Another Dreary Apocalyptic Virus

Wafting in a stupor between Hulk s and Matrix es and Terminator 3 ‘s, movie critics in the summer of 2003 are living in a state of suspended animation. Searching each week for new ways to make the trash I’m sitting through sound bearable, endurable or even humorously disposable is a pretend game of debilitating frustration. Here are some new ones.

28 Days Later is a violent British film of apocalyptic cynicism, shot on digital video, about a deadly plague that wipes out Great Britain in one month and is heading for the rest of the world. At a time of hysterical overreaction to all sorts of global viruses keeping cable networks on the air past midnight, the film obviously hopes to cash in on the public fear factor. I prefer to think of it as just another horror flick-heavy on visuals, weak on logic and ultimately pointless. The director is Danny Boyle, perpetrator of the nauseating Trainspotting , a bizarre drug film that made heroin addicts in Scotland appear as surreal as glam-goth Calvin Klein underwear models, and The Beach , a dreadful Leonardo DiCaprio movie so florid and pretentious it even lulled Leo fans to sleep. Mr. Boyle is a specialist in high-energy downers.

As this one opens, a scientific lab called the Cambridge Primate Research Centre is invaded by militant animal-rights activists who are unaware that the caged chimps they set free are infected with a ghastly virus that is secreted in their blood and saliva. Transmission takes only 20 seconds after being bitten, sending every living thing that is infected into an uncontrollable murderous rage. Twenty-eight days later, London has been reduced to a ghost town where only a handful of uninfected survivors fight to stay alive. A bicycle courier named Jim (Cillian Murphy), a resourceful girl named Selena (Naomie Harris), and a father and daughter who are hiding in a flat lit by Christmas-tree lights (Brendan Gleeson and Megan Burns) forge a friendship in the eerie, empty streets, overturned buses and abandoned office buildings and supermarkets of London and band together with one goal-to live long enough to build a future. A voice on a radio promising safety declares: “Salvation is here! You must find us!” The group follows the voice to Manchester in a London taxi cab and finds a small battalion of nine soldiers holed up in one of the stately country manors of England, where they are planning the first steps in the formation of a new civilization. But can anyone be trusted? They offer brandy and hot bathwater, but to start the world over again, the soldiers need women, and the way the nine men in uniform drug Selena and Hannah, then dress them in red ball gowns in preparation for a massive rape scene, you know the virus is not the only thing futuristic females have to worry about.

In what is essentially a genre film with fancy camerawork, Mr. Boyle keeps the pulse tight and the visuals arresting, but when all those ferocious, carnivorous zombies converge from everywhere at once, spewing blood and screaming in a virulent, aggressive and psychotic rage, comparisons to cheap zombie-lust epics like Night of the Living Dead and Zombie Island Massacre are inescapable. There’s too much vomiting in all of Mr. Boyle’s movies, and the prose turns laughably purple, too. In the old days, a feverish programmer like 28 Days Later would end up on the bottom half of a double bill. Today, I predict it will more likely be welcomed by some reviewers as an antidote to tedium.

Press ‘Delete’

On_Line is the kind of thing I dread-a movie about digital technology directed by an expert in interactive media and video games. The only reason I can think of to suffer through it is Josh Hamilton, a talented and versatile actor who has done some first-rate work on the New York stage, but whose movie career seems doomed to indie-prod purgatory. He plays John, a cybersex geek who runs a porno Web site with his roommate-business partner Moe (Harold Perrineau Jr., who played the wheelchair-bound narrator on the now-defunct HBO series Oz ). This is the kind of link where clients can choose their own fantasies from any sexual persuasion, enter a credit card and boffo!-the guy or gal of their dreams appears onscreen in full-motion video, ready to do whatever is desired over a secure, private connection. The object of these horny desires might be across the country or across the street. The point is, the world is a lot smaller than you think. I can remember when the purpose of the movies was to make the world a lot bigger than we thought. Trust me on this one: Reducing everything to the size of a computer monitor is no improvement.

In the course of this dull and exasperating little zero of a film, a group of six obnoxious and deeply pathetic losers conduct their social and sexual lives at their computers, sharing and relating their most personal secrets at a safe distance, without ever touching. Annoying split screens reflect the inability of these poor nerds to concentrate on any given image for more than 10 seconds at a clip. Showing off their personal lives for everyone with a MasterCard to watch, Moe wanders out to hook up with another cyber slut who overdoses on tranquilizers while John stays home manning the terminals and masturbating with a tube sock. Somehow, all of their empty lives woefully intersect with a suicidal gay Ohio schoolboy with fuchsia hair who wants to get spanked and an over-the-hill New York creep with a riding crop who likes to play dungeon master. Mr. Hamilton, who is severely wasted beyond redemption in the role of John, mopes his way through the movie drinking peppermint schnapps and crying over an ex-fiancée who dumped him. Since he’s the lazy, arrogant lout who started the whole thing, you can’t help but silently cheer when he logs into the self-destructive new fantasy bimbo he’s been stalking with a Web cam and finds her in bed with-oh, no!-another woman, who turns out to be … you guessed it!

The first-time director of this chat-room catastrophe is Jed Weintrob, a self-confessed “digital junkie” obsessed with sex on computer screens conducted by isolated neurotics who rarely leave their apartments. If he has the perception or maturity to make a film about any kind of human emotion worth watching, there is no evidence of it anywhere in On_Line . His direction has no style. His story has no narrative. His nasty electronic soundtrack is as cold and ugly as it is impersonal. His dialogue, written with Andrew Osborne, would be laughed out of a creative-writing class for 7-year-olds. (“If I lived in Akron,” says the old gay geek to the young gay geek, “I’d snatch you up like oceanfront property!”) What I know about technology you could fill in an egg cup and have enough space left over for the egg. But I do know one thing: No computer can take the place of a warm body on a cold night in January, and there is nothing remotely erotic about a tube sock.

Settling the Score

Fortunately, there is good news-not on the screen, but on a series of new CD’s that uncover sparkling gems in the dusty vaults where old movie musicals and Broadway shows go to rest. George Feltenstein, one of the good guys in Hollywood, toils in the archives where thousands of movies from MGM, Warner Brothers and what used to be United Artists are stored. He runs old movies in his head during lunch hour, and before he’s through, I wager he’ll make most of them available to the public in new, improved DVD and other formats. Meanwhile, he’s produced six new soundtracks from movie musicals that have been out of print for decades and are now fast becoming collector’s items. Every CD contains bonus material: unreleased tracks, deleted musical numbers, interviews, outtakes and orchestral arrangements. Example: Vincente Minnelli’s The Pirate includes the never-released Judy Garland vocal of Cole Porter’s “Voodoo” as well as dance music arranged for Gene Kelly. Good News , the ultimate 1947 college musical, adds to the already famous score by DeSylva, Brown and Henderson and Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Roger Edens a deleted outtake of “An Easier Way” performed by June Allyson and the dorm coeds of Tait College, led by flapper Patricia Marshall (now Mrs. Larry Gelbart), as well as deleted vocals by Mel Torme, an interview with June Allyson, and selected songs from the earlier, obscure 1930 version of Good News . The 1955 smash It’s Always Fair Weather hides several lost treasures by Andre Previn and Comden and Green, including the Cyd Charisse–Gene Kelly dance number “Love Is Nothing But a Racket,” and a first-time-ever demo record of Michael Kidd’s deleted production number, “Jack and the Space Giants.” I didn’t know anyone was allowed to cut anything by Fred Astaire (wasn’t it against the law or something?), but the Burton Lane–Alan Jay Lerner score for Royal Wedding reveals several surprises, including “We Can’t Get Married”, a reprise of the jaunty “Ev’ry Night at Seven” and dance arrangements for several other Astaire numbers, plus interviews with Fred and co-star Jane Powell. Another campus musical, Best Foot Forward , which has never previously been honored with a soundtrack album, unveils a number of happy surprises by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, the great songwriting team of “The Trolley Song,” featuring Gloria DeHaven, Nancy Walker, June Allyson, the Harry James band and Lucille Ball (dubbed by Gloria Grafton, since Lucy couldn’t carry a tune in a shopping bag). Listen closely and you can hear Ralph Blane himself, dueting with June Allyson. (Her voice is lower than his.) The never-released Cole Porter score for the 1936 Eleanor Powell tapathon Born to Dance features a “censored” version of “Easy to Love” that is a collector’s item. For making these great soundtrack CD’s a reality, and for writing extensive liner notes as bright and peppy as they are informative and intelligent, George Feltenstein is a movie buff’s best pal. More, please.

From Broadway, Sony Legacy and Columbia Broadway Masterworks have teamed up to release five dazzling, digitally remastered and stereo-enhanced original-cast CD’s no serious collector can be without. For the first time on CD, the historic Harold Arlen–Truman Capote score from House of Flowers is more lush, luxurious and musically overwhelming than ever. In addition to all of the original recordings by Pearl Bailey, Diahann Carroll, Juanita Hall and the illustrious cast, the bonus tracks include “Mardi Gras Waltz”, a calypso version of “Two Ladies in De Shade of De Banana Tree” by the great cabaret star Enid Mosier, and a recently discovered demo record of “Ottile and the Bee” performed by Truman Capote. Absolutely priceless! Angela Lansbury, Lee Remick, and sexy songs both playful and priapic by Stephen Sondheim are some of the reasons why Anyone Can Whistle has always been one of my favorite musicals. But this is the first time I have ever heard the five demo tracks from the composer’s archives included here, sung and played by Sondheim himself. Also a great and rare opportunity to hear Lee Remick sing “There Won’t Be Trumpets”, which was deleted in Philadelphia before the New York opening. Barbara Cook singing “Glitter and Be Gay” in full stereo enhances Candide . The previously unreleased tracks on Rodgers and Hart’s Pal Joey feature Vivienne Segal talking to Mike Wallace and hoofer Harold Lang recreating “I Could Write a Book” for the 1955 CBS-TV show Shower of Stars . Finally, now that Nine is back in business, it’s a fine time to revisit the original 1982 cast recording starring Raul Julia, Karen Akers, Taina Elg, Liliane Montevecchi and others. Never before available, this two-CD set features many restored full-length songs by Maury Yeston, including “Not Since Chaplin,” “The Germans at the Spa,” “Unusual Way” and “The Grand Canal.”

I don’t call my passion for the superior scores of movie and Broadway musicals living in the past. I call it enhancing the present, with a smile. Sometimes a little hum-along with Judy, Gene and Fred is just the thing to ensure I endure.