Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Could’ve Beens: 10 Recast Roles (That Were Re-cast While The Film Was In Production)

-->The Onion A.V. Club recently did a few round-ups of famous parts from moves and T.V. shows that were played by more than one actor over the years - The Darrin Effect: 20 Jaring Cases Of Recast Roles (July 14th, 2008). The article/list and its sequel (What About Seinfeld’s Dad?), both entertaining reads, made me think about the roles that were recast before the character was finalized - the ones that a drastic change of the leading part seemed to make all the difference in the world. An alternate history of modern cinema can be glimpsed when we consider: -->

The Could Have Beens: 10 Crucial Recast Roles (That Were Recast When The Film Was In Production)

1. Tom Selleck as Indiana Jones in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK This a mother of a 'could have been. Selleck was cast by Spielberg and Lucas for the iconic adventurer but he was under contract at Universal and had a commitment to star in the TV series Magnum P.I. Even with the video of Sellecks screen tests (with Sean Young and Debra Winger reading for Marion!) that are featured on a Making Of doc on the Indiana Jones DVD boxset, its hard to imagine him in the part that is so defined by Harrison Ford. Incidentally Tim Matheson (ANIMAL HOUSE, FLETCH, The West Wing) read for Indy too.

2. Eric Stoltz as Marty McFly in BACK TO THE FUTURE
This is another doozy - almost half the movie was shot with Stoltz in the role but director Robert Zemeckis and producer Spielberg thought that his performance simply wasn’t working. Screenwriter Bob Gale said of Stoltz: “He is intense, and he’s more of the method school of acting, and he’s a very internal actor, as opposed to a guy who has a lot of physicality to him.” So they fired Stoltz and replaced him with who was actually their first choice but tied to Family Ties - Michael J. Fox. They worked out a scheduling deal with Fox and the rest is history. The approximately 40 minutes of footage of Stoltz as McFly has never surfaced but there are quite a few stills floating around (see above) on the internets to give us some idea of what it would have looked like at least.

3. Michael Keaton as Tom Baxter/Gil Shepherd in THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO - Another case of the actor in the lead not jelling with the material according to the director. Woody Allen thought Keaton was too contemporary saying in a later interview with Eric Lax: You got no sense of a 1930s movie star from him; he was just too hip. After replacing him with Jeff Daniels, Allen promised Keaton that he would work with him again on a more appropriate project but that has so far not materialized. Seems like these days Keaton wouldn't come off as too hip so maybe they can still get it together.

4. Frank Sinatra as DIRTY HARRY In the November 9th, 1970 issue of Box Office magazine this trade ad appeared promoting the then 'in prodcution' Warner Bros. release of DIRTY HARRY. Sinatra had to pass on the part of the uncompromising cop Harry Callahan because of a hand injury and after several re-writes and Paul Newman flirting with the role, Clint Eastwood took it on. Eastwood more than made the role his own in 4 more movies, each getting bloodier and more extreme than the last, which is unimaginable had the ole blue-eyed crooner kept the part.

5. Harvey Keitel as Captain Willard in APOCALYPSE NOW - This one is harder to figure out. After 2 weeks of shooting, Keitel was replaced by Martin Sheen. No photos or footage can be found of his work, just random reports that he and Coppola were clashing on the set. Keitel reportedely was dispondent over being fired and considered leaving the business but biographer Marshall Fine wrote that he experienced a spiritual epiphany listening to a lounge singer’s rendition of the Sinatra standard “My Way” in a bar in the Phillipines that somehow got him back on his feet.

6. Sylvester Stallone as Axel Foley in BEVERLY HILLS COP Stallone himself puts it best: “When I read the script for BEVERLY HILLS COP, I thought they’d sent it to the wrong house. Somehow, me trying to comically terrorize Beverly Hills is not the stuff that great yuk-festivals are made from. So I re-wrote the script to suit what I do best, and by the time I was done, it looked like the opening scene from SAVING PRIVATE RYAN on the beaches of Normandy. Believe it or not, the finale was me in a stolen Lamborghini playing chicken with an oncoming freight train being driven by the ultra-slimy bad guy. Needless to say, they dropkicked me and my script out of the office, and the rest is history. (from an interview with Aint It Cool News) Stallone went on to use his script ideas in COBRA and Eddie Murphy went to be one of the biggest box office stars in the world and then on to crap like NORBIT and MEET DAVE. There are rumors of Murphy resurrecting Axel Foley but I doubt INDIANA JONES or RAMBO kind of numbers are in the cards for that.

7. Eddie Murphy as Winston Zeddemore in GHOSTBUSTERS - The role of the black Ghostbuster (Ernie Hudson) always felt unneccessary, tagged on as a token but it was originally written for Murphy which would've given it more clout. Murphy declined the part to take BEVERLY HILLS COP and the part was reduced considerably. In an interview with Kotaku Australia Hudson revealed: “I was the guy who got slimed in the hotel, but I guess the studio felt they wanted more stuff for Bill Murray”. Seems like he’s lucky the part wasn't dropped completely.

8. River Phoenix as interviewer Daniel Malloy in INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE Phoenix was signed for this part but sadly died of an overdose before shooting began. He was replaced by Christian Slater and the film appeared with this dedication: “In memory of River Phoenix, 1970-1993”.

9. Dustin Hoffman as POPEYE This is also perplexing and hard to imagine. The story goes that Hoffman was unhappy with the screenplay by cartoonist Jules Feiffer, and left the project. Gilda Radner and Lily Tomlin were also considered for Olive Oil but director Robert Altman wanted his reporatory regular Shelly Duvall in the part. Glad he held out - Duvall is the spitting image of Olive. Robin Williams, definitely a better choice physically for Popeye got the role and 10 years later duked it out with Hoffman in HOOK. Bet plenty of POPEYE jokes were cracked on that set.

10. Chris Farley as SHREK Another role unrealized because of an untimely tragic death. Farley recorded much of the dialogue but it was scratched when he died in 1997 ostensibly because the studio smelled a franchise. Mike Myers took the part but according to the IMDb: “A remnant of Farley remains when Shrek uses ‘finger quotes’ - a trademark of Farley’s character Bennett Brower.”

Okay! 10 recast roles. There are other great ones - Steve Martin in EYES WIDE SHUT (Stanley Kubrick was a big fan of THE JERK) and Steve McQueen in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND both almost made this list. If you have any overlooked recastings or comments you know where you can put them.

More later...

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

GONZO: Fawning & Loafing On The Bio-Doc Trail


Every book on my shelf has a different definition of the word “Gonzo”; it’s a style of journalism, it’s an ethic - when I was a kid it was a Muppet. The basic meaning, as best I can gather, is when a commentator, reporter et al. is so intensely immersed in their story that they become part of it. 

The alternate meanings can be summed as an ‘in your face’ fact and fiction blurred aesthetic where anything goes. Despite Spanish or Italian roots (again depends on what book you read) the term became part of the popular lexicon in the introduction of an article by Hunter S. Thompson in 1970. Thompson who by then already had a reputation as an gun-toting druggie “Freak Power” anarchist is the subject of this over reverant documentary by Oscar winning dierctor Alex Gibney (TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE).

Thompson spent much of the last 40 years in front of a camera when he wasn’t shooting up (in every possible way) so there is much fascinating footage to wade through with news reports about his Hell's Angels meddling, talk show appearances, and amatuer film of his campaign for Mayor of Aspen, Colorado making for a juicy narrative. 

Johnny Depp, who played the man in Terry Gilliam’s 1998 adaptation of FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (which this film uses too many clips from), frames a number of segments with readings from Thompson’s work but since that device drops and he isn’t heard from throughout lengthy chunks of the film he can’t really be considered a narrator though he’s credited as such. 

Then there’s the music - with some of the most obvious 60’s songs employed to make easy points this has to go down as one of the least imaginative soundtracks for a period doc ever. I mean, how many times am I gonna have to see “All Along The Watchtower” * cut to war footage? Stones, Joplin, CCR, Lou Reed's “Walk On The Wild Side”; come on! Gibney makes a movie that feels like it was made by somebody whose never seen any 60’s or 70’s docs before. 

It’s also so not neccessary to go through the deaths and overused footage of MLK, RFK, and General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner in Saigon to get to the heart of Hunter S. Thompson but there it is and go through it again I guess we’re doomed to do forever. * To the films credit the version of “Watchtower” used is from Bob Dylan and The Band's live performance on Before The Flood” (1974) not the incredibly done to death (movie-wise that is) Hendrix version. 

Concentrating mostly on Thompson’s early career and glossing over the rest since the 70’s to his death in 2005, GONZO does have its merits. There are interviews with the charming yet still smarmy asshole Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner, former Nixon-aid turned Republican Presidential candidate now full-time Conservative commentator Pat Buchanan (who surprisingly has reams of insight), 1972 Democratic Presidential nominee George McGovern, and especially Thompson’s ex-wife Sandy Conklin Thompson (whose name is now Sondi Wright). 

There are many great anecdotes with Ralph Steadman's iconic splattered cartoons injecting the proceedings with some much needed rough edges. 

For the uninitiated this portrait may be an eye opening overview; to those well versed in the counterculture and the beginnings of the new media” this may come off as an incomplete too respectful playing of Thompson’s greatest hits with very little new insight gleemed. 

In the end it’s just more than a bit disapointing that a film about the Gonzo mind-set and output of one of the most notorious and unruly writers of the last half century could be such a standard straight forward bio-doc; in other words so non-Gonzo. 

More later...

Monday, July 21, 2008

THE DARK KNIGHT - The Film Babble Blog Review

THE DARK KNIGHT (Dir. Christopher Nolan, 2008)

As the best of the movie franchise re-boots over the last decade, BATMAN BEGINS differentiated itself from the rest of the pack by taking the whole Batman thing so damn seriously. It was gritty yet precise and had a roster of amazing actors (well except for Katie Holmes) who brought a gravitas to a comic book legend which made it into glorious epic cinema. 

The long awaited follow-up, made even more anticipated by the untimely death of Heath Ledger, is even grander with an operatic majesty that even the best superhero movies have never even gotten close to attempting. Christian Bale returns as Bruce Wayne/Batman and with the sharp focus of a heat-seeking missile proves himself, yet again as one of the most solid actors working today. 

Also returning is the laconically witty Michael Caine as butler Alfred, a haggardly effective Gary Oldman as Lt. James Gordon, and Morgan Freeman as Luscious Fox who provides Batman with a new line of crime-fighting toys. It has been called an upgrade for Katie Holmes to be replaced by Maggie Gyllenhaall in the role of Rachel Dawes and I definitely agree. 

Aaron Eckhart is also a new addition as Harvey Dent, a noble D.A. that Batman believes is the real saviour of Gotham City despite that he's dating the caped crusader's true love (Gyllenhaal).

As suspected, and fortold by nearly everybody on the internets, Heath Ledger steals the show as the Joker and appears to have a had a great time with the part. Ledger has a frenetic energy and unique tone to his version of the classic character that takes over every scene he's in; sometimes disturbing, sometimes funny in a sick twisted way, but always intense and compelling completely justifying the "too soon" talk of a posthumous Oscar. 

I'll avoid any further story description; there are so many powerful surprising plot-points that it would be a shame to spoil but the action sequences are all top notch and despite its length it never lags. 

To label or consider this film just a superhero movie seems an incredible injustice for it's more aptly a crime epic that definitely is in the league of Martin Scorsese's and Michael Mann's forays into that territory. One of the most satisfying and electrifying movies of the year if not the decade, THE DARK KNIGHT doesn't just live up to its hype - it blows it away again and again. 

More later...

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A Blog With A Cause 2: What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love And Historic Preservation?

Last December I blogged ‘bout THREE IN THE ATTIC (Meet Me At The Wrecking Ball - A Blog With A Cause (Dec. 11th, 2007) - a 40 year old teensploitation flick filmed in my hometown of Chapel Hill, N.C. 

It had come to my attention not just because of its locale but because of its use of a historic house which is in danger of being demolished - The Edward Kidder Graham House. Since then the house has been damaged by a fallen tree in a winter storm and still remains on the market waiting for a prospective buyer. Its days are numbered with nobody so far stepping up to match the owner’s $900,000 asking price. 

This Friday, July 18th, the Preservation Society of Chapel Hill is presenting a showing of 3 IN THE ATTIC on the lawn of the Horace Williams House - another historic house here in Chapel Hill. Since the movie featuring former teen idol Christopher Jones as womanizer Paxton Quigley has never been released on DVD and VHS copies are scarce I located an outfit online (Must Have Films - which, by the way, doesn’t exist anymore) that was selling bootleg DVDs of it and ordered it on up. 

The quality of the no-frills DVD is decent though it appears to have been mastered from a videocassette copy, but I'm nervous about how it will look blown up on a bed sheet screen emitting from a DVD projector. I'm nervous as well about how the forgotten film will go down; maybe it was forgotten for a reason and will be unable to hold an audience with its once radical now quaint picture of ‘60’s decadence. 

I'll definitely be blogging about the experience so stay tuned. In the meantime here’s some links about the film and the house:

Future Uncertain For Historic House - By Mark Schultz for The Chapel Hill Newspaper (1/6/08) 

Time Is Running Out For Condemned N.C. House - An article on the Preservation Magazine’s website by Glenn Perkins (May 29, 2008)

Unfortunately I was unable to find any clips or anything from 3 IN THE ATTIC on Youtube, but this trailer for WILD IN THE STREETS which also featured actor Christopher Jones, was made by the same production company (American International Pictures) and has the same vibe/tone going. 

Also here’s a clip of Jones, again from WILD, as rock star/President of the United States (yep, it's that kind of movie) Max Frost singing or at least lips synching "Shape of Things To Come". Groovy stuff.

Finally an article I wrote for today’s Chapel Hill Newspaper: What’s Free Love Got To Do With It? (Hey - I didn’t pick the title!) I hope those who live near will consider coming out to see 3 IN THE ATTIC this Friday - it’s schlocky fun and as Ernest Dollar (executive director of the Preservation Society of Chapel Hill) said: “This film proves that preservation is sexy!”
Come find out if that’s true, won’t you?

More later...

Monday, July 14, 2008

BIG FISH Without The Fantasy

WHEN DID YOU LAST SEE YOUR FATHER? (Dir. Anand Tucker, 2007) When I first saw the trailer for this film with the premise of Jim Broadbent as Colin Firth’s father I thought ‘that's genius casting!’ The best casting since Ewan McGregor played a younger version of Albert Finney in BIG FISH in my humble opinion. 

I didn’t realize though that the film itself shares a lot in common with that father/son fable - as it deals with a troubled son trying to sort out the truth about the past regarding his father’s exploits. Just subtract the carnivals, the exotic conjoined twins, the giant cat-fish, the witch, etc. and retain the possibility of infidelity and this is pretty much what you'd get. 

But that may be a bit unfair and too simple a conclusion for this sincere melodrama that moves to its own heartbeat even as it gets a bit maudlin and treacly in its second half.

Based on the book by Blake Morrison and set in Yorkshire 1989, WHEN DID YOU LAST SEE... has Firth fretting, albeit in a very sub-dued manner, about his relationship with his father (a graceful and charming Broadbent) as he is on his deathbed. Many flashbacks involving 2 young actors playing the young Firth (Bradley Johnson and Matthew Beard) show us that he has reason to believe that Broadbent had affairs and may have even fathered a daughter. 

Nearly every other character including his dotting but stern mother (Juliet Stevenson) tells him in so many words to drop it but Firth can't seem to stop dragging up past pain. 

With too many shots of moody reflections of the characters in mirrors and an overly sentimental score, this film is a good, not great, study of a family quietly scrambling for some sort of perspective closure. 

Now, I’ve never decided on whether closure is a real tangible thing or if it’s just a psychological buzzword popularized on Oprah but I do know there’s ‘movie’ closure and I appreciate this films realistic untidy approach to it. 

Despite that there’s really little suspense as to whether Firth will come to accept his father for who he was when he’s gone, the performances, especially by the wry Broadbent, are spot-on and the overall tone has the right pitch as well. 

Still I could have done without the 2 masturbation scenes; not sure what character insight we’re supposed to gain about Firth from them except maybe that he has never fully grown up. WHEN DID YOU LAST SEE YOUR FATHER? is likable and un-imposing but it drags a bit. 

Not badly enough that I was hoping for Broadbent to turn into a big mythical cat-fish mind you, so consider this a good review. 

More later...

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Clash Frontman Joe Strummer Gets The Julien Temple Treatment With Great Rock Doc Results

“I need some feeling of some sort - hey, we’re all alive at the same time, at once, you know!” - Joe Strummer yelling at the US Festival crowd 5/28/83 

I sadly missed this film on its extremely brief theatrical run in my area but happily just viewed the newly released DVD so here’s my review:

Tracing Joe Strummer’s life from a “mouthy little git” to “punk rock warlord” (Strummer’s words) Julien Temple’s lively and loving documentary is full of insights and powerful ideology that render it immediately essential.

As the frontman for the seminal British punk rock band The Clash, Strummer was rawly outspoken, always passionate, and brutally honest so he’s the best one to tell his story and by way of BBC radio recordings of him as guest DJ and audio from many interviews over the course of his career - he does.

These archival Strummer soundbites are helped along by a bountiful bevy of talking head comments from such stars including Johnny Depp, Steve Buscemi, Bono, and John Cusack as well as those with a more personal connection - former bandmates, girlfriends, and family members who I wish were better identified.

That’s one of the only beefs I have with this project - we know who Matt Dillon or Bono are when they appear at a campfire shot to offer their takes on Strummer but without a name and caption many folks like girlfriend Palmolive (from the lesser known but still vital bands The Slits and The Raincoats) fly by with their context not properly placed *

Also would be nice to have concert dates and events better titled. Small quibbles though, the rest is rockumentary gold or at least rock doc crack. *

Luckily the DVD has an over an hour and a half of bonus extended interviews which does identify each participant and is also essential. A couple of the highlights: Angela Janklow tells of a hilarious chance meeting of Strummer and Monica Lewinsky & Martin Scorsese relays how Clash music fueled his inspiration making RAGING BULL and later GANGS OF NEW YORK. Born as John Mellor, the son of a British diplomat and a Scottish nurse, his family moved quite a bit during his childhood; living in Eygpt, Germany, and Mexico before John ended up at a boarding school in London. 

It was there that he was turned on to The Rolling Stones, learned to play the ukulele, and starting going by the name of “Woody” ostensibly because of an affection for Woody Guthrie. He went to art school with cartoonist aspirations (many of his drawings are sprightly animated and interspersed throughout) but music was his real calling and he was soon playing guitar in a band called the Vultures which didn’t last long. 

At the same time he toiled in such vacant career opportunities as carpet salesman and grave-digger. Because of his style of guitar playing he changed his name to Joe Strummer and angrily derided anybody who called him by another moniker. As it certainly was suspected the center piece here is Strummer’s years with, as the hyped phrase goes, the “only band that matters.”

Having disbanded another band - the popular pub rockers The 101ers, Strummer met guitarist Mick Jones and manager Bernie Rhoades. With bassist Paul Simonon, drummer Terry Chimes, and another guitarist Keith Levene they formed The Clash. 

They were immediately embraced by the blossoming British punk scene and signed to CBS within a year of their live debut (in 1976) with Chimes replaced by Topper Headon and Levene being axed. Great grainy footage abounds - most notably The Clash playing to a giant crowd of pogo-ing punksters at an Anti-Nazi League benefit. 

Their political themes, fueled by Strummer's leftist views, were not lost on their fans as Bono from the mega-band U2 pretentiously but accurately explains: “I never knew who the Sandinistas were or where Nicaraqua was, the lyrics of Joe Strummer were like an atlas; they opened up the world to me and other people who came from blank suburbia.”

“I couldn't believe we turned into the kind of people we were trying to destroy” Strummer laments as we see The Clash reap the rewards of success/excess.

Contrasting professional arena concert footage from the early 80's with the grimy black and white basement video of their early days of the same song illustrates beautifully his case: “we were part of the audience, part of the movement. 

Once it became thousands of miles removed from that I began to freak out.” Mick Jones final appearance was at the US Festival in 1983 (which again, is not properly identified) at which point Strummer, most likely way after the fact, describes the band as a “depleted force.”

The Clash carried on however with some replacement blokes but the glory was gone so yep, here comes death. The death of the band that is, Strummer had many years of soundtrack work, acting roles (he appeared with Buscemi in my favorite Jim Jarmusch film MYSTERY TRAIN, solo recordings, and powerful performances with his band the Mescaleros. 

As a former global punk superstar he struggled a bit: “You meet a 17 year old guy and he's never heard of The Clash; that's the moment my feet touch the ground again.” Strummer died of a congenital heart defect on December 22nd, 2002. 

Just weeks before he played with Mick Jones for the first time since 1983. It was an impromptu appearance with Jones getting on stage to join Strummer and the Mescaleros on the Clash classics “Bankrobber”, “White Riot”, and “London's Burning.”

The footage from that gig, albeit brief, adds enormously to the emotional last third of the documentary. 

Temple’s clever construction of the different strains of pop culture, even utilizing clips of ANIMAL FARM and the classic British flick IF.... to symbolize oppressive British society, is incredibly compelling from the before mentioned concert footage to even an appearance on South Park (1998). 

As both a enjoyable touching tribute for the long-time fan and a teaching-tool for the uninitiated, Julien Temple’s JOE STRUMMER: THE FUTURE IS UNWRITTEN is one of the best of its kind and a new addition to the definitive rocumentary checklist.

More later...

Friday, July 04, 2008

THE ONION MOVIE And 5 Other Comedy Sketch Films That Actually Don't Suck (For The Most Part)

Ah, the sketch comedy film - not really a genre, more like a sub section of cinema that barely exists. Wikipedia doesn’t have a category listing for them, only listing them under anthology films. 

A recent hard copy movie guide I browsed through recently - the VideoHound’s Golden Movie Retriever - had a listing for “comedy anthology” films but only had about 20 or so - very few of which came anywhere near essential. What brings this whole shebang to mind is the direct to DVD release of a film adaptation of a popular print and online satire rag:

THE ONION MOVIE (Dirs. Tom Kuntz & Mike Maguire, 2008) After years in development Hell with shelvings and re-shootings this troubled film finally gets dumped onto DVD with little fanfare. I usually stay away from reviews of movies until I can see them for myself but the critical stink surrounding the THE ONION MOVIE still wafted in my direction so I had some idea before inserting the disc that this may be hard going. 

What I didn't anticipate was how painful it was going to be to get through. I have been a fan of the Onion since the mid 90’s with its great hysterical headlines like “Desperate Vegetarians Declare Cows Plants” and “Cop Kills Own Partner, Vows To Track Self Down” but the idea of making a movie of vignettes based on their silly satirical style seemed sketchy (sorry, couldn’t resist) at best. 

Unfortunately it’s even worse than expected with horribly unfunny stabs at race, sexism, politics, and corporate commercialism that at times turned my stomach. A segment involving surburbanites gathering to play a “Who Done It” type board game involving rape particularly made me wince. It’s no wonder that Onion Inc. 

President Sean Mills has stressed that they are no longer associated with the movie, much like Mad Magazine disowned their own ill-fated foray into film - the originally titled raunchy ANIMAL HOUSE rip-off MAD MAGAZINE PRESENTS UP THE ACADEMY. Following in National Lampoon’s footsteps, even in the era of the sexual revolution, was a lot harder than it looked I suppose.

THE ONION MOVIE oddly even tries to have something of a plot between the terrible skits - Onion News Anchor Norm Archer, played by solid character actor Len Cariou (who had a short but sweet part as an old friend to Jack Nicholson in ABOUT SCHMIDT), rebels against the plugging of their parent company during the newscast and threatens a walk-out if his forum is used to advertise their big budget movie release “Cock Puncher" starring Steven Seagal. 

Seagal himself appears as one of the only actual celebrities that appear, otherwise its filled with bit players from Seinfeld and OFFICE SPACE (like the “oh face” guy - Greg Pitts). Cariou is obviously headed for a Howard Beale-breakdown (you know, “I’m mad as Hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!” from NETWORK) and despite lines like “Georgia officials announced plans to add a swastika and middle finger to the Georgia State Flag” he acts as if he’s in a straight drama. 

That's probably the only way he could stomach such dire material. Not only is THE ONION MOVIE one of the worst comedies I’ve ever seen, it’s an excruciating experience that I’d pay to forget. That it is only an hour and 20 minutes long is the only good thing I can say about it.

Okay! Since that sketch comedy film royally sucked let’s look at some examples of the form that are more worthwhile. Like I said above there aren't many so it comes down to:

5 Sketch Comedy Movies That Don't Suck (For The Most Part)

1. Tie: AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT(Dir. Ian MacNaughton, 1971) / MONTY PYTHON'S THE MEANING OF LIFE (Dir. Terry Jones, 1983) Book ending the Python filmography are these 2 anthology films filled with a high ratio of quality material. AND NOW... was made to introduce American audiences to their material (mostly from the first and second seasons of Monty Python's Flying Circus). It didn’t do the trick - they’d have to wait for Public Television reruns and MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL to get U.S. acclaim). 

Weirdly the films was more successful in Britain where the material was already well known and the title was completely redundant. Despite that John Cleese remarked “However we edited the film, people got bored half way through because there was no story” and Michael Palin lamented that there were too many scenes with "men behind desks” it is still nice to see such classics as “Nudge Nudge”, “The Upper Class Twit Of The Year", “The Dead Parrot”, and “The Lumberjack Song” get the big screen treatment.

As Monty Python’s last movie THE MEANING OF LIFE is a sketch film with an obvious theme. Its sketches are presented with titles: “PART I - THE MIRACLE OF BIRTH” through to “PART VII - DEATH” representing the 7 stages of man. Cleese (definitely the most critical Python) said the film was “very patchy, though it had wonderful stuff in it.” 

He's right but the wonderful stuff like the “Every Sperm Is Sacred” musical number, the obese Mr. Creosote (Terry Jones in a massive fat suit) sequence, and the Grim Reaper/Heaven as Vegas finale is up there with Python’s best. “Perhaps we're just one of God's little jokes” Eric Idle’s opening theme song ponders and while we never get an answer to that we do get a lot of existential laughs along the way.

2. THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE (Dir. John Landis, 1977) Though it was directed by Landis this is the first film project by the comedy team of ZAZ (Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, David Zucker). It typifies crude 70’s humour and foreshadows the rising tide of gross-out lowbrow fare that would soon flood the market. 

Still, it has a lot of material that works including an extended Bruce Lee parody “A Fistful Of Yen” (which runs for over half an hour), a trailer for the ultimate disaster movie “That’s Armageddon!”, and a commercial for a board game based on the Kennedy assassination called “Scot Free”. There's also lots of nudity if the comedy isn’t working for you. I

f you want to see where the AIRPLANE!-style joke-a-minute genre that begat the awful recent SCARY/EPIC/DATE/etc. MOVIE series began check out this dated but still decent sketch comedy platter. Incidentally the title on the marquee in picture above - “See You Next Wednesday” which comes from a line in 2001, appears in nearly every John Landis movie.

3. EVERYTHING YOU EVER WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX * BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK (Dir. Woody Allen, 1972) Allen’s loose adaptation of the best selling book by David Reuben is one of my least favorite of his films but as a sketch comedy collection goes it has more than its share of funny moments. 

Featuring actors who never worked with Allen in any other film (including Tony Randall, Burt Reynolds, Regis Philbin, and Gene Wilder) in surreal sexual settings such as a game show called “What’s My Perversion?” and a sci-fi satire taking place inside a man's brain during intercourse, this film is by far Woody Allen’s most outrageous and weirdest work. 

Wilder has some oddly touching moments as a man having an affair with a sheep but the craziest and most memorable scene has to be the countryside terrorized by a gigantic breast created by a mad scientist. After subduing the runaway mammary a policeman warns that they should still be cautious because “they usually travel in pairs.”

4. THE GROOVE TUBE (Dir. Ken Shapiro, 1974) The quality is starting to drop way off on this short list of skit films with this extremely raunchy television send-up which misses a lot more than it hits. A sleazy scatological bent overwhelms the humour (or lack of it) here with scenes involving a talking penis puppet, a TV clown who reads pornographic literature to his children viewers after telling the adults to leave the room, and the linking thread of promotional films for the fictional Uranus Corporation. 

Most notable for sure is that was the film debut of Chevy Chase who had better luck with counterculture based sketch comedy the next year with Saturday Night Live. Doubt he holds this film in very high regard.

5. AMAZON WOMEN ON THE MOON (Dirs. Joe Dante, Carl Gottlieb, 1987) 

A sequel of sorts to KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE in that it involves Landis and has a likewise extended film parody -the 50’s sci-fi satire of the title. It’s, of course, another uneven collection of TV commercial parodies, educational films, and late night showings of B movies with a lot of dicey material (including Andrew “Dice” Clay himself!) but a few laughs emerge and the fast pace makes it breeze by. 

Lots of familliar folk to look out for too - Phil Hartman, Arsenio Hall, Carrie Fisher, Steve Guttenberg, Steve Allen, and Michelle Pfeiffer poke their heads in and out of this long forgotten fitfully funny sketch comedy jamboree.

So there you go - 5 comic anthology movies that don’t completely suck. Let me stress though that I’d only really recommend the last 2 as alternatives to the THE ONION MOVIE. Looks like with that awful entry this slight genre can now truly be put to rest.

R.I.P. Sketch Comedy Movie Genre (1972-2008)

More later...

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Young Genghis Khan, Steroids, And A Cagey New DVD Release

MONGOL (Dir. Sergei Bodrov, 2007)

Appropriate alternate titles for this film could be THE ADVENTURES OF YOUNG GENGHIS KHAN, THE REAL WRATH OF KHAN, or perhaps most aptly GENGHIS KHAN BEGINS.

At first I was just happy that this wasn’t like 300 - a videogame aestetic with not one foot in reality but despite some CGI (mostly in the spraying of blood) this epic thankfully has an old school naturalism to it. Unfortunately it is a trial to sit through with long sequences that go nowhere and characters that fail to stir any emotional connection. 

We first meet Khan, born as Temudgin, as a young boy played by Odnyam Odsuren. When his father is murdered he becomes hunted because he may grow up to avenge the death GODFATHER: PART II-style. He survives capture and torture and skirts across the endless mountain terrain inspired by thoughts of his young bride Börte (Bayertsetseg Erdenebat). 

The pace picks up a bit when he emerges as an adult in the form of Tadanobu Asano whose grace and stern focus provide the film with much needed power. He returns to the arms of Börte now portrayed by Khulan Chuluun but their reunion is short-lived as she is kidnapped by a rival clan and Temudgin goes against the advice of his best friend Jamukha (Honglei Sun) who stresses “What Mongol ever went to war for a woman?”

Several battle scenes full of slow motion slicing and the before mentioned digital blood are the most entertaining parts of MONGOL but they do not save the movie from the long uninvolving stretches that toyed with my patience. 

The photography of the infinite landscapes of Inner Mongolia and Kazakhstan is breath-taking much of the time but the lack of narrative drive and the detached handling of the myths of these historical figures as well as the lackluster love story left me cold. 

At just a little over 2 hours (but feels much longer) MONGOL moves like a bloated beast trying to find a place to sleep but still lashing half heartedly out at swirling flies. 

The word is that this is the first part of a trilogy - a Mongolian LORD OF THE RINGS if you will, with director Bodrov promising the rest of the tale of the legendary conquerer for your Oscar consideration (MONGOL was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award). 

Well if the future installments lumber like this one in such uninspired stupor over the tortuous and tedious terrain, count me out.

BIGGER, STRONGER, FASTER (Dir. Chris Bell, 2008)

Fancy this - a documentary about an obvious hot-button topic i.e. anabolic steroids and their impact on our national society which contains actual insights personal, political, and pop culture-wise. 

Take that, SUPER SIZE ME! Director Bell and his 2 body building brothers (Mike “Mad Dog” and Mark “Smelly”) have all used steroids and relate tales of near stardom in the shadows of their heroes - Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Hulk Hogan et al. 

Taking its name from an oft repeated line from The Six Million Dollar Man, BIGGER, STRONGER, FASTER is chock full of clips of their role models in their pumped up prime - RAMBO, ROCKY, THE TERMINATOR, as well as satirical swipes at the world of performance enhancing drugs from the likes of The Simpsons and SNL

Filling out the solidly structured footage is interviews with experts pro and con on the steroid issue but the real crux is the Bell brothers’ back stories. Chris Bell cops to doing steroids (in an especially emotional dinner table scene with his parents) when he was younger and stopping because of feelings of guilt but his brothers are still users. 

Their confessions under the scrutiny of their brother once one of them but now a questioning documentarian are compelling and surprisingly sincere sounding: “I love steroids and will probably be on and off them forever” Mark admits matter of factly.

Bell keeps coming back to Schwarzenegger who he calls “the poster boy for steroids” and reasons that the Govenator, as he's often called, wouldn't be where he is now if not for the controversial compound. 

The director even tries to get an interview with Ah-nold a la Michael Moore’s attempted Roger Smith ambush but he doesn't bog the film down with the pursuit - it's just an amusing sideline. Examining not only the public personas wrapped up in the use or abuse debate but statistical data and health risk misinformation (depending on who you listen to) Chris Bell has made a superlative documentary that deftly balances its viewpoints and never loses its thesis thread. 

BIGGER STRONGER FASTER earns its tagline: “The Side Effects Of Being American” and should be seen by everybody with even just a passing interest in its subject. It’s one of the most honest and absorbing portraits I’ve ever seen of a complicated problem with equal parts humor and pathos. With hope it won’t be forgotten when the awards season comes around again.

Newly released on DVD:

NATIONAL TREASURE 2: BOOK OF SECRETS (Dir. Jon Turteltaub, 2007)

The first NATIONAL TREASURE was a direct lift of “The Da Vinci Code” (the book mind you - it beat the film adaptation by 9 months) imposing an American action formula on the bestsellers puzzles and distortion of history. 

It was as stupid as it sounds with Nicholas Cage’s wise-cracking protagonist leading his small crew (including the supposed to be funny but isn’t Justin Bartha as his partner and Diane Kruger as the love interest) through contrived unexciting movie mechanisms but it made a ginormous amount of money; enough money to warrant a sequel apparently so here we are again with more of the lame same. 

I was planning on skipping this until I saw a trailer that promised the premise of a book known only to the President of The United States that contains the secrets to the nation’s greatest mysteries - the J.F.K. assassination, Area 51, and the alleged faking of the Apollo Moon landing. 

I’m a lover of conspiracy theory cinema and am writing a book on the subject so I felt obligated. I still shouldn’t have bothered - these famous theories or urban legends, as some would call them, are just mentioned and never used in any interesting or even amusing way. As I should’ve known the book of secrets is just a McGuffin * in another round of running from one wickedly easy to open crypt to another cipher or another implausibly placed code.

* For you non-film geeks - a McGuffin is a plot device that motivates the characters or advances the story, but the details of which are of little or no importance otherwise (Wikipedia).

Anyone who doubts the quality of the latest INDIANA JONES movie should see NATIONAL TREASURE 2 because its lack of genuine wit and graceless tone makes that ole Spielberg/Lucas/Ford re-union special look like TREASURE OF THE SIERRE MADRE! The addition of Helen Mirren as Cage’s mother and Voight’s bickering ex-wife brings nothing new to this lame wannabe franchise though it is kind of cool to see her in plain duds with scraggly hair and no grand make-up for once. 

Then again with Mirren and other such solid respected actors as Harvey Keitel (reprising his role from the first NT as a sympathetic cop in pursuit) and Ed Harris (as the villain - uh, I guess) running around it feels like this overly slick enterprise exists to glorify cinematic slumming it.

Nicholas Cage has drifted so far from doing compelling vital work with such dreck as this and GHOST RIDER, NEXT, THE WICKER MAN et al that it is getting harder to remember how interesting and talented the guy once seemed.

 Since these movies make money his return to worthwhile cinema looks like it may be delayed indefinitely. I loved his performances in ADAPTATION, RAISING ARIZONA, WILD AT HEART, and various other non-action roles in his canon so this long detour into sell-out formula crapola is pretty puzzling. 

Though to make sense of this movie mystery wouldn’t take a cryptic McGuffin with a code to decipher unless it leads us directly to Cage’s bank vault or just gives us his bank balance statement.

More later...