Wednesday, July 30, 2008

My Favorite Horror Movies

What is the difference between Fantasy, Science Fiction and Horror, you may well ask. To be honest, there are big differences, though I must say that when it comes down to it, all movies are fantasies - stories that simply aren't true (except, of course documentaries - and you can't count "based on" or "inspired by" a true story movies, all of which are fictionalized for dramatic purposes). But the Fantasy genre of films is very specific and the term really should only be applied to films that deal with the fantastic. These are movies about fairies, elves, sorcerers, unicorns and other mythological creatures.
Horror, on the other hand, can deal with all of those elements and more. A horror movie, more than anything should inspire fear, so while movies like Alien and Aliens, while technically Sci-Fi, might also be considered horror movies, too. Both feature horrible monsters, dark-ride suspense and a goodly amount of gory bloodshed. Likewise, Se7en and The Silence of the Lambs, while technically Crime Thrillers, also feature terrific suspense and horrific visuals. But for our purposes, I'm going to consider a Horror movie as one that has some supernatural elements. I'm talking vampires; werewolves; zombies; ghosts; demons and the occasional unstoppable mass-murderer. So without further ado, my favorite horror movies:
Dead Alive - Peter Jackson, best known for The Lord of the Rings trilogy and an excellent, reverential King Kong remake, started out making low-budget horror comedies. This 1992 zombie comedy was titled Braindead in Jackson's native New Zealand, and is quite possibly the most outrageous horror movie, ever. Lionel (Timothy Balme) is a young milquetoast who lives with his overbearing mum, Vera (the hilarious Elizabeth Moody). Young Paquita (Diana Penalver) works in her families' local groceria. After Paquita's grandmother reads her tarot cards and predicts her true love is on the way, all signs point to Lionel and Paquita sets out to win his heart, literally tricking him into taking her on a date to the zoo. Mum follows, of course, and while spying on the couple, is bitten by a vicious "Sumatran Rat-monkey." The bite soon becomes infected and before you can say 'Bob's yer uncle,' Mum is turned into a voracious, flesh-eating zombie. In an effort to hide her condition, Lionel locks Mum in the basement, but it's a bit too late and soon several members of the town are turned, including a couple of street toughs and a horny vicar and nurse, who have hilarious zombie sex which results in the birth of a zombie baby. Lionel tries to keep them all sedated with veterinary tranquilizers, but when his perverted uncle Les moves in and throws a wild party, all hell breaks loose. The climax involves a re-animated set of farting intestines; a lawn mower and the biggest, baddest zombie (Mum, again) ever to grace the silver screen. Hilariously over-the-top, Dead Alive reportedly used more fake blood than any horror movie before or since. I finally replaced my imported VHS copy of Dead Alive with a DVD a few years ago, because it was simply worn out.
Night of the Living Dead - Director George Romero invented a whole new genre of horror movie with this low-budget story about a group of strangers trapped in a remote Pennsylvania farmhouse, fighting off hordes of mysteriously re-animated corpses out to feed on living flesh. Shot in black and white in 1968, at the height of the civil rights movement, NoLD is both terrifying horror and social commentary, featuring a black hero fighting to save not only his own life, but those of the people trapped with him, as well. Romero and co-writer John Russo re-wrote the rules of the horror film while making one of the most influential movies of the late '60's. Even after forty years, it still has the power to shock audiences while making them think.
Dawn of the Dead - Romero returned to zombies eleven years later, with this 1979 follow-up, shot in color and utilizing the skills of make-up FX artist Tom Savini for an even gorier sequel. The world is still under siege by the flesh-eaters, and a group of survivors thinks they've found the perfect hiding place in a suburban shopping mall. That is, until a crazy band of bikers breaks in, letting hordes of zombies in behind them. The social commentary this time takes jabs at mindless consumerism, while shocking audiences with visceral images of beheadings, shootings and other gory mayhem. A 2004 remake from director Zack Snyder (300 and the upcoming The Watchmen), while a terrific horror movie in and of itself, loses the social commentary and replaces the shuffling, stumbling zombies with super-speedy ghouls. But it doesn't have the same impact as the original.
Halloween - In 1979, this low-budget thriller started the careers of writer/director John Carpenter and actress Jamie Lee Curtis, and created a horror sub-genre that would flourish for more than a decade: the slasher film. It also introduced audiences to the concept of the unstoppable psychopath. Driven to kill by pure evil and seemingly immortal himself, Michael Myers served as the inspiration for Jason Voorhees in the Friday the 13th movies and Freddy Kruger in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. Actually rather bloodless, Halloween relies on suspense for it's thrills and delivers on every level. Rob Zombie's 2007 remake gives Michael more of a back-story, but can't hold a candle to the original.
Evil Dead II - Director Sam Raimi (the Spider-Man franchise) essentially remade his original movie about a group of college kids who unwittingly release a horde of "Candarian" demons while partying in a remote cabin in the woods, this time playing it for laughs. If the Three Stooges had made horror movies, they would have been like Evil Dead II. It put Raimi on the directorial map and turned actor Bruce Campbell into a cult icon. A third film, Army of Darkness, tries too hard to be funny and as result, falls a bit flat. Evil Dead and Evil Dead II were combined into one story for an hilarious Off-Broadway musical which features songs like "Cabin in the Woods," "What the F**k Was That?" and "Do the Necronomicon!"
The Haunting (1963) - Robert Wise directs this absolutely chilling adaptation of the Shirley Jackson novel "The Haunting of Hill House," about a team of psychics investigating the spooky goings on in a mysterious mansion. Using only creepy sound effects and the acting skills of his excellent cast (including a truly heart-breaking performance by the amazing Julie Harris), Wise's film is terrifying, all without the audience seeing anything more than a bending door. Truly the most frightening movie ever made. The horrendously crappy 1999 remake from action director Jan de Bont is hardly worth the the celluloid it's filmed on.
An American Werewolf in London - John Landis brings us this funny, scary and touching movie about a young American on a walking tour of Great Britain, who is attacked on the Scottish moors and soon finds himself transformed into a werewolf. David Naughton (best known for a series of Dr. Pepper commercials) is the werewolf, Jenny Agutter (Logan's Run) is the pretty British nurse he falls in love with and Griffin Dunne is the increasingly rotten ghost of his friend who was killed in the initial attack. Featuring then state-of-the-art FX by Rick Baker, American Werewolf was the first werewolf movie in which audiences got to see the visceral (and painful) transformation without the use of replacement photography. A lame sequel, 1997's An American Werewolf in Paris, replaces the physical FX with CGI, much to its detraction.
Kairo (Pulse) The only "J-Horror" movie on my list, Kiyoshi Kurosowa's creepy techno-ghost tale had me trying to see around the corners, hoping there'd be nothing there. When a series of suicides appear to be linked to a bizarre website, a group of college students investigate, only to find that there is something truly awful happening. Literally a "ghost in the machine" film, Kairo's inevitable 2006 American remake is a snore-inducing bore.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

My Favorite Sci-Fi Movies

Science Fiction has a rather broad definition, especially when it comes to movies; it can encompass a large variety of film styles. For me, it usually has to involve robots (in all their various incarnations); aliens; space travel and/or genetic mutations - or indeed, any combination(s) thereof. We'll talk about Fantasy and Horror later, though they are often (and mistakenly) lumped into a descriptive troika (Fantasy/Sci-Fi/Horror). Today, I am focusing on my definition of Science Fiction and the movies that I love which fit that definition. So, without further ado, my choices for the best Sci-Fi movies ever.
E.T. : The Extra-Terrestrial - Who else but Steven Spielberg could come up with an ugly, lovable alien with Christ-like powers, capable of inspiring awe, fear, love and tears? This 1982 classic inspired an international catch-phrase ("E.T. phone home."), shot a candy to the top of the sales charts (Reeses's Pieces) and inspired imitators galore. When an alien is accidentally left behind by his crew, it is up to our young hero Elliott (Henry Thomas) to help him get home before the toxic environment and government agents can kill him. Young Drew Barrymore made her film debut, Dee Wallace got the role of her lifetime and Spileberg forever cemented himself as an auteur of family adventure all in one fell swoop. A classic along the lines of The Wizard of Oz, E.T. is the movie that made us all believe that bicycles can fly and purity of heart will always win out over cold, clinical science.
Metropolis - The first silent film I can remember falling in love with, Fritz Lang's chilling 1927 tale of a dystopian future where the rich live in a fabulous city while slaves toil underground to support them, is both prophetic and allegorical. When a rich young man (Gustav Frohlich), living in Pleasure Garden discovers the preachings of young Maria (Brigette Helm), he realizes the error of his father's ways. But an evil inventor (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) creates a robotic doppelganger of the beautiful Maria, who prompts the slave laborers to continue to serve their evil, mechanized masters. Utilizing amazing (for the time) SFX, Metropolis serves as a warning to those who would allow technology to destroy their humanity. Recently discovered missing footage means that Lang's masterpiece may very well be seen in its entirety for first time in over 80 years!
2001: A Space Odyssey - Stanley Kubrick's visionary 1968 film, based on a novel by Arthur C. Clarke, remains an enigma to many viewers. Gorgeous Kier Dullea stars as Dave Bowman, an astronaut assigned to explore the origins of a mysterious black obelisk discovered on the Moon. Obtuse, bizarre and downright puzzling, 2001 was both a watershed FX film and a hotly debated story about the nature and origins of man. It introduced audiences to the concept of artificial intelligence (the iconic HAL 9000) and pioneered an impending explosion of movie special effects.
Godzilla (Gojira) - After WWII, the Japanese were obsessed with the possible effects of radiation that followed the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Toho Studios response was the giant T-Rex-like Godzilla, a fire-breathing behemoth who brought destruction upon the unsuspecting people of Tokyo. Raymond Burr (TV's Perry Mason) was brought in to film additional scenes for the American release of the movie that started the atomic monster craze of the 50's and early 60's. In subsequent films, Godzilla became a sort of Japanese hero, protecting Nippon from all sorts of other rubber-suit monsters. A 1998 remake, by director Roland Emmerich, became one of Hollywood's biggest flops.
Alien - In 1979, writers Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shussett reworked a 1950's stinker (It! The Terror from Beyond Space) into one of the most iconic and claustrophobic Sci-Fi movies of all time. Under the direction of Ridley Scott (more on him later), Alien introduced audiences to the art of H.R. Gieger and made a star out of Sigourney Weaver (who would go on to appear in no less than three sequels). Taut, dark and oh so scary, Alien gave rise to one of the greatest movie taglines of all time: "In space, no one can hear you scream." It also freaked out audiences world-wide with its infamous "chest-burster" scene.
Forbidden Planet - What's not to love about this 1956 classic that's basically "The Tempest" in outer space? Starring Leslie Neilson, Walter Slezak and Sandra Dee, Forbidden Planet is the first movie to be scored exclusively using a theremin (more about my theremin obsession in a later post) and is the film that introduced the world to iconic Robbie the Robot. Great fun.
Aliens - in 1986, future "King of the World" James Cameron directed what is quite possibly the best sequel ever. Nearly 80 years after dispatching the original Alien, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is rescued from hyper-stasis and called upon to lead a team of Marines on a rescue mission to the planet where she and the crew of the Nostromo first encountered the acid-blooded beasties of the original film. A virtual rollercoaster ride of a movie, Aliens is both a Sci-Fi and an action film, combining tension, explosive action and the ultimate "battle of the bitches" in one amazing movie.
Dark City- Director Alex Proyas (The Crow; I, Robot) wrote this astounding 1998 noir movie about a man (Rufus Sewell) in search of his true identity. He soon discovers that his actual memories have been supplanted by alien beings who want to discover the true nature of Human emotions. Aided by a mad scientist (Kiefer Sutherland, in one his best performances), Sewell soon discovers that he naturally possesses the powers which the aliens can only achieve through mechanical manipulation. The amazing supporting cast, which features Jennifer Connolly (A Beautiful Mind), Richard O'Brien (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) and William Hurt, all help to create a world both alien and familiar. And the early CGI FX are just terrific.
Blade Runner - For a while, it looked like director Ridley Scott was going to make a career based solely on Science Fiction movies. His 1982 masterpiece originally featured a terribly written narration, forced on the film by the studio, who apparently thought audiences were too stupid to be able to follow the plot. Harrison Ford stars as a cop who specializes in hunting down rogue Replicants (genetically engineered artificial people with short life spans hard-wired into their genetic codes). Scott's futuristic Los Angeles is a dark, forbidding place filled with monolithic skyscrapers, holographic billboards and pollution so bad it rains constantly. A box-office failure when it first came out, at least 2 subsequent Director's Cut versions have elevated Blade Runner into the best Science Fiction film of all time.

Monday, July 28, 2008

"The Skin of Our Teeth #5"

Hurray! I finally have a full cast. Unfortunately, because they have not been notified, I won't be able to post it here until late tomorrow or Wednesday. But, I finally have everyone I need. I was torn for a bit in the casting of the of the Fortune Teller. I had two excellent actresses who gave two very different, but equally compelling auditions. In the end, it came down to choosing the actress I knew well and the one I didn't know at all. I did choose, but you'll have to wait (Sorry).

I am very relieved, though, and can now (hopefully) get down to the business of getting the show up on its feet.

If you auditioned and are reading this, I'm sorry I can't tell you more. You'll hear by tomorrow, I promise.

Now it's time for a well-earned good night's sleep. Until next time...

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Movie Musicals I Can't Help Loving

I've spent the majority of my life in the theatre. And like many theatre folk, I started by doing musicals. These days, I'd rather do a cutting-edge absurdist piece by Nicky Silver or a classic by Shakespeare or Shaw. But every now and then, I still love a good musical. They don't always work on film, but when they do, look out. Here's a list of the ones I can watch over and over again.
The Wizard of Oz - Yes, it's gay cliche, but who cares? Victor Fleming's lush Technicolor movie is a beloved classic for many reasons, least of all the wonderful songs by Harold Arlen and E.Y Harburg. At least three other uncredited directors, including King Vidor and Mervyn LeRoy, worked on the movie, and Shirley Temple was originally wanted to play Dorothy (thank goodness contractual obligations prevented her from doing so). A box-office failure in '39, The Wizard of Oz has gone on to become the single most loved movie musical of all time.
Sweet Charity - Bob Fosse directed this adaptation of the Neil Simon musical about a dance hall girl (a polite term for prostitute) who dreams of doing something better with her life. Shirley MacLaine, Chita Rivera, Stubby Kaye and Sammy Davis Jr. lead a terrific cast (which includes a very young Ben Vereen and a very Continental Ricardo Montalban) in this very mod 1969 musical. Adapted by no less than Frederico Fellini, the script may seem tame by today's standards, but it was scandalous back in '69. Pure cheese and great fun.
On a Clear Day You Can See Forever - Vincent Minelli directs this Alan Jay Lerner musical about Daisy Gamble (Barbra Streisand), a psychic with a five pack-a-day cigarette addiction. Loud, crass and absent-minded, Daisy visits psychiatrist Marc Chabot (Yves Montand) in an effort to be cured of smoking through hypnosis, so she can make a positive impression on her boring fiance's employer. While she's under, Chabot discovers that in a previous life, Daisy was the fascinating 19th century psychic Melinda Tentrees. Unsurprisingly, Chabot is soon smitten with Melinda, though he practically despises Daisy. Released in 1970, this quaint, old-fashioned musical explores the concepts of ESP and past lives in an amusing and romantic way. Lerner's songs are both lovely and at times, hilarious and "La Barbra" gives one of her best film performances. On a Clear Day... also features a small, non-singing performance by a young Jack Nicholson as Daisy's step-brother Tad. A terrific movie to watch with a loved one on a rainy Sunday afternoon.
Moulin Rouge - Australian auteur Baz Luhrman (Strictly Ballroom; Romeo + Juliet) reinvented and reinvigorated the movie musical in 2001 with this dazzling tale about the young playwright Christian (Ewan MacGregor) and the consumptive chanteuse Satine (Nicole Kidman) with whom he falls hopelessly in love. Complicating matters is the jealous Duke (Richard Roxburgh) to whom Satine has been promised by the Moulin Rouge's owner, Harry Zeigler (Jim Broadbent) in exchange for backing Zeigler's new musical, "Spectacular Spectacular." Combining modern songs from the likes of David Bowie, The Police and Elton John with original numbers and a plot as creaky as an old boot, Moulin Rouge proved that the movie musical was far from dead, paving way for films like Chicago and Hairspray. A romantic dream of a movie.
Cabaret - Bob Fosse again, this time with a screen adaptation of Kander and Ebb's musical version of John Van Druten's "I Am a Camera." Liza Minelli (daughter of Judy Garland and Vincent Minelli) plays Sally Bowles, an American singer working at the Kit Kat Club in pre-Nazi Berlin. Joel Grey plays the club's omnisexual MC and Michael York is the handsome British bisexual with whom Sally falls in love. The movie's 8 Oscars included Best Actor (Grey), Best Actress (Minelli), Best Director and Best Picture. Smart, sexy and chilling, Cabaret never lets us forget the horrors about to befall Germany and the world. An astounding Broadway revival of the show featured the amazing Alan Cumming as the MC, in a performance even more decadent than Grey's.
Chicago - More brilliance from Kander and Ebb (my favorite Broadway team), this time directed by Rob Marshall. Based on a 1930's potboiler, Chicago is the story of Roxy Hart, a woman who kills her philandering boyfriend and exploits the judicial system to advance her career as an entertainer. Marshall wisely turns the show's musical numbers into the fantasies in Roxy's head, making them more palatable for modern sensibilities. Renee Zellwiger is Roxy, Catherine Zeta-Jones is co-inmate Velma Kelly and Richard Gere is publicity-seeking lawyer Billy Flynn. Add an appearance by the show's original star, Chita Rivera and a star-making turn by Queen Latifah as "Mama" Morton; some expert choreography and commentary on the nature of fame, and you have one of the best film adaptations of a musical ever made.
Hair - How do you adapt a musical with no plot? If you're director Milos Forman (Amadeus), you do it with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Then unknowns Treat Williams, John Savage, Annie Golden (late of Broadway's "Xanadu") and Beverly D'Angelo are part of the excellent ensemble in this anti-war musical, brought to the screen nearly a decade after it appeared on Broadway. James Rado's and Jerome Ragni's excellent rock score is mostly intact, though the show's anarchistic style is supplanted by a story about a young man's brief adventures in Hippiedom before he enlists to serve in Viet Nam. Ren Woods (Xanadu; Brother from Another Planet) sings a rousing version of the show's opener, "Aquarius," and Nell Carter and Laurie Beechman (both, sadly, deceased) are hilarious in the number "Black Boys/White Boys." On a bizarre trivia note, Hair is the first film to show urination on screen. On another bizarre note, Hair is the first movie I saw on a straight date.
So, what movie musicals do you love? Let me know. I'd love to hear from you.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

6 Very Disturbing Movies

Warning: This post contains spoilers. If you have not seen the movies listed below, stop reading now.
It isn't always easy to come up with things to write about. This post was almost entitled "5 Movies that Changed the Way I Looked at the World." Then I realized that most of the movies on such a list were quite disturbing to me, so I retitled it. Each of the movies on this list had a profound effect on me when I first saw them. Most of them still do.
Apocalypse Now - Francis Ford Coppola's masterpiece, loosely based on Joseph Conrad's novel "Heart of Darkness," is the first film I can remember seeing that made me feel as though I were trapped in someone else's nightmare. While searching for insane Green Beret Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) in the jungles of Viet Nam, Captain Ben Willard (Martin Sheen) finds himself drawn deeper and deeper into the madness that was the Viet Nam War, and Coppola's unflinching camera sucks the viewer in, taking us on a nightmarish funhouse ride that really isn't all that fun. Coppola nearly suffered a nervous breakdown while filming, and Sheen had a heart-attack. How's that for disturbing?
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 - Director Tobe Hooper (Funhouse; Poltergeist) took twelve years to follow up his 1974 original about a family of cannibals in rural Texas. A radio DJ (Caroline Williams) is the latest victim of the insane family, captured and tortured by them as Dennis Hopper's former Texas Marshall is trying to hunt them down. Bill Mosely (House of 1000 Corpses; The Devil's Rejects) plays a character named "Chop Top," who constantly picks and eats the dead skin off his scalp (using the heated hook of a wire hanger to scrape it from beneath his toupee). But the movie really takes a turn for the surreal when Ms Williams finds herself trapped in the family's new home: the tunnels beneath an abandoned amusement park. Terrifying and deeply disturbing.
Saw - Say what you will about the Saw franchise, but the first film from writer Leigh Whannell and director James Wan, is one of the most original and disturbing horror movies ever made. Two men (Whannell and Cary Elwes) find themselves chained in a filthy industrial bathroom, with no memory of how they arrived there. On the floor between them is a bloody corpse with a cassette player in its hand. It turns out that they are the latest victims of the serial killer dubbed "Jigsaw," who lays elaborate puzzles for his victims to solve. If they fail, they die horribly painful and bloody deaths. Dark, creepy and surreal, Saw was a sensation at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival, and though there have been (to-date) three lesser sequels - Saw V is scheduled for release this coming October - it remains one very sick and twisted film. It is also responsible for the "torture-porn" trend of several recent horror films, including Eli Roth's Hostel movies. And it features the best surprise ending since The Sting (sorry - I figured out both The Crying Game's and The Sixth Sense's surprises long before they were revealed).
The Blair Witch Project - Another Sundance sensation, Blair Witch is the single most successful independent film ever made. Written and directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, Blair Witch is the supposedly "true" story of three student filmmakers (Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams) who enter the Maryland woods to make a documentary about a local urban legend. The three soon find themselves lost and very afraid as someone or something terrorizes them in the dark. Aided by the web's first "viral" campaign, The Blair Witch Project was believed by many to be an actual documentary, and earned over 100 times it's initial costs in box office receipts. As an avid camper myself, the thought of being lost and terrorized in unfamiliar territory caused a very visceral reaction. I very distinctly remember thinking, about 2/3 of the way through the movie, "Enough! Leave them alone!" When I saw it a second time with my then boyfriend, I thought he was going to pull my arm out its socket.
The Fly (1986) - The same year that Tobe Hooper was revisiting his cannibal loonies, Canadian director David Cronenberg revisited a 1958 Sci-Fi classic, letting loose his very individual take on the story of a scientist who tries to make a teleportation device, but creates a horrifyingly efficient gene-splicer instead. Cronenberg's films have always been disturbing. His previous films, Rabid; Scanners; The Brood; Videodrome and The Dead Zone, all share elements of (in)human depravity that most people would rather not think about. But The Fly may well be the most human of his films, despite its monstrous titular character. Jeff Goldblum's mad-scientist Seth Brundle is both eccentric and adorable, while Geena Davis gives one of horror's best performances as Veronica Quaife, the journalist who falls for Brundle and is emotionally devastated by his experiment gone terribly wrong. Gruesome physical FX from Chris Walas, a powerful score by Howard Shore (as noted in an earlier post, one of my favorites) and astounding performances from both Goldblum and Davis help to make The Fly one of Cronenberg's best films. And while he continues to explore the more disturbing aspects of the human condition (Dead Ringers; Naked Lunch; Crash; eXistenZ; A History of Violence and Eastern Promises), The Fly will be forever and indelibly etched into my psyche as one of the most disturbing films ever made.
Se7en - David Fincher directed one of the most reviled sequels of all time (Alien 3) and one of the greatest anti-establishment movies of all time (Fight Club). But Se7en is the one and only movie that I cannot bring myself to watch a second time. Brad Pitt (in his second best performance, after Fight Club) and Morgan Freeman play police detectives on the trail of a serial killer who uses the Seven Deadly Sins as a pattern for his crimes. From the very creepy opening credits of this film, I knew I was in trouble. The unnamed city in which the story takes place is a grim, gray place where it rains constantly. The killers' victims are horribly tortured and Pitt's wife (an ephemeral Gwynneth Paltrow) ends up (SPOILER ALERT) as the killer's penultimate victim. I would go into more depth here, but as I said, Se7en is the one movie I have not been able to watch a second time, even though I own a copy on DVD. It's that disturbing. Maybe one day I'll be able to watch it again and report in more detail. Until then, know that this is the single most disturbing movie that I have ever seen. And that's saying a lot.

Friday, July 25, 2008

5 Underrated Gems

Since my last list was about movies I thought were overrated, I thought I should do one about movies that are underrated. Again - my opinion only. You're welcome to disagree.
Bringing Up Baby - Howard Hawks' 1938 screwball comedy is my personal favorite movie, but I am constantly surprised to find that so many people aren't familiar with it. Devilishly handsome Cary Grant plays paleontologist David Huxley, who has just found an "intercostal clavicle" bone that will complete the dinosaur skeleton he's been working so hard to restore. Katherine Hepburn plays zany heiress Susan Vance, who has taken a shine to the stuffy, albeit gorgeous, scientist. The plot involves a tame leopard (the titular Baby); a pompous big-game hunter; Susan's wealthy dowager aunt; a vicious leopard that's escaped from the circus and a crazy Terrier who has stolen David's fossil. Grant (commonly thought to have had a long-standing affair with cowboy star Randolph Scott), while wearing Susan's feathery bathrobe utters the now infamous line, "I've suddenly gone gay!" Riotously funny, Bringing Up Baby was a huge flop when it first came out, though most modern critics agree it is one of Hawks' best comedies and the chemistry between Grant and Hepburn is electric. If you've never seen this hilarious (though decidedly improbable) film, do yourself a favor and watch for it on TCM.
Jason and the Argonauts - With all of today's modern CGI effects, it's rather easy to forget the amazing stop-motion effects perfected by the master, Ray Harryhausen. This 1963 fantasy is one of the best examples of his genius. A re-telling of the classic Greek myth, Jason (the yummy Todd Armstrong) sets sail with on a quest for the legendary Golden Fleece. Along the way he fights a set of torturous harpies; the bronze giant Talos; the seven-headed Hydra and, in one of stop-motion's greatest sequences, an army of skeletons grown from the Hydra's teeth. Helped by the goddess Hera (Honor Blackman, best known as Pussy Galore in Goldfinger), Jason eventually absconds with the fleece and the doomed princess Medea, returning triumphantly to take the throne of Athens. Loaded with sweaty, half-naked men (including a bearish Hercules, played by South African character actor Nigel Green), Jason and the Argonauts is often considered a "children's film." But plenty of grown-ups have a deep affection for this exciting and fun adventure film. And it certainly fueled many of my young, homoerotic fantasies.
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad - Another Harryhausen gem, this 1958 adventure ("Filmed in 'Dynarama!'") features the decidedly non-Arabic Kerwin Matthews as the titular hero, who must journey to an island filled with monsters to rescue a princess who has been shrunken by an evil wizard. Featuring a fire-breathing dragon; a horned cyclops; a two-headed Roc and a dancing snake woman, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is silly, over-the-top fun, and features a manic performance by Torin Thatcher, a British/Indian character actor best known for playing insane, bad guys in "B" pictures (if he had been alive, Thatcher would probably have been cast as the evil Molar Rahm in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom).
Imitation of Life (1938) - Fanny Hurst's tear-jerking novel is the perfect vehicle for this Claudette Colbert classic about two single mothers, one white and one black, who create a pancake mix empire. Colbert's daughter falls in love with her mother's boyfriend, while Louise Beaver's daughter, a light-skinned black girl, wants only to pass as white and eventually denies her mother in public. It's a soap-opera of the cheesiest order, but it never fails to make me cry at the end. A better known, but inferior remake in 1959, starred Lana Turner and Sandra Dee.
The Cell - The only modern film on this list, The Cell is often dismissed by critics, but I know several Horror and Fantasy fans who love this movie as much as I do. Jennifer Lopez (proving she can actually act) plays a psychiatrist who has developed a way to enter her patients' dreams, working to retrieve a young boy who is lost in a deep comatose state. Vincent D'Onofrio ("Law and Order: Criminal Intent") plays a serial killer who tortures his victims before eventually drowning them and turning them into bleached "dolls" to fuel his own tortured fantasies. When D'Onofrio falls into a coma, FBI agent Vince Vaughn enlists Lopez to enter the killer's dreams in order to discern the location of his latest, still living victim, before she succumbs to drowning as well. Director Tarsem Singh creates visually lavish dreamscapes that both fascinate and horrify, while Art Director Geoff Hubbard and Costume Designer Eiko Ishioka contribute to some of the most startling images ever captured on film. And Howard Shore's amazing score provides plenty of chills and suspense. A truly underrated gem well-worth seeing, if you can handle some of the more disturbing images.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

I Want to Believe?

I Want to Believe is the subtitle for the new X-Files movie. Somehow, I just can't get excited about it. I am a huge fan of the series. For a while, it was a Sunday night ritual to gather with friends on a Sunday night and watch The Simpsons, whatever happened to follow them that particular season, and The X-Files. We were alternately thrilled and frustrated by the show, which often had original and startling stories, but more often featured an intricate and unfathomable conspiracy plot (to this day, I still haven't figured the whole thing out).
Ten years ago, the first movie (X-Files; Fight the Future) came out amid much hoopla. My friends and I were slightly disappointed to find it little more than a primer for novices, though it did much to advance the conspiracy plot and further established the sexual tension between Agents Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson). And to be honest, the theater we saw it in (which no longer exists) had AC problems that night, so we were less than comfortable while watching.
Now, six years after the series finale, creator Chris Carter has finally made a new film. One that promises to be more like one of the series' stand-alone episodes which didn't rely on the alien conspiracy plot line. But I keep thinking, "So?"
My friends and I have moved on. Personally, I'm hoping for a Torchwood movie. For those unfamiliar, Torchwood is an exceptionally well-written BBC Sci-Fi series starring the adorably cute (and openly gay) John Barrowman, itself a spin-off of Russell Davies' reignited Dr. Who series. It features smart writing, terrific acting and some of the funniest one-liners in Sci-Fi history. (Ex: "Have you ever eaten alien meat?" "Yes." "How was it?" "He seemed to enjoy it.")
Nineteen years passed between Indiana Jones movies, and while the new one is fun, it doesn't have the same zing as the first three. And director Christopher Nolan had to completely re-invent Batman for his two blockbusters, eight years after Joel Schumaker ruined the franchise.
So, will "X-Philes" flock to see the new movie? Somehow, I doubt it. I'll probably go, but only because I got an AMC gift card from my sister for my birthday, and won't have to actually pay to see it. I'm not exactly chomping at the bit, and if I don't see it on a big-screen, I can certainly wait until it's on DVD. maybe I'll just save my gift card for The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor and Midnight Meat Train (the latest adaptation of a Clive Barker short story). Needless to say, if I do see it, I'll be reviewing it here. But don't hold your breath.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

5 Overrated "Classic" Movies

Don't hate me for being honest.
Okay, cinephiles and film critics around the world will probably gasp in horror and brand me a heretic, but there are some "classic" and revered films that, quite frankly, i just don't like. Oh, I can appreciate the artistry behind them. As an actor, I can understand the power of the performances in them. As a director, I get the subtleties of the camera angles. And as a screenwriter, I fully understand the power of the scripts behind them. But as an audience member, I just don't get why everyone seems so enamored of them, because they certainly do little to entertain me. Understand, this is just me and my opinion. You are welcome to disagree, by all means. As my mother is wont to say "That's why they make vanilla, chocolate and strawberry."
All that having been said, here are five "classics" that I simply do not care for:
5. The Godfather. Francis Ford Coppola's great crime drama is brilliant. But who cares? With a very few exceptions, crime dramas just don't appeal to me. I think it has something to do with the fact that they are rooted in a violent and seamy reality - there are people who actually live their lives this way; and that's just depressing. Exceptions to my Crime Drama rule: Bonnie and Clyde; The Bank Job; The Dark Knight.
4. Stagecoach. John Huston's quintessential Western may be the standard by which all other Westerns are measured, but I find it (and almost every other Western ever made) to be a big, fat bore. The few exceptions to my Westerns rule: Unforgiven; The Missing; The Outlaw Josey Wales.
3. The Graduate. Okay, maybe it's a generational thing; I was only 6 when this movie first came out. But even later in life, this Mike Nichols comedy fails to inspire more than a few chuckles whenever I actually try to sit down and watch it. There are plenty of late-sixties comedies I love, but I somehow I have never been able to connect to this coming-of-age fable. Go figure.
2. Harold and Maude. Gasp! What? An outsider who doesn't appreciate the ultimate outsider movie? Yup, that's me. Yes, Harold's dark humor and fake suicide attempts are very amusing, but the thought of sex with an ancient Ruth Gordon just makes me throw up in my mouth. Of course, the thought of sex with any woman makes me throw up in my mouth, but that's just a gay thing, and has nothing to do with this inexplicably popular film.
1. The Exorcist. If you read my previous post about movies that should be remade, you'll know that I am less than frightened by this film. When it first came out in 1973, I was 12 (Oh God, now you know how old I really am) and too young to be allowed to see it. It was re-released in 1979 and after seeing it then, I said "This is really what people were so upset about?" What killed it for me was the obviously wooden head-spin effect (that and the laughing stoners two rows in front of me). Try as I might, I just couldn't be scared by this film. I suppose you have to be a true believer to be frightened by the prospect of demonic possession. As a dyed-in-the-wool agnostic, I just didn't buy it. Much more frightening to me are serial killers like Hannibal Lecter or the cannibal family in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; creepy, realistic folk who look perfectly normal, but harbor perverse obsessions for carnage and human flesh.
So, I guess my question to you is: What "Classics" do you not get? Leave me a comment. We'll tawk. No big whoop.

"The Skin of Our Teeth" #4

The second night of auditions has passed and I still do not have a leading man. Based on the folks I have already seen, the show is 90% cast, but the second most important role in the show is still available. I am not completely disheartened, however. I have managed to cast the majority of the roles (although I wish I had more for some very talented people to do) and the production aspects of the show are well on their way. I even found a Steam Punk musician who has given me his permission to use his music for the show!
I'm holding call-backs for the role of the Fortune Teller (though I have almost decided on the actress for that part, as well) next Monday and I will be seeing additional actors for Mr. A., as well (a huge "Help" email went out to almost every theatre contact I have, so we'll see what happens). Assuming I find a leading man on Monday, I should have a final cast list by Tuesday.
This is both my favorite and most-dreaded part of directing. They say that 90% of directing is casting, which I whole-hearted believe. Find the right cast, and the rest just falls into place. here's hoping I find the perfect Mr. Antrobus.

Monday, July 21, 2008

"The Skin of Our Teeth" #3

First Night of Auditions.

I saw about a dozen people tonight. Some I knew well, others less, and still others not at all. I had several women with the potential to play the Fortune Teller and several other people I can certainly use (the cast is huge), but unfortunately, saw no one for the one role I am most worried about - and that's Mr. Antrobus. The character is Adam; Noah and John Doe. He's Everyman, and as described by the author, has a "Keystone Kops comedy face." He was played by the great Frederick March in the original cast, and is the kind of role I would love to play, if I weren't directing (in fact, I was cast in the part 25 years ago - and was much too young - but turned it down to briefly move to California, something I regret to this day). The point is, I haven't seen one likely candidate for the part. Yikes! Hopefully, tommorow will bring me several from which to choose. Right now, I can cast four of the six main characters, just using people I've already seen and can cast everyone else I saw in one or two smaller roles, each. Not bad, I suppose, for one night's work.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

"The Skin of Our Teeth" #2

Okay, so I lied.
I had dinner tonight with the man who is going to be the show's puppet master, my dear friend Walter, who is also the technical director at a prestigious Catholic girls' school in Princeton. Walter spent a year or so travelling around with a puppet company called (I swear) Puppenschantz, which naturally led to endless "poop-in-pants" jokes from the all of his friends. But, silly names aside, he learned a lot about puppetry and I intend to milk that knowledge for all it's worth.
We talked about where I wanted to use the puppets and what kinds of puppets I thought were appropriate and he had an idea of his own that I loved, so it looks like we are off to a smashing start. We also talked at length about the Steam Punk concept, and he showed me a picture of a very cool SP set-piece he'd designed for a stage production of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," so I know we're on the same page, which is exciting. I'll be posting lots of photos (maybe we can get ourselves a mention on the champion of SP,
I'm now feeling very jazzed by a project that intimidated me, at first. But once I hit upon the Steam Punk idea, it all seems to be coming together in my mind, finally. I'm actually looking forward to auditions now and excited to see what kind of folks show up. I have some actors in mind for certain roles, though nothing is set in stone. I tend to like to work with people I know and whose talents I can trust, though I am always excited to find new talents.
More of this, anon.

"The Skin of Our Teeth" #1

I have been asked to direct a rather important production of Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "The Skin of Our Teeth" for a local classical theatre company. The show is being produced in association with a major college as part of both the English Department's World Drama class and the featured production at the first International Thornton Wilder Conference. I am both honored and terrified, though the producers and technical director both seem to be enthused by the ideas I've brought to them. That having been said, both are dear friends who know me well, so they may be prejudiced.
For those unfamiliar, "The Skin of Our Teeth" is sort of a comic compression of the history of Mankind, ranging from the Ice Age to the end of the Napoleonic Wars, though set in modern, Suburban New Jersey. It's an absurdest joy, featuring a dinosaur and mastodon as house pets, the Great Flood in Atlantic City and a family always on the verge of being torn apart by forces beyond their control, though always managing to hang on by the skin of their teeth.
Written in 1942, as war raged throughout Europe and the Pacific, Wilder's play evokes timeless themes of the unchanging human condition, proving that Man's indomitable spirit cannot and will not be broken, be it by acts nature or the acts of other men. Given the timelessness of the work, I have decided that the style of the show would be based on the "Steam Punk" movement, utilizing modified technology to appear as though it were powered by steam and great cogged wheels buried somewhere deep underground.
So, am I crazy? think it'll work? Did I mention the use of puppets throughout the show? Stay tuned and I'll let you know, starting on Monday, June 28th, after the first round of auditions. This will be my first attempt at blogging an on-going event and the first time I've actually written about the creative process in a journalized form. I hope you find it all as interesting as I hope to. And I hope that as you take the journey with me, you'll leave me your thoughts and comments.
Until next time...

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Review: "The Dark Knight"

My head actually exploded several times as I watched The Dark Knight.
Seriously, so much has been written about this movie already, I don't have a whole lot to add. Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight is simply the best comic book movie ever made, hands down. It's intense, smart, grim and astonishing in its scope.
New DA, Harvey "Two Face" Dent (Aaron Eckhardt) has vowed to rid Gotham of Organized Crime. Gotham's criminals, living in fear of Batman, have gone underground. That is until the mysterious Joker shows up, wreaking havoc wherever he goes. The Joker wants to kill Batman (natch) and give the city back to the thugs. There are the usual assortment of good and bad guys (and some who walk the line between). Christian Bale returns as Bruce Wayne/Batman, steely-jawed righteousness at the fore. Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman also reprise their roles from Batman Begins and Maggie Gyllenhaal takes over for Katie Holmes (thank goodness) as Batty's childhood sweetheart, Rachel Dawes. But as everyone knows, this movie is all about Heath Ledger's Joker.
Ledger isn't just good - he's astoundingly brilliant. He totally re-invents the character and it's doubly sad that we'll likely never see another performance from a young man on the brink of true super stardom (unless Gilliam is able to pull off the impossible and complete The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus). It's the kind of performance every actor hopes to give one day.
And by the way, no slouches themselves, the rest of the cast - all solid and wonderful (Aaron Eckhardt's painfully good as Two-Face), but the movie is simply electric whenever Ledger is on screen. Everything from his super-creepy smeared make-up to his posture and incessant lip-licking and corn-yellow teeth, create the most frightening Joker ever. Ledger completely inhabits the role and you have no doubt that the Joker is truly bat-shiat insane.
The Dark Knight is unlike any other superhero movie ever made and plays more like a great, violent crime drama with extraordinary characters, than a Batman movie. But a Batman movie it most certainly is. I missed the bat-cave (it'll be back when Wayne Manor, destroyed at the end of Batman Begins, is rebuilt for the third movie), but there are some very cool new gadgets (and one thing that made the whole theatre go "Woah!"). ***** (Five Stars)

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Flight of the Conchords

Okay - I guess I have to start by saying that I got rid of HBO and Showtime about 3 years ago. Alan Ball's brilliant "Six Feet Under" had ended on HBO (in the single best series finale in television history, I might add) and "Queer as Folk" was about to have it's final season on Showtime (the show - always little more than an extra-sexy soap-opera - had become stale, anyway, so I didn't feel like I was missing much. I didn't watch any of the channels' other series ("The Sopranos" had already jumped the shark two seasons earlier) and they both played the same crappy, old movies, over and over. I cut a huge a huge chunk off my cable bill and got DVR, which is the best invention since the VCR.
But lately, I'd been reading about an HBO comedy called "Flight of the Conchords," about two Kiwi (New Zealander) musicians who move to New York to make a name for themselves. The critics were calling it fun, quirky and original and as I read more about the show and the duo, I got curious. Now, I'm too lazy to go watch them on YouTube (I can't access YouTube at work, and just don't bother at home), but I was desperate to at least hear songs with hilarious titles like "Hiphopodomus vs. Rhymenoceros" and "Mutha 'uckas." So, when I was in New York last weekend, while browsing the bizarre assortment of fun items at Urban Outfitters in Union Square, I came across their CD. On a whim, I bought it (I also bought a couple of other CDs at the Virgin Megastore, too).
Here's the deal: I still haven't listened to it. Don't know why. I opened it, took out the disc and looked at the very colorful, 2-sided mini-poster that came along with it, then put the disc back in the jacket and set it on my desk. I'm looking it at as I type this. Don't know why I haven't played it yet. Fear of disappointment, maybe? Maybe it's that my subconscious thinks that if I don't listen to it, I won't know that I've wasted my money on something I don't like. I honestly have no idea. I've listened to the other CDs I bought that day.
Maybe I'll listen to a song tonight. If I like it, I'll try some more. Maybe not. Help me. Please, help me.


I love vampires. Come on, who doesn't? From Bram Stoker's "Dracula" to Anne Rice's "Interview with the Vampire," the vampire legend has always been sexually intriguing. The act of physical penetration (the bite); the exchange of bodily fluids; the prospect of immortality and the promise of eternal sexual desiriability has always intrigued. All very powerful concepts for those of us who remain woefully mortal.
But I am at a loss to explain the popularity of novelist Stephanie Meyers' young adult vampire series. I am currently reading her first "adult" novel, The Host, a science fiction story about an alien species taking over the human race, and while I find it to be a fascinating take on themes previously explored by other Sci-Fi novelists such as Robert Heinline's The Puppet Masters, I am at a loss to explain her vampire novels' popularity among todays teens and tweens.
Is it the romantic elements of impossible love? Can it be the allure of the beautiful stranger rescuing his true love from a life of mundacity? Or is it simply the expression of teen-aged angst amid the increasingly difficult lifestyle that modern technology presents? I don't know. '
A recent cover of the pop-culture-centric magazine Entertainment Weekly, found Meyers' fans in almost apoplectic fits of derision over it's depiction of the series' film versions of its two main characters. For many young folks, the Mormon novelist's creations have become almost Jungian in their depiction of the "impossible" love story. Almost a modern Romeo and Juliet, the "Twilight" series has come to represent an unattainable (and very unrealistic) portrait of romance that few, if any, of us can hope to achieve.
Meyers' prose (at least in The Host -I can't speak for the Twilight series) is pedestrian, at best, though her ideas are certainkly original. So, do her previous works speak to modern disaffected youth (aren't modern youth always disaffected?), or do they latch onto to deeper, even Jungian, concepts?
I, for one, will wait until the first film arrives to make judgement. Needless to say, I didn't need to read more than the first Harry Potter book to get where J.K. Rowling was going, nor do I need to read any of Meyers' young adult novels to understand what Twilight is all about. Sex sells, folks; whether you're a Mormon, Catholic, Jew or heretic.
By the way - I just put the trash down to the curb and discovered that there is a full moon tonight. Coincidence? Hmmm....

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Ramblings (#1)

OK - I'll admit it - I'm a novice blogger. I had a similar blog about movies a few years ago. A couple of people read it now and then (one young lady in New York was a big fan), but I know there are hundreds, if not thousands, of blogs that are read more frequently and by more people than this one. I don't have fancy graphics or tons of links (okay - no links) to other blogs or sites. I don't have advertisers. I'm barely savvy enough to get the damned thing posted. Hell, I don't even have any photos to post (well, not yet, anyway).
So, what do I have? Not much other than my personal opinion. And who really cares about that, other than myself? But that's not really the point. Long before I knew that Theatre was my great passion, I always wanted to write. When I was about 10 or 11, I told my father (and the less I have to say about him, the better) that I wanted to write a novel. "You don't have the vocabulary," was his typically non-supportive response. But I ignored him and struggled on. There are probably hundreds of lined notebook pages lying about in dump sites of my early attempts at fiction. I wrote, and wrote and wrote. And, hopefully, I got better at it.
And write I continue to do. Lately, I have been concentrating on screenplays, though I am currently working on my third musical (book and lyrics only - don't ask me to come up with a melody - I can sing, but I can't even read music, let alone write it) and have the beginnings of a couple of novels stored on my hard drive. I can write short essays and my "Director's Notes" for plays I have directed usually make sense (at least to me). I am happy to be able to construct a sentence which usually follows the rules of basic English and, depsite my father's pronouncements, I think my vocabulary is above average. And those who read (or at least those who tell me they do) this blog, usually find what I have to say interesting (or at least they tell me they do).
So why do I write? Those who know me well, know I will probably never have children. So I suppose it's just the desire to leave something behind. Something that, after I am gone, others can look at and say "So that's who he was!" Something that says "I was here." I guess one could equivilate it to graffiti or even ancient cave drawings. A granite marker atop an obscure gravesite with a name and dates of birth and death may be enough for some, but I guess I need something more than that. And that's probably a little selfish, but I don't care.
Yikes! This is getting heavy, isn't it? Okay - enough of this moroseness. Maybe I should ask you (all three of you reading this - hah) what I should write about. What topics would you like me to discuss? What do you want to know about what I think about movies, theatre or whatever? Leave a comment and let me know. Until then, I'll be trying to come up with an interesting topic or list for my next post.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Dark Knight Approaches

Christopher Nolan's follow-up to Batman Begins (the best superhero movie ever made) is due to open this Friday - my birthday. I can't imagine a better present.

The Dark Knight is the most eagerly anticipated movie of the summer, and despite the obvious tragedy of Heath Ledger's too-early demise, promises to be the summer's biggest hit.

I am seeing it with friends as part of a double birthday celebration (a dear friend has his on Tuesday) and will be probably post my review first thing on Saturday. Until then, hang tight, Bat-fans!

DVD Review: "The Ruins"

I read Scott Smith's novel, "The Ruins" last year because I loved his first book, "A Simple Plan." It turned out to be an interesting and rather claustrophobic little tale with a rather silly premise (or so I thought) and was therefore not terribly interested in seeing the movie when it was released to theaters this past April. Now available as "unrated" DVD, I decided it might be worth a rent. I'm happy to say that I was correct.
The Ruins concerns a group of four young American friends vacationing in Mexico. There they befriend Mathias (Joe Anderson), a German whose brother has gone missing after following a hot archaeologist to a remote dig-site. Mathias convinces them to join him the next day in his search for his brother, and accompanied by "crazy Greek" Dimitri, they soon find themselves at an ancient (and verdant) Mayan pyramid, deeply hidden in the Mexican rain forest. The Americans - med-student Jeff (Jonathan Tucker); his girlfriend, Amy (Jena Malone); best friend, Eric (Shawn Ashmore) and his girlfriend, Stacy (Laura Ramsey) - are at first intrigued by the hulking relic. But when a tribe of hostile Mayans kills Dimitri and forces them all to the top of the pyramid, things definitely take a turn for the worse.

I don't want to spoil too much for those who haven't seen the movie (or read the novel), but let's just say that there is something very unpleasant living in (and on) the pyramid. Something that feeds on human flesh; can imitate a cell phone's ring tone and carry it's prey off into the night.
Smith also wrote the screenplay and while his novel was a little more complex than his pared-down script, especially when it came to character development, he doesn't skimp when it comes to out and out horror. Director Carter Smith, making his feature debut, wisely chose young actors who actually have some talent and who are able to convey the hopeless horror and desperation of the situation quite nicely. Jonathan Tucker's (In the Valley of Elah) Jeff, who tries to maintain a cool head and take charge of the situation, comes off as a real person who is genuinely concerned for the well-being of his companions. Ms Malone (Donnie Darko) as his girlfriend, displays the same kind of down-to-earth qualities of her previous characters, while trying to maintain her sanity amid the horror happening around her. Mr. Ashmore (The X-Men trilogy) and Ms Ramsey (The Covenant) are fine as two young people verging on the brink of madness.
And, while the basic premise of The Ruins is still rather silly, gorehounds and horror fans will find much to be enjoyed in the unrated DVD. While I'm glad I didn't part with ten dollars to see this movie in the theater, it is definitely worth the rental. ***1/2 (Three and a half Stars)

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Broadway Review: "Xanadu."

People were seriously upset that the creators of this show had not only joined the "Let's turn a movie into a stage musical!" bandwagon, but that they choose this particular movie to do it to. For you young 'uns out there, Xanadu is a terribly cheesy movie musical from 1980, starring Olivia Newton-John, Michael Beck and the late, great Gene Kelly. It's a story about an unfulfilled artist and the Muse that inspires him to open a roller-disco and their efforts to get an old song-and-dance man to help them. That's it. The whole plot. A perpetual punch-line, this ridiculous movie had one thing going for it: a terrific soundtrack by Newton-John and ELO (Electric Light Orchestra).
Opening last year Off-Broadway, "Xanadu" recently moved into the Helen Hayes on 44th, and is the most energetic (and quite possibly the funniest) musical I've seen in years. Playwright Douglas Carter Beane (As Bees in Honey Drown; The Little Dog Laughed) does for the movie, what the 'Brady Bunch' movies did for that series, and his book is a perfect blend of cheese and parody, providing plenty of laughs along the way. Tongue planted firmly in cheeks, the fantastic cast not only looks great, but look like their having a great time, as well.
Sonny (Curtis Holbrook) has done a sidewalk chalk drawing of the Nine Muses, ancient Greek demi-goddesses who inspire art and culture. Thinking no one appreciates his work, Sonny is about to kill himself when his portrait suddenly comes to life (through a very clever mix of projected animation, a huge overhead mirror and hydraulic trap doors). Clio (the astounding Kerry Butler), has decided the muses must lend Sonny their help, and she takes his case personally, "cleverly" disguising herself by changing her name to Kira; donning roller skates and legwarmers and adopting a super-exaggerated (and totally hilarious) Australian accent. Soon, Sonny and Kira are falling for each other, and Clio's jealous sisters Calliope (Jackie Hoffman) and Melpemone (Annie Golden at the matinee I saw) plot to overthrow her by cursing her to fall in love with Sonny, something forbidden by their father, Zeus. Meanwhile, Sonny and Kira try to convince real-estate mogul Danny Maguire (Tony Roberts) to give them the use of an old theatre (The Xanadu) for free. Roberts later has a funny appearance near the end of the show as Zeus atop Olympus.
Butler is perfect for Clio/Kira and understands fully the material she's parodying, and her sweet singing voice is just an added bonus. Holbrook started off slow, but as the show gained momentum, his performance improved and the chemistry between he and Ms Butler became apparent. Hoffman and Golden are expert character actors, and their performances garnered a good deal of the shows' many yuks. The last thing I saw Tony Roberts in was "Victor/Victoria" and I must admit, I was less than thrilled with his performance (but I was just there for Julie, anyway), so I was dubious about his appearance in this show. But he did a fine job, and while he is no Gene Kelly, his voice is still strong and clear and he obviously understands comedic timing. The rest of the supporting cast is terrific, but the stand-out member of the company has to be Ryan Watkinson in multiple roles ranging from one of the Nine Sisters to a young Danny and a very funny turn as one of several mythical beasts.
The score uses all of the movie's songs and adds a few others as well, such as "Evil Woman" and Newton-John's "Have You Never Been Mellow?" (in one of the funniest of the show's many funny scenes, which also features a cyclops, Medusa and an hysterically executed centaur). Coming in at a crisp 98 minutes with no intermission ("Short?" Calliope remarks, near the end. "Next door, Lupone hasn't even humiliated her first daughter yet!"), "Xanadu" never gives its audience the time to question its silliness, so we just go right along with it. David Gallo's simple and functional set evokes the ruins of a Greek amphitheatre and Hal Brinkley's lighting is the perfect compliment.
Good fun for the whole family, "Xanadu" is perfectly suited for the intimate Hayes, where there are no really bad seats. Some audience members (about 20 or so) do get to sit on stage, though I think I would want to see it from the house, instead. "Xanadu" was nominated for the 2008 Best Musical Tony Award, but lost to "In the Heights." It also garnered noms for Best Book of a Musical (Beane) and Best Choreography (Dan Knechtges). Who knows? If the original film was half as intentionally funny as the show, it might actually have been a hit. **** (Four Stars)

Saturday, July 12, 2008

I'm tired...

Spent the day in NYC with a friend, and saw "Xanadu." But frankly, I am too exhausted to write my review, so look for it tomorrow.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Review: "Hellboy II: The Golden Army"

If anyone ever had any doubts as to Guillermo del Toro's genius, Hellboy II should put them to rest once and for all. Smart, funny and a visual wonder, del Toro's follow-up to the 2004 original far surpasses anything anyone has ever seen on screen. Hellboy (Ron Perlman), a character who first appeared in the Mike Mignola comic of the same name, grew up listening to his father's (John Hurt) stories about the elfin (or is it elvin?) kingdom's long ago war with man. To defeat mankind, King Balor (Roy Dotrice, a regular on Perlman's 80's series Beauty and the Beast) commissions the Golden Army; an indefatigable and indestructible army of automatons, 70 times 70 in number, powered by magic and governed by a golden crown. When an ever-lasting truce between the two worlds is called, Balor breaks the crown into three pieces, so that no one person can ever control the Golden Army again. Flash forward to the present when Balor's son Prince Nuada (Blade II's Luke Goss) returns from a self-imposed exile, intending to reunite the crown's pieces and reawaken the Golden Army in order to wrest the Earth back from an ecologically irresponsible humanity. It is up to Hellboy; his new wife, human torch Liz (Selma Blair); Gill-man with a brain (and heart) Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) and the rest of the secret governmet band of supernatural heroes to stop Nuada and save mankind from utter extinction (which, of course, is every super hero's job, anyway).
But such a heavily truncated synopsis can't convey the artistry, humanity and humor of del Toro's most ambitious film to date. 2005's Pan's Labyrinth may be del Toro's allegorical masterpiece (personally, I think it's the first true cinematic masterpiece of the 21st century), but Hellboy II is one of the must visually stunning movies you will ever see. The trailer's don't even come close to the visual orgy on the screen. And I'm telling you now, do NOT wait to see this film on DVD. It is a big-screen movie and so deserves to be seen as such.
After a nasty fight with thousands of Tooth-Fairies - nasty little white buggies who feed on bones (and teeth, in particular) - Hellboy and company soon find themselves in search of Nuada, first venturing into the Troll Market hidden beneath the Brooklyn Bridge. I can only describe the Troll Market as a fairy-tale version of the Star Wars cantina, but with infinitely more going on. Every inch of the screen is filled with astounding sights, some which last mere seconds; each of which is breathtaking. In fact, there is so much to look at in this film, one's eyes are exhausted by the end. But you honestly don't mind.
There are monsters and giants; the Angel of Death; a forest god (a vegetable creature that makes an Ent- that's a Lord of the Rings reference, for all you non-geeks out there - look like a twig); a drunken Barry Manilow sing-along; an exceptionally cool final blade fight, staged on a gigantic watchwork mechanism; an unexpected romance and exactly the right amount of humor.
Perlman was born to play Hellboy. After many years of playing parts while buried under layers of latex, he has perfected the craft, elevating the character into a most human creation, despite his hellish birthright. Early on, Hellboy fully outs himself and his secret team, causing no end of consternation to his boss (the always hilarious Jeffrey Tambor). But the team quickly find themselves labeled as freaks and reviled for their unusual appearances and natures. The hurt in Perlman's eyes as Hellboy realizes he isn't the beloved hero he thinks he is, is palpable. The beautiful Selma Blair - always an interesting actress to watch, no matter what the genre - has taken the (literally) fiery Liz to a new level (though some might consider Liz a bit stereotypically 'hormonal'). Doug Jones as Abe gets to use his real voice this time around (David Hyde Pierce dubbed Abe's lines in the original), and manages a sweet and significantly less fey performance. Jones, who appeared as both the Faun and the Grey Man in Pan's Labyrinth, also plays the square-headed Chamberlain and the Angel of Death, whose eyes are arranged amongst its wings and whose head is shaped like a stylized shovel. "Family Guy" creator and voice artist, Seth MacFarlane voices the newest member of the team, Johann Krauss; an officious being who consists of vaporous ectoplasm and functions mostly within a containment suit which resembles nothing less than Steam Punk diving apparatus. Plus, there is a very funny, though exceptionally inside joke; a tribute to John Landis that only the geekiest of movie geeks like myself would get. (if you saw the movie and know the reference, leave a comment - we have a lot to talk about).
Del Toro's script is solid, though I must admit to one tiny quibble. The unit of the agency for which Hellboy works, is supposed to be located in Trenton, NJ. I was born in Trenton. I live 20 minutes from Trenton. I saw the movie in Hamilton, which is Trenton's closest suburb. Trenton is located along the Delaware River. As a matter of fact, it is practically in the center of the Delaware Valley. The grandiose agency's headquarters is depicted as being atop an isolated cliff, ostensibly in the middle of this rather small, formerly industrial and relatively flat state capital. But if that's all I have to complain about, then it's only something someone from Trenton would complain about, and shouldn't sway anyone (Trentonian or not) from seeing this jaw-droppingly gorgeous film. ***** (Five Stars)