Graham Beckel

C.H.U.D. (1984, Douglas Cheek)

The only name I recognized during C.H.U.D.’s opening titles—after the more obvious names in the cast—was casting director Bonnie Timmermann. Timmermann’s an A tier casting director; C.H.U.D. is a B movie with a lower A movie cast (I mean, John Heard and Daniel Stern are both capable of fine work and they would’ve been at near career highs at the time of this one). But it doesn’t seem to know it’s got a better cast than the material, which isn’t a surprise as the script is bad and the directing is bad. Also bad is the cinematography, by Peter Stein, though it’s not like director Cheek would’ve known what to do with better photography. C.H.U.D. manages to be shot on location in New York City, but look like it was shot in Toronto with some second unit establishing work done in New York. And then the sewer stuff is obviously sets and lots of them, but quantity over quality.

So it’s mostly director Cheek’s fault. Sure, Parnell Hall’s script has terrible dialogue, silly characters, contradictory exposition, and an absence of suspense but it still contains those elements. Better direction could’ve at least fixed the lack of suspense and made the silly characters amusing. But Cheek really doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing at all. He sabotages his actors, usually with these terrible two shots, which doesn’t help de facto lead Christopher Curry (as a police captain whose wife has gone missing in the rash of recent disappearances). Curry’s… not great and seems out of his depth in a lead role, but at least he’s not hamming it up like Daniel Stern or sleepwalking like John Heard.

Heard’s a fashion photographer who wants to do important work, like photographing people experiencing homelessness but not for journalism’s sake, rather… his own self-aggrandizement? It’s confused and an example of the contradictory exposition. Though it seems like Heard’s decisions are mostly for girlfriend (or wife, it’s unclear) Kim Greist, who’s a callous fashion model and wants him to be famous for the serious photography while still doing all her photo shoots too. The film opens with Heard (who’s top-billed). He’s there to establish the people living underground in the old tunnels—so, C.H.U.D.’s extravagant underground tunnels and giant spaces don’t seem to have anything to do with the sewer or the subway. The film doesn’t acknowledge there are working tunnels under the city. It’s very weird. And inevitable. I spent at least ten minutes waiting for the big underground reveal scene as Curry and Stern—more on them in a moment—either find the legion of scientists doing secret work or at least a good shot of the subterranean mutants’ lair. But no. Same sets as before.

Heard doesn’t do much in the second act; he comes back for the third, but second is Stern and Curry. Less Heard (and Greist, who gives an exceptionally flat performance) isn’t a bad thing. Though Stern and Curry aren’t a good thing.

So Stern is a street preacher who runs a soup kitchen. He and Curry have history; Curry busted him for something five years before, which he drops as exposition. Curry’s too busy memorizing old cases to react to his wife being missing and presumed… eaten. Pretty soon Stern is able to convince Curry there’s something going on and so then they try to fight city hall only for city hall (a regretful looking Eddie Jones, who seems to understand the state of the production better than any other cast member) to tell him absurdly corrupt government official George Martin is in charge. Martin becomes the film’s heavy, which is… not why you want to watch a movie about underground mutants attacking the surface world.

The underground mutants don’t actually look bad either. They’re budget constrained but they might be effective if Cheek could direct. Some of it is definitely Stein’s photography. It’s like he’s trying to showcase the rubber in the costume instead of obscure it.

Lots of familiar faces in the supporting cast—including John Goodman at one point—but most of them are bad. Sam McMurray’s a beat cop who doesn’t care about the people dying, especially if they’re living on the street (or under it). He’s bad. Graham Beckel’s in it for a scene or two. He’s not good, but he’s not bad. Cordis Heard (sister of John) is really bad in a small part as one of Curry’s cops, but it’s obviously Cheek’s direction. C.H.U.D. would be instructional if only any of Cheek’s directorial decisions made sense because then future generations would know what not to do except they’re so weird and obviously not working, they seem hard to classify.

Ruth Maleczech and Bill Raymond are a pair of older siblings living underground who Heard knows; they’re both way too good for the movie, like they thought they were guest-starring on a good TV show or something. J.C. Quinn plays a freelance reporter trying to crack the story, which mostly consists of bad expository scenes with John Heard. He’s not good. But seems like he should be. Then isn’t.

Outside how Timmermann conned a set of solid, working actors into appearing in what should be a low budget exploitation film but isn’t, there’s nothing to C.H.U.D.. A C.H.U.D. is a dud pun doesn’t even work because there’s nothing to suggest it ever could work.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Douglas Cheek; screenplay by Parnell Hall, based on a story by Shepard Abbott; director of photography, Peter Stein; edited by Claire Simpson; music by David A. Hughes; production designer, William Bilowit; costume designer, Jennifer Lax; produced by Andrew Bonime; released by New World Pictures.

Starring John Heard (George Cooper), Daniel Stern (A.J. Shepherd), Christopher Curry (Captain Bosch), Kim Greist (Lauren Daniels), George Martin (Wilson), J.C. Quinn (Murphy), Ruth Maleczech (Mrs. Monroe), Bill Raymond (Victor), Graham Beckel (Val), Cordis Heard (Officer Sanderson), Sam McMurray (Officer Crespi), and Eddie Jones (Chief O’Brien).


True Believer (1989, Joseph Ruben)

True Believer is never quite anything it sets out for (story-wise)–it’s not the story of a lost man finding his way, it’s not a legal drama, it’s not the story of a young lawyer spurning riches for morals. Instead, it’s a courtroom movie with corruption, chase scenes through metal shops, a great Brad Fiedel score and some wonderful New York location shooting. It’s a Hollywood movie, but one with an energetic James Woods running the show and a (just) smart enough script. Wesley Strick almost seems to know he’s using genre standards, but it doesn’t matter, because he’s using them really effectively. However, it’s kind of impossible (Strick’s premeditation) because he couldn’t have known it’d be Woods or Joseph Ruben directing or Fiedel’s score and all three are essential. The score’s a funny thing to be essential, but Fiedel gives Woods’s civil rights lawyer turned drug defender (the first ten minutes play like the unseen “Practice” pilot) a hero’s theme. It’s like Superman or something and it’s a great choice, because Woods does great things playing a hero here.

Woods is not the whole show, however, which is kind of odd, given his presence. Woods is so good, almost nothing else (except Ruben and Fiedel and Strick’s mainstream competence) matter. The movie’s not short–running almost an hour and fifty–and it’s beautifully paced. There’s no pacing mistakes here, if anything, it occasionally gets too short. The big “mistake” is Robert Downey Jr.’s character, who’s in the film to introduce the audience to Woods and get him on the path of righteousness again. Besides some later discoveries and some important observations, Downey has almost nothing to do. He and Woods play well off each other, but he’s a cog in the script. Even worse, he’s new to town so he’s got no texture… the movie never even explains where he, unpaid, lives (especially since Woods’s lawyer lives in his office).

Downey is in the movie because he needs to be there, much like Margaret Colin’s detective. She’s there because Woods–as a defense attorney–needs a detective; he’s got a sidekick, a detective and a cop buddy who always lets him in the evidence room. Strick’s not reinventing the wheel here, just setting it up for–with a solid production–a good spin. The supporting cast is all great–really great. Tom Bower’s got a five or six minute part and he practically got tears out of me. Same goes for Yuji Okumoto as the (of course) innocent client. Very few big scenes, but he makes the most of them–holding up against Woods, which is no small feat here. Kurtwood Smith’s a good adversary, since it’s Kurtwood Smith, and Charles Hallahan has a nice part… so does Graham Beckel, who has a tiny part with a lot of room for effect. Strick’s plotting is so good, these actors can come in for just a few minutes but have these incredibly successful scenes.

At one point, in the third act, it seems like True Believer might elevate to a higher Hollywood level. It doesn’t, after coming real close. But it wouldn’t have been particularly special, and as a Woods vehicle and a well-produced mainstream legal thriller, it does a fine job.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Joseph Ruben; written by Wesley Strick; director of photography, John Lindley; edited by George Bowers; music by Brad Fiedel; production designer, Lawrence Miller; produced by Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring James Woods (Eddie Dodd), Robert Downey Jr. (Roger Baron), Margaret Colin (Kitty Greer), Yuji Okumoto (Shu Kai Kim), Kurtwood Smith (Robert Reynard), Tom Bower (Cecil Skell), Miguel Fernandes (Art Esparza), Charles Hallahan (Vincent Dennehy), Sully Diaz (Maraquilla Esparza), Misan Kim (Mrs. Kim), John Snyder (Chuckie Loeder), Luis Guzmán (Ortega) and Graham Beckel (Vinny Sklaroff).


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