Mediocre: The Stranger Beside Me

The Stranger Beside Me (1995)
Directed by Sandor Stern
Written by Bruce Miller
Produced by William Shippey, Nick Smirnoff, Ronnie D. Clemmer, Richard P. Kughn, Bill Pace
Starring Tiffani-Amber Thiessen, Eric Close, Gerald McRaney, Lorrie Morgan, Alyson Hannigan, Steven Eckholdt, Casey Sander, Patrick Labyorteaux, Robert Crow, Suzanne Ventulett, Darrin Long, James Quattrochi, Suzanne Turner
So many compulsives can never be satisfied, such as a naval seaman (Close) who spends too many free and unaccompanied hours peeping and raping pretty blondes in his neighborhood. His sweet, steadfast spouse (Thiessen) stands by him until she’s confronted with incontestable evidence of his deviant recidivism, then investigates a succeeding string of sexual assaults for which he’s obviously responsible in an attempt to forestall more, and protect their newborn daughter. Viewers familiar with Stern’s usual docudramatic sexual misconduct-by-numbers (Without Her Consent, Web of Deceit) know what to expect from this competently shot, crudely cut, moderately goofy thriller, which rides on fair performances by charismatically creepy Close, luscious Thiessen at her popularity’s pinnacle, and McRaney as her disabled, avuncular buddy. Hannigan’s meanwhile less chafing than usual as the flagitious rape artist’s pouty, posttraumatic cousin. Everyone here fares variably with Miller’s soupy script, but for whomever prefer their television tawdry, these 90+ minutes beautified by their photogenic leads will be pleasantly spent.

Mediocre: Unspeakable Acts

Unspeakable Acts (1990)
Directed by Linda Otto
Written by Jan Hollingsworth, Alan Landsburg, Hesper Anderson, Joanna Strauss
Produced by Joan Barnett, Don Goldman, Alan Landsburg, Howard Lipstone, Linda Otto
Starring Jill Clayburgh, Brad Davis, John Mazzello, Gary Frank, Season Hubley, Bebe Neuwirth, Mark Harelik, Gregory Sierra, Bess Meyer, James Handy, Maureen Mueller, Sam Behrens, Valerie Landsburg, Jeff Seymour, David Wilson, Ashleigh Sterling, Alan Sader, Jenny Gago, Paul Eiding, Maria Cavaiani, Rick Warner, Terence Knox, Guy Stockwell, Byrne Piven, Laura Owens
Onscreen, it seems so simple: children and infants of an upscale neighborhood in Miami-Dade County are entrusted by their parents to a babysitting couple (Sierra, Meyer) who introduce them to collectively sexual sport and threaten them with Satanic rituals; after the deranged couple’s ineludible arrests, married, compassionate juvenile psychologists Laurie and Joseph Braga (Clayburgh, Davis) gently pry confessions of these abominations from the older victims to successfully inculpate their assailants and secure their convictions, despite the pettifoggery of their defense (Samek, Stockwell). Both this televised docudrama and the book on which it was based (penned by former television reporter Hollingsworth while in the therapists’ employ as a consultant) alter and omit numerous crucial details: the Bragas were not accredited criminal psychologists and coerced the victims during interviews; co-defendant Ileana Fuster was subjected by the prosecution and her defense attorney to a lengthy series of aggressive interrogations and probable hypnotism, then blatantly coached when providing a deposition as a witness against her husband, Francisco Fuster-Escalona; their adopted son, who has maintained their innocence for decades, is here depicted as a little girl (Cavaiani) tormented by their atrocities; most significantly, Janet Reno prosecuted the Fusters while serving as Miami-Dade’s State’s Attorney with the same unscrupulous and energetic efficiency that characterized her stint as the United States’ Attorney General, using a discredited and unethical methodology that also led to two wrongful convictions of accused sexual offenders, who were later exonerated — yet despite her authority and individual conduct in this case, she’s only mentioned twice by her inferiors. Previously convicted for counts of assault, manslaughter and child molestation, Fuster-Escalona’s culpability is overwhelmingly probable, corroborated by consonant confessions of his victims to their parents before they reported them in turn to the authorities, as well as symptoms of sexual abuse observed by their doctors. However, the question of prosecutorial misconduct is never seriously raised in this unconscionable fictionalization, characterizations of which are childishly broad, presented melodramatically to manipulate unsuspecting audiences. Performances among the ensemble vary drastically in quality. As the heroic kiddieshrinks, Clayburgh is surpassing and Davis charismatic, though he untypically overacts certain scenes, weirdly coiffed with a preposterous ponytail. Neuwirth, Mueller and Hubley are especially convincing as mothers of the traumatized tots, and Sierra greasily exudes their abuser’s slimy perversity. That any of the players under Otto’s ham-fisted direction breathed plausibility to Landsburg’s, Anderson’s and Strauss’s schmaltzy script — itself emotively and expositionally bounteous with cornball conversations — is a testament to their talent. In reality, the improprieties of this movie’s protagonists casts as much doubt on the validity of its judicial proceedings as Ileana Fuster’s famously inconstant claims regarding its verdict. Fuster-Escalona is likely where he belongs, but one can only wonder.

Mediocre: Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night

Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night (1987)
Directed by Hal Sutherland
Written by Robby London, Barry O’Brien, Dennis O’Flaherty
Produced by Lou Scheimer, Erika Scheimer, Robby London, John Grusd
Starring Scott Grimes, Jonathan Harris, Don Knotts, Edward Asner, Frank Welker, William Windom, Tom Bosley, Rickie Lee Jones, Lana Beeson, James Earl Jones, Linda Gary
Flush with lucre in its twilight years for successful, crudely animated adaptations of He-Man, She-Ra and all those other Masters of the Universe, Filmation leapt late upon Disney’s coattails to exploit Carlo Collodi’s classic juvenile novel; as one might expect, the results are at best pedestrian, and at worst as shoddy as a theatrical cartoon comes. On his first human birthday, the transmuted tot (Grimes) offers to deliver a jeweled box crafted by Geppetto (Bosley) for a mayoral commission that represents the modest acme of the craftsman’s career; he’s fleeced forthwith of the handicraft by a procyonine diddler (Asner) and his fezzed, primate secondary (Welker), and during misadventures largely consequent of his many betises, the guileless stripling finds himself twice relignified by a ghoulishly sorcerous puppeteer (Windom) and his satanic master (Jones), despite the subvention of the foregoing finaglers, an arrogant, apian aviator (Harris) and a wooden glowworm (Knotts). Co-founder Sutherland concluded his directorial career with this apparently well-intentioned feature, which is but a slight qualitative cut above Filmation’s usual fare: uninspired character design and low framerates are partially counterbalanced by prettily painted backgrounds and foregrounds, and some fair photic effects, a few of which are imaginatively rotoscoped. Alas, this movie’s overplus of unfunny comic relief padding its runtime by temporization is likely only to amuse the smallest kids, who might well be traumatized by some of its nightmarish scenes. Charmlessly cloying but inoffensive, its vocal dream cast is the most notable distinction of a product marketed to kids who couldn’t be bothered to care.

Instead, watch Unico in the Island of Magic.

Mediocre: License to Drive

License to Drive (1988)
Directed by Greg Beeman
Written by Neil Tolkin
Produced by John Davis, Andrew Licht, Jeffrey A. Mueller, Mack Bing
Starring Corey Haim, Corey Feldman, Michael Manasseri, Carol Kane, Richard Masur, Heather Graham, Nina Siemaszko, James Avery
Frolic and amatory ambitions of a gawky, gawking, suburban schlub (Haim) hinge on acquisition of but two desiderata:

  1. His grandfather’s mammoth, pickily preserved 1972 Cadillac, which he can’t borrow until he procures:
  2. His driver’s license

After passing his road test and dumbly flunking his computerized driving exam, he annexes the Brobdingnagian boat anyway to romance his lovely, lively objet du désir (Graham), and patronize a bouncy drive-in restaurant with his buddies, an unflappable dynamo (Feldman) and a nerdy amateur photographer (Manasseri). Household idiocy, teenage inexperience and goofy fortuities occasion an utterly uninsurable night of disorder and destruction for which the hapless highschooler’s entirely liable. As often on wheels as not, this second of the Coreys’ vehicles is probably their best, risibly scripted by Tolkin and careening by coordinator Joe Dunne’s surplus of sensational stunts at breathless celerity, from an opening that sends up the first sequel of A Nightmare on Elm Street to an amusingly ruinous conclusion. Their co-stars optimize as entertainingly as the blow-dried, daffy dyad, especially cuddly Masur and edacious, enceinte Kane, who satisfy their fans’ expectations as Haim’s parents. Only our era of fun produced performers as likably ludicrous as Haim and Feldman, or such unabashedly silly, thrilling comedies of a species that’s now all but extinct. Watch and enjoy without impedimentary sense.

Recommended for a double feature paired with Sex and the Single Girl, American Graffiti, Planes, Trains & Automobiles, Adventures in Babysitting or Tommy Boy.

Mediocre: Strange Voices

Strange Voices (1987)
Directed by Arthur Allan Seidelman
Written by Roberta Dacks, Nancy Geller, Donna Powers, Wayne Powers
Produced by Nancy Geller, Linda Otto, Joan Barnett, Alan Landsburg, Howard Lipstone, Nancy McKeon, Greg H. Sims
Starring Nancy McKeon, Valerie Harper, Stephen Macht, Tricia Leigh Fisher, Millie Perkins, Robert Krantz, Robin Morse, Jack Blessing, Marta Kristen, Heidi Schooler, Molly McClure, Gerald Hiken, Fay Hauser, Gary Bisig, Micah Grant
Her ebullitions erupt in recurrence to strain familial and social ties when thought broadcasting and amplified, illusory voices derange an undergraduate of architecture (McKeon), whose parents (Harper, Macht), sister (Fisher) and boyfriend (Krantz) are helpless to succor her in schizophrenic throes. Riding popularly a year later on the coattails of Promise, this slightly stale, sober, televised drama satisfactorily portrays schizoid behavioral symptoms, their interpersonal, psychological and financial tolls, inadequacies of available medications, the failures of psychiatric institutions to address the disorder, and the prevalence of destitution and suicide in Kennedy’s and Reagan’s era of deinstitutionalization. Seidelman’s passionate cast hit their marks capably; at her fame’s zenith, McKeon exhaustively registers the frustration of every helpless patient who’s vacillated between racking madness and medicated stupefaction in poorly staffed boarding houses. Neither the best nor worst of so many topically correspondent productions, it’s nonetheless informative, and indispensable for McKeon’s fans.

Mediocre: A Dangerous Woman

A Dangerous Woman (1993)
Directed by Stephen Gyllenhaal
Written by Mary McGarry Morris, Naomi Foner
Produced by Patricia Whitcher, Naomi Foner, Kathleen Kennedy
Starring Debra Winger, Gabriel Byrne, Barbara Hershey, David Strathairn, Chloe Webb, John Terry, Viveka Davis, Richard Riehle, Myles Sheridan, Laurie Metcalf, Jan Hooks
Even when it descends into maudlin melodrama, its gifted players and Gyllenhaal’s proficient (if pedestrian) direction buoy this seamy drama of manslaughter in a small Californian town, produced and adapted by his wife with a similarly uninspired competence from Morris’s novel. Winger believably creates by vociferation and gestural subtleties the ipsism of an intrusive, ingenuous simpleton, whose turbulent relationships with friends (Webb, Davis), a disreputable co-worker (Strathairn), her lonely aunt (Hershey) and a drunken, drifting carpenter (Byrne) in her employ confound and agitate her delicate, often uncomprehending psyche with tragic results. Many of the commonplace contretemps enacted are self-consciously stagy for Morris’s hackneyed dialogue, but in sequent sanguinary and sexual extremes, Gyllenhaal presses his performers to plausible potency, proving that they deserve a better story. Despite an intolerably twee score composed by Carter Burwell (when he was penning his best music for the Coens), there’s plenty to enjoy here, such as Robert Elswit’s warmly balanced photography, and a plenitude of familiar character actors; among others, Paul Dooley and Jan Hooks respectively peddle Tupperware and cosmetics. From and for Winger, this is to be expected: a premium performance of a modest role, trapped in a middling picture.

Mediocre: Dead of Winter

Dead of Winter (1987)
Directed by Marc Shmuger, John Bloomgarden, Arthur Penn
Written by Anthony Gilbert, Marc Shmuger, Mark Malone
Produced by John Bloomgarden, Marc Shmuger, Michael MacDonald
Starring Mary Steenburgen, Jan Rubes, Roddy McDowall, William Russ, Mark Malone, Ken Pogue, Wayne Robson
Shmuger’s and Malone’s admittedly clever reworking of My Name is Julia Ross was sufficiently dissimilar to Joseph H. Lewis’s mediocre noir melodrama and the novel from which it was adapted (Gilbert’s The Woman in Red) for them to circumvent both copyrights and any associative legal action, but the goofy, glossy result is only technically superior to its source. Later a failed executive of Universal Pictures and Luc Besson’s tiresome EuropaCorp, Shmuger was reportedly unprepared for his first week’s directorial difficulties, and hired Penn to helm this picture while his co-producer Bloomgarden did so intervallically. Nina Foch’s working girl lured though an employment office by a mother and her twisted son to their seaside estate, where’s she’s confined and publicly paraded as his missing wife, is recharacterized as an unemployed actress (Steenburgen) hired at a casting call by the vivacious valet (McDowall) of a crippled psychiatrist (Rubes) to perform a screen test at the shrink’s mansion during a snowstorm in upstate New York on behalf of a Canadian filmmaker who’s allegedly lost to squabbles his leading lady, to whom she’s identical. It’s certainly nice to behold: Jan Weincke’s sharp, brilliant photography is commendable for its distinct yet balanced contrast, exhibiting Bill Brodie’s splendid production design and sets appointed by Mark S. Freeborn and Paul Harding that emphasize the luxuriance of the wealthy mythomaniac’s manse and cozy modesty of Steenburgen’s apartment. Especially in dramatic worm’s-eye and lingering still shots, Penn’s usual craftsmanship is executed as adroitly as ever, and snappily cut by Rick Shaine. However, this particular journeyman’s inclination to grant his casts carte blanche has always determined the varied quality of his best (Bonnie and Clyde, Night Moves, The Missouri Breaks) and worst (Alice’s Restaurant, Penn & Teller Get Killed) movies. Perennial ham Rubes looks and sounds like elderly Werner Herzog channeling one of Adam Sandler’s zanier characters; he hasn’t a line too brief or gesture too small to overplay. Once infallible even whenever over the top (see The Legend of Hell House), McDowall’s instincts were diminished either by years of roles in B-features or Rubes’ influence, for he seems to be vying with the elder Czech for the blue ribbon with laughably mincing mannerisms. Steenburgen tackles three parts with gusto, but falters in two when attempting to maintain tonal accordance with Rubes. Consequently, the third act descends into a silliness that should’ve been suspense. For all this tale’s riveting twists, its production’s polish and a couple of appellative winks to Julia Ross, it’s largely ruined by Rubes’ gaping japery, and his co-stars’ attempts to meet it.

Mediocre: Bless the Child

Bless the Child (2000)
Directed by Chuck Russell
Written by Cathy Cash Spellman, Thomas Rickman, Clifford Green, Ellen Green
Produced by Mace Neufeld, Stratton Leopold, Bruce Davey, Lis Kern, Robert Rehme
Starring Kim Basinger, Jimmy Smits, Holliston Coleman, Rufus Sewell, Angela Bettis, Christina Ricci, Michael Gaston, Lumi Cavazos, Dimitra Arliss, Eugene Lipinski, Anne Betancourt, Ian Holm, Helen Stenborg
Who would’ve guessed that a supposedly autistic, wonderworking ginger (Coleman) birthed and deserted within a fortnight by a junkie (Bettis) and raised lovingly by a psychiatric nurse (Basinger) in her sister’s stead was destined to fulfill some unspecified, pivotal prophecy? Only an unctuous self-help guru (Sewell), who instructs his Luciferian cult to locate, slay and brand children of NYC sharing her birthday until they identify by her thaumaturgy the Delphian tot, and deliver her by abduction to their heresiarch’s corrupting claptrap. Less dopey than but just as predictable as coetaneous Stigmata or End of Days, Russell’s briskly paced and constantly conventional religious thriller has as little sense as doctrine, but it’s entertaining enough as a vehicle for its gracefully aging leading lady. Smits is fitly typecast as a federal agent whose investigation of the serial juvecides leads him into the orbit of Basinger’s aunt, as are perennially ghoulish Bettis as her sordidly squirrely sister and Ricci, half as sleazy in the recreant role of another heroin addict. Holm’s fugaciously frittered late in the second act, playing a crippled, defrocked Jesuit who paraphrases Baudelaire’s famously reiterated quote and furnishes vatical exposition in a bogus brogue. Despite Peter Menzies Jr.’s warmly attractive photography, most of the interiors are consistently overlit. Spuriously digital rats, winged demons and a cameo by Beelzebub himself are qualitatively comparable to figures of a video game’s cutscene, but a trio of volatile, irradiant angels (resembling those mortally recorded in Brainstorm) are prettily imaged without physitheistic banality during the picture’s climax. Neither Spellman nor the adapting screenwriters bothered to research European sorcery, here misattributed to druids of the 16th century and Hebraically incanted by Sewell’s reprobate! For fans of Basinger, still felicific and photogenic well into her fifth decade, or of genre pictures that treat of their extramundane subject with moderate religiosity and theurgy, this passable, periodically preposterous pic should fit the bill.

Mediocre: Babes in Toyland

Babes in Toyland (1986)
Directed by Clive Donner
Written by Glen MacDonough, Paul Zindel
Produced by Tony Ford, Neil T. Maffeo, Anthony Spinner, Bill Finnegan, Patricia Finnegan, Sheldon Pinchuk
Starring Drew Barrymore, Richard Mulligan, Keanu Reeves, Jill Schoelen, Googy Gress, Pat Morita, Eileen Brennan, Walter Buschhoff, Shari Weiser, Rolf Knie, Gaston Häni, Pipo Sosman, Chad Carlson
Middling production values and design, clever yet unmemorable musical numbers and plenteous daffy havoc distinguish this sweet yet slight televised adaptation of Victor Herbert’s and Glen MacDonough’s fabular operetta from its six predecessors. One inanely implausible automotive accident during a blizzard on Christmas Eve delivers a preteen (Barrymore) to a fantastic municipality resembling a tidy, second-rate theme park populated by bipedally anthropomorphic animals and characters from nursery rhymes to unite a pair of lovers (Reeves, Schoelen), learn a few lessons from a magian artisan (Morita) in Santa’s employ, and thwart the maniacally pleonexic designs of a feathered, usurious scoundrel (Mulligan). For adults, entertainment resides in these principals’ alternately wooden and hammy delivery, and Donner’s perfunctory direction leaves but a bit to the imagination, but this musical’s adequate for families whose wee ones aren’t yet terribly demanding, fans of America’s favorite little addict when she was still only incipiently corrupt, and anyone apt to ogle Reeves and Schoelen for their pulchritude. Brennan’s comic timing exceeds that of her co-stars, but she’s granted regrettably scanty screen time. Don’t expect much of Herbert’s music, which is quoted occasionally in Leslie Bricusse’s score and songs. Two versions were broadcast in the United States and Germany, respectively running 140 and 95 minutes; the condensed shorter of these is commonly available on videocassette and videodisc, though both are streamed by various services.

Recommended for a double feature paired with The Wizard of Oz or Disney’s superior Babes in Toyland.

Mediocre: Back in Action

Back in Action (1994)
Directed by Steve DiMarco, Paul Ziller
Written by Karl Schiffman
Produced by George Flak, Rae Crombie, Allan Levine
Starring Roddy Piper, Billy Blanks, Bobbie Phillips, Kai Soremekun, Matt Birman, Nigel Bennett, Damon D’Oliveira, Rob Stefaniuk, Sam Malkin
Supererogative emphasis on that titular action forms and fills to its brim the paltry plot of this desipiently diverting B-grade actioner pairing its strapping pro wrestler and expert exerciser turned action stars. Cliches compel and conjoin in vengeance a police detective (Piper) whose partner was messily slain and a veteran of the Special Forces (Blanks) violently striving to locate his presumably kidnapped, senselessly injudicious sister (Soremekun), who choke, clout, kick, flip, slam, stab, stomp, throw, shoot and defenestrate a horde of henchmen resembling barmen, bikers, janitors, electricians, street magicians, Michael Bolton, G.E. Smith and the Saturday Night Live Band, and the Super Mario Brothers to confront the Final Boss, a natty, minaciously eccentric drug lord (Bennett) and his greasily merciless coadjutor (Birman) bedizened with nocturnal sunglasses and a medallion. They hardly duplicate that macho magic nailed by Piper and Keith David when memorably brutalizing each other, brooding together and slaughtering extraterrestrial cops and yuppies in They Live, but the lovably lunky Canadian grappler is nicely complemented by beefy Blanks, who ably performs most of his flying stunts and…recites his lines clearly. The entire cast amuse deliberately and otherwise, especially toothily toothsome Soremekun, whose mobster’s moll could scarcely be more absent in her vestural frivolity to her impending peril. As intentionally funny as not, this caboose of the ’80s’ explosive glut is, subject entirely to one’s palate, delightful or discomfiting, perhaps both. As vital viewing for fans of either lead, it hasn’t a dull or sensible second.

Recommended for a double feature paired with They Live or Hell Comes to Frogtown.