Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Flashback: Virginia Madsen on Candyman

From the archives of The Moving Picture Show

October 26, 1992 |  The good news is, Virginia Madsen got to go back to her native Chicago to shoot scenes for her new movie, Candyman.

The bad news was, those scenes were shot in and around Cabrini-Green, a housing project once known to locals as “Little Hell.”

“When they told me that’s where we’d be working,” Madsen said a few days ago in a telephone interview, “that scared me more than knowing I would do a scene with live bees all over me.

“And I'm allergic to bee venom, so that should tell you something.”

Just a few days ago, USA Today ran a front-page story on Cabrini-Green, graphically describing the urban blight as “arguably the nation’s most notorious public housing project…  a 70-acre, 7,000-person ‘city’ of isolation and despair.”

The “rubble-strewn, graffiti-covered war zone” is just a few blocks “from the some of the richest downtown real estate in the USA.” But as far as most Chicagoans are concerned, Madsen said, the place might as well be on another planet, or in some lower circle of hell.

“They have other notorious housing projects there,” said Madsen, a 31-year-old actress whose credits include The Hot Spot, Slamdance and Highlander II. “But Cabrini is staring everyone in the face, because it’s literally three blocks from the Gold Coast. And it never should have been built, it’s way too big, it looks like a prison. And there’s never been anything done to make life better there. So it’s just got a terrible history — and a terrible present day as well.

“While I was growing up there, I never went near the place. And the dialogue you hear in the film — like, 'Yeah, I don't even want to drive by there!' – that’s all very true.’

All of which enhanced the scariness of the fiction that is Candyman, a high-voltage shocker based on a short story by horror master Clive Barker (Hellraiser). Writer-director Bernard Rose (Paperhouse) took Baker’s story, “The Forbidden,” and transported the plot from Liverpool to Chicago. But he preserved Barker’s basic premise: The Bogeyman is alive and well and willing to make personal appearances.

Madsen gives her finest screen performance to date as Helen Lyle, a University of Chicago doctoral candidate in search of “modern urban folklore.” Unfortunately, she finds just what she's looking for in Candyman (Tony Todd), a legendary hook-handed killer who’s claiming a very real body count in Cabrini-Green.

Who is Candyman? The vengeful spirit of a handsome black artist who was killed by a mob of racist white thugs in 1890. He pops up whenever anyone, black or white, is foolish enough to say his name aloud five times while looking in a mirror.

Helen inadvertently summons him during her research. Candyman takes one look at the beautiful blond academic, and offers to make their relationship a permanent one.

And that, Madsen said, is why she thinks of Candyman as “a gothic love story,” not a mad-slasher movie.

“I think it would be different if Tony Todd’s character were a monster. But he’s not a monster —  he’s a phantom. He is like Dracula, a romantic phantom. He’s beautiful, he's seductive, he wants you to join him in immortality.”

Laughing, she added: “Yes, he does have this thing where he likes to disembowel people. But all lovers have some little annoying thing about them, some bad habit — don't they?”

The Candyman crew spent a week filming in Cabrini-Green. (The rest of the picture was shot on L.A. soundstages.) Not a very long location shoot, to be sure, but long enough for Madsen to realize there are far more frightening things in this life than movie monsters.

“The most frightening thing about a place like Cabrini-Green is the bleakness,” she said. “It makes you feel so terribly ignorant, that you know absolutely nothing about these people. And you couldn’t even begin to understand what it's like for a kid to grow up there.

“And since we were there in winter, it gets dark very early, around 4 o'clock. Well, let me tell you: After 3:30, people disappear. They stay inside. And you can feel the vibes starting.”

Still, even in the midst of such despair, you can sometimes find hope. While doing research for Candyman, writer-director Rose met Henrietta Thompson, a Cabrini-Green resident who offered her services as consultant. She quickly became the real-life model for one of Rose’s characters, Anne-Marie McCoy (played by actress Vanessa Williams), a single mother struggling against the odds to be a good provider and an upright citizen.

“A character like Anne-Marie is a really important character,” Madsen said, “because that’s what 90 percent of the people who live there are like. It’s a very small percentage of people that really rule that place. There are three different gangs that rule various territories. And the middle, neutral ground is the only free zone.

“You know, we’re not doing the right thing by these people. And you can make all the speeches in the world about, ‘Well, why don't they just pull themselves up by their bootstraps?’ But, you know, a lot of them, that’s exactly what they are doing. That's why they’re still alive. They’ve been pulling themselves up by their bootstraps all their lives.” 

Flashback Review: Candyman (1992)

From the archives of The Moving Picture Show.

October 16, 1992 | Candyman is unique among mad-slasher monster melodramas, in that it has a brain in its head as well as blood on its hands. There’s enough  full-bore gore to satisfy genre fans, but not so much that it obliterates the movie’s flashes of savage wit and crafty intelligence.

Written and directed by British filmmaker Bernard Rose, who offered subtler, scarier thrills in PaperhouseCandyman is based on ”The Forbidden,” a short story by horror master Clive Barker. The setting has been changed from Liverpool to Chicago, but the story’s basic premise — the bogeyman is alive and well — has been retained.

Virginia Madsen, an actress heretofore best known for playing femmes fatale and assorted other hot babes, gives her most impressive screen performance to date as Helen Lyle, a doctoral candidate in search of “modern urban folklore.”

The good news is, she finds exactly what she’s looking for in the Cabrini Green public housing projects, where a legendary hook-handed killer is claiming a very real body count. The bad news is, Candyman, as the dread fellow is known, wants to add Helen to his hit list.

One of the more pleasant surprises in Candyman is that, unlike many far more prestigious movies, it is up-front and evenhanded in its approach to inner-city racial tensions. Not all of the low-income black residents of Cabrini Green are gang members or drug dealers. Indeed, most of them are honest, hardworking people trying to get by despite the presence of gangs, dealers and a hook-handed killer in their midst.

Candyman himself, played with lordly malevolence by Tony Todd, is an educated black man who became a monster only after his violent death at the hands of a racist mob.

The movie is a bit fuzzy, to put it politely, when it comes to explaining exactly how this transformation occurred. For that matter, it’s never made very clear just why Candyman appears each time anyone, black or white, says his name aloud five times while looking in a mirror. But, hey, this is a monster movie based on a Clive Barker story, not a docudrama based on Helen Lyle’s thesis.

Candyman becomes increasingly less logical and much bloodier as it races toward its climax. But the scary stuff is very scary, and Philip Glass’ high-toned gloom-and-doom musical score makes it all the more spooky.


Flashback Review: Joe Versus the Volcano (1990)

From the archives of  The Moving Picture Show

March 9, 1990 |  If, as the poet noted, most men lead lives of quiet desperation, then Joe Banks (Tom Hanks) truly is an exceptional fellow: His desperately unhappy life is as noisy and dirty as it is oppressively, soul-killingly bleak.

Joe works as an assistant catalogue clerk for American Panascope, a company that claims hundreds of thousands of “satisfied customers” for its chief  product, petroleum jelly. In his grim, gray office in the factory  headquarters, the fluorescent lighting is relentlessly irritating, the air circulation is stiflingly poor, and the coffee is unspeakable sludge. His boss is a stony-faced despot who gruffly dismisses Joe’s complaints of poor health: “After childhood, nobody feels good. It’s a fact of life.”

One day, when his shakes and headaches are even worse than usual, Joe visits a doctor. And that’s when he gets some good and bad news. The good news is, none of Joe’s varied symptoms is a sign of serious illness. The bad news  is, an intense examination reveals Joe has something called a “brain cloud,” a malady entirely unforeseen and inevitably fatal.

Joe, ashen-faced and amazed, tries to make sense of the diagnosis: “I’m not sick, except for this terminal disease.” The doctor, played with just the slightest shading of lunacy by a straight-faced Robert Stack, nods sagely. “Your brain will fail,” he tells Joe, “followed shortly by your body.”

Most men would be hopelessly distraught, maybe even suicidal, after hearing such news. But, once  again, Joe is an exceptional fellow: He accepts the diagnostic death sentence as the start of his personal liberation. And that liberation in turn is the propelling force behind Joe Versus The Volcano, an epic comedy of goofiness triumphant and nuttiness unbound.

This fine madness is the masterwork of John Patrick Shanley, the esteemed playwright (Danny and the Deep Blue Sea) and Oscar-winning scriptwriter (Moonstruck) who makes his film directing debut with the first great movie comedy of the ‘90s.

There are hints of Metropolis to the Germanic expressionism of the early scenes, and touches of Joseph Campbell to the extended myth-spinning that leads Joe on a quest to live like a king before he dies like a man. And here, there and everywhere, there are bits and pieces of ArthurThe Odyssey and The Wizard of Oz.

More often than anything else, however, there is the imprint of John Patrick Shanley, a writer with a perfect-pitch ear for comically off-kilter dialogue, and an indefatigable gift for inventing full-bodied, vitally  contradictory characters.

Shanley’s last effort as a scriptwriter, The January Man, was a shaggy-dog story posing, unsuccessfully, as a cops-and-killer thriller, though the comic elements almost redeemed it. Joe Versus The Volcano wisely avoids all genre conventions and restrictions — it doesn’t try to be anything other than what it is. And what that is, is so exhilaratingly absurd, so outrageously  inspired, it is a tonic guaranteed to lift even the most crestfallen spirits. Even Joe might have laughed at it after a particularly lousy day at the office.

As Joe, Tom Hanks gives a beautifully precise and grandly funny reactive performance, responding to the eccentrics and oddities around him with equal measures of excitement, amusement and anxious befuddlement. Hanks is an extremely generous actor throughout, instinctively withdrawing to his corner of the screen whenever a co-star or a cameo player has a moment of glory.

Not long after Joe has his fateful medical exam, he’s approached by an overwhelmingly vivacious businessman, Graynamore, played with delightfully crackpot zest by Lloyd Bridges. Graynamore has a meticulously logical, financially alluring and altogether ridiculous proposition: Since Joe is going to die anyway, why doesn’t he do Graynamore a favor, and help the superstitious natives of a remote South Seas island, by jumping into an active volcano?

But wait, here’s the beauty part: Graynamore will pay all of Joe’s expenses, give Joe unrestricted use of gold-plated credit cards, offer Joe first-class travel and accommodations until he reaches the island of Waponi  Woo. (“The name means ‘Little island with a big volcano.’”) Once he arrives, the Waponi tribesmen will treat Joe like visiting royalty — and be really, really grateful that Joe, and not one of them, will make the big leap to appease the angry, lava-spouting god.

Graynamore, who figures to gain mineral rights to the island by providing a human sacrifice, makes a splendidly energetic pitch. Joe considers it for a few seconds, and says, in the matter-of-fact tone of someone agreeing to accompany friends to a ballgame, “Aw right, I’ll do it.” Hanks is generous, yes indeed, but he can swipe back an entire scene with a single line.

Shanley is every bit as generous, spreading the funny stuff around to everyone in the cast. Meg Ryan gets more than her fair share, but that’s because she plays three different roles: DeDe, a mousy secretary who briefly  basks in the glow of Joe’s new-found verve; Angelica, Graynamore’s glossily affected daughter, a would-be artist and half-hearted libertine; and Patricia, Angelica’s disapproving half-sister, the heroine who eventually tries to woo Joe away from his date with the volcano.

Ryan artfully rearranges the equation of sexiness, silliness and sensibility for each woman, so that each adds up to a very specific characterization. If When Harry Met Sally. . . made her a star, then Joe Versus The Volcano will keep Ryan in orbit.

In addition to Stack and Bridges, the wonderful supporting cast includes Ossie Davis as a chauffeur who’s reluctant to offer educated guesses about the meaning of life; Dan Hedaya as Joe’s preternaturally sour boss; and Barry McGovern, an Irish stage actor, as an intensely solicitous salesman who says luggage “is the central preoccupation of my life.” A good thing, too, since the trunks he recommends to Joe come in very handy.

Joe Versus The Volcano is a fairy tale in the old-fashioned Hollywood tradition, informed by a subversively absurdist sensibility. Shanley and  production designer Bo Welch (Beetlejuice) have created their strange new  worlds on studio sound stages, so that everything — shipwrecks, tropical islands, a glorious moonrise at sea — is flagrantly artificial, and altogether magical.

The Waponi Woo natives are among Shanley’s most inspired inventions: Tribesmen who guzzle orange soda, count Hebrews, Druids and Polynesians among their mixed ancestors, and greet visitors to their island with a hearty rendition of “Havah Nagila!”

Joe Versus The Volcano is so audacious in its daffiness, you may have to see it twice. The first time, you might not believe anything could possibly be that funny.

Review: Lily Topples the World

If we could all agree on a working definition of the term “nice” — one that implies bemused appreciation more than condescending disparagement — it could easily apply to Lily Topples the World, Jeremy Workman’s cheery documentary about a celebrity “domino artist” whose infectious enthusiasm and ingratiating can-do spirit are almost enough to make you forget, or willingly ignore, that the film makes little attempt to sustain dramatic tension or even indicate troublesome obstacles while following its subject on her path to success. Almost.

Of course, if Workman’s film truly is an honest portrait and not an authorized biography, it’s difficult to blame him for not manufacturing cruel doubts or crushing defeats like someone trying to hyperbolize an inspirational docudrama. Based on the what we see here, life appears to have been (so far, at least) an unbroken string of triumphs for Lily Hevesh, a 20-year-old Chinese adoptee raised in small-town New Hampshire who has written her own version of the American Success Story by becoming a world-famous domino toppler and, not incidentally, the only significant female in her field.

If Lily were any less unaffectedly charming — if she didn’t comes across as, well, so nice — it wouldn’t  be nearly so pleasant to watch her evolution from obsessed hobbyist to Internet superstar (recording more than more than 1 billion YouTube views for her domino videos) to a role model who routinely attracts hordes of awestruck admirers at public appearances. (Her eagerness to put nervous strangers at ease and encourage their own domino endeavors is, to use another hard-to-define term, quite sweet.) And when Workman offers extravagant examples of her artistry — thousands of intricately designed strings of meticulously positioned, multicolored plastic rectangles that, when push comes to shove, become chain-reaction spectacles of slow-motion, rainbow-hued visual fireworks — it’s well-nigh impossible not to empathize with her obvious sense of accomplishment.

(Of course, if you feel one display of domino toppling is pretty much like another, your mileage may vary.)

 Workman generates a surprising amount of suspense as Lily carefully navigates about her creations-in-progress, displaying a dancer’s grace in her stockinged feet while lithely stepping over and around lines of dominos, always just one miscalculated move away from disaster. On the other hand, Lily’s indefatigable determination is such that, when one project does accidentally collapse during set-up, she registers disappointment for maybe five seconds, tops — and then immediately starts to rebuild. 

So what makes Lily tick? The film fleetingly hints at childhood feelings of insecurity and abandonment after being placed in an orphanage as an infant — a result of China’s One Child Policy — which Catherine Hevesh, her adoptive mother, movingly describes when she recalls the time when Lily, then barely a toddler, tearfully begged her mom not to let anyone “take me away.” There are references to her “outsider” status while growing up in community with few if any other Asians. And it’s more-than-casually mentioned that, during her early string of YouTube videos, she remained unseen and identified only as Hevesh5, suggesting not only shyness but also a keen awareness that sexism might impede her seemingly irresistible rise. 

And yet, these revelations — which really aren’t explored as possible motivations — are practically the only dark clouds to ever appear on the blue skies as Workman’s relentlessly upbeat documentary, filmed over a period of three years,  charts Lily’s tightly focused (but somehow never off-putting) campaign to invent herself as an Internet influencer and savvy businesswoman while pursuing her art.

 That art has enabled Lily to hang with the likes of Will Smith (at 17, she created the domino sequences for his film Collateral Beauty) and Jimmy Fallon (for whom she designed an especially ambitious display to mark his reaching his 20-millionth YouTube subscriber), and empowered her to negotiate with toy manufacturers to produce her very own brand-name product — H5 Domino Creations. It should be noted that Lily conducts deal-making meetings while accompanied by Mark Hevesh, her proudly supportive dad. It should also be noted that there’s no doubt at any point about whether father or daughter has the final word on career-building decisions. By the end of Workman’s film, it’s clear Lily has earned it. 

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Some thoughts on turning 69 (With Musical Accompaniment by Lyle Lovett)

On this, my 69th birthday, I cannot help recalling William Holden’s line – well, OK, Paddy Chaveysky’s line, but Holden said it – in Network: “All of a sudden, it’s closer to the end than it is to the beginning, and death is suddenly a perceptible thing to me – with definable features.”

In other words, I can no longer consider myself middle-aged. Unless, of course, I plan on making it to 140. To put it another way: I am now 17 years older than Francois Truffaut when he died, 12 years older than Humphrey Bogart when he died, 11 years older than George Harrison when he died, 10 years older than Clark Gable when he died, 6 years older than Lee Marvin when he died – and, not incidentally, 6 years older when William Holden died. 

And yes: 33 years older than my mother when she passed away.

Every time a major holiday rolls around, I find myself thinking: How many more Christmases will I get to see? How many more Thanksgivings?  How many more Independence Days?

And, perhaps more important: How many more film festivals do I get to scam someone, anyone, into picking up my tab so I can attend? (Priorities, people!)    

On the other hand: I have already fought cancer, and cancer lost. And if the SOB wants a rematch, hey, I’m ready, even if my friend Roger Ebert is no longer around to be in my corner. I remain reasonably sentient and, despite arthritic knees, ambulatory. I am still paid to do two things I love to do – writing and teaching – even though it doesn’t look like I’ll ever make the grade as full-time college faculty, and I gave up on winning a Pulitzer Prize way back when The Houston Post shut down. I can’t really think of retiring, because I owe too many people too much money. So I will press on, like those damn boats that F. Scott Fitzgerald describes at the end of The Great Gatsby, and continue to enjoy the ride whenever possible, as much as possible.

Besides: Not only do I still get paid to go to the movies, I get paid to talk about movies (to students, who have to listen). And thanks to my status as senior writer for Cowboys & Indians magazine, I still get to interview notables like Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Matthew McConaughey and Bruce Dern. Truly, as my immigrant father recognized, this is the land of opportunity.

Looking ahead, I see books yet to write (and/or revise), movies yet to see (and review), students yet to teach, people yet to meet and interview, and places yet to go. (But no friends to mourn – only lives to celebrate.) I once wrote that, if I had any choice in the matter, I would like to shuffle off this mortal coil while in the line of duty – preferably at a film festival, after seeing something absolutely terrific, or at least really, really entertaining. On the other hand, if I wind up being shot by a jealous husband at age 90, well, that wouldn’t be too shabby, either.

There’s another bit of movie dialogue I’m remembering today. From Citizen Kane: “Old age. It's the only disease, Mr. Thompson, that you don't look forward to being cured of.”

I’ll drink to that. And to this. Take it away, Lyle Lovett:

In the darkest hour, in the dead of night, 
As the storm clouds gather, and the lightning strikes,
And the thunder rolls, and the cold rain blows,
The future it holds, what God only knows.

And I will rise up, and I will rise up, 
Though I be a dead man, I said yes and amen. 
And I will stand tall, and I will stand tall, 
Until I meet my end, until I meet my end.