Sunday, November 4, 2018

Bohemian Rhapsody

(PG-13, 20th Century Fox, 134 mins., theatrical release date: November 2, 2018)

"This thing called Queen
I just can't handle it
This thing called Queen
I must get around to it
I ain't ready!
Crazy little thing called Queen."
- Freddie Mercury, R.I.P.

It's 10am on a Saturday, and I figure coffee can't compare to a shot of Queen's incomparable pomp rock in seat-shaking Dolby Surround. That's not a backhanded compliment for the record: Queen are perhaps the only real combo who made bombast sound fun. An old Rolling Stone article declared Queen "the first truly fascist rock band," and those late ‘70s anthems have a jackbooted arrogance to them. But if they didn't have hooks, energy and especially Freddie Mercury, I could hold no nostalgic yearning for them. They'd slot easily into the same AOR ghetto with Journey, Styx and REO Speedwagon, all of whom pale in comparison to the Mercury-May-Deacon-Taylor music machine.

But as Bohemian Rhapsody, the band-sanctioned biopic of their rock ‘n' roll reign, concluded with an abridged recreation of the 1985 Live Aid mini-set which showed them at the height of their power, I surrendered. It's all in the tune of "Radio Ga Ga," the Roger Taylor-penned hit from 1984's The Works (it only went to #16 in the U.S.A., but was a chart-topper or a notch close to such in 14 countries). It's got the martial beat, the synths, the note-bending guitar, the shout-along chorus, the earnest lyrics mourning a format which means even less almost 25 years later. It's sounds stripped down compared to the band's flamboyant first decade, a credit to the evolution begun with the pop-minded 1980 LP The Game. And I sang along to it in the theater shamelessly, or at least the first verse and final chorus.

Then there's that titular behemoth, a song whose pop-cultural revival is the stuff of legend. There are even text graphics filling the screen which shows just how reviled Queen were in 1975, when they embraced rock and opera with the kind of kitsch abandon even Pete Townshend was too reserved for. But cut to 1992, after the death of Freddie Mercury, and a little movie called Wayne's World is released on Valentine's Day, the better to plant a big wet kiss on the kind of music which punk and metal were meant to discredit. Wayne Campbell, Garth Algar and friends singing along, banging their heads, weeping to the fatalistic coda; it was a glorious sequence which began the revitalization of Queen.

Not a lot of bands deserve such an afterglow, but Queen did. Looking back on the jewels of their discography, from "Killer Queen" to "You're My Best Friend," "Somebody to Love" to "Bicycle Race," "Another One Bites the Dust" to "Radio Ga Ga," Queen were the misfit band they proclaimed themselves to be in Bohemian Rhapsody. When they were on, they were the champions of the world. This adrenaline rush was just what I needed first thing in the morning. "Hot dog?" I say "Cool it, man." Let's just surrender to the many glories of Queen without question.

Bohemian Rhapsody should be the essence of Queen. We're not dealing with a hot-tempered soul innovator like James Brown or an insular, troubled pop genius like Brian Wilson. Queen were comparably modest even if they didn't sound like it. They would and did rock you, and their legacy presents an interesting dichotomy. Queen are the stadium band to end them all yet a campy pleasure who scored the 1980 Flash Gordon movie. Freddie Mercury is a homosexual icon and showman supreme, but was introverted and soulful enough to counter any stigma. Brian May, John Deacon and Roger Taylor (here played by Gwilym Lee, Joseph Mazzello and Ben Hardy, for the record) were all undeniably talented as songwriters and musicians. I wanted a whole movie to reinforce the very reaction I get upon hearing that compact version of "Radio Ga Ga" from their Wembley barnstormer, a moment to rival U2's equally compelling extended version of "Bad."

Alas, the widely-reported controversies behind the eight-year production and the simple appeal of Queen have clashed together to result in a film that is a rock biopic pile-up. It isn't exactly "Death on Two Legs," but better to serve it with the title "Hammer to Fall." Bohemian Rhapsody contrives a series of blunt melodramatic clichés which left me numbed by the time Live Aid is shoehorned into a third-act redemption arc. There I was turning as skeptical as Queen's past critics. This isn't merely a group of British pros putting on a great show for the ages in support of a worthy cause. It's a broken family coming together for the first time "in years." It's a wayward frontman learning humility, mending tattered relationships and coming to grips with AIDS. It's the most important charity guest appearance ever, with telethon lines ringing off the hook and funds raised into the stratosphere. It's no longer amusingly pompous but wretchedly hagiographic.

It didn't have to be like this. Spearheaded by Rami Malek's laudable approximation of Freddie Mercury's strutting, saucy charms, Bohemian Rhapsody is not lacking in charisma. Whether working up a paying crowd or a crowding player (look beyond the Gerry Rafferty makeup of one impresario for a flash, ah-ah, of stunt casting), Malek is dashing and daunting when duty calls. This is the first half of the movie, when the band is on the rise (there is a joyful depiction of their first studio sessions) and shacked up in a muddy, creaky country house to record A Night at the Opera. I could overlook the fact that during their preceding Sheer Heart Attack era, the movie version of Queen is blasting through "Fat Bottomed Girls," which wasn't released until 1978's Jazz (no "Stone Cold Crazy," which Metallica so awesomely covered, or "Brighton Rock?").

But then the movie progresses, fudging chronology and fabricating pitfalls with such superficial aggression that I was constantly demanding "Don't bore us, get to the chorus." It's London 1980, and Queen are now working on "We Will Rock You." Memo to screenwriter Anthony McCarten: "News of the World, motherfucker!" I would also assume the band members know the name of a certain single/live staple from that ‘77 album to be "Spread Your Wings." And why do we need hackneyed "Freddie goes solo" tension (which leads to the overstated Live Aid gig) when we could have Queen in 1977, taking one look at the punk landscape which was gobbing in their general direction and laying down the raucous "Sheer Heart Attack?"

Get On Up and Love & Mercy both had more respect for context than McCarten and directors Bryan Singer & Dexter Fletcher (not to mention consultants Brian May & Roger Taylor). They are like revelatory deep cuts next to Bohemian Rhapsody's exhausted hit parade. I came out of Get On Up genuinely sparked by the towering ambition of James Brown as well as the full extent of his brutishness, against bandmates, lovers and perfect strangers. Love & Mercy was rich with empathy for the frazzled soul of Brian Wilson, who heard searing symphonies and pained reveries in his head until he was drugged into possible oblivion. Everything about Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody, especially his sexual orientation, is a hedged bet, a concession to formula which negates the declared intent of Queen's music.

Forgive me if I sound like I'm angling for a think piece, but the stodgy construction of this really does stink of the hetero-genous. I'm not asking to see what Sacha Baron Cohen or Stephen Frears originally had in mind. But as an adult, I would care for a depiction of Freddie Mercury that doesn't make his homosexuality look like a sheepish trip down the proverbial rabbit hole guided by a wasted Allen Leech as duplicitous manager Paul Prenter, tinted in infernal clubland reds and subject to migraine-inducing funhouse mirror-lenses when Mercury is grilled about his private life in a press conference. Never mind the way Mercury's real life soul mate Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) and his bandmates are trotted out as reactionary figures, as well as the sexless bond he has with Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), another important friend of Freddie reduced to an agent of salvation. I think Freddie Mercury is more than worthy of wrenching pathos, an unfortunate casualty of a wasting disease which during the 1980s was seen largely as Biblical retribution by assorted religious fanatics and politicians. But damn are these filmmakers pushing for the retrograde; Bryan Singer showed more solidarity towards gays in his inaugural X-Men entries.

The performers are willing, but the flesh is decayed. Lucy Boynton, the love interest of John Carney's transcendent Sing Street, is as worthy of better material as Malek. Imagine a film which delved deeper into the intimacy between Freddie and Mary, the kind which inspired Freddie to treat her as his top confidante and inheritor in his will. Here, she is reduced to a fling, forcing Freddie into an emotional void he immediately fills with decadence and pageantry. All of the relationships, including the former Farrokh Bulsara's defiant connection to his Parsi parents (Ace Bhatti, Meneka Das), have this half-formed (or less) quality to them. Freddie was so much more larger-than-life in actuality, but you'll never know from the way the disco thump of "Another One Bites the Dust" juxtaposes a fateful walk through a leather bar. Didn't John Deacon write that song out of appreciation for Chic's "Good Times?" I heard no Nile Rodgers (Rick James, instead, another anachronistic credit to the film's millennial wankery), but I did get a "THIS IS DISCO!" fit to lead me into another false-improvisatory recording session. Did Steve Dahl ghostwrite this?

Let's be clear: Bohemian Rhapsody is geared towards the more middlebrow section of Queen's fandom, people who titter at a meta joke involving Wayne's World but do not feel a tinge of regret that director Penelope "The Decline of Western Civilization" Spheeris herself didn't contribute a eulogy which would've closed with greater power than the predictable trope we do get. Having mentioned Spheeris and Stephen (My Beautiful Laundrette, High Fidelity) Frears does no favors to Singer and Fletcher; with the latter connected to an Elton John biopic, whose teaser trailer graced Bohemian Rhapsody, look forward to more edgeless plug-and-play rock star dramatizations (please don‘t let me down, Lee Hall).

And Bohemian Rhapsody is strictly plug-and-play, to inexplicably reference "Weird Al" Yankovic (remember his "Bohemian Polka?"). Montages soak up whatever potential resonance there is to be gained from watching a baggage handler born in Zanzibar realize the highs and lows of stardom, and they just keep absorbing and absorbing until the film is as dry as the Atacama. Each musical moment proves an oasis, but they seem scattered because of the way Live Aid bookends the film. And these moments make up the bulk of the offending montages; every workhorse of a song is handled unimaginatively, their accompanying geneses too cute for their own good.

The more I think about it, the less I consider this even a "biopic," since it's too unreliable to have the quotes removed. What you ultimately get with Bohemian Rhapsody is a breakout performance from Rami (Mr. Robot) Malek that wants badly to be of Oscar caliber (Paul Dano and Chadwick Boseman, we hardly knew ye) and as disposable a reminder of Queen's popularity as Hollywood could muster. I don't anticipate what'll happen to, say, Judas Priest when the wind blows their way (save a prayer for Rob Halford). I should've cried those intended tears of joy as they wrapped up at Live Aid but wound up as sad as Garth Algar upon the immortal last words of "Bohemian Rhapsody" itself. Nothing really matters to me.*

*Except the songs, of course. But I can sing along with "Don't Stop Me Now" or "Play the Game" for free.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Tales from the Hood 2

(R, Universal Pictures, 111 mins., video release date: October 2, 2018)

From William Gaines to Rod Serling, Tales from the Crypt to Creepshow, the progenitors of pulp horror and their many captive followers made good mined their macabre from simple morality. The twists in the stories are comeuppances for particularly unpleasant people who act in the most damning form of self-interest, be it adultery or greed or murderous envy. You could relish these karmic punishments and hopefully absorb the black-and-white means of supernatural justice as another credit to the Golden Rule, valuing your humanity when measured against others‘ inhumanity.

After the success of Creepshow, the anthology format which best accommodates fright fables looked more and more like purgatory. Whereas Twilight Zone: The Movie allowed name directors to remake direct episodes of the classic TV series, offerings like Creepshow 2 and Tales from the Darkside: The Movie re-trod worn concepts of Crime & Punishment, Sex Equals Death, Vanity Kills, and Vengeance from Beyond the Grave. HBO's prime-time revival of Tales from the Crypt warded off the stagnation with hip, hot talent in front of and behind the camera, but refreshingly decided to go with one feature-length story in its theatrical incarnations rather than hack out another omnibus film.

1995's Tales from the Hood offered fresh inspiration from what would appear to be an unlikely source, executive producer Spike "40 Acres and a Mule" Lee. It was Lee's cinematographer Ernest Dickerson who got the job of directing the Tales from the Crypt movie, Demon Knight, having already lent incredible style to James Bond III's urban vampire flick Def by Temptation. And here was Lee himself financing a major motion picture for two more rising African-American talents, Rusty Cundieff and Darin Scott. The latter came up as a producer not just for the former's 1993 debut, the delirious hip-hop industry lampoon Fear of a Black Hat, but also Stepfather II and another anthology film, 1987's The Offspring (a.k.a. From a Whisper to a Scream) (which he also co-wrote), thus ensuring Scott minor horror cred at the onset. Indeed, Tales from the Hood originally began life as The Black Horror Show, a stage play Cundieff had written and premiered before Fear of a Black Hat.

What made Tales from the Hood so unique was the way Cundieff & Scott took that black-and-white system of morality so common to schlock horror and interpreted it more literally. The four vignettes were driven by anxieties common to the African-American community, be it police brutality, broken homes, the re-ascension of Jim Crow-era bigotry, and senseless gang violence. When plugged into the camp-friendly anthology format, there was a charge not unlike the ones elicited by countless blaxploitation flicks in the 1970s. The revenge stories were even more cathartic, the familiar tropes of monsters in the closet and behavioral modification regimes given a rawer polish. And tying them all together was Mr. Simms, played with live-wire hamminess by Clarence Williams III as a seemingly benign undertaker who got his own against the thugs raiding his funeral home looking for the product.

23 years later, Cundieff & Scott have rewarded their cult with a DTV sequel to their transgressive crypt-keeper of a black comedy. Tales from the Hood 2 couldn't have come at a more necessary time, as white nationalism has irrevocably tainted national politics and a new slew of social ills have arose to warrant subversion. This time, Diomedes Simms (the great Keith David) has been invited to relay his latest cautionary stories to the Robo-Patriot, the MAGA-friendly pet project of one Dumass Beach (Bill Martin Williams, who resembles white-haired John P. Ryan). Again, Cundieff & Scott are drawing upon our knowledge of pop culture; if you've ever seen Short Circuit and/or RoboCop, you can smell the punchline from the moment you hear the name "Dumass Beach." And Mr. Simms knows it's coming, too, which is why Keith David plays the Clarence Williams role with less feigned helplessness and more of a sardonic puckishness in his toothy smile. He anticipates the damnation of Beach and his lackeys, who bullhorn their soulless, complacent antipathy to the black community.

The Robo-Patriot has been designed with less A.I. and more R.I., or "real intelligence," so that Mr. Simms' stories can be programmed as a means to make a more logical form of profiling. And sure enough, Simms' latest quartet of anecdotes carry a particularly righteous bite. The first story, "Good Golly," involves Black Lives Matter, or at least one particular black life which mattered, as Simms puts it. That would be Floyd (Lou Beatty Jr.), owner of an out-of-nowhere "Museum of Negrosity" which curates all manner of grossly caricatured trinkets, designed to normalize minstrel-minded prejudice, and antique reminders of enslavement. The brutal truth of these racist children's products is lost upon white Audrey (Alexandria Deberry) and black Zoe (Jasmine Akakpo), especially when the former covets a golliwog doll similar to one she had as a child. Floyd turns her down, so the girls break in after hours to steal it, with outrageous repercussions.

Whereas Rusty Cundieff directs the wraparound Simms scenes as well as the first and fourth stories, the middle belongs to Darin Scott. "Medium" involves another trio of gangstas, Brian (Martin Bradford), Gore (Chad Chambers) and Booze (Kedrick Brown), beating down Cliff Bettis (Creighton Thomas), an ex-pimp turned community pillar, in order to extort $5,000,000 of charity cash. Cliff trash-talks Booze to the point where he delivers a fatal blow which costs them the information of where that bounty is hid. Gore convinces his partners in crime to invade the home of quack psychic John Lloyd (Bryan Batt) so that he can conjure Cliff's spirit and finish the interrogation. Fat chance, homeboys.

"Date Night" is the shortest of the four stories and goes out to the ladies. In it, another interracial pair of buddies, Kahad (Greg Davis) and Ty (Alex Biglane), are out on the make. They arrive at the house of internet hookups Carmen (Alexandria Ponce) and Liz (Cat Limket) and promptly drug them for some non-consensual fun. But after they set up the video camera, it becomes clear that the tables are about to turn.

The last story, Cundieff's "The Sacrifice," is the one which does the most justice to the playfully didactic appeal of the original Tales from the Hood. Whereas "Good Golly" featured an in-joke for those who recall the Corbin Bernsen episode from the first Tales, "The Sacrifice" is a thematic successor to both "KKK Comeuppance" and the "Rogue Cop Revelation" segment, complete with a reprise of "Strange Fruit" on the soundtrack. This once again involves a black man turning a blind eye to injustice in the name of careerism, this time the traitor is Henry Bradley (Kendrick Cross), a born-again Republican who is hosting a gubernatorial fundraiser for Mayor William Cotton (Cotton Yancey). At first, the supernatural backlash threatens the life of his wife Emily's (Jillian Batherson) unborn child, who is shrinking in the womb, but it eventually falls on Henry to communicate with the ghost of none other than Emmett Till (Christopher Paul Horne) and confess to making a noble sacrifice once his wife, their family doctor (David Dahlgren) and Mayor Cotton suddenly turn on him with as much nastiness as Till's redneck torturers.

Cundieff approaches the compelling slideshow of lynch mob violence from "Hardcore Convert" (in which Lamont Bentley's Crazy K was subjected to a Ludovico-style wake-up call) in the way "The Sacrifice" cuts between the unflinching brutality of Emmett Till's assault and Mayor Cotton's justification of closing down ten voting booths, which involves more of that "black people are lazy" dogma which has become a disgusting talking point for right-wing mouthpieces. Cotton himself, with his white mustache and Kentucky Fried tuxedo, looks explicitly like an old-school plantation owner (his Trump-style pledge is to "take Mississippi back"). This is what Henry has compromised his principles for, and rather than revel in his cruel twist of fate, I was genuinely invested in him "respecting [the civil rights martyrs'] sacrifices." No wonder Rod Serling himself is listed in the "special thanks" credits; "The Sacrifice" sincerely aspires to the classic Twilight Zone, and is certainly more poignant and pointed than John Landis' ill-fated contribution to that 1983 feature spin-off.

"Good Golly" is also urgent in the way it demands black people (and us bleeding-heart whiteys) understand their history. Floyd is painfully aware of the point where whips and chains gave way to ink and paper as tools of oppression; he even name checks Marshall McLuhan's "the medium is the message" to drive the point home. The salt-and-pepper BFFs who stumble upon his museum are as vapid as "Ebony & Ivory," and black best friend Zoe even straddles a whipping post in a show of mindless hedonism. In the time it has taken for Tales from the Hood 2 to materialize, Cundieff & Scott have sharpened their own pens in response to all the latest hypocrisies and identity crises. The bro douche predators of "Date Night" are all-American monsters, whom Dumass Beach pardons all too casually ("Hormones! Boys will be boys") because of the more xenophobic fear of rapists from the other side of the border. Even Beach's female assistant, Kelly (Alicia Davis Johnson), raises no objection to her boss's virulently sexist behavior.

Interestingly enough, the characters in the wraparound sketch are listed differently in the credits compared to how they address each other in the dialogue. Kelly becomes "PollyAnnas Hockenbull," lab dork Grant (Jay Huguley) is "Fitch Measpine" and even Mr. Simms, who is introduced as "Diomedes Simms" by Kelly is "Portifoy Simms," and it is never clear what relation he is to the Mr. Simms to the first film, especially since Keith David lacks Clarence Williams' Don King ‘fro and distinctive gap-teeth. The only real thing Williams and David have in common is the way they relish the vague, scatological description of their respective MacGuffins.

Tales from the Hood 2 can't help but come across as more low-rent than its predecessor, and even muddled in its morality. Take "Medium," in which a former hustler has an "e-pimp-phany" and has decided to become a more respectable entrepreneur and even has plans to financially aid inner-city children. He dies sassily, but believing in a better world. I guess it's meant to be subversive when Cliff, having already taken control of the psychic's body and having murdered his three tormentors, assumes his fraudulent host's place on the infomercial stage. I found it a cop out, and out-of-synch with the poetic justice of the other stories' conclusions. It betrays the influence of Darin Scott, who since Tales from the Hood has frittered his directorial talent on a second wave of pedestrian horror fare (Deep Blue Sea 2, Dark House, the late Brittany Murphy vehicle Something Wicked).

Both Scott's "Medium" and "Date Night" could've benefited more from tighter pacing. I was far too antsy waiting for the threads involving the gangstas and the huckster to mesh, and any time horror movie characters engage in a prolonged parlor game (in the case of "Date Night," Cards Against Humanity), I instinctively hit the fast-forward button. On the plus side: Bryan Batt's performance as the phony spirit guide steamrollers over the tired satire (I was reminded of the obscure 1987 film Salvation!, which starred Stephen McHattie as a televangelist in danger and was scored by New Order), and "Medium" has an uproarious scene where Batt's John Lloyd evokes the many victims of the gangsters' previous power plays.

However, it's Rusty Cundieff's long-overdue return to the feature format which deserves to be praised. Fear of a Black Hat, a movie which begs to be reissued on Blu-Ray, was released a little too close to the Chris Rock vehicle CB4 to find a deserving audience, but Cundieff has been working steadily in TV for a long time now while staying true to his satirical instincts. He's served as a writer for Dave Chappelle, Wanda Sykes, David Alan Grier (who you might remember from his against-type performance in the first Tales from the Hood) and the Human Giant troupe. He could have been the proto-Jordan Peele, and both Cundieff and Scott are as literate and respectful of the horror form as the Oscar-winning writer of Get Out. Both "Good Golly" and "The Sacrifice" have been crafted with a similar edge, even if they pale next to Peele's breakout debut due to their lack of subtlety ("Dumass Beach," y'all).

I'm willing to forgive Cundieff, though. It's been more than two decades now, and we are constantly getting punched in the face repeatedly with the gross negligence and childish, regressive hostility of the current reality-show president. If Tales from the Hood 2 says what it needs to say a little too bluntly, I can safely say I've heard worse delivered just as on the nose. Welcome back to hell!

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

A Little Sex + Casual Sex?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then Robert rolls the Dice.

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 5, 2018

Parenthood + The Rocketeer + Moving Violations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Ice Cream Man + Disconnected

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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