Tuesday, 12 August 2014

REVIEW REVISITED: National Lampoon's Animal House (1978)

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This is a reprint of my review which was published on this blog 2 years ago, with a number of minor revisions. That version of the review can be found here.

National Lampoon's Animal House (USA, 1978)
Directed by John Landis
Starring Jon Belushi, Tim Matheson, Peter Riefert, Karen Allen

When I reviewed Basic Instinct three years ago, I talked about the reputation of erotic thrillers, commenting that they are "often lumped together with horror movies as the stuff that 'sensible', 'reasonable' citizens wouldn't touch with a twenty-foot pole." You could add gross-out comedies to this list of untouchable genres, and you might have a case given the quality of Superbad and its recent counterparts. But just as dismissing all erotic thrillers would prevent us from having fun with Paul Verhoeven, so to dismiss gross-outs outright would lead us to overlook the qualities of the film which created that genre.
 
National Lampoon's Animal House is the first, best and perhaps only good film to carry the National Lampoon brand. Its combination of bad taste humour, top-notch performances and countercultural undercurrents has ensured its place in the history of American comedies. It remains one of the highest-grossing American films of all time, and the standard to which all subsequent gross-out comedies aspire. Not everything about it works after 36 years, but its importance cannot be underestimated.
 
Together with John Landis' previous film, the TV parody Kentucky Fried Movie, Animal House created the majority of the clichés and conventions which we now associate with gross-out comedies. There is the emphasis on physical comedy, which extends into jokes about bodily fluids and human anatomy. There is the utter contempt for authority, civility or maturity, with the protagonists showing no respect or ambition towards people with short hair in suits. There is the raucous, energetic storytelling, with boisterous acting and big emotions from all the cast. And, most of all, there are those difficult moments in which you're either laughing your face off or covering your eyes, feeling really quite ashamed at what just happened on screen.
It's very difficult to review a gross-out comedy without simply listing all the individual gags and commenting on how outré or disgusting they are. Subsequent gross-out efforts like Porky's often resorted to taking similar gags and either seeing just how far they could push them or just cutting to the chase a lot quicker. An example would be the scene where Bluto sneaks over to the Omega House to watch the girls undress from the top of a ladder. While in Animal House he makes the effort to watch them for a while, even shuffling the ladder along to see into the next room, in Porky's the girls are shoved straight into the shower and the boys look on with little effort to withhold themselves.
 
While you have to keep reminding yourself to see the film as a product of its time, many of the jokes in Animal House are still hilarious today. The accidental killing of Neidermeyer's horse is very well done, with John Belushi's widening eyes and repeated utterance of "Ho-ly shit!". Most of the best jokes are at Neidermeyer's expense, whether it's being dragged along the football field by his horse or being trampled during the food fight. The quick sight gags are also well-assembled, such as Dean Wormer reading Bluto his grades, only to find Bluto has put two pencils up his nose, preceding Rowan Atkinson's famous ploy in Blackadder Goes Forth.
 
When Animal House was first released, it was accused by large sections of the press of being mean-spirited. In fact, what has made the film last so long, and age so relatively well, is the amount of heart that it has. We have genuine affection for the characters even at their most outrageous, and we have a stake in their actions because we are always rooting for the underdogs. Dorfman and Kroger (a.k.a. Flounder and Pinto) are the heart and soul of the film, being every bit as socially awkward and inept as we were in our first years of university.
 
The film is constructed in a way which betrays not only the upstart nature of the magazine, but Landis' love for old comedies. The film opens with our two protagonists going to the Omega fraternity welcome party, and promptly being shoved into a quiet corner with the other outcasts, out of the way of the snooty, 'clever' people. The trappings and sense of humour aside, it's not so different from what Charlie Chaplin used to do, putting the Tramp around 'respectable' people in authority and then bursting their egos to either win the day or get the girl (sometimes both).
 
The other big reason for Animal House's endearing popularity is its countercultural subtext. While the magazine was very much a product of the 1970s, Animal House is set in 1962, dubbed by co-writer Douglas Kenney as "the last innocent year... in America". What appears on the surface to be a bunch of overgrown teenagers fooling around and being idiots becomes something of a harbinger for the youth-led revolution that would sweep America as the decade went on. The film doesn't go into any great detail on this, let alone become political, but it is important not to overlook this setting.
 
Viewed through this kind of prism, it isn't hard to see why the film became such a big hit with young audiences. While the hippie rebellions of the 1960s were long dead by the time of its release, it epitomised and captured the fantasy of so many young people, to fight against the established order and eschew the values of their parents. Most of the 'adult' characters - Dean Wormer, Greg, the vast majority of Omega house - are characterised as complete squares, who deserve to be run out of town for being so boringly pro-establishment. Only Donald Sutherland's pot-smoking English professor is spared the rod, being down with the kids enough to get Karen Allen to sleep with him.
 
This brings us on to a further asset of the film, namely the relatively decent way in which it treats its female characters. It's hardly going to win any prizes for equal opportunities, but neither is it as openly leering or sleazy as one might expect. Some of this is down simply to period details - girls' underwear was more complicated in the 1960s and there was a lot more of it. But Landis is careful to give a couple of his actresses room for manoeuvre, with Karen Allen making the very most of her role. She's neither a self-obsessed, pulchritudinous cheerleader like Kim Cattrall in Porky's or a bookish nerd who couldn't buy a boyfriend.
 
The performances in Animal House are of a very good standard given the inexperience of both the cast and the director. Landis' biggest coup is being able (for the most part) to rein in John Belushi, getting him to focus his energy where Steven Spielberg let him flounder in 1941. He's not entirely in control, particularly during the final set-piece, but there are hints in the performance he gets from Belushi of the great work they would do in The Blues Brothers.
 
Elsewhere John Vernon is brilliantly intimidating as Dean Wormer, using his distinctive voice and uptight physique to be both threatening and spineless. Tim Matheson and Peter Riegert are a perfect team as Otter and Boon respectively, with the golf scene summing up their endearing kinship. Donald Sutherland makes the most of his brief appearance (which includes a shot of his backside) and Karen Allen holds her own against the male cast, just as she would do in Starman or Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The problems with Animal House can be divided into two camps. The first, and more forgivable, are the technical shortcomings, which can be largely put down to Landis' lack of experience. The ramming of the parade stand is poorly edited, with the Deltas' car taking an awfully long time to cover two yards, and the payoff of the Dean and other dignitaries leaping into shot isn't really worth the effort. We could put much of the final sequence into this camp, with underwhelming crowd choreography and poor timing on a couple of gags.
 
The second camp concerns the moments when the film oversteps the mark. There's not much point getting offended by Animal House, since it exists to provoke an emotional response that will separate those who get it from those who are too old or dull to understand. Nevertheless, the subplot about Pinto supposedly molesting a young girl really shouldn't be there: it's not narratively integral, as well as not being pretty.
National Lampoon's Animal House remains the benchmark for the gross-out comedy genre it helped to create. Landis' later comedies like Trading Places would be more technically proficient, and not all of its material holds up to present-day scrutiny. But the anarchic spirit and enjoyably bad taste remains intact, making it essential viewing for comedy fans - even those who are on double secret probation.

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NEXT REVIEW: My 200th Review on Mumby at the Movies!

UNDERRATED: Get Over It (2001)

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Get Over It (USA, 2001)
Directed by Tommy O'Haver
Starring Ben Foster, Kirsten Dunst, Melissa Sagemiller, Shane West

Last November, I wrote an article for WhatCulture! in which I cited my ten favourite film adaptations of William Shakespeare plays. Reducing over 100 years of cinema down to a top ten is no easy task, so to make it easier I restricted my list to adaptations which retained Shakespeare's dialogue. While there are many so-called vernacular adaptations that I admire in some way, I felt that disposing of the language somehow made these versions less faithful: losing the unique speech pattern of Shakespeare robs many of his greatest lines of their power and meaning.
If we remove this distinction, however, we broaden the landscape of films which attempt to bring Shakespeare to a more modern, often younger audience. Alongside more famous teen offerings like Romeo Must Die and 10 Things I Hate About You, we find Get Over It, a loose reworking of A Midsummer Night's Dream with a bright, shiny colour palette and a pre-Spider-Man Kirsten Dunst. While being far from perfect as either a Shakespeare adaptation or a teen comedy, it's not without its charms.
There are two angles from which we can approach Get Over It. One is to judge it in terms of its fidelity to Shakespeare's play, and the other is to judge it according to our expectations of teen comedies. To put it another way, we have a choice between attempting to justify it in the company of many more consciously high-brow efforts, or to defend it as a surprisingly good offering in a genre sadly associated with all that is low-brow, clichéd and disappointing.
Taking the first approach, the film retains some key elements of the 'Dream which are played up to varying extents. Most obviously, it retains the structural device of the play-within-a-play, or in this case play-within-a-film. While this is pretty common in teen dramas, the relationships between the actors in the film are reflected in their characters on stage in a way which is believable and amusing. Tommy O'Haver isn't a brilliant director, but he does replicate the deliberate artificiality of the play-within-the-play; it's not as easy as it sounds to get a good actor to play someone who can't act.
The central theme in Get Over It is that the person that you love now isn't necessarily the person that you're meant to be with. This is a theme that crops up time and again in romantic comedies, often being used as the excuse to get our two overly glamourous leads to end up together when the plot can't do it on its own. The film makes no attempt to challenge this incredibly trite sentiment, but it does at least try to tie it to something more meaningful.
Shakespeare's comedies like the 'Dream and Much Ado About Nothing regularly involve people falling in love unexpectedly with people whom they previously held in no regard. Benedict and Beatrice in the latter begin hating each other, but through the plotting of their friends end up genuinely falling in love. Twelfth Night even turns this device on its head, with Malvolio's cross-gartered downfall serving as a warning against trying to impress others based on idle gossip.
 
Get Over It attempts to tie the dynamic of its four main characters to the four Athenian lovers in the 'Dream. The most straightforward and faithful thing would be for the characters to exactly mirror their theatrical counterparts, and for the casting of the play-within-a-film to fit that. But instead, our central character Berke (played well by a young Ben Foster) goes from resembling Lysander in nature to being much closer to Hermes: he stops seeing Kelly as a distraction from his pursuit of Allison and discovers that he truly loves her.
Get Over It makes no bones about playing fast and loose with Shakespeare, right down to Berke breaking character during the stage show and ad-libbing to convey his love for Kelly. This does make it a frustrating experience for purists, who know the play backwards and want to see it accurately replicated in a modern setting. Certainly the film isn't in the same league as Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, which updated the setting while retaining the period language.
Rather than viewing it as an accurate adaptation, it's perhaps better to see the film as a gateway drug for people coming to Shakespeare for the first time. Many who've have to deal with Shakespeare in high school will recognise the reluctance of the characters in having to perform it, and find some mirth in the more ostentatious or pretentious characters who yearn for a life in the theatre. While it's far too loose as far as the actual plot is concerned, it does convey the awkwardness of approaching Shakespeare and poke fun at the equally awkward way in which it is often staged.
The film is at its best when it attempts to show the characters being affected by the subject matter of the play. There are a number of visually pleasing set-pieces, in which Berke finds himself in the woods with Allison and Striker, growing in jealousy and frustration as events unfold and he finds himself helpless and unable to act. These are the best-lit and most appealingly-shot scenes in the film, giving us a break from the shiny, late-1990s visuals. Maryse Alberti is a good cinematographer, having shot Velvet Goldmine, and it's nice to see her trying to move the film into more poetic and ambitious territory.
Looking at Get Over It from the second perspective (i.e. as a teen comedy), it's also a pleasant surprise in a couple of ways. Like many teen comedies, the plot is as predictable as they come: we know that Berke and Allison won't get back together even without Shakespeare poking his nose in. But there is a certain pleasure to be derived from seeing all the pieces fit together, and if the film makes us laugh than it's ultimately doing its job.
The film benefits greatly in this regard from Martin Short. Short's played many an outrageous and annoying character in his time, often turning up in supporting roles where he is given a free rein and quickly gets on our nerves. But in this instance, he manages to focus his energies into a confident performance which is goofy and silly but ultimately rings true. His character is more believable than his work in Father of the Bride and its sequel, with all the exaggerated features having logic behind them rather than just the next punchline.
Kirsten Dunst is also a pleasant surprise. Dunst took the role because it gave her the opportunity to sing on screen, and she nails both the vocal numbers with a surprise amount of presence. But like Short, she also has a knowingness to her: she knows how the rules of this kind of film work, and therefore how to take something silly and make it pass off. She raises the standard of the other performers for every second that she's on screen, something that she has done with increasing regularity as her career has developed.
The rest of the cast, by contrast, are more of a mixed bag. Neither Colin Hanks nor Sisqó get a great deal to work with, with the former lacking the overt charisma of his father. The latter seems to have been cast as a gimmick, given his chart popularity at the time, which makes it all the more peculiar that he gets so little to do. Melissa Sagemiller is passable as Allison, though she doesn't play the later scenes all that convincingly, and Shane West isn't as memorable as he could have been.
Ultimately Get Over It has just about enough going for it to pass muster. Its opening musical number, with Berke being followed by dancers, is like a more upbeat, cheeky version of U2's video for 'Sweetest Thing'. Berke's parents are a welcome source of deadpan laughs, while his scenes with Kelly are pitched just right, being tender without getting cloying. At a time when most teen comedies were being pitched in the vein of American Pie, it's refreshing to find one that's willing to be sweet and relatively innocent. 
Get Over It is a fun and light-hearted teen comedy which serves as a reasonable introduction to one of Shakespeare's best-loved play. Anyone searching for either a perfect adaptation or a mould-breaking teen comedy will wind up disappointed, but it does enough to satisfy the casual viewer who wants the best of both worlds. Whether as a frothy romantic excursion or an opportunity to see Dunst before her big break, it remains a surprisingly charming comedy.

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NEXT REVIEW: National Lampoon's Animal House (1978)

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

UNDERRATED: Father of the Bride Part II (1995)

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Father of the Bride Part II (USA, 1995)
Directed by Charles Shyer
Starring Steve Martin, Diane Keaton, Kimberley Williams-Paisley, George Newbern

Back in 1995, a famous incident occurred between Steve Martin and the British comedian Paul Kaye. In his guise as Dennis Pennis, the shocking and obnoxious celebrity reporter for The Sunday Show, Kaye approached Martin during a red carpet premiere and asked the question: "how come you're not funny anymore?". Martin shrugged off the comment and walked away, but was reportedly so upset that he cancelled all upcoming press appearances.
 
While Father of the Bride Part II is not directly connected to this anecdote, it has been held up as an example of Martin's comedic decline. Like Kevin Smith after him, Martin was accused of turning his back on the edgy, smart and wacky comedies that made him a star in favour of more schmaltzy, sentimental fare. But despite Kaye's remarks and whatever low expectations we may have of the rom-com genre, the end result is surprisingly heartwarming.
 
You can understand the reservations that critics and punters alike would have going into this film. It's a quasi-remake of Father's Little Dividend, the 1951 sequel to the original Father of the Bride starring Spencer Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor. Martin's remake of the first film had received positive reviews four years prior to this, but he hadn't produced much to inspire confidence in the meantime. Only the previous year, he appeared in Mixed Nuts, Nora Ephron's hugely misjudged remake of the French black comedy Le Père Noël est une Ordure (which loosely translates as 'Santa is a scumbag').
 
Fears are partially allayed, however, by an examination of the talent behind the camera. Writer-director Charles Shyer and producer Nancy Meyers have a good track record with these kinds of stories; not only did they helm the remake of Father of the Bride, but they were behind Irreconcible Differences and Baby Boom back in the 1980s. The latter also starred Diane Keaton and resulted in a short-lived TV series which was, at their insistence, filmed without a laughter track. This move, which is still unusual for American shows, suggests that Shyer and Meyers want to emphasise the natural aspects of a given situation rather than rely on comic contrivances to further the plot.
 
I've spoken in the past about how the likes of Saving Grace and Calendar Girls treat their older characters with great respect, in contrast to Hollywood's obsession with youth and showy glamour. And on one level, it is refreshing to find a Hollywood comedy which focusses much more on its older protagonists in a romantic manner. While the first film focussed a fair amount on the younger couple, with Martin and Keaton's scenes being built around reaction, they are very much at the centre of attention this time around.
 
Shyer's approach, however, is very different to that of Nigel Cole in the films that I've cited. Cole's films pander to convention and rely on the individual performances within them to overcome these limitations: he creates a situation based upon recognisable archetypes and then uses his actors to put meat on the bones. Shyer, by contrast, uses Martin and Keaton's natural talent, chemistry and charisma to build up empathy with them as performers, and then constructs recognisable character traits around these performances. In the wrong hands they would simply be playing versions of themselves, like a lot of American comedians in films, but on this occasion it really pays off.
 
While the film is a reasonably faithful remake of Father's Little Dividend, it differs from the original in one key plot point. Having Martin's character becoming a grandfather and a father again would have been unthinkable back in the 1950s, with Hollywood's idealisation of domesticity and set gender roles in films like Cinderella and High Society. But in the more liberal, touchy-feely 1990s, it's socially acceptable as well as being physically possible, and while it's not the first film to attempt this plot point, it is one of the more successful.
 
The film still manages to replicate all the doubts and soul-searching of the male protagonist, substituting his misplacing the baby in the original with his panicking up to and including the deliveries. Steve Martin and Spencer Tracy may have little in common besides the colour of their hair - certainly Martin doesn't have the dramatic range of the back-to-back Oscar winner. But where Tracy brought naturalism, he manages to channel his zaniness and hilarious frustation into something very tender, crafting a dramatic performance with none of the creepy overtones of his later role in Shopgirl.
 
It would have been very easy to make the central premise into a gimmick, constructing the film as a wacky comedy in which Martin's character was constantly running between two poorly written, overly demanding women. But Shyer resists going down the screwball route, giving us a respectful examination of pregnancy without over-egging the sentimentality - at least, not all the way through.
 
Toward the film's climax, however, Shyer can't resist opening the taps a little bit on the physical comedy front. There's an over-long and somewhat over-played sequence where Franck (Martin Short) has to drag George to the car after the latter has overdosed on sleeping pills, having been up all night coping with the two pregnancies. It is funny, but it feels like a very deliberate concession to a younger audience, who probably emphasise more with funny accents and slapstick than the travails of a late-middle-aged couple.
 
In a nutstell, most of the problems with Father of the Bride Part II occur when it tries to lay on the comedy a little too thickly. The most glaring example is Short, who reprises his role from the first film. Like Steve Martin, Short is a graduate of Saturday Night Live, making his name through a series of loud, in-your-face characters which challenged our notions of good taste. But while Martin has grown up and rightfully tones things down on this occasion, Short is allowed to run wild and become annoying. His character is essentially an SNL skit, and like a lot of SNL characters it wears out its welcome pretty quickly.
 
Likewise, some of the domestic comedy is a little irritating. The dinner party conversations, such as those over the selling of the house, tip over into the weaker sections of Woody Allen's back catalogue, in which the fears and neuroses of the characters make the plot come to a standstill. If you're a fan of Allen's work you'll probably appreciate these scenes a lot more, but they do come across as clunky when much of the comedy surrounding them has been warmer and more welcoming.
 
There are other issues with the film too, which are rooted more in Shyer's script than in the performers' abilities. Once the second pregnancy has been announced, the film does become extremely predictable. Admittedly we're not so constantly aware of the oncoming cliches that the plot is completely derailed, and throwing in a completely left-field twist or two could have damaged what empathy we have with the characters. But just as Annie Hall worked by not having our central pairing end up together, it would have been nice if the pay-off had come about in a slightly more original way.
 
When it comes down to it, however, there is enough emotional attachment in Father of the Bride Part II to make us overlook these little technical defficiencies. It's a heart-first film, in which we go with all the events and developments that occur even as our head compiles a list of potential objections. The scenes with George reminiscing with his now-grown daughter are really touching, as is the final sequence of him between the two waiting rooms, standing like all expectant fathers in that middle ground between abject fear and beaming pride. Special credit should go to Jane Adams as Dr. Eisenberg; she plays her part without any fuss, keeping these last scenes rooted and believable.
Father of the Bride Part II is both an enjoyable sequel and a perfectly capable remake. While many will still point to the Tracy films as superior, this is still an enjoyable and touching comedy-drama with a number of well-written characters and good performances from Martin and Keaton. Those who have no capacity for sentimentality, even when it's done properly, should probably look elsewhere for entertainment. But for those of us who don't mind giving into tears, it's time pretty well spent.

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NEXT REVIEW: Get Over It (2001)

Monday, 4 August 2014

RIP Dick Smith

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A few days ago news broke that Dick Smith, 'the Godfather of make-up', has passed away at the age of 92. Numerous tributes have already been paid from friends and colleagues from within the industry, including fellow make-up artist and Oscar-winner Rick Baker, who described Smith as his "mentor" and "the master".
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There are a handful of make-up artists who have become legendary in the film industry, with most of them focussed around the horror and fantasy genres. Baker won an Oscar for his groundbreaking transformations in An American Werewolf in London; Rob Bottin worked so hard on the effects for John Carpenter's The Thing that he ended up in hospital; and Phil Tippett carried on the work of the late great Ray Harryhausen, bringing stop-motion back to the mainstream through his work on the original Star Wars trilogy.
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Smith contributed a fair amount to horror cinema through his make-up, with his three-piece prosthetics becoming industry standard by the 1980s. He designed the practical on-set effects for The Exorcist, such as the revolving head and projectile vomiting, as well as creating the body for Katherine Ross' busty robot double in The Stepford Wives. But he was also an accomplished dramatic make-up artist, winning an Oscar for his work on Amadeus and drawing praise for his contributions to The Godfather, creating the gunshot effects during Sonny's death and using dental 'plumpers' to make Marlon Brando's jaw droop. He worked with directors as varied as Mike Nichols (on Carnal Knowledge), Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver) and Robert Zemeckis (Death Becomes Her).
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Smith was one of the great pioneers of cinematic make-up to which all the great artists from the 1970s onwards owe a massive debt. Perhaps there is no higher praise for his work than the words of Laurence Olivier, whom Smith made up as a leper for a TV production of The Moon and Sixpence back in 1959. After the finished make-up was applied, Larry looked into the mirror and remarked "Dick, it does the acting for me." RIP.

Daniel

Friday, 1 August 2014

WHATCULTURE!: Bad Recastings

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Due to starting a new job on August 11th, my future contributions to WhatCulture! may be a little more limited than in recent times. To that end, I'm endeavouring to get out as much content as possible between now and then, to clear the decks and tie up a lot of loose ends.
Warner Bros.
My latest article concerns bad recastings of iconic roles - instances where actors have been replaced out of pay disputes, production problems or occasionally death, and in which their replacements have not been up to scratch. You can read the article in full by clicking here. Enjoy!

Daniel