Madonna: Innocence Lost

(USA / Canada 1994)

“I take what I need and I move on. And if people can’t move with me, well then I’m sorry.”

— Madonna

Wow, I completely forgot about this tawdry exposé made for TV — American TV, which is even worse — chronicling Madonna’s early years in New York City. It aired on Fox in the mid-nineties, and it’s actually amazing only for how awful it is. All the stops are pulled out, and it’s a trainwreck: the overriding theme is that Madonna is an ambitious whore. OK, National Enquirer.

Based on Christopher Andersen’s 1991 biography — totally unauthorized, I add — Michael J. Murray’s script is just plain sad. Some of it is remarkably accurate, but some of it…not so much. I recognize every single interview where he culled material to tell the Material Girl’s story — in Time, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Interview, and a few other magazines. He doesn’t just lift background, he lifts dialogue. Verbatim. That opening monologue is straight from a letter to Stephen Jon Lewicki in which she begs to appear in his softcore film A Certain Sacrifice. The characters are all real people even if their names are changed: her donut shop manager (Kenner Ames), Dan Gilroy (Jeff Yagher), Camille Barbone (Wendie Malick), Mark Kamins (Mitch Roth), Seymour Stein (Don Francks), frequent collaborator Steve Bray (Ephraim Hylton), and last but not least her father, Silvio Ciccone (Dean Stockwell).

I’m mildly impressed that her mother (Jenny Parsons), shown entirely in black and white flashbacks, even comes up. And the many guys she slept with, some of them with a purpose. And that gumcracking? Brilliant!

Terumi Matthews plays a young Madonna, and to her credit she nails the megastar’s ideosynchrocies perfectly! I’ll give her that. However, the vignettes and Catholic imagery stolen straight from the video for “Oh Father” are so lame that I feel like I should say a rosary after seeing this. So should you. Don’t even get me started on where this story starts — the first MTV Video Music Awards? Really? She was already on her second album by then.

Anyway…Madonna: Innocence Lost is not flattering, but it’s still a hoot. It plays on Madonna’s bad side, like “Blond Ambition” is a bad thing. The problem is, this approach fails when you’re dealing with someone who used that very name for one of her biggest tours. Shocking? Fuck no.

With Diana Leblanc, Nigel Bennett, Dominique Briand, Tom Melissis , Christian Vidosa, Dino Bellisario, Kelly Fiddick, Gil Filar, Maia Filar, Diego Fuentes, Matthew Godfrey, Evon Murphy, Stephane Scalia, Chandra West

Production: Fox Television Studios, Jaffe/Braunstein Films

Distribution: Fox Network, RTL Entertainment (Netherlands), True Entertainment (UK)

90 minutes
Rated TV-14

(YouTube) D+

They Live

(USA 1988)

“I’ve come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass…and I’m all out of bubblegum.”

“I’m giving you the choice: either put on these glasses or eat that trashcan.”

“Brother, life’s a bitch. And she’s back in heat.”

— Nada

Director John Carpenter has done a few good pictures that probably will have an audience long after he’s gone; They Live isn’t one of them. At least, not in a good way. B-movie cult fodder all the way, They Live is a somewhat delayed and really heavy-handed reaction to ’80s conspicuous consumption. Based on Ray Nelson’s 1963 short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” and subsequent comic strip, Carpenter’s screenplay, written under the pseudonym Frank Armitage, is founded on a decent premise; it just doesn’t go where it could have.

Nada (Roddy Piper), a migrant construction worker who’s seen better days, picks up a job in downtown Los Angeles. He notices some weirdness going on with a television station that seems to be connected to a church across the lot where he and other homeless people have set up camp. His coworker Frank (Keith David) doesn’t want to hear about it. No one does.

One morning, Nada comes into possession of a pair of sunglasses. When he puts them on, he sees subliminal messages everywhere. A billboard with the tagline “We’re creating the transparent computing environment” says “Obey” with the glasses on. A travel ad beckoning, “Come to the Caribbean” says “Marry and reproduce.” “Men’s apparel” says “No independent thought.” Signs all around him order one to consume, conform, buy, watch TV, submit, sleep, do not question authority:

They Live Obey.jpg

Even the dollar bill has a different message: “This is your god.”

What’s worse, some people are not what they appear to be. At all. They aren’t even human — they’re skeletal reptiles, a kind of mutant species of Sleestaks or something:

They Live.JPG

What the hell is going on? Who are these things? What do they want? As Nada tells Frank, they ain’t from Cleveland.

I remember seeing They Live at the theater when it was new. It was okay. Three decades later, it’s still okay. It’s a lot sillier this time around, though. The whole thing gets off to a good enough start, but the momentum peters out just before midpoint. Carpenter — or anyone, for that matter — can get only so much mileage out of this story. They Live feels like 40 minutes of material stretched into more than twice that amount of time.

The denouement is not just predictable but anticlimactic, and the perspective here is adolescent at best. The lines are cringeworthy, falling painfully short of the Arnold Schwarzenegger zingers they aim to be. The acting is pretty bad, especially David and Meg Foster, both of whom are as stiff and lifeless as a dead gerbil. Surprisingly, Piper and his mullet are the best thing about They Live; Piper isn’t enough to carry it, though. And that wrestling scene in the alley is inane — misplaced, unnecessary, and too long, it adds nothing except maybe ten minutes to the running time.

The worst thing about They Live is that it seems Carpenter was serious — nothing here reads as tongue in cheek to me.

With George “Buck” Flower, Peter Jason, Raymond St. Jacques, Jason Robards III, Lucille Meredith, Norman Alden, Norm Wilson, Thelma Lee, Rezza Shan

Production: Alive Films, Larry Franco Productions

Distribution: Universal Pictures

94 minutes
Rated R

(iTunes rental) D+

http://www.theofficialjohncarpenter.com/they-live/

Alexander Nevsky [Aleksandr Nevskij]

(Soviet Union/Russia 1938)

Sergei Eisenstein and Dmitriy Vasilev’s Alexander Nevsky [Алекса́ндр Не́вский] is an oddball film. An historical drama with major propagandist and nationalistic overtones, it depicts Prince Alexander a.k.a. Nevsky (Nikolay Cherkasov) in his battle against the Teutonics as they try to invade the medieval city of Novgorod. Spoiler alert: Nevsky defeats them.

Alexander Nevsky tried my patience; of all the films at this year’s Nitrate Picture Show, it’s the only one I can say bored me. The plot is dull and the execution of the narrative is boring. The acting is stiff and the dialogue, even translated with subtitles, is…severe? I got through it without hating it thanks to a tiny amount of lightheartedness spinkled throughout that makes the whole thing bearable.

One subplot in particular kept me engaged and amused: it involves Vasili Buslai (Nikolai Okhlopkov) and Gavrilo Oleksich (Andrei Abrikosov), two warriors competing for the affection of the same woman, Olga Danilovna, a Maid of Novgorod (Valentina Ivashova, and that’s her character’s name). The two men relentlessly try to outdo each other in courage and skill on the battlefield, as she’s the big prize waiting for the winner. It doesn’t turn out how I expected.

That said, Alexander Nevsky is definitely a worthwhile experience for its visuals. It has a cool neoclassical atomic age sensibility, mixing elements of mythology with a kind of futuristic sci-fi minimalism. The battlefield scenes are beautifully shot, evoking a sense of vast otherworldly shock and awe. Eduard Tisse’s cinematography shimmers, and he contrasts light and dark really nicely here. The nitrate print we saw was sharp. I see why this was included in the festival:

Nevsky Cliff.jpg

Nevsky warriors.jpg

nevsky battlefield.jpg

With Dmitriy Orlov, Vasili Novikov, Nikolai Arsky, Varvara Massalitinova , Amelfa Timoferevna, Valentina Ivashova, Aleksandra Danilova, Vladimir Yershov, Sergei Blinnikov, Ivan Lagutin, Lev Fenin, Naum Rogozhin

Production: Mosfilm

Distribution: Artkino Pictures, Progressive Film Institute (UK), Amkino Corporation (USA), Panthéon Distribution (France)

108 minutes
Not rated

(Dryden Theatre) D+

Nitrate Picture Show

Body of Evidence

(USA 1993)

“That’s what I do. I fuck. And it made me eight million dollars.”

—Rebecca Carlson

As true blue a Madonna fan as I am, I haven’t bothered to see a considerable number of her movies. Uli Edel’s Body of Evidence is one of them (she has top billing here, so yes, it’s a Madonna movie). On a ridiculously cold and rainy Saturday night, I decided to change that when I saw it showing on cable. Now that I’ve seen it, what surprised me most about Body of Evidence is that it’s actually not that bad. To be clear, it’s not good—it’s fluffy erotic fromage designed to be “provocative,” a sort of lame Basic Instinct (as if that’s a good movie)—but it’s not quite the disaster I expected.

Madonna is Rebecca Carlson, a femme fatale accused of slipping cocaine into her older lover’s nasal spray and “fucking him to death”—i.e., arousing him to the point of inducing a fatal heart attack. Willem Dafoe is her defense attorney. Of course, he gets involved with her despite his happy marriage to Julianne Moore.

Brad Mirman’s writing is pretty basic; his script feels a lot like a Law & Order episode, skipping through real life things like discovery and motions in limine to get right to the court stuff. I half-expected to hear that clang sound between scenes. His dialogue is often silly and, as demonstrated above, at times cringeworthy.

The promotional poster for Body of Evidence promises to make Fatal Attraction and the aforementioned Basic Instinct “look like Romper Room;” it doesn’t. The candle wax scene is kinda hot, but that’s it. The cast is impressive, but sadly no one gives a remarkable performance. Moore’s role, one of her first in a major studio release, is so small it’s background. Madonna pretty much plays Dita, her alterego from her Erotica album and Sex book, both of which came out just a few months before Body of Evidence. Her acting isn’t good, but somehow she comes off slightly less wooden than any character from her earlier movies, even A League of Their Own. Her look is exactly the same as in the video for “Bad Girl.” I’m not sure what Dafoe or Joe Mantegna, both good actors, saw in this project.

Body of Evidence is ultimately a forgettable snooze of a film. If it’s offensive at all, it’s because it’s boring.

With Anne Archer, Lillian Lehman, Stan Shaw, Charles Hallahan, Mark Rolston, Jürgen Prochnow, Frank Langella

Production: Dino De Laurentiis Communications, Neue Constantin Films

Distribution: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (USA), Guild Film Distribution (UK)

99 minutes
Rated R

(Impact) D+

Who’s That Girl

(USA 1987)

“You gotta see me spend money to really appreciate me.”

—Nikki Finn

“¿Quién es esa niña?” asks the buoyant but trite title song, which topped the Billboard Hot 100 charts for a week during the summer of 1987. We all know the answer: it’s Madonna, of course. Perhaps a better question is, what happened with this movie?

Madonna is Nikki Finn, a playful gumcracking ex-con who just got out of jail serving time for a crime she didn’t commit. She’s rough around the edges but dead serious about her mission: she’s determined to find out who framed her for the murder of her boyfriend, Johnny.

Enter uptight humorless yuppie tax attorney Loudon Trott (Griffin Dunne), who works for Manhattan mogul Simon Worthington (John McMartin) and is about to marry his daughter, Wendy (Haviland Morris). Louden is charged with the task of picking up Nikki from the pen and making sure she gets on a bus to Philadelphia. Surprise: it’s not that easy with someone like darling Nikki, which becomes abundantly clear to Louden over the next 24 hours. Talk about causing a commotion.

Originally titled Slammer, Who’s That Girl is an homage of sorts to the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s. It’s a total “summer movie.” Written by Andrew Smith and Ken Finkleman, and directed by James Foley, it shows glimpses of some okay ideas. It’s supposed to be fun, and to a degree it is. Madonna and Dunne concoct a believable chemistry, I’ll give them that. Dunne is a great straight guy, on par with his performance in After Hours. The problem is, Who’s That Girl just isn’t very funny. The jokes are lame, the laughs are far and few between, and the plot is predictable. The whole thing loses steam about halfway through. Murray the cougar (Murray) is a pointless gimmick that, sadly, doesn’t add anything.

The animated opening sequence is cool (and parts of it ended up in the music video for “Who’s That Girl”). The soundtrack is better than the film. Overall, though, Who’s That Girl is a pretty uninspired work. I love Madonna and I ran to the theater when this came out. I was underwhelmed then; after waiting almost 30 years to see it again, I’m underwhelmed now. Fun fact, though: Stanley Tucci and Mike Starr both have minor roles as dockworkers.

With Coati Mundi, Dennis Burkley, James Dietz, Bibi Besch, John Mills, Robert Swan, Drew Pillsbury, Liz Sheridan

Production: Guber-Peters Company

Distribution: Warner Brothers

92 minutes
Rated PG

(iTunes purchase) D+

 

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

(USA 2016)

One of the best things to come from Saturday Night Live has to be its Digital Shorts segment. With titles like “Laser Cats!,” “Please Don’t Cut My Testicles,” “Jizz in My Pants,” and of course “Dick in a Box” and its follow up, “Motherlover,” the angle was decidedly crass and juvenile—high school boy stuff loaded with potty, sex, and to a lesser degree drug humor with the occasional reference to geek fodder, usually some work of the science fiction or fantasy genre. Written and produced by The Lonely Island—comedy trio Jorma Taccone, Akiva Schaffer, and Andy Samberg—the genius lied in the creators’ astute balance of pop cultural literacy, musical aptitude, and complete absurdism. Generally performed as music videos for rap and pop songs so spot on they sounded real, Digital Shorts attracted the likes of Steve Martin, Natalie Portman, Lady Gaga, Betty White, and of course Justin Timberlake.

In Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, The Lonely Island expands its formula into a feature length film, playing former members of Style Boyz, a boy band whose biggest hit was “The Donkey Roll” (https://youtu.be/-mRVK8-XfEU). After a rift over credit, the Boyz break up and go their separate ways. Lawrence (Schaffer) and Owen (Taccone) fail to duplicate their success, but narcissistic and dubiously talented frontman Conner Friel (Samberg) has a huge blockbuster with his solo album Thriller, Also. The film, done as a mockumentary very much in the style of This Is Spinal Tap!, picks up just as Conner’s followup, Connquest, is about to “drop” (i.e, be released). A huge media blitz including a tour is in the works. When Connquest fails to live up to its predecessor, all signs point to a Style Boyz reunion—but can that happen?

Popstar makes it abundantly clear why The Lonely Island’s brand of humor works as shorts: it simply can’t sustain a movie. With Popstar, they nail the excess, the ego, and the emptiness of the entertainment biz. Tim Meadows as Conner’s manager and Sarah Silverman as his publicist are awesome, simultaneously informing, persuading, and babysitting Conner while constantly stroking his ego. The songs sound real. Conner’s show, complete with backup dancers and a deejay, looks authentic. Some of the scenes are pretty damned funny, including one where Conner is forced to autograph a fan’s, um, junk (props for getting it through the window of the limo). It’s amusing to see real popstars like Questlove, Usher, 50 Cent, and Ringo Starr (not to mention bitch on wheels Simon Cowell) gush in fake interviews over something so obviously lame as Style Boyz and Conner. It’s fun to see P!nk, Adam Levine, and Michael Bolton perform with Conner—and “Equal Rights” (with P!nk) is a hilarious, cheerful spoof of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’s “Same Love.” Seal and Mariah Carey make gracious cameos that show they can take a joke. This is all good. The problem is, Popstar is essentially a string of dumb gags. Unlike This Is Spinal Tap!, it gets tiresome, fast. I lost interest after a little while; the characters and the jokes are too thin to carry Popstar all the way. Even Timberlake, whose appearances with The Lonely Island have always been funny, is an uncharacteristic yawn as Conner’s chef. Meh.

Curiously, the best song for this film was deleted: https://youtu.be/t3jKtjgRZQY. Seeing it as a short probably is best, anyway.

Also starring Maya Rudolph, Joan Cusack, Imogen Poots, Chris Redd, Edgar Blackmon, James Buckley, Ashley Moore, Bill Hader, Will Forte, Will Arnett, Carrie Underwood, Nas, Akon, Big Boy, D.J. Khaled, Danger Mouse, Pharrell Williams, Jimmy Fallon, Martin Sheen, Snoop Dog, Weird Al Yankovic

Produced by Perfect World Pictures, Apatow Company, and The Lonely Island

Distributed by Universal Pictures

87 minutes
Rated R

(iTunes rental) D+

https://www.uphe.com/movies/popstar-never-stop-never-stopping

The Devil Wears Prada

(USA 2006)

Some movies you watch just because they start and you’re too damned lazy to see what else is on. Such is the case with The Devil Wears Prada, which served as the end of my Christmas night movie binge.

Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) just finished school and moved to New York City to become a journalist. While seeking employment with more weighty publications like The New Yorker, she snags a one-off interview for Runway magazine. Surprise: she gets the job—working as personal assistant to ball busting editor-in-chief, Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep). Andy’s job duties and a chance meeting with handsome magazine writer Simon Baker (Christian Thompson) cause friction in her personal relationships, especially her chef boyfriend, Nate (Adrian Grenier). Is a job worth this much hassle?

Director David Frankel does a competent job with Aline Brosh McKenna’s screen adaptation of Lauren Weisberger’s novel even if the end result is nothing special. The acting is fine, particularly Stanley Tucci as caddy and nelly designer Nigel. It’s nice to hear Madonna’s “Vogue” in one scene outside Andy’s car. The problem I have is the script, which is formulaic and predictable girl movie stuff: awkward girl in the big city reinvents herself and not just survives but excels in the face of adversity. Of course, there’s a happy ending. The Devil Wears Prada is not my cup of tea: it’s cute, but that’s about it.

109 minutes
Rated PG-13

(Bravo) D+

http://www.foxmovies.com/movies/the-devil-wears-prada

Date Night

(USA 2010)

I love me some Tina Fey, I usually like Steve Carell, and I certainly won’t complain if Mark Wahlberg is shirtless in every scene. Add James Franco, Mila Kunis, Mark Ruffalo, Kristen Wiig, and even Common, and you’d expect to have a winner on your hands. Right? Wrong.

Date Night is a cute adventure film, but it’s certainly not an adventurous undertaking. It’s formulaic, predictable Hollywood milquetoast aimed at married suburban couples—director Shawn Levy’s specialty. Fey and Carell play the Fosters, a normal, middle-aged, overworked New Jersey couple whose longtime marriage has lost its mojo. They do date night periodically to keep things alive—it doesn’t seem to be working. One night, they decide to be adventurous and head to Manhattan. When they learn that the wait for a table at an exclusively hip restaurant will be a few hours because they don’t have a reservation, they pretend to be another couple, the Tripplehorns, to snag theirs. The Fosters end up with way more excitement than either of them bargained for after a pair of mobsters (Common and Jimmi Simpson) confronts them about a jump drive their boss (Ray Liotta) wants.

Fey and Carell have a sort of chemistry, but it’s benign. They do this thing where they imagine the conversations that patrons at other tables are having—it’s cute and very Seinfeldian. The Maitre D’ (Nick Kroll) is funny because he is such an asshole—in a David Spade way. Other than that, the laughs here are far and few between. The problem isn’t the actors—it’s Josh Klausner’s lame script, which plays out like a bland and weird ripoff of After Hours, Adventures in Babysitting, and True Romance. Date Night has a few good lines and a few good scenes, but not enough to make it funny for very long.

88 minutes
Rated PG-13

(TBS) D+

Mad Max: Fury Road

(Australia/USA 2015)

Mad Max: Fury Road is not a movie I would have bothered to see but for the fact that it was nominated for Best Picture. It’s a huge Hollywood blockbuster retooling of an earlier Hollywood blockbuster—totally not my thing.

Tom Hardy is Mad Max, and he’s taken captive by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and his gang of warboys who look like an army of “Zero” era Billy Corgans. Max gets away and finds himself working with Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a rig driver liberating a gaggle of Joe’s “breeders”—young women he keeps for reproductive purposes. Loaded with fast cars, a badass woman, fox females, a rock band, and weapons, the first hour is nonstop noise and destruction. There’s some decent acting in the middle, but it doesn’t last. A final plan to take out Joe brings on another barrage of destruction.

Mad Max: Fury Road is exactly what it’s supposed to be: an action picture. The costumes and cars are imaginative even if derivative. John Seale’s cimenatography is snappy: he makes the desert look hot, colorful, and stunning with not all that much to work with. It’s easily the film’s most impressive element. Hardy is nice to look at, all rugged and filthy and with all his teeth (unlike many other characters). This is about all I can say that’s positive. Director George Miller’s cho-mo (my term for choppy motion) technique gives the film a cheesy, horror movie look. There are no big surprises here—we know how it ends.

Mad Max: Fury Road is an indulgent, guilty pleasure for those who dig this stuff. I’m just not one of them. Best Picture, my ass.

(ArcLight) D+

http://www.madmaxmovie.com

Mr. Holmes

(USA/UK 2015)

In Bill Condon’s adaptation of Mitch Cullin’s 2005 novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, Sir Ian McKellen plays an elderly Sherlock Holmes, who traded in his magnifying glass for relative seclusion in an English seaside town 35 years ago after the only case he ever “lost.” When not tending to his bees, Holmes is literally writing his final chapter, struggling to remember why he gave up detective work. With some cajoling from idolizing Roger (Milo Parker), the young son of his housekeeper (Laura Linney), Holmes’ memory returns to him in dribs and drabs that he must piece together to solve this last remaining mystery.

I’d like to say I enjoyed Mr. Holmes, but I didn’t. The concept is interesting, but the story lacks momentum. The tone is wistful, mournful, and sleepy. The pace is slower than Holmes hobbling around on his cane. None of the plot twists or big reveals are all that surprising. McKellen’s performance is fine, but his iconic character—physically ailing and mentally fading—is downright depressing. Flickers of humor and a few engaging moments emerge, but I still found the whole thing boring. Mr. Holmes is not my cup of tea.

(Home via iTunes) D+

http://www.mrholmesfilm.com