Rotting away with “Death Becomes Her,” returning to the Swansony roots of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and mourning Robin Harris in “Bebe’s Kids.”
Death Becomes Her
Nutshell: When her beloved finance, plastic surgeon Dr. Ernest (Bruce Willis), is stolen by lifelong frenemy and vain actress Madeline (Meryl Streep), Helen (Goldie Hawn) spirals into obesity and obsession. Years later, Madeline and Dr. Ernest have grown to hate each other, with the monstrous celebrity doing whatever she can to prevent the aging process, eventually turning to the mystical Lisle von Rhoman (Isabella Rossellini), a half-naked temptress selling magical potions guaranteeing eternal youth. Gulping down a glowing elixir, Madeline is transformed, only to find Helen returning from obscurity, looking just as fabulous. What begins as a sociable reunion quickly devolves into murder attempts, leaving the women battered, twisted, and unable to die, putting Dr. Ernest in a peculiar situation to help his ladyloves with his skill as a reconstructive mortician.
1992: It’s a credit to Universal Pictures that they could turn “Death Becomes Her” into a moviegoing mini-event. Considering the film’s rather intimate playing field of betrayals and murder, the feature had to have something special to stand out from the rest of the pack, besides elevated acting pedigree in Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn, and Bruce Willis (who was in career clean-up mode after 1991’s “Hudson Hawk”). “Death Becomes Her” had visual effects, a ton of ‘em, and every bit of pre-release marketing and buzz trumpeted the incredible artistry on display. It seemed like every time the movie was mentioned, there was an extended discussion of the actors enduring countless hours perfecting meticulous moves to help director Robert Zemeckis create his vision for this macabre comedy. By the time the picture was released, I knew more about the technical credits than I did the film itself.
And “Death Becomes Her” was an event in a way, providing a genuinely strange viewing experience that offered mixed-to-hearty laughs and a robust sense of the peculiar. The Brichives offer muted praise for the movie, excited with its nutty sense of humor and crazy visuals, with special attention paid to the commitment of the actors, showing remarkable patience with the elaborate antics Zemeckis (fresh off his draining “Back to the Future” sequels experience) was keen to explore. The feature wasn’t quite the rocketship to Mars as promised, losing consistency rolling into the third act, and there was a slight disappointment with that realization as the end credits rolled. “Death Becomes Her” was crazy, but I suppose I was hunting for ka-razy.
2012: Around the time of “Death Becomes Her,” Zemeckis was involved in the production of HBO’s “Tales from the Crypt,” the famous horror anthology show. It appears the experience rubbed off on him, as “Death” resembles a feature-length “Tales” episode, unfortunately lacking any trace of vampire hookers and Dennis Miller clutching a super soaker dripping holy water. The grisly attitude works for the picture, carrying an anarchic atmosphere of feverish performances and bizarre acts of body trauma, caught somewhere between a Three Stooges short and a Lucio Fulci production. “Death Becomes Her” is a wild movie, clearly acting as a bamboo backscratcher for the filmmaker after spending tense years of his life exploring time travel with Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd.
The only genuine drawback of the feature is the climax, a sprawling presentation of slapstick comedy and celebrity lampoon that’s too big for the rather modest story that precedes it. Zemeckis overstuffs to make a lasting impression, drawing out the picture past its expiration date, weakening its manic spirit by forcefully fitting a loose, cartwheeling idea for structure, and it doesn’t work. In fact, nothing concerning character or motivation clicks in the movie, which is always at its best just drinking in the insanity, carried successfully by the inventive visual effects. Sure, some of the head-twists and smooshes look dated (poor eyelines are the first to give the illusion away), but the general ghoulishness of the effort remains intact, still providing a few jolts when body parts tear or shatter, and the more comedic murder attempts maintain laughs. “Death Becomes Her” is shallow, but that’s not exactly a complaint, especially when it’s obvious Zemeckis having so much fun with the filmmaking elements, handed a rare chance to make sweet clowning love to Streep’s imposing dramatic legacy.
Speaking of the master actress, she’s a wonderful sport. Although her career was a little aimless at the time (coming off “She-Devil,” “Postcards from the Edge,” and the brilliant “Defending Your Life”), her thespian concentration remains unequalled, giving herself over to complicated visual effect demands, raging displays of vanity, and a little uncharacteristic sex appeal, running around in tastefully risqué outfits with Hawn (who’s also fully committed, losing herself inside fat suits and behind demonic contact lenses). Willis plays body-seizing shock with ease, but he’s miscast, requiring the services of a more outwardly expressive actor in tune with his panic button reactions. As for Rossellini…humna-humna-humna…but that’s the point. It’s such a boldly sexual role of otherworldly enticement and meticulous body jewelry placement, making quite an impression, and she’s having a blast personifying pure temptation.
“Death Becomes Her” is highly amusing, but there’s nothing to the feature beyond cheap thrills and a few laughs. It’s a clever satire of jealousy and the rabid pursuit of eternal youth, content to make a mess out of A-listers and poke fun at industry anxieties. The movie just never advances past the showcase stage, making it feel like empty calories.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Nutshell: A popular high schools senior with terrific fashion sense and a hunky jock boyfriend, Buffy (Kristy Swanson) is blown away by the revelation that she’s next in line to be trained as a fearsome vampire hunter, guided by guru Merrick (Donald Sutherland). Trained in the art of stake attacks, Buffy grows into an imposing destroyer of monsters, timed to the rise of vampire lord Lothos (Rutger Hauer), who looks to build a bloodsucking army out of the local high school kids, with burnout Oliver (Luke Perry) narrowly missing his chance to join the ranks of the undead.
1992: I know it’s hard to believe, but there was once a time when “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” wasn’t a powerhouse cult television show, but a teen comedy from 20th Century Fox, a studio that had no idea what to do with a little chiller brandishing a cheeky title guaranteed to turn off 80% of moviegoers. It was a nutty era. Back when Kristy Swanson was sought out for lead roles, Luke Perry in a movie was generally considered a positive thing, and the credit “Screenplay by Joss Whedon” meant absolutely nothing. How times have changed.
My memories of “Buffy” aren’t colored by the television series that bloomed from the wreckage of the feature film (debuting in 1997). I tuned in on two occasions, watched Sarah Michelle Gellar act and heard references to the Backstreet Boys, and tuned out. Despite an ardent fanbase that pushed the program as some form of pop culture cure-all, the show just wasn’t for me. However, I was mildly impressed with the movie at the time, catching it twice during its theatrical run. I’m not entirely sure why I craved a second bite of “Buffy,” but I’m sure it had something to do with ogling Swanson for an extended amount of time. Sadly, my teen moviegoing choices carried that type of predictability.
The Brichives expose a distaste for Whedon’s “horrible” script -- a hastily scribbled opinion I could legally be murdered for having in 2012. Finding the feature’s overly cutesy touches with the titular character’s Southern California sass to be cringe-inducing, much of the script’s appeal was lost on me. However, I did praise Swanson’s work, which required an elevated physicality from the actress, who achieved plausible position as a feared killer of ghouls. Perhaps I wasn’t prepared for such candied wit to emerge from my screen heroines at the time. Whedon’s spell did nothing for me, though the film did possess an absolute genre appeal when it stepped away from drippy joke mode. However, in later years as the ringleader of the “Buffy” series, Whedon would come to distance himself from his own creation (while still accepting a writing credit), claiming director Fran Rubel Kazui changed much of his original work.
Ah well. That’s Hollywood for ya.
2012: Okay, so maybe Whedon was right. It’s been a long time since I’ve even thought about the big screen “Buffy” adventure, making this fresh viewing revelatory in many ways. It’s a shockingly stiff movie, caught between the script’s interests in darker areas of vampire hunter concerns and the pink-frosted concoction movie director Fran Rubel Kuzui wants to make. The tug of war leaves the movie paralyzed, unable to find a secure tone and launch itself forward as a rollicking stake-thrusting tale of one teen’s heroic awakening. The valley girl lexicon remains punishing and woefully dated, but it’s easier to spot Whedon’s fingerprints in 2012, which quickly begin to resemble claw marks as ghoulish work from the future king of the geeks is gradually suffocated by Kuzui’s clunky vision for the picture. Although it was a high profile Fox release for the summer of 1992, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” often resembles a 1987 Albert Pyun production. I’m sure Whedon wasn’t prepared for that.
“Buffy” isn’t a disaster, just surprisingly leaden. The mix of horror and comedy never gels properly, swinging wildly from Buffy’s fashion and high school concerns to the slightly unnerving presence of Lothos, a fanged figure of alleged romance and culture who eats the occasional kitten when feeling a bit peckish. “Buffy” hopes to make its audience alternate between laughs and screams, but the balance is way out of Kuzui’s directorial abilities. Her ideas for spooky stuff are neon lighting and smoke machines, while comedic relief is placed in the care of Luke Perry. The script never had a chance to soar. Better is Paul Rubens as vamp sidekick Amilyn, but even the mighty Pee-Wee/Spleen/Prince Gerhardt Habsburg can’t find a clear way to hilarity, nudged toward camp to slap some life into to feature. “Buffy” isn’t funny or scary, it’s just mediocre, slowly losing interest in itself as Kuzui runs out of imagination.
Swanson deserves plenty of credit for what works in the picture, delivering a spirited performance as the titular hunter. She carries herself quite nicely, believable as a flippy harbinger of vamp doom, while convincing as a sparkly teenager riding a wave of popularity and cheerleader glory. She’s fun to watch, while Sutherland brings his usual gravity to a frivolous role, though he seems to be nodding off during a few scenes. The general wooden staging of the movie comes to kill every performance (even the bad ones). Kuzui distracts with her clunky angles and sluggish timing, making 80 minutes of supposed merriment and creeps feel interminable. Action sequences fair a little better, with an amusing concentration on gymnastic abilities to flavor Buffster’s killing prowl.
When all else fails the movie, there’s a supporting cast of famous faces to enjoy.
There’s Hilary Swank pretending to be cool.
Stephen Root trying to shape his flimsy principal role into a comedic force.
Natasha Gregson Wagner. Remember her? The ‘90’s indie princess shows up in a bit part.
A virtually unrecognizable Thomas Jane (billed as “Tom Janes”).
David Arquette is here being intentionally obnoxious. Or maybe not. Tough to tell.
Ricki Lake for some reason.
And a hungry Ben Affleck way before fame.
By the time the Big Dance finale finally arrives, the life has already been drained out of the feature. There’s also major concern with the romantic paring of Buffy and Oliver, especially when the rest of the film displays the slack-jawed witness to be a buffoon and an alcoholic. While Buffy grows into an expert monster hunter over the course of the adventure, her taste in men takes a severe dive. The love story is ridiculous, shoehorned into the picture to placate teen viewers and take advantage of Perry’s perplexing status as a dreamboat.
She would’ve been better off dating Lothos.
Nutshell: Robin Harris (voiced by Faizon Love) is hunting for his next romance, finding attention pulled to single mother Jamika (Vanessa Bell Calloway). Looking to impress his love interest, Robin offers to take Jamika and son Leon (Wayne Collins, Jr.) to the Fun World theme park for a day of amusement, only to find she’s babysitting friend Bebe’s kids, Kahlil (Marques Houston), LeShawn (Jonell Green), and Pee-Wee (Tone-Loc). Three terribly behaved children out to destroy everything they come into contact with, Bebe’s kids go crazy inside Fun World, getting Leon into trouble and working diligently to spoil Robin’s private time with Jamika.
1992: Although I only had a few opportunities to enjoy his sense of humor, comedian Robin Harris made a quick impression. His clotted-throat release of insults and irritations was used to wonderful effect in “House Party,” where I, like everyone else, marveled over the man’s sense of timing and capacity for bizarre one-liners. Harris’s cocktail-hour presence was perfectly alien to a boy like me, but there was a thrill in watching him work a scene, his mind racing to pull out a verbal trump card that would land a laugh and a perfect editorial exit.
Harris died in 1990 (a few weeks after the release of “House Party”) at the age of 36 (gulp). With his star on the rise at the time, the decision was made to turn what was likely to be his first starring role into an animated feature. Based on his famous stand-up bit, “Bebe’s Kids” was a landmark production highlighting an African-American cast, infiltrating multiplexes with an urban sense of humor. Pushing forward as a PG-13 cartoon experience (arriving a few weeks after “Cool World,” confusing inattentive parents further), “Bebe’s Kids” carried an edgy vibe, even though the material was considerably diluted from Harris’s original routine. Still, with a few musical numbers and a general farcical tone, the movie met mainstream standards, hoping to attract more of a young adult crowd.
With a lukewarm marketing campaign that attempted to sell the production’s stand-up origins mixed with traditional animated shenanigans, “Bebe’s Kids” was greeted with confusion and audience disinterest, cycling through theaters quickly. I certainly enjoyed the viewing experience. While I didn’t appreciate the musical numbers at the time (my hip-hop antennae were not fully formed), I enjoyed the cartoon frolics and the chance to hang with Harris one last time, brought to life through impressive vocal mimicry from Faizon Love. “Bebe’s Kids” was an oddity at the time, but a highly amusing one. The laughs didn’t die, they multiplied.
2012: Somewhat shockingly, “Bebe’s Kids” runs only 69 minutes, and that includes a three-minute-long opening title sequence, meant to pad the run time and introduce Harris’s stage work to the audience. There’s just barely a movie here (the script is credited to Reginald Hudlin), with so much filler pumped into the production to keep it moving along, straining to offer viewers something worth the ticket price. Thankfully, Harris’s worldview remains unbroken in this effort, making “Bebe’s Kids” an amusing picture with at least three bellylaugh moments mixed into the chaotic, dear-god-think-of-something-to-do atmosphere of the movie.
A great deal of charm on display here emerges from the animation. It’s a budget-minded effort (directed by Bruce W. Smith), but one that plays happily with limited resources, creating a colorful endeavor with a surplus of visual personality. Keeping tight command of cartoon behaviors while soaking up the whiskey-wet ramblings from Harris (again, Love’s voicework is fantastic), the production looks terrific, providing pleasing angles and eye-bulges, with just enough polish to pass as a feature even when the film’s highlights tend to remain in the roughest areas of animation. It’s vibrant and impish, with special attention paid to capturing Harris’s facial tics and general stance of horror in the presence of the kids. It’s a cheery movie to watch, with the images always more interesting than Hudlin’s halfhearted attempt at a story.
Despite the theme park setting and Harris’s parental figure terror, there’s really nothing to “Bebe’s Kids.” And I mean nothing. Rap montages and performances are employed to beef up the entertainment factor, and there’s a mild subplot concerning two of Robin’s exes looking to make trouble for the player on the eve of landing his latest score. “Bebe’s Kids” tends to wander whatever it wants to go, including a late inning visit to the guts of Fun World, where the children are put on trial for misbehavior, with court officials made up of malfunctioning Hall of Presidents robots. There are a lot of odd turns to the adventure, which is more confident delivering episodic instances of mischief. Any attempt at a plot or sympathy for Bebe’s economic situation dies the minute it hits the screen.
It’s rough around the edges and careless with plot, but “Bebe’s Kids” maintains personality throughout, doing justice to the memory of Harris and his most unusual stand-up creation. It’s not a profound piece of work, but it’s not every day one gets to hear a slavery joke during an animated film.
I miss Robin Harris.
Coming next week…
Clint Eastwood saddles up for critical acclaim and Oscar gold.
Brian De Palma goes a little crazy with John Lithgow.