1994

Nobody’s Fool (1994, Robert Benton)

Nobody’s Fool takes place during a particularly busy December for protagonist Paul Newman. He’s got a lot going on all at once, but mostly the reappearance of son Dylan Walsh and family. They’re in town at the beginning for Thanksgiving, but Walsh’s marriage is in a troubled state—we’re never privy to the exact details, as Walsh remains something of a mystery throughout—and eventually wife Catherine Dent leaves (taking the astoundingly annoying younger son Carl J. Matusovich, leaving older, shy son Alexander Goodwin with Walsh). So Newman, who walked out on Walsh before he turned one, all of a sudden finds himself playing grandfather. Even more surprising… he likes it.

The film also never gets into the specifics of Newman’s failed coupling with (uncredited) Elizabeth Wilson, but Wilson doesn’t fit into Newman’s lifestyle. Even though her husband, Richard Mawe, thinks Newman’s a riot. We get to see more of Mawe and Newman than Wilson and Newman, which seems a little strange until you realize how little that history means to Newman. He’s a child growing older at sixty, still treading water on life, daydreaming about escaping to paradises with boss’s wife, Melanie Griffith. Griffith’s married to jackass Bruce Willis, who spends his night out with other women and his days running his inherited construction company if not into the ground then a lot closer to it than it ought to be. The film opens with Newman trying to sue Willis on a worker’s comp claim and Willis wiggling his way out. Though it doesn’t help Newman’s lawyer, Gene Saks, seems to view the case as a way to keep busy more than a potential success. While the inciting incident of the film is Walsh and family showing up, Newman’s in a new place now thanks to his bum knee. His steady, sturdy life has a major kink in it now—especially since with the lawsuit he can’t really be working for Willis any more and Willis is the only game in town.

Willis and Newman’s relationship in the film is probably its most interesting, because Newman can’t stand Willis but he’s also constantly disappointed in him. He’s never hopeful for him, because—even though Newman’s genial—he doesn’t seem to accept optimism as a rational life outlook. Even small things. Newman’s a medieval serf whose life is mostly unchanging, through entropy is breaking down some of the things around him. Particularly his truck. Whereas Willis is secure enough not to worry about change or the lack of it. Willis takes everything for granted in a detached, positive way, Newman takes everything for granted in a negative way. Yet Newman’s protective of Willis, even as Willis holds power over Newman. Not to mention Newman can’t stand Willis for cheating on Griffith.

Nobody’s Fool isn’t trying to be subtle. It’s a very deliberate character study of Newman, watching him interact with the various folks in his life, like landlady Jessica Tandy or now jealous of Walsh sidekick Pruitt Taylor Vince. Oh, and of course zealous idiot cop Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman and Newman are hilarious in the film. Director Benton goes for laughs all the time. He goes for smiles a lot of the time and laughs all of the time. Newman’s always got something to say, usually the wrong thing, which is a tried and true comedy formula. Nobody’s Fool packages it a little differently—Newman doesn’t just give a strong lead performance, he makes Nobody’s Fool feel very serious, even as it stays genial, even as it goes for laughs. Newman anchors it.

Good performances from everyone. Newman in particular, Vince—Josef Sommer’s awesome as Tandy’s creep bank guy who Newman wants to punch out but can never find the right opportunity. Great supporting cast too—Jay Patterson, Alice Drummond, Margo Martindale. Ellen Chenoweth’s casting is excellent. Walsh is fine but could be better. He needs to be at least as good as Willis and he’s not. Grandson Goodwin is fine, even if he does disappear for a long stretch from second act to third. Nobody’s Fool has that limited present action—Thanksgiving to Christmas—but Benton never relies on it, instead establishing an easy going pace, never rushing things even though logically these events are occurring in what must be rapid succession. Especially with Griffith’s martial troubles; she’s going through a whole lot but we only see her during her respites where she gets to pal around with Newman.

What ends up happening is the supporting cast can’t compete with the film’s momentum—if they’re hands off, like Willis (who’s in the film a lot but treated like a cameo) or Tandy, it works. In fact Tandy’s subplot with son Sommer gets some scenes without Newman; no one else does. But if they’re more directly involved with Newman—so Vince, Walsh, Griffith—it feels like there’s something missing. Not so much with Vince, who’s a combination of comic relief and gentle heart, but definitely with Walsh and Griffith. Especially Walsh. Griffith’s got a more functional part in the story, whereas Walsh is basically the inciting incident personified. His presence kicks off Newman’s self-discovery. Or is at least the final straw to kick it off.

Excellent production—great photography from John Bailey and production design from David Gropman—and sure-footed direction from Benton. Lovely, omnipresent score from Howard Shore does a lot of the heavy lifting. If Newman’s not doing it, the music’s doing it. But it’s all very safe, like Benton’s goal really is to show how deadbeat dads would maybe be a lot worse if they’d stuck around and they’re worth a second chance once they hit sixty. Newman’s able to get a lot of mileage out of the part, but he’s staying on the track, just racking up laps.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Benton; screenplay by Benton, based on the novel by Richard Russo; director of photography, John Bailey; edited by John Bloom; music by Howard Shore; production designer, David Gropman; produced by Scott Rudin and Arlene Donovan; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Paul Newman (Sully), Jessica Tandy (Miss Beryl), Bruce Willis (Carl), Melanie Griffith (Toby), Pruitt Taylor Vince (Rub), Dylan Walsh (Peter), Alexander Goodwin (Will), Gene Saks (Wirf), Josef Sommer (Clive Jr.), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Officer Raymer), Philip Bosco (Judge Flatt), Catherine Dent (Charlotte), Carl J. Matusovich (Wacker), Jay Patterson (Jocko), Jerry Mayer (Ollie), Margo Martindale (Birdy), Angelica Page (Ruby), Elizabeth Wilson (Vera), Richard Mawe (Ralph), and Alice Drummond (Hattie).


Crooklyn (1994, Spike Lee)

Crooklyn is a series of memories. They’re mostly the main character’s memories—and if they’re not, they’re definitely from her perception. The memories start in the spring and go through the summer. Director Lee and his cowriters—and siblings (Crooklyn is semi-autobiographical) Joie Lee and Cinqué Lee frequently change the pace of the memories. Some are long scenes with a lot of action, some are shorter transitional scenes, memorable for their placement in the narrative and their location. The Lee siblings are very comfortable with the film’s narrative distance and changing it; they nimbly move between characters during the first half or so then turn around and slow down to focus on the protagonist. When they speed up again, there’s still the same tighter focus, but a lot more going on and at a different pace.

Zelda Harris is the protagonist. She’s nine years old; the only daughter of schoolteacher Alfre Woodward and successful working musician but not successful composer Delroy Lindo. She has four brothers. Carlton Williams plays the oldest, presumably Spike. He’s a jerk. He also gets the most material to do because he’s the oldest and he and Harris have a whole character arc going on through the movie but it’s one of the quietest subplots, because there’s not much room for laughs. Because Crooklyn has a lot of laughs. Woodward’s intense and the kids are stinkers. And Lindo not really being any help is one of the louder subplots. The masculinity isn’t terribly toxic, but it’s far from good. It leads to some big fights and tense discussions between Woodward and Lindo, which feature some phenomenal acting from the pair. Harris usually gets involved too, since her brothers are too busy being boys. The brothers being boys often contributes to a lot of the humor, which the script never uses to alleviate the drama. The two can coexist, but ones not a solution for the other.

As the film goes on—it starts towards the end of a school year, with Harris dreading the possibility of leaving Brooklyn to visit Southern relations over the summer. There are no scenes at the school. The film either takes place on the block, in the house, or down South. Until the third act, anyway. Third act is a completely different—appropriately—story for locations. But as the film goes on, the Lees take their time establishing the ground situation, establishing the characters, establishing the relationships. Exposition dumps are rare, usually only when they need to give context for an earlier detail, usually from Woodward, who is very fallible, she’s just not fallible about dumb things. She’s never sainted in the film, but she’s closer than anyone else to being a saint. The script doesn’t shy away from children’s cruelty or stupidity (not even Harris’s). It also is very careful in how it portrays Lindo, who takes the longest to get established. It’s a great script.

When summer finally arrives—in the second half of the film—and Harris goes down South to visit aunt and uncle Frances Foster and Norman Matlock and, more, cousin Patriece Nelson, Harris gets to really run the movie for a while. She gets to experience the strangeness of her relations and the South, but not to be aware of how that experience is going to perturb her character development.

Because she’s nine.

When the summer vacation is over, there’s a different Harris, but there’s also a very different situation waiting for her back at home. The script changes the pacing of the memories. Some events get missed, some events have more weight, and we’re watching Harris exist through them and experience them but have no idea what’s happening to her. Crooklyn isn’t a kids movie per se… but it’s also not not a kids movie. The film’s always from a kid’s eye-level, let’s say, and then it turns out that eye-level just perfectly matches Harris’s. It’s a really great script.

Performances—Harris, Woodward, and Lindo are the whole show. There are some really good supporting performances (Isaiah Washington’s performance as a Vietnam vet deserves its own movie). But it’s all about Harris, Woodward, and Lindo. As for whether Harris has better scenes with Woodward or Lindo on her own… it’s probably Lindo, just because how the character development arc goes. But there are still some fabulous ones between Woodward and Harris. Harris knows Lindo’s not exactly the most responsible adult. So lots of gristle for scenes.

Technically, Crooklyn’s near flawless. Great photography from Arthur Jafa, even better editing from Barry Alexander Brown, which is made even more effective thanks to the awesome Terrence Blanchard score. Wynn Thomas’s production design is awesome too. Especially when Harris goes down South and Lee stretches the screen to show it as otherworldly (distorted and televised). The production design is almost more important during that section, since the audience has to see and understand what Harris is seeing because she might not really understand it.

The stretching is director Lee’s most extreme style choice. He’s got a dream sequence, which fits into the film’s existing stylistic flourishes—Spike Lee appears a neighborhood glue-sniffer and jerk, so he gives himself most of the flash. It fits, given how his stand-in, Williams, treats Harris. Meanwhile, Joie Lee–Harris being her stand-in—shows up as a slightly overbearing aunt. Uncredited. Third screenwriter Cinqué Lee doesn’t cameo.

I haven’t even gotten to the soundtrack, which maybe was produced by Alex Steyermark. The use of seventies songs is exquisite, both in the narrative—as a detail—or as non-diegetic accompaniment of the scenes. It’s awesome.

Crookyln’s awesome. Harris, Woodward, Linda, and Lees Spike, Joie, and Cinqué make something special.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Spike Lee; screenplay by Joie Lee, Spike Lee, and Cinqué Lee, based on a story by Joie Lee; director of photography, Arthur Jafa; edited by Barry Alexander Brown; music by Terence Blanchard; production designer, Wynn Thomas; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Zelda Harris (Troy), Alfre Woodard (Carolyn), Delroy Lindo (Woody), Carlton Williams (Clinton), Sharif Rashed (Wendell), Tse-Mach Washington (Joseph), Christopher Knowings (Nate), José Zúñiga (Tommy La La), Isaiah Washington (Vic), David Patrick Kelly (Tony Eyes), Patriece Nelson (Viola), Frances Foster (Aunt Song), Norman Matlock (Uncle Clem), Vondie Curtis-Hall (Uncle Brown), Spike Lee (Snuffy), N. Jeremi Duru (Right Hand Man), Ivelka Reyes (Jessica), and Joie Lee (Aunt Maxine).


Chungking Express (1994, Wong Kar-Wai)

Chungking Express has two parts. First part is lonely young plainclothes cop Kaneshiro Takeshi counting down the days to his birthday, which is also thirty days since his girlfriend of five years dumped him. Simultaneously, sort of middle person drug trafficker Brigitte Lin loses her latest batch of mules (once they’re loaded up with the coke in luggage and person and at the airport, they run off when she’s buying the tickets). If Lin can’t find them, her creep boss (Thom Baker) will have her killed. Director Wong opens the film with stylized slow motion action; Kaneshiro running through the crowded Hong Kong streets after a suspect or something, almost bumping into Lin (who’s in a blonde wig, raincoat, and sunglasses—at night—all movie). Kaneshiro, narrating, explains he’s just come so close to Lin without meeting her and in two days, he’ll be in love with her. So presumably Express is going to be that story. And it is that story. Until it turns out Lin and Kaneshiro’s violent, melancholy romance is just a warm-up. A mood prologue.

The second part is Faye Wong and Tony Chiu-Wai Leung. Leung is a different cop, a little older, and in uniform. Wong works at the counter-only restaurant where Leung gets his coffee. And where Kaneshiro also gets his coffee. But there’s no crossover. Director Wong really did just do a warm-up. Because even though Kaneshiro is the narrator at the beginning, eventually Lin gets some. And her narration is the best in the film. She’s been a complete mystery—sort of unsympathetic but funny as she bosses her mules around, but still sympathetic because Baker’s clearly got some weird thing going on with her, which she might not even know about. You get to know her from her actions and behavior, not narration like Kaneshiro. When Lin does get the narration and makes a revealing statement or two, they send these shockwaves through the rest of the first story. She doesn’t get much narration and even though Kaneshiro gets a bunch, he becomes secondary. It’s clearly Lin’s story. Even though she never goes to the restaurant so has no crossover with kindly owner Chen Jinquan.

Chen gives romantic advice to Kaneshiro, who spends most of his time in the film at the restaurant waiting for his ex-girlfriend to call him. He has this great subplot about expired pineapple. He’s a complete sad sack and comically naive in his narration. Meanwhile, Lin’s sometimes mercurially merciless. There’s this fantastic contrast between their two stories. Wong has some of the same styles—the slow motion action sequences all work the same—but there’s some other visual distinction. Chungking Express is an exemplar of how narrative distance and style can work together while going at very different speeds. It’s awesome.

If Wong wanted, it could be neo-noir. But instead it’s a deliberate drama with Lin and Kaneshiro sometimes meeting in their orbits and how it affects them.

Back to Faye Wong and Tony Leung. Director and writer Wong gives them this third act story with the narrative distance changing to transition things along. It starts as an echo of the first story. Lovelorn cop, wise owner. Only this time there’s Faye Wong. She starts as a foil then becomes the protagonist. Not just of the story, but of the film. Director Wong went through the first part so we could see Faye Wong’s story, which almost entirely without narration as she starts stalking Leung. Comically and lovably, but definitely stalking. Director Wong always keeps this really light mood to Faye Wong hanging out in Leung’s apartment and messing with his stuff. He never breaks from the film’s sharp visual focus. While Express is a film about quiet, sometimes private moments between people, Wong uses the enormity of the city—artificially muffled, but still sharp-as the stage for those moments. That style—infused with bubbly—just further spotlights the film on Faye Wong. It’s jarring when director Wong changes the pace for the third act.

The first story takes place over two and a half days. There’s even a clock involved; the dates of the present action matter to the story and characters. Well, to Kaneshiro anyway. The second story is very loose in pacing, but also extremely precise. Director Wong only wants to give so much of the story at each point in the story. It’s a relaxed pacing, much different from the first story, much different from the beginning of the second story itself. Wong slows things down and lets the film enjoy itself. Faye Wong and Tony Leung are both really charming in the film. The first story is the neo-noir romance, the second half is the romantic comedy, and they’re almost exactly the same, stylistically. But without Faye Wong narrating even through her longer scenes. There’s more time without narration. A lot more. And there’s an entirely different sense of danger. It’s a wryly comedic one, done in a style where there’s no wry comedy. Because more than anything else—even a spectacular vehicle for Faye Wong—it’s this sad sack romantic drama about these two cops who can’t get over their heartache. And they don’t understand how their potential romances exist away from them. In very, very different ways, but it’s a definite echo. It’s a beautifully constructed narrative, beautifully edited as it plays out on screen narrative. Director Wong and his crew do… I don’t know, I’m running low on positive adjectives. The film’s technically breathtaking.

Great photography from Christopher Doyle and Lau Wai-keung. Great editing from William Chang, Kai Kit-Wai, and Kwong Chi-Leung. The film wouldn’t work without them. Or the music. Frankie Chan and Roel A. García’s score is awesome. The use of popular music is awesome. And essential. It’s magnificent.

Wong’s the best performance, then Leung, then Lin, then Kaneshiro. Kaneshiro’s still great. Chen’s perfect as the restaurant owner. Valerie Chow’s good as Leung’s ex-girlfriend because Leung’s so much the second story protagonist for a while he gets flashbacks. For a movie where Leung’s always walking around in tighty-whiteys, there are also some lovely romantic scenes. Director Wong and the crew bring the sexy for the salad days flashbacks, bringing yet another style into the film, which Wong still keeps once Faye Wong takes over, even though the narrative content has changed.

So astoundingly good. Chungking Express is astoundingly good. I’m livid at myself for not seeing it sooner.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Wong Kar-Wai; directors of photography, Christopher Doyle and Lau Wai-Keung; edited by William Chang, Kai Kit-Wai, and Kwong Chi-Leung; music by Frankie Chan and Roel A. García; production designer, Chang; produced by Jeffrey Lau and Chan Yi-kan for Jet Tone Production.

Starring Brigitte Lin (Blonde), Kaneshiro Takeshi (Zhiwu), Faye Wong (Faye), Tony Chiu-Wai Leung (Cop 663), Chen Jinquan (Manager of ‘Midnight Express’), Valerie Chow (Air Hostess), Thom Baker (Drug Dealer), and Zhen Liang (May).


This Unfamiliar Place (1994, Eva Ilona Brzeski)

This Unfamiliar Place is content in search of presentation. Director Brzeski’s father survived the Nazi attack and occupation of Poland. He never talked about it. Then there’s an unspecified earthquake (maybe the San Francisco-Oakland one of 1989, but it’s sort of immaterial because Brzeski’s not living there at the time). She thinks somehow this place she once lived having an earthquake means she can now understand her father’s experience in Poland.

Her father, who answers unheard interview questions both on camera and in voiceover, doesn’t think she can ever understand. Sadly Brzeski’s wordy, obtuse narration never reflects enough on those statements.

Then there’s a bunch of footage from Poland when Brzeski goes with her father; just people living in Poland in the early nineties. Kids staring at the camera, a cow, all sorts of stuff. It’s like a travelogue with way too much context.

But instead of just ending when it’s only a misfire, Brzeski keeps going–with a lot of that meandering narration–before getting to her father and he’s got so much, both as a visual presence and as a interviewee, well, it becomes clear there’s definitely enough material for This Unfamiliar Place to be something… only Brzeski doesn’t know what. It’s not what she thought it would be, so it’s therefor nothing. Only it’s not nothing.

Brzeski’s technical filmmaking–she directed, edited, photographed–is all good. The short’s not wanting in those regards. Scott Starrett’s music is decent too. Its thesis and the exploration of that thesis… not successful. Way too narrow, way too constrained, way too closed.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Edited, photographed, produced, and directed by Eva Ilona Brzeski; music by Scott Starrett.

Starring Andrzej Brzeski.


Puppet Master 5 (1994, Jeff Burr)

Puppet Master 5 opens with the series’s (unfortunately) standard lengthy opening title sequences. There’s nothing exciting about it, just white text on black and Richard Band’s theme in the background. The film’s single surprise in the titles is Band just getting an “original music by” credit. Michael Wetherwax is here to adapt it. He’s the Ken Thorne of Puppet Master movies.

He actually does a great job. Puppet Master 5’s music sounds different. It’s got more energy during the slasher sequences. It gets so weird during one of the chase scenes, it sounds like the wrong music track was laid down. But it works. It’s lively.

A lot of Puppet Master 5 is lively. But the film does a lot to delay that energy. After the opening titles, there’s a scene with Ron O’Neal as a police detective interrogating lead Gordon Currie. Puppet Master 5 takes place right after 4. Currie is a genius scientist who gets chosen to be puppet master to an assortment of sentient, animate puppets. They’re all being hunted by an evil Egyptian demon. O’Neal doesn’t believe Currie’s story. Lawyer Diane McBain makes concerned faces. For a moment, Puppet Master 5 seems like it’s at least going to be a little different. The actors will be better. O’Neal might not have great lines and his part might be mispelled in the end credits, but he gives a professional performance. Same with McBain. She has maybe one line. It all feels strangely competent.

Then, of course, the movie fumbles and flashbacks back. A five minute flashback of the last movie’s events. For all those people who thought Puppet Master 5 would be a good jumping on point for the series.

The first puppet sequence doesn’t impress. A puppet escaping from the police lock-up while the officer-in-charge listens to musak. In fact, it’s an ominous sign for the film’s music, so it’s rather cool it turns out to be okay.

But then Ian Ogilvy shows up. He’s playing Currie’s boss. Not of the animate killer (but only bad people) puppets but of the science thing. Ogilvy’s kind of great. He’s hamming it through, the stuck-up British guy who’s actually not entirely proper. Turns out Ogilvy’s in league with the Pentagon to weaponize the puppets. “Holy shit that WAS Clu Gulager” Clu Gulager cameos for a scene as one of the Pentagon suits.

Anyway. Ogilvy hires these three idiots to help him steal the puppets. Nicholas Guest is the boss of the other two idiots. He’s no fun. Willard E. Pugh is fun and nearly good, certainly the best of the three. But Duane Whitaker is more fun, though not actually good. Even if you remove the “Holy shit that’s Maynard; is he going to go get the gimp” factor from Whitaker, he’s still more fun. Because the good puppets spend some time beating him up for being a jerk. They can’t kill him, because they’re good, but giving him a solid beatdown is something else. It even leads to an amusing moment when the puppets hide Whitaker’s unconscious body from female “lead” Chandra West.

All the killing from the puppets is the little demon monster. The big demon humps–literally–his life force into a little demon monster. It’s the same model as the last movie’s little demon monsters, which look like the little Lost World: Jurassic Park dinosaurs but without tails. And done with puppets, not CGI.

And it’s also supposed to be a puppet. Because there’s a long scene with the big demon–presumably a larger than life puppet, but terribly designed and detailed (though the hand effects are amazing)–talking to the little demon monster and it sounds like he too is a “puppet master.” Or at least he really likes to talk to his action figures.

The little demon monster is different from last movie’s because it’s got bling. It starts hunting down Ogilvy and the three idiots.

Those scenes, played equally for humor and suspense, work out well. They take up a lot of Puppet Master 5’s second act and, even when it’s Guest and there’s even not a unspecific bemusement quality, the scenes work. Adolfo Bartoli’s lighting actually has personality. He and Burr all of a sudden decide to have some style. And with Whitaker dressed as a cowboy, Pugh as a Shaft knockoff, Guest as a sports fan, and Ogilvy as a British square–it’s a lot. In the right way.

Sadly, Puppet Master 5 isn’t just these four idiots getting in the middle of the little demon hunting the puppets. There’s still Currie and West. And Teresa Hill, who plays West’s friend who the demon monsters attacked last movie. She’s in the hospital–not one of the film’s more convincing sets–but she can see the big demon and his plans. Like the one where he stands behind the little demon and tells the toy he’s going to hump his life force into it.

That footage is repeated at least twice in the movie.

So at first it seems like Currie and West might have a storyline together. Currie has this sex dream about West being all sultry in a bath tub full of blood; see, the puppets are bleeding her out and she feels all naughty for Currie.

It’s weird. Unpleasantly so. It also goes nowhere. Because once Currie and West get to the closed hotel (along with the long opening titles, another series standard), West gets nothing to do beyond scream and try to save Currie. Currie meanwhile gets to do his computer magic to communicate with Hill. She’s projecting her consciousness into the computer. Oddly, there’s not a lot she can do because the computer’s DOS, after all.

Eventually the little demon comes for West and Currie and the puppets get involved and Guy Rolfe is back. He’s the original puppet master. Now he shows up with his head superimposed over one of the puppets so he can give words of wisdom to Currie.

Currie starts the film a lot better than he ends it. He’s intolerable by the third act; somehow him being knocked out and West trying to save him is more annoying than when he’s pretending to read the computer screen and it’s hard to imagine anything more annoying than that one. Except maybe his inability to deliver one-liners.

Ogilvy’s kind of great. Though his glasses change lenses. Or sometimes appear not to have lenses at all. It’s distracting.

The movie would’ve been a lot better with just Ogilvy and the idiots getting hunted by puppets. The more Currie, the more West, the worse Puppet Master 5 gets. It’s unfortunate. Director Burr, cinematographer Bartoli, editor Margeret-Anne Smith, and composer Wetherwax (sorry, adapter)–they push through the budget restrictions and deliver some actually horrific little demon kills. When it’s not going well, they just keep going until it works. It’s impressive (and unexpected).

Shame about the rest of the movie, which can’t even get a good voice performance out of Jake McKinnon as the big demon. Movie knows to cameo Clu Gulager but not get a good voice performance for the villain. Of course it doesn’t.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Jeff Burr; screenplay by Steven E. Carr, Jo Duffy, Todd Henschell, Douglas Aarniokoski, and Keith Payson, based on characters created by David Schmoeller; director of photography, Adolfo Bartoli; edited by Margeret-Anne Smith; music by Michael Wetherwax; production designer, Milo; produced by Charles Band; released by Paramount Home Video.

Starring Gordon Currie (Rick Myers), Chandra West (Susie), Ian Ogilvy (Jennings), Nicholas Guest (Hendy), Duane Whitaker (Scott), Willard E. Pugh (Jason), Teresa Hill (Lauren), and Guy Rolfe (Toulon).


Timecop (1994, Peter Hyams)

Timecop is deceptively competent. Sort of. There’s often something off about it, but then director Hyams will do something else decent and distract. Hyams also manages to get a perfectly serviceable performance out of lead Jean-Claude Van Damme. Van Damme’s unsure, cautious performance–he tries to understate his terrible attempts at one-liners–is a great counter to Ron Silver’s bad guy.

Silver’s all over the place, the evil senator out to use time travel to win the presidental election and go after “special interests.” Who knew Timecop would be so prescient. Anyway, Silver’s a caricature playing a caricature. He’s definitely evil; he’s just nothing more.

Some of what’s wrong is the plotting. Timecop has a full plot, it just doesn’t have any character development. It’s like someone went through and chucked it. Van Damme’s wife dies mysterious. He’s haunted. And he’s a timecop. Even though he doesn’t do much as a timecop. The movie apparently doesn’t have the budget for multiple jaunts, just a couple before Van Damme is only jumping back to 1994.

You know it’s the past because there aren’t the future cars of 2004. They’re bulky self-driving things. Their design is unfortunate, but there’s a certain dedication to the special effects and design work. It’s like Hyams refused to be dismissive of the concept and he was going to do whatever he could.

Mia Sara’s okay as Van Damme’s wife, though she’s only around to be a damsel in distress and to beg Van Damme for nookie. Screenwriter Mark Verheiden does caricature, never anything more. When he gets around to a contradictory character, someone who can’t just be a thin caricature, he dumps the character as soon as possible.

It’s what happens to Gloria Rueben. She’s not good, but she’s kind of likable. She’s not as likable as Bruce McGill, who has to pretend to give a crap about time travel exposition. He’s Van Damme’s gritty boss who’s really just a softie.

The rest of the cast is the seemingly endless group of thugs Silver sends after Van Damme. Some of the resulting fight scenes are good, but Hyams drags it out too long. The movie’s not even a hundred minutes and the last third has multiple slowdowns. There’s an action set piece on a Victorian house’s roof. First, how does Van Damme afford such a big house in the DC area. Second, it’s boring. Van Damme can’t high kick or do the splits while he’s crawling around the roof–in a rainstorm–trying to save Sara (again). Hyams’s direction of the sequence doesn’t suggest any great interest in doing an action scene on a Victorian house’s roof. Nothing about the architecture actually lends itself to the sequence. Someone must have really wanted an action scene on a house roof.

By the third act, the absence of character development and transitional scenes have caught up with Timecop. Even the time travel-related story twists get tired. The movie’s hook isn’t Van Damme’s fighting, it isn’t the time travel, it isn’t the special effects. So what’s the hook supposed to be? Ron Silver ostensibly slumming only to be revealed as a perfect B-movie villain? Sloane Peterson? Certainly not Hyam’s cinematography (he’ll compose a perfectly good shot then screw it up with the lighting). Not Mark Isham’s simultaneously derivative and generic sci-fi movie score.

Timecop’s a disappointment. Hyams appears to know better, but doesn’t do better. I mean, Sam Raimi produced Timecop. He must have know the lighting was a big problem in the dailies.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed and photographed by Peter Hyams; screenplay by Mark Verheiden, based on a story by Mike Richardson and Verheiden and a comic book by Richardson and Verheiden; edited by Steven Kemper; music by Mark Isham; production designer, Philip Harrison; produced by Moshe Diamant, Sam Raimi, and Rob Tapert; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Jean-Claude Van Damme (Max), Mia Sara (Melissa), Ron Silver (McComb), Bruce McGill (Matuzak), Gloria Reuben (Fielding), Scott Bellis (Ricky), and Jason Schombing (Atwood).


Muriel’s Wedding (1994, P.J. Hogan)

There are a lot of things going on in Muriel’s Wedding, so many writer-director Hogan’s script gets to the point he’s constantly raveling and unraveling foreground and background threads. The threads are all wrapped around the film’s center–lead Toni Collette’s complicated desire to change herself. She mostly accomplishes it through various lies, though cheque fraud plays a big part. Her lying becomes, as the film goes on, a compulsion, one the viewer can identify even when it’s unclear how Collette is processing the situation. Despite her various wrongdoings and insensitivites, Collette is a sympathetic protagonist; she’s ill-equipped for the world, which the first act explores in detail.

Collette lives in a useless Australian tourist town. She’s a high school dropout with few career prospects, unemployed, living at home. Her father (Bill Hunter) is a mildly corrupt local politician who verbally demeans Collette, her siblings, and wife Jeanie Drynan at every opportunity. He’s also a little too friendly with local beauty supply maven Gennie Nevinson. All of Collette’s friends are insipid, shallow beauty queens who mock Collette about her physical appearance.

Everything changes when Collette runs into former high school classmate Rachel Griffiths, who could care less what Collette’s faux friends think of her and thinks Collette is doing just fine. Unfortunately, quite a bit of Griffiths’s opinion is based on Collette’s lies. Many of the lies involve Collette’s desire to get married, which would–in Collette’s eyes–undoubtedly result in her becoming a new, improved person. At the same time, Collette and Griffiths build this otherwise sincere friendship, with Griffiths the booster Collette never had.

Hogan’s script has a lot of laughs in the first half, which has Collette and Griffiths meeting on a tropical vacation, as well as during their move to the big city. The present action is rather fast in Muriel’s Wedding; Hogan and editor Jill Bilcock sometimes identifying don’t slow down to identify how much time has passed between scenes. Rarely in the next subsequent scene and usually in the one after. It keeps the film, which almost two hours, sailing.

Despite some rather bleak circumstances, Muriel’s Wedding is never a black comedy. Tragedies and hardships aren’t for laughs. The characters can be funny–or just plain mocked–but not their circumstances. As funny as the film gets, Hogan always relies on the actors to bring grounding, particularly Collette, Griffiths, Drynan, and Hunter. The laughs often come from how uncomfortable moments can get, whether through Collette’s deceptions (or naiveté) or Hunter’s willful mistreatment of his family.

As the characters react to the plot’s various curveballs during the second act, Hogan narrows the film to Collette. It also changes the pace of things. Hogan has more content in summary scene exposition than in his non-summary sequences. It fits in great with the slightly fantastical characters.

Great supporting performances from Hunter and Drynan. Griffiths is wonderful, ably essaying a part bouncing between comedy and drama. But Collette is the whole show. Even when Griffiths is being hilarious, Collette commands the attention. Hogan exquisitely juggles the dynamic of their relationship, with Martin McGrath’s moody but pragmatic photography playing a big part.

The only problem is the rushed third act, where Hogan speeds a tad fast through all the right notes.

Muriel’s Wedding is magnificent.

Oh, and a big part of the film is Collette’s healthiest obsession–ABBA. So lots of great ABBA music, sometimes for comic effect, sometimes for emotional.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by P.J. Hogan; director of photography, Martin McGrath; edited by Jill Bilcock; music by Peter Best; production designer, Paddy Reardon; produced by Lynda House and Jocelyn Moorhouse; released by Roadshow Film Distributors.

Starring Toni Collette (Muriel Heslop), Rachel Griffiths (Rhonda Epinstall), Bill Hunter (Bill Heslop), Jeanie Drynan (Betty Heslop), Gennie Nevinson (Deidre Chambers), Daniel Lapaine (David Van Arkle), and Matt Day (Brice Nobes).


Trancers 5: Sudden Deth (1994, David Nutter)

There are no good parts to Trancers 5: Sudden Deth. The best parts, however, are when you forget you’re watching an actual motion picture–or even a direct-to-video release on a name label–and think you’re instead watching some terrible fantasy movie shot by the staff of a renaissance fair. At one point there’s a magic map and it looks like an eight year-old’s treasure map to their Halloween candy (hidden under their bed). It’s ludicrous. Not in an endearing way, but definitely in a way slightly more amusing than anything else going on in Trancers 5. Because Trancers 5 is really, really bad.

Tim Thomerson escapes as unscathed as humanly possible. He doesn’t have a single good line in the entire movie, not a single good moment because Nutter’s direction is so lame and Peter David’s script is so weak; he never embarrasses himself further than the inherent embarrassment of being involved with such a production.

Almost every other performance is horrific. Clabe Hartley, Ty Miller, Terri Ivens. They’re all awful. Mark Arnold is awful in a different way; he tries and fails. No one else tries.

The story has Thomerson and Miller going to a haunted castle to get a time diamond to send Thomerson back home. It’s occasionally a lot like a tone-deaf, terrible Army of Darkness knock-off. The plotting is dumb. Just about halfway through, it gets a lot worse as Miller gets the first of his many “I’m an energy vampire but I’m okay” speeches. Bad writing, bad directing, bad acting. Thomerson gets credit for not rolling his eyes in the two shots during these deliveries.

The boringness of Trancers 5–the relentless lameness throughout–is the worst part. It opens with too long opening titles, then a seven minute recap of the previous film (poorly narrated by Arnold). Then it’s only like an hour of actual movie and every minute of it is lame.

Also lame are Adolfo Bartoli’s photography and Gary Fry’s music.

Trancers 5 is dreadful.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by David Nutter; screenplay by Peter David, based on characters created by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo; director of photography, Adolfo Bartoli; edited by Lisa Bromwell; music by Gary Fry; production designer, Mircea-Dudus Neagu; produced by Michael Catalano, Oana Paunescu and Vlad Paunescu; released by Paramount Home Video.

Starring Tim Thomerson (Jack Deth), Ty Miller (Prospero), Terri Ivens (Shaleen), Clabe Hartley (Lord Caliban), Stacie Randall (Lyra), Mark Arnold (Lucius), Jeff Moldovan (Harson) and Stephen Macht (Harris).


Trancers 4: Jack of Swords (1994, David Nutter)

I’m not sure where to start with Trancers 4 except I don’t recommend anyone else ever watch this film. Especially not if you like Trancers or even Tim Thomerson. That definite discouragement aside, for a direct-to-video sequel shot in Romania and set in a different universe like an episode of the original “Star Trek” just so they could use castles and magic and dumb shit, Trancers 4: Jack of Swords could be worse.

It’s bad. It’s a very bad film and director Nutter completely misses the chance to give it any charm whatsoever; he’s really bad. But it could be worse. Peter David’s script is quirky in its plotting. One can only imagine who he had in mind for playing the villain. Instead of anyone good, it’s Clabe Hartley, who kind of acts like a Chippendales dancer trying out to be a magician in 1984. But I’m not even sure Hartley gives the worst performance in the film. He’s energetic. He’s bad at his job but he’s trying.

But Hartley’s still bad because Trancers 4 is bad. It’s just affably simple. Once you get past all the stupidity in the production–like rebel leader Terri Ivens having on a leather bikini top–David’s script is reliably predictable. Nutter butchers whatever pacing the script’s got and doesn’t seem to direct the actors at all.

The not always bad performances are from Stacie Randall, Ty Miller, Alan Oppenheimer and Stephen Macht. Mark Arnold for some reason gets the worst direction in the film as Hartley’s sidekick and it appears to be because Nutter doesn’t understand the script. He probably should’ve asked David to explain it to him. And Arnold, who’s lost, but occasionally seems like he thinks he’s trapped in a terrible comedy.

Lochlyn Munro is bad.

Technically, it could be worse. There are no crew standouts but it’s obvious Nutter’s bad at the whole shot composition thing so there’s only so much the cinematographer and the editor can do. Gary Fry’s music is pretty lame. And the stupid thing has three minute opening titles; they’re desperately trying to pad this thing. It’s seventy-four minutes and has some boring stretches.

Maybe the worst part is the opening with Thomerson in future L.A. was terrible but not without potential. Thomerson’s lost here. The direction’s bad, he’s sharing too much of the script with the supporting cast, it’s a bad part. Thomerson does try and he’s still Thomerson, but Tracers 4 fails him worst of all.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by David Nutter; screenplay by Peter David, based on characters created by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo; director of photography, Adolfo Bartoli; edited by Lisa Bromwell; music by Gary Fry; production designer, Mircea-Dudus Neagu; produced by Michael Catalano, Oana Paunescu and Vlad Paunescu; released by Paramount Home Video.

Starring Tim Thomerson (Jack Deth), Stacie Randall (Lyra), Clabe Hartley (Caliban), Ty Miller (Prospero), Mark Arnold (Lucius), Terri Ivens (Shaleen), Lochlyn Munro (Sebastian), Alan Oppenheimer (Farr) and Stephen Macht (Harris).


Pulp Fiction (1994, Quentin Tarantino)

There’s a lot of great moments in Pulp Fiction. There’s not a lot of great filmmaking–the taxi ride conversation between Bruce Willis and Angela Jones is about as close as director Tarantino gets to it–but there are definitely a lot of great moments. There’s the chemistry between John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson. There’s the Christopher Walken monologue, which is hilarious.

It’s also beyond problematic in terms of Tarantino’s force-feeding of racism to the audience; at a certain point, very, very early on, the viewer either has to accept Tarantino’s conceit racist language doesn’t make one a racist or just stop watching the film. Because the real racists are actually literal monsters, something the criminals of Pulp Fiction usually aren’t (at least on screen). Oh, and Tarantino’s wife in the film is black. So his slur-laden monologue–terribly delivered, of course, as Tarantino’s a horrific actor–means he really isn’t racist. It’s just supposed to be funny. You know, agree with him about it.

There’s probably lots written about Tarantino and racism. Lots excusing him, I’m sure. But Pulp Fiction doesn’t want to talk about racism or much else. It’s another stool Tarantino steps on to deliver the film. It’s not about the real world or real people, it’s about Tarantino’s version of “pulp fiction,” which involves magic and so on. Anyway, I’m off topic. A look at the film’s place in mainstreaming “post-racial” racist humor deserves a serious discussion, which I’m going to do here.

Wow, after that lede, how do I get back on track with saying a lot of nice things about the film and Tarantino’s writing….

He gets phenomenal performances from Travolta and Willis. Travolta somewhat more than Willis, even though Willis gets better material to himself. Travolta’s good solo, but nothing compared to when he’s with Jackson and Jackson gets the only real character role in the film. Everyone else plays a caricature or worse, but Jackson gets to stop and look around at the world and figure out how to live in it. He’s amazing, whether he’s delivering Tarantino’s comical expository dialogue, the tough guy threatening, the soul searching; Jackson does it all.

There’s some solid support from Maria de Medeiros as Willis’s girlfriend. The film’s in three sections–Travolta goes on a date with crime boss Ving Rhames’s wife, Uma Thurman in the first, Willis rips off Rhames and is on the run in the second, then the third part is just an amusement chapter for Jackson and Travolta. de Medeiros is barely in the film, doesn’t get to leave a crappy motel room set, yet she still makes more of the character than Thurman makes of hers.

You can say Thurman’s got a well-written role, but you’re wrong. Sorry. Tarantino doesn’t want to ruminate on masculinity, but he gets in the ballpark (Willis as the classic Hollywood hero). The female characters, Thurman in particular, get thin material. You need to think about it. Pulp Fiction is, like I said, rather problematic. It doesn’t help Thurman her wig has to do most of the acting with the way Tarantino directs her. His direction of her talking heads scenes with Travolta is his worst work as a director in the entire film. Like I said, problematic. It’s a good, very problematic motion picture.

Would it be better if cinematographer Andrzej Sekula weren’t really boring? Maybe. Sekula lights the picture to emphasize the performances, which is fine, only it’s not all close-ups or medium shots where it’d be appropriate. The solid, but not startling, editing from Sally Menke helps things a little though. There’s an energy to the film and when it goes slack, Fiction gets a little too long in the tooth. Since it’s three separate chapters, it’s particularly annoying when it goes slack right off with Thurman and Travolta’s date. Willis and Rhames’s story immediately saves the picture. Jackson and Travolta basically coast through on the last one.

Oh, and Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer aren’t good enough. Some of it’s the writing, some of it’s the directing, but quite a bit of it is their performances. It’s a strange misstep too, since Tarantino’s attention to narrative tone is one of the best things about the film.

Pulp Fiction is a solid, often troubling film. Tarantino doesn’t bite off more than he can chew, however–it’s assured, but not ambitious in anything but its length and bravado–because he doesn’t chew off much of anything with it.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Quentin Tarantino; screenplay by Tarantino, based on a story by Tarantino and Roger Avary; director of photography, Andrzej Sekula; edited by Sally Menke; production designer, David Wasco; produced by Lawrence Bender; released by Miramax Films.

Starring John Travolta (Vincent Vega), Samuel L. Jackson (Jules Winnfield), Uma Thurman (Mia Wallace), Bruce Willis (Butch Coolidge), Harvey Keitel (The Wolf), Tim Roth (Pumpkin), Amanda Plummer (Honey Bunny), Maria de Medeiros (Fabienne), Ving Rhames (Marsellus Wallace), Eric Stoltz (Lance), Rosanna Arquette (Jody) and Christopher Walken (Captain Koons).


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