Musical

1776

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1972

Columbia Pictures

Directed by Peter H. Hunt

Produced by Jack L. Warner

Written by Peter Stone

Based on the stage musical “1776” with music and lyrics by Sherman Edwards and a book by Peter Stone

The members of the Continental Congress are thisclose to signing the Declaration of Independence but Edward Rutledge (John Cullum) the representative from South Carolina is adamant in wanting the slavery clause removed before he will sign it. John Adams (William Daniels) is just as adamant in that it stay in. Benjamin Franklin (Howard Da Silva) begs his friend to give in just this once. Adams replies that posterity will never forgive them if they do. Franklin’s answer is one that I think says exactly why I love 1776 so much: “That’s probably true, but we won’t hear a thing, we’ll be long gone. Besides, what would posterity think we were? Demi-gods? We’re men, no more no less, trying to get a nation started against greater odds than a more generous God would have allowed.”

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1776 treats the Founding Fathers as just that: men. Oh yes, they’re men of staggering accomplishments, intelligence and talents. But still just men. John Adams is obnoxious and disliked, even by his closest friends. Benjamin Franklin hides a devious manipulative nature and a tsunami-sized ego behind jocularity and razor sharp humor. Thomas Jefferson (Ken Howard) would much rather be home knocking boots with his hot wife (Blythe Danner) than creating a new nation. John Hancock (David Ford) just wants to be somewhere other than Philadelphia in the stifling hot summer. Richard Henry Lee (Ron Holgate) is a raging narcissist with an ego equally the size of Franklin’s but he’s only got half the brains. Stephen Hopkins (Roy Poole) is a cantankerous old bastard who apparently has joined Congress mainly because of the free rum he is constantly being served by the long suffering clerk McNair (William Duell).

I think that by presenting such towering historical figures in such a down-to-earth manner is exactly the way to go with 1776 which tells the story of how The Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4th, 1776. John Adams of Massachusetts heads up one faction that favors independence from England. John Dickenson (Donald Madden) of Pennsylvania leads the faction that wants to reconcile with England. Through debate and song we watch as these two factions discuss and argue the fate of their fledgling nation and it’s a lot of fun to watch them as they do so.

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It was a solid creative decision on the part of producer Jack L. Warner to cast the movie with actors who had been in the Broadway stage performance of 1776 as they know this material inside and out and play it accordingly. Howard Da Silva and William Daniels are tied with the acting honors in this one. Most people think of William Daniels as either the voice of K.I.T.T. from “Knight Rider” or Mr. Feeney from “Boy Meets World.” I always think of him as Dr. Mark Craig from “St. Elsewhere” or as John Adams here. Yes, his John Adams is abrasive and lacking in diplomacy but his motives are honorable and that softens his edges. And I think it’s an excellent idea to have two songs back to back: “Sit Down, John” and “Till Then” that show Adams from two different perspectives. “Sit Down, John” is sung by Congress and displays their disgust with him while “Till Then” is a tender duet Adams sings with his wife Abagail (Virginia Vestoff) where we see his softer side. Ken Howard as Thomas Jefferson is also a standout, particularly in the later scenes where Congress ruthlessly tears apart the precious Declaration he has poured his soul into with their petty debates over the wording. Howard says more with his silence and the expressions on his face than he could have with pages of dialog.

But a musical has to stand and fall on the music and 1776 stands tall in this respect. “Sit Down, John” is a rousing way to start the movie, full of vigor and humor. “But, Mr. Adams” is both clever and witty as Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, Roger Sherman (Rex Robbins) and Robert Livingston (John Myhers) argue in song about who should actually sit down and write the Declaration. My favorite is “The Lees of Old Virginia” which for me is one of the greatest show stopping songs in musical history. In fact, my only complaint with 1776 is that“The Lees of Old Virginia” comes twenty minutes into the movie and there’s really no other song after that one which comes close. Especially as sung by Ron Holgate who tears it up with such magnificent energy you can’t help but smile and sing along. And toward the end, the songs get darker and more somber such as “Is Anybody There” where John Adams really lets loose and expresses his frustrations. And “Molasses To Rum” sung by Rutledge in which he lays out explicitly the hypocrisy enjoyed by the Northern states when it comes to the issue of slavery. If you’ve never heard John Cullem sing, you’re in for a treat when you watch 1776.

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And should you watch 1776? If you’re a lover of musicals, you probably already have. If you’ve never seen it, I envy you watching it for the first time. It’s an absolute joy to watch from beginning to end. The cast is first rate and the songs are wonderful. Every year for the past ten years I’ve made it a point to watch 1776 every 4th of July as Turner Classic Movies faithfully shows it on that day. The only reason I don’t watch it more often is because I’m holding out for the Blu-Ray. But don’t you wait. If you’ve never seen 1776, get hold of a DVD copy and enjoy.

PG

142 minutes

The Apple

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1979

Cannon Film Distributors

Directed and Written by Menahem Golan

Produced by Yoram Globus

Once in a decade or so there comes a movie that is so astronomically bad that it pounds through every level of badness there is and comes out the other side having achieved such a holy transcendence of awfulness that it approaches genius. And in the 70’s the movie to have achieved this Mount Everest of WTFery is THE APPLE.

There is nobody who has seen THE APPLE is going to tell you it’s a good movie. As a matter of fact, calling it a bad movie or an awful movie or even a terrible movie is being extraordinarily kind. And yet for those of us who have seen THE APPLE will recommend it to everybody who asks the dreaded question: “So should I see it?” we’ll always say “Yes.”

Why? Why does THE APPLE have such a hold on us who have seen it? In my case I’ve seen it multiple times and I swear each and every time I do so I sit there with my lower jaw hanging open in disbelief at what I’m watching. Maybe it’s because even because it’s so bad I don’t see where it’s a malicious or mean-spirited film. The people making it and the actors really give it all they have. I get the feeling that they really believed they were making a good movie. Except for maybe Vladek Sheybal who gives me the impression he knew full well he was in the middle of the grandmomma of bad movies but determined to have as much fun as he could while doing so.

It’s 1994 and life is nothing but show business.  Alphie (George Gilmour) and Bibi (Catherine Mary Stewart) are two wide-eyed young singers from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan who have come to America to perform in the Worldvision Song Festival.

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Their poignant folk love song; “Universal Melody” and simple performance is no match for the glitter rock duo of Dandi (Alan Love) and Pandi (Grace Kennedy) and their monster hit “BIM” which is a song that I guarantee you’re going to hate by the end of the movie like you’ve never hated a song before in your entire life.

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BIM stands for Boogalow International Music. It’s owner, Mr. Boogalow (Vladek Sheybal) sees something in the innocent naivety of Alphie and Bibi that cries out to be corrupted and seeks to lure them into signing a contract with him. Bibi quickly and willingly embraces the dark side while Alphie resolutely sticks to his values and principals, resisting the drugs, sex and wild partying. From the title and a vision Alphie has halfway through the movie you’ll soon guess the true identity of Mr. Boogalow and what the entire movie is; a retelling of the Adam and Eve story as a disco/rock musical.

THE APPLE is the sort of movie that I watch and while watching it wish that I had some of whatever substance the writer was ingesting when he was writing it. It’s the kind of movie that the longer it goes on it gets crazier and crazier. It’s by no means a boring movie at all. The songs and production numbers, terrible as they are come one right after the other so there’s no real lag time with a lot of plot or story. There’s just enough to get you from one musical number to the other. For instance, BIM goes from a mere record company at the beginning of the movie to ruling the world with not so much as a line of dialog to explain how that happened.

Not that all the songs are terrible. The best ones are performed by the guy who can’t sing; “How To Be A Master” is performed by Vladek Sheybal. He’s the guy who fills the “Who The Hell Let HIM In This Movie?” slot as you’ll most likely recognize him as one of the SPECTRE spymasters from the James Bond movie “From Russia With Love.”  He does that Rex Harrison/Richard Harris thing where he’s really not singing but talking along with the music but he does it very well. It’s a delightful reggae flavored tune that Mr. Sheybal performs with sly mischief. The lyrics are actually quite clever and fun. And his other big number, “Showbizness” is also pretty good as a commentary on the values of living in the media obsessed world of 1994 America.

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But then we have ear bleeders like “Coming” sung by Grace Kennedy as Pandi tries to seduce Alphie. It’s such a blatant rip-off of Donna Summer’s “Wasted” that I hope like hell that somebody got their ass sued. “Speed” “I Found Me” and “Cry For Me” are equally as bad.

And undoubtedly most of the fun of watching the movie is how the filmmakers in 1979 thought people in 1994 would dress. Everybody in this movie has clothing that had to be inspired by David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, Earth, Wind and Fire, Funkadelic/Parliament, Kiss and Elton John. The only people who dress like regular folks is Alphie and the hippies from the 60’s he falls in with after having the piss beaten out of him by two of Boogalow’s thugs who for some reason have tusks coming out of their mouths. And no, don’t even ask why they have tusks. This is a movie that gets so crazy that the only way things can be resolved is for God Himself to come down from Heaven and take control of the plot. And no, I am not kidding.

So should you see THE APPLE? Without a doubt Yes. THE APPLE is one of a very few movies that you can watch, be totally sober and still feel like you’ve taken some kind of hallucinogenic. It’s audaciously awful and spectacularly bad. But for all that, it’s a movie I recommend with no reservations because at the end of the day, it’s fun to watch and bad as it is, if you approach it in the right spirit you won’t feel like your time has been wasted.

90 Minutes

PG

Jesus Christ Superstar

1973

Universal Studios

Directed by Norman Jewison

Produced by Robert Stigwood

Screenplay by Melvyn Bragg

Based on the rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar” by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice

The movie begins with a bus driving across a huge, vast desert.  It stops and a large group of men and women get out.  They unload props and costumes and we get the point that they’re preparing to perform and/or rehearse a play of some sort.  Now given how the movie ends I have a couple of theories about this whole scenario.  One, this is a bunch of actors who by the end of their rehearsal/performance have gotten so deep and far into their roles that an unimaginable tragedy occurs.  Or that they are religious fanatics who are reenacting the story of Jesus Christ and deliberately sacrifice one of their own to have a proper end to the story.

Or it could just be a pretty entertaining musical we’re watching called JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR.

Calling it a musical isn’t exact, though. It’s a Rock Opera, a form of musical theater popular in the 70’s and 80’s.  “Tommy” “Hair” “Godspell” and “Pippin” are examples of this.  It’s called a Rock Opera because the score is rock music and there is no spoken dialog.  Everything is sung.  JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR remains even today the most controversial of the Rock Operas because of the subject matter: an exploration of the last days of Jesus Christ (Ted Neely) seen primarily through the eyes of Judas Iscariot (Carl Anderson) Mary Magdalene (Yvonne Ellman) and Peter (Philip Toubus)

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First of all, I love the look of this movie as it was filmed in The Holy Land and among ruins in The Middle East.  It gives the movies a stark, arid atmosphere that I think works so that we can concentrate on the music and the performances and not be distracted by garish, glitzy sets.  We already know how the story ends.  What is important here is how it’s presented.

Every musical (or Rock Opera) succeeds or fails on its music and JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR has some pretty epic songs.  Most people know the song “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” as performed by the amazing Yvonne Ellman who also played Mary Magdalene in the Broadway production.  But to me there are songs just as good if not better.  My favorites are “The Last Supper” and the awesomely poignant “Could We Start Again, Please?” which is sung primarily by Mary and Peter as they beg Jesus for him to take everything back the way it was when things began long after it’s way to late for that.  “What’s The Buzz?” is such a favorite of mine that some of you who have conversed with me on the phone/Skype/IM know that oftentimes I’ll start the conversation with the song’s refrain; “What’s the buzz?  Tell me what’s a’happening?”  Josh Mostel (the son of Zero) has a showstopper “Try It And See” that is totally whacked out and just a lot of fun to watch and hear.  It’s a song you’ll want to hear more than once, trust me.  Judas also has a number called “Damned For All Time” that is amazing in the anguish and power Carl Anderson delivers.

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In fact, Carl Anderson as Judas walks off with the acting/singing honors in this one.  He gets to perform the very first song in the movie; “Heaven on Their Minds” which to me sets the tone for the entire relationship in the movie between Jesus and Judas.  And when he sings the title tune; “Jesus Christ Superstar” his energy is astounding to watch.  Ted Neely as Jesus is no Jeffrey Hunter but he can sing and he’s got such a haunting look in his eyes that you can’t take your eyes off him.  Yvonne Ellman besides her career on Broadway enjoyed a very good run with her disco hit; “If I Can’t Have You.” And she’s great as Mary Magdalene.

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In fact, the thing I really like about this movie is the exploration of the extraordinary relationship between Jesus and Judas which is one that has infinitely fascinated me since I was a boy in Sunday School.  There is a scene between Judas and Jesus where they dispute about Mary’s buying ointment to put on the feet and head of Jesus.  Mary sings “Everything’s Alright” while Jesus and Judas clasp hands and look deep into each other’s eyes.  In that scene there is a resolution and commitment to their shared destiny that is both affirming and terrifying.

And I’ll leave it up to you to determine what it means in the final scene when the actor who plays Judas is still alive when the actors shed their costumes and props and get back on the bus while we don’t see the actor who played Jesus at all.

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So should you see JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR?  I say yes.  As entertainment and as a cultural artifact, it is most definitely worth seeing.  My wife Patricia doesn’t like the movie because she feels that any movie dealing with Jesus Christ should depict The Resurrection and we don’t get that here.  This goes back to my opening interpretation of the movie.

But I digress.  JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR is available for streaming on Netflix and I heartily endorse it purely as entertainment.  You want religious guidance and instruction? Go to the church or religious institution of your choice.

108 minutes

Rated G

Mad Monster Party

1967

Embassy Pictures

Directed by Jules Bass

Produced by Joseph E. Levine

Written by Harvey Kurtzman and Len Koroban

Growing up in Brooklyn during the 70’s we didn’t have all the platforms available that we have now to watch movies whenever we want.  The concept of a DVR or Blu-Ray player/disc was considered science fiction back then. So that meant that if there were certain movies we wanted to see, we had to be home to watch them because if we missed them, it would be a whole year before we could see them again.  While I do greatly appreciate the convenience of being able to go to my DVD collection or turn on Netflix and see just about any movie I want any time I want, I do kinda miss the anticipation of waiting until the Christmas season to see the Rankin/Bass Christmas specials like “Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town” or “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer” or Halloween to see MAD MONSTER PARTY.  Oh, sure…I’m adult enough to wait until the appropriate time to watch ‘em.  But I dunno…it’s always in the back of my mind that I can watch them any time I want.  Somehow it just seemed more special when I had no choice but to wait to see those specials and this movie we’re going to talk a little about right now.

MAD MONSTER PARTY is a stop-motion animated musical spoof of horror movies with an all-star monster cast: Baron von Frankenstein (voiced by Boris Karloff) his Monster, Dracula, The Mummy, The Werewolf, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, The Invisible Man, The Creature From The Black Lagoon, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Bride of Frankenstein (voiced by Phyllis Diller).  Baron Frankenstein intends to retire and leave his castle, his experiments and all his secrets to his nerdy nephew Felix Flanken (voiced by Allen Swift) who sounds uncannily like Jimmy Stewart and even more uncannily resembles Rick Moranis.  He calls for a convention of all the monsters to his island in order to announce his decision.

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This doesn’t go over well with Francesca (voiced by Gale Garnett) who thinks that as Frankenstein’s faithful assistant for years, she should be the successor to Frankenstein.  Francesca enlists Dracula and The Bride in a scheme to eliminate Felix and get The Baron’s secrets for themselves.  However, that scheme quickly gets scrooched when Francesca falls in love with Felix and is double-crossed by Dracula and The Bride who enlists the rest of the monsters to wipe out Frankenstein, Felix and Francesca and take Frankenstein’s secrets for themselves.

There’s a lot of respectable talent in this movie.  There’s Mr. Karloff, of course.  But Phyllis Diller can get on the last nerve with that trademark, shrill, drawn-out “ha-ha-ha” she feels the need to put on the end of every sentence.  Harvey Kurtzman, who co-wrote the screenplay created MAD Magazine and MAD cartoonist Jack Davis designed most of the characters.  As can be expected with those guys working on it, there’s a lot of dark humor aimed at adults that goes over the heads of most kids.  I was surprised at how many slightly saucy lines and in-jokes I caught when I watched this recently.  I was convinced that the movie wouldn’t be the same now that I’m thirty years older than when I last watched it but I was pleasantly surprised at my own enjoyment of the movie.

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I appreciated how the likenesses of Baron Frankenstein and The Bride are designed to look like the actors voicing the characters.  I think it’s wild how Felix looks so much like “Ghostbusters”/”Little Shop of Horrors”-era Rick Moranis.  And the character of Francesca was based on Tina Louise who played Ginger Grant on “Gilligan’s Island” But to me she looks like a stop motion version of Christina Hendricks:
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Francesca is voiced by Gale Garnett who won a Grammy for her 60’s folk song hit; “We’ll Sing In The Sunshine” and she lends her distinctive vocal talents to a couple of songs: “It’s Our Time To Shine” and “Never Was A Love Like Mine” both of which are really good.  And even ol’ Boris gets to sing a rousing number; “One Step Ahead”

So should you see MAD MONSTER PARTY?  Some of you won’t no matter what I say because you’re too sophisticated and would sneer at what you perceive to be crude special effects, out-of-date movie making techniques and would find the movie “corny”.  So you can feel free to leave the room.

For the rest of you who stayed; if you’re a fan of Tim Burton’s stop-motion work then by all means, give MAD MONSTER PARTY a viewing.  It’s a movie where you can plainly see the influences on his own work.  And besides, it’s simply a fun little movie whose only purpose to entertain and put a smile on your face for 95 minutes and I can think of no higher recommendation.  And for you parents: if you want to expose your kids to a form of animation other than computer generated, here’s a good one.  MAD MONSTER PARTY gets my recommendation for family viewing on Halloween.  Enjoy.

Phantom of The Paradise

1974

20th Century Fox

Written and Directed by Brian DePalma

Produced by Edward R. Pressman

Mention the name Brian DePalma and most people will probably cite him as the director of Hitchcockian style thrillers such as ‘Dressed To Kill’, ‘Blow Out’ or ‘Sisters’. I myself would be more apt to mention ‘The Untouchables’, ‘Scarface’ or his vastly underrated and overlooked Vietnam War movie, ‘Casualties of War’. And nobody would even dare bring up ‘Bonfires of The Vanities’ but very few would have his satirical horror rock musical PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE be the first title to come to mind. And I can understand why. It’s a movie unlike any other Brian DePalma had made up to that point and he never would again. In my research for this review I learned that apparently the only place this movie was a success was Canada and everyplace else was considered a major box office flop. And then ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ was released the year after and we all know what a cult phenomenon that became and so PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE became further eclipsed.

It’s a shame, though. For my money, PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE is the far better movie with a compelling story based on the Faust legend as well as ‘Phantom Of The Opera’ with a generous helping of ‘The Picture Of Dorian Gray’ tossed in and done well with great energy and style. Everybody involved looks as if they’re having a great time and best of all; nobody’s taking themselves or the material too seriously. They know they’re making a satirical spoof of horror films and taking broadly generous pokes at the record industry but it’s all in fun. I’ve spoken to plenty of people who worship at the altar of ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ and have seen the movie more than a hundred times. I’ve seen it exactly twice and have no intention of ever seeing it again but I’ve seen PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE about five times and could cheerfully watch it another five times.

Swan (Paul Williams) is the hideously powerful creative genius behind Death Records, capable of influencing musical trends on a day-to-day basis. Swan can create rock stars and elevate them to godhood or destroy them and leave them broken with a frightening ease. Swan is searching for just the right music and singer for the opening of his music palace, The Paradise. He finds the music in a cantata written by Winslow Leach (William Finley) that is over 200 pages long and based on the Faust legend. Swan’s number one henchman Arnold Philbin (George Memmoli) goes to meet with Winslow and through a combination of generous flattery, heaping helpings of bovine excrement and just plain lying; he gets hold of Winslow’s cantata, promising that Swan will make him a star.

Hah. That’s a laugh. Swan takes the cantata, refuses to meet with Winslow and has him thrown out time and again from the Death Records building. But Winslow is persistent and during one of his efforts to get in and confront Swan, meets up with Phoenix (Jessica Harper) who has the most beautiful voice he’s ever heard. Swan finally has Winslow set up on a phony drug possession rap and sentenced to Sing Sing. Winslow is a broken man until he hears that his cantata is to be performed at the opening night of The Paradise by Swan’s cheesy 50’s doo-wop boy band, The Juicy Fruits. Winslow’s mind snaps and he goes berserk, escaping from Sing Sing and making it to the Death Records pressing factory where he tries to destroy the huge machine pressing out copies of the album.

(We Interrupt This Review For A Historical Footnote: Before there were CDs and MP3s there were these things called ‘albums’ that people used to listen to music on. They were made of vinyl and a device known as a turntable was used to play them. We Now Return You To Your Regularly Scheduled Review.)

Winslow’s head is caught inside the hot record pressing machine but he manages to get free.  Driven totally mad by physical and psychological pain he flees from pursuing police who chase him to The East River where he falls in and is presumed dead. No such luck. Soon, The Paradise is being haunted by a leather clad, caped figure wearing a silver bird-like mask who commits acts of murder and destruction, delaying the opening of The Paradise. It’s Winslow, of course. But he’s horribly deformed and his voice has been destroyed. And he won’t allow Swan to let anybody except Phoenix sing his music. Swan agrees to this and even makes a deal with Winslow (they sign a contract in blood) who agrees to rewrite his cantata for Phoenix. But Swan has other plans up his well-tailored sleeve…

From that short summary it sounds as if PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE is a straight up horror film and if it was told in a straight up and down manner, it would be. But DePalma tells the story in a loopy, freewheeling style with crazy camera angles, split screens, a jumbled up music score that has everything from doo-wop to heavy metal, drugs, orgies, outrageous violence and yes, a lot of laughs. It also manages to get in a hell of a lot of plot in its 97 minutes, which means that the movie is never slow, and never lags. There’s always something happening and the twists and turns the story takes ensures that your attention won’t be allowed to wander.

I like all the performances in this movie. This is probably the best acting job Paul Williams has ever done and he is obviously enjoying himself. Swan is a terrific villain who relishes being such an unprincipled bastard. Along with George Memmoli as Philbin, they make a great team. They go about their villainy with just a day-to-day attitude that it makes it seem almost reasonable that they do such horrible things to people.

William Finley is wonderfully sympathetic as Winslow Leach/The Phantom and never fails to make you feel the pain of his character. I like how after his transformation into The Phantom he takes on a definite superheroish flair, climbing over rooftops, swinging from ropes and such, racing down corridors with his huge cape billowing behind him. Gerrit Graham nearly steals the movie as the bitchy hard rocker Beef. Every time he appears on screen he’s doing something that left me sore with laughter, including the scene where he slips and falls on stage and is trying to get up but his two foot high platform shoes keep getting in the way.

But Jessica Harper is the real star of the movie. I think Jessica Harper is a marvelous actress and one of the world’s most gorgeous women and it shows here. The camera simply loves her and when she’s on screen you don’t want to take your eyes off of her. I can’t help but feel she’s been vastly underused in the movies. When she gets a meaty role in movies such as ‘My Favorite Year’ ‘Pennies From Heaven’ and ‘Suspira’ she’s magic. Wish I could say the same about her dancing. Just sit back and watch her dance in this movie. She makes Elaine Benes look like Tina Turner. I’m serious, folks. She’s that bad a dancer. But what the hell, her acting more than makes up for her two left feet and she gets to sing and that ain’t bad at all.

So should you see PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE? A lot of people are probably going to be turned off by the production values of the movie as it looks as if it were filmed on the smallest budget possible. The concert scenes look as if they were filmed in a high school auditorium and the attitudes of the characters is pure cheesy 70’s. The music score is done by Paul Williams and while it’s not memorable, it serves the needs of the story and the closing theme, “The Hell Of It” is probably the best song in the movie but I like the goofy opening song, “Goodbye, Eddie” as well. And Jessica Harper gets to sing two ballads that may not be show stoppers but they don’t suck, either… Hell, I’d watch Jessica Harper sing VCR instruction manuals without complaint.

So don’t let the movie’s 70’s production value stop you from checking it out. It’s done in a flamboyant visual style with an intriguing mix of the horror, musical, social satire and comedy genres and mixed very well in my opinion. One genre doesn’t dominate the others and the mix ensures that it’s not a boring movie. If you get The Fox Movie Channel on your cable/satellite provider, you’ll be sure to see the movie. Somebody in Programming there must be a fan of PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE since it seems to get run there twice a month, usually after midnight on a Friday or Saturday which is really the best time to see the movie. But if you don’t go ahead and Netflix it. It doesn’t have the polish and sophistication of Brian DePalma’s later films but that’s part of its decidedly goofy charm.

97 minutes

Rated PG

Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride

2005
Warner Bros.

Directed by Tim Burton and Mike Johnson
Produced by Tim Burton and Allison Abbate
Written by John August, Pamela Pettler and Caroline Thompson

There’s only two types of filmmakers that would do a stop-motion animation film these days: one who is either insanely patient or one who has a genuine and deep love for the art form. Most animation is done on computers these days and stop-motion animation just simply isn’t done any more because…well, let’s put it this way: you don’t do a stop motion animated film if you’re in a rush. Simply put: the process involves building extraordinarily detailed model figures and then moving them just a millimeter, shooting one frame of film, then moving the character another millimeter, shooting that frame and so on and so on. I’ve read that when this process is going well, stop-motion animators can get two minutes of film every two weeks, which they consider fantastic.

Ray Harryhausen is the undisputed master of stop-motion animation and the battle between half a dozen live actors and nearly a dozen skeleton swordsmen in “Jason And The Argonauts” is still considered to be the greatest stop-motion animated sequence of all time and even Mr. Harryhausen has said that doing that sequence nearly drove him crazy. There’s a nice little homage to Mr. Harryhausen in TIM BURTON’S CORPSE BRIDE that I liked. I like it when I see acknowledgments to artists like Mr. Harryhausen as it’s easy to forget that men like him were the ones who were able to pioneer their art form that give us movies like TIM BURTON’S CORPSE BRIDE.

And the movie should be seen and appreciated for the brilliant technical work that’s gone into making it but as for the actual story itself…well, that’s another matter altogether….

Victor Van Dort (voiced by Johnny Depp) is roped into an arraigned marriage by his parents (voiced by Tracy Ullman and Paul Whitehouse) who have gotten rich from selling fish, if you can believe it. The marriage will bail out the parents of Victoria Everglot (she’s voiced by Emily Watson while Joanna Lumley and Albert Finney are the parents) who have position, breeding and social standing but are stone cold broke. The marriage is advantageous all way around: The Van Dorts get social credibility while The Everglots get a much needed transfusion of cash into their blue blood veins. The only ones not happy about the marriage is Victoria who was hoping that she’d be in love with the man she going to marry while Victor is simply too much of a nervous wreck to be able to go through with the rehearsal.

Victor goes to the graveyard behind the church to practice his wedding vows and while doing so places the ring on what he thinks is a rotted twig but is actually the finger bone of Emily (Helena Bonham Carter)

whose arm is sticking up out a hastily dug grave. Emily was murdered by the man she was supposed to run off with and marry and when she comes up out of her grave, still garbed in her tattered wedding dress she falls in love with Victor and takes him with her to the land of the dead where their marriage is celebrated. Meanwhile, back in the land of the living, The Everglots have decided that since Victor has apparently run off, they quickly fob Victoria off on the mysterious and sinister Baron Barkus Bittern (Richard E. Grant) whose eventual role in the story will come as no surprise. Will Victor be able to return to the land of the living in time to prevent Victoria’s marrying Baron Barkus? And even if he does, what will happen to Emily since he did marry her of his own free will and even though she’s dead as Julius Caesar, she do love that man of hers and has no intention of giving him up to some floozy whose heart is still beating.

TIM BURTON’S CORPSE BRIDE is the kind of movie that I expected I would fall in love with as I did with “The Nightmare Before Christmas” but I just couldn’t get into this one. It’s absolutely wonderful to look at and the stop-motion animation is spectacular but the story didn’t grab me at all. Only Tim Burton would make a love story this gothic and dark, filled with murder, death, betrayal and good-natured mean-spiritness.  But I found myself admiring the technical aspects and not really paying much attention to what was going on story-wise. I liked the voice work a lot and I liked how the animators even managed to make Emily sorta sexy even though she’s a rotting corpse. But the movie isn’t horrific enough or romantic enough or funny enough. Tim Burton throws in a lot of elements but none of them seem to come together, especially the big musical number, which explains the story of The Corpse Bride. The sequence is just thrown in there mainly because I think Burton wanted a sequence with a chorus line of dancing skeletons.

In fact, the land of the dead doesn’t seem to be such a bad place as everybody seems to having a better time dead than they did alive. The colors are brighter, everybody’s partying and wisecracking all over the place and Victor is happily surprised to be reunited with his dead dog Scraps who is now just a playful skeleton. “You should have seen him when he had fur,” Victor says fondly while tickling the dog’s skull.

I think Tim Burton was going for a different sort of Halloween movie just as his “The Nightmare Before Christmas” was a different kind of Christmas movie but I thought that earlier film much more fun and entertaining with characters that really moved the story. That doesn’t happen here and actually, the movie seems slow moving and even plodding in spots and even though it’s only 76 minutes it seems twice as long. But most of the wisecracks coming from the dead folks are really funny and The Town Crier has what is perhaps the best line in the movie and the only one that made me laugh out loud.  But the Peter Lorre inspired maggot who lives in Emily’s head was just downright annoying and a distraction from what was really going on.

So should you see TIM BURTON’S CORPSE BRIDE?  It’s a magnificent movie if you’re looking at it strictly from a technical standpoint and as a Tim Burton movie it’s definitely worth a viewing if you’re a fan of the director.

Rated PG
76 minutes