The anthology movie, as we outlined in a feature earlier this week, is only as good as the sum of its parts. Comedy anthologies, as exemplified by “Kentucky Fried Movie” and the underrated pseudo-sequel “Amazon Women on the Moon,” are even trickier -- sustaining laughs over a series of choppy little sequences can prove to be a Herculean task for even the most nimble of filmmakers.
This brings us to “Movie 43,” a cobbled-together comedy anthology overseen by one-half of the Farrelly Brothers (Peter, for those of you playing at home) and linked together by a vague overarching story about a desperate filmmaker (played by Dennis Quaid, dressed up like Justin Bieber for unknown reasons) trying to get a movie project off the ground. He pitches a variety of ideas to a beleaguered executive (Greg Kinnear, mugging amiably), which are in turn the short segments that we see throughout the film.
"Movie 43" has been hidden from the press and had minimal advertising oomph behind it, so the fact that it exists at all is kind of amazing. But is it any good? Or is this something you can handily skip, like most everything else at the theaters this weekend?
PRO: It’s Got a Lot of Famous People In It…
Okay, the cast of “Movie 43” is admittedly impressive and features (deep breath) Jason Sudeikis, Halle Berry, Hugh Jackman, Kate Winslet, Emma Stone, Chloe Grace Moretz, Gerard Butler, Kristen Bell, Naomi Watts, Chris Pratt, Anna Faris, Richard Gere, the aforementioned Dennis Quaid and Greg Kinnear, Uma Thurman, Patrick Warburton, Live Schrieber, Kieran Culkin, Justin Long, Kate Bosworth, Johnny Knoxville, John Hodgman, Terrance Howard and Stephen Merchant. It’s fun seeing handsome famous people on a big movie screen. It’s one of the reasons we go to the theater, after all.
CON: … Their Talents Are Completely Wasted
You know, it’s kind of difficult to feel sorry for famous movie stars who have more money than god, but we spent a majority of “Movie 43” squirming in our seats and wondering what, exactly, Richard Gere did to deserve this. Most of the actors appear to be visibly uncomfortable in their sections, and a report earlier this week essentially suggested that Farrelly harassed most of the participants into being in the movie, sometimes waiting years for the actor’s schedule to open up so they could shoot a bit. (Gere, for all his clear unhappiness, forced the production to switch coasts to facilitate his sketch, which is hilariously impish. Right on Richard Gere!) The first section, with Jackman (playing a man who has testicles hanging off his chin) and Winslet, was shot FOUR YEARS AGO. Even after people said yes, they didn’t want to be in this thing.
CON: It’s Weirdly Anti-Woman
It should be said that “Movie 43” has no sense of propriety or good taste. And you know what? Maybe it shouldn’t. After all, this is the kind of movie that should really go for extremes -- the shorts only last a handful of minutes each so they’ve got to make an impact. But one thing that is really unsettling is how anti-woman many of the sections turn out to be, including a bit directed, oddly enough, by Elizabeth Banks that features Chloe Grace Moretz getting her period for the first time and all of the men around her acting totally horrible and dumb. You know! Because getting your period is gross! This is followed by a faux commercial where a shark eats a woman because she’s on her period. Oh and there are a couple of sketches centered around the “iBabe,” an iPod that looks like a naked woman. Not sure what, exactly, is funny about that.
PRO: The Stephen Merchant/Halle Berry Sketch Is Pretty Funny
If there’s a silver lining to the groaning drudgery of “Movie 43,” it’s a sketch where Stephen Merchant and Halle Berry are on a blind date that escalates into an increasingly bizarre game of truth or dare, where each dare is more outrageous than the last. Merchant is a serious comedic talent and Berry proves herself quite apt with the more slap-sticky elements. Overall, it’s a fairly enjoyable bit. It’s not going to have you falling out of your seat laughing, but the ratio betweem sweetness and absolute disgust is much more modulated here than anywhere else in the movie.
CON: You Are Better Off Spending 90 Minutes Surfing YouTube or Funny or Die
What makes “Movie 43” even more asinine is the fact that people will just be YouTubing the funny bits after the movie has come out on home video. This will be the only time anyone will ever watch all of this stuff strung together. In keeping with that spirit, you as a viewer are better off finding the other hilarious sketches and shorts online. Most YouTube videos even look better than “Movie 43,” which appears as if it was shot on somebody’s iPhone camera.
'Three'(2002)/'Three… Extremes' (2004)
With the "Three" films, audiences everywhere were offered a glimpse inside the cutting-edge, occasionally shocking world of Asian genre cinema. The first "Three" set up the conceptual framework, with a trio of films by Asian directors working at the peak of their respective genres, each from a different country -- "Going Home" from Chinese filmmaker Peter Chan, "The Wheel," directed by Thai filmmaker Nonzee Nimibutr and, most wonderfully, the twisty, turny, emotionally resonant "Memories," by South Korean filmmaker Kim Jee-Woon. The sequel, released two years later and following a similar format, would push things even further, with pieces by Japan's Takashi Miike, South Korea's Park Chan-wook and, infamously, China's Fruit Chan, whose "Dumplings" imagined a scenario where vainglorious women consume human fetuses to stay young. As typically uneven as most anthology films, the "Three" films do offer curious viewers a good entry point into the weird, wild world of Asian genre cinema, with super-talented directors working at the top of their game.
'Twilight Zone: The Movie' (1983)
It seemed like a no-lose scenario -- wrangle four of the hottest genre directors of the '80s and have them each remake one of their favorite episodes of the original "Twilight Zone" series, utilizing technological advancements of the period and a looser sense of creative freedom. And then things went to hell. While filming his segment, entitled "Time Out" and based (somewhat loosely) on an episode called "A Quality of Mercy," John Landis watched in horror as his lead actor Vic Morrow and two young Vietnamese actors were beheaded when a helicopter malfunctioned. Landis was embroiled in lawsuits for years afterwards, and the accident cast a funereal pallor over the rest of the project. (It forced Steven Spielberg to change his section from a scarier episode to the cuddlier, ultimately toothless "Kick the Can," about old folks who gain their childlike youth for a day.) Still, two of the segments are outstanding -- Joe Dante's razor-sharp, deeply unsettling "It's A Good Life" and George Miller's balls-to-the-walls remake of the immortal "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," this time starring a sweaty John Lithgow. And honestly, 50 percent isn't a bad percentage for excellence in an anthology film.
'Fantasia' (1940)/'Fantasia 2000' (2000)
With "Fantasia's" (somewhat forced?) canonization into the realm of "Disney classic," it's easy to forget how groundbreaking and genuinely weird the movie really is and what a mind-blowing experience it must have been to experience the movie when it was originally released. Centered around eight classical musical pieces (conducted by British legend Leopold Stokowski), with a different theme for each, this film ranged from an epic dinosaur battle to a fantastical vision of heaven and hell to Mickey Mouse getting himself into magical trouble. "Fantasia" was also wordless and immersive -- the first film released in what we would later recognize as "surround sound" (but was dubbed, specifically for the release, as "Fantasound"). Not that audiences recognized how visionary it was at the time; it was considered "difficult" by critics and failed to earn a profit, even after multiple releases (although much of this had to do with the war raging in Europe, which muted overseas releases). An honest-to-god sequel (after one was attempted and aborted in the '80s called "Musicana"), made in 2000, didn't feel as fresh or provocative but includes a number of memorable sequences, most notably the "Rhapsody in Blue" number that was supervised by Eric Goldberg and inspired by the drawings and line work of cartoonist Al Hirschfield.
'Boccaccio '70' (1962)
This is certainly the most Italian anthology you'll ever see – a swinging '60s omnibus featuring four truly impressive directors of the time (Mario Monicelli, Federico Fellini, Luchino Visconti and Vittorio De Sica), inspired by the writings of Boccaccio, a Renaissance writer responsible for the highly influential "Decameron" (which recently inspired Woody Allen's anthology-ish "To Rome With Love"). Initially the movie was a little too Italian, with one of the sections (Monicelli's charming and beautifully photographed "Renzo e Luciana") removed from almost all presentations of the film. Thankfully, since then, the segment has been restored (most recently in an eye-popping Blu-ray release). The most memorable section, unsurprisingly, is Fellini's, about an elderly man who becomes obsessed with Anita Ekberg after seeing her on an outrageous billboard advertising milk. (Can you blame him?) In fact, that's one of the more notable aspects of "Boccaccio '70" -- that each section is anchored by a terrific performance by a ridiculously beautiful woman: Marisa Solinas, Romy Schneider, Ekberg and Sophia Loren. Mama mia!
'Kentucky Fried Movie' (1977) / 'Amazon Women on the Moon' (1987)
Clearly the inspiration behind "Movie 43" and its zany, cobbled-together, anything-goes weirdness, was 1977's "Kentucky Fried Movie," a freewheeling collaboration between director John Landis and future top-ranking lampoonists David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker (who would go on to make "Airplane!" and the "Naked Gun" series). Despite the unevenness typical of the material and some truly dated jokes, the film is still pretty funny. (Much of the movie is based around parodies of film genres prevalent at the time, which is why we get send ups of blaxpoitation movies, kung-fu epics, women-in-prison flicks, and Irwin Allen-style disaster films.) Released a decade later but just as quickly ignored, "Amazon Women on the Moon" employed a similarly gonzo premise, using the collection-of-sketches format, but with five directors (which included Landis, Joe Dante, and "Jaws" writer Carl Gottlieb) instead of just one. It might not have been as innovative but it was often times just as funny.
'Spirits of the Dead' (1968) / 'Fear(s) of the Dark' (2007)
Almost irresistibly delicious, "Spirits of the Dead" is a European horror anthology built around the stories of Edgar Allen Poe (in the US release, it even came accompanied by narration from Vincent Price, who had starred in a series of popular Poe adaptations for American International Pictures) and directed by Federico Fellini, Louis Malle and Roger Vadim. Fellini's section is, again, the highlight -- a 37-minute masterpiece centered around one of Terrence Stamp's all-time finest performances as the title character, an alcoholic, suicidal actor haunted by visions of a small girl. It's deeply unsettling, existentially unmoored and occasionally quite scary. Fellini even turns Ray Charles' lovelorn "Ruby" into a haunting bit of otherworldly eeriness. (The other sections are serviceable but a letdown in comparison.) In 2007, "Fears(s) of the Dark," a black-and-white animated anthology, would make a bid for a similar kind of creeping Euro-centric strangeness, utilizing the distinctive styles of various animators and cartoonists (like "Black Hole" creator Charles Burns) to answer the film's central question: what scares you?
"Paris, Je T'aime" (2006)/ "Tokyo" (2008)
Few anthologies are ambitious or as wildly sprawling as "Paris, Je T'aime," which is centered around the city of love and features 18 segments (each based around a different area or neighborhood in Paris) directed by twenty-two distinct filmmakers. Not all of them are winners, but the ones that shine are pretty phenomenal -- a Coen brothers entry where Steve Buscemi plays a hapless tourist; Tom Tykwer ruminating on fate with Natalie Portman; "Splice'"s Vincenzo Natali's involves vampires; a gay love story from Gus Van Sant; and, most affectingly, an Alexander Payne entry about a sad middle-aged woman who visits Paris for the first time. The rest of the stories are cute or fun or restlessly experimental but Payne's is deeply, profoundly moving and elevates the entire project into something much more than the sum of its parts. For a while, after "Paris Je T'aime" it seemed like every major city would get its own omnibus (the less said about "New York, I Love You," the better), the best of which was "Tokyo," which was more structurally streamlined (it only had three sections, each by a non-Japanese director) and was generally quite brilliant. Leos Carax's entry introduced us to the Merde character that would be more fully explored in last year's "Holy Motors," and Bong Joon-ho's "Shaking Tokyo" did what the Payne entry did for "Paris Je T'aime": gave the entire anthology emotional life.
'How the West Was Won'
Sometimes anthology films can act as giant-sized tech demonstrations (this was sort of the case with "Fantasia"); the most famous (and biggest) was "How the West Was Won," a western anthology built around the Cinerama technology that would literally wrap around an audience as they watched. The sensation was accomplished by filming the action with three cameras that approximated the focal length of the human eye. These three images were then exhibited using three perfectly synced-up projectors on three separate screens, which gave the sensation of being totally immersed in the action. Its five sections, each used to dramatize the westward expansion of American development, were directed by three filmmakers, the most famous of which was John Ford, who helmed the "Civil War" section. Famously, Ford was unimpressed with the Cinerama technology and hated not being able to get closer to the actors (since the field of vision on the Cinerama cameras was so wide, it was hard to hide from it), although his sequence is arguably the most impressive in the star-studded movie. In many ways "How the West Was Won" was the last of the old fashioned, earnest big-screen westerns, before moral ambiguity, surrealist visual flourishes and explosive violence would come to define the genre in the coming years.
'Four Rooms' (1995)
If someone decided to make a time capsule for the freewheeling, hedonistic days of nineties independent film, then they should definitely include a copy of "Four Rooms," an anthology of films made up of a who's-who of Miramax-era superstars: Allison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. Unsurprisingly, the two filmmakers who have continued to have vital careers (Tarantino and Rodriguez) turn in the most inspired entries here, while Alexandre Rockwell (who made a splash with 1992's "In the Soup" before drifting into obscurity) and Allison Anders (who after a strong series of debut films now directs episodes of "Southland") are mere doodles. The whole enterprise reeks of a studio trying to sell the mainstream on its niche material, although the Rodriguez entry (about a couple of kids who find a dead prostitute shoved into the mattress of their bed) and Tarantino's bit (where Tim Roth's bellhop is involved in a bizarre game of chance) are genuinely fun to watch. Despite the movie's commercial failure, Rodriguez and Tarantino returned to the anthology genre (sort of) with 2007's brillant, wholly underrated horror movie double feature "Grindhouse" (connected by phony movie trailers by Edgar Wright, Rob Zombie, and Eli Roth). Despite being totally brilliant, it also bombed.
'New York Stories' (1989)
Overlong and underdeveloped, "New York Stories" is a trio of stories centered around New York City (way before and way better than "New York, I Love You") and directed by the city's most iconic directors: Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen. (Apparently, Spike Lee was busy or ininterested.) Scorsese's segment is probably the best. Loosely based on a Dostoevsky short story and written by Richard Price, it stars Nick Nolte as an alcoholic painter obsessed by his live-in protégé played by Roseanna Arquette. It feels full and dramatically developed, unlike the Coppola section, co-written by his daughter Sofia, that comes across like some halfhearted attempt at a modern fairy tale and plays incredibly limply. Far better is Woody Allen's "Oedipus Wrecks," which condenses a number of Allen obsessions -- mommy issues, magic, psychics, neurotic relationships -- into a niftily compact and frequently hilarious package. With so many greats associated with the project, you'd think it'd be a lot greater than it ends up being. Oh well. Such is New York.