Saturday, March 28, 2015

Elvira's Haunted Hills

(PG-13, The Elvira Movie Company LLC, 89 mins., theatrical premiere date: June 23, 2001)

Late September back in 1988, Cassandra Peterson's buxom, beehive-wigged alter ego Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, finally saw her own feature film hit the big screen seven years after her fateful debut on Los Angeles' Channel 9 late night programming block. The sex symbol of All Hallow's Eve was poised to take over the world of cinema as part of her deathless merchandising empire, or at least would have if only distributor New World Pictures not went bankrupt immediately before its scheduled release. The feature-length spin-off went from wide release to showing in less than a one-fourth of the nation's movie theaters. Peterson, who had hustled and struggled to make the flick her way against the whims of the studio system, experienced what she referred to as "postpartum depression" in the aftermath.

Peterson celebrated the new millennium by shooting Elvira's second vehicle after more than a decade of false starts and corporate disinterest, but the game had changed drastically. Both she and her then-manager/husband Mark Pierson budgeted the film out of their own nest egg, mortgaging their home and borrowing money from Mark's parents. Shot on the cheap in Romania (read: real live Transylvania) for $1 million, Elvira's Haunted Hills was more stressful to film because it was so self-financed and equally taxing to market as the duo hit the festival circuit running. In the wake of that film's limited release, Pierson and Peterson filed for divorce.

Elvira's Haunted Hills, written once again by Peterson and her Groundlings mate John Paragon, places Elvira in another fish-out-of-water context, but this time inspired less by fundamentalist social mores and 1980s pop culture than by Peterson's B-horror fangirlism. In particular, Peterson and Paragon look back to the Roger Corman-produced gothic horrors which starred Vincent Price and were frequently based on the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Imagine Elvira being a guest at The House of Usher, where her trademark saucy wit and silly egotism is anathema to the morbidity surrounding her.

The obvious joke here, even more deliberate than in the earlier Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, is that no longer is Elvira merely hosting antiquated, cheesy "fright night" fodder, she's actually in the movie.

So when this film's Roderick Usher proxy, Lord Vladimir Hellsubus (Rocky Horror Show creator Richard O'Brien), flies off into a protracted grievance about the sanctity of the local cemetery being defiled by grave robbers, Elvira has to slap/snap him out of it, a la Cher from Moonstruck, and quip "What are you going for, an Oscar?"

Elvira retrieves Hellsubus' curved, Tomb of Ligeria-style sunglasses from the ground and is duly warned of his extra-sensory malady: "My eyes are tortured by all but the faintest of light." Her comeback: "Aah, so you've got a hangover, too, huh?"

This is the norm of the type of humor which Cassandra Peterson's Elvira has proliferated into profits, a high-spirited combo of Morticia Addams and Mae West with a wry voice equal parts Grande Dame and mallrat. On the surface, Elvira doesn't look any worse for wear in her trademark black dress emphasizing her long legs and outlandish cleavage, which naturally doubles as "her own airbags" in case of a coach crash.

Not a lot of set-up (or, for that matter, follow-through) to discuss, as the film opens in Carpathia, 1851, with Elvira and her French companion Zou Zou (Mary Jo Smith) making a doze-and-dash and escaping from an axe-wielding innkeeper (Theodor Danetti's Johan) in Benny Hill-style fast-motion. After roughing it on foot en route to Paris, where Elvira has an engagement performing her one-woman show "Yes I Can Can," a horse-drawn chariot comes to their aid as the passenger, Dr. Bradley Bradley (Scott Atkinson), offers them a room at Castle Hellsubus.

The Hellsubus clan is (super)naturally cursed, with Hellsubus eternally tormented by the suicide of his late wife Elura and his cataleptic niece Roxanna (Heather Hopper) coughing up a chunk of her lung on Elvira's "medicine chest." Dark family secrets involving torture, premature burial and adultery rear their ugly heads, but Elvira puts on her best "What, me worry?" face and flashes her rear at the end of a vampy musical number, "applause" emblazoned on her panties.

Meanwhile, there's a willing chunk of Eurotrash beefcake working out in the stable, named Adrian (Gabriel Andronache). In trying to high-tail it out of the dreaded castle, Elvira stops off to give him two goodbye presents, a copy of the Kama Sutra and a physical demonstration of its first chapter. All the while, non-English-speaking actor Andronache is dubbed in comically asinine fashion by veteran voice actor Rob Paulsen, prompting Elvira to break the fourth-wall during his introduction: "How does he do that? Weird!"

If you think I'm dishing too much of the jokes and japes in Elvira's Haunted Hills, then rest assured there is plenty of Vaudevillian slapstick and sarcasm which I haven't yet ruined, although the experienced viewer will feel constant déjà vu. It's certainly not a fresh film in terms of humor, even with the vast gulf between this and her 1988 outing, mostly because it's such a straight-up showcase for the Elvira character, who is less of a catalyst here and more of a verbal mood-shifter. Although the film positions her as Elura's spitting image/possible reincarnation and gives her a few eerie premonitions, the ever-so-brassy Elvira fails to revolutionize like before.

Despite a steady stream of corny but faithfully-rewarding chuckles based around Elvira's oblivious, egocentric retorts, Elvira's Haunted Hills doesn't reach the riotous peaks of the earlier film. There isn't a line on the level of Elvira's self-objectifying farewell speech ("Tell 'em I was more than just a great set of boobs. Tell 'em I was an incredible set of legs, too!") or a set piece as audacious as when that aphrodisiac-spiked casserole caused those pious Fallwell citizens to have an orgy in the park.

The period settings are handled with fidelity by director Sam Irvin, who gets in the kind of grainy exterior shots, foreboding interior creakiness and shoddy special effects which do right by the source material and give the film a sense of actually watching these old AIP-distributed Corman films proper. It's spoof as verisimilitude, and reinforces the overall good nature of this passion project.

The trouble with the film is that for as far as guileless camp goes, Elvira's Haunted Hills lacks the chutzpah of classic Mel Brooks or Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker style parodies. The whole project has the feel of if not lowered, then undemanding ambitions. There is a sincere thrill in seeing the likes of Ms. Peterson and Richard O'Brien hit their hammy marks with lightning force, but I never fully shook off the notion that this is processed comfort food on the order of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. I would've loved a second helping of that divine mystery casserole, myself.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

A Midnight Clear + Inside Monkey Zetterland

(R, InterStar Releasing, 108 mins., theatrical release date: April 24, 1992)

(R, I.R.S. Media, 93 mins., theatrical release date: August 25, 1993)

Let's get hypothetical for a moment. Now, imagine you are a casting director in the year 1986, and you were hired to assemble the stars of a generic teen movie. This is a project that clearly requires actors to play the reliable roles of the bookish boy everyone picks on and the boorish alpha who instigates his humiliation. The nerd and the jock stereotypes, devoid of all subtlety and no different than any characters from B-movies past.

Suppose you were so hard up that you hedged your bets, and, based on the resumes given to you, you would cast these two parts based entirely on experience. You want to choose male performers who not only fit these parts to a T, but have done it many, many times before. There's no time to subvert anybody's image or launch a new career, you just typecast without prejudice. And no, Anthony Michael Hall and William Zabka did not get the memo to try out.

Now, given the scenario, what if two of the guys auditioning were Keith Gordon and Steve Antin? I think your work is officially done, my friend. You don't have to keep searching. You got your men.

If you evaluated the careers of Gordon and Antin throughout the entire 1980s, you'd realize that for as bad as female actors get it having to play idealized, objectified ciphers over and over again, typecasting is generally anti-discriminatory. I couldn't think of a single actor who embodies the tape-rimmed dweeb more than Gordon, and I couldn't imagine a more preening, noxious stud than Antin. Their respective cult successes are based entirely on them playing interchangeable variations of the Dork and the Dick.

Dressed to Kill and The Last American Virgin. Christine and The Goonies. Back to School and Survival Quest. Do I have to spell it out more?

Eventually, both Keith Gordon and Steve Antin got bored with this and broadened their ambitions to honest-to-goodness filmmaking. In Gordon's case, he didn't have to wait too long, as he was already acquiring on-the-job training from the directors whom he worked for, including Brian De Palma, Bob Fosse (on All That Jazz) and John Carpenter. Also, he had read Robert Cormier's best-selling novel The Chocolate War on the set of Jaws 2, and he held onto the prospect of a film adaptation until the moment he started getting offers in the wake of his Mark Romanek collaboration Static (1985).

Antin, meanwhile, was building up connections within the industry and lucked into a partnership with a USC film school professor named Jefery Levy. Yes, the same Jefery Levy who co-wrote Ghoulies, for God's sake. The duo produced a pair of indie movies in the early 1990s that didn't make much of a splash outside the festival circuit, and Levy's own S.F.W. (think a Gen-X version of The Legend of Billie Jean, which was another acting vehicle for Keith Gordon) was a critical and commercial failure in early 1995. Antin kept a low-profile until the 2000s, creating the failed WB series Young Americans, but it was through his sister Robin's neo-burlesque troupe The Pussycat Dolls that he truly began to resurface, parlaying that into 2010's Burlesque, his second directorial effort following a 2006 TV-movie sequel to the teen suspense film The Glass House.

But around the time Antin's maiden effort at screenwriting was coming to fruition, Gordon was already on his second major motion picture. And it is this period in time, 1992 to be exact, which will be the focus of my first dual-movie review since Brian Yuzna's Society and Tobe Hooper's Spontaneous Combustion. I didn't have to work hard on that because both of those movies were on the same DVD, but I rented Gordon's A Midnight Clear and the Antin-penned Inside Monkey Zetterland separately to size up the aesthetics and attributes of both these former actors and budding creators.

And also because I love a good showdown as much as anybody.

First up is A Midnight Clear, based on the 1982 novel by William Wharton, whose debut tome Birdy was previously filmed by Alan Parker and won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes in 1985. Taking place prior to the Battle of the Bulge, December 1944, this WWII psychodrama focuses on a six-man U.S. Army intelligence & reconnaissance squadron shipped out to the Ardennes Forest to suss out the Nazi Party's next move. This oppressively wintry No Man's Land could be Belgium, Luxembourg, France, or even Germany, as the film's central character and narrator Sgt. Will Knott (Ethan Hawke) relays. But in the thick of the conflict, he admits that "I'm not even sure of my name," the name which he has been ribbed for since the third grade and whom his platoon have affectionately abbreviated to "Won't."

These I&R grunts have been fatally pared down from their original dozen, but that doesn't deter Major Griffin (John C. McGinley), a mortician in civilian life, from handing them their latest raw deal of an assignment. Fortunately, a family dynamic has developed between Will and his comrades in arms, with the eldest of the group, Vance Wilkins (Gary Sinise), nicknamed "Mother" because of his orderly personality and the seminary trainee Paul Mundy (Frank Whaley) as their "Father." The ranks are filled out with dry-witted equipment specialist Bud Miller (Peter Berg), the Yiddish-proficient Stan Shutzer (Arye Gross) and the more-than-capable star soldier Mel Avakian (Kevin Dillon).

They situate themselves in a deserted country house where a previous patrol team went lost, which logically translates to "they're dead," for the week's duration. With plenty of wine, sardines and four satin-blanketed mattresses, this is their rare brush with the Life of Riley. Alas, it isn't long before enemy movement and speech put the squad on their guard, specifically the phrase "Schlaf gut!" ("Sleep well!")

Driven on by Major Griffin to locate their command post,  Will, Stan and Bud find themselves in the enemy's rifle sights on the trek back, but the situation doesn't escalate into violence. The Germans disappear like a mirage, leaving the Americans further confused. The next night out in the foxhole, after Stan has built a snowman as an insult to Hitler, the Germans continue to taunt them, only this time with a snowball fight. Stan is convinced that this is a sign of genuine pacifism or possible surrender, suggesting this theory first to Will and then the rest of the group.

The German soldiers they are surveying appear willing to negotiate an armistice in the wake of getting creamed on the Russian front. The only caveat is that both sides have to fake a battle so that there is no accusation of treason. The culmination of this acquired intelligence, which is duly kept under wraps by the Yanks from their superiors, is a festive pageant of peace in which the Germans mount a Christmas tree and offer presents and carols to the befuddled but humane Americans, not unlike the similar holiday ceasefire on the Western Front during the previous world war.

How this development implodes is not surprising, nor are the film's equally sobering themes of lost innocence, weathered humanity and the many tolls visited upon the psyches of the varied troops. The real brilliance of A Midnight Clear is in Keith Gordon's preternatural knack for economy as both writer and director. Working within limited means both scenic and sensational (filmed as it was in a vengefully chilling Park City, Utah), Gordon strips the firepower and narrative clutter from the mostly Vietnam-centric war films before him to craft a character piece about intelligent if inexperienced young men demonstrating grace under pressure.

Birdy, as you may recall, was as much about the poignant friendship between two teenage boys of distinct social skills as it was the damage inflicted upon them after the war, be it physical or mental. The titular Philadelphia youth's avian obsessions became a self-defense of the soul. Wharton's A Midnight Clear is more linearly aligned, but the real life G.I. and impressionist artist's empathy was at its peak. And Gordon is singularly passionate enough to realize the story's mournful power on the screen, without descending into unsubtle madness like Alan Parker or erstwhile influence Stanley Kubrick.

The six protagonists demonstrate boyish humanity and an appreciation for beauty, whether it be in the joint sexual awakening of Will, Stan & Mel by a suicidal, widowed waif named Janice (Rachel Griffin, the future Mrs. Gordon) or Mother's awe at the paintings preserved in the chateau's attic: "Somebody made something, probably not even for money. For love." Mother is the most frail-minded of the soldiers, established as early as the opening scene, his surrogate children now in the position of protecting him and devising some scheme of honorable discharge as mortal intervention.

Gary Sinise, forever known as Lieutenant Dan, offers the most heartbreaking characterization of the ensemble in one of his first film roles. There's not a weak link in the entire cast, with rising stars Peter Berg (another major grower in the industry like Gordon and Antin), Ethan Hawke and Kevin Dillon all turning in their most proficient, natural performances. Even the reliably gruff John C. McGinley (like Dillon, another Platoon vet) as the power-mad Major Griffin doesn't fashion a caricature out of a performance that with a little more screen time and a lot less discipline could have been truly worthless. The same goes for Larry Joshua as Lt. Ware, Griffin's less bellicose but equally no-nonsense flunky.

Gordon has himself copped to anti-war intentions in his story, but they are more organic than matter-of-fact when you watch his film. Compositionally, Gordon is on-point in the bleak humor, realistic dialogue and tableaux of frostbitten violence which he has sourced from Wharton's tome. There are images as disturbing as they are divine, from the saintly statue clutching its own decapitated head to the way two sparring soldiers are trapped under ice in an eternal dance, no different from when their living counterparts show off their USO choreography to lighten the mood.

A Midnight Clear left me deathly eager to view Gordon's subsequent Kurt Vonnegut adaptation Mother Night and Waking the Dead, his celluloid tone poem to lost romance. And also to ponder the injustice of this film not getting the high-definition restoration for the U.S. home video market like it recently received in the U.K. Gordon and his regular DP Tom Richmond (whom Ethan Hawke would draft for his 2001 directorial debut Chelsea Walls) deserve to remaster this personally, as this is a Criterion Collection catalog title in limbo.

I re-watched A Midnight Clear out of joy as opposed to Inside Monkey Zetterland, which was more out of the kind of mercy Gordon's film encouraged. And even then, I felt like I wasted my time twice.

Jefery Levy and Steve Antin's previous low-fi effort Drive (1991) earned a healthy respectability thanks to the former's visual flair and the latter's ability to play straight man to the unhinged British thesp David Warner. You could call it the 1990s heir to Alex Cox's Repo Man if you were feeling charitable, maybe even a rewrite of Elmer Rice's play The Adding Machine, replacing its vibration-metering calculator for monochrome chrome.

The pseudo-autobiographical Inside Monkey Zetterland, alas, is an insider's joke which makes the poor viewer feel like Antin's Passenger from their earlier film, desperate to be dropped off for the good of your soul. Antin, morphing from the poor man's Eric Freeman into the poorer man's Eric Stoltz, casts himself as the depressed title character, an out-of-work actor who openly derides his career of "teenage exploitation shit" to those who recognize him and laments his wayward passage into adulthood in psychiatry sessions he volunteers to have publicly studied by med students.

Monkey really wants to be left alone to pursue a film project based on the corporate demise of L.A.'s Red Car transit system (the exact same scandal referenced in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?), but is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish (i.e. carjackers, overzealous cops) and the tyranny of family.

Monkey's mother Honor (Katherine Helmond), an aging soaps queen, is pugnacious and pushy to a breakpoint. His younger sister Grace (Patricia Arquette) is an emotional wreck upon learning her lesbian lover Cindy (Sofia Coppola) has gotten herself illicitly pregnant in an attempt to start a family. His swish brother Brent (Tate Donovan) works at a salon and is constantly distracted by his cordless phone. And his absentee father Mike (Bo Hopkins), a deadbeat hippie, returns home for Thanksgiving with his pet parrot Joey, although he is greeted with comparatively less disgust than Grandma Zetterland (Frances Bay).

Such a contentious kinship dutifully courts bedlam, but there's nothing genuinely comedic or compelling about the wall-to-wall petulance on display. Every character, even Antin's ostensible mild-mannered woobie, seems to have been written and directed with an unwavering emphasis on mundane narcissism, without a trace of wit in the dialogue or progression in plotting. It's too lethargic to be farcical; even the time-honored snuffing of the parakeet or the goodbye obscenity shouted by a little old lady fall as flatly as the conflicts which set up these hackneyed jokes.

The episodic nature of the film, which more often than not comes across as improvisational (not for nothing is Brent groomed up by his appearance on the Groundlings stage), makes Bloodhounds of Broadway and Singles resemble prime Robert Altman or Alan Rudolph. The result means that this distinctly plays out as an outline more than a real, staged script. And Jefery Levy's quirky aesthetics render them no less insufferable. Visually, he locks down his camera as actors wander out of frame or are heard behind walls, straining to juice vicarious vérité from insipid cliché. The sound design is equally sour, deploying Tchaikovski passages on both piano and calliope and indulging ear-splitting impressions as Monkey pitches his screenplay and recites passages from it like the world's worst puppet show entertainer. It's almost as if Levy wants to leave me as tin-eared and dead-eyed as his supposed proficiency.

The combined vanity of both Levy and Antin trickles down into the kind of stunt-casting which ought to grant Quentin Tarantino eternal critical clemency, even from Mark Kermode. For it's not enough that Monkey Zetterland's home life be a parade of the horribles, but Antin keeps tossing in outsiders to test his faith and our patience simultaneously.

Monkey's girlfriend Daphne (Debi Mazar) dumps him out of boredom and has taken his beloved yellow bedroom drapes with her. Meanwhile, Sandra Bernhard as girl-next-door(!) Imogene flirts mysteriously and maniacally with Monkey at the local library. Less welcome attention is provided by Bella (Ricki Lake), a disturbed fan of Ma Zetterland who stalks about their not-unlisted abode. And then there are Sasha and Sofie (Rupert Everett, Martha Plimpton), anarchic new neighbors who prove a bad influence on the vulnerable Grace.

Bernhard and Mazar are, for all intents and purposes, each recycling their verbally castrating shtick. Imogene shrieks a loony lullaby whilst giving Monkey a lift from a taco stand, deliberately passing his home as she inquires if he's a fan of Faulkner. Later, she will greet Monkey from out of his daydream by gabbing on about a gang-banged friend and then immediately asking "Do you wanna have lunch?" Bernhard gives the most charming performance of the entire film, which most certainly cannot be said of either Debi Mazar, whose Queens accent has never been more abrasive, or Ricki Lake in a major downgrade from her work with John Waters.

However, it's the gross misuse of both Rupert Everett and Martha Plimpton which finally awards Keith Gordon the victory by K.O. Like much of the cast, Everett is a real life icon of the gay community and a performer not lacking for charisma. He deserves a plum role every go, but the material here reduces him to a dime-store Mel Gibson. It's even worse for Ms. Plimpton as the bulimic firebrand, a role so irredeemably nasty it would backfire on anybody who performed it, no matter their degree of fame. Even accepting her involvement as a kindly favor for her Goonies co-star, this whip-smart actress still should have said no.

All of the trendy star power on loan here fails to distract from the crashing realization that Steven Antin's male ingenue insularity and Jefery Levy's coarse amateurism amounts to a legit endurance test. Let's be honest and admit that these guys' true destiny is creating outright schlock, not satirical dispatches from the Hollywood fishbowl. At least The Last American Virgin (Kimmy Robertson gets a special thanks) and Ghoulies (Luca Bercovici appears in a cameo) struck a chord with the intellectually-challenged 1980s children who grew up with them, no matter if you agree or not with Antin that they are "teenage exploitation shit." I, personally, find them very inessential rather than quintessential. But Inside Monkey Zetterland is frivolity with pretensions, which means both Antin and Levy are in way over their heads.

Red Car? Good point! Now do yourself a favor and seek out A Midnight Clear on home video, or, as an added alternative to Inside Monkey Zetterland, any of Bobcat Goldthwait's movies from Shakes the Clown to Willow Creek.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Craft

(R, Columbia Pictures, 101 mins., theatrical release date: May 3, 1996)

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2015 is approaching fast, and I've been keeping up with the guest announcements and such. This is one of the most high-profile events in the three years I have attended, having missed seven previous conventions. The first year I went, I guess the biggest draw was Danny "Machete" Trejo, who packed such a crowd that I remember Mariel Hemingway referred to the line outside his photo op as the "Trejo 500." I wasn't in that line, honestly, as it was conflicting with my date with a princess...


But year two upped the ante in that it featured a full-scale gathering of personnel from the Terminator series, including Linda Hamilton, Robert Patrick, Michael Biehn, Kristanna Loken, and Earl Boen. Even Hamilton's tormentors from the same year's Children of the Corn, John "Isaac" Franklin and Courtney "Malachai" Gains, were in attendance. I had a great time at that event, too, mostly because I spent it with a friend I made the previous year. And whilst I understood that the potential to top even that star-studded weekend celebration was possible, I had no idea what the 2015 roster would bring.

Suffice it to say, 2015 has done the same thing 2013 did in the presence of Diane Franklin: it has awakened the teenager in me.

I say that because the year marks the debut convention appearances of some of the biggest names from my 1990s childhood, particularly Neve Campbell and Skeet Ulrich, as in "Sidney Prescott and Billy Loomis from Scream." But you don't have to be Ghost Face to recognize that these two had made an earlier splash in 1996 before Wes Craven's self-effacing horror blockbuster laid bare the rules of horror both past and future. You don't even have to know who fellow first-time attendee Rachel True is, but it helps, because 2015 is when that old black magic comes to Dallas in anticipation of the 20th anniversary of The Craft.

Before Scream author Kevin Williamson archly intertwined John Hughes (The Breakfast Club) and Fred Dekker (Night of the Creeps) in the Robert Rodriguez-helmed The Faculty, The Craft stood out as the decade's most recognizable high school spookshow by injecting voodoo into the sardonic teen angst formula. This could charitably be called "Hexers," except that the central clique in this film aren't idle rich snobs but outcasts from the word go, a brooding collective of female misfits whom their callous peers have christened "The Bitches of Eastwick."

Or at least that's how Ulrich's Chris Hooker describes them to the new girl in town, Sarah Bailey (Robin Tunney), freshly relocated to Los Angeles from San Francisco. Sullen Sarah carries the trauma of a mother who died giving birth as well as suicidal slashes down her wrists, and is now forced to make a fresh start at St. Benedict's Academy, a parochial school just as ripe with classism and cruelty as any non-uniformed establishment. Sarah gravitates towards the terrifying trio, regardless, after nonchalantly demonstrating her powers during French class.

Chris will go on to slander Sarah as punishment for her not putting out, thus giving her all the reason to devote herself full-time to the supernatural machinations of her black sheep BFFs. They all seem to lack proper self-esteem for various reasons. Grand high Goth Nancy Downs (Fairuza Balk) has a sluttish reputation of her own and lives in a trailer with her alky mom and deadbeat stepfather. Meek Bonnie (Neve Campbell) has burn scars down her backside from a traumatic accident, whilst Rochelle (Rachel True) is the lone Negro student and susceptible to the catty insults of the mean blonde from Night of the Demons 2.

Séances and slumber parties ensue, with such ritualistic bonding exercises as blood oaths, beauty makeovers and the ever-popular "Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board." All in the name of Manon, an all-powerful, all-natural deity who is described through analogy as the stadium God and the Devil would play football on. The girls pray their troubles away, and Manon hears them, and so, in quick succession, Bonnie's damaged skin tissue regenerates, Rochelle's racist bully develops female pattern baldness and Nancy goes from poor to posh after willing her penniless, perverted stepfather into a stroke and inheriting his life insurance funds.

All's well for them and for the audience, as The Craft fancies itself a playfully macabre twist on teenaged fantasy for a spell, or until the spell wears off. The conflict begins when the increasingly resentful Nancy decides she wants invoke Manon directly through a beachside bonfire and demand his almighty powers. The next morning, she walks on water as various aquatic mammals die on the sandy turf, all the while she screeches that these are her "gifts." Sarah is rightly perturbed, but her self-centered friends remain blissfully ignorant. And when Sarah's own wish to have Chris wrapped around her finger goes horrifically awry, Nancy takes it upon herself to get even by murdering him.

Gradually, The Craft reveals itself to be another grasp at slick, superficial morality from the ham-fingered writer of Flatliners. The naturally-crafted Sarah is elevated to Good Witch status as Nancy, tempting irony by the casting of ex-Disney child star Fairuza Balk, devolves into The Even Worse Than Worst Witch. And the two other girls are stripped of their integrity and rendered ditzy foot soldiers. This banal development compromises whatever slivers of rebellion and wit the film has accumulated, a celluloid sacrifice of the soul.

Flatliners at least allowed its bratty principals the divine method of closure, something Peter Filardi and co-writer/director Andrew Fleming push aside here for cheap tricks. Rochelle, in particular, is egregiously short-changed by the film's formulaic forthrightness. Part of that is down to the casting of Rachel True, who looks way too sophisticated and smart to play the fourth banana in a juvie horror film (and for good reason, as she was pushing 30). There comes a point in the film where Rochelle should arrive at the same epiphanies as Sarah, having seen the devastation her vengeance has wrought on Laura Lizzie. But when the film approaches some kind of intriguing opportunity for a truce, it fails to follow through, turning the focus over instead to the nutty Nancy.

Neve Campbell's Bonnie is undermined just as poorly. Right at the moment her confidence is restored and she is allowed to morph from Basket Case to Princess, Filardi & Fleming treat her sex appeal as a sign of snobbishness, with nothing in the script aside from the most innocuous one-liner (late for school, she sasses "Sorry, my pedicure ran late") to demonstrate this personality shift. This is no less one-dimensionally prissy than the attitudes of straw villains Laura and Chris, and speaks to the thudding, finger-wagging desire to shame which constantly reduces most teen films to rank hypocrisy.

The lead actresses as a unit demonstrate charisma the film doesn't fully capitalize on, with the possible exception of Fairuza Balk's vamp/tramp volatility. Balk's bee-stung sneer and outrageous overbite are impossible to deny as she devours the scenery with as much relish as this story eats its tail. The sensuous, green-eyed Robin Tunney works hard to compensate for the film's compromised intelligence, but even she cannot save The Craft from the perfunctory prophecy which is a prolonged siege confrontation replete with pools of maggots and miles of snakes, followed by a misguided coda which renders its characters as unsociably sour as their stigma suggested.

Like Joel Schumacher before him, Andrew Fleming relies on visual panache and trendy flash as the be-all-end-all. There is an extravagant, earthy texture to Alexander Gruszynski's cinematography which also meshes well with the digital FX work used for levitation and catching butterflies. Fleming has a liberal fluidity with the camera, and combined with Jeff Freeman's editing and the sound design, the centerpiece séance is the most bewitching moment of The Craft, so to speak.

Graeme Revell's score stings and swoons admirably, but is engulfed by the alt-rock song selection which teases Juliana Hatfield, Matthew Sweet and Jewel at best, and overemphasizes a handful of poor cover versions at worst. The film begins with Our Lady Peace's grungy, garbled take on The Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows" and ends with Heather Nova listlessly draining the human touch from Peter Gabriel's "I Have the Touch." The makers of Charmed must have seen this and loved Love Spit Love's anemic retread of The Smiths' "How Soon Is Now?" though. Maybe Charmed was the unofficial spin-off of The Craft the way Friends was meant to be "Singles: The Series"?

"Whatever!" seems like the right response, as The Craft labors under the pretense of authenticity to the Wiccan faith (the threefold karmic comeuppances in favor of "Do onto others...") but is grossly conformist at heart. Its rushed-upon-the-blade apathy is its tragedy, and although it is undemanding fun in the right setting, it does not honestly achieve the kind of magic which has kept it in cult circles for nearly two decades. E.C. Comics don't take themselves as seriously as The Craft double toils to.

Sunday, March 8, 2015


(PG-13, Warner Bros. Pictures, 99 mins., theatrical release date: September 18, 1992)

A decade after his Fast Times at Ridgemont High script charted teenage wildlife with smarts and sensitivity, Cameron Crowe came further of age with Singles. This was his sophomore effort as writer/director after Say Anything, which found Crowe in a memorable position in terms of 1980s youth cinema. Fast Times broke through among 1982's rut of smut by establishing a diverse, identifiable trajectory through senior year for its coterie of characters, finding wry dignity among the humiliations of crashed cars, sexual follies and apathetic pep rallies. And as teen movies grew more sophisticated, Crowe closed the decade out with the bittersweet Say Anything and eclipsed John Hughes in the process.

Crowe's most endearing quality as a writer by the 1990s was his propensity for humanist naturalism. He didn't opt for cheap melodramatics and listened to the hearts of his youthful protagonists with brotherly concern. The dialogue felt authentic, the sticky situations were handled with grace and the performances he oversaw proved star-making, even if the names of few would fade over time (Judge Reinhold, Ione Skye). Crowe treated both Jeff Spicoli's stoned surfer philosophy and Lloyd Dobler's wounded romanticism with unbiased empathy, and almost everything else in between just felt more facile by comparison.

These highs emboldened Crowe to aim for a West Coast parallel to Woody Allen's Manhattan, although the idea for Singles had been gestating ever since 1984, when Crowe cranked out a cheapie cash-in on Fast Times called The Wild Life. The unimaginative title was indicative of the movie's overall quality, and it faded into obscurity despite having Eric Stoltz and Lea Thompson among its rising star ensemble.

Crowe's background as a rock 'n' roll writer also led him to the underground Seattle scene, which would topple the Sunset Strip's hair metal blitz in the popular culture by the time Warner Bros. settled on a release date. This was blessed and cursed in equal proportions, as while seeing Alice in Chains and Soundgarden live is anthropologically stimulating, the publicity for the actual movie indicted Crowe for allegedly piggy-backing on the grunge explosion, when it was the studio who were being so grossly opportunistic. They even deigned to change the maligned title of Singles with that of "Come As You Are," based on the one Seattle breakthrough rock band who kept their distance from Crowe's project.

The catalyst for Crowe as well as the local musicians was the heroin-induced loss of Andrew Wood, front man of Mother Love Bone. There was a ripple effect which caused the Seattle scene to bust even wider open, as Crowe found inspiration for his revised script, Jerry Cantrell would write Alice in Chains' most beloved song in Wood's honor (heard live in the film, that tune is "Would?") and the remaining members of Mother Love Bone would migrate to Pearl Jam.

"Is anybody truly single?" Crowe asked himself in the midst of the tragedy, and Singles attempts to reach an answer amongst the strain of miscommunication and awkward vibes. The affluent, independent young adults Crowe spotlights dare to fall in love against their better judgment. The primary coupling of environmental crusader Linda Powell (Kyra Sedgwick) and transportation engineer Steve Dunne (Campbell Scott) would seem like the perfect match, but personal commitments and romantic horrors from their past keep them on their guard.

Linda, for instance, has recently been burned by a deceptive lothario named Luiz (Camilo Gallardo), posing as a visitor from Spain whose expired visa sets them on a whirlwind courtship. Just as Linda is getting serious about commitment to the absent Luiz, she catches him down the bar one night making moves on another single woman. Instantaneously, she buys a new garage door opener to replace the one she gave him as a keepsake, echoes of Diane Court's legendary parting gift of a pen to Lloyd Dobler from Say Anything. Steve, meanwhile, is bemused by the rat king he finds himself in after his last failed affair, and decides to devote himself to work, "the only thing I have complete control over."

Linda fatefully meets Steve at a nightclub, leading to a "water date" at the local café. They finally hook up at Steve's apartment after some initial trepidation, struggling to balance their obligations even as Linda becomes pregnant, but frustration and fulfillment tend to go hand-in-hand. The other tenants in Steve's complex also get locked in push-and-pull relationships, with coffee shop waitress Janet Livermore (Bridget Fonda) vainly attempting to ensnare the affection of a detached, delusional wannabe rock star, Cliff Poncier (Matt Dillon), lead singer for Citizen Dick. Meanwhile, the non-committed likes of head waiter David Bailey (Jim True) and advertising executive Debbie Hunt (Sheila Kelley) take it as it comes.

Whereas Bailey is content to collect 20 phone numbers in his watch as a show of self-importance and Debbie is so hard-up she follows through on a video dating lead her friends gifted her as a joke, Linda has her mind set on the terminally aloof Cliff. "You're spazzing off on me," he retorts when Janet attempts to persuade him of their connection. Janet even contemplates breast augmentation surgery to stack up against Cliff's Amazonian ideals, a co-dependent mistake she luckily avoids once she wises up to her own rut and goes her own way, finally spurring Cliff into paying attention.

All the while, Crowe lets his characters occasionally break the fourth wall in confessional and structures the action as a barrage of sketches. The title Singles takes on a dual meaning when preface cards such as "The Hourglass Syndrome" and "Blues for a T-Shirt" crop up, as Crowe essentially pulls a Nick Hornby by turning plot into record collection inventory. A tactic like this is more frustratingly cutesy than his humble slice-of-life insights require, and also not a little self-indulgent. First we watch Janet recoil in humiliation from making a risqué phone call to someone who is not Cliff, and then it's back to Steve and Linda's anxious unraveling of their romantic ambitions.

Crowe's writing needs no devices because, just as before, there is charm enough to divvy up in fair proportions. Bridget Fonda is at the height of her plucky beauty as Janet, the kind of mid-twenties eccentric with a refrigerator full of boho dead giveaways (half-eaten birthday cake, a cup of Chinese takeout sauce), but aware that she only has limited time before she goes from endearing to simply bizarre. When the going gets rough, she consults plastic surgeon Dr. Jeffrey Jamison (Bill Pullman) for increasing her bust, inviting a playful chemistry as they argue over a simulated computer image of Janet's wild quest for beauty. The farewell meeting between these two is aggravating in that it denies any kind of reunion between Janet and Jeff, such fun as it is to be around them.

Debbie Hunt, meanwhile, may be termed a maneater but she's not despicable in her endeavors. All she wants is a boy toy to accompany her on vacation to Cabo, sensibly. The commercial package she purchases from the video dating service comes complete with the $20 bargain of being directed by Tim Burton, who is lauded as being "only, like, the next Martin Scor-seez." The big reveal is hilarious, from its opening rip from Psycho to "Debbie country," which is "where the flavor is." Naturally, this leads to one of the candidates being Peter Horton from TV's thirtysomething, who parks his bike in between Debbie and her roomie Pam (Ally Walker).

Cliff, the Wyld Stallyn of Seattle, is played with enough self-effacing aplomb by Matt Dillon, whether leaning back on Hendrix's grave with an arrogant smirk or desperately clinging to Citizen Dick's following in Belgium for security. Band mate Eddie Vedder mumbles his way through Cliff's paragraph in a review (conducted by Crowe, who salutes his own journalistic upbringing), but Cliff will not be deterred: "This negativity just makes me stronger!" Alas, being without Janet reduces him to confiding to the camera, too, and his fumbling attempts to get her back pay off marvelously just by simply saying those magic words: "Bless you."

Even eligible bachelor Steve has his own odd details. When he and Linda get intimate, he tries to keep from climaxing by means of a locker room interview with his favorite hoop-dreamer Xavier McDaniel.

Singles does make token nods to the post-1980s milieu of safe sex (a college party where people dress as their favorite contraceptive) and uncertain careerism (Tom Skerritt as the mayor of Seattle lowers the hammer on Steve). But Crowe ultimately finds in these character's philosophies, such as Janet's ambivalence towards casual sex, the root of companionship that is what these characters sustain themselves with on the road to love. Coffee shop conversations, oddball platonic friends (James Le Gros as Linda's intellectually overbearing ex-item Andy) and body politics all take on the curved inconvenience of traffic work as they approach their destinations.

Not to say that these threads are entirely successful. For every moment of plausible outrageous misfortune (like broken answering machines), there is a predicament like Linda's pregnancy that is rendered trivial in the grand scheme as most vignette-based movies tend to demonstrate. Better to bury yourself in your job than confront the situation head on, which may be true to the characters but also likely to make a viewer shrug.

Still, even if this doesn't progress as puckishly as Fast Times (which may be more a credit to Amy Heckerling) or as compellingly as Say Anything (which remains Crowe's calling card), Singles works both as a throwback to Generation X and an amiable portrait of the upwardly mobile dating scene. Even though Chris Cornell appears both with and without Soundgarden (you can even hear a demo version of what would be "Spoonman"), the film's shaggy dog quality is best summed up by the two songs from Minneapolis' own Paul Westerberg which propel the movie, "Waiting for Somebody" and "Dyslexic Heart." The latter song asks "Do I read you correctly, you need me directly? Help me with this part," and that's all you need to know in reacting to the way Crowe tugs on your flannel shirt.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Peggy Sue Got Married

(PG-13, Tri-Star Pictures, 103 mins., theatrical release date: October 10, 1986)

"I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger," is not just the opening line to the chorus of The Faces' "Ooh La La," but also the thematic undertow of Francis Ford Coppola's Peggy Sue Got Married. The main difference is that the person asking to turn back time is not a grandson hung up on wicked women, but a soon-to-be-divorcee pondering 25 years of regret on the night of her high school reunion. Peggy Sue Bodell is not keen on walking into a gymnasium full of her old friends who will no doubt question the absence of her one-time prom king Charlie, who grew to inherit his father's appliance store empire and has turned into a pathetic, philandering Crazy Eddie doppelganger.

The attention gets to be overwhelming for her, as does Charlie's inevitable arrival, and as she is re-anointed to be the belle of the ball, Peggy Sue faints into a time warp to the spring of 1960, her senior year at Buchanan High, going from panty hose to bobby socks all over again.

Coppola had flirted with the mainstream on his own terms in the 1980s, chiefly his two S.E. Hinton adaptations (The Outsiders, Rumble Fish) pitched at a trend-setting younger audience in ways that stood out from his adult-oriented '70s masterpieces. This was done to offset the financial ruin stemming from the box-office disaster of One from the Heart, but for many years, Coppola's reputation took a nosedive as one high-profile film after another suffered dismal returns.

Respectable if not bankable, Coppola's misfortune halted in 1986 when his latest for-hire project managed to draw in audiences and critics alike, making both Siskel and Ebert's ten-best lists (they also championed its lead actress in their annual "If We Picked the Winners" special) and grossing more than twice its budget, Coppola's first windfall since Apocalypse Now. Peggy Sue Got Married is a teen movie, too, and one that was easily pegged as a derivative of Back to the Future, what with its timeline-jumping fixation on a distant love affair. Originally developed as the feature debut for Penny Marshall before the producers got cold feet, this is also a precursor to Marshall's later smash Big, which reversed both the character's gender and age trajectory.

And the less said about Coppola's own decade-later Jack, the better.

For a film which hinges on the double-edged sword of hindsight, Peggy Sue Got Married has aged as well as some kind of fruit of the vine you find in bottles, I forget what they call it.

The main charm in Coppola's hands is Kathleen Turner, white-hot on the heels of Body Heat and Romancing the Stone, giving an Oscar-caliber performance which furthered her sophisticated, sensual adult persona with more precise warmth, body language and comic timing than ever before. The familiar complaint of watching obvious grown-ups having to go back to prom dissipates by virtue of self-professed "walking anachronism" Peggy Sue's arc as a mature, experienced soul in a naïve girl's body, making amends and breaking hearts all over again by dint of absolute knowledge. The sting of what lies ahead is tempered by a flurry of tenderness and introspection which doesn't exactly end in a rose-tinted butterfly effect a la Marty McFly's return to Hill Valley 1985, but is subtly deeper and considerably more despairing given the infidelity and shame in the present day.

Luckily, there's still plenty of genuine entertainment and humor to be gleaned from the journey. Take the now-youthful Peggy Sue Kelcher's reunion with her old nuclear family, which is filmed in a delicately belittling tracking shot as she approaches the front porch and deigns to knock nervously on the open door. Upon making herself at home again, Peggy and her kid sister Nancy (Sofia Coppola) watch Dion & The Belmonts performing "A Teenager in Love" on The Dick Clark Beech-Nut Show. "Look at that man," Peggy awes. "He never ages." Nancy grumbles pettily over Kenny Rossi and Arlene Sullivan, reaching for the bowl of M+Ms as big sis tells her to avoid the red ones (because of the amaranth scare). Peggy then calmly goes to her dad's bureau and steals a couple glasses of whiskey: "Oh, what the hell. I'm probably dead, anyway."

Mr. Kelcher (Don Murray) then arrives to surprise his family with his new Edsel, although his inebriated eldest daughter has seen it all before and cackles it off. Dad: "Are you drunk?" Peggy: "Just a little. I had a tough day." He then proceeds to ground her, thus making Peggy more comically belligerent. Her statement of teenage rebellion: "I'm an adult. I want to have fun. I'm going to go [to] Liverpool and discover The Beatles."

And then there's Peggy's future hubby himself, Charlie Bodell (Nicolas Cage...I'll get to him), waiting for her the very next morning in his big blue '58 Impala.

Enduringly-married screenwriters Jerry Leichtling & Arlene Sarner may not have piqued Coppola's initial interest (he thought it was merely "okay" and no different from a "routine television show"), and their joint career never evolved beyond the promise found herein. Still, the two of them have considerably and carefully mined ample quirk and pathos from what could have been an indiscriminating gagfest. Peggy Sue immediately rebounds from that hilarious episode of disbelief by asserting her independence, calling Charlie's bluff on his three-year plan of outside dating as "comparison shopping" and belting out "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" during the pledge of allegiance to the mortification of her apathetic best friends, Maddy Nagle (Joan Allen) and Carol Heath (Catherine Hicks).

The clash between Peggy's ingrained sense of modern woman's worth and the conformity of her adolescence makes her a bit of a social pariah, although she already extended a hand in friendship to nerdy Richard Norvik (Barry Miller). No one is more taken aback by Peggy's brash personality than Charlie, whose adherence to the male rites of passage are frequently subverted. When necking in the car threatens to blossom into sex, it's Peggy Sue making the moves, leaving Charlie confused and angry. The idealistic doo-wop crooner legitimately loves Peggy, as does she, but she's defensive about both their emotions to Charlie's dejection, as he is bent on stardom and avoiding the callous fate Peggy knows he will fulfill.

Speaking of lost innocence, Peggy Sue Got Married exists in simpler times in terms of its male lead, too. One of Nicolas Cage's breakout roles was as New Wave hunk Randy in Martha Coolidge's Valley Girl from 1983, in which he proved equally intense and charming. It wasn't too long before Cage's knack for Methodic weirdness took over. For Alan Parker's Birdy, which called for him to play a Vietnam soldier whose face was horrendously scarred in a mortar explosion, Cage had a few of his teeth pulled out and would walk off the set in his bandages. From Vampire's Kiss onwards, Cage's idiosyncrasies would define his image, and his offbeat appeal engendered a mix of campy affection and catty resignation in audiences.

Like his Uncle Francis, Cage was also itching to put his own stamp on the material, and in his freedom, he turned Charlie Bodell into a peculiar comic creation. The defining quirk Cage applied was a nasal lilt to his voice modeled after Pokey from The Gumby Show, thus making the younger Bodell an exaggeratedly pubescent swain. A lot of people find it irritating to this day, even saying it adds a creepy dimension to Charlie some of Cage's more physical blunders. At the dramatic turning point, when Charlie sneaks into Peggy's bedroom to confront her infidelity, his bent, Nosferatu-style hands and the near smothering of Peggy with a pillow work against him.

Luckily, Cage redeems himself by the end of said scene, conveying his wounded pride and crazed despair over losing Peggy with greater dignity than he is credited for. Sure, there is a nervous squeak when he asks "Did we break up?" and the last line is a simpering declaration that "I'm going to be just like Fabian!" But Charlie Bodell is a figure of both humor and heartbreak, and we've seen him project enough budding intelligence and guileless charm up to this point that the pain feels genuine. Peggy Sue is bearing a grudge Charlie doesn't even know exists yet, and his getting cuckolded seems to put Peggy in the wrong despite her clairvoyance.

What I'm saying is that Nicolas Cage doesn't sabotage the role with his peculiar approach, and he has clearly thought through Charlie's emotions and cared enough to bring them to life. This doesn't mean he can't score an honest laugh, such as Charlie's legendary mention of "my wang" when Peggy propositions him, or project the right amount of goofy but good-hearted bravado in his musical numbers. In this case, I am tempted to dispense with the postmodern sarcasm and unashamedly enjoy Cage's screwy but affectionate characterization as it was initially meant to.

Besides, Cage is flanked by an assortment of fellow wild card wonders, including an unknown Jim Carrey as Walter Getz, Charlie's best friend and Carol's steady, and the debut role for Kevin J. O'Connor as Michael Fitzsimmons, the brooding Beatnik whom Peggy romances to Charlie's dismay. Carrey gets a moment to mug his way through a rendition of Dion's "I Wonder Why" with the rubber-bodied gusto that would make him famous, whilst O'Connor reaps some of the wildest dialogue through his pompous poeticism: "I'm going to check out of this bourgeois motel, push myself away from the dinner table and say 'No more Jell-O for me, Mom!'"

Joan Allen appears at the start of her storied career, having also stood out in the same year's Manhunter, as do Catherine Hicks, Helen Hunt (as Peggy's doting daughter Beth) and an acerbic Lisa Jane Persky (from The Sure Thing and Coneheads, as well as Coppola's earlier The Cotton Club) as gossip girl Dolores Dodge. Filling in the guest appearances slot are Leon Ames and Maureen O' Sullivan in touching performances as Peggy Sue's grandparents, plus the mighty John Carradine as a lodge spokesman. And other recognizable faces include Don Stark (Evilspeak) as jock bully Doug Snell, Barbara Harris from Freaky Friday as Mrs. Kelcher ("Peggy, you know what a penis is...stay away from it") and Barry Miller (Fame, Saturday Night Fever) as the millionaire-in-sneakers Richard, who has named his own theory of time travel after a burrito and is given hot tips on future innovations from Peggy Sue, such as "Walk-a-mans" and "portable enormous radios."

Well-acted across the board, wrapped up tidily with a John Barry musical score (as well as token appearances by Buddy Holly and his 1980s heir apparent Marshall Crenshaw) and given an intriguingly nostalgic glow by cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, the movie is less a technical showcase for Francis Coppola than a storytelling triumph. The movie offers us one bravura camera trick right after the opening credits and then keeps itself simply elegant and exciting. Coppola's working on a level of populism which courts comparison to Spielberg as well as Capra, but there's nothing excruciatingly broad about how he handles the dramedy. It has all been captured with deceptively effortless ease, from the strained chemistry between Peggy and Charlie, the thrill of pelvic-thrusting teenaged love and the brutal awareness of temporary relationships between family and friends in need of closure.

How these emotional threads are resolved is not entirely clear-cut, and Peggy's return to the present brings her back into the realm of compromise, as Charlie dotes nearby, having dumped his mistress for having the temerity to confuse the Big Bopper with a cheeseburger. But I felt myself growing up all over again next to Peggy Sue Kelcher, and she's one high-school sweetheart who not only deserves her party crown, but wears it exceedingly well. Peggy Sue Got Married, but you'll love the gal just the same.