During one of the ugliest periods in American political history, as the Cold War hit hysteria, a drunk congressman named Joseph McCarthy managed to destroys thousands of American lives and careers with his House Un-American Activities Committee. HUAC would accuse people of being Communists (many of the accused at one time may have belonged to the then totally legal Communist Party or donated to causes that were Russian-related—this was years earlier when Russia was our ally against Germany). To clear your name you needed to name names and praise HUAC. Most famously many in Hollywood (almost always Jewish folks) were called to testify; some played ball with McCarthy and were considered “friendly witnesses” (Sterling Hayden, Elia Kazan) while many others refused to testify and either went to jail or were blacklisted from working.
Screenwriter Walter Bernstein was one of those blacklisted, but by the end of the ‘50s many gutsy producers began to break the blacklist by hiring the recently unemployable. Bernstein made a comeback writing the script for Fail-Safe and eventually wrote The Front, a semiautobiographical memoir of the period. Besides Bernstein the film is full of blacklisted talent on both sides of the camera, including actor Zero Mostel and Director Martin Ritt (Hud, Norma Rae).
Howard Prince (Woody Allen) is a two-bit Brooklyn hustler; he’s in constant gambling debt and is a schmuck in every way. When he’s approached by a childhood friend, blacklisted television writer Alfred Miller (Michael Murphy, who would play Allen’s old pal again a few years later in Manhattan Continue Reading
The Puffy Chair
May God bless and keep little indie films (in circulation). Sure, I understand that big budgets and campy plots are great mainstream selling points, but comedy is one thing that had started to become jostled by these guidelines, oftentimes coming out not so great in the finish. The Puffy Chair is awesome because it’s for those who can certainly be amused by what many modern comedies have to offer, but don’t necessarily find them to be funny. This film draws on the hilarity of good intentions and everyday scenarios in a tasteful and unrushed way that is warm and very admirable.
Josh is a good son, equipped with a sort of filial duty when it comes to his relationship with his dad. As a child, he remembers that his father used to adore a certain reclining chair that eventually retired to furniture heaven. While shopping on eBay, he comes across a near exact replica of it and buys it, mapping out a road trip from New York to Virginia with his girlfriend Emily (Katie Aselton). The plan is to pick it up and bring it to his father for his birthday and it's also a chance for them to learn more about each other and bond. While stopping along the way to say hello to his earthy and emotional brother Rhett (Rhett Wilkins), the two find out that they have much in store for their vacation once his brother invites himself along for the ride. In a tangle of morals, passions, and disagreement, the trip turns out to be a redefining slap in the face for all the things Josh thought were true and well. And while the film does take a break from comedy in order to let you get angry in some cases or sad with others, it is absolutely hilarious. If you’ve ever tried to do the right thing and have it all go wrong, leaving you questioning what is right, then this is a comedy for you.Continue Reading
The Royal Tenenbaums
Following his indie breakthrough Bottle Rocket and his critically acclaimed sophomore effort Rushmore, director Wes Anderson creates the most complete film of his career so far. Written by him and Owen Wilson, the script is top-notch, running the gamut of human emotion while finding the humor in its flaws. The characters are unique and complex, the cast is full of brilliant actors, and the film is directed beautifully.
Screen legend Gene Hackman (Unforgiven) plays the family’s patriarch, “Royal Tenebaum”-- a man of high intelligence but lacking in morals and scruples. A disgraced and disbarred lawyer, Royal dupes his family into believing he is dying of cancer in order to find his way back into their lives. Hackman is an actor who always delivers, but, in this, plays one of the most unique and hilarious characters in his very long and impressive career.Continue Reading
The Ruling Class
Lady Claire Gurney: "How do you know you're God? Jack: "Simple. When I pray to Him, I find I am talking to myself." -- The Ruling Class It's hard to imagine Peter O'Toole still acting in today's cinema, mainly because he seems too great to be cast as an extra or even take up a voice role, as he did in the Disney/Pixar movie, Ratatouille. It would have been nice to see him still receiving leading rolls like his '60/'70s acting peers, such as Michael Caine, but the truth is, his essence is perhaps a bit grandiose. It worked wonders in movies like Becket, Laurence of Arabia, and Lord Jim, and it was given the most space and nourishment in The Ruling Class. In fact, I will firmly state that there could have been no one else, in the history of acting, who could pull off a role of such hysterics, and yet keep it level with the audiences' many emotions. Who else could pull off a character who is convinced they are Christ and Jack the Ripper, spew off-beat stutters in random order, and chirp like a bird in a single scene? This review might be giving away too much of the plot, but nothing could possibly prepare or give anyone a picture of how awesome this movie is. The movie takes place at the Gurney Estate in England, with the 13th Earl, Ralph, leading the action. He appears to be a leader of some importance in his society, but after a mass banquet you learn that he's not so right in the head. While dressed in a ballerina tutu and a colonial uniform, we see his nighttime ritual unfold. The trusted family butler (Arthur Lowe) enters his posh bedroom and displays a series of nooses, one of which he chooses every night to partake in a very bizarre game of mock suicide, done for the benefit of erotic asphyxiation. While attempting to hang himself for fun and safely return to a ladder, he accidentally knocks it down...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
It is hard to review this movie and not mention the tragic death of its writer/director Adrienne Shelly. For a young woman in the 90's she was an unsung hero, portraying women who didn't want to be beautiful, or famous or even in love. Hal Hartley used his muse to create a female Woody Allen - funny, smart and confused by her own search for the unnameable. Ms. Shelley never failed in being simply interesting while taking in strange events and strange worlds unfolding around her. She emanated compassion with a steely sense of self preservation. I missed her presence for many years and when I heard about Waitress I felt her new day was coming and long over due. The violent crime against her fills me with such anger. That her future of telling her own stories is gone fills me with pain. There is no poetry in her death but because of who she was in the history of film there is a strong reminder that women must be ever vigilant against those who would silence us.
Waitress has enough of her compassion, hilarious practicality plus delicious pies to keep any viewer satisfied. Our young heroine, Keri Russell, is less than overjoyed at finding herself pregnant by her domineering and abusive husband. She falls into an affair with her doctor and dreams of making an escape by entering a pie contest which would free her from her unhappy story. Her fellow waitresses provide touching and absolute comic genius thanks to Cheryl Hines and Shelley herself. Nathan Fillion and Jeremy Sisto are no simple caricatures as the doctor and husband and as a bonus Eddie Jemison gives a unique and slightly sociopathic performance of spontaneous poetry reading as Shelly's courting beau. However, the jewel of casting is Andy Griffith as the grumpy diner regular. What a joy to see this veteran actor have some real fun and still make us feel like he could be the Pops that would teach us how to fish.Continue Reading
Godfrey Cambridge plays Jeff Gerber, a happy-go-lucky, casually racist and sexist insurance salesman who’s oblivious to the fact that nearly everyone that knows him finds him unpleasant and unlikeable. One morning he awakens to find, to his shock and repulsion, that he’s turned black in his sleep. He blames it on his daily devotion to his tanning bed but not even his doctor can explain it. As far fetched as it sounds, they try to explore the drastic change in Jeff's appearance in a fairly logical way. Of course, it ultimately can't be explained and the film moves into making humorous social commentary.
Some of the jokes are a bit formulaic. For example, his supposedly liberal wife is horrified at being married to someone who's turned black. Jeff stays indoors after his race switch until he works up the nerve to head to “the colored part of town” to buy some skin-lightening creams which (of course) fail to work.Continue Reading
Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?
As if the spectacle of a top chef's attitude was not enough, this movie has excellent dialogue and absurd murders to please viewers even more. For that reason, and many others, it is my favorite screwball comedy and one which takes a step away from traditional screwball plots, yet still remains fresh and classic. Replacing the love-triangle between a feisty woman and two men is a dessert chef who is being fought over by two individuals, though one of those pursuits is not romantic. Natasha (Jacqueline Bisset) is a famous pastry chef who's been called upon by Maximillian Vandevver (Robert Morley), an obese food critic and good friend, to make a cake for the Queen of England. Her fumbling ex-husband, Robby (George Segal), is an overnight millionaire who owns various catchy fast food chains. This, of course, allows for Natasha and her co-workers to see him as the antichrist of cuisine. While harassing her in order to pitch an idea for a chain of omelets called H. Dumpty's, he discovers that she is being wooed by a famous Swiss chef. This particular chef is the one that orchestrated the dinner for the Queen, and the two met on silly terms in a kitchen. After spending the night with him, she wakes to find that he has been murdered in his own kitchen while attempting to make her breakfast. She finds him in an oven, which she and the authorities notice is a play on his specialty dish. Since she was the last one seen with him and her ex-husband was the last one to call his home, the two become suspects for the murder. The business deals that they have in other countries don’t leave them with much time to feel threatened, and Natasha finds herself shipped off to Venice by Max in order to meet a famous Italian chef and exchange ideas. Robby ends up following her there and becomes an even bigger nuisance. Soon after, his silly and semi-romantic cat-and-mouse game is overshadowed by another murder. The Italian chef, like the Swiss one, is killed in the fashion of h...Continue Reading
Year Of The Dog
Mike White has a knack for making you feel uncomfortable. After all, he did pen Chuck and Buck as well as several episodes of Freaks and Geeks (both bodies of work are highly underrated). His characters can be so awkward that I sometimes need to look away.
Shannon plays a lonely executive assistant whose life spins out of control due to the untimely death of her dog, Pencil. Pencil was her life and now she has no life. That is until a kind veterinarian (Sarsgaard) offers Shannon a new dog to adopt. Not only does she fall in love with the dog but with the vet as well.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