The Best Movie Critic + review

Music Movie Fest 2010: The Reckoning!

Over the last few years, my friend group has come together fairly regularly for 12 to 24 hour movie fests. The effect is a shot of adrenaline into your movie blood stream. There's nothing quite like sitting in the same stuffy, packed room for entirely too long and letting your eyes and brain get totally wacked out on movie-juice. I've been introduced to many favorites at these fests over the years: The French Connection, Teen Witch, Slither, Night of the Hunter, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Jean Cocteau's Orpheus, Faster Pussycat Kill! Kill!, and Phenomena, to name a few.

Last week's fest was 'Music Movie' themed, meaning musicals, rock operas, music documentaries, and other things along those lines. Whereas in the past, the picks have been mostly been made by fellow Movie Advocate Justin, guest Advocate Miranda, my significant other Beth, and myself, this fest was opened up a little: One pick apiece by each of the four of us, as well as one pick each from our friends Luke, Jamie, and Eric, who have been movie fest faithfuls for long enough that it was silly not to let them in on the fun. The fest was frighteningly well put together. It was almost as if we had discussed our picks ahead of time to make sure there was no overlap (we didn't). It was almost as if we had planned out the order (we didn't). It was almost as if we had Goldschlagger shots and erotic cupcakes... Oh wait, we did have Goldschlagger shots and erotic cupcakes!
Here's the breakdown, comin' at'cha...

1. WE ARE WIZARDS

The fest opened up with this pick from our ol' pal Luke, who unfortunately was not able to attend due to a prior obligation involving the Southern California desert and Die Antwerd. Though Luke would only be at Music Movie Fest in spirit, he requested that we play his movie anyway, and I'm happy he did. This documentary about Harry Potter-themed bands and other Potter freaks was a great way to kick off the fest. I don't think I've ever seen a more entertaining documentary by a more inept documentary filmmaker. In the spirit of getting the bad out of the way, if I saw one more 'dreary landscape' and 'leafless tree' montage, or one more scene made up of clips from old B-movies that had nothing more than the most flimsy relationship to the topic at hand, I was gonna punch somebody. Luckily, the personalities that make up the Harry Potter fan-fiction band universe are so consistently intriguing it more than makes up for the lack of focus and direction on the part of the filmmakers. We begin with Harry and the Potters, a band formed by two brothers – one is 'Harry Potter year 4,' the other is 'Harry Potter year 7.' These guys are not an amazing band, but at this point it's just entertaining watching these two Potters up on stage singing songs from Harry's POV to an auditorium of Renaissance fair girls who've probably never talked to a boy before. These guys are their sex gods. Then we meet the band's 'rivals,' Draco and the Malfroys. These guys are actually pretty awesome, and it's about this time that we the audience realizes that all these bands sound an awful lot like They Might Be Giants... Am I alone in thinking that They Might Be Giants should totally capitalize on the Potter craze and ascend to the top of the Harry Potter Fan-Fic Band heap before it's too late ? Probably...

In a twist I couldn't have predicted, it turns out that all the Potterverse bands ('wizard rock' to the initiated... ) follow some unspoken code whereby they are required to pick a character or object from the books and write songs from that person or object's point of view. There is a guy who sings as the Whomping Willow. We even hear rumors of a band called that Wands that sings from the POV of a wand. And I thought I play niche music... The best band is the metal band that has taken on the persona of Hagrid's older bro, Grawp. “Grawp... Grawp... Grawp.” It's good shit.

Magic Moment: The dude who made that George Washington viral video shows up to pimp his Harry Potter 'MST3K'-style narration. It's really, really amazing. I lost it when he gave his 'Ron Weasley' caricature a Twizzler because "he's always eating stuff" and I didn't regain composure for about 10 minutes. “I am a magnificent animal! I am a destroyer of worlds! I am Harry fucking Potter!”

2. TRAPPED IN THE CLOSET

Miranda had the next pic, and decided to go for the gold with Trapped in the Closet, both parts. I had seen Trapped in the Closet before, but it fit the manic 'movie fest' energy surprisingly well. I mean, what's better than sitting in a room with 15-20 of your best friends and watching R Kelly go f-ing crazy!? The answer is nothing. We watching the first part here and the second part later in the evening, and splitting them up allowed for maximum impact, accentuating the merits of both. Trapped in the Closet part I edges out the win. Sure it's less crazy that 'Take 'em to church,' the Package, and Pimp Lucius, but the first part has the initial episodes where R Kelly really is trapped in the closet and pulling his gun on everyone and being crazy and – after that – all sorts of great moments between Sylvester, Gwen, and Twan that, on repeated viewing, are almost as heartwarming and true as they are drop-dead hilarious.

What the fuck am I talking about, this shit is crazy.

Magic Moment: When Twan gets shot, he decides that rather than go to the hospital, he just needs five minutes in the bathroom to patch himself up.

3. GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933

The next pick went to Beth, and she presented the fantastic Busby Berkley musical Gold Diggers of 1933. Though I'm picking up steam, Beth is the resident musical junkie in our home. I've seen The Gangs All Here, Girl Crazy, and parts from 42nd Street and Footlight Parade, but that's about the extent of my Busby Berkley knowledge. As far as I was concerned, Busby musical numbers were spectacular, but not worth the slog through hours of boring, tedious plot. Beth really made a deft pick with this one, though. The movie opens with 'We're in the Money,' and when Ginger Rodgers looks you right in the face and sings chorus/verse/chorus in pig-Latin, I knew that this was really something different, even for a Busby number. The rest of the movie lived up to that and then some. The pacing was a bit awkward at times – there's a stretch of almost an hour without a musical number in the middle. Nevertheless, as far as Busby Berkley plots go, this is a diamond in the rough.

Set during the (then contemporary) Great Depression, Gold Diggers is about a gaggle of Broadway chorus girls living in squalor trying to get cash for any show they can weasle their way into. One of them – Ruby Keeler – has a sweetheart who croons and plays a mean piano, but is secretly the heir to a Boston banking fortune. When his super-aristocrat older brother gets wind of his showbiz wheelings and dealings, he comes to New York to 'put a stop to this nonsense.' The rest of the movie plays out as a comedy of errors, where the girls all switch roles to take this upper-crust, stuck-up, good-fer-nothin' for a ride. Everything in the plot from the depression setting to the pre-code risque humor to the flighty cynicism to the surreal, psychedelic dance numbers resonates with our current time and place (as I see them). Even the members of our little movie fest audience with the most 'modern' sensibilities had a ball with this one. I couldn't recommend Gold Diggers of 1933 highly enough, and if you're going to see it you should see it soon. Though Busby and crew couldn't have known it at the time, this movie says a lot about us here and now.

Magic Moment: Pettin' in the Park is the steamiest music number I've ever seen. It's as much a marvel of raunch as it is a marvel of choreography, set design, and costumes. Somehow this unassuming movie from the Great Depression ended up as sex-charged as my pick later on in the fest, which departs from similar interests, but in a much seedier direction...

4. 32 SHORT FILMS ABOUT GLENN GOULD

Glenn Gould was a premiere concert pianist, a masterful interpreter of Bach, and a total nutzoid. This movie – Justin's selection – seeks to paint a portrait of the man in 32 discrete parts, mirroring the 32 movements of Bach's Goldberg Variations, the piece that Gould was most famous for interpreting, performing, and recording. This wasn't everybody's cup of tea, but for the most part, it was mine. Music history/theory and philosophical musings on the role of the artist in contemporary society are interests of mine, and though the movie wasn't viscerally riveting, it excited my brain in a way I didn't expect from a 'fest pick.' 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould is at it's best when exploring the contradiction between Glenn Gould's neo-Marxist ideal of narrowing the gap between the artist and the audience on the one hand and on the other the obvious elite, 'eccentric aristocrat' lifestyle Gould leads... well, obvious to everyone but Gould himself. The disconnect between the way Gould sees himself and the way he appears from the outside looking in is telling, and perfectly suited to the 'short film montage' format.

The latter shorts center around the topic of Gould's neurosis, his obsessions over cleanliness, disease, and isolation, and his heavy self-medication. This bit was hard for me to take, and the soundtrack transition from Bach to Schoenberg took the uncomfortable factor through the roof. I can sit through a lot, but I had to leave the room for a few moments during these segments to breath some fresh air and get out of Gould's increasingly oppressive atmosphere for a minute. I suppose the movie was 'viscerally effective' after all...

32 Short Films ends after Gould's death with a tonal rumination on the inclusion of Gould's recording of the Goldberg Variations on the Voyager probes, a surprisingly epic outcome for the life and legacy of a troubled, insular man.

Magic Moment: I am deeply impressed about how genre-less this is. It's not unrelated shorts, but rather a singular piece. It's part documentary, part staged, and part non-narrative, and the boundaries between all these are constantly blurred and challenged. As well as depicting the person, 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould portrays a broad picture of film as we known it through the combination of its typically not-so-fraternal forms.

5. THE POINT

The Point is the made-for-TV animated adaptation of the classic album of the same name by Harry Nilsson, and considering that Eric is the biggest Nilsson fan I know, this was not exactly a surprising pick. The movie follows the narrative of the album pretty much exactly: In the Land of Points, where everyone and everything has a point, a little boy named Oblio is born without a point. Though he tries to fit in, he ends up getting banished because he has no point (get it?). He and his trusty sidekick dog, Arrow, hang out in the Pointless Forrest for a while and learn all sorts of heavy trips about how everything has a point, even things that don’t have a point. Like, woah.

The Point (the movie) suffers from the same problems as the album, namely that all the exciting, interesting stuff is totally frontloaded, and that the plot of this lil’ morality play is wafer thin. These problems are exacerbated by the movie being twice as long as the album, and the filler thrown in to push it past the hour-mark drags a bit
That’s not to say that there isn’t plenty to love in The Point. Ringo Starr voices the narriator, a dad reading Oblio’s story to his son, who just wants to watch TV. This ‘frame’ story is the only major addition that wasn’t on the album, and it plays like the bookend story from The Princess Bride but with all the lessons taken out. Mostly it's just Ringo rambling on about how things were better when he was a kid, and how ‘kids these days, something, something, blah, blah, blah…’ This is totally hilarious, and though I have no idea what they were going for, it’s cracked enough to make it really enjoyable.

The animation is pretty ‘Schoolhouse Rocks’done on a budget-style. It fits the music, and of course the music itself is still the main attraction. This is Nilsson at his best, and a great fantasy world to visit for a couple of hours.

Magic Moment: There is a scene where Oblio and Arrow meet a ‘Rock Man’ in the Pointed forest which occurs both on the album and in the movie. On the album, Nillson himself provides the Rock Man’s voice, and does kind of a beatnik ‘cool cat’ impression. In the movie, the Rock Man has a sort of Dutch Afrikaans-meets-beatnik accent. It’s bizarre, and I have no idea if it’s on purpose, but I loved it. The movie’s Rock Man expounds on his worldview in greater detail than on the album, and what he has to say sounds like a pretty mature endorsement of process philosophy to me…

6. FUNNY FACE

Our friend Jamie picked next. The week prior to the fest, she totally tricked me into thinking she would play Xanadu. Instead, she threw on the famous Fred Astaire/Audrey Hepburn vehicle Funny Face. I am ashamed to admit I had never seen it. We even own it and I had never seen it. It’s one of those movies, like Gone with the Wind, that I seem to have some mental block that keeps me from popping it in the ol’ DVD player. One of those ‘I’ll get around to it someday’ kind of movies. Thank you, Jamie, for forcing me to sit down and watch this. If Funny Face is any indication, I better check out Gone with the Wind.

When Funny Face started, the first thing everyone it the room noticed is how great it looked on our HDTV. Many of the other movies at this fest were either downloaded off the internet or recorded on VHS or else intended for TV, and didn’t really take advantage of the great color and picture quality this TV is capable of. Funny Face changed all that. This wasn’t even a BluRay, but the colors just popped right off the screen. I’m a sucker for neon anything, and the ‘Think Pink’ song and dance that opens the movie exploded my brain. The cinematography throughout the movie is rapturous, and not what I was expecting at all. If I was a betting man, I’d put money on the fact that Dario Argento and his cinematographer studied the Paris night scenes in Funny Face when prepping Susperia.

I love ‘fabulous’ musicals. I love musicals that celebrate the artifice and superficiality of musicals. (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is one of my absolute favorite movies.) Funny Face comes dangerously close to being one of those. 'Think Pink' was a great start. Early in the movie, the fashion agency makes a mess of Audrey Hepburn’s bookshop and leaves her nothing but a neon green hat (that is totally not her style) as a token of gratitude. But Hepburn’s Jo sees in the hat a window to another life, the life of glamor and fabulousness that she has denied herself in pursuit of intellect. My Oscar Wilde/Gentlemen Prefer Blondes senses were tingling. Unfortunately, most of the rest of the movie plays out as a very, very sexist morality tale, wherein Audrey learns her lesson about what her real assets are. When she argues that a famous philosopher she looks up to is interested in her ideas not her body, Astaire (the love interest, mind you) quips, "He’s about as interested in your brain as I am." Hooray for female agency…

Magic Moment: This is a toughy. The ‘Think Pink,’ ‘Bonjour Paris,’ and 'How Long Has This Been Going On?' musical numbers are all masterworks of cinematography, choreography, and editing, and totally engrossing to boot. The scene where Fred Astaire dances in the courtyard to cheer Audrey up, however, is one of those ‘great scenes of cinema,’ one of those moments the movies were invented for. Astaire is hemorrhaging charisma. The music is sappy and over-sweet. And, like Audrey’s Jo, we forget in an instant that Astaire was just acting like a real jerk. The world stops for a few minutes and we just enjoy life and Fred Astaire’s company and feel all warm and fuzzy. This is the same feeling I get from the ‘I Got Rhythm’ number in An American in Paris. If the editor was a utilitarian, these scenes would have been cut. They add nothing to the plot. But great Hollywood musicals are not utilitarian. They remind us how to take a step back for a minute and just enjoy the good stuff in life like good company, song and dance, and how we as human beings have the ability to make each other feel great if we want to.

7. LISZTOMANIA

I had a very tough time deciding which movie to play for my pick for this fest, but not for lack of options. To the contrary, this was the most difficult fest to date to narrow down my pick for. I started with A Hard Day's Night, and although I'm shamed to say that many of my friends have never seen it, it was just too obvious a choice. Along the same lines, Viva Las Vegas was in the running for a while, and though I love that movie to death, it just wasn't as good as my final two. In the end, it came down to Phantom of the Paradise and Lisztomania, both from 1974, and both completely off their rocker. I ended up going with Lisztomania, mostly because it has a scene where Roger Daltry rides around on a 15 ft. long erection, and what's more movie fest material than Roger Daltry riding around on a 15 ft. erection? I knew you'd see it my way.

Lisztomania cronicles the relationship and conflict between famed Romantic pianist Franz Liszt and infamous composer and proto-Nazi Richard Wagner, much in the same way Amadeus deals the conflict between Mozart and Salieri. Unlike Amadeus, however, Liszomania director Ken Russell has absolutely no interest in being historically accurate and maintaining the integrity of his subject. I am reduced to cataloging a list of offenses to make my point clear: a sex crazed Liszt smooching naked breasts to the pulse of a metronome, a flashback to Liszt's youth that takes the form of a Charlie Chaplin flick with Liszt as the Tramp, the aforementioned 15 ft. cock, Wagner being both a vampire and zombie-Hitler at different points in the movie, Ringo Starr as a wisecracking Pope, Liszt commandeering a heavenly spaceship during the movie's finale... I could go on, but you get the point. It's like Russ Meyer and Mel Brooks got together to make the most over-the-top, irreverent, offensive movie about a revered figure ever made. And I love it.

A lot of people see Lisztomania as a total trainwreck of a movie, a juvenile joke not worth the film it's printed on. Well, yes and no. It is all of those things, and if I spent my life in monastic academia studying and synthesizing the works of Liszt I might be offended, too. However, thematically the movie hues surprisingly close to real-Liszt's passions and challenges, and when all is said and done I find that this bizarre psycho-circus makes me feel closer to Liszt the man than any venerating document could. Liszt was a womanizer... only here they show the boobies. Liszt joined the clergy... only in real life he probably wasn't trading puns with the Pope. Wagner really did steal Liszt's melodies and turn them into Aryan anthems... only he probably didn't grow vampire fangs and suck Liszt's music out through his neck. To trot out a old trite standby, Liszt breathes new life into a stuffy corner of history.
Also, there are boobs and dicks in it.

Magic Moment: Special acclaim must be directed toward Rick Wakeman. I'm not a huge fan of the Yes keyboardist, but he really brought his A-game to this project. Lisztomania roasts 60s and 70s rock culture as much as it does the Romantic era. At one point, Liszt asks Wagner, “So you're getting it into electronic music?” and Wagner responds, “No, German music!” Wakeman's arrangements of Liszt and Wagner songs and melodies as pop songs, prog rock, and soul bridge the gap perfectly. His 'Orpheus Song' arrangement has been stuck in my head for months. Because composing a brilliant score wasn't enough, Wakeman makes a cameo as an infantile Thor/Frankenstein/Superman and 'takes the piss,' so to speak...

8. PURPLE RAIN

The last movie of the night, Purple Rain, was sort of a group pick. Back a couple months ago when Justin, Miranda, Beth, and I were toying with the idea of doing a music movie fest, Purple Rain was one of the first movies to come up in conversation. This has all the elements we were looking for. It’s the 'Music Movie Fest'-est movie I can think of. Unfortunately, most people were pretty pooped by this point or had to work the next day, so by about a half hour in, there were only six of us true believers left. We had a great time regardless. How can you not have a great time watching Purple Rain, even if you are sleep deprived and movie-hazed?

There's not much I can or want to say about Purple Rain. If you haven't seen it, you just should. The songs are great, naturally. Prince is, well, maybe not a great actor, but definitely a great lead presence. The movie somehow manages to avoid all the tropes and cliches of music movies, while at the same time, it kind of totally embodies the stereotype of the music movie. This is 100% comfort food for me. Sure, Prince is a jerk. He hits girls, and never really apologizes to his bandsmates for being cruel to them. He constantly and maliciously bites the hand that feeds him. But somehow, when he triumphs in the end, you're still sort of feelin' it. I can't explain it.

Magic Moment: I'm impressed by how when Lisa and Wendy present Price with a song they've been working on, we identify with Prince and think, 'Boy, that's a pretty cheesy sounding song.' It's not until the climax that we realize that it has been the song Purple Rain all along.

And that was Music Movie fest! If you were there, I hope you had as great of a time as I did. If you weren't there, I hope your guilt kept you company.

-Ben

p.s. One part of movie fests I enjoy very much is putting together a YouTube trailer reel to play in between movies. This year, Eric helped with some great music videos and epic TV show appearances. Here are some trailers and assorted videos from the fest. Enjoy.

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Music Movie Fest 2010: The Reckoning! + review