Category Archives: 1990s

The Mummy (1999)

*. I really like The Mummy. I liked it when it came out and I still enjoyed it on my most recent re-watch.
*. It may be my favourite mummy movie. That’s an opinion I don’t think many people would share but the thing is, I don’t think there have been many good mummy movies. In large part this has been due to low budgets and substandard talent. Was this the first mummy movie that a studio actually spent some money on? It’s certainly the first that looked this good.
*. In 1999 audiences were blown away by the opening shots of ancient Egypt. We weren’t bored by CGI yet and I remember everyone in the theatre (including myself) going “ooh!” and “ahh!” And truth be told, I think the effects work has held up pretty well. Imhotep, in all of his various forms, looks swell. The plagues are adequate. The mummy soldiers actually have a bit of a Ray Harryhausen look to them, which was intentional. I’m not as thrilled by the scarabs as I was at the time, but you can’t have everything.
*. The mummy himself has always been, in the words of Kim Newman, “the poorest of poor relations among classic monsters.” He doesn’t talk, staggers around like a zombie (which is, in a sense, what he is), behaves in a mostly preprogrammed way (wreaking vengeance on those who have desecrated his tomb), and then crumbles to dust.

*. The mummy we get here, however, is a lot more fun. The first thing he does when he’s brought back to life is he grabs himself a tongue to stick in his unhinged jaw. Now he can speak (at least in subtitles). Also, he doesn’t just shuffle around strangling people but exercises all sorts of super powers.
*. I think it was also a great idea to show Imhotep slowly reconstituting himself, sort of like the thing in the attic in Hellraiser. (Side note: Clive Barker had been attached to the project at one point but his vision had been too dark.) When he’s fully back in human form, Arnold Vosloo has a great presence, communicating someone both cunning and damned in a way that recalls Christopher Lee’s performance in the 1959 Hammer film.

*. Things start on a high note and the pace never lets up. The clear model was Raiders of the Lost Ark, right down to the period dressing. This undercuts its status as a horror film somewhat, but there’s no need for criticism to be that rigid about respecting genre rules. Neither writer-director Stephen Sommers or the studio wanted a horror film. This is a movie that was meant to be fun and it is. Rachel Weisz didn’t even consider it to be horror but pure “hokum” and a “comic book.”
*. The Raiders and Harryhausen connections are obvious. Less obvious is Sommers’s love of Michael Curtiz’s Captain Blood, which he mentions on the DVD commentary track as having been a model for the love story. I hadn’t thought of that, but it’s a nice influence to have in mind.
*. The cowardly character is a stock type but Kevin J. O’Connor’s Beni I find to be both original and very funny. He’s such a sleazy worm, and I like that he can even be sadistic at times. He’s the kind of heel you genuinely love to hate.

*. In some previous mummy movies the princess and her modern day incarnation were played by the same actress. Here Imhotep immediately takes Rachel Weisz for Patricia Velasquez, who she doesn’t remotely resemble. The character Evelyn Carnahan doesn’t even have Egyptian ancestry (originally she was to be the daughter of the guy who discovered Tutankhamen’s tomb, something that is only hinted at in the film).
*. So it’s a loveable movie. Surprisingly, critics weren’t all that kind. Roger Ebert said “There is hardly a thing I can say in its favor, except that I was cheered by nearly every minute of it. I cannot argue for the script, the direction, the acting or even the mummy, but I can say that I was not bored and sometimes I was unreasonably pleased.” This seems like backhanded praise to me. Why not praise the direction, the writing, the acting, or the mummy? They all seem fine to me.
*. Ebert adds “Look, art this isn’t. Great trash, it isn’t. Good trash, it is. It’s not quite up there with Anaconda, but it’s as much fun as Congo and The Relic, and it’s better than Species.” I would rate it well above all of these other pictures (and I’m not sure what made him think of Species). I wonder why Ebert was so reluctant to say something good about it.

*. Kim Newman is more negative in Nightmare Movies. In large part this is because he thinks the story strays too far from its roots, but as I’ve said I don’t think that’s a strike against it. Here’s his summary: “The Mummy is an entertaining series of theme park rides, but sorely misses magic, with cardboard villains, fundamentally unlikable heroes, non-stop pig-ignorant blunders and endlessly irritating comic bits. It also offers offensive Egyptian stereotypes — smelly, corrupt, venal, lecherous, whining, cowardly, boil-ridden, murderous, sadistic, ugly – unacceptable in the dignified 1932 movie.”
*. Some of this comes down to taste, but I’m surprised he got so upset at the portrayal of Egyptians. Actually, there are a number of heroic local figures, headlines by Oded Fehr’s Ardeth Bey, who turned out to be such a likeable hero Sommers had to change the ending to let him live. Otherwise, most of the negative descriptors Newman gives apply only to Beni, who is not Egyptian. I believe he’s supposed to be Hungarian (the character’s full name is Beni Gabor).
*. So maybe it’s not a great mummy movie but it’s still one of the better entertainments of its period with quite a lot to be said in its favour and not much to be said against it except frustrated expectations. I wasn’t that picky twenty years ago and I’m glad I’m still relaxed enough to enjoy it.

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Bram Stoker’s Legend of the Mummy (1998)

*. Sheesh. They give Stoker credit (presumably trying to make a connection in people’s minds with Bram Stoker’s Dracula) but that’s not even his title. The movie is based on Stoker’s novel The Jewel of Seven Stars. Now I can see how that wouldn’t fly with studios since nobody would know what it meant. And to be fair The Jewel of Seven Stars has been filmed several times, but never under that title. I mean, if you’re going to make a mummy movie you’d better put “mummy” in there somewhere.
*. It’s also the case that Stoker’s novel is unfilmable. I talked about this in my notes on Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb so I won’t go over it again here. Suffice it to say that this is another very loose adaptation.
*. What’s funny — and this is a very funny movie — is that instead of streamlining the novel’s obscure plot they’ve gone and made it even more confusing. I’ve read The Jewel of Seven Stars and still had no idea what was going on here. There’s the same basic idea of the archaelogist having a daughter who shares a “double existence” with ancient Queen Tera, but from there I got lost in a hurry.
*. If you’re a mummy fan, however, you do get to see a real mummy stumbling around, not doing much. I guess that’s a plus, though I was wondering what his connection to everything was.
*. I called this a very funny movie and it is. It represents one of those rare instances where you can enjoy a movie’s badness. What it made me think of was some VHS porn tape from the 1980s where the “actors” have to stumble around a house trying to suggest a smattering of plot until they can get their clothes off. Everything about the production here is on that same level, but what really makes it fun are all “Huh? What?” moments.
*. Examples include a maid who has a vision of a couple making out in a tub. I don’t know what that was supposed to represent. Then there’s an introductory scene where Robert suggests they move Margaret’s comatose father to a hospital and she tersely responds “No, my father hates hospitals.” So there! Then, even after they receive the father’s strict instructions that two people remain in his room watching over him at all times we see various characters get up and leave, even just to get a breath of fresh air. Then in a later scene we will see Margaret leave Robert because she needs some fresh air, despite the fact that they are both sitting outside!
*. Also a lot of fun is Richard Karn providing the comic relief (as though any were necessary) and Louis Gossett Jr., sounding as though he’s been dubbed, playing an archaeologist who is so crazy he’s had himself committed. What his plan here is a little hard to figure out — it has something to do with becoming a new pharaoh I think — but then he’s crazy anyway.
*. Another curious thing about the film is that, despite being a very free adaptation of Stoker, it keeps a lot of the late-Victorian feel of the novel. The action has been transplanted to San Francisco but we may as well be in London circa. 1900. The setting is a big house with lots of servants, a personal doctor (played by Aubrey Morris, who also played the doctor in Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb), and a detetcive (actually the head of security) who apparently hails from “the Yard” and has the accent to go with it.
*. As I’ve said before, most mummy movies aren’t very good. This one is so bad it’s a bit better than the average. Impossible to sit through twice though.

Dick Tracy (1990)

*. Given the current hegemony of superhero movies at the box office it would be easy to see Dick Tracy as a forerunner, a taste of things to come. But it wasn’t. Instead, it was more like the last gasp of the old guard.
*. There had been comic book movies before Dick Tracy. The Christopher Reeve Superman movies, most notably. And Batman (which provided the publicity and merchandising template) had just come out the year before. But there was a big difference between these movies and what we’d get in the twenty-first century, bigger even than the difference between DC and Marvel superheroes. The real gamechanger was CGI.
*. It was CGI that gave filmmakers the ability to create comic book worlds that were real. Before that, blue screen made it hard to believe that someone could fly. With the aid of computer graphics anything was possible.
*. With its studio-bound and consciously artificial look, built out of powerful blocks of primary colours, Dick Tracy is the opposite of a machine-made movie. It’s the product of a style of craftmanship that would soon be obsolete. It still looks beautiful today, but in a way that’s become very much the look of the past. A past, I might add, that we’re unlikely to ever see again.
*. It’s lucky it does look so good, because Dick Tracy‘s appearance is pretty much all it has going for it. There’s an impressive collection of talent both in front of and behind the camera (with a lot of the all-star cast unrecognizable in make-up), but the story is thin and uninvolving. We never really feel as though anything is at stake and the one twist is easily deduced just through a simple process of elimination.
*. But I’m not sure they could have done much more. When you get right down to it, Dick Tracy isn’t that interesting a character is he? How would you give him depth? He’s a square guy and that’s about it. A sequel was originally being considered but there were squabbles over rights and it never got off the ground. This was probably for the best, as I just don’t see where they could have gone with such a franchise. Superman was square too, but at least in his case something could be made out of his not being of this world, a stranger in a strange land. Tracy is a dead end, with no past and no possibility of development.

*. It’s a truth universally acknowledged that rock stars don’t make great actors. Madonna comes off better than most here, perhaps as the role of the night-club vamp was pretty close to her persona at the time anyway. The rest of the cast, including Beatty, seem to be having fun playing caricatures of roles they were familiar with. But I also got the sense that they were having more fun than I was. Pacino in particular doesn’t strike me as all that funny despite going way over the top.
*. Roger Ebert: “The Tracy stories didn’t depend really on plot – they were too spun-out for that — and of course they didn’t depend on suspense — Tracy always won. What they were about was the interaction of these grotesque people, doomed by nature to wear their souls on their faces.” This sounds so good I wish it were true. I don’t think it is. The prosthetic faces just seem like a line-up of grotesques. Few of the baddies have any lines, much less a soul we can peer into.
*. The music. I like Stephen Sondheim’s show tunes. “Sooner or Later” won an Academy Award and has managed to stick in my head just a bit. Danny Elfman’s score, on the other hand, sounds a lot like his Batman score. Maybe that’s what Beatty wanted.
*. In 2010 Keith Phipps wrote a retrospective piece for Slate that asked “”Where did it go? It’s not that the movie has been unavailable; those so inclined can easily pick up the feature-free DVD released without fanfare in 2002. But who thinks about Dick Tracy today?” Five years later, writing in Vanity Fair, Kate Erbland had a piece titled “Dick Tracy Turns 25: Why Has Everyone Forgotten the Original Prestige Comic Book Movie?”
*. So, where did it go? Why has it been forgotten? I think for much the same reason that all the early superhero, comic book movies have been largely forgotten. They were washed away by the Marvel tsunami. Also: they really weren’t that good in the first place. I think those of us who saw them when they first came out will always have some fond memories of them, but they’ve become a bit embarrassing. As far as Dick Tracy goes, I still love the look of it and think it deserves to be seen on a big screen. Aside from the visuals and the one song, however, the rest of it is very forgettable.

The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)

*. Almost a really good remake.
*. As with any remake coming this long after the original (thirty years) I find the most interesting part is noticing how the times have changed. Thomas Crown is still involved in some kind of possibly shady financial dealings (director John McTiernan likened him to Donald Trump, then not a candidate for higher office), but he’s moved from Boston to New York City and races catamarans instead of playing polo.
*. This Thomas Crown is also not going to be satisfied with an erotic game of chess. No, he’s going to get naked and dirty with his conquests. On the stairway even, which I would have thought one of the very worst places in the world to go at it. One suspects that he and his lover aren’t that into board games.
*. At the time, McTiernan was best known as an action director thanks to a pair of now iconic films he’d made a decade previously: Predator and Die Hard. So, while in the first film the heist itself was presented in the briefest way imaginable (you could tell Norman Jewison wasn’t interested in it at all), here it turns into a pair of lengthy set-pieces that allow McTiernan to stay in his comfort zone.
*. I wouldn’t want to go so far though as to say that McTiernan flubs on the romance. I think he does what he can. Where I think this part of the film flags is in how totally Rene Russo overwhelms Pierce Brosnan, despite his mastering her in the end. I don’t dislike Brosnan, but I don’t think he was right as James Bond and I don’t think he’s right here either. Steve McQueen was more believable as the tycoon bored with his riches and three-piece suits. He was also more interesting, because Thomas Crown’s money is the least interesting thing about him. Or at least it was.
*. Jewison’s Thomas Crown Affair was notoriously a case of style over substance. The plot itself was a fantasy. The plot is still a fantasy here (would the proctor really let Thomas sit in the Impressionists room and eat a croissant? would none of the proctors on staff not realize three impostors showing up? would painting over the Monet and then washing the paint off with a sprinkler not damage the original just a bit?) but style has been replaced not with the merely stylish but with money.
*. The ’90s version of Thomas Crown is obviously a man of taste, hence his stealing paintings instead of money, but he seems more like the subject of an episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous or some very upscale fashion magazine. Unfortunately, this has the effect of making Russo’s character appear even more shallow and mercenary in being seduced by him. Because what does she really see in him other than his wonderful homes, and dining every night at the best restaurants?
*. A lot of people didn’t like Faye Dunaway’s apperance here as Thomas’s therapist. Had she become his mother? According to McTiernan some saw it as a betrayal. Others saw the part as unnecessary, and with this I concur. Remarkably, McTiernan says during the DVD commentary that she serves “the same dramatic function” as the dune buggy in the first film. What?
*. I agree with the general point made by Paul Tatara in his review, which begins by saying that this version is more (or really less) than a piece of fluff, instead calling it “a veritable motherload of Twinkie filling with no actual Twinkie surrounding it.” This didn’t bother him though, since “for once, our fond memories of a classic movie aren’t being trampled by the re-make. The original film was just as empty as this one is.”
*. But while the first time around it was a fantasy, something about it worked. It had an otherworldly dream quality. The feel of this movie is very much a this-world fantasy. There is no sense of seduction to its images beyond the crassness of its desires. We had the feeling that McQueen really did think all of this was a joke. Brosnan’s Crown is much more a part and product of his environment. We couldn’t really imagine him out of it.
*. Still, I found it quite enjoyable. Russo is a force that, at least for the first couple of acts, dominates the screen (and Brosnan), clothes on or off. But then there’s the ending. Whereas Faye Dunaway lost her playboy, Russo gets hers in a totally silly coda. I hated it. In fact, hate isn’t strong enough.
*. I suppose it’s defensible on some level. Jewison thought McQueen and Dunaway were a pair of shits who deserved each other but couldn’t consummate their narcissistic fascination. Here they’re a pair of ultimately vacuous social climbers (though still, in McTiernan’s own judgment, a pair of narcissists, even if Dunaway’s shrink won’t use the n-word). Remarkably, they get exactly what they want. For them, money really can, and does, buy happiness, which is a complete rejection of everything the first film stood for.
*. But then, by 1999 hadn’t we all sold out? Hadn’t we learned to stop worrying and enjoy the simple pleasures of loving ourselves? For wealthy boomers like Thomas and Catherine jetting off to exclusive parts unknown this was the final piece of the puzzle after brief careers of luxury and self-indulgence: a happy ending.

The 13th Warrior (1999)

*. Being labeled as one of the biggest box office bombs ever is tough to live down, but it can be misleading. Not every bomb (or expensive flop) is a bad movie, and given the vagaries of Hollywood accounting defining the actual extent of the financial damage can be difficult.
*. Enter The 13th Warrior, which is usually regarded as having been a bomb but which is an entirely watchable if not great movie and whose balance sheet may not have been as grim as it is sometimes made out to be.
*. It must have seemed like a winner on paper. Based on a novel by Michael Crichton (Eaters of the Dead, which was also the film’s original title) and directed by John (Predator, Die Hard) McTiernan. But for whatever reason the initial test audiences weren’t enthusiastic and there followed a lengthy process of re-shoots (directed by Crichton), editing, and even the writing of a new score. All this extra work is usually blamed for the overruns, though there’s wide disagreement about how much the film ultimately cost.
*. Once you step away from this industry inside-baseball analysis, however, I don’t think it’s that bad a movie. The basic idea is fascinating, and effectively presented. Basically Crichton took the Old English poem Beowulf and re-imagined a real story that might have given birth to the legend. So Grendel becomes the Wendol, a tribe of primitive cannibals, the fire-breathing dragon is a stream of Wendol horsemen carrying torches riding down a mountain, and Grendel’s mother is the witchy-woman who rules the Wendol.
*. Well, at least I thought it was fascinating. But then I’ve read Beowulf. Not bragging, but maybe I got more out of that part of it. Still, even leaving that out I thought it was a solid historical adventure, with lots of guys with beards wielding broadswords and chopping off limbs. The plot is Beowulf meets The Seven Samurai, and what’s wrong with that? Or even Beowulf meets Predator, with the Wendol hanging their dismembered victims upside down and our hero (his name is Buliwyf) all but saying “If it bleeds we can kill it.” Actually, what he says is “If it’s a man it sleeps, and if it sleeps it has a lair.” Same idea.
*. I mentioned how odd it seemed watching The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) today and seeing the hero praying to Allah. This may have been the last big-budget Hollywood flick though that would have a hero doing that.
*. I thought it interesting that one of the changes Crichton made in the reshoots was to change a scene that was more faithful to his novel. As McTiernan had it, the den mother figure was portrayed as an old woman, as she is in the novel. It was decided this didn’t look good on screen so she was changed into a youthful minx. Sometimes the writer has to be one to re-imagine his own work. Or at least repackage it.
*. I really liked the atmosphere they created shooting on location, and the practical effects. It goes with the de-mythologizing theme, and I bought into all the mud and blood entirely. Today this would all be drowned in CGI and there’d be no texture to the film. Just look at the worthless all-CGI version of Beowulf that Robert Zemeckis directed. I’d watch this over that any day. And, I’ll add, I’d rather watch this than the similarly atmospheric Beowulf & Grendel (2005) any day too.
*. So, sure, maybe it was a flop. I think it’s still pretty good. It’s a bit slow and doesn’t move well (probably attributable to all the re-shooting and editing). They should have dropped a lot of the early, introductory stuff. Omar Sharif apparently hated his small part so much he retired from acting for a while. He could and probably should have been left out entirely. But once things get going I find this to be a perfetly serviceable and even at times enjoyable action flick. It’s not a favourite, but it deserves to be remembered as something a lot more than a bomb.

Léon: The Professional (1994)

*. Introducing Natalie Portman. A star is born.
*. I think she was 12, the same age as her character. But already she has no trouble stealing the show.
*. Or maybe “stealing” isn’t the right word. She was the only character Luc Besson was interested in. The film was imagined as a sequel to Nikita, with Jean Reno basically reprising his role as Victor the cleaner. (Besson even described Léon as Victor’s “American cousin,” though Léon is, I believe, supposed to be Italian.) It doesn’t take long, however, before Léon gets pushed aside and Mathilda takes over.
*. So Besson, who has always preferred strong female leads, looks past a character who was being played by Reno anyway as “a little mentally slow.”

*. The only other claim on our attention is Gary Oldman’s Stanfield, in a performance considered by some to be a classic and by others as ridiculously over-the-top. Whatever one thinks of it, it seems to have been mostly improvised. The Beethoven speech, for example, and his bellowing to bring in “Everyone!” (a line that has since gone on to become a meme). So as with Léon, Besson was standing back. But when it came to Portman . . .
*. A lot of your response to this movie is going to boil down to how creepy you think the relationship between Léon and Mathilda is. This is not something that is merely hinted at. In the original script Mathilda and Léon do become lovers, and her age is specified as 13 or 14. And though there were cuts made to the American release version, there’s still no pussyfooting around what’s clearly going on. Mathilda says she feels physical love for Léon and tells the concierge that she’s Léon’s lover. She dresses up in lingerie and dances for him (to Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” even). She is jealous of the attention he gives to his plant, and tells him sullenly at one point that he “should be watering me if you want me to grow.”
*. Roger Ebert thought the movie seemed “to exploit the youth of the girl without really dealing with it.” I see where this is coming from, but I’m not sure what more Besson could have done. As I say, it’s all out in the open. This isn’t really innuendo. In one of the scenes that was cut Mathilda even wears the dress Léon buys for her and tells him she wants to lose her virginity to him. That’s a scene that was in the movie Besson made, and as I understand it he wasn’t the one who took it out.
*. Making matters more complicated is the fact that Besson himself was having an affair with a younger girl around the same time he was making Léon. So this wasn’t a subject he was approaching in a totally abstract way, but as, in part, a fantasy.
*. In theory, I don’t see anything wrong with the idea of a movie presenting this kind of a love affair. And it even makes a kind of sense given what we’re shown of Mathilda’s abusive home. However, I’m not sure it really fits in a movie of this kind. Is their relationship what this movie is about? This is where I think Ebert has a point. I’m also not sure I buy a bright spark like Mathilda falling for a sad sack like Léon.
*. The action sequences here are still well done, but the best one is right at the start. None of the shoot-ups in the rest of the movie is as interesting (and the invasion of the justice building is preposterous). Again, one senses Besson’s attention is drifting back to Mathilda and he’s just content to let Reno go on autopilot and leave Oldman to do his crazy pill-popping shtick. The results are definitely a mixed bag. I’m still not sure I’ve made my mind up about it. I don’t think it’s as good a movie as Nikita, but it’s also something that strays into being more than a generic action film. For better or worse, it was a labour of love.

Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)

*. A sequel — Joe Dante calls it “this most unnecessary of all sequels” — that was a long time coming. And a very different film from Gremlins, which is to its credit. They didn’t want to just go back and do the same thing with better effects.
*. Sometimes you have to throw your hands up as a critic. At the beginning of his commentary director Dante calls Gremlins 2 “one of the most unconventional studio movies ever,” which I think it probably was at the time.
*. There were precursors. Dante goes as far back as Hellzapoppin’ (1941). Still, but for the fact that Warner Bros. was desperate for a hit Gremlins 2 would never have been made. Or at least never made the way it was, with Dante being given complete creative control.
*. The result is anarchy, no less chaotic for being intentional. The story does have a certain structure to it, but while it never breaks down entirely it does get overwhelmed by all the hijinks. Roger Ebert thought it just devolved into a series of gags. I thought it was turning into a variety show even before it does, in fact, turn into a variety show put on by the boisterous critters.
*. As with any variety show there’s a bit of everything thrown into the mix, with a few hits and many misses. Among the former I’d rate Phoebe Cates’s Lincoln’s Day speech (itself a nod to the controversy over her Christmas speech in the first film), the voice of Tony Randall as the brainy gremlin, and the presence of Dick Miller, who is always fun to watch. Everything else is collateral damage.
*. Something seems to have happened to the character of Daniel Clamp. He’s obviously Donald Trump with a bit of Ted Turner tossed in, and right from the start we expect him to be the usual villainous CEO. I mean, his logo even has a clamp crushing the world in its grip. But as things develop he turns out to be just a goofy kid at heart, and someone who really wants to do good.
*. There’s another interesting bit connecting Clamp to Trump in one of the deleted scenes, where a subliminal message plays over the smart building’s PA system saying “You know, I’ve been thinking Mr. Clamp would make a great president.” And they say The Simpsons was the first to see where the Donald was heading.
*. Another announcement we hear over the PA (this time making it into the released version of the film) warns employees about a new program that will monitor their keystrokes. In 1990 that must have seemed comically dystopian. Now we take it for granted.
*. I know you’re not supposed to ask questions like this of what is unabashedly a cartoon, but where do the gremlins find all the little costumes and props to dress up in? It’s like these tiny sets of clothes and different miniature tools and accessories are just lying around.
*. I was surprised to see Christopher Lee. I shouldn’t have been surprised that he seems to just disappear. At least I don’t recall what becomes of Dr. Catheter. But the same thing happened to most of the characters in Gremlins.
*. Does it go too far? Not in the sense of being offensive, but just in being too much? It’s hard to say given that chaos was the plan (if that’s not a contradiction). Personally I think Dante was perhaps given a bit too much leeway. Especially his penchant for movie in-jokes. These are so plentiful that there’s no way to keep track of them, and in most cases I don’t think they add much. Some of them, like the Rambo parody, have also dated to the point where they will be missed by most.
*. It’s silly. And fun, if you’re a kid. Or, like Daniel Clamp or Joe Dante, a kid at heart. I think even in 1990 I had outgrown it. This time around the charm was all nostalgia.

The Tell-Tale Heart (1991)

*. This is little more than the filming of a stage version of Poe’s famous story, literal to the point of being a recitation by the narrator (played by Michael Sollazzo). It’s directed by Scott Mansfield, the founder of Monterey Media, who has done a number of independent projects like this.
*. The one bit of cleverness is in the way the narrator continues to address the audience and tell his story even while the events of the story are going on around him. In itself, however, this is nothing surprisingly new, and it does nothing to exploit the story’s dominant passion, which is the obsession and paranoia of the narrator and his mad insistence that he is not mad.
*. I thought the moment when the one policeman directly faces the camera and addresses what seems to be us as the Inspector might have been a clever wrinkle, but I don’t see where they did anything further with it. Too bad.
*. I mentioned the narrator’s mad insistence that he isn’t mad. This is a paradox that had to be developed more. The narrator here is too restrained and the part underplayed, without any of the manic energy you have to feel he’s unsuccessfully trying to keep the lid on.
*. The voice does sort of fit with the décor though, which may be historically accurate but which doesn’t fit with the brooding sense of interiority and terror — what the narrator describes as “the death watches in the wall.” The house here looks like a cozy b&b.
*. I wonder if it’s too long at 25 minutes. Ted Parmalee’s 1953 film and Annette Jung’s 2006 version both only run around 8 minutes. Even Jules Dassin’s film, which is a free adaptation, was done in 20 minutes. It’s not that there’s not enough material here to make a longer film out of, but that there’s such a thing as a short-story aesthetic that depends on being succinct. If you dawdle the whole thing starts to come undone.
*. Gore is hinted at, but not seen. Madness is dramatized, but not felt. There isn’t any suspense to speak of. I came away thinking that I’d actually like to see this version of “The Tell-Tale Heart” live on stage sometime, in a small local theatre where it would have a cozy immediacy. As a movie, however, it’s not worth bothering with unless you’re a student with a paper on it due the next day.

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

*. I suppose the place we have to start talking about The Shawshank Redemption is with its cult.
*. The word needs some explanation. I don’t mean cult in the sense of an underground or indie favourite — The Shawshank Redemption is as far from that as you can imagine. Instead, I’m using cult to refer to the movie’s committed following, which (just to put my cards on the table) seems irrational to me.
*. When I say it’s irrational I’m talking more about the intensity of feeling the movie inspires rather than the fact that a lot of people like it. As is well known, for many years it was at the very top of the IMDb polls as the highest rated movie ever made (David Thomson: “Times are hard.”). And indeed it continues to hold a special, indeed singular place in many people’s hearts. This is one of those strange cultural facts that critics and commentators have for many years now struggled to explain.
*. I don’t think I can explain it either, aside from pointing out the obvious. It’s a feel-good movie with a message about the power of hope and the triumph of the human spirit. What’s not to like about that? Everything about it goes down as smooth as Morgan Freeman’s buttery narration, and while it mocks religious hypocrisy (a favourite target of author Stephen King) its own point of view is infused with spiritual feeling.
*. With regard to this final point, here’s a line about the film from David Thomson that I have to correct. Thomson writes that “It comes from a novella by Stephen King broadly dedicated to the notion that good nature will come through in the end, yet this is a principle that seldom operates in Mr. King’s customary horror works.” This isn’t true. King has always mocked organized religion, but his belief in a special providential force in the universe that sees to it that goodness and virtue receive their reward is almost always operative in his work. This is one of the things that has made him such a popular author, and which no doubt has contributed much to the staying power of this film.
*. Roger Ebert, a critic who could often be a reasonable proxy for an Everyman (I say that without any snark), had this to say about the Shawshank phenomenon: “Films about ‘redemption’ are approached with great wariness; a lot of people are not thrilled by the prospect of a great film – it sounds like work. But there’s a hunger for messages of hope, and when a film offers one, it’s likely to have staying power even if it doesn’t grab an immediate audience.”
*. So . . . hope. Redemption. The triumph of the human spirit. “No good thing ever dies” (that’s a quote from the film). There is a “hunger for messages” like this. The Shawshank Redemption is soul food for the needy.
*. It’s not to my tastes. I think it’s nicely turned out, but at the end of the day it’s such a hokey, clichéd  fairy tale I couldn’t get anything out of it. Instead of feeling uplifted at the end as Andy and Red meet for a chaste hug on that great, safely nondemoninational heaven of a beach in Mexico with all the money in the world I just thought to myself, “Well, that’s nice.” How much more can you read into a film so well-meaning and so bland? Its chief virtue is its simplicity, resilient to criticism and open to all manner of interpretation. Apparently there is a whole moral philosophy contained in the admonishment to “get busy livin’, or get busy dyin’,” but it’s a line that strikes me as meaningless. Am I trying too hard?

Kull the Conqueror (1997)

*. Kull the Conqueror is a mediocre film in a genre with few if any bragging rights to begin with, but I think it’s still possible to say a few words in its defence.
*. It was a bastard project from the start. The intention was for it to be the third part in a Conan trilogy, but Schwarzenegger wanted no part of it. And before you say “smart move, Arnie,” remember that he wanted out of so that he could play Mr. Freeze in Batman & Robin. Kull is a crummy movie, but nowhere near that bad.
*. So instead of Conan they subbed in another Robert E. Howard barbarian named Kull. The difference being that Conan was a Cimmerian (who spoke with an Austrian accent) and Kull hails from some antediluvian Atlantis and wields a battle-axe instead of a broadsword. In other words, there was no difference at all between the two characters. In fact, one of the sources for the script here was a story that Howard had originally written about Kull. The names were virtually interchangeable.
*. Instead of Schwarzenegger they signed up Kevin Sorbo, who was playing Hercules on TV in a series called Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. Sorbo wasn’t as big a star as Arnold (or as big a “bulging bag of muscle and hair,” as Juba describes him here), but he is a better actor. If you don’t like Kull the Conqueror, don’t blame Sorbo. At least not too much.
*. Just as Conan the Destroyer was a lighter, more humourous affair than Conan the Barbarian, Kull the Conqueror takes another step in this same direction. We’re not in full-blown ironic territory yet, but this is a self-aware, funny movie with a heavy metal soundtrack and a handful of well-placed lines (ex: “Your bride is over 3,000 years old.” Kull: “She told me she was 19!”).
*. Tia Carrere and Karina Lombard both look great. Which is pretty much all they have to do. Though Carrere has to show a bit of wildness every now and then before finally transforming into Rider Haggard’s She-who-must-be-obeyed. Speaking of that finale, the move Kull has to pull to destroy Akivasha is pretty amazing, and one of the few things you’re likely to remember from the film.
*. The effects seem pretty crude 20 years later, but they’re no worse than the other Conan movies. The monkey-man in the dungeon is silly, but not quite as silly as the ape-wizard in Conan the Destroyer. And the demon form of Akivasha actually looks pretty good.
*. All of which is just my way of saying that Kull may be bad, but it’s not that bad. Still, it did poorly at the box office and marked the (real) end of the line for the franchise. I don’t think anyone then or since has cared very much.