Honestly I don’t try to theme my choices for my year by year Movie choices (aside from them being from the same year), but for the second time in a row my three films all have something in common. This time they’re all comedies. But maybe it makes sense that the films that struck a nerve with me in 2004 were of the funny variety, because we probably needed more than anything a good laugh.
In 2004 the Iraq war allegedly ended with a unsurprising win for the USA, although soldiers, civilians and workers would continue to get shot, blown up or beheaded for years to come. Terrorist attacks occurred in Spain and Russia. In the UK weird looking fathers who’d been banned from seeing their kids responded by showing how responsible they actually were by dressing as superheroes and invading Buckingham Palace (ok that’s actually funny), and despite the best efforts of Michael Moore, more Americans decided they liked George Bush Jnr as President than didn’t.
So yeah, we needed something to laugh about.
Shaun of the Dead (director: Edgar Wright)
When dumped by his girlfriend, slacker Shaun decides it’s time to sort his life out. However his epiphany comes right in the middle of a zombie outbreak.
The start of the 21st century saw an explosion of fresh British television comedy, a new breed of alternative talent that had a rebellious edge without the arty pretensions of the 80’s. At this time the likes of The Office, Little Britain, Black Books, The League of Gentleman provided a shot in the arm of British comedy, accompanied by a Channel 4 series created by and starring Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson, along with Edgar Wright. Spaced spoke to the generation in their 20’s, house sharing and still enjoying their youth (a working class version of Friends you could say) and it was this vibe that Pegg and Wright brought into the first film to come from this generation, the zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead.
Shaun of the Dead is like a showcase of this era of TV comedy, featuring many of the stars from the aforementioned shows in starring roles and cameos. It’s also built around the friendship from Spaced of Pegg and Nick Frost, who share a similar chemistry in their roles of good natured but coasting in life Shaun and housemate the stoner slacker Ed.
Shaun of the Dead sees Shaun struggling with transitioning from student life to adulthood. He’s content to spend life at the local pub and playing video games with Ed, but girlfriend Liz wants more from their relationship. The dynamic is complicated by Liz’s friends David (played sleazily by Black Book’s Dylan Moran) and Dianne (Lucy Davies of The Office) as Shaun does not get on with David, and doesn’t like his own stepdad Phillip (Bill Nighy) which causes problems for his mum Barbara (Penelope Wilton). Through all this turmoil Shaun wakes up to find London falling apart due to a Zombie breakout.
Shaun of the Dead is a brillant movie because unlike a lot of horror comedies it combines two elements that work so well independently, the soap opera and the horror. The story of Shaun’s regular life with the mix of characters, conflicts and relationships is so effective that it’s conceivable it would have worked as a story on it’s own without the interruption of the zombie apocalypse. As the story of Shaun coming to grips with the realisation that he needs to sort his life out takes it time with the first half of the film (with subtle hints that something is starting to build in the background) we’re invested in him when the horror story kicks into full gear.
The emergence of the zombies comes with an excellent build in the tone of the horror. As frighteningly creepy as the make up effects are, the early encounters between Shaun and the zombies is heavy on comedy. Shaun and Ed mistake the first zombies they encounter for being drunk, and attempt to dispatch them by throwing their vinyl record collection at their heads. The humour continues throughout with heavy, but funny gore scenes, including Shaun, Ed and Liz attempting to dispatch a zombie in their pub while Don’t stop me now plays on the jukebox, their strikes with snooker cues in beat with the music. Yet the film starts to get distinctively darker and takes a massive turning point when Shaun’s mum is infected and as she creepily turns he is forced to shoot her in the head.
The laughs give way to a significantly downbeat feel. There is a gruesome death at the hands of a zombie mob of one of the team just on the verge of redemption. As their situation becomes more desperate, Shaun, Liz and an infected Ed are all that’s left and there is a real hopeless feel towards the end as they consider suicide while seemingly penned in the pub’s cellar with no hope. This ballsy move to embrace the darkness of the genre is why Shaun of the Dead scores highly on both comedy and horror best of lists.
With a nod to Dawn of the Dead with it’s satirical take on consumerism, Shaun of the Dead (just writing this I’ve literally for the first time realised Dawn and Shaun rhyme, well it’s only been fifteen years) also uses the zombie genre to have a mocking swipe of everyday British society. In the opening credits we see people engaged in menial tasks at shops as both workers and customers, resembling zombies as they go about their day with a glazed, unengaged demeanour. At the end of the films, their roles have been replaced by zombies who are doing the menial tasks just as well. They’ve even becoming a fixture of children’s tv and tabloid talk shows.
Shaun himself lives a zombie style existence. He embraces familiarity, being hard to drag away from his routine night outs at the Winchester pub which always has the same patrons. On the morning of the Zombie breakout, he embarks on his morning trip to the shop and back and is oblivious to the carnage. He interacts with the shopkeeper and beggar who he sees every morning and it’s become such a routine he never realises they are now zombies. Even at the end with him seemingly in a happy life with Liz
Shaun of the Dead is an example of great British cinema, as funny as any comedy film and matches the horror of any serious zombie movie. It began the ascent of Pegg to a bonafide Hollywood name (it’s hard to imagine that the nerdy guy on Spaced would one day be partnering Tom Cruise in a Billion dollar franchise) and launched Edgar Wright to an acclaimed career as a director.
Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy: (director:Adam Mckay)
Celebrated newsreader Ron Burgundy is the star of San Diego television. However the arrival of a female reporter Veronica Cornerstone, plays havoc with the 70’s sexist sensibilities of Ron’s news team .
Threre is something I find really unappealing about Will Ferrell. His name on a poster tends to put me off seeing a movie, his roles generally I find creepy and unsettling and not in a pleasing comedic way. It’s surprising then that one of my favourite comedy characters to come in 21st century movies is one of his, genius creation of 70’s anchorman Ron Burgundy.
The star of Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Ferrell’s character has the feel of a regular Saturday Night Live act (a show that Ferrell had recently left when making this film). He’s an excellent parody of 70’s local station newsreaders (in this case San Diego), full of all the cheesiness and dated attitudes of the role. He’s also comically deluded in the strength of his own style, looks and masculinity and overestimates his own knowledge and intelligence.
Ron and his news team (featuring Paul Rudd and wacky turn from Steve Carrell as the simple minded Rick) also exhibit 1970’s workplace attitudes to women and when the station reacts to criticism of diversity (which Ron believes to be a ship in the Civil War) by hiring Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate relishing her feisty and hilarious role) the react as if she’s a joke while taking turns trying to seduce her. Things really get personal when Veronica becomes a success and when standing in for Ron (after a biker played by Jack Black throws Ron’s dog off a bridge) and becoming a hit with female viewers is paired with Ron, causing horror for the male reporters.
This story of fragile male egos been threatened by rising diversity can be seen as years ahead of it’s time when considering the current climate. The treatment of Veronica by her colleagues as they try to bully her and impede her work, is done for laughs here (aimed at how pathetic the males are I should add) but it takes on a more striking edge when looking through today’s eyes as it borders on harassment. Veronica comes across as a strong figure, nailing her first stint on the live newsdesk despite Ron’s team trying to distract her and holding her own with Ron’s jibes at her.
There is a surreal comic feel to Anchorman, that manifests at the start as we see biker bars falling quiet to watch Burgundy’s news reports and a baby watching the news uttering her first words as “Ron Burgundy.” This style reaches it’s peak in the famous gang fight scene between the rival news teams. Here Burgundy’s teams find themselves facing off in an alley with a rival network team led by Vince Vaughn. Armed with knives, knuckle dusters, baseball bats they are about to battle “rumble” style when more news teams, led by cameos from Tim Robbins, Luke Wilson and Ben Stiller join the standoff. The resulting gang fight is hilarious, notching up the ridiculous as combatants on horses with Planet of the Apes style capture nets, join the fray, one guy is seen on fire and Rick kills a guy with a trident. “That escalated quick,” Ron laments afterwards.
At 90 minutes Anchorman just manages to keep from outstaying it’s welcome. It’s comedy bounces from one liners to slapstick, and unknowingly self deprecating lines of stupidity from the male news team. While reviews on the humour was mixed, the film did well at the box office (90 million from a 26 million budget) retained a cult following beyond it’s release and produced a follow up almost ten years later. This sequel was not as fondly received and pushed it’s luck on the way out humour, even repeating the street fight scene with a bigger and less funny segment. However Anchorman 2 did hit the mark with a shot at modern new reporting by having Ron be the inventor of the live car chase that became a staple of daily news reports.
For all the comedy characters Ferrell has taken, Ron Burgunday is his most endearing, delivering a sharp and witty performance, managing to make the audience laugh at him for him being clueless, but also root and sympathise for him.
Team America: World Police (director: Trey Parker)
A bumbling anti terrorist squad that causes more destruction than the actual evil doers, come under fire from the forces of Kim Jong-il and the liberal Hollywood elite.
I’ve often said that take out the gross out gags from South Park and you end up with one of the most satirically smart comedy shows on TV (check out my review of the movie from 1999 to find out more). So it’s no surprise to me that in 2004, one of the first movies to take a stab at America’s “war on terror” (aside from Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11) was from the minds of Trey Parker and Matt Stone.
Originally conceived as a homage/pisstake on Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds (the duo watched the show but were not fans) and a spoof on disaster movies, in particular “The Day After Tomorrow,” which the pair wanted to go head to head with, Team America was changed to feature an gung ho, clueless anti terrorist squad. The film sets it’s stall out in the first scene where the squad interrupt a WMD exchange in Paris, and in the resulting firefight the Team reduce Paris and all it’s landmarks to rubble, hilariously celebrating at “stopping the terrorists” and telling the stunned French citizens they can now return to their lives. It’s an amazing opening, that introduces the concept of it’s spoofing of the puppets, with the deliberately obvious use of miniatures, the clumsiness of the marionettes (a martial arts fight that descends into just banging the puppets into each other), mixed with a satire on the self appointed “Police of the world” role America takes that at the time was pissing off most of the world.
However while Team America is obviously taking shots at America’s foreign policy, Parker and Stone do something that’s frowned upon in today’s anti nuance, polarising stances by taking a centre view to attack and ridicule both sides of an argument. Just as in real life when celebrities took to the airways in opposition to the War in Iraq, in the film Team America is comes under fire from Hollywood’s Liberal elite, and receiving a savage mauling from writers Parker, Stone and Pam Brady . Sean Penn is seen claiming Iraq was peaceful before Team America where children danced in rivers of chocolate under rainbow skies, while Tim Robbins delivers a condescending lecture on corporations being all “Corporationey.” Under the leadership of Alec Baldwin the actors form FAG (Film Actors Guild) to push their liberal agendas and form an alliance with North Korea’s Kim Jong Il, who is in fact the mastermind behind all the terrorism.
The lack of a definitive political side in Team America made some wary of the writer’s intentions (which I suspect would be even more so today), with some claiming the team were on the one hand seeming to criticise America’s foreign policy but excusing it at the same time. Much was made that while many celebrities were ridiculed, no puppets appeared of the Bush administration which led some to claim the film was Conservative in nature, however Stone explained that Bush mocking was so widespread it was virtually passe.
The mixed politics in Team America and mocking of the stupidity of both extreme sides all comes together in a speech made at the end of the movie. It classes American Policy as “Dicks,” the Liberal protests as “Pussies” and the evil doers as “Assholes,” and ironically from this crude, somewhat vulgar analogies comes in my opinion one of the most intelligent commentaries on the polarisation of opinions put on the screen.
“Pussies don’t like dicks, because pussies get fucked by dicks. But dicks also fuck assholes: assholes that just want to shit on everything. Pussies may think they can deal with assholes their way. But the only thing that can fuck an asshole is a dick, with some balls. The problem with dicks is: they fuck too much or fuck when it isn’t appropriate – and it takes a pussy to show them that. But sometimes, pussies can be so full of shit that they become assholes themselves… because pussies are an inch and half away from ass holes. “
On the surface it’s a gag of a speech, but there is some depth there, that dares to suggest that there is stupidity on both sides of the political spectrum and that neither side has all the answers and in a way needs each other to reign each other in.
Aside from the satire, Team America uses the puppetry to push the sometimes juvenile envelope such as a full on sex scene and a prolonged (and very funny) vomiting scene. The film though is at it’s funniest when it plays the story with poe faced straightness, such as when the puppets are reciting melodramatic backstories, including actor Gary revealing how his play acting got his brother torn apart by gorillas and Chris retelling how he hates actors because he was gang raped by the cast of Cats. My personal favourite gag is Gary going undercover to infiltrate a terrorist cell and been told if captured he may want to take his own life, and is helpfully passed a wrench.
Naturally coming from the South Park crew there are some great musical moments. The theme to Team America is a rousing, patriotic spoofing “America: FUCK YEAH,” a parody on the musical Rent (named Lease) ends with a chorus of “Everyone has AIDS,” a spoof on the use of montages with “You need a montage,” and the Kim Jon Il soliloquy “I’m so lonely,” (pronounced “Ronery”, which drew cries of racist stereotypes, though if you’re offended on behalf of a piece of shit like the North Korean dictator you’re probably making the film’s argument for it).
While filming Team America was a massive pain in the arse for Parker and Stone, who revealed the puppetry was the hardest thing they’ve ever had to film, the results were outstanding. The film manages to look authentic and is as professionally produced as any of Gerry Anderson’s shows, but also does it in such a way that spoofs the genre, with gags such as having two regular black cats taking the roles of panthers. It also introduces a pleasing amount of gore for the death scenes, especially when disposing of the celebrities.
Never afraid to indulge in bad taste comedy, or infuriate political sensibilities while also appealing to them, Team America is a refreshing, daring film. Funny and intelligent, it’s the sort of film that is solely needed today.
WTF? It’s Japan Godzilla vs America Godzilla?
Godzilla Final Wars
Ok, I’ve been waiting so long to reach 2004, because this story right here is one of my favourites in all of movie folklore. It surrounds the 50th anniversary of the first Godzilla movie and to celebrate would see the release of the biggest Godzilla film to date, with a who’s who of guest stars featuring more famous monsters than ever before. It would also see a massive middle finger from Japanese studio Toho aimed squarely at Hollywood.
Note: some elements of this story have been purposely exaggerated for entertainment purposes.
To appreciate this story you need to go back to 1998 where Tristar obtained the rights from Toho to make an American version of Godzilla. Along with the rights, Toho eager to protect the legacy of a beloved Japanese folk hero, helpfully provided a document detailing the best ways to present Godzilla. The American producers took a look at the document, laughed derisively at the silly Japanese and tossed the pages in the bin, mocking the thought that they needed any help to make a big monster movie.
So Tristar changed everything they could about Godzilla, from the design to the origin, it’s powers (no fire breath) and took a shot at the success of Jurassic Park in a teaser trailer that showed Godzilla’s foot stomping on the skeleton of a T-Rex. Except when throwing down the gauntlet to a successful, beloved movie you’d better sure as hell deliver a great film yourselves, which Tristar failed to do. Godzilla 1998 (which became known as the one with Matthew Broderick) was derided by critics and audiences, especially those who were Godzilla fans.
Also pissed off were the folks at Toho, dismayed that those bloody yanks had bastardised their beloved monster into a giant Iguana. “We ought to set our Godzilla on that fucker,” one exec said, which in turn prompted another to start to ponder and with real purpose said, “let’s take a look at that contract.”
After looking over said contract and consulting with their lawyers Toho found to their glee that they could use the American Godzilla in their own movies. And so in the spirit of Ric Flair going to WWF with the NWA world title belt, the team decided to featuring USA Godzilla against the real Godzilla in their anniversary film, Godzilla Final Wars.
Except it wouldn’t be with the name Godzilla, as Toho argued the Americans had taken the God out of their creation and so the creature would instead be named simply Zilla. In another dig at Tristar’s piss poor efforts, “Zilla” would appear in CGI, and rather tacky looking at CGI (Japanese Godzilla movies have always used actors in monster suits to portray their monsters).
The stage was set and in the final hilarity, the “fight” lasts a whopping 30 seconds. Zilla charges like an idiot at Godzilla who swats him aside with his tail, sending him crashing into the Sydney Opera House and finishing him off with his Atomic breath, the very same power move that Hollywood deemed not viable for their version.
Petty? Maybe. But also bloody funny and you got to want to high five Toho for wanting to get their own back on the American studio, and also give their own fans a reason cheer.
Like many of the later Japanese Godzilla movies, licensing and distribution issues means I’ve never had the opportunity to see Final Wars in full. However thanks to Youtube I’ve managed to track down the Zilla vs Godzilla job match which I have below for your amusement.
It never fails to make me smile.
See ya next time