Archive for the ‘concert film’ category

Wishful Drinking

January 2, 2017

wishfulOne of the better jokes in Wishful Drinking, HBO’s filmed version of Carrie Fisher’s one-woman show, will inspire sad cringing more than laughter these days. I won’t give it away. But if anyone existed in the zone between laughter and sad cringing, it was Carrie Fisher, who at one point during the show touted herself as “runner-up for bipolar woman of the year.” Fisher, of course, will forever be known for the piece of real estate she held down in the vast suburb that is Star Wars. But her true sardonic self came out in her writing and then in her performance of her writing. Wishful Drinking, which HBO re-ran on January 1 in the wake of Fisher’s death, offers probably the purest essence of Fisher in the visual medium (you can look to her novels and memoirs for more).

Fisher’s subject is how bizarrely magical and magically bizarre it is to be “celebrity royalty” — the daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, both of whose later married lives were so thick and confusing a large family-tree diagram is necessary to keep it all straight. The format is mainly anecdotal; wandering around a stage set that resembles a retiree’s cluttered but homey living room, Fisher keeps the show on the level of decent stand-up. She doesn’t go for any pathos — she’s too acerbic for that, and whenever she approaches a cliché, she backs away from it quickly with a jet-blast of snark. She doesn’t want to make the material more meaningful, or enlarge it to fit a theme; she just presents her life as comedy. I imagine the movie gives us what it might have been like to sit in Fisher’s parlor listening to her hold forth.

Fisher visits the old suburb briefly, counting the ways Star Wars has immortalized her (as a Pez dispenser, as a shampoo bottle, as a photo in a book ironically titled — no kidding — New Hope for People with Bipolar Disorder). “George Lucas ruined my life,” she says, adding “and I mean that in the nicest possible way.” I’ve seen Fisher’s Princess Leia described as the most famous female character in history; I balked at that until considering that Star Wars is quite likely the most famous film in history and that there are very few other women in Star Wars. That donut-headed hairstyle is iconic, immediately recognizable, and mortifying to a 19-year-old.        

So what happens to the human woman who played the icon and is forever linked to it? Especially a woman whose sanity had already been imperiled by being the daughter of stars? It’s a wonder Fisher never climbed a tower with a rifle, but women of Fisher’s generation didn’t do that; they self-medicated, self-deprecated, self-destructed. Somewhere in the show, Fisher proselytizes for electroshock therapy, which she later expanded on in her second memoir, Shockaholic. Fisher felt it helped with her depression, but there’s a chance it might have done some damage to her heart — along with the other punishment she dealt it over the years.

There’s a certain degree of heartlessness — not soullessness, but an ability to distance oneself — required to make witty one-liners out of the chaos of one’s life. (Fisher was a modern master of the epigram, the baby-boomer Dorothy Parker.) Some detachment is needed in order to shape the material so that it can reach others, rather than being incoherent diary entries. (Sadly, Fisher’s last book, The Princess Diarist, was sometimes that.) What brought Fisher’s later fans closer to her, though, was her vulnerability. What you hear in the audience in Wishful Thinking is laughter given gratefully and also generously. Fisher wasn’t angling for pity. She wanted to hear laughs. So much of her writing earns laughs, but they sound hollow now that she’s not here to hear them.

Michael Moore in TrumpLand

October 23, 2016

michael-moore-in-trumpland-slice-600x200Has Michael Moore broken some kind of record with his new stand-up-punditry film Michael Moore in TrumpLand? This movie didn’t even exist three weeks ago. It was filmed on October 7 and 8, and it premiered less than two weeks later. Welcome to the wonderful world of digital, I guess. Anyway, the movie, which Moore sprang on the world with a flourish last week, captures Moore during two talks at the Murphy Theater in Wilmington, Ohio, a town that Moore tells us leans largely (or bigly) toward Trump. So here comes Moore, the lefty barnstormer, to take his argument behind enemy lines, with the marquee outside blaring “Trump Voters Welcome.”

I don’t know — and I’m sure Moore doesn’t know either — how many people in Moore’s theater audience were, in fact, Trump voters; there’s really no way to know. I don’t trust Moore’s editing: Who’s to say the man photographed scowling during a Moore paean to Hillary Clinton wasn’t filmed at some other point in the evening, actually frowning at something else? (This is nothing new, of course; editing makes audience members seem to respond to something other than what they actually responded to in practically every concert film you’ve ever seen.) We also don’t know if he changed anyone’s mind. Does it matter? At this point, people are pretty well seated where they’re at, and they’re probably not going to be budged.

What the movie amounts to is a fearful-sounding plea by Moore for everyone to vote for Hillary. Moore is not as sure of Trump’s defeat as many are. By his own account, Moore was in England during Brexit, and that experience — people voting as a “fuck you” to the status quo, and ending up fucking themselves — seems to have scarred him. In July, Moore rattled a lot of his fans by insisting that Trump would win. Most polls these days beg to differ, but Moore might also have been trying to galvanize people into action, which he also tries to do here.

In a way, Moore’s instincts towards compassion sabotage his proselytizing efforts, because as a native of the much-disgraced Flint, Michigan, Moore knows the frustrations of the working class and can understand why they want to blow up a system that gave them the shaft. He may be erring on the side of idealization when he says Trump boosters are decent people (all of them? The white supremacists? The bigots of all stripes? Milo Yiannopoulos?), but he seems to want to begin with a clean slate and work around to something Trump supporters and Clinton supporters can agree on. To be honest, I wonder if the true impetus for this movie was so that Moore could have a filmed document of himself publicly agitating for Clinton. Why? Maybe to assure Moore’s imagined post-apocalyptic post-Trump generations that at least One Man Stood Firm.

Moore feints towards common ground, but mostly pays it jokey lip service. I’m a Moore admirer with serious reservations: I feel that he can speak powerfully for the downtrodden, but that his effectiveness can get lost in smug self-regard or just plain snark. During this show, Moore literally walls off Mexican audience members and sics a drone on Muslim listeners, ostensibly to make the Trump voters in the house feel safer. Well, first of all, this sort of unfunny stunt isn’t going to endear you to the butts of the joke, the Trump voters. Second, Moore’s output is awfully, awfully long on this sort of unfunny stunt. I know Moore is generally on my side of the fence. I also know Fahrenheit 9/11 didn’t prevent a second Bush term.

Then again, Dinesh D’Souza’s shitheaded 2016: Obama’s America didn’t prevent a second Obama term, either. (Nor, I think, will D’Souza’s recent Hillary’s America function as intended.) Generally folks who take in agitprop are not looking to have their ideas changed, but confirmed. D’Souza didn’t help convert Obama leaners to Romney, and Moore didn’t pull anyone away from Bush to Kerry. He isn’t going to do that to Trump, either. Trump seems to be doing a superlative job of that to himself. This concert, filmed in the moments right before the truly ugly Access Hollywood recording got out, doesn’t take that into account. This election season has been so weird, has moved so quickly into such unforeseen places, that even a film that was shot (as I write this) fifteen days ago can’t keep pace with it.

Nick Offerman: American Ham

December 28, 2014

According to the Wikipedia page on the concert film Nick Offerman: American Ham, Nick Offerman is an “American actor, writer, and carpenter.” That description might please him, though having “carpenter” ranked before the other two might please him more. Offerman, for those unfamiliar with his fan-favorite Parks and Recreation character Ron Swanson, is a stout fellow with a burly soup-strainer. He looks, and carries himself, like a man who works with his hands. Like Harrison Ford, another carpenter who found himself in front of the camera, Offerman has the authenticity of a person who knows how things fit together. This kind of knowledge is increasingly rare and useful.

Offerman may be an actor, writer, and carpenter, but he’s not a stand-up comic, and American Ham is not really a stand-up routine. It’s a test drive of material and thoughts that would make their way into Offerman’s book Paddle Your Own Canoe (the concert was filmed in March 2013; the book was published the following October), including a song with the same title as the book. Standing onstage, sometimes strumming a Gibson, Offerman makes good on his surname — he offers his audience, as the subtitle of his book puts it, one man’s fundamentals for delicious living. He places a heavy emphasis on tasting things, from red meat to, well, use your dirty imagination. American Ham is amiably filthy in an almost giggly, helpless way — Offerman front-loads the show with many riffs on his first tip out of ten, “Engage in Romantic Love,” and he sees no reason to soften his material for the prudes.

Don’t look to the show for jokes, though there are hilarious bits. Offerman is naturally funny, issuing his dicta (I can hear Offerman’s dorky 13-year-old-boy chortle at that) in the sonorous deadpan that has made Ron Swanson so cherished. Other than jabs at vegetarians (Offerman is very pro-meat), American Ham is good-hearted and inclusive. Offerman’s material on religion and the Bible isn’t the freshest, but it fits into his overarching live-and-let-live philosophy. To him, meat and the outdoors and sex and building things and “getting high and looking at a maple leaf” are the very stuff of life, of joy, and why wouldn’t anyone want to partake of joy? Offerman is a hippie spirit inside a mundane’s body. He’s only a day older than I am, yet he has the aura of a tribal elder, a medicine man with hair on his back.

American Ham was directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who also made last year’s The Kings of Summer, featuring Offerman and his wife, soulmate and “legal property” Megan Mullally. Vogt-Roberts serves up a smoothly competent point-and-shoot record of the show, though at two points we cut away to only mildly funny segments in which Offerman quarrels with a lawyer over parody songs he sings during the performance. (Offerman advises us to look the songs up on YouTube.) The director is attached next to Kong: Skull Island, a sequel — I assume — to 2005’s King Kong remake, and considering the relationship Vogt-Roberts has with Offerman, the surest way to get me to see the new Kong movie would be to cast Offerman in it as a brawny, cocksure hunter who gets trampled by Kong. Or, failing that, as Kong himself. Offerman: Meat Island would get my opening-day dollars.

This Is It

November 1, 2009

I feel a little bad for the stage dancers in This Is It. There they are at the beginning of the film, many of them moved to tears by the very prospect of dancing onstage with their hero, Michael Jackson, for his projected farewell concert in London. Well, they got to rehearse with him, anyway, and their efforts, captured on camera, are recorded for posterity. As the world now knows, Jackson’s This Is It concerts were not to be; he died less than a month before the first show.

One hundred hours of rehearsals were filmed for the concert crew’s own reference and for Jackson’s personal library; the footage was never intended to be seen by the public. We’re to understand that the show’s director (and the film’s credited director), Kenny Ortega, heard from so many fans wanting to see that footage that Ortega decided to put the film together for them. The truth is probably somewhat thornier; the concert promoter AEG Live, which took a $500 million bath from the fifty cancelled dates, has to make its money back somehow. Still, what’s left here is an interesting, if remote, portrait of an entertainment machine with a laser-precise vision of what he wanted.

It’s possible that the only time Michael Jackson was fully in control was when he was onstage, or doing prep work for a show. The rest of his life was mess and scandal and self-disfigurement, but in the lights, at least, he knew something about something. Always gracious, often appending his critiques “with love,” Jackson makes minute adjustments to the sound, the timing, the funkiness. We’ll never know what cocktail of meds he may or may not have been on when this footage was shot, but mentally, in the film, he seems formidable. Physically, he often holds back, saving his voice, he repeatedly says, for the main event. He gladly gives the spotlight (“This is your turn to shine”) to Orianthi Panagaris, a 24-year-old Australian virtuoso guitarist always seen chewing gum. When you’ve played onstage with Steve Vai at age 15, you can probably get away with chewing gum in front of the King of Pop.

For obvious reasons, This Is It suffers from a patchwork style — the editors do a heroic job of stitching it all together into something coherent. The highlight, mid-film, is probably “Thriller” (notch up another movie credit for Vincent Price); we get a peek at what would’ve been an impressive multimedia 3D presentation. This megaproduction in general would likely have been quite a night out, though by necessity short on spontaneity; Jackson’s fans paid to see his act well-worked-out, not rough around the edges. The film shows only the bare bones of what might have been. It’s difficult to assess, on a narrative or even technical level, footage that we weren’t really supposed to see. But people are expected to pay to see it, so that’s where we critics come in.

This Is It shows a man, frail and (unwittingly) close to death, yet still packing iconic power. He doesn’t waste a movement or a word. His entire essence seems mixed into the music (much of which has odd levels of hostility and aggression for someone who talks constantly about peace and love). His fluid mechanical-man moves and his strange late-period martial iconography (as seen in “They Don’t Really Care About Us”) denote a control freak, or, more generously, a perfectionist, and it’s clear to me that the Michael Jackson we see here would not have wanted us to see the Michael Jackson we see here. His estate okayed the film, but his estate has bills to pay, too. As a posthumous document, This Is It offers a veiled, vaseline-lens look behind the curtain. As a cultural event, it’s more than a little creepy and depressing. As with Elvis before him, the vultures will keep picking at this sad man-child’s bones until there’s nothing left.3

Margaret Cho: Beautiful

July 3, 2009

As a Margaret Cho fan from way back, I sympathize with’s Eric D. Snider, who gave three stars (out of five) to Cho’s 2005 concert film Assassin. At that point, Cho had become more of a knee-jerk Republican-basher than the personal comedian she’d started out as, and while I’m always up for GOP-grilling, it didn’t make me laugh so much as just nod in agreement. If we’re listening to you, Margaret, we know this stuff already; make with the funny.

Fortunately, Beautiful — Cho’s first concert film in four years — goes lighter on the liberal call-and-response, though she does kick off by saying “I fuckin’ hate Sarah Palin.” But then she winds up admitting, “I kinda wanna fuck her.” Most of the show takes its cue from that; this is probably Cho’s dirtiest collection of material since 2002’s Notorious C.H.O. She started the decade with the superb, eye-opening I’m the One That I Want, in which she exuberantly fessed up to her sexual misadventures, and now finishes the ’00s with a tribute to the folly and beauty of the sexual animal.

My guess is that being neck-deep in the Bush era for most of the decade gave Cho a lot of temporary agita and an urgent need to vent. (And it did make many like-minded listeners feel less alone, but the comedy got lost in the comfort.) In this concert, filmed in Long Beach about a week before the 2008 election, Cho seems more relaxed, more relieved. She seems pretty confident that Obama will get in; sadly, she also seems to assume that Prop 8 will get slapped down. In any event, without years of Bush ahead of her, Cho feels more free to get down and dirty. Even a bit about hypocritical Republican politicians who troll for sex on the down low becomes an occasion for more raunch. And, having seen this film, I now think Sacha Baron Cohen needs to hand his Brüno trophy for air-simulating fellatio over to Cho.

The major disappointment here is the shortage of Cho-imitates-her-mom bits; there are a couple of brief bits, but it’s as if Cho didn’t want her mom to get any more pissed off at her than she already was (over Cho’s tattoos). But Beautiful is generally so generously filthy that there really isn’t much room for Cho to bring her mom into the bacchanal. Gay sex, straight sex, the difference between gay penises and hetero penises — there’s very little ground she doesn’t cover, including her dabbling in “G-shots” and anal bleaching and her love of ass-eating. And she wants us to know it’s all good, it’s all beautiful. By the end, there’s only one place left to go, and it’s into song — a grand finale called “Eat Me Out,” belted out with brio, with the camera tracking back dramatically as she hits the final hilarious, triumphant note on “vaginaaaaaa.”

Once again, Cho has gotten in touch with her inner slut (a term she no longer uses here, perhaps because of its negative connotations) and reported back to us from the frontline of her pussy. The main thing to note here is that, if you’re like Eric Snider and me and felt let down by Cho’s previous two Dubya-haunted, preaching-to-the-choir concert films, it’s now safe to go back into the water — this one delivers.

The Life of Reilly

November 9, 2007

In the early ‘80s, Stephen King was talking to an interviewer and got on the subject of people famous for being famous. He cited Charles Nelson Reilly as an example. Why is he on my TV? What did he do to get there? Most people only know Reilly from his many appearances on game shows in the ‘70s, particularly Match Game. Some might also know him from his character Jose Chung on The X-Files and Millennium. But Reilly, who died in 2007, had a much fuller life than that. He was on Broadway in the ‘60s. He studied acting in the same class as Jason Robards, Hal Holbrook and Steve McQueen. He taught acting for years; among his students was Burt Reynolds. And from 2000 to 2004, he toured the country with a one-man autobiographical show called Save It for the Stage.

The Life of Reilly captures the final performance of that show. Reilly appears onstage with a variety of props clearly marked to look like stage props; he also seems to have saved a fair amount of memorabilia related to his career, such as a beaten-up newspaper clipping from 1977 in which a reader wrote in asking if Reilly was still alive. Reilly had a wicked sense of humor about that sort of thing. He had to. Born in the Bronx to a shrewish mother and a despairing, disappointed father (who had an opportunity to work with Walt Disney but was denied by his wife), Reilly had an awful childhood filled with imaginative play (dolls, puppets) and a “voice” in his head that kept telling him he was going to make it. Eventually he did; at the peak of his ubiquity, he estimated he appeared on TV about a hundred times a week.

The movie records Reilly’s show and intersperses some very brief vintage clips of him (the rights issues are perhaps the reason that the DVD can’t legally be sold, but is given away with a purchase of a t-shirt on the official website, Street interviews reveal random passersby who either haven’t heard of him (too young to remember Match Game) or vaguely remember him trading double entendres with Brett Somers. Why did Reilly stoop to game shows? Probably because he thought they were fun, and also because he worked too hard to get in the door to turn down anything. He also likely did it to spite the nameless network exec who told him, as Reilly recounts here, that “they don’t let queers on television.” If nothing else, Reilly put the lie to that.

The Life of Reilly gives us a sense of a full life of triumph and tragedy, an epic story told in 84 minutes by a master raconteur. The filmmakers, initially defeated when the film’s distributor New Yorker Films went bankrupt, have said that they hope to make an official DVD commercially available at some point. I hope so. The movie, and Reilly’s final performance, deserve to be seen by everyone — not just existing fans who don’t mind buying a t-shirt to see the film.

John Waters: This Filthy World

November 24, 2006

Is there a more lovable director now working (though not nearly often enough) than John Waters? The man wears his loves and hates on his sleeve, unapologetically; he won’t apologize for his films, either. Why should he? If he didn’t like them, why would he have made them?

In This Filthy World, Waters stands up in front of a New York audience for a little over an hour and takes them — and us — through a lifetime of obsessions, pet peeves, and filmmaking. Much of the material and anecdotes will be familiar to longtime fans who’ve read his interviews or his essential books (Shock Value and Crackpot). But it’s more fun to see and hear him presenting the stories. What we come away with is a self-portrait of a pre-punk transgressor gentled by the years into an elder statesman — with two Broadway hits, no less! — whom everyone expects to be wilder and crazier than he actually is. Hunter S. Thompson lived his role in and out. Waters prefers to get all his madness out in his movies, and go about his regular business dressed like a natty clerk and living a conservative life, albeit a life governed by fascination with things like murder trials and the consistent bad taste of his Baltimore neighbors.

Under Jeff Garlin’s unobtrusive if pedestrian direction, This Filthy World is your basic three-or-four-camera set-up, with occasional audience cut-aways and lighting on Waters that makes him look like he’s wearing a blue toupee. Fans of his films will appreciate that Waters offers at least one witty anecdote about each, from the Eat Your Makeup days all the way to 2004’s A Dirty Shame. His lasting affection for his incomparable star Divine is obvious; he says that if Divine were still alive, he would have wanted to star in Hairspray the musical and Hairspray the movie musical. It struck me anew how odd it should be that John Travolta, who ended up filling in for Divine (quite capably) in the movie musical, was making Saturday Night Fever at the same time Waters was making Desperate Living, his last “underground” film.

Reviewing Serial Mom back in 1994, I said that it was hard to tell whether John Waters had gone mainstream or mainstream had gone John Waters. He himself guesses that the story of Beverly Sutphin could happen today; “everybody can have a bad night,” he says, explaining why he doesn’t favor the death penalty. Waters is not for gay marriage, but not for the reasons bigoted straight people are; he opines that two of the perks of being gay were that you didn’t have to get married or go into the army, and now, as a gay man, he’s expected to fight the good fight to win gays the right to marry and go to war. Well, fine, he concludes, they should have the right if they really want to; leave me out of it.

The secret of Waters’ cult success, I think, is his essential good-heartedness. He’s too curious and easily amused by human foibles to be a misanthrope — if people were perfect, what would he make movies about? Even the rare villains in his work are seen campily, almost lovingly, the way he views the Wicked Witch of the West. That good-heartedness — the ease with strange behavior — comes through here, though he does draw the line at “adult babies.” He talks almost warmly about the woman who got him to sign a bloody tampon; sure it was weird, but he signed it, and he got a good story out of it. This Filthy World is a collection of good stories, and while it’s somewhat lacking as a deep probe into what makes Waters tick and as a piece of stand-up, it works well enough as a record for those of us who in all likelihood won’t ever make it to see him chat in person. The DVD has the added value of a featurette and an audience Q&A.