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Spoils Before Dying
In a way, the parody genre is like the internal affairs division of cinema. By exposing the various overused cliches and tropes of other genres while trying to extract humor out of them, parodies force those genres to excise the old ways in favor of new and exciting ways to tell stories. Blazing Saddles all but killed the classic happy-go-lucky western, forcing filmmakers to veer towards a darker and grittier approach. It was impossible to find a straight slasher flick that wasn't at least a little bit self-referential after Scream (Yes, Scream's not technically a parody, but it walks and quacks like one). And every generic music biopic released after 2007 will immediately brings comparisons to Walk Hard.
But who watches the watchmen? The parody genre itself needs an upgrade every now and then, and now that we seem to be moving on from the dark ages of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer's nausea-inducing "Movie Movies", it's time for new names to take up the mantle from Mel Brooks and the ZAZ team. Even though they mostly work on TV, save for the feature-length telenovela parody Casa De Mi Padre that unfortunately failed at the box office, my money's on the writing team of Matt Piedmont and Andrew Steele.
They're not groundbreaking names who rewrite the rules of the genre, but at least they're approaching it in a fresh new way. Instead of constructing obvious jokes out of genre tropes, they rely heavily on over the top execution that pokes fun of the visual and acting choices of hackneyed examples of the genre they're parodying. The parody elements on paper in many of their projects is so subtle, that it's entirely possible for anyone who reads the scripts alone to think they're badly written genre cash grabs, instead of satire that aims to specifically take down such projects. There are obvious written jokes here and there in Casa De Mi Padre, but most of the humor derives from the cheap and corny execution, as well as the intentionally over the top acting.
The duo provides a similar approach to their ongoing IFC series, where they go after a genre that's perfect for their unique style: Melodrama miniseries from the 60s and 70s. Their first miniseries, The Spoils of Babylon, was a spoof of The Thorn Birds-style melodramas about forbidden love between affluent people. The show had a Garth Marenghi's Darkplace type approach, pretending to be a "never before released" miniseries written and directed by self-professed intellectual blowhard Eric Jonrosh (Will Ferrel), who, during the "contemporary" introductions to each episode, looks like a late era Orson Welles clone who ate the real late-era Orson Welles.
Jonrosh is back with yet another "never before released classic", based on yet another one of his "bestselling" novels. The Spoils Before Dying is more of a mystery with a wannabe beatnik noir thrown in, yet none of that stops it from being just as intentionally overwrought and over the top as The Spoils of Babylon. This epic story of love, murder, and of course, revenge, is about jazz pianist Rock Banyon (Michael Kenneth Williams in a hilarious deadpan performance), a rough-edged man's man who reminds us at every turn that he refuses to record an all-strings jazz album. Unfortunately, Banyon has bigger problems, as he's given a measly two days to solve the brutal murder of his sultry singer Fresno (Maya Rudolph, who has the presence to play an honest to goodness femme fatale in a straight noir flick). Banyon's deadly investigation leads him to a global conspiracy that might have his ex-squeeze, the dangerous but sexy lounge singer Dolores DeWinter (Kristen Wiig), at the center of it.
Many of the stylistic takedowns of the genre from Babylon make their way to Dying, from the cheap production design that uses obvious models for establishing shots, to an overall gaudy soft focus look, but the narrative approach here is a bit more reliant on obvious jokes that can be found in a more traditional spoof. For example, many of the jazz songs in the film aim to expose the not-so-subtle double entendres in legitimate tracks from the period (A catchy tune is about the importance of consuming copious amounts of booze and pills).
This kind of a more balanced approach between parody through execution vs spoof through jokes creates a more accessible experience for newcomers to Piedmont and Steele's work. However, that doesn't mean that the duo will take it easy on the bizarre alternative humor that harkens back to their days writing for Funny or Die, as evidenced by an entire episode that was supposedly made while Jonrosh was tripping on LSD. I'll let you guess how "colorful" that episode gets.
As I mentioned in my Spoils of Babylon review, I don't understand why IFC won't release these miniseries on Blu-ray. Yes, they're technically comedy shows, but their whole point is to take the already gaudy look and feel of these miniseries and turn them up to 11. Therefore, it would have been nice to experience the vibrant explosive color scheme of The Spoils Before Dying in HD. That being said, the SD presentation stays as loyal as it can to the show's look, despite some minor aliasing issues.
Again, a lossless DTS track could have resulted in a more immersive experience, especially when it came to the many smooth jazz tracks, as well as the appropriately bombastic score. The lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation is adequate, and provides a nice mix between the hushed dialogue (Most of the series takes place within the 50s jazz scene man, what did you expect?) and the exaggerated SFX and score.
We get nothing. Some outtakes of Jonrosh awkwardly hitting on the production staff would have been nice.
Audiences expecting a more traditional parody out of these miniseries might be disappointed at the lack of obvious jokes on screen. But if you tune into what Piedmont and Steele are doing, you'll begin to get a kick out of the deadpan performances, the ridiculously over the top production design, and oh yes, the sweet, sweet tunes. It's hip stuff, daddy-o.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com