A Movie. A Day. A Year. Day 8: Top Secret!

I don’t make it a secret – ZAZ films always bring a smile to my face. When you mention ZAZ films, most people will mention Leslie Nielsen. While he was certainly one of the most prolific actor in their stable, I’m talking about a lesser known, but definitely not one to be overlooked, actor.

Val Kilmer’s first movie role, and certainly one that got him started towards Top Gun fame, let him capitalize on his charm. Holding his own with such luminaries are Peter Cushing and Omar Sharif, he plays the rock and roll legend Nick Rivers. Not only does this movie mercilessly skewers World War 2 films, spy thrillers, Cold War movies, and Elvis Presley productions – it features Val Kilmer’s singing voice.

Like Airplane! and other productions, Top Secret! takes several viewings to see all the gags, but it’s the most fun you’ll have. Jokes that went gleefully over my head (“They asked me to help out in pre-teen maternity”) when I saw this when I was nine now make me guffaw at… somewhat older than nine. All the performances are over-the-top in a “well, I’m here, so let’s do this” atmosphere. One can not sit through this film and not find something to get at them. In fact, this last viewing I heard this line:

Nigel: It was a Russian ship. They taught me all about you imperialist swine. I was exposed to the works of great thinkers – Karl Marx, Lenin, L. Ron Hubbard, Freddie Laker.

I looked up Freddie Laker to see what would make him a great thinker. Come to find out that Sir Freddie Laker founded Laker Airways that went bankrupt in 1982. A great thinker, indeed and certainly worthy to join that list. Almost forty years old and I’m still finding things about it. The imdb trivia page alone for this movie is a delight to wander through.

This movie engenders some desire in me to see where is blindly robbed its inspiration from. I found myself looking for The Blue Lagoon, Where Eagles Dare and G.I. Blues to see where the inspiration came from. It’s nice to see one movie, then get struck by ‘oh, hey – I saw this on [insert ZAZ film here].’

If you ever get a chance, run out and see this with your best friends. Pick a day and have a ZAZ Film Festival: Kentucky Fried Movie, Airplane!, Airplane 2!, Top Secret!, Hot Shots! Hot Shots, Part Deux and the Naked Gun films. Yes, I left out Spy Hard, not because it isn’t a ZAZ film, but because I feel that the tank was empty for everyone when that movie was released.

So run out and enjoy Nick Rivers’ Skeet Surfing, U.S.A.

A Movie. A Day. A Year. Day 7: Antiviral

Wow. I just finished watching Antiviral – a movie that I’ve owned for a while and decided to watch it. Directed and written by Brandon Cronenberg. Yes – that Cronenberg. It is an unflinching look at the celebrity machine cranked up to eleven and given nitro. Because apparently, body horror is in the genetic make-up of these men, there are some body horror moments, but they’re fairly light given both the subject matter and the writer/director.

I wish I could have turned off this movie at the end and said to myself, “That’ll never happen. Celebrity steaks? That’s a non-starter. Getting infected with a celebrity’s herpes? Not without dinner and a movie.”

Sadly, those days of optimism in the sanity of the human spirit died a long time ago. In the world of Antiviral, if you really follow your celebrity, you get their autograph, their book and their raging case of shingles. I can see this happening in the future. I see clinics popping up advertising so-and-so’s genetically modified version of tuberculosis. The clinics have technology to keep the diseases from being transmitted (the word proprietary is thrown about). ‘Medical holidays’ take on a whole new meaning.

The thrust of this movie is more than the obsession with celebrities, but their commodification. You like Keanu Reeves? How much? Willing to eat a steak made from his muscle cells? Why stop at making tea with Scarlet Johansson’s panties? We can clone her saliva glands – what’s too much to pay to know that a part of the celebrity that maybe you’re thinking a little too much about is with you permanently?

The central character Syd March, played with ‘I’m a Z-pac away from ending this’ menace by Caleb Landry Jones, goes from disease pimp to…uggh…high priest to celebrity golden girl Hanna Geist (good one, Brandon) in the arc of this movie. Infected by a mysterious disease that kills Geist, Syd must find the cure, avoid the predators who would use him as nothing more than a selling point, and try to maintain his own little slice of the black market.

This is a movie that makes bold statements and does absolutely not pull any punches. The character makes his living not only selling diseases of the rich and famous, but he smuggles out the self-same diseases to be sold on the black market.

Antivirus needs to be watched several times to get all the messages, but none of them are positive. The tech aspect of it is kept very low key so that we’re not blinded by the neon, and that works in the favor of the movie’s themes. We are also not spared a single second of non-celebrity time. Even Syd’s landlady manages to stay abreast of the current events that unfold on what looks to be a scant budget. Celebrities are often mentioned, but we never learn much beyond they’re beautiful, very unhygienic and bought and sold like cattle.

This is a future not for the squeamish.

(author’s note: I apologize for the delay, and I am afraid there will be another one tomorrow, but work often gets in the way of all things. I beg to indulge your patience for this week at least, as I try to work in a time to get more of a buffer going. Thank you.)

A Movie. A Day. A Year. Day 6: Battle: Los Angeles

I should hate Battle: Los Angeles. Its everything that’s wrong with the Studio system. Calling it a slapdash, paint-by-numbers, no risk movie is an insult to every movie playing on the Hallmark Channel. It is so formulaic, and predictable, I’m surprised they don’t just put up the page number of the script in the lower left hand corner.

But, God – I love it.

I’m a simple guy. I like the movies I like for one of two reasons. Either, they are thought provoking and shed light on the human condition (Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List, Joker) while being artistic and beautiful.

I also like movies that allow me to turn off my mind for a couple of hours and just enjoy (Knives Out, anything by ZAZ, Monty Python). Battle: Los Angeles fills the criteria for the second list perfectly. It grabs every war trope you can think of and runs with them with all the glee of a four-year-old and his favorite toy.

The most recent viewing (the one that prepared me for this blog post) I saw the dead and casualties in the background. Sure, I’ve seen this movie dozens of times, but now – seeing dead civilians in the streets shook me a little bit.

It was the empty baby stroller in the middle of the sidewalk while our Marines rushed out to escort civilians back to the F.O.B. shook me a great deal. In that split-second, I found myself wondering what had happened. Did the parents just scoop up their kid and rush to shelter as the aliens attacked? Did I see the father face down in the street earlier? How about the mother? Is there a five month old sitting next to the body of its mother crying because it can’t comprehend what’s going on?

Yes – you can make the case that this is a thinly veiled ‘take that’ to the modern day oil barons who descend into the deserts to get their fuel. You can also call this a re-skinned “The Longest Day” with us as the Nazis trying to hold off D-Day. It’s also tedious, banal and horrible. Clearly set up to continue on, but with the poor showing it had, this became a one-and-done.

Believe it or not: this movie fills both criteria. It does make me think (How are aliens going to approach us? Are we ready for the possibility of invasion. Our own history tells us we might want to stock up on guns, bullets and peanut butter.) about our status is in the universe beyond are we alone? Stephen Hawkins advised caution in poking around the universe, broadcasting our location to everyone in range. As much as I would like to think that our ‘brothers beyond the stars’ are more like Mork and Starman than the Xenomorph and the Predator…I am prepared to by wrong.

Which is why I am not living on the coast.

A Movie. A Day. A Year. Day 5: Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid

Today’s movie offering is a throwback to the 80’s, a time when film makers had to be clever. This movie is an obscure one from Steve Martin. One of his funniest movies, it’s a loving tribute to the film noir genre made with some of the luminaries of the genre without computer aid (which makes it even more of a marvel).

Steve Martin plays Rigby Reardon, a typical down and out of his luck detective that populated the hardboiled mysteries of the Golden Age. Hired by the dark lady Juliet Forest (played by Rachel Ward), he must find her father’s killer – a noted scientist and cheese-maker. Armed with only a list of Friends and Enemies of Carlotta, Reardon and his assistant Philip Marlowe (yes, that Marlowe) uncover a sinister plot to push the world in war.

I’m being cagy about the plot because I don’t want to give away too much, but this is a film that should be in anyone’s library who is interested in technical movie making. By splicing together bits and pieces from other movies, and taking advantage of forced perspective-style shots, a new movie has been cobbled together.

I’ve always loved this movie and I try to have it in whatever iteration of my movie library takes. Another one that I have seen that follows this same style is Woody Alan’s Zelig – which if I can ever get a good copy of it, I will certainly review it here. In this movie, there is a message that sadly still bears repeating.

In Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, there are several messages:

1) Steve Martin is not as good looking as a blonde woman as he thinks he is.

2) This movie is a lot funnier than I remember. Then again, the last time I saw it was when I was 9 and more than a few jokes went over my head.

3) A dry delivery is a wonder and joy to behold.

Steve Martin’s approach to his character and the delivery has been one of the chief influences of my own humor (the other is Monty Python) in my writing and occasional acting. Gag-a-minute movies like Airplane! Are great, but there is something about Martin saying something outrageous with a stone serious look and tome.

In this age where almost everything can be done with computers, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid is a very fresh breath of air (“You need a cup of my java” has a great attention twisting sight gag, as well as being one of the better running jokes if you watch everything). Suspending my disbelief for this movie is surprisingly easy, and the reward is a subtle jab at a major (?) American city.

Is you want to take a break from computer enhanced effects, sketched explosions and million-dollar emoting by people in a mo-cap suit – watch Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid from Steve Martin at the height of his powers. You will not be disappointed. Who knows? Maybe you’ll find some other hidden black and white gems.

A Movie. A Day. A Year. Day 4: Don’t Think Twice

This time, I wanted to watch a comedy I hadn’t seen previously. So, I went through my list and pulled out this movie. It’s a story about a improv comedy troupe and what happens when one of them gets pulled into the big time.

It is not a comedy.

There are few funny parts in it – mostly from the improv theatre scenes and when Keegan-Michael Key makes a side comment (“That looks like a baby bird.”). With the cast it holds up, including one of my favorite stand-up comedians and one half of Garfunkel and Oates, you would think this would be a laugh a minute.

Nope.

This is a rather serious piece and groups and how a change of fortune can change everything. We have the bitter teacher who watches his student go on to fame and fortune, but gets left behind. We have the scared status-quo girl and the procrastinating artist (that one I understand). We’ve got both parental archetypes on display: the absent parents who just cut the check and the concerned ‘have you got something steady?’ father. The break-out star however, remains true to his roots when most other movies would have him cutting and running even before the words “I got the part” even finished getting out of his mouth. There are other things that happen to the characters and it’s generally a happy ending with everyone growing in their own way.

It’s not what I was expecting.

I have two such movies in my collection: Don’t Think Twice and Trust Me. It’s not hard to make me laugh, and I enjoy comedies more than I enjoy drama (not that you could see that by my movie list). The first movie is a really good example of the classic definition of comedy by Aristotle: a genre of literature containing humorous events or dialogue that ends favorably for the protagonists. Don’t Think Twice does this, to Mike Birbiglia’s credit, and it works. Trust Me, which I will do later, doesn’t.

Is this a bad film? No. I don’t know what criteria Apple uses when deciding if a film is a comedy, drama or documentary; but there are some holes in that algorithm. Don’t Think Twice is better categorized as a dramatic piece that has comedic elements to it. None of the performances are wasted – especially Gillian Jacob’s Samantha who has the most growth in the film. It was a pleasant break from the gag-a-second comedies I usually watch, but definitely deserves to viewed as a serious drama.

A Movie. A Day. A Year. Day 3: Airplane!

When I am feeling at my worst, there is no better film than Airplane! A send up of disaster films of the late Seventies (I remember seeing on TV when I was about seven or eight. Yes, I’ve shown my age) and of a movie in particular: Zero Hour!

A classic that launched ZAZ (Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker) films and shaped film humor for several decades. Any sort of screwball comedy owes Airplane! a tip of the hat. This movie has paved the way to not only a bunch of other films from them – keeping Leslie Nielsen employed up until the end with The Naked Gun series – but gave them the credit to go on to solo projects like Ghost, First Do No Harm, and First Knight, clearly not just gag-a-second comedies.

Every time I watch this film, I find something new (Did you see the lady throw her baby in the air?) to laugh at. That’s the key to the joy – every scene has so many things going on that you can’t get it all the first go-round. Brilliance. I know I am gushing about this film without bringing up Kentucky Fried Movie. I know…I know…it’s on my list of movies to watch before I die, but for now, I’m focusing on Airplane! right now.

Because of this film, I find myself watching the background events in other films which can be richly rewarding at times with other comedies. My sense of humor was shaped by this film (I still say “…and don’t call me Shirley.” if the gag can be set up right) as well as my love of movie trivia. Did you know that this movie was the launching of Leslie Nielsen’s second movie career as a comedic actor. All the big names you see were brought on because they were know as being such serious, dramatic actors…which was part of the gag! There are so many little things about the movie that makes you appreciate it even more.

What else can I say about this film? It’s a legend. It’s a lifesaver for me. Go see it, and pay attention to the guy in back when the window is opened and is sucking everything out. His eyebrows and beard were supposed to be sucked up, but the glue was too strong and he’s trying to wiggle them off.

…and don’t call me Shirley.

A Movie. A Day. A Year. Day 2: A Million Ways to Die in the West

There’s going to be a lot of comedy in the first few entries on this blog. I suffer from depression, and watching a comedy is enough to help me get by. However, my taste from comedy goes from raunchy to cerebral. I just want to laugh, get a little hit of dopamine and trudge along. Enough of that, let’s look at my next offering.

A Million Ways the Die in the West is not by any stretch of the imagination in the cerebral side of things. It is a Seth MacFarlane production, but I must add this as a disclaimer: I only am familiar with Seth MacFarlane through The Orville and clips from Family Guy and the odd American Dad picture that creeps up on Facebook.

This has the solid imprint of a MacFarlane production. Sight gags, crude humor and throw-away gags by the bushel.

Having said that – I love this film. I love it for the ending – the clever guys can get the girl, the bad guy gets hoisted by his own petard and it’s better to trip with people than trip alone. All of that squeezed into two hours and a post credit scene that demonstrates the kind of star power that Seth can attract.

No one points this out. Look at all the actors who joined his film: Neil Patrick-Harris, Charlize Theron, Liam Neeson and a cameo from Jamie Foxx. Several of these people have also appreaed in The Orville, but just think about it. He can pick up the phone and get some mega-watt talent. How is that, you might ask?

He can take two things that can seem at odds: heart-warming and raunchy, and make it work. The Orville isn’t by far as clean as other things, but it definitely hearkens back to the early seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation and shows his dedication as a fan of the series.

Sorry for the side track, I should be talking about the movie.

MacFarlane made a character in that moive that we all can identify with: the hapless good guy. Sure, at first, he’s a little whiny which gives the movie its title. We can understand it because all of the other Western tropes are dialed up to 25. The Hooker with the Heart of Gold refuses to sleep with her boyfriend simply because they’re not married, and the Boyfriend goes along with it. The Bad Guy gives his target and an invitation to a shoot-out, but he breaks his own rules in the process (which comes back to bite him in the end). As a comedy, it’s politely subversive and as a Western it’s a stereotype that celebrates the genre’s excesses while skewering them.

All in all – if you haven’t seen this movie, I recommend it. Wait for the post-credit scene, it is worth it.