Thursday, May 27, 2004

Movie: Willard (2003)

My expectations were not high. There wasn’t much to the story of a misfit and the army of rodents at his command the first time around in 1971. The remake is from the team of Glen Morgan and James Wong, who were responsible for many of the best episodes of THE X-FILES, so I figured on some degree of cleverness. Which is what I got: most of the characters have animal names (Leach, Garter, Mantis), the original Willard Bruce Davison shows up in an amusing cameo, and there’s a hilarious training sequence where the rats climb tiny ropes and ladders made just for them. Morgan’s direction borrows a bit too liberally from the Tim Burton playbook. Even Shirley Walker’s score invites the comparison; it sounds like a pastiche of Danny Elfman’s work.

But WILLARD is well cast. The two lead rats, Socrates (the smart one) and Ben (the big one), have loads of charisma, although Ben’s size does present a story problem. Willard has no reason for his chronic lateness when all he has to do is throw a saddle on Ben and ride him to the office.

And then there’s Crispin Glover.

He’s still probably best known for his impromptu karate demonstration on Letterman back in the ‘80s. He’s one of a school of actors, like Nicolas Cage and Johnny Depp, heavily influenced by silent film. But he hasn’t matched their success. You still see him; his wordless performance as the lovestruck assassin in both CHARLIE’S ANGELS films is the one grace note in that series, and he and David Paymer anchored a scattershot 2002 adaptation of Herman Melville’s BARTLEBY. (Glover may be wearing the same black suit in all of his recent films.) But he’s never had a breakout role. He’s also genuinely weird. This is the man whose directorial debut features a cast of actors who have Down’s Syndrome.

Glover’s singular performance both elevates and demolishes WILLARD. He obviously gets the movie’s jokey tone, but at the same time he plunges so deeply into his character’s tortured isolation that he makes the action around him seem gimmicky and cheap. His loving coos to Socrates have a disturbing intimacy. He sobs frequently and with abandon, letting huge strings of snot hang from his nose. His overwrought response when a bank manager advises him to sell the family house and use the money to start over (“Start over?! I’m almost DONE!”) is transfixing, at once wildly comic and indicative of a madness that Glover has worked out to the last detail. Even the actor’s sharp facial features add to the effect, much like Anthony Perkins’ birdlike appearance augmented his casting in PSYCHO. In some respects WILLARD is more of a remake of Hitchcock’s film that Gus Van Sant’s soulless shot-for-shot recreation.

Overtly theatrical performances win acclaim if the films they’re in are successful (like Depp in PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN) or nominally serious (Willem Dafoe in SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE). You don’t build a career by giving your German Expressionist all in a movie with more rats than humans. But Glover’s work in WILLARD deserves to be seen and praised for its absurd genius.

And don’t miss the closing credit song, a new version of the Jackson 5’s ‘Ben.’ Produced and performed by Crispin Hellion Glover.

Book: Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief, by Bill Mason with Lee Gruenfeld (2004)

The latter half of the book drags, getting bogged down in Mason’s legal battles. But the heist stuff is pure gold. Mason hacked through a hotel room wall to get at a Cleveland mob boss’ safe, ripped off Phyllis Diller – twice, and wore a Seiko watch he stole from Robert Goulet to prison. A lot of what he says can’t be verified. I hope at least some of it is true.

TV: The Taurus World Stunt Awards

A surprisingly entertaining show, largely because every award was preceded by a live stunt. Cars crashing onto the stage, guys on fire; I’ll bet the cinematography awards aren’t this much fun. The trophy itself looks like a cross between an oversized Rolls Royce hood ornament and a statue of Osiris. For a minute I thought the winners were supposed to fight each other with them.