Shock and Oz

April is one of the cruelest months for movie lovers — studios are off-loading turkeys and the early summer films are still in the pipeline. The pickings are slim and when my son and I decided to hit the local mini-plex last night, the only real options were Admission and Disney’s Oz: the Great and Powerful. I let him pick and he went with Oz — because he liked Sam Raimi, he said. I should have made him flip the coin again.

For there is no awe in this Oz, though I had been forewarned. When I see a movie this misconceived, that clearly costs so much money and involves so much acting talent, I wonder if anyone is called to account for it? It costs $215M to make, and has barely recouped that since it was released last month and small wonder: you could feel the air going out of the small audience as James Franco (playing the young Wizard of Oz) mugged his way through the movie. “It could have been so much better,” a kid behind me muttered as he headed for the exits.

Oz: the G&P probably owes more to the books written by L. Frank Baum than the 1939 musical, though it is sprinkled with gags and ideas that seem to have sprung from the mind of whichever studio hack wandered onto the set that day. When we first meet Good Witch Theodora (Mila Kunis), for instance, she is as sweet and trusting as Snow White — except she is wearing leather pants and dominatrix boots. (Presaging her later turn to the dark side, I guess.) And when Evanora (Rachel Weisz) engages in a climactic battle with the Glinda the Good Witch (Michelle Williams) it looks like one of those wand wars at the end of every Harry Potter movie. Why not?

I guess you could say that Disney was brave to try anything that reminded us of the original, which was a great example of Hollywood capturing lightning-in-a-bottle, combining vaudeville talents like Bert Lahr and Ray Bolger with great show tunes (by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg) and a truly witty screenplay (by Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allen Woolf). But the little touches meant to evoke that film — a rainbow here, a frightened lion there — just remind us of how far we’ve fallen.

Personally, I prefer Walter Murch’s 1985 Return to Oz. While maligned in its time, and a bomb at the box office, it was far more faithful to the tone of the Baum books and may have even trended darker (with the spooky witch Mombi and her collection of heads).  At least Murch chose a lane and stayed in it. His movie gave my son nightmares then, and me too. This one only gave me indigestion.


Don, Ho

I haven’t read much about last night’s season opener of Mad Men but I was struck by the mix of melancholy and comedy we have come to expect, in equal measure from this show. Don reading Dante on the beach in Honolulu seemed a bit heavy handed for an opening shot (what cheaper way to telegraph midlife crisis than have someone read the first lines of the Inferno?) — until we met the woman who lent him the book. And who amongst us hasn’t tried something difficult in the hopes of getting laid?

Don has literary aspirations, of course; remember him sending a volume of Frank O’Hara’s poems off to a mystery recipient in season two? (Turned out it was the widow of the real Mrs. Draper, the fellow whose identity he stole…) And his own conflicted soul finds some solace in Meditations in an Emergency. But he also wonders about the value of the pleasure he seeks, which is what makes him the hero of the show. Was there ever a more conflicted babe magnet?

Don has played the role of whore and mistress before himself, most notably when one of his conquests confessed that she had heard gossip about him and now wanted “the full Don Draper treatment.” For an adman he doesn’t appreciate being reduced to a brand and left her tied to a hotel room bed and then broke down while his daughter watched him shaving at the end of that episode — that damn mirror again!

Roger, as usual, got most of the best lines last night, calling him “Don Ho” when he returned from Hawaii, and then breaking up his mother’s memorial service by shouting, “This is my funeral!” He is more fun in the same sense Falstaff was, and seems just as doomed. Though Don might want to try that therapy stuff.

Post-LSD Mad Men runs the risk of parody at times — the hippies that Betty met on St. Marks weren’t that far removed from Blue Boy and the freaks from central casting that peopled shows like Dragnet when I was a kid. But as 1968 dawns at the end of the episode, Don seems to be changing only on the inside. He was the only one of the men whose sideburns had not crept past his earlobes, and I don’t think we have to worry about him appearing in paisley soon. Remember at the end of the last season, which took place in 1966 (the creators seem to have consciously passed over most of 1967, which is probably just as well), Don was listening to the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows,” with its lyrics inspired by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, at Megan’s request. Except he lifted the needle off the record before it was done as if to say: Turn off your own damn mind. I will never relax.

Float downstream, maybe.


England’s Dreaming

Such was my boredom last night that I finally watched The Iron Lady which was not, alas, a tale of a spunky dominatrix at all but rather a bio of Margaret Thatcher. I know, I’m a few years behind but you know how those Netflix envelopes pile up. That and my personal enmity for Thatcher’s politics prevented me from tuning in, despite Meryl’s Oscar. And in truth, the reviews had not been very good.

And…the critics were right. Aside from Streep’s amazing performance and the incomparable Jim Broadbent as her dead-but-he-don’t-know-it husband, it’s a mess of a film, almost amateurish in spots. Not the production values, or the supporting cast, but the weak, 8th-grade-book-report of a script (by Abi Morgan) and the repetitious, lazy montages meant to convey trouble and strife (hey, aren’t those the same punks who were rioting in the last flashback?) and the general sense that, like her or not, Thatcher was just doing right for England and those unemployed miners and ungrateful Irish could just bloody well suck it up. How I envied the dead husband, walking out in the end…

As a restorative, keeping in the UK mode, I watched Charlie Is My Darling, the recently restored concert film of the Rolling Stones on tour in Ireland in 1965. Andrew Loog Oldham, the band’s old manager, produced and was touting its revival last year on his radio show on Little Steven’s Underground Garage on Sirius XM (Sir Andrew is a welcome presence in my car several days a week; it’s like having a slightly debauched Bill Nighy as your carpool buddy), but again it takes me a while to get around to stuff.

And what stuff it is! the concert footage is great (each show ends in a riot, literally, as the Irish youth jump on stage not so much to attack the band but be the band) and the backstage footage is even better. “Satisfaction” was conquering the airwaves and about to unleash a whole new generation of rock, the Beatles were hiding in their mansions and Mick and the boys clearly saw this as their moment. See Mick and Keith (the only one who doesn’t say two words to the interviewer) writing “Sitting On a Fence”! Hear a drunken Mick and Keith  do their impressions of Elvis, the Beatles, Frankie Lymon and anyone else who comes to mind! Marvel at the friendly Svengali Oldham was –he wasn’t just along for the ride, he was printing the tickets, playing percussion and remembering the words. Fuck Thatcher. Let’s have a good biopic of Oldham, with Nighy in the role. Now that I would watch right away.

Van in a can

I’ve been traveling for weeks, feels like months, which means insomnia, hotels and other rentals and invariably, movies on demand. Especially free ones, like romantic comedies I wouldn’t pay to see. The latest was The Five-Year Engagement, a harmless romcom from the Judd Apatow factory, starring Emily Blunt and Jason Segel. It had some laughs and a lot of baggage. (To Apatow et al: Preston Sturges remains the undisputed master of the screwball comedy; almost all of his films were under 90  minutes. Really. Anything longer starts to seem like painful self-indulgence, with countless scenes that in a better time would have been bloopers.)

And though Five-Year Engagement has the snarky anti-romantic edge that is the hallmark of the modern romcom (she won’t name the date, he has to endure exile in Michigan) it shares one of the genre’s tropes: music by Van Morrison. As my son, a student of movie cliches, once pointed out, “When they don’t know how to end the movie, they play Van Morrison.”

Nothing against Van; I grew up on his music, literally, going from garage band covers of Them’s “Gloria” to “Brown Eyed Girl” to “Street Choir”and beyond, and have mostly respect for his artistic output (though if I never heard him sing “Moondance” again I would die happy). But how he became the go-to guy for romantic slop is anyone’s guess. And Five Year Engagement upped the ante; instead of the usual VM uplift at the end (all the funnier since in real life Van is such a dour old Irishman) the movie is filled with his songs, mostly covered by other people.

My complaint with most musical cues in movies is that they are lazy, doing the work for the writer or director (“Oh, they’re playing Jimi, it must be the sixties”). How quickly that denudes music, turning even great songs (and “Into the Mystic” is arguably a great song) into aural wallpaper. I remember trying to teach a book about the making of Aretha Franklin’s great Atlantic album, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You; it was one of those creation stories fraught with misunderstandings and near misses (Aretha left Muscle Shoals in a huff after recording just one song and the record almost didn’t happen). Playing “Respect” for these kids they confessed they couldn’t hear what a game-changer the song was in the sixties, turning an obscure Otis Redding number into a feminist anthem.

“It’s what they always play in movies when they want to signal, ‘Here come the women!'” as one student said. Making musical cliches a kind of cultural ear wax, and I don’t mean vinyl.


Ask questions later

Now that 2012 is safely out the door, with many crying “And don’t let it hit you on the way out!” in its wake, I think we can agree that the shootings at Sandy Hook were the worst thing that happened in the US… probably in about ten years. It was one of those events that people could refer to obliquely (“What happened last week/month/year…”) without having to explain. Like 9.11 it shook a lot of Americans to the core, and even got people to ask questions they are not accustomed to asking.

CNN contributor Roland Martin got in trouble by suggesting that one of the parents of the kids shot at the Sandy Hook Elementary School should have an open casket funeral and show the world the child’s broken body. He evoked Emmet Till’s mother, who famously insisted on an open casket at her son’s funeral in 1955, to show the world what the brutality of southern racism looked like. But those images, hardly recognizable as a human being, galvanized the Civil Rights Movement.

With gun control, there is no South to travel to, of course. Newtown, Aurora, Stockton — as corny as it sounds, it might be your town next. And if the image of a seven-year-old shot ten times is not enough to stir national outrage, what could be worse? A shooting in a a nursery? An incubator? A hospital? A hospice? Not to write tomorrow’s headlines…

The Civil Rights Movement did not begin in Washington and to those wondering if Congress will take the lead on restricting weapons like the one used in Newtown I have to ask: Why would they? Unless their constituents are lighting up the switchboards and filling their inboxes with cries for assault rifle bans, what on earth would compel them to stick their hands in the flaming hornet’s nest of gun control legislation? Some of them actually want to keep their jobs. And after the fiscal cliff fiasco how much faith do you have in our legislature’s ability to do anything?

Perhaps seeing a million people in the Washington mall would be a start. Everyone bearing  a photo of a child — those at Newtown and all the kids, mostly of color who are shot everyday — each one punched full of holes. Sometimes having an open mind means looking into an open casket and having the strength not to look away.