Body of Uneven Movies

Ridley Scott is probably one of our great directors; it’s rather a shame he doesn’t make better movies. That’s a terrible thing to say, isn’t it? But I think I stand by it. Going to one of his movies is a complete crap shoot. I think, on the one hand, it’s because he doesn’t like to be pigeonholed, which is the mark of great, uneven directors.

He can do Alien and Blade Runner, then follow it up with Legend and Someone To Watch Over Me. He can take a cheesy sword & sandals pic like Gladiator and turn it into Oscar gold, follow it up with an almost banal Hannibal, and then produce an intense experience like Black Hawk Down.

So, I avoided seeing American Gangster in the theater last year. In fact, the last film I saw of his in the theater was Kingdom of Heaven, a sort of unfocused Crusade tale.

This year, he’s made his Iraq War picture, Body of Lies, but it’s only tangentially about said war, so I thought I’d give the old Brit a shot. Aaaaaand…well, it feels a lot like Kingdom of Heaven.

Basically, the story is that Middle East loving spy Leonardo di Caprio is trying to collect intel on terrorists. Russell Crowe is back home trying to pull the strings. Innocent people get killed in pursuit of the bad guys, who also get killed. Although the loutish, ham-fisted Crowe is fond of reminding di Caprio that there are no innocents in…well, where? Terrorist crowds? The Middle East? Crowe never elaborates on this theory.

Which, actually, puts you up the whole movie. Leo the American understands and loves the Middle East. I suppose that’s part of what makes him the good guy: He wants to live there, not the USA. Crowe is dedicated but not very aware or sensitive: A typical American. His eagerness to get the bad guys results in decisions that ultimately could lose the bad guys.

I mean, seriously: While di Caprio is getting his ass blown off in Syria or Jordan or wherever, Crowe is talking to him while dropping his kids off at school or putting them to bed or watching them play soccer.

Ah, well, I guess Brits can be ham-fisted, too.

Ultimately the movie is a little slow, a little unfocused–though at least everything ultimately ties together, unlike the sprawling Kingdom of Heaven–and unwilling to commit to itself either as an action film or spy film.

It’s not really a political film, either. Crowe opens with a speech that respects the jihadists as serious enemies, but overestimates their inexhaustibility–or so it seems in a world where Iraq is safer than Detroit. His speech feels like a parody.

Then, later on, di Caprio is challenged by his Iranian girlfriend’s sister over the war. She sounded very real to me: certainly a lot of Middle Easterners feel the US doesn’t appreciate their circumstances, and doesn’t belong there. Leo’s response, however, felt way too left wing for a guy on the ground. He basically places blame for all the bad in Iraq on the USA–and apologizes!–while never once mentioning Saddam and his genocide and torture, Al Qaeda in Iraq, or anything positive.

You know, why’s he doing it, if that’s the way he feels? (Actually, now that I think about it, do average Iranians actually object to the war in Iraq? Saddam was a pain in their collective ass for a decade.)

But that’s about it for politics. What Crowe and di Caprio really are arguing about are procedural differences, not philosophies. They agree, at least, that the jihadists are bad guys.

Anyway, the weirdest part of this is that di Caprio’s character is almost bizarrely naive. This is part of the “dumb ol’ America” narrative, but he’s constantly doing things that don’t make sense: He promises sanctuary for a jihadist who gets cold feet when selected for martyrdom; he gets involved with an Iranian girl and then is surprised when she becomes a target; most incredibly, he sets up an innocent man as a bigwig terrorst, and then is shocked (shocked!) to find that the innocent man becomes a target for other terrorists.

This last is particularly incredible because the whole point in setting up the guy as the terrorist was to draw out the real terrorist, who’s known to have a huge ego.

I’m making it sound worse than it is, just by noting all the things that, were it a better action movie, you’d just ignore.

With Gladiator, Scott just went full out and made a very high-class melodramatic sword & sandals epic. I mean, it’s way better than those old Steve Reeves movies, but not all that different. The underlying message is a rather general one about human nature, and it taps nicely into all that Golden Bough crap.

Kingdom of Heaven had similar problems. For whatever reason, he seemed unwilling to commit to the genre there, and here we see it again. (Screenwriter William Monahan wrote the screenplay for both films.)

Also, di Caprio and Crowe are curiously unconvincing. Crowe’s body language–he’s an increasingly doughy desk jocky–works, but his accent and speech pattern didn’t sell me. Leo sports a southern accent as well, and he really didn’t seem plausible as the hard-bitten field agent.

I could be wrong on this; I’m not an astute judge of acting ability. I can see really bad and really good. But usually, if I notice, that’s a bad sign. And I noticed. Mark Strong, who plays the head of Jordanian Intelligence, on the other hand, was very effective, evoking a sort of younger Andy Garcia–that wonderful mix of charm and menace that makes you not want to get on his bad side, but know you’re probably going to anyway.

The other thing that didn’t work for me was the sound mixing. The music was at the same level as the dialogue sometimes. Add in the foley, and parts of the movie were nigh incomprehensible. (Maybe this was the theater, but I recall having this problem in Ridley and Tony Scott movies before.)

I guess the real problem with this movie is that when you go see a Ridley Scott movie, you want to see something remarkable. Alien defined a decade of horror. Blade Runner gave us a completely different kind of science-fiction alternative to Star Wars. While not a great movie Thelma and Louise was a cultural moment. Hell, Legend is an almost unwatchable mess–at least the US cut is, I haven’t seen the director’s cut, and one could make the same claim (“mess”) about Blade Runner–but it’s a memorable unwatchable mess.

What’s this movie got? The trademark giant video panel that sees everything in the world. The Scott brothers love that thing.

Body of Lies is just going to go on to the heap of largely forgettable Iraq war movies, I’m afraid.

Kiss Me Deadly

I’m not really familiar with Mickey Spillane’s work, being more a Hammett or Chandler guy myself. I rather liked the short-lived ‘80s series with Stacey Keach, but since I’d heard good things about this particular film–and I knew about the “whatsit” from somewhere (maybe the ’80s cult classic Repo Man)–I queued it up and gave it a view.

It’s…well, it’s solid enough as a detective noir film, but Bezzerides script is subversive and Aldrich’s direction plays that aspect of it up. So, Ralph Meeker’s Hammer isn’t just tough, he’s sadistic and misogynistic. Life isn’t just hard, it’s cruel and isolating.

Bleah.

Part of the charm of the hard-boiled detective is that he’s a good man, but he knows that a white hat will get him killed. He’s not a sucker for dames but he’s got a code. He’ll think nothing of getting rough, but it has to achieve something.

So, the great photography, nuanced performances (Cloris Leachman in her first film role!) and intriguing story are marred by this misanthropic world view.

I didn’t enjoy it as much as I would have liked, therefore.

Q is for Quarantine

A few months ago I mocked an article lamenting the state of the horror movie, and pointing to the Spanish-language films The Orphanage and Rec as showing the way to–oh, hell, I don’t even know what the guy was going on about.

But here we are seven months later and we have the American remake of Rec called Quarantine.

It’s not bad.

Viewing it touched on a lot of themes that have been bubbling in my head since I’ve been computer-free at night.

  • A thread over at the Althouse had people singing the praises of watching movies at home, which (with the brood here) I can’t relate to. And particularly not with horror movies, and even comedies. The audience was particularly chatty and laughy during this, which undermines my point a little.
  • There’s a certain type of film I call “House of Usher” films: A sort of film where the ending is a foregone conclusion due to circumstances that occurred before the movie started. Ironically Corman’s House of Usher isn’t one of those films. Neither is Quarantine, even though the outcome is a foregone conclusion.
  • Horror movies try to do something very, very difficult. It’s hard to be scared by a movie these days, and it’s even hard to be horrified. We’re all a little too “meta”. As a result, a successful horror scene often results in laughter. (The famous “head-spider” scene in John Carpenter’s The Thing, for example.) In Quarantine, there’s a scene where the camera is used as an actual weapon.

I’ll go a bit more into some of these ideas in a later post.

Quarantine is a good balance of terror and horror, with suspense connecting the scenes. The actors are not super-famous (there’s Dexter’s sister in lead–you see her getting killed in the commercials and on the movie poster, hence no real question of how this movie turns out, even before the movie starts, and there’s the wattle-fetish guy from “Ally McBeal”) which works in the movie’s favor.

So, some firemen go to investigate a problem at a small L.A. apartment building and find tenants suffering from a mysterious disease. But when they try to get out, they can’t.

Where most horror movies have the victims hoping to hold out until help arrives, in this move help arrives–and makes everything far, far worse. The idea is that the CDC has locked everyone in to contain the disease, and they’ve got SWAT to kill anyone who tries to escape.

How’s that for a kick in the krotch?

One of the reasons this is not an “Usher” movie is that it’s perfectly reasonable that the people could survive the situation, but they do a whole lot of stupid things. Like everyone sits together in the lobby with the infected. It might be understandable why the CDC would kill the outgoing phones, but it’s less comprehensible why they cut the incoming cable and the power.

Also, I’m not clear on why they wouldn’t try to route everyone out of the house, one at a time, since there’s still a chance of escape of the disease if nothing else. I think you’d route everyone out and then burn the place down, if you were worried. Or maybe chemical bomb it. (I wonder what the actual CDC protocols are, come to think of it.)

Anyhoo. We got the standard trapped-inside-a-house deal with a little Blair Witch thrown in: We only get to see the events that transpire because Dexter’s sister (heh, okay, her name is Jennifer Carpenter in real life) is a documentarian doing a story on firemen who tags along with her cameraman, expecting a routine call.

The camera is less shaky than usual, thankfully, but if you get the nausea or carsickness, you’re not going to like the end at all. The camera, sensibly but annoyingly, gets shakier and shakier as the movie goes on.

This partly obscures the fact that this is a pretty tired premise used for most zombie movies, and you’re really just dealing with that.

Nonetheless, it’s well done. I was a little confused as to whether I was supposed to be rooting for these guys. “Yay! Get out and…infect everyone?” Isn’t that the premise of the second and third Resident Evil movies?

Getting away from the fact that most horror movies are Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Indians”, right?

I was looking for the demon baby but there really isn’t one. The thing that looks like it is not a baby at all but the most recognizable guy in the movie: Doug Jones, whose miming talents (as seen in The Fantastic Four, Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy I and especially II) are making him very recognizable indeed, for a guy who seldom says anything. (Kind of like how Ray Park’s karate moves were so recognizable after The Phantom Menace and Sleepy Hollow.)

Anyway, it worked for me and The Boy also approved. But I don’t know if it will survive the transition to small screen.

Manic Monday Apocalypso: Gas-s-s-s

There are many endings.

On the one hand, it’s arguable that I’ve never seen Gas-s-s-s because I’ve only ever seen it on commercial TV, and the last time was decades ago. The opening cartoon suggests something to a child that the movie itself doesn’t deliver.

On the other hand, it’s arguable that no one has ever seen Gas-s-s-s. Roger Corman ran off to Europe to shoot another film while this was in editing, and lambasted AIP for their editing it down to incomprehensible hash. (I want to blame Sam Arkoff, but I can’t really remember who Corman held responsible.) It was the end of the road for Corman and AIP, and curiously, the end of the road for Roger Corman as a director as well.

The movie takes the Boomer motto of “Don’t trust anyone over 30” and puts it into practice. In the opening credits an accident releases a gas upon the world which kills everyone over the age of 25. (Being in the credits allows us to overlook the question of what sort of accident could spread a gas across the entire face of the planet.) Also, the nature of the apocalypse is fleeting, with way too many people being around, acting normal in some scenes.

Anyway, this was doubtless meant in the dark vein of black comedies like Little Shop of Horrors, but it’s after the experimentation that Corman did for The Trip, and full of the psychedelic imagery and cuts that just annoy the crap out of sober people.

Corman, for all his reputation as an exploitation guy, didn’t pander in this film. Instead of some sort of utopia that his audience might have enjoyed, the world of Gas-s-s-s is more like Lord of the Flies. There’s cynicism and disillusionment and nihilism, and it ends up feeling more like a world where the adults are simply being ignored rather than dead.

Apocalyptically speaking, stories that center around wiping out a particular demographic are seldom as interesting as they should be.

This movie was also a begining, being the first filmed effort of George Armitrage. Armitrage would go on to do a couple of “nurse” movies for Corman, but his writing career probably peaked with the HBO story of the battle between Leno and Letterman, The Late Shift, and his directing career certainly peaked with Grosse Pointe Blank.

There were a handful of new, future celebs in the show as well, with Ben Vereen and Cindy Williams riding across country.

In retrospect, I wonder if Corman didn’t deliberately produce a junk movie because he wanted an excuse to break away from AIP, and to get out of the directing game. It’d be interesting to see a “director’s cut”.

It’s not something you’d want to watch in the expectations of a coherent narrative.

Appaloosa

There’s a scene in Unforgiven where Clint Eastwood talks about how, rather than straight gunfights in the street, assassins were more likely to shoot their target coming out of the outhouse. In Ed Harris’ new movie Appaloosa, Harris and co-star Viggo Mortensen kidnap Jeremy Irons after his morning, em, activities.

Cowboy movies in the past 30 years are sort of like Baroque music after Bach died. It’s all been done by guys who were better at it than the modern generation, so most oaters feel warmed over and weak.

Happily, Appaloosa works and feels fresh.

Harris directs and plays Virgil Cole, a hard-nosed Have Gun Will Travel type whose sidekick Everett Hitch (Mortensen) guards his back and occasionally reins him in when he’s gone too far. There’s some serious good chemistry here.

Cole is straightforward and somewhat thick who only seems to be uncomfortable when made aware of his limitations, and at the same time spends time reading Emerson and asking Hitch what various words mean. Hitch is eminently practical, and respectful of Cole’s abilities, almost acting as an apologist.

Cole and Hitch are hired to protect a town from the villainous Randall Bragg (Irons) who has just offed the previous sheriff’s department–though he was smart enough to hide the bodies and deny it, making it impossible to bring him in.

An uneasy peace exists between Cole, Hitch and the town and Bragg and his men, who live outside of town. The peace is unsettled by a witness to the murders and, even more, the arrival of Allison French (played by Renee Zelwegger).

French dresses nicely, and plays piano (laughably badly, though no one seems to notice or care), and quickly latches on to Cole. Before you know it, though, she’s making moves on Hitch. And it doesn’t stop there.

As it turns out, French is one of the more interesting female characters in Westerns history. And Cole’s response is equally interesting and pragmatic. This does not turn into a rather tired love triangle.

In fact, the whole movie is a bunch of interesting events framed by typical Western set-ups, but not in a contrived way either. In other words, it doesn’t seem so much like they were trying to tell a story that was just contrary to Western genre clich├ęs, but rather had a story to tell that simply hadn’t been told before.

The place where a typical Western would end left about 15-20 minutes of the film; that is the action-y climax left a bunch of situations unresolved that ultimately come to a head later.

An engaging, entertaining film. I guess there’s no one in it to power a big release but keep your eyes on your local indie theaters. You’ll be glad you did.

The Boy liked it quite a bit, too.

Movies Spoofed In Airplane!

I’ve noticed that the modern Airplane!-style movies are pretty much non-stop references to other (often far, far better and even funnier) movies. But Airplane!, while it did reference other movies, didn’t rely on other movies.

The Boy hadn’t seen it, so we watched it and I wrote down the movie references and compared with IMDB.

Airport, of course, provides the framework. Airport ‘75 specifically.

Zero Hour! for the plot and love story as well as dialogue between Robert Hays and Julie Hagerty. The brilliance of using Zero Hour! was that it was an obscure 20-year-old movie that people really weren’t all that familiar with. Also, the exclamation point!

Jaws for the opening.

Saturday Night Fever’s dance scene.

Since You Went Away, though, like Zero Hour! the reference is so generic (a soldier leaving on his train with his girl running alongside) I’m sure few people in the audience made the connection.

From Here To Eternity for the beach makeout scene.

Folgers (?) coffee commercials.

Pinocchio, sort of, when Leslie Nielsen lies to the passengers. Less the movie than the concept of one’s nose growing.

“60 minutes” Point/Counterpoint, of course.

Knute Rockne: Win one for the Zipper.

Just doing a quick count on the IMDB “movie connections” page, I see 33 references and spoofs for Airplane! and a whopping 55 for the unbearable Epic Movie. Airplane!’s references include unlikely allegations such as Peter Graves’ dialogue with Joey matching Alan Ladd and Brandon De Wilde’s in Shane, and “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” which consists of one line where Johnny says “Like Mr. Rogers?” Silver Streak and “The Big Valley” are also listed, but I don’t see the connection. Most of the rest are airplane-disaster related movies, and I’m doubtful that they’re all true.

Allowing for a similar share of crap in the Epic Movie entry, from what I’ve been able to watch of it, Epic Movie is basically a series of bits where the characters move from one movie to another and there’s nothing really holding the whole thing together. In the first ten minutes, you get The Da Vinci Code, Nacho Libre, Snakes on a Plane and the X-Men, to introduce the four characters, withthem all coming together in a Willy Wonka movie. One of the characters is even killed in the Wonka scene, but it doesn’t take.

Airplane! allows Zero Hour! to hold its story together and uses a whole bunch of original, non-referential sight gags, especially puns (the turkey in the range) and literalizations (the fecal matter and the ventilation device) and of course the running gags (“What is it?”, “I’m not kidding”, “I picked the wrong week…”).

I don’t think it’s coincidental that Airplane! has never been surpassed (except arguably for a few episodes of the “Police Squad” show) in the genre it created, not even by the guys who created it. Part of it, especially at the time, was that it was completely unexpected. Even the subsequent Top Secret!–which in some ways I prefer to Airplane!–had to deal with the fact that the genre wasn’t new any more.

David Zucker is probably the most successful at doing the same style comedies. I actually didn’t like the first Scary Movies, but found myself laughing at the (largely Wayon-free) third, which I attribute to Zucker taking over the reins. And I may be the only one who liked BASEketball but it had an entirely different feel from the others in the genre.

Jerry Zucker found considerable success with his blockbuster Ghost, which wasn’t intentionally funny at all, and his Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World-remake Rat Race! did all right, too.

Jim Abrahams did the amusing Ruthless People, and the touching First Do No Harm–actually, he’s done a lot to make people aware of the ketogenic diet. His last foray into Airplane!-style comedy was the odd Jane Austen’s Mafia! He also did the rather successful Hot Shots! movies.

It would be interesting to have the three get back together–I note that David Zucker brought Abrahams in on the Scary Movie 4 screenplay–but I wonder if, 30 years later, they’re even the same people who made those original wacky flicks.

Meanwhile, Friedberg and Selzer, who’ve been making the “[blank] Movie” movies have been squandering the capital of the entire genre, making increasingly unsuccessful and unfunny movies.

It’s probably time for a whole new genre.

UPDATE: One thing I left out in my appreciation of Airplane! is Elmer Bernstein’s score. Like the rest of the movie, it’s played pretty straight, which works better than a lot of goofy Mickey Mouse-ing around would have.

Cinematic Titanic’s Legacy of Blood

Episode 4 of the new riff delivery system that is Cinematic Titanic was made available for download yesterday, and I dutifully downloaded from EZ Takes and burned a DVD.

We watched this 1971 horror mess with the good humor of Joel, Trace, Frank, Josh and Mary Jo. And Josh was on fire this time, I must say.

The story is a creepy “rich man’s relatives gather in his possibly haunted house to collect their inheritance…if they survive” kinda deal with a creepy incest subplot and lots and lots and lots of talking.

It’s sort of Manos: The Hands of Fate without all that searing white-hot action.

You know how bad this movie is because the cast is actually all-pro, including some folks still working today. Faith Domergue, the maelstrom’s #1 pointy-breasted poster girl, for example, is one of the first to get killed. And the seemingly immortal John Carradine plays the, uh, dead guy.

But the cast is rounded out with hard-working TV actors, like Ivy Bethune who had a bit part in this year’s Get Smart, and muscle-man Buck Kartalian who has been on “ER” and “How I Met Your Mother”. Brooke Mills plays the absolutely stunning crazy chick in serious lust with her creepy brother.

John Russell was a western veteran, winding his career down with Pale Rider, as was John Smith, star of “Laramie”. Jeff Morrow was last seen (in the riff world) with Faith Domergue in This Island Earth. (Her character is identified as “Veronica” but the credits have her as “Victoria”.)

And then there’s Merry Anders, who I’d bet money one of my parents worked with after she left the business. (One thing about living in L.A. is that a lot of former actors settle here even after they retire. And most of them die right around here, too.)

Anyway, I’ve noticed a pattern with the CT movies, which is that they start off blazing, and this one is no exception. At the beginning, the end, and a few spots in the middle, the laughs come so fast you either have to rewind or commit to watch again.

At the same time, there are a few lags, like the badness of the movie bogs down the riffers.

There are probably fewer lags in this than in the previous three films. The sketches are starting to hit the mark pretty consistently, though there could be a few more, and the ones they have could be longer. The timing is improving, as we suspected it would. There’s a more natural rhythm; everyone seems to be getting more comfortable working together.

The Boy was less than enthusiastic about watching, saying the old stuff (MST3K) was funnier. But he laughed a lot and slapped his thigh more than once; I think he just misses the puppets.

I’m not missing them as much as I used to, but the “plot” of the show is trickling out excruciatingly slowly. Apparently the crew has been captured and sent forward in time (or maybe just abducted by aliens?) who need their riffing talents to save humanity.

What’s good about the new set-up is the use of the silhouette approach to rig up sets that would be otehrwise challenging. For example, in this episode, it looks like there’s a tank to one side of the movie room.

This episode stands out because, I think, it’s probably the most re-watchable episode to date. I’m not 100% sure of this, but this is the first one where I was thinking “I could watch this again” while the episode was running.

So, good job to the CT crew, and keep the shows coming!

As If I Needed Lessons

How To Lose Friends and Alienate People is the second movie in as many weeks that seems to illustrate the rather large indifference of the American masses to British stars. Last week’s delightful Ghost Town showed we don’t care much about Ricky Gervais, while this week’s similarly delightful How To Lose Friends and Alien Poeple indicates we don’t give a rat’s ass about Simon Pegg. It reminds me a bit of the complete and utter rejection of the perfectly delightful Aardman studio movie Wallace and Gromit and the Curse of the Were-Rabbit, as well as the later, less delightful but still pretty good Flushed Away.

Maybe Troop is right about “perforated abalones” or whatever he calls the Brits.

I, on the other hand, think it’s a shame. While this is a pretty by-the-numbers romantic comedy (as was Ghost Town), it’s a solid one and provides plenty of laughs.

The story concerns trashy Pegg being wooed away from his trashy little celebrity-hit-rag by magazine mogul Jeff Bridges (as the anti-Dude!) to work at his trashy BIG celebrity-kiss-ass-rag. There he meets nice girl Kirsten Dunst, a pre-op transsexual, and super-hot Megan Fox, channelling a sort of Marilyn-Monroe-meets-Bette-Davis type. He lusts after Fox (I mean, of course) but falls in love with Dunst (again, of course, but for different reasons). Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy pursues other girl–the story begins with Pegg in striking rang of his goal of having sex with Ms. Fox, and I don’t need to tell you how that turns out–and loses his soul in the process, but again, I don’t need to tell you how that turns out, either.

As I said, by-the-numbers but less gross than a lot of modern comedies, with more slapstick, and with a curious message–or so it seemed to me: That it’s better to be a celebrity-mocking journalistc parasite than to be a celebrity-ass-kissing-journalistic parasite.

Isn’t that like saying it’s better to be typhus than The Plague?

The cast is absolutely pitch perfect. Bridges is entirely credible as a guy who both hates and, at some level, longs for the person he used to be. Pegg has the right combination of likability and unlikability–he’s really quite a good actor, showing range by being a completely different person than he was in Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead. Kirsten Dunst is almost too believable as the girl who trades in her dreams for a steady paycheck and a creepy boyfriend. Danny Huston, by the way, is the creepy boyfriend/sleazeball/obstacle to all of Pegg’s dreams, and he’s got the smarmy thing down pat. Gillian Anderson is excellent as the soulless PR agent bending everyone to her will.

Megan Fox is eerily dead-on as the flavor-of-the-month actress. She’s completely superficial and at turns siren, vulnerable girl, airhead and cruel vixen. (Her award-winning movie role is hysterical, too. Stay through the credits, because they do a full trailer.) You really don’t end up knowing much about her–she’s completely insubstantial, really–which is in its own way perfect for the story.

All the little roles seem to have been filled with care, as well. Miriam Margoyles plays the Polish (Russian?) tenement manager, Bill Paterson shows up as Pegg’s father, Max Minghella is the over-rated wunderkind director, Diana Kent plays the washed up ‘70s actress (though is she really old enough?), and Thandie Newton does a turn as herself, being chatted up by Pegg in one of his more charming disguises.

And, hey, you got your full-frontal male nudity, sorta, in the form of nude model Charlotte Devaney, who plays a pre-op transexual stripper. I don’t really believe it myself, as she lacked any outward male characteristics whatsoever and I don’t think Playboy and Hustler feature TSes, but since about 12% of my hits are for full frontal male nudity, I thought I’d throw you guys a bone. (Heh.)

A solid flick with lots of laughs from humor both broad and subtle, but it ain’t gettin’ no love in terms of distribution and box office.

Damned abalones.

An American Carol: Fa la la la la, la la la la

Hectic weekend that it was, I was glad to get out of the house for a bit to the movies, and did go–with much trepidation to see Zucker’s An American Carol.

Regular readers know how I feel about clap humor, but as I pointed out earlier, this is the first overtly conservative movie made in my lifetime that’s ever gotten a semi-wide release.

So, what did I think?

Not bad. Pretty good even. I didn’t laugh as much as I did for, say, Dodgeball. And I would issue the caveats that you probably had best like the Zucker style of humor. Having said that, this movie probably falls somewhere between BASEketball and Top Secret! in terms of comparison with his earlier work. And it’s more like the former in terms of “reality”: In other words, where the Top Secret!/Airplane! style of movie has people acting deadpan in a zany world, the BASEketball-style movie posits a less zany reality with more broadly humorous characters.

I laughed a lot more than I expected to, and it works much better than I would have thought. There were only a few parts I cringed at, and a couple of genuinely touching parts.

The story concerns a fat, narcissistic documentary-maker named Michael Malone who wants to stamp out the 4th of July celebrations. Some terrorists want to make a professional jihad movie using a Hollywood director, but they need the most America-hating director in Hollywood. This provides a framework for a Christmas Carol ripoff that powers the bulk of the film.

There isn’t a rigorous adherence to the Dickens story, which is good: The primary ghost who torments Malone is George S. Patton, who takes him to see the anti-war protests of WWII and how life would be if the Civil War hadn’t been fought. (George Washington makes a brief appearance. And the third ghost is living country music star Trace Adkins!)

The movie opens strong with a “duck and cover”-style terrorist training film, follows into a weak (more accurate than funny) parody of “Sicko”, segues from there into a sometimes funny, sometimes not parody of a movie awards show, and hits and misses for the rest of the movie. But a lot of the less funny parts are worth a chuckle, and occasionally, if you’re inclined, a clap.

What particularly worked for me were: the zombie lawyers, the slavery scene, the crowd chanting scene, the “It’s the Christians!” documentary, and a surprising amount of the slapstick.

What didn’t work for me were: the Bill O’Reilly scene (the first one, the second one in the outhouse was pretty funny) with Rosie O’ Connell (except for the “It’s the Christians!” documentary), the Hitler scene, and the occasional long didactic tract thrown.

Parts I’m on the fence about: the ‘68 musical number, the inclusion of certain serious moments, and the inclusion of heavy slapstick during some of those moments.

I wouldn’t expect critics to review this favorably. I’m a little surprise no kudos have been forthcoming for the talent: Kelsey Grammer does a servicable Patton, for example, which isn’t easy to pull off in the shadow of George C. Scott. Chriss Anglin plays a pissed JFK, more accent than looks, while Fred Travelena does a Carter that’s all accent. Voight plays Washington himself during one of the heavier moments, and pulls it off.

Kevin Farley plays Malone, and if there’s a problem, it’s that he doesn’t ooze a fraction of the sleaze Michael Moore does. He’s self-absorbed, cruel and destructive but he never reaches the level of dislikability that Moore manages effortlessly. In fact, he’s kind of a heroic character: He realizes the error of his ways and risks public humiliation to save lives. And while there are a few stale fat jokes, he’s never portrayed as stupid.

And there are a bunch of other people you’re likely to recognize: Gary Coleman, Kevin Sorbo, Gail O’ Grady and Dennis Hopper as a gun-totin’ judge.

The audience laughed–though not at the whole thing–and clapped at the end pretty easily, but the theater was only about half full.

The Boy loved it, by his own admission being very right wing. He wanted to know if there other such movies and I had to regretfully inform him that I wasn’t aware of anything like it. That seems a little skewed.

“This cat knows something!”

So says Robert Montgomery in Mr. & Mrs. Smith–the 1941 Hitchcock screwball comedy, not the weird Pitt/Jolie action comedy of 2005.

The woman completing this pair was Carole Lombard, after whom Frances Lillian Mary Ridste had styled herself upon arriving in Tinseltown (to my perpetual confusion half-a-century later). And like Landis, Carole Lombard died far too young, though in an airplane crash.

Behind the lens we have a young(ish) Alfred Hitchcock, shooting his only corpse-free comedy. In this case, the shallow Montgomery and the bat-sheet Lombard discover that they’re not married, despite three years of great make-up sex. (For reasons that aren’t exactly clear, Montgomery hides the info from his wife, and Lombard gets ticked, apparently because he wants to have his way with her even though they’re not legally married.)

Lombard–who really does come across like a screwball–decides she doesn’t want him back and ends up with his business partner, the bland, staid Gene Raymond.

This is really a cute movie with some good laughs that are a little too far apart to make this a really good comedy 65 years later. In other words, it might have been a lot funnier when released, but a lot of the sexual innuendo is nearly imperceptible to our coarsened sensibilities. Still, we all laughed at points, even The Boy.

I liked the early scene where they’re having dinner at a place that has become a dive in the three years since they’ve been there and Montgomery is trying to get a cat (that’s sitting on the table!) to test the soup to see if it’s safe to eat. (Hence the quote.)

And since it’s been a while…some breasts!

Lombard is of course pre-pointy-breast era. She’s the right age to be a flapper but I don’t think she did the flapper thing in the movies.

Had she lived, though, I’m sure we’d have seen her in a torpedo-shaped brassiere alongside of the other greats of the ‘50s.

“You can trust me. I’m a dentist.”

I think Ghost Town is officially a flop. It barely cracked the top 10 in a weak week last, uh, week, and has completely dropped off the charts over the weekend. And that’s a shame, because it’s a solid comedy.

It’s a bit formulaic. Think Groundhog Day meets Ghost. Ricky Gervais is a misanthropic dentist–and let me interrupt here to say that all the dentists I’ve known have been wonderful, warm people–who wakes up after a colonoscopy (in which he demanded a general anaesthetic) with the ability to see dead people.

Dead people with needs.

Who annoy him.

My I say that I came up with this premise 20 years ago, but not having writer-director David Koepp’s connections I never could get the movie made?

Primary among the annoying dead people is the ever-smarmy Greg Kinnear. (Nobody does smarm like soup boy.) Kinnear is concerned that his ex-wife (on whom he was cheating) is about to marry a gold-digging…uh…civil rights attorney. He enlistst the reluctant Gervais’ help by promising to call off other dead people–he’s good at convincing people to do stuff–and it doesn’t hurt that Gervais is instantly attracted to Kinnear’s widow, Tea Leoni.

This movie works for a couple of reasons:

Koepp keeps things moving and doesn’t skimp on the jokes. (Some of them are so characteristic of the actors, particularly Gervais and KatherineKristen Wiig, that one senses perhaps some improv was done.) Koepp’s got a track record of under-appreciated movies: He wrote the script to Panic Room, wrote and directed Kevin Bacon in Stir of Echoes, and also wrote Death Becomes Her.) Or maybe all those movies sucked, and you wouldn’t like this either.)

Fun fact: Koepp is the douche who wrote War of the Worlds and paralleled the Martians to US troops in Iraq! Yes, I maintain that he’s both talented and a douche. Fortunately, this movie is apolitical.

The acting is top notch: Besides Gervais and Kinnear, Tea Leoni is really quite marvellous. I mean, really: She plays an odd Egyptologist with a fondness for lovingly detailed descriptions of mummification. If there’s a flaw there, it’s that it’s a little hard to imagine Kinnear’s smug narcissist hooking up with her.

Besides the three leads, there’s also Katherine Wiig as the surgeon. This chick is funny. I guess she’s on SNL but I know her primarily from Knocked Up, and she does a similar bit here trying to keep Gervais from suing the hospital. (I know her from something else, too, but I haven’t seen any of her other IMDB credits and her scenes were apparently cut from Superbad and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, so I can’t recall what. UPDATE: Oh, yeah, I know her from the freakin’ Ghost Town commercials. I’m such a dingus.)

She gets a great assist in this scene from Michael-Leon Wooley as the hospital lawyer.

The ghosts play comic relief, mostly, but they also give the movie it’s final poignancy. Dana Ivey as a mother trying to reconcile her family, and Alan Ruck as the father trying to give his son some peace in a particularly poignant moment.

Fortunately, this all comes at the end, and avoids the mawkishness that occasionally bogs Groundhog Day.

Let’s see: Pacing, acting…I was going to mention a third thing here that makes this movie work, but I’ve forgotten what it is now. Damn my tangents.

Well, there’s some spectacular cinematography. New York hasn’t looked this gorgeous in years (at least in the movies). Uh. Hmmm.

OK: I laughed. I had a low chuckle going through most of the movie with some occasionally raucous outbursts. Ultimately, that’s “why” this worked for me. Little funny stuff, like Gervais’ awkward or jerky moments punctuated with knee slappers. Not quite rolling in the aisles, but still quite amusing.

The Boy laughed, too.

Altogether worthy of better box office than it’s getting. It’ll do better in England, I’d bet.