Saturday, April 5, 2014

12 Monkeys

I returned to rehearsals for my new production, Aida on Ice down at Rosita's Ice-A-Rama this morning. Rosita and her kin are still somewhat miffed at having to clean elephant dung off of the rink and I have packed off said elephant back to Priscilla's Performing Pets asking for a full refund and an animal with better training. I have been told that several leopards, a water buffalo, a mandrill and a Burmese python are on their way to enliven the triumphal march scene. I hope they come with their own supply of Depends. I did place a call to June Allyson to borrow a few of hers, just in case.

I then had a meeting with the video crew from Project GreenLester who are documenting the creation of this magnificent theatrical piece for a new cable reality series. I told them in no uncertain terms that I was not amused at their selling the raw footage of the elephant debacle to Fox news. I was even less amused when it turned up on The Daily Show as 'The Moment of Zen'. Fajer and Hellmann, my lawyers, have prepared lengthy non-disclosure contracts for them all to keep such leaks at bay in the future. After all, I do have an image to maintain.

Tonya Harding is still in the drunk tank up in the Pacific Northwest somewhere so I was unable to work on my routines. Instead, I settled into my temporary office (after clearing some stray Guatemalans out of the way) and popped a DVD into my laptop for some escapist fantasy. This afternoon's film was Terry Gilliam's apocalyptic fantasy, Twelve Monkeys from 1995; it was the only film I could think of which features zoo animals running wild through icy environments and I thought I might get some inspirations for Aida on Ice.

Twelve Monkeys is an unofficial remake of the experimental French short film, La Jetee, made by Chris Marker in 1962. That film, consisting mainly of black and white stills which tell the story (think Ken Burns documentary with stronger narrative), concerns a man in post-apocalyptic Paris who is sent back through time to try and prevent the coming plague. The film is only about twenty minutes long and the story is told in sleek, clean images. Screenwriters David Webb Peoples (Unforgiven) and his wife Janet took the central storyline from the short and used this as the starting point for a wild, apocalyptic time-travel fantasy. In their version, the man (Bruce Willis) becomes a convict in a future society, driven underground by a hideous plague that has killed most of the population of the earth. The scientists of the future, an bunch of oddballs who look to have escaped from the paintings of Francis Bacon, use him as a volunteer to travel back in time and gather information on the origins of the plague. All that has survived is that a mysterious group known as 'The Army of the Twelve Monkeys' may be involved.

The plague dates from Christmas, 1996. The intrepid scientists, having difficulties with their time-travel machine (which looks a bit like the queen alien from Aliens), send him back to 1990; his ramblings on future plagues immediately get him locked up in the local mental hospital where he meets Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeline Stowe), one of the attending psychiatrists who takes a shine to him. He also runs into Jeffrey Goines, a cuckoo young man and fellow inmate (Brad Pitt) whose father is a world famous virologist. Our hero, James Cole, is eventually yanked back to his present when the scientists realize their error causing a miraculous escape from the asylum. He's sent back again, first overshooting by quite a bit to a French battlefield in World War I, and then to late 1996. Here he finds that Jeffrey has started an environmental guerrilla group, the Army of the Twelve Monkeys, who seem to be plotting to use his father's viruses against mankind. He gets back together with Kathryn, who now has the evidence to believe he is who he says he is, and together they try to stop the plague before it can happen. All of the threads come together in a showdown at the Philadelphia airport where both the plague and Cole's bad dreams are finally explained.

This is a Terry Gilliam film so much of its power is in its visual look. Much of the shooting was done in decaying parts of Philadelphia and Baltimore using old power stations and the like for locations. This gives both the future scenes and the present scenes an incredible style and a feel of society in decay. The retro-future technology in the underground world evokes what truly might happen if humankind were forced to flee quickly. There are shots of mysterious beauty, such as a ruined department store, or the uncomprehending stare of a child as he witnesses murder. There are others which are a little too busy and over the top as well.

The Peoples' script is literate, keeps the ethics and nuances of time-travel quite clear, and develops some interesting characters. It's also bloated. It takes well over two hours to tell the same story that Marker managed in less than half an hour. Most of the bloat comes in the sequences with Brad Pitt as the obnoxious Jeffrey. Mr. Pitt had obviously been studying at the Rainman school of the mentally ill and is all tics and nervous mannerisms and leaping around the set. He may have garnered an Oscar nomination, but I find his work embarrassing. Christopher Plummer, as his father, brings a touch of class to the virus subplot but it's really not a necessary part of the story. David Morse, hiding behind a strawberry blond ponytail, is wasted in a key role as Plummer's assistant.

In the leads, Bruce Willis is relatively credible as the confused and confusing Cole. This is a damaged man, forced to live underground, locked up for obscure reasons, who is then dragged in and out of time. Willis provides a nice balance between tough machismo and wounded child. As his love interest, Madeline Stowe gives one of her usual luminous beauty performances. It's a bit hard to buy her as a famous psychiatrist, but not as a woman with a thing for Willis.

The DVD is a two disc set. The film is presented in wide screen and surround sound. There is an intelligent commentary track with director Gilliam and the producer, Charles Roven. On the second disc are a number of extras including bios, production notes, trailers and the like. The most interesting is a 90 minute long documentary, 'The Hamster Effect' which follows the film from conception, through production, to marketing and opening, showing how Gilliam, long an enfant terrible of Hollywood, and his gang react to the vagaries of the filmmaking process. It includes some of Gilliam's trademark animations.

Time-travel cocoon. 'Blueberry Hill' singing. Department store bear. Florida Keys commercials. Waltzing mental patient. Young Christopher Meloni. Benefit dinner chase. Elephants on campus. Gratuitous trench warfare. Fresnel lenses. Videoball. Concourse gun battle. Gagged Christopher Plummer.

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