Thursday, August 31, 2017

My Favorite Year

(PG, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 92 mins., theatrical release date: October 8, 1982)

Alan Swann, the swashbuckling screen icon making a guest appearance on the Comedy Cavalcade, live on NBC every Saturday evening at 8:00, is a graceful disgrace. Having combated jet lag in his own debauched manner, Swann bursts into the writing staff's office as they screen the climactic duel from his signature vehicle, "Defender of the Crown." "Good God, it's Renfield!" Swann notices with sloshed alarm. "I thought he was dead." Reliving his victory from the movie superimposed over him, it's clear that the combating images don't match. One is at the height of his heroic glory, the other is relying on his rapier wit instead. The embarrassed head writer screams "[Swann's] plastered!" Swann counters: "So are some the finest erections in Europe." He fails the physical challenge part of his sobriety test just as regally. The only employee not prepared to dump Swann is his biggest fan, freshman writer Benjy Stone, and thus he lands the responsibility of being Swann's caretaker until show time.

Cementing the comeback he began with The Stunt Man, Peter O'Toole received a well-deserved seventh Oscar nomination as Swann in My Favorite Year, the third of the '50s-themed comedies I've covered on this blog. Whereas Diner was the most poignant and Porky's paraded the lowbrow populism, Richard Benjamin's debut has the highest ratio of side-splitting comedic performances and set pieces among these period capers. Much like fellow actor-turned-director Rob Reiner, Benjamin takes this opportunity behind the camera to truly showcase those he places in front. So alongside O'Toole as the lanky British legend, Benjamin corralled another promising newcomer in the lead role of Benjy and surrounds both Mark Linn-Baker and Peter O'Toole with a slew of top-notch cut-ups.

Linn-Baker (Noises Off, Perfect Strangers) as Benjy Stone (re-)acquaints us to the world of 1954, but more importantly mediates the warring egos to whom he's subservient. There's enough hustle and bustle where he works to make up for the Manhattan traffic. Chief writer Sy Benson (Bill Macy) tells Benjy his sketches are awful when he's not deriding Swann's oeuvre as "crap." Lording over both Benjy and Sy is the host of the Comedy Cavalcade, himself, Stan "King" Kaiser (Joseph Bologna), and he's not particularly fond of Sy's contributions. Despite his show business milieu, Kaiser's personality isn't too far removed from his recurring character of mobster Boss Hijack. When he goes too far in belittling his staff, Kaiser slips his assistant producer K.C. Downing (Jessica Harper) some greenbacks for a set of whitewall tires or a pair of used, ill-fitting shoes as compensation. Kaiser is such a seasoned wise guy on the set that he's well-prepared to insult the object of Hijack's weekly ridicule, labor leader Karl "Boss" Rojeck (Cameron Mitchell), in person.

King Kaiser's mocking refusal to cater to Rojeck's cease-and-desist brings its own bad juju outside of Alan Swann's reckless behavior. That Swann manages not to make a scene at the Stork Club once again ("It's been a year and a half. Surely, they've repaired the wall of the bandstand by now") is immediately undone by the lascivious spree immortalized on the next morning's front page. Even after Benjy treats Swann to dinner with his Jewish family (and prizefighting Filipino stepfather), the night ends with a fruitless scheme to generate passion between Benjy and K.C. (it's the rooftop scene from Die Hard predated as old-timey comic catastrophe). As they walk home, the two solidify their mutual bond by relating the identities they sacrificed in the name of entertainment. It would be valiant for Swann to try and reconcile his deepest shame(s) on any other day but Saturday, as he's leaving Benjy and the show hanging by the frailest thread. Can Swann (and Kaiser) pull it together or will 1954 be the year they pioneered the rerun?

Richard Benjamin, who won a Golden Globe as supporting actor in The Sunshine Boys and kept a solid profile in the 1970s in movies such as Catch-22, Westworld and Portnoy's Complaint, made an incredible transition in 1982. He went from playing the father in the unheralded horror-comedy Saturday the 14th to captaining what Premiere placed as #37 in their 2006 list of the 50 Greatest Comedies of All-Time, the only film released in 1982 to do so (Tootsie, Diner and Fast Times at Ridgemont High all made the AFI survey denied Benjamin). Not only that, My Favorite Year was ranked above This Is Spinal Tap and A Fish Called Wanda in Premiere's article.

Though it avoided the fallacy of heightened expectations since I watched it without context, My Favorite Year does not unseat either Spinal Tap or Wanda in my opinion. It's too wistfully old-fashioned to compete with the fresher material Reiner and Crichton realized so uproariously. But in an era where Bringing Up Baby could be plagiarized to suit a faulty pop icon or a Parker Brothers board game begat a low-hanging Murder by Death, My Favorite Year is effortlessly snappy and quite intelligent in its many varieties of humor. Benji's self-deprecating if steely persistence in winning a date with K.C. ("Sanctuary, my ass!") drives him to propose a live-in relationship in the ladies' room; when Swann follows unawares, wardrobe lady Lil (Selma Diamond) gets more than she bargained for in her objection to the aging cad. There is a framed photo of Kaiser with darts embedded it in, something his writers scramble to hide when he appears for a conference call.

Writers Dennis Palumbo and Norman Steinberg have worked, respectively, in network television (Welcome Back, Kotter) and gag-oriented comedies (Blazing Saddles) prior to this. They manage to take real life personas (Errol Flynn, Sid Caesar, Neil Simon, even their producer Mel Brooks) from the Your Show of Shows era and boil them down to their most humorous essentials. Benjy Stone is a quick-witted egghead who sees the world divided between those who are funny and those who aren't, but without the neurotic irritability of his more forceful supervisors. He does convince K.C. to join him for dinner and a movie within their 30 Rockefeller Plaza work space, and even though the dame bungles one of the easiest jokes in the world, K.C. garners a worthy laugh after they lock lips. Given his comfortably broad delivery, Mark Linn-Baker comes off like a younger, gentler Albert Brooks, especially when he says to Swann at one point, "There's the door! Come on, let's go give it a try!"

Peter O'Toole impresses across the board as the boozy, flirtatious Alan Swann. Having been reclassified as freight on the plane ride to New York City, Swann is dragged atop the luggage performing a spirited rendition of the "1812 Overture." Tied up in the latrine ("Go ahead and lash me, you swine! You'll not loosen my tongue!"), his clothes are all tear-away so as to best prepare him for a sobering bath. Having been restored to his senses, Swann's infamous return to the Stork Club delivers the playfully debonair and sometimes rueful veteran Benjy is happy to call his personal hero. Swann is wise enough to know he is still living off the perks of stardom, but with an estranged daughter in Connecticut and deep-seated doubts about his own talent, Swann's dashing, drunken allure is worthy of resuscitation. O'Toole is Dudley Moore and Sir John Gielgud rolled into one, melding stringy physical comedy and urbane one-liners with infectious freedom.

King Kaiser is a slave to his own pampered arrogance, and Joseph Bologna (R.I.P.) puts his own hilariously forceful spin on the archetype. The offhand ways in which he makes fun of Boss Rojeck during their sole confrontation, parroting his threatening manner with a cigar as well as reciprocating Roejck's remark about being in the "removal business," establish Kaiser as a worthy comedian since there are only a couple moments of his show in rehearsal. By humiliating Rojeck, Kaiser sets off a series of mishaps, from waylaid sets to falling spotlights, which render him a nervous wreck moments before the show is called to action.

Benajmin's skill with these three actors extends to the supporting cast, too. Jessica Harper (Suspiria, Pennies from Heaven) is given the most constraining role by contrast with her predominantly witty peers, but the aforementioned indoor date she has with Mark Linn-Baker warms her up considerably. Sadly, Harper's charms aren't elaborated further in the script. Given more time to make fine impressions are the team of Anne De Salvo (Arthur) and Basil Hoffman (Ordinary People) as underling writers Alice and Herb, the latter a silent clown who whispers his bon mots into the ear of the former; Adolph "Moses Supposes His Toeses Are Roses" Green as producer Leo Silver, whose full head of gray hair is the result of handling the temperamental Kaiser; Tony DiBenedetto (Prince of the City) as "Signor" Alfie Bumbacelli, Swann's loyal chauffeur; and the invaluable Lainie Kazan as Belle May Steinberg Carroca, Benjy's perfectly embarrassing Jewish mother out in Brooklyn. Ramon Sison is splendid as Rookie, the domesticated ex-boxer Belle married, now packing his punches within the recipe of his Meatloaf Mindinao.

(Other familiar faces to watch out for include Lou Jacobi as Uncle Morty, George Wyner as Boss Rojeck's lawyer Myron Fein, Titanic's Gloria Stuart having a dance with Peter O'Toole, Repo Man's lobotomized scientist Fox Harris, and Corrine Bohrer of Vice Versa as a stewardess Swann romances early on.)

Rather than conjure Rob Reiner or Robert Altman, My Favorite Year is the kind of movie I wanted Soapdish or For Your Consideration to measure up to (a wortheir heir, unsurprisingly, is NBC-TV's own 30 Rock). Sophisticated in its structure and not without ample heart or humor, this is more a tribute to the jubilant anarchy which goes into developing live comedic television than 1954 in particular. The focus is as sharp as the ensemble who makes these flustered go-getters look genuine. My Favorite Year did not rake in the boffo gross upon its release nor has it gone viral in the modern world 25 years since then. But what Richard Benjamin did achieve is storied in its own right: a finely-crafted showbiz farce with one of the single funniest performances of the 1980s from the eternal Lawrence of Arabia.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Homeward Bound 2: Lost In San Francisco + Noises Off...

(G, Walt Disney Pictures, 89 mins., theatrical release date: Mar. 8, 1996)

Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey caught me by surprise all over again when I revisited it a month ago. The film's main ingredients provoked the same stimuli the 9-year-old version of myself received back in '93, from the perils of the Pacific Northwest to the pugnacity of the voice actors. I recalled every wisecrack, every ancillary critter, every moment wood beams gave out from under the animals. And it didn't wear out its welcome, even managing to restore the lump in my throat I once had when Peter Seaver waited for his aged but persistent golden retriever companion, Shadow. Realizing that it came from the man who cut both Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart was simply one of the perks of adulthood.

Fond memories of the original aside, it seems that remaking the live-action Disney movie of 20 years' past was perhaps its biggest coup. In the same year Homeward Bound premiered, Look Who's Talking Now! and Beethoven's 2nd demonstrated just how limited the concept of unleashed pets loose in wide metropolitan spaces was, what with their unavoidable debts to earlier Disney animated masterpieces Lady and the Tramp and 101 Dalmatians. Homeward Bound 2: Lost in San Francisco has a title/concept eerily similar to that of another, more high-profile kiddie flick sequel. And while it avoids the orange elephant which floats into the room whenever anybody now brings up Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (or The Little Rascals), the misadventures this time around are the very same classic Disney staples other studios nicked back in 1993.

Shadow, Chance the braggart bulldog & the aptly-named Sassy the cat are once again on a mission to reunite with the Seaver (nee Burnford) clan, who this time try to accommodate the pets by taking them on their vacation to Canada. With the exception of Ralph Waite, who ably fills in for the departed Don Ameche, the voices of Chance (Michael J. Fox) and Sassy (Sally Field) as well the entire principal cast (Robert Hays, Kim Greist, Benji Thall, Kevin Chevalia, and Veronica Lauren) are accounted for. This time it's Chance, still afraid of the dread pound (referred to here as "the bad place"), who instigates the pets' escape from their freight cages and away from the airport, their combined twelve paws leading them to the heart of San Francisco and in pursuit of the golden bridge that will safely maneuver them back home.

Their less-than-harrowing obstacles include sparring bands of street mutts, a friendly super-pack and a diabolical if dopey duo (voices of Jon Polito and Adam Goldberg), as well as the ever present danger of dog-snatchers prowling about in a "blood-red van" collecting lab specimens. The expanding roster of fur balls includes Riley (voiced by Sinbad), a crossbred canine less dependent on humans than Shadow; Delilah (voiced by Carla Gugino), a plucky stray Kuvasz who falls in love with mongrel-for-life Chance; and Bando (voiced by Stephen Tobolowsky), a coonhound swain. There is a rousing comeuppance or two as well as a heroic detour for Shadow and Sassy in the vein of the missing Molly from the last film, this time the result of a fire started by the two creeps in the red van.

With Caroline Thompson transitioning to director (Black Beauty, Buddy), Linda Woolverton riding the wave of success from The Lion King and Duwayne Dunham crossing back over into television (his last theatrical gig being Little Giants), the creative team of the original is missed. The belabored screenplay of Homeward Bound 2 instead falls to Julie Hickson, a Tim Burton collaborator from his embryonic career at Disney and of far less renown than Ms. Thompson, and Chris Hauty, whose claim to fame is as the writer of Never Back Down. Hickson and Hauty overwork the bickering which enlivened the first film to the detriment of both the story and the stars. Sally Field, regrettably, turns positively shrewish because of the pervasively arch inner dialogue Sassy is given. That the humble Shadow has to issue more than three exasperated ultimatums is indicative of the quality of writing here: thoroughly unimaginative in developing the conflict between the domesticated heroes and the mangier supporting pooches as well as the adorable Chance/Delilah courtship.

Just as the first film surprised me upon learning of Dunham's connection with David Lynch, Homeward Bound 2 is helmed by another peculiar candidate for a family film: the late David R. Ellis. This was actually his first film after a long career as stuntman, and Ellis kept active in second unit work even while making his bones with schlock horror, including two Final Destination sequels and the pre-Sharknado sensation that was Snakes on a Plane. As much as I want to be respectful of Mr. Ellis, who deserved better than to go out on Shark Night 3-D, he is a lesser breed of filmmaker than Dunham. Sentimentality is not his strong suit, as evidenced by a feeble subplot in which Chance is realizing that baseball buff Jamie is beginning to outgrow games of fetch. The human drama is deader weight here than before. And when I think of the increased voiceover work here, I find a director who has less confidence in balancing genuine animal acting with the spoken thoughts of the animals.

Not that there aren't some tasty bits in the kibble, like when Chance observes a mass of seals and takes it as proof of what happens when dogs stay in water for too long. The way he verbalizes heartbreak, combining three nightmare scenarios, is also commendable. And there is a sublime use of three actual sports commentators, weighing in as Chance sabotages one of Jamie's games. The entire roster of voice stars do, once you get past the script (which antes up the lame Schwarzenegger puns and hydrant-level scatology), come across as lively and cordial; even Shadow gets in a nice joke fitting for an old-timer such as himself. But take away the narration and Homeward Bound 2: Lost in San Francisco will have you asking "Are we there yet?" too early and too frequently, which isn't the way for anyone to rediscover their inner child.

(PG-13, Touchstone Pictures, 101 mins., theatrical release date: Mar. 20, 1992)

Annie Potts was the initial voice of Sassy when Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey "wrapped" in 1992, before Disney secured Sally Field as a replacement. But the Ghostbusters comedienne was also one of dozens of stars to be considered for the role Glenn Close immortalized in Fatal Attraction, and she was slated to reunite with Peter Bogdanovich a year after Texasville (the Last Picture Show sequel in which Potts played Jeff Bridges' wife) for the Amblin-produced film version of Michael Frayn's Broadway smash Noises Off. Alas, Potts was replaced by Marilu Henner and I haven't been able to find any reason as to why. 'Tis a pity, since Bogdanovich gathered the greatest comic dream team this side of 1985's Clue, even trading up in talent (Michael Caine > Martin Mull) when not finding adequate matches (Colleen Camp = Nicollette Sheridan).

That Bogdanovich puts his own ensemble through the same panicked, frantic and m-m-m-m-manic paces like Jonathan Lynn did in his overpraised board game spin-off is inevitable given his film's origin. Frayn's three-part deconstruction of a British sex farce, all slamming doors and swollen misunderstandings and polite innuendos, was informed by the unruly dynamics within its troupe of dysfunctional day players. First was a twilight-hour dress rehearsal before the premiere in which the stars are already on shaky ground and the director is driven to his wit's end. Then came a matinee performance aimed at the seniors wherein all involved are at each other's throats. Finally, an ad-libbed Armageddon of an evening show rife with defective props and irrevocable shifts away from character. "On we bloodily stagger," proclaims the show's irritable guv'nor, not immune to the bedlam he's brought upon himself and his clueless cast.

In Marty Kaplan's scripted adaptation, the setting shifts from the U.K. hinterland to the American heartland, beginning and ending on the Great White Way itself. Lloyd Fellowes (Michael Caine) recollects the three doomed stagings as he anticipates the worst in NYC. His perpetually aloof charges include aging star attraction Dotty Otley (Carol Burnett), who's gambling her retirement on the show's success while playing housekeeper Mrs. Clackett; Garry Lejeune (John Ritter), who is lascivious realtor Roger Tramplemain onstage and Dotty's possessive boy toy off of it; Frederick Dallas (Christopher Reeve), in the role of tax exile Philip Brent, who is pacifistic to the point of nosebleeds but naïve enough to end up a third wheel in Garry and Dotty's tempestuous affair; Belinda Blair/Flavia Brent (Marilu Henner), who dishes the dirt and proves an ineffectual if perky peacekeeper; Brooke Ashton (Nicollette Sheridan), a shortsighted bombshell who is dating her director whilst acting the part of Roger's ripe IRS secretary lover Vicki; and Selsdon Mowbray (Denholm Elliott), a showbiz friend of Dotty's whose performance as a doddering burglar is sabotaged by his own bottomless thirst for whiskey and short-term memory.

Lloyd tries to choreograph the melee of "Nothing On" but cannot handle dueling relationships with Brooke and stage manager/scapegoat Poppy Taylor (Julie Hagerty), whereas Poppy's assistant Tim Allgood (Mark Linn-Baker) is operating on little sleep and smaller reserves of capability. These nine personalities fall prey to the spiraling jealousies and deficiencies which obliterate whatever tenuous claims of professionalism they can claim.

Michael Frayn's Tony-certified Noises Off has the kind of bulletproof comic scenarios which are precise enough to survive even the lousiest revival. As the group rehearses in Des Moines, four of the actors stall the all-important farcical flow to question their motivation in the most imbecilic of ways, from Garry's mild-mannered vagueness (one of his more coherent gripes: "Lloyd, these damn sardines!") to Frederick's immaculately-sculpted timidity to Brooke's flighty tinge of doubt just as Act 1 is nearly complete. Hell breaks loose backstage two months later in Miami Beach, with the cuckolded Garry having regressed into a vengeful trickster, the self-absorbed Lloyd making an ass of himself every opportunity and everyone trying to prevent Selsdon from drifting off in a drunken stupor. By the time they get to Cleveland, every established flaw either takes its logical toll or comes back with a vengeance, from stuck doors to hazardous props to Dotty's full-fledged mental breakdown in front of a live theatre audience.

Peter Bogdanovich brings out the giddy worst in his all-star assemblage. John Ritter (of Bogdanovich's Nickelodeon and They All Laughed) does his sharpest variation on his man-overboard routine, tumbling down stairways and baiting his co-stars with tremendous energy. Ditto an equally game Christopher Reeve, his self-effacing matinee idol bearing the brunt of the many pants-down blunders. Julie Hagerty suffers smartly and Nicollette Sheridan stumbles sexily. Denholm Elliott, who sadly passed away from AIDS in 1992, makes a great wag and Carol Burnett, in a welcome cinematic return since owning Miss Hannigan for John Huston, burlesques as peerlessly as ever. Excepting the presence of two Brits and one Britt, Burnett's over-the-top Cockney accent comes closest to comic gold amongst her Anglo co-stars; and when it drops, she has the power to take the house along with it.

All that good stuff out of the way, however, Bogdanovich's and Kaplan's translation of Noises Off comes up short not unlike the dramaturgy Frayn lampooned. That rickety framing device centering on Michael Caine is overwhelmed by the star's cuddly lecherous charisma as Lloyd, and even that cannot fully mitigate his accountability in these blazing fiascos. Frayn had the good sense to paint Lloyd as one more bullheaded diva, his screaming complacency making him worthy of sinking along with the passengers of his own Titanic. The fluffier take Caine (and to be fair, the entire cast) is saddled with leads to a self-congratulatory and unconvincing curtain call which is more fitting with the legacy of Frayn's play rather than its content. "There's nowhere to go but up" is a Broadway Melody which doesn't mesh with the chaotic rhythm, the filmic equivalent of overlaying an Ignacio Herb Brown tune over a random snatch of Metal Machine Music.

Bogdanovich's fixed camera is willing, but the spirit is weak thanks to such nagging artificialities as canned laughter and reaction shots, which doesn't expand the material for the big screen so much as kowtow to its smaller competition. Faithful to Frayn's libretto as he and Kaplan are, the theatricality endemic to the material becomes the film in rather staid ways. It doesn't set one up for the victory lap to come nor provide these fine actors with enough material to invest us when said coda intrudes. Noises Off is the funnier, more together alternative to Clue due in no small part to what worked so exquisitely the first time, and I'd rather Bogdanovich than Chris Columbus, for damn sure. But more so than the loss of Annie Potts, I mourn having to slot Noises Off into Hollywood's same "It Was a Good Idea at the Time?" file as Rent.

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."