Short takes on recent films -- comedy, 'adventure,' tinglers

* Of the current comedies, Under the Rainbow is the most ambitious. It begins with convincing depression-era atmosphere. Then it takes us to Hollywood , where a mob of "little people" arrive to play Munchkins in the original "Wizard of Oz" production. Chevy Chase shows up, as a lawman protecting a daffy Britisher from a crazed assassin. Carrie Fisher provides the love interest, and for good measure, there's a Nazi scheme afoot.

It's all very complicated -- a far cry from the last film by Steve Rash, the excellent and straightforward "Buddy Holly" story. Trouble is, Rash isn't content with the humor of the dialogue and the complexity of the plot. He tries to build a comic climax by plunging most of the cast into a long and drunken carousal, wasting far too much of the film on stupidly exploitative slapstick. At the end, we learn it was "all a dream." But that's no excuse for the movie's excesses.

* With the Dracula craze just past, it's not surprising to find werewolves again stalking the screen.

An American Werewolf in London is about a young tourist who gets bitten by a you-know-what, and turns into a ditto. An old story, but told very strangely by writer and director John Landis, who is known for "Animal House" and "The Blues Brothers." Portions are extremely gruesome, other parts are explicitly sexual, and it's punctuated by bursts of sick humor.

A comedy? Not really, since the jokes are widely scattered, and the end is tragic. A thriller? If so, it's terribly incoherent, with hardly a shred of suspense. A love story, between the lad and the nurse who cares for him? But the characters are so flat, interesting only for what happens tom them.

It's something new then? Seems to be.Credit filmmaker Landis with inventing the horror comedy exploitation romance -- his very own genre and one we clearly didn't need.

* Wolfen isn't about werewolves exactly -- they're regular wolves, but very smart. And they're mad at us humans for what we've done to the ecology. Again, the horror scenes are pretty disgusting. But at least "Wolfen" has something on its mind beyond the shock effects, and makes a bit of a statement about how the 20th century has run roughshod over values older and deeper than concrete and high-rise buildings. Albert Finney heads the cast -- not exactly inspired, but professional as always. It's good to see him back onscreen.

* Tarzan the Ape Man is the most messed-up movie of the season. Perhaps it was intended as a spoof, but a talky and pompous spoof it must have been, even on the drawing board. The plot is classic, with spunky Jane tracking down her long-lost father in Africa, and finding her dream husband swinging in the trees overhead. The camera is more interested in ogling Bo Derek than in getting the story told, though, and Richard Harris -- a generally intelligent actor, playing Jane's dad -- orates loud speeches that would seem windy in Washington to say nothing of on "the dark continent." Too bad for all concerned. Even good old Cheetah becomes a bit of a bore.

* John Schlesinger is a British director who occasionally observes the American scene and finds it wanting. "Midnight Cowboy" was one of his reports. The latest is Honky Tonk Freeway, a surprisingly cynical comedy. The plot focuses on a small Florida town that will stop at nothing -- chicanery, bribery, the works -- to obtain an exit ramp from the nearby freeway, which will boost the tourist trade. Unlike the freeway, though, the story meanders all over the place, depicting not only the townspeople and their corrupt leaders, but also a motley cast of outsiders from locations all over the United States.

It's like a "Nashville" with half the inspiration, drawing to a nihilistic conclusion right out of "Red Line 7000." An excellent cast keeps the spirit high much of the time, but this seems an inescapably minor movie.

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