Friday, January 18, 2019

CANNIBAL! THE MUSICAL

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Trey Parker and Matt Stone are one of the most unique pairs in modern comedy. Their material is sick, raunchy, sadistic, grotesque, offensive, racist, mean, and juvenile to the point where you wonder about their mentality, until you realize that underneath all their madness lies genius and wisdom. They use their extremely harsh and wild comedy to create an exaggerated outlook of our reality to tie into their clever commentary on controversial topics such as religion, politics, and racism, as well as trends whether it would involve celebrities, technology, and pop culture; than just using their humor as a cheap way to shock us and make us laugh (not to say that they don't occasionally do that). They're the kind of comedians who don't care what you think, and are just going to express their views on current events and touchy subjects through their insane brand of comedy no matter what. It's their honesty and how they use comedy to help prove a point while also coming across as highly entertaining is what makes them such geniuses, which is why their works like "South Park", "The Book of Mormon" and "Team America: World Police" have been praised and celebrated.

Being curious to look back at their early stages of their career; after they made "The Spirit of Christmas: Jesus VS Frosty" that would later lead to a sequel and then a hit TV show, their next project was a live action dark musical comedy.

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As Trey Parker was attending the University of Colorado at Boulder, he made a short trailer for his film class of a dark musical comedy of the infamous prospector of Colorado, Alferd Packer, who supposedly resorted to cannibalism when he and a few other men were snowbound in the high mountains. Though the trailer was a fake, the students were interested in seeing it as a full length movie, so after raising a budget of $125,000, Trey and Matt began filming their independent project (while still in college) during the weekends with some of the students (as many of them were reported to have flunk their film class) and even some of the professors, as well as Trey's own Father (who plays the judge). The film was distributed from "Troma Entertainment" and changed the title from "Alferd Packer: The Musical" to "Cannibal! The Musical", because Packer isn't a well-known figure outside of the state of Colorado. And when the film was premiered to a theater close to the college, Trey and Matt had their friends organize a fake protest against the movie to help draw attention. The film is mainly considered to be Trey Parker's work since he wrote, directed, produced, and stared in the film, but Matt Stone who was uncredited did act and helped write and produce the movie. When I first heard of the movie, I've only seen the trailer (unknown that it wasn't the real trailer) and saw 3 of the songs from the movie during my Middle School years, and it seemed like a movie that I would enjoy, only I didn't push myself to seeing it for its low-budget quality. However, now that I'm more familiar with Trey and Matt’s style of comedy, and have taken tons of enjoyment and awe from it, is their early project up there with the works that I have mentioned earlier? Enough (if not many) people feel that way due to the film gaining a bit of a cult following for being adapted to theater and the film getting a 13th anniversary two disc DVD release; but it isn't widely known as "South Park" and "Book of Mormon". So inspite of its small cult following, is this an underrated treasure from two comedians at an early start in their career that deserves more attention; ON WITH THE REVIEW!

The film (as the title card suggests) is a perfect digital restoration of a lost musical film from 1954 that was upstaged by the classic "Oklahoma!". Taking place in 1883, Alfred Packer played by Trey Parker (who is credited as a play on Packer's alias when he was in hiding Juan Schwartz instead of John Schwartze) is on trial for eating 5 men up in the mountains, where it's most likely that he will be pleaded as guilty. Reporter Polly Pry (Toddy Walters) visits Packer in his jail cell who he claims to her that the events discussed in court happened very differently. Flashing back to 1873 in Bingham Canyon, Utah; a group of miners hear about the discoveries of gold in Breckenridge Colorado, as a few of them go out to find it after finding none in their current location, with Packer as their guide. But it appears that Packer is terrible a navigating, and seems more focused with tracking down his beautiful horse that ran away from him during the middle of their journey than he is with finding gold. Eventually the men grow tired, insane, and hungry when being stranded out in the middle of nowhere as they are shivering out in the brutal cold, and may have to resort to eating each other in order to survive.

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From the first scene in the movie I already found myself laughing and being amazed at how a film with a small budget made by college students was put together. Right after when we get a disclaimer explaining that the violence has been edited, the first scene we see is Packer killing and eating people in extreme grotesque ways similar to how a "Friday the 13th" film would play out their death scenes, where the only color that stands out is red as everything else appears to be faded to black and white (like in a Hammer horror movie), as we're treated to some very impressive gore effects and make-up designs for the victims that are inventive and fleshy, if not realistic. I didn't get to the meat of the story yet and already the film looked better than I expected. Afterwards the film's look continued to impress me as I was able to see the different towns and outfits that resemble the period that the film is set-in, while still looking a bit exaggerated to the fit the film's comedy. And when we see the characters walk across the mountains on their trip, the locations that they chose and how they filmed it look quite beautiful. Trey even went out of his way to film the trail scenes in the very same courtroom where Packer was tried to give it a bit of authenticity. Now as much as I praise how their efforts for putting the film together from a visual stand-point are, that doesn't mean that the film's low quality doesn't show. The locations are nice, but half of the time I get the impression that they're being filmed at a nature preserve or a ranch, as opposed to being lost in the mountains which takes you a bit out of their struggle for survival since the environment feels local. The gore effects are nicely done, but there are times where you'll feel the manipulation of the effect and see some less impressive ones that are incredibly hokey (like when they are carrying a separate head). And the actors, though all of them are putting their heart and soul into the film, don't appear to be believable enough that they are people from the late 1800s, as some of them are shown to be obviously wearing fake beards.

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However, even though you're constantly aware that this is a low-budget film made by amateurs who received enough money to do more than what the average college student can do with a camera, the film doesn't shun itself away from its low-quality but instead embraces it and uses it to its advantage to create its own style while still being humorously insane the same way that "South Park" does through its cheap animation. And I like that the film isn't constantly mocking itself to the point where you feel that you're watching college students fooling around wasting all this money by having little focus on the story, and just be filled with one gag and song sequence after another, because the film does keep its focus on the story, giving you the impression that Trey and Matt sincerely want to offer a different point-of-view on such an infamous person with a well structured story where they'll simply work their gags around it. From a humor stand-point I can't say that this movie is as funny, or shocking and offensive as the stuff that the duo would later create (the film isn’t even infested with as much gore as you'd probably think), but there's still enough laughs to be had. Some of the lines and the delivers from the actors can bring a big chuckle; the visual gags are enjoyable if not die-hard hilarious (with a couple of them being blink and miss); and the pop culture references surprisingly fit the story than they are random and stupid. As the film's tagline would suggest, most of the parodies to pop culture lean more toward "Oklahoma!" and "Friday the 13th" which makes sense given its topic, setting, and that it's intended to be a musical! You get the "Oklahoma!” feel for how the musical scenes set in the old west are shot, sung, and choreographed where there are a few sequences that make fun of scenes from the show, while the stuff involving "Friday the 13th" show over-blown grotesque murders and the killer being unstoppable, as the characters enter a dangerous land where a crazy old man (dubbed by Trey Parker) claims that they are "doomed". And though "South Park" wouldn't become a show in 4 years after the film's release, there are a few of the show's classic jokes and trademarks added into the mix, such as a mock disclaimer, Matt Stone having a similar hairdo like Kyle when removing his hat, and a singing voice heard early in the film that sounds similar to a certain fat big boned racist brat, let alone that the film is satirizing real events in a matter similar to how the show would, thus making this film even more intriguing for how we're seeing Trey and Matt's famous humor at their primitive stage of their career. 

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Considering how anyone who knows their works will know what great song-writers they are for musicals whether it’s on stage, on TV, or for the big screen, their talent is also greatly showcased in this film too! Again just like the story and putting the film together, the music isn't lazily written, actually I feel that these songs are quite underrated in Trey and Matt's musical library. The first song of the film "Shpadoinkle Day" as Packer rides on his horse, plays out as a charmingly funny satire on the scene when Gordon MacRae rode onto the screen on his horse singing "Oh What a Beautiful Morning" in "Oklahoma!". The song is as upbeat and tuneful as the song it’s parodying, only Trey Parker uses a silly made up word to describe what kind of day it is as he phones in the charm and corn of this scene and at one point intentionally sings under his breath than belting it out as operatically masculine as MacRae would. The song is sung briefly two more times in the film and they each sound just as fun and cheerful as the first time its sung. Another song that captures the joy of the first song, is "That's All We're Asking For", where the characters on the expedition sing about what they want when they find the gold, that gives good insight to the characters, as Trey upstages them with a beautiful solo of what he desires for his horse Liane. And much like in "Team America" where we had a sad reprise of the kickass theme song, there's a downbeat reprise of this song as well. There are enough happy songs in the movie that are catchy, but sometimes they'll be happy for the wrong reasons, like the "Hang the Bastard" sequence for instance. The scene is shot and played-out to be as happily gigantic as a musical scene from "Oklahoma!", but the darkness surrounding the sequence are the lyrics where they treat their excitement about watching a person getting hanged as if they are going to an annual party. And as if that a group of town's people expressing complete joy over watching a man slowly die isn't enough, before that scene there's the "Trapper Song" where a trio of fur trappers (their leader's singing voice being obviously dubbed by Trey Parker) sing about their love for killing animals, that's not one of the better songs of the movie for its lack of energy and not being as memorably catchy as the others I've mentioned, but is still entertaining and does get quite nasty just by the lyrics alone. The film does have its slow love ballets too, the best one being "When I Was On Top of You" that Packer sings after losing his horse that's played out as a heartbreaking scene except that the way he sings about his horse sounds as if that his horse was his lover, that contains lyrics with enough innuendos to make it seem humorous for how wrong it sounds. As sentimentally humorous as this love ballet is, the song "This Side Of Me" sung by Polly isn't as funny or touching. It's sung nice, and there is a good gag presented in the scene, however it's pretty bland and forgettable for how generic it is, and the gag that we do get starts out funny but unfortunately overstays its welcome as everything else surrounding the scene visually is dull to watch. If you had to ask me what my favorite song in the movie is, it's "Let's Build a Snowman" sung by Swan (John Hegel) that's an incredibly catchy, happy, and hilariously corny song that just comes out of nowhere at the worst time. And what makes the scene so funny is everybody's reaction to it. It's just priceless, especially when it's sung a second time. It's a song that I could sing and listen to more times than "Frosty the Snowman" or "Do You Want to Build a Snowman". Apparently there’s a short deleted song that was filmed for the movie and shown in in non-US releases of the film titled “Don’t be Stupid” that involves the prospectors who turned down going on the trip telling the others who are about to head out, to at least wait until spring. It’s a shame that this short song isn’t featured in US releases because it not only contains cleverly funny lyrics but its sung incredibly well too. But at least you can currently find the scene on "YouTube"!

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At the center of the film you have Trey Parker making his first on-screen debut, proving that he can carry a film without speaking into a mic off-screen. He doesn't look confused on how he should behave, nor appear to be awkwardly shy when acting, he completely throws every single piece of talent and energy that he has for the camera showing that he's confident in the role and the project. The only time he was reported to be shy when filming is when he had to do kissing scenes with Toddy Walters, until he later on re-shot the scenes after the two dated, where the final product appears to be that he's never felt that way around her off-screen. Through his delivery, movements, and expressions he practically sells the movie for how into it he is, making his presence overall a delight to watch, as he greatly shows all his talents as a performer before becoming famous for it. On top of it, while being funny, he appears to be very charismatic as well. His love for his horse is silly, but he still gives his character enough sentiment for you to still feel bad for him when she runs off and even touched by it as wrong as it may sound (not to mention that the horse had actually thrown Trey off and caused him to fracture his hip during the early stages of shooting). And even when he's playing up the corn for scenes that play on the film’s gay musical nature, he still comes across as charming for how likable he makes his character out to be.

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And as I mentioned earlier, though Trey steals the show, everyone else puts the same amount of passion and effort into their character as he does. They're not the greatest bunch of actors, but I can't say I found a performance where the actors appear to be disinterested or half-assing it because they all look committed. With that said, the characters do fall-a little short. There are plenty of ones that stand-out, like Swan who is always optimistic; the lady seeking George Noon (Dian Bachar); the goofy bully trappers; and the tribe of Asian Indians known as the Nihonjin tribe (played by Japanese exchange students, and their leader being played by an owner of a local Sushi restaurant). But characters like the Frank the butcher (Jason McHugh); Polly; the aspiring Mormon priest (see there's even references to Mormons in this film too) Shannon Wilson Bell (Ian Hardin); and even Matt Stone, though not bad performances aren't as memorable or that interesting. Actually most of the characters including the ones that do stand-out are mostly just quirky, there's very few who actually develop and change in the story. And when the supporting characters do change, it's not as intriguing thus not making it feel all that deserving. The only fascinating character in the film is once again the main character, as the others exist to either entertain or move the plot along while staying relevant to the people that they are based on.

OVERALL THOUGHTS

I don’t want to just simply consider this film to be one Trey Parker’s and Matt Stone’s underrated works, but to also be one of their important works as well for showing what ambitious filmmakers they were during their early stages in their career, and how plenty of their material in this film would later be carried on into the films, play, and TV show that make them stand-tall. I won’t go as far to call it to be one of their masterpieces because it isn’t all that funny, the story while well put together isn't too intriguing or deep, the characters (aside from Packer) are nothing too special, and I can see it's low budget quality turning off the majority of casual viewers. But with that said, there’s still plenty of fun to be had from the performances (especially from Trey Parker), the humor, the cheesy yet impressive visuals given their budget, and the songs. And if I had to judge the film on its own if we lived in some alternate universe where Trey and Matt didn’t become famous after the film, it's still highly impressive for what these students did with the tiny budget they had to make a full length picture where the hard-work and passion certainly does show that in the end makes it to be a legitimately entertaining movie, which I find to be inspiring. If you’re a fan of Trey Parker and Matt Stone and want to see one of their early films in their career when they were just starting out, or if you’re an aspiring filmmaker who’s looking for some inspiration when filming independent film projects, this is a must see! Also be sure to check out the fake trailer that led to the making of this film, because that too (and even if I had to judge it on its own merits) is just as enjoyable and impressive.