erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 1990s posts

Monday December 03, 2018

Movie Review: The Phantom (1996)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Of all the 1930s ur-superhero reclamation projects attempted in the wake of the box-office success of “Superman” (1978) and “Batman” (1989)—i.e., Flash Gordon, Lone Ranger, and The Shadow—this would have been voted least likely to succeed. The Phantom is problematic for so many reasons:

  • He’s a white guy treated as a god by jungle natives
  • He’s considered “The Ghost Who Walks” (which is kind of spooky) yet dresses in a skintight purple suit and Robin mask (which isn’t).
  • Plus: skintight suit in the jungle? For the weight-loss?
  • Plus: purple suit in the jungle? For the camouflage?
  • Plus: the jungle? Who gives a shit about the jungle?

Review of 1996 Phantom with Billy ZaneThe Phantom was a comic strip creation rather than a comic book or radio/pulp creation, and creator Lee Falk simply tacked on 1930s accoutrement (skintight suit/mask) to the tropes of decades-old boys adventure stories (jungle, signet ring, kowtowing natives, dog sidekick). Put it this way: The Phantom was backwards-looking in the 1930s. What chance did he have 60 years later?

More: The ‘90s output of Aussie director Simon Wincer’s wasn’t exactly inspiring: “Quigley Down Under,” “Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man,” “Free Willy,” “Lightning Jack” and “Operation Dumbo Drop.” It’s like a film festival in hell.

Ditto its lead. Billy Zane showed up during the second season of “Twin Peaks” and everyone went “Movie star!” Then he made one bad film after another—culminating in the 1994 Italian spoof “The Silence of the Hams,” where he plays FBI agent Jo Dee Fostar opposite Dom DeLuise’s Dr. Animal Cannibal Pizza—and everyone thought, “OK, maybe not.”

And yet, for all that, “The Phantom” isn’t bad.

How The Phantom > Indiana Jones
There’s a light, humorous touch throughout and Wincer keeps things moving. We don’t get bogged down in the tons of backstory. Wincer, or screenwriter Jeffrey Boam, even saves the majority of exposition—the 400 years of Phantoms, and the latest, Kit Walker, is the 21st—for the very end.

Was Boam its saving grace? He wrote “The Dead Zone,” “Innerspace,” “The Lost Boys,” and “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” so he seems to know his way around a story. He begins this one a la “Raiders of the Lost Ark”: 1930s, jungle, treasure hunters—but with bad guys seeking the treasure. It actually upends, or clarifies, a disturbing point in “Raiders.” Indiana Jones, the guy we root for, voted the second-greatest cinematic hero of all time by the American Film Institute, is actually a thief. Worse: He’s a first-world thief robbing a third-world country. He’s robbing from the poor to give to a rich university. Maybe he’s due for some revisionism.

The bad-guy treasure hunters here are led by Quill (perennial bad guy James Remar, who will always be Ganz from “48 Hrs.” to me), who berates a small native boy, makes him drive a truck across a shaky rope bridge, and claims to have killed the Phantom. (He did: the 20th, Kit's father.) In a cave deep in the jungle, they lose one man in retrieving a skull with glowing bejeweled eyes, then are pursued, not by natives as in “Raiders,” but by a white dude in a purple skintight suit riding a white horse. It’s the intro of the Phantom and it should’ve been cool. It’s not. I wouldn’t be surprised if the scene was greeted with laughter in 1996 movie theaters. At the same time, I’m not sure what else you do. Maybe not have the bad guys spooked? Since, you know, there’s nothing scary about The Phantom. He’s just a dude in a purple suit on a white horse in the jungle.

That said, the action scenes are well-done, and the rope bridge—a favorite trope of serials—makes a solid reappearance. Zane supposedly worked out for a year for the role and did such a good job they dispensed with the padded suit. It shows. Back in his skull cave, we see him sitting shirtless, and there’s not an ounce of fat on him. He looks supremely, nonchalantly dashing. I immediately thought “movie star” again.

Another smart decision: The Phantom isn’t a god to the native people but a friend. There’s no “swaying the native mind” with tricks and illusions, as in the 1943 serial. At the same time, one wonders what The Phantom does with his day. The point of the old racist Phantom was to keep the tribes from fighting; his mere presence kept the peace. What does this one do? Just wait for white assholes to show up?

Kit soon learns from an ancient text that the purloined skull is one of the three “Skulls of Tuganda,” which, when placed together, “harness a force a thousand times greater than any known to man.” The Tuganda tribe used to own all of them, but they were attacked by pirates of the Sengh Brotherhood, and the skulls were separated and lost—four centuries ago.

Immediate thoughts:

  • If the skulls were so all-powerful, how did the Tuganda tribe lose?
  • Is the force a thousand times greater than any known to man circa 1938 ... or 1538? I was rooting for the latter. The power maybe of a grenade at best. Instead of apocalypse, it went pop and fizz.

The man after the skulls is Xander Drax (Treat Williams), a New York businessman/mogul with ties to the modern Sengh. Williams plays him as a kind of broad, comic Howard Hughes. It’s mostly welcome; other times a bit much.

Did Boam include too many characters from the strip? They all have to be introduced. Not just the girl, Diana Palmer (Kristy Swanson), recently returned to New York from the Yukon, but her would-be suitor, the useless Jimmy Wells (Jon Tenney), Lee Falk’s original consideration for the Phantom’s secret identity; and Diana’s uncle, Dave (Bill Smitrovich), an upright man who runs The New York Herald Tribune, and who tells Drax that they‘re running that exposé on him. Uncle Dave holds a soiree at his mansion, where we also meet Mayor and Police Commissioner, both of whom, of course, answer to Drax. As does the local mob bosses, the Zephro brothers. There’s a not bad scene where Drax gives a big speech in front of his lackeys about God being dead, America in financial ruin, darkness ruling the earth, and the opportunities in chaos. Ray Zephro (Joseph Ragno) objects. He talks about being an altar boy at St. Timothy’s and not putting up with this bullshit. There goes him. His brother, Charlie (David Proval), takes over. (Proval is mostly wasted here. You get no inkling of Richie Aprile.)

There’s also Sala (Catherine Zeta-Jones), whose all-female squadron works for Drax, and who will change sides before the end. Diana flies to Bengala to find out more about a spiderweb design (it’s the mark of the Sengh Brotherhood), but they’re forced down by Sala and her girls, and Diana is kidnapped. Enter the Phantom. Diana’s feistiness comes off a little bitchy. I.e., “Thanks, I can take it from here.” But they’re off and running.

So is the movie. At this point, it attempts, not poorly, the nonstop-action thing Spielberg perfected: From ship to plane to horse (a bit of a stretch—and ouch) to immediately being chased through the jungle by Quill and his men, guns blazing. Ultimately Phantom is helped by “the Rope People,” and he and Diana wind up back at the Skull Cave, where we’re introduced to yet another character, Capt. Horton (Robert Coleby), who tells Diana that the Sengh brotherhood is  “an ancient order of evil. They started out as pirates. Nowadays, there’s no telling what they’ve become.”

Ah ha. NAZIS.

Probably, but we never get there. Apparently three movies were planned, but when this one opened to meh reviews (42% on RT) and meh box office (sixth place opening weekend), all that was scrapped. 

Another smart thing the movie does? Gets Phantom out of the jungle. When I saw Kit Walker getting out of a cab in New York City, I got as excited as I did as a kid watching “Tarzan’s New York Adventure.” They don’t quite take advantage of it but it’s still fun: the run over the car rooftops in a traffic jam; stealing the cop’s horse; riding through Central Park and into the zoo, where, Tarzan-like, he’s apparently able to communicate with animals. Why not? Then we’re off for the movie’s final leg in the “Devil’s Vortex” (read: Triangle).

Lord of the rings
One of my favorite things about Billy Zane’s Phantom is his bemused matter-of-factness. “Your dog’s a wolf,” Diana tells him. “I know,” he responds. Here’s his first encounter with Drax:

Drax: All right, what's your name? Why do you want that skull so badly?
Kit: Kit Walker.
Drax: Huh. And who is Kit Walker?
Kit: I am.

On paper (or online) it doesn’t seem like much, but Zane nails it. He and Swanson also have good chemistry. She figures out who he is, of course—her college beau who left without saying goodbye. As Kit, he apologizes without apologizing. “My father died suddenly,” he says. “I had to take over the family business.”

The final battle in the pirate’s cove pits the three united skulls against the heretofore unmentioned fourth one: The Phantom’s ring. Guess who wins?

I’m not saying “The Phantom” is great, or even particularly good. But given all the problems with the source material, they didn’t do a bad job.

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Posted at 07:29 AM on Dec 03, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 1990s
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Friday February 05, 2016

Movie Review: Guilty By Suspicion (1991)

WARNING: SPOILERS

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.

Guilty by SuspicionTake 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.” (ADDENDUM: A better possibility is Budd Schulberg, the screenwriter of “Waterfront,” who testified against his ex-wife, Virginia.)

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.

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Posted at 07:54 AM on Feb 05, 2016 in category Movie Reviews - 1990s
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Thursday November 05, 2015

Movie Review: Rocky V (1990)

WARNING: SPOILERS

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.

Rocky VThen 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:

  1. Rocky ignores his own son, Robert Jr. (Sage), in favor of his adopted son, Tommy, in a way that everyone sees except Rocky.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

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Posted at 06:38 AM on Nov 05, 2015 in category Movie Reviews - 1990s
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Thursday September 03, 2015

Movie Review: Fantastic Four (1994)

WARNING: SPOILERS

For a famously bad movie, it’s not that bad. In some ways it’s better than the big-budget FF movies of 2005 and 2007. At least it has a campy charm and a few good lines about the psyche.

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
1994 Fantastic Four posterThe 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


  • 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*
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Posted at 06:39 AM on Sep 03, 2015 in category Movie Reviews - 1990s
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Wednesday April 02, 2014

Movie Review: Captain America (1990)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“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. Captain America 1990The 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.

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.

The End.

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?

Golan Depths
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.

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.

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Posted at 06:14 AM on Apr 02, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 1990s
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