Sunday, July 16, 2006

Isn’t She Great

(2000, 95 min.)

Starring Bette Midler, Nathan Lane, David Hyde Pierce, Stockard Channing, Amanda Peet, John Cleese, John Larroquette.

Screenplay by Paul Rudnick, inspired by an article by Michael Korda.

Directed by Andrew Bergman.

Gender issues are of great interest to me, and I couldn’t help but think while watching this film of that old political favorite, the double standard, only instead of ‘what gets classified as strength in men, gets classified as bitchiness in women’, I was thinking in the other direction. It occurred to me that were a film made about a man with the qualities of the main character here – brash, foulmouthed, pushy – the title ‘Isn’t He Great’ would have been put forward with an eyebrow raised and the tongue pressed firmly into the cheek. In other words, the sort of arch sarcasm most certainly not on display in the title of this film.

Was the life of Jacqueline Susann, author of Valley of the Dolls and other heady tomes that helped birth the literary trash genre, the stuff that movies are made of? Well, there was tragedy: an autistic son; the battle with breast cancer that she ultimately lost. There was comedy: her public feuds with the likes of Truman Capote; the fact that she had a publishing contract in the first place, according to some. (Not having read her work, I am unqualified to judge whether or not she had a talent for anything beyond dishing dirt.) There is her extremely archetypical story of an individual struggling to break into showbiz and only doing so after finding their own particular niche. And then there’s Susann herself, a character if ever there was one: loud, flamboyant, brassy, ballsy. So, yes, Susann’s life was not just movie material, it had enough material for several movies, spanning several genres. And herein lies the main flaw of Isn’t She Great. Director Bergman clearly saw the assorted potential and tried to cram it all into one film. The result is a mish-mash of story elements none of which feel fulfilled and the overall whole of which will most likely not satisfy anyone but the most diehard Susann fans. And even they will be distracted by some pointed omissions.

What’s not omitted is a genuine affection and appreciation for Jacqueline Susann. Truth be told the film isn’t ultimately about Susann as much as it is about the love that her husband and publicist, Irving Mansfield (Lane), felt for her. Lane’s vigorous performance makes it that much easier to believe how much he loved her, which is no small feat given that hers’ was not a personality that everyone might find particularly lovable. (This point of view would also explain why the various affairs she carried on behind Mansfield’s back are nowhere to be seen here.)

Not helping matters is the fact that, as stated before, the film serves up bites of various different elements without ever truly offering a full plate of any one. One of the better extended segments happens a little after the halfway mark, when we’re served up the timeworn device of uptightness slamming up against free-spiritedness, or more specifically in this case, the WASP-y intelligentsia of Hyde Pierce’s editor character coming face to face for the first time with the noisy, bawdy, and predominantly Jewish world of entertainers. Despite the familiarity of the schtick, these scenes actually work quite well. Hyde Pierce, Midler, and Lane play their respective roles in this bit to the hilt. Honorable mention should also go to Channing as Midler’s racy actress friend, who tells a funny story of being fired from Ozzie and Harriet, followed by an equally wonderful moment featuring Hyde Pierce’s reaction to Midler barking out that the Nelsons are “all cocksuckers”. (It’s also worthwhile mentioning that the film alternates the prerequisite shock and befuddlement with moments showing Hyde Pierce’s character finding genuine amusement in their behavior, a smart move that both alleviates the cliché a bit and makes the whole scenario slightly more realistic.)

It’s tempting to ponder whether Bergman might have ever-so-slightly had in mind the film version of Valley (which Susann supposedly hated), with it’s own unique blend of comedy and tragedy, when he made this. Of course, the comedy in that film was largely unintentional, much of it springing directly from the “tragedy” unfolding on screen, so it’s not the same thing at all. Still- tempting to ponder. Especially in moments when it’s not entirely clear what the film wants us to feel. Jackie constantly equates watershed moments in her life with her never-ending desire for fame, which sometimes seems like humor and other times, well, not so much. Such uncertainty on the part of the film does not tend to lend the viewer a whole lot of confidence and simply adds to the overall fragmented nature of the piece.

Ultimately the comedy bits in Isn’t She Great work the best, as schticky as they can be. (While on a book tour, Mansfield greets the nuns in a convent with the line, “If you liked the Old Testament, you’ll love Valley of the Dolls.”) But regardless of the element at work in any given moment, you never get past the sense of incompleteness. The performers were game and the material was there in spades, but the result is as substantial, to use another old New York chestnut, as Chinese food is filling.

I can’t help but feel that this all might have worked out better as a miniseries, for Lifetime perhaps. But then they wouldn’t have been able to include the scene where Jackie looks at up at the sky and yells at God to go fuck himself.

Author’s note: This review was the product of another round of the sado-masochistic games we tend to play over at the B-Movie Message Board, all the various incarnations of which involve one person assigning a bad movie to another. Sometimes it’s done in swaps, as was the case when Bergerjacques tried to fell me with Gothic, and sometimes it’s done in a kind of chain letter of cinematic pain, which is how the evil Grendel72 came to assign this film to me. Both men thought they could break me, apparently unaware that my ability to withstand mutilation makes Jim Rose look like Prince Alex. Nice try though. Bitches.

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Rancho Notorious

(1952, 89 min.)

Starring Arthur Kennedy, Marlene Dietrich, Mel Ferrer, Jack Elam, George Reeves, Frank Ferguson, Francis McDonald, Gloria Henry, William Frawley, Lisa Ferraday, Dan Seymour, John Kellogg, Rodd Redwing, Roger Anderson, Russell Johnson.

Screenplay by Daniel Taradash from the story ‘Gunsight Whitman’ by Silvia Richards.

Directed by Fritz Lang.

Kennedy plays Wyoming cattlehand Vern Haskell whose fiancée (Henry) is raped and murdered by a thug (McDonald) passing through town. Fueled by rage and grief, he follows the man’s trail to a remote horse ranch called Chuck-a-Luck (named after a roulette-style game). The place is run by legendary ex-saloon girl Altar Keane (Dietrich), and doubles as a hideaway for bad guys on the lam, including her squeeze, Frenchy Fairmont (Ferrer), legendary himself for his shooting abilities. Already tense circumstances get ratcheted up when Vern finds himself engaged in an outlaw lifestyle anathema to him and at odds with Frenchy over his attention to Altar, all the while obsessed with figuring out which one of his bunkmates is responsible for his love’s death.

Once again, director Lang displays his penchant for stories about men whose reason is overpowered by their emotions. The only tie we’re shown that Vern has to his community is his fiancée, and indeed, once she’s gone, he’s pretty much in the wind, following whatever leads he can snatch out of the air as he divines the mystery of Chuck-a-Luck, told through a small series of entertaining flashbacks. It’s not that Vern doesn’t have his wits about him – he knows when to lie and what lies to tell – but the thread holding him together is a tenuous one. There’s a great moment where Vern – convinced by nothing more than circumstantial evidence that fellow ranch hand Wilson (Reeves) is his man and riled by Altar’s song about the unwanted attention of impetuous boys – charges through the reveling crowd with violence on his mind, only to be stopped when the lookout pokes his head in with a warning of approaching lawmen before anyone can see the burn in Vern’s eyes.

But the central conflict here is different than in Lang’s other films. Spurred, perhaps, by the indisputable righteousness of Vern’s cause (I’m no fan of vigilantism, but there’s no denying that the man he’s after is a bad, bad guy), Lang doesn’t feel the need to portray him as a man losing himself as so many of his other protagonists have been. Vern is all too in touch with himself – he even insists on being called by his real name at the very pseudonym-friendly ranch – and the disgust he feels for those he’s forced to take up with in his quest is largely kept in check until a scene that startles both for its suddenness and for its interesting subversion of the dynamic that usually rules characters who find themselves in the presence of Marlene Dietrich.

The story is multi-faceted and entertaining (although the narrative clunks a bit at the very end), but this is no standard western. Akin to Nicholas Ray’s similarly baroque Johnny Guitar, Rancho has a more emotionally charged story to tell and yet comes off as subtler in comparison. No exploding mountainsides here. Or exploding women for that matter. Dietrich’s sloe-eyed Weimar persona (which was a far more important factor in all but her late-career roles than her acting abilities) is firmly intact and there’s little to rival the snarling hellcat antics of Crawford and McCambridge in Ray’s film. The nods to such adult subjects as rape (the doctor tells Vern that his fiancée was “spared nothing”) and kinkiness (the human horse race) also set this apart from your standard handguns and horseshoes fare of the period, the latter possibly pushing it into the realm of deliberate camp, although that’s a point made far more, well, pointed by the presence of…the song.

Ballads are a western tradition, as well as a tradition in westerns. A whole subset of the genre was devoted to singing cowboys, after all. And in some cases a good ballad can serve to make a great film even more poignant, as in ‘Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin’’ from High Noon or, in an unjustly less famous example, the George Duning-penned title song for Delmer Daves’ 3:10 to Yuma, as sung by Frankie Laine. There’s really nothing inherently wrong with Ken Darby’s ‘The Ballad of Chuck-a-Luck,’ sung by William Lee, but it isn’t hard to understand why some might find it a bit amusing, breaking in as it does in the fairly serious narrative so that Lee’s deep earnest voice can repeat ‘chuck-a-luck, chuck-a-luck,’ building up to dramatic call of ‘Hate! Murder! And Revenge!” If this were a Coen Brothers film, we’d know they were using it tongue in cheek, but with Lang it’s not so clear. Despite the dramatic nature of the film, it’s obvious that in certain aspects he’s having fun with the material, so who knows? Trying to divine his motives at this late a date may be irrelevant anyway. Giggling at ‘The Ballad of Chuck-a-Luck’ may simply be part and parcel of the same post-modern impulse that compels me to mention that this is likely the only film in history to feature appearances by Superman, The Professor and Fred Mertz.

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Saturday, July 01, 2006

Mr. Bungle, California

Bungle has never been the most out there, musically speaking, of vocalist Mike Patton’s myriad projects. That honor would likely go either to his solo efforts or a one-shot project he did with Japanese “noise manipulator” Masami Akita called Maldoror, which even some dedicated Pattonites have been known to warn novices off of. (This is also as good a place as any to mention that if I speak primarily about Patton in the course of this to the exclusion of his bandmates, it’s not for lack of appreciation of their formidable talents, but simply the result of a greater familiarity with his career.)

Bungle’s self-titled debut LP sounded like something cooked up by a group of grad students living in a frat house located on carnival grounds. The barrage of obscenities, laundry list of perversion, and gamut of grotesque sounds, most of which emerged from Patton’s throat, served to please the lowbrows and distract casual listeners from the fact that it was a meticulously crafted piece of work (produced by meticulous craftsman John Zorn). The combination of funk, ska, and punishing metal guitar courtesy of Trey Spruance, was not a new venture. The attempt to morph it all into circus music was. The clownhouse kegger atmosphere was also something of a ruse. These clowns had no problem with you laughing at them because they knew that the last laugh was on you.

The follow-up, Disco Volante, found them both shedding their more adolescent instincts and favoring their artsy side. (And ironically, while Zorn did not come along for the second ride, it actually sounded even more like something he would have done than the first album had.) Patton kind of took a step back from the front of the stage for DV. By his own admission he didn’t do much songwriting for the album and many of the tracks, a good number of which didn’t even have lyrics in the traditional sense, required him to retool the role of the vocalist, becoming less the figurehead singing on top of the other instruments and more one of those instruments himself, a practice he has repeated on other projects. I’ve often wondered if this wasn’t in part a reaction against the repeated references to Bungle as Patton’s “side project” from Faith No More, ignoring the fact that he had been in the other band first and had only joined FNM with the stipulation that he would continue his work with Bungle. Whatever the reason he did it, it resulted in a fascinating piece of work, a series of soundscapes where avant jazz leads to speed metal leads to surf music leads to techno leads to a Morricone soundtrack leads to, etc., occasionally in the service of some rather lofty concepts. It’s fun to imagine what the party animals who rallied around the first album’s gutter-minded humor must have thought when they gave this one a spin. “What the fuck?” seems a safe guess.

And then came California.

Their taste for genre gumbo is in evidence from the opening cowboy clop accompanied by Hawaiian slide guitar, as is the fact that they can still turn on a dime when they fall effortlessly into a samba lounge shuffle in the middle of the second verse. This song is ‘Sweet Charity,’ written by Patton and featuring the first of a number of standout vocal performances. This is a very good thing. As much as I appreciated their approach in making Disco Volante, in general I like my albums Patton-intensive. And I’m happy to say he’s back in full force on this one, contributing a lot to the writing and singing his twisted guts out, though while he’s still all over the place in terms of register, timbre, crazy-ass noises, etc., what little of his trademark roars and demon-spawn shrieks are in evidence are buried in the mix.

The irony of the beautiful, Trevor Dunn-penned ‘Retrovertigo’ is that it may be one of the few songs on the album that doesn’t have an overabiding retro element to it, from the doo-woppity of ‘Vanity Fair’ to the Swingle Singers Space Trip of ‘The Holy Filament’ to the assorted moments when they seem to be channeling that most Californian of musical institutions, the Beach Boys. (Or would that be Charles Manson?) And in fact, ‘Retrovertigo’s electric piano could itself be considered part and parcel of the largely late-‘60s, early-‘70s vibe that runs through much of the album, all the way down to the garishly vibrant floral photos in the insert. But it’s always been their willingness to go to the most unexpected of places that’s set them above so many others. If I hadn’t already known that these were my kind of musicians, it would have become apparent the moment I heard them wed a heavy metal stomp to a Balinese kecak chant.

But the most astonishing thing about California is that while we’re still unquestionably at the carnival, they’ve added a whole bunch of new attractions that are bound to shock. To whit…

THRILL! at the…mature, conventionally structured rock’n’roll songs? Done without sacrificing their inventiveness and all the more revelatory in light of what had come before. The more conventional songs are so good, in fact, that I found myself at first becoming irritated with the standard gonzo compositions, like ‘None of Them Knew They Were Robots’ or ‘Ars Moriendi.’ I got over it, of course – they’re great songs. It’s just sort of like having a personal chef who has for years dazzled you with his Chicken Kiev and his Beef Wellington only to serve up one day the best plate of scrambled eggs you’ve ever had. You’d have to wonder why he’d never made them for you before.

MARVEL! at the…restraint? They seem to have realized somewhere along the way that just because you can incorporate six different styles into one song doesn’t mean that you have to. Witness Spruance’s ‘Golem II: The Bionic Vapour Boy’ in which he takes a calliope melody and transforms it into a P-Funk-style groove, thereby paying simple, extremely weird tribute to two of the band’s favorite genres.

BE ASTOUNDED! by the…SINCERITY?!?! Shit, that one really is astounding. Bungle has always been first and foremost about the freak show. Their lyrics can be surprisingly cerebral (surprising if you’re only familiar with the likes of ‘Squeeze Me Macaroni’ or ‘The Girls of Porn’ that is), but the acid circus delivery, along with Patton’s frequently tongue-in-cheek tone, is less conducive to metaphysical musings than groovy freakouts.

But then there’s the aforementioned ‘Retrovertigo,’ which, if I’m reading it right, is a sober reflection on the overwhelming power of ingrained apathy. And, even more confounding, ‘Pink Cigarette,’ a tribute-cum…I would instinctively say ‘parody,’ of a 1950s death ballad, but surprisingly it’s a gray area. They do such a good job of capturing the mood, and the subject matter – that of a stylish couple with an ugly secret, the male half of whom has chosen to kill himself rather than further put up with his girlfriend's abuse (possibly physical, possibly emotional) – is certainly strong enough, that the song achieves a dimension of actual poignancy. But fear not; they haven’t gone completely over to the other side. I’m pretty sure I can still hear that tongue in that cheek, and I don’t believe for a moment that we’re not supposed to get at least a morbid little chuckle out of the finale, increasingly melodramatic backing vocals swelling, as the protagonist, speaking from beyond the grave, counts down the hours until his lover finds his swinging corpse, her screams, provided by Patton himself, ringing out in the distance. It’s chilling and funny, and subsequently one of my favorite rides in one hell of a park.

That this album is such a roaring success makes it all the more unfortunate that Mr. Bungle is apparently kaput. There’s never been any official announcement, but things assorted members have said make it fairly clear that they’re not interested in working together any more as a unit. Things change, of course, and we can always hold out hope, but it’s possible that Bungle may be one of those cases, like the poetry of Baudelaire and the paintings of Vermeer, where we have to settle for an output the unfortunate paucity of which is gloriously eclipsed by its splendor.

Put that in your seltzer bottle enema and squirt it.

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National Lampoon’s Dorm Daze

(2003, 96 min.)

Starring Tatyana Ali, Boti Bliss, Gable Carr, Patrick Cavanaugh, James DeBello, Marieh Delfino, Tony Denman, Danielle Fishel, Courtney Gains, Gregory Hinton, Edwin Hodge, Paul H. Kim, Jennifer Lyons, Marie Noelle Marquis, Chris Owen, Patrick Renna, Cameron Richardson, Randy Spelling.

Written by Patrick Casey and Worm Miller.

Directed by David and Scott Hillenbrand.

During a visit inside the titular housing unit on one day during finals week before winter break at Billingsley University, we are introduced to the following characters and situations: Adrienne (Richardson) is avoiding the improbably-named Newmar (Denman) because, though she’s not interested in him, she made out with him the previous evening while drunk and despondent over her unrequited crush on the even more improbably-named Foosball (Spelling), who, unbeknownst to Adrienne, does not return her affections because he’s gay. Adrienne is also avoiding Claire (Ali) because she borrowed a handbag, which she has since misplaced. Marla (Fishel) and Lynne (Lyons), the two resident bubbleheads, have become convinced that Claire’s boyfriend, Tony (Hodge), is physically abusing her (he isn’t), while Claire starts to suspect that he’s cheating on her with Adrienne (he isn’t) after overhearing them doing a scene for drama class. Loud-mouthed jerk Styles (Renna) is determined that his brother Booker (Owen) is going to lose his virginity, and to that end has hired a hooker for him, even though Booker is pining away for Rachel (Carr), the girl down the hall. Wang (Kim) is awaiting the arrival of a French exchange student, but has to go to work, so he asks Foosball to wait for her instead. Pete (Cavanaugh) is visited by his delinquent friend, Cliff (DeBello), with whom he’s supposed to drive back home after exams. Cliff is depressed from having just lost a crapload of money in Vegas, so they decide to tell everyone that he only speaks French so no one will bother him while Pete is at his job. The foreign exchange student, Dominique (Marquis), who naturally speaks no English, shows up and is immediately mistaken for the hooker. Conversely, the hooker (Bliss), who’s also conveniently named Dominique, shows up with her protection, Ted (Hinton), and is immediately mistaken for the foreign exchange student. Meanwhile, Gerri (Delfino) has come across a mysterious bag full of money in a package mailed to her, which she could definitely use as her scholarship is about to be revoked. When the sender of that bag, Lorenzo the Black Hand (Gains), whatever that means, contacts her and they arrange to meet, it turns out he believes she is actually Britney, a famous criminal/master of disguise whom he wishes to hire for some big job.

As should be all too evident, this has got to be one of the most densely plotted dumb comedies in existence, and the above only represents the set-ups, all of which become variously intertwined as things proceed, with messages, phones and notes being inadvertently exchanged. Some of the plot devices are contrived as hell (no, I mean really contrived; it’s saying something when some of your more credible moments involve the old Three’s Company ‘misunderstand a conversation in the next room’ bit), but then this probably isn’t the right kind of movie from which to demand realism, and it actually works far better (and funnier) than ever could have been expected, despite bouncing back and forth between moments of godawfulness and touches of actual inspiration. The dialogue is howlingly bad in spots, but, again, not as much as you might think. The cast is game, and the whole thing has a generally genial nature, a certain level of anticipated crudity aside.

In truth, this is a far more successful modern update of the ‘80s teen T&A comedies than other such attempts as Kevin Smith’s Mallrats and National Lampoon’s own Senior Trip. Actually they all could have used more gratuitous nudity (I was really hoping to be able to put this in Tee-Hee, I’m Naked!), but then I say that about everything, including my own life. I live in hope and am prepared to die in despair that one of these revivals will truly catch the spirit of those bygone paeans to dumb horniness, but until the filmmakers learn to use bodily function humor far more sparingly and bare breasts far less so, I’ll have to settle for the classics and moderate rehashes such as this one.

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