Saturday, September 25, 2004

Can't Stop The Music (1980)

Can't we at least try?

Though there should have been every indication that Village People's days as a mainstream commercial force were at their end by 1980, someone somewhere made the horrible decision to give them their own movie. Okay, maybe the idea wasn't completely horrible. They had a fan base that might have given the movie respectable earnings and cult classic status. But that "might have" hinged on the fact that they make a semi-decent movie. In that, they failed.

What Happens:

Steve Guttenberg plays Jack Morell, an aspiring songwriter who lives with a retired supermodel, played by Lex Luthor's girlfriend from Superman I and II. In the opening scene Jack quits his "demanding" record store job and then celebrates by roller-skating gaily through the streets of New York.

Jack has an opportunity to DJ at the "happening" club where they hang out, Saddle Cramps. As he does this, Samantha (the supermodel) dances with a series of strange men (including one name Phillipe, who dresses in full Native American garb...okay not "full" he tends to prefer extremely short and tight cut-off jeans over a loincloth).

Through a series of tedious events, Samantha and Jack decide to form a group with the aforementioned men as singers. The rest of the movie follows their attempts to achieve stardom with an increasing cast of characters joining the ride, including Jack's mom, a lawyer played by Olympian Bruce Jenner, a record exec, and the head of a modeling agency.

What Really Happens:

This movie is full of inexplicable things. For example, we have no idea how Jack and Samantha met and decided to live together, or how long they've done so. Therefore it's strange when they start talking about his songwriting dream as though it's something they've never previously discussed. It's like he woke up one morning and decided that's what he wanted to do. This leads to a series of delayed realizations, such as 1) Samantha has close ties in the record biz; 2) Jack can't sing; and 3) we could recruit all these singers we know (so what if they happen to have proclivities toward dressing like construction workers, cowboys, and Indians). Odd.

The scene where Samantha goes out to recruit the guys to sing is notable for a couple of reasons. One is the fact that she gets an ice cream cone before she starts, and it keeps changing flavors as the scene progresses. It isn't prominent enough to be a visual gag, so it just looks like sloppy filmmaking. The other is the fact that the Construction Worker gets his own dream sequence in which he sings a spectacularly horrible song called I Love You To Death, which by all appearances is about domestic abuse.

Bruce Jenner (this film was supposed to launch his acting career, but he only made one other film after this one) comes out of nowhere. There's no satisfying explanation for why his character becomes affiliated with Samantha and Jack. When he first meets them, he seems to be having fun, and then he just storms out. Then he comes back again the next day and engages in some slapstick comedy / sex with Samantha.

Ray the Policeman shows up at a party and joins the group impromptu. They note that he was formerly in a group called the Cop-Outs. Kind of humorous. Interesting fact I learned from the DVD: The original Policeman (who sang on all the hits) had left the group right before the movie. He was obviously a smart man.

After the group gets a chance to record a demo, they decide to add more members and this leads to an audition scene that outdoes itself. Nerd Alert: One of the comics books I used to read was called The Legion of Super Heroes. They had about 30 members, and they would periodically have try-outs where these complete losers with strange super powers would show up. This scene reminded me of that. Anyway, from this we get The Biker a.k.a. Leatherman, an obviously gay and obviously hairy fellow who does a knockout version of Danny Boy. The Army guy also comes in here, but for some reason he doesn't have to audition.

I guess one of the big complaints about the movie from the group's fanbase was the fact that the filmmakers "straightened it up" for mainstream consumption. So the movie rolls along on the pretense of straightness (at the initial party scene all of the Villagers save Phillipe seem to have lady friends), and then we get to the YMCA scene and GAYNESS bursts out like the sun after a brief rainstorm. Seriously, this has to be one of the gayest non-explicit sequences ever filmed. The montage includes showering, synchronized swimming, gymnastics, locker room hi-jinks, wrestling, dance boxing, push-ups, and weight-training. All featuring men. Not a woman in sight. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

The band's rise to the top never really happens. They badger a beleaguered record executive into signing them to a contract, and perform in a milk commercial with Samantha (using "milkshake" as a euphemism waaaay before Kelis ever thought to). Then they perform a triumphant one-song set in San Francisco at the end of the film and the credits come, leaving us all feeling like we barely know the Village People any better than we did a couple hours earlier.

Questions and Concerns:

Is Jack supposed to be gay? The supermodel mentions several times how they have a strictly platonic relationship, and we never see him show any romantic interest in anyone, man or woman.

The fact that Steve Guttenberg still had a career (and how: Police Academy, Cocoon, Three Men And A Baby, and Short Circuit, all with ensuing sequels) after this film is simply amazing. His acting here is so horrible, and in one scene they have him wearing white overalls with no shirt.

Speaking of sequels, the record executive who eventually signs the group is played by Paul Sand, whose most famous role is the boxing coach in Teen Wolf Too. This is not a lie.

If the movie wasn't so afraid to be gay there might have been more lines like this one delivered by Jack: "Anyone who can swallow two Snowballs and a Ding-Dong shouldn't have any trouble swallowing a little pride."

This movie might be ageist. An old lady who hits people with her bag shows up twice, and in Bruce Jenner's introductory scene he gets mugged by an old woman with an accomplice who rides a moped and wears a jumpsuit and helmet (he looks like one of the Beastie Boys in the Alive video).

In one heartbreaking moment, Jack calls the Village People sound "the music of the '80s." Ironic that this line is in the film that killed their career (at least temporarily).

In Conclusion:

Village People were an inherently outlandish concept that lent itself to this sort of marketing, so it's sad that what could have ended up as a gay cult film ended up so pedestrian. There are only four or five musical numbers, and much-too-much time dedicated to boring characters that surround the band. Most of the Village People themselves probably only had one or two lines, IN THEIR OWN MOVIE.

Well, as Samantha says early in the film: "I didn't invent it; I'm just in it."

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Tommy (1975)

A musical rumination on fame, growing up, and testing an audience's patience

Pete Townsend has a story to tell you, and he doesn't really care if you "get" that story or not. The Who's discography is littered with high concept projects like Quadrophenia, Lifehouse (which, with the story abandoned, became their best album, Who's Next), and Tommy. The latter was a hit as an album when released in 1969, so Hollywood said: Let's make a movie!

It's hard to tell if this was a bad idea from the get-go, or if all of the decisions made thereafter just made it seem so.

What happens:

Ann Margaret, wearing the same sweater she wore in the beginning of Bye Bye Birdie, falls in love with a military man. They get married, have a baby named Tommy, and then the military man dies in war. I must say that throughout this movie, Ann Margaret is nearly consistently foxy, even 15 or so years out from her prime. Well done to her. Anyway, Ann meets a new man, who is instant trouble. In a scene that causes the first (but not last!) significant confusion of the film, Tommy witnesses either 1) his mom and this new man having sex, or 2) his new step-dad killing his father. Perhaps this is metaphorical. I don't know.

Anyway, Tommy ends up deaf, dumb, and blind.

From there, we go to Tommy pretty much grown up and now being played by Roger Daltry. There's something poetic in having Daltry play Tommy, in that he was the voice for The Who, and here he is stricken silent. Anyway, from here the film takes us on a disturbing series of adventures for Tommy, meant, I assume, to signify the slow corruption of growing up. Sadly, I'm not buying into Pete Townsend's worldview at all. At some point, Tommy becomes a pinball champion, gets famous, then rebels against his fame (controlled of course by his step-father) and gets his voice back. Credits.

Oh, and did I mention that there's absolutely no dialogue? None. The music plays in some form from beginning to end.

What really happens:

At 25 minutes in we get the first of many strangely interesting moments. This is not only the first appearance of the rest of The Who, but also Eric Clapton. And they're all wearing priests' robes and performing next to a big statue of Marilyn Monroe! What the mind really wants to know is that with both Pete and Eric playing guitar, who takes lead?

Tina Turner throws in a stunner of a performance as the Acid Queen, who introduces Tommy to drugs and/ or sex (not sure which, really, but it involves syringes, snakes, skeletons, and a sarcophagus). Can I just say that Tina Turner is the all-time champ of musicians at picking acting roles? I mean, this AND Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome?! She needs some sort of special Oscar for this, or at least a Golden Globe.

Keith Moon appears again, this time as a nasty uncle in the hands down most disturbing scene in any music movie. He sings Fiddle About, which is about child molestation. You can't really blame the filmmakers for this one: It's a disgusting topic any way you film it. But what makes it so disturbing is how much Keith seems to be enjoying himself!

There's a scene in which Tommy confronts himself in a junkyard. The writer, producers, and director of Superman II should be ashamed for blatantly ripping this off!

In the most transcendent moment of the film (okay, it's the only transcendent moment), Elton John appears as Tommy the Pinball Wizard's opponent. Inexplicably, he's been given super long legs and huge-ass shoes, but he looks great and sings his heart out, and mugs appropriately to the camera. It shall remain one of the great mysteries of all time as to why Elton never got his own movie in the '70s. A shame, really. Anyway, The Who play along with him and then destroy their instruments at the end of the song…honestly, this scene almost redeems the whole film.

Jack Nicholson sings. I don't even need to say anything about this, do I?

Ann Margaret has an extended scene in which she's watching commercials in an all-white room. She begins to drink and hallucinate and ends up wallowing in baked beans and chocolate. It's sort of sexy and gross and baffling all in one big package.

In Conclusion:

Stephen Hawking needs to watch this movie, because it may defy the laws of physics as our universe knows them. Time actually slows down while you're watching. It's an amazing phenomenon really, and I must commend all involved.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Crossroads (2002)

Author's note: This piece was written when my attitude toward Britney was much more positive. As of now, she has mostly frittered my good will away, but in better days I had somewhat of a crush… Anyway, the format differs from my other reviews in that I kept a running diary as I watched. That is reproduced faithfully below.

Okay, it's Friday night at approximately 9:45 PM and we're live from my modest apartment. I have spent the earlier part of the evening with friends, so I'm not a total loser here.

9:47 - 9:55 Previews. Orange County's contains a "Britney Spears is vapid" joke. Priceless!

9:57 Ad for Britney's latest album, Britney. Already have it.

9:59 All right, 12 minutes later the movie is about to start. The ratings board warning before it promises a PG-13 rating with "Sexual Content and Teen Drinking." Now we're talking! The credits start, listing not only Britney, but Dan Ackroyd and Kool Moe Dee too! I'm already wishing I'd seen this in the theater.

10:01 Britney's real life little sister is playing her as a kid, in a flashback sequence. Britney narrates, telling us exactly what is happening on screen before us. There are three girls who promise to be best friends forever.

10:02 We're into it already! Britney dances to Madonna (Open Your Heart) in her bedroom. She's wearing a camisole and panties! Oh no, she's putting on pants. This scene should have been MUCH longer.

10:05 Okay, so the girls are about to graduate from high school and aren't friends anymore. Points for realism. Now Dan Ackroyd makes his second appearance and Britney has her first chance to act. Verdict: Dan looks like he's been stung by a hive of bees. Britney cries convincingly. She's having a Diane Court-esque crisis.

10:07 Noticing that we haven't heard any Britney music yet.

10:08 Now we're getting somewhere! Yowza! Britney is wearing pink bra and panties and is about to lose her virginity with her lab partner. Less than ten minutes in and this movie is looking like a skin fest.

10:09 Britney isn't going to go through with it. How sad to be this lab partner guy…he gets so close to the sun. Like Icarus.

10:10 - 10:16 Plot stuff. The three friends reunite and decide to go on a road trip.

10:17 We meet the guy Britney is obviously going to sleep with. I already hate him. The movie has to make me like him.

10:19 Still no Britney music, but we do get N*Sync in the car. The guy doesn't like it; he's too cool for it! Plus, he refers to his car as "the cruiser." I'm liking him less and less, if that's possible.

10:24 Britney in the shower!

10:25 Britney wears a lot of pink in this movie. Oh, there goes the after school special alert: One of Britney's friends is pregnant.

10:28 Matthew Sweet just got some residuals off the appearance of Girlfriend, but we're still sans Britney music, dammit. Oh, and the interactions between this guy and Britney are SO lame. I'm going to be tempted to turn the movie off when they sleep together. Oh, and since he seems to not own a razor, I'm going to start calling him Stubbly.

10:30 Britney says "bitch" and "damn." I'm scandalized!

10:33 Kool Moe Dee appears!

10:34 The pregnant girl wants to be a singer, so they're going to do karaoke. But wait, she's choking! Who is she, the girl in The Devil and Max Devlin? Does Eliot Gould have to be there for her to sing well? And the audience is booing! Who boos bad karaoke? Isn't that the point? This appears to be the same road house audience the Blues Brothers played for.

10:35 Britney takes over the mic! She's looking foxy, and there's a stripper's pole right next to her! The look on Stubbly's face is unintentional comedy all the way to the bank!

10:40 An overzealous suitor gets fresh with Britney and Stubbly punches him out. It would have been a stroke of genius to have this guy played by Justin Timberlake. You hate a wasted opportunity like that.

10:41 - 10:46 As promised, teen drinking. But wait a minute, isn't one of them pregnant? And oh, now they seem to have gotten sober really quickly. They're sharing.

10:47 Stubbly takes his shirt off to reaveal tats on his back. Oh he's so dreamy (insert sarcastic tone). Blech!

10:50 Some classic over-acting from Stubbly. Who is he, Charlie Chaplin? You get the feeling that this is his big scene in the movie….and it sucks! My goodness what a whiny guy: "My car…it's the only thing that hasn't been taken over by chicks." Look dude, some of us enjoy the company of women.

10:52 Not only does Stubbly manage to maintain a permanent 5 o'clock shadow (he must have a beard trimmer set to "mildly rugged") but he insists on wearing a stocking cap, in Texas, in the middle of June. Is this really necessary? Okay, so now he's going to tell us why he really went to jail…

10:53 That was so lame!!! Is it just me or is Stubbly RUINING THE MOVIE?!?

10:54 - 10:58 They camp out at the place where Britney filmed the Not a Girl, Not Yet A Woman video.

10:59 Kim Catrall makes the briefest of appearances. There is a David Lynch-ian moment where the phone rings and both Kim and Britney react as though the sound is foreign to them.

11:01 Britney, wet from the rain and emotionally distraught seeks comfort in his Stubbly's arms. They kiss. Ugh! Get a clue Britney! This is too close to reality for me.

11:04 Stubbly sits in an atrium type area at a white piano. Is he John Lennon? Stop right now! See, he's putting music to the poem Britney wrote…it's called Not A Girl, Not Yet a Woman. I bet Max Martin and Dido sat at a piano just like this when they wrote it.

11:08 Capitol Records building makes an appearance.

11:09 They're at the beach. Britney is looking especially cute in a bikini and a little hat. She gets diarrhea of the mouth, and Stubbly is utterly uninterested in what she has to say.

11:10 There's an odd cameo from a man who appears to be former MTV veejay Jesse Camp. It's very disorienting. Sidebar: I actually saw Jesse Camp here at a record store, just walking around. My friend Richard was also there and claimed it wasn't him, but really, how many supper skinny guys trying to look like the offspring of Keith Richards and Steven Tyler are there?

11:11 I just realized I don't know any of the character's names. Oh no, and here's the scene I've been dreading. Stubbly and Britney are going to get it on…and we're not going to see a single moment of it! I'm strangely conflicted about this.

11:15 Plot convenience alert! I won't even go into it. It's not worth it. Suffice to say that even M. Night Shamalyn wouldn't have this happen in one of his movies. Shameful! I find it interesting that while Britney is throwing away her virginity, her two friends go through huge traumas! Is Britney causing this? Is this some sort of twisted take on morality?

11:18 Dan Ackroyd appears again and gives a speech almost as lame as Stubbly's "chicks / car" speech. Dan has a southern accent that appears for only one word of this whole diatribe. He is REALLY mailing it in. They should give a special award at the Oscars for mailing it in. Or at least a Golden Globe.

11:20 Britney claims that all Stubbly did was "give us a ride." Well, at least he gave her one. Ohhh, too easy.

11:25 Britney performs Not A Girl… Wow, this really came together quickly and without any practice. We're dealing with prodigies here. All of that practice that Britney has lip-synching really came in handy for this scene. But, Britney looks good, so who really cares about all of that? Oh, I think I just inadvertently discovered the filmmakers' philosophy for this movie.

11:29 The three girls reaffirm their promise to be friends forever. I want to see a sequel where Britney has become tired of Stubbly's irresponsibility and has grown away from her friends again.

11:30 Britney performs Overprotected as the credits roll. Fine way to end things. Oh wait, yes, we've got the Purple Rain frozen frame for the end. Kudos to the filmmakers for that.

11:32 Tape rewinding. I don't feel like I've wasted my time, but it could have been spent slightly better. This was a bad movie, but Britney was in her underwear. Stubbly was the worst boyfriend in a pop star movie this side of Glitter, but that underwear was pink. Okay I'm too conflicted about this movie. Best to just end it here.

Monday, September 06, 2004

Krush Groove (1985)

There are some higher

Krush Groove is the first rap music movie. For that alone it gets props, but unfortunately, its notoriety stems mostly from the fact that it was a flop (especially stinging because it came in the wake of Purple Rain, and probably labored under unrealistic expectations of the same level of success). You might remember that it inspired the famous exchange in Dogma where Ben Affleck attempts to use Matt Damon's faith in the film's box office prospects to prove that he is more often wrong than right.

What Happens:

We've got several storylines going here, all interconnecting in some way. The main plotline centers around Run D.M.C. who have just made their first hit record King of Rock. Their small record company, run by Run's brother Russell and Rick Rubin (playing himself) is struggling to meet the demand for the record and Russell makes a shady deal with the guy who plays the shady promoter in Rocky V.

Next we throw Sheila E. into the mix. She's just starting out and both Run and Russell take an interest in her career and her romantic availability. Sheila likes Russell better than Run. This obviously leads to tension and with Russell being pressured to pay back his loan, Run takes his group to a bigger label and a lucrative contract.

Finally, we've got the Fat Boys (at this point calling themselves the Disco Three), who are attempting to break into the business. Throw in Curtis Blow and lots of cameos and performance scenes, and mix well.

What Really Happens:

Anyone with at least rudimentary knowledge of Def Jam Records will know that the character Russell Walker is a thinly-fictionalized version of Russell Simmons. And in case you don't pick that up, the movie's credits inform us that "The Russell Walker character was inspired by the life of Russell Simmons." What's amazing to me is that Simmons exhibited enough restraint to not play himself, and let Blair Underwood have the job. You might think that it was a movie studio and/or director decision to have a famous actor playing this important role, but this was Blair Underwood's first movie. At that point, L.A.Law wasn't even a glimmer in Susan Dey's eyes.

Anyway, the first thing that strikes me about this movie is the style. The clothes and lingo still seem fresh. Maybe this is because eighties hip-hop culture has made a comeback, but I tend to think that there are just certain things that will always be classic: Volkswagen Beetles, Converse Chuck Taylors, black stocking caps, and Adidas tracksuits.

The other thing that strikes me is how many performances there are. It's obviously taking a page from the Purple Rain book. However, as fun as the songs may be, they have no real resonance in the story (save All You Can Eat by the Fat Boys). Like I said, we get a lot of performance clips, and some are great (Fat Boys doing Don't You Dog Me in the staircase of their high school, Sheila E. performing Love Bizarre looking and sounding so much like Prince that it's a little disconcerting, and some cameos I'll mention later). But because the movie packs so many artists and storylines into such a small place, you ultimately feel like you didn't get enough time with any of them, save maybe the Fat Boys. Run D.M.C. get especially short changed, and Jam Master Jay specifically. In fact Jay only has one scene where he isn't background decoration, and unfortunately (considering how he died) it features him threatening to pull out a gun in a relatively benign situation.

That said, Sheila E. cuts a particularly appealing character in the time she's given. There's one scene at her apartment (which features a Prince poster on the wall I must add) where she claims that anybody can rap and then proceeds to demonstrate her skills. She's not as convincing as a love interest, and there's a love scene between her and Blair Underwood that didn't do much for me, even with the Force MDs' Tender Love playing over it. Kurtis Blow is also a very decent character and a voice of reason in the film's events. I didn't realize before that he was the real-life guru behind the Fat Boys, but apparently he got them together and did their beats. This is played out rather tenderly and briefly on screen.

Finally, let's talk cameos. About an hour into the film there's a succession of cameos that is fairly mind-blowing. First we've got LL Cool J with a surprise appearance in the Krush Groove offices, begging for an audition. He's skinny, but throws down a bit of Can't Live Without My Radio and impresses nicely. Immediately following this we see New Edition in shiny silver matching suits performing My Secret. I'm intrigued by New Edition because they keep trying to reunite, and keep meeting with complete apathy. Then right after that, you have the Beastie Boys! They come out doing their very first single, the little known She's On It. Who could've predicted at this time that they'd become what they did? Amazing.

Questions and Comments:

Hoop Dreams fans, look for an Arthur Agee lookalike in the background of the scene where the Fat Boys try to get into the Disco Fever club for the first time.

There's a boggling loss of decency in a brief high school scene where one of the Fat Boys is roasting a fetal pig. I seriously believe cinema could have done without that…even Jon Waters would have left this on the cutting room floor.

Rick Rubin is an odd guy. He started out doing the hip-hop thing and now is an in-demand rock producer. This is foreshadowed in one scene where he can be spotted in a Husker Du T-Shirt. Shout out to Minneapolis!

Run D.M.C. actually work at a car wash at the beginning of this movie, and that's sort of inexplicable. But, it does inspire the great line: "You won't see Lionel Richie working at no car wash."

In Conclusion:

The movie only runs 90 minutes, and with so many things going on, it can't help but sink under its own weight. Watch it for the performances, cameos, and that slice of eighties hip-hop style, not for plot or character development.