Thursday, March 31, 2011

Caged Fury

I don’t know about this one guys.  A teenage girl named Kat leaves her Utah or Nevada or someplace around there home to try and make it as an actress in L.A.  Along the way she picks up a hitchhiker, Rhonda (well it’s a little more complicated than that but whatever), who knows a guy they can stay with in L.A., Buck.  So they go to Buck’s place who tells them that he’s setup a meeting with an agent the next day.  Kat and Rhonda are so naive that they go along it even though Rhonda seems to have been around the block a few times so that’s kinda weird.  But big shocker, the agent guy just wants to use them for porn.  When Kat and Rhonda try to leave the cops are called and they get arrested.  Next thing they know they’re in the slammer.

That’s the general idea, now to fill in some details.  The night that the girls arrive in L.A. they and Buck go out to a bar.  After shootin’ the shit for a bit Kat goes to call her dad but gets jumped and taken outside.  Rhonda and Buck don’t notice ‘cause they’re getting it on in the bathroom.  So this is typical right?  An innocent young girl comes to town, doesn’t know shit about the city and gets in trouble.  But out of nowhere Victor, Eric Estrada (CHiPs, Sealab 2021), and Dirk, Richard Barathy (Fist of Fear, Touch of Death; Snake Eater), come to the rescue and beat the rapists/muggers up.  Actually Eric Estrada punches a couple of guys but Barathy does most of the work.  And he has a good look too with his girly mullet and mustache.  But don’t let that fool you because he does look pretty intimidating with his huge muscles and beefy build.  It’s too bad he didn’t become a staple 80’s or early 90’s henchman or bad guy because I could totally see him in those kinds of roles.  But he’s a good guy in this movie.  However, there’s no explanation given why he and Victor fight these guys.  We can see that Victor likes Kat but is Dirk just getting his pal’s back?  I mean it’s not cool to rape people ‘n all but they make it feel like there’s been some sort of feud brewing between Victor and this gang.  I dunno.

Victor then drives Kat around on his motorcycle for a while and they go back to Buck’s place.  When Buck answers the door he acts like her father at first asking where she was in a very impatient tone.  These two just met a couple of hours earlier and Buck is a total scumbag so why is he so concerned about her all of a sudden?  And then after that brief moment of worry Buck invites them in for some drugs.  I mean I get that he’s supposed to be a bad guy but what was that fatherly berating all about?  Anyway Victor and Kat talk, make out and we move to the next day which is when Kat goes to prison.

Soon after Kat and Rhonda are in jail we get introduced to the warden.  She’s decked out in only half gimp garb.  She’s pretty mean I guess but I dunno.  She barks a lot of orders but doesn’t really get her hands dirty.  She has no problem ordering her guards to kill people but doesn’t do any of it herself.  This is a fairly weak villain if you ask me.  There’s some menace but if you’re only going to go half way on the gimp outfit then that’s not enough for me.  It’s all gimp or nothing. 

Anyway, the guards force Kat to phone her dad to tell him that she went to Mexico to film a movie.  The dad tells Kat’s sister Tracy, played by Elena Sahagun who apparently was in Marked for Death but she must’ve had a real small part ‘cause I don’t remember her.  Of course Tracy thinks this Mexico thing is bullshit so she goes to L.A. to look for Kat.  But you see Tracy is the older sister and she’s been living out in L.A. for a while now.  She just went home to visit their father.  I love that they had her wear a Lakers hat to show that she lives in L.A.  Anyway, Tracy finds Buck’s place and Buck tries to rape her.  Good thing Victor and Dirk show up just in time to save her.  Dirk beats some info out of Buck and Tracy goes to check out the talent agency.  But Tracy must have graduated from dumb fuck university summa cum laude just like her sister because she falls for the same damn trick that Kat does.  So Tracy also ends up in the same fucked up prison.

Spoilers.  I’m gonna spoil a lotta shit right here but this movie wasn’t that good so whatever.  So this prison isn’t really a prison but a front for white slavery.  Hell yea.  White slavery is one of my favorite movie subjects.  And to be honest I didn’t really see it coming.  It definitely doesn’t seem like an ordinary prison but I thought it was just what the movie was going for.  This is a shitty low budget production so it’s hard to tell what’s supposed to be weird and what’s weird because they didn’t have enough money.  But white slavery?  Hey they got me.  So the whole damn thing, the cops, the judge, the courtroom, the jail, the guards, the warden, everyone is in on this racket.  But how they explain it is kinda funny but also really poorly done.  Kat tries to escape and is brought to a room where the warden is showing off one of the girls to potential buyers.  They’re all international sleazy businessmen.  The warden starts to explain what the prison really is and that’s fine.  But then the foreign buyers start to explain shit.  They talk about it so smugly like it’s such a clever idea and that’s what I didn’t like.  Not that this movie is incredibly engrossing but this takes what little movie you’re going along with and throws it in the trash.  I would have preferred if Kat stumbles upon the room but hides and overhears the white slavery scheme.  The warden telling her this stuff is fine because she’s the main bad guy but one of the guards has to get in on the act by saying, “do the words white slave trade mean anything to you?”  I think the movie could’ve benefitted from being more subtle.  And according to one of the buyers they go through the whole fake prison routine to break their spirit.  They have a lot of girls that they’ve rounded up too.  That’s a lot of spirit breakin’.

The guy that comes to rescue the girls is Dirk.  Yea, not Victor but Dirk.  Why is Eric Estrada in this movie again?  Whatever, the two of them are so concerned about Kat and Tracy that they go to the talent agency and beat those scumbags up.  Victor gets himself shot by an old man so Dirk is on rescue duty alone.  I still don’t know what his motivation is though.  He’s not even the guy that Kat likes, that’s Victor.  So Dirk is willing to risk his own life for his friend’s girl who he only spent a couple of hours with a week ago?  I guess you could argue that Dirk sees something isn’t right and it would be morally wrong to just ignore it.  But what about the cops?  Call the fucking police.  Oh wait the police actually are in the movie.  Yeah Tracy goes to the cops before getting thrown in fake jail.  Kat is even able to sneak in a phone call to the cops while she’s inside.  And one of the cops in this movie is James Hong, fuckin’ Lo Pan from fuckin’ Big Trouble in Little China.  He’s a really great actor and he’s done a ton of other stuff but he’ll always be Lo Pan to me.  So Hong starts to track this fake prison down but it doesn’t lead to anything.  It’s never resolved.  The cops don’t do dick man.  I mean Kat and Dirk are the ones that kick ass and set the prisoners free.  If the call and visit to the police weren’t going to lead to anything then why are they in the movie?

Another thing that’s never resolved is the warden.  We never see her die or run away or anything.  So what happened to her?  Last time we see her she orders the guards to make sure no one leaves the building alive.  After that, nothing.  After Kat gets out of the prison she realizes that Rhonda is still in there and goes to find her.  So we get the Rhonda character all squared away, guards are killed and even one of the scumbag buyers gets the wrong end of Barathy’s leg but they leave the main villain out of it?  I don’t get it.  Also when Kat runs back into the prison neither Dirk nor Victor (who happened to arrive just as they all escape outside) go with her.  What the fuck guys, go help her.

This movie was kind of entertaining but not very.  It’s actually not a bad idea, it just needed a better…well a better everything.  If they had a bigger budget and got a legit director and actors then this could’ve been a lot cooler.  I like the soundtrack though.  It’s almost like a slowed down version of the Commando theme which also reminds me of “No Self Control” by Peter Gabriel.  And Richard Barathy is pretty good but he could’ve used a better fight choreographer or any fight choreographer for that matter to show off his skills better.  He looks awkward when he fights in this probably because he had to slow down for the camera and I’m sure the fights weren’t really planned out that much if at all.  If you’re interested in learning more about Barathy check out the videos below.  But overall Caged Fury doesn’t totally add up to a good time because unfortunately the shittiness seeps through quite a bit.  I would recommend a couple of drinks before or during a viewing but I think it would just lead to impatience.  Watch at your own risk. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Dancing Can Be Badass Too

You know I think even dancing can be badass.  This is a clip from Holiday Inn where Fred Astaire does a dance routine with firecrackers.  Now any dance involving firecrackers has got to be badass.  Astaire shows off his usual chops and his pretty incredible sense of rhythm too.  The song "White Christmas" comes from this film and not from the other Bing Crosby movie White Christmas which he made later.  It's a nice song 'n all but we're talking about badass dancing here.  I would recommend Top Hat or Swing Time if you dig Astaire's style.  If you're looking for something a little more aggressive then Singin' in the Rain or An American in Paris might be more up your alley 'cause Gene Kelly was a bit more ferocious than Astaire.  But tap dancing and old style dancing isn't the only kind out there.  There's the giant-industrial-sized-fan-blowing-in-your-hair-while-you-strip-to-a-hot-80's-jam-and-play-synth-drum-pads-not-on-beat-or-with-any-sense-of-rhythm type.  Case in point:

But you know, come to think of it a very well crafted action scene is like a dance.  Everyone needs to hit their marks and be N 'Sync I mean in sync.  There's just as much preparation and dedication to craft involved.  But just to have a comparison let's first look at a scene that is poorly put together with no flow or grace to it.

Catch any of that?  Neither did I.  Some guys got beat up and I guess Statham doesn't want his blazer being touched by anyone.  But what the fuck is going on?  This is a clip from The Transporter 3, a movie made pretty unwatchable because of editing like this.  The close ups and quick cuts make it impossible for anyone to grasp what their looking at.  Now let's look at a scene that you can actually understand.  I chose a fight from Hard to Kill because it also involves a dude taking on multiple dirtbags.  I could have put up something more martial arty but I think this proves another point.  I didn't just want to show that one film can stage martial arts better or use someone's ability better than another.  I mean I like Jason Statham but I don't think he's been in a movie that has shown off his skills very well yet.  It keeps getting botched by poorly thought out fight sequences and/or shitty editing.  Unfortunately if he keeps doing movies like The Mechanic remake then...well alright I'm still gonna see 'em but I'm not gonna know what's happening on screen every time a punch is thrown or a kick is hiya-ed.  This clip with Seagal shows that you don't need a million edits and close ups to make something exciting.  It's better to plan it out and actually think of how the fight is gonna go down instead of doing some kicks, break some arms 'n shit and stitch it all together in post.  You're making an action movie, focus on the action.  If you can't understand the fights then you're fucking up a serious component of the film.  Oh yea and "that's for my wife.  Fuck you and die!"

But let's bring it back to dance.  Remember that dance scene from Pulp Fiction?  It's one of the most memorable parts of the film because having a thoughtful (even though I'm pretty sure it was mostly if not completely improvised) and graceful dance scene in a movie makes for a special moment.  Even in a real badass movie like Pulp Fiction we get some insight and playfulness from our characters that we probably wouldn't otherwise see.  But it knows its limitations and with this particular movie Tarantino, Thurman and Travolta knew what kind of dance to do and how far to take it.  Although after watching it again I didn't realize how long that scene actually is.  But regardless, the movie tries real hard and succeeds at embracing past styles and trends and this dancing is part of that.

So as you can see there are many different types of dance and they can be used in different ways.  They're almost always a spotlight moment but the purpose of the scene varies.  With action scenes, they have (or at least should have) a flow and almost fragility to them.  They need to be completely engrossing but also have you think that there is real danger.  Dance is similar in that it should also be completely engrossing and could have a sense of danger if the dance is very physical but both of these types of scenes should feel natural.  One move leads to the next flawlessly without hesitation.  All of the steps make sense and aren't forced.  These things aren't easy to achieve which is why dance and action scenes can be holy shit moments when you come across a special one. 

Sunday, March 27, 2011


We all know that prison is never straight up.  Either you have to be someone’s bitch, prove your toughness, there’s a corrupt guard or warden or people just want to kill you ‘cause you’re not the same race.  You can’t just be left alone and serve your term.  One way or another some shit’s gonna go down.  In Caged we mostly deal with the corrupt guard formula.

A young woman, only 19, gets imprisoned for being an accessory to armed robbery.  Her husband robbed a gas station for 40 bucks.  She was waiting in the car for him and didn’t quite realize what he was doing but he was killed and she got arrested.  This tells you what kind of tragic shit we’re dealing with here.  She gets a 1-15 year prison sentence for that.  Marie Allen is played by Eleanor Parker (Detective Story, The Sound of Music) and she’s been sent to an all female prison.  All of the other broads that arrive with her have been to prison before and look real rough.  Marie looks so scared and lost and has no idea what to expect or do.  The guards and officers that take her information and give her a physical are pretty tough also and don’t have much sympathy because they see fucking dirtbags everyday so they’ve turned that part of themselves off.  

After Marie gets checked out we learn that she’s pregnant.  Shit man.  Being pregnant in prison must be pretty awful.  So after a quick visit with the very kind warden, Benton played by Agnes Moorehead (Citizen Cane, Pollyanna), we meet our villain, Harper played by Hope Emerson (Adam’s Rib, Peter Gunn).  At first she seems kinda nice but then she starts making comments about her “taking care” of her girls if they have money.  Marie doesn’t have any money so Harper puts her to work scrubbing the floor of the fairly large cell block where the inmates stay.  They don’t have individual cells.  Instead it’s a sectioned off area with maybe about fifty people crammed into it.

Marie just tries to hang on for the first couple of months.  She tries to keep to herself and not cause trouble.  One of her cellmates is Kitty and she wants to recruit her to be a shoplifter on the outside.  In return she can get Marie out on parole sooner.  But Marie refuses, trying to keep straight.  However shit like Harper coming over and torturing the girls with stories of what she’s going to do that evening with a guy doesn’t make it easy.  The other girls talk about guys a lot and have a love-hate relationship with them.  They’ve all been in bad relationships with men but can’t deny that they need them and love them.

After Marie doesn’t get paroled by the pricks on the parole board she loses it.  She now thinks that she might never get out of there.  She becomes a bad girl and starts to rebel against the prison.  For example Marie finds a kitten in the yard one day and sneaks it back to her cell.  Of course she can’t keep the thing hidden for long and when Harper finds out Marie runs away from her, hides the kitten and then goes toe to toe with her.  The rest of the prisoners get riled up and they start to riot.  They completely destroy their cell block.  When it’s all over Marie goes to get the kitten but finds it dead.  Marie went into such a blind rage that she inadvertently killed what she was trying to protect.

The whole film must have been kinda shocking when it came out because this movie shows that prisons, even female prisons, have major problems and you don’t just go there, serve your term and leave.  It’s a fight for survival of not only your body but your mind.  If you’re not a criminal when you go in then they turn you into one.

I’m sure the most scandalous scene in this piece is when Harper shaves Marie’s head bald and throws her in solitary to punish her.  And this made me wonder why this is such a nasty thing to do because she didn’t physically beat Marie.  But then I realized it’s a spirit breaker.  You’re conscious of how you look and it’s not something that you’d think would affect your mood that much but have you ever gotten a bad haircut?  That shit really kinda sucks.  Shaving her head is meant to make her feel like less of a woman, like she doesn’t have control over anything.  It’s a dominating act that shows who is the alpha female of the group.  If Harper had just sent Marie to the hole then not much would have been accomplished.  Even if she buzzed her head and put her right back in the cell block it wouldn’t have been as effective.  But shaving her head, leaving her alone to think about who is in charge, what the others will think and how long it will take to grow back makes her neurotic and panicky.  Harper is such a goddamn bitch.

Caged acme out in 1950 and I can imagine it being pretty eye opening at the time.  And I think it has even more of an impact because it’s a women’s prison.  In order to do research for the film the screenwriter had herself incarcerated for a while.  The script was put together based on her observations and experiences and it lends a real grittiness to the whole thing.  So add this one to the list of awesome prison flicks.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

God Grew Tired of Us

We all use the computer ‘n shit. You’re using one right now. Well I guess you could be on one of those fancy phones that gets the interweb. Or an i-something or other. Does the TV get internets now too? Whatever, what I want to ask is what if you had never seen a webbernet before? What if you’ve never used electricity? Well we can get an idea of what that might be like after watching God Grew Tired of Us.

Back in the 80’s we were livin’ it up here in the U.S. We had hip hairdos, dope jams and some badass movies. But in Sudan they weren’t having a good time, they were at fucking war with each other. About 27,000 people fled southern Sudan and trekked all the way to Ethiopia. But after a couple of years there the Ethiopian government was toppled and they had to flee again this time to Kenya. So after walking thousands of miles and suffering from dehydration, starvation, lack of shelter and a place that they were welcome they finally set up a refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya. The images from this journey are horrifying. A lot of these people were children and were deteriorating into skeletons. They look like they were in a concentration camp. The people that left Sudan were mostly young men because the government was targeting them specifically. If they weren’t killed they would be sterilized so they couldn’t have children. Tens of thousands fled the country and maybe only half survived the trip all the way to Kenya. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to be forced to leave your home country and be stranded in another.

This documentary focuses on three of the “lost boys of Sudan”, Panther, John and Daniel. They were just about thirteen or so when they left. They thought that the war in Sudan would only last a couple of weeks or months but it has been over ten years. They would love to go back but if they do then they will surely be killed. So the U.S. has decided to help by letting them come to America for a better life.

Life in the refugee camp doesn’t look totally terrible but the main problem is that there isn’t anything to do. They were given some education and were taught how to speak English but after that there’s nothing left. Some are so depressed they think about killing themselves. Coming to the U.S. can’t be an easy decision to make. You’ll be leaving behind all of your friends and everyone that you know. The environment and culture is completely different. John, Panther and Daniel have never used or even seen many of the luxuries that we have in the U.S. like electricity and running water. But they are willing to take a chance and try life in America.

Panther and Daniel go to Pittsburgh and John goes to Syracuse, NY. When they first arrive at their apartment (and they don’t know what an apartment actually is by the way) they are given a quick rundown of what some basic things are. This was one of the most fascinating parts of the movie because this is genuine ignorance of what we have in a modern society. They need to be shown how to turn lights on and off, how to throw trash in a trash can and not out the window, how to use a toilet, what things are edible, which knob turns the cold water on so they don’t burn themselves accidentally and on and on. Right before the guy who’s telling them all of this leaves he pulls out a digital alarm clock and I thought to myself, “holy shit you can’t explain this thing to them now. Put that sonuvabitch away and give them at least a day or two. Jesus man.” But thankfully the guy tells them that he’ll show them how to work it the next day. Phew. I’m telling you witnessing all of this stuff is a real mind blower. It’s not like in The Road where Viggo Mortensen is showing his son what shit is and how shit used to be. That didn’t make for touching, exciting or, more importantly, interesting cinema. Why the fuck are you marveling at and showing us all this shit that currently exists? With God Grew Tired of Us it’s not things that were lost but rather things that were never seen. And it must have been incredibly overwhelming to be hit with an entirely new culture but the new arrivals ask a lot of questions and they pick it up quickly.

They have three months to get a job and start paying Uncle Sam back for the flight, lodging and services. They all get pretty menial jobs at first. And it’s not that they’re not smart it’s just that they have to get acclimated to society and customs in America. Some even take more than one job at places like McDonald’s and factories.

After a while they start to earn some money and they acquire some things like a car. But John in particular sends almost everything he makes to his friends in the refugee camp and to his family that he finds out is living in Uganda. He talks about how he left them in a bad place and that they’re depending on him so he can’t let them down. John becomes very involved in helping other “lost boys” and spreading word about war in Sudan.

The three of them go through a range of emotions when they make the move to the U.S. and this is the other important part of this documentary (the first being that it lets us know that the “lost boys” exist in the first place). In the beginning they are excited to be in America because it means that they have an opportunity to do something more with their lives than wait for war to end. Then they get more used to the way things are here and settle into the culture. But they also get depressed because it really is a completely different way of life than they are used to. They don’t like that most people seem to be unfriendly and keep to themselves. They find that Americans are so busy all of the time that they have little time to spend with their families. They’re homesick. Then they come to terms with how their lives are now and push through to continue with that life.

All three end up going to college but none of them forget about their previous lives and connections in Africa. With their new knowledge and wealth they want to help their people and their homeland as much as they can. It sounds like a typical Hollywood story with a typical Hollywood ending but it’s real life. It’s very touching to see these guys succeed at what they set out to do. But at the same time it’s also very interesting to watch as John asks why we put out a Christmas tree and who Santa is and if he’s in the Bible.

Friday, March 25, 2011


Django is sort of like a cross between Yojimbo (or since this is a western, A Fistful of Dollars) and Desperado.  So yeah, it’s pretty awesome.

Django is a wondering gunslinger that carries a coffin around with him.  He looks a bunch like Clint Eastwood in the man with no name series.  He comes into what looks like a ghost town and we learn that there are two rival gangs that fight over the territory.  Django joins one of the gangs, helps to defeat the other, they steal some gold, etc. 

This movie is similar to Desperado in that he carries around a gun in a case (the coffin) and his hands get smashed.  Also one of the gang leaders killed Django’s wife at some point in the past. 

But I guess overall this is really a Yojimbo remake but it’s changed enough and is also condensed so you might not recognize it immediately.  Django only joins one of the gangs and doesn’t try to play both sides, the love story between Django and the gang leader’s prized girl plays a bigger role here and there’s a scene where Django and one of the gangs steal some gold and then later Django tries to steal it from them.

And I like the changes that were made because honestly I’m not a big fan of Yojimbo.  It’s a good idea for a story but thought it was a little too slow and surprisingly jokey.  I thought it was done better with A Fistful of Dollars and even better yet with Last Man Standing.  And by the time we get to Last Man Standing we have a version that has been stripped of virtually all humor.  I like that that movie takes itself more seriously than the others.

Django makes it different enough so it doesn’t really feel like you’re watching the same story.  This movie is fast paced and seems like it should probably be another half hour or so longer but all of that fluff and trying to play both gangs stuff was cut out.  I like that it keeps the energy high and that the story moves along quickly.  So with all of these components Django might be the best version of Yojimbo for me so far.  But I still hesitate to call it that.  Let’s call it an abridged Yojimbo with a twist…nah fuck that, that’s way too long.

I mean a lot of people get murdered in this fucking thing, our hero is badass, the pacing is great, there’s ear slicing offing, it’s a spaghetti western so it looks incredible and everything is overdubbed so it sounds really good.  And that’s one trait about spaghetti westerns that I really love, there’s a lot of texture to them.  The sounds that are recorded and put in place later match so well with what you’re watching.  Whenever someone is walking on a wooden floor their footsteps have so much weight to them.  Every line that someone speaks sounds like it’s the most badass goddamn thing on the planet.  

There’s not a whole lot more I can say about this movie without giving away too much but what else do you need to know?  It’s a kick ass western.  And kick ass westerns are always top of the line grade A bad fuckin’ ass.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

That Thing You Do!

People still go crazy over the Beatles.  Just about anything with their name on it gets people interested and excited.  Now I like the group just fine but I’m not a Beatlemaniac or anything.  I find their story to be just as interesting or maybe even more interesting than their music (but that’s just my opinion don’t take it personally).  I’ve wondered over the years why there hasn’t been a biopic on the Fab Four especially since that seemed to be a hot thing a little while back with movies like Walk the Line and Ray.  There have been all of these movies that either focus on a very specific part of their story like Backbeat or Nowhere Boy and ones that have a whole lot of Beatles in them but aren’t really about the group like Across the Universe and I Wanna Hold Your Hand (that was Robert Zemeckis’ first feature by the way and he’s coming out with a new version of Yellow Submarine).  But there hasn’t been a big studio production done and if we haven’t seen one yet then we probably won’t for a while.  My guess is they’re waiting until they’re all dead.  But you know, aside from I Wanna Hold Your Hand I think That Thing You Do! is the best Beatles tribute that I’ve seen.

And just to elaborate for a moment on why I brought up I Wanna Hold Your Hand, it’s because it has the same type of feeling that Dazed and Confused and Superbad has.  Even though these movies take place all in one day or one night you feel like you’ve been somewhere and a lot of shit has happened.  The characters evolve and learn something about themselves and about the world.  The journey was just as important as the destination.  And this movie was done in a pretty smart way.  You see they don’t actually show the actors faces playing the Beatles.  I know that sounds weird but trust me it works.  The movie’s climax is that a group of friends get to watch the band perform on the Ed Sullivan show live and Zemeckis uses distance and focus very cleverly to achieve this moment.  We can see the four members performing on the stage far away in the background but in the same shot in the foreground we also see a TV monitor with the real Beatles footage from that night.  The actors synced up their movements to match the actual performance without showing their faces.  What I just described might sound really stupid but it’s convincing.  Zemeckis found a workaround that had me thinking, “oh, that actually works.  That’s pretty smart Bob.”  So if you like movies like Superbad and/or the Beatles then this is a good time.

But anyway getting back to That Thing You Do!, since Tom Hanks is coming out with only his second feature that he’s directed I thought it would be interesting to go back and look at his first.  That Thing You Do! is about a fictional rock band in 1964 that has a number one hit over night.  But after only being together for a couple of months and at the height of their success they break up.

There are a lot of different elements that weave the Beatles-like story and the one hit wonder story together so let’s take them one by one.  Let’s start with the general overall story of the band.  There are four members with an original line up of Jimmy (Johnathon Schaech (8MM 2, Road House 2: Last Call)), Lenny (Steve Zahn (Joy Ride, Saving Silverman)), Chad (Giovanni Ribisi (Saving Private Ryan, Gone in Sixty Seconds)) and T.B. Player (Ethan Embry (Dutch, Vegas Vacation)).  Jimmy is the lead singer and guitar player, Lenny plays guitar and sings backup, Chad is the drummer and T.B. plays bass (I’ll get into his goofy name a little later).  We never actually see them play together with this lineup.  Chad breaks his arm in the beginning of the film causing the rest of the group to ask Guy (Tom Everett Scott (An American Werewolf in Paris, Boiler Room, Grace Under Fire)) to replace him.  Now of course this is reminiscent of Pete Best being replaced by Ringo Starr.  They also christen themselves the Oneders (pronounced One-ders).  Again this is similar to how the Beatles re-spelled the word beetle.

They get together and learn the song that Jimmy wrote (or Jimmy and Lenny wrote depending who you ask).  It’s a slow ballad type song called “That Thing You Do” and they want to perform it at a local talent show.  When they do play it at the show Guy starts the song off too fast and the rest of the band is forced to keep up with him.  They sound kinda sloppy because they were caught off guard but the audience loves it anyway and they get offered a standing gig at a small restaurant/bar.  I think this is supposed to be the equivalent of the Beatles’ Hamburg days.

The Oneders make a recording of “That Thing You Do” and it gets in the hands of a guy that offers to be their manager.  They hire him and he gets them on the radio.  Mr. White (Hanks) then takes over as manager and they shoot to superstardom.  “That Thing You Do” becomes one of the fastest rising singles in history.  They tour a bit and even get to be in a Hollywood movie.  The group is about to record some more songs while out in California but break up before that happens.

Ok, so you have four guys with four distinct personalities.  Jimmy is sorta like John Lennon but only one side of him, the one that’s arrogant and thinks he’s the greatest songwriter who ever lived.  T.B. is more like George Harrison and stays quiet and in the background while playing his cool bass parts.  I guess Guy is a bit like Ringo in that he’s kinda goofy but he’s definitely a good solid drummer.  And his trademark is sunglasses instead of rings (?).  I think Lenny is supposed to be the Paul McCartney of this group.  He’s incredibly silly and kind of obnoxious but not egotistical like Jimmy.  They present him as being 50/50 with Jimmy in terms of the music like Paul and John were in the early days.  The way Lenny acts is sorta like how the Beatles did in the early years when all they did was goof around and crack jokes. 

The thing is that these four guys aren’t really good friends.  They act more like work colleagues or business partners than buddies in a band.  I think this accurately portrays what the dynamics between each of the Beatles were.  The only two that were even remotely close were John and Paul but that didn’t last past a couple of years.  Paul felt some sort of a connection with all of the guys like I read once that he seemed psychically linked with them.  If any of them Guy seems to be the one that might feel this way, that they were meant to be together to make music.  I mean Jimmy doesn’t seem to like anybody except this one singer that he idolizes later in the movie and the rest of the guys don’t mind each other but if they weren’t in this hugely successful band together they wouldn’t be hanging out.

As for one more Beatles reference, at the end of the movie they appear on an Ed Sullivan like variety show.  While the group is performing their song there are close-ups of each member and when they get to Jimmy they say that he’s engaged.  They did something similar when they showed John Lennon on TV telling us that he’s married.

Now onto the one hit wonder stuff.  Well the first and most obvious thing is that these guys had only one hit and it was extremely popular.  Another obvious thing is the name of the band, The Wonders.  Lenny even asks at one point when Mr. White wants to change the spelling of the name from the Oneders to the Wonders, “as in I wonder what happened to the Oneders?”  Nice foreshadowing.   They also break up before having another hit which is not necessarily something associated with one hit wonders but when those bands fall off of the radar so quickly I think most people don’t follow up on them so it might as well be as if they had broken up.  There’s also T.B. Player.  There always seems to be a guy in a band that no one can remember the name of.  He stays so much in the background that you forget about him.  T.B. is that guy in the Wonders.  In fact we never learn his name.  T.B. stands for “the bass” as in “the bass player”.  Again, this isn’t something that is only attributed to one hit wonders but it was a nice touch.

As for the title song itself, it was written by the bassist for The Fountains of Wayne.  They held a contest and this was the winner.  And it’s a good example of mid sixties pop.  Holding a contest to find the right song was a very smart way to go instead of commissioning someone to do it (which I think is what they originally did).  It certainly paid off and gave the best outcome.  Oh and I hope you enjoy the song at least a little bit ‘cause they play the hell out of it in this movie.  I think we hear it in full three or four times and partially another four or five.  Whether this was on purpose or not it gives a hint as to what it might be like to have a hit song and have to play it and hear it so many times that you get fed up with the thing.  Thankfully it doesn’t get to that point in the movie but it definitely pushes it. 

However the scene where everyone in the band hears “That Thing You Do” on the radio for the first time is, pardon the term, wonderfully constructed.  You start out hearing it on a little earbud worn by Jimmy’s girlfriend, Liv Tyler (Armageddon, The Lord of the Rings).  She then runs into T.B so he tunes into it on his earbud and the song gets a little louder but still sounds very tinny ‘cause those things don’t have any bottom end to them.  They run into the appliance store where Guy works and he tunes into the song using one of the radios on display.  T.B. puts the song on a giant stereo and the bass finally kicks in (huh, the bass gets turned on by the bass player, never noticed that) just in time for the bridge which is where Guy switches to the floor tom so there’s even more bottom end in that part.  Jimmy and Lenny pull up and run into the store.  How they knew that everyone was at the appliance store is anyone’s guess but whatever.  They all jump around hugging each other and screaming.  It was a great idea to have the song build and eventually reach a climax instead of just hearing it straight through because we’ve already done that in the movie.  To have it get louder and louder is sort of like the song picking up steam and saying, “look out ‘cause I’m gonna blow up real big real soon.”  And it was genius to hold off on the low end so that it adds extra punch when they finally do give it to us.  Hanks does a really good job showing off the thrill and feeling of ecstasy that must be felt when you hear your song on the radio for the first time.

And the rest of the movie is done just as well.  This film is told from the view of Guy and Hanks translates his feelings well at each stage of the band.  It’s awkward at first because you don’t really know these guys that well, then there’s excitement because people like the song and the band.  Then the exhilaration of touring and being picked up by a major label and having your song climb the charts.  You get more used to being famous and doing things like having a bit part in a movie or appearing on TV.  And finally heartbreak because the band broke up and it wasn’t because of anything you did and there really wasn’t anything that you could do to prevent it.  This movie is the story of a lot of real band’s careers in a nutshell. 

It’s also great to see these actors actually playing their instruments.  I mean they’re lip syncing to a backing track on film but they really learned how to play their instruments and even had band rehearsals before shooting the movie.  It’s really distracting when it’s obvious the actor has no idea how to play a guitar or drums or whatever.  Like in La Bamba Lou Diamond Phillips looks so awkward and clunky when playing guitar.  So I give credit to films like this and Ray that have actors that actually know their instrument.  But I do have to bring up that the ultimate is The Buddy Holly Story.  I don’t think any other movie has the actors doing the songs for real on camera.  When you see Gary Busey (Surviving the Game), Charles Martin Smith (The Untouchables) and Don Stroud (The Amityville Horror (1979)) playing those songs, they’re actually doing it live.  A lot of that movie might have been total made up bullshit but to perform for real is very impressive.

That Thing You Do! not only nods heavily at the Beatles but it also one ups the subject material by covering one hit wonders at the same time.  I don’t think Hanks takes the point of view of “what if the Beatles were a one hit wonder” but rather uses them as a template because they’re story is so well known (and it’s just a good story to boot).  There are some other Beatles references that I didn’t mention like that both groups came from small towns and Mr. White’s full name is Andy White which is also the name of the drummer that played on “Love Me Do” and “P.S. I Love You”, but I think I got my point across with that stuff.  The whole film is very well thought out.  This is Hanks’ baby.  He wrote it, directed it, stars in it and even helped to write some of the songs.  Everything comes off very nicely and has a lot of charm.  You’re happy for the Wonders when they start to become famous and you feel sad for them when they break up.  I will say that if you’re not a fan of early or mid sixties music then this film will be very hard to watch.  Even if you only like late sixties hard rock or psychedelic music this might not be for you.  This movie is an ode to a very specific period of pop and an exceedingly good one at that.  It says, “thank you early rock bands, crooners, girl groups, divas and everyone else that made this wonderful music.  This is for you.”