Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, March 22, 2018

Series Report Card: The Marx Brothers (1932)

4. Horse Feathers

“Monkey Business” proved so popular in 1931, that Paramount initially considered breaking with tradition up to that point and producing a direct sequel. The Marx Brothers were going to face off with gangsters again. However, in 1932, the Lindbergh baby was kidnapped and killed by gang members. Hoping to avoid controversy, the plan was changed at the last minute to adapt “Fun in Hi Skule,” one of the Brothers' earlier stage shows. The resulting film was called “Horse Feathers,” a now obscure bit of slang meaning nonsense and tomfoolery, because just naming it “The Marx Brothers Go to College” would've been too straight-forward. This late in the game reshuffling would feature the brothers putting their mark on another comedy tradition: the sports farce.

“Horse Feathers” takes place at Huxley University, a prestigious school currently involved in a football rivalry with Darwin College. The film follows Quincy Wagstaff, Huxley's unconventional president. Wagstaff's son, Frank, is a football star and currently romancing the college widow. The two cook up a plot to sabotage the other school's team, with the help of two bootleggers, a dog-catcher named Pinky and an iceman named Baravelli.  Naturally, things do not go exactly as planned.

There's a reason why college and sports are the subjects of so many comedies. Aside from overlapping to absurd degrees, both are concepts that certain people take way too seriously. This makes the subjects perfect fodder for the anarchic shenanigans of the Marx Brothers. Both institutions are roundly mocked. Groucho plays a college president with nothing but contempt for the academy he presides over, opening the film by mocking the other heads of the association. Football, meanwhile, is treated no more seriously. Cheating is the main point of the plot. At the end, whether or not Huxley wins the game is less important than the chaos the brothers cause on the field.

Yet, in many ways, “Horse Feathers” represents a slight step backwards for the Marx Brothers. Compared to the pure comedic chaos of “Monkey Business,” “Horse Feathers” is a lot more subdued. The humor is not quite as unhinged, the characters working more for the system than against it. The musical numbers make a comeback, with Groucho singing “Whatever It Is, I'm Against It” in the first scene. The romantic subplot is totally separate, once again, from the stuff we actually care about. Zeppo is left to a totally lame supporting role, weirdly cast as his older brother's son. It's slightly disappointing, after the comedic highs of the last film.

While the material lets him down slightly, Groucho Marx is as sharp as ever. His opening shots at the faculty, about the speech being duller than his razor or tossing away his cigar, are great. As always, he makes tiny little lines into gut busters. A simple exchange about a bicycle or responding to the question of “Who are you?” are classic comebacks. A stand-out scene has him cracking walnuts with his office phone while debating with his co-workers, showing a suitably irreverent attitude towards running a college. (“Where will the students sleep?” “Where they always sleep: In the classrooms.”) After taking over an anatomy class, he spins a diagram out the blood system into digressions about loosing at cards and other nonsense. At times, Groucho breaks the fourth wall again, asking the audience to leave while the other characters chatter. However, sometimes Groucho's quips border on the mean, especially those directed at Zeppo, who is supposed to be his fictional son after all.

Harpo continues to rampage through the plot, even if its more in service of the plot than usual. His ability to produce things from his pocket goes further then usual. He pulls a cup of coffee out of nowhere. One scene has him messing with a cop, by revealing a collection of badges. Absolutely the best example of this is when he concludes a conversation by throwing a live seal on a desk. He's also as quick with the sight gag as his brother is with a one liner. When asked to “cut the cards,” he cleaves the deck in half with a hatchet. He verbalizes swordfish, the famous password to the speakeasy, in an especially amusing way. A key scene has Harpo and Chico attempting to kidnap the rival school's star football players. This backfires spectacularly and their escape attempt escalates in a nicely absurd way.

Chico's garbled comebacks are very strong as well. The sword gag just keeps building and building. First sturgeon and haddock are misheard. Then Groucho and Chico end up locking themselves out of the building. While Groucho attempts to teach a class, Chico constantly mishears simple bodily terminology, with corpuscles and cirrhosis both being mangled in amusing ways. His attempts to seduce the movie's love interest are interrupted by Groucho, who simply hugs the girl around Chico.

While the song and dance numbers are mostly unnecessary, they are still better incorporated into the film than they were in “The Cocoanuts” or “Animal Crackers.” “Whatever It Is, I'm Against It!” is cute but pretty low energy, at least until the other school officials get up and start dancing. Mostly, the film repeats one song in several different renditions. “Everyone Says I Love You” is performed by each brother in a different style. Zeppo sings a traditional version. Chico's take is accompanied by peppy piano playing. Harpo, naturally, plays the song on the harp, which sadly really saps the energy from the film for several minutes. Groucho's interpretation is played on a guitar but is quickly sidelined when he starts trash-talking a duck and getting annoyed at his female companion's obnoxious baby talk. Seeing the song evolve and change throughout the movie is quite interesting.

As is usually the case, not every gag in “Horse Feathers” works. Harpo making every device in the speakeasy pay out coins is an odd one. So is the scene where characters keep throwing blocks of ice out a window. A scene that has Harpo shoveling books into the fire place actually borders on off-putting. A scene involving spitballs goes on for much too long, not getting funny until the very end. This is also the first time the censorship board of the time were actively interfering with the film. A sequence, involving the three brothers flirting with the college widow, is roughly edited. This is a result of both the film's age and some spicier lines being hastily cut out. This is, thus far, the Marx Brothers movie with the highest number of misses.

Like “Monkey Business,” “Horse Feathers” also runs out of steam before the end. The climatic football game is not nearly as hilarious as it needs to be. There are funny moments here. Mostly in Groucho making derisive comments about women's basketball or betting against the other team. Or leaping out and tackling an opposing player out of nowhere. (He also, amusingly, holds onto his cigar throughout the whole game.) However, the bigger physical comedy gags do not work as well. Harpo trying to grab a hot dog in the middle of the game is mildly amusing but his limbs getting stretched out is a lame gag. And then the film just ends suddenly, any plot importance being shuffled away.

“Horse Feathers” is not a dud. There's more then enough laughs to justify a run time that's just barely over an hour. However, it represents a serious slide back in quality from “Monkey Business,” feeling a lot more like the stiffer first two features the brothers did. I guess this was a symptom of choosing to adapt a play again, instead of writing something original for the screen. Either way, the audiences at the time didn't mind, as the film was another hit for Paramount and the brothers' association with the studio with continue, at least for the near future. [Grade: B]

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Series Report Card: The Marx Brothers (1931)

3. Monkey Business

Having their roots on stage, where they had already headline a number of popular shows, it made sense for the first two Marx Brothers movies to be based on plays they previously starred in. After proving themselves as cinematic stars with “The Cocoanuts” and “Animal Crackers,” it was determined that the four brothers should star in their first entirely original motion picture. “Monkey Business” was written exclusively for the screen. Just like their last two movies, the film would go on to become a big hit. When I was first watching through the Marx Brothers' films many years ago, “Monkey Business” quickly became my favorite.

Since plot is never very important in these films, “Monkey Business” is best remembered as the one where the Marx Brothers are on a boat. The four play stowaways on a luxurious ocean liner. While constantly pursued by the captain, they hang around the boat through the entire cruise. Along the way, they brothers – playing themselves for the first time – run afoul of two separate mobsters, “Big Joe” Helton and Alky Briggs. While Groucho flirts with Briggs' moll, Harpo and Chico end up becoming the bodyguards for Helton. Along the way, Zeppo romances with Helton's daughter, unaware of her connection to the mobster.

In “The Cocoanuts” and “Animal Crackers,” Groucho Marx played an authority figure. Primarily irreverent ones but authority figures nevertheless. In their previous movies, Harpo and Chico spent part of their time harassing stiffs and bosses. “Monkey Business” moves past such formalities. The entire movie is devoted to the brothers, all four of them, being huge assholes to the people in charge. They spend most of the movie fleeing the boat captain or taking the air out of a pair of super-serious mob bosses. Moments like this make it clear why this comedy team would become cult hits with sixties anti-authoritarian hippies. In “Monkey Business,” the Marx Brothers rejects anyone who says they know better and mocks everyone who takes themselves even a little seriously. It's one of the brother's most anarchic films and all the better for it.

Another reason “Monkey Business” works so well is because it's excellently paced. The film is much shorter than the brothers' previous two films, running just a little over an hour. The film achieves this speedy pacing by mostly cutting out the musical numbers. Aside from mockingly performing the same Maurice Chevalier song, the brothers never actually sing in this one. (They do pause in the middle of a chase scene to play some free form jazz though.) There are very few songs. The most prominent song occurs when Cecil Cunningham, the film's Margaret Dunmont stand-in, sings an opera. This is quickly undone with humor, when Harpo mockingly plays his harp. Chico incorporates humor into his brief piano solo as well. By focusing on jokes over songs, “Monkey Business” becomes the brothers' most fleet-footed film yet.

Zeppo, rather notoriously no one's favorite Marx brother (though reportedly the funniest in real life), didn't contribute too much to the previous two films. He was mostly stuck in small roles as Groucho's sidekick, not contributing much to the plot or getting too many jokes to himself. In “Monkey Business,” he's given more to do, slipping into the romantic lead role usually occupied by some other boring actor. He proves surprisingly charming in the role. The scene where he introduces himself to Ruth Hall's Mary Helton, involving trading handkerchiefs, is very cute. Zeppo has decent chemistry with Hall, making their scenes more entertaining than they otherwise would've been.

Still, it's clear to anyone that Zeppo's involvement in the story is mostly superfluous. Groucho generates some of the biggest laughs in this very funny film. He comically bitches with the captain, badgering him into getting into his office and eating his dinner. Some of his best lines – jokes about gats, nobody sneaking into his bedroom, shyster lawyers and fixing brakes – are exactly the kind of circular word-play you've come to expect, delivered with expert ferocity. Sometimes, lines that aren't even funny on paper, like “I'm spying on you,” become hilarious solely through his delivery. Groucho gets a lot more physical humor than usual. While flirting with the gangster's moll, he dives in and out of a curved closest. This leads to the first instance of Groucho's goofy walk. Later, he attempts to pick on the gangster's gun while it's still in his pocket. Naturally, his attempts to mess with people – pulling off toupees, commenting on an argument between two people – produce great laughs.

If Groucho's verbal wit runs wild in “Monkey Business,” Harpo's physical form of comedy is equally unhinged. He makes a habit of hiding in unusual places in this one. He hides under a woman sitting in a chair – sitting atop another guy – as well as also posing as a camera or the back of a dress, attaching himself to various girls. One of the highlights of the film has Harpo ducking into a Punch n' Judy Show. He pretends to be one of the puppets, baffling and irritating the cops on his trail. The way this gag concludes, with an extra leg appearing, is especially inspired. As is his insistence on bringing a chess board into a tense meeting for no reason. Harpo even makes tiny gestures hilarious, like glancing into a barrel lid as if it's a mirror or tossing a life saver on a random person's head as he runs by.

While Groucho's one-liners run freely and Harpo's rampages, Chico's comedy is more reactive. As usual, he plays off Groucho to great comedic effect. He crack lines about flies being unable to read paper. Or misunderstands short-cut as a reference to strawberry shortcake. Or confuses whistles or vessels. Or mutinies with Monday. His biggest gag in the film, a team-up with Harpo, has him progressively shaving off a man's mustache. While that's fantastic, one of his biggest laughs is a simple reaction to a calf and its mother cow. A reoccurring joke about his grandfather's beard is pretty good too.

The first hour of “Monkey Business,” which is most of the movie, is set on the boat. Once the brothers arrive on land, it's true that “Monkey Business” slows down a little bit. Seeing the guys riff on a crowd of stuffy party-goers is something we've seen them do before. Granted, there's stand-out moments here, like Groucho acting like a cat out on the porch. By the time we get to the comedic fight scene in a barn, “Monkey Business'” manic energy has definitely started to run out a bit. Even that has some pretty good bits, like Harpo hitting people on the head with a hammer or Groucho commenting on the fight like a sports announcer.

Not every gag in the film works all that. Some are a little aggressively goofy. Such as Harpo attempting to fish a passport out of the pockets of random people passing by. While I love him receiving a frog as an animal sidekick, a scene where he believes the frog is down someone's throat maybe pushes things too far. Lastly, the scene where the guys imitate Chevalier is regarded as a classic. The beginning, where Harpo once again removes similar sounding objects out of his pockets, is great. However, by the end, where he's trying to sing along with the phonograph on his back, the gag has officially goes on too long.

Going into this rewatch of “Monkey Business,” I was curious if it would be as funny as I remembered it being. The film holds up in every way. It's filled to the brim with gut-busting gags and jokes, the audience rarely going long without a huge belly house. Whether or not it's the best of the Marx Brothers' films is up for debate. However, it might be the funniest. Moreover, it'll always be my favorite. Audiences in 1931 agreed and made it an even bigger hit than the brothers' previous two features. [Grade: A]

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Series Report Card: The Marx Brothers (1930)

2. Animal Crackers

Despite whatever reservations the brothers might have had about it, “The Cocoanuts” was a hit for Paramount. The Marx Brothers were immediately put to work on a second feature. Also adapted from one of their stage plays, Paramount would give the director's chair to Victor Heerman. The hope was that Heerman, a strict disciplinarian, would reign in the Marx Brothers' rambunctious performing style while keeping shit funny. I have no idea how shooting when on set but it's hard to argue with the results. “Animal Crackers” would become the fourth most popular American film of 1930, ensuring the Marxes would continue to find work at the studio for years to come.

The film has Groucho Marx appearing as Captain Jeffrey T. Spaudling, a famous big game hunter, who is returning to America from a recent trip to Africa. He has been invited to the home of socialite Mrs. Rittenhouse. An art collector named Chandler is also there, revealing a famous painting by an artist named Beauregard. Rittenhouse's daughter, Arabella, is engaged to John, a talented but thus far unsuccessful painter. The two cook up a plot to replace the famous Beauregard painting with a perfect duplicate, painted by John. The scheme quickly goes awry, thanks to an oddball musician invited to play the party and his even stranger friend.

Though only a year passed between the release of “The Cocoanuts” and “Animal Crackers,” it feels like film-making technology had already come a long way. This is still a fairly early sound film. There's little in the way of a musical score, scenes often playing out with just the cast talking to each other. The story is still fairly stage bound, which is especially apparent in an extended gag involving a temporarily darkened room. However, there's some attempts to make things more cinematic. The sets are shot at a wider angle, giving everyone more room to run around. Heerman was obviously a little more adapt at keeping up with his famously energetic stars.

“Animal Crackers” is a stronger film than “The Cocoanuts” in its script as well. In fact, this fast-and-loose comedy has an actual theme. “Animal Crackers” is partially a movie about deception. The central plot involves a painting being replaced with a nearly indistinguishable forgery. The painting isn't the only thing in the movie that isn't what it appears to be. Respected art collector Roscoe W. Chandler is later revealed to be Abie, a lowly fish monger. While the script never outright has Captain Spaulding revealing himself to be a fraud, he certainly doesn't act like the respectable individual his title suggests. These idea never really goes anywhere but it adds an interesting layer to “Animal Cracker's” story.

Further displaying a control on pacing “The Cocoanuts'” directorial duo lacked, Victor Heerman would cut several musical numbers from the film. The songs that were left in the movie, in a smart decision, frequently involve the brothers directly. “Hoo-Ray for Captain Spaulding,” which would become something like Groucho's personal theme song over the years, features the vaudeville star singing and dancing throughout the number. Chico's required piano number features Groucho cracking jokes throughout. Harpo eventually joins him by banging some horseshoes together. The three even take a break halfway through, to pass a coat around like a football. Even the non-comedic musical numbers aren't so bad. Hal Thompson's romantic duet with Lillian Roth, “Why Am I So Romantic with You?,” is actually pretty good, with a decent melody. Though Harpo's harp accompaniment is still a bit of a snooze.

While “The Cocoanuts” had the benefit of being made in the lawless pre-code era, “Animal Crackers'” content came under a little more scrutiny from censors. And it's easy to see why, as “Animal Crackers” is way hornier than its predecessor. Harpo is chasing the same blonde girl all throughout the film. Later, he flirts with a girl on a park bench, the two even smacking each other's asses. At one point, Groucho exits a scene with a group of bouncy, swimsuit-clad college girls. There's jokes about bigamy, undeveloped native girls, magnificent chests, scratching Elsie, and the maid's bedroom. So the going-ons are a little more ribald this time. The editing was so bad that, for many years, only a cut version of the film was available. Luckily, an original print was restored in 2016.

“Animal Crackers” also features some of Groucho's most famous bits. He's introduced in the film asking a proud African for his license plate and it only gets wackier (though less racist) from there. During a comedic attempt to seduce Margaret Dumont and another woman, he keeps making melodramatic asides to the audience for no reason. This proceeds a later moment where Groucho directly breaks the fourth wall, by apologizing for a corny joke. An attempt to dictate a letter to Zeppo starts out in a silly place and only gets more circular and absurd as it goes on. There's good reoccurring gags about Spaulding repeatedly introducing himself and pretending to be a detective. That double-talk and absurdist word play peaks during Captain Spaulding's presentation about his trips in African, by far the most well-known bit in the film And it's still hilarious, with quips about elk-a-hol, rich bears, and irr-elephant details.

Thoroughly unleashed, Harpo gets some great gas to himself. An early scene has him firing a rifle at random people. Which would be a bit off-putting if it didn't conclude with a fantastically odd gag involving a statue. Harpo floats checks back into his pocket, steals people's ties, and swings his legs into people's laps while sitting on a coach. A small, but truly hilarious bit, has him folding a card table's legs back up just as someone else attempts to fold them out. Maybe Harpo's best bit comes near the end of the film. A police chief, who was accusing him of thievery just a minute before, shakes his hand. Pilfered silverware then falls from his sleeve. And continues to fall, on and on, for a solid minute.

Most of Chico's best bits, as is usually the case, occurs when playing off other characters. Introduced as a trombone player, he quickly ends up bickering with Groucho and cracking some killer sewer puns. Goofy wordplay like that is also brought up when referring to Uruguay. Another favorite pun Chico mistaking “parachute” for “pair of shoes,” which results in a hilarious and very spontaneous seeming action from Groucho. One of the highlights of the film involves Harpo mistaking Chico's garbled request for a flashlight for similar sounding objects. This results in a fish, a flask, a deck of cards, a flit gun, and a flute appearing. The film then has the confidence to repeat the same guy but in total darkness, which somehow makes it just as funny.

Not every gag in “Animal Crackers” worked for me. An improvised boxing match between Harpo and Chico feels like a weaker reprisal of something from “The Cocoanuts.” A game of Bridge played between those two, Margaret Dumont, and the film's female lead is too slow and really goes on for much too long. (Though it does end with a killer gag, of Harpo suddenly wearing high heels.) The film attempts to fuse its plot and its humor near the end, with Chico describing some clues to Groucho. That scene is a bit sluggish too, despite one or two lines about left-handed moths.

“Animal Crackers” shows the anarchic, subversive elements of the Marx Brothers coming more into play. The film is more about the free-spirited brothers hassling the squares than “The Cocoanuts” was. The movie's complete disregard of traditional rules becomes truly apparent during one of my favorite cinematic endings, where Harpo just gases (kills?) all the characters in the movie. This anti-authoritarian streak would make “Animal Crackers” a favorite with college kids in the seventies. That fandom led to the movie being restored and screened theatrically for the first time in decades. I bet the Paramount execs never saw that one coming. While still a little bumpy, “Animal Crackers” is pretty damn good and probably the Marxes' first genuine classic. [Grade: B+]

Monday, March 19, 2018

Series Report Card: The Marx Brothers (1929)

When you think about it, it's pretty interesting that the Marx Brothers are still as beloved and famous as they are. Compare them to other comedy teams who saw their popularity peak in the thirties and forties, most of whom have totally disappeared into obscurity, it's interesting that anybody even as fucking old as me knows who Groucho, Harpo, and Chico are. I guess that speaks to the influence and evergreen appeal of their films and screen personas. I got into the Marxes in college and have been wanting to do a retrospective for quite some time. As always, I quickly discovered that comedy is really hard to write about. So let's see how badly I fuck this up.

1. The Cocoanuts

The Marx Brothers first brought their beloved vaudeville show to cinema screens in 1921, with a film called “Humor Risk.” However, the brothers' hyper-verbal brand of comedy did not translate well to silent film. Marxian legend has it that Groucho was so dissatisfied with the results that he burned the only known copy, casting “Humor Risk” into the shadowy world of lost films. With the advent of sound, the Brothers would try again in 1929. The film would adapt their hit 1925 Broadway show. It would become a huge hit for Paramount, launching the Marx Brothers' legendary careers as cinematic comedy pioneers. Nearly ninety years later, how does the film hold up?

“The Cocoanuts” is set during the Florida housing boom of the 1920s, when swampland was being converted into homes and developments. The action takes place at the Hotel de Cocoanut, a struggling resort hotel run by a Mr. Hammer. There's quite a bit of intrigue happening in and around the hotel. Two vagabonds roll in, hoping to swindle the rich guests out of their valuables. There's a love triangle, involving a young woman in love with a poor boy and the rich man her mother prefers her to marry. There's a theft, of a priceless necklace, and an undercover police detective snooping around. Mostly, it's all set dressing for comedic banter and goofy sight gags.

As someone who associates the twenties primarily with silent films, I was surprised to see “The Cocoanuts” was a sound picture. It is, without a doubt, a very early sound movie. Outside of the musical numbers, there's no score, leading many of the scenes an oddly quiet, sterile feeling. Adding to this is rather stiff direction, which frequently just places the characters in front of the camera and let them talk. This is partially due to then technology, where cameras where stuck inside sound-proof booths and unable to move. I also suspect that “The Cocoanuts'” stationary direction has something to do with the story's stage-bound origins. The technology finally existed to capture the brothers' antics on-screen but film still had a lot of catching up to do when it came to capturing the act's energy.

Though, if you were just going to sit back and watch a performer do their thing, you could do a lot worst than Groucho Marx. Groucho does seem to have slowed down his famous quick wit slightly in “The Cocoanuts,” perhaps for the benefit of the filmmakers, which he didn't get along with. However, the most famous Marx brother is still in tip-top, hilarious shape here. Groucho rarely misses a chance to spin off into ridiculous digressions. This is best on display when he's mockingly bragging to his employees about the availability of land in Florida. His lightning fast quips make small scenes –  talking about Abraham Lincoln – into huge laughers. Even when captured by stiff cameras, Groucho's jokes still came fast and furious.

Harpo Marx's interest into “The Cocoanuts,” credited as a character named Silent Sam, immediately confirms him as one of the damnedest characters in classic comedy. We all know the trademarks by now: The honking, providing by a cane-like horn. The frizzy hair, wacky stare, and top hat. Yet that undersells the pure anarchy Harpo brings into his scenes. Within minutes of entering, he's grabbing legs or placing his own leg into folks' hands. Quickly, he's picking fights with Chico's Willie the Wop and other characters. At least once, these fights quickly segue into an impromptu dance. He leaping onto a desk and ripping up envelopes. Or pounding a desk bell, summoning bellhop after bellhop. From the beginning, Harpo Marx brought a unique presence to the screen.

While Groucho's bullet-fast quips and Harpo's oddball physical gags dominate the screen, you can't overlook Chico Marx's contribution to the team. The third brother's purpose was primarily to bounce off and baffles Groucho and others. This is most apparent in the viaduct/”why-a-duck” sequences which just keep spiraling around and around, becoming more absurd and hilarious. A similar technique is employed in a scene where Chico has been paid to bid at an auction, which he is a little too insistent on. This dynamic, played off on stage a hundred times, was already a well-oiled machine in 1929. Right out of the gates, the brothers couldn't be caught.

“The Cocoanuts” would also introduce Margaret Dumont, the “female Marx Brother.” In their first cinematic offering together, Dumont quickly establishes herself as the perfect straight woman to Groucho's antics. Their relationship zigzags between contempt and crude flirtation. Such as when Groucho mocks the woman, who is equally dismissive of his shenanigans. Later, he circles her waist with his arms, dragging himself around her. This absurd back-and-forth carries through some of the film's slower moments, as the two have a highly amusing chemistry. No wonder the Brothers would invite Dumont back for many of their future films.

The plot in a Marx Brothers' movie is always a secondary, practically disposable element. In “The Cocoanuts,” it's especially irrelevant. There are at least two completely unimportant subplots, which tie together. A love triangle involves Dumont's daughter wanting to marry one man, a poor hotel clerk, while her mother hopes she's romanced by the rich architect instead. This dovetails with a involving a stolen diamond necklace and a map. The scenes devoted to this stuff drag the down immensely. Any time the Marxes are off-screen, and the focus shifts to the love story, “The Cocoanuts” is taken over by a sleepy, painfully slow paced atmosphere.

The same can be said of the musical numbers. The songs are carried over from the stage play. Mixing comedy, romance, and music were standard practice in vaudeville. However, the balance is seriously off on-screen. The songs are all stiffly presented, few of the dance numbers coming to life in a convincing manner. As with everything else, directors Robert Florey and Joseph Santley just sit back and watch the dancers from a distance. None of the songs are especially memorable, with the romantic themes bringing the already halting pace to a complete halt. In fact, a few are genuinely quite bad. Such as “Monkey Doodle Doo,” which features some painfully bad lyrics. Harpo's harp playing and Chico's piano work have much the same affect, both sapping the film of its rocketing comedic energy.

Despite some serious flaws, “The Cocoanuts” still features at least one classic comedy bit. Harpo sneaks into the bedroom of the thieving femme fatale. As she had also invited several other men to meet her, this leads to the three Brothers slamming the doors, moving in and out of the two rooms. In another likely carry-over from the stage show, the scene is shot with the dividing wall in the middle. However, it's a fast piece bit of visual comedy, one that would influence a number of lesser films and seemingly every Hanna-Barbara cartoon from the seventies.

However, there are definitely a few gags that are clunkers. The auction sequence begins fantastically. Unlike Groucho and Chico's other bits, this one quickly becomes a bit tedious, going on for much too long. A later scene attempts to combine music and comedy. The investigating detective sings about loosing his shirt to the famous refrain from “Carmen.” Despite the best efforts of the Brothers, it's simply not a very joke and one the film stretches out for far too long. Luckily, by that point, “The Cocoanuts” is quickly nearing its end.

As a debut for the Marx Brother's frenetic comedic style, “The Cocoanuts” is a bit on the awkward side. The early sound presentation really saps a lot of energy from the proceedings. However, there's still plenty of insanely funny moments and gags throughout, providing by the Marxes operating at peak performance. Like “Humor Risk,” Groucho wasn't a big fan of the film either. He wanted to buy the film rights back and prevent its release. Clearer heads prevailed, the film becoming a huge finical success and launching one of the greatest comedy legacies of classic Hollywood. As a stand alone movie, “The Cocoanuts” is troubled but pretty good. As a starting point, it's quite a feat. [Grade: B]

Sunday, March 4, 2018


7:52 - Welcome Film Thoughts fans to my ninth annual live blog of the Academy Awards!

7: 55 - Nine years! Yes, that number surprised me too when I realized it. Time sure does fly. I'm happy to say that this year has been the most successful Oscar month for me. I watched over thirty movies this month, surpassing any previous number. It probably says a lot about me that I still wish I could have squeezed in more. But I'm happy to say I've seen all the Best Picture nominees, all the nominated films in the Acting, Director, Writing, Documentary, and Shorts categories. That's a pretty good spread, I think.

7:56 - As for the ceremony itself, I'm expecting a mediocre Jimmy Kimmel hosting job and lots of awkward attempts to acknowledge all the political turmoil in the last years.

All right, time for my first pee break of the night. Strap in. I've got a bottle of wine and some popcorn all ready.

8:00 - Here we go.

I like the idea of the retro opening but there's already a little too much crass humor here.

8:01 - Okay, the joke about Selma and the "Shape of Water" creature made me chuckle.

8:03 - Official drinking game: Every time the envelope screw-up from last year is mentioned, take a big ol' sip.

Annnd there's the first one.

8:05 - "State of limitation" made me chuckle. Oh shit, shots fired at Mel!

8:06 - Kind of impressed that Kimmel is going there as soon as he is.

All right, this opening monologue is killing me. Am I already drinking too much?

8:09 - Are Wahlberg and Michele Williams here? I'm really missing the awkward cutaways to their faces in the audience.

Ooh boy, that Trump joke landed with a thud. Don't say his name least you summon him, Jimmy!

8:10 - Christopher Plumber is great and are they really going to make him sit through this whole show?

8:11 - I'm really looking forward to some fish-fucking jokes tonight.

8:13 - I want del Toro to ride out of the theater on that jet ski.

8:14 - Best Supporting Actor is first. Rockwell will probably win. But I'm rooting for DaFoe.

8:16 - Is that his Vulko beard DaFoe is rocking? It's very regal.

8:17 - Jenkins was so fucking great in "The Shape of Water." If DaFoe can't take it, I'd go for him.

8:18 - I think Plummer got nominated mostly because of the reshoot hoopla. But he was genuinely great in that movie.

8:19 - I love Sam Rockwell but he's genuinely the weakest of this lot.

Rockwell's speech is genuinely pretty damn good. Love that anecdote about his dad.

8:23 - By the way, I also saw all the Documentary Short nominees. They were all pretty good. Heroin(e) was very powerful and Traffic Stop, my pick to win, filled me with so much righteous anger. (Knife Skills, also very touching, is my runner-up.) All the films are available on the internet and would definitely recommend checking them out.

8:24 - This gag is pretty weak but they get points for actually getting the actor from the movie.

I've got pretty much horse in the Best Make-Up race. I'm guessing Darkest Hour will get it?

8:27 - I like the noise Gal made as she opened the envelope.

8:28 - Awww, he thanked his cat.

8:29 - Saint's line about being older than the Academy was so sweet.

8:31 - "Phantom Thread" has gotta win Best Costume Design, right? It's a movie literally about costume design!


8:32 - PTA stealth rocking a great beard game.

8:37 - And we're back.

Jimmy, Marvel never gets nominated for anything outside the technical categories.

8:38 - Best Documentary Feature is a really strong category this year. "Faces Places" or "Last Men in Aleppo" would both be acceptable winners.

Greta and Laura are awwww-dorable here.

8:40 - Complete bullshit. You had four really good choices, Oscar! You fucked it up!

8:42 - I'm annoyed. Time to get sour-drunk.

8:44 - They are performing all the song nominees, right? It pisses me off when they skip any of them.

8:46 - I was digging this performance until she just started growling. That made me chuckle and I don't think that intentional.

I love how everyone stopped clapping because they thought the song was still going. That kind of shit is what live television is made for.

8:51 - Hey now, that's a "Frankenstein" reference and I dig it.

8:53 - Aw, they threw in Roger Ebert and now I'm sad.

8:55 - This montage started out as an A+ but kind of lost me in the middle but won me back with Leatherface.

8:56 - Okay, we get it, Jimmy. Christopher Plummer is old.

8:57 - "Baby Driver" has got these in the bag, right?

8:59 - Meh. I mean, sound editing is not my area of expertise so it's entirely possible "Dunkirk" was stronger in that category than "Baby Driver" but that's not what my heart says!

That guy wants a jet ski.

9:01 - I was really rooting for "Baby Driver" in the sound categories. Seemed like a sure shot. I hope this doesn't mean "Dunkirk" will sweep the other categories.

9:08 - Spielberg does look like a pot dealer.

Keyans in the house!

9:10 - I hope Beauty and the Beast doesn't win. Ugly, over-designed film.

Hopefully the first of several awards "The Shape of Water" will get tonight.

9:12 -  I like this guy's sunglasses.

9:14 - I'm really glad they went with a stripped-down version of this song.

Never mind. I take it back.

9:16 - I mean the dancing and fireworks and skulls are cool and all but this song would've benefited from a more personal performance.

9:20 - This jet ski thing is genuinely a pretty good running gag.

9:22 - Rita has style to spare.

I only got to see three of the Foreign Language film nominees. I'm rooting for "The Square" but am betting "A Fantastic Woman" gets it.

9:24 -  Yep, called it.

9:26 - Final prediction for Best Supporting Actress: Janney will get it but Metcalf would be a pleasant surprise.

9:29 - I'm definitely a fan of Janney. First thing I noticed her in was "10 Things I Hate About You." I still think she's hilarious in that movie.

That bird did good work. Can't wait for the "Mom" advertisements to mention it stars an Oscar winner now.

9:31 - Is that how you say Sufjan's name?

9:35 - By the way, the new "Roseanne" looks fantastic.

9:36 - OH SHIT, BB-8!

9:37 - In Best Animated Short, I"m rooting for "Negative Space" but it won't win.

[sarcasm]Twitter is going to love Kobe winning this Oscar.[/sarcasm]

9:40 - I love these guys but they are not landing these jokes.

I mean, there was no question "Coco" was going to win Animated Feature but I'm still glad it did. I fucking loved that movie. Hugs for everyone!

9:43 - Good speech.

Give me that sweet Sufjan.

9:45 - That jacket Sufjan is wearing is glorious.

Great performance. That could've gone on a lot longer, in my opinion.

9:51 - Is this Overlook Hotel gag part of the show? Genuinely made me lol.

Tom Holland and Gina Rodriguez are super cute together. Would ship.

9:53 - Did not expect "Blade Runner" to win. It's a good choice though.

9:55 - So much for that promise not to play anyone off.

9:56 - Christ, "Dunkirk" is going to sweep the technical categories, isn't it?

9:59 - You're welcome, Jimmy Kimmel.

10:00 - I would probably be upset if someone interrupted my movie but I also really want to meet Guillermo del Toro sooo....

10:05 - What exactly is a hot dog cannon? It sounds dangerous. And messy.

10:08 - Everyone in that theater: "Who the fuck is Ansel Elgort?"

That bit was painful. Please get on with the award show now.

10:11 - Get Tiffany Haddish to host next year.

10:12 - All right, Best Documentary Short. I'm rooting for "Traffic Stop."

Okay, that's... Not the choice I would've made. "Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405" was quite good though.

10:15 - Rooting for "DeKalb Elementary" so hard.

Ugh. They picked the worst one in this category. This year's Oscars has been an emotional roller coaster ride.

10:17 - It seems the most maudlin, emotionally manipulative film usually wins Best Live Action short. Sigh.

10:19 - I'm fairly indifferent to this song but "Two time Oscar winner Common" has a nice ring to it.

10:21 - This performance is kind of overwhelmingly BIG for my taste.

10:25 - It's okay, Salma. You're still perfect.

10:29 - Including fish men in the diversity montage was an interesting choice.

10:31 - The fact that "Logan" even got nominated is insane to me. Five years ago, I never thought a superhero would receive an honor that big.

10:32 - I loved "Call Me By Your Name" and this will probably be its only win tonight, so that's nice.

10:35 - That was a nice speech. I also didn't know James Ivory was American.

10:36 - I'm prepping myself for anger now if "Three Billboards" wins in this category. Considering everything else in the category deserves it way more. (Well, maybe not "The Big Sick.")

10:37 - Or, you know, that works too. A horror movie just won Best Original Screenplay. What a time to be alive.

10:42 - Holy shit, it's Wes Studi!

10:45 - Oh my god, Jimmy, this Matt Damon gag is way worn out. The joke about cloning Barbara Streisand's dog was solid though.

10:47 - Is Sandra Bullock okay?

10:48 - Really looking forward to Roger Deakins loosing again.

Damn, I am eating a lot of crow tonight but in the best way! Long overdue.

10:50 - If this shitty fucking "Greatest Showman" song wins, Im'ma set some fires.

10:53 - Oh my fucking god, that was painful.

If that piece of garbage cat poster of a song win, it's yet another confirmation that the Academy frequently confuses "Best" with "Most."

10:57 - And, boom, out of nowhere, it's Christopher Walken!

I'm rooting for "The Shape of Water's" gorgeous score. If Zimmer wins, I'll be slightly annoyed. Not because the score is bad but because it's just so... Zimmer-y.

 Oh good. I am pleased.

11:01 - Okay, here comes the hurt. I am fully prepared to get angry. But here's hoping Sufjan or "Coco" gets it!

11:03 - Thank god it wasn't "This Was Me." "Remember Me" was fantastic! Would've preferred Sufjan but this is still very good.

11:04 - Mentioning a dead mom is apparently the easiest way to stop the orchestra from playing you off!

11:05 - So who's getting left out of the In Memoriam montage this year?

Robert Osbourn and Harry Dean. I miss both of them.

11:08 - So glad George Romero and Haruo Nakajima weren't left out.

11:13 - Emma looks stunning. "These four men and Greta Gerwig..." Oh snap!

Please, give it to del Toro!

11:14 - Yes!

11:16 - A romantic spin on "The Creature from the Black Lagoon" going this far at the Oscars is overwhelming for me.  I could not be happier about this. (Unless it wins Best Picture too, then I'll be happier.)

11:19 - Including Hannibal Lecter and Idi Amin in a montage of inspiring film characters was an... Interesting choice.

11:20 - Jane throwing out a "Barbarella" shout out!

11:22 - If anyone besides Gary Oldman wins, I'll be utterly shocked. I suppose Daniel Day-Lewis would probably be my choice?

11:25 - Yeah, no surprise there. I consider this a make-up award for "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy."

11:27 - I liked the shout-out to his mom but that was a bit long winded, don't you think?

11:29 - Oh great, another acknowledgement that shitty "Blind Side" movie won something.

Is Jodie okay? Is she just really short or is Jennifer Lawrence really tall?

11:31 - Frances McDormand gave a thunderous performance that I'll be fine with winning but I'm rooting for Sally.

11:34 - Frances deserves an Oscar for that opening line there.

11:36 - Frances is so wonderfully genuine. This has made the whole night worth it.

11:37 - All right, guys, we're just about out of the woods here.

11:40 - There was no way Kimmel wasn't sneaking in another joke about last year.

11:42 - The wave of applause that greeted "Darkest Hour" was surprising.

11:44 - Here's another reminder about what a strong crop of films this is, comparatively.

11:45 - If the fish-fucking movie wins, I won't forgive Oscar for everything they did wrong. But it would make up for a lot.

11:46 - A great end to a great awards season.

11:47 - Such a sincere, beautiful homage to monsters and fantasy winning the top film prize of the year is just outstanding to me.

11:49 - Someone getting cut off at he last minute is a much smaller screw-up than getting Best Picture wrong, that's for sure.

11:50 - That was a pretty good ceremony! Didn't drag too much. Lots of great speeches. Only a few of the gags didn't work and I laughed much more than expected. Dare I say, Kimmel actually did a pretty good job. Moreover, most of the winners actually deserved it.

11:51 - Thanks to everyone who joined me or glanced at this live blog. It was a really good Oscar season! 

11:52 - I'm going to take the rest of the week off but you'll see me again soon, faithful Film Thoughts readers. Thank you so much. Good luck and good night.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

OSCARS 2018: The 2018 Oscar-Nominated Animated Shorts

Last year's Oscar marathon was a mess for me. I didn't get to watch nearly as much as I wanted to and was struggling to keep up all month. Part of what made last year a disaster was how I didn't get a chance to see any of the nominated shorts. Luckily, not only has this year been by-far my most successful Oscar marathon, I was able to watch both the Animated and Live Action shorts. Here's my thoughts on the animated shorts, all of which are pretty good this year.


Some times it feels like Pixar and Disney are single-handedly keeping the animated short as a concept alive in the public's mind. While Pixar's superior 2017 film, “Coco,” was hassled theatrically with that awful “Olaf” thing, their far less important 2017 release, “Cars 3,” was proceeded by the very cute “Lou.” Set on a grade school playground, the short's titular character is an entity made up of the items left in the school lost-and-found bin. Lou delights in spreading lost toys and goods back to their owners. That's when he spies a schoolyard bully stealing the items away from the kids. Lou decides to teach him a lesson.

“Lou” shows a mastery of tone, despite only being a seven minute long short. It begins as a whimsical bit of slapstick. Lou is an interesting character, his form constantly shifting as the objects he's made of move around. This leads to amusing sights, like his slinky and jump-rope arms shooting through a net. Or the bully tripping over the marbles Lou spills over the ground. Yet the mad-cap humor soon segues into something more touching. Lou realizes the a stuffed puppy in his position used to belong to the bully. That the kid was himself bullied when he was younger. Soon enough, the child learns the joys of giving, in ways both cute and sweet. “Lou” is funny and touching in the Pixar tradition. [8/10]

Dear Basketball

Aside from Pixar's "Lou," "Dear Basketballl" is the nominated Animated Short to get the most attention this year. Probably because of its association with a popular athlete. The film is a love letter to the sport of basketball written and narrated by Kobe Bryant in his retiring year. Bryant's personal anecdotes, of being a kid and dunking his dad's rolled-up socks into a trash can, are charming. (Kobe as a kid is depicted in a vaguely Disney-esque, super cutesy fashion.) The way he waxes nostalgically on the purpose the sport gave him, as a poor child growing up, is nice.

Legendary Disney animator Glen Keane directs the film and he provides a sketchy, loose, mostly black-and-white art style that is likable and eye-catching. The musical score, from no one less than John Williams, is big and emotional and maybe pushes a bit too hard. It's easy to read "Dear Basketball" as an ego trip from Bryant, the athlete paying homage to his own success, especially once he starts to talk about how his mind and spirit wanted to keep going but his body wouldn't let him. And maybe it is. However, the short is nice to look and summons some genuine emotion, which is pretty good for something that's only six minutes long. [7/10]

Negative Space

"Negative Space" comes from French filmmakers Ru Kuwahata and Max Porter. It details a father and son relationship. The two would bond over packing luggage, the father teaching the boy to fold everything in a specific way. This is depicted via some slightly surreal flights of fancy, such as the teeth of a zipper becoming a road and the zipper pull becoming a car. Or, my favorite part of the film, the boy getting washed away into an ocean composed entirely of clothing, with socks as coral, belts as eels, watches as crabs, and underwear as jelly fish.

The short is primarily about how, more often than not, we relate to our loved ones through the little things. Though the act of packing a suitcase is simple enough, something that doesn't mean much to most, it meant a lot to this boy and his father. From the past tense the narrator uses, it's easy to guess the ending. That doesn't stop it from giving meaning and context to the rest of the short. The animation style, computer generated but meant to invoke stop motion, is quirky and home spun, the characters looking a bit like they've been knitted. It suits a short that is funny and whimsical but ultimately rooted in a need to understand and work through loss. [8/10]

Garden Party

Narratively, "Garden Party" is pretty simple. It's set in a fancy house that is strangely empty for reasons that will soon be revealed. In the absence of people, the home has become occupied by new residents: Frogs. Though light on story, "Garden Party" features a lot of personality. The little froggy protagonists occupy themselves in various amusing ways. Like chasing a bug across a parked sports car, trying to get the last bit of food out of a jar, or pursuing a mate in an opulent bed. The way the short slowly but gently reveals the nature of its setting is really well done. Small details appear in the foreground and background that let you know what happened to the home's very famous former resident.

Animation wise, "Garden Party" is even more impressive. The detail is incredible, as the frogs and their surroundings look almost photo-realistic. However, there's just enough of a cartoon edge, allowing for a little more expression in the amphibians' faces. This allows for some likable character designs, like the bloated toad in the kitchen or the small pink frog leaping around. Though "Garden Party" may not be much more then a simple, somewhat morbid joke, it's beautifully brought to life, with fantastic animation and an impressive attention to detail. [8/10]

Revolting Rhymes: Part 1

“Revolting Rhymes: Part 1” sticks out a bit among this year's animated short nominees. It's the first half of a two part, hour long special based on poems by Roald Dahl. Both halves aired on British television in 2016, so I'm not sure why it was under consideration by the Academy in 2017. The special weaves together subversive, comedic variations on three classic fairy tales: Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, and the Three Little Pigs. These tellings re-imagine Red Riding Hood as a ruthless wolf slayer, the seven dwarves as gambling-addicted jockeys, and the Third Pig as a banker, among other differences. The stories are told, in rhyming verse, by a talking wolf to a curious older woman in a dinner.

I'm not sure why the Academy singled out part one of “Revolting Rhymes,” instead of the whole thing. The total run time of both parts is an hour, which still qualifies it for the short category I believe. Either way, it's pretty charming. The animation is cute, the CGI characters having a lot of quirky appeal. Some of the riffs on the familiar tales, which include Snow White's step mother eating a heart and Little Red Riding Hood making the wolf skin's into her new jackets, are nicely morbid. The verse, well read by Dominic West, is catchy and amusing. The short's comedic energy is a bit manic and takes some getting used to. It's cute and funny enough that I had to watch the second half immediately afterwards. It's odd that half of a year old television special got nominated but it's still pretty good. [7/10]

Friday, March 2, 2018

OSCARS 2018: The 2018 Oscar-Nominated Live Action Shorts

Last year, I ran out of time and didn't have a chance to watch the Oscar nominated short films. This really bummed me out. The shorts are, by far, the most overlooked and underseen of all the nominees. These filmmakers deserve to have their hard work seen and appreciated. Luckily, this year I'm back on the ball and was able to see the nominated shorts. Here are my thoughts below.

DeKalb Elementary

"DeKalb Elementary" begins with a young white man entering a predominately black elementary school and pulling out an assault rifle. After that, things do not progress the way they often do in real life. Instead of firing, he clears out the office and tells the receptionist to call the police. He intends to open fire on the cops as soon as they arrive. The receptionist talks to the boy, quickly deducing that he's depressed and wants to end his own life. An odd relationship forms between the two, as the woman talks the boy through the day's events.

Considering the grim place "DeKalb Elementary" starts in, it ends up becoming a surprisingly touching film. Director Reed Van Dyk's presentation is stripped down and simple, rarely leaving the office and focusing on the two characters. This is primarily a two-hander. Bo Mitchell makes it clear that the shooter is emotionally frazzled, accurately depicting a scattered mind uncertain of his actions. Tarra Riggs, as the receptionist, beautifully brings to life an exceptionally compassionate person. The ability to extend love and understanding to other people is the main theme of the film and one it conveys powerfully. It's a tense film, due the threat of potential violence never being far off, and one that pays off in a touching way. The film is based on a true story but, in the wake of yet another mass shooting, plays out like a rather fantastical story: One where communication and compassion is stronger than anger, hate, and random violence. [9/10]

The Silent Child

Chris Overton's "The Silent Child" follows Jo, a social worker invited by a rural English family to help their deaf daughter, Libby. Libby, who refuses to wear a hearing aid and can only partially read lips, observes her family silently and can not truly communicate with them. Jo teaches Libby sign language, the girl picking up on it quickly. The two form a bond soon enough. However, no one in the family understands sign language and are uncertain if this is a route worth exploring.

As a closing wall of text makes clear, "The Silent Child" is an issues movie. In this case, the issue is spreading awareness about sign language and the deaf. There's one really powerful shot in the film. From Libby's perspective, we see the girl looking at her family, living in a world of silence, distant from them and unable to communicate. Sadly, this is the only time "The Silent Child" takes us inside the girl's head. The relationship between Libby and her caretaker, though sweet and bolstered by strong performances from Rachel Shenton and Maisie Sly, always feels too manipulative. The parents' decision to discontinue their daughter's lessons strains believably, making mom and dad seem like clueless and abusive assholes for no reason. Though associated with a good cause, "The Silent Child" never makes the audience care about its characters, causing it to come off as an overly sappy heart-string tugger that doesn't earn the emotion it aims for. [5/10]

My Nephew Emmett

Race isn't just a reoccurring theme in the Best Picture race. "My Nephew Emmett" is inspired by the real life murder of Emmett Till. In 1950s Mississippi, elderly black man Moses Wright discovers that his fourteen year old nephew Emmett wolf-whistled at a white woman. In the middle of the night, two armed white men appear on Moses' door step. They enter the house and demand to take Emmett outside. The whole household is threatened with violence when Moses refuses to cooperate but the men soon find what they came for.

"My Nephew Emmett" is set in the same state as "Mudbound," similarly depicting a family torn apart by racism and violence. It's an intense twenty minutes. The short focuses on silence and darkness, as Moses waits for the men he knows are coming to appear. The confrontation between the racist killers and the peaceful black family is a queasy experience, racial epithets flying freely and the threat of violence always hanging in the air. Sadly, "My Nephew Emmett" is a bit undone by its short length. We only have a little bit of time to get to know the family, Moses and his nephew coming off more as thin sketches than fully fleshed out characters. Also do to being a short, the eventual outcome of the incident doesn't have much room to land before the end credits roll. Though well acted and effectively constructed, the film is not as powerful as its filmmakers clearly hoped it would be. [7/10]

The Eleven O'Clock

An Australian short, "The Eleven O'Clock" begins with a rather amusing set-up. A psychologist waits for his eleven o'clock patient to arrive. The patient is a man with delusions of grandeur who believes himself to be a psychologist. As he arrives in the office, a game of wits quickly begins to play out. The doctor and the patient have an argumentative back-and-forth, as each believes the other to be delusional.

It's pretty easy to figure out "The Eleven O'Clock's" twist ending. From the minute the premise is introduced, the audience is expecting the reveal. However, getting there is still a lot of fun. John Lawson, who also wrote the short, is really funny as the stuffy shrink. Damon Herriman, as his patient, is contrastingly absent-minded. Seeing the two play off each other produces plenty of laughter. Lawson's frustration at Herriman explaining simple concepts to him is amusing. A word association test quickly becomes a highly circular argument. The secretary's increasingly baffled reaction to everything that's happening got me chuckling. Though fairly simple in execution, "The Eleven O'Clock" is still a really funny thirteen minutes that I would recommend checking out. [7/10]

Watu Wote: All of Us

It seems like every year, there's at least one live action short about an African country torn apart by violence and war. "Watu Wote" is set on the border between Kenya and Somelia. Al-Shabaab, a Muslim terrorist sect, terrorizes and attacks Kenya's Christian population. The film follows a Christian woman who witnessed her husband and child murdered by the same terrorists. She boards a bus ride out of the country, driven by a Muslim. On the way out of Kenya, the bus is attacked by a group of Al-Shabaab terrorists. The woman is shocked to find the Muslim driver and passengers protecting her and the other Christian on-board.

I was happy to see"Watu Wote" is not self-serving misery porn like 2013's "That Wasn't Me." Instead, it's commanding piece of work against prejudice and persecution. It's refreshing to see a movie about Islamic terrorism that intentionally points out that extremist like Al-Shabaab are a minority. Watching the bus driver and passengers stand up for their fellow humans - a Muslim woman quickly placing the Christian in a burka, the driver questioning the attackers and pointing out that the Q'uran does not stand for thsi kind of violence - is genuinely touching. "Watu Wote" is well directed, full of tense direction and strong performances. It sets up the story, makes it important point, and then wraps up quickly. [7/10]

Thursday, March 1, 2018

OSCARS 2018: All the Money in the World (2017)

From the moment it was announced, “All the Money in the World” was an Oscar contender. Ridley Scott's movies don't always attract award attention but, when he's on-the-ball, they tend to. Adapting a stranger-than-fiction true story, about crime and money and fame, certainly seemed to bring out the best of him. Yet “All the Money in the World” ended up drawing attention for entirely different reasons. You know the story. Thanks to Kevin Spacey's public shaming as a huge creep, Ridley Scott made the drastic decision to recast Spacey with Christopher Plummer and perform extensive reshoots, just a few weeks before the film's release date. He pulled it off, because Scott is a fantastic lunatic, and Plummer got nominated. This incident will likely define “All the Money in the World's” place cinematic history so... Is the movie worth considering beyond that?

You may be familiar with the real story. J. Paul Getty brought the oil industry to the Middle East and made himself the richest private citizen in the world, a billionaire in the 1950s. At one point, Getty was close to his son, John Paul Jr., and his grandson, John Paul III. However, after his son fell into drug addiction, and his wife passed up a massive divorce settlement in return for sole custody of their son, J. Paul Getty would largely disown them. In 1973, while in Italy, John Paul Getty III is kidnapped by a circle of professional criminals. They demand 17 million in ransom money. Due to passing on the settlement, mom Gail does not have this kind of cash. She's forced to ask Getty for the money. The billionaire, however, refuses to pay. Tense negotiations ensue.

I'm happy to say “All the Money in the World” is pretty good! It's a well-balanced movie all about power plays. Getty refuses to pay his grandson's ransom because he doesn't want all his grandkids to become targets of ransom. What follows is a back-and-forth between Gail, Getty, and intermediate Fletcher Chase. Gail will demand one thing, Chase will take the demand back to Getty, and he'll inevitably deny it. Meanwhile, the criminals who have kidnapped John Paul are pulling their own power plays. The boy is traded between petty crooks and organized mobsters, who try methods both subtle and brutal. Gail, finally, has to try her own schemes to save her son, eventually realizing shame is her greatest weapon. It's an interesting dynamic, the powerful and the powerless jockeying for control.

If there's one lesson to take away form “All the Money in the World,” it's that rich people are really fucking petty. The film paints Getty's refusal to pay the ransom, and how that plays out, as one long excuse to get back at Gail. When she foregoes a settlement in favor of simply taking her son back, the billionaire is insulted. He sees his grandson's imperiled life as a way to punish his former daughter-in-law. Furthermore, Getty is exceedingly frugal for the richest man in the world. He hordes priceless paintings, sculptures, and historical artifacts. Yet he insists on doing his own laundry, instead of paying a cleaning service. Getty seemingly thinks only of money, actually saying his fortune is unavailable due to the shifts in the market at one point. It's true now as it was in 1973: Nobody gets rich by giving their money away. And people who think like that are usually assholes.

“All the Money in the World” is almost a movie split in two. While one half focuses on the negotiations with the eldest Getty, the other details on the youngest Getty's kidnapping. This part of the film functions like an especially grim thriller. John is put through hell. He's kidnapped, chained up, and threatened. He witnesses one of his kidnappers getting shot right in front of him. His health deteriorates and he's traded back and forth by various criminals. You really feel sorry for the kid, played well by the ironically named Charlie Plummer. This part of the film peaks with several key scenes. Getty nearly escapes, running to a near-by home, before his captors catch up with him. Even after his ransom is paid, he feels like he has to run. Yet the grim highlight of “All the Money in the World” is when John Paul's ear is cut off, a grisly sight that Ridley Scott exploits for all its intense power.

At first, I thought Christopher Plummer got an Oscar nomination for this, strictly to acknowledge the crazy feat of pulling off those reshoots so quickly. That was likely a factor but Plummer is genuinely great here. He exudes a sense of power, biting into every petty line with a delightful glee. The other performances in the film are impressive, if somewhat mannered. Watching Michelle Williams confront this frightening man, eventually defeating him, is entertaining. Williams is very good, even if she puts on an odd accent. Mark Wahlberg, as Fletcher, is pretty good. However, it's hard for Wahlberg to let go off his typical macho bluster, which doesn't always work for the movie. When Fletcher finally confronts J. Paul Getty, this becomes especially obvious.

It's hard to say where “All the Money in the World” will fall within Ridley Scott's overall career. He's made so many films and continues to work insanely hard, despite now being in his eighties. He uses an odd color-coding in the movie, an overall green color that is slightly off-putting. However, while perhaps a bit minor, “All the Money in the World” is a real solid one. The performances are strong, Plummer especially. The script unfolds in a satisfying manner. The true story is related in an interesting way. Oscar worthy? Who's to say? But it's certainly worth a watch or two. [7/10]

OSCARS 2018: Logan (2017)

It's rather astonishing that “Logan” exists at all. Eighteen years ago, a movie about the X-Men – one of comics' most popular superhero teams – was a risky proposition. Only after those films became record-breaking successes, ushering in the modern age of superhero movies, was Wolverine granted two (rather mediocre) spin-off adventures. Only after superheroes became the defining blockbuster style of our time did Fox decide to make an R-rated X-Men movie. And only after “Deadpool” was also a huge hit did they dare to give Wolverine the same leeway. That's a lot of variables. Yet “Logan” did get made, becoming a commercial success and a huge critical hit. Now the film is nominated for an Oscar, during a time when the Academy is still reluctant to nominate superhero movies for anything.

In the near future, America has become a mini-dystopia, where the rich are richer, the poor are poorer, corporations and the military run unchecked, and border walls surround the country. The X-Men are dead. Mutants are practically extinct. The only surviving members of the team are Logan, formally known as Wolverine, and Professor X. Logan is slowly being poisoned by the adamentium that coats his skeleton, his healing factor getting weaker every day. Charles Xavier's hyper-telepathic mind is falling to dementia. Into this enters Laura, a genetically engineered female clone of Wolverine. Logan is talked into rescuing the girl, pursued by the ruthless corporation that created her, taking her and Xavier on a cross-country trip to a fabled mutant sanctuary.

Making an R-rated Wolverine movie didn't just allow us to finally see the famous mutant use his signature claws (and his favorite swear word) without hasty censoring or clever editing. James Mangold's film has the “X-Men” franchise reaching for previously unseen ambitions. Freed from regular continuity, Mangold can get as dark as he wants. Presumably every other X-Men has been violently killed off-screen. These iconic characters, gods among regular men, are reduced to a very sad state indeed. Charles Xavier is a ranting mental patient who needs help going to the bathroom. Logan is sick, loosing his healing factor, and has erectile dysfunction of the claws. Seeing such exaggerated characters in such a pathetic, humanized condition is startling and powerful. “Logan” features the genre's excesses, like cyborgs, silly code names, and evil clones. It's also a surprisingly sad, melancholic movie, dealing with issues of obsolescence, mortality, and the cost of heroics. It's not just an entry in a big budget, popcorn muncher franchise. It's a serious motion picture about serious things, as well as sci-fi superheroes having crazy adventures.

Mangold is upfront about his influence. “Shane” is featured in the movie and quoted extensively. By setting the movie around Texas and the America mid-west, the western element becomes obvious. Though partially inspired by Mark Millar's “Old Man Logan” – thankfully minus the inbred hillbilly hulk clan – the movie draws more from something like “Unforgiven.” Logan is a mutant at the end of his rope. He's a suicidal alcoholic, torn apart by pain both physical and mental. He has many, many regrets and the weight of them is crushing. Laura isn't just a daughter of sorts, she's a chance for Logan to make a stand for something again, after too many years of running away and hiding. It's a story of a cynic, somewhat reluctantly, using the only thing he has to make one last difference.

Like I said, the novelty of seeing a Wolverine that can actually tear people apart and drop plenty of fuck-bombs isn't the only reason for “Logan” to exist. Yet it's certainly a contributing factor. The action in “Logan” is visceral and brutal. Logan shoves his claws through heads, faces, eyes, arms, and legs. Limbs are cleaved away. Heads are chopped off. Bodies are blown apart by bullets and buckshot. Logan goes into a full-on berserker rage at the end, decimating an army with his claws. It's pretty fucking gnarly. Mangold's film orchestrates some impressive action in general. A car chase, which takes place around a fence and a roaring train, is easily a stand-out sequence. X-23's acrobatic stunts also prove impressive. Mangold's direction is, in general, excellent. The black-and-white “Noir” version on the Blu-Ray further draws attention to how measured each image in the movie is.

The real heart of “Logan” resides in the trio of fantastic performances at its center. Hugh Jackman has played this character for nearly two decades. Here, he brings an incredible weight to the part. His weary, worn-out, but still driven by a sense of personal duty. It's by-far Jackman's best performance to date. Patrick Stewart, as a senile Professor X, is allowed to shed his ever-present gravitas. Instead, he gets to play an ailing old man, uncertain of his own body and mind but allowed to appreciate the finer things he still has. A dinner scene with Logan and a kindly family is an absolute delight. Lastly, newcomer Dafne Keen plays Laura, otherwise known as X-23. Keen is mostly silent, instead screaming with an animal fury. Amusingly, the film still allows this pint-sized killing machine to be a little girl, showing an affection for horses and gaudy sunglasses. Keen shows an incredible power in her tiny frame. The interplay between this trio grounds “Logan” further, truly making the audience care.

Considering Disney's recent buy-out of 20th Century Fox and the uncertain future of their “X-Men” films, “Logan” couldn't have come at a better time. It puts a definitive end on this chapter of the characters' history. (Though I certainly hope that rumored X-23 solo movie materializes.) Considering franchises are rarely allowed to truly end, that in-and-of-itself is an impressive feat. Working fantastically as a stand alone film, it also shows the places the superhero genre can be pushed by a daring filmmaker. It's a bloody film in its violence that's also raw in its emotions, bringing Wolverine's story to a suitably epic conclusion. [9/10]