Posts Tagged ‘Frank Oz’

From the Hootoo archive. Originally published August 5th 2004:

Oh, dear: another classic SF thriller broken on the wheel of pointless reinvention. Isn’t this where I came in? I refer, of course, to The Stepford Wives, a thriller by Ira Levin made into a rather fine film by Bryan Forbes in 1975, and into a rotten one by Miss Piggy now.

Nicole Kidman plays Joanna Eberhart, a TV executive responsible for many cruel reality game shows: these are supposed to be over-the-top parodies but actually aren’t that far off from where TV is right now (and so aren’t particularly funny). After a disgruntled participant goes on a shooting spree, Joanna gets the shove from her network and has a comedy nervous breakdown (we don’t get to see the comedy electro-shock treatment she receives). She and her husband Walter (Matthew Broderick) decide to move to the idyllic gated community of Stepford, Conneticut.

Stepford is a place where men are men and women are domesticated: they cheerfully do all the cooking, cleaning, and washing up, all the while managing to keep their smiles perfect and their nails intact. This is, of course, anathema to a modern woman like Nicole and she rapidly begins to suspect there’s more to this place than meets the eye. But it soon becomes apparent that anyone who doesn’t fit in receives a thorough and not entirely voluntary makeover to suit the intentions of the town’s founders…

(We have reached an awkward point in this review. I would hate to spoil the central plot-twist of the Forbes version, as it’s central to the movie – which, as I say, is rather good. But I can’t really talk about the Piggy version without giving it away. So, if you know the twist, read on. If you don’t, just steer well clear of the new movie and stop reading at this point. Okay? Okay.)

The thing about the original Stepford Wives was that it was a twist ending movie: that was what made it memorable. The problem is that the nature of the twist is pretty widely known by now: ‘Stepford Wife’ has become a shorthand term for a certain kind of unreconstructed home-maker or domesticated woman. I would guess a lot of people going to see this movie already know the twist, which gives the film a major problem in trying to generate any kind of tension or surprise. And to be honest it doesn’t try to, or at least not especially hard. It actually seems a bit unsure as to whether it wants to at least try to make the surprise work, or simply to assume that everyone already knows and just wink at them about it throughout. The result is that the big revelation is a damp squib for the entire audience rather than just part of it.

That’s one big problem for the film, but the biggest is that this is supposed to be a comedy version of the story. The fact that it isn’t particularly funny is bad enough, but I find it hard to believe that anyone seriously thought that such a creepy, paranoid and grim tale could honestly be made to yield up big laughs. This isn’t a dark, witty comedy, either: it’s a broad, frothy, camp farce. And it doesn’t work. The film can’t sustain this tone – the darkness of the original story keeps oozing back to the surface in the form of some genuinely unsettling moments (Broderick’s very decent performance would be pitch-perfect for a ‘serious’ Stepford remake), before vanishing again under a torrent of chronic overacting from Glenn Close. The comic tone even demands that a new ending be tacked on, which not only undermines one of the great last scenes in cinema history (the final scene of the Forbes version is repeated here, then lampooned shortly afterwards), but makes the film internally inconsistent: at some points the Stepford wives are android replicas, as before – but at others they are just the originals, surgically modified. It’s a mess.

And at least in the Forbes version you knew who to blame: the evil old chauvinists of the Stepford Mens’ Association. Katherine Ross, who played the Kidman part in the Forbes version, was just a regular person, who really didn’t deserve to be replaced by an android. But the Piggy version wilfully messes this up: the women in this are all wild overachievers, the sort of ‘superwomen’ certain ‘quality tabloids’ in the UK constantly have it in for. The implication is that the men are sort of justified in wanting to have them replaced by proper women. But both before and after their ‘modification’ the women are just grotesque stereotypes: bitches or bimbos. There isn’t a two-dimensional character in the whole movie.

Oh, well. I suppose there are a few quite funny lines, Broderick isn’t that bad, and David Arnold’s score deserves to be attached to a rather better film than this one… but on the whole this is a real mess of a film that slimes the memory of a good one. Stick to acting, Miss Piggy.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published May 2nd 2002: 

The early 1980s were a bright time if you wanted to get a science fiction or fantasy film made. The resounding global box-office ka-ching made by That Franchise was still ringing in the ears of financiers and studios everywhere and a string of similarly-themed films followed, some inspired, others derivative. One of the most interesting of these was The Dark Crystal, directed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz and released in 1982.

Set in ‘another world, another time’; the film tells the story of a troubled land. Since the three suns were last in conjunction, a thousand years before, the all-powerful dark crystal has been under the control of the grotesque vulture-like Skeksis. Knowing that prophecy foretells their destruction at the hands of a member of the Gelfling race, the Skeksis have all but exterminated this gentle people – but there are still a few left. One such is Jen, who has been raised in secrecy by the wise and gentle Mystics. But now conjunction approaches again and Jen must set out to restore light to the crystal, or else the world will be ruled by the Skeksis forevermore…

It sounds a fairly trite and clichéd story and, to be fair, it is. The story isn’t especially inventive, and isn’t helped by David Odell’s script: the dialogue is mundane and unsubtle and one of the main plot revelations is telegraphed right from the very beginning. There’s also very little sense of a wider world occurring beyond the characters and locations of the story, something which is surely the hallmark of all great fantasy films.

But The Dark Crystal remains a unique film for the simple reason that it doesn’t contain a single human face; every creature, every character is a puppet of some kind. Henson and Oz were, of course, the two leading creators of the Muppets and this was their first attempt to turn their skills and those of their colleagues (principally Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire, and Louise Gold) to dramatic rather than comedic ends. And, simply judged in terms of its technical achievement, the film is stunning.

Based on concept paintings by Brian Froud, the creations range from large men-in-suits (or on stilts) monsters, to tiny glove puppet creatures. It has to be said that the designers are most successful with the ominous and horrific, as the films’ star turns are the grotesque Skeksis and the multi-limbed Mystics – the more human-like Gelflings and Podlings are less memorable and convincing. For a two-decade-old film, the animatronics and other special techniques remain deeply impressive. So impressive, in fact that they threaten to overshadow the other strengths of the film: a majestic score by Trevor Jones, an appropriately otherworldly atmosphere, and some effective vocal performances, particularly that of Billie Whitelaw as the seeress Aughra.

And The Dark Crystal does seem closer to That Franchise than many of its contemporaries – not in simplistic or obvious ways, either. This is probably due to the fact that it had some of the same personnel. Producer Gary Kurtz had previous carried out the same duties on a couple of popular science-fiction films made by a Mr G. Lucas, the latter of which Frank Oz had worked on as an actor and puppeteer (Aughra, appropriately enough, looks and behaves like the hybrid offspring of Oz’s most famous creations, Miss Piggy and Yoda). There’s a hint of Jabba’s palace to the scenes of the Skeksis and their castle, and one scene near the beginning uncannily anticipates an almost identical one in Return of the Jedi. The touchy-feely philosophy of the film is probably down to Henson’s own hippy roots, though.

Ultimately, though, The Dark Crystal couldn’t match the success of more conventional fantasy pictures. Except in terms of the puppets themselves and their operation, it’s not even up to the standard of contemporaries like Dragonslayer and Krull. But it’s far more memorable than either of those. Once seen, you may not think much of it, but you’ll definitely remember it.

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