Saturday, August 16, 2014

Movie Reviews: Get on Up, Clue

Get on Up
directed by Tate Taylor
Like Ray Charles but only more so James Brown was a larger than life musical figure who would likely be worshipped as a demigod if we lived back during pre-Christian times. There are very few people who had the influence that he did on popular music, not only in America but across the world. From Africa to Central America, the Caribbean to the Middle East, Europe to the Pacific there weren't very many people who didn't know who James Brown was. There weren't many popular or even more esoteric musicians who weren't influenced by him in ways great or small. People like Prince, Fela, Michael Jackson, vast numbers of soul and funk musicians, The Talking Heads, and many many more people or genres would not exist as they did then or do now without James Brown. James Brown had a pretty long run as someone making original music, maybe even as someone making high quality original music. I would argue that he was doing it to death for at least fifteen to twenty years, maybe even longer. That's unusual, in a music business that has always tended to reward the new, fresh and young. 

James Brown's impact went far beyond the musical of course. Along with such people as Miles Davis and Nat King Cole, Brown made it clear that a dark skinned black man could be not just a musical icon but a pop culture one, in a non-demeaning and even sexual manner. This was revolutionary stuff.

When Brown wrote and sang songs like How you gonna get respect? (when you haven't cut your process yet) or Say it Loud (I'm Black and I'm proud) he both channeled and inspired the nascent black self-love and black power movements of the sixties and seventies. Brown was a mess of contradictions. He gave women singers front lining status but could also be abusive publicly and privately. He talked of black power and endorsed Nixon. He spoke of mutual respect but ran his bands in a manner that let band members know he considered them all interchangeable and expendable. Brown constantly fined musicians for an array of mistakes or miscues, whether it be a note played a quarter second too long, arriving late to practice, a wrong dance step, a solo he didn't order or shoes that weren't properly shined. Practices were constant, grueling and extensive even by the demanding standards of the day. Brown knew exactly what he wanted and would figuratively and occasionally literally beat the band until he got it. As author Charles Shaar Murry wrote, Jimi Hendrix would not have lasted more than five minutes in Brown's band. Maximum.

So basically it would be very difficult for any single film to capture all of the facets of Brown's oft complicated personality, legacy and music. Get On Up makes a game try at doing this but in my view fell a little short. I've thought more about this and I don't blame the director/producers as much as I initially did. There's just so much to write or learn about Brown that it would be difficult to pick out one theme. The director decided to make the central theme of Brown's life his turbulent friendship with Bobby Byrd.
Get on Up jumps around chronologically, something I didn't like that much. Chadwick Boseman, despite being much taller and lankier than the relatively short Brown, did a masterful job at bringing across Brown's joys and depressions, his raspy voice and insistence on having non-intimates address him by his surname. We see him meet his lifelong friend and sounding board Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) while both are doing a stint in prison. Brown's charisma, audacity and financial savvy propel him to become the leader of what was Byrd's group. It becomes Brown's group, something that is made official in an ugly way when Brown's manager Ben Bart (Dan Akroyd) gets the group signed to King records as James Brown and his Famous Flames. Byrd is relegated to on stage valet, dancer, second singer and occasional pianist. Generally speaking though Byrd holds to the famous Dirty Harry dictum of "A man's gotta know his limitations". Byrd knew that whatever it took to be a star, Brown had it and he did not.
The films shows that this star power, this belief in self even when everything else was going against him is what helped Brown survive and escape from uncaring and occasionally abusive parents (Lenny Henry, Viola Davis) and work in a brothel run by an aunt (Octavia Spencer). The scenes with the younger Brown (played by twins Jamarion and Jordan Scott) are the film's most emotionally engaging. We see the ups and downs of Brown's life, including a tempestuous marriage with his wife Dee Dee (Jill Scott), tense relations with his primary soloist Maceo (Craig Robinson) and a surreal meeting with Little Richard (Brandon Smith). But as mentioned, the Byrd-Brown relationship is the key link between all the different time periods. I thought this was a decent enough film but it could have been better. It breaks the 4th wall quite a bit. A wrong note is played when Brown appears more distraught by the death of his manager than that of his oldest son Teddy. All in all I guess I'm glad I saw the film but it wasn't special to me. I'm rarely without Brown's music wherever I am but I did listen to it a bit more after seeing this film. Fun fact, most people don't know that most if not all of the children singing in Say It Loud.. were actually white or Asian not black, as the film depicts. The film is likely worth seeing if only for the music. Because the film breaks the 4th wall as often as it does, it takes you out of the suspension of disbelief. It reminds you that Boseman, talented as he is, is playing a role.

directed by Jonathan Lynn
On one, admittedly low level, some people men may enjoy this older film simply for the implausibly and impossibly low cut or clingy outfits worn by the French maid Yvette and the sultry Miss Scarlett. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that I might add. But even putting that aside I thought this to be a fun enjoyable movie. It did not do very well at the box office because of a mishmash of contradictory endings but later gained some fame as a comic cult film. Clue was primarily held together by the sly drollness and manic energy of Tim Curry. But Clue had an ensemble cast with many actors known for their comic timing. Everyone got a chance to shine. It's based on the old whodunnit board game which I doubt that very many people play any more. Do people even still purchase board games? I don't know. But there was a time back in the day when people did. The film's basic theme is an Agatha Christie type murder mystery at an isolated mansion in the early 50s. Six very shady strangers have all received an invitation to a dinner party, one which they dare not refuse. The guests, who have been assigned aliases, include:
  • Mrs. White (Madeleine Kahn) a self assured multiple widow who calmly insists that she had nothing to do with her husbands' mysterious disappearances and/or deaths. Accused of luring men to their deaths like a spider with flies she responds that flies are where men are most vulnerable.
  • Miss Scarlett (Lesley Ann Warren) an extroverted lady of the night and D.C. madam who caters to politicians, members of the military industrial complex and rich businessmen.
  • Colonel Mustard (Martin Mull) a pompous, smug, officious military man who became well off during the war.
  • Professor Plum (Christopher Lloyd) (my favorite character) a sex obsessed UN psychiatrist who always manages to be next to Miss Scarlett, Mrs. White or Yvette. When he sees that Miss Scarlett's car has broken down he offers her a ride to the mansion. That's not the only ride he would like to give.
  • Mrs. Peacock (Eileen Brennan) a senator's wife who may not be the ditzy dame she seems to be. Some people talk a lot because they're nervous. Some have other reasons.
  • Mr. Green (Michael McKean) a nerdy State Department employee who is homosexual, feckless, and stereotypically frightened of everything.
These people are met at the house by the fastidious butler Wadsworth (Tim Curry), the va-va voom maid Yvette (Colleen Camp) and the silent cook (Kellye Nakahara). Wadsworth, and Curry really has fun with this character, explains to the guests after dinner that they are each being blackmailed by his employer, Mr. Boddy (Lee Ving). Mr. Boddy discovered all of their deepest secrets and rather than turn them in to the authorities, like any good American he decided to make some money from it. Wadsworth explains this to the guests in the presence of Mr. Boddy who is obviously not too pleased with this turn of events. But Boddy is one cool customer. Giving each of the guests weapons he tells them that if he is arrested, he'll expose them all. But if one of them will kill Wadsworth right now then they can all go on as if none of this ever happened. After all Wadsworth hangs around with communists (that's what Boddy was blackmailing him and his wife about) so whoever kills him will be doing his or her patriotic duty. Boddy turns out the lights. There's a thump, a scream and a shot. Someone turns the lights back on but it's not Wadsworth who's dead. It's Boddy.

This kicks off a mystery as the group of people try to figure out who killed Boddy and how it was done. As other people start to drop like flies, the mystery thickens. For me anyway this was a tremendously funny film. It's full of visual puns and gags, tons of one liners and double entendres and a fair amount of Three Stooges style slapstick. The dialogue is something else. It moves very quickly. Some of it, such as a famous monologue by Mrs. White, was improvised by the actors. I still fall out laughing whenever I watch Wadsworth flawlessly imitate Green in a key moment. There are plenty of lines from this film which I still find myself using today in certain work situations such as when the mulish Colonel Mustard states "There's still one thing I don't understand." and the other guests sneer "One thing?" or someone will say " to make a long story short.." and everyone else interrupts "Too late!" There are three different endings to the story. The theater versions all had just one different ending. On the DVD all three endings are included. The first two endings are set up with "This is how it could have happened" while the third and most satisfying ending is introduced with "But here's how it really happened". As mentioned not all the conclusions line up 100% with what actually happened in the film but if you're the kind of person to nitpick over things like that and miss out on the fun and silliness this may not be the film for you. Otherwise if you're perceptive and notice things you may indeed watch closely to see just who had access to the lead pipe, how many shots were fired from the revolver and who wasn't there when everyone ran to the kitchen. 
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