Films I Neglected To Review: Tradition
By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 09/06/19 06:32:26
Please enjoy short reviews of "Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles," "Next Level," "No Small Matter," "Satanic Panic" and "Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken!"
When "Fiddler on the Roof" debuted on Broadway in 1964, its success was anything but assured--potential backers were skeptical about sinking money into a musical adaptation of Sholem Aleichiim's stories about Russian Jews dealing with forces ranging from the need for tradition regarding the marriage of their children to an imminent pogrom in their village, a Detroit tryout was poorly received and the New York reviews were not exactly overwhelmingly positive. Nevertheless, the show not only became a smash hit and one of the all-time classics of musical theatre (it is said that not a day has gone by since its debut where it hasn't been performed somewhere) but would generate a sort of universal appeal with audiences despite its seemingly specialized subject matter. The new documentary "Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles" takes a look at the history of the show--from its tumultuous early days to the success of both the stage and equally popular film version to the way that it continues to be embraced by new generations of audiences--through a combination of archival footage and interviews with any number of people who have worked on it over the years, including a considerable number of those who participated in the original production (including composer Jerry Bock and author Joseph Stein, both of whom died in 2010 but who were interviewed recently enough so that their footage blends in with that of the other subjects). For those with a keen interest in musical theatre--pretty much the entire target audience—there may not be much in Max Lewkowicz's film that is especially revelatory but to see the people involved with its early days sharing their stories (my favorite is Norman Jewison discussing the reaction of the executives at United Artists when he responded to their offer to have him direct the film version by telling them that, despite the insinuation of his last name, he wasn’t actually Jewish) and performers from more recent iterations talking about the importance of continuing the legacy of the show is undeniably exciting. Considering the importance of the show and its legacy, it is sometimes a little disappointing that "Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles" doesn't delve deeper into the subject at hand than it does here but between the interviews and the amusing bits of ephemera that have been dug up (including a clip of The Temptations singing "If I Was a Rich Man"), it is still worth a look.
"Next Level" tells the story of a group of teenaged girls attending a super-prestigious two-week performing arts summer camp and vying to win the coveted Miss Next Level award for best performer. Going for her third Miss Next Level win in a row is the obnoxiously vain and bratty Cindy (Emily Skinner) but a challenger arises in the former of the talented-but-rebellious Kelly (Lauren Orlando), who isn't interested in much of anything but doesn't want to see the annoying Cindy win either. In between the extremely sparse classwork, there are various dramas involving one attendee being pushed by her stage mother to succeed, another who has no demonstrable talent but who is there because her mom had a big hit song in the 80s (or was a big dancer--the film is a little shaky on this count) and Kelly finds herself being distracted by a cute boy (Hayden Summerall) from a nearby basketball camp. As you might have twigged by now, the film is a blatant ripoff of the "High School Musical" saga (with healthy chunks of "Mean Girls" and "Fame" thrown in for good measure) but as dopey as those films were, they were at least cheerfully amusing in their essential silliness, contained well-staged musical numbers and included a number of genuinely talented performers in the cast. "Next Level," on the other hand, fails in every single one of those comparisons and many more to boot--the film feels like a busted pilot for a ripoff TV show that even its tween target audience rejected for being condescendingly stupid, the songs and dances on display are so inept that any parent sending their kids to such a place would doubtlessly demand a refund and the performers are devoid of any evident performing abilities (they all seem like bystanders in their own numbers and resemble deer in headlights when forced to deliver dialogue) that it is not a surprise to discover that virtually the entire cast hails from the environs of reality TV or YouTube videos. Far be it for me to shatter the dreams of anyone hoping to pursue a career in the arts but if there is anyone involved with "Next Level" who actually feels proud about what they accomplished here, they may want to seriously consider looking into the executive training program at Bloomingdales as an alternate career path.
"No Small Matter" is a documentary advocating for a specific cause, a type of filmmaking that I normally do not respond to very well, even if I am in favor of the cause in question, because the filmmakers tend to spend more time and energy on getting their message across than in making a cinematically interesting movie. While this one does not exactly break the mold for this type of filmmaking, it is ultimately more interesting than it might have otherwise been. Part of this is because the subject--the importance of early childhood educational development during the first five years and how the lack of such things as quality child care or salaries for pre-school teachers that do not force them to find second jobs or leave the field entirely in order to make a living--is an undeniably important one that, if taken seriously, could lead to major and systemic changes to any number of key societal issues. Part of it is due to the fact that instead of presenting the film as a haranguing expose of the problems with early education and how it too often gets shoved to the side, directors Danny Alpert, Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel are more interested in focusing on the positive side of the issue by observing insanely dedicated pre-school teachers at work determined to help make their charges into fully functional people instead of simply serving as babysitters and a free program for parents in Waco, Texas that shows that even something as seemingly minor as reading to a child can have incredible emotional and intellectual benefits in the long run. Sure, there is a sense that "No Small Matter" is a film that is essentially preaching to the converted but as such things go, it is one that is both informative and moving and besides, where else are you going to get to enjoy the singular sight of Cookie Monster turning up at a karaoke machine to bust out a little Bonnie Tyler?
As "Satanic Panic" opens, the perpetually broke Samantha (Hayley Griffith) has just spent her first night delivering pizzas getting screwed out of the tips that she is depending on to make a living. When the guy claiming her last delivery of the night, a big order to a mansion in a wealthy and remote neighborhood, stiffs her as well, Sam finally snaps and, finding an open door, goes inside in the hopes of shaming the diners into giving her the tip she deserves. Alas, she has stumbled into a meeting of suburban Satanists, led by the imperious Danica (Rebecca Romijn) who are planning to enact a ritual to summon the demon Baphomet and rule the world. Unfortunately for them, the girl meant to be the required virgin sacrifice has just disqualified herself for that particular honor but unfortunately for Sam, she fits the bill perfectly. This leads to a long night in which Sam tries to evade her demonic pursuers and stumbles into a number of increasingly weird and grotesque situations that almost make the events of "Midsommar" seem staid by comparison.
Although produced under the aegis of the legendary Fangoria magazine and filled with gallons and gallons of gore throughout, "Satanic Panic" is much more of a comedy than it is a horror film and spends most of its time trying to inspire laughs through in-jokes and over-the-top splatstick than in trying to make viewers shudder. The result is the kind of film that no doubt plays well at horror conventions where a large number of genre fans can laugh at its goofy tone and all the references crammed into each scene, even the ones that don't make much sense in context. (There is one H.R. Giger joke that is especially a clunker because it is a.) not very funny and b.) the reference doesn’t make any sense.) Taken on its own merits, however, it turns out to be much less successful--the film plays nearly everything way too broadly for its own good and no matter how depraved the proceedings get, you never get the feeling that there are any real stakes involved at any point. Still, the film does have a couple of virtues--Romijn is very funny as the cult leader (it is probably her best film work since "Femme Fatale"), Griffith is likable enough as the beleaguered heroine (although Ruby Modine, who plays the original planned sacrifice, ends up making so much more of an impression that you can’t help but wonder what might have transpired if she and Griffith had switched parts), the reliance on practical effects throughout is a refreshing change of pace from the usual CGI nonsense and there are a few genuine chuckles along the way. (Jerry O'Connell turns up for a single scene that is both the funniest sequence in the film and probably the closest to the tone that director Chelsea Stardust and writer Grady Hendrix were presumably aiming for in the first place.) Otherwise, unless you are looking for a film that answers the question "What would the cult favorite "Society" be like without all the subtlety?", "Satanic Panic" will no doubt prove to be anything but to all but the most undiscriminating genre buffs.
After having made a splash with the 2004 stunt documentary "Super Size Me," in which he sentenced himself to a 30 day term of eating nothing but fast food at McDonalds to illustrate its effects on one’s health, Morgan Spurlock's subsequent filmography has largely foundered both critically and commercially with the only notable exception being "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold" (2011), in which he took viewers through how product placement is used to turn the movies and tv shows that you watch into extended advertisements by putting himself through the very same practice. Therefore, it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise to learn that for his latest effort, "Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken!," Spurlock has essentially taken his two most notable works and dropped them into a cinematic duck press to combine them into one. The gimmick that he pursues this time around is the idea of opening his own fast-food restaurant. Can he possibly create a place that serves food that is healthier than the competition while still being tasty enough to bring patrons in? Of course not, but he can certainly follow in the footsteps of his competitors by creating the illusion that they are serving healthier fare even though the food is still the same high-calorie sludge. With the help of various consultants, marketers and designers, Spurlock takes us through the entire process and eventually does open a restaurant in Columbus, Ohio where the food is served up with a healthy side order of transparency about what customers are really being asked to swallow. (The punchline is that even after learning first-hand about how they have been deceived, both by the industry in general and by the man whose crusade against unhealthy food presumably drew them in particular, the patrons essentially shrug and continue eating.)
The original "Super Size Me" was an ultimately glib and shallow documentary but the gimmick behind it--actually seeing Spurlock going through the agonies of consuming thousands of calories a day--was an undeniably successful marketing hook that helped to disguise the fact that he didn’t really have much of anything to say other than the not-exactly earth-shattering revelation that fast food is bad. One of the biggest problems with this follow-up is that it is just as trivial as its predecessor but doesn’t have a gimmick to help compensate for the lack of any real insight. His revelations about the shocking fact that the fast food industry stretches the truth about the healthfulness of their wares will come as a surprise to virtually no one watching it and when Spurlock stumbles upon aspects that suggest something deeper and more penetrating--such as his revelations of how the five corporations that dominate the commercial chicken industry use their power to keep independent chicken raisers struggling to survive--he winds up giving them the short shrift so he can continue to keep the focus largely on himself. Which brings us to another key flaw with the film--Spurlock himself. Stay what you will about Michael Moore--whose schtick Spurlock has lifted practically wholesale--even his weakest films, and there have been plenty of those, have shown him demonstrating a level of genuine social consciousness and commitment that is a million miles removed from Spurlock’s far more facile and ultimately grating approach. Little more than "Fast Food Nation" for dummies, "Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken!" is never close to being as startling or revealing as it clearly believes itself to be and the whole thing proves to ultimately be as difficult to swallow as a typical meal at Spurlock’s old hangout.