Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Movies Is Good: Recent Spins

by JB
Call me crazy, but I like physical media. I know, I know; there's a lot to be said for streaming services, but sometimes I just like to have a Blu-ray disc under each armpit.

What with the COVID-19, I have been spending a lot of time by myself lately (and not just by myself in the basement but in my own mind -- it's a dark dark place full of cobwebs and secrets, a place that I call home but that other people might call a cross between an insane asylum, a Florida Walmart on a crowded Saturday night, and a woebegone Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise that no one frequents anymore. Here's some of the Blu-ray discs I've been spinning of late. They range in quality from excellent to much much less, lesser, lessee, much much less, much lesser than excellent, but here goes.
Shout Select has released The Road to Wellville, a film I've not seen since it was first released, but that I have thought about quite a bit. (For some reason one of Dana Carvey's more offhand, off-color remarks sticks in my brain.) It was a pleasure to watch the film again because it was interesting to see a film on this scale attempted before the scourge of CGI. It is rather epic, and it was clear that they were doing it on a low budget (or on a lower budget then perhaps some other filmmakers could manage.) Alan Rudolph was a good choice for director; he's very much here channeling the spirit of his mentor, Robert Altman, and it's very much like a Robert Altman film. It's based on a novel by T. Coraghessan Boyle of some note, and it stars Anthony Hopkins, Matthew Broderick, John Cusack, Bridget Fonda, the aforementioned Dana Carvey, and lots and lots of character actors. Good Lord! I was amazed at some of the people who show up in this film: John Neville, the actor who played Baron Munchausen shows up in this film; Colm Meany shows up in this film; Cameron Manheim shows up in this film; Laura Flynn Boyle shows up in this film; the actor who played Kramer’s mother’s landlord on Seinfield shows up in this film! It's an actors’ delight, but it also centers on a strange subject for a mainstream Hollywood film because Boyle (in his novel) and Rudolph (in the film) are exploring sort the nature of a cult.
Dr. John Kellogg, who invented the famous cornflakes, runs a sanitarium of sorts in Battle Creek Michigan where people go to “take the cure.” He pushed a regimen of exercise and diet; he was very much against eating animal flesh, he was an early vegetarian although that might've been mercantile in nature because obviously he was selling cornflakes. Anthony Hopkins chooses to play Kellogg as a buck-toothed buffoon, something of a cross between Donald Trump and Bugs Bunny. That’s interesting because he is the lead in the film and he's very much playing it like a character part. Bridget Fonda and Matthew Broderick visit the sanitarium after some personal tragedy in an attempt to renew their relationship and get healthy together. John Cusack, meanwhile, takes his aunt's seed money and is looking to start his own breakfast cereal company. He allies himself with some unsavory characters, and they try to get a rival breakfast cereal, Perf-O Flakes, off the ground. Like I said, it's very strange. Dana Carvey plays one of Kellogg’s adopted children, George, who ain’t right in the head. There are multiple flashbacks to when George was a child. Basically, Dana Carvey runs around the film, wreaking havoc and throwing shit on everyone. That's not a metaphor; he literally throws bags of shit at people. This brings to mind the fact that of all of the mainstream Hollywood films I've ever seen (and I’ve seen plenty) this one focuses on shit the most. There's a lot going on in this film about shit, specifically the health involved in that the breakfast cereal is fiber-rich and helps you to have a bowel movement. The guy in charge is very much in favor of these bowel movements (and shit in one form or another) and enemas are discussed at great length. (At one point, Kellogg brags that his “stools are enormous and smell just like freshly baked biscuits.”) The film looks beautiful; it has awesome, big sets and hundreds of extras in costume, and it shows the panorama of daily life at the turn-of-the-century. I can't recommend it enough. Although it might not be for everyone; recently, I was talking about the film with our very own Patrick Bromley and he remembered that he hadn't seen it in a long time. I let him borrow the new disc, and sometime later I asked him what he thought. He said under his breath, “Well, I can't imagine why THAT film wasn't more of a success.” I do recommend it heartily, though, it's quite delightful in its own weird, subtle way.
Kino-Lorber has released Go-Go Mania, the American title for a jukebox musical called Pop Gear in the UK that came out in early 1965. The film’s main claim to fame is that the producers bought some color footage of the Beatles performing at the Royal Variety Show. (If you’ve seen the recent Ron Howard documentary Eight Days A Week, you’ve seen this footage.) They perform “She Loves You” and “Twist and Shout” and those are the two numbers that bookend the film, rather like when Ed Sullivan showcased the Beatles on American TV for the first time, they both opened the show and closed the show. The rest of Go-Go Mania is a low, low budget affair looks like it was filmed in someone's garage over a long weekend. The producers basically assembled a group of British hitmakers (and British wannabe hit makers) and filmed them miming to their hit records in front of tacky sets like empty window frames and working garden fountains. The fact that the film is in color is a big advantage; the fact that the film is introduced and hosted by Jimmy Saville is a big disadvantage. For those of you who do not know who Jimmy Saville was, you might want to pause and go look him up on the Google machine and try not to be too shocked by what you see there. I think it's interesting that the two gentlemen who do the commentary track on the new Blu-ray disc obviously made a decision before they went in to NOT FOCUS ON JIMMY SAVILLE. Clearly, if they had gotten into the morass of Jimmy Saville's personal life, that would've taken up a majority of the commentary.
A few of the bands here are better served by this format than others. The Animals perform two numbers, and they come across very well, as does Sounds Incorporated, the band that opened for the Beatles on their 1965 tour. Peter and Gordon look and sound great (although at that point Peter Asher, the brother of Jane Asher who Paul McCartney was dating at the time, looked exactly like Austin Powers) so that's a little and they perform their first hit “World Without Love,” which of course was written for them by Paul McCartney. It's amazing how cheap the sets look, but you kind of have to admire the ambitions of the director in trying to have the members of the bands sort of walk around, or march around, or dance around, or make poses so that it's not just twelve bands standing there like statues. I'd rather have this film then not have it. I suspect that in the future, I will listen to it like I would a playlist or radio show rather than sitting down all wrapped up in actually watching it. The restoration looks great, if you can avoid being to put off by the aforementioned, supremely odd Jimmy (Google him now!) Saville.
And finally, Olive Films has put out a new Blu-ray of the musical Hair. This is a film close to my heart. I saw it the weekend it was first released in 1979; it was the first time that I ever smelled marijuana smoke in a movie theater. I quite enjoyed the film then. Later I saw the film a few years later when I was in college…

HAZY COLLEGE MEMORY: This is quite a long time ago; different campus groups would sign up for a lecture hall. The “Office of Space Utilization” would do this for the student body. If you were part of campus group (Ski Club? Entomologist Club? Gay Illini?) you could reserve a lecture hall for the weekend for free, rent a 16mm projector and a popular film, and show it two or three times a night as a fundraiser. I remember every group charged the same amount, two dollars. So campus wide, there were maybe 30 or 40 different films being screened every weekend. It was quite a bonanza for the film lover, and certainly lured all of us budding film buffs out of our dorm rooms and out of campus bars for a few hours. The second time I ever saw Hair was in one of the big lab rooms in Lincoln Hall on 16mm. It was a crazy night; I was celebrating my birthday… but that's a story for another day.

Now we have this new Blu-ray of Hair that looks exceptional; it's the best copy of the film I've ever seen, and it comes loaded with extras including an audio commentary with the film’s assistant director Michael Hausman and Treat Williams, who plays the lead, “head hippie” Berger. (I don't know how many of you follow Treat Williams on the Twitter machine. I am, of course, off the Twitter machine, but the Treat Williams twitter account is something to follow. He is delightful; he's full of life and full of love for life, and he lives on this lovely farm in Vermont.) The audio commentary is terrific. There's a video featurette called “The Tribe Remembers” with a whole slew of the surviving cast members, including John Savage, Beverly D’Angelo, Annie Golden, Don Dacus, Ellen Foley, and Dorsey Wright. Unfortunately, Cheryl Barnes is nowhere to be seen. Cheryl Barnes plays Wrights fiancĂ©, whose solo number smack dab in the middle of the film, “Easy to Be Hard” is clearly the best number in the picture. It would have been interesting to catch up with her, but she's MIA. There is also a substantial interview with choreographer Twyla Tharp; this was her first film. There are featurettes about the editing and the production design and a wonderful little featurette with James Mangold, the director of the recent Ford Vs. Ferrari. Mangold took Milos Forman's film class as a graduate student way back when, and he looks back on the role that Forman played to him as a mentor and as a teacher. It's very touching, and it's it's very full of wonderful stories.
Milos Forman directed Hair, and it's interesting to see such an “American” thing being translated by someone from another country. Milos Forman would go on to make Ragtime, Amadeus, The People versus Larry Flynt, and Man on the Moon. Forman famously directed One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and Hair is clearly the film you get to make after your first American film wins all five top Oscars at the Academy Awards. I love Hair. I love the Broadway show, and I love the movie. The one bonus feature that I wish were on the new disc (which I suspect we will never see) is the slew of musical numbers that were cut from the original Broadway show, musical numbers like “My Conviction” (performed by Charlotte Rae) and “Air” that were filmed, but didn't make the final cut. They were on the double album soundtrack however. Some of the special features on the new Blu-ray show stills from the production of the musical number “Air,” which would've been Annie Golden’s solo number, so that sort of whets your appetite for these missing numbers. For whatever reason, those songs would have been a welcome addition. Hair is very well directed by Milos Forman, and sort of the opposite of the classic, stylized MGM musicals. Forman succeeds in removing the stylization and making all of the movie seem real and normal, not fanciful and imaginative. Forman takes the mundane and turns it into choreography and poetry. I can't say enough about this film. I love it a lot.

That’s about it.

NOTE: For those of you who did not read the inaugural “Movies Is Good” column, the above doggerel was not proofread, nor copyedited, nor even read by JB. You are the first person to read it.


  1. JB, I have always been intrigued by Road to Wellville but have never watched it. I almost rented it several times from Movie Gallery back in the day, but for some reason never actually did. So you have renewed my interest. I may have to track it down.

    I've never seen Hair and I worry that I might not like it the way I'm supposed to. Maybe I'm wrong. It looks like something that I would like if I grew up in that era but maybe not so much if I am watching it as a late 30s person who was born in 81 and did not experience hippie things firsthand. What do you think? Still worth a watch?

    1. i'm only a 40-something man, but Hair is fantastic. if only for the songs.

    2. Good to hear! I mean I do enjoy a good musical.

  2. I know a guy... who would let you borrow both discs...

    1. Well that does make it more enticing! Perhaps we shall have to come to an arrangement. :)

  3. I watched Road to Wellville when it was out, but it really just skimmed past my eyes, I felt it was Cohen Bros level of exaggerated reality. I do think in retrospect it deserves another viewing so I can appreciate the performances.

  4. See, if you were editing the transcription you would have caught this accidental proximity of phrases which gave people like me a good laught: "...his “stools are enormous and smell just like freshly baked biscuits. The film looks beautiful; it has awesome, big sets...."