RIORI Presents Installment #185: Jonathan Frakes’ “Thunderbirds” (2004)



The Players…

Bill Paxton, Brady Corbett, Anthony Edwards, Soren Fulton, Sophia Myles, Vanessa Hudgens and Ben Kingsley, with Deobia Oparel and Ron Cook.


The Basics…

If there’s a local emergency you call the first responders. Fire fighters, police officers, EMTs. If there’s a national emergency you call on FEMA, the National Guard, the Red Cross. But who do you call when it’s a global emergency? A catastrophe so huge that no ordinary rescue team could get the job done?

Well, if you have that problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire…The A-Team International Rescue.

Thunderbirds are go!


The Rant…

Okay. I got one for you. Pull up a chair.

You ever get tuned into a culty pop culture hoo-ha by accident…in reverse?

I’m not talking a straight line like some Beatlemaniac from the 60s who not only has all the albums, singles and imports and proudly displays the framed, over the mantel, signed by Ringo vintage movie poster for A Hard Day’s Night. That kind of fandom is as common as COVID, and almost as communicable. No. I’m talking about a drunkard’s stagger backwards to the well, either out of curiosity, confusion or dumb accident. Usually all three.

Here’s an example, a theoretical one: say you’re some teen in the early 90s and got hip to this British singer/songwriter who went by the name of Sting. Silly name. His music was jazzy and rocky and sounded good to you. Curiosity piqued, you logged on the Net and surfed Lycos (early 90s, remember?) about all things Sting. Won a few Grammys, did some human rights work with Amnesty International and did a little acting on the side (and the less you found out about that the better). Also turned out the guy fronted this big deal new wave act back in the late 70s. Huh. Dig his new stuff, what’s the old stuff like?

Boom. A Police fan in borne. Like so many mushrooms.

Now I always dug The Police as a kid, and most of Gordo’s jazz/funk/rock solo work was pretty cool also (I gave up after his Ten Summoner’s Tales, and Sting should have, too). When I got into a musician, I did my homework and sought out back catalogs, and was more pleased than confused. When I did get confused over pop culture scavenging it was a rare occurrence, mostly because it was both by accident and rare. The cult stuff. And I’m talking deeper than Joy Division, the Sega Saturn or Octavia E Butler. Sometimes when you walk backwards far enough long enough you find yourself once you’ve backtracked forwards again.

Right. Bear with me. It’s been 185 installments. And if you’ve come this far, maybe you’re willing to come a little further. You remember the name of the town, don’t you?

*crickets*

Anyway, Red, time to tumble down the rabbit hole. Never fear, I will get to the meat of the matter and how it relates to this week’s movie somehow.

While the 90s teen nascent Police fan was not me, the following 80s kid story was. Maybe you, too. Back before the cable networks took the baton, the major networks would give over their Saturday morning airtime for cartoons. From six in the morning to noon, ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC and adopted kid Nickelodeon was a Froot Loop chomping wonderland every Saturday. All cartoons, all morning long. Sometimes I think Spotify programmers took hints from Saturday morning programming in creating their playlist algorithms. There was a sh*tton of animated variety, and certain networks had certain themes. NBC had action. ABC had comedy. CBS has weird s/f/fantasy shows. FOX was FOX and Nick was green slime. I dug the NBC line-up. The penultimate shows were Spider-Man And His Amazing Friends and The Bugs ‘N’ Tweety Show. The first had Spidey teaming up with X-Men Iceman and Firestar to thwart the nefarious schemes of various Marvel baddies. The second was self-explanatory: an anthology of a few Looney Tunes shorts. Then came Soul Train so I could get hip to the newest rap stars. Afterwards the lawnmower waited, glowering at me. The usual Saturday.

When I got bored of the same old scene on the Big Four and Little Nicky, I aimed the remote onto the outer fringes; local affiliates that still had some say in what to air against the competitors but not so much to lose their backing. Namely syndicated sh*t. Not always a bad thing. I got my silly TMNT fix that way (as well as very early mean hangover Saturday mornings with The Tick. “Spoon!”), as I did the ulty-culty fave Inhumanoids and an informal introduction to anime.

Japanese animation. Admittedly that came about when I was in second grade watching bowdlerized versions of Space Battleship Yamato and GoLions! (Star Blazers and Voltron in the States, respectively), but I dug it. Other anime warped snuck its way onto the local airwaves as well. G-Force, RoboTech, Tranzor-Z (violence uncut!) and other nuggets from across the Pacific that haplessly toppled onto my cable feed. Nowadays, anime has well saturated American pop culture. Still on the fringes, mostly due to the fact cosplayers dressed as Rei from Evangelion outweigh Shizuku from Whisper Of the Heart by about two googolplex to…perhaps two. Japanese animation is a thing but still not a thing in Columbus. It was rattling around back in the 80s, and I happened upon it, even after I happened upon it.

Wait. Dig this. Digression. You ever hear of the psychological phenomenon cryptomnesia? It’s essentially deja vu in reverse. Instead of having a curious feeling of reliving a moment, a moment has a curious effect on your memory and somehow your brain figured it was your moment all along. If you ever heard about that silly plagiarism case regarding George Harrison accidentally cribbing the melody for “My Sweet Lord” from the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine” then you follow me. If not, Google it. I’ll wait.

*raids fridge for another popsicle*

Like that there. Back to the anime thing. There was some proto-indie animation block one on of the local stations. Upstart affiliates trying to cash in on the cult of Smurfs. It came out of New York and featured the 80s cartoon touchstones about cyber femme rocker Jem, the aforementioned Inhumanoids and some anime pastiche called—translated rather—Thunderbirds 2086. I hung around for a few episodes, curious about the staggering animation style and why the characters’ dialogue was so palsied, but their description of a family-operated S/F rescue team with their ultra cool (“a dazzling array”) mecha poked my brain. Why does this sound familiar? I was eight then, so I flipped the channel. A self-examined life and all.

Back around to Little Nicky. I was a big fan of the imported UK cartoons Nick used to air at the end of the day. DangerMouseBananamanCount Duckula and other giddiness. These were British cartoons and far shorter than the usual American 25 minutes. Those from across the Pond ran about 18 minutes, which invited some filler to bookend the commercials, like the occasional Monty Python animated piece (this was the 80s, remember) or a snippet from some TV serial revolving around globetrotters rendered in puppet form.

Wait a minnit…

Fast forward to fast backwards. Y’all remember that parody Team America: World Police by the lovely lads of South Park infamy, Matt Parker and Trey Stone? What rock have you been living under? It was a send up of Dubya’s foreign policy, but with marionettes, strings and all. I never saw it, but the trailers smacked me with some nostalgica (yes, I just made that term up). Where have I seen this kind of thing before?

If Carl Jung was right, and there is such a thing as a collective unconsciousness somehow my warped kiddie mind—from about age 8 to 24—through either Harrison’s creative ozone trip or that blip in my mind that was Thunderbirds 2086, somehow I learned about the original British Thunderbirds “supermarination” sci-fi show about International Rescue and their amazing mecha before we fledgling otaku knew was mecha meant. I think I caught it on Nick between DangerMouse episodes. Yeah, that’s it. I think.

So when the announcement of a big deal silver screen reel of Thunderbirds came along I was intrigued (I was 38 at the time. Late bloomer). All that childhood nostalgics came whizzing back. Holy crap, full circle! And this uber-obscure, card-carrying very cult show was getting the motion picture treatment. Stateside! With Bill Paxton! With Commander Riker directing! Pass the popcorn! Come under the knife of RIORI!

Why in the world am I telling you all of this? Good question. I’ll do my best to provide a fair answer. Nostalgia works in cycles. As we evolve into mature adults (like those who wear foam wedges of Swiss come opening day at Lambeau, bare-chested in a blizzard), we always look fondly upon our past. Our childhood. The salad days without worrying about taxes and traffic and insurance premiums and salmonella and terrorism. The days of Saturday morning cartoons, technicolor cereal, Transformers and an already trimmed lawn. It’s nice to be reminded as a grown-up with a surprise like a fond, albeit odd memory of days gone by…even through a tricky trail like Marty McFly followed to get his erstwhile dad getting laid and being rewarded for it.

More nostalgia? You bet. Hold on to those moments. Work awaits in the morn and a Stauffer’s microwave dinner in the eve. Things are just fine now.


 The Story…

Whenever’s there’s a rescue mission, most authorities call out the Coast Guard, or FEMA and perhaps the Red Cross also. People all over the country—maybe the planet—need help when the emergency is so dire not even the most modern technology and capable people can produce the Jaws of Life. That’s when the brave folks of International Rescue spring into action.

Jeff Tracy (Paxton) is an ex-astronaut and an industrial titan in the S&R game. From what he learned in his NASA days he’s designed the technology to  an ncredibly bleeding edge fleet of sophisticated vehicles designed to do what no ordinary rescue team can do: the impossible. From air, sea, land and even space, Tracy’s “Thunderbirds” are always vigilant and ready to take on any case.

Sounds like something out of a comic book, and Jeff’s youngest son Alan (Corbett) always has his eyes in the clouds, looking for his super dad and his super bros that round out the elite team. Alan’s too young to serve in his Dad’s proud service—not to mention Jeff is more than a little protective of his youngest son—but too bold to ignore his calling. Especially during algebra.

However…quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who watches the watchers themselves? Dun dun dunnn.

Unbeknownst to Jeff and the Tracy team, an old, yet unknown enemy calling himself The Hood (Kingsley) has a scheme of very serious purpose to ruin the Thunderbird team’s sterling record of world saving. Knock off the world banks by hijacking Tracy’s amazing machines to steal millions as well as ruining the Thunderbirds’ reputation without recompense.

So when Alan is home on spring break, and his dad and brothers are off-world, and the Thunderbirds fleet is ripe for the hijacking, and the nefarious Hood has some sort of mind control, and his schemes are deadly real, and only Alan has a rough concept how to keep the fleet intact, and cutie pie TinTin (Hudgens) has developed breasts, what’s he gonna do?

Make a Fully Acknowledged Broadcast hopefully his over-protective dad could hear:

“Are Thunderbirds a go?”


The Breakdown…

Blame nostalgia. Or blame a lot of silly, whiz-bang fun. We need more chewing gum like this.

Thunderbirds is not a good movie. The acting’s kinda wooden, the scheme is right out of Lex Luthor’s bag of tricks and you’re gonna have to have a very high suspension of disbelief to go along with this sci-fi/disaster/cartoon come to life bat out of hell. Never fear though, True Believers. It’s all in good fun. Here’s the extra huge tub of fresh popcorn. Nom nom nom.

Despite that the original Thunderbirds programme was a British space opera with a cast of puppets, and the 80s incarnation was essentially an anime rip-off of that, the big screen adaptation here is a big, garish, winking cartoon come to life. Sometimes, now and again, once in a while we all need a megadose of some big, dumb, unapologetically over the top action flick to snuggle up with. Call in the Thunderbirds. Help is on the way.

Let’s get another key thing out of the way: there are precious redeeming aspects to Thunderbirds. That’s part of its charm. There’s a ton of winking and nudging informing us that this is silly, fun and far, far away from winning any awards. It’s also a clever film, always alluding to the original puppeteer’d vision of the Anderson’s creation in the swinging 60s. You might not get it, especially if you never went up the rabbit hole like I tried to explain…poorly. All in all overall, its a live-action cartoon. The kind ready made for the Disney Channel or folks who dig Scooby-Doo (like me, who has no shame). Quit grumping and lighten up or else the beatings will commence.

The key here to enjoying this flick is like with all good stand-up comedy its timing, a kind of pacing that depends on luck and where to use it. As a action/adventure family film directed by Number One we should go play connect the dots. Scene moves effortlessly to next scene with a new trouble Alan and crew get into. It’s kinda like a platformer video game (think the MegaMan series). As for the lucky timing, yeah it’s scripted, duh, but happenstance pops up again and again at just the right spots in the story, furthering the admittedly flimsy narrative. We see it all coming a mile away, but the direction pumps along at a pace that propels a “saw that coming” sensibility, but also says, “Let’s see what happens next.”

Thunderbirds could have easily descended into absolute schlock if it wasn’t for that winking and off-kilter delivery. A sense of goofiness pervades the movie, but not so much to dilute the action. Hell, and even the solid action scenes are cartoony—right out of Looney Tunes—like when TinTin takes out the bad guys with the Firefly. All the action is goof-tastic (IE: Every time Lady P laid a punch I could hear Mike Myers as Austin Powers bleat, “Judo chop!”) from diminutive Ron Cook and his pratfalls to Deobia Oparel cackling like Count Chocula and then getting a face full of bees. And it’s irresistible, because it’s all so ridiculous you just have to give in to it all and enjoy the ride. Hell, you already streamed it. Face the consequences.

I like the story device of the kids rescuing the parents. So sue me. Consider flicks like The Goonies. Or Spy Kids. Or even the first Iron Eagle, for Pete’s sake. The dynamic helps to establish that family action feel, which director Frakes must’ve known was Thunderbirds‘ backbone. Even though all of the acting is Marxist (Groucho, that is) in style, you can’t shake that the solid bonds of family and friends will always help you ride out any storm. If only in real life that was so easy, but to quote Paul Simon: that’s why God made the movies. Jeff and his sons don’t take a second thought to go help Off-World John. Lady P and Parker waste no time in aiding their adopted Thunderbird family. Most of all the—dare I say—sweet father/son relationship that nerdy Brains has with his wunderkind Fermat. All that also assures you that no matter how much Jeff and Alan don’t see eye to eye you know all will be all right in the end. You know that, but the anticipation’s fun nonetheless. It’s a very minor league version of how Ron Howard built tension for his Apollo 13. We already knew the astronauts got home safely. It’s the thrill/mystery of that coming down. We know everything will be okay in the end with Thunderbirds. Just sit back and enjoy the ride already.

That means we gotta ride along with a very motley cast of players, some of whom seem violently out of place and all the better for it. I reiterate: not all movies are designed to win awards. Not even a Razzie. That being said, Thunderbirds received absolutely zero Nick Kids’ Choice Awards for acting (I checked. None). You must look at this snubbing within the proper context. The film is a silly, revisionist live action cartoon. Of course the cast is supposed to be ciphers, caricatures and over the top. It’s no surprise that the late, lamented Bill Paxton makes even the fluffiest of films great, but he’s more or less relegated to the sidelines for most of this ball of wax. I already mentioned the kids saving the day—when done right, and it wasn’t all bad here—was A-number one plot point here, and Brady and company do their best to keep its PG firmly in cheek. The trio are trademark nonentities; stereotypes the world over we recognize in any family flick. No more, no less. It works, though since the action is seamless and their patois is what you’d expect: teen insecurity against a serious matter. We’ve all been there and maybe still are. This crap works on a basal level, with nary a SAG nod to be seen. I repeat, just go with it.

As for the supporting cast, they all have their moments to shine, but five stars and a bouquet to Sir Ben Kingsley, Academy Award winner then and unashamed to ham it up now. You could see he truly had fun playing the bad guy/slumming it up here, a graduate of the Jim Kirk School of Drama and Scenery Chewing. His Hood smirks, cracks dopey one-liners, makes fun of his role and delighting in basically f*cking around. You want to be the antagonist in family film? Go for clownish and mustache-twirling spouting Shakespeare. Kingsley was the penultimate best thing about Thunderbirds, save Ron Cook’s Parker and he’s quite the other thing. Plus, Kingsley’s Hood wears a kimono! What else do you need?

Again, Thunderbirds‘ pacing falls right into the butter zone. The story bounces along at a friendly clip. No scenes heavy with drama or pithy monologues. No room for that claptrap. On a serious note, the movie was excellently framed, very efficient in telling the story where each scene of action was bookended by scheming how to escape this mess and get into the next. I heard that Star Trek alum Jon Frakes is regarded as such an economical director—most likely as his CV cites him for his TV direction experience over cinema—he earned the nickname “Two Takes Frakes.” I like that. It means he steers the movies along the swiftest current so the cast won’t get all fatigued. His work reflects this, as our cast never get overwrought and just keeps on being silly.

Right, so call this one a guilty pleasure. My girl’s a big Bill Paxton fan (yet she has never seen Weird Science. Hmm) and bought the disc off Amazon to watch it with me knowing I’m a big Bill Paxton fan. Too bad he didn’t get much screen time, but but I guessed his gung-ho Jeff Tracy schtick wouldn’t fit in well with the silliness of Thunderbirds. So there you have it.

Did I mention the silliness of the movie?

Oh, and by the way, the movie sure respected the TV show’s legacy. For a taste of the first original episode click here.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Again, did I mention the silliness part? You need this movie to kill some time. It’s very good at that.


The Musings…

  • “Who will rescue the rescuers?”
  • The opening credits are very clever. Almost like a primer for the uninformed.
  • The CGI holds up well here, especially since this is a cartoon.
  • “My Achilles’ heel is my Achilles’ heel!”
  • Very rousing score.
  • Lady P’s ride is a custom Ford Thunderbird. Get it?
  • “Fu-fu-fu-noo way!”
  • BTW, did the producers get any flak from the PC police for the stuttering?
  • “I did…”
  • That and The Hood’s psychic powers were never really explained away.
  • “You just can’t save everyone…”
  • Ron Cook looks like a ripe plum tomato ready to pop. Speaking of which…
  • “I love it when your checkered past becomes useful.” Lady P got the best lines.
  • Didja notice all the Tracy sons were named after astronauts (EG, Virgil was Gus Grissom’s real first name. John Glenn was the first astronaut to orbit Earth, not unlike John Tracy’s HALO in Thunderbird 5)?
  • “That’s quite enough losing for one day!”

The Next Time…

“Smash an hour glass, grab the sand, take his hands and cuff ’em,
Spin around to freeze the clock, take the hands of time and cuff ’em.
Cinderella Man…”

I’d like to believe that boxer James Braddock would’ve been an Eminem fan.


 

RIORI Presents Installment #173: David Gordon Green’s “Your Highness” (2011)



The Players…

Danny McBride, James Franco, Natalie Portman, Zooey Deschanel and Rasmus Hardiker, with Justin Theroux, Damien Lewis, Toby Jones and Charles Dance.


The Basics…

Sibling rivalry. Anyone who’s had one often shares the oys and joys about the black sheep competing for attention and praise with the white knight. So to speak.

Prince Thadeous has always been blanketed in the shadow of his brother, the golden boy Prince Fabious. Fabious is as noble and fair as Thad is a lout. Seeing no real pressure into saving damsels in distress or doing his part for king—his father, mind you—and country, Thad is comfortable, if only to be spiteful, gambling, getting stoned and practicing at being a professional lothario. King Dad always asking no one what he did to deserve this clown and possible heir apparent? Who knows what may happen to the kingdom after he is gone and Fabious fails to return from slaying the dragon? The castle converted into an opium den, forsooth?

Well, thank Heavens that Fabious is around, and has his kindly betrothed Belladonna to keep him grounded…until a nasty wizard kidnaps her and Fab loses his sh*t.

Only now can Thad be of any use to his baby bro, let alone the kingdom, in getting Bella back home safe as well as ensure he doesn’t get banished. No more foot rubs, wine or wizard weed. It’s time for Thad to earn his royal bones. Or else get packing.

Who says chivalry is dead?


The Rant…

What ends with fantasy films and their fandom begins with hearth baked pizzas.

Wait! Please come back!

Thank you, and leave your shoes by the door. This might get a bit sticky. And will get a bit bizarre.

I went on record with the Oz, The Great And Powerful installment that I’m not much for fantasy films, but I’m not made of stone either. Certain flights of cinematic fancy do tickle me. The original Wizard Of Oz, natch. The Thief Of Arabia is a stone cold classic and was way ahead of its time regarding special effects and minimal cheeze, proving fantasy can ne more than just kids’ stuff. There’s Krull (a prime example of a movie that has “cult fave” smeared all over its noble gob). The Neverending Story was dark, twisted and pretty cool for that. The Princess Bride? Nuff said. And if we accept the Star Wars saga as fantasy and not sci-fi (or a religious doctrine to its fans akin to the followers of Scientology, which was esablished by a S/F writer to boot), I enjoy that stuff, too. And I do not care whether Han shot first or not. Quit whining. It’s just a movie, invest in some Clearasil and just have fun.

Those “true” fantasy franchises, however, are lost on me. Never seen a Tolkien flick, but I did read The Hobbit when I was 12 (it was a qualification then for pre-teen boys), which gave me the general flavor of such stories (that I didn’t take to). Those Divergent series diverge. Who’s Harry Potter and why is Danny Radcliffe starkers on broadway for Equus? Sounds muggle-y to me. I like to keep my feet on Earth, so to speak, when it comes to fantasy films. To wit, some of my fave films are fantastical, albeit a bit dark, weird, dystopian and sometimes outright weird. Films like Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Matrix trilogy and innumerable anime movies and OVAs that wrangle with the human condition in rather inhospitable settings. Most of the works of Hayao Miyazaki oeuvre follow this principle of humanity borne from fantastic stories; Totoro is a fine demonstration.

I need to have a foot in reality when watching a fantasy movie. The plot device of Bastian reading The Neverending Story cum narrator is a fine example, especially since I saw it as a kid and knew what it was like (and still do) to get wrapped up in a good book. I need a tether like that. I’m not really capable of suspending my disbelief so far as to embrace an entire virtual world of swords and sorcery. Ask any Game Of Thrones follower; to get it is akin to cramming for the SATs 1 hour before the test and the reefer buzz has yet to wear off. I don’t want homework, I want a good movie without water wings, crib notes and the salivating dork screaming in my ear every nanosecond every detail before I register a detail, Cheeto dust staining my jaw an unnatural orange color.

Look, I’m not decrying the genre. I can’t hate a dish I’ve once only merely picked at. I guess my beef is the whole “grandiose” delivery of modern fantasy films, like their release is on par with unravelling DNA’s double helix (and believe me, some of the fans look and act like there’s an extra chromosome floating around in there somewhere). I cannot handle the Nuremberg fandom. I need to see bubbles popped. Like with The Princess Bride. Or even Blade Runner 2049. Light some fire under my ass and grab my attention.

In the best, worst Princess Bride way, Your Highness had a freshly filled Zippo giving me a colonoscopy.

But wait, you may be asking me, “Hey blogger, what does lighting farts have to do with coal fire pizza?”

I’m glad you asked…and boy, this will be ever the dumbest comparison to what’s up and what’s down I had suffered. So join me.

I live in a community where pizza is a big deal. That’s true for a lotto places, like New York or Chicago or Rome. However where I live is not as big as those metropolises; our collective populace wouldn’t even scratch the census forms. Nevertheless, we got mom-and-pop pizza joints out the wazoo and up the ying yang round these parts. I know this to be solid, as I did the math:

Offering comparisons, The Big Apple has a population of 8.3 million souls (calculated in 2017). Where I hail from the greater metro area inhabits 840,000. One fifth of NYC, give or take. According to Quora, there are approximately 32,000 pizza joints in the five boroughs. That’s a lotta cheese. My stomping grounds has, according to Google, (with me adjusting for ads, random hits and dead ends. I have to much spare time) over 70,000 restaurants that sell pizza, including franchises. Where I live covers a bit over 42 square miles; the Five Boroughs covers a bit of 300 square miles.

Do you see what I getting at here? Yes, my math is fuzzy, but if those numbers are correct (and my Calculator app isn’t using Romal numerals again), all adjusted it seems like a relative one to one ratio. We got a lot of pizza joints with a very large, very vocal crowd who can’t wait to crow about where to get an awesome pie, and how your pet choice is substandard. In sum, toss a rock in the air and it’ll most likely land on the roof of a pizza shop ’round here. That or a Denny’s.

Must be only Naples that crows about pizza more than we in the LV do. Not sure why. I think all the red sauce joints were set up in direct retaliation to the original, local fare. Down with PA Dutch pickling f*cking everything—even scrapple. We want baked, circular things that serve as a platter! Stop eating hog maw! You have Wegman’s! And refrigerators! Have a slice and don’t goddam smother it in brine!

Maybe like that. In essence, PA Dutch cuisine is akin to a short bus food truk menu. That was not a misspelling.

Back to the point, such as it is: we got a lotta fans arguing over the same thing as microcosm for the country’s largest city/cultural tossed salad about—of all things—freakin’ pizza. Such fandom and dedication can lead to some very healthy, hearty and misguided stances on who’s the best and why and the differences that make it worth debate. It’s never neapolitan versus deep dish, never crust versus sauce, never a pie cut into eight slices has fewer calories than one cut into ten (it’s a thing here). It’s about a dozen local joints all in competition for your dollar and your palette, and we’re all willing, vocal guinea pigs champing at the bit for a slice and extolling it against your friend’s slice for the same reason. Around here, it’s like the old joke: “What does pizza have in common with sex?” “Even when it’s bad, it’s good.”

My take on all this pizza doggerel? Where does my loyalty lie? Easy. Coupons and Grubhub.

*cold winds whistle through the canyon*

So what’s all this jazz have to do with fantasy film fandom? Be patient. Like a boomerang with a sex drive: it’ll come to you.

In the past two decades or so my city’s downtown was undergoing gentrification. You know: out with the chains and in with the local businesses. Focusing on local history as commerce and generally giving the whole neighborhood a fresh coat of paint. Along with new stores of course came unique shopping opportunities which eventually leads to tourism. A good example of this is how Times Square kicked out the whores and junkies and replaced them with the brightest neighborhood in the world, even after Vegas. In fact, one snow cannot set up business on or near the Square without paying a pretty penny for plasma JumboTron advertising. Considering that, it’s in part how BubbaGump Shrimp Company came into being. I’m just as offended as you are.

So now with my downtown got a wake up call and brushed the eye boogers from it’s new, authentic gas-powered street lights (which stay on 24/7, like some spiritual collective pilot light to make sure we’ll see more money to burn from eager albeit naive tourists. Is there any other kind?), the local restaurant scene began to grow also. There were a few (read: two) bistros that were tentpoles for dining out before the whitewashing. Now there are dozens, all of different gastronomical stripes vying for your dollar, as well as the vital out-of-town cash. We have the bistros, the wine bars, the regular bars, the ma-and-pa Italian joints, the tapas place, the grand hotel and Subway. Now foodies stick out their necks and tongues to both hail and decry all these new places to gorge their tummies and egos until the Rapture.

And of course and you guessed it…

For those of you who have copped a squat here at RIORI before you know that my day job is a cook. I know a bit about food and restaurants. I’ve seen how the sausage is made, both literally and figuratively. Tony Bourdain notwithstanding, restaurant kitchens are indeed a hotbed of culinary experiments, hopefully yielding yummy plates to sell. There’s a lot of heat, hazards and harsh language as well. To call a restaurant kitchen on a busy Friday night organized chaos is to fancy the Atlantic Ocean as damp. Yet through all that wreck and ruin, we’ll get your food out fast and make is seem effortless. We hope.

I feel I’m losing some you. Fear not, I always have a point to make, no matter how flaccid.

Of course the pizza crowd wasn’t left out of this gourmet uprising. We had three new, upscale Italian places that served pie: the coal oven place, the wood oven place, ultra high tech gee whiz bucky gizmo brick oven place (at the place worked at for a time. Guess who thought our pizzas were the best?) and the old stalwarts which had been around forever and outlasted most marriages. You know the places: nuttin’ fancy but reliable. Only the Pyramids are more eternal.

Soon foodies chewed their way out of the wainscot trumpeting about which was better: coal, wood, brick or Mario’s? In my culinary circle, these debates got as intense as the SALT talks, but much more dire. With all the pizza joints in town—”upscale” and otherwise—those who claimed to “know pizza” inside and out and were not flummoxed over the end scene of Inception knew and told all about man and god and mozzarella. It got so crazy that a custom order pizza place opened adjacent to my favorite coffee shop. And really, does tuna and pine nuts really scream “yummy” to you (I sh*t you not. That was two of too many options you had to punish your dinner guests with)? My neighbor was one of the few who got caught up in the folderol and kept putting his two cents in whenever we invited him over for pizza…which gradually began to happen less and less.

The debate was on. Which method of baking a pizza was best? Coal, wood or whatever? Let me tell you something about baking a pizza: all you need is a good, hot oven, regardless of the fuel. Oh sure, burning wood some argue imbues a unique smoky signature on the pie. Well, yeah, however it is usually overrun by the sauce and the cheese and those other goodies you slap on it. Best to reserve that for the cappicola.

No. How it is baked has nothing to do with fire source. All one must do is properly gauge the temperature, the timing and keep that brick hearth scrubbed. Lather, rinse repeat. No mesquite, anthracite or Kingsford necessary. Just steady heat and steady hands.

*pant, pant*

Here is what I am getting at, the parallels of pizza and fantasy films. Dismissing the toppings, the methods and for God’s sake all the albacore and pignolas, all pizzas are the same, even if we feel different. Yes, there are endless variations on a theme, and we have of faves, but at the end of the day its always crust, sauce, cheese, not necessarily in that order. Debating this and debating that ruins one of the simple culinary delights of the past few centuries. Shut up and eat.

That being said, at their base all fantasy films are the same, inasmuch as they virtually all start with the same device—the same Maguffin, if you will—to get the Sisyphusian rock rolling: SOMEONE/THING NEEDS TO BE RESCUED. The key word is “rescue.” Not found, not avenged, not destroyed. RESCUED. Has a romantic air, doesn’t it? Saved, protected, liberated. Better than conquered, acquired or, well, lost. For want of a nail and all of that.

I can hear the grumbles now. Stale, half-eaten crusts clattering onto your plates. “The hell you talking’ ’bout, blogger? You can’t compare Monty Python’s Holy Grail to Excalibur to The Princess Bride to the Tolkien movies!”

Au contraire. I can and I will fantasy geeks. And I deliberately truncated the Pythons’ film title just to get your anal anuses all taut and mean. You’re welcome.

Rescue, that’s the rub. There is always something to rescue in a fantasy film. Frodo’s gotta rescue Middle Earth from the doom of Sauron. Westley’s gotta rescue Buttercup. Dorothy has to basically save herself. Prince Colwyn has to rescue his bride Lyssa (refer to the Westley/Buttercup paradigm). Bastian has to rescue Fantasia from The Nothing. The list goes on and the formula for a fantasy film never really diverges much from SAR. Then again some films do stand out and others doth fizzle (EG: the lines of my long-winded pizza metaphor above, duh). That and until The Lord Of The Rings epic made it to theaters, the genre was usually derided to the dollar bin at Best Buy before the tickets had been sold. A genre not to be taken seriously has never been taken seriously. Often for good reason.

Okay. Ignoring all the precious few good fantasy films that exist, the rest of the rabble demands rescuing. They are all one-note. The plot device is always the same. Everyone has a British accent—even on planet Krull. The rest is always swords and sorcery. Sometimes even the mundane of these work (EG: Conan The Barbarian), but more often not (EG: Conan The Destroyer) and just call it all in. Fantasy flicks are supposed to be the penultimate genre of escapism (the peak being horror films, letting out the terrified animal inside you. Snarl), but when it’s all couched in amazing CGI trying to run interference with the same ol’ dopey rescue quests, you gotta stick a pin in it.

Of all the convention subcultures—Trekkies, cosplayers, comic book geeks, Furries, the KISS Army, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc—fanatics of the Renaissance Faire and/or LARPing get very touchy about Outsiders who don’t get their fetish, and quick to rile if questioned about its value. With other groups I mentioned (perhaps excluding the Latter Day Saints) the response is usually a shrug, sigh, too bad you don’t get it, your loss. And back to shopping for that all elusive whatsit one can only buy at cons at shameless prices. Like the time I got my replica Star Trek: TNG chirping combadge back in high school. Don’t judge, and I wish you’d get me.

Folks who delve into fantasy do it hardcore. Escapism is a f*cking job for these hapless souls. One must wonder why LARPers pay more on a suit of armor made from polycarbonate fiber that is also used on the stealth bomber than they would on food and rent? So they can render themselves invisible to the Orc Ninjas and SCUD missile launches?

Hold on. That was mean. I of all people should not be bashing strangers with their predictions for D&D, Tolkien and Arthurian legends. I have a basement full of comics, every Sega console ever made daisy-chained to my TV and way, way, way too many albums in my iTunes and vinyl library. I shouldn’t judge either. Still I stand by my claim that fantasy filmgoers have been ripped off time an again by way of the superior pizza argument: it’s all the f*cking same, just different pixelated toppings. You’re all getting duped, you cinephile muggles you. Stand up and be counted. And admit it: you kinda did like Krull, didn’t you? Betcha bought the game version for the Atari 2600.

I have now officially dated myself and forget to bring flowers.

We’ve established I’m not the big fantasy film fan because one: I need to have at least one toe in the relevant, and; two: the thread through virtually all epics are all about the rescue. Hollywood should try and rescue moviegoers with some fresh concepts. To be sure, there have been films who’ve skewered the genre to good to even great success employees the mead-soaked goodness of comedy. Spoonful of sugar and all of that, and Mary Poppins rocks.

Monty Python And The Holy Grail, Jabberwocky, Time Bandits, The Princess Bride and now Your Highness all sent up the stuffy fantasy genre with a little pin pricking. Often most fantasy films come off rather pompous, as if engaging a viewing of such a film is tantamount to deciphering the Dead Sea Scrolls. Come on, even Elvis poked fun at his own dancing. And granted Grail got made and broke the mold, but the imitators came a-calling. Let’s face it, the genre is to rich to not poke fun at. Our suspension of disbelief goes into overdrive when we watch such movies, because none of it exists or could ever exist. This can get exhausting, so let’s lower the bar a little for everyone with some chuckles.

So how does all this deconstruction of pizza snobbery relate to fantasy filmmaking? Again, like the old joke: How is sex like pizza? Even when it’s bad, it’s good. And if the wrong crowd starts to get all up in sweaty arms about either, remember to rescue them from their one vitriolic fanboy-ism with hard truth. Namely, it’s only dinner and a movie; shut up and chill. For the love of all that is holy. Tolkien was writing his retirement fund, not a third testament. Papa John’s pizza is only good for dipping that lovely crust into that soufflé cup of delicious, carcinogenic oil and yellow dye number 5.

In the endgame, how relevant is a tale of pizza pairing with a tale fantasy to getting the munchies?

Ask the wizard who sold you his weed. Or mozzarella.


The Story…

Like Mel Brooks told us, “It’s good to be the king!” Old Mel was right, but he never knew about the plight of poor King Tallious (Dance), blessed and cursed with two sons. Blessed because noble Fabious (Franco) is the apparent heir apparent. The stories of his valiance are legend, and he has the kindness and charisma to back it up. He is the King’s favorite son, you know.

Which means…

To Fabious’ yang is his older brother yin Prince Thaddeus (McBride). Thad is the epitome of the green-eyed monster. So what if Fab is an incredible warrior? So what if he’s handsome and brave? So what if he scored his hot fiancée Belladonna (Deschenel) on personalty, fealty and nice hair? In his grumpiness, Thad would was while the day away drinking, hittin’ that wizard weed and chasing tail. Hence the King’s double-edge sword of family affairs.

What boorish Prince Thad needs is a dose of reality. The King is sick of his slovenly son Thad lounging around, taking the wrong advantages a prince can mooch off. He needs a role model, or rather the threat of being disinherited and let lovely Fabious have everything…especially if this new/only quest proves successful.

Which quest? Well, the nasty sorcerer Leezar (Theroux) kidnaps Bella on the day of her nuptials with a wicked, world-conquering scheme on his mind. So, duh, Fabious must rescue her and embarks on (another) quest of dire consequences. But this time, it’s gonna be family affair. Thad is reluctantly in tow so he can see how a real bold prince behaves in times of crisis…but moreover to not to written out of the will. Eye roll and put the mead down for a small spell.

And who knows? If both pull off rescuing the hapless Bella from Leezar, who’s to say that Thad’ll ask if she has a sister? Again, who says chivalry is dead?

Perhaps like Prince Thad’s number here.


The Breakdown…

Right.  But since you’re still here, thanks for listening.

The whole genre of fantasy is decidedly one-note to me. Someone/something has to be RESCUED in order to set right what has been wronged. And be it D&D geex or pizza-faced freaks, you have reach a crisis and not take sh*t so damned seriously. Sometimes this staid genre needs to be rescued from itself. Even in spite of itself. Happily, Your Highness aims to let air of the balloon and into your whoopee cushion. Its goal was to walk alongside comedic romps like The Princess Bride, Monty Python And The Holy Grail and even Robin Hood: Men In Tights to a small degree. Sweep away the pompous dust that has long settled on spent carcasses like Dragonslayer and The Beastmaster.

At least I think that was Highness’ goal.

Let’s get this out of the way: even though I’m not big on fantasy films I’m not a hater. Just isn’t my thing. Sure, like I said a few I enjoy and am well-versed enough in the genre to connect the lines and dot the Ts about what makes the magic work. I’ve said enough about the rescue thing, but there also many other tropes fantasy has to have or it just ain’t the surreal deal. Stuff like swords and sorcery, fantastic beasts of legend, raw noble-on-noble action and British accents. And by the way, why do all actors in fantasy films affect a British accent anyway? Even with non-Albion legends like Troy, et al. Hell, Krull‘s setting wasn’t even on Earth. Must be something about sounding both regal and amused at the same time.

Highness has those two qualities in spades, but in an offbeat package you’d probably expect from director Green. There is a lot to be amused about here, but not out and out ha-ha. Mostly snickering and eye-rolling. We get it; the movie’s whole spin is mocking the fairy tale adventure combo meal with extra mutton. Duh. For all it’s winking however, Highness somehow misses the mark of true parody and convention smashing, and I don’t mean crashing TrekCon dressed like Boba Fett wielding two rather large jugs of some blue Molotov cocktail straight outta Mandalore.

Have I got yer breeches in a twist yet, nerds? Cool!

Yeah, so since our expectations were more or less met when we heard about the movie, Highness is silly. Not exactly funny. More like lewd and ridiculous. It’s gotta be something screwy if we’re gonna parody some tired, old genre. Mel Brooks was a genius at it, as is former Python Terry Gilliam, albeit with a darker vision. And a zany one regarding the ZAZ team (EG: Airplane!, The Naked Gun and Top Secret!). I feel what made all their parodies work and work so well is because the creators took their subject matter seriously.

The what now?

Sure. There is a serious side to comedy, especially in the realm of parody. It helps that you do your movie genre device homework before you get to the skewering. There first must be a respect to the old warhorses, and then slaughter them with extremely extreme prejudice. For example, Brooks knew his way around a Western, and how to correctly lampoon it with Blazing Saddles (even the title sez it all). Party line goes that he even wanted The Duke himself John Wayne to be cast as the Waco Kid. Wayne found the script hilarious but was afraid it would affect his movie rep. “I’ll be the first in line to see it!” he told Brooks, so if that kind of endorsement doesn’t ring true, then old Mel was probably ghostwriting (he wasn’t BTW; that was Richard Pryor). Nearly all of Brooks’ parodies are informed—if not steeped—in traditional genre formats and tropes. You gotta be wise to know when to call out the naked emperor. Highness does a decent college try at it, but like with the last time Green teamed up with Franco and McBride for his stoner/action/comedy mishmash Pineapple Express he just, just missed the mark. Almost there, but no banana. Or pineapple for that matter.

Yes, Highness delivers the goods in bitch-slapping the tired, overblown mystique of fantasy films, but its execution is too overarching. It’s too wink-wink-nudge-nudge get-it-audience see how clever we are at poking fun at fantasy films? That was the same impression I had with Pineapple, also. “Yeah, yeah. I get it already.” Having this type of attitude is why I got tired of South Park after its second season. I get it already. I’m in on the joke. Green and crew were just plain trying to hard. Despite Green approaching getting it “right,” too many of the gags, concepts and dialogue seemed half-baked.

Segue…

So to speak, McBride is the only thing spot-on about Highness that Green invested himself in: Thad’s droll, cynical, naked emperor-like disdain for this whole misadventure. Not to be crawling up thine own arse too much, McBride’s mornings are akin to a Greek chorus, expounding the truth to the audience against all this drama and outright nonsense. EG: You can’t bullsh*t a bullsh*tter, and Thad is having none of this, missing bride or no. Sure, he’s not outright funny here, but his Laurel and Hardy-esque “another fine mess” attitude is the best thing in this movie nudging the audience (but his lech routine does get rather tiring. Echoes of South Park, season three). In Thad’s philosophy, the joke’s truly on all of us. All 12 bucks of it.

Speaking of acting, consider McBride’s foil, Franco. The dashing warrior to the debauched, black sheep of the royal family. It took a while for me to get some shine to Fab. Like the execution, Franco’s almost got the right idea. He’s almost hamming it up. Almost. It would’ve been better if he did. Fab’s got the Strider blues bad, and more freak outs over “why is this quest so trying!” would’ve been welcome. Fabious is self-parody as Prince Wonderful and all. Franco should’ve let it all out and get to Shatner scenery chewing. Overall though, Franco’s Fab was just naive and pouty enough to make we wanna reach into the screen and slap his candy-ass around. It’s not a John Wayne endorsement of effective emoting, but I’ll notch it up to a B-.

Biggest quibble over Highness? Bingo: slow pacing. Not good. I say this based on how the third act panned out. Despite the simplicity of the plot (essentially a Renaissance Faire meets a Gallagher concert), the story took its sweet ol’ time to unfold. There was a lot of dead air trying to deliver those winky winky jokes I keep going on about. True, the other fantasy fable foibles I said that worked didn’t overtly sacrifice genre for yuks-yuks (The Princess Bride is still a Chuck Jones style romp with the edges sanded off), but they sure didn’t drag for two actsI kept tweaking the timer to not keep track of how long the film elapsed. Again, not good.

I can’t bring myself to bash Highness too hard, though. Why? Because what Green and Company got right, they did so with elan. Moments few and far between, but still there. Eventually. For instance, although it took awhile, I did like the progression of Thad finally getting a pair…sorta. Or Portman’s backstory taking its time…sorta. Or Lazarr’s mommy issues…sorta. You get it. There was a head of steam slowly boiling away in Highness until the third act, but I never saw it coming. That’s a glaive (French for “double-edged sword,” as well as the mystical boomerang thingy in Krull. Multitasking). It’s cool to get a surprise ending, and the final act was indeed fun, but where the hell was the snappy fun two acts ago? The plot to Highness is threadbare and hackneyed and decidedly so on purpose. Green could’ve baited us a little with the barest scintilla of twists. Yes, the film is a gag reel, but it still should act like a movie first.

All in all, the recurring theme of Highness was “almost.” It almost, almost made it. Almost. Still, the thing didn’t stink like a hillock of orc dung. Wasted potential maybe, but not outright sh*t. In the endgame Highness was a good, late night time waster. Pair this with Pineapple Express for a midnight double feature. They’re almost companion movies anyway. Almost.

Ah well. Paraphrasing Sean Connery in Finding Forresterthis ain’t exactly a pizza question: Who wants more mead?


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A mild relent it. Stick with the classic Brooks-type parodies first, then burn one and appreciate Your Highness. Kaff!


The Stray Observations…

  • “God, if your mother could see you now.”
  • There’s something about the lighting…
  • “Teamwork!”
  • McBride stares really well.
  • “Magic…motherf*cker.” Hell to the yeah. I mean: uh-oh.
  • Lame Indy tribute there.
  • “To the f*ckening!” Best. Bedroom line. Ever.
  • The chase scene was good. Nothin’ fancy, just meat and no filler.
  • “And if your vagina is anything like my hand, there will be no problem.” Kinda sez it all.
  • It felt like Franco improv’d everything, with not a lot of conviction. Remember the “serious side of comedy” thing? Yeah.
  • “This quest sucks!”

The Next Time…

“I do so like green eggs and ham! Thank you! Thank you Sam-I-Am!”

That Dr Suess line is how the writers’ named the movie I Am Sam. Sorry to ruin that.