31 January 2011

Jennifer's Body

Unsure What to Make of Jennifer’s Body
By Kristin Battestella

So, I was sick in bed watching some other random movie.  After it went off, the 2009 Diablo Cody horror comedy Jennifer’s Body came on.  I couldn’t reach the remote control to change the channel, and had no desire to move anyway.  And thus, here I am, confused still at what could have been.

The popular Jennifer (Megan Fox) drags her nerdy but long time friend Anita- called Needy (Amanda Seyfried) - to a crappy bar to meet Low Shoulder, for Jennifer thinks the band’s lead singer Nikolai (Adam Brody) is hawt.  After a mysterious fire suddenly burns down the bar, Needy survives unscathed; but Jennifer is whisked away in Low Shoulder’s van.  When she returns, Jennifer gains an insatiable appetite for gutting and devouring male schoolmates.  Needy both suspects and fears the changes in her friend, but no one believes her demonic claims against Low Shoulder- the band has become a major success since the fire.  As Needy decides to confront Jennifer herself, she must also protect her boyfriend Chip (Johnny Simmons) from her hungry and deadly BFF.

I like most of the work I’ve seen from quirky screenwriter Diablo Cody- namely United States of TaraThe writing from Cody- an Original Screenplay Oscar winner for her debut Juno- is not necessarily the problem with Jennifer’s Body.  The dialogue is frank, witty, and relatively realistic in the way the sassy younger generation speakeths.  It’s amusing to hear and see some of the things these kids say and do. In some scenes, the right blend of black comedy, preposterous horror, and even a few scares are just right.  However, director Karyn Kusama (Girlfight, Aeon Flux) never decides in which vein Jennifer’s Body actually falls.  If we are supposed to laugh and appreciate the social cynicism, why are you giving us such lengthy and scary gorefests?  But, if this is supposed to be straight horror, then there should be plenty more guts and gore than received.  In some ways, I can’t believe this is rated R!  This bipolar nature strikes an audience blow, because Jennifer’s Body never decides who its audience is.  Hardcore horror fans will find it lightweight and dismiss- and frankly, the precious 18-34 male demographic is going to be seriously disappointed in the lack of nudity and lame girl on girl teases.  I don’t think Diablo Cody meant the implied lesbian angles as such cop outs, but the relationship here is not handled with its due respect.  Seeing Amanda Seyfried and Megan Fox make out was just too much of a gimmick not to employ. And oh, they gimmicked it- and I must say, it fails woefully.  The visual put ons make Jennifer’s Body look like all fluff and no substance.  Sadly, I think it could have been much more.

Jennifer's BodyAfter her woeful turn in Jonah Hex, Jennifer’s Body has not helped my opinion of Megan Fox at all.  I must say, she fits the part of the dangerously hot cheerleader. She handles the witty dialogue just fine, and even delivers a few well-placed zingers in perfect comedic timing.  With the proper grooming from an acting coach and un-conflicted approach from Kusama, perhaps she may very well have had some sardonic talent. Sadly, it just seems like Fox is playing herself, saying and doing what she would normally do to tease any weak and horny little boy.  Her tongue in cheek ‘I’m hot, look at me, but no nudity!’ taunts completely destroy the illusion this film is trying to create.  Are we supposed to like Jen? Hate her? If she is such a pimpin’ succubus, then we better see some pimpin’ succubus!  It’s ironic, for Megan Fox actually seems to be a relatively tame personality on the Hollywood scene.  Yes, she seriously says some bizarre things, but weird talk is nothing compared to the Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears types’ antics and issues.  Instead of showing its promise, Jennifer’s Body is completely indicative of Fox’s just fucking with audiences and seeing how long she can make her fifteen minutes last without actually really having to do anything.  You shouldn’t screw with a fickle audience as it is, honey, and if you want to stay in Hollywood, you will eventually have to do something worthwhile onscreen.

Whew, having said all that, I do like Amanda Seyfried’s (Mamma Mia!, Big Love) Needy.  Instead of just pulling her hair back and adorning the glasses, Seyfried adds nuances of geeky style.  Her skin seems oily, she wears weird clothes, and Needy does seem to have more than a subtext of feeling for Jennifer. Seyfried delivers the mix of irony, humor, and mousy Jennifer’s Body needs; and she still has enough left in the tank to kick it up a notch for the end.  I can see the charm of the script that most likely brought Seyfried to the project, for sure.  However, after having seen the outcome of the film and she as the only bright spot in it, I wonder why Seyfried is dumbing down to play such mediocre horror fair. She seems to be worth far more- and oily face aside, she completely outshines the supposed hottie Fox.

Sadly, the boys in Jennifer’s Body don’t come off as well.  Who the hell is Johnny Simmons (Evan Almighty, The Spirit) and how did he get this part?  While we can take leaps of faith and admit that 20-somethings, nay even 30-somethings often play our onscreen high schoolers, this guy looks seriously like he is 12 years old.  No way is this kid 24! Maybe I’ve grown super old now that my 30th birthday is in sight, but I found it disturbing seeing this pup in a sex scene.  It was just weird. Too Bieber.  While I’m also not really sure what Adam Brody’s done to be so special (apparently, The O.C.), he was much more fun as Low Shoulder’s satanic band leader Nikolai.  The whole film should have been about Low Shoulder with an ambiguous Lance Henriksen in pursuit!  My favorite part of Jennifer’s Body is when the band breaks into a chorus of ‘Jenny 867-5309’ before the titular sacrificial deed is done.  This was the Generation Y horror comedy irony for which this film was looking, but never fully found. Or was trying to hard to achieve. I (and it) can’t decide.

Eh, Cody fans or lovers of the cast can tune in and enjoy Jennifer’s Body. There’s enough wit and entertainment placed few and far between for a fun night in with the gang. However, serious horror aficionados looking for social statements or those looking for a kinky late night scary or otherwise titillating thrill shouldn’t bother.  I wasn’t going to bother with a review, but I had to make the two hours of viewing totally worthwhile somehow.  Why are Fox’s movies always a superficial shadow and a miss of bad editing, design, and presentation? Aaaaaahhhhhh!!!

19 January 2011

Blood Creek

Blood Creek An Entertaining Little Horror Piece
By Kristin Battestella

No, I didn’t only tune in to Joel Schumacher’s relatively unknown Blood Creek for Michael Fassbender.  Henry Cavill’s here, too- and the words ‘Nazi Zombie Vampire’ are intriguing enough alone, let alone together.  Eye candy and scripting faults aside, Schumacher presents a unique, fun blend of monsters and alternative Nazi mysticism.

In 1930s West Virginia, The Wollner family is surprised when they receive a letter asking them to host Nazi scholar Richard Wirth (Fassbender). The financial compensation for the stay is an officer the poor German immigrants can’t refuse.  Unfortunately, Wirth is only interested in an ancient Viking rune stone found on the property and uses the stone’s power as part of his mystical practices and deadly Nazi rituals.  70 years later, EMT Evan Marshall (Cavill) can’t get over his brother Victor’s (Dominic Purcell) disappearance two years prior.  When Victor returns suddenly one night, Evan follows him back to the Wollner’s homestead- where Liese (Emma Booth), her brother Karl (Laszlo Matray), and their parents (Rainer Winkelvoss and Joy McBrinn) have not aged thanks to Wirth, who himself has changed into a vampire-esque monster on a quest for blood and immortality.

The Tudors meets Prison Break meets HEX? Not quite. Schumacher’s 2009 yarn adds some unique spins on the same old Nazi mysticism and occult naughty with early American connections, Viking lore, and Kensington Stone speculations.  It’s all very intriguing mythos, even as some confusion and plot holes enter in halfway thru Blood Creek. Let me get some of that out of the way first. Any well-worn and wise horror viewer will shout the obvious actions and ‘what they should have done…’ at the screen.  After such tender time is taken in the beginning twenty minutes to establish story and develop character, a few silly things may jar the viewer. They are in such a vengeful hurry- yet Victor has time for a shower and a haircut montage? Do EMTs always have rabies vaccinations handy on a vampire revenge siege? I don’t think the full potential of writer David Kajganich’s (The Invasion, Pet Sematary) vision was fully realized thanks to some cutting corners production and on the fly rewriting.  Some of the exposition is a bit much, perhaps crunched for time and space in the hour and a half frame.  If time- perhaps another fifteen minutes- had been taken to fully clarify and explore, Blood Creek could have been a seriously grand horror gem.  Instead, everyone gets on just fine despite the English and German barriers and all the foreign and ancient texts and runes. The good guys certainly do learn a lot- and it’s always just the thing they need and at the right nick of time, too.  I get these ills out of the way early, because Blood Creek is still somehow original and refreshing.

While not meant to be truly historical, the blend of undead Nazi obsession and contemporary vampirism isn’t as crazy as it sounds- the occult potential is quite the opposite in fact. This isn’t just the standard franchise fantastical serial slasher killer.  The rugged filming and quick pacing allow for some good action and style.  We even get an unusual little bit of a topper at the conclusion- but that’s almost expected in genre films today.  You’d think a combo Nazi Vampire Zombie movie would be popular now with the explosion of vamps for the masses and hip zombies in its wake. Schumacher (praised for St. Elmo’s Fire and A Time to Kill but maligned by Batman & Robin, oiy!) even leaves room for a sequel. But alas, too many title changes and the fact that it feels like nobody saw this movie hurts Blood Creek more than anything else. Despite some questionable story points, the tale here stays fun and entertaining.  Though overall serious and spooky, there are tongue in cheek hints and a wry sense of self.  Schumacher doesn’t let his Nazi Zombie Vampire yarn get too full of itself- in a way allowing us to forgive any faults and enjoy the good.  I must also confess, the name Wirth automatically had me thinking of Billy Wirth from The Lost Boys. “Death by Stereo!”  

Who knew Michael Fassbender could be just like The Mummy, but a Nazi and a Zombie and a Vampire and just a teensy bit scarier?  For those who only discovered the Irish-German actor thanks to his impressive covert turn in Inglourious Basterds, you can see his seductive and evilly enchanting German and juicy accent here,  pre-Basterds. In the first eight minutes of the movie, Fassbender captures a cruel and kinky ‘look fair and feel fouler’ style, and you have to speculate what nefarious things Wirth’s done to the younger Liese (Andreea Perminov) over the years.  Although there’s been better makeup on the evil face design forefront, the layering effects are intriguing- unwrapping more and more to reveal the Nazi mysticism twists as Wirth gets more blood.  While I’ve heard a few indulgent complaints that you don’t actually see Michael Fassbender’s face proper for most of the film; his macho physical movements, action style, and use of his body to convey fluid danger exudes performance beyond the prosthetics and brings Wirth to life with pimpin’ physicality.  Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he has a sweet trench coat and can pull off a fedora like no man’s business. (Not that I needed more evidence and he’s already in the sixties’ styled X-Men: First Class; but seeing Fass with a tilted fedora, pinstripe suit, and glowing cigarette all but confirms this man could play a period James Bond.  I’m just saying.)

Schumacher smartly doesn’t reveal Wirth’s true design all at once, making things all the creepier when we finally do see this elusive Nazi Zombie Vampire in all his glory.  Somehow, it is kind of amusing yet nevertheless frightening that Wirth can’t harm his victims thanks to some ‘do not enter’ rune signs on the house. To live in fear of a predator knocking on your door is real world terrifying enough sans any NZVs- that’s why we have locks and agoraphobics.  The fact that this terror is achieved by Fassbender’s again impressive (Hunger, anyone?) ability at total transformation for performance is just the bee’s knees.  For those that think he is just the next pretty face, Fassbender proves he can get along just fine without his good looks.  Wirth makes his Azazeal in HEX a puppy- and yet there’s still a hint of cheeky fun from Fassy as the monster of the piece.   I had written the following line in my quick typing notes and was going to change it later, but I think the simplicity speaks for itself:

Is that his voice doing the demonic chants?  Oh, yes.

As if one above and beyond pretty boy wasn’t enough, Henry Cavill proves he’s more than a one trick pony in Blood Creek, too.  The studly sidekick from The Tudors is innocent and believable here as an unsure brother and half-decent EMT.  His American accent is acceptable, too. Though sensible, it’s nice to see Evan go on a mini arc of taking matters into his own hands. He makes mistakes, yes, but learns how to stand up and be a man against Wirth. Naturally, a lot of this development necessitates being him shirtless- especially when things get down and dirty fighting with Wirth.  A lot of the depth for our heroic brothers does seem sacrificed in the final act in favor of action, making them seem a little too simplistically drawn.  Do we expect too much? Technically, we do have two secondary television leads at the forefront of our film. Both could have been heavier or stronger here, with serious character analysis taking the forefront, but Cavill and Parcell make the most of what they’re given- particularly in one fine confrontation scene.   Already Parcell seems typecast as the tough, cool bro who takes action first and thinks about the consequences later.  There is a touch of political spin with him being an Iraq veteran versus the evil occult Nazi, but not as much is made of it as there could be. Not that I want politics in my horror, but some post trauma memories or more militaristic style might have been nice.  Otherwise, Victor doesn’t have much room to grow.  Despite strides from the actors and potential with their relationships, too much trimming gives the impression that there’s nothing here to make these bros unique.  With such fine intrigue elsewhere, this shouldn’t be the case.  Early on hints of bro envy, daddy issues, and latent romance with the ethereal Emma Booth (Underbelly) inexplicably fall away.  And let’s not forget Henry Cavill was thisclose to being 007, too.  

Though hindered some by production, Blood Creek looks the good gore.  There’s not as much blood as the title would have us believe- especially against other contemporary bloodbath shenanigans- and I almost want to say the blood is too stylized or even neat. However, the demonic horses and mix of vampire blood allusions and zombie motifs are sweet.  The antique and subdued use of black and white in the period fine prologue is great, wonderfully hinting at the sinister or hiding the unspoken with a lovely use of shadow and light.  The farmhouse is perfectly claustrophobic and devoid of color and conveniences. Instead of looking like overdone sepia or bleak digital grading, Blood Creek looks that old school scary noir. In some ways, I’d like to have seen the entire picture set in this time and style.  Thankfully, the transition to color and the contemporary set up is also swiftly done, and the visual merging of the two styles as Blood Creek progresses is also neat and unexpected.   Though it’s a cool effect to see things from Wirth’s perspective, it’s a little unnecessary, and some of the nighttime photography is also tough to see.  Romania looks wonderfully spooky and bleak, but I wonder why they didn’t just film in West Virginia where the story takes place?  I suppose when you want to save some money, you do what you have to do.  Maybe Blood Creek could have been gorier considering the subject matter, but since we have only one baddie, there’s no need for excessive visuals taking away from the story.  If there had been an entire brood of evil triple eyed vampy Nazis, things might have been a lot scarier, sure. However, such a slaughter fest leaves no room for subtlety and speculation.  Normally, I wouldn’t trade intrigue for scares, but the former works far better in Blood Creek’s favor.  Truly, I don’t know why this was a direct to video release; it was better than some of the same old horror theatricals out there.  

Of course, a touch of Schumacher’s innuendo also finds its way into Blood Creek. Some of the fighting scenes between our three hot leads are positioned for just a touch of homoerotica.  Fans of Schumacher will notice if they’re looking for it, but it doesn’t overtake the picture. Some might be more concerned with a few wicked horse scenes and do mind one doggy death! Some audiences online had questions about the ending, but I think the outcome is clear and a few of the plot inconsistencies can even be food for thought after several viewings of Blood Creek. Quick references to the achievement of the third all seeing eye during an eclipse might be missed the first time around.  Critical viewers may wonder why the family kept all this going for so many years; but like the subdued daylight guardian of our traditional vampire, they didn’t really have a lot of choice. Wirth hasn’t been allowed to break out and feed to his content during a critical eclipse before.  He doesn’t go rip-roaring like this every night! Wirth says he was waiting for someone angry like Victor and will make him help and ‘feed him’.  Where Evan smartly sticks to the protection runes, Victor accidentally wipes his from his forehead. The ending narration claims the path to immortality is in swastika inscribed runes, and Wirth spent 70 years studying just such a stone.  It seems he did find a way to his goal, didn’t he? The ambiguity of the villain being the victor is perhaps the scariest thing of all.

I’m a sad there isn’t any behind the scenes features on the quickie Blood Creek DVD.  Subtitles, wow.   While the commentary from Schumacher provides some insights, it doesn’t give enough in how he came to this uniquely blended project.  He’s fun to listen to of course, but he’s also doing a commentary alone, which can get a little tiring during his longwinded Nazi History lessons.  I do, however, love the funny way he stops his historical yarns to fawn over Fassbender and Cavill- particularly when one blood-feasting scene gives Schumacher pause before telling the audience to go and rent Fassy’s starvation ode Hunger.  Really, him drinking blood reminded you of him starving himself? Schumacher also confesses to giving a ‘nice butt crack shot of Dominic for his fans’.  It really is a shame this picture had such a tough time with limited releasing.  Fans of the hot bodies in the cast will certainly delight here.  Yes, Blood Creek isn’t perfect, accept that. Nevertheless, horror fans looking for something a little different, fun, and intriguing should give these Nazi Zombie Vampires a chance. Who knew?

(On a totally ridiculous side note! For the life of me, I can’t find fellow Prison Break bro Wentworth Miller’s alleged cameo! A face in the newspaper clippings? Some German solder? Where? Where!) 

18 January 2011

River of No Return

River of No Return a Fun Western Romp
By Kristin Battestella

Some westerns are better than others are, but that by no means suggests the 1954 classic River of No Return is a dog of a picture.  With exceptional scenery, fun talent, and a little bit of preposterous, this yarn still offers plenty of entertainment today.

Fresh out of prison, Matt Calder (Robert Mitchum) finds his young son Mark (Tommy Rettig), who has been taken in by saloon singer Kay (Marilyn Monroe) amid the Northwestern gold rush.  Matt hopes to return to the quiet outdoor life with Mark, and Kay sets out toward Council City with her fiancé Harry (Rory Calhoun) to record a gold claim he ‘won’ in a poker game. When Kay and Harry’s raft is caught on the rough river rapids, Matt rescues them.  Unfortunately, in return Harry steals Matt’s horse and rifle and leaves Kay as he rides on with his claim.  Despite dangerous rapids and angry Indians, Matt, Mark, and Kay brave the River of No Return with vengeance on their minds.

Though popular back in the day, River of No Return and director Otto Preminger (Laura, Anatomy of a Murder) had their fair share of off screen notorious.  Everything from Monroe’s apparent injuries and acting coaches to Preminger’s grumbling over contractual issues and his divided set made life difficult for Frank Fenton’s (The Wings of Eagles) screenplay from Louis Lantz’ story. It’s not all bad- the direction is fine and there’s plenty of potential in the story.  However, some of the dialogue is a little hokey, a little too matinee western for what turns out to be such serious stuff.  Instead of being super heavy and gritty, River of No Return falls prey to the stilted action when it didn’t have to do so.  Naturally, things are stereotypical on the Indian angles- complete with booming drums at every appearance.  Again, instead of being a realistic and heavy portrayal, they only serve the action purely for action’s sake. Even if you are looking for some of that old-fashioned western kind of hokey, River of No Return had a lot more potential. Despite this apparent unevenness, enough still holds together for a thrilling yarn. 

You have to admit, no matter how infamous the movie, there’s something pimpin’ about Robert Mitchum.  The bad boy star of Cape Fear, Heaven Knows Mr. Allison, The Story of G.I. Joe, and Night of the Hunter (I’ll stop!) broods even when he’s carrying a soft spot here.  We believe rough and tumble Mitchum as the ex-con Matthew- and not because of his own real life brushes with the law. Mitchum adds dimension and stature as the regretful dad trying to pick up the pieces with his son.  The tender dynamic alone is enough to keep us watching- until things get really saucy, that is. Yeah, yeah, a nice dad trying to teach a ten year old some hard lessons learned- yet we know it’s only a matter of time before Matt gets rough and juicy with Kay.  Some of River of No Return drags or seems a little too back and forth between the soft character scenes and rip-roaring action, but it’s not Mitchum’s fault.  Regardless of how outlandish things get, his layered presence won’t let you look away.  

River of No ReturnWell, her hair is kind of weird here, but my goodness what a waist on Marilyn Monroe! Scarlett O’Hara can have her 18 inches!  The bebustled corsets and tiny, racy red, green, and gold frocks make the iconic screen goddess seem a little out of place in such a rugged western, but some good old jeans add a little more realism to Monroe’s look. Even back then, it was all about the eye candy, wasn’t it?  Some of the low cut costuming and rough come-ons might have been a little risqué for the time, but MM fans will love this attempt at something different.  Monroe’s musical material is not the type we expect per Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or There’s No Business Like Show Business, and there isn’t even that much of it.  The renditions, however, are good, with Monroe again proving she can vary it up.  While it looks like she had some practice with it, I don’t think Monroe is really playing the guitar. But, I don’t think her singing was dubbed. If you see enough of her movies, you recognize her speaking and singing range. Kay sounds like Marilyn! However, I actually wonder why they fell back on some musical numbers here.  Although it’s refreshing to just have folks singing ditties and strumming guitar rather than blissful singing cowboy musical westerns, River of No Return needed more drama, not music flair.  We presume Kay to be the bad girl, but she has a care for little Mark and always gets involved with the wrong men.  Despite some weak dialogue and doubts about the music, really what’s not to love?

 We don’t see him very often in River of No Return, but what we do see of Rory Calhoun (How to Marry a Millionaire) is so slim and shady it’s juicy.  He has a lot to trump against Mitchum, but his crooked gambler in the slick suit is love to hate worthy.  What guy leaves Marilyn Monroe, honestly? Likewise, Tommy Retting (Lassie) is a lot of fun.  Somehow, this pint-sized streetwise charmer strikes a tender balance between the big stars.  Perhaps it’s again a little hokey, but also so cute how Mark needs and wants a dad, yet calls him by his first name. We want this unusual father-son pair to have the nice life- and if a rough around the edges lady like Kay can complete them, all the better.  Maybe it’s obvious that this is how River of No Return will end up, but it’s certainly fun in getting there.

I must confess, when I think of this movie, I think of two things. On one hand, the Canadian visuals are very, very sweet- the mountains of Jasper Park and the glorious riverside forestry are downright breathtaking.  It’s like those old nature Disney videos that used to relax you and put you to sleep in those darkened science classrooms! The natural photography here is exceptional, end of story.  However, the up-close action and rapid rafting is obvious film trickery, to say the least.  It’s like when you see those looped backgrounds behind the cars while the actors mime over the steering wheel- but on a splashy raft in an onset tank.  We shouldn’t be so surprised thanks to our current love of over the top blue screen work, but yes, they did it back then, too.  Of course, the tricks aren’t as bad as they could be-the blend of the two shots is actually fairly seamless, without any super obvious cut and splice outlines.  The mountain lion scenes also seem corny in the fifties film styling, as does the scoring and old-fashioned opening song.  But all that’s to be expected. Besides, isn’t the point of River of No Return all the visuals- those mountains and Miss Monroe- in all their Cinemascope glory?

River of No ReturnFans of classics and good old school westerns can watch River of No Return again and again.  Rough Mitchum lovers and Marilyn Monroe connoisseurs can also complete their collections with several DVD editions- from the affordable to the Monroe box set.  Online options, rentals, and streaming opportunities also ensure plenty of viewings for years to come.  Of course, that sweet river is not on blu-ray yet, but I digress.

11 January 2011

Jailhouse Rock

Jailhouse Rock Full of Elvis’ Charm and Finery
By Kristin Battestella

You’ve been educated previously about my favorite Elvis Presley picture King Creole.  Though Jailhouse Rock is my very close second, this 1957 romp is probably one of his most famous- if not THEE most lauded of his films.  Everyone knows the iconic titular dance number; and odd trivia like Elvis’ prisoner number dominate among fans of the King of Rock ‘n Roll.  Add compelling drama and musical fifties delights, and honestly, what’s not to love?

Jailhouse Rock (Deluxe Edition)Vince Everett’s (Presley) temper lands him a stint in the penitentiary along side washed up country singer Hunk Houghton (Mickey Shaughnessy).  Although Vince can carry a tune, Hunk teaches him the ropes on the inside, how to play his guitar- and most importantly, the cruelty of the music industry.  Hunk hopes to get back into the biz with Vince when they get out, but upon his early release, Vince strikes out on his own.  After toiling with no money and no singing breaks, he meets recording scout Peggy Van Alden (Judy Tyler) and cuts a record.  Peggy has faith in Vince and his music, and the two start up their own label after strikeouts and betrayal from the bigger recording companies.  Vince and his manager Mr. Shores (Vaughn Taylor) enjoy counting the money, and Vince finds himself in Hollywood with dames and the convertible he always wanted.  But is the price of fame worth the cost of Vince’s friendships and where he comes from?

Though Elvis is of course known for his irreplaceable music first and foremost and his often less than stellar acting career second, Jailhouse Rock is one of his finer performances- before all the carbon copy song snoozers. His Vince Everett is allowed time to develop his anger and rebellious youth before we get to all the singing and dancing. Yes, the music is an integral part of the story, but this isn’t the usual lighthearted fair with huge, colorful production numbers every ten minutes. Elvis is going to prison, getting his hair cut, and suffering in coal labor- this is heavy stuff for the screaming fans of 1957! By time we get to ‘Young and Beautiful’ fifteen minutes in, we don’t think it’s just an excuse for Elvis to sing.  Vince’s meager prison rising and subsequent stardom feel realistic and believable.  Sure, Jailhouse Rock is not unlike Elvis’ own humble beginnings-perhaps no other character has him so nearly playing himself, and the audience knows this.  However, Elvis brings his real emotion, skill, and more to Vince’s style and journey - be it his rough side, great sarcasm, or that undeniable singing persona.  He’s Elvis; he can’t really help that part, can he? Even if you somehow just landed on this planet and don’t know who Elvis is, you see him perform ‘Don’t Leave Me Now’ and you are hooked.

Balancing Elvis onscreen can’t be easy, but Judy Tyler (The Howdy Doody Show) is great as the fifties dressed but educated businesswoman who knows how to keep her head in the tough music business.  Of course, Peggy does harbor a wonderful soft spot, doesn’t she?  Her wavering over Vince is very well played, not girlie girl and melodramatic like so many of the over the top ladies of the day.  Instead of being merely a love interest, Peggy is a great antithesis and fulcrum for Vince because she can see beyond the fame and dollars.  Tyler is so lovely and charming here, and it is such a shame her life was cut short only weeks after completing filming.  Likewise, Mickey Shaughnessy’s (From Here to Eternity) Hunk Houghton adds layers to the prison life with his first guitar ditty ‘One More Day’. Indeed the harsh support is not in the traditional fifties musical atmosphere we expect.  We know Hunk might be a tender soul if it weren’t for the sour of show business and the prison system he’s established for himself.  Although he gets Vince straight laced and on the musical path, we don’t like when Hunk comes sniffing around Vince again. However, the audience feels for him all the same when Vince gives him one humble on the chin after another.  Eventually something has to give between the two former kings of Cell Block 21. Thankfully, Vaughn Taylor (Psycho) is a lot of fun as the bespectacled calculator Mr. Shores and keeps Jailhouse Rock light hearted when needed, too.

Naturally, if you don’t like good old-fashioned rock and roll or classic fifties looks and musical stylings, you might not be interested in Jailhouse Rock. Though black and white (forget those blasphemous colorized versions), the mid-century clothes and accessories are fun to see.  How swanky everything looks- the drinking and cigarettes, upturned collars, plenty of greased hair, the old record players and studio design.  I mean, they have record booths!  The cars are sweet and the pads are mod.  We even get a great old-fashioned montage with ‘Treat me Nice’, too.  Of course, the big jailhouse titular number an hour into the film is, well, its ‘Jailhouse Rock’.  We don’t have many more fifties iconic Americana than this.  Ironically, the routine is black and white cardboard, small scale, film within a film tight, all men, and not the best dancing to some by today’s standards. With that said, the streamline design, risqué moves, and damn fine music still works specifically because it is so different than other Broadway styled spectacles of the time. Jailhouse Rock is not There’s No Business Like Show Business. Time isn’t wasted on such cinematic choruses.   Actually, there’s not even that many songs here- after ‘(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care’, we end wonderfully with a ‘Young and Beautiful’ reprisal.  A musical without a lot of music? It just goes to show you maybe Elvis can really act after all.

Director Richard Thorpe (Knights of the Round Table, Ivanhoe, The Prisoner of Zenda) keeps Jailhouse Rock together with a nice blend of story and drama, allowing for performance in a plot that just happens to be about a singer and some music.  Though well paced and evenly displayed here, Vince’s humble roots, rise to the top, and errors of the high life learned are perhaps predictable to us now.  Nedrick Young (The Defiant Ones) and Guy Trosper’s (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold) fine and mature tale is actually fairly modern and still plays well today.  Though innocent for contemporary youthful audiences, Jailhouse Rock was actually kind of kinky and suggestive for its time. Oh my goodness prison whippings and women lying on beds!  What, also, is implied with the forced studio coupling of Sherry (Jennifer Holden) with Vince?  Was this one of those suggestive gay cover-ups- only to have Sherry ‘converted’ by a kiss from Elvis?  There’s certainly some steamy and amusing subtext- particularly in the titular routine- for those who want to find it.

Honestly, this is the first time I’ve sat down with Jailhouse Rock since seeing Emmy nominated and Golden Globe winner Jonathan Rhys Meyers (The Tudors) in the 2005 television biopic Elvis. I’m a little surprised to see how alike the shows are.  Meyers puts on his best angry, brooding, hip, and sexy; yet, it doesn’t quite compare.  Jailhouse Rock is still vivid, serious, and heavy enough for today’s complex audiences.  Of course, the prophetic Hollywood gone awry plot here is wonderfully ironic, too.  Whether by his own acceptance or management interference, Elvis does sell out later in film- Tickle Me and Fun in Acapulco? Come on.  We laugh at the woefully bad majority of Elvis’ pictures indeed- and yet like the gawking crew within Jailhouse Rock, we still can’t look away, 50 years later.

Jailhouse RockAvailable in several DVD editions, my older copy of Jailhouse Rock offers both full and widescreen, and subtitles not always matching the dialogue as its biggest extra offerings. Unfortunately, it doesn’t play in any of my computers for screen captures. Bummer.  Thankfully, fancy sets and a new blu-ray edition have all the glory, bells, and whistles for collectors and Elvis enthusiasts. Casual classic fans or musical lovers and budding Elvis aficionados also can’t go wrong with a television viewing or other affordable rental option. Spend the night doing a little Jailhouse Rock and you’ll understand why Elvis is, well, Elvis.