Monday, June 29, 2020

Josie and the Pussycats

Wow! Josie and the Pussycats is a much better movie than I expected. Based on the Archie-adjacent comic of the same name, Josie and the Pussycats (2001) makes inevitable millennial updates: exit beatniks and folkies, enter Carson Daly. (Of all the vulgar contemporary details, despite all the tattoo chokers and backless tanks, Carson Daly’s stardom still seems like the biggest gaffe of the late 90s/early oughts.) It opens with a performance by DuJour, a boy band that includes two Clueless alum and Seth Green, then segues to a mystery onboard their private plane, where one of them discovers a hidden backing track on their newest single and confronts their slimeball manager, played by Alan Cumming (on-brand, greasy, masterful), who quickly escapes via parachute.

Then we meet the Pussycats, three chicks from Riverdale, playing bowling alleys and getting heckled in their own freaking driveway by haters. What happens next is predictable but fun: Alan Cumming’s character (Wyatt) spots them crossing the street and has a vision, fast tracks the group to super stardom, all the while initiating the fissures that will imperil their friendship and collaborating with manic pixie illuminatus Fiona, played by Parker Posey. Together they mastermind the manipulation of the Pussycats and Pussycats’ brand through the use of subliminal messaging, accelerating their rise to fame while also plugging Burger King, Starbucks, Target, etc. (Seeing someone bite into a Gatorade gave me chills.) The incessant presence of brands in this movie might seem more hypocritical than ironic, but, according to DVD commentary, none of the product placement is paid. Certainly none of it is incentivizing. Josie and the Pussycats is too much in the real world to invest in the generic commodity culture of Repo Man or They Live! But in its defense, Josie and the Pussycats doesn't do these brands any favors, and their inclusion is generally funny or gross, as evidenced in the McDonalds’ sponsored bathroom or Evian-fed aquarium. You don’t need to be Nostradamus to predict the worst, but Josie and the Pussycats does predate the ubiquity of Beats by Dre or EOS lip balms, slightly predates the renaming of every interesting-sounding amphitheater with bank and cell phone sponsorship, and definitely predates the worst offenses of the music industry, such as this controversy from Taylor Swift’s Reputation tour that put the onus of presale and promotion on her tween fanbase. To attend (or livestream) the Pussycats’ first stadium concert (“Operation Big Show”) fans must buy special kitten-eared headbands with proprietary technology. It’s a joke that barely registers in 2020, when Tidal/iTunes/Spotify/Disney+ “exclusives” are standard and every legal way of listening to new music feels bad. Josie and the Pussycats is a teenybopper comedy with the thesis of an Adam Curtis documentary, and it’s funny but true: popular music is the psychotic conspiracy of a sinister-minded few.

Does that make Josie and the Pussycats a masterpiece? Maybe. I can’t decide. The main characters are kind of weak. I think the jokes could be improved. I don’t need punk credentials, but Penelope Spheeris would have made a better movie. The worst part of this movie might be the Pussycats, especially Josie, sorry girl! I just think it sucks that Alan Cumming and Parker Posey are so much more fun to watch than the band and I think it speaks to a problem with nearly every teen comedy EXCEPT Clueless (and maybe Ten Things I Hate About You?): chicks have to be “good,” like morally pure and unimpeachable and thus, some combination of hot and boring. As a FUN chick who likes ROCKNROLL it is not enough that a girl play guitar, she should also have a bunch of fucking problems, then and only then can we talk about strong female leads, like Wanda, Yentl, Carrie, etc.

That said, I really liked Josie and the Pussycats! I’m pop-punk averse but I liked the music, it’s catchy, "Pretend to be Nice" slaps. The movie ends with a blooper reel, which like, it might as well be directed by Orson Welles imho. It's dated but charming, if you were too cool in 2001 you might be allergic to the Lipsmacker gloss and diamante aesthetics of this movie, in which case I suggest you grow up. It's fun, it's a movie, we're living in hell, it's fine. As always thanks for reading my blog. Please won't everybody start a blog? I love to read what's up and see the windmills of your mind. Stay righteous and see ya next time.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Mamma Mia/ Muriel's Wedding

I want to start this review by talking about what ABBA means to me. To me, ABBA represents the shadow side of pop, and exudes a swirling, chaotic energy more spiritually kin to bands like Fleetwood Mac than stars like Madonna. That a catchy pop band could write dark lyrics is neither ironic nor unusual, and puts them in the same category of doubled edged rock n roll as The Kinks, the Bee Gees and the Beach Boys, but what ABBA expresses for me is something much more private: the need to be loved at risk of seeming ruthless. They are petty but righteous. I'm an even tempered person but ABBA inflames my Scorpio rising, inspiring fantasies where I am, against all odds and by whatever means, the best. This combination of desperation and cunning drives my favorite ABBA song, "Lay all your Love on me," but also my many second favorites: "Take a Chance on Me," "Gimme Gimme Gimme," "Tiger," etc. ABBA sings about endings, about squeezing open doors that have slammed in your face. Even new love is at best a loss; can a more defeatist metaphor be imagined than "Waterloo"? For them, life is a game with clear winners and losers. Whether they, a successful and good looking group of Swedes, one of whom was literally designed by the Nazis as a "super baby," are entitled to this feeling of injustice (yes) might be up for debate (no), but no doubt ABBA have felt the sting of trying and failing, and realized the game is rigged. Mysterious forces have stymied them, fate conspires against them, and it's everyone's fault but theirs. The uncareful listener hears joy, true ABBA fans hear rage. ABBA are losers and they're lashing out. If you can't relate to this feeling, get off my blog! Just kidding you can stay. :-)

And so my one complaint about Mamma Mia! (2008) might be that it doesn't align exactly with my interpretation of ABBA, although giving most of the songs and story to its middle aged stars is a better decision than making "Lay All Your Love On Me" a duet between two hot fiancees. This is a small upset and why I usually don't write about music, it's too subjective. Like ELO, ABBA inspire vivid, narrative daydreams that translate well to stage and film. I can imagine the euphoria of caressing ABBA's discography into a story about a love-starved hotelier, and I begrudge the creators of Mamma Mia! nothing. It is not just good fun but great fun, and Mamma Mia! quickly made converts of all that were watching. What happens: Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is getting married even though she's only four feet tall. Unsure of her parentage, she reads her mother's diary to determine three men that might be her dad and invites them all to her wedding. How would you not remember nutting in Meryl Streep? Anyway none of them do and it's not until about halfway through the movie to catch onto Sophie's plans, hilarity ensues. Lots of good gags and physical humor: the room squealed in delight when Meryl's three suitors were age regressed to look twenty years younger and variously alternative. Although Mamma Mia! capitalizes on a few things I usually hate, i.e. karaoke style dramas like Glee, none of the music is compromised so badly or egregiously misinterpreted as to offend. As soon as one song ended I couldn't wait for the next. It's a joyful, ebullient movie, and Meryl Streep, in particular, looks like she's having so much fun. Without giving away any spoilers, Mamma Mia! bucks the heteronormative destination wedding plot established in the first half and evolves into a MILFy romcom about elective families and second chances. The men don't compete for Meryl's affections and hundreds of women, a mix of native Grecians and white women in capris, sing "Dancing Queen" on a dock together, no less beautiful than the Aegean Sea that surrounds them. I don't expect any movie based on a musical to have subliminal and radical politics, but it's nice to be surprised. It made me want to have a wedding just so I can invite Eliot Weinberger, Phillip Glass and Bernie Sanders and find out which one is my real dad. ;-)

Mamma Mia! inspired me to watch Muriel's Wedding, a 1994 Australian comedy starring the already stunning Toni Collette as an unemployed high school dropout of uncertain age living with her parents. In short order, she's arrested at a wedding when another guest believes her dress to be stolen, gets dumped by her shrill and awful friends, cashes a blank check given to her in good faith and disenfranchises her family to go on holiday. She reunites with a woman named Rhonda, who becomes her new and true bestie. "Do you ever think you're nothing?" she asks Rhonda. Rhonda reassures her: Muriel is special. Together they confront her former best friends at a fruity cocktail bar, call them all cocksuckers, and relocate to Sydney. Through a series of bad decisions, Muriel (now "Mariel") lives out the fantasy she invented and embellished alone in a spare room in Porpoise Spit, Australia, one in which she triumphs over circumstance, humiliates her frenemies, and gets married. Surprise surprise, Muriel loves ABBA, and represents, to me, the essence of ABBA: a woman who will do whatever it takes not to feel pathetic.  Muriel inhabits the bleak world of ABBA's unhappy destiny, where stars are fixed and life is pain. She is an ugly woman who wants beautiful things. Some truly amazing scenes in there, like when Muriel is sharing a beanbag with her date and watching disaster television, only to hurriedly change the channel when her dad comes onscreen and asks for the money back. It's hard to watch her spiral but Muriel eventually redeems herself. This is not a better movie than Mamma Mia!, just a different one, another ABBA-adjacent romp that will have you humming "Waterloo" all day. 

Do you have to be a craven psycho to enjoy ABBA? No of course not. Music thrives in the extremes of human emotion, and ABBA plump the depths of desperation for our sake. This makes them braver than most rocknroll bands, IMHO, and more like great novelists. I think of all the times I was sick, sad, or otherwise feeling feeble, taking the same walk every day, listening to Cardi, Kanye, ABBA, and "Did It On 'Em" by Nicki Minaj. Sometimes it takes is the confidence of other people to believe in yourself. Anyways thanks for reading my blog. Everyone deserves to thrive. :-)

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Perfect Blue

Hello! Last night I watched Perfect Blue, an anime from 1997. Perfect Blue is maybe only as much a “music movie” as Blue Velvet, which is to say, still more than Hannah Montana: the Movie, and so it counts. It’s the story of Mima, who just turned 21 and is transitioning away from her career as a pop star with the group CHAM! She lives in a shitty apartment, struggles to find meaningful work, and wonders “what it all means” out loud, making her more interesting to watch than, say, Miley Cyrus. Honestly I don’t hold anything against Miley except her inherited wealth, musicians are a class for whom “young talent” is the norm and not the exception. The pivot from teen idol to “bad girl”/”bad boy” is vital and necessary, equally among musicians we don't like (Justin Bieber) as those we do (Scott Walker.) Either you absorb that trauma like so much sublingual party oxy or process it like a true tortured artist, seems to be what makes or breaks "real" musicians. Perfect Blue is a thriller based on a manga and not a franchise based on a teenager and so it can really milk this nightmare in a way Hannah Montana: the Movie cannot. Another actress on set, herself a former pop star, asks Mima the question that inspires the psychodrama to follow: “How do you know that the person you were one second ago is the same person you are right now?”

In grade school we’d get mad at each other for changing, for getting into goth or Eastern religion or whatever. Young girls can be especially intolerant of experimentation and the hurt they inflict on each other enormous. Perfect Blue scales this cruelty to Mima’s small but psychotic fanbase, who trash Mima for her earnest attempts to make it as an actress. She’s followed by a milky-eyed, goo-faced mouth breather who surreptitiously records her and returns home to write in her voice, on a blog under her name, in “Mima’s Room.” My favorite thing about Perfect Blue is its depiction of late nineties-era internet, not just the yellowing hardware and early graphics, but the sense of real menace, the way a room would darken behind you (me) as you got deeper and deeper into it. Nothing is scarier than a scary fax, the tedium and dread of watching its threat unencrypt itself, loomlike, line by line, the suspense of dialup, the terror of an anonymous blogger. Gosh! I’m getting goosebumps. I got so much scary chain mail in eighth grade! Combined with the anxiety of experimentation, Perfect Blue is an incredible horror movie about the early internet, a fantastical desert hinterland dotted by “home pages” and flickering GIFs.

From “Mima’s Room,” Mima’s stalker exploits her unhappiness, considers a return to pop music, and otherwise manipulates Mima into near-psychosis. Perfect Blue spins an interesting and unpredictable metafiction about extreme fandom and the problem of our former selves, with a slippery POV that disorients the viewer like so many pop-up ads. It’s creepy, cold, and beautiful, with filmic sound design and a good soundtrack. I mention Blue Velvet because of its tonal and thematic kinship, but crucially Perfect Blue sympathizes with its female lead, whose POV determines the mystery and direction of the narrative. It has not one but two rape scenes, I’m inured to this but warning if you’re not, no one should have to watch anything they don’t want. That said, I stand by what I said: Perfect Blue is not a feminist movie but it is the rare psychosexual drama where the male gaze is deeply felt but less often experienced, in which the loneliness of being young, being watched, and being famous feels relatable and even familiar. I don’t know much about anime or manga and am always looking for recommendations, please feel free to lay your expertise on me. As always, thanks for reading my blog. I miss my friends and the thrill of IRL conversation, I love to chat, but reading what my friends write has sustained me the last few months and made me want to share more. “Blah blah blah!” See ya soon.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

The Commitments

It took me a while to get around to the Commitments and a while longer to review it. I relate to the self-deprecation frequent among Irish writers and artists but in my case it sometimes verges on anti-Irish sentiment, such is my aversion to Irish-American “culture,” the color kelly green, “trad” music (kill me) and St. Patrick’s Day. I mean none of us like St. Patrick’s Day but my parents had a party every March 17th growing up, and everyone in my immediate and extended family is born 9 months later, in between December 15th-December 25th. Disgusting, right? You can understand my apprehension, my full name is a mouthful of Lucky Charms! But my experience with the Irish is mostly positive, they are (I’m allowed to say this) a wonderful bunch of depressive Fraggles and definitely my people.

Anyways I finally watched the Commitments and found it to be cute, fun, and a great window into pre-Celtic Tiger Ireland, when Ireland was provincial enough that the main conceit of the Commitments (that the Irish are the blacks of Europe and thus entitled to partake in the American soul music tradition) can be forgiven. The reason it took me a while to write about this because I couldn’t really locate the pulse of this movie. It’s odd, in that our hero, Jimmy Rabbitte, isn’t a musician but a manager/enthusiast, whose love for soul music is so pure he just has to get a band together. He doesn’t play, nor does he profit. Apparently he just likes the challenge. Equipped with the strong opinions and snark of a true music snob, he assembles a motley crew of alcoholics to cover “Mustang Sally.” So why did I keep watching? Ha ha. The Commitments is carried by its charm, and it’s charming as heck, despite the fact that there’s not really anyone to like and I don't like the music!
 It’s a unique movie in that you’re invested in the project and not the players, and sustained by the hope that they’ll achieve together what none of them could achieve on their own, even though they don't? It's fun to watch a bunch of weirdos overcome their rickety obstacles and have fun together ok!!! 

Like High Fidelity, the Commitments relies on a lot of quick witted in-jokes and shop talk. But unlike High FIdelity, it’s naturalistic and goofy. I loved the unglamorous Irish scenery and dead horses. This movie is as quaint as a trash fire. 
I suppose Jimmy Rabbitte just wants the Commitments to make it big, and the movie moves in rhythm with the thrills and disappointments of that possibility accelerating. When they break up in a storm of in-fighting and accusations, the movie ends. “What does it mean?” Jimmy asks himself in the mirror. “Fucked if I know!” This is the rare music movie to be based on a work of fiction, which is maybe why the characterization isn’t great, the ending feels a little abrupt, and the dang manager narrates it: it’s a novel shoehorned into ninety minutes. But I'm glad it shirks romance and epiphany and settles for an ambivalent ending. A good artistic experiment should have no certain outcome. I never aspired to be a manager, but I can relate to being a fan. Anyway, do I have to relate to everyone? No! But points for the scene where he sits his new recruits down and forces them to watch the TAMI show while pontificating on showmanship, that’s one for everyone. As always, thanks for reading my blog, back with more soon. :-)

Friday, April 17, 2020

Hannah Montana: The Movie

I borrowed the Hannah Montana: the Movie from my friend Lisa K. Lisa is an entirely sincere fan of pop music, which confused me the first time I met her in the early 2000s because the early 2000s were peak irony; you couldn't tell if people were fucking with you or what. Years later I can confirm that Lisa is intelligent, funny, generous, and an earnest fan of Miley Cyrus. Lisa, I apologize in advance!

Hannah Montana: the Movie is bad, bad in an unimpeachable way that makes you look like the idiot for saying so. Hannah Montana is the superstar alter-ego of Miley Cyrus, and up until the movie’s finale, the two lead totally separate lives, resulting in a comedy of errors where people get pumpkins stuck on their head and a ferret runs amok at a mayoral luncheon, etc. It trafficks in the “regular people” trope so ubiquitous in kids’ programming, where the super-rich are supposed to be just like you and me, and debuted at a time when there were zero poor people on television. This is also post Paris Hilton, peak torso, when every tween on TV had low-rise jeans and nice tits? Is it any wonder that child stars so often malfunction, when they’re the stars of their own fictive universe and sexualized first and foremost for other children? One thing I liked about the Hannah Montana movie is that her father, Billy Ray Cyrus, is a widow, but IRL her mother is alive and manages the brand. Power move, Mom!

But this movie wasn’t made for me, an unemployed children’s librarian. It was made for kids, mostly. When I design programming for kids at the library, it stuns me how much thought, intelligence and care was formerly given to kids’ media, the Jim Henson universe being one example. I was digging through the Folkways archives of kids’ music and the contrast between those songs and the glut of kid swill on Youtube, bobble-headed and algorithmically-engineered, just makes you wanna barf. I narrowly missed the boom of tween marketing and YA fiction, both of which I think are bad for kids. An artist friend of my parents had a prescription for kids' lit that included "puns, cruel jokes, amazing statistics, monsters, complicated pictures and perverse nonsense" and I agree. As you get older, the fun is in putting together, piecemeal, your idea of an adult universe, mysteries intact, “I like this just because I like this,” hacking through jungles of obscenity and irrelevance to find your pole star(s). This is a minority opinion in my profession. And so Disney channel stuff and stuff like it, ostensibly designed for tweens but consumed by kids much younger, is a piss-poor education for kids (esp. girls), marred by conspicuous wealth and adult bodied child stars, totally lacking in imagination. Childhood is the only age where you can easily and unskeptically engage with outrageous fictions, so why recreate a Laura Greenfield documentary as kid-friendly television???  I don’t get it. I know I sound like a crank but it’s because I believe in a better future for all of us. I’m linking some of my favorite kids' songs for inspiration. As always, thank you for reading my blog. :-)

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Times Square

Wow, thank you Lisa K. for bagging up Times Square in a Ziploc for my viewing ecstasy. Times Square is one of my very favorite movies; it makes me feel the way I felt when I saw movies as a kid, my heart bursting with a sense of accomplishment, as if it were me onscreen, so deeply do I feel for these chicks! My cheeks flush watching the ending, I’m embarrassed to admit things could work out so well, “that could be me,” “that could be us.” A truly feel-good movie humbles you, its optimism discomfits you. Times Square is almost perfect. It combines so many of my favorite things: bad girls, agony aunts, lesbian poetry, Ramones worship, mysterious and omnipotent radio DJs, wanton and symbolic vandalism, anti-cop sentiment, New York in the 80s. The scene where 13 year old Pamela, working as a dancer at the seedy and exquisite Club Cleo, watches herself in the mirror while “Walk on the Wild Side” plays is such a subtle, moving and true scene of what it's like to really feel yourself for the first time. It might be my bias, when I heard that song when I was 11-12 it was so charged with potential, so suggestive and cool, it could teleport you out of whatever hellhole you inhabited to to the doo-wop slums of Lou Reed’s imagination, wow. I remember sitting on my bed in my Old Navy Jeans and singing, deadpan, “I’m just a gift to the women of this world.” 

If you can stand that adolescent squirm, you’ll love Times Square, the story of two girls that meet in a mental institution and run away to an abandoned warehouse on the Chelsea Piers. Depressed Pamela gets committed by her politicking father and shares a room with spitfire Nicky, who’s there because she smashed out some car headlights. Nicky gets discharged but returns to their shared room to entice Pamela to run away and steal an ambulance with her. It’s adorable. There are so many stories like this: two girls, one mousy and introverted, one reckless and incandescent, each watching the other with tenderness and awe. It’s popular enough to be a trope, sometimes a bad one, but when it’s good it’s great, as in Heavenly Creatures or the Freaks and Geeks episode “Kim Kelly is my Friend,” which looked so much like my most formative high school friendship that I thought I had been plagiarized. I, too, had a square-jawed friend with a voice like Kathleen Turner, who liked me as much as I liked her, and who fucked up so much she disappeared, only to show up years later, reformed but for her face tattoos. 
It’s true that the shy, anxious Pamela will be eventually returned to the care of her father, but not before stealing most scenes in this movie, including the one where she debuts as Club Cleo's first fully clothed dancer, dressed in literal rags, in thrall to the music, gradually warming up her audience of hustlers and sleazeballs and charming her best friend nearly to death; love pours out of them.

I say Times Square is “almost perfect” because the overt lesbian romance of the movie was edited out in its final stages. It’s obvious and it’s a huge bummer. There’s a hiccup in the movie about ¾ the way through, right around the time that “Pissing in a River” really gets going and dang Patti Smith is WAILING, but the agony seems overwrought because you don’t know for sure they’re in love. What a shame. Some studio exec fucked up and history has made a clown of him. Supposedly they wanted something more like Saturday Night Fever but no one remembers dick shit about Saturday Night Fever because it’s not very good. I still adore this movie despite the hole in the center of it. I know what love looks like! 
Besides, female friendships are all shades of gay. Most movies are missing a lesbian subplot, honestly, and every movie that passes the Bechdel test is a five minute edit away from being Carol or Bound. Such are the slippery depths of female friendship. Rachel has a joke about how much better “My So-Called Life” would be if Angela & her mom had ever stopped fighting and kissed on the lips. The bounty on those lost scenes must be enormous, and I remain optimistic that one day this lesbian masterpiece will be this delivered unto me, intact. 

After that point, Times Square falters, but it doesn’t sputter out. The ending is ecstatic. Girls all over the city respond to Nicky’s on-air invitation-- “If they treat you like garbage, put on a garbage bag”-- and show up at the Sleez Sisters’ concert wearing trash bags and dark eye makeup, as Nicky performs her song, “I’m a Damn Dog” and thankfully not the one that uses the n- word. Times Square imagines New York City as a neon dream where the only real danger is not expressing yourself, it’s cute, it’s also shot on location and looks great. I’m a little biased against big cities, maybe because I grew up on movies like this and when I’m in New York now, buying a Jamba Juice just to use a fucking toilet, it feels like the opposite of what I read about in “Just Kids,” I’m a romantic, you know? Last time I went I just pissed in the park like a dog and I felt maybe like Patti Smith but what happens when you have to shit? Then it’s back to Dunkin. 

I forgot to mention that Nicky and Pamela perform as the Sleez Sisters, or that Tim Curry plays the mysterious radio DJ, but I wanted to keep some surprises for the uninitiated. I made a little list of my favorite radio DJs in movies: Born in Flames, Do the Right Thing, the Warriors, again, it’s a trope but I never get tired of it. I love the idea that we’re all connected by airwaves, that music is everywhere, it’s in the air, it comes out of the tap, and something about the radio at night always feels like the dark side of the moon. I was thinking of starting a morning radio show called “no-drive time” for the remainder of quarantine, I don’t know, would you call in? I digress. I’m such a dork for this movie. It gets me so excited. Anyways much love to my friends, far and wide, and as always, thanks for reading my blog. :)

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Almost Famous

I went into Almost Famous expecting to hate it, because I hate being manipulated, and I think of Cameron Crowe as an extremely manipulative director. It’s true that Almost Famous is manipulative, and that everyone in it, no matter how damaged or debauched, is also lucid and pithy. The dialogue reads like a senior yearbook, nostalgic for itself. Often it winks to the year 2000 and I hate this kind of shit: “If you think Mick Jagger will be out there trying to be a rock star at age 50, you are sadly mistaken.” Like every Oughts romcom, it is misogynist and twee. But because it’s from the POV of 15 year old rock journalist William Miller, based on Cameron Crowe himself, I’m gonna stop screaming. What happened to him was pretty huge and when you’re fifteen everything feels huge already, so I can’t blame Almost Famous for being stupid and sentimental, you know what, it’s fine, we all were. 

I am maybe the only person to watch Almost Famous for the first time in the year 2020 so I’m going to brief: Precocious misfit William Miller writes for an underground newspaper, gets noticed first by Lester Bangs and then by Rolling Stone, goes on assignment touring with the fictional “Stillwater,” falls in love with effervescent gaping hole and groupie Penny Lane, sees his heroes misbehave and eventually comes home to his very worried mother. The strength of any one scene relies on the actors in it: unsurprisingly, Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Lester Bangs and Frances McDormand as William’s mom are very good. Jimmy Fallon is really bad. Between last night and this morning, I have forgotten everyone in "Stillwater," especially Jason Lee. Kate Hudson’s midriff does most of the hard work in this movie; she plays exactly the kind of manic pixie dream girl that would eventually be Cameron Crowe’s biggest legacy, a skinny and Seussian dodo bird with the uncomplicated appeal of anything easily penetrated. Fairuza Balk, one of my favorite big-toothed goth hotties, also plays a groupie, but she gets to be funny and weird and has at least one good scene where she talks to Frances McDormand on the phone and assures her that William is still a virgin. Penny Lane’s spiel about not being a groupie, but a “Band-Aid” (“We are here because of the music, we inspire the music”) is kinda way worse, imho, and disempowering and unself-aware and the opposite of what we know about women like Pamela DeBarres, who were smart and slutty and fine with it. But I promised I’d stop screaming about this and I will. 

Cameron Crowe’s character works because he reflects back anyone who might be watching: if you were ever a fan, if you were ever the youngest person in the room, if you were ever a music writer, professionally or personally, if you ever had a mom, whatever. It’s a music movie that focuses on a non-musician, of course it’s got a lotta mileage. I have outgrown my extreme Lester Bangs fandom, at one point I was married to his review of Astral Weeks, but I still hold him in high regard as someone who worked hard to write about what he loved. It’s easy to be mean but embarrassing to be a fan, and hard to write in earnest about the spiritual potential of rock music. I don’t know that Almost Famous is 100% sincere, but it tries. Lester Bangs gets a lot of good lines, like when he diagnoses the imminent death of rock n roll: “Because they’re trying to buy respectability for a form that is gloriously and righteously dumb…And the day it ceases to be dumb is the day that it ceases to be real, right? And then it just becomes an industry of cool.” Sure I could parse out our obsession with “realness” but I’ll stop at “industry of cool." Like everyone on Planet Earth I have a real fondness for Philip Seymour Hoffman, who could play a sad sack without holding you hostage to his depression, who brought intelligence and tenderness to even the dumbest characters he played.  My favorite scene comes at the end, when William calls Lester and they commiserate about both being losers, Lester Bangs being played as the kind of guy who would always answer his phone.

How does Almost Famous score on Bangs' scale of realness? Is it critical of the machine or part of it? We both know the answer but I'm gonna let this one slide. I’ve become a lot more forgiving when I can imagine a book/movie/whatever being meaningful at one point in my life but not forever. Most of the media I consumed between ages of eight and twenty-eight is kind of unbelievably sexist or worse in retrospect, and if I wanted to open up a museum of shit I don't like and why it’d be ten thousand miles long. I can imagine Almost Famous rocked someone’s world once and that’s fine by me. Anything that points you towards a way to think about the things you love. As always, thanks for reading my blog. :-)

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Phantom of the Paradise

Phantom of the Paradise is Brian DePalma’s 1974 freak-out rock opera, a mash-up of Phantom of the Opera, Portrait of Dorian Gray, and Faustus. It’s bigger than other, early DePalma movies but, like Sisters, like Carrie, thrives in the shadows and loves to use that voyeur POV. It looks, too, like Rocky Horror Picture Show, which came out a year later in 1975: both movies take place in goth dreamspaces with few exterior shots and share a super-saturated palette of blood reds and flesh tones, matte blacks and white gloves. I can’t comment further because the overlap of middle-aged men and teenaged girls in garters at the midnight showings always gave me an allergic reaction to Rocky Horror Picture Show, same with rockabilly. The presence of Paul Williams (“Rainbow Connection,” “Rainy Days and Mondays,” “The Bathing Suit that Grandma Otter Wore”) gives Phantom of the Paradise an edge over Rocky Horror Picture Show, IMHO, casting this tiny M.O.R. mastermind as the villainous “Swan” and asking him to write your rock opera is unprecedented. Berserk, even. He either can’t or doesn’t react, and glides in and out of scenes like a chess piece. This is probably the truest characterization of a psychopath but I like to think Paul Williams just has nicer things on his mind: flowers in bloom, ducks circling a pond. If you peeked inside that big brain of his I bet you’d see a frog on a lilypad smiling back. 

The movie opens with a narration by Twilight Zone's Rod Serling, introducing Swan and his label Death Records before segueing into a performance by Death label darlings the Juicy Fruits, a revival group and boy band (man band?) singing their hit "Goodbye Eddie." As their set ends and the crowd thins, pianist Winsow Leach storms the stage to play a piece from his rock cantata, looking like Warren Zevon but exuding real Randy Newman energy. It's not the obvious choice but I mean it’s 1974, Jimi Hendrix is DEAD, Jim Morrison is DEAD, John Lennon just wrote IMAGINE, what is rock n roll anyway? No one knows. After a series of disasters that include internment at Sing Sing prison and prison-mandated tooth removal, Winslow Leach finds himself disfigured by a record press, his vocal cords fried. It’s a very heavy metal deformity for a Disney-ass songwriter, but Swan doesn’t realize the stage appeal of Leach, a.k.a., “The Phantom” and instead imprisons him in a sick synth dungeon, an octagonal Mother-esque lab where he writes hits for the woman he loves, Phoenix. But Swan gives his songs to glam buffoon BEEF, relegating Phoenix to backup singer and of course, the Phantom plans his revenge. He breaks out of his synth prison and does what a phantom does best: look, lurk, sabotage, etc. 

To describe the plot further would be redundant. The much-loved “opera creep” narrative needs no elaboration nor improvement. DePalma’s upgrade to “rock creep” gives the viewer little to think about but lots to look at and it’s enough to make Phantom of the Paradise campy and fun. If you think about design, if you are deliberate about design, the chaotic decision-making that led to Paradise’s Godspell-level insanity will delight you. It argues against the tyranny of cohesion and still looks really, really good. For instance, everyone wears shirts and sweatshirts with these faint, maybe marker outlines of rock stars (???) that are illegible onscreen so why? Why bother? Because it’s a mood. However unhinged it may be, Paradise 
creates a believable bizarro world in which rock pianists and aging doowop septets battle for chart supremacy. The music is good. Confidence carries Paradise through its most improbable plot points at record speed. In one scene, Phoenix, played by Jessica Harper of Suspiria, auditions for Swan, bobbing around the stage in bootcut jeans and a kimono like somebody’s mom before crazy dancing off-stage. She kills it because she owns it, which is true of any personal style. The moral of Phantom of the Paradise is be yourself. 

Writing this blog I realize I don’t like psychedelic movies very much, but using a Gothic novel as your source gives you a great plot and room to go nuts.
 I'd love to see Rebecca made by any freak but Tim Burton, ditto for Wuthering Heights. As always, thanks for reading my blog! I’m gonna try to update more often. I used to only write this blog at work so I could say I was a paid blogger but now I'm writing at home, editing at work, so I’m promoting myself to paid editor. Thanks again and take it easy. :-)

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Linda! Linda! Linda!

Linda! Linda! Linda! Is a 2005 Japanese movie about an all-girl band that forms from the fallout of another all-girl band and dedicates itself to playing a gig three days a way. It starts right after the singer and guitarist quit, forcing remaining members Kei, Kyoko and Nozomi to reassemble as a covers band, playing the best of Japanese punk band the Blue Hearts and recruiting the first girl they see, Korean exchange student and shy weirdo Son, as replacement vocalist. With her limited Japanese she promises to do her best. I try not to pick favorites but Son rocks. She brings a nervous but gently demented Su Tissue vibe to their band, now called “Paranmaum” (Korean for Blue Hearts). It would be one thing if her character was hiding an enormous vocal talent, as in Little Voice or jeez, Elf, but it’s much more endearing that she’s not: she’s just trying her best. And it turns out her best is good enough! This is a movie about wanting something really badly and that something is modest but true, a nice movie for the New Year. 

Linda! Linda! Linda! takes place over three days, from the day that “Paranmaum” decide to play their school’s upcoming concert to the day of performance. It captures the way time moves when you’re a teenager and so little of it is your own, how you share space and attempt privacy, how you invent hours of the day and improvise zones to call your own. Kei plays guitar in the family room with headphones on, Kyoko drums on books because she doesn’t have drums, Son buys one drink so she can be alone in the karaoke bar for hours. It moves slowly-- the first time I watched it, sick with something, I fell asleep-- but is true to 
the odd rhythm of a seventy-two hour day, the way time dilates when you’re working hard on something you love, the way the school day drags and the pauses in between. It’s quiet, with a minimal soundtrack by James Iha and the psychologically ultimate sound of chicks tuning guitars. 
Linda! Linda! Linda! is a great dramatization of sucking at something until you don’t anymore and the private joy that brings. It’s maybe the only rock-n-roll movie that’s about practice, correct me if I’m wrong. Most biopics omit this part of a musician’s life, the greasy, weird and lonely years spent getting good, why, I don’t know, I’d love to watch Buddy Holly fuck up. I’m trying to think of another unglamorous, practice-intensive music movie and only coming up with 8 Mile. “Terrible,” Kei says after their first practice, and everyone laughs because you know what, it’s fine. Practice is another great thing to think about in the New Year, I struggle to cope with learning curves because I want to be the best. But practice can be fun, and jamming is free! 

If anything, Linda! Linda! Linda! reminded me of a Swedish movie I saw as a teenager, Show Me Love, which felt real to me at the time, realer than the spate of shitty high school movies like She’s All That and Can’t Hardly Wait that made me think life was a contest I had already lost by having Joan Crawford’s face and Bart Simpson’s body. Linda! Linda! Linda! feels real, down to its minor characters and low-boil interpersonal drama, its anti-climactic romances and rocking five (seven?) minute finale. Even the dream sequences are understated and natural, 
gilded with a super subtle magic, the fantasy not of being worshiped but appreciated: wow. Picture a sheet cake and make a wish.  
I hope everyone reading this gets everything they want in the New Year. If you lapsed on your resolutions, who cares? Make new ones. Thanks to Jacob for the recommendation and as always, thanks for reading my blog. :-)

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Velvet Goldmine

I was scared to watch Velvet Goldmine as an adult because it made me so horny as a kid. Revisiting my tween years gives me body horrors, like my crotch itches, my clothes don’t fit, can’t shit, etc. Nothing bad happened besides the diminishment of my critical faculties, Velvet Goldmine was too formative for me and I can’t tell if it’s good or if it’s just weird. It’s ideal for twelve year olds and the soundtrack slaps, a well curated soundtrack can be a great gateway drug if your parents don’t rock n roll. Shoutout the Forrest Gump OST, the Trainspotting OST, my cassette copy of “Blockbuster Hollywood Soundtracks 1993” and Whitney Houston. 

Velvet Goldmine is an early-ish movie by Todd Haynes, whose movies don’t always look alike but do share a manic commitment to detail. He made Safe, one of my favorite movies and more recently, Carol. He cast Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan in his bizarro biopic I’m Not There and makes interesting decisions as well as effective, meticulous period pieces. Velvet Goldmine is hit or miss, starting with the music: the soundtrack mixes a lot of Brian Eno and Roxy Music songs with lesser, purely functional music made to flesh out its fictive universe, also it appears David Bowie didn’t give the rights to any of his songs, so a lot of the music made by “Brian Slade” seems weak, as Bowie-esque stuff tends to be. There are a few glam rock bands in town, I won’t name names but they’re bad.  It’s hard to recreate that shiver of eccentricity that makes glam good and a lot of the lyrics to Velvet Goldmine’s original music (“See hear m’lady/ She cries like a baby/ In a stroller”) only go to show you can’t write a David Bowie song twice. Dang if Todd Haynes didn’t try though. The clothes, the hair, all of the set pieces, being neither punk nor hippie, seem ad hoc and original. Everything Christian Bale wears looks like his mum shrunk it in the wash. It has the eager and experimental energy of a student production and a human touch that’s wanting in most period pieces. The dialogue is mixed so low it doesn’t matter what they’re saying, actors only enunciate to explain art for art’s sake and exchange Oscar Wilde quips out of context. It's a little annoying. But switched-on tween me went down every rabbit hole Velvet Goldmine opened up and started reading NME at Barnes & Noble and copying & laminating (we had a laminator) pictures out of magazines until my room was a shiny museum of who’s-who in rock and French symbolist poetry. That kind of connection to a movie is more important than the crunch of a tomatometer.

Velvet Goldmine has a nutsoid plot, which is secondary to all the fucking and cigarette smoking, but here it is: Christian Bale plays Arthur Stuart, an investigative journalist, revisiting his own closeted adolescence as he attempts to uncover what happened to Brian Slade, aforementioned Bowie-esque rock star, who got shot (?) and died (???) but most likely disappeared. Ewan McGregor plays Curt Wilde, a Kurt Cobain lookalike with an Iggy Pop aura, for whom Brian Slade falls so hard that he spirals out of control. Supposedly his Ziggy Stardust-esque alter-ego Maxwell Demon consumes him and so Brian Slade stages his own assassination (?????), only to come back years later as a Gary Glitter looking, fully Americanized rocker named Tommy Stone. Also there’s a magic jewel inherited from Oscar Wilde, at least two UFO, and multiple narrators with Middle Earth inflection. Truly bonkers. I think this would have been a better movie if it had stuck closer to Christian Bale’s subplot which expresses, very well, the ecstasy and embarrassment of fandom, adolescence, geez, glam rock in general. But I don’t know that a movie about a depressed wanker would have blown my mind back then. It seems half the fun of Velvet Goldmine is the fun of the production: oiling nipples, glittering one's penis, jamming on some weird space themed incidental music. And you know me, I love to see people having fun. As always, thanks for reading my blog.


I watched Dreamgirls on my return flight home and I thought it was great. Dreamgirls is the story of the “Dreamettes,” loosely and superficially based on the Supremes, starring Jennifer Hudson as Effie, Beyonce as Deena, and Anika Noni Rose as Lorrell. It’s crazy to remember a time when Beyonce was not an autocratic nation-state and would allow herself to be groped by Austin Powers in Goldmember, let alone play second banana (bottom banana?) to anyone, but she’s convincing in Dreamgirls. Dreamgirls relies on the audience’s agreement that Jennifer Hudson’s Effie has a better voice but Beyonce’s Deena is more conventionally attractive, an agreement to which I will refer in this review but for the record, I’m not comparing the two. Dreamgirls also makes an implicit distinction between what’s good and what’s popular but these are plot points, not hard truths, I personally love love love girl groups at their gooiest and, as a Supremes superfan, had to stop myself from taking offense and remind myself it’s a freaking movie. Dreamgirls is a movie about the simplification and objectification of women’s talent that sometimes, for the sake of expediency, simplifies and objectifies its source material. It happens! 

Dreamgirls was the breakout role for American Idol alum, Jennifer Hudson, who had a catastrophic family tragedy at the same time her career was gaining a lot of momentum. She took time to grieve and I assume that's one reason she didn't stay super famous (although she does star in CATS, which I am seeing in theaters.) JHud is proof that talent is not proportionate to fame and that’s the lesson of Dreamgirls, too, in which she has the bigger voice but she's not Beyonce, and so the star machine munches her up and spits her out. Dreamgirls is the rare movie where the delirious, decades-spinning montage happens without our girl. Poor Effie! After an emotional split from the Dreamettes and from her manager/boyfriend Curtis, we see her waiting in line at the welfare office, struggling as a single mother & otherwise slumming it. It’s bleak. Dreamgirls deals with the kind of accelerated and exaggerated fame I find fucked up and awful. It’s true that it’s “just a movie” but true, too, that people are out there just dying to get fucked up, that’s exactly the promise of a show like American Idol. Celebrity seems like a human Hadron collider. Personal and creative fulfillment must be near impossible if you're famous. I hope Jennifer Hudson feels seen, but I'm straight up worried about Beyonce.
She can’t even leave her house to get candy from the 7-11, you know? She can’t do shit. For people trying to get famous, the cruel logic of Dreamgirls may prove true: you’re either talented or hot, it sucks to be either, it sucks to be a woman, and the opposite of fame is abjection. Either that or you start a band like the Pizza Underground and just go with it.

Anyway Dreamgirls is still lots of fun. The production is incredible, there’s a lot of original and unexpected humor. It overflows with talent and co-stars Jamie Foxx, Danny Glover and Eddie Murphy, who, for all the bad jokes he’s made, electrifies every scene he’s in. My first reaction to Eddie Murphy remains my strongest impression of him: how does he do it? How does he make it look so easy? Dreamgirls is uniquely cynical and also one of the only movies I’ve seen to address the reality of black artists being denied opportunities and ripped off over and over. There’s a scene in which a Four Freshmen-esque band play the Dreamettes’ big hit to a few sleepy slow dancing couples, another scene in which the band hears their song on the radio but have to pull a U-turn to stay within listening radius of the only black radio station. It’s adapted from a musical which accounts for some of its unevenness: big, beautifully staged scenes happen in an instant, oversized Broadway numbers happen out of nowhere. This might have been more effective in a movie theater than on a plane. Dreamgirls is long-- nearly 3 hours-- with two acts and no intermission, but it’s never boring. I had to look and see if it did it had an intermission and accidentally read a review in which Beyonce talks about “channeling” Diana Ross, real quick no she doesn’t, Diana Ross has such range and such soul but “Deena” is deliberately played down as a lucky thottie of middling talent. If you want to talk about girl groups let me know, I like to sit in my room and listen to the Chiffons and Ronettes like a teenager. As always, thanks for reading my blog. :-)