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 reportedly 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.

Palatable: Cube

Cube (1997)
Directed by Vincenzo Natali
Written by Vincenzo Natali, André Bijelic, Graeme Manson
Produced by Mehra Meh, Betty Orr, Colin Brunton
Starring Nicole de Boer, David Hewlett, Maurice Dean Wint, Nicky Guadagni, Andrew Miller, Wayne Robson
Natali’s cult favorite requires little introduction, but that anglophonic score who’ve yet to see it probably won’t be disappointed by this misadventure of a seasoned recidivist (Robson), police officer (Wint), draftsman (Hewlett), student (de Boer), physician (Guadagni) and autist (Miller) mysteriously waking within and collectively struggling to escape from a massive matrix comprised of interconnected cubic rooms. For whoever can decipher them, the integral or Cartesian signification of triplex trinumerals printed within each room’s six doorways seemingly signify which contain deadly traps not necessarily more hazardous than the strange sextet’s internecine umbrage and paranoia. Not as sophisticated as it’s become, Natali’s tolerable direction isn’t half as imaginative as his, Bijelic’s, and Manson’s script, as much for its geometrically Gordian setting and diegetic twists as its characterizations of distinct personal types altered by extreme pressure in prickly situations: the pessimism of Hewlett’s omega gifts him with a surprising fortitude; at first wholly dependent, de Boer’s beta proves herself as essential a mathematician as an intermediary; Robson’s sigma is laid low early to leave the survivors without their most resourceful member; at first a natural leader, Wint’s alpha is reduced by petty indignation and encroaching madness into a Procrustean tyrant; Guadagni’s skittish, shrewish gamma unearths an unexpectedly quasi-maternal affection for Miller’s autistic savant, who’s in possession of a vital verve he can’t use alone. Against Jasna Stefanovic’s superbly impersonal, industrial production design, the cast’s porcine performances contrast oddly well, and for what they lack in realism and restraint, they compensate with photogenic presence. Comparably, CG by effects firm C.O.R.E. is noticeably artificial, but smartly designed. This sleeper found its audiences via home video and nonstop cablecast on the Sci-Fi Channel in the ’90s; it’s now just as omnipresent on streaming channels and worth watching — first for fun, then again for details you might’ve missed.