Get ready for a little merchandising back and forth this week as studios and distributors strike at us with a combination of classics and crap. Inside the positive paradigm are one of 2006’s best films, a decent slice of speculation from a noted African American superstar, and a pair of pleasant box sets from two of foreign filmmaking’s greatest auteurs. The negatives of note include another clueless comedy, a crackpot kid flick and a very unnecessary CGI trip to a completely unentertaining museum. There’s also a lot of off title product hitting the marketplace as well, oddball offerings with names like China Doll (a Victor Mature war sudser) Von Richthofen and Brown (Roger Corman’s WWI flying epic) and Blood Orgy of the She Devils (trademark Ted V. Mikels miscreance). Unless you’re willing to experiment with your entertainment, your best bet is to stick with SE&L‘s rock solid pick, a film that makes the 24 April date worth noting:
Other Titles of Interest
Code Name: The Cleaner
The Documentaries of Louis Malle: Eclipse Series 2
The Jean Renoir Collection
A Night at the Museum
And Now for Something Completely Different
Harry and the Hendersons: Special Edition
It just doesn’t seem right. Oh sure, all the creative forces seem to be in proper alignment, and there’s a Great White Way full of good will banking on the fact that it will work. But with the memory of John Waters’ brilliant original still fresh in one’s mind, it’s hard to fathom how a big screen musical version of Hairspray will actually succeed. And before you scoff at such a suggestion, here’s a couple of words for you to contemplate – The Producers. Mel Brooks’ Broadway smash, winner of more Tonys than any other show in theater history, was positioned to be the song and dance delight of 2005. It too also had its foundation in a much loved comic masterpiece. But somewhere between the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd, the film adaptation tanked. Guaranteed Oscar bait magically transformed into a clear critical condemnation.
Initially, it doesn’t seem like Hairspray will suffer from a similar fate. The Producers problem had more to do with translating the show’s over the top manic spirit into a medium not known for its looseness and frivolity. What stars Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick did on the NY stage exceeded theater – they were recreating a humor masterpiece while tossing in a few novelty numbers for good measure. But film is a cruel mistress, especially to the musical. Remove the artificiality of the stage setting, and people breaking into song seems odd, even antithetical to four decades of post-modern cinema. That’s why Waters’ original film was so perfect. It celebrated youth, dance, Baltimore and the rise of ‘60s (with all its social pros and cons) while never once forgetting the concept of fun.
But the new version, crafted by the award winning combination of Thomas Meehan (Annie, The Producers and Hairspray) Mark O’Donnell (Hairspray) and Marc Shaiman, seems to have cast aside all the nostalgia to create a more PC version of Tracy Turnblad’s coming of age. From what we can see of the film in the new trailer (recently released to the web), the civil rights angle is being amplified, while the American Bandstand-esque Corny Collins Show is barely even featured. Part of the fun in Waters’ movie was watching prototypical teens master such classic sock hop favorites as ‘The Madison’, ‘The Mashed Potato’ and ‘The Pony’. One assumes that material is still part of this new story. But in the first Hairspray, it was the film’s reason for being. Here it seems like puffery surrounding the musical’s main purpose.
Anyone familiar with the infamous Pope of Puke knows that Waters is not a wholly political filmmaker. While his movies are often filled with nonconformist approaches and counterculture ideals, his is an avant-garde ideal forged out of personal, not agenda-based, beliefs. His Hairspray wasn’t out to right the wrongs of ‘50s racism. Instead, he was acknowledging the power that rock and roll had in bringing black and white together. Over the last 40 plus years, sociologists have confirmed that the meshing of R&B with country, hillbilly with soul, did more to break down ethnic barriers and change the popular culture than a dozen demonstrations. While it may not have been a question of Constitutional rights and duties, the kids got it. Dancing was dancing, no matter the color of your skin.
Waters captured this perfectly in his Hairspray. He let his Tracy Turnblad – the magnificent Ricki Lake – become the surrogate for all the suffering going on. As a fat girl in a situation made up of standard concepts of beauty, the character became a litmus test for the narrow minded among the members of the Corny Collins Show‘s Council. Some mocked her size, while others embraced its novelty. Once we saw what a great dancer Tracy was – and how open she was to the experience of being with people of different backgrounds and heritages – the subtle third act move to the race riot at a local amusement park didn’t seem shocking. In fact, it seemed inevitable. More importantly, the issue grew organically out of the situation. Tracy and her best friend Penny liked the black kids they hung out with, and couldn’t understand how their parents and the city could be so narrow-minded and misguided.
It’s all a question of perception. Waters’ Hairspray seems convinced that, like the era it is set in, music will set the audience free. And for the most part, it does. Proving that he’s one of the great directors of dance in modern moviemaking, Waters enlivens all his ‘musical’ moments with the pure joy of movement. Tracy’s not a wonder because she’s a fat girl who can dance. Instead, she’s a marvel because she’s a dancer trapped in a big gal’s body. By taking this facet out of the entertainment equation, by introducing every emotion and idea through a lyric or sonic situation, the Broadway version of the show loses a key component. And it’s upon this realization that the new film’s flaw rests.
In general, musicals succeed because of memorable melodies mixed with clear entertainment transcendence. Like Effie’s proud declaration of intent “And I Am Telling You” or Audrey’s lovely lament about leaving Little Shop of Horrors’ heinous Skid Row to live “Somewhere That’s Green”, a great song in a solid storyline will take the audience out of the narrative and place them in a kind of elative limbo. We accept both the sentiment and the situation as they seamlessly meld together into a facet of pure potency. It’s what separates the classic shows from the fly by night flops. The new Hairspray‘s score is impressive, and Shaiman has a wonderful way with scene-stealing stances. But Tracy’s story is now one aspect of a multi-leveled look at life circa 1962, and it’s more verbal than visual.
On a low budget, with very little studio support, Waters captured the look and feel of his childhood exquisitely. He did it with a careful combination of fresh faces and ‘45s. The records he chose to highlight, the dances he used as divining rods, spoke the volumes of information the movie needed to get across. The musical now must match that, but it must do it in song. And since characters like Motormouth Mabel and Velma Von Tussle have been expanded, made massively more important to the segregation storyline that anchors the entire plotline, the focus becomes confused. In Waters’ world, Tracy’s spirit lifted her locale out of the bigoted dark ages, if only for one day, on one minor TV dance party showcase. Now, she’s a catalyst to bigger change, and even larger pronouncements regarding equality.
And then there is the musical’s main gimmick – that is, following the original Hairspray’s casting design and allowing a man to play the role of Tracy’s mother, Edna. Of course, Waters did this out of necessity and purposeful design. To this day, no other actor, straight or gay, stag or drag has been able to recapture what Glen “Divine” Milstead could do in a oversized print dress and a bad washwoman’s wig. One of those rare talents whose abilities are missed more and more as the years go by, Divine is the other reason Waters’ movie works so well. Call it the “X” factor, or just the sign of a sensational performer at the top of his/her game, but when Edna Turnblad goes from laundry lady to her daughter’s determined agent, fielding offers and fending off the Von Tussle’s insults, she becomes the story’s spitfire soul.
Of course, on stage, Edna gets a song. She also gets a fleshed out sequence with her joke shop owning husband, Wilbur. In a brilliant bit of casting, Harvey Fierstein played the part, and earned a Tony for same. Similar to Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in the theatrical version of their show, Fierstein was allowed to vamp and rave for audiences, turning on his gay-laced charms to speck the show with moments of campy cleverness. For the film, the stunt strays a bit. As brilliant as the casting of John Travolta is (a singer, a dancer, and a solid actor, all around), it has the feeling of being a genius stroke that’s already turning tedious. After seeing the macho man encased in a fat suit, strutting around like a pig in pastels, one instantly misses the glam sham guys who came before.
There is also one final filmic warning sign – the director. Adam Shankman is behind the movie musical version of Hairspray, and his credits are concerning at best. Unless someone considers The Wedding Planner, Bringing Down the House, The Pacifier and Cheaper by the Dozen 2 to be the end all/be all of modern moviemaking, this singing, dancing demonstration of music’s ability to change appears to be in very iffy hands. Of course, recent rumors have New Line – the production company behind the project – so ecstatic about the movie as a whole that they are positioning Shankman for an early Oscar run. It is obvious from the trailer that Hairspray looks good. It has the feel and heft of a major motion picture, one loaded with big performances, bright colors and the scope and sweep of a spectacle. But a film lives and dies by everything it contains – the small moments, the throwaway performances – and Shankman hasn’t proved his overall acumen, especially not based on his current resume.
With over two months to go before we get the final, full length verdict, it’s clear that this new version of Hairspray has little chance of topping the original. It may be just as good, or even better in some people’s opinion, but the fact remains that John Waters and the men who adapted his show for Broadway are functioning at clear cross purposes. In his fascinating book, Shock Treatment, the native Baltimore bad boy talked about how The Buddy Dean Show defined his youth, it’s combination of scandalous ‘race’ music and conservative, all white sensibilities illustrating the main dichotomy of pre-Beatles popular culture. Hairspray was his homage to that time. In musical form, however, it looks like all that is lost. The new message may be just as valid, but it clearly belongs to someone else. And that just doesn’t seem right.
According to the myth, the world is constantly under threat from Kaiju insurrection. These massive alien beasts with a proclivity for city stomping have waged their own private war among the urban sprawl of our fair planet for eons, and their legion is mighty and more than a little incensed. Kaiju (a shortening of the Japanese term “daikaiju,” or “monsters,” and the label given to Godzilla, Gamera, and countless other Tokyo titans) are broken up into factions, some good, some bad, others fighting for their own mercenary reasons. The groupings are:
Team Space Bug—monsters with nothing but evil on their minds. Such strange beings as Sky Deviler and Mota Naru are lead by Uchu Chu, a green insect baddie with mayhem on its creepy-crawly brain.
The Heroes—lead by the American Beetle, and featuring such levelheaded luminaries as the Silver Potato and Los Plantanos, these do-gooders defend the world against the hordes of hotheaded critters.
The Rogues—though they follow no one, these self-serving Kaiju love to scrap with their fellow fiends. Their ranks feature some of the most hideous and awful participants in the entire Kaiju universe, including Kung Fu Chicken Noodle, D. W. Cycloptopuss III, and Call-Me-Kevin.
Dr. Cube’s Posse—a human scientist with a mangled face, Dr. Cube (who covers his head with a box) uses technology to craft his ultimate wicked fighting force. Along with mindless zombies known as The Minions, he relies on such unstoppable fighters as Hell Monkey and garbage monster Gomi-Man to do his tainted bidding.
The Humans—Since all Kaiju “battels” are run by the Kaiju Regulatory Commission, a certain amount of human interaction must occur. The mysterious Commissioner sets up and controls all confronts, while Referee Jingi and ring announcer and Kaiju commentator Louden Noxious make sure each battel runs without a hitch.
When Kaiju tensions run high, the Commissioner stages public spectacles—“battels,” as they are called—and differences and vendettas are pseudo-solved in the arena. But Dr. Cube will not rest until he controls the world, and he plans on using the Kaiju and their Commission for his own megalomaniacal purposes.
Welcome to the Next Big Thing. Toss out your Pokémon. Set fire to your anime fan-subs. Ignore Vince McMahan and his WWE BFD and get with the right side of what’s hip and happening in entertainment. Though it’s incredibly disconcerting (for all the right reasons—more on this later) and could quickly outrun both its premise and its particulars, Kaiju Big Battel is one of the most amazing concepts you will ever experience. This is not just some publicity piece puffery or an attempt to garner favor with aficionados. While there are elements here that don’t work, and the occasional slip into amateurish aspects, this is still an impressive take on the increasing influence of Japanese and Asian culture into the Western geek world. Though Kaiju creators Rand and David Borden may not fully acknowledge their agenda—this is, after all, more or less wrestling taken to terrific and tacky extremes—they have hit upon a sensationally satiric idea, the melding of two dumb bumpkin ideas into a magical meditation on the fringes of fun.
As suggested before, one of the reasons why Kaiju Big Battel is so disarming is that it contains so much imagination and invention that you have to step back and collect your shattered low expectations. If someone were to tell you that a homemade concoction of crowd-pleasing spectacle that combines backyard wrestling, cardboard cityscapes, Godzilla/Gamera movie homage, and a knowing nod to the Japanese ability to mass market any and all crazy character fads would be both incisive and deeply satisfying, you’d swear they were high.
But the only buzz you’ll be feeling is the one of being in on the semi-ground floor as you get to witness Kaiju Big Battel before Spike TV or Comedy Central snags it and shuttles it directly into the crass consumer mindlessness of the mainstream. Without the connection to corporate realities, Studio Kaiju (the Bordens with lots of help) get to create their own reality, polishing their personal universe into a wholly original entity that supports its own rules, stretches its own time, and defines/defies its own logic.
From a purely aesthetic standpoint, what the Studio Kaiju guys get right instantaneously is the iconography of the entire J-Pop mindset. Combining a propaganda poster ideal with eye-catching graphic design, the Kaiju world is advertising gone insane and arcane. The monsters themselves blend perfectly into this stratagem. From their ridiculous design to their ludicrous list of special powers, each beast is just to the left of straightforward, easily imaginable as a Toho Studio player, but with enough peculiarity that we immediately get the joke. Using the Internet and the power of a wired fanbase to get their manic message across, Kaiju Big Battel has grown exponentially. While they will always be primarily known for the staged events—the “Battels,” if you will—the Kaiju company offers t-shirts, posters, souvenirs, - even DVDs.
A recent release entitled Kaiju Big Battel: Shocking Truth is basically an introduction to everything in and that happens behind the scenes in the rubber monster universe. It offers up a wonderful explanatory piece about the entire premise (“What is Kaiju”) before launching into what can best be described as a tabloid style exposé (“The Secrets of Dino Kang, Jr.‘s Cave”) peppered with commercials, an episode of a Mighty Morphing Power Rangers-like television show (“The Neo Teppen Show”), a video overview of one monster’s ascent/descent in the Kaiju ranks (“The Rise and Fall of Silver Potato”), and a final epic confrontation between Dr. Cube, American Beetle, and Team Space Bug (“The Swarm”). Intermixed are lampoons of famous films (Braveheart and Spartacus being the main ones), nods to Japanese television (the occasional incomprehensible product ad), and clips from Kaiju Battels. Indeed, if you are looking for more of the square circle action, then mosey on over to the DVD bonus material. There you will find actual full-length Kaiju events, which give you a much better idea of how this all plays in front of a crowd.
At nearly 73 minutes, the show within a show within a show design can run a little flat. Not every joke works and some of the gags are so insular that you really have to be a longtime Kaiju follower to understand the parameters of the prank. Still, the amount of creativity and vision here just can’t be dismissed. Unlike other similar scenarios—comics, webcasts, etc.—where ingenious people want to fashion their own fastidious world, Kaiju Big Battel leaves no gaps. A character dies? They get a shrine in the Kaiju graveyard. Need to know a Kaiju’s powers? There are occasional snippets during the presentation (as well as a big bonus feature on the DVD), which provide a complete comic bio of each fiend.
But most importantly, even inside foam rubber and felt, cardboard and crepe paper, we get personalities—cleverly crafted participants we can root for and rally against. When a homemade product has you instantly wanting to don a Dr. Cube t-shirt, or buy the brand new tie-in book, you know you’re hooked. Certainly, the salesmanship is effective. But without something to back up the packaging, you eventually feel flim-flammed. Happily, Kaiju Big Battel talks the talk…and walks the monster walk as well.
A young man named Edgar is working on a “project” of sorts. Its exact identity is as confusing as his research process. His premise at least is definite—it involves couples and the four stages of love: initial meeting, physical passion, quarrels ending in separation, and reconciliation—but whether it will be a book, or cantata, or play, is never quite clear. He seeks guidance from his father, a famous art dealer, but the old man cannot seem to get beyond the basic arguments about art and history. He begins the process of “casting” his project by interviewing various people, both professional performers and everyday individuals, about their understanding of love: both the emotional (of the heart) and metaphysical (of the head).
He runs into a young woman on the street that he is sure he has met before. He wants to feature her in his project. She constantly avoids him. They do seem to get closer, but then he loses touch with her. Eventually she commits suicide and leaves him a few personal belongings, including a book that may be a hint as to when and where they met before. Apparently, two years earlier while researching a project on the French Resistance during World War II, Edgar met the young woman. In flashbacks, we see that she was the secretary for an old couple trying to sell their story to Steven Spielberg in Hollywood.
In Praise of Love is a work of staggering genius. It is also a self-indulgent exercise in mental masturbation. It’s a moving and visually stunning film of depth and soul. It is also a disjointed and meandering mess that can never quite get its valid points across clearly. It’s beautiful and it’s embarrassing, philosophical as well as rote and fundamentalist. While it is clearly not the greatest work of legendary French new wave genius Jean-Luc Godard (whose credits are too numerous and importance in film too great to attempt to explain in a single review), it does represent a return to form for the once formidable cinematic force of nature. Those unfamiliar with his work should seek out the many classics of his oeuvre post-haste (Breathless, Contempt, and Alphaville to name a few) to see why so many clamor about him.
But the uninitiated should perhaps steer clear of this arcane, artistic triumph that mixes the ethos of love with visually stunning imagery and a clear anti-American/Hollywood sentiment. This is just not a movie for the first timer. It’s not that Godard’s methods are totally inaccessible. Indeed, much of the film is painfully obvious. But just like tossing a neophyte into David Lynch’s Eraserhead unprepared, someone approaching In Praise of Love without at least some background in Godard’s method and ideology will feel lost and unimpressed. That is because for most of its running time, In Praise of Love functions as a jigsaw puzzle, an intricate combination of treatise, tease, and tone poem that uses the backdrop of Paris (Godard once again shooting in the city after a long absence) and its mostly shadowed inhabitants as pawns in an enormous examination of emotion. But the epiphanies are hidden in strange scene juxtapositions, missing scene sections, overlapping dialogue/narrative strings, and long dramatic pauses of pristine lushness.
As Godard is known for his experiments in pushing the boundaries of the cinematic art, a little overindulgence can be expected. But there are some aspects of In Praise of Love that will leave even those most seasoned convert rubbing their temples to reduce the irritating throb of confusion. One has to assume that the lack of a full English translation for the film is Godard’s intention (judging how much he hates Americans, it’s not much of an inference) and the resulting incompleteness leaves huge gaps in dialogue that a non-French speaking audience will never understand. It’s like the in-joke about immigrants talking about you behind your back as you stand in line at their convenience store. Godard obviously has punches to pull and he really yanks them back quite harshly.
He’s also not afraid to be vague and repetitious, using title cards and bits of music to re-emphasize issues over and over again (a series of cards that say—and this is a rough translation—“in consideration of…love” are flashed more often than the multiplication tables in a third grade math class) while failing to connect them to anything that remotely resembles what he wants to discuss. This manner of misdirection may just be the point, but it leaves a viewer feeling bitter and unaccompanied, as if they stumbled onto a play that they have neither the native tongue nor the necessary mental skills to understand. Idealistic rhetoric is bantered about in heavy-handed doses and those famous French hating allies from across the Atlantic take a definitely moralistic beating at the hands of the characters in this film. Steven Spielberg and, indirectly, his treatment of the Holocaust are leveled with one of the most mean spirited and spurious denouncements ever in a motion picture.
And yet, In Praise of Love is a sparkling diamond, a movie that contrasts crass commentary with the subtle black and white beauty (and eventually hyper-digital colorization) of France to make a universal point about love, life, history, and art. With a visual sense reminiscent of Woody Allen circa Manhattan and Stardust Memories, Godard’s Paris in In Praise of Love is a world of hazy lights and lazy shadows, of the ancient edifices being meshed with the technology of modern man to form a new version of the old architectural traditions. Just as the film champions history, this use of monochrome shows that pure art is best derived from simple, straightforward visual dramatics. When memories (or “archives” as they are title carded) are presented, they are seen in bright near-fluorescent digital video images that recall the paintings of the old masters combined with the unreality and incompleteness of recollection.
Godard wants it known that the opening exercise in shadow and light represents the real world, the indecipherable structure of meetings, greetings, lamentations, and pontifications. When we move into the times of yore, we become lost in the mind’s eye, an unreliable recorder of events that adds undue importance to the trivial and over-romanticizes the simplest things. Indeed, the main character’s search for “adulthood,” that missing sense of personal resonance between childhood and old age, can be seen as a battle between the eras, a war of the hues and the grays. While it can meander off into mean-spirited vitriolic attacks (which have some validity buried in their brutal truths) and be jagged for juxtaposition’s sake, In Praise of Love is still a brave, bold statement that will satisfy the cinematic urges as it completely confuses your linear logic leanings. Synapses may misfire, but they will do so in visual bliss.
You’d never know that Spring was just around the corner – that lousy groundhog. Baseball has had several of its opening week games postponed or relocated due to snow, and a nasty Nor’easter tore through the upper half of the US, causing damage – and a few deaths – along the way. If the showers we’ve seen this April are any indication, May’s gonna be overgrown with floral facets. Perhaps we can all dry off with a weekend in front of the idiot box. There’s some fresh fare there, including a hilarious satire on a very strange subject, a dumb gearhead actioner, another failed drama from a former directorial god, and a wicked little indie effort. Toss in the typical outsider and non-Tinsel Town odds and ends and you’ve got plenty to keep you couch bound and (somewhat) happy. And before you know it, it will be time to complain about the heat. Let’s begin with the weekend of 21 April’s best bet:
Thank You For Smoking
The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift
Find Me Guilty
We Jam Econo: The Story of The Minutemen
Dancer in the Dark
Let’s Rock Again
Plan Nine from Outer Space/ Bride of the Monster
The Solid Gold Cadillac