Tag Archives: Universal Pictures

Biloxi Blues (1988, Mike Nichols)

Biloxi Blues has some rather peculiar, rather significant third act problems. Like, it doesn’t have a third act. Did they cut a bunch to keep the PG rating or something? Because at a certain point the rising action stalls out and the film goes into montage summary overdrive. After giving lead Matthew Broderick and ostensible love interest Penelope Ann Miller an amazing “meet cute” first dance, full of chemistry and energy, Miller never gets another line. She’s in a few montage shots, as Broderick romances her, but she’s not even present in the film, just visible. It’s a very weird development, especially considering how phenomenally director Nichols shoots that dance scene.

And Nichols has a lot of very thoughtful direction in the film, which is another reason it feels like it doesn’t have a third act. None of the direction is thoughtful. In fact, it’s tonally regressive. The end of the film—the last real scene—turns everything into a smile, with writer Neil Simon and Nichols running as far away from every question or difficult thought they raised as fast as they can. It just doesn’t make any sense. Unless Simon didn’t have an ending to the movie and for some reason everyone—Nichols, the producer, the studio—just shrugged and said, “Yeah, Matthew Broderick can sell it with narration, he’s Ferris Bueller, it’ll be fine.”

Is Broderick’s narration read good? Yeah… it’s not bad. It’s not great, but it’s not bad. It’s also not his fault because Simon doesn’t give him anything to say really. Whatever lessons Broderick learned from his time in boot camp in 1945 Biloxi don’t come through in the narration. Or Broderick’s onscreen performance. It also turns out he’s supposed to be narrating it from the present, which seems weird with the accompanying shots. There’s got to be a story behind Blues’s production. There’s just got to be.

Because no one has a full character arc in the entire film. Not even Christopher Walken, who’s about one great scene away from a fantastic performance. He never gets his great scene, never unconditionally. It’s usually a combination of script and Broderick; Broderick, not in performance or in role as written, never gets to honestly react to Walken. Walken hounds Broderick for much of the film, because Broderick’s a New York smart-ass and, well, he’s also Jewish. Walken’s not going to take a cheap shot about the Jewish thing, but it’s there. Anytime Walken and Broderick have some kind of showdown where you want to see Broderick’s reaction—or, hell, Walken’s—the action goes to the rest of the platoon.

The rest of the platoon is alpha Matt Mulhern, wannabe alpha Markus Flanagan, average guy Casey Siemaszko, popular but good guy Michael Dolan, and super-nerd (and fellow Jewish guy) Corey Parker. All of the performances are good. It’s exceptional Parker’s able to get away with such an exaggerated stereotype, especially since there’s not a lot of consistency with the character in the script. He starts the film constantly farting and having to take a crap. Apparently it stops being a problem after he starts eating the army food. He’s also supposedly having all sorts of run-ins with Walken; we see some of them, but never the fallout. It’s just like with Broderick… Simon’s not interested in the characters developing from their experiences in Blues.

But Nichols directs for it. The way he positions the actors—Broderick, Parker, Mulhern, Flanagan, Siemaszko, Dolan—Nichols has got a distinct focus. Only then the script goes somewhere else and Nichols lets the film lose that focus. As a result, it always feels like something’s missing. Especially with Walken; especially after the “third act” reveals on Walken. Biloxi Blues should given Walken a Best Supporting Actor Oscar and doesn’t.

Mulhern’s really good. Dolan’s really good. Flanagan and Siemaszko are sort of flat good; the script doesn’t really give them enough. In Siemaszko’s case, Simon forgets about him too.

Great cameo from Park Overall. Good photography from Bill Butler, good music from Georges Delerue, great production design from Paul Sylbert. The forties soundtrack selections aren’t great and tend to be during the ill-advised “for laughs” sections, but they also make the film seem artificial and vaguely insincere, which is definitely not what it ought to be doing.

Biloxi Blues should be really good. It’s got the pieces to be really good. Instead, it’s decent, but a misfire.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Mike Nichols; screenplay by Neil Simon, based on his play; director of photography, Bill Butler; edited by Sam O’Steen; music by Georges Delerue; production designer, Paul Sylbert; produced by Ray Stark; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Matthew Broderick (Eugene Morris Jerome), Christopher Walken (Sgt. Toomey), Matt Mulhern (Joseph Wykowski), Corey Parker (Arnold B. Epstein), Markus Flanagan (Roy Selridge), Casey Siemaszko (Don Carney), Michael Dolan (James J. Hennesey), Penelope Ann Miller (Daisy), and Park Overall (Rowena).


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The Watcher (2000, Joe Charbanic)

I do not regret watching The Watcher, which features Keanu Reeves as a serial killer who sees the world like a shitty late nineties video camera. It might not even be a video camera. The shots might just be through a shitty video viewfinder. There’s a lot of… competency on display in the film, but it’s never from director Charbanic. Charbanic’s hilariously incompetent. Well, sort of hilariously. Sometimes the bad goes on too long and gets tiring. The therapy sessions haunted ex-FBI agent James Spader has with Marisa Tomei are always tedious; the writing (from David Elliot and Clay Ayers) is godawful, but Tomei also looks like someone’s pointing a pistol at her dog offscreen to keep her on set. Given how Charbanic doesn’t do establishing shots, there’s sometimes no evidence Spader and Tomei are on set together. Spader can handle it. Tomei cannot.

Because until the last act, when Reeves kidnaps Tomei and Spader, it’s Spader’s movie. It’s about this guy who has moved to Chicago from L.A., on full disability after he ran into a burning house to save his lover (Yvonne Niami). Only then we find out through flashbacks Spader left Miami tied up to go chase Reeves. His lasting damage from the rescue attempt doesn’t always allow him to remember the fire. Tragic.

For more reasons than one. Niami seems awkwardly filmed. Maybe it’s because she’s one of the producers’ wives. The shlock producer. The film has three. Two seem legit, the third—Nile Niami—did a bunch of low budget action crap. The Watcher feels like low budget action crap, but filmed on location. Because even though there’s the interesting behind the scenes story about how Reeves was buds with director Charbanic from when Reeves toured with his crappy band instead of doing Speed 2 and verbally agreed to do this shitty script and then some assistant forged Reeves’s name on an actual contract and Reeves was trapped—even though there’s that story, whatever the deal with the Chicago location shooting is far more compelling. Because they go all out shooting in Chicago. It looks terrible, because Charbanic sucks and Matthew Chapman’s cinematography looks like a syndicated TV cop show and Richard Nord’s editing is atrocious, but whoever coordinated and managed all that location stuff—great job. The CG explosions look like crap, but the real ones look awesome… well, look awesomely executed. They don’t look awesome because the direction’s bad. Though the big explosion shot is one of the better, more approaching competence moments.

They’ve got a gazillion cop cars, they’ve got helicopters flying into the city from over Lake Michigan–the movie goes all out as a Chicago travelogue. At first it seems like it’s some kind of promotional video to shoot in Chicago, then it seems like it’s some crappy action movie just shot in Chicago—like a Chicago investor or something—but apparently it’s something else entirely. Kind of interesting. Far more interesting than the movie. And the Reeves casting intrigue. Because Reeves is just bad. He’s really bad at playing the serial killer. The script’s dumb, Charbanic’s a suck director, but Reeves is still just bad.

Spader… works it. Sometimes you can just pass the time watching Spader figure out how he’s going to essay this crap role. It’s like watching the performance occur to him. It’s not a great performance by any means—the script’s crap, characterization’s crap, part’s crap—but it’s interesting to watch Spader. Less Tomei. Chris Ellis is really good as Spader’s Chicago PD sidekick. Ellis doesn’t have a single acceptably written line but somehow he makes it work. He’s very enthusiastic. Like somehow he’d convinced himself The Watcher was going to be the next Matrix. It has Keanu Reeves in a leather jacket all the time after all.

Marco Beltrami’s score isn’t good—Nord’s cutting for music, Beltrami or the light metal soundtrack selections is terrible—but Beltrami works it too. He’s got some good technique, but there’s no way the final product is going to come across.

The Watcher’s atrocious. You shouldn’t watch it.

Though, if you’re interested in the Chicago area and seeing an expansively but poorly shot film showcasing it… you probably can’t do better than The Watcher? But also don’t watch it. It’s terrible.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Joe Charbanic; screenplay by David Elliot and Clay Ayers, based on a story by Darcy Meyers and Elliot; director of photography, Michael Chapman; edited by Richard Nord; music by Marco Beltrami; production designers, Maria Caso and Brian Eatwell; produced by Christopher Eberts, Elliott Lewitt, Nile Niami, and Jeff Rice; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring James Spader (Joel), Keanu Reeves (David), Marisa Tomei (Polly), Chris Ellis (Hollis), and Ernie Hudson (Mike).


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).


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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