Who Framed Roger Rabbit

(USA 1988)

Let’s get this out up front: the appeal of Who Framed Roger Rabbit is not its outstanding narrative. Based on Gary K. Wolf’s novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman’s screenplay is competently written but it’s conventional if not downright pedestrian, a standard whodunnit complete with hiding, seeking, and a clock ticking. The situations are goofy, the characters are even goofier, and the jokes…well, they’re silly. The whole thing relies too heavily on farce and slapstick for my taste.

Los Angeles, 1947: alcoholic private investigator Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) is summoned to the studios of movie mogul R.K. Maroon (Alan Tilvern). Studio star Roger Rabbit (Charles Fleischer) is unraveling over romantic rumors involving his amply curvaceous toon wife Jessica (Kathleen Turner) and human Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye), the inventor and maker of the sundry gadgets used in cartoons. It’s affecting the studio’s bottom line, so Maroon hires Valiant to check it out.

After catching Jessica’s act at an underground club, Valiant spies on her and Acme in her dressing room. He takes pictures of them playing “patty-cake.” He turns them over to Maroon, who shows them to Roger. Assuming the worst, he promptly freaks.

The next morning, Acme is found dead — a cartoon safe crushing his head. Naturally, all signs point to Roger. Dastardly Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd), cloaked in a black cape and an evil hidden agenda, is following Roger’s tail. Valiant is unwillingly yanked into a crazy adventure to exonerate Roger, find a will, and stop Doom from selling Toontown, the appropriately named neighborhood where toons live, to a freeway developer.

Despite its shortcomings, Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a technical marvel unlike much before it. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, it took awhile to make. It was a box office blockbuster, and it’s easy to see why. From the outset, it’s a dazzling mix of animated characters, or “toons,” interacting with real people. The look and technique are impeccable, with natural movement and even toons and humans touching that melds seamlessly without any jumps or visual hiccups. An ongoing gag with Roger handcuffed to Valiant, for example, is flawless. Clearly, this film was assembled with painstaking attention to timing. It is, in a word, neat.

Plus, the incorporation of classic cartoons — from Betty Boop to Woody Woodpecker to Droopy, to a scene with Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse to a piano duel between Daffy Duck and Donald Duck — is really, really fun. I’m sure this is the only place you’ll ever see Warner Brothers and Disney characters together, and it’s a hoot.

In 2016, the United States Library of Congress deemed Who Framed Roger Rabbit “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

With Joanna Cassidy, Lou Hirsch, Mike Edmonds, Eugene Guirterrez, Mae Questel, Mel Blanc, Tony Anselmo, Mary T. Radford, Joe Alaskey, David Lander, Richard Williams, Wayne Allwine, Tony Pope, Peter Westy, Cherry Davis, Nancy Cartwright

Production: Touchstone Pictures, Amblin Entertainment

Distribution: Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

104 minutes
Rated PG

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B-

They Live

(USA 1988)

“I’ve come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass…and I’m all out of bubblegum.”

“I’m giving you the choice: either put on these glasses or eat that trashcan.”

“Brother, life’s a bitch. And she’s back in heat.”

— Nada

Director John Carpenter has done a few good pictures that probably will have an audience long after he’s gone; They Live isn’t one of them. At least, not in a good way. B-movie cult fodder all the way, They Live is a somewhat delayed and really heavy-handed reaction to ’80s conspicuous consumption. Based on Ray Nelson’s 1963 short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” and subsequent comic strip, Carpenter’s screenplay, written under the pseudonym Frank Armitage, is founded on a decent premise; it just doesn’t go where it could have.

Nada (Roddy Piper), a migrant construction worker who’s seen better days, picks up a job in downtown Los Angeles. He notices some weirdness going on with a television station that seems to be connected to a church across the lot where he and other homeless people have set up camp. His coworker Frank (Keith David) doesn’t want to hear about it. No one does.

One morning, Nada comes into possession of a pair of sunglasses. When he puts them on, he sees subliminal messages everywhere. A billboard with the tagline “We’re creating the transparent computing environment” says “Obey” with the glasses on. A travel ad beckoning, “Come to the Caribbean” says “Marry and reproduce.” “Men’s apparel” says “No independent thought.” Signs all around him order one to consume, conform, buy, watch TV, submit, sleep, do not question authority:

They Live Obey.jpg

Even the dollar bill has a different message: “This is your god.”

What’s worse, some people are not what they appear to be. At all. They aren’t even human — they’re skeletal reptiles, a kind of mutant species of Sleestaks or something:

They Live.JPG

What the hell is going on? Who are these things? What do they want? As Nada tells Frank, they ain’t from Cleveland.

I remember seeing They Live at the theater when it was new. It was okay. Three decades later, it’s still okay. It’s a lot sillier this time around, though. The whole thing gets off to a good enough start, but the momentum peters out just before midpoint. Carpenter — or anyone, for that matter — can get only so much mileage out of this story. They Live feels like 40 minutes of material stretched into more than twice that amount of time.

The denouement is not just predictable but anticlimactic, and the perspective here is adolescent at best. The lines are cringeworthy, falling painfully short of the Arnold Schwarzenegger zingers they aim to be. The acting is pretty bad, especially David and Meg Foster, both of whom are as stiff and lifeless as a dead gerbil. Surprisingly, Piper and his mullet are the best thing about They Live; Piper isn’t enough to carry it, though. And that wrestling scene in the alley is inane — misplaced, unnecessary, and too long, it adds nothing except maybe ten minutes to the running time.

The worst thing about They Live is that it seems Carpenter was serious — nothing here reads as tongue in cheek to me.

With George “Buck” Flower, Peter Jason, Raymond St. Jacques, Jason Robards III, Lucille Meredith, Norman Alden, Norm Wilson, Thelma Lee, Rezza Shan

Production: Alive Films, Larry Franco Productions

Distribution: Universal Pictures

94 minutes
Rated R

(iTunes rental) D+



(USA 1988)

“Mama, welcome to the Sixties.”

—Tracy Turnblad

Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake) is fucking fabulous, and all of Baltimore knows it! The humble hair-hopping heroine of the kitschy-sixties John Waters classic Hairspray is lower middle class and fat—or as she puts it, “pleasantly plump.” Her parents are clueless and preoccupied with their own drab lot in life: mother Edna (Divine) irons constantly and father Wilbur (Jerry Stiller) owns a joke shop below their dingy little apartment. Tracy’s best friend, Penny Pingleton (Leslie Ann Powers), is positively nerdy—not to mention permanently punished.

None of it stands in Tracy’s way of getting what she wants, whether it’s a slot as a regular on a teen dance program on local television, the hottest guy on the show (Michael St. Gerard), or racial integration. She’s a modern kind of girl—she’ll swim in an integrated pool and support the right of “colored” kids to have more screen time than just on designated “Negro Day” on the last Thursday of every month. Tracy is the height of teen fashion: all ratted up like a teenage Jezebel, no one rocks a sleeveless frock, a plaid skirt, or a pastel pink cockroach gown quite like she does. It should be no surprise that she’s got a modeling gig. And on top of it, the girl can move! Who wouldn’t want to be her?

Tracy’s self-assurance provokes the ire of teachers and mean girls alike, especially rival regular and stuck up little spastic Amber Von Tussle (Colleen Fitzpatrick) and her pageant winning mother, “Miss Soft Crab 1945” Velma (Debbie Harry). Tracy commands attention; when Amber gossips about her and sneers, “Tracy Turnblad is a whore,” she reveals the extent of her own intimidation. You know her, come on, rip her to shreds.

Hairspray has John Waters’s trademark demented sense of humor all over it, and stars regulars like Divine and Mink Stole. However, it marked a shift for Waters into mainstream territory (he started with Polyester, but that one is still a bit weird and definitely not as accessible). It’s no shock that it’s his biggest hit. Like his other leading ladies, Tracy is strong; what’s different, though, is that nothing about her despicable—a first for him. In fact, she’s probably the only lead in a Waters film who’s downright admirable. Her confidence is solid, and her heart is always in the right place. Hairspray makes being an outcast look glamorous and accomplished in a way none of his other films do.

I saw Hairspray the first time in a dorm room during my freshman year of college: we rented a copy on VHS tape, which honestly sounds more quaint now than The Corny Collins Show looked to me back then. I’ve seen Hairspray more times than I can count, and I never get tired of it. I’m apparently not the only one, as the multiple remakes and reboots demonstrate. None of them can touch the original. How could anything top Sonny Bono as a dad, or Pia Zadora as a beatnik chick going on about Odetta while Ric Ocasek paints behind her and utters his one-word line: “reefer!”

92 minutes
Rated PG

(Home via iTunes) B+



(USA 1988)

A day off of work is a good time to watch a DVD, so I picked Vibes. Cyndi Lauper and Jeff Goldblum are both talented performers with long careers sustained in large part by their quirky, so unusual personas (personae?); it stands to reason that each would have a good share of hits and misses—and they do. Vibes is definitely a miss for both of them—a huge one.

Vibes starts out, to use a Lauper song from another movie, good enough: two robbers in the Andes set up the backstory in a short opening. The action shifts to New York City, where psychics Sylvia Pickel (Lauper) and Nick Deezy (Goldblum) meet while participating in a study on paranormal abilities. The scene is promising: Nick can tell where objects have been by touching them, and Sylvia is a medium for a spirit named Louise. The exchanges between the two and their analysts are actually funny. Unfortunately, things slide steadily downhill from there. Con artist Harry Buscafusco (Peter Falk) shows up at Sylvia’s apartment at night and offers her a job under the guise of finding his lost son in Ecuador. Sylvia convinces Nick to join them. The adventure begins.

YAWN! Vibes is painful to watch—fucking painful. The writing sucks—the situations are unoriginal, the story is predictable, and the dialogue is dull. Lauper isn’t funny at all; she’s shrill, clearly inexperienced with acting, and downright grating with her over-exaggerated Queens shtick that she seriously toned down following this bomb (check out interviews of her from 1989 forward and her subsequent acting gigs if you don’t believe me). Aside from her first scene, she shines only when she’s using her voice for something other than reading lines—for example, singing a lullaby to villain Ingo (Googy Gress) and speaking in tongues when a spirit takes over her body after she touches a glowing pyramid that connects her to a past world. As usual, Goldblum’s timing is spot on; but he can only do so much with the material, which is so lame I doubt anyone could have saved it. A romance develops, and it’s laughable because there’s zero chemistry between Lauper and Goldblum—he doesn’t even seem to like her (and according to Lauper’s memoir, he didn’t). The whole thing is dismal.

Vibes initially sounded like a good idea: real actors, including Julian Sands and Elizabeth Peña, signed onto the project. Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel—who had an established track record with comedies like Night Shift, Splash, and Spies Like Us in addition to episodes of sitcoms like The Odd Couple, Happy Days, and Laverne & Shirley—started (but didn’t finish) the script. It seemed like a good bet for a light summer comedy (it was released in July or August, as I recall). Vibes no doubt didn’t go as planned. It features some nice scenery, a young and unknown Steve Buscemi as Sylvia’s ex-boyfriend, and Lauper’s arguably underrated single “Hole in my Heart (All the Way to China)”—but that’s about it. I should’ve gone to a movie instead.

(Home via DVD) D-


Wings of Desire [Der Himmel über Berlin]

(Germany 1988)

Wings of Desire is Wim Wenders’s take on being human, immortality, love, passion, and maybe even destiny (or lack thereof). Bruno Ganz and Otto Sander play two ageless and voyeristic angels, Damiel and Cassiel, who watch over Berlin, eavesdropping on ordinary citizens’ most personal thoughts. Sometimes they try to help out the mortals; sometimes they don’t. No one can see them except children, and they don’t have any real interaction with anyone. All is well and good until Damiel falls for trapeze artist Marion (Solveig Dommartin)– then things get dicey.

Wings of Desire is a beautiful looking film that closely resembles the midcentury Italian and French neorealist films I’ve seen of late: haunting and gorgeous black and white shots of the city, a cast of mostly everyday characters (except the angels, of course), a hazy plot, and heavy existential themes. Poetic and dreamlike, it’s slow and very German but well worth sticking with to the end. Seeing the Wall, which stood until 1989, as just another part of the landscape adds a cool historical note. Peter Falk as Der Filmstar (a.k.a. himself) and a Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds concert as the setting for one of the last scenes are both nice touches– they provide playfulness in what otherwise would be an overly somber film.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B