If….

If....

 

If…. is the first in director Lindsay Anderson’s trilogy of films featuring Malcolm McDowell as the Mick Travis, whose misadventures continue in O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital. Everything I read about the trilogy repeats the same word to descibe Travis: “everyman.” On the evidence, I take this to mean Travis is a blank slate, a shapeless person pushed and molded by the forces of society about him. If…. begins with the epigram “Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom; and with all thy getting, get understanding” from The Book of Proverbs, but an even better statement of the film’s themes is spoken my Travis himself: “When do we live? That’s what I want to know.”

The initially realistic portrayal of life at a British public school, filmed at Cheltenham College but referred to simply as “College”, includes frank depictions of the corporal punishment and homosexuality (mostly repressed but in one case, genuine young love). The pupils’ lives are so regimented and ordered that even virtuous activities such as studying are forbidden if not conducted at the proper time and place. Most of the rampant cruelty and capriciousness comes from Whips (the senior class, with privileges) and is sanctioned, or rather, willfully ignored by the aloof adult faculty. It becomes clear the school is satirical microcosm of the British class society: a self-perpetuating system in which the young underclassmen “Scum” eventually grow into the roles of the oppressors.

If....I think I’ll call you Mini-Malcolm

Much of the students’ time is preoccupied with paramilitary war games couched in religion. As the school chaplain admonishes them, “Jesus is your commanding officer.” The sermon also instructs that desertion is the worst wartime crime, and as all Christians are born with original sin, all are likewise deserters. During one war game, Travis and friends deliberately shoot live rounds at their own comrades. Curiously, the headmaster mildly scolds them as if they had committed an infraction as naughty as nipping at the communal wine. But the first irrefutable instance of the film’s turn towards surreality is when the headmaster produces a faculty member from within a cupboard drawer for whom Travis to apologize.

From this point on, it is clear at least some of Travis’ experiences are fantasy. And what do teenage boys fantasize about but hooking up with hot girls and violently lashing out at enemies? He beds a beautiful waitress (Christine Noonan) in a violently animalistic coupling, who might very well be another figment of his imagination. Together they uncover a cache of weapons and pickled medical anomalies in the school basement (his subconscious?), including a grotesque human fetus. Travis’ anarchic adolescent fantasies climax with a massive school shooting during a nauseatingly patriotic festival honoring The Crusades. Unlike the considerably more tragic school shootings typical to films made in an era of actual teen massacres like Columbine (in films as diverse as Elephant, Empire Falls, and The Basketball Diaries), Travis’ war is a comically carnivalesque affair and the consequences fall offscreen.

If....Mmmf mmmmf mmff mmmmfff….

Miscellany:

• The otherwise spiffy Criterion Collection DVD edition appears to be a censored cut, not the X-rated full version originally screened in some parts of the world.

• The assistant director was Steven Frears, who went on to direct Dangerous Liaisons, High Fidelity, and The Queen. In the Criterion DVD bonus features, Frears states that If…. was filmed at the same time as the Paris Riots in 1968, lending powerful immediacy to the theme of violent student rebellion.

• The film alternates between black & white and color film stock. There are conflicting explanations according to Wikipedia, but the primary motivations seemed to have been that of budget and time (black & white film taking less time to light for). Anderson, however, liked the “texture” and continued to use the device. It is apparently not to be understood to delineate reality vs. fantasy.

• Mick repeatedly plays the music “Sanctus” from Missa Luba, an African-tinged version of the Latin Mass. Difficult for modern ears to believe, but it was a hit single at the time. (also from Wikipedia)

• Full of interesting tidbits, Wikipedia also cites a visual allusion to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger in McDowell’s first appearance, showcasing his instantly recognizable eyes.


Must read: everything you could possibly want to know about If…. from MalcolmMcDowell.net

Official movie site: www.lindsayanderson.com/if.html

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Sex and the City

Sex and the City

 

Yep, I saw it. I work for the movie company that produced it, so I got to go for free. The standard line with Michael Patrick King’s now decade-old Sex and the City franchise is that it has always appealed mostly to gay men and the women that love them. Even though this Dork Reporter is more or less a whitebread straight dude (while I like naked lady bottoms and affirm Sean Connery is the best James Bond, automobiles and professional sports don’t move me), I don’t mean that as a disclaimer. While I’d never seen more than portions of the original television show, and I’d not voluntarily pay see the movie in the theater or rent the DVD, I’m not ashamed to say I’ve seen it.

Sex and the CityAfter shopping, let’s go shopping

I had recently seen an advance screening of a yet-to-be released film (that will have to remain nameless here) that had more than a little in common with the plot and characters of Sex and the City. Let me just say that in comparison, Sex and the City is a masterpiece, and at least, watchable by straight men. The male characters in the film are endowed with more characterization and complexity than I would have expected. When Mr. Big (Chris Noth) does something “bad,” it’s because he’s confused and conflicted, not because he’s a douchebag (which is the explanation of any and all bad behavior by male characters in the aforementioned movie-that-cannot-be-named-for-professional-reasons).

Sex and the CityHey there, Mr. Big Stuff

To get into the nitty gritty of the plot, there was one aspect that I just couldn’t wrap my head around: Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) makes an understandably bitter comment about marriage in general to Mr. Big that becomes one of many influences upon his spontaneous decision to leave Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) at the altar. Miranda neglects to tell Carrie about her comment, and the event and its cover-up is weighted by the film as A) the worst thing one friend can do to another and B) the single reason why Mr. Big stood Carrie up. When Miranda eventually comes clean, Carrie reacts as if she sees Mr. Big and his actions in a wholly new light, and the reconciliation begins. I just don’t get it; it seems to me, based on the fictional characters’ actions and motivations in the world of the film, that Miranda’s minor indiscretion is exactly that, and the true problem is in fact Mr. Big’s ambivalence about Carrie’s desire for a disgustingly overblown princess wedding. But I suppose the answer to my confusion may simply be that I don’t get it because I’m a dude.

And finally, a Dork Report Public Service Announcement for any other bloggers searching the interwebs for movie stills with which to illustrate their reviews of Sex and the City: depending on your inclinations, exercise caution when Googling “Mr. Big.”


Official movie site: www.sexandthecitymovie.com

Baby Mama

Baby Mama

 

A true comedy auteur, Tina Fey’s acting has always come in tandem with her own writing. This double act has progressed from improv comedy at The Second City, to head writer for Saturday Night Live, to supporting player in the feature film Mean Girls, (for which she wrote the screenplay), and finally to executive producer and star of her own sitcom 30 Rock.

Baby Mama, written and directed by Michael McCullers, marks Fey’s first star turn in a project which she did not originate or write. Still, it certainly feels a lot like a Tiny Fey joint. Judging by the general tone and the chaotic improv of Fey’s partner-in-crime Amy Poehler, I suspect the two enhanced the production with a fair amount of script-doctoring. Indeed, Fey’s character fits firmly in the public persona of Endearingly Neurotic Thirtysomething Single Girl established on SNL’s Weekend Update, as Ms. Norbury in Mean Girls, and as Liz Lemon in 30 Rock. The Tina Fey Notlash notwithstanding, she is evidently more grounded in real life, and married with a child. Meanwhile, the fictionalized “Tina Fey” is the idol of every girl with glasses and crush of every boy with… uh, glasses.

Baby MamaWell, excuuuuuuuuuuse me!

Fey must have an impressive rolodex, for like her flagship TV show 30 Rock, nearly every little role is Baby Mama is filled by a familiar face. When not being amused by alumni from The Daily Show and SNL, we’re treated to Steve Martin as a wild and crazy organic food magnate and Sigourney Weaver as an initially creepy but ultimately sympathetic fertility doctor. But personally, I wouldn’t dare make fun of Sigourney Weaver’s age, lest she come after me with a flamethrower or a space forklift.

Baby MamaTrashy and takin’ out the trash

Official movie site: www.babymamamovie.net

You Kill Me

You Kill Me movie poster

 

The first thing to say about You Kill Me is to give props to Ben Kingsley, if for no other reason than my fear that he will break my kneecaps if I don’t. Even after his terrifying turn in Sexy Beast, it’s still a surprise to see it is perfectly natural for him to take the role of Frank, an almost superhumanly talented mob assassin. For a man of a certain age who once played Ghandi, he can certainly act up some serious physical menace. But You Kill Me gives him a chance to enrich this character type instead of merely repeat it. In Sexy Beast, he was funny because he was so very extremely menacing. Here, his character is menacing and funny.

You Kill Me is a bicoastal film, literally illustrating Frank’s different worlds by setting the action in two different cities. In Buffalo, You Kill Me shares with The Sopranos a look into the operations of modern-day gangsters. Their lives are somewhat less exciting than the fantasy lucrative lifestyle seen in The Godfather and Scarface, but still sharply divided by cultural heritage and identity. Frank may seem to be a pathetic figure, but when sober, he is the sole factor keeping his small-time Polish crime family in business.

Ben Kingsley and Tea Leoni in You Kill MeYeah, I find alcoholic assassins irresistible too

The problem is, he is sober less and less when the story opens, and his family must fix him in order to survive. So Frank is ordered from Buffalo to San Francisco to dry out, leaving behind his family (both by blood and criminal association) and yet quickly forging a new one: Dave (Bill Pullman), a shady real-estate dealer no better than a gangster himself; Tom (Luke Wilson), a gay fellow alcoholic; and implausible love interest Laurel (Téa Leoni, also an executive producer).

Ben Kingsley in You Kill MeThis man played Ghandi

The problem with Laurel is not only the creepy age differential (a long-standing Hollywood pox from which it seems even indies aren’t immune), but with Laurel’s underdeveloped character. What little we learn of her history (a recently deceased, unloved stepfather) seems insufficient to explain what makes her so lonely and desperate that she would attach herself to possibly the most unstable and unreliable person in the world. What happened to her to make her so blase and amoral that she clings so fervently to Frank and cross the country to risk her life for him?


Official movie site: www.youkillmethefilm.com

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Blazing Saddles

Blazing Saddles movie poster

 

Unfortunately, Blazing Saddles is not nearly as funny as I remember from my childhood. I recall the infamous bean-induced fart sequnce being a veritable symphony of bad taste; alas, the real thing is just a minute or so long at most. But it turns wonderfully crazy near the end, finally becoming funny as the cast crashes postmodern-style into another movie set and an actor shouts “Piss on you, I’m working for Mel Brooks!”

Gene Wilder proves his range by gives the polar opposite performance than in Young Frankenstein and The Producers. Stoned mellow, he graciously supports star Cleavon Little. Still, Wilder gets to wrap up the picture by kicking up his heels (still munching the popcorn from their movie date) and confessing his longing to ride off into the sunset with Sheriff Bart.