Saturday, November 27, 2010

Xanadu, Whip It and Sweetgrass

Xanadu. Each November at Circle Cinema, I try to pick something for the midnight movie that fits the following sentence: come watch a turkey before you eat turkey. For 2010 it was the 1980 musical/science fiction romance Xanadu. I'd actually never seen it, but knew about it and even owned the soundtrack thanks to my love of Electric Light Orchestra. So, Saturday night at midnight I watched it and think it's deserving of his reputation as a kitschy, campy smorgasbord of silliness in the late '70s/early '80s vibe. The film is way more serious than I expected. Sure, the story about a romance between an artist and the roller skating muse (Olivia Newton John) from another world is absurd. The dialogue is terrible. The effects are laughable. But, the songs are super melodic and catchy. There's something kind of wrong watching Gene Kelly skating around to a pounding disco beat (which would be his last appearance in film).  Xanadu's a train wreck, but it's charming in just enough ways to make it worth watching late in the middle of the night in true cult cinema fashion.

Whip It. I didn't see Whip It when it came out in 2009, but I didn't miss much. Drew Barrymore's directorial debut is set in the roller derby world of Austin, texas, as a bunch of tattooed women skate, beat the crap out of each other in the name of sports and find some kind of elusive female empowerment via the shared bond regarding these things. At least that's what Ellan Page's 17 year old character "Babe Ruthless" discovers on her journey of self-discovery, all because of roller derby. The coming of age elements to Whip It are pretty mediocre and covers all the usual bases--fights with Mom/Dad, boy trouble and feuds with the best friend. That leaves the roller derby action to save the film and while it was crisp, fast paced and full of action, unless you actually know what the heck is going on in a roller derby match, these scenes lacked suspense. I'm out of the loop on this re-birth of the sport I watched before professional wrestling as a kid. Now, it's serious business from those involved. That doesn't make Whip It any better than it is--a predictable, lightweight, coming of age story.

Sweetgrass. If you like your documentaries no-frills then I've got just the one for you: Sweetgrass. It's so no-frills that a little bit of explanation would have greatly added to the viewing experience as I watched its story unfold. We see a huge of herd of sheep being driven over a mountain range by two sheepherders. It appears to be a dangerous trek with one of the herders visibly shaking by the event, calling his mother and complaining about what has happened. The men have to fight off bears, predators, personal injury and extreme isolation as they move the sheep. But, a big mark against the film is we never know why these men are doing this. Have the animals been sold? Do they drive them over this mountain range every year?  We never know how long that the trip is taking them either. It could be one month, could be six, who knows. Any little bit of text or voiceover at the start of the film would have simply answered these questions and made the rest of the film more enjoyable. Watching sheep roam the countryside for 90+ minutes isn't the most thrilling of topics either, so a little help from the filmmakers sure would have been appreciated. There are some beautiful scenes of nature in this documentary though. The sheep are driven through fields and mountains that are gorgeous, awe-inspiring and wonderful to see. It felt as if you are on the drive, but you aren't really welcomed in to understand why this is happening. You are just watching. Sweetgrass could have been even better had the directors chosen to teach us a little bit as the film unfolded.


the hidden staircase said...

I also saw XANADU for the first time this summer! I got it from the library. I was scared of it and rightfully so! What a disaster! Gene Kelly though...still at that age, was an amazing dancer and skater! The dvd extras were strangely fascinating and pathetic. They knew they had something with the music but they just kept making it even with a terrible, seemingly un-fixable script. Some rabid fans talked about how it changed their lives (or at least one future dancer did.) The only redeeming thing about this is the music. Always loved the music and I know the soundtrack did much better than the film and we would not have been discussing the film if it weren't for the soundtrack. ELO! 1980! I heart the soundtrack! Just thinking about it/reading the name immediately makes me hear it in my head. Catchy, catchy stuff. ONJ proved to be a great vehicle for them too...yes, I can hear it now...!

Joshua Blevins Peck said...

The music is great--at least the ELO stuff is. I can not get "Xanadu" out of my head!

It is a train wreck of cheesy 1980s style and substance, but I didn't hate it as much as you Hidden Staircase--maybe because it was so absurd and silly and poorly made.

Joshua Blevins Peck said...

A few weeks later and I still can't get "Xanadu" out of my head! It may be lodged in here forever, but is that really such a bad thing? It is Electric Light Orchestra after all.