November 5, 2019

hairsprayThe man William Burroughs called “The Pope of Trash” is at it again. Yes, John Waters, sleazemaster general, low-budget filmmaker, and Baltimore’s ambassador to the world, has made another movie.

The title, Hairspray, would seem to place the new film safely within Waters’ existing lexicon: his movies include Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble and Polyester.

But this time out, Waters has sweetened his tone and softened his approach. Hairspray has a full quotient of Waters’ trademark glitz ‘n kitsch, but there’s a nostalgic undertone that warms the movie. It’s set in the Baltimore of 1962, when the resident teenyboppers are frugging to the beat of a local American Bandstand knockoff called The Corny Collins Show, a dance party that brings dozens of pubescent kids to brief regional TV stardom. One girl in particular, Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake), dreams of becoming a regular on the show.

Not only does Tracy garner a spot on the dance floor, she quickly becomes the new star, even threatening the front-runner status of the witchy Amber (Colleen Fitzpatrick) for the coveted “Miss Auto Show 1963” title.

Improbably, Waters welds this goofy little story with a subplot of racial integration. No kidding: Much of the movie is about the kids’ efforts to incorporate black teens as regulars on the show, and not just relegate them to the “Negro Day” on the last Thursday of every month.

It’s an appealing setting for a movie, but don’t get the idea that Waters has gone completely straight on us. He’ll still stop the show for the occasional gross-out (such as the aurally graphic popping of a pimple), and his cast list alone is fairly head-spinning.

For instance, Tracy’s parents are played by the unlikely duo of Jerry Stiller and longtime Waters collaborator Divine. Divine, the corpulent transvestite, also plays the male role of the intolerant TV station manager.

And Amber’s uptight parents, whose house bulges with the ’60s iconography of lava lamps and those paintings of kids with big eyes, are played by Sonny Bono and Debbie Harry (she proudly reminds her daughter that she was once “Miss Soft Crab of 1945”). Some of this doesn’t work as well as it might sound. For instance. the idea of Sonny Bono as the sleazy owner of an amusement park is funny; in truth, it doesn’t really click in the movie. (Sonny is, after all, still Sonny.)

And the roughness of Waters’ directorial style continues. He still doesn’t always know what to do with the camera, and some of the performances are out of sync (his own cameo, as a crazed psychiatrist, is just fine).

But the sloppy patches are finally outpointed by the movie’s sheer likability. The music’s great, the dancing is generous, the hair-dos are towering and fearsome, the dialogue is dizzily campy (school principal to Tracy: “You’re on a one-way ticket to reform school!”).

A high point is the visit to a beatnik parlor, where an artist (the Cars’ Ric Ocasek) and his beat chick (Pia Zadora!) are digging reefer. Eventually Hairspray becomes just too wackily imaginative to resist.

First published in the Herald, February 28, 1988

Who could’ve known the movie would eventually turn into a pop-culture phenom and a Broadway hit? Probably somebody. I don’t recall what my problem was with Sonny Bono in this film, but I said it, so I’ll stand by it, although one should really not question Waters in these matters. 

And God Created Woman

October 4, 2019

andgodcreatedThe international success of the original version of And God Created Woman (1956) was influential in persuading French film producers to give money to youthful would-be directors. These included Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Eric Rohmer, and the ensuing French New Wave changed the course of cinema history.

Frankly, the box-office clout of And God Created Woman had less to do with director Roger Vadim’s storytelling powers than it did with the natural wonders of his wife, Brigitte Bardot, who appeared au natural in a couple of scenes. Were it not for BB’s persuasive presence, the New Wave might’ve been a mere trickle.

As for Vadim, he never quite kept up with his New Wave contemporaries. He’s worked steadily, but it soon became clear that he was a lesser artist than his counterparts. Vadim was rather more famous for his love life: his wives (including Jane Fonda, with whom he made the wacky Barbarella in 1968) and mistresses (including Catherine Deneuve).

Now Vadim has remade And God Created Woman, this time in America. Unfortunately, this nutty version is not likely to change history.

It doesn’t even have much to do with the original. The new film tells of the romantic tribulations of an ex-convict (Rebecca De Mornay, of Risky Business) who’s been paroled on the strength of marrying a handyman (Vincent Spano). Also in her orbit: an interested gubernatorial candidate (Frank Langella).

De Mornay is much less a vixenish force of nature than Bardot was. Perhaps Vadim’s view of women has mellowed, for in this movie the woman is really the only person with anything on the ball. The men are such dunces that you’re completely on her side.

The sex is surprisingly tame, considering Vadim’s reputation. And there’s nothing in the remake as stylistically bold as the original’s first glimpse of Bardot, stretched out naked across the bottom of a sunny CinemaScope frame.

The movie is set in New Mexico and uses the dusty location to good use. There’s little else of interest, except to note that Vadim appears in a cameo as a photographer. And for her efforts as a singer in this film (the character wants to start a rock band), De Mornay wins this month’s “Justine” award, so named for Justine Bateman’s vocalizing efforts in Satisfaction.

First published in the Herald, March 1988

This was five years after Risky Business, so things had cooled off for Rebecca De Mornay, although she still had Backdraft and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle to come. Not much of a review here, but it’s something to remember that a remake of And God Created Woman actually existed. Vadim got married again, in 1990, to Marie-Christine Barrault, star of Cousin Cousine and My Night at Maud’s, which is impressive for the old goat. He died in 2000.


April 4, 2012

Is the sleeper success of Dirty Dancing going to prompt a wave of dance movies? Could be, and Salsa is an early imitator, but with a Latin beat.

Actually, Salsa resembles Dirty Dancing only insofar as it contains a lot of sweaty limbs, a score of gyrating torsos, and pelvic thrusts a-plenty. (Both films were choreographed by Kenny Ortega, who clearly has his meter set on high.)

The story of Salsa, if it can be called a story, concerns a young garage mechanic (Robby Rosa, formerly a member of the prefab pop group Menudo) who supports his mother and sister while he dreams of winning a salsa dance contest that would send him to a big competition in Puerto Rico.

In a way, the movie is a Latin version of Pal Joey. The hero’s a bit of a cad, and he’s torn between two other dancers—his sweet, simple girlfriend, and an older, wealthier dancing master who’s something of a witch. Which will he choose? Will he jeopardize his chances of winning the competition? Will he resist the temptations of yet another romantic interest, the obligatory curled-lip spitfire? Will he allow his willowy younger sister to date his best friend?

The answers to these and other questions are pretty easy to guess, and director Boaz Davidson tries to distract from the formulaic nature of the script by finding as many excuses for dirty dancing as possible. In some cases, Davidson and Ortega conjure up settings for dances that recall the classic Hollywood musicals, such as a duet that takes place in front of a tropical-island billboard. But the explicit nature of the dancing detracts from the charm.

The steamiest number takes place inside the hero’s garage apartment, when he and the aforementioned spitfire engage in some heavy pawing. The guy even has a glittery silver ball that hangs and rotates from his bedroom ceiling, which is a new wrinkle in personal make-out accessories.

It shouldn’t take long for other Dirty Dancing clones to arrive. For that matter, Dirty Dancing II, which will pick up the story of the original film’s bump-‘n-grinders a few years later, is already in the works. While we wait for that, a selection of unauthorized substitutes will doubtless be available.

First published in the Herald, May 1988

Who can forget Salsa, or the Dirty Dancing follow-ups? I can, of course—I’m not an idiot—but it’s harder to forget the feeling of sitting through this phase of cheap moviemaking. Another knock-off from the Cannon Group.

Salome’s Last Dance

November 30, 2011

In Salome’s Last Dance, famed bad-boy filmmaker Ken Russell has chosen to take a cameo role for himself, that of a still photographer recording a performance of Oscar Wilde’s play Salome given for the benefit of Wilde himself. Wilde looks at the photographer and declares, “If your acting is as grossly indecent as your photographic studies, we are in for an outrrrageous evening!”

Russell uncorks this bit of self-lampoonery knowing full well that most critics consider the director of Tommy and Altered States as “grossly indecent” a moviemaker as exists on the planet. But the dialogue certainly gets it right: Salome’s Last Dance is another cyclonic phantasmagoria from Russell’s feverish brain—an outrageous evening, indeed. I think it’s a minor film, when all is said and done, but it is at least mounted with high style and good humor (Russell’s previous movie, Gothic, seemed sour and hopeless).

The Salome performance is given in a brothel on a November night in 1892. Wilde (played in a marvelously florid turn by Nickolas Grace) sits on a bower of pillows and watches his play unfold, and occasionally gets in on the peripheral action.

When Russell visited the recent screening of Salome’s Last Dance at the Seattle International Film Festival, he claimed that staging Wilde’s Salome in this manner was the only way to film the play without building elaborate, expensive sets. True, but there’s another, better reason. When Wilde watches his play staged, we see the way it reflects on his own life; he identifies himself as the play’s John the Baptist, and predicts himself betrayed by his homosexual lover just as John is betrayed by Salome.

In the play, John the Baptist is played by Douglas Hodge; Herod by Stratford Johns; Queen Herodias by Glenda Jackson. The actors are ripe, as befits Russell’s scheme, and none is riper than Imogen Millais-Scott, the petite newcomer who plays Salome. Her lilting, breathy delivery is strange and haunting, and her amber eyes flicker with lust, particularly in the ornate temptations she offers the Baptist. What an exuberantly odd performance!

Salome’s Last Dance might well have been a trashy, glitzy exercise in camp were it not for the tragic layer of Wilde’s own life, as suggested in sharp strokes by Russell. The movie may be crammed with gold-painted bodies, bare-breasted servant girls, dancing dwarfs, and a murderous banana peel, but with all of that, as is true of Russell’s best films, there’s more here than meets the eye.

First published in the Herald, June 1988

A maniac of the movies, Ken Russell died a couple of days ago. The man unleashed a few turkeys, but I can testify to the power of seeing Women in Love as a teenager, already aware of the film’s reputation as an Important Art Movie containing a certain raciness. The Eighties were not a great time for his films, although I am an Altered States fan, but this is a mad little item I somehow saw twice in its Seattle Film Festival and regular-run appearances. Between viewings someone told me that leading lady Imogen Millais-Scott was blind, which certainly gives an unusual dimension to watching the movie. But then all the actors are pitched in a slightly crazed, unreal mode, which seemed to suit Russell just fine. I also like Nickolas Grace; he played Anthony Blanche in the ’81 Brideshead Revisited miniseries, and he nailed the defining-devastating moment when he turns to old friend Charles Ryder to accurately confide that Ryder’s paintings are “tewwible twipe,” despite the fawning of art patrons.


October 10, 2011

Bacon, Singer, Footloose

Footloose is something of a throwback to those 1950s movies in which the conservative town elders would try to stamp out that satanic menace called rock and roll, a newfangled music that was turning their kids into a tribe of fornicators. These quickie movies were usually an excuse to string a bunch of musical numbers together and sell it as a film. At the end there was always somebody who would turn to the camera and say, “You can’t kill rock and roll!”

They were right. The beat goes on, but now we have pictures that are specially designed to go with the music. In case you’ve been comatose for the last year, it’s all because of MTV, the cable network that shows nothing but non-stop rock epics. It’s the new narrative form: three minutes long, just long enough so that no attention spans are unduly taxed.

Footloose weds the plot about the preacher who wants to crush rock music in a small Utah town with the splashy visuals of an MTV video. And, borrowing a leaf from Flashdance (although I found Footloose more enjoyable, in its own mindless way), there’s a lot of jazzy dancing and superficial characterizations.

A kid from the big city (Kevin Bacon) finds himself in Utah when his mother moves in with relatives there. He’d like to fit in, but things just keep tripping him up. When he gets interested in a girl (Lori Singer), it turns out she’s the daughter of the fire-and-brimstone preacher (John Lithgow) who instituted the laws against sinful music. Great.

Then when Bacon steals the girl away from her boyfriend—a creep who drives a pickup truck with moose horns welded on the hood—he invites even more trouble. There’s nothing for a guy to do but, you know, dance, and that’s what Bacon does. Soon it’s his mission to convince the city council to lift the ban on dancing so the kids can have a senior prom.

It goes on like this, and there’s lots of music. Director Herbert Ross, who took over this project after (of all people) The Deer Hunter‘s Michael Cimino dropped out, tries to give the proceedings some emotional subtext.

Ross is a hack Hollywood director, even though he’s got some well-regarded credits to his name (The Turning Point; Play it Again, Sam), and when he tries to supply subtext, it usually means somebody talks in hushed terms about a lost father, or some other vaguely Freudian explanations. These sequences in Footloose were treated with impatience by the preview-night audience, who wanted to get to the good stuff. In general, the movie did not let them down.

The preview night, incidentally, was marked by a weird extravaganza that preceded the movie in which various local high-school cheerleading teams did routines in front of the curtain at the Town theater. A panel of “judges” rated the squads against each other. (Mercer Island High School won.) After a half an hour of this, the movie began to seem superfluous. And perhaps it was, after all; although you wouldn’t know it from the crowd, which reacted to the entire evening as though it were a pep rally.

First published in the Herald, February 18, 1984

I don’t have to tell you that this is the week the remake of Footloose comes out, thus the re-visit with this review. The movie caught on, in case you hadn’t heard, and it does indeed resemble a model of storytelling next to Flashdance. Seattle’s Town theater no longer exists, by the way, having long since been replaced by a downtown office tower.

Dirty Dancing

September 20, 2011

Most of Dirty Dancing is a pretty bad coming-of-age movie about a girl (Jennifer Grey) who undergoes some major rites of passage during a summer spent with her family at a Catskills-like resort. This much of the movie is labored and familiar.

The film goes completely out of whack by including liberal doses of really wild dancing scenes (choreographed by Kenny Ortega). Teen-age Grey falls in with the resort’s entertainers, led by a chap (Patrick Swayze) who has definitely, shall we say, waltzed across the floor a few times. Thus the film is punctuated by repeated scenes of crazily lascivious dancing, the kind that Grey’s parents are always warning her about (the film is set in the 1960s).

I suppose these dancing scenes are no less ridiculous than the rest of the movie, but at least some of the dancing’s exhilarating. Patrick Swayze, who has had tough-guy roles in such films as Red Dawn, actually is a former ballet dancer, so he needs no stunt doubles for the dance sequences. He seems to take the rest of the movie a bit too seriously, however; he glowers meaningfully through much of the film.

The thing that holds what there is of the movie together is Jennifer Grey (daughter of Joel Grey), who was funny as the hapless littler sister in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. She has a likably “normal” screen presence, unaffected and smart, and she tries endearingly hard in the dancing scenes.

The other actors are at sea, because the film, directed by Emile Ardolino, doesn’t really know what it’s doing. Jerry Orbach plays Grey’s father, a doctor who expects his little girl to be a princess at all times. Cynthia Rhodes, another ex-dancer (she was one of the unfortunates stranded in the Travolta-Stallone travesty, Staying Alive), has to simper as an entertainer who undergoes the obligatory pregnancy and back-alley abortion.

That’s typical of the cliché plot twists in Eleanor Bergstein’s script. What isn’t typical in Dirty Dancing is the sometimes genuinely giddy back-and-forth between the outrageous dance scenes and the regular dramatic stuff. The audience that saw the film at the latest Seattle International Film Festival had no idea what to do with the movie, but they seemed to enjoy it. Which was an understandable reaction.

First published in the Herald, August 1987

It became a phenomenon, for some justifiable reasons. A lot of the film’s nuttiness and zest can be ascribed to Emile Ardolino, who came out of TV and especially dance documentaries; he subsequently directed Chances Are, a very nice comedy that had some similarly happy qualities, and had another hit in Sister Act. I interviewed him at the time of Chances Are and the guy was a mensch. He died at the age of 50, from AIDS-related causes.