Category Archives: 1990

Young Guns II (1990, Geoff Murphy)

In many ways, Young Guns II is an improvement over the first. Geoff Murphy knows how to direct a Western, at least until he has to do a showdown scene and then he’s in trouble, but if it’s general Western action, he can do it. And he’s got the same cinematographer as the first movie, Dean Semler, who this entry has a far better color palette to work with. It’s lush. Young Guns II is a lush film.

It’s a bad film too. But lush.

The big problem is how the film treats Emilio Estevez’s Billy the Kid. His psychotic behavior isn’t even a plot point. He’s just rambunctious and a little shit. Emilio Estevez’s Billy the Kid is Dennis the Menace. He’s a twerp. Estevez, screenwriter John Fusco and director Murphy are all on the same page with the character. He’s a murderous twerp, but he’s just a twerp. Any sense of reality is out the window straight off in Young Guns II. The cost of the lushness.

Estevez is bad and not in an interesting way. Kiefer Sutherland and Lou Diamond Phillips look trapped. Neither of them get a subplot. They get pretend subplots, but not actual ones. New cast member Christian Slater is awful. Alan Ruck isn’t bad. William Petersen’s a lame Pat Garrett.

There are a lot of great character actors and just plain familiar character actors filling out the film’s supporting cast and none of them are actually good. I mean, seeing Viggo Mortensen as an uncool government employee is something, but it’s not like he’s good. Tracey Walter’s not even good in Young Guns II. Murphy can’t direct actors. Okay, maybe he wasn’t in on the changes to how to portray Estevez.

Jenny Wright is actually pretty good in a tiny part.

Excellent production design from Gene Rudolf–another of the improvements over the first film–and a really weird, bad score from Alan Silvestri. He hits a lot of the regular Silvestri cues, occasionally to success, but it’s omnipresent and too loud. He also has a theme similar to the opening of Time After Time and you just sit there and wish Cyndi Lauper would start singing so there’d be something good.

It’s okay until the third act? I mean, it’s fine until the third act. I don’t know why I’m trying to be nice. Oh, because I’m listening to Time After Time and I have goodness, which Young Guns II doesn’t really offer.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Geoff Murphy; written by John Fusco; director of photography, Dean Semler; edited by Bruce Green; music by Alan Silvestri; production designer, Gene Rudolf; produced by Irby Smith and Paul Schiff; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Emilio Estevez (Billy), Kiefer Sutherland (Doc), Lou Diamond Phillips (Chavez), Christian Slater (Arkansas Dave), William Petersen (Pat Garrett), Alan Ruck (Hendry William French), R.D. Call (D.A. Rynerson), James Coburn (John Simpson Chisum), Balthazar Getty (Tom O’Folliard), Jack Kehoe (Ashmun Upson), Robert Knepper (Deputy Carlyle), Viggo Mortensen (John W. Poe), Tracey Walter (Beever Smith), Bradley Whitford (Charles Phalen), Scott Wilson (Governor Lewis Wallace) and Jenny Wright (Jane Greathouse).


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Dances with Wolves (1990, Kevin Costner)

From the start, director Costner embrues Dances with Wolves with melancholic tragedy. Even as Costner’s protagonist–a Union soldier reassigned to the frontier–travels west, seeing startling natural beauty, which Costner and cinematographer Dean Semler visualize carefully, enthusiastically, perfectly, there’s dread. Most of it comes from John Barry’s lush and haunting score, but Costner does make sure to juxtapose his character’s idyllic, solitary experience with the realities around him. The realities involve the residents of the frontier–the Native Americans–and the threat Costner represents.

Costner’s protagonist is one of the singular elements of Dances with Wolves. He’s a goof, but Costner–both as director and actor–never invites a laugh. He still gets them occasionally and paces to allow them, he just doesn’t invite them. The film runs three hours, with most of the first hour spent establishing Costner and the setting. The Sioux living nearby, who he eventually joins, are either figures on the horizon or unintelligible visitors. Of course, the Sioux–Graham Greene and Rodney A. Grant are the primary supporting cast–do have their own scenes, but they’re delayed. It isn’t until Costner, the actor, meets them in the film does Costner, the director, let Greene and Grant start to develop. Almost the entire first hour of Dances with Wolves is Costner delaying the inciting incident. There’s a lot of ground situation to establish and Costner takes his time.

The tone Costner sets in that first hour, alternating between graphic war violence and the tranquil, infinite prairie, doesn’t carry for the rest of the film. Dances with Wolves becomes a very mature romance once the Sioux befriend Costner and he meets Mary McDonnell’s “captive.” McDonnell’s got her own arc, which is awesome, with her relearning her English and romancing a fellow white person, but she’s never reconnecting with her “lost” identity. Costner and writer Thomas Blake (adapting his novel) are very deliberate in how they present not just the Sioux, but how they present Costner and McDonnell to the Sioux and vice versa. That introductory tone, occasionally violent but still tranquil, makes the eventual character relationships all the better. Costner can spend twenty minutes having Costner and Greene bond, Costner and McDonnell appreciate each other’s company–and Costner and Grant’s relationship is maybe the film’s most emotionally devastating–and then get into the bigger questions.

The weight of Wolves comes from these characters forced into these new, impossible situations with one another, but also the impending doom of settlement. Costner narrates the film–through an in-film journal device–and lays a lot of that groundwork. But the appreciation for the natural beauty also gets emphasized in that narration. The narration also directly affects how Costner’s character’s sweet goofiness comes across in scene. It’s a beautifully constructed narrative.

The film’s technically outstanding. Semler’s photography, presumably mostly in natural light, is amazing. The Barry score is awesome. Great editing from William Hoy, Chip Masamitsu, Steve Potter and Neil Travis.

Superb acting–Greene, McDonnell, Grant, Costner, Tantoo Cardinal. Very nice “cameos” from Robert Pastorelli, Charles Rocket, Maury Chaykin, Wes Studi. McDonnell’s performance could power its own film.

Dances with Wolves is emotionally draining enough Costner could probably get away with a cute moment in the third act just to give some relief. But there isn’t any relief; Wolves has to be honest. Technicolor skies, endless Panavision prairies, the thunder of a buffalo herd–all too cinematic, all too real. Blake’s script helps a lot with the detail, ditto Jeffrey Beecroft’s production design.

Dances with Wolves is a stunning achievement from Costner and his cast and his crew.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Kevin Costner; screenplay by Michael Blake, based upon his novel; director of photography, Dean Semler; edited by William Hoy, Chip Masamitsu, Steve Potter and Neil Travis; music by John Barry; production designer, Jeffrey Beecroft; produced by Costner and Jim Wilson; released by Orion Pictures.

Starring Kevin Costner (Lieutenant Dunbar), Mary McDonnell (Stands With A Fist), Graham Greene (Kicking Bird), Rodney A. Grant (Wind In His Hair), Floyd ‘Red Crow’ Westerman (Ten Bears), Tantoo Cardinal (Black Shawl), Robert Pastorelli (Timmons), Charles Rocket (Lieutenant Elgin), Maury Chaykin (Major Fambrough) and Wes Studi (Toughest Pawnee).


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Marked for Death (1990, Dwight H. Little)

The beginning of Marked for Death is nearly all right. It’s a prologue, with lead Steven Seagal–as a DEA agent–in Mexico, doing an undercover drug buy. Things go wrong. Until things go wrong, it’s not bad. Director Little has a lot of motion (which is fine when people are moving around, much less when he’s zooming in to try to keep conversations interesting) and it’s effectively tense. Then the action starts and it all goes to pot, because Little can’t direct an action scene, much less a martial arts scene for Seagal. Marked for Death just never clicks, even though it has most of the required pieces. A sense of humor would have made all the difference.

Seagal has some bad acting in the film, but not too much. He’s opposite actual good actors a lot of the time–Keith David, Tom Wright, Kevin Dunn–and they help the film. They don’t help Seagal’s performance. There’s not much one can do with the part–his DEA agent resigns only to get into a fight with a Jamaican drug lord. To make matters worse, the drug lord (Basil Wallace, who over-acts in the part), goes after Seagall’s family.

Along the way, Seagal drafts high school teacher David as his sidekick in vigilante mission. He also meets a girl–an awful Joanna Pacula–before heading to Jamaica for the showdown. The best parts in the film are some second unit establishing shots in Jamaica, amid palm tress.

Speaking of palm trees, the unbelievably inept chase scene–set in the Chicago suburbs–is littered with palm trees. After the film goes out of its way to establish the Chicagoland connection. Seagal just loves being a soulful Catholic Chicago dude. He should’ve remade the Blues Brothers.

If you look past how the film demonizes Jamaicans (they’re not characters or caricatures even, they’re boring monsters), Marked for Death is just goofy bad, with a lame score from James Newton Howard (who actually appears to be mocking the scenes he’s scoring at times), the crappy script from Michael Grais and Mark Victor, inept action editing. But, through it all, Little still manages to fail everyone else involved. His direction is the pits.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Dwight H. Little; written by Michael Grais and Mark Victor; director of photography, Ric Waite; edited by O. Nicholas Brown; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, Robb Wilson King; produced by Grais, Victor and Steven Seagal; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Steven Seagal (John Hatcher), Joanna Pacula (Leslie), Keith David (Max), Tom Wright (Charles), Kevin Dunn (Lt. Sal Roselli), Elizabeth Gracen (Melissa), Bette Ford (Kate Hatcher), Al Israel (Tito Barco), Arlen Dean Snyder (Duvall), Victor Romero Evans (Nesta) and Basil Wallace (Screwface).


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Days of Being Wild (1990, Wong Kar-wai)

Director Wong crafts Days of Being Wild as a series of vignettes, only with the film’s principal character never the protagonist of any of these vignettes. Wong and editors Kai Kit-wai and Patrick Tam go for lyrical transitions (or none at all); combined with the emptiness of Wild’s Hong Kong (busy places at times they aren’t busy), there’s palpable mood. Terry Chan’s music, which evokes sixties pop (only desperate), is also essential.

That main character who never gets to be protagonist is Leslie Cheung. He’s a lothario–the film opens with his seduction of shopgirl Maggie Cheung before he moves on to dancer Carina Lau. The first act of the film, which establishes all the characters, is the most unlike the rest. Wong makes verbal reference to off-screen characters who later become important, he makes sure the viewer understands all the relationships. The vignettes don’t start until the second act (so I guess Leslie Cheung does get to be the protagonist for a bit in the first act).

But once the vignettes start, beginning with Maggie Cheung’s return to the film and her friendship with Andy Lau (as the police officer whose beat includes Leslie Cheung’s building). Then it’s Carina Lau’s turn. She sort of shares her time with Rebecca Pan (as Leslie Cheung’s adoptive mother).

Wong isn’t concerned with making his characters likable. No one likes Leslie Cheung, not even his friends–Jacky Cheung, as his sidekick, is just as much a conquest as any of the women–but Carina Lau’s pretty awful too. Maggie Cheung and Andy Lau could both be read as saints, but Wong and cinematographer Christopher Doyle don’t much go for sainthood. There’s darkness and fuzziness to everyone, with the possible exception of Pan. Even though she should be despicable (she bought Leslie Cheung from his birth mother), she’s still extremely sympathetic. Maybe because she’s so self-aware.

Great performances from Carina Lau and Maggie Cheung. Leslie Cheung and Jacky Cheung are both effective, but–until the third act–the real problem with Wild is Leslie Cheung’s far from the most interesting character Wong’s got going here. Even though Andy Lau’s got a bland role to play (sturdy guy), he potentially has a lot more depth than Leslie Cheung.

Then the third act comes along and Wong decides he wants to try out an entirely different kind of film (stylistically, each vignette has its own feel) and it doesn’t work out. Maybe because it’s Andy Lau’s vignette about how he runs into Leslie Cheung later on and they have a misadventure. It feels forced. Everything else is organic. That final vignette, with its melodramatic action, just doesn’t work out.

By the time Wong brings everyone else back in for the wrap-up, it feels like he’s trying to cover. He can’t.

Days of Being Wild is still a beautifully made film, beautifully constructed narrative. It’s just the plotting (and perspective) where Wong is off.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Wong Kar-wai; written by Wong and Jeffrey Lau; director of photography, Christopher Doyle; edited by Kai Kit-wai and Patrick Tam; music by Terry Chan; production designer, William Chang; produced by Rover Tang; released by In-Gear Films.

Starring Leslie Cheung (Yuddy), Maggie Cheung (Su Li-zhen), Andy Lau (Tide), Carina Lau (Leung Fung-ying), Jacky Cheung (Zeb) and Rebecca Pan (Rebecca).


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