The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming
Written by William Rose, who was also responsible for the loud, brash and big It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World a couple years earlier (as well as the overrated Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner), The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming is also a big ensemble comedy, but much better executed and focused than his previous script, with more heart and less mean-spiritedness. It also helps that it has a very able director at the helm, the nearly forgotten Norman Jewison, whose socially-conscious films still hold up (In The Heat of The Night, A Soldier’s Story, The Hurricane; The Russians Are Coming could also be considered part of that group). He had a number of films which were popular and respected in their day (The Cincinnati Kid, The Thomas Crown Affair, Fiddler on the Roof, Agnes of God, Moonstruck) and some fascinating curios (Jesus Christ Superstar, Rollerball and F.I.S.T.). He falls into that group of directors who emerged in the sixties like Arthur Penn, George Roy Hill, John Boorman and John Schlesinger who had a lot of acclaim and made some classics, but never became brand names like Polanski and Coppola, or even to a lesser extent Mike Nichols and Sydney Pollack. Jewison has as many solid films as his peers, though looking back none reach that same level of transcendence as a Bonnie and Clyde, Midnight Cowboy or Deliverance. For my money, though many would disagree, The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming is his film that holds up best today.
Based on a novel by Nathaniel Benchley (whose son Peter wrote the novel Jaws), set in a little New England beachy island community (very similar looking to that one in Jaws, though surprisingly actually shot in Northern California), where a Russian submarine gets stuck in a sandbar, leading to havoc in the town. This was a few years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, so this was the height of cold-war hysteria (think Dr. Strangelove), so even just having likable Russian characters was enough to make this film subversive to some. The film has dozens of characters, with top character actors of the day in peak form.Continue Reading
American independent cinema has been ghettoized and marketed into a certain type of cinema. Popular types of independent films include low budget digital cinematography about post-collegiate confusion or Indiewood films about “quirky” relationships and situations involving beautiful losers. It's a sea of films that has flooded festivals like SXSW or Sundance that leave great works of independent cinema behind in the dust. So it’s a grand pleasure to have Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess emerge out of Sundance, a film that openly breaks these stereotypes and proves that American independent cinema can be exciting, experimental and even fun.
Taking place sometime in the late '70s or early '80s, several groups of professional, amateur and student programmers meet at a motel to compete in a computer chess tournament where computers are pitted directly against one another to see which program has the most advanced AI. But this is almost just an excuse (a mundane MacGuffin?) for a film that takes leaps into computer philosophy, surrealism and hippie hedonism. Bujalski steps out of his comfort zone of painful, singular character based comedies shot on 16mm with a pastiche shot on low-grade video on a Sony AVC3260 (never a gimmick, but an integral part of the aesthetic and feel). Lesser filmmakers would lament and moan about the use of such an anti-cinematic camera and look, but Bujalski and his excellent regular cinematographer Matthias Grunsky revel in it with jump cuts, bad split screen, video errors, and unsynced sound and light that smears like old live television. The first minute or two of Computer Chess start as a faux-documentary with programmers speaking into mics directly into the camera about why they want to win the championship. Jump cut to an audience preparing to sit down in an auditorium while the camera dollies across the audience--until it crashes too hard into the end of a dolly track, causing another jump cut to static. If you were watching this on an old CRT-TV, you’d probably be provoked to slap the TV straight a few times.Continue Reading
Lost In America
Three comic masterpieces in a row is enough to put you on the higher rung of American humorists. The Marx Brothers had that run with Horse Feathers, Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera. Mel Brooks had The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein (with the less vital The Twelve Chairs mixed in). WC Fields had that amazing trifecta of You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, The Bank Dick and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break. Preston Sturges, Charlie Chaplin and Woody Allen are three more legends whose hot streaks went beyond three. Albert Brooks, an underrated comic genius of recent generations, is the forgotten man. Throughout the '70s he shined as a cutting edge stand-up comic and made groundbreaking short films for that first season of Saturday Night Live. He made his writer/director feature film debut in 1979 with Real Life, a wonderfully uncomfortable comedy that predicted the coming of reality TV. He followed it with Modern Romance, often called Brooks’ Annie Hall, a deadeye take on both Hollywood and love. And then finally maybe his most perfect gem, Lost in America, the most biting satire of Ronald Reagan’s "greed is good" 1980s yuppie culture. (A less sophisticated comic mind like Steve Martin poked fun at the culture with L.A. Story, but was actually embracing the superficiality.)
The first step in embracing an Albert Brooks film is deciding whether or not you can stomach him. The guy plays some of the most neurotic and deeply insecure characters in movie history, and as David Howard in Lost in America, he’s as obnoxious as ever. The movie opens with him laying in bed with his wife, Linda (Julie Hagerty, fresh off another comic masterpiece, Airplane!). He can’t sleep; he has second thoughts on the much bigger house they just bought and he’s excited with anticipation for the big promotion he is expecting to get at the advertising agency he has worked at for eight years. He assures her once that promotion comes he will no longer be the uptight husband he can’t help being. Linda is a study in understanding, but the next day she breaks down to a co-worker wondering if she can go on like this. To his shock and disappointment, instead of the promotion, he is transferred to New York. He throws a massive tantrum and is fired. In a sorta melt down, he convinces himself that he has been freed from the rat race and talks Linda into quitting her job too. They make a plan: sell the new house, cash out all their stocks and bonds, leaving them with $180,000 to live on for the rest of their lives (this was considered a lot in 1985), buy a motor home to escape from Los Angeles and travel the country (just like Easy Rider!), and maybe settle in a lighthouse in Connecticut where they can paint and write and no longer have to worry about ambition. Deal! First stop, Las Vegas, for a wedding vowel renewal. A monkey wrench is thrown into the works though. While David sleeps, Linda gambles away their entire fortune in a casino. It’s even more downhill from there as they head East and now must rediscover themselves without the comfort of the nest egg.Continue Reading
This is Spinal Tap
Although it has had a lot of competition since it was released in 1984, This is Spinal Tap still remains the greatest mockumentary, the best spoof on the rock music scene, and one of the funniest, most continually quotable flicks I’ve ever seen. This was the first film directed by Rob Reiner who, at the time, was primarily known for his role as Meathead on the legendary sitcom All in the Family. He would go on to have a mostly pedestrian directing career with a few stand-outs (Stand By Me). With This Is Spinal Tap, Reiner and his three costars - Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer (all four of whom are the credited writers) - created something very special whose style has been copied many times over, especially by Guest himself. But nothing has hit it so far out of the park as this one did.
The mockumentary (a spoof of a documentary) was not new at the time. Though rather dull, David Holzman’s Diary was considered a landmark in 1967. Woody Allen made the now classic Take the Money and Run. There was that Beatles spoof, All You Need is Cash, and Albert Brooks foresaw the coming of reality TV with his Real Life. What makes This is Spinal Tap especially impressive is that it keeps the documentary format the entire film, something most other mockumentaries rarely sustain (including Guest’s later work). Most of the other films often cheat and have moments to try and help the plot along that couldn’t have been documented by a pesky camera crew. Every moment in This is Spinal Tap keeps the documentary format humming. By 1984 the ego-driven rockumentary had been a standard cash generator for most megabands (peaking in the seventies before the music video came to dominate the self-promotion machine). Going at least as far back as Bob Dylan’s Don’t Look Back in ’67 and the music festival docs Monterey Pop and Woodstock, it was really The Rolling Stones’ Cocksucker Blues and Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains The Same that gave This is Spinal Tap its most potent fodder.Continue Reading
Considered by some to be an interesting historical footnote as the film uber-nerd George Lucas directed before he became a zillionaire with Star Wars, American Graffiti is actually much more. Besides helping to usher in a nostalgia wave during the '70s for a more innocent time before the Vietnam War and playing like catnip for classic car geeks, American Graffiti is a perfect ensemble comedy with a then cutting-edge use of wall-to-wall classic Rock & Roll songs on the soundtrack and a wonderful piece of Americana. It’s Lucas’s homage to those years in Modesto, California when kids drank milk shakes at Mel’s Drive-In and then cruised up and down the boulevard all night with their radios blasting, looking for kicks. The film is set in 1962. JFK was still alive, most Americans couldn’t yet point out Vietnam on a map, the Beatles hadn’t even touched down yet, and the baby boomer youth culture was beginning to dominate but still looked a lot like leftover 1950s innocents.
In a now classic coming of age set-up, American Graffiti takes place one August night after high school graduation. With the summer coming to an end, four buds (and the women around them) face the dilemma of impending adulthood about to overtake them. The clean cut Steve (Ron Howard) is excited to be heading off to college but has to figure out how to break it off with his longtime girlfriend, Laurie (Cindy Williams of future Laverne & Shirley fame). The much more thoughtful Curt (Richard Dreyfuss, in a role that would jump start his career before Jaws would make him a superstar a few years later) isn’t so sure about leaving for college out East the next day and goes on a search for some kind of meaning to his life and for the beautiful blond (Suzanne Somers) he spotted cruising around in a T-Bird. Instead he ends up taking part in antics with a gang of Greasers known as The Pharaohs (lead by the hilarious Bo Hopkins). Steve leaves his beloved Chevy Impala in the hands of his nerdy pal Terry "The Toad" (Charles Martin Smith who would go on to play a similar bumbler in The Untouchables). Now sporting a bitchin’ set of wheels, Terry spends the evening wooing a much more experienced woman, Debbie, played wonderfully by Candy Clark who scored an Oscar nomination for the performance and went on to appear in The Man Who Fell to Earth. The fourth strand of the story follows the more blue-collar, street racing cool kid, John Milner (Paul Le Mat, an actor who had the charisma and looks to hit the big time, but unlike many of his costars, his career never really took off other than playing the lead in Jonathan Demme’s acclaimed flick Melvin and Howard). He is being pursued for a drag race by a new guy in town, Bob Falfa (a cowboy hatted Harrison Ford), but his nightly fun is interrupted when he gets stuck with an annoying "tweener" Carol (Mackenzie Phillips), the two start off at odds but end up with a sweet brother/sister like relationship. A final "where are they now" epilogue scroll tells us what happened to the guys, bringing the film even more powerful pathos.Continue Reading
The train movie has always been a favorite genre of mine (Horror Express, Runaway Train, Narrow Margin, Emperor of the North Pole, etc). Going back to the silents (The Great Train Robbery) the train trip has been used famously as a murder mystery setting (Murder on the Orient Express, The Lady Vanishes), a place for romance (North by Northwest), action (The Cassandra Crossing, Breakheart Pass), comedy (The General), and horror (Terror Train). In 1976 director Arthur Hiller wasn’t exactly sure what genre he wanted - romance, action, comedy. Though sometimes messy, his Silver Streak did mange to breathe some life into the train picture and it ended up being a perfect piece of genre-bending entertainment.
With a screenplay by Colin Higgins, who had written the cult flick Harold and Maude and would go on to write and direct another solid romantic-action-comedy, Foul Play with Chevy Chase, Silver Streak stars Gene Wilder. As one of the era’s most unique comic talents, the role feels very un-Wilder-like. Mater of fact it could have been Chase, Elliott Gould, George Segal, Burt Reynolds or any leading man of the mid '70s. It’s not until just over the half way mark when Richard Pryor enters and infuses the film with a fresh energy, bringing out the more manic Wilder that audiences had grown to love. After getting a co-screenwriting credit on the Wilder flick Blazing Saddles, but nixed as an actor, Silver Streak would mark Pryor and Wilder’s first onscreen comedy together. They would follow it with the sometimes hilarious Stir Crazy and then the mostly terrible Another You and See No Evil, Hear No Evil. But Silver Streak is the film that really best showcases the yin and yang of their different comic styles.Continue Reading
The great horror spoofs are far and few between. For every Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein or Shaun of the Dead (both excellent) there are at least a dozen Scary Movies, Saturday the 14ths or Vampire in Brooklyns, most tend to range from lousy to lame. Young Frankenstein falls in the excellent camp, working as both a laugh out loud comedy and a perfect dissection of the style used by Universal in their famous monster period, directly spoofing both Frankenstein and its sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein. For director Mel Brooks it would mark the apex of his career after The Producers and Blazing Saddles, all three films featuring Gene Wilder who cowrote the Young Frankenstein script with Brooks. Wilder went on to direct his own films and neither Brooks nor Wilder would ever make anything as inspired as the three films they made together. They would even both later direct lousy and lame horror spoofs: Haunted Honeymoon (Wilder... lame) and Dracula: Dead and Loving It (Brooks... lousy). But together, combining both men’s distinct comedy style, they created a film that is easily one of the two or three greatest horror comedies of all time.
American lecturer and doctor, Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Wilder) can’t live down his famous mad doctor grandfather (Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein) and is truly embarrassed by his roots. When he inherits the family property in Eastern Europe he leaves behind his icy fiancée, Elizabeth, played by Madeline Kahn, on her own roll of big time performances in the period, including Blazing Saddles and Paper Moon. At the castle, he meets his new hunchbacked manservant, Igor (bug-eyed British comedian Marty Feldman), his sexy young laboratory assistant, Inga (Teri Garr) and the creepy maid, Frau Blucher (Cloris Leachman). After reading his grandfather’s journals, Frederick becomes convinced he can reanimate life and sets about recreating his experiments. Like the original Frankenstein story, he brings a patched together man back to life but the man (Peter Boyle, very crafty casting) is accidentally given an abnormal brain and is a relegated to being a monster.Continue Reading
Most films about the future seem optimistic about human intelligence levels rising, with Mike Judge’s depressing comedy Idiocracy being an exception. Woody Allen’s Sleeper splits the difference: the technology and science have evolved but people have gotten shallower. Since ’73 his vision looks to be almost prophetic. As a follow up to Every Thing You Always Wanted to Know about Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask, Sleeper was his most polished film at that point. It was the peak of Woody’s slapstick phase, just four years before his evolutionary jump into the more mature filmmaker he would become with Annie Hall and Manhattan (both films co-written with Marshall Brickman, who also worked on the Sleeper script). Kinda, sorta, slightly based on H.G. Wells’s 1899 novel When the Sleeper Wakes, it’s a film that, because of the science-fiction element and the high laugh count, has always been considered one of his more admired and easily digestible films from his non-fans.
In 1973, Miles Monroe (Allen), owner of the Happy Carrot Health-Food store, is put into a scientific sleep chamber, without his knowledge, and finally revived two-hundred years later in 2173. He wakes up in a futuristic American police state (similar to so many movie future societies from Logan’s Run to Conquest of the Planet of the Apes to The Hunger Games). The rebels need him because he’s the only citizen without an identification number. He ends up helping them by posing as a robot servant for a dingy socialite, Luna Schlosser (Diane Keaton, working wi...
What About Bob?
It’s always been interesting to follow the cinematic career of Bill Murray, an actor and entertainer who, during the ‘80s, could do no wrong when it came to his comedic performances. Even during that period you could start to see his desire to make odd and unique film choices—The Razor’s Edge and Quick Change, for example—and those choices would eventually lay the foundation for the types of roles Murray would go on to play pretty much exclusively now. But there was one last great one-two comedic hurrah from Murray in the early ‘90s with the back-to-back films What About Bob? and Groundhog Day.
What About Bob? came first in 1991 and it stars Murray as a completely multi-phobic personality named Bob Wiley, a man incapable of doing even the smallest of tasks without completely panicking. Deep down, he’s a good-hearted person with the desire to do the right thing; he’s just petrified of everything and everyone around him. Hence, he works from his apartment by day, uses tissues to open doors or shake hands, and would opt to climb 44 flights of stairs rather than be confined in a claustrophobic setting like an elevator. He also starts off each day by repeating the phrase “I feel good, I feel great, I feel wonderful,” over and over again and the one and only companion he converses with is his pet goldfish, Gil. After a strong recommendation from a previous doctor, Bob meets up with Dr. Leo Marvin (Richard Dreyfuss), a stern, serious, and fairly egotistical psychiatrist hot on the heels of a successful new book and on the cusp of superstardom via an upcoming appearance on Good Morning America.
Once upon a time in the golden period of films known as the 1970s, Mel Brooks was, along with Woody Allen, the biggest directing name in comedy. Both had been on the legendary writing staff of Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows in the '50s (along with Neil Simon and Carl Reiner) and both brought a distinctly Jewish tone to their slapstick. While Allen represented the Manhattan highbrow, Brooks’s style lurked more in the offensively low end Borscht Belt style. By the '80s, when Allen's status raised to the level of genius, Brooks’s comedy had already become passe and completely juvenile, working in the obvious (Spaceballs, Dracula: Dead and Loving It, etc.). But his early string of comedies, from The Producers through High Anxiety, created a lot of laughs, peaking in 1974 with two comic masterpieces: Young Frankenstein and, maybe even better, the bawdy western spoof Blazing Saddles.
The western spoof is almost as old as the western itself—you had Laurel & Hardy in Way Out West, The Marx Brothers in Go West, Mae West and W.C. Fields did My Little Chickadee, and Bob Hope had The Paleface and then Son of Paleface, not to mention Destry Rides Again with Marlene Dietrich (which Blazing Saddles actually directly spoofs). The '60s saw an examining of the western most directly through the Italian spaghetti westerns and American western comedies such as Cat Ballou and Support Your Local Sheriff! In the '70s, the reexamining went to the extreme as the western was turned in on itself and poked at by post-modernists with films as broad as Jodorowsky’s El Topo, Altman&rs...