Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, April 23, 2018

Director Report Card: Adrian Lyne (1980)

What the heck happened to Adrian Lyne? The British director rose out of commercials and went on to direct some of the most iconic films of the eighties. He continued to find commercial and critical success in the nineties. And then, after making one more film in 2002, he has been very quiet. It would seem that Lyne's career is a casualty of Hollywood's increasing indifference to mid-budget dramas. But let's not focus on the past. Let's return to the beginning of the director's whose films, for many, define the sweaty, sleazy but still glossy 1980s.

1. Foxes

As long as I can remember, my dad has been a huge fan of Jodie Foster. I'm not going to delve into why this is, though the reasons are probably pretty creepy. Whatever the reason, over the years, I've seen probably more Jodie Foster movies than most people. And a favorite of my dad is 1980's “Foxes.” The movie combined his love of Foster and the greasy seventies atmosphere. The movie was also the feature debut of director Adrian Lyne, after making two shorts. Though his first full length movie, the film seems to dabble in some of the same themes that Lyne would touch on later.

The seventies are coming to a close but, for four teenage friends, the party rages on. Jeanie, Deirdre, Madge, and Annie go to school during the day. At night, they hang out in the San Fernado Valley's party scene, drinking too much, sleeping around, and doing too many drugs. However, complications soon arise in their lives. Annie's police officer father is abusive. Jeanie has her own struggles with her divorced parents. Madge has low self esteem and Deirdre is juggling too many guys. Soon enough, the party is going to be over.

“Foxes” is of a tradition of movies, which stretch back to the drive-in flicks of the fifties and would continue with the cinema of Larry Clark and movies like “Havoc.” Call it the teens-ploitation movie. Films like this depict teenagers having wild, irresponsible times, indulging drugs and other vices. While it ostensibly condemns these actions, the movie also happily luxuriates in this sleazy behavior. To be fair, “Foxes” is one of the better examples of this genre, being neither too excessive nor too judgmental. But its placement inside the genre is fairly evident.

“Foxes” pretends its protagonists' indulgences as a fact of life. The girls drink casually and too much. They skip school to party. Some of them trade boyfriends freely. Oddly, drug use is referenced in dialogue but rarely depicted on camera. Yet it seems the girls are less out-of-control than they are merely troubled. “Foxes” spends just as much time on the emotional hangover following their good times. Jeanie actively wonders if this is all there is and worries about her friends a lot. The consequences on their actions are focused on, giving the movie more of a “coming of age” feeling than an exploitation feeling. If you're taking a historical view, maybe “Foxes” is an example of its filmmakers feeling some regrets after a wild decade wrapped up.

“Foxes” is lent a lot by its time and setting. The San Fernado Valley location brings with it a lot of personality. One scene has the girls driving down Hollywood Boulevard, where they interact with pimps and streetwalkers. Another scene has Jeanie and a friend hanging out in the Hollywood hills. There's a distinct California atmosphere even to the scenes set in the suburbs, sweaty and ocean bordering. And it's not the California that exists today. Though released at the dawn of the new decade, “Foxes” is quintessentially set in the dying days of disco. The fashion, the music, and the social attitudes root it in a specific time and place. It's an appealing combination.

The struggles the girls have with their parents and boyfriends are also undeniably seventies. Jeanie's mom is an almost classical example of the “me generation” parent. While her daughter is struggling with her own problems, her mom is off chasing a recently divorced man. At one point, she leaves the home altogether, disappearing for almost a week. In a circumstance that is unlikely to fly today, another one of the teenage girls begins dating a man ten years older than her. This isn't consider creepy or weird. When the two get married, it provides something like a happy ending. My, how the times have changed.

Adrian Lyne has listed the French New Wave and Neo-Realist as influences. You can see this European style at work in “Foxes.” Lyne's camera frequently gets up-close with his characters and their world. The opening scene hovers around the debris lying around the girls' room – junk food wrapping, fast food boxes – establishing their youthful and lackadaisical wastefulness. The scenes of the girls eating breakfast or talking among themselves have an intimate feeling. When a fight breaks out at a party, Lyne is right there with the characters, tumbling through tables and windows. Considering Lyne is a British director making a movie about American teenagers, there's an almost documentary edge to his cinematic style. Like an anthropologist exploring a new culture.

More than anything else, it's the cast that makes “Foxes” work. This was the last film Jodie Foster would make before she took a four year break to go to college. This signaled the end of the “child star” phase of her career. Foster's talent was already obvious by now. She plays Jeanie as more attuned than her friends. She dreams of moving to New York and becoming a painter. She describes her sexual affairs in an almost academic manner, saying she simply curious. As the story goes on, it becomes clear that Jeanie has her head screwed on the tightest. Foster happily inhabits these attributes. Wise beyond her years but still with a youthful energy, its an ideal part for her.

The film would also be the acting debut of Cherie Currie, the infamous lead singer of the Runaways. She plays Annie, by far the most wild and out-of-control of the quartet. This is largely due to an abusive, controlling father. Considering Currie had already survived rock stardom by this point, and had the visible tattoo to prove it, one can't help but assume her take on Annie is slightly autobiographical. (Amusingly, she even gets a line deriding punk fashion in favor of disco.) The character's frequently intoxicated or drugged-out state seems accurate. Currie has a unique vibe as an actress, gifted with an invigorating but unnervingly manic energy. And her youth provides a vulnerability. These attributes suit the part of a troubled teenage girl.

Of the four girls, one really stands out. Madge is heavier than the others and wears nerdy glasses. She begins the film as a virgin and it really stresses her out. While the other girls have absent or abusive parents, Madge's mom and sister are perhaps too involved in her life. Playing this part is Marilyn Kagan, whose brief career would also include eighties slasher cult classic “The Initiation.” Kagan projects a shyness as Madge. While not the most tragic of the girls, she's the one you can't help but feel sorry for the most. Her friends have other, more serious problems. Madge is just struggling with the typical insecurities of being a teenager. Which makes her strife more relatable.

Of the four girls, Kandice Stroh's Deirdre probably gets the least to do. She has the most boyfriends and shines during a scene where she flirts with another guy on the phone. However, her arc has an abbreviated feeling. Among the other cast is a young Scott Biao, as the young boy the girls treat more like a younger brother than a potential romantic partner. Randy Quaid, of all people, appears as Madge's much older boyfriend. Quaid has that same unhinged energy here that he frequently brings to his performances, making Madge's suitor seem even more inappropriate. The film was also an early role for Laura Dern, who appears briefly as a girl talking about diaphragms at a party.

Though I've heard “Foxes” compared to “Saturday Night Fever,” the film is much less about disco culture. Jeanie's dad is the road manager to Angel and the girls watch the band perform. (They also sing a number called “20th Century Foxes,” which was likely meant to be the movie's theme song.) The girls' taste veers towards general pop music, as they listen to Boston and Cher throughout the film. Nevertheless, the soft piano driven overture of Donna Summer's “On the Radio” is the main musical refrain throughout “Foxes.” It provides a sad, introspective feeling to many scenes. Giorgio Moroder provides the score. His electronic music sometimes feels a little out of place, as in a skateboard assisted chase scene, but it seems like a suitably hip choice for the film's composer.

“Foxes” received some critical praise in 1980. Roger Ebert gave it good notices and Jodie Foster was nominated for a Young Artist Award. However, audiences would mostly overlook the movie. Outside of Foster fans like my dad, it doesn't seem to have much of a cult following either. (Though that didn't keep it from being played on eighties HBO a lot.) Still, “Foxes” is worth seeing. The performances are strong. The film's visual approach and feel is appealing. The script is fairly predictable but still heart-felt. The ending is a bit downbeat but “Foxes” is ultimately a minorly rewarding watch. [Grade: B]

Thursday, April 19, 2018

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: Delirious (1991)

John Candy was a wonderful comedic performer that rarely found vehicles truly deserving of his talent. He prospered in wacky supporting roles in movies like “Stripes” or “Spaceballs.” His leading parts tended to fluctuated more wildly in quality. There's a reason you never hear anyone talking about “Who's Harry Crumb?” or “Armed and Dangerous.” Or, for that matter, “Delirious.” The movie was another of many flops, grossing not quite six million against an eighteen million dollar budget, that plagued Candy near the end of his life. The critics were no more fond of the film than audiences were. So, once again, I ask the titular question: Why do I own this apparent stinker?

In “Delirious,” Candy plays Jack Gable. A nervous and easily frustrated man, Gable works as a writer for “Beyond Our Dreams,” a popular daytime soap opera. Gable has got some problems. He's got an unrequited crush on Laura, one of the actresses on the show. The show runners are constantly rewriting his script and threatening to replace him, especially with his attempts to introduce some new characters. A stressful day concludes with him getting hit in the head by a trunk latch. Gable awakens within the soap opera's universe. Soon, Jack realizes the characters have mistaken him for Jack Gates, the bad-ass new character he hoped to write into the show. Later still, he discovers he can manipulate the universe's events simply by rewriting them.

The troupes and conventions of soap operas are well-trotted ground as far as parodies go. You don't have to travel far to find something making fun of the overheated melodramas and nonsensical plot twist the now dying format is notorious for. It would seem the filmmakers behind “Delirious,” including director Tim Mankiewicz who previously wrote several Bond movies and a couple of Richard Donner's films, where at least partially aware of this. “Delirious” is a somewhat indecisive parody of soaps. The first half is more about Jack responding to the ridiculous soap opera characters. (Which, in a joke that really hasn't aged well, includes a transvestite auto mechanic.) Its only in the second half, when characters suddenly start undergoing massive changes, that the parody aspect comes into focus. There's at least one good gag there, with a character getting super-advanced cancer out of nowhere. It's also sort of cute that the character with amnesia can't remember that he has amnesia.

Another reason I suspect this was by design is because “Delirious” seems more focused on its main character's ability to rewrite the world around him. This also ends up producing the film's too-few big laughs. John Candy rescues a girl by transforming himself into a hyper-competent martial artist. Later, he teleports a surprise cameo out of the film and sends him to Cleveland. After a night of drunken writing, Jack discovers that he's written his high school crush and some egregious typos into the soap opera world. These scenes also play to John Candy's strengths far better than the broader gags. Candy is funnier when reacting with shock and bafflement to his own decisions than he is during excessively wacky gags like a dramatic horse rescue going wrong or a blindfolded driving scene.

“Delirious” has a large supporting cast, most of whom work pretty well. Mariel Hemingway plays Jack's love interest. Mariel is given glasses, a unibrow, and a klutzy streak in an attempt to ugly her up. It doesn't work, of course, but Hemingway at least seems able to play off Candy. Most of the actors playing the soap opera characters happily go over the top. Emma Samms purrs every line as Rachel/Laura, the show's femme fatale. A young Dylan Baker gets some of the film's biggest bits of physical comedy, as the scheming brother struck by sudden illness. Raymond Burr, in his final film role, is nicely dry as the family patriarch. I like how he inherits a running gag about late cablemen. Disgraced SNL player Charles Rocket gets one or two funny lines two, as the guy in the eye patch. There's also a mildly funny cameo midway through, which I won't spoil.

Why Do I Own This?: So “Delirious' really isn't that funny. The film's few good jokes are bordered by quite a few lame gags and clunky moments. Candy is amusing and leads a decent cast but the material is not up to the same snuff. The movie choosing to veer into sincere romantic-comedy near the end, getting serious after eighty minutes of gaggy comedy, is a really poor choice.

So why do I own this one? As has been the case in the past, I blame misplaced nostalgia. I saw it on TV a few times as kid and even had a copy I recorded off television. I'm not sure why I was fond of it, as the film doesn't really hold up that well. There's another one for the discard pile. At least it's better than “Wagons East,” which I also recorded off TV years ago. Even as an impulsive teenager, I had the foresight not to upgrade that one to DVD. [5/10]

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

NO ENCORES: True Stories (1986)

1. True Stories (1986)
Director: David Bryne

I think I've liked every Talking Heads song I've ever heard but I've yet to dive very deeply into the band's music. I've heard all the big radio hits and saw “Stop Making Sense,” which was exactly as dynamic and excellent as everyone says it is. Nevertheless, I was intrigued by what I had heard about “True Stories.” To cover the film for No Encores is a bit of a cheat. David Bryne, the lead singer of Talking Heads, also directed a feature-length concert film in 1994 called “Between the Teeth.” (In addition to several music videos and short films.) However, “True Stories” shows up on many lists devoted to great films that are also their director's only films.

“True Stories” is a loosely plotted film centered around the fictional small town of Virgil, nestled deep in the heart of Texas, and narrated by Bryne. The movie tracks the lives of several eccentric people that live there. Such as a rich woman who never leaves her bed or a civic leader, who works for Varicorp, a computer manufacturing company heavily involved in the town's local events. Eventually, the story comes to center on Louis Fyne, a Varicorp employee who is looking for love and has dreams of becoming a country/western singer. The various plot threads come together at a talent show meant to celebrate the town's 150th anniversary.

“True Stories” seems to be a lightly mocking ode to small town American life in the mid-eighties. Bryne's film frequently examines the intersection between community life and consumerism. Bryne's cowboy hat wearing narrator begins the film by dryly explaining the history of the area, starring with the dinosaurs, winding his way through the various wars and massacres that occurred there, and ending with the businesses that have brought people here. Early on, the Narrator walks through a shopping mall, detailing how these temples to capitalism have become the modern town centers. The “Love for Sale” musical number has the band interacting with various television commercials, some real, some fictional. Miss Rollings eats up these commercials as if they were films, criticizing or congratulating each one.

Other scenes are more quietly critical. Some of Bryne's connecting sequences has him driving through an empty stretch of countryside, noting how it'll be full of houses in a year. This scene is soon followed by shots of empty, identical houses for sale lining the street. Yet despite holding these things up for examination, Bryne does not seem to be actively satirizing them. As in the Talking Head song “(Nothing but) Flowers,” Bryne is equally critical and fond of these things. “True Stories” plays like a slightly detached, bemused observation of where commerce and small town life intertwine.

David Bryne is not from Texas. He was born in Scotland and grew up in Maryland. Neither is anyone else from Talking Heads, the members hailing from Wisconsin, California, and Kentucky.  So it's tempting to look at “True Stories” as a bunch of outsiders making fun of life in the deep South. And parts of “True Stories” is definitely poking fun. The film portrays Virgil as a fairly ridiculous place. A fashion show in the mall involves people dressed in goofy costumes, made up to look like lettuce or buildings. The talent show at the film's end features a bizarre lasso/yodeling performance. There is a degree of smirking at these small town eccentrics.

Their beliefs and behavior especially. “True Stories” was partially inspired by wild stories from supermarket tabloids. So the film takes a look at the some of the odd beliefs flourishing in Virgil. The musical number, “Puzzlin' Evidence,” has a preacher in a packed mega-church delivering a ranting, conspiracy theory-filled sermon about the Trilateral Commission. There appears to be other religions in Virgil, as Louis visits an apparent voodoo priest before one of his dates. A prominent reoccurring character is the Lying Woman. She claims to have slept with Burt Renyolds, to have served in Vietnam with the real Rambo, to have written Elvis' songs, and half a dozen other whoppers. It seems Virgal is a breeding ground for eccentricity. Like any small town, its isolation allows odd beliefs to take hold.

As much as “True Stories” is making fun of weirdos in weird small town, it's also undeniably fond of them too. Even the jokes in the film are laced with warmth. The film presents some of these characters as odd but is very sincere about it. Such as the Cute Woman, who swoons over adorable babies. Or Louis' quest to find a woman who understands him. Yes, the fashion show in the mall is weird and goofy. But there's also something sweet about it, especially when accompanied by the wistful song “Dream Operator.” While it's easy to laugh at some of the talent show performances – like a giant model of a man eating corn? – it's also homemade art, earnestly created by people trying to express something. This sweetly appreciative if giggling attitude is maybe best summed up by a scene where a loving couple hug and kiss in a field... Before the woman asked if the man has farted.

Despite the title, “True Stories” is not attempting to realistically portray the world. There is a heavy edge of surrealism to movie. In an early scene, Bryne's Narrator steps up to a screen projecting a freeway. He then steps inside it and is next seen in a car, driving before an obviously rear-projected screen. Surreal sights like this are peppered all throughout the movie. The “Love for Sale” scene features the members of Talking Heads being transformed into candy bars, which are then eaten. Another musical number features the band interacting with models of buildings, appearing like giants. Among Miss Rollings' house staff is a chattering robot. There's a deliberate artificial edge to many of the movie's scenes. So it's no surprise when the film concludes with Bryne talking about forgetting things, as if he's awakening from a vivid but fleeting dream.

As a director, Bryne's influences are obvious. European art cinema obviously had a big influence on “True Stories,” with its Godard-like white-on-black title cards or neo-realist documentary approach. You can see wisps of John Waters or David Lynch in its love of small town eccentrics  (Though “True Stories” actually came out the same year as “Blue Velvet,” so the resemblance is unintentional. Either way, it's pretty clear the two Daves share some of the same interests.) Considering his past directing music videos, it's not surprising that “True Stories” frequently resembles one. The song sequences could've been clipped out and shown on MTV and few would've noticed they were intended for the network. Even non-musical scenes, like Spalding Gray's dinner table speech about modern life, are choreographed like a dance. Bryne likes to frame large buildings on empty fields in wide shots, making them look like tiny models. All of “True Stories” maintains this perfectly arranged aesthetic.

By focusing more on a whole town, instead of one person, “True Stories” is not truly an actor's movie. Most of the cast members only have a few scenes. Spalding Gray and Annie McEnroe, as the Culvers, give intentionally exaggerated performances, playing oddly inhuman seeming humans. Jo Harvey Allen and Roebuck 'Pops' Staples are cartoonish as the Lying and Lazy Woman. Bryne himself plays the Narrator as an extension of his stage persona as the lead singer of Talking Heads. He's like a curious alien, watching and commenting on the people and their lives without ever feeling like one of them. All of these choices were obviously intentional.

The closest thing the film has to a protagonist is John Goodman's Louis Fyne. Goodman, it turns, is perfectly cast as Bryne's version of a small town working stiff. Goodman, of course, has a marvelous gift for projecting warmth. He plays Fyne as a slightly ditzy – he does share a last name with one of the Three Stoodges – but well meaning man. He hopes to find romance because he hopes to settle down. Yet his dreams of becoming a singer also set him apart from some of the people around him. Thus, Goodman becomes an everyday guy longing for dreams that seem out of reach. There's not a single thing trite or vulgar about the character, who is as sincere and oddly lovable as the movie around, qualities Goodman is an expert at playing.

“True Stories” is also an unusual take on the musical. When the songs kick in, a further sense of unreality takes over. During “Wild Wild Life,” the break-out lead single on the soundtrack, people from the town walk on-stage to sing and are transformed. Bryne assumes the guise of Billy Idol and a mustachioed Latin lover. Another man becomes the spitting image of Prince. The film frequently uses its music to express dreams and illusions. “Dream Operator” is a sincere ode to the goofy models on the runway. When Goodman steps on-stage to sing “People Like Us,” he fulfills his dream of becoming a singer. The music isn't just catchy but its lyrics and melodies are also in line with the movie's oddball sensibilities.

“True Stories” was not a commercial hit in 1986. I can't imagine anyone expected it to be. A movie like this was always going to be a cult oddity. (The Talking Head album of the same name, which featured the band re-recording the movie's songs, was more successful.) Accordingly, the film has attracted a passionate following, some considering it an overlooked classic. It's an enchanting film, full of life and energy, utterly sincere in its love and humor. Bryne mixed his particular interests together to create a lovable motion picture. After your first viewing, it's likely you'll want to visit Virgil again. It's just such a nice place to live. [9/10]

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: Ghost Dad (1990)

We finally live in a time when some women feel like its possible to come forward about the sexual assault and violence they've suffered, even when the responsible party is a beloved pop culture icon. Since this has begun, a few stock reactions have cropped up. I recently saw a brilliant comic mocking one of the most common reactions, the “I never liked this person anyway” reaction. Which will make the following statement from me read as especially insincere but: I always thought there was something off about Bill Cosby. As a stand-up, I frequently found his material amusing. Yet the wholesome, family man image he projected, most obviously on his sitcom, always struck me as somewhat insincere. I guess I never got over the bullshit he put Lisa Bonet through. If I've never been much of a Cosby fan, why do I own “Ghost Dad,” which is not even regarded as an especially good Bill Cosby movie? 

If the title didn't tell you enough, let me lay down the plot of “Ghost Dad” for you. The film follows Elliot Hopper. A recently widowed father of three, he's frequently not at home because he's so busy working. He's so absent that he forgets their birthdays and records their bed time stories to tape. One day, on the way to work, Elliot is picked up by an insane cab driver. Soon, he ends up careening off the edge of a bridge. Hopper awakens as a ghost, believing himself to be dead. He soon learns he can briefly make himself corporeal and goes about trying to return himself to the land of the living.

On the surface, “Ghost Dad” has some things going for it. Behind the camera was Sidney Poitier. Yes, that Sidney Poitier, the Academy Award winning actor who previously directed half-decent comedy “Silver Streak.” The film was co-written by S. S. Wilson and Brent Maddock. This same team had a hand in creating nostalgic favorites like “Tremors,” “Short Circuit,” and “*batteries not included.” Those movies overcame their high concept premise to become decent. “Ghost Dad” does not achieve this goal. Every expected gag is pulled off in as excruciating a manner as possible.

So we get a ghostly Cosby attempting to pass a physical exam, utilizing a skeleton during an x-ray and stealing another man's pee. In jokes right out of a “Casper the Friendly Ghost” cartoon, people react in frightened, exaggerated manners to Cosby's shenanigans. Such as when he wraps himself up like the Invisible Man, makes it look like his youngest daughter is lifting a large trash can or helping his budding magician son pull off outrageous tricks. Most cringe worthy is when he uses his ghostly abilities to torment the sleazeball interested in dating his daughter. Yes, there's even some fart and poop jokes. The non-ghost jokes the film cooks up, like a man having a woman's name, are equally uninspired.

Being a movie about a dad who is also a ghost was not enough of a log line for “Ghost Dad.” The  film follows the standard family movie narrative of a workaholic father who, via fantastical circumstances, learns to make more time for his kids. (Connecting this film with fellow high-concept family movie and previous “Why Do I Own This?” entry,  “My Stepmother is an Alien,” the dad in both films is a widower.) At one point, he chastises his children because he's afraid of loosing his job. Even though he's, you know, dead and his job should be a moot point. In fact, the tension over his job is one of the primary motivators of the plot. Copper has to go through some ridiculous hoops to keep his job, even though he's a fucking ghost. The film's commitment to corny bullshit is confirmed in the last act, when the script wimps out and undoes Copper's ghost status.

When over fifty women accused him of rape, it became impossible to enjoy anything Bill Cosby has ever done. That he frequently played the role of a wise family patriarch just makes everything he did more uncomfortable. “Ghost Dad” is an especially awkward watch. Copper becomes a ghost because he hitches a ride with a devil-worshiping cab driver. The scene builds until Cosby declares himself to be Satan incarnate. Later, there's a scene where Copper's female neighbor, unaware of him being undead, attempts to coax him into a romantic encounter. Yeah, that was unpleasant. Aside from the shitty script, Cosby's in-retrospect status as a monstrous human being makes the ending, where he declares his undying love for his teenage daughter, even harder to swallow.

Why Do I Own This?: There's absolutely no excuse for me owning this stinker. So why do I? Well, you may recall a previous column where I reviewed “King Ralph.” The easiest way to grab that film was in a four pack. And what where the other movies in that set? “Pure Luck,” “For Richer or Poorer,” and “Ghost Dad.” Apparently “shitty, high concept comedies” was the connecting theme in that four film collection. Even if it didn't start a serial rapist, “Ghost Dad” would still be a really shitty movie. The script is garbage and the jokes are limp. [4/10]

Monday, April 16, 2018

NO ENCORES: Not Another Teen Movie (2001)

1. Not Another Teen Movie (2001)
Director: Joel Gallen

When you've been a movie nerd as long as I've been, a certain degree of cynicism is hard to avoid. It's easy to say something like “the parody movie is dead,” even when new classics of the genre like “Black Dynamite” and “They Came Together” creep out every few years. So the parody film might not be dead but it's definitely seen better days. Nearly a decade of steaming garbage like “Meet the Spartans” and “Date Movie,” which didn't make fun of genres so much as just randomly reference trailers and copy scenes, has left the spoof's reputation in shambles.

The “___ Movie” series wouldn't have happened without “Scary Movie” and “Not Another Teen Movie” re-popularizing the parody in the early 2000s. Some, however, have been willing to stand up for the quality of these two movies, despite the awful trend they would spawn. “Not Another Teen Movie, “ in particular, gets singled out for being smarter and better than it seemed. As the sole feature credit of television director Joel Gallen, who probably got this job due to directing several long form parody skits at the MTV Movie Awards, perhaps it does deserve another look.

Shit is going down at John Hughes High School. Football jock Jake has just been dumped by his cheerleader girlfriend Priscilla, who is now dating an artsy-fartsy would-be filmmaker. As revenge, Jake takes up a friend's bet: That he can turn the school's rebellious artist girl, Janney, into prom queen. Jake takes the bet but soon finds himself genuinely attracted to Janney, once she takes off her glasses and lets her hair down. Mixed in there is Janney's younger brother's quest to loose his virginity, the desperate attempts of Janney's best friend to get her romantic attention, and Jake's sister's incestuous desires for her brother, among other things.

Gallen's film targets primarily the teen movies that flourished in the late nineties. The film's A-plot is mostly drawn from “She's All That.” Just in case you didn't get the joke, the film is explicitly referenced several times. The film also throws in direct parodies of “10 Things I Hate About You,” “American Pie,” “Cruel Intentions,” “Never Been Kissed,” “Bring It On,” “Varsity Blues,” and “Road Trip.” (Also “American Beauty,” which I guess is kind of a teen movie.) Occasionally, the homages veer slightly older, with “The Breakfast Club,” “Porky's,” “Ruby,” “Sixteen Candles,” “Ferris Bueller's Day Off,” and “Pretty in Pink” also being ridiculed.

I haven't seen all these movies which means some of the humor is lost on me, which is one of the perils of directly parodying then-recent films. Some of these call-backs are mildly amusing, like the increasingly ridiculous antics of the cheerleaders. Or the elderly journalist sent undercover into the school, which isn't much sillier than a thirty year old Drew Barrymore passing as a teen. Others are somewhat gratuitous, like the incest jokes taken from “Cruel Intentions.” Some even come off as mean-spirited, like the oddly placed jabs at “American Beauty.”

I'll give credits where its due. Unlike later parodies, “Not Another Teen Movie” isn't content to just reference these films. It at least builds jokes around them, as crude or uninspired as they may be. When people talk about “Not Another Teen Movie” being better or smarter than expected, I suspect they're talking about the way the movie riffs on the ideas behind teen movies.  Janney being considered unattractive just because she wears glasses, a ponytail and overalls – the lunacy of which is drawn into sharp contrast by comparing her to literally deformed students – is mocking “She's All That.” It's also mocking the ridiculous standards of beauty in our society.

A token black kid commenting on his own tokenness is goofing on teen flicks but also on how marginalized other races can be. (This is best emphasized during one of the quieter and better gags, when he runs into another token black guy at a party.) The overweight football player suffering repeated concussions is a joke based on “Varsity Blues” but its also commenting on how the real dangers of high school football are often ignored. Let's not give the movie too much credit. The satire is less biting than it is tangential. A smarter, sharper film easily could've been made from this stuff but “Not Another Teen Movie” is not that film.

Ultimately, the gags that made me laugh the most in “Not Another Teen Movie” tend to be more free-wheeling examples of absurdity. In a possible homage to “Pleasentville,” the cheer squad recruits a cheery and wholesome blonde... Who happens to have Tourette's, frequently spending strings of vulgar nonsense. Mr. T has a hilarious cameo as the Wise Janitor, whose advice is actually not that helpful. As does Melissa Joan Hart, who appears to instruct an overeager guy attempting to start a slow clap. These are but two of the high-profile cameos in the film, the best of which is saved for the final act. The transitional end of the second act explodes into a musical number, which is pretty unexpected.

Some of the funniest gags are also the smallest. Like Jake admiring a photo of himself at the school, before walking over to another photo of himself admiring the previous photo. Or Mitch and his friends saying they're setting out on an epic road trip to a party, which lasts about one minute as they drive up the street. Janney's passionately works on her art, with the results being much more whimsical than expected. The movie needed more bits of Zuckerian goofiness like that. Instead of scenes of people being hit by cars or falling down, a style of gaggery the movie leans on too much.

Another thing “Not Another Teen Movie” leans on too much is its considerable crude streak. This is, after all, a film that begins with its female lead's elaborate masturbation ritual going incredibly wrong. Not a minute passes without a reference to some crude sex act or bodily function. Sometimes it gets a laugh, like Cerina Vincent's foreign exchange student spending the entire movie nude, but usually its just gratuitous, the writers going for the easiest jokes. This is most apparent in a scene that begins with a girl peeing on the commode and concludes with a huge fountain of excrement spraying into a class room. Yes, this is extending the sex and shit jokes already existing in teen movies to their most extreme conclusions. But it's also apparent that Gallen and his team just thought poop and other naughty stuff was funny.

Maybe “Not Another Teen Movie's” recent reevaluate is strictly due to its cast. Chris Evans is now one of the star players of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The future Captain America shows himself to be totally game. He plays his ridiculous part to the fullest, embodying the role of a clueless jock idiot without ever winking too much. Not even during the scene where's only wearing whip cream and a suggestively placed banana. Chlyer Leigh, who also has her own superhero cred as the sister on the CW's “Supergirl,” is similarly shameless as Janney, acting her heart out during one ridiculous scene after another. (Leigh was, apparently, in the throes of a serious drug addiction at the time.) Everyone is fairly well cast, from Jaime Pressly as the bitchy cheerleader, Randy Quaid as the shell-shocked war vet dad, to a frequently hilarious Eric Christian Olsen as the cocky blonde guy. The material is mediocre but the cast fucking goes for it.

I don't have much affection for “Not Another Teen Movie.” For every funny bit or memorable gag, there's ten that fail to make me laugh. Mostly, the movie strikes me as overly crass and fairly desperate. The movie was a moderate box office success but the contemporary critical reaction was largely negative. Maybe that's why Joel Gallen has stuck to his music videos, award shows, and TV specials since its release. His direction, fairly flat and uninteresting, definitely reflects his television roots. While I don't besmirch the movie's cult following, “Not Another Teen Movie” gets in its own way a little too often and relies on easy, gross-out far too much. [5/10]

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Series Report Card: The Marx Brothers (1949)

13. Love Happy

The Marx Brothers' movies had been running on fumes for quite a while. After the anarchic highs of those first five Paramount movies, their output at MGM became less and less interesting with each new installment. By the time “The Big Store” limped on-screen, the Brothers rightfully decided to call it quits. They then reunited for “A Night in Casablanca,” which was equally uninspired and lacking in energy. As the forties drew to a close, the Marx Brothers would star in one more movie together. Groucho would dismiss “Love Happy” as the team's worst movie and many Marx Brothers fans agree with him.

The plot concerns a theater company, a friendly tramp, a can of sardines, and a priceless set of diamonds. The wicked Madame Egelichi wants the valuable Royal Romanoff diamonds for herself. She had a henchman hide the diamonds in a can of sardines. Through happenstance, that can would come into the possession of Harpo, a silent street performer. Harpo is friends with Mike and Maggie, two struggling actors attempting to assemble a stage musical called “Love Happy.” Soon, everyone – along with a mind-reader named Faustino and a detective named Sam Grunion – are after the diamonds for different reasons.

If “Love Happy” seems especially disjointed, there's a good reason for it. The film was conceived not as a proper Marx Brothers movie but as a solo vehicle for Harpo. That's all too apparent, as Harpo easily has the most screen time of the three. Supposedly do to his notorious gambling debts, Harpo insisted Chico have a role in the film. After Chico came on-board, the producers insisted all three Brothers appear in the film. Thus Groucho was added in the role of a narrator who barely interacts with the other two. This makes “Love Happy” a pseudo-Marx Brothers movie, an odd compromise that doesn't satisfy anyone.

As a Harpo starring feature, “Love Happy” is only mildly successful. The film actually works best when it puts comedy aside. There's a key scene where Harpo tries to perk up the sad heroine. He performs silly visual gags and listens intently. It's a sweet moment that even veers towards the surreal, when Harpo enters his shanty lean-too and has a wordless conversation with a pet duck. (It also sets up the inevitable harp playing scene, which is at least incorporate organically into the story, if not the pacing.) Considering Harpo has always been the most child-like of the Brothers, that sweetness is a good fit for him. If the movie abandoned broad gags in favor of slightly surreal whimsy, it probably would've been a lot better.

Even this late into their career, Harpo still had the most energy of the three brothers. Very few of the gags he's given are especially inspired. Jokes involving Harpo quickly catching food in his pockets or grabbing stuff with an extending ice-clamp are pretty lame. A long sequence where Harpo is tortured by the bad guys goes on and on, never getting a laugh from the viewer. There are a couple of quick little gags I like. When the villains are looking for the diamonds, they pull all sorts of items out of his coat pockets, including a sled and a barking dog. Later, the Madame stomps her foot in one room, causing Harpo to yelp in the other room. I also like it when he checks his hair in a mirror, only to turn it around and look at the back of his head.

Chico's role in the movie is fairly small. He has a few scenes with Harpo and a couple of gags on his own. (He never interacts with Groucho.) Once again, there's a scene where Harpo explains stuff to Chico using a game of charades. Of all the times the two have done this, this is by far the least inspired. Naturally, he also has a piano playing scene, a duet with a violin player that is mildly amusing. He also contributes one of the dirtiest jokes I've ever seen in a Marx Brothers movie. Upon seeing Egelichi, her dress blowing in the wind and rendered semi-transparent by the lighting, his hat noticeably grows. I can't believe they got away with that one.

If Chico's role in the movie is small, Groucho's role feels like an afterthought. Mostly, he hangs out in his detective office and narrates scenes, somewhere between being a omniscient narrator and an actual character in the story. It's not until the last act that he actively enters the plot at all. Groucho, who was sporting a real mustache by this point thanks to “You Bet Your Life,” is noticeably disinterested in these affairs. He gets one or two funny lines. One's about hiding an elephant. Another is when he attempts to frisk the villainess. His scenes were apparently not filmed apart from the rest of the movie but it certainly feels that way. Groucho's heart was obviously not in this one.

The non-Marx heroes of “Love Happy” are about as boring as usual. Paul Valentine's male lead is especially snore-inducing. The female side of things are slightly more compelling. Vera-Ellen, already a respected dancer by this point, at least projects a sense of vulnerability and sweetness as Maggie. Ilona Massey appears as Madame Egelichi. As a devoted fan of classic monster movies, I immediately recognized Massey from “Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman” and “Invisible Agent.” Massey, with her exotic accent and cold beauty, is perfectly cast as the steely and villainous countess. She also proves to be a formidable straight woman to the Marxes, playing along nicely and never cracking up. However, she still can't save a baffling scene where the Madame seemingly hypnotizes Harpo.

After the music taking a back seat in “A Night in Casablanca,” “Love Happy” returns to being a full-blown musical. Naturally, being set among actors performing in the theater, there's plenty of singing and dancing. As a musical, it's fairly weak. There's a likable scene, the so-called Sadie Hawkins number, where Ellen dances for a series of sailors. The choreography is interesting. None of the songs are too memorable, though the title track is mildly catchy. There's certainly no classics on the level of “Hoo-ray for Captain Spaulding” or “Lydia the Tattooed Lady.”

“Love Happy” is notable for another reason. It's an early example of product placement being used in a movie. Supposedly the production ran low on cash mid-way through. This led to a climatic chase across the rooftops, where Harpo interacts with a number of billboards. The advertisement are actually story relevant, with Harpo being saved by a cloud of smoke from a cigarette billboard. Or riding a neon light sigh across a roof top. Yes, this is “Love Happy's” required excessively wacky climax. No, it's not any funnier than the last couple times the Brothers' movies did this. The chase scene is interesting more for the heavy presence of product placement than anything else.

Aside from being the final Marx Brothers movie, “Love Happy” is notorious for another reason. It features an early appearance from Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn, immediately recognizable, appears as the sexy client who enters Groucho's office in one brief scene. Unsurprisingly, later posters and VHS releases would heavily promote her role in the movie. For the most part, “Love Happy” represents the Marx Brothers' cinematic journey limping to a sad conclusion. It's interesting more for the circumstances surrounding its creation than its content. As a comedy, it sadly fails, producing far too few laughs. The energy and chaos of the Brothers' earliest masterpieces are long gone, replaced with mediocre gags. “Love Happy” is a movie you're unlikely to love, that probably won't make you happy. [5/10]

"Love Happy" was not exactly the of the Marx Brothers' cinematic careers. All three brothers had cameos in "The Story of Mankind," though not together. Groucho starred in two movies of his own, "Copacabana" and "A Girl in Every Port," but found his greatest post-1940s career on television. In fact, Groucho's TV career would keep him in the public eye long after Harpo and Chico fell off the map. Look at the endearing cultural symbolism of the Groucho glasses. I guess, in 2018, the Marx Brothers are mostly known among movie nerds, their cultural significance long receding. But, I don't know, I still think they're pretty funny.  

Series Report Card: The Marx Brothers (1946)

12. A Night in Casablanca

“The Big Store” was meant to be the Marx Brothers' final cinematic offering. Yet, five years later, the three would reunite for “A Night in Casablanca.” I had always assumed that the film came about because some producer had the ill-conceived idea of reuniting a successful comedy team, long after they had given up the ghosts. Apparantly, however, the Marx Brothers themselves were the driving force behind “A Night in Casablanca.” The three produced the film, developing and sharpening the material with a road show before filming began. Why would the Marxes return to theater screens after saying they were done? Supposedly, the movie was made primarily to help Chico pay off his gambling debts. I don't know if this is true but, if it is, it says a lot about “A Night in Casablanca.”

As the title indicates, the film is indeed set in the Morocan city of Casablanca. Following World War II, an escaped Nazi officer is hiding out in the country, at the Hotel Casablanca. He hopes to reclaim the stolen Nazi treasure left inside the hotel. He's killed three managers to hide his identity. The latest manager, a largely incompetent oddball named Ronald Kornblow, is not so easy to deal with. Soon, Kornblow is paired up with a self-proclaimed and a mischievous (and silent) valet. They quickly become a thorn in the Nazi's side.

“A Night in Casablanca” is probably best known today for something that has nothing to do with the film itself. An urban legend, partially perpetrated by Groucho himself, says that the producers of “Casablanca” threatened the movie with a lawsuit unless they changed the name. This story is absolutely not true. However, it is clear that “A Night in Casablanca” was partially inspired by the legend Bogart/Bergman classic. But only in the loosest sense. Aside from its setting and its story involving Nazi officers, “A Night in Casablanca” has nothing to do with the other film. It can not be considered a parody. If anything, it was cashing in on the more popular film's title.

There's not too much interesting about “A Night in Casablanca,” except for one minor details. In his autobiography, Harpo would write about traveling through Europe in the years before World War II and being disturbed by the rising antisemitism he witnessed. What does that have to do with “A Night in Casablanca?” Like the majority of the trio's films, the plot features the mischievous brothers messing with various squares and stuffed shirts. Except, this time, the square just happens to be a former Nazi. Aside from one line from Groucho, a sarcastic reference to “the master race,” the film never acknowledges that it's about three Jews pestering a Nazi officer. Yet it certainly adds an interesting layer to the proceedings.

Groucho does produce some laughs here. One of his funniest lines is easily missed. It occurs near the film's end, when he turns to Harpo and says he “doesn't want to hear another word” from him. Haha. Though noticeably lacking in energy, Groucho still gives it his all. He cracks jokes about chewing gum to a camel. He harasses a cook by complaining about eggs. One of his funnier little lines occur when a complaining caller asks about his “trunks.” One of his best scenes has him flirting and joking with the film's femme fatale, making fun of her cigarette holder and cracking wise about lost and find.

Harpo is the first Marx Brother we see in “A Night in Casablanca.” He's introduced leaning against a building which collapses once he steps away. He does get some big laughs early on. The scenes of him messing with the bad guy, including sucking his toupee into a vacuum cleaner and messing with his jacket, are early highlights. That energy collapses during a long and largely lifeless scene, where he gets into a sword fight. There's a scene where he pantomimes taking a phone call from Salt Lake City by throwing salt at the receiver. Some of Harpo's bit recall gags in earlier movies. Such as when he starts eating candles and tea cups. Or when he combines the old leg-grabbing gag with a cigarette-eating shoe. It's not top-tier stuff but is worth a chuckle or two.

Once again, Chico gets the short end of the stick. He's mostly reduced following his Brothers around, rarely contributing too many jokes of his. His funniest stand-alone line involves a gag around the name of his camel taxi service. This leads to an amusing conversation with Groucho, about the difference between Chico's daytime and nighttime business, that almost makes it seem like the magic is back. Recalling a scene in “A Day at the Races,” there's a scene where Harpo has to explain a plot detail to Chico through pantomime. It's funny at first but definitely goes on way too long. Chico is also at the center of another gag that's funny at first but goes on too long. The trio are hiding from the villain in his room, hiding in suits, trunks, and closest, always just avoiding detection.

Being produced by the Brothers themselves, “A Night in Casablanca” mostly pushes the boring romantic leads to the side. Charles Drake, as the heroic Lt. Delmar, strikes one as a mildly compelling matinee idol type. Lois Collier is pretty as the female lead but isn't given much more to do besides that. The villainous subplot gets more attention. Sig Ruman, as the hiding Nazi, is likable hammy. He certainly digs into his ridiculous accent. Lisette Verea, as the femme fatale, probably gives my favorite performance in the film. She vamps nicely and has a rapport with Groucho during their scenes together.

Unlike most of the Marx Brothers' films, “A Night in Casablanca” is not really a musical. There's only one proper song. The lounge singer performs a rendition of “Who's Sorry Now?,” a song from 1923 that made its cinematic debut here. You might recognize the song, as it has been covered by many different performers, with Connie Francis' 1958 version being the most successful. Aside from that, “A Night in Casablanca” is pretty low on songs. Chico has his standard piano sequence. It's pretty fun, as he soon has the whole band intimated his movements. Harpo, after uncovering the hidden treasure, finds a harp to play. This scene is less memorable.

As has become all too common place now with the Marxes, “A Night in Casablanca” wraps up with another excessively wacky finale. This one begins with the bad guys escaping on an airplane. The heroes leap aboard, climbing across on a ladder. There's exaggerated fighting and shuffling on the plane. Soon, the plane gets airborne before crashing into the wall of a prison. Even that isn't quite the ending of “A Night in Casablanca.” Once again, there's very few laughs to be had in this extended climax, the movie collasping into some especially desperate physical comedy, far too wacky to be enjoyed.

Ultimately, “A Night in Casablanca” doesn't quite justify its own existence. As a parody of “Casablanca,” it could not be more half-assed. As a Marx Brothers reunion movie, it doesn't really distinguish itself from the Brothers' increasingly weak MGM output. Just as a comedy, it's pretty lacking in laughs, only getting a handful of chuckles that quickly fade from memory. I don't know how successful “A Night in Casablanca” was at the box office but hopefully it at least served its purpose of paying off Chico's gambling debts. Otherwise, the movie really didn't need to exist at all. [Grade: C]