Tag Archives: Universal Pictures

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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Johnny English (2003, Peter Howitt)

Johnny English runs just under ninety minutes, which is one of the film’s secret weapons–nothing ever goes on too long, not the good stuff, not the bad stuff, not the mediocre stuff. There’s not a lot of bad stuff–more varying degrees of mediocre; when things then get better, when things finally pay off, it’s a cause for celebration. When Johnny English gets funny, it gets funny.

The film is a Rowan Atkinson vehicle masquerading as an incredibly safe James Bond spoof. Atkinson is a British Security Service office worker who gets promoted to number one agent. Because, through his incompetence, everyone else has been killed. Somehow his boss, Tim Pigott-Smith, never holds Atkinson accountable for the very inept and dangerous things he’s done, instead railing on him for the things where Atkinson is actually right.

Like how French private prison-owning billionaire John Malkovich is a bad guy.

Malkovich is another of English’s secret weapons, because he doesn’t play his part like a Bond villain. He plays it like a goofy Malkovich comedy part. He’s never outrageous or campy–unfortunately–but he’s always got enough energy to make the scenes work. Atkinson never gets to be showy. Malkovich gets to be showy. He’s the only one who gets to be showy.

Bringing us to the other–and probably last–secret weapon: Ben Miller. He plays Atkinson’s subordinate. Miller is the spy office peon who should be the secret agent. There’s a lengthy period where Miller’s not in the film and Atkinson is playing sidekick to real secret agent Natalie Imbruglia and Malkovich isn’t really in the movie and it gets long. There are also too many poop jokes. Because without Miller and Malkovich around, English has to go into the literal potty to get some humor going.

Because Imbruglia doesn’t bring anything. It’s not a great part and she’s not terrible, but she’s got no presence and less personality. Her comic timing–at least in her timing as it reacts to Atkinson–is fine though.

Atkinson has some great physical comedy in English. Nowhere near enough, but the movie wouldn’t really know what to do with any more. Director Howitt does an adequate, uninspired job. He doesn’t get in the way of the good jokes and he doesn’t make the bad ones any worse. So he wouldn’t know what to do with more physical comedy. Howitt’s impatient, while everyone else seems completely comfortable not being rushed. Not ninety minutes but also not rushed. The film’s self-awareness about its limitations increases its charm.

Anyway, back to Atkinson. He’s good. He’s hilarious at times. His straight man performance as the stupid secret agent is most impressive–at least during the expository scenes–in how seriously Atkinson takes the part. He’s going for it’s funny because he’s so serious. When other actors aren’t as serious about their parts as Atkinson, it hurts. Imbruglia, for example. Miller gets it, Malkovich gets it. Pigott-Smith not really.

Of course, the writing tends to be thin. Pigott-Smith not transcending the caricature isn’t entire his fault.

Howitt’s lack of enthusiasm for directing his actors–he showcases the comedy, focusing tightly on the comedy, not the actors essaying it–doesn’t help either.

Technically the film’s fine. Nothing stands out, good or bad. The music isn’t overtly “Bond,” which is kind of nice, and the Robbie Williams theme song is fun.

Thanks to Atkinson (and the professionally executed production), it’d be difficult for Johnny English to fail too hard. It’s both a surprisingly pleasant comedy and a not insignificant disappointment. With Atkinson, Miller, and Malkovich, it seems like it could be better. However, it’s not clear if it should be any better.

Additionally… if you’re going to have Prunella Scales play the Queen, give her at least one joke. What should be an inspired comedic casting is instead an end credits curio.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Peter Howitt; written by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and William Davies; director of photography, Remi Adefarasin; edited by Robin Sales; music by Ed Shearmur; production designer, Chris Seagers; produced by Eric Fellner, Mark Huffam, and Lucette Legot; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Rowan Atkinson (Johnny English), John Malkovich (Pascal Sauvage), Natalie Imbruglia (Lorna Campbell), Ben Miller (Bough), Tim Pigott-Smith (Pegasus), Oliver Ford Davies (Archbishop of Canterbury), and Kevin McNally (Prime Minister).


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Naked Alibi (1954, Jerry Hopper)

The first half hour of Naked Alibi–the film runs just under ninety minutes so the entire first third–is separate from the remainder. Set in a small city (shot on the backlot, but rather well thanks to Russell Metty’s glorious photography), chief of detectives Sterling Hayden has been getting a lot of heat over police brutality. The bleeding hearts just don’t understand how hard it can be. Not even after someone starts killing cops.

The film is really, really spare. There’s not just no fat on the script, there’s not always enough meat. So there’s no reconciliation between police commissioner Fay Roope riding Hayden for police brutality–even though Hayden’s tactics appear just to be due process and self-defense–with Hayden’s inability to catch the cop killers. Hayden’s got a prime suspect–local baker Gene Barry, who threatened the lives of each of the murdered cops. But Barry says he’s a good guy and everyone (meaning wife Marcia Henderson and lawyer Paul Levitt) agrees.

Of course, Barry’s exceptionally suspicious, has no real alibi for the murders–it’s never clear why his alibi is Naked–and appears to be at least psychologically abusive to Henderson. It turns out she’s the luckier of his two ladies, but more on that development in a bit.

The first half hour introduces Barry, introduces Hayden, introduces the cops, kills the cops, starts Hayden’s investigation, fires Hayden, brings in P.I. Don Haggerty to assist Hayden in an off-the-books investigation, and ends with Barry running off to the Mexican border to destress.

Barry’s not just suspicious, he’s violent, controlling, and manipulative. Though the manipulative stuff doesn’t really work because he’s not coy about it. He manipulates through violence and enforced control. The script asks way too much in the way of disbelief suspension. Director Hopper is no help with it either. For whatever reason, he can’t direct interiors. He does the most boring composition inside. Outside, Naked Alibi looks great. Inside, it’s a complete yawn.

Worse, he’s got forceful performances from both Barry and Hayden and doesn’t showcase them in those boring interior scenes either. There’s all this energy present, with Hopper seemingly disinterested in framing it well.

When the film gets to the Mexican border, there are big changes. The exterior shots are even better–Tijuana stands in for “Border City”–with these deeply composed shots. Metty’s photography gets even better and the script slows down enough and focuses; it doesn’t matter if Hopper doesn’t direct exposition or banter well.

Gloria Grahame plays a nightclub singer who Barry romances, terrorizes, and physically abuses. No longer trying to play evil but nice and instead just evil, Barry is terrifying. Especially since things never go Hayden’s way. He’s not particularly good at the detective stuff and he’s got the street smarts of a three-card monte mark. He’s just right.

But Grahame ends up being the closest thing to a main character. She gets the most character development, which Grahame ends up essaying far better than the film deserves. By the end, the script’s caught up with her and holds her back, but for a while, Grahame transcends the spare, sometimes lazy material.

The filmmaking and acting make Naked Alibi. The script’s got a decent enough detective investigation, but very little else. The finale is–while extremely effective and beautifully shot–a complete disappointment. There’s been no character development on Hayden. He’s not a cipher, he’s a blank. Hayden brings a lot of righteousness and enough hints of charm to it, but there’s nothing there. Whether he’s succeeding, failing, or bleeding to death, Hayden’s always exactly the same.

Grahame’s got stuff going on under the surface, Barry’s just getting more and more dangerous. And there’s really no one else. There are some recurring supporting cast members–Chuck Connors, Billy Chapin–but they don’t have much to do. Naked Alibi doesn’t need them to do much. It’s got one thing; reveal Barry enough Hayden can arrest him.

Things get really good about an hour in and it seems like Naked Alibi might add up in the end. Plotting overcomes problematic scene details. Then the finale disappoints, even though it features Hopper’s best direction (of an action sequence anyway), and is beautifully shot.

Still, it’s an engaging noir, with good (but unfortunately uneven thanks to the script and Hopper) performances. And it’s got that Russell Metty photography. Hopper’s direction doesn’t deserve that photography.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jerry Hopper; screenplay by Lawrence Roman, based on a story by J. Robert Bren and Gladys Atwater; director of photography, Russell Metty; edited by Al Clark; produced by Ross Hunter; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Sterling Hayden (Joe Conroy), Gloria Grahame (Marianna), Gene Barry (Al Willis), Marcia Henderson (Helen Willis), Don Haggerty (Matthews), Billy Chapin (Petey), Max Showalter (Det. Lt. Parks), Chuck Connors (Capt. Kincaide), Stuart Randall (Chief Babcock), Paul Levitt (Frazier), and Fay Roope (Commissioner O’Day).


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The Phantom Creeps (1939, Ford Beebe and Saul A. Goodkind)

For the first few chapters, Bela Lugosi can carry The Phantom Creeps. He’s hamming it up as a mad scientist surrounded by actors who can’t even ham. Creeps has some truly terrible performances, particularly from its other leads, Robert Kent and Dorothy Arnold. He’s the military intelligence officer out to discover what’s happened to Lugosi’s missing research–Lugosi fakes his death because he wants to sell his secrets to foreign agents. Arnold’s the reporter who’s after the story. Kent’s got a negative amount of charm. Arnold’s charm level is extraordinarily low, but it’s not negative. But when the two of them have a scene and banter… the chemistry is toxic.

And then Lugosi’s got this palooka ex-con sidekick, Jack C. Smith. Smith is awful too. Edwin Stanley and Regis Toomey–as other good guys–they’re terrible. Edward Van Sloan–who could be reuniting with Lugosi post-Dracula here–is the leader of the spy ring. He’s terrible. Anthony Averill, as the lead henchman who does all the action scenes, goes from bad to okay. Mostly because by the end of the serial, Lugosi’s nowhere to be seen–literally–and Averill’s just not as patently unlikable as everyone else.

Lugosi’s missing from the second half because he’s mostly being The Phantom, which is what he calls himself when he’s using his invisibility belt. Lugosi has four inventions. He has the invisibility belt, he has an iron robot (remote controlled), he has these discs and mechanical spiders–when the spider crawls to the disc, it explodes and puts anyone nearby in suspended animation–and then he has another suspended animation device, a ray-gun. If there is anything else, he doesn’t use it often. I may have blocked too much of Creeps from my memory already–for example, I can’t remember if it’s a flub when the bad guys know Lugosi’s alias because no one sees him in the half chapter he uses that alias or if someone does see him. It’s not worth remembering.

The serial starts with Lugosi faking his death. But the spies want what he was going to sell them so they go to his house to try to get it. But the federal agents also want what Lugosi was going to sell because his old friend, Stanley, ratted him out for, you know, wanting to commit treason. Stanley’s a square from the start.

Anyway, the first half of the serial–so, you know, six twenty-minute chapters–is the good guys and bad guys goofing off around the house while Lugosi and Smith try to escape. They have to keep coming back to the house because their secret base is underneath it. In the second half of the serial, Lugosi’s secret element–from a meteor, I think–gets traded back and forth between good guys, bad guys, and Lugosi for five chapters. Sure, there are different locations, but rarely any original big action footage. Lots of stock footage instead. Lots of not matching at all stock footage.

And some things about Creeps are just relentlessly bad. Kent’s investigatory reasoning is nil. The way the good guys and bad guys meet is when one of them sees the other driving on the highway, so they then follow them. It happens over and over and over and over again. Even when it’s a different shooting location, it’s just how the screenwriters make these things happen.

There are no gems in the script. There’s no funny bit part. There are no diamonds in the rough, acting-wise. There is some charm to the special effects, but only in the first half really. By the second half it’s all invisiblity stuff (sometimes reusing the same footage) and it’s not particularly creative. It seems creative the first time Lugosi vanishes, not the rest. Mostly because he doesn’t interact with anyone. Occasionally an inanimate object, but it’s not like he’s pantsing the good guys while invisible.

The music is a bunch material of thirties Universal horror scores. It’s kind of cool to hear the music. Not really alongside anything going on onscreen, of course.

The direction’s not good. It’s not atrocious, unless somehow Beebe and Goodkind could’ve gotten better performances out of the cast. It doesn’t seem possible. Technically, nothing stands out.

The cliffhangers in The Phantom Creeps are particularly bad. Usually people just survive disasters. There’s something like one death in the thing; no one’s in much danger, if any. Though at least Arnold never gets used as damsel. She does get used as Toomey’s doormat, which is a particularly tiring affair. She’s going to steal boss Kent away with her feminine wiles or something. Or maybe there’s no reason for it. There’s no reason for anything in Creeps. It just goes on and on and on.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Ford Beebe and Saul A. Goodkind; screenplay by George H. Plympton, Basil Dickey, and Mildred Barish, based on a story by Wyllis Cooper; directors of photography, Jerome Ash and William A. Sickner; edited by Irving Birnbaum, Joseph Gluck, and Alvin Todd; music by Charles Previn; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Bela Lugosi (Dr. Alex Zorka), Robert Kent (Capt. Bob West), Dorothy Arnold (Jean Drew), Jack C. Smith (Monk), Regis Toomey (Jim Daly), Edwin Stanley (Dr. Fred Mallory), Anthony Averill (Rankin), Dora Clement (Ann Zorka), Hugh Huntley (Perkins), and Edward Van Sloan (Jarvis).


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