Little Shop of Horrors

November 2, 2012

Once upon a time, during a weekend in 1960, Roger Corman had a set, some actors, and nothing better to do. So in three days (so the legend goes), he and scriptwriter Charles Griffith filmed a wacky little horror comedy about a man-eating plant.

This no-budget throwaway has survived as one of the zaniest products of Corman’s freewheeling early days. For years it was a staple of the revival circuit and television. Then, a few years ago, someone had the improbable idea to turn the thing into a stage play. And a musical, yet.

The project, shall we say, blossomed. More improbably, it was a big hit. And most improbable of all, it’s been made into a movie again, this time with big-budget backing and songs to boot.

Deep down, I’ll always prefer Corman’s zonked-out quickie. I love its skid road production values and its Catskills-style ethnic humor.

But the new movie has a lot going for it, and deserves to end up as one of this season’s hits. It’s a bright, ditzy thing, full of artificial sets, arch acting, and goofy songs.

A trio of doo-wop girls serve as a chorus, as we are introduced to a rundown New York neighborhood, circa 1960. Mushnik’s florist shop is mired in an apparently terminal slump—until the shop boy, Seymour (Rick Moranis, from “SCTV”), finds “a strange and interesting plant” one day. Placed in the store window, the plant quickly attracts business, much to the delight of Mushnik (Vincent Gardenia) and clerk Audrey (Ellen Greene, adorably vapid). That this homely little bulb would attract all this attention is just the first of the film’s intentional absurdities.

Seymour names the planet Audrey II. He harbors a love, or as much goony affection as he can muster, for the real Audrey, but she is stuck with a sadist boyfriend (a plum role for Steve Martin). Naturally, the sadist practices dentistry.

Audrey II brings Seymour money and glamour, but there is a photosynthetical downside. The plant can live only on blood. Human blood. Seymour must supply supper, or lose his plant—and, he supposes, lose Audrey.

Understand that not one whit of this nonsense is played straight. The approach that lyricist Howard Ashman (who also scripted) and composer Alan Mencken have taken is a thorough put-on: campy and tacky.

I don’t know how they came up with Frank Oz for director—he’s a longtime collaborator of the Muppets’ Jim Henson—except that one of the main characters is a large Muppet-like creature; the plant, given voice by the Four Tops’ Levi Stubbs, steals a number of scenes, and behaves with much impertinence.

Oz directs with uninhibited glee, frequently stuffing visual gags into the big numbers. Martin’s dentist song, a tour de force that ought to be released as a video for MTV, is a string of hilarious jokes on the fear of oral surgery, building to the moment when Oz cuts to a shot looking at the insanely cackling Martin from the inside of a large fake mouth. Oz is exactly in tune with this show’s nuttiness.

There are cameos, mostly unnecessary, from John Candy, Jim Belushi, Christopher Guest, and Bill Murray; the latter plays a dental patient who loves pain.

In the original film and the musical play, the plant eats everyone at the end. That ending was filmed, but was reshot after some test previews favored a happier ending. Actually, this new ending may be even better and funnier than the original. In a quiet way, Audrey II still has the last laugh.

First published in the Herald, December 19, 1986

Hey, didja notice I never mentioned the title of the movie? I didn’t notice, when I wrote this review. I have a feeling I did this a few times over the years.


Bring on the Night

October 8, 2012

Bring on the Night is, in almost every way, your typical rock documentary. It traces the evolution of a project from beginning to fruition, with heavy emphasis on musical numbers, interspersed with interviews and behind-the-scenes hijinks.

Now, if you’ve seen a few “rockumentaries,” you know that the form itself is intrinsically stupid. The things are usually vanity productions designed to indulge the whims of the stars, who often babble on about their philosophies during the all-too-lengthy breaks between songs.

Bring on the Night falls into most of those traps, but redeems itself in other ways. The good thing is, it’s about Sting, who happens to be one of the most intelligent and thoughtful rock musicians.

The bad thing is, it’s about Sting, who also happens to be one of the most pretentious and least fun-loving rock musicians.

The project here is the new band that Der Stingle assembled for his current “Dreams of the Blue Turtles” album, and some touring he did with the band. The film, Sting explains at a press conference near the beginning, wants to show the creation of a band—unlike other rockumentaries, which sometimes catch bands at their bitter end (as with the Beatles and Let It Be).

The dichotomy between Sting’s intelligence and his pretentiousness makes this process interesting to watch. The musicians Sting has gathered together (in a chateau near Paris) seem deliberately chosen to represent something he’s not—he’s British, they’re American; he’s rock, they’re jazz; he’s white, they’re black.

These jazz musicians are a fun bunch, no question about it, while Sting seems to be straining to join in their groove. But at least he is trying, even so far as joining in on a chorus of “Meet the Flintstones” as kicked off by saxophonist Branford Marsalis.

The outgoing (and supremely talented) Marsalis presents quite a contrast with the rather aloof Sting. While Sting goes on, somewhat pompously, about his search for a new sound, Marsalis describes how he switched from the clarinet to the saxophone because you could get girls with a sax. Marsalis is no less serious a musician, of course, but he seems to have a healthier sense of humor.

Director Michael Apted (Coal Miner’s Daughter, Kipperbang) shows us the birth of the album, in rehearsal sessions at the chateau, and the culmination of the project, in some live gigs in Paris. We also see another kind of birth: a human one, as Sting’s girlfriend Trudie Styler delivers a baby boy on camera.

It’s the music (not the medicine) that sustains the film. The songs take over near the end, and all the forced backstage stuff fades away. Sting is a talented songwriter, and his work is his vindication. The concert’s final song, “Message in a Bottle,” could be a description of the movie itself—a message sense out in the hope that someone will listen. Well, message received—but Sting, next time just sing the songs, don’t talk about them, okay?

First published in the Herald, November 7, 1985

There were quite a few of these back then. And just a year after This Is Spinal Tap, too.

The Cotton Club

July 27, 2012

A few years ago, Robert Evans, the producer of films such as The Godfather and Chinatown, needed a script rewrite for a project about new York’s famous Cotton Club, a place where white audiences paid top dollar to see black entertainment during the height of the Jazz Age.

Evans had worked with larger-than-life director Francis Coppola on The Godfather, and he called Coppola to get some suggestions for a good script doctor. Coppola, ever alert (and coming off a string of commercial disasters), quickly suggested himself. Thus commenced a series of events that probably made Evans wish he’d never heard of Coppola or the Cotton Club.

Before long, Coppola had thrown out the original screenplay (the film’s “story” credit goes to Mario Puzo) and written a completely new script with Pulitzer Prize-winner William Kennedy. Then Coppola assumed the mantle of director, and the production of the film itself was beset by rising costs and constant script rewrites.

And somewhere in the midst of this Robert Evans went bye-bye. The lawsuits are now flying, but it’s hard to imagine they will have any effect on what is already an incredibly expensive movie (something between $40 and $50 million, at last count).

Coppola seems to be attracted by this kind of guerrilla moviemaking, but whether or not it agrees with him is another matter. The films he produced while he played at being the mogul of his own hectic studio were almost wholly uninvolving.

With The Cotton Club, he’s gotten himself interesting again. This film, which whips up a blend of gangsterism and musical comedy, clips along at a confident pace and has enough flavorful characters to fill a speakeasy.

Richard Gere plays a cornet player (and Gere plays his own horn solos, by golly) whose trajectory through the Jazz Age—in the film, from the late ’20s through the early ’30s—places him in close contact with such figures as gangster Dutch Schultz (rivetingly played by unctuous James Remar), the Dutchman’s moll (Diane Lane), and the men who run the Cotton Club (Bob The Long Goodbye Hoskins and Fred “The Munsters” Gwynne, who make a great comedy team).

Gere’s brother (Nicolas Cage, Coppola’s cousin) is a hothead swept into the violent world around the Cotton Club, with bloody results. This story of the brothers is paralleled by a pair of dancing brothers (Gregory and Maurice Hines) who work their way up through the Cotton Club to different levels of stardom.

The film is obviously chock-full; unfortunately, as enjoyable as much of this is, Coppola has a tendency to rush past the building blocks of characterization. He has atmosphere (kudos to designer Richard Sylbert) and rat-a-tat action down pat, but once the smoke clears, I was left with the nagging feeling that the sound and fury didn’t amount to too much.

The scope of the film calls for the three-hour Godfather sprawl, and Cotton Club clocks in at barely over two. Characters meet, split, and kiss and make up with not much validation for their behavior. Coppola asks you to take a lot for granted.

I wish the extra hour might have had more song-and-dance in it, too; although the film is full of terrific music, few numbers are presented in their entirety (Coppola enjoys cutting routines in pieces rather than letting them develop on their own). Still, Lonette McKee’s “Ill Wind” is a stand-out, and the brothers Hines tread the boards with grace.

Coppola likes to describe himself as a ringmaster/magician of chaos. He may not quite prove that the hand is quicker than the eye in The Cotton Club, but at least he keeps all three rings of the circus busy at once.

First published in the Herald, December 15, 1984

As anybody who’s ever seen this movie knows, you can forget about Gere and Lane: Bob Hoskins and Fred Gwynne are where the action is.

Revolution / Absolute Beginners

July 9, 2012

A tale of two movies: both English-made, both lavishly produced, both abandoned by their studios. And, despite being dumped, they both happen to have arrived hereabouts at the same time.

Other than that, they couldn’t be more different in style and subject matter. Revolution is the big-budget (rumored in the $30 million range) historical epic with prestige credentials and a name cast; Absolute Beginners is a glitzy musical with unknown stars guided by a music-video director. Worlds apart, they both managed to inspire cold feet among their initial backers.

Revolution has been a well-publicized fiasco. When the film played in New York and Los Angeles late last year to qualify for Academy Award consideration, critics reacted with the kind of venom usually reserved for Benedict Arnold. Needless to say, the movie failed to snag any nominations, and its national release was postponed and then scrapped.

With that in mind, it’s hard not to root for the film—it couldn’t be that bad, right?

Well it’s not, not really, and there are individual scenes that carry considerable power. All through at least the first hour, as we’re introduced to the story of a Scot (Al Pacino) who, with his son, is reluctantly dragged into the Revolutionary war, the film is actually quite compelling.

It’s only later that the sketchiness of some of the characterizations takes its toll. Events are so telescoped, and characters glimpsed so hastily, that they don’t pay off as they should. We know that we should like the American lass (Nastassia Kinski) who loves Pacino, and that we should hate the British officer (Donald Sutherland) whose facial birthmark sprouts hair. But it doesn’t cut deeply enough.

Hugh Hudson, who nobly guided Chariots of Fire, can’t quite triumph over the shorthand and the humorlessness of Robert Dillon’s script. He’s certainly got an eye for spectacle, evidenced by the magnificent scenery filmed in Britain.

Absolute Beginners, from music-video maestro Julian Temple (he did David Bowie’s “Jazzin’ for Blue Jean”), is a high-kicking nostalgia piece set during the music revolution in England in 1958. The plot, from the novel by Colin MacInnes, hinges on a youthful photographer (Eddie O’Connell) and his sometime girlfriend (Patsy Kensit, rumored to be “The British Madonna”), who are the first generation known as teenagers.

The film celebrates the fact that music helped define this new age classification, and the music in the film (arranged by Gil Evans) is just splendid; it includes a few heavyweight turns, including Bowie, Ray Davies, and Sade. It’s all performed on wonderfully artificial sets, and the characters have very stylized movements and clothes.

Temple manages to sustain the manic energy of a music video over the running time of the film but, miraculously, doesn’t wear you down. This, I think, is because there’s such an air of enthusiasm about the film—Temple uses the camera and the soundtrack like a kid experimenting in a magic store.

His story wanders and then seeks relevancy in the race riots of the time. It probably doesn’t make perfect sense, if you bothered to examine it. But the film is so much fun to watch, you may find yourself asking: Why bother?

First published in the Herald, May 22, 1986

Revolution was a huge disaster; IMDb claims, unsourced, that it literally set the British film industry back by a decade. I don’t know if this review is missing a paragraph that explains the setting of the movie, but I had to insert [Revolutionary] before “the war” just now, in the hope that readers won’t be completely bewildered, or as bewildered as the audience watching the movie apparently was.

He’s My Girl

June 28, 2012

He’s My Girl is just about as bad as you’d think a movie with that title would be. Maybe worse.

At some point, the screenwriter who originally sat down and conceived the thing may have had honorable intentions: Gender-confusion farce is one of the oldest dramatic forms, right? But the script has passed through the mill—there are four different writers credited—and has become pretty degraded in the process. (There’s a lesson, here, somewhere; the more persons handle a screenplay, the less personality it has.)

The basic idea is creaky enough. A small-time rock singer (David Hallyday) and his equally small-time manager (T.K. Carter) hit it big by winning a trip to Los Angeles to meet a dissipated rock star. But, for reasons never quite explained, Hallyday is required to bring his “girlfriend,” not just a pal.

But Carter really, really wants to go. So he adopts a drag costume, which will allow him to pass as a woman and will cause many supposedly amusing complications in L.A.

Don’t make me go into details. The film flops around from one predictable situation to the next, under some appalling directing by Gabrielle Beaumont, though in this case “direction” may be a misleading term, since the movie seems to be utterly out of control.

In a situation like that, you watch the actors for something, anything. Surprisingly enough, the least offensive thing here is Carter’s drag act, which at least has some lowdown exuberance. Hallyday is terrible, stiff and lifeless.

Most embarrassing is David Clennon, a heretofore respectable actor (Meryl Streep’s husband in Falling in Love, for crying out loud—how much more respectable can you get?), who really goes over the top as the music executive who sponsored the contest. Most mysterious is Jennifer Tilly, who plays Hallyday’s waitress girlfriend. I assume she’s Meg Tilly’s sister, but she has her own oddball delivery; 25 years ago they would have called her “kooky.”

First published in the Herald, September 1987

Just another two-hour chunk of time to peel off the lifespan. I don’t remember it. T.K. Carter and David Clennon were in The Thing; Clennon was on the verge of going minimalist with his Hall of Fame performance in thirtysomething; Beaumont directed a huge amount of TV. David Hallyday is the son of French rock star Johnny Hallyday, a real icon in France and a more interesting movie presence than his son.

Beat Street

June 13, 2012

Considering the fact that its subject matter is new and hip, Beat Street is a surprisingly traditional film. It reworks the tried-and-true formula of poor street kids who dream of using their artistic talent as a means of breaking out of the urban inferno.

In this instance, the ghetto is in New York, and the ticket to freedom is no longer the ability to play the violin or sing like a bird. These kids are break dancers, graffiti artists, and rappers (rapping, defined by the handy press kit glossary, is “talking rhythmically with and over the instrumental breaks in records”).

These methods of expression may be new and unusual, but the basic story is the same. The kids have dreams and hopes, which are fulfilled and squashed in various ways during the story. Some of the kids want to dance; one is a budding rapper; and another expresses himself by spray-painting subway trains.

Director Stan Lathan never quite licks the problems of an overly formulaic scenario, but I did like his refusal to prettify the setting and characters. None of the actors (except Rae Dawn Chong) has much screen presence, which works two ways: It contributes to the sense of reality that the filmmakers are clearly shooting for, but it also makes the story rather less compelling than it ought to be.

The real interest in Beat Street lies in the break dancing, which involves human beings whirling and spinning around on the ground in positions and at speeds that confound anatomical reality. The best scene in the movie occurs at a big dance, when the plot just shuts down for about 10 minutes and the camera watches some of these amazing performers do their thing It’s exhilarating, and nothing else in the movie can match it for excitement.

Beat Street was co-produced by Harry Belafonte, who developed the project from its inception. Apparently Belafonte insisted on being true to the subject, and not glitzing up the soundtrack with easily accessible pop tunes (in the movie business these days, a pre-digested, commercial soundtrack album sometimes comes before the movie—as though the film itself were an afterthought).

Belafonte is to be commended for the honorable intentions behind Beat Street. It’s a shame the screenplay hews so close to cliché.

First published in the Herald, June 1984

Gotta love that rap definition. And hey, I may not have loved Stan Lathan’s work here, but the man is due some career recognition; not only has he directed everything from “Sanford and Son” to “Hill Street Blues” to “Def Comedy Jam,” he’s also the father of Sanaa Lathan.

Candy Mountain

May 30, 2012

“The road is gonna eat you up, man,” says the minor rock star to the slicked-back kid. That line in Candy Mountain is typical of the film’s self-conscious obsession with the road as a myth and symbol in American life and culture. This is a film that means to be something like the ultimate road movie.

And it should be, given the credentials of its creators. The writer, Rudy Wurlitzer, has practically made his career on the road, from the early hippie movie Glen and Randa to Two-Lane Blacktop. He shares the co-directing credit on Candy Mountain with Robert Frank, the renowned photographer and underground filmmaker. Frank’s most famous work may be a collection of photographs called The Americans, which captured life along the American highway. Frank also made a dizzy short movie in 1959 called Pull My Daisy, which was written by Jack Kerouac.

The restless spirit of Kerouac looms over Candy Mountain, too. It’s about a footloose musician named Julius (Kevin J. O’Connor, who played the beatnik poet in Peggy Sue Got Married), who’s trying to hustle his way into the big time. When he hears that a rock star will pay big bucks to locate a reclusive guitar maker—supposedly the Willie Mays of the instrument—Julius claims to know the man, Elmore Silk, and offers to find him and bring back the guitars.

The rest of the movie is his quest, which takes him through a series of misadventures. Each successive address for Silk leads Julius to another eccentric, and he goes farther north, up into Canada, until he runs out of continent.

The film is dotted with musicians playing small roles: David Johanson (also known these days as Buster Poindexter) as the star who wants to buy up the guitars, Tom Waits as Elmore’s middle-class brother, Joe Strummer as a punk, Dr. John as Elmore’s cranky son-in-law, Leon Redbone as one-half of a peculiar Canadian family who enjoy imprisoning passers-by.

Everywhere Julius sees the pull of the road on ordinary people, until he runs into Elmore himself (Harris Yulin), who doesn’t seem to be running anymore.

Sometimes Candy Mountain states too much, but it’s a beguiling film. O’Connor easily makes his anti-hero fundamentally likable, and Frank’s photographic eye catches the subtle gradations in light and color as Julius moves from the fall colors of New York state to the mists and fogs of Canada.

You might think that a movie directed by a still photographer would have a static, composed quality, but Frank goes the opposite way, to a raw, gritty sense of life. Life may not be a candy mountain, but Candy Mountain finds some unexpectedly sweet moments.

First published in the Herald, August 25, 1988

I will confess it’s the kind of movie I’m a sucker for. This was before O’Connor became very unusual looking, and his interesting road led to playing Igor in Van Helsing and the man who informs There Will Be Blood‘s Daniel Plainview he has a brother.