Friday, August 22, 2008

Animal House

August 22, 2008

Animal House (1978) ****

Directed by John Landis

Maybe with the exception of This Is Spinal Tap, I have or have had concerns watching each of the films on my Iconic Irreverent Comedies Marathon. This Is Spinal Tap is a Christopher Guest movie, and I’ve seen and enjoyed many other films of his such as Waiting for Guffman and A Mighty Wind. My concern going into Animal House was that I feared the film might simply be mean. The story is about a rowdy frat house, and when I think of fraternities in film, I think of pledges being laughed at and humiliated. Also, there seems to be this clear line between those who make fun of others and those who get made fun of. If Animal House was going to make fun of outcasts for an hour and fifty minutes, then I am sure I wouldn’t have enjoyed it.

The first sequence of Animal House takes place at a fraternity referred to as the Omegas. We see two freshmen, impeccably dressed, enter into a weekend party. Inside the house, they are mocked behind their backs, shoved into a corner with foreign students and a blind guy in a wheelchair. When one of them attempts to talk to the head of the Omegas, he is immediately sent back to sit with the misfits.

There was a part of me that wanted to turn the film off at that point, but I’m very glad that I didn’t. You see, I thought that the film was going to be all about the Omegas. I guessed that the seriousness of the party was a prank that was going to be pulled on the freshmen. I thought John Belushi was going to jump out of a wall or something and yell, “Toga! Toga! Toga!” In no way did I want to spend time with this fraternity. Many people know how much it hurts to be made fun of and be laughed at by others. Why in the world would I find that kind of psychological torture enjoyable as comedic entertainment?

Let me tell you how relieved I was to see the freshmen leave the party and proceed to the dilapidated fraternity house owned by the Deltas. The party, similar to every other element in this movie, is completely overblown so much that you have to laugh out loud. The two are urinated on before they get inside, and things aren’t much better when beer bottles are thrown and shattered next to their heads—repeatedly. Amongst the barbaric antics which take place inside Delta’s house, there’s a definite sense that everyone is welcome. For the Deltas, the more the rowdier! The members of the Delta fraternity are subversive, irresponsible and immature, that’s for sure! Yet, they’re extremely likeable, looking out for each other and always willing to share in the fun. I was looking forward to spending some time in their world.

The two freshmen are given Delta names. One is called Pinto, played by the great Amadeus star Tom Hulce, and the other is called Flounder, played by Stephen Furst. The film moves quickly away from their acceptance into the fraternity to the office of Faber College Dean Wormer who decides to put the Delta house on double secret probation, which pretty much means that one more screw up and the house will be disbanded. The secret part is that the Delta guys aren’t told which sets Wormer up to be a victim of their shenanigans later on. The Deltas can be spiteful, but only to the mean and the unjust.

The rest of Animal House plays like an anti-Huckleberry Finn, containing vignettes that work autonomously just as much as they fit into the film’s broader narrative. One of these snippets includes a famous toga party, which accounts for the great line which I mentioned before. Other yarns include a stint at a grocery store, a late night prank involving a horse with cardiac problems, an evening in a tough all-black bar, a gathering in a professor’s house, played by Donald Sutherland, where they all smoke pot and finally, a float parade in town.

Each member of the fraternity has his own set of circumstances to deal with. Otter, played by Tim Matheson, is a womanizer who uses a college student’s death in order to sleep with her roommate. He also seduces Dean Wormer’s wife. Boon, played by Peter Reigart, has a steady girlfriend that’s getting a little bit tired of his immature ways, encouraging him to spend less time with the Deltas. Flounder must endure a sadistic ROTC superior who treats him like dirt and forces him to land face down in a pile of horse dung. Also, his older brother has entrusted him with an expensive car which the other Deltas trash for many different reasons. Pinto has to deal with a new girlfriend and her father. While that’s bad enough, things get even worse for him when she tells him her real age.

There are other members of Delta, but the most important one wasn’t mentioned in the last paragraph listing each character’s concerns. The reason is because Bluto (John Belushi) doesn’t have a care in the world. He’s a man of few words, often evoking comedy by using physical gags such as when he crushes a beer can on his forehead and when he falls while on a ladder looking at female students undressing through their window. He’s like the Tasmanian Devil, not saying much but causing quite a bit of destruction and mayhem. Of course, there’s a bittersweet element while watching Belushi on screen. He’s an exceptional comedian and as such, his performance saddened me since his early death robbed the world of his unique talent.

Animal House was recently chosen as the funniest film ever made by the Bravo Network’s countdown of the funniest movies. Do I agree? Well, no, I don’t think it’s anywhere near the funniest movie I’ve ever seen, but yes, it is very funny. It’s also smart about how it showcases its villains by making them caricatures that can be universally and justifiably hated. The same goes for the Deltas themselves. They’re so broadly characterized and acted that it’s impossible not to like them from the start and root for them when they’re in trouble.

The film’s final chunk involves an elaborate parade where the Deltas get their revenge on both Wormer and the Omegas. Personally, I didn’t find that sequence all that funny, with the exception of a boy who says, “Thank you, God,” and I think it’s what holds this film back from being in the same league as films like Blazing Saddles and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Also, the film is poorly edited, which is surprising considering how talented John Landis is as a director. Still, though, for all of the chaos, insubordination and nuisance that exists in Animal House, there’s an equal amount of heart and charm which I think counts just as much as its comedy does for the film’s revered place in pop culture history.

12:08 East of Bucharest

August 22, 2008

12:08 East of Bucharest (2007) ***1/2

Directed by Corneliu Porumboiu

12:08 East of Bucharest contains an absolutely brilliant concept, and it executes it quite well. I really enjoyed the final product. Yet, I feel that there’s a fundamental layer to the film that I could not appreciate. The Romanian Revolution which took place in 1989 becomes the topic for a local low budget call in show sixteen years later. 12:08 East of Bucharest spends its first half hour introducing characters and then finishes with a real time view of the live show itself. The television station probably can’t afford to time delay live broadcasts. As such, there’s nothing that host Virgil Jderescu (Teodor Corban) can do when either his guests or his callers say inappropriate things.

The entire final hour focuses on what took place when Romanians in this local town took to the streets that fateful December 22nd afternoon. I have absolutely no knowledge about the Revolution, and all I know about Communist Romania before the Revolution I learned from the great Romanian film from last year called 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which tells the story of a young woman and her friend who dangerously seek an illegal abortion. Because of the emotional punch of that film, I found it a bit hard to accept an event which ended that kind of injustice used as fodder for light comedy. Apparently, there’s debate over whether or not a revolution did in fact occur that day, which is the first question that Jderescu asks his “expert” guest, history teacher Tiberiu Manescu (Ion Sapdaru). I’m sure there’s a level of humor and irony which I might have been able to appreciate if I had more knowledge of the history and politics of the Revolution itself.

The first half hour did not work for me. We are introduced to Jderescu, Manescu and a lonely, eccentric septuagenarian who is the second guest on the show, Emanoil Piscoci (Mircea Andreescu). They all live sad lives—Piscoci is the butt of pranks by local kids who set off fireworks outside his apartment; Manescu is a drunk with debts to pay and as a teacher, he gets no respect at all from his students. I think it was the wrong decision to display these characters’ backstories since their performances on the show itself adequately display their personal shortcomings. Perhaps the first half an hour was added to make the movie feature length at an hour and a half.

When the camera begins to roll, the film really lights up. Like Waiting for Guffman, which poked fun at community theater, 12:08 East of Bucharest brilliantly uses the low budget television show as a means for great laughs. I loved how the image of the town square, which was used as a backdrop, was constantly referred to as a picture. Of course, the idea of the picture is to trick the viewer into thinking that it’s a window. Though most viewers know that it is a fake, it’s still a bit embarrassing to have a trick revealed, especially if it’s pointed out over and over again. The first half of the show includes some truly awful camera work from the young college student that works at the station. Plus, at one point, a caller threatens to sue Jderescu and the station if his name is mentioned one more time. It’s great to watch how Jderescu handles that threat.

Manescu claims that he and his companions, all of whom have since died, were the first to gather in the square before the rest of the town on December 22nd at 12:08 PM. The first caller claims that Manescu is a drunk and was hobbling around looking for a bar at that time. Then a security guard calls in and says that he was on duty and saw no one in the square. Finally, a local Chinese man, who Manescu calls a friend but also insults when he’s drunk, comes to his defense, but he’s only met with ridiculously bigoted comments such as when Jderescu tells him to go back to China. Piscoci, meanwhile, drones on and on when he finally gets a chance to speak. When he doesn’t speak, which is quite often, he makes origami out of the paper that sits in front of him.

As a light comedy about a television show, 12:08 East of Bucharest works quite well. Unfortunately, I have no idea whether or not the film works as a political statement about the Romanian Revolution. Without that knowledge, I can’t really recommend this film strongly. It’s worth seeing on its cinematic and comedic levels. On its political level, I can’t say anything about the film one way or the other.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Brief Encounter

August 19, 2008

Brief Encounter (1945) *****

Directed by David Lean

I recently added Monty Python and the Holy Grail to my list of the 100 Greatest Films I’ve Seen, and just having watched David Lean’s Brief Encounter, I’m sure that I will be adding it to that list as well. Interestingly enough, Holy Grail and Brief Encounter have quite a bit in common, though in tone they couldn’t be more different. Both films comment on the heirs put on by those in the British bourgeois class where too often many enslave themselves to both societal and personal expectations on how gentlemen and ladies ought to behave. The screenplay is based on Noel Coward’s one-act play called “Still Life,” which is one of his more serious works; yet it still contains quite a bit of bite and flavor which are staples of Coward’s comedies.

The performances universally are all absolutely wonderful, especially by Celia Johnson who plays Laura Jesson, a British upper class housewife whose husband Fred (Cyril Raymond) is pleasant all right, but emotionally cold. They have two children, and it seems that Laura and Fred have settled into a passionless marriage. On Thursdays, Laura routinely goes shopping, has lunch and catches a film. On one of these outings, she encounters a suave doctor named Alec Harvey, played by Trevor Howard in the role that made him famous. That first meeting doesn’t result in anything more than Alec removing some dirt from Laura’s eye. However, they run into each other again, and they begin gleefully chatting and getting to know the other. Though Laura thinks it’s inappropriate at first, they decide to go see a film together.

That evening, feeling guilty, Laura tells Fred of the man she went to the movies with. Fred responds jovially, not really caring all that much. Laura laughs, but underneath it all, I bet she would have appreciated him getting angry or jealous since that would prove that he still loved her dearly. Laura and Alec decide to meet again, and more and more her thoughts are occupied by her growing affection for him. On a bridge, Alec, who is married with two children as well, confesses his love for Laura and gets her to admit that she loves him too. They both try with serious effort to fight their feelings, but their passion and love are simply too strong to ignore.

Things hit a head when Alec makes the offer to Laura to meet him at the apartment of a friend who is supposedly out for the night. Laura says no, gets on her train to go home, but at the last minute departs the train to meet him at the flat. Just as they are about to bring their relationship to a dangerously inappropriate level, the apartment owner returns earlier than expected. Laura is able to escape before he sees her, but he finds a scarf she left behind and scolds Alec for what he was about to do. Previously, Laura had to lie about her relationship with Alec to friends of hers that saw the two of them having lunch together. Once anyone from the outside penetrates their relationship, they both return to their senses and feel tremendously guilty about their infidelities.

The climax of the film, where Laura and Alec must make a final decision whether or not they want to see each other anymore, takes place at a lower class pub right next to the train tracks. One of the brilliant aspects of Brief Encounter is that the film begins with this climactic scene, then goes back in time to their first encounter, and leads all the way back to that same climactic scene. At the very beginning, we see the story from the perspective of a busybody acquaintance of Laura’s who barges in on their wrenching goodbye. When we return towards the end, we see the same scene from Laura’s perspective, and let me tell you, the emotional connection I had with the scene towards the end was a million times more powerful than when I first saw it at the beginning. Once she says goodbye, she contemplates something that sent chills down my spine. Does she follow Alec, return to Fred or choose something even worse? Well, all I’ll say is that the final scene is one hundred percent pitch perfect, and as such, it left me breathless and exhilarated that I had just witnessed such a profoundly moving film!

In the lower class tea shop, there’s a brilliant parallel romance that takes place between the married owner Mrs. Bagot, perfectly played by Joyce Carey, and a married security guard named Albert, played by the great Stanley Holloway, who would go on to play Alfred Doolittle in My Fair Lady, another film commenting on class in England. Both characters are much poorer than Alec and Laura; however, Mrs. Bagot has trained herself to speak quite posh, a fact which Laura makes fun of when she tells Fred about her initial outing with Alec. Albert playfully flirts with Mrs. Bagot who feigns coyness, but clearly has quite a bit of affection for him. Albert often asks her if they will see each other “tonight,” and usually Mrs. Bagot laughs him off and says no. Later on, after he helps her by throwing out two wiseguy cops from her pub, she tells him that she will in fact see him “tonight.” It’s amazing to see the guilt and emotional torture that Laura puts herself through because of her affair in comparison to the happy-go-lucky way Mrs. Bagot and Albert deal with their implied extra-marital relations. I’m sure Coward intended to show what he believed to be the foolish ways those in the upper class hold themselves to such high standards in order to maintain an heir of superiority. While I don’t agree with him in the sense that an extra-marital affair isn’t all that bad of an undertaking, I definitely can appreciate how beautifully he made his argument through this film.

The director of Brief Encounter, David Lean, would go on to make American epics such as Bridge on the River Kwai, Doctor Zhivago, The Greatest Story Ever Told, A Passage to India, and his crowning cinematic achievement, Lawrence of Arabia. Before Bridge on the River Kwai, Lean spent his time on smaller British films such as Brief Encounter. There are quite a few film aficionados that relish these early, smaller, intimate David Lean films, especially considering that his later blockbusters pretty much overshadowed them completely. I’m so glad that I watched Brief Encounter! So far, it’s my favorite David Lean film, and I think that’s saying something considering that its budget, in comparison to his more popular classics, was next to nothing.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Monty Python and the Holy Grail

August 18, 2008

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) *****

Directed by Terry Gilliam & Terry Jones

Monty Python and the Holy Grail is quite simply the funniest movie I’ve ever seen! The film contains at least two hundred gags and jokes throughout, and I laughed at all except maybe four or five. No doubt, Monty Python’s humor isn’t for everyone, and I always thought that I was among those who wouldn’t enjoy their shtick. Of course, being the cocky guy that I am, I made this assumption without ever having seen one of their movies or an episode of their late 1960’s television show, Flying Circus. I’m guessing that Monty Python consists of five actors (please someone tell me if I’m right or wrong about this)—Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones. Their low-brow humor, while never fully vulgar in Holy Grail, definitely pushes the envelope of good taste. Yet, what makes their comedy brilliant is that it’s extremely clever. These five guys are truly witty and creative which makes Holy Grail one of the very best comedies of all time.

My guess is that these five guys sat down and simply brainstormed what could be funny in a movie meant to spoof Camelot stories. However, while watching the film, I had a sense that the material evolved over a period of time, which I imagine would have to include the shooting of the film itself. For example, one of the first images we see once the “actual movie” (I’ll get back to what that means later!) begins involves King Arthur and his galloping horse. What makes this funny is that the horse is really a man who is clapping coconut shells together to make a galloping sound. It’s obvious that this gag isn’t the cleverest in the film by a long shot. What’s really interesting though is that this was not in the original script. Their budget wouldn’t allow them to acquire real horses. Even if they could, none of them knew how to ride. So, instead of cutting out the horse completely, they were resourceful by casting a human being. At that point, I’m sure they had to think about how they could pull the gag off. Maybe put a guy in a bad horse costume? Have the human crawl on all fours? Nope! They decided that everyone would gallop and the man/horse would make the sounds of his hooves by using coconut shells. What’s even wittier is the fact that one of the first conversations in the film deals with sparrows and whether or not they can carry coconut shells. Looking back at their execution, I come to believe that these guys presumably could add comedy to any situation and make it hilarious!

The plot, if you can really call it that, revolves around King Arthur and his search for the Holy Grail. He acquires companions on his way including Sir Galahad the Chaste, Sir Lancelot the Brave, Sir Belvedere and Sir Robin the Not-Quite-So-Brave-As-Sir-Lancelot. At first, Lancelot searches for Camelot, but once he finds it, he realizes that it’s a silly place. The song that’s sung in Camelot absolutely overloads the viewer with quick-fire gags. A scene like that demands that you view it in slow motion in order to get all of the jokes. I watched the film with subtitles on, and being able to read the words of the song made me appreciate that scene even more.

Through entertaining back stories involving sexually frustrated virgins, an effeminate prince and an unnecessarily violent knight, we learn how each of King Arthur’s men ended up joining him in his quest. God then appears to them in the form of an animated grumpy man with a flapping mouth. It’s now that they resolve to find the Grail, but before they are able to do so, they must face foes including the Knights Who Only Say “Ni,” a killer rabbit, a guardian on the Bridge of Death, a group of mean-spirited French soldiers and modern day police men. Are they able to find the Grail? The way the film answers this question had me laughing hard while at the same time appreciating the film’s brilliance.

You cannot truly appreciate the comedy in this film unless you watch it. It’s impossible to really describe it in any comprehensive way, and it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen. You really never know what’s coming next at any moment considering that the film switches from live action, to animation, to narration, to scenes of comical gore, etc. There’s a gag at the beginning of the film involving a certain dentist on the job that felt a little bit precious to me. I’m sure audiences in 1975 seeing the film in a movie theater may have been able to appreciate the joke, but on DVD, it’s simply dull. I almost wish the DVD version cut the scene or added it as an extra because I believe that it begins the Monty Python film on an unfunny note.

That being said, I totally ate this film up! I’ve never laughed from beginning to end more than I did with Holy Grail. Monty Python’s anarchic comedic style begs to be compared to the Marx Brothers. Personally, I think they’re in the exact same league, and if I had to choose the better film between Holy Grail and Duck Soup, which is my favorite Marx Brothers’ film, I’d easily choose Holy Grail. I look forward to checking out some of their other films, and now I know not to say that a certain style of comedy isn’t my taste until I actually give it a chance.

By the way, my favorite line in the entire film comes from one of the French soldiers. “I don't want to talk to you no more, you empty headed animal food trough wiper. I fart in your general direction. Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries.” Well said!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Paris, Je T'aime

August 16, 2008

Paris, Je T’aime (2007) *****

Various Directors

Film critic Richard Roeper compared Paris, Je T’aime (which means Paris, I love you) to a great book of two page short stories. I felt exactly the same way. A few years ago, I went through a period of reading one short story each night before I went to bed. Perhaps I’ll try that again. There’s something really satisfying about being introduced to a new world and new characters and then experiencing the story’s conclusion in the same day. I think that’s why I like movies much better than books. I relish a compact, tangible narrative that doesn’t drag on too long. I presently read a lot less than I used to, mostly because I’ve been concentrating on seeing all of these films recently. Paris, Je T’aime has inspired me to get back into reading, and because of my movie watching goals, the short story form is perfect for me.

Paris, Je T’aime contains twenty short films all at five minutes in length. Twenty different directors signed onto the project, including the Coen Brothers, Wes Craven, Alfonso Cuaron, Gerard Depardieu, Christopher Doyle, Alexander Payne, and Gus Van Sant among others. All of these stories are meant to showcase two things—Paris itself and love within Paris. Between each of these shorts, we see a postcard-like image of Paris. Most of the stories are in French, though a good number are in English as well. The cast of characters takes on quite an international and multi-cultural flair, including Americans, Brits, a Latina, Asians and of course French. Some stories take on a larger than life, almost fantasy-like feel, while others are extremely intimate and simple, often involving two people talking and nothing else.

One of the fun aspects of Paris, Je T’aime is the inclusion of some extremely well known actors, one of whom, Maggie Gyllenhaal, portrays a variation on herself as a famous American actress who begins to fall for the guy that gives her drugs. Other famous names include Natalie Portman, Elijah Wood, Juliet Binoche, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Miranda Richardson, Willem Defoe, Nick Nolte, Bob Hoskins, Emily Mortimer, Ben Gazzara, Gena Rowlands, and best of all, Steve Buscemi as an American tourist who inexplicably pisses off an angry Parisian while waiting for a subway train and being pelted by spit balls from a little boy sitting nearby. This short, called “Tuileries,” was directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, the team responsible for No Country for Old Men and Fargo among others. “Tuileries” is one of the very best shorts in the film since it’s willing to go over the top making Buscemi’s character’s life a living hell—at least for five minutes.

Out of the twenty, only one short didn’t work for me at all. “La Marais” was written and directed by Gus Van Sant and tells the story of a Parisian young man who believes he finds his soulmate when he sees another young man working in a poster making factory. The Parisian pretty much talks non-stop at the young man about how he feels that they should connect since he believes the forces of the world brought them together. The other young man barely has a chance to say anything. There’s a surprise at the end of this short which I saw coming from a mile away (or at least from four minutes away). Compared with the success of the other nineteen shorts on the conceptual level alone, “La Marais” feels sadly familiar and predictable.

Thankfully, the other nineteen shorts are quite satisfying. One tells the story of a single Latina mother who must put her baby in day care each morning as she travels from subway train to subway train and from bus to bus just to get to her job which involves watching a wealthy woman’s baby. Many stories share a common theme of young love, including a great one involving an Arab girl and a Parisian boy. Another one, starring Natalie Portman, gives us a portrait of what seems to be the end of a relationship between an aspiring American actress and a blind college student. A third story about young love takes place between an engaged British couple at the grave of Oscar Wilde.

One of my favorites involves a paramedic on her first day who realizes that she could have prevented the death of a down on his luck parking attendant. The first short focuses on a man just about to settle into lifelong cynicism when a woman passes out in front of his car thus beginning a romantic relationship. The great Gena Rowlands and the great Ben Gazzara play an older married couple who get together for dinner the night before they finalize their divorce.

Some shorts deal with a non-romantic type of love. Juliette Binoche plays a mother who’s still grieving the death of her ten year old son. In a fantasy sequence, she is given the ability to see her son one last time. This of course forces her to have to say goodbye all over again, though perhaps this is a good thing since she may not have been able to say goodbye previously. Another strange short involves a hair care salesman on his first day selling products to an intimidating Asian salon. Nick Nolte plays a father of a college aged girl living in Paris. It seems like she wants to grow in her relationship with him, but we find out that maybe her motives are a bit more self-centered.

Two shorts go full speed into absurd territory. One, which I actually liked a lot, though I wouldn’t be surprised if people like this one the least, involves a mime who wakes up excited about a new day. Unfortunately, the cruelty of the world around him, as well as a pretty universal hatred of miming, breaks his spirits and eventually lands him in prison. Another person sits on the same prison bench as he—a fact that just might make the end of his day very special. In the most fantasy-like short, Elijah Wood stumbles upon a female vampire feasting on her latest kill. Where is the love in this story, you ask? Well, just watch it and see.

Yet, nothing prepared me for the final short in Paris, Je T’aime. It’s called “14th arrondissement,” and it’s directed by Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt). I was simply enjoying just about all of the shorts, but once this last one was over, I was choked up completely with tears rolling down my face. The character in the short is named Carol, and she’s played by Margo Martindale in a performance that absolutely wrecked me emotionally. I’m not going to say anything more about it except to say that you absolutely must see Paris Je T’aime if for nothing else than just to watch this final short. It’s one of the best five minutes of film I’ve ever seen.

Paris Je T’aime is like a smorgasbord of narrative delights showcasing one of the most cinematic cities in the entire world—Paris. It’s awe-inspiring to witness how love can be seen in twenty different ways and how twenty different directors can execute the same assignment with such creative variety. Credit should be given to Emmanuel Benhiby who directs the transitions between the twenty shorts. These quick snippets serve almost as a palate cleanser preparing you to savor what’s coming next. My appreciation similarly goes to Tristan Carne who came up with the idea of Paris, Je T’aime. How happy I would be if this concept catches on, allowing perhaps other cities in the world or other common themes to be interpreted by different writers and directors in a wonderful collection of short films!