SIFF Review: The Thief of Bagdad – Re-Imagined by Shadoe Stevens with the Music of E.L.O.

2011 SEATTLE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL SELECTION!
Unrated
155 minutes

****

 

It was so crazy that it had to work. In 1924, Douglas Fairbanks could never have imagined that his exorbitantly budgeted passion project would one day be improved by a surfer D.J., some sound effects and the music of an electronic classical/rock fusion band. In fact, trying to explain any one of those elements to a pre-talkie film star would be like playing Jimi Hendrix at a 1950’s sock hop. Combined with the comically broad acting of the silent era, a primordial stew of special effects and a little innocuous racial stereotyping, Shadoe Stevens’ re-imagining of “The Thief of Bagdad” is an instant dorm room classic.

If you’re among those who know what people really smoke out of a “water pipe,” you are probably also familiar with the uncanny appropriateness of playing Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” over a muted “Wizard of Oz.” Like many people of my generation who had a fridge full of beer and too much time on our hands, my college roommate and I loved to test this concept with other combinations. (For the record, the best results were The Beastie Boys with the “Scooby Doo” cartoon and Muse with “Mothra.”) Legendary radio D.J., Shadoe Stevens has taken this party trick one step further with “The Thief of Bagdad,” a film that is very close to his heart. In the 1970s, he set out on a thirty-year mission to find a soundtrack that “would do justice to the astonishing visuals” of this technically groundbreaking film. He finally found a perfect fit in the experimental strains of the Electric Light Orchestra. This unexpectedly harmonious marriage of sound and picture astonished even E.L.O.s Jeff Lynne who gave the project his seal of approval.

With an introduction by a pepper-bearded Orson Welles, “Thief” is trippy right out of the gate. Welles sits in near-profile in front of a red backdrop. He praises the film’s art direction and Douglas Fairbank’s performance, addressing the audience with the unnerving casualness of a drunken uncle. And with that, we’re transported to a 1920s Hollywood interpretation of a lively Arab berg.

Douglas Fairbanks plays the titular thief, a man with fuzzy morals who spends his days parkouring all over the city and stealing everything that he can get his hands on. He and his flamboyant accomplice plot to rob the palace, just as the princess begins accepting suitor applications. The thief seizes this opportunity to gain access to the palace, assuming the airtight identity of “Prince Ahmed, Prince of the Isles, of the Seas and of the Seven Palaces.” Meanwhile, an evil Mongolian (is there any other kind?) prince plots to conquer the city. The story only gets more convoluted from there, introducing tons of giant monsters, magical objects within magical objects and a quest to find the finest jewel in order to win the princess’ hand in marriage.

Until now, the only silent films I’d seen were the broad comedies of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. So I was quite taken aback to discover that their performances weren’t considered broad. That was just acting. Actors had to convey everything with just a few lines per scene. Lines that no one even heard them say. It was perfectly natural to express hunger by circling a hand in front of your tummy or to scratch your palms to indicate a desire to steal something. How could one identify the bad guy if they didn’t slink around and literally shift their eyes? As the princess, Julianne Johnston is a master of hand-to-forehead acting.

The facts surrounding the production of “The Thief of Bagdad” are almost as remarkable as the film itself. Douglas Fairbanks was the world’s first movie star, known for swashbuckling roles in films like “The Three Musketeers” and “Robin Hood.” For him, “Thief” was a dream realized. He starred, produced, co-wrote and financed the film. He also did his own stunts, including riding free-style on a “magic carpet” constructed of sheet metal, cables and cranes.

Speaking of scenery, you can see every penny of the (then exorbitant) $2 million budget on screen. There are lavish palaces and halls, bustling bazaars populated by hundreds of extras and giant beasts galore (my favorite is a killer chimpanzee in a diaper). They must have spent thousands on large, empty clay pots as the streets are littered with them. Characters hide in them constantly. They figure heavily into elaborate chase scenes. The Thief’s cohort even carries around a clay pot disguise to remain unassuming whilst standing guard. In movie Bagdad, there is nothing more commonplace than a large clay pot.

One of the most lavish expenses is also one of the film’s funniest moments. They follow up a threat to boil someone in oil with a shot of an immense, extravagantly adorned chalice. A man stands on a ladder next to the chalice, stirring the boiling oil. He pauses to wave and gesture to the oil, thus corroborating the threat. There’s at least a couple hundred dollars right there. In an age in which films are often guilty of telling more than showing, it’s weird to think that the pioneers of the medium had the opposite problem.

Stevens recently showed the film to an audience at the Seattle International Film Festival. He is shopping the film around to garner interest for the project before he finalizes it with a full film restoration and colorization. In case you’re wondering, you don’t have to be stoned to enjoy this one. Of course, it couldn’t hurt…

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct). 

SIFF Review: Killing Bono

2011 SEATTLE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL SELECTION!
Unrated
114 minutes

***

Just hearing the name “Bono” can send me into a fist-shaking rage. So you can imagine how hopeful I was when I first heard the title, “Killing Bono.” Despite having plenty of guns, drugs and danger, the film isn’t really all that dark. It’s only slightly more black a comedy than the most angst-ridden number in “High School Musical.” Still, it’s an enjoyable film, even if the title doesn’t pay off in quite the way I’d hoped.

In 1976 Dublin, a tiny, ambitious lad named Paul Hewson holds a band audition in an equally tiny garage. Paul wants Ivan McCormick to be part of the lineup, but, for some reason, he first runs it by Ivan’s brother, Neil. Neil has already figured Ivan into his own plans for stardom and turns down the offer on Ivan’s behalf. How could he know that Paul Hewson would become Bono and the band, then called The Hype, would become U2? As Neil and Ivan watch U2 become an Irish national treasure, the brothers struggle in obscurity, always overshadowed by the accomplishments of their former schoolmates. All the while, Ivan is completely clueless to the fact that his brother prevented him from joining one of the biggest bands in the world.

For my money, the music of the McCormick Brothers/Shook Up is far superior to that of U2. It’s interesting, edgy and peppered with hints of Joy Division and the Ramones. When they’re on stage, the brothers are legitimately having a blast. They rock out without a hint of self-consciousness. They are desperate for fame but it’s not as much about the money as it is being able to do what they love for a living. In contrast, U2 are in a constant state of posturing and boy-howdy are they serious. Bono has taken to martyrdom like a duck to water.

Sadly, this isn’t the story of Bono’s rise to super-douchedom. It’s about a man who is profoundly skilled at cocking things up. At times, Neil’s story turns suspiciously farcical for one that’s “based on true events.” Shook Up’s first scheduled gig is usurped by a Pope visitation. Their second gig is a dud as well, taking place at an illegal strip club. To add injury to insult, Neil decides join forces with the club’s gangster owner and digs them a £10,000 hole. Later, Neil books their big London debut gig for the same day as Live Aid. Eventually, the band earns a modicum of success, but they remain in U2’s shadow, the comparison perpetuated by an evil journalist with whom Neil used to work. Many of these tales smack of Irish embellishment. There is no way the real Neil McCormick was that incompetent or unlucky. Right? For his sake, I hope not because the Neil of the film is an annoying, bloody-minded little bastard. Even though I see where he’s coming from, he deserves far more beatings than he actually gets.

Martin McCann plays Bono a bit too modest but I’ll be damned if he isn’t the spitting image of the man. When he offers to help Neil and Ivan get noticed, he does it in such a condescending way that I almost understand why Neil turns him down. ALMOST. Neil wants success on his own terms, but his terms are pretty damned unreasonable, especially when his choices also affect his brother.

Peter Serafinowicz (“Spaced,” “Shaun of the Dead,” the voice of Darth Maul) is hilarious as usual, playing a shady record exec. Also noteworthy is the performance by Pete Postlethwaite, a man known for playing badass Irish motherfuckers. It’s his last role and he goes out on a high note. He’s completely lovable as Neil and Ivan’s campy landlord and he doesn’t kill even one person.

Despite having made “the worst decision of [his brother’s] life”, Neil does have a valid beef with U2. It’s a pretty goofy move to just, one day, change your name to Bono (or, for that matter, The Edge). Their rise to power was hard and fast while better bands struggled for years. They should have remained “The Hype” because it describes them perfectly. I get why they’re popular. They write catchy songs. But Bono isn’t exactly a wordsmith. He writes Rhyming Dictionary Arena rock. Not to mention the fact that their front man wouldn’t put a penny in a Unicef box if there weren’t cameras present to capture it. Granted, that Bono has yet to emerge in the context of the film. Movie Bono is just a super nice guy who wants to use his fame to help a brotha out. But he hasn’t got time for people who don’t appreciate him because he has plenty of people who treat him like royalty. Like I said, I completely understand why Neil is driven literally mad with jealousy.

Ivan, on the other hand, is the warm little center of the story. It’s worth sticking around just to make sure things turn out OK for him and that his brother hasn’t literally ruin his life. Ivan’s likeability is due, in no small part, to the charisma of actor Robert Sheehan. At the ripe old age of 23, Sheehan is already a master of physical comedy. Through the years, the brothers don a series of silly outfits in their attempt to nail down their look and sound. It’s not easy to look dignified when you’re dressed like Adam Ant, but Sheehan’s earnestness sells it. Sheehan brings the laughs even as he’s acting out the worst day of his character’s life. Ben Barnes isn’t terrible as Neil, but in contrast to Sheehan, there are times when his performance appears to have all the nuance of a bit player on “That’s So Raven.” Robert Sheehan is the true Irish national treasure and he must be preserved at all costs.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct). 

SIFF Review: LOVE

2011
Unrated
90 minutes

**

“LOVE” is the latest addition to the Lonely Cosmonaut genre. Listen, I love stories about space as much as the next guy who also likes space stories. But I’m starting to suspect that we’ve already said everything we need to say about the subject. Space is vast, mysterious, beautiful, terrible and lonely as hell. This is both common knowledge and well-worn cinematic territory. Until we learn some new information about space, we don’t really need to keep harping on the old themes. While it is a beautiful and moderately engaging film, it also feels superfluous.

Director William Eubank goes where others have boldly gone before with the tale of Captain Lee Miller, an astronaut stranded in his tin can prison after losing contact with Earth. Miller must battle the insanity of isolation and impending life support failure. To pass the time, he creates elaborate fantasy worlds and loses himself in the diary of a Civil War soldier that just happened to be lying around the space station. Eubank, clearly inspired by “2001” and “Solaris,” lets both the fantasy and reality play out in an epic fashion.

Most of us have never left the planet. Nonetheless, the daily routine of life on a space station is well established in our minds. “LOVE” is filled with such familiar images. Miller paces up and down the cold, tubular hallways. He sits in front of panels covered in lit buttons. He peers longingly through a tiny porthole at the Earth below. He runs on a treadmill. He eats nutritious, unappetizing approximations of food. He watches the last video communication he has from his brother on a loop. Eubank attempts to supplement the hackneyed images with Civil War battle scenes and other fantasy sequences from inside Miller’s mind. Some were more interesting than others and I often found myself eagerly anticipating the return to reality.

Among Miller’s hallucinations are interview segments with average folks espousing their perspective on life and love. This is where the thematic flaws really poke through, transforming the narrative from subtle meditation to philosophical sledgehammer. Among the age-old head-scratchers explored: If a man lives alone in space is he really alive? And can anyone truly live without the hu-mon emotion called love? This sort of fortune cookie wisdom along with a complete lack of humor injects the film with an air of high school poetry class.

The biggest marketing draw for the film is the soundtrack by Angels & Airwaves. Though this is the first I’ve heard of it, it’s my understanding that some have been “eagerly anticipating” this prog rock side project by Blink 182’s Tom DeLonge. It’s Brian Eno for the Hot Topic set and that’s cool enough, I suppose. But I wouldn’t say it’s particularly integral to the story. I can imagine the film without it. In fact, I’ve already sort of forgotten what it sounds like. The soundtrack would have been just as successful were it comprised of the thematically relevant work of Bowie, Elton and Peter Shilling.

A noteworthy feature of “LOVE” is that Eubank and his brothers spent four years building the sets out of household junk in their parents’ driveway. Wayne Coyne accomplished a similar feat for the Flaming Lips film, “Christmas on Mars.” It’s incredible how space-worthy garbage can look. No matter what the result, you have to give props to someone who devotes that much of their life to one film. It would have been nice if he’d allocated a little more of that time to streamlining the plot.

Visually, the end result is quite impressive. This film is absolutely a feast for the eyes. In my book, however, looks aren’t enough to win the whole pageant. If MacBeth were here, he might say that “LOVE” is “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Personally, I think that’s a little harsh.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).