Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Darby O'Gill Babysits The Children

It’s time for that monthly switcheroo with T.L. Bugg! I love these swaps for two reasons: 
1-It gives me a chance to read one of my very favorite blogger’s takes on movies I either love or just REALLY want other people to watch (giggle giggle Nutcracker In 3D)

2-It’s my monthly reminder to mail in my rent check. 
For this Very Special Shortening Swap, I assigned Zach 2008’s The Children, one of my favorite recent horror films from a certain subgenre I dig more than grilled cheese. He went in a very different, more child-friendly (and less child-killing) direction with 1959’s Darby O’Gill & the Little People.

not the right little people
Quick Plot: After an awesome credits sequence wherein Walt Disney writes a note thanking leprechauns, we meet the titular Darby, an eccentric Irish caretaker well known at his local tavern for telling tales involving little people. 

Nostalgia alert! Before the days of trivia night, there was the crazy old man obsessed with leprechauns to keep your beer tasting better.
One day, the owner of the estate Darby works on with his daughter Katie rides into town to force him into retirement. The time has come to replace the aging leprechaun lover with Michael McBride, a strapping young man from Dublin played with strange bland gentleness by Sean Connery. Darby isn't ready to tell Katie about the change and instead spends an evening hanging out with King Brian and a whole kingdom of very small, very energetic little people who live inside a magical mountain.

Let's get this out of the way: partying with leprechauns ROCKS. Literally and figuratively, since a) they dance like mad b) they're not shy about the beverages and c) little dudes really like rhyming games. If such a colony invited me to live out my last days on their wine and tunes, I wouldn't have to eat a bowl of Lucky Charms before signing the lease.
But Darby, bless his drunken heart, is a tad reluctant when King David tells him to stay forever, using his wiles to instead trick his old pal and return home to big people alcohol. The King follows him for AN ENTIRE NIGHT OF DRINKING, rendering him useless as a magician come the morning sun. 

As I try to work through the plot threads of Darby O'Gill & the Little People, I'm struck by how much goes on. Perhaps I've had a few too many Guinnesses myself because I'm several paragraphs into a synopsis and haven't even detailed Katie's inevitable relationship with James Bond, the token bad guy angling for Darby's job, the tavern filled with villagers thirsty for more leprechaun tales, King David's mildly sinister plan to further eff with Darby and his wishes, and the death-bringing banshee who figures prominently in the final act.

Got all that? No? Here, have some more stout.

Or whiskey.

Or wine.

Or Jim Bean, J&B, Zima, Tequiza, or whatever poison you prefer. Because I say this in true: Darby O'Gill is the most joyfully alcoholic kids film I've ever seen. I wouldn't be surprised if an entire generation of Baby Boomers can look back to that sunny afternoon at the cinema as the turning point in their lives and livers. 

It's absolutely amazing.
Also, a super fun and charming fantasy! I'm a huge fan of children's entertainment that appeals--without pandering to--adult sensibilities (thus explaining my unadulterated adoration of all things Muppet), and Darby O'Gill is one of those remnants from a time past. Though the heavy Irish accents may confuse a few kids (self included), the film is colorful and cute enough to entertain the little ones while offering plenty of smart dialogue and likable relationships for their parents. It's almost the perfect family film, so long as your family isn't Mormon or dealing with alcoholism. 

And by the way, if I found a leprechaun right now, I'd use my first wish to get "It's almost the perfect film, so long as your family isn't Mormon or dealing with alcoholism" as a DVD box cover quote. A girl can dream...
High Points
I'm all for equal opportunity acting jobs for little people (Tiptoes, how you disgust/fascinate/thrill me) but as more recently seen in Elf, the forced perspective style to make the leprechauns, well, leprechaunish is genuinely charming

Apparently the film’s big singing number, “My Darling Irish Girl” was quite a hit, and not just because it maybe included the vocals of a future Highlander. As with most of the instrumental jigs, it’s a pretty darn catchy tune

Low Points
I know, I know: it was a different era in the world, but that doesn't make the threat “I'll throw you in a river and drown you like a kitten" any less disturbing

Lessons Learned
When you sup with the devil, you need a long spoon
Leprechauns have plenty of stamina, but drinking games are still an effective means of manipulating their gifts for your cause

Alcohol is great no matter how tall or short you are
The Winning Line
“Your heart’s as cold as a wet Christmas!”
Is it Albert Sharpe's delivery that makes this sound like the world's most felt insult? The unified gasp from the leprechauns when they hear it? Or really, is this just the greatest thing to ever say to anyone ever?

Darby O'Gill & the Little People is the kind of sunny and strange film I wish I knew of as a kid. It has catchy musical numbers, copious amounts of alcohol, James Bond, and leprechauns. Drunk leprechauns. Drunk leprechauns that don't want to kill you, they just want to dance! And drink. Did I mention drink? The DVD includes a few cute extras worth a gander though sadly, no alcohol. That's kind of shocking since just about every slide in the reel is soaked in stout. Did I mention there's some drinking in this movie? Sorry, I tend to repeat myself when I've had a few Guinnesses (Guinni?). What was I saying?

Right. Okay, so get wasted with Darby, then sober up with T.L. Bugg's review of a truly terrifying horror film. 

Then wash away the fear with more drinking. If you’re lucky, the leprechauns will bring the booze.

Monday, February 27, 2012

And the Golden Lifts Go To:

 Zelda Rubinstein

It's hard not to love this woman. Standing at just 4'3, the late actress is best known--to horror fans and the general public--as Tangina, the ethereal medium who helped save Carol Anne from not one, not two, but three Poltergeists between 1982 and 1988. Before her passing in 2010, Ms. Rubinstein had amassed a bevy of key roles on the big and small screen, with credits that were mainstream (Picket Fences,  Sixteen Candles), indie (Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, Anguish) and belovedly cult (Teen Witch).

With a voice that somehow called to mind strawberry marshmallow fluff, Zelda Rubinstein was one of a kind when it came to performing. Like many genre fans who saw a sleepover party turn to screams once the PG-Rated Poltergeist showed up, I personally always had a soft spot for her unique presence whether it was on an episode of Tales From the Crypt or as the well-known voice that cooed "Taste the Rainbow" for Skittles ads. As I sat back to wonder which supporter of the vertically challenged qualified for a pair of Golden Lifts (the now yearly award bestowed upon someone awesome with a connection to shortness), Ms. Rubinstein seemed a natural Cinderella fit.

Upon poking a little more into the other side known as the Internet, I was thrilled to discover that not only was Ms. Rubinstein a wonderful actress, but more importantly, a truly wonderful person.

Having left a successful position as a lab technician to pursue the Hollywood dream (which found her late into her 40s) Ms. Rubinstein wasted little time in pairing her successful acting career with admirable work for better causes. Her first film role in the Razzie Award winner Under the Rainbow made her question how little people were seen by the film industry, leading her to establish the Michael Dunn Memorial Repertory Theater Company. Named after an Oscar nominated little person, the (now defunct) theater was composed of 16 fellow little people with the glorious mission statement "Become an actor and your world will get much bigger."

After stealing her scenes in Poltergeist, things certainly did for Zelda. She worked steadily from that point on and bravely used her growing fame to help bring awareness about the life-or-death importance of safe sex during the early days of the AIDS epidemic. Playing a kindly mother encouraging her gay son to use protection, Rubinstein appeared in print and television ads for L.A. Cares at the risk of putting her career in jeopardy. Looking at this from a 2012 perspective, it's hard to believe that just 30 years ago, actors could be unofficially blacklisted for speaking about the kind of issue that can now be recognized through simple red ribbons, but in 1984, becoming a spokesperson for such a then-controversial (and sadly still so, in different ignorant ways) issue could have been a career killer.

Zelda Rubinstein knew that. And it didn't matter. This woman who had faced the odds since birth with what some would've called a handicap was willing to risk her newly prominent reputation to illuminate an issue that she cared deeply about, and one that the whole world should've addressed sooner.

Despite what our cultural atmosphere wants us to believe, movie stars are not superheroes. They (sometimes) have a specific skill set paired with great luck and with those tools, they can give great performances or mumble through a script and sometimes, take everything that comes with it to make a difference. Zelda Rubinstein didn’t necessarily change the world, but she piped up in a time when others didn’t while also establishing herself as a formidable screen presence. These posthumous Golden Lifts won’t do much, but personally, I for one am glad to have learned a little more about a woman who was far more special than I ever realized.
 Also, that dame could ROCK a sassy hat!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Devil Wears Petite Prada

Today’s entry into The Shortening is a bit of a surprise. Emily! You cry. There are no short things in The Phantom of the Opera. Some productions are keen to include Parisian rats or the occasional little person chorus member, but that’s not really enough to justify a room at the Doll’s House in this busy February season.
But break open the party room with a low ceiling! A birthday gift from my fella, this adaptation is probably best known as a Robert Englund vehicle but its very being and body count are actually inspired by Satan who--didntcha know, is a dwarf?

Quick Plot: In modern day--okay, 1989--New York City, a young opera student named Christine (Popcorn and more importantly, Babes In Toyland’s Jill Schoelen) finds a mysterious charred libretto to use at an audition for the Met (which apparently did open calls in the 80s?). As she begins the disharmonic chords of Don Juan Triumphant, Christine passes out and awakens as Christine Day, an American ingenue working for the Paris Opera House in 19th century France as the understudy to the diva soprano Carlotta.

Yup, you know the story by now. Christine is engaged to a boring but wealthy slab of handsome, but her heart and voice belong to an unseen vocal coach, that same unseen force who ‘haunts’ Box 5 and causes minor mayhem when his demands aren’t met by the theatre owner (BILL EFFIN' NIGHY!). Nothing new so far, except that the Phantom is played by Robert Englund somewhere between Dreammastering and Dreamchilding. 

As Eric Destler, Englund’s face is a pointy quilt of human skin carefully sewn together. It’s a groovy look, one that works because it makes the Phantom actively unsettling. Even before Andrew Lloyd Webber, the Phantom always seemed to me far too romanticized a figure. Yes, he’s a cruel murderer, but he does it in the name of music and love (or to a more sidestepped degree, obsession). The audience generally forgives his crimes because a) he was a wronged man to begin with (either through nature or seedy bosses, depending on the details) and b) he makes really good work. 

Easily the most interesting aspect of director Dwight H. (as in Halloween 4) Little’s adaptation is its portrayal of the Phantom, aka Eric. Unlike other tales that have Eric the victim of birth defects or burns and plagiarism, Englund’s Eric is not a nice man and really has only himself to blame. 

Okay, himself and Dwarf Satan.
As a young composer in the making, Eric made a deal with Dwarf Satan to craft the perfect opera. The price? Sacrificing his face and body in such a way that no fan will ever throw her pantaloons at him. The upshot? Eric apparently develops superpowers that let him fight a gaggle of backalley bandits through knife throwing, whipping, head tearing, and teleportation.

That’s the main issue with The Phantom of the Opera: it doesn’t quite know what sort of mood it wants to maintain. The score and setting take us deep into classy old Par-ree, but Eric’s pretty ridiculous killing techniques and, sigh, Freddy Krueger-ish puns (“Consider yourself SUSPENDED!” which is, as you expect, snidely shouted at an ill-fated stagehand about to get SUSPENDED from the rafters) square us uncomfortably in a film that wants to stand firmly in the 1980s horror comfort zone. 
Ultimately, The Phantom of the Opera saves itself by its final twenty or so minutes. The big showdown in Eric’s lair is genuinely dangerous, something a lot of other film versions have a hard time doing. I won’t spoil the coda, but as we get brought back to present day (oh yeah, cause remember that?) there’s an added sequence that while kind of silly if you actually think about any of it, isn’t to be found elsewhere.

High Points
Bill Nighy is in this movie. Granted, his role as the new owner of the opera house isn’t huge, but it does mean that we get to see Bill Nighy dressed to kill at a masquerade and more importantly, that BILL NIGHY IS IN THIS MOVIE

Considering the setting and subject matter, it’s important for any Phantom adaptation to put some effort into its music. Thankfully, Misha Segal’s score is grandiose enough to help boost the atmosphere that the visuals...

Low Points
...don’t quite nail. Perhaps I’m just comparing this version to Dario Argento’s dreadful but beautiful retread that came a decade later, but Little’s world just doesn’t look nearly as grand as I generally like to think of Paris opera houses
Lessons Learned
Ghosts do not skin their victims

How to film a flashback within a flashback? Make it foggier
Even in 19th century France, thugs attacked one at a time

In order to nab the lead soprano at the Metropolitan Opera, one need only sing a few bars and almost get killed by faulty stage decorations. (In other words, put yourself in a situation where you could sue for millions if you REALLY want that role)

Look! It’s...
A young and nerdy Molly Shannon as Christine’s modern day accompanist  (see her all fogged out in the Blossom hat?)

I'm a sucker for Phantom adaptations, be they gaudy musicals or haunting monster tales. This Phantom, though far from perfect or even--let's face it--very good, has a lot of fun interpreting Gaston Lerox's novel for a late '80s audience. Englund is clearly enjoying himself by stretching outside of Elm Street, while Gerry O'Hara's screenplay hits all the expected beats while adding plenty of fresh Faustian touches. You know, like Dwarf Satan. They're just not making 'em like this these days...

Friday, February 24, 2012

Let Us ALL Welcome Our Insect Overlords

What’s shorter than an ant? A flea I suppose, but fleas are dog-eating jerks without any redeeming factors (other than inspiring long ago plagues that can occasionally breed good film material). 
But let’s get back to ants, those ubiquitous, hard-working, architecture-loving, slave-holding monarchists. When I put out the call for recommendations that suited The Shortening, I got some peachy picks. Today’s entry comes courtesy of Trever over at the fine film blog Kentucky Fried Popcorn, who pointed me towards 1974’s sci-fi oddball Phase IV.
Quick Plot: Something strange is happening in the cosmos, and though experts predicted everything from climate change to earthquakes, the only real effects seem to be felt in ant colonies. Our narrator explains how those six-legged soldiers of different species have been holding international conferences to communicate, something "ordinary ants" just don't do.

This might sound dry and scientific, and while much of Phase IV is, I shouldn't go any further before explaining how we actually see this unfold. Director Saul Bass (better known as a famed graphic designer who created title sequences for Psycho, The Man With the Golden Arm, and much more) works with actual nature footage to detail the development of the ants, with extreme closeups on a rainbow of little guys sitting in a circle and nodding their antennae at one another. It's kind of adorable.
Also, pretty darn impressive. It's impossible to watch Phase IV without wondering how some of the footage was gathered and when you see the massive ant army funeral complete with perfectly placed lines of tiny corpses surrounded by their mourners, you'll see what I mean. The biggest shame of Phase IV is that the film doesn't get a single DVD extra. Considering both the plot science and behind-the-scenes mystery, it's one of the most frustrating DVD releases I've seen in recent years.

But back to The empire of the ants! (but not, you know, The Empire of the Ants). Their behavior sparks the interest of one Dr. Ernest Hubbs (Nigel Davenport), an entomologist, and his mathematician assistant James (our narrator, played by Michael Murphy). The pair head to the Arizona desert to investigate from a big scary Epcot Center-like facility while southwestern ants build 2001-ish monoliths and eventually, drive a family out of their home. 

The fleeing farmers find Hubbs' digs just as the scientists release a deadly pesticide into the air with the hopes of wiping out the approaching ants. All the humans--save for a pretty and bland young woman named Kendra--crumble to their death covered in a yellow dust. 

Oddly enough, this doesn’t upset Kendra nearly as much as seeing her horse attacked by ants. Remember that ‘this’ refers to her family dying painfully from contaminated air released by the scientists she’s now bunking with, but you know...we’re all individuals.

Except the ants, who now seem to be operating under a hive mind. James is tasked with uncracking their code of communication while Hubbs becomes dangerously obsessed with their case, refusing to leave their not-so-secure bunker even after he’s bitten in a way that swells his fist into the size of volleyball. Kendra, meanwhile, walks around looking spooked until she has a mysterious conversation with a spunky escapee.

Said fugitive ant is, well, as awesome as an ant could be. We’re talking Honey I Shrunk the Kids awesome, only in a less “I’m Going To Help Children” way and more “Let’s Eff These Humans UP!” kind of style. The little ant that could--let’s call her Cindy, just cause--has some great adventures in the lab. While the menfolk are out doing scientific things like send a painful sound pitch over the desert, Cindy watches her big sister attempt to chew through the power cord only to be thwarted by a guard praying mantis. 

Cindy, however, is a smart cookie (eater). The little lass succeeds in pulling the praying mantis onto a live wire, setting the security guardette on fire and silencing the signal. 

Isn’t that cute?
Phase IV is a strange film, and I mean that in the best of ways. Although its premise and time should put it squarely in the Nature Fights Back subgenre, it’s far headier and more ambitious than something like the goofy (but amazing) Frogs or Day of the Animals. In fact, it’s far more appropriate to put it on a double bill with the similarly smarter-than-its-peers The Incredible Shrinking Man. Both films explore the relationship of man to his world, more specifically, how that relationship is altered when one of the two finds some sort of new awareness. Phase IV is actually more subtle about this, leaving most of the philosophical conclusions up to us. It’s pretty amazing how far some advanced micro-camerawork of the natural world coupled with an ethereal score can take the audience.

High Points
Though this might turn off some viewers, the lack of human melodrama helps to keep Phase IV’s tone pointedly clinical. Trust me, this is a good thing.
Low Points
Phase IV is such a strange experiment that apparently would have been even stranger if Bass had his stamp on the final cut. Word on the Internet Super Highway has it that Bass had originally planned a surreal montage to close things out, something that might have been gnarly but tragically, the lazy DVD release is bare bones of that or ANYTHING discussing this weird little gem

Lessons Learned
People get killed sometimes

The best kinds of games are serious

Ants are amazing creatures and we should do whatever they tell us. WHATEVER THEY TELL US!!!

Inevitable ‘I Am Seven’ Realization
“What does it mean? A circle...with a dot?” our hero wonders with full earnestness. Please excuse my second grade medical diagnosis that duh, dude's got a cootie shot
Phase IV is a different kind of film, a smart sci-fi with an ambitious script (by Mayo Simon) and genuinely unique approach. Some viewers might be put off by the film’s cold style, but I found it refreshingly different. The DVD nudity makes it more a rental than a buy, but raise six glasses with tiny arms to the hopes that it might eventually get its due treatment. Like a hard-working colonist eating poison for her queen, it deserves better.