1987

Born in East L.A. (1987, Cheech Marin)

Born in East L.A. is a much lighter comedy than expected. Maybe not more than writer-director-star Cheech Marin portends—and a lot of the film’s ineffectiveness isn’t first time feature director Marin’s fault, he needed one of his four editors to have some clue about creating narrative continuity. And while his cinematographer—Álex Phillips Jr.—isn’t at all incompetent, one does wish he’d have given Marin some pointers about how to frame establishing shots. There are a number of times in the film where it seems like Marin’s setting up a sight gag but… no. He really just doesn’t seem to realize he doesn’t have to shoot in medium shot so much.

Marin’s an L.A. mechanic who goes to pick up a visiting cousin (Paul Rodriguez, in a role cut down what probably ought to be an uncredited mega-cameo) and gets scooped up in an immigration raid. So while Marin’s getting deported, Rodriguez is trying to figure out his way in L.A. He’s staying with Marin and family, but family is out of town, which gets to be a problem since Marin needs someone to come down to the border with his ID so he can return home. The casual, nonspecific, almost benign racism from the border guards—including Jan-Michael Vincent is the boss in one scene, which should probably be uncredited too, even if it wasn’t cut down. Just having creative opening titles would probably help the film a bit.

Anyway, the racism. It doesn’t just date East L.A. it makes the film a very peculiar cultural document. At least in the first fifteen or twenty minutes, because once Marin realizes he can’t sneak across the border, he sets about making some money to buy his way back across.

One of the major plot holes, which may or may not be a result of the cuts, is whether or not his family ever misses him; they’re only supposed to be gone for a week. There’s some stuff with Rodriguez alone at the house and it’s all pretty funny, but doesn’t go anywhere. For a while, Rodriguez is giving the film’s best performance too. Because Marin starts the movie wanting the audience to think he’s a bit of a goon. The opening titles, while they aren’t giving away all the eventual cameos, is all about Marin following a woman (Neith Hunter) around L.A. landmarks and catcalling her. Only, because Marin’s not really good at the shots—if they’re not second unit—it’s never clear she hears his catcalling, which just makes him an ineffective stalker? He’s definitely supposed to be harmless, but it’s not clear how lovable he’s supposed to be for quite a bit longer into the film. When he tells someone about his history in the U.S. Army.

Marin hides he’s got backstory for about sixty of the film’s eighty-five minutes. Odd, odd, odd choice.

Though I suppose when you consider him being a vet who can’t get back into his country… but, wait, 1980s, all the border guards were swell fellows.

Marin’s got some really good gags, some really good jokes, a handful of excellent ideas; he’s able to execute about thirty percent of them satisfactorily. The plot’s pretty traditional, down to greasy scuzball Daniel Stern—but not dangerous greasy scuzball—being Marin’s “boss” and sidekick in Mexico (Stern’s in forced expatriation) and Kamala Lopez as a love interest (though, as she’s eighteen years younger than Marin, he comes off like an uncle, chemistry-wise). They could’ve had someone pretty easily doctor the script. Just saying.

Instead, the film’s a hodgepodge of funny moments and performances—Lopez is more likable than good, while Stern is funnier than good. Producer Peter Macgregor-Scott really should’ve gotten Marin a better crew.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Cheech Marin; director of photography, Álex Phillips Jr.; edited by Don Brochu, Stephen Lovejoy, David Newhouse, and Mike Sheridan; music by Lee Holdridge; production designer, Lynda Burbank; produced by Peter Macgregor-Scott; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Cheech Marin (Rudy), Daniel Stern (Jimmy), Kamala Lopez (Dolores), Paul Rodriguez (Javier), Jan-Michael Vincent (McCalister), Lupe Ontiveros (Rudy’s Mother), and Tony Plana (Feo).


La Bamba (1987, Luis Valdez)

La Bamba is a perfectly adequate biopic of fifties rock and roll singer Ritchie Valens, who died at seventeen in a plane crash. Very twenty-five year-old Lou Diamond Phillips plays Valens. He’s adequate. He lip-synchs all right, though the performances (Los Lobos covers Valens’s songs) almost never sound right acoustically. When Phillips shows off his skills to his garage band, for instance, it clearly wasn’t recorded in a garage. But whatever. It’s perfectly adequate.

Ditto the supporting cast. Esai Morales is Phillips’s older half-brother, who’s narratively responsible for everything in the movie–he moves Phillips and mom Rosanna DeSoto (who’s obviously way too young to be their mother) from a migrant community in Northern California down to the Los Angeles area at the beginning of the movie. He brings Elizabeth Peña along too. Peña was Phillips’s love interest before Morales arrives. One look at Morales, however, and she dumps the ostensibly younger Phillips. By the time the film’s jumped ahead after the move, Morales is an abusive drunken pot runner.

Despite bookending the movie and being responsible for so much, Morales doesn’t get to do much. No one really gets to do much in director Valdez’s script, of course. Morales has amazing illustrating abilities, which La Bamba promotes into a second act subplot to apparently fill time, because it goes nowhere. It’s a vehicle for Morales’s eventual breakdown about being jealous of Phillips. It’s a dramatically inert breakdown; it’s fairly clear early on no one’s going to give a standout performance or have some amazing part. Sure, Morales has more to do than almost anyone else, but Valdez doesn’t give him anything. Valdez also isn’t great at directing his actors.

He’s adequate. Enough.

Besides Morales and Peña (who really gets squat), DeSoto doesn’t have an arc outside being Phillips’s fiercely supportive mom. She has three younger children she’s raising, who she never has any significant scenes with. Or even insignificant ones with the baby, who disappears after a while. Then there’s Danielle von Zerneck as Phillips’s girlfriend. Her racist dad (Sam Anderson) doesn’t like her dating a Hispanic kid, though it’s never clear the dad finds out he’s Hispanic just brown. He eventually has problems with Phillips for playing rock and roll more than anything else.

von Zerneck and Phillips have no chemistry but muscle through their subplot–it’s barely a subplot, she’s a narrative prop–all right. The period costumes and cars do some of the heavy lifting; Vincent M. Cresciman’s production design is good.

Joe Pantoliano is similarly fine–and similarly a narrative prop–as the record guy who discovers Phillips.

Valdez’s direction, outside his disinterest in his actors’ performances and some blocking issues cinematographer Adam Greenberg really should’ve corrected, is… you guessed it… perfectly adequate. When Phillips finally performs the title track, the scene’s more effective than usual but only because, well, it’s La Bamba. It’s a great song.

Unfortunately La Bamba, the movie, is lukewarm. And really, really comfortable never being anything but.

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Luis Valdez; director of photography, Adam Greenberg; edited by Don Brochu and Sheldon Kahn; music by Carlos Santana and Miles Goodman; production designer, Vincent M. Cresciman; produced by Bill Borden and Taylor Hackford; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Lou Diamond Phillips (Ritchie), Esai Morales (Bob), Rosanna DeSoto (Connie), Elizabeth Peña (Rosie), Danielle von Zerneck (Donna), and Joe Pantoliano (Bob Keane).


Raising Arizona (1987, Joel Coen)

Halfway through Raising Arizona is this breathtaking chase sequence. Until this point in the film, while there’s been a lot of phenomenal direction, it’s all been brief. Raising Arizona starts in summary, with lead Nicolas Cage narrating, and it doesn’t start slowing down the narrative pace until just before the chase sequence. But then the chase happens and it’s amazing and Arizona seems poised to just keep going with that precise, outrageous filmmaking.

Then it doesn’t. Instead it gets lost in its supporting cast for a while before getting back on track, which is too bad. But there had been warning signs–like the film never really giving Holly Hunter reasonable character motivation, instead letting Cage’s narration–and charm–sell their romance. Though, at the halfway point, it certainly doesn’t seem like Hunter and Cage are going to get the narrative shaft for supporting cast members John Goodman and William Forsythe. Yet they do.

It’s during Goodman and Forsythe’s tedious time in the spotlight one has time to reflect on just how few of its promises the film has fulfilled.

The starting narration is long. Arizona runs about ninety minutes (without end credits) and it’s got a long, narrated opening summary sequence, then the lengthy chase sequence right in the middle. And then a substantial “epilogue” but more wrap-up.

Cage is front and center, literally–he’s getting his mug shot taken–right at the start. Hunter is taking his mug shot. He robs convenience stores (without bullets so it’s not armed robbery). She’s a cop. They fall in love. Without her saying very much. It’s all from Cage’s perspective, which is great. He’s a lovable, well-meaning recidivist. Right from the start, Cage’s performance is amazing. His narration and his regular performance. It’s all amazing.

No one else is amazing. There are some other excellent performances, some quite good ones, no bad ones, but nothing compares to Cage’s. So it’s really too bad the Coen Brothers’ script gives him so little to do in the second half of the film. Better than Hunter, of course, who doesn’t really get to show any personality until the prelude to the chase sequence–and then barely anything the rest of the film. And that epilogue demotes her importance, which she’s sort of been clawing to get.

Cage and Hunter get married. In the narrated summary. Cage has been in and out of prison, but he settles down once they’re married. Hunter wants kids. Only she can’t. It’s not a story arc for her. It’s a plot detail in Cage’s story. Hunter becomes scenery for a while until they hear about some quintuplets and decide to kidnap one. This decision isn’t discussed in any scenes, it’s all covered in Cage’s narration. Because apparently the Coen Brothers couldn’t figure out a way to get Hunter to go from cop to kidnapper in scene.

Cage–and the film–can cover it. It’s shocking how much it can cover, which just makes it even more shocking when it no longer can cover. Even though Goodman and Forsythe give fine performances, it’s stunning how much lost the film gets in the weeds with them.

See, once they kidnap a baby–from unpainted furniture king Trey Wilson (who’s fantastic) and his wife, Lynne Kitei (who gets a scene and a quarter)–Goodman and Forsythe break out of jail and visit old buddy Cage. They need a place to lie low, unaware there’s a bounty hunter (Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb) after them.

Pretty soon Cobb sees the news about the kidnapped baby and decides to go after it too.

Then there’s a throwaway subplot involving Frances McDormand and Sam McMurray as a couple Hunter wants to be friends with. It’s a contrived, connective subplot, just there to move things around and to be funny. There’s some gorgeous photography from Barry Sonnenfeld during that sequence; the photography’s always good, always great, but the couples picnic sequence is about the only time Sonnenfeld gets to shoot exteriors during the day. It’s also a place where Hunter could get some material.

She doesn’t. Instead, the Coen Brothers focus on McMurray’s dipshit, who’s Cage’s boss; that detail comes out of the blue, since the only person Cage is ever working with is M. Emmet Walsh in a two scene cameo.

Eventually everyone wants the baby. The script uses it as punchline, not actual character motivation. It’s during that weedy period in the runtime when it doesn’t seem like Arizona is ever going to get back on track.

It does, finally, because it puts Cage and Hunter together in scenes and as a team. Despite the film being all about their whirlwind, glorious romance, they don’t get to establish actual chemistry–between the actors, not chemistry created through editing–until the third act. Way too late.

But then there’s this great action showdown in the third act, with a small but excellent chase scene, and director Coen, cinematographer, Sonnenfeld, and editor Michael R. Miller work some magic. Not as magical as the chase sequence, but magic enough to find the movie in the weeds and get it out onto the road again.

There’s some great writing. But most of it is in the first act. Wilson ends up with better scenes than anyone else in the second half. The movie doesn’t just sacrifice Hunter for Goodman and Forsythe, it eventually sacrifices Cage.

Great music from Carter Burwell. The whole thing is technically marvelous. It just doesn’t have anywhere near enough plot for the story it says it’s going to be telling. Even if the Goodman and Forsythe stuff were good, there’s not enough of it.

Raising Arizona has got plenty of problems, but it’s still a fairly thrilling success. You just have to wait through a lot of second half of the second act lag. But the filmmakers do come through. It just doesn’t make any sense why they don’t for a while.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Joel Coen; written by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen; director of photography, Barry Sonnenfeld; edited by Michael R. Miller; music by Carter Burwell; production designer, Jane Musky; produced by Ethan Coen; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Nicolas Cage (H.I. McDunnough), Holly Hunter (Ed), John Goodman (Gale), William Forsythe (Evelle), Trey Wilson (Nathan Arizona Sr.), Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb (Leonard Smalls), Sam McMurray (Glen), Frances McDormand (Dot), Lynne Kitei (Florence Arizona), and T.J. Kuhn (Nathan Junior).


Street Smart (1987, Jerry Schatzberg)

Somewhere around the halfway point in Street Smart, when both female “leads” get reduced to a combination punching bag–figuratively and literally–and damsel, the movie starts to collapse. It doesn’t collapse in a standard way. It doesn’t give too much to either of its dueling stars, Christopher Reeve and Morgan Freeman; instead, it gives them less. It collapses out of a kind of inertia. After promising sensational developments, it offers none.

Except, of course, Reeve embracing his mediocre (but good looking) white guy privilege. Like everything else in the ending, however, Street Smart doesn’t really want to pursue it. It just wants to be over.

Lots happens in the third act–assaults, murders, two jail sequences for Reeve (though the second is after the movie’s stopped treating him like a protagonist)–and none of it gets any resolution from the characters. The film skips over their reactions to their subsequent actions. It rushes through the most intersting part of the story, when Reeve’s hubris brings suffering on everyone.

The film starts with Reeve as a floundering New York (sadly filmed in Montreal because Cannon) magazine reporter. Despite going to Harvard and being good looking, Reeve can no longer hack it. The managing editor, Andre Gregory, thinks he’s boring. Until Reeve sells them on a lifestyle piece on a Times Square pimp. They buy it. Only problem, Reeve doesn’t know any Times Square pimps to write lifestyle pieces about. He does, however, take Times Square working girl Kathy Baker out for ice cream.

So Reeve makes up the story. Girlfriend Mimi Rogers is supportive, as Reeve losing his job means they can’t pretend to be successful yuppies anymore.

Simultaneously, Times Square pimp Freeman has just accidentally killed an abusive john. The D.A., Jay Patterson, is out to get him. Patterson is everything Reeve isn’t. Patterson’s not good looking, but he’s honest and hard-working. He’s also cruel as shit. Reeve’s not cruel. He learns to be cruel (not thanks to Patterson, who keeps getting him thrown in jail, but Freeman, but it’s in the dreadful third act so who cares).

Patterson wants Reeve to snitch on Freeman. Only Reeve doesn’t know Freeman. Until Freeman finds out Baker knows Reeve and then decides to use him as a defense witness. Reeve needs Freeman to convince Gregory he’s got a real pimp. Reeve and Freeman have a successful reciprocal relationship, complicated when Reeve gets too close to Baker and vice versa.

The one thing Street Smart never does–oh, I forgot, Reeve also becomes a TV news reporter because he’s rather good looking and photogenic–but the one thing the film never does is show Reeve reacting to where he was wrong in his fiction. He sees Freeman’s real life, in some of the film’s best scenes–even when it’s over dramatic, the acting is superb (director Schatzberg realizes then forgets the cast is best when in frame together)–but he never really reacts to it.

He’s got the Baker subplot instead.

And Baker’s great. It’s just not great for the movie.

Most of the acting is excellent. Freeman is phenomenal. If he doesn’t give the best performance in sunglasses ever in Street Smart, he’s got to come close. Patterson’s great. Baker’s great. Reeve’s quite good some of the time. The rest of the time the writing’s just too thin. And he and Rogers have zero chemistry.

Rogers isn’t good. She’s occasionally okay, but it’s a crap part. Gregory is annoying. It seems unlikely such a nitwit could run a successful magazine, even if he’s rich and white.

Erik King is pretty good as Freeman’s sidekick. Anna Maria Horsford is awesome as Freeman’s “business manager.” She only has a couple scenes but she’s so good.

Schatzberg’s direction never makes much impression either way. Given the film’s Montreal shooting location, I guess it’s impressive how well he makes the film feel like New York. Adam Holender’s photography should get some of that credit as well. It’s not great cinematography and he really should’ve worked with Schatzberg on some of the establishing shots, but it’s convincing.

Robert Irving III’s score is a little much. Miles Davis contributing results in some nice trumpeting, but not much in the way of effective movie scoring.

Street Smart has some great acting going for it and a lot of interesting character intersections. It’s a bit of a cowardly script. It runs away from the race angle; brings it up, then (impressively) runs away from it, enough fingers to fill ears and cover eyes. Basically it just needed a strong rewrite–or a stronger director–but it’s a Cannon production. Its producers don’t care about making a good movie, just selling one.

So, for a movie about a mediocre white guy’s bullshit catching up with him and forcing a metamorphosis (for better or worse), it’s a fail. But for a Cannon production, it’s pretty amazing.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Jerry Schatzberg; written by David Freeman; director of photography, Adam Holender; edited by Priscilla Nedd-Friendly; music by Robert Irving III; production designer, Dan Leigh; produced by Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan; released by Cannon Films.

Starring Christopher Reeve (Jonathan), Morgan Freeman (Fast Black), Kathy Baker (Punchy), Jay Patterson (Pike), Mimi Rogers (Alison), Erik King (Reggie), Anna Maria Horsford (Harriet), Shari Hilton (Darlene), Frederick Rolf (Davis), Michael J. Reynolds (Sheffield), and Andre Gregory (Ted).


Tin Men (1987, Barry Levinson)

Tin Men is expansive. So expansive writer-director Levinson can’t get everywhere. He doesn’t have time in 112 mintues, he doesn’t have the structure for it either. Tin Men establishes its narrative distance firmly, deliberately, and usually hilariously in the first act. When Levinson gets to the end of the second act, he’s way too interested in all the plot strands he’s got going on. By that time, the film has–for better or worse (worse, but more on it in a bit)–become Danny DeVito’s movie. DeVito had been sharing more with top-billed Richard Dreyfuss, but then Levinson moves the focus away from Dreyfuss. Except then Levinson becomes immediately more interested in everything going on around DeVito. Except DeVito’s completely unaware of all the things going on around him. So it changes the film’s tone.

At one point, DeVito gets called out on his apathy; while he doesn’t improve, he does start getting more likable. Likable is one of Tin Men’s biggest problems. Levinson loves all of his characters way too much. They’re all a little too precious. When the film starts, however, the characters aren’t likable or lovable or precious. In fact, they’re not supposed to be any of those things, much less all of them.

Tin Men opens with a very nostalgic, sentimental opening title sequence. Levinson’s got some issues with the sentimentality in the film. There’s very little, except when he forces it. After the titles, we meet DeVito and suffering wife Barbara Hershey, then DeVito runs into Dreyfuss. Literally. Car accident.

From their inital argument, which is before the characters are established (and it takes Levinson around half the movie to establish DeVito), Tin Men moves on to setting up the ground situation. DeVito and Dreyfuss are both aluminum siding salesmen. They work for different companies. They have acquaintances in common, but don’t know one another.

Then it’s time to introduce the acquaintances, which is where Tin Men is often its most easily amusing. Big list. Here we go. John Mahoney is Dreyfuss’s sidekick. Jackie Gayle is DeVito’s. Mahoney and Gayle have about the same size parts, except Mahoney’s drama and Gayle’s comedy. Levinson sets DeVito up to have the more humorous storyline, which requires no one like DeVito. Not the other characters, not the viewer.

Sorry, off track already.

Supporting acquantiances–Seymour Cassel, Richard Portnow, Matt Craven, Alan Blumenfeld, and Michael Tucker are Dreyfuss’s entourage. Cassel’s amazing. His delivery of his one-liners transcends. Every one of his scenes is phenomenal. Portnow and Craven are background. Blumenfeld’s a new salesman, so he gets more. Tucker’s a cameo. He’s good, but it’s a cameo. A meaty one, because Levinson loves the characters so much. When he’s being overindulgent with the characters, he’s able to keep the sentimentality in check. When he’s just trying to package the film? That sentimentality flails, always at the wrong time. Levinson can’t figure out how to package the film because it’s not sentimental, even if he intends it to be.

I’m off track again. Tin Men is so much at once, so much.

DeVito’s entourage is Stanley Brock, Bruno Kirby, and J.T. Walsh as the boss. Brock’s hilarious. He’s the Cassel analogue but the delivery is different. Kirby’s the straight man and he’s great. His deliveries of Levinson’s speedy dialogue is magical.

So back to complaining about the packaging. Between the opening and closing bookends, Levinson examines all sorts of things. Sure, there’s the overarching story of Dreyfuss discovering true love with Hershey after stealing her away from DeVito as a prank, but Levinson loses track of that story. He focus on Hershey briefly, setting her up to have a bigger part separate from Dreyfuss, Levinson pulls back. And it’s a shame because Hershey’s awesome and Levinson writes her scenes well. He just can’t keep the film away from DeVito.

Because DeVito is spellbinding. He never learns. He never impresses. He should be loathsome but he’s not because he’s kind of a dope. The character’s usually unpleasant but watching DeVito isn’t.

Dreyfuss is excellent. His part’s not as good.

DeVito overpowers Tin Men until Levinson gets distracted with the American Dream angle. Once Levinson grazes that idea, he can’t stop circling it. Because Tin Men is positive. It adores the trappings of its time period while eagerly anticipating coming progresses. Levinson beautifully foreshadows in the film.

Whenever there’s something deft, Levinson can handle it. When it’s the big stuff like Dreyfuss and Hershey’s romance, he gets distracted. And maybe even bored. Dreyfuss and Hershey get some movie moments–like a lovely rain reconcilation–but Hershey’s best opposite DeVito, not Dreyfuss. Levinson fumbles the character focus in the second half.

Great score (and songs) from Fine Young Cannibals. Stu Linder’s editing is breathtaking. Levinson and Linder cut loose a few times and create these bombastic and sublime sequences. Superb editing.

Peter Sova’s photography is all right. Tin Men is a Touchstone eighties movie and it looks like one. It’s overly saturated, which is great to emphasize the clothes and sometimes the cars; it doesn’t help with the rest. It’s not crisp enough. It’s Levinson’s fault. Sova seems perfectly capable of lighting an interior with some personality. Levinson isn’t tasking him.

Great production design from Peter Jamison.

Tin Men is an excellent (if oversaturated) production. It looks wonderful. It moves wonderful. It sounds wonderful. Tin Men just doesn’t get anywhere wonderful.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Barry Levinson; director of photography, Peter Sova; edited by Stu Linder; music by Fine Young Cannibals; production designer, Peter Jamison; produced by Mark Johnson; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Richard Dreyfuss (BB), Danny DeVito (Tilley), Barbara Hershey (Nora), John Mahoney (Moe), Jackie Gayle (Sam), Stanley Brock (Gil), Seymour Cassel (Cheese), Bruno Kirby (Mouse), J.T. Walsh (Wing), Richard Portnow (Carly), Matt Craven (Looney), Alan Blumenfeld (Stanley), Brad Sullivan (Masters), and Michael Tucker (Bagel).


Masters of the Universe (1987, Gary Goddard)

Masters of the Universe is almost charming in its lack of charm. Its plot is a kitchen sink–a little Conan sword fighting here, a little Superman opening credits, a lot of Star Wars stuff (like all black “troopers” with laser guns, the skiffs from Jedi), but also lots of other popular eighties things. There’s some Back to the Future–on an extreme budget–as well as the general “troubled tragic teens” thing. And whatever else was too slight to make much of an impression.

The biggest problem, besides it being too long, too cheap, and too stupid, is cinematographer Hanania Baer. Universe has a big scale, whether in its sets or even the constant matte paintings (on the other planet, not Earth). Baer can’t shoot anything to match, not the sets, not the matte composites, not even humdrum planet Earth locations. There’s one action sequence with Dolph Lundgren and Courteney Cox fending off intergalatic bounty hunters (Empire Strikes Back) in a junk yard or warehouse. The lighting doesn’t match between shooting locations, which really screws up the suspension of disbelief, because there’s Lundgren’s sword fighting and Lundgren sword fighting is supposed to be the whole draw of the movie. He’s He-Man. He fights people with a sword.

Except he gets a gun too. A laser gun. It’s got to be lasers because Lundgren’s sword can deflect them. Slow lasers.

However, if Masters of the Universe has a draw–which is questionable–it’s either going to be Frank Langella’s performance as the Emperor. Sorry, sorry, no, he’s Skeletor. Who wants to be master of the universe, which is like emperor. David Odell’s script stays as third grade as it can for the otherworldly stuff and seeing Langella take the childish dialogue and fill it with ludicrous energy and threat… it’s cool. It’s not really cool enough to be a draw, however, because the material’s still thin and Langella’s in a goofy skull mask, with zero character motivation (his rivalry with Lundgren lacks explaination and chemistry). The other possible draw is Bill Conti’s score. It too isn’t good, but it’s Bill Conti doing a Star Wars score. Though, again, more Return of the Jedi.

On Earth–wait, wait, there’s sort of an E.T. thing going on with Billy Barty. He plays this inventor who comes up with a musical key thing to take the action to Earth. Sort of E.T., mixed with Yoda, mixed with Wicket. Producers Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan apparently really thought they had the goods here to supplant Star Wars.

I mean, maybe the Holiday Special.

Richard Edlund handles the special effects. Some of them are okay. The interdimensional gateway is often okay. It’s not at the end, but earlier, sure. The composite shots with the flying vehicles are terrible. Bad enough you hope Edlund didn’t do them. The guy worked on the original Star Wars after all. You want to give him the benefit of the doubt.

So you don’t see it for the special effects. Or the fight choreography. Or any of the acting.

Though Jon Cypher is frighteningly good in his part. He’s got on this big costume too and he’s still good. It’s amazing he could keep a straight face. Ditto, though to a lesser extent, for Chelsea Field. She’s Cypher’s daughter. She makes wisecracks. Some of them sort of connect.

Cox and Robert Duncan McNeill are teenagers who come across Lundgren, Cypher, Field, and Barty as that crew searches for a way back home. Cox’s parents have tragically died and so she’s leaving boyfriend McNeill to start over in New Jersey. She’s not even going to get to go to her high school graduation. The Earth ground situation really doesn’t make any sense. The other world ground situation is actually sort of neat in an effecient way. Langella has won his war of conquest and Lundgren and friends are now outlaws. Means you don’t have to show the big battle scenes or even the immediate aftermath, just the political ramifications playing out.

Cox and McNeill don’t even have enough material to have caricatures. They have sketched caricatures. They’re both affable, though neither is particularly dynamic. They both seem way too old.

Maybe it’s just Baer photographing them poorly.

For the rest of the cast, it’s just getting through without embarrassing yourself too much. Lundgren’s running around in armored speedos. He manages not to embarrass himself too much. Meg Foster similiar keeps herself afloat without actually having to be any good. After them the supporting cast just gets worse and worse.

Like James Tolkan (the principal from Back to the Future). He’s playing tough bald, long leather jacket cop who can’t figure out he’s in an intergalatic battle zone. He doesn’t keep himself afloat, though he’s never exactly bad. None of the performances–at least for the people not in costumes–are ever bad enough to give Universe that campy charm. They’re also never bad enough to elicit sympathy.

Not even Christina Pickles, who’s a hostage the entire picture.

It’s mildly ambitious? Not incompetent. It’s just trying for too much with what it can do, budget-wise. Along with no one having any confidence in Lundgren. He gets so little to do, including his sword fights and shoot-outs, it’s not clear whether or not he’d be able to do more or fail at it.

Masters of the Universe is a cinematic shrug.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Gary Goddard; screenplay by David Odell, based on the toys by Mattel; director of photography, Hanania Baer; edited by Anne V. Coates; music by Bill Conti; production designer, William Stout; produced by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus; released by The Cannon Group.

Starring Dolph Lundgren (He-Man), Frank Langella (Skeletor), Courteney Cox (Julie Winston), Robert Duncan McNeill (Kevin Corrigan), Jon Cypher (Duncan), Chelsea Field (Teela), Meg Foster (Evil-Lyn), Billy Barty (Gwildor), James Tolkan (Detective Lubic), Robert Towers (Karg), Anthony De Longis (Blade), and Christina Pickles (Sorceress of Castle Grayskull)


The Hidden (1987, Jack Sholder)

The Hidden opens with a shock. Then there’s another shock, then another, then another. The first act of the film races through them. Chris Mulkey is on a killing spree, the cops are in pursuit–including Michael Nouri’s soulful supercop–only it turns out Mulkey can’t be killed. Enter oddball FBI agent Kyle MacLachlan, who teams with Nouri, and investigates Mulkey’s “accomplice,” William Boyett. Because now Boyett’s on a killing spree. Only we know something Nouri doesn’t.

An alien bug crawls into a dead body’s mouth and reanimates them. Then it goes on a killing, looting, and general obnoxious spree.

The alien jumps around a bit, first into new supporting cast members, later into established ones. Some actors have a great time with it–Mulkey, Boyett, the third act surprises; others don’t. Claudia Christian is fine, but she doesn’t get much to do in Jim Kouf’s pseudonymous script except fondle herself. Oh, and she gets to shoot machine guns. Those scenes, which might be fun if The Hidden let itself be trashy, fall flat (except as technical exercises). Sholder’s good at setup, not pay-off.

His lack of interest comes in waves. At the open, Sholder’s super on. He’s got his cranes–Sholder loves his crane shots–he’s got good photography from Jacques Haitkin and good editing from Michael N. Knue and Maureen O’Connell. Sometimes the editing is a little too obviously cut against the eclectic rock soundtrack selections, but it’s still good editing. Except The Hidden isn’t just this string of pursuit sequences, it changes and Sholder can’t handle those changes.

The film runs ninety-six minutes. The first hour is pretty much contiguous, with the minor pauses or breaks either not getting in the way of the building momentum or contributing to it. Everything works. Script, direction, acting. Once the film breaks the narrative, jumping ahead until the next morning, entropy sets in. There’s a lot of action, not enough time for exposition, no time for character development.

And The Hidden almost makes it. If any one thing had been better about the finale–well, Sholder’s direction, Kouf’s writing, or Michael Convertino’s music–it would’ve been fine. Instead, everything works against it. Sholder leverages a lot on Convertino’s score but it’s a bad score. It starts a mediocre score, then–like everything else in Hidden–gets worse as the film progresses. So it’s real bad in the finish.

Neat “alien-in-man-suit” performance from Kyle MacLachlan. It’s a shame no one thought about how MacLachlan’s character development should react to external events or why children think he’s weird. Nouri’s affable and reasonably successful. The role doesn’t ask for much, even when it pretends a greater import. The Hidden has a couple buddy cop movie moments; Nouri and MacLachlan do them well. The more soulful Nouri stuff–the handwringing, impassioned pleas–doesn’t work. Especially not since they frequently take place in the awkwardly homy squad room set.

Clarence Felder is good. Richard Brooks is good. Ed O’Ross is fine. Clu Gulager has nothing to do, but it’s still nice to see him.

Most of The Hidden is good. The builds up this phenomenal momentum, which should be able to sail through anything. Turns out its no match for the third act icebergs.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Jack Sholder; written by Jim Kouf; director of photography, Jacques Haitkin; edited by Maureen O’Connell and Michael N. Knue; music by Michael Convertino; production designers, C.J. Strawn and Mick Strawn; produced by Robert Shaye, Gerald T. Olson, and Michael L. Meltzer; released by New Line Cinema.

Starring Michael Nouri (Tom Beck), Kyle MacLachlan (Lloyd Gallagher), Chris Mulkey (Jack DeVries), William Boyett (Jonathan Miller), Claudia Christian (Brenda), Katherine Cannon (Barbara Beck), Clarence Felder (Lt. Masterson), Clu Gulager (Lt. Flynn), Ed O’Ross (Willis), Richard Brooks (Sanchez), and John McCann (Senator Holt).


Making Mr. Right (1987, Susan Seidelman)

Making Mr. Right feels a little incomplete. It’s not entirely unexpected as Floyd Byars and Laurie Frank’s script plays loose with subplots–even after the film forecasts its basic structure, it loses track of a lot, and some essential scenes happen offscreen. The subsequent reveals in the narrative (to other characters and the audience) never play for enough surprise value to cover the missing moments.

One has to wonder what got cut.

Director Seidelman keeps things moving over the absences, having structured the picture into two separate parts in the first act. Ann Magnuson runs an ad agency, has a crappy congressman for a boyfriend and client (a delightfully bland Ben Masters); she’s also got a somewhat annoying family and friend situation intruding. Then she gets a contract to promote an android in time to get Congress to continue funding. John Malkovich is the android and the inventor.

The film keeps Magnuson’s life bisected. Even when Malkovich, in either of his roles, crosses over into Magnuson’s personal life–her misadventures with the android, even out on the town, are work stuff–but even when Malkovich is present in the personal life, Seidelman and editor Andrew Mondshein keep it somewhat separate. For example, Malkovich doesn’t really have any scenes with Magnuson and anyone else (outside Masters); but he’s present in some of the scenes. It’s just not somewhere Seidelman takes the film.

And it gets to be a problem in the third act when all of a sudden Malkovich has got a character arc of his own. As the android. The human inventor Malkovich has a second act subplot where Laurie Metcalf is trying to put a ring on it, which just ends up jumpstart Malkovich the android’s character development only to abruptly end it. Making Mr. Right runs almost 100 minutes and feels like a good twenty minutes are missing.

One of the film’s complete subplots–which the film contrives to intersect with the main plot to end the second act–involves Magnuson’s friend Glenne Headly. Headly’s having marriage problems and bunks up with Magnuson, ostensibly to give Magnuson someone to play off at home but the Headly subplot’s too good and overshadows Magnuson’s romance-induced ennui. Headly’s married to soap opera star Hart Bochner–who initially shows up onscreen in his cheesy soap with absurd hair–and Seidelman gets a lot out of having Headly around. Magnuson never gets to be silly, just frantic and stressed. Headly gets to have some fun.

Making Mr. Right is all about its actors–Magnuson, Malkovich, Headly–with Seidelman striving to facilitate as best she can. Malkovich and Magnuson both get some degree of physical comedy and they’re great at it. Malkovich plays the android with more soul than the inventor. The inventor part Malkovich does stiff and deadpan. The android is absurd and sincere. There are some scenes between Malkovich’s two characters–Magnuson drives past a theater showing The Parent Trap–but the film avoids them. Malkovich is only able to get one of his parts out of caricature as a result. He chooses well, but with some more time, who knows what Malkovich and Seidelman could get done.

Magnuson has a similar situation of underutilization, also because of the script. After all the intricate setup, Byars and Frank don’t keep subplots moving in the background. At least, not enough of them to compensate for the changes in the film’s narrative flow.

Making Mr. Right is a solid comedy. Great performances, some great scenes; overall, it’s a moderate success. But with a better third act, thanks to Magnuson, Malkovich, and Seidelman, it could’ve gone further.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Susan Seidelman; written by Floyd Byars and Laurie Frank; director of photography, Edward Lachman; edited by Andrew Mondshein; music by Chaz Jankel; production designer, Barbara Ling; produced by Joel Tuber and Mike Wise; released by Orion Pictures.

Starring Ann Magnuson (Frankie Stone), John Malkovich (Dr. Jeff Peters / Ulysses), Glenne Headly (Trish), Ben Masters (Steve Marcus), Polly Bergen (Estelle Stone), Harsh Nayyar (Dr. Ramdas), Laurie Metcalf (Sandy), and Hart Bochner (Don).


The Untouchables (1987, Brian De Palma)

There are few constants in The Untouchables. Leading man Kevin Costner comes in after nemesis Robert De Niro (as Al Capone) opens the movie; only the Chicago setting and Ennio Morricone’s grandiose, bombastic, omnipresent score are unabated. Director De Palma embraces the film’s various phases, sometimes through Stephen H. Burum’s photography, sometimes just through how much he lets the actors chew at the scenery. In his deftest move (with the actors, anyway), the only ones De Palma never lets get chewy are Costner and Sean Connery. With Connery, it’s a wonderful disconnect from what could be a very showy, chewy role. With Costner, it’s more because David Mamet’s screenplay has him so absurdly earnest, the part doesn’t have the teeth for it.

Costner’s the protagonist–and when Untouchables fully embraces itself as an action picture in the last third, it’s Costner leading the charge–but Connery and De Niro get the best parts. Connery’s an aged, failed, albeit mostly honest, beat cop who can’t help but bond with earnest treasury agent Eliot Ness (Costner). Even when De Palma, Burum, and Morricone turn up the melodrama on Connery, he stays reserved. His is the most honest part in Mamet’s script, whether in his counseling of Costner and the rest of the team (Charles Martin Smith and Andy Garcia) or butting heads with cop pal Richard Bradford. De Niro, on the other hand, plays Capone like Robert De Niro playing Al Capone. It’s an exaggerated performance in an exaggerated film, only De Palma doesn’t direct the scenes for De Niro’s performance so much as around it.

The Untouchables is weird that way. It all comes together, but isn’t fluid outside that Morricone score. And Chicago, of course. It makes wonderful use of its locations. The score and setting glue the consecutive pieces of the film together, which is particularly helpful since Mamet repeats himself over and over when it comes to exposition. Most of Smith’s part–outside his introduction, action sequences, and occasional cute moments–is saying the same things, over and over, about getting Capone on his taxes. And he talks about it in his first scene.

Mamet and De Palma are also real bad about Costner’s family life; after introducing Patricia Clarkson and doing a little establishing, she’s pretty much offscreen to the point it’s not even clear she’s pregnant. The pregnancy only becomes a plot detail after she gives. While she’s in the movie throughout–she’s how Mamet and De Palma introduce Costner in fact–she doesn’t have any lines.

Actually, besides Clarkson, there might only be three other speaking roles for female actors. And each of them only get one scene. Untouchables is all about the boys. They all talk about how nice it is to be married. It’s one of Mamet’s main recurring dialogue motifs; De Palma doesn’t seem to put much stock in it though. Costner and company, in their battle for good against De Niro and his goons, are separate from the goings-on of the regular world.

All of the acting is fine, some of it is better. De Palma seems to know he can get away with exaggerated performances because nothing’s going to be louder than that Morricone music. Or main goon Billy Drago’s white suit.

Now, while Morricone’s score is grandiose and melodramatic, it’s still got a lot of nuance and sincere emotional impact. Costner, Connery, Garcia, and Smith immediately establish themselves as a team. De Palma doesn’t spend a lot of time just relaxing with the characters, but there’s some of it and a sense of camaraderie permeates. It’s in stark contrast to De Niro, who exists to terrorize, whether it be regular people or his own flunkies.

In the first two thirds of the picture, De Palma’s more concerned with the drama. There’s some action, but he’s not focusing on it as much as where it occurs or how it perturbs the plot. In the last third, however, De Palma’s all about the action. Yes, how its affecting Costner–and Costner’s character development–is a thing, but character is secondary to style. And it’s some masterful style. The Untouchables is solid until it all of a sudden becomes exceptional for a while. De Palma, Burum, Morricone, and editors Gerald B. Greenberg and Bill Pankow do some fantastic work finishing up the film.

It’s a fine film, succeeding when it almost shouldn’t–Costner’s earnestness ought to be too much, it’s not; De Niro’s excess ought to be too much, it’s not. Morricone’s score ought to be too much. It’s not. Instead, it’s essential in making The Untouchables work.

It and that Chicago location shooting, of course.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Brian De Palma; screenplay by David Mamet, suggested by the book by Oscar Fraley and Eliot Ness; director of photography, Stephen H. Burum; edited by Gerald B. Greenberg and Bill Pankow; music by Ennio Morricone; produced by Art Linson; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Kevin Costner (Ness), Sean Connery (Malone), Charles Martin Smith (Wallace), Andy Garcia (Stone), Robert De Niro (Capone), Richard Bradford (Dorsett), Patricia Clarkson (Catherine), and Billy Drago (Nitti).


Perry Mason: The Case of the Scandalous Scoundrel (1987, Christian I. Nyby II)

Perry Mason: The Case of the Scandalous Scoundrel is a bit disappointing. It’s got a really lame script from Anthony Spinner. Spinner doesn’t have a good mystery, he doesn’t write characters well, he writes dialogue something awful. So there are no expectations from the script. However, Scoundrel has a great cast. A great cast who often can even get water from the stony script.

So it’s a bit disappointing. It’s kind of pleasant to watch, mostly because Barbara Hale has this secret admirer C plot and it gives her something to do. And Raymond Burr’s got some fine moments. Director Nyby doesn’t direct the scenes well–Burr’s fine moments, I mean–but he’s not disruptive. Burr still gets the moment, just not as effectively as he could have.

And some of Nyby’s direction is solid. If it’s interiors and not back and forth dialogue, he does some pretty darn good work for a TV movie. Everything else is a bit of a mess. Not always a big mess, but definitely some kind of one. He shoots terrible coverage.

Now, the cast. William Katt’s romancing defendant Susan Wilder. She’s not good, but she’s not bad. Morgan Brittany is bad. Other than those two performances, everything is great. Yaphet Kotto’s an ex-army general, Wings Hauser’s his sidekick. They’re both good, but Hauser’s actually awesome. Good enough even Nyby figured out how to direct his scenes. George Grizzard’s Brittany’s suffering husband. He’s good. René Enríquez’s a corrupt banker. He’s good. Robert Guillaume’s a loathsome tabloid king. He’s not so much good as it’s really cool to see him play loathsome. He revels in it. And Eugene Butler is excellent as Guillaume’s sidekick. Lots of sidekicks in Scoundrel, probably because Spinner’s quite bad at plotting out a mystery.

Not a great hour for David Ogden Stiers. He and Burr don’t have any actual rapport, which just makes it seem like Stiers is a buffoon. It’s also a little strange to see James McEachin showing up as a dimwit instead of his regular cop part. It’s like there’s some joke and the viewer is left out.

Technically it’s fine, other than a weak score from the usually solid Dick DeBenedictis.

Scoundrel has a lot of good actors giving good performances from a terrible script. It’s engaging so long as the actors are weathering that script well. And Nyby certainly doesn’t help things. The handful of well-directed scenes can’t make up for the rest, especially not with the dumb script.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Christian I. Nyby II; teleplay by Anthony Spinner, based on characters created by Erle Stanley Gardner; director of photography, Arch Bryant; edited by Carter DeHaven and David Solomon; music by Dick DeBenedictis; produced by Peter Katz; aired by the National Broadcasting Company.

Starring Raymond Burr (Perry Mason), Barbara Hale (Della Street), William Katt (Paul Drake Jr.), Susan Wilder (Michelle Benti), Robert Guillaume (Harlan Wade), Eugene Butler (Nick Moretti), George Grizzard (Dr. Clayman), Morgan Brittany (Marianne Clayman), René Enríquez (Oscar Ortega), Wings Hauser (Capt. James Rivers), Yaphet Kotto (General Sorenson) and David Ogden Stiers (Michael Reston).


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