• Pages

  • Categories

  • Archives

  • Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 42 other subscribers
  • Top Posts

The seventh time tends to get a little … sick

This is the face of a man you do not want to meet in a dark alley. Or a well-lit Bed Bath and Beyond.

In regular clothing, Jackie Earle Haley is freaky enough that you wonder about him — mostly about if you could bust through the top of the elevator, alien-style, should you find yourself caught in there with him. Alone. Surely he’s the nicest guy, probably loves puppies and kittens and rainbows, but admit it: The man can conjure such frightful menace the only way you want to be in a room alone with him is if you have a fully-loaded Uzi. With back-up ammo.

And maybe an atom bomb for good measure.

So naturally the thought of him as Freddy Kreuger is wet-my-new-pants scary. My appreciation for his talents — extolled way back in July 2009 — leads me to think his performance as Kreuger in Samuel Bayer’s 2010 “Nightmare on Elm Street” will not let anyone down, and even might surprise more than a few Robert Englund devotees who swear the part can’t be played by anyone else. Couple that Jackie Earle Haley love with a positive review of his performance from my source for all things horror, Will at The Film Reel, and I’m still stoked. Perhaps it helps that unlike many cinephiles out there, I’ve just begun embracing the horror genre and I’ve only seen the original “Nightmare on Elm Street” (yeeeeeaaaars ago) and 2003’s gloriously terrible “Freddy vs. Jason,” so there’s little basis for comparison. Sometimes, when it comes to remakes, I consider that a very good thing.

And thus the countdown begins. Freddy’s back, and this time he’s not about to let Jason have all the fun.


Review: “Eyes of Laura Mars” (1978)

Susan Jane Gilman, in her book “Kiss My Tiara,” spends one chapter bemoaning the fates female protagonists face in motion pictures, and one of her sharpest observations applies well to Irvin Kershner’s hyper-stylish thriller “Eyes of Laura Mars.” The Laura Mars (Faye Dunaway) of the title fits into the category of Women Who Fall for Psychotic Murderers Because Boy Are They Handsome. Dunaway has no choice but to play along, even though the part requires her to clutch her head and wail like a banshee. Oh, the harrowing drama of high fashion photography in the Big Apple.

Revealing Laura Mars’ type means pains must be taken not to give away the Twist Ending … which doesn’t amount to much surprise for anyone paying attention. So on the subject of plot I will tread gingerly: Laura Mars is an N.Y.C. photographer whose violent artwork has ignited a firestorm of controversy about the subject matter. She dresses her subjects in runway frocks and arranges them for shock value, using provocative poses and staged violence to express her vision. Critics, reporters and the public argue endlessly about her work: Is photography itself a viable form of artistic expression or a sign that painting is hopelessly outdated? Do Laura’s photos glorify violence or comment on it? Laura likes to think she draws attention to mankind’s savageness and her work has little effect beyond that. Her flamboyant assistant (Rene Auberjonois) could care less about perception as long as Laura keeps her schedule. Yet the photos may be the reason a murderer begins picking off people in Laura’s circle and posing the victims just as she does in her shoots.

“Eyes of Laura Mars” would be a garden-variety whodunnit save for one detail: Laura, through psychic or supernatural visions, can see the killer commit each crime. These visions come on suddenly and are never wrong, prompting cop John Neville (Tommy Lee Jones, in top form), who’s investigating the killings, to bring Laura in as a witness. Sure enough, she’s surrounded by potential murders. Both her alcoholic ex-husband Michael (Raul Julia) and her driver Tommy (Brad Dourif, bless his shifty eyes), an ex-con with a lengthy rap sheet and a nervous expression that indicate all’s not well in his mind, initially look good for the crimes. However, one of the film’s most glaring flaws is the setup of Michael, Tommy and others as suspects; immediately after meeting these men it becomes apparent they aren’t guilty. Is a little subtlety, a little intrigue too much to hope for in a psychological thriller? Must these characters be drawn in such thick magic marker strokes? Hence the transparency of the ending, at which point “Eyes of Laura Mars” devolves into an orgy of weeping and yelling and and more weeping — all of it done tolerably well by Dunaway. She may be prey, but there’s nary a shiny hair out of place.

This attention to style is where the movie accumulates points. The makeup and costuming are flawless and eye-catching, the epitome of high fashion, while nearly all the actors possess bone structure or some other feature so startling it’s a shame Michelangelo wasn’t around in the 1970s to paint them. In terms of visuals, “Eyes of Laura Mars” is a singular and striking film. Laura’s visions, too, are handled impressively — they resemble a peep through a dirty camera lens, and when Laura has them they inspire genuine unease. The visions, though, are never explained, and we’re left to wonder why. Perhaps this is a conscious choice the director makes to make them seem more “secretive,” or perhaps it’s an oversight caused by fashion overload.

Even more frustrating than these baffling visions is seeing Faye Dunaway relegated to a part so devoid of nuance (“Mommie Dearest” aside, she is capable of nuance). John Neville is a character of true mystery whose story we want to know. Laura Mars, though? Dunaway tries but she can’t create much intrigue for a character meant to fit the bill of Everyvictim. Maybe John Carpenter, who co-wrote the screenplay, learned an important lesson from this, a lesson he used in “Halloween”: A heroine’s not much of a heroine if she can’t think on her feet.

Grade: C

No. 35: “Mar adentro” (2004)

“A life without freedom is not a life.”
~~Ramón Sampedro

There is an impulse, very human and universal, to tend to wounds as we discover them: to salve the burns, clean and stitch the gashes, soothe the scrapes. This impulse extends to our reaction to people who want nothing more than to die; we must coax them away from the edge and convince them of them of life’s welcoming beauty. “There is so much to live for,” we insist, feeling a sense of urgency frightening because it makes us wonder if there’s conviction or just convention behind it.

This is the rocky terrain that director/screenwriter Alejandro Amenábar carefully but adeptly navigates in “Mar adentro,”* winner of the 2004 Oscar for Best Foreign Film. His haunting, difficult film centers on the true story of Galicia-born Ramón Sampedro (Javier Bardem, displaying astonishing warmth and humor), a quadriplegic who spent nearly three decades arguing for his right to assisted suicide. Paralyzed by a botched cliff dive at age 25, Ramón did not accept his condition as people wanted. Instead, he spent his remaining years of his life sure of just one thing: he wanted to end it. Ramón’s yearning for death flew in the face of everyone’s unspoken expectations — that he accept his reality bravely, that he press on because that’s what people do. He did not react accordingly; Ramón challenged people to consider, really consider, the cruelty of forcing him to keep living when all he wanted was to die.

Without the right director and lead actor, a man like Ramón Sampedro might not translate to the screen, or seem too much like a martyr than an actual human being. Amenábar, in his beautifully lensed and poignantly written film, sidesteps these dangers by honing in on Ramón’s very personal story and his relationships with his family and friends. And that’s where Bardem’s talent comes in: The actor creates a perceptive, funny, deeply felt character using only his eyes and his facial expressions and his voice. Though it’s the extraordinary, Oscar-nominated make-up artistry that ages him, it’s Bardem who makes Ramón so much more than a tragic figure. He plays Ramón years after the accident that rendered his limbs useless, now living in Galicia with his brother José (Celso Bugallo), José’s wife Manuela (Mabel Rivera), who serves as Ramón’s caregiver, and their father Joaquín (Joan Dalmau). Ramón believes himself a burden to Manuela and his family, though he tries to conceal that with humor. Sometimes he lets the truth slip out. “When you can’t escape, and you constantly rely on everyone else, you learn to cry by smiling, you know?” he explains. He also upbraids a priest (Josep Maria Pou) armed with a Bible and a cache of trite platitudes.

In lobbying for his right to euthanasia, Ramón locates a pro-freedom of choice organization to back his case and meets with a supportive lawyer, Julia (Belén Rueda, controlled but powerful), who is facing her own uncertain future of disability and dependency on caregivers. Ramón also touches the life of Rosa (the more emotive Lola Dueñas), a damaged woman who sees a kindness in Ramón she wants to save. Ramón’s relationship with these women is the soul of “Mar adentro,” and while there are elements of romance Amenábar keeps the film from straying into a melodrama overstuffed with grand proclamations about the redemptive powers of love and the value of life. He doesn’t force this angle; rather, Amenábar structures “Mar adentro” as a heartrending tale of Ramón’s struggle and the ways he changes Julia and Rosa’s lives. Each comes to love him, and each comes to understand that she cannot will him to live. All he asks is that both women accept him as he is; only one has the strength to do so.

Bardem intuits this about Ramón, his longing for a love great enough to set him free, and communicates churning oceans of meaning with his eyes and his expressions. This a performance of depth and feeling that defies explanation; it is magnetic and challenging and commanding. If we cannot agree with Ramón’s choice, Bardem ensures we see and understand his reasons. He makes us feel the despair of a life lived on everyone else’s terms.

*”Out to sea,” not “The Sea Inside,” the misleading English title

No. 34: “Blazing Saddles” (1974)

“Gentlemen, please, rest your sphincters.” ~~Hedley Lamarr

I do believe, in all the wide, wide world of sports, that I have No. 6’d my way into a corner here.

Lookit: “Blazing Saddles,” as mentioned in the 10 movie facts post, played an incremental role — however demented — in my development from sullen teen to maturity-resistant adult. I have seen it upwards of 100 times. My parents and I have all but created our own language based around quotes from the film. It isn’t close to my heart; it’s in my heart. And it is much easier to review films when there is no emotional attachment involved. How do you turn fresh eyes on a film like that? I’m not sure. I can be a provincial putz that way.

So for “Blazing Saddles” we’re going to change the way we do business here at M. Carter @ the Movies. I’m going to do something a little bit different, something that suits the episodic nature of the film and something that speaks to the deep appreciation I have for comedy that not only stands the test of time but bests it. (Those unfamiliar with the film, scroll to the end for a brief plot summary.) Seeing as “Blazing Saddles” is a collection of golden comedy nuggets, allow me to lead an exploration of the 34 scenes/quotes/gags that qualify Mel Brooks’ film as one of the funniest ever made, and a staggering work of mad genius.

Excuse me while I whip this out:

34. “Mongo only pawn in game of life.”

33. The saddles are designed by Gucci. 

32. Hedley Lamarr’s (Harvey Korman) loss of Froggy in the tub, and Taggart’s (Slim Pickens) accidental game of find-Mr.-Winkie.

31. Hedley’s list of the baddies he needs to take over Rock Ridge (it includes Methodists).

30. Idiot Gov. William J. Le Petomane (Brooks) can’t get a simple harumph outta that guy.

29. “Well, it all depends on how much Vitamin E I can get my hands on.”

28. Lili Von Schtupp’s (Madeline Kahn) idea of what constitutes slipping into “something a little more comfortable.”

27. Guy dressed as Hitler: “They lose me right after the bunker scene.”

26. The French Mistake.

25. Dom DeLuise demonstrating the French Mistake.

24. Gov. Le Petomane can’t fit his pen in the inkwell (“think of your secretary”).

23. The revelation that stampeding cattle through the Vatican is villainous … and kinky.

22. “I will read from Matthew, Mark, Luke and DUCK.”

21. Mongo (Alex Karras) is not gay.

20. Lili’s entire performance at the saloon, but particularly the line “they start with Byron and Shelley / then jump on your belly / and bust your balloon.”

19. “Teutonic Titwillow” would be a killer name for a band.

18. But “Teutonic twat” would be even better.

17. Rev. Johnson’s heartfelt prayer to God using the phrase “dicking around.”

16. “Land: see Snatch.”

15. Murdered sheriffs and burned crops are acceptable, but did the cattle deserve that kind of treatment?

14. Harriet Johnson’s (Carol Arthur) voice can put the fear of the Lord Almighty in ya.

13. “We’ve gotta protect our phony-baloney jobs, gentlemen!”

12. That a quote from Nietzsche is followed by “blow it out your ass.”

11. Wed woses are so womantic.

10. Chewing gum on line is a capital offense.

9. “Goddarnit, Mr. Lamarr, you use your tongue prettier than a 20-dollar whore.”

8. Sheriff Bart’s (Cleavon Little) bait to lure two KKK thugs behind a rock.

7. The story of how The Waco Kid (Gene Wilder) became a drunk (“little bastard shot me in the ass”).

6. The campfire bean chowdown/fart-a-thon.

5. Everything Gabby Johnson (Jack Starrett) mumbles.

4. None of Hedley’s henchmen see the idiocy of having a tollbooth in the middle of the desert (“somebody’s gotta go back and get a shitload of dimes”).

3. The way the whole film reveals the racism inherent in Westerns (Brooks would hate that kind of lit-theory babble, though).

2. Sheriff Bart’s “introduction” to the Town of Rock Ridge: the hold-up.

1. Taggart detailing the intricacies of what it means to “work up a no. 6” on anyone. (If anyone invites you to a No. 6 dance, turn him down.)

*Synopsis: Corrupt politician Hedley Lamarr, in an effort to wrest land from the Town of Rock Ridge, convinces the governor to appoint a black sheriff, Bart, to the all-white town, and infuriate the residents. Bart finds an ally in the washed-up, drunk Waco Kid, and they fend off Hedley and his sidekick, Taggart’s, increasing efforts to snatch their town from under them.

My thought on today

Fey and Carell are a comedy dream team in “Date Night”

People who steal dinner reservations (Tina Fey, Steve Carell) have to use the payphone that smells like urine.

Just as the trailers promise, Phil and Claire Foster (Steve Carell, Tina Fey) spend a lot of time in “Date Night” shrieking and dishevelled, running around like (nicely dressed) headless chickens. But we all know that underneath those layers of ironic normalcy they’ve been waiting years for something this exciting to happen, something to shake them out of their two-car, two-job, two-kid coma. Neither one had the energy to concoct an adventure themselves. All they needed was a movie to do it for them.

This is ground zero of why “Date Night” is such a pointlessly entertaining romp: It makes perfect sense that Phil and Claire’s situation makes no sense. Phil and Claire are nice, overexerted suburbanites who have lost their spark to jobs and kids, and why would they get wrapped up in this kind of tomfoolery if it wasn’t a plot contrivance? Shawn Levy’s “Date Night” requires only that Fey and Carell play along, sell their chagrin at these outrageous circumstances and, at the end, give in/enjoy the adrenaline rush of it all and be a little changed — for the better — by the whole experience. This plot has been done umpteen-thousand times, but it has not been done by Tina Fey and Steve Carell, which makes all the difference. They have the right look, the right romatic and comedy chemistry, the right comic timing (their invented stories about other diners are invaluable). They are the key. Without them, “Date Night” would be just another ho-hum entry in the genre.

Levy wastes little time painting a portrait of suburban life, possibly because he knows there’s no need; this is been-there, done-that territory. Phil and Claire are the definition of respectable married people. He is a tax man who quietly urges his clients to invest their $600 refund instead of blowing it on a trip to Spain so they can “do it on the beach”; she is a real estate agent who lies about how close her houses are to New York City. They see each other mornings and nights, where Claire putting on her dental Night Guard is code for “nobody’s having sex in this bed tonight.” Two jobs and two kids and him never closing any drawer ever have muted their spark. Adventure takes over when Phil and Claire, at a high-falutin’ NYC restaurant, steal the Tripplehorns’ (James Franco, Mila Kunis) reservation. (This becomes a running gag that loses only a little steam by the conclusion.) This is worse than stealing someone else’s reservation because the Tripplehorns are in cahoots with a meanie mobster (Ray Liotta as Ray Liotta), two dirty cops (Jimmi Simpson, Common) and the DA (William Fichtner), a man who cannot resist a lap dance.

Spending any more time detailing the plot would be useless, because it’s standard-issue fish-outta-water comedy stuff. The important thing isn’t what happens but how Fey and Carell make what happens funny. There are, perhaps, no two comedians better suited for this: Fey excels at acerbic observational humor and withering sarcasm, while Carell could make understated physical comedy and rants into Olympic sports. For fans of both, this is an epic pairing that should have happened years ago. Marvel at the way Carell loses his cool with Claire’s perpetually shirtless ex-client Holbrooke (Mark Wahlberg, funnier than people give him credit for), or Carell’s expression as he clings to the hood of a cab he’s driven into the Hudson. Then there’s the matter of their bizarre “routine” in a local strip joint, which defies explanation and contains a shoutout to “Showgirls.” They get support from Franco and Kunis, no slouches in the ha-ha department, who are underused as the Tripplehorns but make their parts memorable. Kristen Wiig provides her usual outrageous soundbites, and Fichtner, too, a workhorse of a character actor, is somewhat wasted in his part. Please, Hollywood, let Wiig and Fichtner headline some movies. Just one each?

Then again, “Date Night” is essentially a big, noisy showcase for the talents of Steve Carell and Tina Fey. And if either one was any less talented, that might be a bad thing.

Grade: B

No. 33: “Mystery Men” (1999)

“We’ve got a blind date with destiny, and it looks like she’s ordered the lobster.”
~~The Shoveller

Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear, comic actor supreme) cuts a dashing figure in his aerodynamic, sponsor patch-studded leather suit, and he’d be an outstanding superhero if not for one hiccup: He’s good. He’s so good, in fact, that he’s vanquished all the supervillains and plumb run himself out of a job. Now this blonde superstar with the blinding smile is reduced to taking the gigs his grumbling publicist (Ricky Jay) gets him, like busting up a robbery at an old folks’ home. Poor Captain Amazing learned too late that pride should go before job security in a fall.

Maybe there are people capable of resisting a superhero movie anchored by a flaming imbecile more concerned with keeping his image — Pepsi pulled its sponsorship! — than saving people. Not I. There’s something to this “we’re not your classic heroes” angle that reels me in, even if the story’s told only passably well. Kinka Usher’s “Mystery Men” vaults past “passable” in the first 15 minutes when the deliciously ee-viyill Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush) emerges from his asylum stay ready to perpetrate some villainy. Rush is a marvel of a character actor, but as a supervillain? He’s even better. And because Casanova Frankenstein has twice the wit and triple the brains of his arch-nemesis (who doesn’t even know the plural of “nemesis”), it’s obvious that “Mystery Men” isn’t going to be an epic battle unless Captain Amazing gets some help. And he can’t afford to be picky.

Out from the crevices of Champion City (Gotham/N.Y.C. on acid) emerges a team of do-gooders painfully aware they are not an “elite cadre” of anything except Captain Amazing haters. That’s understandable; the man’s a limelight thief. The leader is Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller, aptly cast), who seems to think being irked and mixing metaphors — he is “a Pantera’s box you do not want to open” — make him a holy terror. His friends, the fork-flinging Blue Raja (Hank Azaria) and the Shoveller (William H. Macy), are less delusional; they see no reason to hire a publicist. “What is there to publicize? The fact that we get our butts kicked a lot?” Shoveller asks. Bent on 86ing Casanova, Mr. Furious enlists Invisible Boy (Kel Mitchell), only invisible when no one’s looking, to bring others out of hiding: The Bowler (Janeane Garofalo), whose power comes from her murdered father’s skull encased in a bowling ball; The Spleen (Paul Reubens), cursed with the ability to produce killer farts; and The Sphynx (Wes Studi), theoretically able to halve guns with his mind but who mostly says things like “to learn my teachings, I must first teach you how to learn.” Together they must take on not only Casanova but his Disco Boys, led by Tony P. (Eddie Izzard, a scream), who summons up murderous rage on behalf of disco’s unpopularity. When that doesn’t fly, he uses flaming hairspray.

For a movie like “Mystery Men” to work, atmosphere, action and characters must have a happy marriage. The relationship couldn’t be more harmonious. The look of Champion City and the heroes screams “comic book movie,” with vivid landscapes, colors and costumes meant to elicit laughter more than anything else (The Sphinx’s headdress is … beyond words). The action sequences are played for chuckles, including the team’s vandalism of Casanova’s limo and a hysterical scene where the team’s “daring rescue” of Captain Amazing goes sour. Kudos to the casting director for assembling so many funny actors in one group. They hit every genre of humor: observational (Macy); sophomoric (Reubens, Mitchell); punny (Azaria); savage wit (Garofalo, Rush). Slapstick, corny jokes, putdowns — whatever tickles your funny bone, it’s here. Even Tom Waits is here, in a cameo as loner mad scientist Dr. Heller, inventor extraordinaire of non-lethal weaponry like — ha! — the Blamethrower.

Undoubtedly there are fans of Bob Burden’s “Flaming Carrot Comics” series, which “Mystery Men” loosely draws from, who will find the much-altered film an affront. I’ll speak as a fan of the series and this adaptation: Sometimes changes are an insult. When they preserve the madcap spirit of the source material? Consider them a compliment. Do it, or else Mr. Furious will go Pompeii on your butt.

Review: “Internal Affairs” (1990)

What makes a bad guy terrifying? Is it flashy weaponry, or henchmen crouching in the shadows with triggers cocked, or evil schemes more tangled than the plot of “Chinatown”? Such gimmicks are handy, even deserving of some nail biting, but they aren’t terrifying. What elevates a villain from alarming to unsettling is the knack for sniffing out the demons lurking in “good men” and knowing, instinctively, how to coax them out of hiding. Richard Gere, the Iago-esque crook of “Internal Affairs,” shows true villainy done right. He’s the evildoer who knows your dark heart better than you do.

Gere, never a particularly expressive actor, turns in the cutthroat performance that outshines every other and propels Mike Figgis’ somewhat derivative cop thriller all the way to its climax. The unassuming menace and energy are Gere’s alone, but Figgis abets the actor by presenting him as a regular L.A.P.D. patrolman in the beginning of “Internal Affairs.” Dennis even looks the part of sage mentor/father figure to the younger officers, like his trigger-happy partner, Van Stretch (William Baldwin), and Dorian Fletcher (Michael Beach), a by-the-book cop working his way up. It helps that Dennis is a family man: he’s working on his fourth marriage and has eight kids, including one on the way, that he talks about often. How good a cover children make for crookedness, because who doesn’t trust a devoted, doting father with a cheerful photo scrapbook in his wallet? The people in “Internal Affairs” who make this mistake only make it once, some because they don’t live to be fooled again.

While Raymond Avila (Andy Garcia), new to L.A.P.D.’s Internal Affairs Division, doesn’t immediately peg Dennis as a criminal mastermind at their first meeting, he has his suspicions. So does his Amy (Laurie Metcalfe), who’s quick to remind Raymond of his place: “You know all your friends from the force? You don’t have them anymore.” Raymond has a hard time with that; he likes to think he can balance his past with his bright future. The detectives’ investigation of Van’s latest excessive force charge leads them to wonder how Van and Dennis, living on LAPD salaries, can afford $400,000 homes. Not even Amy, sharp as she is, understands how far he’ll go to push people to their breaking points. For Raymond, that proves as simple as probing the tension between Raymond and his wife Kathleen (Nancy Travis). Dennis makes plain the delight he takes in his mission: “You’re so fucking easy, Raymond. Like a big baby with buttons all over. I push the buttons.” Dennis’ ability to find and exploit people’s weaknesses is impressive; Gere’s ability to make a man like that seem both normal and scary as hell  is astounding.

This performance aside, “Internal Affairs” doesn’t win any points for originality. Crooked cop stories have been around just about as long as good and evil has been around, it seems, and Henry Bean’s script contains few attempts to revamp the old concept. Garcia’s character lacks any kind of real history to explain his dramatic switch from straight man to raving, jealous monster (Garcia’s acting may be to blame there), while Kathleen comes off as that old standard, the Long-Suffering Cop’s Wife. But there’s something fascinating about the way Bean provides us with a “hero” and a “villain” who turn out to be very similar. Dorian sees it: “You’re just like Peck,” he tells Raymond, and he’s correct. Raymond can profile and manipulate people to do his bidding, even if Garcia doesn’t quite sell that aspect of the character. Perhaps it’s that Garcia or anyone else in “Internal Affairs” can’t compete with Gere, whose performance as Dennis Peck should be considered the Acting 101 standard for crooked cops.

Just as Gere creates a formidable evildoer, cinematographer John A. Alonzo crafts a nebulous environment fit for him to operate in. Alonzo’s camera takes in the underbelly of L.A. — the dirty, forgotten back alleys, the foreboding nooks under bridges and overpasses — and gives it a hazy, almost noirish beauty. His L.A. is a place where the lights twinkle, but they never show the Dennis Pecks waiting in the shadows to, much like Iago, “poison the delight” of unsuspecting men.

Grade: B

Review: “The Gods Must Be Crazy” (1980)

Of all the things adulthood and modernity and “civilized life” chase away, it’s the sense of wonder that leaves the biggest hole. The older we get, the harder it seems to be to experience that feeling of excitement you felt when you saw a lightning bug the first time, or you found out that dish detergent, water in a bucket and a bent coat hanger could make huge bubbles. Late South African writer/director Jamie Uys was one of the rare adults who never lost his ability to be surprised or his appreciation of whimsy, and “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” which became 1980’s Little Movie That Could, is a mostly enjoyable testament to his spirit.

The structure of “The Gods Must Be Crazy” includes three threads and begins, appropriately enough, with a story of discovery. The first thread charms because of the amusing narrator (Paddy O’Byrne) and the erstwhile hero, Xi (N!xau), a Ju/’hoansi bushman who discovers a Coke bottle in the sand. The bottle is a revelation to Xi, who lives with his family in the searing Kalahari Desert and knows not of civilization. (He and his family believe cloud trails left by airplanes are “evidence of the gods’ flatulence”). Xi believes the bottle to be a gift from above, but it brings trouble to the tribe — in the form greed, envy, refusal to share. Surely the gods are mistaken, he reasons, and the Evil Thing must be thrown off the end of the world. It is on this journey that his story crosses with that of Andrew Steyn (Marius Weyers), a biologist doing research in South Africa, and Kate Thompson (Sandra Prinsloo), a new teacher in the nearby village school. That one will be besotted with the other is a given, and if their courtship weren’t so dotted with wild stunts and pratfalls it might detract more from Xi’s determined quest, the heart of the film.

The final thread — by far the least interesting — involves a political uprising masterminded by dictator Sam Boga (Louw Verwey). Boga’s thread, which marks the loony convergence of all the film’s storylines, lacks both the innocent, curious charm of Xi’s earnest journey to dispose of the bottle and the nutty slapstick of Kate and Andrew’s blossoming relationship. Though it leads to a fitting and satisfying end, Boga’s brutish coup d’état doesn’t gel with the light-hearted tone of “The Gods Must Be Crazy” and thus feels tacked-on, as if Uys decided the film needed a last-minute shot of political credibility. Although this thread speaks to the shifting tides of political rule in South Africa, Boga’s story is jarring and out of place. More than that, it also feels highly sanitized and farcical, with the violence made to look more comical than anything else; thus, this part of the film has the distinction of seeming too violent and not violent enough to be accurate.

Upon its release, however, it wasn’t the violence that caused waves. Scenes in “The Gods Must Be Crazy” depict Xi as awestruck and confused by what he sees, from airplanes (he thinks they’re birds with wings that don’t flap) to automobiles. When he first meets Kate and Andrew, who are white, he assumes they are “gods” because they are heavier than anyone he has known, wear strange garbs and command powerful contraptions, like the jeep Andrew bogs in the lake, then gets hoisted into the trees (discover the “how” of that one yourself). Uys also takes liberties is his portrayal of the Ju/ʼhoansi as taken aback by the world outside the desert. Does “The Gods Must Be Crazy” exploit N!xau, an unknown bushman until the film’s release, and the Ju/ʼhoansi? That’s dependent on the viewer’s reaction to the ending and Xi’s opinions of the people he encounters. His initial belief that Kate and Andrew are gods fades quickly, and while he stays in their world for a time he is never of it. It does not alter values or deter his mission; perhaps it becomes a tall tale to amuse his family. In the end, Xi goes back to his world without walls unconcerned with clocks and schedules and technology. For Uys, more interested in creating comedy than social commentary, that is just as it should be.

Grade: B-

My thought on today