Television

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; aired by Turner Network Television.

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.

Speak (2004, Jessica Sharzer)

I love reviewing the unexpected film, I love finding new filmmakers to watch. Still, I find Speak odd choice. I only bookmarked the film because D.B. Sweeney and Elizabeth Perkins play a married couple (I have a soft-spot for both)….

I first read about the film because of its broadcasting–it’s not a TV movie, but IMDb lists it as such. Showtime and Lifetime picked it up off the festival circuit and showed it simultaneously. I’m having a hard time constructing a review of the film (and hey, it was one I was going to simul-post on Blogcritics too), just because I don’t know how to talk about it without giving “it” away and the film does try to keep the viewer in a reasonable dark. Except it’s an adaptation of a young adult novel, but I’m not sure how many of my readers keep up with that medium.

I can say, nice and easy, that the lead, Kristen Stewart, is great. The only thing else I’ve seen her in was Panic Room and I don’t know if she was in the fifteen minutes I stayed in the theater for that one. Steve Zahn is not great. He’s trying way too hard and I had to look it up to remember that Out of Sight made him. Director and co-writer Jessica Sharzer has a great feel for directing. There are nice echoes throughout the film–which could, I suppose, be from the book, but I doubt it, because they seem so reflexive. Some people just know how long to hold a shot, how long to keep the music going, Sharzer seems to be one of those folks. Sometimes, however, the running time–ninety minutes–starts bumping into what the film wants to do and it hurts. But Sharzer tells a whole school year in ninety minutes and I buy it. There’s a lot in the film I don’t (and it’s not just because I’m a stickler about long present action), and that’s when the acting and Sharzer’s feel for directing come in.

Speak‘s a rewarding experience to be sure–there are just too many beautiful, quiet moments in it for the film not to be, particularly the relationship between the Stewart and her parents (Sweeney and Perkins). It reminds me of something I read about Rebecca Miller’s Personal Velocity, an online critic calling it a “Lifetime movie,” which made me think I need to see more Lifetime movies then. Speak isn’t exactly a Lifetime movie and it’s no Personal Velocity, but it’s good.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jessica Sharzer; screenplay by Sharzer and Annie Young Frisbie, based on the novel by Laurie Halse Anderson; director of photography, Andrij Parekh; edited by Peter C. Frank; music by Christopher Libertino; production designer, Laura Ballinger; produced by Fred Berner, Matthew Myers and Matt Myers; released by Showtime Networks.

Starring Kristen Stewart (Melinda Sordino), Michael Angarano (Dave Petrakis), Robert John Burke (Mr. Neck), Hallee Hirsh (Rachel Bruin), Eric Lively (Andy Evans), Leslie Lyles (Hairwoman), Elizabeth Perkins (Joyce Sordino), Allison Siko (Heather), D.B. Sweeney (Jack Sordino) and Steve Zahn (Mr. Freeman).


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