, 1984)

To paraphrase Peter Gabriel from the "Willow Farm" chapter of the Book of Genesis, MICKI & MAUDE transmogrifies from Dud to Bad to Mad to Dad.

Reuniting with Blake Edwards ("10"), the dashingly middle-aged Dudley Moore plays Rob Salinger, a chronically dissatisfied telejournalist for a puff program called "America, Hey!" He is introduced covering the inedible buffet spread at the election night victory of a California governor, yet this is by no means the most debasing or ridiculous story he's been tasked with (in his portfolio are such exposes as "Are Plants Seducible?" and "Lingerie for Animals"). It's actually quite beneficial to his lawyer wife, Micki (Ann Reinking), whom Governor Lanford is set on appointing to Superior Court judge. For Rob, it's another wrench in his now seven-year itch towards starting a family, as Micki's ruthless schedule won't even allow for a dinner date with her hubby.

And then Rob inadvertently goes bad, his next assignment introducing him to an unlikely replacement in the Cambodian String Quartet, cellist Maude Guillory (Amy Irving). Drunken sparks ignite and send the two of them into a passionate love affair which causes Rob to question his loyalty to Micki, especially after Maude announces she's pregnant. He's reluctantly ready to declare his divorce, until Micki confesses a reconciliatory epiphany in the wake of her own fertility. Rob marries Maude, anyway, and thus is forced to darting back and forth between two child-bearing wives, convinced he can handle it without either of his brides getting more the wiser ("As long as I don't get bedsores and the San Diego Freeway doesn't collapse..."). The madness is what happens when Micki and Maude go into labor simultaneously, and it all culminates in a deliciously ironic realization of Rob's sincere dreams of paternity.

If this synopsis makes Micki & Maude seem astoundingly wrong-headed for a farcical comedy, then I only thought about it when others brought up the touchiness of it all. Blake Edwards, first-time screenwriter Jonathan Reynolds and the three leads walk the thinnest line between guileless adult screwball and an inadvertent celebration of bigamy. What Rob does causes him guilt, as well it should, but the human element never goes astray in either of these relationships. Rob is hardly a creep, and though, as one colleague puts it, Rob's "value judgments are right up there with Carter and Nixon," you can't help but squirm along with Dudley Moore as he tries to put on a brave face.

Thank Edwards for warming up a little more towards Moore's impulsive cad, as well as matching him this time with two delightful personalities in Ann Reinking and Amy Irving. Irving, the De Palma fave from Carrie and The Fury, must have inherited the gene which allows her to excel at verbal comedy. For all her divine sex appeal, she imbues Maude with a sharp wit and towering affability. I believed she is the kind of woman who can have fun watching bad monster movies, especially when Maude and Rob scare off a suspicious, doped-up Micki. Statuesque Tony-winner Ann Reinking (best known for 1982's film adaptation of Annie) is endearingly frosty at the onset but with moments of vulnerability that can be either uproarious or touching ("What if the baby turns out to be manic-depressive? What if she grows up to be the first successful female assassin?").

A lot of this character-rooted charity might also be Off Broadway playwright Reynolds' own credit, as he alternates equally tender domestic scenarios in which Rob cares for the women in his life. In the case of Maude, there's also a gorilla in his midst, Mr. Guillory (H.B. Haggerty), a trained Jesuit priest cum professional wrestler (he even shares a locker room with Andre the Giant) who wants to pursue interior decorating when he retires. Most protective dads aren't built enough to body slam a bad boyfriend, and these two are thrust into express matrimony. When Micki's parents spot Rob outside the church, he and his boss/confidante Leo (Richard Mulligan, of Edwards' scabrous S.O.B.) improvise their way out of a tight spot by claiming they're attending a gangster's ceremony. As future complications drive Rob to even wilder desperation, the slapstick is framed within a delirious context and several welcome supporting roles, especially Wallace Shawn's OB-GYN and Lu Leonard's skeptical nurse, offer a droll relief from Rob's frantic façade.

This is Dudley Moore's best romantic comedy role mostly because it is so tethered to the need for engagement, the deceptions his Rob concocts in his own head and towards his paramours forcing him to react in the moment as well as turn up the charm. Should Rob slip, he takes the premise along with him and overcasts the light-heartedness Reynolds' script and Edwards' camera endeavor to sustain. Luckily, Moore finds expert subtleties in moments that lesser mortals would convey with eyes too bugged out or pathetically misty. He plays it so naturally that he can fight over an egg roll with Maude's pet cat and elicit a hearty laugh without shifting into overdrive.

Moore previously anchored a remake of Unfaithfully Yours which was a pox on the Rex Harrison black comedy classic of 1948. With Micki & Maude, he finally gets a movie worthy of Preston Sturges. It's the details Reynolds works into his script, even in Rob's wardrobe choices, one key instance involving a green sweater Maude presents him with during her second trimester. It's the ways in which an energetic, generous Moore plays off of Irving, Reinking and Richard Mulligan, who also benefits enormously from witty dialogue whenever he tries to make Rob see some sense: "You're about to get a plate of sautéed brains thrown in your face...and you're correcting my grammar?" It's Edwards' orchestration of those moments where Rob is in the same building with his wives, often inches away from each other, using long takes to his advantage.

So brisk and well-crafted Micki & Maude is that the only real letdown is the final stretch, in which faulty fire extinguishers and burglar garb allow for easy outs when the fallout should have been more sobering, or at least as giddily insane as Victor/Victoria. The compromise Rob has to accept does pay off considering how the film begins, with Rob entertaining Lanford's children with his camera and discussing the afterlife. But the three central characters, well-defined and sympathetic as they are, share a complicity which Rob, whose strained attachment with Micki and refreshing initial honesty with Maude provide him a human cushion, is solely burdened by. Reynolds' warm approach to dialogue escapes him almost entirely, and Edwards suffers a similar flatness.

Micki & Maude's reputation might have been unjustly tarnished in the Internet age, with misguided nitpicking robbing it of its surprising affability. And if this must be, allow me to relate what happened to much of the main personnel afterwards. Blake Edwards fell upon self-imitation so hard (including such lesser lights as Sunset, Skin Deep and Switch) that when he returned to the Pink Panther franchise in the early 1990s, it was the Mirriam-Webster example of "too little, too late." Hollywood lured Jonathan Reynolds into frivolity full-time, forsaking the maturity of Micki & Maude for the tedious silliness of Leonard Part 6 and My Stepmother Is an Alien. Dudley Moore revisited his star-epitomizing role of Arthur Bach to his own diminishing returns, Ann Reinking retired and Amy Irving became arguably more known for her brief marriage to Spielberg than any performance she gave post-1984.

Keep that in mind the next revisionist reviewer appoints a one-star rating to Micki & Maude, seek the movie out for yourself and prepare for two delightful hours in the company of various talents who united at their prime to make what may have been their last real winner. Should big mosquitoes come out of your ears when it's over, then maybe I'll consider it a stinker.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Identical

(PG, Freestyle Releasing, 107 mins., theatrical release date: Sept. 5, 2014)

The idea of "faith-based" entertainment is not without its virtues. Whether optimistic or misanthropic, a film instilled with some kind of moral angle can prove stimulating, if not transcendental. But the deal breaker, the most important aspect I look for, is that is has to be tangibly grounded. Capra understood this, even if one's path is blocked by the rising corn stalks. Archetypes work better with a real environment, if not other all-importants as credible dialogue or a biological allergy to arrogance. Dipping my toes into today's Christian-baiting cinema, alas, has not made me feel newly baptized.

I singled out the atrocious Old Fashioned as a ground zero offender in this movement. The rust belt condescension, its disturbing romantic doctrine and the pervasive leadenness of Rik Swartzwelder's driving hands has haunted me since first watch. But in today's culture of heightened ironic appreciation, Swartzwelder's homely regression has nothing on THE IDENTICAL. Much like the Cannon movies of yesteryear or the current crop of midnight movie figureheads, some people laugh off the unhinged shoddiness as a defense mechanism. And Dustin Marcellino has given this cult the Bible-thumping successor they've craved, knowingly or not.

You can easily deduce this as fan fiction from a church organist gone to the Land of Nod, borrowing freely from the biography of Elvis Presley as it drifts off into madcap Zionist screeds and pining for the edgeless assimilation of Pat Boone. In Howard Klausner's script, the King's mythically-stillborn twin Jesse Garon Presley survived birth and was raised as the dumbfounded adopted son of a tent show minister, breaking away from his daddy's idea of living and embracing divine career consultation. Had this been written for the secular market, the premise could have had a chance at prestige. Crafted for the modern day pulpit, it's more hysterical than the apocalyptic barrage of imagery in Nick Cave's "Tupelo."

The Identical begins in Depression-era 1935, where William and Helen Hensley (Brian Geraghty, Amanda Crew) arrive via boxcar to start a family in Decatur, Alabama. With employment not being so gainful, William picks cotton while house-sitting Helen gives birth to two baby boys. William frets over the financial woes posed by this fruitful circumstance as he takes in a sermon by Reverend Reece Wade (executive producer Ray Liotta), a traveling preacher who, in the midst of declaring "better to give than to receive," reveals his wife Louise's (Ashley Judd) infertility in a show of vulnerability. And thus the Hemsleys painfully agree to give up one of their tots to the Wades, with a shoebox burial staged for the absent Dexter Ryan Hemsley.

This child, now simply known as Ryan Wade, grows up under Reece's God-fearing tutelage and parameters. Ryan instinctively develops a love for music to where the crux of his teenage rebellion is sneaking into juke joints to hear R&B, never once smoking or drinking unlike his rowdy best friend Dino (Seth Green). But Ryan (Blake Rayne) is not the only one; his twin brother Drexel Hemsley (Rayne) heeds the same call and becomes a superstar in the process, nicknamed "The Dream." But because of their separation at birth, Ryan remains unaware of his lineage even as his resemblance to Drexel thrusts him into the limelight as "The Identical," playing Drexel's hits to audiences just as oblivious as he. It's not long until Ryan's attempts at independence finally lead him to both the secret of his bloodline and the path of righteousness.

A lot of specifics were left out of that synopsis, but it's those details which turn this potentially engrossing film into a ridiculous pretender. Begin with one of the most unavoidable topics: the American South in the 1950s. Were dusk-till-dawn road houses there really alive with the sound of black music back then? Did we achieve integration that easily and civil rights was never an issue again? Isn't it odd that the stereotypical redneck officer makes more of a fuss over Ryan than the people who had every right to fear for their safety at this point in time? When Elvis burst onto the scene, it was inflammatory to both sides of the racial divide, whereas scandal is scrubbed clean away in The Identical. There's even a couple of stereotypical mammy surrogates (a house maid, a nurse's aide) thrown in mindlessly.

Putting aside that revisionism in the name of "alternate reality," it's amazing how much Elvis is in this movie, which couldn't be more anti-Elvis if Michael J. Fox played a supporting role. Rather than try a different tack for Ryan and Drexel's musical awakenings, Marcellino & Klausner lift all the basics from the Elvis Presley timeline. There are impromptu concerts while in the Army, recording sessions in a faux-Sun studio, a private getaway called Dreamland, and even a kitschy beach blanket pastiche called "Sunrise Surfin'" which was done better in Top Secret! In fact, since the King's music remains out of the producers' reach, the original soundtrack tries for facsimiles of the classic Elvis sound that are nowhere near as uncanny as when Val Kilmer sang "Straighten Out the Rug." Drexel Hemsley is even spiffed up Jim Morrison-style in his later years, and he's still no huckleberry let alone Mr. "Hound Dog."

And yet, in a pivotal scene where Ryan shuns his Drexel-impersonating fame on the grounds of not being able to work in his original songs, Klausner has the irate manager scream "There's only one Elvis!" This is easily the most hilarious line in the movie, especially considering Drexel and Ryan are played by Blake Rayne, who we all know was cast for his striking resemblance to Fabian. No, Rayne is actually the screen name of Ryan Pelton, an Elvis impersonator who gets to parlay his act toward leading man stature. An identical playing an identical of an identical…of an identical.

Not that Rayne is given a chance to channel Elvis in any way but appearance's sake. The real life dichotomies of the once-in-a-lifetime singer of both "One Night" and "In the Ghetto" are glossed over to focus on Ryan's blandly overfamiliar growing pains. This allows not only for the pervasive chasteness and multi-periodic anachronisms, but also for Dustin Marcellino and his extended clan (including father Yochanan, who plays a record executive whose label boasts the same name as his production company, City of Peace) to work in a more Judeo-Christian angle than expected. The first clues are there in that Depression prologue, in the dialogue and design. By the time it's rendered explicit with a messianic lecture about the Six-Day War, such a quirky tack fades away to reveal yet another "faith-based" movie where the inspiration doesn't merely take a back seat to the agenda, but is pushed out of the car and off of the bridge.

The Identical is a hard movie to fully hate, which is a blessing in itself compared to Old Fashioned. I am touched by certain themes of reconciliation (watch for Chris Mulkey in a minor role) and uncertainty which play out in the arc of Ryan Wade. Ray Liotta, undergoing an unintentionally non-flattering aging process, convinces richly in several emotionally-charged scenes even though a couple, like when he holds infant Ryan in his arms on a dark night, are irredeemably hammy. And as a black sheep myself, I am open to a story about distanced siblings who never get the chance to truly unite. The highlight of The Identical is a genuinely moving scene where Ryan sneaks into the hospital room of his gravely ill birth mother and serenades her in a way that reminds her just enough of the boy she raised. Coincidentally, it's the sole time any of the overreaching original songs works in any scene.

But there's not a whole lot of struggling going on with Ryan, who should've been written and acted to be less of a nonentity. Marcellino's promo clip style favors senseless montages and repetitive musical cues at the expense of real engagement. At one point, Drexel appears at a contest to judge his own best impersonator, Ryan being the clear shoo-in. With the passing of Helen Hemsley and Ryan being told non-stop of his resemblance to Drexel (including from Joe Pantoliano's saintly mechanic), the stage is set for resonance which Marcellino doesn't capitalize on. Blake Rayne is just striking overrripe poses in his self-confrontation. The incident doesn't have any bearing afterwards, even as tragedy strikes from all sides.

These melodramatic contortions are made worse by the narration, which we come to learn very belatedly is voiced by the character of Jenny (Erin Cottrell), Ryan's sweetheart who lives up to her name by hopping in and out of the narrative to help this rock-n-rolling Forrest Gump believe in love. On screen, Jenny does precious little except join the gallery of subservient wives alongside Ashley Judd and Amanda Crew. Speaking aloud, Jenny is even more worthless, an insufferable vessel for solemn homilies, wishy-washy historical accounts and even repeating verbatim lines of dialogue spoken seconds prior. When Reece tells his wayward son "it's time to grow up and start being a man," it's terrible strategy to have the narrator parrot it from her POV.

Despite the involvement of Liotta, Pantoliano, Judd, and lifetime adolescent Seth Green (the Robot Chicken lampoon of his involvement here is preordained), The Identical is as cut-rate as they come. There is indeed only one Elvis, and no amount of innocuous plagiarism can erase that, let alone such pitiful tunes as "Boogie Woogie Rock and Roll," "Nashville Tonight" and "City Lights." I could easily re-christen this The Imitation for sarcasm's sake, but I deeply anticipate a RiffTrax commentary to take care of that for me. Indeed, The Identical may just be manna from heaven for guilt-free fans of Grease 2 or The Apple. Everyone else can leave the building.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Porky's II: The Next Day + Old Fashioned + 'I Know Where I'm Going!'

(R. 20th Century Fox, 98 mins., theatrical release date: June 24, 1983)

Beyond epitomizing the teen sex farce when it became the surprise hit of 1982, Porky's may also be the definitive prankster comedy of its decade. The problem many had at the time was that those japes were mostly at the expense of females, with the safest male target being Pee Wee, the gullible runt with the bird chest and growth chart. Making a sop to social consciousness in the presence of Jewish teen Billy and his pitiful antagonist Cavanaugh, such finger-wagging mired the hormonal momentum, especially with Lassie and the Shower Scene around the bend. In the meta-defensive Porky's II: The Next Day, the victimizing mantle shifts from Billy (Scott Colomby), who now takes greater part in the foolishness, to John Henry (Joseph Running Fox), the Seminole student on the sidelines who has been cast as Romeo for a Shakespeare-themed class project. Before you can say "Moral Majority," along comes a much wider net of deplorables (religious fanatics, graft-crazed commissioners, Klansmen), alongside bad ol' Balbricker (Nancy Parsons), for Angel Beach's resident miscreants to catch with their pants down.

Bob Clark, whose A Christmas Story was waiting for the coming winter, is somehow operating even broader than the last sty, Not only is the prejudice subplot here a nonentity, but Porky's II doesn't climax so auto-destructively, instead allowing the girl to have all the fun. She is, naturally, Wendy Williams (Kaki Hunter), the one whom the boys all say is the campus bicycle but actually takes a shine to Pee Wee Morris (Dan Monahan). Not that their consummation on the bus has done much for his incredulity, as his attempt to settle the score for that Cherry Forever incident goes very familiarly wrong. Her confessional doesn't even dissuade Pee Wee from leveling the same unfounded suspicion towards a band geek immediately afterwards. But away from their peers, Wendy does talk more sense than the interchangeable sausage party. Even Billy (Mark Herrier), cast as "big fairy" Oberon, has to play straight man to his moronic buds, although you can still count on Meat (Tony Ganios) to thrust his lower weight even while in tights.

Luckily for Clark (and his two fellow writers, including longtime collaborator Alan Ormsby), the uptick in amiability offsets the exaggerated arrogance and hypocrisy of their straw enemies, chief among them Reverend Flavel (Bill Wiley), who tests even the timid principal's (Eric Christmas) patience when they trade indecent passages from both the Bard and the Bible. It doesn't freshen the smutty humor, recycled beat for beat from its predecessor, or encourage Clark to direct with a lighter touch. But like the original, there are a few undeniable elements which escape Clark's belaboring expertise, from the abovementioned literature slam to an impromptu replacement for Billy's defective sword to Wendy's show-stopping jailbait incrimination scheme. Stirring greater havoc with gag boas and breasts in a five-star restaurant than the boys do by scalping and stripping the Kartoon Klan, Kaki Hunter obliterates the subgenre's rosy-palmed loyalty to the He-Man Womun Oglurs Club.

(PG-13, Freestyle Releasing, 115 mins., limited release date: Feb. 6, 2015)

Beware the kind of quaint romance pitched at the intellectual capacities of Reverend Flavel and the Angel Beach boors. Porky's II painted its barn-door strokes in a manner that suggested Bob Clark reeling from the critical smack downs of his earlier smash. Old Fashioned was released on Valentine's Weekend 2015 as a Christian-friendly alternative to Fifty Shades of Grey, despite the whips-and-chains eroticism in the mainstream being no less passé than the amateur pornography, sexist radio DJ and Manic Pixie Dream Girl used to spice up its spiritual contender. Whatever the opiate of the masses, Rik Swartzwelder is oblivious to the naked truth that his ideals of courtship are as toxic as the Stephenie Meyer/Marquis de Sade drivel he's rebuking. And it's not like he is witty enough to make like Wendy Williams and quote the wisdom of Groucho Marx to mitigate his autumnal frostiness.

Clay Walsh (Swartzwelder) is basically to his sleepy Ohio town what Johnny from the The Room was to his San Francisco burg, although he dabbles in antiques rather than accounting. And Clay's a reactionary scold with serious intimacy problems, which he tries to sermonize as an Abstinence Pledge. So when runaway eccentric Amber Hewson (Elizabeth Roberts) rents the room above his carpentry shop, the frigid Clay tests his domineering philosophies in his courtship of Amber. When her stove breaks, she is sent outside until Clay has finished maintenance. Clay consults a needling, traffic light-themed guide book to determine their compatibility during their dates. He even tests Amber's efficiency in slicing up pears into baby food. Swartzwelder wants us to believe these are gateways to true love, yet the vacant chemistry between these opposites and Clay's validated self-righteousness allows for Swartzwelder to recoil from romance as much as he does sexuality.

Drearily formulaic when it's not transparently demagogic, Old Fashioned slogs on for nearly two arduous hours on rote "boy loses girl" drama, tedious moments of solitude, lifeless side characters with no bearing on any of the plot (including Clay's elderly aunt and third banana black friend), and numerous heavy-handed, one-sided potshots against modern day impurity. Not that references to silent movies and Sleepless in Seattle in any way justify the stultifying portentousness. It's the vanity that kills: Swartzwelder writing clunky dialogue (read: worst proposal ever), deifying himself in the name of "folksiness" and looking/acting like a suicidal Jeff Daniels clone is a lousy advertisement for chivalry. I came into Old Fashioned hoping for innocent erotomania and was rewarded instead with passive-aggressive egomania, a love story whose target audience I imagine composed solely of now and future cat ladies (perky doormat Amber included) and dog dudes.

(Unrated, Universal Pictures, 91 mins., U.S. theatrical release date: August 9, 1947)

You want old fashioned? Go right to the source. 'I Know Where I'm Going!' is every pound and pence the charmer Swartzwelder's spew isn't. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger rapturously weave folkloric imagery and local color in a wartime tonic that still plays on the heartstrings 70 years later. Having demonstrated forward motion ever since infancy, Joan Webster (Dame Wendy Hiller) takes the next leap by marrying into wealth. This means trekking out to Kiloran, an island on the Scottish Hebrides, to wed Lord Bellinger, thereby getting hitched to his Consolidated Chemical Industries in the process (a notion made even more hilarious in dreamtime). An impenetrable fog and furious gale winds sidetrack Ms. Webster from boarding the last boat to her destination, so she is stuck on the Isle of Mull in the raffish company of naval administrator and Kiloran laird Torquil MacNeil (Roger "Colonel Blimp" Livesey).

A bond develops between Webster and MacNeil as they gaze out from across-the-way windowsills, take separate places at lunch tables and eavesdrop on a Ceilidh, a Gaelic wedding anniversary jamboree. The Archers (Powell & Pressburger) are more enraptured with the scenery and its well-drawn inhabitants than setting an agenda or spelling out the unlikely union until where it counts, in a surprise finale where a curse on MacNeil's family is confronted head-on by the wary laird. Along the way are such "magical realist" touches as the phone booth nearby a crashing waterfall, the fantastical use of model trains navigating the Tartan hills to bridge Webster's journey and, most awesomely, a treacherous whirlpool nicknamed Corryvreckan.

Hiller and Livesey, both invaluable, flesh out their roles to match Erwin Hiller's singularly evocative cinematography (locations scouted by Powell himself), with Webster less of a grating stock socialite and more a wayward dreamer who can count beams on the ceiling to achieve her prayers but could stand to count her blessings. MacNeil is princely in all the right ways, too, discerning the difference between being poor and having no money. The Archers also show impeccability in casting such secondary players as Pamela Brown (as Catriona Potts, a lonely bride who shepherds goats and skins rabbits with ease), C.W.R. Knight (as Col. Barnstaple, a proud falconer who names his prize eagle after MacNeil) and George Carney as Joan's father/banker, who is about the same age as Lord Bellinger (heard briefly in the voice of Norman Shelley). There's even a wee Petula Clark as a studious girl who reflects Webster's headstrong qualities.

'I Know Where I'm Going!' got lost in the shuffle among the Archers' more ambitious productions (even Scorsese didn't get around to it until he was in the midst of Raging Bull), but it tames the wild appetite for intelligent, tactful and wistful romance in a way most of today's Hollywood pictures as well as their opportunistic faith-based indie ilk cannot. Take the highland over the low, and you'll get to paradise before thee.