Tag: comedy (page 2 of 8)

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! History of the World, Pt 1

Logo courtesy Netflix.  No logos were harmed in the creation of this banner.

[audio:http://www.blueinkalchemy.com/uploads/history_of_the_world.mp3]

Satirists are more important to civilization than you might think. While critics may highlight, underscore or outright assault a work in a mostly straightforward manner, a satirist does so through humor or hyperbole. It’s no wonder that satirists tend to be more popular, even if some periods of history were less tolerant of them than we are today. The sorts of things that can crop up on YouTube and Blip taking the piss out of a government or public figure won’t get you lined up against the wall and shot. Until they add a provision for this to ACTA, that is. Anyway, adding hindsight to satire is a great excuse for gags based on older societies, which is the basis for the entire span of the Mel Brooks opus History of the World, Part 1. In case anybody doubted Mel was a top-flight satirist when this was released in 1981, here’s all the proof you need.

Courtesy Brooksfilms

This sprawling historical epic covers the Stone Age, the Old Testament, the Roman Empire, the Spanish Inquisition and the French Revolution. In each period we get at least a cursory opening narration from Orson Welles. He serves as the voice for the Stone Age section, as cavemen hadn’t yet discovered means of communication beyond grunting. During the reign of Nero, a ‘stand-up philosopher’ must try not to die on stage at Caesar’s Palace – that is to say, he needs to avoid execution. The depiction of Grand Inquisitor Torquemada shows the lighter side of the Catholic Church’s rather strict conversion practices, and the French Revolution shows us that King Louis XVI may not have been who history thinks he was. Each of these vignettes moves at their own pace without the benefit of a framing device, but there’s bound to be something in each period of history to make you laugh.

Given its structure, the film doesn’t have the coherent flow of Blazing Saddles or Spaceballs. The film plays more like a series of self-contained Vaudeville routines than it does a single narrative. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however, as if you find yourself disliking a particular section of the movie, you just need to wait for the next section to begin. The exception to this, of course, is the French Revolution section at the end… or is it? Let me just skirt around that spoiler and get back to the movie.

Courtesy Brooksfilms
It’s difficult to find images that don’t give away some of the big jokes.

Another difference between this and the aforementioned films is the consistency of the jokes. Without a pervasive theme such as racism or giving Lucas a shot to the jaw (provided you can find it), some of the gags feel a bit unmoored. This is especially apparent in the Stone Age section, where the movie jumps from gag to gag as quickly as possible. Mel doesn’t always quite stick the landing, and some of the jokes seem to wobble a bit. This is my very elaborate way of saying it was my least favorite section of the film. I felt it dragged a bit. Likewise, the French Revolution section at the end may run a bit long, and in fact I get the feeling some of it may have been cut for time. Finally, it seems that Mel wanted to make sure he was involved as much as possible in his picture. Unlike Blazing Saddles or Spaceballs where he only gives himself a couple incidental roles, here he plays 5 different characters, including 2 at the same time! I hope you like Mel Brooks as a comedian as well as a writer and director, because you get a LOT of him.

None of this really causes the historical journey to jump the rails, though, and when the movie’s on it’s a scream. The Roman Empire in particular has a couple really nice jabs at inherent problems with representative government and a couple Blazing Saddles-esque moments, with a great performance by Gregory Hines and a royal tag-team of the always memorable Madeline Kahn and Dom DeLuise. The French Revolution is saved by Harvey Korman (that’s HEDLEY Lamarr), the character of Bearnaise and several lovely young women. And the Inquisition… well, I can’t really do the Inquisition justice here. Not without breaking into song. Believe me, it has to be seen to be believed.

Courtesy Brooksfilms

Having noticed the amount to which I’ve mentioned my previous review of a Brooksian comedic diversion, you may be wondering how this one compares. I’m glad you’re asking! With it’s occasionally dodgy composition, it doesn’t quite reach the level of Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein or even Spaceballs. There are laughs to be had, sure, and it’s certainly not as steeped in direct pop-culture references as anything produced by the Wayans brothers. Despite 20 more years of history having gone by since it’s release, there’s something timeless about the humor in History of the World Part 1 that certainly makes it worth calling up on Netflix. And keep your eyes out for John Hurt and the late Nigel Hawthorne. You may be surprised where Mister Ollivander and King George III show up.

Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.

The Desert Bus Cometh

Courtesy Loading Ready Run

(With apologies to Lewis Carroll)

The time has come, (the Alchemist said)
To talk of many things:
Of busses — and cards — and handmade-crafts
Of children and of kings.

Once a year they gather there,
A fanciful base on the moon –
(Granted, we know it’s actually Canada,
but don’t spoil it so soon!)

They sit upon their bean-bags and couches,
Displayed for all of us,
For that great and humble event we love,
The one called Desert Bus.

From Tuscon to Las Vegas is their digitized route,
Displayed on Sega CD.
Since Penn & Teller decided (for the lulz)
To make a non-violent game, you see:

There are no bullets, no cars, no rockets,
No prostitutes or pimps.
Just drive and drive and drive some more,
Until you weep like simps.

“What purpose?” you ask? “What’s wrong with them?
“Why do they do these vids?”
The answer’s as simple as it is heart-warming:
They do it for the kids.

As long as donations and auctions abound,
The crew will play the game.
Could be for days or weeks or more,
To them it’s all the same.

They’ll sell hand-stitched crafts of all kinds,
Things mythic and beyond,
They’ll laugh, they’ll cry, they’ll drink Red Bull,
And with us they will bond.

Watch and donate, for the children,
for the auctions and the fun.
Brave as they are, they can’t do it alone,
That crew from Loading Ready Run.

Here it comes now! I hope you’re ready!
There’s room for all of us.
Join us, won’t you? The time has come
to ride the Desert Bus.

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! Big Trouble in Little China

Logo courtesy Netflix.  No logos were harmed in the creation of this banner.

[audio:http://www.blueinkalchemy.com/uploads/bigtrouble.mp3]

It may appear at first glance that Big Trouble in Little China is one of those clever, funny deconstructions that film students are always raving about. There are even some moments where someone over-analytical may mistake it for a parody. But John Carpenter’s tongue-in-cheek but straightforward action-adventure is not interested in tearing down the conventions of the genre nor in necessarily poking fun at it. It’s point seems to be simply having a great time telling a unique story with some inventive action. The hero just happens to be the guy who isn’t the big-name Hollywood tough guy. The hero isn’t even white. And that? Is fantastic.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

We’re first introduced to Jack Burton, a wise-cracking long-haul trucker with all of the swagger and bravado of any 80s action hero you’d care to mention. He’s friends with Wang Chi, the young owner of a restaurant in Chinatown. The pair head out to pick up Wang’s fiance from the airport, only to witness her being abducted by members of a Chinese street gang. Following her into Chinatown they stumble into not only a brawl between the kidnappers and their rival gangs, but three supernatural warriors called the Storms and their ghostly lord, Lo Pan. Lo Pan wants the girl for himself, and it falls to Jack and Wang to rescue her.

This might seem like a run-of-the-mill setup for an 80s action romp, but Big Trouble in Little China isn’t all that interested in re-treading old ground. Carpenter and Kurt Russell, the man playing Jack Burton, are clearly looking to do something different. Rather than making sure the tough-talking strong and manly white man conquers the bad guys and scores the girls, the two have set out to give us the story of a man who thinks he’s the action hero, when really he’s the comic relief character. This must have been a fun subversion for Russell, as his roles in Escape from New York and The Thing thrust him firmly into the action genre. It’s the mark of a smart man who looks to avoid being pigeonholed as soon as possible.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox
If nothing else, Jack’s got a great war face.

I mentioned before that Big Trouble isn’t a parody. It isn’t looking to lambast the action genre the way Hot Shots! would. Instead, it cleverly presents Jack as both sidekick and audience surrogate for the narrative. Since this is a movie shot & released in North America that deals at least tangentially with Chinese mythology, there’s going to be a marked cultural difference in terms of aesthetic, foundation and execution. By putting us in Jack’s boots while the powers of the Three Storms are revealed and the depths of Lo Pan’s fortress are explored, we see this unfamiliar world through his eyes and he voices many of the same reactions we might. And for the most part, they’re hilarious. For example, a monster menaces the party as they make their way to rescue the girls who’ve been kidnapped. The sorcerer Egg Shen, accompanying our heroes, simply says “It will come out no more.” Jack’s response? “WHAT? WHAT WILL COME OUT NO MORE?” Not exactly the hysterics you’d expect from a big, tough action hero, right?

As much fun as the movie has with the conventions of other action flicks, it also takes us on a rather uncontrived adventure that has more than a few surprises in it. It introduces us to aspects of a culture to which we might have been ignorant in a way that’s appealing and not terribly difficult for an unenlightened American movie audience to understand. I can’t say all of the portrayals of Chinese myth are entirely accurate, of course, and how exactly does one become an ‘evil bodhisattva’? Being a product of the 80s, some of the effects may seem a bit dated to a few viewers, but there’s plenty of action and fun to make up for that. Even the studio couldn’t stop the movie from having a good time. They had Carpenter throw in a superfluous prologue scene for fear of the audience not understanding the fact that Jack’s a supporting protagonist, but from the reaction of the guy in the suit interviewing Egg Shen, not only does our writer & director show he has confidence in his audience, he understands the sort of folks who just don’t get it.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox
Fashion and hair design by Ming the Merciless’ majordomo.

Originally planned as a Western, with Jack as a drifter whose horse is stolen, setting the film in Chinatown with Jack just wanting his truck back while Wang & Egg Shen take up a divine struggle against a deathless sorcerer allows Big Trouble in Little China to tease and tip over so many aspects of action movies it becomes scarily close to a deconstruction. Deconstructions, however, tend to take stabs at their origin material with varying degrees of bitterness. John Carpenter, however, clearly has affection for action movies and isn’t interested in tearing down the walls of the genre, just coming at them from a different angle. In doing so he created one of his best works. It’s narrative, while at times oblique or even silly, is tightly written, and the characters behave in human ways, especially Jack. It’s a fun time at the movies, a unique adventure and a great example of the so-called main character needing to take a back seat when he enters a world he (and we) are not familiar with. The only thing I can really say against Big Trouble in Little China is that it isn’t available on Netflix Instant – you have to wait for the disc in the mail. But trust me when I say, the wait will be well worth it.

Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! Killers

Logo courtesy Netflix.  No logos were harmed in the creation of this banner.

[audio:http://www.blueinkalchemy.com/uploads/killers.mp3]

We mix things up all the time. Mix some leftover pasta, meat, sauce and veggies together and you get goulash. Throw some tequila and frozen fruit in a blender, and you get margaritas! It’s similar with fiction. Genres mix all the time. Action is mixed with comedy and comedy with romance. You might even throw some sci-fi, fantasy or steampunk in there if you’re feeling bold, or you’ve had too much to drink in your latest binge in the wake of rejection letters.

It is possible, however, to mix things in wrong proportions. You can overpower a drink with too much booze, undersaturate your casserole with sauce or have too much going on in your story… or not enough. While Killers isn’t suffering from a lack of genre and ideas, it is suffering from a lack of originality. And humanity. And humor.

Courtesy Lionsgate

We’re introduced to Jen sandwiched between her parents on a flight to France after she’s been dumped. As soon as they arrive, she meets Spencer. A few awkward silences and vague flirtations later, Jen and Spencer have a series of dates that lead to a happy marriage. Spencer moves back to the states and they start building a life together. But it turns out Spencer is a spy, or was and didn’t fill out his exit paperwork properly. Since espionage employers are thoroughly unforgiving people, people start trying to kill Spencer and Jen, which not only threatens their lives but the future of their marriage. Oh, and this is all supposed to be really, really funny.

It must be said that Killers looks good, at least. It’s hard not to with attractive leads. And the French scenery is gorgeous, too. It lifts a love of sumptuous European locales directly from any number of romantic comedies whose audience might have been duped into seeing this thing. The direction and cinematography are clean and straightforward, relying on jump cuts and by-the-numbers angles rather than slight-of-hand camera work and lens flares. While this works well for the film and captures the primary appeal of our actors, it’s a very shallow form of attractiveness.

Courtesy Lionsgate
Here, check out ~70% of this film’s appeal.

In fact, ‘shallow’ is a good word for Killers. It has about the same amount of substance in its narrative as a handful of potato chips has nutritional value. The writing, like the camera work, is strictly formulaic. The dialog is only slightly stilted, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s assembled with toothpicks and held together with rubber cement. It’s not what I could call ‘solid’. At least in Spenser’s case, it makes sense for him to be as stiff as he is. And Jen’s dad is the most stoic of stoic dads. But everybody talks in this stilted, formula manner. It’s really irritating, to me at least, and takes a lot of wind out of the sails of the would-be jokes.

The other main problem with Killers is that of its several blended genres, none of them are strong enough to work on its own. Now, this might be a necessary evil with a mish-mash like this, but it’s difficult to be a romantic action comedy when the two leads are relatively flat cyphers, the action doesn’t pop as it does in its contemporaries and the comedy isn’t overly funny, for reasons I’ve already mentioned. At the very least, you want some chemistry between your leads, some truly punchy or funny lines or actually inventive action. When all of that is missing, you have a movie that’s all appearance and no substance.

Courtesy Lionsgate
Mr. Selleck’s moustache is unimpressed.

Finally, this has been done before. That isn’t to say filmmakers can’t take old ideas in new directions. But if you’re going to do something new with a franchise or a concept, do something good with it.* The problem Killers faced even before it started in with the shallow dialog, formula plot and complete lack of spark is that we’ve seen this sort of thing done before, and better, in True Lies. And say what you want about Mr. and Mrs. Smith, at least Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie had something approaching banter and chemistry. Ashton and Katherine seem more concerned about hitting their marks and twisting their faces into another iteration of dull surprise than they are about conveying emotion, let alone an original thought.

Killers feels like it was assembled by a committee of robots fed the criteria of what most American movie-goers are looking for: attractive stars, exotic locales, cheap laughs, gun fights and whatever passes for humor among their circle of friends. It functions, to be sure, but it’s so derivative and dull as to be entirely skippable. Get True Lies or Mr. & Mrs. Smith from Netflix instead. The goal for a film like Killers is to at least partially be romantic, comedic or action-packed. Instead, we get a flaccid, hollow and thoroughly uninteresting flick that’s devoid of passion, lacking in laughter and staggeringly boring.

Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.

* Don’t, for example, let squishy shallow humans take center stage when your flick’s supposed to be about giant badass transforming robots.

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! True Lies

Logo courtesy Netflix. No logos were harmed in the creation of this banner.

{No audio this week. Having a job in a start-up is interfering with my Internet fame. Go figure.}

The 90s were an interesting time. All sorts of cool things musically were happening in Seattle garages, the United States was emerging as the victor of the Cold War and getting a little blitzed on its own hype as the process, and movie audiences were moving away from the testosterone-fueled somewhat brainless action flicks of the 80s. Sure, years later such movies would be viewed with a kind of smirking nostalgia for their naked machismo, but at the time it was clear that writers, directors, actors and audience members wanted to see something a little bit different up on the silver screen. And if True Lies is nothing else, it’s certainly quite a bit different, for an Arnold Schwartzenegger movie.

Courtesy James Cameron

Harry Tasker is what can only be described as a superspy. He’s a highly-trained, very effective operative working for an unofficial branch of the United States government, hunting down bad guys and uncovering clandestine terrorist plots. He is also, however, a family man, masquerading as a traveling computer salesman for the benefit of his wife and young daughter. Since he’s gone so often, however, his wife is beginning to wonder if he’s being unfaithful to her while she herself staves off the advances of a used car salesman. Harry becomes aware of this and must strike a balance between saving the world and saving his marriage.

This being an action comedy, it doesn’t take a psychic to predict that he’s going to find a way to do both. While True Lies isn’t fueled entirely by contrivance, there are parts here and there that seem awfully convenient for the purposes of our plot. More than once circumstances simply fall together in a way that Harry’s always on top of things. This could be explained away as Harry just being that good as his job, considering this is the Terminator we’re talking about, but even with that excuse the story isn’t exactly setting the world on fire.

Courtesy James Cameron
It’s a good excuse for a badass scene with a Harrier jet, though.

True Lies was directed by James Cameron, the man behind some of the biggest blockbusters of the last few decades, and it might seem odd for the director of high-concept science fiction epics like Terminator 2, The Abyss and Avatar to helm a flick like this. But even directors need to blow off steam from time to time and this feels like Cameron just having fun with one of his exorbidant budgets. It’s possible that he saw the Schwartzenegger action comedy from the previous year, Last Action Hero, and said “You know what? I’m James Cameron. I can make a movie way cooler than this garbage.”

In doing so, he’s created a movie that tends to keep its silliness on the subtle side, rather than the overt genre-savvy deconstruction of Last Action Hero. That movie has a much more interesting concept, but falters in places due to execution. True Lies, on the other hand, keeps its plot and premise simple so Cameron can direct the hell out of it. For all of its insubstantiality, it’s a cleanly shot and polished film, with most of its visuals holding up after over 15 years of life.

Courtesy James Cameron
How effective can your threats be when your batteries run out?

Speaking of looking good, the principles are well-cast even if they’re not pushing the envelope in terms of edgy roles. Arnold and Jamie Lee Curtis do have a good measure of chemistry between them that makes them a couple the audience will want to see stay together. Eliza Dushku plays their daughter Dana in a somewhat understated role that helped open the door for things like Buffy and Dollhouse, while Tia Carrere smolders as the femme fatale. She splits the fanservice duties with Jamie Lee in ways that make themselves apparent with the most cursory Google search. The bit players and bad guys, too, bring just enough weight and dimension to their roles while making it clear that we’re pretty much here for a good time and nothing else. We have some sleazy fun from Bill Paxton as the car salesman, a quick cameo from Charlton Heston and…

well, Tom Arnold’s in this, too. He’s not bad, per se, but some of his motor-mouthed antics can wear out their welcome rather quickly. For every moment we have of him being Harry’s partner and best friend, we have one where he’s throwing his comedic weight around a bit too much. Seeing the natural way Jamie Lee Curtis and Bill Paxton illicit laughs from their scenes while Tom relies on verbal diarreha gives the impression that our large friend is trying too hard.

Courtesy James Cameron
Shut up, Tom. JUST. SHUT. UP.

There are some really neat action sequences in True Lies that ensure the movie is entertaining, if not necessarily fantastic cinema. In the end, it’s a bit like a hamburger from Wendy’s. The meat is of higher quality than some others and you definitely feel like you get your money’s worth, but it’s still not all that good for you. James Cameron at the helm of an action comedy that plays most of its potential moments for satire completely straight would be a bit like Christopher Nolan directing the Marx Brothers. It’s an interesting experiment that looks fine and works fine, but there’s just something off about the whole thing that waters down the overall enjoyment. Of course, if you’re not looking for anything other than basic entertainment to go with a rainy day and a bowl of popcorn, True Lies is a decent choice available on Netflix Instant. Like the rhetoic of certain pundits and religious figures, it tends to be funny in spite of its more serious moments, and the less you think about it, the better it is.

Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.

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