Category Archives: 1993

Black Rider (1993, Pepe Danquart)

Black Rider is almost desperate in its lack of great. There’s a single great moment–sort of, it’s a funny twist but entirely problematic–amid a bunch of other not great moments. And the resolution to the twist is pat and a joke… only one at the expense of writer and director Danquart and the short itself.

The film starts with a bustling Berlin train station. Black Rider runs twelve minutes. The bustling train station montage takes about three. The action then cuts to Stefan Merki trying to get his motorcycle started. He can’t, so he has to get on the streetcar. Good thing he’s at a streetcar stop where Danquart introduces some of the supporting “cast.” Teenagers, business people. Everyone’s white except two Turkish teenage boys. They’re busy making eyes at two teenage girls. And then one African guy (Paul Outlaw)–he’s waiting for the tram with his friend, a white German guy with dreadlocks… but I mean, it’s 1993 so maybe the dreadlocks on the white guy aren’t a bad sign.

(Spoiler, they are, but for Danquart’s… philosophy seems a stretch but his take).

Everyone boards, Outlaw sits down next to a rude old white lady (Senta Moira). She proceeds to complain about rude immigrants, getting more and more overtly racist as she goes along. Danquart cuts from her rants to the other passengers, who mostly sit expressionless. Some appear to react, just not vocally. They’re not going to get involved (it’s never clear if they’re actually hearing her or the audio is looped in; Black Rider is so slickly produced it comes off artificial).

Eventually there’s a short tram montage before the ticket taker arrives and then there’s the big twist. It’s a funny twist because it’s a sight gag. Danquart’s fallout from it is reassuring and patronizing–racism can’t succeed because good people, who are silently allowing social injustice, will also silently allow social justice. Black Rider isn’t naive so much as absurd. It’s not really condescending because Danquart is a philosophical punchline.

Good acting from Outlaw, who’s mostly expression, and Moira, who’s appropriately hideous. Danquart’s way too eager to write her off as a “crazy old racist lady,” because then there’s zero responsibility in Black Rider.

It’s professionally produced–though Michel Seigner’s jazz score is a little much and Ciro Cappellari’s photography deserves better direction–and it’s got a good laugh, but it’s passively gross.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Pepe Danquart; director of photography, Ciro Cappellari; edited by Mona Bräuer; music by Michel Seigner; produced by Albert Kitzler.

Starring Senta Moira (Old Woman), Paul Outlaw (Black Man), and Stefan Merki (Biker).


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An Untitled Portrait (1993, Cheryl Dunye)

When it starts, An Untitled Portrait is about Dunye’s brother. But it’s also going to be Dunye’s family in general. But it’s also going to be about Dunye herself. The short runs three minutes, Dunye’s narration set to home movies, old film clips, but also some stylized original footage of shoes.

Dunye’s recollection starts with her brother’s shoe size (but really her family’s shoe sizes). With memories of his shoes as the frame, Dunye gets to her father, her mother, herself, while still keeping her brother (and her relationship with him) at the forefront of Portrait.

It’s short–three minutes is very short, with only enough time for a couple distinct anecdotes–with the visuals shifting in style as the film progresses. The visuals of shoes, active and still, are where Dunye does the most stylizing. She doesn’t shy away from the videotape medium, even doing the squiggly rewind at one point. She also finds a way to edit videotape sublimely, with the action pausing and then restarting, but with a calm flow. Videotape editing is often herky-jerky (it’s just a “feature” of the medium). Not here.

The film clips (formal parties with Black Americans) change the scale and context of some of Dunye’s rememberences. Her brother goes from being an unseen “Star Trek” nerd to a classic film action hero (there’s the possible additional layer of Black men not getting to be classic film action heroes very often, and certainly not in mainstream Hollywood productions).

At the end, Untitled Portrait gets positively playful. Joyous. After zooming in so close on her specific subjects, Dunye pulls back and–thanks to a jarring shift in music set to a familiar visual motif (shoes)–captures (or creates) an entirely different emotionality for the finish.

An Untitled Portrait is thoughtful and well-executed throughout and more than worth it regardless (it’s three minutes and Dunye’s masterful with the medium), but its entirely unexpected capstone makes it a delight.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Cheryl Dunye.


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The Potluck and the Passion (1993, Cheryl Dunye)

The first sequence of The Potluck and the Passion, with director Dunye (also acting) sitting down and talking with girlfriend Gail Lloyd about the dinner party they’re about to throw. They go over the guest list as the opening titles run, who’s invited, why they’re invited, why Dunye and Lloyd are throwing the party (it’s their one year anniversary but Lloyd isn’t really comfortable with saying they’re dating).

Dunye and Lloyd are basically playing the same characters from Dunye’s previous short, She Don’t Fade, but it turns out there’s zero continuity between the two films. It also doesn’t matter because after Dunye and Lloyd have the first post-titles scene–Dunye’s trying to give some guests directions, Lloyd’s getting the apartment ready with help from friend Robert Reid-Pharr.

It’s Reid-Pharr who gets the film’s first aside, where–in now familiar Dunye fashion–sits and talks to the camera. He’s talking about his character, not talking as his character. His monologue has a lot of personality; better than his performance, but he’s still effortlessly likable sidekicking for Lloyd.

Potluck then cuts to the guests who need the directions–Nikki Harmon and Myra Paci–whose delayed, overly complicated journey to the party is the film’s only subplot. And Harmon and Paci never get monologue moments, their story is solely dramatic. Though comedic.

Once the party starts, Dunye and Lloyd become background to the main plot–guest Shelita Birchett decides she maybe likes other guest Pat Branch (who also co-wrote) far more than she likes her awful girlfriend, Nora Breen. Birchett and Breen get frequent monologues, mostly in character, but starting with the actors talking about the parts. The very clear subtext is Breen is dating Tracy because she’s a Black woman (and Breen is a condescending, controlling, culturally appropriating white woman). Branch isn’t just a Black woman, she’s an older woman with very different experiences than Birchett, who–in addition to dating a white woman–has always tried to live in a white world.

The chemistry between Branch and Birchett is electric–their performances are excellent–and having Breen directly address the viewer lets the character be terrible, but always realized. She’s never thin, because of how the monologues support the dramatics.

Dunye’s shooting on video, so the lighting is always off. She’s got some great composition, which embraces the video medium and is ambitious with it–there’s just no way to light it. It’s not Dunye’s fault, it’s the medium. It’s video.

Dunye’s direction of the actors in the dramatic scenes is fantastic, as is her editing of their monologue delivery scenes. And she and Branch’s writing is excellent.

Potluck and the Passion is occasionally cringe-inducing, often very funny, and always inventive. Dunye’s direction and Branch and Birchett’s performances are superior.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Cheryl Dunye; written by Pat Branch and Dunye; edited by Antoine Bell; released by Third World Newsreel Film Collective.

Starring Shelita Birchett (Tracy), Nora Breen (Megan), Pat Branch (Evelyn), Cheryl Dunye (Linda), Nikki Harmon (Lisa), Myra Paci (Kendra), and Robert Reid-Pharr (Robert)


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Puppet Master 4 (1993, Jeff Burr)

Puppet Master 4 is in a race with itself. Can it deliver on the animate puppet action before the cast becomes too intolerable? Can it deliver before the stupid scenes get to be too much? No, as it turns out, it can’t. Puppet Master 4 doesn’t succeed. Not even a Frankenstein making-the-monster homage with the puppets can make up for the film’s problems.

It’s a high concept sequel about these research scientists doing bleeding edge work into artifical intelligence. They’re really close to computers being able to figure out how to get computers to play with blocks. But first, square scientists Stacie Randall and Felton Perry need to get renegade, rebel scientist Gordon Currie to do his work. Currie’s work with LaserTag-equipped robots has the power to change the world. And not everyone is happy with it. Like this painfully animatronic demon who sends little lizard monsters out to hunt down the scientists. The film opens strong with the promise of Pupper Master puppets versus these little… well, frankly, they’re little tailless Compys, basically. Full Moon predating Spielberg by a few years.

The painfully animatronic demon has some flunkies and they’re in a secret, skull-filled temple cave thing. Puppet Master 4 gets away with it for a while because it’s Full Moon, it’s Puppet Master4. As long as the puppets come through, it’ll all be fine.

Except when the annoying humans find the puppets, the story doesn’t stay with the puppets, it goes back to the annoying humans. See, in addition to being the smartest man alive, Currie is also the caretaker of the hotel where the first two Puppet Master movies took place. He’s the only one there. He calls up possible-girlfriend-but-the-script-never-clarifies Chandra West for a booty call. She comes over, but brings with her Currie’s childhood nemesis, now yuppie scientist Ash Adams, and psychic Teresa Hill. Apparently West and Hill are friends. It’s never actually clear if West knows Adams knows Currie. West gets absolutely nothing to do in Puppet Master 4.

It also means she gives the best performance, because it’s not like the movie gives anyone anything good to do. Five screenwriters on this film… it’s a bland script too. For the first half, the blandness is what saves it. When the plot gets busy–like Currie outfitting the puppets with miniature LaserTag guns so they can play together while listening to heavy metal and West can just sit and watch because girl–Puppet Master 4 gets worse. Adams is lousy as a sniveling opportunist, but he’s a lot worse when he’s got to do a oujia board or get attacked by the little lizard creatures. Same goes for Hill.

After staying reasonably steady in the tolerable bad range, the movie makes some big drops all at once. That halfway point is rough.

When Puppet Master Guy Rolfe–superimposed over a puppet’s head in some of the film’s less successful effects work–returns, it’s not successful but it does help get the movie out of its funk. Currie too gets much worse with more to do.

None of the actors get any help from director Burr, who’s best at the puppet stuff. Not the puppets fighting stuff, because Burr’s terrible at all fight scenes and most action scenes, but the puppets being animate on their own. Those sequences work. Puppet Master 4, when so inclined, can deliver its puppets. It just can’t deliver them enough.

Budgetary limits also show in the computers. Having Currie doofus around a computer, which is clearing not turned on, unable to pretend he’s doing any computer things… it doesn’t just make him unbelievable as a computer scientist, it makes him unlikable. Any investment in Currie in the movie is a waste. He just gets more and more annoying. Five screenwriters and they characterize him as an eleven year-old boy. The movie would’ve been far more successful if it had been about an eleven year-old boy genius.

That actor might have known how to use a computer.

So, Puppet Master 4. Good puppets, not enough of them. Bad acting, way too much of it. Burr’s direction is also a big problem.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Jeff Burr; screenplay by Todd Henschell, Steven E. Carr, Jo Duffy, Douglas Aarniokoski, and Keith Payson, based on characters created by David Schmoeller; director of photography, Adolfo Bartoli; edited by Mark S. Manos and Margeret-Anne Smith; music by Richard Band; production designer, Milo; produced by Charles Band; released by Paramount Home Video.

Starring Gordon Currie (Rick Myers), Chandra West (Susie), Ash Adams (Cameron), Teresa Hill (Lauren), Stacie Randall (Dr. Leslie Piper), Felton Perry (Dr. Carl Baker), Michael Shamus Wiles (Stanley), and Guy Rolfe (Toulon).


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