#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

#098. Mutually Assured Destruction

It has been said that the best defense is a good offense. Now, there was a time in which this was true, but only because we had no other options. After the world was exposed to the reality of nuclear weapons, many countries scrambled to get their own to protect themselves. And yet, the weapons weren’t meant to ever be used, but merely as a deterrent to being attacked. If there were ever the threat of nuclear retaliation, many would weigh the risks and determine that an attack would not be worth it. Still, this is assuming humans have control over the entire system. As we come into an era of constant automation, how can we be sure that the computers won’t do what they were programmed to do, which would result in both sides being annihilated? This week’s two films focus on the concept of mutually assured destruction.

Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the BombDr. Strangelove: or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Year: 1964
Rating: PG
Length: 95 minutes / 1.58 hours

To err is human, but machines will always do what they are told, even if these commands come from humans. Our military forces are only as sane as the Generals leading them to battle. Unfortunately, the inability for lower-ranking soldiers to question their leaders can lead to larger problems, especially when nuclear weapons are involved. Now, add to this that the insane Generals are not merely restricted to a single side of the battle, but can be in control on both sides. Insanity fuels insanity until there’s nothing left but the charred remains of the Earth. When the thought that triumphs is, “At least we didn’t leave anyone alive on their side,” casualties can be enormous. Why should we ever go into battle, if we know that no one is going to make it out alive? This is the definition of Mutually Assured Destruction.

When orders from a paranoid General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) get through without higher approval, a squadron of bombers is sent out to nuke the U.S.S.R. Meanwhile, when this situation is realized, key government personnel meet to brief President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) in the “War Room.” Attempts to retrieve the abort code from General Ripper are eventually successful. In the meantime, the Russians are informed of the predicament and are told to shoot down the U.S. planes. This drastic measure is needed because, as it turns out, the Russians have a doomsday device that will trigger when a nuclear bomb is dropped on their land (because they figured the U.S. was building one too). Unfortunately, even though the abort codes were issued and the Russians shot down the rest of the planes, one is still unaccounted for.

Year: 1983
Rating: PG
Length: 114 minutes / 1.9 hours

Considering all the video games we have today based on war (Call of Duty especially coming to mind), it’s no wonder that the idea of War Games has been around for quite a while. In fact, SEGA used to specialize in video games for training our military forces before it went mainstream (since SEGA stands for SErvice GAmes). At any rate, simulations are the stronghold of making sure no mistakes are made when a real-world event occurs. Even though simulations are often referred to as games, the implications of the data these simulations provide is much more valuable than any game could produce. By running simulations of a nuclear holocaust, the decision to not attack soon becomes obvious. After all, in war, there are no winners, since everybody ends up losing something. Especially something as valuable as human life.

The internet has always been a powerful tool. And yet, ages before a multitude of security procedures were put in place after September 11th, even a skilled teenager could gain access to almost anything. David Lightman (Matthew Broderick) is just such a teenager. In attempting to access an unreleased video game, he accidentally hacks into a powerful Department of Defense computer that not only runs simulations of Cold War scenarios but has the power to control the United States’ nuclear arsenal. Unfortunately, a nice game of chess seems too dull for David, who decides to play a game of Global Thermonuclear War with the computer. This simple mistake thrusts David into a world that he had no intention of entering. Can he help stop the computer from destroying the Earth, or will the supercomputer prove the better chess-master?

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 strange games

#097. Stanley Kubrick

Few directors were as meticulous as Stanley Kubrick. In all his films, he exhibited an attention to detail that put his works into a whole different degree of filmmaking. He never backed down from his artistic visions and is widely acclaimed today to be one of the most significant influences on cinema. Not only are his films well-represented on many Top 100 lists, but almost every movie he made was a different genre from the last. Even further to the point, he defined quite a few modern genres, breaking all preconceived notions about how they should be filmed. Science fiction was never the same after 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Horror can no longer compare to The Shining (1980). Historical epics pale in comparison to Spartacus (1960). Technically speaking, he even went so far as to create a camera that could easily film a room with candlelight being the only light source (as in Barry Lyndon (1975)). This week’s two films are yet two more masterpieces made by Stanley Kubrick.

A Clockwork OrangeA Clockwork Orange
Year: 1971
Rating: X
Length: 136 minutes / 2.26 hours

Another one of Kubrick’s masterworks, A Clockwork Orange (1971) resides in the bottom half of AFI’s Top 100 list. Despite its controversy in the amount and severity of violence, this film really needs to show the depravity of the main character to prove any sort of a point. A common theme for Kubrick films was for classical music to be used for the score. Just think back to the iconic scenes in 2001: A Space Odyssey which used “The Blue Danube” and “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” Well, in A Clockwork Orange, we get an interesting, electronic realization of a few classical pieces, including “The William Tell Overture” and Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. In fact, Beethoven ends up being a very large plot device in this film, as it shows just how much of an effect psychological conditioning can have on a man.

All teenagers go through a phase of rebellion, but few go through it with as much violence as Alex (Malcolm McDowell). After a home invasion with his gang goes awry, he’s sent to prison where he volunteers to be subjected to some psychological conditioning in the hopes that he can get out sooner, rather than later. And yet, the procedure is not easy to endure, as he is forced to witness all sorts of depraved acts in quick succession while classical music is blared from loudspeakers. At the end of the experiment, the procedure has proven quite effective, as Alex becomes physically ill when he encounters violence of any kind. Unfortunately, back on the outside, his new conditioning works to his detriment, eventually forcing him to attempt suicide.

Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the BombDr. Strangelove: or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Year: 1964
Rating: PG
Length: 95 minutes / 1.58 hours

In 1964, the entire world was on the cusp of the Cold War. Everyone had seen what devastation a nuclear weapon could inflict after they had been dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima during World War II. As such, the fear of a worldwide nuclear war was genuine and not something to be taken lightly. And yet, Stanley Kubrick managed to gather all our fears and create a fabulous satire of this dire situation. Of course, this task is made easy with the comedic genius of Peter Sellers (who plays three different roles in the film), and some iconic lines like, “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room.” Along with this film, quite a few films show Kubrick’s ability to show the ridiculous nature of war, including his early work, Paths of Glory (1957), and a work near the end of his career, Full Metal Jacket (1987).

If there’s anything I’ve learned while working for the government, it’s that communication is key. Unfortunately, when General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) thinks fluoride in the water is actually a Soviet attempt to poison America, he demands that the United States retaliate in the most severe way possible. When he sends some bombers to go nuke Russia off the face of the planet, head military officials meet in an undisclosed location to discuss the ramifications. As it turns out, not all of the bombers can be recalled because one of them has damaged communication equipment. As a result, the U.S.S.R. has made it clear that, if they are nuked, the United States will also be destroyed due to automatic triggers in the event of a nuclear apocalypse. After all, all’s fair in love and war.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 Stanley Kubrick classics

Bacon #: 2 (The Shining (directed) / Jack Nicholson -> A Few Good Men / Kevin Bacon)

#061. The Lighter Side of War

It has been said, “All’s fair in love and war,” which is why war can be a good satire subject.  Since it is so incredibly depressing, poking fun at it can be a little risqué, but can also turn a sad situation into a funny one. After all, there are really no winners in war, and death is rarely a humorous subject. How can war be seen as a comedy? The reason lies in the foibles of war. There is rarely logic involved with countries fighting against other countries (or each other), and while the best-laid plans can turn the tide of a war, a coincidental mishap could just as quickly turn it in the other direction. Of course, when the participants in a fight don’t take it seriously, they can make those who do seem silly in comparison. After all, life is too short to take ourselves seriously all the time. Sometimes we just need to laugh, even if the situation doesn’t allow for it. This week’s two films give humor to the travesty of war.

The GeneralThe General
Year: 1926
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 107 minutes / 1.78 hours

As I have mentioned before, there is no greater travesty than a Civil War. And yet, most films take the historical perspective of the winners. Very few protagonists are shown on the losing side of any particular war, although some of note are All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), The Great Dictator (1940), and The General (1926). Even though audiences do enjoy the occasional underdog, the idea of the underdog only works if the audience knows he has a chance of winning. When a protagonist is on the losing side of history, it’s difficult to get behind them as a viewer. Still, Buster Keaton’s Confederate soldier reminds us what it means to be passionate about something. Even if what you’re passionate about doesn’t end up winning the war, it will surely win the battle.

Like any good southern boy, Johnny Gray (Buster Keaton) wants to join the Confederate army so he can impress a girl, Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack). Unfortunately, Annabelle rejects Johnny when she learns he has been rejected from joining the army. While Johnny is despondent, he returns to his other passion: his train, The General. What Johnny and Annabelle don’t realize is that he is more valuable to the Confederacy as an engineer on his train than he is as a soldier. And yet, when the Union steals The General, Johnny gets his chance to fight for the Confederacy when he works to get it back. And as an added perk, Annabelle just happens to be on that very same train! Can Johnny outsmart the Yankees and bring his train home with Annabelle in tow?

Duck Soup
Year: 1933
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 68 minutes / 1.13 hours

Wars have been started for lesser things than love. Of course, in the case of the 1933 Marx Brothers masterpiece, Duck Soup, it’s the love of a wealthy dowager’s money. During their cinematic career with Paramount, this last film of their contract was by far their best at this studio (it was also their last with straight-man, Zeppo Marx). Few realize how much comedy is present in war until they watch Duck Soup. This is partly due to the Vaudevillian origins of the four brothers, and their multi-talented performance skills. Heck, I’d start a war with them just to see what they would do to screw everything up.

As with most Marx Brothers films, Duck Soup relies heavily on puns, double entendres, and slapstick humor. Groucho Marx portrays Rufus T. Firefly, who is wooing a wealthy widow to get enough money to solve Freedonia’s financial problems and keep the country out of bankruptcy. When another ambassador of a neighboring country attempts to steal the widow’s funds away, war breaks out. With a big song and dance number, Freedonia marches off to war. One of the great comedic masterpieces, Duck Soup drips with wit and sarcasm to the point of making war seem absolutely hilarious. Placed in the lower half of AFI’s Top 100, Duck Soup is probably the best of the Marx Brothers’ films.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 funny fights