Tag Archives: Universal Pictures

Land of the Dead (2005, George A. Romero), the director’s cut

While Land of the Dead is almost always an unfortunate misfire, it’s also never an unmitigated disaster. It’s full of missed opportunities, but they’re usually missed because director Romero just can’t crack the scene. And when he doesn’t crack a set piece, he often goes in the entirely different direction; maybe it’s about the budget, which is way too small, maybe it’s not. But it seems like the budget. After the successful opening set piece, there’s no reason to think Romero isn’t going to be able to execute at least the same quality again. And he’s never able to do it, but he also never really tries to do it. Romero front loads the movie; it deflates just when it should be doing the opposite. The characters gradually lose personality and importance. Because it’s time for the adequate but bland zombie action.

The film takes place in the future… the zombies have won, people all grouped in the big cities, the rich people live well, the poor people do not. Romero is shooting Toronto for Pittsburgh with a cinematographer (Miroslaw Baszak) who lights it to look as Canadian as possible. Land lacks any visual personality; the mix of Romero’s composition, Baszak’s flat lighting, Michael Doherty’s fine but bland editing, and Arvinder Grewal’s production design looks less like a post (zombie) apocalyptic vision and more like a pitch reel for one. Same goes for the actors, save Dennis Hopper, who’s just plain terrible. Simon Baker, Asia Argento, John Leguizamo, Robert Joy; at best their performances feel like stand-ins for better ones once the project gets the green light. At worst, it’s a charmless lead like Simon Baker, who is more than capable of being charming, Romero just doesn’t seem to realize it. Not in his direction or his script, which gives his actors really bad life stories purely for expository purposes. There’s not just no character development in Land, Romero doesn’t take the time to even establish the characters.

And it’d be fine if the film could have retained the first set piece energy. So Baker, Leguizamo, and Joy all work for Hopper. They leave the city to raid neighboring towns for supplies. Apparently there’s an almost endless amount of neighboring towns to raid; all you have to do is shoot fireworks and the zombies all look up and everything’s jim-dandy—the zombies don’t attack, they watch fireworks. It also allows Romero to set a lot of action at night, which was apparently less expensive and does nothing to help with that lack of personality thing. Only Baker and Joy discover there’s one zombie—Eugene Clark, in the film’s best performance—who doesn’t look up at the fireworks.

The movie ends up being about Clark leading a bunch of zombies to attack the city, where the rich people live in a ritzy skyscraper and Romero only has the money to establish it through a promotional video playing on a TV–Land of the Dead has both too little budget and too much. The tricks and devices Romero uses to cover for not having more money lack inventiveness; there’s a ton of bad CGI composites. Like, a static matte painting would’ve been much better bad. But you do bad CGI composites because they’re cheap. And it shows. And it hurts the movie.

Anyway, while Clark’s leading the slow-moving attack—see, he’s learned how to use objects and can teach other zombies how to use objects so it’s going to be a different kind of zombie attack (only, not really as it turns out but the attack’s immaterial)—Leguizamo has gone rogue and Baker has to track him down, bringing pals Joy and Argento.

Of the three, Argento’s probably best. She’s not good overall—the writing doesn’t allow for it—but she’s got some rather strong moments. She takes the job more seriously than anyone else. Though who knows what’s going through Hopper’s head as he woodenly delivers lines; who knows, maybe Romero did cast him to be a personality-free rich jackass with a goatee. Hopper’s reaction shots to zombies eating flesh look like someone told him to stand still for his picture to be taken. Romero would’ve done better to give Leguizamo that part. To do something to mix it up.

But there’s no mixing it up. Because outside a couple Romero-Dead nods and sufficiently revolting zombie feasting (though Baszak’s lighting makes it look… not fake, but not real), Land of the Dead has less of a pulse than its zombies.

It’s a shame.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by George A. Romero; director of photography, Miroslaw Baszak; edited by Michael Doherty; music by Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek; production designer, Arvinder Grewal; produced by Mark Canton, Bernie Goldmann, and Peter Grunwald; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Simon Baker (Riley Denbo), Asia Argento (Slack), Robert Joy (Charlie), John Leguizamo (Cholo DeMora), Dennis Hopper (Kaufman), Joanne Boland (Pretty Boy), Alan Van Sprang (Brubaker), Phil Fondacaro (Chihuahua), Sasha Roiz (Manolete), Krista Bridges (Motown), Pedro Miguel Arce (Pillsbury), and Eugene Clark (Big Daddy).


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Born in East L.A. (1987, Cheech Marin)

Born in East L.A. is a much lighter comedy than expected. Maybe not more than writer-director-star Cheech Marin portends—and a lot of the film’s ineffectiveness isn’t first time feature director Marin’s fault, he needed one of his four editors to have some clue about creating narrative continuity. And while his cinematographer—Álex Phillips Jr.—isn’t at all incompetent, one does wish he’d have given Marin some pointers about how to frame establishing shots. There are a number of times in the film where it seems like Marin’s setting up a sight gag but… no. He really just doesn’t seem to realize he doesn’t have to shoot in medium shot so much.

Marin’s an L.A. mechanic who goes to pick up a visiting cousin (Paul Rodriguez, in a role cut down what probably ought to be an uncredited mega-cameo) and gets scooped up in an immigration raid. So while Marin’s getting deported, Rodriguez is trying to figure out his way in L.A. He’s staying with Marin and family, but family is out of town, which gets to be a problem since Marin needs someone to come down to the border with his ID so he can return home. The casual, nonspecific, almost benign racism from the border guards—including Jan-Michael Vincent is the boss in one scene, which should probably be uncredited too, even if it wasn’t cut down. Just having creative opening titles would probably help the film a bit.

Anyway, the racism. It doesn’t just date East L.A. it makes the film a very peculiar cultural document. At least in the first fifteen or twenty minutes, because once Marin realizes he can’t sneak across the border, he sets about making some money to buy his way back across.

One of the major plot holes, which may or may not be a result of the cuts, is whether or not his family ever misses him; they’re only supposed to be gone for a week. There’s some stuff with Rodriguez alone at the house and it’s all pretty funny, but doesn’t go anywhere. For a while, Rodriguez is giving the film’s best performance too. Because Marin starts the movie wanting the audience to think he’s a bit of a goon. The opening titles, while they aren’t giving away all the eventual cameos, is all about Marin following a woman (Neith Hunter) around L.A. landmarks and catcalling her. Only, because Marin’s not really good at the shots—if they’re not second unit—it’s never clear she hears his catcalling, which just makes him an ineffective stalker? He’s definitely supposed to be harmless, but it’s not clear how lovable he’s supposed to be for quite a bit longer into the film. When he tells someone about his history in the U.S. Army.

Marin hides he’s got backstory for about sixty of the film’s eighty-five minutes. Odd, odd, odd choice.

Though I suppose when you consider him being a vet who can’t get back into his country… but, wait, 1980s, all the border guards were swell fellows.

Marin’s got some really good gags, some really good jokes, a handful of excellent ideas; he’s able to execute about thirty percent of them satisfactorily. The plot’s pretty traditional, down to greasy scuzball Daniel Stern—but not dangerous greasy scuzball—being Marin’s “boss” and sidekick in Mexico (Stern’s in forced expatriation) and Kamala Lopez as a love interest (though, as she’s eighteen years younger than Marin, he comes off like an uncle, chemistry-wise). They could’ve had someone pretty easily doctor the script. Just saying.

Instead, the film’s a hodgepodge of funny moments and performances—Lopez is more likable than good, while Stern is funnier than good. Producer Peter Macgregor-Scott really should’ve gotten Marin a better crew.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Cheech Marin; director of photography, Álex Phillips Jr.; edited by Don Brochu, Stephen Lovejoy, David Newhouse, and Mike Sheridan; music by Lee Holdridge; production designer, Lynda Burbank; produced by Peter Macgregor-Scott; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Cheech Marin (Rudy), Daniel Stern (Jimmy), Kamala Lopez (Dolores), Paul Rodriguez (Javier), Jan-Michael Vincent (McCalister), Lupe Ontiveros (Rudy’s Mother), and Tony Plana (Feo).


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The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957, Jack Arnold)

The Incredible Shrinking Man is an enormous feat. It succeeds thanks to director Arnold, writer Richard Matheson, and star Grant Williams. Arnold’s arguably got the greatest successes; he carefully lays the groundwork for the film’s eventual startling visuals. To get to the startling ones, Arnold’s got to get through some absurd ones. Only the first act visuals aren’t startling or absurd, they’re just mundanely peculiar. Even when Williams finally gets it confirmed—his suspicions are correct, he is somehow shrinking—the film gets some energy out of William Schallert giving the news in a very William Schallert way, but otherwise tension doesn’t rise. It’s still early in the film, which only runs eighty minutes and more than half of it is a survival picture; Arnold and Matheson pace things out gradually in the first section. Even though every scene perturbs the plot, Matheson is really just moving Williams into position for the real story to come.

The story of man against his environment, an environment of his own unintentional making. All the smart moves Arnold makes in the beginning as Williams shrinks from six feet tall to three feet tall, all the elaborate set decorating, the outstanding matte shots… the second half survival picture is where Arnold and the crew up the effects work. As Williams shrinks to the height of a doll, then to a matchstick, the effects requirements grow exponentially. It’s a lot easier to have Williams sit shrunk on a couch across the room from regular-size wife Randy Stuart, but getting him into a dollhouse so she can lean down and talk to him like he’s Fay Wray? Arnold doesn’t just up the effects ante, he also takes into account how much more fantastical his visuals are getting. He’s got to sell it all to the audience.

And he does. Shrinking Man is always inventive in how the effects get integrated, because eventually the effects become the visual plane. Reality is long gone.

Matheson does just as well changing gears from the opening medical thriller picture to the survival one. Williams—who narrates the whole picture, usually to solid effect—has entirely different expectations in the second half of the film than the audience. The first half, they’re pretty much inline as far as predicting the plot. Especially if an audience member has seen the posters advertising film as the “Dollman vs. House cat”. Williams doesn’t have the exact same expectations, but he operates with a lot of fear, which comes out in his performance but not the narration. The narration—which ends up being Matheson’s only problem area for specific, somewhat unrelated reasons—is all past tense. Even though Williams spends the first half of the film writing his life story, the narration isn’t that written account. It’s something else, which Matheson never identifies. It’s a soft spot, but given some of the other soft spots in the script, it might be better he doesn’t place it in time and place.

Just to get them out of the way now—the other two soft spots in Matheson’s script? The gentle attempts to comment on Williams’s changing masculine self-image. It all has to do with Stuart, who establishes herself in the first scene as this strong partner. And Williams appreciates her as such. Loads of chemistry in the first scene. Just because the script doesn’t give Stuart anything to do after her second scene, which mostly has her making breakfast, she never gets downgraded either. I guess it’s kind of a larger soft spot overall—the way Matheson abandons Stuart to get to the sci-fi medical thriller. As Williams gets smaller, he gets meaner to Stuart, but he’s really aware of it, both in narration and scene. Stuart’s going to assume he’s really apologetic in a scene because they’re both going through a fantastic trauma. The audience knows from the narration he means it. So it’s all a dramatic wash, which wastes not just Stuart, but Williams as well. They’ve only got so much time together.

Third soft spot is Matheson’s attempt to tie it all into God and the cosmos. The film doesn’t really need it—like, even for 1957, Shrinking Man never gets too sacrilegious in its Nuclear Age sci-fi—but Matheson uses it when he runs out of plot ideas. It’s a really strange move, which might have worked in the source novel (also by Matheson), but doesn’t come off visualized. And given how well Arnold visualizes everything else in the picture, he’s got to know, right?

Besides Williams and Stuart, only April Kent and Paul Langton make much impression in the cast. Kent’s the nice little person who Williams bonds with. It’s an undercooked plot point, but effective. Kent’s good. Langton’s Williams’s older brother, who ends up caring for Stuart after Williams… shrinks too much. It’s a throwaway character, who just sits around taking agency from Stuart, usually in exposition dumps, and Langton’s really bland in the part.

So they stand out for very different reasons.

Excellent photography from Ellis W. Carter, good editing from Albrecht Joseph; great special effects, great sets. The Incredible Shrinking Man is a big success, it just should’ve been an even bigger one.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Jack Arnold; screenplay by Richard Matheson, based on his novel; director of photography, Ellis W. Carter; edited by Albrecht Joseph; produced by Albert Zugsmith; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Grant Williams (Scott Carey), Randy Stuart (Louise Carey), Paul Langton (Charlie Carey), April Kent (Clarice Bruce), Raymond Bailey (Doctor Silver), and William Schallert (Doctor Bramson).



THIS POST IS PART OF THE RICHARD MATHESON BLOGATHON HOSTED BY RICH OF WIDE SCREEN WORLD AND DEBBIE OF MOON IN GEMINI.


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Crooklyn (1994, Spike Lee)

Crooklyn is a series of memories. They’re mostly the main character’s memories—and if they’re not, they’re definitely from her perception. The memories start in the spring and go through the summer. Director Lee and his cowriters—and siblings (Crooklyn is semi-autobiographical) Joie Lee and Cinqué Lee frequently change the pace of the memories. Some are long scenes with a lot of action, some are shorter transitional scenes, memorable for their placement in the narrative and their location. The Lee siblings are very comfortable with the film’s narrative distance and changing it; they nimbly move between characters during the first half or so then turn around and slow down to focus on the protagonist. When they speed up again, there’s still the same tighter focus, but a lot more going on and at a different pace.

Zelda Harris is the protagonist. She’s nine years old; the only daughter of schoolteacher Alfre Woodward and successful working musician but not successful composer Delroy Lindo. She has four brothers. Carlton Williams plays the oldest, presumably Spike. He’s a jerk. He also gets the most material to do because he’s the oldest and he and Harris have a whole character arc going on through the movie but it’s one of the quietest subplots, because there’s not much room for laughs. Because Crooklyn has a lot of laughs. Woodward’s intense and the kids are stinkers. And Lindo not really being any help is one of the louder subplots. The masculinity isn’t terribly toxic, but it’s far from good. It leads to some big fights and tense discussions between Woodward and Lindo, which feature some phenomenal acting from the pair. Harris usually gets involved too, since her brothers are too busy being boys. The brothers being boys often contributes to a lot of the humor, which the script never uses to alleviate the drama. The two can coexist, but ones not a solution for the other.

As the film goes on—it starts towards the end of a school year, with Harris dreading the possibility of leaving Brooklyn to visit Southern relations over the summer. There are no scenes at the school. The film either takes place on the block, in the house, or down South. Until the third act, anyway. Third act is a completely different—appropriately—story for locations. But as the film goes on, the Lees take their time establishing the ground situation, establishing the characters, establishing the relationships. Exposition dumps are rare, usually only when they need to give context for an earlier detail, usually from Woodward, who is very fallible, she’s just not fallible about dumb things. She’s never sainted in the film, but she’s closer than anyone else to being a saint. The script doesn’t shy away from children’s cruelty or stupidity (not even Harris’s). It also is very careful in how it portrays Lindo, who takes the longest to get established. It’s a great script.

When summer finally arrives—in the second half of the film—and Harris goes down South to visit aunt and uncle Frances Foster and Norman Matlock and, more, cousin Patriece Nelson, Harris gets to really run the movie for a while. She gets to experience the strangeness of her relations and the South, but not to be aware of how that experience is going to perturb her character development.

Because she’s nine.

When the summer vacation is over, there’s a different Harris, but there’s also a very different situation waiting for her back at home. The script changes the pacing of the memories. Some events get missed, some events have more weight, and we’re watching Harris exist through them and experience them but have no idea what’s happening to her. Crooklyn isn’t a kids movie per se… but it’s also not not a kids movie. The film’s always from a kid’s eye-level, let’s say, and then it turns out that eye-level just perfectly matches Harris’s. It’s a really great script.

Performances—Harris, Woodward, and Lindo are the whole show. There are some really good supporting performances (Isaiah Washington’s performance as a Vietnam vet deserves its own movie). But it’s all about Harris, Woodward, and Lindo. As for whether Harris has better scenes with Woodward or Lindo on her own… it’s probably Lindo, just because how the character development arc goes. But there are still some fabulous ones between Woodward and Harris. Harris knows Lindo’s not exactly the most responsible adult. So lots of gristle for scenes.

Technically, Crooklyn’s near flawless. Great photography from Arthur Jafa, even better editing from Barry Alexander Brown, which is made even more effective thanks to the awesome Terrence Blanchard score. Wynn Thomas’s production design is awesome too. Especially when Harris goes down South and Lee stretches the screen to show it as otherworldly (distorted and televised). The production design is almost more important during that section, since the audience has to see and understand what Harris is seeing because she might not really understand it.

The stretching is director Lee’s most extreme style choice. He’s got a dream sequence, which fits into the film’s existing stylistic flourishes—Spike Lee appears a neighborhood glue-sniffer and jerk, so he gives himself most of the flash. It fits, given how his stand-in, Williams, treats Harris. Meanwhile, Joie Lee–Harris being her stand-in—shows up as a slightly overbearing aunt. Uncredited. Third screenwriter Cinqué Lee doesn’t cameo.

I haven’t even gotten to the soundtrack, which maybe was produced by Alex Steyermark. The use of seventies songs is exquisite, both in the narrative—as a detail—or as non-diegetic accompaniment of the scenes. It’s awesome.

Crookyln’s awesome. Harris, Woodward, Linda, and Lees Spike, Joie, and Cinqué make something special.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Spike Lee; screenplay by Joie Lee, Spike Lee, and Cinqué Lee, based on a story by Joie Lee; director of photography, Arthur Jafa; edited by Barry Alexander Brown; music by Terence Blanchard; production designer, Wynn Thomas; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Zelda Harris (Troy), Alfre Woodard (Carolyn), Delroy Lindo (Woody), Carlton Williams (Clinton), Sharif Rashed (Wendell), Tse-Mach Washington (Joseph), Christopher Knowings (Nate), José Zúñiga (Tommy La La), Isaiah Washington (Vic), David Patrick Kelly (Tony Eyes), Patriece Nelson (Viola), Frances Foster (Aunt Song), Norman Matlock (Uncle Clem), Vondie Curtis-Hall (Uncle Brown), Spike Lee (Snuffy), N. Jeremi Duru (Right Hand Man), Ivelka Reyes (Jessica), and Joie Lee (Aunt Maxine).


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