Leslie Nielson passed away on the 28th of November last year, aged 84 following a career which lasted well over 50 years. As a form of tribute, I took a look at two films featuring him at work.
The Naked Gun (1988) is probably Nielson’s most iconic film. It sees him reprise the role of Lieutenant Frank Drebin who he played in the short-lived (but hilarious) TV series Police Squad! (1982). Just like the series, this is a deeply silly film, but in a very good way. It is hilarious, and it shows that comedy can be brilliantly made and silly, without being cringe-worthy, or crass. Unfortunately there has been a decline in this style of film-making over recent years and I think Nielsen recognises the value of these type of movies. I think that possibly explains some of the role choices he made in his later years, featuring in films such as Scary Movie 3 (2003), Superhero Movie (2008) and Stan Helsing (2009). These type of films are currently the ones continuing the legacy of The Naked Gun, but unfortunately doing it in a generally crass and unfunny way. I think Nielsen was aiming to recapture some of the silliness seen in this film, and bring it to a whole new audience by appearing in these films.
It’s easy to be dismissive of the spoof film, given the output over the last decade. But a film such as The Naked Gun shows how witty and downright hilarious this sub-genre can be. In fact I can’t remember the last time I laughed as much as this. It is not economical with the joke rate, the gags come one straight after another, or even multiple onscreen at the same time. The parody elements of the film, and its beautiful distinct lack of subtlety are laid bare in the opening scene. A spoof on James Bond films, it sees Nielsen’s Frank Drebin taking out a boardroom of master villains (and what a crew they are, including Yasser Arafat, Gaddafi and Ayatollah Khomeini among others). From there, it really does not let up for it’s snappy 90-odd minute duration. Most of the film is a hilarious spoof on the crime film genre. Frank Drebin is a hilariously deluded cop who seems not to quite grasp the world around him. The faux voiceover and police dialogue that Nielsen delivers, enhances the mock noir stylings of the film, which are also boosted by some cracking Double Indemnity (1944) references. The film refuses to trade in one kind of joke. Instead it bombards the viewer with witty wordplay, over the top slapstick, parody and visual gags, all of which work well. The film is a little more risqué then I recall as well. It features the line “nice beaver”, one of the best wee jokes ever committed to film and a condom joke which is hands down the stupidest joke I have ever seen.
The performances in this are all really good. O.J. Simpson features in a moderate supporting role and shows a surprising adroitness for physical slapstick. As Drebin’s love interest, Priscilla Presley is also surprisingly good, handling the comedic and more ‘straight’ elements of her role with equal aplomb. Nielsen is the film’s focal point and star though. He plays the character of Frank Drebin brilliantly. Despite the character’s silliness he plays it pretty straight and the film is much funnier as a result. Definitely preferable than if he had of overplayed it, which would be a definite temptation in a role such as this. You can see that like the film more generally, Nielsen’s performance was quite influential. I see a lot of Will Ferrel in Frank Drebin.
This is a cavalcade of smile-inducing stupidity. I don’t like to hoist my opinions on others because reactions to films are such a personal thing. But I don’t really see how anyone could not enjoy this. It’s one of the most joyous film viewing experiences I have had in a long time. The best way I can describe it is that it gave me the same kind of joyous contentment I get when watching Buster Keaton films (but with more belly laughs). Go watch it.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
Whilst most of Nielson’s fame can be attributed to his days as a snowy haired comic from the 80s and 90s, his career began much earlier than that. Probably the most well-remembered of these early roles is as Commander John Adams in The Forbidden Planet (1956). This early sci-fi classic is famously based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Whilst there are some obvious plot similarities, I think it draws more on the works of Freud than Shakespeare’s play. However if you are unfamiliar with, or simply don’t care for either of the above, you will still get something out of this film.
The main thing you might get out of it are the incredible special effects, which I think hold up even today. An early example of this is the crew disappearing as their ship enters hyperdrive. I find it strange that the film is not openly talked about as a highpoint of effects wizardry today, because the effects are clearly technologically advanced and surely ultra-influential. The giant creatures of the subconscious are rendered using some innovative light effects and to see Nielson and his men’s gunfire bouncing off these semi-visible beings is a sight to behold. These massive beings create a real sense of danger for the men who have flown on a reconnaissance mission to a far-off planet, where many years before an envoy from Earth was presumed lost. The tale takes place in a future where humans have conquered and colonised outer space. When they arrive, this platoon of men led by Nielsen’s commander find the only survivors of the earlier expedition are the strange Dr Morbius, played by Walter Pidgeon, and his smokin’ hot daughter Alta, played by Anne Francis. They are of course supported by undoubtedly the film’s most iconic character, Robbie the Robot. Morbius is strangely unhappy to see newcomers from his home planet, whilst Captain Adams is insistent that they have a job to do and are not going anywhere. Things become more complicated when Alta captures the eye of pretty much all the men on the planet and starts encouraging them not too subtly (not exactly helped by one unscrupulous crew member who tells the naïve Alta she needs to kiss to maintain peak physical condition). The secrets that Morbius is so keen to hide are slowly revealed, placing Adams’ and his crew in profound danger. Can they escape the planet in time? You will have to watch, for once I’m not going to spoil things for you. The film works best when engaging (or I guess possibly creating) sci-fi conventions, rather than focusing on the underdrawn romance that is bubbling along.
It is quite strange seeing Nielson as a strapping, clean-cut young man when so used to seeing him under such different circumstances. The film though, orbits around his performance and it is really very good, proving he is not a mere clown but a man capable of carrying much weightier material. On this evidence it is a shame that he did not get the opportunity to do so more often. It is clearly no coincidence that his character shares a name with the second president of the United States, and in many ways the actor manages to convey the gravitas and upright standing that role is meant to encompass. He is a brave leader, respected by his men and not afraid to make the tough decisions. Reading that description back it is not a role I would have credited Leslie Nielson with being able to pull off, but I was wrong. Narratively the film juggles a number of somewhat strange, disparate subtexts. The enemy here is not hideous aliens or comets, but man’s subconscious and the horrors it brings; surely suggestive of some of the horrors man perpetuated in the 20th century, both against his fellow human beings and his planet. Then there are also the occasional hanging homage to Christianity, such as when one of the crew exclaims sincerely that “the Lord sure made some beautiful worlds.” Like many films, these subtexts can be ignored or explored as much as a particular viewer is willing. But they are piled on, with themes of overt environmentalism and even incest popping up. Possibly just as innovative and interesting to a modern audience as the special effects, is the film’s somewhat trippy soundtrack. It was rendered using pretty much solely electronic means, groundbreaking at the time, and produces a wondrous array of buzzes, beeps and screeches that enhance the action and enhances the feeling of a dangerous, deep space environment. In fact technically the film is generally pretty incredible. The set-design brilliantly evokes a far-off, otherworldliness, as well as some large-scale, subterranean, industrial lairs which put the hidden hideouts of any James Bond (or Austin Powers) villain to shame.
Whilst this film does hold some of the trappings many sci-fi films of this vintage do for viewers of this era, cheesy dialogue chief among them, The Forbidden Planet easily rises above them. The film’s conclusion does risk drowning in a sea of Freudian jargon, but manages to stay afloat so to speak. In the end what we are left with is an expertly (and ahead of its time) cautionary tale about the danger humanity poses to itself and anything else that may or may not exist in the universe.
Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny
After recently seeing Lars Von Trier’s incredible film Dogville (2003) I was keen to check out the sequel Manderlay (2005). However whilst reading about the film online I discovered the story of John C. Reilly. Reilly is probably best known recently for his involvement in silly comedies such as the Will Ferrell vehicles Talladega Nights (2006) and Step Brothers (2008) and has also appeared in the more serious fare such as The Thin Red Line (1998) and Magnolia (1999). The story went that whilst filming on the set of Manderlay, Reilly, a vegetarian, became aware of the fact that a donkey was set to be slaughtered for the purposes of the film. As a result, Reilly refused to work further on the film and stormed off the European set in protest. A little further reading cast doubt on the veracity of this story. The donkey was killed, but it was doubtful that it was the reason Reilly walked off set. In fact he never even made it on set, the reason appearing to be his part had been cut to be so small, it was not worth the trip to Europe to complete filming. The script that Reilly was sent did feature the donkey slaughter so it may have contributed to his decision to abandon the venture. When pressed on the slaughter of the donkey, Von Trier’s response was essentially that the donkey was old, and was going to die anyway.
I have been vegetarian for a few years now and have recently transitioned to a vegan lifestyle. Wherever possible I try and restrict the ways in which my life adversely affects the lives of animals, leading to their mistreatment and/or death. I no longer purchase leather and choose products not tested on animals wherever possible. So is it hypocritical of me not to apply these philosophical tenets to my passion of watching and writing about film? There are a reasonable number of vegetarians who wear a leather belt and shoes to work and I have always found this strange and somewhat hypocritical. I also feel that the way the industry is currently structured, there is a fundamental hypocrisy in eating a vegetarian, not vegan diet (I do not mean for this to be derisory toward vegetarians. The shift to a vegan diet for me has been a tough one and one I have had to think over deeply. If everyone on earth went vegetarian I would be a happy man). But am I any different? Many films, especially of an older era where animal rights was not an issue so central to the public consciousness, feature shocking acts of animal cruelty. Two films on the 1001 list which I have seen, but not yet blogged on fall into this boat. The Sergei Eisenstein silent classic Strike (1924) features the brutal slaughter of a cow intercut with other images toward the close of the film. Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War-set adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now (1979) features an even more shocking and inhumane example of animal cruelty when the local population brutally slaughters a water buffalo with machetes. Like Eisenstein, Coppola cuts this image with others. But the slaughter is still shown unflinchingly, from a stationary camera. The viewer sees the machetes scythe deep into the flesh of the buffalo, exposing its flesh as it slumps to its death. It is truly a confronting scene and one I struggled to watch.
Even between these two examples I feel I can draw distinctions. When Coppola was making his film animal rights were much more of a notable issue. The American Humane Society had begun issuing it’s “no animals were harmed” end credit to films as far back as 1940. Apocalypse Now unsurprisingly did not receive such a stamp , rather receiving an “unacceptable” rating from the society. Whatever the case, Coppola certainly understood that by filming the graphic slaughter, he was ignoring the notion of animal rights for some notion of artistic glory. The slaughter does not even add much to the end product of the film from memory, contributing to the overall vagueness and ‘otherworldliness’ of this world controlled by Marlon Brando’s Kurtz that Martin Sheen’s Marlowe now finds himself in. I am doubting highly that in 1920’s Russia, Eisenstein had a body such as the Humane Society for him to appease. For some reason I think that his is less of a crime so to speak, but this may just be ignorance on my part. Thinking that just because animals rights, in general and in the sphere of cinema, was less of an issue early in 20th century than later on when Coppola was making his film. No doubt Eisenstein was aware that the cow he was killing was a living, breathing, feeling entity just like him. I also feel that the slaughter adds more to his film than Coppola’s does. But should this be a consideration at all? Probably not. A question easier for me to answer is will I watch these films again? Yes I will, and I will watch any films on the 1001 list that I become aware feature examples of mistreatment. I have set my task to watch and write about them all and I intend on completing that task (however slowly). Perhaps to remain ‘true’ to my moral standpoint on the treatment of animals though I need to address and draw attention to these scenes, however briefly.
Will I put money in the pockets of film producers who should and do know better though? No, I will do my best not to. One of the instances that prompted me to write this piece was that not too long ago me and my (also vegan) girlfriend were looking for a film to catch at the cinemas. When we came to Water for Elephants (2011), a film I was none too fussed about seeing, my partner informed me she refused to see it because she had read about the manner in which the main elephant used in the film had been trained prior to filming. I will not see Water for Elephants*** and I wish I had not seen The Hangover 2 (2011) (recently serious questions have been raised regarding the treatment of the ‘drug dealing monkey’ in that film… plus it was shit). In a funny way, at least in my head, money comes into it. If I was to go and see a current film release I know featured questionable treatment of animals then I would feel like I was directly funding their abuse. I don’t think Sergei Eisenstein is cashing too many cheques because of me watching Strike. Even hiring a DVD such as Manderlay would seem like less of a direct endorsement, or at least provision of financial benefit than attending a cinematic release. And does, or should intention come into it. If a movie depicts the slaughter of an animal to promote a cause I believe in, does that make it different to one that mistreats animals for the sake of ‘entertainment’. There are numerous scenes of animal slaughter in Fast Food Nation (2006), however this film presents an anti-big business and fast food sentiment that I agree with. Conversely a film such as Jackass 3D (2010) which I have raised my issues with previously, in my view is unacceptable as animals are mistreated horribly for some sick notion of humour.*** So for me, whether rightly or wrongly a spade is not necessarily a spade. Intention and notions of my personal financial endorsement come into it.
I would be interested as always to hear your thoughts on this one. Am I just taking my vego-political correctness too far, or not far enough? Or would it be hypocritical of me to see a film where I am well aware that an animal has been slaughtered to supposedly ‘enhance’ the experience. By viewing a film such as Manderlay, or Water for Elephants would I be like that strange breed of vegetarians who find eating meat abhorrent but wear a leather belt and shoes to work.
***Note: It is worth mentioning that both of these films received positive endorsements from the American Humane Society. Water for Elephants received an “outstanding” rating. However this rating refers only to events on-set, and is in no way an endorsement of the prior training of the animals. Jackass 3D received an “acceptable” rating because not all of the scenes were able to be monitored by the Humane Society, however no animals were harmed in those they did monitor. Quite amazingly (given that there has never been anything really raised about it) it turns out a lot of the Jackass stunts are actually faked. There is a massive database of American Humane Society ratings for films that you can find here: http://www.americanhumanefilmtv.org/movie-review-archives/
- A Return to Reason (1923), Man Ray – Early French avant-garde short is an awesome cacophony of images. What look like micro-organisms, street lights, carousels, nails, springs, breasts and more. I’ll be fucked if I know what it means, if anything, but it’s cool to look at. Check it out:
- Hot Tub Time Machine (2010), Steve Pink – This film has a really nice, heartfelt spirit that is missing from most recent comedies. Great performances by the core cast, and the notion of a second opportunity to do things differently if you had your time over held my interest. And I laughed in this a hell of a lot, which is a good thing for a comedy.
- Sanctum (2011), Alister Grierson – This Aussie cave diving flick was much maligned on release. The most cliché ridden script in recent memory, and the visuals losing their impact on a smaller, 2D screen doesn’t help. So why worth a watch? Because it’s an incredibly intense, full on genre piece. I started getting a bit uneasy physically, so well is the claustrophobia conveyed. From about the half hour point, this had me utterly gripped, helped by some really nice performances from the Australian cast members. However the film does leave a couple of questions unanswered. Like, why the fuck would anyone go cave diving? And what accent is Hornblower going for exactly?
- Allonsanfan (1973), Paolo & Vittorio Taviani – Initially this looks like a cheap BBC Shakespeare adaptation. But things pick up once the action escapes the shoddy internal sets. The tale of a revolutionary released from jail who has to choose between revolution and his family. An interesting, thought provoking film about how hard it is to escape the past and the dangers of standing for nothing.
- X-Men: First Class (2011), Matthew Vaughan – I’m a fan of sequels, prequels and most any other ‘el’ you can think of. Not so sure about this ‘reboot’ fad that is going on. But if they’re all going to be this good, sign me up. Definitely the best Saturday night popcorn flick I’ve seen this year. Michael Fassbender as Magneto is obscenely good, and the evolving relationship between him and James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier is intriguing.
- Alias Season 1 (2001), J.J Abrams – This was the series that kick-started TV wunderkid (now just wunderkid) Abrams’ career. This is a globetrotting spy series that keeps the action coming and the characters always intriguing. It helps that it is brought to life by a pretty darn fine cast headed by Jennifer Garner and Bradley Cooper. A silly and occasionally convoluted mix of James Bond and Indiana Jones, that is always ultra entertaining.
- Shakespeare Behind Bars (2005), Hank Rogerson & Jilann Spitzmiller – This is an incredible and dense doco which chronicles a Shakespeare group in an American prison. Introduces the (at times brilliant) players at work, before gradually unveiling their heinous crimes, making you reappraise judgement. The felons are intelligent and bursting with philosophy, best seen when they summarise The Tempest in their own words. This film is the most truthful piece you could hope to see.
- Seven Up! (1964), Paul Almond – Based on this, the seminal sociological doco series is seminal for a reason. Beautifully shot as it is, this is essentially a ‘talking heads’ TV. piece. The innocence, but already engrained differences between the youngsters sets the basis for the rest of the series.
- 7+7 Up (1970), Michael Apted – Despite a change in director, this is more of the (good) same. Seven years on and the contrasting rebelliousness and conformity of teenage years are laid bare. Some have changed immeasurably in seven years, whereas there is a suspicion some will never change.
- State of Play (2009), Kevin Macdonald – Investigative journalists, politicians and high conspiracy, all pretty standard thriller plot points. Featuring Russell Crowe, Rachel McAdams, Helen Mirren and Ben Affleck in major roles just shows the power of a decent (more than decent) cast as this positively races by enjoyably. An outstanding supporting cast doesn’t hurt either.
- Tree of Life (2011), Terrence Malick – This was my most anticipated film of the year. Having seen it, I find the mixed response it has received utterly incomprehensible. The most ambitious mainstream cinema release I can recall is also the most beautiful. A poem about the cosmos God has created and an individual’s place in it. About the way one can choose to live their life by nature or by grace. Whilst this does feature Brad Pitt and dinosaurs, it ain’t a popcorn film. But I urge you to see it with an open mind and let the images wash over you. Then go back and see it a second time like I intend to.
- Oranges and Sunshine (2010), Jim Loach – This is a crushing film about family. A portrayal of yet another example of the Aus and British governments colluding in the heinous betrayal of children. Also yet another example of the depth of talent in Aussie acting. The smallest supporting roles are brilliantly, and emotively shown. But it is Weaving who ‘stars’ delivering a powerful turn that I’d be willing to bet will be as good as any this year.
Not Worth Watching:
- The Hearts of Age (1934), Orson Welles & William Vance – Orson Welles’ first film is the first of his I haven’t loved. In fact I was bored by it. This out there piece prominently features a tolling bell, and hideous demons. To me, this does not show any of the characteristics that would make Welles the greatest director in history. Maybe I just don’t get it. Take a look and let me know if I’m being harsh:
- Number, Please (1920), Hal Roach & Fred C. Newmeyer – This stars Harold Lloyd who is considered the third pillar of silent comedy along with Keaton & Chaplin. This is a beautifully shot, traditional love triangle. But a lot of it is similar to the aforementioned two comedians, only they do it better. Also, Lloyd’s everyman character lacks any distinctiveness. Pace too slow to generate laughs.
- Jennifer’s Body (2009), Karyn Kusama – “Is that the stupid Megan Fox lesbian movie” my girlfriend accused when I bought this home. “But, but…” I spluttered “It’s written by the same person who wrote Juno” was my defence. Script starts really well, quite funny, but then the horror shift kicks in, and Megan Fox’s sheer lack of acting ability take over. Forgoes any semblance of classical vampire mythology for overt sexuality – a vampire who needs to get her tits out before attacking. Only a very small target audience, easily titillated 14 year old boys, will come out of this one satisfied.
- The Hangover Part II (2011), Todd Phillips – I enjoyed this more than the first one (but I really didn’t like that). But it takes Hollywood unoriginality to absurd new heights. It’s literally the exact same script as the first one. So unoriginal, yep there’s a ladyboy joke. And am I the only one who finds Zach Galifinakis’ character incredibly annoying rather than hilarious?
- Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009), Michael Bay – The critical community, and my girlfriend, all agreed this film was a heinous crime against cinema. They were all right. A woeful script is brought to life by woeful performances. The most mind-numbingly dumb film I’ve ever seen (transformers humping legs, transformer testicles???). Racist & sexist to boot. This is a movie so bad, Megan Fox’s performance isn’t even close to the worst thing in it.
- Bridesmaids (2011), Paul Feig – Sold as a female The Hangover, this starts pretty lacklustre. And while it improves in patches, it still feels like a film which consists of jokes rejected from Will Ferrell and better Judd Apatow films. Good performances from Melissa McCarthy and Chris O’Dowd can’t save this one.
If you only have time to watch one Tree of Life
Avoid at all costs Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen