A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 473 – Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Buffy the Vampire Slayer – June 16th, 2011

Well before Joss Whedon was the well-known character killer he is now, he wrote a script about a seemingly vapid teenage girl who was destined to slay vampires. And that sounded so very silly at the time and he wasn’t given full control over the movie that the script was made into and I’m sure we all know that eventually he went on to “correct” the mistakes made on the big screen. His small screen version of Buffy was a very different creature from this movie, but you can see Whedon’s touch showing through in quite a few places. It’s an interesting thing to see.

Now, I’m not going to spend a lot of time putting one up against the other. Whedon has said that this movie stands alone and isn’t considered part of the timeline for the show and given how many other people were involved in the making of the movie I don’t think it’s right to hold Whedon responsible for much of it in the end. After all, how many characters are we invited to actually care about? I’d say three, tops. And while one of them dies, it’s not unexpected. If Whedon had been given full control I have no doubt that a whole host of characters would have been sympathetic and at least two of them would have been brutally killed off without any sort of warning or foreshadowing. So you see, obviously someone came in and kept things light and fluffy.

And fluffy is the best word I can think to describe this movie. There’s almost no emotional impact here. It’s like trying to make an impact with marshmallows. There’s some backstory for Buffy and the leader of the vampires and how he’s hunted her through all her previous incarnations and they’ve got this creepy stalkery thing going on where he finds her and hypnotizes/seduces her and then kills her. And Buffy herself goes through a pretty severe character development arc where she goes from a flaky cheerleader who only cares about shopping and boys to a determined Slayer who’s determined to protect her friends. And in the process she becomes a more sympathetic character and blah blah blah. Honestly, does anyone watch this movie to see Buffy’s character arc? Cause it’s nice and all but it’s definitely not my motivation for putting the movie in.

This movie is very much The Lost Boys meets Clueless (the latter of which came out three years after this, but my point stands). Vampires and early 90s fashion and slang. The movie is awash with turns of phrase that I don’t think ever actually were said in the 90s and certainly aren’t said now, but which embody the representation of early 90s California teen culture in movies. And at the same time it’s obvious that these reference points are all meant to be jokes anyhow. Whedon’s very good at writing quick and snappy banter and he’s always seemed to me to have a good ear for what sorts of things people might not say, but might wish they’d thought to say. Here that’s played out to an extreme sort of situation. Of course, quick banter and cute phrasing doesn’t make up for some messy backstory and plotting. Given the lighthearted tone of most of the movie the slow and supposedly serious flashbacks that Buffy gets in her dreams, not to mention her encounters with Lothos (vampire leader) in the present just seem ill-fitting. I’m going to go ahead and blame this on a number of factors, but mostly on the disconnect between what I assume Whedon wrote, and what the director and various other responsible parties were trying to do with it. Or maybe it is his fault and he hadn’t found a good way to marry the serious with the flippant. It’s impossible to know for certain just how much got changed.

What I do know for certain is that if you ignore the uneven bits with the serious tone, and you get past the incongruous casting of Donald Sutherland (he seems every bit as confused by his role as I am) as Buffy’s mentor, Merrick, and take this whole thing as a parody and farce? Then it works. It works so well. It’s fun and it’s funny and clever and it doesn’t make you think too hard. It’s just enjoyable. Watch Buffy in her training montage! Watch her new friend Pike argue with his now-a-vampire buddy as said buddy floats outside his window! Watch Buffy’s friends completely fail to twig to the fact that their town is overrun with vampires! Watch Stephen Root go on at length about LSD while trying to counsel Buffy! Watch vampires show up at the senior dance and watch Buffy rip off her skirt to go kick some ass! Watch her use hairspray as a flamethrower! Watch Paul Reubens take forever to die! I just can’t take it too seriously. There are too many funny and irreverent bits.

I admit, there was a point when I’d seen this movie a number of times and loved it and had only ever seen snippets of the “new” series and just couldn’t see the appeal. It was too serious! It wasn’t silly enough! Where was the parody? Where was the farce? It took some time for me to warm up to it. Which is silly, because I shouldn’t have been trying to compare the two in the first place. They took the same characters and premise and did thoroughly different treatments. And so while I now do enjoy much of the series (though it has its flaws), I also enjoy this movie (flaws and all as well) and I enjoy them at the same time!

June 16, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 464 – The Producers (1968)

The Producers (1968) – June 7th, 2011

Some time back we watched the newer version of this. The movie based on the musical based on this movie, with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. At the time, for some inexplicable reason, we didn’t own this one. The original. How could that have happened? But after we watched the musical version we went out and bought the original, just like I said we would. And it had been ages since I’d seen it. I remembered it quite clearly, but I had seen the musical many more times and far more recently, so it was a ton of fun seeing where it all came from.

We did just watch another Gene Wilder movie very recently, which was unintentional. I just needed something familiar and fun tonight and this was the right length. But it is so good to see Gene Wilder here, a little more unrestrained than he was in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. That potential for wildness is realized here, with Wilder as Leo Bloom going from meek and terrified to hysterical and screaming in a heartbeat. And I admit, after the movie was over, we put in the musical and it’s impressive to see how well Matthew Broderick captured Gene Wilder’s performance while making it his own, because Wilder’s performance is fantastic. And there’s no way it could be the same performance, since the original movie is quite different, but it’s a great example of maintaining the essence of a role while altering it in all the right ways for a slightly different medium.

To be honest, in many ways I prefer the musical, but there’s no denying that the original movie is a thing of beauty and genius. The sheer unmitigated gall of making a movie that features a musical called Springtime For Hitler is unparalleled in my viewing experience. I mean, they made the musical version of this movie later, but there wouldn’t have been one at all without the movie itself and I honesty can’t believe it got made. Of course, it almost didn’t, and needed its title changed and some high placed help, but it did get made. Somehow this movie, a movie about a couple of guys producing a guaranteed flop that’s a musical about Hitler, got made. It’s a comedy! It’s a farce! It’s Mel Brooks.

This was Brooks’ directorial debut, though he’d done writing before this. Still, you’ve got to give the man credit – he started with a bang. That said, while he’s certainly had successes since, this has got to be one of his best known and most lauded works. It’s the outrageousness of it. That anyone would come up with this idea and make it. As soon as you hear the words “Springtime for Hitler” you have the same reaction everyone else in the movie has except for, perhaps, Max Bialystock. Max’s reaction is glee, since he’s looking for a horrible script. Everyone else reacts in disbelief and shock, which is understandable!

I realize I’m doing a lot of babbling about this movie and seemingly expecting that everyone will just know what I’m talking about and really, I do. This is such a classic, I assume people know it. But really, if you know the musical better, you know a much expanded version of the story. The original is really fairly straightforward. Max Bialystock, failed Broadway producer who’s living off of money he bilks out of little old ladies in return for ‘playing’ with them, is visited by accountant Leo Bloom. Bloom comments about a means to make a fortune on a Broadway flop by overselling shares in its profits. If it makes no profits then there’s no money to pay back and they’d get to keep the excess capital. Of course, if they play succeeds, they’d go to jail for fraud. And that right there is the basis. The musical has a whole plot giving Bloom a background and dreams but the original didn’t really care much. Bialystock talks Bloom into it and soon they’re looking for the worst script, the worst director, the worst actors, and in the process they somehow manage to make a hit.

In the original it really does seem to be a case of them unintentionally but at the same time intentionally making a satire. After all, they don’t set out to make one, but they do intentionally put in place all the right parts. The director they pick is delusional. The script is, obviously, one of the most potentially offensive pieces of writing ever. And then they cast a spacey cross between a beatnik and a hippie as Hitler. The combination is enough to make the entire thing cross over from horrible into hilarious. Not that the movie itself isn’t hilarious to begin with, but the movie depends on the most horrible musical ever made turning into the funniest musical ever made and it happens. It happens and it’s all Bialystock and Bloom’s own faults. They do it all to themselves. They are the architects of their own doom. It’s fantastic and simple and you can see it coming even if they can’t.

There are some truly fantastic performances in this movie, but there’s a reason the roles everyone knows are Zero Mostel as Bialystock and Gene Wilder as Bloom. Not only do they give fantastic solo performances but they also play off each other wonderfully. And that chemistry really makes the movie work, since most of the movie involves the two of them. The actual performance of Springtime for Hitler is almost an afterthought. We all know how bad it’s going to be, and how doomed Bialystock and Bloom’s plans are, so is it really important to see the musical on stage?

Oh, oh yes, it is important. If only for the title number. While the acting of the two leads is really important for making the whole movie work, the title number makes the whole movie amazing. Unfortunately, I am working first thing in the morning and I am going to have Springtime for Hitler stuck in my head. It’s inevitable after watching this movie. You can’t escape it. It’s an incredibly catchy tune and it’s a horribly clever song. A horribly clever and horribly offensive song. The overhead of the dancers, the ridiculous costumes and that song. It showcases just how fine a line the musical is treading between offense and satire, and that’s important here. Because the movie could just be silly, but if you’re going to go proposing an idea like this you should go all out to make sure it’s clear that it is satire.

It’s undoubtedly one of the most brilliant bits of farcical satire I’ve ever seen. And it’s clearly aged well. Even the original version holds up fairly well, aside from the price of the hotdogs. It’s a ridiculous movie, but it’s a ridiculous movie with a fantastic cast who give amazing performances. It’s a ridiculous movie with amazingly sharp writing and a tight little plot that’s just simple enough to carry the sort of humor and edge that it’s aiming for. I sort of feel bad for Mel Brooks, starting off with this. It’s always going to be amazing and pointed and it’s spawned a musical and a remake and I suppose you just have to bask in that sort of glow and be glad it exists.

June 7, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 347 – Ranma 1/2 The Movie: Big Trouble in Nekonron, China

Ranma 1/2 The Movie: Big Trouble in Nekonron, China – February 10th, 2011

It has been years since I’ve watched this movie, or any Ranma, for that matter. Andy and I went through as much of the series as we could back when I was in college and we had unlimited free rentals and a hefty anime section to use them on. Sadly, we were missing a few tapes here and there, so every so often we’d grab one only to be faced with a character we should have known, but who had been introduced in an episode we’d missed. Going back now to watch this movie, I feel like that. Like I’ve missed something I should know. It’s bizarre. But then, the movie is pretty bizarre, so that works out okay.

Let’s get something straight right up front: Kidnapping and holding someone against their will is not romantic. No way, no how. It’s creepy. And it’s the central plot of this movie. To some extent, it’s clear that the movie knows this is uncool. The female lead, Akane, clearly doesn’t want to be there. She doesn’t want to marry this jerkwad prince. And her friends and family spend most of the movie trying to rescue her. But then, awww, she has feelings for the prince, and makes him dinner, and takes care of him! That there is some fast-acting Stockholm syndrome. But I’ll come back to the prince and his portrayal and why I find it problematic.

First let’s talk about Ranma in general. This movie would be a little incomprehensible to the uninitiated. I don’t rightly know that it was ever intended for anyone who hadn’t seen at least a couple of episodes of the show. Sure, it introduces the whole gimmick of the show, which is that various characters change into something if they’re doused with cold water and change back to themselves when doused with warm water. And we see plenty of that during the opening scene, where pretty much every character who can turn into something does. The thing is, no one’s really introduced. Sure, you see them all start chasing each other through the streets and get a little indication of their interest in each other, but only a couple get names mentioned and no motivations or anything get explained. It is as brief and cursory as you can imagine. We find out that Ranma turns into a girl and amongst the others there’s a cat, a pig, a duck, a panda… Yeah. But who are these people? Eh, who cares. All we care about is that they’re involved with each other in a variety of ways and they’re martial artists.

At the end of the opening scene, which is a chase scene that picks up character after character, we meet someone new. Her name is Lychee and she has an elephant with her and she’s on a quest to find a prince who has the other half of a special scroll. Akane accidentally ends up with the scroll just as the prince shows up and decides that she has to be his bride, despite her protests that she doesn’t want to go with him and doesn’t want to marry him. Ranma, who has a thing for Akane (even though he denies it if asked and the same goes for Akane in return – they bicker constantly through the show and the movie whenever they’re together) heads off in pursuit of her along with her father, his father and all their various friends, rivals and suitors. Most of the movie involves people arguing and hitting each other and turning into animals and yelling and breaking things. At least, the scenes with all the regular characters go that way.

The bits with Akane and the prince are a little different. Akane doesn’t want to be there, that much is clear. Despite her sympathy for the prince and attempts at cooking and all, she still doesn’t want to marry him, and I appreciate that the movie doesn’t waver on that point. I mean, the prince? Is depicted as this suave and collected dude who has been raised from birth to lead this group of magical martial artists and live in this magical tower surrounded by magical geysers that’s only reachable by magic dirigible. And okay, that can lead to a severely limited and privileged world view. Of course he assumes Akane will want to marry him. Why wouldn’t he? But he kidnapped Akane and held her against her will, intending to marry her, also against her will. He’s got this weird vibe going, where he’s doing these dickish things, like holding Akane prisoner and sending his crew of badasses out to fend off Akane’s friends and family, but he’s also clearly supposed to be somewhat sympathetic. And well, I take issue with that. He’s a bad guy who isn’t presented as a bad guy even though he’s totally doing bad guy stuff.

All that being said, I do have to hand it to the movie that while Akane does spend the majority of the movie as a prisoner, she does fight back. And among her erstwhile rescuers are a couple of young women as well as young (and old) men and they all kick a good deal of ass. And that’s nice. I like getting to see a wide variety of characters being awesome. Aside from the prince’s utter failure to not break Wheaton’s Law, it really is a fun movie. But you kind of do have to know some of the series in order to get a lot of the characters. I suppose you could watch it without knowing them and the plot would still hang together, but you’d miss stuff. And even knowing it but being about a decade removed from it, I felt the lack of information. But I guess that’s just par for the course. It’s still fun. It’s just crowded fun.

February 10, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ranma 1/2 The Movie: Big Trouble in Nekonron, China

February 10, 2011

Ranma ½ The Movie: Big Trouble in Nekonron, China

Man does this bring back memories. Back in the late nineties when Amanda and I worked at TLA video we began to explore the large anime collection the store offered. By far the largest series we had available to us was Ranma – a never ending series based on the works of Rumiko Takahashi (the same woman behind the never ending Inu Yasha.) I have to admit that I love the Ranma series. It’s so charming and ludicrous.

The Ranma series centers around a young martial arts expert who has a unique problem. While training in China at a set of cursed hot springs they fall in. After that incident Ranma’s father Genma turns into a panda any time he is soaked in cold water and can only become human again if doused with warm water. Ranma himself stays human in cold water but turns from a black haired boy into a red headed girl. The series starts with the two of them arriving at the Anything Goes School of Martial arts run by Genma’s old friend Soun Tendo. Ranma has long been betrothed to the youngest of Tendo’s three daughters, Akane. Of course Akane and Ranma profess to hate each other, and the central theme of the series is their ever so so gradual coming together as a couple. Along the way there is an enormous cast of other characters, most of whom are either in love with Ranma or Akane (or both.) Some, such as Ryoga and Shampoo, are also cursed by the same springs. Others are just blinded by their obsessive love. As the series wears on it gets a little repetative, but even so it continues to be fun to see Akane and Ranma denying their love for one another while more and more suitors keep coming out of the wood works.

This OVA takes place well after the series has gotten under way. It starts with the lecherous and tiny martial arts master Happosai causing a ruckous when he frames Ranma for the theft of some of Akane’s underwear (it makes sense if you know him from the series.) We get a very quick introduction to just about every major character from the series as one after another they join into a mad chase after Happosai and Ranma. It’s a fun way to become re-aquainted with the characters if, as with us this evening, it has been several years since you last watched an episode. At the conclusion of the chase a mysterious girl astride an elephant shows up and attacks Happosai. In the process she hands a magical scroll to Akane, which causes further chaos when a ship descends from the clouds bearing a prince with magic chopsticks and his six legendary protectors. He sees Akane with the scroll, declares her to be his betrothed, and abducts her, floating away in his majestic airship. (This is a fairly average day, really, in the lives of the Tenmas and Saotomes.) So everybody hies off to China in pursuit of Monlon, the seven lucky gods, and Akane.

For me it’s fun just to see all these familiar characters on another adventure. The animation isn’t brilliant, and the plot is nothing particularly new, but we do get to see many references to familiar tropes from the series. Akane demonstrates her astonishingly bad cooking. Ranma risks all in a martial arts showdown to save her and yet continues to profess his disdain for her as a tomboy. (Early on in the series she cuts her hair short, and I’ve never understood why she didn’t let it grow back out, unless maybe she enjoys his barbs.) Everybody who has been cursed by the springs transforms multiple times. All in all it’s just a slightly longer episode of the series, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable.

There’s not much else I can think to add tonight. This is one of the shortest movies in our collection (and tomorrow’s movie is even shorter) but it’s slightly too long to consider a TV episode. And yet it has imprinted itself upon our lexicon. Once in a while Amanda or I will exclaim “PICKLES!!!” when discussing pickled cucumbers – and you’d have to watch this movie to understand why.

February 10, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 277 – La Cage Aux Folles

La Cage Aux Folles – December 2nd, 2010

While I’ve seen the American remake of this movie several times I had never seen the original before today. Silly, really, but the American version is on television fairly regularly and I honestly couldn’t say when I last saw the original’s title pop up in my channel guide. I’d always heard good things about it but never got around to seeing it. But when we went to buy The Birdcage to watch for National Coming Out Day we found that it came in a two disc set with the original, so we bought that and then we watched the remake and stuck the box back on our shelf and didn’t put in the original right away. Until tonight.

I’ve got to say, overall? I’m really rather impressed with the remake having now seen the original. It’s not just that the plot is kept very close, it’s everything. The plot here really is quite similar. Renato Baldi is the owner of a drag club in St. Tropez. The star act is his companion of 20 years, Albin. And Renato’s son, Laurent, has gotten engaged to a very nice young woman named Andrea whose parents happen to be ultra conservative and involved in politics. When a political scandal rocks the conservative party, Andrea’s parents decide a nice wedding would be the perfect distraction, so off they go to meet Laurent’s parents. The bulk of the movie revolves around Renato and Laurent trying to figure out how to pass the family off as acceptable to Andrea’s parents. Albin, being super flamboyant by nature, can’t be there, but how do you tell him that without hurting him? If you’ve seen the American version, it’s the same basic concept. And being a farce, there is obviously a totally ridiculous and over-the-top solution: Albin dresses in drag and passes himself off as Laurent’s mother.

I’m serious when I say that they stuck close to the plot and script in the remake. Yes, the location was changed and there are definitely differences, but there are more similarities, down to the pink socks Albin wears when he puts on a suit in hopes of claiming to be Laurent’s uncle. The conversation about cemeteries? There. The giant crucifix in the living room? There. The butler not wearing shoes because they make him fall down? Yup. Though Jacob, the butler in this one? His hotpants are considerably more sparkly. But really, it’s all so very closely adhered to, it was great to see how the original did everything. Having seen the American version first, I don’t think I can really speak to one being better than the other. I’m biased. I just think it’s really fantastic that so much of what I loved about the remake is right out of the original.

Now, this movie does suffer a little when it comes to period. It’s dated. The clothes, the music, the hair, it all screams 1970s. But it ends up not mattering. The story is still about a family trying to put on this impossible act so that their son can be happy. It’s still got outrageous physical humor and all the comedy that comes from Albin trying to charm the Charriers. It’s got some great touching scenes between Albin and Renato and that made me very happy. The story itself plays out well regardless of the decade it’s set in and the performances from the entire main cast are all fantastic to watch.

My one real quibble with the movie is that it’s incredibly negative towards the women in it. Renato repeatedly and casually calls Laurent’s fiancee a whore when Laurent tells him he’s engaged. Perhaps I’m missing some cultural cues, but when the lines about Andrea “stealing” Laurent away are spoken, they feel a little more serious, a little more nasty, as opposed to joking. And then there’s Laurent’s mother. Not only did she abandon Laurent, leading to Albin disliking her intensely to start with, but she actively tries to seduce Renato when they meet. She’s not welcome in the family at all. I’m not sure I like that dynamic so much. It adds a tone of true discord to the plot that I felt took away from the humor inherent in everything else. There’s already so much conflict, from Renato and Albin over whether Albin can stay for the future in-laws’ arrival, to the frantic attempts not to have conflict between Laurent’s family and Andrea’s. Adding in a serious conflict between Albin, Renato and Laurent’s mother? It’s too much for me. There’s no real time to spend on it, so it feels wasted anyhow.

Overall, however, I really enjoyed this. I expected that I would, but it’s nice to be proven right in that respect. The similarities were all fantastic. The differences, I’d have to say, were a mixed bag. I loved things like the bowl Renato keeps his keys in, and Jacob’s sequined hotpants, but I disliked the casual misogyny and one unexpected bit of violence. But they weren’t so very egregious that they ruined the movie for me. There’s too much great humor here. Too many fun performances and good scenes.

December 2, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 225 – The Birdcage

The Birdcage – October 11th, 2010

This is a farce. The play it’s based on is a farce and let’s face it, there’s enough physical comedy and comedy of embarrassment in this movie to choke a circus full of elephants. It’s a comedy that plays pretty much everything in it for laughs except for one thing: The true love between Armand and Albert. Yes, the more serious scenes where their relationship is talked about do end up with a laugh or two thrown in, but in the midst of all of the tripping and dancing and drag-as-disguise there’s a really solid message here about being who you are and being honest about it and being honest with the people you love. And it’s all based around Armand and Albert’s relationship. So that’s why we watched it today, for National Coming Out Day. We could have picked something more serious and somber, but to be honest, I’ve been depressed enough by the current news stories. Let’s have something positive here. Let’s watch something that finished on a high note, with a coming out and a happy ending.

When we were talking about what to watch today this movie really did come immediately to mind. As I said, it’s a farce, but it’s a farce with some things going on in it that I think still speak to issues people face in their lives today. There are two families in the movie: The Keeleys and the Goldmans. The Keeleys are a conservative family. Kevin Keeley is a senator who’s one of the co-founders of the Coalition for Moral Order and his daughter, Barbara, has met and fallen in love with the son of the Goldmans. Now the Goldmans are Armand and Albert. Armand owns a drag club and Albert, as Starrina, is the star of the nightly show. From a young affair with a woman named Catherine (whom he hasn’t seen since Val’s birth), Armand has Val. And now Val and Barbara want to get married and the Keeleys want to meet Val’s parents and then there’s a scandal involving the other founder of the Coalition and Val and Barbara concoct this story. They tell Barbara’s parents that Armand is a cultural attache to Greece, that Val’s mother is a housewife and that they’re staying in their summer home in South Beach. Sort of like Palm Beach, right?

After Val and Barbara make up this whole new identity for Val’s family there’s the issue of getting said family to go along with it. And this is where a lot of the humor comes in, as they strip the house of a number of phallic pieces of artwork and try to make everything and everyone pass for straight. And that’s where the stuff that strikes me as not so humorous comes in. Armand says, when Val brings up the plan, that he doesn’t want to be someone else. That it’s taken him a long time to get to where he is and he knows who he is now and he shouldn’t have to pretend. Of course he ends up trying, for Val’s sake, but it’s not an easy choice. It’s not a choice anyone should have to make. And then there’s Albert, who can’t even pass for straight. It’s just so utterly not who he is. They spend a good portion of the movie trying to get him to not be there for the Keeleys’ visit without outright hurting his feelings. But seriously, how can you say to one of the people who raised you “Hey, I love you and all, but you need to not be here when my fiancee’s family visits. They won’t approve.” There’s no good way to do that. Not that it was going to go well anyhow, in a movie like this. Everything that can go wrong does, of course. That’s where the humor is. But there are some great scenes for Albert and Armand as they try to cope with this horrible and impossible request made by their son.

The best scene for them isn’t an elaborate one. It’s not full of pratfalls or lewd jokes about the dishes having sex scenes painted on them. It’s got a more quiet humor. Albert has left the apartment, quite sure that he’s completely unwanted, and Armand follows him, sitting down next to him and setting it all out: He loves Albert. He’d do anything for him. Home is home because Albert’s there. It’s a great scene, subdued and sentimental in a loud and raucous movie. The other great scene is at the end when everything gets revealed to the Keeleys and Val tells them that Albert is his mother. Now, I have a hard time liking Val in some of this movie. I understand his motivation, but that doesn’t mean I always like how he handles what’s going on. But that moment is a redemption. It’s a coming out for Armand and Albert and really for the whole family at that point.

The humor in the latter half of the movie can make me cringe a little. There’s a lot of comedy of embarrassment. But Nathan Lane makes it all worth it. When he arrives on the scene he saves the day, really. Val and Armand spend a good chunk of the first half trying to keep him out of the way, and then a good chunk of the second half trying to keep him quiet, but really, watch him. Albert does just fine. He charms Senator Keeley and plays his role perfectly. And then he saves the day again at the end, when the press shows up looking for the Keeleys in the wake of the scandal. All by being himself, really. Lane does a fantastic job with Albert. I do love Robin Williams as Armand, but Albert’s really the star through much of the movie. Fitting, given Albert’s character really.

I love the whole cast, with Gene Hackman, Dianne Wiest and Calista Flockhart as the Keeleys, Dan Futterman as Val and then Christine Baransky and Hank Azaria rounding things out as Val’s mother and Armand and Albert’s house boy (respectively). They all seem to be having fun with the movie, which is good because it is a fun movie for the most part. But most of them also get some good serious moments too (except Azaria, which is fine cause he does awesome pratfalls instead) and I like that there’s a little of that in here. It’s a fun movie and it’s got a heart and a soul and a message about being honest and being respectful and being yourself.

October 11, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Birdcage

October 11, 2010

The Birdcage

“I don’t want to be somebody else – do you want me to be someone else?” So says Robin Williams’ character Armand in this American remake of the seventies french farce La Cage Au Folles. Which is why we decided to put this in tonight for national coming out day. Sure, it’s a ludicrous comedic romp, but it does in its own way say that ultimately it’s easier and better to just give up on the lies and be yourself.

The movie centers on the owner of a gay nightclub in South Beach Florida named Armand Goldman. His partner, the headliner of the drag show at his club, is the hysterical Albert. (Hysterically funny as well as given to hysterics.) His man-servant Agadore is completely flaming gay. His straight son Val springs on him the news that he’s getting married to a girl he met in college and everything begins to go sideways. The father of Val’s fiance is a staunch social conservative Republican named Kevin Keeley who is up for re-election and is caught up in a scandal because one of his associates in the senate has just died in the bed of an underage black prostitute. Val and his fiance Barbara tell a number of lies to Val’s parents and to their horror the Keeleys decide to come visit Agadore and meet Val’s parents. There’s a whole lot of frantic scrambling and considerable panic because nobody can decide what to do about Albert, who has effectively raised Val as his mother but is wholly unsuitable to introduce to these conservative visitors. The whole thing culminates in the most horrifyingly awkward family dinner ever filmed.

There’s a surprising amount of this movie which still resonates with the politics of today in America. Not just the farcical bits either. Yes, there’s a lot of jabs taken at the beliefs of social conservatives with Albert in his Mrs. Coleman guise talking about gays in the military and how to deal with abortions, but there’s more to it than that. There’s a particularly tender scene about halfway through the movie where Armand presents palimony papers to Albert which is a great argument for gay marriage in my mind. Armand has this wonderful speech about how he doesn’t care who has the money or the club or the house – he just wants to be at home with Albert because he loves him. Is it strange that a tender scene in a madcap comedy brings tears to my eyes?

Part of it comes from the performances. Every actor in this movie turns in a brilliant display which brings a ton of laughs but still keeps the movie human and grounded. For one thing everybody in the movie realizes just how awful and awkward the dinner they have in the second half of the movie is. Very frequently Armand and Val pause to catch their breath before diving back into the insanity. It makes the movie easier to bear when you have Armand there saying “It’s only one night – I can get through this.”

I love the pairing of Robin Williams as Armand and Nathan Lane as Albert. Nathan lane is fantastic as Albert. He’s all shrieking panic attacks and histrionics. The character of Albert is a drama queen in every sense of the word. This forces Robin Williams to curtail his antics for the most part and play the “straight man” (if you’ll excuse a horrible pun.) He has a few moments of more outrageous comedy, but for the most part he’s there to set up the jokes. He’s also the harried sort of center of the film, the most accessible leading man. Then there’s Hank Azaria who absolutely steals the show as Agadore. Everything from his accent to his attitude to his outrageous costumes is astonishing and I still have trouble believing that this is the same actor who plays the Blue Raja and one of the government agents in Grosse Pointe Blank (as well as the voice of about every character on the Simpsons.) Rounding out the cast we have Dianne Wiest as Barbara’s mother (Dianne always seems to be a mother. She must have a very matronly feel to her) and Gene Hackman as Senator Keeley. For the most part they need only to act gullible as they are confused and taken in by the performance given to them at the dinner party – though at the end I love the way Gene Hackman plays Senator Keeley as being completely unable to understand what exactly is going on when the truth behind everything is unveiled. It’s a great comedic moment.

I spend a lot of this movie wincing in sympathy with the characters on the screen. It’s almost painful the situations they get in to. But there are so many great laughs packed in her – mostly thanks to Lane and Azaria – that I can get past those bits and enjoy the movie even so. I found it even more fun tonight since the last time I saw it was before I discovered the joy which is RuPaul’s Drag Race and Drag-U. Having watched those programs made it even more enjoyable to see the drag performances in this movie and made me see the final scene in the movie from a slightly different angle. I’m very much looking forward now to seeing La Cage au Folles again and reviewing that sometime in the near future.

Happy National Coming Out Day, America! I do hope that together we can make things get better for everybody!

October 11, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 219 – The Men Who Stare at Goats

The Men Who Stare at Goats – September 5th, 2010

I remember when this came out. I recall seeing ads for it on television and thinking it had a great cast and an amusing premise that I was sure must be based somewhat on reality. Being the straightlaced kid that I was, I never got into drugs, but I read a hell of a lot about the drug culture of the 1960s. I probably worried my parents sick with my reading choices. Illuminatus! was a staple (though looking back, I far prefer The Schrodiner’s Cat Trilogy), and I bought myself a copy of Timothy Leary’s autobiography. I found the whole time period and culture fascinating. I read up on MK ULTRA and the government’s experiments with LSD. I wrote a poem about Abbie Hoffman for a creative writing class in high school. Why didn’t anyone ever attempt an intervention? Probably because it was painfully obvious that I was a total square. But I was a total square who’d done research!

So, when I heard about this movie, I had a vague idea that yeah, the US military has a history of having done some weird stuff that ultimately led nowhere. And conspiracy theorists will always be glad to share their thoughts on how it didn’t lead nowhere, that’s just what they want you to think! And so it’s great fodder for a story, right? Sure! And there’s the great cast! Ewan MacGregor, Jeff Bridges, George Clooney, Kevin Spacey! Stephen Root! Sounds like fun. And I’ll be honest. It was fun. It was fun enough that I’m glad we own it and I’m a little sorry that we missed it in the theater. But, well. It’s got some flaws.

For one, the movie is trying to be a couple of things and I’m not sure it can be all of those things at once. It’s a commentary on the US presence in Iraq, both military and private sector. It’s a guys bonding with guys movie. It’s about a midlife crisis, or really a bunch of midlife crises. It’s also a farce and a parody and a story about redemption. That’s a lot. The trouble for me is that the redemption and midlife crisis bits are fairly heartfelt and the rest of kind of tongue-in-cheek. It’s an odd balance. It tips sometimes. And then there’s how it’s told.

The movie is narrated by Ewan MacGregor. The conceit is that he’s a journalist named Bob whose wife leaves him for his editor and who embarks on a journey to the Middle East to try and do something daring to prove his manhood. By chance he meets a man named Lyn Cassady, whom he’d heard about from a guy he’d interviewed for his paper. A guy claiming he had psychic powers and had been trained to use them in the Army. Lyn sees that Bob’s been doodling pyramids with eyes and off they go to Iraq on a mission. What mission? Who knows! It’s just a mission. Scenes of the two of them bumbling their way into and out of trouble in Iraq are intercut with flashbacks (haha, flashbacks, in a movie with lots of LSD, oh, man, hilarious) to the development of the US military’s psychic warfare program, the New Earth Army. These scenes are introduced and explained by Bob as told to him by Lyn.

Really, for the majority of the movie there are two stories. There’s Bob and Lyn in Iraq, getting kidnapped and into car accidents and shot at by rival security contractors and driving over landmines, and there’s the background to the story. There’s Lyn’s whole history with the founder of the New Earth Amy, Bill Django, and his rival in the program, Larry Hooper. We see the soldiers grow their hair long and dance and pinpoint the locations of personnel at the orders of their commanding officers. We see them identify photos and do a much better job than that girl Peter Venkman hits on in Ghostbusters. It’s the story of psychic escalation. Sort of like nuclear escalation, only with people convinced they can walk through walls or kill goats with their minds. That’s all fun stuff, but it’s doled out in bite size chunks, almost episodic in nature.

I get the concept. I understand that the movie is trying to give the audience the background and the foreground at the same time before bringing them together. The trouble is that by the time Bob and Lyn show up at Larry’s camp in the desert, where he’s a private contractor specializing in psychological warfare and has Bill working for him, there’s about twenty minutes left in the movie. We’ve spent the whole film going back and forth and back and forth and now that we’re all in the same place everything has to come together very quickly. Oh, Bill’s a drunk now and has lost faith in his powers? Lyn might have been making it up all along? Bob has to find it in himself to believe enough that he can give the two of them their redemption and Larry his comeuppance at the same time? Right! Let’s get on that and make it snappy!

It’s a very self-aware movie, from the Jedi jokes made by and to Ewan MacGregor’s character to the mention of Timothy Leary. This is a movie that knows all its own jokes and is already laughing at them before they play out. It knows that people today will find the idea that the military even entertained thoughts of psychic combat hilarious. But there was a time when people were dead serious about it. Which is sort of where the humor lies, really. And yes, it is humorous. The movie hits a lot of notes right. Clooney, Bridges, Spacey and MacGregor all give great performances, each investing a different depth and kind of belief in the whole thing. Clooney and MacGregor have some great comedic chemistry (and Clooney really is a fun comedic actor – I’m reminded muchly of his performance in O Brother, Where Art Thou? here). Bridges throws himself into the character of Bill Django and Spacey is thoroughly invested in being a total dick. It’s all good fun. I just wish it wasn’t quite so sloppy in the telling.

October 5, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Movie 203- The Pirates of Penzance (1983)

The Pirates of Penzance (1983) – September 19th, 2010

Working, as I did, in a video store while I was in college, I was frequently asked by my friends to grab a movie to watch in the dorm. I got free rentals and we had a decent collection of movies at the store, so why not, right? I’m fairly sure this was one of the movie I was once asked to grab. I’d never seen it before and I’m not a Gilbert and Sullivan afficionado. I had friends who were though, and who told me I had to see this. And why did I have to see this?

Kevin Kline in thigh high boots.

Those five words right there were enough to make me want to see it and they’re enough to make me want to own it. Kevin Kline dancing in thigh high leather boots. Because, you see, he is a pirate king. Can that be my review right there? It’s what makes the most impression on me. Sure, the tunes are catchy and there’s the classic Modern Major General bit that everyone knows, but seriously. Kevin Kline. Dancing. Leather thigh high boots.

We bought this specifically for today, what with it being Talk Like a Pirate Day, even though there’s more singing than talking like a pirate. Maybe there should be a Sing Like a Pirate Day. We could all wear tall boots and pretend to be Kevin Kline. Maybe I’m obsessing over the boots and all to ignore my immediate criticisms, which aren’t of this particular production but of the script itself, which involves the pirate crew kidnapping Mabel’s sisters and the ladies themselves shrieking ineffectively. It’s icky, but not entirely unexpected, given the period it’s from. I don’t really expect the women of the story to have a whole lot of control over their lives. But then, apparently thanks to some bowlers and brollies, the ladies decide the pirates are really gentlemen who’ve gone astray (me, I’d say a bowler and a brolly are the mark of a spy) and want to marry them after all.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Forgive me. It’s the boots. They do things to me (but Kline’s the only one with boots like that, so it wasn’t the boots that won over the ladies). This is an early 1980s production of the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera. The basic plot follows the adventures of young Frederic, a man who’s been apprenticed to a group of pirates until his 21st birthday. But he doesn’t want to be a pirate, so he takes off now that his apprenticeship is apparently over. Upon meeting a group of innocent young women, he convinced one, Mabel, to marry him. The pirates attack and try to kidnap the women and marry them (against the young women’s wills), their father lies to the pirates to save them, and then feels guilty about lying. Then it turns out that Frederic was born on February 29th in a leap year and therefore has only had five birthdays so far. So thanks to Frederic’s ridiculous sense of duty and the Major General’s guilt over lying (even if it did keep his daughters from being kidnapped by pirates), there’s all sorts of shenanigans wherein Frederic, the pirates, the daughters, the police, the Major General, the Pirate King, Mabel and Frederic’s old nurse, Ruth, all dance and sing about duty and love and to be honest, I kind of lost track. I was watching the boots.

By the end of the show, the pirates are all repenting their ways, ostensibly because they love Queen Victoria so much, and the young ladies all want to marry them and everyone will live happily ever after, the end. It’s all so over the top and full of parody and bombast and ridiculousness. I could do without ridiculous depictions of forced marriage, but like I said. Time period. This particular version of the opera is a film version of a Broadway production of the show and apparently was released both to movie theaters and subscription TV (think pay-per-view or OnDemand but in the early 80s) at the same time. Odd choice for an odd movie, which is very much a stage show on film. The sets are all very confined and obvious, the dance numbers are done as if on a stage. There doesn’t seem to have been much effort made to adapt the Broadway show to a screen, as if the people making it wanted to bring a Broadway production into the homes and theaters of the rest of the country without just filming a Broadway performance. But to be honest, I don’t really mind. There’s something about the show that seems to lend itself to this sort of production and it suits it.

I’m not really all that big on this sort of movie, as one might guess. It’s fun in parts, and I enjoyed a good deal of it, but there were definitely songs I just tuned out on. Well sung, well performed on stage, and I’m sure they’re well written too. It’s a well known title by Gilbert and Sullivan, so obviously people like it. I’m just not throwing myself into it completely. Maybe it’s the marriage thing. Maybe it’s that I’m just not interested in some of the songs. Maybe it’s that while I like the concept behind the paradox song, it’s not a fucking paradox. It’s like if Alanis Morissette wrote a song about what a paradox is, by which I mean it’s a song about something amusingly annoying, but it isn’t what they call it. I don’t know.

Despite all that, and despite the not talking like pirates (maybe they are spies after all!), I had fun watching this tonight. It’s not my favorite movie in the world, but it does have some very funny moments. I think it’s just not to my particular tastes, whereas some people absolutely love Gilbert and Sullivan. I can’t argue with not sharing the same opinion with everyone, and I do admire the craft of making a show like this. I applaud the performances of Rex Smith, Angela Lansbury, Linda Ronstadt and George Rose. I’m not sure what the point of having the British cast dubbed over by the Broadway cast was and I kind of wish they hadn’t so I’d be more clear who sang and who didn’t. Nevertheless, I don’t fault any of the on-screen performances or the vocal performances, even if they were split in places. But mostly I applaud Kevin Kline. Because he is a pirate king.

September 19, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Death at a Funeral (2007)

July 22, 2010

Death at a Funeral (2007)

Working, as I did, in a video store, I was exposed to a lot of people whose opinions regarding movies I came to respect. These were people with whom I’d have long conversations about great films. When these conversations turned to great recent British comedies they generally agreed that there were a few stand out gems that blew everything else away. Films like The Full Monty, Keeping Mum and Waking Ned Devine. And in amongst that rarefied strata one title started appearing a couple years ago which I never got a chance to watch. Until today.

I can see why so many people raved about it now. Nothing makes for great humor (or should it be humour) than a vast family of horribly repressed British people forced by circumstance to endure each others’ company. (I’ll probably hit that point again when we get around to reviewing The Norman Conquests.) And then add to that the magic of Frank Oz, and you have guaranteed comedy gold. Remember – Frank isn’t just Miss Piggy, he’s the director of such great films as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, the Little Shop of Horrors musical and What About Bob. He really knows how to wring laughs from an audience.

And this movie does bring on the laughs. It’s got broad and crazy strokes of outrageous humor (such as Alan Tudyk’s unfortunate character Simon, who is dreading so much being at a funeral with his girlfriend’s father that he has a panic attack – so she gives him some Valium to calm down… except that it’s NOT Valium.) But the movie is actually at its funniest during quiet moments of desperation when absolutely everything seems to be falling apart.

Let me back up a little bit and introduce the cast of characters. The lead is Daniel, who is trying his level best to hold a respectful funeral for his dead father. His wife Jane wants the two of them to move out of his parents’ huge country house so they don’t have to be saddled with caring for his mother. His irresponsible brother is Neil Gaiman – I mean Robert: a successful long haired author dressed all in black who has moved off to live in America. (Only maybe he’s not so successful as all that, since he seems to be flat broke.) Daniel’s cousins Martha and Troy are there too – along with Martha’s boyfriend Simon (the aforementioned hapless Alan Tudyk.) Then there’s Howard (who doesn’t seem to have any reason to be there except as a chauffeur for the nasty tempered Uncle Alfie) and his mate Justin, who has come along because he has a thing for Martha.

Of course all these characters have baggage of some sort. There’s the hatred that Martha’s father (Daniel’s uncle) bears towards Simon. There’s a lot of friction between Daniel and Robert (because Daniel is tired of being responsible, and he thought Robert was going to help pay for the funeral before discovering that Robert is utterly skint.) Martha’s brother Troy spends most of the movie trying to recover the bottle of “Valium” that he brought to the funeral for a friend which is, in fact, a potent hallucinogen of his own manufacture. The attending priest is in a hurry to get somewhere (though it’s never explained just where,) Justin is pissed because Martha blows him off every time she sees him, and Howard seems to be somewhat of a hypochondriac, for whom a funeral is a reminder of his own mortality.

Then there’s Peter – a mysterious stranger who shows up at the funeral but whom nobody actually knows. It transpires that he knew Daniel’s father. Very well. (A side note: I really enjoyed Peter Dinklage’s performance as the enigmatic Peter. It’s a strange character, and I like that for the most part he plays him with a kind of desperate sincerity. Even when the character of Peter is being a bit of a dick the performance leaves you feeling a little sympathetic for him.)

And… that’s pretty much all you need to know. It’s a bunch of people forced together during trying times and all wound too tight with proper British decorum, and you know from the start that the whole thing is set to explode. There will be strange revelations, bizarre drugged out capering, blackmail and murder! (Well, maybe not murder.) The whole movie has a kind of pent up energy, and part of the fun of watching it is wondering just what is going to break loose and fly apart next.

Like I said before: there is some laugh-out-loud physical humor (particularly on the part of Andy Nyman, who plays Howard with a kind of desperate quiet panic that I couldn’t help laughing at, and Alan Tudyk, who is given license to be just as crazy as he could ever want to be.) But the moments that made me laugh most were the moments of quiet anticipation and dread. Moments when you just knew that things were about to go hilariously wrong and could see on the faces of the characters in the film that they knew it as well. I felt slightly guilty that I was laughing at impending misfortune, but I really couldn’t help it.

If you watch the out-take reel you get the distinct impression that nobody on the set could help laughing either. Particularly Frank Oz, whose distinctive laugh fills the reel. It must have been hard to work with him sometimes.

July 22, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment