Earlier this month I wrote a about using humor as a tool for exploring the terrible conditions that most people faced during the 19th and early 20th centuries. By taking something that isn’t inherently funny and taking it to a ridiculous extreme can be a way to both grapple with the issue and get a chuckle from your audience. The recent spoof on the classic Western, A Million Ways to Die in the West, is a great example of this. It has everything you’d want in a film about the old West like gun fights, an unambiguously evil bad guy, bar fights and great clothes, but with a central theme that living in that time and place was totally awful. Death truly lies around every corner, yet it is one of the funniest films I have seen in a long time.
In a 2014 interview with co-star Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road), writer and star of the film, Seth MacFarlane (creator of Family Guy) had this to say:
“The story is a contemporary take on a what is essentially a classic Western. It’s sort of sets out to look at a world that we have romanticized in our culture for many many decades, takes a lot of elements that have become familiar to us, some of which are Hollywood creations and some of which are accurate… In a nutshell it takes a world that we know well through Hollywood and through history, and presents it through a very modern lens.”
For this reason, I feel like this film belongs on a list of Steampunk films. Sure, it doesn’t have weird technology or supernatural elements, but it takes a time and place in history that is contemporary with the Victorian era and punks it. There is even a special name of Steampunk with a Western twist, “Cowpunk”, but I tend to keep everything messing with the steam era all under the same umbrella term of Steampunk.
In the movie, MacFarlane and Theron’s characters are the only people in their little dirty, dangerous corner of the world who “get it”, and they bond over their mutual hatred. Liam Neeson is the local bad guy, and is out for blood when he finds out his wife, Theron, is carousing with another man. There are also several more familiar faces who round out this amazing cast. Neil Patrick Harris makes an appearance as the dandified shopkeeper and even treats the audience to a musical interlude all about the awesome power of mustaches. Sarah Silverman plays a prostitute who is saving herself until marriage and Giovani Ribisi is her patient fiance.
The comedic elements are equal part verbal and visual. There is both witty banter and slapstick ridiculousness which I thoroughly enjoyed, though there was one diarrhea joke that went on too long for my tastes. Other than that, I thought it was extremely well-written and the acting and comedic timing were perfect. This is definitely an adult movie with a lot of f-bombs, so viewer beware if you don’t like swearing.
The television show Wild, Wild West, ran from 1965-1969. I have never seen it, but I did just discover that it is available on YouTube so I will definitely be checking it out soon. The 1999 movie by the same name was one of my absolute favorites in my teens. I’m sure I can’t be the only 30-something out there who can remember boogeying to Will Smith’s theme song at school dances.
Like the TV show, the movie is about two special agents for the US government upholding the law in the heyday for cowboys. Despite the title, the film does not actually take place out West at all (most of the movie is set in New Orleans), but is actually a pun on the name of Will Smith’s character, James West. Under orders from the president, he forms an reluctant alliance with his gadgetly-inclined partner, Artemus Gordon (Kevin Kline) are on the trail of a notorious Civil War general who was responsible for a masacre during the war. West is an impulsive, “shoot first, shoot second, shoot some more and if there is anyone left alive maybe ask a question or two” type of hero, where Gordon is a thinker and tinkerer, so you can imagine they don’t always see eye to eye.
Little do they know that he is cahooting with a brilliant inventor, Arliss Loveless (Kenneth Branaugh), who is bent on revenge against the North. He has kidnapped several scientists to help him complete his work, which brings the lovely songbird Rita (Selma Hayek) into the picture as she tries to rescue one of them by going undercover as part of Loveless’ entourage. With her help, West and Gordon must stop the mad scientist from assassinating President Grant (also Kevin Kline).
I know a lot of people panned this movie when it came out, but I found it thoroughly enjoyable then and now. I think a lot of the criticism came from the fact that people felt it did not live up to Smith’s blockbuster movie a few years earlier, Men in Black, and Agent West and Agent J were almost the same character, just in a different black suit. This is true, but I didn’t really see that as a problem. I loved MIB, and so I loved WWW. Smith of course was not the only actor in the film, and I very much enjoyed Kline and Branaugh’s performances. The gadgetry was fabulous and includes a massive spider-like war machine and train car full of trickery.
I would absolutely recommend this film to Steampunk fans who are looking for some light-hearted fun.
I was born in the 1980s, but a little too late to really remember its pitfalls (like huge hair and shoulder pads) or its triumphs (the advent of the music video, and of course, Steampunk) first hand. Luckily for us, this was a time when tons of weird, wonderful and sometimes experimental television and movies were being made, which captured some of the essence of that era. The 1970s and 80s saw a revival of a film technique that was pioneered by Thomas Edison’s manufacturing company in 1908: clay-animation. You can see their film, A Sculptor’s Nightmare, here.
The very first stop-motion film of all time, which employed moving toys, was made in 1897. Samuel Langhorn Clemens, better known by his pen name, Mark Twain, lived until 1910, so it is entirely possible that he saw the first clay-animation film and probable that he saw earlier stop-motion films as well.
The Adventures of Mark Twain was made in 1985 and is a trippy clay-anmation sojourn through the works of Mark Twain. There is a little bit of biographical information, but mostly it is a chance to showcase his contributions to literature. The viewer is swept away along on an airship adventure along with some of Twain’s best-known characters, Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher. Twain was born near the passage of Halley’s Comet in 1835, and always said he believed he would leave this world again the next time it passed in 1910 (he died the day after it returned), so the film revolves around him trying to keep his “appointment” and visiting some of his greatest works along the way.
Though it may seem morbid that he is racing to his own death, the film is wonderful combination of stunning visuals, abstraction and humor, which totally downplays the seemingly morbid plot line. Though I should warn you that even though this is an animated film, and so you may be thinking it was made for kids, the depiction of “The Mysterious Stranger” is pretty terrifying. Adults would get much more out of this movie than kids, especially if they have read any Twain at all.
That’s right, there was another Sherlock Holmes movie that came out around the same time as the Robert Downey Jr. movie I reviewed last week. Didn’t hear about it? I am not at all surprised.
I am a huge fan of what I call “shitty-good” movies (pardon my language, but it is utterly appropriate!) These are films that you can’t help but laugh at even though they are not meant to be comedies. The Mister and I spend a lot our time wading through the sea of crappy movies out there giving them the old Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment. That is to say, we crack wise throughout at the terrible special effects, mediocre writing, atrocious acting and blatant continuity errors, often aided by a glass or two of our favorite adult beverages. (If you aren’t familiar with MST3K but you also enjoy terrible old movies, you MUST find them on youtube. They were shot near my hometown in MN and aired until 1999.)
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, which is the first role for Ben Syder (“Robert” Sherlock Holmes. Yes, you read right, apparently his name is really Robert) and also features Torchwoods’ Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd) as Watson, is just such a movie. It falls firmly into both the mockbuster (a low-budget film piggy-backing the publicity of a better-known movie) and Steampunk camps. I decided to watch it as part of my Halloween Extravaganza this month, both because I am working on my Sherlock Holmes article for Steam Tour: An American Steampunk in London and because it promised me a plot full of monsters. As a Sherlock Holmes film it pretty much failed miserably, but as a movie centered on futuristic technology in the Victorian era it deserves a mention.
The story begins when a sailing ship is taken out by a Kraken-like tentacled monster. In the next scene, we get to see a dinosaur inexplicably interrupt a rendezvous with a lady of the night. So monsters, check. Sherlock is tortured by the fate that befell his brother Thorpe (yep, they didn’t even bother to get his brother’s name right), who became paralyzed after he was shot while trying to foil a bank robbery several years earlier. So ‘punking’ literature, check. After some watered-down deductions, Holmes and Watson (in the least well-fitting waistcoat of all time) find their way to a country estate where they discover the monsters are actually automatons crafted by a thoroughly ticked off Thorpe (Dominic Keating), who is bent on revenge against London, the city that forgot him, and his former partner, Inspector Lestrade. He uses his (okay, pretty awesome) mechanical dragon to wreak havoc on the masses while another automaton delivers a bomb straight to the gates of Buckingham palace. Oh yeah, and there is totally a hot air balloon/helicopter hybrid vs. mechadragon fight scene.
As I said before, this is not a “good” movie by any stretch, but it is a campy movie with undeniably Steampunk tendencies. This is definitely a popcorn movie, that is, if the shaky camera work they use to signify an action sequence doesn’t make you seasick first.
It is currently available on American Netflix, but can anyone tell me if you can get it in Britain?