Tuesday, February 26, 2008

I Told You I Was Ill: The Life and Legacy of Spike Milligan

As you know if you're reading these entries in the order I wrote them, as opposed to the order they appear on this page, I'm in kind of a Goon Show mood. And since I just watched a movie about the life of Peter Sellers, I calculated that it would make sense to watch this documentary about the life of Spike Milligan.

It's . . . okay, I guess. There's way too much of Spike's kids and not enough of Spike himself. The daughters are the reason the movie was made, but I could have done with many fewer interviews in which they talk about why they wanted to make a movie. I do not like it when documentarians make movies about themselves instead of their alleged subjects; when his daughter tells me about her career on the stage, I do not care at all. I'm not here for you!

Besides, there are probably better people to talk about someone than his children, who weren't even alive at the time of the subject's biggest stardom, you know? From the way the movie acts, you'd think Spike Milligan's primary job was writing children's poetry, but I think that's just because that's what his daughters liked the best.

There isn't really much of a structure to the film. It's got a lot of scenes of a tribute that was organized for Spike (which I found boring, since it was mostly just people acting strenuously silly), followed by home movies or pictures (interesting at first, but significantly overdone), and the occasional bit of biography (which I liked, but they weren't really in any order and were too far apart to form a narrative).

The goal of the movie is to convince viewers that Spike Milligan was a complicated person. They should have spent more time emphasizing his comic genius, since it comes off as a story of a guy who was occasionally manic-depressive and was kind of an odd father. They're going for "disturbed genius", but they're taking the "genius" as already established and don't really do much with the "disturbed" part either. I could have done with a great deal more Michael Palin and Eddie Izzard talking about Spike, and I don't think that's all that strange.

The Life and Death of Peter Sellers

I've just reread the first four books of Spike Milligan's war memoirs, and I've decided it's strange that I'm such a big fan of them and of things like Monty Python's Flying Circus, but I know almost nothing about the Goon Show. Spike Milligan is a huge figure in British Comedy, but I mostly think of him as "the guy that wrote those war memoirs I devoured when I was thirteen." I actually just found out he wrote three more, and I've never seen them. To understand how crazy that is, you'd have to understand just how much of my daily conversation is peppered with quotes from the ones I have read. I got them when my family was vacationing to London in, I think 1984, and I can't imaging how many times I've read them. Just try mentioning Basenjis around me and see what happens. Anyway, my image of Spike is either that or the old man who appears briefly in Life of Brian and History of the World, Part I, which seems like it skips the part he's famous for.

Okay, so I've decided to get a sense of the Goon Show (the spiritual predecessor of Monty Python, and I expect it had an influence on the Firesign Theatre as well), which was mostly Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, and Harry Secombe. Naturally, the main thing I'm doing is listening to actual Goon Show recordings, but there are movies I could be watching. First up: The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, in which Geoffrey Rush plays Sellers.

I was hoping to learn a bit more about Peter Sellers, since I've enjoyed so many of his movies. Unfortunately, this is one of those biopics where they feel obliged to his every single high point, so it skips merrily from the Goon Show to Sellers getting a film career to him winning a war to the Pink Panther movies, etc. etc. The only insight into Sellers is that the movie feels that he was an unhappy, angry person. It also seems to feel that the role he was closest to was Chance the Gardener in Being There, but that character is much more centered than the movie's version of Peter Sellers.

I didn't learn much about the Goon Show years, because that period takes up about two minutes of screen time. There's a very short scene of a Goon Show broadcast in which various catchphrases are shouted out (from what I can tell, this is a pretty accurate description of every Goon Show broadcast), and that's it. The characters of Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe show up from time in the movie, but don't have any dialogue after the very beginning. It's weird.

It's also weird that they keep having "Sellers" (i.e. Geoffrey Rush) taking on the part of other characters and speaking directly to the audience. Like, just after his mother dies, Sellers appears dressed as his mother and talking and acting like his mother, talking to the audience about Peter Sellers. It's kind of hard to explain, and it's probably not worth the effort.

It is a good movie for lovers of cameos: Stanley Tucci is Stanley Kubrick, John Lithgow is Blake Edwards, and Stephen Fry is some kind of psychic advisor. Oh, and Charlize Theron looks just like Britt Ekland! It's not everyone who can look just like Britt Eklan and Aileen Wuornos.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Michael Clayton

I wasn't planning on doing one of those last-minute pushes to see Oscar-nominated movies, but then we were in the grocery store, and I saw this thing called a MovieCube, which is some sort of automated DVD vending machine where you rent a movie for a dollar a day. It's kind of an interesting idea, and the first day was free, so I figured I'd give it a shot.

I didn't much care for the movie, but that's probably just because I'm not really crazy about taut legal thrillers. I kept wishing they'd shut up about Clayton's personal problems, because I kept wanting to pretend it was "The Wolf, the character that Harvey Keitel played in Pulp Fiction. But I don't think The Wolf ever needed to beg for money. Also, I'd just watched a short documentary on the Erin Brockovich case, so the notion of a big company poisoning ground water felt a little unoriginal. I mean, I realize that these "ripped from the headlines" plots always have that problem, but, well, there you go.

George Clooney was fine, but he really only had one facial expression the whole time. Underplaying is all well and good, but I felt he didn't really do much.

When I was done with the movie, I just strolled down the block to the grocery store. From there, it was a simple task to slide the DVD back into the slot. At which point the machine refused to recognize the disc and told me to call customer service. I guess there are still a few bugs in the system.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Dragon Wars (D-War)

Too much plot.

Also, it's not nearly a good enough movie to give itself a nickname like "D-War". I think I'll just call it "That one terrible movie with dragons fighting modern-day weapons that's not Reign of Fire."

Friday, February 22, 2008

Best in Show

After watching some of the Westminster Dog Show, it seemed only natural to rewatch Best in Show. And it's still funny, although I'm increasingly noticing that Christopher Guest doesn't really exaggerate things all that much. That Showbiz Dogs show had people exactly like the ones in this movie.

When I watch Best in Show, I'm always impressed at how long they hold back on Fred Willard. I'm sure they had hours of him being hilarious, but they don't deploy him for something like 45 minutes. That suggests a lot of confidence.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Across the Universe

I am a fan of the Beatles, cover songs, and crazy ideas for movies. And yet, I hated this movie. I think the main reason is that almost all of the songs were slowed down with all the cool parts taken out. The Beatles were fun! Why is this movie filled with dirges? I didn't even know it was possible to drain "She Loves You" of all its energy. I believe that requires supervillain technology. Maybe they're saving all that energy somewhere so they can do a positive, upbeat, fun movie with a lot of funeral songs in it or something.

I also felt like the story (what there was of it, anyway) was just an excuse for Julie Taymor to get from set piece to set piece. And there's nothing wrong with that, because the set pieces looked pretty cool. But there was so much talking and moping going on between the music videos that I think this movie could be edited down to about 15 minutes without losing anything good.

I did enjoy the fact that although every character had a Beatles-song name, not everyone got their song sung. Max and Doctor Roberts just hung out and were never required to kill anyone with silver hammers. And Jojo's storyline was kind of enjoyable, possibly because those songs were done with some energy. But I still prefer the "Come Together" that Aerosmith did in Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band -- and when you're inviting direct comparisons to a legendarily silly movie, you'd be well advised to at least be better than it. And I thnk Across the Universe failed, because it's not any fun. If you watched the 2008 Grammy Awards, they did "Let it Be" from this and "A Day in the Life" from the Cirque du Soleil show "Love", and any kids watching must have thought the Beatles were awful downers. Thank god Ringo showed up later to bring some cheerfulness to the proceedings.

Final note: they seem to have gone out of their way to use the worst Beatles songs available. "Why Don't We Do It in the Road"? "I Want You (She's So Heavy)"? "Flying"? "FLYING"? Come on! These are throwaway songs they did because they had some extra studio time, and you're going to use the lyrics as Meaningful Dialogue? Sheesh.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

If I'm Lucky

This movie is allegedly about a crooner (Perry Como!) ending up running for Governor, but it wisely spends much more time with Phil Silvers and Carmen Miranda, who are the manager and harpist. They're more fun than Perry Como and Vivian Blaine (who was Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls, and is less annoying here), and they should have just had their own movie.

The Curse

This is a 1987 horror movie starring a pre-Star Trek Wil Wheaton. It's not very good. If you ask me, letting a meteorite befoul your water and turn your whole family into crazed zombies is less a curse than it is a punishment for hacking a hole in a mysterious meteorite. You should know better than that.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Mortuary

On a lazy Saturday morning, I turned on the Sci-Fi Channel and was presented with exactly the sort of terrible movie you expect to see on the Sci-Fi Channel on a lazy Saturday morning. In this case, it was 2005's Mortuary, which is about as bad as you'd expect.

I should mention that Mortuary was directed by Tobe Hooper. If you ask me, Tobe Hooper does not qualify as a "Master of Horror", even if he got to direct an episode of the Showtime anthology series by that name. Actually, he got to direct two episodes, which seems excessive. My point is that Tobe Hooper has exactly two impressive credits to his name: the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist. The first one is not, if you ask me, a good movie. Sure, it's influential and even disquieting. But much of its power comes from the shoddy and amateurish way that it's shot. It feels more like a documentary than a "movie". And I personally doubt that Hooper did much directing on the set of Poltergeist, given that the screenwriter and producer Steven Spielberg was on the set every day, telling the actors what to do and placing the camera. Don't kid yourself.

Anyway, Mortuary is supposed to be about this family (mother, son, daughter) that takes over an abandoned funeral home in a small town. Oh, and the mortuary is haunted. The weird thing is that they don't know anything about running a funeral home; there's a scene where the mother (Denise Crosby, whom you might recognize as Tasha Yar) is trying to embalm a body while reading the instructions in a large illustrated book, and the embalming fluid goes everywhere, and it looked to me like a Three Stooges routine except without the sophisticated social commentary. They never explain why this clearly unqualified woman thinks she can run a funeral home, but it's possible that scene was supposed to be funny.

In fact, there's a post on the IMDb message boards where someone who claims to have worked on the movie says the whole movie is supposed to be a comedy. I don't think that can be right. As a horror movie, Mortuary a failure, but as a comedy, it doesn't even make sense.

The plot progresses on pretty typical lines: there's a tomb, and a curse, and an inscription copped from H.P. Lovecraft for no reason, and everybody starts to find themselves turning into zombies while the house gets overrun with cheap CGI effects. The movie ends when everyone's dead, which should have been about a half hour earlier.

I should mention that the only good acting came from Stephanie Patton, who plays the little sister. I normally hate the scene where the little kid comes in screaming about seeing something in her closet, but she nails it. Seriously, she's really good at a pretty thankless role. Everyone else is terrible, even if they're good actors in other things. I blame the director.

Friday, February 8, 2008

3:10 to Yuma

3:10 to Yuma is a movie I’ve been vaguely wanting to see since it came out. I wish I’d seen it in a theater, because I wasn’t really able to concentrate on it while watching it in my living room. It’s kind of slow-moving and depends on paying close attention to characters’ motivations and tiny facial expressions. Christian Bale and Russell Crowe are already all about subtle acting, and once they’re in a proper Western, they’re extremely stoic. It would have been easier to follow on a giant screen without the distraction of the Internet.

Anyway, an hour in, once all the pieces have been put into place, and you’ve got Good Family Man Christian Bale as part of a posse escorting Bad Man Russell Crowe to justice while Crowe’s gang (and also Apaches and so on and also Russell Crowe is Bad enough to kill them off one at a time while he’s shackled and under armed guard the whole time) hunts them, it’s pretty straightforward. But by that point, I wasn’t invested in it because I hadn’t been paying attention. Once the movie gets stripped down to its core of Bale and Crowe looking gritty at each other, it’s pretty good (and I like the ending), but I’m pretty sure I’d like it more it I’d been in a theater.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Surf's Up

With this, I've seen all three movies that are nominated for the Animated Feature Academy Award. I don't think Surf's Up should win, but I did enjoy it. I think it has a case for being the movie with the best animation, because honestly, the water effects are amazing. And even aside from that, the cinematography is great. You don't see a lot of animated movies with handheld cameras.

It was actually a pretty good surf movie. It didn't even need to be about cartoon penguins.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Panic in New York: Menagerie Breaks Loose

For this one, I have created a brief video presentation. I believe you will find it both informative and entertaining.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Hogfather

Well, this was entirely acceptable! I was a bit nervous about a live-action Terry Pratchett adaptation, but they didn't cutesy it up --when the villain kills people in the book, he kills them in the movie. Excellent. The various actors were wel chosen as well, and I now have a much better mental image of Teatime, not to mention a better handle on how he wants people to pronounce his name.

Apparently, they're next doing The Colour of Magic which worries me, since it's not nearly as good as the later Discworld books. I thought it was a good idea to just grab Hogfather out from the middle of the run, and I assumed they'd just keep doing that, maybe doing Witches Abroad or Guards, Guards next, since they don't really require earlier chapters. And meanwhile, The Colour of Magic (while still funny) is basically just three fantasy parodies stuck together. And Pratchett's done better work since then. I guess if it means they're planning on doing all thirty (!) in a row, I'm in favor of the plan, but it sounds awfully ambitious.