2020/02/14

Mediocre: Dead of Winter

Dead of Winter (1987)
Directed by Marc Shmuger, John Bloomgarden, Arthur Penn
Written by Anthony Gilbert, Marc Shmuger, Mark Malone
Produced by John Bloomgarden, Marc Shmuger, Michael MacDonald
Starring Mary Steenburgen, Jan Rubes, Roddy McDowall, William Russ, Mark Malone, Ken Pogue, Wayne Robson
Shmuger's and Malone's admittedly clever reworking of My Name is Julia Ross was sufficiently dissimilar to Joseph H. Lewis's mediocre noir melodrama and the novel from which it was adapted (Gilbert's The Woman in Red) for them to circumvent both copyrights and any associative legal action, but the goofy, glossy result is only technically superior to its source. Later a failed executive of Universal Pictures and Luc Besson's tiresome EuropaCorp, Shmuger was reportedly unprepared for his first week's directorial difficulties, and hired Penn to helm this picture while his co-producer Bloomgarden did so intervallically. Nina Foch's working girl lured though an employment office by a mother and her twisted son to their seaside estate, where's she's confined and publicly paraded as his missing wife, is recharacterized as an unemployed actress (Steenburgen) hired at a casting call by the vivacious valet (McDowall) of a crippled psychiatrist (Rubes) to perform a screen test at the shrink's mansion during a snowstorm in upstate New York on behalf of a Canadian filmmaker who's reportedly lost to squabbles his leading lady, to whom she's identical. It's certainly nice to behold: Jan Weincke's sharp, brilliant photography is commendable for its distinct yet balanced contrast, exhibiting Bill Brodie's splendid production design and sets appointed by Mark S. Freeborn and Paul Harding that emphasize the luxuriance of the wealthy mythomaniac's manse and cozy modesty of Steenburgen's apartment. Especially in dramatic worm's-eye and lingering still shots, Penn's usual craftsmanship is executed as adroitly as ever, and snappily cut by Rick Shaine. However, this particular journeyman's inclination to grant his casts carte blanche has always determined the varied quality of his best (Bonnie and Clyde, Night Moves, The Missouri Breaks) and worst (Alice's Restaurant, Penn & Teller Get Killed) movies. Perennial ham Rubes looks and sounds like elderly Werner Herzog channeling one of Adam Sandler's zanier characters; he hasn't a line too brief or gesture too small to overplay. Once infallible even whenever over the top (see The Legend of Hell House), McDowall's instincts were diminished either by years of roles in B-features or Rubes' influence, for he seems to be vying with the elder Czech for the blue ribbon with laughably mincing mannerisms. Steenburgen tackles three parts with gusto, but falters in two when attempting to maintain tonal accordance with Rubes. Consequently, the third act descends into a silliness that should've been suspense. For all this tale's riveting twists, its production's polish and a couple of appellative winks to Julia Ross, it's largely ruined by Rubes' gaping japery, and his co-stars' attempts to meet it.

2020/02/05

Execrable: Phoenix

Phoenix (1995)
Directed by Troy Cook
Written by Troy Cook, Jimmy Lifton
Produced by Dan Bates, Troy Cook, Jimmy Lifton, Morgan Salkind
Starring Stephen Nichols, Billy Drago, Denice Duff, Brad Dourif, Peter Murnik, William Sanderson, Robert Gossett, Betsy Soo, Jeremy Roberts, Leland Orser
Most of these rather languorous, fifth-rate fantasies that aired during afternoons of the nineties and early aughts on the Sci-Fi Channel (to the middling approval of children and teenagers) seem less produced than cobbled for prompt airplay. In this one, the bloody insurgence of military androids posted to a lunar mining colony provokes their manufacturer's oily CEO (Drago) to dispatch a strike force under the oversight of his testy lackey (Dourif) to neutralize the offending automatons and their undersized honcho (Sanderson). Treachery, corporate conspiracy, psychic side-effects of the mine's exclusively extracted element and a few instances of shocking ineptitude create complications substituted for any sort of plot. Nichols is blandly macho as the team's commander, lacking a dash of chemistry with his dubious love interest (Duff). His team's cadre are stock stereotypes: doomed black lieutenant (Gossett); tough hussy (Soo); brainish clown (Roberts). Usually a reliable character actor, Sanderson is here either deliberately stiff or merely sedated. Dourif's contrarily seething overperformance is amusing enough, as is a single sinister note played greasily by Drago. Expenses incurred by what passes for this flick's production design certainly couldn't exceed any budget in the low six figures; most of the costumes are inferior to middling togs of cosplay, and off-world mines, corporate complexes and hospitals of the future respectively resemble boiler rooms, warehouses and dentists' offices of the '90s sparsely adorned with neon lights. Congruous spacecraft consist of adorably toylike miniatures and graphics to rival those in cutscenes of coexistent shmups. Excepting a few unintentionally hilarious lines, most of Cook's and Lifton's dialogue is as shopworn as their story defined by derivation; even the malevolent corporation's eponym Rydell is suspiciously similar to Tyrell. This is recommended only for indiscriminate potheads and Dourif's fans, especially those who supported the twitchy thespian before Peter Jackson revived his career.
Instead, watch Scanners, Blade Runner or Ghost in the Shell.

2020/01/31

Palatable: Tricked

Tricked (2012)
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Written by Kim van Kooten, Paul Verhoeven, Robert Alberdingk Thijm, Anne Karina Westerik, Esther Schmidt, Kenneth Dingens, Tamara Bosma, Renee Van Amerongen, Martijn Daamen, Fleur Jansen, Sander Blom, et alia
Produced by Mardou Jacobs, René Mioch, Justus Verkerk
Starring Peter Blok, Gaite Jansen, Ricky Koole, Robert de Hoog, Jochum ten Haaf, Pieter Tiddens, Sallie Harmsen, Carolien Spoor, Ronald van Elderen

"Few men would be deceived if their conceit of themselves did not help the skill of those that go about it."

--Marquis of Halifax, Cheats

Viewers of this brief feature's first few prefatory minutes scripted by Van Kooten submitted thousands of continuative scenarios, from which diegetic devices were garbled, then integrated into the densely, tidily plotted shooting script of Verhoeven's first good flick in twenty years. The semicentennial birthday of a shaky construction firm's founder and CEO (Blok) is disrupted by attendances of his scheming partners (Haaf, Tiddens) and erstwhile, evidently enceinte mistress (Harmsen). In its aftermath, their revelations threaten to profitably unravel his professional life and business, but a backstair percontation by his stolid son (Hoog) and the flirty friend (Jansen) of his his dumpy, drunken daughter (Spoor) exposes connivance, though almost everyone involved is peccant for deceit. Staged, shot and acted with polished assurance at a brisk pace, this small production finds Verhoeven back in good form after his wearisome succession of doltish, bloated blockbusters stateside and in his native Netherlands, wasting not one of its sexy, silly fifty-five minutes, even if half of the twists recurring every five are too predictable.

2020/01/24

Mediocre: Bless the Child

Bless the Child (2000)
Directed by Chuck Russell
Written by Cathy Cash Spellman, Thomas Rickman, Clifford Green, Ellen Green
Produced by Mace Neufeld, Stratton Leopold, Bruce Davey, Lis Kern, Robert Rehme
Starring Kim Basinger, Jimmy Smits, Holliston Coleman, Rufus Sewell, Angela Bettis, Christina Ricci, Michael Gaston, Lumi Cavazos, Dimitra Arliss, Eugene Lipinski, Anne Betancourt, Ian Holm, Helen Stenborg
Who would've guessed that a supposedly autistic, wonderworking ginger (Coleman) birthed and deserted within a fortnight by a junkie (Bettis) and raised lovingly by a psychiatric nurse (Basinger) in her sister's stead was destined to fulfill some unspecified, pivotal prophecy? Only an unctuous self-help guru (Sewell), who instructs his Luciferian cult to locate, slay and brand children of NYC sharing her birthday until they identify by her thaumaturgy the Delphian tot, and deliver her by abduction to their heresiarch's corrupting claptrap. Less dopey than but just as predictable as coetaneous Stigmata or End of Days, Russell's briskly paced and constantly conventional religious thriller has as little sense as doctrine, but it's entertaining enough as a vehicle for its gracefully aging leading lady. Smits is fitly typecast as a federal agent whose investigation of the serial juvecides leads him into the orbit of Basinger's aunt, as are perennially ghoulish Bettis as her sordidly squirrely sister and Ricci, half as sleazy in the recreant role of another heroin addict. Holm's fugaciously frittered late in the second act, playing a crippled, defrocked Jesuit who paraphrases Baudelaire's famously reiterated quote and furnishes vatical exposition in a bogus brogue. Despite Peter Menzies Jr.'s warmly attractive photography, most of the interiors are consistently overlit. Spuriously digital rats, winged demons and a cameo by Beelzebub himself are qualitatively comparable to figures of a video game's cutscene, but a trio of volatile, irradiant angels (resembling those mortally recorded in Brainstorm) are prettily imaged without physitheistic banality during the picture's climax. Neither Spellman nor the adapting screenwriters bothered to research European sorcery, here misattributed to druids of the 16th century and Hebraically incanted by Sewell's reprobate! For fans of Basinger, still felicific and photogenic well into her fifth decade, or of genre pictures that treat of their extramundane subject with moderate religiosity and theurgy, this passable, periodically preposterous pic should fit the bill.

2020/01/17

Palatable: Brother

Brother (1997)
Directed and written by Aleksey Balabanov
Produced by Sergey Selyanov
Starring Sergey Bodrov, Yuriy Kuznetsov, Svetlana Pismichenko, Viktor Sukhorukov, Mariya Zhukova, Vyacheslav Butusov, Irina Rakshina, Sergey Murzin, Tatyana Zakharova

"I knew wherever I was that you thought of me, and if I got in a tight place you would come - if alive."

--William Tecumseh Sherman, letter to Ulysses S. Grant, 1864.3.10

Not to be confused with Kitano's underwhelming, cross-cultural Yakuza flick shot stateside a few years later, Balabanov's grimy crime drama was a domestic hit as much for its depiction of Russia's chaotic zeitgeist as its crafty economy. At the insistence of their mother (Zakharova), a tough, resourceful young veteran (Bodrov) of the First Chechen War peregrinates to St. Petersburg to reunite with his big brother (Sukhorukov), a freelance assassin employed by local gangsters. For his enterprise, martial invention and tactical cunning, he betters his sibling's success as a slippery gun for hire, but soon finds that urban life is as spiritually insidious as remuneratory. When he isn't greasing culprits of low character, the gifted gunsel beds a battered housewife (Pismichenko), troops with a trendy druggie (Zhukova) and an aging, weathered, German chapman (Kuznetsov) who resides in a Lutheran cemetery, and fixates on, attends a performance by and encounters at a party his new favorite band, Nautilus Pompilius, who provide most of the picture's music. Armed to kill with discrimination checked by rectitude and a CD steadily spinning waist-high in his Discman (an accessory of any upright young man in the '90s), Bodrov's felon is for his farouche humor, adaptability, fraternal fidelity and uncertain circumstances an embodiment of the plights and pertinacity that typified the ethos of young Russians during their nation's post-Soviet tumult. Practiced portrayals and St. Petersburg's backdrop contribute to this little landmark's plausibility, but its youthful audiences came for excitement and returned to see one of their own heroized for a principled criminality.
Recommended for a double feature paired with Three Days of the Condor, Le choc or Brother 2.

2020/01/10

Mediocre: Babes in Toyland

Babes in Toyland (1986)
Directed by Clive Donner
Written by Glen MacDonough, Paul Zindel
Produced by Tony Ford, Neil T. Maffeo, Anthony Spinner, Bill Finnegan, Patricia Finnegan, Sheldon Pinchuk
Starring Drew Barrymore, Richard Mulligan, Keanu Reeves, Jill Schoelen, Googy Gress, Pat Morita, Eileen Brennan, Walter Buschhoff, Shari Weiser, Rolf Knie, Gaston Häni, Pipo Sosman, Chad Carlson
Middling production values and design, clever yet unmemorable musical numbers and plenteous daffy havoc distinguish this sweet yet slight televised adaptation of Victor Herbert's and Glen MacDonough's fabular operetta from its six predecessors. One inanely implausible automotive accident during a blizzard on Christmas Eve delivers a preteen (Barrymore) to a fantastic municipality resembling a tidy, second-rate theme park populated by bipedally anthropomorphic animals and characters from nursery rhymes to unite a pair of lovers (Reeves, Schoelen), learn a few lessons from a magian artisan (Morita) in Santa's employ, and thwart the maniacally pleonexic designs of a feathered, usurious scoundrel (Mulligan). For adults, entertainment resides in these principals' alternately wooden and hammy delivery, and Donner's perfunctory direction leaves but a bit to the imagination, but this musical's adequate for families whose wee ones aren't yet terribly demanding, fans of America's favorite little addict when she was still only incipiently corrupt, and anyone apt to ogle Reeves and Schoelen for their pulchritude. Brennan's comic timing exceeds that of her co-stars, but she's granted regrettably scanty screen time. Don't expect much of Herbert's music, which is quoted occasionally in Leslie Bricusse's score and songs. Two versions were broadcast in the United States and Germany, respectively running 140 and 95 minutes; the condensed shorter of these is commonly available on videocassette and videodisc, though both are streamed by various services.
Recommended for a double feature paired with The Wizard of Oz or Disney's superior Babes in Toyland.