Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Director Report Card: Stephen Sommers (1989)

You know who I think is unfairly maligned? Stephen Sommers. For a brief period, Sommers was one of the most successful popcorn directors in Hollywood. He was also not especially well respected. His movies were called stupid and brainless, focusing too much on hollow spectacle. Eventually, he was consumed by scripts that were too shaky and an obsession with half-baked CGI effects. Yet perhaps Sommers deserves a second look. Unlike the bland bravado of Brett Ratner or the nihilistic excess of Michael Bay, Sommers' best films have a child-like sense of adventure and a goofy charm. He's a lover of an older style of cornball cinema and it shows. Moreover, Sommers had a hand in writing most of his movies, meaning there's a personal element to the cartoonish action flicks he would come to specialize in. He's not one of the greats and was never going to win any awards but I'm still a fan. At least some of the time anyway. Let's go deeper, shall we?

1. Catch Me If You Can

Stephen Sommers' career had humble beginnings. As his thesis film for film school, he made a short called “Perfect Alibi.” The short was well received enough for Sommers to raise money for a feature. But just enough money. “Catch Me If You Can” was filmed for all of 300,000 dollars. Sommers utilized his home town and old school as the primary filming locations. Right from the beginning, the future blockbuster director's style was evident. His feature debut is a throwback to another bygone genre, the kind of nostalgic popcorn flicks the director would specialize in in the near future.

Cathedral High School is facing closure, due to lack of budget in the face of state restructuring. This is greatly upsetting to the student body. Melissa Hanson, a cheerleader and class president, is doing what she can to raise the funds. However, bake sales and car washes are cutting it. That's when she's introduced to Dylan Malone. A motorhead and slacker, Malone makes serious cash in illegal drag races. Hanson convinces Malone to donate his winnings to the save-the-school fund. Soon, they are generating a lot of money and are close to saving the day. However, when Dylan starts working against a local petty crime lord called Phatman, he messes up a huge payday. It'll take some radical thinking and last minute planning to save Cathedral High.

Sommers would find his greatest success with remakes of classic monster movies. “Catch Me If You Can” is a homage to another once popular genre. The movie is an unapologetic throwback to fifties teen flicks. This apparent in the fashion, which is heavier on the bobby-socks and leather jackets than 1989 probably was in actuality. Instead of listening to the actual hits of the day, all the pop songs the kids like are golden oldies. The cars are classic models. Instead of celebrating their school closing, the students actually rally to save it. The sense of civic pride, of putting together a show to save the day, was probably not in vogue when “Catch Me If You Can” was released. The film is ostensibly set in the modern day but its clear what decade its heart resides in.

“Catch Me If You Can” doesn't star anyone you've heard of, probably. Matt Latanzi plays Dylan. Latanzi has only twelve other credits, with “My Tutor” being his only other leading role. (Though this wasn't the first nostalgic film he appeared in, as he had small roles in both “Xanadu” and “Grease 2.”) Though obviously way too old to be a high school student, Latanzi is solid in the part. He projects the right kind of toughness, a non-threatening and artificial type of masculinity that perfectly fits in with the film's fifties style. Latanzi even generates some minor pathos, when the character willingly sacrifices his own future for the school's sake. He's good enough that I'm sort of disappointed that he'd disappear from film soon afterwards.

Appearing as Melissa is another up-and-comer whose career never really took off. Loryn Locklin made her debut performance with “Catch Me If You Can.” She would go on to a handful of film and television roles, with her turn as Christopher Lambert's wife in “Fortress” being the only other thing I've seen her in. She would then also disappear from the film industry. That's a shame as Locklin is also quite good here. She's sunny and likable, embodying the character's can-do attitude. The material is not quite strong enough to sell Melissa's sadness, later in the movie, but Locklin really tries her best.

Naturally, being the male and female leads in a high school adventure movie, Melissa and Dylan end up together. Surprisingly, the film shows a considerable amount of restraint in this department. Melissa and Dylan have a cute rapport from the beginning. However, there's little in the way of over-the-top romantic tension. Instead, the two simply work together to achieve their goal. It's not one of those cases where the wild guy teaches the uptight girl to loosen up, while the guy learns some responsibility from the girl. Instead, the two simply compliment each other. It's such a laid-back friendship that, when the film ends with the two kissing, you kind of wonder if it's necessary. Nevertheless, Locklin and Latanzi have nice chemistry.

“Catch Me If You Can” doesn't just pay tribute to fifties high school movies. It specifically is a callback to car movies of the same decades. So how does “Catch Me If You Can” fare as a car flick? Well, the cars are pretty neat. I don't know much about classic roadsters but these all look pretty nifty. The various guys Dylan races again all have ridiculous, supervillain like monikers, like the Ice Man or the Widow Maker. Their cars, naturally, fit these themes. The chases scenes are not hugely theatrical, owing to the film's low budget. However, they are fast-paced and well directed. The movie also ends on the amusingly ridiculous image of Dylan driving his car up a ramp and through the goalpost at the high school football stadium.

The film is not as obviously comedic as some of Sommers' later films, that skirted the line between homage and parody at times. There's still plenty of goofy comedy here. Among the students is a huge nerd named Nevil, that is frequently referred to as “Naval” by people. Amusingly, he knows he's earned someone's respect when they actually call him but his name. Among the goofy gags are the kids trying to guess which oldie the principal will start the day with, a security guard actually helping someone to steal a jukebox, mistaking a friendly pet for a guard dog, or Melissa's unique approach to distracting a cop. Look, this isn't cutting edge stuff but it got me to chuckle, which is worth something.

If Stephen Sommers meant “Catch Me If You Can” to be a showcase for his skills as a filmmaker, it's pretty successful at that. There's several neat shots in the movie. There's a pretty shot of Melissa and Dylan talking, walking backwards through the girl's locker room. Interestingly, the shot remains focused on the two having the conversation, instead of the people around them. Later, there's a neat moment focusing on people's feet as Dylan takes a sad walk through the school. Of course, the car chases are obviously well done, even if there's no big wrecks or explosions. Considering the money they had to work with, “Catch Me If You Can” looks pretty slick.

If there are people in this movie you will recognize, they are mostly in the supporting cast. I best know Geoffrey Lewis for tough guy roles. Here, he goes in a slightly different direction as Mr. Johnson, the school's principal. While he appears to be a somewhat un-hip voice of authority at first, we eventually learn that Mr. Johnson was once a drag racer himself. In a nice twist in the film's second act, he begins to help the kids out. Probably the biggest name in the film is E. Emmet Walsh. Walsh, of course, plays the quasi-gangster opposing our young heroes. Walsh brings his usual level of gravelly charm to the part, making this small town crime boss seem way more likable than necessary. Many of the actors playing the teens are good too, like Grant Heslov as Nevil.

As much as there is to like about “Catch Me If You Can,” it's pretty clearly the first above-ground work of a student filmmaker. I don't mean it looks cheap or amateurish. It doesn't. I'm referring to the screenplay, which Sommers also provided. The film clearly hits every story beat you'd expect, exactly when you expect it. I can imagine my college screenwriting teacher giving this script an “A,” strictly because it sticks so closely to the rules. There's a big nuisance near the middle, changing what the characters must do to exceed. More challenges are pile atop as the climax approaches. New allies and secrets are revealed to push the story along. Not only can you start to see what's coming, it quickly becomes contrived. By the time the school has organized a pep rally just for Dylan, the audience's patience starts to ware. By shoving in every required story turn, “Catch Me If You Can” also becomes longer than necessary. The film runs 104 minutes when it really shouldn't have gone over half-an-hour.

Much of “Catch Me If You Can's” budget, I suspect, went to the soundtrack. It would be impossible to do a proper homage to fifties high school flicks without including some of the popular songs of the day. So we hear “At the Hop,” “Runaway,” “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” “Blue Moon,” and even Elvis. Some of these might be sound-alike covers but I think most of them are the originals. The score, meanwhile, is provided by reliable eighties synth factory Tangerine Dream. It's not among the team's most memorable score but it does provide a nice energy to the race scenes.

That soundtrack might be one of the reasons while “Catch Me If You Can” has never received a DVD release. It wouldn't be the first eighties flick kept out-of-print because of song licensing. Meanwhile, the number of films with similar or identical titles has caused this one to be a bit buried by internet search engines. Despite these challenges, “Catch Me If You Can” does have a small cult following. It's a goofy but pleasant film with a likable cast and an overriding sense of fun. It's the exact kind of fluffy popcorn flick Sommers would endeavor to create his whole career and only occasionally succeed at. [Grade: B]

1 comment:

Monty Park said...

1. No relation whatsoever to the Spielberg film?

2. (obligatory) Cathedral High School sucks, go Bosco Tech!