NEXT EPISODE: THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD COMMENTARY TRACK!
Love is in the air and An Alan Smithee Podcast will not be spared this February. Our double feature for this month is a pair of love letters from Hollywood to the holiday, albeit obliquely. Roger Corman’s The St Valentine’s Day Massacre is a kind of valentine to the studio system which he worked outside of independently: a big 20th Century Fox movie utilizing a large, talented cast with enormous backlot sets and widescreen photography that’s workmanlike but well utilized. There’s no readily available explanation as to why Corman did work –for-hire on a relatively high profile studio movie like this in between his own low budget productions for American International Pictures, although president James H. Nicholson did move on to 20th Century Fox five years later in 1972. A sweetheart deal? Some romance behind the scenes? Typical to his legend, Corman brought the film in under budget. Unfortunately the margin of money saved wasn’t enough to compensate for the film’s financial failure – audiences in 1967 were way past gangster movies about Al Capone and the roaring twenties. Even The Untouchables had been off the air for four years, and the Playhouse 90 episode which screenwriter Howard Browne had penned was almost ten years old. Adult audiences probably felt such material was old-fashioned and young audiences wouldn’t take an interest in tommy guns until later that Summer when Bonnie and Clyde mythologized gangsterism into a glamorous countercultural myth. The St Valentine’s Day Massacre is conspicuously cynical in its depiction of Al Capone’s Chicago, filtering the strutting violence of the faded Cagney / Bogart / Robinson era through post-noir attitudes about the desperate ugliness of crime. This is especially apparent in supporting performances by Bruce Dern as a hapless mob driver with a family to feed and Frank Silvera as a recent immigrant who’s pathetically eager to please his new mob employers. While the principals are all bigger than life – Jason Robards as Capone, Ralph Meeker as Bugs Moran and George Segal as Moran’s enforcer, Peter Gusenberg – they’re never underdogs the way Paul Muni or Al Pacino came off in their respective versions of Scarface. Corman’s bleak and gritty take on the gangster genre is a real hidden gem.
Our second film really needs no introduction – if anything, it’s a little overhyped. Some Like It Hot is the kind of film that effete closeted geezers would declare the funniest film ever made, and so they did on June 13, 2000. Their #2 pick for the funniest film ever made? Tootsie (!!!) Of course Mrs. Doubtfire placed at #67 above Caddyshack (#71) and Victor, Victoria placed at #76, just edging out Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story (#72.) AFI’s love of cross-dressing aside, Some Like It Hot manages to take the painfully hacky premise of two guys forced to disguise themselves as women and make a funny movie regardless. Billy Wilder and co-scripter I.A.L. Diamond get the most mileage out of the farcical possibilities, and the best laughs come from Jack Lemmon’s weird personal arc of realizing that marriage to the doofy rich guy who’s crushing on him, Joe E. Brown, may not be such a bad thing for a struggling musician with bills to pay. Co-star Tony Curtis isn’t nearly as funny as the ladies’ man of the duo, but gets to shine with Marilyn Monroe in the scenes where he’s leading her on as a similarly doofy rich guy – a farce within a farce.
All this gender-bending identity-swapping romance isn’t the main reason we chose Some Like It Hot for our Valentine’s Day episode, however. By the end of the film’s first 20 minutes, Lemmon and Curtis are on the run from the Chicago mob circa 1929 because they were accidentally in the garage on the day of the massacre and the ONLY way to hide out is by dressing as members of a women’s band en route to Florida, naturally. In Billy Wilder’s world, the St Valentine’s Day Massacre is never mentioned as such, and doesn’t even involve Al Capone or Bugs Moran – rather, it’s the messy result of a minor squabble by fictional gangster “Spats” Colombo, played by gangster movie icon George Raft in the first of many self-parodying gangster roles throughout the next 20 years (reaching a nadir with one of our worst Alan Smithee Podcast movies, Sextette.) Trivia: In order to gain the greatest insight into the gender identity politics of Some Like It Hot for this episode, Andrew and I recorded the second half entirely in drag. We couldn’t think of anything gangster-ish to do for the St Valentine’s Day Massacre portion, but nobody’s perfect.
NEXT EPISODES: M-M-M-MARCH MADNESS! TWO EPISODES, FOUR MOVIES IN THE MONTH OF MARCH! RED PLANET (2000, ANTONY HOFFMAN) & MISSION TO MARS (2000, BRIAN DE PALMA) & INVADERS FROM MARS (1953, WILLIAM CAMERON MENZIES) & INVADERS FROM MARS (1986, TOBE HOOPER)
The legend of Roger Corman could be entirely summed up by the 50-plus years longevity of The Little Shop of Horrors, a film shot under the most chintzy of circumstances which has nonetheless lived on as a musical adaptation and as a perennial staple of cult horror-comedy. What’s odd is how despite being made by his usual gang of misfits and dope addicts, it’s a real oddity in his oeuvre as a producer because he so seldom made comedies. Charles B. Griffith’s screenplay for Little Shop, however, is arguably one of the greatest comedy screenplays ever written and Corman’s few other dark comedies – A Bucket of Blood and Gas-s-s-s are quite excellent. Obviously he preferred more financially reliable b-movie genres, which is our loss.
It’s easy to take a movie like Little Shop of Horrors for granted, but as we discuss in this episode of An Alan Smithee Podcast, irreverent and even mildly “tasteless” humor was in pretty short supply when the film was made and Griffith’s particular brand of weirdo Beatnik by-way-of Borscht Belt humor is a pretty singular achievement. The film has a unique voice and rather than feeling cramped and slapdash by the nonexistent budget, its comedy feels intimate and casual – which is to say, its flaws become its strengths and that’s the surefire miracle which redeems any film of limited means. The weirdest moments concerning the talking plant Audrey Jr, the sadistic dentist Dr. Farb and a deadpan-ad-absurdum parody of Dragnet have an integrity and conviction which wouldn’t have been present in a more polished film. Little Shop of Horrors paved the way for dozens of weird horror-comedies over the years; its influence can be felt from Spider Baby to Basket Case to less overtly “horror” type comedies that are seemingly populated by genuine crazies – like the films of John Waters or Alex Cox’s immortal Repo Man.
Of course, for a lot of people the only noteworthy thing about Little Shop of Horrors is that it features one of Jack Nicholson’s earliest, and most twisted roles as a masochistic dental patient named Wilbur Force. His two minute scene is certainly the most important part of the film to home video distributors, who were all to glad to trick unsuspecting consumers into thinking he starred as Seymour Krerlboine.
A lame ripoff of the Addams Family theme begins the 1973 Little Shop cash-in Please Don’t Eat My Mother, which is of all things a pornographic remake. Unlike your straightforward pornographic parody film, PDEMM straddles an uncomfortable line between being awful soft porn and simply an unfunny remake of Little Shop. Amazingly, there’s enough resemblance to the original film to strongly suggest that Carl Monson (or at least the writer) was a genuine fan of the Corman movie. Unfortunately everything run through the ringer of Please Don’t Eat My Mother comes out with a filmy, sludgy residue from which no entertainment value can be wrung, let alone titillation.
NEXT EPISODE: SAINT VALENTINES DAY (MASSACRE) SPECIAL! THE ST. VALENTINES DAY MASSACRE (1967, ROGER CORMAN) / SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959, BILLY WILDER)
Regular listeners of An Alan Smithee Podcast know that we’re pretty shameless when it comes to being topical. When your movie podcast is basically about whatever the hell movies you feel like talking about, you have to be a little topically trendy to catch new listeners. However, don’t assume that this episode’s choice of Nora Ephron’s worst movie (probably) was chosen to dishonor her memory. This is mere coincidence and frankly, we do a fine enough job dishonoring her memory with ad hominem insults (mostly mine, Andrew has class) when we were under the assumption she’d live at least another week or so.
In deference towards Ephron’s M.O. – after the fact – let’s say this episode is sort of about feminism, vis-a-vis the short niche history of romantic farces about women with magic powers and the zany predicaments they put their men into. On stage and screen the concept doesn’t date back much further than Noël Coward’s play Blithe Spirit, in which a séance brings back the ghost of a man’s nagging wife. This play was only produced a year before the 1942 film I Married A Witch, surely one of the most famous romantic comedy fantasies that people know by name without having watched. As a key work in her career’s meteoric rise and fall, Veronica Lake plays heavily into that as the titular witch. In the long run, the film begat Bell, Book and Candle (1958), with Kim Novak as another romantic trickster witch, which then begat the TV series Bewtiched in 1964.
I Married A Witch is a devious, playful and tart treat. Veronica Lake is not an innocent sugar cookie like Elizabeth Montgomery, initially intending to torment rather than marry the hapless Fredric March until literally falling in love with him by accident. The story and dialogue are as brisk and witty as any great screwball classic from Hollywood’s golden age and director Clair, who began in the silent era, devises a good deal of photographic tricks and practical effects to bring the magical elements to life. The battle of the sexes at play here carries a lot more weight than the Grant-Hepburn variety, as essentially March’s soul is on the line. Only March’s bitchy fiancé Susan Hayward makes Lake look likable by comparison, which doesn’t exactly present the ideal picture of womanhood between the two of them. They are both STRONG women, however, which is less than can be said for the women in the bad movie of this episode…
Bewitched is, without hyperbole, a failure on every conceivable level. Worse, one wonders what dramatic or comedic purposes Nora Ephron and her co-writer sister Delia Ephron even had in mind. A Marxist critic in 1942 would probably hate our being asked to identify with an opportunistic politician of family money and connections; Frederic March is running for governor and that’s not exactly necessary for the story of his love triangle between a cold fish and a Satanic nymph. However, only a commoner with no ability for class critique whatsoever could stomach, let alone enjoy the sucking vortex of insulated world views that comprise the scenario of Bewitched 2005. Forget for a moment that literally not a single character in this film is not rich, famous or endowed with magical powers. Could the meta-story of a Bewitched movie being about the remaking of the Bewitched TV show possibly be any more unnecessarily convoluted? Exactly what aspect of this plot could anyone possibly relate to?
Here’s the only corpse kicking that needs to be done: Nora and Delia Ephron wrote a story in which the unlimited powers of witch Nicole Kidman and her warlock father Michael Caine are unconsciously represent the privileged life they grew up in. Mister and Mrs. Ephron were East Coast professional screenwriters who moved lil’ Nora and Delia (those NAMES, good gravy!) to Beverly Hills as small children, where they proceeded to graduate from Beverly Hills High School. Afterwards, Nora fled back across flyover country to one of the most snobby elitist schools in America, Wellesley College in Massachusetts. She then interned at the JFK White House, presumably performing executive maintenance functions alongside Mimi Beardsley. After starting her career as an essayist, she married Carl Bernstein and divorced him before finally following in mom and dad’s footsteps as a screenwriter. She then defined the modern brainless-in-Seattle rom-com chick-flick with When Harry Met Sally and, yes, Sleepless In Seattle. Phillip Wylie, Robert Crumb and Rush Limbaugh combined couldn’t conceive a more exaggerated parody of a liberal feminist Jewess than this woman’s life.
In Bewitched, Nicole Kidman wants the execrable Will Ferrell to love her LITERALLY because he’s a “helpless” dope and as a super-powered witch dabbling in civilian life, any helpless dope will do – even if he’s a movie star. After using her magic powers to conjure a home worth millions in Los Angeles, she resolves not to use her powers to make Ferrell fall in love with her, except she changes her mind about that, twice. Ferrell and his Hollywood ilk in this film are vulgar Hollywood stereotypes, not like those sophisticated and literate New Yorkers who agree to write the scripts for meta-remakes of 1960s sitcoms. So far as Ephron’s feminist street cred, Kidman’s utter lack of personality whatsoever should posthumously wipe the record clean. She’s merely a cipher for Ferrell, whom Ephron presumably had more interest in working with. Arguably the show itself was similarly constructed – with Dick Powell and Dick York getting all the laughs in reaction to Samantha’s antics – except Ferrell doesn’t even know Kidman is a witch until the last 20 minutes of the horrific 101 minute running time. So there’s no farce, and at least Elizabeth Montgomery had some kind of charm.
Presumably, had Bewitched been a hit, Ephron’s version of I Dream of Jeannie would be about Billy Crystal finding a real genie to star on an off-broadway musical remake of the TV show, who then blogs about it on The New York Times Magazine website. Blecchhh.
NEXT EPISODE: SPACE BABE SPECIAL! BARBARELLA (1968, ROGER VADIM) & GALAXINA (1980, WILLIAM SACHS)
In this episode of An Alan Smithee Podcast, we party like its 1985 and try to keep our intellectual hats on – much like the authors of our two films, Real Genius and My Science Project. As discussed in our Revenge of the Nerds episode, there was a formative period in the decade of Reagan towards the social acceptance and respect for geeky, gawky intellectuals, at least so far as they could get down and party like the rest of us. This bra bomb better work, Nerdlinger!
Real Genius has built a considerable reputation as a cult comedy classic, surprisingly so, in that the film was not a financial success at the time and remains relatively unknown today. However, most everyone who has seen one or two scenes of Val Kilmer retains fond memories of his peak comic abilities, cast in the mold of the Bill Murray anarchic-slacker archetype who has ruled movie comedies arguably until present day.
Kilmer represents the best that archetype can be in Real Genius, a smart aleck who is actually smart, loves the ladies, defends the underdogs, and is not opposed to authority per se, but to authority figures like William Atherton who – whaddya know – was also a dickish authority figure in Ghostbusters the year prior.
Real Genius also was ahead of its time to the degree that some of the nerds in the film are quirky in ways that are true to life, rather than possessing cheap sitcom quirk, whether they’re Michelle Meyrink’s OCD nerdette or Robert Prescott as the bully-nerd Kent. Gabriel Jarret’s main character is also a sensitively portrayed wimp, and he probably hates Val Kilmer forever (geddit) for stealing the show and taking center stage on the awful theatrical poster, which misconstrues the film as some kind of madcap yuppie misadventure.
From a smart film pretending to be dumb to vice versa, My Science Project is a film with a lot of confidence and no brains whatsoever to get in the way of Fisher Stevens. Released by Touchstone, the story definitely has a kind of Disney-esque whimsy that could have made an entertaining movie for kids in more competent hands. Unfortunately, writer-director Jonathan R. Betuel of “The Last Starfighter” writing fame (and “Theodore Rex” infamy to come) doesn’t seem to know whom he’s making the movie for, let alone why his own film even needs to exist.
The main characters are high schoolers with less believable personalities than the cast of Saved By The Bell and despite the film’s Ghostbusters inspired poster promising a special effects extravaganza, the titular science project doesn’t begin to go haywire until halfway through the run time. Which means there’s plenty of time for the one-dimensional characters to twiddle their thumbs as Dennis Hopper earns a paycheck and star John Stockwell wishes he were still being chased by Christine.
All this, plus a tyrannosaurus rex (Bethuel really likes dinosaurs), props for the underrated Jonathan Gries (a basement dweller in Real Genius), and serious consideration of how special effects usually hurt comedies rather than help them in this young, fast and scientific episode of An Alan Smithee Podcast.
NEXT EPISODE: SUPERGIRL (1984, JEANNOT SZWARC) AUDIO COMMENTARY TRACK!
Will cartoons ever live in peace with man? Animation is the most degraded art form in history, a miracle of filmmaking which has lived in the entertainment ghetto so long that the Japanese surpassed America’s product output years ago. On native soil, cartoons either shuck and jive for the kiddies in movie theaters or prattle listlessly for jaded ironic young adults on late night TV. The stigma of cartoon characters as harmless subhumans who can only entertain is an old one, while the alluring stench of danger that wafts around “cartoons for adults” was more recently spewed by the resurgence of animation at the dawn of the 90s, embodied by The Simpsons and The Ren and Stimpy Show. This episode of An Alan Smithee Podcast dives headfirst into the silent cold war of animation’s struggle for legitimacy with two films that straddled the line between animated and live-action entertainment, with varying results.
The use of cartoons as a metaphor for black entertainers marginalized within mainstream entertainment was extrapolated upon by author Gary K. Wolf in his 1981 novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit? Although cartoons and humans had been matched onscreen before, the movie rights to Wolf’s novel represented the bold possibility of a feature length collusion between the two. Robert Zemeckis, in his first of many obsessions with technological animated feats to come, seized upon the opportunity and released the (apparently minimally faithful) film version Who Framed Roger Rabbit in 1988. Roger Rabbit was a bonafide cultural phenomenon at the time, although later films inspired by its technological feats were a lot less artistically compelling.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit was produced by Disney, and as such, although it contains a few cameos from cartoon characters of other studios it rather treats the medium of animation the way the Oscars treats the medium of film – that every contributor to the form has been part of one big happy tapestry and the very idea of itself deserves celebration for all the laughs and tears and tears of laughter we’ve enjoyed. That, and a horrifically malformed “sexy” cartoon woman named Jessica Rabbit who was probably the biggest factor in Disney taking their name off the opening credits and making it a “Touchstone Pictures” film.
The first and most infamous of Roger Rabbit inspired movies was, ironically, directed by an animator whose name was synonymous with “adult animation” – Ralph Bakshi, director of the first X-rated animated movie Fritz the Cat and other transgressive animated features in the 1970s. Just before Roger Rabbit he had given future Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi (“John K”) his big break on the animated TV series The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse and with the recent renewal of mainstream interest in animation, the opportunity to return to feature filmmaking seemed like a great idea. Bakshi pitched Cool World to Paramount Pictures as the story of a cartoonist who enters a cartoon world and has sex with a cartoon girl, resulting in a half-cartoon half-human daughter who vengefully seeks him out in the real world to kill him – a horror film.
That was what was meant to be, until the Bakshi showed up on the first day of shooting to be handed a completely rewritten script in which there were now two human leads in the cartoon world, and rather than any horrific half-breed cartoon/human child, the plot now concerned the cartoon girl’s efforts to become human by sleeping with her cartoonist creator.
The resulting film is a giant disaster in which the convoluted metaphysical logistics are seemingly being written by the screenwriters minutes before the scenes are filmed, with hacky genre dialogue being peppered atop everything to explain the randomness – like the cartoon girl Holli Would referring to her human cartoonist’s visitation as “just a mindslip.” There’s also head-slappingly cheesy lines which contradict whatever internal logic the writers were pretending to create, like when a cartoon person says “I don’t give a doodle” despite the fact that the cartoon denizens of “Cool World” refer to themselves as “Doodles” and nobody goes around saying we don’t “give a human.” And that’s even before you can begin analyzing the wretchedness of a Kim Basinger performance.
The concept of a movie revolving entirely around having sex with cartoons is tailor made for 13 year olds (the oldest children who could see Cool World unaccompanied by parents) but the concept was much better delivered in the Fred Olen Ray joint from the same year, Evil Toons.
All this, plus digs at Steven Spielberg, TV cartoon writers and a rare kind word for Roger Ebert in this episode of An Alan Smithee Podcast!
NEXT EPISODE: MUPPETS SPECIAL! THE MUPPET MOVIE (1979, JAMES FRAWLEY) & MUPPETS FROM SPACE (1999, TIM HILL)
Tim Burton’s career has quietly turned 25 years old and probably still has a long life ahead. We at An Alan Smithee Podcast feel that Burton’s best years are long behind him, but his best work constitutes some of the best movies of these past 25 years…it’s just that they’re relegated to the first 10. Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure is probably among the few perfect comedy films ever made, and Pauline Kael was among the few critics of 1988 to declare Beetlejuice the comedy classic which it is. There were his epochal Batman films, the tender Ed Wood and the animated landmark The Nightmare Before Christmas. From the 80s through the 90s, who wasn’t a Tim Burton fan?
Lately Burton has repeated himself, mainly as a reliable hand for stylized remakes – his very name becoming shorthand for movies with a certain kind of heavy art direction. Lest we forget, he did start at Disney, a company whose attention to visual branding is second to few. The overall effect of Burton’s transformation into a brand could all be seen piecemeal in Edward Scissorhands: pastel suburban kitsch, monochromatic angular gothic, and Johnny Depp to bring in the women.
In Burton’s defense, his style has been imitated to the point of being a popular influence and has been practically institutionalized as a globally recognized “look.” The Nightmare Before Christmas merchandise sells all over the world across all cultural lines like Mickey Mouse…who happens to own Nightmare. More importantly, mainstream films are fantasy films and fantasy films are mainstream films. The emergence of the superhero movie genre apexed with the ponderous drivel of The Dark Knight and it’s nauseating critical salutations; a natural long-term result of the trails blazed by Burton’s Batman, which had no precedent to rely upon except the Superman series.
The heady thrills of Burton’s effects-driven films are as commonplace now as the original Star Wars movies. The graphic design he brought to them has also become de rigeur, to the point that the “Tim Burton” style has become shorthand for a certain kind of specific look. Burton has become a peddler of himself, and may as well add “Tim Burton’s” to the title of whatever modern remake he’s adding his trademark gloss onto.
On his own terms, there’s a distinct point at which thing went sour for Burton’s movies simply because he stopped taking artistic risks. In this episode of An Alan Smithee Podcast we pick apart the turning point. I think for a while we both blamed the critically derided hit remake Planet of the Apes, but that film wasn’t the beginning of the end. That would be 1999’s Sleepy Hollow. This was the first Burton remake, his first Johnny Depp for-no-reason vehicle and the first truly not-good Tim Burton movie.
Our good Tim Burton movie was therefore the last sign of life he ever showed, the great yet indifferently received Mars Attacks! from three years earlier. This is a film which deserves Pauline Kael’s “comedy classic” status and rediscovery by fans of Burton’s early, anarchic comedies like Beetlejuice and Pee-Wee. The anarchy would cease forever after Mars Attacks!, and a new Burton would emerge who is preoccupied with refashioning intellectual properties owned by AOL TimeWarner with diminishing creative returns. Listen to this episode to hear us try to figure out why. (Hint: The Internet)
With music by Danny Elfman…of course!
NEXT EPISODE: ALIEN (RIDLEY SCOTT, 1979) & ALIEN 2: ON EARTH (1980, CIRO IPPOLITO)