Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, April 18, 2019

Director Report Card: Joe Dante (1987) Part Two

8. Amazon Women on the Moon

Let's talk about the sketch comedy movie. The basic premise makes a certain degree of sense. Most comedies only have so many good jokes, so deciding to build a whole movie around a specific collection of jokes isn't a bad idea. If the enduring popularity of “Saturday Night Live” is any indication, sketch comedy shows can certainly be long-running success. While more recent examples, like “Movie 43” or the films of Vince Offer, have been deeply dire, the sketch comedy movie briefly had a moment in the seventies and eighties. “And Know for Something Completely Different” and “Everything You Wanted About Sex*” were probably the popular progenitors here. They proceeded cult faves like “The Groove Tube” and “The Kentucky Fried Movie,” oddities like “Mr. Mike's Mondo Video” and “Elephant Parts,” and duds like “Coming Attractions” and “Can I Do It 'Till I Need Glasses?

“The Kentucky Fried Movie” is especially notable. It would largely launch the careers of John Landis and the Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker team, in addition to being pretty damn funny. A decade after that film's release, Landis would be involved with a sequels of sorts. Instead of directing the follow-up single-handedly, Landis was but one filmmaker invited along, which included Joe Dante. While “Kentucky Fried Movie” largely presented its sketches as trailers and news broadcasts proceeding a longer feature, “Amazon Women on the Moon” is ostensibly composed of commercials surrounding a late-night showing of an old sci-fi movie. The connection between the two film is more evident in the German titles, where the “Kentucky Fried Movie” is known as “Hamburger Movie Sandwich” and “Amazon Women” is called “Cheeseburger Movie Sandwich.”

While “Kentucky Fried Movie” was largely united by Landis' particular style, “Amazon Women on the Moon” is more uneven. Of the five directors who worked on the film's various segment, each one shows their own comedic style. Landis' bits are largely examples of free-floating absurdity. Carl Gottlieb, a comedy writer who previously directed “Caveman,” builds his segments around one solid joke and runs with it. Robert K. Weiss, a prolific producer who directed a number of early Weird Al music videos, was the likely driving force behind the film. His skits are focused on slavishly replicating the chosen targets of his parody. Joe Dante seems to fuse these approaches, being more committed to the TV premise but not letting it get in the way of a good joke. And then actor Peter Horton, star of then-popular television drama “Thirtysomething,” directed one segment for some reason.

Of these approaches, I think Landis' is probably the funniest. The film gets some of its biggest laughs when it just decides to do something silly. You can see this in its opening segment. After a hilariously dry opening credits, which pairs exciting music with mundane footage of a guy getting off a plane and driving home, we are treated to “Mondo Condo.” It's a delicious bit of slapstick, devoted to seemingly every item in Arsenio Hall's condo attempting to kill him. The scene makes great use of Hall's ability to act increasingly flustered and pissed-off, by more and more ridiculous inconveniences. I also like the hospital-set sketch, where Michelle Pfeffier and Peter Horton are vexed by an oddball doctor played by Griffin Dunne.

Further connecting “Amazon Women on the Moon” with “Kentucky Fried Movie” are Landis' other segments. “Blacks Without Soul,” a hilarious mock-infomercial featuring a perfectly dry B.B. King and a nicely hammy David Alan Grier, would've fit right in with the previous sketch film. The film's climatic bit, “Video Date,” features Marc “Jimmy Olsen” McClure renting an interactive porno tape. This seems to invert the final segment in “Kentucky Fried Movie,” where people on the TV started to react to a pair of horny people watching them. Both segments are pretty damn funny, nicely escalating in goofiness, so I don't mind Landis stealing from himself a bit.

Carl Gottlieb's segments feel the most like the ones that would be featured on an actual sketch comedy show. They are good jokes that deliver their punchlines quickly enough, making the audience giggle without overstaying their welcomes. Like “Pethouse Video,” which extends one of those “behind-the-scenes” porno tapes to their absurdly logical conclusion. Or “Art Sale,” a goofy mock-commercial that would've been a solid “SNL” skit. My favorite of Gottlieb's sequences, and maybe my favorite scene in the whole movie, is “Son of the Invisible Man.” Perfectly capturing the look and feel of vintage Universal Monster movies, it takes a pretty funny central conceit, runs with it to maximum humor, and then ends. (In addition to featuring an amusing Ed Begley Jr. performance)

That attention to period details is evident in many of the film's segments. Look at the titular movie-within-the-movie. Robert K. Weiss presents “Amazon Women on the Moon” as a lost sci-fi B-movie from the fifties. The cheesy special effects, corny characters, goofy plotting, and even the color grading perfectly captures the B-movies of that time. Weiss includes plenty of in-jokes for genre fans. Vasquez Rock and a slurpasaur provide punchlines, while Forest J. Ackerman has a cameo. (In addition to the title and premise being inspired by “Cat-Women on the Moon.”) Instead of being presented all at once, like “Kentucky Fried Movies'” “A Fistful of Yen,” the titular segment is interspersed throughout “Amazon Women on the Moon.”

Weiss is so focused on perfectly recreating the subjects of his satire that he often seems to forget actual jokes. While the “Amazon Women on the Moon” bits nicely capture their chosen topic, they are fairly light on laughs. Most of the attempts at humor are ironically detached jabs at the quality of the fake-movie, either its not-so-special effects or the lack of accuracy of its future predictions. One of Weiss' other scenes, “First Lady of the Evening,” is a commercial for a tawdry, “The Happy Hooker”-style paperback that is largely indistinguishable from the real thing. Weiss' actual attempts at jokes, like a fake commercial that mashes up pate and silly putty, or an extended bit about an old man getting sucked into a TV, are painfully flat and unfunny.

Weiss' funniest sequence is the one that isn't a specific parody of anything in particular. “Titan Man” is about a teenage boy eager to get to home base with his girlfriend. His attempts to purchase some condoms is increasingly inconvenienced by an unexpected event. The sketch functions much more like one of Carl Gottlieb's bits. It takes a decently funny idea – the embarrassing teenage ritual of buying condoms for the first time – and maximizes that embarrassment. It's one of the few times the movie really got a big laugh out of me.

Some of the other big laughs in the film belong to Joe Dante's scenes. Like Weiss, Dante knows the material he is spoofing in a very intimate way. The mid-credits segment, “Reckless Youth” is a breathless and pitch perfect parody of fifties V.D. scare-flicks. Yet Joe actually remembers to include jokes in his recreation. This is most evident in “Bullshit or Not,” a parody of the old “Ripley's Believe It or Not” TV show. (Henry Silva rather perfectly steps into Jack Palance's shoes.) There's exactly one joke to scene, a big visual gag, but, boy, is it a whopper that reduced me to giggles for the entirety of its run time.

Unlike Landis, who more-or-less ignores the late night television gimmick, Dante enjoys spoofing old TV tropes in a nicely funny way. “Hairlooming” is a very silly parody of commercials for baldness treatments. “Critics' Corner” amusingly combines a Siskel and Ebert style review show with a disaffected man's life. This leads to another one of the film's highlight, where a funeral is combined with a vintage style Frier's Club roast. The contrast between the tacky and lame jokes with the somberness of the setting are made clear in the repeated shots of Rip Taylor tossing confetti onto the unsmiling dead body.

Peter Horton starred in the “Hospital” scene and it's easy to imagine him using that as leverage to get to direct one of the film's sketches. His sole contribution if called “Two I.D.s” and stars Rosanna Arquette and Steve Guttenberg. It's a decently funny idea, in which a woman has her date's complete romantic and sexual history faxed to her before she agrees to leave with him. The segment is at least forward-thinking enough to make the philandering man the butt of the joke here. However, the central joke is not quite fleshed-out enough to support even a short that runs a few minutes. Though Arquette and Guttenberg's performances are decently funny.

”Amazon Women on the Moon” would not find much of an audience in theaters. However, it would attract a decent sized fan following thanks to video rentals and countless television screenings. As with most multi-director comedy anthologies, the film is highly uneven. There's at least three genuinely hilarious segments, a few mildly funny ones, and a couple of outright duds. Looking at a list of who directed what, it's fairly evident that Weiss didn't have the grip on comedy that Landis, Dante, or Gottlieb did. Even their scenes feel more like talented filmmakers screwing around than anything else. Yet, you know, I laughed, so I guess “Amazon Women on the Moon” was worth the 89 minutes it took me to watch it. [Grade: B-]

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