In Theaters: Last Dance for the King of Pop

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    After months of hype, Michael Jackson’s final concert arrives on the big screen.

    Michael Jackson’s This Is It
    Directed by Kenny Ortega
    ***1/2

    Ever since the project was first announced in August, the new documentary Michael Jackson’s This Is It has been shrouded in mystery.  According to initial reports, Sony Pictures paid $60 million to acquire hundreds of hours of behind-the-scenes footage showing Jackson–who had died a little over a month before–rehearsing for his big comeback concert series in London.  What exactly would that footage reveal?  Would Jackson be a slurry, stumbling mess?  Or would we see a flicker of the great entertainer– the King of Pop–who dazzled audiences for decades with thrilling dance moves and unstoppable tunes?  Sony stoked the mystery by putting the footage on instant lockdown; aside from a short trailer, no scenes from This Is It have found their way onto TV or the web, which, in theory, only heightens its must-see appeal.  To further fuel the hype, the studio decreed that the movie would only play in theaters for two weeks, borrowing a successful gimmick that Disney employed last year for its Hannah Montana concert flick.  Not even critics got the chance to check out This Is It ahead of time.  Instead, the press would see the movie on the same date and time as the rest of the world–specifically on Tuesday, October 27 at 6pm Los Angeles time when the movie premiered at the city’s Nokia Theater and then went live in theaters in 17 other cities around the globe.

    So that’s why I, along with the rest of New York’s media gadflies, found myself at Regal Cinema’s Times Square theater last night.  Sony had taken over the entire multiplex for the evening, booking This is It in all 13 theaters, each of which was accessible by special invite only.  I made my way to my assigned theater past a literal army of security guards who stopped me every ten feet or so to run their hands over my special red ticket in what ‘m assuming was an authentication procedure of some kind.  When I finally got into the auditorium, live footage from the red carpet in L.A. was playing onscreen.  Celebrities started arriving at around 7:30pm (5:30 Pacific time) and made their way past paparazzi flashbulbs and screaming fans, occasionally stopping to answer inane questions from hapless red carpet interviewer Leanza Cornet, while we in New York waited patiently for the actual movie to start.  Finally, at 9:15, the lights went down, the screen went dark and…and…and…

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    And we saw a movie.  The world didn’t spontaneously heal itself, the future of the music industry didn’t automatically become brighter and Michael Jackson didn’t rise from the dead and start doing the moonwalk.  After all the pre-release and pre-show hype, This Is It is just a movie–a surprisingly well-made and compelling movie, but a movie nonetheless.  In a way, all the studio-manufactured brouhaha surrounding the film may be doing it a disservice, as it leads viewers to expect a cinematic spectacle to rival a summer blockbuster like Star Trek or Transformers 2.  But in reality This Is It is a more modest picture.  This isn’t a concert movie–it’s a movie about the making of a concert.

    Director Kenny Ortega, a longtime Jackson friend and colleague, takes the audience through the show’s set list song by song–beginning with “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” (of course) and concluding with “Man in the Mirror”–revealing how each tune was going to be performed live onstage from the choreography, to the special effects to the King of Pop’s own vocals.  Much of the footage is taken from a series of almost complete rehearsals, where the dancing is in place, but not all of the effects are complete and Jackson often sings along to backing vocals in order to go easy on his voice.  There are also clips of additional material that would have been worked into the show; for “Smooth Criminal,” Jackson had himself digitally inserted into a series of film clips from old ’40s gangster pictures and Ortega shot new 3D footage of monsters tearing it up in a graveyard to accompany “Thriller.”  In some cases, CGI-animatronics stand in for effects that were never finalized; “Earth Song,” for example, would have climaxed with an actual bulldozer rolling onstage to confront Jackson.  If you’re at all interested in the art of stagecraft, This is It provides an invaluable look at what goes on behind-the-scenes of a mega-budgeted concert.  Indeed, in some ways, seeing the process by which the show was put together is almost more interesting than the finished product ever would have been.

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    But what about the man at the center of the spectacle?  Well Jackson–or as the entire crew calls him, MJ–is alternately engaged, enraged, enthusiastic, impatient and joyful.  In other words, he’s an artist in his element, doing what he loves to do.  His voice is strong and clear and he moves with the same grace he displayed throughout his life.  Clearly the film has been edited to show him at his best, but, to his credit, Ortega does occasionally allow us to see behind his beatific exterior.  In some scenes, Jackson is visibly frustrated when the band misses a note or a dancer doesn’t execute a move correctly.  And while we never see him offstage, a few moments do hint at his personal troubles.  After rehearsing “Beat It” Jackson is so winded, he can barely speak–his age finally catches up with his body.  Earlier, Jackson stops singing right in the middle of a medley of Jackson 5 tunes and launches into a rambling, nonsensical speech about his inner ear problems while Ortega humors him from offstage.  One wonders how many more moments like that one are on the cutting room floor.

    Clocking in at almost two hours, This Is It does feel overlong.  Part of that can be chalked up to the normal ebb and flow of a concert–some songs are simply better than others and everyone will have their own opinions about which tunes they would rather have seen cut from the set list.  Personally, I could have watched Jackson rehearse “The Way Your Make Me Feel” and “Billie Jean” for a half-hour without growing tired of either song.  On the other hand, his renditions of the spectacularly cheesy “Earth Song” and “They Don’t Care About Us” almost put me to sleep.  Those dud songs aside, This Is It is far better than it had any right to be, largely because Ortega avoids turning the film into an overly sentimental obituary for Jackson.  There are no images of teary-eyed fans despondent over the sudden death of their idol or awkward testimonials from Jackson’s peers and colleagues.  In fact, the movie never addresses his death at all beyond a closing dedication.  The focus here is entirely on the work that Jackson did while he was still alive.  There is obviously much more to Michael Jackson’s legacy than this single concert, but that’s for future films to explore.  For now, This is It provides a valuable service–it allows a gifted musician to deliver the career-capping performance he wanted the world to see, but never got the chance.

    Verdict: See It

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    Also In Theaters:

    Gentleman Broncos
    Directed by Jared Hess
    Starring Michael Angarano, Jennifer Coolidge, Jemaine Celement
    *1/2

    I’ve always suspected that Napoleon Dynamite director Jared Hess may be a one-trick pony and those feelings are confirmed by his third feature, Gentleman Broncos, a virtually laugh-free comedy that has no clear idea who or what it’s attempting to satirize.  Michael Angarano, the go-to actor for neurotic teenagers when Jesse Eisenberg isn’t available, stars as a painfully awkward amateur sci-fi writer whose unpublished space opera Yeast Lords: The Bronco Years is stolen by his idol, bestselling author Ronald Chevalier (Jemaine Clement, one-half of the New Zealand folk-parody band Flight of the Conchords and the only redeeming thing about this movie).  Interspersed with the real-world narrative are clips from the book-within-the-film, starring a game Sam Rockwell as the hero of Angarano’s bizarre story.  Hess has always seemed to regard his characters with a noticeable distaste and that bubbles over into outright rage here; it’s not just that these characters are unlikeable–they’re downright freakish and lack any of the somewhat sweet naivete of a Napoleon or Kip.  Misanthropy can be funny, but not when its wielded with this heavy a hand.              
    Verdict: Skip It

    Skin
    Directed by Anthony Fabian
    Starring Sophie Okonedo, Sam Neill
    ***

    Sophie Okonedo delivers a passionate star turn in this movie version of a fascinating, troubling piece of South African history.  The Oscar-nominated actress plays Sandra Laing, a dark-skinned woman born to white Afrikaner parents in the ’50s.  After being classified by the official state board as “colored,” Sandra’s family fought to have that ruling overturned and she was re-categorized as “white” but continued to face prejudice and discrimination.  Eventually, she petitioned to have her racial identity changed again after she fell in love with a black man.  Sandra’s choice forever severed her ties to her mother and father and when her relationship fell apart, she was forced to live through the country’s turbulent post-Apartheid years on her own.  While Skin does a fine job outlining Sandra’s life and Okonedo’s performance is undeniably powerful, the movie’s emotional heft is blunted somewhat by many of the predictable conventions that accompany biopics suggesting that maybe the documentary route would have been the way to go for this particular story. 
    Verdict: See It

    The House of the Devil
    Directed by Ti West
    Starring Jocelin Donahue, Tom Noonan, Gerta Gerwig
    ***1/2

    More than a nifty homage to low-budget ’80s horror flicks, Ti West’s The House of the Devil is an inventive, enjoyable and, yes, genuinely scary movie in its own right.  Jocelin Donahue plays a money-starved college student who unwisely agrees to take a babysitting job for a family that lives in a big dark house on the outskirts of town.  A welcome relief from the glossy, over-edited studio-produced horror pictures clogging multiplexes these days, The House of the Devil is a movie that takes its time building up to the big scares, which gives you plenty of time to appreciate how closely West has replicated the mise-en-scene of the early ’80s.  Once the scary stuff arrives though, don’t be surprised if you finds yourself clutching your date–or, if you’re solo, your arm rest–a little more tightly.
    Verdict: See It

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