Television

Frankenstein (2007, Jed Mercurio)

“a monstrous creation ; especially : a work or agency that ruins its originator”

Frankenstein. (2008). In Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary.

Retrieved October 2, 2008, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Frankenstein

I wish I could use the OED, but it doesn’t seem worth thirty bucks.

Especially ruins. Two important words for a Frankenstein adaptation. Jed Mercurio does a future Frankenstein, set in the near future–after a super-volcano covers the world with ash, presumably to allow for nighttime shooting and a small number of outdoor shots. What his Frankenstein, here a Victoria (played by Helen McCrory), does different than her filmic predecessors is create her monster for a reason–she needs to farm its organs for her dying son, William. William’s father is Henry Clerval (James Purefoy).

Purefoy is the only character, besides Neil Pearson’s Professor Waldman, whose surname the script verbalizes. The words Frankenstein are never spoken in the television movie’s ninety minutes and they’re only seen on screen briefly and half distorted. Discovering how Mercurio is going to bring familiar elements into the effort is one of the more interesting things. Because lots of the stuff is neat–a female Frankenstein married to Clerval, neat. Mercurio makes frequent homage to the 1931 film and maybe even some of the Hammer ones (I really wouldn’t know, I try to forget the Hammer Frankenstein movies).

But Mercurio’s neatness–his cuteness–is eventually problematic. Bad guy scientist Lindsay Duncan is revealed, in the end credits, to be Professor Pretorius. During the film, everyone just calls her Jane. So her status as a bad guy is disguised through a trick, but it’s also indicative of where Mercurio goes wrong. He comes really close to making something new, but fails because he’s not adapting the novel or even using it as a starting point… he’s making a neatly put together, kind of Frankenstein adaptation, one where cute homages overpower the story.

Mercurio introduces a lot of entirely new ideas to the standard–a female Frankenstein, a motive for creating the monster, a lack of responsibility (Duncan and Pearson are the ones who take over the project)… not to mention the good doctor putting her dying son’s DNA into the monster. With the rather adult romance between McCrory and Purefoy, Mercurio’s Frankenstein could go places and, until the twist ending, appears ready to plunge into the deep end. I trusted Mercurio to pull off the ending right, which might explain some of my displeasure. He copped out. He didn’t just cop out of a proper adaptation ending, he copped out of ending the story he told well. His ending is as sensational as a television movie with an obviously limited budget (the monster only gets one close-up) can get.

I think Mercurio was going for a stab at reality, but it’s unclear.

McCrory is good, though her determination in the first act is poorly paced. At ninety minutes, Mercurio’s script feels like a solid stage adaptation rather than a filmic adaptation. He’s restricted to certain sets but he doesn’t spend enough time on them. Purefoy starts out stumbling, but eventually turns in a respectable performance. Both Pearson and Duncan are goofy villains, never once believable as scientists working in academia. Benedict Wong is great as McCrory’s assistant–Ed Gore, get it? It’s cute, but it’s also only in the credits.

I wasn’t expecting much from Frankenstein–I thought it was the BBC holiday special from last year; it isn’t–but it had a lot of good material in it. But Mercurio got lost in all his busyness and didn’t concentrate on what was working right. I mean, there’s a whole subplot with the cops on the monster’s trail. It’s silly.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jed Mercurio; screenplay by Mercurio, based on the novel by Mary Shelley; director of photography, Wojciech Szepel; edited by Andrew McClelland; music by John Lunn; production designer, Will Hughes-Jones; produced by Hugh Warren; released by Independent Television.

Starring Helen McCrory (Dr. Victoria Frankenstein), James Purefoy (Dr. Henry Clerval), Neil Pearson (Professor Waldman), Benedict Wong (Dr. Ed Gore), Matthew Rault-Smith (William Clerval), Fraser James (Joe), Lindsay Duncan (Professor Jane Pretorius), Ace Bhatti (Dr. Dhillon), Julian Bleach (The Monster) and Cally Hamilton (Little Girl).


Count Dracula (1977, Philip Saville)

The biggest problems with Count Dracula are completely unrelated. First, the obvious–the source material. Bram Stoker’s novel is, apparently, unadaptable. To date, no film version has been successful. The problem lies with Stoker’s plotting. After the compelling opening with Dracula in Transylvania, his subsequent disappearance leaves the reader or viewer with a bunch of rubes. Many of the characters are unlikable, not because they’re bad people, but because Stoker did such a bad job creating them. For example, in this version, Harker–played to mediocrity (sort of appropriate for the character) by Bosco Hogan–is immediately unsympathetic. He’s a rube. Richard Barnes plays the Texan and is awful. Susan Penhaligon and Judi Bowker play the damsels in distress to some success, but when Penhaligon needs to go nuts, she’s silly looking. On the other hand, for the first two acts, Bowker is unsensational, only to get good at the end.

I’ve left a few characters and actors out because the rest are pretty good. Frank Finlay is a fantastic Abraham van Helsing and the script’s flourishes for his character are nice (Francis Ford Coppola has apparently seen this version). Mark Burns is fine as the other doctor. He and Finlay have a good chemistry. But Jack Shepherd brings some–as far as I can remember, totally unseen before–humanity to crazy Renfield. Shepherd’s really the most exciting one to watch, because his performance isn’t as flashy as Finlay’s and has to work on less pronounced level. As Dracula, Louis Jordan has his good scenes and his bad. A lot of the problems aren’t his fault, but the director’s. The scene with Jordan and Van Helsing is quite good, but the third act scenes are when Dracula is at its best.

The problem–the other problem–with Count Dracula is the production. When he’s shooting on film, Philip Saville creates an atmospheric, haunting film (even if the music is always a little too much). Except most of Count Dracula is shot on video–nearly every indoor scene, on set, is shot on video–and Saville is not a good video director. Well, given he shot the film in 1977, it’s possible no one was a good video director yet. But he’s a bad one. All of the indoor scenes are obvious, all the compositions uninspired. It’s a shame, because otherwise, this version is the finest adaptation of the novel I’ve seen. It just follows too close to the novel and so there’s a boring midsection, one where some plot liberties could have made things a lot more interesting.

Still, even at a long two and a half hours, Count Dracula is worth at least one viewing–both for the acting and the generally competent storytelling.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Philip Saville; screenplay by Gerald Savory, based on the novel by Bram Stoker; director of photography, Peter Hall; edited by Richard Bedford; music by Kenyon Emrys-Roberts; production designer, Michael Young; produced by Morris Barry; released by the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Starring Louis Jourdan (Count Dracula), Frank Finlay (Abraham van Helsing), Susan Penhaligon (Lucy), Judi Bowker (Mina), Jack Shepherd (Renfield), Mark Burns (Dr. John Seward), Bosco Hogan (Jonathan Harker), Richard Barnes (Quincey P. Holmwood) and Ann Queensberry (Mrs. Westenra).


Perfect Witness (1989, Robert Mandel)

Perfect Witness is a standard TV movie, even if it was on HBO (I’m not sure what got it on HBO even… language, maybe?), even if it does have a great cast. During the opening credits, it’s names like Brian Dennehy, Stockard Channing, Delroy Lindo, Joe Grifasi, and Aidan Quinn. Robert Mandel directed it. It should have been better, instead of just the standard TV movie (lengthy–four to five month–present action and more complicated plot, though I don’t know why legal TV movies have always had complicated plots… it’s not like TiVo has been around forever).

Mandel does a so-so job. He disguises Toronto quite well for New York, but the TV movie is not something he’s suited for. He’s only got one really nice moment in the whole thing, which is disappointing, especially since Brad Fiedel does the score and Fiedel can always deliver good moments. The score’s nice, better than the movie deserves, but there just isn’t the material for Fiedel to strengthen.

Quinn’s fantastic. The movie works because of his performance, nothing else. Dennehy is okay, good in parts, but his character is practically a villain, which Dennehy isn’t playing. Channing is okay too, but unimpressive in the emotional female role. Lindo and Grifasi both have small, nice parts. The only important lousy performance is Laura Harrington as Quinn’s wife. She’s real bad.

I suppose there have to be other TV movies like Perfect Witness out there, completely competent time wasters with better-than-they-deserve casts, but I was really expecting something from Mandel and Dennehy, who’d worked together just a few years before on F/X. And not having a Grifasi and Dennehy reunion (they played Mutt and Jeff cops together in F/X) is just tragic.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Mandel; written by Terry Curtis Fox and Ron Hutchinson; director of photography, Lajos Koltai; edited by Wendy Greene Bricmont; music by Brad Fiedel; production designer, Richard Wilcox; produced by Elaine Sperber; released by Home Box Office.

Starring Brian Dennehy (James Falcon), Aidan Quinn (Sam Paxton), Stockard Channing (Liz Sapperstein), Laura Harrington (Jeanie Paxton), Delroy Lindo (Berger), Joe Grifasi (Breeze), Ken Pogue (Costello), Markus Flanagan (Woods), David Margulies (Rudnick), Nial Lancaster (Danny Paxton), James Greene (Paddy O’Rourke), Colm Meaney (Meagher), Tobin Bell (Dillon), Tony Sirico (Marco), Sam Malkin (Stefano), Kevin Rushton (Rikky), David Cumming (Kevin O’Rourke) and David Proval (Lucca).


Goliath Awaits (1981, Kevin Connor)

Goliath Awaits stars Mark Harmon as Doug McClure. Well, sort of. Harmon plays the Doug McClure role if Goliath was one of director Kevin Connor’s American International lost world pictures. And Goliath really is nothing but those four films rolled into one and modernized and given a budget (for a mini-series) far beyond whatever Connor had on the Time Forgot films. At the beginning, McClure would have been a real improvement over Harmon, who sports a mustache… oh, he was thirty? He seems like he was twenty-three… Anyway, Harmon can’t handle the lead in the teaser (since it’s a mini-series, the teaser runs about a half hour) and I was getting ready for a dreadful two and a half hours, then Robert Forster shows up as the other lead and Harmon moves over to a supporting position and he’s fine. Forster’s great, of course.

The film is oddly never slow. At three hours, it ought to be slow, but it’s really only two hours and fifteen minutes because it starts when Harmon and Forster (along with Connor mainstay–and mustache-free here–John Ratzenberger) get down to the sunken luxury liner and discover the lost world of the film (the Awaits part of the title makes little sense to me). I can’t get in to how the sunken ship has survivors and whatnot, but Christopher Lee is in charge and Frank Gorshin is his sidekick. Lee’s great in Goliath and Gorshin–doing a Lucky the Leprechaun impression–is terrible. Gorshin does Goliath more disservice than imaginable (I mean, Eddie Albert looks good by comparison). I kept wondering if, without Gorshin, it’d have been better.

Because, as a TV mini-series, Goliath follows a format–even if it is a lost world movie, it has a lot disaster movie elements–and that format means the story comes second to the cast and their likability. This aspect is why TV mini-series and TV movies are so different from theatricals… like a TV show, one is tuning in for the characters more than the events and one can change channels (unless he or she is a Christian) a lot easier than getting up and leaving a movie theater. So Harmon working out is important. His romance with Emma Samms–who I don’t think I’ve ever seen in anything before, but she’s very likable in Goliath–is important. The infrequent John Carradine performances… important (Carradine’s a hoot).

Besides Gorshin, the worst performance is Alex Cord, who’s playing an English doctor with a Texas accent. He’s awful and silly and wears around a grey sweatshirt all the time. Makes no sense. Otherwise, the performances are good (Duncan Regehr deserving a named recognition).

But, as far as directing goes, Connor doesn’t have much to do with Goliath. He sets a tone, sure, and the budget allows the submerged ship to look good… If I didn’t know about his other movies, I wouldn’t know I should be noticing comparisons. It’s very competent and solid, but it’s unspectacular.

Still, all things considered, it’s rather successful. (Especially given its excellent final act, so well-done, not even Gorshin can ruin it).

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Kevin Connor; screenplay by Richard M. Bluel and Pat Fielder, based on a story by Bluel, Fielder and Hugh Benson; director of photography, Al Francis; edited by Donald Douglas and J. Terry Williams; music by George Duning; production designer, Ross Bellah; produced by Benson; aired by Operation Prime Time.

Starring Eddie Albert (Admiral Wiley Sloan), John Carradine (Ronald Bentley), Alex Cord (Dr. Sam Marlowe), Robert Forster (Comdr. Jeff Selkirk), Frank Gorshin (Dan Wesker), Mark Harmon (Peter Cabot), Christopher Lee (John McKenzie), Jean Marsh (Dr. Goldman), John McIntire (Senator Oliver Bartholomew), Jeanette Nolan (Mrs. Bartholomew), Duncan Regehr (Paul Ryker), Emma Samms (Lea McKenzie), Alan Fudge (Lew Bascomb), Lori Lethin (Maria) and John Ratzenberger (Bill Sweeney).


Gold Coast (1997, Peter Weller)

I was going to start saying the amount of Elmore Leonard adaptations had dwindled, peaking after soon Get Shorty, Out of Sight and Jackie Brown. However, it appears Leonard adaptations are a mainstay, whether theatrically or–mostly–on television. Gold Coast actually might not even have come from that period (except David Caruso’s hero is in the Out of Sight mold), given director Peter Weller’s experience with Leonard (starring in an adaptation scripted by Leonard) on Cat Chaser. But whatever. More interestingly–and more depressingly–Gold Coast was supposed to kick off Weller’s career as a director, but then he dropped out of his first theatrical (Incognito). It’s too bad, because even though there a few broken moments in the film, Weller does a good job. The worst broken moment is a car shot, on the hood, Caruso driving, the moving landscape visible, through the driver-side window, behind him. The camera’s tilted and it’s clear what kind of shot it’s supposed to be and it doesn’t work because it’s not a Cars music video. It actually reminds me a lot of Sin City or something along those lines. Or a Cars music video. Otherwise, besides a handful of bad cuts, Weller does well. His handling is scary when it needs to be and delicate and tender and sad when it needs to be.

Caruso doesn’t hurt. Gold Coast features his best leading man work, even if the script occasionally fails him. Caruso’s the lead in Gold Coast in a movie star kind of way–much like Clooney in Out of Sight or Travolta in Get Shorty, which is what makes Gold Coast feel like a Leonard adaptation as opposed to a mean-spirited Carl Hiaasen–and the script does everything it can to sabotage the film as an excellent character study. Caruso and Weller seem to work very well together–the best directed scenes are either the ones with Caruso or with scene-chewing villain Jeff Kober–and the potential for the film really comes out, in the second half, when Caruso’s free of Marg Helgenberger’s clutches. Caruso’s fine in the scenes with Helgenberger, she’s exceptionally bad. She’s exceptionally bad throughout and the only thing keeping her from ruining the film is the other actors.

I can’t forget Kober, but I need to get the script out of the way. The film ought to be about a man who helps a woman who is in trouble, but Gold Coast gets so wrapped up in all the details about the woman’s trouble–wasting time going over it and over it–it loses the basic idea. It’s almost as much about Helgenberger’s maid as it is anyone else. And these characters aren’t quirkily amusing, they’re defined by the harm Kober’s villain threatens to do to them. It’s a mess. A solid Scott Frank rewrite and a real female lead would have turned Cold Coast into something fantastic.

Kober’s crazy villain is, strangely, just the kind of role Weller probably would have broken out with if he’d ever done one. Caruso’s got to be reserved, because if he tried to make any noise, Koger would just drown him out. Fantastic villain.

Rafael Báez and Wanda De Jesus are both very good as well. The scenes they’re in with Caruso are excellent, indicative of a much better film. (The less said about Richard Bradford’s embarrassing cameo the better).

So, in conclusion, get rid of Helgenberger and fix the script and Gold Coast might have been something. As it stands, it’s a fine show of Weller’s promise as a director and it’s a great Caruso performance.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Peter Weller; screenplay by Harley Peyton, based on the novel by Elmore Leonard; director of photography, Jacek Laskus; edited by Dean Goodhill; music by Peter Harris; production designer, Maria Rebman Caso; produced by Richard Maynard, Jana Sue Mernel and Weller; aired by Showtime.

Starring David Caruso (Maguire), Marg Helgenberger (Karen DiCilia), Jeff Kober (Roland Crowe), Barry Primus (Ed Grossi), Wanda De Jesus (Vivian), Richard Bradford (Frank DiCilia), Rafael Báez (Jesus) and Melissa Hickey (Martha).


Badge of the Assassin (1985, Mel Damski)

Mel Damski, if Badge of the Assassin is any indication, might be the finest TV movie director ever (who never went on to good theatrical films anyway). He understands composition, camera movement, editing–how to let actors do what actors do–beautifully. Badge of the Assassin looks like a TV movie and that description is, thanks in large part to Damski, not at all a pejorative. Admittedly, he has a lot of help. The film’s perfectly as cast, top to bottom. Alex Rocco, Larry Riley, Richard Bradford, all three are particularly good, but there are no bad performances. David Harris is real good too.

But the film really belongs to Yaphet Kotto. Even though James Woods gets a lot to do, he never gets as much to do as Kotto… and he doesn’t get to do it as long. It’s sort of cheap, since the film’s about black militants killing cops and Kotto’s a black cop struggling to understand. Woods’s basically just the driven district attorney, not wanting to disappoint the grieving widow (and the film’s source book is from the real district attorney, so it’d be interesting if the Kotto emphasis was in there too). However, regardless of what a terrible film McQ is… screenwriter Lawrence Roman is of a definite pedigree and his influence is probably significant.

The script is another area Badge really makes a model TV movie. The character content, which is considerable–scenes with Rocco, Woods and Kotto all have a lot of weight–occurs over a really long time. The film’s present action is something like four years. Besides the first act establishing of the characters, nothing is known about what happens in their lives other than in relation to the case at hand. It’s precise, not sweeping. Damski’s a master at knowing how best tell that precise account… and Roman’s script really focuses on the best possible way to get the lengthy period into ninety-four minutes.

Adding to the film–and I’m not not mentioning Woods because he isn’t great, but because it’s depressing how good he used to be (before he came a personality with Casino)–is the location shooting. It helps immensely, forcing the viewer to engage with the reality of what’s on the screen in front of him or her.

In the end, Badge of the Assassin sort of runs out of time. It doesn’t run out of story so much as it runs out of scenes it can enact well. It’s a good looking film, though, with some great acting.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Mel Damski; screenplay by Lawrence Roman, from the book by Robert K. Tannenbaum and Philip Rosenberg; director of photography, John Lindsay; edited by Andrew Cohen; music by Tom Scott; produced by Daniel H. Blatt and Robert Singer; aired by the Columbia Broadcasting System.

Starring James Woods (Bob Tannenbaum), Yaphet Kotto (Cliff Fenton), Alex Rocco (Bill Butler), David Harris (Lester Bertram Day), Steven Keats (Harold Skelton), Larry Riley (Herman Bell), Pam Grier (Alie Horn), Rae Dawn Chong (Christine Horn), Richard Bradford (L.J. Delsa), Kene Holliday (Washington), Toni Kalem (Diana Piagentini), Tamu Blackwell (Gloria Lapp), Richard Brooks (Tony Bottom), Akosua Busia (Ruth) and Alan Blumenfeld (Charlie).


Rainbow Drive (1990, Bobby Roth)

Peter Weller’s an L.A. cop with an in-ground swimming pool and a case his bosses don’t want him to solve. So what’s he going to do? He’s going to solve it, boring the viewer to sleep while he does too. It’s not Weller’s fault. It’s the script. And the direction, but I’ll get to it in a minute. The script has this wonderful, unspeakably awful way of every time a character talks to another character, they refer to that other character by name. It’s like the screenwriters went to a seminar and heard the use of names is good for emphasis. Revealing emphasis or some such nonsense.

I had intended starting this post with a comparison between made-for-cable cop mysteries with b-movies from the 1950s, but Rainbow Drive is so bad–well, I guess, it’s bad like most of those 1950s b-movies. Besides the terrible script, and the inability to make a case of Chinatown-level confusion worth unraveling, it’s director obviously thinks in terms of television sets. Bobby Roth directed one episode of “Miami Vice” and, with his Tangerine Dream score going in Drive, thinks he’s Michael Mann. To say he’s not is such an understatement, it’s not worth exploring. TV movies do not have to look like TV shows. Orson Welles composed quite a bit in 4:3 and it doesn’t look like a TV show. Roth’s also a terrible director of actors. Rainbow Drive has familiar faces saying bad lines and generally embarrassing themselves, particularly Bruce Weitz.

I could try to defend Weller’s performance in this one, but it’s pretty damn bad. David Caruso’s real good though, back when he acted. He takes a noteless role and makes it interesting to watch.

On the plus side, however, some of the second unit shots on L.A. are cool looking.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Bobby Roth; screenplay by Bill Phillips and Bennett Cohen, from a novel by Roderick Thorp; director of photography, Tim Suhrstedt; edited by Henk Van Eeghen; music by Tangerine Dream; production designer, Claudio Guzman; produced by John Veitch; aired by Showtime.

Starring Peter Weller (Mike Gallagher), Sela Ward (Laura Demming), David Caruso (Larry Hammond), Tony Jay (Max Hollister), James Laurenson (Hans Roehrig), Jon Gries (Azzolini), Henry G. Sanders (Marvin Burgess), Chris Mulkey (Ira Rosenberg), David Neidorf (Bernie Maxwell), Bruce Weitz (Dan Crawford), Chelcie Ross (Tom Cutler), Rutanya Alda (Marge Crawford), Megan Mullally (Ava Zieff) and Kathryn Harrold (Christine).


Frankenstein: The True Story (1973, Jack Smight)

While Frankenstein: The True Story singularly credits Mary Shelley as source material, the actuality is a little more complicated. A Universal-produced TV mini-series, True Story actually mixes some of the Shelley (basically, the end in the Arctic and a brother for Frankenstein), with Universal’s 1930s films, Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein (with a little of The Ghost of Frankenstein thrown in too). It also goes so far as to play Frankenstein as a bit of the patsy–he’s not particularly smart, just an assistant to a couple mad scientists. There’s also a serious homoerotic subtext to the film–first, Frankenstein rejects his fiancée for his mad scientist buddy, then becomes obsessed with the Creature’s physical beauty, rejecting it once it becomes ugly. The subtext disappears around the first hour mark, which is incidentally when Leonard Whiting, as Frankenstein, starts acting well. Until the point of betraying the Creature, he really doesn’t do anything but plead with his mad scientist friend to let him play too. However, once there’s some conflict, Whiting has something to work with, so much so, by the end, I was wishing True Story was a better story, just so Whiting’s acting wouldn’t be wasted.

There are a lot of good performances in True Story, but most of them follow the same pattern as Whiting’s. Slight in the first part, better and great in the rest. For example, Nicola Pagett was annoying as could be as Elizabeth (Frankenstein’s fiancée) in the beginning, but then she went from good to great in about twenty minutes. David McCallum as the first mad scientist is amusing, but nothing more. As the Creature, Michael Sarrazin is good once he starts getting ugly. When Frankenstein’s primping him around London (yes, True Story moves the setting to England for some ludicrous reason), Sarrazin looks like David Bowie glammed out. Once he gets ugly, he gets to show some emotion. Agnes Moorehead, unfortunately, gets stuck with this terrible housekeeper role with an awful accent. Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud both turn in small cameos (Richardson as the blind woodsman). Richardson’s terrible, but Gielgud’s great. However, whenever he’s onscreen, True Story belongs to James Mason. He’s playing this absurd, handless mad scientist (based on the one from Bride) but this time he’s got Chinese assistants and plans to takeover Europe. Mason realizes how crazy it is and he thoroughly enjoys it.

Unfortunately, True Story is a technical mess. The costumes seem to be intended to emphasis the men’s butts (given Whiting’s famous butt shot in Romeo and Juliet, I doubt it’s unintentional), while the set decoration looks like something out of the 1930s… at the latest. As True Story should be set in the late 1700s, I doubt I should recognize a chair as one I’ve sat in. Some of the sets are mildly interesting–like the lab–but once Mason’s pseudo-Chinese mysticism lab shows up, True Story‘s sets look like a farce. Jack Smight’s direction is, unsurprisingly, uninspired, but rarely bad.

For a mediocre three-hour film, True Story is actually pretty good. It moves fast and when it doesn’t have good performances, it has moments (the sets, the homoeroticism) to amuse the viewer in other ways. At times, in small ways, it comes close to being something special, particularly with Frankenstein and Elizabeth’s relationship, but more often than not, the writing stomps the life out of those moments.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jack Smight; screenplay by Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, based on the novel by Mary Shelley; director of photography, Arthur Ibbetson; edited by Richard Marden; music by Gil Melle; production designer, Wilfred Shingleton; produced by Hunt Stromberg Jr.; released by the National Broadcasting Company.

Starring James Mason (Dr. Polidori), Leonard Whiting (Victor Frankenstein), David McCallum (Henry Clerval), Jane Seymour (Agatha), Nicola Pagett (Elizabeth), Michael Sarrazin (The Creature), Agnes Moorehead (Mrs. Blair), John Gielgud (the chief constable), Tom Baker (the sea captain) and Ralph Richardson (Mr. Lacey).


The Pentagon Wars (1998, Richard Benjamin)

I can’t remember why I queued The Pentagon Wars. When it started, I kept waiting for the writing credits because I figured it must have been for the writers (it wasn’t). The Pentagon Wars chronicles a colonel’s efforts to get the Pentagon to responsibly develop an armored personnel carrier. It’s also an absurdist comedy. Kelsey Grammer’s the bad guy, the general who can’t answer a straight question and is just waiting for his cushy defense industry job post-retirement. The film alternates between being laugh out-loud funny (Grammer’s fantastic) and depressing. The military-industrial complex shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone and the film actually skirts over that issue quite a bit. Instead, it concentrates on just how much the Pentagon brass is willing to sacrifice troop safety for fashionable accouterments.

The Pentagon Wars was an HBO movie (produced by Jersey Films, which explains some of the quality) and director Richard Benjamin never quite makes it anything more than a televised film. There’s no real character development, no real character arcs, no real character relationships. There’s a bunch of good acting–Grammer, Richard Schiff, John C. McGinley, and Tom Wright (actually, Benjamin’s fine in his cameo too)–and the film’s scenically constructed to allow these actors to amuse. As the straight man, Cary Elwes gives his standard wooden performance. While the script doesn’t involve itself too much with the depth of Elwes’s character, he’s still entirely incapable of giving it any. That arrangement works out, because no matter how many times Elwes fails, the film isn’t requiring him to do anything.

The film, though it never actually quite earns that descriptor, manages to endear itself (mostly due to Benjamin’s amiable handling and the performances). Watching the film–even appreciating it and its humor and its successes (it’s a safe quirky)–I kept wanting it to take itself seriously, as its subject is not a particularly frivolous one. When the seriousness finally did arrive, it came too late–and then the film called upon Elwes… and he couldn’t handle it (surprise, surprise). Still, the attempt was enough to hinder the experience.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Benjamin; screenplay by Jamie Malanowski and Marytn Burke, based on the book by James Burton; director of photography, Robert D. Yeoman; edited by Jacqueline Cambas; music by Joseph Vitarelli; production designer, Vincent M. Cresciman; produced by Howard Meltzer; released by Home Box Office.

Starring Kelsey Grammer (Maj. Gen. Partridge), Cary Elwes (Lt. Col. James Burton), Viola Davis (Platoon Sgt. Fanning), John C. McGinley (Col. J.D. Bock), Tom Wright (Maj. William Sayers), Clifton Powell (Sgt. Benjamn Dalton), Dewey Weber (Sp4 Ganger), Richard Schiff (Col. / Brig. Gen. Robert Laurel Smith), J.C. MacKenzie (Jones), Richard Benjamin (Caspar Weinberger) and Olympia Dukakis (Madam Chairwoman, Armed Services Committee).


Dead on the Money (1991, Mark Cullingham)

I’m reading the only online review of Dead on the Money (well, only other once I post this one, I suppose)–it was a Turner Original Picture, airing on TNT and it’s not on DVD, so I suppose it’s somewhat rare–and the reviewer complains the “atmosphere of humor makes it difficult to take the film all that seriously.” Unfortunately, the reviewer seems to have missed the point of Dead on the Money. I’m sure there’s a word for it, but I don’t know it, but what Dead on the Money does is spoof the type of movie called Dead on the Money. The source novella (Rachel Ingalls’ The End of Tragedy) seems–from my Googling–to have a similar philosophy, but Dead on the Money has a better title and the all important cast.

Amanda Pays was, at the time, one of those actresses who popped up on lots of TV shows–she was on “The Flash” and she was on “Max Headroom.” I can’t remember how she was on “The Flash,” but in Dead on the Money, she’s more charming than good. It’s not a particular problem, because she’s in on the joke. The film probably got some publicity because it also stars–as her romantic interest–her real-life husband, Corbin Bernsen. Bernsen is in on the joke too, but he’s not Cary Grant and he sort of needed to be… However, John Glover is perfect in the film, playing a goofy, mama’s boy with a gambling addiction. But it’s not a serious gambling addiction of course (there’s nothing serious in the film)–Glover’s character just sort of assumes that role. Kevin McCarthy plays Glover’s father and it’s McCarthy in his second career prime. He’s only in the film for about five minutes but he’s hilarious in every second of them.

The reason I saw Dead on the Money in the first place is Eleanor Parker. In her last role to date, she plays Glover’s mother. It’s probably the least showy main role in the film and Parker does a great job with it. There are a couple scenes with she and McCarthy alone and, free of the plot constraints, she just opens up, appreciating the goofiness. Parker also gets to laugh at the film’s absurdity at the end, along with Pays, in a nice scene (though it’s not one of Pays’ better moments in the film).

Dead on the Money is an oddly rewarding experience. It’s a somewhat small reward–I’m not sure the romantic thriller genre really needed to be sardonically analyzed in a romantic thriller–but it’s still worth it. For the scenes with Parker and McCarthy alone… and Glover really is a lot of fun.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Mark Cullingham; screenplay by Gavin Lambert, based on a novel by Rachel Ingalls; director of photography, Timothy Eaton; edited by Anita Brandt-Burgoyne; music by Michael Minard; production designer, Jan Pascale; produced by John Dolf and Victor Simpkins; released by Turner Pictures.

Starring Corbin Bernsen (Carter Matthews), Amanda Pays (Jennifer Ashford), Eleanor Parker (Catharine Blake), Kevin McCarthy (Waverly Blake) and John Glover (Russell Blake).



This film is also discussed in Sum Up | Eleanor Parker, Part 4: Guest Star.
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