Saturday, February 27, 2016

Stubs - The Mouse That Roared

The Mouse That Roared (1959) Starring: Peter Sellers, Jean Seberg, William Hartnell Directed by Jack Arnold.  Screenplay by Roger MacDougall, Stanley Mann. Based on the novel, “The Mouse That Roared” by Leonard Wibberley. Produced by Walter Shenson. Run Time: 83 minutes. United Kingdom Color. Comedy

Inspiration comes from many sources. The inspiration for the book The Mouse That Roared came from the treaty between the United States and Japan that ended World War II. Several years later, Los Angeles Times editorial writer Leonard Wibberley wrote a satirical editorial about the treaty in which he mused that Japan was awarded so much aid for losing the war that perhaps it was better for them to lose than win.

Not wanting to let a good idea go to waste, Wibberley expanded his into a serialized novel about the tiny Duchy of Grand Fenwick declaring war on the U.S. in order to lose and reap the benefits. The story appeared in six issues of the Saturday Evening Post from December 25, 1954 to January 29, 1955 under the title “The Day New York Was Invaded”. In February, 1955, it was published as a novel as The Mouse That Roared. The book was later published in the UK under the title The Wrath of Grapes, a takeoff on John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath.

Walter Shenson was working as Columbia Picture’s head of publicity in the UK in the late 1950’s. Actor Tyrone Power gave Shenson a copy of the book and he was so impressed that he bought the film rights, quit his job and became a film producer.

Peter Sellers was not a household name in the US when he was cast in the film. Well known in England, Sellers had been on the Goon Shows radio programme for most of the 1950s. He had also been appearing in movies since 1950’s The Black Rose, in which he dubbed the voice of Lu Chung. The best known of his early films may be The Ladykillers (1955) opposite Alec Guiness and Herbert Lom.

The film was shot at the Shepperton Studios in London between October 27 and December 22, 1958. The World premiere was in Geneva, Switzerland on May 23, 1959, but the film didn’t open in London until July 17, 1959 and in New York until October 26, 1959. It was released through Columbia Pictures, Shenson’s former studio.

The Mouse That Roared begins with the opening credits. Miss Columbia, the studio’s trademark, is chased off her pedestal, frightened by a mouse that is under her gown.

Miss Columbia flees the opening credits.

We are informed through narration about the smallest country in the world, the Duchy of Grand Fenwick, the only English-speaking country on the European continent. Ruled by the popular Duchess Gloriana XII (Peter Sellers), a descendent of the founder of the country, the main source of money is the export of a particular wine to the U.S. We are introduced to Count Rupert Mountjoy (Peter Seller), the country’s Prime Minister and to Tully Bascome (Peter Sellers) leading the country’s Army through drills with a bow and arrow. The narrator acknowledges the resemblance making reference to the fact that the founding father of Fenwick was truly the father of his country.

But the country is about to go bankrupt when a California winery markets a similar tasting and similarly named wine of their own. The country’s protests to the U.S. have gone ignored. Facing insolvency, the country’s Prime Minister, Count Rupert Mountjoy, has a rather desperate sounding plan, declare war on the United States, then recognized as the most powerful nation on earth.

The Duchess Gloriana (Peter Sellers) watches as Prime Minister Rupert Mountjoy (Peter Sellers)
announces his idea to save the Duchy of Grand Fenwick by declaring war on the United States. 

While Mountjoy doesn’t mention it, his idea is based on how the U.S. treated Japan after World War II. He figures that as soon as the U.S. defeats the Duchy, they will pour money into the country. With the support of opposition leader Benter (Leo McKern) and the Duchess, Mountjoy sends a declaration of war to the U.S., but once again it is ignored.

Tully Bascome (Peter Sellers) reluctantly accepts his appointment to lead the Army.

He then appoints Tully Bascome, the country’s forest ranger as well as field marshal, to lead 20 volunteers from the country’s army, which still utilizes the long bow as its primary weapon to invade. Tully is not thrilled by the appointment, rather wanting to stay behind in the forest. But with the help of Sergeant Will Buckley (William Hartnell), who had real experience in the British Army, Tully manages to recruit twenty reluctant soldiers and they board a dilapidated freighter in Marseilles bound for New York City.

Tully drills his troops aboard the ship on the way to invade New York City.

When they land in the harbor and dressed in the chain mail, the troops invade, but find the city deserted due to a city-wide air raid drill. Unopposed, the troops move through the city. Tully picks up a paper and reads about the drill, which was called as a reaction to the impending development by Dr. Alfred Kokintz (David Kossoff) of the most deadly weapon known to man, the Q bomb.

Dr. Alfred Kokintz (David Kossoff) and his daughter Helen
(Jean Seberg) decline to hide when the air raid sirens go off.

On his way to surrender, Tully takes a wrong turn and ends up at the New York Institute of Physics, where Kokintz and his daughter Helen (Jean Seberg) are putting the finishing touches on the football-shaped bomb. Despite their protests, Tully has the doctor, his daughter and the bomb taken hostage.

Reports circulate that New York is under attack from Martians, so General Snippet (MacDonald Parke) accompanied by New York City police officers are sent out by the U.S. Secretary of Defense (Austin Willis) to investigate. When the jeep they are travelling in is attacked by arrows and the men are taken prisoner. As quickly as they came, the invaders leave and set sail back to Marseilles.

General Snippet (MacDonald Parke) surrenders to Tully's men in New York City.

Back in Fenwick, the government is preparing to welcome their American conquerors.

Meanwhile, the Duchy prepares to greet their American conquerors.

Back in Washington, the Secretary of Defense is only then becoming aware of Fenwick’s Declaration of War and aware that the Q bomb is missing. After consulting with the Army, the decision is made to declare defeat and he is sent to Fenwick, the Secretary of State is apparently busy elsewhere, to negotiate surrender.

When Tully arrives back in country, his own country is not overjoyed by his apparent victory. As word spreads, nations from all over the world, including England, France, China and the USSR offer their support of Fenwick.

Mountjoy and Benter are not happy with the outcome and suggest that they return the bomb to the U.S. But the Duchess has other ideas and order the bomb held in the dungeon. Mountjoy and Benter resign their posts and Tully is appointed Prime Minister.

Still determined to return the bomb and lose the war, Mountjoy visits Helen and tells her he wants to send her and the bomb back and offers to facilitate her escape. Her father, Dr. Kokintz, has caught the eye of the Duchess and she is busy serenading him on her harpsicord. Mountjoy and the now freed Snippet retrieve the bomb from the dungeon.

Montjoy, with the leader of the leader of the opposition (Leo
McKern) offer to facilitate the Americans' escape.

While she’s waiting for Mountjoy to return, Helen decides to take a shower. That is when Tully decides to visit her and the two get into a heated argument and which time he realizes he’s fallen in love with her. But when he returns to testify his love, Helen and Mountjoy escape out the back window and to the Duchess’ antique roadster where Snippet and the police officers are already waiting.

Before escaping, Helen decides to take a shower.

As they drive off with the bomb, the story is interrupted by footage of a nuclear explosion. The narrator explains that this is not the end of the film, but that the footage was included to "put audiences in the mood." The action then continues as "Tully" runs after the car on foot.

Meanwhile, the diplomats, stuck at the border, are playing a Monopoly-like board game called Diplomacy.

When the Duchess’ car sputters up the hill, Snippet, who is carrying the Q bomb, orders everyone else out to push. But after they get it over the hill, there is no one left to steer the car and it crashes into a haystack. There is a scramble for the Q bomb, which Snippet punts when it starts to emit warning noises. Tully ends up with it after it’s tossed around between the diplomats.

Now with the bomb firmly in Fenwick’s hands, Tully is ready to negotiate the U.S. surrender. In addition to the million dollar demand, which the U.S. raises to a billion, Fenwick demands the removal of the Enwick wine from the U.S. market. But the sticking point is the Q bomb, which Fenwick does not plan on returning. They plan to use their leverage with the bomb to force a worldwide disarmament. The U.S. acquiesces allowing Fenwick to keep the bomb.

On behalf of the U.S., the Secretary of Defense (Austin Willis) surrenders to Fenwick.

Dr. Kokintz, who plans to stay in Fenwick to develop a new chewing gum, accompanies Tully and Helen, who are now engaged to be married, down to the dungeon to disarm the bomb. It is only when Kokintz sneezes and drops the bomb that they discover it is a dud. The three agree to keep the secret to themselves.

The Q Bomb turns out to be a dud.

The film ends with the written proclamation: "The end. We Hope” after which Miss Columbia then climbs back onto her pedestal. 

The movie, like the book, makes a political statement, not about how the U.S. treats enemies of war, but about the then current state of the world politics post World War II. The U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were involved in the infamous Cold War. While everyone talked disarmament, both sides increased their nuclear stockpiles and invented new and more powerful bombs. Perhaps it would have taken a third-party with the world’s most destructive weapon to bring both sides to the table. The message is a little heavy-handed, but it is timely given the context in which the film was released. The film's message may explain why the premiere took place in Geneva Switzerland for a group of diplomats.

There are a few changes made from the book to the film. Because Peter Sellers plays three parts, some accommodations had to be made. The Duchess in the book is more a young Queen Elizabeth, but Sellers plays her more as an older Queen Victoria. There are supposedly two ingenues in the book, but only one in the film. And finally, only Dr. Kokintz finds out the bomb is a dud in the novel, in the film he is with Tully and his daughter Helen.

Jean Seberg doesn’t really have that much to do in the film. She is supposed to be the pretty daughter of Dr. Kokintz and she is definitely that. But her other characteristics, her scientific smarts and her loyalty to country take a backseat to the improbable love that develops between her and Tully, a man she spends most of the film hating.

Jean Seberg plays Dr. Kokintz's daughter Helen in The Mouse That Roared.

Peter Sellers is no doubt the star of the film, as he plays three characters. This was not the first time he would play multiple characters, nor would it be the last. He was a very talented, though troubled, actor and while he doesn’t really disappear into character, he does infuse each with a unique personality.

It is clear that Peter Sellers is the star of The Mouse That Roared.

But despite Sellers' presence, and even though he was hailed in a Life magazine review of the film as "the funniest actor England has sent to America since Alec Guinness” (and that statement may give some of you pause), the movie is not really all that funny to watch now. There are no really laugh out loud moments here, no really quotable lines nor remember when moments to recall. This is a comedy that does not deliver on that front.

That is not to say the film wasn’t successful enough when it was released to spawn a sequel, based on another one of Wibberley’s novels, The Mouse on the Moon (1963). (Irish by birth, Wibberley would publish over 100 books.) While Sellers would not return, he did recommend director Richard Lester to producer Walter Shenson. Sellers and Lester had previously worked together, most famously on the short The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (1960). Lester and Shenson’s next two films together starred another British import to America, The Beatles; A HardDay’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965).

The question is should you watch this movie? I’d have to give The Mouse That Roared only a tepid recommendation. If you’re a Peter Sellers fan, which is the reason I wanted to watch it, then you may enjoy seeing it because of him. But he is really not at his funniest or most memorable here. If you’re looking for something truly funny from Sellers’ early oeuvre, I’d recommend The Pink Panther (1963). And If you like Sellers’ comedy to come with a strong anti-war anti-nuke message, then you would be better off with Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964).

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Stubs – Duck Soup (1933)

Duck Soup (1933)  Starring Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx, Zeppo Marx, Margaret Dumont, Louis Calhern,  Raquel Torres, Edgar Kennedy. Directed by Leo McCarey. Screenplay by Bert Kalmar,  Harry Ruby with additional dialogue by Arthur Sheekman and Nat Perrin. Produced by Herman J. Mankiewicz (uncredited). 68 minutes. USA. Black and White. Comedy, Musical.

Following the success of Horse Feathers (1932), Paramount, the Marx Brothers' studio, wanted to rush out another film. However, the Marx Brothers had other plans. Paramount was going through some turbulent times in the early 1930s and was on the verge of bankruptcy. The Brothers felt that the studio owed them money and might never be able to pay them, so they threatened to the studio.

Their plans were to form their own production company, Marx Bros. Inc., with Sam H. Harris. The musical Of Thee I Sing with a book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, lyrics by Ira Gershwin and music by George Gershwin was to be their first production. But the Marx Brothers patched things up with Paramount and those plans were scrapped.

Returning to complete their contractual obligations, the Marx Brothers and Paramount began work on what would end up being their last film for the studio and the last film with all four brothers. Arthur Sheekman, Harry Ruby, and Bert Kalmar began work on the screenplay in October, 1932, then called Firecrackers and later called Cracked Ice. Several other writers are credited, or rather not credited, for making contributions to the script, including Nat Perrin, Arthur Sheekman, Norman Krasna, Grover Jones and Glenn Mitchell.

By January 1933, a second draft was submitted to Paramount, which announced that production of what was called Grasshoppers would begin on February 15th. Filming was later set back to February 20th. But filming would not get underway until June. The screenplay was not really completed until July and by then had picked up gags and routines from Groucho and Chico’s popular radio show Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel, which lead to Perrin and Sheekman receiving additional dialogue credits.

It was reportedly the director, Leo McCarey, who came up with the film’s title, borrowing it from a film he had made with Laurel and Hardy in 1927. The new title fit in with the current run of Marx Brothers films: Animal Crackers (1930), Monkey Business (1931) and Horse Feathers. The term Duck Soup refers to something that’s easy to do. To duck something also means to avoid it. Groucho muddied the water about the meaning of the title, when in later life he was asked about the title to which he replied: “Take two turkeys, one goose, four cabbages, but no duck, and mix them together. After one taste, you'll duck soup for the rest of your life."

Duck Soup takes place in the imaginary country of Freedonia, which is in desperate straits financially. The country turns to its wealthiest citizen, the widow Mrs. Gloria Teasdale (Margaret Dumont), for a $20 million loan. She has already lent the country a great deal of money and agrees to make the loan, but only if they appoint Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) as the head of the country.

Firefly is to be introduced at a large ball, to which Ambassador Trentino (Louis Calhern) from neighboring Sylvania has been invited. He wants nothing more than to have his country take over Freedonia. He plots with Vera Marcal (Raquel Torres), a dancer, to help him. He thinks the best avenue is to marry Mrs. Teasdale, but he knows Firefly is a rival for her affections.

Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) sneaks into his own introduction ceremony.

Firefly’s secretary, Bob Roland (Zeppo Marx), assures the gathered that Firefly will appear “When The Clock On The Wall Strikes 10." But even after the introductory heraldry horns sound, there is no Firefly. Turns out he’s overslept and makes his entrance down a fireman’s pole. He takes a place at the end of the honor guard before Mrs. Teasdale notices him. Firefly then maps out how he plans to govern in "Just Wait 'Til I Get Through With It":

Rufus T. Firefly: [singing] If any form of pleasure is exhibited, report to me and it will be prohibited! I'll put my foot down, so shall it be... this is the land of the free! The last man nearly ruined this place he didn't know what to do with it. If you think this country's bad off now, just wait till I get through with it! The country's taxes must be fixed, and I know what to do with it. If you think you're paying too much now, just wait till I get through with it!

Mrs. Teasdale handles the introductions between Trentino and Firefly, but things don’t go well. Firefly already has it worked out in his head that Trentino will refuse to shake his hand and is already insulted.

Mrs, Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) handles the introductions between Firefly
and Ambassador Trentino (Louis Calhern) of neighboring Sylvania.

Firefly is called away to go to see congress and there is a call for his car, but it turns out to be a motorcycle with a sidecar. Pinky (Harpo Marx) is the driver, but when Firefly gets in, the motorcycle pulls away and leaves the sidecar behind.

The President's car is really only a sidecar to a motorcycle driven by Pinky (Harpo).

Meanwhile, Trentino hires two spies, Chicolini (Chico Marx) and Pinky, to gather information on Firefly, but their shadowing skills need work:

            Ambassador Trentino: Now will you tell me what happened on Saturday?
Chicolini: I'm glad you ask me. We follow this man down to a roadhouse, and at this roadhouse he meet a married lady.
Ambassador Trentino: A married lady?
Chicolini: Yeah, I think it was his wife.
Ambassador Trentino: Firefly has no wife!
Chicolini: No?
Ambassador Trentino: No!
Chicolini: Then you know what I think, boss?
Ambassador Trentino: What?
Chicolini: I think-a we follow the wrong man.

Ambassador Trentino meets with his spies: Chicolini (Chico)
and Pinky. Harpo is lighting his cigar with a blow torch.

Chicolini and Pinky take their spying to the streets outside the President’s office. Chicolini pretends to be a roasted peanut vendor. Next to them is another street vendor (Edgar Kennedy) and during the course of the movie, the three of them will get into it. There is a lot of play with their different hats and at one time Harpo puts his feet in the vendor’s lemonade. Firefly sees Chicolini outside his window and appoints him to be his Secretary of War.

They may be undercover, but they are never not outrageous.
Here Harpo puts his feet in the lemonade vendor's product.

Meanwhile, Roland suspects Trentino’s motives and encourages Firefly to create an incident that will get him thrown out of the country. But the plan sort of backfires; Firefly and Trentino exchange insults, but Firefly slaps Trentino rather than the other way around. Now the two countries stand on the brink of war.

Firefly slaps Trentino while Mrs. Teasdale looks on. War is on!

The action moves to Mrs. Teasdale’s house. Trentino learns that the Freedonia’s war plans are in her safe and orders Chicolini and Pinky to steal them. Firefly, at Mrs. Teasdale's invitation, is also staying there and both Chicolini and Pinky, once they manage to gain entrance, dress up like him so they can move around the house without drawing suspicion.

When Firefly runs into Pinky, he thinks he’s seeing his reflection in a full-length mirror. What follows is probably the most famous scene in the film. Trying to be sure, Firefly prances in front of the camera, which Pinky matches to near perfection, even if the move began out of his sight. There are a couple of surreal moments, as when the two men change sides and Firefly picks up and hands back to Pinky a hat he’s dropped. (The idea of a mirror scene did not originate with this movie, but instead dates back to a Max Linder film, Seven Years Bad Luck (1921), but this is the most famous version). Unfortunately for the spies, Chicolini, also dressed like Firefly, enters the fray and is captured.

Shots from one of the most famous film routines the Marx Brothers ever performed.

Chicolini is put on trial for treason. Firefly actually comes to his side, but before the trial is resolved, war is declared between Freedonia and Sylvania. This is the cause for a big production number, sequences of which Woody Allen would later use in his film Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). The musical talents of the four Marx brothers are highlighted during "This Country's Going To War" along with their irreverent sense of humor. This production number is significant since it was the only time in any of their films that all four Marx Brothers were featured in the same musical number.

Part of the "This Country's Going To War" number includes the
 four brothers: Zeppo, Chico, Harpo and Groucho playing banjos.

Pinky rides on horseback out into the countryside, sort of like a mute Paul Revere. He ends up in the lemonade vendor’s house with the man’s wife. In a scene that spoofed the production code, in that a man and a woman could not be in the same bed, the camera tracks across the bedroom floor, showing first a pair of women’s shoes, then a pair of men’s shoes and then four horseshoes. When the entire room is shown, Pinky and his horse are in one bed and the woman in the other. After a hard day, the lemonade vendor comes home and Pinky has to hide, ending up in the vendor’s bath.

For Edgar Kennedy's Vendor character, there is no escape from Harpo, not even his bathtub.

When the war starts, Chicolini starts out on the side of Sylvania, but quickly joins Pinky fighting for Freedonia.  Firefly is no military leader, so his orders to his troops are unorthodox at best. He is shown in a different uniform until the end of the film, including Union and Confederate uniforms from the Civil War, a British palace guard uniform, a Boy Scout Scoutmaster's uniform, and even a coonskin Davy Crockett cap.

Firefly goes through a number of costume changes during the War.

Even though Sylvanian troops led by Trentino invade Freedonia's headquarters, Trentino gets caught and trapped while climbing through the door and is pelted with vegetables and fruit until he surrenders. Overjoyed, Mrs. Teasdale, who is also there, stands in the corner singing “Hail Freedonia” until the Marx Brothers turn their attention from Trentino to her and pelt her instead.

The Marx Brothers turn their attention from Trentino and start to pelt Mrs. Teasdale to stop her singing.

The film opened on November 17, 1933, and there persists the thought that the film was a flop. In reality, it didn’t do as well as Horse Feathers but was still the sixth highest grossing film of the year. Reviews were also apparently mixed, with some thinking the political message of the film was preposterous and perhaps longed for less chaos on film during the Great Depression, during which the film was released. Years later, when asked about the film’s politics, Groucho replied, “We were just four Jews trying to get a laugh." In 1990 the United States Library of Congress selected Duck Soup for preservation in the National Film Registry, deeming it "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

In addition to the Marx Brothers and Margaret Dumont, which we’ve written about in other reviews, Duck Soup stars Louis Calhern, Raquel Torres and Edgar Kennedy. Calhern might be one of the last people you’d expect to see Groucho bantering with. Best known for his roles in such films as Notorious (1946) and The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Calhern began his film career in 1921, with his appearance in What’s Worth While? (1921). But Calhern’s talents were best displayed when he could be heard, so after only a couple of more films, he returned to the stage until after films learned to talk. He returned to films in The Road to Singapore (1931). He played character roles in Hollywood while continuing to play leading roles on stage.

Raquel Torres was considered a Latin beauty during her rather short Hollywood career. Born south of the border to a Mexican mother and a German father, she was about twenty when she began her career playing a Polynesian in White Shadows in the South Seas (1928) and retired from films seven years later in 1935, when she married businessman Stephen Ames. Duck Soup is her best remembered film.

Raquel Torres played Vera Marcal in Duck Soup.

Unlike Torres, Edgar Kennedy had a long film career, starting in 1911 and including over 500 films. One of the original Keystone Kops, Kennedy would work with the likes of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, Charley Chase, and the Our Gang. He is probably best remembered for his slow burn, an exasperated facial expression embellished by rubbing his hand over his bald head and across his face, in an attempt to hold his temper. We are treated to his signature move after Chico and Harpo get through with him.

Edgar Kennedy makes a good foil for Chico and Harpo. Here he loses
his hat, his dignity and his patience with their antics.

In this politically correct world, some have found Duck Soup to be racially offensive since during This Country’s Going to War, part of the number, "All God's Chillun Got Guns" uses the tune of old Negro spiritual "All God's Chillun Got Wings". Some critics had gone so far as to suggest that the number should be edited out of a recent DVD release of the film. Thankfully cooler heads prevailed, but the “controversy” brings up the issue of watching older films with a modern filter. I truly doubt the intention of using the number was to offend, but rather to entertain.

The use of a Negro spiritual during the "This Country's Going to War"
number, has been considered controversial by some modern viewers.

A lot of films from the 30s and 40s might have segments that might offend modern viewers, but if we go down that slippery slope and start to edit films so that they don’t offend anyone, where do we stop? Any film with a less than a good rendition of a spiritual? A bad depiction of a Black man? Slavery? There is no way that every film can be edited to please everyone. If we please the PC warrior then a film lover would be offended. It’s better to watch the film as it was meant to be seen and then talk about how opinions have changed since it was made, than to edit it down or not watch it at all.

Duck Soup is another example of the controlled chaos that is typical of the Marx Brothers’ Paramount movies. After this movie things would change. With their contract up, the Brothers left Paramount, but didn’t have a place to go. Zeppo left the act all together, going into business with another brother, Gummo, as Hollywood agents, building up a very successful practice. Groucho and Chico went on radio and there was even talk of going back to Broadway. But at a bridge game, Chico and Irving Thalberg talked about the possibility of taking the act to MGM, which they did. And things would be different from then on, with their films at that studio following a certain story structure. Gone were the anarchic films like Duck Soup.

And then there were three. After Duck Soup, the Marx Bros. became a trio (Harpo, Chico and Groucho).

It’s hard to have a favorite Marx Brothers film, there are so many good ones and there is something to like about each of them, especially these early ones. Duck Soup, like the other films they made at Paramount, deserves to be seen. It combines what’s best about all of their movies: the snappy fast-paced dialogue, their physical humor and their musical talent. Add to that the anarchy that pervades all of their films and you have a winner.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Deadpool (Film)

As I’ve not so subtly indicated before on this blog, Deadpool, aka the Merc with a Mouth, is my favorite Marvel character to the point where I’m looking at a framed image as I type this. However, I will say now that I will not pretend to be an expert on the character, as I have yet to read all of his material. But I am willing to learn more and have been working on reading more of the early material by Joe Kelly, as well as more of the side content and mini-series. With that out of the way, it’s time to talk about the most unique “superhero” movie yet, Deadpool.

Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) is a mercenary who has fallen in love with a woman named Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). Just as he’s proposed to her, however, he finds out the hard way that he has terminal cancer and agrees to go through Weapon X testing in the hopes of curing his condition. After going through the process, he has instead awakened a latent mutation which allows him to regenerate his cells. He survives an explosion of the testing facility and dedicates himself to hunting down Ajax (Ed Skrein), the mutant who put him through the Weapon X process, so he can remove the hideous scars covering his body and live happily with Vanessa. At the same time, the mutants known as Colossus (Stefan Kapičić) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) are trying to convince him to change his mercenary ways and put his skills to use as a member of the X-Men.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the movie is its troubled production. According to an interview with Ryan Reynolds, he had already been slated 11 years ago as the actor who would play Deadpool in a film appearance. After learning this, he read about the character, as well as several issues of the comic, and figured the character would be perfect for the basis of an entire movie. From that point on, he kept asking Fox to make a movie and they continually declined. However, he played Wade Wilson in X-Men Origins: Wolverine with the knowledge that it would be a cameo appearance. But last-minute decisions from a higher-up resulted in changes to the character of Deadpool in X-Men Origins, including the infamous decision to sew his mouth shut, which led to a negative reception of the character’s portrayal among fans. Eventually, the Deadpool movie entered production on and off for a few years, but still couldn’t get greenlit by Fox despite having a script fully written out. During this time, test footage from the film leaked onto the internet and was met with a positive response from viewers, which finally led to the Deadpool movie being greenlit by Fox.

Wade Wilson as he appears in X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

But that’s not all. While it was greenlit, the crew was given the fraction of the budget that would normally go to an X-Men movie, resulting in additional villains and action sequences getting axed; Reynolds has referred to the size of the budget as what would normally be a movie’s “cocaine budget.” Along with Reynolds becoming a Producer on the film, this budget came with the trade-off of the crew being given full creative control of the project. As a result, the crew got to make a “superhero” film with an R rating, which they felt allowed them to go all the way with the character of Deadpool and not pull any punches. In the end, the film has not only received positive reception from critics, but also broke box office records for an R-rated movie and has led to the planned sequel entering production.

The hardship put into making Deadpool a reality has definitely been worth it. The story, compared to many recent Marvel Studios releases, is simple and straightforward. Wade has a clear mission with a clear motivation and there aren’t really any side plots to distract from the main one. Not only is the script very tight, but so is the sense of humor. Though there are a couple places where the sexual humor went a little far (strictly by my own tastes; I won’t fault anyone for thinking differently), there’s plenty of fourth wall-breaking humor and many laugh-out-loud jokes and X-Men-related in-jokes to keep the viewer entertained. It’s rather amazing, really, that a movie like this could play the “superhero” genre straight and yet, quite appropriately, treat it like a huge joke. At the same time, there’s a romance element between Wade and Vanessa that was well-written and interconnected within the main story rather than a side event.

The easy to follow nature of the story extends to the action sequences, which contain excellent choreography and nothing that would really muddle them down. Deadpool’s skills with guns and katana swords are cool to watch, as are the abilities of the other mutants, especially Negasonic Teenage Warhead, who has a very non-standard ability when compared to the rest of the characters. I also have to give credit to the filmmakers for not feeling the need to level a city or a continent, or suck the Earth into a yellow vortex, and instead keeping the damage to within an abandoned junkyard.

The reason I’ve been putting “superhero” in quotes is because Deadpool, as he puts it, is super, but he’s no hero. Rather, he’s a mercenary from beginning to end and would rather kill than spare those in his way. Of course, he also has a good side, as he demonstrates unwillingness to kill innocents or those he doesn’t have a personal beef with. Ryan Reynolds was clearly born to play the role, as he plays the character in a way which perfectly demonstrates his love and respect of the material. At this point, it’s hard to imagine anyone better suited to play Deadpool and Reynolds has found a role that can fully show off his acting abilities.

Ryan Reynolds does a great job as Deadpool.

Morena Baccarin plays her role of Vanessa quite well. Though I’m aware Vanessa is a pre-existing character, I can’t really compare her movie depiction to the one in the comics. However, I can say that Vanessa and Wade had very good on-screen chemistry, which made their relationship believable given the setting. Baccarin is also very attractive herself, which compliments Vanessa’s personality nicely and creates a great love interest for Wade. I also have to give the filmmakers props for giving Vanessa a unique origin for a “superhero” love interest, as she starts out as a hooker with a heart of gold before developing a serious relationship.

Morena Baccarin does a great job as Vanessa.

It’s also quite refreshing to a have a villain in a “superhero” movie who has no redeeming qualities and is unquestionably evil. The movie is very to-the-point with Ajax and Ed Skrein pulls him off very well, which makes his comeuppance all the more satisfying.

Though minor characters, Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead are no less important. The relationship they build with Deadpool in their attempts to recruit him, as well as their contribution to the climactic fight scene, makes them very enjoyable to watch. Humor is also derived from the contrast between Deadpool’s psychotic personality and their clear alignment with the side of good. I also have to give credit to T. J. Miller as Weasel and Leslie Uggams as Blind Al; both characters are very humorous and the actors give great depictions of the characters from the comics.

Colossus (left) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (right) are good foils for Deadpool (center).

Compared with many other recent “superhero” flicks, Deadpool isn’t very special effects driven, though this is very likely due to the smaller budget. Despite this, whatever special effects exist are done excellently and even help contribute to some of the humor, such as a scene where Deadpool’s hand is regenerating and it’s briefly very small. Colossus, who is credited in the opening as “A CGI Character,” shows off exactly where a good amount of the budget went and is rendered in a way that he feels like he’s actually there. His movements have a weight to them and Deadpool learns the hard way that he certainly has mass. Other mutant abilities such as those of Negasonic Teenage Warhead or Angel Dust (Gina Carano) are also rendered very well, particularly since the latter mainly fights Colossus in the climax.

In the end, Deadpool is an excellent movie. A surprisingly good mix of action and romance along with refreshingly mature humor for a “superhero” movie makes for an unforgettable experience. Deadpool fans will surely love this, but I would also recommend it for those who want something different from Marvel and DC’s normal cinematic output. However, parents should be advised that Deadpool is rated R for a very good reason and should only consider taking their children if they feel they can handle very graphic or very adult content. This movie does not shy away from showing what you can’t find in the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the currently-being-attempted DC Cinematic Universe, which is part of what makes it so refreshing and fun.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Hail, Caesar! - Lots of Context, But Little Text

Hail, Caesar! (2016) Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Aiden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum. Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. Written by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. Produced by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner. Color. U.S.A. 106 minutes. Comedy

The 1950s saw Hollywood in turmoil. The arrival of television had forced it to make fare that audiences couldn’t find on the box in their living room. As a result, we see a rise in flashy Technicolor musicals and epic wide-screen biblical epics. At the same time, there was a rise in the industry of communism, as writers, like Dalton Trumbo, were attracted by its promise of a piece of the pie that studio executives, read moguls, were unwilling to share. And about this time, those moguls were starting to fall to a new breed of filmmaker, as the studio system was being replaced.

It is against this backdrop that the Coen brothers have set their new film Hail, Caesar! I felt a tenuous connection to the film, as we were both on the Warner Bros. lot in December 2014. I even took some photos showing the presence of the production, not knowing what it was all about. Add to that, my love for old Hollywood film and I was a ready-built audience.

Warner Bros. turned into Capitol Pictures.

The Coen brothers have previously used Hollywood as a backdrop, Barton Fink (1991). In that film, the studio system was in full bloom and a young New York playwright, the titular character played by John Turturro, gets caught up in it, when he is hired by Capitol Pictures to write scripts. While the film received a lot of critical attention, winning the prestigious Palme d'Or at the Cannes film festival, it failed to recoup its production costs when it hit theaters.

Josh Brolin's Eddie Mannix is more than a "fixer".

For Hail, Caesar! Capitol Pictures is once again the backdrop. Now it is run by Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), who has to spend most of his time keeping track of all the studio’s productions and the actors under his charge. But the Mannix character is an example of what is not quite right about Hail, Caesar! While Brolin does a fine acting job, his position in the film is systematic of what is wrong with it. We’re told, he’s a “fixer,” a nebulous position, but at the same time his responsibilities seem to be much more far reaching, including making casting choices, counseling with religious leaders on the studio’s bible epic already in production, making a daily call to the head office in New York, and other items that would fall into the inbox of the head of production. While I doubt Louis B. Mayer was as personally involved as Mannix is, he certainly would care about the same things Mannix does, down to the arranged dates of his actors for premieres.

Hail, Caesar! just doesn’t quite gel as well as it should. The production does a fine job of making a believable seeming studio, culled from location and stage shooting at Warner Bros., Sony and Universal, as well as Union Station and other locales. But like a studio set, there is nothing much more behind the façade. There is no big story here, just a lot of little ones that don’t come together to make a better whole.

Capitol Pictures is part Warner Bros.lot (above) and part other studios as well.

The acting, for the most part, is pretty good, but quite frankly none of the other characters seem to run true. Oh, you can see the types they’re playing, George Clooney’s Baird Whitlock is clearing a Kirk Douglas type; Scarlett Johansson is an Esther Williams type star, DeeAnna Moran; Channing Tatum is a Gene Kelly type as Burt Gurney; Tilda Swinton is both Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper, but the twist is that she’s twin sisters ala Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren (Dear Abby): Thora and Thessaly Thacker. Jonah Hill really has very little to do besides sit behind a desk; you almost see as much of him in the trailers as you do on the screen.

The stand out for me was Alden Ehrenreich, who plays Hobie Doyle, a singing cowboy, ala Gene Autry, whom Mannix tries to turn into a serious leading man. He’s been around Hollywood for a few years with roles in Beautiful Creatures (2013) and Blue Jasmine (2013), to name a few. Having seen the latter, I have to admit I don’t remember him at all being in it. But unlike that film, he stands out here. He has perhaps the best scene in the film, in which he and film director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) discuss his delivery of dialogue in his first serious role.

Stand out performance from Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle. Here in one of the
 film's best scenes, he takes help from director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes).

Another stand out is Frances McDormand. She may be in only one scene in the film, in the small role of the cigarette chain-smoking film editor C.C. Calhoun, but McDormand (the wife of Joel Coen) certainly makes the most of her screen time.

Along the way, the film tramples on some reputations, either directly or through association. While I can’t go into details without giving too much away, safe to say Esther Williams and Danny Kaye get the worst of the innuendos tossed around about their reputations.

Also, some of the productions depicted in the film wouldn’t have made it through the production code, which was still very much in effect at the time. I’m thinking mostly of the homo-erotically charged dance number we see Burt Gurney (Tatum) participating in. While it might be played for laughs now, it doesn’t ring true as something a studio would have done at the time. Just another example of Hail, Caesar! missing the mark.

Dance routine wouldn't have passed the Production Code.

Historically, Hollywood is very much hit and miss when it turns the camera on itself; films like: Show People (1928), Stand In (1937), and Boy Meets Girl (1938) don’t quite succeed.  There are exceptions when they do work like: Sunset Blvd (1950), Singin’ In the Rain (1952), and The Artist (2011), the latter really being a French production shot here. Hail, Caesar!, I'm afraid, is in the miss category.

While I really wanted to see Hail, Caesar! I really can’t recommend it. Set in a troubled time in the history of Hollywood, there is a lot of context, but not enough text for me to recommend.

Stubs – Head (1968)

Head (1968) Starring Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, Peter Tork, Victor Mature, Annette Funicello, Carol Doda, Frank Zappa, Terry Garr, Sonny Liston. Directed by Bob Rafelson. Written by Bob Rafelson and Jack Nicholson.  Produced by Bob Rafelson and Jack Nicholson. Run time: 86 minuted. U.S. Color, Comedy, Musical, Satire.

It’s nearly impossible to talk about The Monkees without mentioning The Beatles, because you wouldn’t have the former without the latter. Bob Rafelson may have come up with the idea for the show in 1962, but it took the British Invasion, led by that group for Liverpool, and of course a catching theme song by writers Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, to get it greenlit in 1965.

The TV Series, which had been aptly described like a little bit of Help! (1965) every week was filmed on many of the same sets that Columbia Pictures had built for the Three Stooges shorts and even some of the same props would be reused. The Monkees TV series only lasted two seasons, 1966-1968, but in that short period of time, the “band” had gone from lip-synching front men to demanding to play their own instruments. The Monkees had some very real success on the pop charts, posting several number one singles and albums. They even toured in 1967 with The Jimi Hendrix Experience as an opening act for a few of the gigs.

By the time the series was winding down, the group had already started work on a new venture, a feature film. With Rafelson and actor Jack Nicholson, the group met in Ojai and brainstormed ideas into a tape recorder. They also apparently smoked a lot of weed while doing so. Nicholson then took the tapes home and banged out a screenplay. He apparently took a lot of LSD while he did. The band members were upset about not getting writing credit and three of them boycotted the first day of production, February 15, 1968. The dispute would drive a permanent wedge between them and Rafelson, who not only did receive writing credit, but produced (along with Nicholson) and directed the film.

Production took place at the Columbia Pictures/Screen Gems Studios in Culver City and on the Columbia Ranch (now the Warner Bros. Ranch) in Burbank. There were also scenes shot on the Gerald Desmond Bridge in Long Beach; the Pasadena Rose Bowl; the Hyperion Sewage Treatment Plant in Playa Del Rey; Bronson Canyon; Palm Springs; the Valley Music Hall, Salt Lake City; and the Bahamas. Filming completed on May 17, 1968 on a budget of reportedly about $750,000.

The film is touted, at least on the DVD case, as being “A Hard Day’s Night on acid” but it’s more like a poor man’s Magical Mystery Tour (1967). Trailers at the time called it "most extraordinary adventure, western, comedy, love story, mystery, drama, musical, documentary satire ever made (And that's putting it mildly)."  And yes, the film does touch on all of these genres, but it never really does anything with any of them.

The film starts with a ribbon cutting ceremony on the Gerald Desmond Bridge, which is interrupted by the Monkees. Micky Dolenz is in hot pursuit by the other members, Peter Tork, Michael Nesmith and Davy Jones. Micky jumps over the railing and falls into the sea where we’re treated, if that’s the right word, to The Porpoise Song, the best known of the songs from the film.

Micky Dolenz about to jump from the Gerald Desmond Bridge.

The colors become distorted the way psychedelic films do and transition into a scene where a girl is in the Monkee pad kissing all four boys one by one as if judging who is the best kisser. On the way out, she relays to Micky that there really isn’t a difference. After she leaves, the screen gets thumbnailed.

We’re next treated to a mockup of The Monkees theme, written by Jack Nicholson. Called the Ditty Diego Chant!, which parodies the Boyce-Hart song. In the song they admit to being a manufactured band amongst other things. The video sequence accompanying it shows what would now be called a thumbnail from pretty much every scene in the film, ending with the horrific piece of footage from the Vietnam war of a local prefect shooting a suspected Viet Cong in the head at close range. This sequence would be replayed several times throughout the film.

After that, we’re thrown in and out of genres and situations, from War to Westerns and on and on. Along the way some famous people show up. Green Bay Packer Ray Nitschke (Private One) wearing a football uniform continually tackles Peter Tork as he runs through the trenches to get ammo that his company commander Mike had sent him to get.

Micheal Nesmith, Davy Jones, Micky and Peter Tork in the film's take on war films.

The band plays live, in Utah, while footage from Vietnam is mixed in with the band performing and throngs of young girls screaming. The girls rush the stage and literally pull the boys apart.

The band performing live in Head.

The film uses some stock footage, including Ronald Reagan, then Governor of California, interspersed with clips from various unrelated movies, including some clips of Bela Lugosi, local car commercials and what not. In the desert, we see Micky Dolenz rolling down a sand dune. Thirsty for water, he comes across a Coke machine in the middle of nowhere, but it’s empty.

Micky can't believe the Coke machine is empty.

After Micky struggles with it for a while, an Italian tank comes over the dune and Vito Scotti (I. Vitteloni) gets out. He surrenders the tank and his weapons to Micky, followed by a platoon of Italian soldiers, all who drop their weapons and march off to be POWs. Micky gets into the tank and blows up the Coke machine.

We end up in a Western, so to speak, with one of the first of our cameo appearances, Terri Garr, then credited as Terry Garr (Testy True). Actually, this is only a cameo since Ms. Garr has gone on to bigger and better things. She was still pretty new to Hollywood and this is actually her first lines in a movie, even though they aren’t much and don’t really have anything to do with the story, but of course, there isn’t one.

Cameos continue throughout with Davy boxing Sonny Liston (Extra) in a one-sided fight, even though his girlfriend, Annette Funicello (Teresa/Minnie), in a “spoof” of 30’s boxing films, tries her best to convince him to stick with the violin and not get into the ring. Micky is sitting with Michael assuring him that Davy will take the dive he’s supposed to. Sitting next to Michael is Carol Doda (Sally Silicone), the famous enhanced topless dancer. This sort of spoof was handled much better in Movie Movie (1978).

Davy Jones picks Sonny Liston as his foil in a boxing match.

After Micky walks off the Western set and through the backdrop, the boys end up in a coffee shop on the lot, where a man dressed as a woman who runs the place trades insults with the boys before Peter finally punches him. But Peter frets openly to Bob (Rafelson) as the director about how the kids will react to it. With Bob are Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper, but the latter is only briefly on the screen and says nothing as he passes through.

The boys end up on a tour of a plant, the Hyperion Sewage Treatment Plant, where Davy notices some strange goings on that the others, including their tour guide, ignore. No one listens to him until they are trapped in a cargo container. They end up being a part of a dandruff commercial on actor Victor Mature’s (The Big Victor) head and are vacuumed up by his assistant.

While Micky, Mike and Peter end up in the canister, Davy gets hung up in the hose and then manages to escape into his own song and dance routine, Daddy’s Song, with Toni Basil, years before her own hit single, “Mickey” in 1982.

Davy gets one song and dance number, "Daddy's Song".

When he leaves the stage Davy is accosted by Frank Zappa, who critiques the number as being awfully white, before walking off with a cow.

Frank Zappa makes a cameo, walking a cow and criticizing Davy's performance.

The others escape the container, but not the movie. The rest of which is sort of a hodge podge of ideas, most centering around interactions with Timothy Carey (Lord High 'n' Low), both in and out of a Western movie set. The boys unsurprisingly end up back in the container, but this time it gets dumped out in the middle of the desert.

The Monkees keep having run-ins with Lord High 'n' Low (Timothy Carey) throughout Head.

At this point, all the various characters they’ve interacted with during the movie come at them all at once. The boys start running off, with Micky in the lead. They end up back on the Gerald Desmond Bridge and this time we see all four boys leap into the water. This time, they end up in a giant fish tank being pulled on a tractor with Victor Mature sitting on the platform behind the tank.

All the boys end up in the water at the end of Head.

The soundtrack music at the end has an almost Help! feel about it, which isn’t that surprising since Ken Thorne, who did the score for Head, also did it for that earlier Beatles film.

This is a stream of consciousness mixed with mind-altering drugs sort of experience and is more like a bad dream than a good movie. Judging by its initial reception, I’m not alone in this opinion.

The movie opened on November 6, 1968 to less than stellar reviews or boxoffice, earning a paltry $16,111. Part of the problem with the box office might be laid at the feet of the film’s marketing. There were no pictures of the Monkees on the original poster (see above); only a picture of John Brockman, who did the PR for the film. The sole television ad also featured Brockman with a close-up shot of his head. After 30 seconds he smiles and the name HEAD appeared on his forehead. The ad was an apparent parody of Andy Warhol's film Blow Job (1963), which only showed a close-up of a man's face for an extended period, supposedly receiving 'head'. Needless to say the ads and promotions were a complete failure. Perhaps whoever devised it was as high as everyone else related to the production.

There are a few films from this time period which I personally blame on LSD. The aforementioned Magical Mystery Tour, How I Won The War (1967), the original Casino Royale (1967) and this one.  All were made about the same time and most are pretty much unwatchable unless you’re also imbibing. What sets Magical Mystery Tour above most is the thin plot device that it is a holiday bus tour. There is no plot to hold onto with Head. Another thing that helps Magical Mystery Tour is that it features the Beatles and several of their songs, including “I Am The Walrus”. Head features Beatle-wannabes and some fairly uninteresting songs. Even a “bad” Beatles song beats anything that appears in this film.

Head is really a relic of the 1960s, with its use of psychedelic coloring, its repeated references to the Vietnam War, Transcendental Meditation and it’s obvious drug culture influence. Head has midnight movie written all over it. It’s perhaps best if you don’t pay too close attention to it. Now, I know there are some die-hard Monkees fans out there, but I can’t imagine they really love this film either. While this is more than just an elongated Monkees episode, it is also devoid of much of the zany fun that made that series worth watching.