Pam Grier

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983, Jack Clayton)

Nothing connects with Something Wicked This Way Comes, though Jonathan Pryce’s performance is probably the closest thing to a complete success. Jason Robards is often quite good, but he’s both protagonist and subject of the film, which neither director Clayton nor writer Ray Bradbury (adapting his own novel) really seem to know how to transition between. Ostensibly, the leads of the film are young teens Vidal Peterson and Shawn Carson, who find their small town threatened by Pryce’s demonic carnival owner. But they’re just in distress; it’s up to Robards to save them.

Along the way–Something Wicked runs a long ninety-some minutes–strange things happen to the other townsfolk, at least the ones the film has time to introduce in the talky first act. Clayton’s direction is never scary enough, Stephen H. Burum’s photography is never atmospheric enough, and Argyle Nelson Jr. and Barry Mark Gordon’s editing is always problematic. Something Wicked’s target audience is teen boys but the script is about a fifty-something man coming to terms with waiting too long to have a child. If Clayton just went for creepy, it might have all worked out better.

Especially considering all the special effects until the finale are weak. The finale’s special effects are fantastic. They’re not on screen long enough–that editing is always problematic, like I said–but they’re fantastic.

Also unimpressive is James Horner’s score, which occasionally makes the film seem longer, even though it’s not bad. It just doesn’t work. Nothing in Something Wicked works. Except the aforementioned Jonathan Pryce.

The main supporting cast–Mary Grace Canfield, Richard Davalos, Jake Dengel, James Stacy–don’t help things. They’re too obviously contrived, too obviously pragmatic (except Canfield, all of them have shops in a row so it’s easy to introduce them all to both Peterson and Robards). Bradbury’s script treats everyone as a caricature, except maybe Peterson and Robards. Peterson’s performance isn’t good enough–he’s annoying–and Robards gets some lame material. Poor Diane Ladd has nothing to do, except go from being a tragic abandoned wife to a succubus, entertaining men while son Carson sleeps unawares upstairs.

Pam Grier shows up as one of Pryce’s minions and makes an impression thanks to some solid costumes and terrible special effects, but her few lines aren’t memorable. Same goes for Ellen Geer’s character, mother to Peterson, wife to Robards. Something Wicked’s characters ought to have some interesting backstory, but they just don’t. It doesn’t help whenever Bradbury tries to bring it up, he just goes with blocks of expository dialogue.

The film suffered studio tinkering, but it’s hard to imagine they broke things too much. Something Wicked’s pieces simply don’t add up to anything. It’s a shame, because the production values are great and there’s excellent potential for Robards’s performance. And Pryce’s good, regardless.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jack Clayton; screenplay by Ray Bradbury, based on his novel; director of photography, Stephen H. Burum; edited by Argyle Nelson Jr. and Barry Mark Gordon; music by James Horner; production designer, Richard Macdonald; produced by Peter Douglas; released by Buena Vista Distribution Company.

Starring Vidal Peterson (Will Halloway), Shawn Carson (Jim Nightshade), Jason Robards (Charles Halloway), Jonathan Pryce (Mr. Dark), Ellen Geer (Mrs. Halloway), Diane Ladd (Mrs. Nightshade), Royal Dano (Tom Fury), Mary Grace Canfield (Miss Foley), Richard Davalos (Mr. Crosetti), Jake Dengel (Mr. Tetley), James Stacy (Ed) and Pam Grier (The Dust Witch).


Ghosts of Mars (2001, John Carpenter)

Ghost of Mars has a lot of earnestness going for it. Director Carpenter needs quite a bit his cast and he supports them even when they’re clearly not able to succeed–especially lead Natasha Henstridge. He takes the project seriously, his cast takes it seriously. Sure, it doesn’t exactly work out, but it’s not from lack of effort.

Some of the problem is the editing. Carpenter and editor Paul C. Warschilka do these crossfades, which might be an attempt to obfuscate the low budget. And Carpenter pushes with the crossfades at the start. Then he drops them once the action gets going. They’re only for the lead-up to the action, when Ghosts is more horror than action. At least in terms of strange creatures lurking in the night and Carpenter trying to disturb the viewer instead of enthrall them. In a strange turn, instead of tasking cinematographer Gary B. Kibbe with hiding the low budget and instilling mood, Carpenter relies on Warschilka.

It actually might be for the best, given the acting.

So Henstridge. While she’s not good and she’s sometimes bad, she tries hard at playing her part. She’s a badass future cop on Mars who has to save the day, teaming up with Ice Cube’s outlaw. Cube’s all right. He maybe gives the best lead performance, but he doesn’t have much competition. Jason Statham isn’t any good, though he eventually becomes likable. Clea DuVall is in a similar situation. She’s not good–her part is even worse than Statham’s–but she’s immediately likable. Thanks to the editing. Joanna Cassidy’s probably the best performance and she’s very supporting. Pam Grier sort of troopers through it. She knows how to do the material, she knows how to direct attention.

But then there’s the narrative construction. Carpenter doesn’t waste time establishing the characters as sympathetic, instead he uses a framing device to interest the viewer in the story. Again, it’s somewhat effective just because it covers Henstridge’s acting failings. It also shakes up the narrative a bit. Carpenter’s not as interested in being interesting as encouraging interest. Not just in terms of the rising action, but in the ground situation. Ghosts of Mars goes out of its way to be unique, even when it doesn’t help the narrative or the character development. The setup for the Mars society is all unnecessary filler. It distracts and just gives the actors problems.

Overall, Ghosts of Mars isn’t a success, but it’s a decent enough diversion. Carpenter and the cast put enough into it to get over the many bumps in the production. It’s more of an accomplishment, given its constraints, than anything else.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Carpenter; written by Larry Sulkis and Carpenter; director of photography, Gary B. Kibbe; edited by Paul C. Warschilka; music by Carpenter; production designer, William A. Elliott; produced by Sandy King; released by Screen Gems.

Starring Natasha Henstridge (Lieutenant Melanie Ballard), Ice Cube (Desolation Williams), Jason Statham (Sgt. Jericho Butler), Pam Grier (Commander Helena Braddock), Clea DuVall (Bashira Kincaid), Liam Waite (Michael Descanso), Joanna Cassidy (Whitlock) and Rosemary Forsyth (Inquisitor).


Above the Law (1988, Andrew Davis)

Above the Law is just about as slick as a film can be. It’s all thanks to director Davis. Even though Davis and star Steven Seagal co-produced, Davis has to overcome Seagal’s acting inability. So all credit to Davis. It isn’t just about maximizing the action, but about getting the plot to provide some interest, so it doesn’t all feel like a commercial for Steven Seagal.

But it is a commercial; Above the Law is an amazing star vehicle. Everything is weighed to make the viewer more and more sympathetic to Seagal’s character. Oh, look, his suffering wife (Sharon Stone in a terribly directed performance) doesn’t want Seagal to battle the CIA task force blowing up Chicago to get Seagal. Oddly enough, the film was released overseas as Nico (Seagal’s character), which suggests some understanding of the egomania on display. But on beautiful display, because even though Davis significantly fumbles almost every action sequence, he’s got these great Chicago locations and he has a great sense of how to use them (which does lead to a rather good foot chase sequence), and he’s got photographer Robert Steadman, who is fabulous.

Unfortunately, editor Michael Brown is awful. He misses visual beats. It doesn’t matter, of course, because Above the Law isn’t actually an action movie, not in a traditional sense. It’s a prototypical mid-to-low budget major studio action movie. Something to not embarrass itself in the theater and do surprisingly well on video.

A slick commercial. Not so much visually slick, but almost pathologically manipulative in making a Seagal a serious movie star. Not an actor; Above the Law never asks Seagal to act. Davis does try to make him likable and is even able to get slight success with Pam Grier (though Davis fumbles directing their scenes; Brown being no help), but it’s not much. It’s never a good performance.

And I don’t even want to look at the Frank Silva villain, which leads to Seagal figuratively throwing away the previous standard–the more exploitative, lower budgeted action movie.

Inoffensive, likable performances from Grier and Ron Dean help a lot. Though Davis is clearly indifferent to his actors’ performances; no one gets any favors. So, either Davis or the editor. Can’t give anyone too much time, otherwise it might not look like Seagal’s a big time movie star.

In the end, Davis is due a lot of respect for this film. He’d be due infinitely more if Above the Law were actually any good.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Andrew Davis; screenplay by Steven Pressfield, Ronald Shusett and Davis, based on a story by Davis and Steven Seagal; director of photography, Robert Steadman; edited by Michael Brown; music by David Michael Frank; production designer, Maher Ahmad; produced by Davis and Seagal; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Steven Seagal (Nico), Pam Grier (Jacks), Henry Silva (Zagon), Ron Dean (Lukich), Sharon Stone (Sara), Daniel Faraldo (Salvano), Miguel Nino (Chi Chi), Nicholas Kusenko (Neeley), Joe Greco (Father Gennaro), Chelcie Ross (Fox), Gregory Alan Williams (FBI Agent Halloran) and Jack Wallace (Uncle Branca).


Escape from L.A. (1996, John Carpenter)

Escape from L.A. is an action movie without any real action until the final set piece. And that final set piece is excellent–lots of hang gliders and practical effects. But the rest of the action? It’s terrible CG. Instead of imagining real set pieces, director Carpenter (and co-writers Kurt Russell and Debra Hill) fall back on digital effects.

As a result, there’s almost nothing distinctive about L.A. Until the finish, anyway. The last ten minutes or so are really good.

The film has a number of big problems, but the primary ones are the setup and the geography. As a delayed sequel to Escape from New York, L.A. is a disaster. The opening establishes almost the exact same situation as the first film, which seems unlikely but also reeks of a lack of imagination.

Then there’s the geography. The film’s setting is so big and so varied, it’s hard to imagine Russell’s anti-hero having any trouble escaping from it. So the script has to confine him with a rapidly decreasing countdown.

There aren’t any good supporting characters–though a lot of the supporting performances are good–because L.A. never takes time to enjoy itself. It feels like a chore for the filmmakers.

The best supporting turns are from Steve Buscemi, Peter Fonda, Valeria Golino, Stacy Keach and Georges Corraface. Corraface and Golino are shockingly good; Fonda has lots of fun.

Also unimaginative is Lawrence G. Paull’s production design.

L.A. is a pointless, disappointing but vaguely inoffensive trip.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by John Carpenter; screenplay by Carpenter, Debra Hill and Kurt Russell, based on characters created by Carpenter and Nick Castle; director of photography, Gary B. Kibbe; edited by Edward A. Warschilka; music by Shirley Walker and Carpenter; production designer, Lawrence G. Paull; produced by Hill and Russell; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Kurt Russell (Snake Plissken), Stacy Keach (Cmdr. Malloy), Steve Buscemi (Map to the Stars Eddie), Valeria Golino (Taslima), Peter Fonda (Pipeline), Pam Grier (Hershe Las Palmas), Michelle Forbes (Brazen), Georges Corraface (Cuervo Jones), Bruce Campbell (The Surgeon General of Beverly Hills), A.J. Langer (Utopia), Leland Orser (Test Tube) and Cliff Robertson (The President).


The Package (1989, Andrew Davis)

If it weren’t for the cast and direction, I’m not sure how The Package would play. The combination of Gene Hackman and Andrew Davis makes the film, which has a bunch of problems, noteworthy. Davis gives the film enough grit and realism to make it seem wholly believable, just so long as one doesn’t think about it much while watching it.

After a couple starts, about thirty minutes in, it becomes clear The Package is an assassination thriller. Unfortunately, it’s not a particularly compelling assassination thriller. Without Hackman holding it together, it’d fail. Even worse, the first two starts promise something far more interesting and unique.

Even the assassination thriller part starts better than it ends. With a slightly different approach, The Package would be a road movie. It’s still basically arranged in that manner–principle supporting characters show up in sequence, not all at once. First it’s Tommy Lee Jones (in a glorified cameo, which is too bad since he and Hackman are great together), then Pam Grier (solid in a thankless role) and finally Dennis Franz (playing a family man variation of his cop standard). Joanna Cassidy shows up between Jones and Grier and sticks around.

Nearly all the supporting cast is excellent, regardless of how much they have to do. Kevin Crowley, Chelcie Ross, Thalmus Rasulala–small roles, great performances (Rasulala doesn’t even get a name).

The only weak performance is John Heard, which hurts me to even type but he’s just bad.

The Package is okay, if problematic.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Andrew Davis; written by John Bishop; director of photography, Frank Tidy; edited by Billy Weber and Don Zimmerman; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, Michel Levesque; produced by Beverly J. Camhe and Tobie Haggerty; released by Orion Pictures.

Starring Gene Hackman (Sgt. Johnny Gallagher), Joanna Cassidy (Eileen Gallagher), Tommy Lee Jones (Thomas Boyette), John Heard (Col. Glen Whitacre), Dennis Franz (Lt. Milan Delich), Pam Grier (Ruth Butler), Kevin Crowley (Walter Henke) and Chelcie Ross (Gen. Hopkins).


Badge of the Assassin (1985, Mel Damski)

Mel Damski, if Badge of the Assassin is any indication, might be the finest TV movie director ever (who never went on to good theatrical films anyway). He understands composition, camera movement, editing–how to let actors do what actors do–beautifully. Badge of the Assassin looks like a TV movie and that description is, thanks in large part to Damski, not at all a pejorative. Admittedly, he has a lot of help. The film’s perfectly as cast, top to bottom. Alex Rocco, Larry Riley, Richard Bradford, all three are particularly good, but there are no bad performances. David Harris is real good too.

But the film really belongs to Yaphet Kotto. Even though James Woods gets a lot to do, he never gets as much to do as Kotto… and he doesn’t get to do it as long. It’s sort of cheap, since the film’s about black militants killing cops and Kotto’s a black cop struggling to understand. Woods’s basically just the driven district attorney, not wanting to disappoint the grieving widow (and the film’s source book is from the real district attorney, so it’d be interesting if the Kotto emphasis was in there too). However, regardless of what a terrible film McQ is… screenwriter Lawrence Roman is of a definite pedigree and his influence is probably significant.

The script is another area Badge really makes a model TV movie. The character content, which is considerable–scenes with Rocco, Woods and Kotto all have a lot of weight–occurs over a really long time. The film’s present action is something like four years. Besides the first act establishing of the characters, nothing is known about what happens in their lives other than in relation to the case at hand. It’s precise, not sweeping. Damski’s a master at knowing how best tell that precise account… and Roman’s script really focuses on the best possible way to get the lengthy period into ninety-four minutes.

Adding to the film–and I’m not not mentioning Woods because he isn’t great, but because it’s depressing how good he used to be (before he came a personality with Casino)–is the location shooting. It helps immensely, forcing the viewer to engage with the reality of what’s on the screen in front of him or her.

In the end, Badge of the Assassin sort of runs out of time. It doesn’t run out of story so much as it runs out of scenes it can enact well. It’s a good looking film, though, with some great acting.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Mel Damski; screenplay by Lawrence Roman, from the book by Robert K. Tannenbaum and Philip Rosenberg; director of photography, John Lindsay; edited by Andrew Cohen; music by Tom Scott; produced by Daniel H. Blatt and Robert Singer; aired by the Columbia Broadcasting System.

Starring James Woods (Bob Tannenbaum), Yaphet Kotto (Cliff Fenton), Alex Rocco (Bill Butler), David Harris (Lester Bertram Day), Steven Keats (Harold Skelton), Larry Riley (Herman Bell), Pam Grier (Alie Horn), Rae Dawn Chong (Christine Horn), Richard Bradford (L.J. Delsa), Kene Holliday (Washington), Toni Kalem (Diana Piagentini), Tamu Blackwell (Gloria Lapp), Richard Brooks (Tony Bottom), Akosua Busia (Ruth) and Alan Blumenfeld (Charlie).


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