Sunday, July 7, 2013

Comedy This Good Doesn't Come Often.

My family has been watching a lot of 80s movies lately on a trip down memory lane.  In addition to these two movies, I'll also be reviewing Tron, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, and some other guilty pleasures in the future, but not before Dystopia Week on The Author's Files, in which I'll be analyzing several books (shocker, right) young and old.

Val Kilmer’s filmography has spanned many eras and genres, encountering more than a fair share of bumps in its road (I could name at least 4).  He has starred in movies unfairly praised (Top Gun), unfairly condemned (Red Planet), and unfairly greenlit (Batman Forever), but the unfair dismissal of his film debut Top Secret! arguably constitutes the gravest injustice surrounding his career.  A hilarious combination of WW2 parody, explicit musical numbers, physically impossible slapstick, and risqué dialogue, Top Secret! stakes an incontestable claim to its exclamation point and should be resurrected from the memory hole to be displayed alongside Mel Brooks’ great classics.

Top Secret! has virtually no plot worth describing; like Napoleon Dynamite, Young Frankenstein, Spaceballs, and Galaxy Quest, what little storyline it possess serves only as a tool to move from one visual gag or one-liner to another.  Val Kilmer plays Nick Rivers, a pop sensation the like of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, or (sadly) Justin Bieber who makes ladies swoon and produces singles like “Skeet Surfing”, which accompanies a music video of hunky, shirtless guys surfing and shotgunning simultaneously, much to the pleasure of their adoring, bikini-clad beach babes.  This opening footage, so utterly random and outlandish in design, informs the viewer at an early stage that he’s watching a unusually racy PG-movie.  While on a tour in Germany, Nick gets inadvertently sucked into a Nazi rebirth conspiracy when he meets a woman named Hillary, or “She whose bosoms defy gravity”, Flammond, whose tragic, Blue Lagoon backstory involves being stranded on an island with a boy and “having to learn how to do it themselves” when they “found themselves facing new feelings they couldn’t understand”.  Eventually, after much travel and love-making by the sometimes suspended fireplace, she and Nick run into a motley bunch of Frenchmen, one of whom is the lost, loinclothed lover from Hilary’s childhood and another of whom threatens to betray them.  Which member of the resistance will stab his brothers in the back: the colored Chocolate Mousse, the forgetful Déjà vu, the ever-useful Latrine, or the loveable fool Scarecrow?

For those old enough to know what sex is, mature enough to laugh at racial humor, and stalwart enough to tolerate some horrendously low potty jokes, Top Secret! is one of the funniest movies they’ll ever witness.  To quote its more memorable lines without despoiling these Files’ virginity poses an insurmountable challenge, but I will note that the writers/directors David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker (all of Airplane fame) went out of their way to put some visual oddity into nearly every shot.  All of these are obviously better seen firsthand than absorbed through text, but to give a few examples, men will swing girls around their heads single-handedly, winged humans urinate on the statue of a pigeon, and a Frenchman expertly uses a machine gun to dispatch a half-dozen Nazis without touching his allies in the same, 3-meter radius.  One particularly weird scene is played back in reverse, showing characters zip up a firepole and throw books onto shelves with ease, while another takes place in an underwater casino governed by its own laws of physics.  Top Secret! is a fine example of how to make a small budget appear bigger through the use of simple and creative special effects.

It’s no top secret that I enjoyed this film tremendously more than I did anything else Val Kilmer has spearheaded.  Original, crude, visually intriguing, and politically incorrect above all else, Top Secret! even manages to deliver a good jab at America’s likely last conservative president, a feat that Ronald Reagan himself would applaud.

Grade rating: A-

“I'm afraid you leave me no alternative but to introduce you to two of my associates.  Bruno is almost blind, has to operate wholly by touch.  Klaus is a moron who knows only what he reads in the New York Post.”

“It was a Russian ship.  They taught me all about you imperialist swine.  I was exposed to the works of great thinkers: Karl Marx, Lenin, L. Ron Hubbard, Freddie Laker.”

“My uncle was born in America.”
“Oh, really?”
“But he was one of the lucky ones.  He managed to escape in a balloon during the Jimmy Carter presidency.”

Throughout the history of Hollywood, many films have told stories about kids outwitting and outplaying adults, but none of them have done so as wittily and endearingly as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, a clever twist on a childish genre that places malicious public school administrators in the antagonistic role usually reserved for the kids’ parents.  While I’d hesitate to call John Hughes’ 1986 comedy a true classic, it exhibited enough class and intelligent writing to convince me that errant, teenage runaway movies are not inherently bad, but just poorly represented in the 21st century.

Ferris Bueller is a masterful thespian, computer hacker, and reluctant senior who feigns illness one day to stay home, much to the chagrin of his envious sister Jeanie.  “The worst performance of my career, and they never doubted it for a second,” he tells the audience.  Although Ferris’ parents are oblivious to his mischievous plot, his facade of illness immediately draws the suspicion of his school’s Dean of Students, the nefarious and sadistic Edward Rooney, embodied with a devilish smile by Jeffrey Jones.  Together with his worrisome and normally well-behaved friend Cameron, our titular hero orchestrates a nearly foolproof plan that involves installing a snoring dummy in his room, hijacking the limited-series, red Ferrari so precious to Cam’s dad, contriving a dead grandmother story to pull his girlfriend Sloane out of school, and experiencing practically everything Chicago offers until his parents’ return at 6:00 PM.  “The question is not 'what are we going to do',” he explains, “the question is 'what aren’t we going to do'.”  As the three rebellious runaways feast, explore, and frolic in the big city, Rooney leaves his station to pursue some “personal business” of his own; unable to quell his determination to expose Ferris’ fraud, he heads for the Bueller home and attempts a break-in to prove his case, much to his detriment when he finds the residence is actually occupied.  The hilarity of the movie partly ensues from comparisons between the teens’ relatively civil misdemeanors and the embarrassingly criminal acts by the dimwitted public employee who’s ironically supposed to supervise them.  Ferris Bueller’s greatest achievement by far, though, is the way it makes typically bad behavior look genuinely innocent and even justified.  Celebrating not so much debauchery and lawlessness as independence and friendship, the movie is a toast to the rite of passage, that time when young adults flee their parents’ coop and liberate themselves from the public school mockery of education.   More than just a run-of-the-mill, “coming-of-age” comedy, Ferris Bueller presents a veiled commentary on the system that would inspire Bueller and his friends to play hooky in the first place; it’s a sad reality that the film’s trio of thrill-seekers probably acquired more valuable knowledge from their day off than from their day on, during which they’d learn little besides the ramifications of the Hawley-Snoot Tariff Act, how the prison symbolizes the protagonist’s struggle, and “consumer-ed”.  The film also has a strong, underlying message about pursuing adventure, conquering one’s fears, and taking responsibility for one’s failures.  “Life moves pretty fast,” Ferris says, “and if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Ferris Bueller has engaging characters, clever dialogue, timeless appeal, and great acting, especially by Jeffrey Jones, whose portrayal as Rooney is a near perfect personification of evil.  Ben Stein’s uproarious, impromptu economics speech on the Laffer Curve deserves special recognition as well.  Ferris Bueller is also historically significant as one of the first movies to feature asides extensively and include an after-credits scene; while the former technique, in which a character explains his inner thoughts by speaking directly to the audience, was made famous by Shakespeare in the 16th century, the latter was fairly innovative at the time, and thanks to Ferris Bueller, superhero fans now have an incentive to sit through the end credits at every Marvel picture they attend.  If I could make one complaint about this movie (other than the Harry Potter syndrome of having obviously college-age actors playing high-schoolers), it would concern the inordinate amount of swearing by the main characters, which seems inconsistent with the movie’s overall tone and doesn’t make them any more likeable.  Even though the subject matter of Ferris Bueller precludes most kids who aren’t mature teenagers from watching it, the profanity seems out of place given that the heroes never do anything that bad.  Besides stealing Mr. Frye’s car and, eh, doing something other things to it, all their actions are mostly trivial and harmless compared to the crime, violence, substance abuse, and lechery that permeate recent “naughty teenager” movies.  Ferris Bueller is practically the opposite of Top Secret! in that it keeps sexual content to a minimum but is loaded with unnecessary obscenities.

Despite his often abrasive vocabulary, Ferris has an irresistible charm, intellect, and daring that elevates him well above the vast majority of self-inflated Hollywood youths who are smarter than their parents.  Modern movie studios should take note of his enduring fan base and write more characters like Bueller… Bueller than like Charlie Sheen’s drugged-up loser in the police station.

Grade rating: A-

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