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A Little Game Reduces All of Life to Iffy Inspirational Chess Metaphors

A Little Game is an OK children’s movie that can only be appreciated by kids, who have not yet been callused by the awfulness of both chess metaphors and the old ladies in films who are always spouting gauzy generalities about the magic of life.

Max is a precocious 10-year-old girl whose not-rich parents (Janeane Garofalo and Ralph Macchio) figure out that they can afford to send her to a pricey private academy if they give up sleeping and instead work those hours. When her entrance to the chess club is rebuffed by the school snob, she meets the irascible Norman (F. Murray Abraham), an old man who plays chess in Washington Square Park, and asks him to teach her.

Did we mention the horribleness of chess metaphors? “The board is the city. The city’s your board,” Norman tells her. “Now scram.” He’s so irascible! He teaches her chess with one move per day, relating each to the events and people in Max’s life in thumpingly obvious ways, while extruding little teachable nuggets of cranky old-guy wisdom.

Max’s grandmother (Olympia Dukakis) survives just long enough into the film to spout an obligatory Wise Old Lady generality about life before croaking: “You don’t let life happen to you. You happen to life!” Then Max’s grandma stops happening to life, but comes back as a ghost and says more lame stuff about life: “Make a choice and go on. Life is too short.” Life is far, far too short to cram in all the hazy, empty aphorisms about life. Checkmate, mortality!

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WWII Drama Fury Grinds Your Face in It

A gloom hangs over writer-director David Ayer’s brutal war drama Fury that only the audience can see. It’s April 1945, and we know that in weeks the Nazis will surrender. The war is already over — Hitler just hasn’t admitted it. American sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) suspects as much, but he isn’t sure. And so he and the four other men in his tank roll on through the German countryside, shooting and dodging a final barrage of bullets that is no less fatal for being futile.

This is an ugly part of an ugly war, and Ayer wallows in it. Instead of flags and patriotism, Fury is about filth: the basins of blood, the smears on the soldiers’ exhausted faces, the bodies pushed around by bulldozers, and a decomposing corpse that’s melted into the mud. (Thank heavens Ayer has no way to make us smell the inside of the tank.) What beauty remains is fleeting: an overly symbolic white horse; a pretty, sad-eyed blonde; a brief shot of the sky with dozens of planes streaking wingtip-to-wingtip like a fine-tooth comb. Yet the film won’t shake off the threat of death long enough to let us enjoy these pleasures. Instead, even happiness comes draped in dread. At any minute, Ayer could punish us for letting our guard down.

The men’s moods are equally dark. Collier’s team — dumb hick Grady (Jon Bernthal), temperamental but wounded Gordo (Michael Peña), and stock religious guy Bible (Shia LaBeouf, groomed like Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) — has been together since Africa and has had the mixed fortune of surviving every battle. The squad’s fifth man has just been shot, and the first thing his replacement, a typist named Norman (Logan Lerman), is ordered to do is mop up his predecessor’s blood and dispose of his face, which has been flung in the corner like melted cheese.

This is a film about present-traumatic stress disorder, a condition none of the men have words to express. Ayer crams three years of anguish into the first 30 minutes, horrors we get no time to process. The camera whips past starving women butchering horses, and rooms of German aristocrats who have committed suicide, so that on some dark, animal level, Fury makes us empathize with these pitiless American heroes who can’t care about anything or anyone. Collier’s men are neutral toward their home country and the families they’ve left behind, who go unmentioned, as though they’re fantasies these soldiers no longer hope to see. They’re cruel to the Germans, who just won’t give up. When the Americans march an SS soldier through their camp, Collier attacks him with the reflexive rage of a fighting dog.

But they’re also cruel to innocents like Norman who don’t understand the life-and-death decisions they’ve had to make — especially now that the SS has forced every boy who can fight into the German army. Norman can’t pull the trigger on a child soldier, and hesitates long enough to get another Yankee killed. A furious Collier orders him to fire even if the enemy is “a baby with a butter knife,” and then he and the gang start scuffing up Norman’s soul. In one scene, Collier commands Norman to execute an unarmed German. The most wrenching thing about the will-he-or-won’t-he suspense is how little everyone else in the film cares. They’ve seen so much death that all they can do is stand on the sidelines and snicker.

Collier is scary, and if he weren’t played by Brad Pitt, an actor who gravitates to role models, the part would be fully terrifying. He’s one of the good guys, of course — in 70 years, Hollywood has never dared question the innate sainthood of the Greatest Generation. Yet when he bursts into the apartment of two German girls, with Norman trotting behind, there’s a long and terrible pause where we aren’t sure if the women are safe. They are and they aren’t. Collier isn’t loutish enough for rape; he just assumes they’ll half-willingly drop their skirts for a half-dozen fresh eggs.

Fury is structured like a string of grenades. Collier’s tank just keeps chugging toward the next explosion, and the men inside are so fixated on survival that no one takes the time to ask what it all means. Perhaps at this time and this place, war means nothing — it’s just what they do because they’ve forgotten everything else. But Ayer has rolled his film into a dead end. He’s ground us down into feeling that life is trivial, yet he needs a finale that makes us care about the fate of Collier’s crew. In trying to say that death is both noble and pointless, Fury makes the fatal mistake of so many war movies: It divides up the battlefield so that our deaths are lofty and the enemies’ deaths mean nothing. For every cut on the Americans’ arms, a dozen Germans are crushed like toy soldiers. It’s a queasy climax for a film that otherwise strives to keep everyone equal in the muck. Fortunately, the images that linger aren’t of this post-dated propaganda, but of morbid absurdity, which is Ayer’s gift: an aerial shot of two rival tanks circling each other side by side, each desperate to get the better shot. Watching from above, it makes the final days of World War II look like a chess game where they’re out of pawns to sacrifice, but neither side will draw.

Written and directed by David Ayer. Starring Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal, Jason Isaacs, Brad William Henke, Jim Parrack, and Xavier Samuel.

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Jeff Macaulay

Is it possible to be sung and unsung at the same time? You bet. Take lyricist Norman Gimbal—even though his name is unfamiliar, the songs boasting his lyrics are anything but. Ever heard of “Bluesette,” “The Girl From Panama,” “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” “I Got a Name”? Ever heard of “It Goes as It Goes,” which won the 1979 Oscar? So thanks to this fan for seeing Gimbal gets sung for his accomplishments. Not only does he work through famous and not-so-famous Gimbal items (with Tex Arnold at the piano) but he also tells Gimbal’s story with humor.

Mon., Sept. 16, 7 p.m., 2013

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Norman

Norman (Dan Byrd) is as sarcastically disconsolate a protagonist as you’ll see in a movie involving a romance with the new girl in school—his English teacher (Adam Goldberg) at one point refers to him as “Little Camus.” Director Jonathan Segal and screenwriter Talton Wingate depict a quickly unraveling home life: Norman’s mother died in a car accident not long ago, and his doctor father (Richard Jenkins) has just learned of a stomach-cancer recurrence; opting out of chemo, he chooses to live out the rest of his days in cluttered isolation. Short on friends and always looking to inflict some punishment on himself, Norman blurts out one day during car pool that he has cancer—and soon his popularity skyrockets. Of course, that’s not to say that quirky thesp Emily (Emily VanCamp) didn’t already like him anyway. In Segal and Wingate’s hands, Norman’s false self-diagnosis is something more complicated than a cry for help—it’s a way for him to publicly grieve (and, as a bonus, gain the upper hand on classmates) without actually having to confront the fact that he will soon lose his one remaining parent. Although Norman, shot on location in Spokane and scored by singer-songwriter Andrew Bird, succeeds in fleshing out its troubled main character, the actions of his peers are consistently harder to accept. Would the concern caused by Norman’s suicide-themed audition monologue really be limited to an off-screen “Is he OK?” Would Emily really insist on meeting Norman’s father on their first date, no matter how extenuating the circumstances?

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Alan Ayckbourn’s Conquests Leaves Everyone Marginally More Miserable

You remember The Importance of Being Earnest: “In married life,” Algernon quips, “three is company and two is none.” “That, my dear young friend,” ripostes Jack, haughtily, “is the theory that the corrupt French drama has been propounding for the past 50 years.” “Yes,” Algy snaps back, “and that the happy English home has proved in half the time.” In Alan Ayckbourn’s plays, no English home is ever happy, but Algy was undoubtedly being ironic. Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests—an elaborately constructed trio of full-length plays, the events of which are supposed to take place simultaneously during one horrific family weekend—might be said to live entirely inside Algy’s comeback.

Wilde meant the word “corrupt” in two senses: To Jack, a conventional moralist and rather priggish, French drama was corrupt because it treated extramarital relationships (kept off the British stage of the time by the Lord Chamberlain’s censorship) as normal. But to Jack’s author, and his colleagues, French drama was aesthetically corrupt: The nonmarital sexual affairs in French plays, like their platonic equivalents in British adaptations or imitations, served merely as building blocks in the contrived structures of the “well-made play,” which left little room for the realities of human behavior.

When the serious playwrights of Wilde’s generation—Ibsen, Shaw, Chekhov—dug within the “well-made” form and pulled it to bits, farce, a genre that had grown to ripeness in France during the form’s hegemony, was left stranded: The nightmarishly piled-up circumstances of Feydeau had taken it as far as it could go without breaking its bounds. Most major 20th-century farces, when not openly surreal or absurd (The Bald Soprano), relocate the genre in more raffish territory (The Front Page, Room Service), spin it up into pure abstraction (Noises Off), or use it, like Joe Orton, to delve into previously “impermissible” subjects.

Ayckbourn, who loves to contrive ornate structures, built of interlocking circumstances, would rank as a dogged follower of the well-made-play tradition, but he modernizes it in two ways. First, his structures burgeon eccentrically beyond traditional shapes: His plays come in linked pairs or trios, or shift into alternate realities when someone goes through the wrong door, or involve baroquely Escherian games with space and time. Second, Ayckbourn knows Chekhov, and has no compunction about depicting characters whose unhappiness stems from real-world concerns rather than the more fanciful setups in Feydeau. (The latter’s plots depend on tenuous coincidences, like a dimwitted hotel porter just happening to be the hero’s exact double.)

Superficially, Ayckbourn displays more reality than Feydeau. Hence the British, recognizing his characters’ homey external traits and everyday activities, mistake him for a realist: He has often been compared to Chekhov, and Britishers wax indignant when Americans suggest that Neil Simon might make a better analogy. That comparison isn’t accurate, either: Ayckbourn can write gags, but rarely does; the basic fabric of his plays is a pile-up of comic circumstances in the Feydeau vein.

The trouble for me and, I suspect, for many other Americans, is that Ayckbourn’s pile-ups rarely build to any effect. Feydeau uses his improbable premises to launch his characters into their nightmare situations at the start so that he can extricate them, shaken but readjusted to life, at the end. No such thing usually happens with Ayckbourn: His characters, who share with him the English tendency to minimize or deprecate everything—sorrows, as well as joys—most often appear miserable at the beginning of the action and only marginally more miserable at the end. Apart from being rather drippy (they’re often the sort of people the British would describe as “wet”), they seem less like Chekhov’s jostling misplaced souls than figures in comic strips, whom no disaster ever dents. This tends to pull down the superficial reality with which Ayckbourn paints them into a kind of disaffecting flatness, so that you usually wonder, at the end, why Ayckbourn bothered putting them through such elaborately concocted permutations. It all starts to seem rather like watching lab rats take a stress test.

In The Norman Conquests, Ayckbourn’s three-decker experiment is conducted on a middle-middle-class family unit. Invalid, indolent Mum, unseen upstairs, makes herself a perpetual nuisance, waited on by unmarried Annie (Jessica Hynes). Brother Reg (Paul Ritter) and his snippy, bossy wife, Sarah (Amanda Root), drop in periodically to spread their mutual loathing more generally. Vain, ambitious sister Ruth (Amelia Bullmore) shows up less often, in part because she’s married to Norman (Stephen Mangan), a bushy-haired, infantilely narcissistic nitwit, oblivious to everything but his own impulses, whose only gift is for creating havoc, but whom Ayckbourn and his female characters apparently mistake for a modern avatar of Eros.

No disillusionment ever sets in on this point, no matter how feckless or deceitful Norman gets. Since he and Ruth have inexplicably managed to stay married for five years, you’d think the rest of the family would know by now that the only practical solution for Norman would be to nail him in a barrel and roll him into the Thames, but no. Annie, frustrated by the apathy of her dim-bulb quasi-boyfriend, Tom (Ben Miles), wants to sneak off for a dirty weekend with Norman, leaving Reg and Sarah to mind Mum. Naturally, the plans get bollixed, leaving all six stuck there for the weekend. The farcical confusions don’t so much mount as ooze from scene to scene and play to play, somehow never altering the characters’ dogged determination to muddle through as if nothing were wrong.

Funny for five minutes, the event’s unaffecting pointlessness makes a stupefying seven-hour sit-through. The British cast, under Matthew Warchus’s direction, plays it all extremely well; why they or anyone else would bother is the incomprehensible part. The one clue I could garner, from the audience’s laughter at certain non-funny moments, is that Ayckbourn makes the ordinary public feel intelligent by showing them how the pieces fit together. That the effort is pointless and the resultant picture uninteresting makes no matter; the busywork of assembling the puzzle is enough. It seems a terrible waste of the theater’s resources.

mfeingold@villagevoice.com

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A Literary Legend Goes a Few Rounds With His Son

Norman Mailer’s done a few productive things since co-founding the Voice 50 years ago. A true man of letters if 20th-century America has produced one, Mailer’s published fiction, biographies, and political musings, including a short stint blogging for the Huffington Post. And now, The Big Empty, a collection of conversations with his son John Buffalo Mailer on such weighty topics as God, women, war, and boxing. John Buffalo serves as meek moderator to a panel of one for more than half the book, but in this live conversation, he’ll get a chance to go toe-to-toe with Dad on these subjects as writer Dotson Rader referees. Norman’s lost none of his appetite for bons mots in his later years; if anything, he’s grown more succinct, as in this recent assessment of George W.: “He turned out to be as vain as sin, and as hollow as unsuccessful sin.” Both unapologetic lefties with remarkable grasps on their generations’ proclivities, if not each other’s, father and son have a relationship best apprehended with this exchange from The Big Empty: John Buffalo: “I’m content to question, listen, and on occasion, interject a thought or two.” Norman: “Ah, go fuck yourself.”

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The Itch

It is a paradox of war that some people who have lived through its slaughter and madness never lose the itch to go back and live through it again. Some soldiers feel the pull, lured by memories of the intense bonding. Medical professionals and relief workers feel it too, still carrying the images of the wounded they savedand lost. And some reporters also have the craving because war is life’s most primal story. I, for one, still hear the siren call.

One modifying remark: Most people who have survived war have little or no or minus desire to relive the experience. Second, I really can speak only about reporters, for it’s the only skin I have.

Why have I chosen to write about this phenomenon of attraction to war? We journalists so rarely explain ourselves to our audienceperhaps in fear of letting you see, heaven forfend, our fallibilitythat a gulf has widened between us and the public. I thought a little self-examination might help people better understand what they’ll be seeing and reading in the days of war ahead.

Firstthough you probably already know thisa lot of the people reporting on the war have no firsthand experience with it, especially those working from air-conditioned television studios an ocean and continent away from the fighting. Probably they should begin their reports with some kind of ignorance acknowledgment, but no matter, they are harmless if you hit the mute button. Reporters in the war zones are, for the most part, quite different. Some are new at it, as we all were, but they won’t be innocent for long. War vastly speeds up the initiation process. Clears the mind of flotsam too. Journalists are already among the allied casualties.

My own initiation happened in Laos in 1970. The Laotian government flew a small foreign press group by helicopter to a tiny, half-abandoned town with dirt streets that was essentially encircled by the Communist Pathet Lao. After touring the town we returned to the makeshift airstrip to fly back to Vientiane. Several townspeople were waiting there, hoping to escape with us. As the chopper revved up, they rushed for it. I was blithely standing off, taking pictures of the scene. Then a puff of dirt and smoke suddenly kicked up 50 yards to the left of the chopper. I kept clicking. Another puff went up 50 yards to the right of it. I realized my colleagues were screaming at me. I ran hard and jumped on with the aircraft two feet off the ground. I learned that day about the military art of “bracketing” a target. The two “puffs” were aiming rounds fired from mortars in the surrounding hills; the next one presumably would have landed in the middleon the helicopter.

I learned two other things that day as well. One was that not all people, including journalists, behave well under stress. As I was dashing toward the helicopter, an aged and wispy Laotian woman was struggling to climb on. A reporter already on board kicked out with his combat boots and tried to dislodge her. Others lifted her aboard. She clutched my hand through the entire flight, and when we set down in Vientiane, she knelt and kissed the tarmac. The rest of us never discussed the incident with the reporter in combat boots.

The day’s other lesson was the adrenaline rush that comes after you emerge alive from an incident that could just as easily have killed you. After this happens to you a few times, subconscious notions of immortality may begin to rattle around in your psyche.

Beyond the adrenaline high that fuels this news-gathering drive, there are other motivations, such as career advancement and the urge to beat the competition to a story or at least out-report them. After all, if a conflict involves American troops or interests, rightly or wrongly that war will likely be the biggest story around, since the United States is now the world’s dominant nation. All these factorsnarcissistic and self-referential as they arehelp explain the draw that war can be.

I always know when the itch is at peak levels because, even when I’m in denial about it, my phone will ring and an old colleague with the fever will be on the other end. It began happening early last week, as the attack on Iraq approached. Norman Lloyd, the best combat cameraman I’ve ever known, needed to talkjust as I did. We tiptoed slowly up to the subject, which was how we felt not being there. Disoriented, we agreed. More than a little irrelevant. So far away from the scene of the story. Norman is still covering stories, for CBS’s 60 Minutes. But not combat. “I know I could go if I wanted to,” he said, “but then”here he broke into laughter”then I think about my knees and whether they could still handle jumping down from tanks.”

Friday afternoon in the Voice office, as I was writing this piece, people gathered around a television set to watch the opening air blitzkrieg of Baghdada mesmerizing, death-delivering son et lumire spectacle. All of this came to us live and in color, with a little box at the bottom of the screen flashing the latest stock figures from Wall Street. The figures seemed to rise with each explosion and plume of flame.

So why the reporter’s urge to be near that carnage? I can only tell you that after a reporter has tasted the war experience and acknowledged to himself that many of the reasons he gets gratification from it are narcissistic, he may still discover deeper reasons for keeping at it. This may sound corny, even naive, but a reporter can come honestly to believe in the importance of delivering the full face of warfamilies decimated, bent refugees walking in endless streams, children orphaned, uplifting acts of honor and friendship, unspeakable acts of cruelty and depravity, bravery, betrayal, human lives saved by Samaritans, human beings lying in pieces from explosive projectiles. People should have to look upon all of that.

If ours is truly a democracy, the people should be told and showneven if they wish to turn their eyes awayexactly what is being waged in their name. No sugarcoating. No sanitizing. Just a faithful picture of the wild convulsion that is war.

So far, the Pentagon’s about-face decision this time to allow journalists to accompany battle units is a vast improvement over the sequestered and censored conditions of the first Gulf War in 1991. America is seeing war almost in the raw, and while the pictures and words are often unsettling, they may be helpfulin the new world of scarinessto our coming-of-age.

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Cannibal Lector

Tobias Schneebaum claims The Village Voice was founded in his living room. In 1955, Norman and Adele Mailer were his East Village neighbors. “Norman and Danny Wolf and Ed Fancher were sitting around my apartment, when the idea came to them,” he recalls. That same year, the 34-year-old painter took off on a Fulbright for Peru and disappeared into the jungle, where he lived for seven months with the Harakumbut (formerly known as the Amarakaire), a remote Amazonian tribe, and participated in all the rituals of their gender-segregated society, including sex with men. One day the Harakumbut went to a neighboring village, killed people, and ate them. Schneebaum swallowed a mouthful; the memory still haunts him.

“Artist Reported Slain Returns Safe from Jungle,” the Voice noted when Schneebaum emerged from the Amazon. More than 10 years later, he wrote about his experiences in his lyrical memoir, Keep the River on Your Right. In 1999, filmmakers David and Laurie Schapiro convinced him to return and search for his lost tribe in their documentary, also called Keep the River on Your Right, which follows the artist from his Brooklyn Jewish roots to his later years working among the Asmat people of West Papua, New Guinea.

At 80, Schneebaum remains unflappable. Tall with stooped shoulders and a slight tremor from Parkinson’s disease, he has the keen, liquid eyes of a professional observer. His studio apartment in Westbeth, an artists’ residence, looks out onto the Hudson River; it’s filled with Asmat art and artifacts. There are elaborately carved ceremonial shields, ritual daggers, ghostly wooden heads, and a two-foot-long penis wound with strands of rubber. Schneebaum gestures toward two rows of human skulls, decorated with seeds, shells, and feathers. “Ancestors,” he explains. “They’re meant to be hidden in the eaves of their family’s house.” When he returned to New York after life in the Amazon, what bothered him most? “Listening to people talk all the time,” he recalls. “And the fact that I could understand them.”

Schneebaum’s work in New Guinea (which he first visited in 1973, and where he helped found a museum of tribal art) eventually came to consume him. Traveling back to Peru, re-encountering the Harakumbut, and meeting their descendants, he was moved but also saddened by the inevitable changes. “People walk differently when they wear clothing,” he notes. “There’s a whole other aspect to the way they react to you.” Schneebaum insists that he’s not an anthropologist; his sexual encounters with indigenous people pose no ethical quandaries for him. He’s more troubled by the fact that the first person to touch a remote culture alters it irrevocably. “We all know,” he says, “that it takes just one person to change a whole society.”


Amy Taubin’s review of Keep the River on Your Right.

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Hitchcockamamie; Kitsch-Doc Maiming

There may not be a more soulless director in Hollywood than Robert Zemeckis—his entire purpose is the manufacture of empty distractions, and his mechanical authority is precisely why his movies date more wretchedly than any other high-flyin’ ’80s-’90s auteur. His new non-blockbuster What Lies Beneath dates in the pot, as he blanches the Sixth Sense-style character-driven horror movie until there’s nothing coming at you except cues and exposition. Before long, the movie begins to feel like a sleep deprivation trial: Obvious scenes are drawn out into perpetuity (you could sprout your first liver spot waiting for Zemeckis’s camera to get to its point), and then unfailingly climax with an irrelevant, slamming soundtrack gotcha. You begin to sympathize with the rats in brilliant scientist Harrison Ford’s genetics lab.

Ford’s workaholic Norman is married to high-strung Claire (Michelle Pfeiffer), who begins to experience the usual movie-ghost oddness in her wealth-porn seaside manse: doors opening, radios turning on, bathtubs that fill up by themselves (not so usual, I guess), and visions of a dead girl Norman shtupped, and for whom, of course, there is hell to pay. Hardly a frame goes by without Pfeiffer, who looks day-old-dead already, and who accentuates the effect of being semi-possessed by another vapid, lynx-eyed blond with line readings worthy of a stroke victim. As it turns out, the ghost is a macguffin of sorts, and the wholly unaffecting rigmarole carries the burden of belated Hitchcockianism. (The major suspense piece involves being drug-paralyzed in a slowly filling tub antique-shopped right out of Bates Motel cabin #1.) Ostensibly a scarifying parable about wives left alone in piggish homes (the credits include a “bonsai team lead”) after the kids go off to college, What Lies Beneath does, with Ford’s presidentiality and Pfeiffer’s testy relationship with middle age, suggest a Clintons-at-home scenario for 2001—haunted by the ghosts of dalliances past.




The horror, the horror: What lies beneath the painted rictus of Tammy Faye Bakker, televangelical gargoyle, tabloid cuckoldette, rehab princess, gay-cult jester? Nothing much, according to filmmakers Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey, whose The Eyes of Tammy Faye is an über-kitschy, RuPaul-narrated gloss over the disastrous life and times of America’s favorite mascara smashup. It is a horror film, in every sense: Each shot is simultaneously dedicated to reglorifying Tammy Faye’s public image (the PTL song-and-dance flashbacks are as chilling a vision of Yankee foolishness as you’ll ever see), and contemptuously pissing on her for it.

Mocked by sock-puppet intros, E!-doc faux dramatics, and pitiless close-ups of makeup carnage, our heroine seems only glad for the attention. Overt camp culture is a matter of bullies and victims, and though Tammy Faye emerges standing—she seems, in fact, to walk the real Christian walk, unlike Falwell and other ministry goldbrickers—her cinebiographers come off as smirking buffoons. In fact, the movie cannot help but be merely another debacle that Tammy Faye will survive, eyelashes and integrity intact.

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NY Mirror

The audio commercial for the new Psycho on 777-FILM featured a scene with little girls chanting, “Norman is a psycho! Norman is a psycho!” I got cramps thinking this might be in the movie— that they’d added some corny flashbacks to show how Norman got, you know, that way. Well, after seeing the movie, I wished they had. It turns out Universal is a psycho. They’ve come out with a version that’s exactly like the original— except that the original was really good!

Oh, a few things have been changed. The shower curtain looks a little more patterned. There’s a porn mag in Norman’s house. (I’m surprised it isn’t Inches.) The dead mother’s record— formerly “Eroica”— is now “The World Needs a Melody” by George Jones and Tammy Wynette. And it wasn’t enough for Norman to ogle Marion through a peephole. Now Master Bates has to masturbate as he does so! But mainly, this remake is slavish— and utterly pointless. It’s like a paint-by-numbers copy of the Mona Lisa, with a Walkman added.

Actually, things are fine until Marion (Anne Heche) goes to the Bates Motel— which, by the way, looks just like a place I stayed at in the Hamptons last summer. Heche is subtle and compelling, and the early scenes are suspenseful enough to make you think this audacious experiment was a great idea. But then she meets Norman, and things become psychotically snoozy. Vince Vaughn,who was effectively weird in Clay Pigeons, doesn’t come close to capturing Norm’s creepiness and vulnerability, murdering his own career more than anything else. When Tony Perkins popped candy into his mouth, he infused every suck with menace, but Vaughn seems to be just eating candy. Even the crucial shower scene is botched, with Heche— in her only weak moments— neither taking the erotic pleasure in cleansing herself of guilt the way Janet Leigh did, nor convincing us much in her horror. (No wonder, since the later sight of the tall, hulking Vaughn in drag had the audience in hysterics.)

In the supporting cast, the usually fine Julianne Moore and the mumbly but hot Viggo Mortensen have too many cheekbones between them, and Moore’s reported decision to play Lila as a lesbian stereotypically consists of her being tough, irritable, aggressive, and bossy. So that’s what a lesbian is? Oh, well. Despite some cool moments— the “periwinkle blue” line, the Arbogast demise— history will chalk this up as a visit to motel hell. What next— a frame-by-frame, color remake of Citizen Kane with Jason Patric?

A somewhat more sane idea is Down in the Delta, a woman’s-awakening tale starring one of my faves, Alfre Woodard, and directed by Maya Angelou— sorry, Dr. Maya Angelou, as I was once instructed to call her before she stood me up for a scheduled phoner. Well, by any name, Delta is way too earnest and Lifetimey for me, but it’s one of those admirable ventures you try to cut some slack— and at least it’s not a remake.

At the film’s Laura Belle premiere party, Al Freeman Jr.— who plays Woodard’s country uncle— walked in muttering, “Where are the martinis?” but he wasn’t going to get an answer out of me. Instead, I asked Freeman for some sobering background on the good doctor. He complied, saying, “I first saw her when she was a cabaret performer and she had these long legs. It was jazz, it was primal, it was everything.” It was . . . hard to believe.

Alfre Woodard’s approach is distinctly less raw, as she admitted to me that night. “I never work from my emotional experience,” she said. “They don’t pay enough for me to do that. On the page itself, it should be moving, touching, and funny, so you don’t have to manufacture emotions.” I manufactured a look of shock and wondered how Alfre pulls off such truthful performances without drawing from her own life. She held out her palm and said, “Brother, if I tell you that, you’re gonna have to give me a lot of money!” Sorry, they don’t pay enough for me to do that.

Or to sit through Very Bad Things, whichis a dark, but unfortunately visible comedy with lots of ad-lib dialogue like “I’m not listening to this! I will not hear this! No, don’t tell me this!” After a while, you’re yelling the same thing. It’s no late-breaking news that the movie is neither horrific nor funny, but no one’s noted that the worst part of the whole thing comes when Christian Slater impulsively kisses one of his male friends on the lips— you know, to show just how very psycho he is.

The sicker-than-thou Hurlyburly was such a hot evening in the theater way back in the weighty ’80s, but the belated movie version made me want to hurlyburly. The old magic, simply thrown onto the screen without even new flashbacks to show how the characters got that way, comes off dated and irksome, and Meg Ryan once again tries too hard— and yet not hard enough— to act.

The really effective darkness these days comes in kiddie movies, like the terrifying The Rugrats Movie— yes, I saw it— but alas, the message of the movie completely eluded the audience. As the neglected Rugrats freaked because of their parents’ eternal fussing over the newborn, a couple right in front of me took turns bouncing their baby without any regard for their fuming six-year-old. These parents should be forced to take a shower.

Even neglected children cheer at the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, which, though the elves now rap and Santa talks about getting e-mail, is the same as ever— like Psycho, but far more worth re-creating. The show nicely mixes frolic and sanctimony, and not only does the splashiness never stop, but the camels never poop. And it was great to go back to 70-degree weather afterward.

For nostalgia’s sake, we all donned snow boots to go to the Serenissima Awards dinner at Cipriani, honoring footwear, as my life became more surreal than ever. The event— which included an award presentation to someone named Eli Footer— was MC’d by the well-heeled Paul Sorvino,who admitted, “I’m best known for being the father of someone.” He never told us who. The foot-in-mouth category came up when, at my table, a fashionista loudly announced that her nose was real— i.e., she hadn’t had it clipped— explaining, “I’m not Jewish.” I choked on my risotto, only to have the whole thing completely turn into a scene from Gentleman’s Agreement when another fashion persona chimed in with yet more Jew-stereotyping remarks and a Voice cohort and I had to grandly announce our horror and imperiously storm off (after finishing the entrée, of course).

The same night’s Glammy Awards at Life— honoring the year’s best drag queens and their platform shoes— was a backdrop for a long procession of fake huffs, performed as shtick (though Mona Foot‘s slapping Linda Simpson with an award envelope— I forget why— did get a little too real). Presenter Flotilla DeBarge told the audience, “Don’t fuck with me. I’m an angry black bitch and I’ve got corns, bunions, and gas.” Mona claimed, “Lady Bunny isn’t here. She’s still eating Thanksgiving dinner.” And Shasta Cola totally rocked on that Björk song that goes, “I miss you, but I haven’t met you yet.” By the way, the night’s consensus was that if a bomb had gone off, Vince Vaughn still wouldn’t be the best drag queen in showbiz.