1997

In the Gloaming (1997, Christopher Reeve)

In the Gloaming is a qualified success. If you’re trying to go for humanizing a guy dying of AIDS while his upper middle class White yuppie family is slow to realize he’s a dying person who they probably ought not to avoid because they’ll regret it… it does that job. Gloaming is an hour-long HBO movie, based on a New Yorker story, all set in and around Glenn Close and David Strathairn’s picture perfect home in Westchester County, New York. Straithairn presumably works in the city, but it’s never actually clear. Doesn’t really matter. Just they’ve got enough money to have a gorgeous house but no servants.

And son Robert Sean Leonard has come home to die.

The film’s a series of what you know the filmmakers would prefer you think of as vignettes, as Close bonds with Leonard while Strathairn gets pissy. Close has to overcome the fear she’s responsibility for Leonard being gay because she was nice to him as a kid. She wasn’t as nice to his sister, Bridget Fonda, who grew up to be too much of a yuppie even for Close, off married with child, but the son and husband don’t come around because AIDS is gross and so’s Leonard being gay. But it’s okay because Fonda’s going to cry when he’s dead? Maybe. Not resolved. The vignettes are more like clips of the character development without any follow-up. Like when Strathairn, finally coming to terms with Leonard’s impending death, thinks it’s a good time to go for some martial relations with Close. No follow-up on that one.

Plus Whoopi Goldberg’s just around as the nurse, who eventually makes Close feel better about herself.

The film’s… comprised. Screenwriter Will Scheffer does not have the chops to make the strained manners of the bourgeois somehow say more than if Strathairn actually sat down and had a conversation with Leonard. They talk a lot about how it’s going to happen, then never does. Because Strathairn’s a terrible guy, even though he grows tomatoes for Close to cook him even though he doesn’t like tomatoes much. But we’ve got to understand Strathairn’s position–he just wanted what must be a macho man in Westchester County 1997, a tennis playing gardener man. Instead he got son Leonard, who went off to Berkeley and became gay. Meanwhile, why doesn’t anyone love Fonda enough, she’s doing her part, working full-time and wearing pantsuits and being mean to her own son so he doesn’t turn out gay.

Yes, Gloaming is from 1997. Yes, it’s from HBO. Yes, it’s from a New Yorker story (but 1997 New Yorker so… I mean… right?). But it has a lot it’s not willing to address. Scared to address. Leaving Strathairn, Fonda, and Goldberg with somewhat pointless parts. Fonda’s scary good as the shittiest human being and Goldberg’s at least likable. Strathairn’s just tiresome. He’s a one note caricature, with some “details” thrown in to round him. Doesn’t work.

So after two paragraphs dunking on it, why is In the Gloaming a qualified success?

Because the stuff with Leonard and Close, as they bond and work through his imminent mortality—mind you, they don’t get real character development in the script because of that vignette structure–it’s great work from Close and Leonard. The script limits them, sure. But Reeve works the hell out of their scenes together. And it resolves their relationship just right. Then ruins it with the actual last scene, which is an eye-roll and a half.

But Leonard and Close. They’re real good. They do so much with… not so little, but so… comprised a material. They refuse to let it limit their performances, which is cool.

Reeve’s direction is fine. He likes crane shots and doesn’t get to do enough of them. Good photography from Frederick Elmes. David Ray’s editing is a little too hurried, which is strange because of the the oddly manipulative nature montages–it’s like HBO is slamming their affluent viewers over the head with, “It could be your sons too, White women ages 45-55 who like Glenn Close!”—but then Ray’s got no sense of cutting when it comes to the dialogue scenes.

It’s like Reeve tried to direct it as a stage adaptation but without the play backbone.

Very heavily Scottish-influenced Dave Grusin score, which is weird (and figures into the plot); it’s a good score, it’s just a lot.

But it’s definitely a missed opportunity overall. It’s aged like flat root beer.

So, technically, earnestly, but unenthusiastically:

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Christopher Reeve; teleplay by Will Scheffer, based on a story by Alice Elliott Dark; director of photography, Frederick Elmes; edited by David Ray; music by Dave Grusin; production designer, Andrew Jackness; costume designer, Jane Greenwood; produced by Nellie Nugiel; aired by HBO.

Starring Glenn Close (Janet), Robert Sean Leonard (Danny), David Strathairn (Martin), Bridget Fonda (Anne), and Whoopi Goldberg (Myrna).


Spawn (1997, Mark A.Z. Dippé), the director’s cut

Spawn is really bad.

It’s bad from the first frame, the first bad CGI vision of Hell. I’m not sure if it’s bad until the last frame, I didn’t bother with the end credits. But based on the music accompanying the start of the end credits… yes, yes, it’s bad until the final frame. Even if there’s a “Spawn Will Return in The Avengers” tag at the end. Even with such a tag, it’d be a bad frame. It’d probably be something promoting a John Leguizamo stand-up special or something. In fact, if Leguizamo didn’t at least get some kind of promotion thing built in… it’s even worse for him. And Spawn is very, very, very bad for John Leguizamo. If the movie weren’t so godawfully overcooked in post, he’d take the biggest hit from the film. Luckily for him, it’s so bad with all the CGI and whatnot and how the filmmakers employ it to hurry their narrative, you can’t even remember how Leguizamo never has a good moment despite the movie being on his platter.

Because Leguizamo works in Spawn. He’s in an absurdly big costume, he’s got really stupid lines; there’s not a single positive thing about Leguizamo’s role. It seems like they somehow convinced Leguizamo (or his agent) it was the Jack Nicholson part and somehow Leguizamo fell for it. Even on this obviously bargain basement—holy cow, it filmed in the United States of America and not the province of Ontario; I thought cinematographer Guillermo Navarro did a bad job of lighting Toronto, but no… he did a bad job lighting L.A. A really bad job. There are lots of really bad jobs done in Spawn. I started to make a list while watching it but pausing Spawn every thirty-four seconds got tedious fast.

Anyway; Leguizamo—all the stupid stuff the film asks of him, Leguizamo does it. With enthusiasm. He deserves a medal for his pointless efforts in this film.

Or at least an ending tag promoting some other project.

Because Leguizamo, who’s entirely unrecognizable in the makeup, is about the only person involved with Spawn anyone would have any interest in seeing in another project. Lead Michael Jai White, who’s better while in full makeup, which restricts his expression, than when he’s not in any makeup and just acting? Nah, no one wants to see more of him. Or D.B. Sweeney as White’s best friend who marries his fiancée (Theresa Randle) after White dies. White dies because his boss, CIA-ish boss Martin Sheen has a deal with literally demonic Leguizamo and killing White and sending him to Hell is part of the plan.

So five years later, White comes back. Why the time jump? To give Sweeney and Randle time to have gotten married and have a kid (Sydni Beaudoin in the film’s only sympathetic performance; you feel for Beaudoin, she doesn’t realize what a terrible movie she’s in and shouldn’t have to realize it, she’s just a kid). However, when demonically reincarnated White befriends homeless urchin Miko Hughes, Hughes gets none of that sympathy because he’s terrible. Not even after Hughes’s abusive father dies and Hughes is sad; Michael Papajohn plays the dad. He’s only of note because he can’t keep his eyes closed when he’s supposed to be dead. For a movie with so much CGI imagery related to eyes—White’s eyes are always farting green mist… I’m thinking of farting because there’s CGI farting from Leguizamo. But Papajohn’s eye twitches. Spawn’s the kind of movie where the actors can’t keep their eyes closed consistently, the director doesn’t care about it, and the editors can’t fix it. It’s the pits.

Other terrible things of note… Martin Sheen’s acting. You’d never believe he’d been nominated for any awards, much less acted before. He looks like a men’s hair dye spokesman and acts like one too. One who can’t act well. Randle’s bad too but you’re sympathetic because Randle gets to be male gazed throughout the film—Sheen’s going to rape her, just because; something to piss off both White and Sweeney. Bad girl Melinda Clarke—in what seems to be a plastic latex—gets male gazed worse but doesn’t have to be in the entire movie. Or be the damsel. Clarke’s gets male gazed in action scenes. Randle gets male gazed while she’s under threat of rape and mutilation. Cool movie.

Frank Welker’s hilariously bad as the voice of a devil. Like, so bad I thought it was just a computer filter, not they conned anyone to do this part for a credit.

Bad editing. Really bad editing. Todd Busch and Michael N. Knue do to the bad editing.

Graeme Revell’s score isn’t good at all but you stop hearing it after a while so it’s could be worse. More is worse with Spawn. The less the better.

Dippé’s a rather bad director. Especially when it comes to integrating CGI effects into scenes. For nine out of ten scenes, the cast doesn’t even seem to be aware they’re reacting to CGI effects. It’d be even worse if the movie weren’t just terrible.

Spawn is really bad. Of course it’s really bad.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Mark A.Z. Dippé; screenplay by Alan B. McElroy, based on a story by McElroy and Dippé and the comic book by Todd McFarlane; director of photography, Guillermo Navarro; edited by Todd Busch and Michael N. Knue; music by Graeme Revell; production designer, Philip Harrison; costume designer, Daniel J. Lester; produced by Clint Goldman; released by New Line Cinema.

Starring Michael Jai White (Al Simmons), John Leguizamo (Clown), Martin Sheen (Jason Wynn), Theresa Randle (Wanda Blake), Nicol Williamson (Cogliostro), D.B. Sweeney (Terry Fitzgerald), Melinda Clarke (Jessica Priest), Miko Hughes (Zack), Sydni Beaudoin (Cyan), Michael Papajohn (Zack’s Dad), and Frank Welker (The Devil Malebolgia).


Lawn Dogs (1997, John Duigan)

There’s a lot going on in Lawn Dogs. Lots of good things, lots of strange things, lots of bad things; the worst is probably housewife Kathleen Quinlan’s lover molesting her daughter, Mischa Barton. The film doesn’t want to deal with it. Lawn Dogs is lots of visual splendor, courtesy director Duigan and cinematographer Elliot Davis–set in a affluent Kentucky subdivision–and the film uses that visual splendor and the film’s general quirkiness to pivot away from ever dealing with the more difficult elements. On one hand, the story needs it to maintain its lyrical quality. On the other, it means there’s only so far the film can get.

Because even though it’s from ten year-old Barton’s perspective, it’s filtered. Barton knows what’s going on with mom Quinlan and the late teenage lover, David Barry Gray, but never shows how that knowledge affects her. She gets around to telling her parents–Christopher McDonald is the dad–about it, only to recant because Gray’s father is more affluent than McDonald and McDonald’s got political ambitions; Barton then recants. For a moment, Quinlan is about to become more than a precisely performed caricature and then Lawn Dogs drops that idea. McDonald only gets some depth at the very end, so it’s exactly disappointing but it’s a definite decision Duigan and writer Naomi Wallace are making with the narrative distance. These people are pushed back. Barton’s closer, Sam Rockwell–as the neighborhood lawn mower and Barton’s secret buddy (Rockwell’s twenty-one)–is closer. But McDonald and Quinlan? They’re so far back and so two dimensional and played for such dark humor, they don’t even cast shadows.

At the start of the film, Barton–who’s recovering from two open heart surgeries and being a social pariah before the family moved back to Kentucky for McDonald’s political ambition–happens across Rockwell’s trailer. He runs her off, she keeps coming back. Eventually he relents and allows himself to be befriended. The film is split, mostly, between Barton and Rockwell. While Barton gets a lot of time but not a lot of insight (she’s ten after all and living partially in a fairytale of her own mental construction), Rockwell gets a little less time but there’s the insight. It’s subtle, but it’s clear. Wallace’s script makes sure–without exposition–Rockwell’s character is clear. The most efficient aspects come when it’s how the rich people treat Rockwell, the subtle ways they humiliate him and, in some cases, objectify him. And his poverty. There’s a lot about class in Lawn Dogs, even if Barton’s too young to really understand it and Rockwell’s not going to talk about it. It’s quietly devastating; he wants to protect her from the damage she does with her privilege. She’s ten, after all.

Bruce McGill is the subdivision rent-a-cop. He’s worked his way up; not enough to live in the subdivision, but enough to crap all over Rockwell every chance he gets. McGill’s got the third best part in the film. He’s just pretending to be a caricature so he can fit in with the rich people.

The film hints at a timeline–Barton’s got her last heart doctor checkup–but doesn’t stick to it. It’s about she and Rockwell’s friendship and how the discovery of it destroys lives. Along the way, there’s a bit of fun, a lot about how living with crappy parents McDonald and Quinlan weighs on Barton (even if she can’t express it), and then some about Rockwell. There’s this vignette, completely separate from the rest of the film, where they visit his parents–Beth Grant and Tom Aldredge–in a mobile home park.

From the first shot of the park, it’s clear this lower working class existence is far more rewarding than the sterile perfection of the subdivision. Kids playing, for instance. In the subdivision, there’s only this one other kid–Miles Meehan–who’s younger than Barton and an already accomplished sociopath. The interlude with Grant and Aldredge, which deepens Rockwell’s back story without actually informing his character at all, is fantastic stuff. It just doesn’t much matter to the rest of Lawn Dogs because even if Barton gets to see Rockwell’s soul laid bare… she can’t really understand it. She’s ten.

One of the film’s greatest successes–of the actors, the direction, and especially the script–is never to make Rockwell and Barton’s friendship creepy. Rockwell’s character is aware of its inappropriateness, but he’s filled with (a previously unknown ability to capacity for) compassion for Barton. Meanwhile Barton has cast Rockwell in her mental fairytale, though his role keeps changing. Though the fairytale thing is really only first and third act. It doesn’t keep up through the second, which is too bad. At least in Barton’s understanding of her life through the fairytale’s lens, there’s some effort to show her understanding.

The acting from the leads is great. Rockwell’s better, obviously, because some of Barton’s performance is just about being a naive kid. It doesn’t always need a lot. Duigan and editor Humphrey Dixon edit the performances to maximum effect. It’s not so much Barton is wise beyond her years than Rockwell isn’t wise enough for his own. They’re wonderful together.

Good music from Trevor Jones; he toggles ably the cockeyed modern fairytale, the yuppie condemnation, the rural poverty, and the working class redemption. Again, there’s a lot going on in Lawn Dogs and–at the very least–Rockwell and writer Wallace (and McGill) get it. Even if Duigan wants to avoid it by doing some gorgeous composition with cinematographer Davis. The film’s gorgeous and quirky and intentionally distracted from itself.

The other supporting performances–Eric Mabius as Gray’s friend and a rich boy with an illicit crush on Rockwell, as well as Angie Harmon as a rich girl having an illicit affair with Rockwell–are good. Gray’s the weakest performance in the film, but also the thinest part. He’s just a dangerous predator.

McGill is really good. He gets overshadowed, sure–and rightly, Barton and Rockwell are great–but he’s really good.

Lawn Dogs is an accomplishment. Just could’ve been more of one if Duigan and Wallace wanted to deal with the tougher issues they raise instead of avoid them.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Duigan; written by Naomi Wallace; director of photography, Elliot Davis; edited by Humphrey Dixon; music by Trevor Jones; production designer, John Myhre; produced by Duncan Kenworthy; released by The Rank Organisation.

Starring Mischa Barton (Devon Stockard), Sam Rockwell (Trent Burns), Christopher McDonald (Mr. Stockard), Kathleen Quinlan (Mrs. Stockard), Bruce McGill (Nash), Eric Mabius (Sean), David Barry Gray (Brett), Angie Harmon (Pam), Beth Grant (Mrs. Burns), and Tom Aldredge (Mr. Burns).


Cop Land (1997, James Mangold)

Cop Land either has a lot of story going on and not enough content or a lot of content going on and not enough story. Also you could do variations of those statements with “plot.” Writer and director Mangold toggles Cop Land between two plot lines. First is lead Sylvester Stallone. Second is this big police corruption and cover-up story with Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, Robert Patrick, and Michael Rapaport. And some other guys. It’s the bigger story. Ray Liotta floats between, on his own thing. Almost everyone in Cop Land has their own story going and Mangold’s just checking in on it as background every once in a while. It creates this feeling of depth, even though there hasn’t actually been any plot development. The actors help.

But Mangold doesn’t have the same approach to narrative between the plot lines. Stallone’s in this character study, De Niro and Keitel are in this detached procedural. Stallone’s story could be a procedural, it would make sense for it to be a procedural–even De Niro tells him it ought to be a procedural–but Mangold keeps it a character study. All the way to the problematic ending.

Because as impressive as Mangold gets in Cop Land–and the film’s superbly acted, directed, written, photographed–but Mangold can’t bring it all together. He starts showing his inability to commingle his plot lines with Annabella Sciorra’s increased presence in the film. She’s good and she should have a good part. As teenagers, Stallone saved her, going partially deaf in the process. He could never become a cop (his dream) and Sciorra ends up marrying a shitbag cop (Peter Berg–who’s so good playing a shitbag) who’s terrible to her. Mangold’s plot presents him with some opportunity for Sciorra’s character to have a good arc, but he skips it. It’s a distraction and he wants to stay focused on something else.

That problematic finish? Lead Stallone becomes a distraction and Mangold wants to focus on something else. It’s a painful misstep too, with Mangold just coming off the third act action sequence–the only real action sequence in the film–and it’s awesome. So Mangold’s done drama, procedural, character study, action, and he’s perfectly segued between the different tones while simultaneously cohering them. Cop Land is building. Then all of a sudden Mangold loses the ability to segue. And to cohere. Maybe because Mangold reveal Liotta as his own major subplot somewhere near the end of second act (after doing everything he could to reduce Liotta from his first act presence). It’s a narrative pothole.

Though, given the film opens with De Niro narrating the ground situation, it’s impressive Mangold’s able to get the film through ninety plus minutes without the seams showing. The opening narration is compelling and the Howard Shore music for it is great, but it’s completely different from everything else in the picture.

Even when De Niro returns to the narration.

Maybe Mangold’s just bad at the summary storytelling though audio device. He also botches using newsradio commentary to move things along or set them up.

Cop Land is a little story in a big world. Mangold has got a great handle on the little story but not the big world. Though the Stallone arrives in New York City scene is kind of great. Stallone, Mangold, cinematographer Eric Alan Edwards, Shore. It just works. Because Stallone lumbers.

The film’s full of flashy performances. De Niro, Liotta, Berg, Patrick, Rapaport, they all get to be flashy. Dynamic. Mangold gives them great scenes and the actors deliver. All of them consistently except Berg. Berg’s too absent in the first act for all the subplots he gets to affect in the second.

But Keitel and Stallone are never flashy. Stallone because it’s his character. His character is anti-flash. His character is a drunken sheriff who goes around town in his flipflops opening parking meters for quarters to play pinball. Keitel it’s a combination of performance and part. Keitel only gets a couple moments to himself in the film and they’re real short. Mangold juxtaposes Stallone and Keitel in the story but not how he tells that story. It’s a weird thing to avoid, but Mangold avoids a lot.

For example, Mangold strongly implies no one in this town of cops (and cops’ wives, and cops’ children) respects the local law enforcement. It gives Stallone this Will Kane moment, but Mangold’s never established how it’s possible. How the town could truly function. And then Cop Land has all this toxic masculinity, racism, and complicity swirling around the plot and Mangold keeps eyes fixed forward. When a subplot or character starts going too much in those directions… bye bye subplot, bye bye character. Even though Mangold makes sure to write a good scene or get a great performance out of it.

Mangold fumbles Cop Land’s finish. He doesn’t know how to scale the narrative distance. Even if he did, there are some other significant pitfalls. But it’s almost great. Cop Land is almost great.

The acting is all good. De Niro is able to handle the Pacino-esque ranges in volume. Stallone self-effaces well. Maybe too much since Keitel’s a tad detached. Liotta takes an overly complicated role with too little development and gets some great material.

Much of Howard Shore’s score is excellent. When it’s not excellent, even when it’s predictable, it’s competent. Excellent photography from Edwards. Lester Cohen’s production design is good, even better than Mangold’s shots of it.

Cop Land comes real close; real, real close.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by James Mangold; director of photography, Eric Alan Edwards; edited by Craig McKay; music by Howard Shore; production designer, Lester Cohen; produced by Cary Woods, Cathy Konrad and Ezra Swerdlow; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Sylvester Stallone (Freddy Heflin), Ray Liotta (Gary Figgis), Harvey Keitel (Ray Donlan), Robert De Niro (Moe Tilden), Michael Rapaport (Murray Babitch), Annabella Sciorra (Liz Randone), Robert Patrick (Jack Rucker), Arthur J. Nascarella (Frank Lagonda), Peter Berg (Joey Randone), Janeane Garofalo (Deputy Cindy Betts), Noah Emmerich (Deputy Bill Geisler), Malik Yoba (Detective Carson), Cathy Moriarty (Rose Donlan), John Spencer (Leo Crasky), and Frank Vincent (PDA President Lassaro).


Absolute Power (1997, Clint Eastwood)

Absolute Power has a number of narrative issues. Well, less narrative issues and more narrative slights. As the film enters the third act, director Eastwood and screenwriter William Goldman decide the audience has gotten enough out of the movie and it’s time to wrap things up. It’s a shame because the film goes into the third act at its high point.

The first thirty minutes of the movie have Eastwood playing an old man cat burglar who sees something he shouldn’t. There’s a little character establishment montage during the opening credits for Eastwood–he likes to sketch, he doesn’t know how to work a VCR, he’s solitary but still takes care of himself–then it’s into the break-in sequence, which leads to a really tough murder sequence. It goes on and on, getting worse and worse.

Then there’s a cover-up sequence, where Eastwood really shows off all cinematographer Jack N. Green is going to do with Absolute Power. Even with its issues, the film’s beautifully made, beautifully acted. Green’s photography, with its occasional soft focus, is stunning. Absolute Power’s entertaining because of the actors, but Green helps out a lot with presenting their performances. Because eventually everyone’s fighting for time.

You know, a better defined present action and subplots probably would’ve helped. Because everyone’s just present. Eastwood and Laura Linney, as his daughter, get some hints at his weak parenting, but it’s not like Linney’s got anything to do but be around for Eastwood and his thriller storyline. Same goes for cop Ed Harris. Well, eventually he gets to flirt with Linney a little and all of a sudden, it’s like Eastwood’s goal for Absolute Power is just for everyone to enjoy themselves. There’s so much charm in the scenes between Harris and Linney–and Harris and Eastwood–narrative slights don’t really matter.

But it’s also about ability. The other half of the film has Secret Service agents scrambling to cover up a Presidential indiscretion and some of these scenes aren’t the best. Goldman’s got to do a bunch of exposition, but not too much for anyone to ask logic questions. The acting gets it through–Judy Davis, Dennis Haysbert, Scott Glenn, Gene Hackman. All of them are phenomenal, but all of them come at their parts differently. And most of their scenes are together; Haysbert just waits. And Eastwood loves showing Haysbert’s patience. He’s got fewer lines than Glenn–as another Secret Service agent–but he makes more an impression. He’s terrifying. Glenn’s good, but sympathetic. Davis and Hackman both get to go wild; no one plays menace better than Hackman and it’s almost like Davis’s playing protege. It’s very helpful having that acting depth since there’s nothing but action or actions for them in the script.

E.G. Marshall’s good in a smaller part as a wealthy mover and shaker. He gets some of the film’s worst lines but Marshall just makes them work. Even in the third act, when Absolute Power is racing downhill to get finished as soon as it can, Marshall is patient in his performance. His deliberateness makes all the difference. Or, enough difference to keep things afloat until Eastwood can get to the incredibly gentle finish.

Awesome editing from Joel Cox. The thriller sequences are phenomenally cut. And Lennie Niehaus’s score is good. It does quite a bit of work throughout the film, though it can’t hold up the third act. Nothing can. It’s just too much all at once.

Eastwood, as an actor, gets some good scenes and then some fun ones. He and Linney are fantastic together–maybe the cutest thing about the film is how similar Linney and Eastwood seem after the film spends time with them. When it comes time for ominous line deliveries, they give them in the same way. Eastwood initially gets away with it because he’s Clint Eastwood, but by the end, they get away with it because she’s his kid and he’s her dad, after all.

Harris is fun. He plays great with his partner, Penny Johnson Jerald, who isn’t in it enough. Though almost no one is in Absolute Power enough. Not Jerald, not Davis, not Hackman, not Marshall. Especially not with how much story Goldman and Eastwood are telling. Again, they manage to get away with it, but it’s a rush. Goldman’s script is too spare, especially given Eastwood’s preference in the family drama over the thrills.

Absolute Power has that adaptation curse–too much content but not enough story; still, it’s masterfully produced, with rich performances.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Clint Eastwood; screenplay by William Goldman, based on the novel by David Baldacci; director of photography, Jack N. Green; edited by Joel Cox; music by Lennie Niehaus; production designer, Henry Bumstead; produced by Eastwood and Karen S. Spiegel; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Clint Eastwood (Luther Whitney), Ed Harris (Seth Frank), Laura Linney (Kate Whitney), Scott Glenn (Bill Burton), Dennis Haysbert (Tim Collin), Judy Davis (Gloria Russell), E.G. Marshall (Walter Sullivan), Melora Hardin (Christy Sullivan), Penny Johnson Jerald (Laura Simon), and Gene Hackman as the President of the United States.


Neon Genesis Evangelion: Death & Rebirth (1997, Anno Hideaki, Masayuki and Tsurumaki Kazuya)

Just over the first half of Neon Genesis Evangelion: Death & Rebirth is all right. It’s a compilation of episodes from the “Neon Genesis Evangelion” television show, expertly edited by Miki Sachiko. There’s very little exposition, with all the backstory on the giant monster fighting–but not really giant monsters, kind of giant cyborgs–coming in as the first half progresses. It’s far from perfect, but it’s all right. It moves. And Miki tries to give it a narrative.

Miki gets the credit–along with the director of the first half, Masayuki–because the rest of Death (being the first half of the film) is a bit of a gross mess otherwise. Anno Hideaki and Satsukawa Akio’s script is all about these three kids, two girls, one boy, charged with piloting the titular Evangelion. They’re giant cyborg mechs fighting Angels, which aren’t just called Angels, they’re apparently humanity’s ancestors. Just reformed as giant monsters. Again, there’s no exposition, there’s no time for it. I’m sure the actual show has the entire backstory. But it wouldn’t help things, not get out of the gross.

The boy’s a little bit of a pervert. His dad has some creepy relationship with one of the girls, who the boy also lusts after; she’s some kind of clone or something. The third girl gets nothing to do in the first half except to imply drama without actually causing it (Miki’s got twenty-four episodes to cut together after all). In the second half, she gets more to do as far as action, but she also gets to get perved on while unconscious by the boy.

Also, all the adult women around these kids are grossly characterized too. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen something so misogynist with so much lip service paid to missing mothers. And all that lip service is from the female characters. Dudes could care less. The boy’s got perving to do, plus he’s not vicious enough so his dad’s got to help him kill.

Neon Genesis Evangelion: Death & Rebirth is also effective, at least in the first half, when it’s violent. Masayuki’s a fine director.

Now, the second half. The second half, the Rebirth part, is only about thirty minutes. Thirty crappy minutes. Thirty poorly directed, poorly edited minutes. Even with the problematic conclusion to the first part–oh, right, the boy’s also got a serious crush on the wrong boy, which is unrelated to why he molests a girl in the first scene of the second part–the first part has some amazing narrative efficiency thanks to Miki’s editing and is occasionally stunning. Fantastic use of music, for example. And Masayuiki’s a fine director.

Tsurumaki Kazuya directs the second part. Tsurumaki isn’t a fine director. Tsurumaki is a bad director. Especially after the first part.

Neon Genesis Evangelion: Death & Rebirth succeeds at disappointing, which is something since it doesn’t exactly start off promising much.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Anno Hideaki, Masayuki and Tsurumaki Kazuya; written by Anno and Satsukawa Akio; directors of photography, Shirai Hisao and Kuroda Yōichi; edited by Miki Sachiko; music by Sagisu Shiro; production designer, Okama; produced by Kadokawa Tsuguhiko; released by Toei Company.

Starring Ogata Megumi (Ikari Shinji), Hayashibara Megumi (Ayanami Rei), Miyamura Yûko (Sôryû Asuka Langley), Mitsuishi Kotono (Katsuragi Misato) and Tachiki Fumihiko (Ikari Gendô).


The Postman (1997, Kevin Costner)

Where The Postman succeeds, besides with the performances, most of its technical aspects, is with director Costner’s ability to find each character’s emotional reality in a scene. He achieves a sort of alchemist’s miracle, but not with lead into gold, but with saccharine into sublime. With one unfortunate exception, every emotional moment in the film hits thanks to Costner’s direction of the actors. And Stephen F. Windon’s gorgeous cinematography, of course.

The Postman’s post-apocalyptic future never gets a thorough explanation. From the tidbits, it sounds a lot like white supremacists come to power and ruin the United States and possibly the whole world. The latter part is somewhat unclear. What also doesn’t get an explanation is the film’s basic thesis–the importance of communication between people. It’s in the film instead; the emotional impact of that communication is what Costner showcases. There’s also quite a bit–usually involving Costner’s sidekick Larenz Tate–about the young versus the old. It’s a wrecked, hopeless world, one where Costner’s protagonist–of course he stars in it as well–really doesn’t care about the world. It’s all very sincerely inspiring, especially since there’s such a fantastic contrast between Tate and his two mentors, Costner and Daniel von Bargen.

So there’s the whole communication thing, there’s the whole young vs. old thing, there’s also the whole army of white supremacists (led by a phenomenal Will Patton) and then there’s also the very, very complicated romance. Costner’s love interest, Olivia Williams, plays a major role in the second act and then gets shoved aside in the third. Worse, her character is the one the script fails completely. After building an incredibly complex character, the solution to her character arc is the film draining her character of any content. She’s still good, but it’s extremely unfortunate.

Also unfortunate, in general, is the third act. It’s where special effects come in, it’s where there’s too much summary, it’s where the pragmatic voiceovers come in (Peter Boyle’s editing is strong, but he can’t make third act montages work, which is partially composer James Newton Howard’s fault too). The movie’s about Costner’s character and his reluctant self-discovery, but it’s about a lot more too. Some of the third act acknowledges the rest and, sadly, the finale doesn’t.

Tate’s great, Williams’s great when her role’s well-written and fine when it’s not, James Russo’s great as one of Patton’s officers, von Bargen’s great, Giovanni Ribsi’s really good in a small part. And Costner’s really good. Even though he’s The Postman, he doesn’t hog the spotlight. Given the finale, maybe he should have. But he can tell he’s got a lot of excellent actors hitting all the right marks and he gives them their time.

The Postman’s not a great film. It’s a rather good one with countless great moments. With a better third act, a better score (maybe even still from Howard, but just better), it might have been. Great production design from Ida Random too. It’s an impressive attempt from Costner.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Kevin Costner; screenplay by Eric Roth and Brian Helgeland, based on the novel by David Brin; director of photography, Stephen F. Windon; edited by Peter Boyle; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, Ida Random; produced by Costner, Steve Tisch and Jim Wilson; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Kevin Costner (The Postman), Will Patton (General Bethlehem), Larenz Tate (Ford Lincoln Mercury), Olivia Williams (Abby), James Russo (Idaho), Daniel von Bargen (Sheriff Briscoe), Scott Bairstow (Luke), Giovanni Ribisi (Bandit 20), Roberta Maxwell (Irene March), Joe Santos (Colonel Getty), Peggy Lipton (Ellen March), Ron McLarty (Old George), Rex Linn (Mercer), Todd Allen (Gibbs), Brian Anthony Wilson (Woody), Shawn Hatosy (Billy), Charles Esten (Michael), Ryan Hurst (Eddie March) and Tom Petty (The Once Famous Man).


The Saint (1997, Phillip Noyce)

The Saint is a delightful mess of a film. Director Noyce toggles between doing a Bond knock-off while a romantic adventure picture. Val Kilmer’s international, high-tech cat burglar falls for one of his marks, Elisabeth Shue’s genius scientist. Jonathan Hensleigh and Wesley Strick’s script, even when it puts Shue in distress, never actually treats her like a damsel. She’s in her own movie, one where she’s this genius scientist and she falls for the international, high-tech cat burglar who rips off her science thing.

It’s not just any science thing, The Saint is from the late nineties, so it’s cold fusion. So Shue gets to play this oddball scientist, full of eccentric behavior, only somewhat contained. Shue’s so excited by her adventure in the film–she’s so full of energy during the extended chase sequence in the second act, it’s almost like Kilmer has to hold her back. He gets to do makeup and voices, but he doesn’t have the thrill for it. She does. He’s got the thrill for her. It’s just lovely. I mean, it’s the thing Noyce never lets get screwed up–the romance. And the comedy, though the comedy is an afterthought for too much of the film. It probably would’ve been better to embrace it a lot earlier but there’s all the Bond knocking off to do.

And it’s fine international chase and action intrigue. It’s a fine Bond knock-off. Terry Rawlings’s editing could be better, but Phil Meheux’s photography is always solid, sometimes something more. The film’s enamored with Shue. Kilmer can easily handle this international thief thing. It’s not a tough part. The tough stuff is the accents and stage makeup and he excels at it. But the weight of the film’s conceit falls on Shue. She has to be a genius, she has to be a practical slapstick romantic interest, she has to be the damsel in distress. And her performance embraces the first two and rejects the third. Noyce and Kilmer just have to catch up with her. It’s gleeful.

Graeme Revell’s music is sometimes really good, sometimes really not. Again, he never screws it up for the romance.

Awesome supporting turns from villains Rade Serbedzija and Valeriy Nikolaev. Serbedzija and Kilmer only get a couple scenes together but they’re fantastic ones. They both want to chew on the scenery but they’re not willing to step on the other’s toes. And Nikolaev, as Serbedzija’s son and chief thug, doesn’t get many lines, he just gets to be mean. He’s excellent at it.

I’ve been putting off watching The Saint again for at least a decade. I can’t get that time loving it back. It’s a really special film. It’s not a success because it’s way too confused as a production, but Noyce sees what Shue and Kilmer are doing and he throws in with them, concept be damned.

The Saint’s lovely. And Shue is amazing. Kilmer’s got some really outstanding moments and he’s real strong doing this intentionally ill-defined lead, but Shue is better. It’s a truly singular performance.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Phillip Noyce; screenplay by Jonathan Hensleigh and Wesley Strick, based on a story by Hensleigh and a character created by Leslie Charteris; director of photography, Phil Meheux; edited by Terry Rawlings; music by Graeme Revell; production designer, Joseph C. Nemec III; produced by David Brown, Robert Evans, William J. MacDonald and Mace Neufeld; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Val Kilmer (Simon Templar), Elisabeth Shue (Dr. Emma Russell), Rade Serbedzija (Ivan Tretiak), Valeriy Nikolaev (Ilya Tretiak), Michael Byrne (Vereshagi), Henry Goodman (Dr. Lev Botvin), Evgeniy Lazarev (President Karpov), Alun Armstrong (Inspector Teal), Charlotte Cornwell (Inspector Rabineau), Lev Prygunov (General Sklarov) and Irina Apeksimova (Frankie).


Mothra 2: The Undersea Battle (1997, Miyoshi Kunio)

Mothra 2: The Undersea Battle is incredibly disappointing. It should be glorious in its stupidity–Mothra at one point turns into a giant fish-moth. Or is it moth-fish? There’s an underwater city raised up. There’s a furry E.T. or Gizmo-type creature and it’s got magical piss. Mothra 2 should be entertaining at the very least and it’s not. It’s never entertaining. Not even on the rare occasion something competent is going on.

There are numerous problems, but director Miyoshi plays the biggest part in the film’s badness. He’s not good with actors, he’s not inventive with special effects, either he doesn’t pace action sequences well or he doesn’t know how to cut corners well. Mothra 2 is incredibly cheap. There’s one miniature city and it’s this pyramid thing from a lost city a la Atlantis. It’s real boring looking, even though it’s got to be enormous because Mothra and the evil kaiju fight on it.

Oh, the evil kaiju. It’s a really dumb looking flying thing with four legs. It’s a bad suit. It’s a very, very bad suit. Mothra’s nothing great this time out either, but at least there’s something going on with it effects-wise–the flapping of the wings alone give it some personality. The bad kaiju has none. It’s a terrible design and a dumb story.

The fairies are boring–their subplot with the evil third sister is way too underdeveloped, with Miyoshi instead doing these terrible chase sequences. Mothra 2 is full of lousy composite shots and even lousier CG backdrops. Most of the movie is the three obnoxious little kid leads running around the interior of the pyramid in a mix of sets and CG and it’s just poorly done. There’s no sense of scale, for the visuals or for the story. The giant monsters attack Japan and no one cares except these little kids. And the human villains are these two guys who know the little girl lead’s mom.

But nothing can prepare for the last reveal in the film, because Mothra 2 is all about the future. It’s a kid’s movie, it’s “environmentally conscious,” it’s really weird and it’s a bad weird.

Watanabe Toshiyuki’s awful music doesn’t help matters, though I am going to skip listing the bad performances. It’s not the actors’ faults, it’s this movie. Mothra 2 just doesn’t work. It doesn’t work at all.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Miyoshi Kunio; written by Suetani Masumi; director of photography, Sekiguchi Yoshinori; music by Watanabe Toshiyuki; produced by Kitayama Hiroaki; released by Toho Company Ltd.

Starring Kobayashi Megumi (Moll), Yamaguchi Sayaka (Lora), Hano Aki (Belvera), Mitsushima Hikari (Uranai), Otake Masaki (Kyohei), Maganao Shimada (Yoji), Okuno Atsushi (Kotani), Okayama Hajime (Nagase) and Nonami Maho (Princess Yuna).


Batman & Robin (1997, Joel Schumacher)

I’m not going to defend Batman & Robin. It’s not so much a matter of the film being indefensible, it’s just a matter of it being a pointless exercise. And, by defend, I don’t mean identifying who gives the least embarrassing performance (Michael Gough) or who is just jaw-droppingly bad (Chris O’Donnell). Watching Batman & Robin, you can see the trailer moments, you can see the toy commercial moments, you can see the Happy Meal commercial moments. These moments aren’t hidden–Batman & Robin invites the audience to reveal in its brand possibilities.

It’s so blissfully unaware of itself, I almost don’t want to disturb that delusion. At the time of the film’s release, a friend of mine said, “if Schumacher wanted to do the TV show, they should’ve just done the TV show.” He was correct. Throw in the Neal Hefti “Batman Theme” and Batman & Robin would’ve been… well, it would’ve still been awful, because director Schumacher is making a movie for kids and trying to throw in adult stuff to make it appear grown-up.

Sure, the film’s objectively bad. Arnold Schwarzenegger is awful. Akiva Goldsman’s script is awful. Stephen Goldblatt’s photography is flat and boring (though everything except establishing shots being done on sets might have something to do with that boredom). The film’s so bad, you can’t even tell if it’s poorly edited or if it’s everything else about it. Elliot Goldenthal’s music’s awful though.

I should do a word count on “awful” for this post. But, see, I didn’t defend it. The film is a perfectly natural extension of where the franchise was going. It’s not about franchise fatigue or anything lofty; suspension of disbelief isn’t just plot holes and bad casting, it’s also about the work’s basic agreement. With Batman & Robin, Schumacher and company just told the viewers what they thought of them.

There’s nothing interesting to watch in Batman & Robin. I was sort of hoping Alicia Silverstone secretly gave a good performance or something wacky, but not really. She’s better than O’Donnell but so’s the guy who played Bane and he didn’t even have any dialogue. And it is interesting to compare George Clooney in this film to his later work. But none of those expectations or inquiries have anything to do with the film.

When you gaze long at Batman & Robin (and you do, because it’s endlessly long), Batman & Robin also gazes into you.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Joel Schumacher; screenplay by Akiva Goldsman, based on characters created by Bob Kane; director of photography, Stephen Goldblatt; edited by Mark Stevens and Dennis Virkler; music by Elliot Goldenthal; production designer, Barbara Ling; produced by Peter Macgregor-Scott; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger (Mr. Freeze), George Clooney (Batman / Bruce Wayne), Chris O’Donnell (Robin / Dick Grayson), Uma Thurman (Poison Ivy / Dr. Pamela Isley), Alicia Silverstone (Barbara), Michael Gough (Alfred Pennyworth), Pat Hingle (Commissioner James Gordon), John Glover (Dr. Jason Woodrue), Elle Macpherson (Julie Madison), Vivica A. Fox (Ms. B. Haven), Vendela Kirsebom Thomessen (Nora Fries), Jeep Swenson (Bane) and Elizabeth Sanders (Gossip Gerty).


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