Film #115: But I’m a Cheerleader (1999)

film 115 but i'm a cheerleader

Rating: 3.5/5

“Oh my god… they were right. I’m a homo. Oh, my god!”

With its lurid colours and Stepford-style 50’s inspired kitsch, But I’m a Cheerleader revels in its campness. Although slightly quaint today – gay rights have come along in leaps and bounds in the last fifteen years – it tackles a serious topic in a overtly tongue-in-cheek manner, revealing the absurdity and hypocrisy of the entirely real schools and camps that promise to rid people of their undesirable homosexual tendencies. In doing so, the film takes a light-hearted satirical dig at the often Christian-based groups who believe that being gay is a lifestyle choice, with heterosexual living being the only desirable, “normal” way of living, while simultaneously downplaying the religious aspect of such camps. Although Megan (Natasha Lyonne) is openly Christian, and the facility her straight-laced parents send her is clearly inspired by the Christian “conversion camps”, once the girl’s lodged at True Directions, there is no real mention of religion in the rest of the film. While this seems slightly like a missed opportunity, it safeguards against possible backlash – despite the controversial subject matter, the film is inoffensive and entertaining, with the blossoming romance at its core often surprisingly tender.

Megan is first introduced living her normal life – she has a boyfriend, although she doesn’t appear to like kissing him much, says grace before dinner, is polite and well spoken, and is a cheerleader. Arriving home one day, she finds herself confronted with her well-meaning friends and family, who proceed to inform her of her latent homosexuality. She has to be a lesbian, because she’s a vegetarian. She has pictures of women in her locker, and posters of gay icons on her bedroom walls. Despite her insistence that she’s not gay, she’s packed off to True Directions, a Barbie-esque residential facility in the middle of nowhere, where she has to complete five steps before she graduates, a happy and well adjusted heterosexual. At the camp, she meets a small but varied group of other teens – an androgynous girl with a shaved head, a flamboyant boy, a Jew (further distancing the film from its overtly Christian inspirations), a goth, a varsity quarterback, and a girl called Graham (Clea DuVall), who seems certain to be ejected from the course due to her insolence and disdain for the whole project.

There are plenty of funny moments – the group’s admissions regarding what “made them gay” are particularly absurd, ranging from “my mother got married in pants” to “I was born in France.” Curiously, however, despite the film taking great pains to show that being gay doesn’t mean necessarily conforming to the expected stereotype, these are almost validated by Megan’s realisation that she is a lesbian – despite their “evidence” being entirely circumstantial, her family and friends are ultimately proved right. In contrast, True Direction’s methodology conforms entirely to heterosexual gender stereotypes. The girls all wear frilly pink dresses and practise childcare and cleaning, the boys dress in blue and learn mechanics and sports. All the tasks are, however, saturated in homoeroticism, which is particularly obvious with the boys’ classes – “accidental” pelvic thrusting during a car maintenance class, for example. It’s not exactly subtle, but it’s effective, bringing a surreal camp twist to everyday activities – in the end, the film seems to be saying, there’s queerness in everyone.

At its core, of course, is Megan’s relationship with Graham, and it’s a slowly developing romance that delicately reveals the intricacies of flirtation. Ironically, of course, if her parents hadn’t made her confront her unrealised gayness, Megan would quite possibly have lived out her days in precisely the kind of denial True Directions aims to teach, shacked up with her jock boyfriend in a sexless marriage. Instead, her incarceration at the facility enables her to finally stop living a lie – admitting her homosexuality is the first step, and a gay relationship is the inevitable conclusion. It’s in the conclusion that the film really falters – there are no surprises (except the discovery that Megan’s cheerleading abilities are thoroughly underwhelming), and it ends abruptly. Megan and Graham are the only characters who really find any kind of resolution, and it’s a shame that the fates of the majority of the True Directions camp remain unknown. Do the camp’s male mentor Mike (played by uber famous drag queen RuPaul) and the owner’s obviously gay son finally acknowledge their attraction for each other? Is the conversion really a success when only a tiny fraction of students end up graduating? Do the graduates accept their gayness, or do they live in denial? Is there a happy ending for anyone, really? Who knows. Yet despite the weak ending, the film itself is entertaining, revelling in campness and knowingly addressing the nuances of gender and sexuality in particularly unsubtle ways. Fun, light-hearted, flamboyant yet touching, But I’m a Cheerleader starts to wear thin in the end, and its satire might not be as biting as people might like, but it’s a welcome alternative to the traditional teen/ high school movies so prevalent in the late 90s.

Film #106: The Rutles: All You Need is Cash (1978)

film 106 the rutles

Rating: 3.5/5

“Listen, looking at it very simply musicology and ethnically, the Rutles were essentially empirical malengistes of a rhythmically radical yet verbally passé and temporally transcended lyrically content welded with historically innovative melodical material transposed and transmogrified by the angst of the Rutland ethic experience which elevated them from essentially alpha exponents of in essence merely beta potential harmonic material into the prime cultural exponents of Aeolian cadencic comic stanza form.”

Conceived and written by Eric Idle, it’s no surprise that The Rutles has a distinctly Pythonesque vibe but, more impressively, it truly captures the heady delirium and quintessentially sixties qualities of the band they’re parodying, The Beatles. To be honest, at many points in this mockumentary – a precursor to This is Spinal Tap if there ever was one – could barely be considered a parody or satire, it seems to be so close to the truth. Perhaps that’s the beauty of it – no matter how you try and send them up, The Beatles still seem to have done it all first.

This is, really, a film for Beatles’ fans, with the rise and fall of the Rutles mirroring the rise and, well, not quite fall, but break-up, of The Beatles. The Pre-Fab Four, Idle’s straight-laced narrator informs us, grew up in Liverpool, played in the Cavern Club before travelling over to Germany and, soon after, conquering the world (musically, of course). There was a fifth Rutle at one point, but he climbed into a suitcase with a girl and disappeared. Their success was meteoric: soon girls all over the globe were smitten, and after a string of hits, the boys – Barry (John Halsey), Stig (Ricky Fataar, who, as the quiet one, never gets a single line of dialogue), Nasty (Neil Innes, who also wrote the music), and Dirk (also Idle – in typical Python fashion, he plays multiple characters) – decide to make movies. Throughout this mockumentary we see Idle and chums recreating the filmography of The Beatles, from the music-video-inspired British classic A Hard Day’s Night to the group’s more experimental fare, A Magical Mystery Tour. All You Need is Cash captures the sentiments of these movies perfectly – from the giddy innocence/ youth rebellion of a day in the life of the world’s biggest band (reimagined as A Hard Day’s Rut) to the drug-influenced surrealism of the band’s stranger filmmaking attempts (The Tragical History Tour, complete with “I Am the Walrus” parody, “Piggy in the Middle”).

Non-Beatles fans will no doubt still be able to appreciate the movie, though much of the nuance and humour depends on a fairly decent knowledge of the Fab Four. It seems like everything is covered: the relationships, the crises, the inspirations, the band’s developing sound. The Rutles make mistakes, like claiming they were bigger than God (just as Lennon was accused of doing). They fall in with a dodgy guru (here Arthur Sultan, the Surrey Mystic), get tired of all the girls screaming at their concerts, and openly experiment with tea. The girlfriends get a brief mention – Yoko, inevitably, fares the worst. Here her Rutles persona is the SS-uniform-clad daughter of the man who “invented World War II,” an artist who dreams of throwing musicians off buildings as part of her latest installation.

The Pre-Fab Four actors play their parts perfectly – it’s always clear who everyone is supposed to be, and they capture the carefree, impromptu nature of The Beatles. Their interview segments are brilliant, perfectly epitomising the bizarre, deadpan responses of the group to inane questions (“what’s your ambition?” asks one reporter. “I’d like to be a hairdresser. Or two. I’d like to be two hairdressers,” Barry responds). They’re supported by a superb cast of recognisable British actors and musicians, with some wonderful – if brief – cameos by SNL regulars. Dan Akyroyd pops up, so too does John Belushi and Bill Murray, while Mick Jagger waxes lyrical about how The Rutles influenced him. Paul Simon and Ron Wood also appear, as does Michael Palin and, as perfect evidence of endorsement, George Harrison has bit-part as a news reporter (Harrison was a big fan of Monty Python, and “pawned” his house in London to fund the troupe’s most famous, and controversial, and hilarious feature film, The Life of Brian).

The music is also pitch-perfect. Innes has cleverly distorted recognisable Beatles’ tunes, changing the lyrics and altering the sound just enough so that they remain obviously inspired by specific songs, but the recognition is often rather elusive. The earlier songs in particular are spot-on and often particularly convincing: “All My Loving” becomes “Hold My Hand”, “If I Fell” transforms into “Number One”, “All You Need is Love” turns into “Love Life”. Each song is performed with upbeat enthusiasm from the group, first in obvious studio settings, then moving beyond the constraints of stiff-upper-lipped BBC standards to the more hippy, freewheeling organic style of the Beatles’ later sound. By the end of the film, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish what is Beatles and what is Rutles, the two groups almost becoming interchangeable, such is the accuracy of Idle’s observations. It’s no wonder that the group – The Rutles, that is – have since released several albums and have been touring as recently as May this year. Ironically, the parody has survived longer than the original, although in terms of musical achievement, pop culture iconography, and influence, it’s the Fab Four, not their Pre-Fab counterparts, who reign supreme.

Film #80: Team America: World Police (2004)

film 80 team america world police

Rating: 4/5

“Remember, there is no “I” in Team America.”

How timely that, just as Alec Baldwin announces his decision to leave the public eye, we watch a film that completely, utterly, and entirely rips him – and a substantial number of other actors, it must be said – to shreds. Of course, it’s not just actors that come under the firing line here; almost everyone is insulted at some point. That’s the beauty of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who manage to make fun of everyone in crude, juvenile, immature ways – yet somehow the result is not only inoffensive, but quite astute. Team America: World Police, a sometime musical and love letter to the Thunderbirds style of puppetry, is typical Parker-Stone fare, political yet stupid, crude and clever, and best known for two things: Kim Jong Il singing “I’m so Ronery” in his vast mansion; and the puppet sex scene. Having seen the film multiple times, the novelty has worn off but my appreciation still remains. And, honestly, the puppet sex is still rather funny.

Despite the opening sequence featuring a clever puppet show within a puppet movie, there is little acknowledgement of the film’s distinctive creative choice, to its benefit. Its visual absurdity is made all the more ridiculous because of this, and there’s such pleasure to be had from the simplest of actions – the puppets bouncing off screen instead of walking, the secret signal (frantic arm waving) to get actor extraordinaire Gary out of the clutches of the middle eastern terrorists. There are sight gags a-plenty, perfectly matched with a script that is equally as funny, and just as daft. Despite the literal small scale of the film’s production, Team America is also easily one of the largest, most destructive disaster movies around – Michael Bay must be so jealous. Just consider how much destruction occurs thanks to the incompetence and sheer arrogance of the team – how many landmarks get obliterated. Of course, it’s hardly a unique gag, making the “heroes” more dangerous to humanity than the bad guys they’re trying to stop, but undoubtedly it works.

Team America‘s plot blends political satire with general crudeness – the team exist to stop terrorism and, armed with a vast arsenal and a general conviction of their authority and greatness, aim to rid the world of a random assortment of foreign enemies. Needing someone to infiltrate one of the terrorist cells, they enlist the help of Broadway actor Gary, who begrudgingly dons some brown face paint, a smattering of facial hair and, with an actual towel on his head, convinces the terrorists he’s one of them. Their conversation – a wonderfully offensive interpretation of random Middle Eastern dialects – is one of the most quotable moments in the film. Of course, soon it transpires that these baddies are merely… puppets… (haha!) and the true villain of the piece is none other than Kim Jong Il, then leader of North Korea. It’s a perfect choice of enemy; Jong Il remains, even in death, an enigma. In fact, the film is perhaps even more interesting when viewed today – I wonder when Parker and Stone will turn their sights onto the dictator/ great leader’s son, who is just begging to be parodied by the irreverent pair.

It’s not just foreign powers that get ripped – Parker and Stone never forget about their home country. Given their penchant for attacking Hollywood, it’s unsurprising that actors bear the brunt of the pair’s comedic wrath; Jong Il at least gets a sympathetic musical number to justify his desire for global domination, but Alec Baldwin gets no such excuse. The Film Actors Guild (most frequently referred to as FAG, conveniently) features a great array of actors convinced of their own self-worth beyond the big screen – Sean Penn, Michael Moore, Susan Sarandon, and a mentally challenged Matt Damon (among others). It all culminates in an epic showdown that, while impressive, doesn’t quite match the carnage of the film’s opening scenes.

By the end the joke does, perhaps, wear a bit thin, but for fans of Parker and Stone’s cleverly crude humour, it’s a blast. Their ability to reduce even the most complex of ideas to toilet humour and cock jokes is to be commended – and I mean that completely sincerely. Team America: World Police marked a significant transition in the pair’s careers, hinting at their future desire for Broadway success (which they achieved when they brought The Book of Mormon to the stage – if you’ve not seen it, it’s superb) and demonstrating their sometimes uneasy relationship with the rest of the film industry (it’s perhaps telling that Gary’s acting does actually save the day in the end) and their home country (despite their arrogance and obliviousness, Team America are the film’s heroes). Like the later series of South Park – particularly those around Obama’s election – Team America proves that Parker and Stone have their finger firmly on the pulse of current affairs, and in the decade since this film was released, it remains just as relevant, just as crude, and just as funny.

Film #70: Tucker & Dale Vs Evil (2010)

film 70 tucker and dale vs evil

Rating: 4/5

“Oh hidy ho officer, we’ve had a doozy of a day. There we were minding our own business, just doing chores around the house, when kids started killing themselves all over my property.”

Two years before Joss Whedon put his own spin on the “creepy cabin in the woods” horror story, a Whedon alumnus (Alan Tudyk) featured in another, equally funny take on the genre. Tucker & Dale Vs Evil didn’t get the publicity of Whedon’s film, only receiving a limited release in the UK, so it’s a shame that more people aren’t aware of it.

Tucker & Dale opens like so many other horror films, with a group of fairly obnoxious college kids heading off to the wilderness for a weekend of, presumably, alcohol, weed and skinny-dipping. In the car, they pass two dungaree-clad rednecks, who look vaguely ominous – particularly to these city teens. Yet the film quickly changes its focus, switching its allegiance from the bratty youths to the hillbillies who, as it turns out, are Tucker (Tudyk) and his best friend Dale (Tyler Labine). They’re two peaceful, kindly, soulful mates, heading off to the middle of nowhere to make a start on fixing their new vacation home, a ramshackle old cabin.

The film plays on mistaken assumptions and miscommunication to great effect. The college kids, already convinced they’re going to find themselves in a Deliverance sequel, freely misinterpret their interactions with Tucker and Dale, who end up caught in the middle of things when they startle one of them (Katrina Bowden) and have to save her life. Naturally, her friends are sure they’ve witnessed a murder – or at least a kidnapping – and resolve to rescue their companion. Soon their idiocy is causing them to kill themselves in a whole myriad of ridiculous ways – there are plenty of accidental impalings, and a particularly unfortunate interaction with a woodchipper. Meanwhile, poor Tucker and Dale are completely perplexed as to why the kids are apparently committing mass suicide on their property, and are especially upset when it transpires they’re also on the proposed victim list.

Tudyk is, as always, great – he’s always worth a watch, and frequently steals the show in whatever he’s doing (just consider Death at a Funeral, Dodgeball, Serenity – even his role in the ill-fated Whedon series Dollhouse). As Tucker, he’s endearing and exasperated, and his comic timing is understated but consistently spot on. He works perfectly with the rest of the cast, particularly Labine, who brings a sweetness to Dale. Of course, the whole point is that these two rednecks are actually sensitive, kind people, but even their patience is severely tested by the college kids. The kids themselves are entirely generic, though they play their roles perfectly – they are closed-minded, ignorant, misguided and exist pretty much solely to get killed off. While their intentions are generally good – they want to save their friend – their preconceptions mean it’s impossible for them to read anything they see (or appear to see) in a positive light. Poor Tucker and Dale, who are being perfect gentlemen to Bowden’s Allison, are instantly assumed to be mass-murdering, inbred lunatics – although, to be fair, the first time they encounter Tucker he is racing through the woods yelling incoherently while swinging a chainsaw. It’s this kind of tongue-in-cheek, knowing humour that really hits the spot in writer-director Eli Craig’s film, which pays homage to a genre filled with conventions just waiting to be messed with.

While most of the (surviving) college kids at least recognise they are completely out of their depth, Chad (Jesse Moss), the douchebag jock who picked their camping spot, almost instantaneously embraces his inner Rambo, and goes crazy with bloodlust. His story – key to the film’s narrative – does provide a conclusion, though it’s not a particularly creative solution. Yet this is rather incidental, because Tucker & Dale is consistently hilarious, filled with black humour and cleverly skewing the conventions in a genuinely satisfying way. Yes, you can see events coming a mile away, but that’s part of the joy – the inevitability of the whole thing. As Tucker and Dale’s emotions change from obliviousness, to bemusement, to incredulity, to frustrated anger, we root for them and eagerly anticipate the latest demise of an idiot who deserves to die simply because of their utter stupidity. Funny, daft, gory and entirely entertaining, Tucker & Dale Vs Evil has the markings of a cult favourite – personally, I’ll happily watch anything with Alan Tudyk in it, but he’s only one reason to give this a chance.

Film 48: God Bless America (2011)

film 48 god bless america

Rating: 4.5/5

“I wish I was a super-genius inventor and could come up with a way to make a telephone into an explosive device that was triggered by the American Superstarz voting number. The battery could explode and leave a mark on the face, so I could know who to avoid talking to before they even talked.”

Movie Lottery is back from its holiday, and I am so pleased to say that the latest movie is this, God Bless America. Written and directed by the wonderfully named Bobcat Goldthwait (the guy with the high-pitched voice in Police Academy), it’s a delightfully dark piece of satire that reveals itself to be not only a plea for kindness from its protagonist Frank (Joel Murray), but a way for Goldthwait himself to vent his frustrations at all the mean people in the world, those people whose seemingly small acts of cruelty and selfishness represent a society no longer concerned with just being decent. As Frank says, “why have a civilisation any more if we are no longer interested in being civilised?!”

The tone of God Bless America is set instantly, with one of the most shockingly hilarious opening scenes I can remember seeing. Poor Frank, plagued with headaches and inconsiderate neighbours, gets through his mundane life by fantasising about ending it all – not his own life, mind you, but the lives of all the people who thoroughly don’t deserve to have one. The television shows and adverts reflect how society’s crumbling, with its crass reality shows, spoiled rich kids, fart jokes and the public humiliation forum of American Superstarz, a thinly veiled dig at the countless talent shows littering our networks today. Goldthwait includes all the shows that have become embarrassingly popular precisely because they are “car crash tv” – shows that endorse the despicable and exploit the vulnerable – as well as featuring a selection of those who may be personal gripes and concerns: everyone from the Westboro Baptist Church, to Fox newsreaders, to perverts, to a man who knowingly parks across two spaces. The message is clear (and frequently reiterated by Frank in one of his numerous dry, disillusioned monologues): if you are mean, rude, selfish, or bigoted, you will feel the satirical wrath of Goldthwait, and be blasted to pieces by Frank.

Frank finally gets to live out his fantasies following a meeting with his doctor, who reveals his migraines are due to an inoperable brain tumour. It’s the final straw for the downtrodden man, who decides to make the world a better place by eliminating Chloe, a rich brat whose super sweet 16th birthday has recently aired on television. This spoiled child, cursing and screaming at her deluded parents, represents all that is wrong in the world, and she must be taken out. It’s a brilliantly slapstick murder, and one that enables Frank to meet Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), a student at Chloe’s school who is inspired by Frank’s actions. Together they become moral vigilantes on an epic road trip across America in a stolen canary yellow Camaro, taking out the scum of society, and considering countless other possibilities along the way.

If there is a flaw in Goldthwait’s film, it is that, at times, the tone becomes slightly preachy. He adorns a movie theatre with posters for films he evidently considers to rise above the ignorance of mainstream television – documentaries like Man on Wire and the superb (and terrifying) Jesus Camp – and fills his movie with numerous other cinematic and cultural references that align him and his work with “higher” forms of art. More obviously, he allows Frank to air his frustrations at length to the brain-dead morons he’s surrounded by in work and at home. Yet arguably, all Frank really needs to do, if he is so depressed at the state of contemporary pop culture, is switch off his television. But he does not: he spends his time consuming all the shows he deplores so much. While this is briefly acknowledged early on, when a colleague comments on the fact that Frank claims to “not watch” American Superstarz but did see the previous night’s episode, it does mean that our antihero’s self-righteous mission is somewhat tainted by the knowledge that his pain is self-inflicted. Or perhaps Goldthwait’s screenplay is attempting to demonstrate that involvement is inevitable; that the constantly increasing degradation and decay of morality and taste is unavoidable. He’s not the only person to acknowledge the apparent decline of society; Southpark recently made its own plea for American culture to “raise the bar” in last year’s Honey Boo Boo-inspired episode.

God Bless America is the perfect movie for anyone who enjoys ranting about the injustices of fame and the rise of the reality “star”, for those people who get infuriated by the petty cruelties of the morons they have the miserable pleasure of sharing their lives with, for anyone who has ever wanted to actually act on their rage at the inconsiderate ignoramus talking during a film. Goldthwait demonstrates not only his biting wit and topical satire, but an impressive control over his film; it is glossy and sleek, satisfyingly graphic yet sufficiently comical. Soon, regardless of personal feelings about vigilante killings (surely most people would accept they’re probably not really the way to go), it’s difficult to not only root for Frank, but to gleefully await his latest moral judgement. Oh and, for the record, my hitlist would include: people who park in disabled spaces despite not being disabled (and there being a space just a few metres away); everyone who helped make The Only Way is Essex (and all its spin-off cash-ins) successful; and people who use text-speak in their every day language. LOL? Really? If it’s funny, why can’t you just laugh?