Category Archives: 1990

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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Goodfellas (1990, Martin Scorsese)

Most of Goodfellas is told in summary. After an opening scene introducing leads Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, and Joe Pesci, the action flashes back to Liotta’s childhood. Liotta narrates. Christopher Serrone plays the younger version.

Liotta’s narration guides Serrone around the neighborhood, letting the film introduce all the mobsters Serrone is enamoured with. Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi’s script does mass introductions at least two more times, maybe three. They’re setting up the ground situation, but in tone and mood, not for narrative purposes. Not even when it’d be narratively efficient to use them for useful exposition. Scorsese is revealing and examining these characters he’s introducing, their criminal monikers, their appearance. It’d be a lot if there were any neccesary information, instead it’s just gorgeous Michael Ballhaus photography.

De Niro and Paul Sorvino get introduced in the Serrone flashback. Sorvino’s makeup is all right throughout, but De Niro’s young guy makeup is far better than his old guy makeup at the end. And Pesci gets introduced, but he’s also played by someone else. Liotta’s a little hard to believe playing a twenty-one year-old. But Pesci playing one is Goodfellas biggest suspension of disbelief.

Scorsese establishes Goodfellas’s narrative pattern during the Serrone flashback. Amusing, expertly shot, expertly cut summary, often with great songs playing, followed by more summary, more summary, then a scene. The scene works at an entirely different pace, usually to let Pesci have a big scene. Scorsese’s a good son though; his mom, Catherine, gets a big scene too. She’s playing Pesci’s mom. It’s a long, self-indulgent scene, but damn if Pesci’s acting doesn’t carry it. Neither Liotta or De Niro really act much. Liotta goes from being a dimwit to a scumbag to a cokehead. He’s awesome at the narration. His performance in the narration is so much more distinct than his performance on screen. On screen he’s thoughtless and dull. In the narration, he’s sharp. He does get his one monologue at the end, tying action to narration. It’s mildly successful.

Scorsese should’ve started employing it two minutes in.

And then De Niro. Until the last third of the movie, De Niro feels like something of a special guest star. Even when he gets his own subplot in the story, the film doesn’t cover it. He goes from being the cool older thug to kid Serrone to loitering around bars less active thug. Though De Niro does tend to be in the scenes. When Goodfellas slows down and stops summarizing, it’s usually for a De Niro scene.

Little weird since he’s obviously not the protagonist.

His performance is also a little bland. He’s only ever got to show concern for one person and he doesn’t pull it off. He hadn’t been layering his performance. He’s good, he’s a lot fun sometimes. But he’s the special guest star who gets to wear a lot of old age makeup. The character’s never interesting, only De Niro.

But then it’s the same thing and totally different with Pesci. His character is extreme and unpredictable, while never dangerous. Because danger doesn’t really factor in to Goodfellas. And it shouldn’t. The movie wouldn’t work if Liotta, De Niro, and Pesci didn’t act with impunity. Pesci’s the only one who takes the time to live in that experience. To luxuriate in the impunity. In his performance, not the character as written.

And now Bracco. Or, Goodfellas’s biggest problem. Not Bracco, she’s excellent. But how the film treats Bracco.

About an hour in–still in some kind of first act–Liotta and Bracco meet and get married. There’s a courtship, but it’s not long and their eventual marriage is never in question once it gets introduced. Especially since Bracco starts narrating the movie instead of Liotta.

It’s the mid-sixties now. The film pays beautiful attention to period detail–Kristi Zea’s production design, Richard Bruno’s costumes. Bracco’s ostensibly there to seduce the viewer with the mobsters’ wives lifestyle. Scorsese does it half-hearted, treating it as narrative function. Turns out Bracco’s narration isn’t Goodfellas developing its narrative into new territory, it’s just a device. One Scorsese and Pileggi do away with–Bracco’s done pretty soon after she observes all the other mob wives wear terrible pantsuits (something she’ll be doing before the end of the movie, foreshadowing of foreshadowings). Also Bracco and Liotta don’t really develop any chemistry. She moons over his tough guyness in the narration, but their scenes together are at best thin.

Again, she’s a narrative function. Bracco doesn’t get a good character until the movie’s almost over. And it’s a shame, because she’s excellent once she gets that character. And she has good scenes before it. Scorsese and Pileggi are just way too comfortable using her as a caricature.

After Bracco, the biggest female part is Gina Mastrogiacomo’s. She’s Liotta’s girlfriend–in the early seventies era of the film. She’s even more of a caricature, though not as loud of one.

Somehow Debi Mazer–as Liotta’s eighties girlfriend who used to be Mastrogiacomo’s friend–somehow she ends up with the stronger part. At least in how it plays on screen. Her performance never gets screwed up for narrative purposes. She’s a caricature through and through, never reduced to one.

The film ends with an amazing procedural sequence. When the film gets to the seventies, Scorsese stops showcasing the period. But Zea and Bruno work just as hard on the production design and costumes as when those aspects were getting spotlights. So the procedural sequence is this magnificant slowdown, while still staying active. Liotta and Bracco finally get a long sequence to themselves. Not much in the way of acting material, but they get the sequence.

And it turns out they’re great together, which is the most disappointing thing about Goodfellas. Where Scorsese wastes potential.

Especially since the last third is full of Chuck Low’s annoying wanna-be mobster pestering everyone. Goodfellas has a problem with cariacture.

Scorsese’s direction and the technical successes–Ballhaus’s photography, Thelma Schoonmaker and James Y. Kewi’s editing–keep Goodfellas moving along. There’s a lot of moving to do–the film races through thirty years, only slowing down for De Niro and the finale. And the finale doesn’t add up. Because it’s Liotta’s finale and Scorsese’s been avoiding Liotta since before Liotta was playing the part. Embrace the protagonist’s narration, avoid the protagonist.

It’s a problem. Goodfellas has many. It’s also has some real strong strengths; those add up to a moderate success.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Martin Scorsese; screenplay by Nicholas Pileggi and Scorsese, based on a book by Pileggi; director of photography, Michael Ballhaus; edited by Thelma Schoonmaker and James Y. Kwei; production designer, Kristi Zea; produced by Irwin Winkler; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Ray Liotta (Henry Hill), Lorraine Bracco (Karen Hill), Robert De Niro (James Conway), Joe Pesci (Tommy DeVito), Paul Sorvino (Paul Cicero), Frank Vincent (Billy Batts), Chuck Low (Morris Kessler), Gina Mastrogiacomo (Janice Rossi), Debi Mazar (Sandy), Christopher Serrone (Young Henry), and Catherine Scorsese (Tommy’s Mother).


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Hammer, Slammer, & Slade (1990, Mark Schultz)

Hammer, Slammer, & Slade is a television pilot spin-off of a movie (I’m Gonna Git You Sucka). It has the same writer as the movie–Keenan Ivory Wayans–and much of the movie’s cast. The three “leads” all return from the movie–Bernie Casey is Slade, Jim Brown is Slammer, and Isaac Hayes is Hammer. Slade, Slammer, & Hammer does sound terrible, but it’s the more accurate order as far as plot importance goes for the characters.

And then there’s Eriq La Salle. He’s playing the Wayans part from the movie, but a rookie cop for TV instead of the film’s war hero. Frankly, he’s in it too much. La Salle’s got two modes–passive and even more passive. He can’t figure out the part and director Schultz is no help. Hammer, Slammer, & Slade is often hilarious. But it’s never because of Schultz. His direction is an unmitigated disaster.

Harsh adjective, but there’s no reason this pilot shouldn’t have been magic. Except it’s not magic. And it’s not even Schultz’s fault; he’s just not the right guy to do this thing. Because this thing is a spoof of an eighties cop procedural, seventies blaxploitation pictures, with three–ahem, “older”– genre superstar leads, and an often deft script from Wayans. But Wayans’s jokes aren’t paced right for the forty-seven minute pilot–right, Hammer, Slammer, & Slade is a pilot for an hour-long action comedy show. Back when it was shopped around in 1990–spoiler–it didn’t sell. Because it wasn’t time yet.

It also doesn’t help the film stock–that standard eighties drama film stock–used on the pilot doesn’t fit the content at all. Especially not with Schultz’s bad composition of set pieces. He’s never good, but he gets noticeably worse on the set pieces. Because he can’t direct the comedy.

The first act is La Salle’s cop mentor (also blaxploitation star Ron O’Neal) getting framed and La Salle going to Casey for help. It’s a great time for the character focus to pass off because La Salle’s too tedious. The show’s called Hammer, Slammer, & Slade, not the The Guy From the Movie Didn’t Come Back. It’s about Casey, Brown, and Hayes.

The getting the band back together takes way too long. It eventually pays off. But it takes too long.

Another timing issue is how long the talking scenes go on. Sure, all the actors get some cool posturing, but then it just keeps going. So either Wayans wrote terrible scene transitions or someone told the actors to just ad lib and hope for a quotable gem. During the second act, it gets annoying. The pilot has these illustrated transitions for commercial breaks–which are awesome–but when a scene is bad, you just sit and hope for it to go to illustration instead of it not stopping. It’s the same series of boring shots from Schultz and bad cuts from Stan Allen.

The editing is real bad, partially because Schultz clearly can’t get consistent deliveries from the actors. Just in conversation.

So it’s kind of rough going for a while. The soft misogyny jokes (from the good guys) don’t help–and it’s one of La Salle’s few scenes after the first act, so it makes him even more grating. And the way Wayans frames Hayes initially as a punchline for being hen-pecked (a fantastic Ja’net DuBois in a poorly written part) is tiresome.

There’s been at least one good laugh, but some failed ones too.

Then the team comes together in action scenes and there’s actual energy. Casey, Brown, and Hayes are all willing to do more work than the script or direction requires. They’ve been getting nerf balls or worse–Schultz has no idea how to direct Brown or Brown’s lines–but then the requirements of the medium take over and the pilot has to throw fastballs or whatever. And the actors are ready.

Even La Salle. He breaks character for a couple lines when he actually seems like he’s acting. Sure, he seems like he’s an angry Peter Benton but it’s something.

Poor Steve James does the most work in the unfortunately written part of Black man obsessed with karate. He never gets good material, though the script does at least recognize he’s the only one in shape. The out of shape, aging jokes are good. Not even Schultz can mess up the direction enough in those scenes. The actors seem cautious about it at first, then commit as things go on.

Hammer, Slammer, & Slade ought to be awesome. It’s not. It still should’ve been a series. With a lower budget–being shot on video and looking like a sitcom would’ve helped–and anyone else directing.

Still, as is, the cool factor outweighs the significant problems.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Mark Schultz; written by Keenen Ivory Wayans; director of photography, Charles Mills; edited by Stan Allen; music by Stanley Clarke; production designer, Maxine Shepard; produced by Tony Bishop; aired by the American Broadcasting Company.

Starring Bernie Casey (John Slade), Eriq La Salle (Jack Spade), Jim Brown (Slammer), Isaac Hayes (Hammer), Steve James (Kung Fu Joe), Ron Dean (Sgt. Hill), Mark Rolston (Little Mr. Big), Martin Lawrence (Willie), Bentley Kyle Evans (Lenny), Ja’net DuBois (Joanne Wilson), Almayvonne (Coreatha), and Ron O’Neal (Ray Samuels).


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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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