. Title least likely ever to be duplicated: I Am the Cheese.
Michael Wright, Leon
Like all those '40s drama-musicals about great pop composers—Night and Day, Rhapsody in Blue, Words and Music—this film about an all-black R&B singing group trying to make it in the 1960s is not heavily into plausibility.
At one point aspiring songwriter Robert Townsend is stumped for a lyric when his little sister comes into his room to sweep up. She finds just the right line on a crumpled piece of paper on the floor; soon the two of them are scurrying around the room rounding up discarded scraps, writing and singing the song as they go.
If its sense of reality is distorted, though, the film's metronome is in the right place. The original music, written under the guidance of supervising producers George Duke and Steve Tyrell, effectively recalls the landmark sound of such groups as the Temptations and the Four Tops—and it's a sound that has held up remarkably well.
Townsend (Hollywood Shuffle), who directed, also splashes in background samples from the Four Tops and the Dells, and one woman character, Baby Doll, played by Troy Beyer, is a singer who sounds like Diana Ross.
While most of the serious Heartbeats singing is dubbed by studio singer Billy Valentine, the group's members are appealing in their own right. Townsend plays the intellectual one, Wright the scoundrel. Leon, whose main deficiency would seem to be in the surname department, is the womanizer; elementary schoolteacher-film newcomer Harry J. Lennix the stable one; and Tico Wells the clergyman's son. Lennix and Leon may stay in your mind a bit longer, but this is an ensemble performance that plays the way it's supposed to—as the acting equivalent of five-part harmony.
Townsend also benefits from a strong supporting cast that includes Beyer, Harold Nicholas (of the great MGM musical tapdancing team the Nicholas Brothers), Roy Fegan as a rival singer, and Hawthorne James as a ruthless record-company owner whose idea of negotiating royalties is to dangle an artist off a hotel-room balcony until he agrees to terms.
The script, written by Townsend with Keenen Ivory Wayans, doesn't measure up to the acting. As the group fights to succeed, then falls apart, the writing doesn't send up or exploit clichés. It trots them out. The group's manager, for instance, solemnly tells them, "I think you guys have what it takes to go all the way to the top." Leon says, "I'm tired of being with a different woman every night," and Townsend replies, "When the right woman comes along, it'll be right. You can't force it."
Townsend and Wayans could have used more of the bite that comes out when Leon, exasperated because a commercial-minded record company has put a scene of a white family on the cover of the group's first album, snorts, "I never seen five niggers on Elvis Presley's album cover." (The Five Horsemen, an all-white group that covers and homogenizes blacks' songs, is broadly sketched—full of plump guys in bleached wigs—and has little satirical punch.)
The ending is so full of huggy reconciliations that it looks as if the group is going to change its name to the Five Buscaglias. Townsend and his cast have, however, earned a certain amount of sentimental license. And we should be grateful these days for a movie in which the characters really seem worth rooting for. (R)
Julian Sands, Richard Grant, Lori Singer
None of that standard witchery—eye of newt, tongue of adder stuff—for this movie. This one tosses plot of Terminator and premise Omen into the pot and lets it boil merrily along. The result is a modestly entertaining low-budget fantasy adventure—distraction enough if you're not in too demanding a mood.
Like The Terminator, this film features a villain who travels across time to the present and is pursued by a hero from his own era. Only here the two come from the past, and the villain, instead of being a robot, is, a la The Omen, another one of those guys out to prove he's the son of Satan. (Only Elvis has more putative offspring.)
Sands (Arachnophobia), the hunk who walks like a refugee from the Royal Shakespeare Company, is the evil one, and devilish doings haven't assumed such an impressive form since Raquel Welch's body was taken over in Bedazzled.
Grant has the cross-dimensional witch-hunter role, having come from 17th-century Boston to 1991 California in search of Sands. In the process he runs into Singer, who has gotten on Sands's bad side and fallen under a spell that's aging her 20 years a day. Here, among other places, is a rub. Singer, who always looks as if she has just come in as third runner-up in a Daryl Hannah look-alike contest, falls far short of the pull-no-punches energy that Sands and Grant throw into their parts.
The script, by D.T. Twohy, is no bargain, but Singer has a leaden touch with such ironically intended lines as (when she and Grant find his tomb in a cemetery), "We didn't have to open it. We didn't have to stare at your putrefied corpse or anything."
Grant, on the other hand, uses his very earnestness to wrest a bit of a smile out of the archaic language in an essentially dull line: "As queer as this seems to you, 'tis ever more to me."
The effects are erratic, from spiffy flashes and fires to Sands's flying sequences, during which he looks less fiendish than he does worried about coming unwired. Twohy also never explains how Grant can travel in time, and he gets his witch lore a little garbled, referring to Glinda as the good witch of the West, when every Wizard of Oz fan knows she was a Northerner.
Not to worry. Director Steve Miner is laboring under no impressions that he is directing A Long Day's Journey into Night. Things just bounce along, logic be damned, along with Sands and his dad. Anyway, will Sands succeed in finding out the "real" name of God and then end the universe by saying it backwards (FPOKZRAWHCS!)? What? And eliminate the possibility of Warlock II? (R)
Frank Whaley, Jennifer Connelly
SITUATION WANTED: One fine young actor and one splendid young actress need major roles immediately to make up for drastic mistake in appearing in dumb comedy that goes right off the Vapid Meter. References available to testify that the tedium is not the fault of either Whaley (most recently Robby Krieger in The Doors) or Connelly (slyly sexy in The Hot Spot). Rather, the culprits are director Bryan Gordon and his perennially adolescent writer, John (you-name-it-if-it-has-teens-in-it-he-wrote-it) Hughes.
How could anyone have ever, even in the most wildly optimistic Beverly Hills story-idea lunch, thought it would be fun to watch a young guy walk, run, bicycle, skate, mop, buff and otherwise propel himself up and down the aisles of a discount store for an hour and a half?
Whaley is the ne'er-do-well who ends up as a night cleaning man, while Connelly is marooned in the store at closing time because she has been contemplating shoplifting in order to embarrass her domineering father and was so overcome by indecision she couldn't move. (Happens every day.)
Even if Hughes and Gordon hadn't doomed themselves by opening what is supposed to be a comedy with a sadistic, graphically bloody murder, they offer Whaley and Connelly zero support. He, for instance, has to talk about how his "sister was admitted to the hospital. While trying to pop a zit, her head was terribly exploded."
Meanwhile, Whaley's father, John M. Jackson, has to figure out how to make a line like "You pull another stunt like you did today, and I'll beat the living daylights out of you" fit into what is supposed to be a light teenage film.
Only Dermot (Longtime Companion) Mulroney, as one of two vicious crooks who break into the store, is at all interesting, pouting and sulking in a heavy-lidded fashion that seems like a flat-out Eric Roberts impersonation.
Still, sympathy is the emotion Mulroney arouses, as do Whaley and Connelly (whose body is exploited by Gordon and Hughes in a particularly sleazy, gawking high-school freshman way). They seem to go through the whole film suffering the terrible realization that they're in the wrong place—a sentiment audience members will be able to identify with. (PG-13)
>ALL RISE! PRESUMED INNOCENT Oozing anguish in a likable way, Harrison Ford plays a prosecutor accused of murdering his ex-mistress. The fine cast includes Bonnie Bedelia as Ford's troubled wife. This intense film is more gripping if you didn't read Scott Turow's novel and don't know how it ends. (Warner)
MENAGE À BLAH: HENRY & JUNE The first NC-17 rated film is a muddled love triangle involving authors Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin and Miller's wife, June. What was the fuss about? (MCA/Universal)
The new horror film Warlock qualifies for consideration in an arcane movie-trivia game: Pick the best combination of films that have identical titles but are about totally different subjects. (The 1959 Warlock was a Henry Fonda-Richard Widmark Western.) Some possibilities: the terrorism-at-the-Super Bowl Black Sunday (1977) and the Barbara Steele gothic chiller Black Sunday (1961); the Bob Hope-Mickey Rooney service comedy Off Limits (1953) and the Willem Dafoe-Gregory Hines Vietnam thriller Off Limits (1988); the neo-film noir Against All Odds (1984) and the Fu Manchu Against All Odds (1968). Here's a vote, though, for the 1943 desert-warfare classic Sahara, with Humphrey Bogart, and the 1984 desert hamming-it-up classic Sahara, with