19 November 2020

The Auspicious Highs and Impossible Lows of Broken Lizard Films

 Somehow in the year 2020 I have been on a Broken Lizard kick. If you don't know what I'm talking about, first, I have no idea why you would click the article heading, but it's the name of the comedy group who made Super Troopers (2001), and then a ton more, mostly pretty bad films. I have been struck for a long time, though, wondering how a group could make two incredible instant-classic comedies and then also some of the worst, most forgettable comedies of the modern age. There is a larger question at play here, which eternally confounds me. How do the same artists make inconsistent work and what pushes one movie over the edge where another comes up short?

Broken Lizard is an interesting group to study, and for some reason, after searching the entire Internet (twice), I haven't found very many deep dives into their work. Perhaps they come across as too sophomoric and puerile to be worthy of deep study. Well, folks, that is what Norwegian Morning Wood is all about. It's literally in our website's title.

So, background time. Broken Lizard was formed by five men who met while attending Colgate University in 1989. It consists of Jay Chandrasekhar, Kevin Hefferman, Steve Lemme, Paul Soter, and Eric Stolhanske. They're notable for not really ever breaking up or splintering off in the past thirty years, and while they each have their own sparse projects, most notably Chandrasekhar who has had steady director work in all of the great comedies of the 21st-Century and may be the closest we have to the "face" of Broken Lizard.

Their films include Puddle Cruiser (1996), which is their Hard Eight (1995), the small budget almost proof-of-concept type film that no one has really seen but directly lead to the aforementioned Super Troopers. I would never say that this movie became particularly mainstream, it's not an Austin Powers (1997) or Hangover (2009) level, but it's a significant cult classic in its own right and crushed DVD sales enough that it gave these folks a career.

A career they immediately squandered with Club Dread (2004). I will get into why each of these films work and fail soon here, but suffice it to say that Club Dread does everything the opposite of Super Troopers and I'm frankly amazed that they were allowed to make more movies afterwards. It is truly a crime against cinema. But then they churned out Beerfest (2006), and suddenly it seemed like Club Dread was just a blip and they were back in form. After that, however, they made The Slammin' Salmon (2009), which was okay, and then a long break until Super Troopers 2 (2018). And that's pretty much it.

There are other bits in here. They were all heavily involved in The Dukes of Hazzard (2005), which I would like to add to the discussion here because it feels quite a bit like all their worst indulgences, with studio backing. They also made a stand-up movie and produced Freeloaders (2012), which I do not know a ton about. It's hard to even find clips or info about this movie. The trailer looks very much in their zone, though, and I will have to admit to this gap in knowledge.

Cultural Context

Super Troopers came out during this time where the "Group of Friends" comedy was pretty big. There were a lot of movie that pitted teams of man-children against each other, which early Apatow leaned into and then capitalized by making everything more realistic and dramatic. Before that, though, we had Anchorman (2004), Dodgeball (2004), Team America: World Police (2004) - okay, that's maybe a stretch. But you can stretch this ensemble comedy into the teen realm with even the American Pie series, Road Trip (2000), and Mean Girls (2004), and even as far as Old School (2003) and Eurotrip (2004). I would even venture that the Jackass movies basically worked as watching a group of friends have fun with each other.

It was only natural then, that Super Troopers would catch on. The rapport is so instant and deep between all the core cast members, and despite the inherent juvenile dick and fart jokes, there are legit moments of wit and timing. It's continuously amazing that the biggest stars they got were Lynda Carter, Brian Cox, and Jim Gaffigan. I know, I know, Daniel von Bargen really reeled in the kids back in 2001.

The film works because it built on something we hadn't really seen since the days of Monty Python - the comedy troop movie based on genuine friendship that you can see all up on screen. It's crazily quotable but looking back it feels apparent that this was the first great burst of creativity for these guys and they didn't have much left in the tank afterwards. It's easy to riff on doofus cops in Vermont, but it is apparently tough to find another reason for all these disparate team members to work together.

Playing with the Formula

Broken Lizard has stated that they enjoy playing around with what characters they play in each movie, swapping personalities and roles. It's noble to play with but also extreme hubris that these guys consider the roles they take on to be acting challenges. There really aren't any good actors among them but instead of recognizing this, they force each other into roles beyond their capabilities. That's first apparent in Club Dread.

Going back to Monty Python, that group always knew their limitations. Graham Chapman was the only one who they felt could carry a movie, beyond that was John Cleese as a strong second, who was great at playing pompous authority figures. Eric Idle could do songs and cowards, Michael Palin had the most range and could do innocent put-upon bystander as well as a sleazy car salesman. Terry Jones I always considered just bonkers, who would throw himself the most completely into the insanity of a sketch or movie. Finally Terry Gilliam was really just a little troll man who drew the cartoons. It all worked out.

It's perhaps unfair to compare Broken Lizard to Monty Python, but it's where we are right now. We need to get into each actor in their own section, but for now, suffice it to say that when they play with their formula, the results get pretty rough. Chandrasekhar is the closest we get to a leading man from the group, but he only gets that role in Super Troopers. Club Dread is all over the place. It seems like they made an effort to make every character awful, maybe so we'd be both suspicious of everyone as well as not care when they died?

See, Club Dread is a murder mystery set on an island run by a Jimmy Buffett knock off played by Bill Paxton. Yes, even in the movie he is a Jimmy Buffett knock off. Broken Lizard plays the resort staff. This all seems like gold so far. But the big mistake is that they set themselves against each other - they are on the same team, but no one likes each other. And since this is a murder mystery, they (mostly) end up killed, so we lack the catharsis of them coming together. The formula actively works against their genre.

See, it's hard to have a comedy troop movie where someone dies every ten minutes. This has a number of ramifications. For one, their greatest strength is having the group working together and bouncing both jokes and ideas around. The inherent suspicion with this kind of movie negates that. They are also designed to be an ensemble with roughly equitable screen time and jokes. When they start dying, this also gets in the way of that, and in fact, a few have incredibly ignomious deaths. Finally, because of both of these problems, they are forced to infuse a lot of fodder and extra characters into the mix. This happened with The Slammin' Salmon as well - as much as it is genuinely good to get some periphery characters on screen, particular women, which they don't have a great track record representing, other characters tend to dilute their brand. It's hard to describe, but again, in a Monty Python movie it's very jarring to see non-Python actors in major roles.

This is why Beerfest and Super Troopers work. In those movies everyone is working together, on the same team, with the same goal (Farva notwithstanding, but in the end he's all Highway). Club Dread and Slammin' Salmon feature both non-Broken Lizard actors getting in the way and are primarily centered around them being rivals or antagonists. Okay, obviously the Python parallel doesn't hold up here, but in all these movies (except Beerfest, briefly), everyone is only playing one character and there are actual stories afoot. Not just a series of gags. I do sincerely love Python, and have watched most of their films this year as well as a matter of fact!

As we were getting into, Beerfest just shines. It's a more coherent film than Super Troopers, feels bigger, stronger, and taps into a simple premise - drinking games! International drinking games! Club Dread is simultaneously thin and everywhere at once. It's Jimmy Buffett island, but also murder mystery, and also a contrived love story that really stretches the hot girl and fat guy trope. Its protagonist ostensibly is Kevin Heffernan, but he's also a suspect, so he has to do suspicious things, so he's absent for large stretches of the film. It could maybe be Brittany Daniels as a Final Girl, but she's also not that. It's....it's just very weird.

Beerfest has a simple premise that allows the cast to make constant jokes. It lets each of the cast shine while also mixing it up with some randoms. It gives them a target to hit, insane villains to root for while you're rooting against, and also America. It's a sports movie! It's all very clear, and it keeps things breezy enough that they can pull of their surface level antics and mayhem. Soter and Stolhanske share roles as the protagonist, with maybe Soter shining a little better as the relatable every man and opening up his character more.

Despite really hitting their stride by going back to their tested formula with Beerfest, they decided to ditch all that for The Slammin' Salmon. It's their most polished movie visually and also features the most expansive cast. On the surface it also feels like a good premise - they are restaurant workers who need to raise enough money in one night to pay Michael Clark Duncan's gambling debt or else he will hurt them. It all lines up. But it also drives the troop into vengeful competition with each other which eliminates the team aspect that had worked so well in their more successful movies.

Salmon isn't nearly as bad as Club Dread. It's a coherent film and characters have arcs. Some of the jokes land and it's a fairly enjoyable experience. It trips itself up by its need to satisfy all the yarns it begins to spin. Each Lizard has his own thing and story to develop, some are done fine, others are dropped, and that's in addition to other ancillary characters working at the restaurant. It's also off that they aren't really at the same level - Heffernan is the manager, Soter plays dual roles as both Chef and busboy, while the rest are all waiters. I don't honestly know why this is off-putting to me. Maybe it's the need for that ensemble again - this time around Heffernan is the undisputed protagonist and everyone else feels lesser. And normally that is fine, literally every other movie is built this way, but the film is still trying to give everyone a character on equal footing. It's trying to have it both ways and it stumbles hard.

It also largely feels like a long sitcom premise. All of the set-ups are fairly hackneyed like accidentally eating an engagement ring, as well as the whole "Raise enough money to do something" conceit. All their movies are sort of like this, from Troopers saving the police station to Beerfest's winning redemption for America, but it's particularly egregious with Salmon.

I also don't exactly know why Soter playing two roles bothers me. Maybe because it would have been more fun if each individual had a different role in the restaurant that fit their strengths to help with the world building. Even though Soter plays both well, it's also underdeveloped. The cooks in Waiting... (2005) have more chances to shine with pure jokes than this. Oh yeah, also Waiting... (2005) fits this ensemble team trope of movies. Dang, 2000s. He gets the romance this time as well, but it's also just an afterthought. So they split his roles and gave them each less to do. It seems like they could have gotten rid of someone, probably Steve Lemme's character, who is incredibly bland (for arguably their most dynamic and energetic character actor). Make him the psychotic chef, get rid of all his sad sack storyline, he could dial up the R rating they love and everything would be better.

This brings us to Super Troopers 2. It was a long time in between projects that they had been cranking out every two or three years. A whopping nine years until their next true feature. Sure they had Freeloaders and their stand-up movie and Tacoma FD, but it does very much feel like they dropped off. Super Troopers 2 was largely crowd-funded through Indiegogo (I gave them $20). I am not aware of production parameters, but it's not like it's anything extremely edgy or dissimilar from their other work. Studios wouldn't touch them, though, possibly because all their films are pretty bad, possibly because they really aren't all that profitable.

Super Troopers 2, which I really think should be called Super Twoopers or Super Trooper Twoopers or something stupid is where my critique breaks down a bit. It's the gang together again, with a clear goal against a clear rival team. And the movie is funny, it doesn't try to live up to the lofty standards of Super Troopers and finds plenty of material to riff on, both building on the first film's gags and presenting new material. Something about it falls flat, though. I'm not sure why but after I watched it (I now own it forever, thanks Indiegogo) the first time, I forgot most of it immediately, despite laughing and liking it. I watched it a second time a few months ago and I still have difficulty remembering some of my favorite lines and jokes. I had even forgotten Rob Lowe was in it despite (SPOILER) him being the main villain at the end.

There are good moments. The bear scene is inspired, as is just about any Farva moment. We just don't have blowhard characters like this in movies anymore and it's incredibly freeing to relinquish any standards of self-control or decency. He's updated well, in the fact that he's still largely funny and not cringey. The protagonist shifts to probably...Rabbit? Maybe it's just them getting older - their cheeky shenanigans aren't quite as cheeky as they all start pushing 50. It's their third-best film, for what it's worth.

Jay Chandrasekhar - Leading Man

What I'd like to do here is go through each actor's character swaps and how they work (or don't) in their five respective films. Some of this is informed by Super Troopers, where most of the troop created their first impression, but some diversified enough in later roles.

Chandrasekhar is the only one with presence and dignity. He should have been their Graham Chapman and taken the leading roles in every film. Yet the only time he takes this position is in Super Troopers. Even in the second one he's neutered, and I mean that literally, he starts taking estrogen pills. In Club Dread he plays an arrogant British tennis instructor who doesn't have a huge impact on the story. It's amazing to me that they took their most charismatic actor and made him an unlikable side character devoid of purpose in their second outing.

Beerfest splits the middle. See, he's their best actor, which means sometimes they need him for the heaviest lifting, not necessarily the core of the film. He plays Barry Badrinath, a one-time legend, current day prostitute who has one of the most complete arcs in the film. He's able to be sincerely goofy, way out of the constrains that we need for a protagonist, but his presence is still used to show he's a big deal whenever he's on screen. Beerfest is just the best one of these films, we'll hear this over and over again.

He has sort of a dual role in Salmon. He plays Nuts, who is an odd fellow, and then has a split personality, Zongo who is crazy. It does lead to my favourite scene in that movie. He's good at this kind of character, but it's also a deep hole to throw your best actor down, especially when he isn't sharing director duties in this movie.

Kevin Heffernan - Fat Idiot

Heffernan is an odd duck. He plays the most unlikable characters, but also tries his hand at some of the most sincere. Rod Farva in Super Troopers is obviously an American icon. Loud, obnoxious, impulsive, prideful, he exists as a whipping boy for the department and Heffernan plays him outrageously well, maybe even better in the sequel, just because it's all the more jarring.

He takes a big left turn in Club Dread, playing confident, suave, calm, and dignified. As you might imagine, it's a whole lot less funny and he doesn't quite pull it off. As I mentioned earlier, he's trying to be our gateway into this world, but he's also simultaneously distant from the audience (again, in order to increase the suspense that he's a suspect) and capable of feats that stretch the imagination. He's practically a Mary Sue. It's all sorts of ridiculous.

In Beerfest Heffernan plays Phil "Landfill" Krundell and his secret twin brother, Gill. He's more charismatic here, but he's also still a bully. It's like a toned down Farva, and it's exactly what the film needs to get everyone on the same page. He's also possibly the one most interested in Beerfest as personal redemption for his own drinking-related problems (it all sort of works out). Of course, SPOILER, having Phil die in the last quarter and to be replaced by Gill is a really cheap writing move, but it somehow works here. We get all the needed dramatic weight of Phil's death but then the movie can just keep moving forward with Gill. There are plenty of cheeky nods about it..

In Salmon he's our main dude. He also directed this movie, stepping in for Chandrasekhar. His character (and if you haven't figured it out, I haven't looked up any times. It's no coincidence that I remember everyone's name from Troopers and Beerfest and not the other two) is the restaurant manager who is married to the Champ's (Michael Clark Duncan) daughter and wacky shenanigans ensue. There's just not a lot there - Salmon purposely makes its characters pretty bland and it's rough.

Steve Lemme - Fun Dude

Lemme has one of the weirder wider ranges of the Lizard troupe. He plays Mac in Troopers who is just an agent of chaos and the most fun-loving member of the group. Then he switches to a Puerto Rican diving instructor for Club Dread who is a lothario with the ladies. He pulls it off well enough but it misses some of Lemme's energy. Also, like everyone else, it doesn't have enough weight to keep the movie going.

He makes his most significant left turn in Beerfest where he plays Charles Finklestein as a bookworm Jewish scientist, and the farthest from Mac he can possibly be. He seems to really relish these supporting character roles and he really gives it his all here. He is not Jewish in real life, and so it's a little awkward to be playing in Jewface. There are certainly some stereotypes at play but the rest of the characters support him and don't bring up his Jewish heritage in a negative way. It gets really hard to parse some of this stuff out, it's a bit of an Apu Simpsons thing, so make of that what you will. As a white Christian (not practicing) dude I'd rather leave its racism up to the people it's possibly racist against. I will go with what you decide, Jews of America.

I already mentioned his role in Salmon, it's completely uninteresting, he comes in very late into the movie, seems like he'll be a big deal, and never is. He's basically a failed actor because he had a nose job after he got his big break as a crime-sniffing detective (I may be thinking of The Fifth Sense) here. He has an arc....I guess? But it's forgettable and insignificant. As you can tell, I forget his character's name.

Returning as Mac in Super Troopers 2, he feels a lot more dialed back. This may be in reaction to Thorny, Farva, and even Rabbit getting a bit zanier. It's not too tame, but he doesn't hit the heights he did on the first film. Lemme's strength always seems to be the dynamic energy he brings to the roles, when that's stifled, he suffers.

Paul Soter - Everyman

Soter is an interesting situation. His role in Troopers is ostensibly to be the love interest, and he plays the kind of everyman well, the guy who can just sort of be normal amidst all the chaos around him. It's a tough character to pin down. He plays pranks like the other officers but isn't quite as confident, witty, or dynamic as anyone else. He is a great supporting character actor.

Club Dread sees him as Bill Paxton's drug addled nephew, and really amps up his douchery. After playing the nice guy in Troopers he is really unlikable here, akin to Chandrasekhar's Putnam. See, I remembered one name. Is Putnam right? He doesn't jibe well with anyone and it's just hard to root for him on any level.

This is reversed in Beerfest. He's the closest we get to a protagonist, as he's in the first scene and we are mostly following his journey. His goals and attitude is what drives the movie, but he is also able to get out of the way and let the other characters come in and be insane. He's a lot like his Troopers character here - just kind of a normal dude who wants people to be united and have fun. He's supreme glue.

When they discovered this it didn't last long. They split him up in Salmon and turned up his assholeness for the chef and his doofiness for the busboy, and gave him a love interest again, but he totally does not earn it by being a buffoon the whole time. It's pity love at best. It just gets real rough. He is not all that different in the second Super Troopers, although his relationship with Ursula is downplayed and as a result he has less to do. Soter does better when he's playing a nice guy, although to his credit, makes a great douchebag. It really depends on the type of movie he is in, and as we've mentioned, the teamwork movies just tend to work better.

Eric Stolhanske - The Young Psycho

They are all the same age, I don't know why they made Stolhanske Rabbit the rookie in Super Troopers. Maybe just because he looked the youngest and couldn't grow a moustache. But he plays wide-eyed and bushy tailed well. There is honestly not much to him in Club Dread, although he is SPOILER revealed to be the murderer, so there's that. However, they cloud his motivation and none of it really makes sense. Before that he was just kind of an asshole, again, just more fodder.

He's paired with Soter in Beerfest as the other Wolfhouse brother and he's the more cynical and hesitant one. He also gets knocked out for most of the finale as he has to get blind-stinking drunk to remember where the secret underground tournament was being held. He's still active, though, and brings some ferocious energy to the final moments. And gets an arc!

As usual, Salmon just goes in the opposite direction. He plays an unrepentant douche who is the worst character on screen at any given moment. He ends up losing the contest and gets the shit kicked out of him, which is fun, but also makes me wonder why he always ends up with these horrible roles where he's punished by the end of the film.

In the Troopers sequel he's Rabbit again, despite being much older. Apparently they never had another rookie. He is more the lead of this film and gets the love interest and it actually has some nice growth for him beyond a punchline. It makes it so that Lemme is the only actor who hasn't been the lead, but there is clearly a debate on the ensemble here.

The Conclusion and Future

So, Salmon cratered, but really the whole idea of this kind of movie fell apart. The Hangover had that "bunch of dudes hanging out" feel for sure, and that was monstrously huge, but it's also clear how quickly that fell apart. I wish I could say what the predominant comedy style of the 2010s was, but it was largely absent. You have the Jump Street and Neighbors movies - is it nostalgia? Making fun of the generational gap? It's really hard to say. But the latter half of the decade it felt like comedies petered out entirely. Everyone loved Game Night (2018), which really wasn't that great. What's the best we have? Blockers (2018)?

Anyway, this kind of studio formatted comedy was never going to work for these guys. They slipped past their prime without much of an exit strategy as to what do when they became too old for this kind of juvenile schtick. There's no dramatic background to fall back on here. I think in general we have moved away from these kind of team ensemble comedies to smaller knit escapades and buddy films. Apatow swept in at the tail end of Broken Lizard's run and made bank with the "friends hanging out" dynamic, but injected so much more realism instead of absurdism. It's just a very different flavor.

Broken Lizard really does feel like it's from a different era. I need to get into this more, but women are not treated well in these films, they are objects or rarely seen wives or girlfriends. Salmon arguably has the best female roles in that they are real people with real agency and desires. Club Dread features plenty of women, but they're completely unrealistic and conform to a lot of juvenile cool girl stereotypes. Troopers has Ursula, who is a good character in her own right, but it miserably fails any sort of Bechdel Test. Beerfest is largely devoid of any women character not used as a sex object or male motivator. Troopers 2 has some decent female roles and is maybe up there with Salmon. They've toned down that early 2000s R-rated boob obsessed comedy a bit.

Which brings us all to The Dukes of Hazzard. I actually watched this for the first time this year. If you haven't seen it, everything you think may be true about it is true. Knoxville and Sean William Scott are fun but don't have too much chemistry together. There really isn't much of a plot. It's a little hazardous when dealing with um....Southern Heritage. And Jessica Simpson exists as the most blissful sex object of all time. All the Lizards make cameos, Heffernan probably has the most significant, followed by Soter.

But why? Why does Hazzard fail where Beerfest succeeds? I think it's in the heart. Hazzard just feels empty and rushed, juvenile without a drop of sincerity. Beerfest is juvenile, but it's also self-aware enough to know that at the end of the day it's all about redemption and triumph through trauma. There just isn't more to Hazzard beyond Jessica Simpson's tits.

I hope you enjoyed this deep dive into Broken Lizard. It endlessly fascinates me how they can make two perfect movies, one okay sequel, and two pretty awful ones. I am curious to see what they churn out next, but I also do feel like their window is over. What do you think? Is it all racist?

02 November 2020

Nothing to Do with Anything: The Last Jedi Throne Room Fight

 Listen, people, I know that it's Halloween and the 2020 Presidential Election, and Sean Connery just died and there's this virus going about, but brains work fast and weird in quarantine and I have been watching and re-watching something over and over again that has been analyzed to death, but I still want to put my own spin on it. Obviously relevant to our lives, I want to ramble for a long time about the Throne Room Fight Scene from Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017).


I don't really remember what the original music was. It doesn't matter, this is better. Let's back up a bit.

For most of the Fall I have been too busy to think or even do much of anything with this blog but work has had a recent bout of quarantining, so three days and a few hundred YouTube holes later this is where we are. Star Wars has come close to achieving its Disney goal, where it's really never out of conversation - there is always something on the horizon, whether it be more Clone Wars shows or The Mandalorian or whatever new trilogy whoever is coming up with. See? We are in Mandalorian mode now. That's close enough.

I love The Last Jedi almost as much as I hate Rise of Skywalker. I have written dozens of pages about this already, but it comes down to the former pushing new characters forward in interesting ways that aligns with what I believe Star Wars should be and the latter relying on nostalgia memberberries, then fetch quests, and a lack of meaningful consequences. Meaningful consequences - remember that? That's what this scene is all about. Action and reaction - a means of actually propelling both characters and plot forward to reach a coherent goal or theme. It's the building block of any good action or dialogue scene (read: all scenes) and when put together in a logical order, you end up with a pretty good movie. Okay, to set the stakes:

Kylo Ren is a big jerk, but he also has weird sexual tension with Rey. He's the bad boy for sure and he's captured her to bring to his master, Snoke. Snoke's role, origin, motivation, or place in the hierarchy of the Galaxy makes no sense in any of these films, so let's leave that there. This scene is about Rian Johnson trying to clean up JJ Abrams' mess more than anything else. Anyway, trying to keep my blood pressure low here - all you need to know is that Snoke is an even BIGGER jerk and wants Rey for...some reason. Maybe just to kill her and eat her or something to gain her courage.

In a screenwriting master class, Snoke senses that Kylo is about to kill his true enemy which turns out to be...Snoke! Oh no! It's both an unexpected turn that surprises Rey, Snoke, and the audience as well as something that fits perfectly with his arrogant, rebellious, yet maybe-a-good-guy character. It makes perfect sense for Kylo, shocking for everyone else. It's one of the greatest moments in the nine films. YES IT IS.

Now, JJ did this a little bit, pushing creatively what you could do with the Force. George Lucas is obviously one of the most creative storytelling minds in history, but there were definitely limits to his own brain. You can tell that he blossomed this amazing world and powers and the concept of the Force and everything, but he really needed some new attitude to come in and form the natural extension of what those limits could do. JJ had Kylo force stop a laser blast in the opening scene. Best scene of any of his movies (and literally, I swear he looks at Finn because he feels that Finn is force-sensitive and we get that pay-off....uhhh....wait for it....probably in Episode IX....he's about to say it....okay never). Lucas for sure never really developed the Jedi telekinesis powers. I mean, that should be enough, right? Many comic book and film legends are supremely powerful just because of their telekinesis abilities. Like Carrie or Jean Grey. Jedis should be able to telekinetically crush things, take apart doors and brains, and throw all kinds of objects around.

You see this a little bit. Mace Windu crushes General Grievous' ribs in the closing moments of Tartakovsky's Clone Wars. Vader chucks stuff at Luke in Empire. But yeah, why not just turn off your opponents' lightsaber all the time? There is actually a bit of lore explaining this and quite a bit of conversation amongst fans. I still think that Jedis should just practice telekinetically spin lightsabers around their heads. I know it's hard, but like, c'mon that's why we practice in temples all day, folks.

Back to the scene. I also want to pay attention to it cinematically. You see Rey's lightsaber moving as Snoke monologues that Kylo is about to murder his true enemy, which telegraphs the sequence a little bit, but you still don't think it can happen. Luke didn't kill the Emperor in the Throne Room. Surely you can't get away with killing the Big Bad in the middle of his Empire, much less in the middle of the movie! It peaks our curiosity. Then it happens quick, with no regrets, and we only see the lighting change as the blue glow shines on Snoke's face and we hear the telltale sound, the most recognizable in Star Wars.

Immediately there's a reaction - Snoke had been force holding up Rey, who drops to the ground as Snoke dies. She turns to see for herself. Snoke himself looks down because he also can't believe. No one can believe it. It's unbelievable mostly for story reasons. Snoke was purportedly the Big Bad of this whole new Trilogy, but Johnson wisely knew he was rubbish and Kylo was far more interesting, perhaps THE most conflicted and interesting character in all of Star Wars and would be way more compelling as a villain. It ungrounds what we had anticipated as the typical story beats in this kind of tale, but most importantly in a way that's fulfilling. Snoke wasn't going anywhere - he was just a stock character. It allows the audience to shed that baggage and fully divert over to Kylo's story, and there's this real tension here. Will Kylo become the next evil Sith Lord? Will he turn to the light side and join Rey in a fight against Hux? Will Rey succumb to her own growing darkness and anger? Will Rey remain pure? Anything can happen!

The sabre moves on a direct path through Snoke, bifurcating him and ends up in Rey's hands. Kylo is giving the sabre back to her. She stands and they look at each other. All those four scenarios play out in their heads but there is only one thing on their mind - they want to bone. They need to bone. They need to bone so damn bad. This is the only Star Wars film to have such explicit sexual tension. Sure there has been romance in Star Wars before, as much as rolling around the hills of Naboo and slicing pears and shit can be considered romantic, but the sexual tension here is ridiculous. You can cut it with a knife. What else can you do with that big beefcake Adam Driver and the adorably fierce Daisy Ridley?

This was all in thirty seconds, folks. Again, we get an indication of a lightsaber igniting through a simple red lighting change across Kylo's face. Their fate is full of possibility but for now they both have a very real challenge - Snoke's badass Red Guards! So, let's track who has been up or down and how each action pushes that forward.

At the start, Rey is down, Snoke is up, and Kylo is fairly neutral, but in an advantageous position. Let's call him up. Due to Kylo's actions, Rey is up, Snoke is down (obviously), and Kylo remains up. As the gaze sexually into each other's eyes they know that the next two minutes will be fighting but really it's just pure sex. The music swells as only Fairy Godmother can sing it, the camera presses in and the action moves from slo motion to real motion and gives the illusion of the scene speeding up.

The Guards attack first - a subtle nod to Jedi being defensive rather than offensive. Kylo deflects the first two then ducks the third, but notably the fourth crosses from Rey's side without engaging with her and nearly lands a blow. This is the first time that Kylo has been down. In perfect timing, Rey then turns to assist and kills her first guard, who had been the third one to attack, which Kylo ducked. The scene may have been pushed towards super perfection if she had killed the one that threw him off balance.

Rey notably defends three and is able to get in four strikes before turning to help Kylo. Thematically this is putting the normal aggressor more on the defensive and the normally passive Jedi more on the offensive. They are meeting in the middle! Rey then defends against a triple blow while Kylo earns his first kill. So far Rey is consistently up and Kylo has been up-down-up. As they close in for the triple blow though, Rey reacts and leaning on Kylo, pushes away and the camera finally breaks from the steady close-up.

We center our focus on Kylo. The cut is actually a little sloppy. He faces east before the cut and the camera crosses the line to feature him facing west. It's as jarring as this scene is going to get. I think they wanted to break the line and prepare the viewer to see every angle of this fight and the throne room, but I wish Johnson had maintained some kind of continuity between which direction Kylo was facing at least. There isn't a ton of motivation there. There is at least symmetry of cutting whenever Kylo has a big downswing with his blade, which leads us to anticipate the next move. He throws some elbows and kicks, which we know are necessary because the Guards' armor is thick and besides a direct and forceful slash, lightsabers aren't going to work this time - perhaps a nice lore-fueled addition that shows Snoke has adapted to a world where lightsaber users may threaten him.

The Guards have pressed Rey to the right of the screen and in an unbroken shot, the camera pans over the opening created by Kylo throwing two guards into each other and then zooms in on Rey's fight. She is able to slash at one of her opponents' sides and then in one of the wisest moves of the scene, her other opponent catches her lightsaber in his electric chain thing. The scene is able to slow down while preserving its tension as he winds it and therefore her close to him until he can choke her with his hand. He's disabling her weapon while trying to disable her while maintaining control. This is the first time in the fight that Rey is down. However, his angle is also compromising him and as she gets lose he has no way to prevent a counterattack and he's finished. Up.

Rey's blade is still carrying part of his weapon so she shakes it off and it flies into the Red Velvet, setting the whole place on fire. Now it's a party! To show how tough these things are, the earlier Guard she has slashed stands up, apparently recovering in the corner for a little bit. He charges, she screams, there is a nice match-cut and we're back to Kylo. You could maybe call this up, she's certainly energetic, but it's also a reminder that when she tried to kill him the first time it didn't work - these guards are going to keep coming. I might actually call it down, but it's less obvious.

Kylo is squaring off with a Guard when another one rushes in and he has to lower his sabre to deflect both. He has been up the last we saw him, now he's down again. The Guards push him back, he literally becomes smaller and weaker on screen before our eyes. But as a third rushes in, but through sheer will he breaks free, sending the original two off-balance and disarming the third. In a down moment for the Guards due to the surprise, that third one is caught unawares and suffers a direct lightsabre hit through the chest. Ren is up. He looks around and surveys the scene, using the body as a shield while he thinks about his next move, before throwing it down some hatch where it gets electrocuted and shredded. Electro-shredded. I don't know what the deal with that is, but it adds to the danger of their surroundings.

He's gains a good amount of confidence after that. Kylo holds up his lightsabre, taunting those who may still challenge him. They do the same, brandishing their weapons against their armor as if to say, "We're not a bunch of mindless Battle Droids that will go down with one chop!" By this point we see how much the fire has spread and we get another great shot. We track Kylo's gaze across the battlefield and as he sees Rey, the camera zooms in, transplanting both him and us to her situation right as she suffers a blow to the arm - livable but significant. It's an easy technique perspective-wise, but importantly it shows Kylo going from this arrogant moment to realizing that he's fighting for some one else on this battlefield as well. He hasn't had anyone else to fight for in a long time. Driver shows all these feelings on his face in the next shot. Rey is down which causes Kylo to be down.

Not for long, though. As another whip guard rushes him, you almost think he doesn't see it, but of course he does because he has the force. He is able to deflect two strikes, then a third. I have watched this a hundred times in slow motion and I honestly can't tell how he disables the whip guy. I actually think he maybe kicks him in the nuts or headbutts him on the ground, it's maybe another rare bit of sloppiness. But it ends with his decapitation, so that's fun. Now Kylo is full of life and solidly up. Back to Rey.

Rey is fighting cinematically through a hell of her own creation as the Guard with two daggers is besting her and the flames surge behind them. The Guard gets a good kick in and she starts swinging wildly, this is as down as she's been since this fight started. There is another wonderful match cut and we're back to Kylo. I didn't actually realize how much this fight focused on him While Rey mostly fights one enemy, Kylo is fighting three, although the fight started with Rey holding off four at once and Kylo mostly dodging.

You can see Rey in the background, but Kylo dispatches his guard with a mighty downswipe, obtains his staff weapon and uses it to block in another messy crossed line cut. It's not that awful since it actually returns to the shot angle we were used to, but it's still a little jarring. Kylo is dual wielding and spinning until another guard runs into frame both forearms ahead of his face and completely blocks his lightsabre blow with his bare armor. Kylo had been riding a significant up streak, but now he's down.

Only briefly though! He jabs the spear into his back (in a shot that's not seen well actually on camera, and then slices his throat. However, in this briefest of up moments he leaves himself vulnerable. The armor is difficult enough to penetrate that a quick jab won't do - he barely gets the job done when the other Guard he was fighting rushes in on the opening and Kylo is forced to drop both weapons. Going from dual wield to slappers only!

He is off balance, slipping, and the world is burning around him. As he tries to defend from a staff blow, the Guard maneuvers around him and puts him in a choke hold. Kylo has been down but not actually significantly down in this scene. He has had moments here and there, but this is the first time when he's significantly challenged, which is where Rey started and has found herself lately.

Okay, so at this point I will admit there are a few weird things that happen next that I had not noticed until watching in super slow motion. Rey is exchanging blows with the Dagger Guard but she is incredibly open to attack from the dagger in his left hand. I think he actually does attack, swiping across her belly, which causes her to lose her strong stance and end up in a compromised position. However, I have no idea where this dagger then goes. It is literally not in the Guards' hand anymore. It's possible that he accidentally flung it while he had a lightsabre pretty close to his face. It also looks very clever, but I'm not sure why loosening her grip allowed Rey to completely escape the Guard's grip. What is he, Rocky Richter? Rey takes out the knees and then the throat in a big move from her lowest low to her highest high.

Seeing Kylo about to die-lo, she chucks her lightsabre across the room, he catches it and then brain-fries the last guard. Then they have sex. Here is a high def version that has less ridiculous music. I don't even know why you'd want to watch: 

There you have it. The best scene ever in Star Wars history. Fight me!

It's amazing how much of this was undercut by Snoke being a...maybe clone puppet? Kylo being a bitch and not the big bad in Episode IX, Rey's temptation being based on bloodline, not genuine character development or desire, and most importantly, they never got it on on screen! What is even the point?!

What do you think? Is this too much? Just vote for Biden, please.

29 October 2020

How About Another Borat?

 It was truly the movie no one knew they needed. Somehow this tired and dated character is exactly the injection that 2020 needed. And by injection, I mean a syringe full of cold sad gypsy tears. Listen folks, I haven't seen a movie in the theaters since Rise of Skywalker (2019), and that's driving me crazy. Traditionally I won't talk about everything I see because that'd be 200 articles there alone, but we really need something for October. This is our life now. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (2020). Spoilers forever, you know what's going on by now.

Eleven years ago, I named the Borat: Cultural Learnings of America to Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006) the #6 greatest film of the decade. Looking back on it, do I regret ranking it above The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), Pan's Labyrinth (2006), and City of God (2002), all of which were not ranked? Of course not, we are trying to make a credible movie website here. I also apparently praised it for its hilarious racism, I am sure I meant to dissect the nuance and satire. I have evolved quite a bit in the past decade. Mostly. I should probably go back and re-write all these old articles.

But clearly I have been a Sacha Baron Cohen fan, although it's been a torturous existence. He really has never captured that Borat magic again, despite trying again and again. Bruno (2009) had its moments...I guess. And his scripted efforts have largely been at best underrated (Grimsby [2016] is actually not bad at all), but none have had the cultural force of Borat. Baron Cohen claims that he felt compelled to return to the character due to the horrors of the Trump Presidency, but it's also definitely because he hasn't had a movie that has stuck the landing in fourteen years.

Immediately the premise sounds like a bad idea, but also a character that might still work. After all, even though we are in the Woke Age, there are still sections of the populace more racist than ever. That's the thing - satirizing racists and misogynists' won't ever really get old, because they will always be lurking in some dark corner. And with Trump, that might be a bright corner. We live in this really weird age where everyone is cancelled but simultaneously no one cares? That's really why Hollywood idols and Democrats have faced the bigger brunt of cancel culture, because those fans actually care about inappropriate comments and actions.

So, enter Borat. The film wisely dials up his insanity, with a particular focus on treatment of women, which is a nice way to bring in another character, Borat's daughter, played by the incredible Maria Bakalova. Some folks are talking about an Oscar nod for her, mostly because no one has seen any movies this year. In 2006 I was of the firm belief that Baron Cohen deserved to be recognized. It is quite magnificent acting with no one ever saying cut. What better example of bravery do we have on the silver screen these days?

Borat 2 pulls no punches with its main character, which makes his casual interactions all the more unbelievable. Baron Cohen has said that he is more interested in illuminating apathy to racism rather than explicit hatred, and this film refines that thesis stronger than its predecessor. Most vendors are simply interested in selling as much as they can to this foreign weirdo and dare not call out his ridiculous worldview lest they lose the sale. Is that an indictment of the capitalist notion of earning the sale at all costs? I like to think so. You can see how hard he pushes, waiting for some kind of push back. It's maybe why he seems so confident in this film that no one is going to turn around and call him out.

Of course, there is a bit of fun editing. Watching the raw footage of him at the pro-gun rally shows that the crowd isn't as into it as it would appear. There's definitely some chanting along, though. He was also chased out of that rally. In this kind of film it's always a little bit of a question as to what is real and what is staged, or at least edited. Baron Cohen generally lets his hapless prank victims speak for themselves, and I mean literally, whatever they say is caught on camera.

The film is weakened a little bit by simple virtue of everyone nowadays recognizing poor Borat. Very quickly the character Borat realizes that he is going to need an array of disguises in order to walk around America a second time, which is something actor Baron Cohen realized years ago when he first tried to retire the character. Prank movies just don't really work when the actors get too popular. The same thing happened to the guys from Jackass. The film handles this well at the start, with strangers on the street immediately recognizing Borat, and Baron Cohen reacting to that in character. There's also a brilliant bit where Borat finds a generic knock-off costume of himself in a Halloween shop. However, after that it becomes a bit of a narrative stretch that the character Borat would be this good at making costumes and voices to disguise himself. Is that a real complaint? It's an obvious concession in order to actually make the film, but it brought me out a little bit. Parts felt like Who is America? which always seemed to me like Baron Cohen trying to hard and not really ever hitting the satirical sweet zone of "In My Country There is Problem."

At the same time, there are plenty of jaw-dropping moments, some that made national news before we knew what was going on and of course the now infamous Rudy Giuliani moment. I wonder how Baron Cohen knew what he was getting into - did he just assume the worst and knew it was going to be gold? Or would he have just tried with various Administration Officials until he got one that fit the narrative? I am so interested in their process here.

And speaking of Rudolph, let's get into Tutar, the character played by Bakalova who somehow manages to hold her own against Baron Cohen, the clear master of this kind of craft. She's absolutely fearless - showing off your moonblood in the middle of a Georgia Cotillion takes, well...some balls. Again, I truly wonder how much prep she had. There are plenty of solo pranks she undergoes with no safety net. It's amazing and fun to watch. She brings so much new life into this old character and provides the catalyst for Borat to undergo actual character development, which is all sorts of amazing.

Lastly, we should talk about how Borat is responsible for the coronavirus, which is inspired and timely, although will almost certainly date this film. I'm not sure if that matters at this point. The within-movie premise, that Borat has been in a Kazakh gulag for fourteen years and that the Kazakh premier unleashes him as revenge on the world for their reception to Borat is pretty inspired, as well as a nice commentary on how bad the first film was. There is no pretension here.

Subsequent Moviefilm is a worthwhile experience for any Borat fan, or anyone starved for a good comedy, or just any kind of movie at all in 2020. It's an acquired taste of course, but it could have stumbled way harder than it did - in this form it mostly works pretty well.

Related Posts with Thumbnails