Saturday, March 19, 2016

National Lampoon: Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead

Year 8, Day 78 - 3/18/16 - Movie #2,279

BEFORE: Well, I had good luck last year with a week's worth of documentaries, on topics like art and sports figures and internet issues - it was a great break from narratives, and a look at a type of film that just I haven't paid enough attention to.  I enjoyed it so much that I kept my eyes open for more docs, and I think this year I'll probably space them out more, provided that they're relative to the topic at hand.  I've got two documentaries about Batman and Superman, and I'm going to work them into the upcoming Batman/Superman week, in honor of their first feature film together.

And Bill Murray is in here somewhere, carrying over from "St. Vincent", though I don't know if he gets interviewed or just appears in stock footage - either way, it counts. 

THE PLOT:  A look at the history of the American comedy publication and production company, National Lampoon, from its beginning in the 1970s to 2010.

AFTER: Documentaries are all about learning, and I realized that I knew almost nothing about National Lampoon, the magazine - all I really knew was that the company had produced films like "Animal House" and the "Vacation" series, pretty much the templates for all the teen-college and road-trip comedies that followed.  Before that, I knew there was a magazine and some compilation books that I used to peek at in bookstores, before I was old enough to appreciate adult humor.  

I didn't even know for sure what the connection was between the Harvard Lampoon and the National Lampoon - it turns out two guys from the Harvard Lampoon, Douglas Kenney and Henry Beard, were forced to graduate Harvard at some point and go out into the real world, and what they really wanted to do was to keep putting out the type of smart-ass, satirical publication they made in college, and the first thing they wrote was a Tolkien parody book called "Bored of the Rings", and I happen to own a copy of this.  Then they were hired to take over an issue of Mademoiselle magazine, and do whatever they wanted, even make a parody of a fashion mag, as long as the clothes were properly showcased. 

The first few issues of the National Lampoon magazine were style parodies of other mags, like Playboy or Cosmopolitan, and then once the magazine gained an identity of its own, it was filled with humor and nudity and cartoons and shocking articles about sex.  Michael O'Donoghue (one of the first writers for SNL) came on board, and so did Tony Hendra, a British comic who's probably best known now for playing Ian Faith, the band manager in "This Is Spinal Tap".  John Hughes was a writer, Michael Gross was an art director, and Sam Gross did very dark cartoons.  P.J. O'Rourke was an editor at some point, and then when the old guard stepped down, people like Al Jean and Mike Reiss stepped in, before heading out to L.A. to work on TV shows like "The Simpsons". 

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  A lot of the film is about Douglas Kenney, who I never heard of before.  He's the guy in "Animal House" that you don't remember seeing in any other film, the guy with glasses and hair sticking up who leads the marching band into that alleyway during the parade sequence.  He seemed to have been a brilliant satirist, doing spot-on style impressions of Thackeray, then proving he could fit his whole fist in his mouth.  After a few years working on the magazine, he "dropped out" to live in Maine and write a novel, but apparently preferred to spend his time stoned on the beach, covering himself in mud.  But he was convinced to come back to New York and work on the magazine again.  

The magazine people then decided to conquer other mediums, first with a stage-play called "Lemmings", a parody of Woodstock where instead of a festival devoted to peace, the idea was that the band and all of its fans had gathered together to commit mass suicide.  For this they hired a bunch of actors out of Second City, like John Belushi and Christopher Guest, and when work began on the National Lampoon radio shows, people like Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Harold Ramis and Gilda Radner joined in.  If that line-up's looking a little familiar, it's because National Lampoon was offered a comedy/variety show on Saturday nights on NBC, and when they turned it down, many of the writers and actors moved over to join the first cast of "Saturday Night Live".  

Meanwhile, National Lampoon was looking to get into making movies, where the real money was, and this explains how Belushi was cast, and then Doug Kenney also produced "Caddyshack", which should have been called "National Lampoon's Caddyshack", but wasn't for some reason.  

A lot of documentaries have to fight this so-called "talking head" syndrome, where it's just one interview after another, which tends to get boring after a time.  Whoever cut this together did a great job of using artwork and cartoons from the magazine to break things up, plus some animations that are based on the original magazine art.  And the influence of National Lampoon on modern comedy is undeniable, as stated by the notable comedians and actors who testify to the magazine's greatness.  However, a lot of the actors from films like "Animal House" and "Vacation" are only shown in very small doses, I guess because in the end this is really about the magazine and not the movies. 

But this tied a lot of threads together for me, not just in my mental history of American comedy, but also with appearances from a number of actors who popped up already this week or last week.  And I watched a number of parodies this week, like "Spy" and "The Brady Bunch Movie" - those might never have existed without the groundbreaking parody work that was done by National Lampoon in the 1970's and 80's.  We're in a very fertile news period now, and while the absence of the Lampoon is felt, because of it, we have SNL and The Daily Show and late-night talk shows picking up the slack.

Also starring Kevin Bacon (last seen in "The Big Picture"), Tim Matheson (last seen in "A Very Brady Sequel"), Chevy Chase (last seen in "Hot Tub Time Machine"), John Goodman (last seen in "Masked and Anonymous"), Judd Apatow, Tony Hendra, John Landis, Meat Loaf, Ivan Reitman, Billy Bob Thornton (last seen in "The Judge"), Beverly D'Angelo (last seen in "Pacific Heights"), Henry Beard, Christopher Buckley, Michael Gross, Sam Gross, Janis Hirsch, Peter Kleinman, Al Jean, Chris Miller, Martha Smith, P.J. O'Rourke, with archive footage of John Belushi (last seen in "Goin' South"), Richard Belzer (also last seen in "A Very Brady Sequel"), John Candy (last seen in "She's Having a Baby"), Christopher Guest (last seen in "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian"), Marshall McLuhan, Gilda Radner, Harold Ramis, John Updike. 

RATING: 6 out of 10 topless models

Friday, March 18, 2016

St. Vincent

Year 8, Day 77 - 3/17/16 - Movie #2,278

BEFORE:  The end of the Melissa McCarthy sequence is also the start of a Bill Murray sequence, that's just how these things tend to go.  Once I saw the opportunity to tie this film's title in with St. Patrick's Day, I knew it had to go here.  Especially since I don't have anything blatantly Irish left on the list.

THE PLOT: A young boy whose parents have just divorced finds an unlikely friend and mentor in the misanthropic, bawdy, hedonistic war veteran who lives next door.

AFTER: This feels like a film that would have done very well at film festivals (Yep, it won awards at the Aspen Filmfest, Chicago International and Toronto International) because it's got that sort of dark outlook, but wrapped around a sweet center, with just enough crunchy coconut on top.  It hits all of the right notes for an indie film that you expect to see at festivals, in that it's not about spies or superheroes saving the world, it's just a slice-of-life portrait of people trying to make the best of things, muddling through life and weathering all of the challenges.  See also: "Everything Must Go", "Boyhood", "Away We Go", "Trees Lounge", "Sunshine Cleaning", "Little Miss Sunshine", etc. 

My instinct to program this for St. Patrick's Day proved to be spot on.  The film centers on Oliver, a young boy who's just transferred to a Catholic school in Queens, NY, even though he may be Jewish (he's not sure...but isn't there someone he can ask?) and soon after, the class begins studying what it means to be a saint.  And the name of the school?  Wait for it...St. Patrick's!  

A homework assignment late in the film tasks the young boy to investigate someone he knows, or someone in the news, to determine if they meet the qualifications for sainthood, on an every-day level.  Namely, do they take care of other people's needs before their own, do they sacrifice for others and do they work for promoting peace in the world.   For some reason, Oliver selects to profile his next-door neighbor, who watches him for a few hours after school while his mother works, even though Vincent takes him to bars, strip clubs and the racetrack.  Oh, and Vincent is a long-term client of a Russian prostitute/stripper, is deep in gambling debt with a negative balance at the bank, and is generally rude and angry at the world.  

But hey, he loves his cat, so he can't be all bad.  We later learn Vincent has a wife with Alzheimer's who he visits frequently, and of course this goes a long way toward humanizing him.  Other setbacks happen which make us want to root for him, and of course, you can't go wrong if you cast Bill Murray in a role like this.   I recently watched part of "Larger Than Life", late at night when my main movie had ended, and I had it on in the background while scanning the next day's programming for new material.  I hadn't seen that film since 1996, and mostly it's about Bill Murray's character trying to get across the country with an elephant, and everything goes wrong.  Silly movie, perhaps, but if you're looking for someone to be down on his luck, in a situation that's spiraling out of control who can STILL be funny, Murray's your man.  W.C. Fields once said about acting, "Never work with animals or children", but Bill Murray didn't seem to heed that advice.  

What's cute is the justification here for bad behavior.  Taking a kid to the racetrack?  Well, he learned about playing the odds, so that's math.  Paying the kid to mow the (non-existent) lawn?  Economics.  The strip club?  Biology.  And the bar is Social Studies, I suppose.   

Also starring Bill Murray (last seen in "She's Having a Baby"), Naomi Watts (last seen in "Mulholland Dr."), Jaeden Lieberher, Chris O'Dowd (last seen in "Friends With Kids"), Terrence Howard (last seen in "Prisoners"), Kimberly Quinn, Lenny Venito (last seen in "Rounders"), Ann Dowd (last seen in "Apt Pupil"), Donna Mitchell, Dario Barosso, with cameos from Nate Corddry (last seen in "Girl Most Likely"), Scott Adsit (last heard in "Big Hero 6"), Reg. E. Cathey.

RATING: 6 out of 10 CAT scans

Thursday, March 17, 2016


Year 8, Day 76 - 3/16/16 - Movie #2,277

BEFORE: What a difference a day makes - just yesterday we were driving back from 2 days in Connecticut, filled with gambling, buffets, outlet mall shopping and high-class bowling, and today I was getting a root canal.  It was scheduled for April 6, but there was a cancellation and they were able to move up my appointment.  Gee, thanks, what a nice surprise.  I mean, I know it has to be done, might as well get it over with and all that, but what a downer after a nice two-day trip.  And this was just the surgery part with the drilling and the filling, I don't even get the crowns until next Friday, so my front tooth is still chipped for another week - because the guy who does the root canal doesn't also do the cosmetic dentistry, so I have to go back AGAIN.  I'm sure someone's getting rich off of turning my dental work into a scheduling nightmare.  

More troubles trying to record Jerry Lewis films tonight - once again, the TCM channel was off-line for several hours in the late-night/early am time period, so I missed another three films.  I got "The Bellboy", but now that will be on the watchlist as a reminder that several other Jerry Lewis films failed to record, and so I'll have the option when I get there of tracking them down some other way.  It can't be a coincidence that only THAT channel disappeared from the line-up between 11 pm and 2 am - either TCM is engaged in some bitter dispute with Time Warner over late night viewing rights, or else the ghost of Dean Martin just doesn't want me to watch any Jerry Lewis solo films. 

Melissa McCarthy carries over from "Tammy", obviously.

THE PLOT:  A desk-bound CIA analyst volunteers to go undercover to infiltrate the world of a deadly arms dealer, and prevent global disaster. 

AFTER: There have been many spoof films made in the spy genre - of course the most popular are films like "Austin Powers" and "Johnny English", but back in the day we also had "Top Secret!" and "Spy Hard" and before that there was "Our Man Flint" and the "Get Smart" TV show.  Most of them hearken back to James Bond, of course, but it matters whether someone is doing a direct rip-off, or a parody, or in this case, just a general spy-themed comedy.  Which unfortunately places it somewhere along the lines of "Spies Like Us", "Zoolander" or "The Man Who Knew Too Little".  

What also matters is whether the central character is deadpan serious, or goofy but effective, or just plain clueless.  And yes, those are different approaches to the same thing.  Lord knows I had my share of clueless characters earlier this week with the "Brady Bunch" films, so I was glad to find out that the characters in this film are not completely in the dark about things.  Because then you get a film like "The Man Who Knew Too Little", where Bill Murray thought he was surrounded by actors only pretending to be real spies, and you can only keep that charade going for so long.  

Instead we're presented with real spies in this film, who know that they're spies, and they appear to be fairly decent ones.  But here's the problem - there's just no consistency throughout the film.  You can have competent spies (James Bond) or incompetent ones (Austin Powers), all I ask is that you keep them consistent.  The characters in "Spy" seem to all change their abilities and attitudes every five minutes, which leads to many comic situations, but by the end, nobody can even remember which side they're on - and if they're confused, the audience is bound to be confused.  

Don't get me wrong, I like reversals - you've got to have reversals, those little minor plot twists, because they often are the best way to show character growth AND surprise the audience here and there with a little shock effect.  But just not this MANY - there are enough reversals in this film to make your head spin around, to the point where there's just not enough solid ground to lay down the foundation for a coherent story.  

Starting at the beginning - we've got a main character who's competent at being an agent's assistant (their eyes and ears in the field), but then she's not so competent, because that agent gets himself killed.  But then it's revealed that she IS competent, she's passed all of her training, she only worked as an assistant for 10 years because she was so attracted to that agent.  But this also means that she's NOT competent, because she put her own dreams on hold to have a subservient job, which is an earmark of insecurity and self-doubt.  But then she declares once again that she IS competent, and that she deserves to go out into the field to track down the agent's killer.  But then as soon as she gets out on her assignment, she's wracked with self-doubt and declares that she's not ready, so once again, she's NOT competent.  

I swear, this sort of back-and-forth thing goes on for the ENTIRE film, to the point of annoyance.  Can't anything stay defined for more than 5 minutes without any backtracking?  Here's a typical conversation between Susan, the competent/incompetent lead character, and Rick Ford, the more experienced (yet somehow also more accident-prone) rogue spy working the same case.  Susan: "This is my case, get out of here, you're going to screw it up."  Rick: "No, this is MY case, get out of here, you're going to screw it up."  Susan: "No, this is MY case, get out of here, you're going to screw it up!"  And so on, and so on.  Every point gets argued, every little defining moment gets challenged, every fact revealed is dispelled later on - in the end I couldn't put my finger on anything that didn't add up to sheer nonsense.  

There's a character who's an Italian agent, and acts in a very stereotypical Italian way, and then at the end he suddenly has an English accent, OK, so he was an English agent under cover, that's honestly a bit clever, I thought.  No, wait, he was only kidding, he was just pretending to be an English agent pretending to be an Italian agent.  God, this was more confusing than the gender-bending in "Victor/Victoria", with a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman.

Other variations on this abound, with more reversals leading to story problems.  First Susan wants to kill the female villain, then she's told to stay away from her, so naturally she goes looking for her.  Then when she finds her, her first instinct is to kill her, but she sees someone trying to poison her, so this leads to her alerting her and saving her life.  Huh?  That doesn't logically follow.  Sure, it leads to gaining her trust and this turns out to be a positive move, but she didn't know that at the time.  Plus, like everything else in this film, it's a plotline that only lasts for a few minutes before the rules all change again anyway.  

Plus, and I wasn't going to go there, but my hand is forced - is she shy or is she bold?  Is she smart or is she inexperienced?  Is she athletic or is she overweight?  She simply can't be all of these things at once, and a story shouldn't require a character to try and cover so many bases. 

In the midst of it all, there are also a few jokes that go absolutely nowhere.  For some reason, the CIA headquarters is infested with mice, and then bats.  To what end?  First off, I don't believe that a high-tech organization like the CIA would not have any budget to keep themselves vermin-free, and then assuming that there was some kind of infestation, why wouldn't they deal with this problem quickly and efficiently?  Ok, maybe it's funny to someone to see some bats flying around (not to me) but even as a joke, it's a joke without a punchline or a payoff.  So there are bats in CIA headquarters, so what? 

It seemed like the film was trying to have it both ways, to have genuine action sequences AND also be taken as a comedy.  Nope, you can't have your cake and eat it too.  You've got to either go full parody, like "Austin Powers", or else play it straight.  Oh, and NITPICK POINT, I know you're trying to make fun of a Bond film, but that doesn't make it OK to cast so many British people as CIA agents.  Sure, it's possible that the CIA might recruit some Brits, but I'd imagine most U.S. spies would speak like Americans.  

Well, I had some REAL spy/action films about a week ago, with the "Olympus Has Fallen" films, and more are on the way this month, after a few more comedies.  

Also starring Jude Law (last seen in "Anna Karenina"), Jason Statham (last seen in "The Expendables 3"), Allison Janney (also carrying over from "Tammy"), Rose Byrne (last seen in "28 Weeks Later"), Bobby Cannavale (last seen in "The Night Listener"), Peter Serafinowicz, Michael McDonald, Morena Baccarin, Miranda Hart, Will Yun Lee (last seen in "The Wolverine"), Julian Miller, Nargis Fakhri, with cameos from Ben Falcone (also carrying over from "Tammy"), 50 Cent (last seen in "Escape Plan").

RATING: 5 out of 10 phony passports