Madonna: Innocence Lost

(USA / Canada 1994)

“I take what I need and I move on. And if people can’t move with me, well then I’m sorry.”

— Madonna

Wow, I completely forgot about this tawdry exposé made for TV — American TV, which is even worse — chronicling Madonna’s early years in New York City. It aired on Fox in the mid-nineties, and it’s actually amazing only for how awful it is. All the stops are pulled out, and it’s a trainwreck: the overriding theme is that Madonna is an ambitious whore. OK, National Enquirer.

Based on Christopher Andersen’s 1991 biography — totally unauthorized, I add — Michael J. Murray’s script is just plain sad. Some of it is remarkably accurate, but some of it…not so much. I recognize every single interview where he culled material to tell the Material Girl’s story — in Time, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Interview, and a few other magazines. He doesn’t just lift background, he lifts dialogue. Verbatim. That opening monologue is straight from a letter to Stephen Jon Lewicki in which she begs to appear in his softcore film A Certain Sacrifice. The characters are all real people even if their names are changed: her donut shop manager (Kenner Ames), Dan Gilroy (Jeff Yagher), Camille Barbone (Wendie Malick), Mark Kamins (Mitch Roth), Seymour Stein (Don Francks), frequent collaborator Steve Bray (Ephraim Hylton), and last but not least her father, Silvio Ciccone (Dean Stockwell).

I’m mildly impressed that her mother (Jenny Parsons), shown entirely in black and white flashbacks, even comes up. And the many guys she slept with, some of them with a purpose. And that gumcracking? Brilliant!

Terumi Matthews plays a young Madonna, and to her credit she nails the megastar’s ideosynchrocies perfectly! I’ll give her that. However, the vignettes and Catholic imagery stolen straight from the video for “Oh Father” are so lame that I feel like I should say a rosary after seeing this. So should you. Don’t even get me started on where this story starts — the first MTV Video Music Awards? Really? She was already on her second album by then.

Anyway…Madonna: Innocence Lost is not flattering, but it’s still a hoot. It plays on Madonna’s bad side, like “Blond Ambition” is a bad thing. The problem is, this approach fails when you’re dealing with someone who used that very name for one of her biggest tours. Shocking? Fuck no.

With Diana Leblanc, Nigel Bennett, Dominique Briand, Tom Melissis , Christian Vidosa, Dino Bellisario, Kelly Fiddick, Gil Filar, Maia Filar, Diego Fuentes, Matthew Godfrey, Evon Murphy, Stephane Scalia, Chandra West

Production: Fox Television Studios, Jaffe/Braunstein Films

Distribution: Fox Network, RTL Entertainment (Netherlands), True Entertainment (UK)

90 minutes
Rated TV-14

(YouTube) D+

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

(Australia 1994)

The “road movie” is a subgenre that I think of as an American convention. They tend to involve younger people on a quest for something, perhaps a race (The Cannonball Run), a chase (Convoy), a new life (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore), a vacation (National Lampoon’s Vacation), a mission (Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure), or or just getting laid (Losin’ It). They don’t usually involve gay men or drag performers or Australians for that matter, which makes The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert rather compelling for its subversiveness if nothing else.

True, the world had seen a road movie with gay characters before (My Own Private Idaho, which predates this one by three years, comes to mind) and Australians (Roadgames, Backroads). However, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is different. It’s every bit as fierce as Mad Max, but it’s fabulously fun—as though a team of drag queens tossed a bunch of glitter and disco (and CeCe Peniston) into the mix.

Anthony “Tick” Belrose a.k.a. Mitzi Del Bra (Hugo Weaving) is a drag performer in Sydney who accepts an offer to perform at a casino resort operated by his estranged wife, Marion (Sarah Chadwick), in remote Alice Springs—in the middle of the continent. He gets his buds Bernadette Bassinger (Terence Stamp), a recently widowed transgender woman, and Adam Whitely (Guy Pearce), an obnoxious younger queen whose drag name is Felicia Jollygoodfellow, to join him.

They hit the road in a huge silver tour bus that they christen “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” and embark on a journey through the desert. A clan of Aboriginals is very welcoming, allowing the three to perform for them. Not everyone is nice, though, which they soon discover when some outbackass bumpkins spraypaint “AIDS Fuckers Go Home” across the side of the bus.

The three contend with the bus breaking down, a homophobic gang, what appears to be an inescapable bar brawl, and secrets—quite a few secrets. Some of the stuff that happens is predictable, but writer and director Stephan Elliott manages to keep the whole thing fresh because he infuses some great conflict and character development into the narrative. Bernadette’s subplot, a soul searching midlife “where do I go from here” kind of existential crisis, is probably the most interesting part of the movie. The acting—Weaving and Pearce (who looks like a cross between Brad Pitt and Mark Wahlberg) for sure, but especially Stamp—is moving for something that appears to be heading toward frivolous and campy territory. It doesn’t quite stop there. What the characters all end up with is something maybe none of us saw coming: acceptance.

What makes The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert so great, still, is that it’s full of surprises.

With Rebel Russell, John Casey, June Marie Bennett, Murray Davies, Frank Cornelius, Bob Boyce, Leighton Picken, Maria Kmet, Joseph Kmet, Alan Dargin, Bill Hunter, Julia Cortez, Daniel Kellie, Hannah Corbett, Trevor Barrie, Ken Radley, Mark Holmes

Production: PolyGram Filmed Entertainment, Specific Films

Distribution: Gramercy Pictures, Roadshow Films

104 minutes
Rated R

(DVD purchase) B-

Quiz Show

(USA 1994)

“Cheating on a quiz show? That’s sort of like plagiarizing a comic strip.”

—Mark Van Doren

 

The quiz show scandal of the late 1950s doesn’t sound like a riveting topic for a film, but that’s exactly what it is in Quiz Show, Robert Redford’s fourth directing gig. Every aspect of this film is spectacularly elegant, starting with Bobby Darin crooning “Mack the Knife” as the opening credits roll over shots of armored security guards transferring sealed questions and answers from a bank vault to a studio. Quiz Show is a modern morality play with lots of style.

It’s 1958, and NBC’s Twenty-One is the biggest game show in America. Homely goofball Herbert Stempel (John Turturro) of Queens is a surprise celebrity after an unprecedented winning streak, but the show’s ratings have “plateaued.” The show’s sponsor, Geritol, is ready for a change. So are producers Dan Enright (David Paymer) and Albert Freedman (Hank Azaria), who decide that a charismatic, television-ready new contestant is what the show needs.

WASPy college professor Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes) happens to audition for another NBC game show, the less popular Tic Tac Dough. Handsome, polished, and hailing from an eminent intellectual family, “Charlie” fits the bill for Enright and Freedman’s vision.

Enright takes Stempel out for a steak dinner and asks him to “take a dive,” or purposely lose to Van Doren, on an upcoming show. Predictably, this isn’t something Stempel wants to do—at least, not without something in return. Enright fails to deliver on purposely vague promises, and Stempel publicly calls Twenty-One a fraud, saying it’s rigged. A judge seals the findings of a grand jury investigation, which gets some very minor press: a blurb in the paper. It catches the attention of ladder climbing Richard “Dick” Goodwin (Rob Morrow), a lawyer with the House Legislative Oversight Subcommittee in Washington, D.C., who plans to “put TV on trial.”

Quiz Show didn’t set the box office on fire during its original run, which is really odd (http://www.boxofficemojo.com/yearly/chart/?yr=1994). No matter, because it’s a fine drama. Based on the book Remembering America: A Voice From the Sixties by the real Richard Goodwin, Paul Attanasio’s screenplay is meticulously calibrated and cerebral, rich with strong characters, intertwined dilemmas, a fascinating plot, and a plethora of Fifties pop cultural references without nostalgia. Redford’s pacing is excellent: he sets up the story slowly then knocks down each character one after another. He draws superb performances out of the actors, too. The literary repartee between Van Doren and his genteel father, Mark (Paul Scofield), is one of the best things about this film. A wry and subtle sense of humor keeps the story exuberant: Martin Scorsese is great as fast talking Geritol CEO Martin Rittenhome, and Christopher McDonald makes an awesome Jack Barry.

Sure, Quiz Show isn’t an “exact word” historical documentary; Redford and Attanasio took some license. However, the result is an excellent depiction of good versus evil, not just in the television industry but in corporate America altogether. There’s not a lull or a dull moment here. The only criticism I have is Morrow’s unconvincing Boston accent; that can go. Everything else, though, is brilliant. Enright’s son, Don, wrote a piece about Quiz Show for the L.A. Times (http://articles.latimes.com/1994-09-19/entertainment/ca-40429_1_quiz-show); it’s another view worth considering.

With Mira Sorvino, Johann Carlo, Elizabeth Wilson, Allan Rich, Griffin Dunne

Production: Hollywood Pictures

Distribution: Buena Vista Pictures

133 minutes
Rated PG-13

(DVD/iTunes purchase) A

TwentyOne Pic

Heavenly Creatures

(New Zealand 1994)

“All the best people have bad chests and bone diseases. It’s all frightfully romantic!”

—Juliet Hulme

Forget Lord of the RingsHeavenly Creatures is Peter Jackson’s coolest film. Before big budget Hollywood blockbuster fantasy franchises, the New Zealand filmmaker wrote, produced, and directed offbeat small-scale gore and porn comedies like Bad Taste (1987), Meet the Feebles (1989), and Dead Alive (1993). I’d already seen that last one by the time Heavenly Creatures came out for a limited run (in the States, anyway) in the fall of 1994. I assumed it would be another messy splatterfest—described to me as a “lesbian murder flick,” what would you think? Turns out, that’s not quite what it is.

Far more than a “lesbian murder flick” or even a brilliant stepping stone to bigger and better things, Heavenly Creatures represents a turning point in Jackson’s career. It’s a rare example of flawless execution across the board. He brings together every element—narrative, character development, casting, visuals, special effects, dialogue, period costumes and sets—to create a real humdinger.

Christchurch, New Zealand, 1952: 14-year-old Yvonne Reiper (Melanie Lynskey), who goes by “Pauline,” is a messy-haired, brooding loner at an all-girl high school. In her first scene, she’s wearing a big scowl on her face at an assembly, not singing along with the rest of her classmates—not until the school’s headmaster (Darien Takle) catches her gaze and snaps her into line with a widening of her eyes. Pauline’s father (Simon O’Connor) manages a grocery market and her mother (Sarah Pierse) runs a room and board for college students out of their home.

WARNING: Potential spoilers ahead!

A new student is introduced during French class: Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet), the privileged daughter of a reknown college professor (Clive Merrison) and a psychologist (Diana Kent). Juliet, who proclaims she’s “actually from England” and chooses the French name “Antoinette,” captures Pauline’s attention when she insults the teacher, Miss Waller (Elizabeth Moody), unleashing a hilarious hissy fit. The scene is, in a word, awesome to watch play out. Right after that, their art teacher, Mrs. Collins (Liz Mullane), pairs the girls for an assignment that Julia disregards; instead, she draws dragon-slaying St. George, depicting him in the likeness of Mario Lanza, “the world’s greatest tenor!” She doesn’t get around to drawing Pauline, her model. Mrs. Collins isn’t impressed, but Pauline is.

Thus begins the girls’ friendship. They bond over their similar pasts involving childhood disease and extended hospital stays, a penchant for drama, and a mutual distaste for their peers (and perhaps social issues that leave a void). Juliet is mischievous and romantic, which softens Pauline and gets her to open up. Sitting out gym, they giggle over sexy WWII pulp novels. They bike through the woods and strip to their underwear, dancing and singing. They hug a bum (played by Jackson himself) on the street. They hold weird rituals for celebrities they like. They make Plasticine models, write stories, and devise an elaborate royal family tree, building around themselves a fantasy medievalesque kingdom called Borovnia where all its inhabitants worship them. Their imaginary world blurs the bounds of reality as their friendship intensifies.

A string of troubles arises that threatens to separate Pauline and Juliet: tuberculosis, an extramarital affair, a divorce, South Africa, and a medical diagnosis of incurable homosexuality. The girls decide to run away to America, but they can’t secure a passport for Pauline. They devise another scheme to stay together, but it’s a risky one: kill Pauline’s mother.

Heavenly Creatures starts out sweet—it’s something of a typical teen movie at first—but it does a complete turnaround. Based on actual events, Jackson wrote the screenplay with Frances Walsh; the real story is sad but compelling, and the script is tight. The casting—married couple John and Ros Hubbard and the aforementioned Mullane—is genius: every single actor is terrific in his or her part, even the minor ones, and it makes Heavenly Creatures all the richer. Many of them turn up in Jackson’s later projects.

Lynskey and Winslet own their characters; I can’t imagine anyone else in their roles. They’re charming, silly, histrionic, desperate, deranged, and ultimately “stark raving mad”—and they portray all of it exceptionally well. They manage to keep the homosexual subtext from getting out of hand. You can tell from Winslet’s first scene—she walks in with that crazy look on her face—that she’s destined for more. She became a star after Heavenly Creatures in a way that Lynskey didn’t, but both are mesmerizing.

The scenes in Borovnia and the Fourth World are nothing short of spectacular. Actually, many of the visuals here are burned into my memory. Alun Bollinger’s camerawork and bleached palette lends a lovely dreamlike quality. Once things start to unravel for these “nice” girls, the whole thing shifts to a darker, more sinister tone. It’s an emotional downward spiral to the end—those splatter films serve Jackson well.

Heavenly Creatures hasn’t lost its luster after nearly 25 years. I lost track of how many times I’ve seen it, yet it continues to suck me in every single time. It’s one of my favorites.

With Gilbert Goldie, Jed Brophy, Peter Elliott, Kirsti Ferry, Ben Skjellerup, Jean Guérin, Stephen Reilly, Jessica Bradley, Alex Shirtcliffe-Scott

Production: WingNut Films, New Zealand Film Commission

Distribution: Miramax Films (USA)

109 minutes (director’s cut)
Rated R

(iTunes purchase) A

https://www.miramax.com/movie/heavenly-creatures/

https://www.facebook.com/heavenlycreaturesmovie

Ed Wood

(USA 1994)

“You’re wasting your lives making shit. Nobody cares. These movies are terrible!”

—Dolores Fuller

 

“How do you do it? How do you get all your friends to get baptized just so you can make a monster movie?”

—Bunny Breckinridge

 

“Can your heart stand the shocking facts of the true story of Edward D. Wood, Jr?”

—Criswell

 

“Confidentially, I even paratrooped wearing a brassier and panties. I wasn’t afraid of being killed, but I was terrified of being wounded and having the medics discover my secret.”

—Ed Wood

Edward D. Wood, Jr., or simply Ed Wood, is widely regarded as the worst director of all time. In fact, he received posthumous recognition—the Golden Turkey Award—designating him as such (http://www.legacy.com/news/celebrity-deaths/article/ed-wood-the-best-of-the-worst). His silly low-budget DIY pulp/science fiction/horror flicks from the 1950s—low on plot, technique, and talent—are beloved by many because they’re so bad. Monumentally bad. Okay, maybe ridiculous is a better word. You decide from this trailer:

Based on Rudolph Grey’s book Nightmare of Ecstasy and adapted for the screen by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, Tim Burton’s labor of love, Ed Wood, is a period-piece biopic about the eccentric angora-loving filmmaker responsible for such gems as Jail Bait, Glen or Glenda, Bride of the Monster, and of course Plan 9 from Outer Space—Wood’s Citizen Kane (as Burton likens it here). This film rocks; I never get sick of it. Not ever. And for a few reasons.

The characters and performances are fantastic. Leading man Ed Wood is one of Johnny Depp’s most endearing roles; he plays Wood with an affectionate and demonstrative earnestness he’s never quite duplicated. Burton has always held sympathetic misfits in high regard—Edward Scissorhands, also played by Depp, immediately comes to mind. Here, he has a field day, bringing in an entire cast of warm and colorful weirdos that flock to Wood. Consider: best bud Bunny Breckinridge (Bill Murray), a boozy grand queen with a penchant for drama and glitter. “The Amazing Criswell” (Jeffrey Jones), an androgynous self-proclaimed psychic/horse shit artist. Max (Max Casella), the president of Wood’s fan club—and his errand boy. Overzealous, chatty crew member Conrad (Brent Hinkley). Later, Vampira (Lisa Marie), a gothic midnight movie hostess with lots of bosom, and TV wrestler Tor Johnson (George “The Animal” Steele) become regulars in Wood’s films.

The most important relationship, though, is the one between Wood and has-been Dracula star Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau), whom he meets in a coffin store. Lugosi’s life is far from glamorous: he lives alone in obscurity in a tiny tract house in a nondescript suburban neighborhood. He’s also a junkie. Wood moves from starstruck fan to employer to custodian and confidant. Landau gives a flawless performance; he earned an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for it. Every scene is inspired, but one of my favorites is his dramatic reading of that hackneyed “home” speech; it is, to use Wood’s word, “perfect.” Their friendship gives Ed Wood much of its warmth and humanity.

Despite the laughably amateur quality of Wood’s films—and his unorthodox way of shooting them—he gets them made. And no matter how poorly received they are, he doesn’t give up. In this sense, Ed Wood is uplifting and inspiring. He embraces his flaws, sticks to his guns, and believes in himself. Orson Welles himself (Vincent D’Onofrio) backs him up in one great scene at a bar.

Some might find the pace a bit slow. I don’t—the whole film is fun and jammed with quotable material that keeps it moving. Line after line is memorable—I could string together a bunch of quotes I know by heart and leave it at that (I’ve seen this film quite a few times). From a technical standpoint, Ed Wood is exceedingly well done. Filmed in shimmering black and white, Stefan Czapsky’s camerawork is beautiful. The cleverly composed, shadowy shots of Lugosi “fixing” in the bathroom and later tied to a bed in rehab, and Wood and future wife Kathy (Patricia Arquette) inside the carnival ride are especially remarkable. Howard Shore’s score—a rich mix of jazz, Cuban orchestration that wouldn’t sound out of place on I Love Lucy, and monster madness—is awesome.

Burton easily could have made this a snarkfest. Instead, he shows his idol in a respectful and positive light. His spirited take makes Ed Wood exceptional.

With Sarah Jessica Parker, Mike Starr, Juliet Landau, Stanley Desantis, Ned Bellamy, Norman Alden, G.D. Spradlin

Produced by Touchstone Pictures

Distributed by Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

127 minutes
Rated R

(iTunes purchase) A

Bullets Over Broadway

(USA 1994)

“The world will open to you like an oyster. No, not like an oyster. The world will open to you like a magnificent vagina.”

—Helen Sinclair

Apparently, I’m not the only one who holds 1994 in very high regard as a landmark year for film: http://wtop.com/movies/2016/01/best-years-ever-movies/;
http://www.killcure.com/2009/12/05/the-5-best-years-for-movies/;
http://ew.com/article/2009/08/05/which-was-the-best-year-for-movies-1977-1994-or-1999/; http://www.maxim.com/entertainment/10-movies-prove-1994-was-best-year-film-history; http://twoguysonemovie.com/editorial-1994-the-best-year-for-movies-ever/; https://www.quora.com/Was-1994-the-best-year-in-the-history-of-film-making-in-Hollywood; http://luminarydaily.com/no-huffington-post-1993-wasnt-the-best-year-for-movies-1994-was/. Seriously, here’s what I saw that year: Pulp Fiction, Quiz Show, Heavenly Creatures, Ed Wood, Shawshank Redemption, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Killing Zöe, and of couse Bullets Over Broadway. I think I saw Schindler’s List that year, too—at least, by the time it opened where I lived. Fuck yeah, what a year! If this were a report card, I’d have straight A’s.

Now for Bullets Over Broadway: I suspect that once we as a culture got to the ’80s, complete artistic control became a pipe dream. This is because by that point, entertainment already was a bona fide industry with backers, lawyers, trademarks, and a human resources department—a mix of commerce that sometimes can but most of the time just doesn’t mix with art. Let’s be honest: how could it?

This is what makes Bullets Over Broadway so much fun! Set in 1920s Manhattan, Woody Allen—himself an artist by this point in his career—is making fun of, well, artists. And commerce. And you know what? The whole thing is fucking brilliant! I mean, if anyone knows how that works…

John Cusack is David Shayne, the Broadway playwright du jour. His agent (Jack Warden) gets his play produced—but it requires a series of concessions, some of which literally are do or die. You see, a mafia kingpin (Joe Viterelli) agrees to finance the play as long as his girlfriend, Olive Neal (Jennifer Tilly), is cast as the lead. OK, but…Olive has no talent. And remember: this is Prohibition. Who’s going to say anything—especially when Olive arrives to rehearsals with a bodyguard (Chazz Palminteri)? Bueller?

You’d be surprised—like an asshole, everyone has an opinion. Some, particularly those with artistic credibility (but not necessarily looking out for the best interests of the play), get David’s attention more than others—lead actress Helen Sinclair (Dianne Wiest), for one. Never mind that she pretends she wants to sleep with David—she’s got his ear. Too bad David writes off the ones with the best ideas—and the best intentions. Who’s the artist now?

With excellent appearances by Jim Broadbent, Rob Reiner, Mary-Louise Parker, Harvey Fierstein, and Tracey Ullman, Bullets Over Broadway is one of Allen’s best films. For some strange reason, it’s damned near impossible to find on home video—DVD maybe, if you get lucky; but definitely not a download. I don’t understand why.

98 minutes
Rated R

(Home via DVD) A-

http://www.woodyallen.com/filmography/directed-by/