Archive for March 2020

Monty Python and the Holy Grail

March 30, 2020

holygrailFor all the talk about Monty Python and the Holy Grail being the Python troupe’s first “proper” movie — with a narrative and everything, unlike their previous film, the sketch assortment And Now for Something Completely Different — it is still, in large part, a sketch assortment. The film turns 45 this month, and in the intervening years, its bits of business have become every bit as iconic as the boys’ greatest hits from Flying Circus. “Bring out your dead.” The Knights Who Say Ni. The Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch. And so on. The movie’s anarchic, shambolic nature (and the abruptness of the troupe’s desire to get on with it and get out of a bit) will shock a string of laughs out of the first-time (like-minded) viewer, but past a certain point, as it did this most recent time I sat with it, it becomes simply a warm bowl of comfort food. The film’s world of amiable nonsense looks so much better than the world of frightening nonsense we now occupy.

The filmmaking duo of Python, the two Terrys (Jones and Gilliam), cut their teeth here. Having no idea how to make a film, they taught themselves how to make a film by making this film. It shows, though charmingly. Occasionally there is a striking image that links Holy Grail to Gilliam’s Jabberwocky, Time Bandits and so forth, but largely it’s a slovenly piece of work directorially, though not necessarily in a bad way. The Pythons, after all, were thumbing their noses at the very concept of films, or epic films. As a film artist, Terry Gilliam grew astronomically in the ten years between Holy Grail and Brazil. Terry Jones, bless his soul, did not improve. The Jones-directed Life of Brian, naggingly funny as it often is, is as crude as the crudest parts of Holy Grail, and he continued to prove in such uneven attempts as Erik the Viking that filmmaking was not his strength. (I would say that aside from performing, Jones excelled as a writer and historian, which is certainly nothing to sneeze at.)

None of this is to throw shade at the film as a cult object and cultural going concern (even though the lucrative spin-off musical Spamalot ended up costing the boys 800,000 pounds in legal fees and royalties). We settle into the film’s ramshackle absurdity very quickly, as soon as the credits start being subtitled in increasingly baffling “Swedish.” We all agree to accept the “story” of King Arthur (the perfectly cast Graham Chapman) assembling his knights in search for the Grail, though usually the agreed-upon illusion of this as a story we’re being told doesn’t last long. There’s just too much meta-commentary for that illusion to hold firm. I don’t remember, say, Airplane! even at its most chaotic calling its own structure and credibility as a movie into question the way Holy Grail does. I think it was Danny Peary in Cult Movies 2 who floated the notion that we may as well be watching an asylum escapee who thinks he’s King Arthur, and the assorted goofs and loons accompanying him. Like Life of Brian, this film has little respect for mob illogic; a straight line could be drawn from the “Burn the witch” bit to the easily gulled crowds of followers in Brian.

I’ve seen Holy Grail on cable, on video, on the big screen (possibly a 20th-anniversary showing at the Coolidge Corner), and now on Netflix. All the things I appreciate in it — its restless, reckless imagination and its insistence on using its budgetary limitations for comic effect — are still there. Much as I love Python, I find a little of them goes a long way for me, and my watch beckoned a couple of times here, as it does during all their other feature-length romps. (It’s possible that their cinematic swan song, The Meaning of Life, has held up the best solely by virtue of not having been quoted to death.) Still, Holy Grail has a rumpled, unpretentious quality that ties it to other well-loved British cult films like Withnail & I and much of Edgar Wright’s output. It is the very definition of “right, boys, let’s go putter around these Scottish castles and see what we come back with.” The comedy may be harsh at times — its quantity of (glaringly fake) gore may raise eyebrows among parents who take its PG rating on faith — but its impulse to entertain via what amounts to a clothesline of blackout sketches is reassuringly human.

For Madmen Only: The Stories of Del Close

March 22, 2020

for-madmen-only-185820The current situation being what it is, I have no idea when you’ll get to see For Madmen Only: The Stories of Del Close — it was supposed to premiere at the cancelled SXSW festival last week — but you should keep an eye out for it. It’s as worthy of its subject as any movie that isn’t completely shambolic and unconventional can be. The improvisational-comedy master Del Close, who died in 1999 five days shy of his 65th birthday, is probably better known for the comedians he taught and/or inspired than for his own performing. Anyone who was anyone on Saturday Night Live (from the Belushi years to the Fey years), SCTV, and more passed through the turbulent gates of Close’s cracked guidance and wisdom. A guru to hundreds, he was also a self-destructive, self-mythologizing flaming wreck of a human, one who burned bridges while still standing on them.

For Madmen Only combines the usual talking-heads approach with tongue-in-cheek re-enactments. The skilled comedian James Urbaniak steps in as Close in the latter segments; it must have been as daunting a task as Michael Chiklis wandering into enemy fire to play Belushi in the awful Wired, but in this case it pays off — Urbaniak has a strong resemblance to Close in the first place, so he’s free to play Close as an idiosyncratic but occasionally successful collaborator. The segments have to do with Close’s late-period project Wasteland, a short-lived cult comic book from DC, and that’s where I first heard of Close and the many tales, tall or otherwise, about him — his various drug trips, his brushes with Hollywood, his beginnings as a carny performer, or just surreal reveries with himself and sometimes his writing partner John Ostrander as hosts.

Around that same time (the late ‘80s), Close was wandering into major films — you may have seen him in The Untouchables, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, or the remake of The Blob. Once seen, he’s not easily forgotten; he had a leonine, authoritative presence. More and more over the years, though, he used that presence not to hit his own marks on the stage but to make a mark as a behind-the-scenes Svengali, directing youngsters like Stephen Colbert or Mike Myers to reach inside themselves, connect with their stagemates, and produce … well, laughless crap, some of the time. Some of the time, the result was brilliance you couldn’t tap into any other way. Forming his own theater, with longtime creative partner Charna Halpern, Close seasoned his students with a decades-old improv technique he’d developed and insisted on, known as “the Harold.” Despite reading about it on several occasions and hearing about it anew in the movie, I still don’t quite understand the Harold’s intricacies, but then I’m not an improvisational comedian. A comics and sci-fi reader, Close probably enjoyed a concept that enabled extended fantasizing within a context of rules; in that sense, he was the Gary Gygax of comedy, the dungeonmaster.

Close never rose to the level that many of his students felt he wanted to. He had the mind of a teacher but the soul of a performer, a renegade artist. If you know him, it’s from that brief window when directors like Brian De Palma and John Hughes were hiring him. That was him, probably, at his most presentable, the wizard a movie director could wheel out for hipster cred (and to add a few volts to a scene — Close brings avuncular menace to his reading of “You fellas are untouchable, is that the thing?”). Mostly, though, he was simply too unstable for even the unconventional employment of an actor. What this documentary underlines is that Close found his métier as a prophet and visionary, touching the faithful on their fevered foreheads and dispensing grace.

closeuntouchThe shots of Close’s cluttered, dilapidated ashtray of an apartment square with the portrait I remember from the best two books about him, The Funniest One in the Room by Kim “Howard” Johnson and Guru by Jeff Griggs. In person, I gather, Close was the classical irascible old genius with an appetite for stimulation. This was a man capable of telling an interviewer (Bob Odenkirk) that he’d kicked cocaine and heroin, but of course still smoked weed and had a few hallucinogenic trips a year (“Those are health drugs!”). The movie’s mix of anecdotes, dramatizations and animation points up the subtitle — the stories of Del Close. For certainly such a crowded house of a man would not have only one story. We finish with a pair of debunkings of Close legends, and Charna Halpern refers to the “jerky reporter” who broke one of them — the one about Close bequeathing his own skull to play the role of Horatio in future productions at a Chicago theater. Well, as the saying goes, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

Lost Transmissions

March 15, 2020

lost transmissionsWhenever I get too exercised about how the Disney/Marvel/Star Wars axis will crush all other art and entertainment under their jackboots, along comes a tiny, well-meaning but terrible indie drama to reassure me that such things, however dreary and rare, still exist. This month’s proof is Lost Transmissions, and the hell of it is that it’s apparently based on writer-director Katharine O’Brien’s own experiences “trying to help a friend of ours who had gone off their medication.” So I feel like a heel for sneering at it, but damn it all, this sort of story — about a smart, creative man who also contends with schizophrenia — deserves a sharper telling. It’s a wasted opportunity, despite the impassioned performances and O’Brien’s obvious genuineness of feeling.

Set in the least sunshiny Los Angeles I’ve seen since Blade Runner, the story really centers on Hannah (Juno Temple), who answers phones by day and tinkers with songwriting in her spare time. Hannah has drifted into the orbit of gregarious music producer Theo (Simon Pegg), who spots some talent in Hannah and invites her to his recording studio. Relieved, we see that this isn’t a sleazy come-on — something in her bashful singing voice seems to have touched him, and he legitimately wants to share that. Though Theo isn’t a lech, he has other issues — a victim of a bad-acid mishap back when he used to be in a band, he’s a schizophrenic, with all the paranoid delusions and preoccupation with radio static that go with it (in movies, anyway). Theo is fine when he’s on his meds. But he has a history of going off them, and he’s just recently done it again.

Hannah herself is on meds for depression, and early on, Theo low-key shames her for being on them and muting the profound feelings that could fuel her art. This is the sort of dangerous ersatz prescription that ignores the fact that most unmedicated depressives have trouble doing anything much more ambitious than getting out of bed in the morning, much less recording the great American album, but it’s also the sort of thing a guy like Theo would say. At one point, Hannah tosses out her bottle of pills, and we wait for her abilities to help her friend to be negatively impacted as a result of her going off her meds. But that doesn’t happen, and we never see her going back on them, either. The perhaps unintended subtext is that some mental illnesses severely require chemical rebalance and … others don’t? I’m going to be charitable and chalk it up to scenes that had to come out to keep the movie at an hour-forty-five, with the result that some important connective tissue got thrown out with the bathwater.

If O’Brien wanted to make some trims for time, she might’ve begun with the whole subplot in which Hannah finds herself writing songs for a pop star (Alexandra Daddario, that lamp-eyed fan favorite). It’s not clear how much of a role Theo plays in Hannah’s getting this gig, though he honks a little bit about her selling out. This subplot leads nowhere special and could’ve been plucked out with no harm done to the essence and spine of the piece, which is how Hannah and her friends try to get Theo to a hospital or at least back on his meds. Hannah keeps getting thwarted, at one point finding him at a party and … eating some ‘shrooms, which isn’t very helpful. Pegg, in a rare dramatic outing, does some impressive emotional pirouettes, though the movie has been structured to let him do so. It’s an unavoidably plum role — the shrewd, poetically unbalanced artist who gets to natter on about “the princess of time” while everyone else in the movie weeps over his increasingly poor life choices. (In an earlier day, it would’ve been the Robin Williams role.) Juno Temple is positioned to take over the film, but her character is too glumly conceived; Hannah seems like a minor supporting character promoted to lead.

There’s got to be a middle ground between the horse hockey of something like A Beautiful Mind (which I did enjoy as metaphor, but it’s nobody’s idea of a plausible account of schizophrenia) and the rigorous art of Lodge Kerrigan’s dazzling Clean, Shaven, which put us right inside a schizophrenic’s seething, teeming head. It would’ve cost nothing extra to approach Lost Transmissions (a destined-to-be-misremembered title) on the script level more cleverly and even with more wit. Someone as sharp as Theo, who’s clearly been around the block a few times, would realistically foil any attempts to “betray” him as he sees it. What if the movie were more about what a doctor does late in the movie — earning trust by going along with Theo’s delusions? Hannah and her friends could then try to construct a counter-fantasy to point Theo towards the help he needs. It would be a thin line to tread between originality and bad taste, but whichever way the movie fell might have been more engaging than what we get here.

Charlie’s Angels (2019)

March 8, 2020

Screen Shot 2020-03-08 at 4.05.34 PM Should you find yourself detained by the 2019 Charlie’s Angels reboot, there’s something I’d like you to look for. Some movies have an injury-to-the-eye motif; this Charlie’s Angels has an injury-to-the-throat motif. People, usually faceless minions, are knocked out with a carotid pinch; others are decommissioned by trank dots from an Altoids tin, stuck, of course, to their necks, or shot in the neck by trank darts; there’s a scene where an Angel-in-training is captured and restrained by a metal collar fastened around, yep, you guessed it; and when an Angel gets her wings, the official tattoo goes on the back of — where? Got it in one. What this means, I have no idea, other than that perhaps the movie’s writer, Elizabeth Banks, who also directed, had a sore throat.

I remember very little else about Charlie’s Angels an hour after watching it, and I really want to; I really wanted to like it. I am, after all, on record as enjoying not only 2000’s Charlie’s Angels but also its sequel; this has gotten me, I suspect, disqualified from many friendships, disinvited from the best parties. But those movies’ director, McG, along with Angels-of-the-day Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu, delivered wedges of pop cheese that also spoke raucously for grrl power. Yes, there was a certain amount of “male gaze” going on (though not as much as you’d think), but it was always respectful, in its way, and assured its audience that women could be sexy and kick ass. Well, that lesson’s been learned, and now we get Angels whose dress-up scenes seem to carry a mildly … icky undertone. The camera no longer moves back to show them off; it moves close, sometimes in media res, to emphasize the sexy outfits are just costumes to be discarded along with their accompanying identity. The movie seems more awed by the promise of a huge wardrobe — of an abundance of choice — than by the actual stuff in it.

It’s not that this Charlie’s Angels is grim and gritty, like The Rhythm Section or something. It’s as light and fluffy as its predecessors, timed more for comedy than for action thrills. Banks and veteran cinematographer Bill Pope keep the proceedings warmly lit by the sun or by generous indoor light. It’s not dark and junky-looking, and Kristen Stewart, whose work I gave up on years ago, surprises with a wild-child performance that has the side benefit of adding some stealth queer energy. She seems to be keeping herself mildly amused, but her co-workers, newbie Naomi Scott and hardened MI-6 veteran Ella Balinska, don’t have a lot of personality or quirks — not even something like Cameron Diaz’s daffy daydream of dancing on Soul Train. The previous Angels risked looking like goofballs (indicating the knockabout sensibility of Drew Barrymore, who exec-produced the other two films and retains that role here). Here, they have no womanly foibles (like, say, Drew’s habit of falling for terrible men). They’re positioned as you-go-grrl action figures to represent persistence and rebellion.

The newbie Angel’s life is a miserable porridge of mansplaining and male assumption of credit for her ideas before the Angels swoop in and save her. Men are even less useful here than in the other two; heteronormative affection seems an afterthought. I’m all for what the movie is trying to express, but the MacGuffin (a gizmo that provides constant sustainable energy but can be weaponized) is tattered spy stuff, and when the script attempts to make us second-guess a character that anyone with a brain can figure out is on the level, it’s a bit insulting. Like I said, I wanted to enjoy this, to shelve it alongside the other two. But nothing in it really pops. It’s loaded with sugary grrl-power songs on the soundtrack (heavy on Ariana Grande), but those don’t pop, either. It’s like watching people pretending to have fun, instead of actually having fun and sharing it with us. Going back to that throat motif, the movie really does feel pinched, constrained, tranquilized — much the way a female filmmaker might feel when making a $48 million movie for a major corporation (and knowing that she and other female directors will be penalized for the movie’s potential box-office failure in a way male directors never are). It needed more of Drew Barrymore’s messy what-the-hell brio, but maybe, sadly, this isn’t the time for that.

Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street

March 1, 2020

scream queenYou never know what disreputable pop-culture skunk will be excoriated, and then eventually re-evaluated and appreciated, by the same beleaguered community. The gay-themed thriller Cruising, for instance, was vilified by gay activists on its 1980 release for being homophobic; it then found a thriving cult audience among gay film fans of later generations. Something similar happened to 1985’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge. For a time, this quickie sequel to Wes Craven’s major horror hit (it went into production a mere seven months after the original hit theaters) was loathed by its young (hetero) audience for gay undertones that often verged on overtones, and some gay commentators once again decried its alleged demonizing of the queer as the Other. Today it’s cherished by a wide assortment of gay fans, many of whose first big-screen glimpse of gayness (including the inside of a gay bar) the movie was.

Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street focuses on Mark Patton, the then-25-year-old star of Nightmare 2, who was cast as the then-rare (heck, still rare) “final boy,” the opposite of the usual trope of the “final girl” — the smart, tough, sometimes nerdy girl who lives to give the killer a taste of his own medicine. Patton played Jesse, a teenage boy possessed by the franchise’s boogeyman, Freddy Krueger. The movie has Jesse acting out all sorts of toxic homoerotic fantasies at the spiritual behest of Freddy. Now, does that make the movie toxic, or is it just pointing out the toxins in a country that was, at the time, blaming gays for AIDS and officially ignoring their mortality rates?

Back then, Patton was gay but closeted. He knew, as did countless other actors, that to come out was to kill your career. In that case, making his starring debut in what shakes out as a very weird gay nightmare seems in retrospect not very shrewd. After the film came out, Patton was told by his agents that he couldn’t credibly play hetero. He wasn’t especially swishy in the role, but neither does he read as a straight male, and — a detail that has provoked laughter both malicious and affectionate over the years — he screams like a girl. Truly, I think Nightmare 2 was destined to go nelly when scripter David Chaskin first decided to make the protagonist a boy to go against the usual grain. The dynamic that results makes it a legitimately unique entry in the canon of American popular horror, and decidedly an outlier in its franchise.

As for the documentary itself, it’s probably more instructive for those who haven’t read a zillion thinkpieces about Nightmare 2 as “the first gay horror film” (Nosferatu begs to differ) or “the gayest horror film ever” (it’s probably not even the gayest horror film of the ‘80s). As in Life After Flash, the recent documentary about Flash Gordon star Sam J. Jones, we see the subject attending a bunch of conventions, telling the same stories, answering the same questions, posing for the same photos. Patton, though, likes to tell himself he’s done a small bit for helping gays feel less alone and persecuted, and this is borne out in the film frequently in interviews with an assortment of gay fans ranging from academics to drag queens (not that you can’t be both, of course). For a lot of teenage gay boys who hadn’t been expecting to find themselves at a movie like this, it must have been a vivid trip, and, since director Jack Sholder wasn’t shy about staging the homoerotic violence he ludicrously claims not to have been aware of, it must have put a titillating finger on a not-nice patch of their lizard brains. Watching a brutal, closeted gym coach get his naked, gory comeuppance wasn’t supposed to be a turn-on, but…

Scream, Queen! has a built-in conflict alluded to right from the start. Screenwriter Chaskin had spent years telling anyone who’d listen that he intended none of the movie’s gay subtext and that the casting of Patton, an obvious sissy, made the film seem gay. Once the movie started picking up gay cred — celebrated for its dark queerness rather than attacked — Chaskin changed his tune, and Patton rightly calls him out on this. It’s possible, of course, that neither man has an entirely objective take on the situation — Patton seems to blame Chaskin for the end of his career. The movie leads up to the moment when the two men hash things out, and at least here it doesn’t falter. Ultimately, Scream, Queen! is more useful as a portrait of a survivor of the closet (and of HIV) than as a sort of Room 237-style autopsy of the movie. It’ll probably make you want to rewatch Nightmare 2, though. As long as you chase it with a viewing of The Bride of Frankenstein or the original Cat People.