Good Cinema: It’s a Gift (Dir: Norman Z. McLeod, 1934)

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“If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bull.
– W.C. Fields

W.C. Fields is a celebrated, yet underrated, singular icon in the history of entertainment – the lovable misanthrope who hated kids and loved booze, heavily armed with a cynical zinger. Yet I fear this is too simple. This deprives Bill, as he was informally known, of his humanity. The archetype of Fields as a mean ol’ drunk was one built toward the end of his career, thanks mostly to his cantankerous radio tête-à-têtes with Charlie McCarthy, his escalated levels of drinking (which only rose with age and the impending doom of his declining career), and also the ways in which his latter films like You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939) had anything resembling sentiment removed from them by the studio for the sake of slowing down the jokes. But if you look at his earlier films, behind the snark, behind the swindle, was a lonely man, hiding behind the bombast, trying to do right by the family who seemed to hate him.

To know his family history taints, or more accurately, paints his work with an autobiographical brush. Born in Philadelphia in 1880, Fields left school to work with his father selling fruit at age 12. It was here where he first learned to juggle, using the merchandise from his father’s fruit cart, and practicing his craft by watching a traveling circus act. His family completely discouraged any dreams of stardom (his grandmother even destroyed all of his props he had been collecting) and Fields eventually ran away from home to get away from his father’s abusive ways, promising not to return until he was a star.

Fields met and married his wife Hattie when they were both cast in a review called The Monte Carlo Girls. Hattie became his juggling partner, touring the world as a double until she became pregnant. Now with child, she returned to the States, wanting Fields to abandon his career for a life of provincial Americana. But Fields refused. Hattie held this decision against him for the rest of his life, using their son as collateral to guilt money out of him, and turning the young Fields against his father. Fields, having emotionally moved on with other women, begged Hattie for a divorce, but her Catholicism wouldn’t allow it. They remained married – and bitter rivals – until he died; and even then she strong-armed his estate into giving her the lion’s share of his earnings. The nagging, manipulative Hattie and their helpless son Claude (who relied on his father’s checks for survival well into adulthood) were the models for all of his “wife” and “son” characters in his work.

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***

Fields’ genius afforded him a rare level of autonomy in his work during the Studio System of Hollywood. He had starred in vaudeville and burlesque as the most respected and versatile juggler in the business; Broadway musicals; and the Ziegfeld Follies with Will Rogers, Fanny Brice, and Eddie Cantor where he honed his comedic zest and skills as a writer; worked in both silent and sound films, directed by luminaries like George Cukor, D.W. Griffith, and Mack Sennett and acted alongside such formidable talents as Elsa Lanchester and Mae West. Later, he performed in radio with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, with whom he had an ongoing “feud.” The only medium he didn’t tackle was television and that was only because he died in 1946.

He rehearsed his physical bits tirelessly until every movement was choreographed to perfection (an obvious harken to his juggling days), yet struggled to remember his lines. Or possibly he was just contemptuous of the idea of playing by anyone else’s rules. Whichever the reason, Fields was an ingenious improvisor, never doing a second take the same. No one ever really directed W.C. Fields – or wrote for him for that matter; if they knew what was good for them, they merely stayed out of the way and allowed him to be brilliant.

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He was a shrewd businessman, grossing $50000 a week in 1930s cash, in addition to his fees for the writing, which could earn him an additional $15000 – $25000. Even though Fields was quite wealthy, he never wanted to appear so on film. He believed that comedy came from struggle and always made his characters circus performers (based on his own experiences as a traveling performer) or working class men trying to find his slice of the American Dream among the crash of the Stock Market and the Great Depression, a character not so subtly modeled after his father and the family life he left behind in Philadelphia. Occasionally, his characters would hit a windfall, but in the end, it was all a way for him to enjoy the simple things in life. Like a drink in the middle of the day with his best pals.

Like the greatest comedians, he recycled material relentlessly, trying to create the “authoritative” version of a bit. Many of his films were based on sketches he had written for the Ziegfeld Follies or Earl White’s Scandals (another review show in which he starred on Broadway): For example, You’re Telling Me!, a sound remake of the silent So’s Your Old Man, featured his famous golf routine, which had been its own short film based on his sketch from the Follies.

W.C. Fields – like Mae West, Lucille Ball, Abbott and Costello, the Marx Brothers, and really any other legendary comedian of the first half of the 20th century – is not solely defined by a single performance, a single film; they exist as personalities with very little deviation; well honed “types,” variations on a theme, that find themselves in a series of situations with similar results: Mae’s sexuality (and sharp witted tongue) could always get her out of trouble; Lucy’s schemes (whether as Mrs. Ricardo/Carmichael/Carter/Barker) always got her in trouble with the male authority in her life; Abbott was the con-man to Costello’s naif (yet ended up getting conned himself in the end); and Groucho and his Brothers existed in a world with no consequences, where zaniness and chicanery were met with reward.

Fields essentially played two characters in rotation:

  • the Swindler, a carney who uses his gregarious charm to coax chumps out of a dollar
    • For examples, see:
      • Pool Sharks (1915)
      • Sally of the Sawdust (1925)
      • Two Flaming Youths (1928)
      • The Old Fashioned Way (1934)
      • Poppy (1935)
      • You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939)
  • the Everyman who tries against all odds to provide for his family while they – led by the nagging wife – are embarrassed by his failures and refuse to believe in him.
    • For examples, see:
      • It’s the Old Army Game (1926)
      • So’s Your Old Man (1926)
      • The Potters (1927)
      • Running Wild (1927)
      • The Dentist (1932)
      • The Barbershop (1933)
      • The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933)
      • You’re Telling Me! (1934)
      • It’s a Gift (1934)

***

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In It’s a Gift (1934), possibly his greatest and tightest film, Fields plays Harold Bissonette (which his wife insists on pronouncing “bis-o-nay” to sound fancy), a small town New Jersey grocer who uses his inheritance from his uncle’s death to buy an orange grove in California, much to his wife’s chagrin (played by the indomitable Kathleen Howard). The film is comprised of five distinctive bits that could stand alone, but collectively create a beautiful patch work of family dysfunction. They can stand alone because in true Fieldsian fashion, they had their roots in earlier material:

  • The opening scene in the bathroom where Harold struggles to shave, as well as the idea of being “duped” into an investment, came from The Potters.
  • The swing scene on the porch was reworked from a bit in The Comic Supplement, a play he did for Ziegfeld; in fact, the film’s original title was Back Porch 
  • Their car trouble departing for California was the combination of two Ziegfeld sketches, “The Family Ford” and “The Sport Model.”
  • The picnic scene and some basic elements of the plot were reworked from It’s the Old Army Game.
  • Only the scene in the grocery store with the blind Mr. Muckle (played to the hilt by Charles Sellon) was originally conceived (and mostly improvised) for this film – with the hilarious additions of Baby LeRoy (Fields favorite foil and somewhat improbable star; rumor has it that he once spiked the baby’s bottle with gin…) and Tammany Young (his favorite doofus; check out his deadpan as the caddy in You’re Telling Me!) as his neighbor’s child and his inept clerk, respectively.

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What anchors It’s a Gift amongst the hilarity is Harold’s humanity. As our Everyman, he braves on for the promise of a better life, deflecting insults from strangers and loved ones alike for what they all see as embarrassing folly, a flimflam, or both. Harold believes in his heart that the end will justify the means. So when they arrive to the lot in which he has sunk his life’s savings, his integrity, and dignity, of course it is a barren wasteland. Disgusted with Harold’s failure, his wife grabs the children and starts to abandon him. Notice Fields’ delivery of the line, “Come on back, Amelia. I’ll drive you” – imbued with such sincerity that it was obviously a choice by the studio that he not be given more chances to shine in dramatic work for fear of losing one of their preeminent comedians.  Harold sits on the running board of their car and it, like his life, collapses. He meanders to the front porch of his rickety shack and in probably the most tender moment in Fields’ whole oeuvre, the family dog nuzzles up beside him, kissing him on the cheek.

But suddenly, a car rounds the bend, passing Amelia and the children on the dirt covered bridge. And their future takes another unsuspected turn.

***

It wasn’t until Fields’ final three starring roles that he seemed to really break the mold from his aforementioned archetypes – or at least he combined them in new ways: My Little Chickadee (1940) casts him as a con-man, but this time as a bachelor and for the first time shows him as a somewhat pathetic Lothario to Mae West’s chronic troublemaking bachelorette (in real life, Fields definitely enjoyed having much younger women on hand as his secretaries and assistants, but history is unclear whether or not bedding him was part of the job description…); The Bank Dick (1940) saddles him with the shrewish wife, but his desire to “get ahead” seems to be for his own hedonistic purposes (laziness and drink) instead of providing for his family; perhaps this is why it is his most popular film, embracing a modern cynicism. And Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941), the most surreal of his films, literally has him playing himself, pitching a script to a Universal executive and being hit with all the reasons why it should not be made (ironically, this film, possibly his most scrutinized and rewritten – and autobiographical – work ended up being shot as close to his original intentions as possible).

The constant in all of his films was the daughter who believed in him despite life spitting in his face. It’s telling that Fields never had a daughter nor any daughter surrogates in his life; it seems that he was, to paraphrase one of Alvy Singer’s famous quips, trying to get things to come out right in Art because they so rarely do in Life. It should come as no surprise that Fields was hired for the most quintessential of W.C. Fields roles, The Wizard of Oz – the charlatan with a heart of gold, ready to help the lost, little girl find her way home – but had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts with You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man. 

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But it is another famous Alvy quote (taken from Fields’ friend, Groucho Marx) that could have summed up Fields’ life: “I don’t want to belong to any club that would have someone like me as a member.” Fields, while not the misanthropic recluse people presumed, was a private man with few friends and traveled with cases of booze in his early years on the road as bait to ingratiate himself to his fellow cast members. Ironically, the booze, the very thing that once made him popular in private, became his way of alienating others in his old age – all the while being embraced by the public as our favorite, lovable louse.

 

Good Cinema: Black Christmas (Dir: Bob Clark, 1974)

A group of young girls is being mercilessly targeted by a crazed killer on a beloved holiday. At the end of the film, only one survives and the killer has disappeared into the night, presumably to strike again.

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If you thought I was describing John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), you would be wrong, but not off base. In fact, without Black Christmas, there might not have been a Halloween at all. Carpenter, a huge fan of Black Christmas and friend of director Bob Clark, was talking with Clark about a potential sequel to Black Christmas. Clark’s response: While he didn’t want to make one, if he did, he could imagine the killer breaking out of a mental institute and wreaking havoc. Oh, and it would be on Halloween. Carpenter ran with it and created an indelible masterpiece that has gone on to reap all of the acclaim of being the progenitor for the slasher.

But it’s not only the potential plot that Carpenter borrowed from Clark. If you watch Black Christmas, you will see a few of the tropes that have gone on to define the genre which have been attributed to Halloween:

  • the camera stands in as the POV of the killer = the opening sequence of Halloween outside the Myer’s home, which Carpenter has long attributed to Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958), can also be found here.
  • the lone girl survivor = while this trope should technically be attributed to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), which was released in theaters a week earlier, Black Christmas sets the killings within a sorority house (another trope continued to this day in TV shows like Scream Queens). Where Halloween differed and laid new ground is that while Laurie Strode was the virginal goodie-two shoes that came to define the “lone girl,” Black Christmas’ survivor Jess was a liberal minded woman, set on getting an abortion.
  • the killer attacks on its victims’ own turf = While Michael Myers slew and stalked his victims in places in which they felt at home, Billy (the faceless murderer in Black Christmas) actually committed all of his murders within their home, the sorority house, even making his ominous phone calls there, a trope later popularized in When a Stranger Calls (1979) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and parodied in Scream (1996).
  • the killer disappears into the night = Halloween‘s glorious ending sequence, as the camera takes us through the various murder locations, can also be found at the end of Black Christmas.

None of this is meant to take anything away from the majesty of Carpenter’s masterwork. Seriously. It is one of the greatest films ever made and possibly the greatest horror film of all time (barring Psycho, of course). But in fairness, Black Christmas should get some of the credit it is due.

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Black Christmas, a parody on the famous Bing Crosby tune, is set during Christmas break at a sorority house. The girls have been receiving prank calls from an anonymous moaner. Up until now it has all been rather amusing. But when one of their sisters disappears, the others think it may have something to do with their disturbed caller. Suddenly, it is a race against time with the police (led by the sexy John Saxon) in tow to try and catch him before he strikes again. Along for the journey is the father (James Edmond) of the missing girl, Jess (Olivia Hussey) and her obsessive boyfriend who may be the murderer (Keir Dullea), the sorority drunk Barbara (Margot Kidder), the wallflower (Andrea Martin) and the comedic den mother of the sorority house (Marian Waldman, paging her best Mrs. Garrett from The Facts of Life).

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So is Black Christmas just “important” or is it good too? Well, it’s both. In particular, some of the murder sequences are very artfully crafted, albeit without the blood and gore to which we are accustomed; it wasn’t until Friday the 13th (1980) rolled around that this became an acceptable and expected element (although Herschell Gordon Lewis had already made a name for himself in the 1960s as the Godfather of Gore with his cult films, relegated to the fringes of cinema). The performances are more earnest and stronger than in some of its later knock offs because the script tries to give them all three dimensional characters with stakes – and very talented actors were cast; Olivia Hussey was fresh off of Shakespeare and Margot Kidder had just completed her dual performance in DePalma’s Sisters (1973). However, the story of Black Christmas is overdrawn and over complicated and feels at times that it is unsure what type of movie it wants to be. Is it horror? Is it police procedural? Is it black comedy? All questions one must work out when laying the ground work for a new genre. Black Christmas, while not as great as its descendants, deserves a viewing. Especially for those interested in the history of horror.

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Check out my other Good Cinema reviews here.

*The film is also known as Silent Night, Evil Night because distributors were worried that people would think Black Christmas was a blaxpolitation film.

*For further viewing on the history of the slasher, see Michael Powell’s excellent Peeping Tom (1960).

*Available on YouTube.

Bad Cinema: The Greatest Show on Earth (Dir: Cecil B. DeMille, 1952)

What an unfortunate title.

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Believe it or not, this elephant turd of a mess was once the “greatest” show on Earth. Or at least Hollywood. Yes, this terrible, bloated, boring piece of shit won Best Picture in 1952. I guess it shouldn’t be that shocking. Bad films have won before. And no, I don’t mean “I didn’t like it; therefore, it is awful and should not have won.” I know Oscar films are chosen in large part due to politics. But a film this bad has rarely passed the golden threshold (I would cite Grand Hotel in 1932, Going My Way in 1944, Around the World in 80 Days in 1956, Platoon in 1986, The Last Emperor in 1987, and Dances with Wolves in 1990 as further examples of choosing illustriousness over quality….) But I would put The Greatest Show on Earth below them all for two reasons.

1) It beat High Noon AND the un-nominated Singin’ in the Rain (clearly one of the Academy’s biggest mistakes)

2) It is made so shoddily by a legend.

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DeMille was one of the founding fathers of cinema, mentioned in the same breath as Griffith and von Stroheim. Before he became synonymous with epic productions, DeMille made domestic dramedies – some great, some awful. The Cheat is a masterpiece (and features the first interracial story on film), yet his streak of work with Gloria Swanson (homaged in Sunset Blvd.) was very hit or miss (Don’t Change Your Husband shines while Male or Female really flatlines). The original version of The Ten Commandments is impressive for its grandeur, but lacks in its emotion; whereas, the remake is the culmination of his greatness: over-the-top spectacle mixed with glorious melodrama and heart. THIS is the film that should have won him Best Director and Best Picture. But instead Hollywood honored Around the World in 80 Days. The worst film to win since…well, The Greatest Show on Earth.

If TGSOE had been conceived as a documentary, it could have been really engaging. To follow the Barnum and Bailey Circus for a year, interview the acts, understand the carny life, and see the blood and sweat that goes into not only being a touring show, but a touring show that builds its own theatre in the middle of a field in the heartland of Nowhere. It could have been a 90 minute thrill ride that brought out the kid in all of us.

But what we got was a two and a half hour “narrative” crawl – and I put that in quotations because there really is no story here – that is really just a documentary set adrift on a creaky tilt-a-whirl.

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Apparently, Ringling Bros. is on hard times and everyone is worried if they will get to perform a whole season. The brass wants to shut it down after 12 towns; the manager Brad (Charlton Heston in his sexiest Indiana Jones drag) demands that they stick it out. The small towns are where they really matter, bringing joy to the faces of every child. And laying off 1200 people so the suits can keep their shirts isn’t his style. He agrees to get them to stay the course as long as they remain in the black. And with The Great Sebastian on board, they are bound to be standing room only.

The Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde, with abs to give Nick Jonas a run for his money) is the best trapeze artist in the country. He is also a notorious womanizer, swinging from headboard to door knob before the girls can even catch their breath. But once he spots trapeze up-and-comer Holly (an obnoxiously phony Betty Hutton), he decides that there is no one else for him. There’s only one problem. She is Brad’s girl. But Brad is boss first, lover last. He kicks her out of the center ring because the audience is paying to see a star. Sebastian gives her the center ring, presumably in exchange for her pussy. But she is not that easily swayed. She is going to make whatever ring she is in the center ring! Screw Brad. Screw Sebastian. Screw safety. Holly is going to be a star on her own terms.

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They have this faux-rivalry competing for the spotlight, although Sebastian seems ambivalent for it. He has nothing to prove and she has everything to earn. They play this game of one-upmanship on the ropes, standing on their head, balancing on a chair, and performing without nets. Their acrobatics, which go on for a significant amount of run time, are impressive – especially because it looks like Wilde and Hutton are actually performing these stunts themselves – yet in a post-Cirque de Soleil world, their stunts seem quaint and somewhat mediocre. Naturally, they fall in love.

Sebastian is obviously a distraction, a subconscious diversion to get Brad to be more interested in Holly. Although Brad doesn’t seem to be that jealous. Maybe it’s because you don’t really buy Holly and Sebastian’s romance. (Hutton is schmacting for the peanut gallery and Wilde’s phony French accent constantly takes you out of the film…). But in the end, Brad and Holly confess that they are the only one the other has truly loved. Of course, this is after Brad almost dies and Sebastian no longer can perform because he mangled his hand in a stunt – not saying Holly was a star fucker, but…

I may be painting this is a lot more juicy than it actually is. This “drama” is a very small part of the large run time. The other two story lines involve the circus’ finances, which are not really mentioned again after that initial scene (obviously they are doing OK because they remain on the road) and some shady dealings with gangsters who want to muscle in on the circus by rigging some of the games played outside of the tent (this storyline is not really developed and also comes and goes without rhyme or reason). The Greatest Show on Earth is really just an excuse for DeMille to film the circus, although his cinematography is not that engaging. There is actually a scene with the gangsters that has not one, not two, but three unintentional jump cuts. Truffaut this ain’t. Merely a case of not setting up the depth of field properly between takes. This is a gross mistake from a man who had been making films since 1912. Then there is the very overly written narration, performed by DeMille himself, that is unnecessary and tedious (somehow this conceit works in The Ten Commandments – maybe it’s the nature of being a period piece…) What’s worse are the attempts from the carnies at acting. In fact, even the “actors” are pretty awful. The only one who is passably engaging is Gloria Grahame (and Betty Hutton in a camptastic kind of way).

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Oh, and lest I forget there is Jimmy Stewart as a clown who never takes off his make-up for fear that the police will find out he is some famous doctor who killed his wife. Um…ok. It’s like the writers knew they didn’t have a story so they just threw in every kind of nonsense they could imagine. Bob Hope even makes a cameo for no reason other than Bob Hope making a cameo.

The film ends with this elaborate train wreck.  I leave you with this as a metaphor for the movie.

***CAR CRASH***

Bad Cinema: Norbit (Dir: Brian Robbins, 2007)

oscar-meets-norbit4 Norbit is the film touted to have lost Eddie Murphy his well deserved Academy Award for Dreamgirls. First let’s start with how ridiculous this is. The Oscar is supposed to be for the “best” performance by an actor in a single year. Not a cumulative kudos for the other work they did in that year or any other year. And especially not as a Lifetime Achievement. But that is what happens routinely. Awards are given as tributes. And why not? It’s damn near impossible to compare performances when the characters are so vastly different. Alan Arkin beat Eddie Murphy because Little Miss Sunshine was the awards’ circuit darling AND Alan Arkin was in that Christopher Plummer category of “Well, he’s old and done great work before so we might as well give it to him for this kind of nothing part as an apology.” Eddie Murphy’s performance in Dreamgirls is full of pathos, comedy, and the added bonus of having him sing. Oh, and he is an amazing singer. But Dreamgirls in general was shut out for suspect (re: racial) reasons – honestly, how was this NOT nominated for Best Picture and Scorsese’s lightweight The Departed not only was nominated but WON? Talk about making up for past mistakes…. When Eddie Murphy lost to Alan Arkin, he walked out of the Kodak Theatre. Childish? Maybe. But if the rumor mill was to be believed, it was largely because of Norbit‘s release immediately preceding the voting that left a bad taste in the mouth of the voters. If that were the case, I would have been pissed too. Now THAT is childish. norbit-trivia Secondly, as second rate as a film Norbit is – and it is pretty bad, which I’ll get to in a minute – what makes Norbit work at all – and it does work – is Eddie Murphy’s performance! You know, the very thing that the Academy Awards is supposed to be honoring. No matter what terrible film Murphy finds himself in – and they are legion – Eddie Murphy is ALWAYS consistently great. He is a fully committed comedian, unafraid to take risks, unafraid to look foolish, unafraid to offend, and while he is damn near invisible in some of his roles under heavy make-up, you always see Eddie Murphy’s star shining through. He is like Jerry Lewis. Big, bold, and underrated as an actor because he is too respected as a comedian. Apparently, these things are mutually exclusive (just ask Joan Rivers…).

Now, that said, Norbit is offensive and belabored and full of tripe and void of that many laughs. Norbit (Murphy) is a discarded baby, thrown from the back seat of a speeding car at the doorstep of a Chinese restaurant/orphanage. Mr. Wong (also Murphy in Chinese make-up) finds the baby and raises it as his own – even though he hates black people. Norbit tries his best to fit in, but is treated as an outcast. This is Mr. Wong’s tough love style. But Norbit’s childhood changes when he meets Kate, a fellow orphan. They bond, they “date” (as much as 10 year olds date), and eventually “get married” under the big oak tree in the back yard, complete with Ring Pop rings. But light-skinned Kate is suddenly adopted and Norbit is left to fend for himself in a cruel world. That is until he meets Rasputia. 13 One day in the park two kids destroy his sand castle. They begin pounding on him, beating him senselessly until a heavy set girl comes to save him. He is so thankful that he agrees to be her boyfriend. Despite that she is a horrible person who treats him like property. Eventually they get married and Norbit goes to work for Rasputia (now also played by Murphy) and her family in their contracting business. He isn’t happy, but at least he has a family, a place to belong. Until Kate (Thandie Newton) comes back in the picture to shake things up. She plans to take over the orphanage from Mr. Wong and give back to her community. Now if only Norbit can dump Rasputia and convince Kate not to marry Deion (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) he could finally have the life he always wanted. 362B26ED-DA16-8B38-7BA7861A0F50CC32 I now must pause for a diatribe. Perhaps I have been married to a dark skinned black man for too long or maybe I have just seen too many movies to ignore the blinding commentary, but the apartheid within the black community screams to me as very obvious. And nowhere more obvious than on film where white (or at least as close to it as you can get) is right. When it comes to beautiful black women we turn to Halle Berry, Beyonce, Kerry Washington, Whitney Houston, Iman, Beverly Johnson, Diana Ross, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll, Tina Turner, Dorothy Dandridge, Vanessa Williams, Gabrielle Union, Jada Pinkett, Janet Jackson, Michelle Obama, Mariah Carey, and even as far back as Josephine Baker. And yes, THANDIE NEWTON. All light skinned. Darker black skinned women (Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Whoopi Goldberg, Lupita N’yongo, Niecy Nash) have to fight to be seen as sexy and more often than not will play slaves, maids, and other versions of stereotypes. Dark black girls are more at liberty to be loud and bossy, strong and smart. And allowed (and expected) to be in touch with their black heritage; whereas light skinned black girls can play a myriad of parts and are accepted (and expected) to be sexual, demure, and easily palatable for white society. Look at the two most successful black sitcoms: The Cosby Show and Martin. Dark Dr. Cosby marries the sophisticated light skinned Phylicia Rashad and they have gorgeous mixed tone babies. Their eldest “daughters” – the ones to be sexualized – are played by the VERY light skinned Lisa Bonet and Sabrina Le Beouf; while their youngest daughters – the ones meant to make us laugh – are played by the darker skinned Tempestt Bledsoe and Keshia Knight Pulliam. Martin‘s two main females are played by the light skinned Tisha Campbell and the dark skinned Tishina Arnold. I bet you can guess which one plays his wife and which one plays his nemesis. Norbit-movie-20 I bring this up because Norbit pits the loud, obnoxious, dark skinned, overweight Rasputia against the demure, loving, light skinned, skinny Kate, played by Thandie Newton. Now, of course Rasputia is going to be dark skinned because she is played by Eddie Murphy. But that doesn’t change the dynamic. In fact, the entire movie pits them against one another. And ends up relying on stereotype and fat jokes to make us laugh (admittedly, it succeeds on occasion…Murphy is really going for it…). But I wonder if the roles were reversed – Thandie Newton in a fat suit as a horrible shrew and Eddie Murphy as the sexy girl of his dreams; or Hell, even darker skinned Regina King as his love interest – if the film would work on the intended level. There is a short cut by casting an almost white girl in the part of sex pot. We believe his attraction without question, regardless of Rasputia’s behavior. To continue my point of racial apartheid, look at the men in this film. Take Eddie Murphy out of it because he is an established entity and it is his movie. The bad guys in the film are all very dark skinned, save for the light skinned Cuba Gooding, Jr, whom we ASSUME is a good guy until we know better. Racial emotions are not limited to black women on film. We believe that Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx, or Samuel L. Jackson could be bad guys much easier than we do Will Smith. True, Will Smith has made a career of playing heroes. But would that career choice have been possible if he were dark? Who knows. My guess is it would have been a lot harder. As far as Norbit’s “humor” goes, as mentioned, the jokes heavily rely on her weight, which depending on your taste level are hilarious or offensive. Weight jokes – like racial jokes, sexual jokes, or anything else “off-color” – have their place in comedy, but can reach a threshold of intolerance pretty quickly. Also, it seems ironic that a man whose best film is arguably The Nutty Professor – a film designed to give overweight people the love and respect they deserve – would then turn around and make a film that seems to do the exact opposite.

Bad Cinema: The Apple (Dir: Menahem Golan, 1980)

“Oh my God! What happened in here last night? A pogrom?

Movies never seem to get the future right. In 13 years, we should be on the path to extinction because no one is having babies anymore (clearly Children of Men underestimated the Mexicans…). According to Blade Runner, in five years we should have so many androids that we actually need a special police force to track them down. And by next year, we should have hover boards, shoes that lace themselves, and jackets that adjust sizes depending who is wearing them (get on it, Spielberg! You’ve got the money…). At least the Alien franchise had the good sense to set themselves two hundred years from now. The closest we may have gotten to a realistic view of the future from the past is 1984 with the signing of the Patriot Act (although Orwell was about 15 years too early on that one) and 2001 with its Siri like operating system (although I don’t see computers going haywire and killing us. Yet…however I do see people falling in love with their operating systems by 2025…if it takes that long…)

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The Apple (1980) is set in the crazy world of 1994. But instead of chasing Beanie Babies, rocking fanny packs, and jamming out to Lisa Loeb, the world is dominated by a secretly nefarious group called Bim. They tell us what music is in, how to spend our afternoons (jazzercise, apparently), and what ornamentation we must wear, punishable by law (an ugly, triangular, hologrammed sticker that is giving us Freemason/Holocaust/bindi/WeHo realness….).

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Bibi and Alphie are too young, healthy, normal kids just trying to make it in the music industry. They enter a competition to win a lame trophy shaped like a gold pyramid and would have won it too if it hadn’t been for that meddling Mr. Boogalow. You see, they are this Carpenters like duo, singing their sweet adult contemporary to a mob of disco crazed kids. But something pure breaks through to the audience. Human emotion. Tenderness. The girls start weeping and the boys take it as their chance to snuggle up and hopefully cop a feel. Their heart rates escalate to a staggering 154, beating The Bim’s impressive 150 (this is the cockamamy way they are deciding on a winner…). But The Bim is managed by Boogalow, the man responsible for the competition, so of course the deck is stacked in their favor. To ensure their victory, he sends out a cacophonous drone that apparently awakens the audience from their romantic stupor, sending them into a vitriolic mob, hell bent on booing these fresh faced youngsters off the stage.

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But Mr. Boogalow is no fool. He invites Alphie and Bibi to The Bim’s after party to have them seduced (literally and figuratively) by the limelight and its trappings so he can sign them and make millions. Bibi falls into the arms of Dandi, The Bim’s “hunky” (or what they are passing off as hot) lead singer. Alphie is having none of these smoke and mirrors, grabs his gal, and bolts for the door.

The next day they are invited to Mr. Boogalow’s office to sign a contract. Or I should say contracts. Bibi is ready to sign hers and head off on tour; Alphie wants to read his first. He lapses into this fantasy scene where the room suddenly begins to shake…

“When I signed my first contract, I thought the world was going to pieces too…” 

…and the office transforms into the Garden of Eden with Boogalow as a Dracula looking Satan and Alphie and Bibi naturally as Adam and Eve (notice how the spelling of Alphie’s name resembles “Alpha” – this is not an accident…) where they all sing the titular number.

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Oh, yeah. Did I forget to mention this is a musical?

But how could it not be? It is all too extravagant, all to insane, all so over the top that they would be remiss not to include energetic dance numbers, disco music, and costumes so extreme they wouldn’t even fit in Bob Mackie’s wheel house.

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The Apple‘s influences are many and it is not afraid to flaunt them: Tommy, Sgt. Pepper…, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Hair, 1984, Phantom of the Paradise, Fosse, Studio 54, and most of all the book of Genesis. But it somehow coalesces into its own distinct form of excess, equally fabulous and fundamentally ludicrous (#LadyGaga).

The story is pretty by rote. I’m sure you can guess that she takes the deal, he doesn’t, she falls prey to the demons of fame, he never compromises his strong ethical center (further strengthening the idea that Eve caused Man’s expulsion, NOT the virtuous Adam), she realizes the errors of her ways, they reunite, and join a commune populated by hippies left over from the ’60s (OK, so I didn’t see that last one coming).

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A year later, Mr. Boogalow and his minions come to the commune to collect the runaway Bibi (or the million dollars she owes him for welching on her contract). But just as his guards are about to strong arm them into returning to her old life, a car flies down from the clouds and God struts out to save the day. I’m serious. This actually happens.

If we didn’t understand by now that Mr. Boogalow was really the Devil by another name, this final showdown of Good vs. Evil spells it out for us. God aka Mr. Topps (um, alright…) announces that he is taking his chosen people to a new planet to start again. One without Mr. Boogalow…

“But, my dear Topps. You know that isn’t possible. The world cannot exist without me!”
“Let’s give it a try.”

The members of the commune, plus a new and improved Pandi, shed their earthly worries and walk hand in hand into the sky with God for another chance to get it right.

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Would it surprise you to know this was originally supposed to be a Hebrew stage musical?

***KARDASHIAN***

*Special thanks to Ashley White for the recommendation!

Check it out on Netflix Instant!

Good Cinema: Adventures in Babysitting (Dir: Chris Columbus, 1987)

Trevor had been begging me for months, years.

“Gurl when are we gonna watch Adventures in Babysitting? It is werking so hard!” 

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It had gotten to the point where I almost didn’t ever want to see it. It had gotten to the point that I could only be disappointed, sold on the promise of greatness. But tonight, after jamming to the new Mariah Carey (which has some fabulous moments btw…), after a false start watching La Vie en Rose (which looked like a HOT snooze…), I decided, what the hell. Let’s do this. I texted Trevor. He was ecstatic. I was cynical.

And I am here to say….it is glorious.

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OK. So Elisabeth Shue, rocking her best 80s hair, dances around her room to The Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me,” whp for a Golden Globe nod. The power of love overtakes her body. It’s her anniversary and she is getting gussied up for her man. But wouldn’t you know it. Her boyfriend’s sister is sick. And he needs to take care of her. Well, we can see from a mile away that his sister isn’t sick. He’s stepping out with another girl! But Elisabeth i.e. Chris is none the wiser, despite the warnings from her anxious friend, Brenda (Penelope Ann Miller). With no pressing plans, when she gets a call to babysit the Andersons, she heads out for a night of easy money and boredom. Or so she thinks!

That worrisome Brenda has run away from home and begs Chris to come get her from the bus stop before the homeless man who lives in the phone booth attacks her. Well, Chris, being the dependable friend – the virginal paradigm set forth by Laurie Strode – dashes from the suburbs into the scary streets of New York City to rescue her friend, kids in tow. There’s 10 year old Sara (Maia Brewton) who thinks she is Thor, 15 year old Brad (Keith Coogan) who is sporting a serious crush for Chris, and his 15 year old friend Daryl (Rent‘s Anthony Rapp) who blackmails them into a night of adventure. And adventures are aplenty!

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It starts with a flat tire. Simple enough. Annoying, but not devastating. Unless you don’t have a flat. And the pick up truck driver is kind of creepy with his hook hand and instead of taking you directly to the mechanic’s, goes to try and kill his wife’s lover. And then to avoid getting shot, you duck into an open car. That just so happens to be in the process of being stolen. So there you are, taken to a hot garage, surrounded by gangsters, locked in their office, escaping through the skylight by straddling the beams in the ceiling like a damn circus performer with the stolen Playboy in your bag; the one that has all that secret information across the centerfold, the centerfold who looks like Chris. So you escape only to be chased by these gangsters, trapped on stage where you have to sing the blues to escape and you tear down the house (Shue is really werking this scene…) and the next thing you know you are stealing a thug’s knife saying classic lines like, “Don’t FUCK with the babysitter” before dangling from windows and finding out your boyfriend with the sick sister actually IS running game on you and your 15 year old crush calls him out for being a douche. Then you’ll get your car from Vincent D’Onofrio, race home, narrowly beating the kids’ parents, and bonding with your ward over the best night of your life…so far.

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Adventures in Babysitting feels like John Hughes Light, filled with charm, but missing the gravitas and hopeful cynicism. The soundtrack is filled with grooves and the cast is really excellent and sells the over the top plot. The tone of the film is not obvious satire like Heathers, yet it is not meant to be taking seriously; you never believe that the kids or Chris are in any real danger, which leaves Shue’s performance feeling somewhere in between great and just missing the mark. She underplays where she could camp it up and downplays her stunning beauty when she could use it to their advantage. Perhaps it is a sign of the times. If made today, Chris would need to be more sassy, more guarded, more kick ass. Think Ellen Page or LiLo. But there is an innocent maturity to Shue’s interpretation. After all the too-smart-for-their-own-good teens committed to celluloid in the ’80s, Shue’s Chris is kind of refreshing as an average girl without the life skills asked of her.

Adventures in Babysitting is a great time. Stop putting it off and watch the thing today! Thank you, Trevor!

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*Check out my other Good Cinema reviews here.

**I would watch this as a double feature with Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, also starring Keith Coogan, and an inevitable Good Cinema selection…

Bad Cinema: The First Nudie Musical (Dir: Bruce Kimmell and Mark Haggard, 1976)

“Where are you gonna get people who can screw AND carry a tune?”

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While marking time at scAMDA on my way to (presumed) stardom, I used to stroll the aisles of Tower Records, giving myself a free education on the history of cinema. One evening, with 30 bucks burning a hole in my camo cut-offs, I came across a film with a most interesting title: The First Nudie Musical. As a self-professed shit kicker, equally obsessed with Sondheim and Sodomy, this almost seemed too good to be true. Thankfully, it wasn’t. The First Nudie Musical is an amazing piece of camp (and not a bad musical at that…).

Harry Schetcher (Stephen Nathan) is in dire straights. His father’s once prosperous film studio is headed towards certain bankruptcy. Over the past few years, he and his team (led by a pre-Laverne & Shirley Cindy Williams) have done everything – including pornography – to keep it afloat. But time is running out. He gets his investors to agree to one last project that is certain to pack ’em in the aisles: a porno musical. With just two weeks to put it all together, there isn’t a moment to spare. Not only must the performers be able to…perform…but they also have to sing and dance! As if that weren’t enough, one of the producers has foisted his virginal nephew on them as the director and their leading lady is pulling the Diva card from the jump. Will they save the studio? Of course they will. This is a musical after all. But oh what fun along the way!

Yes. Those are dancing dildos.

Yes. Those are dancing dildos.

What may surprise you most is that the music is…actually really good. There’s the eponymous opening toe-tapper, complete with a bevy of kick-lining nude chorines; the ingenue torch song “The Lights and the Smiles”; fun little vaudeville style interstitials like “Orgasm”; and my favorite, “Honey, What’cha Doin’ Tonight?” a “Big Spender” type knock off that will make its way onto my inevitable cover album of musical theatre tunes. (Incidentally, why is THIS not an Off-Broadway musical?!)

The First Nudie Musical, audacious title and all, reportedly got really good reviews (although contemporary online reviews are scarce and not glowing…) and has become a cult classic. If you like South Park, Family Guy, or The Rocky Horror Picture Show, you would appreciate this tongue in cheek farce.

***KARDASHIAN***

*You can download the movie here.

Bad Cinema: The Big Wedding (Dir: Justin Zackham, 2013)

I better get this all out before my brain decides what it just witnessed for the past 90 minutes was beyond horrible, embarrassing career lows for its talented cast and begins to forget every ridiculous frame.

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Whatever critic called this “pure comedy gold” needs to have his head examined.

I was warned by more than one person that The Big Wedding was dreadful. Katherine Heigl was nominated for a Razzie (although how they singled her out from this pay-check cashing ensemble seems random), and it has a 7% on Rotten Tomatoes. I knew what I was getting into and yet stayed the course. The sacrifices I make for my readers.

We must start with the script because it is LaShawn Beyond, honey. The film should really be called The Big Failure. Or The Kitchen Sink. Because if you can think of something, it’s here, piled up like dirty dishes, growing mold.

Don (Robert De Niro) and Bebe (Susan Sarandon) are about to have oral sex on the kitchen countertop when Ellie (Diane Keaton) decides to let herself into her old house and catches them in the act.

“Thanks, bitch. I was just about to get head.”

You see, Ellie and Don used to be married years ago until Ellie’s best friend Bebe broke up their marriage. She and Don built this house, built their family (Katherine Heigl, Topher Grace, and adopted “Colombian” son played by British actor Ben Barnes…). But there is no acrimony. They are all still great friends. Time, it seems, has healed these wounds. Except for Lyla (Heigl). She refuses to forgive her father – 10+ years later – for destroying their family. Even though everyone at the grown-ups table seems to have moved on.

"I promise I'm not Caucasian."

“I promise I’m not Caucasian.”

The eponymous wedding is to take place between Alejandro (I bet you can guess which son that is) and WASPY Missy (Amanda Seyfried), much to the chagrin of her bigoted parents (Christine Ebersole – rocking a crazy wig – and David Rasche). Having a Latin son-in-law, one that is lighter skinned than Topher Grace btw, is a blemish they want to keep hidden from their other friends on the Reagan Terrace. But they are not the (major) problem. Turns out, Alejandro’s birth mother is coming to the wedding! This die hard Catholic woman (named Madonna…I’m serious….) would just crumble in disappointment if she found out that her son’s adopted family were raising her little boy in sin. So what to do? Tell his birth mother – you know the woman he has maybe seen a handful of times and is somewhat inconsequential to his daily life and happiness – that, Hey my parents are divorced and you are just going to have deal? Nope. He would rather have them pretend to still be married and chuck Bebe – the woman who served as mother through the difficult teen years and beyond – to the curb. Again, all because he is too much of a wimp to just be a man and fess up to his mother. To fess up to his mother about something that doesn’t involve HIM at all, but others. I wanted to yell at Amanda Seyfried through my laptop to run for the hills from this man who is obviously too immature for marriage.

So the deed is done. Bebe moves into a hotel and Ellie moves into the house. But again. No acrimony. Therefore no drama, no stakes. No stakes. What am I saying? There are so many other logs in the fire it’s amazing that the screenplay just doesn’t ignite from the heat of its own bullshit. Let’s list them, shall we:

– Jared (Grace), a 29 year old virgin, tries to bed Alejandro’s birth sister
– Bebe is the caterer for the wedding
– Lyla has left her husband because they fought too much over her inability to have children…and is now pregnant! But wants to make sure they are staying together out of love and not obligation
– Don is a recovering alcoholic sculptor who is afraid that his greatest work will never come now that he is sober
– Ellie tries to get Don to propose to Bebe
– Don and Ellie sleep together, but there is no confusion about emotions and Bebe is cool with it because she started as the mistress; Ellie slept with Missy’s dad years ago and Missy’s mom is a part time lesbian
– Madonna actually isn’t as rigid in her faith as everyone thinks, Alejandro himself a product of a teenage affair she had with a married diplomat
– and to squeeze one more ounce of star power from this turd, Robin Williams plays the ex-alchy priest that has lines like, “Matrimony is God’s greatest gift to his children. It should be sanctified, nurtured, and protected against the seeds of descent, which often lead to the chasms of discord, which too often today’s unions are not able to recover. It often leads to divorce!”

Give it up, Robin. No amount of prayer will forgive you for this garbage.

Give it up, Robin. No amount of prayer will forgive you for this.

The whole damn affair plays out like it was made as a drawing room comedy in the ’40s with its archaic rigidity and broad humor that was released without the Hays’ Office seal of approval, allowing a bevy of boring sex jokes to creep in. The most astounding head-scratcher is that such luminaries would slum it in such obvious garbage. It’s not like this was a good idea gone bad. It is apparent from the script that it is trite, sophomoric, and void of genuine jokes. And yet we got Oscar and Tony winners prostituting their talent, probably for scale. (You want to really see someone prostituting their talent AND really cheap sex jokes, tune into Sullivan and Son on TBS. Talk about Christine Ebersole laughing all the way to the bank…)

I’m not sure what De Niro and Keaton have been doing to their careers for the past decade (or two), but seriously it needs to stop. (I shutter to think where Nicole Kidman will be when her plastic surgery makes her suitable for nothing but Grand Guignol…).

To fully capture how bad this movie really is you would have to watch it for yourself. It’s awfulness washes over you like a sea of tears collected from mothers who have just had an abortion. This whole movie feels like complications due to a premature birth, labor pains and all. Maybe if Zackham had taken another month with the script, maybe if the actors had given a little more consideration for their legacy, we would have had something that didn’t seem so half baked. I’m embarrassed for everyone involved and spent the whole movie wishing I were watching That Old Feeling.

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“Hey remember when we made MARVIN’S ROOM?” “Shut up, Diane. Your awkward schtick is giving me a headache.” “La-di-da, Bobby. I worked with Woody Allen!” “Yeah. 21 years ago.” “I don’t see Marty calling you! That little DiCaprio kid has taken your place, buddy!” “What the hell happened to us?” “God, I wish I knew.”

 

***CAR CRASH***

 

Bad Cinema: Sextette (Dir: Ken Hughes, 1978)

“When I’m good I’m very good, but when I’m bad I’m better.”
– Mae West

Oh, how I wish this were true.

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On paper, Mae West is everything an audacious fag could desire: brazen, controversial, and dressed to the nines. She made it through vaudeville, burlesque, Broadway, radio, TV, Vegas, rock and roll albums, and the movies as a writer/performer/provocateur, retaining control (sometimes to her own demise) over her scripts, image, and legend within Hollywood’s Studio System. Her plays Sex and The Drag (an early example of pro-gay literature) got her jailed and stymied by the Morality Police. Her work was seen as shocking, revolutionary, and culturally significant, proving that women could be just as powerful (and interested in sex) as men. Her breakthrough film She Done Him Wrong (1933) saved Paramount from bankruptcy and even today her name is looked upon with respect. Bette Midler and Madonna have repurposed the Westian philosophy of feminine masculinity, crude sexual rebellion, and African-American homage, adding a dash of modernity and musical theatre, to make them one name legends as well. (To wit, Midler is playing Mae West in an upcoming HBO film based on her memoirs…). Yes, on paper, Mae West is everything a man obsessed with sex, censorship, and Hollywood history could ask for.

And yet….

She is an overrated bore that is more important than good.

The problem with Mae as the star of her vehicles is that she is not an actress; she is a personality. Every character, regardless of her name, is Mae West – even Mae West was “Mae West” (watch any interview with her. She is ALWAYS “on”). And unlike W.C. Fields, Groucho Marx, The Three Stooges, or any other comedy legend, her personality is frankly not that interesting. She is nothing more than a throbbing clitoris, waiting to be flicked. She bobs her hips, fluffs her hair, throws off a double entendre, croaks out a ditty, and thinks that makes her fabulous. Her characters are empty inside, lacking anything that even resembles human emotion. She is a caricature of a human, a caricature of a woman, and a facsimile of what some refer to as Talent.

In Belle of the Nineties, her “act,” the big time showstopper for the club is nothing more than West posing in various costumes while some tenor sings, sending the crowd into hysterics. Every script is filled with reminders of her beauty and bedroom prowess, every film filled with a supple supply of men begging for her approval (Where does the Satire stop and her Narcissism begin…?). Usually casting herself as the main event chanteuse, West talk/sings her way through an endless array of numbers, ranging from slightly engaging to comatose. Yet these numbers are the reason to suffer through the films in the first place. They contain her gait, her lascivious eye rolls, her signature voice, and her flare for eccentric dress. Watching her attempt to connect with fellow actors in dialogue scenes, however, is downright painful and utterly uncomfortable. It’s as if she is marking time between songs and zingers. I find it difficult to believe that she was such a hit on the stage where acting is more revered and the audience is a lot more critical. Perhaps you just had to be there. West would have been great in the music video era when lip-synching for five minutes through various sexual poses is all that is required to be successful.

But Mae West rightfully earned her place in history. While Louise Brooks adopted the flapper dress and celebrated her boyish body and manly haircut, while Gertrude Stein proved her literary weight at the Algonquin in her pant suit, West employed her style of garish feminism as a traditional woman: buxom and coiffed, Mae brought men to their knees decked out in the most theatrical costume that would accentuate her positives. But she was more than just a sex symbol. She told male studio heads where they could stick their awful scripts, lived a furiously independent life, and was unashamedly self-assured (to the brink of Egotism…). She wrote the checks, cashed them, and laughed all the way to the bank. Yes, Mae West was an anomaly in those early days of Hollywood; a siren luring men into complete submission with her sashay and a song, unafraid of waves crashing around her.

When she is not on screen, her films die. When Mae is not vamping, her films die. And when we spend too much time with her, with no time to miss what makes her special, her films die. From a modern view point, West’s greatest strengths are her audacity (even now her infamous quips seem shocking. In fact, her one-liners were so respected that she was offered to write a column like Will Rogers; she turned it down) and her unabashed joy in her own sexuality (paging Madonna…it seems odd she doesn’t cite Mae in “Vogue,” but makes room for Joe Dimaggio…). But her “talent” is almost moot. It’s not important that Mae West wasn’t great. What’s important is that Mae West existed.

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In 1951, after (BLISSFULLY!) turning down Billy Wilder for the role of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (refusing to consider herself a has-been), West began writing a play: Sextette, about a newly married woman who must juggle her five ex-husbands and restore diplomacy through her…feminine wiles. Unable to find a backer, the play took ten years to mount. Then at 68, Mae returned to the road. In the hopes of finally bringing Sextette to the screen, West accepted a part in 20th Century-Fox’s newest commodity, Myra Breckinridge, her first film in 27 years (“It’s a return, not a comeback” – Norma Desmond to a T…). Of course, under the provision that she retained her famous control of her dialogue. And we all know what a bum decision that turned out to be…

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Though Myra Breckinridge tanked, it thrust Mae West into the Liberation-centered ’70s, where she was heralded for being a champion of gay rights and female empowerment. She appeared on Dick Cavett, wrote two books, and at the age of 84 went into production on her final film, the train wreck adaptation of Sextette.

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Sextette follows the exploits of internationally famed movie star Marlo Manners during her honeymoon. Surrounded by well-wishers, sycophants, and staff, Marlo can’t get a moment alone with Husband No. 6 (the 31 year old Timothy Dalton). To make matters worse, ex-husbands (and muscle bound athletes) start coming out of the wood work, demanding her affection. One ex-husband, a diplomat, refuses to vote for diplomacy unless he can spend one more night with Marlo. Dozens of men are falling over themselves, putting national security at risk even, for the clarion call of her geriatric pussy. Lest we forget this is a musical, there are tap dancing bellhops and a string of horrible, very poorly lip-synched songs, delivered in Mae’s talk/sing moans. If it weren’t all so embarrassing, it would be hilarious.

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Problems begat problems right from the start. The producers were inexperienced, the budget ballooned from 1.5 to 7 million dollars, the director was replaced, and the script was a mess. Like Cleopatra before it, Sextette began rolling without a finished screenplay. Herbert Baker, who was adapting West’s play, wrote scenes the night before or even the morning of shooting, making it impossible for the octogenarian Mae to learn her lines. If her delivery seems to be even more stilted than normal, it’s because she was fitted with a ear piece under her wig, allowing Hughes to feed her her dialogue. This was not the only thing impeded by her advanced age. If her famous gait seems more wobbly than you think it should even for an 84 year old, it’s because her vision kept her from seeing her marks; therefore, a PA had to crawl around as her guide out of frame.

The cast is as random and pointless as the spin-the-wheel call sheet on Sgt. Pepper: George Hamilton, Ringo Starr, and Tony Curtis as a few of her ex-husbands; Alice Cooper as a piano playing waiter; Regis Philbin as a news anchor; Keith Moon as a fashion designer; Walter Pidgeon as the head of the UN; and a scenery chomping Dom Deluise as Marlo’s personal assistant.

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And then there is Mae herself in the rarest of forms, looking visibly exhausted, like a gussied up Baby Jane Hudson, desperately trying to hang on to her glory days. For whatever they were worth.

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Reading her autobiography, Goodness Had Nothing to Do With It, you fall in love with her snark, her gregariousness, her charisma, and her catchy turn of phrase; like any good autobiography should do (or any visit to Graceland…). But watching her films is another story. They are unilaterally bad, some downright awful with West herself as their greatest asset – and liability. Sextette may not be the worst of the worst. But it is certainly the strangest.

 ***CAR CRASH***

Bad Cinema: Alien3 (Dir: David Fincher, 1992)

“When they first heard about this thing, it was ‘Crew Expendable.’ The next time they sent in marines. They were expendable too. What makes you think they’re gonna care about a bunch of lifers who found God at the ass end of space? You really think they’re gonna let you interfere with their plans for this thing? They think we’re…we’re crud.”

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If you had asked me twenty years ago – ten years ago, two weeks ago! – if there was even the remotest possibility I would entertain the notion one day that Alien3 would be anything less than great, I would have laughed right in your face. The Alien Franchise was a vital and glorious part of my maturation. My friend Kevin and I used to crawl around his house, hiding from xenomorphs, stomping around in our invisible loaders, making flame throwers out of odds and ends, fighting over who would get to play Ripley this go around (and this was before we knew we were gay; talk about throwing flames…). While the first two films in the series are established masterpieces, I have always championed the third installment as its neglected step-sister; the Desperate Living in the canon, if you will. In fact, last week I was excited to write about Alien3 for Good Cinema, ready to remind the world (or the 16 people that would maybe read my review) that this little baby need not be lost in the shadow of its glorious predecessors.

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But 20 minutes into the 2 hour and 24 minute Special Edition, I had the crushing realization that my beloved film – the reason I would fall backwards into a pool with my eyes closed, the reason I would randomly yell “Pour the lead!”, the reason I would curl up into a ball against the wall and pant like Sigourney on the poster, imagining that I was narrowly escaping death by way of the Alien and his phallic mouth – was pure and utter bullshit. Perhaps even worse than the completely ridiculous Alien: Resurrection. 

Before we continue, I want to make the clear distinction between a Sequel and A Quest for Cash Addition to a Series. Not to be misunderstood, I’m under no delusions that all Sequels – good and bad – are made because they think there is great market potential for more material. But the difference between say, Back to the Future Part II and Friday the 13th Part II, is that the former is interested in continuing the story while the latter merely uses a similar device to create a franchise. What is so rare about the Alien films is that they are usually categorized as horror – the genre most guilty of shameless franchise-ment – AND continues the same story; Scream would be another great example of this phenomenon. Alien 1-3 uses Ripley’s relationship with the creatures as its central crux, picking up where the previous film left off and attempting to give us something fresh, something vital, something unforgettable about the universe. Alien is a masterwork of suspense, while Aliens is the best war film ever made. Alien3, however, is a belabored exercise in tone by a rookie director figuring out his style with one great pay-off, mired in an ironic combination of excess and void.

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Like the beginning of Aliens, Alien3 begins with Ripley coming out of an extended hypersleep. This time, instead of being picked up by a salvage team and taken back to Earth, Ripley’s escape pod crash lands on Fury 161, an almost abandoned planet housing a maximum security prison. We learn through a series of didactic conversations that the authorities wanted to shut the place down entirely, but a group of 20 prisoners who had found religion requested to stay and wait for the apocalypse. Seeing how they were a gang of rapists and murderers, the establishment had no problem leaving them in someone else’s hands. Dillon (Charles S. Dutton at his most ministerial) leads the others in prayer and harmony – until Ripley, the first woman they have seen in years, shows up to disrupt the delicate balance.

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For the first hour of the film, we hear nothing of the creature. There is a long drawn out, slow motion look-at-me-I-started-in-music-videos directorial touch where Ripley is rescued. There is Newt’s autopsy. There are gratuitous shots of surgical equipment and infrastructure. There is flirtation and sex between Ellen and the good doctor. There is an averted rape. There are muddled speeches, drowned out by the incessant use of music and horrible acoustics in the complex that force you to watch the movie with subtitles only to discover you really aren’t missing much. And there is the ticking of your own clock on the wall as it taunts you minute after minute, embarrassed for Sigourney Weaver that she was actually a producer on this thing and that her acting is for the first time maybe in her whole career melodramatic, making you long for something as pointless as Ghostbusters II  to help you forget you actually got up early to watch this mess.

So then the creature miraculously appears in the belly of a dead cow they find in the trash heap. The mythology of the xenomorph is that the Queen lays eggs. The eggs hatch these scorpion looking creatures who impregnate their prey by attaching to their face and basically cumming down their throat. Then the fetus bursts out of the chest of its host and grows into the fearsome, acid-for-blood motherfucker we all know and love. So that means somewhere there would have had to have been an egg/facehugger in the prison (which seems HIGHLY coincidental that they Aliens are everywhere Ripley happens to be) OR survived the crash water landing of Ripley’s ship, swam to shore, and attacked some unsuspecting bovine. The film isn’t exceptionally clear on its theory; it doesn’t care. The point is that the ball needs to roll and a dead cow is as good a host as any.

The prisoners learn to keep their dicks in their pants long enough because maybe Ripley knows how to stop this thing. Easily, almost too easily, they trap it in a space with no air ducts and six foot thick steel walls. But there are still 45 minutes of run time so you know shit is going to hit the fan. One of the nutso prisoners thinks that the Alien is giving him secret instructions to…who knows. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that the Alien escapes so they have to catch it again.

While the creature runs free, Ripley decides to give herself a CAT scan. It is unclear why, other than to facilitate Plot Point 2, which is that Ripley has an Alien inside of her. Now THIS is an inspired piece of writing. Of course Ripley would be the host this go around. It is Part III, the theoretical end, the perfect way to complete the series. Ripley, carrying their Queen, serves as the guinea pig to lure the Alien to its death, before she murders herself and its progeny.

But of course, the old “company” – those nameless Maleficents that only want to study, only want to bring back, only want to protect the creature for its bio-weapons division – have returned and demand that Ripley and the fetus inside of her be saved at all costs. They even send Bishop, the man who invented the droid, as a friendly face to convince her they will take it out safely and destroy it. But Ellen is no novice to this game. She can smell his lies! And does the only thing she can: falls into a giant pool of molten lead to protect humanity.

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Like Laurie Strode’s decapitation of Michael at the end of H20: 20 Years Later, Ripley’s sacrifice is the best way to end her relationship with the xenomorph – and the series. But where there is money to be made, there are convoluted explanations to be concocted. “That wasn’t REALLY Michael in the mask. She killed some other guy who happened to be chasing her for hours and trying to murder her.” “Yeah, Ripley jumped into the fire, BUT we were able to abstract her DNA from the ashes and create a clone of her and the Alien.” Um, OK.

Alien: Resurrection could have been chosen for this column; it is awful too. But at least it gives us a different take on the Ripley character. Weaver is werking as the mischievous clone and Winona Ryder is…well, she is at least employed. But Alien3 is a disaster, an utter fail without redemption. Unless you are a die hard fan of the series or want to see Fincher developing his style, to paraphrase a much better film:

“Stay away from this movie….you bitch.”

***Rip van Winkle***