1985

Zone Troopers (1985, Danny Bilson)

The saddest thing about Zone Troopers is Biff Manard gives a fantastic performance and there’s no reason to see it. Nothing Manard could do would make Troopers worthwhile; it’s got so many problems—cast, direction, photography, editing, music, budget (though some of the effects are outstanding)—the thing is a wreck. With a few good ideas, a great performance, and a lot of derivative nonsense.

I got ahead of myself. I was being positive—the second saddest thing about Zone Troopers. When it has those good ideas, it can’t figure out how to execute them. You watch it, getting hopeful, then it fails and you don’t just get disappointed, you feel bad for the movie; you can tell what director Bilson (who co-wrote with producer Paul De Meo) and he just couldn’t figure out how to do it. Zone Troopers, visually, needs a lot of things—it needs cinematographer Mac Ahlberg to light sets better, it needs Bilson to figure out how to shoot his actors, and they need a crane. They really, really, really need a crane. The movie takes place in an Italian forest during WWII and there’s not a single good establishing shot in it. Not even when a crane would have helped. Bilson just can’t do it. He’s got maybe three creative shots and they’re not so much good or even better than the standard bland composition, but they’re creative. Someone thought about them. No one thinks about much in Zone Troopers.

If anyone did, Timothy Van Patten wouldn’t happen. Van Patten is the young guy in the movie. He’s the private, Art LaFleur is the corporal, “top-billed but should’ve had an the ‘and’ credit” Tim Thomerson is the sergeant, an atrocious John Leamer is the inept greenhorn lieutenant, and Manard is the wartime correspondent. LaFleur and Manard are definitely in the forties, Thomerson looks a little too old too, so for the battle scenes before the aliens show up, Zone Troopers basically looks like WWII reenactment with middle-aged men. Bilson’s direction doesn’t help with that feeling either.

Anyway, Van Patten is the young Italian kid who reads sci-fi magazines and talks all the time, especially in dangerous situations, and ignores Thomerson’s orders and almost gets everyone killed over and over again. Until the movie evens out a bit in the second act, the only thing Troopers has to keep one occupied is the hope Thomerson will just shoot Van Patten in the head for insubordination.

And Van Patten is objectively terrible. No one could watch what he was doing and think it was a good idea, not even in a movie where the script has commercial breaks in the second half, like Bilson and DeMeo were plotting a three or four-part cartoon… though it’d be a lot better as a three or four-part cartoon. Van Patten wouldn’t be in it.

The effects work is bad when it comes to the lasers and the humanoid aliens are silly, but the bug-monkey alien is at least a good suit and the script handles that character surprisingly well. Again, Bilson and DeMeo have some decent ideas, they’re just in the muck of bad performances and lifts from E.T., The Thing, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and… something else no doubt. They don’t have any lifts from Empire Strikes Back, which is weird because composer Richard Band rips off its score mercilessly. It and Raiders. Clearly likes his John Williams.

And if it’s not going to be a four-part cartoon pilot, Zone Troopers does seem much more like a Spielberg movie. Just an amateur one. A poorly directed and acted amateur one. With WWII re-enactors.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Danny Bilson; written by Bilson and Paul De Meo; director of photography, Mac Ahlberg; edited by Ted Nicolaou; music by Richard Band; production designer, Philip Dean Foreman; produced by De Meo; released by Empire Pictures.

Starring Tim Thomerson (The Sarge), Timothy Van Patten (Joey), Art LaFleur (Mittens), Biff Manard (Dolan), William Paulson (The Alien), Max Turilli (SS Sgt. Zeller), and John Leamer (The Lieutenant),


Return to Oz (1985, Walter Murch)

Return to Oz has gumption. It’s got confidence and professionalism too, but its gumption is something different. Director Murch is making it work with what he’s got—a scale limited by budget and reality—because he’s sure of the project. Gumption.

He knows he’s got the right lead—eleven year-old Fairuza Balk as Dorothy. He knows the special effects he’s going to rely on are going to be impressive, whether the grand claymation as stop motion finale, the various mechanical aspects of the suits (Return raises the question of whether it’s people in costumes or people in suits), the talking chicken as second lead for the beginning of the second act, all of it. Except the street gang villains, who have wheels attached to their hands and feet. The effects are fine because they’re doing it and the design of the outfits is… inventive, but they’re still nerdy white guy street gang villains from the eighties. It’s campy—eighties camp. And Return’s never campy.

Also impressive are the voice performances. Denise Bryer as the chicken, Sean Barrett as the steampunk robot, Brian Henson as the effects-heavier Scarecrow-stand in, Jack Pumpkinhead. Murch knows how to time the effects shots to get the later effect. Return is beautifully edited; director Murch cut his teeth editing before directing it and the film editor Leslie Hodgson has some wonderful cuts. The film’s technically strong. It’s principal cast is good. Balk’s great. So what’s the problem. Besides the budget and effects only being able to do so much? It doesn’t have a good ending. It’s way too small. While the film isn’t a sequel to The Wizard of Oz: The Movie, it does acknowledge that film’s legacy. Return is grittier, late nineteenth century Kansas far less idealized, Balk is a tween in definite danger, there is a villain who takes off their head, and there’s electro-shock therapy. And there’s Piper Laurie as Aunt Em, which is an interesting casting decision and maybe not the best one. Laurie’s playing a literal “Piper Laurie mom-type” to the point I wondered who they got who looked so much like Piper Laurie. Because I assumed Laurie would be able to handle the accent and she’s not. It’s not good. It’s a missed opportunity. Same goes for Uncle Owen (sorry, Uncle Henry) Matt Clark. Missed opportunity. Clark’s fine, but he’s got no added value presence. Return is a perfect franchise starter thirty years too soon; Murch is too busy focusing on how they’re going to realize the magic to worry about the supporting performances. Same goes for Jean Marsh as the bad witch. She’s got no charm, no energy.

On the other hand, Nicol Williamson is amazing as the villain. Like, Murch gets it with Williamson, because he’s voicing the villain; the visual villain is an effects sequence and Murch knows he’s got to sell that effects sequence. So Williamson’s performance matters. Again, bigger budget, more time, it’d probably have been fine. But Return is very much a victim of reality. Besides the budget, there’s the weight of the de facto sequel, there’s the state of special effects. Most of Return is really, really good. They just don’t have the ending. It’s too little. The film’s promising Balk’s Return to Oz, Oz meaning her friends—and the familiar characters—it’s promising the magic. Balk finds herself having to fight through a lot of darkness to find the happy again. She’s got a hero arc and needs a solid resolution to it. Murch doesn’t have the money for it and rushes it, minimizes it. Maybe it could be rushed, maybe it could be minimized, but it can’t be both. It’s too little for what the film’s built up.

And then the epilogue is sweet enough but not strong enough. Return to Oz is almost there. It’s so close and for a good while, it seems like it’s going to make it. And you want it to succeed because, maybe Henson’s Jack Pumpkinhead aside, the new sidekicks are good enough, especially in the grittier Oz.

Finally, David Shire’s score. It’s a perfect metaphor for the film. It gets really close to clicking, then doesn’t. Shire’s music is perfectly adequate for a “kid in the olden times” picture, but not for a magical adventure.

Return to Oz is rather awesome, but it’s also a bummer. They made the magic, they just didn’t know what to do with it.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Walter Murch; screenplay by Murch and Gill Dennis, based on novels by L. Frank Baum; director of photography, David Watkin; edited by Leslie Hodgson; music by David Shire; production designer, Norman Reynolds; produced by Paul Maslansky; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Fairuza Balk (Dorothy), Mak Wilson & Denise Bryer (Billina), Michael Sundin, Tim Rose, & Sean Barrett (Tik-Tok), Stewart Harvey-Wilson & Brian Henson (Jack Pumpkinhead), Stephen Norrington & Lyle Conway (Gump), Jean Marsh (Mombi), Piper Laurie (Aunt Em), Matt Clark (Uncle Henry), Emma Ridley (girl), and Nicol Williamson (The Nome King).


This post is part of the Wizard of Oz Blogathon hosted by Rebecca of Taking Up Room.

Snoopy’s Getting Married, Charlie Brown (1985, Bill Melendez)

Right after Snoopy decides to get married–appropriate since the special’s titled Snoopy’s Getting Married, Charlie Brown–Charlie Brown (Brett Johnson) worries about how Snoopy will handle the responsibilities of marriage. Now, Charlie Brown finds out Snoopy is getting married because Snoopy has given him a letter to send to his sort of ne’er-do-well brother, Spike. So Snoopy can write a letter in English but Charlie Brown is worried about him handling marriage. Charlie Brown’s got a lot to say for an eight year-old.

Later on, after Spike has traveled from the California desert to stand up for his brother, Lucy (Heather Stoneman) harshly comments on Spike’s ragged appearance. Because she’s a crappy little kid.

Getting Married is never charming enough to make up for the absurdity of the premise and never absurd enough to be charming. The beginning–when Snoopy meets his bride-to-be–has Peppermint Patty (Gini Holtzman) calling up Charlie Brown to ask for Snoopy to watch her house. Her dad has left her alone to go on a business trip.

She’s eight.

Charles M. Schulz really stretches the suspension of disbelief here. Because every time he spreads it thinner, it’s because it’s lazy writing, not a terrible concept. The Peanuts kids throwing Snoopy a wedding could be charming. But they’re all awful when they’re preparing for it. And most of the special is just Spike traveling cross country, which would be fine if Schulz had anything for him to do once he arrives, but he becomes background. He’s kind of amusing when he just stands around because he’s funny looking, but not enough.

There’s a cute scene or two involving Woodstock and the animation is all fine. Melendez’s direction isn’t great, but the animation is fine. Judy Munsen’s music is fine.

The acting is rough. Only Johnson gets a lot of lines–he’s got to read Snoopy and Spike’s letters after all–and you can almost see the actor sitting there reading them flat off the page. Lousy expository dialogue too.

Sure, Getting Married could be a lot worse, but it couldn’t be much more pointless.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Bill Melendez; written by Charles M. Schulz; edited by Chuck McCann and Julie Maryon; music by Judy Munsen; produced by Melendez and Lee Mendelson; aired by the Columbia Broadcasting System.

Starring Brett Johnson (Charlie Brown), Gini Holtzman (Peppermint Patty), Heather Stoneman (Lucy van Pelt), Fergie (Sally Brown), Jeremy Schoenberg (Linus van Pelt), and Keri Houlihan (Marcie).


Police Story (1985, Jackie Chan)

Much of Police Story operates on charm. If it’s not co-writer, star, and director Jackie Chan’s charm, it’s charm of the scenes. There are some painfully uncharming moments–mostly Chan’s frequent neglective abuse of girlfriend Maggie Cheung–but even when Police Story is in its stunt spectacular mode, there’s charm.

The film doesn’t open with charm, however. It opens with this all-exposition police briefing introduction to drug kingpin Chor Yuen. The cops, including Chan, are getting their assignment. Next scene is execution of that assignment, the cops trying to just Chor and his large gang of gunmen in a shanty town. Things go wrong almost immediately (because the cops assumed the criminals wouldn’t notice a bunch of guys around wearing earpieces?), leading to a big shootout.

Chan, as star, hangs back for most of the shootout proper. He comes in to save the day, chases Chor up the mountain (the shanty town is the side of it), then chases him back down–in cars, destroying the shanty town. The scale of the sequence is amazing, making up for Chan’s middling shot composition. He and editor Peter Cheung are showing off the effects executions in Police Story; they’re sensationalizing, not trying to fit into the film’s tone.

Admittedly, given the tone is genial slapstick, the brutal violence of the action sequences (and fist fights) would be hard to fit into that geniality.

After another great action sequence where Chan boards a moving bus and fights off some henchmen, then gets thrown from said bus and still manages to stop it, he ends up poster boy for the Hong Kong police department. For some reason, his bosses also give him the job of protecting hostile witness Brigitte Lin, who works for drug lord Chor.

Lin doesn’t want protection, leading to a montage sequence of Chan following her around while the peppy, cartoonish score (from Michael Lai and Tang Siu-Lam) blares. After some narrative diversion, the bad guys strike, leading to Chan bringing Lin back to his place, where they run into Cheung (and a surprise birthday party for Chan). The next fifteen minutes or so is Chan passively and actively abusing Cheung, which is off-putting, though the movie has enough sensitivity for bad girl Lin to immediately (and sincerely) befriend good girl Cheung.

That C plot character relationship is one of the best things in Police Story, at least as narrative goes; it helps Cheung and Lin give the film’s two best performances. Ninety percent of the male cast (Cheung and Lin are the only female cast members, at least of substance) just mug for the camera.

There’s a really funny courtroom scene, there’s a bunch of great action scenes–the strangest thing about Police Story’s action (and its emphasis on the stunts) is how the biggest stunt, despite being an accomplishment for Chan (they show it from three different angles), is narratively inert. Chan knows how to stage a fantastic stunt sequence. He just doesn’t have much sense as for how narratively effective that sequence is going to be. Same goes for the slapstick set pieces. There’s a lengthy one involving Chan and a bunch of telephones ringing and he contorts his way around to answer all of them. It’s charming enough, but runs way too long. Chan and editor Cheung think because they’ve got that peppy music going, a sequence can go forever. It’s not good peppy, cartoonish music. It’s just peppy, cartoonish music.

The second half of the movie is Chan gone rogue, trying to bring down Chor. Its non-action scenes are some of Chan’s better directing. In the first half, despite being an acrobatic, unstoppable supercop, Chan’s a doofus. In the second half, he’s much less a doofus (leading to the film’s most awkward moment, Chan monologuing about being an unappreciated cop). But the scenes work better, direction-wise. Even if Cheung does pop up just to take Chan’s gentle but intentional verbal abuse or, you know, screw things up.

The big finale, despite the three-peated stunt being narratively blasé, is fantastic. Police Story’s stuntwork isn’t just fantastic for the abuse Chan puts himself through for a shot, it’s the abuse he puts the film’s other stuntmen through. And Lin. She’s obviously performing a bunch of her own stunts, even if the action is only there to shock cruelty value.

None of the villains stand out. Chor’s a thin Mr. Big, overshadowed by his henchmen (who are even more shallow but their performances aren’t) and particularly his lawyer, Lau Chi-wing. Bill Tung’s fun as Chan’s supervisor. Lam Kwok-hung is a little much as the straight-edge accountant police commander though. Police Story goes with caricature even when the actors seem capable of more. And the character consistency, script-wise, is always a little questionable. But with Lam… it’s like he’s not in one the joke when he needs to be.

Police Story is a spectacular spectacle of stuntwork. And the rest is a reasonable enough packaging of said spectacle. But a feature-length expansion of the end credits, which show the behind the scenes of the stunts, would probably make for a better film.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Jackie Chan; written by Chan and Edward Tang; director of photography, Cheung Yiu-Tsou; edited by Peter Cheung; music by Michael Lai and Tang Siu-Lam; production designer, Oliver Wong; produced by Leonard Ho; released by Golden Harvest Company.

Starring Jackie Chan (Chan Ka Kui), Maggie Cheung (May), Brigitte Lin (Selina Fong), Lam Kwok-Hung (Supt. Raymond Li), Bill Tung (Inspector Bill Wong), Chor Yuen (Chu Tao), Lau Chi-Wing (Cheung, the Lawyer), and Kam Hing-Yin (Inspector Man).


Enemy Mine (1985, Wolfgang Petersen)

Enemy Mine has one great performance from Louis Gossett Jr., one strong mediocre performance from Dennis Quaid, one adorable performance from Bumper Robinson (as a tween alien), and terrible performances from everyone else. The film’s most impressive quality is a tossup. It’s either Gossett’s performance (and makeup) or it’s how well Mine hides director Petersen’s ineptitude at directing actors for so long.

The film opens with Quaid narrating the history of the future. Humans in a space war with aliens. There’s some human fighter pilot stuff; not great acting, but it’s hurried and the emphasis is on the sci-fi. Petersen’s a lot more comfortable with showcasing the sci-fi setting than doing anything in it. Anyway, in the first act, the terrible performances from the actors are passable. Their presence is brief; once Quaid crashes onto an uncharted planet, they’re gone.

For a while, Enemy Mine then becomes this xenophobic look at Gossett’s alien–all from Quaid’s perspective–until the two finally clash. Some speedy contrivances lead to the two marooned warriors realizing they need each other and teaming up. There’s a lot of bickering, with some particularly mean stuff from Quaid (the movie opens with some casual misogyny from Quaid’s character, so the mean streak is well-established), but they learn to get along.

Despite being awkwardly plotted, the second act of the film is a big success. The scenes with Quaid and Gossett are fantastic, always because Gossett’s performance is so exceptionally good. It doesn’t matter how silly the scenes get, or how thin Edward Khmara’s dialogue for Quaid gets. Enemy Mine all of a sudden delivers on promise the first act didn’t even suggest it had.

The plot eventually comes in and takes away screen time from Gossett. Quaid goes on an exploration quest with troubling result. The exploration scenes are where some of Petersen’s narrative distance issues start to present. Petersen’s only comfortable with extreme long shot–to showcase the filming location–and reaction close-up. And the reaction (for Quaid) has to be to something dire. Otherwise, Petersen has no interest in how Quaid’s experiencing the exploration. Strange since he’s the narrator.

As the film goes into the third act, with Robinson coming into the film, it’s in a weaker condition. Not because of Robinson, who’s good (and gives Quaid something new to do with the performance), but because Khmara doesn’t write summary well and Petersen doesn’t direct it well. Then comes the action-packed third act, where Petersen is only comfortable in his extreme long shots. There are some close-ups to the action, but it’s poorly choreographed and terribly edited (by Hannes Nikel).

All of those third act long shots are of spacecraft. There’s the space station, there’s the bad guys’ spaceship. Somehow Quaid manages to never go anywhere with cramped quarters. And the production design is great. Rolf Zehetbauer’s production design on Enemy Mine is outstanding. All the set decoration. Just not Petersen’s direction of that design or decoration. Petersen’s misguided and committed.

Technically, Enemy Mine is a mixed bag. Tony Imi’s photography is all right. It doesn’t have any personality, but its lack of intensity slows down the rushed summary sequences in the first act. It helps give the film character. As does Maurice Jarre’s somewhat infectious and saccharine score. It too gives the film character. Not good character, as Jarre’s score is way too indulgent and detached, but character. Enemy Mine isn’t the most original film, but it’s distinct.

Terrible supporting performances. Brion James is worst because he’s in it the most. Then Richard Marcus and Scott Kraft. There’s something seriously wrong with how Petersen directed the supporting actors on Enemy Mine. Everyone’s bad but those three are just godawful.

But Quaid steps up for the third act and makes up for it. As much as he can. The film’s against him. It goes from the poorly directed Petersen action to a rushed finale. Quaid ingloriously loses his narration privileges for the denouement. A new, omnipotent (uncredited) narrator closes off Enemy Mine on a rather low point.

It’s unfortunate but not a surprise given how much trouble Petersen and Khmara have with, you know, the storytelling.

Great performance from Gossett. Truly amazing given the make-up and so on. Quaid provides able support to Gossett, stepping up when he’s got to do the same for Robinson. They make Enemy Mine something special.

Well, them and Chris Walas, who does the makeup.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Wolfgang Petersen; screenplay by Edward Khmara, based on the story by Barry Longyear; director of photography, Toni Imi; edited by Hannes Nikel; music by Maurice Jarre; production designer, Rolf Zehetbauer; produced by Stephen J. Friedman; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Dennis Quaid (Davidge), Louis Gossett Jr. (Drac), Bumper Robinson (Zammis), Brion James (Stubbs), Richard Marcus (Arnold), Carolyn McCormick (Morse), Lance Kerwin (Wooster), Scott Kraft (Jonathan), and Jim Mapp (Old Drac).


Tampopo (1985, Itami Jûzô)

Tampopo is a cinematic appreciation of Japanese food culture. Writer and director Itami also has some love of cinema things, but it’s all about the food. Even when it’s played for humor. Or for nurturing. Or for sex. Sexy foodstuffs abound in Tampopo.

But Tampopo is also this traditional narrative. It’s a Western’s narrative, but it’s a narrative. Truck drivers Yamazaki Tsutomu and Watanabe Ken intercede on the behalf of a woman’s honor (regarding her position as the owner-operator of a ramen shop). It’s Shane, okay? I didn’t realize it until the end but it’s Shane. You don’t think a lot about the narrative because it’s very reserved, sort of muted. The humor’s easier and less ambitions.

Miyamoto Nobuko is the woman. She’s also Tampopo. She’s a widow, with a kid, a suitor, the failing business, questionable ramen cooking talent. Yamazaki agrees to help her learn. He sets up assorted, eclectic instructors and occasionally bewildering, always entertaining lessons. And he falls for Miyamoto, but he’s just a traveling man. Or is he?

There’s no question about Miyamoto’s shop eventually being successful. It’s just how long it will take. The film starts not with the main cast but with Yakusho Kôji. He’s sitting down to watch a movie with his lady friend (Shinoi Setsuko). He likes movies and food. No talking during movies, as someone finds out. But eating during movies is fine. Just quietly.

Then Itami kicks off the main plot with some didactic structuring. But it turns out to just be a mold. He doesn’t keep it. He keeps the same kind of asides, just without the overlay. The asides (because sketches would require cameos and everything else seems to need quotation marks)–so, the asides. These asides have no narrative requirements. Itami can do whatever he wants. Or can get an actor to do involving an egg yolk. Tampopo is a lot. It’s also brilliantly edited by Suzuki Akira. Suzuki’s got to have showy cuts to match the content because Itami’s always matching intensity with content. There’s a tension between the two and it gives Tampopo its anticipatory energy.

That energy stays consistent throughout. Suzuki and Itami keep the same pace during the main plot scenes as they do the asides. It’s really cool.

Great photography from Tamura Masaki and music from Murai Kunihiko. The film never gets long, the asides stay fresh. The acting is great.

Yamazaki takes Miyamoto through the urban landscape–because even if it’s a Western, it’s still set in a big city–to find the instructors. There’s Katô Yoshi, a former ramen-master burnt out, and noodle-man Sakura Kinzô. Wanatabe is around a bit. And Yasuoaka Rikiya is the guy who’ll be there for Miyamoto when the open road calls to Yamazaki and he abandons her, the shop, and the kid.

The kid who’s uncredited?

Anyway. It all works. It’s delightful. Itami falls back on broader humor whenever he wants to hurry a scene, but it’s fine. They’re good laughs, they’re just at the expense of character development. Itami, Suzuki, Tamura, and Murai do phenomenal work. And the actors are good too, but none of them get to do phenomenal work because no character development. Not even for an Audie Murphy Western much less Shane. Spoof and homage have definite limits.

They also kill a little turtle onscreen. So. I’m not down with that. I don’t want to talk about it, but, no. Uh uh.

Still, it’s a rather good movie.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Itami Jûzô; director of photography, Tamura Masaki; edited by Suzuki Akira; music by Murai Kunihiko; produced by Hosogoe Seigo, Tamaoki Yasushi, and Itami; released by Toho Company Ltd.

Starring Yamazaki Tsutomu (Gorô), Miyamoto Nobuko (Tampopo), Yakusho Kôji (Man in White Suit), Watanabe Ken (Gan), Yasuoka Rikiya (Pisuken), Sakura Kinzô (Shôhei), Katô Yoshi (Noodle-Making Master), Ôtaki Hideji (Rich Old Man), and Kuroda Fukumi (Man in White Suit’s Mistress).


Fright Night (1985, Tom Holland)

So much of Fright Night is humdrum, with the occasional energy pulses whenever Chris Sarandon gets to be vampirish, I didn’t really expect it to get any better. I certainly didn’t expect director Holland to go all out on the special effects or even Roddy McDowall to get such good material. I also didn’t expect Stephen Geoffreys to go from pointless background to constant annoyance; Geoffreys isn’t any good to begin with, so when he gets even worse, it claws. Especially as he gets one of the great effects sequences.

Unfortunately, Holland hasn’t set Fright Night up to be easily saved, not even by effects sequences. Especially not as the technically superior finale lacks much dramatic oomph. Fright Night starts being about William Ragsdale’s curious, then terrified teenager. The part requires someone who can get away not just with being nosy, but a jerk to girlfriend Amanda Bearse. Ragsdale’s got absolutely no charisma. Five minutes in the first act feels like a half hour, as Ragsdale starts to investigate new next door neighbor Sarandon while ignoring Bearse and palling around with Geoffreys. Only it turns out the palling makes Geoffreys miserable and he feels picked on; it can’t be any other characters who pick on him, because there’s no one else in the movie. Holland isn’t interested in directing a high school movie.

There’s the requisite eighties club scene, however. Fright Night does have a club scene. It’s even a good club scene–Sarandon seduces Bearse, while Ragsdale goofs off trying to figure out a payphone. Better photography would’ve helped; Jan Kiesser’s photography is always competent, but never excellent. Still Sarandon and Bearse are good in the scene. Sarandon plays the part of bloodsucker as eighties thoughtful stud well. So well his relationship with his charmless doofus sidekick Jonathan Stark never works. Seeing him have a subplot with Bearse, some character development, it’s nice.

Bearse has a terrible part. She’s got no chemistry with Ragsdale, which would be hard because Ragsdale’s actively unappealing. But she does all right as a reincarnated lady love of a vampire. Of course, it’s kind of creepy since she’s seventeen and Sarandon is forty-three and Holland does nothing to establish Bearse’s character other than her being a prude who’s better that trig than mathematic dummy Ragsdale.

So the two vampire seduction scenes are good. Just a tad too exploitative. Even if you remove the female actor being underage, Holland really doesn’t want to deal with any of the repercussions of the film’s events. Fright Night is a spoofy comedy. It’s also a terrible scary movie. And it’s a special effects spectacular. It’s sometimes exquisite–though in McDowall and Sarandon’s performances. None of the other actors give unqualified good performances; they need stronger direction and Holland apparently doesn’t give it to them. Maybe he’s just in a hurry to the never hinted at special effects finale but even it lacks personality.

The score is another big disconnect. For example, when Ragsdale is suspiciously peeping on Sarandon, Brad Fiedel’s score goes to its synthpop vampire seduction thing. And Holland doesn’t seem to notice it doing nothing for the film or Ragdale’s performance. Ragsdale’s what happens if Billy Peltzer is unlikable.

Oddly enough, the seduction part of the score ends up being the most effective, if only because editor Kent Beyda screws up the rest of Fiedel’s work. Fright Night is not well-edited. Almost never. And, along with the frequent, unchecked bombastic music and Kiesser’s flat photography, the filmmaking itself acts as a barrier. Nowhere near as much as Ragsdale being an unlikable shit (maybe because he’s at least seven years too old for the part), but it does act as a barrier. Fright Night lacks mood. Holland’s all over the place, often competently or better, but his direction is moodless and needs to be quite the opposite.

Also Ragsdale is really, really, really, really bland until Bearse, Geoffreys, and McDowall take over. And Geoffreys is really bland too, but he’s not as damaging the overall experience.

So once McDowall’s part is bigger, Fright Night starts to get better, then it gets good, then it chokes on an epilogue. So after opening too flat to make an impression, Fright Night still ends up being a disappointment.

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Tom Holland; director of photography, Jan Kiesser; edited by Kent Beyda; music by Brad Fiedel; production designer, John DeCuir Jr.; produced by Herb Jaffe; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring William Ragsdale (Charley Brewster), Roddy McDowall (Peter Vincent), Chris Sarandon (Jerry Dandrige), Amanda Bearse (Amy Peterson), Stephen Geoffreys (Ed Thompson), Jonathan Stark (Billy Cole), Art Evans (Detective Lennox), and Dorothy Fielding (Judy Brewster).


Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985, George Miller and George Ogilvie)

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is the story of a burnt-out, desolate man who learns to live again. Sort of. It’s more the story of a burnt-out, desolate man who finds himself babysitting sixty feral children who think he’s a messiah. But not really that story either, because Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome doesn’t put much thought into story. Once writers Terry Hayes and co-director Miller, get Mad Max (Mel Gibson) beyond the Thunderdome portion of the film, it’s just a variety on nonsense until the grand action finale.

Only that grand action finale isn’t particularly grand. There’s impressive stunt work and practical car effects, but there’s no animosity between the pursuers and the pursued. While Tina Turner is mad at Gibson, it’s a general anger without much intensity. Directors Miller and Ogilvie, along with Hayes, do nothing to emphasize any of the character relationships in the film. There are always adorable feral kids cloying at Gibson and none make much of an impression. Even Helen Buday, who should be Gibson’s sidekick or dramatic foil, just ends up in the background. Making the feral kids either non-verbal or blathering nonsense means Thunderdome just gets to imply character development without ever having to commit time or energy to it.

Gibson does better with the implied character development than anyone else. Even though the film’s indifferent to his character’s presence, Gibson’s not. He’s kind of blah with hair extensions growl-bantering with Turner, but he does get in a couple good moments with the kids. A lot of the other scenes with the kids are terrible, but there are a couple of good ones.

In addition to the troubled script and direction, Beyond Thunderdome is always lacking in some technical department at some time or another. Half of Dean Semler’s photography is subpar. Even though there’s clearly this elaboration exterior set for Turner’s “Bartertown,” the nighttime scenes in specific locations are always obvious on a soundstage. The film’s got the right grain, but not the right light.

Robert Francis-Bruce’s editing never impresses. Maurice Jarre’s score is overly melodramatic, trying to buy into the film’s goofy feral kid logic.

As far as the acting goes, it’s all fine. The stuff with the kids–the Disney version of a post-apocalyptic Lord of the Flies–is a complete misfire (though it does feature some of Semler and Jarre’s best work in the film, when Ogilvie shoots white sands like a resort commercial). So when the kids are annoying, it’s not their fault. It’s Ogilvie, Miller, and Hayes’s fault. And Buday is fine. It’s too bad she doesn’t get better material.

But all through Beyond Thunderdome, Ogilvie and Miller never let the film get too long or too unpleasant or too precious. It’s tedious, but there’s a building intensity. That intensity fizzles out completely in the third act and stops Thunderdome fast. There’s no attempt to recover, just the transition into a bad epilogue sequence.

The whole thing feels like a forfeit.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by George Miller and George Ogilvie; written by Terry Hayes and Miller; director of photography, Dean Semler; edited by Richard Francis-Bruce; music by Maurice Jarre; production designer, Graham ‘Grace’ Walker; produced by Miller; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Mel Gibson (Mad Max Rockatansky), Tina Turner (Aunty Entity), Angelo Rossitto (The Master), Helen Buday (Savannah Nix), Robert Grubb (Pig Killer), Angry Anderson (Ironbar), Tom Jennings (Slake), Paul Larsson (The Blaster), Frank Thring (The Collector), and Bruce Spence (Jedediah the Pilot).


The Mean Season (1985, Phillip Borsos)

Somewhere in the second act of The Mean Season, the film just starts slipping and it never corrects. The opening titles, set against stormy Miami weather and a vicious (though not graphic) murder, establish the film’s momentum. Everything moves fast, whether it’s establishing unsatisfied reporter Kurt Russell and his newsroom sidekicks, his girlfriend Mariel Hemingway, even when the serial killer starts calling Russell–director Borsos and screenwriter Leon Piedmont keep things moving. Frank Tidy’s photography, the Florida locations, and Lalo Schifrin’s gentle but intense score help a lot.

There’s also Andy Garcia and Richard Bradford as the cops investigating the case. Garcia likes Russell, Bradford doesn’t. Like almost everything else in the movie, Borsos seems to think implying character motivation is the same as having character motivation. But Borsos and Piedmont aren’t particularly good at subtlety and Borsos isn’t great at directing his actors. He apparently gets Bradford’s world-weary, slightly fascist cop is the best character in the picture, since Bradford’s the only actor who gets any material to chew on. Though maybe it’s Bradford stepping up and chewing on his otherwise pointless role.

Getting a little ahead of myself–the salad days of Mean Season are the first half. The newspaper stuff is interesting, Borsos is good at the investigation, Russell and Hemingway are appealing. Then the movie gets into this whole juxtaposition of Russell’s media ambitions and the killer’s media ambitions and the stumbling starts. Russell and Hemingway try, but neither brings much weight to their roles. Once Borsos is done doing jump scares involving them, he and then Piedmont have nothing more for Hemingway. She’s just around to argue with Russell. Then Russell apologizes and scene.

There’s no character development, particularly for Russell. Piedmont’s script relies on thriller more than drama. Borsos’s direction eventually veers to action, which is a big mistake because he’s exceptionally inept at it. The second half of the film, as Russell finds himself in danger and not just from manipulative jump scares, is ragged and somewhat unpleasant. Russell burns through the charm and likability he’s built up and Borsos isn’t there with anything else for him. He ends the picture a husk.

Mean Season also skips the opportunity to look at the reporter becoming news, even though there are occasional details suggesting someone thought it might be a good idea to focus on that angle.

Hemingway gets a lot of help from Schifrin’s score. It’s problematic–she’s the damsel so she needs good damsel music–but also effective. And she’s trying. And her character does try to talk some sense, building up her likability. So she’s slight, but gets a pass.

Russell’s pass is a little different, almost more of an incomplete. It’s not his fault though. It’d be hard to make the last third silliness of Mean Season work. The film’s desperately in need of a better resolution to the mystery of the serial killer. Borsos overestimates where’s gotten the film in terms of suspension of disbelief as well as general interest.

The supporting cast is solid. Besides the awesome Bradford performance, Garcia is fine with little to do as a too young police lieutenant. Richard Masur, Joe Pantoliano, and Rose Portillo all ably staff the newsroom scenes. They eventually disappear from the A plot, reduced to background as Piedmont’s script loses focus. At least Borsos kept them around.

Richard Jordan and William Smith are good as witnesses who prove essential to the case. Borsos fails Jordan after a while, but he’s still got some fine moments.

The Mean Season wraps up with an unsatisfying, hurried, manipulative conclusion. By the end, the whole movie is on Hemingway, Russell, Schifrin, Tidy, and Florida’s collective shoulders. They manage to keep it afloat, but only just.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Phillip Borsos; screenplay by Leon Piedmont, based on a novel by John Katzenbach; director of photography, Frank Tidy; edited by Duwayne Dunham; music by Lalo Schifrin; production designer, Philip M. Jeffries; produced by David Foster and Lawrence Turman; released by Orion Pictures.

Starring Kurt Russell (Malcolm Anderson), Mariel Hemingway (Christine Connelly), Andy Garcia (Ray Martinez), Richard Bradford (Phil Wilson), Richard Masur (Bill Nolan), Joe Pantoliano (Andy Porter), Rose Portillo (Kathy Vasquez), William Smith (Albert O’Shaughnessy), and Richard Jordan (Mike Hilson).


Perry Mason Returns (1985, Ron Satlof)

The most impressive technical contribution to Perry Mason Returns has to be Dick DeBenedictis’s music. He lifts thriller style music, some horror, some whatever, then applies it to this somewhat bland TV movie. Albert J. Dunk’s photography is too muted and director Satlof, though very capable of setting up sequences, is mediocre (at best) at the talking heads and he doesn’t do the courtroom scene.

It’s Perry Mason Returns. Raymond Burr barely does anything for the first hour of the movie except be a jerk to William Katt for being not being miserable and consoles Barbara Hale. Hale’s on trial for murder. Hence the importance of a well-directed courtroom sequence. But Satlof tanks it. Dean Hargrove’s teleplay isn’t exactly outstanding, but the reveal is fairly solid. Satlof tanks it. The entire finale is a disaster. While Burr stalls in court, Katt has to reason with evil rednecks.

There’s some solid acting–Kerrie Keane, Holland Taylor, James Kidnie. There’s some not so solid acting. It’s a TV movie. Burr and Hale are likable. Katt’s sort of a dork, but Hale seems to like him so why not give him a chance, wasn’t he in Carrie? But Burr and Hale have undeniable chemistry and Burr’s best scenes are his moments with her. He’s the title character and he barely figures into the narrative. It’s the last scene before he finally shows some personality. Satlof’s inept direction of Burr’s scenes hurt Burr’s performance.

It’s a really lazy script though. Katt doesn’t even do the private investigator bit, he just inexplicably annoys cop Paul Hubbard into doing all the work. Katt’s probably got the most screen time in the movie too; it’s boring Glen A. Larson TV show p.i. action. Katt’s maybe likable as a sidekick to patient and older Burr and Hale, not as a lead. He’s not unlikable, but he’s clearly out of his depth. Because dumb writing and bad direction.

Still, it’s a good reveal, the principals are likable, Keane’s good, Taylor’s good. It’s just a poorly directed Perry Mason TV movie, it doesn’t have to do much but divert.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Ron Satlof; teleplay by Dean Hargrove, based on characters created by Erle Stanley Gardner; director of photography, Albert J. Dunk; edited by Edwin F. England and Robert L. Kimble; music by Dick DeBenedictis; produced by Barry Steinberg; aired by the National Broadcasting Company.

Starring Raymond Burr (Perry Mason), Barbara Hale (Della Street), William Katt (Paul Drake Jr.), Patrick O’Neal (Arthur Gordon), Holland Taylor (Paula Gordon), James Kidnie (Bobby Lynch), Richard Anderson (Ken Braddock), Kerrie Keane (Kathryn Gordon), David McIlwraith (David Gordon), Roberta Weiss (Laura Gordon), Lindsay Merrithew (Chris), Al Freeman Jr. (Lt. Cooper), Paul Hubbard (Sgt. Stratton), Cassie Yates (Barbara Scott), Kathleen Laskey (Luanne) and Charles Macaulay (Judge Whitewood).


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