Thursday, August 6, 2009


Tastes and times have changed drastically since 1961 when Fred MacMurray originally introduced the super-elastic stuff called ‘flubber’ to film audiences in Walt Disney’s “The Absent Minded Professor.” In the high-tech, 1990’s Disney remake “Flubber” (*** out of ****) reinvents itself as an animated, gooey-green, silly putty blob of flying rubber that talks and dances. Actually, flubber resembles a combination of the Pillsbury Doughboy crossed with the shape-shifting water creature in James Cameron’s 1989 fantasy thriller “The Abyss.” Inventive, excessive, but tolerably entertaining, director Les Mayfield’s remake of “The Absent Minded Professor” will captivate both young and absent-minded audiences. Happily, “Flubber” succeeds as a resilient special effects laden tour-de-farce. Sadly, the remake lacks the wit, warmth, subtlety, and comedic irony that distinguished its black & white predecessor. The spectacular morphing effects of George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic Company and the visual wizardry of Peter Crosman, Tom Bertino, and Douglas Hans Smith cannot offset the film’s hopelessly befuddled plot.

The John Hughes screenplay based in part on Bill Walsh’s script for “The Absent Minded Professor as well as the Samuel W. Taylor short story “A Situation of Gravity” follows the zany efforts of a scatterbrained university chemistry professor. Dr. Philip Brainard (Robin Williams of “Popeye”) accidentally cooks up a gravity defying concoction called ‘flubber.’ Generating its own perpetual motion, ‘flubber’ has uses limited only by the imagination. Unlike the limp lump of ‘flubber’ in “The Absent-Minded Professor,” the ‘flubber’ “Flubber” radiates a mischievous personality, but the filmmakers never solidify its amorphous character. Not only will Brainard ‘flubber’ rescue Medfield College from bankruptcy and closure, but ‘flubber’ will also redeem him in the eyes of the long-suffering sweetheart that he wants to wed: Medfield College President Sara Jean Reynolds (Marcia Gay Harden.)

Brainard heads up Sara Jean’s you-know-what list. Three times in a row he has left her stranded at the altar! If things aren’t bad enough, Brainard’s old academic nemesis Wilson Croft (Christopher MacDonald of “Thelma & Louise”) lurks in the background. Oil and conniving, Croft plans to pilfer Brainard’s fiancée as well as take credit for his ‘flubber’ formula and the millions of dollars that it is sure to reap. The professor’s next bigger enemy is perhaps his worst: corrupt businessman Chester Hoenicker (Raymond J. Barry of “Mad City”). Hoenicker’s bratty son Bennett (Will Wheaton of TV’s “Star Trek: The Next Generation”) flunked Brainard’s class. Consequently, Bennett got suspended from the basketball team. Initially, all that Hoenicker sought was a simple change of grade so Bennett, the top hoopster on the Medfield basketball team, could resume playing. When Hoenicker senior learns more about ‘flubber,’ he joins forces with the equally avaricious Croft to rip-off Braniard’s discovery.

Women have come a long way since the 1961 original. Disney has promoted the fiancée from being the college president’s secretary to the college president! Although Sara Jean presides over Medfield, she cannot keep it out of the red without the help of a good man. “Flubber” implies that women indeed have come a long way, but not far enough to get by on their own wits. Moreover, Sara Jean’s romance with Brainard appears to occupy her every waking minute instead of the financial crisis that threatens her small, private college. Her priorities appear demeaningly misplaced. WEEBO, Brainard’s flying female computer, serves as a sort of bad girl here who gets her just comeuppance for tampering with Brainard’s social life. At one point, WEEBO creates a cyber-Siren image for herself to detract Brainard from Sara Jean.

“Flubber” boasts brilliant, state-of-the-art special effects. Brainard has a marvelously nifty gizmo called WEEBO, a multi-media computer housed in a flying saucer that serves as his secretary. Fred MacMurray had to settle for an antiquated housekeeper and a mutt with flying ears. Anyway, WEEBO figures vitally in the plot. As splendid comic relief, WEEBO makes a great foil in the best Disney tradition. Added humor is derived from the anthology of familiar Disney symbols that appear as short-hand on her video screen. WEEBO dotes on a film clip from the 1958 Frank Sinatra potboiler “Some Came Running” featuring Shirley MacLaine. Jodi Benson of “The Little Mermaid” provides WEEBO’s voice.

Interestingly enough, WEEBO has a crush on her creator and deliberately refuses to remind him about his wedding because she is jealous. Here’s an incredibly portable computer that can travel great distances and perform any number of tasks. At one point, WEEBO visits Sara Jean and explains her jealous behavior. Actually, WEEBO resembles gizmos from the 1987 movie “Batteries Not Included.” The professor could have licensed the manufacture of WEEBOs and used the profits to part the river of red ink engulfing Medfield College. The answer to their problems was right under their noses long before Brainard created flubber. That is why “Flubber” is uneven. WEEBO is so much more rational than its creator that the flying computer could easily have replaced flubber!

“Flubber” sounds like a can’t-miss-hit from this description. If anything, “Flubber” proves that absent-minded audiences appreciate movies with an absence of drama. The original movie contained a richer plot with a variety of nuances that heightened its hilarity. “Flubber” smears on obvious slapstick to churn up laughs. John Hughes’ script relies on his tried and true “Home Alone” routines. Hughes deserves the blame for this half-baked farce. For example, Hoenicker’s henchman, Smith (Clancy Brown of “Starship Troopers”) and Wesson (Ted Levine of “Silence of the Lambs”) are clearly stand-ins for the Joe Pesci & Daniel Stern duo from the “Home Alone” comedies. Brainard’s flubber clobbers them literally in the form of a golf ball and a bowling ball. Smith gets nailed by a non-stop golf ball, while a hard flying bowling ball wallops Wesson. When either object strikes them, these goons hit the deck like pole-axed ten pins.

Another previously Hughesed plot device is the little boy who’s frightened of flubber. Every time the little boy’s father assures him that he has nothing to worry about, the little guy gets flabbergasted. Hughes apparently tried to replace as much of the original as possible with his own kiddie antics. Flubber itself might even qualify here as a Macaulay Culkin clone. The entire military-industrial Cold War subplot is gone, along with the prom dance sequence, the warehouse ruckus, and the bouncing villain scene. Compared to the original villain, the scheming insurance magnate Alonzo Hawk (Keenan Wynn of “Dr. Strangelove”), Hoenicker lacks notoriety. Certainly, Hoenicker neither humiliates nor embarrasses poor Professor Brainard as Hawk successfully managed in “The Absent-Minded Professor.”

Not that “The Absent-Minded Professor” was immune to criticism. When Fred MacMurray’s professor mutates into a man of action in the last half hour of the original, there was nothing empty-headed about his dealings with either the villainous Alonzo Hawk or the Pentagon. Unbelievably, director Les Mayfield and Hughes have left out the scene where Brainard tricks Hawk into jumping up and down with flubberized shoes. Wisely, however, the filmmakers have kept in the basketball scene and the flying car. A red 1963 Ford Thunderbird replaces the vintage Model T.

Although Robin Williams captures the essence of this addle-pated protagonist, the role stretches his character beyond the limits of reasonable behavior. “Flubber’s” professor acts more acid-minded than absent-minded. When Williams’ professor explains his foggy memory, he justifies it as his consuming love for Sarah Jean. How all consuming his love be if the guy keeps leaving the girl standing at the altar? Granted, the jealous WEEBO throws a cyber wrench of sorts into Brainard’s calendar. The happy ending pulls a slick variation on Brainard’s incorrigible absence, but tarnishes the luster of his self-professed love for Sara Jean. Williams seems relatively sedate throughout “Flubber.” He delivers a straight-faced, in-character kind of performance. Obviously, he bottled up his madcap improvisional talents so as to underplay his looney professor in a way that offsets flubber’s scene-stealing special effects. Brainard demonstrates a chemical dependency astronomically off the scale. He’d rather labor in his lab than confront the realities of life. Arrayed with many computer-driven robots and novel gimmicks, the house where Brainard lives recalls Pee Wee’s domicile in “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.” Inexplicably, the filmmakers have changed the professor’s name from Ned to Philip. Why such an insignificant change? Presumably, Disney assigned flubber top marquee value because audiences might have confused its original title “The Absent-Minded Professor” with the Eddie Murphy comedy “The Nutty Professor.”

Director Les Mayfield of “Encino Man” and “Miracle on 34th Street”) and scenarist John Hughes cannot make up their own minds about flubber. Flubber has endless possibilities, and its embryonic personality can be playful but occasionally snappish, too. WEEBO accuses Brainard of giving flubber “too much free will.” Flubber never seems to live up to its potential unless it is exploding, flying through rooms, and cronking noggins. Most of the humor comes from how flubber reacts to different situations more than how Brainard applies it. Because they never define the nature of flubber, its wide open character lacks dramatic clarity. For example, the filmmakers don’t set any limits to what flubber can do. Perhaps Mayfield and company chose green as flubber’s lime-green color because the special effects were so expensive.

Flubber seems like a mild mannered gremlin, and the filmmakers spend the better part of “Flubber” devising its myriad applications. Wesson’s squirt gun antics with Brainard are probably the most relentlessly unfunny example of a movie that overdoes itself. Every time Hoenicker orders Wesson to hand over Brainard’s water pistol, Wesson appropriates the mob land meaning of Hoenicker’s commands. When Hoenicker tells Wesson “to let him have it,” Wesson drenches Brainard in flubber water. This joke goes on far beyond what the scene required. The gratuitous, kaleidoscopic Busby Berkeley dance sequences that interrupt the story are gorgeous, but how to do they relate to the story? Why didn’t the filmmakers use the opening credits as a stage for this elaborate terpsichorean masterpiece? Ultimately, flubber’s potential seems half-formed.

Credit goes to director Les Mayfield for the get-up-and-goo pace of dizzy Disney film. He does a find job of seamlessly integrating the over-the-top special effects with live action, too. “Flubber” is aimless but predictable fun. The villains seem less villainous this time around, and Christopher MacDonald’s bad guy appears simply to give flubber something through which to fly. The bowel humor here and there adds little to the humor and seems out of place in a juvenile movie. Parents may find themselves in a curious moral dilemma trying to explain to their kids why Brainard’s cheating tactics should be condoned. He applies flubber to the basketball team’s sneakers to help them beat their tall, merciless opponents on the court. Danny Elfman’s lively music emphasizes the fast, bouncy pace of “Flubber” and helps the film scoot right along to its inevitable happy ending.


Any resemblance between President Clinton and the president portrayed by Harrison Ford in “Das Boot” director Wolfgang Petersen’s far-fetched, entertaining, but woefully predictable skyjacking saga “Air Force One” (*** out of ****) ends when Ford’s fantastic First Guy starts knocking off villains. Nevertheless, the parallels between President Clinton and President James Marshall appear clearly obvious. Harrison Ford’s President Marshall has a tenacious, headstrong wife in the Hilary mode, and they have a 12-year old daughter. (So did Bill Pullman’s president in “Independence Day.”) Unlike Clinton, President Marshall flew helicopter rescue missions in Vietnam and received a Medal of Honor. No, the filmmakers refuse to identify President James Marshall’s party affiliation, which make “Air Force One” impartially political, while it trumpets America’s anti-terrorist stance. Andrew W. Marlowe’s melodramatic screenplay shows more agility than innovation. While his characters emerge as largely one-dimensional stick figures, the dimensions of their predicaments assume nothing less than cataclysmic proportions. Marlowe’s script keeps Ford leaping through enough flaming hoops to fill three movies. Like several other summer blockbusters, Marlowe’s script does not know when to throw in the towel. Just about everything that can happen aboard “Air Force One” occurs. Presumably, with the recent spate of skyjacking movies, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood appropriated both Air Force One and the President as the pulp of their fictional escapade.

The movie opens in slam-bang style with an elite American commando team parachuting into Kazakhstan at night. Using the latest hi-tech gear, they kill the palace guards and abduct an adversarial Russian leader, General Radek (Jurgen Prochnow of “Das Boot”), who is promptly incarcerated in a Soviet hoosegow. Three weeks later in Moscow, President Marshall stipulates that the U.S. refuses to negotiate with terrorists. Meanwhile, a ruthless ultra-nationalist Radek zealot, Ivan Korshunov (Gary Oldman of “True Romance”), succeeds in smuggling his bogus TV news crew aboard the most secure plane in the world. A disgruntled Secret Service agent, Gibbs (Xander Berkeley of “L.A. Takedown”), as we later learn, helped these guys obtain their security clearance. Once the plane is airborne, Korshunov and his men commandeer it, kill the pilots, and watch helplessly s the president ejects in his escape pod. (Does anybody remember “Escape from New York?”) Ivan contacts the Vice President (Glenn Close) and vows to kill a hostage every half-hour until Radek walks away from prison. According to Defense Secretary Walter Dean (Dean Stockwell), Radek’s release would bring down the pro-American regime in the Kremlin and bring back the Cold War, so the Russians are reluctant to set him free unless President Marshall makes the request personally for Radek’s release.

The filmmakers cannibalize in typical Hollywood fashion every neat idea from all the other skyjacking thrillers. Generally, “Air Force One” follows the formula of the Kurt Russell hit “Executive Decision.” Both movies start with a commando raid and then shift to terrorists hijacking a jetliner before an unconventional hero makes his entry. You can tell that Marlow evidently watch the Wesley Snipes thriller “Passenger 57” for one scene. Another scene features a stunt that appeared in both “Airport 75” and “Cliffhanger.” The president here imitates the action heroes from the Bruce Willis “Die Hard” franchise and the Steven Seagal “Under Siege” movies. Finally, the “Air Force One” ending should come as no surprise to any “Star Trek” movie veterans. Anybody who thrives on movies like an insomniac will spot these plot elements. Although “Air Force One” borrows heavily from other epics, the staging of the action and some new scenes in the skyjacking formula boost this opus over the rough spots.

Anybody familiar with German director Wolfgang Petersen will recognize the affinity between “Air Force One” and his earlier classic U-boat thriller “Das Boot”/“The Boat” (1981). The casting of “Das Boot” star Jurgen Prochnow as the heinous General Radek aids in this comparison. Moreover, Petersen sends his highly mobile and energetic cameras plunging about the corridors of “Air Force One” with the same dexterity that they swept through the hull of the sub in “Das Boot.” Despite a connect-the-dots plot, Petersen makes every dot a fire storm of intensity. The scene where the President’s jet careens wildly across the airfield in Germany and nearly crashes is pretty harrowing.

Ford’s presidential protagonist is basically Indiana Jones in a suit and tie. The filmmakers rely on Ford’s action hero charisma to compensate for the lack of depth in his inadequately sketched head of state. Shrewdly, they shift gears to the parental side of the chief executive. Ford’s best scenes occur before take-off when he asks about his favorite football game. Although Marshall emerges as a cardboard politician, it’s his “Die Hard” courage that wreathes him with laurels. Unlike those wimpy Jack Ryan movies “Patriot Games” and “A Clear and Present Danger,” Harrison Ford’s hero here kills the villains. The bad guys don’t slip out of Marshall’s clutches and conveniently impale themselves on sharp objects. (Remember the way the “Patriot Games” villain died?) Marshall runs up a body count, kills with a machine gun, snaps necks, and slugs it out with rough and tumble adversaries. Ford is one of the few male box office stars who can shed tears (when Ivan threatens to pull the trigger on his daughter) and not make it look schmaltzy. Ford manages to maintain a stiff upper lip throughout “Air Force One” and his scenes with bad guy Gary Oldman crackle with electricity. Ultimately, however, Ford’s performance qualifies as serviceable, nothing truly special like the cop the played in “The Devil’s Own” (1997).

Good action movies require savage villains, and the best action movies boast implacably evil fiends. Gary Oldman is one of the most underrated actors working in movies. As Ivan, Oldman registers a ten on the skullduggery scale. Earlier, he menacing Bruce Willis in the operatically chic Luc Besson science fiction saga “The Fifth Element,” but his bad guy was more farcical than fiendish. Nothing funny characterizes Oldman’s irredeemable Russian fanatic in “Air Force One.” He kills two hostages at point blank range, and then tries to soft soak the president’s impressionable daughter into believing that he deserves sympathy. Like Harrison Ford’s James Marshall, Gary Oldman’s Ivan Korshunov is physically powerful but theatrically hollow. Nevertheless, Oldman mixes malevolence with sagacity and a great deal of deception to make one of the summer’s more frightening villains.

Glenn Close as Vice President Kathryn Bennett is the real casting coup in “Air Force One.” Close manages to hold her own in a room packed with veteran male character actors like Dean Stockwell who constantly bullies her to usurp presidential authority. Moreover, Close’s Vice President conducts herself with dignity rather than hysterics, a rare treat in a male-oriented action movie. If any performer or character in “Air Force One” may be said to shoulder the burden of the suspense, Glenn Close does as the Vice President. The moment when she could assume the presidency is explosive stuff. Former “Miami Vice” regular Xander Berkeley makes an effectively treacherous Secret Service agent. One major plot loophole in “Air Force One” is that the filmmakers never explain why Agent Gibbs aided Korshunov. Furthermore, Petersen and Marlowe drop the ball on Berkeley’s villain because he passes up so many great chances to kill the President and assure Ivan of success. Poor writing is to blame here along with the gratitude’s need to create yet another one of those post-ending showdowns. Wendy Crewson is persuasively stalwart yet credibly vulnerable as the president’s gracefully aging wife, and Dean Stockwell’s terrier-like Defense Secretary enlivens the chaos on the ground for the Vice President.

No summer action movie would cut the mustard without digital special effects. The computer generated graphics in “Air Force One” are top-notch. When the movie roams outside of the pressurized cabins and conference rooms, the filmmakers put us in a nether world that resembles “Star Wars.” The night skies above Moscow are cluttered with thick clouds and the skies that far up have a creepy quality that enhances the tragic nature of “Air Force One.” The F-15s swoop into place alongside the President’s jet like star fighters and later peel off to intercept enemy Russian MIGs. The introduction of a heavy fuel tanker recalls the initial appearance from overhead of Darth Vader’s space ship in the preliminary moments from George Lucas’ “Star Wars.”

Big screen action movies fans that prefer for their heroes and villains to battle to the death will enjoy “Air Force One,” but they are bound to complain when the movie shifts away from the presidential jet. Moviegoers who keep abreast of all the plot twists and turns in similar movies may grow impatient at times in “Air Force One.” You’ll know what Harrison Ford has up his sleeve so to speak when he stares at a leaky carton of milk. If you’ve not seen any of the recent skyjacking movies, like the director Stuart Baird’s “Executive Decision,” you may find yourself overrating a simply good movie as a great epic. “Planet of the Apes” composer Jerry Goldsmith’s majestic music enriches the film’s atmosphere, and lenser Michael Ballhaus’ widescreen Technicolor photography captures just about every scene from the right perspective. Sadly, a huge film flub occurs in “Air Force One” when the bad guys shoot holes through a certain door, then moments later those holes vanish when the skyjackers throw those doors open to confront the hostages.

Although certainly not the most original skyjacking melodrama, “Air Force One” manages to add elements to the formula and boasts enough visceral R-rated violence to keep you distracted throughout its 124-minute running time.