If you’re into cinematic cheese, this week brings a heady combination of campy cheddar and goofy Gruyere. Even our SE&L pick is one of the Fall’s least anticipated films (though we here at the blog dug its ADD inspired trailer), while the alternate title is one of horror’s most repugnant offerings. In between, you’ll find failed jingoism, lame lampooning, sobering science fiction, and one of the most misguided action films ever helmed. It’s enough to make you save your disposable income for next week’s stellar line-up. In any case, here are the selections for 30 January:
Other Titles of Interest
Farce of the Penguins
And Now for Something Completely Different
It’s about time we faced facts as film fans. The Oscars are really out of touch. It’s not just the usual omissions and snubs – this year’s avoidance of Dreamgirls no exception – or the ‘holier than thou’ hierarchy it lords over all other awards. No, it seems that, ever since the ‘70s renaissance in cinema, the Academy has missed opportunity after opportunity to reward actual artistry. Say what you will about the last five Best Picture winners – Crash, Million Dollar Baby, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Chicago and A Beautiful Mind – but all except one will remain an aesthetic afterthought when it comes to a final filmic analysis. Indeed, looking back to Midnight Cowboy in 1970, the one time studio shill fest, designed as a kind of self-congratulatory salute to itself when it began in 1929, is starting to stink of industry insularity all over again.
When Crash defeated everyone’s odds on favorite, Brokeback Mountain, last year, people seemed to sense that all was not right with the glorified golden statue. It was rare that such a hit or miss production, a film that received as many pans as it did praise walked away with the top honors of the year. Listen to people pontificate, and they’ll point to Shakespeare in Love, American Beauty, and Titanic as recent examples of the big show getting it wrong. Granted, the alternates for each one of the aforementioned is hard to delineate – it’s hard to argue that The Thin Red Line, Life is Beautiful, or Elizabeth deserved to be in the same category as Saving Private Ryan (which Shakespeare beat for the award). No, what cinephiles fail to take into consideration when criticizing the Oscars is that many of the great films, many of them considered classics of the artform, never even make it to the nomination phase.
Take the 2002 BFI List of the Top Ten Films of All Time. Vertigo (#2), The Rules of the Game (3#), Tokyo Story (#5), 2001: A Space Odyssey (#6), Battleship Potemkin (#7) and Singing in the Rain (#10) all failed to make the Academy cut. Of the rest, The Godfather films (#4), Sunrise (#8) and 8 ½ (#9) actually won, while Citizen Kane (#1) received a Best Picture nod, but was beat by How Green Was My Valley. While its easy to argue the BFI selections, what’s obvious is that a yearly awards ceremony, especially one guided by politics, campaigning, knee-jerk pop culture reactions, and occasional outright incompetence can’t be counted on to determine the greatest movies ever made. Indeed, as stated before, it can barely get the choices from specific years correct.
This year, Dreamgirls was crowned the de facto winner by more than a couple of cinematic know it alls. As far back as October, those in the know (meaning anyone invited or privy to exclusive industry screenings) picked the Chicago wannabe as musical manna from Heaven. As the minority representative of the cinematic song and dance renaissance, those lucky enough to warrant an early glance were praising the performances and the filmmaking as if no other movie could walk in its superiorly crafted footsteps. When that joke of a journalistic organization – the Foreign Press Club – picked the late December release as its Golden Globe winner for Best Picture, Musical or Comedy, the Oscar nom was signed, sealed and delivered. Unfortunately, someone forgot to mail that memo to the people over at Price Waterhouse. When Selma Hayek and AMPAS President Sid Ganis announced the five choices for 2006’s Best Picture, Dreamgirls didn’t make the cut.
Bill Condon and crew shouldn’t care. They are in very good company. United 93, a film debated and deconstructed since its early April release was also supposed to be a shoe-in. So was Little Children, the Todd Fields scourging of suburbia and Children of Men, Alfonso Cuoran’s amazing future shock social commentary. Sadly, they will all have to settle for vindication in the lesser categories. Then there were those complicated, occasionally misunderstood movies that made several Best of Lists – The Prestige, The Fountain, Inland Empire – that many felt really represented the best of what post-millennial moviemaking had to offer. Even Borat was bandied about as a potential Oscar choice, since the industry is always willing to reward a newcomer who brings something fresh and original to the overall dynamic.
On the flip side, almost all of the five films that finally made the cut have major detractors. Aside from The Departed, which got universally glowing reviews, and The Queen which has parlayed its pitch perfect performances by Helen Mirren and Michael Sheen into more than a little comprehensive appreciation, each potential winner has its fair share of critics. Probably the clearest two examples of contentious nominations are Little Miss Sunshine and Babel. Each one has loud detractors – the main condemnation being that each effort is cloying, scattered and lacking real narrative focus – and, oddly enough, both are now the favorites to win the award. It’s Crash all over again, except this time, there’s no agenda-oriented darling waiting to be disappointed. Indeed, with no one film making the pitch as overall favorite, Oscar has done something strangely similar to its decisions of the past – it has picked a group of nominees that tend to flatter the film that eventually wins.
In this case, if Little Miss Sunshine picks up the trophy - as it did recently at the Producers Guild of America - it will be seen as a victory for the small, independent feature, a direct slap in the face of a film like The Departed that has big budget, high profile performers filling out its artistic reality. Babel – a real example of love it or hate it histrionics - has the same A-list pedigree and when it took home the Golden Globe for Best Dramatic Picture, it pushed its way beyond the rest of the foreign filmmaking pack. Letters of Iwo Jima remains the wild card, Clint Eastwood proving more popular among Academy members than he is elsewhere in the entertainment community. For most groups, this look at the war from the Japanese side, featuring a non-English speaking cast and dialogue delivered in subtitles, was a better Foreign film choice than Best Picture candidate.
Now there are some who contend that Oscar really reserves recognition for the year’s best in other, less prominent categories. They point to examples of wins in Best Original Screenplay (The Coen Brother’s Fargo, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction) and Best Director (Ang Lee, Roman Polanski) as ways of determining artistic merit. This year appears no different. Paul Greenglass gets back for the United 93 snub here, and Children of Men finds itself fighting for recognition among the Best Adapted Screenplay throng. Even overlooked efforts like The Prestige appear in the technical awards (Art Direction and Cinematography) and some unlikely nominees– Marie Antoinette, Apocalypto, The Good German – turn up here as well. They would call it “spreading the wealth”. Most film fans would consider it avoided complete embarrassment.
It’s easy to dismiss the Academy Awards, an organization that failed to recognize the genius of Alfred Hitchcock, Buster Keaton, Robert Altman, Jean Renoir and Akira Kurosawa (and, NO, those late in life Honorary nods don’t count). And there are times when they get it right, even in spite of themselves. But as the new millennium motors along, it is becoming clearer and clearer that a Grammys style revamp is in order. If Babel or Little Miss Sunshine wins, the chasm between critics, film community, and the general public will grow wider and more antagonistic. While no one expects a more People’s Choice approach, or even a broadening of the nomination criteria, it is clear that the same issues that plagued the documentary branch (which still is less than perfect) are complicating the major motion picture picks.
By moving the awards up a couple of weeks, and avoiding the intense lobbying that went on in year’s past, Oscar is trying to remove both the predictability and the relevance from its annual love-in. While many might see this as a step in a positive direction, those whose tastes run more toward the unusual and eccentric will continue to see their choices ignored, their well-honed aesthetic substituted for a mob rule mainstream mindset. And as long as this kind of collective approach continues to dominate the Academy, their all but predestined picks will continue to fall further and further out of classics consideration.
It’s almost time for the big annual Chili Cook-off, and the citizens of Butte County are blissfully unaware of the evil all around. While performing top-secret experiments in his lab at DuTech, the evil Dr. Stern has stumbled upon some unstable DNA. When his assistant is exposed to it, she melts into a pile of radioactive poo. Hoping to cover his corn-flecked tracks, the insidious experimenter disposes of the genetic mess in the local sewer. As fate would have it, escaped serial killer and noted fecalphiliac Jack Schmitt is using the subterranean lemonade and fudge freeway to mastermind his escape.
Naturally, the authorities stop him and before you know it, Schmitt is covered in the bad Doc’s dirty doody water. He dissolves and mutates into an eight-foot-tall killer piece of crap that stalks unsuspecting victims while they’re on the throne. FBI Agent Hannigan, who first tracked Schmitt in his pre-feces days, is brought back on the case to crack this butt nugget nastiness once and for all. But she needs help, and all she has is a drunken, dejected sheriff, a couple of dunce-capped deputies, and an entomologist with a cat carrier filled with about a million flies. Will the foxy Fed and her collection of incompetent law enforcement fools be able to stop this BM beast before it stinks up the competition con carne? Or will the Monsturd be the last loaf standing?
Somewhere between genius and the juvenile lies Monsturd. It is either the most hilarious, well-intentioned horror spoof ever conceived, or the lamest one-joke jive ever unspooled onto celluloid. Your reaction to it will be based solely on how you respond to the following statement: A biochemical accident causes a serial killer to genetically meld with a sewer full of shit to become a gigantic fiend made of feces. Hijinks ensue. If, after digesting that description, you’re doubled over in laughter (or at least smiling and snickering), you’re going to absolutely love this film. If, however, you believe the idea is sophomoric, simple, and just plain stupid, you’ll probably find Monsturd another in a long line of dumb demonic drivel. And no one would blame you for approaching this movie apprehensively, like you would the restroom after your obese roommate has finished flushing out the last of his 7-11 burrito.
Films like Jack Frost (killer snowman), Killer Tongue (sinful oral appendage), and Killer Condom (‘nuff said) have pushed the envelope of terror ticklishness into the patently absurd, but Monsturd sets a brand new skidmark in fright flick tomfoolery. Showing a sense of style, a commitment to clever cinema and a brand of humor far more developed than your normal labor-of-love videodrome, this is one of the best, more entertainingly satirical monster movie massacres ever created. Like Mulva: Zombie Ass Kicker and some of Troma’s more “toxic” titles, Monsturd gets it all correct: atmosphere, references, and wickedly witty execution. It can occasionally lapse into retarded toilet humor, but what do you expect from a movie with an evil entity of excrement as its lead character?
No matter your predilection for the premise or the bad-taste tone, you have to admit that co-writers/co-directors/lead actors Rick Popko and Dan West (talk about your hyphenated multi-tasking power trio duo) have crafted one of the best looking, most professional-feeling no-budget homemade films ever. The two-year in the making ode to offal far exceeds the cinematic stylings of most independent films, and shows a buttload more imagination and fun. Gleaning inspiration from such diverse sources as Herschell Gordon Lewis, mainstream movies, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and Italian horror heavyweights Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci, this cornucopia of crapola is a blissful bowel movement of joyful dung jokes wrapped inside a brainy farce with hilarious characters.
Using a set-piece style that gives each actor a chance to shine, the highlights are absolutely hysterical. Such standout sequences as the hippie hand puppet interrogation, the overly dramatic domestic dispute over a filthy commode, and the stream of consciousness megaphone spiel from the cops deliver untold moments of solid gold giggling. And then there is poop. Everyone knows that turds are a laugh riot. Little kids enjoy playing with their own stool as a simple pastime. The Bear in the Big Blue House seemed pleased to address the potty training of those burdened by “booms.” Heck, any comic worth his weight in brick backdrops understands that Hershey squirts are the skills that pay the bills. And Monsturd ladles on the loads with septic tank-like regularity. After all, this is a movie about a killer doody. Poo is gonna fly, fling, and fight for its life. Folks are gonna meet their maker at the pinched loafs of a psychotic shite. Puns, metaphors, and similes are tossed at the audience in groan-inducing dog piles. And it’s all funny as hell.
But somehow, even with massive amounts of rump pudding soft-serve soaring around the screen (and onto actors and props and sets, etc.), the moviemaking manages to rise above the obvious bottom-rung classification to make “number two” Number One for fans of fright and funny. West and Popko are obvious pop culture junkies—you can count the numerous references they make to classic films, odd cult faves, and current comic creations. Between riffs on Blood Feast, Jaws, Alien, The Evil Dead, Se7en, Day of the Dead, Ghostbusters, and South Park (the guys’ own animated rip-off of the TV show is brilliant!), they manage to steal from a veritable Who’s Who of horror and monster movie icons to infuse their film with Simpsons-like irony. There are even hidden in-jokes and tossed off asides (pay close attention to the “Wanted” posters in the police station) to add a depth of demented vision to all the ca-ca craziness.
West and Popko are fine directors, able to keep the action moving while copycatting framing from their film favorites. The acting is also superb. Comedy is all about timing and tempo, and everyone here—from the directors themselves to Paul Weiner as the alcoholic sheriff Duncan and Beth West as the only fictional FBI agent that would make Scully seem sunny—is up to the challenge. With a dozen other professionals and non-performers (who stick out like a riotously funny bone) Monsturd gets to combine the best of all worlds to make a movie about bowel movements that is gross, yet great; charming, yet ready for a whole mountain of Charmin.
Back in 1965, this all must have seemed like scandalous stuff. A movie focusing on death in such a callous, cold hearted manner. Religion vilified with hints of unethical behavior and business-oriented obsessions. A tweaking of artists, the English, the Hollywood studio system, and freaked out momma’s boys, all in one deliriously dark comic cavalcade. But that’s exactly what The Loved One was when it hit unsuspecting moviegoers in the social consciousness back in the middle of the swinging ‘60s. Now on DVD from Warner Brothers, this delicious black comedy still retains its cynical cutting edge.
Able to make any movie he wanted after Tom Jones walked away with Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director, British bad boy Tony Richardson was itching to bring Evelyn Waugh’s 1948 mortuary satire to the silver screen. Hiring Terry Southern (off his own Academy nod for the Dr. Strangelove screenplay) and Christopher Isherwood (an ex-patriot famed for his Berlin Stories, which would become the basis for Cabaret) to write the novel’s adaptation, Richardson wanted to continue the cinematic revolution he started with Tom Jones’ jumbled, jangled self-referential style.
For The Loved One, he would incorporate everything he learned as a cutting-edge filmmaker in the UK. As a result, he purposefully mimicked fellow auteurs like Stanley Kubrick (along with borrowing Strangelove‘s look, he placed his comedic star, Jonathan Winters, in a diabolical dual role) and Orson Welles (playing with depth of field and focus). He would also take pot shots at several ‘–isms’—racism, materialism, populism, commercialism—while keeping the more macabre elements about the recently deceased front and center. Thus we have the surreal story of a bad boy British poet who falls in love with a maudlin make-up girl at a ritzy, regal funeral home.
In this purposefully convoluted tale, Dennis Barlow (Robert Morse) decides to visit his uncle in Hollywood. Sir Francis Hinsley (Sir John Gielgud) has been a scenic designer for over 30 years. A young gun studio executive (Roddy McDowell) fires him, causing Hinsley to take his own life. This leaves Barlow to tidy up the estate. Traveling to a memorial park owned by the Rev. Wilbur Glenworthy (Jonathan Winters) called Whispering Glades, he meets the slightly scatterbrained Aimee Thanatogenous (Anjannete Comer) and Mr. Joyboy (Rod Steiger) the resident embalmer.
After a garish funeral, Barlow is set adrift. He eventually gets a job working for the Reverend’s conniving brother Henry (Winters, again) at a pet cemetery. While unfulfilling, it gives him a chance to woo Aimee. Joyboy becomes jealous of Barlow’s fascination, and looks for ways to undermine his position. In the meanwhile, the Reverend is looking for a way to ditch the mortuary gig and start up a retirement community. When a precocious kid’s (Paul Williams) stray rocket lands in the animal sanctuary, the Glenworthys believe they’ve hit pay dirt. They will send all the ‘loved ones’ currently interred into space, endlessly orbiting the Earth while they rezone their resting place.
While the film’s narrative barely resembled Waugh’s wicked work, The Loved One stands on its own as an eccentric celluloid experiment from the equally innovative mid-‘60s. In many ways, it resembles a series of Monty Python sketches as directed by David Lynch, a decidedly deadpan farce that uses corpses instead of conceptualization as the source of its humor. While much of the original outrage will fall flat on audiences raised on our current post-modern sense of mockery, there is still a great deal to enjoy in this early attempt at directorial dadaism.
Richardson didn’t recoil from artistic overreaching, and always tried to imbue his canon with a sense of adventure and innovation. From his film version of the great English proto-punk drama Look Back in Anger to his post-Loved One efforts Mademoiselle and The Charge of the Light Brigade, Richardson played with format and formula, mixing in divergent stylistic elements and unusual camera tricks to challenge motion picture making, much in the manner of the French New Wave.
Sadly, he didn’t have the support of a Godard or a Truffaut, meaning he often took on projects that dampened his anarchic approach. With The Loved One, however, he found a near perfect vehicle. Within the incredibly unusual setting, he could ridicule the Establishment (as illustrated by the racially selective Whispering Glade’s mortuary) while tweaking the counterculture for its lack of originality (Barlow’s poetry is all borrowed from the classics) and conviction (Aimee is a flower child who rather deal in death than reality). Indeed, it could be said that this monochrome masterwork is on par with other examples of stellar ‘60s cinema, losing most of its warped wit, but easily retaining all its aesthetically appealing aspects.
Richardson was also well known for his work with actors, and The Loved One is no different. From the gentile goofiness of the late, great Sir John Gielgud, the overblown bluster of Robert Morley (as a pompous, proud Brit), the artificial air of Roddy McDowall and the drunken defiance of Lionel Stander (as an advice columnist), the ancillary characters in the story are sketched out magnificently. Though some only have a few short moments on screen (Liberace, Dana Andrews, Milton Berle, James Coburn and Tab Hunter all shine in glorified cameo roles) they make their presence important and part of Richardson’s raison d’être.
In the lead, Robert Morse is mesmerizing, slipping in and out of his faux British accent so easily that it becomes a fascinating feature of his persona. We never completely buy Barlow as a bard, so when he loses his Londonderry air, we sense a subliminal statement by Richardson on the reality of his character. Similarly, Rod Steiger is sensational as Mr. Joyboy, an embalmer with a certifiable mother fixation. Playing a closeted crackpot (a variation of which he would use in the equally entertaining No Way to Treat a Lady) this Method madman is so perverted and prissy that we can’t imagine his harried home life. Then once we see his half-ton homunculus of a mom, Joyboy’s oddity becomes obvious.
As the woman who comes between these two, Anganette Comer is fairly strange herself, getting lost in Aimee’s numbskulled naiveté with relative ease. That just leaves Jonathan Winters, and while he’s never given too much to do, he is remarkable in his few scenes (including the Reverend’s last minute megalomania). Yet no amount of scenery chewing or acting chutzpah could match Richardson’s resolve. Like Robert Altman’s The Player, Richardson hoped The Loved One would attack the shallowness of the West Coast while shoving a sharp spike into the heart of Hollywood’s calculated conceits. With a tagline that boasted a film “with something to offend everyone” and surreal scenes of dead animals, mansion like mortuaries and a coffin-based orgy, this devilish director truly tried to push buttons.
Like the uproar over Laugh-In when it first hit TV screens, The Loved One suffers from a social stigma borne out of personal propriety, not out of a universal ethos. Death is always a sensitive subject, but Richardson was really attacking the burial industry, a cash-intensive business that treated bodies like chattel in a never-ending struggle to bilk bucks out of the bereaved. Tamer today than when it first arrived, The Loved One is still a stunning celluloid statement. It’s a movie making a mockery of same while struggling with issues of life, death and dollar signs. It is difficult, rich, intriguing, enigmatic, dense, obvious and just a little arch. As a talent, Tony Richardson never got the chance to fully explore his ideas. The Loved One is the rare case where man and material came together famously.
As the more athletic-minded members of the home audience prepare for next week’s Super Bowl, and American Idol continues to woo the schaudenfreuda set, the motion picture choices this week are actually pretty decent. Between a marvelous ‘70s scare film, a brilliant mid-‘90s documentary, and an overlooked gem from an Oscar winning director, the possibility exists for some quality small screen viewing. Even some of the ancillary picks can and do provide a wealth of watchability. For the week starting 27 January, here are your viewing options:
The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio
Series 7: The Contenders
Billy the Kid vs. Dracula