Groundhog Day (1993)

Groundhog day

“Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”—Matthew 6:34

There are few movie concepts that intrigue me more than Groundhog Day. You know it’s going to be a great movie when you can sum it up in one riveting sentence: a man stuck in a small town relives the worst day of his life over and over and over again. Groundhog Day easily makes it on my list of Top 10 favorite movies of all time. If our beloved Bill Murray was placed on earth for one movie, this is it.

Sadly, the friendship of Bill Murray and director Harold Ramis—a collaboration that churned out comedy gold such as Caddyshack—turned sour during the filming of Groundhog Day. As one article puts it, “During the filming, Murray’s life was tumultuous. His marriage was dissolving, and his demeanor on the set was increasingly erratic. He would show up late to work, throw tantrums, and generally disagree with many of Ramis’ choices.” Hmm…kinda sounds like Phil Connors, doesn’t it? Even after Groundhog Day was a success, Murray and Ramis didn’t speak to each other for 21 years.

If you have seen the movie, you will remember that a central part of the story is that weatherman Phil is trying to get the recently-hired producer, Rita, to fall in love with him. His first tactic is to use his wellspring of extra time to learn every detail about Rita so he can plan perfect dates and make her feel like they are a match made in heaven. When this method fails, he ultimately wins her over by becoming a good person and small-town hero.

Here is a series of questions I have always wondered about Phil’s character arc…

  • Is the final version of Phil truly better than the first?
  • If we act good on the surface just so others will like us, does that make us good at our core? (No, it doesn’t.)
  • Did Phil truly change or was he just putting on a show at the end?
  • Was the first version of Phil more honest?

I hope that Phil’s heart was truly changed when he woke up with Rita on the day-after-Groundhog Day, because otherwise he’s going to be trapped in a different kind of reality: living a lie. But it’s still a reality where you live your worst day over and over again. Just ask Walter White.

Bill Murray’s brother convinced him to reach out and reconnect with Harold Ramis when the director was dying of vasculitis in 2014. We’ll never know what they talked about during that meeting, but if Murray’s impromptu tribute at the 2014 Oscars is any indication, they ended on good terms:

A moment of change and reconciliation like that is something I can watch again.

And again.

And again.

 

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Sherlock Jr. (1924)

Sherlock Jr.

“Do you find yourself inclined to solve murder mysteries in large, luxurious homes to which — let me finish — to which you may or may not have been invited?” —Professor Jules Hilbert, Stranger Than Fiction

Hello again, readers and comedy enthusiasts! Since I wrote last, I have finished my animated short film (see this post from July) and sent it off to film festivals around the world. Now it’s just a waiting game, so time to start watching movies again.

Let me remind you what I’m doing. I started this blog because I felt compelled to watch every movie on AFI’s Top 100 Comedies list and wanted to have a space to chronicle that journey. I have skipped around a bit, but Sherlock Jr. by Buster Keaton is next in line at #62 as I work backwards from #100.

The 45-minute silent film is about a multitasking movie theatre employee who is studying to be a detective because he wants to solve mysteries. After seeing Jim Parsons present at the Emmys on Sunday night, while watching Sherlock Jr. I couldn’t stop thinking about how The Big Bang Theory star could play an uncanny Buster Keaton. Bazinga!

What makes Keaton’s silent films so genius is that they use natural forces like gravity and motion to create visual comedy instead of relying on title cards. If I had to guess, there were maybe 20 title cards in the whole film, but the story was perfectly clear and funny. My favorite shot is when an out-of-control cycle is zooming over a broken bridge. Right before the cycle reaches the drop-off point, two big trucks pass each other under the bridge and fill the gap for it to cross safely. In the scene below, this shot is at the 2:15 mark:

The idea of outside forces serendipitously protecting the oblivious hero is used often in comedy. My favorite example might have to be Mr. Bean crossing a busy street to get to the beach in this clip from the charming Mr. Bean’s Holiday:

Mr. Bean’s Holiday steals a number of concepts from Sherlock Jr., including a finale that takes place in the projector room while related action continues to roll on the theatre screen outside.

As a modern-day comedy watcher, it’s fun to put on a detective hat and find links to comedy legends of the past, whether it be through goofy sitcoms or feature films. If it was funny then, it will be funny today. That’s the real mystery.

 

July 2017 Update: Paddleball Hole

Hello friends, I hope you are all getting the chance to spend Independence Day with your loved ones! (I will get to spend it with 30,000+ wizards, witches, and muggles at an amusement park.)

If you follow my blog and website regularly, some of you may be asking: Is Keith still alive? Does he still like comedies? Yes, and YES. However, I have some exciting projects happening all at once, one of which needs to be completed this month, so I am focusing every ounce of my 20-something energy to do just that. (Almost 24, btw. My birthday is on the 7th!) My comedy list isn’t going anywhere, but I’ve heard film festival deadlines can slip past if you’re not watching the calendar at all times.

This is a very important update, because it’s time to tell you about my short film! In my line-a-day journal for May 6, 2016, I wrote this: Working on a hand-drawn animated video called, ‘Paddleball Hole.’ It will be a combination of animation and real life. My inspiration for this style was movies such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Mary Poppins. I bought a light board for tracing drawings and decided to animate the film the old-fashioned way: using paper, pencils, and pens.

The story focuses on two animated characters that have an unexpected day at the beach.

Here is my process for Paddleball Hole:

  1. I draw the character on a piece of paper (usually about 30-60 drawings for one shot).
  2. I set up my camera on a tripod and take a picture of the piece of paper. This must be done at night so I can control the lighting; my apartment has lots of windows.
  3. I take the image into Photoshop and trim around it so I have a transparent .PNG file of the character.
  4. I import all the images into Final Cut Pro X and place them on top of prepped live action footage, which—as I’m sure you can imagine—requires perfectionistic fine-tuning to make the marriage of the two look believable.

I have already repeated the process above on 450 pieces of paper, and went to the store over the weekend to purchase my fourth sketchbook.

Stay tuned in the coming weeks to find out how you can get involved with Paddleball Hole. I have a folder full of drawings that need to find homes 🙂

In the meanwhile, enjoy taking a first look at some completed stills from the film!

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Wallace and Gromit (1990 – present)

Note: The following article was written by a contributor. The regular author of this blog found the guest author more qualified to write a tribute to the world’s favorite cheese enthusiast and inventor of cracking contraptions, Wallace. The voice of Wallace, Peter Sallis, died on June 6, 2017.

wallace and gromit

“Cheese, Gromit!”

I have heard that phrase countless times over the last 27 years. Trust me, he did not need to tell me there was cheese. There was always cheese. Cheese was Wallace’s fountain of youth, his city of gold, his great white whale. When Wallace was excited about cheese, he was excited to be alive. I may have rolled my eyes a few times at his never-ending obsession, but deep down, I was happy because he was happy.

When considering the best way to organize my reflections about Wallace, I decided the best way is through cheese itself…

Cheddar: Wallace had some sharp ideas in his day. Who else would even try to build a rocket and go to the moon, just in case it was actually made of cheese? (It was not.)

American: This does not describe Wallace at all. He was British through and through.

Cream cheese: Wallace had a soft side to him, which I saw the most when he fell in love with various flames over the years. That’s alright, I suppose we can’t be everyone’s cup of tea.

Swiss: Wallace’s personality and lifestyle had its holes, but that’s where I tried to step in and keep the house on track. I don’t think the lad would have ever risen out of bed in the morning if I didn’t press that button.

Limburger: It’s no secret that Wallace and I’s relationship had stinky moments. I still can’t believe he trusted that penguin more then me. Grr!

Pepper jack: But who am I kidding? I can’t stay mad for long. Wallace always spiced up life, and there was never a dull moment.

You be pleased to know I buried Wallace with crackers, because I know he will need them in his afterlife filled with cheese…

…the only thing he loved more than me.

—Gromit

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Beverly Hills Cop (1984)

Beverly Hills Cop

“Beverly Hills…that’s where I want to be.”—Weezer, rock band

Beverly Hills Cop features Eddie Murphy in his prime as an undercover cop from Detroit who, against the will of his boss, travels to Beverly Hills on “vacation” to solve the mystery of his friend’s recent murder. This movie is classified as a comedy because Murphy’s rough Detroit edges stick out like a sore thumb on the Golden Coast; he’s a fish-out-of-water.

All I could think about while watching Beverly Hills Cop was my introduction to Los Angeles as a fish-out-of-water from Kansas. Even though I had visited briefly for a family vacation in 2006, my grand entrance in 2009 happened in…Beverly Hills.

Let’s back up a bit. In 2008, an instructor at an art workshop I attended told me about a film competition she was involved with: the Intelligent Use of Water Film Competition. I decided to enter a short film that year about a young man (played by yours truly) named Dwayne Day who wastes water. My friends and family loved it, but between you and me, it was not my best. Not surprisingly, it didn’t get into the competition.

Then 2009 came. At the beginning of the year, I directed my magnum opus, Beowulf: The Killing of Grendel. Winter was the best time to make this because the snow and cold weather perfectly suited the Danish landscape. (Also, some friends were away in Washington and they let us film in their empty, rustic house.) But summer was usually when I had the most time on my hands, and since my annual short film was already completed by the time school let out, I had to find another project to occupy my precious free time. I decided to secretly make another entry for the IUOW Film Competition. After experimenting with several ideas, I decided it would be a music video with stop-motion shadow animation. I worked in between pool parties, graduations, weddings, and late into the night.

Honestly, I don’t even think my parents knew what I was up to until I came bursting in to their bedroom one night saying, “I’m going to LA!!! I’m going to Los Angeles, California!!!” I had just received my golden ticket in my Yahoo! inbox. My short film, The Saving Water Song, had been accepted into the competition. The Rain Bird Corporation was going to fly me to Los Angeles, where I would stay in a Luxe Hotel in Beverly Hills and attend an event at The Getty Center where my work would be screened with the other nominees.

I tried to blend in with the Angelenos, I really did. But when the hotel chauffeur picked up Mr. Keith Cantrell in his 101 Dalmatians t-shirt, plaid shorts, and nice brown shoes, it was immediately clear I was living in a fish-out-of-water story of my own.

Eight years later, I have returned to Los Angeles, and I am blending in a little better…although my definition of “blending in” on the West Coast changes daily. For instance, this morning I went to Vons in my pajamas and felt right at home, as if I was just wandering into my pantry to grab a few things for breakfast.

In between shifts at a theme park, I’m working on another animated short film. I get more and more devoted to the project as it nears completion. Maybe it will be my big break, but regardless, I’m excited to send something I’m proud of out into the world again! In the meanwhile, thank you for your understanding as I inevitably focus more attention on finishing my short film instead of cranking out blogs.

Oh, and The Saving Water Song won Audience Choice award at that competition! I remain proud of it to this day!

This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

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“These go to 11.”—Nigel Tufnel

If anyone tries to tell you that The Blair Witch Project is the origin of the fake documentary genre, please give me their mailing address so I can have Amazon ship 1,000 copies of This Is Spinal Tap to their doorstep.

In This is Spinal Tap, fictitious filmmaker Marty DiBergi follows the British band Spinal Tap on their tour across the U.S.A. The band’s elaborate dreams for special effects at their concerts never quite live up to their expectations, but the guys remain so focused on their passion—rock ‘n roll—that they barely seem to notice or care about any of the onstage flaws the rest of us find so hilarious. It’s a common sight to see the stagehand running around trying to fix things while Nigel, David, and Derek fire off their solos without a care in the world. (Well, I guess there is one mistake that gets under their skin involving a tiny Stonehenge monument…)

I just finished listening to a 30+ hour biography on Walt Disney called, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination by Neal Gabler. Walt’s lifelong struggle between big dreams and perfectionism was a common theme throughout the book. For example, at the last minute Walt decided to add a cathedral shot to the song “Ave Maria” in Fantasia. It took up lots of space in the studio and a whole team of animators to pull off the shot. They worked hours at a time without sleep. When the first version was presented to Walt, he rejected it because the shot was too “jittery.” They finished the final version of this cathedral shot barely in time for the reel to make it on a plane for the premiere in New York.

When it comes to mistakes within our own big dreams, hopefully we can find a balance between Spinal Tap’s obliviousness and Walt’s perfectionism. Sometimes, I feel like a bass guitarist trapped in a translucent egg on life’s stage. But you just gotta keep playing.

Horse Feathers (1932)

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“Nobody can tell me where I can and can’t go.”—Kanye West, rapper

In the days between Christmas and New Year’s, Santa Claus is off the clock, so you can be as naughty as you want without fear of your actions affecting next year’s Christmas presents. Hollywood also had a window of time like this; it is referred to now as Pre-Code Hollywood. Pre-code.com says, “The quickest definition is this: ‘pre-code’ refers to an era in motion pictures from the arrival of sound (aka ‘talkies’) in 1927 to the mandatory enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code in July 1934.”

Films during this time still had censorship through the studios, but such censorship was more of a guideline until William Hays and friends enforced the Motion Picture Production Code. Thus, the eternal Hollywood struggle between studios and censors began.

After connecting the dots that the 68-minute long Marx Brothers film Horse Feathers is Pre-Code, its edgy humor makes sense. The setting for Horse Feathers is a college, where Groucho Marx’s character has recently been elected president and wants to make sure his football team wins a game against a rival school. There are gags about teachers flirting with their students (at least the movie does not take place in a high school), disrespecting the police, and “college widows“—a ’20s reference to a young woman who remains near a college year after year to associate with its male students.

If the movie was just a string of dirty jokes, it wouldn’t be worth watching. (Here’s looking at you, Rob Schneider.) However, the cultural impact of the Marx Brothers lives on long after the projectors flicker out because these guys are so talented and smart it’s unfair. For example, on two separate occasions in Horse Feathers, Harpo does a harp solo and Chico does a piano solo. When the latter begins, his hands are hidden by the piano at first, which caused me to wonder if someone else was tickling the ivories off-screen. Then the camera angle changed, and we watch Chico’s fingers bouncing up and down the keyboard. So good.

When it comes to their smarts, let me just say that you wouldn’t want to be the person in charge of censoring a Marx Brothers film. Groucho not only used jokes that were written in such a way to outsmart the censors, he fired them off so rapidly you practically had to watch the film several times—and in slow motion—to catch everything. He was one of the rare entertainers who was able to smuggle Pre-Code Hollywood into the reign of William Hays.

At this point in my life, as a 23-year-old artist, my inclination is to grumble about the Motion Picture Production Code for stifling free speech and creativity. But I am sure that 43-year-old Keith, a parent to young children, will be more thankful that these perimeters were set in place. Were they necessary? Yes. Could they have been implemented to the film industry in a healthier way? Yes. (Did William Hays have even a teeny bit of niceness in him? Probably not.)

In the end, each viewer must be his or her own censor for what content should be consumed. Remember: Santa is always watching. Except for December 26-31.