Thursday, June 30, 2011

Wild Man Fischer: First "Derailroaded," Now Departed

Derailroaded: Inside the Mind of Larry "Wild Man" Fischer (Review)
MVD Visual, 2011, Not Rated

By Steve Rosen
. . . . . . .

Frank Zappa loved his freaks. Through his record labels Straight and Bizarro, he recorded such one-of-a-kind acts like Alice Cooper, Captain Beefheart, the GTOs (a bunch of groupies) and, last but not least, Larry “Wild Man” Fischer. Fischer, who died a couple weeks ago at age 66, was a manic-depressive, paranoid-schizophrenic Los Angeles street singer whose songs (“Merry Go Around”) have an appeal to those looking for truth and purity in the art of “outsiders.”

Fischer brought an extremely unusual voice to the venture — an enthusiastic yelp that is equal parts joyful and alarming. Zappa produced a two-disc album called An Evening With… that sold all of 12,000 copies. Fischer, whose volatility once prompted him to pull a knife on his mother, was so angry at Zappa for failing to make him a Rock & Roll star that he threw a bottle at him, just missing Zappa’s infant daughter. That maybe should have been his end, but Fischer hung around L.A. as a local personality, even recording a song popularizing Rhino Records in the 1970s.

Derailroaded, which Josh Rubin and Jeremy Lubin named after a Fischer song and worked on for years as a labor of love, both with and without an often-troubled Fischer’s cooperation, considers whether Zappa insensitively opened a Pandora’s box without understanding the consequences, but it also shows that Fischer’s wild music and good humor — when he was in the right mood — was pretty infectious on those who encountered him.

The movie has a deeply sobering, sad side — as Fischer got older and more difficult, the weight of his illness bearing down on him and those nearby, you worry how he gets through every day. Yet even still there are those in the L.A. music business who try to help — especially the novelty-song producers known as Barnes & Barnes (Robert Haimer and Billy Mumy), who are extensively interviewed. They somehow arranged for one of the strangest chapters in Fischer’s career (and in the film), a 1986 duet with Rosemary Clooney on a song called, fittingly, “It’s a Hard Business.”

Grade: B

(Cincinnati CityBeat, 6-29-11)

Monday, June 27, 2011

Film Review | Super 8

8 Is Enough

By Thomas Delapa

Interviewed for Super 8, his retro, 1970s-era monster movie, writer/director J.J. Abrams declared to Parade magazine his idea was to “invoke the spirit of films that inspired me as a kid without xeroxing them.”

Well, no one can possibly say that Abrams’ toothless send-up is a carbon copy of Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. or any other Steven Spielberg monster 1970s/1980s hit. It’s astronomically inferior. It makes 1941 look like 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The creator of TV’s Lost who’s also made a small leap to the big screen, Abrams even got Spielberg to co-produce. What might be hero-worshipping homage for the former adds up to reel self-glorification for the latter.

Subpar on almost every level, Super 8 unspools as an ode to old-school amateur filmmaking in the days before the ascendancy of the video—and digital—universe. In the small Ohio town of Lillian, a group of nerdy kids (think Goonies) are making their own zombie flick. It’s the brainchild of chubby Charles (Riley Griffiths), whose crew includes the mop-haired Joe (Joel Courtney) and a blond leading lady (Elle Fanning) without a license to drive. In the first of Abrams’ tin-plated plot conceits, little Joe has just lost his mother to a deadly accident at the local steel mill.

An adolescent auteur in search of a story, Charles’ quest for cool production values leads the cast and crew to a desolate railroad station in the dark of night. But living truth demolishes undead fiction when a speeding truck slams into a passing train, causing a gratuitously over-the-top, pyrotechnic derailment that could only exist in a digitally juiced-up Hollywood movie of today.

In the aftermath of this wreck (both train and movie), all hell breaks loose in the town. Hidden aboard the train, the kids find a mountain of strange white metallic cubes. But something else has been unleashed, something gnarly and weird, and only the sinister U.S. Air Force knows what. That’s not the biggest mystery in Abrams’ story: Lillian must be such a backwoods burg, no media outlets bothers to cover the ensuing events, even as the calamities approach Three Mile Island fueled with War of the Worlds.

While Abrams pays lip service to the power of old-fashioned filmmaking, he derails it at every twist and turn. Loaded on as the major plot device, Charles’ Super-8 camera inadvertently captured the train disaster, but the revealed footage doesn’t tell us anything we don’t know or haven’t previously seen; the whole scene is treated like an outtake instead of a major MacGuffin. When we do find out what the train’s top-secret cargo is, it’s also thrown in like excess baggage. Abrams’ cavalierly hands the menace over to his special-effects crew, who generate a super-fluous digital monster that would put Roger Corman to sleep.

By contrast, take any of the aliens, spaceships or even demonic trucks from Spielberg’s classic sci-fi/horror hits and it’s striking just how much they were invested with a wondrous, otherworldly quality and weight. Abrams has no sense of wonder or real imagination. He’s a synthetic, low-gauge sampler of somebody else’s dream works.


Thursday, June 9, 2011

Film Review | Midnight in Paris

Night at the Musée

By Thomas Delapa

In the opening minutes of Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen presents a loving—yet languid—montage of postcard-pretty sights from the City of Light. Mon dieu, we get it, Woody: Paris is a beautiful backdrop whatever time of day it is.

In the latest stop in Allen’s expatriate cinematic tour after London and Barcelona (If it’s Tuesday, this must be France…), the serio-comic auteur toasts Paris, home to all things cultured, sophisticated and artistic. After Manhattan, Paris is Allen’s self-proclaimed spiritual home, and now he’s turned that moveable feast into a movie fantasy, if a half-baked one.

No, you’re not dreaming. In Owen Wilson, Allen makes a baffling choice, casting the Texas-born comedy star as his newest cinematic alter ego. Wilson is Gil, a successful Hollywood screenwriter on vacation abroad with his vapid fiancée (Rachel McAdams). A closet Proust, Gil yearns for “Paris in the twenties in the rain,” and before you can say “slushy plot device” three times, he’s magically whisked to that literary and artistic golden age. Each night at the stroke of 12, he’s picked up by an antique coupe to begin his rendezvous with a gallery of greats, who all treat him like a long-lost comrade.

By day, Gil contends with an assortment of ugly, boorish Americans, whether his girlfriend’s shopaholic parents or a pompous professor (Michael Sheen) who’s an expert on everything, even correcting a museum tour guide (French first lady Carla Bruni). What Allen expediently forgets is that the faux casting of Wilson is almost as crass as his bluntly caricatured Yanks. Every present-day American in the film is a French-fried twit, excepting, of course Allen’s starry-eyed stand-in. Acting as supporting props to the Paris sights is a handful of chic French beauties who ooze charm, culture and ooh-la-la.

Meanwhile, back in the Jazz Age past, Gil hobnobs with the likes of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, and Salvador Dali. As a swarthy, pre-Papa Hemingway, only Corey Stoll shows off some grace under pressure, punctuating his impersonation with droll and, yes, Hemingwayesque bravado. The rest of Allen’s cameos enter and exit like walk-ons from a wax museum.

While neatly dressed up with cigarette holders and Cole Porter music, Midnight in Paris clocks in as a high-toned Night at the Museum, with Hemingway taking Teddy Roosevelt’s place in the semi-living tableaux. Wilson—who appeared in the latter—has a penchant for light, slacker comedy, but his nasal voice and boyishly gee-whiz persona are wearing old, and he’s fast becoming part of a lost generation of 40-something Hollywood actors.

Wilson is out of step with the Oscar-winning Marion Cotillard, indifferently cast as a Picasso groupie who herself is nostalgic for the belle époque of Toulouse-Lautrec and the Moulin Rouge. Gil can insist all he wants that “Prufrock is my mantra” to a visiting T.S. Eliot; when it comes to a fitting movie setting, Wilson may slip right into Shanghai Noon, but in Midnight in Paris, he’s way out of time.