All posts by Andrew Wickliffe

The Prison (2017, Na Hyeon)

The Prison takes place in 1995. Is it because smartphones would ruin the execution of the premise? Or maybe something has changed in the South Korean prison system to no longer make the premise plausable? I don’t know. It’s a pointless and somewhat distracting detail.

The premise pretends to be high concept. Han Suk-kyu is the boss of The Prison. Not just the inmates, but the guards and the warden. He’s a crime boss, he orchestrates hits, he puts together heists, he just does it all from inside The Prison.

Disgraced ex-cop Kim Rae-won has just arrived. He immediately gets into a fight with Sin Seong-rok’s fourth tier thug. Kim arrested Sin. There’s a number of well choreographed fight scenes between the two of them throughout the film. But it puts Kim in Han’s orbit and pretty soon Kim is slowly becoming more and more important in the prison crime empire.

Sin stays present throughout, occasionally as comic relief, and there are subplots involving the corrupt warden (Jeong Woong-in) and some of Han’s gang. Something is always happening in The Prison. Keeping it busy means writer-director Na doesn’t have to worry about character development. The Prison’s real simple, it’s an action thriller set in a prison, it’s not supposed to be taken too seriously. Han hints at some depth in his performance, but there’s nothing supporting it in the script. Kim has a bigger backstory, but it eventually just makes a mess of the present action. Simply, Na’s storytelling instincts aren’t good. He thinks The Prison needs a gimmick to be engaging. It doesn’t, of course, it has Han and Kim.

Despite a thin character, Han gives a great performance. If the writing were better, Han would be better. Instead of excelling thanks to The Prison, Han just holds it together. Kim’s a lot broader. He doesn’t encourage stability or investment–his writing is bad too. Na’s problem is he doesn’t have any idea what to do with Han or Kim after establishing their both great at their jobs. Han is a great crime boss, Na just doesn’t give the character enough backstory for the narrative to be plausible. Ditto Kim. He was a great detective, idealistic in his corruption, who ends up in jail and finds himself applying his existing skills to help criminals. There’s even dialogue about it in the script; Na can’t figure out how to show it.

The third act feels way too rushed, way too contrived. There’s a lot of varied action; Na and editor Kim Chang-joo do fine with the individual action scenes, just not with stringing them together. Bang Joon-seok’s score doesn’t help matters, especially not in the third act.

Fine cinematography from Hong Jae-sik. Na’s a more than competent director, he just didn’t write well enough to end up with anything at the end of the film. Kim’s likability matters a lot more than it should. Na leverages the whole movie off that likability; otherwise, Kim’d be so thin he’d get stuck on the wall.

Most of The Prison’s solid though. It doesn’t even start to feel long until the epilogue.

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Na Hyeon; director of photography, Hong Jae-sik; edited by Kim Chang-joo; music by Bang Joon-seok; produced by Lee Sung-hun and Choi Ji-yoon; released by Showbox.

Starring Han Suk-kyu (Jung Ik-ho), Kim Rae-won (Song Yoo-gun), Jeong Woong-in (Manager Kang), Jo Jae-yoon (Hong-pyo), Sin Seong-rok (Chang-gil), Kim Seong-gyoon (Dr. Kim), and Lee Kyeong-yeong (General manager Bae).


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Flash Gordon (1938, Frederick Stephani)

Flash Gordon is all about its gee whiz factor. The serial goes all out to create the planet Mongo, which has come out of nowhere (in space) and is on a collision course with Earth. Only scientist Frank Shannon has a plan to save the otherwise panicked and resigned Earth–take a rocketship to the new planet and try to change its course. Shannon can’t do it alone, of course, he needs help; luckily, Buster Crabbe and Jean Rogers’s plane has crashed nearby. And Crabbe is Shannon’s colleague’s son. And Rogers is cute. So, of course, Crabbe and Rogers agree to go off to space to save the world.

Right off, Flash Gordon establishes Crabbe is a force more than a character. Crabbe excels at the role’s physicality–he always tries to do something, no matter the odds. Sometimes it’s to advance the plot, sometimes it’s to stretch out a chapter, sometimes it’s just to lose some of his clothes. Until the last three or four chapters, Crabbe’s always getting stripped down, sweaty, or wet. More on the beefcake in a bit. Crabbe’s enthusiasm is one of Gordon’s greatest assets. He doesn’t overthink his thinly written “never give up” preppy fencer rich kid with a heart of gold. Sure, he’s on an alien planet, and he’s nothing but a man, but he’s got to save every one of us.

So Crabbe goes all in on the physicality. It gets more intense as the serial progresses. By the second half of Flash Gordon, Crabbe’s even doing exagerated arm motions while running. He’s all in on Flash, even when he shouldn’t be trying so hard. His overdone expressions during the swordfights are risible, but earnest. He doesn’t have the same problems in regular fight scenes, just the swordfights. Thankfully, swordfights occur less and less frequently as the serial goes on.

Director Stephani focuses the film on Crabbe whenever he’s onscreen. At least until the last third of the chapters; then Crabbe will either literally disappear or take a supporting part in a scene. It feels a little weird–while the chapters have an excellent momentum overall, Flash’s finale is protracted. The last chapter could’ve finished off the serial at almost any point after the halfway mark. Flash starts as Crabbe’s journey around the kingdoms of Mongo but real quick it’s just about him being maybe a prisoner, maybe not a prisoner, of evil emperor Charles Middleton. It depends on Lawson’s mood; she plays the emperor’s daughter and she takes an immediate liking to the cut of Crabbe’s jib. Both in terms of his earnestness and his beefcakery.

Flash Gordon is a serial for kids with beefcake for accompanying parental units. There’s also some degree of good girl with Rogers and Priscilla Lawson. With the cheesecake, there’s at least have the excuse all the Mongo royalty are pigs. With the beefcake… sure, Crabbe’s an Olympian, there’s got to be some interest in him. But Flash doesn’t stop with Crabbe–almost all the male characters are eventually stripped down and coated in oil. And if they aren’t, they’re wearing shorty shorts. Flash Gordon can be a trip. Watching Shannon calmly deliver nonsense science exposition while in black shorty shorts is something else.

The costume design is a strange mix of various costumed drama and adventure styles. You have Greek and Roman soldiers–because shorts, after all–next to a guy in a suit of armor. They all have swords and laser guns. Laser guns don’t get used much, because budget. Budget also comes in on James Pierce’s lionman and Duke York’s sharkman. Lionman just means ZZ Top beard. Sharkman means speedos and a diving cap, maybe some drawn-on fins. The actors give it their all, however, which is stunning. Their straight faces help make the non-complementary styles acceptable together.

The only disappointments in the cast are Middleton and Jack ‘Tiny’ Lipson. Lipson’s the king of the hawkmen and he’s either annoying or too broad. It doesn’t help his first scene has him threatening to let his pet tiger eat Rogers since she doesn’t want to be raped. It’s a fairly intense scene for Flash, though Rogers’s under constant threat, whether from Lipson, Middleton, or Lawson. I think there aren’t any blond people on Mongo? So Middleton wants Rogers and Lawson wants Crabbe.

Anyway. Lipson’s not good. Middleton’s not either. The evil emperor never seems megalomaniacal or even regal. Towards the end, when Lawson is revolting against him too, Flash Gordon momentarily seems like a single dad warring against his rebellious teenage daughter, under the same roof, but in separate worlds. It’s only momentarily, because it’s not like Middleton would do it. The character’s one note, the performance’s similarly one note. If he were just a little better, the costume and makeup would probably carry him better.

But it doesn’t matter because Middleton’s far less important for the bulk of the runtime. He’s only important in the beginning and end. The rest of time, Middleton’s mostly around to crack the whip on scientist Shannon, because even though Mongo has spaceships of various designs and anti-gravity rays, somehow Shannon is smarter than all their scientists.

Crabbe and Rogers spend the first half of the serial making new enemies and then turning them into allies. Lawson’s usually around to undermine them and try to get Crabbe for herself. She eventually has to enlist double-dealing high priest Theodore Lorch to figure it all out.

When Flash Gordon does have its second half slowdown, things start getting repetative. How many times can Middleton lie to Crabbe? How many times can Crabbe and company escape yet end up back in Middleton’s palace? Will Shannon ever get his stupid radio to Earth fixed–seriously, it’s like nine chapters about it; way too much.

These repeats don’t end up hurting Flash much. Turns out its nice to see the actors get some down time and just to hang out. Crabbe and Rogers make cute puppy eyes. Lipson gets less annoying. Shannon’s practically an adorable old scientist guy by the end.

And it’s always exciting. Even when the editing stalls out or the cliffhanger resolution is a little lazy. Because Flash isn’t about the cliffhangers, it’s about the gee whiz. Thanks to Crabbe, most of the cast, and the enthusiastic production values, Stephani is able keep that gee whiz going through all thirteen chapters of Flash Gordon. When it seems like the gee whiz might run out, it just starts back up strong again. Flash can never fail.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Frederick Stephani; screenplay by Ella O’Neill, George H. Plympton, Basil Dickey, and Stephani, based on the comic strip by Alex Raymond; directors of photography, Jerome Ash and Richard Fryer; edited by Saul A. Goodkind, Louis Sackin, Alvin Todd, and Edward Todd; produced by Henry MacRae; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Buster Crabbe (Flash Gordon), Charles Middleton (Ming the Merciless), Jean Rogers (Dale Arden), Priscilla Lawson (Princess Aura), James Pierce (Prince Thun), Richard Alexander (Prince Barin), Jack ‘Tiny’ Lipson (King Vultan), Theodore Lorch (High Priest), Duke York (King Kala), and Frank Shannon (Dr. Alexis Zarkov).


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Waxwork (1988, Anthony Hickox), the unrated version

Waxwork has a distressing lack of charm. It ought to have some charm. The first act has its cast of young college students–whose college set seems to be a high school–speaking in some affected pseudo-fifties teen melodrama dialect. It ought to be sostaggeringmewhat charming. It’s not, but it ought to be.

Most of the problem is writer-director Hickox. He doesn’t direct his cast–answering the question, why wasn’t Zach Galligan a bigger star–because without direction, he’s way too slight. Even with an obnoxious, “quirky” character, Galligan makes no good impression. Though his costuming in the second half of the film doesn’t help much.

The first act is all character setup on the And Then There Were None cast. Galligan is a rich kid who speaks in dubitably accurate synonyms–see, quirky–only it stops once he gets to high school. Sorry, college. Michelle Johnson and Deborah Foreman are–inexplicably–friends with Galligan. Johnson’s the one note tramp, Foreman’s the one note virgin. Johnson has just thrown over Galligan for some other guy, which is fine since Johnson and Galligan have no chemistry. No one in Waxwork has much chemistry.

Dana Ashbrook is the last of the main cast members. He’s not good but still somehow likable. He tries with Hickox’s script; no small attempt. He’s just playing some guy who smokes a lot. He’s got no romantic connections or dialogue quirks.

They end up at David Warner’s creepy suburban wax museum for a private midnight show and discover things aren’t what they seem. The exhibits are portals to horrific worlds, leading to an overcooked werewolf–more a were-rabbit–and Miles O’Keeffe’s mind-numbingly atrocious rendition of Count Dracula. At the same time Hickox is flopping with his characters, it’s clear he does have some ideas. O’Keeffe’s Dracula has this terrifying dinner sequence where his victims-to-be have to prove their worth. Until it gets gory, Hickox and editor Christopher Cibelli ratchet up the tension.

Even at Waxwork’s worst, Hickox always manages to get tension. Maybe because the first couple encounters in the wax displays are just unending failures of the victims to escape. If any of Hickox’s scripting or directing ineptitudes came through campy enough, their contrast with the effective tension might be enough to get Waxwork its needed charm. Shame they don’t.

Of course, there’d still be the other problems to surmount. Like Roger Bellon’s score. The overtly melodramatic music–presumably at Hickox’s request–doesn’t match the actors’ performances or Gerry Lively’s pragmatic but flat photography. As a director, Hickox doesn’t have the ingenuity to pull off Waxwork at its budget. His crew displays occasional competence, but they can’t make up for Hickox’s shortcomings.

There are occasionally excellent shots–particularly with Johnson’s trip of terror–with no clear responsible party. Well, not Hickox. He doesn’t recognize their effectiveness, so maybe it was Lively with the photography or even Cibelli with the editing. Those shots only come in the first half. The second half, when its effective, is always through the tension.

Given the bad writing, it’s hard to gauge the performances. Johnson’s the best of the principals. Foreman’s got a weak story arc–involving J. Kenneth Campbell’s pirate version of the Marquis de Sade–but even without, she doesn’t make much impression. She and Galligan are ostensibly in a romance subplot, only with a negative amount of chemistry. Ashbrook does his best with the script; he’s great on his terror trip.

Aside from Miles O’Keeffe, who should be so bad he’s funny (but it doesn’t work out), the worst performance is from Charles McCaughan. He’s a “Miami Vice” attired suburban detective. He’s terrible. It’s not entirely his fault–he’s a clown–but he’s still terrible.

Patrick Macnee shows up in the second half in an ill-advised cameo.

Waxwork ought to be charming. Turns out Hickox’s idea of charming is having a buffoonish Nazi-loving professor. So no charm. And once it becomes clear Hickox’s actual successes with tension aren’t going to add up to anything, Waxwork’s a slow melt through its runtime. Decent effects work though. Shame Lively doesn’t light it better.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Anthony Hickox; director of photography, Gerry Lively; edited by Christopher Cibelli; music by Roger Bellon; production designer, Gianni Quaranta; produced by Staffan Ahrenberg and Eyal Rimmon; released by Vestron Pictures.

Starring Zach Galligan (Mark), Deborah Foreman (Sarah), Michelle Johnson (China), Dana Ashbrook (Tony), David Warner (Waxwork Man), Charles McCaughan (Inspector Roberts), Miles O’Keeffe (Count Dracula), J. Kenneth Campbell (Marquis de Sade), and Patrick Macnee (Sir Wilfred).


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But I’m a Cheerleader (1999, Jamie Babbit)

But I’m a Cheerleader is too short. It runs eighty-five minutes, which would be fine if the narrative fit into director Babbit’s affected, aspirationally camp style. But Brian Peterson’s script is front heavy. And Jules Labarthe’s cinematography is too flat. Rachel Kamerman’s production design is loud, but Labarthe shoots it too shallow. He’s also not great at lighting actors between shots. Even if he were, Cecily Rhett wouldn’t be good at cutting those shots.

Cheerleader is utterly sincere, which is great, but Babbit and Peterson don’t take the film through that sincerity as it develops. After a deliberately paced two-thirds, all of a sudden Cheerleader is in a rush to finish. The script has taken a traditional romantic comedy direction–down to a deus ex conclusion so spared down it utterly lacks the needed spectacle. Peterson’s script doesn’t lay the groundwork for it until the second half, which is a whole other problem. The film doesn’t flow well.

It wouldn’t help if Cheerleader accomplished affected camp. It doesn’t need to be camp. It accomplishes something else entirely, this amazing relationship between Natasha Lyonne and Clea DuVall, which turns out to be the point of the script. Only it doesn’t seem like it was always the point of the script, because the original point of the script was Lyonne’s character development; her personal growth arc gives way to traditional rom-com stuff.

Lyonne’s a high school cheerleader who finds herself whisked away to a “brainwash the gay away” camp. Parents Bud Cort and Mink Stole are upset previously prim, proper, and Protestant Lyonne now wants to eat tofu. And then there’s her Melissa Etheridge poster. So they call RuPaul (out of drag and quite funny) to consult. He’s an “ex-gay” who works at the camp (run by Cathy Moriarty).

But Lyonne doesn’t think she’s gay. So there’s character development on that plotline. And there’s development on her plotline with her parents. And there’s development on her plotline with DuVall, the semi-goth rich girl who isn’t trying to get rid of her gay, just learn how to hide it. The last plotline doesn’t just tie into Lyonne’s own sexuality plotline, but also her parents plotline and her life and values in general. In the midst of the affected camp, with Lyonne looking like a sixties cheerleader doll, she and DuVall have these terribly lighted, terribly edited, wonderful moments.

Lyonne’s fine in the lead. She gets better as her character becomes more proactive, but DuVall’s spellbinding. She’s (maybe) the object of Lyonne’s affection and Babbit does a great job presenting her and developing her from Lyonne’s perspective. While it’s not camp or affected and often feels like a different movie, their chemistry makes Cheerleader quite special for a while.

Then comes Peterson’s disastrous third act. It happens gradually too, almost forecasting itself. There’s just no way for Babbit and Peterson to get the film across the finish line in the eighty-five minutes so they grab what they can and wrap it up quick. Peterson throws out distractions in almost every scene–which can be cute, like ex-ex-gays Wesley Mann and Richard Moll bickering–but don’t end up doing anything. It’s filler, because the film’s lost Lyonne’s character development. She’s a protagonist with a stalled arc.

Moriarty’s all right. The script stops giving her anything extra after the first act setup and, given the outrageously pink (and overtly homoerotic) mansion interiors, Moriarty should have a lot extra. Instead, she just has son Eddie Cibrian, who’s a buff temptation for all the gay boys at the camp. There’s a big supporting cast of “campers” and they’re all fine. Melanie Lynskey gets more to do than most, she’s good.

Babbit wants to have the freedoms of affectation while retaining sincerity. Only Cheerleader doesn’t get to sincerity through affectation, it’s something Babbit and Peterson just drop into the affectation and try to make room. It doesn’t work, which is a shame, because DuVall and Lyonne deserve a better film. Babbit seems like she wants to deliver one too.

But I’m a Cheerleader is cute and fun. And sweet. But it could’ve been something much better.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Jamie Babbit; screenplay by Brian Peterson, based on a story by Babbit; director of photography, Jules Labarthe; edited by Cecily Rhett; music by Pat Irwin; production designer, Rachel Kamerman; produced by Andrea Sperling and Leanna Creel; released by Lions Gate Entertainment.

Starring Natasha Lyonne (Megan), Clea DuVall (Graham), Cathy Moriarty (Mary Brown), Melanie Lynskey (Hilary), RuPaul (Mike), Bud Cort (Peter), Mink Stole (Nancy), Dante Basco (Dolph), and Eddie Cibrian (Rock).


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