Ain’t It Funny: The Producers (1967) and The Producers (2005)

The Producers

“Getting the audience to cry is easy, just kill the dog” – (Unknown, because I can’t remember)

Comedy, by its nature is something you should never take too seriously. To laugh and to cry, those are two of the oldest traditions in Western storytelling, with roots dating back to the Ancient Greek tragedians and comedians.  I spent some time last year doing university work on Ancient Greek theatre, and one thing I discovered has helped me greatly in understanding how to appreciate comedy. The thing I find endlessly fascinating about it is that it takes such considerable work and careful refinement to be funny, but you can never indulge in the big dramatics of emotional weight. Comedy is meant to appear easy, effortlessly done and at the end of the day, just a joke. And comedy depends so much closer on context, the jokes that split sides 50 years ago would be met with crickets today, but the enduring power of even the oldest tragedies still seems timeless. I’m sure there’s a few comedians out there who hate that word: timeless.

Comedy then, tragedy’s bastard younger brother, is seemingly condemned to not being taken seriously. Which always makes me smile in a sad way, because I honestly believe that to be a good comedian requires you to be a good tragedian. To really understand what’s funny, what’s a joke and what to take the piss out of, you’ve got to understand its opposite, what not necessarily can’t, but what doesn’t need to be laughed at the time.

And someone who seems to truly possess that skill, is Mel Brooks. Mel Brooks is one of my all time favourite directors, yet a lot of his work rests on the backs of ripping into the genre trappings and clichés of movie genres, rather than any pioneering complexity in acting or storytelling. To pioneer in the area of parody, is to sling well-aimed tomatoes at the faces of its’ more serious siblings.

But that doesn’t mean respect is not due. To craft comedy, to craft laughter (genuine not canned) is no easy task. So I’m gonna take a look at his story The Producers, the original 1967 version written and directed by him, and the 2005 musical film counterpart to the 2001 stage musical revival of the original film. How does the comedy come to life, and how does the comedy survive its passage through time?


Then (Now?) – The Producers (1967)

The Producers 1967.jpg

The Producers (1967, Dir. Mel Brooks) is a film which was made in one of the biggest crucibles in American history. One of Hollywood’s biggest jesters growing up in the same generation of those radical self serious New Hollywood auteurs. But this is a different type of molotov cocktail, one whose firebrand material relies on taking the piss out of the past, not trying to set fire to the present. Ripping into both the Hollywood establishment, and making a mockery of Germany’s Third Reich, The Producers was never a story designed to play it safe.

Approaching these films is interesting for me, since I watched them backwards (the musical first). It’s interesting how often the way a story (especially in film) can be fixed once its committed to celluloid. The Producers is one of those films that must have cast a long shadow over any potential later versions, or any film which carried characters found in this film. Zero Mostel as Max Bialystock and Gene Wilder as Leopold Bloom are performances which just ooze with life. In a film landscape where characters are often flattened out and made generic, both their performances are so profoundly idiosyncratic and deep that regardless of the rest of the film, it would still be worth visiting.

Luckily there is more to The Producers than its central pillars of Mostel and Wilder. Although it was Mel Brooks first film, a project he both wrote and directed it gets away with it through sheer force of will. The Producers managed to beat films by both Stanley Kubrick and John Cassavetes, as well as Gilles Pontecorvo’s Battle For Algiers to win the Best Screenplay Award at the Oscars, and listening to it is still a joy. Mel Brook’s eyes and ears for characters bursting with absurdity is incredible to this day, and the fun he has with them is a rollercoaster.

Comedy has a context though, and some of its edge has faded over time. That’s the thing with cutting edge, it’s very thin and very quick. The outrage over its objectionable content is lost on a modern audience. Making fun of the Nazi’s seems second nature in this environment of 2018, but its important to remember its shock value at the time. The jaws dropping in the screen would have mirrored those in the real audience. It’s hippie jokes as well, a character called Lorenzo StDubois or LSD (Dick Shawn) can only really reach an audience well versed in 60s culture (LSD wears a Campbell’s Soup can around his neck, an Andy Warhol joke) and its interesting to see how comedy can age.

It’s context is more than just the comedy though. It is by no means a cinematic marvel, not pushing the boundaries of fields like cinematography or editing. It’s opening credit sequence I find incredibly irritating for example. Or its ancillary characters can often take parody to extreme, so one-dimensional the joke sticks around longer than it needs to. It is a debut film to be honest, and to expect every piece to land and wow you is unreasonable.

Comedy is very easily wrapped up in only what’s funny and how funny it is, and it’s important to remember that a film is more than just comedy. What makes The Producers endure, at least in my opinion, is that it in a film filled with piss-taking and joy-riding the Third Reich, it asks you to jump on board earnestly with their hair brained scheme. Brooks puts you on board with characters you want to succeed, spectacularly. That’s a rare skill, rarer even than good comedy.


Now (Then?) – The Producers (2005)

 

The Producers 2005

Usually by the time of adapting old material comes along, it’s original creator is long since dead. What drew me then to this story, is that this version of The Producers (2005, Dir. Susan Stroman) was co written by Mel Brooks, alongside using his music and lyrics written for the original 2001 Broadway musical revival. Mel Brooks spirit and DNA is still running through this project like a spinal column. It’s very rare to see that in cinema, regardless of how this one turned out.

Mel Brooks’ films are always easy to love for cinema goers, because they’re often about cinema, consciously or not (mostly consciously). But The Producers is also about musical theatre, and for it to be turned into a musical seems remarkably and unsurprisingly natural, all at the same time. Things can often get lost in translation through adaptation, and it was interesting to chart those decisions backwards, not through the prejudice of it being immediately inferior to the version I already knew I liked. It’s fascinating how in a film which carries so much of the same characters, same plot points and even the same jokes, can still feel different. That’s the power of direction I guess.

If all the world’s a stage, then Susan Stroman takes that to its absolute limit in this version of The Producers. A lot of the popular criticism of the film at the time seemed to come from it feeling too “stage-y”, but I’d argue that in a film about a play revamped into a musical, it turning its environment into a stage would work in its benefit. Comedy has no issue bouncing between tones, and to not jump on-board with it is to miss the boat. When adaptations come out, it is very easy to look past the material and only judge what looks different to you from your first experience, but its important to remember that for some like me, this is the first exposure to the story of The Producers. Not everyone has seen Romeo and Juliet, yet.

It cuts and it fills when necessary. Ulla (Uma Thurman), the dumb Swedish secretary picks up more of a character in a romance with Leopold Bloom (Matthew Broderick). The tone is lighter, it’s characters more exuberant and joyous in their world, the world of musical theatre really is the brightest star it seems. It also is safer, sticking so close to a formula from over 50 years before will do that to any story. The Producers of 2005 doesn’t feel like a film that’s out to shock, it’s laughs are a lot cuter now. And it’s a trade-off that Mel Brooks was always ready to make, and rightfully so. If you’re not taking it super seriously, you might as well have a little fun with it. Especially when Nathan Lane is singing his bloody heart out, sweaty comb over and everything.


Now, Then…Who Cares? – The Producers (???)

One of my favourite stories of Mel Brooks is that he is the one who produced The Elephant Man (1980, Dir. David Lynch). For a man associated with comedy to produce a film about one of the most pitiable men who ever lived, I always find that story interesting and incredibly revealing. Mel Brooks is also the only director to win all four awards (Academy, Tony, Emmy and Grammy). For tragedy’s bastard brother, it’s not bad.

It’s easy to write off comedy, too easy. After all, it makes its mark off of the back of all those serious works. Especially The Producers, a story which is self-consciously in love with its medium. A film about producers on an odyssey through artistic lunacy is sure to attract the admiration of those artistic lunatics. It could also have very easily become a sycophantic ass-kissing ceremony, as the worst elements of art can sometimes produce (see: Andy Warhol, sometimes). It’s an amused romp through some of the insular elements of art, its crowd who make up the theatres and the musicals and the films. And to a lot of people, The Producers is unrelatable, boring and worst of all…not funny.

But then…who cares, honestly? Mel Brooks sure doesn’t, he’s dead. Everyone wants their work to do well, and I’m sure Mr. Brooks stayed up during the nights hoping it would do well, but if the joke doesn’t land you just keep going till the next one sticks. And Mel Brooks comedy might slowly get more and more defanged over time, as it looks safer and safer from a distance and people get more and more accustomed to a longer history of comedy. But who cares, someone’s still gonna sit down in front of these films for the first time for the next infinity until the human race has reached its end.

And as long as they keep finding it funny, it’ll keep working. And there’s nothing like seeing Leopold Bloom, be it Gene Wilder or Matthew Broderick or anyone else in the role, screaming in terror “You’re gonna jump on me!” while Max Bialystock, be it Zero Mostel or Nathan Lane or just an idea in Mel Brook’s head jumps up and down screaming in confusion.

Godamnit, it’s just funny. And it makes me wanna be a producer, and I hate producing.

-Alex

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Ain’t It Funny: The Producers (1967) and The Producers (2005)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Three Billboards

This is a tough one. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2018, Dir. Martin McDonagh) is a film which has had a real hype following it in the run-up to Oscar season. It will be weird to see how this film looks in retrospect, after the Oscar buzz, but McDonagh’s place in cinema culture at the moment is a bit of a weird one anyway. People still trip over themselves to acclaim his debut work In Bruges (2008), but opinions split around Seven Psychopaths (2012). His move to America did not seem to resonate with universal acclaim, even though I’m a big fan of Seven Psychopaths. Furthermore, McDonagh’s trademark of black(est) comedy, of violence wrapped up in bone crunching and rib tickling detail simultaneously, is one he continues to nestle into. A tiger can’t change his stripes, the only thing he can do is move around. That move around has come in Three Billboards, a murky rage filled revenge tale.

It’s a move which pulls no punches, regarding its subject matter or its humour. You laugh but feel bad. Moments of darkness are confronted with lilting southern belle ballads, McDonagh continues juxtaposing the light with the very dark, creating this awkward space for the viewer to sit in and feel conflicted. Should I laugh? Should I feel bad? Why do I feel both? In a story so bleak and often brutal, as Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) puts up three billboards calling out the Chief of Ebbing Police (Woody Harrelson) for not doing enough to solve the case of her daughter who was raped and murdered 9 months prior, the audience finds itself laughing and enjoying themselves. It sounds dissonant, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Darkness isn’t only just dark, and the humour itself becomes a breath of fresh air, but also a way to see the pain lurking underneath from a different angle.

That said, the tone of Three Billboards is like a game of darts. Not every one hits the board. And there are real moments of what I can only describe as ‘wonky-ness’ in its script and its performances. Characters deliver completely unrelated monologues to deliver a point with the subtlety of a shotgun spread, the most particular egregious example of this is when Mildred is laying into the well-meaning but hypocritical priest of the town (Nick Searcy).  The writing screams at us, delivering its one-two punches of attention in a pretty obnoxious way. It’s bad because it shows off quite simply. McDonagh’s a human, and while the through line of Three Billboards is intense and powerful, it’s side areas show chinks in the armour. There are moments of levity that don’t feel comfortable not because of intentional dissonance, but because McDonagh seems to not be handling the issue with the required weight it needs (see: racial violence and its “humorous” implications). It’s not necessarily bad, it’s just that some of the humour seems incredibly low-hanging fruit and as a result comes off as unthinking.

There’s no point dragging McDonagh across the coals for this, in my honest opinion. The film’s very attempt at bringing the racial backdrop of American society into the filmic landscape in a more honest way, in the fact that most people aren’t even aware of its nuances, is doing justice to the reality of the world. It’s not an idealised version of the world, where good guys win and bad guys lose. Three Billboards real strength is setting up a seemingly morally easy conflict, of the avenging badass mother and the inefficient dunkin’ donuts cops, and goes through its regular beats before quickly evolving into something much more “real”. Mildred’s declaration of war brings real consequences to the characters of the town, not just in terms of physical pain and scarring, but emotional and psychological wounds as well. An eye for an eye never looked so bloody, or so sad. The desire of revenge only brings about more violence, anger “begets” (you’ll know) greater anger.

The film has a beautifully human track running through it. At its best, it forces its audience to consider the complexities of humans, how monsters are really people, how heroes are really people, and how time can change both of those titles into little more than hollow words. An audience loves to play judge, but its hard to play judge when everyone’s hands are bloody.  The violence may be embedded with a line of humour, but it’s also awful and lasting. Characters may talk sharp, but sooner or later every one of them cracks visibly onscreen. It’s the equivalent of medical treatment in the field, medics pulling bullets out of you while your allies hold you down and you scream through the pain. Healing can sometimes be painful too.

I think Three Billboards is a very good, sometimes even great film. It’s cinematography is often functional, though moments of subtle framing work very well, while its musical motifs and art design are interesting without being distracting. It’s filmic elements have had to take a backseat for its main star though, the story. It’s humanistic brutal beauty is what carries it, even if it stumbles like a wounded soldier at times. Ultimately the film’s greatest weapon, the one which gets you to think and feel beyond your immediate assumptions, is the one you least expect:

It’s empathy.

Alex

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

The Big Sick : Laughing Through the Tears

Big Sick

In my eyes, comedy is always just a few steps away from pain. The things which really makes us laugh, which make the tears stream down our eyes and our bellies hurt and our lungs gasp for air, they’re always things which are only a few lines away from becoming a tragedy. Those hilarious bursts of misfortune, suffered by ourselves or by other people. Those moments of blinding ignorance which lead us into mistakes or faux pas’. Those stories which we tell to our friends years later, still slightly embarrassed. All these things which become “material” for comedians, and almost all of them are very near to veering into sadness.

Naturally then, when a film takes that in stride, in mawkish but honest sincerity, laughing at itself up until the point it needs to cry, it reflects that fact back at you. That things that are funny are sometimes quite sad, and sometimes things which are sad are quite funny.

The Big Sick (2017, Dir. Michael Showalter) is mostly based on a true story, of a Pakistani comedian who falls in love with an American grad student. On his side, he must deal with the potential consequences of revealing this to his traditional Pakistani-Muslim family, who want nothing more than for Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) to marry a traditional Pakistani Muslim girl. On her side however, he must deal with the potential consequences of Emily (Zoe Kazan) falling grievously ill and her parents, with absolutely standout and side-splitting roles played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. All while managing a fledgling comedy career and navigating his compatriots in the stand up circuit of Chicago.

So far, so rom-com, albeit with a cultural twist. The film’s ace however, is the fact that it is a true love story. The reason Kumail’s character name is the same as his real name, is because the events of the film are loosely based on his life experiences. And not only that, but Kumail and the real Emily, Emily V. Gordon (who is renamed Gardner in the film) wrote the script together, a script about their own coming together. What the film becomes then is a recounting of a romance, with I’m sure a few extensive moments of embellishment and lies, to make the truth a little funnier and a little easier to digest. After all writers don’t directly copy reality, they often edit out the bits in between to make a story flow easier.

So you end up with quite a different experience in the film. A film which becomes uniquely more funny in its jokes, due to two things. One, drawing from the well of cultural differences for humour, rather than anger. Ethnicity and racism has become such a contentious issue in many areas of modern life, that it feels so refreshing to witness it in such a down to earth, honest way. Not as an issue to be ripped open and painfully exposed, but as an issue to be acknowledged and joked about. You don’t have to be serious all the time, in fact it’s important to remember to find the humour in things which can cause pain, because that makes them a little easier to bear.

The other thing it draws from is the unique individual experiences we all go through, the characters and personas who inhabit our life who may not be as diverse as our media suggests. I am a white straight male, and while I’ve had a lot of experience of people outside of my sex, gender, ethnicity and more, I still live in a world where a lot of the people I predominately see reflect me in quite a similar way. What the film takes from that then, is that the world feels intimately real, in a very comforting way. Kumail’s friends are mostly stand-up comics, which makes sense in a film about a comedian. His family is quite insular and traditional and proud of their heritage, which I believe is quite common in families with Middle Eastern/Eastern heritages.

People do not always mix in complex diverse rainbows, even in big multicultural cities such as the one I live in. Communities often gather, and while hopefully they don’t consciously self-segregate, they still often find comfort in the familiarity of each other. What The Big Sick does is acknowledge those boundaries, and reflect on them, and how often people stay behind them or cross them. And in The Big Sick, they cross them for love. And the story doesn’t pigeonhole itself into a corner, launching into pointless diatribes about “love is love” and berating arranged marriages. Kumail’s more honest confrontation is to do with him wanting to forge his own path in a world where people are often trying to get him to take a different course.

In real life there are no Hollywood endings. The credits never roll until you close your eyes for the last time, and even then everyone else’s films are still playing. The Big Sick never allows itself to slip into schmaltzy, grotesque cliché’s that make chick-flicks so loved by many and repulsed by others. This isn’t a film which claims everything will be perfect, that relationships are things which are carried away by magic where they lived “happily ever after”. No one is ever happy all the time. But it’s very important to be happy, to find moments where you can be happy, even if things might not work out in the future.

Most importantly, you just gotta laugh at it all, even if you’re crying.

-Alex

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The Big Sick : Laughing Through the Tears

A Ghost Story : Phantom Mechanics

Ghost Story

A Ghost Story (2017, Dir. David Lowery) is a bizarre experience.It’s a film which does its best to wrestle itself away from any genre conventions you might associate with it on first glance. Seeing the supernatural draws your mind to horror, but there is very little to be scared of here. Seeing the hype quotes around it, with words like cosmic” and another one I saw describing it as “meditation on the passage of  timemight prepare you for a mind bending cerebral brain melter, and while part of that’s true, a lot of the film is concerned with tiny, minute and gentle human motions, all very easy to grasp hold of.

That’s not to say any one element is better than the other, but seeing them combined together in such an unusual package such as this one, one which starts A-list actors spending most of their time simply being present rather than “Acting” in any traditional sense of the word. Seeing these elements in a film which inhabits a space much closer to still life photography than the frenetic technical wizardry of modern-day cinematography. It works together to make a film which is constantly forcing you to adjust to its rhythms, and re-adjust almost immediately again. For only 92 minutes, the structural and poetic complexity is honestly quite impressive.

I’ll try to break it down through its most noticeable element, it’s play with time. Much has been made of film’s ability to compress or extend time, it’s ability to make years, centuries or even millennia pass from one frame to the next, or to drag a single moment in time, a second or even a fraction of that, and drag it out to last seconds, minutes, even hours if you were bold/mad enough. A Ghost Story manipulates time for all it’s worth. There’s a very bold choice as we watch M (played by melancholic Rooney Mara) consume a pie in real-time for nearly 4 minutes, Lowery choosing to focus his lens on time which many other films would gloss over to focus on more “dramatic moments”. Or from one second to the next, an entire life flashes before C’s eyes (played by melancholic Casey Affleck under a sheet for 90% of the time). That’s messing around with structure, making the audience get lost and disorient from their usual understanding of time.

It does all sound rather cosmic when you start to write it down, but again lots of the film is devoted to very small, intimate details. C spends a large amount of time scratching at a nook in the wall where M left a note.  A beginning scene just involves C & M gently and sleepily kissing each other, which goes on for a while. There’s a lot more of these tiny moments, and each one adds up like tiny fragments of a shattered glass. And since so much of the film is image driven, the lack of spoken words drives the film into a territory where things are much more unfocused, but much simpler. It puts you in territory which is usually reserved for experimental films (which I guess this is anyway?), the territory of experience rather than precise understanding. You have to use emotional reasoning rather than logical processing here.

On it’s more surface levels, it’s still unconventional and produces strange effects. The film is framed by an aspect ratio which is something akin to looking through your camera’s viewfinder or as Lowery says here, like old photographs. Cinema screens have always favoured horizontal compositions over vertical ones (since the screen is usually wider than it is tall), so on one hand there are portions of the screen on the left and right completely unused, while on the other hand this also allows for what’s onscreen to be more focused, less distracted by the environment around it. It’s dialogue is often sound mixed into the orchestra, creating an organic soundscape in the film where music and dialogue mesh to the point where both are just as important, but also at times making dialogue difficult to hear. Honestly at times the film moves into music video territory, underscored by a serene but powerful score from Daniel Hart.

So too is the performances, muted and subdued and minimal to the point of going no further. I mean Casey Affleck as the ghost essentially becomes a blank slate for you to project onto in the second half of the film. Prevented from facial expression, and with body movement limited to only the barest, slowest movements, it becomes an intriguing and simultaneously frustrating experience. I don’t necessarily think it’s bad, but just the common film diet gives you so much more to chew on, characters with clear motivations and conflict and interplay between a whole big cast of people working for and against each other. This is so much leaner, the only way to reduce C’s role without annihilating it completely would be to prevent the ghost from moving at all, an even extremer choice which would have harmed the film more than it helped. Just in every way it’s mechanics are those often forgotten by more conventional cinema, the film requiring you to extend towards it a greater depth of understanding, a greater allowance and tolerance to idiosyncrasy.

It is a film about a guy under a sheet. There are moments where you laugh, where you laugh when you probably shouldn’t (I did that), moments where you are bored and wish it would hurry up, moments which instill you with melancholia, moments which are really quite profound. Really there’s just hundreds of different moments, fragments you could say, and once the film finishes you finally have a shattered glass which has been put back together again. It’s not perfect, but it’s deeply personal, and anything it lacks in conventional grace is made up for its unusual and deeply cared for mechanics.

-Alex

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A Ghost Story : Phantom Mechanics

Fantastic Mr. Fox : Stop Motion Wilderness

fantastic_mr_fox

Making a film charming is a tough task, and like comedy, can turn off just as many people as it attracts. Charming involves a level of care and obsession to appear nonchalant and easy-going, but to the point that others genuinely believe you don’t care. It also involves having your own idiosyncratic style, one which there is the potential to warm to. Finally you’ve got to have authenticity, that behind the carefully crafted layers you can see the genuine want of connection, of admiration and friendship.  It’s always about love, and charming people (or films) want to give love, but more importantly to receive it.

Wes Anderson will piss off just as many people as he endears. But there’s no doubt that his films come from a place of warm affection (and love), including this one, Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009, Dir. Wes Anderson).


Honestly I love heist films, caper films.  What makes this genre so special to me is two things: the thrill of the chase, and the awareness of almost every cog in the machine. The thrill of the chase involves the risks and constant danger the main people put themselves in as they paint targets on their backs to gain rewards (usually money but not always) under the threat of exposure, capture, even death. The awareness of the cogs is how in heist films, each stage of “the job” is crucial and has to be witnessed to be understood (mostly, Reservoir Dogs 1992 Dir. Quentin Taratino obviously comes to mind as an exception). You have to see the assembly of characters, understand their relevant skillsets, watch the planning as well as the execution, and finally, whether they can get away and not get executed.

This isn’t just a feature of heist films though. It’s in classic war capers such as The Great Escape (1963, Dir. John Sturges) or The Dirty Dozen (1967, Robert Aldrich), it’s in Westerns such as The Magnificient Seven (1960, Dir. John Sturges), you could even argue you find it in sci-fi in Ghostbusters (1984, Dir. Ivan Reitman). And yes these primarily male orientated fantasies are just that, fantasies. But then, what could be a better model for an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s famous book “Fantstic Mr. Fox”?

Far be it from an auteur to not put his own spin on all that cinematic history though. Not only does the film stray far beyond Roald Dahl’s story, but the film brims with the style and substance of Wes Anderson. There’s so much additional material here, so many flourishes and quirks.  Wild animals discussing the tree housing market. The word “cuss” replacing all expletives. Ash (Jason Schwartzman) desperately seeking his father’s attention and trying to emulate him, the curious question of why everyone cuts out their ransom notes in newspaper cut outs when they know who they’re speaking to, the invention of a ridiculously complex high school sport which becomes oddly central to the film. There’s so much going on here that I’ll confess when I first saw this film in about 2010, as a 13-year-old boy, I missed so much of what is going on.  That’s never a bad thing though, it’s important to have films you can return to and discover new things.

Talking of things to return to, the stop motion animation (shot at 12 frames rather than 24) in this film is nothing short of a delight. The painstaking detail involved in any process of animation is one I continually admire and respect, because it would take a far more patient person than me to ever commit to the agonising production of animation. The price you pay for complete control over your image, to be able to design every single aspect of it, is that it takes up your life. And the image here is in a tradition of animation which is rough, handcrafted and has its own aesthetic. Against the vein of super smooth, completely digitally modeled animation, Fantastic Mr. Fox instead handcrafts a stop motion masterpiece, wiry hair and glass eyes and painted backgrounds and real fabric costumes. I’m always impressed by stop motion animation, but when its done this well it’s something I just fall in love with.

And I can definitely continue raving about the other technical areas that I love in this film, its eclectic soundtrack, it’s wry characters, its tight script and its impressive colour design. All of its disparate elements which are united into one cohesive design. But honestly I just want to talk about my favourite scene. After Mr. Fox (George Clooney) has escaped from the farm after rescuing his nephew Kristofferson (Eric Anderson), he spots a wolf in the distance, something he’s actually afraid of. He tries to communicate with it, calling it by its Latin name, speaking French. He finally raises his fist in a moment of solidarity, and the wolf after a brief pause raises his fist in return.

It’s a moment which seems to pause the entire flow of the film, occupying an almost otherworldly space in the film. The serene score underpins it, but it’s a moment of clarity in the eye of its ramshackle tweed tornado. It’s a reconciliation of all the themes in the film, of wilderness and wild animals sometimes suffocated by the pressures of civilisation. It’s honestly just one of those rare marks of quality in a piece of art which contains a moment of reflection and emotional clarity. I’ll put it up here devoid of its context, but inside the film it’s in my opinion, the point which elevates the entire film into something far greater than just a children’s animation. Or maybe it just properly unveils and reveals the power that sometimes lies inside the stories we think are only for children.

I live in the city, and I’m surrounded by foxes here. And every time I spot them, they stop and stare at me. And there’s a kinship there, alongside the distance. We understand each other. It’s not full, and it’s not complete understanding. But it is there.

-Alex

Fantastic Mr. Fox : Stop Motion Wilderness

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 : Humour, Spectacle and Humans

Guardians OF The Galaxy Vol. 2

It’s getting more and more difficult to imagine a time when sci-fi was seriously uncool. Not just slightly still uncool as it is to be obsessed with it, but in the it was something to be kept hidden from the world. It’s very ironic that of all the places that could have become synonymous with nerd culture, the stereotype that grew was in the basement. Even now as its exposed in the light of mainstream culture, with Hollywood’s biggest actors signing themselves up to play aliens and goblins and all sorts, it still retains some of its outsider, underground status. The biggest tentpole film of the year comes from an obscure run of Marvel comics which would have remained hidden in basements if it had not been resurrected.

Movies can often reflect the times you live in as well as the culture it came from. The ironic, sarcastic, self-deprecating and misaligned heroes of the first film, Guardians of the Galaxy (2014, Dir. James Gunn) are very much a reflection of today. It’s difficult to imagine Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and the Joker bickering like children at the dinner table, clever remarks and funny one liners matched only by characters trying to explain their unspoken romance with references to Cheers, a live-action US sitcom from the 80s. We carry our cultures with us, and in 30 years a new generation will understand these techniques even less. And while its impossible to say that any one person was responsible for what was in this film, it’s important to note its mix and remix of timeless themes and time specific aspects (songs, jokes) is what makes this series work.

One of the brutal facts involved in this sequel’s judgement is the fact that people are already in on the jokes this time. A large unspoken part of why people talk about the law of diminishing returns when it comes to returning to a franchise or story is because the director can’t get away with as much as when he’s introducing the world for the first time. This is why the jokes maybe fall a little flatter this time, why as I sat in the cinema I could predict a few of the one-liners a couple of seconds before they land. Humour always lands hardest when the balanced scales between the audience and the director/joke-teller are weighted heavily towards the latter. When you’ve already got a whole film’s worth of previous material in your memory, the film has to stretch much harder to ring laughs out of an audience who have, to put it bluntly, seen it all before.

That’s not to completely let Vol. 2 completely off the hook though. A style needs to constantly evolve to remain fresh and interesting. The first time you hear a joke its funny. The second time round its less so. A couple more times and it becomes downright aggravating. Even being ironic gets annoying, and Vol. 2 suffers from a constant struggle of trying to undercut itself in an attempt to balance its humour with drama. Honestly on multiple occasions I was trying to decipher whether a scene was meant to be serious or a soon to be joke, and only with the help of its dramatic orchestral score (not its 70s/80s jams) can you actually orient yourself and figure out whether a scene’s meant to be funny or not. It’s sad I guess that the film is being crushed under the weight of its own previous success, much like Joss Whedon experienced with his Avengers Assemble (2012)/Avengers:Age of Ultron (2015) projects. Lightning can’t strike in the same place twice.

So what’s left? Well there’s a serious amount of spectacle going on here. This is really the highest level of money in filmmaking, and as a result no expense is spared. The world is as fully realised as can be, the relentlessly good CGI covering for any of the practical sets and worlds built, all of which no detail or expense is spared. Really the set pieces in this film remind me of video games and their boss fights, worlds which simply up until now would be too inhumanly expensive to even attempt recreating on film. It’s strength also lies in its ability to actually have colour, to make it more of a fantasy and pull itself away from the brown-grey colour palette of “gritty realism”. It’s world feels tangible at time, and as a result a lot of its more technical parts can rely on tried and tested classic methods to get its point across, when its production design is doing most of the work for it. You won’t find any experimental editing or cinematography here, but then if you’re looking for that you’ve come to the wrong film.

So while its humour takes a beating and its spectacle is only a backdrop, what holds it in place? Well I found it in its core, the same place which made the first one catalyse so well; it’s characters. The film really stretches its legs in this department, and manages to keep its spectacle playing second fiddle to the character’s and their relationships. It’s coincidental that in a film where it’s villain is literally a giant brain, its primary concern and what keeps it focused is what goes on in the heart. From its ramshackle family dynamics, ranging from the explosive to the intimate,both of which don’t feel mawkish or cringe at all, to the introduction of a character who is an empath (can feel other people’s feelings) Mantis (Pom Klementieff). In all of the monumental CGI spectacle, Vol. 2 never loses sight of the grounding it desperately needs in just what these character’s feel, about themselves and about each other.

The messed up ensemble family dynamic was and always has been Guardians strongest pillar to stand on, and credit to James Gunn for managing to stay mostly on that track. I always rated the first installment of this series as the best thing to come out of the MCU, since it’s the film that’s least concerned with the “super” part of superheroes. As this film shows, it’s difficult to care about gods unless they’re human. I mean, its shiny aspects of irony and nostalgia and flashy soundtrack may stick out more, but it’s the very human heart which keeps the film from completely disintegrating into a very colorful vibrant mess. It’s strange watching it, because the film itself seems pulled in so many different directions it can be disorienting and overwhelming at times; family drama, heady concept film, mindless popcorn fodder, cheesy 80s mining of nostalgia, operatic violence and low-brow brutish humour. It really is a reflection of the times we live, of remix culture, the obsession with the 80s (which I’m still not on board with). witty bantering and CGI dream worlds.

I’m not saying its a perfect film. But it’s a film that reminds me why I go to the cinema. It was a film I got lost in, both ironically and un-ironically. Even in its weaker moments, its something to enjoy, cinema which does its best to make its audience actually enjoy themselves. It’s power lies in its ability to not take itself too seriously, and while not everything lands, does it really matter? Like your family, not every moment with them is the best or worst in your world. The point is that they’re there around you, their presence and their personalities more than enough comfort in what would otherwise be the empty black void of space.

-Alex

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 : Humour, Spectacle and Humans