The Meaning of Life (1983, Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones)

Terry Jones’s The Meaning of Life is a seven-part rumination on The Meaning of Life. At least the title cards for each part suggest its a seven-part rumination on the Meaning of Life. Not to spoil anything, but if the film does get around to addressing said meaning… well, it acknowledges you don’t need to be a philosopher with an S in your name to figure certain things out.

Instead, The Meaning of Life is some very controlled lunacy from the Monty Python troupe. Terrys Jones and Gilliam direct (Jones the feature, Gilliam a prologuing short), everyone writes, everyone actings (though barely Gilliam). There aren’t many standouts in the cast. Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, and sort of Jones do the best. But no one’s got a great part. Eric Idle’s problem is he just has bad parts, time and again. Except one waiter bit and it’s just a scene. And he does headline a nice musical number. His acting roles are always competently done… they’re just slight.

John Cleese has an entirely different, though at first seemingly opposite, problem. Cleese has all these big parts–(British) public school teacher, British empire officer, extremely American waiter–and none of them are great. Even when Cleese is good, the parts are thin. As the films progress, things even out–Cleese’s performance and the parts get to an equal thinness.

Some of it could be Jones’s direction. He’s far more interested in the filmmaking of Meaning of Life than the humor of it. There’s a lot of special effects, there’s a lot of narrative devices in moving from sketch-to-sketch, moving around in sketches. He loves the theatricality of the film, dropping a big musical number in, but he’s not particularly invested in the sketches themselves. Sometimes the writing is just poorly timed, sometimes the punchline isn’t enough. Director Jones, cinematographer Peter Hannan, and editor Julian Doyle do some rather cool stuff in Meaning of Life; one minute it feels like a British crime cheapie, then French New Wave, then Bergman. Jones throws a lot of spaghetti on the wall and most of it sticks.

Except not really when it comes to the “narrative.” The sketches aren’t good enough for the MacGuffin not to function. It’s a bumpy almost too hours. It moves well, but it’s really bumpy. Right after a gross-out sequence Jones highlights as an effective, if icky segue into the third act, it becomes obvious Life’s never smoothing out. It’s not all building up to a grand finale. In fact, Jones cuts away from the grand finale, which might actually be the better move.

That Gilliam-directed prologue is a weird bit of early eighties yuppie bashing and old British men wearing Road Warrior outfits. It’s dramatically inert and the joke isn’t funny enough, but it’s a beautifully executed piece of work. Great Roger Pratt photography on it.

Anyway.

Meaning of Life has enough laughs to leave a positive impression; Jones’s decision not to get ambitious with the material seems to be a correct one. It’s a shame Idle and Cleese–who should be standouts–aren’t.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones; written by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Gilliam, Eric Idle, Jones, and Michael Palin; directors of photography, Roger Pratt and Peter Hannan; edited by Julian Doyle; music by John Du Prez; production designer, Harry Lange; produced by John Goldstone; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Graham Chapman (Tony Bennett), John Cleese (Death), Terry Gilliam (Howard Katzenberg), Eric Idle (Angela), Terry Jones (Mrs. Brown), and Michael Palin (Lady Presenter).


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Valentino (1951, Lewis Allen)

Valentino opens with lead Anthony Dexter (whose resemblance to Valentino got him the job, not his acting abilities) doing the tango. It’s the trope’s rehearsal and it’s fine. It’s not concerning, which is sort of cool for the film, because most of the scenes are concerning. George Bruce’s screenplay–based on his own story, “Valentino As I Knew Him”–ranges from tepid to cringe-worthy. Lewis Allen’s direction of that screenplay is never better than in this first scene. It’s as good, but it’s also much worse.

So when Valentino approaches mediocre, it’s to be appreciated. And you know early on, because the third scene–where Dexter quits the dance trope because boss Dona Drake wants him to be hers alone. Not all women’s. Drake’s performance is terrible but her role is terrible and hackneyed. Allen doesn’t care. It’s kind of stunning to watch this beautifully rendered Technicolor–Harry Stradling Sr.’s photography is only workman because Allen never asks him to do anything else (or takes him off set)–with this constantly misfiring production.

Bruce’s script either has Dexter playing Lothario or Great Lover, often to the same character. It might keep the character’s true intentions secret if Dexter didn’t give a spellbindingly awful performance. He kind of makes it through the first act, mostly because Eleanor Parker is on hand to hold the movie up, but once Dexter’s on his own… it gets real bad. A lot of it is Allen. He’s not trying at all with his composition. He has this one shot he uses for Richard Carlson’s close-ups over and over again. Carlson’s thanklessly playing clueless cuckold–Parker’s beau and Dexter’s best friend and both their boss. He’s a movie director.

Through the first act, Parker has this character to play. She’s a fictional silent era star–Allen’s real bad at rendering the silent era stuff, though it’s not clear Valentino had the budget to get the scenes done. The cheapness is another problem. Once Dexter arrives in New York City and it’s a backlot set of a town square? Well, segueing back to Parker, at least they didn’t cheap on her wardrobe. She’s beyond glamorous.

Unfortunately, other than the gowns, Parker ends up with nothing. Valentino makes some promises to its female stars–top-billed Parker and third-billed Patricia Medina–they’re supposed to be Dexter’s great loves. Parker makes it work until the script’s just too silly; she and Carlson also have zero chemistry together as creative partners, much less romantic ones. But it’s the script (and Allen) more than the actors. Medina has this somewhat interesting role as Dexter and Parker’s confidant who Dexter cravenly romances.

Valentino has a really small cast of characters who all are in the movie business and none of them have friends outside each other. There’s familiar chemistry between the actors–all of them–except it’s up to Parker and Medina to hold up Dexter. Parker at least gets to have a full character arc, albeit a terrible, thoughtless one, but not Medina. She’s completely disposable once her function is executed.

Everything in Valentino is purely functional, with the exception of Joseph Calleia’s throwaway comic relief lines. Calleia should have the best part in the movie. He’s Dexter’s down-to-earth confidant and business manager. They’re paisanos. Bruce is big on the authentic dialogue.

But Calleia’s got a crap part. He’s there to prop up Dexter too. Only the writing is a lot less compelling, which is a surprise how boring Bruce can go with this script, and Calleia can’t do it. The material isn’t there. Allen isn’t there. And, somehow, Valentino actually manages to get worse.

When Parker does come back, she’s in a different role–she’s subject, not lead. The film introduces Lloyd Gough as a reporter who’s on to Dexter. The last third turns out to be he and Dexter’s showdown over the Valentino brand. Initially, Gough’s a welcome surprise just because he’s different. Turns out you can be different and bad. Valentino has a lot of different bad things about it. Except the Technicolor and Parker’s wardrobe, there’s nothing to recommend it.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Lewis Allen; screenplay by George Bruce, based on his story, “Valentino As I Knew Him;” director of photography, Harry Stradling Sr.; edited by Daniel Mandell; music by Heinz Roemheld; produced by Edward Small; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Eleanor Parker (Joan Carlisle), Richard Carlson (Bill King), Patricia Medina (Lila Reyes), Joseph Calleia (Luigi Verducci), Dona Drake (Maria Torres), Lloyd Gough (Eddie Morgan), Otto Kruger (Mark Towers), and introducing Anthony Dexter (Rudolph Valentino).


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Private Benjamin (1980, Howard Zieff)

Quite a bit works in Private Benjamin, which makes all the creaky parts stick out more. Even though the film runs 109 minutes, a lot seems cut out. Characters just fade away, especially as the film rushes in the second half. But even lead Goldie Hawn just ends up staring in various montages–happy and sad ones–with her character development (the whole point of the movie) on pause.

Hawn’s nearly excellent–she would be with a better than director than Zieff–but still quite good as Benjamin. The first act sets Hawn up as a sympathetic, blissfully unaware Jewish-American princess caricature… though Nancy Meyers, Charles Shyers, and Harvey Miller’s script doesn’t really want to do too much commentary on that aspect. There’s one direct joke slash plot twist later, but the film’s initially just doing it to show Hawn’s screwed up life. Her father (Sam Wanamaker) is an indifferent, dismissive jerk. Mother Barbara Barrie is supportive, but in a limited way. Hawn’s love life is unfulfilling and gross. It’s depressing, not funny.

So when tragedy and contrivance land Hawn in the army, Benjamin all of a sudden finds lightness. Because as recruiting officer Harry Dean Stanton (in a gentle Harry Dean performance) puts it, it’s not like the ladies get the become killing machines in this man’s army. So it’s all sort of fun. Hawn slapsticking it through boot camp, for example. It has a number of solid laughs. It also builds up the supporting cast. There’s Eileen Brennan as Hawn’s commanding officer and nemesis. It should be a great role for Brennan. Instead, it’s a weak, often inexplicable one. The film goes out of its way to avoid giving Brennan her own material after a couple significant setups. It’s a waste of a performance.

Hawn has a pretty solid set of sidekicks in Mary Kay Place, Toni Kalem, Damita Jo Freeman, and Alston Ahern. P.J. Soles should be a sub-nemesis, instead she’s a pointless supporting player and it makes Soles grating. Hal Williams is fun as the drill sergeant.

In the second act, when Benjamin starts to be about Hawn’s character forcibly developing herself, the film hits its stride. Zieff either gets he shouldn’t dwell on it or he just doesn’t get it; his hands off approach leads to some of Hawn’s best acting in the film.

The second act also has Robert Webber as this wacky colonel with dumb nicknames (based off his own name) for everything. It’s silly and great, because Webber is straight-facing it all. Though the film ends up wasting him too.

Because eventually Hawn meets Armand Assante. And Assante is a rich, French gynecologist who speaks perfect English. He’s also Jewish. As an object of Hawn’s desire, Assante’s great. As her love interest, well, even with numerous montages, he wears out his welcome. He’s got a desperately thin part and ends up being the segue into the film rushing to bring back all its worst parts. And none of the good ones. It even scoffs at the idea of bringing back the good ones.

There’s also the weak music from Bill Conti. He plays up the military aspect, which is completely against what Sheldon Kahn’s editing is doing. The lack of rhythm drags down a lot of scenes. It’s like no one knows what anyone else wants to do with the picture.

Private Benjamin is solid situation comedy–sadly all Zieff can direct–with whiffs at greater ambitions. And Hawn’s a great lead.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Howard Zieff; produced and written by Nancy Meyers, Charles Shyer, and Harvey Miller; director of photography, David M. Walsh; edited by Sheldon Kahn; music by Bill Conti; production designers, Robert F. Boyle and Jeffrey Howard; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Goldie Hawn (Pvt. Benjamin), Armand Assante (Henri Alan Tremont), Eileen Brennan (Capt. Lewis), Barbara Barrie (Harriet Benjamin), Sam Wanamaker (Teddy Benjamin), Robert Webber (Col. Thornbush), Hal Williams (Sgt. Ross), Toni Kalem (Pvt. Gianelli), Mary Kay Place (Pvt. Glass), Damita Jo Freeman (Pvt. Moe), Alston Ahern (Pvt. Soyer), P.J. Soles (Pvt. Winter), Harry Dean Stanton (1st Sgt. Ballard), Craig T. Nelson (Capt. Woodbridge), and Albert Brooks (Yale Goodman).


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xXx (2002, Rob Cohen)

Maybe if there were anything good about xXx–there are a handful of things not bad about it–but if there were anything good, the sky’s the limited compared to the mess director Cohen finishes with. As is, xXx is an overlong, boring, James Bond-knockoff. It starts with a James Bond stand-in getting killed in the first scene during a Rammstein concert; it’s so extreme, a guy in a tux being too lame for a metal concert. But it turns out director Cohen has never wanted anything more than to direct a crappy James Bond movie, one with a rocket boat in it.

So eventually it’s Vin Diesel vs. rocket boat, which isn’t a particularly good sequence. Cohen and editors Chris Lebenzon, Joel Negron, and Paul Rubell have no feel for the subject matter. With Randel Edelman’s drawn-out score, they’re really trying to cut together this seventies James Bond movie. Only Rich Wilkes’s hideously crappy script is all about this punk rock extreme sports bro getting forced into foreign service by Samuel L. Jackson. Jackson’s bad. He’s got a scar, which only exists for Diesel to mock, and it still doesn’t get Jackson any sympathy. He’s just bad.

As for Diesel, he’s not good, but he’s trying. He’s clearly passionate about doing this extreme James Bond knock-off where he makes bad one-liners and objectifies women. If xXx were a spoof, it might work, but Cohen’s an earnest director. He really thinks giving Diesel a dorking, also objectifying Q-like sidekick in Michael Roof is good. Cohen really thinks his actors are giving good performances under his expert guidance. They’re not and his direction of the actors is abysmal–Asia Argento is clearly more capable than the material Cohen (and Wilkes and Diesel) give her.

Oh, maybe if Marton Csokas weren’t painfully weak as the villain, it’d be a little better too.

Still, the stunt work is impressive and until the lousy CGI takes over, there’s a really impressive avalanche sequence. If xXx had another brain cell–just another one–there’d have been great opportunity to juxtapose Diesel’s workman solution to an eye-roll inducing sequence in a Bond picture. Except Cohen maybe is just doing a resume for a Bond movie? It’d at least be an excuse. Otherwise it’s just gross negligence.

But, like I said, Argento seems like she could’ve done better and Diesel gets some sympathy for being in this tragically unhip hip, “extreme” movie.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Rob Cohen; written by Rich Wilkes; director of photography, Dean Semler; edited by Chris Lebenzo, Joel Negron, and Paul Rubell; music by Randy Edelman; production designer, Gavin Bocquet; produced by Neal H. Moritz; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Vin Diesel (Xander Cage), Asia Argento (Yelena), Marton Csokas (Yorgi), Samuel L. Jackson (Gibbons), Michael Roof (Shavers), Richy Müller (Milan Sova), Werner Daehn (Kirill), Petr Jákl (Kolya), Danny Trejo (El Jefe), and Eve (J.J.).


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