Tag Archives: Universal Pictures

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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The Fate of the Furious (2017, F. Gary Gray)

What is the Fate of the Furious? It’s unclear screenwriter Chris Morgan knows–it comes up in the script a little–but it’s a needless portent. The Fate is the cast sitting around listening to Vin Diesel talk about family after they’ve gone through high action and zero character development. Just because they’re all millionaires after one of the sequels doesn’t mean they can’t still have some good old-fashioned wholesome (and no longer goofily ironic) backyard cookout complete with grace. Because Diesel’s just got to get the positive religiosity into Fate of the Furious.

Which really should’ve been called F8 of the Furious or something. Because a movie where two guys flying around with jetpacks not raising any eyebrows needs a much more entertaining title. Fate of the Furious sounds serious and severe, things Fate gives up on relativity early on. The PG–13 rating might have something to do with it. It’s a little toothless.

So after a misfiring first act, which has Diesel going bad because Charlize Theron is blackmailing him, Fate gets a lot better. While Diesel is running Theron’s super villain errands–she’s a super hacker who lives off the grid because she has a private stealth jet–the Furious regulars get a chance to bond. And it works out. Though not as well as when the Rock buddies up with previous entry villain Jason Statham. Lots of likable trash talk. Fate might be the best Dwayne Johnson performance I’ve seen–apparently he just needs a subplot. And Johnson’s subplot in Fate is one of the film’s handful of laugh out loud funny moments. The character stuff is about the only thing director Gray doesn’t have to reign in, so he indulges the actors to good effect.

Even Michelle Rodriguez; she starts the movie terrible and ends up being not annoying. But maybe she gets some sympathy because even if Diesel has his reasons for betraying the team, Morgan’s script gives him a lot of other really awful gestures towards Rodriguez separate from the A plot. In way too many ways, the film picks on Rodriguez. Not for comic relief, just a dramatic drain. Though without taking any responsibility for it; Gray’s busy and Morgan doesn’t care.

After a couple awkward action sequences–one at night, one apparently an attempt at doing more CGI cars than, you know, Pixar’s Cars–Gray gets a better tone. The action gets immediately better once Diesel’s plot has its reveals, which Diesel already knew about just not the audience; it’s just Morgan trying to get drama out of deception. Because once it becomes clear Theron is just a lame Bond villain, Fate becomes a somewhat exaggerated, often comedic Bond movie. Or at least it has the set pieces of a Bond movie, only with the Furious crew running through it. And Gray does a lot better with actors than with CG.

Though Gray doesn’t seem to give the actors much direction, because someone should’ve begged Theron to show some enthusiasm for the role. She sleepwalks through the villain part, embracingly the ludicrous nature of the film instead of immersing herself. And whoever though the dreadlocks were a good idea was wrong. All of her hi-tech gang looks like mid-nineties Eurotrash villains.

So she’s awful, but she’s not really important. Diesel ends up taking the villain slot of the narrative and he’s fine in it. Since he’s constantly deceiving the audience and his costars, he doesn’t really have much to do. Just look sad, stoic, bored. It’s more bravado than performance. And thanks to Gray, it’s effective bravado. Gray might not be able to make those Theron scenes work, but he and editors Christian Wagner and Paul Rubell definitely know how to cut for sympathy.

Statham’s good. He’s fun. Rock’s fine. He’s fun too. Ludacris has his moments but his character’s weak. Same goes for Tyrese Gibson but more so; he’s initially exceptionally annoying, then Scott Eastwood starts hanging out and they bicker. It forces them to have personality, something Eastwood probably wouldn’t have otherwise. He’s Kurt Russell’s sidekick. Kurt Russell is playing a slightly less absurd than an “All My Children” super spy.

Nathalie Emmanuel seems like she should be in a much better movie. Her part’s thin–though everyone’s part is pretty thin–but she manages to make her absurd scenes and silly dialogue seem, if not believable, at least worth suspending disbelief over.

One thing about Fate is it’s real dumb as far as action set piece believability goes. Morgan comes up with this risible technology reasonings and then the special effects crew takes over. And Gray coordinates it all very well. He manages it all very well. The most impressive thing about Fate is how successful it works out given its craven lack of ambition.

And the two minutes of a foul-mouthed (well, for PG–13) and uncredited Helen Mirren help a lot.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by F. Gary Gray; screenplay by Chris Morgan, based on characters created by Gary Scott Thompson; director of photography, Stephen F. Windon; edited by Paul Rubell and Christian Wagner; music by Brian Tyler; production designer, Bill Brzeski; produced by Vin Diesel, Neal H. Moritz, Michael Fottrell, and Morgan; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Vin Diesel (Dom), Charlize Theron (Cipher), Dwayne Johnson (Hobbs), Jason Statham (Deckard), Michelle Rodriguez (Letty), Tyrese Gibson (Roman), Ludacris (Tej), Nathalie Emmanuel (Ramsey), Scott Eastwood (Little Nobody), Kristofer Hivju (Rhodes), Celestino Cornielle (Raldo), and Kurt Russell (Mr. Nobody).


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Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970, Don Siegel)

Two Mules for Sister Sara opens playfully. Then it gets serious. Then it gets playful. Then it gets serious. Then it gets playful. Director Siegel never lets it keep one tone for too long, not until the end, when he shows what happens when you take it all too seriously. After a hundred minutes of occasionally violent, occasionally indiscreet situation comedy, Sister Sara all of a sudden turns into this very real battle scene during the second French invasion of Mexico.

And it gets there beautifully. The first two-thirds of the film is a road movie. Mercenary Clint Eastwood runs across nun-in-danger Shirley MacLaine and saves her. She takes advantage of his pious nature, softly conning him into being her escort as she works to help the revolutionaries fight the French. Eastwood complains, but not too much and it’s only set over a couple days. Things move very fast in Sister Sara, it’s one misadventure to the next.

And it’s just MacLaine and Eastwood. There are pretty much no other main speaking roles in that first two-thirds. You can probably count the close-ups on one hand. Maybe not at all if it weren’t for action sequences–which feature Siegel using some kind of terrible zoom-ins, which are about the only thing wrong with Siegel’s direction. His two or three uses of a contemporarily popular visual device. When it counts, during that crazy battle scene finish, Siegel isn’t messing around.

Anyway. It’s just MacLaine and Eastwood. They bicker, they sort of seem to flirt, which creeps everyone out–particularly Eastwood, there’s the adorable Ennio Morricone music. It sort of cradles MacLaine through the idea of a nun in a Spaghetti Western. Because Two Mules for Sister Sara is an American production shot in Mexico starring Clint Eastwood. Siegel doesn’t go for that directing style, but when he does have a similar shot? It’s eerie. So MacLaine doesn’t belong, especially not as a nun. And there’s this playful Morricone music to keep everyone at ease.

It’s a road movie.

Then it turns into a movie about revolutionaries mounting an attack and it gets real serious. That shift in tone works so well because Sister Sara has been setting MacLaine and Eastwood up to do more than banter. Their relationship escalates perfectly for comedy and perfectly for action drama. It’s perfectly plotted up until that transition and then there’s sort of second movie. The first two-thirds is just prologue. Siegel, editor Robert F. Shugrue, and composer Morricone pull off something spectacular with that second-to-third act transition.

Great photography from Gabriel Figueroa. He does really well with the comedy Western, has a few problems with the revolution drama–but it’s hard lighting, cavern lighting, and he’s trying–and then he nails it on the battle scene.

And excellent supporting turn from Manolo Fábregas. He’s the Juarista colonel. He really helps out in the final act hand-off as well. The present action jumps a number of days and the last scene could be stagy–it’s in a cavern, it’s Eastwood, MacLaine, and Fábregas having a heated conversation–but it doesn’t. Siegel’s directing of the actors is good throughout; sometimes it’s amazing. Sister Sara has a handful of difficult expository scenes and Siegel moves them along thanks to his direction of his actors.

It’s even more interesting as MacLaine and Siegel apparently hated working together.

Siegel, Shugrue, and Morricone do such exceptional work–and MacLaine and Eastwood are so game in their performances–Two Mules for Sister Sara is almost too good for what it wants to do. It’s an unintentional overachiever.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Don Siegel; screenplay by Albert Maltz, based on a story by Budd Boetticher; director of photography, Gabriel Figueroa; edited by Robert F. Shugrue; music by Ennio Morricone; produced by Martin Rackin and Carroll Case; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Shirley MacLaine (Sara), Clint Eastwood (Hogan), Manolo Fábregas (Colonel Beltran), and Alberto Morin (General LeClaire).


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Jesus Christ Superstar (1973, Norman Jewison)

There’s a lot bad about Jesus Christ Superstar. Some of it is casting, a lot of it is Jewison’s direction choices. He’s clearly thrilled to be shooting in the Middle East, but it doesn’t connect to his actual narrative. It connects to the subject matter, just not the film Jewison ends up making. The one where there’s little or no connective tissue between scenes and where Jewison can’t figure out where to have his actors look while they’re singing. It’s kind of important in a musical and sometimes they look to the sky–occasionally even when it’s appropriate–other times they look directly into the camera.

Or, a lot of the time, Jewison never shows them singing at all. Instead, the music of Jesus Christ Superstar is a soundtrack to their otherwise silent lives. Very silent. There’s maybe a baaa from one of the symbolic sheep. It gets to be a real problem in the second half, when a crowd is chasing Jesus (a very blond, Robin Hood-goateed Ted Neeley) and it’s clear there ought to be ambient noise. Of course, the movie’s jumped into the deep end by that time so it doesn’t really matter.

The film’s first act is the strongest, even if Jewison can’t figure out how to direct Carl Anderson’s scenes. Anderson plays Judas, who gets the opening number. Jewison’s solution is to make Anderson tiny, letting the scenery overpower. It takes Jewison until the second act to get comfortable showing his actors actually singing. With Anderson it works. Anderson acts while singing. Yvonne Elliman is phenomenal at it, even when Jewison edits her songs horribly. Neeley’s not so good. He’s a stone-faced Jesus. Though still somewhat likable.

During the second act, anyway. In the third act, when he’s just a prisoner, there’s so much other bad stuff going on, there’s no point in keeping track of Neeley.

The bad stuff in the third act are Barry Dennen and Josh Mostel. Dennen’s bad. Some of it is Jewison’s direction of the scene. Some of it isn’t. Mostel is just plain horrible. The scene’s terribly directed and probably should be offensive if Jewison weren’t just so lame at it and Mostel is horrible. If the film has any good will left at that point, Mostel burns it up. Dennen might be tolerable without him. Though the looping is atrocious on Dennen’s song.

Decent singing and performance from Bob Bingham. Not from Kurt Yaghjian.

Neeley’s got a fine voice. He can’t act but he’s got a fine voice. And it’s not like if he could act, the movie would be much better. Jewison’s got a lot of bad ideas, for symbolism, for narrative, for composition.

Good photography from Douglas Slocombe. Able if terribly conceptualized editing from Antony Gibbs–except when he’s cutting between Anderson’s final number and Neeley’s walk to Golgotha, that sequence is awesomely cut. Kind of lame as far as the cruxifiction scene plays out–Jewison lets his pretense run loose and it fails the promise of Anderson’s finale–but that editing is excellent.

Jewison just does a bad job with it.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Norman Jewison; screenplay by Melvyn Bragg and Jewison, based on the opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice; director of photography, Douglas Slocombe; edited by Antony Gibbs; music by Lloyd Webber; production designer, Richard Macdonald; produced by Jewison and Robert Stigwood; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Ted Neeley (Jesus Christ), Carl Anderson (Judas Iscariot), Yvonne Elliman (Mary Magdalene), Barry Dennen (Pontius Pilate), Bob Bingham (Caiaphas), Larry Marshall (Simon Zealotes), Kurt Yaghjian (Annas), Paul Thomas (Peter), and Josh Mostel (King Herod).


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