Sunday, August 29, 2004

Madonna: Truth Or Dare (1991)

We're just living in her material world

Had it gone in a different direction, this project could have easily focused purely on the film oeuvre of Madonna in all of its shame and glory. Is there another actress who has received more Razzies (the ceremony which presents itself as the complete opposite of the Oscars, rewarding extraordinarily bad film work), and yet also won a Golden Globe? She's got Shanghai Surprise, Body of Evidence, The Next Best Thing, and Swept Away to her credit, and yet also can lay claim to Evita, A League of Their Own, and Desperately Seeking Susan.

I'll admit my bias right here: I have a lot of love for Madonna. I think if I could only own one album it would be a serious decision between The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds and The Immaculate Collection. But, like any superstar, it's impossible to adore her fully and completely (especially the newer calcified version). There's too much baggage there, as we'll see.

What Happens:

The filmmaker followed Madonna around on her 1990 Blonde Ambition tour supporting the Dick Tracy (also a stinker) soundtrack I'm Breathless. Along the way he captures Madonna at her most candid. He also documents the troubles and triumphs she experiences, including a visit to her roots in Michigan, controversy in Canada, the tedium of touring and pulling off an ambitious stage show, and of course sex and romance. What emerges is a portrait of Madonna as a tough, sometimes raw young woman who has been through a lot and is still in the process of growing up. There's also a strong presentation of her with her dancers and entourage as a caring den mother. And this was before she even had kids!

The documentary bits in black and white are interspersed with color scenes of various song performances.

What Really Happens:

This movie, though it first showed Madonna as the shrewd businesswoman she is, also documents her careening into the worst point of her career. In some ways she was still very much searching and unsure of herself, as evidenced by the Sex book and Erotica album that came out the next year. Knowing that this will happen, and that she will rebound in typical heroic fashion makes for compelling viewing.

That said, as a documentary, this is rarely as gripping as the format has the potential to be. Perhaps it's because the events that occur are hardly ever dramatic. As a result, the beginning especially seems like we are in for a long tedious ride. Initially, Madonna comes off as a self-absorbed bitch-on-wheels. She plays bullying games with her staff, complains about audience members, and her narration seems like what hyper self-analytical college students sit around and talk about.

On top of that, the first couple of musical numbers are lip-synched and choreographed and do nothing for me. But as the movie progresses and we see more of these numbers that were in the show, the cumulative effect is an appreciation for how much work it must have been to pull that off every night. Personally, I prefer the band that comes out on time, says little but "Hello" and "Thank you" and kicks the ass out of their songs, but I can appreciate "high concept" too.

The same happens with the documentary. Slowly the scenes add up and we begin to get a more fully realized portrait of Madonna. There's a scene where her father (who looks startlingly like Ralph Nader) visits with her, and it's as awkward as any other parent-grown child interaction. There's another scene where she visits her mother's grave. It's a bit overwrought, but still affecting.

When she plays in Detroit she meets with a childhood friend named Moira, and it's a very sad scene. Moira is obviously living a hard life, but wants Madonna to be the godmother of her baby. Madonna somewhat gently brushes her off. It gives a taste of some of the lesser side of fame.

Finally, also contributing to the emotional investment of the film is the afforementioned relationship she has with her dancers. She obviously cares about them, and even has to play peacemaker. She's like a really hot teacher. But then this is all negated at the end with the famous titular truth or dare game, and a bizarre sequence where she has them visit her bed one by one.

Questions and Concerns:

Warren Beatty (he and Madonna were famously involved at this time) is actually a voice of reason in the film. At one point he remarks that Madonna "doesn't want to live off camera."

The parade of celebrity guests that visit backstage is dizzying. We get Al Pacino, Mandy Patinkin, Lionel Richie, and Kevin Costner (sporting a righteous mullet). He calls the show "neat," and after a few seconds of awkward conversation leaves, only to have Madonna stick her finger in her throat behind his back. How would you like to be him and have this moment immortalized? Terrible, yet satisfying.

I wonder what the percentage of this movie involves Madonna getting her make-up done. I'm guessing 18.5 at least. This is a project for somebody.

In Conclusion:

Though not a thrilling documentary, it will be important someday for the depiction of a certain time of Madonna's life. However, non-fans and hatas should approach with caution.

Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)

It was all downhill from here

What Happens:

Desperately Seeking Susan is a stylish, surprisingly good movie about a rich woman who discovers the joys of letting your soul fly free and bohemian. It's a very '80s update of The Prince and the Pauper or City Mouse Country Mouse stories. Rosanna Arquette has a comfortable but soulless life until she starts following a series of ads concerning the titular Susan (played by Madonna of course). A complex series of events leads to her being mistaken for Susan, the two women switching places, and high jinks ensuing! She falls in love with Aiden Quinn, has some trouble with some thugs, and works in a nightclub. Susan, meanwhile, enjoys the high life for awhile.

What Really Happens:

Rosanna Arquette looks rather foxy in this movie. I've always been a Patricia man myself, but watching this, I can see why Toto made that song about Rosanna. What was that called again?

Don't freak out, but Madonna is actually good in this movie! Sure, she tends to speak in one liners (a perfect way for non-actors to come across well in movies), but she is effective, funny, and seductive. It makes me wonder if she'd just stayed in smallish roles, such as A League Of Their Own, how much movie-going pain and heartache might have been averted.

Questions and Comments:

Be sure to watch for the parade of pleasantly familiar faces. Here's a rundown of who to look out for: Rosanne's sister, Steven Wright (!), Dana's orchestra friend from Ghostbusters (the one who Bill Murray describes as "still very pale though"), Jon Turturro, and Richard Hell.

Marshall Crenshaw's song Someday, Someway plays over a diner scene. This is just wonderful.

Madonna dances to Into the Groove in a club scene. This is an odd moment, because we're not supposed to be thinking of this character as a massive pop star, but how can we ignore it? She seems to enjoy her own music a bit too much.

And finally, nudity:
11 minutes - Madonna's nipple
26 minutes - Rosanna's nipples
1 hour 18 minutes - Madonna's nipple (back again for an encore)
1 hour 23 minutes - Aiden Quinn's ass (for all the fellas)

In Conclusion:

Open your heart and tune in next time this movie is showing on cable.

Saturday, August 21, 2004

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978)

It couldn't get no worse!

When I was in high school, at the tail end of my initial obsession with The Beatles, I bought a country tribute album to the band. This was when "country music" was a four-letter-word in my vocabulary. My Beatles obsession was such that I probably bought it just because it had a charming John Lennon drawing on the front. But a listen to it proved something I'd always suspected: It was impossible to ruin The Beatles. Little did I know that in 1978 Robert Stigwood, Peter Frampton, and The Bee Gees nearly accomplished just that.

What happens:

Sergeant Pepper is a Glenn Millerish figure who, as the song says, taught the band to play 20 years ago today. And they were the toast of wartime; an inspiring bunch. This is all told to us by a narrator who sounds like George Carlin, but actually turns out to be George Burns. Now, in modern times, his grandson Billy Shears (played by Peter Frampton, looking exactly like Roger Daltry) is getting the band back together as a modern rock group! The other three members happen to be Robin, Maurice, and Barry Gibb, The Bee Gees!

The band's first gig is a revelation, and of course they're ushered off to California to become big rock stars. Unfortunately this means the Billy must leave behind his foxy, foxy girlfriend Strawberry Fields. Why she can't go along to California, other than for dramatic narrative purposes, shall remain a mystery. As happens with any well-brought up, level-headed band, they are immediately corrupted by the bacchanalia of the record executive lifestyle, which involves lots of loose women, gorging at medieval style dinners, and large spinning record coffee tables. Billy cheats on Strawberry right away.

Despite this lack of focus, the band becomes immensely popular, and gains the attention of the malevolent Mean Mr. Mustard, who is played by a British actor Frankie Howerd. He's is a tremendous ham (mmm, mustard and ham). This leads to a series of misadventures and elaborate musical numbers. Actually to call them musical numbers is a bit misleading, because like Tommy, this whole movie is dialogue-free. There is Beatles music from wall to wall.

In the end, the band rediscovers the power of love, Huey Lewis style, and this leads to the defeat of Mr. Mustard and his minions, but also to the death of sweet, hot, innocent Strawberry Fields. This is a maddening moment, because she is the ONLY likable character in the movie. But fear not! Billy Preston shows up, playing some Jesus/religious icon figure, and brings her back to life.

Choir sings, roll credits.

What Really Happens:

Okay, this movie really fucking sucks. Almost everything about it is annoying, from the bad acting to the poor film stock. I can't tell you how many times I wanted to hit fast forward. I don't think there is any other movie besides Showgirls that featured so many career lows in one place. Here are some of them:
  • George Burns performing Fixing a Hole. This scene is the dictionary definition of surreal. He doesn't really even sing…in fact, he comes dangerously close to inventing white rap.
  • Steve Martin singing Maxwell's Silver Hammer while playing a crazed doctor. He seems to have an odd fascination with this, having played variations on the role in The Man With Two Brains, Little Shop of Horrors, and Novocaine.
  • Performances by Earth, Wind, and Fire (by far the coolest thing in the movie, but still a career low), Alice Cooper, and Aerosmith. In fact, Steven Tyler appears to die at the same time that Strawberry Fields does, but no one is really concerned.
  • A band called Stargard appears, but for them this was probably a career highlight.
  • A huge choir of "stars" singing Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Watch for Dame Edna, Edgar Winter, Robert Palmer, Curtis Mayfield, Bonnie Raitt, Donovan, Etta James, Heart, Seals & Croft, Bruce Johnston, and Hank Williams Jr. The sad thing is how many of them flub the lines of the song as the camera swings past them. I'm assuming this was done in one take with no practice.
  • Peter Frampton is simply horrible, whereas The Bee Gees come off as okay. In fact, hearing them sing some of The Beatles stuff is pretty cool. Is it any wonder that they still had a strong career after this and Frampton didn't?
In Conclusion:

This movie does the unthinkable. It makes you annoyed with The Beatles. You'd like to think that this shameless manipulation of their work was fought tooth and nail by The Beatles themselves. For heaven's sake, John was still alive when this was made! I'm guessing that it was probably Paul's decision, to fund his pot habit through the '80s. A splendid time is guaranteed for none!

Saturday, August 14, 2004

The Bodyguard (1992)

She's got the stuff that he wants

If there's such a thing as suffering in comparison, then it follows that there must also be such a thing as benefiting from comparison. That's the case here. In no way am I deluded into thinking that The Bodyguard is a great movie, but when pitted against some of the dreck I've watched for this project, it might as well be a masterpiece.

What Happens:

Frank Farmer (Kevin Costner) is an elite personal bodyguard. We know this because the opening scene shows him sitting on a man in a parking garage, having apparently just fended off an assassination attempt. Rachel Marron (Whitney Houston) is a massively popular singer and actress whose life is in danger. We know this because in the second scene a television in her dressing room blows up. So of course Frank is hired to protect her and her son, who is played by Bobby Brown (okay, not really).

We find out that Rachel has been receiving strange ransom note-style letters, and that someone has snuck into her mansion and "masturbated on the bed." Rachel comes with a large entourage, including an existing bodyguard, a manager, a family friend, and a bitter sister. Frank immediately clashes with almost every single one of them. So basically we follow as Frank follows Rachel through a series of outings and appearances and bits of danger.

Along the way they fall in love, though why that happens isn't completely clear. It must be physical, because he seems disgusted by her personality, and he doesn't have one himself, so she can't like him for that reason. Anyway, as the googly eyes go on, the mystery of who is threatening Rachel deepens. At first it appears to be a David Spade lookalike, then someone else. Anyone with minimal powers of deduction will be able to figure out who the villains are here.

The movie culminates in a murder, and a climactic final scene at the Oscars, where Rachel Marron is the favorite to win Best Actress (wishful thinking on the part of the film's producers?). The mystery is solved, Frank saves the day, and I Will Always Love You is sung.

What Really Happens and Thoughts:

Let's talk about the actors. Kevin Costner is sort of an enigma to me. I'm deeply ambivalent about him. He's not going to entice me to see a certain movie, nor is he going to dissuade me from seeing it. This movie might actually help me get over that ambivalence a bit, because he bothers me here. First, he looks like he was filming JFK simultaneously, because though it takes place in the '90s, his look is pure early '60s with the suits and the short hair. It's disorienting.

The other problems I have with this character are probably not Kevin's fault. We are supposed to buy him as a badass, but it just isn't convincing. Sure he likes samurai movies, orange juice, drives an El Camino, and he has NO sense of humor, but do I trust him with my life? He is supposedly a tortured soul because he wasn't there the day Reagan got shot, and he blames himself. Man, aside from the guilt about Brady, you'd think it'd be a source of pride! Anyway for me the telltale sign when he took a bullet for Whitney in the end, I really hoped he would die. Maybe I was just in a tragic mood.

As for Whitney, she doesn't have to do much other than play herself, but once again, let's look at this in comparison. If you take her versus Madonna, Mariah, and Britney in their first starring roles, she easily bests all of them. And the songs for this movie are top notch. I Have Nothing is, for my money, the best song of the lot, and they sure get a lot of mileage out of it. I think the filmmakers underestimated how popular I Will Always Love You would be, because it definitely gets second class treatment (we don't even hear Whitney's version until the end). Anyway, I wanted to go out and buy the soundtrack right away, which is what any pop star vehicle should compel one to do.

The interesting thing about this movie as a pop star vehicle is that it picks and chooses what conventions it wants to stick to. Having the pop star play a barely autobiographical version of herself? Check! Making the pop star the center of the movie? Nope. Lots of songs by the pop star? Check! Lots of performance scenes? Nope. So what's going on? Thinking outside the box? Shame on them. I would be inclined to label this movie a hybrid: part pop-star vehicle, part movie featuring a pop star as one of the cast. So this leads me to one of two conclusions: 1) the filmmakers were brilliantly playing off of expectations, or 2) the filmmakers were completely clueless.

I did a bit of research on the filmmakers, and this actually has a pretty good pedigree going for it. The writer was Lawrence Kasdan, who is responsible for The Empire Strikes Back, Body Heat, and The Big Chill, among others. He's also a director, and I'm not sure why he didn't take the reins here. Instead we get Mick Jackson, who has a very undistinguished resume, besides one gem: L.A. Story. So I don't know why this movie wasn't a bit better.

Anyway, going back to conventions, there's one this movie does stick to, in a bizarre way. I've written about the Purple Rain blueprint of ending the film on a freeze frame shot of the pop star triumphant. Well, this movie ends in a freeze frame, but it's of Costner, standing stone still with a completely sour look on his face. The freeze goes on past the point where you're comfortable with it.

Finally, one thing I loved about this movie was that it chose to exist in a world of fake celebrities, songs, and movies. This brings up fond thoughts of Seinfeld and the strange fake movies they would see, such as Death Blow, or Chunnel. In The Bodyguard we get things like Queen of the Night, and Hot and Cold. Who wouldn't want to see these Oscar-nominated movies?

In Conclusion:

Good songs, good show by Whitney, but not probably not enough to completely satisfy the fans, because the movie can't decide what it wants to be. But once again, it could have been A LOT worse.

Sunday, August 08, 2004

The Jazz Singer (1980)

I'm amazed, and confused

In 1980 Neil Diamond's star had faded somewhat, yet someone somewhere with money and influence (probably Neil himself) thought it would be a good idea to remake the 1927 Al Jolson film The Jazz Singer, with Neil in the title role!

What Happens:

Neil plays Yussel Rabinovitch, a Jewish Cantor. In fact, he comes from a long line of Cantors. But he has a dream of becoming a singer/songwriter, despite the objections from his wet-blanket wife and traditional father (a paycheck-seeking Laurence Olivier). When he gets an opportunity to have one of his songs recorded he flees to L.A. and his career takes off, at the expense of his former life. Will he be able to balance the expectations of family with his dreams of a music career?

What Really Happens:

To satisfy his performance jones in New York, Yussel does shows at an all-black club under the name Jess Robin. The rub is that he has to use make-up to pass himself off as a black man. Thankfully there's only one scene of this, and it ends with Neil's whiteness being discovered, getting into a fight with Winston Zedmore (from Ghostbusters), and going to jail. All this after a stirring rendition of You Baby, which sounds like a lost Motown classic. Following this, Neil must listen to both his wife and his father tell him how ridiculous his dreams are. This is always a good thing to do to your loved ones…crush their spirits!

When Jess gets an opportunity to have his ballad Love On The Rocks performed by a real recording artist (the dreamy Keith Lennox) he jumps at the chance and goes out to L.A. At this point the film presents the viewer with a real moral conundrum: Is Jess being selfish by leaving behind his commitments, or is he right to follow his dreams? The events that follow try to make that a simple question in favor of the latter, but I'm not convinced.

Anyway, it turns out Lennox wants to ruin Love On The Rocks by performing it as a screaming rocker. So with the help of Molly, a record company rep played by Lucy and Ricky's little girl, Jess decides to make a go of performing his own music. He nabs a spot opening for Zany Gray (?) and despite his metallic maroon shirt, impresses. This leads to a record deal!

As things snowball with Jess's career, he and Molly spend so much time together they can't help but begin making goo-goo eyes at one another. But, oops, Neil's wife is still in the picture and is still NOT happy about this whole becoming a rock star thing. This leads to divorce.

Of course Jess goes immediately to Molly after his divorce is finalized (the ink probably wasn't even dry) and declares his love. It comes off as desperation, but quickly pays off. Then we are treated to a goofy "in love" montage replete with cultural misunderstandings, dreamy looks, tandem bicycle rides, and a chest-hair-heavy sex scene.

Then dad comes to visit, and promptly disowns Jess for a variety of complex reasons, but mainly because Molly isn't Jewish. This leads us into the classic A Star Is Born arc, wherein Neil becomes a complete ass (treating Molly poorly, throwing fits during recording and rehearsal). Then, inexplicably, Neil sets off to wander across America alone. He grows a beard, buys a cowboy hat and takes up smoking.

But it turns out he left Molly with a bun in the oven, and she goes ahead and has the baby while he "finds himself." When he finally returns, to find Molly and his son frolicking on the beach, Molly embraces his return. He patches things up with his dad at Yom Kippur, resumes his rock star career, and the credits roll to the strains of America.

But wait, let's do the math. If Jess had no clue Molly was pregnant when he left, then she couldn't have been very far along. So let's say she was one month pregnant when he left. The kid appears to be at LEAST six months old when Neil returns. That would mean he was traveling for 14 months. If someone disappeared from your life for over a year, leaving you to take care of a child alone, wouldn't you at least give them a right hook in the jaw before you let them move back into the house? Come on!

Questions and Comments:

To be fair, Jess does attempt to get his wife to come out to L.A. with him, but what's strange is that Hello Again is used as a theme for Jess and Molly, when it actually describes loving someone long distance, and this applies much better to his wife.

I hate to be a prickly pear, but Neil technically isn't a "jazz singer" at all. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find any jazz in this movie anywhere, save the brushed drums on Summerlove! Would it have hurt anyone to change the name to The Pop Singer?

Does disowning still happen? We see it in movies and T.V. all of the time, but you rarely meet anyone who has actually been disowned. And at what age do your parents actually stop owning you?

Before watching this movie I'd never before noticed just HOW much Neil resembles Larry from Three's Company.

In Conclusion:

Despite some tasteless moments and misogyny, this movie will be supremely entertaining for any Neil fan. You can tell he really cared about this story, and connected with it. And there's no denying that the soundtrack produced some of Neil's best songs and gave him a strong comeback!