Monday, June 15, 2015

Forever My Girl

Today I said goodbye to one of the best friends I’ve ever had – a blessing in every sense of the word and one who enriched my life in every way possible. My beloved Sydney crossed over the Rainbow Bridge late this afternoon amidst much tender stroking, soft kisses, and too many tears to count. Her beautiful life ended much in the way it began, with her two Dads marveling over her intrinsic exquisiteness. Much like our hearts threatened to burst with love on the day she came home to live in that A-frame house on Longwood Road almost fifteen and a half years ago, so too did they threaten to burst with grief today as she gently slipped from our lives.  

The heart-wrenching decision was made on Saturday morning after conferring with my ex. As some of you may remember from social media posts a few months back, Sydney’s health had been steadily slipping. In addition to a sudden onset of complete vision loss, the veterinarian discovered a tumor of unknown origin and severity near her rectum. That tumor continued to grow and started to bleed with increasing regularity in recent days. Her overall skin integrity started to decline as well, with small growths and scabby areas appearing in spots where hair had fallen out.  Vinny and I discussed that her quality of life was starting to slip now, with no discernible reaction to being outdoors (which was always certain to set her tail wagging) and increased difficulty navigating around his house in her darkened world. A slip down the stairs, a fall off the bed, aimless wandering and bumping into things…not good signs. Although she remained responsive to touch right up until the end, it appeared to us that her overall awareness of her surroundings was gradually diminishing.
See, Sydney was only the second dog I ever had. My first – a floppy-eared Miniature Schnauzer named Scuffy – was a birthday present for my eighth birthday and we were inseparable in the way only an adopted only child and his dog could be. As I grew into adolescence and then young adulthood, my youthful exuberance for the life before me took center stage and Scuffy, whom I still loved dearly, faded a bit – without intention or malice – into the background. She became less “my” dog and more the family dog, with my Dad and then stepmother becoming her everyday constants while I experienced life on my own out in the larger world. And although I was almost 200 miles away when Dad called to say that he’d had to put Scuffy down, the stab to my heart – grief mixed with a new sensation of guilt for all those later days lost with my childhood dog – was palpable. To this day, my warm memories of that scrappy little Schnauzer who served as my constant childhood companion and amateur show dog in summertime 4-H fairs is tempered by my guilt of not being there to say goodbye to her at the end. In fact, it haunts me at times.

So when Sydney came into my life, I made her a promise on the very first day we met that I’d always be there for her. I still remember the late April day in 2000 when my dear friends Lisa and Brianne, together with our late friend Jeffrey, all conspired to visit a local pet store (before it was not politically correct to patronize them) called Puppy Deport in Port Jefferson while Vinny was at work, unaware of what we were up to. We had talked intermittently about getting a dog and were eyeing the Cocker Spaniel as the chosen breed. But I had a long history of “surprising” Vinny with furry companions – beginning the month after we met when he was greeted with two little fur balls who would come to be named Branigan and Bam Bam, both stray kittens found underneath my stepmother’s garage.
“Happy Father’s Day”, I remember announcing on the day they were presented to him.

Two more kittens would come into our lives during those first years together. The first, a gray and white kitten who we dubbed Chapman, was found clinging to a tree by a former roommate and moved into the two bedroom apartment (our first after moving out to Long Island) we shared with her and our two cats. When she split, Chapman stayed behind. A few years later, while Vinny was home painting the interior of the townhouse we had moved into (Yaphank, 1993), a simple trip to the grocery store resulted in Moyet, a fiery little ball of mischief who I gingerly placed on the kitchen counter before calling Vinny downstairs.
“Don’t be mad”, I said as he rounded the corner into the kitchen and caught sight of the latest member to our growing family.

But Vinny was never mad, always melting immediately after the requisite eye roll, as if to say: You did it again, didn’t you?
So on that late April day, as my friends and I meandered through the Puppy Depot, I knew two things in my heart: I was going to find my second dog that afternoon and Vinny would not be mad. Not really. Or at least not for long.

I told the pet store staff that I was in the market for a Cocker Spaniel and they readily presented me with several squirming, licking, panting specimens for my consideration. Let’s face it: All puppies are pretty damn cute and irresistible, and I probably would have been happy with any one of them. But something kept telling me “No, that’s not the one” with each successive puppy I held and so I kept on wandering deeper into the Puppy Depot.
About thirty minutes in, I passed a cage with three puppies. Two – I couldn’t tell you the breeds this many years later – were pressed against the front of the cage, vying for my attention with whimpers and wagging tails. But it was the third – a doe-eyed little Cocker Spaniel with champagne-colored fur and matching freckles on her white nose – that caught my attention.

“That’s a Cocker, isn’t it?” I asked the attentive pet store clerk, pointing to the cage.
The clerk nodded. “Yes, but you don’t want that one. See the freckles on the nose? You’ll never be able to show her.”

Show her? I thought to myself. Did I look like I was shopping for the next entrant into the Westminster Dog Show?
With gentle defiance, I instructed the clerk to let me see her.

And when the pet store clerk shrugged and placed that freckled-nosed pup in my arms, it was – as the cliché goes – love at first sight. We locked eyes – hers always sorrowful and sweet, mine quickly welling with tears – and then she rested her head against my chest and exhaled deeply. She had picked her owner; she was home.
That story is often repeated amongst my group of friends who were there that day and we laugh at the memory of Brianne nearly screaming from the sheer cuteness of the scene as she exclaimed, “Oh, my God! She looks like you!” I can still recall – with great detail – the immediate sense of urgency I felt at needing her to come home with me that day and the sense of horror when the cash machine Lisa drove me to would only dispense half of my new puppy’s sticker price. I’ve always been blessed with great friends – and Lisa is no exception, quickly taking out her own bank card to lend me the balance.

The freckle-faced puppy came home with me, a rainbow-colored bow adorning her neck. When I heard the crunch of gravel from Vinny’s car, I met him at the front door with a familiar refrain.
“Don’t be mad…”

We named her Sydney, after my favorite red-haired vixen on Melrose Place played by Laura Leighton. I am, after all, always and unapologetically a pop culture junkie. The rest of Sydney’s story is a decade and a half chock full of wonderful memories, each one coming back to me over the last few days as I prepared myself to carry out my last act of love in helping this beautiful creature make her final journey.
Sydney running across the green lawn of our Middle Island house, chew toy in mouth…

Sydney taking her first swim in Lisa and Brianne’s pool, plunking down into the water after slipping off the first step…Brianne shrieking in the background while Lisa and I howled with laughter…
Our refrigerator loaded with “Sydney” magnets from anywhere and everywhere we ever traveled…Las Vegas, the Hoover Dam, Boston, Florida, Belize, to name a few…

The way we’d laugh at how Sydney developed this soft little “woo-woo” sound to indicate her impatience at having to wait for her meal-end treat of table scraps. I smile thinking about how she wooed louder and louder the harder we laughed. And how we laughed until our stomachs hurt…
The way we nicknamed her “Woobie Girl” shortly after bringing her home…a nickname that would stay with her throughout her life…

Sydney moving with the speed of light to pilfer an unsupervised hot dog off the table during barbecues…
Sydney rolling around gleefully in the grass after just returning home from the groomers while her fretful Daddy carried on about the money he’d just spent…

Cuddling in the bed with Sydney as a puppy and as an adult, the soft feel of her fur between my fingers, the warmth of her body pressed against me…
Sydney’s gentle kisses on my nose and mouth, the intoxicating smell of her doggy breath…
The look of happiness on Sydney’s face and dance of joy she did whenever one of us came home from work…

The very last sight of Sydney taking her final, gentle breaths – under the kindly supervision of Dr. Kevin Lynch,  the veterinarian who  has cared for her since the day we brought her home – while  Vinny and I wept and wept and wept, knowing that we were doing the right thing but hating every second of it…

This morning, I awoke to the sound of torrential rain. It was as if the universe was in perfect synch with my emotions, weeping torrents of tears with me for what was to come to pass this afternoon. It was a fitting tribute to Sydney, courtesy of Mother Nature. The weather only heightened my sense of overwhelming melancholy, and I found myself thinking of my failures when it came to my sweet Sydney. I hope the majority of her memories of me are good ones and that she’s forgiven me for the times when I may have raised my voice in frustration – not over her, but more likely some inconsequential human problem for which she was the vessel that received my angry tone or impatience.  

I hope Sydney forgives me for splitting with her other Dad, hoping that she never felt for a second like I abandoned her, understanding that she went to live with one Daddy and not the other because we both agreed that she shouldn’t be split up from her younger brother, Kirby, or little sister, Zoe. I hope she knows somehow that even though I often went to bed crying during the ensuing years because I missed having her in my everyday life so much that leaving her with her other Dad and doggy siblings was genuinely done in what we both believed to be her best interests. I hope Sydney knew that her daddies’ split from each other eventually brought two more wonderful people who loved her unconditionally into her life, her “stepdads” Ot and Brian. I hope she felt the four of us gathered around her yesterday to say our goodbyes and spend one more afternoon with her. After a good portion of her adult lifetime spent adhering to strict dietary restrictions due to some persnickety kidneys, I hope she enjoyed her special meal today – steak and Teddy Grahams. Something salty, something crunchy-sweet for her taste buds.
I hope she heard every one of my heartfelt thank you’s – for her unconditional love, for her affectionate, gentle disposition, for her sense of humor, for her compassion and companionship, for her sixth sense in knowing when I needed one of her sweet kisses or a random woo-woo. And I hope, as she slipped into her sweet hereafter this afternoon, that she sensed how much her other Dad and I loved her and that choosing this time for her to make her journey across the Rainbow Bridge was not done lightly or for any kind of human convenience and only to ensure that she never went out in severe pain or suffering of any kind. She deserved infinitely more than that, and I was determined to keep that promise I made to her on the first day we met – that she would never suffer and that I would be with her at the end.

My sweet, one-of-a-kind Sydney is gone now as I type this through tears that feel like they may never stop. It’s times like this where I happily push my agnosticism to the side and believe with unwavering certainty in a place described in that infamous Rainbow Bridge story, where Sydney is young again, her legs strong and steady, her eyesight restored.  A place where the sunshine always beams down on her – catching the red highlights in her fur – and gentle breezes caress her beautiful face. In my mind’s eye, I see her meeting Scuffy for the first time and being reunited with Branigan and Bam Bam and Chapman and Moyet, their animal kingdom differences cast aside and all of them playing happily through endless sunshine-filled days and cuddling together under starry moonlit nights. In the sweet hereafter that I want – desperately – to believe in for Sydney, all dietary constraints are gone and she has a never-ending supply of doggy treats and hot dogs.
Most of all, I hope those last lines of the Rainbow Bridge story prove true. That someday, when my own days are done, that I’ll be reunited with her, that she’ll be there to greet me with wagging tail and endless kisses like she did all those times I walked through the door after work.

 I want – no, need – to believe this today more than anything else in the world:
Just this side of heaven is a place called Rainbow Bridge.
When an animal dies that has been especially close to someone here, that pet goes to Rainbow Bridge. There are meadows and hills for all of our special friends so they can run and play together. There is plenty of food, water and sunshine, and our friends are warm and comfortable.
All the animals who had been ill and old are restored to health and vigor. Those who were hurt or maimed are made whole and strong again, just as we remember them in our dreams of days and times gone by. The animals are happy and content, except for one small thing; they each miss someone very special to them, who had to be left behind.
They all run and play together, but the day comes when one suddenly stops and looks into the distance. His bright eyes are intent. His eager body quivers. Suddenly he begins to run from the group, flying over the green grass, his legs carrying him faster and faster.
You have been spotted, and when you and your special friend finally meet, you cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again. The happy kisses rain upon your face; your hands again caress the beloved head, and you look once more into the trusting eyes of your pet, so long gone from your life but never absent from your heart.
Then you cross Rainbow Bridge together....


Goodnight, sweet Sydney. I’ll love you and keep you in my heart forever, my unforgettable Woobie Girl.
Sydney Liaguno-Pers
February 26, 2000 – June 15, 2015

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Lying and Dying in ‘Cry_Wolf’ (2005)

A few years after SCREAM reinvigorated the slasher in 1996, competition shows were all the rage on American shores. Physical prowess and endurance were rewarded with large cash prizes and instant celebrity on shows like SURVIVOR, which bowed in May of 2000, and THE AMAZING RACE, which debuted a year later. Likewise, talent was rewarded with cash and – more importantly – opportunity. Talent manager Simon Fuller – onetime manager of The Spice Girls – saw an opportunity to create records and ratings and created a little show called POP IDOL in the UK in 2001 and its U.S. counterpart AMERICAN IDOL a year later in which the winner (and runner-up in most cases) received a lucrative recording contract and an unprecedented launching pad. Aspiring filmmakers found similar opportunity on PROJECT GREENLIGHT, which was created by Alex Keledjian and had the marquee-caliber names of Ben Affleck and Matt Damon producing. The winning filmmaker of PROJECT GREENLIGHT, which also bowed in 2001, was given the chance to direct a feature film.

This seemingly random history lesson in reality competition shows adds an important footnote in framing the inception of CRY_WOLF, which has its roots – financially, at least – in this early period of competition craze. Aspiring filmmaker Jeff Wadlow, a Dartmouth and USC grad and nephew of Katie Couric – won the 2002 Chrysler Million Dollar Film Competition, an Internet contest co-sponsored by Chrysler and Universal in which he and his producing and writing partner, Beau Bauman, were given a mini DV and a laptop and ten days to shoot and edit a brand new short film featuring a Chrysler car. Based on their success in making it through to the top five, the next round of the competition included a two-month filmmakers boot camp-style residency during which they shot a five-minute presentation piece called LIVING THE LIE, a modern-day retelling of Aesop's fable about the boy who cried wolf, starring Topher Grace and Estella Warren. That short was pitched to a panel of industry professionals at the Toronto Film Festival and snared them a feature production deal with Universal and a million dollar budget.

The resulting CRY_WOLF, released in September of 2005, essentially serves as Wadlow’s calling card to genre fans, with an impressive box office return on his modest budget of $10 million domestically and another $5.5 million internationally.

The story – co-penned with Bauman – centers around Owen, a British transfer student to the autumnally resplendent campus of Westlake Preparatory Academy. Owen quickly falls in with a group of privileged mischief-makers who meet at night in the boarding school’s chapel to play a strange variation of the Russian party game Mafia in which a designated shepherd secretly chooses a wolf in the group while the rest are deemed sheep. As the players try to guess the identity of that round’s wolf, each sheep has to make a convincing case / defend his or her honor while the designated wolf hones his or her casual deception skills to avoid detection. Essentially, the best liar wins. Collective boredom – so often the catalyst for subsequent slasher mayhem in movies like this – causes the group to raise the stakes, expanding the playing field to the entire school by creating an elaborate mythology about a fictional serial killer, tying it to the recent real-life murder of a local girl, and sending it out to the student body via an email that quickly goes viral.
Before you can log onto your AOL, instant messages heralding the imminent arrival of a killer matching the group’s description begin popping up on Owen’s computer and the rumor co-conspirators find themselves seemingly stalked like sheep for the slaughter. Red herrings abound as Owen and company try to figure out the masked Wolf’s identity – from a creepy caretaker who’s conspicuously loitering on the fringes of almost every crowd shot to Jon Bon Jovi’s (requisite rocker locks intact) smarmy chess-playing journalism instructor to an chunky fellow student ousted from the roguish clique during the last late-night round of their lying game.

Although Wadlow has a clear affinity for the slasher, with elements of genre classics like APRIL FOOL’S DAY and HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME evident, CRY_WOLF is surprisingly timid for a slasher with the director favoring plot manipulation over archetypal formula trappings. While the film’s minimal gore and low body count might seem like a natural non-starter and the ambitiously labyrinthine plot twists and turns will ring decidedly more Agatha Christie than John Carpenter, this rather inventive giallo-style psychological murder-mystery-horror-thriller (how’s that for sub-genre specificity?) gets points for attempting to bring some ingenuity to the genre’s tired clichés.

Where CRY_WOLF might lose points in terms of comparison against slasher films of the golden era 80’s, it ably gains more than a few when viewed through the post-modern lens established with Wes Craven’s seminal SCREAM. But while Craven looked inward and laughed boisterously outward at his source material, Wadlow looks inward but subtly winks with an almost indiscernible twitch of his eye at the genre’s predecessors from which he drew inspiration. The self-reflectiveness of CRY_WOLF is simultaneously better integrated and sharper than SCREAM’s meta elements, in effect paying a greater deal of reverence to the slasher fan.

Take, for example, the ingenious way Wadlow fashions his villain and the murderous legend surrounding him – with his victims carefully constructing him themselves using a well-established predetermined slasher criteria that includes visual image (orange ski mask, camouflage jacket), a favored weapon (hunting knife), modus operandi (lots of stabbing, disembowelment, and tongue removal), and catchy moniker (The Wolf). In essence, Wadlow makes his teen slasher fodder here complicit in their fates in that they give actual life to their killer through their careful assembly of his traits and then unleashing him onto the world through their elaborate Internet rumor.
Even the politically correct exaggeration of the ethnic diversity of Wadlow’s liars club, while adhering to the slasher’s requisite roll call of stock characters – the do-gooder hero/heroine, the love interest, the jock, the airhead, the slut, the rebel, the token black guy – is a marvelous nod to the self-reference necessary in the post-modern slasher film. But the best in-joke that Wadlow sets up beautifully is in the false foreshadowing of the teens planning to leave their prep school campus for a weekend of unsupervised debauchery at somebody’s remote lake house — and then don’t – is a delightfully clever middle finger to formula and a giant wink to the hardcore fan base. Of note, as well, is Wadlow’s subversion of the pervasive Final Girl trope, tasking Owen with the duties of last boy standing.

From the underscore in the title of the film, which prefigures the electronic communication that’s central to its plot, Wadlow’s other notable achievement with CRY_WOLF is his simultaneous use and subversion of technology within the slasher blueprint. While on the surface it might seem like modern technology – cell phones, Internet access, instant messaging – might dilute the sense of isolation necessary to create tension, Wadlow subverts that idea and proves that it’s access which is truly scary and imperils the film’s victims. Tapping into audiences’ well-founded fears of anonymous online interaction being a conduit for danger, technology here is more detriment than saving grace, with the teens essentially granting the killer access to their world through their high-tech gadgets and gizmos. Death by virtual invitation. Wadlow uses the same technology that would traditionally be used to expose the killer and again subverts its use to one granting the killer subterfuge by allowing him to lurk within the anonymity of the Internet, his computer screen as effectively cloaking his identity as his ski mask. Even the seemingly innocuous use of an iPod and a cheap pair of ear buds – here successors to the precedent blunders of forgotten keys, dropped flashlights, and inopportune underwear-clad excursions into rainstorms – prove to be dangerous miscalculations in Wadlow’s information-age slasher.

Although there’s no one amongst Wadlow’s group of apathetic teens who invent a knife-wielding psycho for giggles with whom to readily sympathize, at least the cast of CRY_WOLF is a few grades above average, with Julian Morris (whose genre credits now include SORORITY ROW, DONKEY PUNCH, and TV’s PRETTY LITTLE LIARS) taking up lead as final boy Owen; standout Lindy Booth (of WRONG TURN and 2004’s DAWN OF THE DEAD remake); and Jared Padalecki (of HOUSE OF WAX, 2009’s FRIDAY THE 13TH reboot, and television’s long-running SUPERNATURAL) being the most distinguishable of the teens-in-peril. Cameo appearances by vets like Gary Cole (of the excellent THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN remake, TV’s THE GOOD WIFE, and myriad other credits including the mid-nineties series AMERICAN GOTHIC) and Anna Deavere Smith (NURSE JACKIE, THE WEST WING) and the aforementioned supporting turn by Bon Jovi (who’s dabbled respectably in acting over the years with a supporting role in the submarine drama U-571 opposite Matthew McConaughey and a ten-episode arc on TV’s ALLY MCBEAL among other credits) lend the needed adult gravitas.

Visually, the film hits all the right notes, with daytime scenes washed in fall-like oranges and reds lending to the academic atmosphere and nighttime interiors inside campus buildings rendered in the appropriate shadows and murk. Of particular note is an impressive scene set in a cavernous library equipped with energy-saving motion-detector lighting that’s used to excellent effect.

The main question that niggles at the film’s detractors seems to be whether genre eventually overwhelms ingenuity or vice versa. Arguably, for some, CRY_WOLF is a serviceable slasher flick disguised as a mystery-thriller; for others, it’s a mystery-thriller disguised as a slasher. Either way, most would agree that the film itself is (pardon the obvious pun) a wolf in sheep’s clothing – it’s left open to debate what clothes it’s wearing. 

Light on gore with a lower than expected body count, CRY_WOLF still deserves its passing grade based on the ambitiousness of its intricate storyline and its underappreciated degree of shrewd self-referentialism. While fundamentally a clone-like composite of every slasher that came before it – like many a good slasher are – CRY_WOLF gets an “A” for effort in trying to step out ahead of the pack. 

Monday, March 23, 2015

Slashback: Family Matters in 'American Gothic' (1988)

With poster art that parodies Grant Wood’s famous painting of the same name, this late entry in the 1980’s slasher boom was more likely to be first discovered amongst the cluttered VHS rental shelves of a video store than in a proper cinema despite being given a modest theatrical release in the spring of 1988.

Rod Steiger and Yvonne DeCarlo topline this slice of Canadian schlock as the psychotic scripture-spouting parents of a backwoods Bible-fearing family of three middle-aged adults with childlike minds and decidedly adult homicidal tendencies. Grown daughter Fanny (Janet Wright) wears her hair in pig tails and totes around a mummified baby in a veiled bassinet; pudgy son Teddy (William Hootkins) has a childish temper matched only by his adult libido; and giggling son Woody (Michael J. Pollard) is a taunting tattletale.  
When three irritating yuppie couples charter a plane for a weekend camping getaway, you know it’s only a matter of seconds after the synthesizer-heavy opening credits before their prop plane’s engine sputters out and the requisite emergency landing strands them on a generic forest-shrouded island of dubious derivation. After establishing that the plane won’t start and the radio won’t work, the hapless slasher fodder set out in search of help, instead stumbling upon the Rockwellian farmhouse of Ma and Pa (the actual character names!).

Although the six ill-fated travelers of AMERICAN GOTHIC are chronologically older than their high school and college-age slasher film predecessors, advanced age does little to aid in the development of internal alarms even after they step into the timeworn time warp of Ma and Pa’s parlor and break bread with the family.
What follows is a by-the-numbers slasher, with dashes of incest, necrophilia, and infanticide thrown in to sweeten the carnage casserole. Like all good slashers, AMERICAN GOTHIC is requisitely cliché-ridden and fans will find much comfort in the film’s essentially intact formula, right down to its killer tagline: The family that slays together stays together. The inventive kills here mimic childhood games – murder by swing and jump rope, eye gouging with a toy soldier's bayonet.

Then – after the largely forgettable cast is systematically slaughtered by the murderous trio of siblings – AMERICAN GOTHIC does something interesting with its final girl, veering from the obligatory chase scene and into the decidedly more grindhouse-gothic territory of early 70’s films like TERROR AT RED WOLF INN. Lone survivor Cynthia (Sarah Torgov) – who we know from flashbacks is of questionable sanity herself following the bathtub drowning death of her baby and a stint in a “clinic” of indiscernible origin – seemingly snaps and is adopted as Ma and Pa’s fourth “child”. Now dressed as Fanny’s clone in shiny black Mary Janes, pink-gingham dress, and pigtails, Cynthia seems right at home with her new wackadoodle family – at least until it’s bath time for Fanny’s baby mummy. Flashing back to her own baby’s death, Cynthia re-snaps and struggles with Fanny for the baby, whose mummified head is ripped from its body in the ensuing scuffle. Baby mummy’s beheading earns Fanny a bloody bludgeoning with a galvanized steel tub and each remaining member of the family their own Cynthia-style comeuppance. Like many a final girl before and after her, poor Cynthia is left abandoned – both physically on the island and mentally in her own mind – to stew in her own insanity, cradling and cooing to her (dead and decapitated) baby mummy.
Although Director John Hough was no stranger to genre fare, having directed THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (1973), THE WATCHER IN THE WOODS (1980), and THE INCUBUS (1982), he never manages to balance the dark humor with the requisite chills necessary to ground the slasher mayhem – and the result is an uneven film that never quite gains a firm footing in either comedy or horror. Still, AMERICAN GOTHIC does manage to achieve the camp factor of the earlier MOTEL HELL in spots when it isn’t dipping its toes into the completely absurd.  Steiger and DeCarlo – questionably slumming it here – chew the scenery with particularly gleeful abandon, later incarnations of Farmer Vincent and his sausage-making sister, Ida. Wright, who bears a passing resemblance to MOTEL’s late Nancy Parsons, is chillingly good as Fanny – putting to rest the question of what would have happened if John Waters ever decided to remake WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BAY JANE? with an adult Shirley Temple in the lead.

Interestingly, Hough may have actually been ahead of his time with AMERICAN GOTHIC and its twisted take on religion and family values years before the evangelical political galvanization here in this country. Although remake-weary audiences are loathe to endure yet another slasher film reboot, reimagining, or recalibration, the timeliness of Hough’s – and screenwriters Burt Wetanson’s and Michael Vines’ – source material may be ripe for some restyling.
By 1988, the golden era of the slasher film had begun its inevitable pop culture fade, retiring for its eight-year nap before SCREAM would re-awaken it, refreshed for at least awhile. Even diehard fans of the popular sub-genre knew it was time to give the slasher a rest when the imitators were being imitated, when films like AMERICAN GOTHIC ripped off earlier HALLOWEEN and FRIDAY THE 13TH rip-offs like JUST BEFORE DAWN and HUMONGOUS.

On the surface, AMERICAN GOTHIC is equal parts corny and well-worn, but – at least on repeated viewings over time – the film washes over like a hallucinogenic fever dream.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Top 14 Singles of 2014

2014 was another banner year in music. And while women (once again) largely dominated my forthcoming list of favorite albums of the year, several gents sneaked their way into my musical consciousness, landing in my annual list of favorite singles. Without further comment (these catchy tunes can speak for themselves, after all), here's my countdown of the Top 14 singles of 2014:

14. "Blame" / Calvin Harris featuring John Newman

13. "This Is The Love" / Spandau Ballet

12. "The Epilogue" / Crosses (†††)

11. "Got Love" / Tove Lo

10. "Don't Wanna Dance / 

9. "Travesty" / Jimmy Somerville

8. "I Was Gonna Cancel" / Kylie Minogue

7. "Ghost" / Ella Henderson

6. "Uptight Downtown" / La Roux

5. "Cannonball" / Lea Michele

4. "Jealous" / Nick Jonas

3. "Digital Witness" / St. Vincent

2. "Fever" / The Black Keys

1. "Sing" / Ed Sheeran

More year-end favorites to come! 

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Women in Hollywood: Clear Skies and Good Visibility

Ladies, start your engines. I’m calling bullshit on the myth that Hollywood discards women of a certain age – namely, the forty-plus set. Internet obsession over Renée Zellweger’s recent red carpet appearance and the endless dissection of her did-she-or-didn’t-she cosmetic surgery choices have dragged up another well-worn hot topic: The purported invisibility of women over 40 in Hollywood. What was once an upwardly trending reality is now nothing more than a myth used – both conveniently and erroneously – in bigger (and more important) discussions on feminist topics.  

It’s an easy fallback for folks to trot out the same old adage about women over 40 in Hollywood being dead, invisible, or [insert your own adjective here] in our (largely) ageist society. But it’s an assertion with little evidence to back it up these days and an old, misleading headline that needs to be retired.

In fact, the opposite is true. Women of a certain age aren't merely enjoying greater visibility on the screen – they’re dominating the field. What’s even better is that these demographic-defying actors come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and ethnicities. Some come au naturel with their marvelous character-defining lines and wrinkles intact, others nipped and tucked and plumped to varying degrees. But they’re here and ever-present – not some forgotten castoffs relegated to background scenes. These women are proving that they've got the acting chops and audience appeal to carry their own shows, and even those in supporting roles are increasingly being elevated with juicy material that renders them veritable scene stealers, in comedic and dramatic arenas alike.  

In ten minutes of free association, I was able to compile the following list of over seventy-five actresses, age 40 and above,  who are currently either headlining or featured as series regulars on TV shows within the past season or two: Juliana Margulies, Téa Leoni, Jessica Lange, Viola Davis, Kathy Bates, Jane Lynch, Bebe Neuwirth, Christine Baranski, Halle Berry, Linda Gray, Vera Farmiga, Margo Martindale, Octavia Spencer, Laurie Metcalf (headlining two shows), Judith Light, Susan Sullivan, Angela Bassett, CCH Pounder, Frances Conroy, Mariska Hartigay, Madeline Stowe, Julia Ormond, Gillian Anderson, Heather Locklear, Dame Maggie Smith, Famke Jensen, Melissa McCarthy, Swoosie Kurtz, Toni Collette, Tina Fey, Debra Messing, Alison Janney, Madeline Stowe, Wendi McLendon-Covey,  Jackie Weaver, Edie Falco, Holland Taylor, Robin Wright, Laura Linney, Laura Dern, Amy Brenneman, Betty White, Valerie Bertinelli, Fran Drescher, Jane Leeves, Wendie Malick, Connie Britton, Kate Burton, Bellamy Young, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Katey Sagal, Anna Gunn, Elizabeth McGovern, Linda Hunt, Jessica Walter, Patricia Heaton, Courtney Cox, Laura Leighton, Elisabeth Shue, Frances Fisher, Joan Cusack, Ann Dowd, Sherry Stringfield, Sophia Vergara, Julie Bowen, Susan Lucci, Rebecca Wisocky, Roselyn Sanchez, Mary McDonnell, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Stockard Channing, Marcia Gay Harden, Carrie Preston, Virginia Madsen, Mädchen Amick, Nancy Travis, Kate Walsh, Andrea Parker, Dee Wallace, Conchata Ferrell, Courtney Thorne-Smith , and Mimi Kennedy, with Alfre Woodard, Melissa Leo, and Carla Gugino slated to soon join them. And this was without trying; there are likely more.

Even vets like Shirley MacLaine, Linda Lavin, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tyne Daly, Dame Diana Rigg, Lili Taylor, Megan Mullally, Elizabeth Perkins, Margaret Colin, Veronica Cartwright, Mare Winningham, June Squibb, Carol Kane, Rita Moreno, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Morgan Fairchild, Patricia Kalember, Gail O’Grady, and the late Elizabeth Peña have shown up recently in meaty guest roles on hit TV shows.

Women in the 40+ demographic were also well-represented in the 2014-2015 pilot TV season, with Jamie Lee Curtis, Rosie Perez, Paget Brewster, Sharon Gless, Molly Shannon, Felicity Huffman, Tracy Ullman, Meg Ryan, Margaret Cho, Marcia Cross, Mary-Louise Parker, Patricia Wettig, and Ellen Burstyn (who’s nonetheless been a visible TV presence in adaptations of two V.C. Andrews’ novels for Lifetime) all attached to shows vying for slots on the network’s fall and midseason schedules.

Women are faring well in feature films as well, headlining blockbusters and dominating nominations throughout awards season. Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Jennifer Aniston, Cameron Diaz, Glenn Close, Dame Judi Dench, Dame Helen Mirren, Emma Thompson, Julia Roberts, Melissa McCarthy (again), Naomi Watts, Nicole Kidman, Tilda Swinton, Sigourney Weaver, Susan Sarandon, Diane Lane, Helena Bonham Carter, Julianne Moore, Marisa Tomei, Bette Midler, Jodie Foster, Sally Field, Diane Keaton, Joan Allen, Sela Ward, and, of course, Meryl Streep – all viable, all working.

Even in a traditionally male-oriented market like horror, women of a certain age are being afforded great reverence and opportunity. Lifetime’s recent adaptation of Stephen King’s novella BIG DRIVER featured a mostly female cast, all over the age of 40: Maria Bello (47), Joan Jett (56), Ann Dowd (58), and Olympia Dukakis (83). TALES OF POE, an anthology film by Bart Mastronardi and Alan Rowe Kelly, features genre vets Adrienne King, Amy Steel, Lesleh Donaldson, Desiree Gould, Debbie Rochon, and Caroline Williams – all actresses well into their 40s and 50s, some of whom have worked only intermittently since their earlier heydays. Or there’s THE SURVIVORS, a project currently in development by William Butler, which is slated to feature a veritable who’s who of final girls and femme fatales, all of whom are 40-plus.

In horror-themed series television, Ryan Murphy seems to be the pied piper of actresses over 40, creating attention-grabbing dream roles and single-handedly making last names like Lange and Bates water cooler-worthy topics of conversation. Arguably, THE WALKING DEAD’s most popular character right now is Carol Peletier, a strong, pragmatic zombie-survivalist who’s kicking ass and taking names – played by 49-year-old Melissa McBride. To note, THE WALKING DEAD is viewed by upwards of 15 million people per week.

But, admittedly, there are roles that women over the age of forty are routinely being locked out of: The ingénue. And that’s because (wait for it) they’re no longer ingénues. There’s a difference between realism and relevance that gets muddied when these misguided laments start. No, Goldie Hawn can’t pull off the ditzy ingénue anymore like she was lucky enough to do well into her early 40s in films like PROTOCOL, WILDCATS, and OVERBOARD. No filler or lifestyle lift can bring those offers back to her. Jamie Lee Curtis can’t likely perform a striptease like she did in TRUE LIES again and expect to achieve the same effect on audiences that she did at the age of 36. No amount of Activia or clean living is going to contradict that fact. But neither of these actors is less than because of those age-related realities, nor is either rendered less relevant because of them. As mentioned earlier, Curtis – at age 55 – was the lead in a CBS pilot this past year, and she remains attached to an ABC Family pilot. She guested on three episodes of FOX’s THE NEW GIRL in 2014, shot a film with George Lopez and Marisa Tomei, and showed up in a cameo role in the VERONICA MARS movie. She’s far from irrelevant.

Bringing it back full circle to the topic that started me down this road of thought, Ms. Zellweger is a seasoned Hollywood player, not a naïve ingénue. She knew exactly what she was doing when she stepped out onto that red carpet and what kind of reaction it would elicit when she did so, smiling and posing for photographers. Unless she's lived under a rock, she knew exactly the kind of scrutiny her appearance would bring and what kind of media trolls it would summon. Now she's getting more media attention and sympathy for the vitriol hurled by the Internet hobgoblins than she's had in years. Sorry, but she (and her publicist) knew exactly what they were doing and have played their hand exceptionally well. When was the last time Renée Zellweger was a top-trending topic anywhere?  PEOPLE, VANITY FAIR, THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER...almost every major entertainment media outlet is spinning this in a Zellweger-positive direction. You couldn't buy this kind of publicity. In our celebrity-obsessed pop culture, the haters are going to hate least exploit that hate and gain some seriously good PR for a talented actress who stepped out of the limelight a long time ago.

It's called a silver lining.

Mark my words: There’s a new movie or TV role announcement forthcoming that will welcome yet another actress of a certain age back into the fold. Bet on it.