A Plumm Summer had a limited release in 2007 but is now widely available for the first time with this week’s DVD. It is based on the real-life story of a “kidnapped” puppet from a local children’s program in Montana that became a national news story and a case for the FBI.
I was lucky to get a chance to interview one of the stars of the film, Brenda Strong.
What made you want to be a part of this movie?
What appealed to me was family-friendly, heart-warming movie with no CGI, just a good, old-fashioned story. I had a 10 year old son and I was tired of telling him I was in a movie he could not see. I wanted to make a movie where he could be part of the filming process and be on the set and tell his friends to go see when it was done. I wanted to do something for my family. And then I saw who was involved. Henry Winkler and I had done another kid-friendly film and really got along — that cemented it.
I have heard that he is a wonderful guy.
He’s just a walking heart. He exudes love wherever he goes. Years ago when he was still in “Happy Days” my husband walked up to him and he was so warm. He is still the same. If someone recognizes him he gets up and shakes their hand, always treats everyone with such respect and honor. A lot of people can learn from that. It is so nice to see someone hold space in that way.
This is a true story?
It is based on a true story, a triumphant tale of these two brothers who meet a new friend and then like the Hardy Boys become involved in a mystery when a marionette much in the same vein as Howdy Doody is kidnapped from a popular local television show. There really was a Froggy-Doo character on television in Montana, and the host was Happy Herb. And Froggy-Doo really was puppet-napped by some people who thought they would get some money out of Herb. It became a national case and J. Edgar Hoover sent out some feds to investigate! We actually had the original Happy Herb and Froggy-Doo on the set with us, it was really magical. Whenever you go to a more rural environment, there’s an essence of innocence that resonates. That was part of what made it a magical shoot before during and after. The thing that I’m really looking forward to in the DVD is the deleted scenes and gag reel. Even if they have seen the movie they should definitely get the DVD because of all the extras.
Why is it so hard to get Hollywood to make movies for this age group?
They underestimate the intelligence of kids. We get animation for little kids and CGI for middle schoolers. What we’re missing right now are stories that engage the imagination from a character point of view, stories that can help them start to build their value system. When the character of Elliot has to jump off the bridge, it is a huge character choice, because he was scared but he knew how important it was to his brother. And he has to stand up to his father, too. These choices are threaded throughout the story, things kids need to see and feel. Animation is one thing but kids relate on a much more visceral level to the real thing.
Jezebel has a marvelous list of 90’s teen movies and the lessons we learn from them and it includes some of my favorite guilty pleasures like The Craft, Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, and Can’t Hardly Wait. An alert commenter added the indispensible Empire Records, one of those movies that comes along every decade or so that manages to include just about every actor who is about to be huge. It is fun to see the early work of some of today’s stars. “Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead” stars this week’s cover girl on People’s Most Beautiful issue, Christina Applegate — and features a very young pre-“X-Files” David Duchovney. And “The Craft” was directed by Andrew Fleming of “Hamlet 2” and stars Robin Tunney of “The Mentalist.” And it is great to see these definitional films, dismissed as lightweight on release, discussed in terms of their influence as well as their awesomeness. “I’m right on top of that, Rose!”
Many thanks to Paul Kilduff of the Berkeley Monthly for a terrific interview. (But for the record, my talk at the World Bank was about international corporate governance. That was a joke.)
Here are a couple of excerpts:
PK: What about Hotel for Dogs? You gave that a lukewarm review, but it sounds outstanding.
NM: Lukewarm? It was better than I thought. This is the problem with Hotel for Dogs. The kids in the movie really get away with a lot and the movie seems to think it’s charming and even heroic that they lie and they cheat and they steal. In the very beginning of the movie, they are perpetuating a scam where they take stuff to a pawn shop that is not the real stuff, and get money for it. Because it’s to buy dog food, this is supposed to be all right. But that’s really not good and so I’m a little hesitant. The dogs are adorable. The kids are adorable. But there is never any reckoning. And I’ll tell you, that in a movie–and this goes for Shopaholics, too–we do insist in our hearts, in the lizard brain, we really have this commitment to some kind of justice in a movie. And when somebody just continues to be enabled through the movie and doesn’t have any kind of recognition of the damage that they inflict, then I think that leaves the audience unsatisfied as a matter of narrative. It leaves me unsatisfied as the Movie Mom because I don’t really like saying that to kids, that there are no consequences for bad behavior.
PK: So you do want some sort of morality message in films then?
NM: Yeah, I do. I think it makes it a better story for one thing. For example there was a movie “Catch That Kid” about a child bank robber. And I was just horrified by the whole thing. I don’t care that it was nice that she was trying to help out the family when her father got sick, but she was robbing a bank and bringing her brother along. And I’m as big a fan of heist movies as anyone, but they are careful to instill some sort of sense of justice. If you watch heist movies, you’ll find that at the end of all of them one of three things happens. Either they’re unsuccessful, in which case you have all the fun of the heist but you don’t have to feel bad about the outcome. Or they somehow are stealing from someone who’s even worse than they are, like in The Sting. Or they’re stealing for a really good cause and no one’s going to get hurt. To make the story work you have to have some sense of justice. A movie that I really came down hard on was called Sleepover in which the girl lied, cheated, stole, drove a car (even though she’s underage), made a date with a stranger on the Internet and met him in a bar, and isn’t it funny that it turned out to be their principal? And then worst of all, and this was really appalling to me, at the end of this sleepover/scavenger hunt when they, of course, won, their prize, they got to sit at the cool table in high school. And so in the last scene, they’re sitting at the cool table and you’re expecting the payoff, which is that they’re going to be all inclusionary and open it up to everybody, and they turn out to be mean girls really. And this is supposed to be happy news? I don’t think that’s a good thing for kids.
PK: What about the ratings system for movies?
NM: It’s wack. It’s just awful. And this is my problem with the PGs right now. For example, you can use the F-word once in a PG-13 as long as it doesn’t refer to sex.
PK: Is that chiseled in stone?
NM: They don’t have it written, but that is the rule and they’ve been on record as saying that’s the rule. But think about it–you would need a Ph.D. in symbiotics to parse that rule. So, it’s okay to use that word in a violent way, in an angry way, in an insulting way, but not in a sexual way? If the word is that bad, why is it okay to have it there once? And so every PG-13 has got that word in once now. It’s just completely gratuitous. That shows you how idiotic the ratings system is and [how it] has been documented many times, is a lot fussier about sex than it is about violence, which is an issue for me.
PK: But ain’t that America?
NM: That is America, because I wrote this review of Coraline and I mentioned that there is a very heavyset woman wearing pasties and it’s a little over the top for a PG movie and the child is in peril throughout the movie. There’s a scary monster and there are children whose eyes have been taken away from them. And yet overwhelmingly, the emails that I got were about the two seconds of the almost naked breasts.
PK: We prefer violence over sex.
NM: But on the other hand, I talk to parents’ groups sometimes and it’s about even between the parents who come to me and say, “I don’t care about sex, I only care about violence,” and “I don’t care about violence, I only care about sex.”
PK: But, it does seem irresponsible to me to take kids to violent movies. What’s up with adults who do that?
NM: It drives me crazy. To me it’s child abuse. I never go to an R-rated movie without some children in the audience and I’m talking about vampire movies, tremendously scary movies. I was at one very, very violent movie once and there was an 8-year-old sitting next to me and I finally said to her mother, I just couldn’t stand it anymore, and I said, “You understand that this movie that’s starting in 10 minutes is one of the most violent movies ever made?” And the mother said, “Oh, she’s not going to like that.”
PK: Well, babysitters are expensive.
NM: You know what else is expensive? Therapy.
A boy whose parents turn their house into a nursing home can be expected to develop an interest in death. Ten year old Edward (“Son of Rambow’s” Bill Milner) is more than interested. He is fascinated. And that is in part because he is terrified. He hides his tape recorder under the bed of a dying resident to see if he can actually hear the sound of the spirit escaping the body and he avidly watches a television show about ghosts to see how he can communicate with the souls of the departed. He is more interested in the dead than he is in the living.
The same can be said for the home’s newest resident, Clarence (Michael Caine), a former magician, who moves into the room previously occupied by the most recent departed, and previously before that by Edward himself. Clarence is reluctant to stay but Edward’s mother (Anne-Marie Duff), out of her kind nature and her desperation to get the 50 quid a week, persuades him to give them a try. Clarence is bitter and bereft and has no interest in making new friends.
These two lonely guys are clearly move-made for each other, but to its credit, this film allows them to be more complicated and less cuddly than the usual feel-good comfort movie. Milner continues to be one of the movie’s most appealing young actors and Caine delivers capably. Their scenes together are nicely acerbic. Director John Crowley allows the story to take its time for most of the film and then seems to speed everything up for the last few scenes, which seem hurried and cluttered and for the first time falls into formulaic patterns. But like Clarence, the movie still has a few tricks up its sleeve.