1989

The Tall Guy (1989, Mel Smith)

Mel Smith is a stunningly inept director. Especially for comedy. Though, given its awkward flashback montages, lack of supporting character resolutions, impromptu musical number, and just over ninety minute runtime, it sure seems like there might be a longer version of The Tall Guy out there. As is, The Tall Guy is way too skinny. So maybe it’s not all Smith’s fault. Or maybe it’s just editor Dan Rae’s fault. Maybe Smith directed a bunch of good comedy and Rae just screwed it all up. Maybe there’s some explanation for why it doesn’t work.

Because lead Jeff Goldblum is really cute. He’s really cute with romantic interest Emma Thompson. The movie’s not cute, but they’re cute. They carry a lot with this movie and don’t get anything in return. Richard Curtis’s script short changes them just as much as everyone else. Including third-billed Rowan Atkinson, who’s an inflated cameo. It’s weird. So maybe there’s a good reason for it.

It’s the fairly familiar tale of American actor Goldblum trying to make it in London. He can’t get any parts because he’s too tall apparently, which isn’t clear for a while because he’s employed at the start of the movie. He works for Atkinson, who’s a bastard physical comedian with a hit stage show. Goldblum’s his sidekick. And Goldblum doesn’t seem to have any ambition past being Atkinson’s sidekick. He just wishes Atkinson would be nice to him. And he wishes his roommate Geraldine James would at least have the courtesy of bringing home a dude to buff who isn’t going to drink Goldblum’s orange juice. Goldblum’s a man of few pleasures, orange juice is one of them.

Until Goldblum has to get his seasonal allergies resolved because it’s screwing up his performance—only it’s not, it’s just getting him laughs and Atkinson is a prima donna who can’t handle anyone else getting laughs. That single tidbit of character motivation for Atkinson is more than Goldblum or anyone else in the film gets. Anyway, Goldblum has to go to the doctor, there he meets nurse Thompson and falls for her immediately. The reminder of the first act is Goldblum getting shots for his allergies from Thompson, not asking her out, whining about not asking her out to roommate James, cue comic bit about what James’s lover of the moment is doing (usually hidden from view and humorously contorted), repeat.

Once Goldblum does go out with Thompson, they immediately get physical in a raucous love-making scene you know is supposed to be funny but it’s really more just dumb. It also results in Goldblum losing his job with Atkinson, which kicks off the second act proper as Thompson will soon tell Goldlbum he’s got to get another job because she’s not dating some bum actor.

Now all of a sudden it’s supposed to be believable Goldblum’s employable as a professional stage actor. This time the absurdity of his potential projects generates the charm, as the film phases out Thompson and Goldbum’s romance, then Thompson almost entirely. How’s Goldblum feel about it? Who knows. He doesn’t have the depth of a head shot.

Affable performances all around, though by the third act you’ve got to wonder how Goldblum and Thompson kept a straight-face through the disastrous third act. Professionalism, pass it on.

Atkinson always seems like he’s about to be really funny and it never pays off.

Anna Massey is fun as Goldblum’s agent.

There’s a poppy score from Peter Brewis. It’s rather energetic, which is something since the film manages to drag even at ninety-two minutes.

Adrian Biddle’s photography is solid.

Smith could be worse at composing shots. He could be as bad at it as he is directing actors.

The Tall Guy’s problematic execution give the film its charm through the first half plus a few, but then once it shatters that charm—intentionally—it’s got nothing to replace it with. Not in the acting, writing, or directing. It’s a bummer for Goldblum, Thompson, and Atkinson; they deserve something for keeping the film afloat. Against some considerable odds.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Mel Smith; screenplay by Richard Curtis; director of photography, Adrian Biddle; edited by Dan Rae; music by Peter Brewis; production designer, Grant Hicks; produced by Paul Webster; released by Virgin Vision.

Starring Jeff Goldblum (Dexter King), Emma Thompson (Kate Lemon), Rowan Atkinson (Ron Anderson), Emil Wolk (Cyprus Charlie), Geraldine James (Carmen), and Kim Thomson (Cheryl).



The Mighty Quinn (1989, Carl Schenkel)

Right until the action-packed finale of The Mighty Quinn, there’s nothing the film can do lead Denzel Washington’s charm can’t forgive. But the finale, which incorporates poorly choreographed and poorly shot capoeira (from obvious fight doubles), a helicopter, a machine gun, suddenly awful music from composer Anne Dudley, and a handlebar-mustached M. Emmet Walsh in a tropical shirt… well, Washington can only do so much. And it seems like Quinn realizes it, because it doesn’t even try to leverage Washington for the rushed epilogue. Actually, it sort of leans away from him.

Because even though Washington is The Mighty Quinn, the film’s never comfortable being about him. Certainly not about his mightiness. Instead, Washington’s protagonist—police chief on a small, unnamed Caribbean island—is in a state of disarray. He’s functionally separated from wife Sheryl Lee Ralph (because he’s trying to sell out like island governor Norman Beaton, though we don’t find out about it until relatively late in the film), he’s a loving but absent dad to son David McFarlane, and he’s a lousy best friend to local pothead and ladies man Robert Townsend. Townsend’s barely in the film, but the whole thing hinges on him. He is the prime suspect in a murder investigation, after all, but he’s also the people’s hero. Washington is not. Washington (we find out—again—very late) went off to the States to join the Marines and then go to FBI school only to return home to the island… presumably for Ralph, but it’s very unclear. Washington’s character revelations usually come either in brooding expository scenes or drunken expository scenes. The film avoids Washington’s backstory, instead concentrating on the mystery… and Washington’s charm.

And the charm focus works. For a long, long time.

The mystery? Not as much.

At the start, there’s conflict with crappy White guy resort manager James Fox. There’s never overt racism from Fox but it’s always there. Until Fox disappears anyway. The scenes aren’t good because Fox is a lousy villain-type. He can’t stand up to Washington, but the character’s written to be pompous and Fox isn’t believably pompous. There’s also the weird way director Schenkel handles tone. Fox’s part of the mystery, including Mimi Rogers as his unhappy, abused, unfaithful wife, is all noirish. Or Schenkel’s version of it, which is stylized and self-aware. After Fox disappears, Rogers sticks around a bit to provide some flirtation for Washington. She’s that part of the film’s femme fatale, even though the film doesn’t really need one, because the mystery soon turns more to conspiracy thriller involving a suitcase of money, a company man (M. Emmet Walsh) arriving in town to clean-up the situation (officially), and a professional soldier (Alex Colon) also in town, but unofficially. Townsend figures into the conspiracy thriller a little, but never the noir stuff.

Not even when the film tries really hard.

After the conspiracy thriller takes over, there’s more of Washington away from the White folks. And the movie’s better when he’s away from them. The mood is lighter. He’s got gross old white man Walsh tagging along for a bit, but for those scenes, Schenkel still has the more playful touch. It’s the best stuff in the film—Washington with McFarlane and Ralph (even though the former scenes are just for exposition on the island’s colonial history and the best moment between Ralph and Washington was created in editing, not with the actors opposite one another), Washington with the other cops, whatever. Everything but the subplot about some other woman after Washington. Because Schenkel can’t figure out the mix on the noir and comedy in it, because a femme fatale stalking a sullen but lovable cop is noir but it’s for laughs. The film doesn’t know how to be sincere. It wants to be, but Schenkel doesn’t make it work.

It’s not all his fault, of course. Townsend is… lacking. He’s amusing enough. And some of the problem is the direction, but Townsend doesn’t have a presence opposite Washington. Fox doesn’t have one either. Only Ralph and Walsh hold up their part of the scene. Rogers does too—mostly—but there are a lot of style problems in her scenes, often both visual and narrative. Townsend needs to be Quinn’s secret mighty weapon and he’s not. Not even when he gets action sequences, which always come off like the filmmakers are trying too hard on their limited budget. Lots of silly at the end of Quinn. Lots of silly.

Until the end, there’s also fantastic editing (except on the action set pieces) from John Jympson and an affable score from Anne Dudley. Neither of them come through in the finish. Though Jacques Steyn’s photography is unchangingly solid throughout the film. It has some good moments, but what appear to be stylistic choices sometime just turn out to questionable standards. Schenkel’s direction isn’t successful, but it’s interesting and engaging. If he could get the mix between comedy and thriller right, it’d be fine.

Washington is mighty but Quinn is not.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Carl Schenkel; screenplay by Hampton Fancher, based on a novel by written by Albert Z. Carr; director of photography, Jacques Steyn; edited by John Jympson; music by Anne Dudley; production designer, Roger Murray-Leach; produced by Ed Elbert and Dale Pollock; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Denzel Washington (Xavier Quinn), Robert Townsend (Maubee), Sheryl Lee Ralph (Lola Quinn), M. Emmet Walsh (Fred Miller), Art Evans (Jump Jones), James Fox (Thomas Elgin), Esther Rolle (Ubu Pearl), Norman Beaton (Governor Chalk), Alex Colon (Jose Patina), Tyra Ferrell (Isola), and Mimi Rogers (Hadley Elgin).


Great Balls of Fire! (1989, Jim McBride)

There’s no point to Great Balls of Fire! As a biopic it’s shaky–lead Dennis Quaid only gets to be the protagonist when he’s not being too despicable, which isn’t often and the film has to distance itself from Winona Ryder, playing Quaid’s love interest.

And thirteen year-old cousin.

So it’s understandable director McBride and co-screenwriter Jack Baran don’t want to delve too deep into the characters.

It’s also not a comedy, because even though Quaid plays Jerry Lee Lewis like an affable buffoon, it’s never clear if it’s all an act and Quaid (or Lewis) is really calculating or he’s just an idiot. Either way, he knows perving on his thirteen year-old cousin is wrong because her father–John Doe–is also putting a roof over Quaid’s head and playing in his band. During one montage sequence–when Lewis performs on “The Steve Allen Show”–suggests Fire could be some kind of rumination on American culture in the fifties, as the film cuts to various television shows of the era with the characters watching the television in shock… but it’s just that one sequence.

Otherwise, Fire just sort of churns along through the timeline. Hit records, marriage, failure. Sort of. There’s no arc to any of it. No one gets one. Not Quaid, whose character has less internal activity than a three scene cameo by Michael St. Gerard as Elvis. Certainly not Ryder, who gets a fun montage where she’s shopping for her home, then a breakdown when she realizes she’s just a kid then… relatively nothing until she starts getting abused by drunken failure Quaid. Doe kind of gets an arc. But it’s all background, going on when McBride is paying attention to other things. Doe probably gives the film’s best performance, partially because of that arc.

As his wife (and Ryder’s mom), Lisa Blount is fine. She’s in the movie a lot but gets absolutely nothing to do actually do. Except calm Doe occasionally.

Trey Wilson and Stephen Tobolowsky are the record producers. They’re fine. Wilson’s a little better, though both their parts are razor thin.

Then there’s Alec Baldwin as preacher Jimmy Swaggart (real-life cousin to Jerry Lee Lewis). He’s okay? His presence in the film is simultaneously sensational and pointless.

Quaid’s really good at pretending to play and sing the music. The real Lewis recorded all the songs and there are piano stunt doubles for the harder stuff; but what Quaid does, he does really well.

Technically the film’s more than proficient. Good production design from David Nichols. Solid photography from Affonso Beato. The problem’s the script. No one can act it well because it doesn’t want to be acted well. It gets queasy dwelling on its caricatures.

In the end, Fire just fizzles out. It’s often entertaining, sometimes engaging, but McBride and Baran don’t have a handle on the story they want to tell, much less how to tell it.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Jim McBride; screenplay by Jack Baran and McBride, based on the book by Myra Lewis and Murray Silver Jr.; director of photography, Affonso Beato; edited by Lisa Day, Pembroke J. Herring, and Bert Lovitt; production designer, David Nichols; produced by Adam Fields; released by Orion Pictures.

Starring Dennis Quaid (Jerry Lee Lewis), Winona Ryder (Myra Gale Brown), John Doe (J.W. Brown), Lisa Blount (Lois Brown), Trey Wilson (Sam Phillips), Stephen Tobolowsky (Jud Phillips), and Alec Baldwin (Jimmy Swaggart).


My Left Foot: The Story of Christy Brown (1989, Jim Sheridan)

My Left Foot is told in flashback. There’s the present–kind of glorified bookends–when Christy Brown (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a successful adult and flirts with his nurse (Ruth McCabe)–and then the past, which recounts Brown growing up poor, with cerebral palsy, in 1940s Dublin. Hugh O’Conor plays Brown until he’s seventeen or eighteen, then Day-Lewis takes over. Since Day-Lewis has a beard and a distinct manner in the present-day stuff, when he’s a teenager and before he’d ever gotten any rehabilitation or treatment, it’s a very different role. O’Conor plays a very different role too in his maybe twenty minutes–he’s got to play younger Day-Lewis from the first scene when he’s not even a tween. And he’s got the big material to get through.

Dad Ray McAnally thinks Day-Lewis is catastrophically cognitively impaired. Mom Brenda Fricker doesn’t think so, but McAnally’s a loud (sometimes scary) drunk and there are the six other kids to think about. But it also means the audience knows something the characters don’t. Yes, there’s something about the expectation, both for the narrative and O’Conor’s performance–but also presents the characters from a particular angle, which tends to work a lot better for Fricker than McAnally. Because there’s also the unseen scary bits regarding McAnally. Fricker–rightly so–gets sainted. McAnally gets gray, only My Left Foot isn’t really set up for gray.

My Left Foot is very precise in its attention and its intention. The focus is on O’Conor and Fricker–then Day-Lewis and Fricker–in the family’s house. My Left Foot’s production values are never bad, but director Sheridan and production designer Austen Spriggs focus their efforts on the scenes at the family’s house. Sheridan’s not a flashy director, but when he’s out in public–basically these occasional pub scenes for McAnally–and photographer Jack Controy is no help–the precision is gone. To wildly varying degrees. The verisimilitude orbits Fricker. Because Day-Lewis (and O’Conor) are too busy doing these layered performances, not to mention the impossible physicality layer. They don’t need a grounding or anything, they just can’t be concerned with tempering the mood.

It’s actually something brought up later on–as someone reads Brown’s actual writing aloud–regarding the constant feeling of isolation, even in a large family. Day-Lewis and O’Conor are always isolated. Much to Fricker’s frustration. Day-Lewis, Fricker, and O’Conor all have big character arcs in the film. No one else has them. Even if their characters do change a lot–like McAnally or Fiona Shaw, as Day-Lewis’s first doctor and champion–they don’t get to do it on screen. Once they’ve changed too much, they just disappear. Same thing happens to Fricker in the third act; worse, sometimes she’ll be in a scene and wasted. Shane Connaughton’s script sacrifices a lot of character for efficiency. Sheridan enables it, yes, but the script is ruthless.

But I’m getting a little ahead.

Once Day-Lewis takes over, the film nicely ambles about. There’s a subplot about McAnally and Fricker being able to buy him a wheelchair and one of the sisters getting in trouble, but they’re very mild subplots. They provide some narrative structure. Otherwise, it’s these micro-vingettes, all of them doing–often heartbreaking–character development for Day-Lewis. Fricker gets her character development in big moments. Day-Lewis’s builds. The film avoids getting too in-depth with anything. Just like McAnally’s faults are left unexplored, as are all of Brown’s medical problems over the years. Or physical realities. Or, actually, mental ones. Day-Lewis has a couple big rejection from women scenes and the film skips the hard stuff. My Left Foot isn’t rosy, but Sheridan and Connaughton make a real effort not to get too real with any of it.

And, given–while in the present and now apparently a writer (Brown’s work as an artist and writer are very murky in the background)–Day-Lewis tells McCabe (who’s reading his first book, My Left Foot) about how it’s too sentimental. The film is too sentimental. The acting is never too sentimental. The production never looks too sentimental–Jack Conroy’s photography is too flat for the emotion. But Sheridan and Connaughton are going for sentimental. Elmer Bernstein’s score is often so saccharine–while being technically competent if not better–it distracts from the acting.

Of course, with a better ending–the micro-vingettes have been becoming summarized micro-vingettes skipping forward in the narrative without any rhythm–the film maybe could’ve gotten anyway with the sentimentality. Day-Lewis is charming as hell by the present day stuff. He’s just not in it enough in the present day to get too sentimental about. Everyone’s material take a dive in the third act; the film has run out of time to tell its story so there’s a rush to the finish. The transition from flashback to present is really, really, really rough. It races and interrupts the actors.

The film’s exceptional moments come in the first and second acts, when all the elements sync up–the acting, the writing, the history–and Sheridan is able to get these fantastic scenes. Because the writing gets so loose with the history later on, there’s less opportunity for that sync.

And no real attempt at it in the present day stuff. Day-Lewis and McCabe are just cute together. Both actors do quite well with the material, but Sheridan is going for cute. And gets to pull it off thanks to Day-Lewis.

Sheridan and Connaughton are able to get away with a lot because of Day-Lewis and Fricker. Fricker not getting to finish any of her subplots is downright mean of the film, given how much of it she enables.

Fricker, Day-Lewis, and O’Conor give great performances. Exceptional. Singular. Performances deserving that sort of adjective. McAnally is excellent. His part isn’t good enough but he’s excellent. Fiona Shaw is fine. She’s sympathetic but not too sympathetic. McCabe’s cute. All the brothers and sisters are perfectly fine; they’re interchangeable in the narrative, so there’s not opportunity for much more.

My Left Foot has its problems. It also has exceptional pluses. The pluses win out.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Jim Sheridan; screenplay by Shane Connaughton and Jim Sheridan, based on the book by Christy Brown; director of photography, Jack Conroy; edited by J. Patrick Duffner; music by Elmer Bernstein; production designer, Austen Spriggs; produced by Noel Pearson; released by Palace Pictures.

Starring Daniel Day-Lewis (Christy Brown), Brenda Fricker (Mrs. Brown), Ray McAnally (Mr. Brown), Fiona Shaw (Dr. Eileen Cole), Hugh O’Conor (Young Christy Brown), Ruth McCabe (Mary), Alison Whelan (Sheila), Kirsten Sheridan (Sharon), Declan Croghan (Tom), Eanna MacLiam (Benny), and Cyril Cusack (Lord Castlewelland).


DeepStar Six (1989, Sean S. Cunningham)

DeepStar Six is a bad looking movie. There’s maybe one decent special effects moment–very limited, slightly gory–and it comes at the end, after the film has flubbed bigger effects sequences and other gore moments. Director Cunningham pretends he’s doing “Jaws at the ocean floor” for a while, though it’s never even clear if there’s one monster or multiple ones. Because it’s not a shark, it’s some prehistoric crab thing.

Except the prehistoric crab thing looks like a fifties sci-fi alien mixed with Audrey II. And really cheap. Cunningham and editor David Handman do try to hide the cheapness, but they can’t. Worse, they cut away from the monster so often, it’d be preferable for them to just embrace the cheap and have the thing onscreen. Action sequences might make more sense.

The film takes place at an experimental ocean floor Navy installation. There’s a staff of Navy personnel and civilian scientists. The scientists are Russian Elya Baskin and South African Marius Weyers. It’s not clear why the Navy’s got foreign nationals installing underwater nuclear warhead launch platforms but whatever. None of the Navy personnel wears uniforms or has ranks (other than captain Taurean Blacque) and John Krenz Reinhart Jr.’s production design harkens back to those fifties sci-fi cheapies, not state-of-the-art eighties Navy stuff.

The sets are way too big too. No one’s cramped. There’s always plenty of room, especially in the submersibles. Or Cunningham and photographer Mac Ahlberg are just shooting through walls and it’s not clear because the direction’s so bad it doesn’t matter. Cunningham does nothing good in DeepStar Six. Sometimes he composes for the eventual pan-and-scan (the film’s an utter waste of a Panavision frame), sometimes he doesn’t. In the times he doesn’t, usually because there are just too many cast members in the shot, it’s slightly better. Not the direction, the experience of watching the film. It makes a little more sense, having all those people crammed into a frame. The shots having action taking place at different distances from the camera.

It’s a terribly directed film. Anything helps.

Because the special effects sequences don’t help either. The undersea exteriors are bad. There’s a dullness to them to “hide” them not being shot underwater. Of course, any of those bad underwater special effects are nothing compared when there are shots on the water. Then the composites are just hideous. And the mattes are awful.

Maybe the only surprise–which sadly isn’t Harry Manfredini having a good score (it’s not awful and it’s better than the film deserves, but it’s not good)–so a bigger surprise, actually, is the acting. Greg Evigan gives a better performance than Miguel Ferrer. Evigan’s the enlisted man, working class submarine pilot. Ferrer’s the working class mechanic. Ferrer freaks out at everything and dooms the cast on multiple occasions. Evigan’s romancing pseudo-Ripley Nancy Everhard. She’s the first woman to go through Navy Seal training and, for whatever reason, she wants to manage annoying civilians on the ocean floor.

Matt McCoy is the other submarine pilot. Nia Peeples is a scientist. She’s more convincing than Weyers, who just plays his part like an asshole. Peeples at least has some intellectual curiosity. Unfortunately she also gets the bulk of the objectifying and an unlikely romance with McCoy.

Cindy Pickett is the doctor. By the end of the movie, she’s probably turned in the best overall performance. She’s got nothing to do at the start and a weak finish, but once the monster attacks, she’s always active.

Everhard’s occasionally likable but not good.

Ferrer’s terrible. It’s not entirely his fault–Cunningham’s got a hands-off approach to directing the actors and Ferrer’s got some really bad writing. Lewis Abernathy and Geof Miller’s script is risible.

Given the bad script and the bad direction, the cast being at all likable is an accomplishment. Especially since it’s an And Then There Were None burn through the cast. Most of them don’t even get cool monster deaths–none of them do, not even when it’s a monster death because the special effects are so bad–but usually the movie doesn’t even try. It’s a disaster movie about the least prepared undersea operation in history. They’re not prepared for any problems. It’s stupefying.

So there’s the one good effects sequence, the curiosity of the adequate against the odds performances (he, Everhard, and Pickett are all extremely earnest, which helps), and the final jump scare. That one got me, even though I was waiting for it.

With a bigger budget, a better script, a better director, a better cinematographer, a better production designer… DeepStar Six might be downright mediocre. Instead, it’s pretty bad. If Cunningham had just embraced the cheapness though–gone for the fifties sci-fi–it might have worked out close to as is.

But of course Cunningham didn’t, because he makes bad choices leading to bad movies. He sinks DeepStar Six.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Sean S. Cunningham; screenplay by Lewis Abernathy and Geof Miller, story by Abernathy; director of photography, Mac Ahlberg; edited by David Handman; music by Harry Manfredini; production designer, John Krenz Reinhart Jr.; produced by Cunningham and Patrick Markey; released by Tri-Star Pictures.

Starring Nancy Everhard (Collins), Greg Evigan (McBride), Miguel Ferrer (Snyder), Nia Peeples (Scarpelli), Matt McCoy (Richardson), Cindy Pickett (Norris), Marius Weyers (Van Gelder), Elya Baskin (Burciaga), Thom Bray (Hodges), Ronn Carroll (Osborne), and Taurean Blacque (Captain Laidlaw).


Puppetmaster (1989, David Schmoeller)

Puppetmaster has some great stop motion. The stop motion is nowhere near enough to make up for the rest, but there’s some excellent stop motion. The stop motion is so good, in fact, the lighting on it is better than Sergio Salvati’s lighting for the rest of the film.

Salvati’s lighting is a problem. He doesn’t do mood. John Myhre’s production design doesn’t do mood either. Yet Richard Band’s music does lots of mood. So the film’s constantly clashing. But when it’s stop motion effects of the murderous little puppets, then the mood is in sync.

The film opens in the past, with William Hickey cameoing as a puppet maker who can bring his creations to life. Jump to the present and someone has found the puppets. So the motley crew of principals have to go to this huge empty hotel to meet their friend, Jimmie F. Skaggs. They’re all psychic. Sorry, forgot. They’re all psychic. Anyway, it’s Paul Le Mat the Ivy league professor who dreams the future, Irene Miracle the Cajun fortuneteller, Matt Roe and Kathryn O’Reilly are a couple–he exploits her psychic powers, basically.

Only Skaggs is dead, leaving wife Robin Frates to contend with the puppet-hunters. Except none of the principals ever really talks about the puppets. Director Schmoeller’s pseudonymous script is light on detail, content, character, and, of course, mood. Le Mat sort of wanders through the film in a daze. Not just when he’s left to wander the empty hotel because everyone else is busy getting killed by the puppets.

In the flashback, Schmoeller does a lot with the puppet-vision–when it’s a puppet running around, interacting with an unknowing human world. When it comes time for him to do it in a thriller sequence, he completely chokes. It’s already a bad, long sequence–Schmoeller drags out the death scenes. He’s big on showcasing suffering, even if it’s limited by budget. His direction doesn’t have any of the humor Band’s music lays over the action. Again, Puppetmaster never feels in sync.

It’d be hard, given the performances. Everyone is awful except maybe Frates. And Mews Small as the maid, who disappears and no one cares why. Small’s okay.

Roe at least intentionally exaggerates. It’s unclear what anyone else is doing. Le Mat shuffling around is his entire performance. He’s got the least amount of character and he’s top-billed. At least Miracle has a taxidermied dog. It’s creepy and Miracle underplays it–while somehow going way too far on the accent–but it’s something. Le Mat’s just got a shaggy mullet.

Puppetmaster puts a lot of thought into its special effects. There’s no thought into anything else, though. The third act is better. Once Le Mat gets something to do, even if it’s only for five minutes. Schmoeller’s script has a pulse for a bit. The film goes needlessly far into gore soon after, not just because it’s narratively pointless, but also because the film doesn’t have the effects budget to do it. Schmoeller is always showcasing suffering over the gore in the scene. Not tension, not suspense, not gore, just suffering. It’s kind of weird, actually. Because he doesn’t do anything with it. It doesn’t build to anything.

Because Puppetmaster’s pretty bad. Cool stop motion, some cool puppets, some bad acting. Some really awful direction and writing.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by David Schmoeller; screenplay by Schmoeller, based on a story by Charles Band and Kenneth J. Hall; director of photography, Sergio Salvati; edited by Thomas Meshelski; music by Richard Band; production designer, John Myhre; produced by Hope Perello; released by Paramount Home Video.

Starring Paul Le Mat (Alex Whitaker), Robin Frates (Megan Gallagher), Irene Miracle (Dana Hadley), Matt Roe (Frank Forrester), Kathryn O’Reilly (Carissa Stamford), Mews Small (Theresa), Jimmie F. Skaggs (Neil Gallagher), and William Hickey (Andre Toulon).


Do the Right Thing (1989, Spike Lee)

There are no clocks in Do the Right Thing. The film takes place over a twenty-four hour period; all the action is on one block, most of the characters live on the block. It’s a Saturday. Some people are working, some people aren’t. It’s a very hot day. And for the first ninety minutes of the film’s two hour runtime, writer-director-producer-actor Lee takes a relaxed approach to the pacing.

Lee’s protagonist isn’t exactly the main character; Thing has maybe four main plots running throughout the day, casually intersecting until everything crashes together. Lee’s part of most of them, but so’s Ossie Davis, so’s Giancarlo Esposito, so’s Bill Nunn. It’s about a lot of different people’s day. And Lee goes so deep with the backgrounds–narratively and filmically–it’s not always the top-billed who get the best scenes. Sure, John Turturro, Danny Aiello, and Ruby Dee all get excellent scenes and they’ve got bigger parts, but where Lee the filmmaker isn’t always in those scenes. Not for monologues for sure. Sam Jackson is the DJ and he gets some great scenes. Lee and editor Barry Alexander Brown change energy and tone with one cut to the next; the film already opens with Lee and Brown affecting the energy and tone.

The opening titles are over Rosie Perez dancing. She plays Lee’s girlfriend. They’ve got a kid. He’s not a great dad and he’s not a great boyfriend. But he loves her. They don’t live together.

Back to the opening titles. They’re over this red-colored monochrome Brooklyn street, empty besides Perez. Brown perfectly cuts on every movement as the shots cycle. Perez in different outfits, on different locations, with Ernest R. Dickerson changing up the lighting for most. More than the editing–or even pace, because Thing is never as relaxed as when Perez is dancing, not even in the quieter moments–more than either of those technical elements, Dickerson’s photography defines a lot of Thing. Especially during the first act when everything is getting set up. There’s a sharpness to Dickerson’s colors, but also enough warmth nothing ever clashes. And Frankie Faison’s third of a sidewalk raconteur trio is loudly dressed enough he definitely ought to clash. He’s in pastels in front of a red wall.

But Dickerson keeps it just warm enough. All those times where a clash should cause some kind of verisimilitude fissure–not because of the cast, but because of how Lee’s directing it–Dickerson’s photography keeps everything even. Or more inviting, actually. Faison doesn’t say much but he’s definitely the most amiable of the trio.

Robin Harris and Paul Benjamin make up the rest of the trio. Harris’s the most lovable, Benjamin’s unexpectedly the most dangerous. They sit and narrate the day, providing background through exposition. Lee’s script has so much going on at once, laying groundwork. One plot will discard an element, only for another to pick it up. Esposito is the energized pinball dinging between them.

Lee’s long setup, even after the first act establishing is done, is determining what exactly Esposito is dinging against. What are the bumpers he’s hitting. Only Espositio isn’t the main character either. He’s barely a supporting character. He’s kind of background, only he’s not, because the point of Thing is there is no background. Foreground and background intersect over and over–sometimes in great sequences, like Aiello friendliness to Joie Lee (Lee’s sister as his sister, which is a pragmatic goldmine). Lee and Turturro (as Aiello’s openly racist son–Aiello owns a pizza shop in a predominately Black neighborhood) don’t like Aiello’s attention to Joie Lee; Lee gets a lot of mileage out of it, both visually and in terms of narrative import.

There are times when Lee just lets a tangent go. It’s too hot to let things get drawn out. The end is different.

When the sun sets, Lee starts slowing things down. The last twenty minutes, minus the last two scenes, are in real-time. And Lee goes from a narrative distance of intense close-up to crane shot before things are over. He yanks the focus around, with Dickerson and Brown (and composer Bill Lee, accompanied by Branford Marsalis) making it all pretty, to keep the energy up but always different. He’s creating an entirely new narrative perspective, using materials he’s prepared in the previous ninety minutes.

Do the Right Thing goes from being great to being great in a totally different way; that second way is this careful rejection of melodrama, done at high speed. It’s awesome.

Great acting. Ossie Davis is the best. He’s got one of the fuller characters. Aiello’s real good, not flashy but real good. Turturro’s flashy and real good. Lee’s a fine protagonist. He’s generally reserved, which ends up helping to quickly introduce characters. In his scenes with Joie Lee and then Perez, he jumpstarts his character development. He’s more reactionary in his scenes with Aiello, Turturro, and Richard Edson (as Aiello’s nice younger son). Again, protagonist but not really main character.

In smaller parts, some fantastic acting. Dee, who starts a bigger character than she finishes, Harris, and Jackson, in particular. Joie Lee’s pretty good but never as good as when she’s bickering with her brother. Lee directs her a little different than everything else, almost like she’s in a featured cameo. The same goes, in very different ways, for Rosie Perez. She’s good too; it’s a good thing Perez is so naturally memorable–it’s the writing too but no one curses like she does–because she’s so set completely aside from everything else.

And, of course, a special mention of Christa Rivers. She’s in the background, she’s got no other film credits, but she’s tasked with holding a bunch of the film together just through reaction shots. She’s great.

Do the Right Thing is technically magnificent and beautifully acted. It’s also a stunning success for Lee. He goes after a lot with the film, does a lot with the film in terms of style and tone (and rapidly changing them), and it all hits.

Even with that studio-mandated insert shot of Lee at the end.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written, produced, and directed by Spike Lee; director of photography, Ernest R. Dickerson; edited by Barry Alexander Brown; music by Bill Lee; production designer, Wynn Thomas; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Spike Lee (Mookie), Danny Aiello (Sal), Ossie Davis (Da Mayor), John Turturro (Pino), Joie Lee (Jade), Ruby Dee (Mother Sister), Rosie Perez (Tina), Giancarlo Esposito (Buggin Out), Richard Edson (Vito), Bill Nunn (Radio Raheem), Roger Guenveur Smith (Smiley), Paul Benjamin (ML), Frankie Faison (Coconut Sid), Robin Harris (Sweet Dick Willie), Miguel Sandoval (Officer Ponte), Rick Aiello (Officer Long), John Savage (Clifton), and Samuel L. Jackson (Mister Señor Love Daddy).


Perry Mason: The Case of the All-Star Assassin (1989, Christian I. Nyby II)

Right off, the big problem with Perry Mason: The Case of the All-Star Assassin is clear. Maybe not altogether clear in the first scene, but certainly when director Nyby gets around to having to try to do a suspense sequence. He bungles it. But while he’s bungling the action, he’s also bungling the direction of the actors, which proves to be rather unfortunate this time out.

With the exception of the velvet-tongued and insincere performance from Pernell Roberts, everyone in the supporting cast on All-Star is ready to do the work. Deirde Hall looks positively excited to have scenes with Raymond Burr. She’s trying to act opposite him, Nyby bungles it. Shari Belafonte’s okay, but should be better. Why? Nyby bungles it. Same goes for Jason Beghe, who’s always trying to do something to hold attention; Nyby bungles it. Neither Bruce Greenwood or Julius Carry have much of that energy, but even they end up trying to show some enthusiasm. Nyby bungles it. While All-Star doesn’t have a good teleplay, the cast occasionally excels at it. They just need some support from Nyby, who’s nowhere to be found, at least not at a conscious level.

Robert Hamilton’s teleplay has a subplot about Alexandra Paul being a would-be gumshoe. Boyfriend William R. Moses brings this movie’s case to Burr, Paul is along for the ride. She’s third-billed after all, All-Star ought to use her. Hamilton’s solution is to make her an annoying nitwit. Moses is an abusive jerk to her–but then completely removed (and not bad) the rest of the time. It’s a terribly written part. Hamilton should be ashamed. It’s not like Paul’s great–or good–but she’s been on the Perry Mason TV movie boat a couple times before and this part isn’t what she’s in the movie for.

Daniel McKinny’s photography is serviceable most of the time, but he’s too flat for the courtroom stuff.

Wait, I just thought of something nice to say about Nyby. Even though the courtroom reveal is ludicrous and dumb, Nyby makes it seem less so. He’s not paying attention, but it’s finally the right time not to be paying attention.

I had high hopes for this one, based on the cast, but All-Star doesn’t deliver for anyone involved. Except maybe Beghe, who probably got some great reel footage from his performance, and whoever played the court clerk; the actress rolls her eyes when Valerie Mahaffey’s D.A. bosses her around. It’s awesome and obvious Nyby has no idea it’s going on. Because he bungles this one. Worse than he usually bungles Perry Mason.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Christian I. Nyby II; teleplay by Robert Hamilton, based on a story by Dean Hargrove, Joel Steiger, and Hamilton, and characters created by Erle Stanley Gardner; director of photography, Daniel McKinny; edited by David Solomon and Carter DeHaven; music by Dick DeBenedictis; produced by Peter Katz; aired by the National Broadcasting Company.

Starring Raymond Burr (Perry Mason), Barbara Hale (Della Street), William R. Moses (Ken Malansky), Alexandra Paul (Amy Hastings), Jason Beghe (Bobby Spencer), Deidre Hall (Linda Horton), Bruce Greenwood (Stewart Horton), Shari Belafonte (Kathy Grant), Julius Carry (Temple Brown), S.A. Griffin (Richards), Valerie Mahaffey (D.A. Barbara August), James McEachin (Lt. Ed Brock) and Pernell Roberts (Thatcher Horton).


Perry Mason: The Case of the Musical Murder (1989, Christian I. Nyby II)

Raymond Burr does a fantastic job in Perry Mason: The Case of the Musical Murder. He’s got it down. He even sells some of the sillier one liners in George Eckstein’s teleplay. At times, it seems like Eckstein is trying to goof on the idea of a Perry Mason TV movie. Or maybe he’s sincere and Nyby’s just so inept at directing it, it comes off as self-parody.

Technically, a lot of Murder is awful. Arch Bryant’s lighting doesn’t match between shots and the editing in the scenes between Debbie Reynolds and Burr seems off. Like David Solomon and Carter DeHaven couldn’t decide who should get more time staring at the camera, Burr or Reynolds. And Burr manages to survive those moments. It’s a good performance. Like, yes, he’s just playing Perry Mason but he’s hitting all the moments with no help from the director or the script. I mean, it’s not like he has any meaningful character interactions.

Supporting cast is okay. Not really. It seems okay because William R. Moses is okay and a couple of the actors have good moments on the stand. Not Reynolds though. She’s terribly directed in Musical and her performance suffers for it. She’s got a nice musical number at the beginning though–Nyby for some reason can better direct the scenes at the theater than he can anything else. Jerry Orbach and Raymond Singer are the ones with the good court moments. Terrible directed, of course, but still well-acted.

Dwight Schultz is terrible.

Valerie Mahaffey is good as the D.A. She has almost nothing but manages to infuse it with a nice implication of depth. Same goes for Philip Sterling. Rick Aiello is a fine thug; not so much good as convincingly dangerous. Jim Metzler’s affable as the defendant. Not good though. I’m disappointed given Metzler’s a fine actor; the part’s severely and noticeably underwritten.

Barbara Hale doesn’t get anything to do. She’s probably in Musical for a grand total of seven minutes. She just leaves and comes back with information. While she’s gone, Burr banters at a suspect. And the awkward part is how well the arrangement seems to be working for Burr’s performance. He’s relaxed but enthusiastic.

Musical Murder does have some notable moments. A late eighties Debbie Reynolds dance number, Dwight Schultz badly playing an Italian tough guy Broadway director, an early annoying Lori Petty turn as an annoying shop girl. It’s just not any good. It weathers a lot successfully, but it’s still not any good, which is kind of the Perry Mason rut.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

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

Starring Raymond Burr (Perry Mason), Barbara Hale (Della Street), William R. Moses (Ken Malansky), Debbie Reynolds (Amanda Cody), Jerry Orbach (Blaine Counter), Dwight Schultz (Tony Franken), Jim Metzler (Johnny Whitcomb), Raymond Singer (James Walton), Philip Sterling (Mel Singer), Alexa Hamilton (Kate Ferrar), Mary Cadorette (Leslie Singer), Valerie Mahaffey (D.A. Barbara August), Rick Aiello (Parker Newton), Lori Petty (Cassie), Luis Avalos (Judge Robert Morano), James McEachin (Lt. Ed Brock) and Alexandra Paul (Amy Hastings).


Perry Mason: The Case of the Lethal Lesson (1989, Christian I. Nyby II)

The Case of the Lethal Lesson is a very strange Perry Mason TV movie. Not just because director Nyby actually doesn’t do an atrocious job, but also because Robert Hamilton’s teleplay is a jumbled mess. Lethal Lesson introduces two new regulars to the main cast, with one of them being the person on trial this time. It screws up the weighing of the plot to say the least.

Worse, Hamilton really pushes for having everyone participate. The supporting cast isn’t just vague suspects, they have subplots with one of the main characters. Sort of. The subplots are often undercooked and don’t stand up to any examination. No spoilers on the finale, but any thought starts to break it down. Hamilton–and director Nyby–bet it all on the charm between those two new regulars, played by Alexandra Paul and William R. Moses.

Here’s how their charm works. She’s rich and flighty. He’s poor and stable. She drives him nuts, but he can’t resist her. Oh, and he’s the one on trial. Even if Paul weren’t annoying, there’s no chemistry between her and Moses. Even if there were chemistry, Moses doesn’t do the sincerity well. He spends most of the movie trying to get away from Paul to hook up with Karen Kopins. Kopins is another of the suspects, sort of, because Hamilton contrives a way to make all of the characters suspects. Everyone is in Raymond Burr’s law school class.

I’m not mentioning Raymond Burr until the end of the third paragraph because he barely has anything to do with the movie. Somehow, even when he gets to the truth at the end, it’s more about the stupid law school romance stuff. Hamilton tries to go with vague innuendo every time, which isn’t just lazy, it’s boring. There’s never any explicit innuendo of the amusing variety, just director Nyby inexplicably perving on Paul for a bit. It’s before her part as screwball detective is established, it’s just a TV movie shower scene. Like some NBC executive said they needed to sex it up but keep it wholesome. Making Paul act like a moron half the time seemingly keeps it wholesome.

Anyway, Burr’s actually great when he gets the stuff to do in the front. He’s good as the teacher, he’s good opposite Brian Keith–old friend and father of the deceased–he’s good with Barbara Hale. She has one scene with enough material for her. Just the one.

Lots of weak support–like miscasting weak–from Brian Backer to Mark Rolston to Charley Lang. Kathryn Christopher is terrible as the judge. Nyby should’ve somehow fixed that problem, but he just exacerbates it.

Kind of weak editing from David Solomon; it’s Nyby, so maybe there just wasn’t coverage. Dick DeBenedictis’s score plays up the romantic chemistry of Paul and Moses and it’s just as annoying in its ineptness to create any chemistry.

Lethal Lesson isn’t actually terrible, it just isn’t any good whatsoever.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Christian I. Nyby II; teleplay by Robert Hamilton, based on a story by Dean Hargrove and Joel Steiger, and characters created by Erle Stanley Gardner; director of photography, Arch Bryant; edited by 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 R. Moses (Ken Malansky), Alexandra Paul (Amy Hastings), Brian Keith (Frank Wellman Sr.), Karen Kopins (Kimberly McDonald), Brian Backer (Eugene), John DeMita (Scott McDonald), Charley Lang (Travis Howe), John Allen Nelson (Frank Wellman Jr.), Leslie Ackerman (Miss Lehman), Richard Allen (Jeff), Albert Valdez (Paul Roberti), Raye Birk (Sam Morgan), John LaMotta (Bartender Al), Mark Rolston (Vic Hatton), Marlene Warfield (Prosecutor), Kathryn Christopher (Judge Hoffman).


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