Hey, Everyone. "Moriarty" here. Did I say Saturday?
You'll have to excuse me for not getting that bonus RUMBLINGS up as promised before we left for Vegas. Things got really crazy really quick. I'm finally sorting it all out, though. It's been a blissfully long weekend here at The Moriarty Labs, quiet, with me free to focus on important sociological experiments like seeing if I can talk one of the dancers I met in Vegas into coming to Los Angeles. Purely in the name of science, of course. I've also given Henchman Mongo some long-term projects that he's now pursuing vigorously. It's always nice to see just how hard someone will work when the threat of dissection without anesthetic is hanging over their head.
I'm guessing that you've been submerged up to your neck in the madhouse that is South By Southwest, Harry, and I'm also sure that, with your recent loss, family concerns are especially taxing at the moment. I'm sure I speak for all the regular readers of AICN when I wish you well in these times. That goes out to Father Geek, Sister Satan, and the entire extended Knowles family. Over these past few years, I've gotten fairly fond of you guys. Not fond enough to spare you when my Evil Master Plan To Rule The World goes into effect, but fond enough to hope that these days are eased in some way by the thoughts and prayers of everyone reading.
I thought I'd try to share a fairly massive backlog of material all at once here to give people a lot to chew on, starting with my thoughts on a number of films that are either just heading in front of the camera or are gearing up to shoot very soon. A lot of these are scripts that I took to ShoWest or things that I just haven't had a chance to report on in all the madness of these last couple of weeks.
NOT READY TO BE UNWRAPPED
Yo, man… turns out Imhotep don't have no shelf life. Who knew? For those of you who don't remember last summer, I was a pretty vocal proponent of THE MUMMY as a piece of light, fun summer popcorn, and I still feel that way. I love watching highlights from the film on my DVD player. I think ILM did some great, loony work on the movie, and I really like the spirit of the whole venture. I'm not going to argue for it as one of the greats, but it's the kind of film I like to see as my summer gets underway, filled with FX and dashing heroes and hissable villains and luscious lead ladies in peril.
So it was with great relish that I picked up the latest revision of THE MUMMY 2, written again by Stephen Sommers, who was the writer/director of the first film. I figured I was in for more of the same. Unfortunately, I didn't realize how closely Sommers was going to hold to that concept. I had heard that the new film had something to do with a Scorpion King and that parts of it were set in London. Besides that, I knew nothing about the story. Now, even after having finished the piece, I still don't know anything about the story. Hell, I'm not even convinced there is a story.
Let me try to sum this story up to best of my abilities. Keep in mind, this is less than three days after reading the script. Twice. I had to, since none of it stuck the first time. We learn at the beginning of the film that it's been eight years since the original. Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz have a kid now. He's your standard issue wise-ass kid who knows everything and is always getting into wild and wacky trouble. They're digging in a tomb in Egypt since they evidently didn't learn their lesson when they had to fight killer undead mummies in the first film. Turns out Weisz has been having crazy dreams about Egypt. They find some magic bracelet. Then we learn some stuff about a legendary bad guy called The Scorpion King that is all apocolypse, end of the world, don't mess with his burial place type nonsense. Then some grave robbers fight with Brendan and his family. Then they go back to London. Then the naked chick from the beginning of the first film is reincarnated and goes to dig up Imhotep. Then he comes back to life. Then we have a lot of flashbacks to the first film, but they've decided to add characters into scenes who weren't there the first time around and give the Pharaoh a vengeful daughter who just happens to be reincarnated as Rachel Weisz. Then the good guys go pick up John Hannah, who's running an Egyptian casino in London. It turns out he kept this special magical item we never saw in the first film. Some guys come looking for it. His place burns down. Imhotep brings his killer mummies to London. There's a lot of chase scenes. They go to Egypt. There's more chase scenes. There's an insane number of scenes where scarabs eat people. The Scorpion King comes back to life. There's more special effects. The movie ends.
The primary thing missing from any single page of this script is charm. There's not one thing a character does or says that endears them to the reader in even the slightest way. This is a perfunctory exercise in how to overthink a sequel. Instead of trying to focus on that sense of B-movie fun that made the first film such a modest pleasure, Sommers has ladled on more effects than any film needs. It's a shame. When you factor in stunt casting like using The Rock (jeez, I feel like a weenie typing that in as someone's actual name) as The Scorpion King, this sounds like a film that is going to be begging for a beating from the moment it hits screens. THE MUMMY was one of those beautiful cases of a film hitting screens at just the right time and being just the right kind of fun for audiences as they geared up for summer. The weight of expectation alone demands that this second film need to tell a better story, a tighter story, and that we genuinely care about these characters this time around. With Universal rushing to put this package together and get it in front of the camera, I can't imagine that this one is anything but cursed.
TOUCH MY MONKEY!! LOVE HIM!!
On the other hand, I am literally overjoyed at the way Mike Myers and Imagine Entertainment are putting together the upcoming SPROCKETS. Written by Myers, Mike McCullers, and Jack "Deep Thoughts" Handey, this is a laugh-so-hard-you-hurt script that never once pulls a punch. With Variety reporting that Bo Welch is onboard as director, there's a chance that this is going to be a truly inspired piece of madness. I'd always wondered how Welch would be when unleashed on a project that's all his. As a production designer, he has done some truly world-class work on films like BEETLEJUICE and THE ADDAMS FAMILY and BATMAN RETURNS and MEN IN BLACK. As much as people have given credit to the directors of those films for the look, they also have to give credit to Welch. It's his imagination that has had to figure out how to bring some of those wild flights of fancy to real, three-dimensional life, no easy task.
He's got a hard job ahead of him here, too. Myers and his co-writers have crafted a truly bizarre world for Dieter to live in. As with AUSTIN POWERS, this isn't a simple one-note sketch, but permission to run rampant with all sorts of wild surreal silliness. At the start of the film, Dieter is the host of Germany's most successful television program, surpassing even BAYWATCH. He co-hosts with Klaus, his monkey. Of the two, Klaus is by far the more popular. People adore Klaus despite the fact that he is an abusive alcoholic sex freak who mistreats everyone. Dieter, who wanted a monkey his whole life, adores Klaus and will do anything for him. When the monkey goes missing, Dieter tries to keep the show alive, but the public will have no part of it. They turn their back on a Klaus-less SPROCKETS, and Dieter, who has been wrestling with his secret grief, has no choice but to fold the show and head to America, which is where he is sure Klaus has been taken.
Once there, Myers and his co-writers are able to rip Hollywood viciously with a whole slew of jokes about Dieter making his way through various industry functions, looking for any clue as to who would want to take Klaus and why the kidnapping occurred. At the same time, there's a great role in the film that the preposterously funny Wil Farrell will be playing, a distant American cousin to Dieter who lets Dieter stay with him and his family.
This is one of those scripts where you can't really discuss the best moments without ruining them, and there are dozens of them. The identity of the bad guy is one of those really tricky things. I don't actually know how they'll keep him a secret during production, but they have to. Maybe they can use a fake name for the cast listings. It's not like this is STAR WARS EPISODE II, but one of the elements of truly great comedy is surprise, and telling everyone this person is in the film would definitely keep that from occurring.
Maybe it's because Jack Handey is part of the writing team this time out, or maybe it's just because Dieter lends himself to slightly darker material than Austin Powers and Wayne. Whatever the case, Myers has written his first truly filthy comedy here, a film that should embrace the "R" that this script would receive. Personally, I found myself shocked by many of the more outrageous comic moments, but it's that great shock when you can't help but think, "No… they're not really going to go for this laugh. They can't possibly make a joke about… OH MY GOD, THEY DID!!!" I pray this film makes it to screen with the same savage, wicked wit this script exhibits. If so, Mike should earn every penny of that $20 million Imagine is paying him.
RAIMI'S GOT A PRESENT FOR US
… and it's a moody little Southern gothic called THE GIFT, written by Billy Bob Thorton and Tom Epperson. When we were first reporting about Raimi's attachment to SPIDER-MAN, I was irritated that he was making some little picture first. I'm familiar with the past screenwriting work that Thorton and Epperson have done together. I'm a big fan of ONE FALSE MOVE, and I thought A FAMILY THING was deeply underrated. Still, all I wanted was Raimi and the superhero film. When I finally sat down to read THE GIFT, I could think of a million reasons why I didn't care.
Now, I can think of a million reasons I can't wait. This is a film that has a distinct tone, a strange mixture of suspense and character work. The central character, a widowed mother named Annie played by Cate Blanchett, has had powerful psychic visions since childhood. Left with three children to raise on her own and no means of support, she opens her gift up to the community, serving to give advice and to steer people through difficult times. When the film opens, she is dealing with one woman in particular (Hilary Swank) whose husband Donnie Ray (the Keanu Reeves role) is a vicious abuser, a man who sleeps around openly and who isn't afraid to attack anyone he sees as a threat or a problem. Annie keeps telling the woman to leave, which makes her a target for Donnie Ray's rage. That rage begins to spill over to her kids, and Annie genuinely doesn't know how she's going to handle her problems.
At the same time, she's dealing with a sort of ongoing low grade flirtation between herself and the principal (Greg Kinnear) of her oldest son's school. He's engaged to a rich girl in town, though, so all their chemistry ultimately leads nowhere. Annie doesn't even want to date, despite being needled on by her best friend. When she does make the effort to attend the local country club one night, she spies the rich girl having sex with someone other than her fiancÃ©. She keeps the info to herself, though. She doesn't want to get involved. When the rich girl vanishes, though, Annie ends up deeply involved. The police have no leads, no way of knowing where she went or what happened to her, and have to turn to Swank to help. Even worse, the prosecutor of the case (Gary Cole) turns out to be the man that Annie saw the girl with the night of the murder. When Donnie Ray is arrested for the murder, Annie is visited by horrific visions of the truth, and what she sees puts her in danger and threatens to turn her gift into a nightmare as all sorts of secrets come to the surface and several lives are changed forever.
As I read the script, I couldn't help but picture the way Sam Raimi will approach the material. In case you don't remember, I named A SIMPLE PLAN the best film of 1998, and I am rabid to see Raimi test himself with material that is different than anything he's done in the past. As much as SPIDER-MAN represents a major commercial step forward, this could be another confident artistic step forward. Images from films like NIGHT OF THE HUNTER and CAPE FEAR flashed through my head, films soaked in atmosphere. That's what this is, a movie that is thick with little details, the kinds of touches that make a town live and breathe on the page. Raimi's got a lot of talented actors attached to his film, and even if I'm not sure Keanu can play a hardcore Southern wife beatin' good ol' boy, I'm willing to give Sam the benefit of the doubt. If anyone can make this script work, it's him, and I'm dying to see him try.
ROLLING THE DICE WITH SODERBERGH
Here's a strange case. Ted (RAVENOUS) Griffin is currently listed as the screenwriter for OCEAN'S 11, the Soderbergh remake of the Rat Pack/Vegas heist film, and there's a Ted Griffin draft of the script floating around that has gotten some fairly bad buzz attached to it. On the other hand, I just read a great draft of the project by Steve Carpenter, and I'm curious to find out when this draft was generated and what led to Carpenter being replaced.
Reading it, it was much like my recent experience with the script for TRAFFIC (not TRAFFIK, like I keep seeing it spelled everywhere - that was the original, and they've changed it!). That script read like it had been tailor-crafted to the sensibilities of Steven Soderbergh. There was a sophistication to the way it intercut its various stories. That's present here, as well, although OCEAN'S 11 is far more fun than that script. It reads like it was designed for Clooney, Julia Roberts, Don Cheadle, and many of the other big names being bounced around right now. It manages to not only be a kick-ass heist script, but it also makes some great pointed comments about the difference between Frank/Dino/Sammy era Vegas and the new amusement park atmosphere of today. Steve Wynn is an actual character in the film, even if he is referred to more than he's seen. The whole point of the heist is to remind people that Vegas isn't safe, that you can lose everything in one hand.
I'm going to try to track down the history of this project and get a timeline on when this was written, when Griffin came on, and I'm going to read the Griffin draft. It would be tragic if this draft was completely abandoned. I'm hoping that Griffin is still working from this blueprint, and just working to shape the material as the cast comes aboard. If that's not the case, then I want to strongly encourage Soderbergh to go back and read this earlier draft. Frequently, when a director is brought on to a film like this, he doesn't see the work that's come before, and it would be criminal to push ahead without getting a look at what could be a spectacularly witty and slick update, a great script about the greatest job ever pulled in the City of Sin.
DINI GOES BEYOND IN A BIG WAY
Speaking of sins, Warner Bros and the professional chickenheads who are in charge of the Batman property at the studio continue to demonstrate time and time again that they not only lack any understanding of the character whatsoever, but that they resent anyone who does get it. If you're like me, eagerly awaiting the release of BATMAN BEYOND: THE RETURN OF THE JOKER at some point this year, then you understand what I'm talking about.
Warner Bros has treated their Batman programming on Saturday mornings so badly that I'll admit, I got tired of tuning in. Slowly but surely, POKEMON has taken over the entire lineup, and it's a shame. It was exciting to see smart, emotionally mature stories being told in animation week in and week out by the crew of BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES. It's gone through several incarnations, each of them offering a wealth of pleasures. BATMAN BEYOND was a show that was born out of the needs of merchandisers that somehow, impossibly, was really good. Paul Dini's keen understanding of the Batman archetype allows for radical reinventions like the introduction of Terry McGinnis and the new technologically advanced Batsuit because he never loses sight of what makes the character function. His aged Bruce Wayne is at least as solid an interpretation as Frank Miller's in THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS.
The first time Dini wrote a BATMAN film, it was MASK OF THE PHANTASM, a very good film that highlights many of the show's virtures. There's an economy to the storytelling, ironic when you consider how much more liberating it is to tell a superhero story in animation than in live-action as with Schumacher's painful BATMAN IN RUBBER. Dini did permanent things to Bruce Wayne in MOTP, things that had permanent results for the character. In the Gotham City that Dini imagines, these characters grow and age and build up scar tissue that makes them different people over time. It's similar to what happened to James Bond in ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE, except Dini's never just shrugged off the history of the characters. He remembers, and the work is better for it.
Now, with the first feature length BATMAN BEYOND story, Dini takes a major step forward as a storyteller. This is a brutal, sad story that I didn't expect at all. If you've ever wondered what the real toll of being Batman is, this film shows it. There are answers given to us here that the series raised, like what happened to The Joker? What happened to Tim Drake, the second Robin? Just when exactly did Batman hang it up and why? When the Joker reappears in Gotham, seemingly without having changed a bit, both Bruce Wayne and Terry McGinnis are pulled into a bizarre mystery that is not only genuinely disturbing, but also affecting. The climax of the piece is one of the single finest moments I've ever read involving the characters, summing up so many thoughts about the entire idea of being a hero, of doing these remarkable things. It's daring, and it's not what I would call "comic book" on any level. Not many mainstream live action films have taken the time to lay the groundwork that's present, the history that's been established, and there's a weight here that can't be denied because of all that.
I know this isn't going to be released until October of 2000, but I'm hoping it will show at the San Diego ComiCon this year or some other similar event so that I can sneak an early peek. It's been a long time since I was this excited about an upcoming Batman film. It's been a long time since there's been a major Batman story involving The Joker, simply my favorite character in comic history. I'm just glad that even with all the heartbreaks that Batfans have had to withstand this decade, there's been one team of people at work to consistently make sure that we didn't simply give up altogether. I sincerely believe that RETURN OF THE JOKER is a fitting cap to their spectacular run.
GETTING A LITTLE DEMENTED IN THE LABS
As I work on the various experiments that are taking up the majority of my time right now, I've been enjoying a brand-new CD from Rhino, the new 30th Anniversary collection by Dr. Demento, called DEMENTIA 2000! It's got a few songs I could do without ever hearing again, but that's not unexpected with over 40 tracks to choose from. What is good is so good that I can say it's worth owning without hesitation. Hell, just hearing Mel Blanc's performance of "Daffy Duck's Rhapsody" is worth the full price. Seems that Warner Bros made a series of records that people could buy with the various Looney Tunes characters way back in the '40s and '50s. It's three breathtaking moments of verbal gymnastics by the greatest cartoon character voice actor of all time, doing one of the very greatest cartoon character voices of all time. It's a dizzying performance. I only wish they'd put the other song on the collection that's mentioned in the liner notes, "I Tawt I Saw A Puddy Tat," with Blanc performing a duet with himself, courtesy of overdubbing.
The insanely wicked "Deteriorata" from NATIONAL LAMPOON is a comic rant that will immediately remind modern listeners of Baz Luhrmann's recent novelty hit "Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen)," but the message here is a little bit more pessimistic. "You are a fluke of the universe/ You have no right to be here" is the chorus that's sung beautifully by Melissa Manchester while Norman Rose intones some solid words of advice. "Know what to kiss… and when. Whenever possible, put people on hold." Then that chorus kicks in again, adding this time, "Whether you can hear it or not, the universe is laughing behind your back." It's that kind of savage wit that made the classic LAMPOON the comic force it was. I wish there was a humor magazine today with one-tenth the power.
Tom Lehrer is one of those particular comic tastes that I happen to really enjoy. He's never fall down funny, but there's a nimble wit to his wordplay that I am a sucker for. "The Elements" is the piece included here, a Gilbert and Sullivan inspired ditty that lists the entire periodic table in just a few minutes. The Dead Alewives contribute a piece that just floored me when I heard it, "Dungeons & Dragons." I'm not going to ruin the joke here, but for anyone who has ever, EVER played the game, you owe it to yourself to hear this piece. If you don't die of embarrassment, you will laugh yourself sick. I did. Corky & The Juice Pigs, a semi-regular presence on MADTV, does a really funny song here called "Eskimo" about the travails of being "the only gay Eskimo/in my tribe". There's not one but two Weird Al Yankovic songs ("Yoda" and "Another One Rides The Bus"), which makes perfect sense. I've heard both so many times over the years that the actual laugh value is diminished. Still, it's amazing to hear the difference, musically speaking, between the early song and the later one. Say what you will… Yankovic is a clever parodist who was blessed with a really gifted band of musical mimics.
For sheer train crash/what the hell was he thinking? value, "The Ballad Of Bilbo Baggins" by Leonard Nimoy can't be beat. As he sings about hobbits and Middle Earth, you will literally feel your brain try to claw its way out of your skull and run screaming from the room. It's a miraculously wrongheaded recording, and it's almost cruel to include it here where people can actually get their hands on it. If I were Nimoy, I would have bought the masters years ago and had a barbecue. Yikes.
And then there's Henry Phillips. Who? That's what I said. I had to go to the liner notes to get any bead on him at all. There's not really much information there, either… just that he's a guy who performs in comedy clubs and has a couple of CDs. Never heard of him. I'd say he wins for the song that knocked me down the hardest here. Hats off to this guy for having a strange title - "On The Shoulders Of Freaks" - that I expected nothing from, only to deliver with nuclear intensity.
The song starts. It's just simple, brilliant lyrics with a modest arrangment. "Ancient philosophy was framed by prodigies/Aristotle, Plato and Socrates/And even though their thoughts were deemed the aristocratic voice/They also had a thing for little boys/Catherine the Great, so it's been said/Needed large animals to be fulfilled in bed/From historic rulers to the ancient Greeks/We're standing on the shoulders of freaks."
How can you argue with that? There's more here, too. There's a track that's never been on CD before, "How I Spent My Summer (Or A Day at the Beach with Pedro and the Man)" by Cheech & Chong. It's not the greatest thing they've ever done, but there's some very funny moments. There's not one but two great sketches by Canadian troupe The Frantics. "You Were Speeding" is in the tradition of a Python sketch like "Argument Clinic," fast and absurd, hung on the most extraordinary of conceits. On the other hand, "Last Will & Testament" is just plain crazed. I love it dearly, and have added the phrases, "Boot to the head" and "And another for Jenny and the Wimp" to my vocabulary. Awesome. I'm equally impressed by "Bulbous Bouffant" by The Vestibules. I love words - I'm a writer, so, like, duh - and I love the sounds of words. This piece is all about the odd musicality of words like "galoshes," "macadamia," "gazebo," "plethora," and "blubber." It's silly, but there's something gloriously complex about it, too.
In the end, I think I have to leave it to Henry Phillips to take the column home today. "Isn't life pretty? Ernest Hemingway once said/And then he put a bullet through his head/Salvador Dali's surreal paintings were godsent/You'd never know he ate his own excrement/Then there's Da Vinci For whom it required/Dressing in women's underwear to be inspired/Truman Capote needless to say/Would be intoxicated 20 hours a day/From the modern authors to the Ancient Greeks/We're standing on the shoulders of freaks," indeed.
Next time this column appears, I'm going to be looking in depth at the new video release of Kieslowski's epic THE DECALOGUE. We'll talk about George Lucas and Harry and I, and the nature of fanhood itself. I'll have that long-promised report of my Saturday with The Festival Of Animation's Spike in La Jolla. Also, we're about to gear back up for further coverage of the Forrest J. Ackerman trial that's starting in a few weeks here in Los Angeles. I've had a chance to review all the actual court papers, and there's some things we just HAVE to talk about. I've also promised Harry and some other friends that I will finish the '90s list before the airing of the Academy Awards. Unfortunately, there is various nefariousness afoot that may keep me from finishing those columns for the next ten days or so. Blame that damned Holmes and his infernal interference into my plots and plans. It's hard to write on the run. I will be back as soon as I've shaken him. Until then…