Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Monty Python: Older, Fatter, But Still Funny As F***

Last weekend, on Sunday, July 20th, my wife and I attended and laughed a lot at a live broadcast of “Monty Python Live (Mostly),” featuring the legendary British comedy group’s final performance ever (or so they claim) before a sold-out audience of 15,000 at The O₂ Arena in London, England.

The event, the last of a 10 show run, also sold-out at our venue, North Hills 14 in Raleigh, N.C., and from what I hear, at many of the 2,000 theaters around the globe that carried the broadcast, indeed proof that Python still has powerful pull even at this late date.

Despite some annoying sound glitches at the beginning, it was a hilarious delight seeing the surviving members - John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones and Michael Palin – on stage together for the first time since their Hollywood Bowl concerts in 1980, energetically perform a revue of such classics as “Nudge, Nudge,” “Spam,” “Argument Clinic,” “Parrot Sketch,” “The Lumberjack Song,” and, of course, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” on a massive set with an orchestra (conducted by longtime Python collaborator John Du Prez) a couple dozen dancers, giant video screens, and, at one point, during the “Every Sperm is Sacred” number, candy-striped penis-shaped cannons that spewed confetti all over the audience.

The show’s tagline “One Down, Five to Go,” refers to the sad fact that sixth member Graham Chapman died in 1989, but Chapman’s presence was felt throughout the three hour program in the form of footage mostly from their classic BBC program Monty Python’s Flying Circus used to link the live segments and songs, and in lines like “He’s gone to join Dr. Chapman” added to “Parrot Sketch” with the audience’s roaring approval.

Much of the material presented was similar to that immortalized in the 1982 concert film MONTY PYTHON LIVE AT THE HOLLYWOOD BOWL – including the use of the filmed “Silly Olympics” and “The Philosophers’ Football Match” bits from the rare German episodes of Flying Circus – but there were several routines from their last motion picture, MONTY PYTHON’S THE MEANING OF LIFE, that had never been publicly performed before.

Those included an expanded version of “The Penis Song” sung by a cheeky as can be Idle, the aforementioned “Every Sperm is Sacred,” “Galaxy Song,” which is capped off by filmed cameos by physicists Brian Cox and Stephen Hawking (an audience shot afterwards showed Hawking in attendance), and “Christmas in Heaven,” which begins with an excerpt of Chapman singing from the original film.

Sketches that I was pleasantly surprised to see: “Vocational Guidance Counselor,” “Anne Elk's Theory on Brontosauruses,” and “Protestants Can Use Condoms” (also from THE MEANING OF LIFE).

I was also elated that actress Carol Cleveland, who’s been there since the beginning appearing on Flying Circus as well as all of the Python’s movies and stage shows, was there to reprise her pivotal parts. Guest appearances by Eddie Izzard, Mike Myers, and Warwick Davis helped liven things up as well.

Since I, and most watching, knew every line, it was funniest when the Pythons went off book. While quips about Palin’s “boring” travel shows, and Cleese’s multiple marriages were scripted, Cleese’s asides about bad reviews in the Daily Mail in the midst of the “Parrot Sketch”/ “Cheese Shop” mash-up apparently weren’t planned as they amusingly sidetracked, yet still didn’t sabotage Palin’s quick on his feet performance.

Having disliked many previous repackagings of Python, such as Idles’s musicals “Spamalot,” and “He’s Not the Messiah (He’s a Very Naughty Boy),” and the animated biodoc of Chapman: A LIAR’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY, I was so happy that “Monty Python Live (Mostly)” was a cringe free 45th anniversary celebration as well as a fitting send-off to the greatest, most influential comedy group of all time.

Older, fatter, but still funny as fuck, the Pythons put on a Hell of a last performance that I’ll definitely purchase when it inevitably gets a Blu ray/DVD release, with hope later in the year.

For those who can’t wait, however, “Monty Python Live (Mostly)” will be re-broadcast at many theaters on Wednesday, July 23rd and Thursday, July 24th. Click here for more info.

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Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Forced Farce SEX TAPE Plays It Too Safe

SEX TAPE (Dir. Jake Kasdan, 2014)

Jake Kasdan’s follow-up to his lackluster 2011 BAD TEACHER, which re-unites that film’s stars, starts promising with Cameron Diaz mommy blogging about how her and her husband Jason Segel were once sex-crazed college sweethearts.

Diaz’s voiceover takes us through an amusing opening montage of flashbacks, featuring Diaz and Segel fornicating every chance they get; everywhere they can on campus. But now, as she laments, they’re married with two children and tons of adult responsibilities, leaving very little time for intimacy.

So Diaz decides to send the kids off to her mother’s, dress up like Roller Girl from BOOGIE NIGHTS, and entice her hubby to try every position in “The Joy of Sex.” Segel loves the idea (“I’m very excited right now!”), and sets up his new iPad to record their sexy-time activities.

After their three hour session, Segel stupidly doesn’t delete the video like Diaz asks him to do, and in the next day it gets leaked out to all the iPads that he’s given away to friends as gifts (he’s a music industry exec – reminiscent of Paul Rudd's character in THIS IS 40 - who constantly buys new iPads to upgrade, you see). As mysterious texts taunt the couple about their video’s embarrassing content, Diaz and Segel frantically scramble to keep their friends, neighbors, and even the postman from seeing it.

This is a perfect setup for some juicy social satire, but sadly SEX TAPE takes turns into severely strained sitcom terrain. Diaz and Segel running around to steal back the offending iPads takes us through several exceedingly stupid scenarios, especially one involving Rob Lowe, no stranger to sex tapes, as a CEO of a company interested in buying Diaz’s mommy blog.

Diaz and Segel deceive their way into the creepy Lowe’s mansion, and while Segel is chased by a trained attack dog while trying to retrieve his iPad, Diaz snorts cocaine with Lowe as Slayer blares on the stereo.

This sounds funnier than it is, as I bet much of the movie would in description, but the sloppy execution creaks resulting in more cringes than laughs.

Rob Corrdry, who always seems to be the sleazy best friend to the male lead in these movies, and Ellie Kemper (The Office, BRIDESMAIDS) tag along as Diaz and Segel’s neighbor friends, whose son (the obnoxiously smug Harrison Holzer) turns out to be the one who discovered the video. Holzer tries to blackmail Segel with the threat of uploading their film to YouPorn unless he’s paid $25,000, so then the plot goes from getting back all the iPads to breaking into the pornographic website’s headquarters to get the video off their server.

For all of Segel’s constant yapping about how nobody understands “the cloud,” and the privacy issue conflicts that the film flirts with, SEX TAPE really doesn’t have any real take on touchy subject of sex in the age of the internet. Its only semblance of a point of view, offered by Segel after finding an eleven inch double-sided dildo in a drawer in Lowe’s home, seems to be that everybody has sexual fetishes that they’d prefer to keep private.

Despite that plenty of Diaz and Segel’s flesh is on display, this forced farce is tediously unsexy. It keeps dangling the carrot of racy fun in front of its audience, then snatches it away again and again. Even when it gets to its HANGOVER style finale – i.e. in which we finally get to see a bit of the shenanigans the whole film has been teasing – the clunky slapstick in each shot sabotages any sense of titillation.

SEX TAPE doesn’t improve much on Kasdan’s BAD TEACHER (soon to have a sequel) and it comes nowhere near the comic heights of the director’s best film WALK HARD. It’s a shame because Diaz and Segel have good comic chemistry together – their excited back and forths made me giggle a few times – but they so deserve a much sharper, way weightier screenplay than what Segel co-scripted with Kate Angelo, and Nicholas Stoller.

I so wanted to like it because Diaz and Segel make such a likably attractive yet dorky couple. It's too bad that they're stuck in this throwaway of a summer comedy, one that, much like Ben Falcone's mediocre Melissa McCarthy vehicle TAMMY, overestimates how laughter it can get from its talented cast riffing on top of a bare bones lowbrow premise.

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LIFE ITSELF: The Film Babble Blog Review

LIFE ITSELF (Dir. Steve James, 2014)

Roger Ebert, arguably the most famous movie critic ever, gets his own movie in the form of LIFE ITSELF, Steve James’ affectionate documentary adaptation of the late Chicago critic’s 2011 memoir, now playing at an indie art house near you (it’s also available on Demand and on iTunes).

James began filming the biodoc a few months before Ebert succumbed to cancer in 2013, so we get to spend some quality time with the great writer who didn’t let thyroid cancer taking his voice and his lower jaw stop him from turning out scores of film reviews, blog posts, and assorted other articles up until his death.

With the help of hundreds of archival photographs, tons of television footage, interviews with colleagues, and the audio of impressionist and voicematch impressionist Steven Stanton providing narration, James takes us through Ebert’s humble beginnings covering sports for his high school paper to his rise as a Pulitzer Prize winning film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times to his fame as a television personality who famously bickered with Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel on several popular TV programs from 1975-1999 (Opening Soon…At a Theater Near You, Sneak Previews, At the Movies, etc.).

After Ebert quit drinking in 1979, at an AA meeting he met his future wife Chaz, without a doubt the great woman behind the great man. Through their communication consisting often of just gestures, we get a good sense of their loving relationship. Mrs. Ebert’s assisting her husband in getting to the movies, sometimes in defiance of doctor’s orders, is adorable, and their ability to joke together (Ebert through hand-written notes and his laptop) through his struggles with sickness makes for some of the most touching moments I’ve seen on the big screen this year.

The most entertaining segments of this documentary unsurprisingly deal with Ebert’s caustic clashes with Siskel through the years. Richard Corliss of Time magazine said their show could be seen as “a sitcom about two guys who lived in a movie theater,” a testament to their Old Couple appeal.

Classic clips of the duo arguing over various movies through the years, plus hilarious outtake footage from the filming of commercial promos, illustrate how these two men’s hatred gradually grew into respect and love before Siskel died after battling a brain tumor in 1999.

Then there’s the films themselves. Key quotes from Ebert’s reviews of such milestone movies as BONNIE AND CLYDE, CRIES AND WHISPERS, and THE TREE OF LIFE are highlighted, but it’s the mention of his 1967 notice of a small independent film, WHO'S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR, made by a first-time filmmaker from Queens, N.Y., who Ebert predicted would in ten years be “the American Fellini,” that most got to me.

That filmmaker was Martin Scorsese, who executive produced LIFE ITSELF and appears here as an interview subject. Seeing Scorsese get choked up about Ebert had me, well, a bit choked up, and its seriously affecting to see the master filmmaker bristle at the critic’s harsh criticism of THE COLOR OF MONEY in 1986.

Now, I grew up on Ebert’s writing, and his TV appearances, so this material often got me very emotional. It’s difficult to watch the man fading in his final days, his mouth nothing more than a hanging flap of skin, but his wit and inspirational spirit ease the pain and sadness considerably.

James, whose seminal 1994 basketball documentary HOOP DREAMS Ebert was a huge supporter of, has constructed a vital glowing portrait. Full of warmth and humanity, LIFE ITSELF is an extraordinary and essential biodoc about a man whose love of movies influenced many movie-goers, including me, to seek out a lifetime of meaningful cinema.

Ebert says at one point in this film, “Look at a movie that a lot of people love, and you will find something profound.” LIFE ITSELF will undoubtedly be loved by a lot of people, but very few will have to look very deeply to find its profundity - it can be felt in nearly every frame.

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