Saturday, July 16, 2016

Nice Dreams

Year 8, Day 198 - 7/16/16 - Movie #2,398

BEFORE: OK, a couple bits of business before I get to tonight's review.  First off, the title dilemma, which is proving to be something of a problem.  As with last night's film - is this film's proper title "Nice Dreams", or "Cheech & Chong's Nice Dreams"?  The poster image suggests that I include the name of its two stars, as does my cable programming guide, but the IMDB title suggests that I leave them off, as does Wikipedia, and the opening credit sequence.  So I'm in favor of letting the title be the title, and not including the possessive, but I'll probably have to re-visit the issue tomorrow. 

Secondly, this is the third of the films Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong made together, but I'm watching it second.  And their second film, I plan to watch fourth.  Why?  Because there's an actress in film #2 who I'm using for my lead-out, and this just happens to put a political-themed film right after the start of the Republican Convention.  If I planned this, I did so subconsciously, but I'm going to roll with it - I've learned to appreciate the little coincidences that the gods of scheduling throw my way.  

Finally, I need to announce the first-ever re-watch in the history of the project.  With nearly 2,400 films under my belt in under 8 years, it's extremely rare that I've found the time to watch any film more than once.  (I think the exceptions to this have only been seeing "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" twice, and watching "Whiplash" a second time to show it to my mother.)  But specifically to re-visit a film for the purposes of possibly altering its score, so far I've never done that.  The film is "The Slammin' Salmon", and I watched it a few years back, by myself - since then, my wife watched it on a friend's recommendation, and she told me it was hilarious.  Apparently I didn't find it to be that funny, even though I enjoy the other films from the Broken Lizard comedy troupe, particularly "Beerfest" and "Super Troopers".  If I stumble on either of those on cable, I'll usually watch to the end.  

And in re-watching the film, I realized a few mistakes I made.  #1 - I watched an edited version of the film, which aired on Comedy Central.  However, in my defense, no premium channels were running it at the time.  #2 - I watched it alone, which can make a comedy less funny.  These things should sometimes be shared, however, again in my defense, my wife had no interest in the film when I watched it.  We all come to these things in our own time, which is why it took me several decades to get around to Cheech & Chong.  

OK, so the bottom line, after watching "The Slammin' Salmon" together today - I'll admit the comedy is funnier than I remember, perhaps I was having an off day or was in a bad mood.  But I still maintain that it's not nearly as funny, for whatever reason, as "Beerfest" or "Super Troopers".  It's all about context, perhaps.  But I still can't get over some very fundamental story problems.  Which is weird, because when I watched the new "Ghostbusters", I didn't get all bent out of shape and say, "This is such crap, because ghosts aren't real!"  If a movie is funny enough, it shouldn't matter.  When I say, "Yeah, but a real restaurant wouldn't be run this way..." it means that the movie didn't go far enough away from reality to get me to suspend my disbelief.  

THE PLOT:  Disguised as ice cream vendors, Cheech and Chong make--and subsequently lose--millions of dollars selling a batch of marijuana with an unusual side effect.

AFTER: It's appropriate, I suppose, that I brought up the issue of how far a comedy should stray from reality.  It's worth debating, I suppose, what I call the "Buy-In".  I think some people can just turn off their minds and enjoy a comedy, and sometimes that's exactly what you're supposed to do, but I sometimes find it difficult.  Like I said, for "Ghostbusters" the buy-in would involve believing ghosts are real, but the movie (both versions) sort of leads you into it slowly.  For "Star Wars", the buy-in involves believing in life on other planets, and that there's futuristic technology there, even though the film is set in the past.  Then there's that whole scrawl about galactic war and rebellion and stuff, but even though the buy-in is high, the pay-off makes it worthwhile.  

So if there's a high buy-in here, it concerns two slackers selling marijuana from a converted ice-cream truck that has "Happy Herbs" written on the side, and other such altered lettering which would make it blatantly obvious to anyone with a brain what they're really selling - and this was back in 1981, long before pot was legal anywhere, including California.  Or that they could make millions doing this, when together they don't seem smart enough to even DRIVE the truck, let alone profit from it.  Then we come to the side-effects of their genetically-altered drugs, which seem to be turning people into a whole different species, yet this is not intended as a horror or sci-fi film.  

Maybe I'm overthinking things.  Maybe I demand too much from a comedy - it's got to land in a pocket that's closer than this to reality, but still be outlandish enough to entertain.  Maybe these guys were just 30 or so years ahead of their time, and they accidentally predicted legal marijuana, genetically modified produce and its hazardous effects, not to mention the inadequacies of California's mental health programs.  A couple of Nostra-dumbasses, I guess.  

But as I said last night, I feel that I'm outside this film's target audience.  And not just because I don't partake (par-toke?) but because I can't switch off the part of my brain that demands that things make sense, even within the reality that they create for themselves.  I look for logic and structure and dramatic devices perhaps where others don't, and when things don't connect properly the way I feel they should in a movie, it comes across to me (more or less) as nonsense.  Right or wrong, I look for ways that things could be "better" according to the language of film. 

So I'm just going to take a step back and regard this as the story of two men failing upwards, and in that sense, it's really no different from the antics of Abbott & Costello, or Martin & Lewis.  All of these teams had their time and place, as did the Marx Brothers, Hope & Crosby, Bob & Doug McKenzie, the Blues Brothers, and so forth until you get to modern films like "The Heat" or "The Hangover".

Also starring Stacy Keach (also carrying over from "Up in Smoke"), Peter Jason (last seen in "Sunset"), Tim Rossovich (last seen in "Stick"), Evelyn Guerrero, Paul "Pee-Wee" Reubens, Michael Masters, Suzanne Kent, with cameos from Tony Cox, Sandra Bernhard, Shelby Chong, Timothy Leary, Michael Winslow.

RATING: 4 out of 10 straight jackets

Friday, July 15, 2016

Up in Smoke

Year 8, Day 197 - 7/15/16 - Movie #2,397

BEFORE: Ok, so the possessive dilemma is back tonight - what is the title of this film?  IMDB just lists it as "Up in Smoke", but it's on that list of 1,001 Movies to See Before You Die as "Cheech & Chong's Up in Smoke".  The poster is no help, nor is the title in the opening credits of the film, because they both include the names of the film's two stars, which according to the IMDB, is NOT part of the title.  I'm siding with the IMDB, because I choose to, and I hate including the possessives.  

My linking tonight is tenuous, since "The Cocoanuts" was a linking dead-end.  Adding another Marx Brothers film would not have helped - but an indirect link here has always been part of my plan.  So Groucho Marx was also in the short film "Showdown at Ulcer Gulch", along with Edie Adams, who appears in "Up in Smoke".  
Also part of my plan WAS (past tense) watching a few of these Cheech & Chong films online, because I only had two in my collection, but wouldn't you know it, just a couple of weeks ago, one cable channel decided to run two more of their films, which was very nice of them.  I'm always happy when I leave a slot open for a film, and then cable helps me out by running the film shortly before that.  It makes me feel like there's divine providence in my system, or I'm some kind of psychic when it comes to cable programming.  So now I've got four slots left before the next century mark, and also four Cheech & Chong films to watch.  I think I'll skip the missing two, there's probably no need to be a completist here. 

THE PLOT:  Two stoners unknowingly smuggle a van - made entirely of marijuana - from Mexico to L.A., with incompetent Sgt. Stedenko on their trail.

AFTER: In a way, this is just another natural progression - I covered the films of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis last month, and that (indirectly) led into Abbott & Costello, which led into the Marx Brothers.  But this is a comedy team that I have no familiarity with - I've never seen a Cheech & Chong film before, and I grew up during the 1980's!  I was very familiar with some of their routines, which were played on the Dr. Demento radio show, along with Weird Al Yankovic songs, Monty Python routines, Steve Martin songs, etc.  But not the movies.  

Maybe it's just that I'm not part of the stoner scene - my drugs of choice are caffeine to perk up and beer to come down, so getting stoned seems like going sideways off my routine.  I was really into vodka for a while in college, and I'll still drink screwdrivers if there's an open bar at a wedding, but mostly for me, it's beer.  Oh, and my own concoction after a tough workday, which I call "Purple Drank" - that's raspberry rum, ginger ale and some grape juice for color and sweetness - not too much, it's got to be about 50% ginger ale.  I limit myself to two, because they're so drinkable and delicious...

I tried pot a few times during college, but it didn't really do anything for me.  But since I'm heading to California next week, where weed is (semi-)legal, hey, you never know.  A couple of years ago, we got Comic-Con badges for my boss's cousins, and they brought us some goodies from their farm.  As far as I knew, it was a walnut farm, but apparently they're growing a few other things there as well.  Plus they gave us a big bottle of rum, which I'm quite sure is not something you're supposed to have at your Comic-Con booth, and I did not partake, for my own reasons.  The next morning, my boss called from Oregon to tell me that the rum was definitely full of wacky tobaccy, because it kicked in for him when he was on the plane leaving San Diego.  Umm, congratulations?   Maybe if I find myself in one of those states where they sell pot legally in those brownies or chocolate bars, I'd give it a try under controlled conditions.  

So I'm not really in the target audience for this film - still, I'm willing to give it a goThanks to the context of Jerry Lewis and Lou Costello, I know that Tommy Chong isn't really as dumb as his stoner character appears to be.  You have to be smart to play stupid and be funny, right?  What I don't really get is how the film expected to get the different kinds of "stoned" to come across on camera.  We in the audience can't really feel what they're feeling, not unless someone's smoking in the theater or our living room.  Maybe that's it, the film's designed to be interactive, you really need to be playing along at home to get the full effect of the film.  I'm sure there's a "drinking game" version where you can play along, you just need a ton of grass, some uppers, some acid, and some coke (note: do not really use Ajax cleanser, like the girl in the film...) and finally, some hash.  I never really understood the difference between "hash" and "grass", are they the same thing?  That's how dumb I am about this...

Most of the comedy here, once Cheech picks up Chong hitchhiking, and they bond over a joint, concerns the trouble that the pair subsequently gets into while driving stoned.  Often this is just different variations on being pulled over, but I admit it's somewhat original for them to be driving a van across the Mexican border, when the WHOLE VAN is made of pot.  Ironic humor therefore follows, as they drive around looking for marijuana, ignorant of the fact that they're surrounded by it. 

Finally, they manage to win a "Battle of the Bands" with a little help from their burning van, which is parked near the club vents.  I guess that's all it takes to make their band sound amazing to the audience?  Still, it feels like cheating.  But isn't it a huge NITPICK POINT that the narcotics officers don't notice the smell of pot from the burning van, at least, not until they're stoned?  Geez, if one person lights a joint anywhere on my office building's floor, I know about it well before I get even a contact high.  Aren't these guys trained to recognize the smell or something?  

Also starring Cheech Marin (last heard in "The Book of Life"), Tommy Chong (last heard in "Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil"), Stacy Keach (last seen in "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For"), Strother Martin (last seen in "The Champ"), Tom Skerritt (last seen in "Harold and Maude"), Mills Watson, Zane Buzby (last seen in "Oh, God!"), Wally Ann Wharton, Louisa Moritz, June Fairchild, Christopher Joy, with a cameo from Ellen Barkin (last seen in "Someone Like You")

RATING: 5 out of 10 INS agents

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Cocoanuts

Year 8, Day 196 - 7/14/16 - Movie #2,396

BEFORE: The Marx Brothers carry over from "The Big Store", and after tonight I'll have seen their 11 main films, I think everything they did together, except for "A Night in Casablanca" (which, darn it, would have tied in thematically with "Rio Rita" and "Lost in a Harem".  But I haven't got room for that here, if I'm going to get to everything else I want to get to before Comic-Con.  

I started having the Comic-Con stress dreams, which tend to take the form of arriving at the convention center, looking at all the amazing booths and signs, waving "Hi" to friends, having intense discussions about "Star Wars" or whatever - then I suddenly realize that I forgot to ship out my boxes of merchandise before flying to San Diego, and I'm struck by an intense feeling of dread.  My spirit sinks as I feel like an incredible failure, looking at 5 long days at the convention with nothing to sell.  Then I wake up in a cold sweat.  Now, I understand the dream has a purpose, it came the night before the day I had to ship my boxes UPS Ground to arrive in time, so in a way it's just a safety measure, my brain's way of making sure I do what I'm supposed to do by the proper deadline, but why does it have to remind me in such a cruel fashion?  

THE PLOT: During the Florida land boom, the Marx Brothers run a hotel, auction off some land, thwart a jewel robbery, and generally act like themselves.  

AFTER: From one of the later Marx Brothers film, I snapped back to one of their earliest, and that really highlights how far their comedy progressed over the years.  I really enjoyed "The Big Store" because the plot was so well put-together, and in a way it seems like they accomplished more by doing less.  The story was so simple - a guy due to inherit a department store is in danger of being killed.  by contrast, in "The Cocoanuts" the goal is a lot less clear.  Groucho and Zeppo work at the hotel, sure, but the way that Chico and Harpo are brought into the mix is really suspect.  Who are they, why are they coming to the hotel, and why do they feel the need to send a telegraph in advance of their arrival?  

Plus there's the goal of making the hotel run better, selling various land plots AND unraveling a jewel heist all at the same time - there's just too much going on.  And instead of dealing with these plot threads head-on, the movie frequently pauses to watch a bunch of dancing girls exercising on the beach, or doing a routine in sync while dressed as bellboys.  Umm, bellgirls?   When you go back to 1929, it seems that filmmakers didn't have to do a lot to entertain the masses - having 12 pretty girls moving in tandem seemed to be enough.  

Then we've got this seemingly unnecessary love triangle, with an architect, Bob, in love with a young woman, Polly, and her mother wants her to marry socialite Harvey Yates.  Yates, however, is really a con man who's only interested in Polly's mother's jewels.  The plot relies heavily on Harpo's ability to crawl into a room without being seen, so that he can overhear conversations about stealing the jewels, and where to hide them.  Contrivances, contrivances.  

But this film does feature some of the Marx Brothers' best puns, like the whole viaduct/"Why a duck" routine, and an auction that runs out of control when Chico misunderstands how to be a shill, so he keeps raising the stakes and outbidding himself!  Obviously that wasn't what Groucho's character had in mind.  It all finally comes to a head, and then someone sings a song about his lost shirt, which is just sort of weird.  Plus it's hard to believe that all of these songs came from Irving Berlin, with titles like "Monkey-Doodle Doo".

And even though the film is in black and white, you can tell that Harpo's wig was much darker than in later films, supporting the theory that his character was initially intended to be a redhead, not a blond.  But why did they do this routine where Harpo repeatedly hunched his shoulders and put on a weird smile?  I didn't get that part at all.

Also starring Margaret Dumont (also carrying over from "The Big Store"), Oscar Shaw, Mary Eaton, Cyril Ring (last seen in "Meet John Doe"), Kay Francis (last seen in "In Name Only"), Basil Ruysdael.  

RATING: 3 out of 10 empty suitcases