Archive for the ‘musical’ category

La La Land

February 5, 2017

la-la-land-ryan-gosling-emma-stone-1Is the Hollywood musical worth saving? There may be a compelling argument to be made for it, but La La Land, I’m afraid, isn’t it. The movie is popular and is supposedly on track to win a tub of Oscars, including Best Picture. It’s full of music and color, but otherwise it’s a thin and glittery shell with a lot of hollowness at its center. It’s about two young wanna-be entertainers, actress Mia Dolan (Emma Stone) and jazz pianist Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling), trying to make it in Los Angeles. They fall in love, but conflicts about artistic integrity threaten their idyll; during one such squabble, I thought, Jeez, I don’t know that I was in the mood to watch New York, New York again.

That Martin Scorsese musical, a flop when first released, still boasts a level of emotional ambition that seems well beyond La La Land. The story is almost offensively simple and streamlined, even though the movie weighs in at a punitive two hours and seven minutes. Sebastian, who dreams of owning his own jazz club, is set up as the white boy who alone can appreciate good music — he certainly appreciates it more than does the slick Keith (John Legend), whose successful, bland-pop band Sebastian is obliged to join to make some money. Mia shows some acting chops in an interrupted audition, but it’s a measure of the movie’s itchy impatience — and that of its young writer-director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) — that when Mia rents out theater space and performs her one-woman show, we don’t see any of it.

No, Chazelle would rather stage elaborate musical numbers, many of which glisten with unmistakable flop sweat. In classic musicals, we didn’t feel (though we could infer) the hard labor that went into the music and the choreography. Here, I kept imagining how many brutal takes must have been necessary to nail such sequences as the meant-to-be-a-wow opener, set on an L.A. freeway. The movie keeps stopping dead for numbers that seem meant simultaneously to honor and to outdo the musicals of yore, with crescendos and fireworks; for a while, we get one climax after another, so it’s not surprising that the film burns itself out fairly quickly, with an hour or so left to go. Gosling and Stone try, but they just don’t speak the language of musicals natively or fluently. We’re put in the position of assessing their crooning or belting as talented amateurs.

La La Land is being predicted (even by its detractors) as the big Oscar winner because, like the equally meretricious The Artist of a few years ago, it pays loving, moist-eyed tribute to The Magic of Movies. (A clip from Rebel Without a Cause provides a few seconds of reprieve from this movie’s faux-classic scheme.) It’s comparable to old Hollywood in at least one significant way: its vision is blindingly white, with John Legend brought in to play a black music star who just isn’t as serious about black music as a white man is. This, apparently, is the sort of thing that passed muster over the six years of writing and revising that it took Chazelle to bring La La Land to the screen. For all that, for all the time and effort the movie took, very little passion comes through. Technically it’s whiz-bang — sometimes it unavoidably comes off as “Hey look Ma, I’m a director!” — but it’s an empty truffle, all sweet surface but nothing inside. A white-chocolate truffle, at that.

Accidental Incest

May 8, 2016

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In the affably filthy sex farce Accidental Incest, the title tells the tale: the libertine couple Milton (Johnny Sederquist) and Kendra (Elyssa Baldassarri) both feel like soulmates to each other, but that’s just because they’re technically brother and sister — the separately sired results of their mutual father’s sperm-bank donation. They discover this about a third of the way into the film, and then the plot deals with the consequences, going deeper and darker though no less outrageous. Providence director Richard Griffin, working with a script by Lenny Schwartz based on Schwartz’s play, takes this taboo and good-naturedly manhandles it into service as the premise of a romantic comedy. This, heaven help us, is the ever-transgressive Griffin and Schwartz’s version of a Hollywood meet-cute.

Filmed mostly in microbudget-artsy black and white, Accidental Incest could be described as a boxing match between Kevin Smith and John Waters, with Waters handily winning and then going off to fuck Andy Milligan in a bathroom. The movie has the raffish sexual candor of Smith’s best early comedies, the prankish perversity of Waters, and the all-encompassing hostility of Milligan. Griffin keeps things jumping visually, especially in the sex scenes, edited and rhythmed for comedy rather than eroticism (which, contrasted with the usual po-faced treatment of carnality in American film, just serves to make the festivities more erotic).

The movie signals its stage origins by having the lead characters address us directly, a useful way to cut to the chase. Milton and Kendra have been leaving relationship wreckage everywhere they go, and it becomes clear that the reason is that they hadn’t met the right person yet — i.e., each other. Sederquist, a manic Griffin Dunne lookalike, and Baldassarri, whose smile has a hint of Anne Hathaway innocence, dive into the deep end of sin and hysteria and passion, with Griffin’s eager encouragement. Because these characters start out so scummy and irredeemable, we paradoxically believe that much more in their redemption via taboo.

Griffin’s roots are in disreputable genres — horror, sci-fi — and he and Schwartz throw in some fantasy here; there are angels and a hipster God (Aaron Andrade) who performs a rap. Accidental Incest is partly a musical, and there are some comically bitter or obscene songs here, though not enough to dominate the narrative. They’re essentially what Roger Ebert used to call semi-OLIs — semi-obligatory lyrical interludes; they’re smoothly performed and a welcome way of changing up the tone. The cast is fiercely game, and I confess I laughed hardest at Jamie Dufault’s near-psychotically closeted Alex (Kendra’s ex) and Josh Fontaine (whose comic timing is flawless) as the Gimp-like Adam. Many of the actors are Griffin mainstays, and once again he brings in Michael Thurber, who photographs so beautifully, especially in black and white, and emotes so dead-on satirically that if John Waters ever makes another film he should look to Rhode Island.

If the title Accidental Incest puts you off, truthfully Griffin and Schwartz don’t do much to win you over. It’s as cracked as it sounds. Those who respond to the title with an amused, curious attitude of “Oh, this I gotta see” are probably better-prepared for the party. It’s more sex-positive and less hung-up than the other incest comedy you may have heard of, David O. Russell’s debut Spanking the Monkey. And if it sounds like your cup of iniquity, it could use your help: the movie’s DVD distributor has been gun-shy about it due to its title — and it’s not something you’ll find in a Redbox in any event — so if you’d like to support Griffin and his brand of happy degeneracy, your best bet is video on demand or

A Very Murray Christmas

December 6, 2015

In the Netflix Original holiday special A Very Murray Christmas, Bill Murray exists in a weird holiday-special reality where some celebrities appear as themselves and others are playing roles. Chris Rock, for instance, exists here as himself, but Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph don’t; neither do Rashida Jones or Jason Schwartzman. There seems to be no rhyme or reason for this, just as there wasn’t in most star-studded holiday specials since the dawn of TV. If it’s funny for you to be up there playing yourself, as with George Clooney or Miley Cyrus or Bill Murray, you play yourself. Everyone else acts, although the milieu here is dark and artsy enough that even those playing themselves can be said to be playing fictional roles.

The special was directed by Sofia Coppola and written by Coppola, Murray, and Mitch Glazer. It plays like an off-market continuation of Scrooged, which Glazer cowrote, and Lost in Translation, which Coppola wrote and directed. It has the vague form of the former (we gotta put on a Christmas show!) and the ennui of the latter (what does it matter if we put on a Christmas show or not?). The two moods conflict entertainingly. Murray is stuck in a swank New York City hotel while a blizzard batters the metropolis. Nobody can make it into the city to join Murray for the live holiday special he’s obligated to host. Then the power goes out and there’s no more pretense of a show within the show. There is now only the show we’re watching, full of bored people who congregate around Murray to sing tunes both holiday and non-holiday.

Murray never had much of a singing voice; his Nick the lounge singer got by on sheer Vegas brio, and his karaoke crooning in Lost in Translation spoke volumes with its self-aware sadness. His performances here don’t have those Nick quotation marks around them — the joke isn’t that Bill Murray is the one singing these songs. The Murray we see here seems to want to discover some truth in the melodies, particularly the opener “Christmas Blues.” Accompanied by Paul Shaffer on piano — oddly, the only SNL veteran here from Murray’s era as a Not Ready for Prime Time Player among several other SNL-ers from later years — Murray brings a melancholy dignity to the music. What he lacks in technique (he wouldn’t make it far on The Voice, but then neither would Tom Waits or Warren Zevon) he compensates for in open emotion.

The special is light on narrative and wants to come across as tossed-off, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot to unpack here. The bluesy, mildly sardonic tone will make A Very Murray Christmas a welcome perennial for those who resent the season’s omnipresence, its commercialism, its bullying insistence that everyone celebrate in the same way. After Murray has had too much brandy and passes out, he dreams that George Clooney and Miley Cyrus ride in on a sleigh to save the show, and they bring some razzle-dazzle (Clooney more or less hilariously Dean Martins his way through “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin'”). After that, though, Murray is more or less left alone again in his hotel room, albeit with Paul and the room-service guy. He looks out his window at the city, embodying the cliché of being alone among millions of strangers, same as in Tokyo.

Madam Satan

September 5, 2015

20150905-204110.jpgPre-code Hollywood films tend to be over-the-top, and the one that sails highest over is generally agreed to be Cecil B. DeMille’s 1930 wonder Madam Satan. Granted, it takes an hour and fifty-six minutes to tell a story that could be told in ten; bloat was ever DeMille’s weakness. But bloat can also encompass other, zestier forms of excess. Madam Satan treads water for about its first hour, but then we board a zeppelin for 1930’s most ostentatious costume party, and pretty much all is forgiven. It becomes something of a squarer American version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, with singing and dancing and, I’m sure, plenty of illicit sex in the dark nooks and crannies of the dirigible. We don’t see the orgies, of course, but we can certainly infer them, as audiences just emerging from the Roaring Twenties likely did.

We begin with marital tension: husband Bob (Reginald Denny) returns home with his friend Jimmy (Roland Young) after a night of painting the town red. We’re to believe that Bob, whose wife Angela (Kay Johnson) is a bit too cold for his taste, has been doing the Humpty Dance with bad girl Trixie (Lillian Roth). But judging from the way Bob and Jimmy engage in a mostly clothed shower together, gradually disrobing each other, the competition Angela has to worry about isn’t Trixie. Homosexuality was notoriously coded in pre-code movies, though I wonder if DeMille or his two (female) screenwriters had that remotely in mind. It was a more “innocent” time, after all, and sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes two men showering together is just two men showering together.

Anyway, we spend an awful lot of time on the Bob/Trixie/Angela triangle, with heavily overextended farce involving Trixie pretending to be Jimmy’s wife when the suspicious Angela comes to visit and decides to stay the night, and so on. It’s not terrible, but one does twitch impatiently, waiting for the good stuff to hurry up and get here. The stodgy Angela swears to the crassly disdainful Trixie (sounds like Gollum’s “tricksy”) that she’ll heat up her act to win back Bob’s heart and libido. As if on cue, the film’s second half arrives, along with the dirigible and a character called Electricity who seems to rule the evening; perhaps we can number Madam Satan among David Lynch’s influences.

The spectacle that follows isn’t exactly Busby Berkeley. DeMille plants his camera in front of a lot of people dancing, and for the most part there’s no pattern or choreography to it. It’s just teeming movement. More excitement and amusement can be found when various women are introduced to the other partygoers, each getting a chance to show off her outrageous get-up. Women, I reflected, no longer get opportunities to slip into insane, shiny, wonderful costumes in movies; even the outfits in Maleficent and Snow White and the Huntsman leaned towards the grimdark. The closest we’ve come recently were the flappers in The Great Gatsby. The most aggressively batty costume of all, of course, adorns the mysterious Madam Satan, who is, obviously to us and to no one else, Angela in disguise (and using a thick Hollywood idea of ze French accent). Bob doesn’t recognize his wife, perhaps under the Batman principle that a person’s nose and chin are insufficient prompts for identification as long as the mask has pointy ears or pointy horns.

It all builds up to a thunderstorm, courtesy of our buddy Electricity I guess, that severs the zeppelin from its moorings and endangers all aboard. So what begins as marital uptightness about infidelity shades into bitter, jealous mask-wearing at an orgiastic bash of one-percenters before sliding into apocalypse — Madam Satan, I was delighted to discover, was Eyes Wide Shut seventy years early. Could Kubrick’s swan song owe as much to DeMille as to Schnitzler? Regardless, the revelers float gently from harm to land (or water) via parachutes, thanks to special effects that, considering their vintage, aren’t half bad. Madam Satan was an expensive flop, and its sportive star Kay Johnson, a DeMille protégée, didn’t enjoy much of a career when all was said and done. (Co-star Lillian Roth, of I’ll Cry Tomorrow fame/infamy, had a longer fifteen minutes.) And that frumpy first half needed trimming and needs patient viewers. But once it starts to sparkle, it doesn’t stop until it stops.


December 1, 2013

Frozen-2013-Movie-Image-650x271In Disney’s latest feature Frozen, the true love that saves the day turns out not to be between the prince and the princess but between sisters. This deserves some applause. It also doesn’t end with everyone married off — Elsa the Snow Queen (Idina Menzel) will apparently govern the land of Arendelle without a king. Not that she needs a king, or anyone else, to protect her; Elsa has extreme, almost apocalyptic powers over ice and snow, and in Disney’s more simplistic days she would’ve been the villain of the piece. Instead, fearing that she’ll hurt people — a fear instilled in her when she accidentally almost killed her younger sister Anna — Elsa goes into self-imposed exile, where she creates her own magic queendom of ice and sings heartily that she can finally be herself. Meanwhile, though, Arendelle suffers through year-round winter.

What makes Frozen interesting is the way it humanizes the standard Disney villain so that she isn’t a villain at all, but also weighs the consequences her powers have. Elsa pushes people away for their own good, but her dramatic exit from her land leaves it barren. She keeps her door locked against Anna, who grows up not knowing why. The movie spends a great deal of time on Anna (Kristen Bell) trying to reach Elsa; it’s as if Anna were the standard Disney hero trying to rescue the princess, except that she’s trying to rescue Elsa from herself. Anna represents unconditional love (she wants to jump into marriage with a guy she’s just met); Elsa represents fear, which is, I think, what the movie’s showstopping tune “Let It Go” really refers to.

The emotional throughline is all about trying to bring Elsa back into the mainstream of society, a society that’s quick to reject her as a “monster” when she first “comes out” as magically gifted. To see it through a nerdish superhero prism, Professor X of the X-Men would try to help Elsa harness her powers for the greater good, while Magneto would encourage her to stay in her ice castle, perhaps build many brothers to the hulking snow beast she makes to scare Anna away, and crush the human peons. Essentially, Elsa is a mutant, and is handled with post-X-Men compassion, but Anna the normal is the real focus and hero. Anna’s big number is “For the First Time in Forever,” which details her longing for contact with her sister and with people in general. Elsa is offscreen a lot, but the movie fixates on her normalization — though, like I said, unlike Anna (who pairs off with a hunky ice merchant who helps her), but like many evil Disney queens, Elsa has no male companion. Given her similarity to the mutants of X-Men, and given that the earlier X-Men films equated mutants with gay people, is Elsa Disney’s first gay (and pro-gay) character?

Beyond all this, Frozen is a beautifully crafted fable, with snowscapes and ice convincing enough to make a viewer shiver (maybe they should’ve released this in July). The songs are by and large forgettable, though that could just be me — the only Disney song in the last 25 years of which I have any memory is “Under the Sea.” Kristen Bell brings charming awkwardness to Anna (the movie may set a record for the number of uses of “Wait, what?”), and Idina Menzel, familiar with playing misunderstood sorceresses after her Tony-winning turn as Wicked’s Elphaba on Broadway, infuses Elsa with gravitas and regret. Elsa definitely knows that with great power comes great responsibility, but instead of outing herself and doing some good, she chooses to hide. That’s the other thing about Frozen — choice. The women have agency. Elsa makes mostly bad choices, Anna makes mostly good choices (other than her initial taste in men), but they each own them and exist with them. And instead of demonizing Elsa for her choices, the movie shows endless concern for her well-being.

I can’t say it’s a coincidence, then, that Frozen was written and co-directed by a woman (Jennifer Lee) — this is, in fact, the first animated feature under the Disney banner with a woman so credited. Lee (whose partner was Wreck It Ralph’s Chris Buck, who handled the animation side of things) has made a casually feminist, no-big-deal entertainment — it certainly passes the Bechdel test — in which a man can assist in saving the day, but it’s really up to the sisters. Only female hearts in unison can melt the ice that entraps a kingdom. The lesson is administered with no small amount of humor (thankfully no fart humor, though we do get a booger joke) and good nature; the heavy moments aren’t lingered on, and the narrative is a fast straight arrow aimed at the simple goal of reuniting two sisters who used to love to build snowmen together.

Les Miserables

December 23, 2012

Les-Miserables-Anne-Hathaway-1In the first reel or so of Les Miserables, we may be reminded that we don’t often see something like this at the movies these days — big, lavish, epic, period musicals, the kind with ornate and expensive sets. Sadly, we’re still not seeing something like that; the musicals of old used to take time to drink in the set decoration (hey, a lot of money went into it, might as well point a camera at it), but Les Miserables, under the shaky direction of Tom Hooper, gives us a few perfunctory backdrops and then takes the camera right up into the actors’ faces. Hooper is going for a more intimate rendition of the beloved stage musical, and this works only up to a point, that point being when Anne Hathaway is on the screen. Beyond that point, it’s Hugh Jackman or Russell Crowe or various other guys belting right in our faces, and it’s sort of assaultive, emphasizing the sausage-fest that this material (as adapted for song, anyway) always was.

As Fantine, musical theater’s favorite emo chick, Hathaway blows away whatever else is supposed to be going on. She’s out of the movie quickly, but she haunts the rest of it (though her absence is sorely felt). Hathaway’s Fantine is in a different movie about how 19th-century France grinds women down, makes a mockery of their dreams and denies them even the slimmest dignity. Hooper’s only wise choice here is to move in close for Fantine’s show-stopper “I Dreamed a Dream” and let Hathaway’s undiluted anguish burn the screen down. This segment of the film, right down to Hathaway’s shorn hair, is a tribute not to stagecraft but to the legendary Maria Falconetti in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc; it’s no easy burden to bear comparison to cinema’s greatest acting work, but Hathaway shoulders it. Between this and The Dark Knight Rises (another big Occupy-flavored epic she walked away with) and the recent, hilarious Funny or Die “sad-off” she did with Samuel L. Jackson, Hathaway’s had quite the year. Les Miserables — or its first half hour, anyway — is worth sitting through just to see the performance that’s probably going to send Hathaway home with the gold next year.

The rest of this thing is a rather slack battle of wills between ex-con turned mayor Jean Valjean (Jackman) and his adversary, rigid Inspector Javert (Crowe). It’s supposed to be Valjean’s story, how he redeems himself by raising Fantine’s daughter Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) in safety while dodging Javert and joining in the June Rebellion. But after a while we’re following some colorless rebels, including the drippy Marius (Eddie Redmayne), who falls in love with Cosette at first sight, breaking the heart of poor Eponine (Samantha Barks), who loves him. Far too much of our time is taken up by this weak triangle, and I came to resent that Samantha Barks has more singing time than Anne Hathaway or even Amanda Seyfried; Barks has a fine voice, but she can’t act the songs the way Hathaway or Seyfried do. In any event, the women in this story are only there for the men to protect or mourn or long for.

I pity newcomers to Les Miz, who haven’t seen the musical on stage and might not know (because the movie doesn’t bend over backward to establish it) that Eponine and the bold young Gavroche (destined to be shot by a French soldier) are the children of the scroungy innkeepers the Thenardiers (Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen, providing welcome comic relief, though their presence turns their scenes into what seem to be Sweeney Todd outtakes). If the Thenardiers have any emotional response to the deaths of their children, we’re not briefed on it. The few action scenes are loud and incoherently staged, and that includes the sword-and-song duel between Valjean and Javert. Tom Hooper might be the worst living director who has previously won an Oscar for directing (The King’s Speech); when he isn’t jamming the camera in his cast’s nostrils, or letting the corner of a building block Samantha Barks’ face for half her dialogue in a scene, he’s making us queasy with handheld shots or, on a few occasions, framing someone off to the side with way too much head room. Hooper’s artsy pomp made me wish for the relatively straightforward pomp and clarity of old Hollywood musicals.

Jackman suffers and endures heroically, and performs with passion, though as the role is conceived he can’t bring any spark or wit to it. Essentially, Valjean is a wind-up good guy. Crowe is, as always, an imposing presence, and he hits the notes, but it seems as though hitting the notes takes all his energy, with none left over for the moral shading Javert probably should have. With mostly cardboard male characters (really, they’ve got one thing they want — freedom or justice), this Les Miz needed the spirit of wronged and seething femaleness to drive it, but once Fantine gives up the ghost so does the movie. I have no doubt that Les Miz is a powerhouse on the stage, but it hasn’t been configured in a way that makes it explode as a movie. Despite the face-invader camerawork, the material feels as remote from us as if we were sitting in the nosebleed seats. It will probably delight worshipers of the musical, but I can’t see it converting any agnostics.

Rock of Ages

June 17, 2012

It might have been cool to check out Rock of Ages, the original musical, when it premiered in L.A. in 2005. Its cast included, among others, Tenacious D’s mighty warrior Kyle Gass and geek comedian Chris Hardwick. Aside from that, there’s a lot that’s artificial and, well, stagey about this material that probably worked better on the boards. On the screen, it feels eerily remote, and it spends what feels like hours on a down-in-the-dumps middle section that makes the last act of Boogie Nights look jubilant. The story is an extremely basic parable about the power of rock and the importance of not losing your soul to fame. Except for the second part, that was handled far more winningly in School of Rock, starring Tenacious D’s other mighty warrior Jack Black. In fact, I would almost rather have seen School of Rock 2, picking up the kids ten years later, with Black as their manager.

But enough about imaginary films. The actual film under discussion has moments of light charm, and if you fetishize ’80s rock as much as I do, there are worse ways to spend two hours than to listen to the songs of (but generally not performed by) Def Leppard, Twisted Sister, Poison, Guns ‘n Roses, and, God save us all, Quarterflash. The thing is, if you’re into the songs, you can listen to them at home on your iPod for free and not have to witness Twisted Sister joined in a contrapuntal shotgun wedding to Starship. The story involves two fresh-faced youngsters, Sherrie (Julianne Hough) and Drew (Diego Boneta), struggling to make it in L.A. and uphold the standards of rock, which in this movie mostly means hair metal and power ballads. When Drew, late in the film, is obliged to front a boy band¹, the pop they produce sounds not much different from the “rock” as it’s arranged here.

It’s more than a little depressing that the ’80s are long enough ago that 1987 is seen in Rock of Ages — and not entirely inaccurately either — as an era as desperately naive as the ’60s era in Hairspray, an earlier and much better movie musical by Rock of Ages director Adam Shankman. Hairspray, by way of John Waters’ original script, was rooted in something serious: the racism of the day. The new movie seems to riff on parents’ and politicians’ horrified reactions to heavy metal — Catherine Zeta-Jones camps it up as the mayor’s wife, whose mission is to shut down the Bourbon Room, where all the bands play. As a theme, it feels wan and dated, even though people like Zeta-Jones are still very much with us, except they go after rap and video games now.

The two central kids sing well but are nearly completely without interest dramatically, so our attention turns gratefully to the pros whenever they’re on: Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand as the Bourbon’s owner and his right-hand man, respectively; Paul Giamatti as a slimy manager; Mary J. Blige, who isn’t asked to act much either but whose voice is powerful enough to make up for it; and mainly Tom Cruise, as Stacee Jaxx, a dissipated rock god who’s lost himself in excess. On the evidence of Magnolia, Tropic Thunder and this film, Cruise’s real future as an actor — rather than as a grip-and-grin star and action figure — is in small, vivid roles as part of an ensemble. As Stacee (the role originated by Chris Hardwick), Cruise is weirdly quiet, coming up underneath his lines; the character is little more than a caricature, but Cruise breathes idiosyncratic life into it. (He’s not a bad singer, either, though he and others — notably Malin Akerman as a Rolling Stone reporter — are likely autotuned.) Towards the end, when Stacee walks across a crowded room towards the woman who has (via the Foreigner ballad) made him know what love is, Cruise wears an expression of smitten torment that recalls his best work in the underrated Vanilla Sky. You may think he’s a dingbat in real life but you shouldn’t count him out as a force to stay interested in at the movies.

There’s a scene between Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand that almost redeems the whole overlong movie; you should look it up on YouTube in a few months. Bizarrely, Sherrie is obviously named after Steve Perry’s 1984 hit “Oh Sherrie,” but the song appears nowhere in the film (it did in the stage musical), though we get a few teasing notes of it. Your response to how the music is used in Rock of Ages depends largely on how seriously you take the music, how tangled in your teenage memories it is; the film kicks off with a dreadful rendition of “Sister Christian,” and generally any scene in which the characters are delivering the songs in the vacuum of a soundstage sucks the life out of them (except for the Baldwin/Brand interpretation of “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” of course). In the few instances in which the songs are “performed live” — i.e., in front of an audience of extras — the music makes a little better sense and suggests why the stage musical might be a fun night out. The film, though, already feels like a made-for-VH1 movie.

¹The boy band appears in a video directed, in a cameo, by none other than Eli Roth, in perhaps the film’s best joke: here Roth is again, presiding over the torment of young men.

Repo! The Genetic Opera

November 7, 2008

A lot of people worked extremely hard to make something unique on a budget of peanuts with Repo! The Genetic Opera. It’s being aggressively sold, from screening to screening, as the next big midnight movie, and a great many viewers are responding to the hype. Bless ’em. I’m not on board for this ride, but bless ’em.

Repo! is a macabre folly with mad-lab blood and guts, about a future in which people who can’t keep up the payments on their GeneCo organ transplants have ’em yanked out. Nifty. But all of this is yoked to a shaky conceit — practically the entire thing is sung. It’s a rock opera, with emphasis on “opera” (hence the title, of course). It’d be nice if any of the songs were distinctive — only one, “At the Opera Tonight,” works up any sort of performance fervor — and they’re all in the same key, with guitars always grinding away underneath. The rhymes are simplistic, when they exist at all, and the meter is frequently awkward — a danger of forcing songs to carry too much expository weight. A movie like this reminds you of how good Joss Whedon is at this stuff, and how deceptively hard it is to do well.

Another reminder of Joss Whedon is Anthony Stewart Head, who first demonstrated his pipes to a wider audience on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. As Nathan Wallace, a doctor who keeps his daughter Shilo (Alexa Vega) in bedroom quarantine while moonlighting as a self-hating organ repo man, Head gnashes and wails his way through the movie, and his steadfast commitment to this absurdity is touching. Nathan is a classic mad-doctor monster with a guilty, anguished heart; Head makes him a fully rounded human being. But the rest of Repo! is tacky and busy, with loving close-ups of scalpels cleaving flesh that indicate the gross-out roots of director Darren Lynn Bousman (three of the Saw sequels). Visually, the movie comes on strong — framed by comic-book panels — though it only touches beauty in the scenes having to do with Sarah Brightman in full goth-geisha efflorescence as a blind opera singer who owes her restored sight to the villain of the piece, GeneCo honcho Rotti Largo (Paul Sorvino).

I wish the execution matched the ideas (including a black market for painkillers injected into surgery patients), but too much of Repo! comes off as look-at-us, aren’t-we-diabolical. Truly, the movie doesn’t gain a lot from being set to music; after about half an hour it starts to feel like a gimmick. The very concept of a blood-spattered horror opera is meant to be so out-there it’s a ready-made cult flick, but cult movies work best when they amass their cults organically, luring the faithful gradually on its own merits, instead of going city to city hunting them down like some flyer-clutching street team. There are Repo! ringtones, and several of the characters have their own MySpace pages. The Rocky Horror Picture Show secured its reign without any of that, plus it was fun, and that’s where Repo!, for all its four-color bravado, comes up short.

But, again, it’ll strike some as the dark candy they’ve always wanted, while others, like me, will stand out in the cold wondering what the fuss is about. I wouldn’t dream of begrudging anyone their participatory midnight-movie thrills; it’s not as if there’s anything else serving the purpose out there. But when the midnight movie is accompanied by the makers telling you it’s a midnight movie, I smell hard-sell.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

December 21, 2007

To say that the splatter-goth musical Sweeney Todd is an ideal match for Tim Burton’s manic-depressive sensibility would be to make the understatement of the movie year. In a way, this director’s entire darkly gaudy career has been working up to an adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s nastily sportive Broadway hit. (The material has been around since the 1840s, and a Sweeney Todd movie with Tod Slaughter predated Sondheim’s work by 43 years.) As in his other goth-horror Johnny Depp vehicle Sleepy Hollow, Burton drains the screen of all color except blood red. The effect in both films is like Nosferatu produced by Hammer, and someday they will make a dazzling creature double feature — except that in Sleepy Hollow Depp pursues the creature, and here he is one.

His hair teased into a mad-scientist Beethoven helmet with a shock of white, Depp’s Sweeney Todd enters the picture seething with contempt and fury, and he almost never lets up. Character subtlety has never been Burton’s strong point; fortunately, the material doesn’t demand it. It’s a gory cartoon with operatic flourishes and a lineage that includes Titus Andronicus, EC Comics, and Andy Milligan’s Bloodthirsty Butchers. It’s a revenge play, with Sweeney plotting to give very close shaves to the men who took his wife and daughter away and locked him up, while Helena Bonham Carter’s Mrs. Lovett, who bakes meat pies, proposes a pragmatic way to dispose of the bodies.

Bonham Carter and Depp, surly goth twins at the fetid prom of London, approach Sweeney Todd as the live-action sequel to their previous film for Burton, Corpse Bride. Depp stands stock still, gnashing his rotted teeth (at times he resembles Christopher Walken’s Max Schreck in Burton’s Batman Returns), while Bonham Carter whirls around plotting and fantasizing about the picnic-filled marriage she and Sweeney will have. They’re in decent voice, though Sondheim’s silverstreak lyrics are so densely packed they’re difficult for these lesser-trained singers to navigate. Other actors — like Alan Rickman as the evil Judge Turpin, Timothy Spall as Turpin’s obsequious henchman, and Sacha Baron Cohen as the boastful scam artist Pirelli — get easier songs and more room to breathe and show off their pipes.

The pumping, hissing blood is, as Burton hoped, more cathartic than disgusting. It’s theatrical blood, Hammer blood, and for the sexless Sweeney these gushers are the only hot release he can have. Eros, meet Thanatos. Romance swirls all around Sweeney — Turpin’s lust for Sweeney’s teenage daughter Johanna, whom he has adopted as his “ward”; a young sailor yearning for Johanna; Mrs. Lovett’s unrequited (and hardly noticed) love for Sweeney — but all he’s interested in is the dark romance of vengeance. (He refers to his silver razors as his friends.) Sweeney Todd, in whatever incarnation, has been one of the oddest stories ever to capture the mass public fancy, and Burton and odd go together like cake and ice cream. He’s never been afraid of the grand gesture (or the Grand Guignol gesture); there’s a long, computer-enhanced pullback from Sweeney brandishing his razor through the towers and tenements of London, and it’s a breathtaker, a tour through a macabre toybox.

It’s a powerfully weird movie for a studio to position as its big holiday release. But it fulfills a promise I haven’t felt Burton has delivered on before, not this completely. He needs a simple story, and big, flamboyant moments to offset the wretched pinpricks of despair, and loud music, and a vehicle that finds both poetry and humor in horror, and Johnny Depp. Well, Burton’s checklist is full this time. Sweeney Todd, which went before cameras last February, was Burton’s late Christmas gift to himself, and now it’s his Christmas gift to those of us who’ve been his loyal fans for the last twenty years. This black cauldron of a film, with its spider-blood visual scheme, may be the purest example of imagemaking the movies have given us in far too long.

Across the Universe

September 14, 2007

As I get older I have less time and patience for the same old Hollywood stuff and more hunger for experimentation and strangeness. Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around? Anyway, Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe is like a cold tall glass of pink lemonade in the midst of a serious drought of movie originality. I drank it down and immediately wanted seconds. The movie will be torture for some but an orgy for the like-minded, and if you would rather do anything else than watch a fanciful dramatization of thirty-odd Beatles songs, feel free to do so. This lavish labor of love constantly walks a slender thread between masterpiece and folly, but when all is said and done, it confirms, for me, Taymor’s status as a master, after her dazzling Titus and Frida.

Joe Cocker appears as three different raffish characters, Salma Hayek plays five nurses at once, Bono (looking amusingly like Robin Williams) drops in to tune in and drop out for a spacey version of “I Am the Walrus.” Across the Universe feels like a ‘60s party where anything can happen, though it avoids the cameo-in-every-scene foolishness of 1978’s oafish Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band film. Everything that didn’t work in that notorious turkey works gorgeously here, starting with the simple boy-meets-girl story enacted by Liverpudlian welder/artist Jude (Jim Sturgess) and rich girl turned anti-war activist Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood). Jude comes to America in search of his father, finds him, and proceeds to forget him, concentrating on partying with new friend Max (Joe Anderson) and falling in love with Max’s sister Lucy.

Julie Taymor isn’t afraid of grand passions. She has a winsome young lesbian, named Prudence (T.V. Carpio), crooning a lonely “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” while staring at a cheerleader from afar. She puts Jimi and Janis together, as personified by hard-driving singer Sadie (Dana Fuchs, whose hair-raising Joplin yowls steal the movie) and guitar-crunching JoJo (Martin Luther McCoy). On some level the movie is the late ‘60s in a Cuisinart, right down to Max getting shipped off to Vietnam (after submitting to a surreal and homoerotic Army induction in which he and his fellow soldiers are divided into body parts). But Taymor believes in love and art, which in the movie’s universe transcend all.

This is an alternate world where nobody’s heard of the Beatles, yet the characters express their deepest emotions through Beatles music when simple words just won’t do. The movie begins in pre-Beatles Invasion America, with the Fab Four’s early bubblegum tunes, and proceeds according to the band’s journey, ending up with a rooftop concert that recalls the Beatles’ final public performance atop Apple Records. The movie, like the music, is fairly apolitical despite its anti-war stance; its sympathy is with Jim, an artist who sees the increasingly radicalized Lucy growing away from him. The cast — especially Jim Sturgess, a cross between Ewan MacGregor and Jake Gyllenhaal, with a voice that evokes Paul McCartney — performs with warmth and dedication, doing justice to the music and its emotional source. It isn’t a pop-cultural clutterfest like Moulin Rouge; by sticking to the Beatles it allows itself a unity of theme and tone while also dabbling in the eclectic sights and sounds of the era.

Your response to Across the Universe depends largely on your response to the Beatles. If you find them twee and precious, the fathers of a thousand sensitive emo bands, you should do your blood pressure a favor and avoid the film. But if you feel that the Beatles were the perfect sound at the right time, either pulling the world into psychedelia or accompanying it there on a parallel path, you’ll receive the movie as a joyful celebration of a time when it seemed all you did need was love.

Both chaotically colorful and meticulously composed, much like the Beatles from Rubber Soul onward, Across the Universe is an elegy for a time past and a timeless ode to the pleasures and pains of youth. The relevant comparison here is not to Sgt. Pepper the movie, but to Sgt. Pepper the album.