Saturday, April 30, 2011

Stay Away, Joe (1968, Peter Tewksbury)

The worst of the worst, Elvis takes on an unforgivable role of a Native American, eating up every stereotype in the book.  Elvis in redface doesn't look much different than tan Elvis in Paradise, Hawaiian Style, and doesn't attempt (though probably a good thing) to sound like anyone but Elvis.  Katharine Hepburn's role in Dragon Seed was unforgivable, and that was 1944.  At the height of the civil rights movement, it is a wonder this ill-advised film got off the ground.  Native Americans are drunks, loafers, brawlers and brothers in the worst possible sense.  Always played for comedy, one Native American character falls asleep in an outdoor bathtub (see, the Native American is uncivilized-- nay-- savage, as even their modern homes and vehicles are rundown) with a drunken smile, up to his neck in beer cans.  Unlike the typical Elvis brawl for loyalty or chivalry, here much of the tribe comes together in a bar and duke it out for kicks.  No one is even upset with each other, that's just life on the rez.  A similar scene happens earlier when Elvis and co. wrestle around, treating women like cavemen dragging women by the hair, before the good ol' boys all splashdown in the watering hole.  All of the fighting action is accompanied with Looney Tunes thunks, boinks and whistles, missing only a laugh track that could be useful in something of such ill-humor.

Filmed in Sedona, Arizona, Stay Away, Joe stars Presley as rodeo star and half-breed Navajo Joe Lightcloud.  But this is no Flaming Star.  The characteristics that make Joe a success are in direct opposition to the things that make him Native American.  He has pull in the "real world" because he has stepped away from the reservation.  He makes his money away from his tribe and, though he has a strong family loyalty, this isn't represented so much as a Navajo trait but a decent, human one.  After all, Joe has been to the enlightened side and his return to the reservation seems more of a responsibility.

To prove that the Navajo aren't altogether worthless, Joe has somehow convinced his congressman to give him a bull and 20 heifers upon his return to the reservation.  It seems like an impossible task, but he wants to train up the tribe in how to raise cattle on their land.  Working alongside his father Charlie (Burgess Meredith in war paint), the challenge is a treadmill.  The Keystone tribe quickly barbeques the bull, and Joe sells off the remaining cattle to modernize his stepmother's house.  Meanwhile, Joe is being chased by naive Mamie (Quentin Dean) who has her shotgun toting mother convinced the savage laid her.  The conflict culminates in a wedding in which the mother proclaims, "I've never been so ashamed in my life."  While certainly a racist sentiment, the quote should have been a public apology for everyone involved in the film's production.

The film is full of slapstick, but it certainly is not humorous.  The fighting and action is all over the place, but its anarchy is indecipherable with no narrative purpose other than stereotype.  The film ends with everything in shambles.  The government aid was floundered, the upgraded home disheveled; it's as if the filmmakers had been given a potentially strong metaphor of what Navajo life must have been like at a rocky time in our nation's cultural history (a metaphor, perhaps, spelled out in the book and completely misinterpreted?), and squander it without the slighest recognition.  Worse, the movie ends with the tribe looking the most irresponsible in a film of buffoonery.  If the lesson to be gleaned was to let the tribe be happy on its own terms, the terms are spelled out through mindless inebriation and guffaws.

It's something similar to Billy Jack (white guy trained in Karate plays a half-Indian the white women can't stay away from) but, where that suffers from amateurish, one-dimensional contrived moral sympathies, at least it's wanting you to feel somethingBilly Jack uses politics as a narrative device without giving them any depth beyond brutality (which, too, is pretty irresponsible in a movie about the Natives' "loyalty" played by a white man), while Stay Away, Joe skirts political debate to laugh it all off.  The final laugh isn't a cynical, hopeless one in which to laugh is our only response to the world's anarchy, it's a cop-out-- a filmmakers' irresponsibility that paints the Native irresponsible.

Also, Elvis sings a song to a bull.

Strangely, outside of some really bad grease paint, Elvis looks not only healthy, but happy in the motionless narrative.  Perhaps the shiftless hi-jinks of the movie played right into the attitude Elvis's Memphis Mafia were used to on the earlier movie sets.  Elvis's entourage had to be warned on the set of Clambake to keep the practical joking to a minimum.  Here, instead, two of them (Joe Esposito and Charlie Hodge) were given bit roles.  Perhaps Presley was finally resigned to the contractual nonsense (and in this way, maybe the metaphor to the Native Americans dealing with bureaucracy finally does make a little sense) and realized, if you can't beat 'em, laugh. -- ZERO/four stars

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The Girthy Grindhouse Guy Presents: Rubber (2010, Quentin Dupieux)

Every so often a film comes around that entirely changes how you, as a viewer, will treat your movie-going experience for the rest of your life.  It may be because of the script or a particular performance, or simply because it was an altogether well-made film.  It creates such a sense of wonder that you immediately decide, come hell or high water, that you are going to spend the rest of your life making films.  OR (and such is the case with a 12 year old Christopher Centanni), you are subjected to a film riddled with tits, gore, the occult and cussing.  After that heathen hardwiring takes place, its fairly difficult to bounce back.  If you’re me, you still want to make movies (yeah, I went to film school)—but you want to make regressive, totally insane films that make people question “Why?” Sure, making the next Citizen Kane would be fun too, but there is something so sweet about making a ridiculous story that equal parts entertains and offends.  I always have been, and always will be a fan of the “B Movie” and “Grindhouse Cinema.” Long story short, stupid shit excites me, and Grindhouse movies are the stupidest of shit.

So with that, I would like to introduce you to the Girthy Grindhouse Guy.  This pathetic pseudonym is my way of sharing some of my favorite films from my life to this point, as well as maybe bringing to light some new films that would normally be left out in the dark… probably where they belong.  So for better or for worse, let’s begin.

Writer/Director Quentin Dupieux’s debut feature Rubber begs the question, “Why?” Why did a film like this get made? Why did any of these actors take the part? Why did Mr. Dupieux even write it in the first place? The answer is summed up, quite literally, in the AMAZING expository sequence of the film (it’s possibly the greatest opening sequence in the history of cinema, but I won’t spoil it here) when it is explained to the audience that the film is an homage to the concept of “no reason.”

The ridiculousness of the film is simultaneously its greatest strength and weakness.  As a “story”, the film is very fragmented and not really in place.  It’s told in two basic parts; there are the people involved in the actual “rampage” created by Robert—yeah, the tire got a name—and their attempts to stop him.  Then, simultaneously there is a large group of people watching the film through binoculars as if they are a movie audience.  The former contains moments where people are fully aware that this is a ludicrous story, and that there is no way it could be real… and many times it's not.  I know that sounds strange, but it's what makes the film so interesting.  The things Robert does are very real and very violent.  The human characters involved in the film however, are living in an existence where bullets don’t kill them (literally) and a turkey that was randomly fed to them by a pervert on a bike is fatally poisonous.  All of this sounds absolutely insane, and rightfully so.  The film is about a TELEKENETIC RADIAL TIRE that stalks a nameless girl and uses his powers to blow people’s heads off.

If we take a step back and examine the film not as a story, but as an experiment with genres, adding in a little bit of social commentary, we get a very different picture.  Rubber succeeds largely because of its presentation.  I’ve seen the movie described as an “Absurdist Thriller,” and I couldn’t think of a more accurate description.  You do wonder what all of the suffering is for.  Is there an end to it?  Will the girl get out alive?  Why are all of these random people made to suffer?  The answer, as presented to us right up front, is and always shall be, “no reason.”  To me it says a lot about the horror genre, especially in modern times with all of the exploitation that has made it into mainstream films.  Rubber aims to showcase the stupidity and inherent humor there is in people dying for “no reason” in movies.  His selection of a telekinetic super tire with murderous tendencies was just a funny, over the top vehicle to get these ideas across.

I think the most interesting part of the film comes when you piece the two parallel stories together.  The tire is a violent murderer, causing endless pain and suffering, killing innocent people and stalking a beautiful woman. Everybody’s worst fears, right?  MAYBE.  In the movies it’s all about buying in.  This film is no exception.  If you buy into the fact that there aren’t really any typical jokes, its just such a ridiculous premise that all of the things that would normally be scary are rendered hilarious.  I think Dupieux wants his audience to realize the absurdity of the horror genre, and then embrace it to a comedic end.  This critic (read: fanboy) bought in from the first frame and never looked back.  I think the film is a very interesting look into the aesthetics of a horror movie as well as an indictment of their total inanity.

No matter what, Rubber is one of the most unique, obtuse and unnecessary movies I’ve seen in a while.  But it is also one of the best.

****/Four Stars

Luckily for those of you in Arizona, Rubber will be playing at MADCAP Theaters on May 6th and 7th, courtesy of the Midnite Movie Mamacita.  I know for sure that I will be there, and you better be too.  For those in the other 49 states and our international readers, you can catch Rubber on DVD/Blu-Ray on June 7th, 2011

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Friday, April 29, 2011

Clambake (1967, Arthur H. Nadel)

To offer a little insight into the culmination of Elvis's twenty-fifth film, Clambake was the title created by artistic genius Colonel Tom Parker when writers and producers were seeking a title for Presley's twenty-second film, Spinout.  They decided to save it for a hollow project that would later roll down the chutes, devoid of any context, substance or meaning.

Clambake is a paper-thin Prince and the Pauper tale that rings mostly hollow.  Elvis plays Scott Hayward, an entitled millionaire's son who doesn't want to be vice president of daddy's oil company.  After all, he has other interests like playing guitar, racing boats, and apparently (in a surprising reveal to the audience who has seen no evidence of such intelligence and talent) engineers chemical compounds in the lab.  Scott trades places with can't-catch-a-break-in-life-or-love Tom Wilson (Will Hutchins), taking on Tom's role of water-ski instructor while Tom takes on the coveted role of thumbing his nose at everyone.

The options of moral seem pretty straightforward in such a setup; Scott could learn the value of workmanship and share in the plight of the common man, Tom could learn that "privilege" isn't all it's cracked up to be, the audience could learn the folly of hasty judgments based on appearance.  There is a reason tried and true themes recur in narratives, but Clambake is unsure of these reasons.  Scott has little to learn because he is already a golden child.  He is a winner with the ladies with or without money, has the privilege to run away from home and the skill, looks and intelligence to give him no reason to return home.  Tom is a pauper with everything to gain and no lesson to learn:  luxury isn't a curse and he doesn't learn the value of honest work.  The whole swap is a selfish trick that only affects Scott's love interest, Dianne (the beautiful Shelley Fabares), so Scott can be sure that the love isn't through green-colored glasses.

It would take very little work to make this screenplay a conventional morality tale, but perhaps funds were short after Elvis cashed his cool (and final) $1 million starring cut.  The second act is then filled with lots of loafing.  Songs come fairly regularly for no narrative gain, and even the situation is pointless.  Scott plays with a lot of children on the playground, bikini babes come in for a number in the garage, Tom holds Dianne's bikini top ransom for a date, a bumpkin pronounces his French girlfriend's name ghee-ghee.  "I don't want things easy," Scott finally explains, confronting his father, but it's still the only life he's known.  And it's the only movie we've watched.

"You look kinda beat", Tom tells Scott during his marathon garage work, prepping the boat for the big race.  And this is no understatement.  Elvis put on over thirty pounds leading up to the shooting of Clambake due to despondency toward the lack of direction in his career.  While taking much of it off after insistence by United Artists, it only increased his dependence on diet pills in addition to his regular prescription addiction.  Worse than the movies in which Elvis looks fat, he looks worn and sickly. 

Even the soundtrack is disaffecting and forgettable, save for the monotonous, nearly one-note vocal melody of the title track's chorus that has been stuck in my head for about three years (I blame this mostly on the fact that it's reprised throughout the feature).  Strangely, the soundtrack's best track, "How Can You Lose What You Never Had" didn't make the movie because the writers and editors couldn't work it into the storyline; a strange criterion as I never knew that to stop them before. 

Clambake is the kind of movie people rightly think of when they say they hate Elvis movies.  It's another no stakes, no heart assembly line picture that wasn't even patchworked together with care.  Outside of a few bikini butts, it's a real stretch to get anything out of this turd. -- */four stars

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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Double Trouble (1967, Norman Taurog)

Double Trouble is not a good movie.  Grading on a curve, it isn't even a good movie as far as Elvis movies go.  But somehow, I like it anyway.  Chalk it up to director Taurog's insistence on never phoning in an Elvis picture (the same can not be said of John Rich or Gene Nelson).  Taurog, the workhorse, was perhaps the only Elvis director who could have shot "Old MacDonald" as if it actually meant something.  Of course, it didn't.  Though producer Hal Wallis jumped ship following Easy Come, Easy Go, Judd Bernard and Irwin Winkler were confident Elvisploitation was not over.  It's something of a minor miracle that Taurog can glean moments of pure entertainment out of the formula this late in the game.

I can't overstate the "Old MacDonald" scene: it's where everything seemed to come to a head in Presley's discontent.  The music isn't as bad as his prior film, Easy Come, Easy Go, but the songs aren't memorable in a good way.  His choreography amounts to little more than his awkward, somewhat-rhythmic snapping and sometimes he pretends to play instruments.  Double Trouble would have been one instance in which no music would have been a good move.

But music notwithstanding, two distinct differences in Double Trouble really work for it.  First of all, like Tickle Me, the movie is outright zany in a Don Knotts sort of way.  The plot doesn't try to walk a line between celebrity aura and a teen fantasy world where one could just maybe stumble upon Elvis.  Double Trouble takes place in Europe (though shot exclusively in a Hollywood studio), has characters disguising their identities and physical violence is used for slapstick.

This isn't done altogether perfectly: timing, after all, is everything in comedy, and a lot of the beats miss.  One sequence feels lifted directly from Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot, not only in tone, but in a quip of dialogue delivered by Presley.  The film fails to march out the rhythm it tries to set, but its heart is in the right place.

Furthermore, while the danger is cartoonified, the film carries bona fide consequence.  The film is delightfully screwball (well, at least cornball), but characters are firing guns.  The mysterious, malevolent hand is trying to knock off our heroes.  It is played for laughs, but characters do die.  It's a welcome escape from the Elvis Movie World of even-tempered, wind-blown sand resolve.

It doesn't change the fact that the plot is more than a little creepy:  Presley's Guy Lambert is an (American?) singer touring Europe and willing to take home a woman any night of the week.  When he happens to take home young red-head Jill Conway (Annette Day), he has no idea that she is due to receive a large inheritance.  Nor does he realize that she is only seventeen.  The schoolgirl plays hard to get until Guy finds out the whole story.  Then she turns into a Lolita, trying to wed him, stat.

The lines drawn by Guy's conscience are indecipherable.  The threat of statutory was a cold shower initially, but then they're off kissing again.  The movie takes place over the final three days before Jill's eighteenth birthday, but it's just a little uneasy.  And at this point in the Elvis formula, I welcome the lack of conformity (not to mention, he courted Priscilla when she was a mere fourteen).

Elvis and redheads were a winning formula throughout the franchise-- Ann-Margret and Deborah Walley were enough to make their respective films pull away from the pack, and their chemistry with the King really worked.  Double Trouble "co-stars" and "introduces" the world to Annette Day, an all too British-looking female lead who, after said introduction, would never be featured in a film again.  Not only does the film call for a strange chemistry, Day just doesn't have the pull on-screen to make it work.

Double Trouble isn't exactly a spoof, but it riffs on mod culture (a welcome atonement from the out-of-touch treatment of Beatniks in Easy Come, Easy Go), and isn't too out of line with something like Murder By Death.  There are many ways in which the film doesn't work, but its chutzpah makes up the difference. -- **/four stars

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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Easy Come, Easy Go (1967, John Rich)

By 1967, any hint of Dean rebel was ancient history in the Elvis persona, and the suave, less-promiscuous, mom-friendly version of James Bond was finding its way into Elvis scripts.  Easy Come, Easy Go is, then, a strange version of Thunderball-- when Elvis's watersports had been exhausted, take him underwater for a little scuba.  That isn't to say it is an action movie: what is ill-advised about this clearly un-Taurogian picture is that John Rich's action direction is dull.  He has little competence in the compositional structure or kinetic relevance of long stretches of underwater shots.  And worse yet for the fans, Elvis can't sing underwater.

Elvis plays Navy frogman Ross Carpenter who is reaching the end of his tour of duty.  He's chasing down sunken treasure, and what is particularly frustrating about the narrative is that he's written as such a selfish, one-dimensional goon, there is no joy in following any sort of character arc when we know he'll eventually do the right thing: it's his only option.  It takes the wind out of any murky sails and fails to afford any tension or moral ambiguity.  The man wants the money, so of course he'll have a decision to make.  It doesn't help that the film's title destroys any suspense.

The only choice he has to his viewers is to sympathize with the hippie daughter (and lone descendant) of the deceased captain of the ship containing Carpenter's treasure.  The woman, Jo Symington (Dodie Marshall) wants him to be a sophisticated man interested in history and art.  Instead for the entirety of the "adventure" we hear Carpenter spout dialogue comparable to "she doesn't know I only care about sunken treasure!" and "she probably won't be too happy I didn't tell her about the sunken treasure!"  It probably didn't help Presley's image in 1967 youth culture to make all the hippies "kooks" and calling them "beatniks" (really? in '67?), but that is the least of Presley's concerns regarding his public image.

Director John Rich had, like Presley, given up on producer Hal Wallis at this point.  He had gained an appreciation for what Elvis had to put up with and in this film there are moments where he is clearly phoning it in.  Dialogue interchanges are stilted and we're just waiting to hear the beat.  Rich does nothing to correct it, and Elvis looks bloated throughout the picture, easily on autopilot. 

As cheap as Wallis was known to be in these productions, the green-screen isn't distracting mostly because the sunken treasure is in open water.  The studio lighting isn't the best, but it's easier to not screw up being surrounded by ocean.  This would be Elvis's final Wallis production and, while it surprisingly doesn't look cheap, it is evident other corners were cut.

The music particularly suffers in Easy Come, Easy Go.  Elvis only recorded a six-song EP for release in conjunction with the film, but he personally referred to the quality of music as "shit".  The numbers are clearly calculated and don't come close to fitting the narrative.  Instead of earlier Elvis films in which poor songs were written to loosely string the narrative together, here it seems like poor songs were written and then narrative bits were added for their inclusion.  Therefore, someone performs yoga for the inclusion of the insipid "Yoga Is As Yoga Does", one of the worst songs in the entire Elvis filmography.  Further numbers have Elvis breaking the fourth wall (or just badly choreographed?), singing at the camera and pretending to play unplugged electric instruments.  Fortunately, they are limited to to six.

Not all the gags in Easy Come, Easy Go are duds (one artist disassembles Ross's car and lends him his multi-colored, fur-upholstered Rolls-Royce that doubled as Cesar Romero's Jokermobile), but the zaniness is too little, too late.  The bare-bones plot was so contrived approaching the climax, the sudden tonal change is welcome, but unfulfilling. 

For Hal Wallis, this would be the end of the line, and the soundtrack sales for this EP and box office receipts were dire compared to their heyday.  No singles charted after Wallis refused Col. Parker's demand for better songs.  Though it would take roughly four more paint-by-number pictures before Presley pictures were allowed to cross the lines, the Wallis/Presley schism was a long time coming, and for the best.  Easy Come, Easy Go is the casualty in the wake, but isn't all that bad, all things considered. -- *½ / four stars

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Goodbye, Michael Scott

Tomorrow TV fans will say goodbye to Michael Scott. My guess is that the great and wonderful minds who bring us The Office will give him quite the emotional send off. Why, just last week they made me tear up with that one song from that one musical... hey I'm TV expert, not a Broadway buff. But whilst you're holding back tears and attempting to hide your quivering chin tomorrow night, remember one thing:

Michael Scott was, like, the worst boss ever.

It's no secret that I can be overly attached to a situation on screen, so you can imagine that Mr. Scott has made me leave a room or two over the past seven seasons. So, while everyone else is doing "The Best Of" lists, I give you here, the worst moments of boss behaviors brought to you by Michael Scott.

5. He hit one of his employees with a car. He hit one of his employees with a car.

4. Michael convinced Dwight Schrute, his most loyal employee, to give him urine. Michael was afraid he would fail the company's random drug test, so he pressured the morally superior Dwight into cheating for him. This led to Dwight resigning as a volunteer sheriff's deputy. Let's face it, Dwight doesn't have a whole lot going for him, and yes, Michael tried making up for it by making him in charge of security, but the absolute torment Dwight went through during that episode, though entertaining, showed just how selfish Michael could be.

3. After attending a perfectly good, PC, company mandated diversity class (because Michael couldn't understand why he wasn't allowed to repeat Chris Rock's jokes), Michael felt it didn't go far enough. It didn't push any buttons. It didn't force anyone to really face their racist tendencies. More likely in a ploy to really seem less racist himself in comparison, Michael created a "game" where each employee wore a card on their head with an ethnicity/nationality/stereotype and they were required to treat each other as they would if they were actually that "race." It was a disaster. Especially when Kelly, who had missed most of the day due to actual work and therefore had no idea what was happening, was approached by Michael in an attempt to show everyone how they were supposed to act in this game. Take a look how that went. And keep in mind this was the first season before Kelly underwent her "character makeover."

2. Michael "outed" one of his employees. After calling Oscar an offensive name as a joke, then finding out that the word was even more offensive because Oscar was gay, Michael blabbed about it in front of the entire office. That's bad all in itself, but then, in an effort to show how "ok" he is with homosexuality (and how ok everyone else should be with it) he kissed an unwilling and disgusted Oscar.

1. Basically any moment with Toby. I get it, Michael is all about having fun and Toby is the HR Rep whose job is to relegate such fun keeping to what's considered appropriate, but man Michael gets mean. When Toby left (for good, everyone assumed) Michael gave him a special gift; a rock with a Post-It note that read "Suck on This." Harsh. Also, stating in front of the entire office that you "hate everything that you (Toby) chose to be" is a tad uncalled for. Let's also not forget when he tried to frame Toby for drug possession with oregano.

PS- I have my favorite Michael moments too! My absolute fave moment? When Michael grilled his foot on a George Foreman Grill.

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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Spinout (1966, Norman Taurog)

Spinout is so chaotic that it almost works.  Though not conventionally screwball, the film takes pieces from the existing Elvis formula and throws them at a wall.  It's a loud (but not obnoxious), frantic (but not quite kinetic) mashup of a Presley picture which isn't quite a compliment, but I'll take it.

To put things into perspective a bit, 1966 saw a few important things in the history of rock and roll.  Those things included Pet Sounds and Revolver.  While some might attribute the success and popularity of those two pieces to innovative song craft and the propulsion of the "album" as a unified piece of art, some marketers in the Presley camp thought perhaps it was due to a bunch of goofy guys being in a band instead of just one singer.  I mean, I like "God Only Knows" as much as the next guy too, but it's hard to beat the "you stepped on my french fries!" hamburger camaraderie of five guys goofing around with the tape rolling in the Beach Boys' "Bull Session with 'Big Daddy'", right?  Right?

So, like Girl Happy, Elvis's Mike McCoy is a frontman to a band of forgettable minors as opposed to a one-man show.  But that's not all, Viva Las Vegas was a success too, so Elvis can also race cars in this one.  And, heck, the more girls the better, so we'll have three girls vying for Elvis's hand in marriage instead of the usual two.

Only, I'm not convinced that this riffing of the typical Elvis formula isn't somewhat tongue-in-cheek.  And a few of the characters on the sideline really sell it, not the least of which is played by the spunky Deborah Walley (no stranger to bikini, Hawaiian or racecar pictures herself).  Walley's character, Les, is the jealous girl-next-door drummer in Mike's band.  Obvious to everyone but Mike, Les nearly outbursts when Mike's attention is drawn to wealthy sophisticate Cynthia (Shelley Fabares) or when he starts becoming the subject of bookworm Diana St. Clair's (Diane McBain) next piece, The Perfect American Male.

The introductions of Cynthia and Diana are ludicrous as to do the screwball genre proud: one has her father offer the band $5000 to play her birthday party, the other hunts Mike down in the woods to study him for her book.  Mike has no problem kissing and telling, but unlike any Elvis we've seen before, he plays remarkably hard to get.  Elvis refuses to be tied down so, in opposition Blue Hawaii and Viva Las Vegas, Spinout doesn't end in a wedding.  It ends in three.

Elvis walks away from the altar, marrying off all his suitors to better fits (more perfect American males?).  As such, there is are nearly too many characters in this movie but they are adequately acted and the lack of one-man-show structure is a benefit to the narrative.  While it's obviously no Palm Beach Story, it's a pleasant and unoffensive tryst along the same lines.  It's an Elvis movie that bucks trend, and is owed some credit for it.  Believe it or not, Elvis doesn't even get in a brawl in this one.

Like any movie where Elvis drives a convertible, there is a large amount of green-screen.  However, Taurog's treatment of it for dialogue rather than travelogue makes it forgivable and relatively unnoticeable.  Furthermore, the choreography of some one-off light gags (like the band setting up camp) is a testament to Taurog's circumspection if not outright sophistication.  It is also proof that, in the hands of a veteran filmmaker (as opposed to television director), an Elvis movie can have a tight budget and studio lighting without looking cheap.  The songs aren't particularly memorable, but they also don't stand out like a sore thumb when they come out of nowhere.  Here, they never take away from the narrative and, for a change, we're anxious to get back to it.

Spinout doesn't go out of its way to make Elvis a deity or even a particularly likable character (one particularly uncouth song has Elvis singing that he loves his women like a "Smorgasbord").  The film is shaken up with so much commotion, Elvis is allowed to portray the main character without having to constantly be the central focus.  While not every attempt at humor pays off, the scattershot hits enough to make it worthwhile.  Spinout is perhaps the least Elvisy movie he made up to this point, and it is stronger because of it. -- **/four stars

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Monday, April 25, 2011

Paradise, Hawaiian Style (1966, Michael D. Moore)

Though failing to be Elvis's worst picture based solely on the fact that it is too inane to be offensive on a deeper, crueler front, Paradise, Hawaiian Style does have the distinct qualification of being the film in which Elvis looks the worst, the production looks the worst and the songs are the worst.

It wouldn't be the only time that Elvis's weight would be an issue.  A year later, he had ballooned up before the production of Clambake, history citing depression as the reason.  Depression, so it is said, from plateauing out in the musical-comedy doldrums and seeing his career waste away.  In an awkward shirtless scene, Elvis drapes a towel over himself before exiting the frame to put his shirt back on.  We instead dwell on the bikinis because half the eye-candy equation clearly isn't living up to its end of the bargain.  But depression or not, I can't blame the guy after watching this movie.

Paradise, Hawaiian Style is an attempted return to the elements that made Blue Hawaii a success, general and specific: plenty of tropical locations, flowers and bikinis, Elvis's character leading girls around the island as a tour guide and getting into unsolicited hi-jinks and sings local color songs with cheeky children.  Only Elvis clearly isn't having it.

This is the first film directed by veteran second-unit director Michael D. Moore.  He worked as assistant director on six earlier Elvis films and must have been familiar with the quickie formula.  He shows no eye for making the inane interesting (though, to be fair, you only have so many options shooting inside a two-seated helicopter).  The film is even more of a travelogue than Blue Hawaii, but for a movie shot largely on location in Hawaii, the narrative decision to have Elvis in the air so much of the time limits what can be done with the cinematography.  We are often handed aerial photography and green-screen situations (funicular, helicopters) with for no narrative purpose other than to show a lush, moving landscape while Elvis just has to stand there.

Elvis plays helicopter pilot Rick Richards (even the writers coming up with character names got bored with this one) who comes home to Hawaii after a two-year absence and is surprised by the number of children his buddy Danny (James Shigeta) has had since he left.  The two start a charter helicopter business on the island despite Rick's irresponsible tendencies with women and otherwise.  And though Rick nearly destroys Danny's home and livelihood, there's not real sense of culpability.  Elvis as womanizer gets tougher to buy as these movies progress, not only because he is out of shape, but because the women don't age.  He's clearly dialing it in.

As did the songwriters, as we are forced to hear a particularly abrasive duet between Elvis and 10-year-old Donna Butterworth about adults acting silly on dates ("Datin'").  The relationship between Rick and Jan (Butterworth) is a little disconcerting as the two share the most numbers together, including on opening number in which Elvis is singing about (Jan's) "Queenie Wahine's Papaya". 

The film's idea of laughs is cramming dogs in Presley's lap while he pilots the chopper.  The film's idea of resolution is having a woman fall for him, though fully aware of his playing every other female in the movie.  We know all is forgiven because he performs his closing number alongside dozens of natives, clapping off-beat on top of a giant drum.  No one stood much of a chance with this one, and even the sidekick children are annoying.  It's another piece in which chance works everything out and waxes over any stakes.  Paradise, Hawaiian Style is the nadir of Presley's inane musical-comedies.  It provides nothing of interest and isn't even offensive enough to be unforgettable.  It just sits there, stagnant and fermenting. -- ½* / four stars

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Sunday, April 24, 2011

Frankie and Johnny (1966, Frederick De Cordova)

Frankie and Johnny is a strange transition film for Presley that isn't quite adult, but isn't quite teenage.  It also isn't quite good and isn't quite bad, though that is of no correlation to the above statement.  Elvis plays Johnny and Donna Douglas plays Frankie, two lovers and musical performers aboard a Mississippi steamship.
The film is based on the 1904 folk song about a woman, Frankie, who caught her husband in bed with another woman (versions by 1912 name this woman as Nellie Bly) and shoots her Johnny dead.  Perhaps not your typical Elvis fare, the song is the strange cornerstone for a narrative which had to be changed drastically for the film's demographic.  The song (narrative intact) is the centerpiece of musical theater in the film, but the narrative choices are interesting.

For one, the characters are actually named Frankie and Johnny, and there is no indication that the song existed in the film's popular culture before it was performed on their steamship.  Stranger yet, when the character Nellie Bly (Nancy Kovack) enters the picture, she is inserted into the musical number lyrically (Elvis's Johnny naming names).  The song becomes a story-within-a-story and presented such that the characters have no knowledge of it.  Further, the film is something of a Victorian period piece (c.1880?) which has its characters existing before the folk song, anachronistic as jazz is prevalent shortly after the Civil War, and Elvis looking none too comfortable dressed in three-piece suits (and same, modern haircut).  The whole picture is a little uncomfortable with itself: the costumes in the musical numbers appear "more" Victorian than the characters everyday dress, all nitpicking a little unfounded for a film as lighthearted as this.  But perhaps its lighthearted nature is its vice.

Johnny is a performer, but it seems secondary to his primary occupation of gambling.  He is a highly superstitious individual who is also deeply in debt.  He visits a fortune teller who informs him that a red-headed woman will enter his life and bring him luck.  Enter Nellie Bly, the never-steady girlfriend of Johnny's unfaithful boss, Clint Braden.  When Johnny finally scores a win at the roulette table, he attributes it to red-headed Nellie.  Frankie grows jealous, the girls concoct a case of mistaken identity, Johnny gets shot, but like Demi Moore's The Scarlet Letter, everybody wins.

Again, any abject behavior of Elvis's character is dismissed by comparison of other minor male characters.  Sure, Johnny kisses (who he thinks is) Nellie, but it is Braden who is the real philanderer.  Yeah, gambling is a vice, but if he weren't so superstitious, he'd be dead!  The moral of the story appears to be loyalty, though its means to that end don't look too optimistic.

Frankie and Johnny is a narrative that could have operated on several layers of depth.  Instead, its lighthearted nature strips the film of any consequence.  No one changes: gambling, drunkenness, infidelity, attempting to kill somebody all go unpunished and the moral of the story is Frankie telling Johnny, "I want you any way you are."  Nellie follows this lead and marries Braden as well.  We're not even sure why this story is being told other than to kill 87 minutes on a lark.  Frankie and Johnny is inconsequential at best and, true to its conflicting nature, leaves you with something of a sour taste in its sweet ending. -- *½ / four stars

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Saturday, April 23, 2011

Akmareul Boatda (I Saw the Devil) (2010, Jee-woon Kim)

"Abandon All Compassion"

That is the tagline of Korean filmmaker Jee-woon Kim's newest revenge thriller I Saw the Devil, and it couldn't be more appropriate. While it certainly applies to the film itself, I think it's more of a caveat to those about to watch. There are no redeeming people in this film, nobody you feel sorry for, only monsters and their victims. That's not to say it isn't worth watching. On the contrary, the film is a wonderfully weird, psychopathic discussion on the decline of the human mind.

The film starts out much like any of your run of the mill revenge films; a serial killer murders the pregnant wife of a young detective in the Korean police force. He vows at his slain wife's funeral to make the killer suffer as much as she did. From that point on, for better or worse, the film deviates from the norm entirely.

Our detective "protagonist" goes on a wild spree of unmitigated, merciless bloodbaths, smashing the penis of one man with a wrench, beating a woman to death with a club, hitting a man with his car and then beating him senselessly. He is in search of the man who killed his wife and he succeeds, finding him about forty-five minutes into the two and a half hour movie. He slashes, punches, kicks, stabs, and bludgeons the killer until he is on death's doorstep, where he leaves him with an envelope full of money. The killer, while confused, counts his "blessings" and moves on with his life-- unaware that a tracking device had been put into his mouth while unconscious.

What unravels for the next hour and forty-five minutes is a grotesque display of grisly murders, senseless killings, and even a bout with a cannibalistic psychopath. All oddities aside, the story flows very well, balancing each explosion of violence with scenes that build tension and explore the twisted mind of both the killer and the detective. The film brilliantly guides its audience through-- not with words so much as actions-- the deterioration of an otherwise noble man into what I believe to be the titular "Devil." The killer is violent and twisted, but that is to be expected-- there isn't a plethora of new ground to be found there (the character reads much like Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men). What really makes the film stand out is the "good guy." He goes from zero to one-hundred in a matter of minutes, discovering very quickly that, as the other tagline reads, "evil lives inside." He repeatedly hunts down his prey and beats him within inches of his life, only to leave him alive. As the audience, we are meant to relate to him, making the film that much more disturbing to watch.

The last third of the film is where the plot goes from downright intense to utter maniacal chaos. The killer is finally aware of his tracker, and he begins murdering those close to the detective. The detective in turn, murders those close to the killer in order to find him. That's what makes the film so hard to stomach; not the actual gore or the intensity of the violence, (be forewarned though, the film is brutal) but rather who the victims are. Everybody who dies in the film, with one notable exception are innocent victims. It is a sadistic tale, not for the weak of heart, mind or stomach. The film leads its audience into the filth of the underworld, into the mind of a serial killer, and into the heart of the devil. Without getting too involved in the technical jargon, I will say that it is a fantastically shot, edited, scripted, acted and choreographed piece of work, but the tale it tells will leave you feeling as though you've been punched in the stomach. The story and the realizations one comes to at the end entirely overshadow any minor technical flaws that might exist. To quote one of the climactic sequences of the film, "Your nightmare is only getting worse."

And what a glorious nightmare it is.


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Harum Scarum (1965, Gene Nelson)

Harum Scarum follows a trend common in early, ill-advised cartoons (Insultin' the Sultan, Tokio Jokio) in which not only is racial stereotype used to vilify an entire group of people, but the condescending play-on-words presumes a superiority over them as well.  Elvis plays action movie star Johnny Tyronne who, touring his film through the Middle East, is invited to "[step] back 2000 years" into a backward, primitive society.  The men are short, stocky and as harsh as their desert landscape (the shorter, the more vile, as a dwarf is a comedic thief) unlike Elvis who is taller, more suave and savior to orphans.  The women often don belly-dancing outfits and are equal parts exotic and disenfranchised.  Chaos is the natural order, as law operates like the Keystone Kops and slavery and assassins are commonplace. The villains fit the stereotypical mold and the innocents are infantile, in need of a white savior. 
Not only is their society unprogressive, they are underdeveloped mentally as well.  Johnny Tyronne is kidnapped by assassins because of his prowess in film.  In his movie he karate chops a leopard in the neck, so he must be a valiant real-life warrior. Such logic is also what allows Johnny to fool an Arab in a fight by saying "hey, look over here" before punching him like one of the Three Stooges.  The "otherness" of the Arab people is accentuated in that the film takes place in the fictional nation of Lunarkand.

Perhaps it is unfair, but I have an easier time forgiving films that make stereotypical use of foreign cultures the further you go back in film history.  In my mind, Sex and the City 2 is worse than Carry On Up The Khyber is worse than Gunga Din is worse than The Son of the Sheik is worse than Birth of a Nation, and that's a moralistic statement as well as an artistic one.  As insulting as these films are on a human level, there is an increased indictment of "should have known better" the further you crawl along film's short timeline.  If D.W. Griffith was already trying to atone by 1916's Intolerance, it is difficult for me to imagine a group of film executives giving the green light to Harum Scarum in 1965 amid the ideological shift of the civil rights movement.

The cheap production values make it seem lost in time.  The film was shot in the studio, reusing sets from Cecil B. DeMille's 1925 film The King of Kings and borrowed costumes from 1944's Kismet.  Physically, Elvis looks worse than he did in Roustabout and the lighting and makeup don't help.  The film was helmed by producer Sam Katzman and director Gene Nelson, the same quickie team that relied on stereotype and elitism for laughs in the nearly-as-atrocious Kissin' Cousins.  Elvis was excited to play an updated Rudolph Valentino, so much so that Priscilla recalls him coming home in full costume and makeup to get into the role. 

It's amazing to me how many times Presley hoped that something more would come of his pictures, never fully realizing that he was had.  Harum Scarum marks one of the only times that both Presley and Colonel Tom Parker saw eye to eye regarding the insipid nature of the screenplay.  Presley did return to the studio to record and uninspired soundtrack, but the creative genius that was Colonel Parker (who must have still been laughing at the singing horse in Tickle Me) went so far as to suggest that the screenplay could benefit with the addition of a talking camel.

Harum Scarum insults the core of what it is to be human.  On the surface, it's moronic, lightweight and full of bad songs.  Cutting deeper, the film is racist, elitist, condescending, misanthropic and hateful.  Worse, it was a success in 1965.  The nadir of Presley's film career would bottom out just schist layers from this one in Stay Away, Joe.  It is a film guilty of the same bad taste executed with the same shit-eating grins.  You know, I take it back:  Stay Away, Joe at least employed Native Americans rather than greasing up English-speaking white guys named Joey Russo, Billy Barty and Phillip Reed playing characters named Yussef, Baba and Toranshah. -- ZERO/four stars

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Sex and the City 2 (2010, Michael Patrick King)

Sex and the City 2 [Blu-ray]There is a genuine laugh-out-loud moment in Michael Patrick King’s atrocious Sex and the City 2, but first I will let you in on a few jokes that weren’t.  It wasn’t when Liza Minnelli shows up to perform ALL OF “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)” at a gay wedding.  It wasn’t when we are introduced to a hot, bra-less nanny in slow motion while Samantha opines, “Everyone knows you don’t hire a hot nanny.  It’s the law!” Carrie responds “Yeah! Jude Law!”  Carrie even reminds us later how funny it was when she made this joke, but truth be told, what the hell does it mean?  It certainly wasn’t when Miranda yelled “We’ve got a lot of Abu Dhabi to do!  Abu Dhabi Do!”, which I think was supposed to be a Flintstones or Scooby Doo pun, but I’m not sure.  Does it matter?

The kind of cloying writing in the screenplay is absolutely unreal, and it just keeps coming.  It wasn’t enough to let this self-referentially unfold in bourgeois Upper East Side, instead they found a place that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.  Carrie expresses some empathy when she learns her manservant can only save enough money to visit his wife in India a few times a year, but her concern is hollow and worthless:  this is the same character that was upset moments before that she didn’t get the jewelry she hoped for and is clad in so many Gaudi costumes throughout the picture (including some headwear at the opening wedding that looks like a Harry Potter version of Snow White’s Evil Queen crown, a picture of fashion for the sake of fashion), all four women at once seem to have all the money in the world yet make everything around them worthless.  Even the budget for this “romantic comedy” is an unfathomable $100 million.

But really, Abu Dhabi Do?  What is the joke there?  That they are in a funny foreign place with funny sounding non-English names?  The “reference” is pointless because it’s not making reference to anything, it’s just prattle.  The film is full of this entitled drivel that the characters don’t even realize is insulting.  And neither, I assume, do the writers and its audience.

I found myself asking throughout the picture, “who is this movie for?” and I really have no reference point.  I imagine the characters at this point in the franchise are watered down caricatures of what they once were, and the return value for the loyal fans is something they can recognize as diminished.  I don’t know-- I walked into this thing cold.  It was on HBO, I was in a hotel; it was the same way I ended up seeing Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay and, honestly, there are a lot of similarities.

Both films capitalize on their previous success.  Both include multiple, self-referential cameos that serve no narrative purpose.  Both pander to their audience, confusing comedy with references.  Both structure the narrative haphazardly with no need to make ends meet (not in an anarchistic way, but a sloppy one).  Both talk about vaginas a lot.  As infantile as it sounds, Harold & Kumar 2 at least deals with race knowingly and has the decency to leave it at 107 minutes (still a good twenty-minutes longer than a swift comedy should be), a full TWO REELS shorter than Sex and the City 2’s 146 minutes of torture.

There is no attention to pacing whatsoever in this beast, and the synopsis seems unfair because of it.  The way I understood it, the four women were supposed to visit U.A.E., but after fits and starts, they don’t get on the plane for a full hour.  And yeah, they finally ride some camels, and some grand feminine declaration shows how women everywhere love Louis Vuitton even if they are inhibited by their unfair, primitive custom.  And someone says “Lawrence of my labia”, and that’s about all you’re going to get: racist, emetic nonsense.

The women in this film seem completely unrelatable to anyone I’ve ever met.  They have their cake and eat it too.  They sacrifice nothing and expect the world at their feet.  And I suppose there were women among the $288 million in gross revenue that nodded their heads along with every bit of it.  It’s fantasy that waxes postmodern but fails to call a spade a spade.  It wraps up the cliché moral with “you have to take the tradition [of marriage], and decorate it your own way.”  The accessorizing boils down to unfaithfulness, sidestepping the trials of motherhood, and expecting your husband to do all the changing and forgiving (after all, the biggest plight of man in this piece is Big saying he wants to “watch T.V. and do the shit I wanna do.”)  And it gets wrapped up in a neat package.

But back to the moment that made me laugh: Big and Carrie are enjoying a romantic evening together in a hotel when Big gets excited that It Happens One Night comes on the television.  I laughed that this movie has the gall to compare itself in any fashion to the 1934 classic (and even riffs the hitchhiking scene to save them from angry Muslims).  In It Happened One Night, complexly drawn characters learn about the differences in gender wiring and learn the value of compromise.  In Sex and the City 2, the only compromise was what I felt after having sat through it.  Before I even caught my breath I was treated to an even bigger laugh:  Big tells Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) that she is more beautiful than Claudette Colbert.  It’s the epitome of female wish fulfillment in a hodgepodge mess of a film that is already-- sometimes knowingly, sometimes unknowingly-- highly neurotic. -- ZERO/four stars

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Friday, April 22, 2011

Tickle Me (1965, Norman Taurog)

Tickle Me is an exercise in how I have no qualms, whatsoever, with eye-roll inducing, ludicrous plots as long as the film is comfortable in its own skin.  In what boils down to an episode of "Scooby Doo" taking place at a fat camp, Tickle Me is a more immature The Ghost and Mr. Chicken with an entirely forgettable soundtrack.  Even the title is nonsensical.
After putting his foot down in a string of disillusioning studio sessions during the filming of Girl Happy, Elvis refused to record.  Tickle Me features no new recorded music and probably suffered for it.  The soundtrack is a hodgepodge of earlier, non-film recordings (some from as far back as 1961), and didn't have a conventional LP release.  As such, the songs in the movie are odd.  The lip-syncing efforts are not the greatest, and although a number of the songs aren't bad per se, they have little narrative purpose.  Ironically, "Such An Easy Question" and "I'm Yours" both charted higher than anything Elvis did since before Kissin' Cousins (including "Viva Las Vegas"), and better than any movie single for the remainder of his career.

Elvis's Lonnie Beale shows up in Western Podunk only to find out that his would-be employer skipped town.  In a moment of rare self-reference, Lonnie acknowledges that he needs to find a way to eat before the possibility of earning money at an upcoming rodeo.  "Don't tell me.  I know,"  Lonnie tells the local bartender before a smash cut close up of him performing with a guitar.  Speaking of self-reference, Lonnie soon gets in an extended fist-fight with a drunk patron which would have us rolling our eyes, only it is a saloon. 

Tickle Me is not afraid to take jabs at itself, and works because of its sense of humor.  Its success comes in how wildly the film goes off the deep-end compared to the accustomed formula.  Take the premise:  Former rodeo-rider Lonnie arrives in a new town, moonlights as a nightclub singer, works the day at a ranch.  Here, women fall over each other, biding for his attention and we expect a rehash of one of two typical Elvis plotlines.

1) Rebel Elvis works his way out of these hard knocks, stands up for a woman who he wins over before also winning the big rodeo.

2) Romeo Elvis fraternizes with a number of the women, behind each others' backs in sticky situations before (as Westerns so often teach us), he becomes a man of his own needing only his horse and riding off into the sunset.

Instead, the film takes a left turn and we get a third, unpredictable scenario.

3) Elvis takes a shine to a single woman at the ranch who enlists him into snooping around a local ghost town for clues to her deceased grandfather's hidden gold.  The team are frightened by locals after the same treasure, and they would have gotten away with it too, if it weren't for the meddling kids.  Elvis celebrates by getting married, forgetting about the rodeo and fighting a ninja.

There are shades of Jerry Lewis in Lonnie's sidekick Stanley (Jack Mullaney), and Elvis is given slapstick that is entirely new to his range.  I'm not overstating the "Scooby Doo" stuff-- "ghosts" show up, only to disappear when Stanley makes Lonnie double-check them, the perpetrators are characters we knew all along, and it concludes with a grand unmasking.  Multiple characters fall out of a fake door into a mud pit and a horse even sings part of a song.  Seriously, have I not sold this thing already?  -- ***/four stars

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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Girl Happy (1965, Boris Sagal)

Girl Happy is the movie Girls! Girls! Girls! should have been: a pleasant spring break romp light on consequence, but playful rather than insulting.  Girl Happy is a thematic combination of Some Like It Hot and Chasing Liberty.  As the former is a four-star movie and one of the best films of all time, and the latter is a zero-star movie and (no hyperbole) one of the worst of all time, it seems appropriate that Girl Happy placidly plateaus out as a two-star affair.

Elvis plays Rusty Wells who, along with his band of indistinguishable doofuses, is starting to make it big in the nightclub scene in the chilly Chicago spring.  Desperate to escape the cold, they pack their bags, ready for their annual trip to Fort Lauderdale for spring break; the only problem is, the boss wants to sign them for an extension.  Lucky for them, he has a college-aged daughter who wants to go to Florida rather than come home for Easter weekend and Rusty and the boys are sent down to keep an eye on her.  You know full well they fall in love and, like G.I. Blues, the girl is going to be none too pleased when she hears the backstory.  Chances are, they'll probably work it out.

The screwball antics (like the early '60s Presley persona) are pandering but pleasant.  There are a few moments of true chaos that do the genre justice (highlights include a Long, Long Trailer-style sequence that ends with a boat docking in a swimming pool and Rusty having to entertain two dates at the same time without letting on about the other).  More significant is Presley's ability to play the comedy rather straight despite his personal conflict with the material.  This film, as well as his next, Tickle Me, showcase Presley as comedic actor rather than phenomenon, and they are better for it.

Though billed as a beach movie, the low budget has most of the film take place at a pool outside a motel.  The film is not shot on location and, as such, the shadows look weird a lot of the time.  And although there are plenty of bikinis, Elvis is often wearing long-sleeves.  I feel like the female audience was a little disenfranchised as Girl Happy again waxes (slightly) misanthropic despite its female target audience.  It certainly isn't as insulting or mean-spirited as Girls! Girls! Girls!, but the eye-candy gets wearisome and isn't consummated.

While Hal Wallis didn't back out of the Elvis franchise until after Easy Come, Easy Go, in many ways Girl Happy was the beginning of the end for the Elvis musical-comedy.  It was the last film in Elvis's career to produce monumental returns and, while every Presley film was profitable, box office returns and soundtrack sales rapidly declined after Girl Happy.  It's difficult to say whether audiences grew tired of the formula, or it was a product of changing times, but the formula didn't adapt.  Strangely, as Girl Happy came at the height of Beatlemania in America, the film's quick fix to reach the youth demographic was to slightly speed up the songs.  None of the six singles Presley released in 1964 cracked the top ten, and the changes are something of a fundamental misunderstanding by the fogeys in charge of what was driving youth culture.  The film's single, "Do The Clam", only reached 21 on Billboard's Pop chart despite the Chipmunk treatment.  Masking the symptoms doesn't cure the disease, and even Elvis knew what that was.  Frustrated with the sub-par material in the recording sessions, Elvis walked out of the studio after 36 takes of "Do Not Disturb" and didn't record again for eight months. 

The narrative also bears last ditch efforts at marketability.  The kids loved George Harrison shaving in A Hard Day's Night, so now Elvis is teamed with a full group of lunks who fight with shaving cream in the dressing room.  There is something to be said for the success of "The Monkees", but Girl Happy fails to even make its minor characters distinguishable, let alone fleshed out.  The strongest characters in Girl Happy are its women.  Shelley Fabares is striking and spunky, and her innocence runs diametric to Mary Ann Mobley's knowing sultriness.

Ultimately, Girl Happy is a mild success because the situational comedy is punched up.  The film doesn't follow the typical travelogue formula and, while nothing is fully developed, there is enough groundwork to make the lark enjoyable.  The dominoes were lined up for the end of Presley's film career (even the idea of Elvis living in a state of arrested development as a 30-year old still going to spring break is a stretch), and the more successful Elvis pictures from here allow him to be an adult.  Much to the Colonel's approval, old hat worked one more time here. -- **/four stars

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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Roustabout (1964, John Rich)

About a third into Elvis's carnie flick, Roustabout, his Charlie Rogers enters the tent of fortune teller Madame Mijanou who claims she look into his eyes and palm and they will "reveal much about love."  One needs not be a seer to read into the life of Presley at this point in his film career.  His eyes look a little glazed for much of the film, and though often unnaturally tan and made up, his face looks particularly puffy throughout the feature.  Roustabout was Elvis's third film of 1964, and his strenuous schedule under the direction of Colonel Tom Parker led him to a regimen of prescription uppers and downers.

The film doesn't suffer for it (nor did the surprising success of the soundtrack-- one of five Presley albums to rank as a top 100 best selling album of the 1960s), but for the first time in Elvis's movies, we can see that Presley clearly did.  Some sources claim he was on diet pills since he used to steal him from his mother and, although he didn't put on the weight that he carried by the time Paradise, Hawaiian Style came in 1966, in Roustabout he begins to look worse for wear.

He even slurs some, which is difficult to decipher whether this was Presley's idea of characterization or side effect.  His character, however, is one of his most likable ones in the oeuvre, and the difference is subtle.  Yes, he still is a bit of a womanizer.  Yes, he still makes his career singing in nightclubs (and now, circuses).  Yes, he even gets in trouble early, brawling it out in the parking lot (showcasing a bit of his real-life karate training, though it looks pretty funny).  The difference is, where earlier Presley films draw him untouchable (Girls! Girls! Girls!) or worse, entitled (It Happened At The World's Fair), Charlie Rogers has a bite that isn't excused.

In the opening scene of the film, Charlie takes the stage at the teahouse he works for and is immediately heckled by a table of college students.  Elvis trades verbal blows before grabbing his guitar and performing "Poison Ivy League" only to be incitive.  A bit of rebel is back, and enough shines through the mostly cliché screenplay to make it enduring.  He even adds a provocative pause as he serenades his rivals calling them "sons of... riches", adding just enough edge to make the characterization work.  So even when it's apparent that producer Hal Wallis gave specific instruction to "[keep] the screenplays shallow,"  the darker undercurrent and strong cast allow an emotional resonance to flourish.

Barbara Stanwyck plays carnival owner Maggie Morgan who, while traveling with her employees Joe Lean (Leif Erickson) and his daughter Cathy (Joan Freeman), runs Charlie and his motorcycle off the road.  Charlie, though not specified as an orphan, is something of a nihilist with no ties.  He joins the carnival while his bike is repaired, and we are introduced to a deep web of melancholy loyalties.  "Everybody needs someone to worry about," Charlie is told as he is introduced to the carnival, and it is a trite moral of the film that is drawn more three-dimensionally than you would expect from an Elvis musical-comedy vehicle. 

The scenes between Presley and Stanwyck are the highlight, and the hard-edged mother-figure teaches Charlie that he must start "living from the waist up"-- advice that provides character development in a way that sounds trite, but works.  Joe Lean leads a tormented life of regrets (one that makes Presley's character in Fun In Acapulco seem abhorrently amateurish), and his relationship with Stanwyck's Maggie is something of real substance.  Strangely, the weakest screen chemistry is between Charlie and his love interest, Cathy.

Upon its release, Roustabout gathered the reputation of being the weakest set of songs for an Elvis picture yet which is flat out untrue.  Nevermind that it was his third highest-selling soundtrack behind powerhouses Blue Hawaii and G.I. Blues, I actually prefer Roustabout to his other musical-comedy full-lengths.  The soundtrack features two excellent and nearly forgotten tracks that rank among the best in any Elvis film.  "Big Love, Big Heartache" is a melancholy doo-wop-tinged should-be pop hit in a similar vein as The Cascades' "Rhythm of the Rain".  Another forgotten gem is "One Track Heart" which ranks among "Crawfish", "Flaming Star" and "Tiger Man" as, though sub-radar, my favorite Elvis songs, bar none. 

Around the time Wallis produced Roustabout he told a journalist, "to do the artistic pictures, it is necessary to do the commercially successful Presley pictures."  Presley was none to happy that his musical-comedy doldrums were bankrolling Wallis's shot at Oscar.  It appears that Presley was promised, at least by word of mouth, that he could star in Becket, an historical drama Wallis would also release in 1964 that would win a screenwriting Oscar for Edward Anhalt (Girls! Girls! Girls!).  Wallis built his own bridges and burned them just as fast.  Director John Rich even grew tired of Wallis's fiscally-minded operations and, despite not seeing eye to eye with Elvis during Roustabout, grew to respect his work by the time the two worked together again on Easy Come, Easy Go (a film that would become the last Presley picture produced by Wallis, as the well finally dried up). 

So perhaps that Presley snarl comes with a bit of precedent.  Roustabout is better for it. -- ***/four stars

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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Viva Las Vegas (1964, George Sidney)

Viva Las Vegas has a real virility lacking in the past several Elvis films.  It is rightfully one of his best remembered pictures, both in soundtrack and film.  This is due, in part, to the distance between it and the typical formula:  unique to Viva Las Vegas, Elvis's rival is also his love interest.  The chemistry between Elvis and Ann-Margret is rambunctious and believable.  And although the film resorts (as they all do) with the appeal of Elvis being too much for the female to resist, this time it goes both ways.

The real interesting elements of Viva Las Vegas involve the film fleshing out one of the most complete female characters in the Elvis oeuvre-- one that can hold her own scenes and musical numbers with Elvis no where in sight-- while at the same time increasing the deification of Elvis as a singular, unstoppable force.  If films like Kid Galahad lightened the need of narrative consequence and replaced it with pap, Viva Las Vegas draws the whirlwind surrounding the Elvis character so cartoonish that any other human beings are merely means to an end.  The film ends with an auto race across the Nevada desert in which cars are being run off the road and bursting into flames with no gravity as to what that actually means.  Elvis is larger than life, and the film is one of the few Elvis pictures with enough charisma to make it work.
Elvis plays Lucky Jackson, a racecar driver who shows up in Las Vegas for a Grand Prix who would be a shoo-in, if only his car had an engine.  He is forced to take a part-time position as a casino waiter (a job that doesn't pay him for, yet doesn't seem to mind, his performance singing on the side) while on the hunt for his mystery girl (the beautiful Ann-Margret as Rusty Martin) that escaped him without leaving name or number.  Lucky pursues the mystery woman and they bout it out in a few musical numbers.

Despite the turmoil in the competitive nature of their relationship, there is a real female empowerment that most all Elvis films lack.  Rusty stands toe-to-toe in a musical competition and brings it to a draw.  Lucky understands that he can't best his love interest, and even when his crew is scrambling to get his car ready in time for the big race, Rusty is there, clad in coveralls, supporting the team in an egalitarian rather than subjective role.  It comes full circle when Lucky, after winning the big race, redeems his earlier prize of a two-week honeymoon: not as consolation to Rusty, but as a mutually beneficial partnership.

Viva Las Vegas stands head and shoulders above much of Elvis's output and it's not only a matter of production value, although it helps a great deal.  Following a string of quickies that scraped lower and lower the barrel in quality as well as budget (Girls! Girls! Girls!, Fun In Acapulco, Kissin' Cousins), Viva Las Vegas committed the cardinal sin in the eyes of moneyman Colonel Tom Parker: it took longer than expected, went over budget and (gasp!) cut into Elvis and the Colonel's take.  Nevermind that it became Elvis's highest grossing movie ever, Parker refused to rely on intangibles and paint-by-number slapdash and guaranteed checks would be protocol from here on out.  Though released earler, Kissin' Cousins was actually shot primarily after Viva Las Vegas as to recoup any damage that might have incurred.  Producer Hal Wallis was serious when he said "an Elvis picture is the only sure thing in Hollywood," but Parker would rather cash the easy check and call it a day, thankyouverymuch.

Though more sugar than substance, Viva Las Vegas (the only Elvis picture veteran musical director George Sidney ever touched) does have it directorial moments.  Take the performance of the title track:  a two-and-a-half minute cabaret performance in one-shot that, while minimal in its formal and literal choreography, is commendable for not drawing attention to itself.  It is a nice touch unthinkable from the likes of Gene Nelson (who despite a highly successful dancing career, couldn't point a camera to save his life) or Richard Thorpe, and a subtle difference that ripples, widening the gap between the value of films in Presley's career which, even at their best, could be accurately describes as pap.

Unfortunately, this quality was not something valued by its filmmakers.  Viva Las Vegas made money, great.  So, how can we capture lightning in the bottle a second time, but cheaper?  Wallis and Parker have every instinct for the bottom line with no barometer for merit.  The lesson learned from Viva Las Vegas was not that the market for Elvis is highest when the caliber of songs is at its highest and a believable chemistry is aided by a fantastic lead female, rather Elvis looks cool in a car race (and while we're on the cheap (Speedway, Spinout), we can green screen it).  But for what it's worth, Viva Las Vegas in not only a quality film, but a fair and uninsulting one.  While that doesn't seem like it should be too much to ask, the returns diminish from here on out. -- ***/four stars

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Monday, April 18, 2011

Kissin' Cousins (1964, Gene Nelson)

By far the worst to helm Presley pictures, veteran sitcom director Gene Nelson is responsible of two of the three worst Elvis movies.  Both rely heavily on stereotype for characterization and "otherness" for laughs-- Kissin' Cousins and Harum Scarum both attempt indulgent superiority.  Where Nelson (who also wrote the screenplay to Kissin' Cousins) has the chops to look down his nose at anyone is beyond me, as his directorial output consists mainly of things like "The Mod Squad" and "Fantasy Island".  

In what appears to be a limited double-feature of Fun In Acapulco and Girls! Girls! Girls!, a poster claiming "Twice As Much Elvis As Ever!" must have really got the wheels turning in the heads of the creative geniuses behind Film Elvis.  A not so subtle inbreeding joke pairs two Elvis's on the screen in Kissin' Cousins.  Elvis #1 is Josh Morgan, an Air Force officer whose backwoods heritage gets him selected to return to Hillbilly, Tennessee to talk distant kin into giving up their land for a missile base.  Elvis #2 is the blond Jodie Tatum, the contentious wrestling champion of the Smoky Mountains who doesn't take too kindly to strangers.

Neither do the innumerable (and indistinguishable) Kittyhawks-- the lusty mountain women who fire shotguns at trespassers.  That is, until the girls realize the intruders are men.  At this point they become unhinged and attack Josh and every soldier in the platoon as they are desperate for sex.

You can see where this is going real fast.  Two Elvises means he can kiss that many more females.  The local color only care about shacking up, hootenannies and moonshine.  Elvis #1 hooks up with a distant hillbilly cousin, Elvis #2 hooks up with a female Corporal-- even the government hooks up with the hillbillies, agreeing to split the mountain as long as the moonshine industry is untouched.  Gonzo patriotism marries bumpkin libertarianism, but what seems screwball framework produces less laughs than my mom's eighth-grade limerick about a plane being hijacked to Cuba.

The film was produced on the smallest budget for an Elvis film to date, and it shows.  Though the movie takes place mostly in outdoor Appalachia, it was filmed mostly in a Hollywood studio.  The soft lighting looks odd, the shadows of camera equipment looks amateurish, and Nelson's directorial eye leaves something to be desired.  The film is so entertained by its two-role gimmick, that it demands to constantly remind us of it.  In scenes that bear no reason for it, shots are framed so that the back of one of the Elvis's heads faces the camera while two other characters are having a conversation.  There's a lot of wrestling around between the two Elvises and sometimes the editing lets slip (long enough to be noticeable) a visage that spoils the illusion. 

Not that he probably had too much say in the matter, but Presley even screened another quickie musical-comedy produced by Sam Katzman, directed by Gene Nelson with music direction by Fred Karger before this project entitled Hootenanny Hoot-- a D-grade precursor to The T.A.M.I. Show with exploitation in the stead of artistic merit and a first-draft cardboard narrative to string together performances.  Kissin' Cousins is equally exploitative, but the music is worse.  It's a movie that puffs itself up by making its stereotypes idiots.  Even letters in the title card are backward, resembling a trend I find offensive amongst preschool signage.  And those kids are four.  The movie leaves you with a sour feeling knowing it made money for such atrocities. -- ½* / four stars

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Sunday, April 17, 2011

Fun In Acapulco (1963, Richard Thorpe)

This late in Hal Wallis's formulaic musical-comedies as a serious business, there was no question that he was in it for the money.  The Beatles, who happened to catch a screening of Fun In Acapulco at a Miami drive-in on their first U.S. tour, later asked Elvis, when they met him in 1965, if he was working on new ideas for his next movie.  "I sure am. I play a country boy with a guitar who meets a few gals along the way, and I sing a few songs."  He and the Colonel laughed before explaining to John Lennon that the only time they strayed from this formula (Wild In The Country), they lost money.

This, of course, is gross hyperbole.  Wild In The Country was a modest success, but considered a "loss" compared to the money that could be made with pictures like G.I. Blues.  In fact, no Elvis movie ever lost money.  Think about that for a second. 

Yet, the Hal Wallis budget began to cheapen with Girls! Girls! Girls!, and Fun In Acapulco is bad teen exploitation filmed in front of bad blue screen.  As films shot in tropical locations that border on travelogues, Wallis often skimped on quality.  Fun In Acapulco looks like a skeleton crew drove around Acapulco for a couple of days to gather enough footage to superimpose Elvis in front of in the Hollywood studio.  The bad matting would become a standard (Paradise, Hawaiian Style, Speedway), but perhaps part of what made It Happened At The World's Fair look so good is that (with a different producer) Elvis was actually there.

No, just as the Colonel never wanted Elvis to leave the States, Presley never visited Acapulco.  The soft lighting and (again) prevalent makeup are particularly unconvincing in a film that routinely offers striking establishing shots of native color, only to thwart it in the closeup. 

Elvis's Mike Windgren is an American working on a boat, but quickly loses his job when his boss's bratty, underage daughter throws him under the bus after he turns down her come-ons.  It's a real double standard in Presley films-- women are vilified for coming on to Elvis too strongly as it costs him his job.  However, when Elvis's characters come on too strongly (say for instance, when he refuses to take no for an answer and is walked in on by the girl's parents early in It Happened At The World's Fair), the threat of a girl's lost honor is played for laughs.  Worse, Mike refuses the girl on grounds of age (she later gets busted with alcohol), which is fine and noble until the camera sexualizes her as she passes by low-angle in a bikini.  The bread and butter of many an Elvis picture involves pairing Elvis with a too-young teenage girl, if only for a moment, as a sort of relatable fantasy for the demographic.

But it was these same movies that began making Elvis passe, and this isn't the only instance in which Fun In Acapulco seems out of touch.  Much of the soundtrack seems to capitalize on the Herb Alpert phenomenon which probably spoke to someone about ten years older than the film's target audience.  As much as I love the mental image of the Fab Four crammed into a car watching this movie at the drive-in, it speaks volumes that when it was Sérgio Mendes and Brasil '66 covering "Day Tripper" three years later, it wasn't beach party material.  And they wouldn't have (just as Elvis wouldn't have in 1966) gotten anywhere near the A Hard Day's Night treatment.

Mike does meet a few girls along the way (Elsa Cárdenas as a female matador, and Ursula Andress, a social director at the hotel which employs him).  The narrative gains nothing by Mike splitting his time between the two love interests.  Besides, he's got enough on him mind, brooding about his trouble past.  Mike has a fear of heights because of an accident as a trapeze artist he feels responsible for.  The number of shots of Elvis green-screened on a diving board with an over-acted troubled shake of the head is staggering.  The climax builds, not so much as a decision between the two women or a conflict coming to a head between Mike and his rival (Alejandro Rey), but in Mike facing his fear.  The measure of a man in Fun In Acapulco isn't committing to a monogamous relationship, but a death-defying 136-foot cliff dive.  Any rush from this film lasts about as long.

The charm injected into the tame story comes in the form of Mike's eight-year-old "agent", Raoul (Larry Domasin).  The joke is that this orphan has "cousins" all over town.  He wheels and deals, getting Mike a job as lifeguard and nightclub singer.  His songs have a distinct Latin flavor which seems hypocritical considering he pronounces Raoul's name "Ral".  Adding children to the musical-comedy formula was a success in It Happened At The World's Fair (and to a lesser degree in Blue Hawaii), and the Raoul character feels equally contrived.  Domasin's performance is winning, but it's over-the-top saccharine and he emotes one-dimensionally.  A tongue-in-cheek segment features Raoul raising Mike's value by playing two different club owners before demanding 50% of his cut.  "You get half?  That's kinda high for an agent's commission," Elvis answers before increasing Colonel Parker's cut to fifty percent.

Fun In Acapulco isn't.  If it was, Elvis might have been there himself.  Unlike Follow That Dream, the film is inane as well as offensive.  Worse, neither appears to be intentional. -- */four stars

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