Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Working Girl (1988)


If you were to look up the word “throwback” in the Funk & Wagnall’s, you probably find Working Girl, a throwback to the classic era of Hollywood filmmaking, where clever, well-crafted scripts were buoyed by a healthy dose of star power. No grandiose messages or in-you-face polemics, either; just a fine old time at the movies – bring the whole family!

It must’ve taken some moxie, too, for Fox to release it for the 1988 holiday season, putting it up against films that dealt with, among other things, autism, 1960s racism in the South, a shock-jock’s murder, and an estranged marriage after the death of a son. But Fox had the last laugh when the ostensibly lightweight Girl scored several Oscar noms, including Best Picture and Actress, and went on the gross 80 million dollars.

But when you think about it, perhaps it ain’t so lightweight. Sure it’s essentially How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, except now our upwardly mobile protagonist is class-challenged but ambitious secretary from Staten Island, Tess (Melanie Griffith). But in transplanting a familiar archetype from the 50s to the 80s, it also addresses some of the changes that characterize the 80s. Tess is not just right time/right place go-getter, she’s also a metaphor for contemporary women the workplace. By impersonating her boss, Katherine (Sigourney Weaver), and handling a corporate acquisition under a false identity, she essentially states that just because a few women now old power positions, things are still just as hard for women who start at the bottom.

And there are a few twists along the way. Tess’s boss is also a woman, allowing the former to learn a few tricks of the trade, like how to balance femininity with power, and even how to use feminine wiles to achieve that power. Laid up from a skiing accident, Katherine sets the whole thing in motion, by stealing Tess’s idea for orchestrating a corporation’s purchase of a radio network, when it really wants to get into television. She partners with a executive named Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford), and together they pitch their idea to Trask Enterprises. All the while, Tess’s business acumen impresses Jack to the point that not only is he thoroughly convinced that she’s a seasoned businesswoman, but he falls in love with her. All this as Tess is in the process of leaving her loser boyfriend. Their only obstacle: Katherine, who turns out to be Jack’s flame (or ex-flame, according to him), and now threatens to blow the lid on Tess’s true identity. But all’s well that ends well – true love conquers all as Jack stands by his woman, even if she is a recepionist. Or, ex-receptionist; Trask likes her so much they hire her in an executive position. Kiss those Staten Island Ferry-riding days goodbye, Tess!

This was the first screenplay by Kevin Wade, and it’s a marvelous first outing by any writer. The jokes aren’t too broad, the business dialogue not too dry, and it keeps things moving lively along by cutting back and forth through all aspects of Tess’s life: her business dealings, her romance, her blue-collar life on SI. And director Mike Nichol’s maintains a sensible direction that’s all about character. He stays on his actors’ faces during those emotional moments just long enough. He’s got a nice touch that balances both the grit and the gloss. Of course, we’re talking about one of the great lensers of the 6s and 70s, so the man knows what he’s doing.

And most importantly, he knows what to do with Melanie Griffith, something so many others have been clueless about. Griffith is pitch perfect here – the role she was born to play. She achieves great balance too – channeling the vulnerable, childlike qualities of Marilyn Monroe while also somehow conveying the sense that she’s a very smart woman. I mean, some of those business lines, thick with info and numbers, are a pretty hard sell for anyone, let alone a bubbly blonde. But Griffith makes it work, and even if she doesn’t, the movie’s tone – a “wink-wink” fairy tale – pushes it smoothly along. Like I said, it’s all about tone.

Since Girl came out, nearly 30 years ago, it’s become the 80s film about women in the corporate business world, complete with Big Hair and IBM computers. It was a wake-up cal to America about the realities of the glass ceiling and, sadly, I fear little has changed. They could probably remake this with smart phones and twitter and it would still seem fresh and relevant. But it would also seem fresh because it’s a damn fine story, with a credible romance even if its core storyline fees a bit less than credible. Some things never go out of style.

Oh, and extra props for Carly Simon’s marvelous theme song, “Let the River Run,” which also provides the film’s score. Just jazzes the whole thing up nicely.

Go see it.

Rating:  ****

Friday, July 7, 2017

Die Hard (1988)


The 80s, of course, was the decade for the action/adventure film, but by 1987 it was in need of a major overhaul. The genre’s two top stars, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, were having mixed success by then: Stallone had just hit rock bottom with his arm-wrestling saga, Over the Top, and Arnold’s films, while still profitable, didn’t exactly requite a degree in quantum physics to follow.

Enter producer Joel Silver. Following the lead of pals Don Simpson and Jerry Brickheimer (Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop I and II), he gave audiences Lethal Weapon. A reinvention of the buddy-cop drama, it was slickly produced, sure, and loaded with extreme action and violence, but yet it was expertly directed (Richard Donner) intelligently written, and featured villains that you wanted dead. It was just the shot in the arm the genre needed.

The following year, Silver gave us Die Hard, and his time we have one cop, a NY cop to be precise, visiting his estranged wife in LA. When her building is taken over by international terrorists, it turns out he’s the only guy that can stop them, and thusly, a subgenre is born. That premise of the unlikely hero – the guy in the wrong place at the wrong time – would spawn countless imitators, some good, some bad, and refuel the thrill-a-minute action flick for a god ten years or so.

Die Hard was a surprise hit. Dumped in August of 1988, no one expected fireworks. But I think it was such a wild success not simply because it was well-made but also because it filled a void in our appetite for action and suspense. Throughout the 70s, producer Irwin Allen made a cinematic name for himself with the Disaster Film, a new genre that touched the collective nerve of a populace skittish about a world changing too fast – supersonic jets, ocean liners, skyscrapers. Those fears never really went away; in fact they intensified in the 80s with the advent of faster planes, taller towers, and now a new threat: global terrorism. Die Hard exploited all these fears, and then some. And it gave us a new everyman hero for the changing times – Brice Willis – sort of the Steve McQueen for the MTV generation.

And he has a backstory. McClain’s in LA to see his wife, Holly, but he resents her leaving the marriage to take a corporate job on the East Coast. As he visits her office building, a towering skyscraper and home of the Nakatomi corporation, her company, it’s not long before trouble arrives – in the form of Hans Gruber and his 12 cohorts, a group of heavy automatic weapon toting-terrorists. They seize all attendants of the Christmas party as hostages, but McClane manages to elude them, and for the duration of the film he becomes the fly in the ointment of their plot: to steal the 640 million dollars in the company vault, using the brainpower of a tech wizard and the detonators and explosives they bought along. Only problem: McClain now has them, and all their efforts to get them back come to no avail. Oh, sure, the outside world steps in – LAPD, FBI, SWAT – but they’re no help; in fact they make things worse. Only a police sergeant on his radio seems to be of any assistance, right down to the end, when McClain pops off the baddies one by ne until he reaches, Gruben, whom he sends to his falling death after the half the skyscraper is a mess of rubble and ashes.

I think my salient reaction after seeing this now us the same as it was when  first caught its original theatrical release nearly 30 years ago: how in the world did they make this? It’s a reaction I usually after seeing the more accomplished action flicks of someone like James Cameron, and, to a lesser extent, Jan DeBont, Renny Harlin and Andrew Davis. It’s two hours of pure adrenalin, gripping from beginning to end, with hardly a moment for the viewer to question any of the inconsistencies or implausabilities (and there are several). At he end, you’re breathing a sigh of relief, wonder what the hell just happened, and giddy that you can be so manipulated by he magic of the movies.

But directors like the one I mentioned, and the one who lensed Die Hard, John McTiernan, make it look easy. There’s clearly a lot of craftsmanship going on here, and a few key elements that are part of the equation. The first lies in he villains. Hans Gruber, along with associates, are some bad motherf**kers, but their equally as brilliant. The film spends the first 20 minutes or so showing us how insanely unstoppable they are. They’re a well-oiled machine, and Gruber never misses a beat in showing us how charming he is. So charming in fact, that we don’t much question his motives. He’s a West German (despite his British accent), so he’s not a communist, essentially after money but also seeking the release of political detainees from around the world, and opposed to Nakatomi’s imperialist profiteering. All this is for naught anyway, it seems, for Gruber just admits to his terrorist front as a smokescreen for the robbery (he plans to fake his own death in a rooftop explosion, which would kill all the hostages). Huh?

But we’re not going in to Die Hard for its politics, muddy as they may be. We want to see the protagonist kick some Euro ass, and that brings me to the next element: the audience’s identification with the hero. McClain isn’t some haighfallutin secret agent, nor is he a monolithic muscleman. He’s a regular Joe, with snappy one-liners and an abundance of street profanity to underscore the point. And the screenplay affords him some heart and soul, too – a few scenes, including his tearful “I’m sorry” letter to his wife lest he perish in the fray. Producer Silver knows this is key to a likeable hero; he did the same thing with his leads in Lethal Weapon.

The script has some clever surprises along the way, too. McClain doesn’t just use brawn to get ‘er done – he pulls a few McGuyver-esque students when he’s off own his own, like scaling down an elevator shaft using his gun as a rope support. Or rigging up a fire hose so he can swing down from the rooftop on the outside of the building. There’s also a clever scene where Hans finally meets his nemesis face to face, and pretends being a hostage as McClain isn’t yet aware of his true identity. The script only commits one major misstep: in the final, epilogual scene, when everyone’s on terra firma catching their breath, one of the assumed-dead thugs, Karl, blows out the front door with his gun a blazing, only to be brought down by that cop McClain had been talking to on the radio. This is one of those “not-so-fast” post-climax clichés, so common in horror movies, but completely unnecessary here. (It’s only thrown in to show that cop is able to fire his weapon once again.)

But Die Hard was a real game changer, and for good reason. It raised the ante on the action film, for better (Under Siege, The Fugitive) or worse (anything by Jean Claude Van Damme. I prefer to remember the better.

Rating:  ****

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Big (1988)


In late 1987/early 1988, within a nine-month period, Hollywood gave us four – count ‘em four – movies with the same exact premise. Colloquially called the “body switching” movies, they took their conceit from a not bad Disney comedy from 1976: a child or teen and an adult somehow switch places, physically, while retaining the psyche of their previous selves. Like Father, Like Son and Vice Versa followed the formula exactly, while 18 Again just focused on the adult (George Burns) with a teenager’s mentality. And Big, starring Tom Hanks just focused on the child. A smart move, it turned out – it eliminated all the back and forth between the two characters. Another smart move – it forewent a heavy-handed explanation for its conceit, opting instead to just have Hanks as child because the child wished it in front of a preternatural fortune-telling machine. All these moves easily paid off in the end: released in June of ’88, Big was the last of this short-lived subgenre, and easily the best.

But the main reason it stood so far out from the others is the fact that it got the most metaphorical value from its premise. Sure, it was fun to see Hanks eat a mini corncob like a real one but aren’t we really talking about our own innocence, our own insecurities, in trying to navigate the adult world that seems to be getting more adult every day? How many times have we tackled a problem by stepping back and looking at it from a simpler perspective, much like Josh climbs the ladder of success at a toy company just by determining what’s fun to play with? (Just like Chauncey Gardner’s similar rise in Being There.) And how often do we struggle in relationships because we feel so emotionally immature, not unlike Josh’s total bewilderment when his “girlfriend,” Susan (Elizabeth Banks) asks him, “Where are are?” Nearly every scene in Big is underlaid with the resonance of real life situations, and the beauty of it is we still consciously appreciate it for the surface-level comedy that it sells itself as.

The story by now is familiar to anyone not living under a rock since the 80s: young Josh gets his wish, turns Big, gets to design a line of toys at a company in New York and falls in love with his beautiful co-worker, Susan, or at least falls in love as much as a 13-year-old boy has the capacity to do. The main plot thrust is essentially Josh, and his still-child best friend Billy, attempting to track down that fortune-telling machine. The script smartly sets up a convenient waiting time – 6 weeks – to accomplish this, so the adult Josh can carry on in the adult world before finally getting down to brass tacks and returning home (despite some initial hesitation, and a near-best buddy breakup).

Of course we knew that had to be the ending, right? And for that matter, there are few structural surprises in the film – we can pretty much call this one before the opening credits even start. But yet, there are surprises – the punchlines, for example, mostly dealing with the double entendres of child/adult world, are fresh and witty. [Favorites: Interviewer: “Did you pledge?” (college); Josh: “Every morning,” and Josh (getting first payckeck): “175 dollars?”; Jon Lovitz: “Yeah, they really screw you, don’t they?”] And the tone is just pitch-perfect. I’ve always said that it’s all about tone, and it couldn’t be truer here. It’s just playful and fanciful enough to carry a premise we might be doubting otherwise, but never too heavy so as to come off pretentious and self-important.

Perfect example: After a few dates with Susan, 13-year-old Josh loses his virginity to her. Although only hinted at, it’s pretty obvious it happens, and if one were to think long and hard about it, it’s pretty sick. In the real world, it would have enormous psychological ramifications, but in Big, it happens, a mild joke is made of it (he comes in to work the next day on Cloud 9) and it’s never heard about again. The movie deals with it perfectly, and it matches the playful tone it sets up from the beginning. The main drama here deals with love, as a movie of this nature ought to do.

Credit for this tone must be accorded where due, and that would be Big’s screenwriters, Gary Ross (Pleasantville) and Anne Spielberg (Steven’s sister), and of course director Penny Marshall. Marshall no doubt recommended Hanks for the lead role as both were good friends through their work on television, and her sitcom work, both in front of and behind the camera, affords her the soft touch necessary to manage the material.

And then there’s the lynchpin of the whole thing: Tom Hanks’ performance. I honestly can’t think of any other movie star of the time that could’ve made this work. Sure, Robin Williams comes immediately to mind, since we always think of him as a child in an adult body anyway. But he would’ve had trouble with the film’s crucial third act, where Josh grows a little in his attempts to assimilate into he grownup world. Hanks deftly maintains the balance of natural impish abandon and mature sensibility – the same sort of balance he would later use in his Oscar-winning role in Forrest Gump.

But it really all started with Big, the film that put Hanks on the map as a talent to be reckoned with. His Bachelor Party days officially behind him, he was ready to go on and set the cinematic world on fire - with The ‘Burbs, Turner and Hooch, The Bonfire of the Vanities…

Well eventually, anyway. But Big was the game-changer, and deservedly so. See it, if you haven’t already.

Rating:  ****

Friday, June 30, 2017

Broadcast News (1987)


I hope, when people look back at all the great comedy writers for the movies, they don’t forget James L. Brooks. Big names like Woody Allen, Neil Simon and Mel Brooks can rest easy, but Brooks always seemed to get lost in the cracks. Making it big during the comedy bombast of the 80s (Ghostbusters, Beverly Hills Cop), didn’t help either, because Brooks is a quieter, gentler humorist. His first few films were character-driven, slice-of-life works, back before “slice-of-life” meant sanitized dullness. On the contrary, Brooks’ characters crackle with freshness and vitality – they speak words that somehow ring true yet simultaneously could only be created at the pen of a screenwriter. And of those early works, Broadcast News is his hands-down masterpiece.

And that’s largely because this is firm footing for Brooks, who started out as a newsroom writer and later created the iconic sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show. You could even think of News as a more serious version of Mary: imagine if Mary Richards, WGM assistant producer, falls head over heels for Ted Baxter, airheaded news anchor, while at the same time newswriter Murray gets the hots for Mary. Now imagine that Ted is bit smarter, realizing he’s just a talking head, and wants to learn more about news production from Mary, and that Murray yearns to get more credit for his work, and dreams of stepping out from behind is desk and working in front of the camera for the change. That’s all pretty much Broadcast News, minus the laugh track.

Ok, so obviously that’s not all it is, but it does show how familiar Brooks is with these archetypes. Mary is now producer Jane Craig (Holly Hunter), a bundle of neuroses but astoundingly good at her job. That’s because she takes her job seriously – the same reason she resents new hire Tom Grunick (William Hurt), handsome news anchor who wants to learn more about the news stories that are flashed in front of him on the teleprompter. Yet she’s still insatiably attracted to him, just as much, say, as coworking writer/reporter Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks) is to her, but it’s not mutual – even though both have immense respect for each other professionally. But network news is having hard times these days, and this particular Washington bureau is about to face some major cutbacks. Bill Rorish, head honcho anchor (played by an unbilled Jack Nichlsolson) visits the groundlings one last time before the firings – and it’s not pretty. Nearly everyone gets the axe, although Jane manages to get promoted to bureau chief, Tom gets transferred to London and Aaron realizes he’ll be strung along on the same salary doing more work. The former two realize they need to test their relationship, though – it fails before they even get on the plane for a vacation. It all boils down to her discovery that he faked tears during a news piece he had done earlier, an act that roils her down to the core of her journalistic integrity; for him, it’s part of the biz. We flash ahead seven years: all three have gone their separate ways but maintain a friendship. And they all still work in broadcast news.

And as I’m writing this synopsis I keep hearing Brooks’ lines in my head – the man can write dialogue. From “I buried the lead” to “What do you do when you’ve achieved everything you’ve ever dreamed of?” to “Well, I certainly hope you'll die soon,” this is about as perfect a screenplay can get. Yet what distinguishes News from so many other works of its ilk, and indeed from some of Brooks’ other, less successful efforts, is that the dialogue is anchored down. If Brooks has any flaw, it’s that sometimes his dialogue needs to be rooted in hard story, in structure; otherwise we get too glib and cutesy, so his characters just wind up trading “great lines” with one another until they just float off the screen. That doesn’t happen in News: just as soon as an interpersonal scene gets to be too much, we cut to a activity-based scene of intense news gathering and reporting – the nuts and bolts of these peoples’ lives.

I’ll always remember moments from this film, which is exactly the way I prefer to remember films. I’ll remember the lines, sure, but I’ll remember the pregnant pauses too, and the reactions, and the reactions to those, and the follow-ups. This is all of course a testament to Brooks’ ability to direct those lines that he crafted so skillfully. And there’s one particular skill he as in this regard that I’d like to mention: his observance that we’re all just a sentence away from hurting someone we love. In several scenes here we have moments where someone says just the wrong thing, often carelessly and it puts the conversation to a dead halt (Jane offends Tom this way in their first scene together, and Tom tosses off a “joke” insult that wounds Jane in one of their last). This happens all the time to us, doesn’t it, and yet few writers have the skill to tackle such emotional complexity, and sensitivity, and put it on the screen. Perhaps that’s why Brooks is so underappreciated – he’s holding up a mirror to us, one that lets us see our insides, and it’s uncomfortable.

And then there’s the ending, as heartbreaking as you’d come to expect from a Broks film, but also realistic. We have two potential soulmates, ostensibly perfect for one another barring one thing: their journalistic mantra. Ordinarily, perhaps, such is an obstacle easily overcome. But Brooks depicts is protagonists as job-consumed to the core: an act as simple as crying after the fact is a dealbreaker, or, heartbreaker in this case. And so the ending is inevitable, paving the way for an even sadder epilogue, straight out of The Way We Were. Sad, sure, but just like Terms of Endearment’s coda, a “life-goes-on” note of encouragement too.

I worked in news production myself, and I can testify that most of this stuff is accurate, particularly the persona of dogged news producer, striving to get that perfect story to air, whatever the cost (usually everyone’s blood pressure). I myself was on the technical side, so we were always at loggerheads with this type, mostly because we got the blame if a tape was loaded late. That scene near the beginning of Hunter editing the homecoming story down to the second is pitch-perfect, even if it does seem unlikely an news agency would have an edit bay that far away from the control room. And yes, every network has that monolithic high-profile anchor, making millions a year, and usually the one around whom everyone else genuflects, regardless of age, gender or seniority.

The performances go without saying – Brooks knows how to cast too, and that’s half the job. But I will say that Albert Brooks is particularly adept at Brookspeak; the dialogue fits him like a glove. That’s partially because Albert is a writer too, and his style isn’t that far removed from James’s.

This is a film, I think, that most people only pay lip service too, without actually seeing and enjoying. That’s how I was until I saw it again last week. And now I can appreciate it more than I ever did. I mean, dammit this is good writing. It was nominated for Best Screenplay, and would’ve surely won were it not for the fact that it was up against John Patrick Shanley’s Moonstruck, also one of the best scripts of the 80s. When it rains it pours.

Again, the my star system only goes up to four, and so I must be content with:

Rating:  ****

Less Than Zero (1987)


Yup, here I go again. I just have to include this one, Less Than Zero, because it’s sort of become a cult hit in recent years, in part for being a pretty good depiction of 80s youth, and featuring three stars who embody that decade and all its neon-glam associations (one was even a brat-packer).

So I decided to read the book by Bret Easton Ellis upon which the film is based, and that could either have been a brainchild or a mistake. The book is extremely reminiscent of The Catcher in the Rye: both are told drolly from the point of view of an ostensibly disaffected youth, yet when you peel away the layers you can detect some real hurt. In Zero’s case, the youth is a college student named Clay, who comes back home from the East to L.A., where his old high school friends are now clubbing it up, surrounded by booze and drugs, and desensitized to everything and anything of human value. This didn’t just happen – they all grew up in an environment of extreme wealth, which had the effect of cutting them off from their parents, their friends, and any concept of repercussion or responsibility. Life was all about the now, and who was sleeping with whom, and what kind of sports car they just got for Christmas. It was affluenza, years before the term was even coined.

The book is often maddening to get through, because Clay just casually goes from one social engagement to another, and the narrative doesn’t really seem to lead anywhere. Although he interacts with many characters, one in particular – Julian – gets greater mention, and as he seemed to be doing the most drugs, it’s only a matter of time before he O.D.s and dies from his addiction. But even that event is an anticlimax. What you really have to look at in Zero is Clay’s unreliable narration – he has a “girlfriend” named Blair, but it’s so off-again, on-again, and loveless that you have to doubt his sexuality (there are a few hints to support this speculation). And despite his participation in this hedonistic lifestyle we get snippets of doubt that this is really a path he’d like to continue treading.

Zero is, by now, a modern-day classic, and it deserves to be one. But it took many, many years to attain this status. As it essentially trashed the mores of an entire decade, it needed time, and distance, for the public to fully digest its savage indictments. We can now apprehend its themes with all-too-crystal clarity.

But the movie version came out in 1987, two years after the publication of the book, which itself took place about a year before that. Clearly uncomfortable with several of the book’s elements, it overhauled nearly everything, save for a few key plot points. Clay is now a responsible, well-adjusted protagonist, played with straight-and-narrow preppiness by Andrew McCarthy. He arrives home from college, all right, but not as alienated wanderer. No, he’s a got a rock-steady romance with Blair (Jami Gertz), but less steady is their mutual friendship with Julian (Robert Downey Jr.), who’s been upgraded now to major character. Although all three do cocaine casually, he soon becomes a hardcore addict and indebted to his dealer for $50,000. Clay and Blair spend pretty much the entire film looking for Juilan, asking if he’s okay, trading concerned glances, looking for him some more, getting him out of parties and clubs, screwing, losing him, looking for him again, taking the drugs away from him, and finally crying over his death.

So really what we’re left with is a 98-minute anti-drug commercial, despite some interesting contrasts between their halcyon high school days and the fun-filled but empty existence that is now. Sure, the book features extensive drug abuse by characters oblivious to their excesses, but that’s only the mode they use for their escape. The real culprit is far more deeply rooted. The movie, on the other hand, lays the blame squarely on the drugs, despite a few scenes of parental apathy and neglect.

So what we have to do, then, is judge the film on those merits. Does it succeed as an ant-drug polemic? Yes and no. Siskel and Ebert were famously split on whether or not it glamorizes drug use (Siskel: yea/Ebert: nay), and I’m somewhere in the middle. A major studio film like this couldn’t have shown as much drug use as it does without taking a condemnatory approach (this was ’87, after all). And we do indeed get a few raw moments of Julian puking in a bucket and crawling around on all fours. But most of the film shows us glamorous stars shooting up in neon-let bathrooms or beside reflecting pools (in fact, the neon-pool seems to be the film’s ubiquitous image). It doesn’t want to get too ugly, say Trainspotting ugly, but it also wants to remind us to Just So No, ad so we get Jami Gertz tossing her cocaine down the sink near the end, and the “that’s what happens” death of Clay in an ending reminiscent of Midnight Cowboy.

And there’s another thing that’s a bit troubling but Zero, and it dates the film far more than the drug scenes: its homophobia. This is perhaps one of the most homophobic films of the 80s, as gay characters are the real boogeymen in the story. The book includes them only as an indicator of time and place – Clay’s dad has a gay lover, but there’s no real reason for it beyond California verisimilitude. And later Julian is forced by his dealer into prostituting himself to gay patrons to pay off his debt. But this is just a peripheral story, meant to show the seedy, smarmy life the boy had to involve himself in to get himself out of trouble. It slides by, if only because Clay as the narrator is so blasé about it, and were more concerned about him than hateful of his abusers.

But the movie, as movies tend to be, is more literal, and it exploits the homophobia so rampant in 80s cinema. Now, Julian’s day is gay, and his sexuality is made entirely to blame for his lack of paternity. And Julian’s prostitution is meant to be harrowing, conducted by evil predators, and it’s even implied that his dealer is gay. There’s a needless plot twist early on, in which Julian was discovered sleeping with Blair while Clay was away at school, and this is only thrown in to confirm Julian’s heterosexuality, so we understand that all that sex slavery must’ve really been horrible for him. Again, it’s in keeping with the literal-mindedness of the film that it feels like it needs a villain.

One can’t help but wonder would’ve been like if directed by an indie director, like Gus Van Zant for example – someone who understands alienation and could’ve put the whole damned thing in context. But we got a slick music video instead, territory it feels more comfortable in. We know that because the soundtrack is loaded, with good songs too, and those scenes actually work pretty well. The smash hit “Hazy Shade of Winter” by the Bangles comes to mind – it’s played over the credits as Clay returns to LA to an empty house. It might well be the best scene in the film.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Downey’s acclaimed performance as Clay. Judging it entirely as a performance, and not as a bastardization of the character as originally written, I can only say that it’s okay. He’s got some heart-tugging moments toward the end, when he does elicit some concern about his physical well-being, but he e has just as many scenes near the beginning, when he acts so heedlessly, spouting would-be clever quips and jokes as he dangles off he back of a convertible, an you’re secretly wishing that his drug-induced death couldn’t come soon enough. I know – terrible. Not what the movie wants you to feel, but it’s how I felt.

The real eye-opener for me is Jami Gertz, whom I’ve always liked. I find her to be absolutely beautiful, but also has a provocative contrast – between her bitchy JAP exterior and a vulnerability underneath. Once those eyes glaze over they change from daggers to soft saucers, and you can’t help but fall in love. I did in this film, many times. When Julian died, I was more affected by her tears than by his passing.

Hmmm. Much to dislike, a few things to like.

Rating:  **1/2

(I think that’s fair.)

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