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by Bill Gibron

22 Dec 2009

Before there was Judd Apatow, there was Mel Brooks. Before the Farrelly Brothers parlayed a love of gross out gags into multimillion dollar blockbusters, there was Mel Brooks. In fact, before the ‘80s gave birth to every Saturday Night Live spin-off imaginable, before scatology snuck into almost every punchline, before post-modern irony, self-effacing slapstick, or anything remotely sacrilegious or sanctimonious became the funny business norm, there was Mel Brooks. From his days as a writer for Sid Caesar on the hit ‘50s variety hour Your Show of Shows to his Best Screenplay Oscar for his brilliant 1968 film The Producers, he was a firebrand, the gold standard in humor matched only by a gangly group of Oxford/Cambridge kids from the UK.

Indeed, Mel Brooks is as important as Monty Python, proving with equally adept skill that no subject was off limits, no situation or social class was beyond satiric poking and prodding. It’s evident from the titles included in the new Blu-ray compilation, The Mel Brooks Collection, that he was willing to broach any and all subject with supreme comic timing and incredibly biting wit. While one sure classic is absent (why, oh why, wasn’t the amazing Producers included?) and one non-directorial turn is present (the unusual remake of the Jack Benny chestnut To Be or Not To Be), the rest of this set is pure Brooks - campy, crude, indebted to both the vaudeville and burlesque of his youth while catering to the far more sophisticated entertainment palette of a calming counterculture.

While it may not seem so at first, Brooks’ Producers’ follow-up, The Twelve Chairs, was an incendiary indictment of the Establishment. Based on a fabled Russian folktale, the story of a former nobleman (now bureaucrat) in a post-Revolution Soviet state, desperate to reclaim some of his family’s wealth, is a strident attack on government, religion, and the hypocrisies of same. When his dying mother confesses that her jewels were sewn into the upholstery of one of a dozen dining room chairs, Ippolit Matveevich Vorobyaninov (Ron Moody) teams up with a local con man Ostap Bender (an impossibly young Frank Langella) to find them. Unfortunately, a villainous priest (Dom DeLuise) knows about the riches, and he too begins a quest for same.

Thus Brooks, flush with success and ready to try anything, wanders the Eastern European countryside inventing old school silent film physical shtick while ridiculing the mangled Marxism of Communist Russia. Moody is excellent as the displaced royal, moving from slow burn anger to fiery insanity over the course of his journey. DeLuise is also in complete and utter whack job mode, so mannered and extreme that you’ll wonder where all said deranged energy comes from. Langella acts as the buffer between the two, the quick thinking fulcrum on which this wild back and forth rides. While far more understated than most of Brooks’ future films, The Twelve Chairs still argues for the man’s anarchic style. Like Python placing their bizarro world ways into a Medieval, or ancient Holy Land setting, the newly crowned King of Crazy Comedy believed that anything could be twisted into entertainment.

So it came as a huge surprise when The Twelve Chairs bombed. Few responded to Brooks’ warped vision, and the despondent filmmaker was left licking his wounds. According to the commentary provided on the next title, it was the studio that approached him about working on a script for something called Tex X (many of these Blu-ray discs have such insightful bonus content). Andrew Bergman had come up with the idea of a racist Wild West town suddenly stuck with a black sheriff, but the suits felt it needed more pizzazz. Brooks and his buddies Norman Steinberg and Al Unger teamed up with then unknown stand-up genius Richard Pryor to turn Bergman’s lampoon into the biting social satire Blazing Saddles. The rest, they say, is rib-tickling history.

Pryor was supposed to play the character of Bart, the freed slave, convicted of a crime, who is used by an unscrupulous Attorney General, Hedley Lamar (Harvey Korman) to drive the citizens of Rock Ridge away from their homes (and their valuable land holdings). With the help of the goofy Governor (Brooks, in a boffo cameo) and his flunky Taggart (Slim Pickens), Bart (Cleavon Little) is put in power. Natural, the populace of the tiny backward town doesn’t take too kindly to such ethnic shenanigans. While they plot to get rid of Bart, Lamar sends in a hired goon named Mongo (Alex Karas) to get rid of the citizenry once and for all. In between, Bart befriends a drunken gunslinger known as The Waco Kid (Gene Wilder).

An immediate smash, Blazing Saddles was a pop culture lightning rod when it was released in 1974. Brooks sparked several debates, especially in a media still reeling from the recent Civil Rights movement. He use of the N-word, as well as other derogatory racial and gender stereotypes (including some fairly outrageous gay slurs) would come to mark the vast majority of his ‘70s output. While he would argue that he was merely asking the audience to confront their own obvious prejudices, it is also clear that his “anything for a joke” mentality was indifferent to the often offending nature of the comedy. Luckily, the movie’s overall mastery, including its slap in the face facets regarding bigotry, leave it one of the greatest laughfests of all time. Brooks would continue to battle the pro-PC thugs for the majority of his career.

Oddly enough, there were no such complaints when he delivered his second major smash in less than a year - Young Frankenstein. Gene Wilder had actually come up with the idea of spoofing old Universal horror films, and he had a script treatment prepared when Brooks was looking for his next project. With newfound cache thanks to Saddles, he could do anything he wanted - including a full blown black and white tribute to Mary Shelley’s modern Prometheus. Brooks’ commentary on this film provides enough of the background on both the production and the performances to solidify its legendary status. But what’s really amazing is the cast - from Wilder as the original Baron’s distant relative, to Madeline Kahn as his fiancé, the remarkable Marty Feldman as Igor, Terri Garr as sexy lab assistant Inga, and Peter Boyle as the Monster him/itself.

For years, many considered Frankenstein to be Brooks’ masterpiece, and with good reason. If resonates a kind of classicism that some of his latter, more slapdash efforts would fail to offer. It tells a real and recognizable story, unlike the more vignette oriented approach of his other spoofs. It offers memorable running gags (like Feldman’s finicky hunchback, or Cloris Leachman’s horse-startling servant, Frau Blücher) and wonderful one-liners. But most importantly, Frankenstein remains the ultimate homage, a film as reverent to the movies it is mocking as it is disrespectful to the clichés it is mimicking. By the end, when Inspector Kemp (Kenneth Mars) has the villagers grabbing pitchforks and torches, we see though the silliness to appreciate they level of post-modern invention Brooks is aiming for.

It’s the same thing with his ode to old timey cinema, Silent Movie. Yes, only Mel Brooks could fashion something thoroughly cool and contemporary out of a genre that died in the late ‘20s. His big brainstorm? Star power. By taking the humongous box office appeal of then uber celebrities Burt Reynolds, James Caan, Paul Newman, and Liza Minelli, Brooks guaranteed full studio support and some potent commercial clout. The storyline was relatively simple - failed filmmaker Mel Funn (Brooks), fresh out of rehab and looking to jumpstart his career, gets the brainstorm to create a modern silent film. With the help of his associates (Feldman and DeLuise), he will court the major Hollywood talent to be in the picture. Meanwhile, big bad corporate thugs Engulf and Devour want to take over the studio, and use sexy vixen spy Vilma Kaplan (Bernadette Peters) as a way of destroying Funn.

With its debt to old fashioned slapstick and the ever-engaging work of its cast, Silent Movie remains one of Brooks’ best, most memorable movies. It’s fun to wax nostalgic about the days when someone like Burt Reynolds was a respected Tinseltown titan, not a TMZ tabloid punchline. Brooks pulls out all the stops, recycling material from his TV days (the endless mugging of friend Caesar and co-star Feldman) as well as some novel invention on how the lack of dialogue can be used as a vehicle for humor. This is a movie that was way ahead of its time, taking the corporatization of Hollywood to task with the whole Engulf and Devour subplot. While some may see it as gimmicky and more mainstream than his other efforts, Silent Movie is still subversive. This time, however, it’s the artform itself that is under attack.

By now, Brooks was a certified genius. Critics adored him and fans lined up in droves to see his latest unhinged humoresque. It was an interesting time for the then 52 year old. He was determined to broaden his artistic endeavors to include more TV and theater (he had both successes - Get Smart, New Faces of 1952 - and failures - When Things Were Rotten, All American - in both). In 1980, he would start a production company, Brooksfilms, which would foster such masterworks as David Lynch’s Elephant Man and David Cronenberg’s The Fly to the big screen. Still, Brooks needed another sure thing, and he thought he had it with his latest concept - a spoof of Alfred Hitchcock films.

The result, High Anxiety, is still a contentious movie for many Brooks’ fans. Some see it as recycled and derivative, the artist finally showing that he had run out of originality. Others view it as his best work, a seamless amalgamation of his Borscht Belt buffoonery and the Master of Suspense’s cinematic flair. Hitchcock himself LOVED the idea (and the eventual film), even giving Brooks some notes about possible jokes and memorable moments to mock. As Dr. Richard Thorndyke, the filmmaker is in rare romantic lead mode, playing straight man to his excellent ensemble of Kahn, Korman, and Leachman. The story lifts bits and pieces from North by Northwest, Vertigo, and several other Hitchcock gems. But there is also the standard Brooks byproduct of general, genial juvenilia and toilet humor to content with.

As with the hilarious scene where Blazing Saddles’ cowboys “cut the cheese” around a campfire, we are treated to Dr. Thorndyke being deluged by a flock of birds - and their copious droppings. While investigating the disappearance of a famed psychiatrist, Brooks gives us B&D, S&M, fourth wall breaking in-jokes, and the always interesting mid-narrative song and dance. From Lili Von Shtupp’s Marlene Dietrich by way of John Ford turn, to the monster and his maker crooning “Puttin’ on the Ritz”, Mel’s movies were inundated with music. It was something he started way back when The Producers needed a bad taste showtune to shock the fictional theater audience, and Brooks devised the now hilarious standard “Springtime for Hitler”. “High Anxiety” was fashioned after the ‘70s incarnation of Frank Sinatra, and the filmmaker delivers it with all the brash bravado of the chairman himself. As a study in cinematic history, this is one of Brooks’ best. Some still prefer his earlier, more outrageous efforts.

The ‘80s heralded the beginning of the end for the comedian turned commodity’s mainstream dominance. While his sketch-like History of the World Part 1 was a massive hit, the rest of his output was scattered and often disregarded. Spaceballs (also part of this set), a meandering spoof of Star Wars, is still beloved to this day, but it’s the source references, and not Brooks’ belly laughs, that garner most of the wistful nostalgia. Life Stinks, his half-baked homeless comedy, was nothing to laugh at - literally, and the less said about the appalling Dracula: Dead and Loving It the better. No, it would be up to History and its non-Brooks other To Be or Not To Be to start off the decade with a bang, and for the most part, they succeeded. Many enjoyed the four part deconstruction of man on planet earth, from the Neanderthal nonsense of the beginning to the trip through Ancient Rome, the musical look at the Inquisition, and the fabulous French Revolution riffs.

To Be, on the other hand, was an unusual choice for the comic. Clearly he wanted to work with his incredibly talented second wife, Anne Bancroft, as well as take on some material that wasn’t so bound by bathroom humor and bodily functions. There are some ripping moments throughout as Brooks plays a member of a troupe of Polish actors, avoiding persecution by the invading Nazis. With the help of a young US pilot played by Tim Masterson, he and his wife devise a plan to escape. Since Brooks did not direct (he let collaborator and choreographer Alan Johnson take the reigns), he seems more at ease here. There’s not the need to be overly manic and mannered. Instead, this is a more mature Mel Brooks, something audiences had not really seen - not even in High Anxiety. Instead, it was a window into his range as an artist, as well acknowledgment that fans probably preferred the nuttier, gassier version of his onscreen persona.

This was especially true of Spaceballs, a post-millennial source of much geek love. While it’s a movie filled with obvious Star Wars quips and take-offs, there is still something quite magical about watching SCTV‘s Rick Moranis running around like Darth Vader’s 98-pound-weakling doppelganger. Other elements that work include John Candy as Barf - half man, half dog (he’s his own best friend) - and Joan Rivers as yenta-ish whiny C3PO clone. Of course, some of the material mined is beyond silly (our heroes owe money to…wait for it…Pizza the Hut) but there are some who swear by Brooks’s belittling of all things interstellar. One thing’s for sure - Spaceballs remains the filmmaker’s last likable effort. Robin Hood: Men in Tights (included as well), meant to spoof the recent Kevin Costner reimagining of the Sherwood Forest legend, was as limp as lampoons come. Luckily, the awfulness that was Brooks’ vampire tale helped keep said send-up from being the comedian’s sour swansong.

Since Dracula: Dead and Loving It, Brooks has found a new arena to conquer - Broadway. He turned The Producers into one of the Great White Way’s biggest smashes and bagged a bunch of Tonys in the process. He tried to do the same with Young Frankenstein, with less than successful results. Aside from his occasional appearance as part of DVD and Blu-ray supplements of his films, the writer/director has been relatively quite. He played a part in both a big screen adaptation of Get Smart, as well as a small screen animated version of Spaceballs. Neither was particularly memorable - and with good reason.

As with most comedy and its creators, Brooks’ domination of the genre was cyclical. One moment, you’re the king of cut-ups. The next, you’re as unfunny as a Congressional filibuster. Unlike many of his ilk, however, he managed to squeeze decades - not just years - out of his run behind the laugh riot rudder. For many, the movies made by Mel Brooks represent the pinnacle of American filmic funny business. Looking over the titles featured here, the current crew of crack-ups has a lot to live up to. A lot!

by L.B. Jeffries

22 Dec 2009

I’m taking a break along with the rest of Popmatters for what’s left of 2009. It’s been great year, and I really appreciate you folks stopping by to read Banana Pepper Martinis. At the risk of looking pretentious, I thought I’d throw up a few links to other websites I’ve worked on while I cook up some new stuff for 2010.

Back in June and March The Escapist published two articles by me, The Parables of Gaming, which discusses religion in games and a more personal piece about going 5 days without the internet. I also helped produce a retrospective on The Warriors for EDGE Magazine, although I don’t think that one is online at the moment. Finally, I participated in a large collection of essays on video games with my particular one being on Bully. The other essays in the book can be read from the right column. Personal favorites of mine from the book were Corvus Elrod’s piece on Ultima Underworld and Nick Fortugno’s essay on Shadow of the Colossus. And although it hasn’t been released yet, I put together a retrospective on Ocarina of Time for the soon to be released Kill Screen.

If you’re up for something long and wordy, I’m in the habit of posting my research papers from law school on my personal blog just because I hate to see them go to waste. A very long discourse on Privacy Rights in MMORPGs along with a brief overview of developing issues in Criminal Copyright Law. They weren’t written for a general audience, so they’re not really oriented around being entertaining. But you might find them relevant to your interests. In that same spirit is a history paper on legal changes after the black plague in England.

I also throw up the things on my personal blog that are too academic or too dense to really be read by someone unless they really want to know something. I did a four part series of essays applying Jungian Dream analysis to video games. You can find Part One here. The rest are in chronological order as I completed them, so just scroll into the later months on the blog. There’s also a piece that explains my basic style and reason for producing these kinds of blog posts along with an explanation for how I find the time to produce all this crap. If you liked the Lester Bangs and Pauline Kael write-ups, I went full Book Nerd and wrote a long essay about what Samuel Johnson would bring to video game criticism, a weird ramble about the ending to Battlestar Galactica along with a prime example of me actually trying to be funny were also highlights.

Finally, I was able to produce some retrospectives on some actual video game critics themselves for Critical Distance. The first was about the ARG Pixel Vixen 707 and her too short career. The second was a lengthy piece on Ten Years of Penny Arcade.

It has been a great year, and I’ve had the chance to work with a lot of great people. Have a great holiday season, and again, thank you for taking the time to stop by and check out the BPM along with the rest of Popmatters.

by Bill Gibron

21 Dec 2009

In celebration of 22 December’s DVD and Blu-ray release of the latest Family Guy spoof of Star Wars - Something, Something, Something, Dark Side - SE&L has canvassed the creative landscape of the last 50 years and come up with a list of 10 kinfolk collectives that definitely deserve special mention. Now while it might seem strange to celebrate a selection of animated TV families on a film blog, let’s look at the possible connections, shall we? George Lucas’ sci-fi love letter to other, better films is one of the most heralded (and harangued) movie sextets of all time. Seth MacFarlane and the gang are giving perhaps the best Wars title, The Empire Strikes Back, the same sort of lampoon lashing that past products like Spaceballs did. Besides, more than a few of these pen and ink broods have starred in their own big screen showcases, the most recent centering on a certain oddball bunch from Springfield and an environmental disaster.

So while contemplating the thought of seeing your favorite speculative fiction movie icons spoofed yet again, here are ten families to inspire and irritate. You may not want to emulate them, but you probably won’t mind if they visit for, say, a half hour or so once a week, beginning with:

The Griffins (Family Guy)

As the stars of the new spoof, Something, Something, Something, Dark Side, Peter and the gang reaffirm their position as prime time TV’s most mentally challenged, unstable, unpredictable, and unscrupulous suburbanites. Imagine The Simpsons with lower IQs, obvious perversions, and far more lax personal hygiene and you’ve got an idea of what to expect from Seth Farlane’s crackhead creation. Never even attempting realism, the entire series plays like Dada for Dodos. Everything’s fake. Everything’s foul. And everything’s funny.

The Jetsons

They were supposed to be our glimpse into the future. They were intended to highlight the technological advances of the upcoming century with the age old issues of being married, with children. For George Jetson, put upon employee and desperate dad, progress has done little to make his life easier. If anything, trying to parent when your children can literally bend physics and practical science is enough to make you more than crazy. Add in a snippy robot servant and a loco canine and there’s no hope of such mechanized domestic bliss. 

The Flintstones

While many fault the series as being nothing more than The Honeymooners retrofitted to caveman times, the first truly successful primetime animated series is actually a wonderful reflection of its cultural time and place. Fred and Wilma were true counterculture rebels, playing within the Establishment while expressing attitudes and attributes that made many ‘60s radicals smile. Granted, they may be hard to see inside the granite and limestone puns and animals as appliances, but next time you stumble across the Neanderthal Ralph Kramden, pay attention. You might just be pleasantly surprised. 

The Simpsons

Ah the pure unadulterated joy of being a moron. No other animated series, before or since, has taken the notion of being stupid and turned it into a brilliant badge of honor. Sure, everyone has thought their Dad was dumb at one time or another, but no one is as bravely buffoonish as head of household Homer. While his wife loves him despite of his dullness, his children take his lack of wit with humor and heart. A truly classic show that says more about modern life than we dare admit.

The Smiths (American Dad)

Want proof that the US Neo-Con is as flaky as a fine French pastry? Tune into this companion piece to Family Guy featuring clueless government agent Stan Smith, his tarty trophy wife, and an extended clan that sees nerdy son and hippy daughter share living space with a fey alien and a German accented goldfish. Sounds normal, right? Well, once you see Master Macfarlane’s spin on reactionary Red State ridiculousness, Sarah Palin will seem sensible. Now that’s frightening - and sidesplitting.

The Boyles (Wait Till Your Father Gets Home)

In the wake of its boundary pushing success, the other two rival networks were desperate for a show like CBS’s All in the Family. Taking a segment from its hit Love, American Style - entitled “Love and the Old Fashioned Father” - ABC attempted to bring an animated series featuring the Boyles to the small screen. When focus groups balked, producers Hanna-Barbera took the show into syndication. Oddly enough, this attempt at socially significant generation gapping lasted nearly three seasons, and is today remembered as groundbreaking in its own right.

The Oblongs

When The Simpsons stole the primetime thunder away from network powerhouse NBC, upstarts like the WB and UPN took notice. Suddenly, the airwaves were flooded with animated fare, including this unique look as a family of freaks. Dad was born with no arms or legs. His wife is a bald alcoholic, while their offspring consisted of conjoined twins, a mentally disturbed psycho, and a daughter with a weird growth spurting out of her head. Featuring the voices of Will Ferrell and Jean Smart, the Oblongs were too wacky for even a struggling media conglomerate. The show lasted one season.

The Binfords (Family Dog)

It must be tough to be known as the clan that killed this promising series, but that’s what happened when the long gestating collaboration between Steven Spielberg and Tim Burton finally hit TV screens. It bombed, the missing link was creative genius Brad Bird, who had gone on to bigger and better things with The Iron Giant. For supporters of Skip and Beverly’s mixed-up, mild-mannered mutt, it seemed like a sure thing. Instead, it remains one of the shortest lived series in the history of primetime cartooning.

The Smalls (Home Movies)

Like The Oblongs, the story of Brendon Small and his cinematic aspirations was just too quirky for the fledgling UPN Network. Five shows in, and it was cancellation time. Luckily, the Cartoon Network stepped in and saved it, using it as a start-up lynchpin for its now immensely popular Adult Swim programming. As yet another twisted take on life in these United States, this mostly improvisational effort did a brilliant job of deconstructing the contemporary family unit, from the daily grind of adolescence to outright pop culture parodies.

The Hills (King of the Hill)

It’s no surprise that, with the rise of NASCAR nation, TV would find a way to celebrate all things redneck, white and blue. With Beavis and Butthead‘s Mike Judge on board, and Greg Daniels of The Simpsons working behind the scenes, the everyday experiences of propane salesman Hank and his close-knit clan became FOX friendly staples. With its emphasis on character over stereotype and desire to both celebrate and chastise its subjects, King was seen as a far more realistic counterpoint to the rest of the network’s Hells-apoppin halfwits. Now cancelled, it remains one of the genre’s best. 

by Bill Gibron

20 Dec 2009

History is a fount for possible creative endeavors. Filled with myths and legends, heroes and villains, it’s the stuff of epics, the material for a million thought-provoking and heart-pounding adventures. So why then have the two high concept comedies surrounding the archiving of our past - Night at the Museum and the recently released Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian been so lame. Learning dates and facts in a community college course would be far more entertaining. 

Granted, both entries do use famous figures from both national and international folklore to sell some antiseptic physical comedy. It does offer Ben Stiller in one of his two carefully calculated career modes (paycheck cashing vs. comedic firebrand) and it does give an array of equally talented costars (Amy Adams, Hank Azaria, Bill Hader) a chance to sell their own souls for the sake of some commercial cred. But the true scoundrel here is no unscrupulous businessmen or blasé bureaucrat. It’s director Shawn Levy, a hack who never saw a possible wistful family film conceit (Big Fat Liar, the pathetic Pink Panther remake) that he couldn’t mangle with his mediocre sense of cinematic skill.

There is really no faulting the premise. Like the toy shop that comes alive when the “CLOSED” sign is secured for the day, or the pet shop that plots revenge on its merciless owners, everyone has at one time or another wiled away a childhood afternoon wondering if the exhibits at their local Science and Industry get up and walk around once the final tourist has left the gift shop. The Night at the Museum movies jerryrig this idea into something about an ancient Egyptian talisman, group reanimation, a bumbling inventor turned museum nightwatchmen, and lots of jokes about biological functions and common sense vs. stupidity.

The latest installment sees Stiller’s Larry Daley trading in his profitable gig as a TV infomercial pioneer and pitchman to help out some of his old friends at the Natural Museum. Seems they are headed for storage at the famed Washington locale, and our hero just can’t let that happen. When they do arrive at their new home, a new wrinkle enters into the narrative mix. Seems Kahmunrah (Azaria), evil brother of previous film good guy Ahkmenrah (Rami Malek), wants that fabled golden tablet so he can take over the world. It is up to Larry and new friends Emilia Earhart (Adams) and General Custer (Hader), along with old buddies Jedediah Smith (Owen Wilson), Octavius (Steve Coogan), and Former President Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams) to save the day.


This is what children’s distraction has come to in 2009 - and make no mistake about it, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian is clearly aimed at a demographic not quite capable of making cognitive decisions of any kind for themselves. In the genre of crass, flat, by-the-book comedies, this title takes a small, stale cake. It’s dull when it should be amazing, rote when it should find way to rewrite the type’s bubble-headed tendencies. Tossing everything at the audience to see what sticks, Levy (along with returning salary scavengers, screenwriters Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant) overstuffs his film, making it nearly impossible to enjoy any one element. When he’s not trying for more and more F/X falderal, he’s letting his actors mug with equal abandon.

There are several low points in this preposterously dopey exercise: the himbo halfwit Jonas Brothers as marble cherubs, harmonizing all their dialogue (Yeesh!); Azaria, doing an accent that sounds like the illegitimate love child of Boris Karloff and Michael Palin’s Pontius Pilate from Life of Brian; the smart-alecky Dead End ‘20s lingo tossed around like ripe cheese by Adam’s famed flygirl; the continued and inane squabbling between miniature misfits Jedediah and Octavius. Add in the occasional attempts at topical humor, the completely wasted efforts of sure things like Ricky Gervais, Christopher Guest, and Jonah Hill, and you’ve got an aesthetic car accident that even the most mindless lookie-loo wouldn’t slow down to experience.

Of course, no one involved in this film sees things in such a manner. The new Blu-ray release offers two commentary tracks (Levy alone, Lennon and Garant together) and both are fairly backslapping and self-serving. Enthusiasm runs high, as does endless production minutia. There are also numerous behind the scenes and interview featurettes which keep the EPK levels lamentable. Some are attempts at humor (caveman answering all questions with grunts, a collection of ‘famous last words’) while others take the standard making-of material and treat it as the last word of motion picture magic. Between deleted scenes and gag reels, looks at real life museums and the daily grind of “monkey wrangling”, the Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian package is informative if uneven. At least the near reference quality 1080p image and various Master Audio mixes are theatrical quality. Very little about the film itself, however, is.

And again, the fault must fall on the filmmaker’s shallow shoulders. Imagine what a talent like Spielberg or Burton could do with a concept like this. Visualize a Night at the Museum helmed by a visionary like Terry Gilliam or someone with certified post-modern panache like Zack Snyder and you understand the problem implicitly. Shawn Levy gives Tinseltown journeymen a bad name with his crude cinematic construction and even more unfettered lack of gifts. He’s a human personification of absolute luck, parlaying a career on the small screen into the eventual leap into theaters. Too bad it wasn’t off a high cliff.

Perhaps then we wouldn’t have to suffer through another atomic bomb as wholesome amusement like Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. As yet another in a long line of electronic babysitters, parents could probably do worse. Sadly, after taking in many of the current Hollywood samplings of same, it would be almost impossible to do much better. A film such as this should at least be likable. This second Night at the Museum takes history and, instead of treating it right, trashes it.

by Bill Gibron

19 Dec 2009

Werner Herzog is crazy. He’s a maverick’s maverick. Not only does he march to the unique beat of his own idiosyncratic drummer, he preps and skins the oddball tom-tom himself, sometimes even writing the syncopated score in his own unique style. This makes his creative process - both fictional and documentary - both insular and yet undeniably appealing. It’s just so much fun watching someone avoid convention to risk it all, almost always for a revelatory, ridiculously good time.

After a pair of stunning fact films - The Grizzly Man and Encounters at the End of the World - and two twisted, intriguing narratives - The Wild Blue Yonder, and the powerful Rescue Dawn - Herzog had a vision. He wanted to make a movie in post-Katrina Louisiana, using the devastation and rebuilding as a means of exploring his usual themes - man vs. nature and the nature of man. He then found a like minded collaborator in Nicolas Cage, and together they decided to demystify and deconstruct the cop thriller. The results - the reprobate and resplendent The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans.

Inspired by, but not wholly based on, the 1992 Abel Ferrara effort, Herzog’s interpretation of a naughty noir murder mystery is a lark. Cage plays Terence McDonagh, a drug-taking, smack talking jackass who views the entire Parish police department as his own personal den of iniquity. He beds a prostitute (played by Eva Mendes) while he avoids the prying eyes of fellow detective Pruit (Val Kilmer) and evidence room supervisor Mundt (Michael Shannon). When an immigrant family is killed, execution style, McDonagh makes it his goal to discover the perpetrators.

Turns out a local gangster named Big Fate (MTV icon Xzibit) had a hand in the heinous crime. Using his street contacts, as well as his own fevered brain, McDonagh tries to entrap his felonious prey, all while taking advantage of the readily available vices and victims in the Crescent City. Through it all, McDonagh is like a deranged hunchback, his constant pain from a spinal injury causing him to walk with major discomfort and lash out whenever the mood hits him. This causes some problems for the policeman, especially when confronting the more elderly or gentile members of the New Orleans community.

In a year filled with audacity (Antichrist, Inglourious Basterds), nothing is cheekier and as out and out ballsy as The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans. This is creativity as confrontation, expectations challenged and then shattered by one of the last true artists left in the field of filmmaking. Sure, it all seems funny and insincere, a joke on the audience where everyone in the cast and crew is bastardizing their own insular take on the material for the sake of a grander illusion. But dismissing the movie in that way underestimates Herzog’s power as a provocateur. He is not out to serve some commercial conceit, or waste his time playing around with some actors and a camera. This is serious business to him, and at its core, Bad Lieutenant is a serious film.

As with Ferrara’s ferocious denouncement of faith and character flaws, Herzog uses the thin blue line as a means of exploring the precipice between legality and lawlessness. He gives McDonagh several reasons for his foibles - physical pain, emotional scarring (an alcoholic father with an equally booze soaked bimbo girlfriend), lack of love, abuse of power, availability, corruption, and the always present notion of inherent evil. He then places them against a situation of real shock and horror - a family massacred in ritualized retaliation - and asks you to judge which is worse.

Sure, Cage grandstands, going off gloriously when questioning some residents of a nursing home, and there are moments when his Method cannot decipher McDonagh’s madness. Like the proto-caricaturish turns in Vampire’s Kiss, or Peggy Sue Got Married, the actor is manufacturing personality from the mannerism up, discovering along with the viewer what makes this particular public servant so surreal. That Herzog lets him explore any and all avenue of said character expression is one of Bad Lieutenant‘s best features. That he also gives the same leeway to other willing participants (Kilmer is always ready to go gonzo, while Jennifer Coolidge really lets it all hang out as Cage’s father’s beer soaked confidant) makes the experience all the more memorable.

From then on, it’s a matter of matching the designs of the whodunit with the need to continuous push the limits of said genre. Cage’s character has frequent drug-fueled hallucinations, all of which seemingly revolve around the bayou reclaiming New Orleans for its very own. There are also glimpses of real truth, as when a potential witness flees in order to avoid the penalty of playing snitch within this society. Herzog is not just out to make an epic farce - he’s using this blatantly over the top approach to reveal the ambiguous nature of law, as well as the questionable tendencies of either side. Indeed, Xzibit’s kingpin is perhaps the most moral man in the entire film.

Yet that’s what makes The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans so special. It takes the truth and filters it in a way that makes us see it in a whole new, far more expressive way. Sure, we can laugh as Cage curses out a couple, or snorts coke, but these are parts of a portrait far more fiery and provoking. What we are supposed to see is something far more chilling, an illustration of how deadening, and defeating, a pursuit of justice can be. McDonagh is not bad because he’s wicked. He’s awful because people are awful. Because criminals will do anything to avoid capture and culpability. Because everyone is on the take, they just don’t realize it. In Herzog’s universe, human beings are pawns as part of some comical cosmic game where no one knows the rules and few can follow the various moves.

With it’s spirit and bravado, desire to defy as much as it suggests the standards, The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans is a new level for its director. It shows he can subvert his normal idealism for some good old fashioned fun while still poking around in the areas that earned him his reputation. Cage continues to confuse, choosing unusual projects like this while cashing paychecks for chum like G-Force and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Perhaps the biggest beneficiary is NOLA herself, a wondrous city soiled by nature and man’s reaction to such a devastating disaster. Yet amongst the rot and rubble, life continues on. It’s same for Werner Herzog and his oft muted muse. Under his auspices, this Bad Lieutenant is oh so good.

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