On The Town With Rex Reed

The End Is Nigh … in Technicolor!

If summer comes, can a plethora of new disaster flicks be far behind? First out of the chute for 2004 comes The Day After Tomorrow , a cautionary tale from doomsday chronicler Roland ( Independence Day ) Emmerich about what will happen to civilization if we don’t learn from past mistakes and stop recklessly abusing our natural resources; that global warming is heading us in the crashing, splashing, smashing direction of a new Ice Age. The end of the world will not come on a battlefield, but in an avalanche of ice cubes the size of Rhode Island.

Mr. Emmerich has already proven himself a writer-director with a keen eye for the way apocalyptic fantasies look and a poor ear for the way real people talk. ( Independence Day was a laugh riot, and don’t forget he also co-wrote and directed Godzilla .) So this time, with a budget to equal the fiscal inventory of Chase Manhattan, he’s out to destroy the human race again, with dopey dialogue, a number of hackneyed subtexts, sensational mind-blowing special effects and a big environmentalist dig at the Bush administration. (There’s even a Vice President as cold as aluminum who thinks global warming is low on the priority list and looks terrifyingly like the spitting image of Dick Cheney.) But here’s the surprise: For all of its dire premonitions, foreshadowings of horror and easy targets for Jay Leno jokes, The Day After Tomorrow is eye-poppingly awesome and wonderfully entertaining.

The polar cap melts, causing the worst storm system from the Arctic in 10,000 years. This is not a good thing for high blood pressure. We depend on the polar ice cap to stay frozen. If it heats up too much, where will all that water go? Washington, D.C., climatologist Dennis Quaid is the only one who knows, but the U.S. government is too busy bombing the Middle East to listen. Then Hitchcockian formations of giant birds fly over the darkening Manhattan skyline on their way south. They know something. Suddenly chunks of hail the size of basketballs fall from the sky and crush the exploding population of Tokyo. Suck funnels of massive cyclones hit Los Angeles, shredding LAX, erasing the Hollywood sign and reducing everything from the freeways to the Capitol Records building to sawdust. Hurricane winds blow Hawaii away. Fifteen inches of snow buries New Delhi. Typhoons hit Australia. Helicopters crash in Scotland when the fuel freezes in their gas tanks. Then New York collapses under a tidal wave, but enough already.

After 9/11, watching the destruction of Manhattan skyscrapers reduced to scrap rubble is not so amusing. But the movie plunges on, cataloging one opulent cataclysm after another. A blizzard arrives when the temperatures drop below freezing and the flood waters turn to canyons of snow. Some survivors hide in the New York Public Library, which in this movie’s bizarre geography is located a few feet from the Statue of Liberty. They burn the world’s great books for warmth and live on M&M’s and Fritos from the vending machines. Here is where, in the middle of a power failure, Mr. Quaid’s 17-year-old son miraculously finds the only pay phone left on the planet that works and calls his father. (They don’t work in normal conditions, but in a blackout, with frozen power lines, they work underwater-and there’s no charge for long distance!) While Mr. Quaid is on his way to New York from D.C. wearing snowshoes, his dedicated doctor-wife (the gorgeous, talented and wasted Sela Ward) tries to save a child with cancer in an abandoned hospital, and his son (Jake Gyllenhaal) tries to find penicillin for a fellow student suffering from blood poisoning on a Russian freighter floating down Fifth Avenue invaded by ravenous wolves. Whew! Well, I told you it keeps you awake.

There’s a lot of well-researched scientific lingo to explain what is happening and what an unbalanced ecology will eventually cost the world, and there’s an attempt to interject human elements of courage, bravery, heroism and the struggle to survive. But let’s face it. This is not a movie about acting. In the tradition of even dopier disaster epics like Twister , the movie will pack them in for the thrills. There’s something wild about watching landmark buildings disintegrate in front of your eyes, and what’s left of the Statue of Liberty’s frozen torch rising above the snow like a vanilla ice-cream cone. Even while the movie was being shot, so many abrupt climate shifts ravaged the globe that the filmmakers joked the movie might turn out to be a documentary. The same cataclysmic effects of global warming depicted in the movie are already happening so fast that in spite of its computer-generated imaging and its plot exaggerations, the object lesson in The Day After Tomorrow is inescapably sobering. But there’s no need to dress up for depression. Strictly on the operative level of a Hollywood extravaganza, it’s one helluva ride. This is not the Weather Channel on steroids. This is the end of the world in Technicolor, and we like it just fine.

Still Swingin': Smith and Short

Fortunately, there are still audiences around who crave music for sophisticated ears, and the Apple is one of the few citadels of syncopation left in the world that’s fully prepared to give it to them. The people who turn out in contented throngs to pay homage to folks like Keely Smith and Bobby Short on their annual pilgrimages to Manhattan’s swankier watering holes are the kind of folks who haven’t the vaguest notion who the Olsen twins are, were or never will be. They have never heard of Plum Sykes or Paris Hilton, they don’t give a rat’s rear end about U2, Beyoncé or P. Diddy, they wear real clothes instead of rings in their belly buttons, and they don’t know the difference between fruit boots and Froot Loops. They come in all ages, colors and persuasions, they dig Cole Porter as much as they do Billy Joel, they are showing up in record numbers at posh supper clubs in the Algonquin, Carlyle and Regency hotels, and they can all afford to pay the bills. Bless them every one. They keep me sane, and hopeful.

Currently, the People Who Know Things are saluting Keely Smith with enough enthusiasm to make you forget the humidity. At Feinstein’s at the Regency, the casino chips on the tables are a crisp reminder of what this ageless song stylist is waxing nostalgic about: the glorious bygone 50’s on the Las Vegas strip where, even if your luck ran out, the music was always fabulous. There was nothing like it. Electrified by neon, strolling past the blackjack tables on your way to dinner shows that featured such headliners as Marlene Dietrich, Noël Coward, Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra, you had to walk right through the lounges, where 10 feet away from the roulette wheel, you could catch Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, June Christy, Mel Torme and the entire Stan Kenton orchestra. I was still in high school when, in the Casbar Lounge of the Sahara Hotel, I first caught the fractious jive of Keely Smith, her late husband and partner Louis Prima, and Sam Butera and the Witnesses. They were so unique and unforgettable that they performed six shows a night from midnight to 6 a.m. in that lounge, and it was always packed. Their career spanned half a century, and Ms. Smith is still an icon of swing, one of the most beloved female crooners of her generation. (Since Rosemary Clooney and Peggy Lee died, maybe the high priestess of the cult.) With a nine-piece band, most of the repertoire comes from her legendary Vegas lounge act. The orchestrations by Nelson Riddle and Billy May are lovingly restructured by Dennis Michaels, her pianist and son-in-law; the music comes close to blasting you into the traffic on Park Avenue.

Thank God nobody ever gave her diction lessons. The Southern drawl still drips like dew on a Mississippi morning. It’s “Ah heah violins” on “It’s Magic,” and “heart” is “hot” in more ways than one. Even “I Got a Right to Sing the Blues” wails. She crashes onstage with “When You’re Smiling” and right through “Sweet and Lovely,” “Up a Lazy River,” “Basin Street Blues,” “I Wish You Love,” “Just a Gigolo” and a silly medley of the old Louis Prima signature songs like “Buona Sera,” “Angelina” and “Zooma, Zooma,” and she rarely stops to catch her breath. Except, of course, when she passes the mike around the room to ringsiders like Jerry Vale, Neil Sedaka and tables of embarrassed tourists from Tierra del Fuego for endless choruses of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” That’s the way they did it in Vegas, and nobody did it better. She’s in the best voice she’s enjoyed in years (even on ballads, she’s stronger and more self-assured than ever), and this is the most joyous show she’s ever performed in New York. With her Buster Brown bangs and her salty, unpretentious personality, she hasn’t changed. She’s 76, but she says, “I look in the mirror and I still see a 29-year-old, 120-pound girl.” Gee, every Keely Smith fan must own the same mirror.

Meanwhile, at the Cafe Carlyle, Bobby Short is presently celebrating his 36th spring season. He says it’s his last. Long past retirement (he’ll be 80 in September) and suffering from a painful and annoying case of neuropathy, he says he’s putting his house in the South of France on the market, cutting back on his demanding schedule of concerts and club dates, and throwing in the towel. Translated, this means that the cabaret lord all other piano-playing saloon-singing serfs and vassals aspire to be is ready to get some fun out of life and smell the lilacs. If you ask me, Bobby Short will retire from show business as soon as Madonna lets her hair go natural. In other words, he will perform when he damn well feels like it. For now, get to the Carlyle and smell a few lilacs yourself. His songs are aromatic.

With a famous fondness for Porter, Kern and the Gershwins-this is especially true on gems like “Looking at You,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” and a jumping primer on how to win the ladies that the Gershwins wrote for Fred Astaire called “High Hat” (“You gotta treat ‘em high hat / Don’t let ‘em know that you care / Just act like a Frigidaire / You’ll win them like that”)-he brings back to this dismal age everything about the elegance of Astaire but the tap shoes. He’s jaunty, frisky, with just a soupçon of arrogance. In the old days, he boasted the brightest trio in town, but now he’s expanded to an eight-piece orchestra, his rhythm section augmented by a full brass choir, making special material like Duke Ellington’s rarely performed “Sepia Panorama” sound all the richer. A fondness for the undervalued works of the great Vernon Duke has been developing nicely through the years, and “Not a Care in the World,” with lyrics by John LaTouche, is a highlight here. A recent operation for the removal of a vocal node or a polyp or some such hindrance (which to a singer is nothing more serious than a hangnail) has occasionally made his voice sound like a particularly violent gargle with Listerine. But he still has the old flair, moxie and musical prowess-not to mention the sense of humor that turns comic-revue material from the 1930’s like “I Want to Be Your Mother’s Son-in-Law” into arias of brash hilarity. That corn-shuck vocal roughness that signifies the maturity of the post-millennium Bobby Short also enhances a soulful blues number like Lil Green’s “Romance in the Dark” with a dark and surprising passion he could never have mustered in his youth. So get some while it lasts. Bobby Short says it’s over, but as John O’Hara said when George Gershwin died, “I don’t have to believe it if I don’t want to.”