Monday, February 27, 2006

A Pox On Morgturmen!: George Gipe's GREMLINS Novelization

A novel by George Gipe
Based on a screenplay by Chris Columbus
Avon Books, 1984

"When you're a thousand miles from nowhere
And there's nothing below but the drink,
It's then you'll see the gremlins,
Green and gamboge and gold,
Male and female and neuter,
Gremlins both young and old.
White ones will wiggle your wingtips,
Male ones will muddle your maps,
Green ones will guzzle your glycol,
Females will flutter your flaps,
They'll freeze up your camera shutters,
They'll bite through your aileron wires,
They'll bend and they'll break and they'll batter,
They'll jab toasting forks in your eyes..."

-Murray Futterman's Song

And yes, Mr. Futterman sings to Billy, as they drive to the bank in his snowplow.

Gremlins the novel starts with a quiet scene, but the information it contains is a bang: we learn in the first chapter, via narration from inside Gizmo's brain, that Mogwai are from outer space. They're a species engineered long ago on the planet Enz by a being named Morgturmen. They were then dispersed to every planet that could sustain life.
"... the galactic powers ordered the Mogwai sent to every inhabitable planet in the universe, their purpose being to inspire alien beings with their peaceful spirit and intelligence and to instruct them in the ways of living without violence and possible extinction. Among the planets selected for early Mogwai population were Kelm-6 in the Poraisti Range, Clinpf-A of the Beehive Pollux, and the third satellite of MinorSun#67672, a small but fertile body called Earth by its inhabitants."

Hooray! Anyone inaugurated into the alternate-universe of popular movie novelizations knows their weird pleasures. Novelizations, because of their aim to adapt a 100 page screenplay into 300 page paperback, invariably without the aid of a finished film to refer to, inevitably end up expanding the story in deadline-averting ways. A) invented scenes and subplots for minor characters, B) character backstory and internal monologues fabricated whole-cloth, and C) heavy prose reliance on unexpected extended metaphors.

Gremlins has extra work to do, since it's evident George Gipe probably had the shooting script from which to work, and a large amount of business in Joe Dante's film must have been improvised on the set or pages were changed late in production. Specifically, all the comedy business cartoon gags and Gremlins playing dress-up moments in the sequences in Dorry's Tavern and the movie theater are nowhere in the adaptation. I'm personally interested in what happens to the story without these gags. The story becomes more blackly humorous, closer to the tone of Chris Columbus' earlier screenplay drafts. For me Dante's cartoon sound effects, slapstick and pop culture reference jokes never mesh with his movies but strike them at oblique angles, and sometimes ruin them. Anyway, all big fans of the Flashdance Gremlin will be sorely disappointed with this book.

What's funny about the book: Gipe is prone to adjective abuse and is especially fond of describing facial features as "expressive." Billy has "a wide expressive mouth." Gizmo has "huge brown expressive eyes." Expression being their primary function, it is a good thing so many faces are expressive. Not, however, that one can blame young Peltzer if "Billy like so many other young men - and older men too, for that matter -- had fallen madly and totally in love with Kate Beringer the first time he laid eyes on her." Just take a gander at Kate's "flashing green eyes and dazzling dark hair" (aren't Pheobe Cates' eyes brown?).

If it seems unkind to pick on a guy with such task, it must be said: the Gremlins novelization actually improves some story problems of the film. Hoyt Axton gives such a warm, engaging performance as Billy's father, Rand Peltzer, that it's always seemed a shame that he disappears from the picture a third of the way through. Likewise for Mushroom the dog, whose hilarious and star-making turn as Barney steals the whole movie, but is barely on screen once the mayhem begins. Gipe fixes this, and allows Rand and Barney to feature in the department store chase finale... with Rand weilding his Bathroom Buddy invention! I can't say if any script drafts had such a fun payoff for the Bathroom Buddy, but bless Gipe for realizing the throwaway gag's unused potential.

The Gremlins novel is also deftly exploits the story's themes of technology gone haywire. Repeatedly human endeavor is foiled by its own cleverness and irresponsible application. Gipe seems to understand this theme even more than the filmmakers, and that the Gremlins themselves are this metaphor made flesh, not generic demons. The climax, where the Gremlins run amok through Kingston Falls, is narrated mostly by radio reports (we miss the gag about the monsters eventually overrunning the DJ booth!), and are a catalog of inventive technological mayhem. A particular favorite scene is Kate locked in battle with the user-unfriendly lighting and sound system control panel at the department store, cross-cut with Billy and Stripe engaged in physical combat.

Some other shuffling doesn't work quite as well - Kate's sick joke anti-Christmas monologue is relocated to a less effective moment, for example, and the opening chapter being narrated by Gizmo makes his entrance less magical. This loss is not balanced out by many paragraphs devoted to detailing how, why, and under what circumstances Gizmo will eat rubber washers, wood and foam packing peanuts.

Where Gipe comes close to the deep-end is expanding the lives of supporting characters. The Mogwai's jaw-dislocating space opera backstory is even more elaborate and epic than I've outlined, and Gipe tries to use it to justify a lot of how Gizmo and the Gremlins behave in the movie. It doesn't quite work- it's just too weird. The Mogwai, for example, pass on some information about their species through a type of genetic memory, but not others: Stripe knows he can transform, but isn't sure how to do the trick.

A lot of supporting cast are paid inordinate attention only to be dumped from the story. Billy's underage buddy Pete (portrayed by Mr. Corey Feldman in the film) has his hero-worship of Peltzer expanded and focused into thinking Billy can help him learn dealings with the fairer sex. And while the book makes Pete more responsible for the birth of the first Gremlin, (Chapter Eleven's entire, ominous text reads: "Pete forgot."), it also denies him much of anything to do - he no longer battles Christmas-light-dangling Gremlins with a pair of scissors.

High school biology teacher Roy Hanson is surprisingly filled-out:
"The first black instructor at an exclusive private school in the country, he had left there three years ago to become only the second black teacher in Kingston Falls. Now, at thirty-four, he was recognized as one of the best biology and natural science instructors in the area. Tall and stockily built, he was a teacher with whom few students messed..."

I have no idea why we need to know this about Pete's science teacher, but I am glad I know so much about the history of the Kingston Falls school system. We will later learn a lot about the city council and the YMCA (it had a typewriter stolen in the last year!)

We meet Lynn Peltzer, Billy's mother, in the kitchen appropriately enough. Perhaps Gipe felt the character a bit underwritten. I can't disagree. But in order to foreshadow her determination in the spectacular, show-stopping gross-out sequence that is Gremlins' Kitchen Scene, Gipe makes us privy to Lynn's thoughts as she fantasizes about what life would be like if she had joined the Army!

It's fairly well implied that the crotchety town drunk, Murray Futterman (Dick Miller), is crushed to death by his snowplow in the movie. That Mr. Futterman is revealed to have survived the attack is partly a joke about sequels and a funny way for Dante to get his favorite character actor into Gremlins 2. But in George Gipe's novel, Mrs. Futterman is called to the coroner to identify her husband's body. The scene before Futterman is murdered is a strangely harrowing battle, in which Futterman has WWII flashbacks as he holes up in the garage and takes sniper shots at Gremlins who are futzing with his TV antenna. And in this terrifying situation and half-hallucination, Futterman has not felt more at-home or alive in years. It's pretty much the difference in tone: Gipe's book is a little less funny, a little more sadistic, but finally it cares about its characters inner lives a little more.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

We Are Family: Ferocious Loyalty and KILL BILL's Slashed Chapter

In September of 2001, almost immediately after Harry Knowles announced on his very-orange Ain't It Cool News that he'd been hand-delivered the screenplay for Quentin Tarantino's next film, the Kill Bill script began circulating among fans. Available first by mail-order photocopy, and subsequently for free via the internet, the mammoth 222-page tome was the beautiful, rippling-muscled tiger of a film any Tarantino fan could want. Worth the wait, something to obsess over for a few years.

Do you hear what I hear?

The finished films were also worth the wait - and more. Not every lifetime is granted a movie like this. Even with a final running time so long the picture was sliced into two features, released a year apart, the script contains even more incidents, characters, and set-pieces that were removed in subsequent drafts. Most tantalizing of all for the die-hard, the 222-page draft contains two entire chapters of material not listed in the final Table of Contents.

Chapter 6 - "Can She Bake A Cherry Pie..." is a strange Reveal Scene for Bill, in which the king of all assassins busts up an illicit gambling party after its operator, L.F. Boyle, disrespects him. The scene is a lot of fun, and would've given David Carradine a lot of fine dialogue which I suspect he would've played as one long slow-burn, but even on first read one suspects it will be cut simply to maximize the impact of Bill's first meeting with The Bride.

The crown jewel of Bill's deleted pages is Chapter 5 - Yuki's Revenge.

[Curator's note!: I highly recommend you access the 222-page draft of Kill Bill and read at least "Yuki's Revenge" before proceeding!]

"Revenge is never a straight line. It's a forest. And like a forest it's easy to lose your get lost... to forget where you came in..."
-Hattori Hanzo, Kill Bill

In short, "Yuki's Revenge" is a tear-ass action vignette in which The Bride is followed to Los Angeles by Go-Go Yubari's (Chiaki Kuriyama) sister Yuki, who was home sick (!) on the day of "Showdown at House of Blue Leaves." After carefully tracking The Bride with information from Bill himself, Yuki Yubari attacks immediately after The Bride finishes with Vernita Green and drives to her hotel. A massive (but mano-a-mano-scale) American action picture-style chase and gun-battle through the backyards of Hawthorne ensues, including the spectacular destruction of the Pussy Wagon, before Yuki is mowed down. Finally, The Bride is left to find a creative solution to her injuries, bleeding in the street, her body riddled with a surely fatal number of bullets.

The two biggest "sidetracks" in Kill Bill's 222-page draft are The Bride's entombment at Budd's hands, with its associated flashback chapter "The Cruel Tutelage of Pai Mei" (some critics never did comprehend that this episode is most pivotal of all!), and "Yuki's Revenge." "Yuki" is also the most expensive chapter on the page besides possibly "Blue Leaves," and certainly the easiest to remove almost entirely, without serious structure damage to the story of The Bride's rampage. All we lose in the process is some bravura narrative-twisting moments, fun pop culture references, further elaboration on themes that are still found elsewhere, and a great new character in the person of Yuki Yubari. Here, I'll be elaborating on how the holes from this script surgery were sutured, and the thematic variations found in "Yuki's Revenge"

Quentin Tarantino's films are full of narrative curlicues and crazy-straw asides that are frequently misunderstood as self indulgent at best and a clever, fun stylistic game at worst. Tarantino's juggled timelines aren't gimmicks, but routinely enrich the story. Scenes that look like unnecessary trips down side-streets are there for more than just color. Consider how careful chronology manipulation in Pulp Fiction resurrects a dead Vincent Vega to give him another shot at redemption (he still screws up). If the man's goony talk show personality casts any doubt, listen to his explanation on the True Romance DVD commentary, in which he charts the emotional and storytelling reasons for his original screenplay's fractured clock: Tarantino is a meticulous master craftsman. A good story is never a straight line.

Kou Shibasaki will penetrate YOU!
Casting rumors were that Shibasaki was to reunite
with her Battle Royale co-star Chiaki Kuriyma
as the sisters Yubari

A surprising moment even when reading "Yuki" occurs when we realize the Japanese assassin is stalking The Bride through a moment we've visited before: just as she steps out of Vernita's house. The ambush occurs at the Bride's hotel, moments later in terms of screen time. It made me recall the feeling I had during Pulp Fiction's "Bonnie Situation", the pure glee and astonishment of realizing the story had looped back on itself and we were back in the Hawthorne Diner from the opening scene. Similar to the Pulp Fiction scene, the revisited moment is completely transformed by context. When The Bride leaves Vernita's at the end of "2", the mood is relief, and grim accomplishment. When she leaves at the beginning of "Yuki's Revenge", the suspense is sharpened with knowledge that The Bride is exhausted from a grueling fight, and contemplative about her encounter with Vernita's daughter. Physically and emotionally, it's a bad time to get jumped,

In a subtle and totally unobtrusive way, Tarantino has chosen to leave the possibility or suggestion of the Yuki story in the finished cuts of both volumes of Kill Bill. Peter Jackson has made an argument that just because the Tom Bombadill sequence from the source novel doesn't appear in the narrative space of his Fellowship of the Ring film, it is not to be taken as evidence that the scene is eradicated from the fabric of the story. That sounds like a nerd-placating excuse to me, but Tarantino does him one better. The hints that point to "Yuki's Revenge" can be found at the beginning of Chapter One - "2": note the audible ice cream truck bells in Vernita's neighborhood. In the deleted pages, Yuki's final move to track The Bride is to disguise herself as an ice cream vendor. The ice cream truck itself can be spotted inching away from the Pussy Wagon, before they would have been destined to collide for the first and last time (see shocking frame grabs below!). It would have been a moment as giggly as Vincent Vega headed to the restroom in Pulp Fiction's opening, or Sigfried (David Proval) answering a non sequitur phone call about "big fucking needles" in Four Rooms: unrecognizable or unnoteworthy on first pass, delightful on the second. The way it's scripted, Yuki popping up in a Good Humor uniform is the punchline to a several page De Palma-esque split-screen sequence of the two women separately traveling across the world to one street north of Los Angeles, where one of them will die. Revenge, you see, is never a straight line.

Also remaining, but now mysterious, is Yuki's destruction of the Pussy Wagon, which now disappears halfway through the story with no explanation besides "the Pussy died." Uma Thurman indicated in a 2004 IGN FilmForce interview that in some unknown revised draft, the yellow beast was "supposed to have been blown up in the desert by Elle Driver at some stage." The truck's fate remains one of Kill Bill's strange mysteries, but greatly indicates a narrative gap best filled by Yuki Yubari's sub-machine gun.

IN SEARCH OF YUKI!: Click for image enhancement.
Breaking evidence from Exploding Kinetoscope

The character material hasn't been removed in full, either. The brief back story vignette on Go-Go, in which she drinks fervently at a cherry-blossom tinted bar and guts a leering businessman must have been too irresistible to cut. As scripted, the anecdote is Sophie Fatale's explanation of how Yuki will mourn for her sister. "She'll drink excessively. She'll start trouble. When she stops shedding tears, she'll start shedding blood." The new context for the scene enriches Go-Go's personality immeasurably, and Kuriyama's performance is full of such relish that she nearly steals all of Vol. 1. That's how strong even a 2 minute dose of "Yuki's Revenge" is.

Two running gags are lost with the chapter. Entirely cut from the film is a thread that Bill is a chemical mastermind, and invented his own truth serums (which The Bride uses on Sophie, and in the finished film, Bill uses on The Bride) and recreational drugs (one of which Yuki snorts before attacking). These inventions are named via subtitles, which is a very funny gag in the script, but would probably play out as too cartoony in the film. The joke does little more than build-up Bill's nefarious reputation and emphasize his manipulation of his employees' minds, even down to a chemical level.

Another motif, The Bride coping with increasingly severe personal injuries after each battle, has a fine set up in the transition between "Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves and "Yuki's Revenge". In a brief cutaway, Hattori Hanzo sews up the gash in his pupil's back as she recites a mantra reminding her to stay focused. One of "Yuki"'s purposes, after all, is to demonstrate some of the ways "Revenge is never a straight line": a supporting character so minor she hasn't had any screen time suddenly takes center stage and comes closer to taking out The Bride than O-Ren Ishii! The chapter is about the unforeseen but inevitable consequences of the quest.

There is not space here to delve into the implications of Kill Bill as a story of The Bride's ultimate redemption, but it is the central problem of interpreting the film. Does Kill Bill really make a case for slaughtering a hundred people to save your child as spiritual redemption?

In the dense forest of The Bride's revenge, she has to literally confront the specific personal vendettas of each of the Viper Squad, but metaphorically confront and comprehend the human traits, negative and positive, which drive her nemesies. [Sidebar food for thought: The film may have its cake and eat it too - The Bride learns not to live mired in violence and the moral problems with revenge, but indeed gets to kill everyone she's mad at and complete her vengeance. You may decide this negates a message of redemption, but I say it's the little epiphanies in life that matter.]

One of the prettiest ideas in Kill Bill is that The Bride is taking revenge on her colleagues, and thus is repeatedly confronted with mirrors of herself. Since The Bride's fellows aren't guilty of any crimes she hasn't committed, she's forced to confront that fellowship repeatedly, none so profoundly as when she lives out the film's title. But Yuki is one of the strangest of these mirrors.

We are Sisters, you and I...

Because what is Yuki's revenge itself, but a hell-bent mission to murder the assassin who took her family from her? Chronologically speaking, immediately after setting Vernita's daughter, Nikki, on a path that parallels her own, The Bride is ambushed by a physical manifestation of the same idea, in the form of Yuki Yubari. Yuki is also the most emotionally crazed of The Bride's enemies, and reminds/demonstrates what could happen should The Bride lose focus. When Yuki proves exceptionally difficult to kill, even The Bride has to give it up for her: "Goddamn, what a wildcat." In Yuki's Revenge, the forest path loops back on itself.

The Kindest Cut: Why YUKI'S REVENGE Had To Go

So if "Yuki" has all this going for it, and is so important, why is it "okay" that it's replaced in the final film by "Massacre at Two Pines" (expanding "Origin of O-Ren" pushes "Two Pines" to chapter 6, but they occupy the same spot in the narrative)? Besides being spectacularly expensive as written (Yuki chases The Bride down the street, blowing up automobiles with a machine gun), essentially Yuki provides a number of beautiful variations on themes to be found elsewhere in the script, or relocated to newly written, less extravagant scenes.

The Bride facing the truth of the unpredictable, never-ending cycle of horror produced by living a violent life, is conveyed perhaps more elegantly by her brief, quiet conversation with Nikki. Part of the reason to separate the end of "2" and the opening of "Yuki" was likely to preserve the sanctity this final moments with the child in the kitchen; eliminating "Yuki" entirely makes the statement more succinct.

Some of the most important work "Yuki's Revenge" does is relocated to the final scenes of the film, in Bill's pivotal new "Superman" speech. It's a complex speech, but besides it's first layer about denying one's own nature, even if that nature is destructive, Bill's oratory hints at dangers that will be roused by resisting your nature. We may flash on Mickey Knox telling his interviewer: "You can't get rid of your shadow, Wayne. No matter what you do, it's always there." Or as Yuki says, "You think you're safe! I say; Ha!"

Though Kill Bill has a spectacular Villains Gallery, I don't mean to imply that there's an easily drawn chart of Who's Good, Who's Bad, and Who's Wrong, Right or Misguided. The Bride's enemies and allies are all richly and sympathetically drawn, and it is important that their frailties and shortcomings are real and human. For random example, it is the ruthless ambition of O-Ren Ishii that The Bride must metaphorically learn to eliminate from herself, but O-Ren's courage, determination and unbelievable perserverance in a brutal world may be admired and learned from.

"Yuki" is again in part about how self-centered blindness leads inexorably to the involvement and damage of other people. Yuki Yubari has not personally affronted The Bride, but lost her sister, and part of the fun in the chapter is about how briefly intersecting lives can leave scars. In the grand scale, everyone loses loved ones; in the small scale, Yuki gets shot in the breast and screams "They're not fully developed yet, you fucking asshole! Now I'm always gonna have a dimple!"

The film is not so shallow to suggest death and injury are the only kinds of trouble that can be stirred. To complete her quest, The Bride rouses two men - Budd and Hattori Hanzo - both doing penance for their pasts, and demolishes their attempts at salvation, simply so she may feel vindicated. Budd (Michael Madsen) is perhaps ultimately undone by his own inability to purge his latent sadism, physical vices, and greed. But in his scenes of self-imposed exile which he allows himself to be humiliated as a strip club bouncer, and loss of self in alcoholism, we're clearly meant to sympathize with Budd. He may not be a monk, but he's racked with guilt and doing the best penance he knows. The Bride's mere proximity seems to draw his Viper venom back to the surface. When you go somewhere to find trouble, there's going to be trouble.

More heartbreaking is that The Bride twists Hanzo's arm with a sense of honor with deep roots in guilt, and convinces him to break his pacifist contract with God and Self. There is no room to show what consequence this has for Hanzo, but the timbre of Sonny Chiba's voice as he presents the sword of all swords should tell us everything.

I bring up these episodes, because had "Yuki's Revenge" been filmed, it ends with a hysterical comic variation on this serious theme:

The Bonnie Situation Redux

Several of Kill Bill's chapters end with The Bride nursing injuries; indeed, the movie takes a lot of joy in how much physical abuse the heroine is able to endure, and those rare moments when she breaks down are the more effective for it. At the end of "Yuki," she's so riddled with machine gun fire, that she must enlist the help of a reluctant and retired underworld nurse. In a delirious fan-service moment, The Bride calls Nurse Bonnie on the phone and pleads, woman-to-woman for help.

Some names have talismanic import for Tarantino, at which the rest of the world can only guess. Why, for example, characters named Marvin are always doomed to outrageous violent deaths (see Reservoir Dogs, Natural Born Killers and Pulp Fiction), I couldn't speculate. So when The Bride reveals that she's bleeding to death on "Dimmick Street" it's hard to make any note besides "Dimmick is Jimmie in Pulp Fiction's last name." So, er, there you go (there's not a Dimmick Street in Hawthorne). The nurse of Kill Bill is named Bonnie Owens, so she either kept her maiden name or wised up and got fuckin' divorced.

The scripted sequence ends with a comic mirror of Hanzo stitching up The Bride's back: Nurse Bonnie scolds The Bride and digs bullets out of the warrior's back, while the patient chugs an anesthetic bottle of Wild Turkey. Bonnie doesn't have to like it though, and resents that moment of Michael Corleone clarity: just when you think you're out, they call you from Dimmick Street.

And so ultimately the most important work of Yuki's Revenge is shifted into other moments of the film, and its sweetest grace notes dropped. Even fervent admirers must agree the sequence is exhausting and less illuminating than its replacement, "Massacre at Two Pines", which introduces a wealth of new ideas.

"Yuki's Revenge" is more than just a near-miss detour on The Bride's path to Bill. It's a reminder that she's building up bad karma as she goes. Yuki's an example of what The Bride may become if she wavers in her quest for revenge, but also if she continues her lifestyle: she'll end up another girl shot all to Hell. The most poetic injuries in Kill Bill carry with them disarming symbolic weight. It seems The Bride learns something vital about herself, with every step, as she gradually earns back her name and identity. Change happens inside, don't you know?

Maybe Bill will learn that when his heart literally breaks. The Bride will learn that deep in the ground, as she is metaphorically given a new life. As for Yuki's impossibly protracted death (and indeed, her Chapter lives on, in part!), well... you can't keep a good woman down, and you mustn't stand in the way of the ferocious, animal loyalty of family. As Bonnie admonishes the wounded Bride:

"You'll live to kill again."

Download the Kill Bill 222-page draft from The Tarantino Archives.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Anchor Bay Announces Soon-To-Be-Broken Street Date!

Dread Central says Anchor Bay Entertainment is now reporting a Dellamorte Dellamore Cemetery Man DVD street date of June 13, 2006. Meanwhile, no change at the official ABE website. Huzzah!... ?

If anybody believes anything Anchor Bay says regarding this DVD anymore, you deserve to have a bouncing head bite you in the neck. The company has certainly long-ago wiped away any built-up benefit-of-the-doubt goodwill, by botching nearly every single Dario Argento release, including two in the last year. Me, I don't believe it until death, death, death comes sweeping down, and that little silver disc is in my house.

"I'm pointing this at you, Anchor Bay."

Well, raise a glass of red wine, and here's to crying, waiting, waiting, waiting, and hoping. Hold onto your R2's, folks!

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Noni's Back

The Winona Ryder fan world is a-rock with "OMG"s this week, as the M.I.A. actress is the feature interview in the current issue of Another Magazine, and glowingly photographed in nine of the all-time heart-attackiest portraits of a human person. The WR Yahoo! Group is clogged up with exploded brains, and the ground shook from so many coffee shop habitués changing their desktop picture simultaneously. Classy, oversexed and vaguely unwholesome, let us hope the creamy cheesecake of these Mario Sorrenti photos starts dismantling Ryder's troubled image in the eyes of the public at large. In the fairly candid interview, Ryder says her legal trouble actually gave her pause to inspect her life and career. Which is kind of what I'd been hoping for.

Not only is this Ryder's return to cover-girl status since a 2002 W (which wasn't even to promote a specific project besides PR rehabilitation), but the head-rush inducing pictures have immediately joined the legendary ranks of the Esquire shoot and '95 Premiere photos in the gallery of Great Winona Ryder Photo-Shoots.

Below I am reproducing an "I told you so!" column I wrote almost a full year ago, on February 21, 2005. Amazingly, while the press seems to be agreeing that indeed Ryder is getting back in touch with the reason she became Winona Ryder, the world still hasn't seen the films that I predicted would turn the tide! Apologies to those who have read it before; I'll be back later today with an unruly Kill Bill essay that's taking a week longer than I thought it would.

Cut it out! I'm a child, for God's sake.

Come Back to the Five and Dime, Noni Ryder, Noni Ryder...

Winona Ryder's career took an unintentional plunge into disappointment in 1994. Such is the way I see it.

The critical establishment and average cineplex-goer, I am aware, does not see it the same way. Instead, were Ryder to make a "comeback," they would think she was recovering from a bruised public image, the fist being her arrest at Saks of Beverly Hills and subsequent prosecution. Ryder has not had a lead role in a major motion picture since, so frankly, the supposed damage has not been tested in terms of box office bankability.

After an 11 year string of increasingly dull roles, Ryder seems to be back on the train that locomoted her to cult stardom. It is part of the curse of a commercial film industry: as you make more money, you have to work in more widely appealing, less idiosyncratic productions. This is different from "selling out." Because it sometimes happens, as it did to Ryder, without your consent.

The 1-2 punch of Reality Bites and Little Women successfully sealed Ryder's fate, even as they bolstered her household name. Both make perfect transition points between Ryder's early and recent phases. The second half of her career thus far, is attempt after thwarted attempt to return to the Eden of her work preceding '94. Over and over, Ryder chose projects that seem to have the danger or genre-inverting quality that made her Rolling Stone's "HOT Actress" two times, that made her the pin-up of every misfit future English major... only to have those projects ameliorated into perfectly conventional junk. Little Women and Reality Bites may have ended up saccharine kiddie Merchant-Ivory and pioneering Gen-Xploitation respectively, but between the early-draft of Reality's generational malaise, and Louisa May Alcott's nearly counter-cultural free thinking, it's plain to see why Ryder chose them.

Dorky fandom likewise motivated Alien: Resurrection and could admiration for Joan Chen's dark feminist tract Xiu Xiu the Sent-Down Girl have prompted the abysmal Autumn in New York? Boys was notoriously re-written after Ryder signed on. We haven't even seen the film she thought it was, but vestiges of anti-authoritarianism remain... likewise for the botched and pedestrian Girl, Interrupted. You can see the cool, interesting and personal reasons behind Ryder's choices, even through the stained moss-green veil of wretched mediocrity: Desire to work with Scorsese is understandable. Age of Innocence is a bit dull.

Every generation is handed a few actors, pioneering, powerfully weird, revolutionary, and who embody that batch of brainy hipsters. And Ryder was among ours, our Brando, our Theda Bara, our DeNiro: she was on her way to being our Female Johnny Depp. But Depp found a way to infect mainstream movies with his weirdness when he felt like it and otherwise not participate. Ryder tries to shoot the same, but her guns are mis-calibrated.

Dropping out of Godfather Part III, Eulogy, Lily and the Secret Planting, but finding energy to stay in Mr. Deeds. Turning down Sleepy Hollow (bad move), nearly taking Conspiracy Theory (close call!), and willingly approaching Lost Souls (even worse move). Her best attempt at fixing this was auditioning for Fight Club. Time was, that choice wouldn't have seemed startling.

The Saks Incident, which prompts the world to suddenly pretend there is something wrong with our heroine? I see it as a beginning of Return to Form and reaffirmation of her counterculture roots. Raised on a commune, (etc. Timothy Leary blah blah, Ginsberg), she used to regale Premiere with tales of youthful lying, stealing, (vitamin C) addiction and early hints of insomnia, and prank the world by pretending to be engaged to Christian Slater. This is a reclamation of her older/ fresher/ more amazing public persona.

Whether one sees every film from Bram Stoker's Dracula on as a bad choice, an increasingly mainstream choice, or an attempt to return to form thwarted by circumstance, I tell you this:

Blow by blow, Winona Ryder is kickboxing her way back to the championship belt. With '04's Asia Argento freakout-project The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, she lands the first blow. With Richard Linklatter's Phillip Dick adaptation Through a Scanner Darkly, another. By reuniting with Michael Lehmann, who directed her very finest work in Heathers, for the drugged-out Mary Warner, wham, wham. Ryder is working with the coolest of the cool again. Where she belongs. She's earning back her turtleneck and black halo.

And a salesgirl told me she still shoplifts all the time.

Today's photoscans courtesy of the esteemed AGCN

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Love the One You're With

Regular features (?!) return after the flying heart-swarm attack clears up tomorrow!

Friday, February 10, 2006

Friday Weirdness: I Was Just Starting the Second Coat!

Back to the Future fan art, courtesy of (read: stolen from) a young lady's Biff Tannen fansite (!): The Biff Tannen Museum!

I like this fantasy poster because it A) spells Spielberg's name wrong, and B) includes Biff because she's a hardcore Tannen fan, but she also realizes the poster can't be too Biff-centric, so he's just kind of hanging out on the perimeter.

A lot of people will probably be asking "where can I get those jackets Biff, Doc and Marty are wearing?" Answer: the future.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Tuesday Amazing DVD Cover: "Full House" - The Complete Third Season

Moving apartments to co-habitate with my favorite Scream Queen, I was recently in a position to repeatedly individually handle every single DVD I own. Blanket-statement-speaking, the world has accepted that home video packaging is ugly. They could be a place for an extension of the enclosed artistic expression like album covers. They could be tastefully designed objects, like book dust jackets. But they're usually a blurry photo of Chevy Chase with the contrast turned up, his pores painted out, and the Photoshop "glow" effect cranked up to 150... right? Right?

WRONG! Exploding Kinetoscope totally loves cover art!

This week: our universal love/hate/let's-not-talk-about-it relationship with "Full House" continues, with the upcoming Complete Third Season.

Woah, Deej, is this a Janet Jackson video?

The "Full House" covers aren't "ugly," but going far out of their way to be garish and look like an early-'90s shopping mall renovation. The color scheme isn't quite as good as the pink and bright green for First Season, but it's nice the design team is making sure cast photos are accurate for each season (pay attention, "M*A*S*H"!) I like the subtle idea of being able to tell where you are in the show's run by looking at Jodi Sweetin's cast photo on the sleeve.

The extra features list promises a "bonus montage showcasing Joey's impersonations."

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Al Lewis, 1923 - 2006

Al Lewis
1923 - 2006

There are four performers whose portrayals of Dracula are so iconic that they will spring immediately to mind for the average American: Bela Lugosi, Max Schreck, Christopher Lee, and Al Lewis. In the 1960s, the pop culture relationship with monsters changed, and Lewis' Grandpa on "The Munsters" (the character's family name is indeed Dracula - he's Lily's dad, not Herman's) filled in the final facets of the character: regular guy, sarcastic Yiddish joker, and comforting family presence. If any "Munsters" cast member could hold his own next to Fred Gwynne, it's Lewis, eyes a-twinkle, cigar a-chomped.

Al Lewis passed away on February 3, 2006, in New York and is survived by his wife, Karen. Some men, when they pass, as with Ossie Davis last year, give one pause. This is very sad, I think, and he will be missed. But we should all be envious of such a life; there are not many ways to live more fully than Lewis did. Character actor, humanist political activist, restauranteur, sports scout, voracious scholar, circus performer, we've just lost another great show biz raconteur. Lewis' '98 Green Party bid for Governor of New York was one of the few show-biz personality political attempts that was more than a novelty or publicity move. The man demonstrated for the Black Panthers, he fought against imprisonment for non-violent drug crimes, and he was there at the Rosenberg execution - the roster of Lewis' activities goes on and on, and it is inspiring.

A fine remembrance of Lewis as an activist for social justice can be found at the Dissident Voice newsletter site.

Besides his indelible turn on "The Munsters" (the greatest gimmick sitcom of all time), and hilariously abrasive work as Leo Schnauser on "Car 54, Where Are You?", Lewis was a real gem among comedic character actors for more than 40 years. Lewis was a delight every time he popped up on screen, my favorites being appearances in They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969), The World of Henry Orient (1964), and most of all, the Kinetoscope-cherished They Might Be Giants (1971).

For more biography of Mr. Lewis, check out the "Munsters" season 2 DVD, containing a sweet biographical tribute featurette. (And don't believe iMDB's 1910 birthdate: he lied to get the "Munsters" job!)

As Grandpa tells Eddie Munster in the Cold War-razzing classic episode "Herman the Spy," (Al Lewis the radical must've loved this one - the Russians are lovable scamps, the American government are jerks, and military intelligence on both sides are idiots), in perfect '60s sick-joke style:

"Bury me deep this time! I don't want any crazy dogs digging me up again!"

Friday, February 03, 2006

Friday Weirdness: It's Not Against C-3PO's Programming to Impersonate a Tape Dispenser

Sigma ceramic company, 1983.

Why I should stick my tape out for you is far beyond my capacity!

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Cruelty to Animals, Moonbeam Style!: PET SHOP (1994)

Do you feel gross and cheap after watching a Full Moon Entertainment horror movie? That's nothing compared to how you feel after watching a film from Charles Band's spin-off kidvid company Moonbeam Entertainment!

Your reaction to the wonders of Pet Shop will be similar.

In the least-magical swipe at the E.T. template possible, aliens disguised as cowboys (Jeff Michalski & real life spouse Jane Morris, straining the limits of their Second City training) take over a small town pet shop. They give away magical creatures disguised as normal pets to local children. When the creatures start dying from lack of Martian nutrients, the kids will have to bring them back to the Pet Shop, at which point the cowboy-aliens will kidnap them. And sell them as pets on their home planet. The plan gets foiled by the magical fuzzies themselves, and convoluted complications because one of the children, Dena (Leigh Ann Orsi), has been relocated to Arizona with the Witness Protection Program, and hit men are coming to murder her father.

Why do the alien cowboys not just abduct the kids in the first place? Why do the magic pets turn on their masters and protect the children? Will we get to see Cody Burger, retarded cousin Rocky from Christmas Vacation, sitting naked in a bathtub and talking to a puppet?

Only one of these questions has a good answer!

Good Burger? GREAT Burger!
God bless Mark Bridge's costume design!

Howling VI director Hope Perello follows all the classic Moonbeam Entertainment traditions, from mysteriously dingy cinematography (why do no other company's movies look like this?!), obsessive reworking of the Munchie scenario, and bragging in a making-of featurette (included on the VHS tape!) about the complexities of the creature effects.

Also in this insightful documentary short, Perello says the style she was aiming for was an attempt to make a live action cartoon. The elements of cartoons Perello tries to capture are apparently rows of tract housing with pastel paint jobs, and constant shouting from every character.

Should you be viewing the VHS edition, be absolutely glued to your seat for a special offer from personal pet-peeve, Mr. Courtland Mead himself (who does NOT appear in Pet Shop but does appear in Hellraiser: Bloodline), about how you can join some sort of Moonbeam fan society. Sadly, should one dial hotline number young Courtland lisps out, one is only offered "telephone sex," and not "a Moonbeam Entertainment sweatshirt."

This is your romantic lead, folks.

There's some preadolescent romantic weirdness between young local Mike (Spencer Vrooman, known around the Kinetoscope parlor for being in Boys) and fake-Brooklyn-accented Dena. He certainly feels comfortable crawling into the girl's bedroom window after having met her earlier that day, but it's only to A) tell her he knows her dog is really a mogwai, and B) trick her brother Charlie into trying to have sex with his fat sister by the pool (what? why?).

This is all more confusing than it needs to be (let's not get into the overwrought mob-informant subplot), especially for a film existing solely for 8 year olds to laugh at cute puppet creatures.

Oh my, that's adorable.

A little digging on the inter-web machine has turned up these creature designs by Mr. Pete Von Sholly. Suffice to say they are wishful thinking. "Wishful thinking" like how you wish you were watching Theodore Rex instead of Prehysteria!. Also some of these designs don't appear in the movie. Don't worry: the one that looks exactly like a Furby with spindly, greasy wings is very, very much in the movie.

The creatures basically look like stretched-out, patchy-furred versions of normal animals. Dena's mutated dog is the star beast, a puppy who, in transformed state, has bulging eyes surrounded by a patch of shaved flesh, and a toothless mouth with a gigantic overbite which doesn't allow said mouth to close. Dena happily stretches across her bed, clutching the pet to her chest, at which point it slyly looks down at her boobs. I do not exaggerate. Mike gets a turtle which knows how to play computer chess.

The original web-cam girls!

The film's grand entrance for its creature stars is a tilt-up reveal of one of the beasts clutching to the spaceship ceiling and pooping rainbow-colored droppings on its captor's face. And thus, Pet Shop never really decides if it's going for Gremlins mischief or E.T. schmaltz, not that it has the competence to pull off either. The comic highlight by far is a sped-up-motion montage (I trust all readers share an abiding fascination with sped-up-motion comedy: such a rich history, and always, every-time funny). In this scene, the town's children totally mess up the kitchen trying to whip up dinner for their pets, which they've apparently not even been trying to feed.

After that, the Pet Shop puppets play baseball (why do they know how to play baseball?) with a wooden spoon and a raw egg. The egg inevitably smashes over the beak of the space-turtle, the gooey mess is spread into the creature's eyes since the eyelids are immobile. Just as the slime drips slowly off the puppet's barely-articulated face, thus does Pet Shop critique itself.