My Week of Cleaning Out the Netflix Queue: The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai (1984)

I have no idea what I just watched.

I do know that its full title is The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension but that was too long for WordPress.

That’s all I know about what I just watched, because I have no idea what I just watched.

It’s about some brain surgeon who performs experimental surgery, but that doesn’t tie into the rest of the movie at all. The movie focuses more on this same man’s career as a rock musician / physicist / comic book hero / cosmic adventurer / crash test dummy / sex symbol, but that doesn’t tie into it really, either. I have no idea what I just watched.

This is a movie I’ve been meaning to get around to for some time. Mainly because it immortalized in film Yoyodyne, the shady corporation known to literary geeks like myself from The Crying of Lot 49. That means that this film is one of very, very few that could possibly be said to take place within the same universe as any of Pynchon’s works, and that’s worth a recommendation in itself. As an added bonus, one of the characters employed there in Lot 49 was first introduced in Gravity’s Rainbow, which itself featured a character whose ancestors we meet in Mason & Dixon, a-and…I’ll stop myself there, suffice it to say that this indirectly ties the film not just into one of Thomas Pynchon’s books, but — by virtue of intratextual connectivity — the entire Thomas Pynchon oeuvre.

Of course, none of that factors into the plot here, which finds Buckaroo Banzai driving through a solid mountain, only when he comes out there’s a sort of alien fetus attached to the underside of his car, but that can’t be very important because it never comes up again. So the President of the United States calls him up to congratulate him on finding the alien fetus or something but it’s not really the President…it’s an alien from a race that wants to destroy Earth (and doesn’t live inside of mountains so I guess it’s a different alien species to the alien species that includes the alien fetus Buckaroo found on the underside of his car, which makes sense because if you destroy Earth you destroy those mountains AND THEN WHAT). But these aliens that prank called him don’t actually want to destroy Earth, they’re exceptions to the rest of their species, so they electrocute Buckaroo through the phone line and make him write equations on his hand. I have no idea what I just watched.

There’s also, of course, the Wes Anderson connection, and as Steve Zissou Saturdays kick off next weekend, I thought it would be worth seeing the film from which Anderson borrowed the end credits sequence for The Life Aquatic.

He also, I can see now, borrowed the electrical kiss from this film for Moonrise Kingdom. I’m glad he borrowed these things, because I can understand them in their reappropriated contexts. Here, I have no idea what I just watched.

Buckaroo and his band / fellow spies / sex people have to stop the aliens before they destroy Earth, which all started because a long time ago John Lithgow got flung through a wall by a go-kart, obviously. Christopher Lloyd is one of the aliens and that’s about the only thing that makes any kind of sense to me.

I have no idea what I just watched.

And while Buckaroo is at a club playing that rock and roll that the kids love so much, he hears Ellen Barkin crying so he says ELLEN BARKIN WHY ARE YOU CRYING and she tries to shoot herself while he plays a sad song so she goes to jail and he lets her out, because I guess he has that authority as some guy from the 80s who plays Zeppelin covers at a club, and it turns out she’s the identical twin of his ex-wife, who died in some way that nobody cares enough about to explain. So he hangs out with her for a while and puts her in mortal danger, because the aliens can spit spiders and Ellen Barkin is wearing a dress.

Seriously, what the fuck did I just watch? Jeff Goldblum is in it, too, eerily foreshadowing his future roles in the film of anybody who thinks to ask him. He doesn’t do much apart from dress like a cowboy and say to Buckaroo something to the effect of I’M SORRY I DID EVERYTHING I COULD DO TO SAVE HER and then Buckaroo is sad and almost accidentally orders war with Russia, but it turns out she’s just fine so Jeff Goldblum was trolling him I guess. I have no idea, no idea, no fucking idea what I just watched.

If you have any idea what I just watched, please let me know in the comments.

Because I have no. Idea. What I just watched.

Five stars.

Next up: something I understand. Please.

My Week of Cleaning Out the Netflix Queue: Duck Soup (1933)

I’ve never seen any of the Marx Bros. films. That makes me, I’m aware, a really fucking awful human being…and an even worse fan of both film and comedy. I’ve seen them in other things, and in the most famous clips that end up embedded in documentaries and retrospectives, but I’ve never sat down and watched one of their films wall-to-wall.

For that reason, I can’t provide much context about Duck Soup, nor can I really say that it is or isn’t representative of the Marx Bros. canon. What I can say, though, is that I was sincerely taken aback by just how modern this film felt.

It’s a political satire, at least ostensibly (more on this in a moment), but structurally it’s just a series of disconnected moments and set pieces. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s interesting how much lazy comedy this sort of approach has given birth (and berth) to since.

When it comes to screwball comic nonsense, films justified by the laughter each scene or moment brings as opposed to any grand statements or emotional journeys they might otherwise provide, we’re currently in the glut of dreck like Scary Movie XXIV or Meet the Spartans, and for a long time I felt that their lame pedigree was unwittingly set into motion by things like Airplane! and Kentucky Fried Movie…but no. In 1933, the Marx Bros. were doing it already.

Duck Soup is full of bizarre cinematic collisions, with a hilariously unlikable Groucho Marx as man who, for whatever reason, holds an entire country in sway with his charm, so much so that they feel compelled to literally sing his praises while he gloats about how many minor things he’d have them shot for doing. He speeds his country to war for the sake of an insult he can’t remember, and brings at least one entire nation to utter ruin. During the course of these things there are several musical interludes, lots of irrelevant wordplay, silent physical comedy, and a dispute between peanut vendors and lemonade vendors.

Not one thing follows logically from the last, and the conclusion of the film blindingly assaults cinematic flow at its core by cutting bluntly many times from one scene to an identical scene in which the characters are now in different costumes, or the insertion of stock footage from other films suggesting that soldiers, natives and animals are all rushing to the front lines to assist in Groucho’s war. It’s meta before we had a word for it. It’s the Tristram Shandy of screwball comedy. We can thank this movie for The Naked Gun. We can also blame it for Family Guy.

Which, actually, kind of disappoints me. Of course, it’s disappointing me in a very effective way, but I think I expected more from an important group like the Marx bros. I expected…I don’t know. A certain quiet dignity behind the proceedings — especially in a work of satire — or a sense of cultural weight. Instead it spins its wheels in an effort to squeeze every possible pun and reedle (to borrow Joyce’s term) from a scene. Plot points are hurried past or brushed over, so that we can watch Harpo wrestle with an uncooperatively loud radio, or Groucho have a showdown with someone pretending to be his reflection.

It’s strange for the sake of being strange, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I do wonder if this actually qualifies as satire. While the unwillingness to admit weakness leads directly to war (as it does in later, clearer satires such as Dr. Strangelove or In the Loop), I think people consider this to be satirical simply because it mentions politics…rather than because it really makes any statement about them.

After all, it’s just a series of things that happen. The mirror scene is great (though I actually first encountered its recreation in I Love Lucy) and there’s a masterful rhythm to the wordplay…but satire? I honestly don’t see it. If a film were marketed as, say, a satire about office life, people would be disappointed if the film — however funny it might be — didn’t actually say anything about office life.

When it comes to politics, though, I guess it’s easier to just assume everything fits. The lemonade vendor flips over the peanut cart? Sure, we can just assume that makes some kind of political statement. Three people dressed as Groucho run around a mansion in the middle of the night? Yeah, I guess politicians do impersonate those we’d most like them to be…

Remove the political context and you’re just left with a series of jokes that don’t work any less well without it. I enjoyed the film, certainly, but it doesn’t feel satirical to me. It feels like some very talented people coming together to have a laugh. Do we really need to assign a political motive to that?

Next up: another movie.

My Week of Cleaning Out the Netflix Queue: Tucker & Dale vs Evil (2010)


Like every red-blooded American adult, I’ve got far more in my Netflix queue than I could possibly watch in my lifetime, barring, perhaps, a Twilight Zone-like nuclear event that leaves me as the last remaining man on Earth, in which I’ve also got ten thousand spoons when all I need is a knife or something.

So I figured that I’d set aside a week and watch one movie per night, keeping myself accountable by PROMISING THE WHOLE INTERNET THAT I’D WRITE A PROMPT REVIEW OF EACH BECAUSE I’D HATE TO DISAPPOINT THE INTERNET.

Anyway, this was a movie that I decided I wanted to see the moment I heard about it. It’s not often at all that I’m ensnared by a concept — I tend to gravitate instead toward talent, whether in front of the camera or behind it — that I feel I can rely on, because all too often the concept is irrelevant. Take an excellent idea and give it to the wrong crew and you end up with…oh, say Watchmen. Take an idea that isn’t particularly remarkable and give it to an artist, and you have Moonrise Kingdom. So I’ve trained myself, to put it flatly, not to give a flying fuck about what a movie is supposed to be about. I can’t rely on that to gauge how much I’m likely to enjoy it, so concept is about the last thing I consider when I decide what to watch.

…all of which is a long preamble that I’m about to contradict by saying I watched Tucker & Dale vs Evil for the concept. That says, I feel, less about my own capacity for self-delusion (Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself…) than it does about how rock solid this particular concept is, and I’m very surprised nobody’s done it sooner.

The film is about two evil rednecks who terrorize and murder, one by one, the innocent teenagers who unwisely decide to camp in the deep and dangerous woods. At least, that’s what the teenagers think the film’s about…Tucker and Dale, the titular murderous rednecks, are actually just good-hearted country folk who see the terrified teens accidentally killing themselves off one by one as they stand off against the unfortunate men they assume must be there to kill them.

The plot summary is in itself a spoiler as there’s not much more to the movie than its early twist. The rest of the film is just a surprisingly satisfying fulfillment of promise, and an item-by-item trot through subverting horror movie tropes. But it’s fun. It’s easy for self-aware concept horror to go off the rails (compare Shaun of the Dead to Dead and Breakfast to get an idea of just how wide the continuum is) and so I was prepared to be at least slightly disappointed…but it was actually quite fun.

There were some issues, mainly a rape-y final gag that wasn’t as funny as the filmmakers thought it was and was probably the scariest thing in the film, albeit unintentionally, but overall it’s worth a late-weekend watch. Switch your brain off, don’t think too hard, and settle in for a rural-assault horror movie told from the other side. I’d never say that Tucker & Dale vs Evil is a great movie, and I may never even say that it’s a good one. But it’s worth watching, and that’s more than I can usually say about anything.

Next up…I dunno. I have like 150 things to choose from. Don’t rush me.

Review: The Book of Mormon

My girlfriend was kind enough — and lucky enough, but mainly kind enough — to get us to tickets to see The Book of Mormon on opening night here in Denver. I was unquestionably excited when she got the tickets, but if she hadn’t been able to get them, I wouldn’t really have felt disappointed.

After all…it’s The Book of Mormon. Matt Stone and Trey Parker are absolutely talented individuals — as well as genuinely gifted showmen — so I knew it’d be fun to watch, but the subject matter sort of rubbed me the wrong way.

I don’t mean to say that I’m insulted that they’d poke fun at a religion of any kind. After all, South Park‘s been doing it for years. That, however, was the root of my concern: South Park‘s been doing it for years. Matt and Trey already have an outlet for this and, what’s more, I’ve seen it. Many times over.

Top that off with the fact that they’ve let Mormonism have it several times already. “All About Mormons” is the most obvious example in South Park, and they’ve spat barbs at the Latter-Day Saints in many other episodes as well. Orgasmo mined pretty much every joke it had from the mismatch of Mormonism and the porn industry. And now this. I’m not one to cry “bully” very often, but I was confused about their motives for returning so many times to the same well. It seemed almost…mean.

Having seen the play, I think I now understand it. Matt and Trey don’t pick on Mormons because they want to upset them, or because they dislike them, or anything along those lines. They pick on them because, in their minds, Mormons are the religious equivalent of a bad horror film. In Mormonism, they feel, the acting is bad, the story is full of holes, and the set pieces are unconvincing. And that’s exactly why they love it.

There’s a level of inescapable affection for the religion, even though they’re quick to point out the problems with it. “All About Mormons” was relentless in its criticism of Latter-Day Saints history, but in the present day Matt and Trey had nothing but good things to say about the actual family of believers. They didn’t turn their Mormon characters into strawmen; they portrayed them as good people who were polite, family-oriented, and community-minded. That’s all good. The undercurrents of their belief system may not hold up under scrutiny, but “All About Mormons” suggested that it didn’t have to. If it made you happy, and if — in whatever way — it made you a good person, then that wasn’t a bad thing. It may not be a factually sound thing, but it wasn’t a bad thing.

The Book of Mormon, perhaps to avoid overlap with that episode, is willing to explore the other side. While “All About Mormons” painted a portrait of good people living a selfless life, The Book of Mormon shows us the passive self-righteousness and willful delusion that may be inherent in such a lifestyle. This could be taken as insulting by actual Mormons, I guess, but in order to be insulted they’d have to block out a substantial portion of the play — say, all of it — as Matt and Trey are careful to put all of the worst things into the mouths of two main characters who emphatically are not meant to represent the religion as a whole.

These two characters are Elder Price and Elder Cunningham. Elder Price comes across as a young man who doesn’t feel he has anything to learn. He not only knows it all, he’s mastered it all, and is also capable of teaching it all. In fact, he deserves to have it all. He is, he’s convinced, the rightful center of everything, as exemplified by the early musical highlight “You and Me (But Mostly Me).”

Elder Price’s issues are his own, and not endemic to the rest of the Elders and Sisters we meet throughout the course of the play. In a word, Matt and Trey are satirizing Elder Price’s psychology far, far moreso than they are his religion.

Elder Cunningham is Elder Price’s opposite in every way. Squat and dumpy, boisterous and lacking confidence, it’s Cunningham’s journey that really resonates. Elder Price, as you might expect, must learn humility. Elder Cunningham on the other hand has a more complicated role: he’s prone to fabrications, and is unfamiliar with the contents of The Book of Mormon. It’s not a spoiler to say that these things will come into play together during the course of the evening…it’s downright essential that that happens. But when it does, it happens in a way that’s both hilarious and oddly moving.

Price and Cunningham are paired up in the Missionary Training Center, and sent to Uganda…the first (and second) of many disappointments for Elder Price. There they find themselves immersed in a culture they neither understand nor wish to understand. After all, they are there to spread their gospel, not to take anything home in return. The play really does write itself from here, and in a narrative sense there’s very little in the way of surprise. In a comedic sense, however, it’s positively bursting, so I won’t ruin any (or many) of the jokes by repeating them here.

The comedy, as you might expect, is where The Book of Mormon shines. The music, of course, is as brilliant as well. The aforementioned “You and Me (But Mostly Me)” is a rightful earworm, but the crowning achievement has got to be “Hasa Diga Eebowai,” based on an expression the Ugandans repeat to help their through their troubled times. (“Does it mean no worries for the rest of your days?” asks Elder Cunningham. His guide’s response: “Erm…kind of.”)

There’s also the insightfully pornographic thump of “Baptize Me,” which is a one-joke song that spirals gorgeously out of control, and the instantly unforgettable “Turn it Off,” sung by a chorus of missionaries. It’s this song that introduces the play’s truly greatest accomplishment, Elder McKinley. McKinley’s repressed homosexuality never becomes so overt that it loses its edge, and it also gives the character a genuine sense of sad humanity. Elders Price and Cunningham may both have issues bubbling below the surface, but Elder McKinley seems like he’s dead inside, that his soul has been smothered by a lifetime of fighting the truth of who he really is. The actor who played McKinley, Grey Henson, received the loudest applause of the curtain call, and that was well deserved. He found the heart beneath the comedy, but never let the comedy drop. He’s absolutely this play’s buried treasure, and wears a hollow smile like very few actors can.

As Elder Price, Gavin Creel had absolutely the right amount of smarm and superiority, but his role, unfortunately, never gets much more complicated than that. Jared Gertner as Elder Cunningham has a lot more to work with, especially as he unknowingly delivers what may be considered the moral of The Book of Mormon: there is real benefit to having a comforting fiction.

And that seems to be what Matt and Trey are saying here. South Park has always had a moral center, as outlandish and sometimes brutal as its comedy can get. And in The Book of Mormon, though we’re always being asked to laugh, they can’t help but develop a solid, redeeming theme for the characters and the audience alike: it doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as it makes you a good person.

What you believe may make you look foolish. What you believe may be an obviously lie constructed on the fly by somebody who knew what you wanted to hear. What you believe may be a silly assortment of unrelated fables that never quite connect and will eventually form the basis of a mocking, irreverent musical.

But if it makes you a good person, keep on believing it. Because we need more good people, and we need to do less worrying about how they got that way.

Check it out if you get the chance to see it. And if you do see it, I’d love to know what you think.

I’m Still in Your eShop! And Here’s Why I Chose What I Chose…

As mentioned previously, Nintendo Life has a shelf in the 3DS eShop, starting today and continuing on until next Thursday. If you go here you can see which staff member chose which five games. But I wanted to write a short post about why I chose to spotlight those games…and also provide the five more recommendations I would have made, had space allowed.

VVVVVV (3DSWare)
Unquestionably one of my favorite games, period. I played this when it was fairly new for the PC, and was instantly won over by its affectionate visual tribute to the Commodore 64. Sharp writing, brilliant stage design and a perfectly utilized gravity-flipping gimmick were just icing on the cake. I almost mentioned the game’s stellar soundtrack in that sentence as well, but…no, the soundtrack deserves a sentence all to itself. It’s genuinely, impossibly, beautifully perfect music, and as silly as it might sound, the game is worth playing just for that. Even if you end up despising it — which I truly doubt you, or anyone, would — the soundtrack guarantees that the experience simply can’t be a waste of your time. To speak at all of the game’s plot is to detract from the unfolding wonder and surprise of the VVVVVV experience, so let’s just say it’s great and leave it there. When I found out it was coming to the 3DS I couldn’t wait, and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a stellar port of an unforgettable game.

Bird Mania 3D (3DSWare)
I’ll be honest here: I expected to hate this one. The developer never impressed me in the past, and so when they released this deliberately simple and warily inexpensive score attack game, I thought it was going to be a complete phone in. Instead it became one of the most pleasant surprises I’ve had on the 3DS. Bird Mania 3D is fast-paced, satisfyingly challenging, and urgently addictive. You’re ostensibly guiding a left-behind little bird to Africa, so that he can reconnect with the rest of his flock, but since it’s an endless game you’ll never achieve that goal. The bird is fated to perish…all you can do is collect stars and balloons along the way, racking up as many points as you can before his inevitable crash. It sounds dark, and I suppose it is, but it’s hugely entertaining, and infinitely replayable. More like this, please.

Antipole (DSiWare)
I picked this one up because it sounded a lot like VVVVVV. Aside from the fact that it’s another gravity-manipulation game, it wasn’t. And even the gravity manipulation is handled — and experienced — completely differently. As such, this turned out to be happy accident; I bought it hoping it would be one thing, and got something even better. Antipole finds you flipping, floating and dodging through a hellish machinescape full of killed robots, death traps, and precision-demanding obstacle courses. That’s good enough — and it’s great fun just trying to make it to the end — but a more difficult mode, isolated challenge stages and copious achievements make this an even richer experience than it would have been. DSiWare without question had more than its share of garbage cluttering up the service, but this is one worth digging down to find.

Mega Man: Dr. Wily’s Revenge (Game Boy)
This is one of the few games I had for the Game Boy, and, surprisingly enough, it was the only Mega Man game I owned. (Apart from the unmentionable PC disasters.) While I loved Mega Man as a kid, for some reason I never had the games. I simply rented them all so many times that I could have paid for them 10 times over. And that’s why I have such a fondness for this one: it was mine. It’s a flawed little game with some annoying physics and an all-too-short adventure on offer, but I have a personal attachment that’s stronger than I have for most games. And, to be fair, it’s great for what it is. The stages are all reinvented for the Game Boy, meaning there’s surprisingly little overlap with the NES original. The music has also been rearranged to account for the different sound chip, making it sound just as great as — and in some cases better than — the source material. It’s a minor entry in the Blue (or, erm, Grey) Bomber’s catalogue, but brilliant all the same.

Avenging Spirit (Game Boy)
Another(!) great surprise, Avenging Spirit is yet another platformer that tasks you with rescuing your girlfriend. Only this time, you’re already dead. Yes, you’re killed by mobsters before the game even begins, so it’s up to you to possess the living, using their abilities, weapons and strengths to wreak your revenge upon the villains who did you in. It’s a delightfully dark concept for such a cartoony game, and seeing the bodies you possess fall lifeless to the ground when you leave them never gets less chilling. It’s extremely challenging (noticing a pattern here?) toward the end of the game, but that just gives you greater incentive to push through and find new things. There’s one unlockable body you can get if you find all three keys, but the game’s main replay value comes simply from playing through the levels again and again, using different abilities every time, and having it feel like you’re playing a completely different game. Avenging Spirit is absolutely an experience worth having.

And five more I would gladly add to that list…

Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Minis March Again! (DSiWare)
There’s not much on offer here that you won’t find in the other Mario vs. Donkey Kong games, but the fact that it’s downloadable — and therefore always on your system — is recommendation enough for this puzzler. You need to manipulate obstacles so that the mindless mini-Marios can march safely through the exit, all in pursuit of the big dumb ape who stole your toys. It’s great in short bursts, and absolutely worth having on the go. It’s also — say it with me! — really, really hard. I can safely say that the number of Mario games I enjoy far outsteps the number that I don’t, regardless of the ever-shifting genre. His presence usually means a purchase is a safe bet, and that’s as true here as it ever was.

Sword of Hope II (Game Boy)
The story is almost gleefully naive, but the adventure — not to mention atmosphere — is fantastic. Sword of Hope II confusingly made it to the 3DS Virtual Console before its predecessor did, but I’m not complaining. It’s a classically-styled RPG with turn-based battles and massive amounts of weapons, items and spells. You guide the good Prince Theo along with several companions through a kingdom threatened by an unrelenting evil. So, yeah, the plot is nothing of note, but the experience of playing through it is fantastic. It’s a step back in history…no, not to medieval times, but to a time when video games were just meant to be fun…and that’s a trip I’m willing to take any time.

Kirby’s Dream Land (Game Boy)
Another of my original Game Boy games. I’ve always — always — adored this one. The first trip through the game is brilliant, light, sunny fun. The second trip is shockingly challenging. And beyond that you can configure the game so that it demands perfection and turns everything into a one hit kill. Funnily enough, Kirby’s never been more difficult than in this original adventure, which is so often wrongfully derided as being kiddy, or too easy. If this is kiddy, then I don’t want to grow up. (Also…I don’t want to grow up.) Kirby’s been in more great games than I can even count, but there’s an effortless beauty to his original outing, and, for better or worse, this is how I’ll always remember him.

Metroid II: Return of Samus (Game Boy)
The Metroid series has tried a lot of things over the years. From loose, unguided exploration to first-person shooting to linear battlefests (to, uh, pinball…) just about every game offers a unique experience. Its singular Game Boy outing, however, manages to stand apart even from that disparate group. It’s not survival you’re after here…it’s xenocide. Samus is tasked with hunting down and exterminating, one by one, every remaining Metroid in existence, and that gives this game an impressively dismal feel. You worm your way through caverns and tunnels, slaughtering tiny aliens as you go, and watching the Metroid population diminish. It’s not exactly the case that Samus becomes a cold blooded killer in this one, but the experience is, by definition, guided by bloodlust, and that’s not a common theme for a game developed in-house by Nintendo. It’d be worth playing for its novelty alone…the fact that it just so happens to be a fantastic gaming experience as well makes this unmissable.

Mr. Driller: Drill Till You Drop (DSiWare)
Mr. Driller — an offshoot of the classic Dig Dug series, though rightfully classic in itself — is simple: you drill. Fast. It’s a sort of reverse Tetris that relies on destruction and speed rather than organization and wise consideration. The longer you take, the more your oxygen diminishes…but the faster you drill, the more likely you are to cause a cave-in that ends your game outright. This version features more levels than I’ll ever be able to finish, but that’s okay; Mr. Driller isn’t about succeeding, or even surviving. It’s about reflex, and immediate decision making, as well as constantly dealing with the fallout (pun intended) of your past decisions. It’s a slight experience by design, but it’s limitlessly satifying.

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