There are a lot of great comedies out there, well-known and deservedly so. Dr. Strangelove, Blazing Saddles, Airplane!, even Ghostbusters are all famous for making people laugh for decades. In the wake of the passing of comedy legend Harold Ramis, I’d like to take the opportunity to spotlight a few of my favorite comedies that aren’t so widely known, but deserve to be praised just the same.
Dr. Detroit (1983) – It only seems right to start with this 80’s gem that stars Ghostbusters co-star Dan Aykroyd as a college literature professor who gets suckered into “managing” four beautiful prostitutes in Chicago. (Once again, I am not making this up.) This movie is 80’s screwball comedy at its finest, with Dan Aykroyd turning in a stellar Jekyll-and-Hyde-esque performance, only in this case it’s all an act until the final reveal. Fans of 80’s beauties will be pleased to see Donna Dixon at her finest, and a young Fran Drescher takes a turn at the risqué long before her debut on The Nanny.
The Big Hit (1998) – Coming out in the same year as The Big Lewbowski, it seemed among my friends you could only love one of the “Bigs”, and personally I have never understood how anyone can even sit through The Big Lebowski. But I digress. The Big Hit is a throwback to that 80’s screwball style, with class, gender, and role-reversals abounding throughout the film. In particular the concept of the sympathetic, pushover hitman is innovative and fun, and played with remarkable skill by Mark Wahlberg, while Lou Diamond Phillips turns in a surprisingly funny yet loathsome villain. Fans of One Crazy Summer or Better Off Dead will find a lot to like here (especially the “Trace Buster Buster”).
PCU (1994) – I know I said this was all because of Harold Ramis, and truly it was inspired by Harold Ramis, but the world is not about Harold Ramis. I only say this because I do not now nor have I ever been able to grasp the obsession some people seem to have with Animal House. There are a few good lines, but that’s it. The movie does nothing for me. Sorry, but that’s just how I feel. Maybe it’s a generational thing. As far as I’m concerned, you can keep Animal House. This is my offensive college movie of choice. Jeremy Piven as Droz represents the modern character of the “big man on campus”, slightly rumpled, disheveled, and a few years past the prime of what a college student should be. The exaggeration of the oppressive PC culture on display is (sadly) even closer to the mark today than it was when the film was first released (although nobody is spared the barb, even the protagonists). Unabashedly rude, shamelessly corrupting, and magnificently over the top, I recommend this film to anyone who can laugh at themselves.
Recently I was listening to the radio (okay, I was in the car and I happened to have the radio on) and I heard an interview with director Randy Moore about his new satire Escape from Tomorrow. It was the first I had heard of the film, which is not terribly surprising since I’ve never really been a film festival kind of guy, but I think I may end up seeing this one. It’s not that I have anything personal against the Big Mouse, it’s just that I think he made an important point in this article:
“Branding is so much a part of our culture, and it’s everywhere. And (Disney) is everywhere. They’re so ubiquitous, you can’t get away from them even if you tried… To not be able to comment or critique or parody that (ubiquity), I just think it’s morally unacceptable.”
However, in the interview I heard he also made another point that, while I think it’s important, makes me feel he missed the mark somewhat by targeting Disney specifically. He said (and I can’t seem to find the interview online, so forgive me for paraphrasing) that the theme of the film is that you can’t be happy all the time. I think that’s an excellent point, especially in an age and culture where we have lost sight of the idea of contentment and we are constantly being sold happiness in its stead. I believe Dennis Leary put it best in his stand-up routine No Cure for Cancer:
“Happiness comes in small doses folks. It’s a cigarette butt, or a chocolate chip cookie or a five second orgasm. You come, you smoke the butt, you eat the cookie, you go to sleep, wake up and go back to fucking work the next morning, THAT’S IT! End of fucking list!”
So yeah. While there’s something to be said for taking a few shots at (as Moore describes them) a “ubiquitous” company that specializes in selling happiness, I think there’s something he loses sight of: Disney is only selling what we’re buying. Yes, Disney Theme Parks™ are the Happiest Place On Earth™ (made so, I have been told by a former employee, by sucking all the happiness out of their employees, powdering it, and then sprinkling it over the park; that’s your “fairy dust”), but they don’t force anyone to go there and then whistle Zippy-Doo-Da out of their assholes a-la Clark Griswald. I think there may be more to be found in making a movie that critically examines a culture fixated on perpetual bliss, rather than the companies that strive to provide it.
Which is not to say those companies deserve to be completely let off the hook; they are a part of the culture, they help make and drive that culture, and they deserve a certain amount of grilling in the space of exploring that culture. But to single out one company for catering to the desires of people to have happiness is akin to blaming one company for Americans being obese.
I’m not really a fan of horror movies. They’re just too creepy, and generally there’s too much focus on gross-out rather than spook factor for my taste. The ones that are genuinely scary usually just give me screaming nightmares, and why would I want to pay good money for that? There’s a fine balance between those, though, a razor’s edge where horror meets humor known as the macabre, or a finely tuned understanding of suspense that relies on shadows and darkness to send a chill up your spine and give you a twist ending that goes beyond simple surprise and into the realm of revelation. That’s where I like to spend my time, and there are a few movies that rarely seem to get mentioned that exemplify the tone for me.
Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight (1995) – Despite my protests about not liking horror flicks, for reasons I can never fully explain I was a HUGE fan of Tales from the Crypt as a kid. The episode I remember most to this day is “Chop Poker”, and I don’t think I’ve even seen it in twenty years or more. It was just that good. The show as a whole was just my brand of scary – not so long that I couldn’t sit all the way through it, and with that wonderfully gruesome Crypt Keeper giving it all a sick black humor to take the edge off (or twist the knife at the end) to make it all the better. When I found out they were making an entire movie out of it, I was onboard immediately, even before I knew what it was about. And wow, what a movie.
The story is of a man who carries the last of seven mystical keys that hold the blood of Christ and is being chased by demons, who ends up being cornered in a boarding house in the middle of nowhere. This could easily devolve into a B-grade slasher flick except for two things. First, the cast is amazing. Billy Zane alone could carry this movie. He is the most charismatic, compelling, likably vicious and evil villain I have ever seen, and he manages to pull off lines that would fall flat coming from almost anyone else. Jada Pinkett Smith makes a strong and likable (though unusual) heroine, not playing to the usual tropes, and William Sadler brings a surprising depth and humanity to the character Brayker. The rest of the cast delivers solid performances for what are for the most part stock characters, although each has their standout moments.
The other thing that elevates this movie from trash to triumph is the script. It combines a surprisingly deep story with some fantastic writing. With great lines such as “Do me a favor? Don’t scream. Just hear what I’ve gotta say… and then scream” and “You know this ‘Hell on Earth’ business? Big fucking deal – I’ve got hemorrhoids”, the script manages to range all over the emotional terrain from terrifying to tragic to comedic without breaking the moment or the momentum. The Crypt Keeper himself is an added bonus.
Death Becomes Her (1992) – Not a horror movie per se, but definitely a dark comedy that shades more to the dark than the comedy. With an amazing cast that includes Meryl Streep, Bruce Willis, and Goldie Hawn, you know you’re in for some solid comedy, but I have to admit I had no idea they could go so dark. The basic plot line revolves around the two women who are old rivals and constantly out to “one up” one another, and they both (unbeknownst to each other) discover a potion of youth and immortality. Of course, immortality isn’t always what you think it is, and things get very weird very fast.
The special effects in this film haven’t aged particularly well, but they’re not bad for what they are, and the performance from both leading ladies more than makes up for it. Bruce Willis manages to turn in a surprisingly subdued performance for people who are used to seeing him as the take-charge action star, and the twist ending is decidedly macabre. There’s more humor than horror, but there’s enough darkness to it to definitely put it in the category of spooky films.
Dark City (1998) – A neo-noir sci-fi flick in the vein of Twelve Monkeys, with the same sort of WTF ending that makes you want to watch the whole thing over again, Dark City is another film that doesn’t really fall into the genre of horror, but the dark and brooding atmosphere of noir definitely puts it in the same general ballpark of suspense and thriller films. A bizarre film that revolves around the unfolding story of John Murdoch (played by Rufus Sewell) and the ominously named Strangers, Dark City has plenty of action but also more than a little pop philosophy for those who are inclined to mix some thinking into their entertainment. There’s also a strong performance from the always entertaining Kiefer Sutherland. I could go into more detail, but frankly that would take away most of the joy of watching this unique film. Better to try it for yourself and enjoy the bittersweet ending.
There you have it, my picks for a dark and stormy night, when the wind is howling and the ghouls are knocking at the door. Halloween is fast approaching, so if you’re looking for something different for your filmfest than the usual slasher fare or zombierama, give ‘em a try. Just don’t blame me if you have to sleep with the light on.
Everyone loves a good episode of “Before They Were Stars”, but all they ever show you in those are things that (when you get right down to it) are pretty boring. I mean really, how many times can you look at someone’s high school yearbook photos and think “wow, [insert famous person] was a regular Joe just like me!” Or even worse, watch one of those insipid “child star” commercials where someone’s parents got them to say “Mommy, I want Endorsed Product for lunch!”
But you know what is fun? Digging up those lesser known films they did early in their careers and seeing who was really a star even back then, especially when the movie was… how can I phrase this delicately… not up to the caliber of the cast. Here are some of my favorites.
Legend (1985) – Coming off of Risky Business but before his major role in Top Gun cemented him as THE leading man for all time, Tom Cruise needed a big role, something that would really showcase his talent. And who better to star with than the inestimable Tim Curry? What could possibly go wrong? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Legend. This fantasy film is so over the top, so invested with its own self-importance, it’s impossible to describe. The amazing thing about it is, despite everything that should be wrong with it, from the script to the storyline to the sheer “glitter” of it all, it somehow works. Tom Cruise manages to bring his trademark charisma to the role of Jack, and Tim Curry is brilliantly malevolent and at the same time somehow empathetic as the Darkness (but then, he’s Tim Curry).
Hackers (1995) – Some movies just can’t help churning out stars. Long before 1999’s Girl, Interrupted put her on most people’s radar, Angelina Jolie was burning up the screen in this delightful film that IMDB calls an “action/crime/drama” and every real-life hacker I’ve ever known has called a comedy. Either way, Jolie brought amazing presence and style to the role of Kate, helping to boost this slick, stylish film above its otherwise ridiculous premise. T.V. fans may also be surprised to see Johnny Lee Miller, who plays Sherlock Holmes on CBS’s Elementary as protagonist Dade Murphy. Matthew Lillard from FX’s The Bridge plays a major supporting role as Cereal Killer, as well as establishing one of the best jokes, intentional or not, I have ever seen in film history (to get the rest of the joke, go watch Scream).
Stand By Me (1986) – What would you say if I offered you a movie starring River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, Kiefer Sutherland, Richard Dreyfuss, and John Cusack? How about I include that it was based on a novella by Stephen King? Want more? OK, just for you I’ll throw in Wil Wheaton, Lord of the Internet and God of Nerds. And all of them (ok, maybe not Richard Dreyfuss) look so young. This is early in their careers, the first big role for almost all of them, but you could never prove it by me. The power and intensity of this coming of age story is enormous, and the emotional gravity of it will leave you drained by the end. It’s not exactly an uplifting tale (did I mention it was based on a Stephen King story?), but it is surprisingly reassuring. You won’t want to watch it again right away, but you’ll find yourself coming back to look at it again.
As I was doing laundry the other day (which doesn’t happen often, but it does happen) I was thinking about the last season of Fringe. Of course, this being the internet it doesn’t matter how old that show is, so allow me a moment for the following:
WARNING! WARNING! SPOILERS AHEAD! I WILL BE DISCUSSING TELEVISION SHOWS AND MOVIES THAT HAVE BEEN OUT FOR AT LEAST A YEAR OR LONGER. PLEASE AVERT YOUR EYES IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THEM AND STILL CARE.
Ahem. As I was saying. I got to thinking about the last season of Fringe, and in particular the way that the entire season wrapped up by resetting the timeline in the final episode. It seemed a little jarring in some ways, not least because it was the latest in a string of retcons and hard resets that the series had come up with that in my memory can only be topped by Eureka (no, that’s not a spoiler, Eureka spoiled itself. Seriously.) The part of it that I found most disturbing however was that in some ways it seemed to invalidate all the struggles, sacrifices and triumphs of all the characters throughout the entire fifth season. After all, if the events in question never happened, then they have no meaning, right? Or do they?
Pop culture and philosophy might seem like strange bedfellows, but they have gone together at least as far back as ancient Greece. After all, what we think of as great tragedies from that time were presented during the Dionysian festival, and we all know what kind of god Dionysus was (here’s a hint: grab a bottle of wine and get loaded. You’ll be on the right track.) These were the pop culture of their day, and yet they dealt in questions of philosophy, identity, madness (no big surprise, considering the venue), and the human soul.
So what does all of this have to do with my thoughts on the finale of Fringe? I got to thinking “did those characters truly cease to exist?” After all, if they had not taken the actions they did, the timeline wouldn’t have reset, ergo the reset is proof that they did exist, and they did indeed make their sacrifices, even if they and nobody else remembers them (which also goes back to season four to some extent). So what is the relationship between memory and identity? Are we only what we remember? If we don’t remember who we are, do we cease to exist?
Another pop culture/sci-fi look at this concept is Dark City. A fantastic film from 1998 that doesn’t get nearly the mentions it deserves, this movie plays around with the concept of memory and identity and the interaction between the two almost to an obscene degree. While it takes a very definite position on what it means to be human, it doesn’t really address the essential question of identity. Everyone in the city is memory-wiped and essentially reprogrammed as a new person several times throughout the film, and yet each person seems to have some consistency as an individual. Is this because the wipe wasn’t complete, or is there something more?
A relevant experience from my own life was when I went in for a fairly routine procedure at the doctor’s office a couple years ago. He put me under with some new drug that I don’t recall the name of, but apparently the effect was I was conscious for the entire procedure, only I was unable to process any of the events into long-term memory. So I have no memory of the procedure, nor the first two times I asked him if he was done. (Seriously, he told me I asked him the same question three times.) So here’s the question: did I exist? Physically, obviously, my body was present. But did I exist as a person? If I did, what does it mean that I have no memory of that time? If I was conscious, aware, and able to process information, but no memories of any of it exist or ever will, what does that mean?
I guess it means the same thing as the end of Fringe or Dark City: take away from it what you want. Show’s over. Roll credits.
I’ve been taking some time off this week, and as always that means I’ve been exposing myself to the good, the bad, and the ugly of the entertainment world so that you, my loyal readers, won’t have to. I’ve got a trio of movies for you this time, ranging from family friendly fare to art house Shakespeare, and theaters-only to cable-exclusives.
First up is the Joss Whedon re-imagining of the Shakespeare classic Much Ado About Nothing. I’ve got a huge man-crush on Whedon, but I also have an undying love for Shakespeare that is as intense as My Not So Humble Wife’s passionate hatred for him (which she can even express in iambic pentameter). Considering my strong and mixed feelings about Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 Much Ado (I loved most of it, but there were some serious casting problems, especially Keanu Reeves as Don John), I approached this film with some joy and much trepidation. The fact that it was shot in twelve days during what amounted to a vacation in the middle of making The Avengers added a certain amount of uncertainty as well.
Fortunately there was nothing to be concerned about and everything to cheer for (even the wife liked it). The entire movie played smoothly, with a cool hipster-jazz influenced feel. Alexis Denisof as Benedick and Amy Acker as Beatrice revive the on screen chemistry that long-time Whedon fans will remember from later seasons of Angel. The dialogue is fast, sharp, and well played, and the staging is perfect. Fran Kranz turns in a solid performance as Claudio, bringing a believable yet charismatic youth and impetuousness to the character without being emo, and Jillian Morgese is charming and reserved as Hero.
My personal favorite surprise was Nathan Fillion as Dogberry. I have never really understood nor appreciated the humor of this character before, particularly since every time I have seen the show Dogberry is overplayed and chewing the scenery (Michael Keaton, I’m looking squarely at you). Fillion brings a surprisingly subdued turn to the role, and by underplaying it actually makes it much funnier, as well as giving his fellow ensemble members a chance to shine.
While I’m on the subject of ensembles, I may as well talk about Pitch Perfect. Yes, I watched this film, mostly because My Not So Humble Sister said it was funny. I hate admitting she’s right about anything (see the part about her being my sister), but I have to admit it was pretty good. It’s about what you would expect, but there are some ways that it manages to rise above itself. In addition to having some really stellar a cappella performances, the film makes a few inside jokes subverting the very form of film it is (my favorite being when Beca (Anna Kendrick) mocks movies that have the exact plotline of the movie she’s in). Another great bit of comedic subversion in the film is Fat Amy, played by Rebel Wilson. Rather than being the typical shy fat girl who needs to develop self-confidence, “discover herself” and open up, Amy is played as a strong, confident woman from the start. She also has plenty of well-sculpted young men keeping her company in her palatial estate over Spring Break, another nice change from expected norms.
The film does unfortunately have some downsides. They play to the lesbian stereotype more than a little, and there is more than a little bit of gross-out humor (some of which is so far over the top I couldn’t even watch). The plot is also so derivative that, as previously mentioned, they felt the need to mock it in the movie. That only gets you so far.
All that having been said, if you’re looking for something relatively light, relatively fun, and not in any way taxing, Pitch Perfect definitely hits the mark.
I also finally got to see Puss in Boots. I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while, because Puss has become about the only character from Shrek that I can watch for more than five minutes without feeling the need to punch something. It’s not that I don’t like the Shrek franchise, it’s just that I get tired of the same joke after hearing it enough times, and apparently that number of times is two (hence why I can’t stand Shrek the Third, and the less said about the abysmal Shrek the Halls the better). Lucky for me, ditching Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy seems to be exactly what this franchise needed.
Puss in Boots is a sweet, fun, lighthearted romp. It’s family-friendly, but I wouldn’t hold that against it. It’s got a lot of laughs for pretty much everybody, and they cut back the cast to something a bit more manageable to they can really enjoy and play with the idea of the characters again rather than every character just being a one trick pony (or a one note donkey, as the case may be). If the plot was a little predictable, that’s only because (a) they actually laid everything out in such a way that nobody can cry foul later in the film, and (b) the target market for this film probably doesn’t have two digits in their age. If you can accept that, you’ll have a lot of laughs, maybe even enjoy a heartwarming moment (it’s DreamWorks, how can you not?), and then go to bed like good little boys and girls.
About a week ago I was going through my Dad’s old movie collection, packaging it up and selling what I could, disposing of the rest. It made me realize something: my Dad and I had very different tastes in movies. Not that he had bad taste, mind you, just very different. James Bond, for instance. I like Bond films well enough, and I’ve seen all of them since Octopussy, but Dad had seen and loved all of them, and he had them all on DVD (and more than a few on VHS). As for John Wayne, he had more than a few collections, and he had most every John Wayne film ever made on DVD… all 169 of them. I never really understood his appreciation for John Wayne, but then I’m not sure he ever understood my appreciation for Tim Curry, so fair’s fair.
I had planned to talk about all the obscure movies that I found in Dad’s collection that I loved, but the truth is most of the ones we had in common were either well known (like Rocky II) or I’ve already mentioned (like Excalibur). So I’ll take this opportunity to cover a couple I did find as well as a couple I think Dad would have liked.
The Name of the Rose (1986) – Based on the book of the same name by Umberto Eco, this film stars two of my favorite actors, Sean Connery and a young Christian Slater (somehow I only seem to like a young Christian Slater). It’s the story of a Franciscan monk and his apprentice who investigate a series of strange deaths at a monastery. Call it a period mystery, if you will. I can’t really go into much more description without giving away lots of the plot, but the best part of this movie for me is the depth of characterization and world building. Apparently a lot of that derives from the source novel (which My Not So Humble Wife loves, although I’ve never personally read it), but the acting is top notch as well. While Connery drives the majority of the action, I want to give special attention to Ron Perlman as Salvatore; it’s a difficult role to play with empathy and he does it exceptionally well.
The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981) – This was probably the first (and for a long time the only) western I ever really liked, let alone loved. I think this film gets a lot of grief for both deserved and undeserved reasons. There’s a certain amount of unrealistic expectations, in the same way that any iconic pop culture figure will have that any departure from established traditions will only exacerbate. That having been said, there’s also a certain amount of heavy-handedness: in the attempts to make the bad guys truly evil, to make Tonto more than a stereotype (and in the process making every other Native American in the film a bigger stereotype), and in the attempts to make John Reid into a larger-than-life hero. With all that having been said, I still believe this movie largely succeeds at being greater than its flaws, and if approached with an open mind and in the spirit of a western dime novel or “gritty remake” of an old radio show, it can be very appealing.
The Searchers (1956) – I had to watch this movie for a film class I took a few years ago, and I’m glad I did. After I finished, I immediately called my Dad and said, “Hey Dad, I take back everything I ever said about John Wayne. You were right.” He asked me what movie I watched, and when I told him, he wasn’t in the least surprised. “You started with the best.” The conversation went on from there, and we must have talked for an hour just about this movie and how amazing it is, and why. I could lay it all out for you here, but you should really just watch it for yourself. Not only does John Wayne give one of the most fantastic, nuanced performances I have ever seen, but the entire film is full of great performances, amazing visuals, and a stirring and poignant plot. If you only watch one western in your life, this should be it.
Cat Ballou (1965) – Now, if you’re going to watch two westerns in your life, may I make another suggestion? I remember watching this movie as a kid with my Dad and My Not So Humble Sister and it made no sense to me whatsoever. Why were people singing? In a western? (Bear in mind this film preceded Paint Your Wagon by about five years.) Isn’t that Nat King Cole? And I’m pretty sure that’s Jane Fonda. Wait, why is that gunslinger drunk? What in the world is going on here? That was basically my reaction to this movie the first five times I watched it. It took me a long time to realize (a) this was a comedy and (b) there was a plot, I just wasn’t following it. Once I got it all straight, I learned to stop worrying and just go with it, and it actually turned out to be a pretty funny little film. Not the greatest comedy or western ever but enjoyable, and Lee Marvin puts in an Oscar-winning performance, so it has that going for it. And hey, Nat King Cole.