Tag Archives: Comedy

CAPSULE: A LIAR’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY – THE UNTRUE STORY OF MONTY PYTHON’S GRAHAM CHAPMAN (2012)

DIRECTED BY: Bill Jones, Jeff Simpson, Ben Timlett

FEATURING: Graham Chapman, , Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin,

PLOT: Fourteen different animation studios bring chapters of Monty Python alumnus Graham Chapman’s farcical written autobiography to life, with narration provided by Chapman himself (recorded before he snuffed it in 1989 at 48 years of age).

Still from A Liar's Autiobiography (2012)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s weird enough, but the appeal is too limited—it’s mainly Monty Python memorial fanservice.

COMMENTS: It begins (after thirty seconds of abuse) with Graham Chapman, or rather with a photograph of Chapman’s head digitally pasted onto a cutout of Chapman’s body, forgetting a line while onstage performing a live sketch. As the audience and his cutout co-stars grow restless at the awkward silence, the roof opens and helpful aliens beam the suffering actor up into a psychedelic Saturday morning kid’s show version of a spacecraft. It appears that the foregoing was all a hallucination, however, and after spewing a beautiful chunk of rainbow vomit into a gas mask as he’s being wheeled into surgery, Chapman begins reflecting on his childhood. He focuses on a (perhaps unreliable) early memory of being taken for a stroll through the wartime streets of a British city, calmly smoking his pipe as mom pushes his pram over the severed limbs littering the street. And that’s just the first ten minutes of this odd opus. At its best, A Liar’s Autobiography skips along from one insane sketch to another with the absurdist impatience of a good episode of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” Unfortunately, the script is rarely at its best, and things frequently bog down with scenes like Chapman’s memories of arguments over getting haddock or halibut during a childhood vacation; incidents that neither enlighten us about the enigmatic comic’s artistry nor, more importantly, make us laugh very hard. Chapman adds silly little jokes to his life story—such as the notion that his parents were disappointed when he was born because they were hoping for a “heterosexual black Jew with several amusing birth defects” because they “needed the problems.” This autobiography, however, probably could have used more substantial and ongoing lies, like a recurring supervillain nemesis, because a gripping life story does not emerge here: the movie plays more as a series of digressive comic essays loosely organized around Chapman’s personal chronology. The genesis and operations of Monty Python are largely passed over, though fans will catch some throwaway lines and references, and clips of some classic sketches are incorporated. None of the rest of the troupe are more than minor characters in the story. The two themes Chapman keeps returning to are his homosexuality (bisexuality, if he’d had a few drinks) and his alcoholism. From what appears onscreen, Chapman never struggled with his homosexual urges, but became a “raging poof” quite enthusiastically. Nor were his friends particularly shocked—though he does make Marty Feldman faint from giggling at his coming out party—so there’s no element of conflict to the movie’s sexual subtext. Alcohol proves a more fruitful antagonist, and scenes of hazy hotel room escapades with random groupies and a squiggly Edvard Munch-ian delirium tremens sequence add darker textures. What keeps Autobiography watchable even during its driest patches are, firstly, the constantly shifting animation styles, which range from a dingy variant on Pixar-style 3D to a blocky children’s storybook style to an experimental bits with partially translucent figures. The other thing that keeps you watching despite the lack of any compelling storyline are the completely off-the-wall bits that may pop up at any moment. A man walks out of a bomber cockpit and finds two lesbians making love in the cargo bay; Cameron Diaz voices Sigmund Freud as he analyzes the previous segment; Chapman rides in a roller coaster shaped like a penis past bizarre clumps of suspended breasts. Though not the funniest by a long stretch, Autobiography may be the most surreal project any Python was ever associated with, which is saying something in itself. Overall, this is an uneven piece, but regular readers of this site will surely find something to admire in it. Python fans will obviously want to check it out, although they also stand to be the most disappointed in its lack of probing insights into its central character.

The movie’s official site is worth a click; by answering an interminable series of silly screening questions designed to identify your level of (im)maturity, you can gradually unlock content from the film.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an engaging trip: miscellaneous, wittily surreal, with a sadness to lend it a structuring heartbeat.”–Nigel Andrews, Financial Times (contemporaneous)

LOST AND FOUND: THE HARRY LANGDON COLLECTION

This article was originally published in a slightly different form at Raging Bull Movie Reviews.

 said he “only felt threatened by .” Samuel Becket wanted Langdon to act in his experimental film, but had to use Buster Keaton after Langdon’s early death. James Agee, Kevin Brownlow, Walter Kerr, Robert Youngson, Harold Lloyd and Mack Sennett were among those who sang high praises for Langdon’s art.

Langdon’s characterization expressed the most pronounced silence of the era’s clowns. This is why, despite his fans’ claims (seen on the documentary included on “Lost and Found: The Harry Langdon Collection”), sound proved completely disastrous for him. Langdon’s persona was only suited to the abstract plane that silent cinema offered.

It is easy to see why he appealed so readily to the Surrealists. His persona is dreamlike, subconscious, otherworldly. Langdon’s man-child seems an elfin id. Silence and make-up were existential turpentine for Langdon, removing him, layer-by-layer, from the world as we know it.

Of course, for many, turpentine is unbearable, and Langdon haters will pull out their hair, waiting for him to do something. Even his blink was lethargic. , Langdon’s one-time director and permanent detractor once bitched, “It takes him an hour to get started.” Langdon was the master of anti-reaction and he did more with less than anyone, Keaton included. That’s the magic of the Langdon persona. With the barest minimum, he was able to etch a c

haracterization so vivid, it is second only to Chaplin in identifiability. Langdon’s unique personality accelerated his stardom.

The cause of Langdon’s equally quick fall, after a mere three years, is debated. Certainly, that same personality, combined with his admirable risk-taking, ego, and poor business skills, was partially responsible. But, after he left Sennett for the fascistic First National, both studios released a plethora of his films; the result was an onslaught of Langdon product in 1927, and his considerable fan base went into massive overdose.

Still from All Night Long (1924)
“All Night Long” (1924)

This stands in direct contrast to Capra’s self-serving claim that he alone fashioned Langdon’s screen persona. Capra further claimed that the actor had no true understanding of his own persona and when Langdon ventured into edgier territory, over Capra’s populist-minded objections, the star simply imploded. With sound inevitably around the corner, combined with Langdon’s advanced age in comparison to younger rivals, his desire for rapid experimentation is understandable. The risks he took produced an artistic triumph, but a commercial disaster.

Steve Martin tried something similar with a brief series of films that pushed his own boundaries. When the payoff proved commercially lackluster, Martin predictably receded back into the safety of the mainstream. Langdon received no chance for reprieve with First National.

He alone was blamed for the disappointing box office results of Three’s a Crowd (1927) and The Chaser (1928). His third self-directed feature for the studio, Heart Trouble (1928), was never released and reportedly was destroyed. By most accounts, it would have proven to be his commercial rebound effort. Lamentably, the film seems to be forever lost.

Harry Langdon was and remains an idiosyncratic, enigmatic, minimalist “anti-clown.” For many a novice, he appears a sort of inexplicably surreal Continue reading LOST AND FOUND: THE HARRY LANGDON COLLECTION

CAPSULE: WEIRDSVILLE (2007)

DIRECTED BY: Allan Moyle

FEATURING: , Wes Bentley, Greg Bryk, Maggie Castle, Taryn Manning, Jordan Prentice

PLOT: Two junkies, who are planning a heist to pay off a mobster, clash with Satanists when they interrupt a ritual while burying an overdosed friend.

Still from Weirdsville (2007)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Despite sucking up to us by putting “weird” right there in the title, Weirdsville isn’t strange enough to belong on a list of the weirdest movies of all time. There are a few very mild drug trip sequences, but the rest of the film never rises above the level of aggressively quirky.

COMMENTS: A stoned caper comedy starring two (relatively) lovable polydrug abusers, Weirdsville wants to be the second coming of The Big Lebowski. And while it’s great for a screenwriter to set his sights high, Weirdsville ultimately tries too hard, forcing the quirk; it’s still a fun ride, but it overplays its bid for classic status. Speedman (playing Dexter, the “quiet, introspective one”) and Bentley (as Royce, “the ideas man”—i.e. the village idiot) share a believable buddy chemistry, based on in-jokes and stories they’ve been repeating to each other in the endless lazy, hazy days since high school. No matter how much Royce annoys the more cerebral Dexter, he’s devoted to his drug-dazed pal, despite the fact that Royce’s blunders keep complicating the plot and frustrating his own plans to kick junk. (Despite being prominently billed, Taryn Manning’s part-time hooker Mattie is little more than a third wheel and a plot point).

The movie builds well for the first two acts. The twin storylines of drug debt owed to vicious mobster Omar and an accidental overdose that leads to an encounter with preppy Satanists entwine to create a desperate situation for our two unlikely heroes. This in turn leads to an ill-advised burglary, complicated when its interrupted by a teenage housesitter and by the constant pursuit of the duo by angry drug dealers and Satanists. So far, so good; Weirdsville is building a crazy tension, relieving it with bouts of goofy hipster dialogue and indie rock interludes, then ramping it up again.

But Weirdsville steps over the line from pleasantly quirky to desperate to be different with the introduction of a new character, a dwarf security guard. The judicious use of dwarfs is one of the most difficult calls for a director to make. On the one hand there’s a long and distinguished tradition of using dwarfs in comedy, dating all the way back to the days of medieval jesters. But putting a “little person” in an unexpected role—like a security guard—is by now almost a cliché, and the gambit risks looking gimmicky and exploitative. Here, the dwarf is not only a mall cop, but also a medieval re-enactor with a gang of chainmailed cronies who are all also of sub-average stature; for me, when these guys show up swinging mini-morningstars, the movie, which had been toying with greatness, jumps the quirky shark. It’s still fun right up to the end, but any shot at greatness has been botched. The most memorable bits go to the well-heeled, straight-edge Satanists, who end up whining “Lucifer is supposed to be helping us, not plaguing us with midgets and junkies!” That line pretty much sums up the movie; if Satanists plagued by midgets and junkies sounds like your kind of scene, you’ll probably enjoy Weirdsville.

Director Allan Moyle is best known for Pump Up the Volume (1990), a cult hit among 90s teens starring Christian Slater as a high school pirate radio operator.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Some of it is funny-weird, but too much is pointlessly weird.”–Stephen Farber, Hollywood Reporter (festival screening)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Billy,” who argued that this “movie has zombies, drugs and midgets in it. Can’t get much weirder than that.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

TRAMP, TRAMP, TRAMP (1926)

Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926), directed by Harry Edwards, was slapstick comedian ‘s first feature for First National. The star was at the height of his meteoric rise and, unknown to him, was a mere year away from his sudden fall. Tramp, Tramp, Tramp is probably the least of Langdon’s silent features, but its merits are considerable.

A dastardly Snidely Whiplash-type landlord has given Harry’s wheelchair bound pappy three months to come up with the rent: ” Son, I hadn’t told you—we don’t own this place—we’ll be put out soon.”

“Does that mean I don’t get my new bicycle?”

Harry can’t keep his mind off Betty, the Burton Shoes billboard girl (). “Stop dreaming of that girl. The money must be raised in three months—it’s up to you.”

“I’ll get the money in three months if it takes me a year.”

Oh, but wait, which way to go? Primrose Street or the Easiest Way? Which way indeed? Hmmm. Harry ponders, makes a step, steps back, ponders some more. It’s the type of scene that will inspire love of Langdon or pure hate. I opt for the former. As for the Landon haters, unenlightened to the Tao of Langdon—they serve as proof that uninformed opinions simply do not count.

Still from Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926)Harry gets and loses a job working for a celebrity cross-country walker. Lo and behold, Burton Shoes is currently sponsoring a cross-country race. If Harry met Betty becomes when Harry met Betty. Hmmm. Billboard girl picture of girl looks like girl on bench. Oh my, let me look see under your hat, Betty. Oh my. Oh my. Same girl. Oh my.

Langdon was, and remains, an acquired taste. The subtextual idea of a Pee Wee Herman/Stan Laurel hybrid lusting after the future Mommie Dearest is the equivalent of nails meet chalkboard for suburbanites, soccer moms, and Curly Howard fans: reason enough for kudos.

Harry enters the race, hoping for the $25,000 grand prize, and putting Ma’s wedding ring on Betty’s finger. His trusty scissors come in handy: Harry’s hotel room is plastered with cutouts of billboard Betty. Harry sleeps with a billboard Betty, much to the chagrin of his competitor, his former boss.

Naturally, there’s trouble along the way, including a few days hard labor for poaching blueberries.

While influences of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton abound in some of the set-piece vignettes, most importantly Langdon perfects his set-apart persona. Langdon’s wide-eyed innocence, sleepy smile, and surreal pathos probably had a longer lasting latent influence than most of the silent clowns. Stan Laurel, Jacques Tati, Steve Martin, Andy Kaufman, and Paul Ruebens are among those indebted to Langdon’s screen persona.

Clip from Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926)