Category Archives: 1998

Six-String Samurai (1998, Lance Mungia)

Released in 1998, Six-String Samurai makes the big move of using a very familiar piece of music from the Pulp Fiction soundtrack (Misirlou, which is also the music on the Pulp Fiction trailer) during a big action sequence. It’s not a bold move, because Samurai hasn’t got any boldness. It even walks back being tough enough to kill kids, which turns out to be a major bummer later on; but it’s a big move. You lift from a popular movie you’re not directly referencing but you’re desperately hoping has gotten audiences ready to give your lesser effort a pass. I also wouldn’t call it a courageous move—director Mungia is awkwardly safe—but it’s not something you see every day. A movie “homaging” a four-year old film with a straight face. I mean, it works in spoofs… maybe they were hoping it’d go far for them in Samurai, which isn’t a spoof but has the ingredients to be one.

While the plotting is sort of good—Samurai isn’t (but always seems like) an adaptation of a wacky but good indie comic from the late eighties or early nineties—samurai rock and rollers, all sorts of different gangs—cavemen, a bowling team, musical guests the Red Elvises, a heavy metal death gang, some Soviets—a post-apocalyptic setting. Maybe British, commenting on the U.S. but not well, instead just going for whatever works in the moment. Mungia and lead Jeffrey Falcon wrote the script, which is mercenary for its occasional laughs; if it were a Muppet movie, it’d be amazing, which is kind of hard to explain but also not. If Six-String Samurai were a bunch of Muppets and a human kid, it’d be amazing. The dialogue’s for a Muppet movie. When the death metal gang starts talking to each other like it’s “Fraggle Rock,” you can see the missed opportunity.

But until the end, it seems like Samurai might make it to the finish line. Only it doesn’t, because it’s got a bad ending where it turns out Mungia isn’t just nodding to… get ready… Kurosawa, Leone, Coen, Tarantino, Rodriguez, Lucas (as in George), he’s also got a whole Wizard of Oz thing he wants to throw in for momentary effect. Again, not ornate or committed enough to be desperate, but pointless. Mungia’s desperate to homage.

So it’s kind of weird how well he directs about forty percent of the action scenes. While Mungia doesn’t make a good kung fu movie or a good Western, he does make one hell of a samurai epic. When Falcon’s out there slicing and dicing, it’s some great samurai cinema. Shame Mungia can’t shoot a sword duel, but it’s only one of so many shames. Some of the problem with the action is James Frisa’s editing. It’s one of those cases where Mungia does things wrong, Frisa does things wrong, then they enable each other on other things gone wrong. Samurai does a lot with slow motion to cover Mungia not actually being able to direct the action and it gets really tiresome. Compounding it… Frisa’s editing isn’t good. It’s a vicious circle and usually keeps Samurai from accomplishing anything. Save those samurai action scenes—and just the action parts, not the setup or wrap-up. Mungia fumbles those parts like normal.

Kristian Bernier’s photography is good throughout. Lots of wind in the film in the first, which works to great effect. Unfortunately, as the gale mellows, lead Falcon—playing Lone Wolf—accepts Cub Justin McGuire.

Though—and it’s weird because it came out before–Samurai has a much better story for Star Wars: Episode I than Star Wars: Episode I has for itself.

Anyway.

The problem with Samurai and what ultimately does it in is McGuire. It’s very hard to cast a good kid lead in an adventure movie for all ages, it’s harder to cast one for an R-rated action movie… there’s no shame in not getting it right. Sadly, Mungia and company get it not just a little wrong, they get it astoundingly, increasingly wrong. Though if they were really making the movie and thinking it was fine—which seems to make sense, given how not good Falcon’s line deliveries get (and appear dubbed much of the time—his stunts are great, he was a stuntman)–but to not see what McGuire’s doing to your movie….

It’s like having an adorable little puppy who’s so annoying you want to kick it.

But there is an odd sincerity to the McGuire character, the young orphan who needs protecting and ronin Falcon’s the only one available–but it’s still bad and it’s not a cloying addition. It’s the film’s biggest swing and the resulting miss is what breaks Samurai’s last string.

Maybe if Falcon were a great lead but he’s not even a good one. Samurai is impressive for its creators’ tenacity and ability to get investors, Falcon’s physical movement, the samurai action, and the photography. The rest… nope.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Lance Mungia; written by Jeffrey Falcon and Mungia; music by The Red Elvises and Brian Tyler; director of photography, Kristian Bernier; edited by James Frisa; production and costume designer, Falcon; produced by Leanna Creel; released by Palm Pictures.

Starring Jeffrey Falcon (Buddy), Justin McGuire (The Kid), Stephane Gauger (Death), Clifford Hugo (Psycho), and Kim De Angelo (Mother).


Sphere (1998, Barry Levinson)

Sphere is not a justifiable use of eighty million dollars. I don’t think you could justify spending a dollar to rent a copy to watch, much less eighty million of them to make the thing.

The big problem is the script. Whatever Kurt Wimmer (ominously credited with “adaptation”), Stephen Hauser, and Paul Attanasio did to adapt the Michael Crichton source novel does not a successful script make. It’s got ludicrous character development and bad pacing, and is artificially bewildering and exceptionally crappy to women, specifically Sharon Stone. But there’s so much to fix, so much to compensate for, director Levinson just gives up on even trying. Script’s a big problem but Levinson’s inability to crack any aspect of the project is the biggest. It’s not incompetently directed. It’s incompetently written, incompetently produced, but Levinson’s direction isn’t actually incompetent. It’s just vapid.

Vapid is the word for Levinson’s direction. He’s not interested in executing the film successfully, just executing it. At 134 minutes, it’s a bit of a chore to watch but I imagine it was even more of a chore to make with so little investment whatsoever. Amusingly lead Dustin Hoffman has a bit—apparently ad-libbed—where he explains to Samuel L. Jackson, before the government submarines them to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean to meet space aliens, Hoffman bullshitted a report about how he, Jackson, Stone, and physics whiz kid Liev Schreiber should be the ones to first contact with any space aliens. He used the money to pay for the downpayment on his house, making one wonder what everyone involved with Sphere did with their paychecks before turning in their bullshit….

Okay, that one is a little unfair. Schreiber busts his ass to show-off in a bad part. There’s also these weird optics about competitiveness between Jackson and Schreiber and it’s inexplicable why Schreiber’s got it out for Jackson. Jackson doesn’t like Schreiber because he thinks he’s obnoxious, which is fine—though Schreiber gets intentionally less obnoxious in the second act and it backfires. Schreiber’s a lot better being annoying and doing exposition dumps than not being as annoying and giving them. Of course, the second act stuff isn’t his fault exactly because the film needs its eggheads—Jackson’s a mathematician, Schreiber’s physics, Hoffman’s a psychologist, Stone’s a biochemist-to do all sorts of things you’re not sure they’d know how to do… like setting explosives, repairing underwater habitats, on the fly code-cracking—Stone’s basically a medic, they all know how to get into their underwater suits and go for solo strolls. On and on. Sphere’s got a very limited cast—seven people in a habitat next to a giant spaceship, crash landed 300 years ago, but you’d need a support crew of a dozen to get everything done in the movie you need to get done considering they’re a bunch of narcissistic academics.

But back to the Schreiber vs. Jackson thing—it feels like there are some optics. Jackson’s the Black guy in what turns into a horror movie. He’s got a predicted part in the film.

See, once they go inside the spaceship they find all sorts of weird things, including a giant gold ball and they all become obsessed with it. Except Schreiber and Man in Black boss of the mission Peter Coyote. Oh, if only Peter Coyote were good in the movie. I really think a good performance in that part would at least keep Sphere somewhat buoyant.

Because Coyote, Jackson, and Schreiber have the film’s most important parts. Hoffman’s a terrible leading man. His part seems inflated and Stone’s decreased, which is concerning. Sphere feels very poorly assembled. Stu Linder’s cuts are fine, but the pace of the film, the focus of the narrative impulse? Not good. Whatever Levinson needed to crack with Sphere in terms of characters, plotting, scares, science fictions, musics, whatever… he doesn’t. He’s got no more idea what to do with Sphere at the end than he does at the beginning.

Except to crap on Stone whenever possible. See, she was once Hoffman’s patient and so they had an affair. But he forgot to mention he was married, so he was lying to her while treating her medically. When she felt bad after their breakup and took a bunch of pills, sounds like Hoffman had her sent to electro-shock. Like, he’s a criminal. He shouldn’t just lose his license, he should be charged with something. It’s messed up.

But it’s not the subplot—the subplot is Stone is a crazy woman and no one should trust her, something Coyote rails about, Jackson rails about, Hoffman has an arc about. A vague, vague, vague arc but he definitely goes from thinking he can trust Stone in the beginning to thinking she’s psychotic by the end. With Coyote and Jackson at multiple times counseling Hoffman not to trust Stone because she’s a crazy woman.

It’s really icky.

And even more unfortunate because Stone’s really not good.

She’s got a crap part—such a crap part, just guys violently gaslighting her scene after scene—the writing’s terrible, whatever… and there’s still just something Stone doesn’t bring. Jackson’s got his part down, problematic as some of his scenes get when they think he’s Brett after Ripley let him back into the ship; he’s still got it down. When something goes wrong with Jackson’s performance, it’s the script. Schreiber’s working. Coyote and Hoffman, to differing success, just aim low in every scene and always hit that effectiveness. The least effort possible. Hoffman’s just wrong for it. You wish he weren’t wrong for it because it’d be cool if he could do it, but he can’t do it. Not with how the film’s set up, not with the bad writing, not with Hoffman’s maximum level of effort for this project.

Queen Latifah gets fifth billing and is in what ends up being the film’s best looking visual sequence. Adam Greenberg’s photography is boring, but it’s not his fault. Levinson refuses to give Sphere a visual style, horror, wonder, drama—the second act showdowns between Stone and Hoffman, better written and directed, are Bergman-esque—but it’s not a cheap looking film (save the late nineties CGI) and so it occasionally looks quite good. Latifah’s effect scene’s the one where they spend the time. Shame it’s early on and the film never tries to top it.

Because Levinson’s not trying to ape Kubrick. Worse he doesn’t even seem to acknowledge he should. A bunch of failed homage would make Sphere at least a little fun, instead of frequently upsetting. It’s a drain to watch characters start dying off during the haunted house portion of the film and no one care about it. It’s actually impossible to have less empathy for another character than the characters in Sphere have for one another. Multiple times people get informed of someone dying and the reaction not even warranting a shrug. The biggest question the film raises is, “Is the writing right now bad or lazy and how could you tell the difference?”

Of course, if Sphere were an inevitable fail, it might be fun. But there’s no reason, with a better script, with better direction, with someone else in for Peter Coyote because Coyote’s not showy enough for the part, the film couldn’t be a success. But Levinson’s not the one to do it. It’s clearly the wrong kind of dumb idea for him to fix.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Barry Levinson; screenplay by Stephen Hauser and Paul Attanasio, based on an adaptation by Kurt Wimmer and the novel by Michael Crichton; director of photography, Adam Greenberg; edited by Stu Linder; music by Elliot Goldenthal; production designer, Norman Reynolds; costume designer, Gloria Gresham; produced by Levinson, Crichton, and Andrew Wald; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Dustin Hoffman (Norman), Sharon Stone (Beth), Samuel L. Jackson (Harry), Liev Schreiber (Ted), Queen Latifah (Fletcher), Marga Gómez (Edmunds), and Peter Coyote (Barnes).


This post is part of the Out To Sea Blogathon hosted by Debbie of Moon in Gemini.

Pierre Paolo (1998, Rachel Amodeo)

Pierre Paolo is a five minute short, set in a seaside Italian town. It opens with a simple, handwritten title card, then there’s a montage of the town set to classical music. The action rests on an old woman (Filomena Paletta) sitting on some stairs. Text appears across the bottom of the frame, explaining she’s thinking about her husband, the titular Pierre Paolo. When he appears, he’s a little boy on the beach, playing with a little girl (presumably the old woman on the stairs).

The action cuts to a younger version of the woman (director Amodeo) near the same, or similar stairs, in the town.

While the short raises some unaddressed questions—i.e. does it matter if the footage was all shot contemporaneously—the young boy is played by Pierre Paolo Pegnataro, the young girl by Govanna Saboureault, so is it old found footage or did Amodeo sort of create this nostalgia piece—the questions don’t have any affect on the effectiveness of the short. There are some limitations from the medium; clearly shot on film, it appears to be edited on video with that medium’s too static pauses. But it’s extremely well-edited, the music fits just right, and Amodeo’s composition is excellent.

It’s even better if she did go and stage kids playing on the beach in the thirties or forties or whatever. Those flashback sequences are lovely.

Pierre Paolo has its issues, but they’re from the video (the onscreen text is that always somewhat ugly nineties video editor generated text); Amodeo’s creative impulse is nicely executed. It’s a touching memory visualized. Or imagined. It’s nice work.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Rachel Amodeo.

Starring Pierre Paolo Pegnataro (Boy), Govanna Saboureault (Girl), Rachel Amodeo (Woman), and Filomena Paletta (Old Woman).


Twilight (1998, Robert Benton)

Unfortunate bit of trivia to start us off—Twilight is supposed to be called The Magic Hour, but just around the time of release, Magic Johnson’s high profile (and quickly cancelled) TV show had the same title and they changed the movie’s title. Titles are both important and not. They definitely establish a work’s intention—you may know nothing about something but once you see the title, you ostensibly know something. The problem with Twilight’s title change is two-fold. While, sure, Twilight is The Magic Hour as far as a time of day when Los Angeles looks particularly hot and haunting, but Twilight also carries with it some implications given the film’s all about being old and dying. Whereas The Magic Hour does not carry those similar implications.

So about a hundred and fifty words to say, you most likely know it as Twilight, but it will always be The Magic Hour to me.

Twilight opens with Paul Newman having a beer at a Mexican resort, then another. He’s on the trail of seventeen year-old Reese Witherspoon; she’s run away with inappropriate older boyfriend Liev Schreiber. We get a little of the Newman charm as he extricates Witherspoon from Schreiber, but things soon go wrong; Newman’s passive gender expectations get him shot.

Fast forward two years and Newman’s living above the garage of seventies Hollywood stars Gene Hackman and Susan Sarandon. Newman does odd jobs around the house, plays cards with Hackman, flirts with Sarandon, bickers with their daughter… Witherspoon. Hackman felt bad for wounded Newman and gave him a place to stay. Then Hackman got sick and they needed Newman around. The inciting action is Hackman asking Newman to run an errand… which may or may not have something to do with Hackman’s simultaneous news—his cancer is back and he’s not going to be doing anymore treatment, which is pissing off Sarandon.

What unfolds is a mess of dreams and nightmares. Newman’s got his own dreams and nightmares, but he’s wading through everyone else’s. There are the older folks’—retired ex-cops James Garner and M. Emmet Walsh, who’ve gone on to the private sector with differing results; Newman’s old cop partner, Stockard Channing, who’s got commonalities with the old ex-cops but very different dreams; Giancarlo Esposito’s Newman’s de facto old partner from private investigating days, still starstruck at the possible glamour of the profession. You’re in Hollywood, even if you avoid it, it’s a magical place where dreams come true. Even the obvious villains—Margo Martindale’s blackmailer, for instance, or Schreiber—are just mired in the cultural magical thinking. The script—by director Benton and Richard Russo—does an exceptional job layering in all that subtext. Essential in getting that subtext across is Piotr Sobocinski’s lush, deliberate photography, Elmer Bernstein’s lush, deliberate score, Carol Littleton’s lush, deliberate editing, and David Gropman’s… no, not lush and deliberate, but sharp yet functional production design. Twilight is very much about people in their chosen environments. The difference between locations speak volumes about the characters who live in them, who visit them, as well as the setting in general.

Because Twilight is exceptionally smart.

And should’ve gotten whatever title it wanted.

(The Magic Hour).

Anyway. Great performances. Benton and Russo’s script provides just the right amount of foundation, Benton’s direction stretches the canvas—all the mixed metaphors—and the actors then inhabit and expand. Should’ve gone with some kind of sculpture thing.

The best performance, just in terms of pure unadulterated success, is Martindale. She’s magnificent. But the most successful with the least is Esposito, who seems to be taking what ought to be a caricature and turning it into the film’s realest person. Witherspoon’s got some really good moments, ditto Schreiber. But it’s all about the older adults—though Newman, Hackman, and Garner are a decade and a half (at least) older than Sarandon. It’s all about the complicated relationships Newman’s forged with Hackman, Garner, and Sarandon; as the film progresses, we find out more and more about Newman before the opening mishap in Mexico. Twilight’s a Raymond Chandler story about seventies Hollywood done twenty years later with Hollywood stars playing type and against but also a character study. Kind of more a character story. It’s not really an L.A. movie only because Benton doesn’t dwell. He’s all about the locations, but showcasing the action occurring in them.

Because even though Benton does a great job with the supporting actors—Sarandon the most-it’s all about Newman. It’s not clear in the first scene—the Mexico flashback—because Newman’s got on sunglasses, but the film’s all about his performance. About how the events wear on him, how he reacts to them. Benton makes his cast sit in their emotional states—freezing them, just for a second or two—and shows how the pressure is crushing them. Not the pressure of their failures or successes, but the Hollywood dreams.

Again, should’ve been called The Magic Hour. Or something else entirely.

Hackman and Sarandon are both great. Garner’s got this wonderful flashy ex-cop turned studio security turned old codger part. He’s really enthusiastic about taking that extra reaction time. Hackman seems used to it, Sarandon’s different—but Garner’s visibly (albeit reservedly) jazzed; the performance does a lot to establish Garner’s place in the story, which is more often than not offscreen. Hackman and Sarandon, Garner, they’re places Newman visits. Sometimes for a long time, but he’s always a guest in those places. It’s very a Chandler-esque narrative.

Because Twilight is very much within the genre constraints of a mystery, which is the only thing wrong with it—Russo and Benton are careful never to strain said constraints too hard; they’re too respectful of genre. But what they do—what the film does—is magical enough.

Because it should’ve been called the damn Magic Hour.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Benton; written by Benton and Richard Russo; director of photography, Piotr Sobocinski; edited by Carol Littleton; music by Elmer Bernstein; production designer, David Gropman; costume designer, Joseph G. Aulisi; produced by Arlene Donovan and Scott Rudin; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Paul Newman (Harry Ross), Susan Sarandon (Catherine Ames), Gene Hackman (Jack Ames), Reese Witherspoon (Mel Ames), Stockard Channing (Lt. Verna Hollander), James Garner (Raymond Hope), Giancarlo Esposito (Reuben Escobar), Liev Schreiber (Jeff Willis), Margo Martindale (Gloria Lamar), John Spencer (Capt. Phil Egan), and M. Emmet Walsh (Lester Ivar).