Wednesday, April 29, 2015

I Can't Wash This Movie Off: "Can't Stop the Music" (1980)

I'm willing to bet that more people saw Bruce Jenner's coming-out interview with Diane Sawyer than saw his acting debut in this 1980 disaster which safely holds the title of "one of the worst movies ever made."

Jack (Steve Guttenberg, kicking off his 1980's career crapfest with a bang) is a struggling composer/dweeb who lives with recently retired supermodel Sam (Valerie Perrine, who tries way too hard considering the material she was given). Sam is dating uptight tax attorney Ron (Bruce Jenner), who is consistently shocked at his girlfriend's behavior. Sam is being pursued by her modelling agency head Sydne (Tammy Grimes) to return to the catwalk, and she also uses her relationship with former boyfriend Steve (Paul Sand, who comes out of this better than anyone), who owns a record company, to push Jack's disco "sound of the '80's" music on an unsuspecting public. Sam's BFF/Sydne's assistant, Lulu (Marilyn Sokol) is along for the ride, trying to do too many things at once behind the scenes- like choreography, and bedding anything male in the area.

I know what you're thinking: isn't this movie a psuedo-biography about the founding of the Village People, who had three huge hits in the late '70's disco era? Yup, but the band members take a supporting role in their own flick. Some of the guys are given character names, but some aren't, and their limited acting skills come through in a big way. Even the final credits only list them by their "roles" when singing as a group: Policeman (Ray Simpson), Construction Worker (David Hodo), Indian (Felipe Rose), Cowboy (Randy Jones), Leatherman (the late Glenn Hughes), and G.I. (Alex Briley). The six represented fantasy roles in some homosexual circles, and it's both fascinating and embarrassing to watch straight women in the film fall over themselves trying to bed the men.

This was actress Nancy Walker's only theatrical film, thank god. She had directed a few sitcom episodes, but I don't know what possessed anyone to give her a twenty million dollar disco musical. The opening scenes, with Guttenberg rocking out to his own music while rollerskating, is a mess. Guttenberg doesn't play a musician well, and can't dance to his own music, so every time he lets the rhythm get him, you'll want to die. Producer Allan Carr cowrote the script with Bronte Woodard (who penned the "Grease" screenplay, and died too early at 39). I use the term "script" lightly, since I cannot believe any of the lines spoken were ever written down, much less thought out. The screenplay is awful, and with Jenner's recent big news, hearing his character talk about his dual personality, and seeing him in a half-shirt and denim short-shorts, is hysterical.

Guttenberg is awful, Sand is okay, Perrine is bland, Sokol is sleazy and kind of pathetic, Grimes is sad to watch, but what about Jenner? He had been considered for the role of Superman a couple of years earlier, and I could see that. His only direction here seems to be "wince, huff a lot, and bug your eyes out." In the right director's hands, he might have been able to make a go of a cinematic career. Instead, he debuted in an infamous flop and never recovered until reality television came along.

Sure, "Xanadu" and "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" also came out around the same time, and all three films succeeded in killing the movie musical for a few years. I argue that "Xanadu" and "Sgt. Pepper's..." were slightly better (not by much) because their songs (thanks to Jeff Lynne, and the Beatles, respectively) were better. Here, the Village People perform one hit ("YMCA," in the most bizarre musical number ever) and a bunch of songs no one listened to (including "Liberation," as gay a gay anthem as has ever been sung).

Finally, a story from my life while I watched this. I was speechless and close to tears while viewing this on a streaming service, when suddenly the movie stopped and an error message appeared on the screen. I thought, "wow, this is so bad it broke the internet." I had to call and have my modem rebooted automatically, and couldn't continue watching until the next day. I sat down again, and figured I had to be half way through this monstrosity (which runs an astounding 123 minutes), only to discover I was twenty-two minutes in. I've never come so close to physically harming myself to get out of finishing a film in my life. You "Can't Stop The Music," but you can shut off the television. (*) out of five stars.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Let's 'Lose' This Found Footage! Amirite?: "100 Ghost Street: The Return of Richard Speck" (2012)

It seems that for every one tolerable "found footage" film there are at least ten terrible efforts. This monstrosity falls squarely in the latter category.

A group of six or so douches (not literal douches, but no one to root for, either) set out at an abandoned dormitory in Chicago to make a documentary about mass murderer Richard Speck, who killed eight nurses in one night in 1966. This isn't just any documentary, they want to capture the ghost of Speck on video (he died in prison almost twenty years ago), and luckily have the necessary ghost hunting equipment like EVP devices, sensitive microphones, infrared video recording technology, and, most importantly, a remote-control toy truck named Clyde with a teeny-tiny camera on it.

I'm not going to bother you with characters' names and such (one poor guy is killed within thirty seconds of the film's beginning) because the film is shot so badly I couldn't tell half the cast apart. The two dude cameramen look exactly alike, as do two blonde female crew members. One scene has a camera guy and one of the blondes exploring on their own, and I had no clue who I was looking at. The special effects include lots of blood smudges, and people getting dragged away by unseen forces (could we call a moratorium on THAT?). There is no credited cast or crew, since this was "found at the scene," and somehow expertly cobbled together by the Chicago Police Department's in-house found footage editing task force.

Richard Speck was a disgusting piece of humanity. Google his name, and thousands of articles pop up detailing his crimes, and his shocking existence in jail. An infamous video surfaced years ago showing him performing oral sex on another inmate, taking drugs, and sporting female-like breasts thanks to smuggled hormones; all while being incarcerated. It seems the screenwriter couldn't even get the basic story of the crime right, and huge errors abound throughout the film. Getting actors to improvise can sometimes work, but here everyone screams at each other trying to be heard, resulting in something much less than Altmanesque. This technique is simply lazy writing. Giving people a general direction ("you're scared") with little characterization, then yelling "action" is obviously not working in this genre, and I once sat through a film called "Amber Alert" that illustrates this point even better. There is a distasteful scene involving spectral rape that would serve as a low point in any film, much less a cheap found footage horror flick that somehow found its way onto a streaming service. The only plus is the abandoned hospital (in Los Angeles) that serves as the film's location.

"100 Ghost Street: The Return of Richard Speck" is pure garbage. The explanation of the title is too stupid to be believed, and so is the rest of the film. (*) out of five stars.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Miracles on Ice: "17 Miracles" (2011)

I am not familiar with the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and their hardship and miracle laden trek from the American Midwest to Utah in the 1850's, but I did find some merit with this scattershot film.

Levi Savage (a hunky Jasen Wade, looking like a lost Hemsworth brother) is one of 500 people who must walk to "Zion" (Salt Lake, Utah) using nothing but handcarts for their possessions. This group of Mormon pioneers features many families from Europe, and Savage himself is anxious to get back to see the son he had to leave behind years before to go on a church mission. Savage warns of the harsh trip, he witnessed the aftermath of the Donner party's failure, but he is rebuffed and quietly follows orders.

The title comes from different divine miracles the poor travelers were involved in. They run the gamut from found food to people rising from the dead. An opening credit full of honesty tells us that the screenwriter combined two different treks into one story, and I assume some of the characters are fictional and/or combinations as well.

This odd credit gives way to an oddly constructed film. There is too much repetition, as Savage is shouted down in the most polite manner, followed by a miracle. The families didn't differentiate from one another, and Savage's behavior around a woman he has a crush on is cringe worthy- and not in a romantic comedy kind of way. An emotional focus is only found in the final twenty minutes of the film, and this does include one of the most detailed "whatever happened to?" codas ever produced.

The real strength here is writer/director T.C. Christensen's camera. He directs the scenes well, covering for a limited budget (no way are there 500 extras milling around in the background) nicely. The makeup done on the slowly starving pioneer folk is top notch. Christensen's cinematography is breath taking. The film is crystal clear and beautifully lit, with appropriately harsh winter scenes that gave me literal chills. Pessimists might argue that one major missing miracle is the assurance that all the travelers would arrive alive, and this bothered me, too.

"17 Miracles" is mild and nice to look at, and Wade rises above the rest of the cast (aside from Travis Eberhard as an overly adorable little person). No harm comes from watching this film. (* * *) out of five stars.

The Interview: "10 Questions for the Dalai Lama" (2006)

Documentary filmmaker Rick Ray was given forty-five minutes, and a limit of ten questions, with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet.

Instead of going the safe route of simply filming the interview, Ray does a brief recap of the tumultuous life of the religious leader, helpfully comparing his stature among his people as equal to Jesus Christ residing in the White House. The Dalai Lama is currently in exile in northern India, and to prepare for the interview, Ray immerses himself in the Buddhist experience, travelling across the country and encountering the poorest citizens along the way. China has been brutal to the country of Tibet in the past few decades after invading and conquering it with little resistance, eventually turning it into a cheesy tourist attraction for its people, and one question that is bothering Ray is "when is non-violence no longer an option?"

By the time Ray sits down for the interview, he decides to cover many other wide-ranging topics: why do the poor seem happier than the rich, how important is the preservation of culture and religion, what can a Far East Buddhist leader do about the tumult in the Middle East, and the Dalai Lama's similarities to another pacifist- India's Gandhi.

The Dalai Lama is a very soft-spoken and intelligent man, answering the questions without condescending to Ray. I like that in the face of the evils of the Khmer Rouge, or Hitler, you can practice non-violence but still protect oneself from immediate physical threat. You don't have to be a pushover. Likewise when dealing with China. The Dalai Lama says to engage the Chinese, not isolate them. He saw first-hand what the overpopulated country is capable of when dealing with his former country. As in politics, some religious people suffer from selfishness, which can taint one's outlook on the world. He also mentions overpopulation, preferring quality of life to quantity. He would know, dealing with two of the most populous nations on the planet.

Technically, Ray gets great use out of archive footage, and sometimes shows the Dalai Lama in a less than favorable light. He doesn't trash the leader, but he does mention the initial capitulation to China, and even some trivial facts (like how the Dalai Lama doesn't like festivals that center around and praise him). Ray has made a few documentaries from different locales in the world, and this experience helps this film. It is more than a filmed audience, and thankfully more than a breathless sanitized travelogue. Not enumerating the questions and walking the viewer through them helps, letting the Dalai Lama get his points across uninterrupted. I also liked the honesty of the Lama's personal secretary.

"10 Questions for the Dalai Lama" is a fresh look at a subject who has been covered by too many basic cable television biography shows in the past. If it makes the viewer want to know more about the man and the religion, then I think it has done its job. (* * * *) out of five stars.