Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Bat-Mania update: Heath Ledger Died Edition

I didn't really know Heath Ledger was famous until yesterday. "Brokeback Mountain" the cultural phenomenon was far bigger than he or Jake Gyllenhal, though in Western society today that's all it takes for the press to exercise their parasitic version of mourning.

No one is in more mourning than Batman fans, and the taint of this unfortunate death will be on everything having to do with the current iteration of movies. No one will see this next film without knowing they are looking at a dead man. Somewhere on the 40th floor, an executive licks his lips. Tragic, yes, but you can't buy advertising like THIS.

SEE the very last performance of Heath Ledger on the big screen! LISTEN to nerds speculate that his performance as The Joker was so intense, it drove him to the brink! REVEL in the irony that in playing a dark, "edgy" version of the character, he he has achieved the ultimate perverse fanboy street cred, last seen when Brandon Lee died on the set of "The Crow"...sick, no?

Now no one gets to play The Joker for more than one film. Either the character dies, or the actor does. Weird precedent. What does Jack Nicholson's cryptic reaction tell us? That's he's simply a glib bastard, and wants to imply that his Joker was so perfect, any new actor taking over the role had a quasi-literal death wish?

To my knowledge, Joker doesn't die at the end of the next film. This was always highly unlikely since a) the Nolan films are trying to distinguish themselves from the Burton ones as much as possible, and b) if the character was popular it would only make sense to include him in the third film.

Well he's dead now, and he's left Two-Face in charge. Probably for the better, as a serious incarnation of Two-Face could carry a whole film on his own. Leger's Joker will most likely disappear, sent to jail, and mentioned only in passing in the inevitable next sequel. The stench of death is already upon it, in pre-pre-pre-production.

Ugliness abounds. Genuine grief, paparazzi "grief," displaced fanboy grief for "The Joker," and an instant cult of legend for a performance which hasn't even been seen yet.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Bat-Mania update 1-19-08

Some inventive YouTubers have, perhaps inadvertently, displayed the amount of material being recycled from Tim Burton's take on the material, all these years later.

Here is a music cue from Batman '89 with The Dark Knight trailer. Note the Wagnerian superiority of Elfman's music for what Nicholson called "Nietsche for kids"

Someone else matched the full The Dark Knight trailer audio to Batman '89 footage. I still can't get over 'Batman' not being in the title.

Here's the irrefutable Zapruder film evidence: The TDK trailer side by side with selected footage from Batman '89.

I've used to wonder, "did not The Joker do Jokeresque things like poison people, hijack the airwaves and actually be funny in a psychotic way?" I don't suspect Heath Ledger will be funny, but then he's not supposed to be. Did not Batman ride a cool car, fire grappling hooks, crash through skylights? Then I remembered: the fickle fanboys don't realize or care that they're sold a car with a new body but an old engine again and again.

And just as a pallet cleanser, here's a charming goofball who can sing, giving the rumored Batman on Broadway musical reconsideration. The simple genius is simply to use Elfman's iconic music with lyrics like some of this guy's:

Batman's insane

Batman's Bruce Wayne

Sunday, January 13, 2008

"Music Movies"

I watched Rock N' Roll High School last night, the Ramones movie. That's all it is, a zany high school setting with a threadbare story about how teenage babe Riff Randell, played by PJ Soles (the girl who gets strangled with a phone cord in Halloween) is their #1 fan and eventually gets them to come rock out the high school, and anarchy abounds even in the face of an evil principal. There's a lot of friendly faces from the Roger Corman entourage - Dick Miller, Paul Bartel, Mary Woronov...Dean Cundey, one of John Carpenter's greatest cinematographers, is the DP. Joe Dante co-created the "story." There's tons of Ramones songs, a couple sung in music video style by or with PJ and The Ramones.

Calling the movie a "musical" just doesn't fit. There's something about the nature of rock songs that don't lend themselves to the movie-musical mold. Even Ken Russell's 1975 adaptation of "Tommy" was billed as a "rock opera," the moniker jokingly created by Pete Townshend in an interview about the original 1969 album. The term stuck. Before THAT, The Beatles' groundbreaking A Hard Day's Night integrated plenty of concert footage and even some songs within scenes, but the fact the story was about a real band, and that The Beatles were so removed from the genteel stylings of then-current MUSICAL musicals like The Sound Of Music made the "musical" categorization insufficient. A rock-musical? Doesn't sound too appealing, like the two parts contradict by nature.

So, "Music Movie"?

The sub-genre of "Music Movies," as opposed to musicals arguably started with A Hard Day's Night (Richard Lester, 1964) considering it inspired a rash of cheesy movie vehicles for music acts as shitty as Sonny and Cher and as conceptually bold as The Monkees' Head, which got me thinking about this.

Rock videos used to be slower and more cinematic, and so movies with music after The Beatles more or less created "The Music Movie," which is rock music oriented 90% of the time. Ken Russell's frustrating but frequently rewarding Tommy elevates cinematography into a musical-style total film production of an album - no spoken dialogue. The traditional musical style of the past manifests in the casting of Oliver Reed from Oliver! and no, he didn't play an orphan boy, he's a compellingly ugly grown man. Swedish import Ann-Margret was something of a cross between traditional 45' LP record vocalists of the time like Doris Day, and a Rock N' Roll harlot. She has a deliciously Oedipal role with the titular Tommy, played by Roger Daltry, the real deal singer from the album, of The Who, at the peak of their abilities.

I was OBSESSED with this movie, and quickly collected the various recordings from album to shitty Broadway musical revival. The best recording is the London Symphony. The main criticism to be made is that it maintains the same high level of pitch and energy for each song, without pacing. The corollary to that is that some scenes are directed close to freewheelingly staged and edited music videos, and some scenes are paced like the high melodrama of theatrical stage musicals.

When people think "rock opera" and they have anything to think of at all, they'll think either Tommy or Pink Floyd The Wall, which happens to be another straight adaptation with much slower pace. The constantly frenetic Tommy has Looney Tunes levels of gags in addition to dime store pathos. It's tacky and compassionate.

I became obsessed with the more dour The Wall after Tommy. Half of Pink Floyd The Wall is based on animation from a theatrical musical-style tour that accompanied the original album. The other half is director Alan Parker, who became a semi-respectable mainstream stylist, working from the loose story of the rock operatic album. Musicals and rock operas and music movies don't need more than loose stories. Alan Parker directs at a slow pace to fittingly baroque rock n' roll.

The other two other Music Movies adapted from full albums that I know of, and they're not rock n' roll. The cheaply Japanese animated Interstella 5555: The 5tory Of The 5ecret 5tar 5y5tem (sic) was expanded from the music videos of electro geniuses Daft Punk from their album Discovery. DJ Q-Bert's Wave Twisters is based on that DJ and his titular album, and is animated like an Adult Swim cartoon. They looks bad, though Interstella benefits from designs in homage to 1970s space adventure Japanese animation. In both, the music carries the weight of the visuals instead of working in synch.

Hmm. I thought there some pure and original "music movies" outside of pre-existing album work when I began this post, but the only one I can think of his Neil Young's hard to find 1979 The Human Highway. I haven't seen any of it but Devo's excerpted scenes, which contain the original composition and the high-budgeted (for Devo) visuals of It Takes A Worried Man.

Music movies helped bring music videos into the mainstream after the incredible short films/"music videos" of The Residents and Devo.

There are a couple music movies which are rap movies - 1982's Wild Style, a verite-style stream of consciousness narrative about graffiti kids in New York, and the 1985 Hollywood "rap movie," Krush Groove. They feel like "Music Movies" because they simply don't have musical-style music, and are driven by dialogue driven scenes with frequent music interludes. Wild Style is immeasurably superior:

Then there's the 2001 would-be tailor made insta-cult classic that wasn't, The American Astronaut, a well designed if mildly unambitious bit of dry, monochromatic space Western fantasy poetry. The music is bluegrass and rockabilly...

Finally and speaking of rockabillly is 1998's Six String Samurai, another genre mashup, this time Samurais meets Mad Max post-apocalypse. The music is crazy White guy showoff Steve Vai / Buckethead dickery. The production values are better than Astronaut but the overall quality is about equal in terms of integrated music and conceptual work.

Tenacious D recently had their chance to do good adaptive work with Tenacious D In The Pick Of Destiny, improbably funded by Jack Black's mainstream success years after the fictive band performed, starred in precious few episodes of a Monkees-esque HBO music/sketch show for young adults, and released an album. The movie only comes alive in the musical sequences, similar to the HBO sketches with high production costs. The rest was like a 90 minute episode of the show's interstitial dialogue scenes, which is not the format they function well in.

What if they'd made an entirely musical rock opera film? The future of "Music Movies," if there is one, lies in the full length music in lieu of dialogue, coupled with original and exciting story framework. Music and film are a marriage made in heaven, and few have attempted the full ambitious melding outside the realm of traditional musicals - even the strange, conceptual musicals like Forbidden Zone and Pennies From Heaven.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Hollywood Hunks Go Psycho

Johnny Depp as Sweeney Todd. Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka. A pirate. Hunter S. Thompson. It all goes back to Burton giving him a break as Scissorhands. In the introduction to the invaluable Burton On Burton Depp explains in no uncertain terms that this was his way out of hunk-of-the-week purgatory, irrelevance and obscurity as that-guy-from 21 Jump Street a "fascistic" show about hunky undercover cops in schools full of hunky young criminals. Thus began a career of challenging roles.

If Depp had stuck to straight, boring leading romantic male roles, he might've been discarded by the system after one flop too many. Instead he wanted to be an actor. "Character actor" is a term generally applied to those too physically imperfect to adorn the advertising campaigns, like Steve Buscemi or Phillip Seymour Hoffman. They can be GREAT actors, but are usually typecast. Hoffman actually manages not to be, but Buscemi is going to be the weird squirrelly guy 9 times out
of 10 if he wants to work.

The choice of a pretty boy to challenge oneself as an actor is the ultimate fork in the road. Does he actually want to ACT, to choose a variety of characters and sink or swim, or does he want to star with Kate Hudson in a drama about coming home to the family for Christmas and falling in love with his high school sweetheart, and go on autopilot? Character actors are the only true actors there ever are, if they don't get typecast as the same kind of weirdos every time. They can be a wonderful variety of weirdos. They can enjoy their jobs as actors to the fullest, have some fun. As long as they don't take themselves too seriously, like most of them do.

Johnny Depp had the talent and prudence in his choice of roles to ensure that in time, people looked forward to seeing what kind of weirdo he'd be next. Come for the pretty face, stay for the depth (Deppth.) 12 year old girls and 35 year old movie geeks alike hold him in high esteem. Being somewhere between those two demographic poles myself, I admire the fact he takes RISKS enough to overlook Willy Wonka and hope for a gem of a performance like Sweeney next time around.

To varying degrees, other hunks in the 90s began to follow his lead. This wouldn't have been possible without him, there's really no precedent. The Corey Feldmans of the 80s, the Robert Redfords of the 70s, the Frankie Avalons of the 60s...all actors, but especially pretty boys and women, hate having their good looks caked in makeup or prosthetics. Even the good-looking and talented actors of the post-Baby Boom movie scene (there were no young male leads in old Hollywood, unless you count Mickey Rooney) waited until they were losing their hair before getting really weird, like Jack Nicholson playing The Joker or Dustin Hoffman playing Captain Hook. Who so happens to be a pirate.

Brad Pitt seemed like a good contender for the mantle during the 90s. Christian Bale did in the 2000s. Ultimately both have all but chosen unique roles every time without taking real risks and being transgressive. Pitt's exception was 12 Monkeys, which was followed by similarly imaginative movies like Fight Club and Se7en, but whose roles for Pitt were merely variations on masculine leading men. I haven't seen Interview With The Vampire but c'mon, it's essentially a romantic lead, even if he's not playing a human being. At the end of the day, he's still comfortable doing the same cocky alpha male act in unchallenging pablum like Ocean's 12 and Mr & Mrs Smith and The Mexican.

Bale has been in a much finer track record overall, including an excellent childhood performance in Steven Spielberg's Empire Of The Sun, but what makes his recent roles in unpredictably varied films as The Machinist, Equillibrium or The Prestige so humdrum is that the performances all rehash the same hunky stoicism. American Psycho was the risky, transgressive breakout role and he hasn't attempted any character that crazy since. The irony of him playing Batman is that none other than Tim Burton wanted to acknowledge his Batman as an insane person, whereas the more refined fellow Brit Chris Nolan had the Batnerd mandate to direct Bale as a straight-up square jawed leading hunk.

So not only did Burton give a dramatic break to Depp, a young pretty boy whom no one expected real talent from, he gave a dramatic break to weirdo comic Michael Keaton just the year before...not exactly a leading hunk, but this was pre Mars Attacks! when Burton took far more risks. Soon after that, he was fine to cast hunky Marky Mark Whalberg in Planet Of The Apes and what's-his-pretty-face in Big Fish. I digress.

Johnny Depp is on the short list of great actors of this generation. He's not consistently brilliant, but taking chances makes all the difference. His actor's ego is not based upon his status in gossip magazines, or how good he looks on the posters. He enjoys acting for it's own sake, and his ego is based on the quality of his performances and the films he chooses to be associated with. And because he is pretty, girls will still swoon over him no matter how ridiculous he gets. That's called having your cake and eating it too, but it's only possible when backed up by real talent.

The bizarro version of this actor-y type? Probably Nicolas Cage, a decent enough looking fellow who started in romantic comedies and dramas and steadily began to accept roles in ridiculously crappy stuff like Ghost Rider, Next, and the Wicker Man remake.