Movie Reviews - 1990s postsFriday February 05, 2016
Movie Review: Guilty By Suspicion (1991)
It should’ve been a slam dunk. A Hollywood movie about the blacklist (with its obvious heroes and villains) that was originally written by someone who had been blacklisted (Abraham Polonsky, “Force of Evil”), and starring one of the greatest actors of his generation (Robert De Niro).
So what happened? Why does it lie there?
I think it combines too many stories into too few characters in a way that doesn’t make sense dramatically or historically.
Take the opening. In September 1951, Larry Nolan (Chris Cooper) testifies in private session before the white-haired, fat men of HUAC—one literally smoking a cigar—and begs them not to force him to name names. “Don’t make me crawl through the mud,” he says. “They’re my friends.” It’s a powerful scene. The next time we see him, Nolan ruins a welcome-home party for director David Merrill (De Niro) by shouting, to the movie people gathered, “Who are we trying to kid? We’re all dead!” Then he goes home to burn books in his front yard—including, I should add, “The Catcher in the Rye,” which, since it had been published only two months earlier, was hardly on anyone’s list of “subversive” material yet. Upstairs, his wife, Dorothy (Patricia Wettig), drunk and hysterical, makes accusations and throws his clothes/typewriter out the window. It’s the stuff of melodrama. But that’s not the worst of it.
For the rest of the movie, Nolan becomes a major asshole. After naming his wife’s name, he sues her for sole custody of their child, and wins, since she, a former communist, is an unfit mother. (And he? No? Because he ratted?) She winds up alone, unemployable, and eventually kills herself in front of Merrill and his ex-wife, Ruth (Annette Bening), by driving her car off a cliff. At her funeral, Nolan doesn’t bat an eye.
This is a helluva 180: from begging “Don’t make me crawl through the mud” to throwing it on everyone without a thought. It’s like Nolan is two different people. Which he is.
The powerful opening scene is based on the 1951 testimony of Larry Parks (“The Jolson Story”), who used the “crawling through the mud” metaphor before HUAC in ’51, betrayed friends, and was blacklisted anyway. But he didn’t become a major asshole; he and his wife, Betty Garrett, stayed together. The second half of the 180? That’s probably based on someone like Elia Kazan, who named names but took a kind of neocon pride in it. Of his 1954 film “On the Waterfront,” he writes, “When Brando at the end yells . . . ‘I’m glad what I done!’ that was me saying, with identical heat, that I was glad I’d testified as I had.”
And you can’t do that. You can’t combine two very different people and think you’ve made a whole character.
‘Wait, with who?’
We have a bigger problem with our main character. David Merrill seems bright enough, but at times he’s about as sharp as Homer Simpson.
Merrill, a golden boy director, has the ear of studio chief Darryl Zanuck (Ben Piazza), and has just returned from a few months in Europe, ready to start his next picture. Then the party; then the book burning, where Nolan warns him about HUAC: “Wait until Karlin and Wood put your nuts in a vise.”
He doesn’t have to wait long. The next morning, Zanuck breaks the news:
We got a problem. I got a board of directors in New York, and ... I gotta listen to ’em when they tell me my movies won’t get played because some guy running for Congress has a hard-on for Hollywood. Business is lousy, the theaters are empty, everyone’s staying home to watch Milton Berle dressed up as a woman. And now this.
Merrill’s quiet response: “What do you mean, ‘Now this,’ Darryl?”
Zanuck then gives him the name of an attorney, Felix Graff (Sam Wanamaker, who was himself blacklisted), to get straightened out.
Merrill’s quiet response: “I’m sorry, Darryl, I don’t get this.”
Then he goes to see Graff in a dingy hotel room (to preserve his rep, Graff says), and Graff talks about clearing his name with the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Merrill’s response: “Wait. With who?”
Then HUAC stooge Ray Karlin (Tom Sizemore, playing essentially Roy Cohn) emerges from the shadows, and says, “It’s probably no surprise to you that your name has come up as a communist sympathizer.”
Yes. Yes, it is a surprise. “Wait a minute,” Merrill says, “I’m no communist. I went to a couple of meetings 10 or 12 years ago—that’s it.”
I guess the point is to show how innocent Merrill is. It takes him this long to get up-to-speed. But man is it boring.
Since Merrill refuses to cooperate, the Zanuck gig, and other gigs, disappear. People won’t take his phone calls; friends desert him. They accuse him. They think he named their names, since they know how much making movies means to him. That’s a dull little subplot, actually: Merrill realizing that he spent too much time on work, and not enough with family, and with his kid, Paulie (Luke Edwards, soon seen in “Little Big League”). So he amends his ways. He becomes a better father. Yay.
Eventually he goes to New York to see about work there. He visits old theater friends, the Barrons (Stuart Margolin and Roxann Dawson), but doesn’t let them know he’s been named. Which is, again, not smart. Doesn’t he get it? He’s got the plague. Everyone he’s with can get contaminated. A good scene at the Barrons’ apartment exemplifies this. It’s just Merrill and Felicia. She’s drinking, acting flirty, and lets him know Abe is away for the weekend. Then Merrill mentions he’s being followed by HUAC investigators. Talk about your cold water! She says the following in rapid order:
- “Do you think they followed you here?”
- “I think you’d better go, honey.”
- “And stay away from the theater, OK? I don’t want Abe to have any problems.”
She’s supposed to be awful in this scene, but he isn’t much better. His innocence is a liability.
Is De Niro a liability? He internalizes everything. He’s just there. When Martin Scorsese shows up in a small role as Joe Lesser (i.e., Joseph Losey), a director who flees to England to keep working, and gives us that Scorsese rat-a-tat-tat dialogue, it’s a relief. It’s pizzazz and excitement and life. As opposed to what De Niro is giving us.
The one lively moment with Merrill is when he gets a B western and begins directing again; he takes over and the cast and crew suddenly light up because they know they’re in the hands of a pro. But it calls attention to what’s been missing. The movie is about a guy who does one thing well, and we don’t get to watch him do that one thing. Which, yes, is the point. But surely there’s a better way to dramatize it.
An ounce of decency
That western, by the way, is another odd amalgamation. It’s a B version of “High Noon,” in which the lead is a young, B-list actor named Jerry Cooper, rather than an old, A-list actor named Gary Cooper. Jerry even tries to defend Merrill the way Gary did with Carl Foreman, “High Noon”’s blacklisted screenwriter; but Jerry, unlike Gary, has no clout, and the producer questions his loyalty. It leads to one of the movie’s best lines:
Jerry (angrily, to producer): If you want to call me a commie, you got to back it up!
David (quietly, to Jerry): Jerry, if he wants to call you a commie, he doesn't need to back it up.
In Polonsky’s original version, Merrill actually was a communist; but writer-director Irwin Winkler took over and turned Merrill into a fairly apolitical everyman. It pissed off Polonsky so much he took his name off the product and badmouthed the movie all the way to the theaters.
He was right. Even the final dramatic showdown against HUAC, with flashbulbs popping, doesn’t quite work. I like that Merrill doesn’t know what he’ll do until he does it. I also like the fact that the members of HUAC don’t back down even after he gets all Joseph Welch in their faces. “Don’t you have an ounce of decency?” he tells them when they ask about Dorothy Nolan. “Don’t you have an ounce of shame? She’s DEAD!” But, no, they don’t have any shame; they keep talking. As in life. What’s the significance of the line: “I know this hurts you, Mr. Welch?” It’s what Sen. Joseph McCarthy says after Welch asks him if he has no sense of decency. We think of Welch’s line as a game-changer; but it didn’t change the game immediately, only historically. In the moment, McCarthy kept attacking. Because he had no sense of decency.
Except Merrill can’t be Welch. Welch was an attorney sparring with McCarthy in 1954, not an accused director dealing with HUAC in 1952. Winkler has Merrill take a principled stand, and he’s followed by a friend, screenwriter Bunny Baxter (George Wendt), who takes the same principled stand: I will answer any questions about me but not about my friends. It’s seen as a kind of victory, this ending. Merrill and his wife walk out of the hearings in triumph. But can’t HUAC find Merrill and Baxter in contempt—as it did with the Hollywood Ten? Won’t they go to jail? Won’t they still be blacklisted for another 10 years? The movie wants it to be a happy ending but it isn’t. Hollywood wants the hero to come from Hollywood but he didn’t.
Movie Review: Rocky V (1990)
If “Rocky IV” was one of the most absurdly patriotic movies ever made—the taciturn and teeny American stoically avenging the death of his friend by taking on the huge Russian machine, Ivan Drago, in a boxing match in the U.S.S.R., and winning, and winning over the Russian crowd, including the Politburo—then “Rocky V” is one of the most subtly subversive, anti-patriotic movies ever made.
It begins, as with most “Rocky” movies, with the end of the previous “Rocky” movie: that moment of physical triumph and spiritual diplomacy: You can change, I can change, we can all change. Moments later, in the grimy Soviet shower, Rocky can’t stop his hands from shaking; then he calls Adrian “Mick,” even though Mickey died years earlier. At home, the doctors discover he’s suffering from cavum septum pellucidum. Basically, the Russian drove his brain to a spot where it shouldn’t be—not a bad metaphor for the Cold War, actually—but it means he can never box again.
Then he finds out he’s broke. All that prize money through the years? The mansion? The robot servant? Gone. While in Russia, Paulie gave power of attorney to their accountant, who used the money for his own real estate deals that fell through. Now Rocky has to return to the same old stinkin’ Philly neighborhood he fled after “Rocky II.”
In other words, because he fought for his country, Rocky 1) loses all of his money, and 2) loses his means to make money.
The obvious lesson from Sylvester Stallone? Never fight for your country.
Worst of the Rockys
Here’s how bad “Rocky V” is: Stallone’s son, Sage, who plays Rocky’s son, Robert, is the best thing in it.
In a scathing piece in The New York Times in 1985, Vincent Canby anticipated Stallone’s problems with a “Rocky IV” sequel:
The actor, who refought and won the Vietnam War in “Rambo,” has taken it upon himself to fight and win a war that hasn’t yet been declared—World War III. There’s nothing left for a “Rocky V” except a Miltonian confrontation with Satan.
So Stallone did the opposite. He did with “Rocky” what the Beatles did with “The White Album”: returned to basics. Except the Beatles made music out of it, and Stallone makes crap.
Let’s start with the notion that Rocky couldn’t make money off his name. Yes yes yes, in “Rocky II” he couldn’t act in a TV commercial with a nasty director. So what? Get a better director. Or do print ads. Or just monetize your brand, as they say today. Christ, he’s the two-time heavyweight champion of the world...and he’s white! Every doofus in the world knows you can monetize that shit. Instead, the movie pretends otherwise for the entire movie.
But at least Rocky starts up Mick’s Boxing Gym. That’s not a bad idea. Rock becomes Mick. It’s a livin’, not a waste of life. Then he takes on a brash kid from Oklahoma, absurdly named Tommy Gunn (real-life boxer Tommy Morrison), and then more absurdly nicknamed Tommy “The Machine” Gunn, because the real name isn’t perfect enough already. (It’s like giving a nickname to Coco Crisp.) And Rocky trains Tommy to be champ.
This is the centerpiece of the film. All of the movie’s remaining conflicts arise from this simple fact: Rocky trains Tommy. From that, we get this:
- Rocky ignores his own son, Robert Jr. (Sage), in favor of his adopted son, Tommy, in a way that everyone sees except Rocky.
- In the press, Rocky is given all of the credit for Tommy’s rise, and Tommy becomes resentful in a way that everyone sees except Rocky.
- A Don King-like boxing promoter, George Washington Duke (Richard Gant), steals Tommy away by plying him with something that famous professional athletes never encounter: women willing to sleep with them.
- Duke’s ultimate goal is to get Rocky back into the ring because he’s the only boxer that any boxing fan cares about. Apparently not enough to buy anything with his name on it, mind you, but certainly enough to watch him die in the ring. Because that’s entertainment.
Adrian (Talia Shire), who sees all of this happening, doesn’t say anything until the 11th hour, in an argument outside on Christmas Eve, in which Rocky talks up the smell of the neighborhood and yells, “I see where we are! I don’t want this no more!” within earshot of everyone who actually lives there. Classy, Rocko.
But eventually Rocky sees the light, and makes it up with Adrian, and Robert Jr., and Paulie, and they all go home happy. The end.
Oh right. The fight.
Brain and brain, what is brain?
It’s a “Rocky” movie so there’s gotta be a fight. But in all “Rocky” movies there has to be a reason that prevents the fight so we don’t get it until the end.
In “Rocky II” what prevents the fight is he might go blind if he fights; plus Adrian doesn’t want him to fight. But then he learns to fight right-handed and Adrian says “Win” and off we go.
In “III” he loses the eye of the tiger. But then Apollo Creed makes him live with black people so he gets it back.
In “IV,” I guess nothing really prevents the fight. He’s determined to beat the Russian as soon as Apollo is killed.
And in “V”? What prevents the fight is he might die if he fights. So how does Stallone overcome this dilemma? Well, Rocky just doesn’t die. He fights Tommy in the street because Tommy’s a little shit, and Duke doesn’t make any money off it. Of course, neither does Rocky. But he’s got family. Plus the old neighborhood. Which stinks.
Here’s the real resolution to that dilemma: Apparently Stallone gave Rocky cavum septum pellucidum because he planned to actually kill him off. But then everyone said, “No, you can’t kill him off.” So he didn’t. So Rocky fights with cavum septum pellucidum but his brain is cool with it. He doesn’t die.
But “Rocky” fans did a little bit. “Rocky V” drove our brains to a spot where it shouldn’t be.
Movie Review: Fantastic Four (1994)
But yeah, on a normal day it’s godawful.
Examples of inexplicable, laugh-out-loud moments:
- Reed tripping Dr. Doom’s soldiers with an elongated foot.
- The Thing getting pissed off about the monster he’s become and leaving the Baxter Building; a second later, he is shocked, shocked, when two girls flee from him in terror. Poor Thing!
- The Invisible Girl turning invisible and ducking out of the way of bullets.
- The fact that the actor playing the Thing (Carl Ciarfalio) is much shorter than the actor playing Ben Grimm (Michael Bailey Smith).
But my favorite idiotic moment is earlier.
Love > Astrophysics
The movie starts with Ben, Reed (Alex Hyde-White) and Victor Von Doom (Joseph Culp) in college, while Johnny and Sue are just kids in “Mrs. Storm’s Boarding House,” where Reed and Ben rent a room. Sue is played by 13-year-old Mercedes McNab, and she has a crush on Reed. “He’s dreamy,” she says. Since we know they’ll wind up together, this is kind of creepy.
After Doom apparently dies in a scientific experiment involving the comet Colossus, we cut to 10 years later. Reed has figured out how to observe Colossus from aboard a space ship, with a gigantic diamond absorbing its energy and keeping them alive, and Ben agrees to pilot the ship. But what about the crew? Ben suggests Johnny and Sue, now in their twenties:
Reed: What do they know about astrophysics?
Ben: C’mon. They may not have Harvard diplomas but they know more about this project than anyone else on earth. Besides, if you don’t let them come, they will never forgive you.
Part of the blame for this goes to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. In FF #1, they never did come up with a rationale for why Sue and Johnny were in the rocket ship. “I’m your fiancée! Where you go, I go!” Sue says as they drive to the launch site. “And I’m taggin’ along with sis—so it’s settled!” Johnny adds.
But my favorite idiotic moment is just after that. Inside the house, Johnny (Jay Underwood, overacting throughout) is excited, but Reed is still on the fence.
Johnny: Ready to go!
Reed: Actually, Johnny, I don’t think ...
Female voice (off camera): We’re ready.
And there she is on the stairs, Sue Storm, now played by Rebecca Staab, who was born in 1961 as opposed to 1980 for McNab. In 10 years, in other words, Sue has gone from being 21 years younger than Reed to just two. (I guess girls do mature faster than boys.) She and Reed stare into each other’s eyes as we hear tinkly piano music from a bad 1970s “Movie of the Week” love story, and everyone looks on with silly smiles. Then Reed says, “Absolutely! We’ve got a lot to do!”
That’s the moment. When Reed Richards lets Sue and Johnny fly into outer space because he’s in looooove.
Battle of the minions
The diamond is the key. It’s supposed to keep our four safe from the cosmic rays; but Doom wants it to power a laser cannon that will eventually destroy New York City, while the Jeweler (Ian Trigger), a decidedly non-cannon villain, wants to give it to the woman he loves, Alicia Masters (Kat Green), the beautiful blind sculptress we all know will become the Thing’s girlfriend. The Jeweler gets to the diamond first, but Doom laughs at this, ha ha ha, because it still works with his diabolical plans. Even better! Because now Reed Richards will suffer!
Or some such.
Not sure which villain has the worst minions. Doom keeps sending the same two guys, one of whom seems to be channeling Vito Scotti’s Dr. Boris Balinkoff from “Gilligan’s Island” (Bela Lugosi by way of Groovy Ghoulies), while both are accompanied by soundtrack music that seems stolen from John Williams’ “March of the Villains” theme in “Superman: The Movie”—the comic, bumbling tune that followed Ned Beatty’s Otis around. But I’ll take them over the nondescript Jeweler’s minions, who are sent to kidnap Alicia, the woman their boss loves, and they’re not exactly careful with her. The scene comes off like a PG version of rape.
Absurdities mount. Without the diamond, the four are affected by the cosmic rays and crashland next to a hill with a lone tree on the top, where we get low-budget revelations of powers. Sue disappears, Reed stretches, Johnny sneezes flames. “Just tell me what is happening to us!” Sue demands of Reed. Because no one arrives (“We must have dropped telemetry,” Reed says), they decide to camp out for the night. When they wake up, two things happen: 1) the Army arrives, and 2) so does the Thing.
But it’s not the U.S. Army; it’s Dr. Doom’s Army. For all his brains, it takes Reed a while to figure out they’re being held captive. After they escape, it takes him even longer to report back to the federal government. Meaning he never does. Nor does he wonder about being kidnapped in the first place.
The three storylines (FF, Doom, Jeweler) finally merge during the Thing’s Ringo-like wanderings. The moment the Thing is adopted by the Jeweler’s minions is the exact moment Dr. Doom shows up to take back the diamond. Cue epic battle!
Kidding. Alicia, being crowned “Queen” by the Jeweler, tells the Thing she loves him, and this, inexplicably, causes him to turn back into Ben Grimm. And this causes him to run away, get angry, cry in the night, then transform into the Thing again. Excuse me? If love makes him Ben again, why doesn’t he turn back at the end? No budget for transformation scenes, either, so we just get a spinning motion.
The big final battle is in Latveria, I guess. The Thing cries “It’s clobbering time!,” Reed battles Doom on the castle precipice, and the laser goes off, so Johnny—heretofore relegated to throwing fireballs—finally flames on, outraces the beam (nice trick), and stops it before it hits the Baxter Building.
How do they manage this special effect on such a low budget? The same way they made Superman fly in 1948: animation. It doesn’t look horrible.
Nothing to see here
This 1994 fiasco was never supposed to be released. It was only made so the producer, Bernd Eichinger (“The Name of the Rose,” “Nowhere in Africa,” “The Baader Meinhof Complex”), could retain rights to a movie he hoped to make with a bigger budget. That’s why he hired Roger Corman, King of the Bs, who could do it for $1 million instead of $30. Most of that apparently went into the Thing’s animatronic look. I’m guessing Sue got sloppy seconds and the Torch thucky thirds. The worst special effect is Reed’s stretching. It’s a lame superpower anyway—a holdover from when “plastic” was the new thing.
Regardless, someone in power should official release the 1994 “Fantastic Four” so the rest of us don’t have to rely on online or comic-con bootlegs to experience the suckiness. I mean, yes, it’s awful, but it’s hardly more embarrassing than the 2005 and 2007 versions.
SLIDESHOW: Here's the moment Reed first sees Sue—as a woman rather than a 13-year-old girl. His reaction is supposed to be love. Johnny's reaction is supposed to be ... brotherly?
The four before the transformation, but not before Jay Underwood's overacting.
Three celebrate the arrival of the U.S./Latverian Army after the crash. But wait, where's Ben?
Ah, here he is.
“I got a rock. Rats.”
Ben should be happy. His special effects aren't nearly as crappy as Reed's.
Or the Torch's, who's reduced to animation.
At times, though, it almost looks like it's might've been ... good. *FIN*
Movie Review: Captain America (1990)
“Hey, this doesn’t seem so bad.”
That was my thought 10 minutes into Albert Pyun’s “Captain America,” which was supposed to be godawful. The movie was made in the summer of ’89 for release in the summer of ’90 but it didn’t get released. It just disappeared. It was like they’d come up with a plague germ and needed to keep it isolated in a lab. Two whole years went by before it finally saw light, or a kind of light: it went straight to video. It was so bad that Cap’s co-creator, Jack Kirby, who fought to get his name on the film, fought, after the premiere, to get his name off it. More than 7,000 IMDb users have collectively given the thing a 3.2 rating. That’s the second-lowest-rated superhero movie ever, after “Steel,” starring Shaquille O’Neil. Right: worse than “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace,” “Supergirl,” “Batman & Robin” and “Catwoman.”
Yet, initially, it didn’t seem so bad to me. It helped that I’d just watched the 1944 and 1979 versions of Captain America, and this Captain America, at least, looked like Captain America: same uniform, same shield, same boots. The origin of the Red Skull in Italy in 1936 had some decent production values, and they did their best to make the pre-Cap Steve Rogers (Matt Salinger, son of J.D.) seem skinny and weak. Sure, the opening scene is melodramatic while the stuff on the homefront with the girl, Bernie (Kim Gillingham), is sappy to the point of silliness; plus the southern accents of the military officers (Michael Nouri, Bill Mumy) are like out of some high school production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” But 10 minutes in I wasn’t seeing godawful.
Then it kept going.
Shooting Captain America at the White House
Here’s the story. Remember: this is the story of Captain America.
It’s 1943. For his first mission, a month after being reborn, a nervous Cap parachutes into a castle in Nazi Germany, where the Red Skull awaits, kicks his ass, and ties him to a rocket ship aimed at the White House. And off it goes. But at the last minute, over Washington, D.C., Cap, still tied up, kicks at the missile and sends it to Alaska, where he’s buried in the snow and ice. The only witness to his heroics is a little boy with a camera, who, inspired, grows up to be the President of the United States!
Fast forward 50 years. In the 1990s, Cap is discovered by ...
OK, wait. Hold it right there.
So ... Captain America, the World War II fighting force, has only one mission during World War II? Which he fails miserably? Then he’s shot at the White House? And only averts complete disaster with some pathetic kicking? Which some boy witnesses from the ground? And considers heroic?
You could do this for the entire movie: reiterate its plot with disbelieving question marks.
After being unfrozen Cap wanders around the woods of northern Canada? And the only two people who find him are the fashion-model daughter of the Red Skull, Valentina de Santis (Francesca Neri), and Sam Kolawetz (Ned Beatty), the best friend of the president, now an enterprising reporter with assassination conspiracy theories? And they converge on Cap at the exact same moment? And Valentina shoots Cap but Sam saves him? Then Cap distrusts Sam and steals his truck and drives it to southern California? And he realizes he’s been frozen for 50 years only when he sees a thong bikini at the beach?
What the fuck?
Captain America is not only not a hero here, he’s not even known. Only two people know he exists: the Red Skull (Scott Paulin), who, from a castle in Italy, plots his nefarious schemes, including the assassinations of JFK, RFK, MLK, and the scuttling of Pres. Tom Kimball’s environmental bill; and Pres. Tom Kimball (Ronny Cox), who, when his childhood hero is resurrected, sends no one in the government, no Army, etc., to find him. Just his pudgy childhood friend.
Eventually Cap teams with Bernie’s daughter, Sharon (also Kim Gillingham), whom he initially thinks is Bernie. This creeps her out so she decks him. It’s supposed to be meet-cute; but at this point Cap has done nothing except lose fights so it just adds to the embarrassment. Then the Red Skull’s minions, who look like mobsters in a Dolce & Gabana ad, figure out where he’s staying and kill both Bernie, now aged, and Sam Kolawetz, the president’s best friend. Cap shows up too late for that. He’s been watching videos about assassinations. When the bad guys track Steve Rogers to the diner, Roz’s Café, where Cap was born, a fight ensues that Steve actually wins.
I.e., after 50 years and an hour of screentime, Captain America finally wins his first fight.
What the fuck?
Then he and Sharon fly to Italy to confront the Red Skull in his castle, where, unbeknownst to Steve, although it’s worldwide news, the Red Skull has kidnapped and drugged (and somehow plans to replace) Pres. Kimball. But Cap saves POTUS and the two men, giving each other sappy thumbs ups, join forces in saving Sharon and stopping the Red Skull and ensuring the passage of a sweeping environmental bill. Then Sharon puts her head on Cap’s chest while Cap looks off majestically into the middle distance.
It’s like they hired a few professionals, readied some B- or C- or F-grade production values, then handed everyone a script written by a 9-year-old.
The question is: Who’s to blame?
Is it screenwriter Stephen Tolin, who has 24 screenwriting credits, including “Masters of the Universe” (1987), “The Craigslist Killer” (2011), and a few episodes of the critically acclaimed series “Brothers and Sisters”? How about director Albert Pyun, who started directing schlock (“The Sword and the Sorcerer”), stayed in a different kind of schlock (Jean-Claude Van Damme movies) and reverted to various other brands of schlock (horror/revenge straight-to-video thrillers)?
Nah. It’s none of these guys. The blame goes to one man: Menahem Golan of Cannon Films. Oy.
Golan, along with cousin Yoram Globus, was responsible for some of the worst movies of the ’80s and ’90s. Apparently these guys had good intentions but a wide appetite. They wanted to make classy movies (“Barfly”), action-adventure (“Superman IV: The Quest for Peace”), and exploitation flicks (the “Death Wish” sequels), but were probably best at exploitation. Their eyes were always bigger than their stomachs. In two years alone, 1987 and 1988, Golan produced 44 movies. If one movie bombed, money disappeared for the others. And their movies were always bombing.
“It’s pretty difficult to make a film when there were times we actually had no money in the bank,” Pyun says.
The new Blu-Ray version of “Captain America” includes a sad featurette, “Looking Back at ‘Captain America,’” with Pyun and Matt Salinger. Both seem like decent guys. Salinger says the script’s best scenes were cut due to lack of funds. “Character stuff,” he calls it. “Nuance.” Pickups were supposed to be done in Alaska but they never went to Alaska. An over-the-top, melodramatic soundtrack was added to over-the-top, whooshing sound effects, which were set against some not-good actors working from a script that actually disparages the WWII legacy of Captain America. And that’s how we wound up with this.
“We did the best we could,” Salinger says, sounding the movie’s epitaph, “given the time we had and the money we had.”
The final insult? Near the end of the movie, with the Red Skull defeated, Cap looks briefly at the camera and smiles. What does it recall? What does it consciously remind us of? Why, Christopher Reeve, as Superman, smiling at the camera at the end of “Superman: The Movie.” That was one of the best superhero movies ever made. This one?
This one did the best it could given the time and money it had.
Movie Review: The Shadow (1994)
WARNING: WHO KNOWS WHAT SPOILERS LURK IN THIS REVIEW?
Of all the pulpy predecessors that Hollywood tried to turn into franchises in the wake of “Superman” (1978) and “Batman” (1989)—e.g., “Flash Gordon” (1980), “The Legend of the Lone Ranger” (1981), “Tarzan, the Ape Man” (1981), and “The Phantom” (1996)—the Shadow actually had a shot. For one, he’s cool. He’s got the long, dark trenchcoat flapping in the breeze, the fedora pulled low, the tendency, as with post-Eastwood action heroes, to shoot first and ask questions later. Plus his catchphrase is one of the greatest of the era: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows, ah ha ha ha ha!”
“The Shadow” (1994), written by David Koepp (“Jurassic Park”; “Spider-Man”) and directed by Russell Mulcahy (Spandau Ballet’s “True”), has a shot, too. It opens the way of Tim Burton’s “Batman”: Bad guys are doing evil—in this case, throwing a Chinese scientist, who witnessed a crime, off a bridge—when a dark avenger appears, scares/kills the bad guys, announces himself, and then, as the music wells, poof, he’s gone.
Except, oh right, that’s not the way “The Shadow” begins. It begins in the opium fields of Tibet, where a man is being dragged into an opium den by two guys, who, a shot later, from inside the den, become two different guys (so much for continuity), and place the hapless man before an evil, shadowed warlord. We think the bad guy is being introduced here but it’s actually our hero, Lamont Cranston, played by a bare-chested Alec Baldwin wearing a long, straggly wig. An American doughboy during World War I, he stayed behind, turned to dope, and became this. He quickly demonstrates his evil ways by shooting both prisoner and trusted aid and leading his minions in laughter. But in the next scene he’s dragged from his bed and taken before a Tulku, or a Tibetan teacher, who says he will turn him into a hero. “You know what evil lurks in the hearts of men,” the Tulku says, “for you have seen that evil in your own heart.”
That’s not a bad idea—the Shadow knows because the Shadow’s been there—but it’s all so poorly handled. Alec is already getting a bit doughy here, the wig looks ridiculous, and, most important, Cranston’s shift from doing evil to preventing it is handled off-stage. After Cranston battles a knife that comes to life, with a fierce, fanged face on the handle, he asks the Tulku if he’s in Hell. “Not yet,” the Tulku replies as the music wells. Then these words appear on the screen:
The price of redemption for Cranston was to take up man’s struggle against evil. The Tulku taught him to cloud men’s minds, to fog their vision through force of concentration, leaving visible the only thing he can never hide—his Shadow.
Thus armed, Cranston returned to his homeland, that most wretched lair of villainy we know as ....
New York City
Seven Years Later
Which leads to the scene on the bridge.
So how did the Tulku change him? Who knows? Why did the Tulku pick him? Who knows? The Shadow may know what evil lurks ... but we know shit about the Shadow. And we never find out.
Some of it still works. Each man the Shadow saves becomes part of his team, and each is giving a glowing red ring and a secret password (The sun is shining/But the ice is slippery); then they communicate through a Rube Goldberg system of pneumatic tubes crisscrossing the city. The whole thing has a secret-club/treehouse vibe to it. It’s appeals to the 8-year-old boy in all of us. “Kids, you can help ‘the Shadow,’ too!”
Plus: “clouding men’s minds” is basically the Jedi mind trick. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s how it was ultimately pitched: “It’s Batman, dressed like Darkman, who can do the Jedi mind trick! Can’t miss!”
“It’s Batman, dressed like Darkman, who can do the Jedi mind trick! Can’t miss!”
It does. After the scene on the bridge, Cranston has dinner with his Uncle Wainwright (Jonathan Winters), the chief of police, at a swanky nightclub. Wainwright, echoing or foreshadowing complaints about Don Diego Vega, Bruce Wayne, et al., worries, without much sympathy, that his rich playboy nephew is wasting his life; then he gets word of another Shadow sighting and decides to appoint a task force to the vigilante. At this point, Cranston immediately retreats into the shadows, save for a strip of light across his eyes, and we hear the following:
Lamont: You’re not going to appoint a task force.
Uncle Wainwright: No. I’m not going to appoint a task force.
Lamont: You’re not going to pay any attention to these reports of The Shadow.
Uncle Wainwright: Ignore them entirely.
This might’ve been cool if it hadn’t already been done better 17 years earlier by Alec Guinness; if Cranston wasn’t doing it both family and the law; and if Winters’ line readings didn’t veer naturally toward the comedic.
A second later, Cranston meets Margo Lane (Penelope Ann Miller), who isn’t bad with the ESP thing, either, which is why he decides to steer clear of her. Ah, but fate. Shiwan Khan (John Lone), the last descendant of Genghis Khan, shows up in New York, via museum exhibit, and, determined to become the Emperor of the World, takes over the mind of Margo’s father, Dr. Reinhardt Lane (Ian McKellen, wasted), who works for the Dept. of Defense on a top-secret mission. Cranston pieces it all together, later, with the help of the Chinese scientist, Dr. Tam (Sab Simono), he saved on the bridge:
Tam: I guess you’d call it an implosive-explosive molecular device.
Lamont: Or an ... atomic bomb.
Tam: Hey, that’s catchy.
As with the above, tones are off throughout the movie. Opportunities are wasted. Shiwan Khan is evil with a capital “E.” At one point, he takes a cab, can’t pay, so he clouds the taxi driver’s mind to drive his cab into a gas tank, which explodes while Khan stands there laughing. Mwa-ha-ha-ha! It’s 1930s pulp villainy—right down to the race of the bad guy.
So the atom bomb is built, six years before the real thing, two years before we even entered the war, and Khan uses it to blackmail NYC for ... millions? Billions?
Why the blackmail ruse? He’s just going to blow it up anyway. And why America? It’s 1939. Nazi Germany is on the march with its “master race” and lebensraum talk. Isn’t Hitler your true competition at this point?
The most laughable moment in the movie may be when Lane’s ne’er-do-well and randy assistant, Farley Claymore (Tim Curry), traps The Shadow in a water tank and fills it up with water. Cranston then communicates with Margo, over a distance of miles, to come to his rescue, but when she finally shows up and he’s completely underwater, he still needs to mouth, through the glass window of the door, the words “Open the door.” That should’ve been obvious without the ESP.
Baldwin coasts here. Lone overacts. Ultimately the movie comes down to a battle of minds, but who wants to watch minds battling? Even George Lucas was smart enough to give his Jedis, with their mind tricks, light sabres.
“The Shadow” isn’t horrific but it’s hardly good. In the end, Lamont kisses Margo, then walks off.
Lamont: I’ll see you later.
Margo: Hey, how will you know where I am?
Lamont (smiles): I’ll know...
God, that’s lame. The Shadow may know, but “The Shadow” knows shit.
“The sun is shining.” “But the ice is slippery.”