Category Archives: 1990

Janine (1990, Cheryl Dunye)

Janine is shot–and edited–on video. So when Dunye cuts to an insert shot for mood, there’s a jerky quality. She does a lot of freeze frames and the format just means it can’t gracefully return to motion. Seeing the cuts as Dunye relates the story–of Janine–causes attention to refocus. If your attention was waning for some reason, wake up, remember what you’re doing.

The short is nine minutes. Dunye is talking to the camera, only rarely looking into it. Her eyes look down and to her right usually, not wistfully lost in the memories–because there aren’t wistful memories of Janine.

It’s a non-fiction spoken word piece, with visual asides and occasional emphasizes (text of something Dunye has just said). Dunye’s monologue focuses on Janine, a high school classmate and basketball teammate and ostensible close friend, who couldn’t be more different. Dunye’s Black and a lesbian. Janine’s a shallow, straight white girl turned shallower straight white woman. Orbiting the stories about Janine is Dunye’s journey through high school.

Dunye relates her memories consecutively, never slowing down to follow up on a point; the short ends with Dunye talking about her last conversation with Janine, which serves not just to close the short (and Dunye’s relationship with her) but to package the short. Dunye’s never evasive–it’s unclear how much she’s prepared the monologue, there are definitely times where she gets off track and will have some wonderful slippage–but she doesn’t fully present her feelings until the end. We’ve been hearing her tell the story, but she’s been talking about herself at a distance.

Dunye’s performance as a monologist makes Janine. Her chosen recollections, those occasional slips away from the “outline.” The editing of the visual inserts is better than the videos themselves, except the emphasizing with text inserts. Those inserts are all around awesome.

Janine’s good. Janine doesn’t sound good, but Janine’s good.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Written, directed, edited, and produced by Cheryl Dunye.


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Ident (1990, Richard Starzak)

Ident is an unpleasant five minutes. Intentionally unpleasant. Even the dog is unpleasant, but mostly because the protagonist finds the dog unpleasant. The protagonist is unpleasant himself; the dog seems mostly innocent.

The short is claymation and takes place in a labyrinthine city. It’s not clear it’s a city for a while, it just seems like a labyrinth where the protagonist–a tall rounded cylinder (the design of the people gives them all Picasso eyes, like they’re looking straight from the side of their “heads”)–wandering around. But then it’s clear he’s got a job, acquaintances, a life. Of course, life mostly consists of wearing masks around some people and not around others. And changing the masks.

Maybe the best thing director and animator Starzak does is imply some depth and symbolism the short doesn’t actually have. So the narrative isn’t as important the mood. And the mood is very, very dark. The protagonist some spends his time terrified, in search of a way to cover his face; he spends some his time drunk, in search of a way to change his face;Ident no doubt is short for “identity”–or otherwise disguise himself.

Then at the end he finds his way out into a new, open world. But not really open because it’s still a set.

Starzak makes a disquieting short, no doubt, with some distinctive stop motion animation. There’s just nothing to it. And distinctive claymation isn’t necessarily good claymation. There are a few neat visuals but nothing worth sitting through the rest.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Animated and directed by Richard Starzak; written by Starzak, Arthur Smith, and Phil Nice; director of photography, Dave Alex Riddett; edited by David McCormick; music by Stuart Gordon; produced by Sara Mullock.

Starring Arthur Smith and Phil Nice.


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Darkman (1990, Sam Raimi)

The last twenty or so minutes of Darkman are when director Raimi finally lets loose. He’s been building to it, hinting at how wacky the movie’s going to get, but it doesn’t all come together until the end. And the end is when Darkman has the most standard action sequences. There are big set pieces. Before, it’s all very constrained. It all looks great–probably better than those last twenty minutes, when composite shots kind of do in Raimi’s imagination–but it’s limited.

The end is exciting, imaginative madness.

Darkman’s problem throughout is the script, but more because the movie’s too short for the story it needs to tell than anything the five screenwriters do wrong. Until the end of the second act, the movie hops and skips through its present action. There are way too many MacGuffins, way too many contrivances; Raimi’s fidgety and he creates momentum and Darkman needs it for those script lulls. Almost nothing in the middle of the movie actually matters by the end. The movie’s killing time before the set pieces.

More so the beginning of the second act than the end of it, but still… it’s too short.

So Liam Neeson is a scientist who is working on fake skin for burn victims. It disintegrates after ninety-nine minutes. Unless it’s in the dark, which you’d think might have something to do with the title, Darkman, because after Neeson is horribly burned and the doctors cut off his nerve receptors so he can’t feel pain (or any touch sensation) and he becomes super-strong, he needs the fake skin to exact vengeance. But he never uses it for extended periods of time in the dark.

He apparently uses the dark thing for storage purposes, but even the storage thing is just a sight gag.

Neeson’s girlfriend, Frances McDormand, is a lawyer who comes across a document bad guy Larry Drake wants. And he kills Neeson for it. Or so he thinks. Drake and his band of ultra-violent, but darkly comical goons blow up Neeson’s lab. His lab is also his apartment, which seems like a zoning problem, but whatever.

Added to the convolution is Colin Friels as McDormand’s… client? It’s unclear the professional relationship, but after Neeson “dies,” Friels puts the moves on McDormand. Though mostly offscreen apparently. Because McDormand disappears once Neeson starts his vengeance mission. Most of that mission is just killing off Drake’s goons. It seems like there might have been a plan in some cut scenes or a different draft of the script. It’s okay, eventually, because once McDormand comes back, Neeson’s character arc is more about how he’s going crazy from not having any touch sensation. And inventively and graphically killing the bad guys.

The visuals on Neeson losing his self-control are these fantastic montage sequences. There’s some montage to summarize his attempts at making his fake skin work too, but it’s function, not fervent. The madness montages are awesome. Inexplicably the last one, when Neeson needs to power up his adrenalin (he also has uncontrollable adrenalin for super-Darkman strength), is super short. It’s restrained, while everything else in the finale is outrageous. Raimi’s able to get away with a lot of bad composite shots just because the action’s so excessive. Not that montage, however.

But Neeson’s not just making fake skin faces of himself, he’s doing it of the bad guys to fool the other bad guys. So while Neeson’s performance is getting loopier and loopier, it only plays out when he’s opposite McDormand, which really isn’t much. They have three scenes together after she finds out he’s alive. Two of them really short. Otherwise, it’s Drake pretending he’s Neeson pretending his Drake or Nicholas Worth pretending he’s Neeson pretending he’s Nicholas Worth. There’s actually not a lot of the impersonation so Raimi never really figures out how to do them. The movie’s too short.

The movie dawdles through its first half, finally picking up in the second, and then getting really good in the finale. Only it’s too late. It’s not too little–there’s some awesome stuff in the third act–but it’s definitely too late.

Neeson’s good. He needs about ten more minutes to play the character after the “recovery” arc completes. Instead he basically gets a scene; it’s too bad, because his performance gets much more interesting as it goes along. McDormand’s fine. Her arc is similarly underwhelming. She does get a great visual cue for development in the first act, which Raimi sadly drops. The film’s not confident enough with his extravagances. Or more like the studio isn’t confident enough with his extravagances.

Drake’s good. He’s maybe in the movie too much. Friels’s isn’t in it enough, especially not after he gets to let loose. Friels and Neeson, who only have a scene together, both find ways to match the film’s peculiar intensities.

The goons are all fine. Though Rafael H. Robledo is in the film the most and has the least to do. Like, he’s just a goon. He’s not weird like the rest of them. He’s just got a scar and a ponytail.

Bill Pope’s photography, composites aside, is excellent. So is the editing–from Bud S. Smith and David Stiven.

Danny Elfman’s score is fine. It’s basically his Batman score from the year before, but it’s fine. It’s effective without being distinctive.

Darkman is seventy exceptionally competent, enthusiastic minutes before twenty minutes of sublime madness. It’s a shame Raimi couldn’t get the finale’s intensity through the whole thing. There are plenty of real, practical reasons he couldn’t, but he does hint at that intensity to come, so it’s still a damned shame.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Sam Raimi; screenplay by Chuck Pfarrer, Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi, Daniel Goldin, and Joshua Goldin, based on a story by Sam Raimi; director of photography, Bill Pope; edited by Bud S. Smith and David Stiven; music by Danny Elfman; production designer, Randy Ser; produced by Rob Tapert; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Liam Neeson (Peyton Westlake), Frances McDormand (Julie Hastings), Larry Drake (Robert G. Durant), Colin Friels (Louis Strack Jr.), Rafael H. Robledo (Rudy Guzman), Dan Bell (Smiley), Nicholas Worth (Pauly), Dan Hicks (Skip), Ted Raimi (Rick), Nelson Mashita (Yakitito), and Jenny Agutter (doctor).


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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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