Bad Cinema: Trapped in the Closet (Dir: R. Kelly and Jim Swaffield, 2005-2012…and beyond)

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At its most basic, the line between “good” and “bad” cinema rests on the shoulders of Intention. Is what you are seeing onscreen, particularly if it is bad, on purpose? And if so – and done well – does it then make it good? Is this the purest form of satire?

Take the early work of John Waters: over-the-top acting, cardboard sets, garish dime store costumes, and home-video style cinematography = all on purpose. Waters is paying homage to Herschell Gordon Lewis & Russ Meyer, two of the schlockiest directors to come around since Ed Wood. (One could even argue that Lewis and Meyer are intentionally bad, having aided in creating the exploitation film, which is infamous for having tongue firmly in cheek)

And then there is Trapped in the Closet, R. Kelly’s epic journey of infidelity. For those of you who have not seen all 30+ chapters, stop reading this right now, get stoned – blazed! – and find it online. For those who have already witnessed the trials of Sylvester, Rufus, Gwendolyn, Cathy, Chuck, and Pimp Lucius, you know that what I am about to say is true: Trapped in the Closet is a masterpiece.

The original incarnation of TITC was contained to five chapters, up until the point we learn that Gwendolyn is sleeping with the police officer. These chapters make up the last five tracks of Kelly’s 2005 TP.3 Reloaded  album. Due to audience outcry, Kelly continued his “hip-hopera” (all sung by Kelly; amazingly, by the way) to interconnect even more fools with even more infidelity, culminating in – what else? – everyone worried that they got “the package” aka HIV.

R. Kelly pushes the satirization of the black community, especially its men, to where the sidewalk ends. His over-masculinized males pull guns on each other at the slightest question of their manhood; unless they are gay. Then they have AIDS. What could be construed as offensive if out of the blue, unnecessary, and played for melodrama in say, oh, a Tyler Perry movie (i.e. Janet Jackson’s down low hottie husband in For Colored Girls) actually infects the satire with a very real world problem: the greatest achievement of any parody. Taking a look at the title, Kelly also is poking fun at the inherent homophobia within the black community.

The film works as a Masterpiece of Trash because everyone is in on the joke (if Showgirls was on purpose, Paul and Joe definitely kept it a secret from Elizabeth Berkeley…). It is almost the definition of bad narration (everything he tells us we also see). The technical aspects of the film meet and exceed Hollywood standards, which only enhances its laughability. If you didn’t know any better, you would think you were watching some drama starring Morris Chestnut and Taraji P. Henson. Instead, you get a thoroughly above adequate R. Kelly (who at the time was embroiled in his own real life sexual drama; the one where he was caught on tape, pissing on a minor…) and a cavalcade of brilliant actors, turning in award worthy performances, absolutely going for it in every single moment. Never for an instant do they play into the humor. Which, of course, makes it wet the bed funny.

Began as a joke, Trapped in the Closet has taken on a life of its own. Kelly claims to have 85 chapters of the saga tucked away to record and film and, no lie, TITC is headed for Broadway. If anyone is trying to get on my good side (or in my pants), two tickets down center would be nice.

***KARDASHIAN***

Good Cinema: Bernie (Dir: Richard Linklater, 2012)

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Eventually, if actors work long enough, they are given chances they wouldn’t have originally been given. To his credit and/or detriment, Jack Black is known as being part of the Frat Pack, comprised of people like Vince Vaughn, Will Ferrell, Steve Carrell, and the Wilson Bros; men stuck in adolescence, the kind that always end up in movies directed by Judd Apatow, films that are passing as this era’s version of comedy. But Jack Black – like Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris, Will Ferrell in Stranger than Fiction, and Seth MacFarlane cutting an album of standards without a stitch of irony – is capable of more. His work in Margot at the Wedding is pitch perfect, dialing back the zaniness to give us, like the rest of his brilliant co-stars, a lived in relaxed performance. Bernie could have been played for big laughs, but Black and Linklater control the satire beautifully; I wish Black would have been cast as the Baker in the upcoming Into the Woods….

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Bernie is an assistant funeral director. He does the embalming, the eulogies, the handshakes, and the tears. He looks after the grieving widows with kindness and love. He volunteers at the local theatre. He loans people money to open businesses. The whole town adores him. Which is why they can’t believe he would kill anyone. But he did. Although, it’s no big deal. After all, as the townsfolk tell us, “Well, he only shot her four times.”

The “her” in question is Margaret Nugent, the biggest bitch of the town, played, of course, by Shirley MacLaine. Like all of her characters, Margaret wears an overcoat of knives, keeping anyone who dares to show emotion at bay. But unlike Aurora, Tess, or Ouiser, Margaret is not fleshed out enough to make us care about her, or to give MacLaine really anything to play but glares and bouts of shouting. In fact, the film keeps us at a distance from all of the characters, even Bernie. It is austere, which is part of its charm. Bernie is not concerned with getting you to like or connect with anyone. Like all great satire, it is concerned with its message. Bernie explores the relationships in small town Americana, the way one is worshipped or vilified for their character; the way faith runs supreme and knowing that the Lord is on your side is all you need. It is also about sociopathy and the lines between sanity and insanity. Does doing one horrible thing erase the kind things you have done? How far the line of forgiveness?

Similar in tone to The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom, starring Holly Hunter, Bernie is a nice trifle for a rainy Sunday afternoon. The film is instant on Netflix. Co-starring Matthew McCougheney, in another sleazy, unattractive part.

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Check out my other Good Cinema reviews here.

Bad Cinema: The Apple (Dir: Menahem Golan, 1980)

“Oh my God! What happened in here last night? A pogrom?

Movies never seem to get the future right. In 13 years, we should be on the path to extinction because no one is having babies anymore (clearly Children of Men underestimated the Mexicans…). According to Blade Runner, in five years we should have so many androids that we actually need a special police force to track them down. And by next year, we should have hover boards, shoes that lace themselves, and jackets that adjust sizes depending who is wearing them (get on it, Spielberg! You’ve got the money…). At least the Alien franchise had the good sense to set themselves two hundred years from now. The closest we may have gotten to a realistic view of the future from the past is 1984 with the signing of the Patriot Act (although Orwell was about 15 years too early on that one) and 2001 with its Siri like operating system (although I don’t see computers going haywire and killing us. Yet…however I do see people falling in love with their operating systems by 2025…if it takes that long…)

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The Apple (1980) is set in the crazy world of 1994. But instead of chasing Beanie Babies, rocking fanny packs, and jamming out to Lisa Loeb, the world is dominated by a secretly nefarious group called Bim. They tell us what music is in, how to spend our afternoons (jazzercise, apparently), and what ornamentation we must wear, punishable by law (an ugly, triangular, hologrammed sticker that is giving us Freemason/Holocaust/bindi/WeHo realness….).

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Bibi and Alphie are too young, healthy, normal kids just trying to make it in the music industry. They enter a competition to win a lame trophy shaped like a gold pyramid and would have won it too if it hadn’t been for that meddling Mr. Boogalow. You see, they are this Carpenters like duo, singing their sweet adult contemporary to a mob of disco crazed kids. But something pure breaks through to the audience. Human emotion. Tenderness. The girls start weeping and the boys take it as their chance to snuggle up and hopefully cop a feel. Their heart rates escalate to a staggering 154, beating The Bim’s impressive 150 (this is the cockamamy way they are deciding on a winner…). But The Bim is managed by Boogalow, the man responsible for the competition, so of course the deck is stacked in their favor. To ensure their victory, he sends out a cacophonous drone that apparently awakens the audience from their romantic stupor, sending them into a vitriolic mob, hell bent on booing these fresh faced youngsters off the stage.

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But Mr. Boogalow is no fool. He invites Alphie and Bibi to The Bim’s after party to have them seduced (literally and figuratively) by the limelight and its trappings so he can sign them and make millions. Bibi falls into the arms of Dandi, The Bim’s “hunky” (or what they are passing off as hot) lead singer. Alphie is having none of these smoke and mirrors, grabs his gal, and bolts for the door.

The next day they are invited to Mr. Boogalow’s office to sign a contract. Or I should say contracts. Bibi is ready to sign hers and head off on tour; Alphie wants to read his first. He lapses into this fantasy scene where the room suddenly begins to shake…

“When I signed my first contract, I thought the world was going to pieces too…” 

…and the office transforms into the Garden of Eden with Boogalow as a Dracula looking Satan and Alphie and Bibi naturally as Adam and Eve (notice how the spelling of Alphie’s name resembles “Alpha” – this is not an accident…) where they all sing the titular number.

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Oh, yeah. Did I forget to mention this is a musical?

But how could it not be? It is all too extravagant, all to insane, all so over the top that they would be remiss not to include energetic dance numbers, disco music, and costumes so extreme they wouldn’t even fit in Bob Mackie’s wheel house.

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The Apple‘s influences are many and it is not afraid to flaunt them: Tommy, Sgt. Pepper…, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Hair, 1984, Phantom of the Paradise, Fosse, Studio 54, and most of all the book of Genesis. But it somehow coalesces into its own distinct form of excess, equally fabulous and fundamentally ludicrous (#LadyGaga).

The story is pretty by rote. I’m sure you can guess that she takes the deal, he doesn’t, she falls prey to the demons of fame, he never compromises his strong ethical center (further strengthening the idea that Eve caused Man’s expulsion, NOT the virtuous Adam), she realizes the errors of her ways, they reunite, and join a commune populated by hippies left over from the ’60s (OK, so I didn’t see that last one coming).

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A year later, Mr. Boogalow and his minions come to the commune to collect the runaway Bibi (or the million dollars she owes him for welching on her contract). But just as his guards are about to strong arm them into returning to her old life, a car flies down from the clouds and God struts out to save the day. I’m serious. This actually happens.

If we didn’t understand by now that Mr. Boogalow was really the Devil by another name, this final showdown of Good vs. Evil spells it out for us. God aka Mr. Topps (um, alright…) announces that he is taking his chosen people to a new planet to start again. One without Mr. Boogalow…

“But, my dear Topps. You know that isn’t possible. The world cannot exist without me!”
“Let’s give it a try.”

The members of the commune, plus a new and improved Pandi, shed their earthly worries and walk hand in hand into the sky with God for another chance to get it right.

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Would it surprise you to know this was originally supposed to be a Hebrew stage musical?

***KARDASHIAN***

*Special thanks to Ashley White for the recommendation!

Check it out on Netflix Instant!