Thursday, May 26, 2011

My Reservations about The Hangover Part II

You know that friend you have who ALWAYS takes the joke too far and ruins it? Or the guy who regurgitates jokes from old movies, but they’re not funny because “you had to see it for yourself?” They (usually) mean well, but it still kind of sucks. For example, Caddyshack was followed by Caddyshack II. The Blues Brothers was followed by The Blues Brothers 2000. Old School was followed by Old School Dos—oops, my bad. Old School Dos never happened. It was a movie that seemed to be neglected by the studios because it was a retread of characters that were pretty one-dimensional and it just transplanted their (mis)adventures into a “foreign” country so to disguise the copied and pasted jokes. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted Old School Dos probably more than any other person on the planet but, alas, it didn’t happen. I was 16 then. I’m now at the ripe age of 23, and I’ve realized something; maybe the fact that Old School Dos never happened has a big role to play in the original Old School still being so funny to me.

Now if I could only convince Todd Phillips of that.

Let's start by saying I really like Todd Phillips—If you think that’s dumb, stop reading, because that’s just how it is. Todd Phillips is really cool to me. If I were to make a film someday and be famous for it, I would probably have to list Todd Phillips as an influence (or leave him out and be a liar).

All of that said, I think (on this occasion in particular) he might be that friend who takes the joke too far.  After the first Hangover (which I have been a rabid fan of since day one), I couldn’t help but wonder what happened to these characters as life went on. Unfortunately, it would never happen. The Hangover was a really funny, one-time snapshot comedy of this generation. Oh never mind, the sequel was green-lit the weekend the film came out. My bad. So again, though this time I was 22, I was more excited than probably anybody on the planet for The Hangover 2. Then I saw the first trailer.

Don’t get me wrong, it looks like the movie will definitely have its fair share of laughs, albeit the same laughs from the first movie. If we take the first trailer into account, we see that Zach Galifianakis will be an awkward man-baby, Bradley Cooper will be an asshole, Ed Helms will be paranoid and yell (a lot) about a physical deformity, and the fourth guy will be missing again. Funny thing is, this time it takes place in a “foreign” country. Sniff. Sniff. Do you guys smell that? I think I smell Luke Wilson yelling about his life? Or is that Vince Vaughn being an asshole to a foreigner? Oh no, I figured it out. It’s Will Ferrell acting like a man-baby. This movie is just Old School Dos wrapped up in a new package.

What I’m about to say is a hard truth for me. You should know that.

If Old School Dos wasn’t good enough in 2004, what makes it good enough in 2011? Has the audience gotten stupider? Was it just easier to use this script and bank on the built-in viewers from the first installment than come up with a new story? Either way, it’s a bit disappointing. I haven’t seen the movie, so I may have to eat crow, but I don’t think that will be the case. The Hangover was kind of a one trick pony. It did its one trick very well, but once you’ve seen it, the thrill is gone. Doing another movie seems like the ultimate example of flogging a dead horse. But more power to them. The checks are huge and, more importantly, I’m sure they had a great time making the movie. No matter what, I will love these guys and continue to support their films. I just hope Mr. Phillips doesn’t prove himself to be the friend who doesn’t know when the joke should end.

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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

UHF2K: The Edge (1997, Lee Tamahori)

The Edge (Widescreen Edition)UHF2K returns with Johnny O.'s take on the 1997 film The Edge.  It stars "Alex" Baldwin and apparently is a comedy.  Johnny O. is in rare form here.

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Saturday, May 21, 2011

Tricia's End of The Season Rant

So it’s that time again. We’ve been bombarded with cliffhanger after cliffhanger and now we must wait three to four months until we find out who survived, who dies and who shacked up. TV writers like to torture us, that’s for sure, but rather than speculate on what’s to come in the fall, I’d like to share a few thoughts about what we witnessed this year. This should go without saying, but if you’re behind on some shows, watch out for spoilers. 

"Parks and Recreation"

I’d like to start out with applauding the state of sitcoms. They aren’t all gold, but the ones who get comedy right do it flawlessly. Let’s focus on "Parks and Recreation". This show was bumped to a mid-season premiere this year (meaning we didn’t get any of it this past fall) but that meant was we basically got double the episodes every week since January. Honestly, I love most, if not all of the NBC sitcoms, so it pains me to pick a favorite. Especially with the genius that was "Community" season 2. But "Parks and Rec" was comedy perfection. Plain and simple. No characters were underused and the jokes hit every time. Plus, it was the only show that made me laugh so hard I fell off my couch (which is not an easy task). Of course, I’m a tad biased seeing as this is a female centered show staring Amy Poehler, one of my favorite people in the world (also see "30 Rock"), but there is no one on TV like Nick Offerman’s Ron Swanson, or Aziz Ansari’s Tom Haverford, or Chris Pratt’s amazing Andy Dwyer. Then throw in Rob Lowe and Adam Scott and it’s an effing laugh riot on my television. Also, the passion that Leslie Knope defends her love of waffles, is just plain beautiful.


"Glee" still has one episode left, and I’m pretty confident that I’m going to love it, so I have no problem including it here. You see, "Glee" isn’t all that good anymore. Characters have all become caricatures, bending and swaying to the will of whichever writer wrote that particular episode that's airing at the time. Plot is determined by song choice, not the other way around. And the cast has gotten too big to get close to any of them. And yet, I still watch. Why? Because the episodes where the Glee Club are in competitions make it worth it. Every single time something big happens; someone admits their love for another, someone takes their role as a leader, someone gives birth, etc. And the musical numbers are usually pretty great. So this season, I’ve basically been tolerating the episodes in between the good stuff, because the good stuff is, though cheesy and over the top, so GOOD. And Tuesday’s episode should not disappoint.


Honestly, off the top of my head, I can’t really recall any "Bones" episodes prior to the last two of the season. I know they happened, and I know I enjoyed them, but the penultimate episode was so good, it blew them all out of the water. Also, the fact that fans everywhere are completely pissed off by how the writers/execs finally got the two leads together makes me kind of happy. Here’s how it happened. A beloved member of the lab was killed, it was horrible and a truly amazing death scene (bravo, Ryan Cartwright), so in her misery, Dr. Brennan cried her way into Booth’s bed. As far as the audience knew, they only slept. Later in that same episode, Brennan confides in her best friend about that night, but we don’t hear what she has to say. Then, in the next episode – and this is a HUGE spoiler if you aren’t caught up- Brennan reveals that she’s pregnant with Booth’s baby. It’s genius if you really think about it. We don’t even see them kiss, but we get them together. We won’t have to deal with them dating next season because they already skipped a bunch of steps. What this means for season seven is that we still get the crime fighting, the arguing, the sexual tension, but we also know they are together. I realize that the true “shippers” are disappointed. They wanted the passionate kiss, the heartfelt plea, but mostly the somewhat graphic sex scene, but instead they now have to rely on their imagination. How unfortunate. I am completely happy with how this turned out, I can’t even explain how annoyed I would be if they had shown the “hook up” after that death scene, it would have sullied the inherent emotion in both moments; I wouldn’t have been able to be happy for the couple, because, let’s be honest here, I was a freaking mess for a good twelve hours after my favorite “Squintern” bit the dust, and everyone everywhere would have been talking about the sex scene rather than the heartbreaking death of Mr. Nigel-Murray. Well done, "Bones" people, well done.

Ashton Kutcher & "Two and A Half Men"



"Chuck" is not as good as it used to be. I think we can all agree on that one, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t good. And the brilliant last few seconds of season four means we'll get to see it get back to its roots come fall. Plus, I’m super excited that I get another summer of quoting “Guys, I know Kung Fu,” and having absolutely zero of my friends understand what I’m talking about. It’s a lonely world, being a TV geek. NBC has agreed to let "Chuck" come back for a final season that will air on Fridays. I’m excited for this move as long as it isn’t opposite "Fringe", of course. This season was lacking, true, but I’m incredibly thrilled to be able to see how it all ends. And to stop going to Subway so often.


The worst part of this time of year is the “sweeps” part of May Sweeps. Basically this means it’s time for TV networks to trim the fat. It is a business after all. Now, I got lucky, only two shows that I truly enjoyed were canceled. But it’s still hard to ignore the fact that many other shows, less deserving shows, are going strong. It offends me, to be honest, that an interesting show like Fox’s "The Chicago Code" can be swept away while a show as obvious and flashy as CBS’s "Hawaii Five-0" gets a pass. Don’t get me wrong here, I watch "Hawaii Five-0" every Monday, the characters are interesting and the cases aren’t awful, plus the scenery is great. But their cliffhanger wasn’t a cliffhanger for me; yes, Steve is going to jail, framed for killing the Governor, but we all know he’s getting out of it, there’s no real danger here. In order for the show to continue, there has to be a Five-0 and without him, there isn’t one. No brainer. Meanwhile, "The Chicago Code" (which airs it’s last episode this coming Monday) is gritty and dangerous and it let us know right out of the box that any star on the show is expendable. No doubt I’ll be left in the lurch after Monday, never to know if they finally get to arrest Alderman Gibbons or if Liam/Chris (the undercover cop) survives. I could tell early on that this show didn’t belong to Network TV, if only FX had taken it on instead. Alas, hindsight is 50/50, isn’t it? There’s just such a frustration in that Fox tends to take the most risks on original programming but then has trouble sticking by the good shows because the predictable stuff on CBS is kicking their asses in ratings. Mark my words, next year, I’ll be upset about another good Fox show being canceled and "Hawaii Five-0" will practically be the twin brother of "CSI: Miami"; a procedural show that features it’s scenery more prominently than it’s cases. Run, Scott Caan, run!


Summer is usually pretty slow for TV lovers like myself. All we have to comfort us is catching up on shows we leave for DVD releases and the stuff on USA Network. But have no fear, I have plenty of plans for my part in Flickdom Dictum and I hope you’ll stick around.

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Transformers (2007, Michael Bay)

Transformers (Two-Disc Special Edition + BD Live) [Blu-ray]In an early Pauline Kael piece, she picks apart the disingenuity of Dr. Zhivago-style epics:  films that dress up in big sister's clothes, putting on airs of "realism" in the hopes that in three or so hours of bloated screenplay we will just... feel... something.  She goes on to discuss how these films, which remind us of an ill-tempered child pushing every button in the elevator, are mistaken for masterpieces because of their ability to manufacture calculated responsiveness.  In the early 21st-Century, the biggest blockbuster receipts come from films as bloated and as calculated as these '60s epics, but something is lost.  It is not for lack up budget or even lack of effort.  It certainly is no lack of footage; the first two Transformers movies and-- on the other (same?) side of the coin-- the first two Twilight movies total 546 minutes which is at least two and a half movies too long considering no real stories lie within.  It's a strange phenomenon that these films are stuffed with little more than minutes; couldn't more money be made as shorter run times lead to more showings?  It's as if the length overcompensates for shallow narrative: it's an epic because by the time you got out of the theater your ass and mind were equally numb.  You're begging to feel something.  The billion dollar pictures of today are made for the kid in the elevator.

There is a certain sublimeness to Kevin James waddling around with a KFC bucket over his head in Grown Ups.  That isn't to say that Grown Ups is a more grown up film than Transformers (though I suppose that might be true), it's just that Grown Ups was upfront about its (sub)mediocrity.  And no, it didn't do it particularly well and no, it didn't reach beyond the low bar (even boom mics are exposed), but it was even a long comedy (102 minutes) that had the decency to get us out of the theater when it was done being stupid.  Kevin James wearing a chicken bucket is a kind of broad stupid gesture that I can accept as an immediate (sic. low-brow, slapstick if you must) acknowledgment that even empty cinema and comedy have potency in a quick visual gag.  I don't need to see an extended sequence completely non-central to the narrative of a run-down Camaro speaking through early-'80s soft-rock MOR directly mimicking the action on the screen.  There is no room for subtlety in the Transformers script because it bears the dilemma of both making the audience feel clever while drawing from references every 13-year-old can catch.  So we are pitched a bunch of overtly sexual quips ("Can I ride you home?" "It squirts the fuel so you can go faster") that fail even as double entendre because no one would ever talk that way (much like Sam would never really listen to Player).  The film's idea of humor substitutes the referential (sometimes self-referential with an Armageddon gag) for written jokes.  The dialogue of the Transformers is, in almost every case, knowingly reflexive.  What they say has no bearing on their surroundings, nor does it fall into what we understand as discourse; they are one-liners to remind the audience that they are watching a movie, over and over again.

To call Michael Bay incompetent is unfair: such a statement suggests that he doesn't know exactly what he is up to and that the film isn't in its own way technically proficient.  What the film lacks in pacing and suspension of disbelief has more to do with laziness than inadequacy:  The film is a real paradox in that its action is built on premature ejaculation, but overstays its welcome, taking forever to get off the ground.  Bay knows there is no need for a tight script as long as you hit your action beats.  The introduction to the Autobots happens at the cool, calculated one-hour mark-- not because the front end was loaded with exposition, but because pockets of often indecipherable action float it along within a familiar framework.  It's lazy, but forgotten when big machines start clanking around.  The commotion is anything but truly kinetic, but rapid cuts and Dolby Digital can make up for that.  We forget that Sam endangers Mikaela rather than plays hero with his empty bravado of "get in the car.  Trust me!"  Like Ironhide misquoting Dirty Harry, it sounds like something that came from a movie, but doesn't follow. 

Though the film stands as a financial success based entirely on its special effects, several visuals are treated haphazardly.  Its sound and visuals have an ballsy gusto overwhelming to its target audience who then overlook the fact that at times Optimus Prime looks nearly forty feet tall and then the film will devote an expensive CGI close-up of him picking up a pair of glasses who's scale suggests he's closer to twelve feet.  Robots causing destructive mayhem has been cool since Fritz Lang's Metropolis, but they often represented the mores of their surrounding culture.  The Cold War and advancing technologies brought fear of dehumanization and extinction that gave power to The Day The Earth Stood Still and TerminatorTransformers isn't a reaction to advancing technologies it's an acknowledgment of it.  It takes more than an eBay reference to offer up social commentary, and the film's lack of dread (or even real conflict) is due to the action taking place for the sake of action and nothing more.  It's a film in form and function that settles with feeding its audience tripe because it knows it will be gobbled up.

Look no further than every significant non-robot character in the film to know who it was marketed toward.  Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox play seventeen-year-olds, but it's the mother who jokes about masturbation.  Prime's personality is said to reflect a 40-something, but the film has the Autobot's knowledge of human language come from the Internet.  Really?  Jazz's stereotypical African American vocal inflection and use of gang signs comes from reading webpages?  Worse: exactly two characters use the term "bitch."  One is the black-coded Jazz delivering one of his about two lines in the entire movie and the second is Bernie Mac who calls his own mother a bitch right after he calls her "mammy."  I suppose the misogyny is softened following the racist joke.  And I'm not even going to start on the Anthony Anderson character (who hates his Mammy grandmother, too).

Transformers is a film where high-schoolers save the planet, 22-year-olds foil the Secretary of Defense and robots want to shoot parents because they just don't understand.  The film is as right-wing as anything Bay has ever made, but even the military side-plot takes a backseat to Anderson's fat cousin playing Dance Dance Revolution.  Also, Bumblebee pees on a cop.  Bay is not an incompetent filmmaker, he is a vile one.  He markets the youth, panders to the youth, and spoon-feeds them racism and misogyny in the name of "good fun".  We're told to leave it alone because it's a "kid's movie" of "eye candy".  It's a movie, apologists argue, formed out of youth culture when it is very carefully manipulating it.  Transformers is an ugly, ugly film that gets a pass by parents because of how shiny its robots are.  Is Bay just being lazy?  No, that would be its sequel. -- ½* / four stars

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Sunday, May 15, 2011

UHF2K: Cold Turkey (1971, Norman Lear)

Cold TurkeyJohnny O. reviews Norman Lear's 1971 film Cold Turkey.  Apparently it's got cameos from every freak in the country.

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Friday, May 13, 2011

African Cats (2011, Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey)

Maybe I've watched too much Werner Herzog, but I feel nature documentaries have a responsibility to be equal parts humbling in their grandeur and revolting in the grotesque.  Say what you will about Darwin (African Cats says nothing) but life isn't simply a story of winners.  Disneynature's third consecutive Earth Day feature is a significant step back from 2009's Earth, a too-conveniently edited narrative version of the brilliant "Planet Earth" series and 2010's beautiful-if-too-anthropomorphic Oceans.

Though marketed as an Earth Day film, let's get one thing straight: African Cats is a tongue-bath of a Mother's Day picture that goes above and beyond in characterizing its cats as loyal, noble, nurturing mothers with the foresight to scheme long-term alliances for their future generation.  It's a film that betrays its internal logic of the cyclical by fabricating a concrete beginning, middle and end to the story.  What we are left with is a film that teaches us less about the circle of life than The Lion King, though it tries its damnest to be as emotional.

The film awkwardly cuts between two wildly divergent stories linked only by their mammalian family.  In the first, over-the-hill lioness, Layla raises her half-grown cub, Mara in a pride overseen by its patriarch, one-toothed Fang.  Samuel L. Jackson tells us Layla is graying, perhaps because she gets injured and dies.  After all, it's an easier life-lesson for the kiddies if she's had years to sow the fruits of hard labor.  Layla even knows her time is short, chumming with "sisters" so that Mara will be accepted into the pride after her death.  What ingenuity!  Samuel L. Jackson tells us Fang is brave and even the "best dad ever" because he scraps for his family and roars at crocodiles.  The same sentiment isn't echoed when he eventually turns tail and leaves the pride to a group of ruffians.

Don't get too attached to all these little guys.

Our other family features Sita, a single-mother cheetah raising her five, then three cheetah cubs.  Sita is noble, raising her children to learn to hunt gazelle.  Sita is compassionate, grieving when hyenas take two of her cubs.  The ominous score teaches us that the hyenas are not noble but dastardly when they hunt cheetahs for nourishment.  It hand-selects our dedication rather than allowing us to choose sides between Fang and his rival Kali.  There must be no mothers among the crocodiles, as they are only opportunistic in their selection of meats (not provisional like the lion mothers who hunt zebra).

But what bothered me more than the blatant anthropomorphic characterization was the film's irresponsible disingenuity in its mise en scène.  I felt like I was watching Eisensteinian montage to explain Savannah dangers throughout much of the picture; as if the film, rather than documenting, pleaded its case with false information.  I'm not naïve enough as to claim that documentaries come without authorship, but the editing splices together things we just don't see in establishing shot.  Early on, Sita takes her cubs on an "adventure" which amounts to walking from undisclosed point A to undisclosed point B.  The cubs look left.  An elephant looks right.  The cubs run one direction.  The elephant makes a sound.  Never once are the cubs and the elephant in the same frame.

We are told that hyenas dragged off two of Sita's cubs, but are given no evidence of this whatsoever.  Perhaps it is an easy explanation to add gravity to a later match-up between the older cheetahs and the hyenas.  Three adult male cheetahs approach Sita as she protects her cubs, and we are told that they can even be cannibalistic (this fact is quickly brushed aside as it doesn't paint our African Cats in too majestic a light).  But again, we see cubs cowering.  We see males stalking.  Then, all at once, we see the cubs in the foreground looking at the adults in the distance and we realize, for once, there is a real dread.  The documentary is so cartoonish in its montage up to this point that I began to question whether entire plot points were penned from miscellaneous footage.  I didn't just feel that conflict was embellished, I honestly questioned if any of it happened.  I found myself questioning if we were even watching the same cats for the film's duration.  If the primary focus of the film was to entertain with witty narration, I would much prefer The Adventures of Milo and Otis which is upfront about what it is doing.

African Cats is breathtakingly shot.  Time-elapse storms, slow-motion hunts, prowl pans and intimate close-ups not only connect the viewer with the geography, but draw its majestic creatures in ways only film can.  It's sad this wasn't enough for the filmmakers, as the film so concerned with making us feel something that it fails to teach us anything.  It is a film in which it isn't enough to witness some of the grandest creatures on earth, we need them in a nice little bow and inspirational Jordin Sparks song.  Our titular cats raise their young until a viable age in a way the film fails to accept: like every other creature, "noble" or "vile", on the planet.  It is a film of sanitized life lessons and unfair white-hat/black-hat conflict that cheapens the complexity of nature to mere soap opera.  Though for what it's worth, it is a gorgeous, epically-shot soap opera. -- **/four stars

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Sunday, May 8, 2011

UHF2K: A Couple of Fatso's

FatsoFlickdomDictum proudly presents a new feature: UHF2K in which Johnny Oberdorfer reviews the films of lesser-network television, vlog style.  To introduce you all to Johnny O., he discusses a couple of Fatso's: A 1980 Anne Bancroft film starring Dom DeLuise and a 2008 Norwegian film by Arild Fröhlich.

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Thursday, May 5, 2011

Change of Habit (1969, William A. Graham)

Elvis Presley's final feature film, 1969's Change of Habit, is a social drama well-intended in word if not deed.  It's a film that speaks very broadly about its present-day hotbed issues like race, but is ultimately cruelest to blacks and Latinos.  It's on one hand a liberal diatribe that wants to confront the positive, social aspects of religion, coherent to a hippie worldview in a way that can only compromise real-world representations of these characters.  It's a film that tries to say a lot of things, not all of which with a great deal of success, but as one "Mary Tyler Moore Show" actor featured in this film says to another "Mary Tyler Moore Show" actor featured in this film in an episode of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show", it gets by on a significant amount of spunk.

Mary Tyler Moore, Barbara McNair and Jane Elliot play three nuns trained in speech therapy, laboratory sciences and public health (respectively) in a social experiment to live out their faith in everyman clothes to avoid isolating anyone they might come in contact with.  Not in on the ploy is Dr. John Carpenter (Elvis) whose short-handed inner-city clinic seems to treat any sort of physical or psychological issue.  Moore's Sister Michelle is torn when something of a relationship begins to form with Carpenter, and a film that tries to deeply root itself in social issues resorts to sentimental, late-'90s WB-style drama.

Dr. John Carpenter has some questionable ethics of his own.  Though not a conventional musical, the film doesn't want to waste the musical talent and throws Elvis a few numbers including "Rubberneckin'", in which we are introduced to Dr. Carpenter as a girl-watcher.  This theory is proven a few scenes later in which the doctor's charisma plays into a seventeen-year-old girl's ploy to get "examined".  It's all above-board, just not in his or the medical code of ethic's best interest.  Dr. Carpenter appears to cure a young girl of autism using "rage therapy" through the theory of the "Z-process".  Nevermind that by 1971 the process would be completely debunked by further biological and genetic evidence about the nature of autism.  Nevermind that the real-life Dr. Zaslow forfeited his psychological license after injuring a patient through identical tactics.  The methods of cure in the film are most detestable for painting the doctors as heroic while painting the patients as one-dimensional pawns.

The film reminds of John Cassavetes's A Child Is Waiting in that it errs making the plight of the doctor, not his patient, the central focus.  But where Cassavetes has the poise to let the patient be gripping in a triumphant third act, Change of Habit reminds us how easy it is to tread too near Stanley Kramer territory.  The patients are simply objects to overcome, and the solutions come too easily.

Further, the Sisters are secularized for the film's social agenda to the point of disingenuity.  We laugh at their naïvité as they are introduced not knowing how to cross a busy city street, smirk as they crack wise about their judgmental neighbors being "Catholic" but "not Christian," and are supposed to swallow Sister Barbara hiking up the skirt on a strapless number to guilt some ethnic winos into moving her furniture.  In a film that condemns racial discrimination, the Latino stereotype in this scene is unforgivable.  Later Sister Irene is bullied for not being black enough by some militant brothers for the cause.  In a film with a fair amount of white guilt, it really paints its minor ethnic characters in the worst racial stereotype.

The film takes place over two months, and the idea that Sister Michelle would consider giving up the life she has trained for to be with Dr. Elvis says a lot about the film's view of religion.  The sisters are nurses, and they are very successful and helpful in the social work they push, but other than seeing them pray before meals, their faith isn't seen as much more than social work.  The representation of the church is arcane and prejudiced, and it's as if the film is saying there is little of value in religion outside of its social aspect.  Which, I guess, explains how a nun could give it all up for a good-looking man who doesn't share her ideals as "love" (even misguided hippie love) is what a social religion strives toward.  But it rings untrue for the Sisters to "overcome" their Catholicism.

What success this film gleans is attributed mostly to Mary Tyler Moore, whose wholesome persona translates winningly to her character.  The script attempts to have her jab a little too bluntly at times, but they couldn't have cast a more likable actress.  Barbara McNair is strong (if limited) in her role as Sister Irene.  The counterculture nature of the picture works hard to point out that she is a strong, independent, intelligent black woman and, regardless of the film's intention, McNair's performance is reason alone to watch it.

In a film with so much to say, it isn't quite sure how to say it.  Change of Habit is a product of turbulent times with no easy answers.  Sometimes no perceivable answers.  The film leaves us hanging as more than one character faces huge decisions facing their future and the future of the church, and while I'm O.K. with that sort of non-resolution in uncertain times, it seems a little out of line to preach its social commentary so devoutly in other stretches.  But what it does say, it says with such conviction that it is hard to deny.  It's no revelation to help our fellow man, but the film really means it in a non-cynical way amid turbulence.  A bit syrupy, and a bit too even-keeled, Change of Habit merits a recommendation based on its performances and its attitude. -- **½ / four stars

Back to The Films of Elvis Presley

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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Trouble With Girls (1969, Peter Tewksbury)

If The Trouble With Girls starred Paul Dooley and was directed by Robert Altman it would have been unfairly praised for its affectionate quirk.  If it starred Burt Reynolds and was directed by Peter Bogdanovich, it would have been unfairly harpooned and left for dead as a too-self-conscious piece of pedanticalness.  Predisposed bias is an odd thing in film criticism and, instead, helmed by TV director Peter Tewksbury, The Trouble With Girls is a forgotten, if altogether pleasant, picture that doesn't fall too far from either of these two trees.  

That is to say, The Trouble With Girls is a director's picture rather than an acting vehicle.  The cast is a delight, but more ensemble than showcase.  Elvis's post-Charro! "starring" roles were in name only.  In both this and his final role (Change of Habit), his screen time is greatly diminished which, of course, is going to seem sizable after films like Paradise, Hawaiian Style where he was literally in every scene.  The film is a period piece of 1920s nostalgia, but succeeds in avoiding sentimentality.  And when the film is funny (which, all too often, means "cute"), it's not in a knowing, post-modern sendup, but in a genuine, observational sort of way.  The subtle comedy works in scenes where an English Channel swimmer demonstrates coating her body with axle grease and Cindy Brady lisps through "When You Wore A Tulip" while Marlyn Mason plays the piano with a collie in her lap. 
Tewksbury doesn't get it right every time-- a particularly annoying scene involves the film's two child stars (Anissa Jones and Pepe Brown) enjoying a front-porch country jamboree while crossing their eyes, blinking frenetically and tilting their heads.  The camera feels it needs to show us what this would look like, and doubles each shot with double exposures, upside-down cameras and pulsating apertures.  But I'll take the err of trying too hard than the alternative.  Though the source material was largely to blame for Tewksbury's interpretation of Stay Away, Joe, his phoned-in direction did nothing to rectify the situation. 

Elvis plays Walter Hale, a Chautauqua charlatan trying to keep all the balls in the air at once.  He is surrounded by ballerinas, chefs, lecturers, bands, singers and pageanteers and doesn't care to keep an eye on them as much as he wants to prevent them from joining a union.  Marlyn Mason's Charlene is a jill-of-all-trades: Walter's assistant, union representative and would-be love interest when she's not trying to direct the children's musical.

An oddball murder plot sneaks into the shenanigans involving a crooked druggist that draws an unfavorable public eye upon the Chautauqua.  The big reveal happens amid the pageant, much to the choreography of Walter who uses the murder for publicity, much to Charlene's disapproval.  Walter's smooth-talking ways expose a dark (if playful) undercurrent: he's not an altogether likable character, and seems to relish the role.

But that is all beside the point.  The film isn't so much about the individual goings-on as it is about the tone, and the title is a bigger misnomer than Girls! Girls! Girls!  The ado is sporting, non-ironic, and for the first time in a light-hearted Elvis movie, the filmmakers seem to actually care about what they are doing.  It's a film that relishes in being slight; an adoring throwback to a buoyant era.  Unlike the stiff Frankie and Johnny, The Trouble With Girls feels at home in its breezy Americana, and Elvis has a depth to his persona that comes without having the shoulder the entire picture.

Should The Trouble With Girls have been more?  Probably.  The thing was cast several times, sold to Columbia Pictures and then back to MGM, and rewritten ad nauseum since 1960.  It's a film that, it seems, no one had too much invested interest in, but the ensemble had a helluva time filming.  Though it seems dull-edged given the political climate of 1969, it is told straight-faced and apolitical, making it a welcome nostalgia.  Less-meta and, by extension, less-smarmy than a "Glory Days" American Graffiti or Diner, that alone is a recommendation. -- **½ / four stars

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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Charro! (1969, Charles Marquis Warren)

Perhaps a reason so many Presley films are unengaging was the fear of drawing him as a man with something to lose.  Since Blue Hawaii, the biggest problem with the formula was not that the stories were stupid, but that the claptrap had no consequence.  In his musical-comedies that didn't have an outright happy ending (in Easy Come, Easy Go, his sunken treasure being worth less than he imagined; in Speedway, he loses the big race and still owes back taxes, but, you know, hakuna matata; in Spinout he walks away from three love interests, but is more a man for it), anything lost was never beyond what was deserved.  The films drew Elvis as an unstoppable celebrity and if not everything fell into his lap, he still had it all.
What I can admire so much about Charro! is that, despite a regular face of doubt and second-guessing (if Presley was unsure about his acting chops in Flaming Star, it's not unreasonable that he'd wonder if he could pull it off again twenty-three films assembly line films later without a director on his résumé that gave a lick), he has something to lose both in and out of the picture.

Elvis plays ex-gunman, Jess Wade, attempting to go straight after a life of crime.  His decision isn't well-received by his former gang and Jess is branded with a scar to resemble a wanted felon.  This isn't the typical Elvis fisticuffs, the action and violence is real consequential, and Elvis doesn't come out on top.  Written (and directed.  And produced) by veteran Western penman Charles Marquis Warren ("Gunsmoke", "Rawhide"), Charro! has a feel of a somewhat lesser pedigree.  It doesn't quite have the grit of a low-budget spaghetti Western, but feels more refined than slapdash TV fare.

It borrows familiar Western tropes, and does so fairly rewardingly.  Jess has an uphill battle to prove that he's fled his criminal ways, partners with an emasculated sheriff and stands, High Noon, against his terroristic former gang.  Though never as refined an actor as he once hoped, Presley can say a lot with a look.  His performance is winning-- he never hits a boner, but, at worst, can look a bit uninspired and jaded.  Ironic, as Charro! is the closest he was ever given to the dramatic, syrup-less roles he once desired.  Perhaps a marathon life as financial pawn had taken its toll.

I have to be a little apologetic for the corny climax which has the gang laying waste to the town from a tucked-away hideout with Emperor Maximilian's stolen gold-plated cannon from the Mexican revolution.  It's ludicrous, but played straight, and I'm willing to forgive the slight of writing given the strength of the relationships.  True to the Western, the most loyal relationship is between men: Jess and Sheriff Ramsey.  The mutual respect between men is stronger than Ramsey's relationship with his own wife, and even Jess rides into the sunset leaving his love interest behind, if only for now. 

Hot off filming his "'68 Comeback Special", Elvis looks healthy and happy.  He plays Charro! like he has something to prove, and does it remarkably without the tendency to overact.  Further establishing itself from the formula, the film contains no musical numbers, only the theme over the opening credits, and a haunting and effective score by Hugo Montenegro.  Elvis even grows a beard for the role, and its probably the coolest he's ever looked.

Like the work of Joseph H. Lewis, Charro! is an economical, well-intended, true-to-genre picture that, while never canonized, takes itself seriously.  Though it never got the accolades Presley sought, Charro! stands as important evidence that, though he would never have a shot at being the top-tier actor he was paid to be, perhaps he should have been given the chance. -- ***/four stars

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Monday, May 2, 2011

Live A Little, Love A Little (1968, Norman Taurog)

Live A Little, Love A Little is a bizarre screwball comedy that suffers, burning the candle at both ends:  not only do the screenwriters not fully embrace the full wackiness needed to elevate Michele Carey's character to a Hepburn's Susan Vance of Bringing Up Baby (or even Streisand's Judy Maxwell in the later What's Up, Doc?), it also can't emasculate Elvis.  Although Elvis never had a problem condescending for a laugh, the film wouldn't take the risk of letting him clown too much.  The couple meet cute, but there isn't anything neurotic or lacking enough in Elvis's Greg Nolan to convince us that the two need to be together.  After all, this is an Elvis that just married off three potential suitors Spinout and walked off into the sunset.

But it very nearly gets it right.  What begins as a ridiculous male fantasy with a beautiful (perhaps mentally unstable) woman relentlessly throwing herself at our hero ends with a clear domestication of the male spirit.  It's playfully subversive romance that resolves like the gender roles in (another photography movie) Rear Window. "I'm a man, I like to make decisions for myself.  If you ever start thinking like a woman, you'll understand what that means," Elvis's Greg Nolan tells "Bernice" (the stunning Michele Carey) in an argument.  But it's clear who's on the leash when, upon reconciliation at the beach, Bernice tells Greg "I'll meet you half way," only they embrace without her taking a single step.

Bernice spots Greg on the beach one morning though her telescope and sends her Great Dane, Albert down to exert a little muscle.  It's one of the few altercations Elvis doesn't win:  Albert chases him into the ocean and Greg is played for a fool.  Bernice (or is it Alice? Or Betty? Suzie?) has different names for different moods and each man in her life knows her by a different one.  She's clearly meant to embody the late '60s free spirit who uses sex to hide the fear of connecting with someone in love.  Kinda like Julie Christie in Petulia (or David Warner in Morgan!): the anarchic world is treated by youth with lunacy.  Bernice is the sexual aggressor, and that, too, is something an Elvis character is unfamiliar with.  She dangles the carrot in front of many faces, but she is played more a headcase than a tramp.  And it is such behavior that provokes Greg's jealousy, flipping the script, painting the typical Elvis role as hypocritical.

Bernice quickly loses Greg's apartment and job, finds him a new apartment and pays his back rent, making him deeply indebted to her.  In an act of counter-aggression (preserving his male dominance), he gets not one, but two simultaneous jobs as photographer (one a very professional, conservative publisher, another for a more casual girlie magazine).  Shenanigans ensue as Greg juggles two jobs and Bernice juggles men, always subverting said dominance. 

It's a real shame that throughout the many Elvis musicals, there was never anything cinematic about the numbers.  The closest he ever came was probably "Jailhouse Rock", but even that looks like it was a filmed version of something produced for a stage.  Too often, the choreography would have action surrounding Elvis, but he would just be standing, awkwardly snapping (or worse, rhythmically clapping) and staring into the camera.  Live A Little, Love A Little isn't a conventional musical, but they procure a decent number in a dream sequence that involves a man talking to Greg from inside a dog suit, Greg falling into a psychedelic rabbit hole and then performing "Edge of Reality" on a desolate sound stage.  Really?  A very visual photographer has a psychedelic dream and the location is pastel disco-lit non-location white room?

The other numbers (of which there are very few) are less performance than narrative.  They include the once obscure "A Little Less Conversation", whose remixed version would become a number one hit in the UK 25 years after Presley's death. 

Live A Little, Love A Little is full of beautiful women and, while they try to throw in a side romance with Celeste Yarnall, the chemistry between Presley and Carey is spot on.  It may be the only true Presley romance, as the formula of his prior seventeen films had the romance as a side dish: a free dessert that cost nothing of the characters and was, therefore, of little value.  That isn't to blow this light screwball comedy out of proportion, but the film is stronger because there are stakes involved.

This would be Taurog's last film before he was overcome with blindness, but his eye for comedy and beautiful women is in full force here.  Dumb touches like Elvis speeding around the beach in a dune buggy and Albert the Great Dane making faces and covering his eyes are shot without a shred of irony and fit the tone of the picture.  Elvis even decks Darrin #2 from "Bewitched".  Consider it Presley's first film as an "adult"-- formula would take a backseat in the few remaining films of Presley's career, and each are better for it.  Live A Little, Love A Little is a fine swansong to the testament of Taurog's work. -- **½ / four stars

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Sunday, May 1, 2011

Speedway (1968, Norman Taurog)

In a recent episode of "Khloé and Lamar", it was revealed that Los Angeles Lakers forward Lamar Odom has been paying rent for 22 of his friends.  Victim of a big heart?  Sure.  Hanging out with the wrong crowd?  Absolutely.  But those answers are too easy.  There is a reason why over sixty percent of NBA players are broke five years after retirement: often the people with the most money have no concept of its value.  That and the entourage.

Elvis's own entourage, The Memphis Mafia, a group of twentysome good ol' boys, many of whom Elvis's childhood friends he "rescued" from poverty, followed Presley everywhere he went on his dime.  Historian Patrick Humphries summed up the Mafia as "Elvis' bodyguards, babysitters, drug procurers, girl-getters, mates and carbuyers."  I wonder how much of Presley's earnings were seen by him in his heyday:  not only was the Colonel reaping upward to 50%, many of the Memphis Mafia were getting upwards to $500 a week.  They partied with Elvis every day and every night, trafficking the drugs Presley requested and taking pills just to keep up with one another.  And they nearly despised Priscilla who made (most of) them move out of Graceland after the wedding in 1967.

Lechers, probably, but that isn't to say the Mafia was all bad:  in some ways the Memphis Mafia may have prevented the actual mafia from stepping in and trying to overtake Presley's career in a way that dogged Frank Sinatra's career.  Realistically, it probably wasn't too dissimilar from an actual job for many of them, waiting on the King's every whim, day or night.  To live near Elvis was to have a seat aboard the gravy train:  his concept of wealth was the ability to lavish gifts onto others.  He gave to charities and he gave frivolously.  It is only natural that people took advantage of this generosity, much like Jamie takes lecherous advantage of Lamar Odom.

Speedway is a strange narrative of a problem only relevant to such a minority of celebrity.  Elvis plays stock car racer Steve Grayson with all the same problems as Elvis:  he has more money than he knows what to do with, so he spends it on the most frivolous gimmicks imaginable with the intent to lure women.  His lecherous "manager" Kenny (Bill Bixby) is his childhood friend who Steve shares his women and bankbook with.  Kenny's love of luxury and gambling get Steve unknowingly in trouble with IRS, and agent Susan Jacks (Nancy Sinatra) swoops in to investigate.

In film is more overtly sexist than most Elvis pictures, and for much of the film Steve and Kenny live out a bros-before-hoes philosophy, pulling the obnoxious Gene Wilder trick of self-referentially stating your intentions clearly through the fourth wall though the women are too dense to pickup "I have a little trick of my own, [it'll only take a minute]" is a double entendre.  Steve is the kinda guy that can owe the IRS insurmountable sums, strong-arm (and sweet-talk?!) a female IRS agent, and still have everything work out for him.  But like any Elvis picture, it's more morally ambiguous than that.  Steve (like Elvis) is also extremely charitable, dishing out money to help an out of work racing buddy who somehow is the father to five motherless girls all between the age of three and six. 

What begins as buying a hot dog dinner turns into a real-life Elvis situation of buying automobiles to help the family.  Steve encounters Ellie (Victoria Paige Meyerink), a precocious young girl (the only way they show up in any Elvis movie), and even sings her a slightly creepy song about how it would probably be inappropriate for the two of them to get married, but reassures her that she will be a beautiful woman.  For the record, that didn't exactly pan out.

Nancy Sinatra appears courtesy of two number one singles ("These Boots Are Made For Walkin'" and "Somethin' Stupid") and a dropout by Petula Clark.  Her performance is passable, but the chemistry uninspired but, to be fair, you could probably say that about many of Presley's performances.  She does get to perform a snaky "Your Groovy Self", much in the same vein as "Boots".  Sinatra has a great mod look that isn't really used in the film, and her lip-syncing skills weren't exactly up to par.

A performance I was much more into was a straight-faced daffy, choreographed number by Presley and businessmen in an IRS office called "He's Your Uncle, Not Your Dad".  Taurog's earnest style treats the material like it's Vincente Minnelli.  You'd never use the word "sublime" to describe the musical numbers in an Elvis comedy, but it's not for any lack of effort on Taurog's behalf.  It's ridiculous, campy and a joy.

It's notable that Speedway doesn't really pan out for its hero in the end.  Unlike Viva Las Vegas, after having to also build an engine overnight, Steve fails to win the big race.  The movie ends with him still being on the hook for $137,000, still enabling (or is it, being enabled by) Kenny, and everyone is blissfully ignorant because Elvis and Nancy kiss.  It isn't troublesome that Steve wrecked his car twice in 24 hours, there is no fear of Steve falling into the same trouble as the disabled Abel Esterlake.  The moral is youth known no bounds, and the consequences are as light.  But say what you will, it can't be called hypocritical.  Elvis lived his life the same way and managed to get out of his soured movie career.  Speedway would be his last significant box-office success and his last traditional, teen-oriented musical-comedy.  He would finally be able to take on more "adult" roles, which is pretty funny considering the lifestyle perpetuated by Speedway, a Peter Pan syndrome enabled by uncountable sums of money, was how he would continue living until his death in 1977. -- *½ / four stars

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