Friday, July 31, 2009


30 HELEN''S AGREE . . .



Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The John Travolta vanity project "Battlefield Earth' begs the question, "What price Scientology?" The delicous answer is, of course, a resounding "Who cares?"

Well, poodles, Once more I returned home after a relaxing facial and manicure only to find that little Jimmy, jr had yet again poisoned our DVD player with some heinous assault called Battlefield Earth. How he managed to bribe his Germanic nanny Mrs. Whipcrack to remove his fetters and take him to the local Blockbuster is still under investigation. (I would have thought this beyond her. She claimed to be former Gestapo on her resume.) With my freshly painted nails digging into my palms, and a growing concern for the I.Q. of my youngest son, I sat down to witness what could quite possibly be the worst movie of the new millennium.

Released to scathing reviews in the summer of 2000, one could only hope that Battlefield Earth was, as many paranoid trogs would have it, a subliminal recruitment for the L. Ron Hubbard religion/carpetbagging operation, because then it might have some purpose. Otherwise, it is a brain-baking travesty, a Hollywood laughingstock that must inevitably damn at least some of the careers wrapped up in it. It's difficult to imagine how John Travolta, (whose personal project this was in one way or another), got away with his reputation and price tag intact. As a Rasta-coiffed alien in six-finger fur gloves and big Gene Simmons boots prone to drinking what looks like Gatorade at his local alien gin mill, Travolta utters dialogue only Lost in Space's Dr. Smith could get away with, including multiple exclamations about Earth being "this horrid planet!" Much to his hammy dismay, Travolta's Terl is stuck on Earth monitoring its security after the Psychlos have essentially wiped out civilization and are busy strip-mining the planet.

Jonnie (Barry Pepper) gets captured by the Psychlos; when Terl decides to surreptitiously have "man-animals" mine gold for personal profit, he slaps Jonnie into a brain-educating machine, not realizing that Jonnie has a Captain Kirk-like need to be free. The revolution takes forever to happen, and director Roger Christian's 45-degree angles, hyper-closeups and hemorrhaging slo-mo shots virtually comprise a textbook in how to make an irritating, ineffective and dull action film. Unarguably the dumbest sci-fi novel ever to be a bestseller in this country (if it was one – anti-Hubbardians think there's a warehouse full of paperbacks somewhere), Battlefield Earth makes it to the screen with its nova-sized plot holes (caveman learning how to formation-fly Harriers in a few days!), glaring inconsistencies
("Six Psychlos coming fast!"; cut to six aliens walking very slowly) and slackjawed foolishness intact.

Don't even get me going on the Fort Knox debacle, or Kelly Preston's cameo as an alien trollop with a foot-long tongue, or Pepper's portentous reading of the Declaration of Independence. I haven't seen such a laughably incompetent summer movie since summer movies became summer movies some years ago, and that's saying a pantload. As to Mrs. Whipcrack, we have a special room in our basement for people who don’t follow orders. Perhaps she might enjoy a little visit down there next to our sloppy gardener Mr. Chu.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

In Hollywood's vast oeuvre, no other film defines celebrity torment better than 1994's INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE

Like witches before a cauldron, author Anne Rice and her minions chanted, "Who shall play Lestat? Who shall play Lestat?" Rice's incantation conjured up such names for the casting of this high-profile role as Alexander Godunov, Cher and Peter Weller, who probably had scheduling problems anyway doing films like The New Age and cable movies with actors like Robert Hays. Then, director Neil Jordan announced Tom Cruise would play the tall, blond European vampire -- it was as if he had uttered Richard Grieco -- and the realized film was reduced to an assessment of Cruise's Lestat. What everyone missed, while hanging on to Tom's every "mon Dieu," was Jordan's ability to turn a novel with a flaccid film premise into something worth watching.

Interview With The Vampire is not the greatest idea for a movie -- the dozens of aborted screenplay attempts and the 17 years it took to finally reach the big screen are evidence enough -- because it's neither suspenseful nor scary. Because it is told through the eyes of a vampire, we are asked to identify with a predator. We stalk the helpless. We don't feel frightened, we feel guilty. The examination of a sourpuss lamenting his fate for two centuries may make for good reading, but the idea doesn't exactly put you at the edge of your seat. Vampire movies told through the eyes of the predator are best-suited for comedy, as in Love at First Bite -- well, maybe not best-suited -- or metaphor, as in The Hunger. So what about Interview? Jordan said, "What fascinates me about [the film] is the absence of moral responsibility." Well, he's hinting at the truth. For our money, Interview is about the torment of being a celebrity.

Brad Pitt says, "I'm flesh and blood, but not human." Pick a star, any star. Christian Bale? Nicolas Cage? Flesh and blood, sure. But human? Pitt's tale reads as that of a celebrity thrust into the limelight searching for the secrets of how to be a headliner. Cruise, the biggest superstar in town, chose Pitt as his lifetime co-star -- for his beauty? Definitely. Because he owns a sprawling plantation? Couldn't hurt. The pretty boys live the high life, but Pitt can't snip his ties to the little people and so resorts to common junk food binges. If Cruise has any tricks on handling fame, he's sure as hell not sharing them with the whiny, I-don't-want-to-be-a-star Pitt; so he figures to shut him up by biting him a gift -- child actor Kirsten Dunst. This is Cruise's fatal mistake, for he should know better than to have a kid for a co-star. Just ask W.C. Fields or anyone who had to share screen time with Macaulay Culkin.

As with most child stars, Dunst's fans won't let her grow up. When she lops off her trademark locks in hopes of changing her image, those precious curly Q's just grow back -- Shirley Temple forever. This clearly explains why Zac Efron won't be seen in Natural Born Killers II anytime soon. But then Dunst does what child stars do best: she upstages the headliner. With Cruise out of the spotlight, Pitt is forced to carry the burden of fame on his own. He decides he needs guidance. So why not go to Paris?

In Paris, Pitt finds his counselor in the form of Antonio Banderas, who appears to have been a big deal in his day but now hosts a lame television show -- metaphorically speaking, of course. Banderas tells Pitt, "You have to be powerful, beautiful and have no regrets." (Is he referring to Sharon Stone?) Being a show-biz veteran, Banderas has the good sense to can the child actor, cancel the TV show and jump-start his career with the new hot star, Pitt. Although coming very close to kissing Banderas, Pitt won't have this has-been riding his coattails. So, he's off yet again, this time to America.

Back home, Pitt catches a foul aroma only celebrities can smell -- the scent of a dead career. He follows the stench to find Cruise in the Jon Voight Home of Former Leading Men. Cruise pathetically recalls his salad days, forcing Pitt to flee because failed stardom is catchy. Still somewhat of an ingenue when it comes to fame management, Pitt fails to take into account the possibility of the ever-elusive comeback. Too bad Travolta wasn't around to tip him off. Interview ends on the hopeful note that anyone can return to glory once more -- Kevin Costner, Burt Reynolds, The Two Coreys... (well, maybe not anyone.)

While there are plenty of films about celebrities -- Sunset Boulevard, A Star Is Born -- none get deeper in the skin, or more inside the head, of the immortal superstar than Jordan's Interview With the Vampire.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Lange's delicious film debut had everyone believing the real talent belonged to a giant furry mechanical paw.

When the now almost-revered Jessica Lange made her screen debut in the 1976 remake of King Kong, critics judged her without benefit of having seen her as Frances, or even as the blonde tootsie in Tootsie, wrote her off as just another pretty --- and pretty bad --- starlet. Not one of them noticed that she was playing just another pretty --- and pretty bad --- starlet. Lange did not suddenly acquire talent during the making of her later films; she had merely been so convincing as an untalented airhead in King Kong that people thought she wasn't acting at all. The accomplishment's all the more impressive in view of the fact that Lange had only an empty special effects screen (and a giant paw) to play off.

In re-imagining the familiar Girl-Meets-Ape storyline for contemporary audiences, screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. hit on the smart, funny notion of turning the main characters into greedy, ambitious, self-centered '70s types. Lange's part was updated to the microsecond: her character became a ready-for-anything, been-around-the-block playmate with the body of a goddess and the heart of a cash register. Saved at sea by the oil rig crew headed for Kong's island, Lange's character sees at once that, as the only female aboard, she's just where she loves to be --- at the center of attention. Lange lets us watch the wheels spin as she toys with the guns, slipping slowly into the daydreamy character this beauty's been enacting since puberty to manipulate men. "I'm Dwan. D-w-a-n, Dwan. That's my name --- like Dawn, except I switched two letters to make it more memorable," says the bimbo, and Lange is so convincingly blank it's easy to see how critics thought that producer Dino De Laurentis had simply cast a dim bulb as a dim bulb.

Aware, as ever, that she's holding her audience spellbound with her languid stretches and moves, "Dwan" goes further to see how much she can get away with in these new circumstances. Putting a false veneer of naivete atop her obvious innuendoes, she says, "I owe my life to a movie. They were showing this film I refused to watch, and that's why I was up on deck by myself when the yacht exploded. Did you ever meet anyone before whose life was saved by Deep Throat?" The men don't laugh, but we do, because we can see how she gets her way with a smart act of stupidity. And Lange delivers this line as casually as if she were applying lip gloss. Lange is just as adept at pulling off the trickier, sillier scenes of "Dwan" as a budding feminist who has the moxie to get angry instead of scared when she's abducted by Kong, the biggest of all the many big apes she's met.

A large part of Lange's achievement in King Kong is showing us the type of actress she, in fact, turned out not to be herself: "Dwan" is the prototypical, eager-to-please pinup who, since she can't think, hopes that she can act her way through any situation -- and since she can't, in fact, act, she has to rely on playacting. The touches of Tuesday Weld's plaintive voice and Marilyn Monroe's shudders of pleasure are all part and parcel of Lange's clever portrait of a woman who's expressly made up of all the dream women who came before her, and can't turn it off, ever. This reaches its zenith at the finale when, after Kong takes his final fall for her, she's where she's always dreamed of being --- surrounded by press and paparazzi --- and cries hysterically for her lover. Lange shows us it's all just for show: she doesn't take one step out of the spotlight to move in his direction.


Sunday, July 5, 2009


An '80s pop song was inspired by Bette Davis 's eyes, but surely Davis's mouth is what we remember. It was a remarkable instrument, set in the great star's heart-shaped face like a jewel, but vital and malleable as if alive on its own – at one minute bee-stung and coquettish, at the next a crocodilian thresher snapping at everything in reach. And the things that came out of it! Scalding, blistering, barbed, awful things. No actress in all Hollywood kingdom ever dared be so plainly and willfully sour as Bette Davis. For a brilliant display of especially mean and throbbing licks, the 1941 film THE LITTLE FOXES is hard to beat.

In Foxes, Davis plays a character tailored to her cataclysmic talent and famously cross moods. Regina Hubbard Giddens, the middle sibling of a Southern mercantile family that has accumulated wealth by ruthless cunning, has driven her sickly husband (Herbert Marshall) to live in Baltimore and persists with her brothers in schemes to gain the riches that will liberate her from her dull, entrenched life. Nothing – not social quibbles, nor any sense of fairness, not even her husband's grave condition – so much as slows her down.

With the precise, psychological camera work of director William Wyler (who'd been Davis's lover during the filming of Jezebel three years before this film was made) supporting her portrayal, Regina's trespasses, insults and sins are revealed in pieces. Davis conveys the savage inner workings behind Regina's falsely delicate veneer with a variety of carefully honed gestures. Regina slouches in chairs like an empress, arms spread in casual dominion over her surroundings, eyes hooded but missing nothing in the room. She stares into the distance when absorbing news that she doesn't care to hear, calculating her next move. She gives orders to all around her in such a businesslike manner, it's clear she assumes she's the sole natural authority in everyone's world. Called out for her regal ways, Regina breaks into a wide smile, but fidgets with her fingertips, telegraphing the rage that lies beneath the show of complacency.

Then there is Davis's intimate understanding of vanity and deterioration. Done up as the bitter dowager with powdered face and slightly disheveled nimbus of hair, she twice treats us to a bit of business in which, cross-eyed, she hones in on an errant strand. She goes for the jugular when Regina, past her sexual prime but planning to seduce her estranged mate, compares a long-ago photograph of herself with the current version in a mirror, and sets about applying wrinkle cream like war paint.

And, yes, there are those words, those ghastly, ugly, hurtful words enunciated with relish and crispness. There are blithe little daggers: "You should tell me everything you thought someday," she declares to someone eager to open up dark secrets; and there are truncheons: "I hope you die," she tells her husband with hurtful prescience, "I hope you die soon. I'll be waiting for you to die." When Regina commits her most heinous crime – sitting by idly while her husband suffers agonizing death throes for want of a dose of medicine – Wyler gives her to us in full face with her lips closed; she never turns from the camera to watch his suffering and the silence, after so much invective, is devastating. You'll recoil from the power of Davis's malice, but you can't avert your eyes. Which explains the actress's Oscar nomination for The Little Foxes. If she hadn't already had two in the bag by 1941, she'd probably have won.

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