Category Archives: ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

Puppet Master II (1990, David Allen)

Puppet Master II opens with a mostly successful animate puppets resurrect their long-dead master in scary graveyard sequence. It’s a mix of stop motion and live effects; it just has a nice tone about it.

Then the endless opening titles start up and the film loses track of that tone. The Richard Band music doesn’t help things. In fact, it puts one more on guard against the music. It’s a genial, playful carnival-sounding score. Band’s score might work on a genial, playful movie, but on Puppet Master II, it exacerbates other problems.

Because for all the eventual violence–and the mean-spirited nature of the film (the puppet master, Steve Welles, is sending the puppets out to collect brain matter from fresh victims to make an ancient Egyptian rejuvenating serum)–Puppet Master II feels rather wholesome. It even manages to feel like a wholesome, low budget family picture when one of the puppets is terrorizing an annoying kid.

Director Allen’s composition is boring and predictable. Direction of actors is nonexistent. Shots will occasionally hang an extra second on Leads Elizabeth Maclellan and Collin Bernsen after they’re done delivering dialogue and their blandness becomes an all consuming black hole.

It’s why Nita Talbot is so important in the first act. She’s always got a self-awareness none of the other actors have.

So Maclellan, Greg Webb, Jeff Celentano, and Charlie Spradling are psychic investigators for the U.S. government. They make fun of the supernatural, but seem to believe in it. Talbot is their consultant psychic. Maclellan is entirely passive in the first act, reacting mostly to Webb. He’s her alcohol-abusing brother. He wears tight jeans. Celentano is the cameraman. He wears shorty shorts and shirts open to his navel. Puppet Master II likes some beefcake. Bernsen’s oiled up for his shirtless action scenes in the finale.

Anyway. Webb’s a somewhat mean drunk. It gets in the way of their job, which is fairly uneventful for a while. The puppets don’t bother the twenty-somethings, instead going out to murder the odious redneck farmer couple (Sage Allen and George ‘Buck’ Flower). The film’s got a low budget and Allen and Pabian aren’t good at innovating under constraint. The film’s never campy (though it might’ve helped). Cheesy? Almost cheesy? Soap opera-esque?

Soap opera-esque is a little unfair. Thomas F. Denove’s photography is competent. It’s not moody or scary and completely lacks personality, but it’s competent. It’s not Denove’s fault all Allen wants to do with the camera is set up a medium shot and then pan to other action. Allen’s direction lacks both ambition and artfulness; more importantly the former.

With the puppets otherwise engaged, the film brings in Welles. Resurrected Welles is completely wrapped up in gauze à la Claude Raines in The Invisible Man. He gives this broad performance with a terrible German accent but it works. Because none of the other characters react to him being a living mummy with a strange outfit and a black fedora.

And, thanks to Welles, the second act is almost always amusing. It’s got rough patches. Bernsen shows up and he and Maclellan have their painful flirtation sequences. Or when Spradling seduces Celentano–the second act is actually plagued with plotting issues and Allen not having any idea how to convey passage of time between scenes, but still. Welles is around in his get-up and it’s funny. He’s got this cheap steampunk but still steampunk outfit and he’s macking on Maclellan and she’s acting like it’s totally normal even though it’s clear through the bandages his lip is probably rotted off. Turns out Welles thinks Maclellan is a reincarnation of his dead wife and he’s got a plan to get her back.

The film gets so strange it should be better. I mean, there’s a scene with decomposing steampunk mummy Welles and Bernsen bickering over getting to dance Maclellan. And the film plays it straight-faced. The weird almost wins the day.

Puppet Master II is never well-acted (though Talbot at least doesn’t embarrass herself, everyone else does–except George ‘Buck’ Flower because how could he), it’s never well-directed, it’s certainly never well-written. But it does drum up enough potential energy to be a disappointment when it botches the finale. And the stop motion effects are good. There aren’t near enough of them.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by David Allen; screenplay by David Pabian, based on a story by Charles Band and characters created by David Schmoeller; director of photography, Thomas F. Denove; edited by Bert Glatstein and Peter Teschner; music by Richard Band; production designer, Kathleen Coates; produced by David DeCoteau and John Schouweiler; released by Paramount Home Video.

Starring Elizabeth Maclellan (Carolyn Bramwell), Collin Bernsen (Michael Kenney), Greg Webb (Patrick Bramwell), Nita Talbot (Camille), Jeff Celentano (Lance), Charlie Spradling (Wanda), Sage Allen (Martha), George ‘Buck’ Flower (Matthew), and Steve Welles (Chaneé).


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Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters (2017, Seshita Hiroyuki and Shizuno Kôbun)

The first half of Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters is surprisingly good. The film sets the scene during the opening titles–giant monsters attack in 1999, followed later by unstoppable Godzilla, two different space aliens show up to help in exchange for residency on the planet. Godzilla kicks everybody’s butt, driving the last 4,000 people from Earth (including the aliens) into space.

The movie opens twenty years later. The refugees can’t find a habitable planet. There’s some drama establishing lead Miyano Mamoru as a soulful military captain who hates Godzilla. He was a kid when they evacuated Earth and Godzilla not only killed his parents, Godzilla also made him drop some family heirloom. This hot alien priest dude, voiced by Sakurai Takahiro, takes pity on Miyano (well, not exactly pity–Seshita and Shizuno’s best work as directors is the sexual tension between the two). With Sakurai’s help, Miyano anonymously publishes a plan to kill Godzilla. The leaders of the refugees read the plan and think, hey, why not try going back to Earth.

Thanks to lightspeed and whatnot, it’s hundreds of years later. Or is it more?

Everything is fine until they get back to Earth. When the movie becomes Miyano’s, it goes to pot. Seshita and Shizuno are fine with the space ship drama and so on, but they’re crap when it comes to action. They apply live action logic to Planet, which is animated (though Godzilla is CG-assisted to questionable result), and the action scenes are choppy and absent thrills. Possibly because the characters become more and more unbearable as the film continues.

A lot of the fault is Urobuchi Gen’s screenplay. The characters are, at best, thin. At worst, they’re grating like Miyano.

The battle stuff is also poorly written. The timeline on Planet of the Monsters is always questionable–unless all the soldiers are actually children. Otherwise the years don’t line up. And the soldiers are a problem anyway because they’re all using awesome mechanized war machines (one alien species is religious fundamentalists, the other are tech nerds). How did they learn how to use the machines? The tween soldiers. They grew up on the space ship.

One of the soldiers is Hanazawa Kana. She’s either Miyano’s sister or his cousin. They have the same grandfather. But they don’t seem to know each other well. Their family relationship takes a while to get revealed (and it’s still never clear). At first I was wondering if she was the love interest, in which case I was going to be mad because the forbidden elf alien priest love thing. Right, the religious aliens look like Lord of the Rings elves.

Later I didn’t care because I just wanted Planet of the Monsters to end. And for Miyano’s character to die so if I ever saw the sequels (it’s the first in a trilogy), I wouldn’t have to suffer through him again.

But then the movie kept getting worse. Turns out the only thing Sehsita and Shizuno are less impressed directing than action is Godzilla. Unless you really like Godzilla marketing campaigns because the big CG Godzilla is often nothing more than a static image in a familiar poster pose.

For a while, it seems like Hattori Takayuki’s music is going to hold up. It’s good on the space ship. It takes some hits on Earth, but Hattori at least keeps it interesting. While he never uses Godzilla themes, he does do the same type of mood for sequences. Then he just goes to pot too.

Planet of the Monsters isn’t quite a monstrosity (though it’d be more amusing if it were); however, it’s still quite bad.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Seshita Hiroyuki and Shizuno Kôbun; screenplay by Urobuchi Gen; music by Hattori Takayuki; production designers, Ferdinando Patulli and Tanaka Naoya; produced by Yoshizawa Takashi; released by Toho Visual Entertainment.

Starring Miyano Mamoru (Haruo), Sakurai Takahiro (Metphies), Hanazawa Kana (Yuko), Sugita Tomokazu (Martin), Suwabe Junichi (Mulu-Elu Galu-Gu), Miyake Kenta (Belu-be Rilu-Elu), and Ono Daisuke (Leland).


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Puppetmaster (1989, David Schmoeller)

Puppetmaster has some great stop motion. The stop motion is nowhere near enough to make up for the rest, but there’s some excellent stop motion. The stop motion is so good, in fact, the lighting on it is better than Sergio Salvati’s lighting for the rest of the film.

Salvati’s lighting is a problem. He doesn’t do mood. John Myhre’s production design doesn’t do mood either. Yet Richard Band’s music does lots of mood. So the film’s constantly clashing. But when it’s stop motion effects of the murderous little puppets, then the mood is in sync.

The film opens in the past, with William Hickey cameoing as a puppet maker who can bring his creations to life. Jump to the present and someone has found the puppets. So the motley crew of principals have to go to this huge empty hotel to meet their friend, Jimmie F. Skaggs. They’re all psychic. Sorry, forgot. They’re all psychic. Anyway, it’s Paul Le Mat the Ivy league professor who dreams the future, Irene Miracle the Cajun fortuneteller, Matt Roe and Kathryn O’Reilly are a couple–he exploits her psychic powers, basically.

Only Skaggs is dead, leaving wife Robin Frates to contend with the puppet-hunters. Except none of the principals ever really talks about the puppets. Director Schmoeller’s pseudonymous script is light on detail, content, character, and, of course, mood. Le Mat sort of wanders through the film in a daze. Not just when he’s left to wander the empty hotel because everyone else is busy getting killed by the puppets.

In the flashback, Schmoeller does a lot with the puppet-vision–when it’s a puppet running around, interacting with an unknowing human world. When it comes time for him to do it in a thriller sequence, he completely chokes. It’s already a bad, long sequence–Schmoeller drags out the death scenes. He’s big on showcasing suffering, even if it’s limited by budget. His direction doesn’t have any of the humor Band’s music lays over the action. Again, Puppetmaster never feels in sync.

It’d be hard, given the performances. Everyone is awful except maybe Frates. And Mews Small as the maid, who disappears and no one cares why. Small’s okay.

Roe at least intentionally exaggerates. It’s unclear what anyone else is doing. Le Mat shuffling around is his entire performance. He’s got the least amount of character and he’s top-billed. At least Miracle has a taxidermied dog. It’s creepy and Miracle underplays it–while somehow going way too far on the accent–but it’s something. Le Mat’s just got a shaggy mullet.

Puppetmaster puts a lot of thought into its special effects. There’s no thought into anything else, though. The third act is better. Once Le Mat gets something to do, even if it’s only for five minutes. Schmoeller’s script has a pulse for a bit. The film goes needlessly far into gore soon after, not just because it’s narratively pointless, but also because the film doesn’t have the effects budget to do it. Schmoeller is always showcasing suffering over the gore in the scene. Not tension, not suspense, not gore, just suffering. It’s kind of weird, actually. Because he doesn’t do anything with it. It doesn’t build to anything.

Because Puppetmaster’s pretty bad. Cool stop motion, some cool puppets, some bad acting. Some really awful direction and writing.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by David Schmoeller; screenplay by Schmoeller, based on a story by Charles Band and Kenneth J. Hall; director of photography, Sergio Salvati; edited by Thomas Meshelski; music by Richard Band; production designer, John Myhre; produced by Hope Perello; released by Paramount Home Video.

Starring Paul Le Mat (Alex Whitaker), Robin Frates (Megan Gallagher), Irene Miracle (Dana Hadley), Matt Roe (Frank Forrester), Kathryn O’Reilly (Carissa Stamford), Mews Small (Theresa), Jimmie F. Skaggs (Neil Gallagher), and William Hickey (Andre Toulon).


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Lizzie Borden Took an Ax (2014, Nick Gomez)

A horrific crime. An infamous suspect. An unrelenting prospector and his search for the truth. Or not. I mean, technically most of the above statements could be used to describe Lizzie Borden Took an Ax, but none of them accurately captures the ninety-one minute TV movie.

There is some time spent on the crime. But Stephen Kay’s insipid teleplay already assumes Lizzie Borden’s guilt. It’s not about how or why Borden (Christina Ricci in a vacant performance) might have done the deed, but it’s also not much about how Ricci “got away with it.” There’s a trial sequence. It’s the worst part of the movie, which is saying a lot. Maybe because you finally get to see unrelenting prospector Gregg Henry come up against Kay’s bad writing. The writing lays waste to Henry, who ought to have some phenomenal part and instead doesn’t. According to the film, he doesn’t have much interest in truth. He’s justice-minded, sure, but without any convincing reasons for his passion. Once it’s clear Henry’s not getting any more character or any better scenes, he fades into the background.

Or it’s Steve Cosens’s lousy interior photography at the trial. Henry fades into that drab. But he could’ve had a good part. If the writing were better, if the direction weren’t weak. Director Gomez actually shows some interest at the beginning, when they’re recounting the murders. It’s not effect interest–the way he’ll frame a static shot to bring out the period details–but it’s an interest. It’s better than when he flubs a jump scare. Once he flubs the jump scare, it’s even more all over for Lizzie Borden. There’s just nothing to take seriously about it.

Ricci doesn’t have a character to play. Kay and Gomez have so little interest in Borden as a protagonist, they’re unwilling to commit to any characterization. At least Clea DuVall, as Ricci’s sister, gets to have emotional breakdowns. Ricci isn’t even allowed affect. No personality, no affect. Gomez’s direction is really bad. It’s goofy TV movie stuff a lot of the time, but it’s a goofy TV movie script so what else is he going to do with it, but Gomez doesn’t even help the actors. It’s so bad.

Also contributing to the endless depths of bad is the soundtrack. Lizzie Borden, set in 1892 New Jersey, has a hip, modern, country-twinged white man blues rock soundtrack. No women, however. The trappings of Ricci’s nineteenth century female are best exemplified through crappy songs. That anachronism is the only one in the movie. Unless you count Kay’s unbelievable court proceedings as anachronistic.

The guys have better parts. Shawn Doyle and Billy Campbell get through Lizzie Borden unscathed. They don’t try to hard, they phone it in, but they phone it in professionally. The parts are also better because they’re infinitely thin. Campbell’s the family lawyer who’s now defending Ricci. You’d think he might have some reaction to it. But no.

Oh. Right. The trial. The trial is terrible. The writing’s terrible, the direction is terrible. Gomez can’t get any intensity out of the proceedings, partially because Kay’s a bad writer, but also because there’s nothing to be intense about. The case hasn’t been made interesting. The characters haven’t been made interesting. It’s just awful stuff.

Stephen McHattie is the father. Historically, he seems like he was a bastard. Kay and Gomez make McHattie a bit of a grumbler, but he’s no bastard. Ricci might be a succubus though. It’s discomforting to what degree Gomez and Kay refuse to empathize with or even consider Ricci’s reality.

There are some terrible small supporting performances but it’s hard to blame the cast. It’s all Gomez and Kay.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Nick Gomez; written by Stephen Kay; director of photography, Steve Cosens; edited by Henk Van Eeghen; music by Tree Adams; production designer, James McAteer; produced by Michael Mahoney; aired by Lifetime.

Starring Christina Ricci (Lizzie Borden), Clea DuVall (Emma Borden), Gregg Henry (Hosea Knowlton), Stephen McHattie (Andrew Borden), Shawn Doyle (Marshall Hilliard), Sara Botsford (Abby Morse Borden), Hannah Emily Anderson (Bridget Sullivan), Andrea Runge (Alice Russell), and Billy Campbell (Andrew Jennings).


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