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Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Best and Worst Movies of 2011

As the year draws to a close, we here at Weird Movie Village get all misty-eyed, reflecting on the highlights (and lowlights) in filmed entertainment from the past 12 months.

Here are some of them. Keep in mind, if you haven't seen these, there may be spoilers...

THE BEST

1. Hugo. Somehow it's fitting that this would be the last movie I saw this year—just this afternoon, as a matter of fact. It perfectly fits into the WMV milieu, and I'll be discussing it in greater detail in a later post.

Martin Scorsese has taken a children's tale and made it relevant for adults, weaving in some wonderful, magical movie history history and a plea for film preservation to boot.

As Hugo and his spirited sidekick, Isabelle, Asa Butterfield and Chloe Grace Moretz are terrific, and Sir Ben Kingsley plays Georges Melies with a tragic dignity. Once a pioneer in special effects films, he's lost everything and now sells toys at the train station that Hugo—also a lost soul—inhabits. It's utterly charming, and elder statesman Scorsese probably understands the power of 3D better than any filmmaker of any generation.

2. Moneyball. Man, I loved this movie. Not only was it a fascinating study of the inner workings of major league sports, it featured a major league performance by Brad Pitt as Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane, who has a unusual plan to take his team to the top. Jonah Hill is fine as his nerdy, numbers-driven assistant, and Philip Seymour Hoffman adds another character notch to his belt as team manager Art Howe. And it was funny, too!

3. Crazy, Stupid, Love. This smart and frequently hilarious film showed us that romcoms don't always have to have "long distance relationship" or "meet cute" or "terminal illness" plot points (and you people know who you are) to carry them through. Just pair sad sack Steve Carrell with suave barfly Ryan Gosling doing his Pygmalion thing, throw in other dysfunctional characters, blend them all together and you've got comedy gold.

4. Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The little (well, not so little) movie that could. People scoffed at the idea of Fox rebooting its ancient series, especially as the films got more and more po'-faced and the TV series even worse, but most were blown away by a truly exciting prequel with lots of heart, seamless digital effects and another Academy-award worthy performance by Andy Serkis as Caesar. James Franco is believable as a research scientist (!) and John Lithgow gives the film its soul as Franco's father, battling against the debilitating effects of Alzheimer's disease.

5. Drive. Here Gosling plays a completely different character, a morally ambiguous stunt driver who finally gains a soul when he is motivated to rescue his neighbor (Carey Mulligan) from vicious thugs. Of course, this rescue involves splattery killings, but it somehow all works in Nicolas Winding Refn's strange, dark film that challenges conventional techniques and characterizations.

6. Shame. Dark is certainly the operative word to describe Steve McQueen's portrait of an emotionally blank sex addict named Brandon (Michael Fassbender) and his equally screwed-up sister with the quite literal name Sissy (Carey Mulligan).

Certainly not for all viewers, Shame features a fearless and literally stripped-down performance by Fassbender whose compulsions are never explained but are somehow linked to a horrendous childhood that Brandon and Sissy experienced.

7. The Devil's Double. Breezing through theaters in limited release earlier this year, this story of Saddam Hussein's son Uday and his body double Latif Yahia (both mesmerizingly played by Dominic Cooper) painted a violent portrait of the tumult in Iraq during the first Gulf War. Cooper provides two good performances as Uday, whose tastes for bloodshed and depravity are unchecked, and Latif, who finds himself at a moral crossroads.

Also worth mentioning is Fright Night, a decent remake of the 1985 original with Colin Farrell particularly striking as Jerry Dandridge. Instead of Chris Sarandon's suave man-about-town portrayal, Farrell is much more...well, feral. X-Men: First Class was an entertaining prequel, with James McAvoy and Fassbender lots of fun as the young versions of Dr. Xavier and Magneto.

Steven Soderbergh's star-studded Contagion took what could have been a really clinical plot about a contagious disease exploding around the world and made it fast-moving and fascinating. Martha Marcy May Marlene featured an outstanding performance by Elizabeth Olson as a damaged young woman who escapes from a cult in a movie that really creeps up on you.

THE WORST

There were a few stinkers from filmmakers who should've known better—nevertheless, they made a boatload of money and critics even liked a couple of them.

1. The crowning achievement of crap surely must go to The Hangover Part II. It's hard to believe that the creators of the original had anything to do with this, because it plays like it was done by opportunistic louts with no understanding of how the humor worked in Part I. It's flat, repetitive and frankly pretty disgusting. I only need remind you of Ed Helms' character and the "ladyboy" to help you understand. It's amazing that this sequel didn't derail the series, but I guess Part III is in the works.

2. Bridesmaids was a smash hit and earned many critical laurels, and I just don't get it. To me, it was just as disgusting as Hangover Part II, alternating between ridiculous slapstick, nauseating body-function comedy and absurd "women's drama." What's the sequel going to be called? Divorcees?

3. J.J. Abrams' Super 8 was eagerly anticipated but fell flat on its ass. I wasn't the only one who felt betrayed by this misfire. Half Spielberg-inspired memory piece, half Cloverfield-style monster scare film, it seriously failed to deliver on the latter part, devolving into a Michael Bay-style crash-and-smash fest with a stoopid monster that gave me a headache long before the end credits rolled.

4. Red Riding Hood. Dumb, dumb, dumb, this mess tries to add Twilight teen angst to a classic fairy tale, and it's ridiculous. And what's up with Amanda Seyfried? She seems to be in everything these days, but I find this googly-eyed blonde to be a particularly limited performer. As Dorothy Parker famously said about another actress, "She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B." More tragic was the appearance of the elegant Julie Christie as her grandmother. My God, did she really need the money that badly?

Insidious had the creators of Saw team up with the creator of Paranormal Activity, but the result was more of the latter—a cliché-ridden, alleged "horror film" for people who are scared of horror films. And Anthony Hopkins, who was enjoyable in last year's rather good remake, The Wolfman, was somehow talked into participating in The Rite, playing an exorcist who himself becomes possessed and babbles endless lines of pretentious dialogue until the demon is forced out—or the audience is forced to leave—whichever comes first.

2012 is already looking to be ruled by sequels and 3D spectacles. Tim Burton is expanding his 1984 short film Frankenweenie into a feature for Disney—ironically the company that fired him for making it in the first place. James Cameron is hauling his groaning 1997 epic Titanic out of drydock for another go-round in 3D. I'm interested in Mark Webb's take on Sam Raimi's Spider-Man franchise with the fresh-cast The Amazing Spider-Man. Wrath of the Titans is a sequel to the 3D remake Clash of the Titans—and it's also getting an upconversion! Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is surely one of the most anticipated releases of the year, and Christian Bale is back as Batman in The Dark Night Rises.

Suckers will fork over their money for Paranormal Activity 4, a franchise I absolutely fail to see the appeal in. Kristen Stewart is giving up sparkly vampires to appear as the title character in Snow White and the Huntsman. And Brad Pitt takes on zombies in Marc Forster's World War Z.

On the arthouse front, David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method, already in limited release, will be expanded in 2012. Actress Sarah Polley, whose 2006 Away from Her was terrific, has Take This Waltz. Tilda Swinton plays the mother of a teen who went on a high school killing spree in We Need to Talk About Kevin. And the Australian serial killer film Snowtown is coming early this year. Both of the latter are on my hot list and should be reviewed when available.

In the meantime, we here at Weird Movie Village wish you a happy and productive New Year!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Horrors for Christmas

Article first published as Horrors for Christmas on Blogcritics.

There are horror films for almost every holiday—Valentine's Day, Mother's Day, Halloween (of course)—even Independence Day (William Lustig's Uncle Sam). With Christmas just around the corner, it got me thinking about Yuletide-themed movies, and I came to the conclusion that most of them are pretty lame. Here's a select list...

1. Don't Open Till Christmas (1984). Actor Edmund Purdom also took the directorial reins for this sleazy English slasher. Yeah, I know you're saying "Edmund Purdom...who?" Well, he was in the original 1953 Titanic, some sword and sandal epics and sleaze like Frankenstein's Castle of Freaks and Pieces, so he knew his way around exploitation. Here he plays a police inspector on the hunt for a masked killer preying on men dressed as Santa Claus. You just know it's going to turn out that he was traumatized by someone dressed as Saint Nick as a young boy.

Man, is it cheap. Some of the sets are so small it looks like the actors are crouching to fit into the frame. And despite its '80s vintage, it has a distinctly sleazy '70s vibe, especially in its depiction of the Piccadilly Circus/nightclub milieu. Even cult vixen Caroline (Maniac) Munro, no stranger to sleaze herself, shows up to chirp a Eurotrash disco song.

And instead of being horrified by the murders, the obviously underdirected extras react with expressions of nausea or vague disappointment. It's probably the best of the bad Christmas horror films, because it delivers the gore with a thick slice of cheese.

Father Christmases are offed in a variety of amusing ways—burning, bludgeoning—even exsanguination via castration. Of course none of it is convincing, but that only adds to the fun. You have to wonder what Purdom was thinking as he was performing double duty here. "At last! An opportunity to stretch my talent" or "God, I need the money"? And the VHS sleeve (pictured here) was classic. How could you resist renting it with packaging like this?

2. The "And All Through the House" segment from Tales from the Crypt (1972). Joan Collins! Chloe Franks (Whoever Slew Auntie Roo, The House That Dripped Blood)! Sicko Santa! The first adaptation of the classic 1950s comic book series is by far the best. I remember seeing it at the State Theater in South Bend, Indiana, on a double bill with another Amicus anthology, From Beyond the Grave. I didn't dig Grave so much (insert groan here) but Tales was great. It's amazing that it got a PG rating back in the day, because it's quite tense and bloody (even though the blood is pink).

Joan was in the horror/trash phase of her career at this point. She'd already done Inn of the Frightened People, and I Don't Want to Be Born, in which she gives birth to a baby possessed by a circus dwarf—I'm not kidding—still lay ahead. Here, she plays a wife who decides to snuff her husband on Christmas Eve while her daughter is asleep upstairs. Bashing his brains in with a fireplace poker, she throws his body down the basement steps to make it look as if he'd fallen. Unfortunately, a news report interrupts the nonstop Christmas music on the wireless to warn citizens to be on the lookout for a deranged Santa who had just escaped from the mental hospital.

What follows is a lot of suspenseful fun as Joan runs around making sure all of the windows and doors are secure as the psycho Father Christmas peeps in. It's all for naught, however—daughter is too excited to stay asleep and sneaks downstairs, announcing: "Santa's here, Mummy! I let him in!"

Joan rushes to the fireplace, presumably to grab her old reliable poker, but Santa has his hands wrapped around her throat. Oliver MacGreevy, who plays the jolly old elf, should've won some sort of award for his performance. He effectively projected a perverted insanity that really creeped out my 13-year-old self and still does today. I mean, after he killed Mommy, what do you think he did with the kid?

The story was redone for the HBO series of the same name, and although it ups the ante in the gore department, the original is still tops in my book. You can see it here.

3. Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984). A triumph of marketing, this ultra-low-budget slasher was promoted with incredibly morbid television spots during the holiday season, causing parents' groups to go ballistic and get it pulled from theaters. It delivers on the gore and there are lots of silly breast shots—the ever-topless Linnea (Return of the Living Dead) Quigley is on board, and a girl even opens her front door to let out her cat, dressed only in tiny shorts.

It spawned an outrageous number of direct-to-video sequels that diverted from the original story (psycho Santa, of course). Mickey Rooney showed up for number five as a looney toymaker named Joe Petto (insert second groan here), even though he'd written a letter to the producers of the original complaining about the film back in '84! Guess he couldn't resist that check for $2.95 the filmmakers were waving in front of his nose.

4. Christmas Evil (1980). John Waters is among the fans of this killer holiday flick, which stars Tony nominee Brandon Maggart as a schmuck who sees Santa performing an intimate act on his mother as a child. Instead of loathing the guy, he becomes his number one fan, keeping his apartment decorated year-round and sleeping in a Santa robe. But when too many people diss Christmas, he snaps and decides to become Kris Kringle himself—well, a murderous Kris Kringle.

All of this takes a lo-o-o-ong time. With apologies to Mr. Waters, I found this this to be a really boring movie. At 100 minutes, it moves at a snail's pace and the killings don't start until the final 40 minutes. And there's weird, senseless stuff, too. He goes to the home of a bad boy who'd been looking at dirty magazines, but instead of killing him, he just covers his hands and face in mud and leaves impressions on the side of the house. Huh? And just when you think the killings are going to start in earnest (beginning with a pretty good eye impalement), the action stops dead again for an office party dance sequence.

5. Black Christmas (1974). Long before he made the perennial charmer, 1982's A Christmas Story, director Bob Clark plumbed darker Yuletide depths with this Canadian-lensed stalker. A group of sorority girls staying at school over the holidays receive obscene phone calls at Christmastime. When one of them, Barb (Superman's Margot Kidder), provokes the caller, he threatens to kill her. He follows through with his threat, and soon most of the co-eds are snuffed and stashed in the attic or basement.

The cast is interesting. Along with the aforementioned Kidder, who's fun as the drunk, chain-smoking Barb, there's also Olivia Hussey (Romeo and Juliet), Keir Dullea (2001: A Space Odyssey) and Andrea Martin (SCTV). Although the killings aren't really splattery, it does anticipate the slasher film boom of the 1980s, and the notion that the killer has been in the house the entire time dramatized a popular urban legend and gave birth to at least another film's plot (When a Stranger Calls). It's also very grim and nasty, with the killer's phone calls being particularly graphic and obscenity-laden.

The film was remade in 2006. Of course, the sleaze and gore stakes were raised considerably, and Martin came back, this time playing the house mother rather than a student. Otherwise, it's pretty routine.

6. Silent Night, Bloody Night (1974). This is one of those movies you just wish would be a lot better. Directed by Theodore (Sugar Cookies) Gershuny, it stars Mary Woronov, his spouse at the time, and horror vet John Carradine, with appearances by Warhol superstars Candy Darling and Ondine. With a cast like this, one really wishes it would have taken off into Morrissey/Warhol territory, but it's awkward, dark and slow-moving. It has its enthusiastic adherents, but to me it just seems like a horror film made by experimental filmmakers with no affinity for the genre—and that's why I especially wish they'd just gone ahead and made it really strange.

7. TV Christmas Episodes. Okay, they're not horror films, but there are a few Christmas-themed TV episodes worth mentioning. Oftentimes, Christmas has to be shoehorned into the plot of shows that don't naturally lend themselves to holiday whimsy. I'm reminded of the Yuletide-themed Dragnet in which Gannon and Friday work to find a Baby Jesus statue and return it to its creche in a Mexican-American church in time for Christmas mass. Wanted: Dead or Alive, starring Steve McQueen, had a cheesy episode in which a kid gives him eight cents to find Santa Claus.

Far more successful were the comedies. Who could forget the Mary Tyler Moore episode in which Mary is scheduled to work alone at the news desk on Christmas Eve, thinks there's an intruder in the building, and is surprised by her coworkers with an impromptu party?

Married with Children did Christmas Bundy style with a plot that featured a skydiving Santa plummeting to his death in their backyard. Like Silent Night, Deadly Night, it caused parents' groups to get carried away, banning the episode from syndicated reruns until a compromise was reached. Even today, it's prefaced with a "this is a work of fiction and none of this really happened" blah blah blah card. Frankly, I think today's kids are so tough and cynical that they'd look at it and say, "You mean there was a time when kids actually believed in Santa?" And they've already heard Justin Bieber's duet with Mariah Carey on "All I Want for Christmas Is You," so they're scarred for life anyhow.

Well, as I said at the outset, most Christmas-themed horror films are pretty lousy, and that's not even counting the biggest horror of them all, the 1978 Star Wars holiday special. I recommend the nonpareil 1951 version of A Christmas Carol starring Alastair Sim, which is...after all...a horror story.

And to all a goodnight!

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Grim Reaper Is Back

Motivated by the bizarre news that Natalie Wood's mysterious drowning case was being reopened, we at Weird Movie Village thought it was time to take a look at some of the celebrities who've shuffled off our mortal coil lately—and fit the category.

MARGARET FIELD. Perhaps most famous for being the mother of Sally Field, Margaret Field did lots of television work, appearing in all the important shows of the '50s and '60s, including The Twilight Zone, The Untouchables, Wagon Train, Perry Mason and Adam-12, to name a few.

Her film work was more limited, but her most notable role has to be Enid in Edgar G. Ulmer's cult classic The Man from Planet X (1951). Shot in six days for $41,000, it nevertheless has its ardent admirers. One of the earliest, if not the earliest, alien invasion stories, the speed with which it was produced enabled it to beat Invaders from Mars, War of the Worlds and The Thing from Another World into theaters, though they all went into production at about the same time.

ANDREA TRUE. Children of the '70s have the disco song "More, More, More" burned into their brains, but singing was only a part of True's true talents. Born in Nashville, she moved to New York as a teen to break into mainstream films, but only found work in porn. While she was in Jamaica appearing in local real estate commercials, she recorded the song she'll be remembered for—it even reached number four on the Billboard Hot 100 list.

Sadly, her music career burned out pretty quickly, and a goiter on her vocal cords eliminated any chance of a comeback. And, at age 40, she was too old to get back into porn. She ended up doing psychic readings in Florida.

CHARLES NAPIER. The lantern-jawed tough guy was a favorite of Russ Meyer, appearing in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Supervixens and Harry, Cherry and Raquel, but he's one of those ubiquitous actors that everyone recognizes from his many appearances. Like J.K. Simmons, he seemed to be in everything.

I always remember him as the cop guarding Hannibal Lecter in the makeshift cage set up in the gymnasium in Silence of the Lambs, and the way he screamed/snarled defiantly when the madman went in for the kill. But he also appeared in such first video generation favorites as Rambo: First Blood Part II, Something Wild, Maniac Cop 2—even Ruggero Deodato's 1987 slasher Camping Del Terror!

ALAN SUES. I only knew this flamboyant comedian from his appearances on Laugh-In and the Twilight Zone episode "The Masks," and I was surprised to see that he was 85 when he died. For some reason, I thought he was younger, but he served in Europe during World War II and used his veteran's benefits to study acting at the Pasadena Playhouse. He made his stage debut in "Tea and Sympathy"—duh—which is about an earnest teacher's efforts to make a man out of an effeminate student.

He really didn't work that much to earn such recognition, but what the heck. Like Paul Lynde, he was one of the pioneers of flamboyant characters in '60s television, even though he never came out publicly.

KEN RUSSELL. There's a whole post devoted to moviedom's madman, but we couldn't let the opportunity pass to acknowledge the loss of one of the world's most controversial filmmakers. Love him or hate him (and many do), he made some true classics (The Devils, Women in Love, The Music Lovers) as well as some stinkers.

The stinkers always seemed to come about when he was being dictated to by a studio or other financers. After the success of Tommy, it's clear that the studio wanted him to shape one of his musical biographies to fit then-hot Who frontman Roger Daltrey. The result was Lizstomania—and it's a mess. And seven years after Crimes of Passion, Trimark—a low-budget film and video distribution company—financed Whore, a similarly-themed film starring Theresa Russell—and it's dreadful.

My favorite Russell films are the aforementioned three as well as Tommy, Lair of the White Worm and Crimes of Passion. And I would rather watch a bad Ken Russell film than anything by Michael Bay.

HARRY MORGAN. With two big series to his name—Dragnet and M*A*S*H—I'm sure he was rolling in residuals, but he was also a Disney favorite and a television mainstay. It's funny how the obituaries are omitting his arrest for wife-beating in 1996. That was so strange when that news broke. Harry Morgan? It's like Pee Wee Herman being arrested for public indecency. Oh, wait a minute.

Morgan was part of the M*A*S*H cast that I liked best. McLean Stevenson's dipshit Colonel Blake didn't really do it for me, and I preferred Mike Farrell over Wayne Rogers, who always seemed like an unctuous used car salesman to me.

Morgan's first name was originally Henry, but he changed it in deference to the comedian and perpetual game show guest who had the same name but nowhere near the legendary status this guy achieved.

And he was quite liberal. A lifelong Democrat, he fought McCarthy's blacklist in the 1950s and appeared in plays for the Group Theatre, whose talents included Clifford Odets, Elia Kazan, Karl Malden and Lee J. Cobb.

BILL McKINNEY. This tough-guy character actor appeared in many famous films, including many for Clint Eastwood—"The Outlaw Josey Wales," "The Gauntlet," "Every Which Way but Loose," "Bronco Billy" and "Any Which Way You Can," but he will always be immortalized as the psycho hillbilly who sexually assaults Ned Beatty in Deliverance ("Squeal, piggy!").

McKinney's debut was David F. Friedman's 1967 She Freak but otherwise his filmography is pretty straight—lots of villains and other character parts in westerns, crime dramas and tons of television.

When I was about 14, I was visiting my family in Texas (I lived with my father in Indiana) and we went to a second-run house to see a double bill of Deliverance and Jeremiah Johnson. It was a strange combination, but it satisfied the weird movie lover in me.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

On the Road with Martha Marcy May Marlene

Road trip! Yes, there's a film review in here somewhere, but please enjoy the travelogue first.

For the Thanksgiving holiday, we at Weird Movie Village decided to take a break and drive from our corporate headquarters up to Morro Bay, a beautiful little seaside community about 200 miles north of Los Angeles.

Just in case you don't know, Morro Bay's most distinguishing characteristic is a huge round rock jutting 576 feet out of the water just offshore. It's one of the "nine sisters": a series of rocks and/or hills that were formed by volcanic activity at least 20 million years ago, but the Bay's rock is the only one that's out in the ocean. It's quite a striking sight. Morro Bay is also home to a small estuary where local species of fish and birds are able to thrive, and the rock is the protected home of the Peregrine Falcon. Quarrying gave it its distinctive round shape and the rocks were used to build the bay's breakwater.

For Weird Movie Village, not only is Morro Bay a relatively close, relatively inexpensive getaway, it's also home to one of the last single-screen, independently owned movie houses in California, the Bay. Sadly, it was closed for some minor refurbishments, but it was good to see that it'd be reopening in early December. The posters in the windows indicated that J. Edgar had been its last feature—or that it was coming up next. Can't be sure, but I'm glad it's still in business.

Anyhow, Thanksgiving Day in a small community can mean limited opportunities for entertainment. Once you've gone out to the rock, toured the Embarcadero, checked out the goofy aquarium (those Moray eels are scary!), jogged by the seashore and rented a bike for a sprint through town, you're pretty much done.

Fortunately, we discovered an arthouse in nearby San Luis Obispo, the Palm Theatre. It was playing a film we'd wanted to see—Martha Marcy May Marlene, so off we went. On the way, and with time to kill, we were surprised and delighted to see a record store open on Morro Bay Boulevard, Vinyl Isle, so we stopped in for a browse.

Vinyl Isle is tiny but packed to the rafters with used and collectible records of all genres. We looked at the soundtracks and found a nice mono original of Mondo Cane and a stereo version of John Barry's majestic score for The Lion In Winter. Another fun acquisition was Disneyland Records' 1964 Chilling, Thrilling Sounds of the Haunted House.

A quick 20 minute drive and we were in San Luis Obispo. The theater was easy to find, located in the city's tiny Chinatown. Clean and small, it consisted of three little auditoriums with real film projection, not video. And in 2004, it was outfitted with solar panels and the electricity sold to Pacific Gas and Electric rather than being fed directly into the theater, which allows it to continue operating during the stormy seasons.

Martha Marcy May Marlene—so named for its lead character's many personalities, is a complex film. At first blush, I thought it was rather dull with a few moments of interest, but it's one of those movies that creeps up on you. I've found myself thinking about it for the last couple of days, recalling scenes that make me say, "Oh, yeah! That's why that happened!"

Elizabeth Olsen is amazing as the title character(s), a mysterious young woman who's just escaped from a cult led by the creepily charismatic Patrick (John Hawkes) and comes back to live with her estranged sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy). Ironically, life with her sibling is as difficult as the one she'd just left, and she has trouble coping with normalcy after the physical and emotional abuse she'd just experienced.

Her life has been split in two: pre- and post-cult, and it causes her to behave rather oddly. When Ted suggests they take a swim in the lake, she nonchalantly takes off all of her clothes to her sister's horror. And when she hears the sound of them making love in their bedroom, she wanders in and lies down next to them as if drawing some sort of comfort from their activity.

The soundtrack is subtly sinister—windblown leaves, falling stones and footsteps all bring back memories to Martha (who's been renamed Marcy May by Patrick), and we get enough glimpses of her life there to allow us to put together the puzzle that causes her strangeness and paranoia.

As I mentioned earlier, this is a deliberately paced film that you'll think about for days afterward. It's an assured feature debut from Sean Durkin, who won the Best Director award at the Sundance Film Festival. Olsen, the younger sister of the "Full House" twins, is simply astonishing, and it's unbelievable to realize that this is her first film role. Paulson's character is frankly a bitch and she plays it that way. She's an emotionless control freak, and it's clear that she really doesn't like her sister; she just feels that it is her duty to take care of her. A telling moment occurs when Martha learns that Lucy and Ted are trying to make a baby and she tells Lucy point-blank: "You're going to be a terrible mother." Dancy is wasted in a role that could have been played by anyone, which is a shame after his standout turn in Showtime's "The Big C" this year.

Hawkes is good as Patrick, whose manipulation of his flock is quietly horrible, and Brady Corbet is also memorable as Watts, Patrick's sadistic underling. What at first seems like a big open marriage, with all the female members available to the men for sex, abruptly takes on more sinister tones when the cult's home invasion robberies escalate to murder, and we realize we're seeing the beginnings of a Manson family.

And the final scene is absolutely chilling.

Durkin is definitely a talent to keep an eye on, and so is Olsen. Here's hoping she continues to take the challenging roles and doesn't end up a glassy-eyed fashion manque like her sisters, who ironically seem like cult members!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Tennessee Williams' Baby Doll Hits the Stage in LA

Article first published as Theatre Review (LA): Tennessee WIlliams' Baby Doll on Blogcritics.

Truly a giant of the American stage, Tennessee Williams wrote plays that featured indelible characters, including Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie, and the lustful Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, all of which are still performed regularly throughout the world.

In 1956, he teamed up with director Elia Kazan to adapt his one-act play, 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, into Baby Doll, a film that introduced another indelible character of sorts—the image of a young woman, lying in a crib, provocatively dressed in a shorty nightgown and sucking her thumb. With its undisguised depictions of lust and sensuality, Baby Doll sent conservative critics into a tizzy, and it was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency, which managed to have it pulled from many U.S. theaters. Even Time Magazine called it "the dirtiest American-made motion picture that has ever been legally exhibited."

Standards have changed greatly over the past five decades, of course, and the furor that the film caused has been all but forgotten.

What remains is Williams' story, which still makes for entertaining drama, and Joel Daavid's new production at the Lillian Theatre certainly bears that out. Set in a small town in Mississippi in the late 1950s, it's the tale of a middle-aged cotton gin owner, Archie Lee Meighan, and his 19-year-old virgin bride, Baby Doll, who refuses to consummate their marriage until she reaches her 20th birthday.

Archie is too poor to afford to repair his cotton gin, the source of his livelihood, and when the loan company comes to collect the houseful of unpaid-for furniture, Baby Doll makes it clear she will continue to refuse any sexual favors until it is returned. Desperate for money (and Baby Doll), Archie burns down the gin mill of his competitor, Sicilian immigrant Silva Vacarro, in the hopes that the business he lost when Vacarro came to town will be his again. Vacarro catches wind of Archie's misdeed and comes a-calling, turning on the charm to manipulate Baby Doll into confessing her husband's guilt. The exotic stranger's attentions prove too much for her to resist, and she succumbs.

Under Daavid's insightful direction, Tony Gatto plays Archie with the right amount of foolish bluster and pent-up rage. Jacque Lynn Colton is amusing as Baby Doll's doddering Aunt Rose Comfort. Ronnie Marmo brings a smooth seductiveness to his portrayal of Vacarro. And Lulu Brud is terrific as Baby Doll, a young woman who is just beginning to realize that she can use her looks to bend men to her will.

Daavid's evocative set design is attractive and makes good use of the Lillian's space. Matt Richter's sound design gives the production a welcome cinematic feel, as does Nick Block's original score. Noelle Rafferty's costumes are right for the impoverished milieu, and Adam Haas Hunter has given the supporting cast choreographed movements that afford them a balletic grace.

Perhaps the most pleasurable aspect of the production is that we can really sit back and enjoy Williams' dialogue, much of which is barbed and quite funny. In fact, Baby Doll can be viewed as a steamy Southern drama of the type Williams specialized in—or a parody of the same—and it's entertaining either way.

Baby Doll plays at the Lillian Theatre, 1076 N. Lillian Way, Hollywood, California, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 7 p.m., until December 18th. Reservations can be made online or by calling (323) 960-4420.

Photos by Joel Daavid

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Now on Showtime: The Last Play at Shea

I guess I'm behind the times, but I just caught the 2010 documentary The Last Play at Shea on Showtime, and I was blown away by this film, which melds the seemingly disparate stories of Shea Stadium, the Mets, Billy Joel, the Beatles and New York City itself into a coherent—and quite moving—portrait.

The origins of Shea Stadium go back to the departure of the Brooklyn Dodgers for Los Angeles in 1959. New York City "master builder" Robert Moses was anxious to get a baseball team back in New York for his new stadium, to be constructed in Queens. Enter attorney William Shea, who tried to bring existing franchise teams to town, but they all refused. His threat to establish a third major league (the Continental League) caused Major League Baseball to blink, allowing two new teams into the National League, one of which became known as the New York Mets.

And they were terrible. Fortunately for them they had a built-in audience: former Dodger fans who were now excited to root for their new New York team, no matter how bad it might be. When Shea finally opened in Spring 1964, after many construction setbacks, it was packed throughout the season with enthusiastic attendees.

Happily, the Mets' fortunes began to improve and they're now, of course, one of the League's leading teams, with the bankroll required to get the players they want. And after 9/11, Shea served as a relief center. Ten days later, Mike Piazza hit a home run against the Braves in the first game since the tragedy, providing a sense of healing for traumatized New Yorkers.

And there wasn't just baseball played there. The New York Jets football team played there from 1964 to 1983. And in one unprecedented season, two baseball teams (the Mets and the Yankees) and two football teams (the Jets and the Giants) all called Shea home.

Shea also hosted many musical events, and much of the documentary is devoted to that aspect, including the Beatles' first U.S. appearance in 1965 and culminating with Billy Joel's closing concerts in July of 2008. The film tells the story of the stadium, paralleling its history with Joel's career, and it works beautifully. After all, what singer represents New York better than Joel? My favorite Joel album is 1977's "The Stranger," and it has my favorite Joel song—"Scenes from an Italian Restaurant." Many interviewees in the film say they personally know a Brenda and Eddie (the high school sweethearts referred to in the lyrics).



Oh...and the Pope showed up at Shea in 1979.

For those of a certain age (ahem), watching Last Play is like watching an encapsulation of your life. The footage of the Beatles concert is amazingly good—I'm used to seeing contrasty black and white kinescope with almost inaudible sound, but the Shea stuff is in color and looks great. McCartney reminisces about the crowd being so carried away and vociferous that their music couldn't even be heard, so they just went a little nuts themselves and had fun. You can see it. At one point, Lennon even stops playing the keyboard and just drags his elbow back and forth across it.

On August 6, 1970, the day-long Festival for Peace fundraiser (organized by Peter, Paul & Mary's Peter Yarrow) was held at Shea, with such legendary acts as Janis Joplin, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Paul Simon, Johnny Winter, Steppenwolf, and Miles Davis, among others. Amazingly, despite the list of high-caliber performers—who all donated their time—no footage or audio of the concert has ever surfaced.

And in 1983, the red-hot Police played Shea, and Sting admits in the film that it was while he was onstage at the stadium he made up his mind to quit the band and go out on his own. Ironically, the reunited Police closed for REM in 2007, a band which, 24 years earlier, was one of its opening acts and didn't even get a mention on the ticket.

In Last Play, Shea's history is interwoven with Billy Joel's story, which is New York through-and-through. His family moved from Manhattan to Levittown, the country's first planned community, at a time when the New York suburbs were becoming a destination for blue-collar workers who couldn't afford the high costs of the city.

And how does Joel's story intersect with that of the polarizing Robert Moses? The "master builder" had been facilitating the growth of the suburbs outside of town for years by building roads and bridges (giving birth to places like Levittown), and his motivation for placing Shea Stadium in Queens was a practical business reason: a built-in fan base.

Joel is such a hometown boy. His support of New York City is unequivocal, and he tells the story of moving away from Manhattan for a short time in the 1970s to escape bad management, only to hear West Coasters denigrate his beloved metropolis, which at the time was suffering some of its most destitute conditions. So what did he do? He moved back home and set up his company there as a gesture of support and devotion.

The city has since experienced a miraculous recovery, but even today, people say to me, "Oh, how can you love going to New York? It's so dangerous!" Give me a break. I'd much rather be alone on subway line number one than in downtown Los Angeles at midnight, I can tell you.

Joel, of course, had been at Shea many times, the last appearances being his two stadium-closing concerts in 2008 with guests Roger Daltrey, Steven Tyler, Jon Mellencamp, Tony Bennett and Paul McCartney. McCartney made it to the stadium by the skin of his teeth, the documentary relates, and joined Joel onstage to perform "I Saw Her Standing There" to a screaming crowd. Fittingly, the last song of the evening was "Let it Be."

Did I convince you that I'm crazy about New York? I usually make it there a couple of times a year for business, but I'd like to go a lot more frequently. In 2007, I caught a game at old Yankee Stadium before it closed in 2008, and I had the opportunity to go to Shea for the first and only time in April of 2008 for the final season. They played the Pirates—and they won!

And on that memorable final night in July, Joel told the standing-room-only audience, “They’re tearing this house down. I want to thank you for letting me do the job and keep doing it—the best job in the world.”

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Clooney, Gosling and The Ides of March

The Ides of March, the new political thriller directed by and starring George Clooney, is ready-made for America's current political climate, with plenty of behind-the-scenes skulduggery and—as the title suggests—some serious betrayal.

Clooney stars as Mike Morris, a plain-spoken, liberal governor running for the highest office in the land. He pushes all the right buttons with voters: green energy, more jobs and no more tax cuts for the wealthy. With the help of his campaign manager, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and spokesman Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), he's surging in the polls and looks like he's got a good shot. Zara has been through it all before and is much more matter-of-fact than Meyers, who's got stars in his eyes and truly believes Morris will be able to make a difference.

Much of the first half of the film is spent showing the workings of Morris' campaign: debates with his main opponent, Senator Pullman (Michael Mantell), television interviews and various appearances across the battleground state of Ohio during the primaries.

Enter Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), Pullman's campaign manager, who likes what he sees in Meyers and offers him a job on his team. Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood), the daughter of the chairman of the DNC and an intern on Morris' campaign, makes no bones about her sexual attraction to Meyers, and they fall into bed together. As a result, Meyers makes some bad decisions and engineers some cover-ups that come to the attention of Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei), a New York Times reporter who threatens to blackmail him unless he delivers the big scoop.

The screenplay (by Clooney, Grant Heslov and former aide to Hillary Clinton, Beau Willimon, whose play it is based upon) has a lot of choice material for the high-powered cast to sink its teeth into, but this is not a film packed with oversized dramatic incident. Quite the contrary—it's a quietly chilling look at the manipulation and corruption inherent in modern politics.

Clooney, who is well-known (and loathed by some) for his liberal leanings, crafts a bleakly cynical vision of the political system—liberals and conservatives alike. For example, when Morris refuses an important senator's endorsement in exchange for a high-level cabinet post, Duffy sees his opportunity to swoop in for the kill. And when Meyers finds out about a dalliance Morris had with Molly, he works furiously to hush it up. Corruption breeds corruption, and no one is left untainted.

As I mentioned earlier, the film features a real dream cast. Hoffman and Giamatti play well off each other as the world-weary Zara and the manipulative Duffy. Wood continues to impress me after roles in 2008's The Wrestler and last season's True Blood. Marisa Tomei is appropriately cold-blooded as the reporter, Clooney is smooth as silk as Morris, and Gosling, well...

This is my third review this year of a film featuring Gosling for which I must give his performance a thumbs-up. Like Leonardo DiCaprio, he's got that special presence that makes it easy for you to become totally invested in the character he's playing, and watching Meyers' transformation from idealistic supporter to cold-eyed Washington operative is a wonder to behold.

Thumbs up, too, for Alexandre Desplat's fine score, and Phedon Papamichael's cinematography gives the Midwestern locations caught in the grip of winter an appropriate chilliness. Understated and intelligent, The Ides of March is sophisticated entertainment for discriminating viewers.

Speaking of DiCaprio, I'll be seeing Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar later this month, for which I'm sure I'll also be offering a review.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Summer Camp Slasher Memories

After writing the last post about Halloween movie suggestions (including Sleepaway Camp), I saw that the New Beverly was going to screen The Burning and Friday the 13th on Saturday night. Of course, like Mr. Moviefone, I said, "I'm in!" As I've mentioned in these pages before, it's so much more fun to watch the old classics (?) theatrically with an actual audience than at home.

The Burning (1981) used to be a real gray-market obscurity until it was released uncut by MGM on DVD in 2007. The film has several points of interest. It features early roles for Jason Alexander and Holly Hunter. While he plays a sort of overgrown camper urging the others to have sex, she barely appears in the movie, mostly in crowd scenes cheering people on or cowering in fear.

Another noteworthy fact is that this is an early Miramax Film—that's right, Bob and Harvey Weinstein. It was filmed in upstate New York and, as with Sleepaway Camp, the accents really shine through, particularly in the case of the camp bully, Glazer (Larry Joshua), who sounds like he studied acting with the Bowery Boys. But Joshua went on to tons of film and television work, including—ironically—an episode of the "Friday the 13th" TV series.

The movie is also strange in that the campers and the counselors are all about the same age, so it's hard to tell who's who and why one is acting like an adult while another, who looks the same, is acting like a kid.

The Weinsteins obviously rushed it into production to capitalize on the success of previous year's Friday the 13th, even securing the services of Tom Savini for the gore effects. It's trashier than its predecessor, perhaps giving a nod to William Lustig's ultra-sleazy Maniac (1980), which Savini also worked on. The print the New Beverly showed was faded, pink and was unfortunately missing the infamous raft murder scene during which most of the surviving cast is memorably dispatched by the killer, which makes the rest of the film rather dull aside from the hilarious 1980s fashions, cheesy dialogue and Rick Wakeman's often incongruous score.

Here's the missing raft scene:



The second film on the bill was a masterpiece in comparison—Sean Cunningham's original Friday the 13th (1980). The New Beverly showed a print struck in 2008, so the colors were good, and it was fun to compare the assets of two low-budget slashers from the same era. Everything about Friday is superior: the acting (six degrees of Kevin Bacon), the cinematography and the music. And while the characters in The Burning fade into generic obscurity, Friday brought us a horror icon: 1950s game show star Betsy Palmer's Mrs. Voorhees, with her predatory mouthful of huge teeth and chant of "Kill 'er, Mommy," which was also repeated on Harry Manfredini's ki-ki-ki ma-ma-ma- theme. And let's face it—when Kevin Bacon gets the arrow skewered up through his throat, it's a really nice effect, even after all these years.

I was working at the Niles 31 Drive-In Theater when the film was released, and we must've played it for at least a month on one of our two screens, whether it was the main, supporting or third feature.

The soundtrack was piped into the concession stand (where I served the popcorn), so consequently there are sounds and lines of dialogue that were burned into my brain and remain to this day, especially Manfredini's music and Palmer's "Why, I'm Mrs. Voorhees...an old friend of the Christies," and "Look what you did to him!" And as with De Palma's Carrie, it was fun to run outside at the right time to hear an entire parking lot full of moviegoers scream in unison.

Watching the film last night took me back to that era, and I was reminded of a couple of the murders that I always found funny. After having sex with Jack (Bacon), Marcie (Jeannine Taylor) goes to the use the facilities and—after doing a serviceable Katharine Hepburn impression in the mirror—sees the killer approaching with an axe.

But before she gets it in the noggin, there's a quick shot of her crying with her eyes closed, looking more like she just got grounded by her father than that she's about to get her face ventilated. And when Alice (Adrienne King) goes after Mrs. Voorhees with the machete to deal the final blow, the slo-mo shot of Palmer reacting in horror is priceless. I just wish the New Beverly had paired Friday with Sleepaway instead of Burning for a perfect camp double-feature.

Another semi-obscure killer camping movie—also filmed in New York—is Madman, whose only distinguishing feature is that it includes one of the few film appearance of Gaylen Ross (from Romero's 1978 Dawn of the Dead). Like Candyman, the film's killer appears when his name is called out, but it's pretty much of a trudge through familiar territory.

There are only so many killer camp films one can devise a scenario for, so industrious filmmakers made college slashers (The House on Sorority Row), babysitter slashers (When a Stranger Calls)—even religious slashers (Alice, Sweet Alice). Probably the most controversial slasher film is 1984's Silent Night, Deadly Night, which featured a psycho Santa and aired grim television spots during the holiday season, causing parents' groups to go ballistic.

By 1986, the genre was pretty much washed-up, due both to a glut of copycat titles and censor backlash. The Fridays kept getting tamer and tamer until—like porn with the actual sex edited out—there was really no point to them. This paved the way for gentler stuff like Wes Craven's yawn-worthy Scream series and the PG-13 "eek, I'm scared" movies of the 2000s. It was refreshing to see hard-core horror come roaring back with the likes of the Saw series, which would have been condemned back in the 1980s, but of course the inevitable glut of remakes came with it, some good, some execrable.

Alexandre Aja's remake of Craven's 1977 The Hills Have Eyes (2006) was actually a vast improvement. And Marcus Nispel's take on Hooper's classic 1974 The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (2003) was a well-judged, suspense-filled update.

How shocking it was, then, that Nispel's reboot of Friday the 13th was so lame. He could have taken the plot of the original and gone practically anywhere with it. Instead, he piled on the drug-addled, oversexed teens, and turned Jason into more of a survivalist who property was being trespassed upon. The gore wasn't even very good. Some fansites clamored for Palmer to have a role in it, but as things turned out, maybe it's for the best that it didn't happen.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Halloween Movie Viewing Suggestions

It's that time of year again...and we've got a whole weekend to watch some classics and/or guilty pleasures to get us in the mood for Halloween night. Here are this year's picks:

1. Night of the Living Dead (1990). Special effects maestro Tom Savini took the directorial reins and George Romero provided the screenplay for this thoughtful remake of the 1968 classic that preserves the plot while providing some new twists, most of which work quite well. Casting is good—Tony Todd, before he was Candyman and the creepy mortician from the Final Destination films, plays Ben, and Patricia Tallman is Barbara. Tom Towles, the twisted sidekick from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, is Harry.

Tallman's Barbara is not helpless and semi-comatose like Judith O'Dea's original. Instead, she's more like Sigourney Weaver's Ripley from Alien—tough and in control, though even she gets crazy as events intensify, and Towles adds a welcome edge of sleaze to the character of Harry Cooper. The zombie makeup is impressive, but since it's rated R, it's not as gory as the original Dawn and Day. Still, it provides a consistent level of suspense because Romero does a good job of shattering our expectations along the way.

2. Piranha (1978). I thought Alexandra Aja's 2010 remake was okay, but here's a classic case of spinning gold out of an incredibly low budget. Joe Dante directed (and John Sayles wrote the screenplay) the original for an estimated $600,000, and he really made the most of his limited resources. Without the digital effects team (or 3D) that Aja had at his disposal, he still does a mighty good job with limited resources. Sure, you can tell that the carnivorous school swimming by is just a bunch of fish painted on a glass plate, but that only adds to the low-budget fun.

The screenplay is a perfect blend of classic horror and knowing camp, Pino Donaggio's lush score is wonderful, and it's got a cast to die for. Corman legend Dick Miller (A Bucket of Blood) is the sleazy resort owner who refuses to cancel the grand opening. Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) is the scientist who created the mutant fish. Paul Bartel (Eating Raoul) is a camp counselor. And Barbara Steele—Barbara Steele!—is the government official who assures us that there's nothing left to fear (yeah, right). The makeup is provided by a young Rob Bottin (The Thing), and it's great. Who can forget the scene in which they pull Keenan Wynn out of the water and see that the flesh of his legs have been eaten away to the bone? Piranha is truly B-movie heaven.

3. Sleepaway Camp (1983). Some films are born for cult movie status, and this nasty little slasher—whether intentionally or accidentally—easily earns that crown. Back in 1983, taking a cue from the popularity of the Friday the 13th series, writer/director Robert Hiltzik decided to up the ante by making the plot even sleazier and the gore even nastier than the Paramount films.

As everyone knows by now, it's the story of a strange little girl named Angela (Felissa Rose) who is tormented by the other kids at summer camp and is defended by her cousin, Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten) and would-be boyfriend Paul (Christopher Collet). As this drama is going on, counselors and campers are being offed in various gruesome ways, including death by boiling water.

There are many factors that make the film so off-kilter. All the kids at camp are really cruel and foul-mouthed, and they wear hilariously tight and small 1980s clothing. If you thought Nancy Allen's shorts in Carrie looked like they were cutting off her circulation, you'll be blown away by the genital-highlighting gear worn by this gang.

And since the movie was made in upstate New York, they all have the "N'Yawk" accent and the attitude. Desiree Gould, who plays Angela's Aunt Martha, delivers a jaw-droppingly bad performance, which actually works in the film's favor. There are also kinky flashbacks that show how Angela became an orphan and started living with her aunt and cousin. And the shock ending is really a shock ending!

None of the sequels are as good as the original, although the second one, starring Bruce Springsteen's sister Pamela as Angela, now all grown up but still insane, is fun. In 2000, Hiltzik's film was rediscovered by a whole new audience on DVD and the director, Rose and Gould all became cult stars and started making more movies and convention appearances. There's even a reunion movie currently in production with all the originals involved, but I don't have high hopes for it. It sounds a little too opportunistic. You can't catch lightning in a bottle twice.

4. Tenebrae (1982). Remember when it was exciting to anticipate the release of the next Argento film? Well, Tenebrae should bring back happy memories, because it's easily his finest giallo. Comprehensible, perfectly plotted and packed with suspense and splat, it's excellent Halloween viewing.

Tony Franciosa stars as Peter Neal, an American author of mystery thrillers, who is in Rome promoting his newest, "Tenebrae." He receives a letter from a crazed fan who says his books have inspired him to go on a killing spree, and sure enough, the bodies start piling up. Daria Nicolodi (Argento's former squeeze) co-stars as Neal's devoted assistant, who pitches in to help him solve the mystery, and John Saxon (A Nightmare on Elm Street) is his agent.

The stars of the film, though, are the cinematography and set pieces. Argento's Suspiria cinematographer, Luciano Tovoli, provides some great stuff here, especially when his craning camera prowls all around the outside of an apartment building of a soon-to-be victim, elongating the suspense to the point of unbearability. And Argento enjoys ratcheting up the suspense. Just as our nerves have been stretched to the breaking point watching a young women try to escape the killer, he throws in a vicious attack dog that also starts to pursue her!

The gore is great. A victim's arm is hacked off with an axe, and her dismembered stump decorates the walls with crimson for what seems like forever before the killer finishes her off. And the film does a really great job with the mystery. Dropping hints all along the way, Argento keeps the killer's identity a secret until the truly mind-blowing climax.

I first saw Tenebrae on VHS in heavily-edited form as the ridiculously-titled Unsane, and it was still good! But the easily available, completely uncut DVDs and Blu-Rays are the way to go. And it's got a great score by members of Goblin that you can dance to!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Theatre Review (LA): Pulp Shakespeare Tackles Tarantino

Article first published on Blogcritics.

Originally premiering in Los Angeles at the Hollywood Fringe Fest this past June, Pulp Shakespeare is back with original director Jordan Monsell's Her Majesty's Secret Players for a run at Theatre Asylum. It's an elaborate re-working of Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction as a Shakespearean tragedy, and it's as fascinating as it is funny. Since Tarantino is well-known for his verbosity, the screenplay is custom-made for the Bard's similar traits.

Though some have said it's not necessary, familiarity with the film is a prerequisite in order to fully enjoy the performance. I'm embarrassed to admit that I'd never seen it, but happily it was airing on Cinemax the day I was going to see the play. I had time to see 70 minutes of it beforehand, and it's a tribute to the playwrights that I was able to comprehend the portions I hadn't yet seen.

Monsell (also one of the show's five writers) wisely telescopes the two-and-a-half hour movie into an 80-minute production, which preserves the structure of the plot without wearing out the gag. All of the key scenes are here, but now instead of coffee shops and theme restaurants, they take place in taverns and dungeons.

Going back in time to Elizabethan England also provides some choice visual gags. When Vincent and Mia go out for dinner, their waiter is Richard III instead of Buddy Holly. And Jules' "bad mother-you-know" wallet becomes a money pouch embroidered with the words "blasted Oedipus." And in keeping with the film's spirit, there's lots of violence.

Among the standouts in the cast are Dan White and Aaron Lyons as Jules and Vince, and Liza DeWeerd amuses in two roles, including the multiply-pierced Jody. Christian Levatino is also fun as Sir "Butch" Coolidge, now a jouster instead of a boxer. And Nathaniel Freeman brings sinister bearing to his role as Lord Marsellus Wallace.

Staging is minimal—a few rough-hewn tables and chairs that can be easily respositioned for scene changes are all that's needed—and the costuming is evocative of the period.

The company has had Shakespearean training, and it shows—the actors ably handle the complicated oration, and if the audience isn't roaring at every line, it's because they're actually listening. This is a show that requires concentration to catch all of the clever ways Tarantino's script has been transposed to the language of the Bard.

Pulp Shakespeare at Theatre Asylum, 6320 Santa Monica Boulevard, Los Angeles. Plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. until November 13th. For reservations, call (323) 960-7612 or online.

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