Monday, January 14, 2013

Defending the Movie Ending of Little Shop of Horrors

I was in college when Little Shop of Horrors received its first DVD release.  DVDs were still a newish thing, but I was an early adopter of the technology.  For financial reasons, I had a personal policy that I wasn't going to buy a DVD of a movie I already had on VHS, so Little Shop was out.  Not only did I have a VHS copy of the movie, but the tape was pretty new since I had only recently rediscovered the film after the (mild) childhood trauma it had caused.

Boy, did I miss the boat on that DVD.  A bonus feature on that first run of discs was a 20-minute "original ending" where -- and I guess this is where the SPOILER ALERT goes -- the evil plants kill Audrey, then Seymour, then everyone else on planet Earth.

What?!  This was the first I'd ever heard of an "original ending."  Despite growing up in a musical theater-appreciating family, I'd never been exposed to the stage version of Little Shop.  My only knowledge of the show was the movie.  And in the movie, Audrey escapes from the plant and Seymour manages to destroy it.

Depending who you ask, either Warner Bros. or producer David Geffen felt it was a mistake to put the alternate ending footage on the DVD (especially since it was worn out, murky, black and white workprint footage) and had the discs recalled.  If it hadn't been for my "no re-buying" policy, I would have been in possession of a valuable collectors item.

Until October of last year, that is, when the blu ray was released with a fully restored Director's Cut of the film.

Although the director's ending has been available on YouTube for years, I'd never seen it.  And I'd never had access to a stage production either.  This alternate ending remained nothing but a vaguely described "everybody dies" scenario to me until I got the blu ray for Christmas and, disregarding the children in the room and ignoring the ongoing holiday festivities, began watching it immediately.

So, how did the new-old ending pan out?

Much like the test audiences of 1986, I had an uncomfortable reaction to it.  Even worse were the vibes I could feel coming from the family members who had accumulated to watch the movie with me.  At least I'd known what to expect, and was viewing it as an academic curiosity.  For them, it was a fun and familiar story suddenly exploding in their faces.

After that initial DVD release, the word was out about the everybody-dies ending of the movie, so I felt I was plenty prepared for it.  Over the years, it had even started to make sense to me.  Little Shop is a dark story, a homage to the B-movies of a previous age where cheap shocks and thrills pretty much guaranteed a 100% mortality rate.  All that was left for me to discover was exactly how Audrey and Seymour would die.  And that's precisely my problem with this ending.  It's not so much the fact of them dying, but the how.

In both versions of the movie, the plant tricks Audrey into being in the shop alone with him, where he proceeds to bite her.  I'd always assumed that that would be where she dies, but it's not.  Seymour pulls her out of the plant's mouth, and takes her to safety behind the shop.  But it's too late.  Her injuries are too great, and she knows she's doomed.

This is where things take a crazy turn.  As Audrey lays dying, she tells Seymour that she's happy for all the success he's been having.  And she rationalizes that, since she's dead either way, she'd like Seymour to feed her to the plant so that the plant will remain healthy and continue to bring wealth and prosperity to Seymour.

And he does.  He feeds her to the plant!

This does not make sense; I don't care how cynical your view of humanity is.  By this point in the story, Seymour's already come to despise the plant.  He knows it's evil, and he wants nothing more to do with it.  He's plotted his escape with Audrey.  He's already packed his suitcases!  You're telling me that after the plant has murdered the love of Seymour's life -- an act which would make me, for one, hate the plant even more than I already did (which was already a lot) -- Seymour's going to respect Audrey's wishes and donate her body to the plant's well-being?  Personally, I'd probably take that as an opportunity to start starving the plant.  That plan probably wouldn't work, but at least I wouldn't be desecrating my loved one's body for the benefit of her murderer.

Am I taking this too seriously?  Obviously!  But if director Frank Oz was wondering why the test audiences went cold at this point in the movie, I'd suggest that it's not only because their heroes were dying.  (That's certainly a tough thing for audiences to take sometimes, but there are plenty of instances of a hero's death being embraced by audiences.)  It's because there's a logic incongruity there.  Why would Seymour do that?  He wouldn't.

Seymour's death is easier to accept, I think.  It was always a stretch that he won in the first place.  The plant was way more powerful.  In the "happy ending" version of the movie, we accept that Seymour had earned his victory, even if it seemed unlikely.

After Seymour's death, the movie goes into an extended rampage sequence.  The plant has multiplied, and we see the plants demolishing everything, terrorizing and eating all the people.  This footage, which was painstakingly restored for this edition, looks great.  One of the greatest aspects of Little Shop of Horrors has always been the spectacular practical effects.  This movie was made in a pre-digital age, and even the use of optical printer effects was minimal.  When you're watching the movie, you're watching things that were happening right there on the sets and in the miniatures.

The problem with this sequence is that it gets very repetitive.  The plant only really has one move: bursting its pod-head through walls.  We see that six times in four minutes, along with lots and lots of people running and screaming.  It's fun at first, but then we see it over and over again.  And over again.

I did appreciate the classic B-movie "The end?!?" card, followed by a plant ripping through a movie screen.  Even watching it in my living room, I was impressed with how realistic the lighting of the "movie theater-within-the-movie" was.  You can tell what it would look like watching that moment in an actual movie theater, and the effect would be impressive.  I actually hope I get to watch this ending on the big screen some day.

Frank Oz has long lamented the loss of the truly awe-inspiring model work by department head Richard Conway on this sequence.  And he's right.  It deserves to be seen.  Such chaotic, witty destruction has its place.  (You're talking to a huge fan of another dark, anarchic David Geffen production from the '80s, Beetlejuice.)

But through it all, I just don't buy this ending on this story.  Maybe it's because I'm too conditioned to expect the happy ending, having seen that version dozens of times at this point.  Maybe it's because I just can't stomach the heroes dying.

But I'd like to give myself more credit than that.  I've been a movie obsessive since at least my early teens.  I went through my Arty Film Student phase where I expected -- nay, demanded! -- that every movie have a downer ending.  At this point, I've spent the better part of my life focused on stories and storytelling and storytelling-through-moving-images.  So, while I appreciate what the filmmakers were going for with the original ending -- the B-movie, Godzilla-style mass destruction -- I ultimately feel it didn't work for this movie.

Considering that Frank Oz and his creative team were reluctant to shoot a new ending, I'm amazed with what they came up with.  It's such a perfect punchline that I can barely believe it wasn't always what they intended.  Seymour has defeated the plant, he and Audrey get married, and they move into the cookie-cutter suburban home she always dreamed of.  But as the camera pulls away from the home and pans down to the landscaping, we see a new evil plant waiting patiently to ruin Seymour and Audrey's lives.  It smiles at us.  I hope Oz takes some comfort in the fact that his wickedly dark vision for this movie was preserved.

The great news about this blu ray edition is that it contains both versions of the movie, and both have their place.  The play's purists who've long lamented the movie's happy ending now have their ideal version.  The restoration is seamless, the recovered footage integrating perfectly into the rest of the film.  The puppetry and the models in the restored ending are fantastic.  As I said, I hope I have the chance to see this version of the movie on a big screen some day.  (Hey, three years and they can do a 30th anniversary re-release.)

But when I'm at home, with a bowl of popcorn, in the mood to watch the story of that quaint little flower place down on skid row, nine times out of 10 I'm going to switch my blu ray player to the version that ends somewhere that's green.

The long, arduous process of finding the footage and restoring the original ending
A brilliant, thorough deconstruction of the "Downtown (Skid Row)" sequence

Thursday, January 10, 2013

My Favorite New TV Show of 2012

Adults these days have it so easy.  When I was a kid, parents had to feign an interest in dreck like "Glo Friends," "Rubik, the Amazing Cube" and "Captain Planet and the Planeteers" in order to placate (or just get a moment of peace from) their children.  Then in the '90s, through whatever alchemy -- most likely the twin successes of Disney's animation renaissance and "The Simpsons" -- producers discovered there was an audience for more sophisticated storytelling in animation.  Now, while they may not be a parent's first choice, at least today's kid shows can also be engaging for adults.

But sometimes, there's a kid show that should be an adult's first choice.  My favorite new show of 2012 is...

Gravity Falls

"Gravity Falls" centers on twins Mabel and Dipper Pines as they spend a summer with their Great Uncle (or "Grunkle") Stan in a sleepy Pacific Northwest town where paranormal activity abounds.  In a typical day, the twins may encounter ghosts, gnomes, minotaurs, prehistoric lake monsters, or mind-controlling amulets.  It's an animated "Eerie, Indiana" for a new generation.

In a very wise move, the show uses its paranormal elements as more than just playthings; they exist as a way to challenge the characters, force them to confront their flaws, and ultimately learn and grow.  Those minotaurs, for example, lead Dipper down a dangerous path as he comes to terms with his underdeveloped masculinity.

If that sounds like a burdensome, moralizing slog, let me assure you that "Gravity Falls" is, above all, hilarious.  Even adults will find it laugh-out-loud funny.  The smartly-executed stories provide ample opportunity for character quirks, eccentricities and wit to take center stage.  I particularly love Grunkle Stan's non sequitur outbursts.

The show utilizes an unusual color palette for a TV cartoon, all darker shades and earthy tones.  This, along with the environmental atmosphere (note the haziness in the background of the top picture) make the show stand out visually.

"Gravity Falls" is a fun, funny, fanciful show grounded in warm, lively characters.  Kids should be easily lured in by the imagination and adventure of it all.  Adults will be reminded of that childhood certainty that there's magic in the world, and kids are the only ones savvy enough to notice it.

Monday, January 7, 2013

My Favorite Movie of 2012

For the last couple years, "My Favorite Movie" has highlighted what I considered to be under-appreciated gems.  This year, I couldn't be picking a more appreciated movie.  No matter how hard I've tried to come up with something that was lesser seen or perhaps more intellectually or artistically challenging, it would be just plain dishonest to imply that I'll be rewatching anything more than...

The Avengers

Plenty has been said about this movie already, so let's keep the recaps brief: it's funny, it's smart, it's charming, it's fun, it's exciting, and it delivers on the action.  It has the first great movie version of the Hulk.  It's the definition of a movie entertainment.

The thing I love most about this movie is the writing.  It's a poorly-kept secret that Joss Whedon is one of the best TV and movie writers working today.  Long known for his sharp, witty dialogue, his lively characters, his crafty use of themes and metaphors, and his expansive yet tight story arcs, Whedon developed a strong fanbase in the '90s with his network-defining TV series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

But a long-running (or even a short-running) TV series allows plenty of room to grow characters and build the universe they inhabit.  With The Avengers, Whedon miraculously provides every character a strong personality, clear motivations, and room to live and breathe (and kick ass) in the relatively concise runtime of 143 minutes.  Four characters who were each capable of headlining their own movies, as well as four to six supporting characters, each felt fully formed and each had several moments to shine.  Not content with that, Whedon also increased the presence of some third-tier characters and gave them impactful time in the spotlight as well.

The villain poses a plausible threat that requires an entire team of superheroes to defeat.  Each hero, supporting hero, and even a few background characters fit comfortably into one movie, each feeling like a true individual, while serving one consistent and logical story.  And still plenty of room for tremendous action sequences.  Not to mention the fact that Whedon was writing this script under extraordinary circumstances: building off of and pulling together the work of four different movie franchises -- two of which were still works-in-progress while he was working on his own.  The fact that this movie makes any sense at all is amazing.  The fact that it ended up being the most entertaining movie of the year is, like the Hulk himself, incredible.

Runner Up: Moonrise Kingdom, my favorite Wes Anderson movie since Rushmore.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Don't sign a record contract, Anne Hathaway!

Dear Anne Hathaway,

Hey, man, how's it going?

So anyway, I had no idea you could sing.  Turns out not only can you sing, but you can belt and wail.  Your performance in Les Misérables is truly excellent - the highlight of the movie, frankly.  Your rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" is powerful and heartbreaking.  The strength and nuance of the emotions you embodied is amazing - the complete breakdown, regaining composure, all in one take!  All while singing!  It's truly stunning.

But please, stop there.

By now, you've gotten a lot of attention for your Fantine, and there's plenty more to come: more critical attention, more audience adoration, more awards nominations (and wins).  All of it well-deserved.

But amidst all of that attention, someone -- perhaps a trusted friend, perhaps a family member, maybe an agent, a manager, or likely some combination of those -- will float the idea that, hey, maybe you should put out an album!  It's a great idea, they'll tell you.  I mean, you like to sing, don't you?  Of course you do!  And now it's pretty obvious that everyone wants to hear you sing.  This will be the next step in your artistic growth, an exciting new facet of your career, and, heck, a way to get some extra cash.  They'll tell you.

And with so much encouragement, and ever-increasing box office numbers, and awards nominations rolling in, you might find yourself agreeing that this is the right thing to do.  Why not make an album?

Well, I'm going to tell you.

In the very recent past -- let's call it ten years -- there have been a few high profile instances of this phenomenon.  I'm not going to name names, but you know these people.  They're peers of yours.  They have quite a bit in common with you: approximate age, complexion, number of hosting gigs on "Saturday Night Live."  And like you, they were exclusively actors until a particular role called for them to sing.  And sing they did.  And to the surprise and delight of audiences everywhere, they were much better singers than anyone had bothered to expect.

But then they went too far.  They took all the "I didn't know she could sing" feedback as a cue that they should be making more music.  So they signed record deals, went into recording studios, and... it turned out, they shouldn't be singing.  They really, really shouldn't.  Their stuff has proven objectively terrible.  It's more than just embarrassing or unnecessary - it's painful.

Don't let this happen to you!

I believe it was the renowned acting teacher Stella Adler who said about acting, "If you can live without it, you should."  Clearly, this applies to any artistic endeavor.  If you're not in anguish, in a constant state of mental, emotional and, yes, physical pain over your lack of fulfillment in an artistic pursuit, then you're better off not pursuing it.  Only do it because it would be your spiritual death if you didn't do it.

Is that how you feel about singing, Anne Hathaway?

You're at that moment.  They'll be clawing at your door if they aren't already.  You will be tempted.  Before you make a move, search your soul.  Make the right decision.

Your pal who you don't know at all,