Thursday, June 28, 2007

"Hairspray" -- * * *

To get this right out of the way, I’m a “Hairspray” fan. I adore the original John Waters film, and the stage adaptation of it is one of the few full-on “fluff” musicals that I genuinely love. So this review is from the point of view of someone who’s familiar and fond of the source material, so view it with a grain of salt if you must.

My reaction to the announcement of a star-studded “Hairspray” movie musical wasn’t akin to my nervous dread about Tim Burton’s “Sweeney Todd,” and with good reason. “Sweeney” is a musical masterpiece, a haunting piece of art that could potentially be desecrated and sabotaged if done incorrectly. “Hairspray,” on the other hand, is a big, silly, fun time at the theatre that preaches tolerance for both fatties and negroes alike. Basically, it’s a big ball of happy with wonderful music and a nice message to boot. So, I was totally fine with the idea of Hollywood doing a big-ole celebrity pageant version of it, even if someone as talentless as Adam Shankman was assigned to direct.

Do I think this could have been a much better movie in every respect had it been equipped with a director who had any skill besides choreographing? Yes. Do I think it would have benefited from having the most appropriate actors for the parts cast, rather than the biggest names possible? Yes. Do I want to watch it again right now? Yes.

While not as good as it really should be, “Hairspray” is a ton of fun, but that was never really in question. The source materials, both the original film and the show, are so incredibly fun, good-natured and entertaining that it would be virtually impossible to completely fuck them up. Shankman makes some mistakes along the way, notably some misguided casting, but audiences are going to eat this thing up, and it’s certainly a fun night at the movies. So, yes, good news, it’s not a “Producers”-esque disappointment, but it’s certainly worth noting that virtually all the movie’s strengths should be credited to the creators of the stage musical, not the filmmakers.

For those who don’t know, “Hairspray” centers on Tracy Turnblad, an overweight teenager living in Baltimore in1962, and follows her ascent to becoming featured on her favorite dancing show, “The Corny Collins Show,” and eventually, attempting to win Miss Hairspray and to integrate black and white dancers on the show, or as she puts it “make every day Negro Day.”

The casting is extremely hit or miss. Generally, everyone who you thought was a good fit for the material when you first heard about their casting, is, and those who made you go “Hm” are not.

The one exception to that rule is Queen Latifah as host of “The Corny Collins Show’s” Negro Day, Motormouth Maybell. She was the one huge question mark for me, and amazingly enough, she pulls it off. Yes, the Queen has proven she can act, and “Chicago” proved she can sing, but I doubted her ability to really belt the way Maybell needs to, both during “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” and her big number, “I Know Where I’ve Been.” Well, she can. She belts the hell out of the latter, and it was one of the few numbers that got applause from a majority of the audience (as opposed to a few hands clapping).

As for Nikki Blonsky as Tracy, she’s very good. She certainly doesn’t re-define the character—it’s played in exactly the way Marisa Jaret Winokur played her—but she can sing well and has enough spunk and charm to keep us loving the character, even when she’s fighting for screentime with nearly a dozen main characters.

Zac Efron fulfills all his promise from “High School Musical” as Tracy’s love interest Link—meaning he sings quite well, but can’t act for shit. Anytime he’s asked to deliver line of speaking (as opposed to singing) dialogue, it’s cringe-inducingly bad. Thankfully, most of his part consists of singing.

For Amanda Bynes, the opposite is true. She’s suitably annoying as Tracy’s best friend Penny, and does what she’s supposed to, but when it’s finally time for her to sing, what stopped the show on stage is an embarrassingly flat non-moment. Penny’s big moment is supposed to be backed up by an overpowering voice and Bynes just isn’t up to the challenge.

Christopher Walken as Tracy’s father Wilbur seemed to be inspired casting, and it is. He’s wonderful here, and quite possibly the MVP of the movie. He’s not just strange/quirky wonderful, he’s genuinely great. He’s pitch-perfect sweet when he needs to be, uses his now self-parodying delivery to excellent effect, and most of all, is a great song-and-dance man. His half of the duet “Your Timeless to Me” is superb, and I was in heaven every moment he was on screen.

Fighting Walken for the MVP crown is Michelle Pfieffer as villainous producer of “The Corny Collins Show,” Velma Von Tussle. Even though Shankman awkwardly directs her sole number, “Miss Baltimore Crabs,” she performs the shit out of it and makes it an early highlight in the film. She takes eye-rolling lines from the show (“Steer them in the white direction”) and makes them drip with delicious acid, making it all the more unfortunate how the film handles her character late in the proceedings; more on that later.

Brittany Snow does a fine enough job as Amber, Velma’s daughter and Tracy’s chief competition, but it’s not exactly a juicy part. What she’s asked to do, she does well, but it isn’t much.

Corny Collins was never a particularly large role, but James Marsden is perfectly cast as the TV show host, nailing the insincere-positivity shtick and singing quite well also. He might not be a big enough star to nail down a gig headlining a Broadway musical, but I’d pay to see it if he did.

Allison Janney only gets a handful of scenes as Penny’s religious/racist mother, Mrs. Pingleton, but she makes the most of them, providing the few moments in the movie that are genuinely hilarious, not just smile-inducing cute.

Elijah Kelley is a revelation as Seaweed, the headliner on Negro Day. Like most of the characters, he doesn’t have a bunch of straight dialogue, but he’s a great singer and dancer, and the scenes featuring him are probably the best-directed scenes in the film. Seaweed is one of the characters the movie completely nails, and that’s largely due to Kelley.

And now, I must address the elephant in the room (no pun intended), John Travolta.

Ever since casting was announced, he’s been by far the most controversial cast member. People have bitched and moaned about him from day one. I seemed to be one of the few who thought it was inspired casting, though I began to fret mildly once I saw glimpses of him in his fat suit and heard his manner of speaking in the trailer. Now, having seen the movie, I can state definitively that this is a massively crowd-pleasing performance. Audiences are going to completely dig Edna, and you could sense the giddiness in the audience I saw the film with whenever Travolta sang and danced across the screen. However, I’m sorry to report that I despised the performance with every fiber of my being. To be fair, whenever Travolta dances as Edna, magic happens. When she finally shimmies and shakes during “You Can’t Stop the Beat” at the movie’s close, it’s truly a great moment. The problem lies in what happens anytime Travolta opens his mouth.

In addition to his fat suit making him look like a creepy Muppet-esque creature, Travolta has opted to utilize what he apparently thinks is a Baltimore accent. Now I’m not a native, but I’ve been going to school in Baltimore for four years now, and I’ve heard people with Charm City accents—Travolta has taken every aspect of their manner of speaking and exaggerated it, elongated it and made it as garbled and mush-mouthed as possible. But if it was merely inaccurate, I wouldn’t be complaining; the chief issue is that it’s fucking irritating to listen to and anytime he speaks (or sings) I was literally cringing. I understand Travolta wanted to make a drastic change in his manner of speaking since he’s playing a woman, and wanted to differentiate from himself, but this was completely the wrong direction to go in.

I’m totally not a stickler for changes, and pointing out minor adjustments to the source material as flaws isn’t usually my style. Yes, there are changes in Shankman’s “Hairspray” and most of them were fine with me (e.g.: the excising of all the prison/“Big Doll House” material). But there was one change that particularly bothered me, because it (a) deprives Pfeiffer’s Velma of a satisfying/amusing resolution and (b) seems to go against the entire message of “Hairspray.”

*SPOILER ALERT* At the close of the Broadway production, the blatantly racist Velma Von Tussle is congratulated on a job well done producing the Miss Hairspray broadcast and is, ironically, rewarded by being promoted to head of the new black women’s division, and thus, her and her offspring Amber get to participate in the show’s big finale, “You Can’t Stop the Beat.” In Shankman’s version, Edna catches Velma on camera admitting she fixed the votes for Miss Hairspray; she is promptly fired and is seen seething while the rest of the characters perform the infectious number. I may be off here, but it seems to me that a huge part of “Hairspray” is a sense of inclusiveness and acceptance, making it all the more joyous that at the end of the show, even the supposed “villains” are embraced and sing along with the rest of the cast. Here, we’re just given Velma looking angry, and we supposedly feel satisfied knowing she is fired and upset. Maybe test audiences dictated it, I don’t know. *SPOILERS OVER*

I know, I know, this sounds like my reaction to the film was extremely negative. But I really did enjoy myself at “Hairspray.” It’s a very fun 110 minutes, though I do think those unfamiliar with the show will probably enjoy themselves a little bit more than those who consider themselves fans. However, fans will take comfort in the fact that more numbers are given justice on screen than not—“Welcome to the 60s,” “I Can Hear the Bells,” “Without Love,” “You’re Timeless to Me” and “Good Morning Baltimore” are particularly well-handled, and the latter features a completely perfect cameo by John Waters.

In the canon of recent movie musicals, “Hairspray” is markedly ahead of “The Producers” and “Rent” but falls short of the heights of “Chicago” and “Dreamgirls.” While I was disappointed—as I’ve said, I love the musical—I still had a good time and wasn’t crushingly disappointed. Needless to say, I’ll be taking in a second viewing on July 20th.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Goodbye, Tony and Family...

Last night was a brilliant final episode, one of my favorites of the entire series. But I completely know Sopranos fans everywhere today will be bitching about "the worst episode ever."

It's always amazed me that this show has managed to attract a fanbase that is consistently too dumb to really appreciate it.

That closing scene was completely perfect-- and not just because creator David Chase is a master of pissing people off (building tension to its absolute highest level and then ending abruptly) but for all the things it indicates and/or leaves open about each member of the Soprano family. And while I wish we got some sort of real catharsis for Melfi rather than her rushed conclusion in last week's episode, I think our last glimpses of Paulie, Silvio and particularly Junior were perfect.

While people tend to hate ambiguity no matter what, and often it's utilized as an easy way out rather than a logical conclusion, here was an example of ambiguity at its finest. If there was ever a situation that audiences should have been allowed to make up their own mind about, it was this one. I think ambiguousness should be utilized where imagining what you think might happen is more interesting than being shown one explicit scenario, and this was certainly that.

Were they all killed by the suspicious mob guy? The black guys who just entered? Was Tony gunned down in front of his surviving family, much like Phil? Were just Carm, AJ and Meadow killed and Tony left to deal with what he's brought upon his family? Does Tony, Carm and AJ get killed and Meadow's lateness due to her parking mishaps allow for her to be spared? Was Tony just being edgy and in actuality, nobody gets killed? Does the family's seclusion and consequent job opportunities for AJ and Meadow allow for Tony's first genuinely happy moment with his family in years? I don't know, and I think it's better that way. Good show everyone.

"Don't stop believin..."

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

"Hostel: Part II" -- * * *

Ever since “Saw” and, more recently, “Hostel” were thrust forth on the moviegoing public, the phrase “torture porn” has been bandied about like nobody’s business to describe them. “Hostel” writer/director Eli Roth despises the term, and it’s always struck me as a bit unfair and inaccurate to attach to these films. Yes, torture is their center and essentially makes up their “money shots,” but it’s actually a part of the stories, in the context of a real movie, and doesn’t exist solely to give pleasure of some sort simply from watching someone’s torture/pain/death.

However, a little past the halfway point of “Hostel: Part II,” Roth includes a scene that can only be described as “torture porn,” in every sense of the word, and it’s not pretty. It’s disturbing, it’s wrong, it actually crosses the barely-there line for horror films, and I hate to sound like a Fox News correspondent, but I think it actually may be irresponsible. Without giving away the specifics, it’s a disturbing, horrific scene that Roth infuses with elements that I sincerely believe he hopes will give some audience members erections.

Despite my issues with this sequence, I will still recommend “Hostel: Part II” to anyone who enjoyed “Hostel” (myself included), and Roth has clearly grown as a filmmaker; the movie has more originality and elements of interest than we have any right to expect for this genre. I just hope it doesn’t represent where horror films are going in the future.

The film opens with Paxton (Jay Hernandez), our “hero” from the first film at exactly the point we left him at the end of “Hostel,” on the train ride home. However, he’s not our hero for “Hostel: Part II,” as he’s dispatched by the 8-minute mark. The story soon shifts to our three female protagonists, the nice, pretty, rich girl (Lauren German), the beautiful confident bitchy one (Bijou Philips) and the sweet, dorky, sober one (Heather Matarazzo). Just like the first film, it follows their fun and frivolity abroad (though they don’t partake in mean and exploitive behavior like their male counterparts), before horror sets in and they wind up in a torture factory of sorts.

What makes this more than just a rehash of the first film, and what makes it a lot more interesting, is Roth’s decision to tell two parallel stories. One telling the story of these three girls, and one following two businessmen (Richard Burgi and Roger Bart, both excellent), who will inevitably become these girls’ torturers. These two mens’ turnarounds, and their character arcs (Bart’s particularly) are really intriguing, and their screen time ends up being the highlights of the movie.

The movie also cleverly gives us a bit more specifics on the running of the actual torturing palace, and they’ve clearly made upgrades since the first film, making it a lot less easy for someone to get out (presumably in response to Paxton’s escape).

I swear, I must be the only person on earth who enjoys these movies for their storytelling and not for their gore, but if that’s your bag, yeah, the gore is relatively impressive. It’s not as frequent as it was in “Hostel,” but when it happens, it bites your balls off. It’s pretty horrific. However, in the interest of full disclosure, like the first film, no, “Hostel: Part II” isn’t particularly scary. It’s simply gory, fun and entertaining.

But really, I don’t think Roth is trying to make a scary film here. There are horrific moments to be sure, but there’s far too much dark, absurdist comedy present here for it to really come off as a movie that wants to genuinely fuck people up. The soccer-playing street kids from “Hostel” are back, and they show up for the film’s final moment that I happened to enjoy a lot, but may rub some audience members the wrong way.

Then again, rubbing some audience members the wrong way is practically this franchise’s calling card. You should pretty much know by now whether the “Hostel” films are for you. If this is your bag, “Hostel: Part II” has a lot to offer: insane amounts of gore, horror infused with absurdist humor, gratuitous nudity (both cocks and titties this time around), and a relatively clever storytelling angle. What it DOESN’T have, despite what Roth may claim in interviews, is any sort of political symbolism/relevance or sincere message. I like the “Hostel” films and I recommend them to horror fans; it’s just a shame Roth feels the need to make up such bullshit to justify his fun, gory freak show, when just the freak show should suffice.