#276 The Producers

(1968, Mel Brooks)

“Congratulations! Hitler will run forever”

Two days ago, I reviewed a silly movie which featured Mel Brooks in a cameo and said how much I enjoyed it. Now it’s time to review a silly movie directed by Mel Brooks. But did I enjoy The Producers?

The Producers, one of Brooks’ earlier works before much of his work consisted of direct parodies of existing movies, stars Zero Mostel as Max Bialystock, a Broadway producer down on his luck. Unable to produce a hit for a while, and reduced to romancing old ladies for money to fund future projects, he hits upon a new scheme thanks to a visiting accountant, Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder). Bloom discovers that by over-budgeting, it’s possible to make more money with a flop than with a hit. And so the duo set out to make the worst Broadway play possible – Springtime For Hitler.

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#275 The Muppet Movie

(1979, James Frawley)

“Kermit, does this film have socially redeeming value?”

Hello everyone. It’s my birthday today. And so, to prevent me from being enraged by an overhyped Hollywood epic or baffled by European arthouse cinema on my day, I picked a film I knew I would enjoy. Today I am reviewing The Muppet Movie.

I love the Muppets. In fact, everyone loves The Muppets. If you don’t like The Muppets, you’re weird. The Muppets are a lovable bunch of silly puppets and the world would be a much worse place without them in it. They’ve made a few movies in their time too, from adapting literary classics with A Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island to the recent release of Muppets Most Wanted. Today, we’re looking at where their cinematic career began, the simply-titled Muppet Movie.

Essentially an origin story for the gang of entertainers, it starts with Kermit The Frog (performed by Jim Henson) playing his banjo in the swamps when a Hollywood agent rows up to him in a boat saying that Hollywood is looking for entertaining frogs. And so, Kermit sets off on an adventure to Hollywood to gain super-stardom, where he meets new friends along the way such as Fozzie Bear, The Great Gonzo and the strangely alluring (to Kermit) Miss Piggy. Shenanigans ensue.

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#274 Apocalypto

(2006, Mel Gibson)

Fun fact: Sometime in January 2013, I realised how appropriate Apocalypto, with all its Mayan prophecies of apocalypse, would have been for December 21st 2012, the supposed end-of-the-world date based on the Mayan calendar. Of course, this would have been more useful figuring that out before that date, but I guess we can’t have everything. So, after dumping it back in the general pile again, I finally pull it out to offer my opinion.

The good news is, I have an interest in ancient civilisations. The bad news is, I think director Mel Gibson is a bit of a terrible human being. This presents a problem, which led me to wonder exactly how I would feel about Apocalypto.

Set in Guatemala prior to the arrival of the Spanish, Apocalypto follows a young man named Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) as his village is attacked by a bloodthirsty rival tribe. Kidnapped and lined up for human sacrifice, Jaguar Paw seeks to save his family, trapped in a deep pit, while the rival tribe hear a prophecy that their civilisation is doomed. If you know your Central American history, you’ll know how true that prophecy turns out to be.

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#273 The Quiet Man

(1952, John Ford)

[No quote for this review]

I’ve never made a secret of my dislike for John Wayne, which is a big part of my dislike for many classic Westerns in general. As an actor, he was very dry, very samey and generally dull to watch. I can never tell his characters apart, and his drawl is often so devoid of emotion that I can never get emotionally invested in them anyway. But perhaps things might change if we change the setting. Instead of a Western, The Quiet Man is a comedy drama set in Ireland.

Wayne plays Sean Thornton, an Irish-born American from Pennsylvania heading back to Ireland to reconnect with his “home”. There he buys his family’s old farm, attracting the ire of a local landowner, Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen), who dislikes that this stranger has rolled up and bought land next to his. However, Thornton has more interest in Danaher’s sister, Mary Kate (Maureen O’Hara), and looks to marry her.

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#272 The King Of Comedy

(1983, Martin Scorsese)
“Better to be king for a night than schmuck for a lifetime”

So last time we looked at a comedy for April Fool’s Day (…in theory…), so let’s look at what happens when comedy is handled by Martin Scorsese. Naturally, this being Scorsese and all, The King Of Comedy isn’t really a comedy, but is instead a dark portrayal of celebrity obsession and what happens when delusions take over someone’s reality. So a nice happy family film then.

Robert De Niro (of course) plays Rupert Pupkin, an autograph hunter and wannabe comedian who is obsessed with late night talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis). Pupkin desperately wants to be a guest on Langford’s show so that he can show the world his supposed comic talents, and begins to stalk his hero.

Long before the Meet The Parents franchise pretty much killed off De Niro’s enthusiasm for acting, he’d already proven his comic talents with this movie. He’s hilarious as Pupkin, albeit hilarious in a way the character doesn’t intend. He’s an awkward kind of hilarious, in the same way that Ricky Gervais in The Office was awkwardly hilarious. He’s funny because he’s so sad, but he’s also very dark, often reminding me of a somewhat more unhinged Travis Bickle – Bickle at least had some grasp on reality, while Pupkin is completely severed from it.

Lewis is also very funny, although with an actor as well-known for his comedy as Lewis, this was expected. He’s a hugely sympathetic character, trying his best to stay level-headed in the face of crazy stalker fans and persistent messages from a supposed comedian who can’t grasp more realistic methods of breaking into comedy. He often gives De Niro a run for his money.

But while the movie certainly has plenty of comic moments when it starts, The King Of Comedy gradually gets darker as events unfold. Pupkin becomes more deluded, more convinced that he and Langford are best friends and that he has a shot on the show, and soon the comedy is replaced with terror. The awkwardness becomes uncomfortable and Pupkin’s actions become more unhinged. When Pupkin drags a date to Langford’s house unannounced, it’s terrifying, and amplified when the date realises what’s going on.

The creepiness of the whole thing is amplified with Pupkin’s frequent fantasies, where he imagines he and Langford as close colleagues, with Langford praising Pupkins’ comedic talents and promising him regular spots on his show. The fact these fantasies are presented without fanfare, blending seamlessly with reality, is the thing that makes all of this incredibly effective. It leaves the viewer questioning what’s real and what’s all in Pupkin’s head, and further highlights his detachment from reality.

This all comes to a head when we finally see Pupkin’s full comedy act. The entire feels less like a comedy routine and more like therapy. Pupkin pretty much pours his heart out, revealing a troubled past and practically admitting to his actions, and does so in a way that makes it seem like it’s all made up for comedy. The audience laughs, but the real audience (that’d be us) is shocked, knowing full well that this is a man who needs serious help.

This leads to ambiguity in the ending. Scorsese cleverly presented the ending as a scene that could go either way. It could be all in Pupkin’s head, with him gaining fame off the back of his actions, or languishing in a prison cell and imagining that his release will send him into the arms of an adoring public, assuming he’s let out at all.

Flaws? I genuinely couldn’t find any. The King Of Comedy was an uncomfortable but hugely entertaining piece of cinema from start to finish, and I have nothing bad to say about it. No wonder it’s Scorsese’s favourite out of all his films.

Starring Robert De Niro, Jerry Lewis, Sandra Bernhard, Diahnne Abbott & Shelley Hack
Written by Paul D. Zimmerman
Produced by Arnon Milchan
Cinematography by Fred Schuler
Edited by Thelma Schoonmaker

Favourite Scene: That “comedy” routine at the end is pretty chilling.
Scene That Bugged Me: I found it a bit strange how flippantly Pupkin could get into Langford’s house.

Watch it if: You like dark comedy about celebrity obsession
Avoid it if: You think it’s a genuine stand-up comedy show

#271 Sons Of The Desert

(1933, William A. Seiter)

“Well, here’s another mess you’ve gotten me into”

This review was originally intended to posted on Tuesday, April Fool’s Day, but I never got around to it. That’s why there are references throughout to the day despite today being, well…not April Fool’s Day. Normal service will be resumed next week.

Laurel & Hardy are considered one of the greatest comedy acts of all time, with a vast library of films stretching from the silent era and on into the early 50s. So it seems fitting that today, on April Fool’s Day, we take a look at Sons Of The Desert, the only film from the duo on the 1001 Movies list.

As members of the fraternal lodge Sons Of The Desert, Stanley and Oliver find out there is to be a conference where the various chapters of the lodge from around the country are to meet up and have a huge party. The problem is, they need to convince their wives to let them go, with Oliver trying to convince his wife that he’s too ill to go on a trip to the hills with her, and that he should go to Honolulu to recuperate (giving him a cover story that prevents his wife from following him). Shenanigans ensue.

Sons Of The Desert is a product of its time. The storyline is largely based around the idea that wives don’t let their husbands have any fun and like to nag a lot. Men should be men and not allow themselves to be hen-pecked because a man who meekly does everything his wife says isn’t a real man.

It’s also heavily reliant on slapstick, a form of comedy that I’m not particularly fond of at the best of times. It’s a relic from the silent era that Laurel & Hardy carried over to the “talkies” with very little to change it up. I’m a fan of wordplay more than physical comedy, so something centred so heavily on the latter concerns me a little bit.

There is also an unnecessary musical number in the middle because all 1930s comedies apparently needed to bring one in to justify their light entertainment roles. And you know how I feel about musical numbers in general.

So, with all this working against the movie, why on earth did I find it so damn funny? I hate slapstick, and I tend to be very twitchy around outdated gender stereotypes such as “women like to nag a lot” and yet I enjoyed every minute of Sons Of The Desert. That took some skill, and I honestly don’t know how these two did it.

Everything about Sons Of The Desert is a mark of a great comedy. Every scene is meticulously pieced together with expert comic timing, with the slapstick being so over the top and absurd that it’s impossible not to laugh. Yes, it’s dated and you could never make a film like this now, but it somehow holds up as a brilliantly fun movie.

Even the negative aspects of the nagging wife trope are negated by the fact that the duo themselves are portrayed as ridiculous man-children anyway, and much of the humour comes from the fact that Oliver acts like the cool, smart one, when in fact he’s just a bumbling oaf. He criticises Stanley for being hen-pecked by his wife, but in fact Stan and his wife seem to have a pretty stable and relaxed marriage and Oliver feels that he has to sneak around his wife to do what he likes.

The absurdity of the plot also keeps things going. It doesn’t really make sense as a serious plot, but it’s not even trying to do that, and instead is determined to just ramp up the silliness at every turn and see how far it can go, until we reach a point where the wives think the duo died in a shipwreck, and as such the duo have to hide in the attic to avoid the fallout that would ensue from their deception being obviously discovered.

Sons Of The Desert is a live-action cartoon, and it works so damn well. Watching this single movie has convinced me that Laurel & Hardy’s enduring popularity is well-deserved. This is a fantastic comedy that has stood the test of time to the point where even its more dated elements don’t hold it back. A genuine comedy classic.

Starring Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Charley Chase & Mae Busch
Written by Byron Morgan
Produced by Hal Roach
Music by William Axt
Cinematography by Kenneth Peach
Edited by Frank Terry

Favourite Scene: The attempts to help cure Oliver’s “illness” were pretty damn hilarious.
Scene That Bugged Me: There’s a joke involving wax fruit that kind of runs a little too long for my liking.

Watch it if: You appreciate classic comedy
Avoid it if: You’re a Friedberg & Seltzer fan

#270 Planet Of The Apes

(1968, Franklin J. Schaffner)

“Take your stinking paws off me you damned dirty ape!”

Imagine if you will, a strange planet far beyond the stars where evolution did something very silly and made apes the dominant species instead of humans. Now imagine your reaction when you discover that planet WAS EARTH ALL ALONG! Yes, today we’re looking at Planet Of The Apes, with one of the most-spoiled endings of all time. It’s even on the cover of the DVD box these days! But even with the ending spoiled, how is it? Is it still good?

A group of astronauts led by George Taylor (Charlton Heston) set off on a long mission to the far reaches of space, climbing into hibernation while the ship steers them to a distant planet. When they wake up, they find themselves on a desolate world. After wandering through the desert, the astronauts are all captured by strange ape men, who view Taylor with great curiosity. Taylor must now figure out how to survive in this strange new world WHERE APES EVOLVED FROM MEN?!?!

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#269 Great Expectations

(1946, David Lean)

“Pip, a young gentleman of great expectations”

UUUUUUUGGGGGGGGGGGGGH period drama. As if to prove to me that an obsession with period drama based on dusty old literature is not a new phenomenon in British cinema, here’s Great Expectations, an old 1940s adaptation of the classic Charles Dickens novel. Go on then, let’s get this over with.

Like all Charles Dickens stories, this is the story of an orphan. It is the story of Pip (Anthony Wager / John Mills), a young orphan who encounters an escaped convict and visits a wealthy spinster named Miss Haversham (Martitia Hunt) as a companion for her adopted daughter Estella (Jean Simmons / Valerie Hobson). Later in life, Pip inherits property from a mystery wealthy benefactor and moves to London to become a gentleman. Over time, he pursues Estella, tries to work out who the benefactor is and learns a few life lessons along the way.

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#268 Sideways

(2004, Alexander Payne)

“When do we drink it?”

Is there anything more pretentious in this world than wine culture? I personally don’t think so. Spending hours swirling around a glass of fermented grapes and then claiming that it smells of wood shavings and tastes like strawberries is an activity I’ve never quite understood. So hey, here’s a movie about that! HOW WONDERFUL!

Sideways is an independent movie from 2004 about two men who go on a wine-tasting tour of California as a sort of middle class bachelor party. Miles (Paul Giamatti) is a failed writer and wine enthusiast treating his friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church) to the trip before the latter gets married. Throughout the trip, Jack wants one more sexual fling before becoming a husband, while Miles wants a relaxing trip. Shenanigans happen.

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#267 Gone With The Wind

(1939, Victor Fleming)
“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”

Gone With The Wind is one of those classic movies that inevitably ends up on Movies You Must See lists, so it was inevitable that I’d end up reviewing it one day. It was the highest-grossing movie of its time, and depicted the American Civil War from the perspective of white Southerners. But how well does it hold up today?

Gone With The Wind centres on Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), a young Southern socialite living in Georgia on the cusp of Civil War. Romantically interested in a man named Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), she tries to seduce him despite him being engaged to his cousin Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland), while she simultaneously catches the attention of Rhett Butler (Clark Gable). As civil war rages, Scarlett manipulates and deceives her way towards winning Ashley’s attentions before eventually marrying Rhett in a tortured marriage. Basically, lots of things happen here.

It’s easy to see why people love Gone With The Wind. It’s an ambitious project which covers a lot of ground story-wise, with excellent costume design and cinematography, and some really great moments that cement its place in cinema history.

Clark Gable is a fantastic example of this. The man has charm coming out of his pores, and is easily the best thing about the whole movie. Rhett Butler is an inherently awful person for the most part, but Gable makes him likeable and I don’t know how he did it. It’s a shame that for much of the first half of the movie he tends to disappear offscreen for long periods, since he’s always missed when he’s not around.

There are also some hugely effective scenes running throughout. The scenes of war are always powerful, feeling difficult to watch and sometimes being downright terrifying. I’m not someone who normally buys into “war is hell” imagery (simply because it’s so overdone it’s become cliché) but these scenes were extremely effective. But the scenes of the war’s effects hit even harder than the war itself, especially a scene where Scarlett’s father has clearly lost his mind following the loss of his wife in the hostilities, which was incredibly moving.

But Gone With The Wind is far from a perfect movie. For a start, it’s over three hours long, and me and films of that length don’t get along too well. What’s more, there are times when it definitely feels that long, especially in the second half of the movie where things like to drag on longer than they need to. There are also plenty of instances where a scene that really should be urgent simply isn’t.

There is also the fact that the movie suffers from some particularly offensive period drama floofiness early on, with Southern Belles and gentlemen wandering around chortling about their life and how the South will never be beaten. It’s a little bit tiresome, at least until Rhett comes in and tells them all how dumb they all are. Fortunately, this doesn’t last, but this combined with the movie’s tendency to drag at times, it threatens to derail the movie before it’s even begun.

However, while the period drama floofiness eventually disappears, Scarlett O’Hara never stops being intensely unlikeable. She’s a manipulative, shallow, selfish, irredeemable bitch. Vivien Leigh does a great job playing her, but man is it difficult having this person as a protagonist. She’s impossible to identify with, and more often than not, you simply want her to fail at everything.

It’s also really hard to tell exactly what the attraction between her and Rhett is. Quite often, he will pursue her and attempt to seduce her, all while openly admitting she’s a terrible human being. I never found the romance particularly convincing. Perhaps this was the point, since they hardly have a perfect marriage in the second half of the movie, but it’s still really bizarre.

And then of course, the most common complaint about Gone With The Wind by modern reviewers is one that I agree with. Set in The South, the movie naturally features a number of black slave characters, all of whom are portrayed as amusingly stupid and absolutely happy to be in slavery. Their portrayal is meant to be laughed at, as if those silly brown people are an amusing sideshow, and these days it’s just uncomfortable.

And yet, despite all of these faults, Gone With The Wind somehow manages to hold together as a solid, watchable package and it’s easy to see why it’s such a classic, albeit a hugely flawed classic.

Starring Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Leslie Howard & Olivia de Havilland
Written by Margaret Mitchell (novel) and Sidney Howard
Produced by David O. Selznick
Music by Max Steiner
Cinematography by Ernest Haller
Edited by Hal C. Kern & James E. Newcorn

Favourite Scene: Rhett ultimately realising how tired he is of Scarlett’s crap and tells her that most famous of movie lines (see page quote).
Scene That Bugged Me: While escaping from Georgia in the midst of war and fires, they sure do take their sweet time.

Watch it if: You like sprawling period dramas with excellent acting
Avoid it if: Its absurd length is far too much for you

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