Monday, November 30, 2020

That Time A Beatle Had A Cameo In A Monty Python Movie

Every now and then, someone posts on Facebook, Twitter, or some social media network that they just noticed that Beatle superstar George Harrison appears briefly in the 1979 comedy classic MONTY PYTHON’S LIFE OF BRIAN. They usually note that they have seen the film many times, but only now did they see Harrison’s cameo.

This is because he is easy to miss in a crowded set that does little to single out the legendary musician, despite that John Cleese’s character introduces him to Graham Chapman’s Brian as “the gentleman who's lending us the mount on Sunday.” Watch the 10-second scene:

Harrison only had one line – one word actually (“Hullo!”), but since it was noisy and he was barely audible, it was later dubbed by Michael Palin, doing his best Liverpudlian impression. The bit part was uncredited, but the former Beatle was given a priceless moniker: Mr. Papapadopoulos.

The cameo came about because Harrison was one of the movie’s Executive Producers, and that came about because he largely financed the hilarious biblical satire. According to Eric Idle, a good friend of Harrison’s since they met in Los Angeles in 1975 at a screening of MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL, Harrison “pawned his house and arranged a loan of $5m. When he was asked why, he just said: 'Because I want to see it'. Not many people pay $5m for an admission ticket.”

It wasn’t Harrison’s first foray in a Python-related project as the year before BRIAN, he played a television journalist, credited as “The Interviewer,” in Idle’s TV movie parody of the Beatles, The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash. The almost unrecognizable Harrison appears in two scenes in the mockumentary, both set outside the headquarters of Rutle Corps. Watch one of the scenes, featuring Palin’s spoof of Beatles press officer Derek Taylor:

Several years before that, Harrison put in a performance of “Pirate Song” which begins as “My Sweet Lord” then becomes a rowdy sea shanty on Idle’s BBC2 comedy program, Rutland Weekend Television:

Idle directed videos (then called promotional films) for two songs from Harrison’s 1976 album, Thirty Three & 1/3:
“Crackerbox Palace” and “True Love.” Both are highly amusing Pythonesque (of course) films - click on their titles to watch them. 

After BRIAN, Harrison and his manager Denis O’Brien worked on over two dozen films for the studio they founded, Handmade Films, including such classics as WITHNAIL & I, and such flops as SHANGHAI SURPRISE (1986), in which he put in a cameo as a Night Club Singer (that’s how he’s credited).

Anyone who would read such a post as this would no doubt be aware that yesterday was the sad anniversary of Harrison’s death at the all too young age of 58. Luckily he left behind a wealth of timeless work, so much so that it’s easy to forget he’s gone.

The fact that people are still finding and being delighted by a blink and miss it moment in one of the most re-watchable comedies of all time is a testament to his massive legend. To respectfully contradict his good friend, Idle, it’s a legend that will last many lunchtimes.

More later...

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

STAR WARS Finally Gets A Holiday Special That Won't Make Fans Vomit

Since Disney started its massive reboot of the STAR WARS series in 2015, there has seemingly been an agenda to fix the mistakes from the early films that have plagued fans for decades. So like ROGUE ONE explains how the flaw in the Death Star was put there on purpose by an Empire-hating engineer, and RISE OF SKYWALKER features Chewbacca finally getting his medal, we now have the redemption of arguably the most maligned, and embarrassing segment of the entire franchise: The Star Wars Holiday Special.

The CBS program, which aired on this date in 1978, brought together nearly all of the stars of the 1977 sci-fi smash, introduced new characters in the form of Chewbacca’s family, and the premise of celebrating “Life Day,” but reduced the proceedings into a icky ‘70s variety showcase complete with comedy stars such as Bea Arthur, and Harvey Korman, and a musical appearance by Jefferson Starship.

The ultra cringe and vomit-inducing fiasco, which also included a coked-up Carrie Fisher singing a Life Day carol, was hated by STAR WARS creator George Lucas, and has never been officially released on any home video format (it’s easily findable on YouTube though).

Today, the 41st anniversary of the release of the original, The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special releases on Disney +, and it’s a much more enjoyable experience – largely because it leaves the cheesy variety show trappings behind and finds its comedy in winking satirical jabs at the saga.

The story involves the newer additions to the series ensemble, Rey, Finn, Poe Dameron, and Rose Tico (voiced by Helen Sadler, Omar Miller, Jake Gree, and Kelly Marie Tran) getting ready for a Life Day party which will be visited by Chewbacca’s family – Itchy, Malla, and Lumpy – another nod to the ’78 special. But to the dismay of her friends, Rey decides to leave the proceedings in order to become a Jedi master who can better train Finn.

Rey journeys to an ice planet (must be a lot of them in their galaxy) and finds an ancient key (looks like a piece of krypton shaped like a Christmas tree) that can transport her and BB-8, who I forgot to mention until now, across time and space. So Rey can jump through time holes and observe scenes from previous episodes like Yoda training Luke, Ben Kenobi training and later fighting Anakin, Luke’s attack on the Death Star, and the battle with the AT-AT Walkers (the last two are really cool looking recreations). There’s also a cameo by Baby Yoda* from the The Mandalorian because, of course, there would have to be.

There are cameos abound from just about every STAR WARS character you can think of, but very few are voiced by the original actors. Billy Dee Williams (Lando Calrissian), Anthony Daniels (3-CPO), and Kelly Marie Trans (Rose), are the only actors who reprise their roles. That may be the only thing the ’78 special has above this update, but, except for Matthew Wood standing in for Adam Driver, the rest of the voice cast is pretty convincing especially Matt Lanter’s Luke. Jeesh, Mark Hamill can do an UberEats commercial, but not show up for this?

The LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special is a fun, fast paced 47 minutes that STAR WARS fans will eat up, and then immediately want to help themselves to seconds. It contains a lot of very funny fan service satire with its gags about the series’ plot points and aesthetics. For some reason, the running joke about Luke taking occasional swigs from a carton of blue milk made me the laugh the most. 

I doubt either Star Wars Holiday Special will be ever be considered canon, but this new LEGO one will at least be thought of a lot more fondly. Life Day and Chewbacca’s family may not exist anywhere else in the saga, but now their existence doesn’t feel as shameful. Consider those wrongs righted, I will.

* I know, I know - that's not really his name, but what else do we call him?

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Saturday, November 14, 2020

Donald Trump And The Holy Grail

n the latest episode of the HBO show, Real Time with Bill Maher, after the host’s heated argument with Trump Legal Advisor Jenna Ellis about whether there was fraud in the presidential election, Maher joined his panel to be greeted by author Max Brooks (son of Mel) who said, “What a lovely interview with the black knight from Monty Python’s THE HOLY GRAIL.” 

Following a short burst of laughter from the audience, Brooks continued, “I mean that literally was that scene - ‘Your arm’s off!’ ‘No, it isn’t!’” 

This was a funny, and fitting analogy, but it’s far from original.

For those who haven’t seen MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL, the scene Brooks is referring to involves King Arthur (Graham Chapman) being challenged to a duel by the Black Knight (John Cleese). One by one, the King slices off all of his adversary’s limbs, but the Black Knight hilariously still doesn’t surrender.

In a cartoon in the New Yorker just days before Election Day in 2016, Bernard Schwartz was among the first to make the analogy with Trump: 

Sadly though, while the gag was dead on, Trump went on to win so somehow the Black Knight actually was triumphant.

Maybe this more recent cartoon by Tom Chitty in the Weekly Humorist is more apt:

Then there’s this one by Jessica Conley from something called the Scot Scoop from early in the pandemic that reverses the roles: 

There are also numerous memes like this one: 

Another reversal of the premise is featured in this YouTube video that puts Trump in the King Arthur Role and posits CNN as the Black Knight. The video’s description is the funniest thing about it: “Donald Trump POTUS fighting the corrupt fake news doxing media CNN! TRump dismembers CNN in this epic battel of fun.” (I’m not fixing their typos) 

Yeah, that was great. Take that CNN. Sigh. 

These jokes, or variation on one joke, work largely because Trump is much like a Monty Python character. He’s outrageously larger than life like Terry Jones’ disgusting diner Mr. Creosote in THE MEANING OF LIFE, he’s an arrogant vulgarian like Cleese’s French Taunter in HOLY GRAIL, and he would surely win the Upper Class Twit of the Year competition from the Flying Circus series.

Much like the Black Knight, Trump is right now still trying to win despite the odds being overwhelmingly against him. It would be so nice if he would man-up and concede the Presidency to the rightful winner, Joe Biden, but that may never happen.

Trump may even be more of a cartoon than the Black Knight, because at least that character offered as close to a concession as he could when he said, “All right, we’ll call it a draw.”

More later...

Friday, November 13, 2020

Friday Fun With Franchises: The BILL & TED Saga (1989-2020)

ast summer, the long-awaited third episode of the BILL & TED series, BILL & TED FACE THE MUSIC was released at select movie theaters and on Premium Video on Demand because of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time, I bitched about how pricey a streaming rental was on this blog, especially as many were jobless at the time, and decided to wait until the cost went down. It recently dropped (it’s at $5.99 on Amazon Prime), but before I watched it, I went back and re-visited the previous two entries, which I felt was needed as I hadn’t seen them in decades. 

As a teenager in the ‘80s, I was the perfect age to appreciate the inaugural effort, Stephen Herek’s BILL & TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE (1989), and I indeed loved it when I caught it on video (I haven’t seen any of the BILL & TED movies on the big screen). As folks who’d be reading a film blog like this would most likely know, Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves portray Bill S. Preston Esquire, and Ted “Theodore” Logan, a dumb slacker duo in San Dimas, California, who travel through time in a telephone booth to gather historical figures in order to pass their History report. 

This adventure is given to them by iconic comedian George Carlin as Rufus, who comes from the future – 2688 to be exact – where the fate of civilization hinges on whether Bill & Ted can pass their class and are able to keep their band, Wyld Stallyns, together. Yes, this is stupid, cartoonish stuff but despite some clunky moments the film’s good natured spirit, and the wide-eyed performances of Reeves and Winter really pull it off. 

The basic joke of these characters is while they’re both blissfully stupid, Winter’s Bill is the smart one who gets things quicker than Reeves’ Ted, with Bill often having to help Ted get up to speed. When he gets it, they perform an air guitar salute to each other accompanied by a brief guitar shredding sound effect. 

Loads of funny, quotable lines are littered throughout (“Strange things are afoot at the Circle K”) this loony lark, but the most memorable dialogue is such oft repeated phrases as “excellent,” “bogus,” “party on,” and “yes, way.” All of these were also heavily used by Wayne (Mike Myers), and Garth (Dana Carvey) in the WAYNE’S WORLD movies and SNL sketches (Carvey even said “I remember I always thought ‘Aren’t we just doing Bill and Ted?’”).

EXCELLENT ADVENTURE had decent box office, but it largely gained a cult via cable showings and video rentals. This led to the 1991 sequel, Peter Hewitt’s BILL & TED’S BOGUS JOURNEY, which I considered a letdown almost three decades ago. However, over the years I’ve encountered more than a few folks that preferred it to the original (one who even said it was their favorite film ever). This made me want to re-evaluate the movie, and see if I’ll still consider it a fairly forgotten follow-up. 

BOGUS JOURNEY is definitely better than I recalled, but still nowhere as fun or funny as the first time around. This time, the utopian world of the future is threatened by a terrorist (Joss Ackland) who sends evil robot versions of Bill & Ted to go back to the past in order to stop the real Bill & Ted from winning the San Dimas Battle of the Bands. The evil robots kill Bill & Ted by hurtling them off of Vasquez Rocks, a formation featured in many movies and TV shows (the film even excerpts the Star Trek episode that uses the location at one point). 

William Sadler as The grim reaper, or simply “Death,” appears and tells Bill & Ted that if they challenge him to a contest and win, they can return to their lives; if they lose they have to stay in the afterlife. The joke here is that Death didn’t expect them to chose games like Clue, Battleship, and Twister, but it works and makes for one of the film’s funniest scenes. 

So instead of bouncing around through history, they run around mostly in Hell, which doesn’t look like they thought it would (“We got totally lied to by our album covers!”), where they face their childhood fears, and encounter Satan himself. The last third involves Bill & Ted’s showdown at the Battle of the Bands showdown with their robot counterparts, who have kidnapped our heroes’ girlfriends. 

I didn’t care for the evil robot Bill & Ted plotline. The material concerning them seemed lazy, and crude like in a bit where their heads are removed while clowning around. The Sadler’s Grim Reaper fares a lot better -the longer the Igmar Bergman’s inspired character is on screen, the more likably wacky he gets - but a couple of Muppet-like alien geniuses called The Station seem really out of place here. Still, I’m glad I rewatched it because it’s a better sequel than I remembered, and it got me in the mood to catch up with the third chapter in the two dudes’ saga.