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by Bill Gibron

25 May 2007


For those unfamiliar with geek lore, yesterday, 25 May, 2007, was a true nerd milestone. On said date, 30 years ago, an unknown sci-fi spectacle with very little advance buzz opened on movie screens across America. It starred nobody famous, was created by a filmmaker best known for his nostalgic nod to the 1950s, and confused critics with its jumbled genre crossing designs. Granted, the new fangled special effects looked mighty cool, but would audiences really queue up to see a bunch of basic eye candy wrapped around an obviously allegorical narrative? After all, three of the main characters were a pair of bumbling robots and an interstellar first mate who looked like Bigfoot. How could this possibly succeed?

Well, two sequels, three god-awful prequels, and umpteen billions of dollars later, its eventual conquest is now a glorified given. Indeed, Star Wars has come to mean more than just a novel 1977 popcorn flick that carried its creator George Lucas to both the zenith and nadir of fan obsession. It’s a corporate tag, a merchandising behemoth, a licensing label that has expanded across all marketing paradigms to prove its value as a type, a logo and a motion picture mission statement. Anyone who sat in the theaters some three decades past and thought they would see characters like Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Darth Vader mythologized into fictional keepers of the science fiction faith would have been declared insane. But thanks to rampant fandom, the rise of recordable home video, and the arrival of the Internet as a new form of implied community, all speculative fiction now finds itself compared to the worlds of Wars.

Granted, there was nothing wrong with Lucas’ lucky lament. Upon a first viewing, the original Star Wars was like a stick of imagination imploding TNT. As you sat in your seat, whisked away to planetoids never dreamed of, with characters you couldn’t have conceived, the cinematic scales fell from your eyes. In their place remained indelible images that still stand strong today – the figure of our hero, Luke Skywalker, standing against the backdrop of a multi-mooned sky; the devious orb of destruction known as the Death Star; the black hooded Darth Vader commanding respect from his easily replaceable crew; Han Solo saving the day, blaster blazing away in a flurry of laser light glory. From the initial space shot to the final interstellar dogfight, Star Wars stands a singular work of inspired genius. Like all exceptional art, it taps into many elements at once, combining to easily transcend and transform them all.

The sequels remain the first step in ruining all that. No matter how great you think Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi are, they destroyed the initial aesthetic generated by Lucas and their team. They took what was probably a one-off experiment (though Georgie constantly disagrees with such claims) and expanded it far beyond anyone’s ability to control. No longer a personal or private vision, the new films had to be retrofitted to meet the demands of a blockbuster craving public. Thankfully, Lucas understood his own lame limits and turned the projects over to others (Leigh Brackett, Lawrence Kasdan, Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand) to fulfill their newly compromised promise. He went on to make fledgling F/X house Industrial Light and Magic a definitive dream machine. The hope was to provide an outlet to secure any and all filmmaker’s wildest vision. And as said business plan resoundingly succeeded, Star Wars continued to become more and more culturally relevant.

This didn’t mean it mattered cinematically or artistically. Instead of finding a way of making his spin-offs feel organic and original, Lucas continually rehashed the same old storylines (Skywalker’s in trouble, Vader is mad, Solo is suave, Leah is lost) and accessorizing their similarities with new characters (Yoda, Jabba the Hut) and ever expanding vistas. What he had initially was something very special, something that spoke to a generation eager to experience imagery and imagination unbridled and unfettered. In it’s place, Lucas simply created a cottage industry (and, eventually, a major motion picture force), one that forgot that fun was also part of the motion picture mix. Near the end of Jedi, with familial connections revealed, loyalties tested and tried, and every last manipulated emotion employed, our filmmaker let his cuddly duddly Ewok characters announce last call. Slightly satisfied, the crowds disbanded and went on their way.

It’s important to note that all of this occurred in an era with no reliable home theater construct. VCRs had been around since the early ‘70s, but few owned them and studios basically balked at the idea of releasing first run films onto a magnetic tape format (they had just caved on cable a couple of years previous). When movies finally started arriving on both Beta and VHS, they were incredibly expensive (well over $100 dollars) and limited in their reproduction quality. So for most of us, memory – and the occasional revival at the local arthouse – was all we had. And inside such wistful thoughts, Star Wars became something much more than its inauspicious origins. It became a phenomenon, a rite of passage, a part of everyone’s collective memory and any other lame metaphysical cliché you can clamp to it. Reality remained far off in the distance. In its place was the new religion – with new cathedrals built to its amusement immortality.

The first church eventually evolved from said videocassette. When Lucas finally put his War films out on the market, they were pan and scan shadows of their former big screen selves. Holding back as long as he arrogantly could, he turned each and every release into an epiphany. When the devoted demanded widescreen versions, mimicking the larger than life theatrical experience, he eventually complied. Soon, the digital technology that ILM helped found was firm enough to allow Lucas to tinker with his titles. The outrage was, initially, overwhelming, but with the promise of additional sequences and improved interstellar opulence, the whiners soon quieted. All three original movies were tweaked, and 1997 saw a 20th anniversary celebration of all things spacey. And like new prophecies from up on high, the faithful drank them in and learned their slightly different dogma.

The next logistical place of worship was the Internet. While continuously stereotyped as a place where freaks and dweebs tend to meet and greet, there is no denying the support group mentality inside the Information Superhighway. There, individuals who believe their obsessions are wholly and completely their own learn that others exist outside their sphere of experience and – believe it or not – their fetishism was the same as everyone else’s. It was here where Lucas’s sovereign state went nuclear. Fellow Warlords used bulletin boards, free Geocities webpages, and college computer lab time to outline their defense of the subtext strewn Skywalker realm. They opined on minutia, imagined plotlines of their own, and coalesced the entire Lucas empire (books, movies, video games, TV shows, comics, trading cards) into a doctrine drenched in exaggerated meaning and overhyped worth.

Naturally, their loose canon L. Ron had to respond, and Lucas solidified the sorry state of Star Wars’ artistic merits by delivering three of the stupidest space operas ever. The perfunctory prequels – movies predating the events in the original trilogy – did an amazing job of hallowing out everything that had come before. Darth Vader, an icon of imposing evil, was turned into a pitter-patter bratling with a tendency to express his joy in diaper wetting shouts. Even worse, as the films moved along, adolescence found the future Sith sulking like a paperboy who just been bitten by a teacup Chihuahua. By the end of the turgid third film, a lava-pruned Vader was reduced to an archetype – that is, a love lorn loser whose emotional depth is, again, reduced to monosyllabic shouts.

Failing to see how he pissed on perspective, Lucas did what any self-determined god does, and declared his works to be “good”. Then, he went on to deliver his final Soviet state revisionist sentence. The original Star Wars, he said, was never to exist again. Instead, it would only be available in the CGI revamped Special Edition. Those who didn’t like the decision needed to get with the times, he insisted, and stop living in the past. The problem was, the past was decidedly better. Forgetting the dated look of the fantasy for a moment, the spirit imbued throughout the original film was lost in a gloss of fake fictional creatures and overdone sci-fi cityscapes. Sure, the story remained the same – sort of (No, the whole Greedo episode will not be discussed here), but the heart of the narrative had been ripped out and replaced by something that looked like shameless self-promotion.

There is a bigger picture problem involved here as well. By purposefully thwarting art’s inherent element of timelessness, Lucas and others open up the entire category to unnecessary interference. For example, an owner of Picasso’s “Guernica” who believes it would look better in full color, or a studio convinced that a movie’s box office appeal was limited by a director’s choice of subplot are now supported in their frequently misguided notions of reconfiguration. And before you toss out the typical “they’re his films” mantra, remember two things. One day, they won’t be (no one lives forever) and Lucas didn’t make these movies just for himself. He put them out into the marketplace to be accepted and/or rejected. Once taken, a creative contract is implied. He can pragmatically retrieve and rewrite the original entertainment agreement, but by doing so, he opens himself to claims of fraud and falsehood. It may not hold up legally, but it sure stinks ethically.

And the worst was yet to come. Last year, among much hoopla and hand wringing, Lucas reneged on his ‘no original versions’ dicta and provided long suffering fans with a chance to own the initial ‘70s standards canoodling free. Of course, there was a catch, and DVD lovers soon learned that these transfers would be non-anamorphic and non-remastered. Amid rumors of a 30th Anniversary HD release, the shilling appeared shameless. Yet even this latest laugh in the face of the fanbase couldn’t dampen Star Wars’ freakish faithful. Many lined up this week to sit through all six films in this over-inflated franchise, and here’s hoping that mental health officials were standing by to treat the traumatized. To anyone who stood for hours to see the 1977 original – sometimes more than once – the irony is caustic. Today, there are dozens of ways to enjoy Lucas’ lumbering legacy. Back then, there was only the Bijou. We had no choice but to wait. Perhaps that’s why so many of us are Star worn today.

by Bill Gibron

6 May 2007


It used to be a pure Memorial Day kind of thing. Teens, fresh out of classes and ready to spend, would line up all over this great land of ours, celebrating the memory of those who died to keep us free by going to see a major studio popcorn pic. Like Jerry Lewis’ arrival every Labor Day, or the traditional distended credit card bill come Christmas, the Summer Blockbuster season was anticipated and planned for like the exaggerated entertainment D-Day it is. Preview ads would start popping up around mid-Fall, while a teaser would almost always arrive come Super Bowl. Then, just when the marketers thought the masses were growing tired of the title, a full blown trailer would appear, usually formulated to give away as many of the well-kept plotpoints as possible. By the time the end of May rolled around, it felt like you had already seen the overexposed hit. All that was left was to wonder what Will Smith would deliver come 4 July.

Naturally, this commercial course of action needed an accomplice, and for the most part, the co-conspirator was the horribly lackluster spring movie season. For four months (and a few weeks), audiences were expected to attend – and enjoy – studio run-off, bad buzz catastrophes, poorly timed Oscar bait (and switch), and various incarnations of crap cinema. On rare occasions, a good film would actually sneak in, making itself an amiable nuisance for those waiting on the snow and sleet to melt before they’d make their way to the Multiplex again. But more times than not, Hollywood larded its annual landfill with brazen bottom line/feeder fodder. Oddly, all that changed a few years ago. Now, among the slop and stupidity, Tinsel Town occasionally tosses film fans a big fat helping of masterful motion picture.

To be fair, the beginning of 2007 was still pretty pathetic. Ghost Rider proved that Nicholas Cage and comic book super-heroism really don’t mesh, while Oscar winner Hillary Swank battled the Apocalypse, and inner city educational malaise – either one, a daunting proposition. We got a few more horror remakes (The HitcherThe Hills Have Eyes 2Epic Movie) and some less than appealing family fare, including Arthur and the Invisibles and The Last Mimzy. Amidst all the hokum and hackwork, sophomore slumps and high concept crud, a few films actually managed to distinguish themselves. In fact, some of the Spring’s best may end up holding on to that title come the end of December – they were just that strong. And of course, with every stroke of genius, there must come an equal and opposite atrocity – and this year, there were some doozies. In fact, SE&L‘s picks for the Best and Worst of Spring 2007 expertly illustrate the massive chasm between the great and the god-awful quite well.

The Best
5. Black Snake Moan

Trying to top his breakout film about the ‘hard’ life of a pimp (2005’s Hustle and Flow) writer/director Craig Brewer tapped into the forgotten world of Tobacco Road potboilers to tell the tale of a local skank (the fabulous Christina Ricci) saved by the blues-soaked soul of a proud older man (Samuel L. Jackson). The results reminded audiences of the days when Tennessee Williams inspired hundreds of Southern Gothic copycats combined with those sleazoid drive-in delights that promised promiscuousness, but only ended up delivering tons of tease. While some critics complained over Brewer’s reach for smut style over social substance (as in his previous hip hop culture creation), he continued to prove that his is a cinematic voice worth paying attention to.

4. Grindhouse

It’s a shame that audiences didn’t cotton to this clever take on motion picture history. It remains the artform’s dirty little secret that, post Hays and pre MPAA, the exploitation game rewrote the rules on cinematic subject matter – and by indirect design, created post-modern moviemaking. It’s not like this badass ride on the wild and wicked side didn’t have entertainment appeal. Co-creators Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez delivered the gory, gratuitous goods in big fat sticky globs of fun. It was another cabal, that rabid and ready to pounce group known as the media, that destroyed this dandy double feature’s chance of gaining major mass market momentum. Years from now, revisionist history will hail this thrill and chill throwback as a masterpiece. For now, it will remain 2007’s most unfairly categorized ‘flop’.

3. 300

Talk about your testosterone laced treats! Frank Miller delivers the epic goods via Zach Snyder’s amazing CG cinematic scope, resulting in one of the biggest, brashest spectacles of the last ten years. A near perfect amalgamation of form and function, this tale of the Spartan stance against Persian insurgency circa 480 BC argues for the aesthetic benefits of technology – not only in the creation of visual splendor, but also in the realization of fiscally restrictive ideas. If Gladiator took home a misguided Oscar back in 2000, this movie should rake in the awards. As much a phenomenon as a feat of pure imagination, it may not reinvent the language of film as we know it, but it sure does provide a pristine new translation.

2. Zodiac

Nothing short of stunning. Rarely, in any period piece, does a director get both the details and the drama correct. One usually overpowers the other, leading to a substantial case of motion picture disconnect. But in taking on the still unsolved case of the ‘70s serial killer of the title, director David Fincher amplified the art of era recreation. Not only did he capture Me Decade San Francisco perfectly, he got the defeated, post-peace generation vibe down pat. Thanks to brilliant acting from Mark Ruffalo and Jake Gyllenhaal, and a narrative device that splits the story into three separate, equally compelling acts, we end up with is a dense deconstruction of the pre-CSI crime game, and a look at how obsession leads to loss – both familial and professional.

1. Hot Fuzz

The comedy team of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg is clearly comprised of drop dead brilliance. After the magnificent horror spoof Shaun of the Dead (much more than a zombie lampoon, really), they turned their attentions toward the overwrought action blockbusters of the last three decades and came up with Spring 2007’s best film. With the equally astounding Nick Frost along for the ride, this satiric shoot-em up is so engaging, so completely and wholly entertaining, that it reminds you of how exciting a trip to the Cineplex can be. And buried inside the manic montages, the false endings, and the typical stunt sequence clichés, is a clever take on the British way of…being. Fuzz is so good, it makes the wait for whatever Wright, Pegg and Frost do next seem excruciating.

The Worst
5. Wild Hogs

Paunchy old men play biker dudes. Nothing particularly novel occurs. And in the meantime, both John Travolta and William H. Macy destroy whatever remaining star turn screen cred they had built up over the years (Tim Allen and Martin Lawrence were already treading water).  While crowds lined up to give this mediocre middle-aged comedy some unbelievable box office heft, here’s hoping cooler heads prevail come mandatory sequel time.

4. Norbit

Remember the look on Eddie Murphy’s face when the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor was announced – and his name was NOT read? That’s the same reaction audiences had to this bumbling, borderline racist affair. There’s no problem trying to recapture the comic flavor and fun of the Nutty Professor films, but does it have to be done at the expense of raging stereotypes and dimensionless characterization? Apparently so.

3. Hannibal Rising

In which Thomas Harris pisses away any remaining semblance of a serious literary career. Apparently, everyone’s favorite cannibal gained his taste for flesh after seeing his sister devoured by Nazis. As if Germany didn’t have enough to be sorry for already. Now they have to take the blame for destroying this once viable horror franchise. Either them or the failed filmmaking.

2. Code Name: The Cleaner

Cedric the Entertainer doesn’t need to fire his agent – he needs to SHOOT him. Looking over the last five films he’s made (from Man of the House to that horrid remake of Jackie Gleason’s The Honeymooners), the stench of sloppy scripting and equally atrocious approach seems to follow him everywhere. This incredibly funny man deserves better.

1.  Are We Done Yet?

Yes, Ice Cube, your career as a serious actor is pretty much finished. The irony over how one of the ‘80s most defiant rappers turned into a kid vid scapegoat is incredibly rich, but if he continues to milk these lame retreads of the same slapstick silliness, he’s bound to hit a worn out his welcome wall. This Mr. Blanding‘s bastardization may actually be it.

 

by Bill Gibron

29 Apr 2007


Every summer, critics and film fans alike love to predict the eventual box office champions. They look across the 40 or 50 flicks about to open, manufacture a formula that takes into consideration past performance, their own interest levels, the timeliness of the title and a few other subjective factors, and draw their concrete conclusions. Sometimes, this process is stiflingly simple. After all, Spider-Man 3, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, and Shrek the Third all look like guaranteed money in the bank – and BIG money at that. Even if each one fails to fulfill its promise – either aesthetically or commercially – they will earn back their budgets via international releases, preplanned merchandising, and the eventual DVD release/TV premiere. In fact, it’s safe to say that they are doomed to succeed. There are just so many interconnected interests that it’s impossible for them to truly flop.

So what then, in this multimedia day and age, truly constitutes a bomb? How do you judge a failure in a film world bursting with recoup possibilities? Well, perception is part of it. Many people are pointing their fingers at Grindhouse, arguing that the Weinstein Company’s $70 million dollar exploitation experiment is a true disaster, barely earning $20 million in retail receipts. No matter the critical success, a lack of cash instantly seems to signal defeat. On the other side of the spectrum is something like Pathfinder. The Marcus Nispel Viking epic failed to generate any interest, even in the wake of the similarly styled (and massively successful) 300. Clearly, commercial failure is only one element in the equation. Other factors including buzz, anticipation, and artistic merit are considered as well. When sizing up any film, then, one must look at its path toward potential success, and the facets that also indicate eminent failure.

This still makes forecasting the Summer’s Stinkers difficult. As you will see below, the five films chosen all have some manner of redeeming cinematic qualities. Two are sequels, one’s aimed directly at the kiddies and another features a pair of popular comedians apparently working within the strict demands of their demographic. Toss in a potential genre sleeper, and you’ve got a group of slighty above average prospects. And yet there is also something about each of these movies that just screams debacle. Call it an aura of superfluity or a brazen big fishiness in what remains a mighty large cinematic ocean – whatever you want. These movies seem destined to die the most prominent of box office deaths. Others released between now and 31 August may be opting for a similar seasonal fate, but we here at SE&L are gambling that these projects will be remembered as 2007’s best of the worst. Let’s start with:

Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer

Let’s face it – the original wasn’t some massive megahit. It did rather nicely for its studio ($155 million), especially for a movie very few people actually liked (Rotten Tomatoes Rating – a mere 26%). And up until the sequel was announced, many in the comic book fanbase felt that this entire franchise would end up a well deserved one-off deal. Now comes the inevitable follow-up (thanks in part to the success of the film on DVD and cable TV showings) and with it, a villain guaranteed to make audiences groan. Back in the day, the Silver Surfer was a misunderstood alien dude who came to Earth to wreck some havoc, only to fall into the whole peace and love vibe of the magical ‘60s, and end up a kind of counterculture convert. Here, he’s the T-1000 on a CG boogie board. While geeks have been salivating over the possibility of this character’s arrival from the moment the original Roger Corman adaptation of the quartet was released, it remains difficult to figure out just who’s anxious to see Michael Chiklis in a bad Ben Grimm outfit again (Jessica Alba’s Susan Storm? That’s another story altogether). Indeed, everything about this cinematic series feels second rate and underdone, which translates into very little blockbuster potential.

Live Free or Die Hard

Sorry Bruce, it just won’t work this time. Over the 12 years since the last installment in this series, you’ve done a wonderful job of dispelling your ‘action hero only’ mythos, and settled into a nice rut as a talented, reliable actor. Sure, you’ve certainly stumbled along the way (The Story of Us, Perfect Stranger), and your rocky personal life didn’t help matters much, but you did a decent job of leaving John McClane and his “yippee yay kay aye-ing” in your wake. So why pick him back up after all this time? It’s not like the latest generation of film fans has been eager to see you return to the agent against the. apocalypse format, and this latest idea (a supersmart computer hacker tries to give the entire world a crippling virus) is just so Y2K. And the choice of Len Wiseman as a director? PU! Come on, this is a guy whose been making werewolf vs. vampire films for the last four years – and when he’s done with you, he’s back to the paranormal with yet another installment in the Underworld franchise (this time out, it’s a prequel). Unless the stunt setpieces redefine the concept of action, this latest series installment looks dead on arrival.

I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry

This is clearly a case of a high concept losing sight of what truly makes people laugh. Now, if you get a bunch of drunken frat boys in a room together and tell them a slew of homophobic jokes, you’re bound to get some beer-soaked guffaws. But in our proto-PC society, where humor has to now walk a fine line between crass and considerate, something like this sloppy same sex stupidity can’t possibly work. Adam Sandler appeared to move beyond his arrested adolescence aura with Click, and for the most part, his fanbase decided to join him. But he has long stopped being the clown prince of the college crowd, and trying to reenergize your star status by making fun of gay men seems like a tricky proposition. Certainly you’ll draw the Neanderthals and those predisposed to prejudice as pratfalls, but there is something uneasy about the whole forced machismo and ‘emotions are emasculating’ narrative undercurrent.  Rumor has it that the studio ran this film by GLAAD before approving its release. It was also true that this script sat around for years, with many famous A-listers a tad antsy about how it would play in this supposedly enlightened post-millennial age. Here’s guessing it won’t.

Underdog

Talk about your animated sacrilege! Underdog may have been many things – a rhyme obsessed goody two shoes, a blind as a bat paramour for an eager Sweet Polly Purebred, a simpleton superhero battling less than capable crooks – but he was never, ever, EVER! considered to be real. Anthropomorphized and pictured in pen and ink, but no child ever thought he was an honest to goodness pup. So what do those dunce caps over in Tinsel Town try to pull on us? They figure that they can turn this entire project into a live action kiddie action film and no one will really care. They’ll even give the title character a hip adolescent swagger, turning him from a moralizing mensch into a skaterat with a tail. Didn’t these people learn ANYTHING from the whole Itchy/Scratchy/Poochie fiasco? You don’t mess around with the classics – even if you’ve somehow managed to stumble upon the brilliant casting decision of Peter Dinklage playing villian Simon Barsinister. Belgian director Frederik Du Chau may have the proper family film credentials (he made the semi-successful Racing Stripes) but this pile of hound hashwey appears ready to crash and burn. Those who remember the old series won’t darken its big screen doors, and by this time in the season (mid-August), the wee ones are just worn out.

The Invasion

Reshoots months after a movie has wrapped are never a good sign. Reshoots helmed by a completely different director many months after a movie has wrapped is basically box office poison. Oliver Hirschbiegel, the dynamic German director behind the fabulous Downfall: Hitler and the End of the Third Reich was handpicked by Joel Silver to realize this more or less unnecessary update of the classic Body Snatchers as his first foray into big time Hollywood filmmaking. What he wasn’t prepared for was the meddling by the manic producer, an accident which sidelined one of his stars (Nicole Kidman) and the sudden Bond-ing of male lead Daniel Craig. With his cut delivered in early 2006, Silver decided to simply sit on it. Then, when V for Vendetta proved popular, he contacted director James McTeague to reform the film. He, in turn, brought along the Wachowski Brothers, and soon Hirschbiegel became a creative persona non grata. But all of this is really ancillary to Invasion‘s biggest problem – there are already three versions of this idea sitting out in the motion picture marketplace – and two out of the three are considered classics. With its tentative production rep and a legitimate legacy to live up to, this film can’t ‘replicate’ past successes.

During the first week of September, we will come back to this piece and see just how accurate our predictions were. We’ll take the blame if and when we’re wrong. But if we hit these five unnecessary nails on the head, all we can say is – we warned you.

by Bill Gibron

22 Apr 2007


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.

 

by Bill Gibron

15 Apr 2007


Dear Weinstein Brothers. We know things aren’t going particularly well for you right now. After severing ties with the notoriously bothersome House of Mouse and striking out on your own, you’ve found nothing but roadblocks in your Neuvo Miramax highway to success. Your recent releases have all underperformed, and now, that 2007 tent pole, the fascinating Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez retrofest Grindhouse is being buried under a bounty of bad press. The entertainment community, desperate to see you fall on your flabby behinds, has come after you like sharks on a wounded whale, and the foreseen flopsweat is ripe with potential failure.  It’s gotten so bad that you’ve even been thinking of taking both movies, expanding their individual running times, and releasing them as separate cinematic experiences.

Guys….guys…guys…calm down. Grab a bottle of Artesian spring water, a couple of prescription sedatives, and rest for a while. The LAST thing you want to do here is split apart this already intriguing return to the drive-in dynamic of three decades ago. Film fans of a certain age and demographic get what you were going for and really appreciate the time, talents, and tenacity you showed in getting it released. This was never going to be an easy sell – for one thing, Tarantino and Rodriguez are Grade-A certified geek meat if ever audiences tasted same. Their projects are propelled from a dork driven place so deep down inside their idiosyncratic ideals that basement dwelling film nerds feel unworthy in their presence. If you thought you were about to make mega-bucks with these oddball directorial dweebs, you must have been smokin’ screener copies of Shakespeare in Love.

Grindhouse was destined to be a tough ticket for numerous, obvious reasons. You’re dealing with horror and other genre elements, facets that most film fans tend to kvetch over, and critics can’t understand or appreciate. Next, you’re dealing with a category of cinema that few comprehend, let alone welcome. Ask someone what they think of exploitation, and you’re likely to get the regurgitated opinion of some overly academic dickweed who doesn’t cotton to any aspect of the raincoat crowd. Add in the uneven tone, the tendency to associate the entire project with the outer fringes of major mainstream motion pictures, and the lack of genuine buzz (thank you so bloody much, 300!), and you’ve got a dead on delivery dud. Even if you gained a 100% “fresh” rating over at Rotten Tomatoes, audience ennui would be enough to give your business plan agita before the Friday estimates were released.

But this doesn’t mean you give up. You shouldn’t conform to a viewing going public too dumb to fathom what you’re doing. As a matter of fact, the failure of the film has nothing to do with what’s up on screen. Grindhouse remains a witty, inventive, highly satiric, and gross as all get out experience that’s practically overpowering in its artistic energy and invention. Tearing it apart and turning it into a crude competition of sorts (and between Rodriguez and Tarantino, one can almost envision where your cash is landing) will destroy everything your filmmakers fashioned. And let’s not forget the fake trailers. Those who participated in making those marvelous mock ads deserve some respect as well. Yet the question becomes, how do you solve this seemingly impossible problem. How do you make audiences interested (or in some cases, re-interested) in a title already tainted by a group of jaded journalists? The answer, oddly enough, is right in front of you.

Like the fabled producers of old, the men who made exploitation the historical hinge for all post-modern cinema, you can’t take failure as the final response. David F. Friedman, Dan Sonny, Harry Novak and Bob Cresse didn’t make mountains of money – and a ballbusting reputation - by moping around the minute the public rejected their efforts. No, they reinvented these projects, using the standard carnival barker approach of bait and switch to change the perception of their problematic productions. Sure, this SOUNDS like what you want to do, but there is a big difference between cutting your losses and trimming the fat. These men made their all important names out of never failing the public, by understanding what the people prefer, and more importantly, what they’d be willing to pay for. If a standard sexless thriller didn’t work, they’d tack on a scandalous ‘square-up’ reel to increase the erotica. If the horror wasn’t high enough, more blood drenched gore was quickly inserted. Entire films were re-edited, sequences reshoot, and plotlines changed to find the right combination of salable shuck and jerryrigged jive.

So, following this pattern, here’s what you should do. First, pull this daring double feature from the theaters before more self-styled pundits can piss all over it. Take stock in what you have already available in cutting room trimmings and existing tweak time, and get your auteurs involved. Make them part of, not the reason for, this process. Don’t dawdle over money or creative control – the ship is sinking and the rats have already ponied up and abandoned you. Look to the future – say the end of August/beginning of September – and get your accessible forces poised for war. It’s going to be a long and involved process, but in the end, you could be looking at 300 style returns at the end of the day.

In the case of Planet Terror, reinsert the “missing reel” sex scene between Rose McGowen and Freddy Rodriguez, turn the Bone Shack into a combination barbeque pit and badass biker bar, let the chopper riding rejects rumble with some good old fashioned fisticuffs, give us more of the stoic stripper storyline (including lots of shots of nubile naked torsos) and then tell Robert Rodriguez to remove a little of the freak show spectacle. Granted, no one enjoys mindless bloodletting as much as this considered critic, but fountains of grue spouting over and over again can get a tad, well, old. Instead, how about more of those amazing moments when deconstructed corpses are examined in nasty, nauseating detail. In a world awash in CGI chum, physical effects can really help you stand out. Besides, nothing will sell the fright flick facets of this production better than more shots of Fergie’s hollowed out head.

As for your main man QT, tell that diva director to turn down the chatter. The dialogue in Death Proof is amazing, the kind of potent palaver that Tarantino carries Oscar gold for. But in a film that’s a self-described “slasher flick”, what we need is more slice and less nice. Listening to girls gossip and give their unique opinions of sex and self within the context of a killer action thriller is like featuring random shots of kittens during a snuff film. Trim a few minutes of their minutia driven confabs, give Kurt Russell more lines (he is an endlessly fascinating character who we need to know more about) and provide another stellar suspense sequence like the one where the car’s characterization is proven on Rose McGowen’s unsuspecting person. Make it lean and mean and you’d have one amazing movie on your hands.

Finally, find a few more famous filmmakers willing to give you some new and novel trailers – perhaps approach members of the referenced and revered like John Carpenter or Herschell Gordon Lewis. And then tell the MPAA to go to Hell. That’s right, thwart convention. Take a stand for all lovers of cinematic extremes. Position yourselves as the artist’s advocate, and let the marketing challenge chips fall where they may. It’s going to take you a good few months to get the interest level back up again, and to purge the perception of failure from almost all elements of this movie. Again, breaking them in two won’t do that. You’ll just double the disgust, making movie fans, in their mind, choose the lesser of two unexceptional evils. To revamp awareness and create curiosity, you have to reposition everything about your concept. 

And the only way you can do that is via education. Time to teach the public what they obviously do not know – that is, that exploitation rewrote the motion picture roadmap. It created a freshness and openness that most filmmakers never even considered. Better yet, when foreign films couldn’t find a footing on American shores, the Grindhouse gang rescued these movies, exaggerated their simplistic sexual freedoms, and turned the arthouse into the cathouse. Recognize that you’re going to have to do a lot of explaining and hire someone happy to oblige – say Something Weird Video’s Mike Vraney, or Psychotronic’s Michael Weldon - and walk the viewers through a short lesson in the genre’s mesmerizing history. Get the remaining members of the 40 Thieves together for a series of interviews, or better yet, have IFC, Sundance, Encore, or any other cable channel that’s willing to work with you do a series of Grindhouse specials. Showing a certain style of movie once a week won’t cut it. You need constant coverage of the category with input from the people who provided the foundation for your post-millennial homage.

Then, create a documentary mini-series. Get QT and Rodriguez to go coast-to-coast, roadshowing their new versions in a day long grindhouse extravaganza. Let them position their films midway through, and then surround them both with a dawn to dusk collection of classics, cult faves and unknown gems. Toss in a few real trailers, a bunch of those clever, kitshy ads from the era, and make it a magnificently misguided marathon. Turn it into the Lollapalooza of b-movies madness, a real event that will proceed the regular theatrical showing. Of course, this is just the suggestion of someone who loves the original double feature and would hate to see it die from what appears to be a predetermined desire to see you fail. You’ve worked your magic on other minor efforts before. Here’s your chance to show the entire world that you can, and do, mean business. You can’t let audience apathy wear you down. Grindhouse is a good movie. Now it’s time to convince everyone else of that fact.

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