Rocking the Classroom

In a world where music has gradually been processed like so much cheap cheese, where whole nations sit down on Saturday nights to exercise their right to text fresh meat through the awful karaoke mincer, those of us who love music, real music, should go down on out knees and thank Paul Green. He’d love that. In Don Argott’s documentary Rock School, Green is the founder, principal and apparently the only teacher at the Paul Green School of Rock, a Philadelphia-based after-school club that takes local youngsters from the age of 9 to 17 and trains them to become rock musicians. Green, who turns out to be the biggest kid in the bunch, is a curious mix of motivational speaker, ringmaster, educator and mentor wrapped in a malodorous-looking, XXL Jethro Tull t-shirt. In between sweary rants at the listless kids and frantic ducking and diving to keep the operation going, Green, who started the school in 1998 when his own dreams of rock stardom didn’t pan out, leads us on a warts-and-all tour of the school and its pupils.

Among the trainees we meet are the all-rocking 9-year-old twins, Asa and Tucker Collins, a Joni Mitchell-like crooning Quaker named Madi Diaz-Svalgard, a depressed, mislabelled philosopher named Will O’Connor who chose Rock School over suicide and an astonishing 12-year-old prodigy, C.J. Tywoniak, whose guitar is a foot taller than him. What emerges most strongly from Rock School, apart from the jaw-dropping talents of some of the kids, is that Green is determined to treat them like adults. He refuses to pander to their whining, or talk down to them and is absolutely serious about their progress as musicians. It’s easy to see how readily his pupils respond to him, and how conducive the ramshackle, paper-strewn school is to fostering their talents, but, thinking back, it’s hard to see what Green does exactly. We never see him teaching chords, or giving voice lessons or tips on performance. He seems to play the role of vibes-master, a Pied Piper who has given himself the responsibility of finding and developing the next wave of axe-wielding rock gods. If all this sounds familiar, that's because Green’s antics were the basis for Richard Linklater's 2003 Jack Black vehicle School of Rock, but as usual, the real story is far more interesting.

Green, for all his verbose bluster and uncomfortable fits of arm-waving frenzy, comes across as a proud teacher, an intelligent and articulate musical historian and a highly efficient motivator. With all the shouting and roaring, it’s as if Green is training the kids for the inevitable hearing loss that a lifetime of strutting in front of a Marshall stack will inevitably result in. However, his results speak for themselves, with the film building towards Green taking a band of his best and brightest on a road trip to a Frank Zappa festival in Germany. Once there, he harries his well-practised charges into performing Zappa’s convoluted jazz-rock to an gob-smacked and highly appreciative audience. It’s the high point of a wholly satisfying, occasionally thoughtful and frequently hilarious movie.

Rock School is a delight; a palate-cleansing benzene sorbet that cuts through the gloopy starch of the recent run of bad films and the monstrous production-line of modern democratic pop.

Taradise Lost

Now officially classified as a casualty of the celebrity wars, the scar-tissue covered American Pie actress and newly crowned Queen of the B-List Skanks Tara Reid (AKA Frankenboobies, AKA If The Wind Changes Your Face Will Stay Like That, you get the idea) has booked her seat on the unstoppable death-train to self-destruction, taking in What Career, Desperate Boob Job and, a new stop on the route, Shut Your Fat Yap.

Currently, bafflingly, employed to spill her guts on a cable reality travel television show called, with a heavy dose of irony I sincerely fucking hope, Taradise, the full on raging alcoholic and all out screaming disaster (whose trade now appears to be her dimpled arse, seeing as it's sad , pockmarked droop is a permanent feature in the American supermarket tabloids), is busy proving conclusively that the part of her brain not devoted to blinking, breathing and operating her drinking elbow is not otherwise engaged in pondering the issues of the day. Reid recently took a breather from her unfettered Caligulian debauchery to bark on about the London bombings in a slurred monologue delivered straight to camera, eye-balls akimbo; a fervent plea for peace and love familiar to tired greeting card writers and mohair-clad kindergarten teachers.

“I wish all the mean people would just buy a country together and blow each other up”, she squeaked. “Then we’d have no terrorists left. Like, don’t kill innocent people for no reason. It’s not fair. We love everybody. We’d even like them if they said they’re sorry. It’s not fair that innocent people are getting hurt. It makes me sad.” While delivering this astonishing fairy-land foot-stomp, Reid is filmed quaffing champagne and tearing the claws off a lobster at a shore-line restaurant in Monaco, as far from the ‘mean people’ as it’s possible to be while remaining on Planet Earth, although it doesn't appear that Reid visits here much anymore anyway.

Spelling Test

When you spend most of your supposedly working life in the plush embrace of a cinema seat, you don’t see a lot of daytime television. Not that I feel I’m missing out, it’s that the result is sizeable gaps in my pop culture education, one of which is sit-com Bewitched, like the similarly naïve I Dream of Jeannie and Mr Ed one of a rash of supernaturally inspired shows from the early days of American television that still make the rounds of the outer reaches of the cable stations 40 years after they were originally broadcast, but a slice of Americana that means little or nothing to me.

Expectations are pretty low to begin with, so when inevitably and tiresomely the central concept behind Bewitched, a witch tries her hand at being a suburan housewife, is recycled by the Hollywood machine (busily spewing out retro-fitted big screen TV show makeovers for twenty years now and with no end in sight) in the shape of director Norah Ephron, you’d imagine looking at it with fresh eyes would help. It doesn’t. For these fractured, ironic, post-modern times a straight remake isn’t going to work. Ephron feels she needs an original kink, or at least let’s pretend its original, so this time the set up is Hollywood’s favourite topic, Hollywood.

The steamy cauldron of LA being increasingly the only source of magic in our snake’s belly shallow culture, it is entirely fitting that white witch Isobel Bigelow (Nicole Kidman) bases herself in a typical suburban house in the San Fernando Valley as she starts her new life, eschewing all of her magical powers to live instead an ordinary life as an ordinary woman. She wants to find cute pink sunhats, a yellow VW Beetle and her true love, and preferably in that order. The man she settles on, for reasons the film never makes clear, is the bigheaded, delusional Jack Wyatt (Will Ferrell), a faded former movie star whose career temperature has hit absolute zero, the same number as the sales of his last DVD. On the advice of his sleazy and increasingly desperate agent (Jason Schwartzman), Jack reverts to recurring television comedy drama and finds himself starring as the mild mannered husband in a remake of Bewitched. Countless audition montages fails to find an appropriately twitchy actress who can replicate Samantha’s nose movements until Jack sees Isabel in a bookshop. He wants her to take the role so he’ll get all the attention, she’s gorgeous and he’s recently divorced and, crucially, because of her ability to twitch her nose. What everyone doesn’t know is that Isabel is in fact a real life witch, an example of what I believe the Americans call ironing.

Following her ruminant appearance in The Hours, Bewitched is the second concoction built around Nicole Kidman’s nose – she was forbidden from twitching it in public by a studio nervous that doing so would deprive most of the audience of the reason for going to see the movie. But the twitch was the ultimate sit-com contrivance, in story terms it’s the equivalent of waving a wand around but far more discreet, perfect for a close up and not at all threatening. In terms of the drama, and the serial nature of the sit-com, it is, literally, a character tic designed to provide a couple of moments of small-screen intimacy in each episode between the pretty girl and the viewing audience and, funny or not, a spurt of canned laughter and a drumming twinkle of piano perfectly fit the crack in the soundtrack. It’s not nearly so much fun when the glacier-smooth nose is 70 foot tall and there doesn’t seem to be anything else happening.

Kidman is likeably frisky and sexily breathless, but perky and bright didn’t save The Stepford Wives and it doesn’t save Bewitched. For a man who has only recently risen to A List status, Ferrell is worrying repetitive and altogether ordinary. They both get to crack a few funny lines occasionally (Ferrell’s demand for 200 cappuccinos…“and bring me the best one!” is hilarious), but the whole misguided conceit has them headed in opposite directions, robotically executing parallel story lines that never intersect, not even for a moment. He never gives her a reason to find him even remotely loveable and she never looks at another man. The movie has been directed in her signature style by Nora Ephron (Sleepless in Seattle, You've Got Mail), that is to say anonymously. Together with her sister and co-screenwriter Delia, the Ephron’s present a cute parade of individual scenes, for all I know straight from the original material, but nothing approaching a film as such. It’s a traditionally structured movie, it has a start at the start and an ending at the end, but what either of Ephron’s stars are doing at either point I could not tell you.

But the problem with Bewitched isn’t the acting, or even the ongoing dredging of the cultural silt settled in the museum of television. The problem is the script. To all intents and purposes, there isn’t one. For a film that just scrapes 100 minutes, Bewitched drags along like November. The longer it drags, the less there is going on and everything gets sucked into the resulting narrative coriolis effect long before the point of boredom. The real interest in Bewitched might lie in the surrounding cast, reduced to cameos at the expense of the blundering top-line talent. Michael Caine has a handful of scenes as Kidman’s flirtatious old rogue of a father, Shirley McClaine, who famously thinks of herself as a mystic in real life, provides a few laughs as a showboating co-star who has a few tricks up her own sleeve. More of both might have helped things along enormously, but seeing as so little of their performances appears to have made it to the screen, we will never know. The litter of lost opportunities continues with bafflingly brief and random appearances from the likes of Ephron’s regular comic character foil Michael Badalucco and the upbeat and energetic Kristen Chenoweth.

Whatever magic there was here, and from where I'm standing there wasn’t all that much, has been evaporated – regardless of the tricks of modern conceptualisation, the moebius strip of overlapping storylines swallows up any opportunity to show where Isobel’s uncanny gift comes from or offer any real sense (beyond Kidman’s dreamy, orgiastic sighing) of other-worldliness. It’s all well and good for the first half hour but then everything seems to stall and the characters have nowhere to go. The set-ups continue, but they are so horribly fractured there’s no reason to care, or to pay much attention, even when someone is paying you to be there. Ferrell gets to do his comic riff on a rampant ego at the edge of hysteria; Kidman does the nose thing and learns to assert herself without magic and that’s about it. If Kidman and to a lesser extent Ferrell, insist on paddling in the shallows they can’t complain when they occasionally run aground. As there would appear to be no end to this tide of remakes inspired by old television, perhaps instead of leaving the house I should spend a bit more time on the couch, remote in hand, and call it research.

Subterranean Hole-sick Blues

In The Perfect Man, glum teenager Holly Hamilton (Hilary Duff) must up sticks and move city every time her single mother Jean (Heather Locklear) breaks up with one of her unsuitable men. To ease the pain of the metronomic heartache, Holly conceives the notion, inspired by Cyrano de Bergerac no doubt, to invent a secret e-mail admirer (played eventually by Chris Noth) and boost mommy’s shattered self-esteem.

What follows is the epitome of those time-wasting, gooey Hollywood tween audience-pleasers that completely fails to connect as entertainment or engage any of the senses or emotions in any way. Cliché follows cliché as the actors race around trying to find something tangible to hold on to. There is nothing to find; this is a comedy without a single joke (beyond the meta-joke of Duff’s tortured performance), a single original idea or even the merest flash of cinematic inspiration. Its mush; pre-chewed pap for unimaginative children, and worse, part of the same string of deep-rooted cultural enzymes that are poisoning our waters with consumerist, ambitious and deeply cynical stories of the American teenage experience. Its oily professionalism and deliberate messaging is just one part of a complex, gangrenous social venom that has a generation of Irish children speaking like air headed San Fernando Valley cheerleaders, an ear-wrenching intonation that turns every statement into a lilting question, peppered with like…totally…whatever.

This is a film that is beyond criticism in that it knows full well that it’s a piece of aspirational fluff with as much depth as a paddling pool and all the impact of a pillow fight. There is really nothing further to say, beyond noting that Hilary Duff has surely entered into some kind of diabolical contract as her success is otherwise a mystery. Duff represents all that is wrong in children’s cinema. Here is a teenage actress of extraordinary limitation, with no perceivable emotional range and the inability to deliver even the most straightforward line reading, elevated to the status of an icon. Every squeaky word spewed torturously from between Duff’s trembling pout, emerges from beneath her pert nose and furrowed brow to fall gasping on the floor, bereft. The rest of the cast stand around to watch it die. She is the mashed potatoes of cinema: white, bland and starchy. Like in the similarly Geneva Convention–defying Cinderella Story or The Lizzie Maguire Movie, Duff offers nothing because she has nothing to offer. Although she gives every impression that someone with a sandblaster has given her smooth head the once over, both inside and out, faded beauty queen Heather Locklear as the man-crazy mother somehow manages to transcend the dire nature of the material to offer fragmentary glimpses of a woman lost and alone in middle age, fearful of the future and desperate for happiness. But she’s drowning, adrift in the overwhelming pointlessness of the thing. Whatever indeed.

The physical impossibility of Stealth in the mind of someone living.

In the same week that the animalistic high-concept director Michael Bay likens the failure of his new blockbuster The Island to the setbacks suffered by Stanley Kubrick during his career, his counterpart in the art of blowing the shit out of things, The Fast & The Furious director Rob Cohen steals the central concept from the great man’s 2001 in presenting Stealth or 'Machines Are Bad: Any Questions?'

In the near future, everything is covered in blinking red lights and everybody is really stupid. That’s the lesson gleaned from this awful film, by some considerable distance the worst movie I have ever seen and a worthless cinematic endurance test of SAS survival-training proportions. I saw it a week ago and it still hurts, like a blister or an earache. The plot can be disposed of in two lines. The warmongering Yanks have developed a high-tech fighter plane operated by an artificial intelligence called EDI but it gets hit by lightning while on manoeuvres and turns evil. Three human pilots, whose character names are unimportant but are portrayed by the cartoonishly heroic Josh Lucas, the it's-better-than-lapdancing Jessica Biel and the Jesus help us Oscar winner Jamie Foxx, are charged with bringing Hal 9000, sorry, EDI back from the brink of full scale war and, while they're at it, employ their big noisy guns to blow the everloving tar out of the ululating ‘terrorists’ in North Korea, Myanmar and Tajikistan - all in the name of Uncle Sam and all on the same busy day. The rest of the thing is indecipherable, but it is jet-engine loud, pit-bull aggressive and day-old stupid. It actually doesn’t matter who these steroidal goons are, or what war crimes they get up to because the whole sorry mess is thrashed to shreds in the digital tumble dryer of frenzied, whiplash editing, slow-motion explosions and lingering military pornography. How dense does a film have to be to make Top Gun look smart?

To refer to Rob Cohen as a filmmaker is incorrect. He assembles slow-witted, belligerent, politically disgusting and noisy cock fights, not movies. Rather than concentrate on those elements that make films interesting; like plot, dialogue and character, Cohen's approach is to tack ten minutes of grisly chit-chat into a shoddy, juddering genre action scene extended over two hours. It is an assault, not entertainment. For an expensive special-effects driven piece, the final results are just shocking (think: the chroma key experimentation of late-period Wanderly Wagon) with every single visual element of the production horribly over-designed and childishly executed. The dialogue is just bilge and the characterisation entirely absent. Stealth is what $150 million buys you in today’s Hollywood: nine reels of dog dirt masquerading as a motion picture. At one stage Lucas roars at his superior officer that he “doesn’t want to see war turned into a video game.” I feel the same way about movies. The only thing noteworthy about Stealth is that it gave me a pain in my head and a pain in my arse at the same time. As for Jamie Foxx, he might find his career going into what the fuck mode after this baffling outing. This is exactly the opposite of the ideal film for an Oscar winning follow up and he might find himself comparing notes with Cuba Gooding Jr if he’s not careful. He's terrible, ridiculous really: they all are, but Foxx is the one with the most to lose.

Banging on about another piece of shit Hollywood turkey, so what? Am I missing the point completely? I don't think so. I believe that cinema has a legacy to protect and allowing modern directors, but specifically testosterone-fuelled goons like Bay, Cohen and, God help us, McG (the talentless bollocks) to remake Kubrick’s films, even in this cackhandedly sneaky way, has to be discouraged right from the outset. They haven't the wits or the desire to properly handle the kind of ideas Kubrick effortlessly put across, without relying on crappy computer animations or the demographic-chasing delights in having every scene with the 'smart' machine battered with a pounding soundtrack of bubblegum metal pop (I closed my eyes for most of those, and thought instead about a meadow on a sunny day, but they are astonishingly loud and persistent). Paying over your hard-eared money to watch this kind of unmitigated rubbish will only provide these hacks with the excuse they need to keep plundering.