Monday, May 28, 2018

Musical May Quick Picks and Pans

Tommy (1975) Writer/director Ken Russell’s hallucinatory adaptation of The Who’s seminal rock opera engages your senses and intellect. Roger Daltrey plays the title character, a “deaf, dumb and blind kid” who “sure plays a mean pinball,” and becomes a latter-day messiah. After suffering the trauma of watching his father die before his eyes, young Tommy becomes closed off to any sensory input. Ann-Margret and Russell-regular Oliver Reed play Tommy’s mother and stepfather, who try in vain to bring Tommy back from his sensory-deprived state. Some standout sequences/songs are “Cousin Kevin,” with Paul Nicholas (played with sadistic glee), “The Acid Queen,” performed by Tina Turner, “Pinball Wizard” with Elton John (wearing impossibly enormous boots), and “Sally Simpson,” featuring Russell’s daughter Victoria. Watch for Jack Nicholson in a small role as a psychiatrist (yes, he sings, too).

Tommy was originally released in Quintaphonic sound (a forerunner of Dolby Digital and other multichannel formats), which was exclusive to the film, and re-created for the Blu-ray and DVD. The best way to watch this is to let the music and imagery flow. Don’t get hung up on deciphering the minutiae. Retro gaming enthusiasts take note: unfortunately, several pinball machines were harmed in the making of this film.

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (aka: Les Parapluies de Cherbourg) (1964) This endearing, melancholy musical from director Jacques Demy captures the ephemeral quality of young love. Catherine Deneuve is enchanting as 16-year-old Geneviève, who works in her mother’s run-down umbrella shop. She meets Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), an auto mechanic. He becomes the love of her life, but fate intervenes when he’s drafted into the army and sent to Algiers. While Guy is out of the picture, she captures the fancy of a wealthy benefactor. It might be heretical, but I opine it’s not the music that’s the main draw, but the gorgeous cinematography and art design. Each scene is immersed in a beautiful palette of colors, which skillfully complement the mood and characters. It’s a timeless story of joy and anguish, with a final scene that’s at once heartbreaking and life-affirming.  

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

1776 (1972) Your high school history class was probably never as interesting as this witty musical, directed and written by Peter H. Hunt, and based on the 1969 stage production by Sherman Edwards. History buffs might take pause, but it’s a fine introduction to the arduous process that birthed the Declaration of Independence. The film boasts some wonderful performances, including William Daniels as a fiery John Adams (“I’m obnoxious and disliked”) and Howard Da Silva as a quick-tongued Benjamin Franklin. Watching the members of the Continental Congress hemming and hawing, bickering, and fraught with indecision and concessions, we’re reminded how little has changed when it comes to our elected representatives. On a side note, it’s amusing to observe when a “G” rating meant something quite different. It’s peppered with sexual innuendos that would likely fly over the heads of the kids in the audience, and we’re provided a unique explanation for Thomas Jefferson’s writer’s block. It might not replace that U.S. History class you slept through, but it’s a good launching point for discussion of the events that launched a revolution.

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

The Lure (aka: Córki Dancing) (2015) This Polish mermaid musical marks the audacious feature film debut of director Agnieszka Smoczynska, blending ancient folklore with a modern soundtrack. Mermaid sisters Silver and Golden (Marta Mazurek and Michalina Olszanska) leave the water to explore life on land and get a taste for the human world. They become instant sensations at a strip club, but old habits die as their nature takes over. Golden lures men to their death, and devours them. Silver falls in love with Mietek (Jakub Gierszal), a young musician at the club, but there’s a catch (pardon the bad pun), which could mean her demise. The Lure is filled with energetic songs, visually engaging, and ultimately tragic. It’s also unlike any other musical I’ve seen, making Smoczynska one to watch.

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

The Return of Captain Invincible (1983) Christopher Lee sings (more on this in a moment)! Philippe Mora directs this Australian-produced comedy/musical, starring Alan Arkin as the titular character, a washed-up, alcoholic ex-superhero. A lengthy newsreel-style prologue explains Captain Invincible’s rise during WWII and fall after McCarthy hearings, followed by his self-exile in Australia. Arkin isn’t very likeable as Captain Invincible, the jokes rarely work, and the songs are terrible to almost passable (one aptly titled song, “Bullshit,” consists solely of the BS word repeated multiple times), but it has its brief moments. Christopher Lee seems to be having fun as Captain Invincible’s archnemesis, Mr. Midnight, and belts out a couple of tunes as well, including a Richard O’Brien-penned tune “Name Your Poison.” Will Captain Invincible get his act together in time to save the world? Can Christopher Lee carry a tune? Will you stay awake long enough to find out? It’s an odd mixture that’s more miss than hit, but it might be worth a look, if only to confirm that someone gave this mess a green light.

Rating: **½. Available on DVD  

Rockula (1990) This ill-advised movie doesn’t work as a comedy or a musical. Dean Cameron plays Ralph, a 400-year-old vampire who lives with his lusty, overbearing mom (Toni Basil). He falls into a rock career while pursuing Mona (Tawny Fere), an old, reincarnated love who was killed by pirates hundreds of years ago. Despite being an ancient vampire, he never attacks anyone, and doesn’t appear to possess any superhuman abilities, except for transforming into a weird squashy bat-thing. The climax includes one of the most awkwardly choreographed fight scenes between Ralph and Mona’s ex-boyfriend Stanley (Tomas Dolby). Bo Diddley appears in the film as well, but he doesn’t have much to do. Rockula has a weak vampire, lame songs and bland leads. It’s innocuous and good-natured enough, but not worth your time. Don’t bother. 

Rating: **. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Prime

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Little Shop of Horrors

(1986) Directed by: Frank Oz; Written by Howard Ashman; Based on the musical play by Howard Ashman, which was based on the screenplay by Roger Corman and Charles B. Griffith; Starring: Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene, Levi Stubbs, Vincent Gardenia, Steve Martin, John Candy and Bill Murray

Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ****

“…Howard Ashman was very helpful…he suggested not to be subtle. Just to be flat out bold, and start singing immediately, as opposed to trying, in most musicals, where you transition from talk to singing. Here, on purpose, on stage, on the movie, we have them singing flat out immediately, and it’s a wink to the audience saying, ‘We know it’s a musical we’re just gonna go all the way with it.’” – Frank Oz (from DVD commentary)

Whenever someone says they don’t like musicals, Little Shop of Horrors inevitably pops up on most people’s short list of exceptions. It’s not difficult to see why. In some ways, it’s the anti-musical, with its morbid, B-movie premise, based on the off-Broadway stage production, which in turn was based off the quickie Roger Corman comedy/horror film from 1960.* The core story remains intact: A young nebbish toiling away in a skid row flower shop inadvertently stumbles upon a plant with an unusual appetite. He nurtures the sickly flora to health, but before he knows it, it’s the plant that’s controlling him, not the other way around. Budgeted at a relatively modest $25 million,** director Frank Oz’s version of the film was substantially more elaborate than the source material, with the six-month shoot taking place on the cavernous 007 sound stage at Pinewood Studios.

* Fun Fact #1: I’m not counting the 1973 pseudo-remake/softcore parody, Please Don’t Eat My Mother.

** Fun Fact #2: Producer David Geffen originally envisioned Little Shop of Horrors as a low budget (around $6 million) production, with Steven Spielberg executive producing and Martin Scorsese directing.

Rick Moranis was perfectly cast as Seymour Krelborn, the klutzy florist who becomes an unwilling accomplice to the monster plant’s murderous diet. Ellen Greene excels (in a role she originated on the London stage) as Seymour’s ditzy-but-big-hearted co-worker Audrey. Vincent Gardenia amuses as their sarcastic, penny pinching boss Mr. Mushnik (spelled “Mushnick” in the Corman film). Crystal, Ronette and Chiffon (Tichina Arnold, Michelle Weeks and Tisha Campbell-Martin, respectively) serve as a musical version of a Greek chorus, our tour guides through Seymour’s skid row neighborhood. Levi Stubbs from The Four Tops lends his amazing vocal talents for the enormous carnivorous plant, Audrey II. The plant itself,** designed by Lyle Conway, appears in four different sizes, with the final form requiring a crew of up to 60 individuals to operate.

* Fun Fact #3: Before Greene was (wisely) selected, the studio considered Barbra Streisand and Cyndi Lauper for the role of Audrey.

** Fun Fact #4: In his DVD commentary, Oz explained that three sets were employed to create the illusion of Audrey II singing and moving: one with human actors, one specifically with the plant, and another one for special effects. Moranis alone was shot in the standard 24 fps, but due to the limitations of working with foam rubber, scenes with Audrey II were shot in 16 fps and sped up. Likewise, when the human actors appeared together with Audrey II, they had to act out their scenes very slowly, to match the slower frame rate.

As good as the leads are, many of the smaller roles almost steal the show, with all at the top of their comedic game. John Candy, who ad-libbed his dialogue, appears as Wink Wilkerson, the manic host of a radio show focusing on weird things. Steve Martin plays the sadistic dentist Orin Scrivello like a sociopathic Elvis. He finds his match in a masochistic patient played by Bill Murray (taking over the role from Jack Nicholson in the original film), also ad-libbing his lines. The movie also features fun cameos by Christopher Guest and Jim Belushi.

A musical is only as strong as its songs, but thanks to the songwriting team of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast), Little Shop of Horrors is more than up to the task. “Skid Row (Downtown)” is an early standout, conveying the desperation of Seymour and Audrey’s living conditions. “Somewhere That’s Green” is Audrey’s ode to suburban life that jumped off the pages of Better Homes and Gardens, replete with Tupperware parties and eating TV dinners with her imaginary family (including kids that are carbon copies of their parents). “Dentist!” is Orin Scrivello’s tribute to sadism. With the show-stopping (Oscar-nominated) “Mean Green Mother from Outer Space” Audrey II reveals his true intentions.

(Spoiler Alert) The “Director’s Cut” Blu-ray recreates, in a rough form, what preview audiences experienced, and much to Oz’s dismay, rejected. As originally planned, the film remained true to the stage production, as well as, the original movie. Unfortunately for Oz and a team of effects people who worked on the original ending, preview audiences in San Jose and Los Angeles didn’t like the idea that Seymour and Audrey were killed off, and the plant prevailed. In the end, the original ending was scrapped, in favor of something more audience-pleasing. Admittedly, seeing this different version, after the revised ending I’ve known and loved all these years, was a hard pill to swallow. I’m glad we can finally experience the film, more or less, as it was intended, but it’s a complete, and not entirely comfortable, shift in tone. According to Oz: “…when the plant kills Seymour and Audrey on stage, the actors afterwards take a bow. The difference is in movies they don’t take a bow. They’re gone and so the audience lost the people they loved, as opposed to the theater audience where they knew the two people who played Audrey and Seymour were still alive.” (excerpt from 2012 Entertainment Weekly interview, “Little Shop of Horrors: A Q&A with Frank Oz”)

Little Shop of Horrors is one of those uncommon instances where the new version improves upon the source material. Not to denigrate the Corman movie, which is charming in its own right, but the 1986 film adds a level of pathos not present in the original. Despite being a multimillion dollar production, Oz and writer Howard Ashman stay true to its humble origins. The combination of infectious songs, funny gags, likeable leads, and a great monster add up to an irresistible viewing experience. If you haven’t seen it yet, what are you waiting for? If you have, see it again.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Once Over Twice: Absolute Beginners

(1986) Directed by Julien Temple; Written by Richard Burridge, Christopher Wicking and Don MacPherson; Based on the novel by Colin MacInnes; Starring: Patsy Kensit, Eddie O’Connell, David Bowie, James Fox, Ray Davies, Eve Ferret and Sade; Available on Blu-ray (region B) and DVD (Out of Print)

Rating: ****

“The time I grew up was an incredible time in London, in terms of music… each week in the mid-60s you had these great bands putting out a new single each week, but another band would seem to top that, and as a kid in London (school kid) you felt they were talking directly to you, shaping ways to see the world, which your school and your parents weren’t necessarily doing… so I was trying to make a film that captured some of that energy and some of that universality…” – Julien Temple (from the documentary Absolute Ambition)

Julien Temple’s vibrant musical Absolute Beginners seemed to have so much going for it that it couldn’t possibly lose. Boasting a terrific cast, spirited performances, superb cinematography, and a diverse assortment of songs, it should have been a big hit. It’s too bad no one wanted to see a musical about the late-50s London teen scene in 1986. Absolute Beginners performed well at the box office in England, but vanished quickly in the U.S. (despite reviews that were more favorable than its country of origin). Over the years, the film faded into undeserved obscurity, but it’s time to re-examine its considerable charms.

Julien Temple was the ideal director to bring the frenzied story, based on a novel by Colin MacInnes, to life. He was no stranger to music, as the veteran director of multiple music videos, as well as the notorious Sex Pistols documentary The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle. Temple took these rock and roll sensibilities, splicing them with DNA borrowed from classic Hollywood musicals to make a unique mixture.

Colin* (Eddie O’Connell) is a teen from the wrong side of the tracks, who spends his days in his dilapidated neighborhood and nights photographing the colorful London nightlife. His key ambition is to make a name for himself, to keep the affections of his ambitious, fickle girlfriend Crepe Suzette (Patsy Kensit). The only problem is Suzette has other plans. She begins to leave Colin behind, as she climbs the ladder in the fashion world. Colin’s dreams are crushed when Suzette’s marries her middle-aged boss, but he plans to win her back.

* Fun fact: Temple considered Tim Roth for the role of Colin, but Roth wasn’t considered “handsome enough” by the producers. Although O’Connell did a fine job, Roth would have been an inspired casting choice, and almost certainly would have taken the role in a different direction.

David Bowie lights up the screen with his presence as slick ad man Vendice Partners. He schemes with fashion mogul Henley of Mayfair (James Fox) to re-shape Colin’s crumbling Notting Hill neighborhood to pave the way for a gleaming new (and exclusively white) future. It’s interesting to note that David Bowie starred in two very different musicals in 1986, but in both he played a Mephistophelean character, who presents the protagonist with a Faustian bargain. Jareth in Labyrinth and Vendice Partners share common traits: seductive and charismatic, but with a dark side brewing just beneath the surface. In the case of Partners, he promises Colin fame and wealth, but he’ll stop at nothing to drive the Notting Hill residents out at any cost.

A musical stands or falls by its songs, which are intended to drive the story. In the case of Absolute Beginners, each song builds on the next to propel the mood and tone. With “Having It All,” Colin is taunted by his girlfriend’s sultry serenade, as he watches his relationship slip through his fingers. But if the previous song was about a dying relationship, then “Killer Blow,” sung by Sade, represents its death. One of my favorite songs, “Selling Out,” is about finding a way to win back Suzette, by hook or crook. “That’s Motivation” by David Bowie (he also wrote the movie’s title song) is an ode to the superficial joys of materialism. Colin’s father Arthur, played by Ray Davies of The Kinks sings “Quiet Life,” a tribute to domestic ennui. He turns a blind eye to everything falling apart in his dysfunctional household (“No ambition to rock the boat, when I can simply stay afloat.”).

A pervasive sense of energy runs throughout the film. Action, color and music meld together to make the opening scene come alive. A Steadicam tracking shot immerses us in Colin’s world, as we wind through the stylized, neon-drenched streets of London’s red-light district, circa 1958. Cinematographer Oliver Stapleton employed tricks, such as colored gels, to make the colors pop. The overall effect mimics the look of Technicolor musicals, which served as a template for Temple. The set pieces are also impressive. In one of the signature scenes, Bowie tap dances* on an enormous typewriter. In the “Quiet Life” number, we’re treated to a cutaway of a run-down apartment building, so we can view the simultaneous goings-on of the tenants. The funky London jazz club “Chez Nobody” takes on its own life, with its skeleton motif.  

* Another Fun Fact: According to Temple, Bowie didn’t have previous tap dancing experience, but when he learned about the requirements of his part, he returned for filming two weeks later, ready to dance.

Absolute Beginners packs quite a few serious themes in a jaunty package. One of the more prevalent themes is teenagers as a marketing device. The younger generation was asserting itself in unprecedented ways, reflecting the post-war boom. As a result, some enterprising entrepreneurs viewed the teen as a marketable commodity, with a growing younger demographic to cater to. It’s a cynical pursuit, however, favoring money over ideals, the things we want take precedence over the things we need. The film also reminds us the phenomenon of gentrification isn’t a new thing. The efforts of unscrupulous businessmen to whitewash Colin’s neighborhood seem all too relevant today. The anti-immigrant, anti-ethnic rhetoric spouted by the hired thugs demonstrates our baser natures where money is concerned.

The film loses some steam in the final third, when it runs out of songs and focuses on the drama of the street riots, but it’s only a minor quibble. Some might also take issue with the diverse group of songs, which might not accurately represent the music from the era, but Temple was never going for stark realism. It’s an impressionistic interpretation, which occupies its own reality. Absolute Beginners is a maddening example of a movie that should have been big, yet somehow wasn’t. Maybe it was before its time, or after, but thanks to home video we can always give it a second chance. The Region B Blu-ray brings the movie a restored vitality. No matter which way you choose to see it, it’s an infectious blend of kitsch and social relevance, wrapped up in a pseudo-technicolor package, and it merits serious re-evaluation.