Monday, March 31, 2014

Silent Movie

The production company responsible for my dairy ad campaign had to fly an otologist down from the Mayo Clinic to deal with the aftermath of Mr. Boom's contribution to our Kansas filming. Most of the crew and the back-up dancers have been bleeding intermittently from their ear canals and a few are profoundly deaf. I've been assured this is all temporary and things will be back to normal in a week or so. I'm thankful that I had the presence of mind to protect myself before striding out onto location. Poor Miguel, my driver and masseur, has been severely affected. I ask him for a margarita and I get anything from a martini to a manhattan. We're busy heading back to Los Angeles after a brief stop at the Grand Canyon.

I was photographed this morning on the Canyon's South Rim, at sunrise, holding a block of Tillamook Cheddar in one hand and Monterey Jack in the other. I had to intone "Cheese - It's not just for breakfast anymore" in sixteen different languages for planned European distribution. French, German and Italian weren't a problem as I am a cosmopolitan girl but I had some difficulties with Serbo-Croatian, Albanian, Provencal, Slovak and Swedish. Things went smoothly other than Miguel nearly backing the motor home into the canyon as he was unable to hear the crew yelling 'stop' at him in multiple dialects.

Returning to the motor home, I settled in with the portable satellite dish to see what might be available for viewing while driving through Flagstaff and Kingman. Reception in the hills wasn't too great but I was able to tune in Mel Brooks' 1976 film, Silent Movie as we hit Needles. I thought this was appropriate given the somewhat silent world so many of my coworkers are temporarily enjoying. This film was one of Brooks' assaults on movie genres from the mid-70s, coming, in his filmography, between his deconstruction of the classic horror film (Young Frankenstein) and his take on suspense films and Hitchcock (High Anxiety). His target this time was the classic physical comedy of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and the other great silent clowns.

Brooks stars as movie director Mel Funn who, together with his two compatriots (Marty Feldman and Dom DeLuise) is trying to get his career back on track. His brilliant idea is to make a modern silent movie. He arranges a deal with the studio chief of Big Picture studios (Sid Caesar). If he can get big stars to commit to his project, he can get it made. This leads to a series of vignettes in which the unholy trio, tooling around LA in an ancient yellow convertible, try to lasso such stars as Burt Reynolds, James Caan, Liza Minelli, Anne Bancroft and Paul Newman into appearing in their film. In the meantime, Big Picture is trying to hold off a corporate takeover by Engulf and Devour (headed by Harold Gould and Ron Carey) who try to sabotage the film as, if its a hit, Big Picture will be able to stave off their bid. Their secret weapon is the vamp Vilma Kaplan (Bernadette Peters) who makes it her job to seduce Mel away from his film responsibilities.

The film truly is a modern silent film. The dialogue is all mouthed and spelled out with the appropriate title cards. The performance style is over-the-top in the way of the 1920s to make character and plot clear. There is only one spoken word in the film (and as it's one of the better gags, I won't reveal what it is or who says it). Much of the information is communicated musically. John Morris provides a zippy Americana score with a Sousaesque feel and lots of quotations from familiar tunes for joke or plot purposes. The fact that the film works at all says something about Brooks' talents when he's on target. The audience is never confused, and he seems to have found the right satirical idiom for using the no dialogue convention. There are a few sight gags and sequences that are worthy of the great silent comedians but a lot of the film seems lazy. For instance, what starts out as an inspired bit with a Coke machine with a mind of its own, quickly degenerates into a stupid parody of every WW-II era hand grenade sequence. A gifted comic actor like Harold Gould will have a brilliant moment foaming at the mouth in rage, but Brooks will carry the gag on just a little too long so it goes from being funny to being tiresome.

The stars who appear, lampooning their own images, seem to be having a great time. It's also fun to see them at the peak of their fame and physical looks. Anne Bancroft (Mrs. Mel Brooks), is obviously having the time of her life in a nightclub scene which destroys every 20s-30s 'El Morocco' scene ever made. Her tango which involves a feather boa, the three heroes in Flamenco outfits, and assorted intraocular muscle tricks from her and Feldman is a delight. Burt Reynolds also has a couple of great moments of self deluded bachelor glamour and Paul Newman has fun with a comic wheelchair chase. The performers who are not playing themselves are all playing comic archetypes. Sid Caesar and a young Bernadette Peters come off the best. Brooks, who has always struck me as being in love with his own comic style, even when he's not funny, made the mistake of putting himself in the lead. He's always better in a small supporting part. As he has to be showcased, Feldman and DeLuise have to tone down to his level and this throws some moments off balance.

This isn't the worst of the Mel Brooks films (I would give that honor to Robin Hood: Men in Tights), but it's not in the same league as his classics of the genre like Blazing Saddles or Young Frankenstein. I wouldn't search it out but if you happen to catch it while being driven through Needles, California, it's a pleasant waste of an hour or two.

Steam rollered people. News vendor attacks. Trailer with busted spring. Suits of armor. Pong game. Gratuitous erection joke. Bernadette Peters in banana. Orthopedic patients dunked in swimming pool. Gratuitous horse poop joke. Marching preview audience.

The Big Tease


Miguel pulled my gorgeous fuchsia motor home into Shawnee, Kansas early this morning so we could film the next segment of my What A Friend We Have In Cheeses ad campaign for the American Dairy Council. Today's shooting involved having me tap on the roof of a box car of the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe while rolling through amber waves of grain. After all, the train, in grain, rolls mainly on the plain. It should have been a relatively simple shoot; unfortunately, the producers relied on some local talent for audio-visual back-up and I'm afraid Mr. Boom Inc. ("Let Us Put Some Boom In Your Box") was just not up to the task.

As the train rolled through the country side, the speakers set up along the track were supposed to play back the cheddar movement of Aaron Copland's Appalachian String Cheese so I could hit my marks in time to the music. I'm not quite sure what the problem was, but every speaker seemed to hit 140 dB and blow itself out all the way down the track, leading to a series of somewhat unnerving explosions throughout all the violin passages. It was a bit like tapping to the 1812 Overture, only with more cannon. Mr. Boom himself, seemed quite pleased with this feat, if prematurely deaf and I was very glad I had had the foresight to pack Lesterene brand false eyelash cement which doubles very nicely for ear plugs when dried. Poor Miguel had lost his hearing completely by the end of the day and had to be revived with liberal doses of gin.

We did, finally, get the shots we needed, and I left the producers arguing with Mr. Boom over his bill for $400 per blown speaker, retiring back to the motor home for a film and a foot massage. The film from Netflix that I placed in my portable theater system was The Big Tease, a Scottish comedy from director Kevin Allen and writers Craig Ferguson and Sacha Gervasi. With a title like that, I expected a nice little piece of erotica but it turned out to involve the high stakes world of international hair styling, a subject near and dear to my heart.

Glaswegian hair dresser, Crawford Mackenzie (writer Ferguson- years before late night), has dominated the Glasgow hair scene for years and is thrilled to be invited to Los Angeles to participate in the annual Hair-Off for the coveted platinum shears. He kisses his lovely mum (Isabella Aitken) and his lovelier boyfriend Gareth (director Allen) good-bye and heads for la-la land with a British documentarian (Chris Langham) in tow. The film is another one of those faux documentaries like Drop Dead Gorgeous or Waiting for Guffman. Once in LA, he finds that his invitation was in error, but that doesn't deter our plucky Scot as he marshals his curling tongs and an assorted cast of oddballs in his quest for a HAG (Hair stylists of America Guild) card and a slot in the competition. His compatriots include a wannabe moviemaker limo driver (Donal Logue) and a publicist with split ends (Frances Fisher) as he goes up against a Norwegian Jose Eber clone named Stig (David Rasche) and the officious Monique (Mary McCormack) who runs the contest. Does our tres gai hero win the day? This is a comedy, not Medea.

The mockumentary framework allows the film makers to make satirical jabs at celebrity obsessed Los Angeles and movie culture, but it ultimately fails as a device as the film makers refuse to follow their own rules from scene to scene or even from shot to shot. Every time things get dramatic, the documentary crew seems to be forgotten as we go for multiple camera angles and close ups to heighten emotional effect. The film would have worked with a more conventional narrative structure as a fish out of water comedy but I have a feeling the creators wanted to show how clever they could be. Hang dog British comic Chris Langham, who doesn't seem to have aged much in the last twenty years, does help hold the whole feather weight confection together as a sort of interviewer cum master of ceremonies.

In the lead, Craig Ferguson is absolutely charming. With his accent, his expressive eyes, and his absolute joy in living, it's easy to see how Crawford seduces people over to his side in his quest for the title. It's also refreshing to see a film with a gay protagonist where his sexuality is treated so matter of factly. He has a boyfriend, a camp sense of humor, and a flair for fashion and there's no angst at all about who or what he is. The supporting cast are also having a good time playing types, especially Frances Fisher as the hard edged publicist who softens after a good make-over.

I shan't spoil the film by discussing the hair-dos (or hair-don'ts) that emerge in the final competition. Let's just say you're unlikely to see any of them at the local shopping mall. It's also probably the first (and last)film in which a Billy doll figures prominently in the dénouement. Kudos to Beth Rogers for a witty costume design, reminiscent of Lizzy Gardiner's work on The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

The film isn't stellar, but it's a fun way to pass an hour and a half and provides its share of smiles.

Hula skirted chess pieces. Hair styling trophies. Indian Curry restaurant. Gratuitous Melissa Rivers. Four poster bed bouncing. Animal costume styling. Gratuitous Paul Mitchell plug. Bald woman innkeeper. Sabotaged hair products. 

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone


I'm absolutely exhausted this evening. It has been quite a day. We filmed the grand Chicago tap number on Michigan Avenue which will be featured in the What A Friend We Have In Cheeses campaign for the American Dairy Council. I was in my Velveeta Chiffon, tapping away on the top of a large Kraft Macaroni and Cheese box while a thousand cheerful tap dancing children swarmed up and down the street in front the Chicago Art Institute. The whole process took about eight hours and was tiring, but uneventful. Only two of the kiddies fell in the river by accident and the museum was very understanding about the one bored little tapper who snuck in and added purple crayon to Van Gogh's Sunflowers.

Even those little pyromaniacs, Mrs. Tuttle's Tapping Tots were reasonably well behaved. The Macaroni and Cheese Box had been made out of sturdy fiberglass rather than cardboard so it didn't ignite when they went into their famous sparkler routine. I am glad to have the whole thing over and done with. There's only one more stop this trip, somewhere in Kansas for us to film me standing on an Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe locomotive racing through amber waves of grain, and I'll be able to return home to Chateau Maine and get back to work on my new kabuki stage musical spectacular.

As a special treat after the shooting, the production company arranged for us all to attend a private screening of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone at Watertower Place. I, a thousand children, and their stage mothers, all squeezed into one of their cinemas to see the most eagerly awaited film since Slaughterhouse Live!, my musical version of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. The film, based on J.K. Rowling's popular novel, was produced by Warner Brothers, written by Steve Kloves and directed by Chris Columbus, but was filmed in England with a British cast to keep it true to its origins - a book which sort of combines The Narnia Chronicles, Tom Brown's Schooldays, and Classics Comics Dickens.

Young Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is orphaned at an early age and brought up by his nasty aunt and uncle (Richard Griffiths and Fiona Shaw) who keep him under the stairs and generally mistreat him. They do not want him to know that he is actually the son of modern day wizards who were killed by the evil Lord Voldemort. When he turns eleven, he is invited to attend Hogwarts, the best school of witchcraft and wizardry in the British Isles, a sort of Eton with magic wands and the odd dragon or two. Soon, Harry is discovering his true identity in the parallel world of magic that exists in modern England, escorted by the amiable giant Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), who comes to rescue him from his unpleasant relatives. Armed with his parents wizard gold, a snowy owl named Hedwig, and his own wand, Harry journeys to Hogwarts for his first year.

At Hogwarts, he meets other first year students including Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) who become his companions in adventure. The headmaster, Albus Dumbledore (Richard Harris), and other faculty (including Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Zoe Wanamaker and Ian Hart) are protecting the fabled Sorcerer's Stone from evil. Harry and his friends stumble across plots, intrigue, mountain trolls, three headed dogs, cloaks of invisibility and deadly chess sets as they unravel the mystery.

This film, already zooming up the box office charts, will make a small fortune for Warner Brothers and doubtless spawn many sequels due to the huge presold audience of children who have met the literary Harry. Will they enjoy the cinematic Harry as much as his literary counterpart? I think so. The film makers have been remarkably faithful to the book and have transferred the novel to screen nearly scene for scene. This is the ultimate weakness of the film. They have been so reverential that the work is a filmed novel, rather than a movie. While viewing it, I could not help but be reminded of The Wizard of Oz. The novel was a children's classic and the film, made nearly forty years later, is one of the most beloved films for children ever to come out of Hollywood. What people tend to forget, however, is that the film works because it took liberties with the novel in order to translate it into more cinematic terms. The film makers at MGM in the late thirties rethought the material in a fresh way. A literal translation would not be nearly as compelling.

The film version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is so faithful that, at times, it feels very stilted and flat. The storytelling feels forced and unnatural, as if it had been dipped in formaldehyde and paraffin and then frozen. Individual sequences are wondrous. The quidditch match (quidditch being a popular wizard sport sort of like rugby on flying broomsticks) is beautifully filmed and put together. The banquet scenes in Hogwarts great hall are properly magical. There are frightening moments when Harry and his friends are in danger and the film doesn't soft pedal the dark side of his world. The film is long, at over two and a quarter hours, but doesn't drag. In fact, it might have benefitted from a few more minutes of exposition at the beginning. The first twenty minutes is very choppy and likely to be quite confusing to anyone who has not read the book.

The three young performers who play the leads are well cast. The makers were smart enough to cast British children and to cast relative unknowns who haven't yet developed annoying child performer mannerisms. Rupert Grint is Ron Weasley, physically and characterologically - he's the perfect best friend / comic relief. Emma Watson tends to overdo Hermione's 'know it all' attitude but reaches a better balance in the second half of the film and should do well in the sequels as her character matures. Daniel Radcliffe catches Harry's introspection and sense of otherness quite well. He's a bit better in the quiet scenes than the action ones as he seems a bit nervous at the off camera nonsense necessary for modern special effects.

The adults in the cast are all obviously pleased as punch to be part of the 'Harry Potter' phenomenon and have a good time with their stock roles. Alan Rickman does his sneering villain shtick, Maggie Smith gives us Miss Jean Brodie in a witches hat and Robbie Coltrane steals all of his scenes as the gentle giant, Hagrid. The weak link is Richard Harris as Dumbledore. He doesn't give the impression of great character and wisdom, rather of self-amusement at the thought of his residuals check.

The production design is gorgeous with eye-popping visual details, especially the interiors of Hogwarts with its gothic arches and spaces, interspersed with living paintings and a few fantastic beasts. Chris Columbus, whom I initially thought was a dreadful choice as director due to his insistence on cloying sentiment (I would have gone with Terry Gilliam), returns to his Gremlins roots and doesn't get too saccharine. I wish I could say the same for John Williams' somewhat overbearing score.

The film is fun. The youngsters in your family who have read the books will love it. The adults won't be bored. It is not, however, an instant classic and full of squandered opportunities in an overly reverential attempt not to screw it up.

Owl post. Burmese snake. Instant pig tail. Weasley siblings. Delicious looking quidditch team captain. Baby Norwegian Ridgeback. Chocolate Frog. Nasty caretaker. Painted fat lady. Over large sweater. Flying keys. Two faced villain.

The Mummy Returns


We finally finished up the Appalachian shoot with close-ups of my aerial ballet under the natural bridge in West Virginia. I packed up the Vuitton, and had Miguel point the motor home north and west to Chicago where we were to film the next segment of the What A Friend We Have In Cheeses campaign for the American Dairy Council. They had been focusing on gathering quaint rural scenes for the campaign and decided we really needed some urban excitement for contrast. For this segment, I am to lead a line of a thousand tap dancing kiddies down Michigan Avenue to the haunting strains of Cheeses, loved by little children. All the children of the world. The producers are importing child tappers from all over the country for the shoot and I was somewhat aghast to hear that Mrs. Tuttle's Tapping Tots are here from Utah. I warned the production manager in no uncertain terms that those horrid little no-necks should be kept at the back and far away from all incendiary devices.

In keeping with the family friendly images of this segment, I am being dressed in flowing orange chiffon, the color of Velveeta with bugle beads in the shape of Cheetohs forming a contrasting trim down the front and on the hem. There has been some talk, in certain quarters, that this campaign borders on the sacrilegious. To prevent any further rumors of this kind, the producers have imported a very nice young priest from somewhere in Indiana, a Father Kurt, who is to monitor the shoot and make sure it is all liturgically correct. In return, I'm going to help jazz up his sermons with a little interpretive modern dance.

After an endless round of production meetings, getting ready for the shoot in the morning, we succeeded in banishing all the tap happy little urchins and their stage mothers back to the Chicago Hilton while I retired to the motor home for Miguel's magic massaging hands, a margarita, and a movie. Today's choice was The Mummy Returns, the recent sequel to the surprise 1999 hit with Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz. I had actually attempted to view this film several times in the past but found that it put me to sleep faster than Sominex. On this, the fifth viewing, I finally was able to see how it ended.

The sequel takes place a decade after the original. Dashing Rick O'Connell (Fraser) and Evie (Weisz) are now married and practicing Egyptology 101 together aided by their precocious little moppet, Alex (Freddie Boath). The film opens with a scene-setting prologue in which an animate lump of granite, known fittingly as 'The Rock', plays a legendary warrior, The Scorpion King. He loses a great battle and is banished into the desert where his army all dies but where he obviously is left with a large supply of conditioning shampoo, dentifrice, and depilatories. He dedicates himself to the god Anubis and, in a series of not very good effects shots, he conquers Egypt with a bunch of CGI jackal headed warriors, creates an oasis with a magic pyramid out of the sands, and is eventually imprisoned in the underworld, leaving his bracelet behind. His bracelet is, of course, discovered by Rick and Evie who take it back to Merrie Olde England after a sequence involving tarantulas, a flood, collapsing columns, and in which we learn that Evie is the reincarnation of an ancient Egyptian princess. (Are you with me so far?)

The villains, led by Mr. Hafez (Alun Armstrong), the curator at the British Museum, are also after the bracelet as they need it for their plot to conquer the earth. If they resurrect the Mummy, Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) and give him the bracelet, he can conquer the Scorpion King, take over his army of jackal men and they can rule the world. The villains are an odd lot. Beside Hafez, who runs around in a lot of strange red middle eastern robes, even in London, there is Meela Nais (Patricia Vasquez), the reincarnation of Imhotep's lost love Anck-su-namun. Where she came from and how she knows where to find the mummy in the destroyed city of Hamanaptura (see the first movie) is not explained. There is also the wild eyed Lock-Nah (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) armed with various wicked knives and a trio of scumballs straight out of central casting who seem to exist mainly to give the Mummy a good meal once he is freed from what seems to be a huge lump of amber.

The villains show up at the O'Connell country home, a sort of smaller version of Wayne Manor, as does the Madjai protector Ardeth Bay (Oded Fehr) and Evie's no good brother Jonathan (John Hannah) and soon there are knife fights, gun fights, kidnappings, narrow escapes and a race through a geographically impossible London in a double decker bus. The views of 30s London are lovely but St. Paul's cathedral seems to have moved to Battersea and Tower Bridge crosses the Thames at Charing Cross. The villains end up with the precocious tot and the bracelet and our heroes are soon chasing them back to Egypt where they meet up with an over-acting pilot (Shaun Parkes) who flies them on a Cook's tour of various monuments in a hot air balloon borrowed from Terry Gilliam. By the time they crash into a set left over from Jurassic Park and are running away from Mummy Muppets, I was as confused as my readers are now. Suffice it to say that the third act of the film brings violent deaths and resurrections, the return of the Scorpion King as a cheesy special effect, narrow escapes, and Brendan Fraser running at about 800 miles an hour in order to move faster than the rising sun.

I enjoyed The Mummy a good deal when I first saw it at the matinee and later on video. I thought that writer/director Stephen Sommers had caught a nice balance of humor, thrills, and high adventure in the film. The special effects were fun but never overbalanced the characters and there were enough slower paced scenes in which we learned about both our heroes and villains, that we could catch our collective breath. It reminded me a good deal of Raiders of the Lost ArkThe Mummy Returns has a bad case of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom syndrome. Everything has become bigger, faster and more frenetic. The characters no longer exist as people but rather as agents for elaborate action and special effects sequences which pile on top of each other in rapid succession leaving the audience exhausted and having forgotten why they cared for these people in the first place. Even the jokes feel forced as they're exactly the same jokes as in the first film, only bigger and louder and, therefore, stupider. Perhaps this explains the soporific effect, somewhat similar to the works of Hegel.

The leading players, all of whom are veterans of the first film, obviously enjoy making these films and each others' company. There is an easy camaraderie to their performances, even when they are saddled with ridiculous lines so they can get the exposition out of the way and move on to the next action set piece. Fraser and Weisz, have matured their characters although I miss the romantic tension that existed in the first film as they stumbled towards each other. Oded Fehr remains sexily noble. John Hannah, does dissolute comic relief with practiced insouciance. Patricia Velasquez, notable mainly for her body paint in the first film, shows some smatterings of acting talent as the villainess and Arnold Vosloo takes
what could be a stock villain and imbues him with some dignity and humanity.

The production design is lovely. There are widescreen shots of deserts and ruins and cityscapes which are thrilling to behold. The interiors of temples and magic pyramids are lovingly rendered. The whole thing reminds me of a late 30s pulp adventure comic book brought to life. The digital animators also had fun with the creatures. Even in the wide shots, there are hundreds of little details in the corners which provide much to look at. 

The DVD contains the film in its original widescreen format and a super 5.1 Dolby soundtrack. The image seems a little pixilated and phony at times, especially during some of the heavy visual effects shots. Besides the film, there are a large number of extras. There is a collection of 'blooper' out takes where the cast mugs for the benefit of the camera and each other. There is a pointless music video. There is a preview of a Mummy attraction at Universal theme parks which seems to be an Egyptian variation on the midway spook house. There is a commentary tract featuring writer/director Sommers and editor/producer Bob Ducsay that's fairly informative as they actually talk about the filmmaking process rather than just explain the plot. There is an exclusive interview with "The Rock" about the next sequel The Scorpion King in which he stars and a preview of that film which reveals it to be shot in the murkiest light possible: I could not tell which of the flailing shadows was supposed to be hero and which villain. They all seem to fly across digitally enhanced ancient backgrounds with the greatest of ease, however. There is a charitable plea form Oded Fehr. There is some explanation of how visual effects were done by an ILM geek with a strawberry blond mullet.

All in all, I found the film disappointing as I so enjoyed the first one. It needed more panache and humanity and less reliance on digital tricks.

Armies clashing. Evil jackal headed warriors. Nile drinking. Nile dunking. Better mousetrap. Gratuitous scarab beetle explosions. Museum burning. Hiding in bathtub. Smashed soldier mummies. Gratuitous train lavatory. Wall of water escaping. Pygmy mummy stabbings. Gratuitous quicksand. Gratuitous girl knife fights. Oasis vortex. Giant diamond rescue. 

The Manchurian Candidate


Forest fires in Appalachia are playing havoc with our locations, so I had no filming today. As my schedule would now permit it, I was invited to serve as grand marshal of the Welch, West Virginia Veteran’s Day parade. I put on my best turban, large cats eye sunglasses, and a cunning little Chanel suit with ocelot trim and headed back into coal country in my lovely new motor home in order to be at the parade grounds on time. I was a tad disappointed at the arrangements; I had been led to believe that there would be a large Cadillac convertible in which I could ride and wave at the adoring multitudes. Instead, there was someone’s ten year old Miata with a large rip in the convertible top that flapped rather uncomfortably around my tush when I took my position in back. I was also not given the place of honor at the head of the parade as promised, I was behind the Chamber of Commerce float which featured a very zaftig hausfrau wrapped in aluminum foil who was, I think, impersonating the Statue of Liberty. It was somewhat hard to tell as her sparkler kept going out. At the end of the ten-block parade route, I was so exhausted that I simply had to retire to my quarters. 

While resting up, there was further bad news. Joseph, my manager, called about the new musical version of The Last Seduction, Bridget Over Troubled Waters. The choreographer, my old friend Wakefield Poole, is having a terrible time with the second act dream ballet. In order to be topical, it’s a Taliban number entitled Osama Chanted Evening but the quick political changes in that part of the world are throwing poor Wakefield for a loop. I finally came up with an absolutely brilliant idea. The chorines will begin in their full-length sequined burqas and then, as the music changes to a Sousaesque march, those costumes will fly out revealing them in stiletto-heeled taps and hot pants. It’ll be a sensation. Joseph agreed that it would be fabulous and also promised to keep Wakefield from beating the chorus girls with a stick every time he sees an ankle during rehearsal. 

American politics and foreign policy being somewhat on my mind, I decided to  watch one of the great political films of all time, John Frankenheimer’s 1962 film, The Manchurian Candidate, with Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh and Angela Lansbury. The film, based on Richard Condon’s novel, explores the extremes of American politics, both left and right, showing how they are more alike than different and how inherently dangerous extremism can be. It couches its heady themes in a crackerjack plot of brainwashing, political assassination, dysfunctional family ties, and shrewd deconstruction of McCarthyite grandstanding. 

Laurence Harvey is Raymond Shaw, an officer in the Army during the Korean War. In the prolog, he is introduced as being a rather nasty piece of goods, unloved by his men and grudgingly respected by his second in command, Ben Marco (Frank Sinatra). Shaw’s patrol is captured on a reconnaissance mission behind enemy lines. There is apparently an action of some kind in which Shaw supposedly behaves heroically and he receives the Congressional Medal of Honor. Raymond returns to the loving arms of his mother (Angela Lansbury), a thoroughly odious snake of a woman who is married to an idiotic buffoon of a Senator (James Gregory). She is bound and determined to make her husband and his McCarthyite tactics a political force to be reckoned with and it soon becomes apparent that her ambitions have no bounds or controls. She is willing to use any means necessary to come to power. 

In a stunning series of dream sequences, we soon find out that Raymond’s patrol was not involved in enemy action but were rather taken to Manchuria and psychologically conditioned by operatives of the USSR and China. Raymond has been turned into a killing machine, who will assassinate anyone he is told if the right sequence of events, involving a game of solitaire and the queen of diamonds, takes place. Ben Marco, who keeps having these recurrent dreams, soon figures out that these are reality. Aided by his new girlfriend (Janet Leigh), he starts to unravel the mystery of Raymond Shaw, Senator and Mrs. Iselin and just who Raymond’s American operator is and what he has been built to do. 

The Manchurian Candidate is an unusual film in several ways. First, it’s a film that succeeds despite its principal cast rather than because of it. Sinatra, never the strongest of actors, plays Major Marco as a confused, but likeable regular guy. As he moves farther and farther into the heart of darkness that is the plot, he never seems to change or be affected by the issues involved. Janet Leigh, whose introduction to the film is one of the most bizarre monologues ever offered in the history of cinema, is more of a pretty face and love interest than a complete character. Laurence Harvey, playing the damaged Raymond, is robotic and wooden, which fortunately plays into the character rather than against it. Second, the supporting cast, especially Angela Lansbury and James Gregory more than make up for the deficiencies in the principal performers. Lansbury was robbed of an Oscar (Patty Duke won that year for The Miracle Worker) for her performance as the vicious mother from hell. Fifty years later, she’s still capable of causing chills to march up and down the spine in some of her scenes. Her success here also robbed us of another indelible villainess. When One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was filmed some years later, the producers tried desperately to get Lansbury to accept the role of Nurse Ratched. She refused them saying she had already depicted ultimate evil on screen and did not want to repeat herself. James Gregory, best known to modern audiences as the pompous Inspector Luger on Barney Miller, is almost her match as the addled senator who cannot remember how many card carrying communists there are until shown a Heinz ketchup bottle. Third, the politics of the film may be those of the cold war but it remains absolutely relevant. Substitute the word ‘terrorist’ for ‘communist’ and we could be listening to talking heads on CNN. 

Frankenheimer, who wrote the screenplay together with producer George Axelrod, continues to work in film but has never again equaled this achievement as either author or director. It remains to be seen but there are certain parallels with Bryan Singer and Christopher McQuarrie creating the brilliant The Usual Suspects which they are likely never to top. The script is literate, cohesive, and the suspense builds and builds with almost perfect pacing as each new revelation is made to the audience. 

The film was kept out of distribution for many years due to legal problems (and due to some uncomfortable echoes of the Kennedy assassination) and only re-emerged in the late 1980s. At that time, documentary footage was shot with Frankenheimer, Axelrod, Sinatra and others who worked on the film, discussing its making and its political implications, both in the 1960s and today. This is included on the DVD release of the film and is worth viewing. 

This is perhaps the classic paranoid political thriller and should be seen by all serious students of American film. 

Helicopter airlift. Sinister houseboy. Ladies garden club meeting. Strangulation death. Giant playing card. Press conference uproar. Bullet through milk carton. Madison Square Garden rowdiness. 

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Passion of Darkly Noon


I am still touring Appalachia in my sumptuous fuchsia motor home, filming bits for the American Dairy Council’s What a Friend We Have in Cheeses campaign. We have moved on from Kentucky to West Virginia where we are using a natural bridge across a gorge as our next location. I am to dangle from a rope beneath it (which will later be digitally erased) doing a lovely aerial ballet while the back-up dancers form a kick line on the bridge singing Roquefort of Ages. I smell a Clio award. My choreography is something to behold, a sort of Cirque de Soleil meets The Matrix which will show off the lovely gauzy draperies I’m wearing, tie-dyed to represent Blue Cheese.

Miguel, my driver cum masseur, has been most helpful this trip. Not only does he make a wonderful Cuervo Gold Margarita, but he is also a whiz with a needle or an iron. He was able to remove the coal dust stains from my Monterey Jack robes with a little club soda and it’s hanging freshly pressed in the wardrobe. He also added several new layers of lace trim to my favorite peignoir during the night. Now if I could just keep him from wearing it. He’s busy maneuvering the motorhome along the back roads of Mercer County at the moment, dodging the coal trucks and the occasional stray dog. He’s really quite a good driver but the swerving does cause me to spill my drink rather more than I would like.

As we won’t be on location for several more hours, I have had time to sit back and relax with a film. The rooftop cable dish is somewhat limited in its reception here in the hills but I was able to pick up Showtime for a few hours and caught the 1997 film, The Passion of Darkly Noon with Brendan Fraser and Ashley Judd. This is the second film from writer/director Philip Ridley, following his 1990 debut, The Reflecting Skin. That film was a somewhat incoherent, but watchable, mess involving possible vampirism. This film is an incoherent and somewhat less watchable mess that wants to make significant symbolic statements about religion, but which loses them in lovely photography of giant glitter disco shoes floating on mountain lakes.

Brendan Fraser plays Darkly Noon, an escapee from the massacre of a fundamentalist Christian religious commune. This Koreshian backstory is not seen, but alluded to throughout. It’s referred to in somewhat heightened terms making it difficult to understand whether this was a literal or a metaphorical incident. In fact, the cast is so busy dealing in both verbal and visual metaphor, that it’s impossible to decide what is real and what exists only the characters’ minds. It’s also not possible to decide if we’re dealing with modern society or some otherworld parallel dimension. Anyway, young Darkly wanders off into the woods (very much a metaphor), fleeing his persecutors. He collapses and is found by the local undertaker’s assistant (Loren Dean) who befriends him. He takes him to the isolated home of young Callie (Ashley Judd). Callie is supposed to be an ethereal free spirit, existing outside the bounds of conventional society so she is, of course, played by one of the most earthy of young actresses. Callie nurses Darkly back to health and he is soon in competition with her boyfriend Clay (Viggo Mortensen), a mute woodworker who makes the coffins for the undertaker. Darkly is torn between his lust for Callie and his puritanical upbringing and when he meets Roxy (Grace Zabriskie), a crazy older woman who lives in a trailer even farther back in the woods, he starts to snap. He’s egged on by Roxy’s railings against Callie (she’s Clay’s estranged mother and she thinks Callie bewitched him.) Soon the triangle is headed for an inevitable violent conclusion in which people are painting themselves red, burning houses down, and running around with shotguns.

Philip Ridley has a gifted visual eye. The photography of the forest is lovely and he uses painterly compositions that are, on occasion, exquisitely beautiful. Unfortunately, he undermines himself with his insistence on using portentous symbolism throughout. Subtlety is not his strong point. His talented cast were obviously drawn to his archetypal characters and to the violence of the emotions espoused by them in key scenes. They make the best of the material but can only go so far before the whole thing starts to resemble a college acting class exercise rather than a fully realized feature film. In the central role, Brendan Fraser does his best to express his inner conflicts. His lines are underwritten so he does much with his body language, especially his hands. Some of the scenes between him and Viggo Mortensen, in particular, are actually quite good as, given the muteness of Viggo’s character, much must be done strictly with eyes and hands. The weakest of the cast is Ashley Judd; her Callie, dressed in scanty gingham prints, wants to be a woodland nymph, freed from conventional mores. However, she comes across as an out of place truck stop waitress. I kept expecting her to call everyone ‘hon’ and start offering them coffee warm-ups and another order of fries.

I must admit, that even as I was shaking my head in disbelief, I could not bring myself to turn the film off and return to something more constructive, like cuticle care. Even a truly rancid scene, centering on the undertaker (Lou Myers) who emotes like Richard Dreyfuss as Richard III in The Goodbye Girl, kept me entertained in a rather horrific way. The film is a bit like an accident on the interstate. You can’t help but rubberneck. I wouldn’t go out of the way looking for it but there are worse things to do with your time, like ironing.

Ancient pictographs with anachronistic horses. Trailer living. Naked Brendan Fraser. Semi naked Ashley Judd. Semi naked Viggo Mortensen. Ants on face. Gratuitous dog funeral. Symbolic disco shoes (assorted sizes). Burning bedroom. Gratuitous circus elephant.

The Goonies


The producers of the What a Friend We Have in Cheeses campaign for the American Dairy Council have given me a deluxe new motor home for travel to the Appalachian locations where we are filming this week. As befits a star of my stature, there’s room for all thirty-seven pieces of my Louis Vuitton luggage, a fully stocked wet bar and the driver, Miguel, who doubles as a masseur. They have painted it bright fuchsia with “Mrs. Norman Maine – Living Legend” written upon the sides in flowing purple script. At least some people know how to treat a diva properly. We spent today driving up into the hills outside of Hazard, Kentucky to our first location, a quaint little clapboard church on the side of a hill near a rushing stream. For this segment, I am to be clad in an off-white robe, representing Monterey Jack, standing at a lectern on the lawn while the back-up dancers tap across the ridgeline of the church roof. 

We arrived at the location around three in the afternoon. The producers neglected to tell me that the quaint church was right next to a large open pit coal mine, that the rushing stream was hazardous industrial waste and that the building itself had been condemned sometime during the Coolidge administration. My glorious sateen Monterey Jack robe was soon looking a bit worse for wear streaked with coal dust and grime. Fortunately, only one of the back-up dancers actually fell through the roof of the church and escaped serious injury when they landed on some hay bales that were serving as makeshift pews. I sang
 Onward Cheez-it Soldiers over and over again while the cameraman got several angles of my flawless profile until we lost the light. I’ve rarely been so glad to retire back to my dressing area. 

The motor home has been equipped with a lovely home theater system so I was able to unwind with one of Miguel’s scrumptious margaritas while slipping in a DVD. Today’s choice was the 1985 film,
 The Goonies, an Amblin/Spielberg entertainment directed by Richard Donner. It has recently been re-released on DVD with extended features and a commentary track. I vaguely remember auditioning for the pat of One Eyed Willie in this production, but turning it down when I realized I would have to diet from my usual voluptuous figure to absolutely skeletal. 

The Goonies
 is an adventure film for older children which follows a group of seven youngsters from Astoria, Oregon. Evil developers are foreclosing on their parents so that the neighborhood can be turned into a golf course (despite it’s being located on a steep hill). The kids call themselves ‘The Goonies’ and the old home place ‘The Goondocks’ for no particular reason; they decide it’s up to them to save the day. A quick trip to the attic reveals a previously ignored pirate treasure map dated 1632 (a good two centuries before Europeans arrived in the Pacific Northwest) and the hunt is on. Soon, they’re exploring an underground labyrinth straight out of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean, only with more water slides, and trying to escape a comic thug family, the Fratellis, who are into counterfeiting, murder and general mayhem. 

Our seven intrepid little heroes and heroines include Mikey (Sean Astin), the pre-adolescent brains of the operation, who spends most of the film demonstrating incredibly bad asthma inhaler technique; his big brother Brandon (Josh Brolin), the brawn; Brandon’s girlfriend, Andy (Kerri Green), who spends most of the film shrieking in a wet white tennis dress; Chunk (Jeff Cohen), the stereotypical obnoxious clumsy fat kid; Mouth (Corey Feldman), a know-it-all in two languages; Data (Ke Huy Quan), a would be James Bond with outrageous gadgets that work far better than their materials would suggest; and Stef (Martha Plimpton), whose character seems to exist solely to give Mouth someone to aggravate. The kids are all cutely obnoxious, each in their own way, and the film launched a number of them on to successful adult careers. Opposing them are the four members of the Fratelli clan- Mama (Anne Ramsey), a hatchet faced matron who makes Ma Barker look like Carol Brady; and her three sons, the rotten opera singing Jake (Robert Davi); the weasely psychotic Francis (Joe Pantoliano) and the thing in the basement, Sloth (John Matuszak). Most of the film is one long extended chase with the kids after the treasure and the Fratellis after the kids.

The film is anything but subtle and there’s a lot of bug-eyed reaction shots, screaming, and racing down rock corridors and through underground lakes. Director Donner, working from a script by Chris Columbus, keeps things moving so it’s rarely dull, just repetitive. Fortunately, the opulent production design, especially a full-scale pirate ship, provides enough eye candy to keep the adults in the audience entertained. There are also some funny throwaway bits involving a non-English speaking maid, a small child’s bike, and a frozen body.

The new DVD contains the film in a fine wide-screen transfer with a remixed 5.1 Dolby soundtrack. There are also a number of extras including a brief ‘behind the scenes’ documentary, and a couple of sequences that were cut from the final release. One of these stars the dumbest looking giant octopus since the heyday of Ed Wood Jr. and it’s clear why it had to be removed. The others clarify plot slightly but add nothing new to the characters or situations. Best of all is a new commentary track for which all seven of the now thirty something ‘Goonies’ have been reunited together with director Donner. There is some visual so it’s possible to see how those who did not remain in the business grew up. The big surprise is Jeff Cohen who slimmed down into quite an attractive man as he grew. He’s now a successful entertainment lawyer. The commentary is full of fun reminiscences but the gang do have a disconcerting habit of all talking at once. There is also a very long Cyndi Lauper music video in which most of the cast appears. Cyndi seems to be escaping from various professional wrestlers through the movie sets. Why this is necessary is not explained.

All in all, it’s an enjoyable film for older kids. It will never be a classic but there are worse ways to spend an evening with the family.

Police chase. Michelangelo's ‘David’ with broken penis. Electrostatic things in attic. Broken water cooler. ‘Baby Ruth’ product placement. Gratuitous toilet as water cannon. Scary piano. Gratuitous genital smashes. Gold doubloons. Walking the plank. Gratuitous Cyndi Lauper.

Monsters Inc.


Things are starting to come together for my fabulous new stage musical masterpiece, Bridget Over Troubled Waters, an adaptation of the film, The Last Seduction. Barry Manilow, our composer, nearly has the score completed, lovely little jingle type melodies, all in haiku. I'm using this wonderful new theater piece as a means to introduce American audiences to the joys of kabuki theater. My darling Bob Mackie is hard at work on stunning costume designs with an Asian flair, but with the durability and sheen of American polyester fabrics and David Hockney has signed on as set designer, using motifs from traditional Japanese woodcuts to create a unique visual look for the upstate New York setting. Corey Haim and Corey Feldman are coming on board as the two male leads - their names will, I'm sure, draw the youth crowd and I'm looking forward to being dubbed the 'Musical of the New Millennium' and giving The Phantom of the Opera a run for its money... 

In the meantime, work continues on the
 What A Friend We Have In Cheeses commercials for the American Dairy Council. The shoot at Mount Rushmore, alas, did not go well. Our next few shooting days come up this next week. I have been given a luxurious Winnebago in which to travel and we will be driving to small towns throughout Appalachia and shooting against the timeless backdrop of the Great Smokies, changing foliage, and small town churches for that pure Americana look. The Zion AME choir quit after the unfortunate drenching with Cheez-Whiz the other day and I have a new set of backup dancers, some enchanting sylph like creatures borrowed from the ballet Trocadero de Monte Carlo. I am so looking forward to spending some time with some cultured continental Monegasques - the days should just fly by. 

Before retiring to pack all thirty-seven matching pieces of my Louis Vuitton for the trip, I just had time to attend the cinema and take in a new film. My choice was
 Monsters, Inc., a new animated film from Pixar studios, the Disney subdivision responsible for Toy Story and A Bug's Life. I had wanted to attend this film with a member of its target audience so went searching for a small child. I found one at the local playground but his mother kept swatting me with her purse and calling me names as I tried to load him into the limo so I was forced to do without the kid, depending instead on my inner child to help comprehend the film. 

Monsters, Inc.
 is the tale of a large aqua furry thing, sort of a cross between a Tyrannosaur and my Aunt Rachel's Easter Sunday suit, named Sully (voice by John Goodman) who lives in an alternate Monster dimension. There he works and plays with his best pal Mike (voice by Billy Crystal), the unholy offspring of a Cyclops and a Bartlett pear. The Monsters (and there are many of them, all more cute and cuddly grotesques than terrifying nasties), power their civilization by sending 'scarers', of whom Sully is the best, through the closet doors of the human world and then capturing the energy of scared children's screams. Unfortunately, in our jaded era, fewer and fewer children are scared by the monsters and their society is, therefore, undergoing an energy crisis. A competing scarer, Randall (voice by Steve Buscemi), a sort of purple chameleon thing with far too many legs, has a nefarious plot to solve the energy crisis and our heroes unwittingly stumble across it. 

Things get complicated when a human girl child, whom Sully dubs 'Boo', comes through her unguarded closet door and enters the world of the monsters. She's not frightened of the shaggy Sully (calling him 'Kitty') and seems to take the perversities of monster society in stride. Trouble is, monsters regard humans and their artifacts as exceedingly dangerous, hazardous materials. Little Boo is the equivalent of a suitcase full of plutonium to them and when she escapes into a Sushi bar called 'Harryhausen's' during the dinner rush, things start to get complicated. This is a Pixar/Disney film so you know that no matter how bleak things may seem to get for our heroes, everything will come out all right in the end.

Pixar, with every new film, becomes more and more competent with its digital animation. There are scenes which are breathtaking in their visual complexity and the animation detail is incredible. Every single hair in Sully's pelt or muscle under Mike's rubbery skin seems to move independently. The monsters are delightful. Each has its own way of moving and expressing him or herself in body language and speech pattern. A few frames are all that is necessary to develop an indelible character. Dan Gerson and Andrew Stanton's clever script gives even minor characters wonderful little moments which the Pixar animators relish. Even the backgrounds are full of throw-away gags as the monsters go about their daily business. The script, like all good child entertainments, operates on two levels. Superficially it's a straightforward adventure story which the kids will like. Underneath, there's a very adult satire of modern industry and social attitudes towards manufacturing. Supporting characters such as the crab-like boss (James Coburn) and Mike's gorgon/squid girlfriend (Jennifer Tilly), have lines that zing modern American attitudes and cultural mores.

The hazardous materials subplots, complete with yellow suited monster hazmat teams, couldn't be more timely; while the film was conceived and made long before 9/11, the over-reaction of the monsters to innocuous objects is given a new meaning by current headlines. Hopefully, America will see themselves in some of those scenes and learn to lighten up a little.

Some of the imagery is a little ghoulish and the pace is, at times, a bit manic, especially in the busy third act. It might be a bit much for very young children. Those over five who are self aware enough to differentiate film from life, however, should enjoy themselves very much. Like all quality kid films, it's worth attending even if you have no children for whom to buy tickets.

Child simulator. Unfiled paperwork. Helicopter search. Super trash compacter. Men's locker room talk. Medusa hair. Body shaving. 'Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer' influenced Yeti. Sno-cones. Door shredding.

The Adventures of Sebastian Cole


An investigation by the South Dakota Department of Pyrotechnics revealed that the production company responsible for filming the What A Friend We Have In Cheeses campaign for the American Dairy Council, had cut corners by hiring non-union ex-munitions experts from Posse Comitatus. These workers, happy to have their hands on explosives again, had over-rigged the Cheez-Whiz pots leading to the unfortunate incident at Mount Rushmore last week. Personally, I was very happy that CNN has had its camera crews busy elsewhere recently so no photos of me in my ruined Gaultier Roquefort gown got out. I always try to present the carefully coiffed and glamorous image that my fans expect, not looking like an overgrown Cheetoh being scrubbed down by a hazmat team.

The American Dairy Council, being upstanding citizens, have fired the production company and shut down the shoot for a few weeks while they find a more professional group to take over the project. I have therefore returned home to Chateau Maine for a quiet weekend. I talked to Joseph, my manager, on the phone the other day about the casting dilemmas for my new musical spectacular, Bridget Over Troubled Waters which is due to go into rehearsal after Christmas. He had excellent news - two suitable male leads, stars who have worked together for many years have signed for the project, Corey Feldman and Corey Haim. In my Kabuki stage musical version of The Last Seduction, Mr. Feldman will take the Bill Pullman and Mr. Haim the Peter Berg part and they are looking forward to opening with me at the Pantages in Los Angeles for our out of town try-out before heading to Broadway.

After such good news, it was time to retired to the home theater with a white wine spritzer and the latest DVD to arrive from Netflix, The Adventures of Sebastian Cole. This independent film from Tod Williams played the art house circuit briefly in 1998 and 1999 and concerns the titular hero, a high school boy in upstate New York in the early 1980s and his wildly dysfunctional family.

As the film opens after an incomprehensible prologue (explained late in the film), Sebastian (Adrian Grenier), a bright and imaginative teen, is left behind as his older sister Jessica (Marni Lustig) heads off to Stanford. At her graduation dinner, we meet the extended Cole clan including mother Joan (Margaret Colin), a dipsomaniac expatriate Brit, stepfather Hank (Clark Gregg), an overgrown flower child public defender, father Hartley (John Shea), a driven architect without an ounce of feeling for his offspring, and Troy (Gabriel Macht), Jessica's boorish boyfriend. This little family is torn apart a few days later when Hank announces that, after careful consideration, he wants to go through sexual reassignment and become Henrietta. Jessica flees to college. Joan takes Sebastian and flees back to England and booze. Sebastian is miserable there and makes the decision to return to Hank, now Henrietta as s/he is the only adult figure in his life who has ever really cared for him as an individual and given him any real parenting. The majority of the film is about how Sebastian and Henrietta learn to re-establish trust and connection while Sebastian goes through a number of growing pains including school troubles, young love with girlfriend Mary (Aleksa Palladino), a bout of drunkenness, and a face-off with a killer pimp.

The film is episodic in nature and somewhat disconnected. While writer/director Williams has done a good job of creating interesting characters and situations, there is little flow between scenes or sense of story structure. The film does have a plot arc of sorts but there are so many odd little tangents that confuse, rather than illuminate the central relationships, that I wish Williams had reread Screenwriting for Dummies before shaping his film. The scenes that bookend the film, in particular, look like they're from another movie altogether and it' only Sebastian's presence that convinces us they belong there.

The performances are better than one might think. Clark Gregg brings a quiet dignity to Hank/Henrietta that allows us to see the pain his decision brings on himself, even as he knows it's right for him, as well as a growing understanding of the pain he has inflicted on others. Adrian Grenier, in the central role, is convincing as an adolescent, but isn't particularly good at letting us see Sebastian's interior life and thoughts, which are so important in a film of this type. Veteran character actors Shea and Colin score as his parents in their few scenes, especially Shea in a family dinner scene at his parent's home where, in a few moments, we realize that the major elements of his dysfunction are handed down from the grandparents. I also liked up and coming heartthrob Gabriel Macht as the motorcycle guy without a single redeeming quality.

The film has that indie low budget look of having been filmed in friends' basements with a less than professional crew. It doesn't destroy the film to look so cheap but there are times when you wish for a bit more sheen - especially as there are some jarring continuity problems involving weather and snow.

In general, it's a film with interesting ideas and insights into the disasters families inflict on each other in the name of love - it just leaves much to be desired in its execution. The DVD has the film in a reasonable transfer and sound mix without any major extras.

Field archery. Desert crash. Empty house lovemaking. Silly karate moves. Repetitive hallway bicycling. Community service work detail flirting. Transcript forging. High SAT scores. 

Sling Blade

The shoot at Mount Rushmore for the What A Friend We Have in Cheeses campaign did not go as smoothly as we had all hoped. I arrived at the lodge in my palatial motor home and changed into my new Gaultier Roquefort dress and head piece before joining the lovely people of the Zion AME choir for a brief rehearsal prior to the shoot. The arrangement of Nearer My Gouda to Thee, done for us by Wayne Newton, allows me to show off my belting chest voice and we were really rocking along while the technicians set up the forty foot exploding Cheez-Whiz pots which would shoot streamers of dairy product up behind us while we performed. The tourists found our set up quite enthralling and we had several tour groups from Japan who insisted in joining in, using pots from the restaurant as taiko drums.

After rehearsal, the choir gathered on the edge of the rail overlooking the famous sculpture while I began my tap routine down the walk of flags as the cameras rolled. I reached the end of my cadenza and the special effects folks hit the buttons to set off the cheese pots. Unfortunately, someone had miscalculated the amount of charge and the cheese streamers, instead of sailing silkily into the air, blasted everywhere, covering the choir and me with orange goo. There were even strings of yellow orange gunk hanging out of Jefferson's nostrils. The Rapid City hazmat team had to be called out and we were all herded off to decontamination - my poor Gaultier was absolutely ruined. Joseph, my manager, is looking in on how this unfortunate accident occurred. I feel sure that it was intentional international terrorism directed at an American icon, me.

Smelling strongly of Lysol, I repaired back to my motor home and slipped in a film to help me unwind from the day's rigors. My choice was Billy Bob Thornton's Sling Blade from 1996. Thornton had invented the character of Karl Childers for a play and a short film several years earlier, eventually gaining financing for developing the material into a feature film. The movie was a major success for him, launching him in Hollywood as a force to be reckoned with as an actor, writer and director, winning him an Oscar for screenplay.

Karl Childers (Thornton) is an enigma. As a young adolescent, following years of horrific abuse at the hands of his parents, he commits a brutal double murder and is remanded to the state home for the criminally insane. As the film opens, he is being released. The state has declared him cured and no longer a threat to the community. Karl has never lived a normal life and is uncertain of how to interact with the outside world. He finds it a scary place but go, he must, returning to the small southern town where he was raised. A kindly staff member at the asylum helps him get a job at a lawn-mower repair shop and Karl slowly starts to reintegrate himself into the community. He makes friends with young Frank Wheatley (Lucas Black), a fatherless boy whose mother (Natalie Canerday) is enmeshed with an abusive drunk (Dwight Yoakum), much to the consternation of her gay best friend (John Ritter). Karl comes to live with the Wheatley family and, as he sees the patterns of abuse that dominated his childhood threaten Frank, the film marches inexorably to its tragic conclusion.

Thornton's performance as Childers is a marvel. Actors, when playing 'special people', often go for over the top theatrics (The Rain Man syndrome) to the detriment of their characters and the film. Thornton, on the other hand, finds a quiet dignity in Karl, behind the mannerisms which always compliment, and never engulf the character. He is ably supported by a strong supporting cast. John Ritter does his best work in years, aided by a truly hideous haircut that no self respecting gay man would ever wear in public - I almost didn't recognize him. Young Lucas Black has the natural rhythms of a child, rather than the posing of a child performer and Dwight Yoakum, as the villain of the piece, catches the torment of a man with a need to control who is sliding into an out of control state through alcohol. Only Natalie Canerday fails to impress, coming across as a low rent Bonnie Bedelia impersonator.

Unfortunately, these performance gems are trapped in a rather inexpert film. While the screenplay has a fine, naturalistic sound to it, especially in Karl's lines and interactions with the world, it bounces from cliché situation to cliché situation. There are few surprises and the whole third act of the film becomes an exercise of 'let's get this over with'. The film is majorly undone by Thornton's direction. While he has coaxed fine performances from his actors, his static use of master shots throughout, make the film play like a not very well filmed stage piece. Those times when he does go for a cinematic moment, like shots of Karl on a ruined bridge, he usually comes a cropper on rhythm, timing, or over use of second grade symbolism.

The DVD contains the film in widescreen with a good sound mix. There are some production notes and talent bios but no other appreciable extras.

Truly bad men's haircuts. J.T. Walsh monologues. Chair bound evil father. Gratuitous bad front porch jam session. Out of gas lawn mower. Uplifting children's football game. Heavy laundry bags. Gratuitous obese girl friend. Multiple French fry eatings.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Omen


Things have not been going so well with my new kabuki musical version of The Last Seduction - Bridget Over Troubled Waters. We are having a terrible time coming up with stars with the correct combination of talent and charisma to play the male leads opposite me. Madame Rose, my publicist, has been working feverishly with casting directors and we thought we had Jake Wagner and Rick Springfield nailed down, but apparently they're committed to dinner theater in Sheboygan during the planned after Christmas rehearsal period. I suggested Mel Gibson and Tom Hanks, but their representatives aren't returning calls. In the meantime, I've had a marvelous idea for a new Act II Taliban dream ballet. I do believe in keeping my shows au courant. Barry Manilow, our tremendously talented composer, has some ideas for musical motifs based on the call of the muzzein. 

In the meantime, I am proceeding with the new What A Friend We Have In Cheeses campaign for the American Dairy Council. Gaultier has designed an absolutely lovely sequin sheath number that resembles a wedge of roquefort for me to wear, complete with headress made from those lovely little Laughing Cow wedges. I'm off to South Dakota in the morning with the Zion AME choir to film the first bit in front of Mount Rushmore. I'm to tap down the length of the viewing platform in my divine new dress while the choir is perched on the rail in cheddar colored robes. We're all going to be singing Nearer My Gouda To Thee while forty foot pots of Cheez-Whiz, wired with pyrotechnics, explode streamers of product into the air in front of those famous stone faces. It'll be heavenly. 

As it's the spooky time of year, I've been snuggling up in the home theater with some deliciously creepy movies, (including the oeuvre of Daryl Hannah - there's nothing scarier) as I enjoy a good frisson of the spine as much as the next person. One of the films I enjoyed watching again was Richard Donner's minor masterpiece from 1976, The Omen starring Gregory Peck and Lee Remick. I remember it scaring me mightily when it first came out - it no longer has that power but it's still a good deal more frightening than most of the 'horror' that Hollywood has been dishing out recently. 

The Omen is a tale of the anti-christ. Gregory Peck is Robert Thorn, a wealthy diplomat. He and wife Katherine (Lee Remick) are introduced in a prologue which occurs in Italy. Their long awaited only child, a son, is born dead and he is given another child in substitute, a fact he keeps secret from his wife and family, raising the boy, named Damien, as his own son. Flash forward a few years. Young Damien is now five and Robert Thorn is now the US ambassador to Great Britain. The family has a lovely country home, a lovely young nanny (Holly Palance), and a lovely birthday party is in progress. Suddenly, the nanny commits a very public suicide in front of the little tykes. A sinister new nanny (Billie Whitelaw) shows up and takes command of little Damien. In the meantime, troublesome Catholic priests are hanging around with a lot of questions about the child, telling Robert that he is not what he seems - one of them gets spitted in a sudden electrical storm for his trouble and a photojournalist (David Warner), starts catching odd shadows in his photos which might be predicting the future. Damien's somewhat autistic behavior, influence over animals, and general all around creepiness starts to alarm his parents. Soon Robert is suspicious that the child he was given may not be human at all. He goes back to Italy, and later to the Holy Land to try and find some answers. What he finds causes him great distress. Is Damien the antichrist? Will his parents do him in? Will he do his parents in? As the film became a franchise of rapidly diminishing quality, some of the answers are pretty darn obvious. 

The film succeeds on the conviction and strength of its performers. Peck and Remick are old pros who are able to make the most ridiculous situations and bits of dialog earnest and endearing. It's easy to see the conflict in them between the love for their precious only child and the horror that he might be evil incarnate. Young Harvey Stephens, who played Damien, was an inspired bit of casting. His face can go from angelic to frightening in the time it takes him to squint his eyes. He never did another major film but this one child performance is enough to guarantee him screen immortality. Good supporting work comes from Warner and Whitelaw, British stage veterans who imbue their characters with a richness few American character actors can achieve. 

Greatly aiding the performances is Jerry Goldsmith's famous score, utilizing themes from Gregorian Chants and music similar to Orff's Carmina Burana. The massive vocal liturgical quality helps make the plot, with its bits and pieces from the Book of Revelations and medieval Catholic theology, hold water to the modern skeptical mind. Listening to such music, it's easy to believe that the devil can walk the earth in human form and that the Last Battle of Armageddon is indeed approaching. 

One of Hollywood's better attempts at frightening the jaded folks of the late twentieth century... 

Priest impalement. Crazed baboons. Burnt blind priest. Jackal skeleton. Sacred daggers. Dog attack. Flying decapitated head. Falling Lee Remick. Further falling Lee Remick. Wild eyed Gregory Peck.