James Mitchell

Futureworld (1976, Richard T. Heffron)

Futureworld ends with a ten minute chase sequence. It feels like thirty. The movie runs 107 boring minutes and I really did think thirty of them were spent on Peter Fonda and Blythe Danner battling evil robots. And not even Danner. Fonda. Just Peter Fonda running around giant underground maintenance rooms.

Fonda and Danner play reporters on special assignment to cover the revamped Delos resort. A few years earlier–in Westworld–all the humanoid robots went crazy and killed guests. Fonda wrote the expose on it. Danner is the TV newswoman who used to work for Fonda and he fired for not being newsy enough. He calls her “Socks.” The film is one long diss to Danner. It gets worse as it goes along; the “Socks” thing takes a while to get introduced and then the script uses it every sixteenth word.

Neither Fonda nor Danner appeared in the first film. The only returning actor is Yul Brynner, who appears more in footage from Westworld than he does in Futureworld footage. Behind the camera, composer Fred Karlin and cinematographer Gene Polito (sharing credit this time with Howard Schwartz) both return. Karlin’s score is godawful. Polito and Schwartz’s photography is adequate. It’s not their fault the movie’s a bore.

Mayo Simon and George Schenck don’t have much of a story. Fonda suspects something is wrong at the reopened resort, Danner doesn’t. Company man Arthur Hill assures them everything is fine. But mad scientist John P. Ryan is actually doing bad things. It’s unclear for a while what the bad things are, but they’re bad in the montage sequences so they must be bad. There are a lot of montage sequences in the first half of Futureworld. It’s scene, montage, scene, montage. It seems budgetary–get to the exposition sequences as fast as possible, skipping any action sequences.

It helps Futureworld (the resort) only shows up in the first third of the movie. It’s a cheesy futuristic bar with holographic chess a year before it got to a galaxy far far away. It’s silly, but not fun. Because Futureworld isn’t any fun. Director Heffron plays it all straight, something Fonda can’t do and Danner seems unclear about.

Fonda is not good. It’s not entirely his fault, his character spends the beginning of the second act devolved into an even more patronizing jackass (to Danner) than before. The situation changes when Stuart Margolin shows up. He knows the dirt on the robots (or something). It’s a terribly paced, poorly written sequence. But Margolin’s at least likable.

Danner’s kind of sympathetic. Not her character, because she doesn’t have on, but Danner. You feel for her being in this movie. Towards the end, you sort of assume Fonda agreed to do it stoned but why did Danner agree. She should’ve fired her agent. Especially since the movie ought to be a relative no-brainer.

Killer future robots instead of killer Western robots.

But there isn’t much robot action in Futureworld; though the script fixates on the possibilities of robot sex in the first act. It’s not really a thing afterwards, even when there’s robot sex. That robot sex features one of the only two robots in the second half of the movie (of consequence).

The script does a lot to increase its efficiency (like taking place entirely underground–or on obvious sets–in the second half). With a better script, better production, better director, better actor (no script was going to make Fonda’s performance better, he’s a miscasting epitome), Futureworld might be able to work.

Instead, it’s a dull attempt at cheap “intellectual sci-fi.” It’s long, goofy, and never professional enough to take seriously. It’s strange Westworld creator Michael Crichton gets zero credit on the film, but reasonable. Who’d want their name on it?

Though, heavy John P. Ryan as a subdued bad guy scientist is at least interesting to watch. The material’s all bad, but Ryan’s a strange enough casting choice seeing how he essays it… it’s mildly diverting. As opposed to Hill, who eventually gets some Danner-esque sympathy. Not as much, but some.

Futureworld’s bad.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Richard T. Heffron; screenplay by Mayo Simon and George Schenck, based on characters created by Michael Crichton; directors of photography, Howard Schwartz and Gene Polito; edited by James Mitchell; music by Fred Karlin; produced by James T. Aubrey and Paul N. Lazarus III; released by American International Pictures.

Starring Peter Fonda (Chuck Browning), Blythe Danner (Tracy Ballard), Arthur Hill (Duffy), John P. Ryan (Dr. Schneider), Stuart Margolin (Harry), Jim Antonio (Ron Thurlow),and Yul Brynner (The Gunslinger).


The Great American Beauty Contest (1973, Robert Day)

Trying to figure out where The Great American Beauty Contest stands on the women’s lib movement is a headache. Actually, the whole thing is a little misogynist but not for the obvious reason–not because the titular contest’s participants are being objectified (I doubt director Day could competently objectify anything or anyone), but because it presents all the women as shallow enough to want to be part of such a ruse.

Oh, Stanford Whitmore’s script forgives a couple of them. Tracy Reed is all right because she’s black and she’s doing it to set an example. And Kathrine Baumann’s okay too. She’s just too dumb to be anything but sincere.

But Whitmore successfully demonizes Farrah Fawcett (and not for her terrible performance) and Susan Damante (she’s atrocious too, actually worse than Fawcett) so well… I spent the big reveal hoping neither of them won. Whitmore’s dialogue’s terrible, Day’s a bad director, but together they do manage to get some kind of investment from the viewer.

Maybe it’s because there are some decent elements. Eleanor Parker’s troubled contest organizer has a good arc. Robert Cummings is surprisingly sturdy as her sidekick. Best has to be Louis Jordan, who’s utterly odious and gleefully so. Jordan and Parker make the film worthwhile. Well, as worthwhile as it gets.

Another big problem is Whitmore’s artificial structure. He treats it like a two parter–Fawcett gets the first half’s big story, Damante the second.

Aside from occasional good performances, Beauty’s best as a strange artifact.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Day; written by Stanford Whitmore; director of photography, James Crabe; edited by Frank Capacchione, James Mitchell and Bruce Schoengarth; music by Kenneth Wannberg; produced by Everett Chambers; aired by the American Broadcasting Company.

Starring Eleanor Parker (Peggy Lowery), Robert Cummings (Dan Carson), Louis Jourdan (Ralph Dupree), JoAnna Cameron (Gloria Rockwell), Farrah Fawcett (T.L. Dawson), Tracy Reed (Pamela Parker), Kathrine Baumann (Melinda Wilson), Susan Damante (Angelique) and Larry Wilcox (Joe Bunch).


Narrow Margin (1990, Peter Hyams)

Narrow Margin plays like a TV pilot for Gene Hackman as a crusading (but big mouthed) district attorney. There’s not a lot of depth to the characters and Hyams is never able, even with some great Panavision composition throughout, to make it feel cinematic. Maybe it’s the lack of establishing shots.

Most of the film takes place on a train as Hackman tries to protect uncooperative witness Anne Archer from the mob. But Hyams’s plotting is all action oriented. There are only two character moments in the entire picture. One is for James Sikking as a bad guy, as he banters with Hackman. It’s a great scene as far as dialogue; Sikking is excellent in the film. The other character moment is for Archer and she’s awful. She’s slight throughout the whole film, but she fails her monologue. Sadly, Hyams’s direction of the scene–and James Mitchell’s editing of it–is fantastic.

If it weren’t for Archer, the film would probably be a little bit more successful, but not much. It’s a quick and easy (and presumably cheap) thriller and there’s not enough time to make it good. Hyams tries to bring in a cast of suspects on the train, but it’s only a handful of people. Narrow Margin always feels a little too cramped.

Hackman’s good in the film, even though it doesn’t give him much to do.

Hyams’s photography is good, sometimes great; he really seems to like trains.

Great Bruce Broughton score.

Narrow Margin is almost okay.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed and photographed by Peter Hyams; screenplay by Hyams, based on a screenplay by Earl Fenton and a story by Martin Goldsmith and Jack Leonard; edited by James Mitchell; music by Bruce Broughton; production designer, Joel Schiller; produced by Jonathan A. Zimbert; released by Tri-Star Pictures.

Starring Gene Hackman (Caulfield), Anne Archer (Carol Hunnicut), James Sikking (Nelson), J.T. Walsh (Michael Tarlow), M. Emmet Walsh (Sgt. Dominick Benti), Susan Hogan (Kathryn Weller), Nigel Bennett (Jack Wootton), J.A. Preston (Martin Larner), Kevin McNulty (James Dahlbeck) and Harris Yulin (Leo Watts).


Fifty/Fifty (1992, Charles Martin Smith)

Fifty/Fifty is the last film where crap-master screenwriters Dennis Shryack and Michael Butler worked together, though it appears they wrote the script in the mid-eighties. It’s one of their best films, which isn’t difficult, only because the film occasionally batters its viewer with man’s inhumanity to his fellow man (in this film’s case, it’s when the President of the United States sides with the vicious dictator and helps him kill the rebels). The film’s politics are incredibly anti-American, which would have made it interesting if it’d been successful.

It was not.

The script’s a lot at fault, but it’s a Cannon picture, so it’s not like there was a lot of budget behind it, or production values. They cast Robert Hays, who trades on being genial but not particularly likable–he’s still the guy from Airplane! so watching him in scenes with Peter Weller, it kind of works and kind of doesn’t. While the two do make their camaraderie work, Weller acts circles around Hays; it makes things awkward. Hays’s character has a more difficult arc and needs the more nuanced performance.

Charles Martin Smith’s supporting role in the film is better than the majority of his direction–though he gets it during the battle scenes, which makes it somewhat incomprehensible how he doesn’t get the–presumably–easier straight comedy or action scenes. He does a decent job with the actors, especially Ramona Rahman, who has a laughable character at times but is always presented well.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Charles Martin Smith; written by Dennis Shryack and Michael Butler; director of photography, David Connell; edited by James Mitchell; music by Peter Bernstein; production designer, Errol Kelly; produced by Maurice Singer and Raymond Wagner; released by Cannon Films.

Starring Peter Weller (Jake Wyer), Robert Hays (Sam French), Charles Martin Smith (Martin Sprue), Ramona Rahman (Suleta), Kay Tong Lim (Akhantar), Dom Magwili (General Bosavi), Azmil Mustapha (Colonel Kota), Dharma Harun Al-Rashid (Sentul), Os (Jamik), Ursula Martin (Liz Powell) and Sharudeen Tamby (Colonel Seng).


The Presidio (1988, Peter Hyams)

I can’t forget so I need to open with it. In this ‘rah-rah, go USA’ twiddle, Sean Connery actually hijacks a eulogy at a Medal of Honor winner’s funeral to resolve his issues with his daughter. It’s a hilarious close to the movie, which has such bad jokes throughout, a laugh track wouldn’t be out of place.

The film’s actually incredibly important in terms of 1980s film history–it’s Paramount trying to repeat pass success without the people involved with those successes. The Presidio is basically a Simpson/Bruckheimer production (down to the terrible script from Larry Ferguson), just without their particular brand of cinematic styling–for all the lame chases and exploding cars, Peter Hyams is not a bad director… he has a good understanding of using a Panavision frame to tell narrative, apparently just not the sense to know how to fix a bad script. The film’s missing a hip score and Eddie Murphy. Mark Harmon’s in the Eddie Murphy role, though I’m not sure if Simpson and Bruckheimer would have gotten rid of Connery. (He’s actually not terrible in it, with his native… ability–or long experience–above the script).

Harmon’s pretty terrible, with his bouffant hair doing most of the “acting” for him. Casting Harmon as a tough cop was a ludicrous decision and he spends most of the film utterly lost, kind of like a deer in headlights. Meg Ryan, however, is pretty good.

Hyams takes advantage of San Francisco as a location (not just for the frequent chases) and it gives The Presidio a classier look than it deserves. But as a Paramount executive shepherd’s pie–I’m wondering if all the principles were fulfilling contracts since all three did Paramount work just prior–it’s a gem. It’s atrocious, with simpler politics than First Blood (how they didn’t get a Reagan cameo, I don’t know), but it’s always rare to see a film so empty of any artfulness.

And what was Jack Warden doing in it? From The Verdict to The Presidio… it’s inexplicable.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed and photographed by Peter Hyams; written by Larry Ferguson; edited by James Mitchell; music by Bruce Broughton; production designer, Albert Brenner; produced by D. Constantine Conte; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Sean Connery (Lt. Col. Alan Caldwell), Mark Harmon (Jay Austin), Meg Ryan (Donna Caldwell), Jack Warden (Sgt. Maj. Ross Maclure), Mark Blum (Arthur Peale), Dana Gladstone (Col. Paul Lawrence) and Jenette Goldstein (Patti Jean Lynch).


The Monster Squad (1987, Fred Dekker)

Fred Dekker can definitely compose a shot. For whatever its faults, The Monster Squad is one good looking film. Some of that credit belongs to the production designer and the cinematographer and the special effects people, but most of it belongs to Dekker. Dekker composes beautiful Panavision shots and he directs actors really well too–well, some of them, but more on that aspect later.

The Monster Squad is a mix between The Goonies and Ghostbusters and maybe even a little E.T. It’s developed a cult following for whatever reasons a film develops cult followings, but it’s a dramatic train wreck. There’s an infamous missing thirteen minutes (the film’s producers told Dekker to cut it to under ninety), but unless those thirteen minutes are all bridging scenes… The film takes place over three days and the leaps in logic are astounding (my favorite was the kids all being out at midnight with parents completely unaware) and it’s so smug, it’s not even well-meaning in its “message.” Still, there’s a lot of good stuff in Monster Squad.

First, there’s Stephen Macht. The guy’s fantastic–and not all of Monster Squad‘s script is bad. The family stuff is all excellent–it might be stereotypical cop too busy for his family, but it’s being performed by good actors–and some of the humorous stuff with the kids, the one-liners, are good. There’s a cute dog. It’s just so unbelievable… Anyway, besides Macht’s wonderful performance, there’s Duncan Regehr as Dracula. Regehr doesn’t actually have much to do, but he does a great job. The kids are… well, they’re all the kids who guest-starred on 1980s TV shows, pretty much. Only Robby Kiger is good in the scenes with the other kids and with the ludicrous elements, Andre Gower is good at the family stuff with Macht, but not the other stuff. Brent Chalem is terrible.

Even though its special effects are still excellent, The Monster Squad is incredibly dated by its dialogue. Watching it–as I near thirty (and I was vindicated by this widescreen copy, since it clearly shows something I’ve been saying for twenty years was in the film was simply pan and scanned out)–I can’t imagine ever showing it to one of my (prospective) children. The conversation about the rampant homophobic slurs coming out of the kids’ mouths weighed against the film’s content just isn’t worth it–and Monster Squad gets nasty, using terms I didn’t even understand until now. Just really mean-hearted stuff. It might be a fairly accurate representation of how boys talk, but it’s not a documentary about kids being stupid shitheads and its presence is somewhat odd (though, maybe not, given how fanatically Dekker defended it in a recent interview). There’s also a really weird aspect about the two main kids, Gower and Kiger, hugging all the time….

The film definitely suffers from a lack of wonderment or even a comprehension of it. When these kids, who are obsessed with monsters, discover this pretend passion is actual, there’s no moment of recognition. It’s an absurd fantasy and it doesn’t recognize that condition and it suffers greatly for it. However, I can’t believe, how good-looking a film it is in its original aspect ratio. Whatever its significant faults, Monster Squad is a beautifully produced film. It’s like the Olympia of kids movies. No, that one’s a little far, but Dekker’s interview really pissed me off (I mean, seriously, I don’t know if he’d mind the comparison of ideologies).

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Fred Dekker; written by Dekker and Shane Black; director of photography, Bradford May; edited by James Mitchell; music by Bruce Broughton; production designer, Albert Brenner; produced by Jonathan A. Zimbert; released by Tri-Star Pictures.

Starring Andre Gower (Sean), Robby Kiger (Patrick), Stephen Macht (Del), Duncan Regehr (Count Dracula), Tom Noonan (Frankenstein), Brent Chalem (Horace), Ryan Lambert (Rudy), Ashley Bank (Phoebe), Michael Faustino (Eugene), Mary Ellen Trainor (Emily), Carl Thibault (Wolfman), Tom Woodruff Jr. (Gill-Man), Michael MacKay (Mummy), Leonard Cimino (Scary German Guy), Jon Gries (Desperate Man), Stan Shaw (Detective Sapir) and Jason Hervey (E.J.).


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