Thursday, September 23, 2010

10 fake movie bands that make real music

Fictional bands are often employed in films as tool of satire or as a stand-in for a real band. Sometimes, though, the fake bands, comedic or otherwise, turn out to be pretty good with material that could top the charts in reality and, in some cases, it actual does.

Here is a list of 10 great fictional movie bands. In compiling this list I had to establish some guidelines. The Blues Brothers and Tenacious D did both appear in movies, but don't make the cut because, although they are fictional bands, both released albums that produced hits before the release of their respective films.

Characters from “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” were also considered but ultimately weren't included since the film was an adaptation of an off-Broadway musical.

Two movies based on comic books appear on this list. Although these bands did appear in a previous medium, the music they perform was created specifically for the film versions and thus their inclusion on this list.

10. Wyld Stallyns from The “Bill and Ted” Movies (1989, 1991)
Two California teens are in a rock band that will one day create music that will bring peace to the world. To make sure the dimwitted duo stays together they travel through history and to hell and back. Bill S. Preston, Esquire and Ted "Theodore" Logan don't appear higher on this list because the one song we hear from the band is a Kiss song that in no way could ever bring balance to the world.

9. Sex Bob-Ombs from “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” (2010)
This movie was released just over a month ago, but the Sex Bob-Ombs are absolutely worthy of inclusion on this list. The title character (Michael Cera) is the bass player for the band, which has a crunchy, imperfect garage band sound. The four songs that quirky rocker Beck wrote for the film clock in at less that eight minutes, but they are short, raw blasts of rock bliss.

8. Josie and the Pussycats from “Josie and the Pussycats” (2001)
I make no secrets about my love for the music in this underrated adaptation of the comic book characters. It was only a few weeks ago I was singing its praises in this paper and I'll keep doing so until more people discover the joys of the shiny pop-punk songs that were created for this surprisingly sly spoof of the music industry.

7. Mitch and Mickey from “A Mighty Wind” (2003)
Directed by mockumentary master Christopher Guest, “A Mighty Wind” was essentially the folk version of “This is Spinal Tap.” There were several fictional folk acts in the film, but it is Mitch and Mickey (Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara) that provide the film with a heart. Their song “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow" received an Oscar nomination.

6. Marvin Berry and The Starlighters from “Back To The Future” (1985)
This is the band that is playing during the crucial school dance scene that decides the very fate of time traveler Marty McFly's (Michael J. Fox) existence. When Marty takes the microphone and leads the band in a blistering version of “Johnny B. Goode,” Marvin Berry is quick to call his cousin Chuck to share the “new sound.”

5. Crucial Taunt from “Wayne's World” (1992)
Mike Myers and Dana Carvey's goofy cable access duo were one of the few “Saturday Night Live” sketches to successfully make the transition to the big screen. Wayne and Garth worship two things: rock and babes, so it is no surprise that Crucial Taunt's lead singer Cassandra (Tia Carrera) is Wayne's dream girl. Plus she wails on a killer cover of “Ballroom Blitz.”

4. Stillwater from “Almost Famous” (2000)
Writer/director Cameron Crowe's shares a fictionalized version of his time writing for Rolling Stone magazine as a teen. The stand-in for several bands, but primarily Led Zeppelin, is Stillwater, which includes Jason Lee as the lead singer and Billy Crudup as the guitarist. The original material is good, particularly “Fever Dog,” but it is the tour bus singalong of Elton John's “Tiny Dancer” that is the movie's magic moment.

3. The Wonders from “That Thing You Do” (1996)
Tom Hanks made his debut as a writer and director with this playful look at the rise and fall of a one-hit wonder in the 1960s. This isn't a look at the dark underbelly of rock, but in its cheery way it does have some shrewd things to say about the music industry. The Oscar-nominated title track is sensational and just about impossible to dislike.

2. Soggy Bottom Boys from “O Brother Where Art Thou” (2000)
The Coen Brothers depression-era reworking of “The Odyssey” featured a trio of chain-gang workers on the lam that by chance become the Soggy Bottom Boys, a singing sensation the sweeps the South. Life imitated art and, quite unexpectedly, the blues soundtrack raced to the top of the charts giving the fake band real success.

1. Spinal Tap from “This is Spinal Tap” (1981)
Rob Reiner's mockumentary about a washed up hair band's disastrous comeback tour is a classic that is quite possibly the most on-target satire of rock music ever made. The songs, such as “Big Bottom” are absurd, but only a hair more so than real metal bands. In the wake of the success of the film, the fictional band became real and actually toured and released albums.

Friday, September 17, 2010

'Expendable' sounds about right

“The Expendables” is all too aptly named. This is the epitome of expendable entertainment. There's almost no redeemable qualities and it wastes the talent of its performers and the time of its viewers.

While we're on the subject of the title, which is the name of a group of mercenaries for hire, why would said group choose such a name? It doesn't exactly instill much faith in your clients or your crew. At one point team member Dolph Lundgren throws a fit and goes traitor after he isn't allowed on the latest mission. Dude, haven't you been paying attention: You're expendable.

Directed, co-written and starring Sylvester Stallone, “The Expendables” is meant to be a throwback to the rough-and-tumble shoot-em ups that were Stallone's mainstay in the 1980s and 1990s. It is also meant to act, in theory, as a reunion of all the major action heavyweights from the 1980s through to the 2000s, but this is a bit of a misnomer.

Stallone is here as is Lundgren, his former nemesis from “Rocky IV,” along with Jet Li and the relatively newest action star on the block, Jason Statham. The rest of the roster is filled by ultimate fighter Randy Coutre, wrestler Steve Austin and former football star Terry Crews. These three aren't exactly the shining stars of action films.

Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme are sorely missing from this action rodeo. Seagal wisely chose to do “Machete” over this, and Van Damme just flat-out passed on the movie. In a video on YouTube, Van Damme explains he was offered a part, but when he asked Stallone what the character was Stallone didn't have an answer. Never a good sign.

Trailers for the film have made a big deal out of the presence of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis, but this is just another letdown. Schwarzenegger and Willis share a single scene with Stallone. Seeing these three together should be a major screen moment akin to Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro's scene in “Heat,” but clumsy writing kills the excitement. There's a punchline involving Schwarzeneggar that is suppose to get a big laugh, but it is more groan inducing.

The idea of an action movie reunion is a good one, but Stallone isn't a strong enough of a director visually or tonally to pull it off. If someone like Robert Rodriquez or Quentin Tarantino were at the reins, a knowing homage could have been pulled out of this gimmick.

A movie like this should be fun, but Stallone takes the material far too serious. The plot, what there is of one, involves saving a fictional island country from a dictator who is really just a figure head for a drug lord (Eric Roberts, trying to have fun chewing the scenerybefore it blows up).

Given how many years Stallone has starred in action films and that he has directed a fair share himself, it is amazing how bad an eye he has for composing a good action sequence. The shootouts, explosions and and fist fights are muddled, dimly lit and ultimately boring.

As for the acting, Stallone at this point is nothing more than a juiced-up caricature of himself. Lundgren oddly looks like an anorexic on steroids, and his marble-mouthed line delivery is painful. Coutre and Austin are no better. Statham, who has genuine charisma and acting abilities, tries his best, but is hampered by the lackluster script.

Li is completely wasted. Nearly every line of dialogue about his character is a short joke. Li even has to deliver lines about how he deserves a bigger cut of the money because he is smaller and things are harder for him. I hope in real life Li was given a very large sum of the money for putting up with Stallone's embarrassing, borderline racist attempts at humor.

The one oasis in this wasteland is Mickey Rourke as the crew's tattoo artist and agent of sorts. He only has a few scenes, but he leaves a more lasting impression than anyone else in the movie. He has a monologue about the loss of his soul that actually means something. It belongs in a better movie.

Friday, September 10, 2010

'Machete' is good bad cinema

Robert Rodriguez is a filmmaker who loves to make intentionally bad films. A lot of movies get branded as “so bad it's good.” In the case of “Machete,” the film is so good at being bad it is good.

“Machete” is an expansion of a fake trailer that was included in the Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino double feature “Grindhouse.” Veteran character actor Danny Trejo stars as the title character, an ex-Federale, who is hired to kill a senator (Robert DeNiro) but is betrayed. Machete uncovers an elaborate conspiracy and seeks bloody vengeance.

Similar to when a three-minute “Saturday Night Live” skit gets expanded to a feature length, there is some padding going on here and not everything works, but on balance it entertains for those with a high tolerance for gory violence, strong language and gratuitous nudity.

The film is a throwback to the exploitation films of the 1970s and, although it is set in the present day, with the use of computers and cell phones it looks and sounds like a grungy low-budget B-movie from that era.

In “Grindhouse” Rodriguez and Tarantino each contributed a film that was an homage to these grimy, often poorly acted and poorly written movies that in their awfulness had a certain off-kilter charm. Many of Tarantino's films have been riffs on some form of exploitation film, but he attempts to raise the genres he works within to another level of quality. Rodriguez is merely content to replicate.

There's a self-awareness to the proceedings. Lines that would've been unintentionally funny in an actual exploitation film are intentionally meant to get a laugh in their cheesiness. As with “Planet Terror,” Rodriquez' half of “Grindhouse" and “From Dusk Til Dawn,” Rodriquez takes great joy in frolicking around in this low-brow material.

Now while the film doesn't carry the strong characters, plotting or dialogue of a Tarantino film, Rodriquez does slide in some sly, if obvious, political satire in what will surely get the film branded as liberal propaganda by conservatives.

DeNiro's senator is running for re-election in Texas and has built his campaign on having no tolerance for illegal immigrants. He even gladly shoots a Mexican crossing the border. There are a couple very funny fake political ads that only slightly exaggerate right-wing rhetoric.

Rodriquez has populated the cast with current Hollywood starlets like Jessica Alba and Michelle Rodriquez (no relation) and faded stars such as Jeff Fahey, Don Johnson, Steven Seagal and Lindsey Lohan, who in a depressing bit of stunt casting, stars as Fahey's drug-addled daughter. For those interested in this sort of thing, Lohan is nude for a good portion of her role. Rodriquez-regular Cheech Marin also shows up as Machete's foul-mouthed, gun-totting brother, who is also a priest.

Given the film isn't reaching from Oscar caliber performances, the acting is actually pretty good. The cast finds a nice balance of campiness and sincerity. Johnson is clearly having fun hamming it up as a vigilante border patroller and, surprisingly enough, Seagal is decent as a
Mexican drug lord.

DeNiro is slumming it in this movie, but is in on the joke. Fahey is an underrated actor who along with DeNiro brings some acting gravitas to the film. And then there is Trejo as Machete. Trejo has been popping up in action movies for years, most recently in “Predators,” and in his first lead role he brings dry deadpan delivery and an intimidating, but likable screen presence.

As a director, some of Rodriquez' actions scene unfold too quickly and sometimes it is unclear what just happened, but his imagination for the twisted is seemingly endless. Those with the same warped sense of humor will appreciate his quite unexpected use of a human intestine.

“Machete” achieves exactly what it set out to achieve and it works on that level. It is absolutely not for everyone, but for a certain kind of moviegoer it'll be a lot of fun.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Five favorite movie soundtracks

I recently purchased the “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” soundtrack, and it was love at first
listen. We are planning a spring wedding. The great thing is we don't even need to get a DJ.

What struck me about the “Scott Pilgrim” soundtrack was how well it worked as an actual album. Sadly, movie soundtracks, and I'm referring to the kind that are a collection of songs rather than the film's score, are more often than not, merely marketing tools. Every once in a while, though, the soundtrack released to accompany a film will be conceived with care.

A great soundtrack should be a reflection of its movie whether it be in tone or message. To be truly successful as an album, a soundtrack can take either “The Graduate” method of having a single artist compose all the songs or the mix tape approach. Too often soundtracks seem to have songs arbitrarily chosen, but great ones will play like a mix tape lovingly compiled by a dear friend or lover.

Below is a list of five of my favorite film soundtracks.

“Wayne's World” (1992)
Soundtracks can be a great way to be introduced to new music and artists. This was the case when, at age 9, I got the “Wayne's World” soundtrack. Through the album I was given my first introductions to such giants of rock as Queen and Jimi Hendrix with “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Foxy Lady” both of which were iconically featured in the movie.

“She's the One” (1996)
This soundtrack is as obscure as the Ed Burns film that inspired it, but with songs entirely written by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers it is worth seeking out. The film was a darker-than-usual romantic comedy, and Petty's music reflects that with uplifting love songs paired with bitter songs of heartache. Songs like “Angel Dream” show Petty's tender side, while “Hope You Never” shows a nastier view on love.

“Grosse Point Blank” (1997)
The quirky film that this soundtrack comes from was co-written and co-produced by its star John Cusack whose own music tastes infused the film. Much like “High Fidelity” three years later, the album feels as if Cusack sat down and put together the soundtrack as a mix for all his fans. The album offered me my first exposure to such songs as “Rudie Can't Fail,” “Blister in the Sun,” “Mirror in the Bathroom” and “Pressure Drop.”

“Josie and the Pussycats” (2001)
Yes, you read that correctly. I have no shame in my love for this soundtrack to the goofy update of the 1970s cartoon. The songs created for the titular band featured Letters to Cleo's Kay Hanley on lead vocals and lyrics by Fountains of Wayne's Adam Schlesinger, who was nominated for an Academy Award for the title track to Tom Hanks' “That Thing You Do.” These are catchy pop-punk song with hooks that are the real deal. As an added bonus there's a boy band parody called “Backdoor Lover.”

“About a Boy” (2002)
Badly Drawn Boy, an idiosyncratic Brit pop act that freely blends sounds and genres, was the perfect choice to provide score and songs for this Hugh Grant vehicle based on the Nick Hornby book. Clever, heartfelt lyrics paired with well-constructed harmonies and melodies make this a wonderful collection of songs as both a stand-alone album as well as a companion piece to the film.