1990

A Shock to the System (1990, Jan Egleson)

A Shock to the System is almost a success. It’s real close. It has all the right pieces, it just doesn’t have enough time at the end to put them away in their new arrangement. Everything’s in disarray because the film changes into a thriller—with a different protagonist—for a while in the third act. After spending the entire movie with Michael Caine, who even narrates, the film temporarily changes perspective to his love interest, Elizabeth McGovern. It’s only for a few minutes—System runs just under ninety so everything’s just for a few minutes—but it jostles the film enough it can’t pull off a perfunctory finish. And it needs a perfunctory finish because budget. System’s got shoot in New York City with good actors but not blow up expensive things budget.

Caine is a Wall Street yuppie who commutes from Connecticut. The movie starts with him about to get a big promotion; boss John McMartin is expecting to lose his job in an imminent merger. Caine’s excited because he feels like he’s unappreciated, even though everyone who works for him thinks he’s a swell guy (including McGovern, who’s got a crush on him). Caine’s wife Swoosie Kurtz is excited because now they’ll finally have enough money for all the things she wants to buy. An implied but completely unexplored subplot is Caine marrying Kurtz for money. Even though there are hints at Caine wishing they were more affection, they never have any chemistry to suggest he married her for her money and she married him because he was going places.

So, of course Caine doesn’t get the job. Worse, one of his kiss-ass underlings (Peter Riegert) gets promoted over him. Caine leaves work early to simmer and gets into an altercation with a homeless guy on the subway platform. The homeless guy dies. And nothing bad happens to Caine.

Although the film opens with Caine getting a literal Shock, that household incident isn’t the inciting incident for anything. It’s a framing detail; the film itself is about Caine realizing he’s a sociopath and figuring out how to use it to his advantage.

The film makes a lot of hash, in the first act, out of Caine being too nice of a boss. He’s not enough of a yuppie scumbag. He doesn’t fire people. He also doesn’t… have any great ideas about his job. It’s just his turn. The only reason he gets any sympathy for not getting the promotion is because Kurtz is mean and Riegert is a weiner. One of the weirder reasons Riegert is a weiner is because he’s dating a model (Haviland Morris) who he likes dating. After the promotion, Caine and Kurtz have to go out to Riegert’s lake house and, ew, they seem to like one another. It’s a strange shortcut for the film to take.

But it’s fine because Caine’s able to carry it. See, he’s empowered now and he’s not going to put up with Riegert’s shit. There’s only so much Caine is going to take from Riegert, Kurtz, or anyone else. McGovern is one of the only bright lights in Caine’s life, even if he’s too busy being miserable with Kurtz to notice McGovern giving him the look.

Once gets around to acting on his newly found murderous instinct, he finds himself almost immediately on cop Will Patton’s radar. Caine’s not good at pretending he cares. It makes sense to the audience because Caine’s narration has made him to… the film’s version of sympathetic. More sympathetic than anyone else. Because Caine’s real good at playing to sympathies, the audience’s and McGovern’s. When he finally does show his truer nature to both, it starts the film moving towards McGovern’s stint as protagonist.

Caine’s outstanding. He’s the movie. McGovern’s got some good moments and some nice implications of deeper thoughts, but her character is pretty thin. McGovern tries to deepen it but there’s only so much she can do. Director Egleson tries to compensate for McGovern’s lack of material with some meaningful shots, but the movie’s less than ninety minutes; they’re all meaningful shots. Especially the way Egleson shoots the film. He, cinematographer Paul Goldsmith, and editors William M. Anderson and Peter C. Frank do some great work in the film. The way Egleson and Goldsmith shoot McGovern and Caine’s courtship, the way the editors cut it—it’s all superb. And probably why, once the film shifts gears, it’s never able to get back up to speed. They lose too much momentum.

Riegert’s pretty good. He resists chewing on scenery a little much, but it works to imply more depth. Probably.

Kurtz is fine. It’s not a great part and it’s not a great performance, but it’s not a bad one. It’d be nice if there were some nuance to she and Caine’s relationship, but it’s not Kurtz’s fault. Egleson and screenwriter Andrew Klavan just can’t be bothered.

Patton’s okay too. Similar situation to Kurtz.

Jenny Wright gets a nice small part as McGovern’s roommate who starts working for Caine at the start of the film as an example of him being nice, hiring McGovern’s friend. Actually, it’d make the most sense if the film were from her point of view. But anyway.

A Shock to the System has a strong performance from Caine, a good one from McGovern, some spectacular direction from Egleson, some great filmmaking, and some very questionable eighties-to-nineties music from Gary Chang. The music’s a problem. Unless Caine’s preference for smooth jazz is supposed to be a sign of his sociopathy.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jan Egleson; screenplay by Andrew Klavan, based on the novel by Simon Brett; director of photography, Paul Goldsmith; edited by William M. Anderson and Peter C. Frank; music by Gary Chang; production designer, Howard Cummings; produced by Patrick McCormick; released by Corsair Pictures.

Starring Michael Caine (Graham Marshall), Elizabeth McGovern (Stella Anderson), Peter Riegert (Robert Benham), Swoosie Kurtz (Leslie Marshall), Will Patton (Lt. Laker), John McMartin (George Brewster), Jenny Wright (Melanie O’Conner), Haviland Morris (Tara Liston), Philip Moon (Henry Park), and Barbara Baxley (Lillian).


The Godfather: Part III (1990, Francis Ford Coppola), the director’s cut

Here’s an all-encompassing theory to explain The Godfather Part III, based only on on-screen evidence (i.e. ignoring production woes, casting woes, rewrites, budget and schedule comprises, and whatever else). Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo hate everyone in the film and everyone who will ever watch the film—maybe Coppola didn’t cast daughter Sofia Coppola in the third lead of the film because he thought she’d be good, but instead because she’d be godawful and make everyone hate the movie, which would just validate Coppola not wanting to make it in the first place. It would also explain the terrible script, full of awful exposition sequences and hackneyed scene after hackneyed scene. Godfather Part III makes Sofia Coppola and Andy Garcia’s star-crossed romance—they’re first cousins—into a fetish. They’ve both got a cousin-smashing fetish. If you want to love Godfather 3, Coppola and Puzo say, you’ve got to love some cousins bumping uglies.

Let’s not even get into when Talia Shire does a jaw drop at Garcia’s useless stud twin bodyguards and then rubs her nephew’s hands suggestively. If Godfather 3 has any subtext, it’s icky. But saying it has subtext is a stretch. Shire seems like she’s just in the movie to wear great clothes. Her performance is utterly atrocious. Of the returning cast members, Shire’s easily the worst. See, there’s nothing good about Godfather Part III. There are no hidden gems in the film. It’s not like secretly Al Pacino gives a good performance if you just ignore the terrible dialogue. It’s not like his eyes give a different performance than his words when he’s trying to rekindle with ex-wife Diane Keaton—in the twenty-one movie years between II and III apparently Pacino decided he didn’t want to raise the kids he stole from Keaton and ships them back to her and then is estranged from the kids somewhat. Keaton’s remarried (to Brett Halsey, who seems to have just met his wife and step-kids in first scene) and Pacino’s seems to have been a baching it, living with bodyguard Richard Bright (who gives the best returning performance) and hanging out with sister Shire. It’s not clear. The first act is really inept as far as establishing the ground situation.

Godfather 3 kind of remixes styles from the previous two movies—it doesn’t seem like Carmine Coppola composes a single new piece of music for the film, just recycles material from the previous ones, as director Coppola just recycles dialogue and scenes. It all echoes, the film bellows: Don’t you remember when you loved this.

But then Coppola and Puzo grossly veer as far as characterization. Pacino doesn’t have a character. He’s got a caricaturization, not even of the character from the previous films, but of himself since then. In really bad make-up. They’re only aging Pacino ten years but the way he dodders around, shuffling, kind of glassy-eyed, it’s like the makeup person was going for seventy-five and stoned. It’s really, really, really hard not to feel bad for Pacino throughout Godfather Part 3. People remember the first one for Brando, the second one for De Niro; here, Pacino gets to be the whole show—or should be—and director Coppola instead gives all the big material to his daughter, who must give one of the worst performances in a film budgeted over fifty million dollars before 1994. It’s humiliating.

Because Pacino’s not terrible. He’s doddering, he’s pretty dense—it’s unbelievable he’s a successful anything, gangster gone businessman or gangster pretending to go businessman—the same goes for Garcia, who goes from driving a car, shooting people, yelling, picking up young girls, then picking up his cousin to being a criminal mastermind. Of course, given the mob plot in this one involves Pacino wanting to buy a huge corporation from the Vatican and the Vatican going to war with Pacino but there’s also something with Joe Mantegna as the mob guy Pacino gave the old neighborhood. Mantegna and Garcia hate each other. Garcia’s Pacino’s illegitimate nephew (and if you’re expecting a great Pacino blow-up scene after Gracia seduces Sofia Coppola, dream on; though at least Pacino disapproves, Keaton’s all for the first cousin—they bring it up to confirm–smashing). Eli Wallach plays an old mob friend who somehow wasn’t in the first two movies even though he obviously should’ve been; he’s got an agenda of his own. If you’ve seen the second movie you can figure it out pretty quick because they use the same music cues.

Speaking of the second movie, evidently the reason Pacino’s a big sweetheart now is because he feels so bad about killing his brother in the second movie. Coppola rolls that footage in the first ten minutes of the movie, clearly it’s important. Only it’s not because Pacino hasn’t got enough character for it to affect anything. Wait, wait, it does. I forgot: Franc D’Ambrosio. D’Ambrosio is Keaton and Pacino’s other kid (sadly, no, he and Garcia don’t bang too). The reason Keaton comes back into Pacino’s orbit is because she wants to support D’Ambrosio dropping out of law school to become an opera singer. See, D’Ambrosio knows Pacino had his favorite uncle killed in the last movie and wants nothing to do with him. Except in all those scenes where he hugs Pacino and tells him how much he loves him and how much he wants Pacino’s approval and blah blah blah. Until the last twenty minutes, it’s hard to get too worked up about Sofia Coppola’s performance because for as terrible as she gets, D’Ambrosio is just as bad. Coppola looked at Keaton and Pacino—who actually dated back on the second movie—and decided if they had kids, those children would grow up to give terrible performances in the worst sequel (compared to previous entries) of all time.

The complete disconnect between D’Ambrosio’s first scene and every subsequent one? It gets to be a natural feeling in Godfather 3. A lot of scenes feel reshot, even if they’re not. Like maybe Keaton and Pacino weren’t really on set at the same time for this one. Same goes for Sofia Coppola and Andy Garcia. They’ve got a couple scenes where it really doesn’t seem like they’re talking to anyone else. It’s hard to tell, because Coppola directs the film like a TV show. Instead of doing a two shot in a conversation, he’ll cut between close-ups. It’s really, really, really bad composition. Like so much in the film, it’s embarrassing.

So Pacino’s greatest success is not appearing visibly humiliated. Keaton just seems defeated. She’s terrible. The writing on her character is real bad. All the writing on characters is real bad. But Keaton is way more in Shire territory than not.

Garcia’s okay. Sort of. It’s not his fault. Also the James Caan impression stuff is stupid.

Sofia Coppola’s performance is singularly terrible. Can’t be repeated enough.

Oh, right. The supporting cast. Besides George Hamilton, who has squat to do in the film, everyone is pretty bad. Hamilton’s not good, but he at least seems excited to be in a Godfather movie. He shows up and tries. Mantegna and Wallach don’t try. Wallach just gets worse the more he’s onscreen. The Vatican Eurotrash villains—Donal Donnelly and Enzo Robutti—they’re awful too. But for different reasons. Coppola doesn’t really bother directing the actors. He must be too busy setting up terrible shots, which all have variously poor establishing shots. Gordon Willis’s photography is something dreadful, but it’s impossible to blame him. Somehow it’s got to be Coppola’s fault.

So what’s left… Bridget Fonda? She’s got an extended cameo to get in some male gaze. She’s not good. But she’s nowhere near as problematic as anyone else, even Richard Bright, just because she’s not in the movie long enough to get worse scenes. The longer you’re in Godfather 3, the worse your scenes get. Except maybe D’Ambrosio, who frequently gets completely forgotten because no one cares. He’s not banging Garcia, after all.

The scary part is it could be even worse. You can just tell. Coppola could have made an even worse film.

There is one nearly good scene in the film where Coppola lets Pacino try to feel out an honest emotion. It seems like it ought to be a scene in a film called The Godfather Part III. None of the other ones do. The rest of it feels like Puzo and Coppola really wanted to do a Vatican conspiracy thriller and shoehorned in the Corleone Family, with the cousin sex for dessert.

I don’t loathe Godfather 3, I just dread it. Every one of the 170 minutes after the first just promise something else dreadful.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Francis Ford Coppola; screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, based on characters created by Puzo; director of photography, Gordon Willis; edited by Lisa Fruchtman, Barry Malkin, and Walter Murch; music by Carmine Coppola; production designer, Dean Tavoularis; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Al Pacino (Don Michael Corleone), Andy Garcia (Vincent Mancini), Sofia Coppola (Mary Corleone), Talia Shire (Connie Corleone Rizzi), Eli Wallach (Don Altobello), Diane Keaton (Kay Adams Michelson), Richard Bright (Al Neri), Franc D’Ambrosio (Anthony Vito Corleone), George Hamilton (B.J. Harrison), Joe Mantegna (Joey Zasa), Bridget Fonda (Grace Hamilton), Raf Vallone (Cardinal Lamberto), Donal Donnelly (Archbishop Gilday), Helmut Berger (Frederick Keinszig), Don Novello (Dominic Abbandando), John Savage (Father Andrew Hagen), and Vittorio Duse (Don Tommasino).


Janine (1990, Cheryl Dunye)

Janine is shot–and edited–on video. So when Dunye cuts to an insert shot for mood, there’s a jerky quality. She does a lot of freeze frames and the format just means it can’t gracefully return to motion. Seeing the cuts as Dunye relates the story–of Janine–causes attention to refocus. If your attention was waning for some reason, wake up, remember what you’re doing.

The short is nine minutes. Dunye is talking to the camera, only rarely looking into it. Her eyes look down and to her right usually, not wistfully lost in the memories–because there aren’t wistful memories of Janine.

It’s a non-fiction spoken word piece, with visual asides and occasional emphasizes (text of something Dunye has just said). Dunye’s monologue focuses on Janine, a high school classmate and basketball teammate and ostensible close friend, who couldn’t be more different. Dunye’s Black and a lesbian. Janine’s a shallow, straight white girl turned shallower straight white woman. Orbiting the stories about Janine is Dunye’s journey through high school.

Dunye relates her memories consecutively, never slowing down to follow up on a point; the short ends with Dunye talking about her last conversation with Janine, which serves not just to close the short (and Dunye’s relationship with her) but to package the short. Dunye’s never evasive–it’s unclear how much she’s prepared the monologue, there are definitely times where she gets off track and will have some wonderful slippage–but she doesn’t fully present her feelings until the end. We’ve been hearing her tell the story, but she’s been talking about herself at a distance.

Dunye’s performance as a monologist makes Janine. Her chosen recollections, those occasional slips away from the “outline.” The editing of the visual inserts is better than the videos themselves, except the emphasizing with text inserts. Those inserts are all around awesome.

Janine’s good. Janine doesn’t sound good, but Janine’s good.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Written, directed, edited, and produced by Cheryl Dunye.


Ident (1990, Richard Starzak)

Ident is an unpleasant five minutes. Intentionally unpleasant. Even the dog is unpleasant, but mostly because the protagonist finds the dog unpleasant. The protagonist is unpleasant himself; the dog seems mostly innocent.

The short is claymation and takes place in a labyrinthine city. It’s not clear it’s a city for a while, it just seems like a labyrinth where the protagonist–a tall rounded cylinder (the design of the people gives them all Picasso eyes, like they’re looking straight from the side of their “heads”)–wandering around. But then it’s clear he’s got a job, acquaintances, a life. Of course, life mostly consists of wearing masks around some people and not around others. And changing the masks.

Maybe the best thing director and animator Starzak does is imply some depth and symbolism the short doesn’t actually have. So the narrative isn’t as important the mood. And the mood is very, very dark. The protagonist some spends his time terrified, in search of a way to cover his face; he spends some his time drunk, in search of a way to change his face;Ident no doubt is short for “identity”–or otherwise disguise himself.

Then at the end he finds his way out into a new, open world. But not really open because it’s still a set.

Starzak makes a disquieting short, no doubt, with some distinctive stop motion animation. There’s just nothing to it. And distinctive claymation isn’t necessarily good claymation. There are a few neat visuals but nothing worth sitting through the rest.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Animated and directed by Richard Starzak; written by Starzak, Arthur Smith, and Phil Nice; director of photography, Dave Alex Riddett; edited by David McCormick; music by Stuart Gordon; produced by Sara Mullock.

Starring Arthur Smith and Phil Nice.


Darkman (1990, Sam Raimi)

The last twenty or so minutes of Darkman are when director Raimi finally lets loose. He’s been building to it, hinting at how wacky the movie’s going to get, but it doesn’t all come together until the end. And the end is when Darkman has the most standard action sequences. There are big set pieces. Before, it’s all very constrained. It all looks great–probably better than those last twenty minutes, when composite shots kind of do in Raimi’s imagination–but it’s limited.

The end is exciting, imaginative madness.

Darkman’s problem throughout is the script, but more because the movie’s too short for the story it needs to tell than anything the five screenwriters do wrong. Until the end of the second act, the movie hops and skips through its present action. There are way too many MacGuffins, way too many contrivances; Raimi’s fidgety and he creates momentum and Darkman needs it for those script lulls. Almost nothing in the middle of the movie actually matters by the end. The movie’s killing time before the set pieces.

More so the beginning of the second act than the end of it, but still… it’s too short.

So Liam Neeson is a scientist who is working on fake skin for burn victims. It disintegrates after ninety-nine minutes. Unless it’s in the dark, which you’d think might have something to do with the title, Darkman, because after Neeson is horribly burned and the doctors cut off his nerve receptors so he can’t feel pain (or any touch sensation) and he becomes super-strong, he needs the fake skin to exact vengeance. But he never uses it for extended periods of time in the dark.

He apparently uses the dark thing for storage purposes, but even the storage thing is just a sight gag.

Neeson’s girlfriend, Frances McDormand, is a lawyer who comes across a document bad guy Larry Drake wants. And he kills Neeson for it. Or so he thinks. Drake and his band of ultra-violent, but darkly comical goons blow up Neeson’s lab. His lab is also his apartment, which seems like a zoning problem, but whatever.

Added to the convolution is Colin Friels as McDormand’s… client? It’s unclear the professional relationship, but after Neeson “dies,” Friels puts the moves on McDormand. Though mostly offscreen apparently. Because McDormand disappears once Neeson starts his vengeance mission. Most of that mission is just killing off Drake’s goons. It seems like there might have been a plan in some cut scenes or a different draft of the script. It’s okay, eventually, because once McDormand comes back, Neeson’s character arc is more about how he’s going crazy from not having any touch sensation. And inventively and graphically killing the bad guys.

The visuals on Neeson losing his self-control are these fantastic montage sequences. There’s some montage to summarize his attempts at making his fake skin work too, but it’s function, not fervent. The madness montages are awesome. Inexplicably the last one, when Neeson needs to power up his adrenalin (he also has uncontrollable adrenalin for super-Darkman strength), is super short. It’s restrained, while everything else in the finale is outrageous. Raimi’s able to get away with a lot of bad composite shots just because the action’s so excessive. Not that montage, however.

But Neeson’s not just making fake skin faces of himself, he’s doing it of the bad guys to fool the other bad guys. So while Neeson’s performance is getting loopier and loopier, it only plays out when he’s opposite McDormand, which really isn’t much. They have three scenes together after she finds out he’s alive. Two of them really short. Otherwise, it’s Drake pretending he’s Neeson pretending his Drake or Nicholas Worth pretending he’s Neeson pretending he’s Nicholas Worth. There’s actually not a lot of the impersonation so Raimi never really figures out how to do them. The movie’s too short.

The movie dawdles through its first half, finally picking up in the second, and then getting really good in the finale. Only it’s too late. It’s not too little–there’s some awesome stuff in the third act–but it’s definitely too late.

Neeson’s good. He needs about ten more minutes to play the character after the “recovery” arc completes. Instead he basically gets a scene; it’s too bad, because his performance gets much more interesting as it goes along. McDormand’s fine. Her arc is similarly underwhelming. She does get a great visual cue for development in the first act, which Raimi sadly drops. The film’s not confident enough with his extravagances. Or more like the studio isn’t confident enough with his extravagances.

Drake’s good. He’s maybe in the movie too much. Friels’s isn’t in it enough, especially not after he gets to let loose. Friels and Neeson, who only have a scene together, both find ways to match the film’s peculiar intensities.

The goons are all fine. Though Rafael H. Robledo is in the film the most and has the least to do. Like, he’s just a goon. He’s not weird like the rest of them. He’s just got a scar and a ponytail.

Bill Pope’s photography, composites aside, is excellent. So is the editing–from Bud S. Smith and David Stiven.

Danny Elfman’s score is fine. It’s basically his Batman score from the year before, but it’s fine. It’s effective without being distinctive.

Darkman is seventy exceptionally competent, enthusiastic minutes before twenty minutes of sublime madness. It’s a shame Raimi couldn’t get the finale’s intensity through the whole thing. There are plenty of real, practical reasons he couldn’t, but he does hint at that intensity to come, so it’s still a damned shame.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Sam Raimi; screenplay by Chuck Pfarrer, Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi, Daniel Goldin, and Joshua Goldin, based on a story by Sam Raimi; director of photography, Bill Pope; edited by Bud S. Smith and David Stiven; music by Danny Elfman; production designer, Randy Ser; produced by Rob Tapert; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Liam Neeson (Peyton Westlake), Frances McDormand (Julie Hastings), Larry Drake (Robert G. Durant), Colin Friels (Louis Strack Jr.), Rafael H. Robledo (Rudy Guzman), Dan Bell (Smiley), Nicholas Worth (Pauly), Dan Hicks (Skip), Ted Raimi (Rick), Nelson Mashita (Yakitito), and Jenny Agutter (doctor).


Puppet Master II (1990, David Allen)

Puppet Master II opens with a mostly successful animate puppets resurrect their long-dead master in scary graveyard sequence. It’s a mix of stop motion and live effects; it just has a nice tone about it.

Then the endless opening titles start up and the film loses track of that tone. The Richard Band music doesn’t help things. In fact, it puts one more on guard against the music. It’s a genial, playful carnival-sounding score. Band’s score might work on a genial, playful movie, but on Puppet Master II, it exacerbates other problems.

Because for all the eventual violence–and the mean-spirited nature of the film (the puppet master, Steve Welles, is sending the puppets out to collect brain matter from fresh victims to make an ancient Egyptian rejuvenating serum)–Puppet Master II feels rather wholesome. It even manages to feel like a wholesome, low budget family picture when one of the puppets is terrorizing an annoying kid.

Director Allen’s composition is boring and predictable. Direction of actors is nonexistent. Shots will occasionally hang an extra second on Leads Elizabeth Maclellan and Collin Bernsen after they’re done delivering dialogue and their blandness becomes an all consuming black hole.

It’s why Nita Talbot is so important in the first act. She’s always got a self-awareness none of the other actors have.

So Maclellan, Greg Webb, Jeff Celentano, and Charlie Spradling are psychic investigators for the U.S. government. They make fun of the supernatural, but seem to believe in it. Talbot is their consultant psychic. Maclellan is entirely passive in the first act, reacting mostly to Webb. He’s her alcohol-abusing brother. He wears tight jeans. Celentano is the cameraman. He wears shorty shorts and shirts open to his navel. Puppet Master II likes some beefcake. Bernsen’s oiled up for his shirtless action scenes in the finale.

Anyway. Webb’s a somewhat mean drunk. It gets in the way of their job, which is fairly uneventful for a while. The puppets don’t bother the twenty-somethings, instead going out to murder the odious redneck farmer couple (Sage Allen and George ‘Buck’ Flower). The film’s got a low budget and Allen and Pabian aren’t good at innovating under constraint. The film’s never campy (though it might’ve helped). Cheesy? Almost cheesy? Soap opera-esque?

Soap opera-esque is a little unfair. Thomas F. Denove’s photography is competent. It’s not moody or scary and completely lacks personality, but it’s competent. It’s not Denove’s fault all Allen wants to do with the camera is set up a medium shot and then pan to other action. Allen’s direction lacks both ambition and artfulness; more importantly the former.

With the puppets otherwise engaged, the film brings in Welles. Resurrected Welles is completely wrapped up in gauze à la Claude Raines in The Invisible Man. He gives this broad performance with a terrible German accent but it works. Because none of the other characters react to him being a living mummy with a strange outfit and a black fedora.

And, thanks to Welles, the second act is almost always amusing. It’s got rough patches. Bernsen shows up and he and Maclellan have their painful flirtation sequences. Or when Spradling seduces Celentano–the second act is actually plagued with plotting issues and Allen not having any idea how to convey passage of time between scenes, but still. Welles is around in his get-up and it’s funny. He’s got this cheap steampunk but still steampunk outfit and he’s macking on Maclellan and she’s acting like it’s totally normal even though it’s clear through the bandages his lip is probably rotted off. Turns out Welles thinks Maclellan is a reincarnation of his dead wife and he’s got a plan to get her back.

The film gets so strange it should be better. I mean, there’s a scene with decomposing steampunk mummy Welles and Bernsen bickering over getting to dance Maclellan. And the film plays it straight-faced. The weird almost wins the day.

Puppet Master II is never well-acted (though Talbot at least doesn’t embarrass herself, everyone else does–except George ‘Buck’ Flower because how could he), it’s never well-directed, it’s certainly never well-written. But it does drum up enough potential energy to be a disappointment when it botches the finale. And the stop motion effects are good. There aren’t near enough of them.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by David Allen; screenplay by David Pabian, based on a story by Charles Band and characters created by David Schmoeller; director of photography, Thomas F. Denove; edited by Bert Glatstein and Peter Teschner; music by Richard Band; production designer, Kathleen Coates; produced by David DeCoteau and John Schouweiler; released by Paramount Home Video.

Starring Elizabeth Maclellan (Carolyn Bramwell), Collin Bernsen (Michael Kenney), Greg Webb (Patrick Bramwell), Nita Talbot (Camille), Jeff Celentano (Lance), Charlie Spradling (Wanda), Sage Allen (Martha), George ‘Buck’ Flower (Matthew), and Steve Welles (Chaneé).


Goodfellas (1990, Martin Scorsese)

Most of Goodfellas is told in summary. After an opening scene introducing leads Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, and Joe Pesci, the action flashes back to Liotta’s childhood. Liotta narrates. Christopher Serrone plays the younger version.

Liotta’s narration guides Serrone around the neighborhood, letting the film introduce all the mobsters Serrone is enamoured with. Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi’s script does mass introductions at least two more times, maybe three. They’re setting up the ground situation, but in tone and mood, not for narrative purposes. Not even when it’d be narratively efficient to use them for useful exposition. Scorsese is revealing and examining these characters he’s introducing, their criminal monikers, their appearance. It’d be a lot if there were any neccesary information, instead it’s just gorgeous Michael Ballhaus photography.

De Niro and Paul Sorvino get introduced in the Serrone flashback. Sorvino’s makeup is all right throughout, but De Niro’s young guy makeup is far better than his old guy makeup at the end. And Pesci gets introduced, but he’s also played by someone else. Liotta’s a little hard to believe playing a twenty-one year-old. But Pesci playing one is Goodfellas biggest suspension of disbelief.

Scorsese establishes Goodfellas’s narrative pattern during the Serrone flashback. Amusing, expertly shot, expertly cut summary, often with great songs playing, followed by more summary, more summary, then a scene. The scene works at an entirely different pace, usually to let Pesci have a big scene. Scorsese’s a good son though; his mom, Catherine, gets a big scene too. She’s playing Pesci’s mom. It’s a long, self-indulgent scene, but damn if Pesci’s acting doesn’t carry it. Neither Liotta or De Niro really act much. Liotta goes from being a dimwit to a scumbag to a cokehead. He’s awesome at the narration. His performance in the narration is so much more distinct than his performance on screen. On screen he’s thoughtless and dull. In the narration, he’s sharp. He does get his one monologue at the end, tying action to narration. It’s mildly successful.

Scorsese should’ve started employing it two minutes in.

And then De Niro. Until the last third of the movie, De Niro feels like something of a special guest star. Even when he gets his own subplot in the story, the film doesn’t cover it. He goes from being the cool older thug to kid Serrone to loitering around bars less active thug. Though De Niro does tend to be in the scenes. When Goodfellas slows down and stops summarizing, it’s usually for a De Niro scene.

Little weird since he’s obviously not the protagonist.

His performance is also a little bland. He’s only ever got to show concern for one person and he doesn’t pull it off. He hadn’t been layering his performance. He’s good, he’s a lot fun sometimes. But he’s the special guest star who gets to wear a lot of old age makeup. The character’s never interesting, only De Niro.

But then it’s the same thing and totally different with Pesci. His character is extreme and unpredictable, while never dangerous. Because danger doesn’t really factor in to Goodfellas. And it shouldn’t. The movie wouldn’t work if Liotta, De Niro, and Pesci didn’t act with impunity. Pesci’s the only one who takes the time to live in that experience. To luxuriate in the impunity. In his performance, not the character as written.

And now Bracco. Or, Goodfellas’s biggest problem. Not Bracco, she’s excellent. But how the film treats Bracco.

About an hour in–still in some kind of first act–Liotta and Bracco meet and get married. There’s a courtship, but it’s not long and their eventual marriage is never in question once it gets introduced. Especially since Bracco starts narrating the movie instead of Liotta.

It’s the mid-sixties now. The film pays beautiful attention to period detail–Kristi Zea’s production design, Richard Bruno’s costumes. Bracco’s ostensibly there to seduce the viewer with the mobsters’ wives lifestyle. Scorsese does it half-hearted, treating it as narrative function. Turns out Bracco’s narration isn’t Goodfellas developing its narrative into new territory, it’s just a device. One Scorsese and Pileggi do away with–Bracco’s done pretty soon after she observes all the other mob wives wear terrible pantsuits (something she’ll be doing before the end of the movie, foreshadowing of foreshadowings). Also Bracco and Liotta don’t really develop any chemistry. She moons over his tough guyness in the narration, but their scenes together are at best thin.

Again, she’s a narrative function. Bracco doesn’t get a good character until the movie’s almost over. And it’s a shame, because she’s excellent once she gets that character. And she has good scenes before it. Scorsese and Pileggi are just way too comfortable using her as a caricature.

After Bracco, the biggest female part is Gina Mastrogiacomo’s. She’s Liotta’s girlfriend–in the early seventies era of the film. She’s even more of a caricature, though not as loud of one.

Somehow Debi Mazer–as Liotta’s eighties girlfriend who used to be Mastrogiacomo’s friend–somehow she ends up with the stronger part. At least in how it plays on screen. Her performance never gets screwed up for narrative purposes. She’s a caricature through and through, never reduced to one.

The film ends with an amazing procedural sequence. When the film gets to the seventies, Scorsese stops showcasing the period. But Zea and Bruno work just as hard on the production design and costumes as when those aspects were getting spotlights. So the procedural sequence is this magnificant slowdown, while still staying active. Liotta and Bracco finally get a long sequence to themselves. Not much in the way of acting material, but they get the sequence.

And it turns out they’re great together, which is the most disappointing thing about Goodfellas. Where Scorsese wastes potential.

Especially since the last third is full of Chuck Low’s annoying wanna-be mobster pestering everyone. Goodfellas has a problem with cariacture.

Scorsese’s direction and the technical successes–Ballhaus’s photography, Thelma Schoonmaker and James Y. Kewi’s editing–keep Goodfellas moving along. There’s a lot of moving to do–the film races through thirty years, only slowing down for De Niro and the finale. And the finale doesn’t add up. Because it’s Liotta’s finale and Scorsese’s been avoiding Liotta since before Liotta was playing the part. Embrace the protagonist’s narration, avoid the protagonist.

It’s a problem. Goodfellas has many. It’s also has some real strong strengths; those add up to a moderate success.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Martin Scorsese; screenplay by Nicholas Pileggi and Scorsese, based on a book by Pileggi; director of photography, Michael Ballhaus; edited by Thelma Schoonmaker and James Y. Kwei; production designer, Kristi Zea; produced by Irwin Winkler; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Ray Liotta (Henry Hill), Lorraine Bracco (Karen Hill), Robert De Niro (James Conway), Joe Pesci (Tommy DeVito), Paul Sorvino (Paul Cicero), Frank Vincent (Billy Batts), Chuck Low (Morris Kessler), Gina Mastrogiacomo (Janice Rossi), Debi Mazar (Sandy), Christopher Serrone (Young Henry), and Catherine Scorsese (Tommy’s Mother).


Hammer, Slammer, & Slade (1990, Mark Schultz)

Hammer, Slammer, & Slade is a television pilot spin-off of a movie (I’m Gonna Git You Sucka). It has the same writer as the movie–Keenan Ivory Wayans–and much of the movie’s cast. The three “leads” all return from the movie–Bernie Casey is Slade, Jim Brown is Slammer, and Isaac Hayes is Hammer. Slade, Slammer, & Hammer does sound terrible, but it’s the more accurate order as far as plot importance goes for the characters.

And then there’s Eriq La Salle. He’s playing the Wayans part from the movie, but a rookie cop for TV instead of the film’s war hero. Frankly, he’s in it too much. La Salle’s got two modes–passive and even more passive. He can’t figure out the part and director Schultz is no help. Hammer, Slammer, & Slade is often hilarious. But it’s never because of Schultz. His direction is an unmitigated disaster.

Harsh adjective, but there’s no reason this pilot shouldn’t have been magic. Except it’s not magic. And it’s not even Schultz’s fault; he’s just not the right guy to do this thing. Because this thing is a spoof of an eighties cop procedural, seventies blaxploitation pictures, with three–ahem, “older”– genre superstar leads, and an often deft script from Wayans. But Wayans’s jokes aren’t paced right for the forty-seven minute pilot–right, Hammer, Slammer, & Slade is a pilot for an hour-long action comedy show. Back when it was shopped around in 1990–spoiler–it didn’t sell. Because it wasn’t time yet.

It also doesn’t help the film stock–that standard eighties drama film stock–used on the pilot doesn’t fit the content at all. Especially not with Schultz’s bad composition of set pieces. He’s never good, but he gets noticeably worse on the set pieces. Because he can’t direct the comedy.

The first act is La Salle’s cop mentor (also blaxploitation star Ron O’Neal) getting framed and La Salle going to Casey for help. It’s a great time for the character focus to pass off because La Salle’s too tedious. The show’s called Hammer, Slammer, & Slade, not the The Guy From the Movie Didn’t Come Back. It’s about Casey, Brown, and Hayes.

The getting the band back together takes way too long. It eventually pays off. But it takes too long.

Another timing issue is how long the talking scenes go on. Sure, all the actors get some cool posturing, but then it just keeps going. So either Wayans wrote terrible scene transitions or someone told the actors to just ad lib and hope for a quotable gem. During the second act, it gets annoying. The pilot has these illustrated transitions for commercial breaks–which are awesome–but when a scene is bad, you just sit and hope for it to go to illustration instead of it not stopping. It’s the same series of boring shots from Schultz and bad cuts from Stan Allen.

The editing is real bad, partially because Schultz clearly can’t get consistent deliveries from the actors. Just in conversation.

So it’s kind of rough going for a while. The soft misogyny jokes (from the good guys) don’t help–and it’s one of La Salle’s few scenes after the first act, so it makes him even more grating. And the way Wayans frames Hayes initially as a punchline for being hen-pecked (a fantastic Ja’net DuBois in a poorly written part) is tiresome.

There’s been at least one good laugh, but some failed ones too.

Then the team comes together in action scenes and there’s actual energy. Casey, Brown, and Hayes are all willing to do more work than the script or direction requires. They’ve been getting nerf balls or worse–Schultz has no idea how to direct Brown or Brown’s lines–but then the requirements of the medium take over and the pilot has to throw fastballs or whatever. And the actors are ready.

Even La Salle. He breaks character for a couple lines when he actually seems like he’s acting. Sure, he seems like he’s an angry Peter Benton but it’s something.

Poor Steve James does the most work in the unfortunately written part of Black man obsessed with karate. He never gets good material, though the script does at least recognize he’s the only one in shape. The out of shape, aging jokes are good. Not even Schultz can mess up the direction enough in those scenes. The actors seem cautious about it at first, then commit as things go on.

Hammer, Slammer, & Slade ought to be awesome. It’s not. It still should’ve been a series. With a lower budget–being shot on video and looking like a sitcom would’ve helped–and anyone else directing.

Still, as is, the cool factor outweighs the significant problems.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Mark Schultz; written by Keenen Ivory Wayans; director of photography, Charles Mills; edited by Stan Allen; music by Stanley Clarke; production designer, Maxine Shepard; produced by Tony Bishop; aired by the American Broadcasting Company.

Starring Bernie Casey (John Slade), Eriq La Salle (Jack Spade), Jim Brown (Slammer), Isaac Hayes (Hammer), Steve James (Kung Fu Joe), Ron Dean (Sgt. Hill), Mark Rolston (Little Mr. Big), Martin Lawrence (Willie), Bentley Kyle Evans (Lenny), Ja’net DuBois (Joanne Wilson), Almayvonne (Coreatha), and Ron O’Neal (Ray Samuels).


Young Guns II (1990, Geoff Murphy)

In many ways, Young Guns II is an improvement over the first. Geoff Murphy knows how to direct a Western, at least until he has to do a showdown scene and then he’s in trouble, but if it’s general Western action, he can do it. And he’s got the same cinematographer as the first movie, Dean Semler, who this entry has a far better color palette to work with. It’s lush. Young Guns II is a lush film.

It’s a bad film too. But lush.

The big problem is how the film treats Emilio Estevez’s Billy the Kid. His psychotic behavior isn’t even a plot point. He’s just rambunctious and a little shit. Emilio Estevez’s Billy the Kid is Dennis the Menace. He’s a twerp. Estevez, screenwriter John Fusco and director Murphy are all on the same page with the character. He’s a murderous twerp, but he’s just a twerp. Any sense of reality is out the window straight off in Young Guns II. The cost of the lushness.

Estevez is bad and not in an interesting way. Kiefer Sutherland and Lou Diamond Phillips look trapped. Neither of them get a subplot. They get pretend subplots, but not actual ones. New cast member Christian Slater is awful. Alan Ruck isn’t bad. William Petersen’s a lame Pat Garrett.

There are a lot of great character actors and just plain familiar character actors filling out the film’s supporting cast and none of them are actually good. I mean, seeing Viggo Mortensen as an uncool government employee is something, but it’s not like he’s good. Tracey Walter’s not even good in Young Guns II. Murphy can’t direct actors. Okay, maybe he wasn’t in on the changes to how to portray Estevez.

Jenny Wright is actually pretty good in a tiny part.

Excellent production design from Gene Rudolf–another of the improvements over the first film–and a really weird, bad score from Alan Silvestri. He hits a lot of the regular Silvestri cues, occasionally to success, but it’s omnipresent and too loud. He also has a theme similar to the opening of Time After Time and you just sit there and wish Cyndi Lauper would start singing so there’d be something good.

It’s okay until the third act? I mean, it’s fine until the third act. I don’t know why I’m trying to be nice. Oh, because I’m listening to Time After Time and I have goodness, which Young Guns II doesn’t really offer.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Geoff Murphy; written by John Fusco; director of photography, Dean Semler; edited by Bruce Green; music by Alan Silvestri; production designer, Gene Rudolf; produced by Irby Smith and Paul Schiff; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Emilio Estevez (Billy), Kiefer Sutherland (Doc), Lou Diamond Phillips (Chavez), Christian Slater (Arkansas Dave), William Petersen (Pat Garrett), Alan Ruck (Hendry William French), R.D. Call (D.A. Rynerson), James Coburn (John Simpson Chisum), Balthazar Getty (Tom O’Folliard), Jack Kehoe (Ashmun Upson), Robert Knepper (Deputy Carlyle), Viggo Mortensen (John W. Poe), Tracey Walter (Beever Smith), Bradley Whitford (Charles Phalen), Scott Wilson (Governor Lewis Wallace) and Jenny Wright (Jane Greathouse).


Dances with Wolves (1990, Kevin Costner)

From the start, director Costner embrues Dances with Wolves with melancholic tragedy. Even as Costner’s protagonist–a Union soldier reassigned to the frontier–travels west, seeing startling natural beauty, which Costner and cinematographer Dean Semler visualize carefully, enthusiastically, perfectly, there’s dread. Most of it comes from John Barry’s lush and haunting score, but Costner does make sure to juxtapose his character’s idyllic, solitary experience with the realities around him. The realities involve the residents of the frontier–the Native Americans–and the threat Costner represents.

Costner’s protagonist is one of the singular elements of Dances with Wolves. He’s a goof, but Costner–both as director and actor–never invites a laugh. He still gets them occasionally and paces to allow them, he just doesn’t invite them. The film runs three hours, with most of the first hour spent establishing Costner and the setting. The Sioux living nearby, who he eventually joins, are either figures on the horizon or unintelligible visitors. Of course, the Sioux–Graham Greene and Rodney A. Grant are the primary supporting cast–do have their own scenes, but they’re delayed. It isn’t until Costner, the actor, meets them in the film does Costner, the director, let Greene and Grant start to develop. Almost the entire first hour of Dances with Wolves is Costner delaying the inciting incident. There’s a lot of ground situation to establish and Costner takes his time.

The tone Costner sets in that first hour, alternating between graphic war violence and the tranquil, infinite prairie, doesn’t carry for the rest of the film. Dances with Wolves becomes a very mature romance once the Sioux befriend Costner and he meets Mary McDonnell’s “captive.” McDonnell’s got her own arc, which is awesome, with her relearning her English and romancing a fellow white person, but she’s never reconnecting with her “lost” identity. Costner and writer Thomas Blake (adapting his novel) are very deliberate in how they present not just the Sioux, but how they present Costner and McDonnell to the Sioux and vice versa. That introductory tone, occasionally violent but still tranquil, makes the eventual character relationships all the better. Costner can spend twenty minutes having Costner and Greene bond, Costner and McDonnell appreciate each other’s company–and Costner and Grant’s relationship is maybe the film’s most emotionally devastating–and then get into the bigger questions.

The weight of Wolves comes from these characters forced into these new, impossible situations with one another, but also the impending doom of settlement. Costner narrates the film–through an in-film journal device–and lays a lot of that groundwork. But the appreciation for the natural beauty also gets emphasized in that narration. The narration also directly affects how Costner’s character’s sweet goofiness comes across in scene. It’s a beautifully constructed narrative.

The film’s technically outstanding. Semler’s photography, presumably mostly in natural light, is amazing. The Barry score is awesome. Great editing from William Hoy, Chip Masamitsu, Steve Potter and Neil Travis.

Superb acting–Greene, McDonnell, Grant, Costner, Tantoo Cardinal. Very nice “cameos” from Robert Pastorelli, Charles Rocket, Maury Chaykin, Wes Studi. McDonnell’s performance could power its own film.

Dances with Wolves is emotionally draining enough Costner could probably get away with a cute moment in the third act just to give some relief. But there isn’t any relief; Wolves has to be honest. Technicolor skies, endless Panavision prairies, the thunder of a buffalo herd–all too cinematic, all too real. Blake’s script helps a lot with the detail, ditto Jeffrey Beecroft’s production design.

Dances with Wolves is a stunning achievement from Costner and his cast and his crew.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Kevin Costner; screenplay by Michael Blake, based upon his novel; director of photography, Dean Semler; edited by William Hoy, Chip Masamitsu, Steve Potter and Neil Travis; music by John Barry; production designer, Jeffrey Beecroft; produced by Costner and Jim Wilson; released by Orion Pictures.

Starring Kevin Costner (Lieutenant Dunbar), Mary McDonnell (Stands With A Fist), Graham Greene (Kicking Bird), Rodney A. Grant (Wind In His Hair), Floyd ‘Red Crow’ Westerman (Ten Bears), Tantoo Cardinal (Black Shawl), Robert Pastorelli (Timmons), Charles Rocket (Lieutenant Elgin), Maury Chaykin (Major Fambrough) and Wes Studi (Toughest Pawnee).


Scroll to Top