1998

Six-String Samurai (1998, Lance Mungia)

Released in 1998, Six-String Samurai makes the big move of using a very familiar piece of music from the Pulp Fiction soundtrack (Misirlou, which is also the music on the Pulp Fiction trailer) during a big action sequence. It’s not a bold move, because Samurai hasn’t got any boldness. It even walks back being tough enough to kill kids, which turns out to be a major bummer later on; but it’s a big move. You lift from a popular movie you’re not directly referencing but you’re desperately hoping has gotten audiences ready to give your lesser effort a pass. I also wouldn’t call it a courageous move—director Mungia is awkwardly safe—but it’s not something you see every day. A movie “homaging” a four-year old film with a straight face. I mean, it works in spoofs… maybe they were hoping it’d go far for them in Samurai, which isn’t a spoof but has the ingredients to be one.

While the plotting is sort of good—Samurai isn’t (but always seems like) an adaptation of a wacky but good indie comic from the late eighties or early nineties—samurai rock and rollers, all sorts of different gangs—cavemen, a bowling team, musical guests the Red Elvises, a heavy metal death gang, some Soviets—a post-apocalyptic setting. Maybe British, commenting on the U.S. but not well, instead just going for whatever works in the moment. Mungia and lead Jeffrey Falcon wrote the script, which is mercenary for its occasional laughs; if it were a Muppet movie, it’d be amazing, which is kind of hard to explain but also not. If Six-String Samurai were a bunch of Muppets and a human kid, it’d be amazing. The dialogue’s for a Muppet movie. When the death metal gang starts talking to each other like it’s “Fraggle Rock,” you can see the missed opportunity.

But until the end, it seems like Samurai might make it to the finish line. Only it doesn’t, because it’s got a bad ending where it turns out Mungia isn’t just nodding to… get ready… Kurosawa, Leone, Coen, Tarantino, Rodriguez, Lucas (as in George), he’s also got a whole Wizard of Oz thing he wants to throw in for momentary effect. Again, not ornate or committed enough to be desperate, but pointless. Mungia’s desperate to homage.

So it’s kind of weird how well he directs about forty percent of the action scenes. While Mungia doesn’t make a good kung fu movie or a good Western, he does make one hell of a samurai epic. When Falcon’s out there slicing and dicing, it’s some great samurai cinema. Shame Mungia can’t shoot a sword duel, but it’s only one of so many shames. Some of the problem with the action is James Frisa’s editing. It’s one of those cases where Mungia does things wrong, Frisa does things wrong, then they enable each other on other things gone wrong. Samurai does a lot with slow motion to cover Mungia not actually being able to direct the action and it gets really tiresome. Compounding it… Frisa’s editing isn’t good. It’s a vicious circle and usually keeps Samurai from accomplishing anything. Save those samurai action scenes—and just the action parts, not the setup or wrap-up. Mungia fumbles those parts like normal.

Kristian Bernier’s photography is good throughout. Lots of wind in the film in the first, which works to great effect. Unfortunately, as the gale mellows, lead Falcon—playing Lone Wolf—accepts Cub Justin McGuire.

Though—and it’s weird because it came out before–Samurai has a much better story for Star Wars: Episode I than Star Wars: Episode I has for itself.

Anyway.

The problem with Samurai and what ultimately does it in is McGuire. It’s very hard to cast a good kid lead in an adventure movie for all ages, it’s harder to cast one for an R-rated action movie… there’s no shame in not getting it right. Sadly, Mungia and company get it not just a little wrong, they get it astoundingly, increasingly wrong. Though if they were really making the movie and thinking it was fine—which seems to make sense, given how not good Falcon’s line deliveries get (and appear dubbed much of the time—his stunts are great, he was a stuntman)–but to not see what McGuire’s doing to your movie….

It’s like having an adorable little puppy who’s so annoying you want to kick it.

But there is an odd sincerity to the McGuire character, the young orphan who needs protecting and ronin Falcon’s the only one available–but it’s still bad and it’s not a cloying addition. It’s the film’s biggest swing and the resulting miss is what breaks Samurai’s last string.

Maybe if Falcon were a great lead but he’s not even a good one. Samurai is impressive for its creators’ tenacity and ability to get investors, Falcon’s physical movement, the samurai action, and the photography. The rest… nope.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Lance Mungia; written by Jeffrey Falcon and Mungia; music by The Red Elvises and Brian Tyler; director of photography, Kristian Bernier; edited by James Frisa; production and costume designer, Falcon; produced by Leanna Creel; released by Palm Pictures.

Starring Jeffrey Falcon (Buddy), Justin McGuire (The Kid), Stephane Gauger (Death), Clifford Hugo (Psycho), and Kim De Angelo (Mother).


Sphere (1998, Barry Levinson)

Sphere is not a justifiable use of eighty million dollars. I don’t think you could justify spending a dollar to rent a copy to watch, much less eighty million of them to make the thing.

The big problem is the script. Whatever Kurt Wimmer (ominously credited with “adaptation”), Stephen Hauser, and Paul Attanasio did to adapt the Michael Crichton source novel does not a successful script make. It’s got ludicrous character development and bad pacing, and is artificially bewildering and exceptionally crappy to women, specifically Sharon Stone. But there’s so much to fix, so much to compensate for, director Levinson just gives up on even trying. Script’s a big problem but Levinson’s inability to crack any aspect of the project is the biggest. It’s not incompetently directed. It’s incompetently written, incompetently produced, but Levinson’s direction isn’t actually incompetent. It’s just vapid.

Vapid is the word for Levinson’s direction. He’s not interested in executing the film successfully, just executing it. At 134 minutes, it’s a bit of a chore to watch but I imagine it was even more of a chore to make with so little investment whatsoever. Amusingly lead Dustin Hoffman has a bit—apparently ad-libbed—where he explains to Samuel L. Jackson, before the government submarines them to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean to meet space aliens, Hoffman bullshitted a report about how he, Jackson, Stone, and physics whiz kid Liev Schreiber should be the ones to first contact with any space aliens. He used the money to pay for the downpayment on his house, making one wonder what everyone involved with Sphere did with their paychecks before turning in their bullshit….

Okay, that one is a little unfair. Schreiber busts his ass to show-off in a bad part. There’s also these weird optics about competitiveness between Jackson and Schreiber and it’s inexplicable why Schreiber’s got it out for Jackson. Jackson doesn’t like Schreiber because he thinks he’s obnoxious, which is fine—though Schreiber gets intentionally less obnoxious in the second act and it backfires. Schreiber’s a lot better being annoying and doing exposition dumps than not being as annoying and giving them. Of course, the second act stuff isn’t his fault exactly because the film needs its eggheads—Jackson’s a mathematician, Schreiber’s physics, Hoffman’s a psychologist, Stone’s a biochemist-to do all sorts of things you’re not sure they’d know how to do… like setting explosives, repairing underwater habitats, on the fly code-cracking—Stone’s basically a medic, they all know how to get into their underwater suits and go for solo strolls. On and on. Sphere’s got a very limited cast—seven people in a habitat next to a giant spaceship, crash landed 300 years ago, but you’d need a support crew of a dozen to get everything done in the movie you need to get done considering they’re a bunch of narcissistic academics.

But back to the Schreiber vs. Jackson thing—it feels like there are some optics. Jackson’s the Black guy in what turns into a horror movie. He’s got a predicted part in the film.

See, once they go inside the spaceship they find all sorts of weird things, including a giant gold ball and they all become obsessed with it. Except Schreiber and Man in Black boss of the mission Peter Coyote. Oh, if only Peter Coyote were good in the movie. I really think a good performance in that part would at least keep Sphere somewhat buoyant.

Because Coyote, Jackson, and Schreiber have the film’s most important parts. Hoffman’s a terrible leading man. His part seems inflated and Stone’s decreased, which is concerning. Sphere feels very poorly assembled. Stu Linder’s cuts are fine, but the pace of the film, the focus of the narrative impulse? Not good. Whatever Levinson needed to crack with Sphere in terms of characters, plotting, scares, science fictions, musics, whatever… he doesn’t. He’s got no more idea what to do with Sphere at the end than he does at the beginning.

Except to crap on Stone whenever possible. See, she was once Hoffman’s patient and so they had an affair. But he forgot to mention he was married, so he was lying to her while treating her medically. When she felt bad after their breakup and took a bunch of pills, sounds like Hoffman had her sent to electro-shock. Like, he’s a criminal. He shouldn’t just lose his license, he should be charged with something. It’s messed up.

But it’s not the subplot—the subplot is Stone is a crazy woman and no one should trust her, something Coyote rails about, Jackson rails about, Hoffman has an arc about. A vague, vague, vague arc but he definitely goes from thinking he can trust Stone in the beginning to thinking she’s psychotic by the end. With Coyote and Jackson at multiple times counseling Hoffman not to trust Stone because she’s a crazy woman.

It’s really icky.

And even more unfortunate because Stone’s really not good.

She’s got a crap part—such a crap part, just guys violently gaslighting her scene after scene—the writing’s terrible, whatever… and there’s still just something Stone doesn’t bring. Jackson’s got his part down, problematic as some of his scenes get when they think he’s Brett after Ripley let him back into the ship; he’s still got it down. When something goes wrong with Jackson’s performance, it’s the script. Schreiber’s working. Coyote and Hoffman, to differing success, just aim low in every scene and always hit that effectiveness. The least effort possible. Hoffman’s just wrong for it. You wish he weren’t wrong for it because it’d be cool if he could do it, but he can’t do it. Not with how the film’s set up, not with the bad writing, not with Hoffman’s maximum level of effort for this project.

Queen Latifah gets fifth billing and is in what ends up being the film’s best looking visual sequence. Adam Greenberg’s photography is boring, but it’s not his fault. Levinson refuses to give Sphere a visual style, horror, wonder, drama—the second act showdowns between Stone and Hoffman, better written and directed, are Bergman-esque—but it’s not a cheap looking film (save the late nineties CGI) and so it occasionally looks quite good. Latifah’s effect scene’s the one where they spend the time. Shame it’s early on and the film never tries to top it.

Because Levinson’s not trying to ape Kubrick. Worse he doesn’t even seem to acknowledge he should. A bunch of failed homage would make Sphere at least a little fun, instead of frequently upsetting. It’s a drain to watch characters start dying off during the haunted house portion of the film and no one care about it. It’s actually impossible to have less empathy for another character than the characters in Sphere have for one another. Multiple times people get informed of someone dying and the reaction not even warranting a shrug. The biggest question the film raises is, “Is the writing right now bad or lazy and how could you tell the difference?”

Of course, if Sphere were an inevitable fail, it might be fun. But there’s no reason, with a better script, with better direction, with someone else in for Peter Coyote because Coyote’s not showy enough for the part, the film couldn’t be a success. But Levinson’s not the one to do it. It’s clearly the wrong kind of dumb idea for him to fix.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Barry Levinson; screenplay by Stephen Hauser and Paul Attanasio, based on an adaptation by Kurt Wimmer and the novel by Michael Crichton; director of photography, Adam Greenberg; edited by Stu Linder; music by Elliot Goldenthal; production designer, Norman Reynolds; costume designer, Gloria Gresham; produced by Levinson, Crichton, and Andrew Wald; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Dustin Hoffman (Norman), Sharon Stone (Beth), Samuel L. Jackson (Harry), Liev Schreiber (Ted), Queen Latifah (Fletcher), Marga Gómez (Edmunds), and Peter Coyote (Barnes).


This post is part of the Out To Sea Blogathon hosted by Debbie of Moon in Gemini.

Pierre Paolo (1998, Rachel Amodeo)

Pierre Paolo is a five minute short, set in a seaside Italian town. It opens with a simple, handwritten title card, then there’s a montage of the town set to classical music. The action rests on an old woman (Filomena Paletta) sitting on some stairs. Text appears across the bottom of the frame, explaining she’s thinking about her husband, the titular Pierre Paolo. When he appears, he’s a little boy on the beach, playing with a little girl (presumably the old woman on the stairs).

The action cuts to a younger version of the woman (director Amodeo) near the same, or similar stairs, in the town.

While the short raises some unaddressed questions—i.e. does it matter if the footage was all shot contemporaneously—the young boy is played by Pierre Paolo Pegnataro, the young girl by Govanna Saboureault, so is it old found footage or did Amodeo sort of create this nostalgia piece—the questions don’t have any affect on the effectiveness of the short. There are some limitations from the medium; clearly shot on film, it appears to be edited on video with that medium’s too static pauses. But it’s extremely well-edited, the music fits just right, and Amodeo’s composition is excellent.

It’s even better if she did go and stage kids playing on the beach in the thirties or forties or whatever. Those flashback sequences are lovely.

Pierre Paolo has its issues, but they’re from the video (the onscreen text is that always somewhat ugly nineties video editor generated text); Amodeo’s creative impulse is nicely executed. It’s a touching memory visualized. Or imagined. It’s nice work.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Rachel Amodeo.

Starring Pierre Paolo Pegnataro (Boy), Govanna Saboureault (Girl), Rachel Amodeo (Woman), and Filomena Paletta (Old Woman).


Twilight (1998, Robert Benton)

Unfortunate bit of trivia to start us off—Twilight is supposed to be called The Magic Hour, but just around the time of release, Magic Johnson’s high profile (and quickly cancelled) TV show had the same title and they changed the movie’s title. Titles are both important and not. They definitely establish a work’s intention—you may know nothing about something but once you see the title, you ostensibly know something. The problem with Twilight’s title change is two-fold. While, sure, Twilight is The Magic Hour as far as a time of day when Los Angeles looks particularly hot and haunting, but Twilight also carries with it some implications given the film’s all about being old and dying. Whereas The Magic Hour does not carry those similar implications.

So about a hundred and fifty words to say, you most likely know it as Twilight, but it will always be The Magic Hour to me.

Twilight opens with Paul Newman having a beer at a Mexican resort, then another. He’s on the trail of seventeen year-old Reese Witherspoon; she’s run away with inappropriate older boyfriend Liev Schreiber. We get a little of the Newman charm as he extricates Witherspoon from Schreiber, but things soon go wrong; Newman’s passive gender expectations get him shot.

Fast forward two years and Newman’s living above the garage of seventies Hollywood stars Gene Hackman and Susan Sarandon. Newman does odd jobs around the house, plays cards with Hackman, flirts with Sarandon, bickers with their daughter… Witherspoon. Hackman felt bad for wounded Newman and gave him a place to stay. Then Hackman got sick and they needed Newman around. The inciting action is Hackman asking Newman to run an errand… which may or may not have something to do with Hackman’s simultaneous news—his cancer is back and he’s not going to be doing anymore treatment, which is pissing off Sarandon.

What unfolds is a mess of dreams and nightmares. Newman’s got his own dreams and nightmares, but he’s wading through everyone else’s. There are the older folks’—retired ex-cops James Garner and M. Emmet Walsh, who’ve gone on to the private sector with differing results; Newman’s old cop partner, Stockard Channing, who’s got commonalities with the old ex-cops but very different dreams; Giancarlo Esposito’s Newman’s de facto old partner from private investigating days, still starstruck at the possible glamour of the profession. You’re in Hollywood, even if you avoid it, it’s a magical place where dreams come true. Even the obvious villains—Margo Martindale’s blackmailer, for instance, or Schreiber—are just mired in the cultural magical thinking. The script—by director Benton and Richard Russo—does an exceptional job layering in all that subtext. Essential in getting that subtext across is Piotr Sobocinski’s lush, deliberate photography, Elmer Bernstein’s lush, deliberate score, Carol Littleton’s lush, deliberate editing, and David Gropman’s… no, not lush and deliberate, but sharp yet functional production design. Twilight is very much about people in their chosen environments. The difference between locations speak volumes about the characters who live in them, who visit them, as well as the setting in general.

Because Twilight is exceptionally smart.

And should’ve gotten whatever title it wanted.

(The Magic Hour).

Anyway. Great performances. Benton and Russo’s script provides just the right amount of foundation, Benton’s direction stretches the canvas—all the mixed metaphors—and the actors then inhabit and expand. Should’ve gone with some kind of sculpture thing.

The best performance, just in terms of pure unadulterated success, is Martindale. She’s magnificent. But the most successful with the least is Esposito, who seems to be taking what ought to be a caricature and turning it into the film’s realest person. Witherspoon’s got some really good moments, ditto Schreiber. But it’s all about the older adults—though Newman, Hackman, and Garner are a decade and a half (at least) older than Sarandon. It’s all about the complicated relationships Newman’s forged with Hackman, Garner, and Sarandon; as the film progresses, we find out more and more about Newman before the opening mishap in Mexico. Twilight’s a Raymond Chandler story about seventies Hollywood done twenty years later with Hollywood stars playing type and against but also a character study. Kind of more a character story. It’s not really an L.A. movie only because Benton doesn’t dwell. He’s all about the locations, but showcasing the action occurring in them.

Because even though Benton does a great job with the supporting actors—Sarandon the most-it’s all about Newman. It’s not clear in the first scene—the Mexico flashback—because Newman’s got on sunglasses, but the film’s all about his performance. About how the events wear on him, how he reacts to them. Benton makes his cast sit in their emotional states—freezing them, just for a second or two—and shows how the pressure is crushing them. Not the pressure of their failures or successes, but the Hollywood dreams.

Again, should’ve been called The Magic Hour. Or something else entirely.

Hackman and Sarandon are both great. Garner’s got this wonderful flashy ex-cop turned studio security turned old codger part. He’s really enthusiastic about taking that extra reaction time. Hackman seems used to it, Sarandon’s different—but Garner’s visibly (albeit reservedly) jazzed; the performance does a lot to establish Garner’s place in the story, which is more often than not offscreen. Hackman and Sarandon, Garner, they’re places Newman visits. Sometimes for a long time, but he’s always a guest in those places. It’s very a Chandler-esque narrative.

Because Twilight is very much within the genre constraints of a mystery, which is the only thing wrong with it—Russo and Benton are careful never to strain said constraints too hard; they’re too respectful of genre. But what they do—what the film does—is magical enough.

Because it should’ve been called the damn Magic Hour.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Benton; written by Benton and Richard Russo; director of photography, Piotr Sobocinski; edited by Carol Littleton; music by Elmer Bernstein; production designer, David Gropman; costume designer, Joseph G. Aulisi; produced by Arlene Donovan and Scott Rudin; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Paul Newman (Harry Ross), Susan Sarandon (Catherine Ames), Gene Hackman (Jack Ames), Reese Witherspoon (Mel Ames), Stockard Channing (Lt. Verna Hollander), James Garner (Raymond Hope), Giancarlo Esposito (Reuben Escobar), Liev Schreiber (Jeff Willis), Margo Martindale (Gloria Lamar), John Spencer (Capt. Phil Egan), and M. Emmet Walsh (Lester Ivar).



Blade (1998, Stephen Norrington)

Back when the movie came out—on DVD, anyway—I tried watching Blade 1 a couple times. The first time I turned it off before I was twenty minutes in, which used to be a soft rule (give the movie twenty minutes, depending on runtime); I think I gave it until Stephen Dorff showed up, then had to stop. Stopping when you see Stephen Dorff is always a reasonable action. The second time I with a friend (because a Blade buddy might help me get through it?); we put it on, I promptly passed out. The funny thing about the latter attempt was I passed out before I had stopped it, though I think I woke up for some of the end… but maybe not. I didn’t know Blade had a bad Raiders of the Lost Ark rip for an ending.

The first failed attempt was during the controversial—amongst my film enthusiast friends—“you don’t stop a movie if you start it” period of nineties film snobbery. That period overlaps, possibly entirely, with the “sit through the end credits to show respect for the crew” period of nineties film snobbery. These periods weren’t me solo, in fact I picked up at least the latter from my film snob peers. The former seemed like common sense, but is, of course, the anthesis of common sense. The second failed Blade attempt—I mean, I was also blasted—was during in a different period; “why bother watching if you’re not learning anything from it.” That period didn’t just cover film, it was for all media ingestion. Why read a novel if it’s not going to teach you (specifically) anything applicable for your writing craft. That third period went the longest, well into when I started blogging about film here on “The Stop Button.” While I see that third period as an organic result of the first two, along with some seasoning from academe, my film snob pals never went for it. Somehow it was too far a leap.

And I’ve also given it the boot, slowly over time, as I discovered how I wanted to write about movies.

In some cases, it’s spending three hundred words talking about not watching the movie. And Blade is the perfect subject matter for that approach. Because Blade is not a good movie. I toyed with the idea, after all these years, of how crazy it would be to give Blade a star. But anything good about it is incidental. Director Norrington just couldn’t manage to make it terrible because he was distracted screwing something else up. The film also has a stunningly bad script from David S. Goyer. Between the godawful exposition (Kris Kristofferson gets a lot of it and can’t do any of it) and the quizzical plotting—when the Raiders of the Lost Ark thing takes over in the second half, along with the big second act surprise, Blade feels like a very different film. Sort of. It’s still ugly in all the ill-advised ways Norrington employs, like the harsh, high often contrast lighting (courtesy Theo van de Sande, who either’s responsible or not but I wouldn’t want to track his career either way) or the crappy CG. Blade is ostensibly super-gritty but only when it’s Wesley Snipes. The nineties emo vampire stuff is never super-gritty. Norrington’s understanding of super-gritty is occasional shaky cam and inept head room and letting editor Paul Rubell chop whole seconds of action out to make it seem speedy. Every once in a while, there will be a sequence—like Snipes with his samurai sword taking out an endless stream of vampires dressed like they’re Joker thugs from Batman ’89—and you can see exactly how Norrington could’ve done it well. Because pretty soon it would be done well. Blade anticipates the visual tone of future films but none of the future style or technical ingenuity. Because Norrington sucks.

Someone also got the idea to have Mark Isham score it like John Williams, which doesn’t make sense until the end when it’s Raiders; for a while the movie pretends it’s Terminator 2—Snipes and partner Kristofferson hanging out with on-the-run-from-the-vampires hematologist N'Bushe Wright in their clubhouse; those scenes are really weird with the Isham score. Goyer’s script isn’t derivative and is bad. Norrington’s direction isn’t ever not derivative and is bad. It’s incredibly interesting how the two collide.

Stuck in the middle are Snipes and Wright. Blade can’t help but give Wright a great role and Goyer and Norrington can’t help but try to destroy it. Norrington’s got some… toxic masculinity issues. Or maybe just rape culture ones. It’s a couple things, with Wright being on the receiving end later (courtesy “no way” ex-boyfriend Tim Guinee), but the first one is Norrington’s onscreen director title card. It’s a gross “really, dude?”

Wright comes out very sympathetic, but she’s a lot better at the urban vampire action than the pseudo-Raiders thing. Some of the problem with the Raiders thing is Norrington’s bad visual storytelling, some of it is Goyer not giving Wright enough to do; if any of it’s Wright’s fault, you basically can’t tell. Goyer and Norrington give their separate badnesses 110%. You can barely make-out the acting through it.

Well, except with Dorff, who’s hilariously bad, Donal Logue, who’s hilariously bad, Udo Kier, who’s hilariously bad but also very obviously just playing a caricature and not trying… every once in a while, you get the feeling Blade could’ve been a lot better if it just let itself camp out on the shitty vampires. Wesley Snipes killing a bunch of silly, shitty white vampires would be a fun movie. Especially if Norrington had long enough shots of Snipes kicking ass. Snipes gives his physical performance his all in Blade and Norrington picks up about twenty percent of it. Other times the camera will be focused on a pillar instead of Snipes doing a jump kick or whatnot. Norrington is a stunningly bad action director, even for bad action directors.

Other bad performances include Arly Jover, who at one point seems like she’s going to give a good performance but then doesn’t. Sanaa Latham is actually good, which takes a few moments to comprehend–unqualified good acting in Blade.

For Snipes, it’s a good lead role. Ish. There’s not a lot of heavy lifting, his occasional personable action hero insert shots are weird, but he gets through it. He and Wright have less chemistry than… I don’t know, Kristofferson and Wright or something. It’s unfortunate and another way the filmmakers fail Wright.

I’m a little curious how the Isham score stands on its own—at one point he’s got to add all the tension to an action sequence because Norrington can’t figure it out–but otherwise, Blade doesn’t have much one could learn from it. Outside the contextual trivia.

It’s nowhere near as bad (or good) as it could be, which is the biggest disappointment of all.

It’s eh.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Stephen Norrington; screenplay by David S. Goyer, based on the Marvel Comics character created by Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan; director of photography, Theo van de Sande; edited by Paul Rubell; music by Mark Isham; production designer, Kirk M. Petruccelli; produced by Robert Engelman, Peter Frankfurt, and Wesley Snipes; released by New Line Cinema.

Starring Wesley Snipes (Blade), Stephen Dorff (Deacon Frost), Kris Kristofferson (Whistler), N’Bushe Wright (Karen), Donal Logue (Quinn), Arly Jover (Mercury), Tim Guinee (Curtis), Sanaa Lathan (Vanessa), and Udo Kier (Dragonetti).


The Mighty Kong (1998, Art Scott)

The Mighty Kong is fairly awful. It’d be nice to say there’s some kind of charm to it, given it’s an animated, family-targeted, period King Kong adaptation, it’s got Dudley Moore’s final performance, and Jodi Benson’s a lot more professional than the production deserves. But it doesn’t have any consistent charm. Not even Benson, who’s the only potential anywhere in the picture; for a while it seems like Benson’s going to be the protagonist.

Okay, let me set it up a little. Moore is the Robert Armstrong character, the movie director. In Mighty Kong he has a nerdy sidekick who’s his cameraman and assistant only the nerdy sidekick (voiced by William Sage). Moore and Sage make musicals of wild animals appearing silly, which is rather imaginative for William J. Keenan’s script. At some point Mighty Kong gives up on having a script—to the point you can forget the movie has a fairly standard first act introducing the characters and situation. Sure, it’s peculiar because Moore’s never it enough to be the lead, even though he’s the lead of that part of the story no question, and the scale of the production is always lacking. Mighty Kong really doesn’t have the animation budget it needs and what the animators end up doing… I mean, it’s bad. There are times when director Scott seems to have a good idea and the animators butcher it.

Except in the finale, which I’ll get to in a bit.

First, back to the characters. So Benson is Fay Wray and Randy Hamilton is Bruce Cabot. Hamilton’s only character trait is he hates women being on ships and is generally a dick. He falls for Benson after the natives on Skull Island threaten her. We know he falls for her because their next scene together is a heavily stylized, including 1998 CGI stars, musical duet where you don’t believe Hamilton or Benson ever met much less sing the duet in the same studio at the same time. Heck, their animated characters don’t even appear on screen together for the duet. It’s godawful and in no way amusing.

Immediately after that duet, it’s time for the giant ape to get introduced—they call him a “Monkey God” in Mighty Kong, never ape. Maybe apes are too big a concept for the target audience, but there isn’t a target audience because it’s such a weird movie. But anyway.

The Kong grabbing Benson and fighting dinosaur after dinosaur section is brief and at least not good in a different way than the first forty-five or so minutes have been not good. Once they get to New York, there’s the absurd Kong breakout sequence where Hamilton and Benson just walk away and ignore the destruction behind them. Even when they should be running. They just walk. Because bad animation.

Though Hamilton looks just like John Cassavetes most of the time, which would be cool if Hamilton were any good. He’s not, though it’s also a terribly written part. Moore gets bad one-liners. The script at least tries for him. Benson does get the “concern for Monkey God” subplot, but very little dialogue in the third act.

The only good part of the movie is when Kong gets into comic hijinks destroying New York. Even when he apparently kills two teens necking in a car. The animation is hilariously executed. Even if Kong’s rarely the same size.

The Mighty Kong is (mostly) harmlessly bad; it’s clearly being done way too cheap. It’s got bad music, bad songs, bad performances of bad lines, bad animation—occasionally excellent editing from Tony Hayman—and it’s not even worth it as a curiosity, which is a shame. An animated musical kids version of King Kong ought to at least be a curiosity.

Though it could qualify as an icky curiosity for the occasional objectification of Benson’s cartoon character in a kids’ movie but… a good curiosity would be nice.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Art Scott; screenplay by William J. Keenan, based on the story by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace; edited by Tony Hayman; production designers, Brendan deVallance and Lyn Henderson; produced by Denis deVallance and Henderson; released by Warner Bros. Home Entertainment.

Starring Dudley Moore (Denham), Jodi Benson (Ann), Randy Hamilton (Driscoll), William Sage (Roscoe), Jason Gray-Stanford (Ricky), and Richard Newman (Captain).


Ever After (1998, Andy Tennant)

Ever After imagines the Cinderella story as a vaguely historically accurate period drama. It’s desperate to present itself as “realistic,” including bookends with special guest star Jeanne Moreau adding some actual French to the film, which is set in France and acted by Americans or Britons of various origin. Moreau’s got a scene and a couple voiceovers; she’s telling the Brothers Grimm they got the Cinderella story wrong and she’s going to tell them the whole truth. No singing birds, just Leonardo da Vinci saving the day.

Until the ball, which is its own thing, Ever After is lead Drew Barrymore suffering or falling in love with Prince of France Dougray Scott. She’s a progressive, he’s a royalist. She challenges him though; he’s never met a noble like her. Little does he know she’s not nobility—it’s unclear why not, given her widower father (Jeroen Krabbé) married a widowed Baroness, Angelica Huston. Of course, Krabbé drops dead—in the flashback—the day after he brings Huston and her two daughters back home with him, leaving his wife without a husband and Barrymore (or the kid who plays young Barrymore) without a father. Huston predictably becomes an evil step-monster immediately and puts Barrymore to work around the house while Huston and daughters Megan Dodds and Melanie Lynskey live it up. Relatively speaking. When the film gets to the main action, Huston’s run up a bunch of debt and is selling off servants and furniture to maintain her lifestyle. All she’s got to do is marry Dodds off—Lynskey’s ostensibly too heavy to deserve a man’s attentions (Lynskey being too “heavy” is only slightly less realistic than the da Vinci stuff)—and it will have been worth it.

Little does she realize Barrymore is sneaking off to seduce Scott with her mind and whatnot.

Huston’s great, Dodds’s great, Lynskey’s great. They’re in this black comedy, set aside from the rest of Ever After, which is de facto about Barrymore showing more agency than any of the other women in… well, existence at the time, and Scott learning maybe he needs to be less of a thoughtless snob. It’s not until the dance, when the film heads into the third act—the plotting is fine, it’s the actual scenes where the problems arise—and, of course, the film avoiding the hell out of Barrymore just when it should be focusing on her.

But that dance. It reveals how little Ever After has done to actually establish Barrymore as protagonist; she’s just the victim and straight man in Huston’s story. Sporting a da Vinci—designed dress (you’d think he’d do better, he thinks some angel wings and glitter makeup are enough), Barrymore shows up at the Ball, apparently has a moment of apprehension, which makes no sense for the character in general or specifically in the scene, and then everything goes to crap so there can be a third act redemption arc for characters needing one. Along with some reveals; one of them raises more questions than it answers. Ever After doesn’t have a good script. Susannah Grant, director Tennant, and Rick Parks turn in an entirely mediocre screenplay, even if you forgive all the “real” nonsense.

Tennant, as a director, does lots of sweeping crane shots, playing up the location shooting, and trying to make it into a grounded fairy tale romance. An intellectualized one, where Barrymore’s peasant pretending to be royalty is able to show Scott how stupid he’s been about his life. Unfortunately it has the result of making Scott the protagonist in the third act, which is a bit of a slight to Barrymore, given it’s supposed to be her story. Her “real” story, which is fake. Either Ever After started with the gimmick of a realistic Cinderella adaptation or it added it later. A better director might do some magical realism, but Ever After doesn’t have much in the way of ambition. Not given how little it actually gives Barrymore to do. It gives her a lot of action, but not a lot of acting.

She’s fine, though. Better at some points than others. Same goes for Scott, who’s never quite charming enough to be a Prince Charming, but he’s likable. Neither of them can compare to the supporting cast; Huston’s amazing, Judy Parfitt’s really good as Scott’s queen mother, Richard O’Brien has a great bit part as a rich lech after Barrymore.

Nice enough score from George Fenton. He plays up the fairy tale romance, which matches all of Tennant’s big shots. Shame Tennant’s big shots are almost always poorly conceived so Fenton’s music is always going on about fifteen seconds too long.

After some genuine drama in the third act, the wrap-up is way too pat. But Ever After is still a lot more successful than you’d think from the tacky prologues.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Andy Tennant; screenplay by Susannah Grant, Tennant, and Rick Parks, based on a story by Charles Perraul; director of photography, Andrew Dunn; edited by Roger Bondelli; music by George Fenton; production designer, Michael Howells; produced by Mireille Soria and Tracey Trench; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Drew Barrymore (Danielle), Dougray Scott (Prince Henry), Anjelica Huston (Rodmilla), Megan Dodds (Marguerite), Melanie Lynskey (Jacqueline), Patrick Godfrey (Leonardo), Judy Parfitt (Queen Marie), Timothy West (King Francis), Jeroen Krabbé (Auguste), Lee Ingleby (Gustave), Kate Lansbury (Paulette), Matyelok Gibbs (Louise), Walter Sparrow (Maurice), Jeanne Moreau (Grande Dame), Anna Maguire (Young Danielle), and Richard O’Brien (Pierre Le Pieu).


Why Do Fools Fall in Love (1998, Gregory Nava)

The most impressive thing about Why Do Fools Fall in Love isn’t how well Tina Andrews’s script does with exposition. Not just exposition as it plays out, but how Andrews foreshadows later revelation. The film is and isn’t a biopic of singer Frankie Lymon, focusing instead on his three widows–and is and isn’t a biopic of said widows–and the timeline is confused, but the audience needs to know how to make sense of that timeline before events occur. So Andrews’s initial exposition sets up the film for later development.

And it’s really impressive, but it’s still not the most impressive thing about the film, which is Vivica A. Fox’s performance as one of the widows. Also Larenz Tate is great as Frankie Lymon, but he’s something of an enigma. None of the wives knew they were married to a trigamist while they were married–or even while Lymon was alive (the film takes place about fifteen years after his death… with lots of flashbacks).

But while Fox is wife number one, she didn’t come into the picture until after Tate romanced fellow singer Halle Berry. So Fools introduces Tate as Lymon in the fifties, hops ahead to introduce Fox in the eighties (then Berry and Lela Rochon as the other widows), then jumps back to the fifties so Tate can meet Berry, then forward to the early sixties so he can meet Fox, then forward a bit for him to finally “settle down” with Berry, then forward again for him to woo Rochon. Rochon is a prim and proper Southern school teacher, Berry is the glamorous singer, Fox is an ex-con and habitual criminal whose troubles got worst thanks to Tate.

The film deals with Tate’s success first. Everything with the widows–except the prologue with Berry in the fifties–is after he’s fallen and gotten addicted to heroin. Andrews and director Nava lay the whole narrative out beautifully. They’ve got some dramatic hiccups in the finale, partially because it’s all tied to the court proceedings (with a solid Pamela Reed as the somewhat bemused judge), partially because Tate’s a bastard. Sorry, Lymon’s a bastard. Though Tate’s really good at playing him.

But there aren’t any answers as to his real emotions. The film has at least one big mystery (though, really, it also raises the possibility of more widows–there are a few years unaccounted) because it’s not Tate’s film, it’s the widows’ film. And when it’s Fox’s film, it’s exceptional. It’s really good when it’s Berry’s film and Rochon’s film, but not like when it’s Fox’s. Fox transfixes with her performance. Berry is glamorous and sympathetic, Rochon is sweet and sympathetic, but they’re not transfixing. In fact, they’re both better in their present day old age makeup scenes than in the flashbacks. Because they’re there to support Tate, who’s fantastic, but he’s not so fantastic he can overshadow Fox.

And not just because Fox is taller than him.

Fox’s flashbacks are about her regular person’s encounter with the famous. Berry’s are about the famous. Rochon’s are about the ex-famous. It’s all very different. Fox just has the best part.

All the supporting acting is good, except Paul Mazursky. He gets a pass for most of it, because he’s not essential. When he’s essential, however, he totally flops it. It’s too bad; another of the third act problems.

Most of the direction is fantastic. Nava can do the big scale of the rock and roll flashback and fame culture, he can do the small dramatic scale. The character moments in the film are just as effective as the musical numbers and the musical numbers are outstanding. Tate’s phenomenal in them. The lip-synching and sound editing of the performances are all wonderful.

Great photography from Edward Lachman, editing from Nancy Richardson, production design from Cary White. Nice score from Stephen James Taylor. Great soundtrack.

Fools has an outstanding script, good performances, a couple great ones, and strong direction. It paints itself into a corner with the narrative structure and takes some hits in the third act. But it mostly works out, which is no small feat given how unsympathetic Tate has to become and how sympathetic he has to remain.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Gregory Nava; written by Tina Andrews; director of photography, Edward Lachman; edited by Nancy Richardson; music by Stephen James Taylor; production designer, Cary White; produced by Paul Hall and Stephen Nemeth; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Larenz Tate (Frankie Lymon), Vivica A. Fox (Elizabeth Waters), Halle Berry (Zola Taylor), Lela Rochon (Emira Eagle), Pamela Reed (Judge Lambrey), David Barry Gray (Peter Markowitz), Clifton Powell (Lawrence Roberts), Lane Smith (Ezra Grahme), Paul Mazursky (Morris Levy), Ben Vereen (Richard Barrett), Miguel A. Núñez Jr. (Young Little Richard), and Little Richard (Little Richard).


Lick the Star (1998, Sofia Coppola)

The opening narration of Lick the Star, which isn’t from the same character as the end narration, explains the ground situation. Ostensible protagonist Christina Turley has just returned to school after her father accidentally ran over her foot. So she’s on crutches. She worries her group of friends has ostracized her for her absence. Good news, they haven’t. Bad news, Turley and her friends are the seventh grade bad girl bully clique.

Audrey Kelly plays the leader, who loves V.C. Andrews books (which almost feels like writers Stephanie Hayman and director Coppola are stereotyping), wears make-up, smokes, gets objectified most by the little boys. And, the age thing is one of the short’s biggest visual problems. Kelly and her crew look older than the middle schoolers they’re bullying. It filmed on location at a middle school, which probably no doubt accounts for some of the awful acting–though given Peter Bogdanovich is terrible in his cameo, amateur actors don’t account for all the acting problems–and the girls are bullying little kids.

Coppola and Hayman move away from Turley as protagonist and de facto give it to Kelly. The short becomes fixated on her glamour, then her cruelty, then her abuse (from the male classmates). She’s got a plan though (straight from V.C. Andrews). Poison the boys with arsenic.

The short only runs thirteen minutes and Coppola is more concerned with montage sequences set to (some good, some bad) indie rock. It’s not diegetic and doesn’t seem like anything the characters would like, so it causes a disconnect. The cast’s painful delivery of the expository dialogue or the mood-breaking montages. Pretty soon, the short becomes a toss-up of what you don’t want to sit through more.

Coppola’s composition is good. Her direction of the cast is awful. The short initially promises some kind of insight into the tween angst, then gets distracted from it (losing protagonist Turley almost entirely by the three-quarter mark), then brings her back to passively witness the finale. Coppola doesn’t even bother trying to straight-face that finish, cutting away from Turley as soon as she can.

Decent black and white photography from Lance Acord.

Lick the Star is thirteen minutes of mediocre disappointments.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Sofia Coppola; written by Stephanie Hayman and Coppola; director of photography, Lance Acord; edited by Eric Zumbrunnen; produced by Coppola, Andrew Durham, and Christopher Neil.

Starring Christina Turley (Kate), Audrey Kelly (Chloe), Julia Vanderham (Rebecca), Lindsy Drummer (Sara), Rachael Vanni (Wendy), and Peter Bogdanovich (Principal).


No Looking Back (1998, Edward Burns)

No Looking Back runs just under a hundred minutes. The first half of the film–roughly the first half–evenly relies on its cast. In fact, top-billed Lauren Holly almost has less than either Jon Bon Jovi and director Burns (acting, second-billed) in the first half. It’s a love triangle and she’s the prize. Burns is coming back to Nowhere, Long Island after running away to California years before. Ex-girlfriend Holly has moved on and in with Bon Jovi, who’s ostensibly a childhood friend of Burns’s but it’s a somewhat reluctant friendship. Burns is a jerk from scene two. He has two honest moments in the film; his first and his last. The rest of the time, he’s basically just a prick.

But he’s a different kind of prick than Bon Jovi, who’s the too perfect man. He wants to be a good dad, can’t wait for Holly to join his mom and sisters in the kitchen for football Sunday (he’s in the living room with his brothers), and so on and so forth. There’s this strange transition with sympathies, which Burns (as a writer and director) doesn’t deal with very well. He tries hard to keep the love triangle restless–the three characters never all interact in a single scene, even if all present–and it strains the film at times. But it also pays off because it means Holly gets more opportunity.

Then around the halfway market, a Bruce Springsteen song comes on the radio and No Looking Back totally changes. The first half soundtrack, with the exception of a Patti Scialfa track or two, is indistinct, bland, late nineties pseudo-alternative songs. Nothing distinct. And then, all of a sudden, Holly assumes the protagonist role decisively. Performance, script, direction. The first half of the movie has been an awkward setup to provide back story to turn the second half into a Bruce Springsteen mix tape set to film. And it’s exceptional. The film’s flow is better, the scenes more poignant–I mean, it’s a soap opera. The thing couldn’t fail the Bechdel test more if it tried. But it’s this exceptional soap opera turned character study. And what ends up saving it is when Burns, as writer and director, stops pretending there’s any depth to he and Bon Jovi’s characters. More, the characters have to stop pretending too. It’s awesome.

Plus, there’s scene payoff for most of the supporting cast. Blythe Danner (as Holly’s mom) gets almost nothing in the first half and ends up being essential in pulling off the big finale upswing. Connie Britton’s great as Holly’s sister, with the first half’s least disjointed arc. Jennifer Esposito and Nick Sandow are both good as various friends, though Sandow’s basically Norm from “Cheers” and Esposito doesn’t get enough to do.

Oh–and Joe Delia’s score is a mess in the first half. There’s this generic hard rock theme running through the score. Maybe Burns could only get the four or five Springsteen songs and had to save them, but it’s not a good theme for Holly as Burns intentionally and maliciously upends her life, albeit through accepted social conventions. Score is much better in the second half.

Great photography from Frank Prinzi. Nice, patient editing from Susan Graef.

Holly doesn’t have a great character here; Burns ignored her too much in the first half to setup the second, but she gives an excellent performance. The stuff she gets to do in the second half, it’s like a reward for having to suffer through the first half’s weaker scenes. Bon Jovi gives a strong performance and once Burns, as an actor, gets to the Springsteen section, he really comes through as well.

No Looking Back has more than its share of problems, all of them (with the exception of the music) director Burns’s fault. It’s also pretty darn great; again, all Burns’s fault.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Edward Burns; director of photography, Frank Prinzi; edited by Susan Graef; music by Joe Delia; production designer, Thérèse DePrez; produced by Ted Hope, Michael Nozik, and Burns; released by Polygram Filmed Entertainment.

Starring Lauren Holly (Claudia), Edward Burns (Charlie), Jon Bon Jovi (Michael), Connie Britton (Kelly), Blythe Danner (Claudia’s Mom), Nick Sandow (Goldie), Jennifer Esposito (Teresa), Welker White (Missy), John Ventimiglia (Tony the Pizza Guy), and Kathleen Doyle (Mrs. Ryan).


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