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Archive for November, 2005

Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical (DVD)

Posted by CinemaPsycho on November 30, 2005

Directed by Andy Fickman/screenplay by Kevin Murphy & Dan Studney, based on their musical stage play/starring Kristen Bell, Christian Campbell, Neve Campbell, Alan Cumming, Ana Gasteyer, Steven Weber/Showtime Home Entertainment

A film based on a musical play, which was based on the 1936 propaganda piece-turned-cult classic Reefer Madness. Everybody got that?

I have to confess, I’ve never been a big fan of musicals. It’s not that I hate them or that I dismiss them as a genre; they’re just not for me. Not that there are actually that many getting made these days, but while my viewing habits tend to encompass plenty of different genres and subgenres, musicals just aren’t my first choice. I still have yet to see Chicago, and Moulin Rouge made me want to rip my teeth out with my bare hands and throw them at the screen. Of course I respect the greats, like Busby Berkeley, Astaire and Rogers, Gene Kelly, etc., but I haven’t actually watched any of their films in years. The last musical I thought was really great was Little Shop of Horrors, if that gives you any indication of my tastes. Under pressure, I’ll admit to a grudging adolescence-based affection for the Grease soundtrack (mainly due to a preteen crush on Olivia Newton-John, I suspect), but I find the movie itself virtually unwatchable now. I did enjoy Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You upon initial release, but haven’t felt the need to watch it since. Otherwise…musicals just aren’t my thing.

Having said all that, I’ve seen Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical twice now, and both times it absolutely rocked my socks off. I unequivocally adore this movie, and I challenge any intelligent person with a sense of humor to watch it and not feel the same. It’s not only the best musical I’ve seen in years, it’s the funniest damn thing I’ve seen on any screen all year long. Period. While some have dismissed it sight unseen as “just a cable movie”, it actually played some film festivals before going to Showtime, and upon my first viewing I was just stunned that this thing didn’t get even a limited theatrical release. At the very least, Madness could have developed a cult following on the strength of its subject matter (certain people will show up for anything involving pot), its subversive and pointed humor, its talented cast displaying give-it-all-you’ve-got gusto, and the simple fact that it’s so much fun to watch. Don’t we need more movies like that?

Inspired by the 1936 cult film, a legendarily ludicrous propaganda piece extolling the evils of marijuana use and its harmful effect on the youth of America, the musical details the downfall of teenagers Jimmy Harper (Christian Campbell) and Mary Lane (Bell), both of whom are the very picture of clean-cut, innocent pre-WWII Americana. In search of simple dancing lessons to keep up with Mary at the school sock hop, Jimmy finds himself approached by a sleazy pusher (Weber), who takes the kid back to his drug house and gives him his first joint. The story is told as a movie-within-a-movie, shown at a meeting of concerned small-town parents by an insidiously persuasive government agent (Cumming), who throws in unsubstantiated “facts” about marijuana and likens everyone who questions him to the dreaded Communists and (god forbid) liberals.

It should come as no surprise to anyone who’s seen the original film that Jimmy and Mary wind up succumbing to the demon weed, and ruining their lives in increasingly outrageous ways as a result. It’s how they get there that’s important, and the musical is chock-full of hilarious scenes and songs that both advance the narrative and lampoon the naïveté of both its source film and the easily swayed culture that bought into it, throwing in everything from cannibalism and spousal abuse to swipes at certain political and business figures of the time to make its points. It’s all played way over the top, and appropriately so; writers Murphy and Studney are imagining a world in which the one-dimensional histrionics and simple-minded rationalizations of the original are writ large in musical form and taken to their furthest potential extremes. They’re lampooning the foibles of a sanitized America that was all too eager to believe whatever lies were told them, and too scared and intimidated to question them. So there are no sacred cows here, and the funniest song (which is saying a lot) is the hysterically blasphemous “Listen to Jesus, Jimmy” which envisions the Christian messiah as a smooth Vegas lounge singer who must have all the answers because, well, he’s the coolest cat in the room, dig?

So as Jimmy and Mary each lose their innocence, so inevitably does America, and god knows we can’t have that. It’s up to the culture warriors and demonizers to “protect” us from something they’re sure we can’t handle. It’s not that RM: TMM is pro-marijuana so much as it is anti-propaganda, and it continuously points out the insidiousness of those who would use religion and politics to interfere in our personal lives, as well as the blatant obviousness of their tactics, and the sad fact that it works on us all too often. Even if the final number lays that message on a little thick, by then they’ve fully earned the right to preach a little. I’ll leave it up to you to determine the relevance of that message in our current society.

It certainly helps that the entire cast seems game and completely in on the joke, without ever betraying that. The standout is the wonderful and talented Kristen Bell, who is honestly just spectacular here. I’ve gone on record as having a massive crush on Bell, and I think Veronica Mars is the greatest thing to hit TV since Twin Peaks, so I can’t even pretend to be objective about her as a performer. But the truth is, her talent just speaks for itself – she’s a damn fine actress, and her versatility is fully on display here. Playing the “vomitously perky” (in Bell’s own words) Mary Lane, who’s about as un-Veronica as you can get, Bell isn’t just “funny” – she’s FUNNY. You can see in her every action and line reading that she completely gets the joke, while at the same time she’s utterly convincing in the role. She just sells it completely, without ever seeming like she’s forcing it. And can she ever sing! Whether she’s innocently giggling over the flowery romantic language of Romeo and Juliet (Mary hasn’t read the ending yet, but she’s sure it “turns out swell”) or transforming into an uncontrollable sexpot under the influence of one toke, Mary is completely believable in Bell’s hands, and both times I could not take my eyes off of her. It’s worth noting that she actually played the role in an off-Broadway production, so she obviously knew the part inside and out, but that only adds to the level of skill inherent in her performance. She’s just fantastic, and while Bell may top out at an obscenely cute five-foot-zero, there’s nothing diminutive about her talent or her beauty. Mark my words – Kristen Bell is a star. Count on it.

But having said that, it would be completely unfair not to recognize the rest of the cast, who are uniformly terrific. Cumming is damn near brilliant as the omnipresent narrator who can make just about anything seem sinister and un-American, including jazz and Shakespeare. Former SNL cast member Gasteyer is hysterical as the abused dope-house proprietor Mae, who manages to take her suffering to absurdly melodramatic heights. Weber turns his slick and menacing pusher into a sharp caricature of the sleazy, unrepentant ‘30’s gangster criminal, the kind of guy who sells dope to kids and knocks around his wife for kicks, and somehow manages to get laughs out of him. Lesser-known (at least to me) veterans from the stage play shine as well, especially Amy Spanger as the hard-bitten neighborhood drug slut who’s ridiculously careless with her baby, and John Kassir (the voice of Tales from the Crypt’s Cryptkeeper) as a hopeless dope fiend with an insane laugh who tries to seduce Mary and ends up getting more than he bargained for. And Neve Campbell turns up in one extended dance number as a soda-shop waitress, proving that she can dance up a storm and look sexy as hell doing it. While she’s listed in the credits as one of the film’s stars, it’s essentially a glorified cameo – but she makes one hell of an impression. What more do you need?

When all is said and done, Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical is simply one of the best movies I’ve seen this year, regardless of venue. It’s a great musical, with songs that are both hilarious and tuneful, and it’s a rather brilliant comedy as well, full of the kind of genuinely subversive and edgy humor we don’t see enough of anymore. Not to mention a cast that acts the living hell out of it. And it’s got reefer zombies! For Christ’s sake, what more do you want? Some might dismiss it as a one-joke movie, and they might not be wrong. But it’s a damn good joke, and for those of us who get it, it’s an absolute blast. We need more movies like this – maybe now more than ever.

“But wait”, you’re saying to yourself, “why should I rent or buy a movie that I can watch on cable for free?” Good question. How about this – in addition to a brief but informative behind-the-scenes documentary that details the conspiracy to demonize marijuana, as well as a cast commentary (not including Bell, unfortunately), the disc also includes the original Reefer Madness! So you get two movies for the price of one! Although after watching the musical, you might not find the original quite as funny anymore – compared to the liveliness and spirit of the musical, the original movie seems dreary and flat now. Seeing it again for the first time in years, I think it’s more valuable as a cultural artifact than as an actual movie you’d want to sit through for 68 minutes. Still, it’s interesting to compare the differences between the two, and if you’re a fan of the 1936 version, this is an unbeatable combination.

If more musicals were like Reefer Madness, I’d be a fan for life.

New musical version: **** Original 1936 version: **   11/30/05

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Hollywood Gets a Bad Rap; plus, Various Odds and Ends (Mostly Odds)

Posted by CinemaPsycho on November 10, 2005

OK, I’m back once again with an update. Life has kept me awfully busy lately, so I’m posting something now while I actually have the time. This one will mostly be some random thoughts that I want to clear out of the old warehouse, so bear with me.

Am I the only one who’s extremely annoyed by those constant Rent TV ads? I never knew having AIDS could be such an uplifting experience. Seriously though, I’m not a Broadway guy or a musicals guy (except for Little Shop of Horrors and the awesome Reefer Madness, starring the lovely and talented Kristen Bell, the DVD of which I’ll be reviewing sometime soon), so maybe I’m missing something. But if I hear that damn “ten thousand twenty-one hundred eighty-five million minutes!” (or whatever it is) song one more time, I’m going to fucking freak. Honestly, I live in the Midwest, so I have no idea who the audience for this movie might be. I’m sure there are people out there who are looking forward to seeing this – I just don’t know any of them. Movies based on Broadway shows generally underwhelm me – as I’m not privileged enough to live in New York City (like most of the world), I’ve never understood why I should care what the tourists and elitist snobs are forking over hundreds of dollars to watch. But hey, that’s just me.

A lot of things confuse me, as you’ve probably gathered if you read my stuff on a regular basis. This has nothing to do with movies, so skip this paragraph if you’re a stickler for that. I live in an area where everywhere I drive, I’m confronted by billboards that read something like “Get God’s Opinion on the Latest Sex Topics!” It’s apparently an ad for some local religious TV show that’s attempting to be hip. Seriously, is this the world I have to live in now? What the fucking hell, man? I honestly don’t care what your religious beliefs are – to each their own and all that. But you’re seriously delusional if you’re depending on “God” to answer your sex questions. God is not a sex therapist, OK? What consenting adults do in the privacy of their homes is their own damn business and no one else’s, and I feel sorry for you if you feel otherwise. If you’re not smart enough to make up your own mind about what feels right and wrong to you, then you shouldn’t be having sex in the first place. I can’t wait for Jesus to start giving driving lessons.

Right now as I’m writing this, rapper 50 Cent (I wouldn’t give him a quarter) is on Conan O’Brien, and he was on Letterman last night. He’s doing the talk-show rounds promoting his feature film debut, Get Rich or Die Tryin’. I’ve said before that I’m not particularly a rap fan – in fact, I haven’t listened to much of it since Run-DMC were popular. I like the Beastie Boys a lot, and that’s about it. I’m aware of who the big rappers are at any given time, I just don’t listen to any of them. It’s just not my thing. I don’t relate to the lyrics, and the music barely even sounds like music to me. That’s just my opinion. If people like it, they can have it. Whatever floats your boat, man. It’s just not for me. I’m a rock ‘n’ roll guy, always have been, always will be.

Then again, I’m old enough that I can honestly say that I really didn’t grow up with rap as the cultural force that it is now. There was a time when it would surprise me to see a rapper on a major talk show like Letterman (Arsenio Hall, sure). Not anymore. Hell, I remember when MTV didn’t even play rap videos (kind of a moot point, since they don’t play any videos anymore). But it generally doesn’t bother me either. I just kind of ignore it and go on with my life, the same way I ignored disco, boy bands and “new country”. It’s not my thing, so I have no reason to pay attention to it.

Still, I’m aware of the impact that rap has had on American culture for the past 20 years. That’s why I only flinch a little bit when I hear 7-year-old girls recite lyrics like “don’t you wish your girlfriend was a freak like me?” Nor am I particularly shocked by the multitudes of white American teens (and adults) who choose to act “black” in a desperate grasp at cultural identity. That’s old news by now. I still don’t understand how middle-class white kids can possibly relate to songs about “the hood” and “the streets” (places they’ve never been and never will be), but I accept it. And by “accept it”, I mean that I shake my head and laugh at them behind their backs. But I digress.

I’m also fully aware that my resistance to the rap movement sometimes costs me some cool points with people. And I’m OK with that. For instance, I recently rode in a car with someone who was genuinely shocked that I hadn’t heard a song called “My Humps”. To which I responded, “what is that, a skin condition?” (OK, I didn’t really say that. But I wish I had) He helpfully played the song for me against my wishes, and like most rap, it sounded like total and utter nonsense to me. I get that it’s some kind of sexual reference, but other than that I have no idea what it’s about, and I really don’t care. It might as well have been in Swahili as far as I’m concerned.

The point is, people obviously feel like I’m missing out on something by not paying attention to this stuff. And yet I continue not to care. I don’t consider myself culturally deprived, any more than I do when someone brings up Kenny Chesney or Extreme Makeover: Home Edition or the criminal antics of some overprivileged athlete. They probably think I’m strange because I don’t care about those things, but I find them equally strange because they do. C’est la vie.

Anyway, it doesn’t surprise me any more to see major movies being made starring popular rappers. It used to be an anomaly, a cheap cash-in like the legendary flop Cool as Ice (which I’ve never seen, and never will). But rappers are getting smarter now (or at least their handlers are), and they’re actually getting talented directors to make these vehicles. Curtis Hanson’s 8 Mile (again, never seen, never will) crossed that line once and for all, and somehow they’ve talked acclaimed Irish director Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father, In America) to helm the 50 Cent movie. Because no one really knows the rap lifestyle like the Irish. I have no particular interest in seeing Get Rich or Die Tryin’, and I don’t think it needed a Jim Sheridan to get made, but it doesn’t bother me that it exists. I’m sure there’s a large audience for it, and they can have it.

What does bother me is when rappers are thrown into movies for no particular reason other than because some cynical studio executive decided they could make an extra $10 million from the “urban audience”. For instance, take the mainstream thriller Derailed, which couldn’t look more safe and white-bread. Here’s the cast lineup that I heard in one of the ads recently: “Clive Owen! Jennifer Aniston! RZA! Xzibit!”

Say what now? They cast not one but two rappers in this thing? Why? How can they possibly justify this artistically? I could see maybe one rapper, that I could deal with. But two? Are you honestly telling me that there weren’t any talented black actors available who could have played those roles? Come on. According to the movie’s IMDb page, they’re playing relatively minor parts (RZA is 5th-billed, Xzhibit is 8th-billed) and ranked below such actors as Vincent Cassel, Melissa George and Tom Conti. So why play up their presence so highly in the TV ads? To bring in an audience that wouldn’t otherwise want to see a movie with Clive Owen and Jennifer Aniston (let’s face it, they’re not exactly big draws to black audiences)? It should come as no surprise that this little deception was perpetrated by the Weinsteins, as part of their new company’s first release. If they really think that rap fans are going to go see Derailed this weekend, they are out of their ever-lovin’ little Weinstein heads.

I don’t know, I haven’t seen Derailed yet, and for all I know RZA and Xzhibit (gee, I wish I could just make up my own name) might give Oscar-worthy performances in it. And maybe there are tons of “urban” audience members clamoring to see a light thriller with “Rachel” and “the guy who was almost James Bond” in it. But folks, I seriously doubt either of those things to be true, because I live on planet Earth. We know how things work in the real world, don’t we? These two movies will have two very different audiences. They might both do very well, but there’s not going to be a lot of crossover between them. Let’s get real. And in fact, the presence of the rappers in Derailed might actually turn off a certain section of that film’s potential audience. If they’re displayed so prominently in the TV ads, unknowing people might expect it to be “some kind of rap movie” and will dismiss it on that basis.

So why exactly were these non-actors cast in this movie? Obviously, the Weinstein boys thought they could milk some extra cash out of it. But I think there are more people who are annoyed by such cynical miscasting than there are people who are attracted to it. Look at Paris Hilton in House of Wax – for every person who saw that movie because she was in it (a thought scarier than anything in the movie), there were probably a dozen who avoided it because of her. Not that I blame them, you understand.

There’s a difference between a genuine saturation into the culture and an obviously hacky bid at money-grabbing. If there’s a good reason to cast someone, then it shouldn’t matter who they are or where they come from. But casting people simply because of their popularity in another realm of show business is just misguided. This is just one example of how insidious this whole thing is. I have my own opinions of how rap has impacted American culture (primarily negatively – Christ, not even Johnny Cash ever said it was cool to go to prison), but if you like the idea of your kids aspiring to be “pimps” and “ho’s” when they grow up, then by all means, have at it. Just keep it away from places it doesn’t belong. Busta Rhymes kicking Michael Myers was not an image I ever needed to see. And while I was once moderately interested in seeing Derailed, now I’m not so sure. Unless maybe they’re willing to consider casting Rivers Cuomo or Billie Joe Armstrong in the sequel. Sound ridiculous? Now you know how I feel.

OK, so let’s catch up with some movies I haven’t had time to write full reviews for:

The Fog – yes, I was going to write a review for this, but I found it too depressing to contemplate. The problem isn’t even that it’s a slick, cynical retread for the MTV generation; the problem is that they did it so BADLY. Even leaving the original aside, this is one seriously incompetent excuse for a scary movie. Yes, the idea for both movies was ridiculous, but Carpenter succeeded through atmosphere and verisimilitude. Tom Atkins looked like a guy who’d been fishing all his life; Tom Welling does not. Jamie Lee Curtis looked like the girl next door (at least in 1980); Maggie Grace looks like she’s just come from a Maxim shoot. But it’s not just the casting – everything about the remake just feels wrong somehow. There’s not an ounce of genuine suspense or even interest generated by this thing. It just lays there for its entire running time, never bothering to engage us or, at the very least, make any sense. Carpenter, at the time, was a master of minimalism – he knew exactly what to show and when. The remake is just overblown, full of lousy CGI effects, terrible dialogue and superficial “modernizing” that all reek of lame straight-to-video hackwork. The Fog needs subtlety and nuance, and you’re not going to get that from the director of Stigmata, for cryin’ out loud. I can’t imagine what they were thinking with this monstrosity, but even if you’re not a fan of old-school horror, the results are just plain sad. What a complete waste of time and effort. *

Stay – an intriguing premise, a solid cast and an interesting sense of style. And it’s all blown to hell by one of the lamest “twist endings” I’ve ever seen. It feels like it was written by a junior-high student after sitting through a Twilight Zone marathon. It’s a real shame, because it had the makings of a pretty good psychological thriller, but that ending is just a cheap, unjustifiable cop-out. They should’ve called it Stay Home. **

Saw II – I thought the original, while not being any masterpiece, was a solid little indie horror flick with some genuinely tense moments. The inevitable sequel is comparable to Halloween II – basically the same movie, just bigger and slicker, but not necessarily better. Still, if you liked the original, there’s enough here to enjoy (if that’s the right word), particularly Tobin Bell’s expanded role as the villain Jigsaw. On the other hand, it’s one of those sequels where you learn too much about the bad guy, and it takes some of the mystery away. But there are a couple of nasty set pieces here, and the big reveal is genuinely surprising, so if you’re into it, it’s decent enough, but not essential. **1/2

The Legend of Zorro – a few years too late, maybe? I thought The Mask of Zorro was surprisingly fun, and like most sequels, Legend captures maybe 75 percent of the original’s charm. But that’s not too bad, and if you can roll with it, it’s pretty enjoyable old-fashioned Saturday-matinee escapism. Yeah, it’s a bit long, and the pacing could be quicker, but overall I enjoyed it for what it was. Banderas is still a disarming action hero (I’m always surprised he’s not an even bigger star). And if you actually need a refresher on how gorgeous Catherine Zeta-Jones is, well, here you go. Ay Chihuahua. ***

That about covers it for now. Talk to you soon – hopefully!

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