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Autumn Disappointments from Sitcom Nirvana to Nazi Horror

by Andy Dursin

Halloween weekend is shaping up to be a good one for viewers, both at home and in theaters. JOHN CARPENTER'S VAMPIRES finally receives its long-awaited American debut on Friday thanks to Columbia, who picked up what is supposed to be one of Carpenter's best for theatrical distribution.

On the small screen, there are several noteworthy films and specials worth seeking out. Stay tuned for a look at the haunting CBS Special Presentation logo mystery after this week's reviews--one for PLEASANTVILLE, another for APT PUPIL, which both opened this weekend to mixed box office results and broader, though some wildly overpraised, critical views.

New in Theaters

PLEASANTVILLE (**): Gary Ross's PLEASANTVILLE is a film that possesses a single idea--the world of picture-perfect, '50s TV sitcom nirvana is just a facade, a dream that doesn't really exist. Those picket fences and happy fathers who come home to their wife-prepared meals and deliriously chirpy kids are nothing but a sham, since perfection is something that exists solely in the mind of the individual. What may be ideal for you may be someone else's nightmare.

Great, point taken. Now what? That's the problem with PLEASANTVILLE, a visually stimulating but otherwise empty fantasy that is never as insightful, much less dramatic or emotional, as it wants to be, and dooms itself with a funeral-like pace and a repetitious theme that ultimately offers mixed messages and a definite lack of dramatic substance.

Toby Maguire stars as a young, nerdish teen who ends up being literally zapped into the black-and-white world of "Pleasantville," a '50s OZZIE & HARRIET or LEAVE IT TO BEAVER clone, with his rebellious sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon, in a role that disintegrates in importantness as the movie goes along). Their TV parents are played by William H. Macy and Joan Allen, and as you would guess, they're repressed robots who live in separate beds and know nothing of the true pleasures of the real world. Which, of course, applies to everyone in Pleasantville, where milkmen appear like clockwork every morning, schools never address anything outside the parameters of the town, and you can count on a milkshake and a hamburger down at the Malt Shop run by reliable Jeff Daniels.

The teens find themselves living within the show's guidelines, yet soon find themselves breaking out of it. The promiscuous Jen decides to fool around with a clean-cut high schooler in the backseat at Lover's Lane, and thereby introduces splashes of color and real feeling into the black-and-white town. One by one, the townspeople find themselves turning into real people by discovering "reality," as designated by their color (or lack of it). Soon, most everyone decides to break out of their shells, from Allen's gradually awakening housewife to Daniels, who decides he's better off painting than grilling burgers, though ultimately all at the cost of introducing hatred and contempt in the form of "anti-colored" laws enacted by mayor J.T. Walsh, who doesn't like the way folks are acting.

Ross, making his directorial debut here, obviously had a strong sense of visual design in mind when he wrote PLEASANTVILLE. There are countless striking images of primary colors set against the mundane background, and there are a few scenes in the movie that really soar. Maguire gives a terrific performance that anchors the movie, and Randy Newman's subdued score reaches for emotion without becoming too maudlin.

Unfortunately, preachy and heavy-handed is what PLEASANTVILLE ultimately becomes, not to mention meandering and dull. The opening scenes of Witherspoon and Maguire in the town cry out for laughs, and yet the situation is never once exploited to its comic potential. They are, after all, supposed to be living in a sitcom world, but there's hardly anything amusing about the predicaments they find themselves in, or the behavior of most of the residents. One early scene, glimpsed in trailers, shows Maguire effortlessly shooting one successful foul shot after another in the gymnasium, but this sequence is quickly forgotten about and the film settles into a routine series of "awakening" sequences showing the black-and-white kids turning to color, the backdrops, and so forth. Few supporting characters are developed, even though the movie is so hung up on its principal theme that it fails to properly develop any credible interaction between even its lead characters--the movie's plot takes the turns that it does because its conventions dictate so, not because the characters believably set it in motion. It's also a movie where there's no middle ground--the '90s teens are always, thoroughly correct in their teachings to the PLEASANTVILLE residents, something that makes PLEASANTVILLE oddly like a typical '80s teen comedy where the kids were always right and adults befuddled fools who would be taught life lessons by their children. Ross seems to completely miss the fact that a consequence to Maguire and Witherspoon's actions is that Allen decides to act on her newfound self-awareness by instantly going out and committing adultery with Daniels--if anything, the filmmaker congratulates her for it.

Even more curious is how Ross tends to lose his focus as the film goes along, hammering home the same message time after time, and utterly losing control of the movie by the end, where PLEASANTVILLE builds up to a climax that is neither interesting or emotional. Walsh's contempt for the "coloreds" is poorly developed and the scenes of "gang violence" are almost embarrassing to behold, so cliched and thinly defined in Ross's script that they feel like an afterthought, as if a climax of this nature had to be inserted simply because the formula dictated it. PLEASANTVILLE also drops the ball on building upto Maguire's final realization that "perfection" isn't truly perfect, something that the movie's last scene effectively conveys, since Maguire's story gets lost amidst the shuffle of the mob uprising and Allen and Daniels's relationship. It's a shame that Ross didn't simply use Maguire's character as a springboard for the movie's plot, since the film could have been just as effective without Witherspoon's needless heroine (after introducing the town to color--a plot device--she has nothing to do but discover reading), the overdone finale, or the uncomfortable, mixed messages sent out by the relationship between Allen and Daniels (not to mention yet another masturbation sequence that could have easily been left on the cutting room floor). The film tries to say that promiscuous sex is dangerous at the outset, but if the actions of the Pleasantville residents are any indication of the film's real "values" (a word that Ross attacks at one point through Walsh's dialogue), then aren't promiscuous sex and adultery to be commended, and marriage and dating ancient relics of another period?

PLEASANTVILLE is always pretty to look at and visually imaginative, yet much like WHAT DREAMS MAY COME, there's nothing much going on underneath the surface here that adds up to anything. It's curious how, in a movie that seems to strike out against bigotry, there isn't a single minority in the entire film, and how sex and the Public Library are supposedly intertwined (a few jumbled messages here, no?) as symbols of self-actualization. So, making out in the backseat and reading "Catcher in the Rye" are supposed to lead to the same thing?

The world of '50s nostalgia and FATHER KNOWS BEST is such an easy target to criticize, since it never existed to begin with--not even in the '50s, where there was far more to the actual culture of that time than the squeaky clean towns seen in this film and old TV reruns (by 1958, this film's setting, already political and cultural changes were in action, not to mention that it was Elvis--not Perry Como--burning up the charts). Ross would like us to pat him on the back for creating a world where individuality, and not conformity, are to be idealized, but this is an idea we've all seen before, and executed far better at that. Much of PLEASANTVILLE just sits there and creaks along at a snail's pace, rarely delving into the emotional relationships of the characters or the comic possibilities of the situation, and rams the same idea home over and over, like a broken record. After 125 minutes, we get the picture, regardless of how visually striking it may be. (125 mins, PG-13, *** score by Randy Newman on Varese next month)


APT PUPIL (**): Another undercooked stew from filmmaker Bryan Singer, a follow-up to his vastly overpraised debut picture THE USUAL SUSPECTS.

Ian McKellen plays a Nazi now an elderly neighbor to high schooler Brad Renfro during the mid 1980s. For reasons never fully explained in Singer's script (very loosely adapted from a Stephen King novella in "Different Seasons"), Renfo becomes obsessed with McKellen and Nazism, leading him to blackmail McKellen into telling him of the horrors of WWII Germany.

The performances, particularly by McKellen, are fine, but this is a one-note and tedious thriller that tends to sensationalize its subject matter more than pay proper respect to it. The first half of the film is noticeably choppy, leaving out integral narrative elements like explaining what's making the unhinged Renfro tick from the moment the movie starts. Without a connection between the audience and the young protagonist--a mere understanding of his personality would have been sufficient--the rest of the drama doesn't lure us into its web of deceit, lies, and possible murder, and the predictably "ironic" ending you can see coming from a mile away. (110 mins, R, **1/2 score by John Ottman on RCA Victor)


Mail Bag: The "CBS Special Presentation logo" revealed!

I received handfuls of emails in response to last week's question about the origins of the infamous, goofy "A CBS Special Presentation" logo, which would precede all Charlie Brown specials and variety programs when most of us were growing up. For once, this is one mystery we don't need Robert Stack to help us solve!

From Neil Shurley:

    Andy: Reading through today's aisle seat I was reminded of the time I purchased the Hawaii 5-0 soundtrack album, back in 85 or 86, and was shocked to discover that the CBS Special Presentation percussive thing was an edited version of one of the tracks from this album. In fact it's from the second track, entitled Call to Danger.

From Chris Nagel:

    The goofy "A CBS Special Presentation" logo that used to run before all kids (and all) specials--with the swirling circle and the crazy percussion, topped by a full orchestra blaring at the end--was edited from the Hawaii Five-O soundtrack .

    My dad had this LP and I tried to create the version used by CBS on a cassette recorder but could never get it to work. And I thought I was the only one who paid attention to opening logos!!!

    A great article.

Thanks to Chris, Neil, and everyone else who answered my call to trivia fans last week.

Imagine my surprise when, upon driving around last Friday night, Boston D.J. "Joe Cortez" opened his 7pm shift on WBMX (98.5 FM) by playing that very opening CBS logo! Whether or not this came from a CD or (more likely) was taped from a VHS source just like so many of us FSM folks would do, it was definitely strange to hear that after last week's discussion!

Halloween TV listings

Speaking of Peanuts classics, look for CBS to show IT'S THE GREAT PUMPKIN, CHARLIE BROWN Friday night at 8pm EST, followed by the mid-80s GARFIELD HALLOWEEN special.

To be expected, both Turner Classic Movies and American Movie Classics will be airing some classic chillers this week. AMC's "Monsterfest" commences Friday, 10/30 at 9pm EST with a documentary on haunted houses in Hollywood, hosted by William Shatner himself. AMC follows with a screening of THEM! and continues to air horror treats right through Sunday morning, including a plethora of Roger Corman-Poe adaptations with Vincent Price, and a few Hammer movies thrown into the mix. TCM's line up includes more vintage fare, with many Val Lewton-RKO classics dominating their programming schedule, which starts airing all-genre films Thursday night, 10/29 with a letterboxed POLTERGEIST at 10pm EST. Cinemax, meanwhile, counters with a triple-feature of George Romero's CREEPSHOW, DAWN OF THE DEAD, and MARTIN--all hosted by Romero himself--beginning Halloween night at 10pm EST. And as they say, check your local listings for other appropriate frightfests that will be airing this week!

NEXT WEEK... New Hammer DVDs and JOHN CARPENTER'S VAMPIRES. Until then, send all relevant comments to dursina@worldnet.att.net, and have a Happy Halloween!


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