Sunday, November 19, 2006

Funny time with film movies for me!

So I finally saw 'Borat,' and was surprised to see that even after three weeks, it could still sell out a theater. The whole place was in hysterics all the way through, and I couldn't help notice that it seemed like many of them had seen it before, with a select few conveniently saying the jokes before Borat did. I was expecting my wife to note enjoy it (I think she had similar thoughts), but even she (a first grade teacher) couldn't help but laugh out loud for the more funnier parts. I don't think I have much new to say about it that you've probably read before, but I will complain that in many scenes it seemed that most of the potential went unfilled. Why couldn't we see more of Borat in Washington, outside of telling Alan Keyes how he made friends at a Gay Pride parade, or asking Bob Barr but one question? Same goes for the final scenes in Los Angeles, where everything seems rushed, especially for the church bus that got him there, which was the subject of exactly zero jokes.

Outside of minor quibbles, the movie IS funny. Really funny. I was actually expecting it to be much more offensive, and thought it came off as relatively tame (minus a couple scenes). Some of the best material is in its lampooning of anti-semitism, such as the Running of the Jew tradition in Borat's village, which consists of someone in a huge Mardi Gras-style costume grabbing for money. When Borat and his producer are in a Jewish-run bed and breakfast in Georgia, they are horrified to find that the Jews can shapeshift into people, and can also take the form of cockroaches (which enter their room, but are soon turned away when Borat throws dollar bills at them). Then there's THE scene, which should be the funniest of any movie this year. It doesn't involve Borat embarrassing Americans, it's just ultra disturbing/genius slapstick that will leave you reeling.

'Borat' has sparked some interesting debate on Jim Emerson's Scanners blog, mainly on the debate of comedy criticism, and the funniest movies ever made. Emerson takes offense to the saying that analyzing comedy is anti-comedic, saying
'if you don't understand why you're laughing, when you're laughing, then you don't appreciate the comedy and you may as well not be laughing at all, since any old reaction is probably comparably appropriate for you.' I agree, but there have been many comedic experiences for me (such as this), where I would not even attempt to explain in words why it makes me laugh.

I've found that when discussing favorite films by genre, you generally find the biggest divide with comedies. I don't know if there has been studies on it, but just like there are scientific personality types, there are also scientific sense of humor types. For example, there is a definite group of people who will never find Wes Anderson movies funny. Another example is the group of people who will never find Monty Python's Life of Brian to be that funny. I subscribe to the latter group, and although I thought 'Life of Brian' was well made an had a few good gags, there are some people (read the comments for Emerson's post if you don't believe me), who feel that it is God's gift to comedy.

Emerson's request was to provide a list of favorite off-the-beaten-path comedies, but I'm sad to report that most of my favorite funnies are of the mainstream variety. You're all probably familiar with these four, and so instead I'd like to share my favorite moments from each one.

The Royal Tenenbaums

I've heard this movie described as all style over substance, which is partly true, but it's also true that the Tenenbaums style is the substance. I laugh the most at the small, but brilliant details in Anderson's movies, such as:

--Royal Tenenbaum being served some sort of exotic martini after discussing with his children that their parents are getting a divorce. The timing, as always, is dead-on, and after multiple viewings you find yourself busting up at the thought that Royal had the foresight to order Pagota to make him an exotic martini prior to this critical moment. This scene is also another example of Royal's almost-sincere dialogue:

'Well, your mother has asked me to leave, and I have to respect her position on the matter.'

--Maybe the best-written line in the movie is Eli's excerpt from his book 'Old Custer.' The joke is wonderfully economic, because in a few lines, you learn that 'Old Custer' is not only a bad book, but a book that Eli is a bad author, who is trying desperately to sound smart. It would be one thing just to have the book be poorly written, but to have it depicted as being over written is gold:

The crickets and the rust-beetles scuttled among the nettles of the sage thicket. "VĂ¡monos, amigos," he whispered, and threw the busted leather flintcraw over the loose weave of the saddlecock. And they rode on in the friscalating dusklight.

The paintings. No explanation really needed.

--Gene Hackman and Danny Glover have the movie's two best exchanges, this being the best:

'I know what stomach cancer looks like. I've seen it, and you don't eat three cheeseburgers a day with french fries when you got it.'
'How do you know?'
'My wife had it.'

The Big Lebowski

This movie used to be a sleeper, then it was underrated, then it was one of the best comedies of the past 20 years, and now people groan whenever you want to talk about it because everything has already been said. Well I'd like to add a few of my own thoughts, if I may. When you watch this movie enough times, you can start to make a case that every line in the script is funny. I know this because for the last four months, I've communicated with a co-worker almost exclusively in 'Big Lebowski' lines. We've reached the point where yesterday I said Walter's line, 'not exactly a lightweight' (from the 'Branded' conversation) to him and we both laughed out loud. It occurred to me later, that the line would only be funny when placed into the context of the whole movie, and perhaps then only to someone who has seen it multiple times.

What keeps you laughing when your viewing count is in the double digits (or, in the case of my co-workers, the triple digits) is the unique way in which most of the characters genuinely straddle the line between genius and dufus with everything that comes out of their mouths. When Walter and the Dude are raging about the literary connections between life and Vietnam and quoting Lennon one minute and then honestly debating how a shitty rug tied together a shitty apartment the next, it never stretches the reality of their characters. Nor does it hurt that their performances of these characters also include such props as mountainous slurs, dirty jellies and Miller Lite inside a small plastic cup.

--'The Big Lebowski' is also full of wonderful details. I always lose it when I see Walter casually sit down at the landlord's recital in a full suit. Same goes for the Dude's reaction of reassurance when Walter tells him that the Jesus really is a pedophile.

American Movie
By far the most off-the-beaten-path of my choices, which is a shame. This movie should be more widely seen, as it would be at the top of any 'best mockumentary' list ... if it actually was fiction. What makes 'American Movie' so goddamn hilarious and breathtaking at the same time, is that it's just seemingly ordinary parts of a person's life that makes it into a classic comedy. Chris Smith's camera follows filmmaker Mark Borchardt, who falls somewhere between artist, fool, community leader, blessed/wretched family member/friend and dumbshit. Borchardt (whose very appearance is cause for laughs), is intent on finally finishing his grassroots film production of the horror movie 'Coven' (pronounced COH-ven, not CUV-en, because the latter 'rhymes with oven'), even if it means wringing every last cent out of his dying grandfather, causing physical harm to his friends and shattering his family life.

If that last sentence sounded kind of tragic, rest assured, it most certainly is, but every minute of it is so back-breakingly hilarious. Every scene takes the layers of previously built up comedy and adds one after another, with the topper being the unbelievably awful movie-within-a-movie that Borchardt makes (the DVD includes the full version). There's no movie that prepares you for the comedic emotions you feel while watching Borchardt futily try to record a line of dialogue from his grandpa, then see the finished product with the unfortunately-dubbed line put in. And that's just Borchardt, there's an entire community of characters here, ranging from his scratch-off ticket addicted friends to the local 'actors' who are willing to put up with Borchardt and possible harm to their body all in the name of being in a terrible movie.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: 'Eegah!'
Everyone has their favorite MST3k episodes, and for me and my family, it's this one. Why? It's not the worst movie MST3k has done, but it seems to give them the most material:

--'Star' Arch Hall Jr. is not really ugly, he's just incredibly weird-looking, which leads to many unintentionally frightening shots of his face, and subsequent skewering by Tom, Crow and Co.

--Hall also thinks he can sing, and lends his talents more than once to this movie . . . very poorly. It's one thing to sit down with an acoustic guitar, it's another to bring your Fender poolside complete with a giant amp.

--A truly bizarre scene where Roxy gives her dad a shave.

--An oven in a living room.

--Director Arch Hall Sr.'s decision to dub in all the lines . . . himself!

Monday, November 06, 2006

Leftover candy, and what's in the box?

I don't even have to tell you that Horror Month was a smashing success, and will surely rise from the dead next year as well. But there's been a little overflow from the horror cauldron with one feature I dearly tried to get up before the month ended. In October I really got into the Universal monsters and have now seen all of the initial installments in their respective series. I had hoped to rank each of these monsters, and now have the chance. Universal's monster age helped install these characters in pop culture forever and really launched American horror as we know it. Note that Universal's Legacy Series is still in print, offering all the sequels of a series for around $20 each.


6. The Mummy
This was the biggest surprise for me, 'The Mummy' was a huge disappointment for me and has probably aged the worst out of the six. Even though there's lots of potential on the table with 'The Mummy' (Karloff in the title role, Egyptian imagery and popular mythology), the biggest problem I found was with the mummy monster itself. With the other monsters on this list, you have iconic characters who are unmistakable in their guise -- with the mummy you have Boris Karloff in a robe. We all picture a mummy as bandaged up, but Karloff is only briefly seen in that get-up, for the rest of the movie he just looks like an old man wearing a gown -- not too memorable. The plot is the same as any other mummy movie, with explorers unintentionally waking a mummy, then suffering the consequences. In this version Imhotep is revived, then for years takes on the role of an Egyptian society man named Ardath Bey, who then tries to convince a woman that she's the reincarnation of his ancient love . . . and there's hypnosis . . . and archaeologists talking . . . The End. What really hurts this movie is that despite the fact that it is set entirely in Egypt, most of the scenes take place in living rooms and a museum. Imhotep is never frightening and the suspense at the end is completely forced. I've heard that the sequels for this series are the worst of the lot and it doesn't surprise me.

5. The Creature from the Black Lagoon

This is actually less of a movie than 'The Mummy,' but what makes it more watchable is the title character, which remains one of the best-imagined and crafted monsters in history. The creature is essentially a man-fish, but it never looks campy -- always terrifying and completely menacing. Unfortunately, it's stuck in a boilerplate early monster movie (scientists find monster, monster attacks, scientists attack monster, monster returns, monster takes girl, monster is blown up by scientists). There's aboslutely nothing noteworthy or original going on here except for the monster, which at times is more than enough. Another aspect I like about this series are the names -- The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Revenge of the Creature (Clint Eastwood's acting debut) and The Creature Walks Among Us (as Burt Reynolds would say in 'Boogie Nights' -- 'Those are great names!'). Finally, if you have a chance seek out the pinball game based on this movie, one of my all-time favorites (the Universal-licensed Monster Bash is another good one).

4. The Invisible Man
Probably the most forgotten of the Universal monster lineup, 'The Invisible Man' has astounding special effects for its era and an endless supply of plot gimmicks. One of the first chances for America to 'see' actor Claude Raines, whose classic voice was perfect for the cackling title character, he is usually wrapped in bandages with sunglasses -- his condition the result of an experiment that slowly drives him insane. There are plenty of morality issues at play here, most prominent being what you would do if you couldn't be caught, and the psychological effects of not being able to interact with anyone. Like most of Universal's monster movies, the title character is easy to root for, and the special effects still hold up well.

3. The Wolf Man
Of all the entries on this list, 'The Wolf Man' exceeded my expectations the most. Wildly entertaining, it reminded me in some ways of a horror version of 'The Third Man,' with an American in a foreign country who quickly finds himself in trouble with just about everyone. Universal appeared to go all out on this one, with huge sets and prominent talent (Raines again, with Lon Chaney Jr., Bela Lugosi and even Ralph Bellamy in a small role) to go along with groundbreaking creature effects. After returning to his family's English estate, expatriate Larry Talbot soon hears a folk rhyme being repeated about a wolf man, and after defending a woman from a wolf attack he is told that he may fall under the fateful spell himself. Chaney is perfect as the intellectual, non-believing American, with a towering stature that makes him stick out from the locals (including his father, played by Raines, who appears to be at least a foot shorter). What must have made this movie unique in 1941 was the fact that it was essentially the first werewolf movie, introducing America to a piece of little-known old world mythology. Universal also added to the lore with devices such as a werewolf being able to see a pentagram on the hand of his next victim. What might disappoint viewers now however, is the first crack at what a werewolf should look like -- a sometimes goofy creature covered in hair who tries to walk like a wolf would on two legs.

2. Frankenstein
It's hard to put 'Frankenstein' below anything, but it's also unquestionably overshadowed by its sequel, Bride of Frankenstein. Like the No. 1 entry on this list, it delivers on all the praise and hype it gets, and is unique in the fact that the sequel really is a 'part 2' -- taken together it feels like one complete story. There are so many moments in 'Frankenstein' that set the foundation for future horror movies, the plot playing on the public's distrust of science and medicine and a number of religious and existential commentaries. In some ways, 'Bride' can be considered the perfect sequel, picking up right where the original left off and adding new conflicts, essential characters and an even better ending.

1. Dracula
After finally seeing this masterpiece, I don't know how I put it off for so long -- maybe I thought I knew the story well enough after seeing other versions? Nevertheless, this is a movie that defines the era with a perfect combination of acting, direction and source material. What stands out even more than Lugosi's seminal performance is the job by director Tod Browning, who combined his expertise in silent horror to create a near-opera. Browning's boldest decision was with the score -- a pulsing, varied rhythm which is played seemingly through the whole running time. At some point it stops becoming a score and feels more like the musical accompanyment that were used with silent films. Even in dialogue-heavy scenes, the strings never stop, which heightens the creepy mood. And then of course there's Lugosi, whose every nerve ending is never less than full throttle. An actor who made his mark in plays, Lugosi adds a stage element to his performance, and his small knowledge of English even helps this -- since he had to learn his lines phonetically, they end up sounding all the more creepy. Those familiar with the Bram Stoker's novel will get a kick out of how much it is compressed, with almost all of the count's backstory cut out. I must say, that although I recommended against buying the new 75th Anniversary DVD of 'Dracula' (in favor of the Legacy series), I now have to say it's an essential upgrade. I had to pick it up after further inspection, which revealed that it does contain the technically-superior Spanish version, as well as a new 5.1 recording of the score by Phillip Glass (an oddly generous feature which sounds terrific).


Maybe the world does need all those Superman discs

Some time ago I trashed the notion of a mega Superman box set, featuring no less than 17 discs. Well, after seeing the official specs, I now have to take back those words. Now checking in at only 13 discs, the Superman Ultimate Collectors Edition will cost you only $70 at Amazon and give you all four original Superman movies (including two versions of 'Superman: The Movie' and 'Superman II'), 'Superman Returns,' eight vintage Superman cartoons, the 1951 movie 'Superman vs. the Mole Men' starring George Reeves and the extensive documentary 'Look Up in the Sky!: The Amazing Story of Superman,' which was released on a standalone DVD earlier this year. There are just too many goodies in this set, but what makes me happy is that they're including both of the new 'Superman II' releases. Both Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut (check out that cover art!) and a new two disc version (containing extras not found on the Donner Cut) of the theatrical cut will be for sale individually, but Warner Bros. thankfully tossed them both in this lavish set. I'm also pumped that this isn't simply a bunch of DVDs crammed in a new display box, take a look at the presentation above. Warner Bros. again shows why it produces probably the best DVDs out of all the major studios.