Yaphet Kotto

Alien (1979, Ridley Scott), the director’s cut

Ridley Scott’s director’s cut of Alien feels like vaguely engaged exercise more than any kind of devout restoration. Its less than artistic origins–Scott cut it together a combination, apparently, of fan service and studio marketing needs–actually help it quite a bit in the first act. Scott’s new cut rushes things, though it doesn’t really rush them anywhere. At the beginning, it’s kind of neat to see how he’s able to move things faster (so long as you’re generally familiar with the film and its plot), only once he runs out of story, Scott and the film stumble repeatedly.

This Alien maintains establishing shots and transition shots; Scott and new editor David Crowther hurry the actual scenes, cutting into performances. John Hurt is deemphasized, Ian Holm is more emphasized. Even though there might be more Sigourney Weaver, it takes her even longer to assume the lead role because with an increased presence for Holm, the dynamic changes. And Scott and Crowther don’t really adjust for it later, because they’re not cutting for performances, they’re cutting getting in new footage. In trying not to be sensational, Scott just makes it even worse. He doesn’t account for what his new pace is doing to how the film plays on its own, not as a special feature.

The collision of Holm and Weaver doesn’t pace well, for instance, but once its resolved, Alien: The Director’s Cut finds its footing once again. Sure, it loses it again and never quite recovers, but it loses it in the place where Alien just loses its footing, the third act. There are some “director’s cut” specific problems in the third act, which hurt the pacing and the overall experience because it’s clear when inserted footage is taped in–Crowther’s editing doesn’t match Terry Rawling’s at all, which is another big problem. It’s disjointed. In the first act, it’s kind of charming; after over an hour, it’s just tiresome.

Maybe the greatest disservice of Alien: The Director’s Cut is to the Jerry Goldsmith score. It feels more rushed than anything else. Goldsmith creates this sterile calm, a disappointing tranquility, and Scott and Crowther don’t have any time for it.

Scott should’ve just let the additional footage bloat Alien. The trims he makes elsewhere aggravate quickly before ultimately failing. At least bloated, the film would have some personality. Instead, it feels like Scott trying to turn Alien into more of a crowd-pleaser. But for a limited, familiar audience. He’s not trying to make a better film.

Luckily, the pieces are still strong. Holm, Weaver, Yaphet Kotto, Tom Skerritt, all great. Veronica Cartwright gets more to do and has less of a character as a result. Weaver experiences something similar; Scott hacks at her and Skerritt’s scenes just enough to weaken them both. Weaver’s performance deserves a lot more respect, frankly. It takes her too much for granted.

And somehow Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton lose their mojo in the new cut. Most of the content remains, but none of the personality. Again, Crowther’s using a dull hatchet on Rawling’s delicate scalpel cuts.

Alien, the director’s cut, isn’t so much a missed opportunity as a pointless endeavor. But it could have turned out a lot worse. Scott’s lack of ambition might be the saving grace.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Ridley Scott; screenplay by Dan O’Bannon, based on a story by O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett; director of photography, Derek Vanlint; edited by Terry Rawlings, Peter Weatherley, and David Crowther; music by Jerry Goldsmith; production designer, Michael Seymour; produced by Gordon Carroll, David Giler, and Walter Hill; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Tom Skerritt (Dallas), Sigourney Weaver (Ripley), Veronica Cartwright (Lambert), Harry Dean Stanton (Brett), John Hurt (Kane), Ian Holm (Ash), and Yaphet Kotto (Parker).


Perry Mason: The Case of the Scandalous Scoundrel (1987, Christian I. Nyby II)

Perry Mason: The Case of the Scandalous Scoundrel is a bit disappointing. It’s got a really lame script from Anthony Spinner. Spinner doesn’t have a good mystery, he doesn’t write characters well, he writes dialogue something awful. So there are no expectations from the script. However, Scoundrel has a great cast. A great cast who often can even get water from the stony script.

So it’s a bit disappointing. It’s kind of pleasant to watch, mostly because Barbara Hale has this secret admirer C plot and it gives her something to do. And Raymond Burr’s got some fine moments. Director Nyby doesn’t direct the scenes well–Burr’s fine moments, I mean–but he’s not disruptive. Burr still gets the moment, just not as effectively as he could have.

And some of Nyby’s direction is solid. If it’s interiors and not back and forth dialogue, he does some pretty darn good work for a TV movie. Everything else is a bit of a mess. Not always a big mess, but definitely some kind of one. He shoots terrible coverage.

Now, the cast. William Katt’s romancing defendant Susan Wilder. She’s not good, but she’s not bad. Morgan Brittany is bad. Other than those two performances, everything is great. Yaphet Kotto’s an ex-army general, Wings Hauser’s his sidekick. They’re both good, but Hauser’s actually awesome. Good enough even Nyby figured out how to direct his scenes. George Grizzard’s Brittany’s suffering husband. He’s good. René Enríquez’s a corrupt banker. He’s good. Robert Guillaume’s a loathsome tabloid king. He’s not so much good as it’s really cool to see him play loathsome. He revels in it. And Eugene Butler is excellent as Guillaume’s sidekick. Lots of sidekicks in Scoundrel, probably because Spinner’s quite bad at plotting out a mystery.

Not a great hour for David Ogden Stiers. He and Burr don’t have any actual rapport, which just makes it seem like Stiers is a buffoon. It’s also a little strange to see James McEachin showing up as a dimwit instead of his regular cop part. It’s like there’s some joke and the viewer is left out.

Technically it’s fine, other than a weak score from the usually solid Dick DeBenedictis.

Scoundrel has a lot of good actors giving good performances from a terrible script. It’s engaging so long as the actors are weathering that script well. And Nyby certainly doesn’t help things. The handful of well-directed scenes can’t make up for the rest, especially not with the dumb script.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

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

Starring Raymond Burr (Perry Mason), Barbara Hale (Della Street), William Katt (Paul Drake Jr.), Susan Wilder (Michelle Benti), Robert Guillaume (Harlan Wade), Eugene Butler (Nick Moretti), George Grizzard (Dr. Clayman), Morgan Brittany (Marianne Clayman), René Enríquez (Oscar Ortega), Wings Hauser (Capt. James Rivers), Yaphet Kotto (General Sorenson) and David Ogden Stiers (Michael Reston).


Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991, Rachel Talalay), the home video version

For the first third of Freddy’s Dead, I blamed Lisa Zane’s bad performance on Talalay’s truly awful direction and Michael De Luca’s lame, if enthusiastic, screenplay. During the middle third, when the film flips between exposition and poorly done dream sequences, I started to change my mind. Not in the positive; Zane never connects with the character’s place in the film. When Zane’s shooting Robert Englund’s Freddy with a crossbow, it’s supposed to be funny. But Talalay can’t direct absurdist humor, De Luca’s absurdist humor isn’t actually funny, and Zane isn’t playing for the joke. It’s a lame joke, but it’s a joke. And no one gets it. Unless the point of Freddy’s Dead is to be a complete misfire, in which case, mission accomplished.

After watching the film–for something like the fourth or fifth time, I saw it in the theater–I discovered I was watching a home video version, approximately ten minutes shorter than the original release. I assume they cut out character development. It probably would’ve been bad character development, but it might have at least made the film seemed like it was trying. Talalay can’t do anything. She’s not good at anything, at least not when it comes to presenting it to the audience. The sets are cool–C.J. Strawn’s production design, if one considers the absurdism of the script, should work a lot better than it does.

Englund’s bad, but he’s clearly aping for the camera. De Luca moronically does a character arc for Englund–the boogyman explained, over and over–and Englund visibly doesn’t know how to play some of those scenes.

Yaphet Kotto is okay for a couple of his early moments, when it seems like he might go all Parker on Freddy Kruger. By the end of the movie he’s bad, but because he’s still around and De Luca and Talalay don’t have anything for him to do.

I wonder if the original version is better or worse. It’s not like more time with any of the characters seems like a good thing. Though Shon Greenblatt at least improves throughout. He’s awful at the beginning and almost likable by the middle. Almost.

Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare’s bad. It’s often amusing in its badness–until the finale, when Zane puts on her 3D glasses (as does the viewer) and it just gets protracted. Englund and Zane don’t have any chemistry. He’s trying desperately, she’s not trying at all. A better performance by Zane in the last act would have helped a lot.

Maybe it is more appropriate for it to fail on all levels, over and over again.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Rachel Talalay; screenplay by Michael De Luca, based on a story by Talalay and characters created by Wes Craven; director of photography, Declan Quinn; edited by Janice Hampton; music by Brian May; production designer, C.J. Straw; produced by Robert Shaye and Aron Warner; released by New Line Cinema.

Starring Lisa Zane (Maggie), Yaphet Kotto (Doc), Lezlie Deane (Tracy), Ricky Dean Logan (Carlos), Breckin Meyer (Spencer), Shon Greenblatt (John Doe) and Robert Englund (Freddy Krueger).


Midnight Run (1988, Martin Brest)

Some time in the 1990s, Charles Grodin said in an interview no one wanted him to do a sequel with Robert De Niro, only ones with him and dogs. Midnight Run is one of the last great comedies (though the genre seems to be on the rise again). It’s an ideal motion picture comedy, with Grodin and De Niro working perfectly together. But what’s so striking about the film isn’t so much their developing relationship, but De Niro’s lead role. Run is from De Niro’s choosy period (it’s hard, watching the film, to think he’d ever have a non-choosy period) and, in a lot of ways, it’s his finest work since Raging Bull. De Niro’s character is entirely defined by how he relates to other people–it always occurs to me we never get to see where he lives–and De Niro still turns it into this sweeping, affecting portrayal of an unchangeable man changed.

Of course, De Niro gets a lot of help from the script. The rest of Gallo’s career is so startlingly unspectacular, one has to wonder if any uncredited rewrites were done on Midnight Run (and by whom… though I guess director Brest is a solid suspect). Gallo’s obscenity-laden dialogue comes off, in terms of linguistic somersaults, like a Marx routine. It’s mesmerizing to watch De Niro rant. There’s one particular scene, with him on the phone, surrounded by staring people, vociferating curses–it’s just fantastic. De Niro brings a self-awareness to the character, even though the script gives him a lot to work with. Where Midnight Run stands out is in the intricate ground situation, De Niro’s character is brimming with angst–“silence and rage,” as Grodin puts it at one point–but we never get to it laid out for us. Gradually, as they become closer, De Niro reveals all to Grodin, but never with verbosity–and we already know almost everything he’s telling Grodin anyway. The significance is in his personal revelation.

Grodin’s the solid straight man. It’s a lot like other Grodin performances, except in his genuine empathy, which mixes well with his irksome behavior. It doesn’t astound or anything, but no one else could have played the role.

The supporting cast is remarkable. Yaphet Kotto and John Ashton both create these unparalleled characters (neither are, to my knowledge, remembered for their outstanding work). Ashton makes his dumb bounty hunter both vicious and funny, earning some degree of viewer sympathy; he’s not likable, but he’s endearing. Kotto’s FBI agent in pursuit has great lines, but also develops into this superb human being throughout the picture.

Dennis Farina’s great as the villain. He manages to be hilarious while still being terrifying. Joe Pantoliano’s good in a small, but visible, role. Richard Foronjy and Robert Miranda are funny as two dimwitted, but effective, low-level mobsters.

As for Brest, it’s hard to know what to say about him. His direction is amazing, maybe best exemplified with a hilarious car chase and a harrowing trade-off. The car chase, though fantastic, never seems unrealistic and the trade-off, even though I’ve probably seen the film a dozen times, is always suspenseful. There’s also how he manages the film’s multiple locations as De Niro and Grodin move cross-country without ever losing the visual tone.

I’ve saved the last paragraph for Danny Elfman. Midnight Run is one of his early scores, his fifth or sixth. It might be his best. Midnight Run, from the opening title, clearly has a great, integral score. It’s impossible to think of the film without the score, without this score, from Elfman. It, just like most of the film, is perfect.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Martin Brest; written by George Gallo; director of photography, Donald E. Thorin; edited by Chris Lebenzon, Michael Tronick and Billy Weber; music by Danny Elfman; production designer, Angelo P. Graham; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Robert De Niro (Jack Walsh), Charles Grodin (Jonathan Mardukas), Yaphet Kotto (FBI Agent Alonzo Mosely), John Ashton (Marvin Dorfler), Dennis Farina (Jimmy Serrano), Joe Pantoliano (Eddie Moscone), Richard Foronjy (Tony Darvo), Robert Miranda (Joey), Jack Kehoe (Jerry Geisler), Wendy Phillips (Gail), Danielle DuClos (Denise Walsh) and Philip Baker Hall (Sidney).


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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