Monday, January 28, 2013

Where the Boys are '84 (1984) - Campy Retro Fun

Where the Boys Are '84 - Cult Classic about Chicks on the Prowl

Poster Where the Boys are '84 1984
"Where the Boys are '84" (1984).

Movies would be not be as much fun if they were all big-deal classics like "Les Misérables" and "The Godfather." Yes, those are the types of films that will always make the "Best Movies" lists, but that doesn't mean that throwaway films can't be a lot of fun. "Where the Boys Are '84" (1984), directed by Hy Averback for ITC Productions, is one of the most misguided films ever made - and, sure enough, it has become an underground cult classic. With the remarkable distinction of being the first film distributed by Tristar, and produced by the legendary Alan Carr (his name is mentioned twice during the opening credits so that you get the hint), "Where the Boys Are '84" has so many things wrong with it that you just watch in disbelief as one improbable cliché after the next parades across the screen. If you let them, though, the characters draw you in and you actually wind up caring that this one hooks up with that one, or the other one actually has a wife and little kid waiting at home, and so on. If you like trashy beach films, "Where the Boys Are '84" is sheer heaven.

Poster Where the Boys are '84 1984
The girls drive down to Florida as the "Where the Boys are '84" titles play.

Four Senior college girls (Lisa Hartman as Jennie, Lorna Luft as Carole, Wendy Schaal as Sandra and Lynn-Holly Johnson as Laurie) set off on spring break to sunny Fort Lauderdale (all we know is that, wherever their school is, it's snowy there, this isn't the kind of film that gives lots of background). Carole (the film opens with a gratuitous shot of her having thrashingly comical sex with her boyfriend, Chip (Howard McGillin)) wants to take a break from her relationship (this isn't the kind of film that explains the "whys' of things like that) by having a separate vacation. Laurie is the "wild girl" who has a blow-up doll boyfriend (once again, don't ask "why" about things in this film), while Sandra simply is looking for "Mr. Right." Jennie becomes the focus of much of the conflict, but everybody's story is important.

Scott  Where the Boys are '84 1984
Scott looking for a ride in "Where the Boys are '84."

Laurie is driving the girls down the highway in Sandra's fancy convertible (the film's highlight is this drive, with quite nice aerial shots) when she spots Scott Nash (Russell Todd) thumbing a ride and slams on the brakes.
Sandra: What are you doing?
Laurie:  S.A., major S.A.
Sandra: What's an S.A.?
Laurie: Stud Alert, you nun. I'm givin' that guy a ride.
The merry travellers continue on down the highway, Scott now safely aboard. Turns out he's a struggling but highly self-confident musician who goes down to Florida each year with his band to "make his fortune." After this scene, which is Laurie's best moment, everything swiftly goes downhill, and after the ride, Laurie never even seems to look at Scott again. That's a good thing, too, because it turns out Scott only has eyes for Jennie, who thinks he has nice "buns."

Poster Where the Boys are '84 1984
Laurie driving, Scott in the back with Carole and Jennie in "Where the Boys are '84."

They hit the beach, where Scott quickly sees his mates in the midst of the masses of humanity ("It's a supermarket of sex!") and ditches the girls. They wind up in a "seedy" motel pad (which actually is palatial) which has about 500 people in the lobby with a "creep" behind the counter (Barry Marder as "Rappaport," who inexplicably also turns up much later at a party). Once they get to their room, Laurie suddenly has a personality change from aggressive to ditzy and weird, quickly blowing up "Dave," her man-sized blow-up doll.

Jennie Carole Laurie Sandra Where the Boys are '84 1984
Four wonderful ladies on the beach in "Where the Boys are '84."

We then meet Camden Roxbury (Daniel McDonald), a celebrity pianist (in the early '80s?) who is Sandra's cousin, and policeman Ernie (Asher Brauner), who solicitously warns the ladies about the sun. Laurie spots her dream man, "Conan" (Frank Zagarino, who later became a z-grade producer/director), and dreams of a night of unbridled lust with him. Scott returns, having forgotten his bag in the girls' car, and Camden brings his entourage (mother and aunt) to the local hot spot, where he meets Jennie and asks her to attend his next concert. Laurie drops some hints as to where this is going when she casually mentions that Camden is weird but "kinda cute." The girls decide to get "seriously s---faced," as Carole puts it. Chip, meanwhile, is insanely jealous and has come down with a buddy to spy on Carole, the two cruising the strip unsuccessfully for hours looking for her and ultimately sleeping in their car.

Lisa Hartman Where the Boys are '84 1984
Lisa Hartman as Jennie in "Where the Boys are '84."

Laurie gets pulled over for drunk driving on the way home from the club, and she and Sandra get hauled into jail by Ernie (Sandra screams "F--- you" and slugs him to earn her sentence). Scott and Jennie wind up alone on the beach after she insults him and later apologizes, thereby, of course, proving her true love. "I haven't seen a spring vacation this bad since '69, when I had to call in the National Guard," says Officer Porter (Dan Fitzgerald) at the station during his ten-second appearance in the film. The other girls bail out Laurie and Sandra (who threatens to kill herself if she has to ask her rich family for money), but that leaves them dead broke. Carole then enters a "Hot Bod" contest on the beach to get some spending money and, in the funniest scene in the film, takes only second place (the other contestants being obvious strippers, while she does an actual comical dance which involves a lot of wild arm-waving) after the next girl whips off her bikini top. Camden shows up (after an icky kiss on the lips of his mother, played by Louise Sorel, for telling him where Jennie is) to invite Jennie to a party, while Chip finds Carole and "breaks up" with her for entering the contest.

On the Beach Where the Boys are '84 1984
The girls enjoying the beach and looking for guys in "Where the Boys are '84."

Laurie uses "Dave" to show Sandra how to kiss, but when told to "bite it" she destroys the doll, leading to a ceremonial tossing of the doll into the ocean. Sandra is upset about destroying Dave, but Laurie is ok "as long as you climax with Ernie... Dave would have wanted it that way." The next day, Scott sabotages Camden's party by advertising it to everyone on the beach, leading to a stampede to the nearby estate. Laurie, meanwhile, has an "appointment" with Conan which goes disastrously awry when he turns out to be a male hooker. "You expect me to pay you? Hey, what are you, on drugs or something? You son of a bitch!" she shrieks in a classic scene. Stopping herself and playing along just to twist the knife in a little deeper, Laurie then has Conan undress, giving her the chance for a classic zinger: "So, where's the rest of it? I'll see you in small claims court." She then flounces out, wondering, no doubt, what day the Academy Awards will be held so she will know when to pick up her trophy.

Carole, Jennie, Scott, Tony Where the Boys are '84 1984
Carole recovering from her dancing, watched by Jennie, Scott and Nick in "Where the Boys are '84."

The party at Camden's mansion is ruined by all the uninvited guests, with Rappaport trying to sell Camden's mother back her belongings and then doing the same thing to Officer Ernie. Scott helps Camden finish writing his big number for the upcoming concert, but Jennie then leaves after both men insult her in very minor ways. Chip is still spying on Carole and sees Tony (Christopher McDonald) kissing her at the party, so to provoke her he comes on to Maggie (Alana Stewart) where Carole can see. At the concert the next night, Camden dedicates his number to Jennie, but then Scott shows up with his band on stage and takes over the show, adding words to the piece, giving it a classic '80s power-ballad sound and singing directly to Jennie. Jennie then falls for Scott (she's pretty easy), Carole makes up with Chip (who wound up spending the night with Maggie but that will be their little secret), and Laurie reveals her true feelings hinted at earlier for Camden and spends the night with him. The girls, happy, then head back to school with Scott.

Jennie Scott Where the Boys are '84 1984
Jennie and Scott share a moment in "Where the Boys are '84."

'Where the Boys Are '84" is cheesy fun. It is packed with raw '80s music that does its best on the cheap to imitate current big-name acts such as the Bangles, and the soundtrack actually is pretty good. There are amusing scenes of older ladies listening to one of the boy bands at Camden's place, while Lisa Hartman pounds out a fairly decent version of "Where the Boys Are" at the end. There is plenty of frenetic fun, interspersed with comic romance that never gets too overbearing. If you can get into the spirit of the proceedings, "Where the Boys Are '84" is a lot of fun and does bring back the feel of '80s vacations.

Carole dancing in Hot Bod Where the Boys are '84 1984
Carole during the Hot Bod contest in "Where the Boys are '84."

The flaws of "Where the Boys are '84" become advantages if, again, taken in the right spirit. Lorna Luft, fresh off the horrific "Grease 2," is the by far the best actor in the film, with moments of true comic inspiration that unfortunately also dissipate far too quickly. She is wildly miscast as someone who might even be permitted to enter a "hot bod" contest, much less come anywhere near winning it, but the idea is so wacky that the scene actually works - and Luft really does show some dancing skill, being Judy Garland's daughter pays off here. Laurie's hair style keeps changing throughout, from pinned-down predator style to big-hair to a sort of bouffant 'do, sort of following her changing personality. The character of Scott is overbearing in an overly masculine way that comically underscores his being cast as the big "ladies man."

Laurie Where the Boys are '84 1984
You can see Conan's reflection in the mirror behind Lynn-Holly Johnson as she tells him off in "Where the Boys are '84."

All of the leads are given at least one big dramatic scene, and comparing how they handle those scenes is part of the fun. Lisa Hartman plays it cool throughout, letting all the guys come to her, but works hard at getting the best close-ups. Lynn-Holly Johnson has her big "Academy Award" scene with Conan, where she actually manages to show some dramatic emotion before blowing it with an exit that is way too underplayed. If you are going to make a melodramatic exit, go all the way with it next time! The character of Laurie wanders through so many different attitudes, hair styles and dress styles that it sometimes takes a second to realize that, yes, that girl having the soulful conversation with Camden, or playing with the blow-up doll, or drooling over some hunk on the beach is, in fact, the same Laurie who very coyly asks Camden out after the concert. Wendy Schaal attempts to portray pathos when breaking up with Nick, but the scene goes nowhere in a way-too-obvious attempt at manipulative tear-jerking that jars with everything else in the film and, thus, becomes unintentionally humorous. Russell Todd has his big moment at the end, where he lip-syncs someone else (Peter Beckett) singing "Jennie," but there is no follow-through. You are left feeling they left out about five minutes of the film where Scott actually discusses the incident with Jennie or has some kind of meaningful exchange that doesn't involve singing. Lorna Luft does her best to hold the whole thing together, being the only one who conveys any kind of genuine feeling and showing a hint of real comic timing, but it would take Lucille Ball to really turn this creaking mess around, and Lorna Luft is no Lucille Ball.

Scott Where the Boys are '84 1984
Scott had too much to drink but that won't keep him off stage later in "Where the Boys are '84."

If anyone besides Lorna Luft steals the film, though, it is Daniel McDonald as Camden. Stuck with an obvious figure-of-fun character, McDonald manages to make Camden courtly and almost sympathetic. Daniel's older brother, Christopher McDonald, inexplicably gets higher billing in the minor role of Nick and remains the better-known performer (Christopher died tragically several years ago), but Daniel McDonald is the one who gives "Where the Boys Are '84" some depth and class it really doesn't merit otherwise.

Jennie Laurie Where the Boys are '84 1984
Lisa Hartman and Lynn-Holly Johnson in "Where the Boys are '84."

Make no mistake, "Where the Boys Are '84" is unmistakably silly and full of juvenile humor and strained attempt at topical profanity. It meanders all over Fort Lauderdale with little plot and even less purpose. 'Where the Boys Are '84" is not a "serious" film. But if you are looking for some cheesy fun that lacks all pretentiousness, you could do a lot worse than "Where the Boys Are '84." Pick out a favorite character (mine is Laurie, partially because she won a Razzie for the role playing the role so weirdly, but any will do) and enjoy!  A DVD of the film was released in 2011 by Scorpion and is eagerly sought by cult fans.


Friday, January 25, 2013

Basic Instinct (1992) - Sharon Stone at her Sexiest

Basic Instinct: Sexy Sharon Stone Steals Michael Douglas' Movie

DVD cover Basic Instinct 1992
"Basic Instinct" (1992).

"Basic Instinct" (1992) is a sexy crime drama that proved to be the peak of Michael Douglas' career and the start of Sharon Stone's period of greatest success. Written by and directed by Paul Verhoeven, who would later team up again for the ill-fated "Showgirls," "Basic Instinct" was a Hollywood phenomenon that retains its iconic force. It proved hugely profitable for Carolco Pictures and its distributor, Tristar Pictures, and its controversial depiction of a bisexual sociopath in a lead role only helped sell more tickets.

Sharon Stone Basic Instinct

While the sexuality in "Basic Instinct" is not too graphic, the relationships are presented in just the right way to lure in average viewers and then titillate them without provoking any guilt. The director's cut released years later is even steamier, and the best choice for anyone interested in seeing "Basic Instinct" today.

Sharon Stone Basic Instinct

The script is a bit too insistent on pointing all the clues in one particular direction, with a weak "twist" at the end that naturally trumps all those clues as far as the authorities are concerned. In addition, "Basic Instinct" loses steam after about the halfway point, becoming just another "let's see how the real killer wriggles out of being caught" crime film. So, then, what is the big deal about "Basic Instinct"? The performances in "Basic Instinct" are what make it a classic.

Sharon Stone Basic Instinct

Sharon Stone pushes her character's arrogance in her own invulnerability and infallibility through the roof, treating the police investigating her as so many idiots to be used and abused as she wishes, with absolutely no fear of being caught. It is a brilliant portrayal of a Narcissistic personality who uses her own sexuality as a weapon against just about everyone. Michael Douglas is at his conflicted best, and the supporting cast does just what they need to do, no more and no less.

Michael Douglas George Dzundza Basic Instinct 1992
Nick Curran and partner have some questions in "Basic Instinct."

A rock star, Johnny Boz (Bill Cable), is murdered with an ice pick in his room by an unknown blonde woman, and homicide detective Nick Curran (Douglas) is assigned the case. He learns that the last person seen with Boz was Catherine Tramell (Stone), a crime novelist who lives in a Pacific Heights mansion. When he goes to visit Tramell with partner Gus Moran (George Dzundza), Curran finds only Tramell's lesbian lover, Roxy (Leilani Sarelle), who directs them to Tramell's beach house. There, Tramell does not appear too concerned about the death, and they discover that Tramell has written a novel which has numerous similarities to Boz's murder.

Michael Douglas Sharon Stone Basic Instinct 1992
Sharon Stone puffs away like mad before and during the interrogation in "Basic Instinct."

Curran and Moran bring Tramell in for questioning, setting up the most famous film scene of the 1990s. Tramell is argumentative and intimidating, refusing to stop smoking and deliberately crossing her legs in such a fashion that it becomes obvious that she is wearing no underwear under her miniskirt and has no compunctions about showing herself. She answers the questions in as haughty a manner as possible and makes the police uncomfortable while remaining completely self-possessed. She also passes a polygraph exam.

Sharon Stone smirking in the squad car Basic Instinct 1992
Sharon Stone with a perfect arrogant smirk in "Basic Instinct."

Curran has his own problems - he accidentally shot two innocent people while high on drugs - and police psychologist Dr. Beth Garner (Jeanne Tripplehorn) counsels him while also having sex with him. A colleague, Lieutenant Marty Nilsen (Daniel von Bargen), doesn't like Curran and makes fun of him at a bar, and Curran then takes Garner home and takes it out on her with rough sex. Curran then does some further investigating of Tramell and learns that her parents died young, leaving her a fortune. Further, while Tramell was in college, one of her college advisors was stabbed in his sleep with an ice pick in the same manner as Boz. Her former fiancé, a boxer, died in the ring during a prize fight. Tramell is friends with Hazel Dobkins (Dorothy Malone), a murderer, and she also knows other murderers. Everywhere he looks, Curran finds odd things about Tramell related to murder.

Sharon Stone Basic Instinct 1992
Head held perfectly level, gaze direct, clothes perfect, hand perfect, smoke perfect in "Basic Instinct." A beautifully composed shot.

When Curran goes to visit Tramell again, she reveals knowledge of confidential information that could only have come from his police dossier on her. Garner confesses that she gave the file to Nilsen, who Curran then surmises gave the file to Tramell just to make his life difficult. Confronting Nilsen, Curran slugs him, leading to his suspension from the police force. Curran drinks to forget his problems and has an emotional argument with Garner, suggesting that he is out of control. Nilsen is later found dead in his car, shot in the head with a bullet that may have come from a police revolver. Curren becomes the prime suspect.

Sharon Stone Basic Instinct 1992
Sharon Stone's expansive hand gesture says "I own this space" in "Basic Instinct."

Tramell tells Curran that she is writing a novel that will have its police officer hero based on Nick. The plot has the female suspect killing the character based on Curran. Curran responds by telling Tramell that he loves her but still is going to prove that she murdered Boz. Roxy then tries to run Curran over with Tramell's car out of jealousy, but loses control of her car and crashes, dying in the wreck. Roxy, it turns out from a sealed juvenile court file available only upon her death, killed her two brothers when she was a teenager. Curran begins having doubts about Tramell's guilt, but Tramell then tells him that she had an a lesbian affair with a girl in college that ended badly when the girl became obsessed with her. Curran finds out that the girl was Garner, who confesses to the affair but claims that it was Tramell who became obsessed. Garner's husband was later murdered by the same caliber bullett that killed Officer Nilsen.

Sharon Stone Basic Instinct 1992
Meanwhile, the detectives can't help but be entranced by those legs in "Basic Instinct."

Curran again visits Tramell's house and finds a copy of her latest novel on the printer. It ends with character purportedly modelled after him finding his partner dead, lying in an elevator. Tramell appears, saying simply that the book is done, and abruptly breaks up with Curran. Curran then visits his own partner, Moran, who is investigating the college lesbian incident. Curran waits in the car while Moran goes in to talk to Tramell's old college roommate. A hooded figure then appears and stabs Moran multiple times, killing him in the elevator in the manner detailed in Tramell's new novel.

Wayne Knight Basic Instinct 1992
Nobody in the business can sweat profusely like Wayne Knight in "Basic Instinct."

Curran finds the dead Moran, grabs his gun, and suddenly sees Garner in the hallway. She claims that a message told her to meet Moran there. Curran suspects that Garner murdered Moran, and when she makes a suspicious movement, he shoots her. When the police arrive, they find an ice pick, wig and other items in the stairwell, their conclusion being that Garner killed Moran, left her disguise in the stairwell, and then came out to meet Curran as if nothing had happened. Further evidence in Garner's apartment implicates her in the murders of Boz, Nilsen, Gus and perhaps even her own husband.

Sharon Stone Michael Douglas Basic Instinct 1992

The other detectives feel that all of the cases have been solved because Garner was a serial killer, but Curran is not so sure. He thinks, based on what he read in Tramell's unpublished novel, that Tramell set up Garner. Back at his apartment, Curran finds Tramell waiting for him, and they make love, while the camera reveals an ice pick hidden underneath his bed that Tramell apparently reaches for at one point.

Michael Douglas Sharon Stone Basic Instinct 1992
Sharon Stone's eyes say, "I know you're watching, and I don't care."

The beauty of "Basic Instinct," besides all of the gratuitous sex (and there is plenty of that), is that the convoluted plot, with the circumstantial evidence continually mounting against Tramell, keeps the viewer guessing how on earth Tramell will get out of being caught. "Basic Instinct" explores the limits of evidence and the assumptions that we all naturally draw from basic facts, then shows how those assumptions can be manipulated to mean precisely the opposite of what we presume. The underlying theme is the limitations of "proof" and the ability to get away with just about anything if the groundwork of false leads is lain precisely enough in advance. In "Basic Instinct," the intellect and cunning of Tramell manages to create a false picture of reality to serve Tramell's own purposes, with all seemingly obvious assumptions drawn from what appears to be conclusive evidence at the very least questionable and, quite probably, completely false. As such, "Basic Instinct" is a forerunner of all the police procedurals of the late 1990s and early 2000s which try to explain with certainty what evidence actually implies, when, in fact, there are no absolutes about evidence at all. Evidence is just that - evidence - and nothing more, with questions always hanging over just what seemingly obvious evidence actually proves about guilt or innocence.

Jeanne Tripplehorn Basic Instinct 1992
Jeanne Tripplehorn as Garner: her natural guilelessness is perfect for the part of Dr. Garner

There are lots of crime thrillers and police procedurals, but "Basic Instinct" stands head and shoulders above the pack. For one thing, the busy script gives Stone and Douglas plenty of time to chew the scenery. Also, the acting by everyone is stellar, with Stone at her smoldering best and Douglas eschewing his usual wise-guy persona from films like "Romancing the Stone" and "Wall Street" to nail a troubled, uncertain character, someone who acts as confused about what is actually going on with Tramell as the audience feels. The entire production is of high quality, from the score by Jerry Goldsmith to Verhoeven's subtle nods to the true master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, to the attractive leading ladies. The costume designer, Ellen Mirojnick, deserves special mention for the stylish outfits Stone wears throughout, especially the severe white number for the big interrogation scene.

Michael Douglas Sharon Stone Leilani Sarelle Basic Instinct 1992
Tramell playing both Roxy and Curran at the same time. Roxy just looks needy and possessive, Stone in complete control in "Basic Instinct."

The background facts about "Basic Instinct" are startling. Stone was far down on the list of contenders for the role of Tramell, being known mostly for television appearances and minor features like "Allen Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold" (in which she is radiant), "Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol" and the supporting role of Arnold's wife in "Total Recall" ("Consider this a divorce"). Only after half the leading ladies of the time in Hollywood - from Michelle Pfeiffer to Geena Davis to Kathleen Turn to Ellen Barkin - turned the role down because of the nudity or other factors (Lena Olin didn't like Eszterhas) was Stone offered the part. The interrogation scene was a key stumbling block for many, but it was essential for selling the film. It wasn't just straight guys who were fascinated by Stone uncrossing her legs. Straight girls could also be fanatical about getting the VHS and replaying that scene over and over, trying to pin down precisely what could be seen.

Leilani Sarelle Sharon Stone Basic Instinct 1992
Stone's hand placement shouts, "I own this, this is what I value." It is brilliant acting by Stone in "Basic Instinct."

That is not to say that no actress would take the part, just that many high profile names at that time were very worried about their images. Ultimately, though, turning down the part hurt them. Catherine Tramell was a career part that would have helped anybody's career, and many of those A-listers fell down the rankings as quickly as Sharon Stone ascended them. Michael Douglas, in turn, made the right decision in refusing a request that he go full-frontal naked or have his character be bisexual, neither of which could possibly have helped the film with the audience.

Leilanie Sarelle Basic Instinct 1992
Roxy leaving in a huff in "Basic Instinct." Tramell having played her perfectly in "Basic Instinct."

Sharon Stone's attitude toward this role also reveals a lot about Hollywood in those days. Sharon Stone later tried to claim that Verhoeven tricked her into the famous crotch-baring scene, saying that he did not disclose what would be shown. Supposedly, she only realized what had happened when she saw it in the dailies, and then demanded its removal, but with the scene shot it was too late for her to do anything about it. Verhoeven, on the other hand, claims in response that Stone was in on the crotch shot all along, until Stone's agent warned it would hurt her career, which made her change her mind. Everybody thus tried to appear innocent and blameless, while allowing the scene to go out to audiences.

Sharon Stone Basic Instinct 1992

One fact is clear: the leg-crossing scene was not spelled out in the script, but was all Verhoeven's idea to show how fearless and free-spirited Tramell could be. It all sounds just like the later "sex tape" incidents, with the woman involved invariably claiming it was all done without her consent, but then also invariably cashing in as much as possible later. Nowadays, starlets don't even have to be paid (directly) for flashing the public as they exit their limos, it's all good in the name of publicity, just spell the name right. But "Basic Instinct" was before all the sex tapes and the flashing, and, in fact, may have inspired all of that because of what it did for Stone's career.

Paul Verhoeven Basic Instinct 1992
Paul Verhoeven, master of the modern twisted-relationship picture such as "Basic Instinct."

"Basic Instinct" is a classic crime thriller. It remains a triumph for Paul Verhoeven, Joe Eszterhas, Michael Douglas, Sharon Stone and Jeanne Tripplehorn. The pacing is tight, the writing is superb, the acting is subtle and nuanced, and the sexy visuals are smoking hot if you like that sort of thing (and not just of Stone's interrogation scene, but her lesbian posturing and everything else as well). The sex scenes are as graphic as Verhoeven could get away with, making them still titillating even compared to the more openly sexual films that followed down the years.

Sharon Stone Basic Instinct 1992

Whatever she turned into later (skip the sequel "Basic Instinct 2," the moment was long gone by then and Stone no longer young and desirable), Sharon Stone was magnificent in "Basic Instinct," playing up the arrogance of Tramell while giving the audience what it didn't even know it wanted. There was a sequel, "Basic Instinct 2" (2006), that also starred Sharon Stone, but skip it unless you absolutely have to see an inferior rip-off. "Basic Instinct" is highly recommended, be sure to get the director's cut for the full effect.


Saturday, January 19, 2013

Mama (2013) - Classic Maternal Battles with Jessica Chastain

Mama: From the Gates of Hell She Barks at Thee

Mama 2013 film poster
"Mama" (2013).

Andres Muschietti directs "Mama" (2013), a Spanish-Canadian horror film from Toma 78 starring the suddenly ubiquitous Jessica Chastain. If you are looking for something in - or from - the same vein as "Sinister," "Mama" is just what you need. Most of the film is spent unravelling the mystery of Mama and whether she even exists, and, if she does exist, what exactly she is. "Mama" leaves the viewer with more ambiguity than most other classic horror films and the plot is a bit confused. However, it is a real thrill ride and mystery. "Mama" may rely on a lot of the standard horror film clichés, but "Mama" lives up to its horror-film billing and will creep you out as it scares you.

Annabel Lucas Mama 2013
"Now, children...."

Jeffrey is an analyst at an investment bank. The market is experiencing a crisis, and Jeffrey unravels under the pressure. He shoots some of his colleagues and estranged ex-wife, then loads his two young girls (Lilly and Victoria) in the car and takes off. They wind up on an icy road and Jeffrey, driving like the maniac that he is, crashes the car into the woods. They stumble upon an abandoned cabin, and Jeffrey is about to kill the children and then himself when suddenly a supernatural being swoops down and pulls him away from the children and kills him. The children never get a good look at the strange being.

Annabel and the children Mama 2013
Annabel and the children see something scary in "Mama."

Five years pass, and finally searchers hired by Jeffrey's twin brother Lucas find the crashed car and then the cabin with the two children still alive. While having grown, they also regressed, becoming animal-like. A psychiatrist, Dr. Dreyfuss, treats them, while Lucas and his girlfriend, Annabel, obtain custody but have to live in a special facility with the children so that the children can be studied. The children keep referring to "Mama," who appears at the facility but is only seen by the children (she causes electrical problems and is usually accompanied by black moths). However, Annabel begins having dreams of Mama, dreams Mama causes her to have. Dr. Dreyfuss begins to believe that the children may be telling the truth about Mama, so he does some research.

Jessica Chastain looking surprised Mama 2013
Jessica Chastain rockin' that '80s bangs look in "Mama."

Turns out that "Mama" was a mental patient in the 1800s who broke out of her asylum, stabbed a nun who was caring for Mama's baby Lilly, and stole the child. Chased by the police, Mama jumped over a cliff and hit a tree branch, killing herself and Lilly. Mama's body fell into the lake below, but Lilly remained stuck on the branch, where she was recovered by authorities. Mama, missing her child in death, became a ghost who prowled the woods looking for Lilly. When she saw Victoria and Lilly in the cabin, she felt a maternal kinship to them and protected them.

Jessica Chastain as Annabel looking grim Mama 2013
"Love is a battlefield...."

Mama doesn't like Lucas and pushes him down some stairs, causing him to fall into a coma. Annabel is left as the sole caretaker of the children, even though she initially resisted having anything to do with them. Lilly remains a problem, resisting a return to normal behavior. Annabel gradually warms to the children, and Victoria, the older child, begins to like Annabel as well and even warns her about Mama's jealousy. Lilly, though, remains devoted to Mama.

Isabelle Nélisse as Lilly Mama 2013
You mean, you mean... Justin got engaged? Ahhhhhhh!!!!!

Dr. Dreyfuss becomes more and more certain of Mama's existence, and obtains the corpse of Mama's dead child for... some reason. He even sees Mama with Victoria. Dreyfuss becomes curious about the cabin and goes there to investigate, where Mama kills him. Meanwhile, Lilly's aunt, who wanted custody of the children herself, wrongly believes that Annabel is abusing the children and begins spying on them at the facility where they live.

Isabelle Nélisse as Lilly Mama 2013
"Look into my eyes... ok... now.. dance like a chicken!"

Annabel snoops around Dr. Dreyfuss' office and finds some of his papers and also the corpse of Mama's baby, which Annabel takes for... some reason. Mama, already upset about the alienation of Victoria's affections, attacks Annabel despite Victoria's attempts to protect Annabel. Annabel is overcome by Mama. The girls' aunt arrives and is possessed by Mama, who takes them to the cabin.

Annabel and Lucas Mama 2013
Annabel and Lucas in "Mama."

Annabel recovers and drives to the cabin, finding Lucas already there. He woke out of his coma because he had a dream about the children being in danger. At the cabin, they find the aunt dead but no sign of the children. Annabel surmises that Mama took the children to the cliff to die just as she took her own child. Lucas and Annabel are able to stop the children from jumping, but the sight of her own baby's corpse calms her down and returns her to a normal human appearance. Lilly, though, wants the old Mama back, causing Mama to turn evil again. She attacks Lucas and grabs the kids, taking them back to the cliff. Annabel grabs Victoria, but Lilly remains loyal to Mama and there is nothing Annabel can do to stop them from jumping off of the cliff.

Victoria Lilly Mama 2013
Scary things happen at night in "Mama."

"Mama" is a film about doing the right thing for children who don't necessarily want to cooperate. Jessica Chastain is very able as the reluctant caregiver who becomes trapped into a battle of wills with a supernatural power, looking uncannily like Ally Sheedy from "The Breakfast Club" or perhaps Joan Jett with the obtrusive black bangs. Chastain is a bit bland in this role, too laid back for someone battling a being from another dimension. Chastain does the usual "please just tell me what is bothering you" pleading scenes with the children that every film like this has, and she doesn't do them with any originality, so reviewers gushing about Chastain as if every performance from her is pure gold are a bit off. She is the actress of the moment, though, so the hype is on. "Mama" goes to great lengths to set up a confrontation between good and evil, and neither side really wins. Mama is a perverted form of the mother/child bond, while Annabel offers a synthetic version of that same bond, even though neither of them actually is the childrens' mother. The horror of "Mama" derives from this maternal battle of wills, and the supernatural element almost becomes a sideshow at the end because everything depends upon how the children react, demonstrating the intense power, but also the limits, of maternal power and the beginnings of its development in Annabel.

Annabel, Lucas, children Mama 2013
"It was a dark and scary night...."

Director Muschietti shows a sure touch. "Mama" is an expansion of a previous short film that Muschetti created, and he does a terrific job of using stylized flashbacks and other techniques to flesh out the characters' background. Guillermo del Toro is the executive producer, and his presence no doubt helped with the horror aspects. Unfortunately, "Mama" has the usual coincidences, cheap scares and contrivances (such as Mama only being visible to the children until her secret is out, then anyone can see her) of mediocre horror film clichés. Characters are used for specific purposes, then conveniently disposed of (Dr. Dreyfuss), people who would know better go into risky situations alone, the soundtrack (by Fernando Velázquez) swells dramatically when we are supposed to be frightened, and so on.

Guillermo del Toro and Andres Muschietti Mama 2013
Guillermo del Toro and Andres Muschietti work on "Mama."

The idea of an evil maternal figure such as Mama, crazed because of some interruption of her womanly function, who takes her aggressions out on someone else's children is nothing new, as fans of "The Hand that Rocks the Cradle" and many, many other horror films can attest. Such characters don't always make sense. Here, though, "Mama" is very scary and surprisingly touching, if a bit over the top as a controlling mother. The actresses playing the children, Megan Charpentier (Victoria) and Isabelle Nelisse (Lilly), do a fine job. As usual in these types of dramas that revolve around children, the men (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Lucas/Jeffrey, Daniel Kash as Dr. Dreyfuss) take a back seat and are eliminated from interfering while the women thrash out the kids' fate. Mama herself, interestingly, is voiced by three different women (Laura Guiteras, Melina Matthews, and Jane Moffat) but actually played by a man (Javier Botet), which lends a little added ambiguity to the proceedings.

Muschietti directing Chastain in Mama 2013
Muschietti directing in "Mama"

"Mama" is a fine horror film that is a bit light on the actual horror, perfect for the dog days of January, or any other time when there isn't much else to do and you want some intense film excitement. Muschietti and his sister, , who helped with writing and producing "Mama," deserve a lot of credit for turning a two-minute short into a full feature-length motion picture. Muschietti has good control of the action and keeps the camera rolling through entire scenes, not just relying on the crutch of quick editing like so many others these days. The ending of "Mama" clearly sets up a sequel, which is likely to happen given "Mama"'s success at the box office. If Muschetti can hold down the clichés in the next outing, that sequel might be even better than "Mama" and give horror triumphs such as "Sinister" a run for their money.


Friday, January 18, 2013

Les Misérables (2012) - A Genuine Classic Film

Les Misérables (2012) - This "Le Miz" is the Gold Standard Version of Victor Hugo's Masterpiece

Les Miserables DVD cover
Les Misérables (2012).

"Les Misérables" (2012) is adapted from the classic 1862 French novel of the same name by , who is also known for his much earlier novel "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." Anyone familiar at all with Broadway knows that "Les Misérables" is almost a permanent tenant there, going away on vacation every so often but always returning (it resumes there again in early 2014).

Les Miserables Broadway promo
The ubiquitous Broadway promo for "Les Misérables."

The first French theatrical production was in 1980, and the original London production was in 1985, with Broadway itself following in 1987. "Les Misérables" ran until 2003 (after changing theaters in 1990), an astonishing eighteen years straight - but even that only scratches the surface of the musical's impact on the theater world.

Film poster Les Misérables (2012)
"Les Misérables" film poster.

Basically, you were not able to walk very far in New York City over the past thirty years without at some point seeing some poster or ad or subway card that had that familiar "Les Misérables" advertisement (as on the poster above). The point of mentioning the stage history is to hammer home for those who may not be aware that "Les Misérables" is not some sudden phenomenon: instead, it is the classic "overnight sensation" that took over thirty years to build. The wonder is not that "Les Misérables" was adapted into a high-profile film and that the film was a huge success, but that it took so long to do it. and in particular sparkle in this version of "Les Misérables," but the whole is far greater than the sum of the parts.

Hugh Jackman as Valjean Les Misérables (2012)
Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean in "Les Misérables."

Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), who stole bread to feed his sister's hungry children and was thrown in jail for nineteen years (five originally, but extended multiple times for attempted escapes), finally is released on parole from prison in 1815 by Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). Needing food and shelter, he accepts the hospitality of the Bishop of Digne (Colm Wilkinson). Stealing the Bishop's silverware during the night, Valjean is caught by the police, but the Bishop protects him by claiming that he gave the silver to Valjean as a gift. Released, Valjean vows to live honestly, but being watched by the police stifles him. He assumes a new identity, breaking his parole and assuming a new name. Javert makes it his personal mission to find the fugitive Valjean and send him back to jail.

Anne Hathaway as Fantine Les Misérables (2012)
Anne Hathaway as Fantine in "Les Misérables."

Eight years pass, and Valjean, now known as Madeleine, becomes a successful factory owner and mayor of his small town. Fantine (Anne Hathaway), one of Valjean's workers, sends money to her illegitimate daughter, Cossette (), who lives with the Thénardiers ( and ) and their daughter Éponine (). The Thénardiers abuse Cossette. Fantine's foreman () finds out that Fantine is an unwed mother and fires her.

Anne Hathaway
Anne Hathaway in real life.

To support her daughter, Fantine becomes a prostitute. When a man attacks her, Fantine fights back, but Fantine is the one arrested by Javert, who just saw her responding to the man and not the man's provocation. Valjean steps in and secures Fantine's release and has Fantine hospitalized. Valjean then finds out that a man believed to be him has been arrested. After much soul-searching, Valjean reveals his identity to the court. Javert tries to arrest him immediately, but Valjean slips away, going to the hospital to promise the dying Fantine that he will personally look after Cosette. Fulfilling this pledge, Valjean pays off the Thénardiers so that they will let him have Cosette, and provides her with a new home.

Russell Crowe as Javert Les Misérables (2012)
Javert responding to the student uprising in "Les Misérables."

Nine years pass, and times are bad. With the only government official sympathetic to the poor, Jean Maximilien Lamarque, dying, two students, Marius Pontmercy () and Enjolras () discuss a rebellion with young street beggar Gavroche (). Marius randomly sees Cosette () pass by and is attracted to her. At home, Valjean refuses to discuss Fantine or anything else about her past with Cosette.

Valjean and Fantine Les Misérables (2012)
Valjean and Fantine in "Les Misérables."

Lamarque dies, and frustrated students led by Enjolras gather at a café. Marius, meanwhile, is determined to find Cosette, and it turns out that his friend Éponine knows her location. He finds her, and they fall in love. Éponine, though, also secretly loves Marius, and, distraught, she decides to throw her lot in with the revolutionary students. Valjean's home is burglarized, and, thinking that Javert has found him again, he leaves to start life over somewhere else again. Marius sends Cosette a farewell letter while Enjolras stirs up the students.

Cosette comforts Marius Les Misérables (2012)
Cosette and Marius in "Les Misérables."

The next day, during Lamarque's funeral procession, the revolt begins as the students barricade off a city square. Javert goes undercover to spy on the rebels, but Gavroche recognizes him and arranges his capture by the students. Éponine saves Marius' life during a gunfight, but dies herself after professing her love. Valjean, reading Marius' letter to Cosette, goes down to the rebel headquarters to see Marius. After heroically saving Enjolras from gunfire, he is given the honor of killing Javert, but Valjean, despite all that has happened, cannot do it and releases Inspector Javert.

Marius fighting Les Misérables (2012)
Marius prepared for battle in "Les Misérables."

The rebellion fails because the workers are apathetic and the government forces too powerful, but the students fight on to the death. Marius alone survives but is unconscious. Valjean, at great personal risk to himself, pulls Marius into the sewer to save him. Thénardier shows up, scavenging the dead rebels for profit, and steals Marius' ring. Valjean then carries Marius out of the sewer but immediately runs into Inspector Javert, who orders Valjean to drop Marius and surrender. Valjean refuses. Javert, faced with either having to kill the man who saved his life or fail to do his duty, shoots himself instead.

Javert Les Misérables (2012)
Russell Crowe as Javert, ready for battle in "Les Misérables."

Marius, not knowing yet how he escaped from the fighting alive, awakens and reunites with Cosette. Valjean tells Marius that he, Valjean, must leave, as he is a danger to Cosette, and explains the reasons. Before leaving, he forces Marius never to reveal his secrets to Cosette. Marius and Cosette marry, but Thénardier appears, uninvited, and proclaims that Valjean is a murderer because he saw Valjean carrying a corpse through the sewer. He shows the ring he stole from Marius as proof. Seeing the ring, Marius suddenly understands what happened - that Valjean saved him - and, learning Valjean's location from Thénardier, goes off with Cosette to find Valjean. They don't know if they are too late, though. because Valjean was despondent at losing Cosette and was ready to die.

Marius and the revolutionaries Les Misérables (2012)
The early stages of a revolt are often pretty, before the dead bodies begin piling up.

Simply knowing the plot of "Les Misérables" does not convey its power as a musical. There are a full 50 musical numbers in "Les Misérables," and while they are not all show-stoppers, quite a few are. The composers Herbert Kretzmer, Claude-Michel Schönberg, and Alain Boublil created an overwhelming score that overpowers just about every other musical, and any aspiring musical prodigy learns "Les Misérables" selections early on. Just about every song from the musical is included in the film, though many are shortened, some severely. The singers are terrific, and while the film does not quite capture the excitement of seeing Les Misérables on stage, the cast of the film version is impeccable. The songs never grow old, talk to theater buffs around New York City, and one of the few shows even the jaded types get excited about seeing repeated times is "Les Misérables." Anne Hathaway even had a radio hit with her version of "I Dreamed A Dream," which is pretty phenomenal considering all the talent that has taken on Fantine over the decades. Anne Hathaway is up for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress and is as pure a lock for that award as anyone ever has been, which must be especially satisfying because her mother also played Fantine in one of the first United States productions.

Eddie Redmayne Les Misérables (2012)
Eddie Redmayne in "Les Misérables."

If you are familiar with the musical numbers, you won't be disappointed at all by Hathaway or anyone else in the cast; and if you aren't familiar with the songs, you will be delighted to hear them for the first time. The songs were recorded with the actors singing first accompanied by a piano, then later a full orchestra backing was added. This is the reverse of normal, is a sort of quasi-live way of performing that actually has a long history in film to give well-known material a "live" and fresh sound.

Javert with the dead Les Misérables (2012)
Javert walking past the dead in "Les Misérables."

"Le Miz," as everybody in the theater world calls it, has been in development since the 1980s, when Bruce Beresford signed on as director. At some point during the early 1990s, though, the project was abandoned for murky reasons. It revived temporarily in 2005, but then lapsed again. Sir Cameron Mackintosh worked on this project throughout this extended period, and finally, in 2010, was able to move forward in earnest. Tom Hooper was hired as Director for producer Cameron Mackintosh and the production company, Working Title Films (a tiny subsidiary of NBC that handles big film projects). was brought on to adapt the musical by . Location filming took place in England in Greenwich, London, Winchester and Portsmouth, and also Gourdon, France. Cameron Mackintosh is the man who made all this happen. He also produced "Phantom of the Opera" and "Cats," so you know he is a titan of Broadway and Hollywood. There have been other, lesser versions of "Les Misérables" produced over the years - anyone with money can do it, "Les Misérables" is public domain - but this musical version preserved in this film is the gold standard.

Anne Hathaway Les Misérables (2012)
Anne Hathaway is stunning as Fantine in "Les Misérables."

"Les Misérables" is a true blockbuster among musicals, packed with sincere emotion. Because of the musical's impact over the past thirty years, actors hunger for the chance to play those roles, and they have had decades to absorb the parts and think about how they might play them. Don't believe anything you hear about anyone turning down roles in this, the producers had their pick and being selected for this film was something each actor involved will treasure forever. This is the project that will give everyone involved extra status among their colleagues, much more so than, say, any role in "Alice in Wonderland" or "X-Men: The Last Stand." There is humor, heartbreak, action and compassion. There are some minor problems with the direction - Hooper is an aggressive director who tends to move the camera around a lot, which is a bit uncomfortable for people who are used to seeing this seated in a theater with that static view - but Hathaway completely seals the deal with her singing and emotional portrayal of the doomed Fantine. Eddie Redmayne captures the youthful vigor and exuberance of Marius nicely. Hugh Jackman projects his usual charisma as Valjean in a completely different context than his usual comic-book films, really demonstrating his full range as an actor that may surprise some fans of his Wolverine" alter ego.

Russell Crowe Javert Les Misérables 2012
Russell Crowe doing a Britney Spears "Toxic" tribute in "Les Misérables."

Russell Crowe doesn't get much praise for his performance as Inspector Javert, but he does a fine job in an essentially thankless role. The Inspector Javert character is the heavy, and nobody will mourn him. However, in many ways Javert is the heart of the entire production, as everyone else has a set agenda, and he is the one who must change. Crowe's singing voice is fine. While it may pale next to the booming professional opera singers who often tackle the Javert role in high-profile musicals, Crowe sounds great to the average non-professional listener. In fact, if there is one unexpected standout in "Les Misérables," it is Crowe. Everyone expected Anne Hathaway to do well, and Jackman does his usual good job as Valjean, but Crowe captures the conflicting emotions inside of the doomed Javert to perfection, and his singing really is the pleasant surprise of "Les Misérables." The best images of "Les Misérables" are of Crowe as Javert, attending to his duty competently but learning the hard way the extreme cost of blind adherence to black-and-white rules and procedures.

Sir Cameron Mackintosh Les Misérables (2012)
Sir Cameron Mackintosh must have been delighted at the success of the film version of "Les Misérables."

So, what is the big deal about "Les Misérables"? In terms of quality and lasting impact, "Les Misérables" is the film of the year for 2012. It has everything that will entertain anybody who is open to the classics. We are not all able to get to Broadway or London or even another nearby major city to see quality productions like "Les Misérables" put on by the cream of the theater crop. Now, you don't have to. You owe it to yourself to give "Les Misérables" a chance. Go and see the film "Les Misérables" on cable when you can, or get it on DVD!