Monthly Archives: October 2017
MONTY PYTHON’S THE MEANING OF LIFE (1983) – Food for thought
The following is my entry in the Food in Film Blogathon, being co-hosted by the blogs Speakeasy and Silver Screenings from Nov. 3-5, 2017. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ takes on edibles as presented in movies!
(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)
Despite its lofty title, Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life never gets around to an exact definition of life’s purpose. However, based on the evidence presented here by the famed British comedy troupe, much of life’s meaning can be extracted from food, which certainly makes numerous appearances in the movie.
After “The Crimson Permanent Assurance” (Terry Gilliam’s elaborate short-subject opening), the movie-proper begins with a sextet of fish (the Pythons, of course) exchanging morning pleasantries while ensconced in a restaurant-based aquarium. One of the fish looks out and shrilly notes that Howard, one of their former fishmates, is now being served to a customer. On that note, the fish get all philosophical: “Makes you think, dunnit?” – “Yeah, I mean what’s it all about?” On cue, the movie’s opening titles and theme promise that they’ll provide us with an answer. Don’t hold your gills.
A later sketch, “Fighting Each Other,” centers on a World War I officer named Biggs (Terry Jones) quietly but firmly ordering his troops to find cover during an attack. Sentimental group that they are, soldier Blackitt (Eric Idle), on behalf of the troops, gives Biggs a goodbye speech, a card, and parting gifts of a grandfather clock, a Swiss watch, and a monetary check.
When Biggs finally tells the troops that enough is enough and they need to run for cover, they all get quiet and turn to Blackitt. “You shouldn’t have said that, sir,” says soldier Spadger (Michael Palin) to Biggs. “You’ve hurt his feelings now.” The rest of the men grumble, and one of them declares, “Let’s not give him the cake!”
Biggs says he doesn’t need a cake, but Spadger elaborates on how much effort Blackitt put into the cake — “I mean, you try to get butter to melt at fifteen below zero!” With that, Biggs agrees that he should honor Blackitt’s work, cheerily offering slices to his ever-diminishing (due to assassination) troops.
Fish make their next appearance in the film’s mid-section, appropriately titled “The Middle of the Film.” A stately matron (Michael Palin!) invites the movie’s audience to join in the next segment, “Find the Fish.” A couple of indescribably strange characters (Graham Chapman and Terry Jones) recite a poem about a loyal fish — “…and it went wherever I did go!” — as Dr. Seuss-like creatures — the fish presumably among them — cross the screen, and audience members shout their guesses as to where the fish is hiding.
The fishy sextet from the film’s intro return to applaud this loopy sketch, then go quiet as one of them declares, “They still haven’t said much about the meaning of life, have they?” I thought fish were smarter than this.
The film’s penultimate segment, “Death,” shows the black-hooded title character (John Cleese) interrupting a dinner at an isolated country house where friends have gathered. It takes them a while, but the friends slowly realize that Death has come to claim them for good. Finally, a member of the group named Debbie (Michael Palin again!) smugly asks, “How can we all have died at the same time?” Death points his, er, finger of death at the meal’s offending main dish:
The hostess (Eric Idle) then offers her apologies at having prepared the dish with cheap canned salmon. As the group are being escorted by Death to their final fate, Debbie comes to a too-late realization: “Hey, I didn’t even eat the mousse!”
But undoubtedly, the movie’s most memorable and controversial ode to edibles is “The Autumn Years,” wherein a beyond-morbidly-obese man, Mr. Creosote (Terry Jones), enters a restaurant for a gazillion-course meal, offered by Mr. C.’s regular waiter, an obsequious maitre d’ (John Cleese). Mr. C. gulps down countless courses of food, punctuated every so often by his vomiting as a matter of habit, which does little for the appetites of the surrounding customers.
At meal’s end, the maitre d’ dares to offer Mr. Creosote “a wafer-thin mint.” At first, Mr. C. declares he’s full, but eventually he is talked into consuming the mint — lovingly served by the maitre d’, who then vaults behind a restaurant display, knowing the apocalypse to come.
Beyond his control, Mr. Creosote’s already huge stomach expands, and then it explodes all over the restaurant’s guests, causing them to lose their meals as well. As pandemonium ensues, the maitre d’ returns to nonchalantly hand Mr. Creosote his check for the evening.
As with most of the Monty Python oeuvre, The Meaning of Life gives you a lot to sink your teeth into — and some of it is sure to haunt you later, in one form or another.
A modest actor, for a change
Yesterday on YouTube, I came across a refreshing interview with Ed O’Neill, who plays Jay on the ABC sitcom “Modern Family.” At one point, the interviewer asks O’Neill what he thinks Jay’s strengths and weaknesses are. Most actors give very lofty answers to such philosophical questions. Watch how O’Neill credits his writers and co-actors — everyone but himself, pretty much — for the success of his character and of the show.
Internet lesson of the day
The Internet is all a-flutter today because Ellen DeGeneres wished Katy Perry a happy birthday on Twitter by tweeting a risque photo of the two of them and suggesting that it was time for Perry to “bring out the big balloons.” Of course, everyone who’s duly offended is in the right, because Perry has never exploited her own physique, right? So let’s all remember…
LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION (2003) – Mighty sporting of the little black duck (and friends)
At last, those tired spy-movie spoofs are right where they belong — right in the middle of a Looney Tunes cartoon.
I wouldn’t have thought that the sensibilities of a seven-minute cartoon could be stretched to feature length as well as in Looney Tunes: Back in Action. Not even Space Jam (1996) went for broke as much.
If you tried to diagram the plot for this movie, it would probably look something like several Looney Tunes strung together. It starts out with a harried movie executive (Jenna Elfman) firing and then trying to re-hire Daffy Duck. Then it turns into the story of a security guard (Brendan Fraser) who finds out that his father (two-time James Bonder Timothy Dalton) is, guess what, a secret agent. Then there’s the whole subplot about the Acme Corporation’s evil leader (Steve Martin) trying to turn the world’s human population into monkeys. And the mind still reels at Bugs Bunny and Daffy finding out that the Roswell UFO incident wasn’t a fake.
There’s probably only one man in Hollywood who could meld these shards of plot into a cartoon/live-action movie, and happily, the Warner Brothers hired him. His name is Joe Dante, who made his name in the ’80s directing cartoon-like feature films (Gremlins, Innerspace). Dante has probably been licking his chops at the thought of doing a Bugs/Daffy feature ever since he had them do a cameo in Gremlins 2, and he has done himself proud. Even though the original Looney Tunes directors have long since gone to comedy heaven, Dante’s lead “actors” don’t seem to have aged a bit. It’s like finding a newly uncovered Marx Brothers movie.
As for the flesh-and-blood performers, Fraser, Elfman and the rest of the movie’s live actors, they’re admirably good sports, cheerily getting walloped around by hand-drawings. The only sour note is struck by Steve Martin, who overdoes trying to be even more cartoony than the cartoon characters.
In a year filled with typical Hollywood blockbusters, who could have guessed that Finding Nemo and this gem would be the year’s highlights? Some days, a movie viewer feels like Porky in Wackyland.
Happy National Pumpkin Day!
FAIRYTALE: A TRUE STORY (1997) – A story sprinkled with fairy dust
There’s a very telling moment in FairyTale: A True Story where a young girl asks Harry Houdini, the famous escape artist, if he has ever told anyone how he does his tricks. “Never,” Houdini replies, “and I never will.” Then with a wink in his voice, Houdini adds, “Of course, most people don’t really want to know how you’ve done them anyway.”
It is at that level that the “true story” of FairyTale is approached. The movie is based on the lives of British cousins Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, who created an escape for war-torn England by taking photos which, they claimed, showed real fairies. Needless to say, the movie doesn’t quite tell the true story. It has since been shown that the photographs were faked. And yet, do we really want to know how, or even if, they faked the photos?
As if to drive this point home, the movie opens with Elsie attending a performance of Peter Pan. Since this is the same motif that began Steven Spielberg’s Hook, we know we’re not in a for a searing docudrama. Still, Elsie’s family could use a few fairies. Elsie’s brother has died of pneumonia, and Frances’ father has sent her to live with Elsie while he fights in World War I.
Frances turns out to be a liberating force. When, at her first day in Elsie’s school, she is questioned at length about her previous home of Africa, she ends the class’ quizzing with, “Are there any more stupid questions?” Later she confiscates a camera from Elsie’s dad, and she and Elsie take the infamous photos, which come to the attention of no less than Sherlock Holmes’ creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, as well as Doyle’s pal Houdini.
The fairies themselves take somewhat of a backseat in the story. Apart from a few terrific shots of the fairies in flight, they don’t have much in the way of personality. But after a while, you begin to realize that’s beside the point. The question is, why are there always naysayers who want the real world to intrude upon the innocent fun of childhood?
Apart from the charming Peter O’Toole and Harvey Keitel as Doyle and Houdini, there are no big-name stars in the cast, but there are also no bum performances. As the cousins, Florence Hoath and Elizabeth Earl are the best sort of natural child performers, completely unadorned by Hollywood affectations. And Phoebe Nicholls is endearing as Elsie’s mother, whose faith in life is restored by the whimsical photos.
Admittedly, the movie does take a while to get to its (beautifully realized) climax, and some younger audience members might get restless before the end. Personally, I was so grateful for a family movie which didn’t talk down to me, I began to believe that FairyTale might indeed be a gift from the little blighters.
It’s the Great Pumpkin, blog readers!
For the 52nd(!) year in a row, the delightful “Peanuts” special “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” is being broadcast tonight (8 p.m. EST on ABC). There’s not much I can add to the half-century of praise this charming half-hour has received and deserved. In fact, The AV Club has said it better than I ever could — click here to read their review/tribute/plug of the show. And embedded below is the original promo for the special from 1966, when it initially aired on CBS. (And remember, it’s “When the Great Pumpkin comes,” not “If.”)
10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU (1999) – Let me count the ways
Seven things I hated about 10 Things I Hate About You:
1. The movie’s gimmick is that Bianca (Larisa Oleynik) is barred by her hermetic father Walter (Larry Miller in yet another thankless role) from going on a date until Bianca’s sister Katarina (Julia Stiles) decides to ever date a man. That seems pretty unlikely, given that Katarina is a male-hating, insult-spouting bundle of neurosis. Somebody involved in the movie thinks this is an original character, but I saw About Last Night… (1986), in which Elizabeth Perkins played the same sort of self- and man-hating hag. We’re meant to feel sorry for this kind of character because she’s been so hurt that she lashes out at the world in spite. Personally, I feel that this sort of character gets what she deserves.
2. The movie thinks it’s clever just by doing hip updates of William Shakespeare’s comedy The Taming of the Shrew. What a pity that this movie is readily available on video, and episodes of the 1980’s TV series “Moonlighting” are not. “Moonlighting” did a killer take on Shrew that had more laughs in the opening credits than are in this entire movie.
3. Updating Shakespeare to modern-day high school is a nice concept, but the movie’s script never develops the concept any further. Instead, it does a lot of dumb sitcom-like jokes to curry favor with the teenaged viewers most likely to rent this movie. In fact, I’d be amazed to see any high school in America that is run like the one in the movie. The teachers regularly curse out the students and get no reprisals for it. Sure!!
4. Allison Janney (later to do far better in TV’s “The West Wing” and “Mom”) here plays a horny guidance counselor who spends most of her job-time writing a dirty novel on her laptop.
5. The Walter character is a beaut. Two daughters, and he barely lets either of them experience the real world. When one of the girls actually is allowed to go out, Walter insists she wear a “pregnancy suit” to remind herself of the dangers of sex. And that leads to…
6. There isn’t an event that isn’t motivated by anything other than the urge to get a cheap, sitcom-type laugh. The guy (Heath Ledger) who eventually woos and wins Katarina can’t just sing a song to Katarina — he persuades the high school band to back him up. Never mind that most high school bands need weeks of practice just to do a simple half-time-show number. And when Katarina wants to divert a teacher’s attention in order to get her guy out of trouble, she flashes her breasts at the teacher in front of an entire class. Don’t tell me that either Katarina’s action or the teacher’s reaction wouldn’t send the local school board into apoplexy.
7. Two women, Karen McCullough Lutz and Kirsten Smith, are credited as the screenwriters for this tripe, proving that females in Hollywood can sell out as easily as males do.
One thing I do like about this movie is the climactic scene where Bianca and her boyfriend are challenged by the local macho student, and it looks like the typical “two guys fighting for the girl’s honor” scene. Instead, Bianca takes matters into her own hands and decks Mr. Macho. In a movie with a supposedly feminist slant, this is the only scene that smacks of modern-day reality.
ARBUCKLE & KEATON, VOL. 1 (2001) – Comedy compilation more historical than hysterical
The story goes that in the late 1910’s, Arbuckle was America’s second-most-popular comedian, bowing only to Charlie Chaplin. When Arbuckle met up with Buster Keaton, he recognized Keaton’s comedy strengths and debuted Keaton in his movies as an ever-reliable sidekick.
Yet based on the evidence shown here, Keaton in even secondary roles was someone to keep an eye on, while Arbuckle’s appeal has assuredly diminished over the years. Unlike Chaplin or the solo Keaton, Arbuckle has little of a persona to fall back on. One can imagine how Chaplin’s Little Tramp or Keaton’s Stone Face would react in a given situation. But Arbuckle seems to change his stripes whenever any gag, in or out of character, presents itself. About the only persona that emerges for Fatty is that he’s…well, fat.
And the plotlines, concocted mostly by Arbuckle, are just as arbitrary as his character. The short The Bellboy (1918) begins in a hotel and segues strangely to a bank that’s being robbed. The Butcher Boy (1917, and Keaton’s film debut) begins in a grocery store and switches to a girls’ boarding school.
But unlike Arbuckle, who all but winks at the audience in an attempt to win their love, Keaton plays straight no matter the situation and scores points all around. Out West (1918) presents Keaton as a barroom gunslinger, and just by force of personality, he makes you believe it. And heaven knows, nobody could take a fall or elaborate a simple gag better than Buster.
Arbuckle’s hoary stories are not helped by racist humor (in Out West, barroom bullies shoot at the feet of a frightened black man, and Arbuckle goes right along with the bullies) and by musical accompaniment (by “The Alloy Orchestra,” according to liner notes) that rates as Kino’s worst.
Anyone with an interest in Buster Keaton’s humble film origins might want to give this a look. Silent-film buffs might be drawn in initially but will most likely lose interest about halfway through.