Director: Terry Jones
This film contains one of the most outstanding silences in any film (well, any sound film, obviously) I’ve ever seen, i.e. the bit where Brian shouts “NOW FUCK OFF!” at his suddenly acquired mass of followers, and they pause before, about eight seconds later, John Cleese’s disciple asks him how they should fuck off. It’s one of the most beautifully timed jokes in a film that swarms with them; watching it again tonight for the first time in several years (the first film I’ve watched in months, obviously, except for repeats of Flash Gordon and Heavy Metal which obviously didn’t need to be reviewed again here) was a great reminder of just how thick and fast the comedy comes, and how absurd baffling the controversy the film generated back in the day (still does? Apparently the town of Bournemouth only lifted their local ban on the film as recently as 2015, and even in this country it actually got upgraded from an M rating—which is the one my DVD copy bears—to an MA for its blu-ray reissue. Unless that was on account of the bonus features?) was. Even allowing for changes in attitudes over time, it seems bizarre that people could seriously accuse it of blasphemy; it clearly doesn’t have a go at that Jesus fellow in any way, the one scene in which Jesus appears—i.e. the Sermon on the Mount—plays him straight and the humour comes from the crowd who mishear what he says. And that’s the real root of the film’s satire; it’s not taking the piss out of Jesus, it’s taking the piss out of his followers, as witness the speed with which Brian’s disciples not only attach themselves to him for no good reason, then become divided as to whether the gourd or the shoe (and indeed whether it’s a shoe or a sandal) is his true sign, and finally not only misunderstand but actively ignore what he actually says… Come to think of it, maybe that’s really why people took such offence to Life of Brian back then, cos they recognised it was about themselves rather than their Lord…
As a final thought, how good is Graham Chapman as Brian? I only discovered tonight John Cleese actually wanted the role, and had to be talked out of it with difficulty by the other Pythons. What a piece of potentially terrible miscasting that could’ve been; considering Cleese’s general Python persona and the other parts he plays in the film, I just can’t imagine him working as Brian. Chapman was so determined not to fuck it up that he overcame the alcoholism that had plagued him for years, and you can see that commitment in his performance. I mean, all the Pythons are good in their many and varied parts, but it’s Chapman’s film, really. Absolutely top stuff.
Director: Ridley Scott
So I previously mentioned the ongoing challenge at ICM forum for films of this decade, and now there’s one for films of the oughts, so I’m doing both in conjunction with that vague plan I have of finishing off the 1001 Movies list now I’ve got almost all the films on that… As such, I’ve finally got around to this, and OY do I have problems with it. I mean, it’s an OK film, albeit one that is vastly and unnecessarily overlong—nothing really justifies it being nearly three hours in length—and technically adequate, that sort of thing. It’s just… the history. And historical subjects almost always have some sort of problem with historical fact… you know, there’ll be anachronisms of some sort (which Gladiator is apparently full of), or else characters have been invented or maybe even created out of more than one actual person (which Shakespeare himself did), or events have been invented or otherwise distorted (cf. Matthew Hopkins getting killed in Witchfinder General as opposed to the actual Hopkins dying of TB at home). I’m not usually bothered by that sort of thing. A problem arises, though, when something like this film wants to sell itself as history but is basically predicated on something that never happened…
In this case, Russell Crowe and his variable accent play Roman general Maximus Meridius, fighting under the emperor Marcus Aurelius at Vienna in 180 AD; the venerable Marcus wants to appoint him his successor rather than his son Commodus, who he thinks is unworthy, and he wants Maximus to restore the old Rome. Commodus takes this… badly and kills the old boy, taking the purple before Maximus can; the latter escapes execution but gets captured into slavery, being trained as a gladiator and readying himself for revenge. In other words, it’s basically a modern knock-off of Fall of the Roman Empire and Spartacus, and that’s fair enough… except, like I said, it’s predicated on something that didn’t happen. Commodus was, well, a bit of a commode as emperor; I don’t know if he was the weaselly git with daddy (and sister) issues who just wanted people to love him that Joaquin Phoenix presents him as, but he wasn’t one of the great emperors. But he was already emperor before Marcus Aurelius’ death, co-emperor with his old man in fact, who he didn’t actually kill either. And that’s a bit of bad history that hangs over the entire film and made it difficult at best to fully get into it. Unfortunate, cos, apart from the sluggish first hour or so, it’s not too bad for the sort of thing it is; Crowe and Phoenix are outshone vastly as performers by some of the secondary cast (most notably Oliver Reed), but on the whole it’s OK, and by the end I think I liked it more than I’d initially expected. It’s just… the “history”.
Director: Thorold Dickinson
Interesting challenge this month at the ICM Forum, “smaller” Asian cinema, i.e. from Asian countries other than China, Japan and India. I’m not really sure how “smaller” is defined here, cos Hong Kong is OK for this challenge but I’d have thought its industry was pretty sizeable… same for South Korea, which is also eligible.Whatever. This means that, this month, I’m going to be looking at some areas of the world I don’t often (or ever) look at, including Israel, which is counted as part of “Asia” along with a few other places I’d consider mor “Middle East” than otherwise, but, again, whatever. It gave me a reason to finally scrub this, the first ever Israeli feature film, off the watchlist. (Tricky bastard to find a decent copy of, by the way; only today I found an actually fairly watchable version rather than the kind of shit one I’d had for a while.)
It almost feels like a cheat, though, calling it “Israeli”. I mean, it is, but the director was English, two of the main performers were Irish and American, and almost the entire film is in English. I somehow suspect it wasn’t aimed primarily at local audiences, though. The film acknowledges the controversial nature of the formation of the state of Israel in 1948, but I can only remember one point where the possibility that the Arabs might have their own opinions about all these survivors of that other war that had recently finished suddenly getting their own country after Britain washed its hands of the lot of them. And that encounters ends with the Arab man pushing the American character (who’s rediscovered his Judaism while touring the area) into a swimming pool. Basically, Hill 24 is propaganda without much subtlety, and I have a feeling it was aimed more at international audiences than Israeli ones, trying to justify Israel’s battles for its own existence against those shifty Arabs who’ll push you into a swimming pool as soon as look at you. Told in the form of three flashbacks by three soldiers for the Israeli forces sent to capture a particular hill before the Arabs can claim it, two of them about how they came to be involved, and the third which, in its way, is the most interesting, cos it describes how the soldier had recently encountered an escaped Nazi now fighting for the Egyptians who begs for his life by asking him not to do what the Nazis did to the Jews. I know some people who are less friendly towards Israel than myself who would find that statement bitterly ironic. On the whole, it’s wartime melodrama whose interest is, I suspect, mainly historical (in 1955 I imagine it must’ve struck foreign audiences as somewhat exotic), and your enjoyment may depend on just how much propaganda you can handle.
Director: John Landis
So that’s one of the more substantial holes in my acquaintance with horror cinema filled at last… I can’t think of any good reason why AAWiL has eluded me until tonight, cos it’s not like it’s an obscure thing; I’ve always known about it, it’s one of the more famous horrors of the early 80s, it’s never been exactly hard to get, I’ve recorded the fucking thing off SBS twice… but no, until tonight, it was just one of those films I’d never got around to seeing for no real reason. My loss, cos it’s an awful lot of fun. At heart there’s actually something kind of old-fashioned about the story, and I don’t think that’s just because Landis wrote it over a decade before he actually filmed it, I think it might’ve seemed that way had he made it in 1971 rather than 1981… there are a few explicit references to the 1941 Wolf Man, so the film does kind of overtly look back to the Universal films. It’s things like the somewhat bizarre sense of humour (like that Muppet Show excerpt) and the surprising amount of time star David Naughton spends naked (the film’s IMDB trivia page has a delightful detail about why Landis had to be careful about getting Naughton’s tackle in shot) that mark it out as something more modern, but I think it’s the film’s focus on character that’s most notable; I was actually surprised by how comparatively minimal the werewolf action is… it’s nearly an hour before we get to the groundbreaking transformation scene (still pretty stunning), and though the climactic havoc at Piccadilly Circus is terrifically pulled off, it’s also relatively brief. The time spent building the characters up, though, is well spent; Naughton is great as this sort of everyman guy in a pretty fucked situation, which is worse than usual cos Landis adds a neat twist whereby Naughton has to face the spirits of the people he killed on his first rampage and listen to them debate about how he should kill himself (cos his death is the only thing that will let them rest in peace). It’s almost like the werewolf isn’t a tragic enough figure as it is. Great stuff that I really should’ve seen years ago.
Director: Mel Brooks
Mel Brooks himself has characterised this as not his funniest film (he considers that to be Blazing Saddles with The Producers not far behind) but the one that was best written and best made. On re-examination after a lot of years (hadn’t seen this since I was in high school, probably around 1988 or 89), that strikes me as an astute and accurate observation. Having had a megahit with Blazing Saddles, another classic Hollywood genre parody/homage must’ve seemed in order, and his star Gene Wilder came up with the very thing while they were still making that film: an update of Frankenstein where the good doctor’s descendant is appalled by his ancestor’s antics but finds himself drawn into carrying on the old boy’s work. This could, obviously, have been played straight, it’s a decent pulp horror plot, but this is Mel Brooks we’re talking about…
Of course, the most striking thing about the film was that he insisted on shooting in black and white, which was a sticking point for the Hollywood studios who didn’t do that any more by 1974 (it was kind of like Chaplin making Modern Times a silent film in 1936); but he was right to insist on it, cos Young Frankenstein is one of the most beautiful black and white films I’ve ever seen. Outstanding photography of incredible sets (enhanced marvellously by the original lab gear from the 1931 Frankenstein). And yet I think Brooks is right in calling it not his funniest film, cos as well-made as it is, it’s not as continuously laugh out loud as Blazing Saddles was. It’s hugely clever, but it turns more on the strength of Wilder’s performance in particular than anything else. And that’s fine, of course; if it’s not as funny (nor as generally good) as its immediate predecessor, it’s still greatly entertaining, there’s a lot of affection for the genre (and specific films) it’s satirising, and in an age when so few filmmakers manage even one film per year, it’s kind of amazing to look back and see one not only putting out two films in one year, with both of them also among his best work.
Director: Sam Wood
So the second half of the Marxes’ film career began here with them moving to MGM and being looked after by Irving Thalberg. The jury still seems to be out as to whether or not this was a good thing; Groucho undeniably thought it was, and the box office returns were hard to argue with. I’m… still not convinced. Long before I first saw it, I was under the impression that this was generally considered their best film, and when I finally saw it I was… underwhelmed. (I liked the not quite so acclaimed A Day at the Races a lot better.) It was a colourised print which likely didn’t help, but even so… Anyway, tonight was my first viewing in a long time, and I’m not blown away yet.
Thalberg’s view was that the Marxes were fundamentally unsympathetic and too obnoxious, so what they needed was softening up by making them be, you know, useful to the younger romantic leads and making the films more story-driven. This was the first result, and it was a palpable hit, but at what cost to the Marxes themselves? Therein lies the still unanswered question. Watching this again immediately after Duck Soup was instructive, cos it made me realise just HOW extensive the changes under Thalberg were… I mean, it’s absolutely not a bad film, it’s a perfectly good one, it has a lot more going for it than otherwise. Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle are fine as the romantic couple. The stateroom scene and the hotel scene where they’re escaping are outstanding, and there’s lot of individual bits of brilliant business. Just… I don’t know. Something about the whole work that doesn’t really do it for me for some reason. Maybe I just prefer the Marxes when they’re not good guys…
Director: Leo McCarey
It’s been far too many years since I last saw this (David Stratton’s Continuing Education Course back in 2000, evidently), and I’m happy to report it hasn’t lost anything over that time; it is still one of the most screamingly funny films ever made. And yet McCarey wanted nothing to do with it, even though the Marx Brothers specifically requested he direct it; they got their way eventually but McCarey evidently found them as impossible to manage as their previous directors had. Audiences of the time seem to have been kind of freaked out by them, too—undeniably popular (previous Marx comedy Horse Feathers was apparently Paramount’s highest-grossing film of 1932) but maybe a bit too weird and extreme for most tastes—and while it wasn’t the box office bomb it’s been called, it still didn’t do the expected business, and I gather neither Paramount nor the Marxes were overly sorry to see the back of each other afterwards. Now, of course, it’s much more highly regarded, and with good reason, cos it is fucking brilliant; I’d actually forgotten just how aggressively comic it is, too, it really doesn’t let up much over 68 minutes… basically, Groucho gets appointed the leader of Freedonia and manages to declare war on the neighbouring country for whom Chico and Harpo are spying, but the story is not what you watch this for; you’re here for the barrage of puns and the outstanding slapstick, the hapless Margaret Dumont and the sorely beset Edgar Kennedy, “All God’s Chillun Got Guns”, Groucho’s famously inconsistent uniform… And whatever McCarey’s ill will about having to make this bloody thing, he kept it off-screen, this is not one of those films where the production difficulties are visible in the finished work (apart from a few continuity errors big enough for me to notice them). Stunning.
Director: William A. Seiter
It’s… been a while, to say the least, since I left off with the Laurel & Hardy features, which I started watching around the start of the time when I couldn’t be bothered much with films any more, and I wasn’t crash hot on the first two films so I thought I might be better leaving the rest for a time when I was more in the mood for them. Didn’t expect that to be two and a half years later, though…
Anyway, once more unto the L&H. The set I have actually doesn’t have all their films, for reasons I don’t understand though I presume it’s rights-related, so we actually skip over one (Fra Diavolo) to land on this, their fourth feature. I’d actually seen this before, on the big screen no less, back in the days of the old Cinematheque at the Chauvel, part of a double bill with one of the Robert Youngson compilations, and I recalled enjoying it so I was looking forward to finally revisiting it… and now that I have done, I’m not sure how much I did like it. While watching it, I kept thinking “this could really have been a two or three reel short”… and then I discovered it kind of had been; it’s basically a rework of their earlier short Be Big made in 1930, and damn me if it didn’t feel like a 1930 talkie as well… Stan & Ollie were never the speediest comedians—a lot of their humour revolved around Stan not getting something before eventually getting it wrong and Ollie’s reaction face—and the lack of incidental music (kind of surprising in a film from late ’33) kind of does nothing to make the film feel any livelier. Still, as I said of their last feature that I watched (Pack Up Your Troubles), the good bits really do shine, particularly the business of Ollie faking his illness and having to contend with a footbath full of too-hot water… I just didn’t like it on the whole as much as I remember doing about a decade ago or whenever it was. Maybe when they were still flourishing in short films they still weren’t sure what to do with features? Maybe.
Director: David Zucker
I’ve written before about “comfort food” films, and for me the TV equivalent of those is the outstanding Police Squad! series from which the Naked Gun films sprang. Only six episodes long, not all of which even got aired when the series was first broadcast, so it doesn’t even take long to watch. I’ve always called it the show that was too smart for American TV cos it demands you pay attention to it or else you’ll miss some of the best jokes (and yes, that was the actual reason given for its premature cancellation); I was still discovering things I’d missed on previous viewings twenty years after I first discovered it. I commend it wholeheartedly, it’s a show that keeps on giving. With hindsight, of course, given that it was a notorious flop, it seems at least a bit amazing that it got turned into a film series some years later, although let us be glad that it did, obviously…
Rewatching The Naked Gun this afternoon for the first time in a lot of years after having watched Police Squad! many times in that same period, however, I suddenly realised how unlike its parent it kind of is. It’s very much stuck in the late 80s in a way the show wasn’t, though equally the film doesn’t have the show’s mission to satirise a particular period TV style either (the film is dated more than the show by its own period references; cf. the gallery of villains in the pre-credits sequence), and the big screen gives the opportunity for material that they couldn’t have done on TV at the time (“sexual assault with a concrete dildo!!!”). But there’s also a general difference of approach, the film is more slapstick and plot-driven than the show was, maybe not quite as smart all round as the show. Still, that’s not necessarily a bad thing per se—a 22-minute TV episode and an 85-minute film are not the same thing after all—and though they recast a few characters from the show, ZAZ were wise to retain Leslie Nielsen as Frank Drebin; he fully inhabits Frank here just like he does on TV, and I really hope the mooted reboot never happens cos I can’t imagine anyone else pulling it off. Even if it does run out of puff somewhat in the climactic baseball scene, Naked Gun is still terrific. Delightful to watch again. And, just like the series, I noticed jokes in it I’d never picked up on before too…
Director: Rob Reiner
There’s a lovely story on this film’s IMDB trivia page observing that “After the film opened, several people told Rob Reiner that they loved the film, but he should’ve chosen a more well-known band for a documentary”. It’s that sort of film which somehow inspires people to completely ignore the end credits which kind of give away that it’s nothing of the sort… and it apparently struck terror into the hearts of more than a few musicians back in the day, who saw too much reality in it; indeed, there would be a few bizarre parallels, like Black Sabbath’s “Stonehenge” mishap (which apparently happened before the film’s release but after the scene had already been written for the original demo reel of the film). Even now there’s something proverbial about it; while it may have been satirising the music and musicians of a particular period, I’m sure there are still plenty of artists out there who should treat it as a cautionary tale.
Watching it again tonight, though, I’m kind of intrigued by how, you know, non-documentary it actually is. I dimly recall my first viewing of the film (no idea when that was, except that it was in the VHS age, so probably mid/late 90s?) and noting just how “acted” the later scenes (particularly Nigel’s return to the band) felt. I can’t think of a better way to describe it, other than there’s probably some semiotic terminology that does describe the behaviour of the usual documentary film but Spinal Tap doesn’t really behave that way. It plays better at being a “documentary” than, say, A Mighty Wind did, but I still can’t believe people actually thought it was one. Though I suppose that’s testament to how well it is played; although even more of it than I previously thought is clearly “acted”, the deadpan is still kind of perfect throughout, no one acts like they’re in on a joke or anything. Anyway, whether or not it succeeds at convincing you it could be a real doco, Spinal Tap is frequently screamingly hilarious, and isn’t that what matters more? Of course it is. Enjoyed this rather more than I did whenever I first saw it, which is even better…