Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Brokeback Mountain

Annie Proulx's story Brokeback Mountain, famously filmed by Ang Lee in 2005, has become an opera by the original author and Charles Wuorinen.  It's a dense, modernistic piece with vocal writing that, to me, owes an obvious (and appropriate, though not to my taste) debt to Benjamin Britten. You can check out the entire opera, in a recording from Madrid, here.


Saturday, November 23, 2013

DOCTOR WHO at 50!

Today marks the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who on the BBC...how can I say what this show has meant to me? I first discovered it in 1984 by chance as I flipped through the channels - with that spooky title music and credit graphics like nothing I'd ever seen - and ever since, the Doctor's rollicking adventures have inspired and intrigued me, influenced me in so many ways and brought so many dear friends into my life. It's a dreamscape and a mythology that's kept be company through good times and bad, providing a thread of continuity in my life, always changing, ever-evolving, and yet somehow still the same, that good old Doctor, that crazy madman in his magic box. Sometimes I think every Doctor Who fan secretly wishes the Doctor would take them with him ... I'm here to say that he most certainly has, each and every one of us. Happy birthday Doctor, and here's to the next 50 years!

I tried to rank my Doctors from most to least favorite but as I worked and re-worked the list, it became apparent that it's just impossible to make a definitive decision. The series has been incredibly lucky in that they have manged to cast 11 actors who all brought a high degree of charisma and magnetism to the role - there have been bad episodes, even bad seasons, but never a bad Doctor. But let's take for granted that Tom Baker is "my" Doctor, and then just list them in order...plus, in a timey-wimey bit of editing, I've updated the list to retroactively include developments that happened after this was posted on November 23!


WILLIAM HARTNELL (First Doctor, 1963-66)
A grandfatherly figure out of Dickens working the controls of a malfunctioning time-ship - steampunk starts here, kids. The first Doctor could be snappy and stand-offish when he wasn't giggling at his own cleverness, an absentminded professor with a shady past fleeing his homeworld in a ship he only barely understood. Hartnell's Doctor started out frankly scary and ended up entirely loveable, as his friends and companions taught him what it meant to be a hero.

Especially notable in the original era of Doctor Who is the revolutionary title music and graphics, which anticipate electronica and psychedelia just as the 1960s are getting into full swing. And let's not forget the debut, in the show's second story line, of the legendary Daleks.


KEY EPISODE - See how it all began in "An Unearthly Child," or check out the very touching BBC-America made-for-tv movie "An Adventure in Space and Time" about how the series got its start, starring David Bradley from Harry Potter and Game of Thrones as William Hartnell.


PATRICK TROUGHTON (Second Doctor, 1966-69)
A manic, scruffy little hobo with a basset-hound face and a twinkle of mischief in his eye, this Doctor clowned and bumbled his enemies into the jaws of destruction. His diminutive height and jackrabbit skittishness made the towering monsters he faced seem even more intimidating, but he always got the better of them in the end. Troughton faced the task of playing the first "New Doctor" and selling the regeneration concept to a skeptical public - without his brilliant portrayal we wouldn't be talking about the show to this day.  He was a great character actor and physical comedian, fully capable of playing both the Doctor and an evil lookalike with utter credibility, and also had my very favorite psychedelic title sequence.


KEY EPISODE - The Doctor and his friends find themselves caught up with an archaeological expedition unwisely trying to open "The Tomb of the Cybermen."


JON PERTWEE (Third Doctor, 1970-74)
Just in time for the glam rock era, Doctor Who went to full colour with the flamboyant Third Doctor. This dashing man of action sported kung-fu moves, a wardrobe of velvet and ruffles, a variety of James Bond gadgets and vehicles, and an air of charm and sophistication that made him one of Britain's most beloved stars.

KEY EPISODE - The Doctor fights living mannequins with the help of the paramilitary organization UNIT in "Spearhead from Space."





TOM BAKER (Fourth Doctor, 1974-81)
The one and only Tom Baker is still considered by most as the definitive portrayal of the Time Lord. With his hypnotic stare, toothy grin and absurdly long multi-colored scarf, his Doctor was a bohemian adventurer with a quick wit and devil-may-care attitude, mad as a hatter and impossible to take your eyes off of. He was a Doctor for all seasons - sometimes goofing around with a Python-esque sense of the absurd, sometimes foretelling doom in sepulchrous tones...or was that, goofing off in sepulchrous tones and foretelling doom with a Python-esque sense of the absurd?  Never mind - why yes, I WOULD like a jelly baby!

KEY EPISODE - The creepy, shape-shifting Zygons (re-appearing this weekend in the Anniversary special) wreak havoc with their pet Loch Ness Monster in "Terror of the Zygons."




PETER DAVISON (Fifth Doctor, 1981-84)
Following the legendary Tom Baker was no easy feat, but Davison brought a youthful charm and vulnerability to the Doctor that was like a breath of fresh air, making him one of the series' most fondly remembered actors.

KEY EPISODE - The Doctor wins the day but loses a friend in the action-packed Cyberman adventure, "Earthshock."




COLIN BAKER (Sixth Doctor, 1984-87)
Brash, colorful and in-your-face, this was a Doctor for the late 80s and he didn't care who knew it. With his insane costume and theatrical speechifying, he was a Doctor who took no prisoners but had a warm, almost cuddly manner beneath the bombast.  Though his era on TV was beset by troubles, he's actually become one of the best-loved Doctors thanks to some wonderful scripts from the Big Finish audio dramas.

KEY EPISODE - The Doctor is trapped in the punishment dome on a planet whose biggest export is televised executions in "Vengeance on Varos."


SYLVESTER McCOY (Seventh Doctor, 1987-89)
This eccentric little Scotsman played the Doctor as a terrifyingly powerful being hiding behind the mask of a harmless, bumbling professor. He impressed Peter Jackson so much he cast him as Radagast the Brown in "The Hobbit."

KEY EPISODE - The Doctor is caught in the middle of a Dalek civil war in the 25th Anniversary special "Remembrance of the Daleks."





PAUL McGANN (Eighth Doctor, 1996)
This Doctor embraced life with a poetic flair leavened by a dryly ironic wit, and piloted the most stylish TARDIS ever. He starred in an ill-fated Fox TV Movie, but his Doctor gained new life in the timewarp of spin-off novels and radio dramas, where he became one of the all-time most popular incarnations.  He recently made a triumphant return to the screen in a special mini-episode available on YouTube.

KEY EPISODE - The 50th Anniversary Prequel "Night of the Doctor" which shows the final day of the Eighth Doctor and the first moments of...


JOHN HURT (The Unknown Doctor, 2013)
Stepping in to fill a gap between the old series and new was legendary actor John Hurt (I, Claudius, Alien, The Elephant Man) playing a hitherto unknown incarnation of the Doctor who forswore that name out of shame at what he had to do to fight the horrors of the Time War. But in just two screen appearances, Hurt made an indelible impression, somehow managing to incarnate all the qualities of the classic series Doctor and to give a wry critique of the new boys.

KEY EPISODE - The 50th Anniversary epic "The Day of the Doctor."




CHRISTOPHER ECCLESTON (Ninth Doctor, 2005)
Eccleston had as big a job as Troughton in terms of redefining the role of the Doctor, and pulled it off just as brilliantly with solid acting chops and a goofy grin that only barely hid his war wounds. His was a stripped-down portrayal that made the Doctor a credible character rather than the rather mannered figure he'd become. Other Doctors made us dream, made us laugh, gave us chills - but in one all-too-brief season, his Doctor broke our hearts.

KEY EPISODE - Gas-mask wearing zombies stalk WWII Britain asking "are you my mummy?" in the creep-tastic two-part episode "The Empty Child" / "The Doctor Dances."


DAVID TENNANT (Tenth Doctor, 2005-09)
This cheeky chappie with the cock-eyed grin and the brooding interior truly was a Doctor for the 21st Century, with a romantic side never before seen in the Doctor's character. He was fun-loving and out for adventure, but don't cross him or he will be your worst nightmare. Indeed, beneath his breezy exterior lay an arrogant over-confidence that came back to bite him more than once.

KEY EPISODE - The Doctor is trapped in time by the sinister Weeping
Angels in "Blink."





MATT SMITH (Eleventh Doctor, 2010-13)
I sincerely love Matt Smith's portrayal. Even if his recent storylines have sometimes left me cold, still I rank him as one of the greats, with his child-like enthusiasm bubbling over and his ancient, haunted soul lurking just beneath the surface.  Even after three seasons it feels like we've just scratched the surface of this Doctor, and while I look forward to Capaldi, I feel like I could have happily watched Matt Smith fumble his way to greatness for another few seasons.

KEY EPISODE - The new Doctor becomes the imaginary friend of a little girl who grows up to be the totally awesome Amy Pond - but first, there's the little matter of an escaped alien convict with nothing to lose, in "The Eleventh Hour."


PETER CAPALDI (The Twelfth Doctor, 2014 - ?)
Strictly speaking, he might be the Thirteenth Doctor. Or possibly the First - well, the Second First? The Doctor's future is up in the air but obviously in very good hands with well-respected Scots actor - and lifelong Doctor Who fan - Peter Capaldi taking the helm of the TARDIS this coming fall. We've only gotten a glimpse of this newest Doctor, but it's enough to send shivers down the spine. What type of Doctor will he be? Only time will tell!

Monday, January 21, 2013

Whither the Muppets?

The fine folks over at Tough Pigs just posted this very good question for the Disney Company - where are the rest of the Muppet Show season sets?

Sunday, December 30, 2012

LITTLE SHOP Cuttings Sprout Online


After their disappointing non-appearance on the recent Blu-Ray, I am thrilled to see that a heap of Little Shop of Horrors cut scenes and alternate takes has appeared online, including the infamous Steve Martin head (seen only from behind), "The Meek Shall Inherit" dream sequence, and a shorter version of "Don't Feed the Plants" which is generally more effective, though still rough.

These from from a time-coded videotape, with rough FX, but all in color. Whoever uploaded them says they are copies of the version shown to preview audiences - one wonders whence they came, and why WB Home Video was either unaware of them, or unwilling to include them?

There is some great material here - some that was wisely tightened or dropped, but all of it fascinating to see.  There are alternate cuts of "Downtown" and "Some Fun Now," a longer scene of Seymour chopping up the dentist with music by Alan Menken instead of Miles Goodman, and an alternate proposal scene that reprises "Suddenly Seymour."

The "The Meek Shall Inherit" dream sequence comes off rather better than I expected, and its disappearance from the final film now really seems a shame. Its surreal imagery is definitely at odds with the studied "realism" of the rest of the film, recalling some of the Vincente Minnelli dream sequences of yore. But the song deepens Seymour's character wonderfully, and Moranis does a great job with his solo.

In contrast to the kitchen-sink approach to the finale shown on the Blu-Ray, here the finale is edited rather too tightly; I'd love to see a version between the two lengths.  Some shots, like the Statue of Liberty, are alternate takes, and others, like the disco, the movie theater, and the final screen-burst, are missing altogether. This version of the finale also features some great laughter and other vocals from Levi Stubbs, missing from the disc (which uses an anonymous voice-over artist). I love the plant that comes out of the bay going "Oooohhm!"


While we're at it, it's come to my attention that storyboard books for the film are available from collector's shops. These also really should have been on the disc, with their wonderful art by Mike Ploog, in either a gallery or as a multi-angle feature.

OK I think it's time for a Special Edition of the Special Edition! What do you say, Kurt Galvao??








Monday, October 1, 2012

LITTLE SHOP: The Director's Cut at Lincoln Center

UPDATE!  Today is the day!  The legendary long-lost original ending of Little Shop of Horrors finally sees the light of day on Blu-Ray and DVD!  And here's a great interview with Ellen Greene about the film.

ORIGINAL POST:  Wow!  After 26 years of waiting, dreaming, imagining, and hoping to see the radically different Little Shop of Horrors "original ending," and carping for years about the folks at who gave the 1986 test screenings a big thumbs-down, I was so privileged to see the movie finally get its well deserved enthusiastic reception when the original version finally screened at the New York Film Festival on Saturday, September 29.  "Heartfelt tongue-in-cheek" was how Frank Oz described the movie in his introduction, and heartfelt indeed was the appreciation for the audience, all of whom were just bubbling over with anticipation.  You can see it for yourself when the "Director's Cut" edition arrives on Blu-Ray October 9.

The Walter Reade theater is a gorgeous house, with an excellent sound system and all 268 seats filled.  Frank Oz, Alan Menken and Ellen Greene were all in attendance, and Frank Oz welcomed us warmly to the first screening in 26 years for this legendary lost ending (newly edited from the color negatives by film restorer Kurt Galvao).  Then they rolled the film (in gorgeous digital projection), and it was just like watching a play - the audience was so into it - all the jokes got laughs and each song got a round of applause, as did the characters as they appeared on-screen.  And why not? Just like a play, we knew that the creators where there to hear and appreciate our feedback!

Afterwards there was a half-hour discussion with Frank Oz, Alan Menken and Ellen Greene, plus one of the program directors from the NY Film Festival, and the film restorer, Kurt Galvao.  After the talk, Alan Menken sang a Little Shop medley, and Ellen Greene gave a heartbreaking rendition of "Somewhere That's Green."  Then we got to hear the late author Howard Ashman singing the demo for "Crystal, Ronette & Chiffon" which was meant to play over the end credits, but was dropped.

Video of the panel discussion:  Part One.  Part Two.  Part Three.

And the film itself?  First, the movie looks gorgeous. The colors are lush and rich, the shadows painterly, and the details are very fine. I noticed little speckles and details on Audrey II's skin that were never quite visible before, and little things like being able to read some of the labels on the cans in Seymour's basement, etc.  If the movie looks that great digitally projected onto a full-sized screen, it should look even better compressed into home HD dimensions.

The 5.1 remix sounds excellent, and the sound system at Walter Reade really showed it off to great advantage.  I'm glad they didn't change the very well-done soundscapes and room-tone ambiances - one of the best things about Little Shop is that the songs generally sound as if they are being sung in the environments they were shot in, and they still do.  One hopes a remastered & expanded soundtrack CD is in the works.

As for the finale ultimo...it's insane.  I can honestly see why a family audience wouldn't like it - it's very dark and grim, and heartwrenching to see such endearing characters come to such terrible ends (though again, the whole idea of selling this as a feel-good family film for Christmas was misguided).  At the panel Frank Oz reiterated his point about the characters not coming back for a curtain call, and that the "end of the world" threat is very abstract in the theater - just the puppet surrounded by dry ice - whereas on screen it's explicit and a little scary.  (Here's a thought - what if the cast credits had played over behind-the-scenes blooper footage? Wouldn't that have given a similar reassuring feeling of "it's just a movie"?)  It's going to take a couple of viewings for me to really appreciate just how radically the film feels, overall, with the new ending. But it is powerful, and I thought it was quite funny in a very black way.

The film plays Audrey's death scene beautifully, and Seymour's confrontation with Patrick Martin on the roof is very well done.  Paul Dooley is great in the role of the marketing man peddling little Audrey IIs - he gives it the perfect combination of avuncular and sinister, with a fixed grin and a gleam in his eye.  Seymour working up the nerve to jump off the building still has no music under it, which makes it play a bit flat for me, but the "chop it up" music underlines the "every household in America" dialog, and is very effective.  "Mean Green Mother" now feels very dangerous in context, and unlike in the theatrical cut, Seymour finds that bullets just bounce off Audrey's hide (but he doesn't gasp "Outer space!").

The scenes of people flocking to buy little Audrey IIs (what happened to all those props, I wonder?) look great, and the scene of the couple in bed being attacked is actually pretty creepy.  I love the news flash from Cleveland, with the frantic reporter and firefighters facing down a rampaging "Mean Green" sized plant.  The discotheque scene has really bright, vibrant colors - and white brick behind the bar.  Galvao said they had to scour film archives all over the country to find the original color negatives of the ending, and very nearly had to release the film with the discotheque sequence in B&W, until the negative turned up just a week before the deadline.

Then the film cuts to the famous scenes of New York being destroyed, and boy, do they live up to the hype.  It is incredible footage. The model work is fantastic - the Brooklyn Bridge shot got a round of applause!  The new composite shots (like the mix of miniatures and live action when the plant smashes through the movie theater) are excellent. It's also wonderful to finally see the Statue of Liberty scene finished, with night sky and helicopters circling. The colors are vibrant, and you'll be amazed at how much detail the model cityscapes have. The sequence on Blu-Ray will definitely reward frame-by-frame appreciation.

The destruction is there in full - they have cut very little from the B&W version we saw.  Personally I feel like it goes on a bit, and they'd have been better served by condensing the action down more (to, say, a 36 bar instrumental, about 45 seconds, in the middle). But it looks amazing, and at this point, they might as well put everything they have out there for us to see.  As Frank Oz noted in his interview, it's a wonderful tribute to the months of work by Richard Conway and his team that this footage is finally seeing the light of day.

Nitpicks - the baby pods don't laugh as Seymour is being eaten, which they were obviously meant to do.  The final laugh from Audrey II after he spits out Seymour's glasses is by an anonymous voice over artist - and that same laughter is heard for the rest of the film. That's disappointing - did they not have any clean tracks of Levi Stubbs laughing they could re-use? Why not just keep the awesome Frank Oz laugh from the rough cut?  Also, there is no dissolve from Seymour's glasses to the American flag - it's just a cut. The work print definitely indicates a long dissolve - that is what the black line going from left to right means.  Also, though this is being marketed as "The Director's Cut," the end credits still call it "The Intended Cut."

"The Meek Shall Inherit" dream sequence is still missing, and it was not mentioned by the panelists. Taco Wiz buttonholed Frank Oz to ask about it, but he said he didn't know if it was going to be in the deleted scenes or not. Warner Home Video film restorer Kurt Galvao was on hand, but since there was no formal Q&A, the question was not asked of him to my knowledge.  I suppose we'll find out next week, but I suspect the sequence is lost forever.

UPDATE: Having seen the Blu-Ray, I am glad to report that the two missing sound effects are present, though the "Da Doo" has less reverb than previously.  However, the dissolve from the feeding scene to Seymour's bedspread is sadly fouled up. I am also told that the DVD version of the film IS missing those two sound effects.  In the Lincoln Center screening copy of the film there were some odd errors which I really hope don't show up on the Blu-Ray.  The single "Da Doo!" heard when Seymour tells Wink Wilkinson about the total eclipse was gone, and the little wheeze Orin's gas mask makes as he dies was also MIA.  Worse for me, the long slow dissolve from Audrey II's mouth to Seymour's bedspread (after Seymour feeds him the chopped-up dentist) was instead a very fast transition and not nearly as effective. Those are all disappointing, and kept this from feeling like a "definitive" cut to me, but I can live with it if they are, indeed, on the discs.

My video of Ellen Greene singing "Somewhere That's Green" didn't record properly, so do enjoy this version by YouTube user Joshheartstheater.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

LITTLE SHOP at WALTER READE!

I just got my tickets for the world premier screening of the Little Shop of Horrors director's cut at the New York Film Festival!