Saturday, August 18, 2012

Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit

Year 4, Day 231 - 8/18/12 - Movie #1,221

BEFORE: I still have to decide if this is going to be the last year of this project.  Once I hit movie #1,300 I'm going to stop for the year.  Assuming the Mayans are wrong, I'll have to decide whether to start up again come January 1 - but I fear that I'll be left with a bunch of straggler films, my ability to arrange them into a coherent chain will be gone, and for me that's half of the fun.  Oh, I'll still have the Woody Allen, Alfred Hitchcock and James Bond chains to get through, but after that, my best idea so far is to announce each film as a Follow-Up to some previous film in the countdown.  Who knows, maybe in January I'll have another vision of how to organize what's left.  Does anyone know TCM's arrangement theme for next year's "31 Days of Oscar" programming yet?

Tonight's choice is a no-brainer, following up last night's film, with a large portion of the cast carrying over.  And since this takes place in a Catholic school, I think, it's my link to the start of Back-To-School week.  Though, taking another look at the films on the list, I have an odd feeling the theme's going to drift a bit, which has been known to happen.

THE PLOT: The sisters come back to Deloris's show to get her back as Sister Mary Clarence to teach music to a group of students in their parochial school which is doomed for closure.

AFTER: Well, if last night's film seemed a little formulaic, this one puts it to shame.  The theme of putting together a show to save the school/community center/local fire department goes WAY back to the days of the Andy Hardy films, and possibly even before that.  Last night the gospel/soul hybrid arrangements were enough to get people to come back to church, but tonight the formation of a choir has to save a school.

A more cynical man than myself might point out that there would probably be no connection between how a school performs in the All-state choir competition and having enough funds to keep the doors open.  Similarly, I might point out that the people who make decisions about which schools need to stay open in a community are probably not the same people who would be judging the statewide "Battle of the Choruses".  But why let reality ruin a story?

It bothers me more when a musical performer is brought to a school to teach a music class, and after getting the unruly kids in line, and getting them to repeat some silly daily affirmation, it's the kids who have to suggest to the music teacher that maybe they could do something involving music, you know, since it's music class after all.  And since that was the entire reason she was brought there.

Much of the dialogue here seems improvised, unfortunately, and that, combined with the threadbare plot, makes the script feel sort of half-written.  And the other half was cribbed from those old "Let's put on a SHOW!" talkies, or perhaps "The Bad News Bears" (or any of the films that stole from that, like "Hardball" or "The Mighty Ducks"...)  But they forgot to include the standard shot of a bunch of referees flipping through a massive rulebook, and ultimately determining that there's no rule against a showgirl leading a high-school choir...

Plot elements are introduced and then forgotten, like the real estate deal that the stuffed-shirt administrator mentioned in passing.  It felt like the screenwriter meant to put in something about the nuns finding secret documents in his desk about a shell company that would profit from tearing down the school and putting up condos or drilling for oil or something, and then he got distracted and never got around to writing that scene.

No worries, we'll just have teens rap, nuns dance, and throw in some monks doing the same, and everyone will feel entertained.

There's also a certain form of delusion that comes from believing that everything will fall into place if one can just arrange the perfect medley or mash-up.  I do enjoy hearing songs mixed together, but that only goes so far.  I spent some time in the 90's running two (failed) a cappella groups and I've heard a lot of songs arranged a lot of different ways - but none of them had the power to change minds or public policy.  At the most, people would just say, "Oh, what a clever arrangement!" and then go on with their lives.

(ASIDE: Years ago, with help from my mother, I arranged a massive medley of 7 Monkees songs, ending with an intertwining of "Pleasant Valley Sunday", "Last Train to Clarksville", and "I'm a Believer" sung as a fugue.  I could hear it in my head, and I had to get it into sheet music form before it drove me mad.  It was perhaps a bit ambitious for my 5-person vocal group to handle, and as a result it's never been performed publicly.  If any 10-20 person groups are interested, give me a shout.)

Starring Whoopi Goldberg, Maggie Smith, Kathy Najimy, Mary Wickes, Wendy Makkena (all carrying over from "Sister Act"), plus James Coburn (last seen in "Young Guns II"), Michael Jeter (last seen in "Miller's Crossing"), Sheryl Lee Ralph (last seen in "The Mighty Quinn"), future Fugees star Lauryn Hill, Jennifer Love Hewitt (last seen in "Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties"), and cameos from Robert Pastorelli (last seen in "Be Cool"), Pat Crawford Brown and Ellen Albertini Dow.

RATING: 3 out of 10 permission slips

Friday, August 17, 2012

Sister Act

Year 4, Day 230 - 8/17/12 - Movie #1,220

BEFORE: Everyone's saying it's "Shark Week", but not around these parts.  Here it's still religion week, at least for a couple more nights.  I didn't follow up with "Oh God! You Devil" since I've already seen that, so even though it's not a direct follow-up, I think this is still sort a connection, and this franchise helps set up the next chain.  Linking from last night's film, Dr. Joyce Brothers also had a cameo in "National Lampoon's Loaded Weapon 1", and so did Whoopi Goldberg (last heard in "Toy Story 3").

THE PLOT: When a singer witnesses a mob crime, the police hide her as a nun in a traditional convent where she has trouble fitting in.

AFTER: Really, this is mostly derivative of "Some Like It Hot", since the main characters in that film also witnessed a mob hit, only mixed with something like "Nuns on the Run" or "We're No Angels".  Your basic witness protection "fish out of water" story.  Mostly, that is.

I thought this would be pretty corny or sappy, but it wasn't too bad in that regard.  And I do have a background singing in both church choirs and a cappella groups, so I appreciate the work that was done arranging songs for those formats, especially mash-ups of gospel songs with Motown hits.

There's no subtlety to the humor, but that's sort of a positive and a negative at the same time - it's all laid out there, so even the jokes that didn't land were at least recognizable as honest attempts.   And that gave it a form of sincerity, despite a cookie-cutter plot, a fairly simple casino-based climax, and the mistaken assumption that the only thing keeping people from going to church is the lack of better music.

Also starring Maggie Smith (last seen in "The First Wives Club"), Harvey Keitel (last seen in "Little Fockers"), Kathy Najimy (last heard in "Tom & Jerry: Shiver Me Whiskers"), Bill Nunn (last seen in "Mo' Better Blues"), and all kinds of character actors, including Pat Crawford Brown, Ellen Albertini Dow (last seen in "Memoirs of an Invisible Man"), Mary Wickes, Joseph Maher.

RATING: 5 out of 10 vocal solos

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Oh, God! Book II

Year 4, Day 229 - 8/16/12 - Movie #1,219

BEFORE: I've been enjoying watching my list get smaller and smaller over the last couple of weeks.  It seems like there weren't a lot of new movies that aired during the Olympics, I guess most of the other channels just gave up - so for me it was a great chance to make some progress.  On top of that, there's been some kind of problem with the cable systemwide in NYC, a sort of digital picture-freeze every three or four minutes.  This has been going on for the last month, since a certain company decided to roll out its new software, apparently without sufficient testing.  At first the problem only affected the basic cable channels, but it eventually spread to the premium movie channels too.  So even if I found a movie to add to my list, I had no way to get a clean copy of it. 

I can only surmise that thousands of people were complaining to this company (whose initials also stand for Transmitting Weakly) about their picture freezing up during the Olympics, and of course the problem got fixed a few days after the closing ceremonies.  Way to go.  Finally I'm seeing some improvement, now if I could just get the buggy DVR software to stop dropping shows and record the ones I want to see, I'll be back in business.

George Burns carries over from last night's film, still playing God...

THE PLOT: God asks a young girl to help spread his word and influence with a slogan.

AFTER: Whatever message or clever ideas about God the first film had, they're absent from the sequel.  It's one thing for God to pick an ordinary, honest man to spread his word, but an 11-year-old girl?  How is THAT going to help?  Sure, her father works in advertising, but that doesn't mean she has any talent for writing copy or staging publicity events.

Her best idea, concocted with a bunch of other rugrats who don't seem to benefit in any way from helping her, is to write their message on signs in store windows, and spray-paint it on the walls of churches and other buildings.  That would be destruction of property, no matter what the message is.  Are you sure that's what God really wants?

 I'm sorry, I'm not seeing any ideas that make sense here, or anything close to a point hat needs making.  Plus God kind of saved the day in a fashion very similar to the way he did it in the previous film.

Also starring Louanne, Suzanne Pleshette, David Birney, with cameos from Hugh Downs, Conrad Janis, Dr. Joyce Brothers, and Wilfrid Hyde-White.

RATING: 2 out of 10 protestors

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Oh, God!

Year 4, Day 228 - 8/15/12 - Movie #1,218

BEFORE: Just like that, August is half over, and it feels like it just started.  After giving the devil his due, it's God's turn, since he put in cameo appearances in the last few films anyway.  A more logical follow-up would be "Oh, God! You Devil", but that's the only film in this series that I have already seen.

Linking from "The Devil and Max Devlin", Elliott Gould was also in "Ocean's Thirteen" with Carl Reiner, who directed this film and put in a cameo appearance.

THE PLOT: God appears to an assistant grocery manager as a good natured old man, and selects him as his messenger for the modern world.

AFTER: You know, it's a good thing that we live in a time when people aren't put to death for blasphemy.  Then again, maybe there are some countries that still do that...  But I'm thinking of the Dark Ages, when people couldn't disagree with the church, or put forth new ideas about the nature of the universe - these days you can just make a film with radical new concepts, like maybe we need to start thinking about taking care of our resources, or perhaps people who say they speak for God while asking for your money are full of crap.

There's the start of some radical ideas here, like maybe Jesus was the son of God in the same sense that all men are sons of God (I've always preferred that interpretation, anyway) but unfortunately the movie spends so much time on the set-up, and trying to prove that God exists, that there's not much room for the actual message.  When it finally is revealed, it's really basic stuff - love each other, try not to hurt each other, appreciate animals.  It sounds like a bunch of hippie 70's new-age stuff, honestly.  But that doesn't mean it isn't good basic advice.

After dealing with the fame that comes with being a prophet (and that's what I think Jesus was, at heart, a prophet.  Hey, it was a valid career choice back then...) and appearing on TV to spread the word, the movie gets bogged down in a court case, similar to that seen in "Miracle on 34th St."  Well, you can't really prove in court that God doesn't exist...

There's just enough time to take an evangelist down a few pegs, which I support, and to appreciate the way that a regular nice guy connects with God, at least in a symbolic fashion.  But I wish the film had the chance to make something close to a point.

Starring George Burns (last seen in "The Sunshine Boys"), John Denver, Teri Garr (last seen in "Dumb & Dumber"), Paul Sorvino (last seen in "Nixon"), with cameos from Ralph Bellamy (last seen in "The Wolf Man"), Donald Pleasence (last seen in "Escape From New York"), William Daniels (last seen in "Black Sunday"), Dinah Shore, and David Ogden Stiers (last seen in "The Accidental Tourist").

RATING: 4 out of 10 talk-show guests

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Devil and Max Devlin

Year 4, Day 227 - 8/14/12 - Movie #1,217

BEFORE: Sticking with the Devil theme, and it isn't even Halloween.  (Damn, maybe I should've thought of that and saved this for late October.  Oh, well.)  Linking from "Bedazzled" is simple, since Raquel Welch co-starred in a film called "Mother, Jugs & Speed" with Bill Cosby (last seen in "Jack").

THE PLOT: When Max dies in an accident, he goes straight to hell. But the devil's assistant makes him an offer: if he manages to get three innocent youths to sell him their souls in the next two months, he may stay on earth.

AFTER: This film begins with a crooked landlord dying, and falling into the fiery netherworld.  And yet, somehow, this is a Disney film?  This is the type of film that Disney Co. made in the early 80's, when it seemed like they were losing their way a bit.  After magical characters like Mary Poppins and umm, Pete's Dragon, somebody thought it would be a good idea to explore the magical nature of Satan and the inner workings of Hell.

This is another instance of Hell being run like a corporate boardroom, with the Devil's helpers wearing nice suits and sitting at a giant table, making deals.  They've got Max's soul already locked up, but they figure if they turn him into an agent for Satan, they can send him back and get him to turn three other souls, ones they ordinarily wouldn't get, they'll come out ahead on the deal.

So I'll admit it's a unique twist - instead of Satan fulfilling people's fantasies, a regular guy is given the power to do so, so it's like the Stanley and George characters got combined a little bit.  There used to be a show called "Fantasy Island", where each week different guest stars would play people who came to a tropical paradise because they wanted to be a famous skier or something (you know, that does sound odd, now that I think of it...) only to have their fantasy come true, go a bit wrong, and learn that perhaps their regular life wasn't so bad.  I was always waiting for the next episode to reveal that Mr. Roarke's magical powers weren't coming from the man upstairs, but from the one down below.  Didn't happen.

Anyway, Max is given the task to get three "kids" (two of them look like they're in their mid-20's, though...) to sign away their souls.  He does this by helping them become a famous singer, a famous motocross racer (that's it, aim high, kid), and a kid with a dad.  That last one stings, because the kid is so young!  Jeez, it's the cute kid from "Eight Is Enough", for chrissakes!  At what point should he realize he's doing something wrong?  Maybe when he first meets him at a carnival and seems like a pedophile?   What's the kid doing alone at a carnival anyway?

This gets even creepier later on, when the kid feels weird about the guy trying to get him to sign a contract, and tries to tell his mother that there's "something wrong with Uncle Max".  See, lady, this is the point when any sane mother would call the police.  Her kid is crying for help, and she just shrugs it off? 

The singer bears more than a passing resemblance, and vocal similarity, to Barbra Streisand, one wonders if this was an inside joke, considering she was once married to the star of this film.  The songs written by (the now-late) Marvin Hamlisch probably go a long way toward reinforcing that as well.

The most sensible way for Max to get out of his deal with the Devil probably would have just been to stop corrupting the other souls, consigning his own to Hell.  But this would have been a selfless act, and perhaps that would have been enough to tip the scales in his favor.  Instead he relied on some divine intervention here, and know, I'm not really sure how he got out of the deal.  It's all a bit fuzzy, since he never had a contract that signed away his own soul.  But even though he failed, he kind of succeeded, erm, somehow.

Starring Elliott Gould (last seen in "Capricorn One"), Susan Anspach (last seen in "Five Easy Pieces"), Adam Rich, Julie Budd, David Knell (last seen in "Total Recall").

RATING: 3 out of 10 palmetto bugs

Monday, August 13, 2012

Bedazzled (1967)

Year 4, Day 226 - 8/13/12 - Movie #1,216

BEFORE: And now for the original, which has been recommended to me over and over by my BFF Andy.  (I suppose I'm also going to have to watch "The Stunt Man" at some point too...)   But of course, I rely on word of mouth, along with movie reviews and sometimes pop culture references in general to point me in the direction of movies I haven't seen.  How else would I know what movies to watch, without having seen them?

Wow, really no good links tonight - the most direct one is an actor named William Marquez, who played one of the drug dealers (I think) in last night's "Bedazzled" and was also in the film "Best Defense" with Dudley Moore (last seen in "Crazy People"), but that feels almost like cheating, relying on character actors.  

THE PLOT: A short order cook, infatuated with the waitress who works with him, prepares to end it all when he meets the devil and sells his soul for seven wishes.

AFTER: My lead-in tonight was the Summer Olympics closing ceremony/aging rock-star concert, which of course was all London-themed (except for the end, after passing the torch to Rio).  I enjoyed Russell Brand's take on "I Am the Walrus" and Eric Idle's appearance to sing "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life", complete with dancing nuns and centurions, making for a good intro to a British comedy.  The rest of the concert, Madness and Spice Girls and George Michael's strange facial hair, didn't really interest me.

Andy wants to know why anyone would remake "Bedazzled" - the remake was directed by Harold Ramis, so regardless of the outcome, perhaps he was a fan of British comedy, and he wanted to take this simple, not-widely-seen film and update it with more modern special effects and sensibilities.  I have to point out that the FX budget for the original seemed quite low - I think they did fine with what they had to work with, but it definitely has a sort of low-rent feel to it.

Anyway, comparing the two films, I think the 1967 version is a better film overall, but in addition to better effects, the 2000 remake had a better ending with regards to the loophole.  Yes, there has to be a loophole in the contract, otherwise we just watch a man sign away his soul, briefly enjoy his wishes, and then get cast into the pit of hellfire.  That might have worked back in 1800's German literature, but today's audiences want light comedies, and we want our heroes to succeed.   Perhaps we see a bit of Stanley Moon in ourselves, and we want him to do well.

The remake sort of took the Devil and the Lust characters and combined them, turning the Devil into a hot babe - well, the devil should be a temptress, right?  In the original, he's a well-dressed prankster, always sowing chaos in the world by ripping out the last pages of mystery novels, cutting off shirt buttons, that sort of thing.  Anything to get people to commit sins of anger counts toward his goals.

Plus he runs a sort of nightclub/boarding house where the 7 Deadly Sins crash, in their human forms.  Anger is just a bouncer-type guy wearing a "Make War" t-shirt (see? low-budget...) and Gluttony is just a fat woman.  Satan, or George if you prefer, has a pretty nice wardrobe, and with his Beatle-like haircut, he sort of reminded me of George Harrison.  And he never really seems "evil", which I suppose is part of his charm.  He freely admits that he lies all the time (including lying about lying all the time, which is a paradox of sorts) and seems genuinely sorry for never quite allowing Stanley's fantasies to come true.

Here Satan serves a purpose, and in fact claims to be working for God - how else would God know who succumbed to earthly temptations and who didn't?  It's all one big competition between them, battling for souls, and sinners can always repent at the last minute, which explains why the Devil has to resort to signing bonuses.  I can get behind this concept, the Devil's just misunderstood and he's just a player in the game (or, perhaps he's lying...).

I have to say I'm kind of split on this one - there were a few clever asides, but nothing that really made me laugh.  I appreciated the spin on the Devil, but I didn't feel that Stanley's soul was ever really in peril.  It all comes down to the tone, and this was just a bit dry for my tastes.  Then it just got a bit too silly in the last fantasy sequence.

Also starring Peter Cook, Raquel Welch (last seen in "Chairman of the Board"), Eleanor Bron, with a cameo from Barry Humphries (the future "Dame Edna").

RATING: 6 out of 10 pigeons

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Bedazzled (2000)

Year 4, Day 225 - 8/12/12 - Movie #1,215

BEFORE: I can't talk about the afterlife, of course, without dealing with the Devil (last seen in "Needful Things").  I don't mean "making a deal with the Devil", of course, but that is the main topic of conversation here.  I'll watch both versions of this film, but the remake comes first, not just for comparative purposes, but also because I can easily link from Matt Damon through "School Ties" to Brendan Fraser (last seen in "Looney Tunes: Back in Action").

THE PLOT: Hopeless dweeb Elliot Richards is granted 7 wishes by the devil to snare Allison, the girl of his dreams, in exchange for his soul.

AFTER: There's something fundamentally wrong about any deal with the devil portrayed in fiction - once Satan says, "At the end of the deal, I get your soul."  The only appropriate human response at that point should be "No deal."  Because if you take half a second to think about it, the fact that the Devil is standing there is proof of the Heaven/Hell concept, and all the old Biblical rules apply, and this whole life is preparation for the eternal paradise or damnation.

I fall back on "Damn Yankees", where the temptation to play in the major leagues was SO great that the condemned man didn't care, or we can go old-school back to Faust, where a man was SO dissatisfied with his life that he didn't see any other way to improve it than to take that deal.  So focusing on a man who wants to date a particular girl doesn't seem to cut it.  Jeez, just find another girl.

My point is, signing that contract with the Devil is NEVER a recommended move (are you listening, Marvel Comics?) for several reasons.  Aside from eternal damnation, it colors everything that happens to the character after that (note to editors of Spider-Man comics: Fix it.  Heroes do not make deals with Satan.)  On top of that, the Devil cheats.  You think lawyers are bad?  The Devil probably could put some language in the contract that's microscopic.  Oh, you didn't think to look at the contract under a microscope, literally?  Not his problem.

But what the movie gets right is casting a babe like Elizabeth Hurley to play the devil (combining two characters from the original movie, if I understand it correctly).  Do you think Satan's going to have red skin and horns, and a forked tail?  That's a bit obvious - he'd probably do better looking like a hunky guy, or a bodacious woman, depending on your preference.  In the past decade he's been played on TV by slick suit-wearing actors like John Glover and Ray Wise, riffing on the Satan-as-CEO vibe.  Whatever helps tell a story, I suppose.

But this film has a version of A.D.D. and can't even stick with its own premise.  The Devil implies that all her mark has to do is phrase his wish better, only to throw him into a scenario that proves he didn't think it through well enough.  Before long this just turns into "What crazy premise can we throw this character into?" and drags along his workmates to appear in his fantasy, like the farmhands in "The Wizard of Oz".

Plenty of plot holes, but nothing here is meant to be taken seriously.  Just some more dime-store philosophy about being true to yourself and not wanting more than you have.  I'll get a better handle on the story after I watch the original tomorrow.

But hey, another film with San Francisco scenery - they were probably all around before, but I'm just noticing since I now recognize the city.  There's a nice shot of Coit Tower in the background in the last shot of the film, so I feel like I know exactly where the main character's apartment was. 

Also starring Elizabeth Hurley (last seen in "Permanent Midnight"), Frances O'Connor (last seen in "Windtalkers"), Orlando Jones (last seen in "Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant"), with a cameo from Brian Doyle-Murray (last seen in "Modern Problems").

RATING: 4 out of 10 slam-dunks