1993

The Quiet Room (1993, Steven Soderbergh)

The Quiet Room really, really, really, relies on its twist. The ending is really predictable too; like, director Soderbergh and writer Howard A. Rodman do way too well on the foreshadowing. Because Room is a slightly exaggerated noir–part of the “Fallen Angels” TV anthology–nothing really needs to be foreshadowed. There’s a twist Soderbergh and Rodman set up in the first third, the end just delivers on it in an extreme way. Two twists for the price (or time) of one.

By the last third, when it’s just the countdown to the reveal, both lead performances softly crater. Soderbergh makes sure the lovely Emmanuel Lubezki and luscious Armin Ganz production design slow the descent. But the descent is inevitable because it’s just a noir TV anthology episode. With a source short story. And a somewhat salacious twist, at least as far as noir goes; if Quiet Room were going for homage, it might work better. Instead, it tries to be something different.

Joe Mantegna and Bonnie Bedelia are dirty cops. They’re having a love affair, which no one knows about; besides them, the only significant character is Mantegna’s teenage daughter, Vinessa Shaw (in the most important performance and the consistently worst). Mantegna is a single dad, out all hours because he and Bedelia have a shakedown racket going. Bedelia collars prostitutes and then beats information out of them about their johns so Mantegna can go and shake down the johns. Peter Gallagher has what seems like a great cameo as one of them, but then J.E. Freeman is one of the other ones and he’s freaking amazing in a much smaller role. Freeman walks away with the whole thing. Especially given how it finishes up.

Mantegna is mostly all right. He really whiffs when he needs to make it work. Bedelia’s better. Neither of them get good roles though. It’s all about Freeman though, performance-wise.

Soderbergh’s direction is fine. He’s got a handful of nice shots and does well with the actors. Sometimes well with the actors. There’s only so much to do with the script, especially as it starts barreling towards the inevitable conclusion. Soderbergh doesn’t do anything to slow its descent, much less stop it.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Soderbergh; teleplay by Howard A. Rodman, based on a short story by Frank E. Smith; “Fallen Angels” created by William Horberg; director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki; edited by Stan Salfas; music by Peter Bernstein; production designer, Armin Ganz; produced by Horberg, Lindsay Doran and Steve Golin; released by Showtime Networks.

Starring Joe Mantegna (Carl Streeter), Bonnie Bedelia (Sally Creighton), Vinessa Shaw (Jeannie Streeter), Patrick Breen (Doc), J.E. Freeman (Johnny Cabe), and Peter Gallagher (Dr. Yorgrau).


Black Rider (1993, Pepe Danquart)

Black Rider is almost desperate in its lack of great. There’s a single great moment–sort of, it’s a funny twist but entirely problematic–amid a bunch of other not great moments. And the resolution to the twist is pat and a joke… only one at the expense of writer and director Danquart and the short itself.

The film starts with a bustling Berlin train station. Black Rider runs twelve minutes. The bustling train station montage takes about three. The action then cuts to Stefan Merki trying to get his motorcycle started. He can’t, so he has to get on the streetcar. Good thing he’s at a streetcar stop where Danquart introduces some of the supporting “cast.” Teenagers, business people. Everyone’s white except two Turkish teenage boys. They’re busy making eyes at two teenage girls. And then one African guy (Paul Outlaw)–he’s waiting for the tram with his friend, a white German guy with dreadlocks… but I mean, it’s 1993 so maybe the dreadlocks on the white guy aren’t a bad sign.

(Spoiler, they are, but for Danquart’s… philosophy seems a stretch but his take).

Everyone boards, Outlaw sits down next to a rude old white lady (Senta Moira). She proceeds to complain about rude immigrants, getting more and more overtly racist as she goes along. Danquart cuts from her rants to the other passengers, who mostly sit expressionless. Some appear to react, just not vocally. They’re not going to get involved (it’s never clear if they’re actually hearing her or the audio is looped in; Black Rider is so slickly produced it comes off artificial).

Eventually there’s a short tram montage before the ticket taker arrives and then there’s the big twist. It’s a funny twist because it’s a sight gag. Danquart’s fallout from it is reassuring and patronizing–racism can’t succeed because good people, who are silently allowing social injustice, will also silently allow social justice. Black Rider isn’t naive so much as absurd. It’s not really condescending because Danquart is a philosophical punchline.

Good acting from Outlaw, who’s mostly expression, and Moira, who’s appropriately hideous. Danquart’s way too eager to write her off as a “crazy old racist lady,” because then there’s zero responsibility in Black Rider.

It’s professionally produced–though Michel Seigner’s jazz score is a little much and Ciro Cappellari’s photography deserves better direction–and it’s got a good laugh, but it’s passively gross.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Pepe Danquart; director of photography, Ciro Cappellari; edited by Mona Bräuer; music by Michel Seigner; produced by Albert Kitzler.

Starring Senta Moira (Old Woman), Paul Outlaw (Black Man), and Stefan Merki (Biker).


An Untitled Portrait (1993, Cheryl Dunye)

When it starts, An Untitled Portrait is about Dunye’s brother. But it’s also going to be Dunye’s family in general. But it’s also going to be about Dunye herself. The short runs three minutes, Dunye’s narration set to home movies, old film clips, but also some stylized original footage of shoes.

Dunye’s recollection starts with her brother’s shoe size (but really her family’s shoe sizes). With memories of his shoes as the frame, Dunye gets to her father, her mother, herself, while still keeping her brother (and her relationship with him) at the forefront of Portrait.

It’s short–three minutes is very short, with only enough time for a couple distinct anecdotes–with the visuals shifting in style as the film progresses. The visuals of shoes, active and still, are where Dunye does the most stylizing. She doesn’t shy away from the videotape medium, even doing the squiggly rewind at one point. She also finds a way to edit videotape sublimely, with the action pausing and then restarting, but with a calm flow. Videotape editing is often herky-jerky (it’s just a “feature” of the medium). Not here.

The film clips (formal parties with Black Americans) change the scale and context of some of Dunye’s rememberences. Her brother goes from being an unseen “Star Trek” nerd to a classic film action hero (there’s the possible additional layer of Black men not getting to be classic film action heroes very often, and certainly not in mainstream Hollywood productions).

At the end, Untitled Portrait gets positively playful. Joyous. After zooming in so close on her specific subjects, Dunye pulls back and–thanks to a jarring shift in music set to a familiar visual motif (shoes)–captures (or creates) an entirely different emotionality for the finish.

An Untitled Portrait is thoughtful and well-executed throughout and more than worth it regardless (it’s three minutes and Dunye’s masterful with the medium), but its entirely unexpected capstone makes it a delight.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Cheryl Dunye.


The Potluck and the Passion (1993, Cheryl Dunye)

The first sequence of The Potluck and the Passion, with director Dunye (also acting) sitting down and talking with girlfriend Gail Lloyd about the dinner party they’re about to throw. They go over the guest list as the opening titles run, who’s invited, why they’re invited, why Dunye and Lloyd are throwing the party (it’s their one year anniversary but Lloyd isn’t really comfortable with saying they’re dating).

Dunye and Lloyd are basically playing the same characters from Dunye’s previous short, She Don’t Fade, but it turns out there’s zero continuity between the two films. It also doesn’t matter because after Dunye and Lloyd have the first post-titles scene–Dunye’s trying to give some guests directions, Lloyd’s getting the apartment ready with help from friend Robert Reid-Pharr.

It’s Reid-Pharr who gets the film’s first aside, where–in now familiar Dunye fashion–sits and talks to the camera. He’s talking about his character, not talking as his character. His monologue has a lot of personality; better than his performance, but he’s still effortlessly likable sidekicking for Lloyd.

Potluck then cuts to the guests who need the directions–Nikki Harmon and Myra Paci–whose delayed, overly complicated journey to the party is the film’s only subplot. And Harmon and Paci never get monologue moments, their story is solely dramatic. Though comedic.

Once the party starts, Dunye and Lloyd become background to the main plot–guest Shelita Birchett decides she maybe likes other guest Pat Branch (who also co-wrote) far more than she likes her awful girlfriend, Nora Breen. Birchett and Breen get frequent monologues, mostly in character, but starting with the actors talking about the parts. The very clear subtext is Breen is dating Tracy because she’s a Black woman (and Breen is a condescending, controlling, culturally appropriating white woman). Branch isn’t just a Black woman, she’s an older woman with very different experiences than Birchett, who–in addition to dating a white woman–has always tried to live in a white world.

The chemistry between Branch and Birchett is electric–their performances are excellent–and having Breen directly address the viewer lets the character be terrible, but always realized. She’s never thin, because of how the monologues support the dramatics.

Dunye’s shooting on video, so the lighting is always off. She’s got some great composition, which embraces the video medium and is ambitious with it–there’s just no way to light it. It’s not Dunye’s fault, it’s the medium. It’s video.

Dunye’s direction of the actors in the dramatic scenes is fantastic, as is her editing of their monologue delivery scenes. And she and Branch’s writing is excellent.

Potluck and the Passion is occasionally cringe-inducing, often very funny, and always inventive. Dunye’s direction and Branch and Birchett’s performances are superior.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Cheryl Dunye; written by Pat Branch and Dunye; edited by Antoine Bell; released by Third World Newsreel Film Collective.

Starring Shelita Birchett (Tracy), Nora Breen (Megan), Pat Branch (Evelyn), Cheryl Dunye (Linda), Nikki Harmon (Lisa), Myra Paci (Kendra), and Robert Reid-Pharr (Robert)


Puppet Master 4 (1993, Jeff Burr)

Puppet Master 4 is in a race with itself. Can it deliver on the animate puppet action before the cast becomes too intolerable? Can it deliver before the stupid scenes get to be too much? No, as it turns out, it can’t. Puppet Master 4 doesn’t succeed. Not even a Frankenstein making-the-monster homage with the puppets can make up for the film’s problems.

It’s a high concept sequel about these research scientists doing bleeding edge work into artifical intelligence. They’re really close to computers being able to figure out how to get computers to play with blocks. But first, square scientists Stacie Randall and Felton Perry need to get renegade, rebel scientist Gordon Currie to do his work. Currie’s work with LaserTag-equipped robots has the power to change the world. And not everyone is happy with it. Like this painfully animatronic demon who sends little lizard monsters out to hunt down the scientists. The film opens strong with the promise of Pupper Master puppets versus these little… well, frankly, they’re little tailless Compys, basically. Full Moon predating Spielberg by a few years.

The painfully animatronic demon has some flunkies and they’re in a secret, skull-filled temple cave thing. Puppet Master 4 gets away with it for a while because it’s Full Moon, it’s Puppet Master4. As long as the puppets come through, it’ll all be fine.

Except when the annoying humans find the puppets, the story doesn’t stay with the puppets, it goes back to the annoying humans. See, in addition to being the smartest man alive, Currie is also the caretaker of the hotel where the first two Puppet Master movies took place. He’s the only one there. He calls up possible-girlfriend-but-the-script-never-clarifies Chandra West for a booty call. She comes over, but brings with her Currie’s childhood nemesis, now yuppie scientist Ash Adams, and psychic Teresa Hill. Apparently West and Hill are friends. It’s never actually clear if West knows Adams knows Currie. West gets absolutely nothing to do in Puppet Master 4.

It also means she gives the best performance, because it’s not like the movie gives anyone anything good to do. Five screenwriters on this film… it’s a bland script too. For the first half, the blandness is what saves it. When the plot gets busy–like Currie outfitting the puppets with miniature LaserTag guns so they can play together while listening to heavy metal and West can just sit and watch because girl–Puppet Master 4 gets worse. Adams is lousy as a sniveling opportunist, but he’s a lot worse when he’s got to do a oujia board or get attacked by the little lizard creatures. Same goes for Hill.

After staying reasonably steady in the tolerable bad range, the movie makes some big drops all at once. That halfway point is rough.

When Puppet Master Guy Rolfe–superimposed over a puppet’s head in some of the film’s less successful effects work–returns, it’s not successful but it does help get the movie out of its funk. Currie too gets much worse with more to do.

None of the actors get any help from director Burr, who’s best at the puppet stuff. Not the puppets fighting stuff, because Burr’s terrible at all fight scenes and most action scenes, but the puppets being animate on their own. Those sequences work. Puppet Master 4, when so inclined, can deliver its puppets. It just can’t deliver them enough.

Budgetary limits also show in the computers. Having Currie doofus around a computer, which is clearing not turned on, unable to pretend he’s doing any computer things… it doesn’t just make him unbelievable as a computer scientist, it makes him unlikable. Any investment in Currie in the movie is a waste. He just gets more and more annoying. Five screenwriters and they characterize him as an eleven year-old boy. The movie would’ve been far more successful if it had been about an eleven year-old boy genius.

That actor might have known how to use a computer.

So, Puppet Master 4. Good puppets, not enough of them. Bad acting, way too much of it. Burr’s direction is also a big problem.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Jeff Burr; screenplay by Todd Henschell, Steven E. Carr, Jo Duffy, Douglas Aarniokoski, and Keith Payson, based on characters created by David Schmoeller; director of photography, Adolfo Bartoli; edited by Mark S. Manos and Margeret-Anne Smith; music by Richard Band; production designer, Milo; produced by Charles Band; released by Paramount Home Video.

Starring Gordon Currie (Rick Myers), Chandra West (Susie), Ash Adams (Cameron), Teresa Hill (Lauren), Stacie Randall (Dr. Leslie Piper), Felton Perry (Dr. Carl Baker), Michael Shamus Wiles (Stanley), and Guy Rolfe (Toulon).


Hard Target (1993, John Woo), the unrated version

There’s nothing spectacularly wrong with Hard Target. It’s a competently executed early nineties action movie. There’s a lot of good stunt work and some amazing pyrotechnics. Lance Henriksen is great as the villain. Wilford Brimley is in it as a Cajun assault archer. Almost everything about it is absurd, but not really out of the ordinary for the genre. It even tries for serious with a little bit of social consciousness–Henriksen is playing the most dangerous game with homeless veterans.

Director Woo is fantastic at making the perfunctory plot points seem sincere. He’ll slow down the close-up, leaving the viewer to inspect the actor’s reaction to something. Usually it’s Butler seeing lead Jean-Claude Van Damme do some amazing feat. One time he’s just standing there and it’s Butler in awe of the standing Van Damme. That scene is an example of something else wrong–but not spectacularly so–with Hard Target. No one’s willing to have any fun. Not even Brimley, when he finally shows up.

There’s no humor in Chuck Pfarrer’s script–at least no successful humor–but Van Damme’s character is particularly thin. He’s a man of mystery. So Woo’s impulse is to go for charming man of mystery and Van Damme botches it. Van Damme can’t even wink. He’ll make these single rapid eye movements towards a character and everyone pretends it’s a wink. He’s without charm.

But Van Damme’s not unbearable. His pseudo-Cajun accent needs work and he looks like a romance cover hero, not a down-on-his-luck street fighting merchant seaman. His stringy mullet is funny, especially once all the stunts start up and you have to wonder if Van Damme had to have the mullet because his mullet-wearing stuntmen aren’t willing to cut theirs off. And Woo’s direction of a couple Van Damme fight scenes is excellent. The fist fight isn’t Woo’s interest though; even when there are fisticuffs in post-first act fight scenes, Woo rushes to get guns in those hands. Van Damme’s not great at the gunfights, but then he starts doing somersaults through the air and seems happy again. Lots of flips in Hard Target. None of them convincing and they get old fast.

Luckily, they’re in the finale so it doesn’t matter. It’s all almost over.

There are some good performances. Henriksen, most of Arnold Vosloo (as Henriksen’s sidekick), Willie C. Carpenter; Kasi Lemmons is okay as the one cop. There’s a strike going on, which seems like it might be a subplot but isn’t. Hard Target doesn’t do subplots.

Leading lady Yancy Butler is pretty slight. Woo wants a lot of emoting. Butler emotes a little less than Van Damme, who’s got the emotional range of a rock pile. Thanks to Bob Murawski’s editing, occasionally Woo can imply something from Butler for a moment or two. It’s not like Chuck Pfarrer’s script gives her any depth either. Thank goodness for Woo.

Nice photography from Russell Carpenter. Nice editing from Murawski. Awful music from Graeme Revell.

Despite Woo’s direction, Henriksen’s villainy, the New Orleans locations, and the strong technical competence, Hard Target doesn’t click. The major action set pieces of the second half disappoint. Because the movie needs a sense of humor. Not Brimley drying gnawing at the scenery.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by John Woo; written by Chuck Pfarrer; director of photography, Russell Carpenter; edited by Bob Murawski; music by Graeme Revell; production designer, Phil Dagort; produced by Sean Daniel and James Jacks; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Jean-Claude Van Damme (Chance Boudreaux), Lance Henriksen (Fouchon), Yancy Butler (Nat), Arnold Vosloo (Van Cleef), Kasi Lemmons (Mitchell), Willie C. Carpenter (Elijah), and Wilford Brimley (Uncle Douvee).


Indian Summer (1993, Mike Binder)

Indian Summer is genial and life-affirming. Writer-director Binder imbues it with an optimism and positivity–as long as you have the right support system, anything is possible. Given the film’s about a bunch of thirtysomethings who return to their childhood summer camp to find themselves, it’s a little weird Binder gives the best character arc to Kimberly Williams-Paisley. She’s the twenty-one year-old fiancée to the most obnoxious thirtysomethings (Matt Craven). Her arc, forecasted nowhere, propels the film into its third act, full of possibility. Shame Binder doesn’t do much with the momentum.

Diane Lane and Julie Warner get the biggest story arcs. Lane’s a recent widow–her husband was also a camper, because summer camp apparently decided everyone white’s life in the early seventies–and she needs to mourn. She’s got good friend Elizabeth Perkins there to support her, which she really needs when her husband’s childhood best friend returns a bit of a hunk (Bill Paxton). Meanwhile, Warner is married to Vincent Spano (who used to get busy with Perkins when they were in camp) and the marriage is rocky. Maybe because Spano wants to quit his business with cousin Kevin Pollak (also a camper), but can’t figure out how to tell him. So apparently Spano takes it out on Warner. Binder’s script isn’t great at scenes of angst and it’s downright terrified of getting too close to its characters.

They might be unlikable then and it’s such a pretty, pleasant cast (everyone has great, brown hair), who would want them to be unlikable? Except maybe Craven, who’s cut off from everyone else, hence having to bring Williams-Paisley along. Paxton’s arc is more with camp owner Alan Arkin, who has invited his favorite campers from over the years back for a week. Oddly, they’re all from the same year. Coincidences abound in Indian Summer.

Arkin’s really solid when he’s lead. Binder never really gets into how the campers coexist with him–they’re back to hang out with each other, leaving Arkin to mostly pal around with handyman Sam Raimi (who’s in this mystifyingly great slapstick part)–and it’s a missed opportunity. Especially since, unless you’ve got someone to kiss, Binder leaves you behind. Perkins and Pollak end up with almost nothing to do by the end, Perkins with even less. But Indian Summer’s got to be genial and life-affirming, it’s got to live up to the beautiful Newton Thomas Sigel photography, which turns the summer camp–in the late summer sun–into a golden Great Lakes paradise.

Still, it’s not like Indian Summer is always lazy. Binder does go somewhere with the Paxton and Arkin thing, he does go somewhere with Williams-Paisley. He’s just not willing to hinge the whole thing on being too thoughtful. There needs to be cheap payoff, albeit beautifully lighted cheap payoff. Until that payoff, however, Binder’s really just letting the actors develop their characters. The second act is pretty loose–there are set pieces, usually involving pot or pranks, but Binder’s in no rush. The present action changes pace fluidly in the tranquil setting, with its amiable cast and their not too serious, but sort of, grown-up problems.

So the performances matter a lot. Arkin’s always good, but he doesn’t get anywhere near enough to do. Binder’s just as set in an age group–the thirtysomethings–as if he were making a movie about teenagers at camp and barely had the counselors in it. Pollak and Perkins are great. They get to be great, because Binder doesn’t need them for anything structural. Lane and Paxton are fine. Lane should have more to do than Paxton but doesn’t. Warner’s good. She overshadows Spano, who tries to imply depth instead of convey it. Craven’s the weakest performance and he’s still perfectly solid. He provides a great springboard for Williams-Paisley to take off from.

And Raimi’s awesome.

Nice editing from Adam Weiss, okay if a little much music from Miles Goodman. Binder’s direction is good–he showcases that beautifully lighted scenery and moves his actors around in it well. Indian Summer is never trite, which is an accomplishment on its own, but Binder is way too safe with it. He denies Lane and Paxton a better story in particular. He writes caricatures then has his actors create people, so it’s a particular kind of disappointing.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Mike Binder; director of photography, Newton Thomas Sigel; edited by Adam Weiss; music by Miles Goodman; production designer, Craig Stearns; produced by Jim Kouf, Lynn Kouf, Robert F. Newmyer, and Jeffrey Silver; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Alan Arkin (Unca Lou Handler), Diane Lane (Beth Warden), Bill Paxton (Jack Belston), Julie Warner (Kelly Berman), Vincent Spano (Matthew Berman), Elizabeth Perkins (Jennifer Morton), Kevin Pollak (Brad Berman), Kimberly Williams-Paisley (Gwen Daugherty), Matt Craven (Jamie Ross), and Sam Raimi (Stick Coder).

This post is part of the Summer Movie Blogathon hosted by Chris of Blog of the Darned.


Short Cuts (1993, Robert Altman)

Short Cuts is about a weekend in Los Angeles. It’s a Robert Altman ensemble piece with twenty-two principle characters (though at least six of them are questionable–it really has three stories and then some tangents). It’s “based on the ‘writings’ of Raymond Carver” (emphasis mine), but I’m pretty sure it’s just an adaptation of his seminal work, If You Don’t Take Your Husband As is, He’ll Just Have to Rape and Murder a Young Woman and It Will Be Your Fault. Oh, wait, Altman actually strips the humanity out of Carver and leaves these dry husks and mixes them all up to make nine separate works fit into one three hour movie.

The first and third hours of Short Cuts have this Altman zooming in and cutting to a related image thing going. The first hour it’s mostly for fun–Altman likes to cynically mock the mundanity of his characters. Sisters Madeleine Stowe and Julianne Moore are both eating the same peanut butter in between cuts, for example. It’s cute, though when they have a scene together later and apparently aren’t even close enough to have talked about their sex lives since Stowe got married. Altman and co-screenwriter Frank Barhydt do this thing where about half the dialogue is pure exposition. Frankly, as an adaptation of Carver–and I know I jumped topics but I want to be done talking about the writing and the adapting and just deal with the result. So I’ll get it out of my system. Short Cuts feels like Robert Altman discovered Raymond Carver in The New Yorker; you don’t get to be performatively trite with Raymond Carver.

Now then. The three stories.

Lily Tomlin hits little kid, little kid goes to the hospital. Little kid’s parents are Andie MacDowell and Bruce Davison. Little kid is asleep for most of the Short Cuts weekend. Like, unconscious, hospitalized. Cue drama for MacDowell and Davison. Jack Lemmon shows up as Davison’s dad. Tom Waits is Tomlin’s husband. Oh, and Tomlin gets away with it. Throw in Lyle Lovett pointlessly shit-calling MacDowell over the little kid’s missed birthday cake order.

MacDowell has absolutely nothing to do until the end of the movie when she gets her big moment and it’s bad. She’s not good, but you feel kind of bad for her because Altman gives her absolutely nothing to do. She’s supposed to smile and occasionally be sad and confused. She might have Short Cuts’s worst part. Terrified, grieving mother is apparently less interesting than Davison and Lemmon’s hospital reunion.

Davison is kind of weak until Lemmon shows up and when Lemmon’s trying to gaslight Davison about the past–performative gas lighting, in the way only Lemmon can do when he’s playing skeevy. Altman knows how to use some of these actors, just not enough of them. Anyway. Davison has no dialogue but he listens to the whole thing and you can just see the thoughts. It’s amazing. And makes up for the story monologue itself being poorly written. Lemmon’s performance has its ups and downs, but the downs are when Altman pushes too hard. Lemmon and MacDowell is going to fall apart because of their weak parts, but Lemmon on his own for thirty seconds, talking to background players? It’s awesome. MacDowell doesn’t actually get as much to do in the film as Lemmon and he’s only in it for the second hour. He appears out of nowhere and literally walks off into the sunset when he leaves.

As for Tomlin and Waits… she’s a waitress, he’s a drunken limo driver. They’re married. After she hits the kid apparently they have a fight worse than most of their fights and he leaves. They’re sort of a subplot of Story One. Then it turns out Tomlin’s daughter–who Waits only assaulted once, we’re reassured–is Lili Taylor, who’s in the sub-story. Because the thing about Short Cuts and its size is it’s too big. It’s padded. It’d be a lot better if it were an hour shorter.

Story Two. Tim Robbins is a cop with a wife, Stowe, and three kids. He’s having an affair and is generally a shit. Robbins is having the affair with Frances McDormand, who’s got a son with ex-husband Peter Gallagher; Gallagher is kind of stalking McDormand because she’s sexually active post-divorce. He’s not concerned about the kid, which is sort of refreshingly cynical, just kind of terrorizing McDormand for having sex. Stowe doesn’t get anything to do in her part of the story except know about Robbins’s affair and tell sister Moore about it.

Robbins is bad. He’s this nice guy pretending to be mean. I mean, he’s just supposed to be sort of harmless. Short Cuts is so trite. It’s so trite. It pretends to be mean but it’s so shallow. In the last third, those Altman zoom ins and cuts aren’t for cynical humor, they’re to cut away from moments of emotional tragedy. Altman’s narrative distance in this thing is a joke. He exploits the characters, he exploits the actors, he exploits the audience.

Stowe’s great. McDormand’s great. Gallagher’s good but maybe a scene away from greatness. He and McDormand have very little to do in the film except orbit Robbins and provide filler. Short Cuts’s L.A. is real small.

Story Three is Moore and husband Matthew Modine. Modine’s also background in Story One, but he doesn’t get a lot to do until the end of the second hour so he needs to be somewhere else. Moore’s a successful painter. Emotive nudes. Modine’s a doctor. He’s a jerk and frigid. She’s discontent but enthusiastic. They meet another couple–Anne Archer and Fred Ward–and want to get together. Or something. The first hour is so dripping in Altman’s condescending cynicism towards the characters he sometimes makes too much of a narrative slip and covers it with goop. Some casual racism, for example. Altman uses casual racism throughout Short Cuts to change up a moment. He tries it with class stuff, but usually he just likes the casual racism.

It’s so painfully cheap.

Anyway. Moore’s good, not great. She does get a better monologue than most and Altman wants to go for some nudity symbolism with her–lots of not sexy-time nudity in Short Cuts, but nothing compared to Moore’s monologue scene. He’s guilting the audience in wanting the scene to succeed for Moore’s sake. The scene doesn’t succeed. Maybe because Moore’s playing off a wooden Matthew Modine. Because Modine’s doctor is the biggest jerk in the known universe. But, you know, Moore still should be a better wife to him. Because he suspects she’s cheated on him. Sort of. Not really though. He’s a dick from the opening titles, which run twelve minutes, and Altman and his editors use to sort of ashcan the film. It’s an introduction; a manipulative one.

Meanwhile, Archer and Ward have some kind of bliss. She’s a professional clown, he’s out of work though they still live comfortably. Except their cars. His unemployment isn’t an issue until hour three and the car thing only comes up directly then. Before it’s just a detail in the scene where Robbins pulls her over and tries to pick her up and apparently steals her driver’s license.

Because, again, Shorts Cuts is way too big. Okay. Almost done. The sub-stories. Lori Singer and Annie Ross. They live next door to Story One but Ross doesn’t even know there’s a little kid there. Singer is a cellist who spends the rest of her time playing basketball with a multicultural group of young men. They play basketball at her house, this gaggle of men, yet serve no purpose other than to provide background and imply depth. Implied depth should be Short Cuts’s subtitle. Singer’s dad killed himself, Ross is her mom. Ross is a drunk jazz singer who performs at the bar where a handful of the characters show up. Exploitative sadness, melodrama, and nudity take place.

Ross is kind of great for hours one and two then weak in hour three. It’s the part as written but still. Short Cuts’s characters are so obnoxious, you have a limit. Lemmon gets off easy, for instance. Though Stowe gets through most of it. Only because she gets almost nothing to do in hour three.

The second sub-story, and the biggest one, is the one with Taylor. She’s married to Robert Downey Jr. and their best friends are Jennifer Jason Leigh and Chris Penn. Leigh and Penn are married. Everyone’s got to be married in Short Cuts because otherwise Altman’s points wouldn’t be so stunning. They’re housesitting–Taylor and Downey–and they’re potheads and there’s an implication Downey’s either cheating on Taylor or he’s trying to do so at every opportunity. Leigh is a phone sex worker. Penn is a pool cleaner (to MacDowell, in fact). Even though she’s probably making a lot more money than him, her work is bothering him and he’s reaching his breaking point. This emasculation cannot stand.

Taylor’s weak. It’s a lame part, but she’s weak. Downey’s weak. Lame part, but he’s still weak. Leigh’s capable in a lame part but she’s not exactly good. Altman and Barhydt require logic to last as long as the scene and not in-between them. Altman acts like bad exposition cancels out weak acting just because it “says” something. Penn’s good in the first couple scenes but once he becomes a crazed sex fiend, he’s pretty lame. Again, Altman’s not there for him. He’s not there for any of these actors. He’s at least there for Singer and Ross. Not these ones though.

Sub-story three is Fred Ward, Buck Henry, and Huey Lewis go fishing. Ward’s going to bring the fish to dinner at the Modine and Moore party he and Archer have planned. Look at how it all comes together. Like a glove. They go to the fishing spot, they find a dead body, they spend a day fishing around the body. Gives Altman a lot of opportunity to fetishize the submerged nude female corpse; he’s making a point about nudity, after all. It’s all so provocative.

Henry’s creepier than hell, which doesn’t seem to be the intention, but he’s playing it like a serial killer. Lewis just seems amused to actually have gotten cast in a Robert Altman movie. This story ties back into Story Three when Archer finds out about it, but it’s inconsequential except as filler. Oh, and so Altman can make the queen mother of false equivalences with a scene between Taylor and Henry regarding the objectification of dead bodies. It’s all so provocative.

Altman’s contention the viewer needs to decide the relevance is once thing, but when he ceases to provide the content needed to decide that relevance–or even bother to consider it–the ball is back in Altman’s court. If you want to do the Raymond Carver Extended Universe, you need to be doing something amazing. And Short Cuts isn’t doing anything amazing. I mean, I guess it’s making a Mark Isham score seem positively hip in comparison, but it’s not doing anything else amazing. Walt Lloyd’s Panavision photography is fine. It’s kind of dull, but not offensively. Geraldine Peroni’s editing is a little on the nose. Altman relies heavily on it to try to get through narrative rough patches, but Peroni can’t save it.

Because Short Cuts can’t need saving. Altman and Barhydt’s script gets shockingly cheap in the third hour. Shockingly. And Lemmon’s monologue is pretty cheap too–I mean, Lemmon’s delivery and Davison’s reaction save it, but it’s not uncheap. It’s just beautifully acted cheap. The third hour is just cheap, cheap, cheap, cheap, cheap. It’s the cheaper chicken.

You can’t save that level of cheapness. Nothing can. And even as the third hour drags, Altman still finds new ways to get even cheaper.

He’s pretty good at being cheap, but not for three hours.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Altman; screenplay by Altman and Frank Barhydt, based on short stories by Raymond Carver; director of photography, Walt Lloyd; edited by Geraldine Peroni; music by Mark Isham; production designer, Stephen Altman; produced by Cary Brokaw; released by Fine Line Features.

Starring Andie MacDowell (Ann Finnigan), Bruce Davison (Howard Finnigan), Jack Lemmon (Paul Finnigan), Madeleine Stowe (Sherri Shepard), Tim Robbins (Gene Shepard), Julianne Moore (Marian Wyman), Matthew Modine (Dr. Ralph Wyman), Anne Archer (Claire Kane), Fred Ward (Stuart Kane), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Lois Kaiser), Chris Penn (Jerry Kaiser), Robert Downey Jr. (Bill Bush), Lili Taylor (Honey Bush), Lily Tomlin (Doreen Piggot), Tom Waits (Earl Piggot), Frances McDormand (Betty Weathers), Peter Gallagher (Stormy Weathers), Annie Ross (Tess Trainer), Lori Singer (Zoe Trainer), Buck Henry (Gordon Johnson), Huey Lewis (Vern Miller), and Lyle Lovett (Andy Bitkower).


A Perfect World (1993, Clint Eastwood)

A Perfect World runs almost two hours and twenty minutes (it does with end credits). The last act of the film is a seventeen or so minute showdown in real time. Until that point in the film, John Lee Hancock’s script flirts with occasional sequences in real time, but there’s a lot of summary, a lot of missed time. The present action of the film is a couple days–Kevin Costner has broken out of jail, ends up with an eight year-old boy as a hostage (T.J. Lowther), and is trying to get out of Texas. Clint Eastwood, acting, plays the Texas Ranger after him. There’s a great attention to detail, particularly for the time period, and with the filmmaking; A Perfect World is a great example of a film being good while still boring.

Hancock’s script desperately wants to compare and contrast the various characters–Eastwood had run ins with younger Costner, Costner had a bad dad, Lowther has a bad dad, it goes on and on. Laura Dern is around to be sexually threatened–the film takes place in 1963, after all–and to counsel Eastwood. Unfortunately, most of that counseling comes when Eastwood’s Rangers are literally broken down off the highway.

Meanwhile, Costner and Lowther have a rather touching adventure. There’s great period music, rich performances from just about anyone–even evil escaped convict Keith Szarabajka is pretty good and he’s not doing much of anything. Leo Burmester doesn’t get enough to do, however. Once things come together for the inevitable showdown, which Eastwood and Hancock don’t set up well enough–one would think Eastwood’s chasing Costner across a county, not the state–there get to be hints of what A Perfect World could have done. It just takes too long to get there and not through interesting enough adventures.

Costner’s too much of an enigma to be the lead, Lowther could be but he isn’t. Same goes for Dern (or Eastwood even). It isn’t a matter of Hancock’s script being all over the place, it’s about the script not being there enough and Eastwood being able to cover it as a director. Jack N. Green’s photography is gorgeous, Joel Cox and Ron Spang’s editing is spry; A Perfect World is a spectacularly well-made, often spectacularly acted film, just not spectacular overall. But it’s still really darn good.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Clint Eastwood; written by John Lee Hancock; director of photography, Jack N. Green; edited by Joel Cox and Ron Spang; music by Lennie Niehaus; production designer, Henry Bumstead; produced by Eastwood, Mark Johnson and David Valdes; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Kevin Costner (Butch), T.J. Lowther (Phillip), Clint Eastwood (Red Garnett), Laura Dern (Sally Gerber), Keith Szarabajka (Terry Pugh), Bradley Whitford (Bobby Lee), Leo Burmester (Tom Adler) and Jennifer Griffin (Gladys Perry).


Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993, Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm)

There are a lot of excellent things in Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, but maybe my favorite thing is the end credits music. It’s smooth jazz. It’s this smooth jazz love song over the cast and when you see names like Abe Vigoda and Dick Miller and John P. Ryan in an animated Batman movie, you want to enjoy the moment. With smooth jazz.

But, just wait, it’s not only smooth jazz. It’s a Tia Carrere song. Who knew there was such a thing as a Tia Carrere song but there is in Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, which makes it special. It’s not bad, either. It’s fine. Phantasm is this fifties melodrama style mixed with impossibly big buildings–which matches the lushness–and it’s a perfectly reasonable way to end the movie.

I wish they hadn’t done the “and Batman’s adventures continue” tag, but the finale of Phantasm has a number of problems. The movie starts exceptionally strong but the writing in the first act is stronger than the second and momentum runs out. It’s still really good–there are frequent action scenes and they’re phenomenal–it’s just not as good as it seemed like it might be.

Because Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is breathtaking. The designs are gorgeous, the animation is gorgeous. And it’s a solid outing for Batman; Kevin Conroy’s Batman is far more likable than anything else. He’s got personality, but not too much and not jaded personality either. It’s accessible to the kids, which is an inevitable.

But the screenwriters do a good job getting everything onto that chastened level–Conroy’s romance with Dana Delany, Hart Bochner’s sliminess. Not Mark Hamill’s Joker, however. It’s the one thing Phantasm never backs down on. It’s a very strange sensation because you’re watching a cartoon and somehow Hamill makes the character into a show-off. It shouldn’t be possible, but he’s so good, so well-timed. It’s kind of freaky, especially the editing on the Joker’s murder sequences. Al Breitenbach’s editing is great throughout, but it’s something special on those Joker sequences. It’s scary.

Good music from Shirley Walker. She has some cute nods to the Tim Burton scores.

Almost all of the acting is good, Delany and Efrem Zimbalist Jr. in particular. In addition to Hamill, of course. And Conroy’s real good. Stacy Keach doesn’t impress though. It just doesn’t work.

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is pretty darn good. It’s got a beauty pace–directors Radomski and Timm take their time with the shots, it’s cinematic through its pacing, not just its action sequences. It’s got some great acting. It just has some second and third act problems. But it’s pretty darn good; it’s often spectacular.

And it does end with a Tia Carrere ballad, which defies reality–a perfectly fine and appropriate Tia Carrere ballad too, which defies reality even more.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm; screenplay by Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, Martin Paso and Michael Reaves, based on a story by Burnett and characters created by Bob Kane with Bill Finger; edited by Al Breitenbach; music by Shirley Walker; produced by Benjamin Melniker and Michael Uslan; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Kevin Conroy (Batman / Bruce Wayne), Dana Delany (Andrea Beaumont), Efrem Zimbalist Jr. (Alfred Pennyworth), Bob Hastings (Commissioner James Gordon), Hart Bochner (Arthur Reeves), Stacy Keach (Carl Beaumont), Robert Costanzo (Detective Harvey Bullock), Abe Vigoda (Salvatore Valestra), Dick Miller (Chuckie Sol), John P. Ryan (Buzz Bronski) and Mark Hamill (The Joker).


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