Perhaps it was Meatballs that said it best – are you ready for the Summer? It will definitely be an interesting four months. Instead of giving us one or two major blockbusters to contemplate over the next 16 weeks, Tinsel Town is dropping one on us each and every Friday. That’s a lot of popcorn product to digest. To make matters worse, the major cable channels are finally scheduling those long delayed hits from last year to turn the weekend watching decision into a real dilemma. Thank God for TiVo and DVR. While you’re standing in line waiting on the next available seat for Spider-Man 3 or Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, you can be recording the pay movie networks and their equally entertaining offerings. Beginning with this last week in April, it should be a battle between big and small screen for your leisure time attention, starting with:
Premiere Pick Cars
Critics were unfairly harsh to this amazing animated film when it hit the big screen last summer. Apparently, a steady diet of Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles left them unable to appreciate John Lassiter’s love letter to the American obsession with automobiles. Granted, the premise is a tad predicable (hot shot racer learns life lessons from the practical populace of a small town) and the voice work was more character driven than gimmicky (which, by the way, is a GOOD thing). Still, the spectacular CG work matched with backdrops that really sell the far away wanderlust of the open road, are a joy to behold – and thanks to the typical Pixar attention to detail, the little moments are just as impressive as the big. If you dismissed this movie before, here’s an opportunity to give it a second chance. It may not be great, but it is definitely as good as the artform gets. (28 April, Starz, 9PM EST)
Additional Choices The Hills Have Eyes (2006)
As remakes go, this update of Wes Craven’s 1970s cannibal holocaust is pretty straightforward. It follows the original as an unlucky family finds themselves at the mercy of some demented desert mutants. But once the standard slice and dice dynamic has been explored, director Alexadre Aja does something quite effective. He turns the tables, focusing on the foul irradiated murderers instead of our supposed heroes. (28 April, HBO, 8PM EST)
Mo’Nique is a very talented comedian. She’s also a fine actress when she wants to be. So you’d think a big screen comedy focusing on both of these facets would be a winner. Well, you’d be wrong. Strikingly schizophrenic in approach, part of the narrative wants to condemn our current fascination with body type and weight. Then, out of nowhere, a wild and crazy comedy emerges. For fans only. (28 April, Cinemax, 10PM EST)
Here’s proof that even the mighty must fall sometimes. After winning over audiences with Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous and Vanilla Sky, Cameron Crowe went and whizzed his film geek goodwill right down his leg. This slow, dragged out declaration of the old adage about ‘going home again’ made audiences weep – but not in a good way. No, they were wondering where all the wit, style and invention of Crowe’s previous canon had wandered off to. (28 April, ShowTOO, 8PM EST)
Indie Pick Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.
It’s the second week in a row that we’ve featured a documentary here, which speaks volumes for the long overlooked format. This time around, genre giant Errol Morris (Gates of Heaven, The Fog of War) looks at the man responsible for most of the execution technology used in our current penal system. Mr. Leuchter’s engineering expertise, especially in the arena of putting people to death, became crucial to modernizing the approach toward capital punishment in this country. His so called know how was also manipulated and abused by revisionist historian Ernst Zundel, a Holocaust denier that got Leuchter to agree with his proposition that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz. That Morris manages to keep our interest in this man once such a baffling bombshell is dropped confirms his ability as a fascinating auteur. It’s also the main reason why the fact-based film is such a misunderstood member of the cinematic community. (30 April, IFC, 5:45PM EST)
Additional Choices Dumplings
Just call this Dim Sum Death Becomes Her. The storyline follows a fading actress and the rumors surrounding a mysterious chef’s dumplings that may actually rejuvenate one’s youth and beauty. The cook’s previous life as a gynecologist and renowned abortionist may have something to do with the miracle food – and its unique filling of effectiveness. Yes, it’s apparently as gross and gory as such a suggestion implies. (29 April, Sundance, 11PM EST)
No, this is not the original version of the Russian 2001. Instead, this is the George Clooney/Steven Soderbergh update, which many find equally compelling. In essence, both versions of the story are an exploration of loneliness and alienation, made all the more obvious by the vast distances of time and space inherent in interstellar travel. But there are also elements of love lost and the heart exposed that make the cosmic contemplation even more human. (2 May, IFC, 11PM EST)
Following 30 years in the life of a Chicano gang member, actor Edward James Olmos banked some of his Miami Vice/Stand and Deliver commercial cred to direct this three hour epic. His first feature film behind the camera, Olmos went for a combination of The Godfather, Scarface and Once Upon a Time in America, dealing realistically with both life in prison and on the streets. The combination makes for compelling, if occasionally overdone, motion picture drama. (2 May, Sundance, 3AM EST)
Outsider Option Beloved
Believe it or not, this is a very well done adaptation of Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison’s famously poetic novel. Indeed, it’s hard to fault star Oprah Winfrey, director Jonathan Demme, or anyone else in the extremely talented cast or crew. So why wasn’t this movie more popular – both critically and commercially – when it arrived in theaters back in 1998? Perhaps it had something to do with the very nature of Morrison’s work. Her storyline is part ghost story, part metaphysical reparations for a nation still smarting from the pain of civil war. Demme draws directly from the book’s baroque prose, illustrating moments that appear to play better in one’s mind. And then there is the title character, a surreal specter that disturbs in her otherworldly whine. Put them all together and you have an art film as horror-tinged history. It works – perhaps just not in the way that you, or any other fan of the TV talk show hostess intended. (3 May, Indieplex, 9PM EST)
Apparently, the TCM Underground is already running out of films to feature. First they repeat a pair of Ed Wood epics, then they revisit the DePalma thriller Sisters. Now it’s Russ Meyer’s turn to take up residence in rerun city. These remarkable movies, unlike anything else made in the exploitation era of the ‘50s and ‘60s, stand as monuments to one man’s idiosyncratic eccentricity. Sure, they’re nothing but babes, boobs and bloodshed, but no one ever handled that tantalizing trio better. (27 April, Turner Classic Movies, 11:15PM EST)
Right at the height of his popularity as a sci-fi whiz (around T2 time), James Cameron gave ex-wife and fellow director Kathryne Bigelow a chance at equal speculative fortunes. His script for an end of the millennium thriller involving portable memory and governmental conspiracies was turned into a big budget spectacle by the Point Break helmer, with Ralph Fiennes and Angela Bassett along for the ride. Unpopular at the time, the movie has since had a kind of reactionary cult rebirth. (30 April, Fox Movie Channel, 10PM EST)
The Thing Below
Every once in a while, even the most tolerant film fan needs a little cinematic cheese to cleanse their artsy fartsy tastebuds. No one is suggesting that this low budget drek from 2004 is good, or even tolerable, but with a plot involving an alien creature terrorizing an offshore oil rig and its occupants, who are we at SE&L to say ‘No’. In fact, something as sensationally stupid as this only makes us enjoy the cinematic artform that much more. (2 May, Showtime Beyond 12:15AM EST)
Stop with all the spoof talk, already. The latest masterpiece from Brit wits Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, the spectacularly anarchic action buddy cop caper Hot Fuzz is more than just a simple-minded lampoon. Such a categorization limits what the amazing movie manages to achieve, bringing it down to a level of creative crassness that the duo manage to transcend time and time again. The truth is, Wright and Pegg have much larger funny business fish to fry than merely taking on the Bruckheimer/Bay gonzo gunplay dynamic. There is more to their satire than flying bullets, fisticuffs and testosterone-laced fireworks. No, this exceptionally talented duo is out to undermine their very own Englishness, to poke fun at a country that still views itself as a bastion of good manners and inbred etiquette.
The storyline is fairly straightforward. Sgt. Nicholas Angel is so good at his job, that his London superiors send him off into a sort of reputation saving exile. Soon lost among the citizens of this out of the way country village, Angel finds himself surrounded by a group of bumbling, doltish deputies. Lead by the impeccably optimistic Inspector Butterman, this subpar stable of inert officers features a bizarre assortment of dimwitted detectives, clueless constables and one particularly oafish officer, Butterman’s bulky son Danny. When it looks like murder may have finally found this tiny burg, Angel is eager for some action. But the local constituency doesn’t believe that such big city crime would visit their town. After all, it’s so calm, peaceful and well mannered –- almost suspiciously so. Of course, dark secrets lurk under such serene settings, and Angel and Danny are out to discover the truth.
When we first see police officer Nicholas Angel (in the person of Pegg), he seems rather cartoonish, almost incapable of becoming a three dimensional character. The many montages used by director Wright to instill the proper authority and focus to the man’s personality become part of a plan. Indeed, all throughout the film, Angel is a symbol that slowly becomes a human. As each layer is carefully peeled back, as we learn why the man is so dedicated to the law and so convinced of his perspective on crime, we begin the process of deconstructing this cinematic champion. Pegg is flawless in the role, doing his best to hide the utter contempt he has for the rest of his fellow policemen while always playing every situation by the book. It’s a brilliant turn in an equally remarkable story.
Similarly, Pegg/Wright regular Nick Frost is an excellent example of the audience stand-in, the inexperienced commoner who only knows the law based on what he’s seen on TV and in movies. He’s not just a flawless foil for Pegg’s procedural prig, but he makes a solid case for himself as a well-meaning copper. Frost may come across as a bumbling klutz, his size instantly giving him the standard jolly fat man vibe, but this is an actor of unlimited skill. All throughout Hot Fuzz, Frost is the face of honesty and truth inside a wonky world of mysterious deaths, countryside conspiracies, and more than a little semi-erotic male bonding. Indeed, when placed alongside Pegg, the pair manage the same filmic feat as they did in Shaun of the Dead –- they create a cinematic figure that you want to champion and root for.
As for the story –- a strange kind of Stepford Wives weirdness going on in the little out of the way alcove of Sandford –- we really don’t make much of it at first. We assume the series of eccentric ‘accidents’ (all of which are realized in a nicely nasty helping of gore) will have a rational explanation, or perhaps just a reason to exist. But since Hot Fuzz isn’t focused on being 100% realistic, at least not plot wise, Wright and Pegg have some over the top fun with their finale. Instead of being a simple case of serial murder, we get healthy doses of civic pride, mass hysteria, crawlspaces loaded with corpses, and a real warping of the whole ‘neighborhood watch’ conceit. It’s kitchen sink comedy at its most uproarious, a movie than makes you laugh consistently, enjoying every moment for its many levels of amusement.
Wright deserves a great deal of credit for combining two of the most misunderstood genres in post-modern moviemaking (comedy and action) into one overwhelmingly inventive and clever combination. Hot Fuzz is willing to do anything for a giggle -– from major malapropism and obvious jokes to little asides and inside digs that only the smartest film fan or trivia expert will understand. He surrounds his leads with several sensational supporting players, UK names like Billie Whitelaw, Edward Woodward, Jim Broadbent and Timothy Dalton. They all add a kind of historical heft to the movie, making the drama seem that much more serious, the wit that much more wicked. Additionally, Wrights got the stuntwork setpiece down pat. Several chase scenes in Hot Fuzz zing with Spielbergian artistry. They play as perfectly planned out and simultaneously caught off the cuff.
If there is a single insignificant flaw in this otherwise outstanding film, a minor facet that could keep audiences from completely connecting with the characters, it’s the very British-ness of the piece. Many outside England won’t understand some of the more biting irony, the sequences where church festivals and local snack shops play backdrop to bigger, more striking social commentary. Indeed, why Sandford would care about the title of Best Village in the UK may seem rather silly to wired Western suburbanites. What’s missing is context, a life or death reason why the town must preserve its perception –- apparently at all costs. It’s an absent ingredient in what is already a heady combination of personalities and pistols.
And there will be others who lament the lack of a love interest here. Even Shaun of the Dead found time in its zombie stomping to give its titular hero a love life. In Hot Fuzz, Angel is seen speaking to his CSI inspector girlfriend (Cate Blanchett in a clever cameo), but once we toss said ex aside, there is not another lady in either his or Frost’s life. It’s as if Sandford doesn’t have an available gal under 50 for either man to make time with (and Police Department trollop Doris Thatcher doesn’t count). Pegg can essay an endearing love struck suitor, and it would have been nice to see him chat up a bird or two while in the line of duty. Frost’s Butterman could also stand with a date. His private stash of action movies is a sad replacement for actual human companionship.
Such quibbles do very little to undermine Hot Fuzz’s power as an entertainment epiphany. In a modern medium which is more than happy to spell everything out in baby step simplicity, where jokes are based in the gross out, not the finely crafted, where acting is often confused with one’s status as an A-list celebrity, this is the kind of film that rekindles the inherent joy of movies. It so effortlessly formed, so wholly its own entity that you consistently find yourself giddy with satisfaction at how good the film makes you feel. In a domain that’s basically forgotten how to satisfy, Hot Fuzz is the very definition of a crowd pleaser. It may be making fun of a hundred varying Tinsel Town conceits, but it takes its desire to delight very, very seriously
Every year they beach themselves on the shores of our aesthetic, dozens of summer blockbuster belugas looking for as many adolescent audience members and merchandising tie-ins as they can get within the mandatory opening weekend window of opportunity. And like the proverbial lemmings to the motion picture precipice, we march right up to each and every one and dive right in, struggling to sample their focus group inelegance. Granted, there’s nothing wrong with a big, dumb action film or outrageous special effects extravaganza, but sometimes you need a little movie meat to supplement those huge helpings of high concept carbs.
So before Tinsel Town tempts you with its annual smörgåsbord of stale sequels, overdone remakes and middling main courses, let’s stop to test a few of the adventurous side dishes summer cinema has to offer. Many of these movies were fashioned outside the ‘microwave and reheat’ kitchens of Hollywood, and several sail right along that neglected edge of marginalized moviemaking – the genre (horror/sci-fi/thriller) effort. But in a season overrun by mainstream sameness, where every title is an event, and all entertainment elements are geared toward maximum monetary returns, it’s nice to see a little artistry mixed in with all the artifice.
So, in alphabetical order, here are the ten films that SE&L will be specifically looking forward to come sun and fun season.:
Black Sheep (22 June)
How can you ignore mutant killer livestock? Especially when Peter Jackson’s WETA F/X studio had a hand in the deadly mutton’s design? Though this could quickly de-evolve into another tacky trade-off of the entire Food of the Gods nature gone nutty formula, early buzz has Jonathan King creating a wonderful combination of scary and silly. All comparisons to Shawn of the Dead aside, SE&L is salivating over the prospect of this zombie ewe extravaganza.
Death Sentence (31 August)
It’s about time someone revived the whole Death Wish ideal, and SE&L couldn’t be happier that James Saw Wan is behind the lens this time around. Sure, no one bothered to see the Australian filmmaker’s criminally underrated Dead Silence (how could anyone ignore lethal ventriloquist dummies???), but with a cast including Kevin Bacon (as our vigilante) and John Goodman (as a mob boss), this edge of your seat thriller could be the director’s ticket out of the Hell of horror.
DOA (22 June)
It’s a video game. It’s softcore sexism. It’s every basement dwelling geeks ultimate wet dream. And now it’s being made into a movie. The storyline revolves around the title martial arts competition, and four scantily clad babes who find themselves buff, bikini-ed, and ready to bust some butt. Though it’s already opened in other markets around the world, the US has had to wait almost a year to see this flagrantly anti-feminist fight fest. The inner nerd inside us can’t wait.
Eagle vs. Shark (29 June)
Two dorky losers – one an amiable uber geek named Jarrod, the other a wistful young woman named Lily – hook up at a gamers’ party and decide to take a road trip together. Jarrod is desperate for a little late in life payback on a bully that tormented him in school years before. With constant comparisons to Napoleon Dynamite, SE&L senses a healthy dose of fringe filmmaking here. While New Zealand director Taika Cohen is well known in his native land, this could be his US breakthrough.
Fido (15 June)
The living dead as household servants/pets? Another surreal dark social commentary set in the ‘50s in the vein of Bob Balaban’s brilliant Parents? All SE&L can say is HELL YA! This will be the Summer Sleeper movie to beat in our opinion, a film that is already generating massive buzz and a considerable cult following. If Lionsgate can market this correctly, and prove to non-horror fans that there is more here than laugh laced blood and guts, they could have a sizable hit on our hands.
The Flock (11 May)
He’s responsible for the Infernal Affairs trilogy, the Hong Kong police procedurals that, in turn, lead to last year’s Oscar winner The Departed. For his first Western film, director Wai Keung Lau offers up this Se7en like story of aggressive agents, naive trainees, little children, and a nasty pedophile. A delayed release and recent reshoots (san Lau) don’t appear promising, but who knows. This just might work. With his pedigree, we’re definitely betting on Lau.
La Vie En Rose/The Passionate Life of Edith Piaf (25 May)
Though she’s fallen a ways out of the pop culture zeitgeist since the turn of the millennium, SE&L senses there is enough interest in the life and times of this diminutive French chanteuse to warrant a biopic. And since early word is that this movie defies description and borders on being a work of staggering genius, the lack of a present day high profile for the subject may not hurt it at all. Already a hit at the Berlin Film Festival, we can’t wait for it to open here in the states.
The King of Kong (17 August)
Old school arcade game action meets post-modern social sensibilities in a documentary that follows some dedicated middle aged joystickers as they try to break the world records on the stalwart simian title Donkey Kong. Like all great non-fiction films, this one takes a seemingly staid premise and infuses it with both drama and deeper meaning. There is something uniquely profound – and sort of perplexing – about watching grown men recapturing their youth. Count us interested and in.
The Signal (10 August)
Calling Stephen King!!! Paging Eli Roth!!! You better get that adaptation of Cell up and running PDQ. This blatant take on your material – a mysterious transmission across phones, radio and TV turns people into psychotic killers – is about to hit theaters and steal most of your thunder. Gory, gratuitous and guaranteed to get your genre jones amplified and overdosing, here’s hoping this could be the splatter spree the summer needs to cleanse its occasionally cloying aesthetic palette.
The Ten (3 August)
With that Decalogue of rules known as the Ten Commandments as its basis, former State/Stella creators David Wain and Ken Marino present a comedy anthology that’s part sketch fest, part attempt to contextualize society. With an amazing cast (Winona Rynder, Liev Schreiber, Jessica Alba and Ron Silver) and the same surreal sensibility that made their previous TV ventures seem like disconnected and deranged, this could be the kind of film that breathes new life into the dying big screen farce.
Get ready for a little merchandising back and forth this week as studios and distributors strike at us with a combination of classics and crap. Inside the positive paradigm are one of 2006’s best films, a decent slice of speculation from a noted African American superstar, and a pair of pleasant box sets from two of foreign filmmaking’s greatest auteurs. The negatives of note include another clueless comedy, a crackpot kid flick and a very unnecessary CGI trip to a completely unentertaining museum. There’s also a lot of off title product hitting the marketplace as well, oddball offerings with names like China Doll (a Victor Mature war sudser) Von Richthofen and Brown (Roger Corman’s WWI flying epic) and Blood Orgy of the She Devils (trademark Ted V. Mikels miscreance). Unless you’re willing to experiment with your entertainment, your best bet is to stick with SE&L‘s rock solid pick, a film that makes the 24 April date worth noting:
Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of Stephen Frears’ Oscar nominated nod to the days preceding the death of Princess Diana is how emotionally astute it is. The natural reaction to anyone outside of the Prime Minister of Britain and the title icon would be unbridled devastation. That’s in fact what the world expressed upon her passing. But Elizabeth II and Tony Blair needed to manage a nation, not just their own feelings, and such a weighty proposition gives this amazing movie much of its drive, and its daring. Though it doesn’t pretend to offer factual insights into how Her Majesty and the Man from Number Ten Downing Street actually responded, Peter Morgan’s amazing script does a genius job of guessing. No matter if it’s false or forced, the responses just feel right, and help us see the exhaustive burden of power that follows every leader. Of course Helen Mirren deserved her Academy Award. The movie – and the men who made it - deserved a couple of those little gold men as well.
Other Titles of Interest
Code Name: The Cleaner
Don Imus gets fired for a horribly insensitive racial slur, and yet no one in Hollywood suffers one lick for continuing this borderline racist funny business formula. Cedric the Entertainer is the sad recipient of the Mantan Moreland treatment, playing a janitor who loses his memory and believes he’s a government agent. Sigh. That anyone thought this was viable mainstream entertainment is one thing. But to constantly cast talented black performers as the butt of bumbling jokes is a real crime.
For some reason, Denzel Washington and genre efforts just don’t mesh. With a tenuous track record that includes Virtuosity, Fallen and The Bone Collector, it would seem silly to keep placing this titanic talent in a scary/sci-fi settings. In this time travel tale, built around the title premise, Washington is an ATF allowed to go back into the past and prevent an act of flagrant terrorism. Thanks to his considerable acting chops, we almost believe it.
The Documentaries of Louis Malle: Eclipse Series 2
As part of their new line of DVDs, Criterion introduces film fans to the non-fiction works of one of the medium’s great artists. Offering six works spanning subject matters as diverse as his native France and post-colonial India, this unusual compendium proves that there was more to Malle than gut wrenching humanism and a deep understanding of the flawed individual. Indeed, he had a keen eye for the drama of everyday existence as well.
The Jean Renoir Collection
Three discs. Seven films. One of SE&L‘s all time favorite filmmakers. So why aren’t we more ecstatic? Well, for one thing, Lionsgate is handling this release, and one has to question their stance as practiced preservationists. Second, most of these movies predate his masterpiece phase, the period between The Lower Depths (1936) and Rules of the Game (1939). Still, it’s Renoir, so you can definitely count us interested, if not exactly in.
A Night at the Museum
Do you miss those halcyon days of big budget, high concept movies that basically got by on imagery and mass hysteria. Well, look no further than this faceless, unfunny excuse for special effects. Ben Stiller trades his comic irony for kid friendly fluff and gets a massive points paycheck in the process. Unless the film’s main conceit grabs you – the displays in a local museum come to life after dark – there’s no need to visit this arch artifact from a lesser period of motion picture production.
And Now for Something Completely Different Harry and the Hendersons: Special Edition
Wow, were we GULLIBLE in the ‘80s. William Dear, a director responsible for helping invent the music video format with MTV mentor Michael Nesmith (the pair produced the mythic Elephant Parts VHS ‘album’), used Rick Baker’s eccentric makeup to tell a slightly silly tale of a man who befriends a Bigfoot. That’s right, John Lithgow is along to overact as the harried dad who brings the legendary beast back home after his family has a car to creature mishap. All kinds of skunk ape hijinx ensue. Even though the premise is basically ET in a monkey suit, and the supporting cast of Don Ameche, Lainie Kazan and Melinda Dillon are top notch, the film tends to float away on its own internal emptiness. Even with a wealth of added content (commentaries, deleted scenes) its hard to imagine that this new DVD release will resonate with modern wee ones.
It just doesn’t seem right. Oh sure, all the creative forces seem to be in proper alignment, and there’s a Great White Way full of good will banking on the fact that it will work. But with the memory of John Waters’ brilliant original still fresh in one’s mind, it’s hard to fathom how a big screen musical version of Hairspray will actually succeed. And before you scoff at such a suggestion, here’s a couple of words for you to contemplate – The Producers. Mel Brooks’ Broadway smash, winner of more Tonys than any other show in theater history, was positioned to be the song and dance delight of 2005. It too also had its foundation in a much loved comic masterpiece. But somewhere between the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd, the film adaptation tanked. Guaranteed Oscar bait magically transformed into a clear critical condemnation.
Initially, it doesn’t seem like Hairspray will suffer from a similar fate. The Producers problem had more to do with translating the show’s over the top manic spirit into a medium not known for its looseness and frivolity. What stars Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick did on the NY stage exceeded theater – they were recreating a humor masterpiece while tossing in a few novelty numbers for good measure. But film is a cruel mistress, especially to the musical. Remove the artificiality of the stage setting, and people breaking into song seems odd, even antithetical to four decades of post-modern cinema. That’s why Waters’ original film was so perfect. It celebrated youth, dance, Baltimore and the rise of ‘60s (with all its social pros and cons) while never once forgetting the concept of fun.
But the new version, crafted by the award winning combination of Thomas Meehan (Annie, The Producers and Hairspray) Mark O’Donnell (Hairspray) and Marc Shaiman, seems to have cast aside all the nostalgia to create a more PC version of Tracy Turnblad’s coming of age. From what we can see of the film in the new trailer (recently released to the web), the civil rights angle is being amplified, while the American Bandstand-esque Corny Collins Show is barely even featured. Part of the fun in Waters’ movie was watching prototypical teens master such classic sock hop favorites as ‘The Madison’, ‘The Mashed Potato’ and ‘The Pony’. One assumes that material is still part of this new story. But in the first Hairspray, it was the film’s reason for being. Here it seems like puffery surrounding the musical’s main purpose.
Anyone familiar with the infamous Pope of Puke knows that Waters is not a wholly political filmmaker. While his movies are often filled with nonconformist approaches and counterculture ideals, his is an avant-garde ideal forged out of personal, not agenda-based, beliefs. His Hairspray wasn’t out to right the wrongs of ‘50s racism. Instead, he was acknowledging the power that rock and roll had in bringing black and white together. Over the last 40 plus years, sociologists have confirmed that the meshing of R&B with country, hillbilly with soul, did more to break down ethnic barriers and change the popular culture than a dozen demonstrations. While it may not have been a question of Constitutional rights and duties, the kids got it. Dancing was dancing, no matter the color of your skin.
Waters captured this perfectly in his Hairspray. He let his Tracy Turnblad – the magnificent Ricki Lake – become the surrogate for all the suffering going on. As a fat girl in a situation made up of standard concepts of beauty, the character became a litmus test for the narrow minded among the members of the Corny Collins Show‘s Council. Some mocked her size, while others embraced its novelty. Once we saw what a great dancer Tracy was – and how open she was to the experience of being with people of different backgrounds and heritages – the subtle third act move to the race riot at a local amusement park didn’t seem shocking. In fact, it seemed inevitable. More importantly, the issue grew organically out of the situation. Tracy and her best friend Penny liked the black kids they hung out with, and couldn’t understand how their parents and the city could be so narrow-minded and misguided.
It’s all a question of perception. Waters’ Hairspray seems convinced that, like the era it is set in, music will set the audience free. And for the most part, it does. Proving that he’s one of the great directors of dance in modern moviemaking, Waters enlivens all his ‘musical’ moments with the pure joy of movement. Tracy’s not a wonder because she’s a fat girl who can dance. Instead, she’s a marvel because she’s a dancer trapped in a big gal’s body. By taking this facet out of the entertainment equation, by introducing every emotion and idea through a lyric or sonic situation, the Broadway version of the show loses a key component. And it’s upon this realization that the new film’s flaw rests.
In general, musicals succeed because of memorable melodies mixed with clear entertainment transcendence. Like Effie’s proud declaration of intent “And I Am Telling You” or Audrey’s lovely lament about leaving Little Shop of Horrors’ heinous Skid Row to live “Somewhere That’s Green”, a great song in a solid storyline will take the audience out of the narrative and place them in a kind of elative limbo. We accept both the sentiment and the situation as they seamlessly meld together into a facet of pure potency. It’s what separates the classic shows from the fly by night flops. The new Hairspray‘s score is impressive, and Shaiman has a wonderful way with scene-stealing stances. But Tracy’s story is now one aspect of a multi-leveled look at life circa 1962, and it’s more verbal than visual.
On a low budget, with very little studio support, Waters captured the look and feel of his childhood exquisitely. He did it with a careful combination of fresh faces and ‘45s. The records he chose to highlight, the dances he used as divining rods, spoke the volumes of information the movie needed to get across. The musical now must match that, but it must do it in song. And since characters like Motormouth Mabel and Velma Von Tussle have been expanded, made massively more important to the segregation storyline that anchors the entire plotline, the focus becomes confused. In Waters’ world, Tracy’s spirit lifted her locale out of the bigoted dark ages, if only for one day, on one minor TV dance party showcase. Now, she’s a catalyst to bigger change, and even larger pronouncements regarding equality.
And then there is the musical’s main gimmick – that is, following the original Hairspray’s casting design and allowing a man to play the role of Tracy’s mother, Edna. Of course, Waters did this out of necessity and purposeful design. To this day, no other actor, straight or gay, stag or drag has been able to recapture what Glen “Divine” Milstead could do in a oversized print dress and a bad washwoman’s wig. One of those rare talents whose abilities are missed more and more as the years go by, Divine is the other reason Waters’ movie works so well. Call it the “X” factor, or just the sign of a sensational performer at the top of his/her game, but when Edna Turnblad goes from laundry lady to her daughter’s determined agent, fielding offers and fending off the Von Tussle’s insults, she becomes the story’s spitfire soul.
Of course, on stage, Edna gets a song. She also gets a fleshed out sequence with her joke shop owning husband, Wilbur. In a brilliant bit of casting, Harvey Fierstein played the part, and earned a Tony for same. Similar to Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in the theatrical version of their show, Fierstein was allowed to vamp and rave for audiences, turning on his gay-laced charms to speck the show with moments of campy cleverness. For the film, the stunt strays a bit. As brilliant as the casting of John Travolta is (a singer, a dancer, and a solid actor, all around), it has the feeling of being a genius stroke that’s already turning tedious. After seeing the macho man encased in a fat suit, strutting around like a pig in pastels, one instantly misses the glam sham guys who came before.
There is also one final filmic warning sign – the director. Adam Shankman is behind the movie musical version of Hairspray, and his credits are concerning at best. Unless someone considers The Wedding Planner, Bringing Down the House, The Pacifier and Cheaper by the Dozen 2 to be the end all/be all of modern moviemaking, this singing, dancing demonstration of music’s ability to change appears to be in very iffy hands. Of course, recent rumors have New Line – the production company behind the project – so ecstatic about the movie as a whole that they are positioning Shankman for an early Oscar run. It is obvious from the trailer that Hairspray looks good. It has the feel and heft of a major motion picture, one loaded with big performances, bright colors and the scope and sweep of a spectacle. But a film lives and dies by everything it contains – the small moments, the throwaway performances – and Shankman hasn’t proved his overall acumen, especially not based on his current resume.
With over two months to go before we get the final, full length verdict, it’s clear that this new version of Hairspray has little chance of topping the original. It may be just as good, or even better in some people’s opinion, but the fact remains that John Waters and the men who adapted his show for Broadway are functioning at clear cross purposes. In his fascinating book, Shock Treatment, the native Baltimore bad boy talked about how The Buddy Dean Show defined his youth, it’s combination of scandalous ‘race’ music and conservative, all white sensibilities illustrating the main dichotomy of pre-Beatles popular culture. Hairspray was his homage to that time. In musical form, however, it looks like all that is lost. The new message may be just as valid, but it clearly belongs to someone else. And that just doesn’t seem right.