Archive for July, 2015

Laughing at the Devil Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Laugh at the Nazis

“The Devil…the proud spirit, cannot endure to be mocked.” — St. Thomas More

In a nutshell, that is why laughter is one of the most effective weapons against a totalitarian regime that murdered over six million people. And it’s something that Mel Brooks understands and brilliantly utilizes in The Producers.

I always assumed that was obvious, but apparently it’s not. Earlier this week, Jeffrey Imm launched a campaign to shut down a Maryland production of Mel Brooks’ musical The Producers on the grounds that it normalized the Nazis and whitewashed their crimes.

To quote the always excellent Simcha Fisher:

Resolved: Jeffrey Imm is a moron, and so is anyone who wants to sanitize the power out of comedy.

For anyone not familiar with The Producers, it’s about two corrupt Broadway producers who scheme to raise one million dollars for a one hundred thousand dollar flop that closes its opening night, and then embezzle the remaining funds. In order to ensure that the play closes immediately after its first performance, they select Springtime for Hitler, a love letter to the titular dictator.

As I wrote in my review of The Producers:

[D]eclaring The Producers offensive misses the point of the unflattering mockery of everything and everyone in the film. The jokes take for granted that the behavior of all the characters is deeply unethical, and then it exaggerates that behavior to expose how stupid, shallow, and destructive such sinful behavior is. That is one of the best types of comedy.

Of all the subjects lampooned in The Producers, none is more evil than Hitler and the Nazis, and consequently the Third Reich is made fun of more outrageously than anything else in both the movie and the play. The big number of the show within the show, Springtime for Hitler takes for granted that Hitler was a terrible person; if he wasn’t the song would only be a few chuckles funny, not outrageously laugh out loud funny as it is.

However, Simcha raises another point:

Excuse me while I get a bit emotional about this, but this is why Mel Brooks is so great: he’s an optimist, and his exuberantly ridiculous jokes catch you up in his love of life, dick jokes and all. The jokes that “make sense” aren’t what make the non sequiturs and the fart jokes forgivable; they’re all part of the same sensibility.

Life is funny. Even when it’s awful (what with racism, and Nazis, and murder, and stuff like that), it’s kind of funny. Especially when it’s awful. Especially when you’re suffering.

This is something all the best comedians understand. I am aware Woody Allen is a controversial figure, but in his best movies, he finds what is funny amidst a world of imperfections and short comings. Simcha’s piece instantly reminded me of Hannah and Her Sisters, in which Allen plays a hypochondriac struggling with depression. The first time he contemplates suicide, he’s stopped by the very funny realization he’d have to commit mass murder to make sure everyone affected by his death would also die. After his second and more serious suicide contemplation, his saving moment of light comes from attending a screening of Duck Soup and realizing that laughter and beauty do permeate the world. By the way, Duck Soup is an absurd mockery of fascism in which characters gleefully celebrate going to war with song and dance numbers, punch foreign embassies based on misunderstandings, and make openly sexist remarks. The film had clear enough parallels to Mussolini that it was banned in Italy when it was first released, much to Groucho’s delight.

Another brilliant example is The Big Lebowski. The film is essentially a series of preposterous non sequiturs as two bumbling idiots needlessly complicate their lives. The humor is so great, because regardless of how terribly the characters are behaving or how bad their luck is, the film manages to highlight something thoroughly outrageous. Has your best friend smashed the living daylights out of a stranger’s $40,000 convertible due to a misunderstanding while screaming obscenities at a teenager? And has the stranger then retaliated by smashing the living daylights out of your car? Then how bad has your week really been?

A recent comedy which puts laughing at the devil into startling relief is Four Lions, about four would be jihadists who are so incompetent that they continually thwart their own attempts to carry out a terrorist bombing. In light of recent terrorist attacks, it’s not hard to imagine the film receiving backlash, but the humor takes all power away from terrorists by portraying them as fools who despise Western technology while owning every latest gadget, think placing one’s hands over one’s beard constitutes a sufficient disguise, and think the height of commitment is driving one’s car straight into a brick wall. In no way does Four Lions belittle the victims of actual terrorist attacks; on the contrary, death is treated with respect and sorrow. Instead, the film highlights the absurd illogical standards of the terrorists and serves as a reminder that evil does not have the last laugh.

And of course, Mel Brooks returned to satirizing the worst of human behavior with Blazing Saddles, a spoof of westerns that highlights the racism and slavery which prevailed through the old west. The author of the piece for PJ Media said, “God forbid this Imm see Blazing Saddles.” The obvious reason being that Brooks mocks racism (and sexism) in the same way he mocks Nazism: by showing that type of behavior to be as stupid and outrageous as possible, or portraying the work of the devil, and the devil himself, as idiotic.

What does Mel Brooks achieve with his best work? As Simcha stated:

Suddenly I knew what kind of show I was in. It was a comedy, and I was going to make it out of that dark room.

So go ahead, laugh at The Producers and Blazing Saddles and The Big Lebowski. God made the world and He saw that it was good. (Gen. 1:31) Regardless of how ugly we make it at times, there is always some aspect in which we can see the foolishness and absurdity of human depravity. We should never laugh to normalize the ugliness itself, but the recognition of how we have fallen short is like looking at the world distorted through a funhouse mirror. We can choose to despair or we can choose to see hope and humor by recognizing mankind’s shortcomings, either giving our enemies power over us or laughing at them. For my part, I chose laughter.


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The Definitive Ranking of Every Stanley Kubrick Feature Film

And now for something completely different: a satire piece. Not too long ago, Ken Morefield published the definitive ranking of every Robert Bresson film ever. The semi-satirical semi-serious essay was meant to parody the click bait film lists of Buzzfeed and the like. Never one to let a good joke go to waste, I decided to do the same thing with Stanley Kubrick, and since yesterday was his birthday, it seemed like a great time to publish it. The rankings are pretty much the order I like the movies, but I’ve watched most of them multiple times, so that’s my claim for this list being the definitive ranking. And even if it seems like something is rated too low, remember: these are Stanley Kubrick films, so that means all of them are fantastic.


fear-and-desire13. Fear and Desire (1953) — I know I said every Kubrick film is fantastic, but I kind of lied. Fear and Desire does leave quite a bit to be desired, so much, that Kubrick tried to destroy every copy of it. (He was a notorious perfectionist and embarrassed by his less than perfect first feature.) However, for his first feature film, it’s pretty impressive. Sure the acting is terrible, the dialogue is worse, and the storyline is pretty dumb too, but there is really great editing (merging of different shots) and blocking (telling the actors where to stand amidst the props). The visual composition captures the helplessness of four soldiers lost behind enemy lines too. You can clearly see Kubrick’s background as a photographer, and since film is a visual medium, the fantastic visuals mostly make up for the less than stellar aspects.


mannuquin12. Killer’s Kiss (1955) — Okay, this one’s not quite fantastic either, but it’s really good, unlike Fear and Desire, which is only plain good. The storyline is about a boxer who wishes to retire and leave New York, but he falls in love with a girl, and then runs afoul of the mafia. At 67 minutes, it’s one of Kubrick’s shortest features, and it still feels like the paper-thin story would have worked better as a short film. However, Kubrick being a fantastic director, has a great sense of style, and this film has style in spades. He stops the plot for a brilliantly filmed ballet scene and an equally brilliantly filmed chase/gun fight in a mannequin warehouse. The rest of the movie is pretty forgettable, to be honest, but those two scenes are incredible and they form at least a third of the movie. The acting is slightly better than Fear and Desire, but this is still clearly a freshman effort, unlike Kubrick’s next feature — a masterpiece which is his seventh best film ever!


maxresdefault11. Full Metal Jacket (1987) — Yes, this one is fantastic, despite the rough transition between the two halves, which is the main reason it’s at number 11. The two halves of Full Metal Jacket are actually two separate movies. I know that sounds confusing, but what I mean is that the two halves are so stylistically different that they feel like two separate movies which happen to be connected in one bigger movie. You might think that one bigger movie would be two times more awesomer than its two parts, but after watching Full Metal Jacket a couple times, I still think the transition from the training base to Vietnam is rough. The first half chronicles the training of US marines by the sadistic Sergeant Hartman, (R. Lee Ermey) and the second follows one of the marines after he is stationed in Vietnam. The slow pacing of the second half reflects the sense of purposelessness and questioning of the Vietnam war. The aggressive pacing of the first half reflects the brutality and relentlessness of Hartman’s training. Both halves open with a scene suggesting loss of innocence and then conclude with a shocking, unexpected death witnessed by Pvt. Joker (Matthew Modine). One major theme of the movie is the duality of man and how war brings that out, as exemplified by Pvt. Joker writing “born to kill” on his helmet yet wearing a peace button at the same time. The movie’s pretty deep; but nonetheless, its definitive ranking is number 11. But that’s not a bad ranking; remember Spinal Tap, great Kubrick films go to 11.


10. Lolita (1962) — This is the first movie that Peter Sellers made with Kubrick, the second one they did together is a bit higher on this list, which I might add is definitive. It is possible to debate which Sellers performance in a Kubrick film is better; it is not possible to debate which Kubrick film he did was better. Lolita is the weaker of the two, because it is ranked lower on this list. Lolita-1962-2The novel Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov was very controversial, especially in 1962, and as a result Kubrick had a lot of difficulty in adapting it into a film and getting approval with the Hollywood censors. Consequently, even though Nabokov wrote a really good screenplay adaptation of his own novel, Kubrick significantly revised it so he would not run afoul of the production code. The result is still a great movie (it’s a Kubrick film, lest we forget), but the pacing could have been a little tighter, and I think it was possible for the film to have been even creepier as well.


9. Spartacus (1960) — I was on the fence about including this one, because I believe in auteur theory, the idea that the director exercises control over all aspects of his film, and he is the true author of the film. However, Stanley Kubrick did not have complete creative and artistic control over Spartacus, because he was hired as a replacement director after Kirk Douglas and Universal Studios had a falling out with the first director, Anthony Mann. spartacus-fightKubrick had to include the few scenes which had already been filmed, and he was not allowed to rewrite the script to his satisfaction. So therefore, while Kubrick did technically direct Spartacus, it is debatable whether it really is a Kubrick film. However, since the title of this post is “The Definitive Ranking of Every Stanley Kubrick Feature Film” I figured it should be included. And since it’s awesome (because the über-talented Kubrick could make a great movie even if he did not have everything done the way he wanted) it’s included in the top ten.


8. A Clockwork Orange (1971) — Yes, this list is the definitive ranking of Kubrick films, and number 8 is the correct ranking of A Clockwork Orange. I understand that many people believe Kubrick aficionados are supposed to include this one in the top three, but the simple reality is I like the remaining seven films more than this one. clockwork-orange-1971--large-msg-130281966791A Clockwork Orange is the best types of movies — one which forces the viewer to draw his own conclusions on whether Alex’s (Malcolm McDowell) horrific crimes or his rehabilitation is the greater violation of human dignity. The vibrant gaudy color scheme and highly synthesized score create a fantastic dystopian aura of unease. Perhaps it is the pacing; A Clockwork Orange has three sections, and each one is almost exactly forty-five minutes long, even though the more important sections should be longer. Perhaps it is because I like Singin’ in the Rain even more than this. Whatever it is, I know it is not Kubrick’s decision to omit the final chapter of Anthony Burgess’ novel, because the story is definitely stronger without it, as Kubrick (who was a genius) correctly knew.


7. The Killing (1956) — You read that correctly. The-Killing-006I am seriously ranking The Killing ahead of A Clockwork Orange. The Killing is very simply, a fantastic film noir, and in case you forgot, this list is definitive. In The Killing, a group of veteran criminals led by Sterling Hayden plan the perfect robbery, but during the execution things do not go as smoothly as planned. Like A Clockwork Orange, The Killing is also one of the best types of movies — one which has a title that can be interpreted multiple ways. This provides a great level of complexity upon which Kubrick masterfully builds, keeping the tension and suspense riveting to the end. I suppose I should repeat it here, because it is possible you’ve forgotten that Kubrick was one of the greatest directors ever.


6. Barry Lyndon (1975) — This movie is long and beautiful, and I love every second of it. After Kubrick’s funding for his planned project on Napoleon Bonaparte was pulled, he used the extensive research he had done to make the period drama Barry Lyndon about a fortune hunting Irish rogue. To add to the eighteenth century feel,large_barry_lyndon_blu-ray_8 Kubrick refused to use any electric lighting for the shoot. All scenes in the film were lit by natural light or by candlelight and shot with high speed lenses which would allow the film to capture more light than normal. That in itself is a really impressive achievement, but the clarity and stunning focus of the dazzling costumes and sweeping landscapes makes the technique all the more impressive. The film won four academy awards, which must be proof of something. I feel bad I can’t rank it higher.


5. The Shining (1980) — I often see this at number one on other lists rankings Kubrick’s films. However, those lists are not definitive, unlike this one, and putting The Shining at number one is a classic case of someone being wrong on the internet. the_shining_backVery, very wrong on the internet. Because while The Shining is great, (it’s a Kubrick film, so it has to be) it is not as great as the four titles which follow it here. Anyway, the film is about isolation and the breakdown of the family which occurs when Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) chooses to isolate himself as he works on his novel while being the winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel. It is not about Kubrick proving the moon landings were faked, as some fans of The Shining claim. While I can understand the disappointment from that revelation, it in no way detracts from this masterpiece.


leadeyes34. Eyes Wide Shut (1999) — I’m not going to say anything about this, except that it’s a perfect nightmare, and the eerie atmospheric pacing is perfect, and the use of Ligeti and Shostakovich perfectly adds to said atmosphere, and it has the perfect switch from underscoring to diegetic music during the first scene to suggest the transition from dreaming to waking up, and it has the best Tom Cruise performance, and the best Nicole Kidman performance, and the perfect use of the color red, and the perfect use of masks, and the perfect development of the theme of sex divorced from relationships, and the perfect ending. Okay, for not planning to say anything, I said a lot. In short, Eyes Wide Shut is perfect, and it was an incredible final film from Kubrick.


3. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)2001-a-space-odyssey I am aware that this is Kubrick’s most important film, and it is supposed to be at number 1. But Kubrick’s top four films are all sublime, and by putting 2001 at number three, I am certainly not denying that it is Kubrick’s most impressive achievement. Instead, I am simply saying that it definitively ranks slightly behind two of Kubrick’s other incredible achievements. Maybe if it didn’t have so much in common with WALL-E I would rank it higher. But seriously, how can anyone miss that both films have a computer villain with a glowing red eye? Or the fact that both films use “Also Sprach Zarathustra” at dramatic moments when mankind is drastically changing its destiny? Both things are fantastic in both films, and Kubrick always knew how to create the best ideas, so I’m certainly not complaining. This film is divine.


2. Paths of Glory (1957) — I think I’ve already made it clear that all these movies are awesome, but considering that this was Kubrick’s fourth feature made when he was twenty-eight years old 91ql8gVcDDL._SL1500_(what did you accomplish when you were twenty-eight?) that makes Paths of Glory all the more impressive. One of Kubrick’s first films to use his signature tracking shot, which he would use throughout the rest of his career, Paths of Glory follows Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) through the French trenches of World War I, and then continues to follow him when he defends three soldiers who are wrongly court-martialed. The depiction of human frailty, corruption, and greed is balanced by a touching depiction of vulnerability and compassion that I sometimes think the definitive ranking of this film is number one. If you don’t know the answer to why this movie is great, I pity you.


1. Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) — No, I have not gone a little funny in the head, number one is the correct ranking for Dr. Strangelove, and this is the definitive list. A satire of the cold war, the film hilarious exposes the absurdity of attempting to commit mass murder for the sake of preserving peace. After all, what is 20 million deaths if the USA can emerge as a world leader and finally triumph over the Soviets? Kubrick wanted Terry Gilliam to direct a sequel to Dr. Strangelove; he didn’t want that for any of his other films. I think that proves this film is the best. How perfect is this film? 2812849_l3The perfectionist Kubrick insisted that the conference table in the war room be the exact same shade of green as a poker table — for a film that is in black and white. You’ll laugh until you cry, unless your tear ducts no longer function because your tears have evaporated from being exposed to fluoride in drinking water and in children’s ice cream, as put there by the international communist conspiracy. In which case, you probably are a commie with no sense of humor, and in that case, we can’t allow you to see the big board anyway.

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Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Year of Release: 2005     Directed by Tim Burton. Starring Johnny Depp, Freddie Highmore, David Kelly, Christopher Lee, Deep Roy, and Helena Bonham Carter.


Believe it or not, Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is ten years old. While the film has received decent reviews from critics (it currently has an 83% at Rotten Tomatoes), audiences have been less kind to Burton’s take on Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s book. When I saw it as a high school student ten years ago, I remember liking it more than most people seemed to, and I may or may not have said to a friend that this film was superior to the original, but that would have been said more in jest than anything else (if it had been said at all).

While Burton and Depp have done brilliant work over the course of their careers, both separately and together, they have also made some bad misfires, again both separately and together. On the other hand, they have made some of my favorite films, so I was curious as to what I would think of this now. However, as I recalled Depp’s goofy hamming it up as Wonka and how he’s lately turned into an obnoxious self parody (Mortdecai), it wasn’t hard to see roots of that here. And after watching some of Burton’s worst films, (Alice in Wonderland) I was resigned to say my high school self was badly wrong.

There’s no use in beating around the bush any longer; I guess I should just come and out and say it. This is a very good movie; it’s better than the 1971 film with Gene Wilder; and I found it to be an even better film than I remembered as a teenager. And no, none of those statements are said in jest.

If you’re still reading and have not deleted this blog from your search history or died of shock, I will emphasize that this film’s strengths lie in the perfectly cast children and Burton’s wildly creative visuals which bring the chocolate factory to life with a reverence for the source material while adhering to his own artistic vision. (I’m still not joking.)

All five of the children were terrifically cast. As Charlie, Freddie Highmore gives a great portrayal of optimism and innocence balanced with an acceptance of reality, always remaining determined and altruistic and never becoming cruel.

The four other child actors are a great contrast to Highmore, and they create delightfully repulsive characters. Philip Wiegratz does not have much to do as the gluttonous Augustus Gloop, but his gloating about how much he eats makes the perfect candidate for the first victim of the chocolate factory. AnnaSophia Robb (Violet Beauregarde) delivers her lines with such arrogance and over the top energy that she’s hilarious as the über-competitive girl who detests losers (i.e. everyone else). As the spoiled brat of spoiled brats, Veruca Salt, Julia Winter alternates between pouting and grinning with such ease that it makes her being attacked by squirrels all the more rewarding, and that sequence is easily superior to the geese in the older film. Finally, Jordan Fry gives a great one note performance as the rude and sulking video game-obsessed Mike Teavee.

Burton’s set design and art direction are some of his finest, and the chocolate factory he created has a sense of beauty and danger. The opening shot — a fittingly austere worm’s eye view of the factory’s tower shrouded in fog — captures the greatness of the factory and gives it a feeling being unsafe. When we finally see inside the factory, the vibrant array of colors is genuine Burton art direction. The colorful factory starkly contrasts the drab grays and browns which permeate the London streets, with hints of those colors on display in candy stores. Naturally, the dull colors of London make the golden tickets stand out all the brighter.

I think the above points are all undisputedly fantastic —so much that I don’t really understand how someone could dislike those aspects of the movie. I do understand how someone might not care for Depp’s off-the-wall interpretation of Wonka as a reclusive weirdo scarred by a traumatic childhood. However, if one leaves preconceptions behind and gives the unorthodox performance a chance, he might be surprised to find the performance better than remembered. While Depp’s performance here clearly contains the seeds of him turning into the self parody that he has become recently, I think what he is doing actually works for Burton’s version of the story, even if it is a little overdone.

Burton’s version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is essentially a horror film for children. After all, the idea of bratty children going off to a strange and mysterious factory where they fall victim to their temptations is not far removed from misbehaving teenagers going off to an abandon area and meeting gruesome ends due to their mistakes. Interestingly, the swirling melted chocolate which flows through the opening credits looks very similar to the gushing blood which flowed through the opening credits of Burton’s next film, the horror musical Sweeney Todd.

The horror in this film stems from the breakdown of families as a result of parental failure. Our hero Charlie is noticeably the only character to come from a happy intact family. As the Oompa Loompas sing: “Who went and spoiled her? Who indeed? / Who pandered to her every need? / Who turned her into such a brat? / Who are the culprits, who did that? / The guilty ones – now this is sad / Are dear old mum and loving dad.” Depp’s Wonka suffers from the same horror that affects the other children, and the film cannot be resolved until that relationship is mended. If one views Depp’s Wonka as the equivalent of the creepy guy who knows the horrors awaiting badly behaved teenagers, his character works.

I guess I should add that I am partial to Burton’s visual aesthetic, and his weakness as a storyteller often does not bother me. (Alice in Wonderland and his Planet of the Apes are both pretty terrible, but Beetlejuice is one of the greatest films ever, and I like it better than every Tarkovsky film I’ve seen. Not. Joking.) Although he slightly failed to rein Depp in, Burton created some fantastic sets, and he preserved the essence of Dahl’s story while retelling it with a slightly darker edge that makes Charlie and The Chocolate Factory a thoroughly enjoyable children’s horror film.


Content Advisory: Comic peril of bratty kids with possibly upsetting imagery.                      MPAA rating: PG

Suggested Audience: Kids and up with discernment.

Personal Recommendation: B+

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Don’t Look Now

A fantastic film newly released by the Criterion Collection. I am very grateful that Ken Morefield gave me the opportunity to write it up.

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