Boobies and Violence and Wizards and Stuff in 'Your Highness'

I'm wary of I-love-the-'80s nostalgia-snark, but it turns out that the filmmakers' love for this genre is what makes their movie work, far moreso than its tepid reviews and flaccid box office would suggest.

Your Highness

Director: David Gordon Green
Cast: Danny McBride, James Franco, Natalie Portman, Zooey Deschanel, Justin Theroux, Toby Jones
Distributor: Universal
Rated: R
Release date: 2011-08-09

In the DVD commentary for Your Highness, we learn that the film had its genesis in a game. Not a video game or board game, mind you, which have been disturbingly viable options at the big studios, but a game that director David Gordon Green and co-writer/star Danny McBride used to play in film school: come up with a catchy title and then try to figure out the genre and story from there.

Your Highness was one such title; it was conceived those many years ago as a movie about a stoner knight going on a magical quest. By the time Green and McBride actually got the unlikely chance to make Your Highness, the story had evolved in focus if not sensibility. There are a few pot jokes in the final film, but it's not Cheech and Chong Go Medieval; it's more, as one of the filmmakers puts it, "stoner's movie than stoner movie" -- something stoners will enjoy, rather than a movie about stoners. The team's previous film, Pineapple Express, was more of a love letter to weed; Your Highness is a love letter to cheesy '80s fantasy films, the kind with, to quote Green, "boobies and violence and wizards and stuff."

I'm as wary as anyone of I-love-the-'80s nostalgia-snark, but it turns out that the filmmakers' love for this genre is what makes Your Highness work, far moreso than its tepid reviews and flaccid box office would suggest. McBride plays Thadeous, the layabout brother of Fabious (James Franco), a great warrior and hero of a faraway kingdom. Fabious intends to marry the beautiful, slightly dim Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel), but she's kidnapped on their wedding day by Leezar (Justin Theroux), an evil wizard who plans involving a cataclysmic magical event someone, possibly Leezar, has dubbed the Fuckening. Thadeous and Fabious embark on a quest to save her, encountering the usual barbarians, castles, minotaurs, and naked breasts.

The whole thing is a comedy version of fantasy movies like Krull or Excalibur, with McBride providing anachronistic swears and crudeness amidst more deadpan performances from the rest of the cast. It's not a bad technique, but as a comedy, Your Highness isn't as laugh-out-loud funny as Pineapple Express. McBride and co-writer Ben Best aren't as sharp as other Apatow-era screenwriters in terms of building scenes and writing involved dialogue; their script is more functional and amusing (if consistently so) than truly inspired. Many jokes depend on McBride's profane jerkiness, played with the same real-world bluntness he uses on Eastbound and Down.

The real difference is the film's setting, and as homage to sword-and-sorcery pictures, Your Highness is surprisingly credible. On the commentary, the filmmakers insist that they sought to avoid outright spoofery, and it shows: the creatures are well-designed, the action sequences are sincerely cool (in a geeky fantasy movie sort of way), and the relationship between Thadeous and Fabious has real humanity to it. McBride does play his usual selfish boor, but his hurt feelings and sense of inferiority to his handsome, brave brother are touching in their childishness.

Franco makes the choice to play Fabious not as a preening himbo, but a prince with genuine nobility and love for his brother, which makes his utter earnestness sweetly funny rather than an object of easy derision. Natalie Portman, who turns up late in the film as a fierce warrior, also understands the value of playing it straight in contrast to the movie's inherent silliness.

Your Highness isn't quite hilarious or exciting enough to be a rewatchable classic (though genre fans should love it); the commentary hints at limitations on the filmmakers' vision -- anything he and Green have ever done, McBride says, has been something they were "just barely" able to do. In this case, studio backing meant the realization of their fluky dream project, but also meant scaling down a first draft that would've cost $200 million to something that could be made for "comedy money" -- $50 million or so.

This may explain the slim deleted scenes, which only amount to an extra eight minutes (or maybe some were squirreled away for Blu-Ray exclusives; I only saw the DVD version). The most notable excised material (apart from a few funny lines added back into the only slightly longer "extended, unrated" version) is a love song between Franco and Deschanel called "Shitty Moons", sort of a profane take on "Somewhere Out There" from An American Tail -- funny, but perhaps a bit spoofier than the rest of the film.

Further unrealized ideas were probably too expensive to shoot at all, and technical limitations probably also muted the improvisational style that Green, McBride, and Franco were all able to utilize so well in Pineapple. Here, the casual riffing feels responsible for a few funny touches, rather than more freewheeling hilarity of a Judd Apatow or Adam McKay movie; it's probably tricky to turn attention to shooting take after take when wrangling extras, sets, effects, and a mechanical bird inspired by Bubo from Clash of the Titans.

That it takes time to create its own Bubo, though, is indicative of the geek-tastic touches that make the movie so much fun. If the commentary track highlights the production's limitations, it also showcases the craft of Your Highness: watching a carriage chase or climactic battle with the commentary obscuring the audio, you notice just how neat-looking and well-assembled this stuff is. The sensitivity that makes David Gordon Green such a strong chronicler of human relationships in movies like Snow Angels or All the Real Girls also makes him a savvy genre-hopper, able to find sincerity in silliness (and vice versa).

Your Highness may sound like a stoner romp, but it's a movie as in love with B-movies as anything by Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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