ACROSS THE UNIVERSE (2007) – Julie Taymor, what have you done?

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Call me overly reverent if you must. But the music of The Beatles means a great deal to several generations of listeners, and I am sad and angry to see it so thoroughly mangled in Across the Universe.

The movie’s bald literalness and its wounded-heart-on-its-sleeve demeanor are enough to make a Beatles fan retch. All of the characters are named after Beatles songs as a shorthand to bring in the music. For example, one girl is named Prudence, just so that her friends can coax her out of her room by singing, “Dear Prudence, won’t you come out to play?”

The movie’s imagery makes countless allusions to Beatles films, videos, and icons (the Apple logo, John and Yoko in the buff, etc.). There’s even an eye-rolling moment where a character asks how a stranger got in the room, and the reply comes: “She came in through the bathroom window.”

I guess this is all meant to pat the loyal Beatles fan on the back for catching the references. But it only made me think of The Bee Gees’ 1978 movie massacre of the famed Beatles album Sgt. Pepper. It’s a movie that director Julie Taymor would have done well to study, because Universe falls into the earlier movie’s booby-traps (and with many of the same songs, yet).

I’ve not yet mentioned the movie’s characters, who barely exist anyway. There’s Jude (Jim Sturgess), a Liverpool dock worker who travels to New York and gets caught up in the ’60s revolution. The girl he falls for, though she doesn’t live in the sky with diamonds, is named Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood, the snotty teenager from Thirteen). There’s Lucy’s wisecracking brother Max (Joe Anderson), whose smugness drains away once he gets his draft notice for the Vietnam War.

There are many more characters, but none of them makes any impact beyond the three minutes it takes them to sing a Beatles tune. Take Prudence as an example. We first see her as a loner cheerleader, longing for a football star from afar and singing “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” The next we see of her, she’s hitchhiking to New York. Why? Just because she couldn’t get the football player? And Prudence’s adventures in New York and beyond are just as enigmatic. Every character in the movie plays this way.

It doesn’t help that the actors warbling classic tunes could barely pass an “American Idol” audition. Only three big-name celebs appear in the movie, with varied degrees of success. Actor Eddie Izzard talk-sings “Mr. Kite” like a stoner Rex Harrison. And Bono goes way over the top as a carbon copy of famed druggie Ken Kesey. Only blues singer Joe Cocker acquits himself admirably, with a funky version of “Come Together.”

The acid test for musicals is: If you took away the music, would you still care about the characters? If you took the music out of Across the Universe, the characters would evaporate.

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The Spice Girls in SPICE WORLD (1997) – Not what you really want

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Spice World marked the film debut of a heavily hyped singing group called The Spice Girls, but it was obviously intended to evoke a more legendary British rock band. The movie’s ad is plastered over with the British flag and the tag line “You say you want a revolution?” And like another first film, Spice World is a semi-documentary about the trials and tribulations leading up to a rock group’s concert.

Ripping off old Beatles concepts is about as radical as this movie gets. But the only way in which Spice World resembles that other, far superior rock film is that watching this movie does indeed make for a hard day’s night.

The film plays as though it’s written by someone who never understood Monty Python sketches and then tried to write one. And it’s no help that the five Spice Girls can hardly manage a personality among them. To lend credibility to the movie, there are cameos by Elton John, Meat Loaf, and Elvis Costello. Ironically, these genuine rockers display more movie charm in a few seconds of screen time than the Spices do in 100 minutes.

The movie centers on the efforts of the group’s manager (Richard E. Grant, who was in Steve Martin’s L.A. Story in better days) to keep the girls together for their big concert. But whereas the Beatles film credibly depicted a rock group’s fishbowl existence, The Spice Girls’ most pressing problem is which boots to wear on a social outing. Since even The Spices’ own movie can’t muster up any interest in their well-being, the running time is padded with fantasy sequences that wouldn’t pass muster on an old “Monkees” episode, and some embarrassing subplots involving Roger Moore and “Cheers'” George Wendt.

I’m no music critic, but I have to ask: Why do the female rockers most intent on displaying their feminist credentials always present themselves as sex objects? Yes, women can be powerful and sexy at the same time, but usually not by pandering to the lowest-common-denominator males. There is an interesting movie to be made about singers with names like Baby Spice who wear weirdly suggestive clothing and hairstyles. However, that movie would be at the other end of the spectrum from Spice World.

The funniest moment of this indifferent movie is the credit which informs us that the movie’s story is “based on an idea by The Spice Girls.” The movie handily proves that these women never had an original idea in their lives.

 

THE GANG’S ALL HERE (1943) – Yes, we have some bananas

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The following is my entry in this blog’s 3rd Annual SEX! (now that I have your attention) Blogathon, being hosted here from June 16-18, 2017. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ takes on movies that subtly suggest sex rather than blatantly depict it!

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I’ll get to the plot of The Gang’s All Here in a minute, because the plot isn’t the most memorable part of this movie. The most memorable part is the bananas.

Is that a banana dance line, or are you just happy to see me?

Is that a banana dance line, or are you just happy to see me?

About 20 minutes into the movie, a towering hat of Technicolor fruit appears on the screen, followed by its owner — ’40s “Brazilian bombshell” Carmen Miranda. She proceeds to do a number called “The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat,” accompanied by chorus girls who bear bananas. Six-foot-tall bananas that continuously droop and sprout until number’s end, when the chorus girls, worn out by the burden of this mutated fruit, lay down for a long siesta on a stage dressed up like an island.

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There’s a reason this number occurs so early on: It takes you the rest of the movie to convince yourself you actually saw this in a 1943 movie.

But then, this is from Busby Berkeley, a director who staged his musical numbers as though he was declaring war. And next to kitsch, war is pretty much the motivator here.

The wafer-thin story involves Andy (James Ellison), a soldier who woos and wins Edie (Alice Faye), a canteen dancer, the night before Andy goes off to World War Two. In what seems an instant, Andy gets decorated and returned home to a victory party thrown by the family of Andy’s childhood sweetheart and fiancee — who, unfortunately for Edie, is not Edie.

Will the heartbreak be resolved? Do you really care? The plot is mostly an excuse for some snappy repartee between major ’40s stars (in particular, Eugene Pallette and Edward Everett Horton are hilarious), and the kind of musical numbers that seem to drop out of thin air. (In a couple of scenes, Benny Goodman and his orchestra stroll by and do some songs just for the heck of it.)

The Gang’s All Here is really a 1943 time capsule, but an eye-popping rouser of one. They don’t make ’em like this anymore. They didn’t make ’em much like this back then, either.

 

 

ALL THAT JAZZ (1979) – Singin’ in the pain

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The following is my entry in The Criterion Blogathon, being hosted Nov. 16-21, 2015 by the blogs Criterion Blues, Speakeasy, and Silver Screenings. Click on the above banner, and partake of nearly 200 bloggers’ reviews of movies from The Criterion Collection!

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It’s rare that a man gets to write his own obituary. It’s even rarer when he turns it into a movie musical. But stage-and-screen choreographer-director Bob Fosse did just that in All That Jazz, definitely not your grandfather’s musical.

Film buffs will argue that this is merely Fosse’s musical version of Federico Fellini’s famously autobiographical 8-1/2. Grousers will complain that it’s Fosse’s self-serving take on a very self-indulgent life. For me, at least, it’s never less than fascinating. It might not be a musical where you come out humming the tunes, but it has imagination oozing from every frame.

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Jaws’ Roy Scheider plays Fosse’s alter ego Joe Gideon, a goateed satyr who tries to keep too many plates in the air at once, artistically and in his personal life. The story shows Gideon trying to nurse along a potentially disastrous Broadway musical, finish the final cut on a bio-flick that looks suspiciously like Lenny (Fosse’s story of Lenny Bruce), and juggle several relationships with women of his past and present.

Fosse definitely stacked the deck by casting many of his former lady-loves, including Ann Reinking as Gideon’s current lover, and Jessica Lange as his blunt-talking Angel of Death. Nevertheless, Fosse is hardly easy on himself. Gideon is a boozer, pill popper, and genial ignorer of any advice that might help him lead a longer and happier life.

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This soon culminates in a hospital hallucination that is a supreme tour de force, not to mention the first musical to ever include a scene of open-heart surgery. (It’s graphic, but in context, it’s all too appropriate.)

In one of the weirder career highs of movies, this has to be Scheider’s peak. Gideon is all too self-destructive, but Scheider shows us the charisma that has everyone in Gideon’s life going along for the ride. The rest of the cast is great as well (including Wallace Shawn and John Lithgow in early roles).

Most musicals are all-out to please a huge audience. One gets the feeling that with All That Jazz, Fosse was the audience. But that doesn’t mean you can’t savor his high as well.

GREASE (1978) – Gets better with age

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Time has been kind to Grease. The darned thing about made me sick in 1978. Every time I turned on the radio, I heard Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta warbling some song from the monster-hit soundtrack. And when I finally saw the movie, I was suitably unimpressed.

A generation later, my then-7-year-old daughter fell for the 20th-anniversary edition, so I’ve had ample opportunity to take another look at it. And as musicals go, it’s not bad. Granted, I’m not always crazy about my young girl falling for a movie where a worldly girl complains about “missing her period,” but it reminds me of the Peanuts cartoon where Linus explains how he handles the novel The Brothers Karamazov: “Whenever I come to a part I don’t understand, I just ‘bleep’ right over it!”

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The musical is a campy take on 1950’s high-school life. No school cliche is left unturned: the dumb, muscular jocks with greasy hair and cigarette boxes rolled up in their sleeves (particularly Danny, as played by Travolta); the clean-cut girls who go for them (Newton-John as Sandy, the foreign-exchange student); the football coach with his “Win one for the Gipper”-type speeches (Sid Caesar, rather wasted in many senses of the word); the uptight principal (Eve Arden); and the “American Bandstand”-like TV dance show, complete with nostalgia group Sha Na Na doing a big number.

Even on its own simplistic terms, the movie is a lot to swallow. For one thing, this is the oldest-looking bunch of high-school-age kids seen on film since The Bowery Boys. Secondly, what is it with Stockard Channing’s character Rizzo? Even when she thinks she’s pregnant and her boyfriend (Jeff Conaway) wants to do right by her, she blows him off with a first-class insult. We’re meant to see that Rizzo hurts people to keep from getting hurt herself, but after too many scenes of this sob-sister routine, you start thinking that she gets what she deserves.

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But still, there’s much to enjoy. The TV show is only an excuse for an extended dance scene that’s quite lively and, in the wake of “musicals” that followed this one (Flashdance, Footloose), it’s a treat to see dancers actually dancing to express some joy, rather than waiting for the movie’s editor to hop up their routines. Travolta’s “Sandy” number, performed in front of a drive-in movie screen, has enough panache to elicit the pathos it obviously strives for. And Newton-John, whose part was obviously rewritten to accommodate her (then-) star status, does well enough with the songs that she’s actually passable. (Her nadir wouldn’t come until the disastrous musical Xanadu [1980], which was enough to retire Gene Kelly from movies for good.)

It’s funny that what looked campy in 1978 makes one nostalgic for the movie musical only 20 years later. The warbling non-singers in, say, Woody Allen’s musical Everyone Says I Love You make the Grease cast look like Astaire and Rogers by comparison.

Lucille Ball in MAME (1974) – A TV legend cut down to size

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

The famous line from Mame goes, “Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving.” Yep, and if they indulge in the excess of this movie, they’ll probably go on a diet.

Mame is one of those ultra-strange musicals like Gypsy. It does everything it can to present its supposed heroine as a passive-aggressive mental case and then tries to tell us how endearing she is. One wonders what drove poor Lucille Ball, who by then had over two decades as a sitcom legend behind her, to indulge in a previously undisclosed desire to become a drag queen.

images (3)To quote an eye-popping plot summary of the movie at The Internet Movie Database, “The musical revolves around the antics of Mame Dennis (Lucille Ball), a fun-loving, wealthy eccentric with a flare for life and a razor-sharp wit.” Actually, at least as presented here, Mame is one of those heavy drinkers who thinks she gets funnier as she gets drunker. It doesn’t help that Ball was continually shot in ultra-soft focus to hide all of her 62 years.

images (4)The big kicker in the story is that Mame inherits her late brother’s only child Patrick. The real-life Patrick wrote the book about his lively aunt that was turned into a Broadway show and non-musical movie (starring Rosalind Russell, and nearly as endless as this mess). But you’d never guess that Patrick was ever a real person based on the performance of his younger years by Kirby Furlong. Pauline Kael wrote an especially (and deservedly) vitriolic slam on Furlong’s acting, stating that he came across as so non-human that it wouldn’t be against the law to destroy him. A more generous viewpoint is that the script never shows Patrick in plausible terms. Far from suggesting a real boy who might be in shock or grief from losing his parents, here Patrick seems like a kid ready to party.

images (5)Another major debit in the story is the character of Mame’s assistant Agnes Gooch (Jane Connell, who played the role on stage as well). Ball made much of the fact that Madeline Kahn was to have played Gooch in the movie but weaseled her way out of it so that she could perform her Oscar-nominated role in Blazing Saddles. More likely, Kahn saw the writing on the wall and decided to bail before this movie killed her career.

In any case, the character of Gooch is painful to endure. She starts out as a mousy woman who is supposedly loosened up under Mame’s wing. Trouble is, she loosens up so much that she ends up becoming an unwed mother (not a role indulged well by American society in the 1920’s and ’30s, where the first part of the story is set). It’s supposed to be an absolute hoot when drippy Gooch returns to Mame and does a musical number that basically says, “It was your lifestyle that got me into this mess, now what do I do?” Yet even the musical’s writers knew they opened up a moral quagmire they didn’t know how to deal with; hence, we never see Gooch again after that number.

images (6)There are almost as many jaw-dropping moments in this movie as there are songs. There’s the supposed banter between Mame and her “good friend” Vera Charles (Bea Arthur), coming off more like two women vying for drag-queen history. Then poor Robert Preston gets dragged in as a Southern beau who gets knocked off his feet by Mame’s zest for life. Knocked off his feet, eh? Cowed is more like it.

It’s really head-shaking to think that Lucille Ball got her start performing as an ingenue in movie musicals, only to torpedo her movie career with one. Mame isn’t even enough of a hoot to be so-bad-it’s-good — it’s more to be pitied than sneered at. You’d be better off enjoying a DVD of a season of “I Love Lucy,” where Lucille Ball’s talents are vividly on display.

The Beatles in MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR (1967) – Kind of a bad trip

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Supposedly, a major source of inspiration for Magical Mystery Tour was some home movies that Paul McCartney had been making at the time — and a home movie is certainly what the film resembles.

Had this movie been secreted away in a box for decades and found only yesterday, it would probably have been regarded as an unsung (ahem) Beatles gem. Unfortunately, it aired on BBC1 on Boxing Day 1967 and had been touted as a major event, which it definitely was not.

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Paul’s original “storyboard” for the movie.

The movie follows a British tour bus whose stops are filled with supposedly zany events dictated by five skybound magicians (the Beatles and their roadie Mal Evans). But none of it amounts to very much. Actions that could have been cute if they’d been only throwaway gags or short skits are stretched far beyond their worth. In one scene written by John, he plays a restaurant waiter who plies Ringo’s plus-sized and voraciously hungry aunt with, literally, shovelfuls of spaghetti. It gets pretty gross to watch.

On the plus side, there are mildly funny appearances by Beatles film veteran Victor Spinetti, and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band (including Neil Innes, later to make his mark with Monty Python and the Beatles parody The Rutles). And the Beatles’ songs, of course, are wonderful. Probably the movie’s best song visualization is its appropriately wacko take on John’s surreal “I Am the Walrus.”

In the end, it’s a spotty effort best noted for its wasted potential. As with Charlie Chaplin’s last couple of feature films, Beatles completists will want to see Magical Mystery Tour just to say that they’ve seen it — but it’s not likely to be held dear in their hearts.