Sunday, November 23, 2008

Emetic Opera

There are some jobs best left to professionals, and opera writing is certainly one of them. Repo! The Genetic Opera, a gothic-rock musical and midnight-movie hopeful, shows what can happen when a person with no musical talent locks himself in a room with the soundtracks to Phantom of the Opera, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Moulin Rouge, and decides, “Hey, I can do that!”

A memo to Repo! “composers” Darren Smith and Terrance Zdunich: No, you can’t. And you shouldn’t, forever until the end of time.

No words yet exist to describe how wretched this movie is. It originated as a play by Smith and Zdunich about a graverobber in debt to an organ-repossession man. For some reason, the play was successful enough to be made into this unwatchable movie, an all-singing gore-fest replete with vivisections, oozing intestines and music that, if used to compel terrorist confessions, would violate the Geneva Conventions. Smith and Zdunich seem to have been attempting a theater piece in the manner of Brecht and Weill, but lack any talent for it. Their idea of “opera” is to provide a chugging heavy-metal guitar track, over which the actors perform a tuneless singspiel of breathtaking banality. “I’m infected/by your genetics/that’s what’s expected/when you’re infected.” “Dad I hate you/Go and die.” “Surgery!/Surgery!” After you leave the theater, the effect is hard to shake. You begin to hear every thought sung in this way. “Time to get my laundry done/laundry done!” “Do you think the mail is here/mail is here?”

Brought to you by the producers of Saw and directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, the movie is about an evil biotech firm, GeneCo, headed by Rotti Largo (Paul Sorvino — what is he doing here?), which has capitalized on a worldwide epidemic of organ failure by selling transplants on credit. When payments are missed, GeneCo dispatches its killer “organ repo men.” Zdunich plays The Graverobber, a whitefaced Brechtian narrator who comments on the action while harvesting organs and selling intravenous painkillers.

A 17-year-old girl, Shilo (Spy Kids’ Alexa Vega), lives in isolation because she has a rare disease acquired when her doctor father, Nathan (Anthony Head), tried to save her pregnant mom’s life. The man actually responsible for the mother’s death was Rotti, whom the mother jilted. Nathan is secretly a GeneCo repo man whose next target is GeneCo spokeswoman Blind Mag (ex-Lloyd Webber chanteuse Sarah Brightman).

Rotti, who is dying, must contend with his disappointing sons Luigi and Pavi (Bill Mosely and Nivek Ogre) and daughter Amber (Paris Hilton), who’s addicted to plastic surgery and painkillers. Rotti lures Shilo, who is desperate to experience the outside world, to The Genetic Opera, a stage show in which all secrets are supposed to be revealed.

This putrescent soap opera is illustrated by scenes of intestines being yanked out of abdomens and musical numbers in musty styles retrieved from the MTV vaults. The Genetic Opera, which should be a fantastically entertaining climax, is dull and dreary, enlivened only by the spectacle of a woman gouging out her eyeballs and getting impaled on a fencepost. There is also a dying-daddy-daughter duet that vaguely mimics real opera. By this point, though, anyone with eyes and ears has already fled the theater.

Visually, the movie is a muddy mess, badly lit and unbearably ugly. The backstory is told with comic-book panels that suggest the movie would have made more sense as a graphic novel, or even as a film using comic-book illustrations, like Persepolis. But then we wouldn’t have the treat of seeing Paris Hilton trying to act and sing.

The film targets young viewers, who may find something entertaining about it, and who don’t insist that songs have such things as melodies. But the movie has no discernible point. Is it a satire about the modern mania for easy credit and plastic surgery? A warning about a future corporate-controlled dystopia? Both, or nothing at all? I suspect the latter.

The main failure of Repo! is that it isn’t the least bit funny. No movie becomes a cult classic without humor, even if it’s unintentional (Plan 9 from Outer Space). Generations wouldn’t have slavishly followed Rocky Horror if it weren’t a fun, silly farce. Repo! hasn’t a whit of wit — and worse, it seems to take itself completely seriously.

Originally published in the Cleveland Scene.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Autumn Break

Penitentiary Glen, Kirtland, Ohio.

A Brand New Day

Shaker Heights, Ohio.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Make Mine an Old-Fashioned

Changeling, Clint Eastwood’s period thriller based on a true Depression-era California story, is a traditionally minded movie with solid, old-fashioned values: fine acting, an absorbing, suspenseful story with clear moral lines, and a somber tone respectful of its sad, brave characters. (Somber seems to be Eastwood’s favorite mood.)

Written by veteran TV producer J. Michael Stracynski following a year’s meticulous research, the movie tells the story of Christine Collins, an L.A. single mother whose son, Walter, disappeared in 1928, setting off a bizarre series of events that exposed deep corruption in the LA police department. Angelina Jolie plays Collins, a phone-company supervisor who, in the mode of the day, glides across the switchboard floor in roller skates.

When her beloved Walter (Gattlin Griffith) disappears, Collins tries to enlist the help of an indifferent LAPD. After five months, the police announce they have found the boy in Illinois, but when the child arrives, Collins knows he isn’t her son. Unwilling to risk bad publicity, the police persuade her to take the boy home “on a trial basis.” The boy is clearly an impostor, but when Christine continues to press police captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan, with a sinister Irish brogue) to find her son, Jones brands her a delusional, unfit mother. Christine’s case attracts the attention of a crusading preacher, Rev. Gustav Briegleb (John Malkovich, oddly reminiscent here of Vincent Price), who broadcasts a radio program targeting LAPD corruption. With Briegleb’s help, Christine goes to the press, and Jones has her committed to a snake pit of an asylum. The story grows even grimmer with the discovery of a series of grisly child murders at a ranch in Wineville, California and the arrest of their perpetrator, Gordon Stewart Northcott (the excellent Jason Butler Harner).

The movie hews closely to the facts of the case, though mercifully doesn’t dramatize the more sensational details of the “Wineville Chicken Coop Murders” — the flashes of implied violence are more than enough to haunt your dreams. Despite some minor anachronisms, the period detail is impressive, from furnishings and cars to cloche hats and dropped-waist dresses. Jolie is affecting in a performance much quieter than her intense histrionics in A Mighty Heart, albeit so skinny she looks in some scenes like a pair of tremulous red lips on a stick. Someone, please get this woman a sandwich.

Originally published in Cleveland Scene.

Celluloid Neros

Does anyone still care about Hollywood satire?

What Just Happened, directed by Barry Levinson, is a breezy satirical comedy about Hollywood, based on veteran movie producer Art Linson’s memoir What Just Happened: Bitter Tales from the Hollywood Front Line.

Linson, who wrote the screenplay, produced the well-regarded The Untouchables and Fight Club and the not so well-regarded Pushing Tin and Great Expectations remake. Robert De Niro stars as Ben, an aging producer struggling to hold onto his A-list ranking while dealing with multiple personal and professional headaches. Ben’s newest movie, a violent action picture starring Sean Penn, has evoked hostility and revulsion among test audiences because of a shocking scene involving the hero’s dog. The tough studio chief, Lou (Catherine Keener) insists that the offending frames be removed, and the temperamental, pill-popping director (Michael Wincott) rebels. (The story seems to be based on the studio’s negative reaction to Fight Club.) Ben’s next film is jeopardized when egomaniacal star Bruce Willis shows up overweight and with a Rutherford B. Hayes-style beard that he violently refuses to shave — a story based on a similar incident involving Alec Baldwin. Ben must persuade Willis’ nervous agent, Dick (John Turturro) to get Willis to shave before shooting starts, a drama that builds to improbably huge proportions.

Ben’s personal life is also complicated. Twice divorced, he still pines for his most recent ex, Kelly (Robin Wright Penn), a passion further inflamed when he discovers she’s sleeping with his married screenwriter pal Scott (Stanley Tucci). With splendidly fast-paced editing by Hank Corwin, Levinson creates an entertaining landscape of phone calls, lunch meetings, tantrums, opportunistic sex, Ecstasy and ego-stroking.

As Hollywood satires go, however, this one is pretty mild — none of the dark sardonicism of The Day of the Locust or Robert Altman’s The Player. And, this being Linson’s story, Ben, the character based on him, is rather vanilla: a basically nice guy to whom crazy things happen. The movie is nonetheless amusing and enjoyable, with a great celebrity cast, many playing themselves and clearly having a fine time

Still, there is something so last decade about Hollywood satire. As election season brings serious global issues into focus, it does make people prattling on about glamorous movie-biz lifestyles seem like so many Neros fiddling while Rome burns.