Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Little Shop of Horrors

(1986) Directed by: Frank Oz; Written by Howard Ashman; Based on the musical play by Howard Ashman, which was based on the screenplay by Roger Corman and Charles B. Griffith; Starring: Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene, Levi Stubbs, Vincent Gardenia, Steve Martin, John Candy and Bill Murray

Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ****

“…Howard Ashman was very helpful…he suggested not to be subtle. Just to be flat out bold, and start singing immediately, as opposed to trying, in most musicals, where you transition from talk to singing. Here, on purpose, on stage, on the movie, we have them singing flat out immediately, and it’s a wink to the audience saying, ‘We know it’s a musical we’re just gonna go all the way with it.’” – Frank Oz (from DVD commentary)

Whenever someone says they don’t like musicals, Little Shop of Horrors inevitably pops up on most people’s short list of exceptions. It’s not difficult to see why. In some ways, it’s the anti-musical, with its morbid, B-movie premise, based on the off-Broadway stage production, which in turn was based off the quickie Roger Corman comedy/horror film from 1960.* The core story remains intact: A young nebbish toiling away in a skid row flower shop inadvertently stumbles upon a plant with an unusual appetite. He nurtures the sickly flora to health, but before he knows it, it’s the plant that’s controlling him, not the other way around. Budgeted at a relatively modest $25 million,** director Frank Oz’s version of the film was substantially more elaborate than the source material, with the six-month shoot taking place on the cavernous 007 sound stage at Pinewood Studios.

* Fun Fact #1: I’m not counting the 1973 pseudo-remake/softcore parody, Please Don’t Eat My Mother.

** Fun Fact #2: Producer David Geffen originally envisioned Little Shop of Horrors as a low budget (around $6 million) production, with Steven Spielberg executive producing and Martin Scorsese directing.

Rick Moranis was perfectly cast as Seymour Krelborn, the klutzy florist who becomes an unwilling accomplice to the monster plant’s murderous diet. Ellen Greene excels (in a role she originated on the London stage) as Seymour’s ditzy-but-big-hearted co-worker Audrey. Vincent Gardenia amuses as their sarcastic, penny pinching boss Mr. Mushnik (spelled “Mushnick” in the Corman film). Crystal, Ronette and Chiffon (Tichina Arnold, Michelle Weeks and Tisha Campbell-Martin, respectively) serve as a musical version of a Greek chorus, our tour guides through Seymour’s skid row neighborhood. Levi Stubbs from The Four Tops lends his amazing vocal talents for the enormous carnivorous plant, Audrey II. The plant itself,** designed by Lyle Conway, appears in four different sizes, with the final form requiring a crew of up to 60 individuals to operate.

* Fun Fact #3: Before Greene was (wisely) selected, the studio considered Barbra Streisand and Cyndi Lauper for the role of Audrey.

** Fun Fact #4: In his DVD commentary, Oz explained that three sets were employed to create the illusion of Audrey II singing and moving: one with human actors, one specifically with the plant, and another one for special effects. Moranis alone was shot in the standard 24 fps, but due to the limitations of working with foam rubber, scenes with Audrey II were shot in 16 fps and sped up. Likewise, when the human actors appeared together with Audrey II, they had to act out their scenes very slowly, to match the slower frame rate.

As good as the leads are, many of the smaller roles almost steal the show, with all at the top of their comedic game. John Candy, who ad-libbed his dialogue, appears as Wink Wilkerson, the manic host of a radio show focusing on weird things. Steve Martin plays the sadistic dentist Orin Scrivello like a sociopathic Elvis. He finds his match in a masochistic patient played by Bill Murray (taking over the role from Jack Nicholson in the original film), also ad-libbing his lines. The movie also features fun cameos by Christopher Guest and Jim Belushi.

A musical is only as strong as its songs, but thanks to the songwriting team of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast), Little Shop of Horrors is more than up to the task. “Skid Row (Downtown)” is an early standout, conveying the desperation of Seymour and Audrey’s living conditions. “Somewhere That’s Green” is Audrey’s ode to suburban life that jumped off the pages of Better Homes and Gardens, replete with Tupperware parties and eating TV dinners with her imaginary family (including kids that are carbon copies of their parents). “Dentist!” is Orin Scrivello’s tribute to sadism. With the show-stopping (Oscar-nominated) “Mean Green Mother from Outer Space” Audrey II reveals his true intentions.

(Spoiler Alert) The “Director’s Cut” Blu-ray recreates, in a rough form, what preview audiences experienced, and much to Oz’s dismay, rejected. As originally planned, the film remained true to the stage production, as well as, the original movie. Unfortunately for Oz and a team of effects people who worked on the original ending, preview audiences in San Jose and Los Angeles didn’t like the idea that Seymour and Audrey were killed off, and the plant prevailed. In the end, the original ending was scrapped, in favor of something more audience-pleasing. Admittedly, seeing this different version, after the revised ending I’ve known and loved all these years, was a hard pill to swallow. I’m glad we can finally experience the film, more or less, as it was intended, but it’s a complete, and not entirely comfortable, shift in tone. According to Oz: “…when the plant kills Seymour and Audrey on stage, the actors afterwards take a bow. The difference is in movies they don’t take a bow. They’re gone and so the audience lost the people they loved, as opposed to the theater audience where they knew the two people who played Audrey and Seymour were still alive.” (excerpt from 2012 Entertainment Weekly interview, “Little Shop of Horrors: A Q&A with Frank Oz”)

Little Shop of Horrors is one of those uncommon instances where the new version improves upon the source material. Not to denigrate the Corman movie, which is charming in its own right, but the 1986 film adds a level of pathos not present in the original. Despite being a multimillion dollar production, Oz and writer Howard Ashman stay true to its humble origins. The combination of infectious songs, funny gags, likeable leads, and a great monster add up to an irresistible viewing experience. If you haven’t seen it yet, what are you waiting for? If you have, see it again.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Once Over Twice: Absolute Beginners

(1986) Directed by Julien Temple; Written by Richard Burridge, Christopher Wicking and Don MacPherson; Based on the novel by Colin MacInnes; Starring: Patsy Kensit, Eddie O’Connell, David Bowie, James Fox, Ray Davies, Eve Ferret and Sade; Available on Blu-ray (region B) and DVD (Out of Print)

Rating: ****

“The time I grew up was an incredible time in London, in terms of music… each week in the mid-60s you had these great bands putting out a new single each week, but another band would seem to top that, and as a kid in London (school kid) you felt they were talking directly to you, shaping ways to see the world, which your school and your parents weren’t necessarily doing… so I was trying to make a film that captured some of that energy and some of that universality…” – Julien Temple (from the documentary Absolute Ambition)

Julien Temple’s vibrant musical Absolute Beginners seemed to have so much going for it that it couldn’t possibly lose. Boasting a terrific cast, spirited performances, superb cinematography, and a diverse assortment of songs, it should have been a big hit. It’s too bad no one wanted to see a musical about the late-50s London teen scene in 1986. Absolute Beginners performed well at the box office in England, but vanished quickly in the U.S. (despite reviews that were more favorable than its country of origin). Over the years, the film faded into undeserved obscurity, but it’s time to re-examine its considerable charms.

Julien Temple was the ideal director to bring the frenzied story, based on a novel by Colin MacInnes, to life. He was no stranger to music, as the veteran director of multiple music videos, as well as the notorious Sex Pistols documentary The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle. Temple took these rock and roll sensibilities, splicing them with DNA borrowed from classic Hollywood musicals to make a unique mixture.

Colin* (Eddie O’Connell) is a teen from the wrong side of the tracks, who spends his days in his dilapidated neighborhood and nights photographing the colorful London nightlife. His key ambition is to make a name for himself, to keep the affections of his ambitious, fickle girlfriend Crepe Suzette (Patsy Kensit). The only problem is Suzette has other plans. She begins to leave Colin behind, as she climbs the ladder in the fashion world. Colin’s dreams are crushed when Suzette’s marries her middle-aged boss, but he plans to win her back.

* Fun fact: Temple considered Tim Roth for the role of Colin, but Roth wasn’t considered “handsome enough” by the producers. Although O’Connell did a fine job, Roth would have been an inspired casting choice, and almost certainly would have taken the role in a different direction.

David Bowie lights up the screen with his presence as slick ad man Vendice Partners. He schemes with fashion mogul Henley of Mayfair (James Fox) to re-shape Colin’s crumbling Notting Hill neighborhood to pave the way for a gleaming new (and exclusively white) future. It’s interesting to note that David Bowie starred in two very different musicals in 1986, but in both he played a Mephistophelean character, who presents the protagonist with a Faustian bargain. Jareth in Labyrinth and Vendice Partners share common traits: seductive and charismatic, but with a dark side brewing just beneath the surface. In the case of Partners, he promises Colin fame and wealth, but he’ll stop at nothing to drive the Notting Hill residents out at any cost.

A musical stands or falls by its songs, which are intended to drive the story. In the case of Absolute Beginners, each song builds on the next to propel the mood and tone. With “Having It All,” Colin is taunted by his girlfriend’s sultry serenade, as he watches his relationship slip through his fingers. But if the previous song was about a dying relationship, then “Killer Blow,” sung by Sade, represents its death. One of my favorite songs, “Selling Out,” is about finding a way to win back Suzette, by hook or crook. “That’s Motivation” by David Bowie (he also wrote the movie’s title song) is an ode to the superficial joys of materialism. Colin’s father Arthur, played by Ray Davies of The Kinks sings “Quiet Life,” a tribute to domestic ennui. He turns a blind eye to everything falling apart in his dysfunctional household (“No ambition to rock the boat, when I can simply stay afloat.”).

A pervasive sense of energy runs throughout the film. Action, color and music meld together to make the opening scene come alive. A Steadicam tracking shot immerses us in Colin’s world, as we wind through the stylized, neon-drenched streets of London’s red-light district, circa 1958. Cinematographer Oliver Stapleton employed tricks, such as colored gels, to make the colors pop. The overall effect mimics the look of Technicolor musicals, which served as a template for Temple. The set pieces are also impressive. In one of the signature scenes, Bowie tap dances* on an enormous typewriter. In the “Quiet Life” number, we’re treated to a cutaway of a run-down apartment building, so we can view the simultaneous goings-on of the tenants. The funky London jazz club “Chez Nobody” takes on its own life, with its skeleton motif.  

* Another Fun Fact: According to Temple, Bowie didn’t have previous tap dancing experience, but when he learned about the requirements of his part, he returned for filming two weeks later, ready to dance.

Absolute Beginners packs quite a few serious themes in a jaunty package. One of the more prevalent themes is teenagers as a marketing device. The younger generation was asserting itself in unprecedented ways, reflecting the post-war boom. As a result, some enterprising entrepreneurs viewed the teen as a marketable commodity, with a growing younger demographic to cater to. It’s a cynical pursuit, however, favoring money over ideals, the things we want take precedence over the things we need. The film also reminds us the phenomenon of gentrification isn’t a new thing. The efforts of unscrupulous businessmen to whitewash Colin’s neighborhood seem all too relevant today. The anti-immigrant, anti-ethnic rhetoric spouted by the hired thugs demonstrates our baser natures where money is concerned.

The film loses some steam in the final third, when it runs out of songs and focuses on the drama of the street riots, but it’s only a minor quibble. Some might also take issue with the diverse group of songs, which might not accurately represent the music from the era, but Temple was never going for stark realism. It’s an impressionistic interpretation, which occupies its own reality. Absolute Beginners is a maddening example of a movie that should have been big, yet somehow wasn’t. Maybe it was before its time, or after, but thanks to home video we can always give it a second chance. The Region B Blu-ray brings the movie a restored vitality. No matter which way you choose to see it, it’s an infectious blend of kitsch and social relevance, wrapped up in a pseudo-technicolor package, and it merits serious re-evaluation.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Cannibal! The Musical

(1993) Written and directed by Trey Parker; Starring: Trey Parker, Dian Bachar, Toddy Walters, Robert Muratore, Matt Stone and Jon Hegel; Available on DVD.

Rating: ****

“I think the biggest influence for Cannibal was just the musicals, like Rodgers and Hammerstein-style musicals like Oklahoma and stuff like that… that was the joke to me. Let’s do an Oklahoma, but about a cannibal.” – Trey Parker (from 2007 interview)

For the past 7 ½ years of this blog’s existence, I’ve been harboring a dark secret: I enjoy a good musical now and then. Judging by my body of reviews to date, however, this genre has been woefully underrepresented. This month I intend to set the record straight with some notable examples, but since this is Cinematic Catharsis after all, you wouldn’t expect me to look at The Sound of Music or Singin’ in the Rain, would you? With my blog’s mission in mind, to discuss the unloved, the unwanted, underrated and otherwise overlooked movies, I’m taking a look at some titles that slipped through the cracks. My first selection for Musical May is none other than Trey Parker’s pseudo-historical extravaganza, Cannibal! The Musical.

Some of the best things are spawned from adversity, and Cannibal! The Musical is no exception. Writer/director/star Trey Parker based the subplot, about the main character losing his horse, on his recent breakup with his fiancée, with a dash of Homer’s Odyssey (watch for a cyclops) thrown into the mix. The central story is based on the notorious exploits of miner Alferd Packer,* who was accused of murdering and eating five of his companions during an ill-fated trek to Colorado. Shot in 16 mm on a budget of roughly $125,000, it was essentially a student film, with Parker enlisting the aid of University of Colorado Boulder** students, friends and family including his fellow (future) South Park co-creator Matt Stone. Filming was on location, featuring many of the same historical sites, including the courthouse (with Trey Parker’s father Randy presiding as judge) where Packer’s trial occurred. Likewise, the courtroom dialogue was pulled from the transcripts of the actual legal proceedings.  

* Fun Fact #1: There is some debate about the spelling of Mr. Packer’s first name. Official documents list it as “Alfred,” but in popular circles, he was known as “Alferd,” which may or may not have been an intentional misspelling. Read more here.

** Fun Fact #2: Packer has gained status as a sort of folk hero in Colorado. Visitors to the University of Colorado Boulder can dine at the Alferd Packer Grill

After the cartoonishly gory opening sequence, we’re introduced to Alferd Packer (Trey Parker, under the pseudonym Juan Schwartz) in jail, as he awaits his sentence from the jury. Polly Pry (Toddy Walters), an enterprising young journalist, listens to his tale, told in flashback, which begins in Utah. A group of miners, tired of their situation, decide to pull up stakes and move east, to Colorado territory, with dreams of untold riches. The only problem is their guide, Lucky Larry, just perished in a freak accident. The intrepid prospectors promptly elect Packer to be their new guide, based on the information that he’s from Colorado, and they set off on a circuitous path to what they hope will be greener (or golder) pastures. Unfortunately for the group, it turns out he’s not as familiar with the territory as they were led to believe, and they take a few too many wrong turns, encountering hostile trappers and ersatz Native Americans* along the way. As the weather turns from bad to worse and the food supply runs out, Packer and his band come to the grim realization that they must resort to cannibalism to survive.

* Fun Fact #3: As a dual major in Film and Japanese, Trey Parker made sure to put his knowledge to good use in the production, when Alferd Packer and his travelers meet the Nihonjin Tribe (“nihonjin” means “Japanese people”). According to Parker, the Japanese dialogue for the tribe members includes lines such as: “This is a really stupid movie.”

The songs are uniformly catchy, which shouldn’t be too much of a surprise for anyone familiar with some of Trey Parker’s other work. In a moment reminiscent of Oklahoma, Alferd Packer sings the opening song, “Shpadoinkle,”* establishing a time, place and mood. Unfortunately, the boundless optimism of the song is short-lived for Packer and his beloved horse Liane (named after Parker’s ex fiancée). Some other favorites are “Trapper Song,” “Let’s Build a Snowman,” (sung by the insufferably chipper Isreal Swan, played by Jon Hegel) “This Side of Me,” and “Hang the Bastard.”

** Fun Fact #4 In his drunken (no, really) DVD commentary, Parker and colleagues recalled the origin of the nonsense word “shpadoinkle.” Apparently, while writing the opening song, Parker inserted a nonsense word, with the hope of replacing it with a suitable adjective. Everyone liked the song so much, along with the temporary word that he decided to leave it in.

Cannibal! The Musical’s many gags range from sophomoric to clever, but it’s hard not to laugh. In the DVD commentary, Parker and friends discuss all the things that are wrong with the movie, pointing out instances when they did something they would never do now, but this is one of the movie’s charms, and arguably the reason it works. If it had been a polished film, it might not have gone as well. Cannibal! The Musical is consistently silly, full of memorable lines and infectious songs. It’s one of a select few movies guaranteed to drag me out of the doldrums. If you haven’t seen this particular slice of lunacy, you owe it to yourself to check it out. I have a feeling you’ll have a shpadoinkle day.