A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 491 – Team America: World Police

placeholderTeam America: World Police – July 4th, 2011

Last year we decided to go the obvious route for US Independence Day but we did briefly discuss watching this movie instead. But we looked at our enormous list and figured hey, we’ll probably hit the holiday again the next year! And so we did and thus today’s movie is a thoroughly ridiculous satire on patriotism, politics, acting and the militaristic attitudes many people associate with the United States. Done with marionettes. By the South Park guys. Happy Fourth of July, everybody!

I’ll be honest: I’m really not in the mood for this movie today. I’m not sure what specifically made me want to turn it off when in the past I’ve quite enjoyed it. Maybe it was that I was totally wiped out yesterday (I blame the heat – give me winter back, please) or maybe it was that we’d already watched a movie earlier in the day (Lucky Number Slevin, which we’d wanted to show my mother) or maybe it was just that this is a movie you have to be in the right mood for. And if you’re not in the right mood for it then watching it won’t put you in the mood for it. It’ll just irritate the crap out of you. Because that really is much of the point of the movie anyhow: Humor through jackassery. And puppets.

The whole idea of the movie is that it’s an over-the-top action flick a la Michael Bay. Full of explosions and disasters and dramatic tension where you don’t know if the heroic soldiers are going to be able to stop the evil terrorists. There’s more drama from the romance that occurs between the two leads and is then, of course, broken up when one of the leads panics and leaves his team in the lurch, only to storm in when things are desperate. And of course he saves the day! Every plot point is hackneyed. The lines are overwritten and the characters are cliches. Our hero, Gary, is a Broadway actor who joins Team America: World Police because they need an actor to be their newest spy (since spying is pretty much acting with surveillance equipment apparently). Team America’s base is in Mount Rushmore and they’ve got a tough-as-nails-but-dressed-in-a-suit boss, a supercomputer and a mission to stop terrorists whatever the cost. And through the course of the movie they end up going after Kim Jong Il and drawing the ire of the Film Actors Guild.

Now, regardless of my mood, there are some things I enjoy about this movie and they tend to be things that were either so spot on in their parody/satire elements that they’ve become part of our personal lexicon or they have to do with the movie’s visual conceit. I love the montage song. I think of it any time there’s a training montage in a movie because it is spot on. It’s a montage with a song about how you need a montage. I also like America, Fuck Yeah as bit of satire, same for Freedom Isn’t Free. Over-the-top jingoism in the news will always get an “America! Fuck yeah!” from myself or Andy. And let’s face it: “Freedom isn’t free” or variations thereof pop up all the time, which usually means one or the other of us will mutter “No, it costs a buck 05.” Panthers played by housecats? Yeah, I’m down with that too. As with everything that reminds the viewer that the entire cast of the movie is made of marionettes and they’re on a much smaller scale than people. Not HO scale, certainly, but small. There’s a statue in Kim Jong Il’s palace that’s actually a man in heavy makeup. There are the “panthers” and a variety of little props that you’re likely to see in the Look-a-Like books (which I love). And it’s that sort of winking cleverness that makes the whole marionette conceit play. That and that it’s not treated seriously at all.

I really do like the marionette idea. It’s thoroughly laughable. And it’s not that they’re bad marionettes! They’re obviously incredibly sophisticated things, with servos in the faces and whatnot. But they will always look like marionettes. Always. There is no mistaking that look when you make them walk, and at no point are they at all disguised. There’s no attempt to disguise them. They’re the point. They’re the humor. You try to play out a serious scene between a couple of characters, then smack their faces together to approximate a kiss and it will be funny. Every time someone references the expression on their face? Funny, because they have no expressions. And the main character is supposed to be an actor who can convince anyone of anything through his amazing acting skills. And he has the same blank look and jerky movements that every other marionette in the movie has.

What made this movie frustrating to watch tonight was knowing that I’ve enjoyed it before. That I’ve snickered at the lampooning of actors taking up political causes as if they’re experts in foreign policy. That I’ve laughed at many of the songs and many of the lines and all the marionette work while still being impressed at the sheer scale of the puppetry being performed. Tonight it just fell flat. I still laughed at the cats and the montage, sure. But the rest of the satire just didn’t feel as sharp as it was supposed to. And add to that a couple of scenes I just plain don’t like? And as a whole it just wasn’t fun to watch.

I find the racial and cultural elements of the movie to be questionable at best. I get where they’re going here, and the intent of the humor is more to poke fun at US audiences and how the media portrays other cultures than to poke fun at those cultures themselves. That being said, it’s a very dangerous line to toe. It requires that your audience be in on the joke and be able to laugh at themselves, which one would hope anyone watching this movie could do, but I can’t count on it. I’ve met too many people who could laugh at Team America themselves while still thinking that the depictions of other races were hilarious because haha, those people in the Middle East who speak gibberish! So funny! And making fun of speech impediments is a riot, right? I get it, I just don’t find it as funny as it’s supposed to be. And then there’s the sex scene and the vomit scene. Yeah, you know what? I could do without them. They’re beyond parody or satire and are just gross-out humor and I’m sure plenty of people find them hilarious but they’re not my sort of humor. I honestly think they take away from the satire and parody aspects of the movie, which makes the rest of the humor less sharp.

All in all, I can still see a lot of things I enjoy about this movie. The very concept of it is amusing and the marionettes were a fantastic way to take what might have come off as simply a cheesy parody and elevate it to satire. That being said, it does have a lot of weaknesses, not the least of which is a tendency to aim for offensiveness in hopes of hitting satire and managing to hit the slim border between them. If I’d been in the mood to watch it perhaps I could have looked past that to enjoy when they do hit the satire target dead center. But I wasn’t, so while I’ll still be amused by the montage and I know how much freedom costs in USD, I don’t think I’ll be putting this back in for a while.

July 4, 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 441 – Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb – May 15th, 2011

This is one of those movies that’s become so deeply entrenched in popular culture that some references to it are now their own beasts, detached from their original context and living a life of their own. It’s always strange when that happens and you know the roots. It’s also a movie deeply entrenched in the culture of the time it was made, not long after the erection of the Berlin Wall and well into the Cold War. The threat of nuclear war was quite present and the Cuban Missile Crisis was only a couple of years in the past. That’s a whole lot of fear going on and here comes a satire about nuclear annihilation with a title exhorting us to stop worrying. Brilliant.

It isn’t often that I’m reminded that there’s an age difference of several years between myself and Andy. It just isn’t something that impacts our lives on a regular basis and it hasn’t for some time now. But for this movie it happens to be a crucial difference between what we grew up with. I was still a fairly young kid during the end of the Cold War. By the time I was old enough to really start to understand the geopolitical forces behind it and its implications it was drawing to a close with perestroika and glasnost and so for me? It was all in the past. My parents sheltered me from talk of nuclear weapons and war when I was a child. Prior to the restructuring of the Soviet Union the most I knew about the USSR and atomic power was that something horrible had happened called Chernobyl. I vividly remember watching news footage of the Berlin Wall coming down (though mostly metaphorically) and knowing that it was something momentous and huge and meaningful, but not quite grasping it and having to be given a rather large chunk of history education in a very short time. So what I’m saying is that I never grew up scared of nuclear war. I didn’t know where my local fallout shelter was (though I can name two within walking distance of my house now, oddly enough) and I never had nightmares about atomic bombs. It’s all fairly historical for me where as for Andy? He’s just that much older than me that it was part of his youth.

That sort of thing can drastically change how one relates to a movie like this. It’s satire, yes, but the point of satire is to poke at something serious. It’s to take something somber and light it in a way that exposes ridiculous and darkly humorous crevices you wouldn’t otherwise notice. But how you see the revelation of that humor can differ depending on how you’ve seen the serious part first. For me? It’s largely academic. I’ve read a lot about the history and the science but I never lived in fear of it. And a whole lot of this movie depends on that fear and that dread and that possibility. The plot is built upon the idea that somewhere something could go wrong and for no good reason at all, plus complications and communications glitches, we could all be blown to bits. And somehow it seeks to make that very concept funny.

Maybe it’s because I never lived it that I’ve always found this movie to be funny but have to view the satirical portions of it through the lens of historical context. Sure, a lot of what’s being made fun of here are military attitudes that can translate to modern times, but the specifics are pretty clear. We begin the movie with a voiceover telling us that it’s entirely possible that the Russians have made a “doomsday device” capable of killing everything on the planet. Then we meet Brigadier General ‘Jack’ Ripper, whose paranoid delusions about fluoridation lead him to set in motion a nuclear air strike on the USSR and make it nearly impossible to avert. He figures that when the President and his men realize they can’t stop the attack they’ll have to simply press forward. It would seem to be the end except that his second in command, an exchange officer from the UK (Group Captain Lionel Mandrake) manages to puzzle out the code to stop the planes carrying the bombs and get the information to the War Room in time. Or so they thought.

Now, that all sounds like it could be deadly serious. A taut drama about nuclear war and the dangers of not enough failsafes and checks on power. Indeed, the original text the movie was based on was a serious story about accidental nuclear war. But from the names, like the previously mentioned Ripper and Colonel ‘Bat’ Guano to the President telling the drunken Soviet Premier that of course he enjoys talking to him and will call to say hello sometimes, well, it’s clear that this isn’t an entirely serious movie. Ripper’s fears of fluoridation (leading him to drink only rain water and grain alcohol) are wildly exaggerated. The characters, aside from the President, perhaps, are all caricatures. Or rather, they’re meant to be. Take a peek at the trivia about the military figures some of the characters were based on for some frightening reading. But then there’s the Russian ambassador and Dr. Strangelove himself, not to mention Major ‘King’ Kong, who so famously rides the bomb while whooping it up. There’s no fighting in the war room and animals will be bred and slaughtered. It’s a movie full of iconic moments of humor formed from the most serious and frightening moments.

Of course a huge amount of the humor that I personally love here comes from Peter Sellers, who played three different roles in the movie: Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, President Merkin Muffley and of course Dr. Strangelove himself. And while the first and third of those roles deliver some hilarious moments and lines (and I can see why Strangelove’s final scene would cause the cast to start corpsing), the role of the President is a little different. All of his humor comes from being the most reasonable and soft spoken of characters in the scenes he’s in. His interactions with George C. Scott’s General ‘Buck’ Turgidson are some of the best in the movie. They play off each other brilliantly and I love every moment of it. Some people might find Slim Pickens as Kong to be more wildly funny, but it’s Scott and Sellers all the way for me.

One of the things I love about this movie is how focused it is on its locations. We really don’t move around much here. There’s the interior of the B-52 carrying the two bombs Dear John and Hi There! (nuclear warheads – handle with care). There’s the Air Force base, Burpleson, where Mandrake and Ripper spend most of their time. And there’s the War Room. We get one scene in Turgidson’s bedroom but that’s it. Everything is so closed off from everything else. Isolated and cut off, which is part of where the tension of the movie comes from. It’s a fantastic way to set the mood in such a way that adds to the situation so that the humor of it all plays off even stronger.

This really is a fantastic movie and well deserving of its place in cinematic history as far as I’m concerned. The acting, writing, directing, cinematography, it’s all wonderfully done and hits every satirical note perfectly. Satire can be difficult. In the wrong hands it can be sloppy and overdone. But in these hands? It is sharp and witty and fun. It’s full of fantastic and eminently quotable moments and since it’s rooted in the Cold War fears of the United states it’s had a history of appeal that’s hard to beat. I don’t know how a younger audience seeing it for the first time now would approach it, but I’d be curious to hear if it plays this far removed from its historical context. I hope truly hope it does, because it’s far too good to be dismissed and unwatched.

May 15, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 427 – The Darjeeling Limited

The Darjeeling Limited – May 1st, 2011

I feel slightly conflicted about this movie, but mostly I enjoy it. There are things I don’t like. Things I have reservations about. But for the most part I enjoy it and I enjoy how it was made, because I enjoy Wes Anderson movies. Now, if you don’t like Wes Anderson movies then it’s probably enough of a warning to know that this is one of his. If you do like his movies, well, this isn’t the best and it has some issues inherent in its setting, plot and characters. But it has plenty to make it worth watching. You know, if you like this sort of thing. I do. And not just because it has Adrien Brody in it.

This movie has two beginnings. One I like, one I don’t, though it ends up being important later. There’s a short film that comes first, where we meet one of the main characters of the feature. He’s been living in a hotel suite in Paris after running away from his girlfriend for an undisclosed reason. She shows up and they’re dysfunctional and unhappy at each other, which is pretty much a summation of how Wes Anderson’s movies tend to go. It feels a little self-indulgent, which is almost meta as the point of the location is that the character of Jack is being self-indulgent by living at the hotel. I’ve never been overly fond of the short and I can’t entirely articulate why aside from that it feels awkward. Like it should have been part of the movie because it figures in later on but it couldn’t be fit into the confines of the movie’s conceit. Which, to me, means that it should have been worked in some other way. It’s disjointed. But then, given how very carefully Wes Anderson puts his movies together, and given how he doesn’t shy away from making his audience uncomfortable, I can’t say that this wasn’t done intentionally. The second beginning, on the other hand, drew me into this movie immediately. And not just because I enjoy seeing Adrien Brody running in a suit.

Okay, maybe that’s some of it. I do enjoy seeing Adrien Brody running in a suit. But there’s also some fantastic misdirection going on there and it makes for such an excellent introduction to the situation. The story follows three brothers, Peter, Jack and Francis, as they take a trip by train through India a year after their father’s death. Now, this could be sentimental and touching, but this is Wes Anderson at the wheel, so while it has sentimental and touching moments they come in the midst of a sort of morass of awkwardness and ridiculousness and miscommunication and familial dysfunction that Anderson enjoys so much. Peter’s the one running for the train at the outset. Jack and Francis are already on the train. Francis is the one who set the whole thing up in the first place, going so far as to bring an assistant with him to prepare daily itineraries and laminate them and slide them under the door of the brothers’ compartment each morning. He’s a bit of a control freak and has recently been in a motorcycle accident, which he is still recovering from. We never get much about Peter aside from that he’s somehow managed to acquire a number of their late father’s personal belongings (razor and sunglasses, for example) and that he’s going to be a father soon. As for Jack, well, Jack we learned about in the short film.

One of the devices the film uses to tell the story of the brothers and the death of their father and how they coped with it at the time of the funeral is through a short story written by Jack. And this is where the short film fits in, because the story is written on the hotel stationery and the next story he writes makes it very clear that his characters aren’t fictional at all. He writes what happened and he’s not particularly nice about it. His second story quotes directly from the short film’s dialogue and I think it’s a cue to make it clear that the short story he’s had Francis and Peter read is one they’re all intimately familiar with even if they deny the details. Eventually we do get to see what happened, in a flashback that happens mid-movie. And what happened was that Peter tried to get their father’s car from the garage that had been working on it. It didn’t work out, they almost missed the funeral and en route found out that their mother was not going to be coming as she had never gotten on the plane to come home.

Being a Wes Anderson movie there is, of course, a hell of a lot of family dysfunction going on. All three brothers have significant character flaws and haven’t spoken to each other in the year since their father’s death. They talk behind each other’s backs, tell secrets, keep secrets, steal, lie and fight, and that’s just in their interactions with each other. Jack’s really pretty loathsome, if you ask me, and immediately fixates on the train attendant, announcing that he wants her. Peter’s thoroughly conflicted about becoming a father himself and has surrounded himself with his father’s things without telling his brothers that he has them. Francis orders their food for them, decides where they’re going and hides their passports. Oh, and they’re all dosing themselves up with the strongest painkillers they could get at the pharmacy next to the train station they started at. Their horrible behavior ends up getting them kicked off the train, which ends up being a good thing for all involved, really.

This is where I start to be frustrated with the film. Because the original conceit of the trip by train and the attempt to have a spiritual journey planned by itinerary on a set course is a fun one and the characters and their interactions are so incredibly clueless and damaged that it makes it absurd. But that leaves you with characters who won’t grow at all and therefore remain fairly unlikeable as people. Sure, it’s funny, but only to a point. So eventually something has to change. And what changes is that they save the lives of two boys and fail to save a third. This is a huge turning point for all three, but especially Peter, who takes the failure hard. On a simplistic level, this works for me. The three brothers have an experience that forces them to interact with each other and with people who have nothing to do with their family and it forces them to deal with life and death in an immediate setting.

On the other hand, I feel uncomfortable about the Big White Savior thing going on here. The boys they try to help are from a tiny and impoverished village in the Indian desert and the villagers take in the three men for the night, welcoming them and helping them and inviting them to the one boy’s funeral before then showing up at the bus stop to see them off. It’s using the lives and deaths of Indian people as a way to give a trio of wealthy and over-privileged white men some emotional growth and that doesn’t sit terribly well with me. When the brothers’ assumption that a spiritual journey in India would solve all their problems was presented as farcical then, well, I can get that. When a child there has to die in order for these guys to get over themselves? That’s something else entirely. If we’d known these people as fully formed characters that might have helped, but the movie focuses so intently on the brothers and wants us to relate so firmly to them alone that we aren’t even given subtitles to know what the villagers are saying. They aren’t people, they’re a tool.

On a plot development level, I understand what the purpose of the village episode is. I understand what’s going on and why it matters to the main characters and the story being told. I just don’t like the particulars and their implications and I wish it could have been managed some other way. Thankfully, the movie then picks back up with the brothers finally finding their mother and things regain their somewhat sceptical view of the whole ‘spiritual journey’ idea when she’s presented as totally blind to pretty much everything but herself even as she professes to be helping others. I love the reveal of the mother and the entire section at the convent in the mountains where she’s living. It’s so wonderfully written and put together and it clarifies so many of the behaviors and habits of the three main characters. And then they get on another train to continue their trip, which I really like given that they’ve changed as people.

After watching a making-of special that was on the DVD I have to wonder what they did with all of the set pieces. The entire train was decorated and furnished by hand. The plates were hand painted for the movie. The chairs were built for it. The train itself was painted with intricate paintings of elephants and scenes from the movie, things you never get to focus on when they’re on screen but which are amazingly detailed all the same. So many set pieces and props in other movies are things I assume were purchased for the movie and then sold or stored for later film use, or they were rented and returned. These things? I’m just stunned by them. And I’m in love with the train itself, which was customized for the shoot and ran on the real tracks and everything. Then again, I grew up with a model train enthusiast (my father collected HO scale trains and would set them up every so often and let me run them) and I would love to do more travel by train myself.

Overall, my issues with the middle of the movie and the short film aside, I do really love this movie. There’s one fantastic scene near the end where we see little one-room dioramas for all the side characters, set up like compartments of a train, and it just makes the movie for me. It’s such a perfect little way of capturing everything about this movie and it’s so quintessentially Wes Anderson. I have to wonder if he had model trains as a child, or as an adult. They seem right up his alley. Then again, once you’ve had your own real train customized to shoot a movie on, would models suffice?

May 1, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 420 – Monty Python’s Life of Brian

Monty Python’s The Life of Brian – April 24th, 2011

Today seemed like the perfect day to watch the last of our Monty Python movies, what with that last one being a spoof on the story of Jesus and today being Easter. What can I say? We’re bad like that. But this did seem like a good match and so we saved it for today. The thing is, I have to admit, I was a little wiped out today and found myself nodding off in the middle of the movie. It’s just not my favorite Python film and wasn’t quite enough to hold my attention while I was exhausted.

Really, I feel like I’ve lost a bucket of geek points for admitting that there’s a Python movie I don’t love. It’s not that I don’t enjoy this one, honestly. It’s just not quite as engaging to me. Maybe it’s that, well, I don’t have the background to really appreciate the parody. Sure, I know the basics when it comes to Jesus and the story of his birth and death (and resurrection), but I wasn’t raised with it. The parody is funny, sure, and the writing is top-notch. But still. It just doesn’t grab me and it never has. Not in the way the other movies have.

It strikes me as a real pity that I can’t get into this movie. It really does have some fantastic classic moments and lines and the Python crew themselves have apparently stated that they felt like this was at the top of their game. It’s a sharp movie full of quick commentary not necessarily on Christianity or Judaism so much as on the world as it apparently existed and the circumstances. Brian was born in a manger a few doors down from Jesus and the movie follows his life, just as the title claims. He finds out he’s the son of a Roman soldier and joins up with the People’s Front of Judea (not the Judean People’s Front or the Popular Front of Judea – splitters!) because he hates the occupying Romans so very much. And thus begins his misadventures. After getting in trouble and escaping he unintentionally gains a number of devout followers who misinterpret everything he says as being terribly meaningful and eventually he ends up crucified.

It’s pretty snarky really, mostly about people in general and their willingness to follow. And I appreciate that. It’s both funny and painful to watch Brian tell his unwanted followers that he’s not the messiah only for them to take that as certain proof that he must be (since only the true messiah would be humble enough to not claim the role). There’s a lot of very pointed humor here, from the various rebellious factions who hold meetings to determine if they will go to rescue someone to the whole stoning scene with the man getting stoned singing ‘Jehova! Jehova!’ because how are you going to make it worse? And there’s just plain silly humor too, with the women wearing beards and the haggling and the Roman soldier correcting Brian’s Latin and making him write out the correct grammar one hundred times as graffiti. It’s a funny movie! It just loses me around the middle plot-wise.

I do appreciate that they were going with something linear here, like they did for Holy Grail. It’s a very different style from their sketch work, which I include Meaning of Life in. But it has elements of sketch comedy in it, with each scene in the linear plot acting as its own bit. Unfortunately, I happen to enjoy the sketch comedy a little more. I find it easier to move from piece to piece because if a particular bit doesn’t do it for me there’s something else coming along that might. There’s not as much shifting here. So when Brian falls off a tower and is suddenly picked up by aliens? It takes a while before the movie gets me back.

Fortunately, it is very funny in a lot of places and I do enjoy it. It might not move at the same pace as some other Python works but that’s just the way it goes. It is exceedingly clever and I have no doubt in my mind that people who know the story and time period being parodied better than I will find a lot more humor than I can. And I do enjoy the song at the end, even if after last night’s movie and Friday night’s movie I find the message to “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” to be a little more painfully satirical than I have in the past.

April 24, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Monty Python’s Life of Brian

April 24, 2011

Monty Python’s Life of Brian

Last year on Easter we watched Jesus Christ Superstar for the movie a day project. That wasn’t nearly sacrilegious for us, so tonight we move on to something a little more satirical. My opinion of this film has evolved a great deal over time. In my youth I would have claimed that it wasn’t ‘zany’ enough. I have always had a great fondness for Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which in my teenaged years was right up there with Spaceballs as one of the greatest comedies ever made. Holy Grail is all madcap classic Python humor. There was a time when that kind of pure simplicity appealed to me above all else. But I’ve started to become more jaded as I head into middle age and pure wackyness doesn’t have quite the appeal it used to.

This movie is a lot more subtle and sly than other Python works. It is also the most linear in its plot – telling a clear story based around the tribulations of a single character. In that way it’s a Python movie for a more mature audience, I think, and it has slowly, over the years, risen in my esteem to be my favorite Monty Python work, and amongst my favorite comedies.

Part of the appeal is the simple narrative arc of the film. Where most Python is composed of shorter vignettes this film takes a single character, the hapless Brian of the title, and follows him exclusively as he struggles to capture the eye of a girl he is infatuated with and gets drawn into a resistance movement trying to oust the Romans from Jerusalem. All of this takes place at the same time as the events at the end of the life of Jesus, and we do see Jesus a couple times in the film, but that’s decidedly not what this movie is about. Part of what is so brilliant and subversive about this movie is that it doesn’t set out to say anything in particular about Jesus, but it instead pokes fun at the attitudes of people desperately looking for an messiah.

In some ways Brian’s life parallels that of Jesus. He is visited by three wise men when he is a baby in a manger in Nazareth (who later realize their mistake and take their gifts next door to the clearly much more divine manger there.) He is amongst the multitudes listening to the sermon on the mount (way in the back where they can’t quite hear him.) And, yes, he gets crucified in the end.

The parts of this movie I love most however are not the parts having directly to do with Jesus or even those lampooning him, but those parts having to do with the simple minded people who latch on to Brian as their messiah. There are a couple absolutely biting scenes of people following him. They argue about the significance of a dropped sandle. They take perfectly mundane happenings around him to be miracles. (“Of course they brought forth juniper berries – they’re juniper bushes!) They congregate in enormous numbers outside his home and hang on his every word – but don’t seem to listen to him at all. In my favorite part of the entire movie he tells the mob that they should learn to think for themselves. “You are all different” he says. “We ARE all different!” the crowd chants back except for one individual who says “I’m not.”

The writing throughout the movie is that kind of caliber. Every scene in here is gold from the Roman centurion who criticises Brian’s latin to the stall owner who refuses to let Brian buy a beard without haggling there are constant laughs and a very clever humor to the entire movie. This is the most irreverent, witty, and actually smart of the Monty Python films. It pokes fun at mindless obedience and dependence on others for what and how to think, which is something the world needs more of. Anything that encourages the masses to think for themselves is to be encouraged I believe.

I wouldn’t characterize this movie as sacrilegious, but then again I don’t consider myself a devoutly religious person anyhow. If I were to attempt to define my own system of belief then I’d have to say that “think for yourself” would be amongst my closely held tenets. As such I love this movie more with each viewing. A mature comedy for mature Python fans. How I wish there were more.

April 24, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | 2 Comments

Movie 416 – Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical

Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical – April 20th, 2011

We originally bought this for a very specific purpose not too long ago. We’ve sort of fallen down on matching up movies to numbers, The 300 in particular. Oops. But last week when I realized we were fast approaching movie 420 I jokingly said “Too bad we already did Reefer Madness.” And Andy said “Well, there’s the musical. We could get that.” So we did, because I have been told by numerous people more versed in pot culture that the number means something. The origin of that meaning? I’ve heard a few different things and I honestly don’t care. I just thought it would be amusing. Until I actually counted days and um. Movie 420 is on Easter this year, and we already have a movie lined up for Easter. Good thing 4/20 came along beforehand, affording us a perfect opportunity to line things up again and make it totally look like we did it on purpose. You know, if I hadn’t ruined it by explaining it all.

It turns out we could have totally watched this on Easter. It’s got a musical number with Jesus and everything. He even mentions Easter specifically. Not really the focal point of the picture though, so I guess we made the right choice here. The focal point of the movie is satire. And music. And marijuana. Because it’s a satirical musical remake of the original Reefer Madness. Instead of actually being a scare film attempting to use fear to drive parents to warn their children away from pot it’s a bizarre parody of everything involved in the original, from the plot and characters to the time period and very concept. And how do you know it’s as much of a parody as it is? Well, for one, it’s got the fantastic Alan Cumming to lead us through it all and he has his tongue firmly in cheek.

The movie begins with the set-up that Cumming’s character has come to a small town to show his film about the horrors of marijuana to the parents and teachers there. Ah, meta, how I love you. So Cumming hams it up, telling us how horrible and terrible and addictive and life destroying it all is, while the parents clutch at their pearls and grumble and look uncomfortable and uneasy and then horrified. Throughout the movie we cut back to them to see their overwrought reactions. It is as over the top as one could want.

The actual film itself, shown to the parents, is a souped-up version of the original. One can see the basic characters involved, from Mae, who runs the pot house, to Jack, who brings in the kids. There’s Jimmy and Mary, our good kids who’re destined to go down the wrong path (that would be the path through the cannabis garden at Mae’s) and a few other potheads and so on and so forth. There’s still the plot about Mary and Jimmy studying Shakespeare and Jimmy getting seduced into trying marijuana and subsequently becoming such a raging pothead he loses track of all else, hits a man with Mary’s car, then becomes convinced that he’s shot her when it was actually Jack who fired the gun. Yes, that’s all in there. But there’s some more stuff going on to flesh it all out, like a dance contest that FDR’s going to be at and one of the girls at Mae’s has a baby that cries all the time and oh yes. The musical numbers.

This is where the movie goes right off the rails into full blown parody. Not only do we get numbers about having milkshakes at the five and dime, but we get songs about marijuana, hash brownies, Shakespeare (in which we find out that Mary and Jimmy totally think Romeo and Juliet lived happily ever after) and Jesus. Whom I mentioned. The songs are all very much making fun of the characters and situation, overdramatic and exaggerated. Which is pretty much the whole movie. And for the most part? It totally works. It’s ridiculous and overblown and Jesus has Vegas showgirl angels and the hash brownies number is animated and some of the jokes are so incredibly tasteless the only way they work is because they’re pointedly aimed at how not cool and pervasive those same attitudes were at the time of the original movie. Not to mention how ridiculous the movie’s claims were in regards to marijuana. At one point a man in the audience stands up and says he thinks it’s bull and that heroin is far more addictive and dangerous than pot. And oh, Cumming’s character lets him have it, not only laying into him about his education but also implying that the man is a communist. Of course.

Now, I do have some criticism of the movie. While the majority of the cast was fantastic, I never quite felt comfortable with Ana Gasteyer’s Mae. She was over the top, yes, but she missed the mark for me. Not by much, but in a movie like this it all has to be on the same level. Maybe it was her songs, which I wasn’t terribly fond of. I’m not sure. I really like Steven Weber and he does well with many of his scenes as Jack, but in others I find it very hard to see him as a thug, even when the point is humor. I greatly enjoyed Kristen Bell and Christian Campbell as the two leads and of course there’s Alan Cumming, whose character inserts himself into the movie in various places to great effect. So the cast is sort of mixed. None of them are bad, just not quite right in places. The songs themselves are mostly fun, but some of them work better than others, much like the cast. And by the time Mae and Jack have their big confrontation I sort of felt like the movie needed to end. And yet it kept going for another big musical number. It’s not that the number was bad! It’s just that it felt like it came about five to ten minutes later than it should have, and then the movie didn’t end with it.

So I’ve got to say that the movie was sort of uneven. Lots of great ideas and fun songs and fantastic cast members, but the pacing’s a little wonky and it throws off the musical number placement, which might explain some of the character issues and it’s sort of a domino effect. Still, I had fun watching it and shaking my head at how ridiculous it is and enjoying Alan Cumming being fucking awesome. Like he always is. I’d have watched this for him alone, but thankfully there was plenty more to enjoy.

April 20, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 388 – Robocop

Robocop – March 23rd, 2011

Over the course of this project so far I’ve had a chance to really think about the movies I’ve seen and how I think about them and remember them. Some of our movies are old favorites I know I’ll always love. Some are things I’ve only seen once or twice. Some are things I’ve actively avoided for one reason or another. And some are things that have simply slipped past me. This is one of the latter. I know. I am ashamed. But the thing is, up until we make our list and I went through it and noted what I’d seen and what I hadn’t, I sort of assumed I had seen this movie. I’ve seen so many movies, after all. And it’s Robocop! It’s iconic! How could I not have seen it?

And yet. When I considered it, I realized that I had never sat down and watched this movie all the way through from start to finish. Oh, I’d seen clips. I’d seen bits and pieces from various points. I knew the major players and the plot and a bunch of lines. But it was all from flipping channels or it being on in the background while I was doing something else. Someone was watching it when I was in the room and I absorbed some of it by osmosis without actually paying attention to it, I suppose. I feel like having missed actually watching this earlier takes away from my geek cred a bit. But then, on the other hand, I’m doing this whole movie watching thing. That should redeem quite a bit, I think.

It should also redeem me a bit to have now seen it all the way through. And yes, there was a fair bit that I already knew and had seen. But there was also quite a lot that I hadn’t. For instance, while the plot with Murphy being shot up in the line of duty and then rebuilt into Robocop was one I knew, I’d managed to entirely miss the satiric quality to much of the movie. The plot as it stands isn’t so much satirical as flat out action, but there are some clever nods in the details. Every time the news broadcast was shown, along with commercials for things like a board game called Nukem? I felt like I was watching Kentucky Fried Movie. And then it would go back to the plot with the cybernetic cop and the corrupt weapons tech corporation and the only way those two can merge together well is if they’re both poking at things a bit.

I really like the quietly satirical action sci-fi thing this movie has going on. I knew I liked the concept of a bad-ass cybernetic cop taking on the scum of Detroit, but the little touches of humor just make it better. And even better still, it doesn’t mishandle the more serious aspects. I mean, it doesn’t look like it’s going to have anything serious about it. It looks like it’s going to be action and explosions and a robotic cop. But there’s some stuff going on in the script with Murphy realizing he’s lost the memories of his life before he became Robocop and I credit Peter Weller for a good performance there. It’s not inconsistent with the character he’s played thus far and it doesn’t bog the movie down. It just gives it a little more emotional heft.

But really, strip away the satire and the emotion and you’ve got a revenge movie. After all, the movie focuses on Murphy/Robocop taking out the gang who originally killed him. And he starts out by just doing the job he was programmed to do: Stopping crimes. The revenge bit builds up nicely, with Robocop becoming less the machine he’s been made into and more a melding of the machine and what he’s retained from Murphy. And as he changes his need to get the guys who killed him grows. And still, while there is a theme of revenge, it’s also clearly an imperative for him to get these guys because they’re criminals and because he’s a cop and that’s what he does. It’s all just so nicely balanced.

This movie surprised me in a couple of places. I expected things like ED 209 and the staircase, and I knew I’d like Murphy’s partner, Lewis, but be left wanting to see more of her. Things like the satire and Robocop calling a rape crisis center for an assault victim? Not so much. And all in one movie. It’s a little bare in the area of character development for everyone but Murphy himself, but it’s about Murphy’s journey from cop to Robocop, so that’s not a problem for me. It does manage to set the tone, explain the setting and give a well written plot in and amongst the action scenes, and that on its own is impressive. I’m certainly glad for the excuse to actually sit down and watch it instead of just hearing it behind me. It’s worth paying attention to for the details as well as for Robocop himself.

March 23, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Shrek

March 15, 2011

Shrek

I really enjoy the Shrek movies. Especially this first one. These movies are the main tent-pole of the Dreamworks SKG animation studios. Sort of the Dreamworks equivalent of the Toy Story movies. Although they don’t get better with each iteration the way the Toy Story movies do. They are, however, playful, clever, funny and even touching.

The story here, a fractured fairy tale about an Ogre given a quest to rescue a princess, is not really important. Indeed the movie has a sort of loosely plotted feel that comes of having too many writers. (It has seven different screenwriting and “additional dialog” credits.) There’s one particular moment in the film that illustrates this perfectly. Right after all the fairy tale creatures that have been rounded up by Farquaad’s men show up in Shrek’s swamp, where Farquaad has exiled them, there’s a scene of Farquaad torturing a gingerbread man to fin out their location. It’s a clear example of scenes from different scripts jammed together into the same final product. And you know what? In spite of the fact that it doesn’t make any sense at all it’s perfectly alright with me because it doesn’t have to make sense as long as it is funny. The jokes are far more important than the plot.

The jokes are numerous and funny. Mostly this movie is a big wet raspberry to Jeffry Katsenberg’s previous employers at Disney. From the very start it is filled with friendly jibes aimed at the Disney collection and it features characters based on everybody from Pinocchio to Snow White to Peter Pan. Lord Farquaad has declared that he wants his kingdom of Duloc to be a perfect place and has set about rounding up all the various fairy tale creatures that inhabit the magical kingdom. It’s the perfect opportunity for spoof and good natured ribbing and I enjoy every moment of it. Even better is when Shrek eventually reaches the perfect kingdom of Duloc and finds that it has qeue lines, big headed mascots, gift shops and an animatronic information kiosk that sings about the town in a manner quite reminiscent of Disney’s “It’s a Small World.”

So the plot may be non-sensical but the writing is sharp and clever. The other major draw for me to this movie is the wonderful animation on display. It’s not just that the tools available to the Dreamworks animators were cutting edge and the models are detailed and impressive. Oh, I appreciate the shaders used to give hair its sheen and shin pores (many of which can be seen rendering in real-time in Dragon Age II which I have been playing a lot today) but the actual animation itself is what I’m talking about here. The animators do a fantastic job of getting a real and funny performance from the rubbery CGI puppets they had to work with. There are a number of moments in the movie where Fiona or Shrek will pull a face and it just sells the character for me. (The look that Donkey and Shrek exchange behind Fiona’s back when she’s cooking them breakfast for example. It’s great.)

Then there’s the voice cast. Eddie Murphy can often get on my nerves, but here he’s brilliantly cast as a character that gets on everybody’s nerves, and it’s perfect. Mike Myers is charming and funny and even manages to give Shrek a tender side. Cameron Diaz does a great job expressing through her voice Fiona’s frustration that her fairy tale story is going so wrong. And John Lithgow plays a great bombastic power mad dictator.

This is a charming movie. A fun spoof of fairy tale conventions which may not have much in the plot department but succeeds brilliantly at making the audience laugh and even care about its peculiar characters. It even has a nicely non-Hollywood message about accepting your flaws and realizing that there’s more to a person than conventional beauty. Certainly enough other people must have been charmed as I was to result in the many sequels – which we’ll be reviewing over the next few days.

March 15, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Galaxy Quest

January 29, 2011

Galaxy Quest

How else could we possibly conclude our Star Trek extravaganza than to watch this hilarious, wonderful, meta masterpiece? It may not be a Star Trek movie, but this movie, especially after the fun of Trekkies and Trekkies Two, is clearly a giant love note to Trek fans.

Indeed the movie begins at a fan convention. It’s full of folks in uniforms and dressed as various aliens buying merchandise and waiting in lines to get signatures from the fans of the show. Of course in this movie the show is not Star Trek (in spite of the many resemblances) but is Galaxy Quest – a cheesy 1980s program about the adventures of the NSEA Protector and her crew. There’s the brash captain, the young pilot, the sexy communications officer, the brilliant engineer and the alien science officer. As we join the actors who played these parts back in the day it is eighteen years later. They are washed up has-beens working the con circuit with no particular careers to speak of. Jason Nesbith in particular (who played Commander Taggart on the show) is caught up in his own legend. As one of his co-stars puts it: the fans love him – almost as much as he loves himself.

The twist here is that far off on the other side of the galaxy a naive race of aliens called Thermians have been watching the old Galaxy Quest programs and are under the mistaken belief that all the events portrayed in the show were historical fact. They have built their civilization and technology on what they observed of Galaxy Quest, and as a result there is a real Protector with a real beryllium sphere and real energy armor and real transporter pods. When their civilization is threatened by an evil overlord they turn to Jason Nesbith and his fellow actors, thinking that they are the actual Commander and crew they have seen so much of in the “historical documents.”

The joy of this movie is that it is the dream of every sci-fi fan. Everything that was on the old Galaxy Quest program turns out to be real. What if it turned out that all those unimaginative thugs throughout the lives of every fan with their “get a life” taunts about what a waste of time your dedication to your fandom is ere actually completely wrong all along? What if you could actually take part in the adventures you’ve always felt were more important than reality anyhow? It’s just spectacular to see these washed up actors discovering that they actually have it inside themselves to be the heroes they used to portray. There’s a dedicated young fan of the show played by Justin Long who seems to be directly modeled on Gabriel Koerner from our last two movies – and he gets probably the most enviable character arc since his lowly nerd is actually able to save the crew of the Protector using his knowledge of the show. Every fan’s dream.

This movie is packed with wonderful performances and memorable moments and lines. Tim Allen is wonderful as William Shatner Jason Nesmith. Alan Rickman is perfectly cast as the weary Shakespearean actor Alexander Dane – who portrayed the alien on the bridge (apparently a sort of combination of the logic of a Vulcan with the nobility of a Klingon.) His complete disdain for his character’s catch phrase not only makes for some laughs at the start of the film, but gives the movie one of its most touching and tender moments near the end. Sigourney Weaver plays the only female member of the bridge crew, and her character is well aware of how stupid and demeaning her role is. One of my favorite parts of the whole movie is Tony Shalhoub as the perpetually stoned and completely unflappable Fred Kwan, who is unfazed by the discovery that there are people who believe the role he once played was real. I’ll admit that I never watched Monk while it was on TV, but I was tempted because I so loved Tony’s performance here. He has most of the best lines and deliveries in the movie. Then there’s my other favorite part – Sam Rockwell as Guy, the character so unimportant that he doesn’t even have a last name. In one of those self-aware bits of humor that makes this movie so great Guy is perfectly aware that since he is the only human who is not a member of the bridge crew he is expendable and will probably die at any moment. Sam Rockwell is just fantastic in every role I’ve ever seen him in from this to Zaphod Beeblebrox to the trapped space miner Sam Bell to Iron Man’s nemesis Justin Hammer to anti-Nixon journalist James Reston Jr. Go read some of our other reviews – Sam Rockwell is all over our collection and discovering him as an actor has been one of the joys of this project.

I once kicked a hole in a wall because my sister teased me by telling me that something I cared deeply about was just fantasy. Of course I know that – I knew it then. I don’t think that there are many fans of anything who cannot tell the difference between reality and fantasy (hint: reality is unfair and difficult to win at) but I also don’t think there are many fans who don’t wish deep in their heart that what they love and obsess over was actually real. This film is an exploration of just how wonderful it would be if that were true. (For a darker and much more upsetting take on the same basic theme I recommend Lev Grossman’s The Magicians: A Novel.)

January 29, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment