Category Archives: 1993

Cronos (1993, Guillermo del Toro), the U.S. theatrical version

Cronos opens with an English-narrated prologue about a sixteenth century alchemist making a device to prolong his life. The uncredited narrator is wanting, the music isn’t good—it doesn’t seem like the rest of Javier Álvarez’s score, but who knows (well, the distributor would); it’s a change for the U.S. theaters and a bad one.

So it’s great when the film’s able to overcome that awkward opening—given the difference in tone, it’s hard to say if the original Spanish version would make much difference… some of the problem is the prologue content itself. But once writer and director del Toro gets Cronos settled in the present action, with a patient, deliberate introduction to lovable grandparents Federico Luppi and Margarita Isabel and their almost always silent granddaughter, Tamara Shanath, the iffy opening is an immediately distant memory. Cronos has MacGuffins in its MacGuffins, especially considering where the film ends up; the prologue is one of them. Or two of them.

The first act is mostly Luppi and Shanath hanging out at his antique shop—he’s an antiques dealer, grandma Isabel teaches dance, Shanath’s parents seem to both be deceased, she’s their paternal grandchild. There’s a cute little story Luppi eventually tells Shanath about her dad, who once tried to get Luppi to stop smoking by hiding Luppi’s cigarettes. Shanath’s doing the same thing, sort of; she’s hiding Luppi’s Cronos device.

Getting ahead of myself here.

So Luppi and Shanath are in the shop and they discover a statue with a hollow base. They discover it because some tweaker-type shuffles into the antique shop, looking at some of Luppi’s still wrapped pieces. Luppi gets curious, unwraps the statue, finds the hollow base, opens it, takes out a golden scarab looking thing. Pretty soon it latches on to Luppi’s arm and pokes him with its six legs. Inside the device—the biggest effects sequences in the film are the interiors, close ups of miniature gears—is an unidentified insect. It acts as a filter, presumably putting its own antibodies into the user’s blood, then distributing it back into the body.

The actual process of the device never gets too much attention, partially because there probably aren’t any bugs out there able to turn people into vampires—getting ahead again, sorry—but also because del Toro avoids painting himself and the film into any corners. It’s going to have shades of comedic absurdity in the second act, whereas the first just has echoes of magical realism (via the mechanical). Del Toro needs to keep things relatively loose.

Luppi becomes immediately addicted to the device, something he hides from wife Isabel but granddaughter Shanath finds out right away. Shanath’s not in favor of the Cronos device, but eventually relents enough to allow Luppi to keep it (as opposed to her hiding the device from him). Unfortunately, bad guys Claudio Brook and Ron Perlman also want the device and they’re willing to get violent about it.

Brook’s an old rich guy living in a sterile room in an industrial district with only American nephew Perlman to care for him. Perlman’s an errand boy, waiting for Brook to die for some inheritance. Brook doesn’t even tell Perlman why they’re looking for the device; besides the opening narration, all the exposition about the device comes from Brook, who never tells Luppi quite enough to make informed decisions.

Because pretty soon, Luppi starts noticing he’s lusting for human blood. He’s also lusting for Isabel, reinvigorated, clean-shaven, horny. Shanath really doesn’t like the amorous grandad, though Isabel doesn’t seem to notice the severity of the change.

At this point in the film, however, Cronos completely shifts gears as it prepares for the third act, which is all about Shanath having a grandfather who’s a vampire. There’s a lot of cute stuff with Shanath having a grandfather who’s a vampire, even though Luppi’s face is literally molding off. Isabel, who’s always a distant fifth in the film, disappears for the most of the last thirty minutes. It’s all about Luppi and Shanath trying to get things sorted out with Brook and Perlman, which seems like it’s the most important thing in the third act, but really isn’t. Despite being murderous, Brook and Perlman aren’t particularly threatening.

Probably because del Toro plays them for laughs a lot. Perlman’s doing a mostly comedic part. Brook’s doing a Mr. Big thing, only his performance is weak and his moments are where Cronos feels a tad cheap.

The film’s got a low budget and del Toro’s inventive with compensating for it, often successfully, but the cartoon villains are a mistake. Though as Cronos winds down, it seems like everything’s gotten to be a mistake, even Álvarez’s usually excellent score. Del Toro tries for something with the finale and misses, ending the already run down, deus ex machina’d Cronos on a shrug. Some of it’s the composition, with del Toro going in too tight on some of the shots—again, might just be budgetary, he and cinematographer Guillermo Navarro have some need cost-saving tricks throughout—but even so qualified, it’s a miss. The wandering narrative distance doesn’t do the film any favors.

There’s some great color palette stuff throughout from Navarro—the blue nights, the colors on the costumes, especially Shanath’s, then Shanath’s green glow stick, which becomes a familiar visual trope—but also some bland photography.

Cronos isn’t a failure by any means, but it’s also not the success it ought to be. Perlman’s bold comic villain turn, for example, is never as successful as it should be. Luppi’s turning into a vampire takes away all the subtext in his performance, replacing it with the inevitable inevitable blood lust. Isabel’s good but barely in it. Shanath’s in a similar situation. She’s always around but rarely the focus, even though it’s her story.

Del Toro does a great job stretching the budget, which is where Cronos is the most impressive. But that success really shouldn’t be the film’s most impressive feat.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Guillermo del Toro; director of photography, Guillermo Navarro; edited by Raúl Dávalos; music by Javier Álvarez; production designer, Tolita Figuero; costumer designer, Genoveva Petitpierre; produced by Arthur Gorson and Bertha Navarro; released by Ventana Films.

Starring Federico Luppi (Jesús), Tamara Shanath (Aurora), Ron Perlman (Angel), Margarita Isabel (Mercedes), and Claudio Brook (De la Guardia).


Grumpy Old Men (1993, Donald Petrie)

If Grumpy Old Men weren’t so scared of its ribald humor—giving almost all of it to dirty oldest man Burgess Meredith, who’s just there to make sex jokes and serves no other purpose in the film—you could probably just as well call it Horny Old Men. At least in Jack Lemmon’s case. He hasn’t gotten horizontal since 1978, which might be when his wife left. Grumpy’s pretty vague with its backstory, maybe because writer Mark Steven Johnson is far more comfortable with Lemmon and nemesis Walter Matthau bickering; or maybe he’s just not good at consistency in the exposition. Given the general ineptness of the narrative, it seems more like the latter.

Because even though the film’s principal cast is entirely AARP eligible, it’s not some empowering story about older adults living full lives; if it weren’t for Ann-Margret moving in across the street and reminding Matthau and Lemmon to perv at her through their windows, they’d be just as happy sitting around alone doing nothing. Sure, Matthau’s got his TV and Lemmon plays chess against himself, but their lives are just waiting for their kids to need them. The kids—Kevin Pollak is Matthau’s son, Daryl Hannah’s Lemmon’s daughter—are the only supporting characters with a full arc. Though… arguably, Lemmon is the only of the the main characters with a complete arc. Once the third act hits, Matthau and Ann-Margret act entirely for Lemmon’s benefit, even as he’s offscreen for a bunch of the finale.

Lemmon’s arc mostly involves him dodging IRS guy Buck Henry—who’s well-utilized and quite amusing in an otherwise bland little extended cameo—because (we learn) he wasn’t paying enough back when his ex-wife was working so he owes a bunch of money and they’re going to take his house. He’s not telling anyone about these problems—and the film isn’t telling the viewer either so it can double-up expository impact when Matthau finds out about it late in the second act—so it’s hard to take the problems seriously. You’re obviously not supposed to take Grumpy Old Men very seriously, from vulgar nonagenarian Meredith to Lemmon and Matthau’s mean-spirited bantering slash full-on slapstick physical comedy; Lemmon’s money problems, despite being the biggest plot (sorry, Ann-Margret), don’t make much impact. Lemmon’s great at fretting but fretting solo can’t compare to he and Matthau going thermonuclear. Especially since Matthau’s got zip to do except go thermonuclear.

Because they’re not really Grumpy Old Men in general, just specifically as it relates to the other. They’ve hated each other since childhood; despite being pals until puberty, the first girl to come between them broke the friendship early, which must have made it awkward when Lemmon then married the girl, had a couple kids—a son died in Vietnam to remind everyone it’s actually kind of serious but in a “this was very serious thirty years ago and not since” way—and was miserable with Matthau’s dream girl. Matthau meanwhile married a good woman—the way they talk about Lemmon’s ex-wife is… problematic. Though the script’s often problematic with its female characters. The boys initially suspect Ann-Margret is a free-love type, for example, and it’s impossible to fault them because her writing is so bad for most of the first act. She’s supposed to be a passionate literature professor living her best life as a widow, which involves snowmobiling a lot. And a sauna so they can show fifty-two year-old Ann-Margret can still cheesecake.

It’s also unclear why Ann-Margret’s only three options, dating-wise, are Lemmon (sixty-eight), Matthau (seventy-three), and Ossie Davis (seventy-six). Especially since she’s not just drawing stares from the oldest guys. Of course, the film’s not really interested in fleshing out the setting. Besides Lemmon, Matthau, Ann-Margrets’s homes, the frozen lake where the men all icefish because it’s Minnesota (Davis runs the bait shop and lunch counter), a bar, and a pharmacy, Grumpy Old Men doesn’t go anywhere.

The best performance is probably Matthau, just because he doesn’t get too much to do, whereas the script fails both Lemmon and Ann-Margret (mostly her). Davis is cute, Pollak is good, Hannah’s fine. Technically it’s competent. Petrie does fine showcasing the physical comedy and the banter. Johnny E. Jensen’s photography is better than it needs to be. The Alan Silvestri super-saccharine score is a tad much though.

Grumpy Old Men has got some solid laughs and not much else.

Oh, and listen fast for John Carroll Lynch.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Donald Petrie; written by Mark Steven Johnson; director of photography, Johnny E. Jensen; edited by Bonnie Koehler; music by Alan Silvestri; production designer, David Chapman; costume designer, Lisa Jensen; produced by John Davis and Richard C. Berman; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Jack Lemmon (John Gustafson), Walter Matthau (Max Goldman), Ann-Margret (Ariel Truax), Daryl Hannah (Melanie), Kevin Pollak (Jacob Goldman), Ossie Davis (Chuck), Buck Henry (Snyder), Christopher McDonald (Mike), and Burgess Meredith (Grandpa Gustafson).


The Quiet Room (1993, Steven Soderbergh)

The Quiet Room really, really, really, relies on its twist. The ending is really predictable too; like, director Soderbergh and writer Howard A. Rodman do way too well on the foreshadowing. Because Room is a slightly exaggerated noir–part of the “Fallen Angels” TV anthology–nothing really needs to be foreshadowed. There’s a twist Soderbergh and Rodman set up in the first third, the end just delivers on it in an extreme way. Two twists for the price (or time) of one.

By the last third, when it’s just the countdown to the reveal, both lead performances softly crater. Soderbergh makes sure the lovely Emmanuel Lubezki and luscious Armin Ganz production design slow the descent. But the descent is inevitable because it’s just a noir TV anthology episode. With a source short story. And a somewhat salacious twist, at least as far as noir goes; if Quiet Room were going for homage, it might work better. Instead, it tries to be something different.

Joe Mantegna and Bonnie Bedelia are dirty cops. They’re having a love affair, which no one knows about; besides them, the only significant character is Mantegna’s teenage daughter, Vinessa Shaw (in the most important performance and the consistently worst). Mantegna is a single dad, out all hours because he and Bedelia have a shakedown racket going. Bedelia collars prostitutes and then beats information out of them about their johns so Mantegna can go and shake down the johns. Peter Gallagher has what seems like a great cameo as one of them, but then J.E. Freeman is one of the other ones and he’s freaking amazing in a much smaller role. Freeman walks away with the whole thing. Especially given how it finishes up.

Mantegna is mostly all right. He really whiffs when he needs to make it work. Bedelia’s better. Neither of them get good roles though. It’s all about Freeman though, performance-wise.

Soderbergh’s direction is fine. He’s got a handful of nice shots and does well with the actors. Sometimes well with the actors. There’s only so much to do with the script, especially as it starts barreling towards the inevitable conclusion. Soderbergh doesn’t do anything to slow its descent, much less stop it.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Soderbergh; teleplay by Howard A. Rodman, based on a short story by Frank E. Smith; “Fallen Angels” created by William Horberg; director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki; edited by Stan Salfas; music by Peter Bernstein; production designer, Armin Ganz; produced by Horberg, Lindsay Doran and Steve Golin; released by Showtime Networks.

Starring Joe Mantegna (Carl Streeter), Bonnie Bedelia (Sally Creighton), Vinessa Shaw (Jeannie Streeter), Patrick Breen (Doc), J.E. Freeman (Johnny Cabe), and Peter Gallagher (Dr. Yorgrau).


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Black Rider (1993, Pepe Danquart)

Black Rider is almost desperate in its lack of great. There’s a single great moment–sort of, it’s a funny twist but entirely problematic–amid a bunch of other not great moments. And the resolution to the twist is pat and a joke… only one at the expense of writer and director Danquart and the short itself.

The film starts with a bustling Berlin train station. Black Rider runs twelve minutes. The bustling train station montage takes about three. The action then cuts to Stefan Merki trying to get his motorcycle started. He can’t, so he has to get on the streetcar. Good thing he’s at a streetcar stop where Danquart introduces some of the supporting “cast.” Teenagers, business people. Everyone’s white except two Turkish teenage boys. They’re busy making eyes at two teenage girls. And then one African guy (Paul Outlaw)–he’s waiting for the tram with his friend, a white German guy with dreadlocks… but I mean, it’s 1993 so maybe the dreadlocks on the white guy aren’t a bad sign.

(Spoiler, they are, but for Danquart’s… philosophy seems a stretch but his take).

Everyone boards, Outlaw sits down next to a rude old white lady (Senta Moira). She proceeds to complain about rude immigrants, getting more and more overtly racist as she goes along. Danquart cuts from her rants to the other passengers, who mostly sit expressionless. Some appear to react, just not vocally. They’re not going to get involved (it’s never clear if they’re actually hearing her or the audio is looped in; Black Rider is so slickly produced it comes off artificial).

Eventually there’s a short tram montage before the ticket taker arrives and then there’s the big twist. It’s a funny twist because it’s a sight gag. Danquart’s fallout from it is reassuring and patronizing–racism can’t succeed because good people, who are silently allowing social injustice, will also silently allow social justice. Black Rider isn’t naive so much as absurd. It’s not really condescending because Danquart is a philosophical punchline.

Good acting from Outlaw, who’s mostly expression, and Moira, who’s appropriately hideous. Danquart’s way too eager to write her off as a “crazy old racist lady,” because then there’s zero responsibility in Black Rider.

It’s professionally produced–though Michel Seigner’s jazz score is a little much and Ciro Cappellari’s photography deserves better direction–and it’s got a good laugh, but it’s passively gross.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Pepe Danquart; director of photography, Ciro Cappellari; edited by Mona Bräuer; music by Michel Seigner; produced by Albert Kitzler.

Starring Senta Moira (Old Woman), Paul Outlaw (Black Man), and Stefan Merki (Biker).


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