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 CafĂ© 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.