Super Mario Brothers (1993)

Written by: Parker Bennett, Terry Runté and Ed Solomon

Directed by: Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel

SMB_Movie_PosterFamed actors Bob Hoskins, John Leguizamo and Dennis Hopper star as Mario, Luigi and Bowser in an adaptation of a whimsical, sort-of-narratively-coherent video game: sounds intriguing, right? Unfortunately, the live action Mario film was panned for its lack of similarity to its source material. While I certainly had this reaction myself there’s nonetheless a way in which the film and the video games its based upon have a similar  spirit.

Mario video games features the titular Italian(-American(?)) plumber, jumping around, overcoming hostile mushrooms (“goombas”) and turtles (“koopa troopas”) in order to rescue a princess from a turtle-dragon hybrid (King (Bowser of the) Koopa). In other words, they are an action series, yet have the trappings of a quirky comedy.

The same is true of the Super Mario Brothers movie. It shares the video game’s titular characters, two plumbers, Mario and Luigi. Mario is gruff but affectionate and gets annoyed at everyday mundanities like traffic. Luigi is younger and a bit naïve and starry eyed. This combination of personas  leads the pair to engage in corny exchanges, most notably when Luigi, in a wonderfully-misplaced Disney fashion, tries to tell Mario “nothing is impossible.” Corny and odd exchanges between various characters: humans, dinosaurs, and “mushrooms” (who look more like dinosaurs) are in fact a key element of the movie, whether it’s King Koopa proclaiming his love for mud, or Princess Daisy (Samantha Mathis–Princess Peach does not feature in the movie for some reason) explaining to a goomba that she is a vegetarian. Simply put, all this sappiness, despite the gritty, sombre context in which the film takes place, makes it as whimsical as the source material.

Nonetheless, as with the video games, the movie has an overall action-oriented feel. When Mario, Luigi and Daisy are brought into Dinohattan (the closest thing the film offers to The Mushroom Kingdom) they are instantly on the run: enemies of a dictatorship where plumbers are loathed. Granted, lots of the action scenes have humorous premises: the distraction of goombas, the anthropomorphization of seemingly non anthropomorphic mushrooms and, the film’s most diabolical element “de-evolution.”

So why did the film not win over critics? I would argue one of its problems comes from its tonal confusion. Comedy is all about delivery, and while its well known that timing is important for the delivery of a joke, the Super Mario Bros. movie is evidence that aesthetic is as well. Darkness and car chases simply do not set one up to laugh: one instead prepares for some sort of dystopian creativity. When what gets instead is a whimsical world with limited logical coherence, one can be left underwhelmed. If the film’s creators had made just a few more tweaks to make the film capture more of the game’s 8-bit joys: more jumping, goofy music, allowing Mario and Luigi to wear their signature red and green for the duration of the film, etc. the film’s other whimsical elements might have stood out more and been more comedically effective.

That all said, it’s hard for me to say which of the film’s modifications of the games were justified and which were not. The reimagination of goombas struck me as a good idea, but felt like a disappointment in the context of the film where other similarities to the games were few and far between. Similarly, I had no problem with the reimagining of koopa troopas, though I don’t understand why they couldn’t simply have been given turtle shells. The reimagined Yoshi was underused, but was a pleasant surprise, and the reimagined Toad (Mojo Nixon) was interesting, though again, frustrating in a film that had so little else from the video game to cling on to.

Super Mario Bros. may sound like a bad movie to those who rigedly refuse to appreciate the silly: those who do not want to see a plumber fight mushrooms as reptilians. The actual disappointment of the movie, however, is that it doesn’t fulfill that promise. It pits a plumber against sinister humanoids (Hopper’s Koopa, Fiona Shaw as Lena, a character original to the movie, and Izzy and Spike (Fisher Stevens and Richard Edson)) who are of dinosaur descent but offer no pizzaz in that they don’t actually resemble dinosaurs. The film’s corny charm is also undermined by the writers’ indecisiveness about who the film’s protagonist should be. While Mario is the ultimate hero, his potential as a non-conventional protagonist goes underdeveloped, as, for much of the film, he comes across as Luigi’s sidekick. Luigi meanwhile, is a far more conventional hero, though John Leguizamo’s Sid-the-Sloth traits do give Luigi some necessary, naive color (apparently Tom Hanks had been considered for the role, which would have made the movie an even cooler novelty, but also stripped the role of even more of its charm).

My hope in watching Super Mario Bros. was that I would see things fundamentally differently than the killjoy critics from back in the day. Unfortunately, that was not the case. At the same time, I would still encourage viewers to give this film a try. Perhaps it won’t be all you hope the first time, but once you get to know its quirks a bit, it may very well be the kind of thing you like to talk along with at a midnight screening.

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Shaun of the Dead (2004)

Directed by: Edgar Wright Written by: Wright and Simon Pegg

Shaun-of-the-dead.jpg         I tried to watch George Romero’s classic Dawn of the Dead recently. I derived some mild pleasure out of the experience, but only because there’s something about the not-quite modern aesthetic of the 70s-90s that pleases me. For the most part I was frustratingly bored by what may be the film with the highest action to substantive content ratio I’d ever seen. I was thus thoroughly surprised that I quite enjoyed Shaun of the Dead, a film supposedly inspired by Romero’s work.

This is not to say that there is no simiilarity between the two zombie films. In addition to prominently featuring zombies the two movies can both be said to make light of killing. Dawn does this simply in that it features armed characters who show little to no hesitancy when it comes to carrying out their kill-or-be-killed mission. Shaun, by contrast makes light of killing by throwing in jokes that highlight how other zombie films make light of killing. Shaun’s characters speak like they are out of episodes of Flight of the Conchords: in an awkward banter that is neither deadpan nor fully engaged with the serious events that surround it.

The joy of Shaun of the Dead may is in fact, that it manages to be comedic without really undermining its status as a horror film. The film follows Shaun (Simon Pegg), a man who can’t get his act together, as he helps his friends and family escape the fate of being bitten by zombies. Zombie attacks turn victims into zombies themselves, meaning Shaun and his cohorts are increasingly surrounded by an ever-growing rank of enemies. This structure inevitably produces suspense, suspense that is maintained throughout the film: even in its silly moments. Shaun of the Dead’s jokes do not break the illusion of horror and suspense they simply capitalize on it. We see limbs ripped apart, and bodies torn to shreds, their innards ripped out like spaghetti. This violence produces screams from the humans: who scream not so much out of genuine fear, but as if they are in a screaming contest.

Shaun of the Dead is a film filled with action, and yet as someone who does not like action, I did not feel alienated by these moments. That’s because bits like “the screaming contest” mean that Shaun of the Dead‘s characters are “talking” even when the film is caught up in action moments. Another such moment features characters beating up their enemies while Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now,” plays on a juke box. This is not mere background music, as the characters’ attacks line up with it perfectly. Sure, the events depicted are a life-and-death battle, but what we see are characters moving-in-sync-with-a-rhythm: dancing their troubles away.

Shaun of the Dead also distinguishes itself from Dawn of the Dead in that, given that it’s a quick, character-dense action movie, it nonetheless manages to meaningfully differentiate and create tensions between its characters: they are not mere bodies to carry guns in the zombie war. Shaun’s mother (Penelope Wilton) and reluctant travelling companion David (Dylan Moran) stand out amongst the film’s personalities. Shaun’s story, meanwhile, is that of a loser making something of himself, and it is, nonetheless, free of a forced, phoney moral: it’s driven by jokes and character relationships instead. Shaun is a loveable loser, but he feels three-dimensional and not a mere trope, in large part because one of his key motivators is his loyalty to his even bigger loser-friend (Nick Frost). This loyalty is not unjustified: both characters are developed protagonists in the piece: the difference being that one is more aware of his shortcoming than the other.

Shaun of the Dead may not be that deep, perhaps not even as deep as the source material it references. However, it is constantly alive and constantly true to its characters. If you’re the kind of person who likes the idea of liking a lowbrow zombie movie, but can’t imagine yourself actually enjoying such a film, then surprisingly, there somehow exists a work , in Shaun of the Dead ,that can fulfill your oxymoronic needs.

Brigsby Bear (2017)

Written by: Kyle Mooney and Kevin Costello. Directed by: Dave McCrary

Brigsby_BearComfortable, yet disconcerted. That’s how I felt while watching the opening of Brigsby Bear. We are introduced to James (Kyle Mooney), the film’s protagonist, as he watches  what appears to be a children’s TV show centred around, well, Brigbsy BearBrigsby is a Barney-the-dinosaur like entity, but the structure of his show is about as unconventional as it gets. He is a sci-fi hero who teaches bizarre moral lessons using mathematical equations. James eagerly absorbs the show from the comfort of his wooden, 1980s-style bedroom, made cozy with a thorough library of VCR tapes and Brigsby memorabilia. James is no child, so viewers can tell something is amiss. Nonetheless, for the most part, James’ world just seems wonderful; his parents even understand and support his Brigsby hobby.

Movies serve to entertain us, thus they require that something in the lives of the characters be not quite right. There needs to be a source of suspense: a dose of adventure. Yet movies are also a chance to escape, a means to break free from the stresses of the world. This is why the opening of Brigsby Bear is so effective: it is the perfect blend of alluring paradise and provocative mystery.

Much of the film does not, however, resemble its opening. James is thrust rudely into the real world, which it turns out is not a 1980s-nerd-utopia. The film subsequently follows his journey to reconcile his past and present. To a degree, therefore, it looses its charm. As James’ story become more conventional, Brigsby Bear is deprived of its escapist magic. Perhaps if it had not lost this feeling, I would not be writing now that Brigsby Bear is one of the most underrated cinematic efforts of 2017. The film indeed has flaws. Once its beginning gives way to the film’s main plot, what follows lacks narrative complexity , while not quite having the poetic simplicity of films like A Ghost Story.

But I repeat, Brigsby Bear is indeed an underrated film. While it loses its soul somewhere around the 1/3 mark, it quickly develops a new identity as a feel good story; and importantly, a feel good story that doesn’t rely on clichéd messaging. While Brigsby Bear’s ultimate feel is partly a result of its quirky foundations, it is equally a product of the provocative politics of its writers. Brigsby Bear’s story line is based around a crime. It is, not, however, a whodunit or a chronicling of the pursuit of justice (aka vengeance). Instead, it is a tale of healing.

Brigsby Bear is a film that rejects good-evil binaries. It’s primary antagonist notably disappears for a significant swathe of the film. While the fact that he committed the crime the film revolves around is never really questioned, when he actually appears on camera he is largely portrayed in a positive light. Director Dave McCrary likens him to “a fucked up Jim Henson teaching weird lessons about the world in a loving way.”  The complexity of this character is not lost on James, who talks to him as respectfully and fearlessly as he does to any other person.

James’ defining obsession is the Brigsby Bear tv show, a hobby that authority figures in his life, including a notably harsh psychologist (Claire Danes), try to take away from him. Were Brigsby Bear a feel good film in the truly clichéd sense of the word, its message could simply be reduced do celebrating “being oneself.” James’ defiant love for his favourite television show, however, is not just a statement about his (not so) rugged individualism. Instead it hits on something deeper: that is ok to love people and things that are intrinsically linked to your personal tragedies, and that “moving on” need not be an absolute proposition.

Brigsby Bear is in short a piece rife with imagination, made whole by its unique idealism. It also showcases Mark Hamill testing out the gruff-mentor persona he brought to Luke in The Last Jedi. Greg Kinnear also feature as a convention-breaking masculine authority figure.  So check out this film, but don’t think about it too much beforehand since, as Brigsby advises us, “curiosity is not a healthy emotion.”

The Little Hours (2017)

Written and directed by: Jeff Baena

The_Little_Hours_posterIf you put popular comic actors in a nunnery, how long can they keep up the image of propriety? That’s the premise of The Little Hours, and it does not take long to unravel. A minute or two into the film a chain of f-bombs spews from the mouth of Sister Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza). Other reviewers have described the film in a mildly-positive light, calling it a work that does a respectable job of sustaining itself on one joke (its premise) for its short-ish runtime.

There is an unquestionable charm to the film. It opens to minstrel music, rustic countryside and credits with medieval-stylized font. While I’m sure that historians could find ways to tear the film’s aesthetic apart, The Little Hours does a reasonably good job of convincing viewers they are truly watching a medieval story. The script further contributes to this allusion: while its scenes are predominantly wacky, there are moments, such as when the nuns take communion, that comedy takes a back seat to maintaining a degree of historical realism.

While critics may be right in calling out The Little Hours’ low-brow humour, the film’s unique brand of “realism” makes it a worthy watch. The Little Hours in fact, at times, shares a tone with What We Do in the Shadows, Taika Waititi’s critically acclaimed Vampire mockumentary. Both films depict smut and gore, yet rather than relying on the cheap thrills, treat audiences to mild-mannered characters mundanely navigating their universe. For example, when Father Tommasso (John C. Reily) drunkenly threatens Massetto, the humors comes not from his drunkenness, nor even from the idea that a priest is drunk, but rather his distress over having tipped his cart full of embroidery and having to awkwardly dry its contents by a rocky stream. The Little Hours’s supporting cast also includes Nick Offerman as a vengeful warlord who’s defining characteristic is not his military might but his ability to provoke a barrage of sarcasm from his wife; and Fred Armisan as a bishop who strictly enforces Catholic doctrine, with just enough doubt in his voice to expose the absurdity of his judgement. Reilly and Molly Shannon feature as a priest and mother superior who are essentially cool parents: they don the garb and fill the function of authority without really policing the behaviour to their flock.

The three main nuns, meanwhile, are played by a good spectrum of personalities. Sister Alessandra (Allison Brie) is introduced in a moment of sadness, playing a straight-woman of sorts who nevertheless has her share of comedic, awkward scenes. Plaza and Kate Micucci (as Sister Genevra) revive their respective deadpan-goth and awkwardly-innocent personas from Parks and Recreation and Garfunkel and Oates. While Micucci’s type fits right-in in a nunnery comedy, Plaza’s tendency for 4th wall-breaking-glances, at times, feels a bit out of place. On the other hand, the ultimate twist with Plaza’s character is a good one, and film viewers can appreciate Sister Fernanda as April Ludgate on steroids.

Ultimately The Little Hours does fall a bit short of What We Do in the Shadows. This is largely because The Little Hours opts to have a conventional story arc. After a solid first half, it reaches its apex with a build up of sexually-explicit chaos, followed by reconciliation and, ultimately, hero(in)ism. This narrative approach arguably costs the film a few jokes. Nevertheless, the film provides plenty to laugh at it via its collection of personalities, its period humor, and occasionally turns to the absurd. If you are not put off by vulgarity, and are curious to see nuns who show that Maria is not a problem whatsoever, The Little Hours is absolutely worth seeing.

The Sunshine Boys (1975)

DirectedSunshine_boys.jpeg by: Herbert Ross. Written by: Neil Simon

They’re perfect for each other and they can’t stand each other: that’s the premise of Neil Simon’s comedic play The Sunshine Boys. The 1975 film version is remembered for the performances of its stars Walter Matthau and George Burns as two Vaudeville Comedians, reuniting for a TV special. Burns, aged 79, won an Oscar for his performance, re-launching a career that would last until his death at the age of 100.

The film was updated somewhat from the play, featuring opening scenes about Willie Clark’s (Matthau) audition for a Frumpy’s potato chips commercial. The appeal of The Sunshine Boys is its well-written humour about how humour is made. In the audition scenes, we laugh at two actors’ attempts to do intentionally-over-the-top acting for the chips commercial. Shortly thereafter, Clark explains-to-excess what makes words funny (he blames his poor audition on “Frumpy’s not being a funny word).

The film like the play, unfortunately peaks a bit too early. Willie Clark, anxious about his mortality and nostalgic for an acting career that he has grown sick of, engages in ridiculous antics. His counterpart, Al Lewis (Burns), is hard of hearing and irritable in his own right, but is rather pedestrian in comparison to Clark. Despite being named for a duo, The Sunshine Boys, is essentially Clark’s story, with Lewis serving as a sort-of-straight man.

The problem with this structure is not that having a straight man is a bad thing, but rather that by the time Lewis is introduced into the story, the film already has an established straight-man: Clark’s nephew and agent, Ben (Richard Benjamin). Ben functions as a more effective straight-man than Lewis. Ben’s straight-man patiently attempts to engage with Clark’s absurdity. Lewis, however, is in-conflict with Clark, meaning rather than engaging with and subsequently highlighting Clark’s absurdity, he fights it with his own irateness. Lewis’ persona thus sits in an awkward middleground: he is too finicky to be the straight-man, but not finicky enough to be absurd.

The Sunshine Boys’ humor relies on exploiting the formula of pairing a straight man (Ben) with a ridiculous one (Clark). The comedy stems from the straight man having to bear the burden of his companion’s absurdity, while the companion, being absurd, cannot appreciate the consequences of his actions. This formula is seen, for instance, in the paring of Sheldon and Leonard on The Big Bang Theory, David and Woody in Nebraska, and Michael Bluth and his entire family in Arrested Development. While this technique can produce hilarity, it can at times feel like a bit of a short cut. In Nebraska, I wondered how David’s straight-man-level-headedness could exist in a world entirely populated by absurd figures. Straight-men can seem more like tools than real characters: they represent what the “reasonable viewer” wants to see in a “reasonable” person, rather than what a person in that character’s situation would actually be like. Ben, however, cannot be subject to this critique, for while he absolutely serves the function of a straight-man, he is a flawed character in his own right. Ben is not simply a nephew doing his uncle a favour. He’s an agent looking to establish himself, and this means over-investing in the seemingly doomed project of reuniting a comedy duo whose members are hopelessly at odds. Ben is simultaneously the voice of reasonability, and mildly-swindling travelling salesman trying to sell to old men on a reunion that they are fated to ruin.

The Sunshine Boys is an enjoyable comedic work, and I have no wish to dispute its status as a classic. It nonetheless fails to live up to the potential that exists within its own confines: the potential to use Ben’s character just a bit more, rather than over-estimating the potential of the film’s titular comedy duo.