#372. Few actors, many roles

For the most part, each individual who acts in a movie only has one character to play. To understand the amount of emotional depth of a single character, these actors will often devote themselves to this singular role. But what about those actors who portray more than one character? Furthermore, what if the whole cast needs to take on multiple roles? There could be many reasons to go this way, including funding limitations, comedic purposes, or thematic motifs. Whatever the reason, when a few actors take on multiple roles in a movie, it can either be a distraction or a fun treasure hunt as the viewer tries to identify all the roles these actors filled. This is even more pronounced when famous and well-known actors are taking on these multiple roles. This week’s two films highlight some examples of a few actors taking on many roles.

Cloud AtlasCloud Atlas
Year: 2012
Rating: R
Length: 172 minutes / 2.87 hours

When it comes to a specific character who is seen during different parts of their life, the standard way to show this growth is via different actors playing the same character. This has been done in many movies, including the 2016 Best Picture, Moonlight. Sometimes, a single actor may play the same character throughout the lifecycle, like Brad Pitt did in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008). However, when it comes to portraying the same character archetype over centuries, the same actor can be employed to show the link between the timelines. During the silent era, Buster Keaton did this in Three Ages (1923), mostly because he was the star of the film. In a more modern context, Cloud Atlas (2012) chooses to use the same set of all-star actors in multiple roles throughout multiple timelines as an artistic technique to show the interconnectedness of the characters.

While most of the members of the ensemble cast of Cloud Atlas only have one segment where they’re the lead character, they do appear in most segments. The timeline starts with Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess), an abolitionist from 1849 who wrote a journal during his near-death experience. Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) read this journal while composing “The Cloud Atlas Sextet” for the elderly Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent). Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) found this piece of music in a record store in 1973 before surviving an assassination attempt due to the exposé she was writing. Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent) would eventually read the novelization of these events in 2012, which would inspire him to write his own story. Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) would be inspired by the movie version of this book in 2144, starting a revolution in the process. Finally, Zachry (Tom Hanks) lives in a post-apocalyptic 2321 created by the revolution.

Life of BrianLife of Brian
Year: 1979
Rating: R
Length: 94 minutes / 1.57 hours

Years after I saw Dr. Strangelove (1964), I came to the realization that three different characters in the film were portrayed by Peter Sellers. The acting was so superb, I hadn’t even noticed they were all the same actor. In general, comedies are more likely to use a small group of actors in multiple roles, especially if they’re known for short comedy sketches on television. Sure, you can have a small set of actors portray multiple characters through their voices, like in The Simpsons Movie (2007), but when it comes to live-action films, the guys from Monty Python are the de facto comedy group when it comes to multiple roles for individual actors. This is likely due to their success in the realm of sketch comedy. Even though there is a narrative thread that runs through movies like Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and Life of Brian (1979), they’re essentially just a series of sketches.

Living life in parallel to that of Jesus Christ (Kenneth Colley), Brian Cohen (Graham Chapman) was born just one door down from the stable where Jesus was born. Years later, he would attend the Sermon on the Mount and become inspired to join the People’s Front of Judea to stand up against the Romans’ rule. Through his exploits, he tries to blend into a crowd by pretending to be a prophet, repeating some of Jesus’ teachings in his own words. This leads to Brian developing a devoted following which eventually takes everything he says as a lesson or parable. Even random events are seen as miracles in their eyes. After finally escaping his following, he is captured by Roman guards and brought before Pontius Pilate (Michael Palin). Pilate offers to release a prisoner, and Brian’s name is offered, but someone else claiming to be him is released while he is crucified.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 many roles with not as many actors

#371. Stories through Time

The more things change, the more they stay the same. This is partly due to those people who don’t learn from history and are therefore doomed to repeat it. While most movies usually span a short timeframe, there are a few out there that manage to cover almost the entirety of human existence. Some even go so far as to speculate what the future would bring for humanity. After all, if humans keep making the same decisions and mistakes in the past, what could possibly change that habit in the future? These parallel storylines are often used to prove some point to the audience. While it can be interesting to see how people in ancient times acted in the same way we do, sometimes the message the filmmaker is trying to make is beaten home too much. This week’s two films use multiple stories throughout time to tell a story.

Year: 1916
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 197 minutes / 3.28 hours

In telling multiple stories that span a long time period, each individual story is practically a short film in itself. The epic scale of the run-time for these films is merely a product of the multitude of stories that need to be told. During the early days of movies, short films were the norm, so stringing four of them together to tell a larger narrative was certainly doable. D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages (1916) manages to span a timeframe from 539 BC all the way to 1914 AD, stopping off around 27 AD and 1572 AD in the process. This film was so impactful, not only as a form of apology for The Birth of a Nation (1915) but for inspiring at least one parody: Buster Keaton’s Three Ages (1923). Both films highlight the fact that humans have remained the same for a very long time.

Throughout the ages, intolerance has been a problem for humanity. The similarities between Cyrus the Great of Persia (George Siegmann), the Pharisees of Israel, and the Catholics of France all show how being intolerant of others leads to great destruction, pain, and death. Sometimes, the people being affected by the intolerance have their own intolerance against their persecutors, with a few notable exceptions. Even in modern times, money fuels the prejudice between businessmen and the workers they exploit. In the end, this intolerance isn’t necessarily based on the color of one’s skin, but instead on how one group of people has a prejudice against a different group of people who might threaten the wealth and power they’ve grown used to over the years. Aside from the obvious lesson that intolerance has been around for a long time, we also see that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Cloud AtlasCloud Atlas
Year: 2012
Rating: R
Length: 172 minutes / 2.87 hours

While Intolerance covered about 2.5 centuries of stories, some modern films have gone from the beginning of time to the present day. The Tree of Life (2011) didn’t have nearly as many stories to tell, but the range was much greater. In contrast, Cloud Atlas (2012) only covers just over 450 years. However, Cloud Atlas examines the future as well via its parallel stories. While other movies that cover long timespans in short chunks will use the collective history lesson to sell a moral, Cloud Atlas speculates what the distant future will be based on what we know about human behavior. More to the point, Cloud Atlas shows us how individuals can span centuries in various forms, sometimes taking the spotlight or sometimes acting in a supporting role. Whether or not you believe in reincarnation, I think we can all agree humans have the same basic thought processes that affect global history.

Actions have consequences, even if they’re not immediately apparent. Individuals who support the abolition of slavery in 1849 could affect the post-apocalyptic world of Hawaii in 2311. For instance, the 1849 journal of Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) could influence Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), who gains credit for “The Cloud Atlas Sextet” via blackmail. This piece of music could influence Luisa Rey (Halle Berry), a journalist in 1973 San Francisco who escapes an assassination attempt after uncovering a nuclear conspiracy. Rey’s life could be novelized and read by Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent), who is accidentally committed to an asylum. Cavendish’s memoir could be turned into a movie that helps shape the revolution of the human clone known as Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) in 2144 Seoul. This revolution leads to Zachry (Tom Hanks) and his tribal people worshipping Sonmi-451 in 2331.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 timeless tales

#286. Inside the Mind

“A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

This quote by Arthur Fletcher can be interpreted in many ways aside from its original intent. One of these additional interpretations could be that the imaginations and creative muses of all people are unique and should not be ignored. After all, with as many new and interesting pieces of media being created each day, there seem to be no limitations to what our minds can do. Unfortunately, this power can be a bit overwhelming to some. Much like savants, who have startling mental prowess, usually at the detriment of social skills, many with mental disorders will have overactive minds. When the line between true reality and perceived reality is blurred, problems ensue. This week’s two films examine the effects of overactive minds and what the world looks like inside of them.

A Beautiful MindA Beautiful Mind
Year: 2001
Rating: PG-13
Length: 135 minutes / 2.25 hours

If Inside Out (2015) taught us anything, it’s that a lot goes on inside a person’s mind. Besides the variety of emotions we can experience, it’s where we go to solve complex problems, recall memories, or engage our imagination. But what if our imagination compensates for other aspects of our lives? What’s difficult to understand about mental disorders is that people who seem normal on the outside can have their own internal struggles as well. Often, we are shocked to learn some famous person suffered from depression, mania, or multiple personality disorder. If we can overcome the stigma of issues of the mind, perhaps some headway could be made on the medical front to solve some of these maladies. Of course, sometimes it’s these different mental conditions that give people the creativity and intelligence to solve some of the world’s most interesting problems.

Upon arriving at Princeton University in 1947, John Nash (Russell Crowe) meets his roommate, Charles Herman (Paul Bettany). While John is an up-and-coming mathematician, he gets along with the literary student. One evening, while he socializes with his mathematic friends at a local bar, he accidentally develops a new theory of governing dynamics. This new theory allows him to move to MIT, where Nash meets Alicia Larde (Jennifer Connelly). He has to be careful around her not to reveal the work he’s doing for the government via his handler, William Parcher (Ed Harris), as it could jeopardize the whole operation. Partly because of this, Alicia becomes suspicious and learns John imagines some of the people in his life. She stays with him through his treatment, despite the difficulties it places on their marriage.

Sucker PunchSucker Punch
Year: 2011
Rating: PG-13
Length: 110 minutes / 1.83 hours

When the world is too difficult to handle, sometimes the only way to make it bearable is to retreat into our minds. If we fabricate fantasies to help us perform simple tasks just to get through our day, then it can be easier to deal with the harsh realities of our situation. The trouble with this approach is understanding where the line between fantasy and reality lies. After an extended time in a fantasy, it becomes difficult to know what reality is. This was one of the main problems encountered in Inception (2010). Manipulating dreams inside the mind of a target is just as dangerous for the target as it is for those manipulating the dreams. Because it’s easier to create a world where everything works out, suddenly reality no longer has its appeal. I suspect that becoming trapped in our minds will increasingly become a problem as virtual reality becomes more ubiquitous.

After being wrongfully admitted to a mental institution, Babydoll (Emily Browning) escapes into her mind to deal with the harsh realities of her new life. Imagining her new home as a brothel, she connects with four of the other “dancers” in an attempt to escape. Since she is new to the brothel, she is asked to perform a dance. When she begins to move, she delves even deeper into another fantasy world, fighting robotic samurai giants as part of her “dance.” Recognizing her trance-inducing dancing, she continues to dive into these deeper fantasies in order to obtain four items to help her escape. Unfortunately, the owner of the brothel, Blue Jones (Oscar Isaac) gets wise of their plan and Babydoll has to realize the escape she has been planning isn’t for her, but for one of the other girls. When reality is revealed again, a lobotomy has erased everything in Babydoll’s mind as one of the girls boards a bus to freedom.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 mental manipulations

#195. Hugh Grant

Some actors have almost become the epitome of their country. If I were to ask you to name a Scottish actor, you would tell me, Sean Connery. If the same question were asked about Australian actors, you’d say Hugh Jackman. Well, Hugh Grant is probably the best-known British actor. This is because most of the films Hugh Grant has performed in have been from Britain. As such, since Hugh Grant has appeared in many British films, he would tend to be identified as the epitome of a British actor. But what really defines a British actor? Often, they are seen as overly formal, socially bumbling, and all around charming in an awkward kind of way. This week’s two films highlight some of Hugh Grant’s roles as a British actor which have ended up defining the stereotypical British role.

                                                 Four Weddings and a FuneralFour Weddings and a Funeral
Year: 1994
Rating: R
Length: 117 minutes / 1.95 hours

Hugh Grant’s defining genre has been that of the romantic comedy. This was probably due to his breakout role in Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994). After that, he has starred in such films as Mickey Blue Eyes (1999), Two Weeks Notice (2002), About a Boy (2002), and Music and Lyrics (2007). He also starred in three more romantic comedies which were written by Richard Curtis (who also wrote Four Weddings and a Funeral): Notting Hill (1999), Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001), and Love Actually (2003). That’s not to say he’s exclusively done romantic comedies, having acted in dramas like Sense and Sensibility (1995) and Cloud Atlas (2012). Still, his charming protagonist roles in the distinctly British style have caused his name to be forever linked to the romantic comedy genre.

As we all know, most romantic comedies end in weddings, so there’s no doubt that Four Weddings and a Funeral is a romantic comedy since it contains four of them. In the first wedding, Charles (Hugh Grant) meets Carrie (Andie MacDowell), and they end up having a one-night fling before she has to fly back to America. By the second wedding, Charles is crestfallen to find Carrie has brought along her fiancé: Sir Hamish Banks (Corin Redgrave). To add insult to injury, he is seated at a table full of ex-girlfriends, followed by being trapped in the hotel room where the just-married couple burst in to consummate their vows. The third wedding between Carrie and Hamish came after Charles told her too late that he loves her. This is why the fourth wedding between Charles and Henrietta (Anna Chancellor) is made all the more awkward when he learns Carrie is now divorced.

The Pirates! Band of MisfitsThe Pirates! Band of Misfits
Year: 2012
Rating: PG
Length: 88 minutes / 1.46 hours

The gap that often links romantic comedies to regular comedies is quite small. As such, comedies like Small Time Crooks (2000), Did You Hear About the Morgans? (2009), and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015) are all part of Hugh Grant’s repertoire. But, as I mentioned earlier in this post, since Hugh Grant is somewhat the epitome of the British actor, it makes sense he would work with British directors (like Richard Curtis and Guy Ritchie), as well as British production companies. One such company is that of Aardman Animation. These purveyors of plasticine plots have made their mark on the film world with such family classics as Chicken Run (2000), and Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005). Because they work solely in animation, only Hugh Grant’s voice was needed for The Pirates! Band of Misfits (2012).

On the high seas, many men are out to prove themselves. Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) is trying to prove he’s the best there is by attempting to plunder more treasure than any other pirate, thus winning the “Pirate of the Year” competition. Unfortunately, his inexperienced crew is unable to produce results. On their final attempt, the crew boards the Beagle, where they find a love-struck Charles Darwin (David Tennant). Darwin is attempting to win the “Scientist of the Year” competition so he can impress Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) and get her to notice him. It is in this fateful meeting where Darwin finds that Pirate Captain’s bird, Polly, is actually the last of the dodo birds. In a twist of fate, Pirate Captain finally strikes it rich by making a deal with Queen Victoria, thus winning the competition. However, at what cost did this prize come?

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 hilarious Hugh Grant roles

Bacon #: 2 (Two Weeks Notice / Robin Weigert -> My One and Only / Kevin Bacon)

#191. The Anthology

The majority of film plots are created by stringing together scenes of dialogue or action to tell a story. These segments cannot stand on their own very well and need the rest of the film’s context to be understood. But, what if a scene contains an entire plot? What if these segments are almost entirely unrelated to each other? Sure, short films have been made that would fit the first description, but what if a movie was comprised entirely of short films? These feature-length movies are known as “anthologies.” Often, the anthology film will have a common theme that will tie the independent segments together, but many times these films are just a way to get in as many gags as possible in the shortest amount of time. This week’s two movies are anthologies but are anthologies for two completely different reasons.

                                                     History of the World, Part 1History of the World, Part 1
Year: 1981
Rating: R
Length: 92 minutes / 1.53 hours

Sketch comedy is perhaps one of the most prolific users of the anthology structure. Most jokes don’t take more than a few minutes to set up and deliver a punchline. Furthermore, if these comedic segments are not related to each other, the anthology is the best way to present them. One of the best examples of the comedic anthology is The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), which is a series of unrelated comedy sketches. Of course, the comedy group best known for comedy sketches would be Monty Python. The film that best utilizes their skill for sketches, and is perhaps the closest approximation of a Flying Circus movie, would be The Meaning of Life (1983). This anthology follows a bit more of a structure, as it progresses through the stages of a person’s life, albeit not the same person.

Another structured anthology film would be that of History of the World, Part 1 (1981). While there’s not nearly the amount of character parallels like in Three Ages (1923) or character cross-linking like in Cloud Atlas (2012), the theme of this Mel Brooks comedy is that of history. As such, the anthology of sketches is arranged chronologically, starting near the beginning of civilization. From the creation of many ideas and products in the Stone Age, the next sketch highlights the events of the Old Testament. Even within these sketches, other sketches can reside. The logical transition for the film is then to a sketch about the Roman Empire, which pulls in some New Testament references. After a brief stop-over at the Spanish Inquisition for a big musical number, the film concludes with the French Revolution, as well as a few previews of the unmade “Part 2.”

Year: 1940
Rating: G
Length: 125 minutes / 2.08 hours

One of the challenges of animation is continuity. Because characters must be drawn in the same way, and the animation must abide by the same style throughout a film, sometimes these movies would take an incredibly long time to create (obviously, before the heavy use of computers). One way to speed up production would be to have several animation teams working on shorter segments unrelated to each other. Furthermore, the music for a film is usually composed so that it carries a melodic theme throughout. However, if famous pieces of music are the structure of the film, it can be difficult to tie these different musical works together to a coherent narrative. Granted, if the pieces are all performed by the same person, like in Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993), the performer can be the theme of the anthology. However, Fantasia (1940) is not like that.

Anyone familiar with classical music will know the animation of Warner Brothers and Walt Disney have ingrained certain musical pieces into our cultural fabric. Fantasia was meant as an ever-evolving film. New segments were intended to be inserted in subsequent re-releases, thus expanding the film’s anthology as time progressed and the animated sequences were completed. Unfortunately, only Fantasia 2000 (1999) stands as the sequel to this groundbreaking film. Still, Fantasia’s legacy is seen in how easy it is to recognize pieces like Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (Bach), the Nutcracker Suite (Tchaikovsky), The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Dukas), Rite of Spring (Stravinsky), The Pastoral Symphony (Beethoven), Dance of the Hours (Ponchielli), Night on Bald Mountain (Mussorgsky), and Ave Maria (Schubert).

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 awesome anthologies

#190. History Lessons

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

This famous quote by George Santayana highlights the problem society often suffers: long term memory loss. If something didn’t happen recently, we forget the conditions which led to it. Perhaps the reason for this is because history can be bogged down in details. History can be boring. However, as I’ve written before, history can be tolerable if it’s entertaining. The best times we can learn from our history are if we are open enough to laugh about it. Granted, history can be very brutal and unforgiving at times, but if we allow some of the accuracy to be tainted, these tragedies could be turned into comedies. Although sometimes it’s just fun to see that, as much as things change, some things remain the same. This week’s two films feature some comedic history lessons.

Three AgesThree Ages
Year: 1923
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 63 minutes / 1.05 hours

The more things change, the more things stay the same. There are certain elements of the human condition that tend to reappear, time and time again, regardless of the historical period. This theme can be seen in a number of films, including Cloud Atlas (2012), which even goes so far to show the parallels and connections of history well into the future. However, one of the most famous instances of the historical parallelism plot is that of Intolerance (1916). In this film, we see four different historical eras: Babylonian, Judean, French, and Modern. Each of these eras highlights the intolerance that has caused so many problems throughout history. In doing so, director D.W. Griffith tries to show us that our bigotry is not a new concept, as it has been around since time began. That being said, another human emotion which has been around forever is love.

Buster Keaton took a more upbeat approach to Griffith’s story with Three Ages (1923). Both share the multiple, historical periods, but Three Ages tries to highlight the struggle of man to win the heart of a woman. As such, Three Ages also mimics Intolerance by only using three archetypes: the boy (Buster Keaton), the girl (Margaret Leahy), and the rival (Wallace Beery). In the Prehistoric Age, the rival wins the girl by knocking her over the head and dragging her away. In the Roman Age, the rival wins the girl by beating the boy in a chariot race. Finally, the Modern Age (i.e., 1920s America) has the rival winning the girl over with massive amounts of wealth. Fortunately, it is in this final age when the boy finally gets the girl by stepping up and showing some confidence. Despite his monetary lack, the boy and girl have one thing in common: love.

History of the World, Part 1History of the World, Part 1
Year: 1981
Rating: R
Length: 92 minutes / 1.53 hours

Sometimes, the best way to learn history is to see an incorrect version of it. For instance, the comedy album Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America Volume One: The Early Years takes the stories we’ve all heard in school and puts a humorous and musical twist on them. From Christopher Columbus sailing to Miami Beach to open an Italian Restaurant to the accidental serving of turkey instead of an eagle for Thanksgiving to a very indecisive George Washington as he chooses his boat to cross the Delaware River, each segment is meant to twist history into comedy only because we know what actually happened. Or do we? At any rate, much of the comedy of these historical pieces comes from the use of anachronisms, which are modern items and ideas placed in a historical period before their time.

Mel Brooks’ slightly askew history lesson comes in the form of History of the World, Part 1 (1981). Instead of showing all the different historical eras together in a parallel format, like in Three Ages, Brooks takes the very standard, chronological approach. Starting with the Stone Age, we see a world filled with firsts, which inevitably creates the first critics. Next, the Old Testament is parodied with Moses (Mel Brooks) bringing down the Fifteen, scratch that, Ten Commandments. Continuing on to the New Testament, the Roman Empire is shown to be filled with excess as Comicus (Mel Brooks) escapes certain death. Bet you didn’t know the Spanish Inquisition was a musical. Nobody expects that. Finally, in a case of mistaken identity, we see the French Revolution where “it’s good to be the king.” If only the sequel was real, we’d also get to see Hitler on ice.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 hilarious history lessons