#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

#230. John Cleese

Comedy is a strange and confusing beast. While some elements of it are formulaic, other aspects are confusing and weird. Most people understand the underlying structure of a knock-knock joke, or a “chicken/road” scenario, but sometimes the joke is merely that something absurd and silly has occurred. Often, this sillier comedy is accentuated by a straight-man, also known as a foil. This foil acts in a proper manner and is most closely associated with very stiff and humorless occupations. The dichotomy between the straight-man and the comedian shows the difference between the two, thus inducing comedy. If there’s one style of comedy that excels in the absurd vs. the common, it is British comedy. John Cleese is one of the iconic faces of British comedy, mostly for his straight-man act. This week’s two films focus on the comedic work of John Cleese.

                                                Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Monty Python and the Holy GrailYear: 1975
Rating: PG
Length: 91 minutes / 1.52 hours

The television show that truly launched John Cleese into stardom was that of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. And while most of his roles were of normally serious professions, he managed to make them incredibly silly with his deadpan comedic timing. Having only appeared in three of the four seasons of the show, it became obvious in the final season that his presence is what made the program uproariously funny. Fortunately, even though he stopped performing on the show, he did participate in all three of the Monty Python movies: Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979), and Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983). Almost as a spiritual successor to the TV show, Holy Grail had Cleese once again cast in many “uptight” roles opposite silly characters, or using his deadpan talents to be the silly ones himself.

In Holy Grail, John Cleese portrays Sir Lancelot the Brave, a knight of King Arthur’s (Graham Chapman) Round Table. Cleese then takes on the role of the “undefeatable” Black Knight, challenging Arthur to a battle which he “loses.” The group of knights then make their way to Camelot before deciding to go somewhere less silly. At this point, God (Graham Chapman) appears and tells them to find the Holy Grail. The first place they look is a French outpost where they are taunted by a French soldier (John Cleese) and are forced to retreat. When they split up to increase their chances, Lancelot arrives at Swamp Castle and rescues an effeminate prince from an impending marriage. Regrouping, they run across Tim the Enchanter (John Cleese), who guides them to a deadly rabbit, the Beast of Aaargh, a quizzical death-trap, and (finally) the location of the Grail, where the Frenchman reappears to taunt them again.

A Fish Called WandaA Fish Called Wanda
Year: 1988
Rating: R
Length: 108 minutes / 1.8 hours

One of the sketches from Flying Circus involved the “world’s funniest joke,” which happened to be so funny that it could kill someone. Even though the sketch didn’t kill anyone, John Cleese can claim he did kill someone with his comedy talents. A Danish man by the name of Ole Bentzen was watching A Fish Called Wanda (1988) when a scene with John Cleese came on that made the man laugh so hard that his heart began to beat almost 500 times a minute! As such, Bentzen died from a heart attack almost immediately. Of course, most comedy comes from writing, which is probably why Cleese was co-nominated for Best Original Screenplay with director Charles Crichton. After all, a man can’t possibly kill someone with laughter unless the jokes he writes are actually good.

Archie Leach (John Cleese) is a lawyer defending George Thomason (Tom Georgeson), a gangster who pulled off a diamond heist and was turned in by the two Americans who were brought in to help: Wanda Gershwitz (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Otto West (Kevin Kline). To find out where George hid the diamonds, Wanda seduces Archie to get him to convince his client to plead guilty while also revealing the location of the stolen gems. Things go slightly awry when Wanda’s other lover, Otto, ruins her attempts to successfully get Archie to consummate their affair. In the process, Archie’s marriage and career are now defunct, leading him to take the money and run to South America. As luck would have it, Wanda has the key to the safe deposit box where the diamonds are stashed, which leads to her and Archie heading to Brazil together, where they have 17 children and start a leper colony.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 Cleese classics

Bacon #: 1 (The Big Picture / Kevin Bacon)

#229. Terry Gilliam

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about animators after many years of viewing their work on YouTube, amongst other places, it’s that they are perhaps the most dedicated and artistic people around. Anyone can paint something, but when you have to paint that same thing over a million times, you make sure you know precisely what you are doing and what you want to do. And while there are plenty of amateur animators out there, the classically trained ones tend to stand out. Because animation can give you the flexibility to view things in whatever way you want, sometimes the best animators are the ones who have been educated in film so that they know the rules of traditional camera angles and shots and will then know how to obey or break those rules in their animation. While this week’s two films are not animated, they were directed by former animator, Terry Gilliam.

BrazilBrazil
Year: 1985
Rating: R
Length: 132 minutes / 2.2 hours

Very early on in his directing career, Gilliam set his artistic style and has stuck to it ever since. Perhaps due to his extended time working as an animator, many of his films are quite fanciful, filled with bizarre settings and characters. Even the most mundane of occupations can suddenly be given an artistic theme to differentiate it from an even more imaginary world. It’s easy to animate these crazy realms, but to achieve the same effect in live-action can be a bit more difficult. Nevertheless, Terry Gilliam has shown it can be done with such films as Time Bandits (1981), The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), 12 Monkeys (1995), and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998). This being said, while adhering to his style, his most controversial title was Brazil (1985), mostly due to the director’s vision not matching up with what studio executives wanted to release.

Working in the bureaucracy of the banalest of government positions, Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) often finds himself daydreaming, imagining a more classical world where he can save the archetypical damsel in distress. When he is put on task to fix a mistake that led to the unintended death of an innocent man, he runs across Jill Layton (Kim Greist), the very same woman he had been fantasizing about. Even though they have never met, Sam knows they are meant to be together, even if she is hesitant. Transferring to another governmental position, Sam now has access to Jill’s records and an opportunity to learn more about her. Unfortunately, the government soon comes after Jill, confirming her fears. Sam comes in and saves the day, but they are soon captured and tortured. While Gilliam’s ending is a bit depressing, the two do manage to escape, even if the reality is false.

Monty Python and the Holy GrailMonty Python and the Holy Grail
Year: 1975
Rating: PG
Length: 91 minutes / 1.52 hours

I have written earlier of Terry Gilliam’s work in animation so I would be remiss if I did not mention his work with Monty Python. Those who have seen the television show, Flying Circus, will recognize Gilliam’s work in the oddball cut-out animations that often act as scene transitions between skits. When the comedy troupe made the transition to the big screen, Terry Gilliam was right there with them, co-directing Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) with fellow Python player, Terry Jones. While his iconic animation appears at a few points in the film, the traditional story of Arthurian legend was put on its head in the most amusing of fashions. Perhaps this was why, years later, Gilliam decided to direct another film based on stories from childhood, The Brothers Grimm (2005). Needless to say, Holy Grail stands as Monty Python’s crowning achievement.

King Arthur (Graham Chapman), riding alone with his squire, Patsy (Terry Gilliam), sets out to gather knights join him at Camelot. After collecting a handful of men, he dismembers the Black Knight (John Cleese) and arrives home, only to reconsider when he realizes it is a “silly place.” At this point, heaven opens up, and God commands them to find the eponymous Holy Grail. After an unsuccessful attempt at a French-controlled castle, the group splits up to cover more ground. As each member faces the challenges of the Knights who say Ni, a Three-Headed Giant, an Amazonian castle filled with women, and an unwanted wedding in Swamp Castle, they soon find they are no better off than before. Reforming the group, they find Tim the Enchanter (John Cleese) and proceed to face a deadly rabbit, Beast of Aaargh, and a perilous quiz before finally coming upon the Grail in the French castle again.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 terrific Terry Gilliam titles

Bacon #: 2 (Monty Python and the Holy Grail / John Cleese -> The Big Picture / 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.”

FantasiaFantasia
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