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.

Mediocre: Class Action

Class Action (1990)
Directed by Michael Apted
Written by Samantha Shad, Carolyn Shelby, Christopher Ames
Produced by Robert W. Cort, Ted Field, Scott Kroopf, Christopher Ames, Carolyn Shelby, Kim Kurumada
Starring Gene Hackman, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Colin Friels, Joanna Merlin, Laurence Fishburne, Donald Moffat, Jan Rubes, Matt Clark, Fred Dalton Thompson, Jonathan Silverman, Joan McMurtrey, Anne Ramsay

“Lawyers with a weakness for seeing the merits of the other side end up being employed by neither.”

–Richard J. Barnet, Roots of War, 1971

Conflicts of interest, filial gall and malversation taint a civil suit in which 150+ plaintiffs who’ve suffered third-degree burns and loss of limbs and loved ones from a station wagon’s elusive yet replicable, often fatal flaw are represented by a lawyerly firebrand (Hackman) renowned for his demagogic shifts and advocacy for underdogs in the cause of civil rights, opposed by his disaffected daughter (Mastrantonio), a viciously efficient litigator serving as counsel of a top-grade firm to the carmaker. When it isn’t yawing into embarrassingly soppy contretemps, Apted’s juridic drama works well its eminent cast in the service of a sensational story’s gravamen, all but undone by periodic, incredibly sloppy dialogue in a script that was treated for five years in twenty-five drafts! Authenticity endued to its most engrossing legal details is likely attributable to Shad, a civilist and attorney familiar with the knotty pitfalls of such cases. Regrettably, too much running time is spent in living rooms and offices, and too little in courtrooms before the climactic third act, and at least fifteen of these one hundred and ten minutes are alloted to unpalatably saccharine filler. Only faltering for delivery of their very worst lines, Hackman, Mastrantonio and most of the supporting cast are otherwise as excellent as expected, mirabile visu when judicially sparring. Effectively reprising his corporate crook from Darkman sans slaughterous intent and Raimi’s high camp, Friels is divertingly conniving and not without some genuine humanity as an accessary partner in Mastrantonio’s firm and bedroom, but both are bettered by Moffat, whose stiffly upstage bearing as their chief counsel precludes any notion of another in the role. Similarly, Thompson smoothly underplays an unconscionable automotive supervisor clearly unruffled by incidental deaths; would that Jan Rubes (who isn’t half so hammy here as in Dead of Winter) weren’t so goofy as one of his former electrical engineers, a witness as vital as stultifiable. All of this picture’s best and worst traits can be observed in a few microcosmic, consecutive scenes early in its second act: after Hackman’s wife and Mastrantonio’s mother (Merlin) mawkishly expires at the steps of a courthouse’s concourse, her sequent funeral’s almost unendurable for its gospel atmosphere and an anecdote recounted in Hackman’s eulogy, which both beggar bathos of ordinary conception. After sharing a pleasant, private dinner, father and daughter essay to casually overcome their estrangement before her acrimony surfaces regarding his extramarital infidelities and professional repercussions, and an ensuing feud showcases both performers at the plausible pinnacle of their powers, both hitting their marks with reciprocal timing and expression as credible as any they’ve delivered…until this affray culminates to a cliche as corny as a contrivance from Law & Order‘s seventh season. That it so often descends into such mush is truly unfortunate, for this movie posits insights not explored in too many others: how calculation of actuarial expenses inspires automotive manufacturers to expose their emptors to terrible risk; that personal tragedy may eventuate from even the most noble judicatory achievement; how the sanctimony of social activism too often veils and feeds an inherently selfish nature; inadvertently, that common careerism can’t be conciliated with a healthy personal and particularly familial life. That last applies to both genders. After an entertaining clash in court and the judge’s (Clark) chambers, dessert consists of a conclusion so sentimental that any viewer thereof whose lifeblood isn’t pure syrup may from their horripilation suffer a dermic malady. Essential viewing only for fans of Mastrantonio and especially Hackman, it’s not without some great moments…and at least as many schmaltzy enough to discountenance anyone who watches in good society.

Recommended for a double feature paired with The Verdict.

Mediocre: Knowing

Knowing (2009)
Directed by Alex Proyas
Written by Ryne Douglas Pearson, Juliet Snowden, Stiles White
Produced by Todd Black, Jason Blumenthal, Alex Proyas, Steve Tisch, Ryne Douglas Pearson, David J. Bloomfield, Topher Dow, Norman Golightly, Stephen Jones, Aaron Kaplan, Sean Perrone
Starring Nicolas Cage, Chandler Canterbury, Rose Byrne, Ben Mendelsohn, Nadia Townsend, Lara Robinson, D.G. Maloney
It’s an ingenious germ worthy of Bradbury, Ellison or Eco: an apparent numerical cryptogram inscribed by a troubled schoolgirl in 1959 is stowed with her classmates’ conventionally juvenile images of a projected future in their school’s time capsule; disinterred a half-century later, it’s discovered to chronologically foretoken dates, death tolls and coordinates of numerous consequential catastrophes that occurred during its fifty years underground, as well as three imminent. Alas, in the pudgy paws of Proyas, this overscripted, overscored, overproduced eschatological thriller degenerates into bathetic banality when a widowed astrophysicist (Cage) tenured at MIT happens upon and interprets the portentous string after his bratty son (Canterbury) receives its leaf upon exhumation. What might’ve been a fun race to deter disasters presaged instead wallows in familial distress and sappy hysterics, bedizened with flagrantly fake CG in a picture focused on characters who’ve neither sufficient amenity nor insight to warrant such an overpersonalized story. Whether he’s underplaying monotonously or hamming his passions with that goofy voice, Cage is unfit as ever a dramatic lead; everyone else — including underfed Byrne — is credible yet unable to indue to their stock personae any especial interest. Some clever prefigurements, presagements and misdirections can’t salvage considerable potential trifled on tragedy depressing beyond engagement and mythic hokum in a story too trite to affect.