Sunday, October 31, 2004

Jailhouse Rock (1957)

Keep it locked up

In terms of numbers, Elvis Presley has a film career unmatched by any other recording star. And as we know, quantity ALWAYS means quality. And Jailhouse Rock is considered the cream of the crop.

It might be helpful to keep in mind that when this film was released, Elvis was already a huge star with several number one hits to his name.

What Happens:

Elvis plays Vince Everett, a thuggish feller who's sent to jail for beating a man to death. Here, he's considered a "hooligan" and ends up in a cell with Colonel Tom Parker, I mean Honk, a musically-inclined old man. Honk likes to play gospel songs on his guitar to soothe the souls of the other inmates. When he learns that Vince has musical talent he nurtures it, teaching Vince everything he knows.

He even arranges to get Vince on T.V. and it results in mountains of fan mail (including a disturbing letter from a 15-year-old girl wherein she gives her measurements).

After 14 months, he gets out of prison and is determined to become a star. He meets a record company employee named Peg who helps him on his road to fame. The film follows him through the traditional arc of struggling-for-fame, achieving it, getting too big for his britches, and then realizing the error of his ways.

What Really Happens:

I had problems with this movie. The main one is that Elvis' character is not likable at all. He goes to prison because he gets into a melee with a pimp and can't control his anger while beating him up. Since this is the case, then you hope for the movie to offer the character some redemption. It does, but not enough. In fact there's one small redemptive moment compared to roughly 8 horrible ones. Here are some of them:

Afer his star-making turn as in the televised prison talent show (!) he stupidly involves himself in a prison riot and gets more time added to his sentence.

On his road to fame he's petulant. There's a scene in which he sings "Young And Beautiful" in a club and the patrons could care less. In frustration, Vince smashes his guitar in the face of a particularly chatty patron. Yeah, that's the way to build a fanbase.

When Honk gets out of prison, looking for a piece of Vince's career, Vince cold-bloodedly cuts him off.

Later, he slaps up a record executive who steals the arrangement idea for one of his songs.

His relationship with Peg is also maddening...they are very hot and cold. At first she seems to despise him but he digs her. Then she starts to like him and he responds by treating her like shit. They flip back and forth for the entire film. It's like Ben and Felicity all over again. It does inspire a curious scene where she tries to include him in her group of friends, but he gets very angry about their discussion of jazz (he thinks it's too high-minded) and storms away after insulting a party-goer. She storms after him to give him the business and he responds by kissing her. Of course she melts, but she does offer weak protestations about his romantic "tactics." He responds: "They ain't tactics honey...it's just the beast in me."

As for the twists and turns of the plot, they aren't really interesting. Peg and Honk both come to think fame has given him a big head (though it was pretty big before) and is not thankful enough for the work they did to get him where he is. This leads to the climactic scene where Vince and Honk get into a fight and Honk punches him straight in the windpipe, thus taking away his voice. Given how much of a jackass Elvis is in the movie, it's kind of a satisfying moment.

(By the way, he gets his voice back for the final scene).

Questions and Comments:

When Elvis reveals his musical talent to Honk, he sings a song about being kissed tenderly. To me, this doesn't seem like the wisest idea... to sing a love ballad to your new cellmate.

Why isn't the music a strong point in the film? There's only one genuinely electrifying song / performance, and that's the title track. Though his dancing is great, he barely even tries to mask the fact that he's lip-synching. Other songs, such as Treat Me Nice, Young And Beautiful,
Don't Leave Me Now, etc. barely qualify as rock 'n' roll. Mostly they're just boring, and even a young fan's insistence that a performance of (You're So Square) Baby I Don't Care is "really gonesville" doesn't convince me.

There's a baffling moment wherein a radio DJ (who's about to play Vince's new song) reads a dog food commercial that touts its use of horse meat. I can't even venture an explanation as to why this was given precious film time.

I've mentioned one, but there are actually two scenes where a woman dislikes / is mad at Elivs and his solution is to force her to kiss him. Both times they give in immediately. Are we to believe this is because he was such an awesome kisser? Or is this truly the only method of dealing with women who despise you? If it's the latter, then I've been approaching things all wrong.

In Conclusion:

If this is the cream of the crop that is Elvis' film output, I'm certainly not going to spend any of my time on the rest of the harvest.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Graffiti Bridge (1990)

This is one bridge that needs to be burned.

Graffiti Bridge was written and directed by Prince and was billed as a long-awaited sequel to Purple Rain. It's actually amazing that this film was made, considering that Prince's second movie, 1986's Under The Cherry Moon, was about as popular as a screen door on a submarine.

What Happens:

As I understand it, the Kid now has his own nightclub (Glam Slam, which was a real club Prince owned in downtown Minneapolis, but the interior scenes don't appear to have been filmed there). He's in debt, and his music isn't bringing large crowds, though the people in the club seem to be enjoying themselves, especially all the couples who are getting freaky in the booths. Instead, the Kid is all wrapped up in some sort of spiritual crisis, spurred on by a mysterious woman named Aura (Ingrid Chavez). The Kid's old rival, Morris Day, also has a night club and he's very interested in putting the Kid out of business, as well as gaining Aura's affections.

What Really Happens:

The end credits say the movie was filmed at Paisley Park Studios in Chanhassen, Minnesota. Can I just say that it looks like it? I don't believe more than two scenes were actually filmed on location. At least Under the Cherry Moon had that going for it. From the nightclub exteriors of Seven Corners to the wooded area containing the tagged up bridge of the title, the settings have an enclosed, fake, low-budget feel to them.

Anyway, as we begin, the Kid's girlfriend leaves him because…he likes to write music. I think. At this point he starts seeing Aura, who repeatedly tells him "It's just around the corner." What "it" is, nobody knows. She disappears into thin air a lot, but also hangs out by the titular graffiti bridge in the fake woods, and writes poetry. I must mention here that she also comes with a whispered interior monologue a la every character in David Lynch's version of Dune. I don't really even have an opinion on this.

So Morris Day's club is called Pandemonium, and he has a sort of gangster-like hold on the area of nightclubs called Seven Corners (an actual place in Minneapolis, but they're all college bars and restaurants, not nightclubs). Curiously, there are apparently only four nightclubs (the other two are owned by Mavis Staples and George Clinton!) in Seven Corners. Let me just say here that I don't buy Morris and Jerome's transformation from members of a rival band to gangsters. That whole bit is fuzzy for me. But I must admit that the old chemistry is there even if the sparkling dialogue isn't…perhaps this is why they get as much or more screen time as Prince himself.

But even though Prince's supposed purpose here is to win Aura's heart and protect his club, he doesn't seem especially interested in either. He's apparently not terribly concerned about the operations of his club, or even being there on a regular basis. He seems to be sickened by the blatant sex and skirt-chasing of Morris and Jerome. (That doesn't stop him from freaky with Aura to the tune of Joy In Repetition, replete with a lot of above-the-clothes groping and hip-straddling).

He also spends time writing letters to his dead father (one of the very few connections to Purple Rain, and a tenuous one at best) and seems to want something out of that, but what we don't know. Aura sees a list of songs he's been writing, all have titles referring to spiritual matters, but are any of them played in the movie? No, instead we get mindless jams like New Power Generation and Can We Funk?

It's never clear why Aura, who seems the most lucid character in the movie, would even consider dating Morris. But, she always seems to know something we don't, and probably never will. So, when the Kid steals her away (literally, he kidnaps her), tensions escalate between the Kid and Morris and this results in, besides a few sorry "intimidation" attempts by the Time, a song challenge.

A cool idea, and one that brings up fond allusions to Purple Rain, but we get no clear criteria or rules, and once the competition starts it's intended to be obvious that the Time's performance of Shake is better than Kid's pyrotechnic Tick, Tick, Bang though I'm not convinced.

Then, danger befalls Aura, as she has warned would happen since the beginning of the movie, and Prince uses this as inspiration to win the contest by performing Still Would Stand All Time a pretty, but unremarkable, song. Jerome is amazed: "He won with a ballad."

But wait, don't the Time get a second chance too? Apparently this is like a baseball game in P.E. class where one team got to bat an extra inning and then the period ended and they declared themselves winners while the other team protested to no avail. One can't help but wonder what would have happened if the Time had busted out Ice Cream Castles. One also can't help but wonder why Morris would abide by silly song contest rules when earlier he had no qualms about breaking and entering, threats, and destruction of personal property.

So Morris has this sudden change of heart, lets the Kid have his club, and goes to get it on with his annoying girlfriend. The Kid reprises New Power Generation, and we're out. As the credits roll, we're left wondering if Aura was an angel, and whether what we just watched could truly be considered a movie.

Questions and Comments:

Why couldn't Thieves in the Temple - the best song on the soundtrack - have been utilized better? It's wasted with a montage and band-less performance in which Prince apes some Michael Jackson moves in smoke silhouette style. And this is a cool, creepy song that could have had great resonance with the events of the movie. It seems like Prince was trying to save some money and double this as the video for the song.

What is the purpose of Tevin Cambell coming out and singing Round and Round to the Kid on the street early in the movie? It's a great song, yes, but seems to be in the movie only so it could be placed on the soundtrack. The performance is not built up to, nor does it have any repercussion later in the film.

Why isn't Can't Stop This Feeling I Got in the movie? If any song on the soundtrack would seem custom-made to go in a movie, this is it. It would have been a great performance scene a la Let's Go Crazy in Purple Rain. At least play it over the credits!

What happened to Apollonia? The Revolution? If you were going to call this a sequel to Purple Rain, shouldn't you at least attempt to address these things? A sequel only works when it feels like a natural continuation of the original story, and this doesn't. At all.

The most interesting thing about this movie is how it dovetails with Prince's career path at the time. By that I mean that in the late '80s he was on the commercial decline. The Batman soundtrack had given him a commercial success, but not a critical one, and he'd lost a lot of fans with the Lovesexy album (which was mostly concerned with spirituality and was reportedly inspired by Ingrid Chavez). So Prince turned that pain into art, and as a result put the final nails in the coffin of his movie career.

Jimmy Jam is the most jovial person to ever appear in a movie. Every scene he's in he looks like he's just damned happy to be there. Considering he'd already had several hits with Miss-Jackson-if-you're-nasty by this time, it can't be because he was so thrilled to have a taste of success. He just seems to be a joyous guy, which is nice to see.

In Conclusion:

Maybe we just need to wait for early '90s nostalgia to rear up and cast a rosy glow over everything from that era, but Graffiti Bridge just doesn't evoke that "those were good times" feeling yet. It's inevitable that this sort of rebirth WILL happen though; they're already showing Full House and The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air on Nick-At-Nite. But the sad fact is that even period nostalgia can't redeem the fact that this is a bad movie. Everything that Purple Rain did right, this movie does wrong.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

The Wiz (1978)

There's somebody home in Soulville

Two things about The Wiz:

First, I was completely unaware of it until the summer after my freshman year in college, when I worked at the tiny video rental section of Kroger's Grocery. The first time someone asked me if we had The Wiz, I tried to give her The Wizard of Oz, and then was completely baffled that when she informed that that this wasn't the right movie (afterall, I thought my movie knowledge rather complete). The woman, who was African-American, and an employee at the store, informed me gently but firmly: "It's the black version." It's strange how once something finally comes onto your personal radar screen, it's pretty much permanently there. After that, in one brief summer, I must have had six or seven requests for it, all from African-Americans.

Second, a friend of mine informs me that when he was young he watched The Wiz with a certain sense of fear, not at the events depicted on screen (which could very well inspire fright in a child) but because he thought as a white child it wasn't meant for him and he shouldn't be seeing it.

How unfortunate that a couple of white kids had to be so ignorant. Though this version of the Wizard of Oz story was created by African-Americans and features an all black cast, I feel that it's a big glib to reduce it to the description "the black version." It is also a modernized, urbanized version, with a surprising extra shot of pathos.

What Happens:

Dorothy is a 24-year-old Kindergarten teacher who lives in a New York apartment with her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry, and she's played by Diana Ross. On Thanksgiving, family and friends gather together, but Dorothy is visibly distant from any sort of connection. While cleaning up, Aunt Em admonishes Dorothy for her fear of getting out in the world. Immediately after, Dorothy's dog Toto runs outside and she follows him into a nasty snowstorm. She's swept up by a snow tornado (!) into another world. That world is called Oz, and it's a wasted, twisted version of New York, replete with graffiti people, human crows, ruined amusement parks, and evil subways.

Here, Dorothy has accidentally killed the Wicked Witch of the West, and inherited her magic silver shoes. However, all she cares about is getting home, and sets about to visit the Wiz, who rules Oz with his magical powers. Along the way she picks up companions who all lack something: a scarecrow, a tin man, and a lion.

They reach the Wiz, who directs them to kill Evelynn, the Wicked Witch of the East before he will grant their wish. They follow through on said mission, reveal the Wiz to be Richard Pryor, and find that they already possessed the things they had been searching so hard for. Dorothy goes home with a sense of self-assurance, strength, and love. Oh yeah, this happens amidst a startling amount of elaborate musical numbers.

What Really Happens:

Okay, let's get the negative out of the way first. I have to admit a bias about musicals, one that might be shocking from a person who would undertake a project like this. The bias is, I find most musicals boring. There are exceptions (My Fair Lady and The Wizard of Oz), but watching them at home I have a tendency to get antsy, and roll my eyes when people break out into song randomly. I'm sorry.

So my one question about The Wiz: Why so many musical numbers? I didn't clock it, but I would estimate that of the film's 135 minute running time, 115 are feature someone singing or dancing. This would be wonderful if all the songs were up to snuff, but most are just blandly inoffensive. And maybe some blame can be put on Sidney Lumet, a director with some distinguished films to his credit (Serpico, Network, and 12 Angry Men to name a few) but no musicals before or after this one.

Anyway, this movie's screenplay was written by Joel Schumacher, who also gave the world (gasp!) Batman and Robin (besides Simone, the single worst movie I've seen when expectation is taken into account). This did not bode well when I saw it in the opening credits, and yet I was able to set aside my bias against crap movies and realize that the dialogue is exceedingly well-crafted. Just the fact that the Scarecrow continues to pull relevant famous quotes from his body is impressive, but we get a lot of modernized, intelligent wordplay here.

Comparisons to the original Wizard of Oz are inevitable, and yet The Wiz holds up amazingly well against that classic. I won't bore you with all of the changes, but here are a few that really grabbed my attention:

  • Dorothy is very sympathetic. Much more than the Judy Garland version, you get a sense of emptiness and fear out of Diana Ross' portrayal. Perhaps it's because she's older, or because her eyes bug out. Anyway, all good stories are about characters who find something they never knew they had within, and this definitely gets across here. In the original version you just feel like Judy simply appreciated home more because of her adventure. Diana comes back a woman.
  • Casting Oz as an urban wasteland was brilliant and it carries through in most spots, especially in Munchkinland becoming a city park, and the vastness of the Emerald City as a hopping downtown. Just as the original twisted Kansas farm country into Dorothy's Oz, The Wiz takes New York and does the same, and the results are naturally richer.
  • Couldn't the lion have been changed into something more urban? Granted, there are no lions in Kansas (though there would have been plenty of scarecrows), but how about a big rat for the New York version? Now that would have been cool. Freaky, but cool. An aside: Were there no advancements in costuming between 1939 and 1978? The lion still looks like little more than a guy in pajamas. One improvement: In The Wiz, we learn that the lion's real name is Fleetwood Coupe de Ville.
  • There's a wonderful sequence when they get to the Emerald City where the current color of style keeps changing on the Wiz's whim. They go from green, to red, to gold each accompanied by a song and dance that tout that color's virtue. The costuming budget must have been astronomical, but the commentary on the fleeting nature of style is priceless.
  • The flying monkeys are just as weird and disturbing here as in the original. They have motorcycles for bodies, sunglasses, and huge mouths.
  • Finally, I must say something about the casting. For the most part it's great. Diana is good. Nipsy Russell (as the Tinman) often appears to be channeling Bill Cosby, but is effective nonetheless. Lena Horne is a bit too campy as Glenda the good witch (and what's with all the floating kids around her?). The idea to cast Richard Pryor as the Wiz was a great one, even if he doesn't have much to do in the role. Mabel King kicks ass as Evillene, especially in her one number Don't Nobody Bring Me No Bad News (don't try to figure out the double negatives in that title). Finally, I found Micheal Jackson to be very charming and he gets the two catchiest songs (of course) You Can't Win and Ease On Down The Road.
Questions and Comments:

Dorothy is 24? Yeah, right! Diana Ross probably insisted on this being the character's age, since she doesn't look a day under 44.

Is it me or does the melody of When I Think Of Home sound a little bit like I Just Can't Stop Loving You (from Michael's 1987 Bad album)?

The tape copy of the film I rented from Blockbuster was strangely worn out at the part where the lion is introduced. It's as if someone watched that part over and over again, obsessing over it for some unknown reason. I like to think about these sorts of things.

If you start Marvin Gaye's What's Going On album three minutes into this movie, it will play in synch with the happenings in the film. This is a complete fabrication.

In Conclusion:

Purely given the nature of this film (remake a classic, and use all black actors?!!), reaction is bound to be divisive. But disregarding race and tinkering, there are some movies that you just feel you could live in, like there's a rich world contained within. Few movies achieve it, but the ones that do are the ones that show attention to details, interesting dialogue, and character pathos. Even though it is flawed, this movie has all of that. And if you find yourself lacking a sense of wonder, watch it with a child…I'm betting it's a film that they will be both frightened by and irresistibly drawn to, just like the original.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Moonwalker (1988)

Michael Jackson egomania when we could take it

In the future, lots will be written about this time in Michael Jackson's life. One of the most common sentiments I hear in reference to him besides revulsion is sadness. He made so much vital and exciting music that it would be a shame for it to be tainted by his significant personal problems.

Sadly, it's getting to the point where we forget how HUGELY popular Michael was, and for the right reasons. I mean, Thriller has sold 45 million copies world wide! He won eight Grammys in one night! Bad had five number one singles! Michael's transformation from a child star to an adult star was something the world had never seen before. At the apex (or at least plateau) of his popularity, Michael made a movie. It's not a continuous story, but more of a visual scrapbook.

What Happens:

We start off with a performance montage of Man in the Mirror which is replete with many shots of fainting audience members, and interspersed clips of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Gahndi, JFK, RFK, Martin Luther King Jr, Mother Theresa, starving kids, etc. It's kind of a downer opening, but it strives for some sort of relevance, punctuated by Michael standing like Jesus on the cross. Make your own interpretations and insert them here.

Next we get a well-edited retrospective of Michael's career, moving from the infectious sounds of the Jackson 5 (and the early proof of just how much talent this man contains), to the rat song Ben, to the highlights of his solo career. The best moment of this is easily his 1983 moonwalk at the Motown 25th Anniversary special. The crowd's reaction is a sort of elated gasp. Wonderful.

This is followed by three music video clips. The first is a shot-by-shot recreation of the Bad video (which was directed by Martin Scorsese) using all little kids. It kind of reminds me of the Lost Boys from Hook, and creeps me out a little.

The clip for the song Speed Demon makes gratuitous use of Claymation. I can't knock this too much, because that was the shit back in those days...remember the California Raisins?

The next one is my favorite. It's a video for a Bad b-side called Leave Me Alone, which is definitely in my top 5 favorite Michael songs. Not only is the song great, the production values of the video are outstanding. It was done in an arresting animated collage style (the Talking Heads used it in their And She Was video), and features Michael directly addressing the odd media image he has acquired. Not only do countless tabloid headlines fly by, but he also passes his supposed shrine to Liz Taylor (accompanied by Bubbles the chimp of course), and dances with the Elephant Man's bones. This sort of willingness to self-parody is what is desperately missing from modern-day Michael.

Here's where it gets boring. "Smooth Criminal" is supposed to be the meat in the sandwich, but it's processed instead of deli. This is a baffling bit of filmmaking that concerns Michael and his three child friends (one played by Sean Lennon!) and a drug czar played by an extremely hammy Joe Pesci. Turns out that Michael is some sort of alien with the power to transform in to cars and robots. The high point of this is that it segues seamlessly into the very cool video for Smooth Criminal. And yet, how this is related to the rest of the story is unclear.

After the Smooth Criminal performance, I'd recommend fast forwarding to the climactic showdown where Michael turns into a robot and his face momentarily breaks apart. It's very prescient.

Finally, we wind down with an overlong performance of Come Together, which was to appear a full seven years later on the HIStory album. Then the credits roll over the group that worked with Paul Simon on Graceland performing a song called Walking on the Moon. This is a nice touch.

In Conclusion:

If you can make the mammoth effort to separate the Michael of today from the nostalgia for his glory days, this is an enjoyable viewing experience. The amazing thing is that no matter your feelings on Michael, at some point you are just likely to feel creeped out (or at least uncomfortable) by this film. Like I said, prescient.

Saturday, October 02, 2004

I Am Trying To Break Your Heart (2002)

Every little thing is gonna tear them apart

Novice filmmaker Sam Jones thought it might be a fun project to follow Wilco through the recording of their album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Their previous albums, AM, Being There, and Summerteeth were all big critical favorites and had garnered them a dedicated, if small, fan base. Jones was one of those fans, and with the delusion of a fan felt the band was on just the verge of a commercial breakthrough. So why not document the making of the album that would bring them international stardom?

It didn't quite work that way, but Jones got something even better. As sometimes happens, the stars aligned and a wonderful story fell into his lap.

What Happens:

When Wilco completed Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and turned it into their record company, the company flatly rejected it as not commercial enough. The band promptly bought the album back and sold it to another company which happened to have the same owner as their old label (in today's music industry there are really only three major labels). When it was released, the critics hailed the album as a masterpiece, and the first week sales were better than any previous Wilco album (which, granted, was still not a whole lot).

It's very rock 'n' roll to think of the record companies as completely clueless, and here we have concrete proof of it.

Questions and Comments:

For my money, no form of film has more potential for thrills than documentary. It is an often-abused, cliched, and parodied format, but when done right, like Hoop Dreams, or this film, it is riveting.

More than just the shake-your-head story of an innovative album being rejected, Jones also captures that old favorite, band infighting. Jay Bennett and Jeff Tweedy have a visible tension between them that grows as the film progresses and eventually leads to Bennett quitting the band. It's a shame really, because they obviously did great work together, but it's also thrilling to see. There's an argument between the two over a minute detail of editing that just completely sums up how silly things can get between two people. Jay's post-quitting interview is a textbook case of self-delusion. Watch for it!

It's a bit strange to spend so long looking at people you normally just listen to. So, I found myself my making mental connections to more familiar faces. For example, Jay Bennett resembles a more studious version of Scottie, from Boogie Nights. Also, the band's manager Tony could make some side money as a James Garner impersonator. Finally, the similarity between Jeff Tweedy and the Man Behind the Curtain from The Wizard of Oz is eerie.

Despite the wonderful music they make, this band can come off as a bit humorless and self-possessed, and this documentary bucks that perception with several small touches. The best of these is a scene in a Wendy's with Tweedy and his wife and kids ordering and attempting to put together enough cash to pay. It blows the roof off any perceptions of a debauched rock star lifestyle.

This movie also has the advantage of being the best-titled of the lot (Stop Making Sense taking a close second). It is, of course, the name of the first track on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but there's something more to it. I think it's the fact that the I and the Am aren't contracted. It sounds so formal. It's almost as though it's a response to something else.

Pure Imagination from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory plays over the final credits. I can find no logical reason for this, but it's a brilliant touch nonetheless.

In Conclusion:

Beautifully filmed in black and white and expertly edited from what must have been a TON of footage, a fan could ask for little more than this. Even non-fans are likely to be sucked in by the sheer arc of the story and appeal of the people involved.